It has been told me by those in a position to know—and I can believe it—that at nineteen months of age he wept because his grandmother would not allow him to feed her with a spoon, and that at three and a half he was fished, in an exhausted condition, out of the water-butt, whither he had climbed for the purpose of teaching a frog to swim.
Two years later he permanently injured his left eye, showing the cat how to carry kittens without hurting them, and about the same period was dangerously stung by a bee while conveying it from a flower where, as it seemed to him, it was only wasting its time, to one more rich in honey-making properties.
His desire was always to help others. He would spend whole mornings explaining to elderly hens how to hatch eggs, and would give up an afternoon’s black-berrying to sit at home and crack nuts for his pet squirrel. Before he was seven he would argue with his mother upon the management of children, and reprove his father for the way he was bringing him up.
As a child nothing could afford him greater delight than “minding” other children, or them less. He would take upon himself this harassing duty entirely of his own accord, without hope of reward or gratitude. It was immaterial to him whether the other children were older than himself or younger, stronger or weaker, whenever and wherever he found them he set to work to “mind” them. Once, during a school treat, piteous cries were heard coming from a distant part of the wood, and upon search being made, he was discovered prone upon the ground, with a cousin of his, a boy twice his own weight, sitting upon him and steadily whacking him. Having rescued him, the teacher said:
“Why don’t you keep with the little boys? What are you doing along with him?”
“Please, sir,” was the answer, “I was minding him.”
He would have “minded” Noah if he had got hold of him.
He was a good-natured lad, and at school he was always willing for the whole class to copy from his slate—indeed he would urge them to do so. He meant it kindly, but inasmuch as his answers were invariably quite wrong—with a distinctive and inimitable wrongness peculiar to himself—the result to his followers was eminently unsatisfactory; and with the shallowness of youth that, ignoring motives, judges solely from results, they would wait for him outside and punch him.
All his energies went to the instruction of others, leaving none for his own purposes. He would take callow youths to his chambers and teach them to box.
“Now, try and hit me on the nose,” he would say, standing before them in an attitude of defence. “Don’t be afraid. Hit as hard as ever you can.”
And they would do it. And so soon as he had recovered from his surprise, and a little lessened the bleeding, he would explain to them how they had done it all wrong, and how easily he could have stopped the blow if they had only hit him properly.
Twice at golf he lamed himself for over a week, showing a novice how to “drive”; and at cricket on one occasion I remember seeing his middle stump go down like a ninepin just as he was explaining to the bowler how to get the balls in straight. After which he had a long argument with the umpire as to whether he was in or out.
He has been known, during a stormy Channel passage, to rush excitedly upon the bridge in order to inform the captain that he had “just seen a light about two miles away to the left”; and if he is on the top of an omnibus he generally sits beside the driver, and points out to him the various obstacles likely to impede their progress.
It was upon an omnibus that my own personal acquaintanceship with him began. I was sitting behind two ladies when the conductor came up to collect fares. One of them handed him a sixpence telling him to take to Piccadilly Circus, which was twopence.
“No,” said the other lady to her friend, handing the man a shilling, “I owe you sixpence, you give me fourpence and I’ll pay for the two.”
The conductor took the shilling, punched two twopenny tickets, and then stood trying to think it out.
“That’s right,” said the lady who had spoken last, “give my friend fourpence.”
The conductor did so.
“Now you give that fourpence to me.”
The friend handed it to her.
“And you,” she concluded to the conductor, “give me eightpence, then we shall be all right.”
The conductor doled out to her the eightpence—the sixpence he had taken from the first lady, with a penny and two halfpennies out of his own bag—distrustfully, and retired, muttering something about his duties not including those of a lightning calculator.
“Now,” said the elder lady to the younger, “I owe you a shilling.”
I deemed the incident closed, when suddenly a florid gentleman on the opposite seat called out in stentorian tones:—
“Hi, conductor! you’ve cheated these ladies out of fourpence.”
“’Oo’s cheated ’oo out ’o fourpence?” replied the indignant conductor from the top of the steps, “it was a twopenny fare.”
“Two twopences don’t make eightpence,” retorted the florid gentleman hotly. “How much did you give the fellow, my dear?” he asked, addressing the first of the young ladies.
“I gave him sixpence,” replied the lady, examining her purse. “And then I gave you fourpence, you know,” she added, addressing her companion.
“That’s a dear two pen’oth,” chimed in a common-looking man on the seat behind.
“Oh, that’s impossible, dear,” returned the other, “because I owed you sixpence to begin with.”
“But I did,” persisted the first lady.
“You gave me a shilling,” said the conductor, who had returned, pointing an accusing forefinger at the elder of the ladies.
The elder lady nodded.
“And I gave you sixpence and two pennies, didn’t I?”
The lady admitted it.
“An’ I give ’er”—he pointed towards the younger lady—“fourpence, didn’t I?”
“Which I gave you, you know, dear,” remarked the younger lady.
“Blow me if it ain’t me as ’as been cheated out of the fourpence,” cried the conductor.
“But,” said the florid gentleman, “the other lady gave you sixpence.”
“Which I give to ’er,” replied the conductor, again pointing the finger of accusation at the elder lady. “You can search my bag if yer like. I ain’t got a bloomin’ sixpence on me.”
