The Garrulous Diplomatist
THE GARRULOUS DIPLOMATIST
By HUGH WALPOLE
ON a beautiful afternoon in May, as I was walking down Piccadilly, just in the arcade of the Ritz Hotel I was touched on the arm, and, turning round, saw the round, highly-polished countenance of Pom Banting uplifted towards me. "Hullo, Pom," I said, "how goes it?"
"It goes very badly," he answered. "The Bankruptcy Court sees me next week and a pauper's grave the week after. Meanwhile, young Johnson, you're just the man I want to see. Are you out walking, or is your nurse waiting somewhere round the corner with the pram?"
"I'm allowed to take a little gentle exercise on condition I don't go too far and wear myself out. Meanwhile, that famous club, the Saucepan, is all agog with excitement because I'm about to lunch there, and the windows are hung with flags."
"That being so," said Pom, "we will walk along together. I have something extremely important and mysterious to impart to thee."
"Impart on," I said.
"Well, old cream and custard," Pom continued, "is it truth or not that some months ago you and one or two other innocents scattered broadcast a letter, the import of which was that you would remove bores from the heart of Society at a moment's notice, demanding but a modest fee in return?"
"I don't know about the modest fee," I answered. "We've been such a success during the few months we have been at work that our fees have gone up."
"The devil they have!" said Pom. "What are they, anyway?"
"Seventy-five quid in any case," I answered, "and a hundred and fifty if we succeed."
"Well, it might be worse," said Pom. "Several of us would be willing to give more than a hundred and fifty if you helped us in our present trouble."
"Who's 'us'?" I asked.
"'Us,'" said Pom, "are me——"
"Good Heavens!" I interrupted. "In what language do you imagine you're speaking at the present?"
"Oh, hang English!" said Pom. "Don't you know I went to Eton? Well, anyway, there are Millie Drake, Huxter, Crawshay, and a lot of others in this, and we'll raise the coin all right if you'll do the job."
"Well, what is the job?" I asked.
Pom dropped his voice into a mysterious and secretive whisper. "Do you know old Marcus Pendyce?" he asked.
"What, Pendyce who was Minister at Constantinople and all sorts of other places years ago, who published his reminiscences last year 'People Who Have Seemed to Me Worth While'?"
"The very same," said Pom.
"Yes, what about him?" I asked.
"Have you ever seen him?" Pom asked.
"No," I answered.
"Then the Lambs must entertain you very seldom," he replied.
The Lambs, I need scarcely mention, was that famous and most exclusive of clubs, entering which was far harder than camels piercing the eye of the needle, whose wine is a miracle, whose history goes back almost to the days of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.
"I've been to lunch there a lot of times," I answered, "but I don't know old Pendyce by sight. Describe him to me."
"Five chins, two stomachs, and a face like a beetroot," said Pom. "But the strangest thing about him is his voice, which is now deep like the rumbling of a gun, and suddenly shrill as a peahen in anger. He is the greatest bore that the world has ever seen, not forgetting George Washington and Mr. Longfellow."
"Tell me more," I asked. "How old is he? Is he married?"
"He's well over seventy," said Pom, "and ought to be silently contemplating his latter end. He's a widower with no children. He's the greatest bore——"
"Yes," I interrupted, "you've said that already. What is it you want us to do?"
"Why, to remove him, of course!" cried Pom. "Didn't your old letter say that you'd remove anybody so that they'd never come back again?"
"Do you mean to tell me," I replied, "that there are all you strong and healthy men, and you're unable to deal with one poor old one over seventy and a widower? Ought to be ashamed of yourselves."
"One poor old one?" ejaculated Pom. "You wait until you see him. He's got the strength of five hundred horsemen and then some. He's absolutely unbeatable. He's eternal, inevitable, everlasting. Why, do you mean to say in your clubs you haven't got bores whom no one can get rid of?"
"Try being rude to him," I said. "I've known rudeness work wonders before now."
"Rude!" cried Pom. "You can't be rude to him. He says he's deaf, which, of course, he isn't, and when you say anything to him especially nasty, he thinks you've paid him a compliment, thanks you for it, and clings closer than ever. The fact is, Johnson, that he's ruining our club. Like everyone else, we're in need of money. At the same time we try to keep our membership as decent as we can; but half the fellers we'd like to have now have got wind of old Mark-My-Words, as we call him, and half the other decent fellows don't come into the club simply because they're terrified of finding him there."
"But what does he actually do?" I asked.
"In the first place he sits on all the papers. Then, when he's read them, he wanders around seeking whom he may devour. Then he begins. 'I remember in seventy-two,' he says, and then you're done. Of course you can get up and leave him, but before you know where you are, he's at your elbow again, and it's a silly thing to see members wandering through the club like lost spirits, with that old thing pottering after them. It's ludicrous."
