Supreme Test

Former literary editor of Punch, H. F. ELLis is best known to American readers for his incomparably funny book. The taxations of A. J. Wentworth.


THERE is a popular notion, largely nurtured by press reports of accidents ("But for the coolness and quickthinking of Driver Ferguson, who immediately applied his brakes . . .”), that it is a crisis that really tests a man, bringing oul the best in him or exposing him as pitifully unequal to an emergency. I am inclined to dispute the truth of this. Almost anyone can do something in a crisis, and do it pretty quickly — even if it is only getting to hell out of it by the shortest route. It is the half-crisis, the potential, the may-or-may-notcome-to-something-if-somebodydoesn’t-do-somet hing-about-it emergency that backs a man right up into a corner and tests his irresolution to the uttermost.

Put it this way. If a stranger with staring eyes hacks his way through your bedroom window with a scimitar, it requires no great gifts of coolness and quick-thinking to slip out of the door, shouting “Help! Murder!” as you go. I could do it myself. But suppose an old friend asks you round for a drink and, right in the middle of a chat about your neuritis, whips a stiletto off the grand piano and advances on you with a gleam in his eye that might be insanity and might equally well be the natural pride of a man who wants to show you what the boys at the office gave him for a leaving present. What then? How does the cool quick-thinker handle himself at this juncture? Ease open the window a trifle, as though for air, and kind of half shout “Don’t help yet! But if anybody happens to be about, would he very kindly hang around for a bit in case I have occasion to shout ‘Murder!'"?

I give this only by way of example. What act ually happened to us, and started this train of thought in my mind, was a roaring noise in the chimney shortly after we had piled an exceptional amount of fuel on the sitting-room fire during a cold spell. Not a loud roar; more like the blanketed whoosh you gel in those radio interplanetary serials, fifteen seconds after take-off. But it kept on.

“D’you think it’s on fire?” my wife asked.

“Only an updraft,” I said, and went outside to have a look. Volumes of thick black smoke were billowing up into the crisp morning air. Already an industrial haze hung over our small suburb.

Back in the silting room the roar had undoubtedly increased. Lumps of burning matter were falling into the grate, and my wife had the look of one who expects immediate action.

“A pocket of soot must have caught,” I said, so coolly that any competent newspaperman would have reached instanlly for his notebook. “We had better reduce the updraft.”

“How ? “

“By blocking up the fireplace opening,” T explained.

“But that’s how one draws it up.”

“So it is,” I said, and fell to pondering on the impossibility of getting a bucket of water up to the roof of this oddly constructed house. An unusually large ball of smoldering soot plopped into the grate. “You’ll have to get help,” my wife said.

So there I was, face to face with a genuine half-crisis, the supreme test (as I maintain) of a man’s character. The last thing anybody wants to do is to make a lot of fuss about a little burning soot; but on the other hand, if I did nothing and the house burned to the ground, I knew I shouldn’t hear the last of it for weeks. Obviously, one had to meet this half-crisis if possible, with half-measures.

In London, where we live, it is extraordinarily difficult to lake halfmeasures. The instructions about what to do in case of fire, as given in the Telephone Directory, are quite siraightforward. You simply dial 999 and shout “Fire!” Any fool with his roof well alight could do it on his head. Hut, though I leafed through the Directory for several minutes, I could fmd nothing whatever about what to do in case of what might or might not become a fire later on, depending on a number of factors unknown to the caller. There seemed lo be nothing in the nature of a Fire Precautions Advisory Bureau, with whom I could have a brief chat, and I was halfway through the S’s, looking for Soot, when my wife, who had gone upstairs in her interfering way, called down to say that her bedroom wall was dangerously hot and were they on the way. Reluctantly, and very slowly, as befits a man with a clear head and a sense of proportion, I dialed 999, and a brisk voice said, “Emergency.”

“Hardly that,” I said. “Hardly that. I only wanted —”

“Police, Lire, or Ambulance?”

“Er, well — fire,” I said, trying lo keep the capital letter out of it — and at once found myself talking lo the Fire Brigade.

“There’s nothing to be alarmed about,”I told the man there. “The fact is that, as a result of an exceptionally big fire —”

Address? he snapped.

I gave him our address, with the utmost coolness, and was going on to talk about soot when I found that he had hung up on me. This was very disconcerting, because my plan had been to ask him to send somebody round — preferably an inconspicuous sort of man on a bicycle — who would just poke about a bit and then tell my wife there was nothing to worry about. I wanted no fuss, and I wanted it even less when I noticed that the roaring noise had ceased and my wife reported that the volume of smoke from the stack had now become a normal trickle. It seemed to me that, unless I acted quickly and curbed the Lire Brigade’s impetuosity, there might be a considerable anticlimax in store for them.

I acted quickly, knowing the drill by this time. I dialed 999, shouted “Lire!" and in less than no time was through to the Fire Brigade again.

“Address?” said a voice.

It never occurred to me that this might be a different Brigade. We live, by ill luck, just about on the borders of the London Area and Surrey County, and the Emergency operator, I suppose, puts the call through to whichever Brigade happens to have least on its hands. My first call had stirred the London lot up, so now here I was talking to Surrey. But I couldn’t be expected to know that. I was simply out lo save trouble all round, and when I had repeated the address I went straight to business. “Listen.” I said. You’ll have to be damn quick, but you may be just in time to save —”

There was a squeal of brakes outside, just then, and five huge firemen came running up the path. “Too late!” I cried into the phone and slammed the receiver back. My one idea now was to stop those men unrolling their hose.

I managed that. But I couldn’t, of course, stop the second London fire engine that came racing up a moment later. And I’d hardly got the ten firemen into the silting room and begun to explain about the pocket of soot when two Surrey tenders and an escape apparatus drew up. One way and another we had twenty-three firemen in the room at the peak, and not a thing for any of them to do. Our sitting room is nothing out of the way, and twenty-three firemen, helmet ed, axed, and I high-booted, just about fill it.

But I wasn’t worrying about that. The half-crisis, with all its doubts and difficulties and indecisions, was over. J had done my best with it, and the reader can judge for himself whether he would have done any better. What we were up against now was a real, fullblown crisis — and, as I say, anybody can deal with one of those. One does the right thing instinctively.

“What about a drink?” I said coolly.