Thursday, 20 October 2016

Thoughts on the Dylan Nobel

I was in my sisters place, attending to appa and trying to keep amma from fretting when Bull sent me a text. “Just heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel for literature. For once someone whose works I am rather acquainted with”. At first I thought it was just one of those hoaxes that sweep the internet from time to time, but this time, with everybody from the Guardian to the NYT weighing in, it obviously wasn’t.
There was a time when I had what was arguably the best room in college. 296, Ram Bhavan was the last room in the “new wing facing sky”, overlooking the Birla Museum and its mucky pond where fat koi fish, mottled silver and orange swam in its murky depths. In front of me were the lawns, the grass trimmed and the hedges manicured. And from the balcony seat, you could see the most spectacular sunsets over the arid hardpan that lay beyond the campus walls.
One evening, there was a storm. Have you seen it rain in the desert? It’s spectacular. It went on for a long while, shading dusk into night, and angry streaks of lightning would shatter the darkness.  I sat there in my armchair, in the dim yellow of a 60 watt corridor lightbulb, while Desolation Row played in my room. I was wrapped in the warm cocoon of a bottle of phens. I had my packet of Charms cigarettes, and I had a brilliant light-and-dark show. And in that setting, I’d see the parade of grotesqueries in the song. Cinderella, her hands in her back pockets “Bette Davis style”, Ophelia, an old maid at 27, sepia tinted postcards of hanged men, a hand painting passports brown. Einstein in green rags, playing a violin. A leather cup on a back alley quack’s desk, where a nurse snaps on rubber gloves before she shuffles a pack of dog-eared cards, all saying the same thing.  A song that was both a heap of broken images, as well as scraps of moving pictures of broken people. Even now, if I close my eyes and think back, I can see them all, like something seen through a grimy window, a group of famous marionettes going through the same set of motions for eternity.
There must have been a lot of division about awarding Dylan the Nobel – I’m pretty certain I saw a lot of headlines about how it was deserved or undeserved, often running side by side. I didn’t read any of them. Also since I quit Facebook, I don’t know what my friends are saying – or which clips of which songs were posted.
My own feelings are mixed. There’s the world of Nobel Laureates. And there’s the world of Bob Dylan. Separate worlds until now. The former, at least to me, was essentially a conservative institution, with the standards and choices of a group of Harold Bloom clones. Dylan – the quintessential Dylan, the Dylan of those 640 days between Another Side of Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde - was the opposite of that world. But that’s a thought that doesn’t stand up to closer examination. What was revolutionary for the US in the 60s – or in India in the 80s is dated and archaic to a world that’s grown up with touchstones like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. For someone who was born in the 1990s, how is Dylan different from Paul Anka or Jim Reeves or any one of those dinosaurs of “Western music”?
For some of us, the answer is, well, obviously, if you’ve listened to Dylan, the difference is obvious. But listening to Dylan isn’t the same for the iTunes playlist era. Of course you can line up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume X on your iPhone and listen to everything from Like a Rolling Stone to When the Deal Goes Down or the latest thing from Dylan does Sinatra, but that’s hardly the same thing as that segue from Ballad in Plain D to It Ain’t Me, Babe in Another Side of Bob Dylan or that amazing B-side of Bringing it All Back Home (Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and It's All Over Now, Baby Blue). And when you listen to it when you still are struggling to figure out who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing in this fucked up world, it leaves an impression.
A large part of listening to old music is nostalgia, of course. With songs of love and songs of youth, it’s pretty much a guaranteed return trip. But not so with Dylan. A large part of it is the timelessness of it. It’s alright ma remains as scathing a commentary in 2016 as it did in 1964. When the ship comes in may have been written as a response to a snooty hotel clerk, but works so well as a prayer of hope and defeat of adversity as well as “Fuck you, naysayers” comment.
If that two year period was the kind of thing that any artiste would kill for, just remember that Blood on the Tracks came almost a decade later. And if later albums weren’t always great, remember that Shot of Love had Every Grain of Sand, Oh Mercy had Shooting Star, Time out of Mind had Not Dark Yet, Love and Theft had Mississippi and – well - all of Love and Theft.
So now, I’ve seen enough people (internet commenters, so take that as you will) diss Dylan. “Can’t sing”. “Overrated”. “Sexist/Misogynist”. “White male”. And yes. He sang for Miss Universe contests and shilled for Victoria’s Secret underwear. But he also came out on stage to accept his Grammy, twitching and fidgeting, and said “My dad, he was a very simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot. But what he told me was….” (A very long pause as Dylan looks at the award, the way a tramp may examine something shiny found in the garbage, wondering how much he could hock it for).. “He said son…”. Pause again. “He said so many things”. And he followed it up with a raging Masters of War, while the first Gulf War (the “good” Gulf war) raged on in Iraq and Kuwait. He’d make speeches about the plight of American farmers during Live Aid, completely pissing off  Bob Geldof. 
He just didn’t give a shit.
Then, there’s Ballad of a Thin Man.  It’s a song I hate. It may have been written about a specific person in a specific set of circumstances, but I’ve always felt it was about me, that I was Mr Jones – that something was happening around me, but I didn’t know what, despite my wide reading, that despite trying so hard, I still didn’t understand.
And when a song can make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, it means that the songs words have power.  
And isn’t literature all about words with power?


