The next three articles that Ashley Sterne contributed to Punch in 1914 all address the Great War. The first article, Our War Story, is a very peculiar comic story about an incompetent spy who is captured by cartoonish Germany officers. The other two articles are delightful stories about the home front and mark the first appearance of Ashley Sterne's wife Joan. The conversations between husband and wife are humorous and very natural. (If the reader enjoys this kind of banter, I would recommend some of the comic short stories in the modern collection entitled "Comic Tales and Fantasies" on Amazon Kindle—look for the book with a yellow feather on the cover.)
Vol. 147 (Jul – Dec 1914)Our War Story, p.323 [Oct 14, 2012]
A Tobacco Plant, p.405 (Nov 11, 1914]
The Last Bottle, p.446 [Nov 15, 1914]
OUR WAR STORY.
By Ashley Sterne
The Dreadful Doom of Bertram Borstal.
Bertram Borstal turned out his pockets and spread their contents on the table before him. There were seven postage stamps perforated with the initials of his late employers, one three-penny-bit in silver, twopence in copper, and a Bank of England note for 10s. "Irretrievably ruined!" he muttered with closed lips. "I will offer my services to my country. I will enlist."
He enlisted successfully until he reached the medical examination. The doctor thrust a shoe-horn into Bertram's mouth. "Count up to 99," he said. "Ug—koog—hee—haw—," Bertram began.
"That'll do," remarked the doctor, closing the jaws with a snap. "Any constitutional ailment?"
Bertram blushed heavily. "Only chronic dyspepsia," he admitted at length. The doctor gave a long whistle. Mistaking the sound a taxicab drew up.
"You'd better jump in," he said kindly, taking Bertram's hand and putting it inadvertently into his own pocket. "I regret to say I cannot pass you for the Army."
"Ploughed!" exclaimed our hero. "But if I cannot go as a soldier I will go as a spy. Drive me to Wigson's," he called to the taxi-driver as he leapt on to a passing bus.
Half-an-hour later Bertram, disguised in the uniform of a spy, turned up the Strand and his coat-collar simultaneously and walked rapidly to Charing Cross station. He just managed to scramble into the 2.19 as it steamed from the platform at 3.7.
That same evening (or the next) Bertram got out of the train at Kartoffelnberg, hired a tandem and drove to the German lines. He went straight to the General. "I shall be obliged if you will kindly tell me the number and disposition of your forces, and how and when you propose to advance."
He spoke in English, but the General—formerly Military Attaché at Appenrodt's—happily understood him.
"Certainly," he replied. "Perhaps you would care to examine this map and plan of campaign?"
Bertram thanked him, and commenced to trace them upon his spare vest.
"Don't bother to do that," said the General. "Take this set of duplicates. The disposition of our forces is clearly marked in red ink, and their numerical strength certified by a chartered accountant. The only detail omitted is the number of women and children that will be placed in the firing-line. Today's bag has not yet been reported."
An aide-de-camp galloped into the tent, flung himself from his exhausted mule and saluted.
"In the name of our noble and august Kaiser," he began, "I have the honour to inform you that we have to-day captured 47 charwomen, 16 bedridden octogenarians and 21 babies in arms."
"Zwanzigheit!" exclaimed the General excitedly. "Place them in the forefront of our brave Bogey Head Hussars, and order the advance for ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
The aide-de-camp saluted, flung himself on to a fresh mule and galloped hell for leather to the canteen.
"I am much obliged for the information you have given me," said Bertram politely. "It is of paramount importance."
"You're quite welcome," remarked the General. "By-the-by, what do you want it for?"
Our hero rapidly shaved off Wigson's moustache and drew himself up proudly. "I am a spy," he said.
"I suspected as much," commented the General. "Kindly touch that bell on the mantelpiece behind you."
Bertram touched it; it was as cold as ice.
"See if it will ring," suggested the General.
Bertram seized it by the handle and shook it violently. In a moment or two it rang. A sentry entered.
