THE MOGGRIDGES’ ZEPPELIN NIGHT

“I’m tired,” said Bindle one evening, his cheery look belying his words, “tired as Gawd must be of ‘Earty.” He threw himself into a chair and fanned himself with a red silk pocket-handkerchief.
“What’s the trouble, J.B.?” asked Dick Little, handing Bindle his tankard.
Bindle drank deeply and proceeded to light a cigar Windover had handed him. Bindle’s taste in tobacco had in the early days of the Night Club caused us some anxiety. One night Windover came in and began to sniff the air suspiciously.
“There’s something burning,” he announced. We all made ostentatious search for the source of the smell. It was Windover who traced it to Bindle’s cigar. Taking it from his hand he had smelt it gingerly and then returned it to its owner.
“I think,” he remarked quite casually, “I should change the brand, J.B. We cannot allow you to imperil your valuable life. Your tobacconist has grossly deceived you. That is not a cigar, it’s an offence against the constitution.”
“Is it really, sir,” said Bindle anxiously as he regarded the offending weed. “I thought it ‘ad a bit of a bite to it.”
Windover had then launched into a lengthy monologue, during which he traced all the evils of the world, from the Plagues of Egypt to the Suffrage Agitation, to the use of questionable tobacco. The upshot had been that Bindle agreed to allow Windover to advise him in such matters in future. That is how it came about that at the Night Club Bindle smokes shilling cigars, for which he pays Windover at the rate of ten shillings a hundred, under the impression that they are purchased for that sum.
I afterwards discovered that the offending smokes were known as “Sprague’s Fulham Whiffs,” one shilling and threepence for ten in a cardboard box.
“The trouble,” remarked Bindle in reply to Dick Little’s question, “is that people won’t do the right thing. I jest been to see Mrs. Biggs wot’s in trouble. Last week ole Sam Biggs shuts the door an’ window, turns on the gas, an’ kills ‘imself, an’ leaves ‘is missus to pay the gas bill. It’s annoyed ‘er.”
“Is she much upset?” enquired Sallie solicitously.
“Somethink awful, miss. She don’t seem to be able to get ‘er voice down again, it’s got so ‘igh tellin’ the neighbours. I told ‘er that it costs yer money to get rid of most things, from a boil to an ‘usband, an’ Sam ain’t dear at a bit extra on the gas bill.”
The sittings of the Night Club invariably began and ended with conversation. Before opening the proceedings by calling for the story, Bindle frequently eases his mind of what was pressing most heavily upon it. His utterances are listened to as are those of no one else. If he be conscious of the fact he does not show it.
He has become a law unto himself. He is incapable of giving offence, because there is nothing but good-nature in his mind.
One of our members, Robert Crofton, a little doctor man, has a most extraordinary laugh, which he seems unable to control. It is something of a cackle punctuated by a quick indrawing of breath. One night after listening attentively to this strange manifestation of mirth, Bindle remarked with great seriousness to Windover:
“No one didn’t ought to make that noise without followin’ it up with an egg.”
From that date Crofton was known as “the Hen.”
It took considerable argument before Bindle would agree to the inclusion in this volume of the story of how Mr. Moggridge was cured of his infatuation for Zeppelins.
I
Mr. Josiah Moggridge was haunted by Zeppelins! It is true that he had not seen one, had never even heard a bomb explode, or a gun fired in anger; still he was obsessed with the idea of the “Zeppelin Menace.” He read every article and paragraph dealing with the subject in all the newspapers and magazines he came across. His children jackalled industriously for this food for their parent. If Dorothy, who was as pretty as she was romantic, arrived home late, her olive-branch would be some story or article about Zeppelins. If Alan, who was sixteen and endowed with imagination, got into a scrape, it was a Zeppelin “rumour” that got him out of it.
