Ashley Sterne's first book was Twisted Tales, a 1924 story collection. His summary reads: "The contents of this volume are revised and, in some cases, amplified versions of frivolous stories which have appeared from time to time in the columns of London Opinion, The Passing Show, Pan, and the Lyons Mail, to the respective Editors and Proprietors of which I am indebted for kind permission to reproduce them. A.S."
The book is somewhat rare—only four library copies exist in the international InterLibrary Loan system, none of them authorized for external lending. I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy of this book from a New Zealand rare-book vendor.
Here is the first story in the collection, a burlesque of passion and tragedy set in Japan. In square brackets I have provided short explanations of references that may be obscure to the modern reader.
A JAPANNED TEA-TRAYGEDY
By Ashley Sterne
It was the Feast of Crab-Apples, and the Tea-House of Ten Thousand Jim-Jams [jitters] was doing a thumping trade in tea at one yen per pot per person.
Flitting from table to table was the beauteous O Pyjama San, the gayest and daintiest geisha that even twanged the catamaran (or whatever the thing is called which sounds like an unripe banjo afflicted with adenoids). Behind the buffet, infusing tea in a disused sanitary dustbin, was her mother, O Tomato San, herself a prominent and highly-respected geisha in her day, but now relegated to the Special Reserve. In the kitchen behind the buffet, untwisting tea-leaves, was her grandmother, O Banana San, who once had attained fame as an acrobat. In the scullery beyond the kitchen behind the buffet, skinning onions, was her great-grandmother, O Potato San.
However, the idea to be impressed upon the reader is that the Tea-House was purely a family concern, and as before observed, and as here observed again for the second and last time, it was doing a simply thumping trade in tea—which, when you come to think of it, is a not-altogether-unlikely thing for a tea-house to do. You could scarcely expect it to do a thumping trade in linoleum, or chutney, or insect-powder, or polo ponies. It just traded thumpingly in tea.
But its patrons did not come to drink the tea—oh, dear no! Once a tocsin [alarm bell] merchant from Fujiyama, knowing nothing of the quality of the tea served at the Tea-House of Ten Thousand Jim-Jams, had innocently swallowed the contents of a whole pot per person, and was found two minutes later twisted into a complicated knot and writhing on the hearthrug in the throes of about 8,517 of the 10,000 jim-jams which the Tea-House boasted.
No, they did not come to drink the tea, which, so soon as it was served, they promptly poured into waste-tea baskets (thoughtfully provided by the management for that purpose) in order to avoid any possible unpleasantness. They came to see O Pyjama San dance, and to listen to her 20-carat, 6-cylinder voice as she sang her quaint songs to the thrummed accompaniment of the catamaran thing (which, it has now been ascertained, is rightfully named a samisen).
And so on the afternoon on which this story opens, when everybody had been served with tea and had shot it with every symptom of disgust into the waste-tea baskets, O Pyjama San took her samisen out of the samisen-cupboard and tripped lightly into the centre of the room.
What a picture she made! How piquant her melon-shaped face with its aureole of blue-black hair glistening with beef-dripping! How svelte her lithe figure upholstered in her richly-embroidered kimono! How dainty her feet encased in patent-leather elastic-sided sandals made of patent-leather with elastic sides!
Lightly flicking a few handfuls of tuneful chords from her instrument, O Pyjama San lifted her voice with both hands, and began to sing. And the song she sang may be translated thus:—
'The love of my Beloved is pure as the light of the moon
on the Feast of Whitebait—
(Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!)
It is warm as the heat of the sun at noonday
on the Feast of Crumpets—
(Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of Worcester sauce!)
It is long as the worm that never turns—
It is strong as the odour of Camembert cheese—
In short, and to avoid superogatory periphrasis, the love
of my beloved is some cinch.
(Tee-he-he, and a packet of pins!)"
[superogatory periphrasis means excessive wordiness]
And when O Pyjama San had finished her song she broke into the intricate steps of the hari-kari, which she danced with all the audacious verve and reckless abandon of one who had acquired her technique on the Correspondence System. At the conclusion of her performance there wasn't a dry eye in the room—for the simple reason that all the customers had remembered that they had pressing engagements elsewhere; had remembered that they had forgotten to buy crab-apples for the Feast; that they had an appointment to see a man about a goldfish. All were gone, save only one—Larynx Q. Stubbs, the young millionaire pickle-packer from Peppercorn Springs (Pa.), with branches at Vinegar Springs (Va.), and Gherkin Springs (Ga.).
Slipping a dime under his saucer he rose, and advancing to O Pyjama San, said:—
"Gee, kid! but your voice just beats the band. It's like striking fuzees [friction matches] on a canvas-backed terrapin. Your banjo-playing sounds to me like an operation for appendicitis, and as for your dancing—wal, if ever you've seen performing seals, you've got me! Yours is jest the duddest show I've struck outside a backwoods fit-up [makeshift theater]. I've heard plenty about the performances of you geyser-girls, but, by gum!—I guess yours is the durndest I've ever clapped eyes on. So long, old pip! More power to your ankle!"
Although not understanding a single word of what Larynx Q. Stubbs had said, except "gee," which happens to be Japanese for cod-liver oil, O Pyjama San nevertheless blushed like a peony at this sincere and unstinted flattery. Into her liquid almond eyes sprang two liquid almond tears, and seizing Larynx Q. Stubbs' hand she pressed it to her liquid almond lips.
"Waki-waki-waki-waki-waki!" she whispered, with emotion, in her own dulcet language. ("May little green gooseberries grow on the shrine of your grandmother!")
"Toodle-loo! O Gymkhana Sam, or whatever you call yourself," cried L.Q. Stubbs; and as he left the room there entered Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner, who held the contract for the quarterly tuning of O Pyjama San's samisen. In one hand he carried a tuning-fork; in the other a tuning-spoon.
