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WIDE AWAKE.



I am a remarkably good-looking middle-aged bachelor. Twenty years ago I sunk all my property in an annuity, and on that annuity I live very comfortably.

Ten years ago it occurred to me that I would very likely marry, so I ensured my life for ten thousand pounds.

I am a man of a particularly affectionate disposition. This amiable tendency has led me into many difficulties in my time—not the least of which was an engagement to marry my cousin Georgina Sparrow.

I supposed I loved Georgina when I proposed to her. Looking calmly back at Georgina, it seems improbable I admit—but still I did propose to her, and as I had no underhand motive in doing so (for I am rich and extremely handsome, whereas she is poor and singularly plain), I suppose I must have loved her more or less.

However that may be, there is no doubt at all that before I had been engaged to her for a week, I found myself wondering what on earth I had ever seen in her to admire. She was bony, angular, acid, and forty.

My uncle, old Sparrow (Georgina's father), and my aunt Julia, his wife, and Georgina's two horsey brothers, James and John, took the greatest interest in our engagement, They seemed to think it likely that I should try to get out of it, and they determined that I should not have a chance of doing so. I should have stated that I lodged at their house. I should have liked to lodge elsewhere, where I could have had more liberty and less fluff, but my natural amiability was more than a match for my sense of convenience, and I remained.

On one occasion I did, hint at the possibility of my removing to a less dear, and less dirty sphere of action, but the indignation of Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow, the violent attitudes of John and James, and the appalling hysterics of Georgina, induced me weakly to confess that it was only my fun.

My natural amiability is such that I must love some one—and as it was out of the question to go on loving Georgina, it became necessary to love somebody else. I found an appropriate object of homage in Bridget Comfit, a very plump and rosy widow lady of small independent property, who lived in Great Coram Street.

To make a long story short, I will at once confess that, being engaged to Georgina Sparrow, I nevertheless secretly made love to Mrs. Comfit. I even went so far as to make arrangements to marry Mrs. Comfit at St. Pancras Church, Euston Square. I did not tell Bridget about Georgina because I knew that it would distress her, and I did not tell Georgina about Bridget, because I knew that it would distress her. It would also have distressed her furious father, her fluent mother, and her two very violent and impulsive brothers, John and James. I acted for the best.

The day before the day appointed for my marriage with Mrs. Comfit arrived. I did not feel quite happy that evening. I did not enjoy my dinner. Uncle Sparrow seemed to have a reproachful something in his eye which I could not account for. Aunt Sparrow was surprisingly silent. The two brothers, John and James, looked moody, and Georgina was uncomfortably affectionate. I felt rather conscience smitten.

I began to think that in marrying Bridget secretly, I was perhaps acting an underhand part towards Georgina. I had never looked at it in that light before; it had always seemed to me to be the most natural thing in the world that a man who had engaged himself to Georgina should take the earliest opportunity of getting out of the engagement.

But there is a right and a wrong way of doing everything, and I saw, when it was too late, that it would have been better to have broken her heart in a more manly and straightforward way. Still I acted for the best.

The next morning—the morning of my marriage day—I breakfasted in bed. I couldn't face the family. I am a tender-hearted old fool, and I could not feel at my ease in the presence of the woman whose heart I was deliberately breaking. So I pleaded a bad bilious headache, and remained in bed until Uncle Sparrow had started for the City (he was something—not much—in the City), and his two headstrong sons had betaken themselves to Aldridge's.

I knew that this would happen at a quarter to ten, and that at ten o'clock Mrs. Sparrow and Georgina would go down to the kitchen to have their daily row over the cook's accounts—so at ten I determined to make my escape.

I dressed—reached the ground-floor in safety—kissed a last farewell to Georgina's very long goloshes in the umbrella-stand, and eventually stood free and undetected in the street. I had yet an hour to spare before Bridget would arrive at the church, and I spent this in walking round Euston Square—which can be done in two thousand one hundred paces—and at a quarter to eleven I entered the church. There was no one there but the beadle.

I went up to him and said, "Oh, I beg your pardon, but I've come to be married." At that moment I was clapped on the back by Georgina's two headstrong brothers. My cousins and their father had been paying a visit to a money-lender in Euston Square. They saw me walking round, their curiosity was excited, and they followed me to the church. And so came about one of the most tremendously dramatic situations in Modern History.

"So, sir," said Uncle Sparrow, "you've come to be married?"

"Fire and fury!" said John.

"Zounds and the devil!" said James.

I was equal to the emergency. My natural kindness of heart prevented my admitting the truth to my uncle and my cousins, for I never distress a fellow-creature intentionally (unless she is ugly, and I am engaged to her), so I resorted to one of the most ingenious methods of getting out of a dilemma that I ever heard of. I gave a sudden start, gasped, rolled my eyes wildly, and exclaimed:—

"Where am I?"

They explained to me in language quite unsuited to the sacred edifice in which they were standing, that I was in St. Pancras Church.