"It's very difficult," I said, shaking my head, "to cause to disappear one of our most prominent men."
"Well, there you are," said Pom. "Take it or leave it. You might, in any case, come and have a look at him. Come and take lunch with me there to-morrow."
That the Lambs is a very agreeable club, everybody knows. Its old rooms, its aroma of Russian leather and the best cigars, the spirit of peace that broods over it, make it one of the best escapes from this new democratic world conceivable. Pom is an excellent companion. I enjoyed my luncheon enormously. It was when we went into the smoking-room afterwards that Pom suddenly whispered into my ear: "Look! That's him over there, talking to those two unhappy youths."
I looked across the room and saw a stout, red-faced man with white hair slightly on end—this gave him a cockatoo appearance—holding forth to two young men, who were staring at him with the fascinated absorption of rabbits in front of a snake. He was leaning forward a little, and every once and again I caught the boom of his voice and then a reassuring murmur as though his audience were trying to placate him. .
"We will join then," said Pom firmly.
We went across, and Pom, in his sweetest voice, said: "Pendyce, I want to introduce you to a clever young friend of mine, Mr. Seymour Johnson, the future leader of the English novel. I hope we're not interrupting you."
"Oh, no, no, no, indeed," said one of the pale young men, rising with exceeding eagerness. "I must be going, I'm afraid. Appointment——" And the rest of his sentence took place in his boots.
"No interruption, no interruption," said Sir Marcus heartily, fixing his eye upon the other pale young man as though defying him to move a finger. "I was just telling our young friends here about the eruption in seventy-eight."
"The eruption?" said Pom, rather puzzled.
"Yes, of Mount Paphanotis in the Fiji's."
"Oh," said Pom, "I beg your pardon. I thought you meant that something was the matter with somebody's face. Very silly of me indeed."
The remaining pale young man feebly giggled and made an attempt to move, but Sir Marcus's red gout-thickened fingers were on his arm in half a second. "Just a moment, my dear fellow," he said; "allow me to finish my story. It was a perfect miracle of luck that I was there at all at the moment. If it hadn't been for old Casey, of the Bellerophon, turning up just in the nick of time——"
"I beg your pardon," said the pale young man, rising now firmly, "I really have an appointment. I'm a quarter of an hour late as it is. You must excuse me."
Sir Marcus's red-veined eyes nearly started out of his head. "Very well, very well," he said huffily, "good day, good day!" And when the young man had gone, he turned round to us, saying: "What's happened to these young fellows nowadays? Haven't got any manners and haven't got any interest in things, either. Why, that was a most remarkable affair, that eruption. I remember it as though it was yesterday. I can see now just the shape of the island, with the bay running from east to west——"
"Yes," interrupted Pom, "there's nothing I'd like better than to have your account of it, Pendyce, but I see Blackstone over there waiting for me, so I'll just leave you with my young friend for five minutes and come back."
Pom rose and started across the room with what, I afterwards found, was known as the Pendyce shuffle—that is, the walk that was common to all those escaping from the embraces of Sir Marcus.
Left now only with myself, he was forced to consider me, and he turned round, moving with some difficulty, and his face slowly fell upon mine. I was, as it were, dragged gradually into his comprehension, first a nose, then a chin, then an eye or two, and finally all of me caught, fixed, nailed down.
"Well, well," he said, "everyone seems very busy to-day. And so you're a painter, young man?"
"No, no," I hurriedly retorted, "I'm a writer."
"What do you write?" he asked. "Blue Books? I wrote a Blue Book once on the condition of the potato disease in Eastern Manchuria. I remember at the time——"
"No," I said, very loudly and distinctly, "I couldn't write Blue Books. I have a very inaccurate mind. I write novels."
"Oh, novels," he exclaimed, "novels, novels, novels. Now, that's a funny thing. What do you write novels for? Aren't there enough in the world already?"
"Oh, yes, there are," I agreed with him fervently. "Unfortunately, it's the only thing I can write. One has to earn one's living, you know."
"Has one, has one, has one?" he replied.
I may remark, in parenthesis, that I was already discovering two of Sir Marcus's most irritating peculiarities, one being that he said everything three times over, the other that he was curiously absent-minded except when he was talking about himself, so that when you were at the most thrilling point of your own narrative you would see his eye wandering like a greedy pirate, wondering upon what new victims it could seize.
"Talking of novelists," he went booming on, "I used to know a feller called Trollope who wrote novels. Big, heavy, stupid man. Went out hunting a lot, and had the worst seat on a horse I've ever seen on anybody."
Here he began to chuckle over some joke which was slowly coming up to the surface of his mind, which he already perceived in the dim, blue waters far below.