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Thoughts on Kabali

First day, second show in Bangalore. The parking lot outside Urvashi theatre in Bangalore was packed. Not just with people who wanted to watch the movie, but also with people who were filming the people who wanted to watch the film. TV vans were everywhere.
The movie itself begins with a voice-over narration, about gang wars in Malaysia, setting the stage, as it were. It's an interesting opening. Normally, voiceover narrators are chosen for voice quality - it has to be deep and sonorous, with clear diction. This one was nothing like that. It was the voice of an ordinary Tamil blue-collar worker, not especially resonant or memorable. The language itself was colloquial, and stumbled a little, like a kid in school having to recite an ill prepared history lesson. It was an interesting subversion of the narrator trope, but it didn't quite come off. In a way, it set the tone for the film, full of interesting attempts that don't quite come off.
The scene shifts to a group of Malaysian cops discussing whether Kabali's prison term should be extended. It's like a parole board meeting, only without the prisoner. The language shifts, seamlessly, between Malay and Tamil. And then we cut to Rajini's introduction, in his prison cell.
And here, as in every Rajinikanth film for a long time, you don't begin by showing Rajini's face. But instead of focusing on the feet, as is tradition, the camera pans out from a book, the back of a head, and on to the cops opening the door. The man in the cell closes the book he's been reading- My father Baliah, by Dalit activist KB Satyanarayana. It's a piece of trivia that's meaningless if you don't know who Satyanarayana was, or what the book was about, but it's a powerful hint into the identity of the reader if you do. Rajini gets up, comes to the door of the cell, and does a quick pull up before he leaves, to thunderous applause from his fellow inmates. He goes and picks up his belongings - which include - joy of joys, a copy of Terry Pratchett's Sourcery
It's an economical scene. It establishes that Rajini may be old, but is still fit, that he has kept his mind active while in prison. The so-called "genius bonus" comes from the choice of books. The Satyanarayana book tells you that he either is a Dalit himself, or has empathy for them.The Pratchett says that he is an omnivorous reader (and, as a Pratchett fan, testifies to excellent taste). Later, we find out that he was a plantation worker, and you begin to consider the eclectic taste in books implies autodidactism,  providing an explanation for his sometimes stiff use of English.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of the introduction. There's a song, a celebration of Kabali's release from prison, and then there's a quiet scene where Kabali returns home to see the memory of his dead wife chiding him. Then before you know it, there's a confrontation with a gangster miniboss at a petshop. There's an interesting line that happens at this time, one that Baddy comments about in his fine review here. Kabali and his friend are walking through a row of cages of brightly coloured birds, and Kabali says that the birds should be flying free. The friend says that it's probably for the best, because otherwise they may become prey to larger predators. Baddy was struck by the first part of Kabali's reply, "Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu". I was more struck by what he says afterwards. "Let them free, so that they make the choice whether they want to flourish or perish."
This scene ends with the first boss fight - you'll have to excuse my language, I've begun to see narratives through the lens of video games, some seepage of jargon is inevitable. The bad guy is suitably obnoxious, saying that Kabali's wife would have been sold into prostitution if she hadn't died.  Needless to say, he dies.
And here's are a couple of things that become problematic. One, there are too many villains. We're told that the big bad is a guy called Tony Lee, but we have very little idea of where the others feature in the backstory. We're given short flashbacks, explaining the context, but it's almost as though the flashback is like a quick primer, like a recap in long running TV show. And after a point, it becomes difficult to keep track of each minor villain's role in the overall narrative.
There are a couple of slightly longer flashbacks, which establish that Kabali was a plantation worker, who fought the plantation's owner to get Indian workers equal pay as Chinese workers. This brings him to Tamilnesan's (Nassar) notice, and while its clear that Tamilnesan is a big deal, its not clear exactly what he is.
There's a sequence in Citizen Kane, where it cuts from Joseph Cotten saying "He entered this campaign", to Orson Welles completing the sentence "With one purpose only". We get something similar here, where Tamilnesan moves from private conversation to public address, and back and forward again, but it's there, without moving the story forward, without establishing the growing rapport between Kabali and Tamilnesan. So when Kabali takes over Tamilnesan's organization, we don't really see the misgivings of Tamilnesan's son, Tamilmaran (Charles Vinoth). And when Veerasekaran (Kishore), over the course of drink, incites Tamilmaran to go against Kabali, it seems a little abrupt.
There are a few scenes that are visually stunning, but they're left dangling. There's a scene of Yogi (Dhansika), in a red swimsuit in a circular swimming pool at night, and she's there, suspended on the surface, a silent scarlet splash in a blue green circle. There's another scene where the camera pans out from Kabali's safe house, a lovely place surrounded by trees. But both these scenes are isolation. Yogi's swimming pool  isn't how she prepares for a kill, or unwinds after it. The safe house scene isn't a long tracking shot that ends with the revelation that the safe house isn't that safe. That comes later, and is much less impressive.
The villains are another problem. While Winston Chao is ok, he would be more consequential if the race angle was explored more deeply. But then, the movie wouldn't have played in Malaysia - I understand that it was censored pretty heavily there. There's subtext, but never explored. There's the section when the story moves from a straightforward revenge story to a search, and it loses steam.
There are some good scenes, of course. The reunion with Radhika Apte is stellar. The cross cutting of Kabali and Lee dressing up for the showdown and Jeeva's death and excellent. But the overall effort falls short of the intent.
Now, I've obviously lot a lost of the references that make the movie so significant to Malay tamils - according to this, it's the Malay Tamil's film. I caught the pointers to Kabali's character from the books, but I missed the significance of the opening scene where the Malay cop says "If Kabali begins to be too much of a problem, we will take care of him in our own way," a line that sets up the final scene. So, its quite possible I missed a great deal
In the end, it's like Ranjith wanted to do too many things, and it ended up with a cluttered film where effort falls fall short of intent.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Revisiting the Magnet, with Boy's Weeklies and Orwell

Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote a long piece (10,000 words) on magazines like The Gem and the Magnet.  It was called "Boy's Weeklies", and it was a detailed examination of the language, readership, attitudes, and priorities of the stories that appeared in them.
It's hard to think of something comparable to come out today. Firstly, the magazine is dying. Second, it's hard to think of anyone with the equivalent of Orwell's heft as a political and cultural commentator. Third, though there are numerous think pieces, they're companions to "trend stories" in children's writing. Fourth, there are essays and articles about "What kind of book should kids be reading" - promoting books that promote "diversity", the current cultural ideal. And there are the inevitable listicles for people with ever decreasing attention spans.
In, for example, the Magnet's Greyfriars stories, written for and read by a much smaller English-speaking audience than exists today, there's Hurree Jamset Ramsingh, an Indian, Sampson Field, an Australian, Tom Brown, a New Zealander, Wun Lung, a Chinese, Piet Delarey, a South African - and Afrikaner,  Monty Newland, a Jew, and Nappy Dupont, a Frenchman. This probably was one of the most diverse schools in fiction. Of course, the reason for the diversity was the Empire, and the worldwide readership the magazine enjoyed. "It is read in every corner of the British Empire, by Australians, Canadians, Palestine Jews, Malays, Arabs, Straits Chinese, etc., etc," writes Orwell. Of course, the diversity is national, and not racial, but then immigration into the UK, according to Migration Watch, was insignificant before the second world war.
Despite that, both characters of "colour" that figure as students are drawn relatively sensitively - despite the stereotyping. Hurree Singh, for example, is the direct descendent of F Anstey's Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee (who says things like "I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment", and was supposed to be  "a humorous yet truthful study of the East Indian with a veneer of English civilization").   Inky (Singh's nickname) may talk like a twerp and his language is one source of comedy, but as a character, he is as good a person as any other, and rather better than most. He plays cricket beautifully, and is several times described as the best bowler in the school (drawn from Ranji, no doubt, the Indian who could play cricket). He's also much smarter and a better observer than most of his peers, though that's not saying much, since most of his peers seem to be complete blockheads most of the time.
There's Wun Lung, the pigtailed Chinee who "talk velly funny". Very much the inscrutable Oriental, Wun Lung is very much a revolting stereotype most of the time. I can forgive the portrayal of Inky, being an Indian. I wonder if today, a Chinese reader would forgive Wun Lung's portrayal. But when he is at center stage - he is shown as devious, but very nice. A good friend to have in times of need, and with a wicked sense of humour that uses and subverts the very stereotype he represents. In one story, he takes his revenge on Bunter, who has stolen his tuck, by convincing the fat Owl that what he's eaten is the shopkeeper’s cat. It's actually chicken, but Bunter believes him because, of course, everybody knows that Chinese eat anything.
And there's Monty Newland, the Jewish boy. The story where he is introduced is still hard reading - in terms of the sheer amount of prejudice that Newland endures when he comes into the school. And despite following a well-worn groove, it's still quite powerful. He's called a Sheeny and a Shylock when he steps into the school. His study mates try to throw him out, and at one point, he wonders that why, despite his family being in England for centuries, they've always been treated as outsiders and lesser citizens. (Surprisingly, there's no reference to Christ-killing or anything, but that's probably because religion hardly ever figured in these stories. Newland, of course, proves his worth, as all boys must do, by standing up to the school bully, and beating him down. It's also notable that he ends up sharing a study with Dick Penfold, the son of the shoemaker and a scholarship boy. An inadvertent reflection of where Jews stood in the English class system?
The Gem and the Magnet were popular. “They are on sale in every town in England, and nearly every boy who reads at all goes through a phase of reading one or more of them,” wrote Orwell. Evelyn Waugh was a fan. So was Noel Coward. And VS Pritchett. When Christopher Hitchens was asked by a godmother to choose any six books he wanted, his first choice was “a garish series of the adventures of Billy Bunter”.
There’s this lovely book called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, by a guy called Jonathan Rose. It covers, in some depth, what the miners and canners and fishmongers and weavers read, from the mid-late 19th century on, and it devotes a chapter to The Gem and the Magnet. Rose looks at the influence of these magazines and the school stories on their readers – most of whom were drawn from the working classes.
The books were inherently conservative, and Rose wonders if any of their readers – much older now, of course – would say “These books indoctrinated me in a bourgeois cultural hegemony, and I’m a better man for it”, and finds that there are quite a few. Of course, this comes from a time when it was possible to be culturally conservative, but politically radical. A number of the Magnet’s fans got their ideas of honour and ethics from these stories. According to Paul Fletcher, the son of a colliery worker, the stories defined a code of honour that was as well defined as the scriptures were nebulous. Later, in 1972, Fletcher, would write that “(Some), rejoicing under the name of intellectuals, would find it difficult to stifle their mirth at yarns which a beginning, a middle and an end, and were completely free of drugs, dolls, crude Americanisms, and lavatory wall adjectives. But they don’t matter. Harry Wharton and the Famous Five set an example of ‘How to play the game’, and their code of honour, effete as it may seem now, was something which society as a whole could do with”.
The Famous Five in the quote above refers not to Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ramsingh and Johnny Bull. The term was coined in 1912, and Enid Blyton used it in 1951, well after the first books were published. There was also a Secret Seven, a school secret society that dealt out justice to errant prefects using Guy Fawkes masks. It’s unlikely that David Lloyd pinched the idea for V’s mask from, but still, it’s a fascinating titbit. Harry Wharton’s father died on the Afghan frontier, serving in the Loamshire Regiment. This was in 1908.  Wiki the Loamshire Regiment, and you’ll find this:
“Loamshire Regiment is a placeholder name used by the British Army to provide examples for its procedures. For example, the Loamshire Regiment is provided by the British Forces Post Office to show how to write a British Army address, and is used to set out specimen charges for violations of military law. It is used in Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard's Sniping in France, a World War One manual for training British Army sharpshooters.”
Sniping in France was published in 1920. The Loamshire Regiment was also used by Sapper – Bulldog Drummond is a Loamshire Regiment man. Since then, the Loamshires have appeared elsewhere, including Waugh’s Men at Arms and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
But if anything, the lasting legacy of these magazines, these stories – mostly written by Charles Hamilton – must be the “Schoolboy Code”. Or the “Schoolgirl Code”, filtered as it was through Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s and Malory Towers books. After all, Blyton, the daughter of a cutlery salesman, was born in 1897, and would have been among the Gem and Magnet’s significant female readership when she was growing up.
On a personal basis, my school, at least between 1974 and 1987, was making its name as a crammer. We had some good teachers, of course, and some lovely people studied there, but as an institution, I have very little love for it. We yearned for the last bell, waiting for freedom from the endless tedium poorly taught maths and science. When I’m at home, I take a walk by “the old school” almost every day, but all I feel is mild surprise about how small the classrooms were.
So it’s not surprising that these school stories, with their pranks and rags, their feeds and feasts would work their charm, 5099 miles and seven decades away. Oh, I never saw a Magnet or a Gem, but I remember the bright yellow Cassell paperbacks, and the Armada publications with their ugly cover art, borrowed from Eshwari lending library on Lloyd’s Road.
The “Schoolboy Code” is irrelevant today, of course. It’s was irrelevant when I was a schoolboy as well, but I didn’t know that. As Robert Roberts would write “Greyfriars gave us one moral code, life another, and a fine muddle we made of it all”.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Story of Webster


‘Cats are not dogs!’

There is only one place where you can hear good things like that thrown off quite casually in the general run of conversation, and that is the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest. It was there, as we sat grouped about the fire, that a thoughtful Pint of Bitter had made the statement just recorded.

Although the talk up to this point had been dealing with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, we readily adjusted our minds to cope with the new topic. Regular attendance at the nightly sessions over which Mr Mulliner presides with such unfailing dignity and geniality tends to produce mental nimbleness. In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving the juiciness of bacon fat. 

‘Cats,’ proceeded the Pint of Bitter, ‘are selfish. A man waits on a cat hand and foot for weeks, humouring its lightest whim, and then it goes and leaves him flat because it has found a place down the road where the fish is more frequent.’ 

‘What I’ve got against cats,’ said a Lemon Sour, speaking feelingly, as one brooding on a private grievance, ‘is their unreliability. They lack candour and are not square shooters. You get your cat and you call him Thomas or George, as the case may be. So far, so good. Then one morning you wake up and find six kittens in the hat-box and you have to reopen the whole matter, approaching it from an entirely different angle.’ 

‘If you want to know what’s the trouble with cats,’ said a red-faced man with glassy eyes, who had been rapping on the table for his fourth whisky, ‘they’ve got no tact. That’s what’s the trouble with them. I remember a friend of mine had a cat. Made quite a pet of that cat, he did. And what occurred? What was the outcome? One night he came home rather late and was feeling for the keyhole with his corkscrew; and, believe me or not, his cat selected that precise moment to jump on the back of his neck out of a tree. No tact.’ 

