In the year ---- there dwelt on Hampstead Heath a small thin gentleman of fifty-eight, gentle disposition, and independent means, whose wits had become somewhat addled from reading the writings and speeches of public men. The castle which, like every Englishman, he inhabited was embedded in lilac bushes and laburnums, and was attached to another castle, embedded, in deference to our national dislike of uniformity, in acacias and laurustinus. Our gentleman, whose name was John Lavender, had until the days of the Great War passed one of those curious existences are sometimes to be met with, in doing harm to nobody. He had been brought up to the Bar, but like most barristers had never practised, and had spent his time among animals and the wisdom of the past. At the period in which this record opens he owned a young female sheep-dog called Blink, with beautiful eyes obscured by hair; and was attended to by a thin and energetic housekeeper, in his estimation above all weakness, whose name was Marian Petty, and by her husband, his chauffeur, whose name was Joe.
It was the ambition of our hero to be, like all public men, without fear and without reproach. He drank not, abstained from fleshly intercourse, and habitually spoke the truth. His face was thin, high cheek-boned, and not unpleasing, with one loose eyebrow over which he had no control; his eyes, bright and of hazel hue, looked his fellows in the face without seeing what was in it. Though his moustache was still dark, his thick waving hair was permanently white, for his study was lined from floor to ceiling with books, pamphlets, journals, and the recorded utterances of great mouths. He was of a frugal habit, ate what was put before him without question, and if asked what he would have, invariably answered: "What is there?" without listening to the reply. For at mealtimes it was his custom to read the writings of great men.
"Joe," he would say to his chauffeur, who had a slight limp, a green wandering eye, and a red face, with a rather curved and rather redder nose, "You must read this."
And Joe would answer:
"Which one is that, sir?"
"Hummingtop; a great man, I think, Joe."
"A brainy chap, right enough, sir."
"He has done wonders for the country. Listen to this." And Mr. Lavender would read as follows: "If I had fifty sons I would give them all. If I had forty daughters they should nurse and scrub and weed and fill shells; if I had thirty country-houses they should all be hospitals; if I had twenty pens I would use them all day long; if had ten voices they should never cease to inspire and aid my country."
"If 'e had nine lives," interrupted Joe, with a certain suddenness, "'e'd save the lot."
Mr. Lavender lowered the paper.
"I cannot bear cynicism, Joe; there is no quality so unbecoming to a gentleman."
"Me and 'im don't put in for that, sir."
"Joe, Mr. Lavender would say you are, incorrigible...."
Our gentleman, in common with all worthy of the name, had a bank-book, which, in hopes that it would disclose an unsuspected balance, he would have "made up" every time he read an utterance exhorting people to invest and save their country.
One morning at the end of May, finding there was none, he called in his housekeeper and said:
"Mrs. Petty, we are spending too much; we have again been exhorted to save. Listen! 'Every penny diverted from prosecution of the war is one more spent in the interests of the enemies of mankind. No patriotic person, I am confident; will spend upon him or herself a stiver which could be devoted to the noble ends so near to all our hearts. Let us make every spare copper into bullets to strengthen the sinews of war!' A great speech. What can we do without?"
"The newspapers, sir."
"Don't be foolish, Mrs. Petty. From what else could we draw our inspiration and comfort in these terrible days?"
Mrs. Petty sniffed. "Well, you can't eat less than you do," she said; "but you might stop feedin' Blink out of your rations--that I do think."
"I have not found that forbidden as yet in any public utterance," returned Mr. Lavender; "but when the Earl of Betternot tells us to stop, I shall follow his example, you may depend on that. The country comes before everything." Mrs. Petty tossed her head and murmured darkly--
"Do you suppose he's got an example, Sir?"
"Mrs. Petty," replied Mr. Lavender, "that is quite unworthy of you. But, tell me, what can we do without?"
"I could do without Joe," responded Mrs. Petty, "now that you're not using him as chauffeur."
"Please be serious. Joe is an institution; besides, I am thinking of offering myself to the Government as a speaker now that we may use gas."
"Ah!" said Mrs. Petty.
"I am going down about it to-morrow."
"I feel my energies are not fully employed."
"By the way, there was a wonderful leader on potatoes yesterday. We must dig up the garden. Do you know what the subsoil is?"
"Brickbats and dead cats, I expect, sir."
"Ah! We shall soon improve that. Every inch of land reclaimed is a nail in the coffin of our common enemies."
And going over to a bookcase, Mr. Lavender took out the third from the top of a pile of newspapers. "Listen!" he said. "'The problem before us is the extraction of every potential ounce of food. No half measures must content us. Potatoes! Potatoes! No matter how, where, when the prime national necessity is now the growth of potatoes. All Britons should join in raising a plant which may be our very salvation.
"Fudge!" murmured Mrs. Petty.
Mr. Lavender read on, and his eyes glowed.
"Ah!" he thought, "I, too, can do my bit to save England.... It needs but the spark to burn away the dross of this terrible horse-sense which keeps the country back.
"Mrs. Petty!" But Mrs. Petty was already not.
