I.–TAKING A CALL
“MAY I come in?” said Miss Middleton.
I looked up from my book and stared at her in amazement.
“Hullo,” I said.
“Hullo,” said Miss Middleton doubtfully.
“Are you going to have tea with me?”
“That’s what I was wondering all the way up.”
“It’s all ready; in fact, I’ve nearly finished. There’s a cake to-day, too.”
Miss Middleton hesitated at the door and looked wistfully at me.
“I suppose–I suppose,” she said timidly, “you think I ought to have brought somebody, with me?”
“In a way, I’m just as glad you didn’t.”
“I’ve heaps of chaperons outside on the stairs, you know.”
“There’s no place like outside for chaperons.”
“And the liftman believes I’m your aunt. At least, perhaps he doesn’t, but I mentioned it to him.”
I looked at her, and then I smiled. And then I laughed.
“So that’s all right,” she said breathlessly. “And I want my tea.” She came in, and began to arrange her hat in front of the glass.
“Tea,” I said, going to the cupboard. “I suppose you’ll want a cup to yourself. There you are–don’t lose it. Milk. Sugar.”
Miss Middleton took a large piece of cake. “What were you studying so earnestly when I came in?” she asked as she munched.
“But how lucky I came. Because I can spell simply everything. What is it you want to know?”
“I don’t want to know how to spell anything, thank you; but I believe you can help me all the same.”
Miss Middleton sat down and drank her tea. “I love helping,” she said.
“Well, it’s this. I’ve just been asked to be a godfather.”
Miss Middleton stood up suddenly. “Do I salute,” she asked.
“You sit down and go on eating. The difficulty is–what to call it?”
“Oh, do godfathers provide the names?”
“I think so. It is what they are there for, I fancy. That is about all there is in it, I believe.”
“And can’t you find anything in the dictionary?”
“Well, I don’t think the dictionary is helping as much as I expected. It only muddles me. Did you know that Algernon meant ‘with whiskers’? I’m not thinking of calling it Algernon, but that’s the sort of thing they spring on you.”
“But I hate Algernon anyhow. Why not choose quite a simple name? Had you thought of ‘John,’ for instance?”
“No, I hadn’t thought of ‘John,’ somehow.”
“‘Gerald’ I like very much.”
“What about ‘Dick’?” she went on eagerly.
“Yes, ‘Dick’ is quite jolly. By the way, did I tell you it was a girl?”
Miss Middleton rose with dignity.
“For your slice of plum cake and your small cup of tea I thank you,” she said; “and I am now going straight home to mother.”
“Not yet,” I pleaded.
“I’ll just ask you one question before I go. Where do you keep the biscuits?”
She found the biscuits and sat down again.
“A girl’s name,” I said encouragingly.
“Yes. Well, is she fair or dark?”
“She’s very small at present. What there is of her is dark, I believe.”
“Well, there are millions of names for dark girls.”
“We only want one or two.”
“‘Barbara’ is a nice dark name. Is she going to be pretty?”
“Her mother says she is. I didn’t recognize the symptoms. Very pretty and very clever and very high-spirited, her mother says. Is there a name for that?”
“I always call them whoppers,” said Miss Middleton.
“How do you like ‘Alison Mary’? That was my first idea.”
“Oh, I thought it was always ‘William and Mary.’ Or else ‘Victoria and Albert.’”
“I didn’t say ‘Alice AND Mary,’ stoopid. I said ‘Alison,’ a Scotch name.”
“But how perfectly sweet! Why weren’t you MY godfather? Would you have given me a napkin ring?”
“Probably. I will now, if you like. Then you approve of ‘Alison Mary’?”
“I love it. Thank you very much. And will you always call me ‘Alison’ in future?”
“I say,” I began in alarm, “I’m not giving that name to you. It’s for my godchild.”
“Oh no! ‘Alisons’ are ALWAYS fair.”
“You’ve just made that up,” I said suspiciously. “How do you know?”
“Sort of instinct.”
“The worst of it is, I believe you’re right.”
“Of course I am. That settles it. Now, what was your next idea?”
“‘Angelas,’” said Miss Middleton, “are ALWAYS fair.”
“Why do you want all the names to yourself? You say everything’s fair.”
“Why can you only think of names beginning with ‘A’? Try another letter.”
“Suppose YOU try now.”
Miss Middleton wrinkled her brow and nibbled a lump of sugar.
“‘Dorothy,’” she said at last, “because you can call them ‘Dolly.’”
“There IS only one.”
“And it isn’t a bird.”
