A Choice of Mottoes
"... across the field of vision... " — Optician's Catalogue.
"Nothing doing." — Stock Exchange Bulletin.
"It is almost impossible to exclude truth altogether." — Observers Corner.
"The mixture as before." — J. H. Philpot.
Some of the people in this book
ANNIE. An adopted child.
BARBARA. An ourang-outang.
BEMERTON, Joseph. A second-hand bookseller.
CARSTAIRS, John. A recluse.
COLE, Miss. An arbiter.
DABNEY, Mr. A London editor.
DEVON, John. A novelist.
DIMMAGE, James. A carpenter.
"DIRECTOR, The." A folk-song enthusiast.
DRAX, Martha. An inmate of the Pink Almshouses.
DUCKIE, John. A waiter.
DUCKIE, Martha. His wife.
ENGLISHMAN, The. An Italian bathing man.
FALCONER, Kent. The narrator of this story.
FALCONER, Naomi. His wife.
FALCONER, Lavender (Nan). A mite.
FARRAR, Algernon. A young motorist of means.
FARRAR, Gwendolen. His wife.
FREELAND, Nancy. Robert Spanton's fiancée (for a time).
FURLEY, Sam. A maker of cinema films.
GOLDEN EAGLE, The. An innkeeper.
HARBERTON, Edith. Lynn Harberton's wife.
HARBERTON, Lynn. A rural dilettante, her husband.
HAYES, Eli & Jack. Ancient Morris dancers.
HEATHCOTE, Adolphus. A young man about town.
INGLESIDE, Ann. Engaged to Adolphus Heathcote.
INGLESIDE, Sir Gaston. A civil servant.
LACEY, Nathan. A good-natured man.
LEIGH, Starr. A novelist.
LOUISA. A Chimpanzee.
MITT, Miss Lydia. The Warden of the Pink Almshouses.
MUGGERIDGE, James. A pipe and tabor player.
MURCHISON, James. See Carstairs.
PACKER, Emma & Laura. Twins and landladies
RUDSON-WAYTE, Mr. A politician.
SANKVILLE, Matthew. A novelist.
SPANTON, Robert. A Socialist.
SPEYDE, William. A novelist.
STILL, Selina. An inmate of the Pink Almshouses.
SURELY, Jonah. A shepherd.
WILES, Mordecai. A keeper at the Zoo.
WILES, Susan. His wife.
WYNNE, Mrs. Frank. A mother.
In which a new home is found, and the status of
anthropoid apes is carefully determined.
HAVING once decided – very much against my will (such as it is) – to leave my old single rooms at Mrs. Duckie's, the question where to live was before us. Far enough away to make a good walk in fine weather, was a point, on, which Naomi insisted first of all, and, indeed, it, was, because Mrs. Duckie's house was too near Queen Anne's Gate that her hostility to it was so firm.
"It's no nearer than it was before we were married," I pointed out. "In fact, just the same distance."
"Yes," said Naomi, "and look how you suffered for want of exercise." (Did I?) "No, we must live farther away from it all. That's absolutely necessary."
By "it" she meant her father's house in particular; Pall Mall; and an area bounded by the Haymarket Theatre in the South, Kreisler and Casals in the North, and Bond Street in the West; but we were to be not so far as to be more than one and tenpence (the frugal young woman's limit, with twopence for the blackguard chauffeur) in a taxi; we were to have contiguity to an open space; nice rooms; and a comfortable landlady who could cook. For we agreed that we wanted no oven responsibilities of our own, although a chafing dish was to fortify the menu on occasion.
These were not very exacting conditions, and at 7 Primrose Terrace, close to Regent's Park, we found as complete an approximation as this vale of tears and disappointment is equal to offering, the rooms being large and just vacated by an old occupant with a very high standard of comfort: a self-protective gentleman of means whom the gods had, mercifully for us, visited with a nervous breakdown, making two years' travel in warmer climes an obligation. As that sententious amateur, Herbert Trist, says, "The art of life is to succeed a good tenant."
