Liberty, April 9, 1927

It Was Only a Fire, by P. G. Wodehouse


MISS POSTLETHWAITE, our courteous and vigilant barmaid, had whispered to us that the gentleman sitting over there in the corner was an American gentleman.

“Comes from America,” added Miss Postlethwaite, making her meaning clearer.

“From America?” echoed we.

“From America,” said Miss Postlethwaite. “He’s an American.”

Mr. Mulliner rose with an Old-World grace. We do not often get Americans in the bar parlor of the Anglers’ Rest.

“Good evening, sir,” said Mr. Mulliner. “I wonder if you would care to join my friend and myself in a little refreshment?”

“Very kind of you, sir.”

“Miss Postlethwaite, the usual. I understand you are from the other side, sir. Do you find our English countryside pleasant?”

“Delightful. Though, of course, scarcely to be compared with the scenery of my home State.”

“What State is that?”

“California.” replied the other, baring his head. “California, the Jewel State of the Union. With its azure sea, its noble hills, its eternal sunshine, and its fragrant flowers, California stands alone. Peopled by stalwart men and womenly women—”

“California would be all right,” said Mr. Mulliner, “if it wasn’t for the earthquakes.”

Our guest started as if some venomous snake had bitten him.

“Earthquakes are absolutely unknown in California,” he said hoarsely.

“What about the one in nineteen-six?”

“That was not an earthquake. It was a fire.”

“An earthquake, I always understand,” said Mr. Mulliner. “My Uncle William was out there during it, and many a time has he said to me, ‘My boy, it was the San Francisco earthquake that won me a bride.’ ”

“Couldn’t have been an earthquake. May have been the fire.”

“Well, I will tell you the story and you shall judge for yourself.”

“I shall be glad to hear your story about the San Francisco fire,” said the Californian courteously.


MY Uncle William [said Mr. Mulliner] was returning from the East at the time. He had been over in China looking into the workings of a tea-exporting business in which he held a number of shares.

It was his intention to get off the boat at San Francisco and cross the continent by rail. He particularly wanted to see the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

And when he found that Myrtle Banks had for years cherished the same desire, it seemed to him so plain a proof that they were twin souls that he decided to offer her his hand and heart without delay.

This Miss Banks had been a fellow traveler on the boat all the way from Hongkong; and day by day William Mulliner had fallen more and more deeply in love with her. So on the last day of the voyage, as they were steaming in at the Golden Gate, he proposed.

She stood gazing over the rail into the water below in a sort of rapt way. Then she turned.

“Mr. Mulliner,” she said, “I am greatly flattered and honored by what you have just told me.” This happened, you will remember, in the days when girls talked like that. “You have paid me the greatest compliment a man can bestow on a woman. And yet—”

William Mulliner’s heart stood still.

“Is there another?” he muttered.

“Well, yes, there is. Mr. Franklyn proposed to me this morning. I told him I would think it over.”

There was a silence. William was telling himself that he had been afraid of that bounder Franklyn all along.

“There is a great glamour about Mr. Franklyn,” said Myrtle Banks. “We women admire men who do things. A girl cannot help but respect a man who once killed two sharks with a Boy Scout pocketknife.”

“So he says,” growled William.

“He showed me the pocketknife,” said the girl simply. “And on another occasion he brought down three lions with three successive shots.”

William Mulliner’s heart was heavy, but he struggled on.

“Very possibly he may have done these things,” he said. “But surely marriage means more than this. I respect those who can kill sharks with pocketknives, but I hold that other qualities are needed by the perfect husband. Personally, if I were a girl I would go rather for a certain steadiness and stability of character. To illustrate what I mean—did you happen to see me win the egg-and-spoon race at the ship’s sports? Now there, it seems to me, was an exhibition of all the qualities a married man most requires—intense coolness, iron resolution, and a quiet, unassuming courage. The man who under test conditions has carried an egg once and a half times round a deck in a small spoon is a man who can be trusted.”

She seemed to waver, but only for a moment.

“I must think,” she said. “I must think.”

“Certainly,” said William. “You will let me see something of you at the hotel, after we have landed?”

“Of course. And if—I mean to say, whatever happens, I shall always look on you as a dear, dear friend.”

“ ’M, yes,” said William Mulliner.


FOR three days my Uncle William’s stay in San Francisco was as pleasant as could reasonably be expected, considering that Desmond Franklyn was also stopping at his and Miss Banks’ hotel. But on the evening of the third day the blow fell.

