Archive for May, 2012

I find it quite astounding that I have never seen or heard any commentator point out the striking connections between the forty-third Psalm and the beginning of chapter 14 of St John’s gospel.

“O send forth thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.”  Psalm 43:3

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will lead you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”  St John 14:1-3, 6

In this — one of the most controversial statements if not the most controversial statement uttered by Jesus — our Lord presents Himself, among other things, as the answer to the Psalmist’s plea that God send forth His light and His truth.  The Psalmist cried out in distress for a bright and faithful search party to take him to the dwelling of God.  And here is Christ Jesus.


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Some time ago I listened to a series of lectures that N. T. Wright gave on the gospel according to St Luke in a series called “The Big Read.” In his introductory lecture on St Luke’s gospel, he said that each of the four evangelists writes, in his own way, the climax of Israel’s story; accordingly, they all start their work to connect it with what had gone before.

So the first characters to appear in Luke’s gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth; Bishop Wright says of them that “they walk right out of the pages of the Old Testament.” Which is true. They are Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, all over again. They are a couple counted righteous — “walking blamelessly” is how Luke describes their life. They keep and are kept by their covenants with one another and with their faithful God. They are in every way good and admirable. But “they had no child . . . and both were advanced in years.”

Luke proceeds to tell the story of the appearance of the angel to Zechariah in the Temple, of the angel’s good news — “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” — of Zechariah’s disbelief and his being stricken dumb until John’s birth. Significant as that story is, I’ll pass over it to get to Elizabeth’s response to the fulfillment of the angel’s word:

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

The gritty wisdom of Elizabeth’s response stirs me to consider — among other things — the habits of mind, and the theology, that would produce the kind of character from which such a response would issue: no denial of long suffering and reproach, no “it’s about time” bitterness; no pride, and no showboating before neighbors who’d undoubtedly been wagging their tongues about “poor, barren Elizabeth” for years.

From just this brief bit of her story, you can safely deduce a few things about Elizabeth.Image

First, she took her community seriously, though doing so required that she endure its ugly side (is there any other way to take your community seriously?). Well she knew “her reproach among people.” And she did not chalk it up to their sheer foolishness. Had she long been saying to herself, “Whatever; Zechariah and I have more wisdom in our baby fingers than all our tongue-wagging friends have,” she would never have responded to her vindication as she did. Even though she knew many things her people did not — long suffering is an effective teacher — she respected her people enough to care about their collective judgment.

Second, she took the real world seriously, though doing so required that she endure its pains (is there any other way to take the real world seriously?). Psychological comfort, isolated from the real world of time and dust and water and wind and bread and wine and other people, wasn’t going to cut it for Elizabeth. Last year on Facebook there was a sad outbreak of the following status: “God sees you’ve been struggling with something. God says that’s over.” A glib saying, and about a thousand miles short of a real Christian response to suffering. Zechariah and Elizabeth struggled with barrenness for years; they prayed long and fervently, with hearts clean as you’ll find anywhere, and yet they still struggled. Had someone told them in the midst of their long suffering, “God says that’s over,” I imagine their response would have been an uncomprehending stare. And they would have been right. If we are pleased with introspective psychological comfort, which we can magically pull out of a hat, we are too easily pleased. If we are pleased with private psychological comfort, and do not cry out for public vindication — vindication of the name of God, vindication of our neighbors and, yes, vindication for ourselves — we reveal that our spirituality is more Buddhist than Christian, that we have cultivated an unhealthy detachment from the good world that God made, the redemptive history He has written and is writing. Elizabeth cared about the real world, even when reality bit and repeatedly aggravated the sore spot in her life. She did not lap up psychological bromides, but held on to her holy discontent until the day good news arrived and its fulfillment was made manifest in her womb.

Finally — and in tension with her holy discontent — Elizabeth took the faithfulness of her God seriously. The chief thing we spot in this text to distinguish Elizabeth and Zechariah from Abraham and Sarah, and from Elkanah*, is that Elizabeth and Zechariah never relied upon their own devices to produce children. They did not hedge their bets. They didn’t try jury-rigging anything in the created order. In the best sense, they were simple. They walked faithfully and humbly before God, and pleaded for a child. If that plea went forever rejected — and at the point St Luke picks up the story, it looked virtually certain it would go forever rejected — they would go on walking humbly before God as they always had, trusting that even his perpetual “no” was a faithful and just decree.