Our landlady is a twin – two sisters, the Misses Laura and Emma Packer, unmarried, very refined, fragile, and Victorian, who are assisted in the duties of the house by a worthy rotund woman named Mrs. Wiles. One of my earliest proceedings after becoming the tenant having been to take the steps necessary for election to a fellowship of the Zoological Society of London, you may judge of my satisfaction to learn that Mrs. Wiles' husband was no other than the head keeper of the ape house. Here was a friend at court who had it in his power to make even the Zoo more agreeable.
But, once again to prevent misunderstanding, let me remark that when we say ape – Mrs. Wiles and I – we mean ape and ape only. For there are, it seems, persons so lost to nice feelings and etymological exactitude that they speak of apes and monkeys indiscriminately as though they were the same, whereas, of course, monkeys are only monkeys – gibbering unreticent shameless travesties of the worst kind of man – while apes are without tails, and have a certain patient dignity, and lay serious claim to the attention of the theorizing biologist.
"No," said Mrs. Wiles, "not monkeys. Not Wiles. I don't say as how I am overjoiced when I meet a lady, as it might be Mrs. Johnson last evening, and after she has asked me what my husband does and I've told her he's an official in the employ of the Zoological Society, she says, 'Oh, a keeper, I suppose'; and when I say, severe like, 'A head keeper,' she says, as they all do, the same two things, sometimes one first and sometimes the other, but always the same – 'Oh, I hope it's not the monkey house,' and 'Could you possibly give me two tickets for next Sunday afternoon?'"
Mrs. Wiles now and then stops for breath, although, like most Londoners, she talks without apparently using any, and this, on our first exchange of confidences on the matter, enabled me to ask why she thought the monkey-house query was always propounded.
"I don't know," she said, "but I suppose it's because to most people the Zoo is monkeys first and foremost. It's the monkeys they want to see. But Wiles has nothing to do with monkeys, nothing whatever. Wiles has charge of the apes. I won't go so far as to say I don't sometimes wish it was lions or elephants, but this I will say, that, good husband as Wiles is, I don't think I could live with him if it was monkeys pure and simple – although how anyone can call them pure and simple, I can't think. Apes are different, aren't they, sir? Wiles says that apes are the next things to us. Wiles says they have brains and beautiful natures; but what gives me most peace of mind is knowing that they haven't got tails. Tails would be too much, as I often tell him. I've got a bit of writing about it which Wiles found in a dictionary, and if you'll permit me, sir, I'll bring it round and show it to you to-morrow morning. I always keep it in the Bible, handy."
Mrs. Wiles unfolded it the next morning and I read aloud these words: "In common use the word ape extends to all the tribe of monkeys and baboons, but in the zoological sense" ("Ah!" said Mrs. Wiles, smoothing her apron) "it is restricted to those higher organized species of the Linnaean genus Simla, which are destitute of a tail, as the ourangs, chimpanzees, and gibbons."
"There!" she said triumphantly, when I had finished.
Our opportunities for conversation with Mrs. Wiles come after breakfast, for it is one of her duties to clear away. Wiles and she appear to live close by, and she moves between the two houses, first getting Wiles his breakfast, packing him off to his apes, and "redding up" her own home; then locking her door and "redding up" the Misses Packers'; then returning to prepare Wiles's and her own dinner; and in the late afternoon returning to the Misses Packers' to help them with theirs and ours. Wonderful creatures, women! There is nothing done by men to put in the balance against such steady undeviating dreary mule-work as women cheerfully perform. At least, not in England. On the Continent you get something like it, in the small hotels where a man does everything; but not here – not in the land of public-houses.
The Misses Packer, our tutelary twins, although aware that in Mrs. Wiles they have a treasure, deprecate her volubility in our rooms. Like all consciously refined persons, they have no appreciation of character, and both Miss Laura and Miss Emma have separately apologized to us for their hireling's familiarity and hoped we will not allow her to impose upon our good nature. What is to be done with people like this? – and they are everywhere.