"It must have been in the late 'eighties," he sputtered, "that I said a good thing to that same feller Trollope. I was in the Garrick one day, lunching with old Bony Hackett. Bony couldn't stand writing men, and when Trollope came up and joined us, he was as rude as he could be. When I was introduced to him, Trollope snorted, and that put my back up. I wasn't going to be snorted at by one of those writing fellers, so I said something about novels, you know, hadn't any time to read 'em, better things to do, and all that sort of thing, and Trollope got as red as a turkey cock, and said to me some cheek about thinking that diplomatists had plenty of time for everything, and I said"—here he began to chuckle again, and chuckled such a long time that all the clocks in the club were able to take breath, strike the hour, and recover their breath again before he'd finished—"I said—Heavens, what did I say? Well, I don't know. It was something clever about writing and all that sort of thing; and I remember old Bony Hackett was devilish amused, and told me afterwards he hadn't heard anything so funny for ever so long. The writing feller didn't half like it, I can tell you. Wish I could remember what it was I said. I'll remember in a minute. It was something about writing, and I know it must have been funny because Bony told two or three fellers afterwards, and they all thought it was jolly good. I'll remember what it is in a minute. Oh, yes, I know—no, that wasn't it. Anyway, I could see Trollope didn't half like it."
Here I felt compelled to interrupt. "Must have been very interesting," I murmured, "knowing Anthony Trollope and all the men of his time."
"Well, yes, it was interesting," said Sir Marcus. "Not that I think much of writing fellers as a whole, you know. They're a lousy lot. When I was Minister in Constantinople, there was a chap there who said he was going to write his memoirs. Furnival his name was, or Fernbanks, or Turnbull, perhaps. I can't remember exactly, but I know he had an awfully pretty wife. She was pretty, by Jove! We were very good friends, she and I. I remember one evening dancing with her at old Crawford Romanes's, and she had a rope of pearls on as big as pigeon's eggs. Finest pearls I ever saw in my life. She asked me whether I liked her pearls, and I said: 'I like the neck they're on better.' Ha, ha, ha! That was good, wasn't it? Ah, one was young in those days! The things one could do then! Swim, hunt, shoot, ride.
"Swim? Why, I swam five miles one night with the water so hot it fairly blistered you. That swim was talked of afterwards, I can tell you. I remember a young cousin of mine there, Bertie Pendyce. Poor feller, got eaten by a shark afterwards, lower half of him bitten right off. Left a wife and four children. Pretty little woman, she was, and they hadn't a penny. She married afterwards young Sparkes, who ran off with that opera singer in Paris. What was her name? Large, fat, red-faced woman. She was always unlucky—Mrs. Sparkes, I mean. Devilish pretty, too, but never seemed to hit on the right man. She married a third time."
Here I was compelled to interrupt. I saw Pom making signs to me from the other end of the room. "Very sorry," I said, feeling weak as water, but determined to prove my courage, "but I must be off. I've enjoyed very much what you've been telling me, and hope we'll have another talk one day."
"We must, indeed," said Sir Marcus, rising, too, and putting his arm through mine. "I haven't had such an interesting conversation for a long time. Come along and have a meal with me one day. 5, Half Moon Street. Always glad to see you, and you shall tell me more of your doings. Hullo, Banting! Just been hearing all your young friend's adventures. Very interesting. Very indeed. I was just telling him about poor Milly Sparkes. Did you ever know her? Married a young cousin of mine. Eaten by a shark, poor feller. All the lower half of him bitten right off. She married again afterwards. Some woman in the opera at Paris—can't remember her name—large, fat woman——"
"No, no," said Pom hurriedly, "I never knew her."
"Well, so long, Pendyce. Glad to have seen you."
We left the diplomatist staring after us in indignant surprise. When we reached the hall I gripped Banting by the arm. "I'll do what I can," I said. "I don't know that we can bring it of!, but it's a public duty. We'll do our best."
"By Jove, you'll be a public benefactor," said Pom, "if you do. What are you thinking of? Leaving him on a Scotch moor, or something?"
"It will need considering," I answered, "but I have an idea. We'll see."