“Mr. Mulliner,” said Myrtle Banks, “I want to tell you something.”

“Anything,” breathed William tenderly, “except that you are going to marry that perisher Franklyn.”

“But that is exactly what I was going to tell you.”

“When did you decide on this rash act?” asked William dully.

“Scarcely an hour ago. We were talking in the garden, and somehow or other we got on the subject of rhinoceroses. He then told me how he had once been chased up a tree by a rhinoceros in Africa, and escaped by throwing pepper in the brute’s eyes. He most fortunately chanced to be eating his lunch when the animal arrived, and he had a hard-boiled egg and the pepper pot in his hands. When I heard this story, like Desdemona, I loved him for the dangers he had passed, and he loved me that I did pity them. The wedding is to be in June.”

William Mulliner ground his teeth in a sudden access of jealous rage.

“Personally,” he said, “I consider that the story you have just related reveals this man Franklyn in a very dubious—I might almost say sinister—light. On his own showing, the leading trait in his character appears to be cruelty to animals. The fellow seems totally incapable of meeting a lion or a rhinoceros, or any other of our dumb friends, without instantly going out of his way to inflict bodily injury on it. The last thing I would wish is to be indelicate, but I cannot refrain from pointing out that, if your union is blessed, your children will probably be the sort of children who kick cats and tie tin cans to dogs’ tails. If you take my advice, you will write the man a little note saying that you are sorry but you have changed your mind.”

The girl rose in a marked manner.

“I do not require your advice, Mr. Mulliner,” she said coldly; “and I have not changed my mind.”

Instantly William Mulliner was all contrition. He followed her as she paced proudly away through the hotel lobby, and stammered incoherent apologies. But Myrtle Banks was adamant.

“Leave me, Mr. Mulliner,” she said, pointing at the revolving door that led into the street. “You have maligned a better man than yourself, and I wish to have nothing more to do with you. Go!”

William went, as directed. And so great was the confusion of his mind that he got stuck in the revolving door, and had gone round in it no fewer than eleven times before the hall porter came to extricate him.


“I WOULD have removed you from the machinery earlier, sir,” said the hall porter deferentially, having deposited him safely in the street, “but my bet with my mate in there called for ten laps. I waited till you had completed eleven, so that there should be no argument.”

William looked at him.

“Tell me, hall porter,” he said, “suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another: what would you do?”

The hall porter considered.

“Let me get this right,” he said. “The proposition is, if I have followed you correctly, what would I do supposing the jane which I had always looked on as a steady mamma had handed me the old skimmer and told me to take all the air I needed because she had gotten another sweetie?”


“Your question is easily answered,” said the hall porter. “I would go around the corner and get me a nice, stiff drink at Mike’s Place.”

“A drink?”

“Yes, sir. A nice, stiff one.”

“At—where did you say?”

“Mike’s Place, sir. Just round the corner. You can’t miss it.”

William thanked him and walked away. A drink? And a nice, stiff one? There might be something in it.

William Mulliner had never tasted alcohol in his life. He had promised his late mother that he would not do so until he was either twenty-one or forty-one—he could never remember which. He was at present twenty-nine; but, wishing to be on the safe side in case he had got his figures wrong, he had remained a teetotaler. But now it was clear to him that his mother, in the special circumstances, could not reasonably object if he took a slight snort.

And at this moment he found himself standing outside a brightly lighted saloon.

For an instant he hesitated. Then he pushed open the swing doors and went in.


THE principal feature of the cheerful room in which he found himself was a long counter at which were standing a number of the citizenry, each with an elbow on the woodwork and a foot upon the neat brass rail that ran below. Behind the counter appeared the upper section of one of the most benevolent and kindly-looking men that William had ever seen. He had a large, smooth face, and he wore a white coat, and he eyed William, as he advanced, with a sort of reverent joy.

“Is this Mike’s Place?” asked William.

Yes, sir,” replied the white-coated man.

“Are you Mike?”

“No, sir. But I am his representative and have full authority to act on his behalf. What can I have the pleasure of doing for you?”

The man’s whole attitude made him seem so like a large-hearted elder brother that William felt no diffidence about confiding in him. He placed an elbow on the counter and a foot on the rail, and spoke with a sob in his voice:

“Suppose the only girl you had ever loved had gone and got engaged to another—what, in your view, would best meet the case?”

The gentlemanly bartender pondered for some minutes.

