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- In the Sweet Dry and Dry - 3/17 -
beforehand, which distorted my features into such a malignant contraction of pessimism and misanthropy that I quite won his heart. He accepted an invitation to play croquet with me. That afternoon I prepared the garden with a deluge of champagne. The golden drops sparkled on every rose-petal: the lawn was drenched with it. After playing one round the Bishop was gloriously inflamed. He had to be carried home, roaring the most unseemly ditties. Since then, as I say, he has grown (I fear) a trifle suspicious. But let us have a bite of supper."
More than once, as they sat under a thickly leafy grape arbor in the quiet green enclosure, Bleak had to pinch himself to confirm the witness of his senses. A table was delicately spread with an agreeable repast of cold salmon, asparagus salad, fruits, jellies, and whipped creams. The flagon of dandelion vintage played its due part in the repast, and Mr. Bleak began to entertain a new respect for this common flower of which he had been unduly inappreciative. Although the trellis screened them from observation, Quimbleton seemed ill at ease. He kept an alert gaze roving about him, and spoke only in whispers. Once, when a bird lighted in the foliage behind them, causing a sudden stir among the leaves, his shaggy beard whirled round with every symptom of panic. Little by little this apprehension began to infect the journalist also. At first he had hardly restrained his mirth at the sight of this burly athlete framed in the bush of Santa Claus. Now he began to wonder whether his escapade had been consummated at too great a risk.
That old-fashioned quarter of the city was incredibly still. As the light ebbed slowly, and broad blue shadows crept across the patch of turf, they sat in a silence broken only by the wiry cheep of sparrows and the distant moan of trolley cars. The arrows of the decumbent sun gilded the ripening grapes above them. Suddenly there were two loud bangs and a vicious whistle sang through the arbor. Broken twigs eddied down upon the table cloth.
"Spotted mackerel!" cried Bleak. "Is some one shooting at us?"
Quimbleton reappeared presently from under the table. "All serene," he said. "We're safe now. That was only Chuff. Every night about this time he comes out on his back gallery and enjoys a little sharp-shooting. He's a very good shot, and picks off the grapes that have ripened during the day. There were only two that were really purple this evening, so now we can go ahead. Unless he should send over a raiding party, we're all right."
The editor solaced himself with another beaker of the dandelion wine and they finished their meal in thoughtful silence.
"Mr. Bleak," said the other at last, "it was something more than mere desire to give you a pleasant surprise that led me to your office this afternoon. Have you leisure to listen? Good! Please try one of these cigars. If, while I am talking, you should hear any one moving in the garden, just tap quietly on the table. Tell me, have you, before to-day, ever heard of the Corporation for the Perpetuation of Happiness?"
"Never," replied Bleak, kindling a magnifico of remarkably rich, mild flavor.
"That is as I expected," rejoined Quimbleton. "We have campaigned incognito, partly by choice and partly (let me be candid) by necessity. But the time is come when we shall have to appear in the open. The last great struggle is on, and it can no longer be conducted in the dark. In the course of my remarks I may be tempted to forget our present perils. I beg of you, if you hear any sounds that seem suspicious, to notify me instantly."
"Pardon me," said Bleak, a little uneasily; "it was my intention to catch the 9.30 train for Mandrake Park."
The fantastic cascade of false white hair wagged gravely in the dusk.
"My dear sir," said Quimbleton solemnly, "I fancy you are to be gratified by a far higher destiny than catching the 9.30. Do me the honor of filling your glass. But be careful not to clink the decanter against the tumbler. There is every probability that vigilant ears are on the alert."
There was a brief silence, and Bleak wondered (a trifle wildly) if he were dreaming. The cigar on the opposite side of the little table glowed rosily several times, and then Quimbleton's voice resumed, in a deep undertone.
"It is necessary to tell you," he said, "that the Corporation was founded a number of years ago, long before the events of the fatal year 1919 and the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The incident of this afternoon may have caused you to think that what is vulgarly called booze is the chief preoccupation of our society. That is not so. We were organized at first simply to bring merriment and good cheer into the lives of those who have found the vexations of modern life too trying. In our early days we carried on an excellent (though unsystematic) guerilla warfare against human suffering.
