The importance of po-faced critics

Is it just me, but whenever I hear a spokesman from ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) on the radio I get this urge to dash out and buy a packet of twenty cigarettes! And I’ve never smoked and don’t intend to.

It was the same with the latest comments somebody made about rugby. Somebody stands up and starts preaching about how dangerous rugby is and I come over all old fashioned and start ranting about how it teaches team work and a lot of other values.

And at school I never particularly liked rugby and played it as little as I could. In my case it wasn’t the mindless violence or the chance of injury, it was the fact that they made me play without my glasses, which meant I never had a lot of idea what was going on. I spent my career as a second row forward semi-detached from the game. As an aside they finally gave up trying to make me play rugby when for once the ball came to me. I looked round, realised I’d not been paying attention and just drop kicked it into touch.

After that they left me playing soccer. This I did wearing glasses. Obviously it meant I wasn’t able to head the ball. Given that I was tall, there was a feeling afoot that I ought to be up there heading balls, but I couldn’t see the sense in it to be honest. As it was I managed to go through my entire footballing career without once heading the ball.

But anyway, one po-faced ‘expert’ telling people to avoid certain sports and I suddenly and against my better nature become an enthusiastic defender of them; is this a common occurrence?
I’m still trying to work out the social dynamics of the phenomenon. Obviously out in the harsh cruel world there are lots of people who get their kicks from stopping other people doing things that they personally don’t approve of. Whether they use their ‘victim-hood’ or their qualifications, it seems they have to validate their existence by stopping other people enjoying themselves.

But having noted a problem, have I a solution? Well actually I have. The ‘un-rest cure’.

This came to me this morning. I was travelling by quad bike through a field full of sheep, Sal our Border Collie trotting alongside, when I noticed on ewe lying still. Everybody else was up and moving and she wasn’t. So I made my way towards her, and Sal, ever officious in her duties, also made her way across. The ewe never moved. Sal approached her and sniffed the ewe’s nose. At that point the ewe woke up and the expression on her face as she stared eye to eye with a Border Collie, was priceless. It certainly got the adrenaline surging and the blood flowing and instantly she was up on her feet and with the others, moving like a good-un. There you are; the un-rest cure.

But the credit is not mine but Saki’s.

His career sadly cut short by the First World War, he left us some nice work and he’s well worth looking out for.

In case you’ve never heard of him here is his ‘The Unrest-Cure’.


The Unrest-Cure

On the rack in the railway carriage immediately opposite Clovis was a solidly wrought travelling bag, with a carefully written label, on which was inscribed, “J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.” Immediately below the rack sat the human embodiment of the label, a solid, sedate individual, sedately dressed, sedately conversational. Even without his conversation (which was addressed to a friend seated by his side, and touched chiefly on such topics as the backwardness of Roman hyacinths and the prevalence of measles at the Rectory), one could have gauged fairly accurately the temperament and mental outlook of the travelling bag’s owner. But he seemed unwilling to leave anything to the imagination of a casual observer, and his talk grew presently personal and introspective.

“I don’t know how it is,” he told his friend, “I’m not much over forty, but I seem to have settled down into a deep groove of elderly middle-age. My sister shows the same tendency. We like everything to be exactly in its accustomed place; we like things to happen exactly at their appointed times; we like everything to be usual, orderly, punctual, methodical, to a hair’s breadth, to a minute. It distresses and upsets us if it is not so. For instance, to take a very trifling matter, a thrush has built its nest year after year in the catkin-tree on the lawn; this year, for no obvious reason, it is building in the ivy on the garden wall. We have said very little about it, but I think we both feel that the change is unnecessary, and just a little irritating.”

“Perhaps,” said the friend, “it is a different thrush.”

“We have suspected that,” said J. P. Huddle, “and I think it gives us even more cause for annoyance. We don’t feel that we want a change of thrush at our time of life; and yet, as I have said, we have scarcely reached an age when these things should make themselves seriously felt.”

“What you want,” said the friend, “is an Unrest-cure.”

<  2  >

“An Unrest-cure? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“You’ve heard of Rest-cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.”

“But where would one go for such a thing?”

“Well, you might stand as an Orange candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the Apache quarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner’s music was written by Gambetta; and there’s always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the Unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home. How you would do it I haven’t the faintest idea.”

It was at this point in the conversation that Clovis became galvanized into alert attention. After all, his two days’ visit to an elderly relative at Slowborough did not promise much excitement. Before the train had stopped he had decorated his sinister shirt-cuff with the inscription, “J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”


Two mornings later Mr. Huddle broke in on his sister’s privacy as she sat reading Country Life in the morning room. It was her day and hour and place for reading Country Life, and the intrusion was absolutely irregular; but he bore in his hand a telegram, and in that household telegrams were recognized as happening by the hand of God. This particular telegram partook of the nature of a thunderbolt. “Bishop examining confirmation class in neighbourhood unable stay rectory on account measles invokes your hospitality sending secretary arrange.”