“Then there’s ‘Violet.’”
“My good girl, you don’t understand. Any of these common names the parents could have thought of for themselves. The fact that they have got me in at great expense–to myself–shows that they want something out of the ordinary. How can I go to them and say, ‘After giving a vast amount of time to the question, I have decided to call your child ‘Violet’? It can’t be done.”
Miss Middleton absently took another lump of sugar and, catching my eye, put it back again.
“I don’t believe that you’ve ever been a godfather before,” she said, “or that you know anything at all about what it is you’re supposed to be going to do.”
There was a knock at the door, and the liftman came in. Miss Middleton gave a little cough of recognition.
“A letter, sir,” he said.
“Thanks…. And as I was saying, Aunt Alison,” I went on in a loud voice, “you are talking rubbish.”
. . . . . . .
“Bah!” I said angrily, and I threw the letter down.
“Would you like to be left alone?” suggested Miss Middleton kindly.
“It is from the child’s so-called parents, and their wretched offspring is to be called ‘Violet Daisy.’”
“‘Violet Daisy,’” said Miss Middleton solemnly, trying not to smile.
“Why stop there?” I said bitterly. “Why not ‘Geranium’ and ‘Artichoke,’ and the whole blessed garden?”
“‘Artichoke,’” said Miss Middleton gravely, “is a boy’s name.”
“Well, I wash my hands of the whole business now. No napkin ring from ME. Here have I been wasting hours and hours in thought, and then just when the worst of it is over, they calmly step in like this. I call it–“
“Yes?” said Miss Middleton eagerly.
“I call it simply–“
“‘Violet Daisy,’” I finished, with a great effort.
II.–OUT OF THE HURLY-BURLY
“OUR dance,” I said; “and it’s no good pretending it isn’t.”
“Come on,” said Miss Middleton. “It’s my favourite waltz. I expect I’ve said that to all my partners to-night.”
“It’s my favourite too, but you’re the first person I’ve told.”
“The worst of having a dance in your own house,” said Miss Middleton, after we had been once round the room in silence, “is that you have to dance with EVERYBODY.”
“Have you said that to all your partners too?”
“I expect so. I must have said everything. Don’t look so reproachfully at me. You ARE looking reproachful, aren’t you?”
I let go with one hand and felt my face.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s how I do it.”
“Well, you needn’t bother, because none of them thought I meant THEM. Men never do.”
“I shall have to think that over by myself,” I said after a pause. “There’s a lot in that which the untrained observer might miss. Anyhow, it’s not at all the sort of thing that a young girl ought to say at a dance.”
“I’m older than you think,” said Miss Middleton. “Oh, bother, I forgot. You know how old I am.”
“Perhaps you’ve been ageing lately. I have. This last election has added years to my life. I came here to get young again.”
“I don’t know anything about politics. Father does all the knowing in our family.”
“He’s on the right side, isn’t he?”
“I think he is. He says he is.”
“Oh, well, he ought to know…. Yes, the truth is I came here to be liked again. People and I have been saying awfully rude things to each other lately.”
“Oh, why do you want to argue about politics?”
“But I DON’T want to. It’s a funny thing, but nobody will believe me when I say that.”
“I expect it’s because you say it AFTER you’ve finished arguing, instead of BEFORE,”
“Perhaps that’s it.”
“I never argue with mother. I simply tell her to do something, and she tells me afterwards why she hasn’t.”
“Really, I think Mrs Middleton has done wonderfully well, considering. Some parents don’t even tell you why they haven’t.”
“Oh, I’d recommend her anywhere,” said Miss Middleton confidently.
We dropped into silence again. Anyhow, it was MY favourite waltz.
“You did say, didn’t you, the first dance we had together,” said Miss Middleton dreamily, “that you preferred not to talk when you danced?”
“Didn’t I say that I should prefer to do whatever you preferred? That sounds more like me.”
“I don’t think it does, a bit.”
“No, perhaps you’re right. Besides, I remember now what I did say. I said that much as I enjoyed the pleasant give and take of friendly conversation, dearly as I loved even the irresponsible monologue or the biting repartee, yet still more was I attached to the silent worship of the valse’s mazy rhythm. ‘BUT,’ I went on to say, ‘but,’ I added, with surprising originality, ‘every rule has an exception. YOU are the exception. May I have two dances, and then we’ll try one of each?’”
“What did I say?”