“Well,” he replied at length, “my suggestion—for what it is worth—is that you try a Dynamite Dewdrop.”

One of the crowd that had gathered sympathetically round shook his head. He was a charming man with a black eye, who had shaved on the preceding Thursday.

“Much better give him a Dreamland Special.”


WILLIAM could not bring himself to choose between them. He solved the problem in diplomatic fashion by ordering both the beverages recommended.

The effect was instantaneous and gratifying. As he drained the first glass, it seemed to him that a torchlight procession, of whose existence he had not hitherto been aware, had begun to march down his throat and explore the recesses of his stomach. The second glass, though slightly too heavily charged with molten lava, was extremely palatable. It helped the torchlight procession along by adding to it a brass band of singular power and sweetness of tone. And with another round somebody began to touch off fireworks inside his head.

William felt better—not only spiritually but physically. He seemed to himself to be a bigger, finer man; and the loss of Myrtle Banks had somehow, in a flash, lost nearly all its importance. After all, as he said to the man with the black eye, Myrtle Banks wasn’t everybody.

“Now what do you recommend?” he asked the bartender, having turned the last glass upside down.

The bartender mused again.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said. “When my brother, Elmer, lost his girl, he drank straight rye. Yes, sir. That’s what he drank—straight rye. ‘I’ve lost my girl,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to drink straight rye.’ That’s what he said. Yes, sir. Straight rye.”

“That settles it,” said William. “Oblige me by asking these gentlemen what they will have, and start pouring.”

The bartender obeyed, and William, having tried a pint or two of the strange liquid just to see if he liked it, found that he did and ordered some. He then began to move about among his new friends, patting one on the shoulder, slapping another affably on the back, and asking a third what his Christian name was.

“I want you all,” he said, climbing onto the counter so that his voice should carry better, “to come and stay with me in England. Never in my life have I met men whose faces I liked so much. More like brothers than anything, is the way I regard you. So just you pack up a few things and come along and put up at my little place for as long as you can manage. You particularly, my dear old chap,” he added, beaming at the man in the sweater.

“Thanks,” said the man in the sweater.

“What did you say?” said William.

“I said thanks.”

William slowly removed his coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves.

“I am not a quarrelsome man,” he said, “but if anybody wants a row they can have it. And when it comes to being cursed and sworn at by an ugly bounder in a sweater and a cloth cap, it is time to take steps.”

And with these spirited words William Mulliner sprang from the counter, grasped the other by the throat, and bit him sharply on the right ear. There was a confused interval, during which somebody attached himself to the collar of William’s shirt and the seat of William’s trousers, and then a sense of swift movement and a rush of cool air.

William discovered that he was seated on the pavement outside the saloon. A hand emerged from the swing door and threw his hat and coat out. And he was alone with the night and his meditations.

These were, as you may suppose, of a singularly bitter nature. For some minutes he sat there, weeping silently.

Presently he heaved himself to his feet; and, placing one foot with infinite delicacy in front of the other and then drawing the other one up and placing it with infinite delicacy in front of that, he began to walk back to his hotel.

At the corner he paused. There were some railings on his right. He clung to them and rested awhile.

The railings to which William Mulliner had attached himself belonged, as he would have discovered had he been clear-sighted enough to read the card over the door, to Mrs. Beulah O’Brien’s Theatrical Boarding-House. (“A Home from Home—No Checks Cashed—This Means You.”)

But William was not in the best of shape for reading cards. A sort of mist had obscured the world, and he was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open. And presently, his chin wedged between the railings, he fell into a dreamless sleep.


HE was awakened by light flashing in his eyes; and, opening them, he saw that a window opposite where he was standing had become brightly illuminated. His slumbers had cleared his vision, and he was able to observe that the room into which he was looking was a dining-room. The long table was set for the evening meal.

A mood of the most extreme sentimentality now had William in its grip. The thought that he would never own a little home like that racked him from stem to stern with an almost unbearable torment. If Myrtle Banks had only consented to marry him he would have had a little home. But she had refused to marry him, so he would never have a little home. What Myrtle Banks wanted, felt William, was a good swift clout on the side of her head.

The thought pleased him. He was feeling physically perfect again now, and seemed to have shaken off completely the slight indisposition from which he had been suffering. His legs had lost their tendency to act independently of the rest of his body.

He was on the point of moving off to find Myrtle Banks and teach her what it meant to stop a man like himself from having a little home, when someone entered the room into which he was looking, and he paused to make further inspection.

