THERE AROSE A KING

Agag, though of undoubtedly royal blood, was never a real king. He was
no more than one of the Hyksos, a shepherd-king, bound by the
limitations of his race, and no partaker in its magnificence. Naturally,
he did not work as the late housekeeper had done (and no one expected
that of him), but he had neither the splendour nor the vivacity,
possessed, let us say, by Henry VIII. or George IV., to make up for his
indolence in affairs of state. Henry VIII., anyhow, busied himself in
marriages, whereas Agag was merely terrified at the idea of wooing, not
to say winning, any of the princesses that were brought to his notice;
and they, on their part, only made the rudest faces at him. Again George
IV., though unkingly in many respects, used to plunge about in the wild
pursuit of pleasure, and was supposed to have a kind heart. Agag, on the
contrary, never plunged: a cushion and some fish and plenty of repose
were the sum of his desires, and as for a kind heart, he never had a
heart at all. An unkind heart would have given him some semblance of
personality, but there was not the faintest room to suppose that any
emotion, other than the desire for food and sleep and warmth, came
within measurable distance of him. He died in his sleep, probably of
apoplexy, after a large meal, and beautiful in death as in life, was
buried and forgotten. I have never known a cat so completely devoid of
character, and I sometimes wonder whether he was a real cat at all, and
not some sort of inflated dormouse in cat’s clothing.

There followed a republican régime in this matter of cats. We went back,
after Agag, to working cats, who would sit at mouse-holes for hours
together, pounce and devour, and clean themselves and sleep, but among
them all there was no “character” which ever so faintly resembled even
Martha, far less Puss-cat.

I suppose the royalty of Agag, stupid and dull though he was, had
infected me with a certain snobbishness as regards cats, and
secretly–given that there were to be no more of those splendid
plebeians, like Puss-cat–I longed for somebody who combined royal
descent (for the sake of beauty and pride) with character, good or bad.
Nero or Heliogabalus or Queen Elizabeth, or even the Emperor William II.
of Germany would have done, but I didn’t want George I. on the one side
or a mere mild President of a small republic on the other.

Just after Agag’s death I had moved up to London, and for a time there
was this succession of unnoticeable heads of the state. They were
born–those presidents of my republic–from respectable hard-working
families, and never gave themselves out (though they knew quite well
that they were the heads of the state) to be anything else but what they
were: good, hard-working cats, with, of course, not only a casting, but
a determining vote on all questions that concerned them or anybody else.

We were democratic in those days, and I am afraid “freedom broadened
slowly down” from president to president. We were loyal, law-abiding
citizens under their rule, but when our president was sitting at the top
of the area steps, taking the air after his morning’s work, it used to
be no shock to me to see him tickled on the top of his head by people
like tradesmen coming for orders, or a policeman or a nursery-maid. The
president, in these circumstances, would arch a back, make poker of a
tail, and purr. Being at leisure and unoccupied with cares of State, he
did not pretend to be anything but _bourgeois_. The _bourgeoisie_ had
access to him; he would play with them, without any sense of inequality,
through the area railings. There was a nursery-maid, I remember, whom
our last president was very much attached to. He used to make the most
terrific onslaughts at her shoelaces.

But now all that _régime_ is past. We are royalist again to the core,
and Cyrus, of undoubtedly royal descent, is on the throne. The
revolution was accomplished in the most pacific manner conceivable. A
friend, on my birthday, two years ago, brought a small wicker basket,
and the moment it was opened the country, which for a month or two had
been in a state of darkest anarchy, without president or any ruler, was
a civilized state again, with an acknowledged king. There was no war;
nothing sanguinary occurred. Only by virtue of the glory of our king we
became a great Power again. Cyrus had arranged that his pedigree should
come with him; this was much bigger than Cyrus, and, being written on
parchment (with a large gold crown painted at the head of it), was far
more robust than he whose ancestors it enumerated. For his majesty, as
he peered over the side of the royal cradle, did not seem robust at all.
He put two little weak paws on the edge of his basket and tried to look
like a lion, but he had no spirit to get farther. Then he wrinkled up
his august face, and gave a sneeze so prodigious that he tumbled out of
the basket altogether, and by accident (or at the most by catarrh) set
foot in the dominions where he still reigns. Of course, I was not quite
so stupid as not to recognize a royal landing, though made in so
unconventional a manner; it was only as if George IV., in one of his
numerous landings on some pier (so fitly commemorated by the insertion
of a large brass boot print), had fallen flat on his face instead, and
was commemorated by a full-length brass, with top-hat a little
separate.

Babies of the human species, it is true, are all like each other, and I
would defy any professor of Eugenics or of allied and abstruse schools
of investigation to say, off-hand, whether a particular baby, divorced
from his surroundings, is the Prince of Wales or Master Jones. But,
quite apart from his pedigree, there was never any question at all about
Cyrus. There was no single hair on his lean little body that was not of
the true and royal blue, and his ears already were tufted inside with
downy growth, and his poor little eyes, sadly screened by the moisture
of his catarrh, showed their yellow topaz irises, that were never seen
on Master Jones. So he tumbled upside down into his new kingdom, and,
recovering himself, sat up and blinked, and said, “Ah-h-h.” I took him
up very reverently in both hands, and put him on my knee. He made an
awful face, like a Chinese grotesque instead of a Persian king, but
anyhow it was an Oriental face. Then he put a large paw in front of his
diminutive nose and went fast asleep. It had been a most fatiguing
sneeze.