The week that followed was one of the most miserable of my young life. I saw that to carry this through successfully it was absolutely essential that I should make a thorough study of my subject. It was not difficult to climb into the affections of Sir Marcus. I telephoned on the morning following my first meeting with him and asked him whether I might see him again. He cordially invited me to dine with him that night. His rooms in Half Moon Street must have been among the smallest and the untidiest in London. He was in his bath when I arrived, and the table in the little sitting-room was laid for two. I will honestly confess that my heart sank when I saw that I was to spend the evening alone in his company. He shouted to me from his bath, and I saw through the open door a large red face, a large mottled red arm, and an enormous sponge. He talked then for the next ten minutes through the sponge, into which he seemed to bury his face in successive frenzies of excitement. Then, as he dressed, he continued to shout at me, and arrived at last in the little sitting-room, his white hair all on end, struggling with his collar and shouting for the valet. "Where's Crundle? Crundle, Crundle, Crundle! Sorry I'm so late. Met an interesting feller as I was coming along from the club. He was just back from India. What he said reminded me of a thing that happened in Bombay once. What the—— This collar's too small. Where's that man got to? Would you mind helping me a moment? Just slip your finger in there. Give the stud a push, will you? That time in Bombay—oh, look out, the thing'll go if you don't take care! Got it! Take care, don't pinch my neck. Oh, Heavens, it's gone! Wait a minute."
I then enjoyed one of the strangest sights I've seen for a long time, namely, Sir Marcus standing in his shirt and trousers and shaking himself up and down like a danseur learning the latest and most erratic developments of the shimmy, his eyes, as usual, bursting from his head, both of us watching in agony for the appearance of the stud. There was a little tinkle as something struck the floor, and we were then both on our knees searching the carpet. But I will not continue through the varied eccentricities of that amazing evening.
Some bores are bores because they remember so much. Some are bores because they remember nothing at all. Some are bores because they say the same things over and over again. Some are bores because their views of life are so simple that they reduce everything to nothing, and then reduce it all over again. Some are bores because they love you so much. Others because they hate you so much. Others, again, because they are not thinking of you at all, but only of themselves. Others, yet again, because they think of you so much that your natural modesty is disgusted. Some are bores because of a trick of the voice or a movement of the body. Some because they're industrious, some because they're lazy, some because they're ugly, and certainly some because they're handsome. All these bores, except the very last, was Sir Marcus Pendyce. When, after our not very appetising meal, we were seated in front of the fire, I began to suffer with that strange desire to scream, hit somebody with a mallet, or burn the house down, which is supposed to arise only from the condition of overwrought nerves. My nerves were excellent, but there was an inevitability, a monotony about Pendyce's voice that was like the howling of a dog in the night-time, or the screaming of a peacock upon the walls of the ancestral home. Pendyce's exultation as he discovered that he had here at last a victim apparently willing, helpless, and invertebrate, a victim for whom he had been searching through so many years, was an awful thing to witness. He led me from Constantinople to Berlin, from Berlin to the Caucasus, flung me from the Caucasus into the National Sporting Club, and thence back again to the waters of the Bosphorus; then, taking me by the hairs of my head, breathless and exhausted, took me to the highest peaks of Mount Everest, hurled me thence into the purlieus of Whitechapel, then dragged me, broken and beaten, into St. Peter's at Rome, gave a final stamp across my prostrate form, then boomed away like the sea on a rocky coast.
"Well, well, it's pleasant to have a chat and find out what a man really thinks. You've opened my eyes to a lot of things to-night. One day I'll tell you a few things, too. After all, there's something in age and experience. We old 'uns know a thing or two. What says Horace?"
There began then the most dreadful pursuit of the Latin language, which, ending in a kind of apoplectic convulsion, produced only the words "Eton, education, classics, fine thing for a boy."
The result of this evening was that I was determined to put the plan that I had conceived into execution as soon as possible. "Look here, Chippet," I said, "have you seen Charlie Black lately?"
"No, I haven't for a long time," said Chippet, "Why?"
"He's got to help me," I said. "I suppose he's in the same old place."
He was. I paid him a visit that very afternoon. Mr. Charles Black was a remarkable man of enterprise, who started in a haberdasher's, had been most things from a stoker to a dancing instructor, and was now safely landed in quite a successful business as a lecture agent. It is well known that in the United States of America there is a passion for lecturers on every conceivable subject, and very often on no subject at all. Here, in the less intellectual British Isles, lecturers are less in demand, and it is generally considered that a lecturer is sufficiently rewarded by being allowed to speak for an hour or so in a hall or drawing-room on the subject nearest his heart without the addition of financial profit.
Mr. Black was changing all that. He had now a leash of excited lecturers at his heels, who went yapping and barking about the country, and he had roused quite enough interest in many of the larger provincial towns to make a small profit possible for his lecturers and quite a large one for himself. He was an honest, agreeable, faithless haberdasher, who considered his lecturers exactly as he had in an earlier period of his career considered collars and handkerchiefs. "This is a very good little thing that we're doing," he would announce to Newcastle or Liverpool, "in 'The Haunted Homes of England' style, or we have a line in 'The Poets of Scotland' we can thoroughly recommend. These 'Princesses I Have Known' articles are wearing very well indeed, and these 'Denizens of the Deep' are meeting a long-felt demand."
