Sauve Qui Peut: Stories, p.1
Sauve Qui Peut
Illustrated by Nicolas Bentley
1. SAUVE QUI PEUT
2. WHAT-HO ON THE RIALTO!
3. HIGH BARBARY
4. SERAGLIOS AND IMBROGLIOS
5. THE LITTLE AFFAIR IN PARIS
6. TAKING THE CONSEQUENCES
7. ALL TO SCALE
8. AUNT NORAH
9. A CORKING EVENING
Sauve Qui Peut
We dips (said Antrobus) are brought up to be resourceful, to play almost any part in life, to be equal to any emergency almost—how else could one face all those foreigners? But the only thing for which we are not prepared, old man, is blood.
Mind you, I am thinking of exceptional cases, out-of-the-way incidents; but they are not as rare as one might imagine. Old Gulliver, for example, was invited to an execution in Saigon to which he felt it was his duty to go. It affected him permanently, it damaged his concentration. His head is quite over on one side, he twitches, his ears move about. Unlucky man! I cannot claim an experience as radical as his, but I can speak of one which was almost as bad. Imagine, one fine day we are delivered a perfectly straightforward invitation card on which we read (with ever-widening eyes) the following text or something like it:
His Excellency Hacsmit Bey and Madame Hacsmit Bey joyfully invite you to the Joyful Circumcision of their son Hacsmit Hacsmit Abdul Hacsmit Bey. Morning dress and decorations. Refreshments will be served.
You can imagine the long slow wail that went up in the Chancer when first this intelligence was brought home to us. Circumcision! Joyfully! Refreshments! “By God, here is a strange lozenge-shaped affair!” cried De Mandeville, and he was right.
Of course, the Embassy in question was a young one, the country it represented still in the grip of mere folklore. But still I mean … The obvious thing was to plead indisposition, and this we did as one man. But before we could post off our polite, almost Joyful refusals to these amiable Kurds, Polk-Mowbray called a general meeting in Chancery. He was pensive, he was pale and grave, quite the Hamlet. “I suppose you have all received this” he said, holding up a pasteboard square on which the dullest eye could descry the sickle and minarets of the Kurdish Arms with the sort of crossed cruets underneath.
“Yes” we chorused.
“I suppose you have all refused” went on our Chief, “and in a way, I am glad. I don’t want my Mission to develop a taste for blood … these things grow on one. But it does raise rather a problem, for the Kurds are a young, buoyant, up-and-coming little country with a rapidly declining economy, and they are fearfully touchy. It is inconceivable that HMG should not be represented at this affair by one of us. Besides, who knows, it might be informal, touching, colourful, even instructive … what the devil? But someone should be there; we just can’t ignore two-legged Kurds in the modern world. The next thing is they will vote against us in UNO. You take my point?
“Well, I have sat up all night worrying about the affair, and (having no taste for blood myself) have arrived at a perfectly democratic solution which I know you will approve and I hope you will respect.”
From behind his back came his left hand holding a packet of straws.
“Whoever draws the shortest straw will represent us” he cried shrilly. We all paled to the gums but what could we do? It was a command. Closing our eyes, lips moving in prayer, we drew. Well and … yes, of course I did. I drew that short straw.
I let out—I could not help it—a rueful exclamation, almost a shout. “But surely, Sir …” I cried. But Polk-Mowbray, his face full of compassion, smote me on the shoulder. “Antrobus” he said, “I could not have wished for anyone more reliable, more circumspect, more jolly unflinching, anyone less likely to faint. I am glad—yes, glad with all my heart that fate should have chosen you. Courage, mon vieux.”
This was all very well. I wasn’t a bit cockered up by all this praise. My lip trembled, voice faltered. “Is there no other way?” I cried out in my anguish, gazing from face to stony face. There wasn’t it would seem. Polk-Mowbray shook his head with a kind of sweet sadness, like a Mother Superior demobbing a novice. “It is kismet, Antrobus” he said and I felt a sort of coffin-lid close on me. I squared my shoulders and let my chin fall with a thump onto my chest. I was a beaten man. I thought of my old widowed mother in St Abdomen in the Wold—what would she say if she knew? I thought of many things. “Well” I said at last. “So be it.” I must say, everyone brightened up, looked awfully relieved. Moreover, for the next few days I received every mark of consideration from my colleagues. They spoke to me in Hushed Voices, Hushed Commiserating Voices, as if I were an invalid; they tiptoed about for fear of disturbing my reveries. I thought of a hundred ways out of the affair but none of them seemed practicable. I went so far as to sit in a draught hoping I would catch pneumonia; I hinted broadly that I would surrender my stalls for the Bolshoi to anyone kind enough to replace me—in vain.
