In Clubland. Afternoon Wool-workers. The Airship. The Moratorium
( Originally Published 1917 )
STRANGE sights are to be witnessed, and stranger things are to be heard, in one of the leading clubs of the West End. To begin with, ladies, small boys and little girls have settled down in the waiting-rooms, the ladies burdened with parcels, the children munching chocolates, swinging their legs and staring with youthful innocence, curiosity or pertness at the " funny old things," and the " silly old things," and the " swanking old things" who pass to and fro. These various " old things " are, as a fact, honourable and highly respected members of the club. Many, no doubt, are bald-headed and portly ; but, after all, one is entitled to be bald and to be stout in one's club. And it is certainly not for small Peggy and Bertie, whose invasion of clubdom is an unprecedented spectacle, to----
Peggy, do look at this quickly," cries Bertie.
" He's not half as funny as that," replies Peggy, pointing forth a chocolate-stained finger.
" Peggy, be quiet," protests her mother.
" But, mother darling, aren't they a funny lot, now really ! And, oh, look at this one in the silly old hat. And look at that one over there, with his spectacles right up on his forehead. And " Peggy, be quiet immediately," repeats her mother.
" Mother darling, it's so funny and silly, I can't help it," pleads Peggy.
" Here's the funniest of the lot. Peggy, look at it, for your life," cries brother Bertie.
Oh, goodness, here comes another, with a fly on his nose, and he doesn't know it," exults Peggy.
Thus has the war stricken and demoralised even a great London club.
Children and chocolates in the waiting-rooms, ribald exclamations at the bald heads and embonpoint of honourable members, delight of blonde little Peggy because a fly had settled on the nose of an eminent but absent-minded barrister ! What are we coming to ? What is one to think, say or do when Bertie, escaping from the waiting-room, pays a visit to the tape machines, grins and winks at the lift-man, pops his head into the smoking-room, bursts for a moment into the library, and, finally returns to blonde sister Peggy with the information that he has been having " the time of his life " ?
" You are mean. You might have taken me with you. And I've finished all the chocolates," declares twelve-year-old Peggy.
So what have we come to, and what on earth can we do ? Chocolates and children in clubdom ! Bertie, aged fourteen, popping his head into our sacred, vast smoking-room and impudently peering up at our admirable tape machines ! Peggy indignant because her brother has not taken her with him ! Both of them calling us—yes, us, the pillars, the supports, the choice ornaments of the club—" funny," " silly," " swanking old things." Why, the invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium was a mere trifle to the occupation of our own club by the small Berties and Peggies. The sanctity of clubdom violated, its traditions broken down. It's the fault of Germany ; it is outrageous, unspeakable, sinister. Still, as I watch Peggy and Bertie in the waiting-room, waiting with their mother for their father, I should, if I had my own way, make Bertie and Peggy (and their chocolates as well) honorary members on the spot, with full powers to visit the tape machines, go up and down in the lift and interrupt and silence the alarmists who, in muffled voices, are denouncing the " criminality " of war and luridly predicting the end of the universe.
However, the alarmists are few, and may be dismissed in little blonde Peggy's own words as " silly old things." On the other hand, nothing funny " or " swanky " about the rest of the members, as Bertie himself would honestly admit could he be permitted to overhear the conversations in the smoking-room. Stout and slim men, elegant and bald-headed men, severe men and cheerful men-all are engaged in discussing how they can best serve their country during the unprecedented crisis that has overtaken it.
The general motto is, calm, economy, self-sacrifice ; and all around the room it is apparent that this doctrine is being practised. Inveterate cigar-smokers have abandoned havanas for pipes. Further abandonment of whiskies - and - sodas, wines and liqueurs. A wealthy member, instead of drinking his favourite fourpenny bottle of Bass, orders bitter beer in a tankard, and pays two-pence. The club menus have been cut down ; away have gone elaborate entrées, not a pêche Melba remains in the place, another luxury that has been loyally dispensed with. Calm—economy —self-sacrifice. Members take the tube and motor omnibuses instead of taxis, and have offered their own automobiles to the country. Members -agree among themselves to pay half wages to the wives of those employees who have joined, or been recalled to, the army or navy. Members furthermore declare that the hoarding up of foods and the sequestration of gold should be made a criminal offence. Members of all parties go on to pay tributes of admiration to Mr Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, and particularly to Mr Redmond. Strong Conservative club members exclaim : " When it's all over there will be cheers all over the country for Home Rule," Strong Liberal club members observe : " When it's all over there will be other cheers for Carson." Then more tributes to gallant Belgium ; to the memory of heroic Garros ; to the most admirable attitude of our own people, who have not smashed a window, or molested a foreigner, or even uttered a cruel cry.
