THE JESTING OF ARLINGTON STRINGHAM

Arlington Stringham made a joke in the House of Commons. It

was a thin House, and a very thin joke; something about the

Anglo-Saxon race having a great many angles. It is possible

that it was unintentional, but a fellow-member, who did not

wish it to be supposed that he was asleep because his eyes

were shut, laughed. One or two of the papers noted “a

laugh” in brackets, and another, which was notorious for

the carelessness of its political news, mentioned

“laughter.” Things often begin in that way.

“Arlington made a joke in the House last night,” said

Eleanor Stringham to her mother; “in all the years we’ve

been married neither of us has made jokes, and I don’t like

it now. I’m afraid it’s the beginning of the rift in the

lute.”

“What lute?” said her mother.

“It’s a quotation,” said Eleanor.

To say that anything was a quotation was an excellent

method, in Eleanor’s eyes, for withdrawing it from

discussion, just as you could always defend indifferent lamb

late in the season by saying “It’s mutton.”

And, of course, Arlington Stringham continued to tread the

thorny path of conscious humour into which Fate had beckoned

him.

“The country’s looking very green, but, after all, that’s

what it’s there for,” he remarked to his wife two days

later.

“That’s very modern, and I daresay very clever, but I’m

afraid it’s wasted on me,” she observed coldly. If she had

known how much effort it had cost him to make the remark she

might have greeted it in a kinder spirit. It is the tragedy

of human endeavour that it works so often unseen and

unguessed.

Arlington said nothing, not from injured pride, but

because he was thinking hard for something to say. Eleanor

mistook his silence for an assumption of tolerant

superiority, and her anger prompted her to a further gibe.

“You had better tell it to Lady Isobel. I’ve no doubt

she would appreciate it.”

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured

collie at a time when every one else kept nothing but

Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an

afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely

credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said

she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her

family denied both stories.

“The rift is widening to an abyss,” said Eleanor to her

mother that afternoon.

“I should not tell that to any one,” remarked her

mother, after long reflection.

“Naturally, I should not talk about it very much,” said

Eleanor, “but why shouldn’t I mention it to any one?”

“Because you can’t have an abyss in a lute. There isn’t

room.”

Eleanor’s outlook on life did not improve as the afternoon

wore on. The page-boy had brought from the library By Mere

and Wold instead of By Mere Chance, the book which every

one denied having read. The unwelcome substitute appeared

to be a collection of nature notes contributed by the author

to the pages of some Northern weekly, and when one had been

prepared to plunge with disapproving mind into a regrettable

chronicle of ill-spent lives it was intensely irritating to

read “the dainty yellow-hammers are now with us, and flaunt

their jaundiced livery from every bush and hillock.”

Besides, the thing was so obviously untrue; either there

must be hardly any bushes or hillocks in those parts or the

country must be fearfully overstocked with yellow-hammers.

The thing scarcely seemed worth telling such a lie about.

And the page-boy stood there, with his sleekly brushed and

parted hair, and his air of chaste and callous indifference

to the desires and passions of the world. Eleanor hated

boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long

and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had

no children of her own.

She turned at random to another paragraph. “Lie quietly

concealed in the fern and bramble in the gap by the old

rowan tree, and you may see, almost every evening during

early summer, a pair of lesser whitethroats creeping up and

down the nettles and hedge-growth that mask their

nesting-place.”

The insufferable monotony of the proposed recreation!

Eleanor would not have watched the most brilliant

performance at His Majesty’s Theatre for a single evening

under such uncomfortable circumstances, and to be asked to

watch lesser whitethroats creeping up and down a nettle

“almost every evening” during the height of the season

struck her as an imputation on her intelligence that was

positively offensive. Impatiently she transferred her

attention to the dinner menu, which the boy had thoughtfully

brought in as an alternative to the more solid literary

fare. “Rabbit curry,” met her eye, and the lines of

disapproval deepened on her already puckered brow. The cook

was a great believer in the influence of environment, and

nourished an obstinate conviction that if you brought rabbit

and curry-powder together in one dish a rabbit curry would

be the result. And Clovis and the odious Bertie van Tahn

were coming to dinner. Surely, thought Eleanor, if

Arlington knew how much she had had that day to try her, he

would refrain from joke-making.

At dinner that night it was Eleanor herself who mentioned

the name of a certain statesman, who may be decently covered

under the disguise of X.

“X.,” said Arlington Stringham, “has the soul of a

meringue.”

It was a useful remark to have on hand, because it applied

equally well to four prominent statesmen of the day, which

quadrupled the opportunities for using it.

“Meringues haven’t got souls,” said Eleanor’s mother.

“It’s a mercy that they haven’t,” said Clovis; “they

would be always losing them, and people like my aunt would

get up missions to meringues, and say it was wonderful how

much one could teach them and how much more one could learn

from them.”

“What could you learn from a meringue?” asked Eleanor’s

mother.

“My aunt has been known to learn humility from an

ex-Viceroy,” said Clovis.

“I wish cook would learn to make curry, or have the sense

to leave it alone,” said Arlington, suddenly and savagely.

Eleanor’s face softened. It was like one of his old

remarks in the days when there was no abyss between them.

It was during the debate on the Foreign Office vote that

Stringham made his great remark that “the people of Crete

unfortunately make more history than they can consume

locally.” It was not brilliant, but it came in the middle

of a dull speech, and the House was quite pleased with it.

Old gentlemen with bad memories said it reminded them of

Disraeli.

It was Eleanor’s friend, Gertrude Ilpton, who drew her

attention to Arlington’s newest outbreak. Eleanor in these

days avoided the morning papers.

“It’s very modern, and I suppose very clever,” she

observed.

“Of course it’s clever,” said Gertrude; “all Lady

Isobel’s sayings are clever, and luckily they bear

repeating.”

“Are you sure it’s one of her sayings?” asked Eleanor.

“My dear, I’ve heard her say it dozens of times.”

“So that is where he gets his humour,” said Eleanor

slowly, and the hard lines deepened round her mouth.

The death of Eleanor Stringham from an overdose of

chloral, occurring at the end of a rather uneventful season,

excited a certain amount of unobtrusive speculation.

Clovis, who perhaps exaggerated the importance of curry in

the home, hinted at domestic sorrow.

And of course Arlington never knew. It was the tragedy of

his life that he should miss the fullest effect of his

jesting.