The Happy Optimist
THE HAPPY OPTIMIST
By HUGH WALPOLE
DURING thirty-seven troubled years I have learnt something about life. One of the most romantic incidents in that life—one from which I learnt a very wholesome lesson—I am now going to relate.
I have a certain reputation for helping people out of their difficulties, and sometimes complete strangers, by my advice.
There came to my office one day a thin, harassed-looking woman, with grey hair and pince-nez, soft, kindly eyes, and clothes not of the smartest. She introduced herself as Mrs. Lane, and asked whether I could give her ten minutes of my time. "I have heard of you from a friend of mine," she said, "a Mrs. Bumpus, whom you helped at a rather difficult moment in her family history. I was telling her my little trouble the other night, and she said that you were just the person to help me out of it."
"I will certainly do what I can," I said. "What's the matter?"
"I do hope it won't seem to you too foolish," she went on rather nervously. "In a way, nothing's the matter, and in a way everything is. In any case, I must have some advice. I'm a woman of thirty-eight, and I've been married for fifteen years. I am married to one of the kindest, most amiable, most faithful of human beings, and that is saying a good deal nowadays, men being what they are. You will think it very curious, therefore, that, after saying this, it is nevertheless about my husband that I have come to speak to you."
"Perhaps he's too kind and tender," I said. "I know that that can be monotonous. You want me to help him to a little ill-temper?"
"How wonderful you are!" she cried. "You're nearly right and at once, and I'm so glad, because now I needn't explain all sorts of things which would take a long time and serve no purpose. It isn't that I want any ill-temper, but it's nearly that. The fact of the matter is that my husband has grown through all these years into the most terrible optimist. He is so persistently cheerful, looks so deliberately upon the bright side of things, refuses so entirely to be upset by anything, even toothache, that myself and the children and an aunt who lives with us, to our horror, are discovering that although we all love Charlie very much, we are beginning to avoid his company, to go out of the house when he comes into it, and to stay away with friends whenever a chance offers itself. What becomes of marriage, Mr. Johnson," she asked me solemnly, "when the wife avoids her husband and the children shrink from their father?"
"Yes," I answered, with becoming gravity, "that is certainly the beginning of the end."
"But it's not only that," went on Mrs. Lane. "His men friends and my friends, everyone who comes to the house, in fact, is beginning to feel it just as we do. He doesn't notice anything himself, and just gets happier and happier. I don't know if you're a married man, Mr. Johnson."
"No, I'm not," I answered, and added, "unhappily."
"If you were," said Mrs. Lane, "you would understand how terrible it is to know that, however irritating things are, your husband will always feel that they're for the best; that however gloomy you yourself may be when you wake up in the morning, you will inevitably hear your husband singing in his bath; however bad the weather may be, you will certainly be told that it's going to be fine to-morrow, or was beautifully sunny yesterday; however many mistakes our wretched Government make, you will be assured that any other Government would make errors far worse. I'm sure this seems ludicrous to you, and yet this simple thing is breaking up our home life and making me almost hate my husband, and yet I love him, how deeply no one can know."
Mrs. Lane appeared to be greatly distressed.
"And what do you want me to do?" I asked.
"I thought—I don't know—of course it seems silly, but I wondered whether perhaps, as you're so clever, you could think of some way to make him a little less cheerful, not so invariably optimistic. I've tried one or two ways myself, but they've all failed. I asked his Aunt Bessie to come and stay with us—all his side of the family are agreed that she is one of the most tiresome old women ever known—but the more tiresome she is, the more cheerful he becomes. Then I developed nervous headaches, because I was told that there was nothing more irritating to a man; but all he said was that I'd be better soon, and then I'd be so glad that I was better that it would really be worth while having had the headaches. Then I happened to overhear him say to a friend that the one article of diet he couldn't bear was lobster, and I gave him lobster four nights running, and all he said on the fourth night was that it showed what habit could do, because he'd always fancied that he didn't like lobster, but now that he'd had it once or twice he was becoming really very fond of it. This must all seem, Mr. Johnson, perfectly fantastic to any ordinary person, but? assure you that I just long for an outburst of temper, some expression of discontent. I've seen that his bath is lukewarm, that his collars come back frayed from the wash, that his studs are never where he expects to find them, that his bootlaces burst just when he's in a hurry; I've asked for twice as much house-keeping money as I ought to have; I've put the children in his way just when he wants to take a nap; I even had one of those little Pomeranian dogs in the house because I knew he didn't like them, and, indeed, I hate them myself—all to no effect. Unless something can be done, I shall have to leave him. It's becoming a perfect obsession with me; and I don't know what foolish or mad thing I may do if you won't help me. He'll be round here in a moment to fetch me. I told him to call for me here because I thought you ought to see him.'"