"How did I come here? I don't remember anything about it! The last thing I can remember is being in bed with a bilious headache, and trying to go to sleep! And here I am, dressed and wide-awake, in St. Pancras Church. What is the inference?"

They admitted in disgracefully strong language, that they were at a loss to draw any satisfactory inference from this statement.

"My dear uncle, my good (but violent) cousins," said I, "this is very distressing to me, for I thought I had quite shaken it off. I haven't done such a thing as walk in my sleep for years."

They replied, sardonically, that they felt sure of it.

"I once remained for nearly a week in a state of somnambulism. It is most providential that you happened to be here."

They quite agreed with me.

"Another time," said I, "don't wake me suddenly. It is very dangerous to wake a somnambulist with a violent shock. Better let him have his sleep out."

This I said to keep up the illusion.

They promised that, now that they were aware of my infirmity, they would not wake me too suddenly on the next occasion.

"The best thing I can do," said I, "is to go home, and go to bed again."

They heartily concurred with this suggestion. John took one of my arms, James took the other, and Uncle Sparrow walked behind us, keeping the ferule of his walking-stick in the small of my back.

There was nothing for it but to give up all hope of being married that day. I was sorry for Bridget; but I felt that an explanation made at the earliest opportunity would set that right. After all, it would only delay our happiness for a few days. I could not help chuckling over my presence of mind, and the ready wit I had shown in escaping from a difficulty which would have overwhelmed ninety-nine men out of a hundred. It is true I was rather surprised to find how readily my explanation was accepted by my uncle and my cousins; but that only showed how skilfully I had played my part.

I remained in bed all that day, for I really did not feel equal to facing the family in my disappointed frame of mind. But one can't remain in bed for ever, and the next morning I put a bold face on it, and came down, as usual, to breakfast.

"Good morning, uncle," said I, in my most cheerful tones. "How are you, dear aunt? Ha, John! Ha, James! Georgina, my love, good morning."

They looked at one another significantly, but made no response to my greeting.

"Lovely morning," said I.

"It's just as I thought," said Uncle Sparrow to Aunt Julia. "He's at it again,"

"Hush," said Aunt Julia, "don't speak so loud. You'll wake him."

"Poor boy," said Georgina, in a half-whisper. "His eyes are wide open, though he's evidently fast asleep."

"That is always the case with somnambulists," said Uncle Sparrow. "The sleeping brain receives its impressions through the eyes, nose, and ears."

"His nose and ears are wide open also," said John.

"So they were yesterday," said James.

"A very curious instance of somnambulism came under my notice in Italy a few years ago," said Uncle Sparrow. "A very respectable young girl was found under suspicious circumstances in the chamber of an Italian noble, and the most unfavourable inferences were drawn as to her moral character in consequence. Her forthcoming marriage with a handsome young peasant was broken off, and all her old companions repudiated her. Eventually she was seen crossing a most dangerous plank over a watermill, in her petticoat body, and it became clear to all that the girl was a confirmed somnambulist. She was at once re-instated in the good opinion of her friends, and her marriage with the young peasant was celebrated with unusual rejoicings. I knew the family very well."

I looked from one to another in blank astonishment.

"Am I to suppose," said I, "that you are under the impression that I am asleep?"

"Except that his utterance is thick," said Georgina, "there is very little difference between his sleeping and waking voice."

I began to get annoyed.

"Is this a joke?" I inquired, as I sat down to breakfast.

"Take his knife away, Georgina," said Aunt Julia; "cut up his bacon and let him eat it with a tea-spoon."

You can't eat fried bacon with a tea-spoon so as to enjoy it. I therefore protested against this interference with my convenience.

"I insist," said Uncle Sparrow, "on his knife being removed. John and James, sit one on each side of him and watch his movements very carefully. But be very careful not to wake him as that would be most dangerous. These trances usually last a week. John, feed him with a spoon. James, hold his tea-cup and give him a sip occasionally."

"Uncle," said I, "I beg—I beg that you will allow me to have my breakfast in peace. I had nothing to eat yesterday (having had a bilious headache), and I am literally starving."

"Now give him a bit of muffin," said Uncle Sparrow. "Now a spoonful of egg."

"Indeed, indeed, I am quite awake. I can feed myself. I want no assistance from anyone."

"Now a mouthful of tea—take care—its running down his waistcoat."

There was nothing for it but to submit to be fed by the hulking brothers.

I made several appeals to their intelligence, to their sense of humour, and to their feelings as human beings, but in vain. The only notice they took of my remarks was to direct each other's attention to the fact that I expressed myself quite coherently.

The farce was carried on through the whole day, and the next, and the next after that. Nothing would convince them that I was awake. I did all I could to persuade them to treat me like a rational being, but in vain. The two detestable brothers devoted themselves to taking care of me with extraordinary assiduity. They never left me. They took me out for a walk every day, fed me carefully at meal times, undressed me and put me to bed at night, and dressed me again the next morning.

