The Truth about Pyecraft
H. G. Wells
He sits not a dozen yards away. If I glance over my shoulder I can see him. And if I catch his eye—and usually I catch his eye—it meets me with an expression.
It is mainly an imploring look—and yet with suspicion in it.
Confound his suspicion! If I wanted to tell on him I should have told long ago. I don’t tell and I don’t tell, and he ought to feel at his ease. As if anything so gross and fat as he could feel at ease! Who would believe me if I did tell?
Poor old Pyecraft! Great, uneasy jelly of substance! The fattest clubman in London.
He sits at one of the little club tables in the huge bay by the fire, stuffing. What is he stuffing? I glance judiciously and catch him biting at a round of hot buttered tea-cake, with his eyes on me. Confound him!—with his eyes on me!
That settles it, Pyecraft! Since you WILL be abject, since you WILL behave as though I was not a man of honour, here, right under your embedded eyes, I write the thing down—the plain truth about Pyecraft. The man I helped, the man I shielded, and who has requited me by making my club unendurable, absolutely unendurable, with his liquid appeal, with the perpetual “don’t tell” of his looks.
And, besides, why does he keep on eternally eating?
Well, here goes for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
Pyecraft—. I made the acquaintance of Pyecraft in this very smoking-room. I was a young, nervous new member, and he saw it. I was sitting all alone, wishing I knew more of the members, and suddenly he came, a great rolling front of chins and abdomina, towards me, and grunted and sat down in a chair close by me and wheezed for a space, and scraped for a space with a match and lit a cigar, and then addressed me. I forget what he said—something about the matches not lighting properly, and afterwards as he talked he kept stopping the waiters one by one as they went by, and telling them about the matches in that thin, fluty voice he has. But, anyhow, it was in some such way we began our talking.
He talked about various things and came round to games. And thence to my figure and complexion. “YOU ought to be a good cricketer,” he said. I suppose I am slender, slender to what some people would call lean, and I suppose I am rather dark, still—I am not ashamed of having a Hindu great-grandmother, but, for all that, I don’t want casual strangers to see through me at a glance to HER. So that I was set against Pyecraft from the beginning.
But he only talked about me in order to get to himself.
“I expect,” he said, “you take no more exercise than I do, and probably you eat no less.” (Like all excessively obese people he fancied he ate nothing.) “Yet,”—and he smiled an oblique smile—“we differ.”
And then he began to talk about his fatness and his fatness; all he did for his fatness and all he was going to do for his fatness; what people had advised him to do for his fatness and what he had heard of people doing for fatness similar to his. “A priori,” he said, “one would think a question of nutrition could be answered by dietary and a question of assimilation by drugs.” It was stifling. It was dumpling talk. It made me feel swelled to hear him.
One stands that sort of thing once in a way at a club, but a time came when I fancied I was standing too much. He took to me altogether too conspicuously. I could never go into the smoking-room but he would come wallowing towards me, and sometimes he came and gormandised round and about me while I had my lunch. He seemed at times almost to be clinging to me. He was a bore, but not so fearful a bore as to be limited to me; and from the first there was something in his manner—almost as though he knew, almost as though he penetrated to the fact that I MIGHT—that there was a remote, exceptional chance in me that no one else presented.
“I’d give anything to get it down,” he would say—“anything,” and peer at me over his vast cheeks and pant.
Poor old Pyecraft! He has just gonged, no doubt to order another buttered tea-cake!
He came to the actual thing one day. “Our Pharmacopoeia,” he said, “our Western Pharmacopoeia, is anything but the last word of medical science. In the East, I’ve been told—”
He stopped and stared at me. It was like being at an aquarium.
I was quite suddenly angry with him. “Look here,” I said, “who told you about my great-grandmother’s recipes?”
“Well,” he fenced.
“Every time we’ve met for a week,” I said, “and we’ve met pretty often—you’ve given me a broad hint or so about that little secret of mine.”
“Well,” he said, “now the cat’s out of the bag, I’ll admit, yes, it is so. I had it—”
“Indirectly,” he said, which I believe was lying, “yes.”
“Pattison,” I said, “took that stuff at his own risk.”
He pursed his mouth and bowed.
“My great-grandmother’s recipes,” I said, “are queer things to handle. My father was near making me promise—”
“No. But he warned me. He himself used one—once.”
“Ah!… But do you think—? Suppose—suppose there did happen to be one—”
“The things are curious documents,” I said.
