Monday, September 10, 2012

Ashley Sterne and His Comic Stories

In these four articles republished in Australian newspapers, Ashley Sterne departs from his customary essay form and gives us comic short stories.  The first three are parodies of the sentimental fiction popular before the Great War.  The fourth is a humorous retelling of the Good King Wenceslas poem. 

My Novel  [Feb 1917]
As She Was  [Feb 1918]
Door Dye: A Nutchell Novel [Apr 1923]    ("Nutchell", I suspect, is a British variant of nutshell.)
King Wenceslas  [Aug 1926]

My Novel

By Ashley Sterne

Like many another author, I possess two ambitions. One is to write my autobiography illustrated with photographs of myself at different stages of my career, from the time when I was first taken lying on my back in puris naturalibus upon a moth-eaten bearskin vainly endeavoring to swallow my foot, to the present day when my latest portrait shows me with an enraptured yet wistful expression of feature, as if I'd just written "Paradise Lost" and wished I hadn't.

The other is to write a novel. As a matter of fact, I'm in the middle of one now; but I'm in rather a difficulty. I've got the plot fixed right enough, but it's landing me in a lot of trouble. You've heard the expression, "the plot thickens"? Well, mine's got so thick you could use it for a mattress, and just at the moment I don't see how I'm going to thin it out and make everybody happy. Let me explain what has happened.

Barmaid Heroine

The hero, Deverill d'Urquhart, a designer of artesian wells, is madly in love with Uvula Gumph, a beautiful girl noble family. who, in order to study social conditions, is serving as a barmaid at Lincoln's Inn. DeVerill is very poor, having disregarded the paternal advise to "let well—especially the artesian variety—alone," and been disinherited in consequence. Uvula, being the daughter of the senior partner in the wealthy firm of Gumph Bros., Sons and Co., literally exudes money at every pore.

They first met on the Floodle-Doodle at the White City, on the occasion when it stuck fast for an hour and a half while the engine-man, who had buried his step-aunt that afternoon, was being restored to his normal faculties by means of cold shampoos and copious draughts of soda-water. The acquaintance thus begun soon developed into something deeper. Deverill called nearly every quarter-day at Lincoln's Inn, until at length Mrs. Lincoln, the landlady, became scandalised at the persistency of his attentions, and persuaded Uvula to tender her resignation.

She, afraid to return home with her social studies uncompleted, took a mean flat in Park Lane, and earned a precarious livelihood by tea-tasting. There Deverill sought her out, and continued his visits—more frequently, however, than before, for he began to call on Bank holidays, too. But now comes upon the scene a sinister and blackguardly individual named Percy Piffle, who has "villain" stamped all over his face and his initials all over his underwear.

A Rival Enters the Field.

From their first chance meeting at a drinking-fountain in Islington, when he chivalrously drove away a dog that was greedily ingurgitating from the cup she wanted, he exercised a most extraordinary fascination over her, and he used to call at the Park Lane flat nearly every Good Friday, and sometimes on St. Swithin's Day as well.

And so things went on, until one day Deverill and Percy met there as a result of a stupid mistake of the second footman, who thoughtlessly ushered Deverill into the room already occupied by Uvula and Percy, who were sitting on the pianola holding each other's thumbs and breathing sweet nothings down one another's backs. Here, in my novel, a very dramatic scene is described, in which every possible combination of two people out of three accuses every other possible combination in turn of duplicity, arson, malfeasance, treason, intrigue, larceny, and so forth. The result is that Percy shakes the dust of the flat off his feet for ever (on to the hall-mat), and Deverill and Uvula are left alone with the cat.

The Climax.

