In the days of horses, before busses came along, traffic in London’s Piccadilly progressed at a rate of speed which varied from six to eight miles an hour. The speed at which you may now expect to ride, in a cab or a tram, from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, from Oxford Circus to the Bank of England, is from four to six miles an hour. One would never have thought the automobile could have so slowed London down.
London’s streets were not meant for the automobile. Automobile, may I add, is a forbidden English noun. It is mongrel in origin — part Latin, and part Greek — autos from the Greek and mobile from the Latin. No London grammarian would invent such a word, no London pedagogue award it his approval.
What New York calls automobile, London must refer to as motor car. And motor car it goes on being called, even though it pauses as much as it progresses through the crowded and curious-shaped London streets.
London’s streets were made for persons, and not for machines. I think it nice that these streets are named, and not numbered.
Hurry in London is not good for one. There is much to miss if you pass too quickly. Let us take, for instance, London’s Saints, and the Spots to which their names still cling.
London’s Saints are saints only in Heaven and in London. They are the private possessions of the Popes who may have canonized them, and the places from which they were presented. Here are some of their names, which are strange at first hearing, but as familiar to London as the stones in its pavements:
St. Marylebone, St. Pancras, St. Giles, St. Bartholomew-the-Great, St. Vidast, St. Olaves, St. Andrew-on-the-Wall, St. Magnus, St. Benet, St. Mary Le Bow, St. Mary Abchurch, St. Mary Aldermary, St. Katherine-of-the-Docks.
If anyone doubts this litany, let him take a walk — or even a ride — through London, and these names will be staring him in the face. “God help us!” is an ejaculation heard everywhere in London. “Pray for us!” could be another, anywhere you look.
A Cross and a Sword underneath the helmet of a knight, displayed between two dragons, over the words “Domine Dirige Nos” — God help us! — is the coat-of-arms of the City of London.
Another signature of the preciousness of London as a place is the list of gates that enfold it. Every small section of this aging metropolis seems to be jealously guarded behind its own especial gate. There is:
Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate and Alders-gate; St. John’s Gate, Cripplegate, Queensgate, and Ludgate near St. Paul’s.
Where gates seem too large or seem prohibitive, courts move in and surround:
Earl’s Court, Tottenham Court, Hampton Court; Grosvenor Court, and, of course, The Court of the King.
The rest of London’s structures, solicitous for privacy, are called palladiums, palaces, hospitals, hotels, embassies, galleries, museums, towers, halls, inns, castles, and jails.
The London bobbies, who act as traffic guardians, coldly give information to inquirers. They assume that everything in London is intimate and familiar, even to visitors from foreign lands. Whether it be Bird Cage Walk, or Madame Tussaud’s. Whether it be Pickle Street, Herring Street, or Traitors’ Gate. Whether it be The Apothecaries’, Nelson’s Column, or Cleopatra’s Needle. Whether The Cenotaph, Bush House, Selfridge’s, Peter Robinson’s, The Wallace Collection, The Brownings’, or, The Portuguese Consulate. Every London bobby knows these occupancies down to the last inch, and will immediately tell one how to go there, and point in the right direction.
After making a general survey of all of London’s enclosures — its squares, its gardens, its arboretums, and its conservatories — in brief, after-somehow remembering all its varieties of place, each of them signatured with a special name and asserted to be the like of which you will never see again, it is nice to find, not far from the center of London, a wide space large enough for everyone to roam in; where one can sleep in the shade, lunch under the trees, or swim in a clear, cool stream. It is the place where London squirrels abound, and skylarks ascend for their ecstatic songs. It is where Londoners went for duels in the days when duels were permitted. It is where speakers, with messages to give the world, now stand upon boxes, which are called “pitches,” and orate to audiences and gesticulate to the sky.
A beautiful portico entitled Marble Arch is the most official entrance to the great place I am now describing. A boundary that protects it is a stretchway of flowers, called Kensington Gardens. An avenue that leads from it is named Rotten Row, perhaps to let one know the excellence of area from which one is departing, when one steps out of the precincts of — Hyde Park.
Hyde Park is a rendezvous for the middle-aged and the old. Children do come there, but are usually brought by parents. Lovers also walk there, but dislike being over-observed. Personages promenade there, for the sake of air or exercise, or maybe, even, for a change of point of view. But the middle-aged and the elderly are the ones always found there, seated on benches, or lying on the grass. It is they who are the inhabitants of Hyde Park.