Royal Persian babies, as you perhaps know, must never, after they have
said good-bye to their royal mammas, be given milk. When they are
thirsty they must have water; when they are hungry they have little
finely chopped-up dishes of flesh and fish and fowl. As Cyrus slept,
little chopped-up things were hastily prepared for him, and when he
woke, his food and drink were waiting his royal pleasure. They seemed
to please him a good deal, but at a crucial moment, when his mouth was
quite full, he sneezed again. There was an explosion of awful violence,
but the Royal baby licked up the fragments…. We knew at once that we
had a tidy king to rule over us.

Cyrus was two months old when he became king, and the next four months
were spent in growing and eating and sneezing. His general manner of
life was to eat largely and instantly fall asleep, and it was then, I
think, that he grew. Eventually a sneeze plucked him from his slumber,
and this first alarum was a storm-cone, so to speak, that betokened the
coming tornado. Once, after I began to count, he sneezed seventeen
times…. Then, when that was over, he sat quiet and recuperated; then
he jumped straight up in the air, purred loudly, and ate again. The meal
was succeeded by more slumber, and the cycle of his day was complete.

His first refreshment he took about seven in the morning–as soon as
anybody was dressed–and an hour later, heavily slumbering, he was
brought up to my room when I was called, buttoned up in my servant’s
coat, and placed on my bed. He at once guessed that there must be a
pleasant warm cave underneath the bedclothes, and, with stampings and
purrings, penetrated into this abyss, curled himself against my side,
and resumed his interrupted slumbers. After a while I would feel an
internal stirring begin in my bed, and usually managed to deposit the
king on the floor before his first sneeze. His second breakfast, of
course, had come upstairs with my hot water, and after the sneezing was
over he leaped into the air, espied and stalked some new and unfamiliar
object, and did his duty with his victuals. He then looked round for a
convenient resting-place, choosing one, if possible, that resembled an
ambush, the definition of which may be held to be a place with a small
opening and spaciousness within.

That gave us the second clue (tidiness being the first) towards the
king’s character. He had a tactical mind, and should make a good
general. As soon as I observed this, I used to make an ambush for him
among the sheets of the morning paper, providing it with a small
spy-hole. If I scratched the paper in the vicinity of the spy-hole, a
little silver-blue paw made wild dabs at the seat of the disturbance.
Having thus frustrated any possible enemy, he went to sleep.

But the ambush he liked best was a half-opened drawer, such as he found
one morning for himself. There among flannel shirts and vests he made
himself exceedingly comfortable, pending attacks. But before he went to
sleep he made a point of putting out a small and awe-inspiring head to
terrify any marauding bands who might be near. This precaution was
usually successful, and he slept for the greater part of the morning.

For six months he stuffed and sneezed and slept, and then, one morning,
like Lord Byron and the discovery of his fame, Cyrus woke and discovered
the responsibilities of kingship. His sneezing fits suddenly ceased, and
the Cyropaidaia (or education of Cyrus) began. He conducted his own
education, of course, entirely by himself; he knew, by heredity, what a
king had to learn, and proceeded to learn it. Hitherto the pantry and my
bedroom were the only territories of his dominion that he had any
acquaintance with, and a royal progress was necessary. The dining-room
did not long detain him, and presented few points of interest, but in a
small room adjoining he found on the table a telephone with a long green
cord attached to the receiver. This had to be investigated, since his
parents had not told him about telephones, but he soon grasped the
principle of it, and attempted to get the ear-piece off its hook, no
doubt with a view to issuing orders of some kind. It would not yield to
gentle methods, and, after crouching behind a book and wriggling his
body a great deal, he determined to rush the silly thing. A wild leap in
the air, and Cyrus and the green cord and the receiver were all mingled
up together in hopeless confusion…. He did not telephone again for
weeks.

The drawing-room was less dangerous. There was a bearskin on the floor,
and Cyrus sat down in front of the head, prepared to receive homage.
This, I suppose, was duly tendered, because he tapped it on the nose (as
the King entering the City of London touches the sword presented by the
Lord Mayor), and passed on to the piano. He did not care about the
keyboard, but liked the pedals, and also caught sight of a reflection of
himself in the black shining front of it.

This was rather a shock, and entailed a few swift fandango-like steps
with fore-paws waving wildly in the air. Horror! The silent image
opposite did exactly the same thing; … it was nearly as bad as the
telephone. But the piano stood at an angle to the wall, offering a
suitable ambush, and he scampered behind it. And there he found the
great ambush of all, for the back cloth of the piano was torn, and he
could get completely inside it. Tactically, it was a perfect ambush, for
it commanded the only route into the room from the door; but his delight
in it was such that whenever he was ambushed there, he could not resist
putting his head out and glaring, if anybody came near, thus giving the
secret completely away. Or was it only indulgence towards our weak
intellects, that were so incapable of imagining that there was a king
inside the piano?

The exploration of the kitchen followed; the only point of interest was
a fox-terrier at whom the king spat; but in the scullery there was a
very extraordinary affair–namely, a brass tap, conveniently placed over
a sink, half-covered with a board. On the nozzle of this tap an
occasional drop of water appeared, which at intervals fell off. Cyrus
could not see what happened to it, but when next the drop gathered he
put his paw to it and licked it off. After doing this for nearly an hour
he came to the conclusion that it was the same water as he drank after
his meals. The supply seemed constant, though exiguous; … it might
have to be seen to. After that he just looked in at the linen cupboard,
and the door blew to while he was inside. He was not discovered till six
hours later, and was inclined to be stiff about it.

