Beasts and Super-Beasts/The Lull
“I’ve asked Latimer Springfield to spend Sunday with us and stop the night,” announced Mrs. Durmot at the breakfast-table.
“I thought he was in the throes of an election,” remarked her husband.
“Exactly; the poll is on Wednesday, and the poor man will have worked himself to a shadow by that time. Imagine what electioneering must be like in this awful soaking rain, going along slushy country roads and speaking to damp audiences in draughty schoolrooms, day after day for a fortnight. He’ll have to put in an appearance at some place of worship on Sunday morning, and he can come to us immediately afterwards and have a thorough respite from everything connected with politics. I won’t let him even think of them. I’ve had the picture of Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament taken down from the staircase, and even the portrait of Lord Rosebery’s ‘Ladas’ removed from the smoking-room. And Vera,” added Mrs. Durmot, turning to her sixteen-year-old niece, “be careful what colour ribbon you wear in your hair; not blue or yellow on any account; those are the rival party colours, and emerald green or orange would be almost as bad, with this Home Rule business to the fore.”
“On state occasions I always wear a black ribbon in my hair,” said Vera with crushing dignity.
Latimer Springfield was a rather cheerless, oldish young man, who went into politics somewhat in the spirit in which other people might go into half-mourning. Without being an enthusiast, however, he was a fairly strenuous plodder, and Mrs. Durmot had been reasonably near the mark in asserting that he was working at high pressure over this election. The restful lull which his hostess enforced on him was decidedly welcome, and yet the nervous excitement of the contest had too great a hold on him to be totally banished.
“I know he’s going to sit up half the night working up points for his final speeches,” said Mrs. Durmot regretfully; “however, we’ve kept politics at arm’s length all the afternoon and evening. More than that we cannot do.”
“That remains to be seen,” said Vera, but she said it to herself.
Latimer had scarcely shut his bedroom door before he was immersed in a sheaf of notes and pamphlets, while a fountain-pen and pocket-book were brought into play for the due marshalling of useful facts and discreet fictions. He had been at work for perhaps thirty-five minutes, and the house was seemingly consecrated to the healthy slumber of country life, when a stifled squealing and scuffling in the passage was followed by a loud tap at his door. Before he had time to answer, a much-encumbered Vera burst into the room with the question; “I say, can I leave these here?”
“These” were a small black pig and a lusty specimen of black-red gamecock.
Latimer was moderately fond of animals, and particularly interested in small livestock rearing from the economic point of view; in fact, one of the pamphlets on which he was at that moment engaged warmly advocated the further development of the pig and poultry industry in our rural districts; but he was pardonably unwilling to share even a commodious bedroom with samples of henroost and stye products.
“Wouldn’t they be happier somewhere outside?” he asked, tactfully expressing his own preference in the matter in an apparent solicitude for theirs.
“There is no outside,” said Vera impressively, “nothing but a waste of dark, swirling waters. The reservoir at Brinkley has burst.”
“I didn’t know there was a reservoir at Brinkley,” said Latimer.
“Well, there isn’t now, it’s jolly well all over the place, and as we stand particularly low we’re the centre of an inland sea just at present. You see the river has overflowed its banks as well.”
“Good gracious! Have any lives been lost?”
“Heaps, I should say. The second housemaid has already identified three bodies that have floated past the billiard-room window as being the young man she’s engaged to. Either she’s engaged to a large assortment of the population round here or else she’s very careless at identification. Of course it may be the same body coming round again and again in a swirl; I hadn’t thought of that.”
“But we ought to go out and do rescue work, oughtn’t we?” said Latimer, with the instinct of a Parliamentary candidate for getting into the local limelight.
“We can’t,” said Vera decidedly, “we haven’t any boats and we’re cut off by a raging torrent from any human habitation. My aunt particularly hoped you would keep to your room and not add to the confusion, but she thought it would be so kind of you if you would take in Hartlepool’s Wonder, the gamecock, you know, for the night. You see, there are eight other gamecocks, and they fight like furies if they get together, so we’re putting one in each bedroom. The fowl-houses are all flooded out, you know. And then I thought perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking in this wee piggie; he’s rather a little love, but he has a vile temper. He gets that from his mother – not that I like to say things against her when she’s lying dead and drowned in her stye, poor thing. What he really wants is a man’s firm hand to keep him in order. I’d try and grapple with him myself, only I’ve got my chow in my room, you know, and he goes for pigs wherever he finds them.”