Mr Mulliner shook his head.  ‘I grant you all this,’ he said, ‘but still, in my opinion, you have not got quite to the root of the matter. The real objection to the great majority of cats is their insufferable air of superiority. Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods. This makes them too prone to set themselves up as critics and censors of the frail and erring human beings whose lot they share. They stare rebukingly. They view with concern. And on a sensitive man this often has the worst effects, inducing an inferiority complex of the gravest kind. It is odd that the conversation should have taken this turn,’ said Mr Mulliner, sipping his hot Scotch and lemon, ‘for I was thinking only this afternoon of the rather strange case of my cousin Edward’s son, Lancelot.’ 

‘I knew a cat—’ began a Small Bass.

My cousin Edward’s son, Lancelot (said Mr Mulliner) was, at the time of which I speak, a comely youth of some twenty-five summers. Orphaned at an early age, he had been brought up in the home of his Uncle Theodore, the saintly Dean of Bolsover; and it was a great shock to that good man when Lancelot, on attaining his majority, wrote from London to inform him that he had taken a studio in Bott Street, Chelsea, and proposed to remain in the metropolis and become an artist. 

The Dean’s opinion of artists was low.

As a prominent member of the Bolsover Watch Committee, it had recently been his distasteful duty to be present at a private showing of the super-super-film, ‘Palettes of Passion’; and he replied to his nephew’s communication with a vibrant letter in which he emphasized the grievous pain it gave him to think that one of his flesh and blood should deliberately be embarking on a career which must inevitably lead sooner or later to the painting of Russian princesses lying on divans in the semi-nude with their arms round tame jaguars. He urged Lancelot to return and become a curate while there was yet time. 

But Lancelot was firm. He deplored the rift between himself and a relative whom he had always respected; but he was dashed if he meant to go back to an environment where his individuality had been stifled and his soul confined in chains.

And for four years there was silence between uncle and nephew.  During these years Lancelot had made progress in his chosen profession. At the time at which this story opens, his prospects seemed bright. He was painting the portrait of Brenda, only daughter of Mr and Mrs B. B. Carberry-Pirbright, of 11 , Maxton Square, South Kensington, which meant thirty pounds in his sock on delivery. He had learned to cook eggs and bacon. He had practically mastered the ukulele. And, in addition, he was engaged to be married to a fearless young vers libre poetess of the name of Gladys Bingley, better known as The Sweet Singer of Garbidge Mews, Fulham — a charming girl who looked like a pen-wiper. 

It seemed to Lancelot that life was very full and beautiful. He lived joyously in the present, giving no thought to the past.  But how true it is that the past is inextricably mixed up with the present and that we can never tell when it may not spring some delayed bomb beneath our feet.

One afternoon, as he sat making a few small alterations in the portrait of Brenda Carberry-Pirbright, his fiancée entered.  He had been expecting her to call, for to-day she was going off for a three weeks’ holiday to the South of France, and she had promised to look in on her way to the station. He laid down his brush and gazed at her with a yearning affection, thinking for the thousandth time how he worshipped every spot of ink on her nose. Standing there in the doorway with her bobbed hair sticking out in every direction, she made a picture that seemed to speak to his very depths. 

‘Hullo, Reptile!’ he said lovingly. 

‘What ho, Worm!’ said Gladys, maidenly devotion shining through the monocle which she wore in her left eye.

‘I can stay just half an hour.’ 

‘Oh, well, half an hour soon passes,’ said Lancelot.

‘What’s that you’ve got there?’ 

A letter, ass. What did you think it was?’ 

‘Where did you get it?’ 

‘I found the postman outside.’ 

Lancelot took the envelope from her and examined it. 

‘Gosh!’ he said. 

‘What’s the matter?’ 

‘It’s from my Uncle Theodore.’ 

‘I didn’t know you had an Uncle Theodore.’ 

‘Of course I have. I’ve had him for years.’ 

‘What’s he writing to you about?’ 

‘If you’ll kindly keep quiet for two seconds, if you know how,’ said Lancelot, ‘I’ll tell you.’ 

And in a clear voice which, like that of all the Mulliners, however distant from the main branch, was beautifully modulated, he read as follows:

‘The Deanery,
‘Bolsover, 
‘Wilts. 

MY DEAR LANCELOT, 

As you have, no doubt, already learned from your Church Times, I have been offered and have accepted the vacant Bishopric of Bongo-Bongo in West Africa. I sail immediately to take up my new duties, which I trust will be blessed. 

In these circumstances, it becomes necessary for me to find a good home for my cat Webster. It is, alas, out of the question that he should accompany me, as the rigours of the climate and the lack of essential comforts might well sap a constitution which has never been robust. 

I am dispatching him, therefore, to your address, my dear boy, in a straw-lined hamper, in the full confidence that you will prove a kindly and conscientious host.  ‘With cordial good wishes,  ‘Your affectionate uncle, 

THEODORE BONGO-BONGO .’

For some moments after he had finished reading this communication, a thoughtful silence prevailed in the studio.

Finally Gladys spoke. 

‘Of all the nerve!’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t do it.’ 

‘Why not?’ 

‘What do you want with a cat?’  Lancelot reflected. 

‘It is true,’ he said, ‘that, given a free hand, I would prefer not to have my studio turned into a cattery or cat-bin. But consider the special circumstances. Relations between Uncle Theodore and self have for the last few years been a bit strained. In fact, you might say we had definitely patted brass-rags. It looks to me as if he were coming round. I should describe this letter as more or less what, you might call an olive-branch. If I lush this cat up satisfactorily, shall I not be in a position later on to make a swift touch?’ 

‘He is rich, this bean?’ said Gladys, interested. 

‘Extremely.’ 

‘Then,’ said Gladys, ‘consider my objections withdrawn.

A good stout cheque from a grateful cat-fancier would undoubtedly come in very handy. We might be able to get married this year.’ 

‘Exactly,’ said Lancelot. A pretty loathsome prospect, of course, but still, as we’ve arranged to do it, the sooner we get it over, the better, what?’ 

‘Absolutely.’ 

‘Then that’s settled. I accept custody of cat.’ 

‘It’s the only thing to do,’ said Gladys.

‘Meanwhile, can you lend me a comb? Have you such a thing in your bedroom?’ 

‘What do you want with a comb?’ 

‘I got some soup in my hair at lunch. I won’t be a minute.’ 

She hurried out, and Lancelot, taking up the letter again, found that he had omitted to read a continuation of it on the back page. 

It was to the following effect:     

‘P.S. In establishing Webster in your home, I am actuated by another motive than the simple desire to see to it that my faithful friend and companion is adequately provided for. 

From both a moral and an educative standpoint, I am convinced that Webster’s society will prove of inestimable value to you. His advent, indeed, I venture to hope, will be a turning-point in your life. Thrown, as you must be, incessantly among loose and immoral Bohemians, you will find in this cat an example of upright conduct which cannot but act as an antidote to the poison cup of temptation which is, no doubt, hourly pressed to your lips. 

