Our Tricolour Tie by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

We went up to the composing room just now to consult our privy counsellor, Peter Augsberger, the make-up man, and after Peter had told us about his corn—-

It is really astonishing, by the way, how many gardeners there are in a newspaper office. We once worked in a place where a horticultural magazine and a beautiful journal of rustic life were published, and the delightful people who edited those magazines were really men about town; but here in the teeming city and in the very node of urban affairs, to wit, the composing room, one hears nought but merry gossip about gardens, and the great and good men by whom we are surrounded begin their day by gazing tenderly upon jars full of white iris. And has not our friend Charley Sawyer of the dramatic department given us a lot of vegetable marrow seeds from his own garden and greatly embarrassed us by so doing, for he has put them in two packets marked “Male” and “Female,” and to tell the truth we had no idea that the matter of sex extended even as far as the apparently placid and unperturbed vegetable marrow. Mr. Sawyer explained carefully to us just how the seeds ought to be planted, the males and females in properly wedded couples, we think he said; but we are not quite sure, and we are too modest to ask him to explain again; but if we should make a mistake in planting those seeds, if we were to—- Come, we are getting away from our topic. Peter had told us about his corn, in his garden, that is, out in Nutley (and that reminds us of the difficulties of reading poetry aloud. Mr. Chesterton tells somewhere a story about a poem of Browning’s that he heard read aloud when he was a child, and understood the poem to say “John scorns ale.”

Now Mr. Chesterton–you understand, of course, we are referring to Gilbert Keith Chesterton–being from his very earliest youth an avowed partisan of malt liquor, this heresy made an impression upon his tender cortex, and he never forgot about John, in Browning’s poem, scorning ale. But many years afterward, reading Browning, he found that the words really were: “John’s corns ail,” meaning apparently that John was troubled by pedal callouses.) Peter, we repeat, and to avoid any further misunderstanding and press diligently toward our theme, having mentioned his garden, who should come up to us but Pete Corcoran, also of the composing room force, and a waggish friend of ours, and gazing on us in a manner calculated to make us feel ill at ease he said, “I suppose you are going to write something about that tie of yours.”

Now we were wearing a scarf that we are very fond of, the kind of tie, we believe, that is spoken of as “regimental stripes”; at any rate, it is designated with broad diagonal bands of colour: claret, gold, and blue. It was obvious to us that Pete Corcoran, or, to give him his proper name, Mr. Corcoran, had said what he did merely in a humorous way, or possibly satiric, implying that we are generally so hard up for something to write about that we would even undertake so trifling a subject as haberdashery; but as we went downstairs again to our kennel, au dixieme, as Mr. Wanamaker would call it, we thought seriously about this and decided that we would cause Pete’s light-hearted suggestion to recoil violently upon his friendly brow, and that we would write a little essay about this tie and tell its story, which, to be honest, is very interesting to us. And this essay we are now endeavouring to write, even if it has to run in several instalments.

It was curious, incidentally (but not really more curious than most human affairs), that Pete (or Mr. Corcoran) whether he was merely chaffing us, or whether he was really curious about a scarf of such wanton colour scheme, should have mentioned it just when he did, for as a matter of fact that tie had been on our mind all morning. You see to-day being warm (and please remember that what we call to-day, is now, when you are reading this, yesterday) we did not wear our waistcoat, or, if you prefer, our vest; but by the time we had decided not to wear our waistcoat we had already tied our scarf in the usual way we tie that particular scarf when we wear it, viz., so as to conceal a certain spot on it which got there we know not how. We do not know what kind of a spot it is; perhaps it is a soup stain, perhaps it is due to a shrimp salad we had with Endymion at that amusing place that calls itself the Crystal Palace; we will not attempt to trace the origin of that swarthy blemish on the soft silk of our tie; but we have cunningly taught ourself to knot the thing so that the spot does not show. (Good, we have made that plain: we are getting along famously.)

Since the above was written we have been uptown and had lunch with Alf Harcourt and Will Howe and other merry gentlemen; and Will Howe, who used to be a professor of English and is now a publisher, says we ought to break up our essays into shorter paragraphs. We are fain and teachable, as someone once said in a very pretty poem; we will start a new paragraph right away.

But when our tie is tied in the manner described above, it leaves one end very much longer than the other. This is not noticeable when we wear our waistcoat; but having left off our waistcoat, we were fearful that the manner in which our tie was disposed would attract attention; and everyone would suspect just why it was tied in that way.

And we did not have time to take it off and put on another one, because we had to catch the 8:06.

So when Pete Corcoran spoke about our tie, was that what was in his mind, we wondered? Did he infer the existence of that spot, even though he did not see it? And did he therefore look down upon, or otherwise feel inclined to belittle our tie? If that were the case, we felt that we really owed it to ourself to tell the story of the tie, how we bought it, and why; and just why that tie is to us not merely a strip of rather gaudy neckwear, but a symbol of an enchanting experience, a memory and token of an epoch in our life, the sign and expression of a certain feeling that can never come again–and, indeed (as the sequel will show), that should not have come when it did.

It was a bright morning, last November, in Gloversville, New York, when we bought that tie. Now an explanation of just why we bought that tie, and what we were doing in Gloversville, cannot possibly be put into a paragraph, at any rate the kind of paragraph that Will Howe (who used to be a professor of English) would approve. On the whole, rather than rewrite the entire narrative, tersely, we will have to postpone the denouement (of the story, not the tie) until to-morrow. This is an exhibition of the difficulty of telling anything exactly. There are so many subsidiary considerations that beg for explanation. Please be patient, Pete, and to-morrow we will explain that tie in detail.

