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A.E.W. MASON

THE TROUBLE AT BEAULIEU

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First published in Lippincott's Magazine, Jan 19, 1901, pp 119-124
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
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THE railway station at Beaulieu differs from that of any small village in a rural district of England in the number and duties of its station-masters. The station-masters at Beaulieu are five, and their duty is to work up a proper excitement on the platform at the approach of the Rapide. The railway company, however, does its best to lighten their labors by providing many electric bells, an extensive supply of horns, and a large staff of men to blow the horns. The station-masters provide the climax, but they get the scene very well worked up for them. The bells, for instance, begin to ring about ten minutes before the train is due and from twenty-five to thirty minutes before the train arrives. The horn-blowing chimes in a little later, owing to the strain on the horn-blowers' lungs. Then the ticket inspector snips your ticket in four separate places, and finally, just as the smoke appears above the trees a quarter of a mile away, the five station-masters rush violently from their office, hurl themselves, with shouts of "En arrière, messieurs et dames!" upon the one or two stray passengers dozing patiently on the platform, and hold them pinned against the wall whilst the Rapide pants majestically through the station at the speed of a moderately fast luggage train on the Chatham and Dover. If many Rapides pass while you are waiting, your enthusiasm for the Paris, Lyons et Mediterranée is apt to become perfunctory. It was the fourth, I remember, which brought trouble to Beaulieu. For as it lurched through the station one of the carriage-doors opened and a man stepped calmly onto the platform. A score of horror-stricken faces popped out of the carriage-windows; the five stood petrified; everyone stared and no one spoke, while the train puffed leisurely away beneath the cactus-trees and palms. The French language has no terms to cope with disrespect for its railway system, and so in the deadliest silence the new arrival tottered a few paces forward, fell on his knees, tried to wipe his face with his handkerchief and missed it, and, getting on to his feet, remarked in hazy tones:—

"I think this is Beaulieu."

Then the storm broke. Shouts of "O le malheureux!" reverberated along the platform and clashed inconsistently with others of "O qu'il est heureux!" Four of the station-masters rushed at the "malheureux," and the fifth sobbed in agitated tones that he had a son employed in the station at Nice, and that when he saw the door opening he was sure—oh, he was sure—his son was rushing at all costs to embrace his father. Meanwhile the stranger tottered and smiled sleepily at the gesticulating figure.

"I think this is Beaulieu," he remarked again, "and I want to see the Marquis of Salisbury."

The five only gesticulated and screamed the more.

"Ne faîtes pas cela!" suddenly roared the stranger, waving his hands before his face. "You make me giddy, ontondez-vous? Ne m'onnuyez-pas ou je vous ferai voir qui est quelconque. Maintenong où est le Markiss?"

A fellow-countryman, however intoxicated, is still a fellow-countryman. By dint of many persuasions and much backsheesh we rescued him from the five and carried him across the road to the hotel. He asked the porter, the manager, the manageress, and the head-waiter, in terms which were polite if indistinct, to inform the Marquis that he would be glad to see him at once, because he was very busy. We assured him the Marquis was in the smoking-room. In the smoking-room our friend relapsed on to a lounge and incontinently went to sleep. After a few minutes of restless slumber, however, he began to address the room generally.

"My Lord, my name's 'Arris, and I've come on be'alf of the commercial gentlemen dining last Sunday at Darlington to express our extreme dis-disap-disapprobation of your recent policy and to ex'ort you to hamend your wicked ways."

We gathered round 'Arris and said "Hear! Hear!"

'Arris bowed and tried to place his hand on his heart. It is true that he only touched his nose, but he aimed at his heart.

"My Lord," he continued, "I've 'eard you described as a blooming Lord, and you are awfully a blooming Lord." He shook his head in a melancholy reproach, and we said "Hear! hear!" again. Our cheers seemed to disturb his thoughts, for he paused pensively. Then he said in quite an insinuating tone,—

"My Lord, I should like a gargle."

The next thing to a cooling drink in the hotel was a seidlitz-powder, so we gave it to him in some Apollinaris and told him it was a brandy and soda. 'Arris sipped it with the enjoyment of a connoisseur and resumed:

"We commercial gentlemen dining at Darlington accordingly drew up a plan of campaign against the Turks;" and as if the mere thought of his plan produced an intoxicating effect he rose wildly from the lounge.