Calm, economy, self-sacrifice, that's the motto of this leading West End club. But I still insist upon saying that the club would be refreshed and sweetened if Peggy and Bertie could be made honorary members ; for they would be a gay sight in the lifts, and they would learn that we are not such " silly old things " after all.
Not only in clubland, but other comfortable places, something perhaps even better than calm has crept in with the anxious thought that life has altered and that the foundations of what meant civilised existence yesterday have become insecure. If people have become less composed, is it possible that they care about each other more ?
Thus I find that all kinds of changes have come' over a particularly spacious and pleasant drawing-room in St John's Wood. Until a few weeks ago it was a veritable salon—music, brilliant conversations, a profusion of choice flowers, exquisite petits fours, charming pâté de foie gras sandwiches, incomparable coffee, and blonde, delicate China tea. The hostess, whom we will call Mrs Blythe, held these " at homes every Saturday and Sunday afternoon between the usual conventional hours of four and seven. But very often, when seven o'clock became eight o'clock and then nine, an informal supper would be served, and the music and gossip would continue till midnight. After supper, cigarettes—oh, charming Mrs Blythe !—were permitted " in this most admirable drawing-room.
This afternoon, however, behold a very different salon. To begin with, a decided reduction in flowers. After that, not the glimpse of a petit four, but the homely muffin and crumpet. And Mrs Blythe in a plain tea-gown, and her lady visitors in simple dresses, and myself, the only male present, commanded by my hostess to sit in a dim, remote corner, far out of the way of the Wool.
For the Wool has come into Mrs Blythe's elegant drawing-room, and crochet and knitting needles, and workboxes that bristle with buttons and scissors and bodkins and thimbles, to say nothing of stout reels of cotton and veritable bundles of tape.
" And what are you making ? It looks—well, it looks splendid," I say limply and weakly to my hostess.
" Socks, of course," Mrs Blythe replies briskly.
White wool, and brown wool, and black wool, and although I know nothing about wool, I am convinced that it is being knitted this afternoon into something efficient and serviceable. In fact, Mrs Blythe and her visitors are not " playing " with their wool, but attacking it in earnest. Amazing that these well-to-do ladies should have so quickly acquired the art of putting sharp knitting-needles into action and turning out socks. Admirable that they should assemble here with all their wool and other homely, domestic paraphernalia four times a week. Very beautiful and noble the resolution made amongst those of them who have sons, brothers and relatives at the front, not to speak of the absent ones, whilst they, their anxious, aching, loving women-folk, are working away in this changed, busy drawing-room of St John's Wood. Let me pay a particular tribute to Miss Ethel Simpson, aged eighteen, and one of England's incomparable blondes, who has become a specialist in fitting neckbands to shirts, " so that they don't scrub the soldier's neck." Six weeks ago Miss Simpson knew nothing of men's neckbands.
" And there's another finished ; that's the sixth this afternoon," blonde Miss Simpson remarks, as she drops a shirt on to the thickly carpeted floor. Almost immediately after that, commencement of Neckband No. 7.
The untidiest of handsome carpets. Here and there broken bits of wool, and pins and needles and buttons escaped from the workboxes, and a portly reel of brown cotton that has managed somehow or other to unwind and entangle itself around the legs of a mother-of-pearl Cairo table.
But on, with increased demoralisation to the carpet, goes the work. The faint, subtle, clicking of knitting-needles, little heaps of socks and shirts and vests and ambiguities on the floor, sudden flight of a thimble (which I chase, and recover, and restore, but would have liked to preserve, for it is blonde Miss Ethel Simpson's own thimble), and a mild hum of conversation, chiefly concerned with the threatened arrival of Zeppelins. However, no exaggerated alarm about those monsters.