"This is a very difficult case, Mrs. Lane," I said, shaking my head. "After all, if I were to succeed in spoiling his temper, you mightn't thank me afterwards, you know. You might look back with longing to these earlier happy days."
"Never, never, never!" said Mrs. Lane, with the utmost determination. "Anything would be better than this. And he never can be very bad-tempered. He hasn't got the build or anything. Just a little temper about once a month would make all the difference to me."
At that moment a small boy announced "Mr. Charles Lane to see you, sir," and there came into the room a large, jolly-looking man with a red face, a slight tendency to corpulence, pince-nez set a little crookedly on his nose, and a cheery smile on his face that instantly, in the words of one of our most favourite novelists, "lit up the dingy office as with rays of sunshine."
"This is my husband, Mr. Johnson," said Mrs. Lane rather nervously. "Charlie, this is Mr. Seymour Johnson, a friend of Mrs. Bumpus, with whom we were dining the other night."
"Why, I'm delighted to meet you, Mr. Johnson," said Mr. Lane, coming forward, a large hand outstretched. "What a charming place you have here! I've just looked in to fetch my wife for a little shopping that we're going to do together. Well, little woman, how are you? Ready to come along?"
"Yes, Charles," said Mrs. Lane, getting up with a weary air.
"That's right. Splendid morning for shopping. Bit overcast outside. Very thing to make you like to be under cover. Wonderful weather we've been having, Mr. Johnson."
"Well, I don't know," I said. "It's rained pretty steadily the last few days."
"Oh, we must have some rain sometimes," said Lane. "Nothing so bad as a drought, you know. Let's have rain now, and we'll have fine holiday weather later on. What do you think of the general situation?"
"Seems to me," I said, "about as bad as anything could well be. Strikes every week, all our trade going to foreign countries, income tax going up every minute—no, I must say things are pretty serious."
"Do you think so?" said Lane. "I wonder at that. After all, what can you expect after a war like this last one? Everything's improving, it seems to me. I think it's marvellous that we've come through these years since the Armistice with as little trouble as we have. You wait another six months and you see how our trade will run ahead. Things couldn't be better, in my opinion, and I'm not generally an optimist by any means, am I, old woman?" he asked, turning round to his wife.
"Well, Charlie," she said nervously, "I couldn't exactly call you a pessimist."
At that he roared with laughter, slapping his chest and making the maps on the wall shake the dust off their glaze as though they also agreed with him.
"I suppose I'm not exactly a pessimist. Why should I be? I've enjoyed splendid health, Mr. Johnson, all my days. I've been a lucky man, too, with the best wife in the world and three of the most ripping little nippers you ever saw in your life. I attribute my health," he said, coming close to me and looking at me with intense seriousness, "to having a cold bath every day of the year, winter and summer, quarter of an hour's Müller's exercises before the open window, and eating a good hearty breakfast. Now, breakfast is the meal to build the day on. You have a good breakfast, and nothing can go much wrong."
To myself, who find a small cup of tea and a thin piece of bread-and-butter as much as I can manage in the early morning, there was something truly cannibalistic about Lane's morning diet. It is quite true that I felt more deeply depressed during his five minutes' conversation than for many days past, and that I wished him earnestly to go.
I did see Mrs. Lane now as a real victim, and I said to her as she turned to go: "In that matter about which you were speaking to me just now, Mrs. Lane, I will see what can be done. I'll communicate with you further."
"Thank you," she said, and went out with her husband.
The Lanes have a jolly house in Maida Vale, and one beautiful afternoon I found myself sitting in their garden watching Lane, in his shirt-sleeves, bend over the little beds that ran beneath the old red brick walls, pulling out weeds and doing mysterious things with a trowel. He was certainly a fine figure of a man, I thought, as I watched his broad back and stout, strong legs, the absolute negation of ill-health, indecision, and any sort of nervous trouble. I'm never going to turn that back and those legs into the working apparatus of a pessimist, I said to myself. I am beaten at this game before I've begun it. He straightened himself and turned round, his broad, red face flushed with his exertions. "By Jove, it is jolly," he cried, "this weeding! There's nothing like it for sheer fun. Why everybody doesn't spend all their time weeding, I can't think."
"It's a good thing they don't," I said rather irritably, "or there'd be nothing ever planted."
