INTO THE DANGERS OF A PUBLIC LIFE
"At what time is my meeting?" thought Mr. Lavender vaguely, gazing at the light filtering through the Venetian blind. "Blink!"
His dog, who was lying beside his bed gnawing a bone which with some presence of mind she had brought in, raised herself and regarded him with the innocence of her species. "She has an air of divine madness," thought Mr. Lavender, "which is very pleasing to me. I have a terrible headache." And seeing a bellrope near his hand he pulled it.
A voice said: "Yes, sir."
"I wish to see my servant, Joe Petty," said Lavender. "I shall not require any breakfast thank you. What is the population of High Barnet?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about, sir," answered the voice, which seemed to be that of his housekeeper; "but you can't see Joe; he's gone out with a flea in his ear. The idea of his letting you get your feet wet like that!
"How is this?" said Mr. Lavender. "I thought you were the chambermaid of the inn at High Barnet?"
"No, indeed," said Mrs. Petty soothingly, placing a thermometer in his mouth. "Smoke that a minute, sir. Oh! look at what this dog's brought in! Fie!" And taking the bone between thumb and finger she cast it out of the window; while Blink, aware that she was considered in the wrong, and convinced that she was in the right, spread out her left paw, laid her head on her right paw, and pressed her chin hard against it. Mrs. Petty, returning from the window, stood above her master, who lay gazing up with the thermometer jutting out through the middle of his moustache.
"I thought so!" she said, removing it; "a hundred and one. No getting up for you, sir! That Joe!"
"Mrs. Petty," said Mr. Lavender rather feebly, for his head pained him excessively, "bring me the morning papers."
"No, sir. The thermometer bursts at an an' ten. I'll bring you the doctor."
Mr. Lavender was about to utter a protest when he reflected that all public men had doctors.
"About the bulletin?" he said faintly.
"What?" ejaculated Mrs. Petty, whose face seemed to Mr. Lavender to have become all cheekbones, eyes, and shadows. Joe never said a about a bullet. Where? and however did you get it in?
"I did not say 'bullet in'," murmured Mr. Lavender closing his eyes! "I said bulletin. They have it."
At this mysterious sentence Mrs. Petty lifted her hands, and muttering the word "Ravin'!" hastened from the room. No sooner had she gone, however, than Blink, whose memory was perfect, rose, and going to the window placed her forepaws on the sill. Seeing her bone shining on the lawn below, with that disregard of worldly consequence which she shared with all fine characters, she leaped through. The rattle of the Venetian blind disturbed Mr. Lavender from the lethargy to which he had reverted. "Mr. John Lavender passed a good night," he thought, "but his condition is still critical." And in his disordered imagination he seemed to see people outside Tube stations, standing stock-still in the middle of the traffic, reading that bulletin in the evening papers. "Let me see," he mused, "how will they run?" To-morrow I shall be better, but not yet able to leave my bed; the day after to-morrow I shall have a slight relapse, and my condition will still give cause for anxiety; on the day following--What is that noise. For a sound like the whiffling of a wind through dry sticks combined with the creaking of a saw had, impinged on his senses. It was succeeded by scratching. "Blink!" said Mr. Lavender. A heartrending whine came from outside the door. Mr. Lavender rose and opened it. His dog came in carrying her bone, and putting it down by the bed divided her attention between it and her master's legs, revealed by the nightshirt which, in deference to the great Disraeli, he had never abandoned in favour of pyjamas. Having achieved so erect a posture Mr. Lavender, whose heated imagination had now carried him to the convalescent stage of his indisposition, felt that a change of air would do him good, and going to the window, leaned out above a lilac-tree.
"Mr. John Lavender," he murmured, "has gone to his seat to recuperate before resuming his public duties."
While he stood there his attention was distracted by a tall young lady of fine build and joyous colour, who was watering some sweet-peas in the garden of the adjoining castle: Naturally delicate, Mr. Lavender at once sought a jacket, and, having put it on, resumed his position at the window. He had not watched her more than two minutes before he saw that she was cultivating soil, and, filled with admiration, he leaned still further out, and said:
"My dear young madam, you are doing a great work."
Thus addressed, the young lady, who had those roving grey eyes which see everything and betoken a large nature not devoid of merry genius, looked up and smiled.
