Liberty, July 3, 1926
TWO men were sitting in the bar parlor of the little fishing inn as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was telling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional “Biggest I ever saw in my life!” and “Fully as large as that!”—but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.
The action had the effect of establishing a bond between us; and when the story-teller finished his tale and left, the other came over to my table as if answering a formal invitation.
“Dreadful liars, some men are,” he said.
“Fishermen,” I suggested, “are traditionally careless of the truth.”
“He wasn’t a fisherman,” said my companion. “That was our local doctor. He was telling me about his last case of mumps. Besides”—he tapped me earnestly on the knee—“you must not fall into the popular error about fishermen. Tradition has maligned them. I am a fisherman myself, and I have never told a lie in my life.”
I could well believe it. He was a short, stout, comfortable man of middle age, and the thing that struck me first about him was the extraordinarily childlike candor of his eyes. They were large and round and honest. I would have bought oil stock from him without a tremor.
The door leading into the white, dusty road opened, and a small man with rimless pince-nez and an anxious expression shot in like a rabbit and had consumed a gin and ginger beer almost before we knew he was there. Having thus refreshed himself, he stood looking at us, seemingly ill at ease.
“N-n-n-n-n-n—” he said.
We looked at him inquiringly.
His nerve appeared to fail him, and he vanished as abruptly as he had come.
“I think he was leading up to telling us that it was a nice day,” hazarded my companion.
“It must be very embarrassing,” I said, “for a man with such a painful impediment in his speech to open conversation with strangers.”
“Probably trying to cure himself. Like my nephew George. Have I ever told you about my nephew George?”
I reminded him that we had only just met and that this was the first time I had learned that he had a nephew George.
“Young George Mulliner. My name is Mulliner. I will tell you about George’s case—in many ways a rather remarkable one.”
MY nephew George (said Mr. Mulliner) was as nice a young fellow as you would ever wish to meet, but from childhood up he had been cursed with a terrible stammer. If he had had to earn his living he would undoubtedly have found this affliction a great handicap; but fortunately his father had left him a comfortable income, and George spent a not unhappy life, residing in the village where he had been born and passing his days in the usual country sports and his evenings in doing cross-word puzzles.
By the time he was thirty he knew more about Eli the prophet, Ra the Sun God, and the bird emu than anybody else in the country except Susan Blake, the vicar’s daughter, who had also taken up the solving of cross-word puzzles and was the first girl in Worcestershire to find out the meaning of stearine and crepuscular.
It was his association with Miss Blake that first turned George’s thoughts to a serious endeavor to cure himself of his stammer. Naturally, with this hobby in common the young people saw a great deal of each other, for George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning “appertaining to the profession of plumbing,” and Susan was just as constant a caller at George’s cozy little cottage—being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying “largely used in the manufacture of poppet valves.” The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word disestablishmentarianism, the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realized that she was all the world to him—or, as he put it to himself from force of habit—precious, beloved, darling, much loved, highly esteemed or valued.
And yet, every time he tried to tell her so, he could get no further than a sibilant gurgle that was of no more practical use than a hiccough.
OBVIOUSLY something had to be done, and George went to London to see a specialist.
“Yes?” said the specialist.
“I-I-I-I-I-I-I—” said George.
“You were saying——?”
“Sing it,” said the specialist.
“S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s—?” said George puzzled.
The specialist explained.
“Many people,” he said, “who are unable to articulate clearly in ordinary speech find themselves lucid and bell-like when they burst into song.”
It seemed a good idea to George. He thought for a moment—then threw back his head and let go in a musical barytone.
“I love a lassie, a bonny, bonny lassie,” sang George. “She’s as pure as the lily in the dell.”
“No doubt,” said the specialist, wincing.
“She’s as sweet as the heather, the bonny purple heather—Susan, my Worcestershire bluebell.”
“AH?” said the specialist. “Sounds a nice girl. Is this she?” he asked, adjusting his glasses and peering at the photograph that George had extracted from the interior of the left side of his undervest.
