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SIMON THE JESTER


By William J. Locke




CHAPTER I

I met Renniker the other day at the club. He is a man who knows
everything - from the method of trimming a puppy's tail for a dog-show,
without being disqualified, to the innermost workings of the mind of
every European potentate. If I want information on any subject under
heaven I ask Renniker.

"Can you tell me," said I, "the most God-forsaken spot in England?"

Renniker, being in a flippant mood, mentioned a fashionable
watering-place on the South Coast. I pleaded the seriousness of my
question.

"What I want," said I, "is a place compared to which Golgotha, Aceldama,
the Dead Sea, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and the Bowery would be leafy
bowers of uninterrupted delight."

"Then Murglebed-on-Sea is what you're looking for," said Renniker. "Are
you going there at once?"

"At once," said I.

"It's November," said he, "and a villainous November at that; so you'll
see Murglebed-on-Sea in the fine flower of its desolation."

I thanked him, went home, and summoned my excellent man Rogers.

"Rogers," said I, "I am going to the seaside. I heard that Murglebed
is a nice quiet little spot. You will go down and inspect it for me and
bring back a report."

He went blithe and light-hearted, though he thought me insane; he
returned with the air of a serving-man who, expecting to find a
well-equipped pantry, had wandered into a charnel house.

"It's an awful place, sir. It's sixteen miles from a railway station.
The shore is a mud flat. There's no hotel, and the inhabitants are like
cannibals."

"I start for Murglebed-on-Sea to-morrow," said I.

Rogers started at me. His loose mouth quivered like that of a child
preparing to cry.

"We can't possibly stay there, sir," he remonstrated.

"_We_ are not going to try," I retorted. "I'm going by myself."

His face brightened. Almost cheerfully he assured me that I should find
nothing to eat in Murglebed.

"You can amuse yourself," said I, "by sending me down a daily hamper of
provisions."

"There isn't even a church," he continued.

"Then you can send me down a tin one from Humphreys'. I believe they can
supply one with everything from a tin rabbit-hutch to a town hall."

He sighed and departed, and the next day I found myself here, in
Murglebed-on-Sea.

On a murky, sullen November day Murglebed exhibits unimagined horrors
of scenic depravity. It snarls at you malignantly. It is like a bit of
waste land in Gehenna. There is a lowering, soap-suddy thing a mile away
from the more or less dry land which local ignorance and superstition
call the sea. The interim is mud - oozy, brown, malevolent mud. Sometimes
it seems to heave as if with the myriad bodies of slimy crawling eels
and worms and snakes. A few foul boats lie buried in it.

Here and there, on land, a surly inhabitant spits into it. If you
address him he snorts at you unintelligibly. If you turn your back to
the sea you are met by a prospect of unimagined despair. There are
no trees. The country is flat and barren. A dismal creek runs miles
inland - an estuary fed by the River Murgle. A few battered cottages, a
general shop, a couple of low public-houses, and three perky red-brick
villas all in a row form the city, or town, or village, or what you
will, of Murglebed-on-Sea. Renniker is a wonderful man.

I have rented a couple of furnished rooms in one of the villas. It has
a decayed bit of front garden in which a gnarled, stunted stick is
planted, and it is called The Laburnums. My landlord, the owner of
the villas, is a builder. What profits he can get from building in
Murglebed, Heaven alone knows; but, as he mounts a bicycle in the
morning and disappears for the rest of the day, I presume he careers
over the waste, building as he goes. In the evenings he gets drunk at
the Red Cow; so I know little of him, save that he is a red-faced man,
with a Moustache like a tooth-brush and two great hands like hams.

His wife is taciturn almost to dumbness. She is a thick-set,
black-haired woman, and looks at me disapprovingly out of the corner of
her eye as if I were a blackbeetle which she would like to squash under
foot. She tolerates me, however, on account of the tongues and other
sustenance sent by Rogers from Benoist, of which she consumes prodigious
quantities. She wonders, as far as the power of wonder is given to her
dull brain, what on earth I am doing here. I see her whispering to her
friends as I enter the house, and I know they are wondering what I am
doing here. The whole village regards me as a humorous zoological freak,
and wonders what I am doing here among normal human beings.

