Works in the Herald 1934

I had recently - and, I think now, erroneously - reached the conviction that there are at least three acts that almost everybody deems him - or herself - competent to perform better than almost everybody else. And these are: to live reasonably; to lie convincingly, and to light a fire.

Yet more recently I have had enlightening experience of the last-named accomplishment and, as a result, I am beginning to doubt my own presumptions regarding all three.

On the occasion referred to there came to my house in the forest three friends of mine - all city men with knapsacks aback and a liking for roughing it in remote places of the land.

All three - George, James and Peter - earnestly denied that they were hikers: a word they abominated and despised. They had merely walked up some 10 miles from the railway town below and proposed going on another six or seven miles to Bullant, if I would consent to conduct them over the long-obliterated track.

Bullant, deep in the forest, is an old, abandoned sawmill site, its wooden buildings long since fallen to ruin with the exception of one hut which has been kept more or habitable for the convenience of wayfarers.

The talk ran upon the ideal way of living. George was for the strenuous life, James, for a balanced existence that embraced a little of everything; but each, as I could see, romanced just a little in describing his own success in achieving his ideal.

I pitied and forgave their human weakness; but when I began to extol the charms of the simple life, drawing the long bow just a little in describing my own 20 and some off years in the sylvan forest their polite silence annoyed me.

I was preparing to be argumentative about it; when, greatly to my surprise and disappointment, both George and James immediately capitulated, expressed envy of my Arcadian existence and admitted that they had exaggerated a little in describing each his own success in achieving his own ideal. And each admitted readily that he found it hard to romance successfully.

So two of my pet theories seemed to go by the board, so to speak; but I was still congratulating myself upon my own successful lying when the sardonic smile on the silent Peter's face made me a little less self-confident.

So far as could be gathered from his telegraph remarks, Peter's view of life seemed to be that one should take it as it came, make the best of it, and be prepared for all emergencies.

A drizzling rain had set in when we were within two miles of the hut at Bullant. Three of us, deceived by sunshine, had omitted to bring waterproofs. Peter unrolled a voluminous rubber cape that covered his pack and himself to his knees.

The interior of the hut, when we reached it, appeared cold and uninviting. The roof leaked a little and the empty fireplace seemed to sneer at us in chill defiance.

The slight rise on the approach to the hut had stirred up my tendency to chronic asthma. So, when it was suggested that I, as a bush-dweller, should start the fire, I declared mendaciously and between gasps, that I was not up to it.

Then ensued an argument between George and James, each declaring diffidently that he knew nothing about fires and both were about to appeal to Peter when he took his absurd knapsack and billycan outside on the plea that the latter needed rinsing.

George at last reluctantly agreed to have a shot at the fire; but with such protestations of inexperience that my third pet theory seemed to be getting wobbly.

His attempts were laughably pathetic and, after using nearly as whole box of matches he handed the job to the protesting James. James's efforts were even more absurdly futile.

"It must be the wood, damp and all that," he said, turning to me is despair.

Now I have made a special study of fires - interior and exterior; I rather pride myself on my scientific method and knowledge of indrafts, updrafts, juxtaposition of logs, and so on; so, producing a piece of woolly messmate bark, which I had shrewdly collected en route, I unravelled it in workmanlike manner and set the perfect fire - backlog, bark, small kindling, small logs, in that order.

I struck the remaining match and set it to the frayed bark. Instantly a merry flame went roaring up the wooden chimney. George and James began a joyful whoop which faded in their throats as the triumphant flame began suddenly to wilt and die; but I was prepared for that. Seizing a twig I poked the fire in what I had always regarded as the vital spot.

It was more than vital; it was vulnerable. For immediately the noble structure of logs collapsed upon the kindling, belched a gout of smoke into the hut and the whole became a blackened, sparkless ruin.

"You're right," I said weakly. "It must be the wood. If only-"

At that moment Peter appeared at the door a steaming billy of tea in one hand, a cup of the same in the other.

"How the deuce?" we began.

"I've been caught like that before," smiled Peter. "Always carry a bottle of metho, and spirit stove in my gear. Duffer at fires, myself. Have a cup of tea you fellows."

Herald, 30 April 1934, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003