George nodded, drew in breath, and caroled:
“Yes, sir; that’s my baby.
No, sir; don’t mean maybe.
Yes, sir; that’s my baby now.
And, by the way, by the way,
When I meet that preacher I shall say—
‘Yes, sir, that’s my——’ ”
“Quite,” said the specialist hurriedly. He had a sensitive ear. “Quite—quite.”
“If you knew Susie like I know Susie,”
George was beginning—but the other stopped him.
“Quite. Exactly. I shouldn’t wonder. And now,” said the specialist, “what precisely is the trouble? No,” he added hastily, as George inflated his lungs; “don’t sing it. Write the particulars on this piece of paper.”
George did so.
“H’m,” said the specialist, examining the screed. “You wish to propose to this girl, but you find yourself unable, incapable, incompetent, impotent, and powerless. Every time you attempt it, your vocal cords fail, fall short, are insufficient, wanting, deficient, and go blooey.”
“A not unusual case. The effect of love on the vocal cords of even a normally eloquent subject is frequently deleterious. As regards the habitual stammerer, tests have shown that in ninety-seven point five six nine recurring of cases the divine passion reduces him to a condition where he sounds like a soda-water siphon trying to recite Gunga Din. There is only one cure.”
“W-w-w-w-w—?” asked George.
“I will tell you. Stammering,” proceeded the specialist, putting the tips of his fingers together and eying George benevolently, “is mainly mental and is caused by shyness, which is caused by the inferiority complex, which in its turn is caused by suppressed desires or introverted inhibitions or something.
“The advice I give to all young men who come in here behaving like soda-water siphons is to go out and make a point of engaging at least three perfect strangers every day. Before many weeks are out you will find that the little daily dose has had its effect. Shyness will wear off, and with it the stammer.”
And, having requested the young man—in a voice free from all trace of impediment—to hand over a fee of five guineas, the specialist sent George out into the world.
The more George thought about the advice he had been given, the less he liked it. He shivered in the cab that took him to the station to catch the train back to East Wobsley. He was a shy young man, and the thought of accosting perfect strangers and forcing his conversation upon them sickened him.
But, like all Mulliners, he had the right stuff in him. As he reached the platform and strode along it to the train, his teeth were set, his eyes shone with an almost fanatical light of determination, and he intended before his journey was over to conduct three heart-to-heart chats, if he had to sing every bar of them.
The compartment into which he had made his way was empty at the moment, but just before the train started a very large, fierce-looking man got in. George would have preferred somebody less formidable for his first subject, but he braced himself and bent forward. And, as he did so, the man spoke.
“The Gug-gug-gug-gug-gug-government,” he said, “are mer-mer-mer-mer-making a fuf-fuf-fuf-frightful mer-mer-mess of things, der-der-don’t you think, sir?”
George sank back as if he had been hit between the eyes. The train had moved out of the dimness of the station by now, and the sun was shining on the speaker, illuminating his knobbly shoulders, his craggy jaw, and above all the shockingly choleric look in his eyes. To reply “Y-y-y-y-y-y-y-yes” to such a man would obviously be madness.
But to abstain from speech did not seem to be much better as a policy. George’s silence appeared to arouse this man’s worst passions. His face had turned purple and he glared painfully.
“I uk-uk-asked you a sus-sus-civil quk-quk-quk,” he said irascibly. “Are you d-d-d-d-deaf?”
ALL we Mulliners have been noted for our presence of mind. To open his mouth, point to his tonsils, and utter a strangled gurgle was with George the work of a moment.
The tension was relaxed. The man’s annoyance abated.
“D-d-d-dumb?” he said commiseratingly. “I beg your p-p-p-p-pup. I t-t-trust I have not caused you p-p-p-p-pain. It m-must be tut-tut-tut-tut-terrible not to be able to sus-sus-speak fuf-fuf-fuf-fuf-fluently.”
He then buried himself in his paper, and George sank back in his corner, quivering in every limb.
