When William Came

by H.H. Munro (SAKI)

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IV: "Es Ist Verboten"

Yeovil wakened next morning to the pleasant sensation of being in a household where elaborate machinery for the smooth achievement of one’s daily life was noiselessly and unceasingly at work. Fever and the long weariness of convalescence in indifferently comfortable surroundings had given luxury a new value in his eyes. Money had not always been plentiful with him in his younger days; in his twenty-eighth year he had inherited a fairly substantial fortune, and he had married a wealthy woman a few months later. It was characteristic of the man and his breed that the chief use to which he had put his newly-acquired wealth had been in seizing the opportunity which it gave him for indulging in unlimited travel in wild, out-of-the-way regions, where the comforts of life were meagrely represented. Cicely occasionally accompanied him to the threshold of his expeditions, such as Cairo or St. Petersburg or Constantinople, but her own tastes in the matter of roving were more or less condensed within an area that comprised Cannes, Homburg, the Scottish Highlands, and the Norwegian Fiords. Things outlandish and barbaric appealed to her chiefly when presented under artistic but highly civilised stage management on the boards of Covent Garden, and if she wanted to look at wolves or sand grouse, she preferred doing so in the company of an intelligent Fellow of the Zoological Society on some fine Sunday afternoon in Regent’s Park. It was one of the bonds of union and good-fellowship between her husband and herself that each understood and sympathised with the other’s tastes without in the least wanting to share them; they went their own ways and were pleased and comrade-like when the ways happened to run together for a span, without self-reproach or heart-searching when the ways diverged. Moreover, they had separate and adequate banking accounts, which constitute, if not the keys of the matrimonial Heaven, at least the oil that lubricates them.

Yeovil found Cicely and breakfast waiting for him in the cool breakfast-room, and enjoyed, with the appreciation of a recent invalid, the comfort and resources of a meal that had not to be ordered or thought about in advance, but seemed as though it were there, fore-ordained from the beginning of time in its smallest detail. Each desire of the breakfasting mind seemed to have its realisation in some dish, lurking unobtrusively in hidden corners until asked for. Did one want grilled mushrooms, English fashion, they were there, black and moist and sizzling, and extremely edible; did one desire mushrooms à la Russe, they appeared, blanched and cool and toothsome under their white blanketing of sauce. At one’s bidding was a service of coffee, prepared with rather more forethought and circumspection than would go to the preparation of a revolution in a South American Republic.

The exotic blooms that reigned in profusion over the other parts of the house were scrupulously banished from the breakfast-room; bowls of wild thyme and other flowering weeds of the meadow and hedgerow gave it an atmosphere of country freshness that was in keeping with the morning meal.

“You look dreadfully tired still,” said Cicely critically, “otherwise I would recommend a ride in the Park, before it gets too hot. There is a new cob in the stable that you will just love, but he is rather lively, and you had better content yourself for the present with some more sedate exercise than he is likely to give you. He is apt to try and jump out of his skin when the flies tease him. The Park is rather jolly for a walk just now.”

“I think that will be about my form after my long journey,” said Yeovil, “an hour’s stroll before lunch under the trees. That ought not to fatigue me unduly. In the afternoon I’ll look up one or two people.”

“Don’t count on finding too many of your old set,” said Cicely rather hurriedly. “I dare say some of them will find their way back some time, but at present there’s been rather an exodus.”

“The Bredes,” said Yeovil, “are they here?”

“No, the Bredes are in Scotland, at their place in Sutherlandshire; they don’t come south now, and the Ricardes are farming somewhere in East Africa, the whole lot of them. Valham has got an appointment of some sort in the Straits Settlement, and has taken his family with him. The Collards are down at their mother’s place in Norfolk; a German banker has bought their house in Manchester Square.”

“And the Hebways?” asked Yeovil.

“Dick Hebway is in India,” said Cicely, “but his mother lives in Paris; poor Hugo, you know, was killed in the war. My friends the Allinsons are in Paris too. It’s rather a clearance, isn’t it? However, there are some left, and I expect others will come back in time. Pitherby is here; he’s one of those who are trying to make the best of things under the new régime.”

“He would be,” said Yeovil, shortly.