Some of his lecturers, I understood, objected to the atmosphere with which he surrounded them. He was quite frank with these superior persons. "If you don't like it, modam," he said, "you can jolly well lump it. Here am I creating a new style of business; and you will kindly allow me to do it my own way. Good afternoon, modam. I expect your '’Igh Life in the Cities of Europe' will be most successful without my aid. No one will be more glad than I shall be if it is so."
As he explained to me, he sounded a sarcastic fellow; he was not nearly so sarcastic as he sounded. He was very glad to see me again. "Why, Mr. Johnson," he said, "this is a sight for sore eyes! Are you thinking of lecturing yourself?"
"Do you think I'd be any good at it?" I asked him.
"Well, you never can tell," he assured me. "We 'ad a woman in 'ere last week who looked as if she wouldn't say bo to a goose, she was that frightened. She told me she'd got a series on the cathedrals of England, and I was going to turn her off, but suddenly the man I'd got going down to Brighton fell through, and I sent her down instead. Lord luv a duck, but she 'ad them paralysed! The Royal Pavilion, too, where the old Prince Regent used to carry on any'ow. She made them cathedrals as thrilling as a circus. She 'ad them laughing all over the place. The best lecture they'd ever 'ad, they said."
"Well, I've got a lecturer for you," I said, "who's the very thing. He's a retired diplomat, who's known everybody in his time and been everywhere."
"Why, that sounds good," said Mr. Black. "Has he done any lecturing?"
"Not in public," I said. "Plenty in private."
"Is he shy or nervous?" said Mr. Black.
"Not a bit," I answered. "Nothing can stop him once he's off. He can give you anecdotes about all the crowned heads of Europe; he's a most amusing fellow."
"Why, that's the very thing I want," said Mr. Black. "It's a funny thing, but in these democratic days, the more democratic people get, the more they want to 'ear about 'igh life. Mention a duchess to 'em ten years ago and they wouldn't look at it. Give 'em a countess to-day, and they'll eat you. What's 'e look like?"
"He looks a proper old aristocrat," I answered. "Three chins, an eye-glass, and what's called a 'portly presence.' He's also got the Oxford manner. He's genial, friendly, and loves a yarn."
"'E's the" very man," said Mr. Black, in an awestruck whisper. "Send him along."
Next day I lunched with Sir Marcus at the Lambs. There is something strange and uncomfortable, not altogether unconnected, I suppose, with a bad sort of snobbishness, about being entertained in a club by a man who is immensely unpopular there. If there is some fine and righteous reason for his unpopularity, then the guest may feel all the virtuous happiness of supporting, against odds, a magnificent cause. But if his unpopularity has no greater basis than intrinsic unagreeableness, it is difficult indeed not oneself to feel unagreeable and justly uncomfortable.. It helped me a little to realise that Sir Marcus was completely unaware of the general attitude to him. In the few minutes before luncheon he approached five different members of the club with an eager smile and an explanatory finger, and all those five men faded away from before him and were not. It was as though he realised that it was an essential condition of his state of life that he should only catch his company after many fruitless throws of the line and hook, and he turned this, in some wonderful way, to a deep compliment to himself, on the ground, I suppose, that the best of God's creatures are only appreciated by the few, and that nothing that is good comes easily.
We were half-way through luncheon when I made my proposal.
"Lecture?" he cried, sniffing the air like a horse out for its first morning run. "Lecture, lecture, lecture? Well, now, why not?"
"Why not, indeed?" I said. "I wonder that you haven't thought of it before."
"My dear young friend," he said impressively, leaning towards me, "I have thought of it on several occasions. To tell you the truth, advances have been made to me, but they didn't seem to me quite worth it, nor, indeed, to tell you a little more, quite remunerative enough. Who wants me to lecture?"
I told him about Mr. Black, Mr. Black's enthusiasm, and Mr. Black's marvellous powers of organisation.
"He sounds a worthy fellow," said Sir Marcus, in his best diplomatic manner, "but, of course, you know, it's a ticklish business, my lecturing. Discretion needed and tact. I remember in 'sixty-four, when I was attaché in Berlin, a feller in the Embassy giving a lecture, and he made just the smallest allusion to the wife of young Bonny Cooper, who was First Secretary just then. Said she had the prettiest feet in Europe, or something, and, by Jove, there was a row! There was to be a ball the next night, I remember, and old Blenkinsop Smith—you know his sister probably, Mrs. Crawshay Fitzgerald; she's dead now, poor thing, died of eating too much, if you ask me; she was a wonderful woman for her meals—'I'll have some more of that,' she used to cry, and would go on hours after everybody else, quite regardless——"
I called the worthy gentleman back to the business in hand. "I am sure we can trust your discretion, Sir Marcus," I said. "The thing to do is to tell them just enough, you know, and not too much."