"Believe me," continued Mr. Lavender, "no task in these days is so important as the cultivation of the soil; now that we are fighting to the last man and the last dollar every woman and child in the islands should put their hands to the plough. And at that word his vision became feverishly enlarged, so that he seemed to see not merely the young lady, but quantities of young ladies, filling the whole garden.
"This," he went on, raising his voice, "is the psychological moment, the turning-point in the history of these islands. The defeat of our common enemies imposes on us the sacred duty of feeding ourselves once more. 'There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to----Oh!" For in his desire to stir his audience, Mr. Lavender had reached out too far, and losing foothold on his polished bedroom floor, was slipping down into the lilac-bush. He was arrested by a jerk from behind; where Blink, moved by this sudden elopement of her master, had seized him by the nightshirt tails, and was staying his descent.
"Is anything up?" said the young lady.
"I have lost my balance," thickly answered Mr. Lavender, whose blood was running to his head, which was now lower than his feet. "Fortunately, my dog seems to be holding me from behind. But if someone could assist her it would be an advantage, for I fear that I am slipping."
"Hold on!" cried the young lady. And breaking through the low privet hedge which separated the domains, she vanished beneath him with a low gurgling sound.
Mr. Lavender, who dared not speak again for fear that Blink, hearing his voice, might let go to answer, remained suspended, torn with anxiety about his costume. "If she comes in," he thought, "I shall die from shame. And if she doesn't, I shall die from a broken neck. What a dreadful alternative!" And he firmly grasped the most substantial lilac-boughs within his reach, listening with the ears of a hare for any sound within the room, in which he no longer was to any appreciable extent. Then the thought of what a public man should feel in his position came to his rescue. "We die but once," he mused; "rather than shock that charming lady let me seek oblivion." And the words of his obituary notice at once began to dance before his eyes. "This great public servant honoured his country no less in his death than in his life." Then striking out vigorously with his feet he launched his body forward. The words "My goodness!" resounded above him, as all restraining influence was suddenly relaxed; Mr. Lavender slid into the lilac-bush, turned heels over head, and fell bump on the ground. He lay there at full, length, conscious of everything, and especially of the faces of Blink and the young lady looking down on him from the window.
"Are you hurt?" she called.
"No," said Mr. Lavender, "that is--er--yes," he added, ever scrupulously exact.
"I'm coming down," said the young lady.
With a great effort Mr. Lavender arranged his costume, and closed his eyes. "How many lie like this, staring at the blue heavens!" he thought.
"Where has it got you?" said a voice; and he saw the young lady bending over him.
"'In the dorsal region, I think," said Mr. Lavender. "But I suffer more from the thought that I--that you--"
"That's all right," said the young lady; "I'm a V.A.D. It WAS a bump! Let's see if you can----" and taking his hands she raised him to a sitting posture. "Does it work?"
"Yes," said Mr. Lavender rather faintly.
"Try and stand," said the young lady, pulling.
Mr. Lavender tried, and stood; but no, sooner was he on his feet than she turned her face away. Great tears rolled down her cheeks; and she writhed and shook all over.
"Don't!" cried Mr. Lavender, much concerned. "I beg you not to cry. It's nothing, I assure you--nothing!" The young lady with an effort controlled her emotion, and turned her large grey eyes on him.
"The angelic devotion of nurses!" murmured Mr. Lavender, leaning against the wall of the house with his hand to his back. "Nothing like it has been seen since the world began."
"I shall never forget the sight!" said the young lady, choking.
Mr. Lavender, who took the noises she made for sobbing, was unutterably disturbed.
"I can't bear to see you distressed on my account," he said. "I am quite well, I assure you; look--I can walk!" And he started forth up the garden in his nightshirt and Norfolk jacket. When he turned round she was no longer there, sounds of uncontrollable emotion were audible from the adjoining garden. Going to the privet hedge, he looked aver. She was lying gracefully on the grass, with her face smothered in her hands, and her whole body shaking. "Poor thing!" thought Mr. Lavender. "No doubt she is one of those whose nerves have been destroyed by the terrible sights she has seen!" But at that moment the young lady rose and ran as if demented into her castle. Mr. Lavender stayed transfixed. "Who would not be ill for the pleasure of drinking from a cup held by her hand?" he thought. "I am fortunate to have received injuries in trying to save her from confusion. Down, Blink, down!"
