by H.H. Munro (SAKI)
“It’s like a Chinese puzzle,” said Lady Prowche resentfully, staring at a scribbled list of names that spread over two or three loose sheets of notepaper on her writing-table. Most of the names had a pencil mark running through them.
“What is like a Chinese puzzle?” asked Lena Luddleford briskly; she rather prided herself on being able to grapple with the minor problems of life.
“Getting people suitably sorted together. Sir Richard likes me to have a house party about this time of year, and gives me a free hand as to whom I should invite; all he asks is that it should be a peaceable party, with no friction or unpleasantness.”
“That seems reasonable enough,” said Lena.
“Not only reasonable, my dear, but necessary. Sir Richard has his literary work to think of; you can’t expect a man to concentrate on the tribal disputes of Central Asian clansmen when he’s got social feuds blazing under his own roof.”
“But why should they blaze? Why should there be feuds at all within the compass of a house party?”
“Exactly; why should they blaze or why should they exist?” echoed Lady Prowche; “the point is that they always do. We have been unlucky; persistently unlucky, now that I come to look back on things. We have always got people of violently opposed views under one roof, and the result has been not merely unpleasantness but explosion.”
“Do you mean people who disagree on matters of political opinion and religious views?” asked Lena.
“No, not that. The broader lines of political or religious difference don’t matter. You can have Church of England and Unitarian and Buddhist under the same roof without courting disaster; the only Buddhist I ever had down here quarrelled with everybody, but that was on account of his naturally squabblesome temperament; it had nothing to do with his religion. And I’ve always found that people can differ profoundly about politics and meet on perfectly good terms at breakfast. Now, Miss Larbor Jones, who was staying here last year, worships Lloyd George as a sort of wingless angel, while Mrs. Walters, who was down here at the same time, privately considers him to be–an antelope, let us say.”
“Well, not an antelope exactly, but something with horns and hoofs and tail.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Still, that didn’t prevent them from being the chummiest of mortals on the tennis court and in the billiard-room. They did quarrel finally, about a lead in a doubled hand of no-trumps, but that of course is a thing that no account of judicious guest-grouping could prevent. Mrs. Walters had got king, knave, ten, and seven of clubs–”
“You were saying that there were other lines of demarcation that caused the bother,” interrupted Lena.
“Exactly. It is the minor differences and side-issues that give so much trouble,” said Lady Prowche; “not to my dying day shall I forget last year’s upheaval over the Suffragette question. Laura Henniseed left the house in a state of speechless indignation, but before she had reached that state she had used language that would not have been tolerated in the Austrian Reichsrath. Intensive bear-gardening was Sir Richard’s description of the whole affair, and I don’t think he exaggerated.”
“Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling,” said Lena; “but one can generally find out beforehand what people’s opinions–”
“My dear, the year before it was worse. It was Christian Science. Selina Goobie is a sort of High Priestess of the Cult, and she put down all opposition with a high hand. Then one evening, after dinner, Clovis Sangrail put a wasp down her back, to see if her theory about the non- existence of pain could be depended on in an emergency. The wasp was small, but very efficient, and it had been soured in temper by being kept in a paper cage all the afternoon. Wasps don’t stand confinement well, at least this one didn’t. I don’t think I ever realised till that moment what the word ‘invective’ could be made to mean. I sometimes wake in the night and think I still hear Selina describing Clovis’s conduct and general character. That was the year that Sir Richard was writing his volume on ‘Domestic Life in Tartary.’ The critics all blamed it for a lack of concentration.”
“He’s engaged on a very important work this year, isn’t he?” asked Lena.
“‘Land-tenure in Turkestan,'” said Lady Prowche; “he is just at work on the final chapters and they require all the concentration he can give them. That is why I am so very anxious not to have any unfortunate disturbance this year. I have taken every precaution I can think of to bring non-conflicting and harmonious elements together; the only two people I am not quite easy about are the Atkinson man and Marcus Popham. They are the two who will be down here longest together, and if they are going to fall foul of one another about any burning question, well, there will be more unpleasantness.”