TO get to East Wobsley, as you doubtless know, you have to change at Ippleton and take the branch line. By the time the train reached this junction, George’s composure was somewhat restored. He deposited his belongings in a compartment of the East Wobsley train, and, finding that it would not start for some ten minutes, decided to pass the time by strolling up and down in the pleasant air.
It was a lovely afternoon. The sun was gilding the platform with its rays, and a gentle breeze blew from the west. A little brook ran tinkling at the side of the road; birds were singing in the hedgerows; and through the trees could be discerned dimly the noble facade of the County Lunatic Asylum. Soothed by his surroundings, George began to feel so refreshed he regretted that in this wayside station there was no one present whom he could engage in talk.
It was at this moment that the distinguished looking stranger entered the station.
The newcomer was a man of imposing physique, simply dressed in pajamas, brown boots, and a mackintosh. In his hand he carried a top hat, and into this he was dipping his fingers, taking them out and then waving them in a curious manner to right and left.
He nodded so affably to George that the latter, though a little surprised at the other’s costume, decided to speak. After all, he reflected, clothes do not make the man, and, judging from the other’s smile, a warm heart appeared to beat beneath that orange-and-mauve stripe pajama jacket.
“N-n-n-n-nice weather,” he said.
“Glad you like it,” said the stranger. “I ordered it specially.”
George was a little puzzled by this remark, but he persevered:
“M-might I ask wur-wur-what you are dud-doing?”
“With that her-her-her-her-hat?”
“Oh, with this hat? I see what you mean. Just scattering largesse to the multitude,” replied the stranger, dipping his fingers once more and waving them with a generous gesture. “Devil of a bore, but it’s expected of a man in my position. The fact is,” he said, linking his arm in George’s and speaking in a confidential undertone, “I’m the Emperor of Abyssinia. That’s my palace over there,” he said, pointing through the trees. “Don’t let it go any further. I’m travelling incog, under the name of Elmer J. Higginbotham.”
It was with a rather sickly smile that George endeavored to withdraw his arm from that of his companion. But the other would have none of this aloofness. He held George in a vise-like grip and drew him into a recess of the platform. He looked around him, and seemed satisfied.
“We are alone at last,” he said.
This fact had already impressed itself with sickening clearness on the young man. There was not even a dog in sight.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time,” said the stranger genially.
“Huh-huh-have you?” responded George.
“Yes. I want your opinion of human sacrifices.”
George said he didn’t like them.
“Why not?” asked the other, surprised.
George said it was hard to explain. He just didn’t.
“WELL, I think you’re wrong,” said the Emperor. “I know there’s a school of thought growing up that holds your views, but I disapprove of it.
“I hate all this modern advanced thought. Human sacrifices have always been good enough for the Emperors of Abyssinia, and they’re good enough for me. Kindly step in here, if you please.”
He indicated the lamp-and-mop room, at which they had now arrived. It was a dark and sinister apartment, smelling strongly of oil and porters, and was probably the last place on earth in which George would have wished to be closeted with a man of such peculiar views. He shrank back.
“You go in first,” he said.
“No larks,” said the other suspiciously.
“Yes. No pushing a fellow in and locking the door and squirting water at him through the window. I’ve had that happen to me before.”
“Right!” said the Emperor. “You’re a gentleman and I’m a gentleman. Both gentlemen. You haven’t a knife, have you?”
“No. No knife.”
“Ah, well,” said the Emperor, “then we’ll have to look about for something else. No doubt we shall manage somehow.”
And, with the debonair manner that so became him, he scattered another handful of largesse and walked into the lamp-room.
IT was not the fact that he had given his word as a gentleman that kept George from locking the door. Not being able to find the key, he had to be satisfied with banging it. This done, he leaped back and raced away down the platform.
A confused noise within seemed to indicate that the Emperor had become involved with some lamps.
George made the best of the respite. Covering the ground at a high rate of speed, he flung himself into the train and took refuge under the seat.
There he remained, quaking. At one time he thought that his uncongenial acquaintance had got upon his track, for the door of the compartment opened and a cool wind blew in upon him. Then, glancing along the floor, he perceived feminine ankles. The relief was enormous.
