THE SPY

BY G. A. BIRMINGHAM
 
Our village used to be one of the quietest in England. We prided ourselves that nothing ever happened there to excite or worry us in any way. Colonel Challenger, of the Royal Engineers, retired, often congratulated the vicar, who is upwards of sixty-five years of age, on the unbroken peace which we enjoyed. The vicar used to remind me, once a fortnight or so, that we owed our happiness largely to the fact that we were eight miles from a railway station. When I met Hankly, a retired Indian judge, in the post office I invariably pointed out to him that our lot would be much less pleasant if we lived in a neighbourhood where tennis parties were rife or among people who expected us to turn out in the evenings after dinner to play cards. Lord Manby, who owns the village and all the country round it, used to pay a visit to his home every year and ask us each to lunch with him once. We all accepted these invitations, but we told each other that they were a horrible nuisance and a most disagreeable break in the monotony of our lives. I think we were all quite honest and really believed that we were perfectly happy.

Then Mrs. Clegg C. Mimms rented the Manor House from Lord Manby, and all peace came to an end for us. She described herself on her visiting cards as "the Honourable Mrs. Mimms," and that disturbed us to begin with. We had to meet each other pretty frequently to discuss how she could be the Honourable Mrs. anything. She was plainly and unmistakably an American, and the vicar was of opinion that, since there are no titles in the American Republic, neither Mrs. Mimms nor her late husband could be the descendant of a lord. Hankly, who has seen a great deal of the world, told us that American ambassadors are styled the Right Honourable, and that Mrs. Mimms's husband might have been an ambassador. The Colonel maintained that ambassadors are like bishops and cannot share their official titles with their wives, particularly after they are dead. My own view was that if Mrs. Mimms wanted to be styled "the Honourable" it would be discourteous to deny her the title.

We had hardly settled down again after deciding this point when Mrs. Mimms upset us still more seriously. She gave a Christmas Tree to the village children. At first we thought that this would not matter to any one except the vicar. We were mistaken about that. Mrs. Mimms made us all help. The Colonel and I spent a long afternoon on a step-ladder sticking candles on the branches. Hankly, who is a lean, yellow little man, was made to dress himself up as "Father Christmas." We got no dinner on the evening of the party, and very nearly had to dance with the children afterwards. The presents which Mrs. Mimms distributed to the children were of the most gorgeous and expensive kind. We all agreed that she must be enormously rich, and the Colonel said that she would demoralise the whole village.

She certainly demoralised us. We found ourselves invited to dinner at the Manor House twice, sometimes three times, a week, and had a standing invitation to supper every Sunday night. It was no use refusing the invitations. I tried that twice; but Mrs. Mimms simply came round to my house in her motor and fetched me. The Colonel complained bitterly. He has been writing a book on Chhota Nagpur ever since I knew him, and he said that he hated being interrupted in the evenings. He only dined with Mrs. Mimms in order to avoid unpleasantness with his wife, who wanted to go. Hankly said plainly that Mrs. Mimms had a very good cook, and we all came in the end to accept that as our excuse for dining with her.

It is, I know, scarcely credible, but last Easter she dragged us into private theatricals. By that time we had agreed that Mrs. Mimms, in spite of her annoying lack of repose, was a very kind-hearted woman, and we did not wish to snub her in any way. My own part in the play let me in for a love scene with Mrs. Challenger, the most grotesquely absurd thing imaginable, for the lady is sixty at least and enormously fat. I should never have agreed to do it, however good-hearted Mrs. Mimms might be, if Hankly had not been cast for the part of an heroic Christian curate, and I knew he would look even more foolish than I did when I kissed Mrs. Challenger's left ear. Hankly hated being an heroic Christian curate and did not do the part at all well. We got through the theatricals in June, and after that, except for a couple of picnics every week, we had a comparatively quiet time until the war broke out. Mrs. Mimms broke out at the same time. All festivities, even picnics, stopped at once, of course, and we all began to take life very strenuously. Mrs. Mimms outdid us easily in every form of activity.