Mr. Moggridge journeyed far and near in search of the destruction caused by these air monsters. Had the British public known what Mr. Moggridge knew “for a fact,” the war would have collapsed suddenly. No nation could be expected to stand up against the “frightfulness” that was to come, according to Mr. Moggridge. In regard to Zeppelins the German people themselves were sceptics compared with Mr. Moggridge.
The slightest hint or rumour of a Zeppelin raid would send him off hot-foot in search of the ruin and desolation spread by these accursed contrivances. The Moggridge girls came in for many delightful excursions in consequence, for Mr. Moggridge was never happy unless he had about him some of his numerous progeny. If Irene wanted to see the daffydowndillies in Kew Gardens, it seemed almost an interposition of providence that she should hear there had been a Zeppelin raid near Richmond. In justice to her it must be admitted that she would discredit the rumour; but nothing, not even an Act of Parliament, could turn Mr. Moggridge from the pursuit of his hobby.
No amount of discouragement seemed to affect him. If he drew a blank at Balham, he would set out for Stratford with undiminished ardour. Should Holloway fail him, then Streatham would present the scene of desolation he dreaded, yet sought so assiduously. “Man never is but always to be blest,” might have been the motto of Josiah Moggridge.
Mrs. Moggridge was the type of woman who regards her husband as something between a god and a hero. To Mr. Moggridge she herself was always “Mother,” and as if in justification of the term, she had presented him with one son, and eight daughters, whose ages ranged from eleven to twenty-two. Having done this Mrs. Moggridge subsided into oblivion. She had done her “bit,” to use the expression of a later generation.
Her attitude towards life was that of a hen that has reached the dazzling heights of having produced from thirteen eggs thirteen pullets. She was a comfortable body, as devoid of imagination as an ostrich. Her interests were suburban, her name was Emma, and her waist measurement thirty-eight inches on Sundays and forty-two inches during the rest of the week.
Mr. Moggridge was forever on the alert for the detonation of bombs and the boom of anti-aircraft guns. At night he would listen earnestly for the sound of the trains that passed at the bottom of the Moggridge garden. If the intervals between the dull rumblings seemed too prolonged, he would start up and exclaim, “I believe they’ve stopped,” which as everybody knows meant Zeppelins.
One night after the first Zeppelin raid (it is not permitted by the Defence of the Realm Act to say where or when this occurred, or, for that matter, in what part of the United Kingdom the Moggridges resided), Patricia Moggridge, a petite brunette of twenty, all the Moggridge girls were pretty, enquired, “What shall we do, dad, if Zeppelins come to Cedar Avenue?”
Mr. Moggridge had sat up in sudden alarm. Here was he responsible for the protection of a family, yet he had taken no steps to ensure its safety. Patricia’s remark set him thinking deeply. He loved his family, and his family adored him. They regarded him as a child that has to be humoured, rather than a parent who has to be feared. They obeyed him because they wished to see him happy, and Mr. Moggridge’s conception of manhood was that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”
He was short and round and fussy, as full of interest as a robin, as explosive as a bomb; but with eyes that smiled and a nature that would have warmed an ice-box. A crisis or a misadventure excited him almost to the point of frenzy. Starting for the annual holiday drove him nearly insane with worry lest someone or something be left behind, or they lose the train.
When Patricia asked her innocent question she was sitting on her father’s knee “nuzzling his whiskers,” as she called it, Mr. Moggridge wore side whiskers and a clean shaven upper lip and chin, she was unaware of what would grow out of her question.
Mr. Moggridge read industriously the advice tendered by various newspapers as to what should be done during a Zeppelin raid. He read with the seriousness of a man who knows that salvation lies somewhere in the columns of the Press.
One night he gathered together the whole of his family in the drawing-room, including the two maids and the cook, and instructed all in what should be done at the sound of the first gun. He made many references to a sheaf of notes and newspaper-cuttings he had before him, which seemed to get terribly mixed. He then enquired if everyone understood; but the half-hearted chorus of “Yeses” that answered him was unconvincing.