A voice spoke:
“What was all that disturbance as I came into the station?”
“Patient escaped from the asylum, ma’am.”
The voice would undoubtedly have spoken further, but at this moment the train began to move. There came the sound of a body descending upon a cushioned seat, and some little time later the rustling of a paper. The train gathered speed and jolted on.
George had never before traveled under the seat of a railway carriage and had no desire to do so now. He decided to emerge with the minimum of ostentation.
Little as he knew of women, he was aware that as a sex they are apt to be startled by the sight of men crawling out from under the seats of compartments. He began his maneuvers by poking out his head and surveying the terrain.
All was well. The woman, in her seat across the way, was engrossed in her paper. Moving in a series of noiseless wriggles, George extricated himself from his hiding-place and took possession of the corner seat. The woman continued reading her paper.
The events of the past quarter of an hour had tended rather to drive from George’s mind the mission he had undertaken on leaving the specialist’s office. But now, having leisure for reflection, he realized that, if he meant to complete his first day of the cure, he was allowing himself to run sadly behind schedule.
Speak to three strangers, the specialist had told him—and up to the present he had spoken to only one.
He nerved himself for action, and cleared his throat.
“Ah-h’rm!” said George.
And, having opened the ball, he dug up a winning smile and waited for his companion to make the next move.
The move his companion made was in an upward direction, and measured from six to eight inches. She dropped her paper and regarded George with a pale-eyed horror. She had been convinced that she was completely alone, and lo! out of space a voice had spoken. Her face worked, but she made no remark.
George, on his side, was also feeling a little ill at ease.
Then a happy thought struck him. He had just glanced at his watch and found the hour to be nearly four-thirty. Women, he knew, loved a drop of tea at about this time, and fortunately there was in his suitcase a vacuum bottle full of the right stuff.
“PARDON me, but I wonder if you would care for a cup of tea?” was what he wanted to say; but, as so often happened with him when in the presence of the opposite sex, he could get no further than a sort of sizzling sound like a cockroach calling to its young.
The woman continued to stare at him. Her eyes were now about the size of regulation standard golf balls, and her breathing suggested the last stages of asthma. It was at this point that George, struggling for speech, had one of those inspirations that frequently come to Mulliners. There flashed into his mind what the specialist had told him about singing. Say it with music—that was the thing to do.
He delayed no longer.
“Tea for two and two for tea,
And me for you and you for me——”
He was shocked to observe his companion turning Nile green. He decided to make his meaning clearer.
“I have a nice thermos—I have a full thermos.
Won’t you share my thermos, too?
When skies are gray and you feel you are blue,
Tea sends the sun smiling through.
I have a nice thermos—I have a full thermos.
May I pour out some for you?”
You will agree with me, I think, that no invitation could have been more happily put. But his companion was not responsive. With one last agonized look at him, she closed her eyes and sank back in her seat. Her lips had now turned a curious gray-blue color, and they were moving feebly.
George sat back in his corner, brooding. Rack his brain as he might, he could think of no topic that could be guaranteed to interest, elevate, and amuse. He looked out of the window with a sigh.
The train was now approaching the dear old familiar East Wobsley country. A wave of sentiment poured over George as he thought of Susan, and he reached for the bag of buns that he had bought at the refreshment-room at Ippleton. Sentiment always made him hungry.
HE took his vacuum bottle out of the suitcase and, unscrewing the top, poured himself a cup of tea. Then, placing the bottle on the seat, he drank.
He looked at his companion. Her eyes were still closed, and she was uttering little sighing noises. George was half inclined to renew his offer of tea, but the only tune he could remember was Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp from Savannah, and it was difficult to fit suitable words to it.
Now, as you approach East Wobsley, the train, I must mention, has to pass over some points; and so violent is the sudden jerking that strong men have been known to spill their beer. George, forgetting this in his preoccupation, had placed the vacuum bottle only a few inches from the edge of the seat. The result was that, as the train reached the points, the flask leaped like a live thing, dived to the floor, and exploded.