There follows a painful situation in which they both talk in broken sentences consisting chiefly of adverbs, interjections, and notes of exclamation, culminating in a most original tour de force. In fact, it was the idea of this tremendous climax that inspired me to weave a novel round it.  Uvula, in a cold, wooden voice (can you imagine, by the by, a hot wooden voice?) bids Deverill go, and sinks her head into the depths of an "expensive, hand-painted sofa cushion. Deverill walks heavily to the door, opens it, and closes it noisily.   But he doesn't go out; he remains inside.  The second footman chooses that moment to walk heavily along the passage and out of the flat door. Uvula, of course, thinks that the steps are Deverill's, and after a little while she raises her lachrymose face from the tear-sodden cushion and sees Deverill, whom she thought was by now far on his way to Patagonia , to shoot axolotts.

In Difficulties.

Now my difficulty is this. What on earth can either he or she say? It is clear that Uvula can't just say "What—not gone?" unless she's a born fool, because if he had gone he couldn't be there. It is equally obvious that Deverill can't say, "Well? here I am!" because if he were anywhere else it would be impossible for him to be there talking. The situation seems to call for some absolutely original and apropos remark, and the best that, I can think of for the moment is that Uvula, blinded by her mist of tears, shall stagger across the room, and exclaim in her cold, wooden voice, "Who the Deverill are you?"  This would cause them both to laugh. Then they would fall into each other's arms, and commence to live happily ever afterwards. But then there's Percy Piffle and Mrs. Lincoln, and the dog at the Islington drinking-fountain, and the engine-man at the Floodle-Doodle, and the second footman—what on earth am I to do with them? Help!


As She Was

By Ashley Sterne

It was a glorious autumn day, and a white-gold sun shone in a sky that formed a flawless gem of azure, save only where it was flecked with snowy puffs and ribbons of cloud.

The wide expanse of emerald sea was smooth as a mirror, with scarce a ripple to mar the contour of its glistening surface. Indeed, the only token of movement upon the whole reposeful vista of sky and sea was the fitful flight of some anxious sea mew [gull] eagerly searching for a pinnacle of rock whereon to deposit a long overdue egg; or the occasional swirl caused by some half-asphyxiated jelly fish coming up to breathe.

Upon the extreme end of the pier Eustace McStaggers leant against the bannister things, gazing meditatively at the choice panorama so poetically described above. But his eyes heeded not the autumn, or the azure, or the flecks, or the puffs, or the ribbons; nor were his thoughts centred upon the emerald, or the mirror, or the pinnacle, or the swirl, or the jelly fish. His mind was filled with less picturesque matters. Two months ago he had broken his engagement with Elspeth FitzPickles. As so often happens, her cursed money had come between them—for she hadn't nearly as much as he had been led to expect. Then they had parted; and Eustace, disappointed, disillusioned, heartbroken and pocket broken, had contracted a severe nervous breakdown smelling strongly of alcohol, and had been ordered to Pebbleton-on-the-Beach to recuperate. Thus it came about that on the day this story opens (and it may relieve anxiety to know that it will also close on the same day) he was wrapped in a brown study [morose mood] and a fawn mackintosh at the end of Pebbleton's handsomely-appointed pier.

He realised that he had a dull, indefinite ache inside him, which only a new fiancee, or possibly an old brandy, could alleviate. Elspeth was gone from him for ever; and though he neither sorrowed nor hankered after her, he had nevertheless grown so accustomed to being engaged that he now felt like Castor sundered from Pollux, Hengist bereft of Horsa, Swan devoid of Edgar, Jack without Evelyn; or (to put it more plainly still) like a tooth from which he had had the misfortune to swallow the stopping [dental cement].

"If only,'" he sighed inwardly (and it's difficult to sigh "if only" inwardly without expensive apparatus), "if only Romantic Co-incidences really happened! If I were merely a character in a story, then at this particular crisis in my life I should be arrested by the sight of a beautiful maiden struggling in the water, seized with sudden cramp, calling frantically for help, and about to go down for the third time. I should plunge fearlessly into the billows, and swim ashore with her amid the cheers of an admiring populace. Then she would open her eyes, gaze fondly into mine, and in soft, sweet accents tell me that she owed me her life, that she could never hope to repay the debt, and that her father, Mungo T. Byles, the millionaire Disinfectant King, would be proud and happy to greet me if I called at their hotel. The friendship thus so strangely begun would blossom into something deeper, stronger, more—" But I need scarcely, I think, dilate further upon the contents of Eustace's sigh. Suffice it to say that it comprised all the details of which such heart-rending exhalations ordinarily consist.

