You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 12

Mr Harold Thump

SOME of the happy family of Scartmore House Edward Albert got to know quite soon. Some remained remote. For a time Mr Harold Thump dominated all the other individualities in this new world. He was, Mrs Doober had explained, “a teacher of elocution and a reciter; and such a buoyant man”, large, round and rosy, with a lot of fair hair and large, watery, blue eyes; he rubbed his hands together and breathed with a gusto whenever he thought of it; sometimes he forgot himself and lapsed into a coma; but when the spirit was in him he went about Doober’s like a brass band. He sang in the bathroom like a choir coming home from a heavily liquidated bean-feast. He saluted everybody by name as he encountered them. He always brightened up for a new arrival.

“Ah, a new recruit to the Select Company!” he said, at his first sight of Edward Albert, who, on his second night, had come down to dinner rather early, so as not to be brought down by Mrs Doober, and cooed over as he came down.

“Young I perceive you are, but you’ll grow out of it. Tell me your name, laddie. . . .

“Now tell me, my young friend, have you heard the latest story about the zoo? About the monkey and the little fretful porcupine?”

He was addressing himself to Edward Albert. Edward Albert was being asked whether he had heard the story of the monkey and the little fretful porcupine.

“No, Sir,” he said brightly.

“It was such a leetle monkey,” said Mr Thump, and then in a whisper, “Blue. You’ve seen them — blue?”

“Yes, Sir.” He hadn’t exactly, but he could imagine it. Whereupon Mr Thump’s face changed and became marvellous. He lifted a flat hand as who should say, “You wait!”

His lips tightened. His eyes became very round, he projected his face. He seemed to be scrutinising every corner of the room for some hostile hearer. “It’s such a vulgar story,” he said in a stage whisper, confidentially. He reduced Edward Albert to a state of tension. He stood up and looked over the top of the lamp. What was he looking for there? There couldn’t be anything there. Edward Albert began to giggle. Mr Thump, much encouraged, leant forward to look behind the door.

Then suddenly he affected to think of under the table. He went down to look underneath. Edward Albert’s giggle became uncontrollable. Mr Thump looked at him dubiously and went underneath again. Then he came up questioningly, with only the upper part of his face, shining, grave, doubtful, confidential. “Eh?” he said, and put his finger to his lips.

It was too funny.

Then the lady came in, the lady who had said, “You’re a new arrival?” the night before.

She took her place at the table. She affected to ignore Mr Thump. You might infer she did not like him.

Mr Thump, very absurdly, ignored her upon strictly parallel lines. Ridiculous it was.

“Not now,” he said. “No. Never do.”

Other people dropped in, Mrs Doober and a rather severe — looking blonde young lady. With each arrival Mr Thump featured a deepening hopelessness, and Edward Albert’s delight in his frustration increased. Plainly the story was becoming more and more impossible. Mr Thump would start at every fresh arrival and throw up his eyes in comic despair. Always when no one but Edward Albert was looking. The others were beginning to notice Edward Albert’s uncontrollable hilarity. They suspected him. What was he laughing at? Then they suspected Mr Thump. Thereupon Mr Thump became more suspicious than anyone. He was a fair treat.

He addressed Edward Albert protestingly. He spoke in a low plaintive voice. “I only said a porcupine, you know, a very leetle porcupine. What is there to laugh at in a porcupine?”

His features had an instantaneous fit and then became very sad.

Edward Albert devoured bread hastily and a crumb went the wrong way.

“Just a porcupine!” said Thump in a broken falsetto.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!”

“You’ve set that boy laughing!” said Mrs Doober, “and I doubt if he’ll get any dinner. Gawpy, take him away and help him. It’s a shame of you, Mr Thump.”

“I never set him laughing. He started laughing at me. All I said, Mrs Doober, was this; I asked him if he knew the story of the monkey and the porcupine.”

“Well,” said the elderly man who had been sleeping before the drawing-room fire in the afternoon. “What is this precious story of the monkey and the porcupine? If it’s fit to tell here.”

“How should I know?” said Mr Thump, now in his glory. “If I knew, would I ask a little chap like that?”

“You mean to say there isn’t a story?”

“Not that I know of. No. Why should there be? I’ve been asking about it for years. From the way he laughed I really thought he had got something. . . . ”

The old gentleman grunted in a hostile manner.

“One of your Artful Catches, Mr Thump,” said Mrs Doober. “I shall fine you, if you do any more of them. . . . ”

Then changing the subject; “Our Belgian friends are late to-night. . . . ”

Mr Thump aired his voice for a few tuneful bars and then caught his wife’s eye and desisted. “Hm!” said Mr Thump, and sank back into insignificance.

When Albert Edward returned to the dining-room watery-eyed and still slightly hysterical, the Belgians had come in and the table talk had drifted away to other subjects, so that he never learnt that the great story of the monkey and the porcupine was merely selling a bargain. Immediately his eye sought Mr Harold Thump’s and was rewarded by a sympathetic grimace.

In this way a curious mental dependence was established between Mr Thump and himself. They reassured one another. They convinced each other that they existed.

When Mr Thump came into one of the reception rooms and everybody else behaved as though they had nothing against him very much except that they had had quite enough of him some time ago, he would look for Edward Albert and be sure of finding a bright expectant face. And Edward Albert, coming discreetly into a company to which, except for Mrs Doober’s official encouragements, he seemed invisible and unaudible, would find Harold Thump ready with a grimace for him and just that sly obliquity of vision in it that made them both fellow-conspirators against their fellow-boarders.

“They don’t exist,” they told each other mutely.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30