"Oh, do you think so?" he said, laughing. "Planting's very jolly, too. Anything to do with the garden is splendid."
I discovered that my earlier determination to force Lane into loss of temper as soon as possible would not be an ungrateful task on my part.
"I simply don't agree with you," I said crossly. "If you will forgive my saying so, I think you're talking nonsense."
"I dare say I am," he answered cheerfully. "I do talk a great deal of nonsense. Don't you like gardens, then?"
"Oh, the gardens are all right," I said.
"You mean the people in them are so tiresome?" he said. "Well, I can't agree with you. I love my fellow-humans. People are fascinating, I think. Nobody's dull if you really get to know him. Everyone's so much jollier than you would expect."
"Oh, really, Lane," I said, "I haven't known you very long, and perhaps I've got no right to speak, but whom do you know? I could introduce you to one or two whose jolliness would be difficult even for you to find."
"I dare say you're right," he answered. "but in my opinion the great thing is to see the best side of people. We all have a good side, you know, as well as a bad side, and if you only look at the good side—well, naturally you like people better. Then I'm not a clever fellow like you. I do admire men who write and that sort of thing. Now tell me," he said, looking at me cheerfully, his hands on his broad hips, "how do you write? I mean, how do you begin, for instance? How do you ever think of all those things that they say to one another? How does a book start in your head?"
I groaned. This case was going to be very difficult.
"Look here, if you don't mind," I said, "we'll talk about all that another time."
"Oh, I say," he asked, with great anxiety, "you're not feeling ill, are you? Is the sun too much for you? Let me move that chair into a shady corner."
"For Heaven's sake, leave me alone!" I burst out. "Forgive me if I seem a little irritable."
"Why, of course," he said. "I know what it is to feel irritable. I quite understand. You won't feel irritable long on a day like this. I tell you what," he went on very seriously, "when I'm feeling a bit off colour, I just go up to my bedroom, strip and do a few Müller exercises. Puts me in condition in no time. If you'd like to wave your arms a bit, you're quite welcome to the room upstairs."
"Good Heavens, on a day like this!" I murmured.
"Oh, well, perhaps it is a bit warm, but there's nothing like a good sweat for making you see things cheerfully. Are you musical, by any chance?" he added, after a moment's thought.
"I am a little," I said weakly.
"Because I don't know if you like the flute. It's rather jolly sometimes to sit in a garden and to listen to somebody on the flute. Of course, I'm not very good. I'm really only learning, but there are two or three tunes I have pretty nearly got now, and if you like to sit under that tree——"
"No, thanks," I said, very crossly indeed. "If you don't mind, I think I'll go to sleep for a bit."
"Certainly," he replied. "You go to sleep for half an hour and you'll wake up as jolly as anything. Do let me move that chair of yours into the shade. You won't mind my going on with my gardening, will you?"
It was a strange thing that somehow the thought of that broad back and those stout legs exposed in earnest endeavour once again before me was more than I could endure. I was wondering what excuse I could make to escape, when Mrs. Lane appeared.
"Hullo, darling!" cried Lane. "That's splendid! Come out and join us. We've been having a most delightful talk. Mr. Johnson's been telling me all about his writing. Most interesting. Now he thought he'd have a nap for a little."
"Oh, no," I said hurriedly, "it was only a moment's suggestion on my part. I didn't really mean it. One gets a bit sleepy sitting in this garden."
"An awful thing's just happened," said Mrs. Lane hurriedly. "If Mr. Johnson will forgive me, the housemaid has just——" She whispered in Lane's ear.
"Oh, has she?" he said, laughing. "What a funny thing to do!"
"It isn't funny," said Mrs. Lane indignantly. "She's broken about a pound's worth of china—all that pretty breakfast set!"
"Never mind, dear," he said, patting her shoulder; "we'll get another one in no time. In my opinion," he said, turning cheerfully round to me, "maids don't smash things half often enough. One gets so tired of always seeing the same china at every meal. We haven't had a new breakfast set for ever so long."
"Oh, of course, if you're a millionaire——" said Mrs. Lane, tossing her head.
"That's all right, darling," he answered, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand; "don't you worry. We'll be in to tea soon. Or shall we have it out here? By Jove, it would be jolly to have tea in the garden!"—speaking as though no one had ever had the idea before. "Just think, having tea in the garden! What a jolly thing to do!"
I suddenly felt that the last thing in the world I could ever do would be to have tea in the garden.
"I'm awfully sorry," I said, getting up, "but I must be getting back, I'm afraid. I'll come and have tea another day."