These things are not easy to hold together: on the one hand, rest in the faithfulness and justice of God; on the other, righteous unrest in the hard realities of the real world, realities which, for a time, that same faithful God has decreed. Elizabeth — may her tribe ever increase — held them together. And so when the long-in-coming vindication did come in the form of her son John, she understood its meaning: the vindication came not from the world, but it was publicly manifest in the world, to be a blessing and sign of the glory of God for the world.

* Elkanah had two wives. From three facts — his evident affection for Hannah, Hannah’s barrenness, and the fruitfulness of his other wife — I propose the following as probably sound deductions: (1) Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife, and (2) Elkanah took his second wife chiefly, perhaps solely, to produce children and heirs.

** All quotations from Luke 1-2 are from the English Standard Version.

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Every now and then someone will greet you with a question to which a proper answer is worth more than the thought you put into your typical small talk.

So this morning. Someone greeted me (arrested me, disarmed me, confounded me) with the question, “what’s new and exciting?”

Worth not a little thought, eh?

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23 ESV).

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“Today,” said the bearded bloke, “we are all happy to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fitz-Wattle——”

At the beginning of the address, Gussie had subsided into a sort of daydream, with his mouth hanging open. About half-way through, faint signs of life had begun to show. And for the last few minutes he had been trying to cross one leg over the other and failing and having another shot and failing again. But only now did he exhibit any real animation. He sat up with a jerk.

“Fink-Nottle,” he said, opening his eyes.



“I should say Fink-Nottle.”

“Of course you should, you silly ass,” said Gussie genially. “All right, get on with it.”

And closing his eyes, he began trying to cross his legs again.

I could see that this little spot of friction had rattled the bearded bloke a bit. He stood for a moment fumbling at the fungus with a hesitating hand. But they make these head masters of tough stuff. The weakness passed. He came back nicely and carried on.

“We are all happy, I say, to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle, who has kindly consented to award the prizes. This task, as you know, is one that should have devolved upon that well-beloved and vigorous member of our board of governors, the Rev. William Plomer, and we are all, I am sure, very sorry that illness at the last moment should have prevented him from being here today. But, if I may borrow a familiar metaphor from the—if I may employ a homely metaphor familiar to you all—what we lose on the swings we gain on the roundabouts.”

He paused, and beamed rather freely, to show that this was comedy. I could have told the man it was no use. Not a ripple. The corn chandler leaned against me and muttered “Whoddidesay?” but that was all.

It’s always a nasty jar to wait for the laugh and find that the gag hasn’t got across. The bearded bloke was visibly discomposed. At that, however, I think he would have got by, had he not, at this juncture, unfortunately stirred Gussie up again.

“In other words, though deprived of Mr. Plomer, we have with us this afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle. I am sure that Mr. Fink-Nottle’s name is one that needs no introduction to you. It is, I venture to assert, a name that is familiar to us all.”

“Not to you,” said Gussie.

And the next moment I saw what Jeeves had meant when he had described him as laughing heartily. “Heartily” was absolutely the mot juste. It sounded like a gas explosion.

“You didn’t seem to know it so dashed well, what, what?” said Gussie. And, reminded apparently by the word “what” of the word “Wattle,” he repeated the latter some sixteen times with a rising inflection.

“Wattle, Wattle, Wattle,” he concluded. “Right-ho. Push on.”

But the bearded bloke had shot his bolt. He stood there, licked at last; and, watching him closely, I could see that he was now at the crossroads. I could spot what he was thinking as clearly as if he had confided it to my personal ear. He wanted to sit down and call it a day, I mean, but the thought that gave him pause was that, if he did, he must then either uncork Gussie or take the Fink-Nottle speech as read and get straight on to the actual prize-giving.

It was a dashed tricky thing, of course, to have to decide on the spur of the moment. I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.

So with the bearded bloke. Whether he was abreast of the inside facts in Gussie’s case, I don’t know, but it was obvious to him by this time that he had run into something pretty hot. Trial gallops had shown that Gussie had his own way of doing things. Those interruptions had been enough to prove to the perspicacious that here, seated on the platform at the big binge of the season, was one who, if pushed forward to make a speech, might let himself go in a rather epoch-making manner.

On the other hand, chain him up and put a green-baize cloth over him, and where were you? The proceeding would be over about half an hour too soon.