She began by erecting a flag-staff at the Manor House gates and hoisting an enormous American flag on it, the largest American flag I have ever seen. The Colonel, who had his motor decorated with a French and a Belgian flag as well as a Union Jack, said that Mrs. Mimms's Stars and Stripes were, under the circumstances, rather bad form. Hankly and I agreed with him, and we made the vicar speak to her about it. She explained to him that she had hoisted it entirely for our good. It was, so she told the vicar, and he told us, the only flag in the world which the Germans would respect, and that when the Uhlans entered our village we could all congregate in perfect safety under its folds. The Colonel was furious—we were all rather angry—at the idea that the Germans would ever set foot in England; but there was no denying that Mrs. Mimms meant to be kind when she hoisted the flag. Besides, she is a difficult woman to argue with, and we did not quite see how we could make her take the thing down.

Hankly and I more or less forgave her, though, as it appeared, the Colonel did not, when she came forward at a meeting summoned by the vicar and offered to turn the Manor House into a hospital for wounded soldiers. The generosity of her proposal actually staggered us. She intended, so she said—and I quite believe it—to turn out all the existing furniture of the house, fit the place up with the latest sanitary devices, hire two surgeons and a competent staff of nurses who should be under her own personal supervision. We at once wired to the War Office and expected to be thanked gratefully. As a matter of fact we never got any official acknowledgment of the offer at all. What we did get—or rather what Mrs. Mimms got—was a letter from Lord Manby's solicitor pointing out that the agreement under which she had taken the Manor House did not allow of her getting rid of the furniture or using the place in any way except as an ordinary dwelling.

I thought that Lord Manby was a little unsympathetic, and that the War Office might very well have replied to our telegram, but the Colonel took quite a different line. He said that Mrs. Mimms was an interfering old woman who deserved to be snubbed. We all hoped that after this set-back she would be a little subdued and allow us to manage our own war in our own way.

For a time she kept tolerably quiet. She contented herself with making shirts and subscribing to various funds like any ordinary woman. She was, so my wife told me, an amazingly rapid worker, and could turn out three shirts while any other woman in the village was making two. Her subscriptions were very generous. Gradually the whole activities of our village centred in the Manor House. Mrs. Mimms put up another flag-staff and flew a large Red Cross from it. Working parties went on in her dining-room from morning to night, and hardly a day passed without a committee meeting. The vicar, Colonel Challenger, Hankly, and I were the committee, and we met whenever Mrs. Mimms summoned us. The vicar was supposed to preside, but it was Mrs. Mimms who suggested the things we did. The Colonel objected, in private, to every suggestion she made, but he never succeeded in carrying a point against her. Once or twice she got us into trouble. There was, for instance, a lot of ill feeling when we sealed up the village pump and set my chauffeur to keep guard over it with a gun, only allowing people to draw water for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. Mrs. Mimms had a theory that a German might come in an aeroplane and poison our water supply. That would have been a horrible thing: but the people in the village made a fuss about not being able to get at the pump. Tompkins, the innkeeper, who was particularly objectionable, said that he only used the water for washing and would rather have it poisoned than do without it.

We all began to get rather tired of being rushed into doing things we didn't want to do; but we were none of us able to withstand Mrs. Mimms. The Colonel said that we ought to drive her out of the village altogether, but he never succeeded in suggesting any practical way of doing it.

Fortunately she got tired of making shirts and holding committee meetings after about a month. Then she said she was going up to London to get a few families of Belgian refugees. We were all greatly pleased, for we felt that her energies might be turned into a channel which would save us from making fools of ourselves. I saw her off at the station, and we waited with the greatest curiosity to see what would happen. I suppose the Belgian Consul felt doubtful about Mrs. Mimms when he met her. At all events she came back without a single refugee. Most women would have been a little disappointed at a failure like that, but Mrs. Mimms was as full of energy as ever. She had, it appeared, called at several public offices in London and had been immensely impressed by the Boy Scouts whom she saw waiting about the doors.

"They're the cutest things I've seen in England," she said, "and their bare knees are just sweet. I could kiss them all day. I simply must have a couple to stand on guard while the working parties are going on."

I talked to the vicar, Hankly, and the Colonel about this. I did not see how we could possibly provide Mrs. Mimms with Boy Scouts, for there were none in the parish. The vicar said he was sorry that he had not started the organisation long ago, but supposed it was too late to do so now. To my surprise the Colonel, who up to that time had been getting angrier and angrier with Mrs. Mimms, took her side and said that if she wanted Boy Scouts she ought to have them. He proposed that we should enrol four choir boys at once, and offered to buy uniforms for them himself. The vicar was a little doubtful, but Hankly and I backed up the Colonel. We were very tired of the constant committee meetings, and we hoped that if Mrs. Mimms got really interested in Boy Scouts she might let us alone. We acted promptly, and in a week had four boys ready to stand on guard at the doors of the Manor House.

