The revolt of Matter against Man (which I believe to exist) has now been reduced to a singular condition. It is the small things rather than the large things which make war against us and, I may add, beat us. The bones of the last mammoth have long ago decayed, a mighty wreck; the tempests no longer devour our navies, nor the mountains with hearts of fire heap hell over our cities. But we are engaged in a bitter and eternal war with small things; chiefly with microbes and with collar studs. The stud with which I was engaged (on fierce and equal terms) as I made the above reflections, was one which I was trying to introduce into my shirt collar when a loud knock came at the door.
My first thought was as to whether Basil Grant had called to fetch me. He and I were to turn up at the same dinner-party (for which I was in the act of dressing), and it might be that he had taken it into his head to come my way, though we had arranged to go separately. It was a small and confidential affair at the table of a good but unconventional political lady, an old friend of his. She had asked us both to meet a third guest, a Captain Fraser, who had made something of a name and was an authority on chimpanzees. As Basil was an old friend of the hostess and I had never seen her, I felt that it was quite possible that he (with his usual social sagacity) might have decided to take me along in order to break the ice. The theory, like all my theories, was complete; but as a fact it was not Basil.
I was handed a visiting card inscribed: “Rev. Ellis Shorter”, and underneath was written in pencil, but in a hand in which even hurry could not conceal a depressing and gentlemanly excellence, “Asking the favour of a few moments’ conversation on a most urgent matter.”!
I had already subdued the stud, thereby proclaiming that the image of God has supremacy over all matters (a valuable truth), and throwing on my dress-coat and waistcoat, hurried into the drawing-room. He rose at my entrance, flapping like a seal; I can use no other description. He flapped a plaid shawl over his right arm; he flapped a pair of pathetic black gloves; he flapped his clothes; I may say, without exaggeration, that he flapped his eyelids, as he rose. He was a bald-browed, white-haired, white-whiskered old clergyman, of a flappy and floppy type. He said:
“I am so sorry. I am so very sorry. I am so extremely sorry. I come–I can only say–I can only say in my defence, that I come–upon an important matter. Pray forgive me.”
I told him I forgave perfectly and waited.
“What I have to say,” he said brokenly, “is so dreadful–it is so dreadful–I have lived a quiet life.”
I was burning to get away, for it was already doubtful if I should be in time for dinner. But there was something about the old man’s honest air of bitterness that seemed to open to me the possibilities of life larger and more tragic than my own.
I said gently: “Pray go on.”
Nevertheless the old gentleman, being a gentleman as well as old, noticed my secret impatience and seemed still more unmanned.
“I’m so sorry,” he said meekly; “I wouldn’t have come–but for–your friend Major Brown recommended me to come here.”
“Major Brown!” I said, with some interest.
“Yes,” said the Reverend Mr Shorter, feverishly flapping his plaid shawl about. “He told me you helped him in a great difficulty–and my difficulty! Oh, my dear sir, it’s a matter of life and death.”
I rose abruptly, in an acute perplexity. “Will it take long, Mr Shorter?” I asked. “I have to go out to dinner almost at once.”