Next day the Royal progress continued, and Cyrus discovered the garden
(forty feet by twenty, but large enough for Mr. Lloyd George to have his
eye on it, and demand a valuation of the mineral rights therein). But it
was not large enough for Cyrus (I don’t know what he expected), for
after looking at it closely for a morning, he decided that he could run
up the brick walls that bounded it. This was an infringement of his
prerogative, for the king is bound to give notice to his ministers, when
he proposes to quit the country, and Cyrus had said nothing about it.
Consequently I ran out and pulled him quietly but firmly back by the
tail, which was the only part of him that I could reach. He signified
his disapproval in what is called “the usual manner,” and tried to bite
me. Upon which I revolted and drove the king indoors, and bought some
rabbit wire. This I fastened down along the top of the wall, so that it
projected horizontally inwards. Then I let the king out again and sat
down on the steps to see what would happen.

Cyrus pretended that the walls were of no interest to him, and stalked a
few dead leaves. But even a king is bounded, not only by rabbit wire,
but by the limitations of cat-nature, which compelled him to attempt
again what he has been thwarted over. So, after massacring a few leaves
(already dead), he sprang up the wall, and naturally hit his nose
against the rabbit wire, and was cast back from the frontier into his
own dominions. Once again he tried and failed, appealed to an obdurate
prime minister, and then sat down and devoted the whole power of his
tactical mind to solving this baffling affair. And three days afterwards
I saw him again run up the wall, and instead of hitting his nose against
the rabbit wire, he clung to it with his claws. It bent with his weight,
and he got one claw on the upper side of it, then the other, wriggled
round it, and stood triumphant with switching tail on the frontier.

So in turn I had to sit and think; but, short of building up the whole
garden wall to an unscalable height, or erecting a _chevaux de frise_ on
the top of it, I had a barren brain. After all, foreign travel is an
ineradicable instinct in cat-nature, and I infinitely preferred that the
king should travel among small back-gardens than out of the area gate
into the street. Perhaps, if he had full licence (especially since I
could not prevent him) to explore the hinter-lands, he might leave the
more dangerous coast alone…. And then I thought of a plan, which
perhaps might recall my Reise-Kaiser, when on his travels. This I
instantly proceeded to test.

Now I had been told by my Cabinet that the one noise which would pluck
the king out of his deepest slumber, and would bring him bouncing and
ecstatic to the place where this sound came from, was the use of the
knife-sharpener. This, it appeared, was the earliest piece of household
ritual performed in the morning, when Cyrus was hungriest, and the sound
of the knife-sharpener implied to him imminent food. I borrowed the
knife-sharpener and ran out into the garden. Cyrus was already four
garden walls away, and paid not the slightest attention to my calling
him. So I vigorously began stropping the knife. The effect was
instantaneous; he turned and fled along the walls that separated him
from that beloved and welcome noise. He jumped down into his own
dominion with erect and bushy tail … and I gave him three little oily
fragments of sardine-skin. And up till now, at any rate, that metallic
chirruping of the sharpened knife has never failed. Often I have seen
him a mere speck on some horizon roof, but there appears to be no
incident or interest in the whole range of foreign travel that can
compete with this herald of food.

On the other hand, too, if Cyrus is not quite well (this very seldom
happens), though he does not care for food, he does not, either, feel up
to foreign travel, and, therefore, the knife-sharpener may repose in its
drawer. Indeed, there are advantages in having a greedy king that I had
never suspected….

As the months went on and Cyrus grew larger and longer-haired, he
gradually, as befitted a king who had come to rule over men, renounced
all connexion with other animals, especially cats. He used to lie
_perdu_ in a large flower-pot which he had overturned (ejecting the
hydrangea with scuffles of backward-kicking hind legs), and watch for
the appearance of his discarded race. If so much as an ear or a tail
appeared on the frontier walls, he hurled himself, his face a mask of
fury, at the intruder. The same ambush, I am sorry to say, served him as
a butt for the destruction of sparrows. He did not kill them, but
brought them indoors to the kitchen, and presented them, as a token of
his prowess as a hunter, to the cook. Dogs, similarly, were not allowed,
when he sat at the area gate. Once I saw, returning home from a few
doors off, a brisk Irish terrier gambol down my area steps (Cyrus’s area
steps, I mean), and quickened my pace, fearing for Cyrus, if he
happened to be sitting there. He was sitting there, but I need not have
been afraid, for before I had reached the house a prolonged and dismal
yell rent the air, and an astonished Irish terrier shot up, as from a
gun, through the area gate again with a wild and hunted expression. When
I got there I found Cyrus seated on the top step calm and firm,
delicately licking the end of his silvery paw.

Once only, as far as I remember, was Cyrus ever routed by anything with
four legs, but that was not a question of lack of physical courage, but
a collapse of nerves in the presence of a sort of hobgoblin, something
altogether uncanny and elfin. For a visitor had brought inside her muff
an atrocious little griffon, and Cyrus had leaped on to this lady’s knee
and rather liked the muff. Then, from inside it, within an inch or two
of Cyrus’s face, there looked out a half-fledged little head, of a new
and nerve-shattering type. Cyrus stared for one moment at this dreadful
apparition, and then bolted inside the piano-ambush. The griffon thought
this was the first manœuvre in a game of play, so jumped down and
sniffed round the entrance to the ambush. Panic-stricken scufflings and
movements came from within…. Then a diabolical thought struck me:
Cyrus had never yet been in his ambush when the piano was played, and
the griffon being stowed back again in the muff, for fear of accidents,
I went very softly to the keys and played one loud chord. As the Irish
terrier came out of the area gate, so came Cyrus out of his violated
sanctuary….

