Nature is, no doubt, falling apart as we always suspected it would; to wit:
Ducks bred four times this year in Washington instead of three.
Turtles have laid eggs with deficient embryos.
Moonflowers, which regularly open within a few seconds in this town, so rapidly the eye can see movement, this September have taken an hour or more; furthermore, some of them have waited to open in the morning, instead of at dusk as they should.
This I learn from my natural-wonder friend, John Hoke, who keeps up with such matters and who thinks the phenomena may have to do with volcanic dust in the high air.
But I am inclined to think it is the end of civilization as we know it.
Other portents were noted by your own reporter the past month in London:
"Don't take a taxi, take the subway," cried my friend when I phoned from Heathrow Airport. "It comes right here."
So I got on at morning rush hour with five goodly pieces of luggage, and may say I was greeted with fairly rude stares from the usually polite English.
"Don't change at Hammersmith," said a man, possibly the Devil in some convincing guise, "but change two stops farther on. That way you have a choice of two lines."
At Hammersmith, however, he cried out:
"But look, there's your train. Get off and run for it."
Gathering the luggage I struggled to the door, discovered the bags would not go through so narrow an aperture, and turned sideways to exit, only to be greeted by two energetic tweed-bearing ladies whom I declined to knock down, and the door shut in my face.
"Guess you'll have to catch a train back, when you get to the next stop," said a fellow who, in an uncharacteristic way for an Englishman, had been following the trip pretty closely.
"Oh, no," I said. "I'll just rattle on a few stops and then change lines. But my God, what's happened to my wife?"
"She got off at Hammersmith," he said, with a grin that convinced me the Devil has many faces.
How can this be? She was supposed to be right behind me, not gallavanting about. But not to go on about it, I retrieved my wife back at Hammersmith, assisted by the five bags that weighed me down and kept me from exploding, and in due time we arrived in Sloane Square where my friend, Tom, was lending me his elegant flat.
That night we dined in a most refined manner at the Stafford, which the acids of modernity have never stained and where supper is still a seven-course journey into the past. It is the only hotel I can think of with a house cat, known informally as Lady Plushbottom since she starts her day on the top floor and descends gradually to the small lobby, resting at each landing on a velvet-covered chair and reaching the reception desk in ample time for tea. They keep her to catch ermines. (Some say there is a cat at the Algonquin Hotel, but I've never seen it.)
Thus reassured that London was pretty much the same, I boldly and foolishly suggested returning to Sloane Square by subway.
"Would it be simpler to get a cab?" asked my companion, who believes money grows on trees and has a genuine flair for expensive suggestions.
"Yes, it would be simpler," I said. "We can catch the subway at the Ritz."
The subway was astonishingly full of people who perhaps have no homes, wandering aimlessly about, and one lurch threw me into the arms of a fellow passenger, a woman whose expression struck me as suspicious. I was standing, since in crowded trains I never sit while women are standing and besides there was no seat; there never is when a subway is in sardine mode.
Reaching the flat, I had no door key.
"Look in your pockets," said my wife.
"Where do you think I've been looking, the trees?" I remarked, with the justifiable annoyance of a man who has never in his life lost a door key.
"Maybe the caretaker will let us in," said my wife.
"Ah, Mr. Mercutti," I said, "a bit of a problem here. I seem to have mislaid the keys."
"My name is Maltby," he said. Somehow I sensed an anti-Italian streak in this man. But in the end he let us in and I phoned my friend who had lent us the place and who by this time (11:30 p.m.) was well along as host for a splendid dinner in the country for, I believe, God and Mrs. Thatcher.
"Tom," I said, with that sincere lack of artifice which I fancy is the great strength of the American character, "I hate to tell you this but I have managed to lose your keys the first day."
Well, not to go on with it, things worked out at the last, as they always do, though one may be the worse for wear.
The rest of the month passed agreeably, without further omens or portents, except I did see a nearly solid white blackbird in the Scilly Isles and naturally expected the return boat to sink or the return helicopter to crash, but all went smoothly.
Returning home I got the report about the ducks, turtles and moonflowers. Added to the lost key, the quite mysterious cat of London and the white blackbird of Scilly, I was prepared indeed to find the capital in ruins. And indeed it has rained ever since I got back. Something is afoot. Something is not right.
"Foreign travel always makes Americans nervous," I was told, "and it takes a few days for a sense of security to return."
Which is all very easy to say. What about that white blackbird? Those turtle eggs? Those bizarre moonflowers?
Still, some things seem right. At night the lovely bugs of Washington began to sing. Too late for cicadas, surely? Maybe crickets and similar nocturnal choristers. I now believe that is what produces anxiety when one visits England. They have not got the right sort of singing bugs, and the nights are distressingly quiet even in busy London.
Another wave of sound. How lovely. Sion hears the watchmen singing. The sweet dowdy capital once more, with music all the night.