A.A. Milne.

Not that it Matters online

. (page 10 of 11)
Online LibraryA.A. MilneNot that it Matters → online text (page 10 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

that you never noticed his castle leaning against your queen, yet
it would be quite against the etiquette of the game.

Indeed, it is impossible to win gracefully at chess. No man yet
has said "Mate!" in a voice which failed to sound to his opponent
bitter, boastful, and malicious. It is the tone of that voice
which, after a month, I find it impossible any longer to stand.

A Doubtful Character

I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas. If he is the
jolly old gentleman he is always said to be, why doesn't he
behave as such? How is it that the presents go so often to the
wrong people?

This is no personal complaint; I speak for the world. The rich
people get the rich presents, and the poor people get the poor
ones. That may not be the fault of Father Christmas; he may be
under contract for a billion years to deliver all presents just
as they are addressed; but how can he go on smiling? He must long
to alter all that. There is Miss Priscilla A - - who gets five
guineas worth of the best every year from Mr. Cyril B - - who
hopes to be her heir. Mustn't that make Father Christmas mad? Yet
he goes down the chimney with it just the same. When his contract
is over, and he has a free hand, he'll arrange something about
THAT, I'm sure. If he is the jolly old gentleman of the pictures
his sense of humour must trouble him. He must be itching to have
jokes with the parcels. "Only just this once," he would plead.
"Let me give Mrs. Brown the safety-razor, and Mr. Brown the
night-dress case; I swear I won't touch any of the others." Of
course that wouldn't be a very subtle joke; but jolly old
gentlemen with white beards aren't very subtle in their humour.
They lean to the broader effects - the practical joke and the pun.
I can imagine Father Christmas making his annual pun on the word
"reindeer," and the eldest reindeer making a feeble attempt to
smile. The younger ones wouldn't so much as try. Yet he would
make it so gaily that you would love him even if you couldn't

Coming down chimneys is dangerous work for white beards, and if I
believed in him I should ask myself how he manages to keep so
clean. I suppose his sense of humour suggested the chimney to him
in the first place, and for a year or two it was the greatest
joke in the world. But now he must wish sometimes that he came in
by the door or the window. Some chimneys are very dirty for white

Have you noticed that children, who hang up their stockings,
always get lots of presents, and that we grown-ups, who don't
hang up our stockings, never get any? This makes me think that
perhaps after all Father Christmas has some say in the
distribution. When he sees an empty stocking he pops in a few
things on his own account - with "from Aunt Emma" pinned on to
them. Then you write to Aunt Emma to thank her for her delightful
present, and she is so ashamed of herself for not having sent you
one that she never lets on about it. But when Father Christmas
doesn't see a stocking, he just leaves you the embroidered
tobacco pouch from your sister and the postal order from your
rich uncle, and is glad to get out of the house.

Of his attitude towards Christmas cards I cannot speak with
certainty, but I fancy that he does not bring these down the
chimney too; the truth being, probably, that it is he who
composes the mottoes on them, and that with the customary modesty
of the author he leaves the distribution of them to others. "The
old, old wish - a merry Christmas and a happy New Year" he
considers to be his masterpiece so far, but "A righte merrie
Christemasse" runs it close. "May happy hours be yours" is
another epigram in the same vein which has met with considerable
success. You can understand how embarrassing it would be to an
author if he had to cart round his own works, and practically to
force them on people. This is why you so rarely find a Christmas
card in your stocking.

There is one other thing at which Father Christmas draws the
line; he will not deliver venison. The reindeer say it comes too
near home to them. But, apart from this, he is never so happy as
when dealing with hampers. He would put a plum-pudding into every
stocking if he could, for like all jolly old gentlemen with nice
white beards he loves to think of people enjoying their food. I
am not sure that he holds much with chocolates, although he is
entrusted with so many boxes that he has learnt to look on them
with kindly tolerance. But the turkey idea, I imagine (though I
cannot speak with authority), the turkey idea was entirely his
own. Nothing like turkey for making the beard grow.