Pondering deeply on the vision he had conjured up, Eustace was about to turn away, when a troupe of excruciatingly funny pierrots [pantomimists] commenced their refined and exhilarating entertainment on the pier-head band stand with a piquant rendering of the Hallelujah Chorus. Eustace stopped to listen, little guessing that Romantic Co-incidence was even then raising the knocker to rap at his door. The excruciatingly funny pierrots had just got as far as the iddy-umpty part, when a shrill shriek shot out of the shimmering shea—I mean sea. Eustace rushed to the bannister things, and looked over. There, struggling to escape from the pursuit of an infuriated jelly-fish, was an exhausted swimstress. One glance was sufficient to tell him that she was practically at her last gasp, and that if she swallowed any more ocean there would be a totally unauthorised low tide.

Pausing only to remove his clothes and pin a newspaper around his loins, Eustace climbed over the bannister things and dived into the sea. A few powerful strokes brought him to the fair bather, who had now sunk up to her eyebrows. Only the air in her waterproof bathing-cap kept her from total immersion. Yelling lustily, Eustace succeeded in frightening the ferocious Medusa away; then, seizing the now limp and apparently lifeless girl in his teeth, he struck out boldly for the shore.

The news of his plucky dive to the rescue had meanwhile spread around the town like wild-fowl, and the beach was crowded with an enthusiastic mob, headed by the Town Band and the Mayor, who, being rather deaf, had misunderstood the situation and hastily ordered the preparation of an illuminated address, under the impression that the gallant swimmer has successfully crossed the Channel.

Eustace, having reached the shore, deposited his dripping burden on the freshly-tarred Marine Parade, and, seizing a tar-barrel that lay handy, he proceeded to roll it over the girl's unconscious body, until a faint sigh issued from her lips, and her eye lids began to wiggle-waggle.

"Thank heaven, she still lives!" said Eustace, as he raised the girl's head and removed her bathing cap.

A tumbled mass of most expensive peroxide hair, a fringe-net, a wire bun, two moribund shrimps, and half a pound of seaweed were thus exposed. At the same moment the girl opened her eyes—nice, violet goo-goo ones—and looked up into Eustace's eager and expectant face. Without a sound, he collapsed into a dead faint, for the owner of the face he now recognised as his ex-fiance, Elspeth FitzPickles!

*          *          *

When at length he regained. his senses it was to find. Elspeth bending over him, and a bottle of tomato chutney his lips.

"Drink this," she was saying; "it will remove that horrid sinking feeling."

Eustace obeyed, and when he had finished coughing, Elspeth said: "I want to tell you that I owe you my life, Eustace. I can never, never repay the debt; but I—"

"Not now," he protested; "not before all these people, and the Mayor, and the band, and the illuminated address. Meet me—" ( a sudden thought struck him). "Meet me at the pier-head to-night after the performance of the Passionate Purple Pierrots. I shall carry a copy of the current number of "The Feathered World" in my hand. And now let me call you a cab."

"He used to call me sweeter names than that," murmured Elspeth to herself, as Eustace rose to his feet and walked away in search of a conveyance.

In the course of a few minutes he returned with a goat-chaise—the only vehicle he could find—and before Elspeth could lodge a stay of execution Eustace had boosted her in and tipped the goat-herd an extra sixpence to make it gallop. Then he hurriedly donned his clothes, which a zealous member of the Watch Committee had retrieved for him, and walked rapidly back to his hotel.