P.P.S. Cream only at midday, and fish not more than three times a week.’     

He was reading these words for the second time, when the front door-bell rang and he found a man on the steps with a hamper. A discreet mew from within revealed its contents, and Lancelot, carrying it into the studio, cut the strings.

‘Hi!’ he bellowed, going to the door.

‘What’s up?’ shrieked his betrothed from above.

‘The cat’s come.’

‘All right. I’ll be down in a jiffy.’

Lancelot returned to the studio.

‘What ho, Webster!’ he said cheerily. ‘How’s the boy?’ The cat did not reply. It was sitting with bent head, performing that wash and brush up which a journey by rail renders so necessary.

In order to facilitate these toilet operations, it had raised its left leg and was holding it rigidly in the air. And there flashed into Lancelot’s mind an old superstition handed on to him, for what it was worth, by one of the nurses of his infancy. If, this woman had said, you creep up to a cat when its leg is in the air and give it a pull, then you make a wish and your wish comes true in thirty days.

It was a pretty fancy, and it seemed to Lancelot that the theory might as well be put to the test. He advanced warily, therefore, and was in the act of extending his fingers for the pub, when Webster, lowering the leg, turned and raised his eyes.

He looked at Lancelot. And suddenly with sickening force, there came to Lancelot the realization of the unpardonable liberty he had been about to take.

Until this moment, though the postscript to his uncle’s letter should have warned him, Lancelot Mulliner had had no suspicion of what manner of cat this was that he had taken into his home. Now, for the first time, he saw him steadily and saw him whole.

Webster was very large and very black and very composed. He conveyed the impression of being a cat of deep reserves. Descendant of a long line of ecclesiastical ancestors who had conducted their decorous courtships beneath the shadow of cathedrals and on the back walls of bishops’ palaces, he had that exquisite poise which one sees in high dignitaries of the church. His eyes were clear and steady, and seemed to pierce to the very roots of the young man’s soul, filling him with a sense of guilt.

Once, long ago, in his hot childhood, Lancelot, spending his summer holidays at the deanery, had been so far carried away by ginger-beer and original sin as to plug a senior canon in the leg with his air-gun — only to discover, on turning, that a visiting archdeacon had been a spectator of the entire incident from his immediate rear. As he had felt then, when meeting the archdeacon’s eye, so did he feel now as Webster’s gaze played silently upon him.

Webster, it is true, had not actually raised his eyebrows. But this, Lancelot felt, was simply because he hadn’t any.

He backed, blushing.

‘Sorry!’ he muttered.

There was a pause. Webster continued his steady scrutiny. Lancelot edged towards the door.

‘Er — excuse me — just a moment…’ he mumbled. And, sidling from the room, he ran distractedly upstairs.

‘I say,’ said Lancelot.

‘Now what?’ asked Gladys.

‘Have you finished with the mirror?’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I — er — I thought,’ said Lancelot, ‘that I might as well have a shave.’

The girl looked at him, astonished.

‘Shave? Why, you shaved only the day before yesterday.’

‘I know. But, all the same… I mean to say, it seems only respectful. That cat, I mean.

‘What about him?’

‘Well, he seems to expect it, somehow. Nothing actually said, don’t you know, but you could tell by his manner. I thought a quick shave and perhaps change into my blue serge suit—’

‘He’s probably thirsty. Why don’t you give him some milk?’

‘Could one, do you think?’ said Lancelot doubtfully. ‘I mean, I hardly seem to know him well enough.’ He paused. ‘I say, old girl,’ he went on, with a touch of hesitation.

‘Hullo?’

‘I know you won’t mind my mentioning it, but you’ve got a few spots of ink on your nose.’

‘Of course I have. I always have spots of ink on my nose.’

‘Well… you don’t think… a quick scrub with a bit of pumice-stone… I mean to say, you know how important first impressions are….’

The girl stared.

‘Lancelot Mulliner,’ she said, ‘if you think I’m going to skin my nose to the bone just to please a mangy cat—’

‘Sh!’ cried Lancelot, in agony.

‘Here, let me go down and look at him,’ said Gladys petulantly.

As they re-entered the studio, Webster was gazing with an air of quiet distaste at an illustration from La Vie Parisienne which adorned one of the walls. Lancelot tore it down hastily.

Gladys looked at Webster in an unfriendly way.

‘So that’s the blighter!’

‘Sh!’

‘If you want to know what I think,’ said Gladys, ‘that cat’s been living too high. Doing himself a dashed sight too well. You’d better cut his rations down a bit.’

In substance, her criticism was not unjustified. Certainly, there was about Webster more than a suspicion of embonpoint. He had that air of portly well-being which we associate with those who dwell in cathedral closes. But Lancelot winced uncomfortably. He had so hoped that Gladys would make a good impression, and here she was, starting right off by saying the tactless thing.

He longed to explain to Webster that it was only her way; that in the Bohemian circles of which she was such an ornament genial chaff of a personal order was accepted and, indeed, relished. But it was too late. The mischief had been done. Webster turned in a pointed manner and withdrew silently behind the chesterfield.

Gladys, all unconscious, was making preparations for departure.

‘Well, bung-oh,’ she said, lightly. ‘See you in three weeks. I suppose you and that cat’ll both be out on the tiles the moment my back’s turned.’

‘Please! Please!’ moaned Lancelot. ‘Please!’

He had caught sight of the tip of a black tail protruding from behind the chesterfield. It was twitching slightly, and Lancelot could read it like a book. With a sickening sense of dismay, he knew that Webster had formed a snap judgment of his fiancée and condemned her as frivolous and unworthy.

It was some ten days later that Bernard Worple, the neo-Vorticist sculptor, lunching at the Puce Ptarmigan, ran into Rodney Scollop, the powerful young surrealist. And after talking for a while of their art— ‘What’s all this I hear about Lancelot Mulliner?’ asked Worple. ‘There’s a wild story going about that he was seen shaved in the middle of the week. Nothing in it, I suppose?’

Scollop looked grave. He had been on the point of mentioning Lancelot himself, for he loved the lad and was deeply exercised about him.

‘It is perfectly true,’ he said.

‘It sounds incredible.’

Scollop leaned forward. His fine face was troubled.

‘Shall I tell you something, Worple?’

‘What?’

‘I know for an absolute fact,’ said Scollop, ‘that Lancelot Mulliner now shaves every morning.’

Worple pushed aside the spaghetti which he was wreathing about him and through the gap stared at his companion.

‘Every morning?’

‘Every single morning. I looked in on him myself the other day, and there he was, neatly dressed in blue serge and shaved to the core. And, what is more, I got the distinct impression that he had used talcum powder afterwards.’

‘You don’t mean that!’