In this first month of the war Zeppelins do not, as I have said, alarm us, but we are on the look-out for them. It follows that people walk about looking skywards. And the example is infectious—one would say a race of astronomers the Londoner has become a Chaldean.
Probably for the first time in the history of the two cities, London and Paris are thinking the same things, saying the same things and doing the same things. Out, at an early hour, go the lights of the cafés and the public-houses. By order of the two Governments no more brilliantly illuminated shop windows, or sky signs, or other electrical advertising devices. A searchlight on the Eiffel Tower; also a searchlight for our own Charing Cross. And just as Parisians scan the skies for German Taubes and Zeppelins, so do we Londoners cast our eyes upwards in eager quest of the long-promised airship.
But she cometh not, this airship. Nearly a week has elapsed since the Admiralty announced that a real British aerial cruiser would sail above London both by day and night. " On no account should it be fired at," the Admiralty continued. Excitement of ourselves. Bless the Admiralty for providing us—free of charge—with the thrilling, patriotic spectacle of a ship travelling over the metropolis. More cheers for Mr Winston Churchill then out into the streets, out into parks, out on to balconies, out on to roofs, and heads out of windows, and adventurous small boys up in trees, and frail, silver-haired old ladies wrapped up in shawls, awaiting the summons to come out and " see it," and all eyes looking upwards, always and always looking upwards.
But she cometh not, this airship. We have obediently extinguished our illuminations, we wait and we watch, we peer and we pine, we stare and we strain—all in vain ; she cometh not.
At least, in spite of an infinite amount of looking upwards, I myself have not yet beheld our long-promised airship. Nor have I met any responsible person who has discerned even the faintest shadow of her. Since they are out at all hours, and in all districts, and in all weathers, policemen and omnibus conductors may be accepted as authorities on what is happening in the skies, but (so many have assured me) not the glimpse of naval aircraft, " nothing doing," the heavens " as usual." A similar report from the weather-beaten old night watchman who sits, with his pail of coke, at the end of my street. " Never seen nuffing worth mentioning. You're not the first that 'as asked the same question. Gettin' about sick of it. Airships or no airships, ain't I got enuf to do with minding this 'ere road ? " retorts the watchman with petulance. Then—more authoritative still—an amateur but vigilant astronomer who has established quite a workman-like observatory in his pleasant garden in St John's Wood. " No ; although I have been keeping a good look-out for her," replies the star-gazer. " But of course I am more interested in the new and unknown comet that has been seen at Compiègne."
Not having, in my consuming zeal for our own British airship, even heard of the Compiègne comet, I escape hastily from the astronomer, lest he should tell me all about the new unknown phenomenon, and pursue industriously my researches. An artist, with a fine skylight, has also looked upwards, but seen " nothing." A lady, with a large garden, has likewise -seen " nothing." A man who lives on Hampstead Heath, another man who haunts the top of Prim-rose Hill-neither has seen " anything." One of the before-mentioned frail, silver-haired old ladies, still wrapped in her shawl, still waiting to be called forth to " see " the airship, crossly observes : " It's too bad. I have a great admiration for Mr Winston Churchill, but he really shouldn't make promises that he cannot keep."
On the other hand, wholly irresponsible and unreliable persons have seen London's airship again and again. " It was right over my head last night, ten o'clock sharp, just as I was saying good-night to Mrs Piper, outside the 'Bunch of Grapes,' with my jug of beer in my very own 'ands," relates Mrs Baggs, my occasional char-woman. " See it ! Bless yer 'cart, that ain't the first time, and it won't be the last. And there's my daughter down at Brixton that 'as seen it as well, and friends up at 'Oxton that is tired and sick of looking at it, and other folk at Dalston that 'ave taken pictures of it." Fortunate charwoman ; favoured and happy Brixton, Hoxton, Dalston ! To-night, the fifth night of my vigil, I search the skies for the last time for our airship. But still she cometh not.
Note.—At last, however, the Admiralty kept its promise, and upon a few occasions—but only a very few—Londoners beheld the airship. Then she vanished.
