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

Chapter 5

The Thump Tragedy

NOW while these things were happening within our accumulating young man as Nature expanded and consolidated him, familiar faces were disappearing from Scartmore House and new ones replacing them, and he was growing into a more and more definitely recognised member of Mrs Doober’s happy family. He watched the new arrivals with an increasing interest in his effect upon them, and he made advances to them instead of waiting to be accosted.

The Belgians went. They had found some sort of employment in the Congo Free State. Mr Frankincense took some tremendous honours in London University and went off, covered with glory, to become the Principal of a college in India where Indian young gentlemen studied to pass the degree examinations of London University. The seditious laugh of the long, lean Indian was heard no longer in the boarding-house, and old Mr Blake, having accumulated enough money to acquire an annuity, retired to a small boarding-house at Southsea where he devoted himself to composing a solidly libellous book to be published under the title of Professors, so-called, and Performances. It was to demonstrate the important r61e he had played in the development of physical science during the past forty years, for which he had

“never received the slightest credit. His departure was accelerated by the tragic death of Mr Harold Thump.

“It will never be the same place without him,” said old Mr Blake. “Sometimes we differed a bit in a friendly way, but it was all give and take. A fellow of infinite jest.”

But I have still to tell you of that tragedy. It was a great shock for Doober’s.

Mr Harold Thump, blythe after convivialities, had attempted, it seemed, to slide down the banisters of a restaurant staircase, instead of descending it in an ordinary dull manner. The banisters, which were elegant and elderly, had given way at the second bend and sent him spinning head over heels into an open service lift, which he had descended in a crumpled state to break his neck at the bottom. His last recorded words were, “Hey, boys, look here!”

It was all over in a minute. “We thought he was walking down behind us,” said the Boys in question, scared now and sober. “We heard him singing a bar or so, and then he seems to have taken it into his head to do it. He just flew by us.”

“Like him,” said Mrs Thump, tearlessly hearing the particulars.

It was a stupendous shock. Not only Mr Blake but the whole of Scartmore House was profoundly moved and hushed by this distressing event. The obliteration of so habitually audible an individual left the whole establishment for a while a self-conscious auditory vacuum. Most of the boarders seemed to have discovered for the first time that they also made sounds, and to have been cowed by the discovery. They spoke in whispers or undertones as if the departed was actually there lying in state instead of being away in a mortuary.

Respect restrained all unseemly playfulness. No games except chess went on, and that in silence. On,e was checked and mated by mouth-reading. And light and colour also were muted down. The small widow lady with mittens who had, so to speak, replaced the friend of Lady Tweedman, put aside the brilliant blazer she had been knitting, and started a black comforter, and the thoughtful man of thirty-five who had taken the room of Mr Frankincense openly read his Bible. Gawpy for her part tidied up the hall with extraordinary care and kept the blinds drawn at breakfast time in spite of the waste of gas. Doober’s couldn’t have shown more respect if it had been the King.

The dinner table conversation, except for an insincere Appreciation of the lovely weather and some brightness and hopefulness about the tulips in Regent’s Park and the Royal Academy, which was better than ever in spite of the war, turned almost entirely on the virtues and personal charm of the deceased.

“The good that men assume lives after them, The truth is oft interred with their bones.”

Some boarder would chew mournfully, meditating the while, and then break out. “He”— they never named him —

“He was always so wonderful at Christmas. Christmas always seemed to brighten Him up. Like Dickens. Do you remember the time He gave us all with His snapdragon? He would have it done properly with the lights down, flaming away, and how he upset a lot of it on the carpet? Blue flames they were. Just like a big impatient Boy.”

“But we stamped it out all right,” said Mrs Doober.

“And it really did no harm. On that old carpet. How we laughed!”

“If he’d only been more serious he would have been a great actor — a great comedy actor.”

“He reminded me of Beerbohm Tree. The same big humorous personality. If he’d had the same chances, he might have had his own great Theatre.”