“It’s a difficult question,” said Cicely, “whether one should stay at home and face the music or go away and live a transplanted life under the British flag. Either attitude might be dictated by patriotism.”

“It is one thing to face the music, it is another thing to dance to it,” said Yeovil.

Cicely poured out some more coffee for herself and changed the conversation.

“You’ll be in to lunch, I suppose? The Clubs are not very attractive just now, I believe, and the restaurants are mostly hot in the middle of the day. Ronnie Storre is coming in; he’s here pretty often these days. A rather good-looking young animal with something mid-way between talent and genius in the piano-playing line.”

“Not long-haired and Semetic or Tcheque or anything of that sort, I suppose?” asked Yeovil.

Cicely laughed at the vision of Ronnie conjured up by her husband’s words.

“No, beautifully groomed and clipped and Anglo-Saxon. I expect you’ll like him. He plays bridge almost as well as he plays the piano. I suppose you wonder at any one who can play bridge well wanting to play the piano.”

“I’m not quite so intolerant as all that,” said Yeovil; “anyhow I promise to like Ronnie. Is any one else coming to lunch?”

“Joan Mardle will probably drop in, in fact I’m afraid she’s a certainty. She invited herself in that way of hers that brooks of no refusal. On the other hand, as a mitigating circumstance, there will be a point d’asperge omelette such as few kitchens could turn out, so don’t be late.”

Yeovil set out for his morning walk with the curious sensation of one who starts on a voyage of discovery in a land that is well known to him. He turned into the Park at Hyde Park corner and made his way along the familiar paths and alleys that bordered the Row. The familiarity vanished when he left the region of fenced-in lawns and rhododendron bushes and came to the open space that stretched away beyond the bandstand. The bandstand was still there, and a military band, in sky-blue Saxon uniform, was executing the first item in the forenoon programme of music. Around it, instead of the serried rows of green chairs that Yeovil remembered, was spread out an acre or so of small round tables, most of which had their quota of customers, engaged in a steady consumption of lager beer, coffee, lemonade and syrups. Further in the background, but well within earshot of the band, a gaily painted pagoda-restaurant sheltered a number of more commodious tables under its awnings, and gave a hint of convenient indoor accommodation for wet or windy weather. Movable screens of trellis-trained foliage and climbing roses formed little hedges by means of which any particular table could be shut off from its neighbours if semi-privacy were desired. One or two decorative advertisements of popularised brands of champagne and Rhine wines adorned the outside walls of the building, and under the central gable of its upper story was a flamboyant portrait of a stern-faced man, whose image and superscription might also be found on the newer coinage of the land. A mass of bunting hung in folds round the flag-pole on the gable, and blew out now and then on a favouring breeze, a long three-coloured strip, black, white, and scarlet, and over the whole scene the elm trees towered with an absurd sardonic air of nothing having changed around their roots.

Yeovil stood for a minute or two, taking in every detail of the unfamiliar spectacle.

“They have certainly accomplished something that we never attempted,” he muttered to himself. Then he turned on his heel and made his way back to the shady walk that ran alongside the Row. At first sight little was changed in the aspect of the well-known exercising ground. One or two riding masters cantered up and down as of yore, with their attendant broods of anxious-faced young girls and awkwardly bumping women pupils, while horsey-looking men put marketable animals through their paces or drew up to the rails for long conversations with horsey-looking friends on foot. Sportingly attired young women, sitting astride of their horses, careered by at intervals as though an extremely game fox were leading hounds a merry chase a short way ahead of them; it all seemed much as usual.

Presently, from the middle distance a bright patch of colour set in a whirl of dust drew rapidly nearer and resolved itself into a group of cavalry officers extending their chargers in a smart gallop. They were well mounted and sat their horses to perfection, and they made a brave show as they raced past Yeovil with a clink and clatter and rhythmic thud, thud, of hoofs, and became once more a patch of colour in a whirl of dust. An answering glow of colour seemed to have burned itself into the grey face of the young man, who had seen them pass without appearing to look at them, a stinging rush of blood, accompanied by a choking catch in the throat and a hot white blindness across the eyes. The weakness of fever broke down at times the rampart of outward indifference that a man of Yeovil’s temperament builds coldly round his heartstrings.