One old man, sitting on a bench, says to another old man beside him, while pointing to a third old man across the way,
“He has about as much brains as a dickie-bird!”
And you marvel at the fluttering delicacy of this criticism.
One old woman, with her Sunday coat on, and who has forgotten to take off her apron, says — maybe to someone, maybe to no one; perhaps half to herself, and half to the sky — “I wonder how God keeps track of us all, there’s such a thumpin’ lot of us.”
Two limeys are sitting on another bench, and arguing about an accident.
Says one: “Don’t you tell me there’s a God in Heaven. Lettin’ a fine man like that be smashed down by a motor car. Don’t you tell me there is, after that!”
“Now, you look here, Colcord,” says the other, “you’re gettin’ it wrong. Don’t you forget, God never makes a mistake.”
“Come to think of it, you’re right!” says Colcord. “I never looked at it that way before. Thank you very much, dear Abercrombie. Thank you very much for tellin’ me.”
A somewhat handsome man, with splendid fabric in his clothes, and a semi-majestic girl — trying to keep up with him, stride for stride — are passing down The Ring Road. Somebody tells you — and then you recognize — that they are Jack Hurlburt and Cicely Courtneidge, London’s best and bravest comedians.
Jack Hurlburt and Cicely Courtneidge are the only English actors, as far as I know, whom Hollywood has been unable to lure away from London, and New York unable to coax away from the Strand. This was not because they were not funny enough to go to America. There were no acts in American vaudeville that could approach them in silly delightfulness, or in complete and competent charm.
It was for selfish reasons they refused to cross the ocean. Environment was part of their powers of entertainment, and they did not want to sacrifice it and ruin their art.
One remembers what tragedies occurred in the lives of other London comedians when they tried to be funny away from their milieu. Everybody knows how weirdly Gracie Fields began to screech when she transferred to the Palace in New York. Everyone has sensed what disillusionment crept into the face of Gertrude Lawrence when she gave up Mayfair for Manhattan. Londoners have wept to see Beatrice Lillie (Lady Peel) cast her pearls before Bronx and Brooklyn. And there never was a case of a shattering of bright abilities equal to the freezeout given to Reginald Gardiner, when his precious humors were transported to Broadway.
Reginald Gardiner used to say that there were two kinds of windshield wipers — a short kind which went fast, a long kind which went slow. The short one kept saying:
“Wooden shoe, Wooden shoe, Wooden shoe,”
the long one,
“Beef tea, Beef tea, Beef tea.”
But, to go back to Mr. Hurlburt and Miss Courtneidge. Hyde Park is proud of an actor and an actress who kept all their skits in the places where they belong; and who are increasingly appreciated the older they grow; and who have never been disillusioned with the art of being amusing; and who have never failed to amuse those meant to appreciate them.
London is a place. And it never had a joke that left it and continued to be funny.
I once sat in a London cinema, with a Londoner, watching an American movie. In it were the four Marx Brothers. I spent half my time looking at this picture, and half my time explaining to my companion what the Marx Brothers were up to.
Here was a Marx Brother situation I found very hard to explain:
Groucho Marx: “You remind me of a man by the name of Emmanuel Ravelli.”
Chico Marx: “I am Emmanuel Ravelli.”
Groucho Marx: “Well, no wonder you look alike.”
Groucho Marx: “But I still insist there is a resemblance.”
My London companion took hold of my wrist, in a dark theatre, and pleaded for an explanation.
My Companion: “What did Groucho make that last remark for?”
Myself: “To make the situation absurd.”
My Companion: “But wasn’t the situation sufficiently absurd before he made that remark?”
Myself: “I suppose it was. But Americans have a theory about absurd situations.”
My Companion: (pleadingly) “And what is that?”
Myself: “They consider no absurd situation ever sufficiently absurd.”
On one of the benches in Hyde Park sits a proud proverb-maker. He does not offer a new proverb too frequently. But there is one old one he keeps constantly repeating. And he seems able to apply it to almost any situation that may arise. How he does this, when I am away from him, I never can quite recall. But when seated beside him, I seem always convinced. I am convinced that what is wrong with our modern civilization is that most of us fail to remember that (and here is his proverb de luxe):
“It’s not the ’orses’ shoes that ’urt the ’orses ’ooves; it’s the constant pitter-patter on the ’ard, ’ard ’ighway; that’s what ’urts the ’orses’ ’ooves.”