‘I do. And shall I tell you something else? There was a book lying open on the table. He tried to hide it, but he wasn’t quick enough. It was one of those etiquette books!’

‘An etiquette book!’

‘“Polite Behaviour”, by Constance, Lady Bodbank.’

Worple unwound a stray tendril of spaghetti from about his left ear. He was deeply agitated. Like Scollop, he loved Lancelot.

‘He’ll be dressing for dinner next!’ he exclaimed.

‘I have every reason to believe,’ said Scollop gravely, ‘that he does dress for dinner. At any rate, a man closely resembling him was seen furtively buying three stiff collars and a black tie at Hope Brothers in the King’s Road last Tuesday.’

Worple pushed his chair back, and rose. His manner was determined.

‘Scollop,’ he said, ‘we are friends of Mulliner’s, you and I. It is evident from what you tell me that subversive influences are at work and that never has he needed our friendship more. Shall we not go round and see him immediately?’

‘It was what I was about to suggest myself,’ said Rodney Scollop.

Twenty minutes later they were in Lancelot’s studio, and with a significant glance Scollop drew his companion’s notice to their host’s appearance. Lancelot Mulliner was neatly, even foppishly, dressed in blue serge with creases down the trouser-legs, and his chin, Worple saw with a pang, gleamed smoothly in the afternoon light.

At the sight of his friends’ cigars, Lancelot exhibited unmistakable concern.

‘You don’t mind throwing those away, I’m sure,’ he said pleadingly.

Rodney Scollop drew himself up a little haughtily.

‘And since when,’ he asked, ‘have the best fourpenny cigars in Chelsea not been good enough for you?’

Lancelot hastened to soothe him.

‘It isn’t me,’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s Webster. My cat. I happen to know he objects to tobacco smoke. I had to give up my pipe in deference to his views.’

Bernard Worple snorted.

‘Are you trying to tell us,’ he sneered, ‘that Lancelot Mulliner allows himself to be dictated to by a blasted cat?’

‘Hush!’ cried Lancelot, trembling. ‘If you knew how he disapproves of strong language!’

‘Where is this cat?’ asked Rodney Scollop. ‘Is that the animal?’ he said,, pointing out of the window to where, in the yard, a tough-looking Tom with tattered ears stood mewing in a hard-boiled way out of the corner of its mouth.

‘Good heavens, no!’ said Lancelot. ‘That is an alley cat which comes round here from time to time to lunch at the dust-bin. Webster is quite different. Webster has a natural dignity and repose of manner. Webster is a cat who prides himself on always being well turned out and whose high principles and lofty ideals shine from his eyes like beacon-fires….’ And then suddenly, with an abrupt change of manner, Lancelot broke down and in a low voice added: ‘Curse him! Curse him! Curse him! Curse him!’

Worple looked at Scollop. Scollop looked at Worple.

‘Come, old man,’ said Scollop, laying a gentle hand on Lancelot’s bowed shoulder. ‘We are your friends. Confide in us.

‘Tell us all,’ said Worple. ‘What’s the matter?’

Lancelot uttered a bitter, mirthless laugh.

‘You want to know what’s the matter? Listen, then. I’m cat-pecked!’

‘Cat-pecked?’

‘You’ve heard of men being hen-pecked, haven’t you?’ said Lancelot with a touch of irritation. ‘Well, I’m cat-pecked.’

And in broken accents he told his story. He sketched the history of his association with Webster from the letter’s first entry into the studio. Confident now that the animal was not within earshot, he unbosomed himself without reserve.

‘It’s something in the beast’s eye,’ he said in a shaking voice. ‘Something hypnotic. He casts a spell upon me. He gazes at me and disapproves. Little by little, bit by bit, I am degenerating under his influence from a wholesome, self-respecting artist into… well, I don’t know what you would call it. Suffice it to say that I have given up smoking, that I have ceased to wear carpet slippers and go about without a collar, that I never dream of sitting down to my frugal evening meal without dressing, and’ — he choked — ‘I have sold my ukulele.’

‘Not that!’ said Worple, paling.

‘Yes,’ said Lancelot. ‘I felt he considered it frivolous.’

There was a long silence.

‘Mulliner,’ said Scollop, ‘this is more serious than I had supposed. We must brood upon your case.’

‘It may be possible,’ said Worple, ‘to find a way out.’

Lancelot shook his head hopelessly.

‘There is no way out. I have explored every avenue. The only thing that could possibly free me from this intolerable bondage would, be if once —just once — I could catch that cat unbending. If once — merely once — it would lapse in my presence from its austere dignity for but a single instant, I feel that the spell would be broken. But what hope is there of that?’ cried Lancelot passionately. ‘You were pointing just now to that alley cat in the yard. There stands one who has strained every nerve and spared no effort to break down Webster’s inhuman self-control. I have heard that animal say things to him which you would think no cat with red blood in its veins would suffer for an instant. And, Webster merely looks at him like a Suffragan Bishop eyeing an erring choir-boy and turns his head and falls into a refreshing sleep.’

He broke off with a dry sob. Worple, always an optimist, attempted in his kindly way to minimize the tragedy.

‘Ah, well,’ he said. ‘It’s bad, of course, but still, I suppose there no actual harm in shaving and dressing for dinner and so on. Many great artists… Whistler, for example—’

‘Wait!’ cried Lancelot. ‘You have not heard the worst.’

He rose feverishly, and, going to the easel, disclosed the portrait of Brenda Carberry-Pirbright.

‘Take a look at that,’ he said, ‘and tell me what you think of her.’

His two friends surveyed the face before them in silence. Miss Carberry-Pirbright was a young woman of prim and glacial aspect. One sought in vain for her reasons for wanting to have her portrait painted. It would be a most unpleasant thing to have about any house.

Scollop broke the silence.

‘Friend of yours?’

‘I can’t stand the sight of her,’ said Lancelot vehemently.

‘Then,’ said Scollop, ‘I may speak frankly. I think she’s a pill.’

‘A blister,’ said Worple.

‘A boil and a disease,’ said Scollop, summing up.

Lancelot laughed hackingly.

‘You have described her to a nicety. She stands for everything most alien to my artist soul. She gives me a pain in the neck. I’m going to marry her.’

‘What!’ cried Scollop.

‘But you’re going to marry Gladys Bingley,’ said Worple.

‘Webster thinks not,’ said Lancelot bitterly. ‘At their first meeting he weighed Gladys in the balance and found her wanting. And the moment he saw Brenda Carberry-Pirbright he stuck his tail up at right angles, uttered a cordial gargle, and rubbed his head against her leg. Then, turning, he looked at me. I could read that glance. I knew what was in his mind. From that moment he has been doing everything in his power to arrange the match.’

‘But, Mulliner,’ said Worple, always eager to point out the bright side, ‘why should this girl want to marry a wretched, scrubby, hard-up footler like you? Have courage, Mulliner. It is simply a question of time before you repel and sicken her.’

