Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
Mr. Scogan had been accommodated in a little canvas hut. Dressed
in a black skirt and a red bodice, with a yellow-and-red bandana
handkerchief tied round his black wig, he looked--sharp-nosed,
brown, and wrinkled--like the Bohemian Hag of Frith's Derby Day.
A placard pinned to the curtain of the doorway announced the
presence within the tent of "Sesostris, the Sorceress of
Ecbatana." Seated at a table, Mr. Scogan received his clients in
mysterious silence, indicating with a movement of the finger that
they were to sit down opposite him and to extend their hands for
his inspection. He then examined the palm that was presented
him, using a magnifying glass and a pair of horn spectacles. He
had a terrifying way of shaking his head, frowning and clicking
with his tongue as he looked at the lines. Sometimes he would
whisper, as though to himself, "Terrible, terrible!" or "God
preserve us!" sketching out the sign of the cross as he uttered
the words. The clients who came in laughing grew suddenly grave;
they began to take the witch seriously. She was a formidable-
looking woman; could it be, was it possible, that there was
something in this sort of thing after all? After all, they
thought, as the hag shook her head over their hands, after
all...And they waited, with an uncomfortably beating heart, for
the oracle to speak. After a long and silent inspection, Mr.
Scogan would suddenly look up and ask, in a hoarse whisper, some
horrifying question, such as, "Have you ever been hit on the head
with a hammer by a young man with red hair?" When the answer was
in the negative, which it could hardly fail to be, Mr. Scogan
would nod several times, saying, "I was afraid so. Everything is
still to come, still to come, though it can't be very far off
now." Sometimes, after a long examination, he would just
whisper, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," and
refuse to divulge any details of a future too appalling to be
envisaged without despair. Sesostris had a success of horror.
People stood in a queue outside the witch's booth waiting for the
privilege of hearing sentence pronounced upon them.
Denis, in the course of his round, looked with curiosity at this
crowd of suppliants before the shrine of the oracle. He had a
great desire to see how Mr. Scogan played his part. The canvas
booth was a rickety, ill-made structure. Between its walls and
its sagging roof were long gaping chinks and crannies. Denis
went to the tea-tent and borrowed a wooden bench and a small
Union Jack. With these he hurried back to the booth of
Sesostris. Setting down the bench at the back of the booth, he
climbed up, and with a great air of busy efficiency began to tie
the Union Jack to the top of one of the tent-poles. Through the
crannies in the canvas he could see almost the whole of the
interior of the tent. Mr. Scogan's bandana-covered head was just
below him; his terrifying whispers came clearly up. Denis looked
and listened while the witch prophesied financial losses, death
by apoplexy, destruction by air-raids in the next war.
"Is there going to be another war?" asked the old lady to whom he
had predicted this end.
"Very soon," said Mr. Scogan, with an air of quiet confidence.
The old lady was succeeded by a girl dressed in white muslin,
garnished with pink ribbons. She was wearing a broad hat, so
that Denis could not see her face; but from her figure and the
roundness of her bare arms he judged her young and pleasing. Mr.
Scogan looked at her hand, then whispered, "You are still
The young lady giggled and exclaimed, "Oh, lor'!"
"But you will not remain so for long," added Mr. Scogan
sepulchrally. The young lady giggled again. "Destiny, which
interests itself in small things no less than in great, has
announced the fact upon your hand." Mr. Scogan took up the
magnifying-glass and began once more to examine the white palm.
"Very interesting," he said, as though to himself--"very
interesting. It's as clear as day." He was silent.
"What's clear?" asked the girl.
"I don't think I ought to tell you." Mr. Scogan shook his head;
the pendulous brass ear-rings which he had screwed on to his ears
"Please, please!," she implored.
The witch seemed to ignore her remark. "Afterwards, it's not at
all clear. The fates don't say whether you will settle down to
married life and have four children or whether you will try to go
on the cinema and have none. They are only specific about this
one rather crucial incident."
"What is it? What is it? Oh, do tell me!"
The white muslin figure leant eagerly forward.
Mr. Scogan sighed. "Very well," he said, "if you must know, you
must know. But if anything untoward happens you must blame your
own curiosity. Listen. Listen." He lifted up a sharp, claw-
nailed forefinger. "This is what the fates have written. Next
Sunday afternoon at six o'clock you will be sitting on the second
stile on the footpath that leads from the church to the lower
road. At that moment a man will appear walking along the
footpath." Mr. Scogan looked at her hand again as though to
refresh his memory of the details of the scene. "A man," he
repeated--"a small man with a sharp nose, not exactly good
looking nor precisely young, but fascinating." He lingered
hissingly over the word. "He will ask you, 'Can you tell me the
way to Paradise?' and you will answer, 'Yes, I'll show you,' and
walk with him down towards the little hazel copse. I cannot read
what will happen after that." There was a silence.
"Is it really true?" asked white muslin.
The witch gave a shrug of the shoulders. "I merely tell you what
I read in your hand. Good afternoon. That will be sixpence.
Yes, I have change. Thank you. Good afternoon."
