Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stephen Leacock in 1914

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) found fame as a particularly joyful humorist prior to the Great War with the success of his early collections of sketches: Literary Lapses (1910), Nonsense Novels (1911), and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912).

Here are two 1914 sketches from his Vanity Fair series, "Afternoon Adventures at My Club."  The entire series of nine sketches was later included in Leacock's collection Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy (1915).

Vanity Fair, Vol 2, no. 4, June 1914, p. 55
Vanity Fair, Vol 2, no. 6, August 1914, p. 146

Afternoon Adventures at My Club

2.  The Shattered Health of Mr. Podge

"How are you, Podge?" I said, as I sat down in a leather armchair beside him.

I only meant "How-do-you-do?" but he rolled his big eyes sideways at me in his flabby face (it was easier than moving his face) and he answered: "I'm not as well to-day as I was yesterday afternoon.  Last week I was feeling pretty good part of the time, but yesterday about four o'clock the air turned humid, and I don't feel so well."

"Have a cigarette?" I said.

"No, thanks; I find they affect the bronchial toobes."

"Whose?" I asked.

"Mine," he answered.

"Oh, yes," I said, and I lighted one.  "So you find the weather trying," I continued cheerfully.

"Yes, it's too humid.  It's up to a saturation of sixty-six.  I'm all right till it passes sixty-four.  Yesterdayafternoon it was only about sixty-one, and I felt fine.  But after that it went up.  I guess it must be a contraction of the epidermis pressing on some of the sebaceous glands, don't you?"

"I'm sure it is," I said. "But why don't you just sleep it off till it's over?"

"I don't like to sleep too much," he answered.  "I'm afraid of it developing into hypersomnia.  There are cases where it's been known to grow into a sort of lethargy that pretty well stops all brain action altogether —"

"That would be too bad," I murmured.  "What do you do to prevent it?"

"I generally drink from half to three-quarters of a cup of black coffee, or nearly black, every morning at from eleven to five minutes past, so as to keep off hypersomnia.  It's the best thing, the doctor says."

"Aren't you afraid," I said, "of its keeping you awake?"

"I am," answered Podge, and a spasm passed over his big yellow face.  "I'm always afraid of insomnia.  That's the worst thing of all.  The other night I went to bed about half-past ten, or twenty-five minutes after — I forget which — and I simply couldn't sleep.  I couldn't.  I read a magazine story, and I still couldn't; and I read another, and still I couldn't sleep.  It scared me bad."

"Oh, pshaw," I said; "I don't think sleep matters as long as one eats properly and has a good appetite."

He shook his head very dubiously. "I ate a plate of soup at lunch," he said, "and I feel it still."

"You FEEL it!"

"Yes," repeated Podge, rolling his eyes sideways in a pathetic fashion that he had, "I still feel it. I oughtn't to have eaten it.  It was some sort of a bean soup, and of course it was full of nitrogen.  I oughtn't to touch nitrogen," he added, shaking his head.

"Not take any nitrogen?" I repeated.

"No, the doctor — both doctors — have told me that. I can eat starches, and albumens, all right, but I have to keep right away from all carbons and nitrogens.  I've been
dieting that way for two years, except that now and again I take a little glucose or phosphates."

"That must be a nice change," I said, cheerfully.

"It is," he answered in a grateful sort of tone.

There was a pause.  I looked at his big twitching face, and listened to the heavy wheezing of his breath, and I felt sorry for him.

"See here, Podge," I said, "I want to give you some good advice."

"About what?"

"About your health."

"Yes, yes, do," he said.  Advice about his health was right in his line.  He lived on it.

"Well, then, cut out all this fool business of diet and drugs and nitrogen.  Don't bother about anything of the sort.  Forget it.  Eat everything you want to, just when you want it.  Drink all you like.  Smoke all you can — and you'll feel a new man in a week."

"Say, do you think so!" he panted, his eyes filled with a new light.

"I know it," I answered.  And as I left him I shook hands with a warm feeling about my heart of being a benefactor to the human race.

Next day, sure enough, Podge's usual chair at the club was empty.

"Out getting some decent exercise," I thought. "Thank Heaven!"

Nor did he come the next day, nor the next, nor for a week.

"Leading a rational life at last," I thought.  "Out in the open getting a little air and sunlight, instead of sitting here howling about his stomach."

The day after that I saw Dr. Slyder in black clothes glide into the club in that peculiar manner of his, like an amateur undertaker.

"Hullo, Slyder," I called to him, "you look as solemn as if you had been to a funeral."

"I have," he said very quietly, and then added, "poor Podge!"

"What about him?" I asked with sudden apprehension.

"Why, he died on Tuesday," answered the doctor.  "Hadn't you heard?  Strangest case I've known in years.  Came home suddenly one day, pitched all his medicines down the kitchen sink, ordered a couple of cases of champagne and two hundred havanas, and had his housekeeper cook a dinner like a Roman banquet!  After being under treatment for two years!  Lived, you know, on the narrowest margin conceivable.  I told him and Silk told him — we all told him — his only chance was to keep away from every form of nitrogenous ultra-stimulants.  I said to him often, 'Podge, if you touch heavy carbonized food, you're lost.'"

