L’Estrange on Love, I:
Reminiscences of
Sir Hannibal L’Estrange, bart.,
of Fosswick
in the County of Norsex

* * *
transcribed and edited
by Robin Gordon


Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
Auksford, 2007

Copyright Robin Gordon, 2007

Contents

Preface 

1.  The Power of Love 

2.  A Gnome at Auksford

3.  Pork Pie

 

Preface

    I first made the acquaintance of Sir Hannibal L’Estrange in 1982, when he was over ninety, and was lucky enough to be invited to visit him at Fosswick on several occasions.  In 1983 I started taking along a small cassette recorder to record his conversations.  He was rather amused at the idea that his words might be preserved for posterity and wagered that I would never get around to publishing them.  Hoping to prove him wrong I set about transcribing some of his table-talk at once, but, unfortunately did not get very far.
    I found myself under considerable pressure at work.  For thirty-one years I occupied the post of Third Clerk to Curtmantle Pursuivant in the University Registry at Auksford, eventually rising to the dizzy heights of Second Clerk and Keeper of the Scrolls.  There is, of course, no First Clerk in that office, and has not been since 1673, when First Clerk Gervase Barber disappeared.  The Second Clerk, Thaddeus Muncaster, a plain, blunt northerner from Swardale, was made Acting Keeper of the Scrolls, and confirmed in that office when Barber was discovered to have absconded with 150 guineas of the University’s money and the wife of the Professor of Ancient Hymnology.  Muncaster remained, however,  Second Clerk, the post of First Clerk was abolished, and a Third Clerk was employed at a lower salary.  150 guineas was a considerable sum in those days, and the University needed to make savings where it could.
    As for Gervase Barber, he eventually abandoned his paramour in favour of a younger and more attractive mistress, whereupon the lady avenged herself by denouncing him to the authorities.  He was arrested, sent back to Auksford and hanged.
    The reason for my abandonment of the L’Estrange project was, as you may have guessed, the computerisation of the Scrolls.  For several centuries the records of Curtmantle Pursuivant’s office have been held, not on scrolls but in codex form, in great leather-bound ledgers, and for a couple of decades, in loose-leaf ring-binders.  Instructions came down from the Archdeacon and Council that digital copies were to be made of all records, starting with a pilot project in our office.  It was, I need hardly say, fraught with difficulty, but we eventually succeeded, and my successor as holder of the Keeper’s Quill is a fully qualified Information Technologist.
    Free at last of these cares I turned once more to my own writings and eventually found the transcriptions I had made of Sir Hannnibal’s observations on Love.  A search for further material proved fruitless, unfortunately.  I suspect that the cassettes were appropriated by my son some time in the 1990s and used to record pop-songs from the radio.  I have therefore decided to publish the surviving material, which I do with the blessing of Sir Hannibal’s grandson, Sir John L’Estrange, bart., of Fosswick in the County of Norsex.