My unfortunate condition was explained to all visitors, who took a deep interest in watching my movements, and everyone was enjoined to speak with bated breath for fear of waking me. No attention was paid by anyone to my remarks; but everyone made observations of the most unpleasantly personal description about me. And, curiously enough, no one entered the house who did not notice something unusual in my appearance and demeanour which was only reconcilable with the theory that I was walking and talking in my sleep.

Uncle Sparrow opened all my letters (including a very emphatic one from the disappointed Mrs. Comfit), and kindly volunteered to take care of them until I was in a condition to take care of them myself.

I am a man of easy temper, but there are limits to my powers of endurance. It was quite evident to me that they were simply "paying me out" for the deception I had practised on them at the church. It was, perhaps, right that I should suffer some little mortification, but I felt that matters had now been carried far enough. I spoke out with furious indignation, and told them that unless they at once gave me an assurance in writing, and signed by the whole family that I was wide awake, I would appeal for protection to the laws of my country. I did not feel quite sure under which Act of Parliament my grievance would come, but I knew that a remedy was provided for every wrong, and that to insist upon it that a man is asleep when he is really wide awake, is a wrong of a most distinct and aggravating description. But my threats had no effect upon my relations, nor was I more successful with one eminent psychologist who came three times a day for a hour and a half each time to study my case for a work on dreams upon which he was then engaged.

As I sat fuming with impatience in an arm-chair in Uncle Sparrow's study surrounded by the whole family, a letter (addressed to me) was placed in Uncle Sparrow's hand. In spite of my emphatic protest, he took the liberty of opening and reading it.

It was from the office in which I had insured my life for the benefit of my widow (whoever that might be) for £10,000. It informed me that the annual premium on my policy was still unpaid, that the fourteen days of grace had expired, and that unless the secretary received a cheque for the amount (£320) in the course of the afternoon, the policy would, igso facto, become null and void.

"You had better attend to this at once," said he, handing the letter to me. "At once," he added, with marked emphasis. "I am surprised that you have neglected so important, so vital a matter."

I saw my advantage at a glance.

"I will attend to it, Uncle, to-morrow, if I am in a condition to do so. These trances, however, usually last a week."

"But to-morrow won't do. The secretary says expressly that the money must be paid this afternoon."

"My dear," said Georgina, "pray do not risk a delay. The matter is of the highest moment. Please be good enough to write a cheque at once."

"I will write a cheque for the amount," said I, "as soon as I am awake. But these trances usually last a week."

"Come, come," said Uncle Sparrow, "the joke has been carried far enough. We were only chaffing you. You never were wider awake in your life. Come—write the cheque at once."

"Uncle Sparrow," said I, "Aunt Julia, Georgina, John and James—you have done your best to persuade me that I have been in a somnambulistic trance for three days. At first I doubted it, but it became impossible to reject the evidence of so many disinterested witnesses, and I am quite convinced that you were right and I was wrong. I am, no doubt, fast asleep. I admit it cheerfully, and I am very much obliged to you for the great care and attention you have bestowed on me in this unfortunate and abnormal condition. It is not likely to last above three or four days longer, and as soon as I am thoroughly awake and capable of attending to business, I will certainly send a cheque for my premium. But not till then."

"I tell you, sir," replied Uncle Sparrow, "that the whole thing was a joke. I freely admit it. But it is time that this fooling came to an end. Write the cheque, like a good fellow, or Georgina will be left penniless."

" My own, my love," said Georgina, "don't be ridiculous. You are much older than I"—that wasn't true—"and in the natural course of events I shall survive you. If the cheque is not written at once, I shall be a penniless widow!"

"I will write it," said I, "when I awake."

"Papa—Mamma—John—James," exclaimed Georgina, in a frenzy, "explain to him that he is labouring under a delusion! Oh, somebody, pray do something, or I shall be ruined."

I was fir ; I insisted upon it that a cheque written in a state of somnambulism would be invalid, and that it would be a useless waste of a stamp if I were to write one in my then condition. The whole family went on their knees to me, but in vain. I stuck to my colours. The hours crept on—it was three o'clock, and the office closed at four. Eventually, finding that nothing could shake my resolution, Uncle Sparrow rushed out to his bankers with the family plate. Aunt Julia's jewels, and a bundle of American stock, borrowed the three hundred and twenty pounds on the security, and paid my premium five minutes before the office closed.

*****

The next day I came down to breakfast, wide awake. I felt that I was awake, and besides that, the whole family admitted it quite cheerfully. Uncle Sparrow begged me to favour him at once with a cheque for the amount of my premium. At first I did not understand what he meant, but a few words of explanation made his meaning clear. I expressed my natural surprise that he should take upon himself to pay the premium on a policy which I had no intention of keeping up, and I declined altogether to hold myself responsible for his act. An angry scene ensued, which resulted in a final rupture of my engagement with Georgina.

To-morrow I marry Mrs. Comfit.