It is difficult to please everyone. Not only are Londoners whose ill luck has prevented them from seeing our airship disposed to consider themselves ill treated, but everyone is. not satisfied with the moratorium.
This all comes of having expected too much. Among the humbler classes the moratorium is being regarded with feelings of disappointment and disgust. Until three weeks ago it was a word unknown to them—they had never heard of such a thing. But on the morning of its promulgation joy and hilarity of the inhabitants of shabby neighbourhoods, for the gay, exhilarating rumour went round that, by virtue of the moratorium, the payment of rent, household bills and every other kind and condition of debt might be delayed. News, if you like ! Back streets enraptured. Dingy courts in ecstasies. Other insolvent corners no less triumphant. Out on to her doorstep, arms akimbo, came Mrs Piper, full of defiance against her landlord. Let 'im come. All I says is, let 'im come. 'Where is 'e ? Wants 'is rent, does 'e ? Let 'im corne," declaimed Mrs Piper with malicious zest. Infinite satisfaction also of Mrs Cole, who had been persecuted and threatened for weeks past by a neighbouring grocer. Well, let him show himself. What's keeping him away ?
Dear, blessed moratorium--how blithely the back streets buzzed with it on the morning of its birth, three weeks ago ! Later in the day, how-ever, unfavourable, disconcerting rumours got about. From being unfavourable they became dark, then sinister. At four o'clock it was announced that the moratorium had nothing whatsoever to do with rents. At five o'clock it was furthermore established that the moratorium had not said a word about household bills. At seven came the crushing intelligence that the moratorium had entirely ignored the matter of all small, odious debts. So nothing doing, nothing changed, except the speech and attitude of Mrs Piper, Cole and Dickens.
Even today, three weeks later, this hostility against the moratorium continueth. Perhaps its most bitter antagonist is a certain Mrs Mandeville, a large and garrulous charwoman, who has darkened my doorstep intermittently during a period of many years. That is to say, Mrs Mandeville is for ever appearing and disappearing. If engaged for a week, she vanishes on the third day, and remains lost for months, when she reappears, in the same old shawl and bonnet, overflowing with voluble explanations and excuses.
" And I shouldn't be 'ere to-day if it wasn't for that there morotory," announces Mrs Mandeville as she stands, breathless and enormous, in my study.
" Moratorium," I correct. For I am so accustomed to Mrs Mandeville's distorted articulation of awkward words that I grasp her meaning. " What's the matter with it ? "
" Don't ask me. There was me, saying to myself, now, with this 'ere morotory I can sit down a bit and give the rheumatics, saying nothing of other pains, a nice, pleasant rest. Foolish creature that I was ! 'As there ever been any rest for Mrs Mandeville ? Ain't she always been on 'er 'ands and knees cleaning and scrubbing for gentlefolk that don't appreciate 'er ? "
After a sigh, after a moment of sombre silence, Mrs Mandeville pours forth her heart, lays bare her soul, with the staggering incoherency of which only a charwoman is capable. What's the good of a morotory " if it doesn't help deserving people like herself ? Where's her brooch ? Pawned. Where's the clock that used to tick on the mantelpiece ? Not there. Where are two flannel petticoats, a stuffed canary in a glass case, a set of fire-irons and two real silver-plated spoons ? Same place. Where's herself ? Why isn't she dead and buried ? Why was she ever born ?
" It's the morotory that's done it all ; me, like the foolish creature wot I am, being taken in and deceived with it," continues Mrs Mandeville. " There I was, saying to myself, no rent to pay, everybody's got to give you credit, you simply takes what you wants and promises to settle up when you can ; if there's any trouble you only calls up a policeman, and the policeman says to the shopman, ` Becos of this 'ere morotory, you've got to serve this laidy at once' ; and if the shopman don't obey orders, off 'é goes to prison with the Germins, and they give 'im 'ard labour, and per'aps they cuts 'is throat, and ; " But nothing of the kind has happened," I frantically intervene.
" Never said it 'ad 'appened. But that's wot the morotory ought to 'ave done, instead of doing nothing, and leaving me with landlords and rheumatics," retorts Mrs Mandeville with increased incoherency.