P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves ch. 17 (1934).

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Almighty and most merciful Father . . .

The General Confession, The Book of Common Prayer.

In the last post on the General Confession I noted that the power of God is a comfort to sinners. Yet, without mercy, the might of God is an unmitigated threat to us and leaves us no hope through confession. So if we ask God for mercy, it helps to begin by reminding ourselves of the extent of the mercy available to us.

So just who is this one the General Confession calls “most merciful Father”? How ready is He to hear and respond with pity to a true confession?

You probably know a story* that begins this way:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

The parable of the prodigal son is commonly oversimplified to the following, which is true as far as it goes: the younger son takes his share of his father’s property, goes off, squanders everything sowing his wild oats, then comes back, and is mercifully received by his father. But there is more to it, much more. The parable, which Jesus primarily addresses to experts in law, reads like a law school exam question: packed into almost every phrase is some monstrous injustice, or some unthinkable mercy, that raises some issue which must be dealt with. Both sons grievously offend their father, heaping insult upon insult. And the father meets every last insult with extravagant grace.

Estates don’t descend to heirs until someone dies. So the younger son’s request, “give me my share of the estate,” means, in effect, “I wish you were dead. I have no affection for you, no filial respect for you. I don’t want to be part of your family. I just want your stuff — my stuff — right now.” The younger son’s circumstances may get worse. But his behavior hits rock bottom right out of the gate.

But his father, again right out of the gate, meets this monstrous injustice with mercy. Far from taking the expected action — throwing his ungrateful son out bodily — he endures, ungrudgingly, the anguish of dividing his life with his son.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

The younger son, being a proud, stiff-necked, pity-spurning fool, doesn’t come away from his rebellion unscathed. To the original Jewish hearers of this story, feeding pigs and longing to be fed with pods the pigs ate was hitting rock bottom and starting to drill. It took circumstances that desperate to wake the son up. Only when his alternatives dried up did he think of home:

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

It’s noteworthy that the son resolves to pay his father the compliment of calling him “Father,” but will not presume to ask to be treated as a son again. And that his planned confession lists the offended parties in the right order — “I sinned against heaven and against you.” But he has not yet totally surrendered: the son wants to be a hired servant; to do his father the justice of making restitution. Now restitution is a good thing as far as it goes, but the son’s plan overlooks that he cannot put a price tag on his father’s agony. To that extent he still doesn’t see the full gravity of his offense; he knows he has wronged his father, but he still thinks himself competent to judge his wrong and his father’s loss, and to sentence himself to repayment of squandered property. In short, he’s still attached to some idea of right, and the desire to captain his own ship. With these things in mind he goes home.

Plainly the father hasn’t been seething in the meantime, reciting to himself the things his son ought to say it he dares show his face around town again. And here as everywhere else, the father casts aside anything like dignity and convention. He runs — as women and children, but not fathers, did back then. The father dramatically “falls on his son’s neck” and kisses him. Stunning as that is, he’s just getting warmed up.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

In response to his father’s astonishingly affectionate greeting, the younger son begins his prepared remarks, but, significantly, stops before getting to the restitution part. He only acknowledges the sad truth about himself, and leaves it at that. He finally relinquishes any pretense that he is able of his own strength to make things right. How could anyone who has callously wounded such a generous father speak of repayment? He makes his confession, and leaves judgment to his father.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

For the son’s bare feet, a sign of his poverty, the father gives sandals; and the best robe and ring (a family signet ring, probably) signify the father’s full acceptance of his son back into the family as an honored member. Killing the fatted calf means that this is to be the party of parties, with the whole village to be invited. The villagers would have wondered at this, since the father was basically taking upon himself the dishonor the son brought upon the family. But the father does not stand on ceremony: how can things be otherwise, since my son has come back from the dead?

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

Having welcomed his prodigal son home, the father now takes an unkinder cut from his firstborn, which is worse than the younger son’s because it’s given in public. The family would have been expected to greet the guests from the village; for the firstborn to refuse is for him to publicly disown the family.

The father is nothing if not consistent. Instead of having the elder son bound and brought in to face judgment, he again goes out to meet a rebellious son. And not to command his son, but to plead with him.