“Cook,” he said sternly, “what would you do if Zeppelins came?”
“Please, sir, faint,” was the reply.
The interrogation of other members of his household convinced him that a further exposition was necessary.
Stripped of their verbal adornments, Mr. Moggridge’s instructions were that on the first intimation that Zeppelins were at hand, the whole household was to make for the basement.
Half-an-hour’s further “instruction” left everyone still more hopelessly befogged as to what was expected of them. The gist of Mr. Moggridge’s instructions was:
(1) That everyone should make for the cellar without bothering about dressing.
(2) That every bath, portable or fixed, tub, jug, or other vessel was each night to be filled with water, and placed on the landings as a protection against incendiary bombs.
(3) That under no circumstances was any light to be turned on (as a precaution Mr. Moggridge turned off the electric light each night) or candle to be lit.
“But how shall we find our way downstairs?” enquired Allan, his son and heir.
“You’ll feel it, my boy,” replied his father, unconsciously prophetic.
A few days later Mr. Moggridge read of the intention of the Germans to use gas-bombs, and he immediately purchased at Harridges Stores fourteen “Protective Face Masks.” That night he returned home feeling that he had saved fourteen lives, including his own.
After dinner the household was once more summoned to the drawing-room, where Mr. Moggridge distributed the gas-masks, and gave a short lecture upon how they were to be worn. When he illustrated his instructions by donning a mask, the younger of the two maids giggled uncontrollably.
Mr. Moggridge glared at her volcanically. “Girl!” he thundered, “do you know that I am trying to save your life.”
Whereat the girl burst into tears.
Mr. Moggridge rustled about among his notes anxiously, whilst his hearers watched him with breathless interest. He soon saw that no help was to be expected from the Press, which appeared to be divided into two camps. There was the bomb theory and the gas theory, the one demanding descent and the other ascent.
Mr. Moggridge was nonplussed and referred to the gas-bomb article. Suppose explosive bombs were dropped when they were prepared for gas-bombs and conversely? Suddenly he had an inspiration.
“I’ve got it!” he shouted, as he danced excitedly from one foot to the other. “If you smell gas you go up to the attics: if you——”
“But how shall we know it’s gas unless we know what it smells like?” questioned Alan.
Mr. Moggridge looked at his only son as at someone who had asked him the riddle of the universe. Alan was notorious for the embarrassing nature of his questions.
“I shall know how to find that out,” was all that Mr. Moggridge could reply, and Alan felt that he had obtained a tactical victory.
“In the meantime, if you smell anything you’ve never smelt before you’ll know it’s gas.”
This seemed to satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, Mr. Moggridge made industrious enquiry as to what gas really smelt like. No one knew; but many theories as to the exact odour were advanced, ranging from vinegar to sewage. At last Mr. Moggridge heard of a man who had actually been gassed. Eagerly he made a pilgrimage to the district in which the hero resided and as eagerly put his question.
“Wot’s gas smell like?” remarked the warrior, whose moustache was as yet reluctant down upon his upper lip. “It beats the smell of army cheese ‘ollow, an’ that’s the truth.”
And with this Mr. Moggridge had to rest content. In the silent watches of the night, many a member of the Moggridge household would awaken suddenly and sniff expectantly for “a strange odour rather like strong cheese,” Mr. Moggridge’s paraphrase of the soldier’s words.
Mr. Moggridge decided to sleep at the top of the house—alone. He had moved up there and sent down two of the girls to sleep with their mother, because he regarded the upper rooms as the most dangerous, and he was not lacking in courage. He regarded it as his mission in life to protect those who looked to him for protection. In his mind’s eye, Mr. Moggridge saw himself the saviour of thirteen lives, possibly fourteen if he had not to give up his own in the attempt. NORFLOXACIN HCL
Each night it was his self-imposed task to examine “the defences” as his daughter, Mollie, called them. On every landing and outside every door were baths, wash-tubs, basins, pails and other vessels containing water. Even when the lights were on, it was a matter of some delicacy to thread one’s way through these watery entanglements. The servants grumbled at the additional work involved; but Mr. Moggridge had silenced them with “a Zeppelin bonus,” as he called it, and furthermore he had mobilised his whole family to assist in this work of protection against fire.