And what am I doing here - I, Simon de Gex, M.P., the spoilt darling of
fortune, as my opponent in the Labour interest called me during the last
electoral campaign? My disciple and secretary, young Dale Kynnersley,
the only mortal besides Rogers who knows my whereabouts, trembles for
my reason. In the eyes of the excellent Rogers I am horn-mad. What my
constituents would think did they see me taking the muddy air on a soggy
afternoon, I have no conception. Dale keeps them at bay. He also baffles
the curiosity of my sisters, and by his diplomacy has sent Eleanor
Faversham on a huffy trip to Sicily. She cannot understand why I bury
myself in bleak solitude, instead of making cheerful holiday among the
oranges and lemons of the South.

Eleanor is a girl with a thousand virtues, each of which she expects to
find in counterpart in the man to whom she is affianced. Until a week or
two ago I actually thought myself in love with Eleanor. There seemed
a whimsical attraction in the idea of marrying a girl with a thousand
virtues. Before me lay the pleasant prospect of reducing them - say, ten
at a time - until I reached the limit at which life was possible,
and then one by one until life became entertaining. I admired her
exceedingly - a strapping, healthy English girl who looked you straight
in the eyes and gripped you fearlessly by the hand.

My friends "lucky-dog'd" me until I began to smirk to myself at my own
good fortune. She visited the constituency and comported herself as if
she had been a Member's wife since infancy, thereby causing my heart to
swell with noble pride. This unparalleled young person compelled me to
take my engagement almost seriously. If I shot forth a jest, it struck
against a virtue and fell blunted to the earth. Indeed, even now I am
sorry I can't marry Eleanor. But marriage is out of the question.

I have been told by the highest medical authorities that I may manage to
wander in the flesh about this planet for another six months. After that
I shall have to do what wandering I yearn for through the medium of my
ghost. There is a certain humourousness in the prospect. Save for an
occasional pain somewhere inside me, I am in the most robust health.

But this same little pain has been diagnosed by the Faculty as the
symptom of an obscure disease. An operation, they tell me, would kill
me on the spot. What it is called I cannot for the life of me remember.
They gave it a kind of lingering name, which I wrote down on my
shirt-cuff.

The name or characteristics of the thing, however, do not matter a fig.
I have always hated people who talked about their insides, and I am not
going to talk about mine, even to myself. Clearly, if it is only going
to last me six months, it is not worth talking about. But the quaint
fact of its brief duration is worth the attention of a contemplative
mind.

It is in order perfectly to focus this attention that I have come to
Murglebed-on-Sea. Here I am alone with the murk and the mud and my own
indrawn breath of life. There are no flowers, blue sky, smiling eyes,
and dainty faces - none of the adventitious distractions of the
earth. There are no Blue-books. Before the Faculty made their jocular
pronouncement I had been filling my head with statistics on pauper
lunacy so as to please my constituency, in which the rate has increased
alarmingly of late years. Perhaps that is why I found myself their
representative in Parliament. I was to father a Bill on the subject next
session. Now the labour will fall on other shoulders. I interest myself
in pauper lunacy no more. A man requires less flippant occupation for
the premature sunset of his days. Well, in Murglebed I can think, I
can weigh the _pros_ and _cons_ of existence with an even mind, I can
accustom myself to the concept of a Great Britain without Simon de Gex.
M.P.

Of course, when I go I shall "cast one longing, lingering look behind."
I don't particularly want to die. In fact, having otherwise the prospect
of an entertaining life, I regard my impending dissolution in the light
of a grievance. But I am not afraid. I shall go through the dismal
formality with a graceful air and as much of a smile on my face as the
pain in my inside will physically permit.

My dear but somewhat sober-sided friend Marcus Aurelius says: "Let death
surprise me when it will, and where it will, I may be _eumoiros_, or
a happy man, nevertheless. For he is a happy man who in his lifetime
dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion in
good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions."

The word _eumoiros_ according to the above definition, tickles my fancy.
I would give a great deal to be eumoirous. What a thing to say: "I have
achieved eumoiriety," - namely the quintessence of happy-fatedness dealt
unto oneself by a perfect altruism!