“Couldn’t the pig go in the bathroom?” asked Latimer faintly, wishing that he had taken up as determined a stand on the subject of bedroom swine as the chow had.
“The bathroom?” Vera laughed shrilly. “It’ll be full of Boy Scouts till morning if the hot water holds out.”
“Yes, thirty of them came to rescue us while the water was only waist-high; then it rose another three feet or so and we had to rescue them. We’re giving them hot baths in batches and drying their clothes in the hot-air cupboard, but, of course, drenched clothes don’t dry in a minute, and the corridor and staircase are beginning to look like a bit of coast scenery by Tuke. Two of the boys are wearing your Melton overcoat; I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s a new overcoat,” said Latimer, with every indication of minding dreadfully.
“You’ll take every care of Hartlepool’s Wonder, won’t you?” said Vera. “His mother took three firsts at Birmingham, and he was second in the cockerel class last year at Gloucester. He’ll probably roost on the rail at the bottom of your bed. I wonder if he’d feel more at home if some of his wives were up here with him? The hens are all in the pantry, and I think I could pick out Hartlepool Helen; she’s his favourite.”
Latimer showed a belated firmness on the subject of Hartlepool Helen, and Vera withdrew without pressing the point, having first settled the gamecock on his extemporised perch and taken an affectionate farewell of the pigling. Latimer undressed and got into bed with all due speed, judging that the pig would abate its inquisitorial restlessness once the light was turned out. As a substitute for a cosy, straw-bedded sty the room offered, at first inspection, few attractions, but the disconsolate animal suddenly discovered an appliance in which the most luxuriously contrived piggeries were notably deficient. The sharp edge of the underneath part of the bed was pitched at exactly the right elevation to permit the pigling to scrape himself ecstatically backwards and forwards, with an artistic humping of the back at the crucial moment and an accompanying gurgle of long-drawn delight. The gamecock, who may have fancied that he was being rocked in the branches of a pine-tree, bore the motion with greater fortitude than Latimer was able to command. A series of slaps directed at the pig’s body were accepted more as an additional and pleasing irritant than as a criticism of conduct or a hint to desist; evidently something more than a man’s firm hand was needed to deal with the case. Latimer slipped out of bed in search of a weapon of dissuasion. There was sufficient light in the room to enable the pig to detect this manoeuvre, and the vile temper, inherited from the drowned mother, found full play. Latimer bounded back into bed, and his conqueror, after a few threatening snorts and champings of its jaws, resumed its massage operations with renewed zeal. During the long wakeful hours which ensued Latimer tried to distract his mind from his own immediate troubles by dwelling with decent sympathy on the second housemaid’s bereavement, but he found himself more often wondering how many Boy Scouts were sharing his Melton overcoat. The rôle of Saint Martin malgré lui was not one which appealed to him.
Towards dawn the pigling fell into a happy slumber, and Latimer might have followed its example, but at about the same time Stupor Hartlepooli gave a rousing crow, clattered down to the floor and forthwith commenced a spirited combat with his reflection in the wardrobe mirror. Remembering that the bird was more or less under his care Latimer performed Hague Tribunal offices by draping a bath-towel over the provocative mirror, but the ensuing peace was local and short-lived. The deflected energies of the gamecock found new outlet in a sudden and sustained attack on the sleeping and temporarily inoffensive pigling, and the duel which followed was desperate and embittered beyond any possibility of effective intervention. The feathered combatant had the advantage of being able, when hard pressed, to take refuge on the bed, and freely availed himself of this circumstance; the pigling never quite succeeded in hurling himself on to the same eminence, but it was not from want of trying.
Neither side could claim any decisive success, and the struggle had been practically fought to a standstill by the time that the maid appeared with the early morning tea.
“Lor, sir,” she exclaimed in undisguised astonishment, “do you want those animals in your room?”
The pigling, as though aware that it might have outstayed its welcome, dashed out at the door, and the gamecock followed it at a more dignified pace.
“If Miss Vera’s dog sees that pig – !” exclaimed the maid, and hurried off to avert such a catastrophe.
A cold suspicion was stealing over Latimer’s mind; he went to the window and drew up the blind. A light, drizzling rain was falling, but there was not the faintest trace of any inundation.
Some half-hour later he met Vera on the way to the breakfast-room.
“I should not like to think of you as a deliberate liar,” he observed coldly, “but one occasionally has to do things one does not like.”
“At any rate I kept your mind from dwelling on politics all the night,” said Vera.
Which was, of course, perfectly true.