I was talking to a very stupid man the other day. He was the stupidest man I have come across for many years. It is a hard thing to say of any man, but he appeared to me to be entirely lacking in intellect.
It was Celia who introduced me to him. She had rung up her brother at the flat where he was staying, and, finding that he was out, she gave a message for him to the porter. It was simply that he was to ring her up as soon as he came in.
“Ring up who?” said the porter. At least I suppose he did, for Celia repeated her name (and mine) very slowly and distinctly.
“Mrs. who?” said the porter, “What?” or “I can’t hear,” or something equally foolish.
Celia then repeated our name again.
There followed a long conversation between the two of them, the audible part of it (that is Celia’s) consisting of my name given forth in a variety of intonations, in the manner of one who sings an anthem–hopefully, pathetically, dramatically, despairingly.
Up to this moment I had been rather attached to my name. True, it wants a little explaining to shopkeepers. There are certain consonants in it which require to be elided or swallowed or swivelled round the glottis, in order to give the name its proper due. But after five or six applications the shopkeeper grasps one’s meaning.
Well, as I say, I was attached to my name. But after listening to Celia for five minutes I realized that there had been some horrible mistake. People weren’t called that.
“Just wait a moment,” I said to her rather anxiously, and picked up the telephone book. To my great relief I found that Celia was right. There was a person of that name living at my address.
“You’re quite right,” I said. “Go on.”
“I wish I had married somebody called Jones,” said Celia, looking up at me rather reproachfully. “No, no, not Jones,” she added hastily down the telephone, and once more she repeated the unhappy name.
“It isn’t my fault,” I protested. “You did have a choice; I had none. Try spelling it. It spells all right.”
Celia tried spelling it.
“I’m going to spell it,” she announced very distinctly down the telephone. “Are you ready? … M … No, M. M for mother.”
That gave me an idea.
“Come away,” I said, seizing the telephone; “leave it to me. Now, then,” I called to the porter. “Never mind about the name. Just tell him to ring up his sister.” And I looked at Celia triumphantly.
“Ask him to ring up his mother,” said the porter. “Very well, sir.”
“No, not the mother. That was something else. Forget all about that mother. He’s to ring up his sister … sister… SISTER.”
“You’ll have to spell it,” said Celia.
“I’m going to spell it,” I shouted. “Are you ready? … S for–for sister.”
“Now you’re going to muddle him,” murmured Celia.
“S for sister; have you got that? … No, sister, idiot. I for idiot,” I added quickly. “S for sister–this is another sister, of course. T for two. Got that? No, two. Two anything–two more sisters, if you like. E for–E for–” I turned helplessly to Celia: “quick, a word to begin with E! I’ve got him moving now. E for–quick, before his tympanum runs down.”
“Er–er–” Desperately she tried to think.
“E for er,” I shouted. “That’ll be another sister, I expect … Celia, I believe we ought to spell it with an ‘H.’ Can’t you think of a better word?”
“Enny,” said Celia, having quite lost her nerve by this time.
“E for enny,” I shouted. “Any anything. Any of the sisters I’ve been telling you about. R for–quick, Celia!”
“Rose,” she said hastily.
“R for Rose,” I shouted. “Rose the flower–or the sister if you like. There you are, that’s the whole word. Now then, I’ll just spell it to you over again…. Celia, I want another word for E. That last was a bad one.”
I took a deep breath and began.
“S for sister. I for Isabel–Isabel is the name of the sister. S for another sister–I’ll tell you her name directly. T for two sisters, these two that we’re talking about. E for Edith, that’s the second sister whose name I was going to tell you. R for Rose. Perhaps I ought to explain Rose. She was the sister whom these two sisters were sisters of. Got that?” I turned to Celia. “I’m going to get the sister idea into his head if I die for it.”
“Just a moment, sir,” said the dazed voice of the porter.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t I make it clear about Rose? She was the sister whom the–“
“Just hold the line a moment, sir,” implored the porter. “Here’s the gentleman himself coming in.”
I handed the telephone to Celia. “Here he is,” I said.
But I was quite sorry to go, for I was getting interested in those sisters. Rose, I think, will always be my favourite. Her life, though short, was full of incident, and there were many things about her which I could have told that porter. But perhaps he would not have appreciated them. It is a hard thing to say of any man, but he appeared to me to be entirely lacking in intellect.