If I believed in Father Christmas I should ask myself what he
does all the summer - all the year, indeed, after his one day is
over. The reindeer, of course, are put out to grass. But where is
Father Christmas? Does he sleep for fifty-one weeks? Does he
shave, and mix with us mortals? Or does he - yes, that must be it-
-does he spend the year in training, in keeping down his figure?
Chimney work is terribly trying; the figure wants watching if one
is to carry it through successfully. This is especially so in the
case of jolly old gentlemen with white beards. I can see Father
Christmas, as soon as his day is over, taking himself off to the
Equator and running round and round it. By next December he is in
splendid condition.

When his billion years are over, when his contract expires and he
is allowed a free hand with the presents, I suppose I shall not
be alive to take part in the distribution. But none the less I
like to think of the things I should get. There are at least half
a dozen things which I deserve, and Father Christmas knows it. In
any equitable scheme of allotment I should come out well. "Half a
minute," he would say, "I must just put these cigars aside for
the gentleman who had the picture post card last year. What have
you got there? The country cottage and the complete edition of
Meredith? Ah yes, perhaps he'd better have those too."

That would be something like a Father Christmas.

Thoughts on Thermometers

Our thermometer went down to 11 deg. the other night. The
excitement was intense. It was, of course, the first person down
to breakfast who rushed into the garden and made the discovery,
and as each of us appeared he was greeted with the news.

"I say, do you know there were twenty-one degrees of frost last

"Really? By Jove!"

We were all very happy and talkative at breakfast - an event rare
enough to be chronicled. It was not that we particularly wanted a
frost, but that we felt that, if it was going to freeze, it might
as well do it properly - so as to show other nations that England
was still to be reckoned with. And there was also the feeling
that if the thermometer could get down to 11 deg. it might some
day get down to zero; and then perhaps the Thames would be frozen
over again at Westminster, and the papers would be full of
strange news, and - generally speaking - life would be a little
different from the ordinary. In a word, there would be a chance
of something "happening" - which, I take it, is why one buys a
thermometer and watches it so carefully.

Of course, every nice thermometer has a device for registering
the maximum and minimum temperatures, which can only be set with
a magnet. This gives you an opportunity of using a magnet in
ordinary life, an opportunity which occurs all too seldom.
Indeed, I can think of no other occasion on which it plays any
important part in one's affairs. It would be interesting to know
if the sale of magnets exceeds the sale of thermometers, and if
so, why? - and it would also be interesting to know why magnets
are always painted red, as if they were dangerous, or belonged to
the Government, or - but this is a question into which it is
impossible to go now. My present theme is thermometers.

Our thermometer (which went down to 11 deg. the other night) is
not one of your common mercury ones; it is filled with a pink
fluid which I am told is alcohol, though I have never tried. It
hangs in the kitchen garden. This gives you an excuse in summer
for going into the kitchen garden and leaning against the fruit
trees. "Let's go and look at the thermometer" you say to your
guest from London, and just for the moment he thinks that the
amusements of the country are not very dramatic. But after a day
or two he learns that what you really mean is, "Let's go and see
if any fruit has blown down in the night." And he takes care to
lean against the right tree. An elaborate subterfuge, but
necessary if your gardener is at all strict.

But whether your thermometer hangs in the kitchen garden or at
the back of the shrubbery, you must recognize one thing about it,
namely, that it is an open-air plant. There are people who keep
thermometers shut up indoors, which is both cruel and
unnecessary. When you complain that the library is a little
chilly - as surely you are entitled to - they look at the
thermometer nailed to the Henry Fielding shelf and say, "Oh no; I
don't think so. It's sixty-five." As if anybody wanted a
thermometer to know if a room were cold or not. These people
insult thermometers and their guests further by placing one of
the former in the bathroom soap-dish, in order that the latter
may discover whether it is a hot or cold bath which they are
having. All decent people know that a hot bath is one which you
can just bear to get into, and that a cold bath is one which you
cannot bear to think of getting into, but have to for honour's
sake. They do riot want to be told how many degrees Fahrenheit it

The undersized temperature-taker which the doctor puts under
your tongue before telling you to keep warm and take plenty of
milk puddings is properly despised by every true thermometer-
lover. Any record which it makes is too personal for a breakfast-
table topic, and moreover it is a thermometer which affords no
scope for the magnet. Altogether it is a contemptible thing. An
occasional devotee will bite it in two before returning it to its
owner, but this is rather a strong line to take. It is perhaps
best to avoid it altogether by not being ill.