Denis stepped down from the bench; tied insecurely and crookedly
to the tentpole, the Union Jack hung limp on the windless air.
"If only I could do things like that!" he thought, as he carried
the bench back to the tea-tent.
Anne was sitting behind a long table filling thick white cups
from an urn. A neat pile of printed sheets lay before her on the
table. Denis took one of them and looked at it affectionately.
It was his poem. They had printed five hundred copies, and very
nice the quarto broadsheets looked.
"Have you sold many?" he asked in a casual tone.
Anne put her head on one side deprecatingly. "Only three so far,
I'm afraid. But I'm giving a free copy to everyone who spends
more than a shilling on his tea. So in any case it's having a
Denis made no reply, but walked slowly away. He looked at the
broadsheet in his hand and read the lines to himself relishingly
as he walked along:
"This day of roundabouts and swings,
Struck weights, shied cocoa-nuts, tossed rings,
Switchbacks, Aunt Sallies, and all such small
High jinks--you call it ferial?
A holiday? But paper noses
Sniffed the artificial roses
Of round Venetian cheeks through half
Each carnival year, and masks might laugh
At things the naked face for shame
Would blush at--laugh and think no blame.
A holiday? But Galba showed
Elephants on an airy road;
Jumbo trod the tightrope then,
And in the circus armed men
Stabbed home for sport and died to break
Those dull imperatives that make
A prison of every working day,
Where all must drudge and all obey.
Sing Holiday! You do not know
How to be free. The Russian snow
flowered with bright blood whose roses spread
Petals of fading, fading red
That died into the snow again,
Into the virgin snow; and men
From all ancient bonds were freed.
Old law, old custom, and old creed,
Old right and wrong there bled to death;
The frozen air received their breath,
A little smoke that died away;
And round about them where they lay
The snow bloomed roses. Blood was there
A red gay flower and only fair.
Sing Holiday! Beneath the Tree
Of Innocence and Liberty,
Paper Nose and Red Cockade
Dance within the magic shade
That makes them drunken, merry, and strong
To laugh and sing their ferial song:
But Echo answers
Faintly to the laughing dancers,
'Free'--and faintly laughs, and still,
Within the hollows of the hill,
Faintlier laughs and whispers, 'Free,'
'Free,' and laughter faints away...
Sing Holiday! Sing Holiday!"
He folded the sheet carefully and put it in his pocket. The
thing had its merits. Oh, decidedly, decidedly! But how
unpleasant the crowd smelt! He lit a cigarette. The smell of
cows was preferable. He passed through the gate in the park wall
into the garden. The swimming-pool was a centre of noise and
"Second Heat in the Young Ladies' Championship." It was the
polite voice of Henry Wimbush. A crowd of sleek, seal-like
figures in black bathing-dresses surrounded him. His grey bowler
hat, smooth, round, and motionless in the midst of a moving sea,
was an island of aristocratic calm.
Holding his tortoise-shell-rimmed pince-nez an inch or two in
front of his eyes, he read out names from a list.
"Miss Dolly Miles, Miss Rebecca Balister, Miss Doris Gabell..."
Five young persons ranged themselves on the brink. From their
seats of honour at the other end of the pool, old Lord Moleyn and
Mr. Callamay looked on with eager interest.
Henry Wimbush raised his hand. There was an expectant silence.
"When I say 'Go,' go. Go!" he said. There was an almost
Denis pushed his way through the spectators. Somebody plucked
him by the sleeve; he looked down. It was old Mrs. Budge.
"Delighted to see you again, Mr. Stone," she said in her rich,
husky voice. She panted a little as she spoke, like a short-
winded lap-dog. It was Mrs. Budge who, having read in the "Daily
Mirror" that the Government needed peach stones--what they needed
them for she never knew--had made the collection of peach stones
her peculiar "bit" of war work. She had thirty-six peach trees
in her walled garden, as well as four hot-houses in which trees
could be forced, so that she was able to eat peaches practically
the whole year round. In 1916 she ate 4200 peaches, and sent the
stones to the Government. In 1917 the military authorities
called up three of her gardeners, and what with this and the fact
that it was a bad year for wall fruit, she only managed to eat
2900 peaches during that crucial period of the national
destinies. In 1918 she did rather better, for between January
1st and the date of the Armistice she ate 3300 peaches. Since
the Armistice she had relaxed her efforts; now she did not eat
more than two or three peaches a day. Her constitution, she
complained, had suffered; but it had suffered for a good cause.
Denis answered her greeting by a vague and polite noise.
"So nice to see the young people enjoying themselves," Mrs. Budge
went on. "And the old people too, for that matter. Look at old
Lord Moleyn and dear Mr. Callamay. Isn't it delightful to see
the way they enjoy themselves?"
Denis looked. He wasn't sure whether it was so very delightful
after all. Why didn't they go and watch the sack races? The two
old gentlemen were engaged at the moment in congratulating the
winner of the race; it seemed an act of supererogatory
graciousness; for, after all, she had only won a heat.
"Pretty little thing, isn't she?" said Mrs. Budge huskily, and
panted two or three times.