I don't think that hitherto my soul has been very evilly inclined, my
desires base, or my actions those of a scoundrel. Still, the negatives
do not qualify one for eumoiriety. One wants something positive. I
have an idea, therefore, of actively dealing unto myself a happy lot or
portion according to the Marcian definition during the rest of the time
I am allowed to breathe the upper air. And this will be fairly easy;
for no matter how excellently a man's soul may be inclined to the
performance of a good action, in ninety cases out of a hundred he is
driven away from it by dread of the consequences. Your moral teachers
seldom think of this - that the consequences of a good action are often
more disastrous than those of an evil one. But if a man is going to die,
he can do good with impunity. He can simply wallow in practical virtue.
When the boomerang of his beneficence comes back to hit him on the
head - _he won't be there to feel it_. He can thus hoist Destiny with its
own petard, and, besides, being eumoirous, can spend a month or two in a
peculiarly diverting manner. The more I think of the idea the more am
I in love with it. I am going to have a seraph of a time. I am going to
play the archangel.

I shall always have pleasant memories of Murglebed. Such an idea could
not have germinated in any other atmosphere. In the scented groves of
sunny lands there would have been sown Seeds of Regret, which would have
blossomed eventually into Flowers of Despair. I should have gone about
the world, a modern Admetus, snivelling at my accursed luck, without
even the chance of persuading a soft-hearted Alcestis to die for me. I
should have been a dismal nuisance to society.

"Bless you," I cried this afternoon, waving, as I leaned against a
post, my hand to the ambient mud, "Renniker was wrong! You are not a
God-forsaken place. You are impregnated with divine inspiration."

A muddy man in a blue jersey and filthy beard who occupied the next post
looked at me and spat contemptuously. I laughed.

"If you were Marcus Aurelius," said I, "I would make a joke - a short
life and an eumoiry one - and he would have looked as pained as you."

"What?" he bawled. He was to windward of me.

I knew that if I repeated my observation he would offer to fight me. I
approached him suavely.

"I was wondering," I said, "as it's impossible to strike a match in this
wind, whether you would let me light my pipe from yours."

"It's empty," he growled.

"Take a fill from my pouch," said I.

The mud-turtle loaded his pipe, handed me my pouch without
acknowledgment, stuck his pipe in his breeches pocket, spat again, and,
deliberately turning his back, on me, lounged off to another post on a
remoter and less lunatic-ridden portion of the shore. Again I laughed,
feeling, as the poet did with the daffodils, that one could not but be
gay in such a jocund company.

There are no amenities or urbanities of life in Murglebed to choke the
growth of the Idea. This evening it flourishes so exceedingly that I
think it safe to transplant it in the alien soil of Q 3, The Albany,
where the good Rogers must be leading an idle existence peculiarly
deleterious to his morals.

This gives one furiously to think. One of the responsibilities of
eumoiriety must be the encouragement and development of virtue in my
manservant.

Also in my young friend and secretary, Dale Kynnersley. He is more to me
than Rogers. I may confess that, so long as Rogers is a sober, honest,
me-fearing valet, in my heart of hearts I don't care a hang about
Rogers's morals. But about those of Dale Kynnersley I do. I care a great
deal for his career and happiness. I have a notion that he is erring
after strange goddesses and neglecting the little girl who is in love
with him. He must be delivered. He must marry Maisie Ellerton, and the
two of them must bring lots of capable, clear-eyed Kynnersleys into the
world. I long to be their ghostly godfather.

Then there's Eleanor Faversham - but if I begin to draw up a programme
I shall lose that spontaneity of effort which, I take it, is one of the
chief charms of dealing unto oneself a happy lot and portion. No; my
soul abhors tabulation. It would make even six months' life as jocular
as Bradshaw's Railway Guide or the dietary of a prison. I prefer to look
on what is before me as a high adventure, and with that prospect in view
I propose to jot down my experiences from time to time, so that when I
am wandering, a pale shade by Acheron, young Dale Kynnersley may have
not only documentary evidence wherewith to convince my friends and
relations that my latter actions were not those of a lunatic, but also,
at the same time, an up-to-date version of Jeremy Taylor's edifying
though humour-lacking treatise on the act of dying, which I am sorely
tempted to label "The Rule and Example of Eumoiriety." I shall resist
the temptation, however. Dale Kynnersley - such is the ignorance of the
new generation - would have no sense of the allusion. He would shake his
head and say, "Dotty, poor old chap, dotty!" I can hear him. And if, in
order to prepare him, I gave him a copy of the "Meditations," he
would fling the book across the room and qualify Marcus Aurelius as a
"rotter."

