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A short story by A. A. Milne

The Ordeal By Fire

Title:     The Ordeal By Fire
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

Our Flame-flower, the Family Flame-flower, is now plainly established in the north-east corner of the pergola, and flourishes exceedingly. There, or thereabouts, it will remain through the generations to come--a cascade of glory to the eye, a fountain of pride to the soul. "Our fathers' fathers," the unborn will say of us, "performed this thing; they toiled and suffered that we might front the world with confidence--a family secure in the knowledge that it has been tried by fire and not found wanting...."

The Atherley's flame-flower, I am glad to inform you, is dead.

. . . . . . .

We started the work five years ago. I was young and ignorant then--I did not understand. One day they led me to an old apple tree and showed me, fenced in at its foot, two twigs and a hint of leaf. "The flame-flower!" they said, with awe in their voices. I was very young; I said that I didn't think much of it. It was from that moment that my education began....

Everybody who came to see us had to be shown the flame-flower. Visitors were conducted to the apple tree in solemn procession, and presented. They peered over the fence and said, "A-ah!" just as if they knew all about it. Perhaps some of them did. Perhaps some of them had tried to grow it in their own gardens.

As November came on and the air grew cold, the question whether the flame-flower should winter abroad became insistent. After much thought it was moved to the shrubbery on the southern side of the house, where it leant against a laburnum until April. With the spring it returned home, seemingly stronger for the change; but the thought of winter was too much for it, and in October it was ordered south again.

For the next three years it was constantly trying different climates and testing various diets. Though it was touch and go with it all this time our faith was strong, our courage unshaken. June, 1908, found it in the gravel-pit. It seemed our only hope....

And in the August of that year I went and stayed with the Atherleys.

. . . . . .

One morning at breakfast I challenged Miss Atherley to an immediate game of tennis.

"Not directly after," said Mrs Atherley, "it's so bad for you. Besides, we must just plant our flame-flower first."

I dropped my knife and fork and gazed at her open-mouthed.

"Plant your--WHAT?" I managed to say at last.

"Flame-flower. Do you know it? John brought one down last night--it looks so pretty growing up anything."

"It won't take a moment," said Miss Atherley, "and then I'll beat you."

"But--but you mustn't--you--you mustn't talk like THAT about it," I stammered." Th-that's not the way to talk about a flame-flower."

"Why, what's wrong?"

"You're just going to plant it! Before you play tennis! It isn't a--a BUTTERCUP! You can't do it like that."

"Oh, but do give us any hints--we shall be only too grateful."

"Hints! Just going to plant it!" I repeated, getting more and more indignant. "I--I suppose Sir Christopher Wren s-said to his wife at breakfast one morning, 'I've just got to design St Paul's Cathedral, dear, and then I'll come and play tennis with you. If you can give me any hints--'"

"Is it really so difficult?" asked Mrs Atherley. "We've seen lots of it in Scotland."

"In Scotland, yes. Not in the South of England." I paused, and then added, "WE have one."

"What soil is yours? Do you plant it very deep? Do they like a lot of water?" These and other technical points were put to me at once.

"Those are mere details of horticulture," I said. "What I am protesting against is the whole spirit in which you approach the business--the light-hearted way in which you assume that you can support a flame-flower. You have to be a very superior family indeed to have a flame-flower growing in your garden."

They laughed. They thought I was joking.

"Well, we're going to plant it now, anyhow," said Miss Atherley. "Come along and help us."

We went out, six of us, Mrs Atherley carrying the precious thing; and we gathered round an old tree trunk in front of the house.

"It would look rather pretty here," said Mrs Atherley. "Don't you think?"

I gave a great groan.

"You--you--you're all wrong again," I said in despair. "You don't put a flame-flower in a place where you think it will look pretty; you try in all humility to find a favoured spot where it will be pleased to grow. There may be such a spot in your garden or there may not. Until I know you better I cannot say. But it is extremely unlikely to be here, right in front of the window."

They laughed again, and began to dig up the ground. I turned my back in horror; I could not watch. And at the last moment some qualms of doubt seized even them. They spoke to me almost humbly.

"How would YOU plant it?" they asked.

It was my last chance of making them realize their responsibility.

"I cannot say at this moment," I began, "exactly how the ceremony should be performed, but I should endeavour to think of something in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. It may be that Mrs Atherley and I would take the flower and march in procession round the fountain, singing a suitable chant, while Bob and Archie with shaven heads prostrated themselves before the sundial. Miss Atherley might possibly dance the Fire-dance upon the east lawn, while Mr Atherley stood upon one foot in the middle of the herbaceous border and played upon her with the garden hose. These or other symbolic rites we should perform, before we planted it in a place chosen by Chance. Then leaving a saucer of new milk for it lest it should thirst in the night we would go away, and spend the rest of the week in meditation."

I paused for breath.

"That might do it," I added, "or it might not. But at least that is the sort of spirit that you want to show."

Once more they laughed ... and then they planted it.

. . . . . . . .

These have been two difficult years for me. There have been times when I have almost lost faith, and not even the glories of our own flame-flower could cheer me. But at last the news came. I was at home for the week-end and, after rather a tiring day showing visitors the north-east end of the pergola, I went indoors for a rest. On the table there was a letter for me. It was from Mrs Atherley.


"By the way"!

But even if they had taken the business seriously, even if they had understood fully what a great thing it was they were attempting--even then I think they would have failed.

For, though I like the Atherleys very much, though I think them all extremely jolly ... yet--I doubt, you know, if they are QUITE the family to have a flame-flower growing in their garden.