As I went down the Edgware Boad on the top of a 'bus, I was conscious of a deep and all-pervading melancholy. The world, although the sun was shining, was suddenly grey. I could believe in no one's goodness of heart. All my friends, as their names occurred to me one after the other, seemed to me treacherous and false, all my little ambitions vain and absurd. I realised, with a sudden mental jerk, that Lane had done this for me, and did I spend many weeks in his company I would become a misanthrope, a final hater of my kind. In the succeeding days I considered every possible medium through which I might work upon Lane's mind. The case become an obsession with me as none of the others had ever been. I realised, as I said just now, that most of the other problems had been solved by the redjustment of surroundings. How was I to readjust Lane? Into what company could I throw him that would depress him ani lower his vitality? What was there latent in him which, if exaggerated, would turn sweet to sour, amiability to bitterness, love to hatred? There was golf, for instance. He did not, so far as I knew, play golf. That would undoubtedly be good both for his figure and his temperament. Or there was bridge, or I might interest him in some freak religion, or drive him into stamp collecting. No, as I thought of all these things, their futility froze my inventiveness.
At breakfast one morning I was especially bothered by my problem. The thing was beginning to disturb my sleep. I was neglecting the rest of my work for it. I idly turned over the pages of The Times, then, looking down the Agony Column, my attention was suddenly caught by this: "Society for the Promotion of Happiness. All those who are interested in the happiness and well-being of their fellow-creatures are cordially invited to pay a visit to the offices of the above Society (hours 10 to 10), where they will realise that gloom and depression are not natural to the spirit of man, and may be avoided by the simplest methods. Offices: Cumberland House, Victoria Street, S.W.2."
I scarcely know what it was that suddenly determined me to pay these people a visit. It was not that I could hope for any real help from them with regard to Lane's case, but here were obviously some more optimists of Lane's own kind. I was, perhaps, curious to see whether they beat him at his own game.
The next afternoon I climbed the stone staircase and knocked on a door. I entered a quite ordinary-looking office, where, behind the usual wooden barrier, a girl was seated typing, and an elderly lady at a table was biting the end of her pen. "Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked, looking at me rather sternly.
"I was interested," I said, "in your advertisement in The Times yesterday. I came round to see something of your work."
"You must talk to Miss Allan," said the lady. "I'll inquire whether she's free."
She returned a moment later, saying that Miss Allan would see me, and I went through into a further room that had a bright red carpet and was hung with framed supplements from the illustrated papers.
Miss Allan was a strong, rather stern-featured woman, dressed in a bright orange that clashed somewhat painfully with the carpet, having every sign about her that she knew her own mind, and was not going to stand any nonsense from anybody.
"You've come to inquire about our work?" she asked, pushing her spectacles a little further back on her nose.
"Yes, I have," I answered. "I was interested by your advertisement."
"Our work," she began in a high sing-song voice, as though she were reciting an oft-repeated lecture, "is an effort to bring into this grey-tinged world the spirit of life, happiness, and gaiety, to make men and women realise that it is in themselves to command their destinies, and that by taking a little thought, practising certain simple exercises, and refusing to allow their minds to be invaded by ill-disciplined thoughts and desires, they may attain a high standard of cheerfulness and sociability hitherto unimagined by them, and that by laughter, and the happy employment of music, and the sturdy practice of vegetarianism, they may bring gaiety into the lives of their fellow human beings and light up the world with sunshine."
She paused to take a little breath. She went on again: "To look on the bright side of things is, after all, easy enough for all of us, if we do but obey certain simple rules. Selfishness is the curse of the modern age, and I have found that by a steady reiteration of some of the more obvious rules of a well-ordered life, by such simple things as early rising, cold baths, a few exercises, and the steady practice of healthy laughter, the world may be turned into a garden, and we may go dancing through life, our heads up, our voices lifted in song, our mood an inspiration to all those around us. Our charges are," she added rapidly, "three guineas for a course of six lessons, five pound ten for twelve. Families of more than three can be dealt with at a cheaper rate."
"Thanks very much," I answered. "Can you show me any of your work in progress?"
"Certainly," she said, looking at me with some suspicion. "Are you from a newspaper, by any chance?"
"No," I answered. "I'm simply a private individual."
"Have you got sickness in your family?" she asked quickly. "Has your wife left you, or are you in any way financially embarrassed? "
"Really," I answered, "that seems to be my own affair, or, at any rate, should remain so till I've agreed to take some of your lessons."