“Even the smell of ’em…. No!”
But after going so far Pyecraft was resolved I should go farther. I was always a little afraid if I tried his patience too much he would fall on me suddenly and smother me. I own I was weak. But I was also annoyed with Pyecraft. I had got to that state of feeling for him that disposed me to say, “Well, TAKE the risk!” The little affair of Pattison to which I have alluded was a different matter altogether. What it was doesn’t concern us now, but I knew, anyhow, that the particular recipe I used then was safe. The rest I didn’t know so much about, and, on the whole, I was inclined to doubt their safety pretty completely.
Yet even if Pyecraft got poisoned—
I must confess the poisoning of Pyecraft struck me as an immense undertaking.
That evening I took that queer, odd-scented sandalwood box out of my safe and turned the rustling skins over. The gentleman who wrote the recipes for my great-grandmother evidently had a weakness for skins of a miscellaneous origin, and his handwriting was cramped to the last degree. Some of the things are quite unreadable to me—though my family, with its Indian Civil Service associations, has kept up a knowledge of Hindustani from generation to generation—and none are absolutely plain sailing. But I found the one that I knew was there soon enough, and sat on the floor by my safe for some time looking at it.
“Look here,” said I to Pyecraft next day, and snatched the slip away from his eager grasp.
“So far as I—can make it out, this is a recipe for Loss of Weight. (“Ah!” said Pyecraft.) I’m not absolutely sure, but I think it’s that. And if you take my advice you’ll leave it alone. Because, you know—I blacken my blood in your interest, Pyecraft—my ancestors on that side were, so far as I can gather, a jolly queer lot. See?”
“Let me try it,” said Pyecraft.
I leant back in my chair. My imagination made one mighty effort and fell flat within me. “What in Heaven’s name, Pyecraft,” I asked, “do you think you’ll look like when you get thin?”
He was impervious to reason. I made him promise never to say a word to me about his disgusting fatness again whatever happened—never, and then I handed him that little piece of skin.
“It’s nasty stuff,” I said.
“No matter,” he said, and took it.
He goggled at it. “But—but—” he said.
He had just discovered that it wasn’t English.
“To the best of my ability,” I said, “I will do you a translation.”
I did my best. After that we didn’t speak for a fortnight. Whenever he approached me I frowned and motioned him away, and he respected our compact, but at the end of a fortnight he was as fat as ever. And then he got a word in.
“I must speak,” he said. “It isn’t fair. There’s something wrong. It’s done me no good. You’re not doing your great-grandmother justice.”
“Where’s the recipe?”
He produced it gingerly from his pocket-book.
I ran my eye over the items. “Was the egg addled?” I asked.
“No. Ought it to have been?”
“That,” I said, “goes without saying in all my poor dear great-grandmother’s recipes. When condition or quality is not specified you must get the worst. She was drastic or nothing…. And there’s one or two possible alternatives to some of these other things. You got FRESH rattlesnake venom.”
“I got a rattlesnake from Jamrach’s. It cost—it cost—”
“That’s your affair, anyhow. This last item—”
“I know a man who—”
“Yes. H’m. Well, I’ll write the alternatives down. So far as I know the language, the spelling of this recipe is particularly atrocious. By-the-bye, dog here probably means pariah dog.”
For a month after that I saw Pyecraft constantly at the club and as fat and anxious as ever. He kept our treaty, but at times he broke the spirit of it by shaking his head despondently. Then one day in the cloakroom he said, “Your great-grandmother—”
“Not a word against her,” I said; and he held his peace.
I could have fancied he had desisted, and I saw him one day talking to three new members about his fatness as though he was in search of other recipes. And then, quite unexpectedly, his telegram came.
“Mr. Formalyn!” bawled a page-boy under my nose, and I took the telegram and opened it at once.
“For Heaven’s sake come.—Pyecraft.”
“H’m,” said I, and to tell the truth I was so pleased at the rehabilitation of my great grandmother’s reputation this evidently promised that I made a most excellent lunch.
I got Pyecraft’s address from the hall porter. Pyecraft inhabited the upper half of a house in Bloomsbury, and I went there so soon as I had done my coffee and Trappistine. I did not wait to finish my cigar.
“Mr. Pyecraft?” said I, at the front door.
They believed he was ill; he hadn’t been out for two days.
“He expects me,” said I, and they sent me up.
I rang the bell at the lattice-door upon the landing.