--Robin Gordon

January 2007



1.  The Power of Love

    You know, I never cease to be amazed at the way young chaps can be so totally changed by that strange combination of emotions we call love.  Even the steadiest young man seems to go entirely to pieces when he comes under its influence.  Well, take the case of my nephew Richard.  If you were looking for a steady, reliable young man you couldn’t find a duller and drearier example.  Meticulous to a fault, you might say: never forgot anything or anyone, always knew the date without looking at the calendar, carried a supply of postage stamps in his wallet and his loose change in a purse, and could supply you with any bit of miscellaneous general information you happened to need, from the colour of Caesar’s toupee and the name of his wigmaker to the date of the Zulu Wars.  Not quite so hot on things that happened this century, of course, and completely thrown if you asked him to list the last ten Derby winner – but then you can’t have everything, I suppose.
    Now don’t go imagining that Richard was one of those little dried up sort of fellows with heads like skulls, sallow complexions and weak chests.  None of our family have ever belonged to the woolly-hat and hey-fever brigade, thank God, and young Richard was no exception.  Looked rather like a sort of younger version of m’self, if you want to know – bit more insipid, of course, and too often inclined to look like a stuffed owl with a frog in its throat, but nonetheless a handsome sort of fellow.
    Carried himself well, and got himself togged out at the best tailor’s in town – none of your scruffy casuals for him.  If only he’d had a bit more sparkle and dash he would really have made a name for himself with the gals, but … well … I suppose with that mother of his, what could you expect?  Daughter of an evangelical bishop with non-conformist leanings, or something of the sort.  Can’t say I understand these delicate nuances m’self.  M’grandfather used to say there are only two kinds of padre: those that hunt and those that don’t.  But times have changed, I expect.  By George, when I was up at Auksford … but that’s another story, what?
    Now, where was I?  Ah yes, m’nephew Richard: solid, staid, reliable, steady, and, apart from taking after our side of the family in appearance, deadly dull.  Not the sort of chap to get bitten by the love-bug, you might think, but you’d be wrong.  Egad!  No-one’s immune to that little monster.  From Cairo to the Cape, from Moscow to Mandalay, from Istanbul to Singapore … Did I ever tell you about that time in Rio, when Sooty McFall and I … No, wait a minute.  Must keep m’mind on the job.  M’nephew Henry, wasn’t it?  No, Richard, that’s right – not immune after all.  What was her name, dammit?  Er … Sandra?  Marilyn?  Ah well, it doesn’t matter, anyway.  All you need know is Richard fell for her good and proper.  You’ve seen it, haven’t you?  Half a slice of toast for breakfast, not much more for dinner, not taking a blind bit of notice of what anyone said to him.  I was telling him that story of mine about the two Sikhs in Poonah and the Maharajah’s white elephant, and I’d just got to the point at which I was about to save the situation with a brilliant stratagem I’d learned up the Orinoco – remind me to tell you about it sometime – when he upset the salt, threw a glass of wine over his left shoulder, and then wandered off looking like a moonstruck calf.
    I knew what it was, of course.  Alice, or Gwendoline, or whatever her blasted name was.  Used to pride m’self on never forgetting a name, or a face for that matter, but that was in the old days when I had more of a personal interest.  Well, there it is, I thought, there’s m’nephew Richard, old sobersides, struck down just like the rest of us, and a jolly bad case he’s got too.  Well, here’s hoping he’s inherited enough of the family savvy to know what to do about it.
    Seems he had.  Patricia, or Susan, or Mabel, Gertrude, Emmeline, or … well, she’d obviously seen something in him, because the next time I saw him he was actually smiling – ghastly sight: smiling at flowers and bees and people passing in the street.  Even smiled at me – but a couple of stiff whiskies soon put me right.  Well, it seems she consented to go out with him – to the cinema, would you believe.  I told him, that’s not the sort of place for you, my lad.  I gave him the names of one or two nightspots … oh, what memories … D’you know, he looked at me pityingly – pityingly – at me!
    “Uncle,” he said, “times have changed.”
    For the worse, it seems, and getting worse all the time.  It was cinemas then, now it’s discos and jigs, which, as far as I can make out, are somewhere between a Ktavari tribal shindig, without the liquor or the sophistication, and the torment of damned souls in Hell.  Well, at least the cinema wasn’t as bad as that, though I never thought any nephew of mine would have sunk to the level of a clerk taking out a shopgirl.  Still, I suppose he’s not much better than a clerk, earning his living by working in an office – things are coming to a pretty pass, what?
