1953: A Piece of String

Mr Wyldie of the Port of London Authority

The most celebrated of all British practical jokers was William Horace De Vere Cole…He was a citizen of substance and had a large house in a fashionable section of London. One day he was hanging some paintings in his home when he ran out of twine. He put on his hat and walked to the nearest stringmonger’s shop and bought a ball of twine. On his way home he saw an elegant Englishman, a stranger, approaching. The man was so stiffish, so splendidly dressed, that Cole could not pass him by. Quickly he whipped out his ball of twine and stepped up to the gentleman.

“I say,” he spoke with some show of deference, “I’m in a bit of a spot. We’re engaged in surveying this area in order that we may realign the kerb, and my assistant has somehow vanished. I wonder if I could prevail upon your time for just a few moments.”

“To be sure,” said the stranger, ever the proper Englishman.

“If,” said Cole, “you’d be so kind as to hold the end of this string. Just stand where you are, and keep a tight hold on we’ll be finished in a few moments. Its really quite important.”

The splendid gentleman took hold of the end of the string and Cole began backing away from him, unwinding the ball. He continued all the way to the corner, turned the corner and disappeared. He proceeded, still unwinding the ball, until he was halfway up the block, at which point the string gave out. He stood for a moment, not knowing quite what he should do now. He had about decided to tie the string to a doorknob when Providence sent him a second gentleman, fully as elegant and polished as the first. Cole stopped him. Would the good sir be so kind as to assist him in an engineering project? Certainly! Cole handed him the end of the string and asked that he simply stand firm and hold it. Then Cole disappeared through an alleyway, hastened to the shop for another ball of twine, and returned to his home to resume hanging pictures.

Cole never knew how long those two men stood holding the string. He could have circled back and spied on them, but he didn’t even consider doing it. The more accomplished practical jokers seem to prefer a situation in which the denouement is left to their imaginations. They enjoy sitting down and thinking about what may have happened.

—H. Allen Smith: The Compleat Practical Joker (1953)

Image: Mr Wyldie of the Port of London Authority

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