“It’s not the daily grind that I complain of,” said Blenkinthrope resentfully; “it’s the dull grey sameness of my life outside of office hours. Nothing of interest comes my way, nothing remarkable or out of the common. Even the little things that I do try to find some interest in don’t seem to interest other people. Things in my garden, for instance.”
“The potato that weighed just over two pounds,” said his friend Gorworth.
“Did I tell you about that?” said Blenkinthrope; “I was telling the others in the train this morning. I forgot if I’d told you.”
“To be exact you told me that it weighed just under two pounds, but I took into account the fact that abnormal vegetables and freshwater fish have an after-life, in which growth is not arrested.”
“You’re just like the others,” said Blenkinthrope sadly, “you only make fun of it.”
“The fault is with the potato, not with us,” said Gorworth; “we are not in the least interested in it because it is not in the least interesting. The men you go up in the train with every day are just in the same case as yourself; their lives are commonplace and not very interesting to themselves, and they certainly are not going to wax enthusiastic over the commonplace events in other men’s lives. Tell them something startling, dramatic, piquant that has happened to yourself or to someone in your family, and you will capture their interest at once. They will talk about you with a certain personal pride to all their acquaintances. ‘Man I know intimately, fellow called Blenkinthrope, lives down my way, had two of his fingers clawed clean off by a lobster he was carrying home to supper. Doctor says entire hand may have to come off.’ Now that is conversation of a very high order. But imagine walking into a tennis club with the remark: ‘I know a man who has grown a potato weighing two and a quarter pounds.’”
“But hang it all, my dear fellow,” said Blenkinthrope impatiently, “haven’t I just told you that nothing of a remarkable nature ever happens to me?”
“Invent something,” said Gorworth. Since winning a prize for excellence in Scriptural knowledge at a preparatory school he had felt licensed to be a little more unscrupulous than the circle he moved in. Much might surely be excused to one who in early life could give a list of seventeen trees mentioned in the Old Testament.
“What sort of thing?” asked Blenkinthrope, somewhat snappishly.
“A snake got into your hen-run yesterday morning and killed six out of seven pullets, first mesmerising them with its eyes and then biting them as they stood helpless. The seventh pullet was one of that French sort, with feathers all over its eyes, so it escaped the mesmeric snare, and just flew at what it could see of the snake and pecked it to pieces.”
“Thank you,” said Blenkinthrope stiffly; “it’s a very clever invention. If such a thing had really happened in my poultry-run I admit I should have been proud and interested to tell people about it. But I’d rather stick to fact, even if it is plain fact.” All the same his mind dwelt wistfully on the story of the Seventh Pullet. He could picture himself telling it in the train amid the absorbed interest of his fellow-passengers. Unconsciously all sorts of little details and improvements began to suggest themselves.
Wistfulness was still his dominant mood when he took his seat in the railway carriage the next morning. Opposite him sat Stevenham, who had attained to a recognised brevet of importance through the fact of an uncle having dropped dead in the act of voting at a Parliamentary election. That had happened three years ago, but Stevenham was still deferred to on all questions of home and foreign politics.
“Hullo, how’s the giant mushroom, or whatever it was?” was all the notice Blenkinthrope got from his fellow travellers.
Young Duckby, whom he mildly disliked, speedily monopolised the general attention by an account of a domestic bereavement.
“Had four young pigeons carried off last night by a whacking big rat. Oh, a monster he must have been; you could tell by the size of the hole he made breaking into the loft.”
No moderate-sized rat ever seemed to carry out any predatory operations in these regions; they were all enormous in their enormity.
“Pretty hard lines that,” continued Duckby, seeing that he had secured the attention and respect of the company; “four squeakers carried off at one swoop. You’d find it rather hard to match that in the way of unlooked-for bad luck.”
“I had six pullets out of a pen of seven killed by a snake yesterday afternoon,” said Blenkinthrope, in a voice which he hardly recognised as his own.
“By a snake?” came in excited chorus.
“It fascinated them with its deadly, glittering eyes, one after the other, and struck them down while they stood helpless. A bedridden neighbour, who wasn’t able to call for assistance, witnessed it all from her bedroom window.”
“Well, I never!” broke in the chorus, with variations.
“The interesting part of it is about the seventh pullet, the one that didn’t get killed,” resumed Blenkinthrope, slowly lighting a cigarette. His diffidence had left him, and he was beginning to realise how safe and easy depravity can seem once one has the courage to begin. “The six dead birds were Minorcas; the seventh was a Houdan with a mop of feathers all over its eyes. It could hardly see the snake at all, so of course it wasn’t mesmerised like the others. It just could see something wriggling on the ground, and went for it and pecked it to death.”
“Well, I’m blessed!” exclaimed the chorus.
In the course of the next few days Blenkinthrope discovered how little the loss of one’s self-respect affects one when one has gained the esteem of the world. His story found its way into one of the poultry papers, and was copied thence into a daily news-sheet as a matter of general interest. A lady wrote from the North of Scotland recounting a similar episode which she had witnessed as occurring between a stoat and a blind grouse. Somehow a lie seems so much less reprehensible when one can call it a lee.