Cyrus was now just a year old; his kitten-coat had been altogether
discarded; he already weighed eleven pounds, and he was clad from nose
to tail-tip in his complete royal robes. His head was small, and looked
even smaller framed in the magnificent ruff that curled outwards from
below his chin. In colour he was like a smoky shadow, with two great
topaz lights gleaming in the van; the tips of his paws were silvery, as
if wood-ash smouldered whitely through the smoke. That year we enjoyed a
summer of extraordinary heat, and Cyrus made the unique discovery about
the refrigerator, a large tin box, like a safe, that stood in the
scullery. The germ of the discovery, I am afraid, was a fluke, for he
had snatched a steak of salmon from the tray which the fishmonger had
most imprudently left on the area steps, and, with an instinct for
secrecy which this unusual treasure-trove awoke in him, he bore it to
the nearest dark place, which happened to be the refrigerator. Here he
ate as much as it was wise to gobble at one sitting, and then, I must
suppose, instead of going to sleep, he pondered. For days he had
suffered from the excessive heat; his flower-pot ambush in the garden
was unendurable, so also was his retreat under my bedclothes. But here
was a far more agreeable temperature…. This is all the reconstruction
of motive that I can give, and it is but guesswork. But day after day,
while the heat lasted, Cyrus sat opposite the refrigerator and bolted
into it whenever he found opportunity. The heat also increased his
somnolence, and one morning, when he came up to breakfast with me, he
fell asleep on the sofa before I had time to cut off the little offering
of kidney which I had meant to be my homage. When I put it quite close
to his nose he opened his mouth to receive it, but was again drowned in
gulfs of sleep before he could masticate it. So it stuck out of the
corner of his mouth like a cigarette. But eventually, I knew, he “would
wake and remember and understand.”

And now Cyrus is two years old, and has reigned a year and ten months. I
think he has completed his own education, and certainly he has cleared
his frontiers of cats, and, I am afraid, his dominion of sparrows. One
misguided bird this year built in a small bush in his garden. A series
of distressing unfledged objects were presented to the cook…. He has
appropriated the chair I was accustomed to use in my sitting-room, and
he has torn open the new back-cloth that I had caused to be put on my
piano. I dare say he was right about that, for there is no use in having
an ambush if you cannot get into it. In other ways, too, I do not think
he is strictly constitutional. But whenever I return to his kingdom
after some absence, as soon as the door is open Cyrus runs down the
steps to meet me (even as Puss-cat used to do) and makes a poker of his
tail, and says “Ah-h-h-h.” That makes up for a good deal of what appears
to be tyranny. And only this morning he gave me a large spider, precious
and wonderful, and still faintly stirring….

Oliver Bowman was sitting opposite his sister after dinner, watching her
cracking walnuts in her strong, firm hands. The wonder of it never
failed: she put two walnuts in her palms, pressed her hands together as
if in silent prayer, and then there was a great crash and pieces of
walnut-shell flew about the table. It was a waste of energy, no doubt,
since close beside her were the nut-crackers that gave the nut-eater so
great a mechanical advantage; but then his sister had so much energy
that it would have been not less ridiculous to accuse the sea of wasting
energy because it broke in waves on the shore. Presently she would drink
a couple of glasses of port and begin smoking in earnest.

“And then?” asked Oliver, who was exhibiting a fraternal interest in the
way in which Alice had passed her day.

“Then I had tea at an A B C shop, and walked round the Park. Lovely day:
you ought to have come out.”

“I had a little headache,” said Oliver. He spoke in a soft voice, which
occasionally cracked and went into a high key, as when a boy’s voice is
breaking. That had happened to him some fifteen years ago, since he was
now thirty; but he had made a habit of dropping into falsetto tones, as
being an engaging remnant of youthfulness.

“A good walk in the sun and wind would have made that better,” said his
sister.

“But I don’t like the sun,” said he petulantly, “and you know I detest
the wind.”

“What did you do, then?” she asked.

“I read a story by Conrad about a storm at sea. I quite felt as if I was
going through it all without any of the inconveniences of it. That is
the joy of a well-written book: it enlarges your experiences without
paying you out for them.”

Alice dusted the fragments of walnut-shell from her fingers, poured out
a glass of port, and lit a cigarette.

“I would sooner do any one thing myself than read about any twenty,” she
observed. “I should hate to get my experiences secondhand, already
digested for me, just as I should hate to wear secondhand clothes or eat
peptonized food. They’ve got to be mine, and I’ve got to do them–I mean
digest them–myself.”

Oliver refused port, and took a very little coffee with a good deal of
hot milk in it.

“Considering Nature has been making men and women for so many million
years, it’s odd how often she makes mistakes about them,” he said. “She
constantly puts them into the wrong envelope: she puts a baby girl into
a baby boy’s envelope, and a baby boy into a baby girl’s. You ought to
have been a boy, Alice, and I ought to have been a girl.”