Even George was distinctly upset by the sudden sharpness of the report. He blinked thrice in rapid succession. But on the woman opposite the effect of the untoward occurrence was still more marked. With a single piercing shriek, she rose from her seat straight into the air like a rocketing pheasant, and, having clutched the communication cord, fell back again. Impressive as her previous leap had been, she excelled it by several inches.
It is a curious thing that, in spite of the railway companies’ sporting willingness to let their patrons have a tug at the extremely moderate price of five pounds a go, very few people have ever either pulled a communication cord or seen one pulled. There is thus a widespread ignorance as to what precisely happens on such occasions.
The procedure, George tells me, is as follows: First there comes a grinding noise, as the brakes are applied. Then the train stops. And finally, from every point of the compass, a seething mob of interested onlookers begins to appear.
It was about a mile and a half from East Wobsley that the affair had taken place, and as far as the eye could reach the countryside was totally devoid of humanity. A moment before nothing had been visible but smiling cornfields and broad pasture lands; but now from east, west, north, and south running figures began to appear.
The rails, which had been completely unoccupied, were now thronged with a dense crowd of navvies. Moreover, the train, which at Ippleton had seemed sparsely occupied, was disgorging passengers from every door. It was the sort of mob scene that would have made David W. Griffith scream with delight.
The behavior of his fellow traveler did nothing to allay the growing turmoil in George’s soul. She had sprung from the train, and was now standing with her arms around the neck of one of the navvies. In the intervals of allowing her tears to trickle down the man’s spine, she was proclaiming in a voice of extraordinary power and clearness that George was an escaped lunatic and had tried to murder her with a bomb.
It is difficult to say what precisely would have been the correct behavior of your polished man of the world in such a situation. I think myself that a great deal of sang-froid and address would be required even by the most self-possessed in order to pass off such a contretemps.
To George, I may say at once, the crisis revealed itself immediately as one that he was totally incapable of handling. The one clear thought that stood out from the welter of his emotions was the reflection that it was advisable to remove himself without delay. Drawing a deep breath, he shot swiftly off the mark.
ALL we Mulliners have been athletes; and George, when at the University, had been noted for his speed of foot. He ran now as he had never run before. His statement, however, that as he sprinted across the first field he distinctly saw a rabbit shoot an envious glance at him as he passed, and shrug its shoulders hopelessly, I am inclined to discount.
Nevertheless it is not to be questioned that he made good going. And he had need to; for, after the first instant of surprise that had enabled him to secure a lead, the whole mob was pouring across country after him, and dimly, as he ran, he could hear voices in the throng informally discussing the advisability of lynching him. Moreover, the field through which he was running, a moment before a bare expanse of green, was now black with figures, headed by a man with a beard, who carried a pitchfork.
IT is impossible for one who was not an eyewitness to say how much ground was covered by the interested parties. I know the East Wobsley country well, and I have checked George’s statements, and if it is true that he traveled east as far as Little-Wigmarsh-in-the-Dell and as far west as Higgleford-cum-Wortlebury-beneath-the-Hill, he must undoubtedly have done a lot of running.
But a point that must not be forgotten is that, to a man not in a condition to observe closely, the village of Higgleford-cum-Wortlebury-beneath-the-Hill might easily not have been Higgleford-cum-Wortlebury-beneath-the-Hill at all, but another hamlet that in many respects closely resembles it. I need scarcely say that I allude to Lesser-Snodsbury-in-the-Vale.
Let us assume, therefore, that George, having touched Little-Wigmarsh-in-the-Dell, shot off at a tangent and reached Lesser-Snodsbury-in-the-Vale. This would be a considerable run. And, as he remembers flitting past Farmer Higgins’ pigsty and the Dog and Duck at Pondlebury Parva, and through the brook Wipple at the point where it joins the river Wopple, we can safely assume that, wherever else he went, he got plenty of exercise.