“He shouldn’t have tried it, anyhow,” I said to myself. “A man who eats like a pig ought to look like a pig.”
An obviously worthy woman, with an anxious face and a carelessly placed cap, came and surveyed me through the lattice.
I gave my name and she let me in in a dubious fashion.
“Well?” said I, as we stood together inside Pyecraft’s piece of the landing.
“’E said you was to come in if you came,” she said, and regarded me, making no motion to show me anywhere. And then, confidentially, “’E’s locked in, sir.”
“Locked himself in yesterday morning and ‘asn’t let any one in since, sir. And ever and again SWEARING. Oh, my!”
I stared at the door she indicated by her glances.
“In there?” I said.
She shook her head sadly, “’E keeps on calling for vittles, sir. ‘EAVY vittles ‘e wants. I get ‘im what I can. Pork ‘e’s ‘ad, sooit puddin’, sossiges, noo bread. Everythink like that. Left outside, if you please, and me go away. ‘E’s eatin’, sir, somethink AWFUL.”
There came a piping bawl from inside the door: “That Formalyn?”
“That you, Pyecraft?” I shouted, and went and banged the door.
“Tell her to go away.”
Then I could hear a curious pattering upon the door, almost like some one feeling for the handle in the dark, and Pyecraft’s familiar grunts.
“It’s all right,” I said, “she’s gone.”
But for a long time the door didn’t open.
I heard the key turn. Then Pyecraft’s voice said, “Come in.”
I turned the handle and opened the door. Naturally I expected to see Pyecraft.
Well, you know, he wasn’t there!
I never had such a shock in my life. There was his sitting-room in a state of untidy disorder, plates and dishes among the books and writing things, and several chairs overturned, but Pyecraft—
“It’s all right, o’ man; shut the door,” he said, and then I discovered him.
There he was right up close to the cornice in the corner by the door, as though some one had glued him to the ceiling. His face was anxious and angry. He panted and gesticulated. “Shut the door,” he said. “If that woman gets hold of it—”
I shut the door, and went and stood away from him and stared.
“If anything gives way and you tumble down,” I said, “you’ll break your neck, Pyecraft.”
“I wish I could,” he wheezed.
“A man of your age and weight getting up to kiddish gymnastics—”
“Don’t,” he said, and looked agonised.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, and gesticulated.
“How the deuce,” said I, “are you holding on up there?”
And then abruptly I realised that he was not holding on at all, that he was floating up there—just as a gas-filled bladder might have floated in the same position. He began a struggle to thrust himself away from the ceiling and to clamber down the wall to me. “It’s that prescription,” he panted, as he did so. “Your great-gran—”
He took hold of a framed engraving rather carelessly as he spoke and it gave way, and he flew back to the ceiling again, while the picture smashed onto the sofa. Bump he went against the ceiling, and I knew then why he was all over white on the more salient curves and angles of his person. He tried again more carefully, coming down by way of the mantel.
It was really a most extraordinary spectacle, that great, fat, apoplectic-looking man upside down and trying to get from the ceiling to the floor. “That prescription,” he said. “Too successful.”
“Loss of weight—almost complete.”
And then, of course, I understood.
“By Jove, Pyecraft,” said I, “what you wanted was a cure for fatness! But you always called it weight. You would call it weight.”
Somehow I was extremely delighted. I quite liked Pyecraft for the time. “Let me help you!” I said, and took his hand and pulled him down. He kicked about, trying to get a foothold somewhere. It was very like holding a flag on a windy day.
“That table,” he said, pointing, “is solid mahogany and very heavy. If you can put me under that—-”
I did, and there he wallowed about like a captive balloon, while I stood on his hearthrug and talked to him.
I lit a cigar. “Tell me,” I said, “what happened?”
“I took it,” he said.
“How did it taste?”
I should fancy they all did. Whether one regards the ingredients or the probable compound or the possible results, almost all of my great-grandmother’s remedies appear to me at least to be extraordinarily uninviting. For my own part—
“I took a little sip first.”
“And as I felt lighter and better after an hour, I decided to take the draught.”
“My dear Pyecraft!”
“I held my nose,” he explained. “And then I kept on getting lighter and lighter—and helpless, you know.”
He gave way to a sudden burst of passion. “What the goodness am I to DO?” he said.
“There’s one thing pretty evident,” I said, “that you mustn’t do. If you go out of doors, you’ll go up and up.” I waved an arm upward. “They’d have to send Santos-Dumont after you to bring you down again.”
