Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


 "The Terrible Experience of Plodkins" by Robert Barr (from The Idler, March 1892; reprinted in Barr's collection In a Steamer Chair and Other Shipboard Stories, 1892)

This is the tale that Plodkins told, verified only in part by the narrator.  Plodkins was a frequent traveler on cross-Atlantic liners, being connected to companies both in England and in America.  Plodkins was also a heavy drinker -- "he was one of the most talented drinkers in America," asserts the narrator, who "never knew a man who could take in so much liquor and show such little results."  His curse was "that in the morning Plodkins was never at his best, because he was nearer sober then than at any other part of the day" -- a situation he would remedy as soon as possible.

For passenger wishing to take a bath in the morning there was a great demand for the bath room, such that the porters had to assign bath times for those indicating that they wanted to bathe.  A half hour was allotted to each passenger.  Plodkins time was 7:00 am; the narrator's was 7:30.  The tub itself was large and deep, made of marble, with taps for hot of cold, sea water, or regular.  The drain was in the center of the tub, at the bottom.  Normally, the porter would fill the tub halfway at the desired temperature for each passenger, then knock on the cabin door to say that the bath was ready.

One morning the narrator woke a bit after 7:30.  The porter had not knocked to waken him.  He put on his robe and hurried to the bath room.  The door was unlocked.  Inside he found Plodkins laying in the tub unconscious.  Plodkins was not dead, as was feared, and was able to be revived, albeit dazed and somewhat addled.  Rather than be taken to his room,  Plodkins added water to the tub and instructed the narrator to turn on the electric light.  He then asked him to place his hand in the water.  When the narrator did this, he got a sharp electric shock.  Something was seriously wrong with the wiring.

Plodkins said that, once he got into the tub, he reached across to turn on the light and got a shock that paralyzed him except for his fingers and toes.  Plodkins found himself lying beneath the water line, unable to move.  By pushing with his fingers, he able to place his nose above water for a time, but he knew that if no one came into the bath room soon, he would drown.  Remembering that the plug lay beneath him in the center of the tub, he slowly moved his fingers toward it in an effort to removed the plug.  As he sank beneath the water line he could see the water slowly receding.  But would he able to hold his breath long enough to prevent drowning?  Spoiler alert:  He did, just in time.

Plodkins blamed his ordeal on drink.  Whether the drink caused the electricity to shock him, or whether the drink had paralyzed his body once shocked, he did not specify.  He did, however, vow to give up drinking then and there, and taking baths, also.  We learn that Plodkins never drank since that experience.  No word on whether he ever took another bath.

A light, amusing anecdote -- nothing more.  The sort that Robert Barr (1849-1912) seemed to specialize in.  Barr was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his family when he was four.  Barr trained as a teacher and became the headmaster/principal of a school in Ontario.  It was there that he began to write short stories, often based on his experience as an educator.  Barr then became a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press, contributing articles under the name "Luke Sharp" (Barr had gotten the name from a local undertaker). 

Barr then went to England in 1881 to establish a British edition of the Detroit Free Press.  While there, he also began to expand beyond short stories and write crime novels.  In 1892, Barr founded the magazine The Idler, in collaboration with Jerome K. Jerome.  Barr was a popular writer of the day and was friends with Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, Bret Harte, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, and George Gissing, among others.  Conan Doyle described Barr as "a volcanic Anglo -- or rather Scot-American with a violent manner, a wealth of strong adjectives, and one of the kindest natures underneath it all."

Barr published about two dozen books between 1892 and 1912, including a posthumous collaboration with his friend Stephen Crane, The O'Ruddy:  A Romance (1903).  Among fans of crime fiction, Barr may best be remembered for The Triumphs of Eugene Valmont (1906; and listed in the Queen's Quorum of the 125 most important detective-crime books), which includes the classic story "The Absent-Minded Coterie" and features a comic French detective who may be a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and an inspiration for Hercule Poirot.  Barr's short story "Not on the Passenger List" is an often reprinted ghost story.  Most of Barr's work, though, consists of light, enjoyable short stories.

"The Terrible Experience of Plodkins" is available to read online in Barr's In a Steamer Chair and Other Shipboard Stories.


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  2. I doubt there will be much travel on ocean liners anytime soon so we will have to get our fill from books like this.

  3. I've read pieces from THE IDLER, about 90 of the 103 essays were written by Samuel Johnson. Wonderful reading! I do enjoy nautical tales, too!

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  5. Sorry you're getting spammed.

    Do any of these verge on being club stories?