    But I digress.  No, no, no, no, I know m’old brain isn’t what it was, and, come to that, neither was Richard’s.  I mean, smiling’s all right on the sort of face that’s used to smiling, but he hadn’t smiled since he’d won the class prize for reciting the five times table.  He carried on winning prizes at school, of course, but he never smiled after that first time.  Well, why should he?  It was all part of the natural order of things for him to win.  Not like me.  I never won anything at school.  Never really got going at anything much till afterwards – if there’s one thing I know I’m not much good at it’s book-learning, but put me among the fillies, eh?
    So, it was all a new experience for Richard.  The world was tinged with gold, and there was beautiful music all around him, probably played by one of those ghastly gypsy violinists who all claim to be Hungarian.  Spoke to one once in Hungarian.  Asked him how long he’d been in this country.  Longer than me as it turned out – not that he’d understood a word I’d said to him.  Born in Bermondsey.  Never been further than the Isle of Wight in his life, but there you are, what can you expect …?
    Ah, yes, Richard: seven feet tall, walking on air, over the moon, and all because his floozie had agreed to sit with him in a cinema watching the benighted rubbish that passes for entertainment these days – and probably chewing popcorn.
    Total change!  Complete emotional instability.  You’d hardly have recognised him.  Stiff upper lip?  Flabby as a wet pilchard.  You know, when I told him about that accident with the tigress – he must have been about twelve at the time – sad business: she killed both his parents before I could get a shot in – well I know lots of little chaps would have blubbed their eyes out, but Richard took it right on the chin.  Asked where we’d buried what remained of them.  I was proud of him.  But now, well, one word from Monica or Harriet – or was it Jane? – well, one word from her and he was in the seventh heaven.  A lesser man might have gone skipping and carolling about the streets, but he just smiled.  Bad enough!  Well, one word and you’re up, another and you’re down.  I could see it coming.  Still, not my place to interfere, or I’d have told him, “Watch yourself, m’boy.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket or you may go breaking the lot of them!”  Held himself on too tight a rein before, you see.  Meticulous, punctilious, pompous even.  Doesn’t do to break out all at once.
    Well, he went floating off to get himself togged up.  You can imagine it.  The pale blue silk shirt laid out on the bed; the perusal of the trousers, selection of the light greys, the finger testing the sharpness of the creases; the question of the jacket, the grey tweed or the navy-blue blazer, decision deferred, both laid out on the bed next to the shirt; the long, refreshing bath – a lesser man might have permitted himself a bit of warbling, but Richard merely luxuriated quietly.  The brisk rub dry, the donning of the shirt, the agonising over the tie, the final selection of the maroon silk tie and the blazer, the final adjustment of the hair, and the ethereal, dream-filled walk to the trysting place – outside the Odeon Cinema in the town-hall square.
    I’ve always said the whole world loves a lover and if you smile the world smiles with you – or if it wasn’t me it was some other fella with his head screwed on properly.  That’s the way it was for m’nephew Richard.  He strode off as if the streets were paved with swansdown, smiling that ghastly smile of his at every living creature that happened to cross his path.  You know how it is: when your miserable the entire beastly world is a miserable hole until you’ve had a few, and then it takes on a rosier sort of hue, and when you’re in love all you see is smiling faces.  Can you imagine a more ghastly sight?  Not just one hideous smile but a whole world full of hideous smiles.  Anyway, there was Richard, striding through the town with a smile on his lips and laughter in his heart, or some such drivel, buying flowers here and chocolates there, and seeing nothing but smiles all around him.
    When he got to the cinema and saw Marguerite or Annabel, his heart did that funny sort of flip and he nearly broke into a gallop.  If it hadn’t been for the evangelical bishop with nonconformist leanings, he’d have swept her up in his arms, covered her with kisses, and roared “My mate!” or something of the sort.  Being Richard he just thrust the flowers and chocolates at her and gurgled a bit, and then, of course, as you’ve probably guessed, she said just a few little words that gave him a nasty shock and sent his castles in the air crashing in ruins.  Started off by shilly-shallying of course, as modern girls do.
    “Richard,” she said, “don’t think I’m carping or criticising or anything, but … can I ask you a question?”
    He gurgled his assent.
    “Well,” she said, “it’s not that I … well what I mean is …”
    And then she came right out with it.
    “Richard,” she said, “why haven’t you got any trousers on?”

