CHAPTER IX

Unconventionality of Bohemianism — Evening dress — "Going to have a bloater for tea?" — A weekend visit to my friend's "cottage" — The impromptu fancy dress dinner party — The dénouement — Amusing story of a fancy dress ball — The story of the bugler and the barman —Bacchanalian entertainments — The mysterious drink — Stories of Bohemianism

I CAN recall nothing of a wildly exciting nature as having occurred during the three years I spent at No. 10 Blenheim Place, although there were many interesting incidents which at the time became magnified into events, but only by reason of their comparative significance, as a hillock on a straight level plain from the distance assumes the importance of a mountain. I remember that I worked hard and played hard, and I had plenty of time and opportunity for both, for one had one's life before one, and no cares beyond getting sufficient to pay one's rent, firing, and occasionally something to eat. This may sound like a solecism; but I really fancy it conveys the placid state of mind I was in during those years.

It was too early in one's career to be hide-bound by conventionality; if one chose even to go out without a collar or tie it didn't matter a jot. One's circle of influential acquaintances had hardly yet come into being. Those folk, whose opinion of ourselves we attach so much importance to in later life, did not worry us then.

As a man I knew remarked, if he chose to go out in his shirt sleeves the people who knew him didn't care, and he didn't care about those he didn't know. Conventionality in every form was laughed at in the set I used to frequent. Most of my artist friends had studied abroad, so were imbued with my ideas of what Bohemianism meant, and there was no humbug about us. It was not "pose" in any sense of the word, I am convinced.

We had not a lot of money to spend, so why try and ape those who had it?" Going to have a bloater for tea, old man?" asked one of my pals of me one evening, as he ran across me in the street as I was hurrying along to a dinner-party without the slightest idea of putting on "side." Of course I was in evening dress, which afforded him the opportunity for his really funny remark, but which at the same time echoed his notion on the subject.

The mention of dress clothes in connection with Bohemianism recalls an amusing episode of this kind. A friend of mine, a distinguished author and playwright, had invited me to spend a weekend at what he called his "cottage" in the country. It was some little distance from town; but as I happened to have enough money to pay the railway fare I gladly accepted. The invitation was one of those that are first given casually, and which are never accepted right away off — you must really come and spend a weekend with us, old chap, sort of thing — no date mentioned. Well this time he fixed it up, and I said I would go.

My prospective host, I must mention, was apparently as typical a Bohemian as myself, and although I knew he made a good income out of his work, it never entered my head that he was in any sense a society man, and I had looked forward to a couple of days at his "cottage," in our usual unconventional go-as-you-please style. With this idea in my head I simply bundled a country knickerbocker suit, a couple of flannel shirts, a dressing-gown, and a few necessary odds and ends into a hand-bag, jumped into a 'bus, and caught the train from Paddington I had been told I should be expected to come by.

When I arrived at my destination I did not find my host waiting for me as I expected, which somewhat surprised me, and I was obliged to make enquiries as to the best way to get to the house, which I knew from what I had been told was three miles away from the tiny little country station, when a porter came up, and touching his hat respectfully asked me if I was going to Mr. So-and-so's, because if so they had sent the dog-cart over to fetch me.

Outside the station I found a very dapper turn-out waiting for me, so smart a conveyance, in fact, that I remember I felt ashamed of my particularly shabby and unpretentious "Gladstone" as it was hoisted up behind.

After a drive through lovely country we reached the entrance to a park with a lodge and big gates; into this we turned, and drew up at last at a delightful old country house. So this was my friend's "cottage!" I realized he had been pulling my leg.

A footman in livery ushered me into a spacious inner hall where tea was in progress, and I found a large party assembled. A glance round was sufficient to prove to me that this was not Bohemia at all, but smart society, and I felt hot at the thought that I had not come prepared as to toilet for such surroundings. I had not even brought my dress suit with me. I was then struck with quite a brilliant idea, as will be seen, which, if I could arrange it, would save me having to dress for dinner.

My host and his wife received me in most genial fashion, and I was introduced to the house party, which included several people I knew already, so I lost no time in putting my idea into execution, and at once explained that I had been almost on the point of having to say that I couldn't come, that some important work had turned up from the Paper. I should therefore have to get them to excuse me and get back to town after lunch the following day at the latest. My friends very kindly said they would be sorry to lose me, but if I must go, of course I must.

