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Wodehouse worked extensively on his books, sometimes having two or more in preparation simultaneously. He would take up to two years to build a plot and write a scenario of about thirty thousand words. After the scenario was complete he would write the story. Early in his career he would produce a novel in about three months but he slowed in old age to around six months. He used a mixture of Edwardian slang, quotations from and allusions to numerous poets and several literary techniques to produce a prose style that has been compared with comic poetry and musical comedy.
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Copyright © 2016 by P.G. Wodehouse
Published by Endymion Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
THE SUNSHINE OF A FAIR Spring morning fell graciously on London town. Out in Piccadilly its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike a novel jauntiness, so that bus drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts—clerks, on their way to work; beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.
At nine o’clock precisely the door of Number Seven Arundell
Street, Leicester Square, opened and a young man stepped out.
Of all the spots in London which may fairly be described as backwaters there is none that answers so completely to the description as Arundell Street, Leicester Square. Passing along the north sidewalk of the square, just where it joins Piccadilly, you hardly notice the bottleneck opening of the tiny cul-de-sac. Day and night the human flood roars past, ignoring it. Arundell Street is less than forty yards in length; and, though there are two hotels in it, they are not fashionable hotels. It is just a backwater.
In shape Arundell Street is exactly like one of those flat stone jars in which Italian wine of the cheaper sort is stored. The narrow neck that leads off Leicester Square opens abruptly into a small court. Hotels occupy two sides of this; the third is at present given up to rooming houses for the impecunious. These are always just going to be pulled down in the name of progress to make room for another hotel, but they never do meet with that fate; and as they stand now so will they in all probability stand for generations to come.
They provide single rooms of moderate size, the bed modestly hidden during the day behind a battered screen. The rooms contain a table, an easy-chair, a hard chair, a bureau, and a round tin bath, which, like the bed, goes into hiding after its useful work is performed. And you may rent one of these rooms, with breakfast thrown in, for five dollars a week.
Ashe Marson had done so. He had rented the second-floor front of
Twenty-six years before this story opens there had been born to Joseph Marson, minister, and Sarah his wife, of Hayling, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, a son. This son, christened Ashe after a wealthy uncle who subsequently double-crossed them by leaving his money to charities, in due course proceeded to Harvard to study for the ministry. So far as can be ascertained from contemporary records, he did not study a great deal for the ministry; but he did succeed in running the mile in four minutes and a half and the half mile at a correspondingly rapid speed, and his researches in the art of long jumping won him the respect of all.
That he should be awarded, at the conclusion of his Harvard career, one of those scholarships at Oxford University instituted by the late Cecil Rhodes for the encouragement of the liberal arts, was a natural sequence of events.
That was how Ashe came to be in England.
The rest of Ashe’s history follows almost automatically. He won his blue for athletics at Oxford, and gladdened thousands by winning the mile and the half mile two years in succession against Cambridge at Queen’s Club. But owing to the pressure of other engagements he unfortunately omitted to do any studying, and when the hour of parting arrived he was peculiarly unfitted for any of the learned professions. Having, however, managed to obtain a sort of degree, enough to enable him to call himself a Bachelor of Arts, and realizing that you can fool some of the people some of the time, he applied for and secured a series of private tutorships.
A private tutor is a sort of blend of poor relation and nursemaid, and few of the stately homes of England are without one. He is supposed to instill learning and deportment into the small son of the house; but what he is really there for is to prevent the latter from being a nuisance to his parents when he is home from school on his vacation.
Having saved a little money at this dreadful trade, Ashe came to London and tried newspaper work. After two years of moderate success he got in touch with the Mammoth Publishing Company.
The Mammoth Publishing Company, which controls several important newspapers, a few weekly journals, and a number of other things, does not disdain the pennies of the office boy and the junior clerk. One of its many profitable ventures is a series of paper-covered tales of crime and adventure. It was here that Ashe found his niche. Those adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator, which are so popular with a certain section of the reading public, were his work.
Until the advent of Ashe and Mr. Quayle, the British Pluck Library had been written by many hands and had included the adventures of many heroes: but in Gridley Quayle the proprietors held that the ideal had been reached, and Ashe received a commission to conduct the entire British Pluck Library—monthly—himself. On the meager salary paid him for these labors he had been supporting himself ever since.
That was how Ashe came to be in Arundell Street, Leicester Square, on this May morning.
