The Colonel and the Incompetent Waiter

The Colonel and the Incompetent Waiter
by E. R. Punshon

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v. 40 1914, pp. 437-442. Accompanying illustrations by Dudley Tennant omitted.



COLONEL SIR HARCOURT VANE KAYE did not generally take much notice of waiters, cabmen, footmen, porters, and other such persons. They existed, and it was necessary that they should exist, but they did not interest him. On their side, they generally regarded him with considerable fear, but without active dislike, for he never treated them unjustly or unfairly. He expected them to do their work and then to efface themselves, and this they were generally only too thankful to be permitted to do, lest a worse thing befell them.

But this new waiter at the Club had annoyed the Colonel almost from the beginning. In the first place, he was palpably inefficient, and the Colonel detested inefficiency. Also he was officious, and the Colonel hated officiousness. Then he was—well, objectionable so far as a waiter can be conceived as objectionable to a Colonel.

The man was, in fact, both fussy and incompetent, and, as the Colonel knew, one or two complaints had already been made about him. But somehow he was kept on. The Colonel would have complained himself, could he have felt it consistent with his dignity to notice the man even as much as that; but at last the thing went so far that he actually changed his table in the Club dining-room. And immediately afterwards some rearrangement was made of the staff, and the Colonel found this incompetent waiter assigned to the new table he had chosen. The Colonel was really ruffled, and he was still more ruffled when the very first evening the man tripped and emptied a plate of hot soup full into the centre of his white waistcoat.

The Colonel said not a word, but he rose to his feet, majestic and terrible. One may gather what kind of a man he was from the simple fact that, with hot soup streaming down his white waistcoat and carefully-creased trousers, he still looked dignified and imposing, so that not a soul laughed. The unhappy waiter stood petrified with horror and dismay. The head waiter hurried up, appalled. The Colonel said not a word, gave not so much as a glance to the actual culprit, but to the head waiter he said with cold condemnation—

"You are unfit for your position if you are unable to select a competent staff."

Then he left the room and returned to his chambers to change. He dined elsewhere that night, and when he appeared at the Club the next day, the head waiter, abject and scared, crawled—he did not actually crawl, but that is the impression he produced—to meet him; but the Colonel would not listen to a word.

"The matter need not be referred to," he said. "I take it for granted that nothing of the kind will happen again."

The head waiter was silenced, and thankful he was, and the Colonel perceived that the incompetent waiter no longer troubled the Club dining-room with his officious and objectionable presence. And of this the Colonel was glad.

A day or two later he happened to be dining out, and as the evening was fine and he in the mood for a stroll, he decided to dispense with a taxi and to walk instead to his host's house, which was situated in Westminster. His way took him through some of the poor and crowded parts which lie always behind the richest streets of the richest city in the world . He happened to be passing a butcher's open stall, where the salesman in a blue apron was bawling aloud the merits of his meat, when he came face to face with the very last person he would have expected to see—the incompetent waiter of the Club dining-room.

They knew each other at once—the Colonel as one recognises a muddy puddle one wishes to avoid, the incompetent waiter with a sudden flame of hate in those pale and watery eyes of his the Colonel had always disliked. He put out his hand quickly and snatched from the butcher's stall a long, keen-bladed knife. The butcher shouted in anger and warning. The Colonel turned only just in time, to see a man flying at his throat with bare steel in his hand and the blood lust in his eyes. The Colonel was a brave man and a ready, and he threw up his left arm to guard himself. The blow fell, wounding his forearm only slightly, but given with such force and fury that he staggered before it, tripped, lost his balance, and fell full length in the gutter.

Very muddy and without his hat, he scrambled to his feet again, to find the street in an uproar, his assailant vanished, and a policeman coming up at a run. To him the Colonel explained briefly what had happened, and the policeman took copious notes and promised to have the scoundrel under lock and key in less than four-and-twenty hours.

"I dunno what we're coming to, sir," said the policeman, as he brushed the Colonel's muddy clothes and found his hat, and escorted him across the road to a surgery, where his trifling wound was bandaged, and then got him a cab.

