The Prince of Abyssinia's Post Bag

by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

I.—AN INTERRUPTION:

From Algernon Dexter, writer of Vers de Societe, London, to Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

My dear prince,—Our correspondence has dwindled of late. Indeed, I do not remember to have heard from you since I wrote to acknowledge your kindness in standing godfather to my boy Jack (now rising two), and the receipt of the beautiful scimitar which, as a christening present, accompanied your consent. Still I do not forget the promise you exacted from "Q." and myself after lunch at the Mitre, on the day when we took our bachelors' degrees together—that if in our paths through life we happened upon any circumstance that seemed to throw fresh light on the dark, complex workings of the human heart, or at least likely to prove of interest to a student of his fellow men, we would write it down and despatch it to you, under cover of The Negus. During the months of my engagement to Violet these communications of mine (you will allow) were frequent enough: since our marriage they have grown shamefully fewer. Possibly I lose alertness while I put on flesh: it is the natural hebetudus of happiness. "Q."—who is never seen now upon London stones—no doubt sends you a plenty of what passes for news in that parish which it is his humour to prefer to the Imperial City. But, believe me, the very finest romance is still to be had in London: and to prove this I am going to tell you a story that, upon my soul, Prince, will make you sit up.

Until last night the Seely-Hardwickes were a force in this capital. They were three,—Seely-Hardwicke himself, who owned a million or more, and to my knowledge drank Hollands and smoked threepenny Returns in his Louis Quinze library; Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke, as beautiful as the moon and clever to sinfulness; and Billy, their child, aged seven-and-a-half. To-day their whereabouts would be as difficult to find as that of the boy in Mrs. Hemans's ballad. You jump to the guess that they have lost their money. You are wrong.

It was amassed in the canned-fruit trade, which, I understand, does not fluctuate severely, though doubtless in the last instance dependent on the crops. Seely-Hardwicke and his wife were ready to lose any amount of it at cards, which accounts for a measure of their success. It had been found (with Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke) somewhere on the Pacific Slope, by a destitute Yorkshireman who had tired of driving rivets on the Clyde and betaken himself across the Atlantic, for a change, in front of a furnace some thirty-odd feet below decks. Of his adventures in the Great Republic nothing is known but this, that he drove into the silence of its central plain at the tail of a traction engine and emerged on its western shore, three years later, with a wife, a child and a growing pile. With this pile there grew a desire to spend it in his own country; and the family landed at Liverpool on Billy's sixth birthday. I think their double-barrelled name must have been invented by Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke on the voyage.

I first made Billy's acquaintance in the Row, where a capable groom was teaching him to ride a very small skewbald pony. This happened in the week after our Jack was born, when I was perforce companionless: but as soon as Violet could ride again, she too fell a victim to the red curls and seraphic face of this urchin. And so, when Billy's mother began, later in the season, to appear in the Row, Billy (now promoted to a larger pony) introduced us in his own fashion and we quickly made friends. By this time she had been "presented," and was fairly on her feet in London: and henceforward her career resembled not so much a conquest as the progress of a Roman Emperor. I am not referring to the vulgar achievements of mere wealth. Wherever these people went, to be sure, they left outposts—a Mediterranean villa, a deer forest behind the Grampians, small Saturday-to-Monday establishments beside the Thames and the North Sea, and furnished abodes on short leases near Newmarket and Ascot Heaths; not to mention nomadic trifles such as houseboats and yachts. Any one with money can purchase these, and any one having a cook can fill them with people of a sort. The quality of Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke's success was seen in this, that from the first she knew none but the right people: and though, as her circle widened, it included names of higher and yet higher lustre, yet (if I may press a somewhat confused metaphor) its rings were concentric and hardly distinct. She never, I believe, was forced to drop an old acquaintance because she had found a new one. The just estimate of our Western manners which you, my dear Prince, formed at Balliol, will enable you to grasp the singularity of such a triumph. Its rapidity, I must admit, perplexes me still. But in those old days we studied Arnold Toynbee overmuch and neglected the civilising influences of the card-table. By the time the Seely-Hardwickes took their house near Hyde Park Corner, philanthropy was beginning to stale and our leaders to perceive that the rejuvenation of society must be effected (if at all) not by bestowing money on the poor, but by losing it to the rich. Seely-Hardwicke himself was understood to spend most of his time in the City, looking after the interests of canned fruits and making small fortunes out of his redundant cash.