"Oh, certainly, certainly," she answered with indifference. "I should say that a dozen lessons would do you all the good in the world. However, you shall see first exactly what we're doing."
I was taken into another room where five or six persons, male and female, were sitting in a row on chairs, watching a stout young woman who was saying: "Now, when I get to six, laugh. You will find it easier if you begin to smile at two, let the smile become broad at four, a faint ripple of laughter at five, and a broad outburst on the word six. Now, one, two, three—— No, no, Mrs. Browning, that won't do at all; that's not a natural smile. Let it come to the lips straight from the heart."
Mrs. Browning was rather an elderly woman, and looked much nearer tears than laughter, and gave a little gasp of protest. "I'm very sorry, Miss Jones," she said. "I think, perhaps, I could laugh when you say two, and then smile later, after the laugh. It seems to come to me more naturally that way."
"Nonsense!" said the young woman. "Now you watch me."
There followed then the birth, progress, explosion and death of the most extraordinary laugh that I had ever been privileged to see on any human countenance. It was too much for me altogether. I burst into a loud guffaw, at the sound of which all the six students, who seemed to be sunk into a like depth of depression, turned to me with hopeful eyes. The young woman was delighted. "That's the way, that's the way," she said. "Listen to that gentleman. Now you must try to get something as natural as that. Don't be disheartened. Now begin again with me. One, two, three——"
We went into a further room. Here there were some half-dozen men, all middle-aged or over, all with their coats off, engaged in bending down, trying to touch their toes. A thin little man, the instructor, was dancing about in a perfect tempest of rage. "No, no, no, that won't do at all!" he cried. "You've got to touch your toes as though you like it. Don't look so gloomy, Mr. Green. As I told you before, you'll find it much easier if you think of something pleasant while you're doing it—green fields and mountain-tops, or a good run in the park before breakfast—something really healthy and fine. Now, then, straight up with one, arms out with two. three half bend to the hips "
"These," explained Miss Allan to me, "are all City men who are either in danger of, or have actually suffered from, severe financial losses."
"It must be rather melancholy," I said in the same stage whisper, "all together like that. Wouldn't it be better to mix them with a few men whose affairs are rather brighter?"
"That's not been our experience," said Miss Allan. "We've found that the thought of one another's losses cheers them up. They like to feel that there are some others in the same position as themselves."
It was at this moment that the great thought struck me. Here, if anywhere in the world, was the true place for the solution of my obstinate problem.
I was taken into a third room, where half a dozen rather elderly men and women were seated in couples, trying apparently to develop friendly conversations with one another. "This," said Miss Allan, looking at her pupils with great severity, as though they were most certainly not doing what they were supposed to be doing, "this we call the Friends in Council Room. We introduce here to one another lonely folk who have not friends or any great interest in life. They come here for an hour in the afternoon and talk together."
The lonely folk did not look at all as though they were enjoying themselves, except one fat little man, who was pouring out a flood of words into the ears of a rather grim-looking lady, who kept trying to interrupt him with little desperate ejaculations of "I don't think—but why?" and so on, without his paying the very least attention to her. When we had been there two or three minutes, this lady jumped up and came towards us. "Miss Allan," she cried, in a voice not far from tears, "I have not paid my twelve guineas to come here and be insulted. I don't like this gentleman. I don't want to talk to him any more. I'm going straight home, and you can whistle for your other five guineas."
I saw then a sample of Miss Allan's remarkable firmness. "Now, now," she said, "Miss Sturgis, hysteria, hysteria! You know that when the clock strikes the half-hour you can all change partners. Why, I wonder at you! How are you ever going to be happy and make nice friends if you don't give them a fair test?" Meanwhile it was amusing to observe the blank look on the face of the little fat man, who obviously thought that he had been a great success. It was when I saw Miss Allan's wonderful firmness, and the sudden submission of poor Miss Sturgis, that I was more than ever confirmed in my belief that this was the place for Lane.
When we returned to the office, I said to her: "Miss Allan, I have been immensely interested in all that I have seen. I have a friend who could, I think, very much help you in your work. At any rate, he would, I know, be himself greatly assisted by seeing this."
"Is he melancholy, overstrung, unhappily married, or suffering from any incurable disease?" she asked with eager curiosity.
"Not at all," I said. "He's a very happy man, and it's just there that I think he can help you. I can't quite explain what I mean just now, but do let him come and see you. I believe it will be worth your while."
"Certainly," she answered. "I'm delighted for anyone to come and see us. Now confess, Mr.——"
"Johnson," I said.