He was a tall, well-built, fit-looking young man, with a clear eye and a strong chin; and he was dressed, as he closed the front door behind him, in a sweater, flannel trousers, and rubber-soled gymnasium shoes. In one hand he bore a pair of Indian clubs, in the other a skipping rope.
Having drawn in and expelled the morning air in a measured and solemn fashion, which the initiated observer would have recognized as that scientific deep breathing so popular nowadays, he laid down his clubs, adjusted his rope and began to skip.
When he had taken the second-floor front of Number Seven, three months before, Ashe Marson had realized that he must forego those morning exercises which had become a second nature to him, or else defy London’s unwritten law and brave London’s mockery. He had not hesitated long. Physical fitness was his gospel. On the subject of exercise he was confessedly a crank. He decided to defy London.
The first time he appeared in Arundell Street in his sweater and flannels he had barely whirled his Indian clubs once around his head before he had attracted the following audience:
a) Two cabmen—one intoxicated; b) Four waiters from the Hotel Mathis; c) Six waiters from the Hotel Previtali; d) Six chambermaids from the Hotel Mathis; e) Five chambermaids from the Hotel Previtali; f) The proprietor of the Hotel Mathis; g) The proprietor of the Hotel Previtali; h) A street cleaner; i) Eleven nondescript loafers; j) Twenty-seven children; k) A cat.
They all laughed—even the cat—and kept on laughing. The intoxicated cabman called Ashe “Sunny Jim.” And Ashe kept on swinging his clubs.
A month later, such is the magic of perseverance, his audience had narrowed down to the twenty-seven children. They still laughed, but without that ringing conviction which the sympathetic support of their elders had lent them.
And now, after three months, the neighborhood, having accepted Ashe and his morning exercises as a natural phenomenon, paid him no further attention.
On this particular morning Ashe Marson skipped with even more than his usual vigor. This was because he wished to expel by means of physical fatigue a small devil of discontent, of whose presence within him he had been aware ever since getting out of bed. It is in the Spring that the ache for the larger life comes on us, and this was a particularly mellow Spring morning. It was the sort of morning when the air gives us a feeling of anticipation—a feeling that, on a day like this, things surely cannot go jogging along in the same dull old groove; a premonition that something romantic and exciting is about to happen to us.
But the southwest wind of Spring brings also remorse. We catch the vague spirit of unrest in the air and we regret our misspent youth.
Ashe was doing this. Even as he skipped, he was conscious of a wish that he had studied harder at college and was now in a position to be doing something better than hack work for a soulless publishing company. Never before had he been so completely certain that he was sick to death of the rut into which he had fallen.
Skipping brought no balm. He threw down his rope and took up the
Indian clubs. Indian clubs left him still unsatisfied. The
thought came to him that it was a long time since he had done his
Larsen Exercises. Perhaps they would heal him.
The Larsen Exercises, invented by a certain Lieutenant Larsen, of the Swedish Army, have almost every sort of merit. They make a man strong, supple, and slender. But they are not dignified. Indeed, to one seeing them suddenly and without warning for the first time, they are markedly humorous. The only reason why King Henry, of England, whose son sank with the White Ship, never smiled again, was because Lieutenant Larsen had not then invented his admirable exercises.
So complacent, so insolently unselfconscious had Ashe become in the course of three months, owing to his success in inducing the populace to look on anything he did with the indulgent eye of understanding, that it simply did not occur to him, when he abruptly twisted his body into the shape of a corkscrew, in accordance with the directions in the lieutenant’s book for the consummation of Exercise One, that he was doing anything funny.
And the behavior of those present seemed to justify his confidence. The proprietor of the Hotel Mathis regarded him without a smile. The proprietor of the Hotel Previtali might have been in a trance, for all the interest he displayed. The hotel employees continued their tasks impassively. The children were blind and dumb. The cat across the way stropped its backbone against the railings unheeding.
But, even as he unscrambled himself and resumed a normal posture, from his immediate rear there rent the quiet morning air a clear and musical laugh. It floated out on the breeze and hit him like a bullet.
Three months ago Ashe would have accepted the laugh as inevitable, and would have refused to allow it to embarrass him; but long immunity from ridicule had sapped his resolution. He spun round with a jump, flushed and self-conscious.
From the window of the first-floor front of Number Seven a girl was leaning. The Spring sunshine played on her golden hair and lit up her bright blue eyes, fixed on his flanneled and sweatered person with a fascinated amusement. Even as he turned, the laugh smote him afresh.
