The Last of the Spode
by EVELYN E. SMITH (SF&F June 1953)
“It is my theory,” said the Professor, sipping his tea thoughtfully, “that the character of a people can be discerned from its linguistic analogies.” “Really?” Angela murmured as she dissected a scone. “The butter looks rather foul, doesn’t it? I do hope the freezer hasn’t gone wonky on us. That would be the absolute end.”
“Now rhyming is of course,” he continued, “primarily a mnemonic device. However, I would extend this to include not only actual verse but the essential character of the words themselves. Why is it that certain particular words agree in terminal sound; what semantic relationships did their speakers find between or among them? … Now custard and mustard I can understand. They are both edible and – ah – glutinous. But why bustard?”
“Perhaps a bustard is glutinous when it’s cooked,” Angela replied vaguely. “I shouldn’t think one would want to eat it raw.”
“Once I have discovered precisely why the creators of the English language chose – even though the choice was, of course, hardly on a conscious level – to rhyme bustard with custard and, of course, mustard,” the Professor went on, “I feel I shall discover the key to the English character. Undoubtedly the same theory would apply to other languages … French, Arabic, Swahili. Through semantics one would achieve a true understanding of all the peoples of the world.” He frowned. “Don’t know what one would do about the Americans, though, with no proper language of their own.”
“But you can’t understand the peoples of the world, in any case,” Angela pointed out as she covered the dubious butter thickly with jam. “Because there aren’t any people any more. Just us.”
“There is that difficulty. But perhaps you and Eric will reproduce. After all, it will be 50 years before the radiations die down enough for Them to cross over here. By then we should have been able to establish at least two generations, although, of course, they would hardly have time to formulate any linguistic variants.”
“I don’t think I should care to reproduce with Eric,” Angela said, brushing crumbs off her frock onto the barren ground. “I think I shall let the race die with me. Rather a pretty thought.”
“Not the sporting thing to do at all,” he reproached her. “You must look at the matter from the larger viewpoint.”
“Why?” she asked. “I have no urge to provide the components of a zoo – and that seems to be the only future open to the human race.”
“Sonics, anyone?” Eric asked, as he came up swinging a sonics rod against his immaculate white sports tunic.
“Oh no, Eric!” Angela said. “The radiations are still giving off too much heat. Besides, it would be a waste of power. We’re going to need all we’ve got, you know, and there are just so many tins.”
“I daresay you’re right,” he replied manfully, but he could not quite hide his disappointment. “What’s that you have there? Tea? I do think you might have called a chap.” Settling himself at Angela’s feet, he put out a hand for the cup. “You haven’t done at all well by the bread, old girl. It’s fearfully thick.”
“I haven’t managed to get the hang of slicing it. But then, I haven’t had a fearful lot of practice yet. Remember, Nora got blasted only day before yesterday.”
“Only day before yesterday? That’s right. Seems as if you’d been cooking for us for an eternity – Not,” Eric added with speed, “that I mean to hint anything’ of a derogatory nature about your cooking, pet. It’s just that some have the gift and others haven’t.”
“But will there be enough food?” the Professor asked, absent-mindedly slipping a handful of sandwiches into his pocket. “There isn’t much use conserving power if there won’t be enough food.”
Eric brightened. “You’re quite right, Professor. So why don’t we have a round of sonics after all?” His face fell. “Oh, I forgot, I’ve already started my tea. Must wait an hour or frightful things happen to the jolly old viscera.”
“We have plenty of food,” Angela said. “Enough for 50 years.”
“Fifty years! Think we’ll be here as long as that?” Eric slammed his cup petulantly on the ground.
“Watch out, Eric,” Angela warned. “This is the last of the Spode.”
“But it’s going to be frightfully dull here,” Eric murmured. “Especially if I can’t run down to London now and then. You’re sure London got it too?”
“Quite sure,” Angela replied gently. “Every place got it. Every place but here. We’re the only three people left in the world, Eric.”
“I do wonder why we escaped,” the Professor speculated. “Something to do with the soil, I should say. You know nothing ever would grow here. Probably some sort of natural force field. Interesting.”
“If one of us were scientific,” Angela remarked, “he could occupy himself for the next 50 years in trying to determine just what the reason was.”
“No point to it,” Eric muttered. “No point to anything, really.”
“We must face the facts, lad,” the Professor said. “Pity about the Bodleian, though.”
Eric slewed his lissome body around until he faced the Professor. “And at the end of 50 years? Then what happens?”
The old scholar held out his cup for more tea. “The radiations will die down enough for Them to cross, I expect.”
“Remember, Angela,” Eric assured her, “I have a disintegrator. When They come, I shall use it on you.”
“But why?” Angela asked, shaking the pot to make sure there was enough tea for her before she served the Professor. “They’re not human, you know.”
“Never thought of that,” Eric agreed. And after 50 years I daresay it wouldn’t matter even if They were.” He looked up at her. “But I’m human, you know.”
She sighed. “No, I don’t know. Sorry, Eric, but it’s utterly out of the question.”
He flung his sonics rod on the ground peevishly. “The whole thing is a crashing bore. I shouldn’t be surprised if after ten years or so I use the disintegrator on myself.”
The other two shook their heads in unison. “Not the sort of thing one does, you know,” the Professor reproved him. “We must face things. Come, try one of Angela’s scones. They’re not half bad considered in the light of a scientific experiment.”
“Don’t want a scone,” Eric muttered. “I wish I were dead like everyone else.”
The blatant bad taste of this took both the others’ breath away. “He’s not himself, you know,” Angela finally whispered to the Professor. “After all, it has been a bit nerve-racking, and he always was a sensitive lad.”
“We all have our feelings,” the Professor grumbled, “but we don’t wash them in public.”
“Come, Eric,” Angela tempted him, “do try one of my scones. If you do, I’ll open a tin of power and play a set of sonics with you as soon as our tea has settled.”
Eric brightened. “Oh, that’ll be wizard! But I’d rather have a chocolate biscuit.”
“Come now,” smiled the Professor, “try a scone. Let it never be said that an Englishman was a coward.” He wiggled one eyebrow, a sign that he was about to perpetrate a witticism. “It’ll probably have the same effect on you as a disintegrator.”
All three laughed.
A frown creased Eric’s smooth brow. “I’ve just thought of something absolutely ghastly.”
“What is it?” Angela asked, rising to take the pot back to the scullery for more hot water.
“Supposing the tea doesn’t hold out for 50 years?”
There was a dead silence.
With the rays of the setting sun tangled in her golden curls and glinting on the teapot which she proudly bore aloft, Angela looked like more than a splendid figure of young English womanhood; she looked like a goddess.
“The tea must hold out,” she said.