“I scarcely know the Bishop; I’ve only spoken to him once,” exclaimed J. P. Huddle, with the exculpating air of one who realizes too late the indiscretion of speaking to strange Bishops. Miss Huddle was the first to rally; she disliked thunderbolts as fervently as her brother did, but the womanly instinct in her told her that thunderbolts must be fed.

<  3  >

“We can curry the cold duck,” she said. It was not the appointed day for curry, but the little orange envelope involved a certain departure from rule and custom. Her brother said nothing, but his eyes thanked her for being brave.

“A young gentleman to see you,” announced the parlour-maid.

“The secretary!” murmured the Huddles in unison; they instantly stiffened into a demeanour which proclaimed that, though they held all strangers to be guilty, they were willing to hear anything they might have to say in their defence. The young gentleman, who came into the room with a certain elegant haughtiness, was not at all Huddle’s idea of a bishop’s secretary; he had not supposed that the episcopal establishment could have afforded such an expensively upholstered article when there were so many other claims on its resources. The face was fleetingly familiar; if he had bestowed more attention on the fellow-traveller sitting opposite him in the railway carriage two days before he might have recognized Clovis in his present visitor.

“You are the Bishop’s secretary?” asked Huddle, becoming consciously deferential.

“His confidential secretary,” answered Clovis. “You may call me Stanislaus; my other name doesn’t matter. The Bishop and Colonel Alberti may be here to lunch. I shall be here in any case.”

It sounded rather like the programme of a Royal visit.

“The Bishop is examining a confirmation class in the neighbourhood, isn’t he?” asked Miss Huddle.

“Ostensibly,” was the dark reply, followed by a request for a large-scale map of the locality.

Clovis was still immersed in a seemingly profound study of the map when another telegram arrived. It was addressed to “Prince Stanislaus, care of Huddle, The Warren, etc.” Clovis glanced at the contents and announced: “The Bishop and Alberti won’t be here till late in the afternoon.” Then he returned to his scrutiny of the map.

<  4  >

The luncheon was not a very festive function. The princely secretary ate and drank with fair appetite, but severely discouraged conversation. At the finish of the meal he broke suddenly into a radiant smile, thanked his hostess for a charming repast, and kissed her hand with deferential rapture. Miss Huddle was unable to decide in her mind whether the action savoured of Louis Quatorzian courtliness or the reprehensible Roman attitude towards the Sabine women. It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival. Clovis, having asked the way to the nearest telegraph office, disappeared presently down the carriage drive. Mr. Huddle met him in the hall some two hours later, and asked when the Bishop would arrive.

“He is in the library with Alberti,” was the reply.

“But why wasn’t I told? I never knew he had come!” exclaimed Huddle.

“No one knows he is here,” said Clovis; “the quieter we can keep matters the better. And on no account disturb him in the library. Those are his orders.”

“But what is all this mystery about? And who is Alberti? And isn’t the Bishop going to have tea?”

“The Bishop is out for blood, not tea.”

“Blood!” gasped Huddle, who did not find that the thunderbolt improved on acquaintance.

“Tonight is going to be a great night in the history of Christendom,” said Clovis. “We are going to massacre every Jew in the neighbourhood.”

“To massacre the Jews!” said Huddle indignantly. “Do you mean to tell me there’s a general rising against them?”

“No, it’s the Bishop’s own idea. He’s in there arranging all the details now.”

<  5  >

“But – the Bishop is such a tolerant, humane man.”

“That is precisely what will heighten the effect of his action. The sensation will be enormous.”

That at least Huddle could believe.

“He will be hanged!” he exclaimed with conviction.

“A motor is waiting to carry him to the coast, where a steam yacht is in readiness.”

“But there aren’t thirty Jews in the whole neighbourhood,” protested Huddle, whose brain, under the repeated shocks of the day, was operating with the uncertainty of a telegraph wire during earthquake disturbances.

“We have twenty-six on our list,” said Clovis, referring to a bundle of notes. “We shall be able to deal with them all the more thoroughly.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you are meditating violence against a man like Sir Leon Birberry,” stammered Huddle; “he’s one of the most respected men in the country.”

“He’s down on our list,” said Clovis carelessly; “after all, we’ve got men we can trust to do our job, so we shan’t have to rely on local assistance. And we’ve got some Boy-scouts helping us as auxiliaries.”


“Yes; when they understood there was real killing to be done they were even keener than the men.”

“This thing will be a blot on the Twentieth Century!”

“And your house will be the blotting-pad. Have you realized that half the papers of Europe and the United States will publish pictures of it? By the way, I’ve sent some photographs of you and your sister, that I found in the library, to the Matin and Die Woche; I hope you don’t mind. Also a sketch of the staircase; most of the killing will probably be done on the staircase.”

<  6  >

The emotions that were surging in J. P. Huddle’s brain were almost too intense to be disclosed in speech, but he managed to gasp out: “There aren’t any Jews in this house.”

“Not at present,” said Clovis.