For the space of perhaps two seconds they stared at each other, eye to eye. Then she vanished into the room.
Ashe was beaten. Three months ago a million girls could have laughed at his morning exercises without turning him from his purpose. Today this one scoffer, alone and unaided, was sufficient for his undoing. The depression which exercise had begun to dispel surged back on him. He had no heart to continue. Sadly gathering up his belongings, he returned to his room, and found a cold bath tame and uninspiring.
The breakfasts—included in the rent—provided by Mrs. Bell, the landlady of Number Seven, were held by some authorities to be specially designed to quell the spirits of their victims, should they tend to soar excessively. By the time Ashe had done his best with the disheveled fried egg, the chicory blasphemously called coffee, and the charred bacon, misery had him firmly in its grip. And when he forced himself to the table, and began to try to concoct the latest of the adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator, his spirit groaned within him.
This morning, as he sat and chewed his pen, his loathing for Gridley seemed to have reached its climax. It was his habit, in writing these stories, to think of a good title first, and then fit an adventure to it. And overnight, in a moment of inspiration, he had jotted down on an envelope the words: “The Adventure of the Wand of Death.”
It was with the sullen repulsion of a vegetarian who finds a caterpillar in his salad that he now sat glaring at them.
The title had seemed so promising overnight—so full of strenuous possibilities. It was still speciously attractive; but now that the moment had arrived for writing the story its flaws became manifest.
What was a wand of death? It sounded good; but, coming down to hard facts, what was it? You cannot write a story about a wand of death without knowing what a wand of death is; and, conversely, if you have thought of such a splendid title you cannot jettison it offhand. Ashe rumpled his hair and gnawed his pen.
There came a knock at the door.
Ashe spun round in his chair. This was the last straw! If he had told Mrs. Ball once that he was never to be disturbed in the morning on any pretext whatsoever, he had told her twenty times. It was simply too infernal to be endured if his work time was to be cut into like this. Ashe ran over in his mind a few opening remarks.
“Come in!” he shouted, and braced himself for battle.
A girl walked in—the girl of the first-floor front; the girl with the blue eyes, who had laughed at his Larsen Exercises.
Various circumstances contributed to the poorness of the figure Ashe cut in the opening moments of this interview. In the first place, he was expecting to see his landlady, whose height was about four feet six, and the sudden entry of somebody who was about five feet seven threw the universe temporarily out of focus. In the second place, in anticipation of Mrs. Bell’s entry, he had twisted his face into a forbidding scowl, and it was no slight matter to change this on the spur of the moment into a pleasant smile. Finally, a man who has been sitting for half an hour in front of a sheet of paper bearing the words: “The Adventure of the Wand of Death,” and trying to decide what a wand of death might be, has not his mind under proper control.
The net result of these things was that, for perhaps half a minute, Ashe behaved absurdly. He goggled and he yammered. An alienist, had one been present, would have made up his mind about him without further investigation. For an appreciable time he did not think of rising from his seat. When he did, the combined leap and twist he executed practically amounted to a Larsen Exercise.
Nor was the girl unembarrassed. If Ashe had been calmer he would have observed on her cheek the flush which told that she, too, was finding the situation trying. But, woman being ever better equipped with poise than man, it was she who spoke first.
“I’m afraid I’m disturbing you.”
“No, no!” said Ashe. “Oh, no; not at all—not at all! No. Oh, no—not at all—no!” And would have continued to play on the theme indefinitely had not the girl spoken again.
“I wanted to apologize,” she said, “for my abominable rudeness in laughing at you just now. It was idiotic of me and I don’t know why I did it. I’m sorry.”
Science, with a thousand triumphs to her credit, has not yet succeeded in discovering the correct reply for a young man to make who finds himself in the appalling position of being apologized to by a pretty girl. If he says nothing he seems sullen and unforgiving. If he says anything he makes a fool of himself. Ashe, hesitating between these two courses, suddenly caught sight of the sheet of paper over which he had been poring so long.
“What is a wand of death?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A wand of death?”
“I don’t understand.”
The delirium of the conversation was too much for Ashe. He burst out laughing. A moment later the girl did the same. And simultaneously embarrassment ceased to be.
“I suppose you think I’m mad?” said Ashe.
“Certainly,” said the girl.
“Well, I should have been if you hadn’t come in.”
“Why was that?”
“I was trying to write a detective story.”
“I was wondering whether you were a writer.”
“Do you write?”