“I suppose it will wear off?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think you can count on that,” I said.
And then there was another burst of passion, and he kicked out at adjacent chairs and banged the floor. He behaved just as I should have expected a great, fat, self-indulgent man to behave under trying circumstances—that is to say, very badly. He spoke of me and my great-grandmother with an utter want of discretion.
“I never asked you to take the stuff,” I said.
And generously disregarding the insults he was putting upon me, I sat down in his armchair and began to talk to him in a sober, friendly fashion.
I pointed out to him that this was a trouble he had brought upon himself, and that it had almost an air of poetical justice. He had eaten too much. This he disputed, and for a time we argued the point.
He became noisy and violent, so I desisted from this aspect of his lesson. “And then,” said I, “you committed the sin of euphuism. You called it not Fat, which is just and inglorious, but Weight. You—”
He interrupted to say he recognised all that. What was he to DO?
I suggested he should adapt himself to his new conditions. So we came to the really sensible part of the business. I suggested that it would not be difficult for him to learn to walk about on the ceiling with his hands—
“I can’t sleep,” he said.
But that was no great difficulty. It was quite possible, I pointed out, to make a shake-up under a wire mattress, fasten the under things on with tapes, and have a blanket, sheet, and coverlet to button at the side. He would have to confide in his housekeeper, I said; and after some squabbling he agreed to that. (Afterwards it was quite delightful to see the beautifully matter-of-fact way with which the good lady took all these amazing inversions.) He could have a library ladder in his room, and all his meals could be laid on the top of his bookcase. We also hit on an ingenious device by which he could get to the floor whenever he wanted, which was simply to put the British Encyclopaedia (tenth edition) on the top of his open shelves. He just pulled out a couple of volumes and held on, and down he came. And we agreed there must be iron staples along the skirting, so that he could cling to those whenever he wanted to get about the room on the lower level.
As we got on with the thing I found myself almost keenly interested. It was I who called in the housekeeper and broke matters to her, and it was I chiefly who fixed up the inverted bed. In fact, I spent two whole days at his flat. I am a handy, interfering sort of man with a screw-driver, and I made all sorts of ingenious adaptations for him—ran a wire to bring his bells within reach, turned all his electric lights up instead of down, and so on. The whole affair was extremely curious and interesting to me, and it was delightful to think of Pyecraft like some great, fat blow-fly, crawling about on his ceiling and clambering round the lintels of his doors from one room to another, and never, never, never coming to the club any more….
Then, you know, my fatal ingenuity got the better of me. I was sitting by his fire drinking his whisky, and he was up in his favourite corner by the cornice, tacking a Turkey carpet to the ceiling, when the idea struck me. “By Jove, Pyecraft!” I said, “all this is totally unnecessary.”
And before I could calculate the complete consequences of my notion I blurted it out. “Lead underclothing,” said I, and the mischief was done.
Pyecraft received the thing almost in tears. “To be right ways up again—” he said. I gave him the whole secret before I saw where it would take me. “Buy sheet lead,” I said, “stamp it into discs. Sew ’em all over your underclothes until you have enough. Have lead-soled boots, carry a bag of solid lead, and the thing is done! Instead of being a prisoner here you may go abroad again, Pyecraft; you may travel—”
A still happier idea came to me. “You need never fear a shipwreck. All you need do is just slip off some or all of your clothes, take the necessary amount of luggage in your hand, and float up in the air—”
In his emotion he dropped the tack-hammer within an ace of my head. “By Jove!” he said, “I shall be able to come back to the club again.”
The thing pulled me up short. “By Jove!” I said faintly. “Yes. Of course—you will.”
He did. He does. There he sits behind me now, stuffing—as I live!—a third go of buttered tea-cake. And no one in the whole world knows—except his housekeeper and me—that he weighs practically nothing; that he is a mere boring mass of assimilatory matter, mere clouds in clothing, niente, nefas, the most inconsiderable of men. There he sits watching until I have done this writing. Then, if he can, he will waylay me. He will come billowing up to me….
He will tell me over again all about it, how it feels, how it doesn’t feel, how he sometimes hopes it is passing off a little. And always somewhere in that fat, abundant discourse he will say, “The secret’s keeping, eh? If any one knew of it—I should be so ashamed…. Makes a fellow look such a fool, you know. Crawling about on a ceiling and all that….”
And now to elude Pyecraft, occupying, as he does, an admirable strategic position between me and the door.