For his dog, who had once more leaped from the window, was frantically endeavouring to lick his face. Soothing her, and feeling his anatomy, Mr. Lavender became conscious that he was not alone. An old lady was standing on the gardenpath which led to the front gate, holding in her hand a hat. Mr. Lavender sat down at once, and gathering his nightshirt under him, spoke as follows:
"There are circumstances, madam, which even the greatest public servants cannot foresee, and I, who am the humblest of them, ask you to forgive me for receiving you in this costume."
"I have brought your hat back," said the old lady with a kindling eye; "they told me you lived here and I was anxious to know that you and your dear dog were none the worse."
"Madam," replied Mr. Lavender, "I am infinitely obliged to you. Would you very kindly hang my hat up on the--er--weeping willow tree?"
At this moment a little white dog, who accompanied the old lady, began sniffing round Mr. Lavender, and Blink, wounded in her proprietary instincts, placed her paws at once on her master's shoulders, so that he fell prone. When he recovered a sitting posture neither the old lady nor the little dog were in sight, but his hat was hanging on a laurel bush. "There seems to be something fateful about this morning," he mused; "I had better go in before the rest of the female population----" and recovering his feet with difficulty, he took his hat, and was about to enter the house when he saw the young lady watching him from an upper window of the adjoining castle. Thinking to relieve her anxiety, he said at once:
"My dear young lady, I earnestly beg you to believe that such a thing never happens to me, as a rule."
Her face was instantly withdrawn, and, sighing deeply, Mr. Lavender entered the house and made his way upstairs. "Ah!" he thought, painfully recumbent in his bed once more, "though my bones ache and my head burns I have performed an action not unworthy of the traditions of public life. There is nothing more uplifting than to serve Youth and Beauty at the peril of one's existence. Humanity and Chivalry have ever been the leading characteristics of the British race;" and, really half-delirious now, he cried aloud: "This incident will for ever inspire those who have any sense of beauty to the fulfilment of our common task. Believe me, we shall never sheathe the sword until the cause of humanity and chivalry is safe once more."
Blink, ever uneasy about sounds which seemed to her to have no meaning, stood up on her hind legs and endeavoured to stay them by licking his face; and Mr. Lavender, who had become so stiff that he could not stir without great pain, had to content himself by moving his head feebly from side to side until his dog, having taken her fill, resumed the examination of her bone. Perceiving presently that whenever he began to-talk she began to lick his face, he remained silent, with his mouth open and his eyes shut, in an almost unconscious condition, from which he was roused by a voice saying:
"He is suffering from alcoholic poisoning."
The monstrous injustice of these words restored his faculties, and seeing before him what he took to be a large concourse of people--composed in reality of Joe Petty, Mrs. Petty, and the doctor--he thus addressed them in a faint, feverish voice:
"The pressure of these times, ladies and gentlemen, brings to the fore the most pushing and obstreperous blackguards. We have amongst us persons who, under the thin disguise of patriotism, do not scruple to bring hideous charges against public men. Such but serve the blood-stained cause of our common enemies. Conscious of the purity of our private lives, we do not care what is said of us so long as we can fulfil our duty to our country. Abstinence from every form of spirituous liquor has been the watchword of all public men since this land was first threatened by the most stupendous cataclysm which ever hung over the heads of a great democracy. We have never ceased to preach the need for it, and those who say the contrary are largely Germans or persons lost to a sense of decency." So saying, he threw off all the bedclothes, and fell back with a groan.
"Easy, easy, my dear sir!" said the voice.
"Have you a pain in your back?"
"I shall not submit," returned our hero, "to the ministrations of a Hun; sooner will I breathe my last."
"Turn him over," said the voice. And Mr. Lavender found himself on his face.
"Do you feel that?" said the voice.
Mr. Lavender answered faintly into his pillow:
"It is useless for you to torture me. No German hand shall wring from me a groan."
"Is there mania in his family?" asked the voice. At this cruel insult Mr. Lavender, who was nearly smothered, made a great effort, and clearing his mouth of the pillow, said:
"Since we have no God nowadays, I call the God of my fathers to witness that there is no saner public man than I."
It was, however, his last effort, for the wriggle he had given to his spine brought on a kind of vertigo, and he relapsed into unconsciousness.