“Yes. Do you ever read Home Gossip?”
“You are quite right to speak in that thankful tone. It’s a horrid little paper—all brown-paper patterns and advice to the lovelorn and puzzles. I do a short story for it every week, under various names. A duke or an earl goes with each story. I loathe it intensely.”
“I am sorry for your troubles,” said Ashe firmly; “but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?”
“A wand of death?”
“A wand of death.”
The girl frowned reflectively.
“Why, of course; it’s the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple, which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?”
Ashe could not restrain his admiration.
“This is genius!”
“Absolute genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery; and there am I, with another month’s work done.”
She looked at him with interest.
“Are you the author of Gridley Quayle?”
“Don’t tell me you read him!”
“I do not read him! But he is published by the same firm that publishes Home Gossip, and I can’t help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting in the waiting room to see the editress.”
Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood’s chum on a desert island.
Here was a real bond between them.
“Does the Mammoth publish you, too? Why, we are comrades in misfortune—fellow serfs! We should be friends. Shall we be friends?”
“I should be delighted.”
“Shall we shake hands, sit down, and talk about ourselves a little?”
“But I am keeping you from your work.”
“An errand of mercy.”
She sat down. It is a simple act, this of sitting down; but, like everything else, it may be an index to character. There was something wholly satisfactory to Ashe in the manner in which this girl did it. She neither seated herself on the extreme edge of the easy-chair, as one braced for instant flight; nor did she wallow in the easy-chair, as one come to stay for the week-end. She carried herself in an unconventional situation with an unstudied self-confidence that he could not sufficiently admire.
Etiquette is not rigid in Arundell Street; but, nevertheless, a girl in a first-floor front may be excused for showing surprise and hesitation when invited to a confidential chat with a second-floor front young man whom she has known only five minutes. But there is a freemasonry among those who live in large cities on small earnings.
“Shall we introduce ourselves?” said Ashe. “Or did Mrs. Bell tell you my name? By the way, you have not been here long, have you?”
“I took my room day before yesterday. But your name, if you are the author of Gridley Quayle, is Felix Clovelly, isn’t it?”
“Good heavens, no! Surely you don’t think anyone’s name could really be Felix Clovelly? That is only the cloak under which I hide my shame. My real name is Marson—Ashe Marson. And yours?”
“Will you tell me the story of your life, or shall I tell mine first?”
“I don’t know that I have any particular story. I am an
“Because it is too extraordinary, too much like a Gridley Quayle coincidence. I am an American!”
“Well, so are a good many other people.”
“You miss the point. We are not only fellow serfs—we are fellow exiles. You can’t round the thing off by telling me you were born in Hayling, Massachusetts, I suppose?”
“I was born in New York.”
“Surely not! I didn’t know anybody was.”
“Why Hayling, Massachusetts?”
“That was where I was born.”
“I’m afraid I never heard of it.”
“Strange. I know your home town quite well. But I have not yet made my birthplace famous; in fact, I doubt whether I ever shall. I am beginning to realize that I am one of the failures.”
“How old are you?”
“You are only twenty-six and you call yourself a failure? I think that is a shameful thing to say.”
“What would you call a man of twenty-six whose only means of making a living was the writing of Gridley Quayle stories—an empire builder?”
“How do you know it’s your only means of making a living? Why don’t you try something new?”
“How should I know? Anything that comes along. Good gracious, Mr. Marson; here you are in the biggest city in the world, with chances for adventure simply shrieking to you on every side.”
“I must be deaf. The only thing I have heard shrieking to me on every side has been Mrs. Bell—for the week’s rent.”
“Read the papers. Read the advertisement columns. I’m sure you will find something sooner or later. Don’t get into a groove. Be an adventurer. Snatch at the next chance, whatever it is.”
“Continue,” he said. “Proceed. You are stimulating me.”
“But why should you want a girl like me to stimulate you? Surely London is enough to do it without my help? You can always find something new, surely? Listen, Mr. Marson. I was thrown on my own resources about five years ago—never mind how. Since then I have worked in a shop, done typewriting, been on the stage, had a position as governess, been a lady’s maid—”
“A what! A lady’s maid?”
“Why not? It was all experience; and I can assure you I would much rather be a lady’s maid than a governess.”
“I think I know what you mean. I was a private tutor once. I suppose a governess is the female equivalent. I have often wondered what General Sherman would have said about private tutoring if he expressed himself so breezily about mere war. Was it fun being a lady’s maid?”