"In this (let me admit it frankly) we were to a great degree selfish. As you are aware, the essence of humor is surprise: we found a delicious humor in our campaign of surprising woebegone humanity in moments of crisis. For instance, we used to picket the railway terminals to console commuters who had just missed their trains. We found it uproariously funny to approach a perspiring suburbanite, who had missed the train (let us say) to Mandrake Park, and to press upon him, with the compliments of the Corporation, some consolatory souvenir--a box of cigars, perhaps, or a basket of rare fruit. Housewives, groaning over their endless routine of bathing the baby, ordering the meals, sweeping the floors and so on, would be amazed by the sudden appearance of one of our deputies, in the service uniform of gray and silver, equipped with vacuum cleaner and electric baby-washing machine, to take over the domestic chores for one day. The troubles of lovers were under our special care. We saw how much anguish is caused by the passion of jealousy. Many an engaged damsel, tempted to mild escapade in some perfumed conservatory, found her heart chilled by the stern eye of a uniformed C.P.H. agent lurking behind a potted hydrangea. We hired bands of urchins to make faces at evil old men who plate-glass themselves in the windows of clubs. Many a husband, wondering desperately which hat or which tie to select, has been surprised by the appearance of one of our staff at his elbow, tactfully pointing out which article would best harmonize with his complexion and station in life. Ladies who insisted on overpowdering their noses were quietly waylaid by one of our matrons, and the excess of rice-dust removed. A whole shipload of people who persisted in eating onions were gathered (without any publicity) into a concentration camp, and in company with several popular comedians, deported to a coral atoll. I could enumerate thousands of such instances. For several years we worked in this unassuming way, trying to add to the sum of human happiness."
Quimbleton's white beard shone with a pinkish brightness as he inhaled heavily on his cigar.
"Now, Mr. Bleak," he went on, "I come to you because we need your help. We can no longer maintain a light-hearted sniping campaign on the enemies of human happiness. This is a death struggle. You are aware that Chuff and his legions are planning a tremendous parade for to-morrow. You know that it will be the most startling demonstration of its kind ever arranged. One hundred thousand pan- antis will parade on the Boulevard, with a hundred brass bands, led by the Bishop himself on his coal black horse. Do you know the purpose of the parade?"
"In a general way," said Bleak, "I suppose it is to give publicity to the prohibition cause."
"They have kept their malign scheme entirely secret," said Quimbleton. "You, as a newspaper man, should know it. Does the (so-called) cause of prohibition require publicity? Nonsense! Prohibition is already in effect. The purpose of the parade is to undermine the splendid work our Corporation has been doing for the past two years. As soon as the fatal amendment was passed we set to work to teach people how to brew beverages of their own, in their own homes. As you know, very delicious wine may be made from almost every vegetable and fruit. Potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, currants, blackberries, gooseberries, raisins, apples--all these are susceptible of fermentation, transforming their juices into desirable vintages. We specialized on such beverages. We printed and distributed millions of recipes. Chuff countered by passing laws that no printed recipes could circulate through the mails. We had motion pictures filmed, showing the eager public how to perform these simple and cheering processes. Chuff thereupon had motion pictures banned. He would abolish the principle of fermentation itself if he could.
"We composed a little song-recipe for dandelion wine, sending thousands of minstrels to sing it about the country until the people should memorize it. Now Chuff threatens to forbid singing and the memorizing of poetry. At this moment he has fifty thousand zealots working in the countryside collecting and burning dandelion seeds so as to reduce the crop next spring.
"The purpose of his parade to-morrow is devastating in its simplicity. Having learned that wine may be made from gooseberries, he proposes (as a first step) to abolish them altogether. This is to be the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. No gooseberries shall be grown upon the soil of the United States, or imported from abroad. Raisins too, since it is said that one raisin in a bottle of grape juice can cause it to bubble in illicit fashion, are to be put in the category of deadly weapons. Any one found carrying a concealed raisin will go before a firing squad. And Chuff threatens to abolish all vegetables of every kind if necessary."
Bleak sat in horrified silence.
"There is another aspect of the matter," said Quimbleton, "that touches your profession very closely. Bishop Chuff is greatly annoyed at the persistent use of the printing press to issue clandestine vinous recipes. He solemnly threatens, if this continues, to abolish the printing press. This is to be the Twentieth Amendment. No printing press shall be used in the territory of the United States. Any man found with a printing press concealed about his person shall be sentenced to life imprisonment. Even the Congressional Record is to be written entirely by hand."
The editor was unable to speak. He reached for the decanter, but found it empty.
"Very well then," said Quimbleton. "The facts are before you. I suppose The Evening Balloon has made its customary enterprising
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