The Row and its riders had become suddenly detestable to the wanderer; he would not run the risk of seeing that insolently joyous cavalcade come galloping past again. Beyond a narrow stretch of tree-shaded grass lay the placid sunlit water of the Serpentine, and Yeovil made a short cut across the turf to reach its gravelled bank.

“Can’t you read either English or German?” asked a policeman who confronted him as he stepped off the turf.

Yeovil stared at the man and then turned to look at the small neatly-printed notice to which the official was imperiously pointing; in two languages it was made known that it was forbidden and verboten, punishable and straffbar, to walk on the grass.

“Three shilling fine,” said the policeman, extending his hand for the money.

“Do I pay you?” asked Yeovil, feeling almost inclined to laugh; “I’m rather a stranger to the new order of things.”

“You pay me,” said the policeman, “and you receive a quittance for the sum paid,” and he proceeded to tear a counterfoil receipt for a three shilling fine from a small pocket book.

“May I ask,” said Yeovil, as he handed over the sum demanded and received his quittance, “what the red and white band on your sleeve stands for?”

“Bi-lingual,” said the constable, with an air of importance. “Preference is given to members of the Force who qualify in both languages. Nearly all the police engaged on Park duty are bi-lingual. About as many foreigners as English use the parks nowadays; in fact, on a fine Sunday afternoon, you’ll find three foreigners to every two English. The park habit is more Continental than British, I take it.”

“And are there many Germans in the police Force?” asked Yeovil.

“Well, yes, a good few; there had to be,” said the constable; “there were such a lot of resignations when the change came, and they had to be filled up somehow. Lots of men what used to be in the Force emigrated or found work of some other kind, but everybody couldn’t take that line; wives and children had to be thought of. ’Tisn’t every head of a family that can chuck up a job on the chance of finding another. Starvation’s been the lot of a good many what went out. Those of us that stayed on got better pay than we did before, but then of course the duties are much more multitudinous.”

“They must be,” said Yeovil, fingering his three shilling State document; “by the way,” he asked, “are all the grass plots in the Park out of bounds for human feet?”

“Everywhere where you see the notices,” said the policeman, “and that’s about three-fourths of the whole grass space; there’s been a lot of new gravel walks opened up in all directions. People don’t want to walk on the grass when they’ve got clean paths to walk on.”

And with this parting reproof the bi-lingual constable strode heavily away, his loss of consideration and self-esteem as a unit of a sometime ruling race evidently compensated for to some extent by his enhanced importance as an official.

“The women and children,” thought Yeovil, as he looked after the retreating figure; “yes, that is one side of the problem. The children that have to be fed and schooled, the women folk that have to be cared for, an old mother, perhaps, in the home that cannot be broken up. The old case of giving hostages.”

He followed the path alongside the Serpentine, passing under the archway of the bridge and continuing his walk into Kensington Gardens. In another moment he was within view of the Peter Pan statue and at once observed that it had companions. On one side was a group representing a scene from one of the Grimm fairy stories, on the other was Alice in conversation with Gryphon and Mockturtle, the episode looking distressingly stiff and meaningless in its sculptured form. Two other spaces had been cleared in the neighbouring turf, evidently for the reception of further statue groups, which Yeovil mentally assigned to Struwelpeter and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

“German middle-class taste,” he commented, “but in this matter we certainly gave them a lead. I suppose the idea is that childish fancy is dead and that it is only decent to erect some sort of memorial to it.”

The day was growing hotter, and the Park had ceased to seem a desirable place to loiter in. Yeovil turned his steps homeward, passing on his way the bandstand with its surrounding acreage of tables. It was now nearly one o’clock, and luncheon parties were beginning to assemble under the awnings of the restaurant. Lighter refreshments, in the shape of sausages and potato salads, were being carried out by scurrying waiters to the drinkers of lager beer at the small tables. A park orchestra, in brilliant trappings, had taken the place of the military band. As Yeovil passed the musicians launched out into the tune which the doctor had truly predicted he would hear to repletion before he had been many days in London; the “National Anthem of the fait accompli.”


Return to the When William Came Summary Return to the H.H. Munro (SAKI) Library

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com