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

Chapter 8

Evangeline Birkenhead

THE time has come to tell more about this Miss Evangeline Birkenhead. . . .

There must be a Buchmanite strain in me. I know of no other writer so anxious to share his troubles and limitations with his readers.

For example: here is a grave technical difficulty. I doubt whether in an English novel I am justified in assuming that either I or the reader knows French; a Frenchman might know it. But Miss Birkenhead at this phase in her career had a curious disposition to use French under the most unexpected circumstances — and I do not feel that either I or the reader has the right to set up as a judge of the sort of French she spoke or to pretend to translate what she was saying. So the proper thing to do here seems to be to report as exactly as possible what she said, to note several occasions when it seemed to produce reactions other than those she had anticipated, and to say no more about it. And if most of what she said remains incomprehensible, then the effect on the reader will be virtually the effect on Edward Albert, and he after all is our story.

Evangeline’s particular form of self-assertion, when she joined the Doober community, was to talk with extreme enthusiasm of dear Paree. She was just back after a sojourn there of half a year; she was homesick to return thither; she was doubtful if she could until her holidays came round, and London looked all the darker to her in contrast to the clouds of continental brilliance she trailed. She appeared in the boarding-house almost simultaneously with Miss Blame, whose form of self-assertion was visual rather than-verbal.

Evangeline was dark and sallow, with thin arched eyebrows and a hungry enterprising hazel eye, and there was that cachet about her costume which only the great establishments of the Louvre and the Grands Boulevards can confer. Never had anything so visibly French sat at Mrs Doober’s table.

She told the story of her Great Adventure to the little group at her end of the table, to Edward Albert and Miss Blame, who responded with sympathetic murmurs, and the young Dutchman from the room opposite Edward Albert’s, who was trying to learn English, who listened attentively and with a vacant amiable smile, never quite seeming to understand, and the little widow in mittens who would listen to anything consistent with morality and nod her head approvingly, and Miss Pooley who was at first a trifle aloof and then began to listen with something almost like relish, and Gawpy whose business it was to take an interest in everybody, and Mrs Doober who usually sat out of earshot but listened so to speak with a wary eye and smiled when it looked as though Evangeline was entertaining her hearers.

But Mr Chamble Pewter found nothing in Evangeline to appeal to his sense of humour and edged away up the table past Mrs Doober to deplore the delinquency of the times with an elderly vegetarian who was an expert at book — binding and slightly deaf, who expressed strong views about tinned foods and cancer, and otherwise kept very much to himself. . . .

“I’d always wanted to go to Paris,” said Evangeline explaining herself, “even as a schoolgirl. I loved French at school. I only did it for a year just at the end, but I.got the school prize. It was all about dear Paree with lovely coloured pictures. I used to say, if ever I get married, I’ll insist on Paree for my honeymoon. And then lo and behold early this year I learnt to my amazement I was to be sent to France, free gratis and for nothing for six months — gratuitment. Would I mind going? Mind! Que voulez — vous?”

“Who wouldn’t?” said Gawpy, manifestly sharing the rapture.

“Laissez faires sont laissez faires,” said Evangeline. “It wasn’t all sightseeing by any means and it wasn’t all learning French, But the war had put all our business out of joint and somebody extra was wanted, and they picked on me. Just a week’s notice, one week, and there I was — a lovely crossing — saying Adieu to the white cliffs of Albion. And then, behold me! Down the gangway and everybody about me shouting and screaming French. To begin with I seemed to forget every word I’d ever learnt of it.”

Edward Albert nodded understandingly.

“It’s surch a brilliant language. There isn’t a word in it that hasn’t a double entente. Stodgy old English, bourgeois to the finger tips, walks. French jumps about. Gay! Pierreust, you might say. . . .

“Nimble it is and always a little bit naughty. Esprit it has and a je ne sais quoi — oh, how do they say it? — ah! —élan vital! So quick, so polite. You say to a common taxi driver, ‘Cocher! Pouvez-vous me prendre?’ and he laughs and says, ‘Mais volontier mam’selle, toujours a vôtre service.’ Fancy our London cabbies saying anything like that!

“There was a gentleman we did business with. He took quite an interest in me and taught me a lot, one way and another. No, don’t you go imagining things! He was quite an old gentleman, and he was half-English, but all the same he didn’t mind being seen about with some one who wasn’t his grand-daughter. Comprenez? Pas de tout. Pas de deux. Which is it? I forget.

“We got on beautifully together. I used to call him my faux pa and he simply loved that. He would repeat it to everyone who came in.

“He had a flat au bordel rivière — on the Seine, you know. Just above one of those mouche piers — where the steamboats come. There was an office there where we worked, and he would take me out to lunch and get me to talk French and encourage me. He would laugh and say ‘Go on. The way to speak French is to speak it.’

“I used to say ‘Am I speaking French?’ and he used to say ‘Not quite French yet, cherry’— he used to call me cherry, ‘my dear’ you know — quite in a fatherly way. ‘It’s not French yet,’ he would say, ‘but it’s very good Entente Cordial. It’s the best Entente Cordial I’ve ever met yet. I wouldn’t miss a word of it.’ He used to call it Entente Cordial because he said it was quite a pick-me-up to talk it as I did. Oh! We had surch fun.’”

So Evangeline unfolded herself and from the first appreciated the appreciation in Edward Albert’s admiring eyes. He was, as I have said, the nearest thing to a negotiable male in the establishment just then, for it was soon plain that the young Dutchman who was learning English had convinced himself that so far as Evangeline was concerned understanding was hopeless. She did her best, but what can you do with a man who answers your brightest remarks with the irrelevance of the deaf?

One day Edward Albert found a half sheet of notepaper lying on the floor near the writing desk in the snuggery. It was in Miss Pooley’s handwriting, but he did not know that and he brought it to Evangeline in all good faith.

“This yours?” he asked. “It seems to be French.”

It was headed Menu Malaprop and it ran as follows:

Evangeline read it and flushed darkly.

“Beast!” she said, with more temper than she had ever before betrayed to Edward Albert. “She talks French like a High School grammar. Well, I learnt mine by ear, and she learnt hers with that bulging forehead of hers. . . . I suppose she thinks this funny.”

She hesitated and then crumpled the little document into a ball in her fist.

“Didn’t seem funny to me,” said Edward Albert loyally. “But then I don’t know the language. . . . Shall I chuck that in the fire for you?”

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