Another bloke spends most of his time standing, leaning with his elbow against a tree. He is constantly letting those around him know how quickly things can occur; how swiftly changes happen, even in world affairs. It is all summarized in the following reference-rate. It is:
“Before you could say tit-willow!”
A pleasant day turned into rain — “before you could say tit-willow!” A man was rich, and then became poor — “before you could say tit-willow!” Hitler was running things, but one day he crashed — “before you could say tit-willow!” Even England’s Empire, if she didn’t look out, would tragically disintegrate, or else fold up — “before you could say tit-willow!”
Political arguments on Hyde Park benches are always interesting, too, especially when someone, without standing up, keeps squirming around with rage or excitement. I once heard a man complain against Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald:
“He makes my bleed, my blood, my boil!”
Shortly afterwards, Ramsay MacDonald was removed from office — before you could say tit-willow!
On a corner of a bench that is under a tree, old Mr. Flintlock sits. If somebody happens to be sitting beside him, he gives this somebody a lecture. If nobody happens to be seated beside him, he whispers this lecture to himself. Once I sat beside him for nearly an hour, and I should very much like, here, to pay him my respects, and to offer him preserved, and in summary. I hope I can indicate in several cold and clear sentences the marvelous precision of his voice, in harmony with the chastity of his mind. Here is Mr. Flintlock, exactly as he thinks, and speaks:
“Faith is a totality. Faith is not a partiality. God meant it to be a submission. God never intended it to be a choice. Faith is an inchoative trust. Faith is not an inchoative suspicion. It is a vision, an admiration, a contemplation. It is not an observation, an examination, and a classification. It does not observe everywhere, and see nothing. It sees one thing everywhere it looks. Faith is not to look and keep on looking. Faith is to look — and see.”
It never was quite clear to me to what Mr. Flintlock meant to apply this homily. My own urges were to take it as Catholic, and, of course, with a capital C. But I am afraid Mr. Flintlock may have uttered it as catholic, with a small c. Still, I am not quite sure. There was no interrupting him while he talked. And he refused to give an explanation. So I left him discoursing to himself, and moved on further in the Park.
I had frequently heard of Hoxton, a section of London where folks talk English without the use of consonants. I often meant to go over there; and eventually I did. But long before my visit to Hoxton, I met a man from Hoxton seated in Hyde Park.
I could not believe, when first I was told it, that it was possible to speak English with all consonants cancelled. But Jeff from Hoxton was the boy who could do so, and make no mistake about that. It is hard to describe what one listened to, when he talked. An invertebrate language is marvelously unusual. The best way hurriedly to describe it is to think of a man with a mouthful of jellyfish, or a bunch of peeled grapes without seeds.
Sentences with nothing but vowels in them are impossible to transliterate, but perhaps I can offer a slight piece of Hoxtonese by an excessive use of w’s. I give you Jeff saying one of his pieces. A prayer of his, as a piece, will do. And the Our Father was the clearest of all his clouded prayers.
“Wah Wahwah, woo wah wee Wehweh,
Wahwoe wee Wye Way …
It sounded to me, for all the world, like the prayer of Jeremias:
“A A A, Domine Deus, ecce nescio loqui,
Quia puer ego sum.”
But the prayer of Jeremias was one that was heard. And so Jeff and Jeremias may go together, the babbler in Hoxton and the babbler in Babylon, who both had their way of vowelizing their prayers and uttering them in praise of God,
The London bobby (policeman) is a problem all by himself. In a London street, he looks as cold and mechanical as a traffic light. But in Hyde Park, he looks twice as forbidding. After all, people in London streets are seriously going about their business. But people in Hyde Park are not. Irregular habits in Hyde Park are the regular order of the day.
The London policeman is terribly manly. One wonders if any woman ever spoke to him affectionately. One wonders also how he proposed to the girl who became his wife, unless it was to have held a club above her head and then report her acceptance to headquarters. But I know, and so does everyone with a kind heart, that hidden in the depths of a London policeman, especially the one on a Hyde Park assignment, there are noble longings, that at times become tender, and are haunted by the footsteps of loneliness.
It was in remembrance of one night in Hyde Park, when I watched a London policeman go by, in solicitude and in solitude, that I put him patrolling in the following verse:
When the stars in crowds,
And the moon in her garments of clouds
Come out in the sky,
Am the policeman in the park;
When the citizens are sitting or strolling,
And the lovers are patrolling
In the dark.
