Originally printed in Punch—August 19, 1914
A thousand years ago I won a cup for jumping. It was not a very good cup, but then it was not a very good jump. Such as the cup is, however, it stands on a shelf in my library, and I have ways of directing the attention of visitors to it. For instance, if a collector of old prints is coming to dinner, I hang my oldest print just above the cup, ready for him; we take our—or better, his—cigars into the library, and I say, “Oh, look here, I picked this print up last week; the man said it was a genuine Eyre and Spottiswoode; you might give me your opinion.” He gives me his opinion … and then his eye wanders down. I see him reading the inscription on the cup.
The inscription says: “Long Jump, 1739” or some such date. “First Prize won by—” and then my name very big and splendid. Underneath comes the school crest, followed by the motto, “Dat Deus Incrementum,” though I have never jumped any further since. Its shape is the ordinary sherry glass shape. It is my only cup, and I am proud of it.
I look up as I write, and I see the—by the way, I don’t know if you have ever tried “looking up as you write.” It is a common thing for reflective writers to say they do, but you should never believe them. It is impossible to write properly when looking somewhere else. What we do is to stop and slew our necks round, and then take a fresh dip in the ink. Well, slewing my neck round as I stop writing, I see my precious cup standing on its shelf, and … horror! It is standing upside down!
This comes as a surprise to you, but it is no surprise to me. The thing has been going on for months. It is months ago that I first spoke to Celia about it.
“It’s Jane,” she said. “She always puts it like that when she’s been dusting.”
“Yes, but what for? Just to catch the eye?”
“I suppose because you always stand glasses upside down when you’ve cleaned them—to keep the dust out.”
“But if she’d only think a moment she’d see that I don’t drink out of this, and that glasses don’t have ‘First Prize, won by—’”
“Jane isn’t here to thinks, she’s here to work.”
This seemed to be a distinction drawn between Jane and me.
“You see what I mean,” I said, “don’t you? It’s very difficult to read the cup upside down. A stranger mightn’t know who—er—who had won it.”
“But don’t you always turn it back again? I do, if ever I see it.”
“Yes, but—but—Oh, well, it doesn’t matte.”
I went back to the library. It was difficult to explain why I minded; because, after all, to fill a pipe, light it and sit down to work every morning is very little less trouble that to turn a cup round, fill a pipe, light it and sit down to work every morning. Anything regular soon gets taken for granted. And yet I was annoyed. I think it was the silliness of standing a First Prize upside down which annoyed me. That and the apparent difficulty of getting into communication with Jane about it.
For it was difficult. One day I went very humbly to Celia and said—
“I know I’m a baby about it. Forgive me. But it’s getting on my mind. Do tell Jane about the cup.”
“It’s awfully hard,” she said, after a little thought. “You see, it’s such a very, very small thing that it never seems quite the right moment for it. And if, after I’d told her, she said ‘What?’ I couldn’t possibly say it again.”
“You must be very articulate the first time. Lead the conversation slowly round to long-jumping or the difficulty of reading on your head, and then casually but articulately—”
“Well, we’ll see,” said Celia. “Of course, if I ever caught her doing it, I’d tell her. Perhaps I shall.”
Well, we saw. We saw that the thing still went on. The direct approach to Jane was evidently impossible. So I tried sarcasm.
Sarcasm, directed into the blue in the hope of hitting the person you want, may not be effective, but it does relieve the feelings. I had a thoroughly sarcastic morning all to myself. My deadly irony took the form of turning everything in the library upside down. The cup was in position already; I turned up two pewter mugs (third prizes in Consolation Races), the flower bowls, the cigarette box, the lamp, a stool, half-a-dozen pictures, two photographs, and the mahogany clock. They all stood on their heads and sneered at Jane. “Why don’t you do the thing properly while you’re about it?” they said to her. I felt extremely well after I had finished.
Celia stood in the door and gurgled to herself.
“You baby,” she smiled.
“On the contrary,” I said, “I have made a dignified yet subtle protest. You wouldn’t move in the matter so I had to do something. I flatter myself that a sense of her past silliness will rush over Jane like a flood when she comes in here tomorrow morning.”
“If Jane’s flooded at all,” said Celia, “it will be with the idea that the master’s mad. But I don’t think she’ll notice it particularly.”
Next morning everything was right side up again—except the cup.
“It’s no good,” I told Celia; “she is obviously determined. Perhaps it means more than we think to her to have that cup upside down. Its beauty, the memories it brings back, the symbolism of it, these things touch some hidden spring … Still I am master in my own house.” And I turned the cup round again …
Another month passed and I could bear it no longer. Yesterday I made up my mind. I would speak to Jane myself. I turned my First Prize the right way up, and then looked for Celia.
“Celia,” I said firmly, “where is Jane?”
“She’s gone out,” said Celia softly. “Her—her man goes off today.”
* * *
An hour later, with bands playing and people cheering, they wheeled out of barracks, brown and businesslike. Jane was in the front somewhere, waving her handkerchief—not such a silly Jane, after all. And at the back, very proud of her, Celia and I stood silent, with a something in the throat that had come there suddenly …
And this morning the cup was upside down again. Well, well, if she likes it that way, let it be.
But take warning, O Jane! When your man—here’s luck to him!—comes back, then I shall assert myself once more. My cup, “Long Jump, 1739. First Prize,” shall stand the right way up; either that or you leave my service. I am determined about this …
Meanwhile we can share the daily paper.
Milne, A. A.. “The old order changes.” 1914. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Nov 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/milne/old_order_changes/>.
Those who supply the world with such entertainments of mirth as are instructive, or at least harmless, may be thought to deserve well of mankind.
Now, humor is a pleasant thing, and a good thing; but perhaps it is being a little overdone, and overdone with a touch of priggery and a touch of stupidity.
As there is ‘a soul of goodness in things evil,’ so there is a soul of humour in things dry.
It is sufficient that I have several Thoughts on a Subject, without troubling my self to range them in such order, that they may seem to grow out of one another, and be disposed under the proper Heads.
I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!”