Alice could not resist another walnut or two, and the crashings began
again.

“That may be true,” she said; “but that’s not really the point. A woman
may be a real woman and yet want to do things herself. The real mistake
that Nature makes is to give people arms and legs and a quantity of good
red blood, and not give them the desire of using them.”

“Or to give them an imagination without the desire of using it,”
remarked Oliver.

“I’m glad I have none,” said Alice firmly. “I never imagine what a thing
is going to be like. I go and do the thing, and then I know.”

They passed into the drawing-room next door, which seemed to bear out
Oliver’s criticism on Nature’s mistakes, because the room had been
furnished and decorated in accordance with his tastes, and with one
exception was completely a woman’s room. Everything in it was soft and
shaded and screened sideways and draped. But in one corner was a
turning-lathe with an unshaded electric light directly over it.

Oliver walked across to an easy-chair by the fireplace, and took down an
embroidered bag that hung on a painted screen there. It contained a
quantity of coloured wools, and an embroidery tambour. He was employed
just now on making a chair-back in _petit point_, and could easily fill
in areas of uniform colour by electric light, though daylight was
necessary for matching shades of wool. The design was a perfectly unreal
rustic scene with a cottage and a tree and a lamb and a blue sky and a
slightly lighter blue lake. It realized completely to him what the
country ought to be like, and what the country never was like. Instead
of the lamb there was in real life a barking dog and a wasp; instead of
a blue lake a marsh, which oozed with mud and dirtied your boots;
instead of a clean white cottage, a pig-sty or a cowshed where stupid
animals breathed heavily through their noses at you. Oliver hated the
country in consequence, and never left town unless it was to immure
himself from Saturday till Monday in a very comfortable house with
central heating, or to spend a few weeks in some other town; but it was
delightful to sit in his own pleasant room, and with coloured wools make
a picture of what the country should be. In the foreground of his piece
were clumps of daffodils, which he copied from those that stood on a
table near him, for there ought always to be daffodils in the
foreground.

Alice occupied herself for half an hour or so with an active foot on the
treadle of her lathe, and made loud buzzing noises with steel tools and
boxwood. Then, as usual, she went to bed very early, after a short
struggle to read the evening paper, and left Oliver to himself. These
were the hours which he liked best of all the day, for there was no
chance of being interrupted and no prospect of having to go out of doors
or perform any action in which he would come in contact with real life
in any form. Alice’s lathe was silent, and all round him were soft,
shaded objects and his piece of needlework. But though he disliked the
rough touch of life more than anything in the world, there was nothing
he liked better than to imagine himself in the hubbub and excitement of
adventure without stirring from his chair.

Sometimes, as he had done this afternoon, he would read a story of the
sea, and thus, without terror of shipwreck or qualms of nausea, listen
to the crash of menacing waves and the throb of the racing screw.
Sometimes he would spend an hour in the country, while his unerring
needle made daffodils and lambs; or, with a strong effort of the
imagination, travel across France to the delightful shores of the
Riviera with a vividness derived from the Continental Bradshaw. A sniff
at the lemon brought in with a tray of wafer biscuits and a siphon could
give him the effect of a saunter through the lemon groves outside Nice,
and the jingle of money in his pocket recalled the Casino at Monte
Carlo, where he saw himself amassing a colossal fortune in a single
night, and losing it all again. As a matter of fact, he never set foot
in the real Temple of Chance, because there were so many bold females
there who looked at his handsome face with such friendly, if not
provocative, glances. For though in imagination he was a perfect Don
Juan, the merest glance of interest from a female eye would send him
scurrying back like a lost lamb to the protective austerity of Alice.

To-night it seemed to him that the habits and instincts of years came
about him in crowds, asking him to classify them and construct a
definite theory about them for use in practical life, and suddenly, in a
flash of illumination, he saw the cohering principle on which he had
acted so long without consciously formulating it. He had always hated
real people, real experiences, the sun, the wind, the rain, but equally
had he loved the counterfeits of them as presented by Art in its various
forms, and by the suggestions that a lemon or a continental Bradshaw or
a piece of wool-work could give him. The theory that held all these
things together was that life for him consisted of imagination, not of
experience, and the practical application of that was to study and soak
himself in the suggestions that gave him the sting of experience,
without any sordid contact with life. To make a fortune (or lose one) at
Monte Carlo would have implied setting cheek to jowl with bold, bad
people, and risking a great deal of money. It was infinitely better to
study the time-table of the trains to Monte Carlo, sniff a lemon, and
jingle his money in his pocket; while if he wanted the sense of the
hot, smoke-laden, scent-heavy atmosphere, he must smoke a cigarette and
sprinkle his handkerchief with musk or frangipane. A pack of cards
thrown about the table would assist the illusion, and he could say,
“_Faites vos jeux, messieurs et mesdames_,” in the chanting monotone of
the croupiers.