At last the day dawned; there was nothing for it but to climb into sponge-bag and hoist gongs. At last I was ready. The whole Chancery was lined up to shake my hand and see me off. Polk-Mowbray had put the Rolls at my disposal, pennant and all. “I’ve told the driver to take a First-Aid Kit with him” he said hoarsely. “One never knows in these matters.” You would have thought that I was to be the sacrificial lamb from the way he went on. De Mandeville pressed his smelling-salts into my hand and said brokenly “Do give little Abdul all our sympathy.” As for Dovebasket, he pressed his Leica upon me saying “Try and get a close-up. The Sunday Times colour sup is crying out for something new and they pay like fiends—I’ll split with you. It’s one chance in a million to scoop Tony.” The little blackhead! But I was too broken to speak. I handed the thing back without a word and stepping into the car cried faintly “To the Kurdish Embassy, Tobias.”
The Kurds had everything arranged most tastefully, I must say; lots of jolly decent-looking refreshments laid out in a huge marquee on the back lawn. Here we dips congregated. I noticed that most Missions had sent acting vice-consuls smelling for the most part of brandy and looking pale and strained. Now the Kurds may be a young nation but they look as crafty as some of the older. The Mission was dressed in spanking tenue but in one corner, presiding over a side-table covered in grisly-looking Stone Age instruments, stood a small group of sinister men clad in horse-blankets of various colours. They had shaven skulls and purple gums and they conversed in a series of dry clicks like Bushmen. Faces which suggested nothing so much as open-cast coal-mining. This, I took it, was the Medical Wing of the Kurdish Embassy—the executioners. But where was the little beardless youth in whose honour all this joyful frolic had been arranged? I went so far as to ask.
“Ah” cried the Ambassador, “he will be here in a minute. He is on his way from the airport. He arrived from London this afternoon.” I was a bit puzzled by this, but … Kurds have their own way of doing things. “And think of it!” went on the Head of Mission, clasping his hands. “Abdul knows nothing of all this. It is a surprise for him, a little surprise. He will be very joyful when he sees.…” He waved at the group of executioners. Well, I thought to myself, let joy be unconfined, and tried to draw strength from some rather good rahat lokoum—Turkish Delight—which I found in a corner. After all, one could close one’s eyes, or turn the head; one needn’t actually look, I told myself.
Luckily my fears were groundless. Imagine our collective surprise when Abdul bounded into the tent to embrace his mother and father: instead of some puling adolescent, we beheld a tough-looking youth of some twenty summers with a handsome moustache and a
But he respectfully declined, giving every mark of disapprobation. He shook his head violently and his eye flashed. At last his father lost patience and motioned to the thugs in the corner. He was going to force him to enter into the joyfulness of the occasion. But the young man had learned something at Oxford. With a right and left he sent two sprawling; the others climbed on his back. A terrible fracas broke out. Cartwheeling round like a top with the Kurds on his back, Abdul mowed half the Corps down and upset the trestle tables; then, reversing, knocked the tent-pole out and the whole thing collapsed on us in a billowing cloud of coloured stuff. Shouts, yells … I lost my topper, but managed to crawl out from under. I tottered to the gate yelling for Tobias. All I got out of the affair was the box of Turkish Delight which I shared round the Chancery. It met with approval and I was the hero of the hour. Compliments? They fairly forked them up to me. Polk-Mowbray was in two minds about the sort of figure I had cut, but after giving it thought he summed the matter up jolly sagely. “In diplomacy” he said, “it is so often a case of sauve qui peut.”
What-ho on the Rialto!
In the Old Days (said Antrobus) before Time Was—I think it was the year that Mrs Gaskell won the Nobel for England—diplomacy was a quiet and restful trade carried on in soothing inanity among a hundred shady legations and embassies all over the globe. It was hardly more taxing than Divinity for a Scotchman. A fond bland light shone from the old dip’s eyes——and why not? Minted at Eton, moulded by Balliol, and mellowed to the sunset tone of old brick by a Grand Tour, the fellow was in clover and he knew it. Handpicked, packaged, dusted over lightly with male hormone, he was delivered to his post without a bally scratch. Then he had pride: he shaved with nothing but Yardley and scented his beard with Imperial Saddle. Look at the change now: fellows dashed over with cheap and perhaps combustible shaving lotions and industrial talc. Moreover, something else has happened; how has your modern dip acquired his present pinched and furtive look? I will tell you.
It came with The Fall. One day the slumbering dragon in the heart of Personnel awoke and roared: “Let Woman be given high office.” Woman, dear God! It was the end, old man, and we knew it. We paled to the nape. Our ears went back and stayed pressed close to the head. Urgent confabs took place all over the Office on the intercoms. A hundred voices rose in protest, a hundred plans were made to scotch the idea. Some even spoke of assassination for Gavin Pyecraft who had hatched this grisly scheme. He had always been unbalanced (grammar school). A sort of mystic. He liked custard poured over his prunes. But despite all our efforts the idea caught on and spread. The rot set in abroad as well. It travelled like the Spanish ’flu. First vice-consuls (a suitable enough title) then Information Girls and finally Female Ambassadors.
All of which brings me to the particular event with which I hope to illustrate my general contention. The French sent in a woman Ambassador to Vulgaria in the form of a handsome, slightly moustached young widow called Mole with a parlous amount of frou-frou and a deadly languid voice which lifted one slightly in one’s shoes. The Mission, of course, reeled under the blow, but what could they do? You could hear throats being cleared as she passed. She Walked in Beauty, old Man, Like the Night, to quote someone who ought to have known; easily, lightly, as if on ball-bearings. It made conference difficult to begin with. She had such a lot of different hats; and the way, just the way, she accepted an Aide-Memoire from the trembling hand of a Head of Chancery made him burn like a volcano.