I make sure
That everything is safe and secure:
That the grass is growing,
And the fountain flowing,
And the breeze, blowing,
And that the trees are covered with bark.
My manner is somewhat distant and severe;
Here and there I make a remark.
I pass the time of day as you would pass the time of year,
While the fireflies continue to spark.
With the earth below me,
And the air all around and above me;
With few who personally know me,
And no one to love me, — I am the policeman in the park.
Speaking of policemen, there is no place in the world where crime is more difficult to commit than in London. And this is because of the swiftness and severity with which crime is detected, sentenced, and punished. London’s laws are so strict, and punishment is so extreme, and judicial sentences so swiftly made, that a potential criminal does not dare to come within a mile of the crime he would like to perpetrate. I heard Hilaire Belloc once put this most convincingly: “A man is killed in London. A month or two later another man is hanged for the crime. Who is hanged for the crime? The man who committed it? This does not matter to London, as long as ‘justice’ has been conspicuous, and someone has paid the penalty.”
It is for this reason that an afternoon in Hyde Park is likely to put one in the company of dangerous persons, as murderous, we might say, as lions, and as meek, we might put it, as lambs. There are also, doubtless, a number of crazy people among the perpetual sitters and smokers on the benches that are free in Hyde Park.
Strangely enough, the Hyde Park bench-sitter who frightened me most was not a gunman, or a lunatic, or a man bent on some vengeance. He was not even a Communist, or an anarchist, or a member of the Socialist Party. He was a little man, with half-holy eyes, who had news to tell anyone he thought would be glad to hear it. He told it to me, and it scared me so much, I have not yet got over the experience. I remember it fearfully, even as I write.
The little man of whom I speak — who made my heart stop and my eyes bulge in my head — wore no collar, and had no hat. But this was because he was carefree and untidy, and not because he wanted to dress like a desperado. He was also unshaven, and very much unshorn, and looked as though he needed a long soak in a bath. He wore a mustache of the drooping kind.
This little man asked me expectantly if I were what London refers to as an “R.C.” When I told him I was, he clapped his hands with delight, and started telling me this story about his daughter:
“Won’t you come up to the ’ouse, dear Father, and see us sometime? … My missus would be glad to see you.
“We ’ave an only daughter, we ’ave, but she ups and leaves us one day, and goes off to a convent to be a nun …
“I could ’ardly object to that, could I? … even though I am ’er father; because, though I ’ave my rights, God ’as ’is rights, and God’s rights are greater than mine …
“Our ’ouse, ’owever, was pretty lonely, after our only daughter went away …
“I used to tell the neighbors, when they asked me about ’er, that what she did was go running off with God; and though I ’ad plenty of ’eartaches to go with this, I never ’ad any objections …
“Our daughter writes us a letter, every single week … The missus keeps these letters on the mantel shelf at ’ome, and reads them to me, start and finish, every fortnight. That’s all we do by way of diversion, since our daughter went away — is read the letters, sendin’ us ’er love, and lettin’ us know ’ow ’ard she is prayin’ for our salvation …
“What more could a father ask? Or a mother, too, for that matter? The missus and I feel our ’ouse ’as been greatly ’onored. A vocation to religious life is no small thing to get from ’eaven, and we are so glad it was sent to the only one of three of us who was able to respond, and to follow it …
“But even though the missus and I didn’t go away ourselves, I still feel we share in our daughter’s vocation. My wife feels this in ’er way, and, frankly, I feel it in mine.
“As I said to the missus the other night — and, though she looked surprised, she knew that what I was saying was somehow true — if our daughter is the spouse of ’er Saviour, that makes me the father-in-law of Jesus Christ …
I felt as though I had been shot in some blasphemous manner. I was almost tempted to deny that I was what London calls an “R.C.” There was no way to answer. And no way to object.
But wisest, it seemed to me, of all of Hyde Park’s sit-down philosophers, was Watson, the man who was anxious to put Einstein in his place. Whether or not Einstein made local appearances in London, I do not know. But he is much talked of there.
Einstein’s almost-namesake, Epstein (Jacob Epstein) has a sculpture in the Tate Gallery, that would make any man possessed of true Christian sentiment want to draw his dagger, if he had one, and drive it through Epstein’s throat. It is a bronze sculpture, purporting to portray the visitation of Our Blessed Lady to the house of her cousin, St. Elizabeth. Our Lady has just been told by the Angel Gabriel the news of the Incarnation, has bowed her head as handmaid of the Lord, and Emmanuel is now in her womb.