For awhile the adapter of the Seventh Pullet story enjoyed to the full his altered standing as a person of consequence, one who had had some share in the strange events of his times. Then he was thrust once again into the cold grey background by the sudden blossoming into importance of Smith-Paddon, a daily fellow-traveller, whose little girl had been knocked down and nearly hurt by a car belonging to a musical-comedy actress. The actress was not in the car at the time, but she was in numerous photographs which appeared in the illustrated papers of Zoto Dobreen inquiring after the well-being of Maisie, daughter of Edmund Smith-Paddon, Esq. With this new human interest to absorb them the travelling companions were almost rude when Blenkinthrope tried to explain his contrivance for keeping vipers and peregrine falcons out of his chicken-run.
Gorworth, to whom he unburdened himself in private, gave him the same counsel as heretofore.
“Yes, but what?”
The ready affirmative coupled with the question betrayed a significant shifting of the ethical standpoint.
It was a few days later that Blenkinthrope revealed a chapter of family history to the customary gathering in the railway carriage.
“Curious thing happened to my aunt, the one who lives in Paris,” he began. He had several aunts, but they were all geographically distributed over Greater London.
“She was sitting on a seat in the Bois the other afternoon, after lunching at the Roumanian Legation.”
Whatever the story gained in picturesqueness from the dragging-in of diplomatic “atmosphere,” it ceased from that moment to command any acceptance as a record of current events. Gorworth had warned his neophyte that this would be the case, but the traditional enthusiasm of the neophyte had triumphed over discretion.
“She was feeling rather drowsy, the effect probably of the champagne, which she’s not in the habit of taking in the middle of the day.”
A subdued murmur of admiration went round the company. Blenkinthrope’s aunts were not used to taking champagne in the middle of the year, regarding it exclusively as a Christmas and New Year accessory.
“Presently a rather portly gentleman passed by her seat and paused an instant to light a cigar. At that moment a youngish man came up behind him, drew the blade from a swordstick, and stabbed him half a dozen times through and through. ‘Scoundrel,’ he cried to his victim, ‘you do not know me. My name is Henri Leturc.’ The elder man wiped away some of the blood that was spattering his clothes, turned to his assailant, and said: ‘And since when has an attempted assassination been considered an introduction?’ Then he finished lighting his cigar and walked away. My aunt had intended screaming for the police, but seeing the indifference with which the principal in the affair treated the matter she felt that it would be an impertinence on her part to interfere. Of course I need hardly say she put the whole thing down to the effects of a warm, drowsy afternoon and the Legation champagne. Now comes the astonishing part of my story. A fortnight later a bank manager was stabbed to death with a swordstick in that very part of the Bois. His assassin was the son of a charwoman formerly working at the bank, who had been dismissed from her job by the manager on account of chronic intemperance. His name was Henri Leturc.”
From that moment Blenkinthrope was tacitly accepted as the Munchausen of the party. No effort was spared to draw him out from day to day in the exercise of testing their powers of credulity, and Blenkinthrope, in the false security of an assured and receptive audience, waxed industrious and ingenious in supplying the demand for marvels. Duckby’s satirical story of a tame otter that had a tank in the garden to swim in, and whined restlessly whenever the water-rate was overdue, was scarcely an unfair parody of some of Blenkinthrope’s wilder efforts. And then one day came Nemesis.
Returning to his villa one evening Blenkinthrope found his wife sitting in front of a pack of cards, which she was scrutinising with unusual concentration.
“The same old patience-game?” he asked carelessly.
“No, dear; this is the Death’s Head patience, the most difficult of them all. I’ve never got it to work out, and somehow I should be rather frightened if I did. Mother only got it out once in her life; she was afraid of it, too. Her great-aunt had done it once and fallen dead from excitement the next moment, and mother always had a feeling that she would die if she ever got it out. She died the same night that she did it. She was in bad health at the time, certainly, but it was a strange coincidence.”
“Don’t do it if it frightens you,” was Blenkinthrope’s practical comment as he left the room. A few minutes later his wife called to him.
“John, it gave me such a turn, I nearly got it out. Only the five of diamonds held me up at the end. I really thought I’d done it.”
“Why, you can do it,” said Blenkinthrope, who had come back to the room; “if you shift the eight of clubs on to that open nine the five can be moved on to the six.”
His wife made the suggested move with hasty, trembling fingers, and piled the outstanding cards on to their respective packs. Then she followed the example of her mother and great-grand-aunt.
Blenkinthrope had been genuinely fond of his wife, but in the midst of his bereavement one dominant thought obtruded itself. Something sensational and real had at last come into his life; no longer was it a grey, colourless record. The headlines which might appropriately describe his domestic tragedy kept shaping themselves in his brain. “Inherited presentiment comes true.” “The Death’s Head patience: Card-game that justified its sinister name in three generations.” He wrote out a full story of the fatal occurrence for the Essex Vedette, the editor of which was a friend of his, and to another friend he gave a condensed account, to be taken up to the office of one of the halfpenny dailies. But in both cases his reputation as a romancer stood fatally in the way of the fulfilment of his ambitions. “Not the right thing to be Munchausening in a time of sorrow” agreed his friends among themselves, and a brief note of regret at the “sudden death of the wife of our respected neighbour, Mr. John Blenkinthrope, from heart failure,” appearing in the news column of the local paper was the forlorn outcome of his visions of widespread publicity.
Blenkinthrope shrank from the society of his erstwhile travelling companions and took to travelling townwards by an earlier train. He sometimes tries to enlist the sympathy and attention of a chance acquaintance in details of the whistling prowess of his best canary or the dimensions of his largest beetroot; he scarcely recognises himself as the man who was once spoken about and pointed out as the owner of the Seventh Pullet.