You will readily understand that we soon came to see little of our new acquaintances. A small private income and the trivial wage commanded by society verses in this country (so different in many respects from Abyssinia) confined us to a much narrower orbit. But we were invited pretty often to their dinners, and the notes I have given you were taken on these occasions. Last night there were potentates at Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke's—several imported, and one of British growth. To-day—but you shall hear it in the fewest words.

Three days back, Billy failed to turn up in the Row. We met his mother riding alone and asked the reason. She told us the child had a cough and something of a sore throat and she thought it wiser to keep him at home.

On the next day, and yesterday, he was still absent. In the evening we went to the Seely-Hardwicke's dance. The thing was wonderfully done. An exuberant vegetation that suggested a virgin forest was qualified by the presence of several hundred people. It was impossible to dance or to feel lonely; and our hostess looked radiant as the moon in the reflected rays of her success. We shook hands with her and were swallowed in the crowd.

About half-an-hour later, as I watched the crush from a recess beside an open window and listened to the waltz that the band was playing, Seely-Hardwicke himself thrust his way towards me. He was crumpled and perspiring copiously: but the glory of it all sat on his blunt face yet more openly than on his wife's lovely features.

"I've not been here above ten minutes," he explained. "Had to run down to Liverpool suddenly last night, and only reached King's Cross something less 'n an hour back. Quick work."

"How's Billy?" I asked, after a few commonplace words.

"Off colour, still. I went up to see him, just now: but the nurse wouldn't let him be disturbed; said he was sleepin'. Best thing for him. You'll see him out, as lively as a lark, to-morrow."

"And getting stopped, as usual, by the police for expounding his idea of a canter in the Ladies' Mile."

He laughed. "Hey? I like that. I like spirit. He looks fragile—he's like his mother for that—but they're game every inch, the pair of 'em. You may think me silly, but I don't know that I can last out this without runnin' up to have a look at him. I haven't seen him for two days."

I believe he was on the point of launching out into any number of fatherly confidences. But at this point he was claimed by an acquaintance some ten paces off; and, plunging among his guests, was lost to me.

I cannot tell you, my dear Prince, how much time elapsed between this and the arrival of the home-grown Potentate—as you must allow me to call him until we meet and I can whisper his august name. But I know that shortly after his arrival, while I still loafed in my recess and hoped that Violet would soon drift in my direction and allow herself to be taken home, the throng around me began to thin in a most curious manner. How it happened—whence it started and how it spread—I cannot tell you. Only it seemed as if something began to be whispered, and the whisper melted the crowd like sugar. Almost before I grew aware of what was happening, I could see the far side of the room, and the Potentate there by Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke's side; and could mark their faces. His was cast in a polite, but slightly rigid smile. His eyes wandered. That supernumerary sense which all his family possesses had warned him that something was wrong. Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke's face was white as chalk, though her eyes returned his smile.

At this moment Violet came towards me.

"Take me home," she commanded, but under her breath. As she said it she shivered.

"What on earth is the matter?" I demanded.

She pulled me by the sleeve. I looked up and saw a white-haired man, of military carriage, walking towards His Royal Highness. He came to a halt, a pace off, and stood as if anxious to speak. I saw also that Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke would not allow him a chance, but talked desperately. I saw groups of people, up and down the room, regarding her even as we. And then the door was flung open.

Seely-Hardwicke came running in with Billy in his arms—or rather, with Billy's body. The child had died at four that afternoon, of diphtheria.

I got Violet out of the room as soon as I could. The man's language was frightful—filthy. And his wife straightened herself up and answered him back. It was a babel of obscene Frisco curses: but I remember one clear sentence of hers from the din—

"You—, you! And d'ye think my heart won't go to pieces when my stays are cut?"

* * * * *

All the way home Violet kept sobbing and crying out that she was never driven so slowly. She was convinced that some harm had happened to her own Jack. She ran up to the night-nursery at once and woke your god-child out of a healthy sleep. And he arose in his full strength and yelled.

II.—THE GREAT FIRE ON FREETHY'S QUAY.

From "Q."

Troy Town.

New Year's Eve, 1892.