Jacob Epstein of London then puts her in motion. The motion itself is an eager one, and so we may understand that the artist admires it as a journey. But the traveler herself is an ugly girl in pigtails, about as much resembling the Queen of Heaven as any of Epstein’s thoughts resemble the majestic thoughts of God.
Whether or not Gertrude Stein (another almost-Einstein in name) ever visited London by way of influencing it, I do not know. I suspect she did most of her work in Paris, assisted in her tasks by Alice B. Toklas, and companioned by the proud pity of Pablo Picasso.
Be all this as it may, Watson, the anti-Einstein expert, sits on a bench in Hyde Park, and takes his cracks at Albert, the King in the royal palace of No Dimensions.
Before I come to what Watson has to say about Einstein, there will be no harm in giving what some versifier (whose name I regret I do not remember) has had to say about Epstein, Stein and Einstein, put together in a satirical limerick.
Oh, the wonderful family of Stein,
There’s Gert, and there’s Ep, and there’s Ein.
Gert’s poems are punk,
Ep’s statues are junk,
And no one can understand Ein.
We may now return to our bench-sitting Watson, on the exclusive subject of Einstein.
Watson uses London’s place inclinations, its sense of concrete things, and its human equations in all measurements, to settle Einstein’s worries about what space, motion and time may mean. It is Watson’s theory that not only have the philosophers not cleared up these values by their insolent definitions, but neither has Einstein by his conceited mathematics.
“Leave space and motion and time alone,” says Watson. “Or, if you handle them, handle them with a little human reverence, as shadows of the brightness of God’s immensity, power and eternity; and then you will get out of the notion of space, motion and time all the realization you ever were entitled to.”
Here is Watson’s little lesson on space:
“You may take it,” he says, “in scientific measurement, and then it is a foot, or a yard, or a mile. Or, you may take it,” he says, “in an artisan’s blueprint, and it is a room, a house, or a street. If you then want to hand it over to the world at large, it is a town, a district, a country, or a hemisphere. Now, for God’s sake,” says Watson — to whoever happens to be sitting beside him — “what more does anyone with a brain in his head want to know about space?”
Watson then goes on to the subject of motion.
“If you have a metronome on your piano, and are trying to measure the motion of some musical piece, it is either lento, moderato, or presto. If you dispense with an instrument, and measure motion by your nerves, it is slow, or medium, or fast. If you give it over to the magnitudes at which men depart from home, then they either go, or travel, or journey, or voyage.
“Time,” continues Watson, “is not a bit more difficult to appreciate. When a watch is in your hand, time is a second, or a minute, or an hour. If you left your watch at home, then time is now, or soon, or later. And if you hand it over to calendars, it is a day, or a month, or a year, or a century.
“Now, that’s all you need,” says Watson, “to know about space, and motion, and time. That’s all dear Jesus ever gave us in the Gospel. Anything further than this, that Albert Einstein adds, is just a lot of speculative and scientific damn-foolery!”
“Good-bye, Watson,” you say, “and thank you.”
And, with the look of a humble professor in his eye, Watson’s simple reply is, “You’re welcome!”
Perhaps my readers are now tired, sitting on benches so long. So, let us get up and go over to the “pitches.” These are elevated benches on which talkers shout, with official licenses to do so from municipal headquarters.
These outdoor forums, or pitches, are an implicit tribute to the amount of excellent speculative thought London has discovered brewing in Hyde Park. It was precisely because London sensed how much loiterers on benches had to say, that it stood them up, for people to get a look at, and for policemen and inspectors to listen to. London has a way of being very efficiently thoughtful.
One must not imagine that the Speakers’ Row in Hyde Park is a place to go for entertainment. No mixture of a law court, a vaudeville house, and a church, in one acre of land, could possibly be called entertainment.
Some of the speakers, of course, have entertaining things to say. I remember one somewhat elderly man, with a cultivated singing voice, advocating the return of old-fashioned love songs, like “When Nellie Was a Lady” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” What he was saying was entertaining enough, provided your ear was closed to what a man was shouting on the pitch that was next to his. It was the voice of a wild evangelical, with hatred in his very teeth, clutching a Bible and spitting insult into the face of the most innocent of his listeners!