Sir Marcus roared at this. "That's the thing!" he cried. "I don't suppose," he said solemnly, looking towards me, "that there is anyone in Europe at this moment who knows as much as I do about what goes on behind the scenes. Why, the War alone——"
"No," I interrupted firmly, "there must be nothing about the War. It is your earlier experiences, Sir Marcus, that will be so interesting to everybody."
He was, I could see, excited like a child by the idea. I didn't know then, but discovered later, that his finances were in a very bad way, and perhaps he felt more lonely and isolated than I had given him credit for. This was what he wanted—unlimited opportunity for speech, audiences impressed and enthusiastic, and money at the end of it.
His introduction to Charlie Black was a very magnificent affair. It had about it that curious theatrical unreality that so often occurs in real life. Sir Marcus was unreal, I saw now for the first time, because he was so desperately a survival. His kind had been killed by the War, and if they ever came up again, it would be with some new tradition, some fresh exterior, some more modern phrase. He was very magnificent to Charlie Black, treating him with a condescension and patronage that was wonderful to behold. He was magnificently dressed in a high black stock and pearl pin, and his eyeglass superbly balanced, and his attitude was that he had come down from the Olympus of all the aristocracy to greet some trembling mortal who had begged for his presence and was ready to pay large sums for the enjoyment of five minutes of his company.
For Charlie Black I had always had respect, but my admiration of him was immensely increased by his attitude on this occasion. He did not resent in the least Sir Marcus's patronage, although it must have seemed very absurd to him. He found out very quickly just what the old gentleman was capable of doing, he flattered his snobbery, listened to his stories, and interrupted them, when they were too lengthy, with wonderful dexterity.
Finally the arrangement was made. Sir Marcus was to attempt a tour of three months, his lecture being entitled "The Great World As I Knew It." The plan was that Sir Marcus should talk to young Smithers, Charlie Black's most able assistant, for several mornings, pouring out to him all the treasures of his experience, and that from these Smithers should make a collective narrative which the lecturer should read. Sir Marcus rebelled a little against this, telling anybody who would listen to him that he would infinitely prefer that he should talk straight from the heart. "Spontaneity is my greatest gift," said Sir Marcus, "a gift denied to many. I am my natural self when I am unfettered by notes or pieces of paper. I do beg you, Mr. Black, that you will allow me to talk freely, easily, as though the audience consisted of a few friends of mine gathered together round the club fire."
"Later on, later on," said Mr. Black. "You'll forgive me for saying so, Sir Marcus, but however natural an orator may be, and I know from your diplomatic experience that you must 'ave 'ad many occasions for public speaking——"
"Indeed I have," interrupted Sir Marcus eagerly. "Once in Berlin——"
"Quite so, quite so," said Charlie Black gently. "All the same, these are my terms, Sir Marcus. Take them or leave them."
It amazed and even touched me to see what a child the man instantly became in the hands of someone who knew how to deal with him. He was pitiably anxious about his success. The whole world stopped while he considered every detail of his approaching appearance. He bored me so desperately in the weeks that followed that on several occasions I nearly abandoned the whole affair. He was perhaps a finer artist on the telephone than anyone I've ever known. He would ring you up on most inconvenient occasions, when you were in your bath or at breakfast, or engaged upon a serious piece of work. It was of no avail whatever to say that you were out, or ill, or busy. Against such an excuse he had the simple retort of ringing up steadily every successive few minutes until you were found to be in. Then, once he had you, words came tumbling through the air like flakes of a snowstorm, and if you said good-bye or put down the receiver too quickly, he would be at you again in another five minutes with the remark that he hadn't quite finished what he was saying, and somebody must have cut us off.
The real cure, however, was already working. During a whole week he only once entered the club, and Pom almost fell upon my neck and embraced me in the middle of Piccadilly, and was anxious to pay me my money there and then. "No, you wait," I said. "He may be back on you in another week or two. Nobody knows how this lecture tour will develop."
Never, never, never shall I forget that first lecture. It took place in a hall in the wilds of Wimbledon. It had been well billed beforehand. There were posters up and down the streets of Wimbledon, announcing that Sir Marcus Pendyce, C.B., M.V.O., would give a lecture on "The Great World As I Have Known It," that nobody now alive had had quite the experiences that Sir Marcus had had, that he was a noted raconteur, and that although efforts had been made for many years to force him on to the lecture platform, it was only now that, bowing at last to the insistent public demand, he had consented to appear. The hall was packed, the walls were lined with standing people, the gallery almost shed perspiration upon the heads below it, so hot and pressed and excited was it. The chairman of the evening was Sir Muttlebury Hatt, J.P. for the district, a gentleman so curiously like Sir Marcus on a smaller and more insignificant scale that I once again admired Charlie Black's resource in that he had secured a chairman who should, as it were, prepare the way for the speaker by being just half as grand, half as large, half as impressive. Then Sir Marcus appeared. There was a storm of cheers. The two gentlemen sat on the platform smiling a little nervously, nodding to one another and looking at their watches. The chairman was not a man intended by the Deity for public speaking, and after he had muttered a few remarks about being amongst friends, everybody knowing everybody, and the great world, and how nice it was to see everybody, and how certain he was that everybody was going to be very happy, he sat down.