*          *          *

The dulcet strains of the Passionate Purple Pierrots had long been hushed, and the pier-head was deserted save for one solitary figure that paced restlessly to and fro, and then back again. It was Eustace. Fate had mocked him that day and played him a jest before which the most ludicrous wheeze of the excruciatingly funny Pierrots faded into insignificance. To think that out of the whole female population of the British Isles he had been destined to rescue the one girl for whom he had no immediate use! Fate could just as easily have arranged for him to succor the daughter of some American millionaire Dripping King. Life thereafter would then have been for him "roses, roses all the way and not a drop to drink" as Browning says somewhere (in the works of Robert Browning, I believe). Truly, his correct course of conduct was clear—to become reconciled to Elspeth, buy her an entirely new engagement ring, and write her a completely fresh set of love-letters. But his soul revolted at the idea. And he laughed aloud—a hollow, bitter laugh, tee-hee-hee, just like that. No; there was only one solution to the problem; and as he looked over the bannister things into the cold grey waves his face blanched, and a look of sudden fear came into his eyes. He shuddered.

A light foot-print dropped beside him, and, raising his head, he saw Elspeth standing on it (on the foot print, that is, not on his head).

"Ah, here you are!" he said coldly.

"Yes, I know," replied Elspeth. "I want to tell you that I owe you my life, Eustace. I can never, never repay the debt; but I—"

"Enough!" cried the man hoarsely. "Can't you understand that to me those words are mere mockery? This morning I plunged into these relentless waves thinking I was about to succor a rich and beautiful maiden whom I could love for herself alone. Instead, I rescued a disused fiancee, for whom I had no pressing need. What do you think of that?"

"Hard cheese," murmured the girl simply, but with a world of dignity in her tone.

"Imagine my position," he went on, "Put yourself in my pyjamas. Try and realise the irony of the situation... What does life mean to me now? Can it ever signify anything but prolongated hallucinatory phantasmagoria?"

As Elspeth had neglected to bring the dictionary with her, she remained silent.

"What I am now going to do," Eustace continued, "is not, as you might imagine, a mad impulse of the moment, but a calmly-premeditated act. Believe me, it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. You and I will never cross paths again. I am going away—ever, ever so far away. You will never see me again. Come here and look!"

Elspeth advanced and leant over the bannister things, following with her gaze his extended finger. Two monkey-nuts and a ginger-beer bottle were floating on the gently-ebbing tide. She looked at them with interest.

"Well, I never!" she said.

"Down there is peace," said Eustace in solemn tones, pointing to the waves that softly lapped against the winkle-studded piles of the pier. "Good-bye."

"Oh, Eustace!" Elspeth cried in alarm. "You surely don't contemplate so wicked a crime as suicide? You don't mean that you would drown yourself?"

For reply Eustace slipped his arms around her waist. "Nothing was ever farther from my thoughts," he whispered earnestly; and, swinging her off her feet, he heaved her over the bannister things back again into the multitudinous sea.


Door Dye, A Nutchell Novel

By Ashley Sterne

"Then you return my love, darling?" whispered Derrick Doughnutt, in a voice rendered hoarse partly by emotion and partly by a slight attack of clergyman's sore throat.

Dora Dumbell, trembling like an aspic, heaved a short, happy sigh a couple of yards or so, and raised her lovely eyes to those of her lover. "Yes, carriage forward," she said, simply.

"And you will marry me?" Derrick persisted.

"Yes, if you will do the same to me," she answered, coyly.

With hands as tender as a fillet steak Derrick drew the beautiful girl towards him, and for a moment held her in a rapturous half-nelson, gazing into her clear hazel eyes, which looked like twin pools of treacle. Then the subtle, elusive perfume of her hair—bay rum and quinine—crept into his nostrils and intoxicated him. Slowly he lowered his head and bit her in the neck.

"How I love you!" he breathed, into what he thought was her shell-like ear, but which subsequent investigation proved to be a tortoiseshell-like Spanish comb.

"And I love you, too, also, as well, besides," murmured Dora.