“You say He’s God. I say He’s not. Call Him Christ, if you care to. But He’s no more God than I am. And if you think I’m not telling you the truth, let God strike me dead this instant. I dare Him to do so.”
He then stood in an almost sanctuary silence, for about a minute. And, finding himself still unstruck by the vengeance of God, he added: “You see what I mean?”
The pitch where the Roman Catholic speakers lecture is not the main show in Hyde Park, by any means; but one always finds a good crowd there, consisting of the most serious listeners, the most irrepressible hecklers, and the most potted drunks in the Park.
Introductory information about the purpose of this pitch one can get on the outskirts of the crowd. It is eagerly given by an intellectual girl, with irregularly bobbed hair, and an efficient semimasculine dress, and whom I may call Matilda from Walsingham.
Matilda lets you know, with a polite finger of warning, and in brisk, pleasant tones, that the speakers on the Catholic pitch do not worry about what good they are doing. They leave that to God. They hope for conversions to the Faith. But if conversions are impossible, other benefits may be achieved — like turning a non-Conformist into an Anglican, or bettering a Low Anglican by making him a High one.
In addition to benches and pitches in Hyde Park, there is also an occasional wheel chair. In the Hyde Park of my memories, an old lady in her late seventies has just rolled in. It is beside her wheel chair I am most anxious to sit, and it is she whom I am most anxious to visit. Her name is Alice Wardroper.
I always told Alice Wardroper that she sounded to me like a cowboy’s sweetheart. But this was too American for her to appreciate. She told me, however, that her name was originally Wardrober. She said her husband’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather (I hope I have gone far enough) was a keeper of the wardrobe of King Henry VIII. Dame Alice says she shudders at such family connections. She abhors heretical kings. As heretical, I am sure she dislikes Henry VIII, because she is an ardent Catholic. But as historical, I am not quite so sure she is displeased with her royal connections.
Dame Alice Wardroper is the wife of an officer in the British Army. She was one of those wives who did not go overseas with her husband. She stayed at home, and waited for him, for months, sometimes years, to return. She wrote him letters every week, studied maps to find out where he was, and kept her heart faithful to all his exploits in various army camps — to songs he sang, and the un-English persons he met. She devoured his diaries when he mailed them home for her to read. God sent her one child, in all this married life of separation, and that was a girl named Angela.
Dame Alice Wardroper wore a black ribbon around her throat, and always some lace at the ends of her sleeves. She had cataracts in her eyes. She was also nearly deaf. She had once fallen down a flight of stairs, all by herself, without any husband to protect her. In this frightful accident, she broke her hip; and when it was repaired, one leg was shorter than the other. On one of her shoes she had to wear three or four soles of leather, to keep it on a plane with the other one.
And yet, I can safely say — and hundreds of Alice Wardroper’s friends will agree with me — that there never was an old lady in England who better overcame handicaps, and did so with the absolute grace of a girl. Her delicacies and affections — the style she had with which to greet you; the faithful remembrances she kept of the least liking you had in the matter of food or comfort, when you consented to visit her; even the modes with which she managed to put a shawl around her shoulders, or fumbled for her glasses when she was looking for something she had lost — made Alice Wardroper, at seventy-eight, a London girl to remember.
As we sit beside Dame Alice’s wheel chair in one of the side paths in Hyde Park, we know at once, from the assurances in her looks, and from the nods she gives in so many directions, that she has friends and admirers and companions, from every age, and walk, and station.
Here is one of Alice Wardroper’s admirers coming down the walk. He is a young novelist, named Richard Oke. He likes to haunt Dame Alice, chiefly for the joy of seeing how she listens to whatever he wants to offer her by way of literary amusement. The name Richard Oke is a pseudonym. His real name is Nigel Millet. He is trying hard to write novels. I do not know if he has succeeded, or whether or not he will succeed. But one thing he does successfully, and that is appreciate Dame Alice Wardroper. He knows whatever she is doing or saying is always fit for a paragraph in a book.
Alice Wardroper’s slightest exploit is either so charming, so naïve, so pitiful, or so unexpected, that, though consigned, herself, to a life of helplessness, her whole day is one of activity.
When night comes on, Alice Wardroper has to be carried upstairs to her bed. This service her daughter, Angela, now grown-up, is usually allowed to fulfill. But anyone sitting in the Wardroper living room is always anxious for the privilege.