“When I’ve saved your worthless lives, you’ll be grateful perhaps,” he had exploded, and it had taken “Mother” all the next morning to explain to her domestic staff that “valuable” and not “worthless” was the adjective her husband had used.
Outside his own bedroom-door Mr. Moggridge had placed the large dinner gong on which to sound the alarm, and at the head of the stairs an enormous tin-bath full of water. It was so placed that the slightest push would send bath and contents streaming down the stairs. Mr. Moggridge argued that no fire could live in such a deluge.
In time Mr. Moggridge came to regard himself as something between a Sergeant O’Leary and the Roman Sentry, with a leaning towards the sentry; for there would be no reward for him. He saw his family safe and sound, whilst his neighbours lay maimed and dying.
4“We are at war, my dears,” he would inform his family, “and war is different from peace,” and there were none who felt they could question this profound truth.
II
The night of November 5th was bleak and cold and misty, and as Mr. Moggridge prepared for the night he shivered, and prayed that no Zeppelins might come. He disliked the cold intensely, and pictured to himself the unpleasantness of sitting for hours in a damp cellar with very few clothes on. Sleep always came readily to Mr. Moggridge’s eye-lids, and within five minutes of extinguishing the light and slipping into bed, his heavy breathing announced that he was in the land of wonder that knows and yet does not know a Zeppelin.
How long he had slept Mr. Moggridge had no idea; but he was awakened by what he afterwards described as “a terrific explosion” just beneath his window.
“At last!” was his mental comment as he sprang out of bed, sniffing the air like a cat that smells fish. He rushed to the window and looked out. There were no search lights to be seen; but another explosion, apparently in his own garden sent him bounding from the window to the door. Seizing the handle he tore it open and, grasping the leather-headed hammer, began to pound the dinner-gong as if his salvation depended upon his efforts. “Zeppelins,” he yelled, “Zeppelins.” There were sounds of doors opening, a babel of voices, a scream and then a soft-padded rush upstairs. “Don’t come up here! Go down to the cellar,” he shouted and, seizing the gong, he dashed for the stairs. There was another report, and an “Oh my God!” from the cook, followed by a peal of hysterical laughter from the younger of the maids.
There was a yelp, a swiiiiiish of rushing water, a pandemonium of feminine shrieks, a tremendous clatter of metal and crockery, as bath caught pail, and pail overset jug to add to the torrent that rushed down the staircase like a flood. Mr. Moggridge had stumbled against the big bath!
The avalanche caught the Moggridges in the rear, shriek followed agonised shriek, as the cold water struck the slightly clad bodies, the shrieks crystallised into yells of anguish as the baths, jugs and bowls came thundering after the water. It seemed the object of animate and inanimate alike to get to the ground floor first. At each landing there was a momentary pause, just as a wave will poise itself before crashing forward, then more crashes and shrieks and groans. All had lost their foothold, and were inextricably mixed up with baths and bits of crockery. At last the torrent reached the hall, where it lay gasping and choking, wondering if this were death or the after punishment.
“My God!” shrieked Mr. Moggridge. “Gas!”
He had forgotten his mask.
He struggled to rise, but the cook and half a foot-bath were firmly fixed upon his person. He could merely lie and sniff—and pray.
The air was foul with an acrid smell that seemed to have permeated everything. To the Moggridges, heaped on the cold hall-tiles, saturated and bruised, it carried a more conclusive proof of danger than the buffeting received in the dash downstairs. It was Gas! Gas!! Gas!!! They would be ruined for life, even if they escaped death.