“It was pretty good fun; and it gave me an opportunity of studying the aristocracy in its native haunts, which has made me the Gossip’s established authority on dukes and earls.”
Ashe drew a deep breath—not a scientific deep breath, but one of admiration.
“You are perfectly splendid!”
“I mean, you have such pluck.”
“Oh, well; I keep on trying. I’m twenty-three and I haven’t achieved anything much yet; but I certainly don’t feel like sitting back and calling myself a failure.”
Ashe made a grimace.
“All right,” he said. “I’ve got it.”
“I meant you to,” said Joan placidly. “I hope I haven’t bored you with my autobiography, Mr. Marson. I’m not setting myself up as a shining example; but I do like action and hate stagnation.”
“You are absolutely wonderful!” said Ashe. “You are a human correspondence course in efficiency, one of the ones you see advertised in the back pages of the magazines, beginning, ‘Young man, are you earning enough?’ with a picture showing the dead beat gazing wistfully at the boss’ chair. You would galvanize a jellyfish.”
“If I have really stimulated you——-”
“I think that was another slam,” said Ashe pensively. “Well, I deserve it. Yes, you have stimulated me. I feel like a new man. It’s queer that you should have come to me right on top of everything else. I don’t remember when I have felt so restless and discontented as this morning.”
“It’s the Spring.”
“I suppose it is. I feel like doing something big and adventurous.”
“Well, do it then. You have a Morning Post on the table. Have you read it yet?”
“I glanced at it.”
“But you haven’t read the advertisement pages? Read them. They may contain just the opening you want.”
“Well, I’ll do it; but my experience of advertisement pages is that they are monopolized by philanthropists who want to lend you any sum from ten to a hundred thousand pounds on your note of hand only. However, I will scan them.”
Joan rose and held out her hand.
“Good-by, Mr. Marson. You’ve got your detective story to write, and I have to think out something with a duke in it by to-night; so I must be going.” She smiled. “We have traveled a good way from the point where we started, but I may as well go back to it before I leave you. I’m sorry I laughed at you this morning.”
Ashe clasped her hand in a fervent grip.
“I’m not. Come and laugh at me whenever you feel like it. I like being laughed at. Why, when I started my morning exercises, half of London used to come and roll about the sidewalks in convulsions. I’m not an attraction any longer and it makes me feel lonesome. There are twenty-nine of those Larsen Exercises and you saw only part of the first. You have done so much for me that if I can be of any use to you, in helping you to greet the day with a smile, I shall be only too proud. Exercise Six is a sure-fire mirth-provoker; I’ll start with it to-morrow morning. I can also recommend Exercise Eleven—a scream! Don’t miss it.”
“Very well. Well, good-by for the present.”
She was gone; and Ashe, thrilling with new emotions, stared at the door which had closed behind her. He felt as though he had been wakened from sleep by a powerful electric shock.
Close beside the sheet of paper on which he had inscribed the now luminous and suggestive title of his new Gridley Quayle story lay the Morning Post, the advertisement columns of which he had promised her to explore. The least he could do was to begin at once.
His spirits sank as he did so. It was the same old game. A Mr. Brian MacNeill, though doing no business with minors, was willing—even anxious—to part with his vast fortune to anyone over the age of twenty-one whose means happened to be a trifle straitened. This good man required no security whatever; nor did his rivals in generosity, the Messrs. Angus Bruce, Duncan Macfarlane, Wallace Mackintosh and Donald MacNab. They, too, showed a curious distaste for dealing with minors; but anyone of maturer years could simply come round to the office and help himself.
Ashe threw the paper down wearily. He had known all along that it was no good. Romance was dead and the unexpected no longer happened. He picked up his pen and began to write “The Adventure of the Wand of Death.”
IN A BEDROOM ON THE fourth floor of the Hotel Guelph in Piccadilly, the Honorable Frederick Threepwood sat in bed, with his knees drawn up to his chin, and glared at the day with the glare of mental anguish. He had very little mind, but what he had was suffering.
He had just remembered. It is like that in this life. You wake up, feeling as fit as a fiddle; you look at the window and see the sun, and thank Heaven for a fine day; you begin to plan a perfectly corking luncheon party with some of the chappies you met last night at the National Sporting Club; and then—you remember.
“Oh, dash it!” said the Honorable Freddie. And after a moment’s pause: “And I was feeling so dashed happy!”