Lancelot shook his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You speak like a true friend, Worple, but you do not understand,. Old Ma Carberry-Pirbright, this exhibit’s mother, who chaperons her at the sittings, discovered at an early date my relationship to my Uncle Theodore, who, as you know, has got it in gobs. She knows well enough that some day I shall be a rich man. She used to know my Uncle Theodore when he was Vicar of St Botolph’s in Knightsbridge, and from the very first she assumed towards me the repellent chumminess of an old family friend. She was always trying to lure me to her At Homes, her Sunday luncheons, her little dinners. Once she actually suggested that I should escort her and her beastly daughter to the Royal Academy.’

He laughed bitterly. The mordant witticisms of Lancelot Mulliner at the expense of the Royal Academy were quoted from Tite Street in the south to Holland Park in the north and eastward as far as Bloomsbury.

‘To all these overtures,’ resumed Lancelot, ‘I remained firmly unresponsive. My attitude was from the start one of frigid aloofness. I did not actually say in so many words that I would rather be dead in a ditch than at one of her At Homes, but my manner indicated it. And I was just beginning to think I had choked her off when in crashed Webster and upset everything. Do you know how many times I have been to that infernal house in the last week? Five. Webster seemed to wish it. I tell you, I am a lost man.’

He buried his face in his hands. Scollop touched Worple on the arm, and together the two men stole silently out.

‘Bad!’ said Worple.

‘Very bad,’ said Scollop.

‘It seems incredible.’

‘Oh, no. Cases of this kind are, alas, by no means uncommon among those who, like Mulliner, possess to a marked degree the highly-strung, ultra-sensitive artistic temperament. A friend of mine, a rhythmical interior decorator, once rashly consented to put his aunt’s parrot up at his studio while she was away visiting friends in the north of England. She was a woman of strong evangelical views, which the bird had imbibed from her. It had a way of puffing its head on one side, making a noise like some one drawing a cork from a bottle, and asking my friend if he was saved. To cut a long story short, I happened to call on him a month later and he had installed a harmonium in his studio and was singing hymns, ancient and modern, in a rich tenor, while the parrot, standing on one leg on its perch, took the bass. Avery sad affair. We were all much upset about it.’

Worple shuddered.

‘You appal me, Scollop! Is there nothing we can do?’ Rodney Scollop considered for a moment. ‘We might wire Gladys Bingley to come home at once. She might possibly reason with the unhappy man. -A woman’s gentle influence… Yes, we could do that. Look in at the post office on your way home and send Gladys a telegram. I’ll owe you for my half of it.’

In the studio they had left, Lancelot Mulliner was staring dumbly at a black shape which had just entered the room. He had the appearance of a man with his back to the wall.

‘No!’ he was crying. ‘No! I’m dashed if I do!’ Webster continued to look at him.

‘Why should I?’ demanded Lancelot weakly. Webster’s gaze did not flicker.

‘Oh, all right,’ said Lancelot sullenly.

He passed from the room with leaden feet, and, proceeding upstairs, changed into morning clothes and a top hat. Then, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, he made his way to 11, Maxton Square, where Mrs Carberry-Pirbright was giving one of her intimate little teas (‘just a few friends’) to meet Clara Throckmorton Stooge, authoress of ‘A Strong Man’s Kiss’.



Gladys Bingley was lunching at her hotel in Antibes when Worple’s telegram arrived. It occasioned her the gravest concern.

Exactly what it was all about, she was unable to gather, for emotion had made Bernard Worple rather incoherent. There were moments, reading it, when she fancied that Lancelot had met with a serious accident; others when the solution seemed to be that he had sprained his brain to such an extent that rival lunatic asylums were competing eagerly for his custom; others, again, when Worple appeared to be suggesting that he had gone into partnership with his cat to start a harem. But one fact emerged clearly. Her loved one was in serious trouble of some kind, and his best friends were agreed that only her immediate return could save him.

Gladys did not hesitate. Within half an hour of the receipt of the telegram she had packed her trunk, removed a piece of asparagus from her right eyebrow, and was negotiating for accommodation on the first train going north.

Arriving in London, her first impulse was to go straight to Lancelot. But a natural feminine curiosity urged her, before doing so, to call upon Bernard Worple and have light thrown on some of the more abstruse passages in the telegram.

Worple, in his capacity of author, may have tended towards obscurity, but, when confining himself to the spoken word, he told a plain story well and clearly. Five minutes of his society enabled Gladys to obtain a firm grasp on the salient facts, and there appeared on her face that grim, tight-lipped expression which is seen only on the faces of fiancées who have come back from a short holiday to discover that their dear one has been straying in their absence from the straight and narrow path.

‘Brenda Carberry-Pirbright, eh?’ said Gladys, with ominous calm. ‘I’ll give him Brenda Carberry-Pirbright! My gosh, if one can’t go off to Antibes for the merest breather without having one’s betrothed getting it up his nose and starting to act like a Mormon Elder, it begins to look a pretty tough world for a girl.’

Kind-hearted Bernard Worple did his best.

‘I blame the cat,’ he said. ‘Lancelot, to my mind,, is more sinned against than sinning. I consider him to be acting under undue influence or duress.’

‘How like a man!’ said Gladys. ‘Shoving it all off on to an innocent cat!’

‘Lancelot says it has a sort of something in its eye.’

‘Well, when I meet Lancelot,’ said Gladys, ‘he’ll find that I have a sort of something in my eye.’

She went out, breathing flame quietly through her nostrils. Worple, saddened, heaved a sigh and resumed his neo-Vorticist sculpting.

It was some five minutes later that Gladys, passing through Maxton Square on her way to Bott Street, stopped suddenly in her tracks. The sight she had seen was enough to make any fiancée do so.

Along the pavement leading to Number Eleven two figures were advancing. Or three, if you counted a morose-looking dog of a semi-Dachshund nature which preceded them, attached to a leash. One of the figures was that of Lancelot Mulliner, natty in grey herring-bone tweed and a new Homburg hat. It was he who held the leash. The other Gladys recognized from the portrait which she had seen on Lancelot’s easel as that modern Du Barry, that notorious wrecker of homes and breaker-up of love-nests, Brenda Carberry-Pirbright.

The next moment they had mounted the steps of Number Eleven, and had gone in to tea, possibly with a little music.

It was perhaps an hour and a half later that Lancelot, having wrenched himself with difficulty from the lair of the Philistines, sped homeward in a swift taxi. As always after an extended tête-à-tête with Miss Carberry-Pirbright, he felt dazed and bewildered, as if he had been swimming in a sea of glue and had swallowed a good deal of it. All he could think of dearly was that he wanted a drink and that the materials for that drink were in the cupboard behind the chesterfield in his studio.

