The Conundrum Club, London, 1895
Colonel Gulper (CG): This Carpetbag Steak's damned chewy, what?
Reverend Milke (RM): With respect, Colonel, that is a carpetbag you've got on your plate.
CG: What? Of course it's a carpetbag, you fool. I just said it was a carpetbag, a deuced chewy one, or are you going deaf in your old age, Reverend, what?
RM: No, Colonel, that is a bag, a carpet bag. You are attempting to eat a carpet bag.
CG: Damn their eyes! The swine are trying to poison me again. Last night the toad in the hole had a live poisonous toad in it, and as for last Thursday's pigs in blankets - I'm still picking the threads out of me teeth. The sewers, I'll have their guts for garters for this!
RM: Now, now, Colonel. Calm yourself. Your moustache is bristling again. You know what happens when your moustache bristles.
CG: (sighs) Yes, of course you're right, old man. But really, it drives a man to the wall. This place has gone to the dogs.
RM: Well, I must confess, to hear that the club had been sold to a Greyhound Racing Stables was something of a shock, though my food is perfectly edible.
CG: (harrumphs) Well, rabbit food's not easy to get wrong! What's that you're nibbling at? It looks like the hay I give to me goats.
RM: It's the hay they usually give to their goats. It is most nutritious, and you know exactly what you are getting. You really should give thought to vegetarianism.
CG: Pah! Damed poppycock!
RM: Actually, poppycock is one of my favourite dishes. You take dried poppies, and...
CG: Never mind all that. It's madness. If God had intended man to be vegetarian, he'd have put us in the fields with the cattle and the sheep. We'd be going round on all fours bawling and bleating.
RM: (clears his throat) Like you were last Saturday night in the games room?
CG: That was that bally awful white port of Frobisher's. Terrible stuff it was. Not good for a man at all. I'm only glad I passed out before we started on the fourth bottle. But don't you go changing the subject Reverend. You can't get away from the fact that vegetarians are a regiment of cranks. You're getting to be as batty as that chum of yours, what's his name?
CG: That chum of yours.
RM: Yes, Watt.
CG: (shouts) That chum of yours! Damn it, Reverend, you are going deaf.
RM: I heard you perfectly clearly. You mean my friend the botanist.
CG: That's the johnny! Mad as a hatter, old what's his name, what?
RM: Yes, it is.
RM: That's right.
CG: Have you been at the Madeira?
RM: Professor Watt, from Cambridge.
CG: Ah, yes, that's him! I see what you were driving at now, though you do have a damned queer way of putting things, what?
RM: Dear Eustace! He was on an expedition into the Bhutanese interior, you know, last year.
CG: Good Heavens! What on earth possessed him to go to a God-forsaken wilderness like that? I knew a chap went there once. Carstairs, he was called, or was it Waverley? He was stationed there for a while, whichever it was. He went mad, you know. He thought the trees were walking behind him and the rhododendrons were whispering about his toupe behind his back.
RM: He wore a toupe behind his back?
RM: Not Watt, Carstairs, or Waverley. Why did he wear a wig on his back?
CG: No, no, man. You really ought to get that hearing of yours looked at, or seen to, or heard about or something. The rhododendrons are gigantic in Bhutan, and he imagined that they were standing behind him laughing at his toupe.
RM: I see, very sad. What happened to him?
CG: The worst of it was, he didn't wear a toupe, never has. It was the thought that the rhododendrons might possibly think he did have a toupe that was the clincher, drove him over the edge. That and the walking trees. They found him laying traps for the magnolias. He claimed they were the ones who were following him the most, though the laurels were close behind. Of course, they were cutting back on the trap budgets, so he didn't have enough traps to go round the lot, that's why he was concentrating on the magnolias.
RM: A tragic case.
CG: Indeed. They sent him home. Discharge on medical grounds, on account of being off his rocker.
RM: Did they put him into an asylum?
CG: Afraid so. He joined the Conservatives. He ended up as Minister For Forestry.
RM: Poor chap.
CG: There but for the Grace of God, Reverend, there but for the Grace of...
RM: Eustace Watt does a lot of commissioned work these days. The Bhutanese job was undertaken on behalf of Lord Anthrax the maze collector.
CG: Maze collector?
RM: Yes. Lord Anthrax is building up quite a collection of hedgerow plants and he has constructed a number of avant-garde mazes on his various estates in Scotland and Cornwall. Watt was in Bhutan with a brief to pick up some of their exotic hedgerow plants. Lord Anthrax was particularly interested in Bhutan Cypress and its ilk.
RM: Yes, though old Eustace didn't think Bhutan was the best place to find any ilk. They're chiefly a lowland shrub, you know. But you have to humour the patrons, that's where the money comes from. Mustn't bite the hand that feeds, you know.
CG: Did he have a successful trip, what?
RM: I don't know. I had a letter from him after he first arrived, but that's all. He should have got back last Spring, but I haven't heard from him. He'll be out and about I should expect, giving demonstrations and selling his samples.
CG: You make him sound like some kind of travelling hawker.
RM: No, that would be his colleague, Twytchen.
RM: No, Twytchen, the bird man. Watt's the vegetation fellow. Twytchen's an expert on exotic fowls, apparently. He was looking for the Bhutanese Pygmy Burrowing Owl and the Humpbacked Bustard.
CG: The Pygmy Burrowing Owl? I didn't know there were any pygmies in Bhutan.
RM: There aren't now. The owl buried them all in its burrows. Vicious little creature it is. In fact, the Bhutanese interior is a bit of a battleground all round.
CG: How do you mean?
RM: They say it's a dog eat dog environment in there.
CG: I don't understand.
RM: Well, apart from the cannibal dogs, it's like a battlefield.
CG: I'm still in the dark.
RM: Well, so you would be. The sunlight hardly penetrates the forest canopy, and all manner of dangerous flora and fauna populate the jungles. If the insects don't get you, the poisonous plants will, and then there were the pygmies, before the owl finished them off. It's a real merry go round in the Bhutanese Interior you know.
CG: Merry go round? Ah, I think I see now what you're driving at. You do have a roundabout way of putting things, Reverend.
RM: It's just my way, Colonel. It was how we were taught to sermonise at Oxford. The 'Eel Principle'. 'Never give them anything to get hold of', the Dean used to say: 'be a slippery eel'.
CG: Damned stuff and nonsense! We had to deal with facts in the army. When the spears were flying in the Sudan we had no time to play the slippery eel. Good God, Reverend, what's the matter now?
RM: It's the evening paper. Look at this. 'Scottish Estate Terror. Maze Claims Another Victim. Lord Anthrax distraught to lose Head Butler at start of dinner party season. Police investigation instigated. Cambridge botanist Eustace Watt questioned. "Shrubs move at night" claims Head Gardener.
CG: Let me see. (reads) Well, well, Reverend. It seems there's more to you rabbit-food chaps than meets the eye. This is what comes of eating hay and hacking through the jungles of the Bhutanese Interior in search of exotic hedgerow plants, mark my words. If men would only stick to the bullet and the bayonet we wouldn't have this depravity. It's enough to drive a man to drink. Shall we open a third bottle?