“Can’t you find out anything about them? About their opinions, I mean.”
“Anything? My dear Lena, there’s scarcely anything that I haven’t found out about them. They’re both of them moderate Liberal, Evangelical, mildly opposed to female suffrage, they approve of the Falconer Report, and the Stewards’ decision about Craganour. Thank goodness in this country we don’t fly into violent passions about Wagner and Brahms and things of that sort. There is only one thorny subject that I haven’t been able to make sure about, the only stone that I have left unturned. Are they unanimously anti-vivisectionist or do they both uphold the necessity for scientific experiment? There has been a lot of correspondence on the subject in our local newspapers of late, and the vicar is certain to preach a sermon about it; vicars are dreadfully provocative at times. Now, if you could only find out for me whether these two men are divergently for or against–”
“I!” exclaimed Lena; “how am I to find out? I don’t know either of them to speak to.”
“Still you might discover, in some roundabout way. Write to them, under as assumed name of course, for subscriptions to one or other cause–or, better still, send a stamped type-written reply postcard, with a request for a declaration for or against vivisection; people who would hesitate to commit themselves to a subscription will cheerfully write Yes or No on a prepaid postcard. If you can’t manage it that way, try and meet them at some one’s house and get into argument on the subject. I think Milly occasionally has one or other of them at her at-homes; you might have the luck to meet both of them there the same evening. Only it must be done soon. My invitations ought to go out by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest, and to-day is Friday.
“Milly’s at-homes are not very amusing, as a rule,” said Lena, “and one never gets a chance of talking uninterruptedly to any one for a couple of minutes at a time; Milly is one of those restless hostesses who always seem to be trying to see how you look in different parts of the room, in fresh grouping effects. Even if I got to speak to Popham or Atkinson I couldn’t plunge into a topic like vivisection straight away. No, I think the postcard scheme would be more hopeful and decidedly less tiresome. How would it be best to word them?”
“Oh, something like this: ‘Are you in favour of experiments on living animals for the purpose of scientific research–Yes or No?’ That is quite simple and unmistakable. If they don’t answer it will at least be an indication that they are indifferent about the subject, and that is all I want to know.”
“All right,” said Lena, “I’ll get my brother-in-law to let me have them addressed to his office, and he can telephone the result of the plebiscite direct to you.”
“Thank you ever so much,” said Lady Prowche gratefully, “and be sure to get the cards sent off as soon as possible.”
On the following Tuesday the voice of an office clerk, speaking through the telephone, informed Lady Prowche that the postcard poll showed unanimous hostility to experiments on living animals.
Lady Prowche thanked the office clerk, and in a louder and more fervent voice she thanked Heaven. The two invitations, already sealed and addressed, were immediately dispatched; in due course they were both accepted. The house party of the halcyon hours, as the prospective hostess called it, was auspiciously launched.
Lena Luddleford was not included among the guests, having previously committed herself to another invitation. At the opening day of a cricket festival, however, she ran across Lady Prowche, who had motored over from the other side of the county. She wore the air of one who is not interested in cricket and not particularly interested in life. She shook hands limply with Lena, and remarked that it was a beastly day.
“The party, how has it gone off?” asked Lena quickly.
“Don’t speak of it!” was the tragical answer; “why do I always have such rotten luck?”
“But what has happened?”
“It has been awful. Hyaenas could not have behaved with greater savagery. Sir Richard said so, and he has been in countries where hyaenas live, so he ought to know. They actually came to blows!”
“Blows and curses. It really might have been a scene from one of Hogarth’s pictures. I never felt so humiliated in my life. What the servants must have thought!”
“But who were the offenders?”
“Oh, naturally the very two that we took all the trouble about.”
“I thought they agreed on every subject that one could violently disagree about–religion, politics, vivisection, the Derby decision, the Falconer Report; what else was there left to quarrel about?”
“My dear, we were fools not to have thought of it. One of them was Pro- Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.”