Punch, April 22, 1914
My Uncle James, whose memoirs I am now preparing for publication, was a many-sided man; but his chief characteristic, I am inclined to think, was the indomitable resolution with which, disregarding hints, entreaties and even direct abuse, he would lie in bed of a morning. I have seen the domestic staff of his hostess day after day manœuvring restlessly in the passage outside his room, doing all those things which women do who wish to rout a man out of bed without moving Uncle James an inch. Footsteps might patter outside his door; voices might call one to the other; knuckles might rap the panels; relays of shaving-water might be dumped on his wash-stand; but devil a bit would Uncle James budge, till finally the enemy, giving in, would bring him his breakfast in bed. Then, after a leisurely cigar, he would at last rise and, having dressed himself with care, come downstairs and be the ray of sunshine about the home.
For many years I was accustomed to look on Uncle James as a mere sluggard. I pictured ants raising their antennæ scornfully at the sight of him. I was to learn that not sloth but a deep purpose dictated his movements, or his lack of movement.
“My boy,” said Uncle James, “more evil is wrought by early rising by than by want of thought. Happy homes are broken up by it. Why do men leave charming wives and run away with quite unattractive adventuresses? Because good women always get up early. Bad women, on the other hand, invariably rise late. To prize a man out of bed at some absurd hour like nine-thirty is to court disaster. To take my own case, when I first wake in the morning my mind is one welter of unkindly thoughts. I think of all the men who owe me money, and hate them. I review the regiment of women who have refused to marry me, and loathe them. I meditate on my faithful dog, Ponto, and wish that I had kicked him overnight. To introduce me to the human race at that moment would be to let loose a scourge upon society. But what a difference after I have lain in bed looking at the ceiling for an hour or so. The milk of human kindness comes surging back into me like a tidal wave. I love my species. Give me a bit of breakfast then, and let me enjoy a quiet meditative smoke, and I am a pleasure to all with whom I come in contact.”
He settled himself more comfortably upon the pillows and listened luxuriously for a moment to the sound of rushing housemaids in the passage.
“Late rising saved my life once,” he said. “Pass me my tobacco pouch.”
He lit his pipe and expelled a cloud of smoke.
“It was when I was in South America. There was the usual revolution in the Republic which I had visited in my search for concessions, and, after due consideration, I threw in my lot with the revolutionary party. It is usually a sound move, for on these occasions the revolutionists have generally corrupted the standing army, and they win before the other side has time to re-corrupt it at a higher figure. In South America, thrice armed is he who has his quarrel just, but six times he who gets his bribe in fust. On the occasion of which I speak, however, a hitch was caused by the fact of another party revolting against the revolutionists while they were revolting against the revolutionary party which had just upset the existing Government. Everything is very complicated in those parts. You will remember that the Tango came from there.
“Well, the long and the short of it was that I was captured and condemned to be shot. I need not go into my emotions at the time. Suffice it to say that I was led out and placed with my back against an adobe wall. The firing-party raised their rifles.
“It was a glorious morning. The sun was high in a cloudless sky. Everywhere sounded the gay rattle of the rattle-snake and the mellow chirrup of the hydrophobia-skunk and the gila monster. It vexed me to think that I was so soon to leave so peaceful a scene.
“And then suddenly it flashed upon me that there had been a serious mistake.
“ ‘Wait!’ I called.
“ ‘What’s the matter now?’ asked the leader of the firing squad.
“ ‘Matter?’ I said. ‘Look at the sun. The court-martial distinctly said that I was to be shot at sunrise. Do you call this sunrise? It must be nearly lunch-time.”
“ ‘It’s not our fault,’ said the firing-party. ‘We came to your cell all right, but you wouldn’t get up. You told us to leave it on the mat.’
“I did remember then having heard someone fussing about outside my cell door.
“ ‘That’s neither here nor there,’ I said firmly. ‘It was your business to shoot me at sunrise, and you haven’t done it. I claim a re-trial on a technicality.’
“Well, they stormed and blustered, but I was adamant; and in the end they had to take me back to my cell to be tried again. I was condemned to be shot at sunrise next morning, and they went to the trouble of giving me an alarm clock and setting it for 3 a.m.
“But at about eleven o’clock that night there was another revolution. Some revolutionaries revolted against the revolutionaries who had revolted against the revolutionaries who had revolted against the Government and, having re-re-corrupted the standing army, they swept all before them, and at about midnight I was set free. I recall that the new President kissed me on both cheeks and called me the saviour of his country. Poor fellow, there was another revolution next day, and, being a confirmed early riser, he got up in time to be shot at sunrise.”
Uncle James sighed, possibly with regret, but more probably with happiness, for at this moment they brought in his breakfast.
Unsigned story as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 146 of Punch.
“Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just”: Shakespeare, Henry VI part 2, act III, scene 2.
“Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just, But four times he who gets his blow in fust”: “Affurisms” from Josh Billings: His Sayings (1865)