Clovis sat in the hottest zone but two of a Turkish bath, alternately inert in statuesque contemplation and rapidly manoeuvring a fountain-pen over the pages of a note-book.
“Don’t interrupt me with your childish prattle,” he observed to Bertie van Tahn, who had slung himself languidly into a neighbouring chair and looked conversationally inclined; “I’m writing deathless verse.”
Bertie looked interested.
“I say, what a boon you would be to portrait painters if you really got to be notorious as a poetry writer. If they couldn’t get your likeness hung in the Academy as ‘Clovis Sangrail, Esq., at work on his latest poem,’ they could slip you in as a Study of the Nude or Orpheus descending into Jermyn Street. They always complain that modern dress handicaps them, whereas a towel and a fountain-pen—”
“It was Mrs. Packletide’s suggestion that I should write this thing,” said Clovis, ignoring the bypaths to fame that Bertie van Tahn was pointing out to him. “You see, Loona Bimberton had a Coronation Ode accepted by the NEW INFANCY, a paper that has been started with the idea of making the NEW AGE seem elderly and hidebound. ‘So clever of you, dear Loona,’ the Packletide remarked when she had read it; ‘of course, anyone could write a Coronation Ode, but no one else would have thought of doing it.’ Loona protested that these things were extremely difficult to do, and gave us to understand that they were more or less the province of a gifted few. Now the Packletide has been rather decent to me in many ways, a sort of financial ambulance, you know, that carries you off the field when you’re hard hit, which is a frequent occurrence with me, and I’ve no use whatever for Loona Bimberton, so I chipped in and said I could turn out that sort of stuff by the square yard if I gave my mind to it. Loona said I couldn’t, and we got bets on, and between you and me I think the money’s fairly safe. Of course, one of the conditions of the wager is that the thing has to be published in something or other, local newspapers barred; but Mrs. Packletide has endeared herself by many little acts of thoughtfulness to the editor of the SMOKY CHIMNEY, so if I can hammer out anything at all approaching the level of the usual Ode output we ought to be all right. So far I’m getting along so comfortably that I begin to be afraid that I must be one of the gifted few.”
“It’s rather late in the day for a Coronation Ode, isn’t it?” said Bertie.
“Of course,” said Clovis; “this is going to be a Durbar Recessional, the sort of thing that you can keep by you for all time if you want to.”
“Now I understand your choice of a place to write it in,” said Bertie van Tahn, with the air of one who has suddenly unravelled a hitherto obscure problem; “you want to get the local temperature.”
“I came here to get freedom from the inane interruptions of the mentally deficient,” said Clovis, “but it seems I asked too much of fate.”
Bertie van Tahn prepared to use his towel as a weapon of precision, but reflecting that he had a good deal of unprotected coast-line himself, and that Clovis was equipped with a fountain-pen as well as a towel, he relapsed pacifically into the depths of his chair.
“May one hear extracts from the immortal work?” he asked. “I promise that nothing that I hear now shall prejudice me against borrowing a copy of the SMOKY CHIMNEY at the right moment.”
“It’s rather like casting pearls into a trough,” remarked Clovis pleasantly, “but I don’t mind reading you bits of it. It begins with a general dispersal of the Durbar participants:
‘Back to their homes in Himalayan heights
The stale pale elephants of Cutch Behar
Roll like great galleons on a tideless sea—’”
“I don’t believe Cutch Behar is anywhere near the Himalayan region,” interrupted Bertie. “You ought to have an atlas on hand when you do this sort of thing; and why stale and pale?”
“After the late hours and the excitement, of course,” said Clovis; “and I said their HOMES were in the Himalayas. You can have Himalayan elephants in Cutch Behar, I suppose, just as you have Irish-bred horses running at Ascot.”
“You said they were going back to the Himalayas,” objected Bertie.
“Well, they would naturally be sent home to recuperate. It’s the usual thing out there to turn elephants loose in the hills, just as we put horses out to grass in this country.”
Clovis could at least flatter himself that he had infused some of the reckless splendour of the East into his mendacity.
“Is it all going to be in blank verse?” asked the critic.
“Of course not; ‘Durbar’ comes at the end of the fourth line.”
“That seems so cowardly; however, it explains why you pitched on Cutch Behar.”
“There is more connection between geographical place-names and poetical inspiration than is generally recognized; one of the chief reasons why there are so few really great poems about Russia in our language is that you can’t possibly get a rhyme to names like Smolensk and Tobolsk and Minsk.”
Clovis spoke with the authority of one who has tried.
“Of course, you could rhyme Omsk with Tomsk,” he continued; “in fact, they seem to be there for that purpose, but the public wouldn’t stand that sort of thing indefinitely.”
“The public will stand a good deal,” said Bertie malevolently, “and so small a proportion of it knows Russian that you could always have an explanatory footnote asserting that the last three letters in Smolensk are not pronounced. It’s quite as believable as your statement about putting elephants out to grass in the Himalayan range.”
“I’ve got rather a nice bit,” resumed Clovis with unruffled serenity, “giving an evening scene on the outskirts of a jungle village:
‘Where the coiled cobra in the gloaming gloats,
And prowling panthers stalk the wary goats.’”
“There is practically no gloaming in tropical countries,” said Bertie indulgently; “but I like the masterly reticence with which you treat the cobra’s motive for gloating. The unknown is proverbially the uncanny. I can picture nervous readers of the SMOKY CHIMNEY keeping the light turned on in their bedrooms all night out of sheer sickening uncertainty as to WHAT the cobra might have been gloating about.”
“Cobras gloat naturally,” said Clovis, “just as wolves are always ravening from mere force of habit, even after they’ve hopelessly overeaten themselves. I’ve got a fine bit of colour painting later on,” he added, “where I describe the dawn coming up over the Brahma-putra river:
‘The amber dawn-drenched East with sun-shafts kissed,
Stained sanguine apricot and amethyst,
O’er the washed emerald of the mango groves
Hangs in a mist of opalescent mauves,
While painted parrot-flights impinge the haze
With scarlet, chalcedon and chrysoprase.’”
“I’ve never seen the dawn come up over the Brahma-putra river,” said Bertie, “so I can’t say if it’s a good description of the event, but it sounds more like an account of an extensive jewel robbery. Anyhow, the parrots give a good useful touch of local colour. I suppose you’ve introduced some tigers into the scenery? An Indian landscape would have rather a bare, unfinished look without a tiger or two in the middle distance.”
“I’ve got a hen-tiger somewhere in the poem,” said Clovis, hunting through his notes. “Here she is:
‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.’”
Bertie van Tahn rose hurriedly from his recumbent position and made for the glass door leading into the next compartment.
“I think your idea of home life in the jungle is perfectly horrid,” he said. “The cobra was sinister enough, but the improvised rattle in the tiger-nursery is the limit. If you’re going to make me turn hot and cold all over I may as well go into the steam room at once.”
“Just listen to this line,” said Clovis; “it would make the reputation of any ordinary poet:
The pendulum-patient Punkah, parent of stillborn breeze.’”
“Most of your readers will think ‘punkah’ is a kind of iced drink or half-time at polo,” said Bertie, and disappeared into the steam.
The SMOKY CHIMNEY duly published the “Recessional,” but it proved to be its swan song, for the paper never attained to another issue.
Loona Bimberton gave up her intention of attending the Durbar and went into a nursing-home on the Sussex Downs. Nervous breakdown after a particularly strenuous season was the usually accepted explanation, but there are three or four people who know that she never really recovered from the dawn breaking over the Brahma-putra river.