The Friend Of Man by A. A. Milne

When swords went out of fashion, walking-sticks, I suppose, came into fashion. The present custom has its advantages. Even in his busiest day the hero’s sword must have returned at times to its scabbard, and what would he do then with nothing in his right hand? But our walking-sticks have no scabbards. We grasp them always, ready at any moment to summon a cab, to point out a view, or to dig an enemy in the stomach. Meanwhile we slash the air in defiance of the world.

My first stick was a malacca, silver at the collar and polished horn as to the handle. For weeks it looked beseechingly at me from a shop window, until a lucky birthday tip sent me in after it. We went back to school together that afternoon, and if anything can lighten the cloud which hangs over the last day of holidays, it is the glory of some such stick as mine. Of course it was too beautiful to live long; yet its death became it. I had left many a parental umbrella in the train unhonoured and unsung. My malacca was mislaid in an hotel in Norway. And even now when the blinds are drawn and we pull up our chairs closer round the wood fire, what time travellers tell to awestruck stay-at-homes tales of adventure in distant lands, even now if by a lucky chance Norway is mentioned, I tap the logs carelessly with the poker and drawl, “I suppose you didn’t happen to stay at Vossvangen? I left a malacca cane there once. Rather a good one too.” So that there is an impression among my friends that there is hardly a town in Europe but has had its legacy from me. And this I owe to my stick.

My last is of ebony, ivory-topped. Even though I should spend another fortnight abroad I could not take this stick with me. It is not a stick for the country; its heart is in Piccadilly. Perhaps it might thrive in Paris if it could stand the sea voyage. But no, I cannot see it crossing the Channel; in a cap I am no companion for it. Could I step on to the boat in a silk hat and then retire below–but I am always unwell below, and that would not suit its dignity. It stands now in a corner of my room crying aloud to be taken to the opera. I used to dislike men who took canes to Covent Garden, but I see now how it must have been with them. An ebony stick topped with ivory has to be humoured. Already I am considering a silk-lined cape, and it is settled that my gloves are to have black stitchings.

Such is my last stick, for it was given to me this very morning. At my first sight of it I thought that it might replace the common one which I lost in an Easter train. That was silly of me. I must have a stick of less gentle birth which is not afraid to be seen with a soft hat. It must be a stick which I can drop, or on occasion kick; one with which I can slash dandelions; one for which, when ultimately I leave it in a train, conscience does not drag me to Scotland Yard. In short, a companionable stick for a day’s journey; a country stick.

The ideal country stick will never be found. It must be thick enough to stand much rough usage of a sort which I will explain presently, and yet it must be thin so that it makes a pleasant whistling sound through the air. Its handle must be curved so that it can pull down the spray of blossom of which you are in need, or pull up the luncheon basket which you want even more badly, and yet it must be straight so that you can drive an old golf ball with it. It must be unadorned, so that it shall lack ostentation, and yet it must have a band, so that when you throw stones at it you can count two if you hit the silver. You begin to see how difficult it is to achieve the perfect stick.

Well, each one of us must let go those properties which his own stick can do best without. For myself I insist on this–my stick must be good for hitting and good to hit with. A stick, we are agreed, is something to have in the hand when walking. But there are times when we sit down; and if our journey shall have taken us to the beach, our stick must at once be propped in the sand while from a suitable distance we throw stones at it. However beautiful the sea, its beauty can only be appreciated properly in this fashion. Scenery must not be taken at a gulp; we must absorb it unconsciously. With the mind gently exercised as to whether we scored a two on the band or a one just below it, and with the muscles of the arm at stretch, we are in a state ideally receptive of beauty.

And, for my other essential of a country stick, it must be possible to grasp it by the wrong end and hit a ball with it. So it must have no ferrule, and the handle must be heavy and straight. In this way was golf born; its creator roamed the fields after his picnic lunch, knocking along the cork from his bottle. At first he took seventy-nine from the gate in one field to the oak tree in the next; afterwards fifty-four. Then suddenly he saw the game. We cannot say that he w;is no lover of Nature. The desire to knock a ball about, to play silly games with a stick, comes upon a man most keenly when he is happy; let it be ascribed that he is happy to the streams and the hedges and the sunlight through the trees. And so let my stick have a handle heavy and straight, and let there be no ferrule on the end. Be sure that I have an old golf ball in my pocket.

In London one is not so particular. Chiefly we want a stick for leaning on when we are talking to an acquaintance suddenly met. After the initial “Hulloa!” and the discovery that we have nothing else of importance to say, the situation is distinctly eased by the remembrance of our stick. It gives us a support moral and physical, such as is supplied in a drawing-room by a cigarette. For this purpose size and shape are immaterial. Yet this much is essential–it must not be too slippery, or in our nervousness we may drop it altogether. My ebony stick with the polished ivory top–

But I have already decided that my ebony stick is out of place with the everyday hat. It stands in its corner waiting for the opera season, I must get another stick for rough work.

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