All might have gone well—but how could it?—had not fate at that moment sent in Bonzo di Porco as Italian Head of Chancery. Bonzo was born to be De Mandeville’s rival. You never met Bonzo, did you? Well, all technicalities aside, and absolutely without prejudice, he was a fitful little numero indeed. He claimed to be several types of prince and count; his underclothes were spattered with crowns; he drove a cream Hispano-Suiza twice the size of De Mandeville’s Rolls. His chauffeur was much larger too, and dressed like Robin Hood. Well! You can understand De Mandeville feeling put down. Of course, both men were well-bred in a nervous, mediocre sort of way and it is possible that the iron laws of the Service might have prevented an open breech—had it not been for The Woman.
She flattered Bonzo, making him show off his talents where someone more intelligent might have persuaded him to leave them in the napkin. He played, for example, the flute better, louder, than De Mandeville. His pout was professional, his puff serene and not wavery like that of his rival. Apart from this, he played a blazing game of shuttlecock. He had actually once had leprosy.… Oh, I know. You could go on about Bonzo’s qualities for ever. But they just made De Mandeville bite his nails down to the quick and kick his chauffeur. At Oxford Bonzo had got a first in Lampshade Making while poor De M. had to be content with a mouldy third in Comparative Lipsticks.
The first round opened with a bit of mild vapouring and vaunting on quite a high intellectual plane—again because of You Know Who. Where you have French people, you find culture creeping in. (“Why” she had the nerve to ask me one day “are you fond of Racine?” to which I riposted instantly: “I never bet on horses, Madam.”)
Well, Bonzo gave it out that he was the only prince in Christendom with a special dispensation enabling him, if he wished, to ride a horse into Milan Cathedral. But he didn’t wish, he added modestly. Fifteen—love. Now De Mandeville announced that he had a chit from the A. of C. enabling him to enter the Pump Room in Bath on hands and knees, should he so wish. Fifteen—all. As for the lady, she went on enmeshing them with her veni vidi vici. She had an indelible habit of tapping you on the lips with her closed fan which won all hearts. People queued to be tapped, but none more ardently than Bonzo and his rival. You should have seen them putting up their little faces—like a couple of rudimentary Chinese geese. Their encounters at her table, albeit couched in a highly allusive intellectual vein, were getting more and more acrimonious. De Mandeville started a war of quotations which harassed his enemy on the flank until Dovebasket pinched his “Dictionary of” and sold it to Bonzo privately. De Mandeville said—just as an example—that when Shakespeare wrote the words “more honoured in the breech than the observance” he was thinking of someone like Bonzo. Thirty-forty. Bonzo replied that the poet Wordsworth wrote:
“A varlet by the river’s brim
A simple varlet was to him”
when he was clearly thinking of somebody of the De Mandeville Stamp. Deuce.
It could only end one way. One evening, at a cultural soiree in the Froggish Embassy, they came to an open breech as to who should turn over the lady’s music. Pull followed pull, push, push. I ask you to believe me when I say there was a mild scuffle. They pulled each other’s ties and stamped. The lady fainted, and leaving her like a fallen ninepin, they stormed out into the night in different directions.
At this point De Mandeville said it couldn’t go on. De Mandeville said that the world wasn’t big enough for him and Bonzo too—one of them would have to go. De Mandeville referred darkly to duelling pistols, but when Dovebasket produced some, he showed a marked disinclination to touch them. Dovebasket worked with all the ferocious power of his evil genius to get these two frantic men up to the popping crease but they wouldn’t bat, it seems. Dovebasket sent both of them repeated challenges in each other’s names trying to help the situation to mature fruitfully. But no. Somehow they managed … but as a matter of fact, I mean, what could one visualize as being suitable weapons for single combat—syringes?
But Dovebasket wasn’t finished yet; he had recently seen an Italian opera and had been much struck by the presence throughou
Came the fateful fancy-dress ball given by the unsuspecting Norwegians: in the Chancery we groaned as we noticed the stipulations about dress: “Masked and about to spend an evening of Carnival in the sixteenth century”. Everyone groaned: this meant we should all have to borrow costumes once more from the wardrobe of the National Opera. Venice! De Mandeville knitted harder than ever as he wondered whether perhaps he might not be poled into the Embassy lying down in a gondola in a cloak? He was toying with this idea and explaining its virtues to me—Bonzo would never think up anything like that—when Rosencrantz, I mean Dovebasket, came sidling in to whisper in his ear. What he said parched him a bit. Apparently Bonzo was going to press things to their limit: his bravos had orders to get De Mandeville during the masked ball. “I certainly should not stir without your own bravos” said Dovebasket.
“But it’s in costume!”
“Then they too will be costumed and armed. I should see that they have a sword and buckler each at least—if not a reversible bassinet too.”