"—Mr. Johnson, that you have been struck by the radiant spirit that lights up these rooms—the happy faces, cheerful carolling voices."
"I have been struck," I answered. "I've never seen anything like this before, and if anyone had told me about it, I shouldn't have believed him. We live and learn." With which sentiment Miss Allan entirely agreeing, we shook hands and parted.
I lost no time in conducting my friend Lane to Miss Allan's offices. "I want you to come," I explained to him, "because I think you'll do real good there. The object of the place, as I told you, is to put cheerfulness into people's lives, and, to tell you the truth, from the little visit I made I gathered that the one thing that was absent was that same cheerfulness. Now, you're one of the most cheery fellows I know."
"Am I?" he asked, his face flushing with pleasure.
"You are indeed," I answered. "I never knew anybody who looked so persistently on the bright side of everything, and here you'll find people optimists by determination just as you're one by nature."
When I introduced Lane to Miss Allan, I saw that at first sight she was disappointed.
"You don't look sick or anything," she said to him, which indeed he did not.
He burst into a roar of laughter. "Oh, I'm not sick," he said. "Never was better in my life. Isn't this jolly? Isn't it charming? I do like the colour of those walls. I think this is one of the nicest places I've ever been in in my life."
Miss Allan was a little mollified. "I'll just show you what we do," she said. We went once again into the rooms where I had been on an earlier occasion. In the first room to-day a little group was seated, while the stout girl read aloud a piece of Dickens, having given instructions beforehand that at such and such a place they were all to laugh. It was the account of Sarah Gamp and Betsy Prig having supper in Mrs. Gamp's bedroom. All the pupils were waiting so anxiously for the words that they'd been told to expect, that they missed them when they came, and a severe scene of correction would certainly have followed had not Lane burst into such a roar of laughter that he did duty for all of them. "By Jove, that's good!" he cried. "That's jolly old Dickens, I know. That's awfully good." All the pupils then faintly tittered, and Miss Allan, I saw, began to be aware of some of the uses to which Lane might be put. I left him there, and did not see anything of the family for three or four days. Then I had a letter from Mrs. Lane.
"Dear Mr. Johnson," she said, "I know you're trying to help me, and I'm sure you have some clever plan, but I really would be glad to know what purpose you hope to serve by introducing my husband to that place in Victoria Street. He is very interested in it, and has been there every afternoon, and he has come back each evening in most boisterous spirits. He says that it is quite wonderful work that they're doing, and he is thinking of introducing some of their methods into our family. He frightened Johnnie and Dulcie, our two eldest children, last night, out of their very lives by making them laugh according to numbers, with the result that they both burst into tears, and were sent to bed without their supper. I'm sure this kind of thing isn't what you intended, and I think you ought to know what's happening.
I wrote back—
"Dear Mrs. Lane,—Have a little patience and you will see that I am right. I don't want to explain more just now. Give me a week.
Two days after this Lane appeared in the office. He was looking his jolly self, but for the first time it seemed to me that I noticed in him a rather puzzled, hesitating air.
"Well, Johnson," he said, "how are you getting on? Isn't it a splendid day?"
"If it weren't for there being no sun and its drizzling hard, I should agree with you," I answered.
"Well, of course it's not exactly a day for being out of doors," he added, "but this is the kind of weather when one loves to be under a roof with a book and a pipe. It makes you feel good. Are you doing anything this afternoon? "
"Yes, several things," I said. "Why?"
"Well, I'm going to pay a call on Miss Allan. I'm helping her with one of her pupils. I had a little argument with her yesterday. It seemed to me that she was forcing her pupils into a mood a little too obstinate. What do you think?"
"Perhaps there is something in that," I said.
"As a matter of fact," he said, looking at me very solemnly, "it's a pretty awful thing really when somebody's cheerful the whole time. Those people at Miss Allan's never drop it for a moment. You've always got to be laughing, smiling, singing and dancing. Of course they're delightful people, and I do admire the work they're doing, but I think they make it a little too monotonous."
"Did you say this to her yesterday?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered, looking at me doubtfully, "and she didn't seem to like it very much. I wish you'd come along with me this afternoon."
"I will," I said.
When I had spent five minutes with the two of them, I discovered two things. First, that Miss Allan felt that she had now in her hands somebody who was going to be of the greatest use to her, an ideal instructor, and, secondly, that she had her firm grip upon him, and he was held a great deal more securely than he knew. She made him her model before the class. "Now, ladies and gentlemen," she said, "you just watch Mr. Lane. You watch him laugh, and I beg you to notice how all the muscles of the face are involved at precisely the same instant. Even the body has its share in the general convulsive movement. Please notice the hands, the gesture of the right arm. Now, Miss Beaumont, would you mind reading a little?"