MY DEAR PRINCE,—The New Year is upon us, a season which the devout
Briton sets aside for taking stock of his short-comings. I know not if
Prester John introduced this custom among the Abyssinians: but we find
it very convenient here.

In particular I have been vexing myself to-day over the gradual desuetude of our correspondence. Doubtless the fault is mine: and doubtless I compare very poorly with Dexter, whose letters are bound to be bright and frequent. But Dexter clings to London; and from London, as from your own Africa, semper aliquid novi. But of Troy during these twelve months there has been little or nothing to delate. The small port has been enjoying a period of quiet which even the General Election, last summer, did not seriously disturb. As you know, the election turned on the size of mesh proper to be used in the drift-net fishery. We wore favours of red, white and blue, symbolising our hatred of the mesh favoured by Mr. Gladstone; and carried our man. Had other constituencies as sternly declined to fritter away their voting strength upon side issues, Lord Salisbury would now be in power with a solid majority at his back.

My purpose, however, is not to talk of politics, but to give you a short description of an event which has greatly excited us, and redeemed from monotony (though at the eleventh hour) the year Eighteen ninety-two. I refer to the great fire on Freethy's Quay, where Mr. Wm. Freethy has of late been improving his timber-store with a number of the newest mechanical inventions; among others, with a steam engine which operates on a circular saw, and impels it to cut up oak poles (our winter fuel) with incredible rapidity. It was here that the outbreak occurred, on Christmas Eve—of all days in the year—between five and six o'clock in the afternoon.

But I should first tell you that our town has enjoyed a long immunity from fires; and although we possess a Volunteer Fire Brigade, at once efficient and obliging, and commanded by Mr. Patrick Sullivan (an Irishman), the men have had little or no opportunity of combating their sworn foe. The Brigade was founded in the early autumn of 1873, and presented by public subscription with a handsome manual engine and a wooden house to contain it. This house, painted a bright vermilion, is a conspicuous object at the top of the hill above the town, as you turn off towards the Rope-walk. The firemen, of course, wear an appropriate uniform, with brazen helmets and shoulder-straps and a neat axe apiece, suspended in a leathern case from the waistband. But the spirit of make-believe has of necessity animated all their public exercise, if I except the 13th of April, 1879, when a fire broke out in the back premises of Mr. Tippett, carpenter. His shop was (and is) situated in the middle of the town, and in those days a narrow gatehouse gave, or rather prevented, access to the town on either side. These houses stood, one at the extremity of North Street, beside the Ferry Slip, the other at the south end of the Fore Street, where it turns the corner by the Ship Inn and mounts Lostwithiel Hill. With their low-browed arches, each surmounted by a little chamber for the toll-keeper, they recalled in an interesting manner the days when local traffic was carried on solely by means of pack-horses; but by an unfortunate oversight their straitness had been left out of account by the donors of the fire-engine, which stuck firmly in the passage below Lostwithiel Hill and could be drawn neither forwards nor back, thus robbing the Brigade of the result of six years' practice. For the engine filled up so much of the thoroughfare that the men could neither climb over nor round it, but were forced to enter the town by a circuitous route and find, to their chagrin, Mr. Tippett's premises completely gutted. For three days all our traffic entered and left the town perforce by the north side; but two years after, on the completion of the railway line to Troy, these obstructive gatehouses were removed, to give passage to the new Omnibus.

Let me proceed to the story of our more recent alarm. At twenty minutes to five, precisely, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Wm. Freethy left his engine-room by the door which opens on the Quay; turned the key, which he immediately pocketed; and proceeded towards his mother's house, at the western end of the town, where he invariably takes tea. The wind was blowing strongly from the east, where it had been fixed for three days, and the thermometer stood at six degrees below freezing. Indeed, I had remarked, early in the morning, that an icicle of quite respectable length (for a small provincial town), depended from the public water-tap under the Methodist Chapel. About twenty minutes after Mr. Freethy's departure, some children, who were playing about the Quay, observed dense volumes of smoke (as they thought) issuing from under the engine-room door. They gave the alarm. I happened to be in the street at the time, purchasing muscatels for the Christmas snap-dragon, and, after rushing up to the Quay to satisfy myself, proceeded with all haste to Mr. Sullivan, Captain of the Brigade.