The new arrival was a colored maidservant. She staggered to the head of the table beneath the weight of a large tureen containing, so William suspected, hash. A moment later a stout woman with bright golden hair came in and sat down opposite the tureen.

The instinct to watch other people eat is one of the most deeply implanted in the human bosom, and William lingered, intent. There was, he told himself, no need to hurry. He knew which was Myrtle’s room in the hotel. It was just across the corridor from his own. He could pop in any time during the night and give her that clout. Meanwhile, he wanted to watch these people eat hash.

And then the door opened again, and there filed into the room a little procession, headed by an elderly man in a check suit with a carnation in his buttonhole. He was about three feet six in height, though the military jauntiness with which he carried himself made him seem fully three feet seven.

He was followed by a younger man who wore spectacles and whose height was perhaps three feet four. And behind these two came, in single file, six others, scaling down by degrees until, bringing up the rear of the procession, there entered a rather stout man in tweeds and bedroom slippers who could not have measured more than two feet eight.


THEY took their places at the table. Hash was distributed to all. And the man in tweeds, having inspected his plate with obvious relish, removed his slippers and, picking up knife and fork with his toes, fell to with a keen appetite.

William Mulliner uttered a soft moan and tottered away.

It was a black moment for my Uncle William. Only an instant before he had been congratulating himself on having shaken off the effects of his first indulgence in alcohol after an abstinence of twenty-nine years; but now he perceived that he was still intoxicated.

Intoxicated? The word did not express it by a mile. He was oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sozzled, and blotto. Only by the exercise of the most consummate caution and address could he hope to get back to his hotel and reach his bedroom without causing an open scandal.

Of course, if his walk that night had taken him a few yards farther down the street than the door of Mike’s Place, he would have seen that there was a very simple explanation of the spectacle he had just witnessed. A walk so extended would have brought him to the San Francisco Palace of Varieties, outside which large posters proclaimed the exclusive engagement for two weeks of




But of the existence of these posters he was not aware; and it is not too much to say that the iron entered into William Mulliner’s soul.

William had always prided himself on the keenness of his mental powers. Throughout the long voyage on the ship, when Desmond Franklyn had related anecdotes illustrative of his prowess as a man of action, William Mulliner had always consoled himself by feeling that in the matter of brains he could give Franklyn three bisques and a beating any time he chose to start.

Now, it seemed, he had lost even this advantage over his rival. For Franklyn, dull-witted clod though he might be, was not such an absolute minus quantity that he would imagine he had seen a man of two feet eight cutting up hash with his toes. That hideous depth of mental decay had been reserved for William Mulliner.

Moodily he made his way back to his hotel. In a corner of the Palm Room he saw Myrtle Banks deep in conversation with Franklyn. But all desire to give her a clout on the side of the head had now left him. With his chin sunk on his breast, he entered the elevator and was carried up to his room.

Here, as rapidly as his quivering fingers would permit, he undressed, and, climbing into the bed as it came round for the second time, lay for a space with wide-open eyes. He had been too shaken to switch his light off, and the rays of the lamp shone on the handsome ceiling, which undulated above him. Once more he gave himself up to thought.

No doubt, he felt, thinking it over now, his mother had had some very urgent reason for withholding him from alcoholic drink. She must have known of some family secret, sedulously guarded from his infant ears—some old legend of how every Mulliner for centuries back had died a maniac, victim at last of the fatal fluid. And tonight, despite her gentle care, he had found out for himself.

He saw now that this derangement of his eyesight was only the first step in the gradual dissolution that was the Mulliner curse. Soon his sense of hearing would go; then his sense of touch.


HE sat up in bed. It seemed to him, as he gazed at the ceiling, that a considerable section of it had parted from the parent body and fallen with a crash to the floor.

William Mulliner stared dumbly. He knew, of course, that it was an illusion. But what a perfect illusion! If he had not had the special knowledge that he possessed, he would have stated without fear of contradiction that there was a gap six feet wide above him, and a mass of dust and plaster on the carpet below.

And, even as his eyes deceived him, so did his ears. He seemed to be conscious of a babel of screams and shouts. The corridor, he could have sworn, was full of flying feet. The world appeared to be all bangs and crashes and thuds.

A cold fear gripped at William’s heart: his sense of hearing was playing tricks with him already!