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

Just as his initial cut was unkinder than his younger brother’s, so is the firstborn’s response to his father’s grace, which is the unkindest cut of all to this point. He acknowledges neither his father nor his brother (contemptuously called “this son of yours”), and prefaces his complaint with the word “look.” He has not come to his senses; he does not see himself or his father or his situation clearly. He is blinded by his own bitterness at having worked with apparent diligence and faithfulness but not received the advances — one third of the father’s estate, and now the fatted calf — that his brother had received. He cannot see his father’s generosity to him, or what his speech makes plain: that he, just as his younger brother once did, loves his father’s property but not his father.

Again, this speech was not a back room deal; many of the guests would have followed the father out of the house and would have heard the son’s words. So the father, again publicly lowering himself, overlooks his son’s insult and labors patiently to bring his outwardly obedient but utterly wayward firstborn to his senses.

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

Don’t miss the opening words: “My son.” There are a couple of Greek words for son: one is “huios,” the more formal, legal term, the other “teknon,” a term of tender affection. Luke uses “teknon” to capture our Lord’s meaning. The father does not accept his firstborn’s rash disowning of the family; he loves his son starting from his address. Then he speaks of the grace of communion: “You are always with me.” And he labors on: “my property, my living, my very life, is yours for the sharing, and — isn’t this great! — that includes your found brother.” The father scorns all shame and will not be thwarted from seeking above all the restoration and peace of his family.

So how does the elder son respond to this last entreaty? We don’t know. The cliffhanger ending here is masterful, with Jesus in effect saying to the Pharisees and lawyers to whom he told the parable, and by extension to we who overhear today, “the doors of the kingdom of God are thrown open. Tax collectors and prostitutes and all manner of those who squandered the inheritance are coming to their senses, and going in to dine at the feast. Your God and Father is glad to welcome them. So are you going to stand outside and grouse about, indeed publicly decry, his generosity? Or will you go in to your Father’s party with your brothers and sisters and be happy?”

Jesus understood his Father to be “most merciful” — indeed, reading the parable through, we might say that it is “his property always to have mercy.”** This relentless mercy tends to produce one of two responses: wonder and gratitude on the one hand, a bad case of the sulks on the other. The General Confession begins by calling us to recognize the mercy of God as an inexhaustible wonder, in light of which we can admit plainly, without guile or rationalization, every bit of dirty dirt we carry, from our unshod feet to our tangled hair. ***

* Luke 15:11-32. All quotes from the parable are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
** From the Book of Common Prayer Order for Holy Communion.
*** The above look at the parable of the two sons and their father traces, almost to but hopefully not to or past the point of plagiarism, the works of Kenneth Bailey and Timothy Keller. I haven’t quoted either, and do not think I have borrowed any of their words, but their expositions have so impacted my thinking about this parable that my thoughts on it are closely intertwined with theirs. If anyone spots unattributed quotes, it’s because they were that well-lodged in my brain. I will gladly credit their words anywhere the credit may be due.

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Don’t hold your breath . . .

We’ve all heard that phrase many times.  And we all know what it means: it’s a cynical retort to someone who thinks that something is going to happen.

But what if the words “don’t hold your life” followed?  That’d put “don’t hold your breath” in an entirely different setting. “Don’t hold your breath” would then evoke thoughts of life, in its very essence: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”[1]

Those two lines – “Don’t hold your breath/Don’t hold your life” – are Eric Peters’s Birds of Relocation in miniature, the whole of the work wrought small and swift that we might more readily take it in.[2]  For life is the great theme of Birds of Relocation, soup to nuts.  All over this magnificent work we see Eric snatching dead things from Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and, with given breath, breathing new life into them.

The chief means through which Eric does this are his careful wordsmithing and his glorious voice.  In his excellent play-by-play review of Birds, S. D. Smith calls Eric a “songbird” – and ne’er a more spot-on word was spoken. Often with singer-songwriters, the deal is that we live with the singing for the sake of the songwriting.  Not so with Eric.  His voice – he’s a tenor with a nice falsetto, blessed with a good range and a pleasing timbre throughout – is cultivated, in the best sense.  That is, you can tell Eric works on his voice, but in no sense is it manufactured; it has neither the pretentiousness of some operatic tenors nor the affectations of many pop singers.  And his voice recorded is more than a pleasing palette of sounds.  From its clarity and presence, I’d guess (I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting him) that Eric’s voice is simply the man himself, exhaling – and transfigured in the exhaling.  It’s a broad-ranged instrument that captures wonderfully the nuances of image and mood in his lyrics – pensive, mournful, resolute, and exultant.

