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

Chapter 13

Wedding Deferred

WHY did Mr Philip Chaser neigh as well as employ ordinary human speech? It was a matter for speculation among his large circle of friends and acquaintances. Was he born neighing, did he learn to neigh, or was neighing thrust upon him? Even his dear Millie had no exact knowledge in the matter. When she met and married him, it had already become an essential part of his personality.

There may have been an early stammer and a cure for stammering. Hold your breath for a time, inhale and then speak; the stammer went, and the neigh remained in its place. Observers found it was not an invariable feature of his discourse. He could forget to do it in moments of lively interest. He used it to capture attention. At social gatherings, used loudly, it was as good as the toast-master’s “Pray silence for — so and so.” And it gave him a rallying pause. It arrested interruption while he recovered a train of thought and it warned that something good was coming. He just did it; he never said anything about it. He had a profoundly secretive side to him.

We imagine a number of things about language and most of them are absurd. We imagine we are speaking plainly and clearly and we never do anything of the sort. We do not hear the sounds we make. We think we think and express ourselves. It is 6ur universal delusion. The speech of Homo Tewler, Homo sub-sapiens is still incapable of expressing reality, and his thought at its clearest is a net of misfitting symbols, analogies and metaphors, by which he hopes to ensnare the truth to his desires. If you will listen attentively, if you will read attentively, you will find everyone has protective and habitual mannerisms, makes the most transitory attempts at real expression and lapses into the tricks and devices of — say — something far more natural, a struggle for self-assertion.

It is only in the past few years that the sciences of Signifies and Semantics have opened men’s eyes to the immense inaccuracies and question-begging of language. People talk of pure English, perfect French, faultless German. This possible impeccability is an academic delusion. Only a schoolmaster can really believe in it. Every language changes from day to day and from hour to hour. I am told by those who are better able to judge that Evangeline’s transitory French was far from perfect, gradually it decayed in her memory and passed out of her mind, but it differed only in degree and not in kind from everyman’s French, including this, that and the other sort of Frenchman. Some day ingenious people may devise ways of bringing language which is not only the expression but the instrument of thought, nearer to verifiable reality — in the days when we Tewlers are breaking towards sapiens. But that is not yet.

Meanwhile Speech is mainly our weapon for self-assertion, and from that point of view there is nothing better in this story than Pip Chaser’s long, aggressive, commanding and yet apparently impersonal key. How feeble beside it was Edward Albert’s “Er — mean t’say.” How spurious those long records of empty phrasing with which the public speaker holds his audience in a state of passive nothingness while he recovers the straying argument that has slipped away from his wits!

The last thing a speaker or writer can perceive is his own limitation, and with that the critical hearer and reader must deal. In this story, subject to that qualification, there is a sustained attempt to render life, and particularly one specimen life and group of lives, as starkly as possible, and every individual is shown as truthfully as the writer’s ability permits. And they all, in addition to a general laxness, have their peculiar phrasing and mannerisms and patches of verbal shoddy. Every one of them and everyone you know.

So hey for the merry merry Best Man!

He spent the eve of the appointed day in a vigorous rehearsal of Edward Albert. He had thrown himself into the task with an ever-growing enthusiasm. He found something delightful in our hero which was evidently lost upon the rest of the world. And he loved management. He was born knowing, as his wife said, he had never ‘once looked back from that bright start, and he had an extraordinary detailed knowledge of where and when and how to buy the smartest things at the lowest price for every occasion.

“We’ll have this right to the last button, Teddy. We’ll get photographers from the society papers outside the church. I know a man. . . . How are they to know who we are and who we aren’t?. . . . Oh, you’ll be all right, if you don’t give way in the middle. Like — hey — shutting a knife, I mean.”

He paraded himself and Edward Albeit up and down the bedroom. He took his arm and spun him round to the looking-glass. “Look at us! Pip and Tewler, arrayed for the altar, What’s a funeral to this sort of thing? I ask you,”

“You know I didn’t count on all this.”

“Exactly. That’s where I come in. Now then, my orphan child, that speech — Just once more. Now then, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen!’”

He was very proud of the speech he had composed for his pupil. “None of your Unaccustomed-as-I-amto-public — speaking stuff for us. No. Something simple, neat and natural. Stand up to the table, so. Now then.”

Edward Albert posed himself at the table. “Lays and gentlemen,” he said and paused. “And you, my dear Evangeline —”

“Good!”

“Er. I never made a speech in my life. P’raps I never shall And now. My heart’s too full. Go. bless you all.”