Undoubtedly the Colonel was very ruffled and very angry indeed as he drove homewards; it was not so much the attempt to murder him he resented, but he did object to being rolled in the mud in a London gutter. He felt he had been made ridiculous, and he did not like to be ridiculous. He hoped they would lay the fellow by the heels without delay, but he rather doubted it. London was a big place and easy to hide in, and very likely the rascal would escape capture. All at once there flashed into his mind a memory of how he had once heard his assailant saying to a fellow-waiter at the Club that he lived at a certain address in Islington. At the time he had merely been vaguely annoyed that a Club waiter should presume to talk at the Club of his private affairs; he was not quite sure it was not rather a liberty for a waiter to have any private affairs whatsoever. Certainly he had not known that he remembered the incident, and two or three hours ago he would have denied all knowledge of it, or the very faintest idea of where any of the Club servants lived—if, indeed, they lived at all, and were not created afresh each morning for the service of the Club. But now he remembered it plainly, and the very tone of voice in which the address had been mentioned, and, stopping the cab, he gave it to the driver and told him to get there as quickly as he could.

"If the fellow returns home, he may find me waiting for him," he thought grimly.

His spirits rose. Tiger-hunting was, perhaps, what he had enjoyed most during his life in India, and had most missed since his return, and this expedition struck him as being as good a substitute as he was ever likely to have at home.

At the corner of the street he stopped the cab and got out. He paid and dismissed the man and looked round for a policeman, but none was in sight. He walked down the street till he came to the number he remembered, and knocked. A shrill voice from within called to know who was there and what was wanted, and the Colonel found himself in a difficulty, for he did not know his assailant's name.

A slatternly woman appeared, doubtful and suspicious. The Colonel explained he was seeking a man who had recently been employed at the "Military," and then the woman knew at once.

"Oh, that's the top floor back," she answered, and vanished as though no longer interested.

The Colonel made his way up a flight of stairs so rickety he wondered how they stood, so dirty he wondered how it had been managed, and so dark it was more by smell and touch than by sight that he knew what their condition was. Late as the hour was, the house, which to the Colonel's amazement seemed to hold a fresh family in each room, was wide awake and lively, but no one took much notice of him. His overcoat hid his evening-dress, and he was simply taken for one of the floating population of the place. On the top landing he hesitated for a moment, but, remembering the woman below had said "top floor back," he quietly went to the door that seemed to be most at the back and opened it. His idea was that he would find his assailant there or wait for his return, and seize him then and there and march him off to the police. He was capable of doing that in the face of a whole hostile house and district, for sympathy would certainly have been with the captive; but all the door he opened showed was a small child, who looked at him with large, frightened eyes, and said with a little sob—

"Oh, please, are you the Devil? "

The question was so unexpected that the Colonel could not help smiling. And when the Colonel smiled—which was not often—his whole expression changed, and he looked as, perhaps, he might always have looked, if five-and-twenty years before a certain brown-eyed, brown-haired girl had not died very suddenly from typhoid fever on her twenty-first birthday. The child looked extremely relieved and smiled in return, and the Colonel said—

"No, I'm not the Devil."

"I thought you was, but I'm glad you isn't," said the child. "I'm Phyllis."

She appeared to regard the acquaintance as now complete, but the Colonel felt a little embarrassed. Evidently he had got into the wrong room. It was a tiny little place, but so bright and clean and cheerful, his inexperienced eyes did not at first take in its extreme poverty. The little girl, too, was very clean and tidy—very different, indeed, from the swarm of other children the Colonel had seen in the neighbourhood. He said—

"And, pray, why did you think I was the Devil?"

"Because you look like him," was the unexpected and uncompromising retort.

"Do I, though?" said the Colonel, slightly disconcerted.

"Dad knows him," added Phyllis.

"Does he, though?" said the Colonel. "Very interesting, I'm sure. And who is your dad?"

Phyllis's blue eyes opened to their widest.

"Why, he's Dad, in course," she answered, evidently both surprised and hurt that anyone should be ignorant of a fact so elementary and so important.

A dry, harsh cough sounded from behind, and light footsteps hurrying on the stairs.