A thermometer must always be treated with care, for the mercury
once spilt can only be replaced with great difficulty. It is
considered to be one of the most awkward things to pick up after
dinner, and only a very steady hand will be successful. Some
people with a gift for handling mercury or alcohol make their own
thermometers; but even when you have got the stuff into the tube,
it is always a question where to put the little figures. So much
depends upon them.

Now I must tell you the one hereditary failing of the
thermometer. I had meant to hide it from you, but I see that you
are determined to have it. It is this: you cannot go up to it and
tap it. At least you can, but you don't get that feeling of
satisfaction from it which the tapping of a barometer gives you.
Of course you can always put a hot thumb on the bulb and watch
the mercury run up; this is satisfying for a short time, but it
is not the same thing as tapping. And I am wrong to say "always,"
for in some thermometers - indeed, in ours, alas! - the bulb is
wired in, so that no falsifying thumb can get to work. However,
this has its compensations, for if no hot thumb can make our
thermometer untrue to itself, neither can any cold thumb. And so
when I tell you again that our thermometer did go down to 11 deg.
the other night, you have no excuse for not believing that our
twenty-one degrees of frost was a genuine affair. In fact, you
will appreciate our excitement at breakfast.

For a Wet Afternoon

Let us consider something seasonable; let us consider indoor
games for a moment.

And by indoor games I do not mean anything so serious as bridge
and billiards, nor anything so commercial as vingt-et-un with
fish counters, nor anything so strenuous as "bumps." The games I
mean are those jolly, sociable ones in which everybody in the
house can join with an equal chance of distinction, those
friendly games which are played with laughter round a fire what
time the blizzards rattle against the window-pane.

These games may be divided broadly into two classes; namely,
paper games and guessing games. The initial disadvantage of the
paper game is that pencils have to be found for everybody;
generally a difficult business. Once they are found, there is no
further trouble until the game is over, when the pencils have to
be collected from everybody; generally an impossible business. If
you are a guest in the house, insist upon a paper game, for it
gives you a chance of acquiring a pencil; if you are the host,
consider carefully whether you would not rather play a guessing

But the guessing game has one great disadvantage too. It demands
periodically that a member of the company should go out by
himself into the hall and wait there patiently until his
companions have "thought of something." (It may be supposed that
he, too, is thinking of something in the cold hall, but perhaps
not liking to say it.) However careful the players are,
unpleasantness is bound to arise sometimes over this preliminary
stage of the game. I knew of one case where the people in the
room forgot all about the lady waiting in the hall and began to
tell each other ghost stories. The lights were turned out, and
sitting round the flickering fire the most imaginative members of
the household thrilled their hearers with ghostly tales of the
dead. Suddenly, in the middle of the story of Torfrida of the
Towers - a lady who had strangled her children, and ever
afterwards haunted the battlements, headless, and in a night-
gown - the door opened softly, and Miss Robinson entered to ask
how much longer they would be. Miss Robinson was wearing a white
frock, and the effect of her entry was tremendous. I remember,
too, another evening when we were playing "proverbs." William,
who had gone outside, was noted for his skill at the game, and we
were determined to give him something difficult; something which
hadn't a camel or a glass house or a stable door in it. After
some discussion a member of the company suggested a proverb from
the Persian, as he alleged. It went something like this: "A wise
man is kind to his dog, but a poor man riseth early in the
morning." We took his word for it, and, feeling certain that
William would never guess, called him to come in.

