The Joke was born one October day in the trench called Mechanics, not so far from Loos. We had just come back into the line after six days in reserve, and, the afternoon being quiet, I was writing my daily letter to Celia. I was telling her about our cat, imported into our dug-out in the hope that it would keep the rats down, when suddenly the Joke came. I was so surprised by it that I added in brackets, “This is quite my own. I’ve only just thought of it.” Later on the Post-Corporal came, and the Joke started on its way to England.
Chapter II finds me some months later at home again.
“Do you remember that joke about the rats in one of your letters?” said Celia one evening.
“Yes. You never told me if you liked it.”
“I simply loved it. You aren’t going to waste it, are you?”
“If you simply loved it, it wasn’t wasted.”
“But I want everybody else–Couldn’t you use it in the Revue?”
I was supposed to be writing a Revue at this time for a certain impresario. I wasn’t getting on very fast, because whenever I suggested a scene to him, he either said, “Oh, that’s been done,” which killed it, or else he said, “Oh, but that’s never been done,” which killed it even more completely.
“Good idea,” I said to Celia. “We’ll have a Trench Scene.”
I suggested it to the impresario when next I saw him.
“Oh, that’s been done,” he said.
“Mine will be quite different from anybody else’s,” I said firmly.
He brightened up a little.
“All right, try it,” he said.
I seemed to have discovered the secret of successful revue-writing.
The Trench Scene was written. It was written round the Joke, whose bright beams, like a perfect jewel in a perfect setting–However, I said all that to Celia at the time. She was just going to have said it herself, she told me.
So far, so good. But a month later the Revue collapsed. The impresario and I agreed upon many things–as, for instance, that the War would be a long one, and that Hindenburg was no fool–but there were two points upon which we could never quite agree: (1) What was funny, and (2) which of us was writing the Revue. So, with mutual expressions of goodwill, and hopes that one day we might write a tragedy together, we parted.
That ended the Revue; it ended the Trench Scene; and, for the moment, it ended the Joke.
Chapter III finds the war over and Celia still at it.
“You haven’t got that Joke in yet.”
She had just read an article of mine called “Autumn in a Country Vicarage.”
“It wouldn’t go in there very well,” I said.
“It would go in anywhere where there were rats. There might easily be rats in a vicarage.”
“Not in this one.”
“You talk about ‘poor as a church mouse.’”
“I am an artist,” I said, thumping my heart and forehead and other seats of the emotions. “I don’t happen to see rats there, and if I don’t see them I can’t write about them. Anyhow, they wouldn’t be secular rats, like the ones I made my joke about.”
“I don’t mind whether the rats are secular or circular,” said Celia, “but do get them in soon.”
Well, I tried. I really did try, but for months I couldn’t get those rats in. It was a near thing sometimes, and I would think that I had them, but at the last moment they would whisk off and back into their holes again. I even wrote an article about “Cooking in the Great War,” feeling that that would surely tempt them, but they were not to be drawn….
But at last the perfect opportunity came. I received a letter from a botanical paper asking for an article on the Flora of Trench Life.
“Horray!” said Celia. “There you are.”
I sat down and wrote the article. Working up gradually to the subject of rats, and even more gradually intertwining it, so to speak, with the subject of cats, I brought off in one perfect climax the great Joke.
“Lovely!” said Celia excitedly.
“There is one small point which has occurred to me. Rats are fauna, not flora; I’ve just remembered.”
“Oh, does it matter?”
“For a botanical paper, yes.”
And then Celia had a brilliant inspiration.
“Send it to another paper,” she said.
I did. Two days later it appeared. Considering that I hadn’t had a proof, it came out extraordinarily well. There was only one misprint. It was at the critical word of the Joke.
“That’s torn it,” I said to Celia.
“I suppose it has,” she said sadly.
“The world will never hear the Joke now. It’s had it wrong, but still it’s had it, and I can’t repeat it.”
Celia began to smile.
“It’s sickening,” she said; “but it’s really rather funny, you know.”
And then she had another brilliant inspiration.
“In fact you might write an article about it.”
And, as you see, I have.
Having read thus far, Celia says, “But you still haven’t got the Joke in.”
Oh, well, here goes.
Extract from letter: “We came back to the line to-day to find that the cat had kittened. However, as all the rats seem to have rottened we are much as we were.”
“Rottened” was misprinted “rattened,” which seems to me to spoil the Joke….
Yet I must confess that there are times now when I feel that perhaps after all I may have overrated it….
But it was a pleasant joke in its day.
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