For the space of some minutes he remained plunged in sad meditation; then, picking up the telephone from the table at his side, he asked for a number.
“Hello!” responded a rich voice at the other end of the wire.
“Oh, I say! Is that you, Dickie?”
“Who is that?”
“This is Freddie Threepwood. I say, Dickie, old top, I want to see you about something devilish important. Will you be in at twelve?”
“Certainly. What’s the trouble?”
“I can’t explain over the wire; but it’s deuced serious.”
“Very well. By the way, Freddie, congratulations on the engagement.”
“Thanks, old man. Thanks very much, and so on—but you won’t forget to be in at twelve, will you? Good-by.”
He replaced the receiver quickly and sprang out of bed, for he had heard the door handle turn. When the door opened he was giving a correct representation of a young man wasting no time in beginning his toilet for the day.
An elderly, thin-faced, bald-headed, amiably vacant man entered.
He regarded the Honorable Freddie with a certain disfavor.
“Are you only just getting up, Frederick?”
“Hello, gov’nor. Good morning. I shan’t be two ticks now.”
“You should have been out and about two hours ago. The day is glorious.”
“Shan’t be more than a minute, gov’nor, now. Just got to have a tub and then chuck on a few clothes.”
He disappeared into the bathroom. His father, taking a chair, placed the tips of his fingers together and in this attitude remained motionless, a figure of disapproval and suppressed annoyance.
Like many fathers in his rank of life, the Earl of Emsworth had suffered much through that problem which, with the exception of Mr. Lloyd-George, is practically the only fly in the British aristocratic amber—the problem of what to do with the younger sons.
It is useless to try to gloss over the fact—in the aristocratic families of Great Britain the younger son is not required.
Apart, however, from the fact that he was a younger son, and, as such, a nuisance in any case, the honorable Freddie had always annoyed his father in a variety of ways. The Earl of Emsworth was so constituted that no man or thing really had the power to trouble him deeply; but Freddie had come nearer to doing it than anybody else in the world. There had been a consistency, a perseverance, about his irritating performances that had acted on the placid peer as dripping water on a stone. Isolated acts of annoyance would have been powerless to ruffle his calm; but Freddie had been exploding bombs under his nose since he went to Eton.
He had been expelled from Eton for breaking out at night and roaming the streets of Windsor in a false mustache. He had been sent down from Oxford for pouring ink from a second-story window on the junior dean of his college. He had spent two years at an expensive London crammer’s and failed to pass into the army. He had also accumulated an almost record series of racing debts, besides as shady a gang of friends—for the most part vaguely connected with the turf—as any young man of his age ever contrived to collect.
These things try the most placid of parents; and finally Lord Emsworth had put his foot down. It was the only occasion in his life when he had acted with decision, and he did it with the accumulated energy of years. He stopped his son’s allowance, haled him home to Blandings Castle, and kept him there so relentlessly that until the previous night, when they had come up together by an afternoon train, Freddie had not seen London for nearly a year.
Possibly it was the reflection that, whatever his secret troubles, he was at any rate once more in his beloved metropolis that caused Freddie at this point to burst into discordant song. He splashed and warbled simultaneously.
Lord Emsworth’s frown deepened and he began to tap his fingers together irritably. Then his brow cleared and a pleased smile flickered over his face. He, too, had remembered.
What Lord Emsworth remembered was this: Late in the previous autumn the next estate to Blandings had been rented by an American, a Mr. Peters—a man with many millions, chronic dyspepsia, and one fair daughter—Aline. The two families had met. Freddie and Aline had been thrown together; and, only a few days before, the engagement had been announced. And for Lord Emsworth the only flaw in this best of all possible worlds had been removed.
Yes, he was glad Freddie was engaged to be married to Aline Peters. He liked Aline. He liked Mr. Peters. Such was the relief he experienced that he found himself feeling almost affectionate toward Freddie, who emerged from the bathroom at this moment, clad in a pink bathrobe, to find the paternal wrath evaporated, and all, so to speak, right with the world.
Nevertheless, he wasted no time about his dressing. He was always ill at ease in his father’s presence and he wished to be elsewhere with all possible speed. He sprang into his trousers with such energy that he nearly tripped himself up. As he disentangled himself he recollected something that had slipped his memory.
“By the way, gov’nor, I met an old pal of mine last night and asked him down to Blandings this week. That’s all right, isn’t it? He’s a man named Emerson, an American. He knows Aline quite well, he says—has known her since she was a kid.”