Sir Marcus rose, and for a passing moment I felt for him all the tenderness and pity that a mother may feel for her only son dispatched for the first time into the brutal world of school life. For once the poor man was terribly nervous lost, bewildered, and confused. He took out his eyeglass, wiped it, put it back again. He smiled, laughed a little, and then suddenly remembered his paper, which he picked up, held upside down, and then began to murmur to himself. Then suddenly, I suppose, the blood of the Pendyces came to his rescue. He made a sudden plunge, caught and held that fine booming voice that was so familiar to all his friends, and was off. I must confess that he read very well indeed, with the only exception that he laughed a little too much before he arrived at one of the jokes that came swimming up towards him from the bottom of the page. In fact, on one occasion he broke off parenthetically to remark: "Now, this is a good one,—you all listen to this." But otherwise he went steadily forward to the end. Then, to my horror, I saw him lay the paper down, take a step forward with his hands in his pockets, his head tilted back, begin to discourse on his own. "You have had, my dear friends," he said, "what I think without exaggeration I may describe to you as a really interesting paper, but perhaps I flatter myself——" Here he paused and waited, and as there were no remarks from the audience, he continued. "Nevertheless, there are some other things that occur to me as I stand before you that may, I think, amuse you. Let us consider ourselves all friends gathered together round the club fire." A group of school girls from the Wimbledon High School in the second row, who had been growing a little sleepy, all sat up and began to look interested. "I remember in Berlin, it must have been, I think, in the spring of '71 or the late autumn of '70, perhaps——"
My heart sank. I looked round me in despair, but on this occasion it was our chairman who saved us. Sir Marcus was barely launched into his first international episode when a loud, most unmistakable snore from behind him caused him to stop, start, and turn round. Sir Muttlebury Hatt, his legs stretched in front of him, his arms crossing his stomach, was fast asleep. This disconcerted the speaker most surprisingly. There must have been many other occasions when his hearers had slept in his presence and he had continued undismayed, but this time he was beaten. He stopped, stammered, and finally broke off with: "Well, dear friends, good night, good night, good night! I hope you've all enjoyed the evening as much as I have. Perhaps one day you will allow me to come and see you again."
There was a storm of applause. Sir Muttlebury Hatt awoke, got upon his feet, and said that Sir Marcus Pendyce had given us all a great deal to think about, that we had felt during his delightful speech as though we were all part of the great world ourselves, that we had learnt, at any rate, that the great world was very little different from the small one, and so on and so on. The evening was over.
There began then one of the most curious episodes of my life. There was no reason whatever why I should accompany Sir Marcus on his tour, but there was something simple and childish about the poor gentleman that touched my sympathies. I would never have believed that a few weeks could so completely change a man of his age. It was not, of course, that he became in any way less of a bore. He was rather more of one, if possible, but the rough and tumble of that lecture tour showed him to be what at heart he must always have been—a nervous, frightened, rather pitiful child, flinching before the great world he was now discovering for the first time in his long life, finding it, indeed, so utterly different from anything that he had supposed. What a sheltered, safe, ordered existence those before-the-War diplomatists must have had! Will anyone ever be so safe again? I trow not. To Sir Marcus the risk of the lectures, the possibility that the audiences might be slender, the further possibility that they might not like what he said, and might tell him so, the discomfort and ugliness of the English provincial hotel, the jostling and jolting of incessant train journeys, the colds and indigestions and neuralgias and headaches that hang exultingly around the path of every lecturer—of all these things he had had before no slightest hint.
In the third week of our tour, when we arrived at Edinburgh, it was wet, cold, and windy, and that night of our arrival at the Caledonian Hotel, sitting on his bed in his pyjamas, he burst into tears and then clung to me as though I were indeed his wife, mother, and grandfather rolled into one. He could give me no coherent explanation of his breakdown—he had earache, the fish hadn't agreed with him at dinner, the last lecture in Carlisle had been but thinly attended, his little jokes about queens and kings, prime ministers and beautiful ladies, had seemed, even to himself, curiously out of date and dusty. In short, he was a poor, bewildered human being in a bewildering, foggy, dangerous world.