"Dear me," I thought to myself, "there ARE such things after all!"

"It was a marvel," continued Slyder, "that we kept him alive at all. And, of course" — here the doctor paused to ring the bell to order two Manhattan cocktails — "as soon as he touched alcohol he was done."

So that was the end of the valetudinarianism of Mr. Podge.

I have always considered that I killed him.

But anyway, he was a nuisance at the club.

3.  The Amazing Travels of Mr. Yarner

There was no fault to be found with Mr. Yarner till he made his trip around the world.

It was that, I think, which disturbed his brain and unfitted him for membership in the club.

"Well," he would say, as he sat ponderously down with the air of a man opening an interesting conversation, "I was just figuring it out that eleven months ago to-day I was in Pekin."

"That's odd," I said, "I was just reckoning that eleven days ago I was in Poughkeepsie."

"They don't call it Pekin over there," he said. "It's sounded Pei-Chang."

"I know," I said, "it's the same way with Poughkeepsie, they pronounce it P'Keepsie."

"The Chinese," he went on musingly, "are a strange people."

"So are the people in P'Keepsie," I added, "awfully strange."

That kind of retort would sometimes stop him, but not always.  He was especially dangerous if he was found with a newspaper in his hand; because that meant that some item of foreign intelligence had gone to his brain.

Not that I should have objected to Yarner describing his travels.  Any man who has bought a ticket round the world and paid for it, is entitled to that.

But it was his manner of discussion that I considered unpermissible.

Last week, for example, in an unguarded moment I fell a victim. I had been guilty of the imprudence — I forget in what connection — of speaking of lions.  I realized at once that I had done wrong — lions, giraffes, elephants, rickshaws and natives of all brands, are topics to avoid in talking with a traveller.

"Speaking of lions," began Yarner.

He was right, of course; I HAD spoken of lions.

"— I shall never forget," he went on (of course, I knew he never would), "a rather bad scrape I got into in the up-country of Uganda.  Imagine yourself in a wild, rolling country covered here and there with kwas along the sides of the nullahs."

I did so.

"Well," continued Yarner, "we were sitting in our tent one hot night — too hot to sleep — when all at once we heard, not ten feet in front of us, the most terrific roar that ever came from the throat of a lion."

As he said this Yarner paused to take a gulp of bubbling whiskey and soda and looked at me so ferociously that I actually shivered.

Then quite suddenly his manner cooled down in the strangest way, and his voice changed to a commonplace tone as he said, "Perhaps I ought to explain that we hadn't come up to the up-country looking for big game.  In fact, we had been down in the down country with no idea of going higher than Mombasa.  Indeed, our going even to Mombasa itself was more or less an afterthought.  Our first plan was to strike across from Aden to Singapore.  But our second plan was to strike direct from Colombo to Karuchi —"

"And what was your THIRD plan?" I asked.

"Our third plan," said Yarner deliberately, feeling that the talk was now getting really interesting, "let me see, our third plan was to cut across from Socotra to Tananarivo."

"Oh, yes," I said.

"However, all that was changed, and changed under the strangest circumstances.  We were sitting, Gallon and I, on the piazza of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo — you know the Galle Face?"

"No, I do not," I said very positively.

"Very good. Well, I was sitting on the piazza watching a snake charmer who was seated, with a boa, immediately in front of me.

"Poor Gallon was actually within two feet of the hideous reptile.  All of a sudden the beast whirled itself into a coil, its eyes fastened with hideous malignity on poor Gallon, and with its head erect it emitted the most awful hiss I have heard proceed from the mouth of any living snake."

Here Yarner paused and took a long, hissing drink of whiskey and soda: and then as the malignity died out of his face—

"I should explain," he went on, very quietly, "that Gallon was not one of our original party.  We had come down to Colombo from Mongolia, going by the Pekin Hankow and the Nippon Yushen Keisha."

"That, I suppose, is the best way?" I said.

"Yes. And oddly enough but for the accident of Gallon joining us, we should have gone by the Amoy, Cochin, Singapore route, which was our first plan.  In fact, but for Gallon we should hardly have got through China at all.  The Boxer insurrection had taken place only fourteen years before our visit, so you can imagine the awful state of the country.

"Our meeting with Gallon was thus absolutely providential.  Looking back on it, I think it perhaps saved our lives.  We were in Mongolia (this, you understand, was before we reached China), and had spent the night at a small Yak about four versts from Kharbin, when all of a sudden, just outside the miserable hut that we were in, we heard a perfect fusillade of shots followed immediately afterwards by one of the most blood-curdling and terrifying screams I have ever imagined—"

"Oh, yes," I said, "and that was how you met Gallon.  Well, I must be off."

And as I happened at that very moment to be rescued by an incoming friend, who took but little interest in lions, and even less in Yarner, I have still to learn why the lion howled so when it met Yarner.  But surely the lion had reason enough.

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