And speaking of those lyrics, Birds of Relocation is a box of gems.  Here is a small sampling:

We’re selves of our former shadows.

Children hide themselves behind their hands, and peek through to be found once again.

We’re a couple of codependents, like the span over Pontchartrain.

Like a Caesar in Rome, sacked and alone, all dressed to the nines atop a plastic throne.

Live your life just like a purloined letter.

We’re a thousand-piece puzzle scattered into the wind.

But the measure of Eric’s lyric writing cannot fully be taken by noting his ability to utter pithy and evocative lines.  He’s also really good at taking songs in unexpected directions, changing their courses on a dime – as we saw in the first two lines of “Don’t Hold Your Breath.”  That skill appears again later in the same song, by the way he finishes a line that begins with the words “it’s been a long time . . .”  Those words are generally the intellectual property of the wistful, who finish the thought with things like “since I drank champagne,” or “since I smelled honeysuckle blossoms,” or whatever.  Eric’s finish, though, is quite different, and results in a line as startling as it is convicting:

It’s been a long time since I kept my word.

The best example, though, of Eric’s ability to take lyrical concepts in unexpected directions is the song “Voices.”  That song is well-placed in the middle of Birds of Relocation, since, in my view, it is the hinge on which Birds turns.  Birds begins with a declaration about a hard year past: “Ha ha! to the old year” – and ends with an utterly realistic, utterly exultant resolve to enjoy the skies, while looking for a sign of life on a flooded earth.  But “Voices” is the hard working out of the “Ha ha! to the old year,” the Lenten training ground through which Eric arrives at the settled resolve of “Fighting for Life.”  It’s about silencing the voices that accuse us, that destroy us with accusations of worthlessness.  But in Eric’s lyric, this isn’t accomplished by mere silencing.  It’s accomplished by a gently powerful double entendre on the song’s title:

Hear, o hear, the saints’ and angels’ voices.

By song’s end, it’s clear that although it started on voices of accusation, “Voices” is actually about the voices of the saints and angels.  It’s a song of triumph, a man’s gritty answer to St Paul’s question, “it is God who justifies; who is to condemn?”[3]

Having said this much about Birds of Relocation, I’ve still barely scratched the surface of all that could be said about it.  Maybe the best thing that I could say, though, is that I’m already better man for having listened to it for the past few weeks, and for taking the time to meditate on its treasures in this review. And I don’t think it’s close to finished doing its good work on me – every time I turn it on I notice something new, which calls forth more life in me.  So, since yesterday was the official CD release day for Birds of Relocation (though it has been available in electronic format via The Rabbit Room for much longer), I heartily commend this to you as a good occasion to purchase it.

I bring this little review to an end with a postscript about the song with which Eric ends Birds of Relocation, “Fighting for Life.”  As I said before, this is a song of utterly realistic and utterly exultant resolve.  Its realism is evident in the quiet, thoughtful beginning, and the acknowledgment that “in a little while, the ghosts return to noise.”  In short, Eric is realistic enough to know that life under the sun does not afford us a place where we can put troubles so far behind us that they can’t reappear in our rearview mirrors. But Eric’s duly noting that is simply a deep breath – the intake of air before he unleashes, with that glorious voice, a rousing final trumpet blast:

I go into the darkness carrying a light,
I’ll have no fear because I’m not alone:
I got angels’ voices and friends who love me for who I am;
So when the waters come
I fly above this flooded earth, looking for a sign of life,
And I relocate on boughs of hope,
Like a living soul, remembering
That in a little while, in a little while,
The ghosts return to noise.
Ooh, but not right now, not right now,
The sky must be enjoyed.

[1] Genesis 2:7 (AV).

[2] Paraphrasing George MacDonald’s description of Christ’s miracles.

[3] Romans 8:33-34.

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“What-ho, Bertie,” he said. “What-ho, what-ho, what-ho, and again what-ho. What a beautiful world this is, Bertie. One of the nicest I ever met.”

I stared at him, speechless. We Woosters are as quick as lightning, and I saw at once that something had happened.

I mean to say, I told you about him walking round in circles. I recorded what passed between us on the lawn. And if I portrayed the scene with anything like adequate skill, the picture you will have retained of this Fink-Nottle will have been that of a nervous wreck, sagging at the knees, green about the gills, and picking feverishly at the lapels of his coat in an ecstasy of craven fear. In a word, defeatist. Gussie, during that interview, had, in fine, exhibited all the earmarks of one licked to a custard.