"Why did the Scots win Bannockburn? Tell me that, my Lord! Why? 'Cos they dug pits and put spiky knobs of iron into them, so that the English cavalry fell through and got hurt. My Lord, that's what the Greeks want—pits and spiky knobs of iron. We propose then, my Lord, that under cover of night you should send some English mappers and shiners,—that is to say, sappers and miners,—to dig pits and put spiky knobs of iron into them, so that the Turkish cavalry fall through in the morning."

Having thus conveyed the opinion of the commercial gentlemen dining at Darlington, 'Arris again composed himself to sleep. He slept for five minutes; then he sat up again and blinked round the room.

"Where's the Marquis?" he asked suspiciously. "Being deputized, I want an answer."

Nobody was anxious to undertake the responsibility of providing him with one, and there was a moment's silence. 'Arris carefully selected the one man in the room who had taken no part in the proceedings and trotted unsteadily across to his corner. This one man, however, was old and to all appearances inoffensive, and possibly that accounted for 'Arris's selection.

"And who may you be?"

"Westerton—Colonel Westerton."

"'Ere," said 'Arris, putting a dirty forefinger upon the second button of the Colonel's waistcoat, "you've been getting at me. Where's the Marquis?"

The Colonel was known throughout the hotel for his exceptional politeness, and he answered with complete suavity:

"The Marquis of Salisbury's villa, La Bastide, is some little distance from the hotel up the hill-side. But—will you excuse me?— you are dribbling," and very delicately he removed 'Arris's handkerchief from 'Arris's breastpocket and wiped 'Arris's mouth. "At the same time we have all been very pleased to hear your plan of campaign." The chair next to the Colonel's happened to be vacant. 'Arris sank into it aggressively.

"Carlyle, sir," he said, "made a remark."

"He made a good many," replied the Colonel affably.

"But one in particular," said 'Arris. "'The English nation is composed of mostly fools.' It's what I call a very pertinent remark," and he couched the suggestion in a polite inquiry.

"It's what I call a very impertinent one," replied the Colonel.

'Arris was not at a loss in the matter of repartee.

"You're dead, sir," he observed,—"dead—dead—dead—dead as anything in this world's history."

"Really?" asked the Colonel, flushing a little.

"You're old, you see," continued 'Arris. "Your 'air's gone, your brain's gone. You're dead—dead—dead—dead as anything in this world's history. I can't think,"—and 'Arris scratched his head reflectively,—"I can't think 'ow it is they've forgotten to bury you."

The Colonel flushed a deeper red and took up the Times. 'Arris watched him read through a leading article. Then he sighed. "It's a fine thing, this life," he observed generally. Even philosophy did not attract the Colonel. 'Arris edged his chair nearer. "You can't tell me any one thing I don't know," he remarked in a wheedling tone.

"I should under no circumstances make any effort to," answered the Colonel.

'Arris ran his chair against the Colonel's and laughed—a low, self-satisfied laugh.

"You can't tell me any one thing I haven't dreamed of in this world's history," and he laid a triumphant finger on the Colonel's knee.

Colonel Westerton quietly removed the finger.

"Yes, one thing. Clean finger-nails, I fancy."

'Arris rose from his chair with unsteady majesty and stood more or less upright.

"You will remember," he said, "that I 'ave not insulted you."

The Colonel turned over a page of the Times and puffed out his cheeks.

"There are a great deal too many of your sort about," he said rather weakly. "All mouth, don't you know."

"There aren't many of you," replied 'Arris. "'Cos why? I'll tell you,"—and he laughed and swayed confidentially over the Colonel,—"'cos they're all buried."

'Arris seemed contented with this rejoinder, and began to make little tripping runs about the room. Wherever there was an ornament or a pot of flowers he fell against and broke it. He put his shoulder through one of the window-panes and got his feet mixed up in the waste-paper basket. At times he stopped and sighed heavily, "It's a fine thing, this life." At times he looked at the Colonel and muttered gloomily, "Dead—dead—dead—dead as anything in this world's history." And at last he broke into song. He sang "Now we sha'n't be long" several times. Then he sang it with variations, and at each variation he sang it more impressively, as follows, "Now we sha'n't be — can't be—mustn't be—daren't be—won't be long."