He scowled as he saw the pickle-packer, for every day for a week past he had observed the latter either just leaving, or just going in, or just being in, the Tea-House; and as he scowled his feature grew hoarse with passion. He could not imagine why anyone should ever wish to enter the Tea-House more than once in a lifetime unless it were to make love to his betrothed, O Pyjama San. He didn't know that L.Q. Stubbs simply came for the sake of a hearty laugh. He didn't know what a sordid, laughless job pickle-packing was, and how seldom the respective welkins of Pa., Va., and Ga. re-echoed with the pickle-packer's ebullient mirth.
So, as he crossed the room to where O Pyjama San was sitting on a hassock, fanning herself with a dried shark's fin mounted in passe-partout, his eyes were bloodshot with the green gleam of jealousy. Dropping his tuning-irons down the back of his neck in order to check the flow of haemoglobin to his cerebellum, Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner successfully regain control of himself.
"And so he has been here again, O Pyjama San, Light of my Tonsils?"
"Who, O Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner, Moon of my Jugular Vein?"
"The young American millionaire, Larynx Q. Stubbs, the pickle-packer. You sang the Love-Song to him; you danced the Love-Dance to him; your eyes never left his face."
O Pyjama San rose to a point of order.
"You mean, his eyes never left his face!" she said, fearlessly.
"You know quite well what I mean. You are infatuated with him. I don't know whether you are aware of it, but the position of affairs is becoming a positive scandal. In the banzais, in the jinrickshas, there is only one topic of conversation: that O Pyjama San, the betrothed of Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner, has lost her heart to O Stubbs Sahib. I am become a butt for mockery, ribaldry, scornery. The Amalgamated Union of Samisen-Tuners have threatened to endorse my licence, have me hammered at Broadwood's as a defaulter, and struck off the rolls. Even the boys in the street jeer at me, throw rotten mimosas in my face, and cry 'May salamanders make their nests in your ancestors' breeches!' I tell you, I'm fed up with it. Choose now between him and me."
In vain did O Pyjama San protest that there was nought betwixt her and O Stubbs Sahib; that surely had Pinki-Ponko drunk deep of the ju-jitsu bottle to suggest such a thing; and that she still loved him, him and him only, drunk or undrunk.
"You lie!" cried Pinki-Ponko, lashing himself to a fury with a small piece of knotted cord he carried for that purpose. "I saw you kow-tow to him! I saw you press burning, sizzling kisses on his hand! And—see here!"—he strode to the table where his illusory rival had been sitting, lifted up the saucer, and disclosed the dime which had been deposited there—"he has even brought you jewels!"
He flung the coin on the ground before her.
"Take his miserable gew-gaws, O Pyjama San the Faithless! Cursed be you, and cursed be your mother, O Tomato San, and you grandmother, O Banana San, and your great grandmother, O Potato Salad—I mean San—and thrice-cursed with the seven-fold curse of Kikiwiki the Avenger (making twenty-one curses in all) be that dolgarned hobo of a rubber-necked, gum-chewing pie-can, O Stubbs Sahib, the packle-picker! I have spoke."
Pausing only to throw a slop-basin at the prostrate, sob-torn figure of O Pyjama San, Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner passed out into the warm dusk, fragrant with the scent of apple-blossom, plum-blossom, grog-blossom [pimple caused by drinking], and the onions which the toothless old beldame was still patiently skinning in the scullery.
And as he hurried along the narrow street, gaily decorated for the Feast with fans, umbrellas, spaniels, and other products of Japanese industry, the populace looked askance at the grim-visaged youth who strode so fiercely through their midst. Was it vengeance they saw written on his face? Or had he merely wiped it with a soiled pocket-handkerchief? None could say.
The next morning the body of Larynx Q. Stubbs was found floating in a tank of sacred goldfish outside the Temple of the Golden Horseradish. A tuning-fork (Philharmonic pitch) was found embedded up to the hilt in his suspenders, while the pockets of his clothes were discovered to be loaded with samisen-strings, as if purposely placed there to induce the body to sink.
Towards opening-time Pinki-Ponko the samisen-tuner wended his way to the Tea-House of Ten Thousand Jim-Jams.
"Give you good-morrow, good mother!" he said, addressing O Tomato San, whose head was buried in the fragrant depths of the sanitary dust-bin.
"Give me how much?" said O Tomato San, looking up.
"Give you good-morrow, good mother!" repeated Pinki-Ponko.
"Put it on the counter," said O Tomato San, looking down.
"Where is O Pyjama San!" asked Pinki-Ponko.
"O Pyjama San," replied the other, looking up and down, "became a novitiate in the Temple of the Seven Sacred Saveloys [seasoned sausages] at noon to-day. The Tea-House will know her no more."
"Oh, won't it!" gasped Pinki-Ponko, great beads of sweat running down his face, and turning his jade tie-pin to rust. "Has she taken the veil?"
"She has taken two," replied O Tomato San, looking sideways. "In fact, she took a complete change of everything."
For a moment Pinki-Ponko fell all to pieces. Then with an effort he pulled himself together, helped himself to a double tea from the buffet, and raised the cup to his lips. O Tomato San looked up, down, and sideways simultaneously.
"Ah!" she shrieked, in Japanese, as she realized what Pinki-Ponko was about to do. "Ooh!"
But before she could dash the cup from his hands Pinki-Ponko had drained it to the dregs; and before she could dash his hands from the cup Pinki-Ponko had drained the dregs too, turned round three times, taken away the number he had first thought of, and fallen, lifeless and inert, upon the cat that lay on the mat that lay on the floor that lay in the Tea-house of Ten Thousand Jim-Jams.