 
2. A gnome at Auksford

    Egad, that story that I told you about m’nephew Richard, you know, the fella that went all to pieces when he was bitten by the love bug, well it reminds me of how m’great nephew John met his wife.  No need to worry this time.  This is one of those love stories with a happy ending, what you might call a nice, conventional romance, the sort of soppy gush that sells by the million and leaves scarcely a dry eye from Dover to Dunoon.
    How can I describe m’great nephew John?  Tchah!  Took after his blasted father, and what Hermione ever saw in the damned fella I never could understand.  Many’s the time I’ve been tempted to take a horsewhip to the little beast, still, that’s another half-dozen stories.  Suffice it to say that m’niece Hermione threw herself away on him and went to live in absolute poverty in a beastly little five-bedroomed house in the suburbs of some benighted provincial town in the North.
    Well, I suppose there was some good in John.  At least he got himself to Auksford, which was more than I could do for him.  Phaugh!  I went along to my old college, and I said to the blasted Senior Tutor, “Look here, there’s m’nephew John ready to come up, and I want him to have my old rooms.”  He just looked at me with that infuriatingly smug expression that the middle classes wear when they think they’ve got you by the short hairs, and drivelled on about A-levels and B-levels or some such nonsense.  So I said to him, “No need to worry about that; the lad learned to read when he was a nipper.  Well beyond his ABC and his blasted tables.  Ready to come up.  Want him to have my old rooms.”
    Well, damn me if the fella didn’t laugh in m’blasted face.  Anyway the upshot was I couldn’t do a thing for John.  Equality of opportunity, they call it, no more string-pulling, everyone starts off together and the race is to the swiftest and all that sort of thing.  Well, that’s what I think he said, though, of course, if you want my opinion, things would have been different if he’d gone to a good school, but there it is, what can you do?  That little beast didn’t believe in public schools, or so he said.  Either he didn’t want to admit he couldn’t afford it, or, more likely, he didn’t want his son to look down on him – not that you could do anything else, really.
    Well, I couldn’t help John, but he got in all the same.  Epiphany!  Damn good college too.
    Not that I got any news from him.  Not a letter all the time he was there.  Don’t know what they teach them in these blasted comprehensive schools.  No conversation at all.  Talking to him was like talking to one of the under-gardeners, or it would have been if he’d had the decency to call me “Sir”.  Nothing but “yes”, “no” and “all right”.  Tchah!  I asked him what he thought of Auksford.  Know what the little bounder answered?  “Quite nice.”  Quite nice, egad!  No spark of adventure.  Asked him if he’d got up on the roof of the Babylon Library or hung a chamber-pot on the spire of the University Church.  Faugh!  He just looked prim and disapproving.
    Now, luckily, another of m’great nephews, Tristram, was up at Crucifixion, so at least I could rely on him to keep me informed, and I can’t say I was any too pleased at what I heard.  It seemed John was what they call a gnome, what we used to call a troglodyte in my day: the sort of chap that spent whole days in the underground stacks at the Babylon.  John didn’t even do that.  These days the undergraduates don’t get much of a look-in at the Babylon: the dons keep the whole place for themselves, or they try to.  Boah!  Things have changed since my day: a don learned all he needed at high table.
    Anyway, m’nephew Henry … no m’great nephew John – forget  my own name next – m’great nephew John spent all his days, when he ought to have been out rowing and playing rugger, cooped up in one of those faculty library places reading Semiotics or some such folderol.  Ghastly sort of hole it was too, by all accounts.  Shelves twelve feet high, books crammed in or left in piles wherever they would go, people tripping over each other dragging ladders about, and nearly falling off the bally things.  Gad, when I think of my old college library …
    “Why the damned squalor?” I said to Tristram.  Didn’t know, so I asked young Knuckleweed.  Pah!  It’s not that the blasted University hasn’t got the money to build anything better.  All to do with some damned interfering Government department poking its nose in and saying that, even if you have got the funds you mustn’t build anything any better than anyone else.  And some chap called Sniggerleigh came into it somehow.  Wanted to make himself Babylon Librarian and for some reason that meant getting the new Semiotics Library building cancelled.  I remember the name Sniggerleigh particularly.  I wondered when I heard it if he was any relation of that slimy toad Silas Sniggerleigh.  Never knew such a damned liar, never happy unless he was getting some innocent chap into trouble.  We hoisted his trousers up the college flagpole a couple of times, but it didn’t do any good.  Last I heard he’d toadied himself into the Mastership at Assumption.
    “Now, you remember what I said about Richard being knocked all of a dither by the power of love?  Well, the same thing happened to John.  You’ll never guess what her blasted name was … Damn-me if I haven’t gone and forgotten it … on the tip of m’tongue – ah, yes, that was it: Nigella!  Know what it means, don’t you?  Love-in-the-mist.  Well, by the time it got to m’nephew John it was a damned thick pea-souper of a fog, I can tell you.  Picture the scene.  She floats past like a blasted dream-princess, and he gulps and stares at her like a myopic frog.