"I shall never stop loving you, not even on early-closing days," Derrick went on. "You are so beautiful."

"But-but-supposing I were ugly?"

Derrick laughed lightly—tee-hee-hee! —just like that. "But you're not," he insisted.

"But if I were," pursued Dora, "would you love me still?"

"Quite still," Derrick affirmed, solemnly.

"Supposing my face were run over by a tram?"

"Dearest," said Derrick, drawing her more closely to him, and crushing her to a seedless pulp in his strong arms, "I should love you if your face were run over by a runaway steam-roller."

*          *          *

It was the day before the wedding. The clergyman, the choir, the costumes, the cakes, and the claret-cup had all been ordered, and for some days the verger of St. Baldrick's-in-the Stokehole had been trapping the church mice in readiness for the event.

Dora, fearful that her beauty might fade prematurely, and that in spite of his protestations Derrick's love might consequently peter out, decided to visit a beauty specialist and have her hair dyed a fashionable shade of henna, and a permanent peach-like complexion electro-plated on to her face.

So, taking her courage in both hands, and her umbrella in the other, she sallied down her alley, and made for a celebrated French beauty-parlor which advertised "No more tired, aching faces! Old phizzes turned and made as good as new while you wait!"

For three hours the beauty specialist toiled at Dora's face and skull. Then he threw up the sponge, and handed her a mirror. Dora looked into the glass, gave one wild shriek, and toppled backwards out of the beauty-chair in a state of inverted coma. For, owing to her imperfect command of the French language, she had inadvertently misdirected the beauty specialist, who had dyed her hair a delicate shade of pink and electro-plated her face a vivid hue of henna!

*          *          *

An hour later, her face muffled in a copy of "Merry Moments," she reached her home. Safely in the shelter of the hall she tore the protecting journal from her head to find herself face to face with Derrick.

For a minute she stood gazing at him as the giraffe gazes at the python which is about to swallow it. She couldn't speak. Her tongue clove dumbly to her pink gutta-percha plate.

But on Derrick's face there was no trace of horror, disgust or amazement. Instead, there was a smile upon his lips, the light of love in his eyes, and a ladybird on his collar. He gazed at her with an admiring and covetous look of vacant possession.

"My own beautiful darling!" he said, as he came to her. "I simply had to see you again! Only to think that to-morrow—" He crushed her in his arms, as his custom was, and, lowering his head, bit her in the neck again and again.

"Truly," thought Dora, as she snuggled in his embrace, "love is blind."

Well, yes, perhaps, in extreme cases. But in this particular instance, no. Derrick, I quite forgot to mention before, was only color-blind.


King Wenceslas

By Ashley Sterne

The shades of day were falling fast, and H.M. King Wenceslas of Bohemia sat at the drawing-room window looking out into the gathering dusk of the back garden.

He had not yet performed the daily kind action that had earned for him the title of "Good," and as he sat considering whether he should dispatch the remnants of the turkey to the Cottage Hospital or the Free Library, he descried a disreputable-looking chap pottering about by the tool-shed, and ever and anon pouncing down into the snow and gathering something up.

G.K.W. pressed the bell push, and presently there entered a small page—so small that he was more of a paragraph than a page. "Look here. Basil! What's that chap in the garden gathering—nuts in May or truffles?"

"He's only gathering winter fuel," answered the page, "as per your Goodness's gracious permit to your people."

"Oh! ah! Of course, I had forgotten. Who is he? Where and what his dwelling?

"You can search me," said the page. "Half a mo', though! Why, sure he's the old bag of bones who hangs out in the little old shack by St. Agnes' fountain, just opposite the pork-butcher's."

"He looks in a mighty bad way," mused Good K.W. "That old M.C.C. blazer and those Oxford pants—gee! —he'd be warmer in a fishing-net."

"He's reported to be pretty hard up," observed the page. "Always borrowing tuppences."

