The Art Of Conversation by A. A. Milne

“In conversation,” said somebody (I think it was my grandfather), “there should always be a give and take. The ball must be kept rolling.” If he had ever had a niece two …

“In conversation,” said somebody (I think it was my grandfather), “there should always be a give and take. The ball must be kept rolling.” If he had ever had a niece two years old, I don’t think he would have bothered.

“What’s ‘at?” said Margery, pointing suddenly.

“That,” I said, stroking it, “is dear uncle’s nose.”

“What’s ‘at?”

“Take your finger away. Ah, yes, that is dear uncle’s eye. The left one.”

“Dear uncle’s left one,” said Margery thoughtfully. “What’s it doing?”

“Thinking.”

“What’s finking?”

“What dear uncle does every afternoon after lunch.”

“What’s lunch?”

“Eggs, sardines, macaroons–everything.”

With a great effort Margery resisted the temptation to ask what “everything” was (a difficult question), and made a statement of her own.

“Santa Claus bring Margie a balloon from Daddy,” she announced.

“A balloon! How jolly!” I said with interest. “What sort are you having? One of those semi-detached ones with the gas laid on, or the pink ones with a velvet collar?”

“Down chimney,” said Margery.

“Oh, that kind. Do you think–I mean, isn’t it rather—-“

“Tell Margie a story about a balloon.”

“Bother,” I murmured.

“What’s bovver?”

“Bother is what you say when relations ask you to tell them a story about a balloon. It means, ‘But for the fact that we both have the Montmorency blood in our veins, I should be compelled to decline your kind invitation, all the stories I know about balloons being stiff ‘uns.’ It also means, ‘Instead of talking about balloons, won’t you sing me a little song?’”

“Nope,” said Margery.

“Bother, she’s forgotten her music.”

“What did you say, uncle dear; what did you say?”

I sighed and began.

“Once upon a time there was a balloon, a dear little toy balloon, and–and—-“

“What’s ‘at?” asked Margery, making a dab at my chest. “What’s ‘at, uncle dear?”

“That,” I said, “is a button. More particularly a red waistcoat button. More particularly still, my top red waistcoat button.”

“What’s ‘at?” she asked, going down one.

“That is a button. Description: second red waistcoat. Parents living: both. Infectious diseases: scarlet fever slightly once.”

“What’s ‘at?”

“That’s a–ah, yes, a button. The third. A good little chap, but not so chubby as his brothers. He couldn’t go down to Margate with them last year, and so, of course–Well, as I was saying, there was once a balloon, and—-“

“What’s a-a-‘at?” said Margery, bending forward suddenly and kissing it.

“Look here, you’ve jolly well got to enclose a stamped addressed envelope with the next question. As a matter of fact, though you won’t believe me, that again is a button.”

“What’s ‘at?” asked Margery, digging at the fifth button.

“Owing to extreme pressure on space,” I began…. “Thank you. That also is a button. Its responsibility is greater than that of its brethren. The crash may come at any moment. Luckily it has booked its passage to the–where was I? Oh yes–well, this balloon—-“

“What’s ‘at?” said Margery, pointing to the last one.

“I must have written notice of that question. I can’t tell you offhand.”

“What’s ‘at, uncle dear?”

“Well, I don’t know, Margie. It looks something like a collar stud, only somehow you wouldn’t expect to find a collar stud there. Of course it may have slipped…. Or could it be one of those red beads, do you think?… N-no–no, it isn’t a bead…. And it isn’t a raspberry, because this is the wrong week for raspberries. Of course it might be a–By Jove, I’ve got it! It’s a button.”

I gave the sort of war-whoop with which one announces these discoveries, and Margery whooped too.

“A button,” she cried. “A dear little button!” She thought for a moment. “What’s a button?”

This was ridiculous.

“You don’t mean to say,” I reproached her, “that I’ve got to tell you now what a button is. That,” I added severely, pointing to the top of my waistcoat, “is a button.”

“What’s ‘at?” said Margery, pointing to the next one.

I looked at her in horror. Then I began to talk very quickly. “There was once a balloon,” I said rapidly, “a dear little boy balloon–I mean toy balloon, and this balloon was a jolly little balloon just two minutes old, and he wasn’t always asking silly questions, and when he fell down and exploded himself they used to wring him out and say, ‘Come, come now, be a little airship about it,’ and so—-“

“What’s ‘at?” asked Margery, pointing to the top button.

There was only one way out of it. I began to sing a carol in a very shrill voice.

All the artist rose in Margery.

“Don’t sing,” she said hurriedly; “Margie sing. What shall Margie sing, uncle?”

Before I could suggest anything she was off. It was a scandalous song. She began by announcing that she wanted to be among the boys, and (anticipating my objections) assured me that it was no good kicking up a noise, because it was no fun going out when there weren’t any boys about, you were so lonely-onely-onely….

Here the tune became undecided; and, a chance word recalling another context to her mind, she drifted suddenly into a hymn, and sang it with the same religious fervour as she had sung the other, her fair head flung back, and her hazel eyes gazing into Heaven….

I listened carefully. This was a bit I didn’t recognise…. The tune wavered for a moment … and out of it these words emerged triumphant–

“Talk of me to the boys you meet.
Remember me kindly to Regent Street.
And give them my love in the—-“

“What’s ‘at, uncle?”

“That,” I said, stroking it, “is dear uncle’s nose.”

“What’s—-“

By the way, would you like it all over again? No? Oh, very well.

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