From that night his horizons began to expand, and he wondered at himself
for the blindness in which he had hitherto spent his life. The London
streets, in spite of the wind and the sun and the rain and the fog, woke
into a teeming life of their own, and pelted suggestions at him as the
crowd pelted confetti at mi-carême. He began not to dislike the crowded
pavements, for he no longer took any notice of the real people who were
there, so absorbing had become the shop windows which gave him the
material which he translated into dreams. Hitherto, when he had passed a
fish shop he had held his breath, so that the objectionable smell of it
might not vex him; now, he inhaled it with a gusto as adding to the
vividness of M. Pierre Loti’s “Pêcheur d’Islande,” He would stand before
a fish shop for five minutes at a time, and be no longer in Bond Street,
but in the hold of his boat or on the quay at Paimpol. Even the boy in
the shop who went out with a flat tray on his shoulder was _mon frère
Yves_, and Oliver almost spoke to him in French. Next door was a shop
filled with Japanese screens and carved jade and branches of paper
cherry-blossom, and lo! his fishing experiences were whisked away, and
he was living in the land of _Madame Chrysanthème_.

But it was only for a short while that the shop windows were, so to
speak, coloured illustrations in books written by other men, for he soon
discarded these second-hand canvases, and constructed out of them and
the wealth of suggestive material that lay broadcast round him new and
amazing adventures of his own. His senses, and in particular his sense
of smell, grew every day more acute, for daily he was keenly on the look
out for a sight or sound, a touch or smell, that would be to him a hint
out of which he could evolve some fantastic imagination that lived
henceforth in his brain as the memory of an actual experience lives in
the brain of those who, like his sister, must know that a thing has
happened to them before they can call it their own.

But of all the senses, that of smell supplied him with the vividest
hints: the aromatic odour, for instance, that came out of the door of a
chemist’s shop would launch him on a brain adventure which lasted the
whole length of a stroll down Piccadilly, in which he felt himself
suffering from some acute and mysterious disease that baffled the skill
of doctors, and led them to administer all manner of curious drugs in
the hope of bringing him alleviation. Then when he had soaked the honey
from this painful experience–for however disagreeable such an illusion
would have been in real life, it had in those vivid unrealities the
thrill and excitement of such without any of its inconveniences–the
sight of a jeweller’s window blazing with gems would scatter the clouds
of his approaching demise, and muffle the sound of his own passing bell
with the strains of a ball-room band. He would spring from his
death-bed, and, experiencing a new incarnation and a change of sex,
would be the central figure, queen in her own right, of some great State
ball.

She–he, that is to say–was unmarried, and as she wove the chain of the
royal quadrille, the hands of half a dozen aspirants to be her
prince-consort communicated their hopes in the pressure of finger-tips.
A tiara to which the one in the shop window supplied the clue was on her
golden-haired head, ropes of pearls clinked as she moved, a great
diamond four times the size of the solitary splendour that winked on the
dark blue velvet there, scintillated on her breast, and to each of her
lovers, the Grand Duke Peter, the Archduke Francis, the Prince Ignatius,
she gave the same mysterious little smile, that, while she disdained
their passion, yet expressed some faint vibrating response. All men
seemed rather alike to her, and she gave a little sigh, half
contemptuous of their adoration, half curious about the desire that made
them so divinely discontent. To-night she had determined to choose one
of them, for, queen though she was, she must conform to the usage of
the world, and besides–besides, the thought of bearing a child of her
own made some secret nerve ecstatically ache within her. She must
choose….

Then, even while Oliver was hesitating between the Archduke Francis and
Prince Ignatius, he would catch sight of a flower-seller by the fountain
in Piccadilly Circus, and straightway he would be in the country of his
_petit point_ again, where lambs were white and lakes blue; or the sight
of a draped model with a waxwork head would switch him off into a new
amorous adventure with a lady in an orange-coloured dress, just like
that, and the point of an infinitesimal shoe peeping seductively from
below its hem.

By degrees, this particular figure, standing in royal state alone behind
the plate-glass window in Regent Street, began to exercise a controlling
influence on his imagination, and he would hurry by the rows of shops
which lay on his route without constructing independent romances out of
the hints they gave him, and only glancing at them to see what
suggestions they supplied as regards _Her_. He gave her, for instance,
the tiara which he had worn when he was queen in his own right; he
presented her with some lemon-coloured gloves that reached to her elbow;
he bought her daffodils from Piccadilly Circus; and, rather more
tentatively, he endowed her with a black hat with Gloire-de-Dijon roses
in it; and standing there in front of her, he would hold up to his nose
the handkerchief on which he had poured wallflower scent, which he was
sure she would use, and inhale a sweetness that really seemed to come
from her through the plate-glass window. All other shops which could not
contribute to her embellishment became uninteresting again, and once
more he would hurry with held breath past the fishmonger, for if was
clearly unsuitable to present her with kippers, raw salmon, or even live
lobsters. Then, standing a little sideways, not directly in front of
her, her eyes met his, and though usually they seemed lost in reverie,
occasionally they would meet his own in a way that sent his heart
thumping in his throat. Always she wore the same faint, unfathomable
smile, reminding him of Leonardo’s “Monna Lisa,” and it seemed to him
that the reason for which Nature had brought him into the world was that
he should penetrate into the thoughts that set that red mouth so
deliciously ajar. It must surely be on his own lips that it would
close…. Her loveliness, while she was kind, made the whole world
lovely to him, and his whole nature seemed to awake.

His constant day-long walks about London had wonderfully improved his
health; he no longer feared the sun and the wind, and got quite bronzed
in complexion. Still more remarkable was, so to speak, the psychical
bronzing of his mind, the suntan of virility that overspread it;
everything was shot with interest for him, and he even got Alice to
show him how to work the lathe. For this was no pining and lovelorn
affection; it was quite a hopeful affair, and though, when alone, he
might sigh and turn over and back again on his bed, the brilliance and
upright carriage of the object of his adoration stung him into a manly
robustness. She would not like him to go sighing and sheltering himself
about the world.