“I shall go to the police,” shouted Huddle with sudden energy.

“In the shrubbery,” said Clovis, “are posted ten men, who have orders to fire on any one who leaves the house without my signal of permission. Another armed picquet is in ambush near the front gate. The Boy-scouts watch the back premises.”

At this moment the cheerful hoot of a motor-horn was heard from the drive. Huddle rushed to the hall door with the feeling of a man half-awakened from a nightmare, and beheld Sir Leon Birberry, who had driven himself over in his car. “I got your telegram,” he said; “what’s up?”

Telegram? It seemed to be a day of telegrams.

“Come here at once. Urgent. James Huddle,” was the purport of the message displayed before Huddle’s bewildered eyes.

“I see it all!” he exclaimed suddenly in a voice shaken with agitation, and with a look of agony in the direction of the shrubbery he hauled the astonished Birberry into the house. Tea had just been laid in the hall, but the now thoroughly panic-stricken Huddle dragged his protesting guest upstairs, and in a few minutes’ time the entire household had been summoned to that region of momentary safety. Clovis alone graced the tea-table with his presence; the fanatics in the library were evidently too immersed in their monstrous machinations to dally with the solace of teacup and hot toast. Once the youth rose, in answer to the summons of the front-door bell, and admitted Mr. Paul Isaacs, shoemaker and parish councillor, who had also received a pressing invitation to The Warren. With an atrocious assumption of courtesy, which a Borgia could hardly have outdone, the secretary escorted this new captive of his net to the head of the stairway, where his involuntary host awaited him.

<  7  >

And then ensued a long ghastly vigil of watching and waiting. Once or twice Clovis left the house to stroll across to the shrubbery, returning always to the library, for the purpose evidently of making a brief report. Once he took in the letters from the evening postman, and brought them to the top of the stairs with punctilious politeness. After his next absence he came half-way up the stairs to make an announcement.

“The Boy-scouts mistook my signal, and have killed the postman. I’ve had very little practice in this sort of thing, you see. Another time I shall do better.”

The housemaid, who was engaged to be married to the evening postman, gave way to clamorous grief.

“Remember that your mistress has a headache,” said J. P. Huddle. (Miss Huddle’s headache was worse.)

Clovis hastened downstairs, and after a short visit to the library returned with another message:

“The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.”

That was the last they saw of Clovis; it was nearly seven o’clock, and his elderly relative liked him to dress for dinner. But, though he had left them for ever, the lurking suggestion of his presence haunted the lower regions of the house during the long hours of the wakeful night, and every creak of the stairway, every rustle of wind through the shrubbery, was fraught with horrible meaning. At about seven next morning the gardener’s boy and the early postman finally convinced the watchers that the Twentieth Century was still unblotted.

“I don’t suppose,” mused Clovis, as an early train bore him townwards, “that they will be in the least grateful for the Unrest-cure.”


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10 thoughts on “The importance of po-faced critics

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 30, 2015 at 9:03 pm Reply

    A lovely unrest cure – funny how you can put almost anything over on some people if you start slow and build from there. I’m still chuckling about the killing of the postman.

    • jwebster2 May 30, 2015 at 9:23 pm Reply

      It has to be remembered that the writer was a genius. But when you read it and think of the world ten or fifteen years after his death, he was also darkly perceptive. But his stuff is worth looking out 🙂

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 30, 2015 at 9:32 pm Reply

    I missed the part where you gave credit to Saki – I am apt to skim when tired (it is nap time).

    Still lovely. I read a lot of English mysteries in my misspent youth (in Mexico).

    • jwebster2 May 30, 2015 at 9:53 pm Reply

      Well if you’re going to mis-spend your youth, Mexico seems as good a place to do it as any 😉

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 31, 2015 at 12:12 am

        Not so much if you’re a girl – and middle-class and are supposed to be a credit to your parents and a good example to your four younger sisters. Try it.

        And don’t also be very tall, a blue-eyed blonde, and on the stocky side – you really don’t fit in.

      • jwebster2 May 31, 2015 at 6:06 am

        Being the only farmer’s son in a northern industrial grammar school I was never going to fit in 🙂 I spent my time commuting between two very different worlds that rarely seemed to overlap. In fact I was as young as five when I realised that both worlds spoke different languages 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 31, 2015 at 1:45 pm

        Funny how many of us writers have stories like that. Or maybe the word is ‘required.’

        If your life is seamless, there is nothing to write about and no reason to.

      • jwebster2 May 31, 2015 at 1:54 pm

        I think you have to be able to stand ‘outside’ and look at the rest of society in a rather detached manner at times. Up close all you might see is a flight of stairs, but from a distance you see it’s a treadmill 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 31, 2015 at 2:06 pm

        Somebody has to do it – otherwise we’d all be living an unexamined life.

        And now I must go block the internet and finish that darned cover. Good day to you, sir!

      • jwebster2 May 31, 2015 at 2:56 pm

        I’ve with Socrates on that one 🙂

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