Above the wails of the Moggridges and their retainers could be heard explosion after explosion from without. Policemen’s whistles were singing their raucous, terrifying note. A female voice was heard laughing and sobbing wildly—the cook was in hysterics, whilst at last from an inextricable heap of human limbs and bodies rose the courageous voice of Mr. Moggridge.
“Keep cool, keep calm,” he besought. “You are quite safe here. You’ve got your gas masks. We——”
He was interrupted by a heavy and imperious pounding upon the knocker, and a continuous sounding of the spring bell. A disc of light could be seen through the stained-glass windows of the hall. From the shivering heap there was no movement to open the door, nothing but cries and sobs and moans. The pounding continued, punctuated by occasional explosions from without. It was Alan who at last crept out of the corner from which he had watched the avalanche of his family and its servitors, and went to the door, unbolting it and admitting what appeared to be two rays of light. They ferreted about until they fell on the heap of Moggridges.
Alan’s first thought had been to turn on the electric light at the meter. He now switched on the hall lights, discovering two policemen and two special constables, who in turn discovered Mr. Moggridge. He had wriggled into a sitting posture, where he remained grasping the dinner gong, as Nero might have grasped his instrument when disaster overtook Rome, surrounded and held down by his progeny.
“Oh, turn off the light, do, please!” pleaded a voice, and there was a chorus of cries and endeavours to make scanty draperies cover opulent limbs; but the water had done its work, and one of the policemen, remembering that he had sisters, turned his head aside, and the “specials,” for the first time since they had been enrolled, decided that it wasn’t so lacking in incident after all, whilst owners and possessors of Moggridge limbs sought to hide them beneath other Moggridge limbs, and those who could not do so hid their faces.
III
“You done fine!” A happy grin spread itself over the features of the speaker, a little man with a red nose, a green baize apron and a blue and white cricket cap, much the worse for wear. “You done fine,” he repeated, and then as if to himself, “Yes, them big crackers do make an ‘ell of a row.” And Joseph Bindle looked at Alan Moggridge approvingly.
“Wasn’t it lucky I went to help Aunt Mary move? If I hadn’t I shouldn’t have seen you and——”
“And there wouldn’t a been no Zeppelin raid round your way. Well you ‘ave to thank Dr. Little for the stuff wot made ’em think it was gas-bombs! Fancy them runnin’ in your old dad for lettin’ off fireworks. So long, sonny,” and with a nod and a grin Bindle passed on, wondering if Mrs. Bindle had stewed-steak and onions for supper.
“Oh! Mr. Bindle!” expostulated Sallie when the story came to an end. Then after a pause she added, “Don’t you think it was a little cruel?”
There was concern upon Bindle’s face: he was troubled that Sallie should criticise him. He looked from her to me, as if desirous that I should share some of the responsibility. It was the first time I had ever seen Bindle abashed. The dear chap is in reality as tender-hearted as a woman, and it was evident that, for the first time, he saw things as they appeared to Sallie.
“Well, miss,” he said at last. “I ‘adn’t thought of it that way. I’m sorry for them gals,” but in spite of himself the flicker of a grin passed across his features. “I was only thinkin’ o’ the old man wot didn’t ought to be allowed to go about scarin’ people out o’ their senses. I’m sorry, miss,” and Bindle really was sorry. For the rest of the evening it was easy to see that he regarded himself as in disgrace. The way in which his eyes kept wandering to where Sallie was sitting, reminded me of a dog that has been scolded, and watches wistfully for the sign that shall tell him all is forgiven.
When Bindle returned from seeing Sallie into her taxi, I could see that the cloud had been brushed aside; for he was once more his old jovial self.
J.B. is a strange creature, as mischievous as a monkey; but as lovable as—well, as a man who is white all through, and as incapable of hurting the helpless as of harming the innocent. He has probably never heard of the Public School Spirit; yet it has not much to teach him about playing the game.