The Colonel put down the Times and carefully buttoned his coat across his chest.

"To find the villa La Bastide," he began very ceremoniously, "you must turn to the right outside the hotel gates, keep up the road, take the second to the left and the first to the right. I should go at once if I were you, for if you make any more noise here I shall beat you."

'Arris shook his head mournfully at the Colonel.

"I shall 'ave to 'ave you in Comic Cuts next week, I see," he said reproachfully, and the Colonel boiled over. He leapt on 'Arris. If you have ever hunted moose up Canadian rivers and seen the bull come crashing out of the brushwood at your Indian's call, you will know how the Colonel leapt at 'Arris. He sprang at him with his fists beating the air. Two chairs and a table went down with 'Arris, and 'Arris's spats flourished convulsively from the débris. The contest was sharp but decisive. For a moment or two the room was thick with whirling arms and legs. The Colonel's bald head flashed rosily, now above, now under, and then he rose with 'Arris's limp collar in one hand and 'Arris, equally limp, in the other.

He bumped 'Arris through the door-way, and every time he bumped him he got angrier.

"You shall go to La Bastide," he cried, "and, by George! I'll kick you all the way."

The prayers of the waiters, the reproaches of the manageress, were all lost on the Colonel. It seemed as though the concentrated passion of years had broken loose suddenly within him. He cuffed 'Arris down the passage into the hall. Unfortunately for 'Arris, there was an iron stove in the hall with a loose iron cover which rattled at the slightest provocation. The bumping of 'Arris set it rattling. It attracted the Colonel's attention. With a shout which was nothing short of fiendish he dragged 'Arris over to the stove. He took his head between his two hands and hammered it on the iron cover. He hammered the back of his head first, and as he hammered he shouted, "Dead—dead— dead—dead as anything in this world's history." Then he turned 'Arris's head round. "Now for Comic Cuts," he yelled, and he beat 'Arris's forehead on the cover.

When he got tired of that he flung 'Arris down the steps on to the gravel. 'Arris got feebly on to his feet and shambled along the drive. The Colonel crouched and watched him. Imagine a bald-headed, hoary cat watching a mouse! Then he took the steps at a flying leap and pounded after 'Arris. 'Arris gave a scream and ran. The Colonel was five yards behind him as he disappeared through the gates. We followed into the road. But for 'Arris and the Colonel, it was a very soothing, pleasant afternoon. There was not even enough wind to stir the trees; seawards the Mediterranean stretched without a ripple, languid and smooth as a solid floor, and no wisp of a cloud in the sky made the sunlight flicker. One had the impression of a Sunday afternoon at home in the country—so long, that is, as one closed one's ears and did not look up the road to La Bastide. Up that road stumbled 'Arris, and behind him danced and spluttered the Colonel in the afternoon sunlight. If 'Arris lurched, the Colonel buffeted him on the side to which he lurched, in order to preserve his balance for him, and all the time the Colonel shouted and all the time the Colonel kicked. He shouted, "Now we shan't be—can't be—mustn't be—daren't be—won't be long" in a voice which rose from a shout to a diabolical yell. At each variation he planted a well-directed kick, and with each rise of his voice the kick was harder. He made a paper-chase along the road with scraps of 'Arris's clothes. Once or twice 'Arris fell, and then the Colonel knelt on his legs and beat him with his fists in the small of his back until he struggled up again. It was weary work for 'Arris. He got slower and slower as he neared the top of the road; he clung to the wall at the side, dragged himself along it, and at last a flying kick from the Colonel sent him swirling round the corner. The Colonel wiped his forehead and plunged after him.

We did not see the Colonel again until dinner-time. He seemed thoroughly ashamed of himself, but could not remember that he had ever seen or spoken to anyone of the name of 'Arris. 'Arris himself we never saw again. Whether he reached La Bastide we never found out. Not one of the five station-masters could ever tell us anything of his departure. He left no trace behind him except certain fragments of clothing and a torn linen collar. He simply faded from Beaulieu like a dream.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.