During tea, which was very lively, I managed somehow to spring my idea on them. It makes me smile even now to think how they all caught on. Had they heard, I asked, of the latest craze at weekend country house parties of having impromptu fancy dress dinners. Of course no one had heard of it since I had only imagined it half an hour previously. They thought it ought to be splendid fun, why not have one tonight, suggested one of the guests — almost taking the words out of my mouth, for that was what I was driving at. What a capital idea! the rest chimed in. Well, to cut a long story short, after a lot of talk our host promised to give a prize for the most original costume.

It was agreed that every one would appear for dinner in fancy dress of some description, no matter how ridiculous and incongruous, so long as it was not the orthodox evening attire. So on that understanding, and with much laughter, we all separated at once, as there was no time to lose, and every one seemed imbued with the idea of evolving something strikingly novel. It may be imagined how delighted I was at the success of my ruse.

Fortunately I had brought with me a real Japanese dressing-gown and slippers, which were quite curiosities in their way, so I had no need to worry about a costume. Mine was ready, and had the additional advantage of being delightfully cool and comfortable and easily put on; as a matter of fact I had nothing but my pajama trousers under it.

Well, as arranged, we all assembled in the hall before dinner, and although each arrival was received with roars of laughter, it was positively amazing how ingeniously and wonderfully most of the party had managed to fix up fancy costumes out of the most extraordinary things, and at such short notice. One would have expected ludicrous results, instead of which the general effect was quite remarkable.

I remember I took in to dinner a lady who was got up as a pierrette, with powdered hair, a hat made out of an ordinary white conical jelly bag from the kitchen, with black pompoms on it, black pompoms, too, on the white bodice and short skirt, while black silk stockings and shoes quite completed a fancy costume that would have held its own anywhere.

One of the men looked like a Mexican with the tails of his evening dress turned up, low collar, big black bow, no waistcoat, red sash tied round his waist, and white duck trousers. Nothing could have looked more effective.

Every one had done his or her best to look attractive, and it was a huge success. I won't mention what was said about my "costume," except that it held its own well with the others. After dinner we finished up a delightful evening with a dance, and all agreed that I deserved a medal for my happy suggestion.

The next day I returned to town "to get on with my work." Shortly after I received from my hostess a copy of a weekly paper in which was a story written by her, almost exactly describing my impromptu fancy dress dinner, and making the hero of the piece also an artist; but it finished up somewhat differently to my episode. It told how the artist suggested the party, and how he had to return to town the following day, but she had sacrificed accuracy to effect in the dénouement which she had made distinctly funny. "I am writing," said the hostess, "to thank you for your brilliant suggestion last Saturday. We enjoyed the fancy dress dinner immensely. Come and liven us up again soon. Yours, etc. P.S. The enclosed was picked up in your bedroom after you had left." The "enclosed" was a pawn ticket for a suit of dress clothes.

It is odd how one story recalls another. The mention of fancy dress reminds me of a curious experience which a friend told me he had in connection with a big fancy dress ball. He was very keen on these dances, and put himself to no end of trouble and expense in getting himself up in costume.

On this particular occasion he fancied himself as Charles II, and on the eventful evening a dresser came from the costumiers to help him don the costume, as it was a very elaborate and difficult one to get into, unless one was accustomed to making oneself up, and besides which he had to wear a special wig of flowing hair and a false moustache and eyebrows.

It took him over an hour to complete his toilet, and when at last he was quite ready, and to his satisfaction, he looked at the clock and discovered he was much too early. So having had a tiring day in the city, he thought the best thing to do was to have a little rest before going, in order to be in better form for dancing and an all-night's enjoyment. I forgot to mention that he had been looking forward to this ball for a long time, as he expected a very special lady friend of his to meet him there.

Well, he got the dresser before he left him to help him settle himself comfortably in front of the fire in his large arm-chair in such a way that he should not disarrange his wig or crush his lace, then telling his man to turn down the gas, and that he was not to be disturbed, prepared himself for a little doze. His description of the way he was spread out in the chair, like a lay figure, was screamingly funny.