His whole being recoiled from making the final experiment, but he forced himself out of bed. He reached a finger toward the nearest heap of plaster, and drew it back with a groan. Yes, it was as he feared—his sense of touch had gone wrong, too. That heap of plaster, though purely a figment of his disordered brain, had felt solid.

So there it was. One little moderately festive evening at Mike’s Place, and the curse of the Mulliners had got him.

As he climbed back into bed, it appeared to him that two of the walls fell out. He shut his eyes; and presently sleep, which has been well called Tired Nature’s Sweet Restorer, brought oblivion. His last waking thought was that he imagined he had heard another wall go.

William Mulliner was a sound sleeper, and it was many hours before consciousness returned to him. When he awoke, he sat up and looked around him in astonishment. The haunting horror of the night had passed; and now, though conscious of a rather severe headache, he knew that he was seeing things as they were.

And yet, it seemed odd to think that what he beheld was not the remains of some nightmare. Not only was the world slightly yellow and a bit blurred around the edges, but it had changed in its very essentials overnight. Where, eight hours before, there had been a wall, now only an open space appeared, with bright sunlight streaming through it. The ceiling was on the floor, and almost the only thing remaining of what had been an expensive bedroom in a first-class hotel was the bed.

Very strange, he thought, and very irregular.

A voice broke in upon his meditations:

“Why, Mr. Mulliner!”

William turned and, being like all the Mulliners, the soul of modesty, dived abruptly beneath the bedclothes. For the voice was the voice of Myrtle Banks. And she was in his room!

“Mr. Mulliner!”

William poked his head out cautiously. And then he perceived that the proprieties had not been outraged as he had imagined. Miss Banks was not in his room, but in the corridor. The intervening wall had disappeared. Shaken, but relieved, he sat up in bed, the sheet drawn round his shoulders.

“You don’t mean to say you’re still in bed?” gasped the girl.

“Why, is it awfully late?” asked William.

“Did you actually stay up here all through it?”

“Through what?”

“The earthquake.”

“What earthquake?”

“The earthquake last night.”

“Oh, that earthquake?” said William carelessly. “I did notice some sort of an earthquake. I remember seeing the ceiling come down, and saying to myself, ‘I shouldn’t wonder if that wasn’t an earthquake.’ And then the walls fell out, and I said, ‘Yes, sir; I believe it is an earthquake.’ And then I turned over and went to sleep.”

Myrtle Banks was staring at him with eyes that reminded him partly of twin stars and partly of a snail’s.

“You must be the bravest man in the world!”

William gave a curt laugh.

“Oh, well,” he said, “I may not spend my whole life persecuting unfortunate sharks with pocketknives, but I find I generally manage to keep my head fairly well in a crisis. We Mulliners are like that. We do not say much, but we have the right stuff in us.”

He clutched his head. A sharp spasm had reminded him how much of the right stuff he had in him at that moment.

“My hero!” breathed the girl almost inaudibly.


“AND how is your fiancé this bright sunny morning?” asked William nonchalantly.

It was torture to refer to the man, but he must show her that a Mulliner knew how to take his medicine.

She gave a little shudder.

“I have no fiancé,” she said.

“But I thought you told me you and Franklyn—”

“I am no longer engaged to Mr. Franklyn. Last night, when the earthquake started, I cried to him to help me; and he, with a hasty ‘Some other time!’ disappeared into the open like something out of a gun. I never saw a man run so fast. This morning I broke off the engagement.” She uttered a scornful laugh. “Sharks and pocketknives! I don’t believe he ever killed a shark in his life.”

“And even if he did,” said William, “what of it? I mean to say, how infrequently in married life must the necessity for killing sharks with pocketknives arise! What a husband needs is not some purely adventitious gift like that—a parlor trick, you might almost call it—but a steady character, a warm and generous disposition, and a loving heart.”

“How true!” she murmured dreamily.

“Myrtle,” said William, “I would be a husband like that. The steady character, the warm and generous disposition, and the loving heart to which I have alluded are at your disposal. Will you accept them?”

“I will,” said Myrtle Banks.

*  *  *

“AND that,” concluded Mr. Mulliner, “is the story of my Uncle William’s romance. And you will readily understand, having heard it, how his eldest son, my cousin J. S. F. E. Mulliner, got his name.”

“J. S. F. E.?” I said.

“John San Francisco Earthquake Mulliner,” explained my friend.

“There never was a San Francisco earthquake,” said the Californian. “Only a fire.”


the end