Force Majeure

By J. D. Beresford

As a midge before an elephant, so is man when opposed to Fate. The elephant breathes or lies down, and the high shrill of the midge is done. The midge believes passionately that the looming monster which shuts out his whole world has come across the earth with this one awful purpose of destroying his little life. But the elephant knows less of the midge than the midge knows of the elephant. . . .

George Coleman was not a figure that one would associate with the blunderings of outrageous destiny. He was of the type that seems born to move easily and contentedly through life; neither success nor failure; a tall, thin, fair man, reasonably intelligent, placidly thirty-five, and neither too diligent nor noticeably lazy. He was one of the many who had failed to find briefs; and one of the few who had, nevertheless, succeeded in earning a decent income. He had obtained, through special influence, a post as legal secretary and adviser to a great firm of financiers in the City. The post was almost a sinecure and the salary £800 a year. Added to that, he had another £300 of his own. He spent his holidays in Switzerland or Italy or Norway.

Any suburb would have made him a church-warden, but he preferred to go on living in his chambers, in Old Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn. He was used to the inconveniences, and the place satisfied his feeble feeling for romance.

His friend Morley Price, the architect, told him that there was a sinister influence about those chambers. They were on the fifth floor, and boasted a dormer window that might have been done by Sime, in a mood of final recklessness. The dormer was in the sitting-room, and looked out on to the court. Price loved to lie back in his chair and stare at it, attempting vainly to account by archeology and building construction for the twists and contortions of the jambs and soffit.

“It’s a filthy freak, Coleman,” was his usual conclusion; “not the work of a decent human mind, but a horrid, sinister growth that comes from within. One day it will put out another tentacle and crush you.” After that he would fit his pipe into the gap in his front teeth and return to another attempt at formulating a theory of causation. He had always refused to consider any artificial substitute for those lost teeth. He said that the hole was the natural place for his pipe. Also, that the disfigurement was distinguished and brought him business.

If it had been Morley Price, now. . . . However, it was the absurdly commonplace George Coleman.

The beginning of it all was ordinary enough. He fell in love with a young woman who lived in Surbiton. She was pretty, dark, svelt, and looked perfectly fascinating with a pole at the stern of a

punt, while her fox-terrier, Mickie, barked at swallows from the bow.

Coleman was quite acceptable. He punted even better than she did, and he was devoted to dogs, and more especially to Mickie. Nothing could have been more satisfactory and altogether delightful before the elephant came—a vast, ubiquitous, imperturbable beast that the doctors called typhoid.

After Muriel died, Coleman took Mickie home to his chambers in Old Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn. Mickie was more than a legacy; he was a sacred trust. Coleman had sworn to cherish him when his lovely mistress had been called away to join the headquarters of that angelic host to which she had hitherto belonged as a planetary member. She had appeared to be more concerned about Mickie than about George, at the last. She had not known George so long.

But it was George who cherished her memory. Mickie settled down at once. Within a week Muriel might never have existed, so far as he was concerned. If there was no longer a punt for him, there was a dormer window with a broad, flat seat that served equally well; and in place of migrant swallows there were perennial sparrows.

Coleman was not more sentimental than the average Englishman. At first he was “terribly cut up,” as he might have phrased it; but six weeks after Muriel’s death the cuts, in normal conditions, would doubtless have cicatrized.

Unhappily, the conditions were anything but normal. The vast bulk of the elephant was between him and any possible road of escape. In this second instance Fate assumed the form of certain mannerisms in Mickie.

He was quite an ordinary fox-terrier, with prick-ears that had spoiled him for show purposes, but he had lived with Muriel from puppyhood, and all his reactions showed her influence. He had, in fact, all the mannerisms of a spoilt lap-dog. He craved attention—he could not bark at the sparrows without turning every few seconds to Coleman for praise and encouragement; he was fussy and restless, on Coleman’s lap one minute and up at the window the next; he was noisy and mischievous, and had no sense of shame; when he was reprimanded he jumped up joyfully and tried to lick Coleman’s face.

And every one of his foolish tricks was inextricably associated in Coleman’s mind with Muriel. . .

At the end of six weeks Coleman was conscious that he had mourned long enough. He began to feel that it was not healthy for a man of thirty-five to continue in grief for one girl when there were so many others. He decided that the time had come when his awful gloom might melt into resigned sadness. Moreover, a sympathetic young woman he knew, who had a fine figure and tender eyes, had quite noticeably ceased to insist upon the fact that she was sorry for him. In other  circumstances Coleman would have changed his unrelieved tie for one with a faint, white stripe.