The nemeses in Alice Wardroper’s life are two spinsters who live in the other half of her house. Between her and them is a wall, altogether too thin. Behind this wall, Dame Alice’s feminine neighbors are always listening, by way of discovering disturbances they can complain about. Upon this wall they are constantly knocking, to let Alice Wardroper know they have been disturbed. The names of these suspicious sisters are Viola and Veronica Morrison. And Dame Alice’s almost constant whisper of warning is:
“Shhhhhh! The Morrisons will hear you!”
I do not blame Dame Alice for disliking the unmarried Morrisons. No one can raise a voice in her house, or walk with a heavy step, or make a point in conversation by striking his hand on the table, without their hearing it in the next apartment. And as for loud laughter, they find it insufferable.
When Dame Alice Wardroper has been carried upstairs to bed at night, if she wants anything later on from her daughter, Angela, she never dares call out loud. This would annoy the Morrison Girls, who would pretend they had been wakened from sleep. Dame Alice, therefore, for any assistance she may require late at night, has to give warning notices to the floor below by way of little knocks, and taps, and coughs of every conceivable kind.
I am so glad I have Richard Oke with us, here in Hyde Park at this moment, so that he may tell you, in his own inimitable way, one of Dame Alice’s midnight stories.
“This is Richard Oke speaking. Would you like to hear about the weird experience I had at Alice’s the other night?
“Angela Wardroper had just carried her mother up to bed. Angela was sitting, reading in the living room. I happened to be walking by the house on one of my late excursions. I saw a light in the Wardroper window. I thought I would go in.
“Angela was so engrossed in her book that she neither heard me come in, nor did she want to bother with conversation. And so I went over and lay down on the sofa, and began reading a book myself.
“The next thing you know, I began to hear — or at least began to think I was hearing — the most minute, infinitesimally small, microscopic little noises it is possible for a human ear to listen to. At first I thought I was imagining things; but after a moment or two I knew I was not. So I summoned up my courage, and spoke to Angela, who, as I say, was engrossed in her book.
“ ‘Angela,’ I said, ‘Angela.’
“ ‘Yes?’ said Angela.
“ ‘Did your parlor mouse, by any chance, hatch today a brood of little mouselings, and are they now trying out their tiny teeth on the furniture?’
“ ‘Why do you ask that?’ said Angela.
“ ‘Because never in my life have I listened to such incessant, suspicious little sounds as I have been listening to for the past few minutes.’
“Whereupon I got up, and went about examining things in the living room, to see where these naughty little noises might be coming from. I looked behind pictures. I peeked under vases. I lifted up cups. I turned over the corners of tablecovers. I examined the crevices in the chairs, and even poked at pieces of wallpaper loose on the wall; but still no clue. In sheer desperation — and it was getting perilously close to midnight — I opened the door, and went out into the hall. And behold …
“Standing on the top of the stairs was her Ladyship. Dame Alice Wardroper. With a handful of minutiæ. Which she was tossing, one by one, down the stairs. First came a machine needle. Then came a paper fastener. Then a linen button. Then a cascara pill. Then half of an aspirin tablet…
“ ‘What are you doing?’ I called up to her. ‘What are you doing, Dame Alice? What are you doing, and what do you want?’
“ ‘I want to attract Angela’s attention,’ she said.
“ ‘With the aid of this notion store?’
“ ‘I don’t want to wake the Morrison Sisters,’ she whispered loudly. ‘But I want Angela to come up, for something that I need.’
“Just at this moment, the bell in a nearby churchtower started striking the hour of midnight. And oh! I do tell you, it is a terrifying thing, at the dead hour of midnight, to hear a linen button, or an aspirin tablet, come bouncing down the stairs; or to listen to a cascara pill go crashing into the wall.
“ ‘You want to attract your daughter’s attention?’ I called to Dame Alice.
“ ‘Yes!’ she whispered in a shriek.
“ ‘With all these picayune trinkets?’ I replied.
“ ‘Yes!’ she shrieked once again.
“ ‘Oh! I see!’ said I, ‘I get the idea. You drop a bread crumb, and your daughter comes!’ ”
I do not know what became of this Richard Oke. But I do know what became of Alice Wardroper. She died. And I am sure that my remembrance of her, now written, will remind her in Heaven what I once promised her on Earth. And that was, that I never would forget her.
And as I bid farewell to Hyde Park, whose benches, pitches, and even wheel chairs, have given me such pleasure and delight, I trust I will be pardoned for making my next enterprise — finding what has emptied the pews in the London churches.