    “Who is that beautiful girl?” he croaks, and of course some idiot has to go and tell him – and that’s the end of sitting in libraries reading books.
    She belonged to a fast set, you see.  Nothing actually bad about them, I suppose, apart from the chaps being too fond of dressing up in girls’ clothes, that sort of thing.  Something unhealthy about it, what?  Wouldn’t have done in my time.  Knew where you were then.  Auksford men were either men or they were aesthetes and the two didn’t mix, or if ever they did there was an almighty explosion.  All good clean fun, but now you’d hardly know who’s a nancy-boy and who isn’t.  Pah!  Last time I saw m’great nephew Tristram he was wearing yellow trousers.  String of girlfriends and yellow trousers!  Well, times have changed, thought I.
    But to get back to these fast friends of Nigella’s: not our sort of people, certainly not John’s kind.  Too much money, too few responsibilities.  No land behind ‘em.  No service to their country.  They make it in the city doing God knows what, and they spend it like water, or they send it overseas and stache it away in Switzerland – feathering their own nests ready for the day when poor old England goes down for the third time, bless her …
    But enough of that maudlin sentimentality.  M’great nephew John abandoned his books and devoted himself to following Nigella around like a moonstruck calf.  He wouldn’t ever have set foot in a library again if he hadn’t had to take a part-time job putting books away and tidying shelves to pay for all his party-going and all the rounds of drinks he had to buy to keep up with her fast friends.
    Can you imagine it?  Little John, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, trying to turn himself into a bright young thing.  Ghastly thought.  They wouldn’t have him, of course.  Kept him on the fringe.  Made him into a sort of pet monkey, letting him perform tricks for them.  Not that he could see it, of course.
    There’s one thing you’ve got to know in this life – even more important than when to delegate – you’ve got to know who you are, what your own capabilities are.  Push yourself if you like, the harder the better, but don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not.  Stick with your own kind.
    Take m’son Peter now: fine young fellow, only one of m’blasted children I can stand the sight of.  Damn fine cricketer too.  Could have bowled for England if I’d had longer to take him in hand.  But he knew exactly what he wanted and where he belonged.  Stayed with his mother’s people.  Egad, he could twist them round his little finger.  Got his charm from her, of course.  Got his savvy from me.  Village headman now.  Richest fellow for miles around.  Don’t suppose he’ll ever come to Fosswick now – and I won’t be going back to Papua New Guinea: touch of the anno domini, what?
    Anyway, point is, m’son Peter knew where he belonged and stayed there.  M’great nephew John should have known where he didn’t belong but didn’t have the sense to steer clear.  Started putting on side.  Gad, the little bounder told this Nigella popsie his name was Jonathan, thought it sounded better than plain John.  Phaugh!  As if there hadn’t been John after John in the Family, from Jehan l’Estrange who was given the manor of Fosswick by the Conqueror himself, right up to m’dear old dad.
    Pshaw!  A L’Estrange, or at least a L’Estrange offshoot, sucking up to these johnnie-come-lately nouveaux riches.  Don’t know what the world’s coming to.  All the fault of that little swine, of course.  Kept him away from the Family.  Poor little chap went up to Auksford not knowing a soul.  He’d never even met his cousin Tristram before. All he knew about Auksford he got out of a couple of cheap novelettes and a bit of gossip at his damned reprehensive school.  Never really an Auksford man, just a blasted pixie … or a dwarf or whatever the things are called … things they have in Switzerland … that’s right: gnomes.
    Phaugh!  If he’d been brought up by the Family he’d have recognised Nigella and her cronies for what they were.  As it was he followed her around bleating like a bally sheep, and all the time he was quaking in his boots.  Terrified of Knowles and Cunningham and all the rest of ‘em.  Terrified of Knowles, egad!  If he’d seen Tommy Knowles in Afghanistan he’d have known what sort of a family they were – but that’s another story.
    Now!  Ah, yes.  Terrified of Knowles and Cunningham.  Knew he was an outsider.  Thought he’d end up trouserless in a fountain – damn novelettes, you see.  All the time mooning after Nigella and scared of being made to look ridiculous in front of her.
    Of course he was ridiculous, and they were all laughing at him all the time, but he didn’t realise it.  They knew just exactly how far to go.  What m’nephew Tristram called stringing him along, what I call keeping him as a pet monkey.
    Next thing, as you might guess, he got a rocket from his tutor.  Things aren’t what they were, but you have to admit the fellow had a point.  Thanks to that little swine, John hadn’t two brass farthings to rub together – though why anyone should want to rub brass farthings together beats me.  It’s not as if you could kindle a flame from the bally things.  Anyway, the world being the dismal sort of place it is these days, and the Family being mortgaged to the hilt to pay off m’brother Hildebrand’s death duties – you can’t even die these days without some greedy little whippersnapper of a jack-in-office getting his grubby claws on your property; Hildebrand was a mean old skinflint, but if he’d managed to take it with him no-one would have cheered more loudly than I would.