But Mickie, cheerful beast as he was, stood between Coleman and half-mourning. Mickie was an awful reminder. Muriel had died, but her personality lived on. Every time Mickie barked Coleman could hear Muriel’s clear, happy voice say: “Oh, Mickie, darling, shut up; you’ll simply deafen mummy if you bark like that!”

Mickie began to get on Coleman’s nerves. Sometimes when he was alone with him in the evening he regarded him with a heart full of evil desires; thoughts of losing him in the country, of selling him to a dog-fancier in Soho, of sending him to live with a married sister in Yorkshire. But that was just the breaking-point with Coleman. He was a shade too sentimental to shirk a sacred trust. Muriel, almost with her “dying breath,” had confided Mickie to his keeping; bright, beautiful, happy Muriel who had loved and trusted him. Coleman would have regarded himself as a damned soul if he had been false to that trust.

Then he tried to train Mickie. He might as well have tried to train the dormer window. Mickie was four years old, and long past any possibility of alteration by the methods of Coleman. For he simply could not beat the dog; it would have been too sickeningly like beating Muriel.

His gloom deepened, and the young woman with the tender eyes lost sight of him for days at a time. She had no idea of the true state of the case; she merely thought that he was rather silly to go on making himself miserable about a little feather-brained thing like Muriel Hepworth.

The awful thing happened nearly ten weeks after Muriel’s death. For many days Coleman had met no one outside his office routine. Most afternoons and every evening he had been shut up with the wraith of a happy voice which laughingly reproved the unchangeable Mickie. He had begun to imagine foolish things; to try experiments; he had kept away from any sight of those tender eyes for nearly a fortnight, hoping to lay the ghost of that insistent, inaudible voice.

It was a hot July evening, and Mickie was on and off the window-sill every moment, divided between furious contempt for the sparrows and the urgent desire for his master’s co-operation and approval.

The voice of Muriel filled the room.

Coleman heaved himself out of his chair with a deep groan and went to the window. Below the sill a few feet of sloping tiles pitched steeply down to a narrow eaves-gutter; below the eaves­

gutter was a sheer fall of fifty feet on to a paved court.

Mickie had his fore-feet on the sill; he was barking delightedly now that he had an audience. The fantastic contortions of the dormer seemed to bend over man and dog; and the evil thing

that had come to stay with Coleman crept into his brain and paralysed his will. He stretched out his hand and gave Mickie a strong push.

Mickie slithered down the tiles, yelped, turned clean round, missed the gutter with his hind feet, but caught it at the last moment with both front paws, and so hung, shrieking desperately, struggling to lift himself back to safety while his whole body hung over the abyss.

For a moment man and dog stared into each other’s eyes.

Then the virtue returned to Coleman. He was temporarily heroic. “Hold on, old man, hold on,” he said tenderly, and began to work his shoulders down the short length of tiles, while he felt about inside the room with his feet trying to maintain some sort of hook on jamb or window board.

He was a long, thin man, and the feat was not a difficult one; the trouble was that he was too slow over it. For as he gingerly lifted one hand from the tiles to grasp Mickie’s neck, the dog gave one last terrified yelp and let go.

Coleman heard the thud of his fall into the court. He could not summon up courage to go down and gather up the mangled heap he so vividly pictured in his imagination.

******

That night he believed he was going mad, but he slept well and awoke with a strange sense of relief. He awoke much later than usual; a new and beautiful peace reigned that morning.

Strangely enough, neither his bedmaker nor the porter made any reference to Mickie; and while Coleman wondered at their failure to comment on so remarkable a tragedy, he could not bring himself to ask a question.

All through the day, as he worked at his office, a delicious sense of lightness and freedom exhilarated him. He dined at the Cock in Fleet Street, and when he returned to the exquisite stillness of his chambers he sat down to write to the girl with tender eyes. . . .

He thought he had closed the outer door.

He was enormously startled when he heard a strangely familiar patter of feet behind him.

He did not turn his head; he sat cold and rigid, and his fingers began to pick at the blotting­paper. He sat incredibly still and waited for the next sign.

It came with excruciating suddenness: a shrill, joyful, agonising bark, followed with a new distinctness by the echo of a voice that said: “Oh! Mickie, darling, you’ll simply deafen mummy if you bark like that.”

He did not move his body, but slowly and reluctantly first his eyes and then his head turned awfully to the window. . . .

The porter told Morley Price that he had not seen Mr. Coleman fall. He thought he heard a dog bark, he said, just like the little tarrier as Mr. Coleman’d been so fond of; and he was surprised because the pore little feller ’ad fallen out o’ the self-same winder the night afore, and he ’adn’t cared to speak of it to Mr. Coleman knowin’ ’ow terrible cut-up ’e’d be about it. . . .

The chambers have remained unlet ever since.

Morley Price went up there once on a still July evening, and rushed out again with his bands to his ears.