The Colonel turned and saw a woman, terribly thin and worn, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes and the remnants still clinging to her of great beauty. A fit of coughing was shaking her from head to foot. She tried to speak, but could not, and, entering the room, she sank exhausted on a chair.

"I beg pardon, sir," she managed to say, and choked with fresh coughing.

"It isn't the Devil, Mums," said Phyllis reassuringly. "I thought it was, but it isn't."

"Hush, Phyllis dear," the woman managed to say. "That's rude. I beg your pardon, sir. Was it my husband you wished to see? I had just slipped downstairs for a moment to a poor woman who is ill there."

The Colonel, standing awkwardly in the doorway, had meant to make his excuses and retreat to try one of the other rooms for his quarry, but at this he could not help starting and giving the speaker a quick look, for he did not see how anyone could be much more ill than she was herself. She saw his look, and smiled strangely as she said—

"Oh, I'm sick, too, but with her it'll be quicker."

"Mums not sick," interrupted Phyllis. "Mums——" She paused. "Mums is do-oomed," she said.

She pronounced the word with difficulty, but with evident pride and pleasure, and when she had spoken it she laughed with delight. The Colonel, startled, looked over her head at her sick mother, who looked back with quiet and steady eyes.

"Phyllis overheard the doctor say that the other day," she explained. "It means Mums will soon be better, doesn't it, Phyllis?"

Phyllis nodded energetically.

"And sleep all night and never cough," she said. "I'm glad you's do-oomed, Mums."

The Colonel, acutely uncomfortable, wished very much to go away. But something seemed to prevent him, and he stood there, and the idea came into his mind to wonder if there had ever been a man in his old regiment, with its record of two centuries of battle, one half so brave as this poor sick woman, who knew herself doomed and smiled on her child, who knew it not.

"You wished to see my husband, sir?" she asked. "I think he will be back almost immediately. I——"

"I was just looking for someone," the Colonel explained. "That was all. And your little girl gave me such a quaint greeting."

"You shouldn't say such things, Phyllis," her mother rebuked her. "It is very rude. It is only some nonsense of her father's, sir."

"Well, he's just like, only I'm glad he isn't," announced Phyllis.

She produced a sheet of paper and held it up, and on it the outraged and indignant Colonel perceived a very creditable pencil sketch of himself, decorated with horns and a tail and glaring in a manner more lifelike than he knew.

"Why, how strange! It really is like," the mother exclaimed, astonished.

"Not in the very least," declared the Colonel with emphasis.

"That's him," said Phyllis, "and you is like him, but I'm glad you isn't really him. And now he has got Dad turned away from work. That's why we haven't very much to eat to-day."

"Good Heavens!" said the Colonel.

There was no special reason that he knew of why an incompetent waiter and would-be assassin should not have a sick wife and a pretty baby girl, but, all the same, the fact took him greatly by surprise. He had not allowed for it, and it slightly bewildered him.

"My husband has just lost his situation, sir," the woman explained. "I thought perhaps—it was only an idea, but when I was told there was a gentleman asking, I thought perhaps it might be someone wanting him. He has good references, sir, only he has been unfortunate—and I'm a great burden."

"How did he lose his work?" the Colonel asked.

"He had a place as waiter at a club in the West End, sir," the woman answered, "and one of the gentlemen was rather severe, and always frightened him. You see, sir, when a man has been out of work a long time, and has a child and a sick wife like me, then it frightens him to think of losing his post. And Arthur was not brought up to be a waiter; he is not really handy at it. He got on all right with most of the other gentlemen, but there was always this one who was severe and made him nervous, so that he couldn't do as well even as usual with him."

"I see," said the Colonel thoughtfully.

"He used to worry so about this one gentleman, sir," the woman went on. "You see, sir, he worked so hard. They are long hours at the Club, and before he went he did everything here, for if I try even to lift a saucepan, my coughing comes on. He did everything, sir, and every day he would take Phyllis for a walk, so that she might get out a bit, for we don't like her to play in the street here; and then at night he got so little sleep because of my coughing. Oh, sir, how he has worked, and me a useless burden; and never once have I had a word from him but of love and tenderness, though all of it has been my doing."