"Einzweidreivierfünf," said the General, "and riddle him with bullets at eight to-morrow morning."
Early the next morning a knock sounded on the door of Bertram's cell. The doomed man crossed the room and shot back the bolt. An officer armed with a howitzer entered.
"I am instructed to inform you," he said, "that as you are shortly to be shot you are entitled, according to custom, to choose whatever you wish for breakfast."
"Thank you," replied Bertram, "a cup of weak tea and a rusk. Unfortunately I am a chronic dyspeptic, or I would take fuller advantage of your kind hospitality."
A devilish gleam shot from the other's eyes as he heard those words.
"As you will be dead in an hour," he said, "the fact of your being a dyspeptic need not trouble you any more than if you were an acrostic. Let me therefore suggest that you try a sausage or a knuckle of pork."
Bertram reeled against the piano. Here was an opportunity to gratify his palate without regard to the consequences. Quickly he made up his mind.
"Bring me then," he said, "a plate of sausage and sauerkraut, a slab of marzipan and some Limburger cheese."
It wanted but a few minutes to eight, and Bertram Borstal, with steady nerves, waited for the striking of the cuckoo-clock in the prison tower. Once again a knock sounded upon the cell door, and with the utmost sang-froid he drew the key from his pocket and unlocked it. The honorary secretary of Germany entered, preceded by three cripples and a Mother-Superior.
"I am ready," declared Bertram, calm but pale, "and resigned to my fate."
"I am happy to say," said the secretary, "that I am unable to accept your resignation. We recognise the fact that you are only a spy, and therefore cannot strictly be said to be bearing arms against us. We have therefore to apologise for having arrested you; but at the same time I would ask you kindly to bear in mind that at these times we have much to think about, and mistakes will happen. You are free."
"Free?" repeated Bertram, unable to believe either of his ears.
"Yes, you are free," said the secretary, "and I am empowered to add that under the circumstances no charge will be made for your breakfast. Hochachtungsvoll."
He withdrew, and Bertram, picking up his umbrella and gloves, quickly followed him.
Half an hour later Bertram had again entered the German lines, imploring to be shot for pity's sake. But it was too late; all the rifles were in use in the firing-line. It was not till he heard this that Bertram Borstal, racked with indigestion, realised the atrocious barbarity of his reprieve.
A TOBACCO PLANT.
By Ashley Sterne
I had done the second hole (from the vegetable-marrow frame to the mulberry-tree) in two, and was about to proceed to the third hole by the potting-shed when I thought I would go in and convey the glad news to Joan. I found her seated at the table in the breakfast-room with what appeared to be a heap of tea spread out upon a newspaper in front of her. Little slips of torn tissue-paper littered the floor, and on a chair by her side were several empty cardboard boxes. The sight was so novel that I forgot the object of my errand.
"What's all that tea for, and what are you doing with it?" I asked.
"It isn't tea; it's tobacco," Joan replied, "and I'm making cigarettes for the soldiers at the front."
"Where on earth did you get that tobacco from, if it is tobacco?" I went on.
"Let me see now," mused Joan, pausing to lick a cigarette-paper—"was it from the greengrocer's or the butcher's? Ah! I remember. It was from the tobacconist's."
Joan gets like that sometimes, but I do not encourage her.
"But what made you choose this Hottentot stuff?" I enquired.
"The soldiers like it strong," Joan replied, "and this looked about the strongest he'd got."
"What does it call itself?"
"It was anonymous when I bought it, but you'll no doubt see its name on the bill when it comes in."
"Thanks very much," I said. "That's what I should call forcible fleecing. Not that I mind in a good cause—"
"Isn't it ingenious?" interrupted Joan. "You just put the tobacco in between the rollers, and twiddle this button round until—until you've twiddled it round enough; then you slip in a cigarette-paper—like that—moisten the edge of it—twiddle the button round once more—open the lid—and shake out the finished article—comme ça!"