Miss Laura (who claims to be the older by half an hour, and has will power to justify the claim), although she has been in the lodging-house business for years and years, still affects to be ashamed of it. "I can't think what father would say if he could know what we were doing," is the burden of her life-song. "It's the last thing he would ever have wished his girls' to do – keep a lodging-house." The paternal Packer, it seems, was related distantly but sufficiently to a City Sheriff, and himself was for many years a highly respected messenger in one of the older London banks. In their more daring moments his daughters have, I believe, referred to him quite easily as a banker, or at any rate have permitted the impression that he had charge of huge sums of money (as indeed he had) to go uncorrected, with the suggestion added that events were at last too much for him, and, owing to financial depression, due to vague causes, of which an iniquitous Government was the chief, he came upon heavy losses and poverty. For anyone may have a father who was a business failure; but no real lady would confess to springing from a bank messenger's loins.
Miss Emma, although less assertive than her sister (as becomes one born so long after), bleats a sympathetic chorus to the lament; and to her sister's amazement at what father would say could he only see his girls in their degrading situation, has been known to remark, "But who knows? – perhaps he does see us!" thus calling up a picture of the vigilant bank messenger at one of heaven's loopholes with but this drop of bitterness – his daughters' decline from perfect ladyhood – in an eternal cup of bliss.
They are, however, good women, the Packer sisters, and one of them cooks excellently, and if some of God's creatures have brains like dried peas and no imagination at all, the best of us are not so very wonderful.
In which the four gentlemen above us obtain their characters and Primrose Terrace is rudely disturbed.
ONE of the first questions which I put to Mrs. Wiles referred very naturally to the other residents of the house. The twins had severally and collectively assured us that they offered hospitality to none but gentlemen, and that four of the nicest gentlemen living were at present under their roof; but the twins have no discrimination. To them a gentleman is a gentleman – that is to say, a trousered creature who lives on bacon, makes (compared with a lady) no trouble at all, and pays his rent. Mrs. Wiles has a more observant eye, and to her, therefore, I resorted for the finer shades. The house, it appears, has three floors and a basement. The first floor is ours; above are four rooms, two of which, at the back, belong to Mr. Lacey and the two in front to Mr. Furley; above these is the top floor with four more rooms, two of which in front belong to Mr. Carstairs and two at the back to Mr. Spanton.
Of all these, Mr. Carstairs most perplexes Mrs. Wiles, and Mr. Lacey most pleases her. Mr. Carstairs, whom she refers to as "a nermit," I occasionally see on the doorstep – a tall, stooping man, once handsome, with a face as profoundly sad as any of Mr. Wiles's charges. "He does nothing," says Mrs. Wiles. "Retired, I suppose. And no one ever comes to see him. But he's always polite and considerate."
What the gentleman has retired from, I gather, has been this many a day and night the question which has occupied the curiosity of the basement; since what is a basement without interest in floors? That there is a mystery is certain, for has he not those two damning provocations to suspicion – a profound reticence and an inner cupboard of which he keeps the key?
From what Naomi tells me of what Mrs. Wiles tells her, the desire of the basement and its particular friend, Miss Cole (who drops in pretty regularly for a cup of tea), to find the key of this cupboard left by accident in the lock amounts to a passion. If they only knew it, they are foolish; for compared with a closed cupboard, all the open cupboards in the world are negligible. Speculation is as much superior to certainty as anticipation to fruition.
Miss Cole, who is one of London's spinster rentièrs, with so little life of her own that other people's lives take the first place in her thoughts, and enough of an income to make her envied by her carefully chosen friends – chosen, as is too often our way, because they are humbler and capable of envy – darkly hints at crime itself, her simple line of reasoning being that no honest person has secrets.
But Mrs. Wiles has no patience with such suggestions. "A secret he may have," she says, "but there's no harm in it, I'll be bound. But that Miss Cole always thinks the worst."
"Of course she does, poor woman," I said. "How would she get on if she didn't?" and was promptly rebuked by Naomi for my cynicism.
But Mrs. Wiles, who is an old campaigner, only laughed. "I believe you're right, sir," she said. "We're a funny lot, aren't we?"
And there, perhaps, is as true an epitaph as human nature could get.
Mr. Spanton, who has the next room to Mr. Carstairs, is a young gentleman who calls himself a Socialist. "But do you think," Mrs. Wiles asks earnestly, "that Socialists ought to have silk pyjamas? And his toilet requisites: like a lady's! But quite civil and pleasant spoken, although rather too particular about his things, and sharp with you if you dust the pictures and leave them crooked, as who that is yuman can help doing?"