The next thing he knew was waking up with a start, aghast — feeling very cold and stiff. The fire had gone out, and the pale grey of dawn was visible through the curtains. For the moment he could not recollect where he was or what he was doing, then suddenly he remembered the fancy dress ball. Up he jumped to see the time. To his horror he discovered it was five o'clock in the morning — he had slept peacefully in the arm-chair since nine o'clock the previous evening. His language may be imagined as he divested himself of his regal apparel and went to bed.

Whether or not unconventional ideas help one to get on or make anything so far as one's work was concerned, is a matter which I will not pretend to discuss, although I have my own ideas on the subject now. I am simply recalling my impressions of those days when I was well on the right side of thirty. I loved the life then.

The Bohemianism which existed in St John's Wood in my time would not be possible nowadays; everything is so changed, and possibly for the better, although there are doubtless many men like myself who regret the transition. It is not that we would care to live again in that happy-go-lucky fashion, but the thought that it would no longer be condoned in these days of taxi-cabs and motor cars.

Much that took place in St John's Wood studios that I knew savored of Montmartre anglicized, with the exception that there was a good deal of hard drinking — in the shape of whiskey especially — that was non-existent among the artists in Paris. In this connection I recall an amusing and typical instance of this particular form of English Bohemianism.

On Queen's Terrace there was a small public-house called "The Knights of St John's," where several of us used to meet for lunch, as they provided a really excellent shilling ordinary, as I have said. The barman was an Army Reservist. He had been a bugler in some cavalry regiment, the 5th Dragoon Guards, if I remember rightly.

Opposite the "pub" is a narrow, graveled alley leading to Finchley Road. In this passage were several studios, and the one nearest to the "Knights of St John's" was occupied by two artists, one of whom was rather a clever amateur musician as well. They were neither of them exactly teetotallers — rather the contrary, in fact — and as they were fairly well-to-do, they dispensed liquid hospitality with a lavish hand. This was well known, and they had many visitors at all times, the result being that it frequently would happen that their stock of whiskey or other refreshment would run out. As they kept no servant, living as they did in the studio in thorough Bohemian fashion, they would take it in turn to go out and across to "The Knights" to fetch what was required.

Suddenly a really brilliant idea occurred to the musical one. He was rather good on the cornet, so he got the barman to teach him a few military bugle calls, and it was arranged that they were to have certain meanings when sounded from the door of the studio — as, for instance, if he gave the "reveille" it meant that they wanted a bottle of whiskey; the "last post," a bottle of gin; " stables," a quart of bitter, and so forth — and the barman would send it over. The scheme answered admirably, and, as may be imagined, caused much amusement in the vicinity.

The open-handed hospitality of this particular studio was well known, and one heard of wild orgies there at times; but these festivities invariably took the form of drinking bouts, to which no women were ever invited.

I remember a model telling me that on one occasion on the morning after one of these Bacchanalian entertainments, on arriving at the studio at 10 o'clock for a sitting, she found the whole floor of the place covered with sleeping revelers lying just where they had fallen on being overcome by the effects of the carousing. She described the scene as an extraordinary one, as it doubtless was.

In those days the first thing a man did when you went to see him was to ask you to have a drink, and the bottle was handy at all times.

A pal of mine told me of an amusing practical joke he played late one night on an acquaintance he had met on his way home, and on whom he had taken compassion and offered a drink at his studio. Of course he did not refuse; but on the way my friend suddenly remembered that he hadn't a drop of whiskey left in the place. He didn't know what to do, so when they reached the studio he pretended he hadn't got a match on him to light the gas, so started hunting around for a box in order to gain time and think out how to break the dreadful news. "Don't bother about lighting up on my account," said his guest. "I can manage to find the way to my mouth in the dark; let's have the drink and I'll be off." Then an idea occurred to my friend.

An empty bottle and a jug of water were on the table. Picking up the glass he said he would give him something very special, and pretended to pour from the bottle into it, and taking up the jug, put the time-honored question, "Say when?" "Oh, full up, I haven't had a drink for nearly a hour, and I'm as parched as a limekiln," was the reply. So up it was filled to the brim. "Well, here's luck, old man," said he, and drank off the glass of water in one gulp without even stopping to take breath. "That was fine," he said, as he put down the glass. "I wanted it badly. No, I won't have another — thanks awfully, good-night." The next day they happened to meet again, and the visitor of the previous night remarked to my friend, "That was a stunning drink you gave me yesterday. What was it?"