“You said, ‘Sir, something tells me that we shall be great friends. I like your face, and I like the way your tie goes under your left ear. I cannot give you ALL the dances on the programme, because I have my mother with me to-night, and you know what mothers are. They NOTICE. But anything up to half a dozen, distributed at such intervals that one’s guardians will think it’s the same dance, you are heartily welcome to. And if you care to take me in to supper, there is–I have the information straight from the stable–a line in unbreakable meringues which would well be worth our attention.’ That’s what you said.”
“But what a memory!”
“I can remember more than that. I can rememher the actual struggle. I got my meringue down on the mat, both shoulders touching, in one minute, forty-three seconds.”
The band died slowly down until no sound could be heard above the rustle of frocks … and suddenly everybody realized that it had stopped.
“Bother,” said Miss Middleton.
“That’s just like a band,” I said bitterly.
“I’ll tell it to go on again; it’s MY band.”
“It will be your devoted band if you ask it prettily enough.”
Miss Middleton went away, and came back to the sound of music, looking rather pleased with herself.
“Did you give him the famous smile?” I asked. “Yes, that one.”
“I said, ‘WOULD you mind playing that one again, PLEASE?’ And then–“
“And then you looked as if you were just going to cry, and at the last moment you smiled and said, ‘Hooray.’ And he said, ‘Certainly, madam.’ Isn’t that right?”
“I believe you’re cleverer than some of us think,” said Miss Middleton, a trifle anxiously.
“I sometimes think so too. However, to get back to what we were saying–I came here to recover my usual calm, and I shan’t be at all calm if I’m only going to get this one dance from you. As an old friend of the family, who has broken most of the windows, I beg for another.”
“To get back to what I was saying–I’ve simply GOT to do a lot of duty dances. Can’t you take me to the Zoo or the Post-Impressionists instead?”
“I’d rather do both. I mean all three. No, I mean both.”
“Well, perhaps I would, too.”
“You know, I think you’d be doing good. I’ve had a horrible week–canvassing, and standing in the streets, and shouting, and reading leaders, and arguing, and saying, ‘My point is perfectly simple,’ and–and–swearing, and all sorts of things. It’s awfully jolly to–to feel that there’s always–well, all THIS,” and I looked round the room, “to come back to.”
“Isn’t that beautiful Miss Ellison I introduced you to just now part of ‘all this’?”
“Oh yes, it’s all part; but–“
Miss Middleton sighed.
“Then that nice young man with the bald head will have to go without. But I only said I’d SEE if I could give him one. And I have seen, haven’t I?”
The band really stopped this time, and we found a comfortable corner.
“That’s very jolly of you,” I said, as I leant back lazily and happily. “Now let’s talk about Christmas.”
“You’re very thoughtful,” said Miss Middleton. “What’s the matter?”
“I am extremely unhappy,” I confessed.
“Oh, but think of Foster and Hobbs and Woolley.”
I thought of Foster; I let my mind dwell upon Hobbs. It was no good.
“I am still rather sad,” I said.
“Why? Doesn’t anybody love you?”
“Millions adore me fiercely. It isn’t that at all. The fact is I’ve just had a birthday.”
“Oh, I AM sorry. Many happy–“
“I thought it was to-morrow,” Miss Middleton went on eagerly. “And I’d bought a cricketing set for you, but I had to send it back to have the bails sawn in two. Or would you rather have had a bicycle?”
“I’d rather have had nothing. I want to forget about my birthday altogether.”
“Oh, are you as old as that?”
“Yes,” I said sadly, “I am as old as that. I have passed another landmark. I’m what they call getting on.”
We gazed into the fire in silence for some minutes.
“If it’s any comfort to you,” said Miss Middleton timidly, “to know that you don’t LOOK any older than you did last week–“
“I’m not sure that I feel any older.”
“Then, except for birthdays, how do you know you ARE older?”
I looked at her and saw that I could trust her.
“May I confess to you?” I asked.
“But of course!” she cried eagerly. “I love confessions.” She settled herself comfortably in her chair. “Make it as horrible as you can,” she begged.
I picked a coal out of the fire with the tongs and lit my cigarette.
“I know that I’m getting old,” I said; “I know that my innocent youth is leaving me, because of the strange and terrible things which I find myself doing.”
“Oo-o-o-oh,” said Miss Middleton happily to herself.
“Last Monday, about three o’clock in the afternoon, I–No, I can’t tell you this. It’s too awful.”
“Is it very bad?” said Miss Middleton wistfully.
“Very. I don’t think you–Oh, well, if you must have it, here it is. Last Monday I suddenly found myself reading carefully and with every sign of interest a little pamphlet on–LIFE INSURANCE!”