Miss Beaumont was to-day reading from Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat." "Now," said Miss Allan, "at the words 'and in he fell' you will see Mr. Lane convulsed with laughter. Watch him very carefully, please."
For the first time, I suppose, in the whole of his life Lane did not laugh. Miss Beaumont read the words, paused, all the class turned as one man, their mouths open, their eyes wide, staring, and nothing happened.
"I'm awfully sorry," said Lane nervously. "Somehow, when you all expect it like that——Besides," he added, dropping his eyes before Miss Allan's stern ones, "I don't think that's very funny."
"Oh, indeed," said Miss Allan very severely. "Miss Beaumont, will you please pick out a piece a few pages on? Let me see—yes, page three hundred and twenty-nine, 'then the dog barked.' Now, ladies and gentlemen, at the word 'barked' it is hoped that Mr. Lane will laugh."
I was really beginning to be very sorry for my poor friend—he looked so incredibly foolish and at a loss. At the word "barked" he did bring to the surface a feeble kind of titter. "It's awfully hard to laugh to order," he said to Miss Allan. "Perhaps another day I'll be better."
We went out finally to have tea in a tea-shop close at hand. He was quite distressed. "I really do like Miss Allan so much," he said, "and I admire so much the work that she's doing, but I do think that she's not spontaneous enough. What do you think?"
"Yes, I agree with you," I answered. "But why go there if it bores you? "
"Oh, no, I don't want to let her down," he answered. "I'll help her as much as I can."
Three days later Mrs. Lane came to see me, and reported that her husband had actually sworn at one of the children. Her face was wreathed with smiles. "You really are clever, Mr. Johnson," she said. "He's always perfectly sweet in the morning, but when he comes back to dinner, after seeing those people in Victoria Street, his temper is quite uncertain, and he told me this morning that he thought it a great mistake for people always to be cheerful. I'm going to give him a bad egg for breakfast tomorrow morning, and have the greatest hopes of the result."
Miss Allan now had her clutch skilfully fastened upon poor Lane. She introduced him to an offspring of the Victoria Street work, "The Merry Musical Evenings." This was a gathering that met in a studio in Kensington with the avowed purpose of all being lively, cheerful, and convivial without the aid of any intoxicating liquor, simply with the assistance of a piano and a Mr. Giles Merryweather, who was famous for his funny stories. Lane, of course, was summoned to these evenings, which occurred every Friday night from 8.30 to 12. He took me with him to one of them, and I have never spent a more horrible time. The cheeriness was overpowering. Everybody was wreathed in smiles, elderly ladies kissed one another repeatedly and said over and over again: "But you're looking too sweet to-night, dear—that frock exactly suits you." It is needless to say there were no young persons present. They all told their best stories, songs were sung, and at last there was a little jolly dance, at which, as Miss Allan explained, there were to be none of these modern indecent dances, but the dear old waltz, polka, the Highland schottische, and a final most energetic Sir Roger de Coverley. At the conclusion of the whole affair a rather tired-looking clergyman got up, made a little final address in which he said that they were indeed carrying on a good work by raising the voice in merriment and song, that they were showing to the world how happy one might be without anything stronger than lemonade, and by going back to those sweet old dances that the world had unhappily flung aside, that laughter and joy were beautiful things to carry through life; and then there was something about David dancing before the Ark, the full purport of which I missed, as I was trying to find my coat, that had been hidden in a corner with a number of others. I may say that it did not add to my personal merriment to discover that my coat had been stolen earlier in the evening. When I acquainted Miss Allan with this, she said it had obviously been taken by mistake, begged me to say nothing about it just then, lest it should disturb the merriment of the party, but that she was sure it would be found in the morning. I may remark that it never was.
Lane's progress was, after this, extraordinarily rapid. He arrived in my room a week later, about tea-time, looking quite upset.
"I say, Johnson," he cried, "I'm hanged if I'm going to their Merry Evenings!"
"Well, I shouldn't," I remarked. "You're your own master."
"No, but Miss Allan's so persistent. She'll come round to the house and fetch me. She's been round several times already. She orders me about as though I'm ten years old. She scolded me like anything yesterday because I couldn't laugh at one of old Merryweather's stories. I tell you what," he went on, "it's an awful thing the way they're all determined to be cheerful. It makes one quite blue."