"Yes," Denis nodded agreement. Sixteen, slender, but nubile, he
said to himself, and laid up the phrase in his memory as a happy
one. Old Mr. Callamay had put on his spectacles to congratulate
the victor, and Lord Moleyn, leaning forward over his walking-
stick, showed his long ivory teeth, hungrily smiling.
"Capital performance, capital," Mr. Callamay was saying in his
The victor wriggled with embarrassment. She stood with her hands
behind her back, rubbing one foot nervously on the other. Her
wet bathing-dress shone, a torso of black polished marble.
"Very good indeed," said Lord Moleyn. His voice seemed to come
from just behind his teeth, a toothy voice. It was as though a
dog should suddenly begin to speak. He smiled again, Mr.
Callamay readjusted his spectacles.
"When I say 'Go,' go. Go!"
Splash! The third heat had started.
"Do you know, I never could learn to swim," said Mrs. Budge.
"But I used to be able to float."
Denis imagined her floating--up and down, up and down on a great
green swell. A blown black bladder; no, that wasn't good, that
wasn't good at all. A new winner was being congratulated. She
was atrociously stubby and fat. The last one, long and
harmoniously, continuously curved from knee to breast, had been
an Eve by Cranach; but this, this one was a bad Rubens.
"...go--go--go!" Henry Wimbush's polite level voice once more
pronounced the formula. Another batch of young ladies dived in.
Grown a little weary of sustaining a conversation with Mrs.
Budge, Denis conveniently remembered that his duties as a steward
called him elsewhere. He pushed out through the lines of
spectators and made his way along the path left clear behind
them. He was thinking again that his soul was a pale, tenuous
membrane, when he was startled by hearing a thin, sibilant voice,
speaking apparently from just above his head, pronounce the
single word "Disgusting!"
He looked up sharply. The path along which he was walking passed
under the lee of a wall of clipped yew. Behind the hedge the
ground sloped steeply up towards the foot of the terrace and the
house; for one standing on the higher ground it was easy to look
over the dark barrier. Looking up, Denis saw two heads
overtopping the hedge immediately above him. He recognised the
iron mask of Mr. Bodiham and the pale, colourless face of his
wife. They were looking over his head, over the heads of the
spectators, at the swimmers in the pond.
"Disgusting!" Mrs. Bodiham repeated, hissing softly.
The rector turned up his iron mask towards the solid cobalt of
the sky. "How long?" he said, as though to himself; "how long?"
He lowered his eyes again, and they fell on Denis's upturned
curious face. There was an abrupt movement, and Mr. and Mrs.
Bodiham popped out of sight behind the hedge.
Denis continued his promenade. He wandered past the merry-go-
round, through the thronged streets of the canvas village; the
membrane of his soul flapped tumultuously in the noise and
laughter. In a roped-off space beyond, Mary was directing the
children's sports. Little creatures seethed round about her,
making a shrill, tinny clamour; others clustered about the skirts
and trousers of their parents. Mary's face was shining in the
heat; with an immense output of energy she started a three-legged
race. Denis looked on in admiration.
"You're wonderful," he said, coming up behind her and touching
her on the arm. "I've never seen such energy."
She turned towards him a face, round, red, and honest as the
setting sun; the golden bell of her hair swung silently as she
moved her head and quivered to rest.
"Do you know, Denis," she said, in a low, serious voice, gasping
a little as she spoke--"do you know that there's a woman here who
has had three children in thirty-one months?"
"Really," said Denis, making rapid mental calculations.
"It's appalling. I've been telling her about the Malthusian
League. One really ought..."
But a sudden violent renewal of the metallic yelling announced
the fact that somebody had won the race. Mary became once more
the centre of a dangerous vortex. It was time, Denis thought, to
move on; he might be asked to do something if he stayed too long.
He turned back towards the canvas village. The thought of tea
was making itself insistent in his mind. Tea, tea, tea. But the
tea-tent was horribly thronged. Anne, with an unusual expression
of grimness on her flushed face, was furiously working the handle
of the urn; the brown liquid spurted incessantly into the
proffered cups. Portentous, in the farther corner of the tent,
Priscilla, in her royal toque, was encouraging the villagers. In
a momentary lull Denis could hear her deep, jovial laughter and
her manly voice. Clearly, he told himself, this was no place for
one who wanted tea. He stood irresolute at the entrance to the
tent. A beautiful thought suddenly came to him; if he went back
to the house, went unobtrusively, without being observed, if he
tiptoed into the dining-room and noiselessly opened the little
doors of the sideboard--ah, then! In the cool recess within he
would find bottles and a siphon; a bottle of crystal gin and a
quart of soda water, and then for the cups that inebriate as well
A minute later he was walking briskly up the shady yew-tree walk.
Within the house it was deliciously quiet and cool. Carrying his
well-filled tumbler with care, he went into the library. There,
the glass on the corner of the table beside him, he settled into
a chair with a volume of Sainte-Beuve. There was nothing, he
found, like a Causerie du Lundi for settling and soothing the
troubled spirits. That tenuous membrane of his had been too
rudely buffeted by the afternoon's emotions; it required a rest.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.