Vastly different was the Gussie who stood before me now. Self-confidence seemed to ooze from the fellow’s every pore. His face was flushed, there was a jovial light in his eyes, the lips were parted in a swashbuckling smile. And when with a genial hand he sloshed me on the back before I could sidestep, it was as if I had been kicked by a mule.

“Well, Bertie,” he proceeded, as blithely as a linnet without a thing on his mind, “you will be glad to hear that you were right. Your theory has been tested and proved correct. I feel like a fighting cock.”

My brain ceased to reel. I saw all.

“Have you been having a drink?”

“I have. As you advised. Unpleasant stuff. Like medicine. Burns your throat, too, and makes one as thirsty as the dickens. How anyone can mop it up, as you do, for pleasure, beats me. Still, I would be the last to deny that it tunes up the system. I could bite a tiger.”

“What did you have?”

“Whisky. At least, that was the label on the decanter, and I have no reason to suppose that a woman like your aunt—staunch, true-blue, British—would deliberately deceive the public. If she labels her decanters Whisky, then I consider that we know where we are.”

“A whisky and soda, eh? You couldn’t have done better.”

“Soda?” said Gussie thoughtfully. “I knew there was something I had forgotten.”

“Didn’t you put any soda in it?”

“It never occurred to me. I just nipped into the dining-room and drank out of the decanter.”

“How much?”

“Oh, about ten swallows. Twelve, maybe. Or fourteen. Say sixteen medium-sized gulps. Gosh, I’m thirsty.”

He moved over to the wash-stand and drank deeply out of the water bottle. I cast a covert glance at Uncle Tom’s photograph behind his back. For the first time since it had come into my life, I was glad that it was so large. It hid its secret well. If Gussie had caught sight of that jug of orange juice, he would unquestionably have been on to it like a knife.

“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling braced,” I said.

He moved buoyantly from the wash-hand stand, and endeavoured to slosh me on the back again. Foiled by my nimble footwork, he staggered to the bed and sat down upon it.

“Braced? Did I say I could bite a tiger?”

“You did.”

“Make it two tigers. I could chew holes in a steel door. What an ass you must have thought me out there in the garden. I see now you were laughing in your sleeve.”

“No, no.”

“Yes,” insisted Gussie. “That very sleeve,” he said, pointing. “And I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine why I made all that fuss about a potty job like distributing prizes at a rotten little country grammar school. Can you imagine, Bertie?”

“Exactly. Nor can I imagine. There’s simply nothing to it. I just shin up on the platform, drop a few gracious words, hand the little blighters their prizes, and hop down again, admired by all. Not a suggestion of split trousers from start to finish. I mean, why should anybody split his trousers? I can’t imagine. Can you imagine?”


“Nor can I imagine. I shall be a riot. I know just the sort of stuff that’s needed—simple, manly, optimistic stuff straight from the shoulder. This shoulder,” said Gussie, tapping. “Why I was so nervous this morning I can’t imagine. For anything simpler than distributing a few footling books to a bunch of grimy-faced kids I can’t imagine. Still, for some reason I can’t imagine, I was feeling a little nervous, but now I feel fine, Bertie—fine, fine, fine—and I say this to you as an old friend. Because that’s what you are, old man, when all the smoke has cleared away—an old friend. I don’t think I’ve ever met an older friend. How long have you been an old friend of mine, Bertie?”

“Oh, years and years.”

“Imagine! Though, of course, there must have been a time when you were a new friend…. Hullo, the luncheon gong. Come on, old friend.”

And, rising from the bed like a performing flea, he made for the door.

I followed rather pensively. What had occurred was, of course, so much velvet, as you might say. I mean, I had wanted a braced Fink-Nottle— indeed, all my plans had had a braced Fink-Nottle as their end and aim —but I found myself wondering a little whether the Fink-Nottle now sliding down the banister wasn’t, perhaps, a shade too braced. His demeanour seemed to me that of a man who might quite easily throw bread about at lunch.

Fortunately, however, the settled gloom of those round him exercised a restraining effect upon him at the table. It would have needed a far more plastered man to have been rollicking at such a gathering.

P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves ch. 16 (1934).

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