I suggested, although I knew that I was, perhaps, losing all my chances of success, that he should abandon the tour. Not for a moment! He sprang on to the floor, began to gesticulate, searched for his eyeglass, and proved to me unmistakably that the success of his enterprise was the only thing that he now considered. I saw, in fact, a disaster approaching us. The lectures had been less and less successful, and this always for the same reason—that he would not stick to his book, but would burst, at the most unlikely places, into incoherent anecdotage that had no beginning, no middle, and no end. At Liverpool, before a very thin audience indeed, he had talked for a solid two hours, and finally had to be dragged from the platform. This loquacious habit had immensely thrived on lecturing. It seemed, indeed, as though now it was physically impossible for him to stop talking. Even in his sleep, from my room, that was next to his, I could hear him continuing: "I remember in '71——," and so on.
There were twenty more lectures for him to deliver. We descended from Edinburgh to Durham, and there in the small concert room in the town hall, some twenty or thirty people were all his audience. I really could have put my arms around Sir Marcus and patted his white head when, in the little room behind the platform, the man in charge of the hall said: "Mighty few here to-night. I should put 'em all in the first two rows and have 'em close together. Looks a bit warmer." He made then, I saw, a truly magnificent struggle to pull himself together, threw back his head, adjusted his eyeglass and went forward, my warmest admiration bearing him full company. From the open door of the little room I could see the hall, with all its cruel exposure of empty seats, its glaziness, emptiness, and coldness, and once again—as I had felt on so many other of the cases connected with this business of mine—I wondered whether I were not too cruel to be really true. Then I noticed, sitting in the front row, two dear old, rosy-cheeked, white-haired ladies, and with them a nice-looking young man. Their eyes were fixed on Sir Marcus from the beginning of the lecture to the end. They gazed at him adoringly. The smile never left their faces, and although they did not seem to take his especial points with much more active appreciation than they took the whole of the discourse, they were quite plainly in ecstasies about the whole affair. It was quite delightful to see the way in which they nodded their old heads at one another, and one of them, at the end, actually waved her hand. I saw that Sir Marcus also had noticed them, and at the end of the lecture he went down on to the floor and spoke to them and the young man. He was with them a long time, and I waited and waited, and at last went off to the hotel, not wishing to interfere or cut short any happiness he might be securing.
Next morning, to my surprise, he told me that he intended to stay in Durham for a day or two, and that he would cut the lecture at Newcastle out of his schedule. He seemed in amazing spirits. I asked him who were his new friends. "The Misses Piggott and a nephew. Two adorable old ladies." He was going to lunch with them that day.
The lecture following the Newcastle one was near London, so I went down back to my old haunts, leaving Sir Marcus with his new friends.
Charlie Black, when I saw him the next day, told me quite frankly that our diplomatist was a complete failure, and that he must call off the other lectures. I begged and pleaded, but all to no avail. "Just give him another chance," I said. "The whole happiness of his life depends upon it."
Charlie Black was not to be moved. "Silly old fool!" he said. "I warned him not to get talking all that stuff on his own. If he'd stuck to what we wrote out for him, he would have been quite all right, but not 'e, conceited old puppet." No, business was business, and Sir Marcus Pendyce's career as a lecturer was at an end.
I met Pom, and was about to confess to him that our plan had failed, and that the Lambs would see Sir Marcus once more in their company at a very early date. Luckily I refrained. Once more, as on so many other occasions, Fate had stepped in and saved me. I had a note next morning from Sir Marcus, headed "Mulberry Cottage, Fetters Moor, Durham," saying that he intended to stay for a week or two with the Misses Piggott, that he was enjoying himself very much, and that the rest of the lectures could go to Hades. I saw that my sympathy had been wasted, and I was glad that it was so.
Week after week passed. Sir Marcus did not return. Then it happened quite by chance that I met, at some dinner-party in London, a Canon of Durham Cathedral, who was having a week of theatres in the Metropolis and enjoying himself very much indeed. "By the way," I said, "do you happen to have seen anything up there of an old feller Pendyce, who was once a diplomat?"
The Canon laughed. "Why, yes," he said. "Old man with white hair and an eyeglass, never stops talking?"
"That's the man," I said.
"Yes, of course; he's living out at Fetters Moor, five miles out of Durham, with two old ladies."
"That's it," I answered. "Do you happen to know how long he's going to stay there?"
"Oh, he's there for the rest of his natural days! He's taken up his abode with them for ever. He's just what they've been searching for all their lives. They're dear old things, but they're the greatest snobs in Europe. They'd go miles just to see anybody with a title, and to have a real ambassador living with them gives them a happiness that is delightful to behold."
"Yes, but," I said, "how can they endure it? He talks the whole time, and he's the greatest bore in Christendom."
"That doesn't matter," said the amiable Canon, laughing. "Didn't you know? They're both stone deaf——"
I was paid my cheque by Pom on the following morning.