    Where were we?  Ah yes: brass farthings, dismal hole, needed a degree to earn his living.  So there you are: buckle down to it, m’boy, or you leave Auksford instanter.  So off goes John, heart heavy within him and all that sort of dismal tommyrot, and does what any sensible man would have done in his place, and has a few. In fact, by the time he got to that evening’s party he was so squiffy he didn’t give a fig for Knowles and Cunningham or any of the other moneyed twerps.  He’d screwed his Dutch courage to the sticking place and made up his mind to propose.
    Phaugh!  You know what happened, of course.  She laughed in his face.  Told him to go and crawl back under a stone.  More or less what he did do, too.  Back to his books.  Back to that beastly hole of a library.
    Apparently there’s a square table in there, tucked away behind some sort of makeshift bookcase.  Librarians have put eight chairs around it.  Damn silly, but it seems that ghastly fellow Sniggerleigh convinced the powers that be that lending libraries don’t need space for people to read, so they just had to do the best they could for the poor little beasts.  Tristram says it’s overcrowded if two people sit there, but it’s quiet in the afternoons – at least that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.
    So, there’s John, hidden away in this dark little corner, and he gets quite a surprise when he hears braying voices, and then Knowles and Cunningham and their gang come bouncing in.  Well, you can imagine how he felt.  He tried to bury himself behind his books, but they came right over to his corner, braying in those awful johnnie-come-lately look-at-me sort of voices, looking for some book or other and dragging one of those beastly great ladders around, and generally creating the sort of mayhem that would get them chucked in the clink if they were working class lads.  Course there’s no-one to stop ‘em.  Librarians all miles away at the end of a corridor – you know what these Auksford buildings are like.
    Well, there’s still a spark of the old L’Estrange spirit in young John, even if it is diluted by the blood of that little swine.  So he ups and gives them a glare.  Pretty feeble sort of thing to do really, but there you are.  Knowles just laughed in his face.  Seems to be a bit of a habit at Auksford these days.  Laughed in his face, took the book he was reading out of his bally hands, and said to Cunningham, “Is this what we want?”
    Cunningham sniggered and said, “No, not the book!
    Then up hops John, full of protestations and remonstrations, and next thing he knows they’ve got him flat on his back on the table and they’re dragging his trousers off!
    Egad!  I wish it had been his father.  I’d have enjoyed seeing that little swine debagged as much as horsewhipping him – preferably one after the other.
    So, what’s poor John to do?  Sitting there in his shirt-tails, praying no-one’s going to ask him to move so they can get the beastly stepladder round to the books above the table.  After a while it dawns on him that he’ll have to get someone to help, or he’d be turfed out into the street at closing time, with a long walk back to college.
    Well he let a couple of likely-looking chaps go because, just as he was about to call out to them, he got cold feet and started imagining they’d laugh at him and call all their friends to see.  Then, of course, he reproached himself for being a fool as soon as they’d gone.  What is it that poet chappy says: the valiant taste of death but once, the coward’s always feeling its bally sting, or something of the sort.  Suppose he thought you have to be totally unimaginative to be brave, but in my experience the more a man knows what he’s up against, the greater the respect you have for him.  General Flashman said something like that, I remember.  That’s another thing I mean to tell you about some time: how I met Flashman when I was a boy.  Quite tongue-tied I was too, but that’s hardly surprising given what a hero he was to us youngsters.
    Hrr!  Yes, John.  Reproaching himself and trying to screw up his courage to reveal his deficiencies in the nether-garment department.  Well at last a smallish sort of chap with dark hair came in and started looking for a book.  He had his back to John, but he seemed a quiet sort of chap, and John finally managed to call out: “I say, can you help me?”
    Well the chap looked up and came towards him, and John blurted out all in a rush: “I’ve had my trousers stolen.”  Then, as soon as he said it, he felt it was a mistake.
    You see, the small, dark-haired chap wasn’t a chap at all – it was a girl in trousers!
    So he blushed and stammered and wished the blasted earth would swallow him up and all that sort of fatuous nonsense – but it turned out to be the luckiest mistake he’d made in his life, egad!
    Not only did she not laugh, she even lent him her trousers!  With her coat buttoned up she looked as if she was wearing a skirt, you see, and John was able to carry a book or something to hide the fact that her trousers didn’t meet around his dashed middle.  Off they went together to his rooms, got talking on the way, decided to have tea together, and now their eldest is up at Auksford herself, at Bethany.
    I only wish all m’blasted nephews and great nephews were as lucky as John.