But the pleasantest of functions must end. And, just as the setting sun was gilding the spire of the ivy-covered Church of St. Barnabas the Resilient, where George as a child had sat so often, enlivening the tedium of the sermon by making faces at the choir boys, a damp and bedraggled figure might have been observed crawling painfully along the High Street of East Wobsley in the direction of the cozy little cottage known to its builder as Chatsworth and to the village tradesmen as Mulliner’s.
It was George, home from the hunting field.
Slowly George Mulliner made his way to the familiar door, and, passing through it, flung himself into his favorite chair. But a moment later a more imperious need than the desire to rest forced itself upon his attention. Rising stiffly, he tottered to the kitchen and mixed himself a revivifying whisky-and-soda.
Then, refilling his glass, he returned to the sitting-room, to find that it was no longer empty. A slim, fair girl, tastefully attired in tailor-made tweeds, was leaning over the desk on which he kept his Dictionary of English Synonyms.
SHE looked up as he entered, startled.
“Why, Mr. Mulliner!” she exclaimed. “What has been happening? Your clothes are torn, rent, ragged, tattered, and your hair is all disheveled, untrimmed, hanging loose or negligently, at loose ends!”
George smiled a wan smile.
“You are right,” he said. “And, what is more, I am suffering from extreme fatigue, weariness, lassitude, exhaustion, prostration, and languor.”
The girl gazed at him, a divine pity in her soft eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured—“so very sorry, grieved, distressed, afflicted, pained, mortified, dejected, and upset!”
George took her hand. Her sweet sympathy had effected the cure for which he had been seeking so long. Coming on top of the violent emotions through which he had been passing all day, it seemed to work on him like some healing spell, charm, or incantation.
Suddenly, in a flash, he realized that he was no longer a stammerer.
He took her other hand in his. His voice rang out clear and unimpeded:
“It cannot have escaped your notice that I have long entertained toward you sentiments warmer and deeper than those of ordinary friendship. It is love, Susan, that has been animating my bosom. Love, first a tiny seed, has grown and grown in my heart till, blazing into flame, it has swept away on the crest of its wave my diffidence, my doubt, my fears, and my foreboding. And now, like the topmost topaz of some ancient tower, it cries to all the world in a voice of thunder: ‘You are mine! My mate!’
“As the star guides the mariner when he hies him home to the haven of hope and happiness, so do you gleam upon me along life’s rough road and seem to say, ‘Have courage, George! I am here!’
“Susan, I am not an eloquent man—I cannot speak as fluently as I could wish. But these simple words that you have just heard come from the unspotted heart of an English gentleman.
“Susan, I love you. Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, helpmate, consort, partner, or better half?”
“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yes, yes, aye, aye! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute!”
He folded her in his arms. And, as he did so, there came from the street outside—faintly, as from a distance—the sound of feet and voices. George leaped to the window.
Rounding the corner, just by the Cow and Wheelbarrow public house, was the man with the pitchfork. And behind him a vast crowd.
“My darling,” said George, “for purely personal and private reasons, into which I need not enter, I must now leave you. Will you join me later?”
“I will follow you to the ends of the earth,” replied Susan passionately.
“It will not be necessary,” said George. “I am only going down to the coal cellar. I shall spend the next half hour or so there. If anybody calls and asks for me, perhaps you would not mind telling them that I am out.”
“I will, I will,” said Susan. “And, George, by the way. What I really came here for was to ask you if you knew a word of nine letters ending in k and signifying an implement employed in the pursuit of agriculture.”
“Pitchfork, sweetheart,” said George. “But you may take it from me, as one who knows, that agriculture isn’t the only thing it is used in pursuit of.”
AND since that day (concluded Mr. Mulliner) George, believe me or believe me not, has not had the slightest trace of an impediment in his speech. He is now the chosen orator at all political rallies for miles around; and so offensively self-confident has his manner become that only last Friday he had his eyes blacked by a hay, corn, and feed merchant of the name of Stubbs. It just shows you, doesn’t it?
See our annotations to this story as it appeared in volume form in Meet Mr. Mulliner (1927/28).