The Colonel gave them a talking to at their first parade. He impressed on them the fact that discipline and strict obedience to orders are the essence of a military manhood. He quoted Tennyson, and made the boys repeat the lines after him:

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why."

He succeeded in inspiring them with a tremendous sense of their own importance. My idea was that he was trying to prepare them for having their knees kissed by Mrs. Mimms.

For a time everything went well. The boys got off going to school and were immensely pleased. Mrs. Mimms fed them with dainties at odd hours of the day, and always had a basket of apples in the porch from which they could help themselves. So far as I knew she never attempted to kiss either their knees or any other part of them. The Colonel kept on exhorting them. He paid them a visit every morning, and insisted on their reporting themselves at his house when they went off duty in the evening.

About a fortnight after the boys first went on guard Mrs. Mimms complained to the vicar that she had found one of them concealed under the dining-room table while she was at luncheon. She said that she did not like the feeling that she might kick a boy every time she stretched her leg while she was at meals. The vicar, of course, promised to speak to the boy.

The next day Mrs. Mimms made another complaint. One of the boys had climbed up by some creepers, and was found by her maid sitting on the window-sill of a bedroom early in the morning. It was not Mrs. Mimms's bedroom, but, as she explained, it might have been. She had no particular objection, so she told the vicar, to a Boy Scout in her bedroom at any reasonable hour, but she did not want the child to break his neck.

Then the postmaster gave me a hint that Mrs. Mimms's letters, which were posted every day by one of the Scouts, showed signs of having been opened and closed again before they came into his hands. He said that if this was being done by the Colonel's orders it was all right, but he thought he ought to tell me about it. I met the vicar in the street immediately afterwards and said I thought the Scouts were getting out of hand and ought to be disbanded at once. He agreed with me.

While we were discussing the matter Hankly came up to us and said he heard that Mrs. Mimms was to be arrested at once as a German spy.

"Tompkins," he said, "is going about the village saying that she ought to be shot."

Tompkins always blamed Mrs. Mimms for the sealing up of the village pump, and had never spoken a good word about her since. The vicar was greatly put out.

"Tut—tut!" he said; "arrested! shot! Nonsense. Mrs. Mimms is a most estimable lady."

"I'm not so sure about that," said Hankly. "Those boys have been watching her lately, and there are several things which look suspicious."

I suppose the vicar and I showed our surprise. Hankly went on to explain.

"She gives the boys peaches and grapes," he said, "and cakes and meringues. Now I put it to you—the apples of course I understand. I might give a boy an apple myself, but I put it to you, vicar, would anybody give boys like that hothouse grapes and peaches unless—well, unless there was something to conceal. It's not a natural thing to do."

"Now I come to think of it," said the vicar, "I did meet one of them yesterday with a peach in his fist."

"There you are," said Hankly triumphantly, "and, anyhow, the police inspector is coming over to-day to look into the matter."

Mrs. Mimms was not actually arrested. The police inspector—acting on information received from the Boy Scouts, Tompkins, and indeed almost every one in the village—made a lot of inquiries about her. He did not succeed in finding out why she called herself "the Honourable," but the questions he asked her made her so angry that she packed up her trunks and left the village at once.

I met the Colonel the day after she left, and told him I was afraid we should all miss her. The Colonel chuckled in a self-satisfied way.

"I told you we ought to get rid of her," he said, "and we have."

"You don't mean to say you think she was really a spy?" I said.

"She was a good deal worse," said the Colonel; "she was a public nuisance."

Later on the Colonel took a kindlier view of Mrs. Mimms.

"Only for her," he said to me a week ago, "we shouldn't have had Boy Scouts here. We have quite a good company now. She did us that much good, anyhow."

The Colonel did her no more than bare justice. Our Scouts, though they have caught no more spies, have improved the general tone of the village. The Colonel is their commanding officer, and, though I do not say so in public, they have done him a lot of good.