 
3.  Pork Pie

    Pork pie, eh? said Sir Hannibal, surveying the tea table with approval. You know, I can never see a pork pie without thinking of the memsahib and how I first met her.  Takes me right back to the days when I was a shy young man just back from m’first tour of duty in India.  Nothing quite like your first trip, is there?  Shooting tigers … no nonsense about their being scarce in those days, of course, just a bally nuisance and far too ready to take a goat – or a native.  Hunting smugglers or river pirates.  Trips up into the Himalayas.  I once went out with a couple of chaps to track a Yeti.  Got a beautiful sight on her, but I had to let her go.  Had a youngster you see.  Probably just as well.  Not right to shoot ‘em.  They’re a damn sight more human than some of the creatures you see shambling round the streets.
    Can’t bear to go into town m’self.  Got enough to do here, anyway.  Since m’brother Hildebrand passed away – God rest his soul, the mean old skinflint – I’ve spent m’time at Fosswick, gardening mostly.  Gad, what I’d give for a team of native bearers with machetes.  Totally overgrown.  Never spent a penny on it – or the house.  Still, the Memsahib takes that in hand, and Osman’ll do anything for her.  Only thing is, I wish she wouldn’t fill the place with m’damned relatives. Can’t stand any of ‘em, and I always did hate house-parties – and it was a house-party I was going to tell you about.
    As I said, I was just back from m’first tour of duty in India.  I’d picked up a touch of malaria and m’people thought a few weeks quiet rest down at Fosswick would be just the thing to put me back on m’feet.  But a young chap with half his mind on the other side of the world, soon begins to get bored, even at Fosswick, so they thought I needed distraction and packed me off to this ghastly house-party over at Whatsitsname  -- full of arty-farty types, poets and painters and all sorts of aesthetic johnnies.  How don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate a good piece of art as well as anyone, in fact we’ve got some first class paintings at Fosswick, though we had to sell some for Hildebrand’s death duties, and I suppose more will have to go when I do, but the sort of art these modern chappies go for, all squares and squiggles and poems that don’t rhyme and don’t seem to have any meaning at all, well … Once tried to read some bilge by some foul excrescence called Ralston McTodd.  Couldn’t make head or tail of it.  Across the pale parabola of Joy, forsooth!  What does it mean?
    However, there were some damn pretty gals there too, so I thought, What ho! At least there are some compensations for being cooped up here.  I got into conversation with one or two of ‘em, but, as soon as they found I’d been out east, you’d have thought I had the plague or something.
    Started off all right.  “Oh, Mr L’Estrange, you must have had some exciting adventures.”  “Yes,” says I, and I told them about that tigress that took two or three villagers just outside Oudh, and how I’d spent three nights up a tree, with a goat tethered below,  before I got her.
    “Oh, the poor little goat!  How cruel!” said they.  Not a word about the poor Indians that the brute got, including a little girl of ten.  And what are the dashed goats for anyway?  If the tiger hadn’t got it, it would have ended up in the cooking pot, but there you are.
    So I told them about a crocodile that got a taste for human flesh and started munching his way through the village children until I bagged him  After all, I though, no-one in her right mind is going to start shedding bitter tears for a dashed crocodile.  Well, maybe not, but I hadn’t seen this blasted poet lurking in the background.  Mowbray, his name was, Vernon Aloysius Mowbray, author of half a dozen sweet little books of putrid bilge.
    “Seems our friend, Strange, enjoys killing things,” he drawled in that damned affected way these poets used to talk.  “I’ve never thought it’s really fair to go out with a couple of dozen elephants slaughtering driven gazelles, and as for pig-sticking, well, my dears, one prefers not to imagine it.”
    Well, the gals all tittered like anything, and one of them said, “Oh, Mr Mowbray, won’t you read us some of your divine verse?” and of course that set him off, so I beetled off and went for a mooch round the local woods.
    Now, you may think I exaggerate when I describe Mowbray’s bilge as putrid.  If anything I do the bally fellow a kindness.  As it happens we’ve got a couple of his books in the library, so I dug one out, and, opening it a random, this is what I find.

Oh, never-startled trusted-bright,
lifelong methods making watch
with twice-stained armour;
white cloths changing secret energies
and bitterly you know.

Motion needs my second silk,
remember that with a wing
heavily, fingers, (clumsy, good),
with their refreshing assertion,
have replied.