"You don't say! Well, the poor blighter certainly looks half starved. Say, Basil! Let's have the old scout in and do him proud, what? There's lots of bits and pieces in the larder and a bottle or two of binge as well. Hand me my crown and umbrella, then come tread in my footsteps and we'll go and collect him."

"Oh, sire," cried the page, shivering at the thought of the excursion. "Beware the pine tree's withered branch!"

"Rats!" retorted H.M.

"Beware the awful avalanche, then!"

"Beware my grandmother's wisdom teeth," muttered his Goodness, derisively.

"The frost is cruel, sire! Positively cru-oo-el!"

"It is a trifle parky," remarked his master, "but I can stock [?] it. Turn your Eton collar up and let's trickle off."

Page and Monarch forth they went, onward both together, through the rude wind's wild lament and the purple he-ea-ther. When they reached the tool-shed, there sure enough was Beau Brummell, sitting on an inverted flower-pot, and whistling, "What'll I Do?"

 "Even', cully," began Good King W., cordially. "Come right in and have a drink."

"Thank 'ee koindly, zur," said the fellow. "And who might you be, zur?"

"I'm your monarch, Good King Wenceslas, and this is my page, Basil Witherspoon."

"I couldn't 'alf do with a drink," murmured the vagrant, wiping the icicles off his moustache.

"And a snack too, what? Crikey! when you stand sideways you might be a safety-razor blade. Basil, just caddie for our friend and carry his bundle of doodahs. This way, please, and look out you don't garrotte yourself on the clothes-line."

And they all went marching home again. H.M.G.K.W. opened the front door, hung up his crown on the hat peg, and turned to the page, "Fire laid in the breakfast-room, Basil?" he inquired.

"No, sire. Sweep's coming in the morning. But I'll see to it."

"Righto. Flesh, wine, pine-logs, two veg., and bread for one, and be quick about it. Algernon here looks on the verge of galloping chilblains to say nothing of famine." He turned to his guest. "Up ye olde oak staircase, and the door on the right by the fire bucket. I'll join you when I've changed my socks."

When a few minutes later G. K. Wence entered the breakfast-room, the impoverished one was looking out of the open window. "Coo! you won't catch any butterflies this time o' night, old top, only a spot or two of pneumonia. Come in and have a bit of grub instead."

Then the page bimbled in, carrying a cobwebby bottle and a pewter.

"What ho, the fluid!" exclaimed Good K. Wence. "A bottle of our old Crecy port, 100 u.p.—what about it?"

"That'll do me foine, King," said the mendicant, brightening up. "With a 'ead on it, cocky," he added, as Basil started to flood the carburettor.

Then for the next hour or so nothing issued from the guest's lips except the noise of mastication and occasional crumbs. "Gee! but I guess it's a long spell since you had such a meal as this " inquired G. King W., as with a gesture of the hand the vagrant indicated that he was well away over the Plimsoll line [the line on a ship's hull marking the draught loading limit].

"Not 'alf, King. And thank 'ee kindly for your hospitoosium. But I'd best be pushin' off betimes. I've a busy night afore me."

"So! a job of work, eh?  Are you on a newspaper, by any chance?"

"No, zur! I do be night-watchman down at the rag-and-bone shop in Highstreet, and I goes on dooty at ten pip emma. Well, goo'-bye, and my best respex and all that,"

"So long!" responded Wence. "Basil, show Reginald out, and don't let him forget his hat. It's hanging on the Negretti and Zambra. [barometer]" And the meeting broke up in good order.

*          *          *

And that's how His Bohemian Majesty lost not only all the apostle spoons and apostle fish-slices and apostle soup-ladles that had been in the Wenceslas family for donkey's generations, but the Crown Jewels and the Crown gold-topped umbrella as well. But, as he very truly observed to his page next morning, as together they examined the leaky water-pipe outside the breakfast-room window:— "How the jumping Jehoshaphat was I to know the blighter was a Virginia creeper?" Or, in other words, a cat burglar.

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