Dale is a very shrewd fellow, and will make an admirable legislator
when his time comes. Although his highest intellectual recreation is
reiterated attendance at the musical comedy that has caught his fancy
for the moment and his favourite literature the sporting pages of the
daily papers, he has a curious feline pounce on the salient facts of
a political situation, and can thread the mazes of statistics with the
certainty of a Hampton Court guide. His enthusiastic researches (on my
behalf) into pauper lunacy are remarkable in one so young. I foresee
him an invaluable chairman of committee. But he will never become a
statesman. He has too passionate a faith in facts and figures, and has
not cultivated a sense of humour at the expense of the philosophers.
Young men who do not read them lose a great deal of fun.

Well, to-morrow I leave Murglebed for ever; it has my benison.
Democritus returns to London.



CHAPTER II

I was at breakfast on the morning after my arrival in London, when Dale
Kynnersley rushed in and seized me violently by the hand.

"By Jove, here you are at last!"

I smoothed my crushed fingers. "You have such a vehement manner of
proclaiming the obvious, my dear Dale."

"Oh, rot!" he said. "Here, Rogers, give me some tea - and I think I'll
have some toast and marmalade."

"Haven't you breakfasted?"

A cloud overspread his ingenuous countenance.

"I came down late, and everything was cold and mother was on edge.
The girls are always doing the wrong things and I never do the right
ones - you know the mater - so I swallowed a tepid kidney and rushed off."

"Save for her worries over you urchins," said I, "I hope Lady Kynnersley
is well?"

He filled his mouth with toast and marmalade, and nodded. He is a
good-looking boy, four-and-twenty - idyllic age! He has sleek black hair
brushed back from his forehead over his head, an olive complexion, and
a keen, open, clean-shaven face. He wore a dark-brown lounge suit and
a wine-coloured tie, and looked immaculate. I remember him as the
grubbiest little wretch that ever disgraced Harrow.

He swallowed his mouthful and drank some tea.

"Recovered your sanity?" he asked.

"The dangerous symptoms have passed over," I replied. "I undertake not
to bite."

He regarded me as though he were not quite certain, and asked in his
pronounless way whether I was glad to be back in London.

"Yes," said I. "Rogers is the only human creature who can properly wax
the ends of my moustache. It got horribly limp in the air of Murglebed.
That is the one and only disadvantage of the place."

"Doesn't seem to have done you much good," he remarked, scanning me
critically. "You are as white as you were before you went away. Why the
blazes you didn't go to Madeira, or the South of France, or South Africa
I can't imagine."

"I don't suppose you can," said I. "Any news?"

"I should think I have! But first let me go through the appointments."

He consulted a pocket-book. On December 2nd I was to dine with Tanners'
Company and reply to the toast of "The House of Commons." On the 4th
my constituency claimed me for the opening of a bazaar at Wymington.
A little later I was to speak somewhere in the North of England at a
by-election in support of the party candidate.

"It will be fought on Tariff Reform, about which I know nothing," I
objected.

"I know everything," he declared. "I'll see you through. You must buck
up a bit, Simon, and get your name better known about the country. And
this brings me to my news. I was talking to Raggles the other day - he
dropped a hint, and Raggles's hints are jolly well worth while picking
up. Just come to the front and show yourself, and there's a place in the
Ministry."

"Ministry?"

"Sanderson's going."

"Sanderson?" I queried, interested, in spite of myself, at these
puerilities. "What's the matter with him?"

"Swelled head. There have been awful rows - this is confidential - and
he's got the hump. Thinks he ought to be the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, or at least First Lord, instead of an Under Secretary. So
he's going to chuck it, before he gets the chuck himself - see?"

"I perceive," said I, "that your conversational English style is
abominable."

He lit a cigarette and continued, loftily taking no notice of my rebuke.

"There's bound to be a vacancy. Why shouldn't you fill it? They seem to
want you. You're miles away over the heads of the average solemn duffers
who get office."

I bowed acknowledgment of his tribute.

"Well, you will buck up and try for it, won't you? I'm awfully proud
of you already, but I should go off my head with joy if you were in the
Ministry."