Unfortunately William, who is a trifle absentminded, had gone to

To avoid accidents of this nature it is better to play "clumps,"
a guessing game in which the procedure is slightly varied. In
"clumps" two people go into the hall and think of something,
while the rest remain before the fire. Thus, however long the
interval of waiting, all are happy; for the people inside can
tell each other stories (or, as a last resort, play some other
game) and the two outside are presumably amusing themselves in
arranging something very difficult. Personally I adore clumps;
not only for this reason, but because of its revelation of hidden
talent. There may be a dozen persons in each clump, and in theory
every one of the dozen is supposed to take a hand in the cross-
examination, but in practice it is always one person who extracts
the information required by a cataract of searching questions.
Always one person and generally a girl. I love to see her coming
out of her shell. She has excelled at none of the outdoor games
perhaps; she has spoken hardly a word at meals. In our little
company she has scarcely seemed to count. But suddenly she awakes
into life. Clumps is the family game at home; she has been
brought up on it. In a moment she discovers herself as our
natural leader, a leader whom we follow humbly. And however we
may spend the rest of our time together, the effect of her short
hour's triumph will not wholly wear away. She is now established.

But the paper games will always be most popular, and once you are
over the difficulty of the pencils you may play them for hours
without wearying. But of course you must play the amusing ones
and not the dull ones. The most common paper game of all, that of
making small words out of a big one, has nothing to recommend it;
for there can be no possible amusement in hearing somebody else
read out "but," "bat," "bet," "bin," "ben," and so forth, riot
even if you spend half an hour discussing whether "ben" is really
a word. On the other hand your game, however amusing, ought to
have some finality about it; a game is not really a game unless
somebody can win it. For this reason I cannot wholly approve
"telegrams." To concoct a telegram whose words begin with certain
selected letters of the alphabet, say the first ten, is to amuse
yourself anyhow and possibly your friends; whether you say, "Am
bringing camel down early Friday. Got hump. Inform Jamrach"; or,
"Afraid better cancel dinner engagement. Fred got horrid
indigestion. - JANE." But it is impossible to declare yourself
certainly the winner. Fortunately, however, there are games which
combine amusement with a definite result; games in which the
others can be funny while you can get the prize - or, if you
prefer it, the other way about.

When I began to write this, the rain was streaming against the
window-panes. It is now quite fine. This, you will notice, often
happens when you decide to play indoor games on a wet afternoon.
Just as you have found the pencils, the sun comes out.

Declined with Thanks

A paragraph in the papers of last week recorded the unusual
action of a gentleman called Smith (or some such name) who had
refused for reasons of conscience to be made a justice of the
peace. Smith's case was that the commission was offered to him as
a reward for political services, and that this was a method of
selecting magistrates of which he did not approve. So he showed
his contempt for the system by refusing an honour which most
people covet, and earned by this such notoriety as the papers can
give. "Portrait (on page 8) of a gentleman who has refused
something!" He takes his place with Brittlebones in the gallery
of freaks.

The subject for essay has frequently been given, "If a million
pounds were left to you, how could you do most good with it?"
Some say they would endow hospitals, some that they would
establish almshouses; there may even be some who would go as far
as to build half a Dreadnought. But there would be a more
decisive way of doing good than any of these. You might refuse
the million pounds. That would be a shock to the systems of the
comfortable - a blow struck at the great Money God which would
make it totter; a thrust in defence of pride and freedom such as
had not been seen before. That would be a moral tonic more needed
than all the draughts of your newly endowed hospitals. Will it
ever be administered? Well, perhaps when the D.W.T. club has
grown a little stronger.

Have you heard of the D.W.T. - the Declined- with-Thanks Club?
There are no club rooms and not many members, but the balance
sheet for the last twelve months is wonderful, showing that more
than œ11,000 was refused. The entrance fee is one hundred guineas
and the annual subscription fifty guineas; that is to say, you
must have refused a hundred guineas before you can be elected,
and you are expected to refuse another fifty guineas a year while
you retain membership. It is possible also to compound with a
life refusal, but the sum is not fixed, and remains at the
discretion of the committee.