It was no wonder that Alice noticed and applauded the change in him.

“Something has happened to you, Oliver,” she said one night at dinner,
while they were cracking walnuts together, for he had aspired to that
accomplishment, though it hurt his soft hands very much. “Something has
happened to you. I wonder if I can guess what it is?”

He felt quite secure of the secrecy of his passion, and cracked two
walnuts.

“I’m quite certain you can’t,” he said. “Lord, that did hurt!”

“Well, I shall do no harm then if I try,” said she. “I believe you’ve
fallen in love.”

The convoluted kernels dropped from Oliver’s fingers.

“What makes you think that?” he asked.

“My dear, it’s obvious to a woman’s eyes. I always told you that what
you needed was to fall in love. You don’t do wool-work any more; you
walk instead of sitting in an easy-chair. Some day, if you go on like
this, you will play golf.”

“Gracious! Am I as bad as that?” exclaimed he, startled into an irony
that gave his case away.

Alice clapped her hands delightedly.

“Ah! I am right then!” she cried. “My dear, do tell me who she is? Shall
I go and call on her? Have I ever seen her?”

Oliver felt a curious diplomatic pleasure in giving true information
which he knew would deceive.

“Yes; I feel sure you have seen her,” he said, remembering that Alice
had her dresses made at the shop where his divinity deified the window.
“I can’t say that you know her.”

“Oh, who is she?” cried Alice. “Is she a girl? Is she a woman? Will she
marry you?”

“No; I don’t suppose so,” said he.

Alice’s face fell.

“Is she somebody else’s wife, then?” she asked. “I hope not. But I don’t
know that it matters. It is the fact of your having fallen in love which
has improved you so immensely. I’ve noticed that an unhappy romance is
just as good for people as a humdrum success which ends in christening
mugs and perambulators.”

Oliver got up.

“You are rather coarse sometimes, dear Alice,” he observed.

Oliver’s romance and his growing robustness lasted for some few days
after Alice had guessed his secret, and then an end came to it more
horrible than any that his wildest imaginations could have suggested to
him. One day he had seen in a celebrated furrier’s a sable stole that
would most delightfully protect his lady’s waxen neck from the
inclemencies of a shrewd May morning, and he hurried along, while that
was still vivid to his eye, in order to visualize it round her neck.
There was a crowd of women in front of her window, and he edged his way
in with eyes downcast, as was his wont, so that she might burst
splendidly upon him at short range. Then, full of devotion and sable
stole, he raised them.

She was not there. In her place was a bold-faced creature in carmine,
with lustful, wicked eyes like the females at Monte Carlo. His healthy
outdoor life stood him in good stead at that moment, for he did not
swoon or address shrill ejaculations to his Maker. He just staggered
back one step, as if he had received a blow in the chest, then rallied
his failing forces again….

All day he walked from dressmaker to dressmaker, seeking to find her;
and when he was too much fatigued to pursue his way on foot any longer,
he went to his club, and by the aid of a London directory ascertained
the addresses of a couple of dozen more shops farther afield where she
might possibly be found. These he visited in a taxi, but without
success, and returned home to his flat a quarter of an hour before
dinner, where, utterly exhausted, he went to sleep in his chair.
Naturally, he dreamed about her, in a vague nightmarish manner, and she
seemed to be in trouble.

He awoke with a start, and for a moment thought that, like Pygmalion, he
had brought his Galatea to life, for there she stood in front of him in
the dusk. At least, her orange dress stood there.

“My dear Oliver,” said Alice’s voice, “aren’t you ready for dinner yet?
Make me some compliment on my new tea-gown….”

After that miserable adventure he resolved to have no more to do with
the serious or emotional side of life, and in the words of one of our
modern bards “he held it best in living to take all things very
lightly.” He had consecrated all the power of his imagination on one
great passion, and now his dream was exploded and Alice had got the
tea-gown! Almost worse than that was that the divine orange vesture of
his beloved had begun to multiply in a most unseemly manner in the shops
of quite inferior dressmakers, and half a dozen times a day he could
feel his breath catch in his throat as for a moment he thought he saw in
some other window the wraith of her who was for ever lost to him. But
while this stung and wounded him, it yet probably helped to cure him,
and a few weeks later he was immersed again in the minor joys of life,
visiting Capri and the Bay of Naples, when he saw the cages of quails in
the poulterers’ shops, going again to Court balls opposite the
jeweller’s, tossing with the fishing fleet on moonlit nights off the
Cornish coast opposite the fishmonger’s, or spending hours in the
country over his embroidery frame.

One day a smart shower drove him into the portals of Micklethwait’s
Stores in Knightsbridge, where the most exotic of purchasers can find
their curious wants supplied, and all at once it struck him that these
incessant peregrinations of the streets made up a very diluted form of
life. Here all possible fountains of desire and adventure scintillated
under one roof, and you had but to take a step out of the Arctic winter
of the fur department to find yourself in the hot summer weather of
straw hats, or playing a match against the heads of the profession in
the room where billiard balls and tables were sold.