I found him at tea, but behaving in a somewhat extraordinary manner. It is well known that Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan suffer occasionally from domestic disagreement, due, in great measure, to the lady's temper. Mr. Sullivan was sitting at the table with a saucer inverted upon his head, a quantity of tea-leaves matted in his iron-grey hair, and their juice trickling down his face. On hearing my alarming intelligence, he said:

"I had meant to sit there for some time; indeed, until my little boy returns with the Vicar, whom I have sent for to witness the effects of my wife's temper. I was sitting down to tea when I heard a voice in the street calling 'Whiting!'—a fish of which I am extremely fond—and ran out to procure threepenny worth. On my return, my wife here—I suppose, because she objects to clean the fish—assaulted me in the manner you behold."

With praiseworthy public spirit, however, Mr. Sullivan forewent his revenge, and, having cleansed his hair, ran with all speed to get out the fire-engine.

Returning to the Quay, at about 5 p.m., I found a large crowd assembled before the engine-room door, from which the vapour was pouring in dense clouds. The Brigade came rattling up with their manual in less than ten minutes. As luck would have it, this was just the hour when the mummers, guise dancers and darkey-parties were dressing up for their Christmas rounds; and the appearance presented by the crowd in the deepening dusk would, in less serious circumstances, have been extremely diverting. Two of the firemen wore large moustaches of burnt cork beneath their helmets, and another (who was cast to play the Turkish Knight) had found no time to remove the bright blue dye he had been applying to his face. The pumpmaker had come as Father Christmas, and the blacksmith (who was forcing the door) looked oddly in an immense white hat, a flapping collar and a suit of pink chintz with white bone buttons. He had not accomplished his purpose when I heard a shout, and, looking up the street, saw Mr. Wm. Freethy approaching at a brisk run. He is forty-three years old, and his figure inclines to rotundity. The wind, still in the east, combined with the velocity of his approach to hold his coat-tails in a line steadily horizontal. In his right hand he carried a large slice of his mother's home-made bread, spread with yellow plum jam; a semicircular excision of the crumb made it plain that he had been disturbed in his first mouthful. The crowd parted and he advanced to the door; laid his slice of bread and jam upon the threshold; searched in his fob pocket for the key; produced it; turned it in the lock; picked up his bread and jam again; opened the door; took a bite; and plunged into the choking clouds that immediately enveloped his person.

While the concourse waited, in absolute silence, the atmosphere of the engine-house cleared as if by magic, and Mr. Wm. Freethy was visible again in the converging rays of six bull's-eye lanterns held forward by six members of the Fire Brigade. One hand still held the bread and jam; the other grasped a stop-cock which he had that instant turned, shutting off the outpour of steam we had taken for smoke. Some one tittered; but the general laugh was prevented by a resounding splash. The recoiling crowd had backed against the fire-engine outside, and inadvertently thrust it over the Quay's edge into two fathoms of water!

We left it there till the tide should turn, and forming into procession, marched back through the streets. I never witnessed greater enthusiasm. I do not believe Troy held a man, woman, or child that did not turn out of doors to cheer and laugh. Presently a verse sprang up:—

  "The smoke came out at Freethy's door,
  An' down came Sullivan with his corps.
  'My dears,' says Freethy,' don't 'ee pour!
  For the smoke be steam an' nothin' more—
    But what hav' 'ee done wi' the En-gine
?'"

And the firemen, by shouting it as heartily as the rest, robbed the epigram of all its sting.

But the best of it, my dear Prince, was still to come. For at half-past eight (that being the time of low water) a salvage corps assembled and managed to drag the engine ashore by means of stout tackle hitched round the granite pedestal that stands on Freethy's Quay to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who landed there on the 8th of September, 1846. The guise-dancers paraded it through the streets until midnight, when they gave it over to the carollers, who fed it with buckets; and as the poor machine was but little damaged, brisk jets of water were made to salute the citizens' windows simultaneously with the season's holy songs. I, who have a habit of sleeping with my window open, received an icy shower-bath with the opening verse of "Christians, awake! Salute the Happy Morn…."

On Saturday next the Brigade assembles for a Grand Salvage Banquet in the Town Hall. There will be speeches. Accept, my dear Prince, all possible good wishes for the New Year….

"Q."