The Misses Packer evidently have a very soft place in their hearts for Mr. Spanton. "Such a fastidious gentleman, and of the best family. You can tell that by the places where he gets his clothes. All his hosiery from Bond Street itself, and Miss Cole, who is often in the West End of an afternoon, tells us that she has seen the shop, and the Royal arms are over it. How such a gentleman can talk about the country as he does, and take such an interest in the poor, is a marvel; but Miss Cole, who has a friend in the household at Buckingham Palace and hears all kinds of things, says that Socialism is quite a hobby with some of the aristocrats now. And look at Lady Warwick! Such a beautiful place as she has – Warwick Castle, where we went once with our dear father in a char-à-banc from Birmingham, when we were visiting his sister there. And Guy's Cliff, too, you know. And another day we were at Stratford-on-Avon and saw Miss Corelli's house. Such lovely window-boxes; and there, to think that Lady Warwick should be a Socialist!"
"Mr. Furley, in the first floor front, has a funny business," says Mrs. Wiles. "You'd never guess what it is. I gave Wiles three guesses and he didn't get near it – at least not nearer than conducting a matrimonial agency. He's a cinema gentleman. He makes picture plays for the theatres. Many's the ticket he's given Wiles and me to see his pieces free in the Tottenham Court Road. I love the cinema plays, especially the sad ones, but Wiles is all for the comics. It's funny we should have a cinema gentleman here now, isn't it, because before he came his rooms were occupied by a gentleman who wrote a real play – I mean a play for a real theatre. He gave us tickets too. Isn't that a coincidence – two gentlemen running who were able and willing to give tickets? I often tell people of it and laugh. It wasn't a bad play, either," Mrs. Wiles continued, "although there was rather too much talk in it and it ended unhappily. At any rate it didn't end with wedding bells, as I hold plays should."
When, however, I pointed out to her that life rarely ended there, but in a manner of speaking only began there – her own life, for example – she was forced to confess I was right.
"I never thought of that before," she said, but quickly added, with admirable sagacity, "Still, that's life, and plays are plays; and they've nothing whatever to do with each other, have they?
"But the nicest gentleman here," she went on, "is Mr. Lacey. Always full of his jokes, and so kind. Mr. Furley is kind too, but he doesn't think. Mr. Lacey's kindness is special to yourself, if you know what I mean. And you should see his rooms – they're just like a museum, and if I dare to lift so much as a piece of crumpled-up paper he's all over me. The things he calls me, you'd be astonished; but so different from Mr. Spanton. Mr. Spanton cuts, but Mr. Lacey says them in such a way that I only laugh; and yet if a stranger that didn't know his ways were to hear, they'd think it awful. The language! In a Court of Law they'd nearly hang him for it. But there, there's few things we say or do, I often think, as wouldn't get the rope round our necks in a Court of Law if the right kind of barrister gentleman asked the questions. It makes me shiver reading the cross-examinations."
How long she would have continued, I cannot say, had she not been interrupted by the sound of voices in the street, which proceeded from a comedy storm in which the part of Boreas was played by her hero, the first-floor-back. For Mr. Lacey, although normally genial and out for fun, has in reserve for injustice a hurricane temper which he keeps in some cave of the winds within his brain. It was this that we now witnessed in action from our open window. An organist, who was English and who had but one leg, had been playing for a few minutes to a delighted audience of children. The tune was "Every nice girl loves a sailor," which is, I believe, old, but as sound in melody as the sentiment which it conveys is sound in fact. Then suddenly a policeman had arrived and waved the musician to a less select neighbourhood. Lacey, who appears to have been watching from the door step, was in the theatre of war in a moment. From our private box we could hear everything.
"Why do you send this man away?" Lacey had evidently asked.
The policeman said that he had been requested by residents not to allow street music thereabouts.
"When?" Mr. Lacey inquired.
"Oh, at different times."
"Not this morning?"
"Very well, then, give the man his chance."
"It couldn't be done," said the policeman.