    So there you are.  Total, meaningless bilge, and yet thousands of otherwise normal, rational human beings paid good money to buy the damned stuff.
    Anyway this Vernon Aloysius Mowbray made himself the darling of the gals, simply by flaunting his self-vaunted aesthetic and poetic nature.
    “Oh, doesn’t Mr Mowbray have a beautiful nature?” they would coo.  “So much more refined than certain men who like nothing better than killing innocent little animals.”
    Well, I’d borrowed m’brother Hildebrand’s two-seater – had to promise to return her with a full tank and pay for any repairs needed – so I wasn’t confined to the premises.  As I drove around I found a jolly fine picnic spot, and there was one little filly in particular I had my eye on.  Her name was Ann.  She didn’t seem quite so besotted with Mowbray as the others, she hadn’t said anything about the poor little goat, and she was a dashed good-looker with a bit of a sense of humour, so I decided to ask her to come out for a drive with me.  Well, I thought, if I can just get her on her own, away from the dashed coterie of poets, I might be able to have a sensible sort of talk.
    I had a word with the butler about asking cook to prepare a few sandwiches, but what I didn’t know was that Vernon Aloysius Mowbray was lurking in the shadows listening.  Well the upshot is, by the time I’d found the gal she’d already agreed to go out for a drive with Mowbray in his great big, snorting, luxurious car.  I must say, when I thought it over, she looked as if she was genuinely disappointed, and if I hadn’t been such a shy and diffident young fellow what I ought to have done is asked her out for the next day.  But there you are.  I had become used to the gals preferring Mowbray and the other poetic twerps, so I just said, “Oh,” and left it at that.
    The next day wasn’t just fine, it was one of those glorious summer days that make England the best place to be in the whole blasted world, or it would have been if I’d been driving along on the open road with Ann by m’side and a picnic basket in the rear.  Well, even so, it was too good a day to waste just mooching around listening to a swarm of silly gals tittering at the feeble wit of a pack of bally poets, and I’d ordered a picnic, so I jolly well thought I might as well enjoy it.
    I loaded the picnic into the two-seater and set off, and I hadn’t gone further then four or five miles when I came upon a car pulled up at the side of the road with steam gushing out of its radiator, and the poet Mowbray flapping around like a dashed ballet dancer, and a damned fat one too.  Aha, thought I, perhaps there’s a chance here to carry off the damsel in distress, so I stopped next to them and called out, “Having a spot of trouble there?  Can I give anyone a lift?”
    Well, you’d scarcely credit it, but, as soon as the words were out of m’mouth, Mowbray came puffing over, the sweat rolling off his fat porcine features, and started climbing in to m’two-seater.
    “Hang on a minute, Mowbray,” says I.  “Ladies first and all that sort of thing, you know.”
    “We’ll send a chauffeur to pick her up,” he gasped.  “She doesn’t feel the heat like I do.”
    “Well, you’ve got a point there, old man,” says I.  Too much of the old embonpoint, what?  But even so, noblesse oblige and all that sort of thing don’t you know?”
    “She’ll be all right,” he snorted.  “She can sit in the car and wait for the chauffeur.”
    At this I just picked the fellow up by his collar and the seat of his trousers – and deuced heavy he was too – and swung him round so that his own weight propelled him gently into the ditch.  Then I held out m’hand to the gal and guided her into m’car.
    “Hope you don’t think I was too rough with that poet chappy,” says I.
    She just laughed and said she wished the ditch had been full, so I hopped round to the off-side, climbed in and put the old jalopy in gear, and … well you know the rest of the story.  We had a picnic together, decided we were made for each other, were married before the end of m’leave, and there she is, the Memsahib herself, just cutting that pork pie.
    As for Mowbray, we left him there bleating like a dashed goat tethered to a tree.  “You can’t leave me here, not in this heat.  I shall expire,  I shall die.”
    “We’ll send a chauffeur to pick you up when we get home,” I called.
    “But I shall melt in this heat.  “I shall just simply melt.”
    “Well,” shouted I as we drove off, “melt-on, Mowbray!” *4


 
NOTES

*¹ Now Sir Simon Knuckleweed, KGF, MA, DSem., Professor of Vestiary Semiotics at the University of Auksford and Fellow of Transfiguration College.  Back to text.

*²  BrigadierGeneral Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, (1822-1915), hero of just about every possible imperial conflict.  His surprisingly full and frank memoirs, edited by George MacDonald Fraser, attribute his exploits to mischance and a combination of his own cowardice and sexual appetites.  Sir Hannibal must have been aware of this revision of Flashman’s status, but, as he never in fact got around to telling me about his youthful encounter with the old rogue, I am unable to say what his opinion of him was.  However, given the context in which he mentions Flashman, and the fact that he refers to him as “General Flashman”, we may perhaps assume that he retained some sympathy with him.  Back to text.

*³  Ralston McTodd, early 20th century Canadian poet known as the “Singer of Saskatoon”, said (by the Montreal Star) to “plumb the depths of human emotion and strike a new note”.  P.G. Wodehouse records his visit to England in 1923 or 1924, when this same line from his Songs of Squalor, “Across the pale parabola of Joy,” proved particularly perplexing to R. Psmith.  Back to text.

*4  Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England, is the home of  the best pork pies.  Back to text.



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