* * * * * * *
The grass never grew under the feet of Mr. Lavender, No sooner had he formed his sudden resolve than he wrote to what he conceived to be the proper quarter, and receiving no reply, went down to the centre of the official world. It was at time of change and no small national excitement; brooms were sweeping clean, and new offices had arisen everywhere. Mr. Lavender passed bewildered among large stone buildings and small wooden buildings, not knowing where to go. He had bought no clothes since the beginning of the war, except the various Volunteer uniforms which the exigencies of a shifting situation had forced the authorities to withdraw from time to time; and his, small shrunken figure struck somewhat vividly on the eye, with elbows and knees shining in the summer sunlight. Stopping at last before the only object which seemed unchanged, he said:
"Can you tell me where the Ministry is?"
The officer looked down at him.
"For speaking about the country."
"Ministry of Propagation? First on the right, second door on the left."
"Thank you. The Police are wonderful."
"None of that," said the officer coldly.
"I only said you were wonderful."
"I 'eard you."
"But you are. I don't know what the country would do without you. Your solid qualities, your imperturbable bonhomie, your truly British tenderness towards----"
"Pass away!" said the officer.
"I am only repeating what we all say of you," rejoined Mr. Lavender reproachfully.
"Did you 'ear me say 'Move on,'" said the officer; "or must I make you an example?"
"YOU are the example," said Mr. Lavender warmly.
"Any more names," returned the officer, "and I take you to the station." And he moved out into the traffic. Puzzled by his unfriendliness Mr. Lavender resumed his search, and, arriving at the door indicated, went in. A dark, dusty, deserted corridor led him nowhere, till he came on a little girl in a brown frock, with her hair down her back.
"Can you tell me, little one----" he said, laying his hand on her head.
"Chuck it!" said the little girl.
"No, no!" responded Mr. Lavender, deeply hurt. "Can you tell me where I can find the Minister?"
"'Ave you an appointment?
"No; but I wrote to him. He should expect me."
"John Lavender. Here is my card."
"I'll tyke it in. Wyte 'ere!"
"Wonderful!" mused Mr. Lavender; "the patriotic impulse already stirring in these little hearts! What was the stanza of that patriotic poet?
"'Lives not a babe who shall not feel the pulse Of Britain's need beat wild in Britain's wrist. And, sacrificial, in the world's convulse Put up its lips to be by Britain kissed.'
"So young to bring their lives to the service of the country!"
"Come on," said the little girl, reappearing suddenly; "e'll see you."
Mr. Lavender entered a room which had a considerable resemblance to the office of a lawyer save for the absence of tomes. It seemed furnished almost exclusively by the Minister, who sat with knees crossed, in a pair of large round tortoiseshell spectacles, which did not, however, veil the keenness of his eyes. He was a man with close cropped grey hair, a broad, yellow, clean-shaven face, and thrusting grey eyes.
"Mr. Lavender," he said, in a raw, forcible voice; "sit down, will you?"
"I wrote to you," began our hero, "expressing the wish to offer myself as a speaker."
"Ah!" said the Minister. "Let's see--Lavender, Lavender. Here's your letter." And extracting a letter from a file he read it, avoiding with difficulty his tortoise-shell spectacles. "You want to stump the country? M.A., Barrister, and Fellow of the Zoological. Are you a good speaker?"
"If zeal---" began Mr. Lavender.
"That's it; spark! We're out to win this war, sir."
"Quite so," began Mr. Lavender. "If devotion----"
"You'll have to use gas," said the Minister; "and we don't pay."
"Pay!" cried Mr. Lavender with horror; "no, indeed!"
The Minister bent on him a shrewd glance.
"What's your line? Anything particular, or just general patriotism? I recommend that; but you'll have to put some punch into it, you know."
"I have studied all the great orators of the war, sir," said Mr. Lavender, "and am familiar with all the great writers on, it. I should form myself on them; and if enthusiasm----"
"Quite!" said the Minister. "If you want any atrocities we can give you them. No facts and no figures; just general pat."
"I shall endeavour----" began Mr. Lavender.
"Well, good-bye," said the Minister, rising. "When do you start?"
Mr. Lavender rose too. "To-morrow," he said, "if I can get inflated."
The Minister rang a bell.
"You're on your own, mind," he said. "No facts; what they want is ginger. Yes, Mr. Japes?"
And seeing that the Minister was looking over his tortoiseshell. spectacles at somebody behind him, Mr. Lavender turned and went out. In the corridor he thought, "What terseness! How different from the days when Dickens wrote his 'Circumlocution Office'! Punch!" And opening the wrong door, he found himself in the presence of six little girls in brown frocks, sitting against the walls with their thumbs in their mouths.
"Oh!" he said, "I'm afraid I've lost my way."
The eldest of the little girls withdrew a thumb.
"What d'yer want?"
"The door," said Mr. Lavender.
"Second on the right."
"Goodbye," said Mr. Lavender.
The little girls did not answer. And he went out thinking, "These children are really wonderful! What devotion one sees! And yet the country is not yet fully roused!"