“I do not remember any friend of yours named Emerson.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I met him last night for the first time. But it’s all right. He’s a good chap, don’t you know! —and all that sort of rot.”
Lord Emsworth was feeling too benevolent to raise the objections he certainly would have raised had his mood been less sunny.
“Certainly; let him come if he wishes.”
Freddie completed his toilet.
“Doing anything special this morning, gov’nor? I rather thought of getting a bit of breakfast and then strolling round a bit. Have you had breakfast?”
“Two hours ago. I trust that in the course of your strolling you will find time to call at Mr. Peters’ and see Aline. I shall be going there directly after lunch. Mr. Peters wishes to show me his collection of—I think scarabs was the word he used.”
“Oh, I’ll look in all right! Don’t you worry! Or if I don’t I’ll call the old boy up on the phone and pass the time of day. Well, I rather think I’ll be popping off and getting that bit of breakfast—what?”
Several comments on this speech suggested themselves to Lord Emsworth. In the first place, he did not approve of Freddie’s allusion to one of America’s merchant princes as “the old boy.” Second, his son’s attitude did not strike him as the ideal attitude of a young man toward his betrothed. There seemed to be a lack of warmth. But, he reflected, possibly this was simply another manifestation of the modern spirit; and in any case it was not worth bothering about; so he offered no criticism.
Presently, Freddie having given his shoes a flick with a silk handkerchief and thrust the latter carefully up his sleeve, they passed out and down into the main lobby of the hotel, where they parted—Freddie to his bit of breakfast; his father to potter about the streets and kill time until luncheon. London was always a trial to the Earl of Emsworth. His heart was in the country and the city held no fascinations for him.
On one of the floors in one of the buildings in one of the streets that slope precipitously from the Strand to the Thames Embankment, there is a door that would be all the better for a lick of paint, which bears what is perhaps the most modest and unostentatious announcement of its kind in London. The grimy ground-glass displays the words:
Simply that and nothing more. It is rugged in its simplicity. You wonder, as you look at it—if you have time to look at and wonder about these things—who this Jones may be; and what is the business he conducts with such coy reticence.
As a matter of fact, these speculations had passed through suspicious minds at Scotland Yard, which had for some time taken not a little interest in R. Jones. But beyond ascertaining that he bought and sold curios, did a certain amount of bookmaking during the flat-racing season, and had been known to lend money, Scotland Yard did not find out much about Mr. Jones and presently dismissed him from its thoughts.
On the theory, given to the world by William Shakespeare, that it is the lean and hungry-looking men who are dangerous, and that the “fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights,” are harmless, R. Jones should have been above suspicion. He was infinitely the fattest man in the west-central postal district of London. He was a round ball of a man, who wheezed when he walked upstairs, which was seldom, and shook like jelly if some tactless friend, wishing to attract his attention, tapped him unexpectedly on the shoulder. But this occurred still less frequently than his walking upstairs; for in R. Jones’ circle it was recognized that nothing is a greater breach of etiquette and worse form than to tap people unexpectedly on the shoulder. That, it was felt, should be left to those who are paid by the government to do it.
R. Jones was about fifty years old, gray-haired, of a mauve complexion, jovial among his friends, and perhaps even more jovial with chance acquaintances. It was estimated by envious intimates that his joviality with chance acquaintances, specially with young men of the upper classes, with large purses and small foreheads—was worth hundreds of pounds a year to him. There was something about his comfortable appearance and his jolly manner that irresistibly attracted a certain type of young man. It was his good fortune that this type of young man should be the type financially most worth attracting.
Freddie Threepwood had fallen under his spell during his short but crowded life in London. They had met for the first time at the Derby; and ever since then R. Jones had held in Freddie’s estimation that position of guide, philosopher and friend which he held in the estimation of so many young men of Freddie’s stamp.
That was why, at twelve o’clock punctually on this Spring day, he tapped with his cane on R. Jones’ ground glass, and showed such satisfaction and relief when the door was opened by the proprietor in person.
“Well, well, well!” said R. Jones rollickingly. “Whom have we here? The dashing bridegroom-to-be, and no other!”
R. Jones, like Lord Emsworth, was delighted that Freddie was about to marry a nice girl with plenty of money. The sudden turning off of the tap from which Freddie’s allowance had flowed had hit him hard. He had other sources of income, of course; but few so easy and unfailing as Freddie had been in the days of his prosperity.