“He was as sensitive as a child. Easily discouraged. That was his weakness. He hated to push. In this world you must push. But he wouldn’t compete. And he’d sacrifice anything for a joke. You might say he sacrificed himself.”

“A great man lost. Yet it never seemed to worry him. Buoyant he was — right up to the end.”

Edward Albert thought out his special contribution to the chorus. “I’ll miss him dreadfully. He was so kind and sorta friendly like.”

“It must have been a great experience to have known Him when He was young and still full of hope and promise.”

The remark seemed aimed at Mrs Thump. She answered in her deliberate colourless way. “Yes. He was full of promise — then.”

“A born playboy. He was nobody’s enemy but his own.”

“And it had to be paid for, of course,” said Mrs Thump, and said no more.

The chorus was resumed. Edward Albert repeated his bit.

The only person who seemed to be backward in this heaping up of posthumous wreaths was Mrs Thump. At first that was ascribed to the depth of her sorrow. She had no words for it. Then it was whispered that she was going to have Him cremated, not handsomely buried in a large tomb, and that she was going away from London.

Cremation was a new idea to Edward Albert. It touched a vein of queer imagination in him. “It can’t be nice being cremated,” he said. “And where are you at the Resurrection? Just a jar or sumpthink.”

“This will be a shock to your literary work,” said old Mr Blake to the widow, finding her sitting alone in meditation.

She considered him. She spoke quite calmly, but with an effect of relieving her mind of something that had been there too long. “No harm now in telling you that I don’t do literary work. He put that about. Amour propre. He had his pride, you know. He just hated to think I was a pirate dressmaker working myself to the bone with a roomful of hussies. That’s what I am, you know, He was sensitive — in that way. That’s all over now, and his feelings can’t be hurt any more.”

“I thought —” began old Mr Blake.

“No. I guess you guessed. Now I can go off to Torquay and run a decent business. I’ve always had a feeling for Torquay.”

“Why couldn’t you have done that before?”

“Because it wouldn’t have paid enough, and He would have insisted on mixed bathing when He was tight and getting into trouble in the water, and also, you know, He’d have had to have a season ticket to run up to London.”

She sat quite still for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. “But why talk about these things now?”

Old Mr Blake turned that over in his mind and remarked afterwards to Edward Albert, since at the moment there was no one else to make his remark to: “That Mrs Thump is a pretty hard woman. Pretty hard. Very likely he didn’t succeed because she discouraged him. If only she’d believed in him more and shown it.”

“I don’t think she ought to have him cremated,” said Edward Albert. “I will say that. . . . ”

The more old Mr Blake thought over his relations to Harold Thump, the more they were transmuted from something very like hostility to profound understanding and affection. How good we can be to the dead! How easily and unwittingly they become our allies! We can quote things they never said in praise of us. Old Mr Blake knew what it was to be frustrated and pushed aside by inferior people — only too well. Harold Thump too, if he had had his proper opportunities and his proper support might have been a really very great man. But that hard woman had been too much for him.

A misogyny natural to old bachelors certainly influenced this judgment, which first he tried out on Edward Albert and then on other suitable listeners. Before she departed, Mrs Thump was under a shadow. It was felt that she had failed in her wifely duty and even perhaps deliberately dragged down this great man and had never really understood.

A certain callousness in her, to give it no harsher word, enabled her to disregard the one or two attempts that were made to convey these ideas to her.

After the cremation, Gawpy allowed the house to relax. Harold Thump became an exhausted topic almost at once. Mr Blake kept a faint glow of disapproval alight about Mrs Thump, until first she and then he departed. Nobody talked about the Thumps any more after that, and by degrees Doober’s was filled by a new generation of boarders that knew not Harold. New jokes arose and established themselves and prevailed; new voices bellowed in the bathroom. . . .

So it was that the Thumps and Mr Blake followed Mr Frankincense and the others out of Edward Albert’s World and were replaced by others to whom he could present a firmer countenance.

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