Of stories of Bohemianism of this type there were no end; one could probably fill a volume with them alone. Here are some more sufficiently funny to bear telling.

One of the most distinguished of the younger artists, whose name I won't give for obvious reasons, was married and lived with his wife in a sort of studio suite. Their married bliss was only marred with one thing, and that was the weakness of the artist for boon companions and whiskey. Otherwise he was a model husband, and the couple were devoted to each other. The curious part of this was that he would leave off the drink for days at a time, and to all appearances have turned over a new leaf, and then suddenly by an uncontrollable impulse he would break out again. To his credit it must be said that he always regretted it afterwards, and felt heartily ashamed of himself.

On the occasion I am about to describe he had been exceptionally "good" for quite a long time, and had been quite a model Benedict, so much so, in fact, that his wife one Saturday evening told him that it would perhaps do him no harm to go down and spend an hour or two with his friends at the Savage Club. He did not require much persuasion, and promised not only that he would not drink, but that he would not stay out late, and would be back again before twelve. This he said with the sure conviction that he would carry it out.

The inevitable happened, as might have been expected. He was a very popular fellow, and it was nearly five o'clock when he rolled home. He was very fuddled, but still had enough intelligence left to realize he had broken his word with his wife.

It was a lovely summer morning, and the sun was shining brilliantly. I forgot to mention that their bedroom led out of the studio. Taking off his boots as quietly as possible, he crept into the room. He was in luck's way; his wife was fast asleep and had not heard him come in, so he undressed and tried to climb into the bed without disturbing her; but he was very unsteady, and of course woke her. To his surprise she turned round drowsily and asked him why he was "getting up so early." He had not the heart to tell her he was only just coming to bed, when an inspiration occurred to him, and he told her that he could not sleep any longer, and it was such a fine morning he was going to take his sketch book and the dog and go for a stroll up to Hampstead. And he actually dressed again, tired though he was, and walked up to the Heath.

The other story, which is also humorous, was of a somewhat similar character. Another friend of mine, also a married man, burst out now and then. He had on this particular occasion been to a card party, and when at last he made his way homeward he had no idea whatever of the time, and he was so knocked up that he fell asleep in the cab.

The cabman woke him up when he reached his destination. With unsteady steps he made his way to his street door, when, much to his astonishment, he saw it was wide open. The discovery had the effect of instantly pulling him together. His first impulse was to get into a violent rage at the carelessness of his servant; then it struck him that burglars must have broken in. Yes, there was no doubt about it. He thought it best not to alarm the household, so he decided to wait where he was until a policeman came along before he did anything.

Whilst he was standing, or rather leaning, against the railing, the cook came out with a pail of water to clean the steps; she had left the door open while she went to sweep out the hall. It was a quarter to eight in the morning!

There was another story of a somewhat similar character they used to tell of a distinguished music hall artiste who also lived in the neighborhood. He was a very late bird, and seldom got home until well on in the small hours. On one occasion he drove up to his house at 9 o'clock in the morning. A policeman who was passing, and who knew him well, called out cheerily, "Good-night, sir."

In the quaint little alley I have referred to, which led from Queen's Terrace to Finchley Road, there were only studios, and I never pass through it without remembering a funny occurrence there one day. Yeend King had one of the studios, and I often used to go round and have a smoke with him. One Sunday morning I strolled round and found a typical top-hatted bourgeois waiting outside the door — a picture-dealer probably. He was evidently in a great state of irritation, and glad of an opportunity to air his grievance, and although I was quite a stranger to him, and was about to ring the bell, he said testily, "It isn't any use doing that, I have been waiting here for over an hour, and he hasn't come back yet. Disgusting making an appointment and keeping one waiting like this! I have a good mind to go away and not trouble about seeing his damned picture at all!"

I then saw that pinned on the door was a card on which was written "Back in ten minutes." Almost mechanically, whilst we were speaking, I rang the bell, and to our surprise King, palette and brushes in hand, opened the door immediately. He nodded to me, then turned to the top-hatted gentleman and said, "I like your idea of keeping an appointment, I have been waiting in for you since eleven o'clock and now it's past twelve."

I thought I would act as peacemaker and pointed to the notice on the door. It then appeared that King had gone out for a few minutes and forgotten to take the notice off on his return.


 

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