By this time everybody had forgotten what they had done, and contradicted themselves and one another. The florid man took it upon himself to put everybody right, with the result that before Piccadilly Circus was reached three passengers had threatened to report the conductor for unbecoming language. The conductor had called a policeman and had taken the names and addresses of the two ladies, intending to sue them for the fourpence (which they wanted to pay, but which the florid man would not allow them to do); the younger lady had become convinced that the elder lady had meant to cheat her, and the elder lady was in tears.
The florid gentleman and myself continued to Charing Cross Station. At the booking office window it transpired that we were bound for the same suburb, and we journeyed down together. He talked about the fourpence all the way.
At my gate we shook hands, and he was good enough to express delight at the discovery that we were near neighbours. What attracted him to myself I failed to understand, for he had bored me considerably, and I had, to the best of my ability, snubbed him. Subsequently I learned that it was a peculiarity of his to be charmed with anyone who did not openly insult him.
Three days afterwards he burst into my study unannounced—he appeared to regard himself as my bosom friend—and asked me to forgive him for not having called sooner, which I did.
“I met the postman as I was coming along,” he said, handing me a blue envelope, “and he gave me this, for you.”
I saw it was an application for the water-rate.
“We must make a stand against this,” he continued. “That’s for water to the 29th September. You’ve no right to pay it in June.”
I replied to the effect that water-rates had to be paid, and that it seemed to me immaterial whether they were paid in June or September.
“That’s not it,” he answered, “it’s the principle of the thing. Why should you pay for water you have never had? What right have they to bully you into paying what you don’t owe?”
He was a fluent talker, and I was ass enough to listen to him. By the end of half an hour he had persuaded me that the question was bound up with the inalienable rights of man, and that if I paid that fourteen and tenpence in June instead of in September, I should be unworthy of the privileges my forefathers had fought and died to bestow upon me.
He told me the company had not a leg to stand upon, and at his instigation I sat down and wrote an insulting letter to the chairman.
The secretary replied that, having regard to the attitude I had taken up, it would be incumbent upon themselves to treat it as a test case, and presumed that my solicitors would accept service on my behalf.
When I showed him this letter he was delighted.
“You leave it to me,” he said, pocketing the correspondence, “and we’ll teach them a lesson.”
I left it to him. My only excuse is that at the time I was immersed in the writing of what in those days was termed a comedy-drama. The little sense I possessed must, I suppose, have been absorbed by the play.
The magistrate’s decision somewhat damped my ardour, but only inflamed his zeal. Magistrates, he said, were muddle-headed old fogies. This was a matter for a judge.
The judge was a kindly old gentleman, and said that bearing in mind the unsatisfactory wording of the sub-clause, he did not think he could allow the company their costs, so that, all told, I got off for something under fifty pounds, inclusive of the original fourteen and tenpence.
Afterwards our friendship waned, but living as we did in the same outlying suburb, I was bound to see a good deal of him; and to hear more.
At parties of all kinds he was particularly prominent, and on such occasions, being in his most good-natured mood, was most to be dreaded. No human being worked harder for the enjoyment of others, or produced more universal wretchedness.
One Christmas afternoon, calling upon a friend, I found some fourteen or fifteen elderly ladies and gentlemen trotting solemnly round a row of chairs in the centre of the drawing-room while Poppleton played the piano. Every now and then Poppleton would suddenly cease, and everyone would drop wearily into the nearest chair, evidently glad of a rest; all but one, who would thereupon creep quietly away, followed by the envying looks of those left behind. I stood by the door watching the weird scene. Presently an escaped player came towards me, and I enquired of him what the ceremony was supposed to signify.
“Don’t ask me,” he answered grumpily. “Some of Poppleton’s damned tomfoolery.” Then he added savagely, “We’ve got to play forfeits after this.”
The servant was still waiting a favourable opportunity to announce me. I gave her a shilling not to, and got away unperceived.
After a satisfactory dinner, he would suggest an impromptu dance, and want you to roll up mats, or help him move the piano to the other end of the room.
He knew enough round games to have started a small purgatory of his own. Just as you were in the middle of an interesting discussion, or a delightful tête-à-tête with a pretty woman, he would swoop down upon you with: “Come along, we’re going to play literary consequences,” and dragging you to the table, and putting a piece of paper and a pencil before you, would tell you to write a description of your favourite heroine in fiction, and would see that you did it.
He never spared himself. It was always he who would volunteer to escort the old ladies to the station, and who would never leave them until he had seen them safely into the wrong train. He it was who would play “wild beasts” with the children, and frighten them into fits that would last all night.
So far as intention went, he was the kindest man alive. He never visited poor sick persons without taking with him in his pocket some little delicacy calculated to disagree with them and make them worse. He arranged yachting excursions for bad sailors, entirely at his own expense, and seemed to regard their subsequent agonies as ingratitude.
He loved to manage a wedding. Once he planned matters so that the bride arrived at the altar three-quarters of an hour before the groom, which led to unpleasantness upon a day that should have been filled only with joy, and once he forgot the clergyman. But he was always ready to admit when he made a mistake.
At funerals, also, he was to the fore, pointing out to the grief-stricken relatives how much better it was for all concerned that the corpse was dead, and expressing a pious hope that they would soon join it.
The chiefest delight of his life, however, was to be mixed up in other people’s domestic quarrels. No domestic quarrel for miles round was complete without him. He generally came in as mediator, and finished as leading witness for the appellant.
As a journalist or politician his wonderful grasp of other people’s business would have won for him esteem. The error he made was working it out in practice.