"I'm sorry for that," I answered. "I should have thought nothing would ever make you depressed."
"Well, so should I," he said, looking extremely gloomy, "but you do get tired at that sort of perpetual optimism. Look here, can I spend the evening with you? I'm really afraid to go home. You don't know what a Tartar Miss Allan can be. She never loses her temper or anything. It would be splendid if she'd only swear a bit."
We had quite a merry evening together, and I found him much better company than he had ever been before, and as we were coming out of the Oxford Theatre, when a man lurched, against him and dug him in the ribs, he turned round and swore most heartily.
"I thought for a moment," he said to me as we walked away, "that was one of Miss Allan's staff—that man Bright who does the funny conjuring trick. If it had been, I believe I'd have hit him."
"Oh, you're getting on," I said.
"Getting on?" he asked me. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing," I answered.
A few days later Mrs. Lane invited me to tea. "I really must thank you," she said, "before he comes in. It's wonderful how he's improving. That Miss Allan rung up on the telephone this morning, and he wouldn't go near it, and told me to tell her something really dreadful. And when Dulcie woke him up last night by accident from his after-dinner sleep, he snapped at her just like a real man. I am so grateful."
While we were seated at tea, the door bell rang, and before we knew what was happening Miss Allan was in the room. I could see that Mrs. Lane was thoroughly frightened of her. "I'm so glad you've come to tea, Miss Allan," she said nervously. "I'll have some fresh made in a minute."
"I haven't come to tea," she said sternly, fixing her eye upon Lane. "Your husband has broken his word to me, Mrs. Lane. He promised that he would be with us this afternoon at our funny story circle, and I've come to know why he was not present."
"Why, look here, Miss Allan," said Lane, getting up slowly on to his feet, "I'm not to be ordered about this way, you know. I was busy over other things."
"Now, Mr. Lane," said Miss Allan very calmly, "you know that's not right. You gave us your solemn promise to help us, and now you're drawing back. When a gentleman's given his word, he keeps it."
"I hadn't given my word," said Lane. "I simply said I might come. Well, I thought better of it, that's all."
"Mr. Lane," said Miss Allan, shaking her head, "is this right, is this good, is this the way to make others happy?"
"I don't care a hang," he burst out, "whether others are happy or not! I'm sick of seeing people happy. I tell you what, Miss Allan, your place would be a lot better if there was a little more ill-temper in it. All that cheerfulness's got on my nerves, and it's not real cheerfulness, either. I'm not coming any more."
"You are coming, Mr. Lane," said Miss Allan, "and you know you are."
I was then present at the very first occasion in all history when my friend Lane thoroughly lost his temper. He was crimson in the face. "You dare to say that before my wife!" he burst out. "Do you know where you are? Why, you've only known me three weeks, and you speak to me as though I'm a schoolboy! I tell you I'm not coming to your beastly place. I'm not going to laugh to order, and I am going to lose my temper when I want to. It's a poor sort of man who doesn't get angry sometimes. You're trying to force all those wretched people into false happiness. There's nothing in the world more tiresome than somebody who's always cheerful. I'm sure my wife will agree with me."
"I do," said Mrs. Lane, looking at Miss Allan with awe. "I do, indeed."
I beheld Miss Allan with deep admiration. She was imperturbable. "You may criticise my work, Mr. Lane," she said with dignity. "I know what I'm doing. You have turned your hand from the plough, you have set your face from the light. Upon your own head be it!" She went.
"Well, I'm hanged!" cried Lane. "Of all the infernal, meddlesome old women—by Jove, I'd like to break something! Why do you sit staring at me like that, Viola? Don't you think it's irritating enough to a man to be scolded in his own house without having his wife stare at him as though he were an animal out of the Zoo? By Jove, it's enough to make any man lose his temper!"
"That's right, dear," she said soothingly. "We'll have some fresh tea up, and you'll feel quite a different man."
She flung me a glance of triumphant satisfaction. The glance said: "You have made me a happy woman. I can now act in my natural rôle of man-consoler and man-tranquilliser. I shall also from day to day be able to act in my other natural rôle of man-irritator and man-exasperator. At last my life is fulfilled, and I have you to thank for it." All this her glance said. She went across and patted her husband's head. "There, there, dear," she said, "you needn't go and see those tiresome people any more. I'm sure we've got a lot to thank Miss Allan for."
"To thank her for?" he burst out. "Tiresome, meddling old——"
"Mary, some more tea, please. You'll spend the evening, Mr. Johnson, with us, won't you?"
"I shall be delighted," I answered.