Miss Middleton looked at me quickly, smiled suddenly, and then became very grave.
“I appeared,” I went on impressively, “to be thinking of insuring my life.”
“Have you done it?”
“No, certainly not. I drew back in time. But it was a warning–it was the writing on the wall.”
“Tell me some more,” said Miss Middleton, after she had allowed this to sink in.
“Well, that was Monday afternoon. I told myself that in the afternoon one wasn’t quite responsible, that sometimes one was only half awake. But on Tuesday morning I was horrified to discover myself–before breakfast–DOING DUMB-BELLS!”
“The smelling-salts–quick!” said Miss Middleton, as she closed her eyes.
“Doing dumb-bells. Ten lunges to the east, ten lunges to the west, ten lunges–“
“Were you reducing your figure?”
“I don’t know what I was doing. But there I found myself on the cold oil-cloth, lunging away–lunging and lunging and–” I stopped and gazed into the fire again.
“Is that all you have to tell me?” said Miss Middleton.
“That’s the worst. But there have been other little symptoms–little warning notes which all mean the same thing. Yesterday I went into the bank, to get some money. As I began to fill in the cheque Conscience whispered to me, ‘That’s the third five pounds you’ve had out this week.’”
“Well, of all the impertinence–What did you do?”
“Made it ten pounds, of course. But there you are; you see what’s happening. This morning I answered a letter by return of post. And did you notice what occurred only just now at tea?”
“Of course I did,” said Miss Middleton indignantly. “You ate all the muffins.”
“No, I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that I only had three lumps of sugar in each cup. I actually stopped you when you were putting the fourth lump in. Oh yes,” I said bitterly, “I am getting on.”
Miss Middleton poked the fire vigorously.
“About the lunges,” she said.
“Ten to the east, ten to the west, ten to the nor’-nor’-east, ten to-“
“Yes. Well, I should have thought that that was just the thing to keep you young.”
“It is. That’s the tragedy of it. I used to BE young; now I KEEP young. And I used to say, ‘I’ll insure my life SOME day’; but now I think about doing it to-day. When once you stop saying ‘some day’ you’re getting old, you know.”
“Some day,” said Miss Middleton, “you must tell me all about the Crimea. Not now,” she went on quickly, “because you’re going to do something very silly in a moment, if I can think of it–something to convince yourself that you are still quite young.”
“Yes, do let me. I really think it would do me good.”
“Well, what can you do?”
“Can I break anything?” I asked, looking round the room.
“I really don’t think you must. Mother’s very silly about things like that. I’m SO sorry; father and I would love it, of course.”
“Can I go into the kitchen and frighten the cook?”
Miss Middleton sighed mournfully.
“ISN’T it a shame,” she said, “that mothers object to all the really nice things?”
“Mrs Middleton is a little difficult to please. I shall give up trying directly. What about blacking my face and calling on the Vicar for a subscription?”
“I should laugh in church on Sunday thinking of it. I always do.”
I lit another cigarette and smoked it thoughtfully.
“I have a brilliant idea,” I said at last.
“Something really silly?”
“Something preposterously foolish. It seems to me just now the most idiotic thing I could possibly do.”
“Tell me!” beseeched Miss Middleton, clasping her hands.
“I shall,” I said, gurgling with laughter, “insure my life.”
IV.-THE HERALD OF SUMMER
MISS MIDDLETON has a garden of which she is very proud. Miss Middleton’s father says it belongs to him, and this idea is fostered to the extent that he is allowed to pay for the seeds and cuttings and things. He is also encouraged to order the men about. But I always think of it as Miss Middleton’s garden, particularly when the afternoons are hot and I see nothing but grimy bricks out of my window. She knows all the flowers by name, which seems to me rather remarkable.
“I have come,” I announced, feeling that some excuse was necessary, “to see the lobretias; don’t say that they are out. I mean, of course, do say that they are out.”
“But I don’t think we have any,” she said in surprise. “I’ve never heard of them. What are they like?”
“They’re just the ordinary sort of flower that people point to and say, ‘That’s a nice lobretia.’ Dash it, you’ve got a garden, you ought to know.”
“I am afraid,” smiled Miss Middleton, “that there isn’t such a flower–not yet. Perhaps somebody will invent it now they’ve got the name.”
“Then I suppose I must go back to London,” I said, getting up. “Bother.”
“Stay and inspect the meter,” pleaded Miss Middleton. “Or ask father for a subscription for the band. Surely you can think of SOME excuse for being here.”
