The Hobby Rider

by


Bump. Bump. Bump-bump. Bump.

I sat up in bed and listened intently. It seemed to me as if someone with a muffled hammer were trying to knock bricks out of the wall.

“Burglars,” I said to myself (one assumes, as a matter of course, that everything happening in this world after 1 a.m. is due to burglars), and I reflected what a curiously literal, but at the same time slow and cumbersome, method of housebreaking they had adopted.

The bumping continued irregularly, yet uninterruptedly.

My bed was by the window. I reached out my hand and drew aside a corner of the curtain. The sunlight streamed into the room. I looked at my watch: it was ten minutes past five.

A most unbusinesslike hour for burglars, I thought. Why, it will be breakfast-time before they get in.

Suddenly there came a crash, and some substance striking against the blind fell upon the floor. I sprang out of bed and threw open the window.

A red-haired young gentleman, scantily clad in a sweater and a pair of flannel trousers, stood on the lawn below me.

“Good morning,” he said cheerily. “Do you mind throwing me back my ball?”

“What ball?” I said.

“My tennis ball,” he answered. “It must be somewhere in the room; it went clean through the window.”

I found the ball and threw it back to him,

*** Quick tidied and spell-checked to here—page 155 ***

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Playing tennis?”

“No,” he said. “I am just practising against the side of the house. It improves your game wonderfully.”

“It don’t improve my night’s rest,” I answered somewhat surlily I fear. “I came down here for peace and quiet. Can’t you do it in the daytime?”

“Daytime!” he laughed. “Why it has been daytime for the last two hours. Never mind, I’ll go round the other side.”

He disappeared round the corner, and set to work at the back, where he woke up the dog. I heard another window smash, followed by a sound as of somebody getting up violently in a distant part of the house, and shortly afterwards I must have fallen asleep again.

I had come to spend a few weeks at a boarding establishment in Deal. He was the only other young man in the house, and I was naturally thrown a good deal upon his society. He was a pleasant, genial young fellow, but he would have been better company had he been a little less enthusiastic as regards tennis.

He played tennis ten hours a day on the average. He got up romantic parties to play it by moonlight (when half his time was generally taken up in separating his opponents), and godless parties to play it on Sundays. On wet days I have seen him practising services by himself in a mackintosh and goloshes.

He had been spending the winter with his people at Tangiers, and I asked him how he liked the place.

“Oh, a beast of a hole!” he replied. “There is not a court anywhere in the town. We tried playing on the roof, but the mater thought it dangerous.”

Switzerland he had been delighted with. He counselled me next time I went to stay at Zermatt.

“There is a capital court at Zermatt,” he said. “You might almost fancy yourself at Wimbledon.”

A mutual acquaintance whom I subsequently met told me that at the top of the Jungfrau he had said to him, his eyes fixed the while upon a small snow plateau enclosed by precipices a few hundred feet below them—

“By Jove! That wouldn’t make half a bad little tennis court—that flat bit down there. Have to be careful you didn’t run back too far.”

When he was not playing tennis, or practising tennis, or reading about tennis, he was talking about tennis. Renshaw was the prominent figure in the tennis world at that time, and he mentioned Renshaw until there grew up within my soul a dark desire to kill Renshaw in a quiet, unostentatious way, and bury him.

One drenching afternoon he talked tennis to me for three hours on end, referring to Renshaw, so far as I kept count, four thousand nine hundred and thirteen times. After tea he drew his chair to the window beside me, and commenced—

“Have you ever noticed how Renshaw—”

I said—

“Suppose someone took a gun—someone who could aim very straight—and went out and shot Renshaw till he was quite dead, would you tennis players drop him and talk about somebody else?”

“Oh, but who would shoot Renshaw?” he said indignantly.

“Never mind,” I said, “supposing someone did?”

“Well, then, there would be his brother,” he replied.

I had forgotten that.

“Well, we won’t argue about how many of them there are,” I said. “Suppose someone killed the lot, should we hear less of Renshaw?”

“Never,” he replied emphatically. “Renshaw will always be a name wherever tennis is spoken of.”

I dread to think what the result might have been had his answer been other than it was.

The next year he dropped tennis completely and became an ardent amateur photographer, whereupon all his friends implored him to return to tennis, and sought to interest him in talk about services and returns and volleys, and in anecdotes concerning Renshaw. But he would not heed them.

Whatever he saw, wherever he went, he took. He took his friends, and made them his enemies. He took babies, and brought despair to fond mothers’ hearts. He took young wives, and cast a shadow on the home. Once there was a young man who loved not wisely, so his friends thought, but the more they talked against her the more he clung to her. Then a happy idea occurred to the father. He got Begglely to photograph her in seven different positions.

When her lover saw the first, he said—

“What an awful looking thing! Who did it?”

When Begglely showed him the second, he said—

“But, my dear fellow, it’s not a bit like her. You’ve made her look an ugly old woman.”

At the third he said—

“Whatever have you done to her feet? They can’t be that size, you know. It isn’t in nature!”

At the fourth he exclaimed—

“But, heavens, man! Look at the shape you’ve made her. Where on earth did you get the idea from?”

At the first glimpse of the fifth he staggered.

“Great Scott!” he cried with a shudder, “what a ghastly expression you’ve got into it! It isn’t human!”

Begglely was growing offended, but the father, who was standing by, came to his defence.

“It’s nothing to do with Begglely,” exclaimed the old gentleman suavely. “It can’t be his fault. What is a photographer? Simply an instrument in the hands of science. He arranges his apparatus, and whatever is in front of it comes into it.”

“No,” continued the old gentleman, laying a constrained hand upon Begglely, who was about to resume the exhibition, “don’t—don’t show him the other two.”