"It shall be done," said Lacey. "If anyone is to be arrested let it be me," and he told the organ-grinder to continue.
At this moment a resident came out of the opposite house, and, ignoring Lacey entirely, requested the constable to move the music on.
This was meat and drink to Lacey. He turned his back on the organ and the officer and settled down to action with the householder.
Why, might he ask, was the music to be moved on?
Because the householder objected to it.
Was anyone in the house ill?
And what was the householder's objections?
Such things were a nuisance and should not be permitted.
Had the householder noticed that the man had but one leg?
He had: but that was the man's affair. It had nothing to do with the case. He might, on the contrary, be a centipede for all the householder cared. The case merely was that Primrose Terrace was a quiet part, with rents accordingly, and one expected with reason to be exempt from organs.
"Very well," said Lacey. "Then understand that I too reside in Primrose Terrace and I like organs. If a sufficient number of unimaginative blockheads like yourself, who live here, decide against organs you can have a notice prohibiting them put up at the end of the street, like the other self-protective snobs all over London. But until you do, the organs shall come here, I promise you that. And you, constable," he said, turning to the policeman, "understand that I, a resident in Primrose Terrace, wish to hear street music."
"But I can't take orders from private persons," said the policeman.
"Good," said Mr. Lacey. "That's just what I wanted you to say. I shall now make it my business to see your inspector and inform him that you take orders from private persons for harrying the poor, but refuse them for encouraging the poor. Then we shall see where we are."
And, so saying, he handed the organ-grinder a shilling and walked off to the police station.
That is Lacey. Right or wrong, that is Lacey. But, as a matter of fact, fundamentally he is always right – although his idea of rightness and Society's idea do not agree.
I need hardly say that the result of Lacey's visit to the police station was the speedy erection of a notice-board forbidding street music; for he is rarely successful in his crusades. But the crusade is the thing: not the result of it.
In which a visit is paid to a red-haired lady and certain members of London's foreign population are enumerated.
ARMED with a message of introduction from Mrs. Wiles, I called on Mr. Wiles at his place of business. He is to be found under the New Ape House. You knock on the closed door opposite the King's Nepal exhibits, and as you stand there waiting for it to be opened the contemptible monkey house and the shameless prismatic mandril are on your left. By and by steps are heard on a stone passage and Mr. Wiles or his mate opens the door.
"Are you Mr. Wiles?" I asked.
He said he was, and I told him that I was Mr. Falconer, and our alliance was completed. Some friendships are made beforehand, and this was one of them.
He showed me his kitchen, where the food of these delicate exotic creatures is prepared, and then he led me to the little warm room where Barbara holds her court. She herself opened the door for us – a young clinging ourang-outang, red as Rufus, with quick sad eyes and restless hands and arms that could strangle a bull. These arms she flung round Mr. Wiles's neck and he carried her to the window.
"Wouldn't do for the missis to see too much of this," he said. "Women don't understand it. She's a brick, my missis, but, bless your heart, she'd carry on a treat if she found me and Barbara like this. The rum thing," he went on, "is that Barbara's a woman too. In fact, you can't be long in these Gardens without finding out how much alike we all are – us and them. As for babies, why, they ought to be here; and lots of grown-up people too. Makes you think a bit, you know." He lowered his voice. "It makes you think too much, almost. What I ask myself is this, What is a soul? Because, here's Barbara, here, hasn't got one, and I have; and as far as I can see, the only difference between us, after clothes, is that she can't talk and I can. But knowing! there's nothing she doesn't know and nothing she doesn't feel. She's as understanding as a Christian and much more affectionate than many of them. What I ask myself sometimes is, Why is Barbara in a cage and all these people out and about? or, Why aren't I in a cage and Barbara paying a bob to see me? It wants a bit of thinking. It isn't enough just to say, Because I'm a man and Barbara's an ourang-outang; because, who was it called me a man and Barbara an ourang-outang? Why, man did. That is to say, it's all going his way. But what do you suppose ourang-outangs call us? Ah! Suppose" – he lowered his voice to a whisper – "suppose ourang-outangs call themselves men and us apes! Wouldn't that be terrible? But nobody knows. Not even Dr. Chalmers Mitchell knows."