He paid the cab and charged in with his tongue rattling dryly against his front teeth. And there before him was Gladys Bingley, whom he had supposed far, far away.

‘You!’ exclaimed Lancelot.

‘Yes, me!’ said Gladys.

Her long vigil had not helped to restore the girl’s equanimity. Since arriving at the studio she had had leisure to tap her foot three thousand, one hundred and forty-two times on the carpet, and the number of bitter smiles which had flitted across her face was nine hundred and eleven. She was about ready for the battle of the century.

She rose and faced him, all the woman in her flashing from her eyes.

‘Well, you Casanova!’ she said.

‘You who?’ said Lancelot.

‘Don’t say “Yoo-hoo!” to me!’ cried Gladys. ‘Keep that for your Brenda Carberry-Pirbrights. Yes, I know all about it, Lancelot Don Juan Henry the Eighth Mulliner! I saw you with her just now. I hear that you and she are inseparable. Bernard Worple says you said you were going to marry her.’

‘You mustn’t believe everything a neo-Vorticist sculptor tells you,’ quavered Lancelot.

‘I’ll bet you’re going back to dinner there to-night,’ said Gladys.

She had spoken at a venture, basing the charge purely on a possessive cock of the head which she had noticed in Brenda Carberry-Pirbright at their recent encounter. There, she had said to herself at the time, had gone a girl who was about to invite — or had just invited — Lancelot Mulliner to dine quietly and take her to the pictures afterwards. But the shot went home. Lancelot hung his head.

‘There was some talk of it,’ he admitted.

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Gladys.

Lancelot’s eyes were haggard.

‘I don’t want to go,’ he pleaded. ‘Honestly I don’t. But Webster insists.’

‘Webster!’

‘Yes, Webster. If I attempt to evade the appointment, he will sit in front of me and look at me.’

‘Tchah!’

‘Well, he will. Ask him for yourself.’

Gladys tapped her foot six times in rapid succession on the carpet, bringing the total to three thousand, one hundred and forty-eight. Her manner had changed and was now dangerously calm.

‘Lancelot Mulliner,’ she said, ‘you have your choice. Me, on the one hand, Brenda Carberry-Pirbright on the other. I offer you a home where you will be able to smoke in bed, spill the ashes on the floor, wear pyjamas and carpet-slippers all day and shave only on Sunday mornings. From her, what have you to hope? A house in South Kensington — possibly the Brompton Road — probably with her mother living with you. A life that will be one long round of stiff collars and tight shoes, of morning-coats and top hats.’

Lancelot quivered, but she went on remorselessly.

‘You will be at home on alternate Thursdays, and will be expected to hand the cucumber sandwiches. Every day you will air the dog, till you become a confirmed dog-airer. You will dine out in Bayswater and go for the summer to Bournemouth or Dinard. Choose well, Lancelot Mulliner! I will leave you to think it over. But one last word. If by seven-thirty on the dot you have not presented yourself at 6A, Garbidge Mews ready to take me out to dinner at the Ham and Beef, I shall know what to think and shall act accordingly.’

And brushing the cigarette ashes from her chin, the girl strode haughtily from the room.

‘Gladys!’ cried Lancelot.

But she had gone.



For some minutes Lancelot Mulliner remained where he was, stunned. Then, insistently, there came to him the recollection that he had not had that drink. He rushed to the cupboard and produced the bottle. He uncorked it, and was pouring out a lavish stream, when a movement on the floor below him attracted his attention.

Webster was standing there, looking up at him. And in his eyes was that familiar expression of quiet rebuke.

‘Scarcely what I have been accustomed to at the Deanery,’ he seemed to be saying.

Lancelot stood paralysed. The feeling of being bound hand and foot, of being caught in a snare from which there was no escape, had become more poignant than ever. The bottle fell from his nerveless fingers and rolled across the floor, spilling its contents in an amber river, but he was too heavy in spirit to notice it. With a gesture such as Job might have made on discovering a new boil, he crossed to the window and stood looking moodily out.

Then, turning with a sigh, he looked at Webster again — and, looking, stood spellbound.

The spectacle which he beheld was of a kind to stun a stronger man than Lancelot Mulliner. At first, he shrank from believing his eyes. Then, slowly, came the realization that what he saw was no mere figment of a disordered imagination. This unbelievable thing was actually happening.

Webster sat crouched upon the floor beside the widening pool of whisky. But it was not horror and disgust that had caused him to crouch. He was crouched because, crouching, he could get nearer to the stuff and obtain crisper action. His tongue was moving in and out like a piston. And then abruptly, for one fleeting instant, he stopped lapping and glanced up at Lancelot, and across his face there flitted a quick smile — so genial, so intimate, so full of jovial camaraderie, that the young man found himself automatically smiling back, and not only smiling but winking. And in answer to that wink Webster winked, too — a wholehearted, roguish wink that said as plainly as if he had spoken the words:

‘How long has this been going on?’

Then with a slight hiccough he turned back to the task of getting his quick before it soaked into the floor.

Into the murky soul of Lancelot Mulliner there poured a sudden flood of sunshine. It was as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. The intolerable obsession of the last two weeks had ceased to oppress him, and he felt a free man. At the eleventh hour the reprieve had come. Webster, that seeming pillar of austere virtue, was one of the boys, after all. Never again would Lancelot quail beneath his eye. He had the goods on him.

Webster, like the stag at eve, had now drunk his fill. He had left the pool of alcohol and was walking round in slow, meditative circles. From time to time he mewed tentatively, as if he were trying to say ‘British Constitution’. His failure to articulate the syllables appeared to tickle him, for at the end of each attempt he would utter a slow, amused chuckle. It was at about this moment that he suddenly broke into a rhythmic dance, not unlike the old Saraband.

It was an interesting spectacle, and at any other time Lancelot would have watched it raptly. But now he was busy at his desk, writing a brief note to Mrs Carberry-Pirbright, the burden of which was that if she thought he was coming within a mile of her foul house that night or any other night she had vastly underrated the dodging powers of Lancelot Mulliner.

And what of Webster? The Demon Rum now had him in an iron grip. A lifetime of abstinence had rendered him a ready victim to the fatal fluid. He had now reached the stage when geniality gives way to belligerence. The rather foolish smile had gone from his face, and in its stead there lowered a fighting frown. For a few moments he stood on his hind legs, looking about him for a suitable adversary: then, losing all vestiges of self-control, he ran five times round the room at a high rate of speed and, falling foul of a small footstool, attacked it with the utmost ferocity, sparing neither tooth nor claw.

But Lancelot did not see him. Lancelot was not there. Lancelot was out in Bott Street, hailing a cab.

‘6 A, Garbidge Mews, Fulham,’ said Lancelot to the driver.


By PG Wodehouse, From Mulliner Nights, 1933