The Colonel grunted, and somehow all at once he thought of that brown-eyed, brown-haired girl who had died on her twenty-first birthday just five-and-twenty years before. As though this grunt encouraged her to talk, the woman went on—

"You see, sir, his father had a printing business in Birmingham. I went there to be an assistant in the shop. I was pretty enough in those days. I can say it now, for all the pride and vanity I had in plenty has been knocked out of me since then. His father never forgave us for marrying, and Arthur had been brought up to no trade, for he had always been meant just to carry on the business and be manager like. He did his best—ah, sir, he has worked!—and then I fell sick, and a sick wife is such a burden on a man. All the money we could get went on doctors."

The Colonel did not speak, but it seemed very strange to him, this brief history of a life so different from his own. And when he thought of his own campaigns in India and South Africa, he did not know that he had ever fought a battle so hard as that the incompetent waiter had waged for his sick wife and his child. A footstep sounded on the stairs, and the woman rose eagerly. It was plain she still clung to the hope that their visitor might intend to offer employment to her husband.

"There he is now, sir," she said.

"Dad!" screamed Phyllis, with a yell of delight.

The Colonel turned stiffly and faced the incompetent waiter. The two men looked at each other in silence. Neither spoke. Both were very pale. Phyllis, frightened at something she did not understand, ran to her mother, who clasped her in her weak arms.

The waiter's steady eyes never flinched or wavered as he said—

"I did not expect to find you here."

"No," said the Colonel thoughtfully; "no, you wouldn't."

The waiter went to his wife and kissed her.

"This gentleman has come for me," he said. "He may get me work."

"Oh, thank you, sir!" the woman said, a gleam of hope in her sunken eyes. "Thank the gentleman, Phyllis."

Again her husband kissed her very tenderly, and the child also. Stern and upright, the Colonel looked on without speaking.

"I'm ready now," the waiter said.

The Colonel went out of the room. The waiter followed. On the landing the Colonel turned and said—

"You tried to kill me just now."

"Yes," the waiter agreed, with a reflective air. "I don't know whether I am glad or sorry I failed. It came over me suddenly—how I hated you!"

"You spill soup in my lap," said the Colonel, his voice trembling with annoyance as he recited his wrongs; "you try to murder me; you roll me in the gutter; you tell your little girl I'm the Devil; you draw abominable sketches of me with horns and a tail. I'm not going to put up with that sort of thing, you know. It's preposterous. You have got to be taught better, and you have got to teach your child better. But there is no time to lose. The police may get your address and be here any minute. I've a cottage near Nice I want a caretaker for. I have decided to offer you the post. Don't stare like that; just listen to me. The wages will be two pounds a week, with lodging, and I will pay all travelling expenses. Don't interrupt. I will not be interrupted. Your duties will consist in keeping the house and garden tidy, and mind that is done to my satisfaction. Be off now and get a taxi as fast as you can, and do not stare in that silly way. I dislike being stared at. There is no time to lose, for we must get you and your wife and child away before the police turn up. I will take you to where you can spend the night. To-morrow you can start for Nice. Do not interrupt me, I say; I have already said that once; don't let me have to repeat it. Be quick, now."

Like a man in a dream, the incompetent waiter went and returned with a taxi-cab. He, his wife, Phyllis, and the Colonel bundled themselves inside, the Colonel in a very bad temper and speaking to them with great sharpness. They started, and half-way down the street were stopped. The Colonel put his head out of the window and saw an inspector of police and the very constable who, earlier in the evening, had picked him out of the gutter.

"Why, it's the gentleman himself," said the constable, disappointed.

"Ah, you have got the address, eh?" said the Colonel genially. "I have just been up there myself, but there's no one there."

"Perhaps he will turn up later on," said the inspector.

"He may," agreed the Colonel, "but somehow I don't think so. Drive on, cabman. Good night, inspector; I fear you will find the bird's flown."

Copyright, 1914, by Little, Brown & Co., in the United States of America.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.