“Excellent! Touching! Then you sit down. My revered Pop — he doesn’t mind being called Pop; it’s Old Gooseberry he can’t stand — my Pop, I say, will blow his cork out and spout all over us for a bit. After all it’s his breakfast. And then kisses. Millie will kiss you. Various women will kiss you — attaboy — I’ll pull you out of it, and so to the station and Tender Torquay.”

“You’ll see us off?”

“To the end. . . . And now let me help you to spread out the wedding garments. Your blue suit will be on the Pop Premises. . . . Have I forgotten anything? Not me. What would have happened to this blessed wedding without my savoir faire transcends the imagination — transcends it, I tell you, simply transcends it.”

Edward. Albert sneezed.

“Where’s your dressing gown? Every man in your position ought to have a wadded dressing gown.”

“I bin shivering all day. I think I got a cold,”

“That’s where that whisky comes in, my boy. Lemon? No lemon! You ought always to have a lemon. Get into bed. I’ll get you some boiling water and then I’ll tuck you up. Best man indeed! I’m your nurse and your valet Say your evening prayer. Go on. Ladies and gentlemen and you, my dear Evangeline, I never made a speech in my life. Go on, . . . Good! Now for the whisky, oh Lamb made ready for the Sacrifice. . . .

“I’ll leave it here beside you. And so to sleep, my Benedict, Sleep well.”

But that was exactly what Edward Albert could not do. A great horror of darkness and self-disgust came upon him.

Something about Pip, something about everybody’s behaviour, told him he was being made a fool of. He had been in Evangeline’s arms again that afternoon and he was in a phase of nervous exhaustion. He had been excited and then told he was no good. Always she was saying he was unsatisfactory. Nice thing to tell a fellow. And egging him on again. And here he was to be dressed up like a fool. . . . He wouldn’t stand it. He would not stand it. He would be damned if he stood it. He was a free man in a free country. Smash up the whole thing he would even now, and be damned to their wedding breakfast!

He got out of bed. He sneezed violently. He’d smash that hat anyhow. But face to face with that immaculate hat, his heart failed him. It found the cringing snob in him. He crept back into bed and sat up for a time looking at it. But in an hour he was raving again and repeating his invincible objection to marrying. He’d been led into it. He’d been W. It wasn’t what he’d meant. . . .

Mr Pip, dressed as the ideal best man, was a little late and impatient. He had a white gardenia in his button hole and he carried another, with its stem in silver paper, for his victim. He rang for ten minutes almost continuously; he banged and kicked the door, and he was at last admitted by Edward Albert in pyjamas. The bridegroom’s eyes were red, swollen and half-closed, he said nothing, and he scuttled back hastily to bed.

“What on earth’s this?” demanded Mr Pip, round-eyed.

Edward Albert rolled over away from him and became a bunch of bedclothes.

“I can’t do it, o’ fellow,” he wheezed hoarsely. “I got a frightful cold. You got to manage without me,”

“Say that again,” cried Pip, incredulous but delighted.

“Say that again.”

Edward Albeit said it again but lower and more wheezily.

“You got to manage without me!” echoed Pip. “Oh lovely! Oh perfect! Of all the larks!”

He cackled with laughter. He danced about the room. He waved his arms about. “I can see them. I can see them all. Managing without him!” He aimed two tremendous punches at the roll of bedclothes that was the bridegroom and then went off to the pantry in search of whisky.

He came back with a glass of whisky and soda in his hand and put it down on the night table to enable him to punch the defaulter some more. “Oh Lord! what are we to do?” he said. “You, hey, toad.”

“Bring ’em all here,” he tried. “Get the parson and the bride and everyone here. Not legal. Get an ambulance and take you there. What’s the time? Past eleven. You can’t marry after twelve. Get you up now and dress you by force? Get up!”

He tried to strip off the bedclothes but Edward Albert had wrapped them too tightly round himself.

“I tell you I won’t” he shouted. “I can’t and I won’t. I won’t. I changed my mind.”

Pip desisted.

“Ever had the pleasure of meeting Inspector Birkenhead, Tewler?” he asked.

“Don’ wan’ meet ’im.”

“You will.”

Then Pip had his brightest idea. “I know. You’ve got a temperature of 105, Tewler, and I’m going to telephone. They’ll send for a doctor — who’ll expose you. And then? I don’t know. God help you I Why the hell haven’t you had a telephone put in here? As I told you. I’ll have to go out to a call office.”

When the flat had ceased to reverberate with Pip’s presence, Edward Albert rolled up into a vertical position, a sort of cocoon of bedclothes surmounted by a rueful face and a disorder of hair, and finished Pip’s whisky and soda.

“I never thought of that old father,” he whispered, and his face was white with premonition.

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