I was sorry for the poor girl, for I believe she really cared for the youngster; and as for her looks, they were quite up to the average. But some evil sprite seemed to have got into Begglely’s camera. It seized upon defects with the unerring instinct of a born critic, and dilated upon them to the obscuration of all virtues. A man with a pimple became a pimple with a man as background. People with strongly marked features became merely adjuncts to their own noses. One man in the neighbourhood had, undetected, worn a wig for fourteen years. Begglely’s camera discovered the fraud in an instant, and so completely exposed it that the man’s friends wondered afterwards how the fact ever could have escaped them. The thing seemed to take a pleasure in showing humanity at its very worst. Babies usually came out with an expression of low cunning. Most young girls had to take their choice of appearing either as simpering idiots or embryo vixens. To mild old ladies it generally gave a look of aggressive cynicism. Our vicar, as excellent an old gentleman as ever breathed, Begglely presented to us as a beetle-browed savage of a peculiarly low type of intellect; while upon the leading solicitor of the town he bestowed an expression of such thinly-veiled hypocrisy that few who saw the photograph cared ever again to trust him with their affairs.

As regards myself I should, perhaps, make no comment, I am possibly a prejudiced party. All I will say, therefore, is that if I in any way resemble Begglely’s photograph of me, then the critics are fully justified in everything they have at any time, anywhere, said of me—and more. Nor, I maintain—though I make no pretence of possessing the figure of Apollo—is one of my legs twice the length of the other, and neither does it curve upwards. This I can prove. Begglely allowed that an accident had occurred to the negative during the process of development, but this explanation does not appear on the picture, and I cannot help feeling that an injustice has been done me.

His perspective seemed to be governed by no law either human or divine. I have seen a photograph of his uncle and a windmill, judging from which I defy any unprejudiced person to say which is the bigger, the uncle or the mill.

On one occasion he created quite a scandal in the parish by exhibiting a well-known and eminently respectable maiden lady nursing a young man on her knee. The gentleman’s face was indistinct, and he was dressed in a costume which, upon a man of his size—one would have estimated him as rising 6 ft. 4 in.—appeared absurdly juvenile. He had one arm round her neck, and she was holding his other hand and smirking.

I, knowing something of Begglely’s machine, willingly accepted the lady’s explanation, which was to the effect that the male in question was her nephew, aged eleven; but the uncharitable ridiculed this statement, and appearances were certainly against her.

It was in the early days of the photographic craze, and an inexperienced world was rather pleased with the idea of being taken on the cheap. The consequence was that nearly everyone for three miles round sat or stood or leant or laid to Begglely at one time or another, with the result that a less conceited parish than ours it would have been difficult to discover. No one who had once looked upon a photograph of himself taken by Begglely ever again felt any pride in his personal appearance. The picture was invariably a revelation to him.

Later, some evil-disposed person invented Kodaks, and Begglely went everywhere slung on to a thing that looked like an overgrown missionary box, and that bore a legend to the effect that if Begglely would pull the button, a shameless Company would do the rest. Life became a misery to Begglely’s friends. Nobody dared to do anything for fear of being taken in the act. He took an instantaneous photograph of his own father swearing at the gardener, and snapped his youngest sister and her lover at the exact moment of farewell at the garden gate. Nothing was sacred to him. He Kodaked his aunt’s funeral from behind, and showed the chief mourner but one whispering a funny story into the ear of the third cousin as they stood behind their hats beside the grave.

Public indignation was at its highest when a new comer to the neighbourhood, a young fellow named Haynoth, suggested the getting together of a party for a summer’s tour in Turkey. Everybody took up the idea with enthusiasm, and recommended Begglely as the “party.” We had great hopes from that tour. Our idea was that Begglely would pull his button outside a harem or behind a sultana, and that a Bashi Bazouk or a Janissary would do the rest for us.

We were, however, partly doomed to disappointment—I say, “partly,” because, although Begglely returned alive, he came back entirely cured of his photographic craze. He said that every English-speaking man, woman, or child whom he met abroad had its camera with it, and that after a time the sight of a black cloth or the click of a button began to madden him.

He told us that on the summit of Mount Tutra, in the Carpathians, the English and American amateur photographers waiting to take “the grand panorama” were formed by the Hungarian police in queue, two abreast, each with his or her camera under his or her arm, and that a man had to stand sometimes as long as three and a half hours before his turn came round. He also told us that the beggars in Constantinople went about with placards hung round their necks, stating their charges for being photographed. One of these price lists he brought back with him as a sample.

It ran:—

One snap shot, back or front .. ... ... 2 frcs. ,, with expression ... ... 3 ,, ,, surprised in quaint attitude . 4 ,, ,, while saying prayers ... ... 5 ,, ,, while fighting ... ... 10 ,, He said that in some instances where a man had an exceptionally villainous cast of countenance, or was exceptionally deformed, as much as twenty francs were demanded and readily obtained.

He abandoned photography and took to golf. He showed people how, by digging a hole here and putting a brickbat or two there, they could convert a tennis-lawn into a miniature golf link,—and did it for them. He persuaded elderly ladies and gentlemen that it was the mildest exercise going, and would drag them for miles over wet gorse and heather, and bring them home dead beat, coughing, and full of evil thoughts.

The last time I saw him was in Switzerland, a few months ago. He appeared indifferent to the subject of golf, but talked much about whist. We met by chance at Grindelwald, and agreed to climb the Faulhorn together next morning. Half-way up we rested, and I strolled on a little way by myself to gain a view. Returning, I found him with a “Cavendish” in his hand and a pack of cards spread out before him on the grass, solving a problem.


4.5

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