“The prodigal son, by George! Creeping back into the fold after all this weary time! It seems years since I saw you, Freddie. The old gov’nor put his foot down—didn’t he?—and stopped the funds. Damned shame! I take it that things have loosened up a bit since the engagement was announced—eh?”
Freddie sat down and chewed the knob of his cane unhappily.
“Well, as a matter of fact, Dickie, old top,” he said, “not so that you could notice it, don’t you know! Things are still pretty much the same. I managed to get away from Blandings for a night, because the gov’nor had to come to London; but I’ve got to go back with him on the three-o’clock train. And, as for money, I can’t get a quid out of him. As a matter of fact, I’m in the deuce of a hole; and that’s why I’ve come to you.”
Even fat, jovial men have their moments of depression. R. Jones’ face clouded, and jerky remarks about hardness of times and losses on the Stock Exchange began to proceed from him. As Scotland Yard had discovered, he lent money on occasion; but he did not lend it to youths in Freddie’s unfortunate position.
“Oh, I don’t want to make a touch, you know,” Freddie hastened to explain. “It isn’t that. As a matter of fact, I managed to raise five hundred of the best this morning. That ought to be enough.”
“Depends on what you want it for,” said R. Jones, magically genial once more.
The thought entered his mind, as it had so often, that the world was full of easy marks. He wished he could meet the money-lender who had been rash enough to advance the Honorable Freddie five hundred pounds. Those philanthropists cross our path too seldom.
Freddie felt in his pocket, produced a cigarette case, and from it extracted a newspaper clipping.
“Did you read about poor old Percy in the papers? The case, you know?”
“Lord Stockheath, you know.”
“Oh, the Stockheath breach-of-promise case? I did more than that. I was in court all three days.” R. Jones emitted a cozy chuckle. “Is he a pal of yours? A cousin, eh? I wish you had seen him in the witness box, with Jellicoe-Smith cross-examining him! The funniest thing I ever heard! And his letters to the girl! They read them out in court; and of all—”
“Don’t, old man! Dickie, old top—please! I know all about it. I read the reports. They made poor old Percy look like an absolute ass.”
“Well, Nature had done that already; but I’m bound to say they improved on Nature’s work. I should think your Cousin Percy must have felt like a plucked chicken.”
A spasm of pain passed over the Honorable Freddie’s vacant face.
He wriggled in his chair.
“Dickie, old man, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. It makes me feel ill.”
“Why, is he such a pal of yours as all that?”
“It’s not that. It’s—the fact is, Dickie, old top, I’m in exactly the same bally hole as poor old Percy was, myself!”
“What! You have been sued for breach of promise?”
“Not absolutely that—yet. Look here; I’ll tell you the whole thing. Do you remember a show at the Piccadilly about a year ago called “The Baby Doll”? There was a girl in the chorus.”
“Several—I remember noticing.”
“No; I mean one particular girl—a girl called Joan Valentine.
The rotten part is that I never met her.”
“Pull yourself together, Freddie. What exactly is the trouble?”
“Well—don’t you see?—I used to go to the show every other night, and I fell frightfully in love with this girl—”
“Without having met her?”
“Yes. You see, I was rather an ass in those days.”
“No, no!” said R. Jones handsomely.
“I must have been or I shouldn’t have been such an ass, don’t you know! Well, as I was saying, I used to write this girl letters, saying how much I was in love with her; and—and—”
“Specifically proposing marriage?”
“I can’t remember. I expect I did. I was awfully in love.”
“How was that if you never met her?”
“She wouldn’t meet me. She wouldn’t even come out to luncheon.
She didn’t even answer my letters—just sent word down by the
Johnny at the stage door. And then——”
Freddie’s voice died away. He thrust the knob of his cane into his mouth in a sort of frenzy.
“What then?” inquired R. Jones.
A scarlet blush manifested itself on Freddie’s young face. His eyes wandered sidewise. After a long pause a single word escaped him, almost inaudible:
R. Jones trembled as though an electric current had been passed through his plump frame. His little eyes sparkled with merriment.
“You wrote her poetry!”
“Yards of it, old boy—yards of it!” groaned Freddie. Panic filled him with speech. “You see the frightful hole I’m in? This girl is bound to have kept the letters. I don’t remember whether I actually proposed to her or not; but anyway she’s got enough material to make it worth while to have a dash at an action—especially after poor old Percy has just got soaked for such a pile of money and made breach-of-promise cases the fashion, so to speak.
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