“Why don’t you write a war story?” said Celia one autumn day when that sort of story was popular.
“Because everybody else does,” I said. “I forget how many bayonets we have on the Western Front, but there must be at least twice as many fountain-pens.”
“It needn’t be about the Western Front.”
“Unfortunately that’s the only front I know anything about.”
“I thought writers used their imagination sometimes,” said Celia to anybody who might happen to be listening.
“Oh, well, if you put it like that,” I said, “I suppose I must.”
So I settled down to a story about the Salonica Front.
The scene of my story was laid in an old clay hut amid the wattles.
“What are wattles?” asked Celia, when I told her the good news.
“Local colour,” I explained. “They grow in Bulgaria.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure that these ones did; I don’t know about any others.”
Of course more local colour was wanted than a mere wattle or two. It was necessary therefore for my Bulgarians always to go about in comitadjis. Celia thought that these were a kind of native trouser laced at the knee. She may be right. My own impression is that they are a species of platoon. Anyhow the Bulgars always went about in them.
There was a fierce fight which raged round the old clay hut in the wattles. The Greeks shouted “[Greek: Tupto tuptomai]” The Serbs, for reasons into which I need not enter, were inarticulate with rage. With the French and British I had, of course, no difficulty, and the Bulgars (fortunately) were content with hoarse guttural noises. It was a fierce fight while it lasted, and I was sorry when it was over, because for the first time I began to feel at home with my story. I need not say that many a Bulgar had licked the wattles before I had finished.
Unfortunately something else happened before I had finished.
“What do you think?” cried Celia, bursting into my room one evening, just when I was wondering whether my readers would expect to know more of the heroine’s native costume than that it was “simple yet becoming.”
“Wait a moment,” I said.
“It’s too good to wait,” said Celia excitedly. “Bulgaria has surrendered.”
Celia may be a good patriot, but she lacks the artistic temperament.
“Oh, has she?” I said bitterly. “Then she’s jolly well spoilt my story.”
“The one about the wattles?”
“Tut-tuttles,” said Celia frivolously.
Well, I wasn’t going to waste my wattles. With great presence of mind I decided to transfer my story to the Palestine Front.
Under a hard blue sky of intense brilliance the old clay hut stood among the wattles. A wadi ran by the side of it; not a small Turkish dog, as Celia thought, but–well, everybody knows what a wadi is. The battle went on much as before, except that the Turks were naturally more outspoken than the Bulgars, calling freely upon Allah at the beginning of the fight, and reconciling themselves to the end of it with “Kismet.” I also turned some of the horses into camels, and (for the sake of the Indian troops) several pairs of puttees into chupaties. It was a good story while it lasted.
However, nobody seems to care about art nowadays.
“What do you think?” cried Celia, bursting into my room.
I held up a delaying hand. I had suddenly thought of the word “adobe.” My story seemed to need it somewhere. If possible, among the wattles.
“But listen!” She read out the headline: “‘Turkey Surrenders at Discretion.’”
“Discretion!” I said indignantly. “I have never heard of anything so tactless. And it isn’t as though I could even move on to Mesopotamia.”
“Couldn’t there be a little local rising in Persia?” suggested Celia.
“I doubt it, I doubt it,” I said thoughtfully. “You can’t do much with just wattles and a little sherbet–I mean you can’t expect the public to be interested in Persia at such a moment as this. No, we shall have to step westward. We must see what we can do with the Italian Front.”
But I had very little hope. A curious foreboding of evil came over me as I placed those wattles tenderly along the west bank of the Piave. The old clay hut still stood proudly amid them; the Bersaglieri advanced impetuously with cries of “En avant!”–no, that’s wrong–with cries of–well, anyhow they advanced.
And as I shut my eyes I seemed to see–no, not that old clay hut amid the wattles, nor yet the adobe edifice on the heights of Asiago, but Celia coming into the library with another paper announcing that yet another country was deaf to the call of art.
* * * * *
If anybody wants a really good story about the Peninsular War and will drop me a line, I shall be glad to enter into negotiations with him. The scene is laid in the neighbourhood of Badajoz, and the chief interest centres round an old–yes, you have guessed it–an old clay hut in the wattles.