Baines is a life member. He saved an old lady from being run over
by a motor bus some years ago, and when she died she left him a
legacy of œ1000. Baines wrote to the executors and pointed out
that he did not go about dragging persons from beneath motor
buses as a profession; that, if she had offered him œ1000 at the
time, he would have refused it, not being in the habit of
accepting money from strangers, still less from women; and that
he did not see that the fact of the money being offered two years
later in a will made the slightest difference. Baines was earning
œ300 a year at this time, and had a wife and four children, but
he will not admit that he did anything at all out of the common.

The case of Sedley comes up for consideration at the next
committee meeting. Sedley's rich uncle, a cantankerous old man,
insulted him grossly; there was a quarrel; and the old man left,
vowing to revenge himself by disinheriting his nephew and
bequeathing his money to a cats' home. He died on his way to his
solicitors, and Sedley was told of his good fortune in good legal
English. He replied, "What on earth do you take me for? I
wouldn't touch a penny. Give it to the cats' home or any blessed
thing you like." Sedley, of course, will be elected as an
ordinary member, but as there is a strong feeling on the
committee that no decent man could have done anything else, his
election as a life member is improbable.

Though there are one or two other members like Baines and Sedley,
most of them are men who have refused professional openings
rather than actual money. There are, for instance, half a dozen
journalists and authors. Now a journalist, before he can be
elected, must have a black-list of papers for which he will
refuse to write. A concocted wireless message in the Daily Blank,
which subsequent events proved to have been invented deliberately
for the purpose of raking in ha'pennies, so infuriated Henderson
(to take a case) that he has pledged himself never to write a
line for any paper owned by the same proprietors. Curiously
enough he was asked a day or two later to contribute a series to
a most respectable magazine published by this firm. He refused in
a letter which breathed hatred and utter contempt in every word.
It was Henderson, too, who resigned his position as dramatic
critic because the proprietor of his paper did rather a shady
thing in private life. "I know the paper isn't mixed up in it at
all," he said, "but he's my employer and he pays me. Well, I like
to be loyal to my employers, and if I'm loyal to this man I can't
go about telling everybody that he's a dirty cad. As I
particularly want to."

Then there is the case of Bolus the author. He is only an
honorary member, for he has not as yet had the opportunity of
refusing money or work. But he has refused to be photographed and
interviewed, and he has refused to contribute to symposia in the
monthly magazines. He has declined with thanks, moreover,
invitations to half a dozen houses sent to him by hostesses who
only knew him by reputation. Myself, I think it is time that he
was elected a full member; indirectly he must have been a
financial loser by his action, and even if he is not actually
assisting to topple over the Money God, he is at least striking a
blow for the cause of independence. However, there he is, and
with him goes a certain M.P. who contributed œ20,000 to the party
chest, and refused scornfully the peerage which was offered to

The Bar is represented by P. J. Brewster, who was elected for
refusing to defend a suspected murderer until he had absolutely
convinced himself of the man's innocence. It was suggested to him
by his legal brothers that counsel did not pledge themselves to
the innocence of their clients, but merely put the case for one
side in a perfectly detached way, according to the best
traditions of the Bar. Brewster replied that he was also quite
capable of putting the case for Tariff Reform in a perfectly
detached way according to the best traditions of The Morning
Post, but as he was a Free Trader he thought he would refuse any
such offer if it were made to him. He added, however, that he was
not in the present case worrying about moral points of view; he
was simply expressing his opinion that the luxury of not having
little notes passed to him in court by a probable murderer, of
not sharing a page in an illustrated paper with him, and of not
having to shake hands with him if he were acquitted, was worth
paying for. Later on, when as K.C., M.P., he refused the position
of standing counsel to a paper which he was always attacking in
the House, he became a life member of the club.

But it would be impossible to mention all the members of the
D.W.T. by name. I have been led on to speaking about the club by
the mention of that Mr. Smith (or whatever his name was) who
refused to be made a justice of the peace. If Mr. Smith cared to
put up as an honorary member, I have no doubt that he would be
elected; for though it is against the Money God that the chief
battle is waged, yet the spirit of refusal is the same. "Blessed

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10

Online LibraryA.A. MilneNot that it Matters → online text (page 10 of 11)