Though he would never fall seriously in love again, he could have some
pleasant flirtations in the ladies’ underwear department, or, if his
mood was Byronic, he would go to the games department and think of the
nursery he would have furnished for his growing family if the beloved in
the orange dress had remained faithful to him, and not given her
tea-gown to Alice, whom it strangely misbecame. With a stifled groan he
would tear himself away from that, and, surrounded by paper and
envelopes and red-tape and sealing-wax, spend an hour as Secretary of
State for Foreign Affairs, conducting abstruse diplomatic operations
with the perfidious Turk, and worsting him at every turn in the tangled
game.

So underneath those lofty roofs and terra-cotta cupolas, he began to
live a life of which the variety and extravagance baffles description. A
chance shower had originally taken him there (for on such small
accidents does our destiny depend), but now rain or fine, hot or cold,
he was the first in the morning to pass through the swing doors and,
with a couple of hurried intervals for meals, the last to leave in the
evening. Whether August burned the torrid pavements outside, or whether
the fog gripped the town in its grimy hand, there was always the same
warm, calm atmosphere inside laden with a hundred aromatic scents and
teeming with rich suggestions of love and athletics and chemistry and
travel. Often in the morning he would be tempted to go straight to the
department of tea-gowns and other more intimate feminine apparel, but he
kept a firm hold on himself and transacted business in the stationery
department, or spent a studious hour in the book-room first.

Nor did he neglect his exercise, and in the games department he knocked
up a hundred runs at cricket, or had a brisk game of hockey, or played a
round of golf, a pursuit to which he was now passionately attached owing
to the strange suggestive forms of niblicks and brassies. Or,
artistically inclined, he would wander among paint-boxes, palettes, and
sketching umbrellas by the shore of some windless sea, and then hurry
away to a counter behind which were discreet bathing costumes for both
sexes, and spend a pleasant quarter of an hour in mixed bathing. This
always gave him an appetite, and he tripped off to the cooked foods
department, popping in at the bakery on the way, and had a delicious
lunch off crisp country bread, with a pot of caviare and a couple of
slices of galantine, washed down with a glass of Chablis from the wine
department. Then perhaps after a whiff of roasting coffee from the
grocery department, he would put on some clean ducks with a grey silk
tie (haberdashery), in which he put a pear-shaped pearl pin (jewellery),
and then, fresh and cool, spent a half-hour of airy badinage with the
agreeable ladies, “whose presence,” as he recollected Mr. Pater saying,
“so strangely rose” beside the chiffon and millinery. His constant
passage through the various departments provoked no suspicion in the
minds of the shop-walkers and attendants that he was one of the
light-fingered brigade, for from time to time he made small purchases
and always paid ready cash, and it occurred to no one that here was an
opportunity of studying, first-hand, the rapid development of one of the
strangest and most harmless monomaniacs who had ever pursued his
innocent way outside the protective walls of a lunatic asylum.

After such a delicious lunch it was no wonder that when he went back to
his flat he could make but small pretence at eating, for in imagination
he had fared so delicately and well that the lumps of muscular mutton
and robust beef provided by Alice’s catering made no appeal to him. She
might wonder at the smallness of his appetite, but she could not feel
the slightest anxiety about that, so bright of eye and alert of limb was
he under the spell of the happy busy life crowded with incident, that
now was his.

After lunch he would sit with her a little, talking in the most vivid
and interesting manner on the topics of the moment, and then, looking at
his watch, would silently remind himself that he was giving a pianoforte
recital at three, and, if he was already a little late, would call a
taxi to take him back to the Stores, while he suppled and gave massage
to his fingers as he drove.

He was by this time in an advanced state of his agreeable insanity, for
he had lost all control over his imagination, the workings of which were
entirely in the hands of the suggestions that external objects made to
it. It was just in this that the completeness of his enjoyment of life
lay. It was in this, too, that there lay such discomfort and suffering
as was his. The sight of a “dental case” in a window, with its rows of
gleaming teeth and rose-coloured gums and palates, was sufficient to
give him a violent stab of pain in his teeth, for the suggestion implied
that he would have to get them all taken out before he attained to the
acquisition of those foreign splendours. But he had learned by this
time the position of all the shops between his flat and the Stores which
displayed these and similar dolorous exhibitions, and his eye would
instinctively avert itself from doctors’ door-plates or shops where were
sold ear-trumpets, and pitch, with the precision of a bird on a twig, on
cheerful and harmonious windows. He no longer, in fact, lived a
self-governing life of his own, but was no more than thistledown in a
wind before the suggestions that the outside world made to his
disordered senses. And then, as was bound to happen sooner or later,
came the crash.

* * * * *

That day he saw for the first time, close beside the lift in the boot
department, through which he passed by accident, for boots conveyed
nothing at all to him, a black door slightly ajar, and thinking, with a
pang of delight, that some fresh world of experiences might be about to
burst upon him, he entered. His first impression was of some lovely
garden full of white flowers arranged in wreaths, as if in garden beds,
and all covered with glass cases. Then he saw that though his first
impression had been of gleaming whites, the predominant note was black.
There were black cloaks, black scarves, black hats, black-edged
cards…. And then, with a sudden icy pang at his heart, he saw straight
in front of him a large oblong box with glass sides, on the top of which
were nodding ostrich plumes. Simultaneously there advanced out of the
gloom a small man in black clothes, with neat side-whiskers, clearly
dyed. He came towards him, rubbing his hands in a professional and
sympathetic manner.

“Is there anything we can do for you, sir?” he asked.

Oliver’s teeth chattered in his head, and his eyes rolled heavenwards.
Then he spun round and fell in a heap on the floor. He was dead.

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