An imperfect cylindrical object fell on to the floor. I stooped to pick it up and the inside fell out. I collected the débris in the palm of my hand.
"How many of these have you made?" I asked.
"Only three thoroughly reliable ones, including that one," she replied. "I've rolled ever so many more, but the tobacco will fall out."
"Here, let me give you a hand," I suggested. "I'll roll and you lick."
"No," said Joan kindly but firmly. "You don't quite grasp the situation. I want to do something. I can't make shirts or knit comforters. I've tried and failed. My shirts look like pillow-cases, and anything more comfortless than my comforters I couldn't imagine. I wouldn't ask a beggar to wear an article I had made, much less an Absent-Minded Beggar."
"What about that tie you knitted for me last Christmas?" I said.
"Yes," said Joan; "what about it? That's what I want to know. You haven't worn it once."
It was true, I hadn't. The tie in question was an attempt to hybridise the respective colour-schemes of a tartan plaid and a Neapolitan ice.
"That," I explained, "is because I've never had a suit which would set it off as it deserves to be set off. However, if I can't help I won't hinder you. I only came in to say that I had done the second hole in two. I thought you would like to know I had beaten bogey." And I retired, taking with me the little heap of tobacco and the hollow tube of paper.
When I reached the seclusion of the mulberry-tree I found that the paper had become ungummed, so I placed the tobacco in it and succeeded after a while in rolling it up. The result, though somewhat attenuated, was recognisably a cigarette. I lit it, and when I had finished coughing I came to the conclusion that if only I could induce Joan to present her gift to the German troops instead of to our Tommies it would precipitate our ultimate triumph. I had to eat several mulberries before I felt capable of proceeding to the third hole. When I got there (in two) I found it occupied by a squadron of wasps while reinforcements were rapidly coming up from a hole beneath the shed. Being hopelessly outnumbered I contented myself with a strategical movement necessitating several stiff rearguard actions.
* * *
Joan, growing a little more proficient, had in a couple of days made 500 cigarettes. I had undertaken to despatch them, and one morning she came to me with a neatly-tied-up parcel.
"Here they are," she said; "but you must ask at the Post Office how they should be addressed. I've stuck on a label."
I went out, taking the parcel with me, and walked straight to the tobacconist's.
"Please pack up 1,000 Hareems," I said, "and post them to the British Expeditionary Force. Mark the label 'Cigarettes for the use of the troops.' And look here, I owe you for a pound of tobacco my wife bought the other day. I'll square up for that at the same time. By-the-by, what tobacco was it?"
"Well, Sir," the man replied, "I hardly like to admit it in these times, but it was a tobacco grown in German East Africa. It really isn't fit to smoke, and is only good for destroying wasps' nests or fumigating greenhouses, which I thought your lady wanted it for, seeing as how she picked it out for herself. Some ladies nowadays know as much about tobacco as what we do."
I left the shop hurriedly. The problem of the disposal of Joan's well-meaning gift was now solved. I returned home and furtively stole up the side path into the garden. Under cover of the summer-house I undid the parcel and proceeded rapidly to strip the paper from those of the cigarettes that had not already become hollow mockeries. When I had collected all the tobacco I went in search of the gardener, and encountered him returning from one of his numerous meals.
"Wilkins," I said, "there is a wasps' nest on the third green, and here is some special wasp-eradicator. Will you conduct the fumigation?"
As Joan and I were walking round the garden that evening before dinner Joan said—
"I don't want to blush to find it fame, but—do you know—I prefer doing good by stealth."
A faint but unmistakable odour was borne on the air from the direction of the third green.
"So do I," I said.
