Not The Arcadia
Those who do not know the Arcadia may have a mixture that their
uneducated palate loves, but they are always ready to try other
mixtures. The Arcadian, however, will never help himself from an
outsider's pouch. Nevertheless, there was one black week when we all
smoked the ordinary tobaccoes. Owing to a terrible oversight on the part
of our purveyor, there was no Arcadia to smoke.
We ought to have put our pipes aside and existed on cigars; but the
pipes were old friends, and desert them we could not. Each of us bought
a different mixture, but they tasted alike and were equally abominable.
I fell ill. Doctor Southwick, knowing no better, called my malady by
a learned name, but I knew to what I owed it. Never shall I forget
my delight when Jimmy broke into my room one day with a pound-tin of
the Arcadia. Weak though I was, I opened my window and, seizing the
half-empty packet of tobacco that had made me ill, hurled it into the
street. The tobacco scattered before it fell, but I sat at the window
gloating over the packet, which lay a dirty scrap of paper, where every
cab might pass over it. What I call the street is more strictly a
square, for my windows were at the back of the inn, and their view was
somewhat plebeian. The square is the meeting-place of five streets, and
at the corner of each the paper was caught up in a draught that bore it
along to the next.
Here, it may be thought, I gladly forgot the cause of my troubles, but
I really watched the paper for days. My doctor came in while I was still
staring at it, and instead of prescribing more medicine, he made a bet
with me. It was that the scrap of paper would disappear before the
dissolution of the government. I said it would be fluttering around
after the government was dissolved, and if I lost, the doctor was to get
a new stethoscope. If I won, my bill was to be accounted discharged.
Thus, strange as it seemed, I had now cause to take a friendly interest
in paper that I had previously loathed. Formerly the sight of it made me
miserable; now I dreaded losing it. But I looked for it when I rose in
the morning, and I could tell at once by its appearance what kind of
night it had passed. Nay, more: I believed I was able to decide how the
wind had been since sundown, whether there had been much traffic, and if
the fire-engine had been out. There is a fire-station within view of the
windows, and the paper had a specially crushed appearance, as if the
heavy engine ran over it. However, though I felt certain that I could
pick my scrap of paper out of a thousand scraps, the doctor insisted on
making sure. The bet was consigned to writing on the very piece of paper
that suggested it. The doctor went out and captured it himself. On the
back of it the conditions of the wager were formally drawn up and signed
by both of us. Then we opened the window and the paper was cast forth
again. The doctor solemnly promised not to interfere with it, and I gave
him a convalescent's word of honor to report progress honestly.
Several days elapsed, and I no longer found time heavy on my hands. My
attention was divided between two papers, the scrap in the square and my
daily copy of the _Times_. Any morning the one might tell me that I had
lost my bet, or the other that I had won it; and I hurried to the window
fearing that the paper had migrated to another square, and hoping my
_Times_ might contain the information that the government was out.
I felt that neither could last very much longer. It was remarkable how
much my interest in politics had increased since I made this wager.
The doctor, I believe, relied chiefly on the scavengers. He thought they
were sure to pounce upon the scrap soon. I did not, however, see why
I should fear them. They came into the square so seldom, and stayed so
short a time when they did come, that I disregarded them. If the doctor
knew how much they kept away he might say I bribed them. But perhaps he
knew their ways. I got a fright one day from a dog. It was one of those
low-looking animals that infest the square occasionally in half-dozens,
but seldom alone. It ran up one of the side streets, and before I
realized what had happened it had the paper in its mouth. Then it stood
still and looked around. For me that was indeed a trying moment. I stood
at the window.
The impulse seized me to fling open the sash and shake my fist at
the brute; but luckily I remembered in time my promise to the doctor.
I question if man was ever so interested in mongrel before. At one of the
street corners there was a house to let, being meantime, as I had reason
to believe, in the care of the wife of a police constable. A cat was
often to be seen coming up from the area to lounge in the doorway. To
that cat I firmly believe I owe it that I did not then lose my wager.
Faithful animal! it came up to the door, it stretched itself; in the act
of doing so it caught sight of the dog, and put up its back. The dog,
resenting this demonstration of feeling, dropped the scrap of paper and
made for the cat. I sank back into my chair.
There was a greater disaster to be recorded next day. A workingman
in the square, looking about him for a pipe-light, espied the paper
frisking near the curb-stone. He picked it up with the obvious intention
of lighting it at the stove of a wandering vender of hot chestnuts who
had just crossed the square. The workingman followed, twisting the paper
as he went, when--good luck again--a young butcher almost ran into him,
and the loafer, with true presence of mind, at once asked him for a
match. At any rate a match passed between them; and, to my infinite
relief, the paper was flung away.
I concealed the cause of my excitement from William John. He
nevertheless wondered to see me run to the window every time the wind
seemed to be rising, and getting anxious when it rained. Seeing that my
health prevented my leaving the house, he could not make out why I
should be so interested in the weather. Once I thought he was fairly on
the scent. A sudden blast of wind had caught up the paper and whirled it
high in the air. I may have uttered an ejaculation, for he came hurrying
to the window. He found me pointing unwittingly to what was already a
white speck sailing to the roof of the fire-station. Is it a pigeon?
he asked. I caught at the idea. Yes, a carrier-pigeon, I murmured in
reply; they sometimes, I believe, send messages to the fire-stations in
that way. Coolly as I said this, I was conscious of grasping the
window-sill in pure nervousness till the scrap began to flutter back
into the square.
Next it was squeezed between two of the bars of a drain. That was the
last I saw of it, and the following morning the doctor had won his
stethoscope--only by a few hours, however, for the government's end was
announced in the evening papers. My defeat discomfited me for a little,
but soon I was pleased that I had lost. I would not care to win a bet
over any mixture but the Arcadia.
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