"KNOW thyself," said the old Greek motto. (In Greek--but this is an English book.) So I bought a little red volume called, tersely enough, WERE YOU BORN IN JANUARY? I was; and, reassured on this point, the author told me all about myself.

For the most part he told me nothing new. "You are," he said in effect, "good-tempered, courageous, ambitious, loyal, quick to resent wrong, an excellent raconteur, and a leader of men." True. "Generous to a fault"--(Yes, I was overdoing that rather)--"you have a ready sympathy with the distressed. People born in this month will always keep their promises." And so on. There was no doubt that the author had the idea all right. Even when he went on to warn me of my weaknesses he maintained the correct note. "People born in January," he said, "must be on their guard against working too strenuously. Their extraordinarily active brains--" Well, you see what he means. It IS a fault perhaps, and I shall be more careful in future. Mind, I do not take offence with him for calling my attention to it. In fact, my only objection to the book is its surface application to ALL the people who were born in January. There should have been more distinction made between me and the rabble.

I have said that he told me little that was new. In one matter, however, he did open my eyes. He introduced me to an aspect of myself entirely unsuspected.

"They," he said-meaning me, "have unusual business capacity, and are destined to be leaders in great commerical enterprises."

One gets at times these flashes of self-revelation. In an instant I realized how wasted my life had been; in an instant I resolved that here and now I would put my great gifts to their proper uses. I would be a leader in an immense commercial enterprise.

One cannot start commercial enterprises without capital. The first thing was to determine the exact nature of my balance at the bank. This was a matter for the bank to arrange, and I drove there rapidly.

"Good-morning," I said to the cashier, "I am in rather a hurry. May I have my pass-book?"

He assented and retired. After an interminable wait, during which many psychological moments for commercial enterprise must have lapsed, he returned.

"I think YOU have it," he said shortly.

"Thank you," I replied, and drove rapidly home again.

A lengthy search followed; but after an hour of it one of those white-hot flashes of thought, such as only occur to the natural business genius, seared my mind and sent me post-haste to the bank again.

"After all," I said to the cashier, "I only want to know my balance. What is it?"

He withdrew and gave himself up to calculation. I paced the floor impatiently. Opportunities were slipping by. At last he pushed a slip of paper across at me. My balance!

It was in four figures. Unfortunately two of them were shillings and pence. Still, there was a matter of fifty pounds odd as well, and fortunes have been built up on less.

Out in the street I had a moment's pause. Hitherto I had regarded my commercial enterprise in the bulk, as a finished monument of industry; the little niggling preliminary details had not come up for consideration. Just for a second I wondered how to begin.

Only for a second. An unsuspected talent which has long lain dormant needs, when waked, a second or so to turn round in. At the end of that time I had made up my mind. I knew exactly what I would do. I would ring up my solicitor.

"Hallo, is that you? Yes, this is me. What? Yes, awfully, thanks. How are you? Good. Look here, come and lunch with me. What? No, at once. Good-bye."

Business, particularly that sort of commercial enterprise to which I had now decided to lend my genius, can only be discussed properly over a cigar. During the meal itself my solicitor and I indulged in the ordinary small-talk of the pleasure-loving world.

"You're looking very fit," said my solicitor. "No, not fat, FIT."

"You don't think I'm looking thin?" I asked anxiously. "People are warning me that I may be overdoing it rather. They tell me that I must be seriously on my guard against brain strain."

"I suppose they think you oughtn't to strain it too suddenly," said my solicitor. Though he is now a solicitor he was once just an ordinary boy like the rest of us, and it was in those days that he acquired the habit of being rude to me, a habit he has never quite forgotten.

"What is an onyx?" I said, changing the conversation.

"Why?" asked my solicitor, with his usual business acumen.

"Well, I was practically certain that I had seen one in the Zoo, in the reptile house, but I have just learnt that it is my lucky month stone. Naturally I want to get one."

The coffee came and we settled down to commerce.

"I was just going to ask you," said my solicitor--"have you any money lying idle at the bank? Because if so--"

"Whatever else it is doing, it isn't lying idle," I protested. "I was at the bank to-day, and there were men chivying it about with shovels all the time."

"Well, how much have you got?"

"About fifty pounds."

"It ought to be more than that."

"That's what I say, but you know what banks are. Actual merit counts for nothing with them."

"Well, what did you want to do with it?"

"Exactly. That was why I rang you up. I--er--" This was really my moment, but somehow I was not quite ready to seize it. My vast commercial enterprise still lacked a few trifling details. "Er--I--well, it's like that."

"I might get you a few ground rents."

"Don't. I shouldn't know where to put them."

"But if you really have fifty pounds simply lying idle I wish you'd lend it to me for a bit. I'm confoundedly hard up."


"Is it quite etiquette for clients to lend solicitors money?" I asked. "I thought it was always solicitors who had to lend it to clients. If I must, I'd rather lend it to you--I mean, I'd dislike it less--as to the old friend of my childhood."

"Yes, that's how I wanted to pay it back."

"Bother. Then I'll send you a cheque to-night," I sighed.

And that's where we are at the moment. "PEOPLE BORN IN THIS MONTH ALWAYS KEEP THEIR PROMISES." The money has got to go to-night. If I hadn't been born in January I shouldn't be sending it; I certainly shouldn't have promised it; I shouldn't even have known that I had it. Sometimes I almost wish that I had been born in one of the decent months. March, say.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: Ordeal By Fire