THE LAST BOTTLE
By Ashley Sterne
I had been drilling all the morning, and had spent the whole of the afternoon squirming face downwards on the moist turf of Richmond Park in an endeavour to advance, as commanded, in extended order. In the morning—that is during compressed drill—I had been twice wounded. Owing to lack of education a famous novelist had confused his left hand with his right, with the result that when we were right-turned he had dealt me a terrific blow on the ear with the barrel of his rifle. It soon ceased to be an ear, and became of the size and consistency of a muffin. My second casualty was brought about by a well-known orchestral conductor, who however confidently he could pilot his players through the most complicated Symphonic Poem was invariably out of his depth whenever, the ranks being turned about, he was required to form fours. His manœuvre that morning had been a wild and undisciplined fugue, culminating in an unconventional stretto upon an exceedingly dominant pedal-point, that is to say, his heel on my toe.
Consequently when I arrived home in the evening, wet, soiled, hungry and maimed, I felt that I needed a little artificial invigoration. A bright idea occurred to me as I was waiting for the bath to fill.
"Joan," I cried, "don't you think I might open Johann to-night?" Joan, who had been trying to decide whether it would not be more advisable to have my sweater dyed a permanent shot-green and brown, demurred.
"I thought your anti-German conscience would not permit you to open Johann until after the war's over," she called back.
"My anti-German conscience has been severely wounded," I replied. "It hasn't sufficient strength to hold out much longer. In a few seconds it will surrender unconditionally."
"Be brave," urged Joan. "Just think how proud you will be in days to come when you look back to this evening and realise how, in the face of the most terrible temptations, you triumphed!"
"That's all very fine," I remarked, "but to-night I feel I need Johann medicinally. If I don't have him, there may be no days to come. Do be reasonable. Do you suppose that if the Kaiser, for instance, were bitten by a mad dog—a real one, I mean—that his anti-Ally conscience would forbid his adoption of the Pasteur treatment?"
"Then if you really feel the need of a special refresher," said Joan, "at least let me send Phoebe out for a bottle of some friendly or neutral substitute."
A vivid recollection of Phoebe's being despatched once before in an emergency for mustard and returning with custard flashed through my mind.
"She's much too unreliable," I cried. "She'd get bay rum, or something equally futile. It must be Johann or nothing."
"Then," said Joan, "let us say nothing"—an ambiguity of which I determined to take full advantage.
Johann, I must now explain, was the sole survivor of six small bottles of the genuine Rhine brand which Joan's uncle (who is in the trade) had given her last Christmas. Number Five had been opened on the evening of August Bank Holiday after a strenuous day on the tennis courts. Later, when hostilities had started all round I had taken a terrible oath that nothing of German or Austrian origin should be used in our household until Peace broke out. This necessitated the sacrifice of at least four inches of breakfast sausage and the better part of a box of Carlsbad plums. Johann, being intact, was merely interned. But at that time I had not anticipated that some three months later I should be exhausted by long and tiring drills and manœuvres.
However, on this night my body cried aloud for Johann's refreshing contents. I did not care two pins that he had been manufactured on the banks of the Rhine, or that he was the product of alien and hostile hands. After all, it wasn't Johann's fault; and besides, surely he had been long enough in England to become naturalised. At any rate it was both prejudiced and illogical to assume that Johann was my enemy solely because he happened to be born in Germany.
The bath took some time to fill. The taps, I think, wanted sweeping. But during the time that elapsed I made up my mind. Johann should be opened. I slipped on my dressing-gown and went in search of him. When I had secured him I met Joan on the landing; she was just going down to dinner.
"Haven't you had your bath yet?" she asked. "Hurry up and—oh! you've got Johann!"
"Yes," I said. "I have decided that there is no evidence to prove that he is not a naturalised British bottle. I am going to open him."
"You renegade!" Joan cried. "If you dare so much as to loosen his cork I'll—I'll give you an Iron Cross."
"I'm desperate," I answered. "I would still open Johann even if you threatened me with the Iron Cross of both the first and the second class."
"Coward!" said Joan. "Still, if you're really determined to open him, remember half belongs to me."
A moment later I had poured half the contents of Johann—his full name is Johann Maria Farina—into my bath.