Barbara meanwhile sat absolutely motionless save that her eyes roved and her great jaws worked a little. It was enough for her that she was in Mr. Wiles's arms and he in hers.
"Look at her now," Mr. Wiles continued; "she's taking it all in. She knows what I'm saying. And another thing. The best in the land come to see her. The King and Queen are often here. Great scholars come, artists, authors. And they all make a fuss of her such as they wouldn't make of any human being outside their own families, and not them often. That's odd, isn't it? Makes you think there's something more in apes than you bargained for.
"The trouble is," he went on, "they're so delicate, ourang-outangs, and so are chimpanzees; in fact, all the larger apes. First it's bronchitis and then it's pneumonia. I've had so many pass through my hands – all dead now. Barbara's doing fairly well, but I dread the winter. I dare say you've heard of the famous performing chimpanzee – Consul? Seen him, perhaps? It might surprise you to know that there have been twenty-six Consuls since he first appeared. The public think it's the original one, but it's not. Twenty-six."
Whatever else I may have to do later in the day I manage to get to the Zoo for a little while every fine morning. Only thus can one obtain real intimacy with any of its inhabitants, whether they have souls or not. Only thus could I have become so close a friend of the wombat, that engaging stupid Australian with his broad, blunt, good-natured face. As the wombat lives on the north bank of the turgid dyke called the Regent's Canal, into which apathetic but sanguine Londoners drop bait all day with never a bite, and nursemaids drop surreptitious love-letters when they have read them a sufficient number of times, it is upon him that I pay one of my first calls, since it is by the Albert Road gate that I enter this attractive sanctuary: passing on my way Owls' Terrace, the solemn occupants of which are either reflecting so sagely upon life (far more sagely than anybody in Primrose Terrace) or are merely pretending to, no one will ever know which.
After the wombat I visit the capuchin (or sapajou), whose peculiarity it is to be more like an old man seen through the wrong end of a telescope than any other monkey or ape will ever be, although it is the chimpanzee that has the credit of coming nighest to our perfect state. So it may, taken as a whole, but for human features, however wizened and poor, the capuchin (or sapajou) bears away the bell. According to the Zoo guide-book, the capuchin (or sapajou) differs from man principally in retaining his tail and possessing four more grinding teeth than even those of us who are lucky to keep the complement that Heaven allowed us.
I then cross the canal by the private half of the public bridge, where the visitor to the Zoo is separated from the common outsider by an iron railing which makes each look to the other far liker a wild beast than is pleasant in this neighbourhood, and so come to my gentle friends, the giraffes, those pathetic survivals from the past whom American ex-presidents and gallant big-game hunters generally are so eager to exterminate. How any thinking creature proud in the possession of an immortal soul can bring his finger to pull the trigger at such an innocent, beautiful, and liquid-eyed vegetarian as this I shall never have imagination enough to understand; but they do it continually, and evidently have no compunctions, for they are photographed afterwards with one foot on the victim's corpse.
And so past the island cave of the beaver, a creature upon whom no visitor's eye has ever rested, and who, for all the British public knows, may not be there at all, to the elephants, one of whom has been nodding his head against the bars and opening his inadequate mouth for buns ever since 1876, and will, I dare say, continue to do so for many years yet. How many buns he has eaten let the statistician compute. I have no doubt that if placed in a line touching each other they would extend from London to Adelaide in the usual manner.
After the elephant, who is all deliberate matter, I visit the otter, who is all nervous fluid and the merriest creature in the gardens, and so, by way of the magical lizards, come to Mr. Wiles and Barbara.
That is my short round. When there is more time I extend it to take in the gay little foreign birds with the pretty names, who live between the lizards and the bears, and who, with the lizards, seem to be almost more wonderful achievements on the part of the Creator than the elephant or giraffe. And I like also to look once again at the King Penguin and the Snow Leopards; but the lions and tigers I rarely visit, for I cannot bear the forlorn look in their eyes. It hurts me to think that it is partly my subscription that is keeping them here.
And coming out again into the world of men, it seems strange and unbelievable that anyone should choose to live anywhere but close to Regent's Park.