II

It was a bright and transparent cold morning in Gloversville, N.Y., November, 1919, and passing out of the Kingsborough Hotel we set off to have a look at the town. And if we must be honest, we were in passable good humour. To tell the truth, as Gloversville began its daily tasks in that clear lusty air and in a white dazzling sunshine, we believed, simpleton that we were, that we were on the road toward making our fortune. Now, we will have to be brief in explanation of the reason why we felt so, for it is a matter not easy to discuss with the requisite delicacy. Shortly, we were on the road–“trouping,” they call it in the odd and glorious world of the theatre–with a little play in which we were partially incriminated, on a try-out voyage of one-night stands. The night before, the company had played Johnstown (a few miles from Gloversville), and if we do have to say it, the good-natured citizens of that admirable town had given them an enthusiastic reception. So friendly indeed had been our houses on the road and so genially did the company manager smile upon us that any secret doubts and qualms we had entertained were now set at rest. Lo! had not the company manager himself condescended to share a two-room suite with us in the Kingsborough Hotel that night? And we, a novice in this large and exhilarating tract of life, thought to ourself that this was the ultimate honour that could be conferred upon a lowly co-author. Yes, we said to ourself, as we beamed upon the excellent town of Gloversville, admiring the Carnegie Library and the shops and the numerous motor cars and the bright shop windows and munching some very fine doughnuts we had seen in a bakery. Yes, we repeated, this is the beginning of fame and fortune. Ah! Pete Corcoran may scoff, but that was a bright and golden morning, and we would not have missed it. We did not know then the prompt and painful end destined for that innocent piece when it reached the Alba Via Maxima. All we knew was that Saratoga and Newburgh and Johnstown had taken us to their bosoms.

At this moment, and our thoughts running thus, we happened to pass by the window of a very alluring haberdasher’s shop. In that window we saw displayed a number of very brilliant neckties, all rich and glowing with bright diagonal stripes. The early sunlight fell upon them and they were brave to behold. And we said to ourself that it would be a proper thing for one who was connected with the triumphal onward march of a play that was knocking them cold on the one-night circuit to flourish a little and show some sign of worldly vanity. (We were still young, that November, and our mind was still subject to some harmless frailties.) We entered the shop and bought that tie, the very same one that struck Pete Corcoran with a palsy when he saw it the other day. We put it in our pocket and walked back to the hotel.

Now comes a portion of the narrative that exhibits to the full the deceits and stratagems of the human being. This tie, which we liked so much, thinking it the kind of thing that would add a certain dash and zip to our bearing, was eminently a metropolitan-looking kind of scarf. No one would think to look at it that it had been bought in Gloversville. And we said to ourself that if we went quietly back to the hotel and slipped unobtrusively into the washroom and put on that tie, no one would know that we had just bought it in Gloversville, but would think it was a part of our elaborate wardrobe that we had brought from New York. Very well. (We would not reveal these shameful subterfuges to any one but Pete Corcoran.) No sooner said than done; and behold us taking the trolley from Gloversville to Fonda, with the rest of the company, wearing that tie that flared and burned in the keen wintry light like a great banner, like an oriflamme of youthful defiance.

And what a day that was! We shall never forget it; we will never forget it! Was that the Mohawk Valley that glittered in the morning? (A sunshine so bright that sitting on the sunward side of the smoker and lighting our pipe, the small flame of our match paled shamefully into a tiny and scarce visible ghost.) Our tie strengthened and sustained us in our zest for a world so coloured and contoured. We even thought that it was a bit of a pity that our waistcoat was cut with so shallow and conservative a V that the casual passerby would see but little of that triumphant silk beacon. The fellow members of our company were too polite to remark upon it, but we saw that they had noticed it and took it as a joyful omen.

We had two and a half hours in Albany that day and we remember that we had set our heart on buying a certain book. Half an hour we allotted to lunch and the other two hours was spent in visiting the bookshops of Albany, which are many and good. We wonder if any Albany booksellers chance to recall a sudden flash of colour that came, moved along the shelves, and was gone? We remember half a dozen book stores that we visited; we remember them just as well as if it were yesterday, and we remember the great gusto and bright cheer of the crowds of shoppers, already doing their Christmas pioneering. We remember also that three of the books we bought (to give away) were McFee’s “Aliens” and Frank Adams’s “Tobogganing on Parnassus,” yes, and Stevenson’s “Lay Morals.” Oh, a great day! And we remember the ride from Albany to Kingston, with the darkening profile of the Catskills on the western side of the train, the tawny colours of the fields (like a lion’s hide), the blue shadows of the glens, the sparkling Hudson in quick blinks of brightness, the lilac line of the hills when we reached Kingston in the dusk. We remember the old and dilapidated theatre at Kingston, the big shabby dressing rooms of the men, with the scribbled autographs of former mummers on the walls. And that night we said good-bye to our little play, whose very imperfections we had grown to love by this time, and took the 3:45 A.M. milk train to New York. We slept on two seats in the smoker, and got to Weehawken in the brumous chill of a winter dawn–still wearing our tie. Now can Pete Corcoran wonder why we are fond of it, and why, ever and anon, we get it out and wear it in remembrance?