“I will stay,” I said, sitting down again, “and talk to you. Between ourselves, it is one of the reasons why I came. I thought you might like to hear all the latest news. Er–we’ve started strawberries in London.”
Miss Middleton sighed and shook her head.
“But not here,” she said.
“I was afraid not, but I thought I’d remind you in case. Well, after all, what ARE strawberries? Let’s talk about something else. Do you know that this is going to be the greatest season of history? I’ve got a free pass to the Earl’s Court Exhibition, so I shall be right in the thick of it.”
“Oh, I thought last season was the great one.”
“It was spoilt by the Coronation, the papers say. You remember how busy we were at the Abbey; we hadn’t time for anything else.”
“What else do the papers say? I seem to have missed them lately. I’ve had a thousand things to do.”
“Well, the Sardine Defence League has just been formed. I think of putting up for it. I suppose you have to swear to do one kind action to a sardine everyday. Let’s both join, and then we shall probably get a lot of invitations.”
“Do they have a tent at the Eton and Harrow match?” asked Miss Middleton anxiously.
“I will inquire. I wonder if there is a Vice-Presidency vacant. I should think a Vice-President of the Sardine Defence League could go anywhere.”
“V.P.S.D.L.,” said Miss Middleton thoughtfully. “It would look splendid. I must remember to send you a postcard to-morrow.”
Tea came, and I put my deck-chair one rung up to meet it. It is difficult in a horizontal position to drink without spilling anything, and it looks so bad to go about covered with tea.
“This is very jolly,” I said. “Do you know that my view during working hours consists of two broken windows and fifty square feet of brick? It’s not enough. It’s not what I call a vista. On fine days I have to go outside to see whether the sun is shining.”
“You oughtn’t to want to look out of the window when you’re working. You’ll never be a Mayor.”
“Well, it all makes me appreciate the country properly. I wish I knew more about gardens. Tell me all about yours. When are the raspberries ripe?”
“Not till the end of June.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. May I come down and see your garden at the end of June–one day when I’m not at Earl’s Court? You can give all the gardeners a holiday that day. I hate to be watched when I’m looking at flowers and things.”
“Are you as fond of raspberries as all that? Why didn’t I know?”
“I’m not a bit mad about them, really, but they’re a symbol of Summer. On a sloshy day in November, as I grope my way through the fog, I say to myself, ‘Courage, the raspberries will soon be ripe.’”
“But that means that summer is half over. The cuckoo is what I’m listening for all through November. I heard it in April this year.”
I looked round to see that nobody was within earshot.
“I haven’t heard it yet,” I confessed. “It wasn’t really so much to see the lobretias as to hear the cuckoo that I came to have tea with you. I feel just the same about it; it’s the beginning of everything. And I said to myself, ‘Miss Middleton may not have a first-rate show of lobretias, because possibly it is an unfavourable soil for them, or they may not fit in with the colour scheme; but she does know what is essential to a proper garden, and she’ll have a cuckoo.’”
“Yes, we do ourselves very well,” said Miss Middleton confidently.
“Well, I didn’t like to say anything about it before, because I thought it might make you nervous, and so I’ve been talking of other things. But now that the secret is out, I may say that I am quite ready.” I stopped and listened intently with my head on one side.
There was an appalling silence.
“I don’t seem to hear it,” I said at last.
“But I haven’t heard it here yet,” Miss Middleton protested. “It was in Hampshire. The cuckoos here are always a bit late. You see, our garden takes a little finding. It isn’t so well known in–in Africa, or wherever they come from–as Hampshire.”
“Yes, but when I’ve come down specially to hear it–“
“CUCK-OO,” said Miss Middleton suddenly, and looked very innocent.
“There, that was the nightingale, but it’s the cuckoo I really want to hear.”
“I AM sorry about it. If you like, I’ll listen to you while you tell me who you think ought to play for England. I can’t make it more summery for you than that. Unless roses are any good?”
“No, don’t bother,” I said in some disappointment; “you’ve done your best. We can’t all have cuckoos any more than we can all have lobretias. I must come again in August, when one of the pioneers may have struggled here. Of course in Hampshire–“
“CUCK-OO,” said somebody from the apple tree.
“There!” cried Miss Middleton.
“That’s much better,” I said. “Now make it come from the laburnum, Lieutenant.”
“I’m not doing it, really!” she said. “At least only the first time.”
“CUCK-OO,” said somebody from the apple tree again.
There was no doubt about it. I let my deck-chair down a rung and prepared to welcome the summer.
“Now,” I said, “we’re off.”