I met his honest young eyes as well as I could. How was I going to
convey to his candid intelligence the fact of my speedy withdrawal from
political life without shattering his illusions? Besides, his devotion
touched me, and his generous aspirations were so futile. Office! It was
in my grasp. Raggles, with his finger always on the pulse of the party
machine, was the last man in the world to talk nonsense. I only had to
"buck up." Yet by the time Sanderson sends in his resignation to the
King of England, I shall have sent in mine to the King of Hosts. I moved
slightly in my chair, and a twinge of the little pain inside brought a
gasp to my throat. But I felt grateful to it. It was saving me from an
unconscionable deal of worry. Fancy going to a confounded office every
morning like a clerk in the City! I was happier at peace. I rose and
warmed myself by the fire. Dale regarded me uncomprehendingly.

"You look as if the prospect bored you to tears. I thought you would be
delighted."

"_Vanitas vanitatum_," said I. "_Omnia vanitas_."

"Rot!" said Dale.

"It's true."

"I must fetch Eleanor Faversham back from Sicily," said Dale.

"Don't," said I.

"Well, I give you up," he declared, pushing his chair from the table and
swinging one leg across the other. I leaned forward and scrutinised his
ankles.

"What are you looking at?"

"There must be something radically wrong with you, Dale," I murmured
sympathetically. "It is part of the religion of your generation to wear
socks to match your tie. To-day your tie is wine-coloured and your socks
are green - - "

"Good Lord," he cried, "so they are! I dressed myself anyhow this
morning."

"What's wrong with you?"

He threw his cigarette impatiently into the fire.

"Every infernal thing that can possibly be. Everything's rotten - but
I've not come here to talk about myself."

"Why not?"

"It isn't the game. I'm here on your business, which is ever so much
more important than mine. Where are this morning's letters?"

I pointed to an unopened heap on a writing-table at the end of the room.
He crossed and sat down before them. Presently he turned sharply.

"You haven't looked through the envelopes. Here is one from Sicily."

I took the letter from him, and sighed to myself as I read it. Eleanor
was miserable. The Sicilians were dirty. The Duomo of Palermo did
not come up to her expectations. The Mobray-Robertsons, with whom she
travelled, quarrelled with their food. They had never even heard of
Theocritus. She had a cold in her head, and was utterly at a loss to
explain my attitude. Therefore she was coming back to London.

I wish I could find her a nice tame husband who had heard of Theocritus.
It would be such a good thing for everybody, husband included. For, I
repeat, Eleanor is a young woman of fine character, and the man to whom
she gives her heart will be a fortunate fellow.

While I was reading the letter and meditating on it, with my back to
the fire, Dale plunged into the morning's correspondence with an air of
enjoyment. That is the astonishing thing about him. He loves work.
The more I give him to do the better he likes it. His cronies, who in
raiment, manners, and tastes differ from him no more than a row of pins
differs from a stray brother, regard a writing-chair as a mediaeval
instrument of torture, and faint at the sight of ink. They will put
themselves to all kinds of physical and pecuniary inconvenience in order
to avoid regular employment. They are the tramps of the fashionable
world. But in vain do they sing to Dale of the joys of silk-hatted and
patent-leather-booted vagabondage and deride his habits of industry;
Dale turns a deaf ear to them and urges on his strenuous career. Rogers,
coming in to clear away the breakfast things, was despatched by my young
friend to fetch a portfolio from the hall. It contained, he informed
me, the unanswered letters of the past fortnight with which he had
found himself unqualified to deal. He grasped the whole bundle of
correspondence, and invited me to follow him to the library and start on
a solid morning's work. I obeyed meekly. He sat down at the big table,
arranged the pile in front of him, took a pencil from the tray, and
began:

"This is from Finch, of the _Universal Review_."

I put my hand on his shoulder.

"Tell him, my boy, that it's against my custom to breakfast at afternoon
tea, and that I hope his wife is well."

At his look of bewilderment I broke into a laugh.

"He wants me to write a dull article for his stupid paper, doesn't he?"

"Yes, on Poor Law Administration."

"I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do anything these people ask
me. Say 'No, no, no, no,' to everybody."

"In Heaven's name, Simon," he cried, laying down his pencil, "what has
come over you?"

"Old age," said I.

He uttered his usual interjection, and added that I was only
thirty-seven.

"Age is a relative thing," I remarked. "Babes of five have been known
to die of senile decay, and I have seen irresponsible striplings of
seventy."

"I really think Eleanor Faversham had better come back from Sicily."

I tapped the letter still in my hand. "She's coming."

"I'm jolly glad to hear it. It's all my silly fault that she went away.


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