The Circle, October 1908
T WAS late afternoon by the time the chicken-farmers reached their destination. The arrangements for carrying of luggage at Lyme Regis border on the primitive. Boxes are left on the platform, and later, when he thinks of it, a carrier looks in and conveys them down into the valley and up the hill on the opposite side to the address written on the labels. The owner walks. Lyme Regis is not a place for the halt and maimedlame and crippled; cf. Luke 14:21 KJV.
Ukridge led his band in the direction of the farm, which lay across the valley, looking through woods to the sea. Half-way up the slope on the other side of the valley the party left the road, climbed through a hedge, crossed a stream and another field, and after negotiating a difficult bank found themselves in a kitchen garden.
“This is the place,” said Ukridge, mopping his forehead. “We have come in by the back way. It saves time. Tired, Millie?”
“No, dear, thank you.”
“Without being tired,” said Garnet, “I am distinctly ready for tea. What are the prospects?”
“That’ll be all right,” said Ukridge, “don’t you worry. A most competent man, of the name of Beale, and his wife are in charge at present. I wrote to them telling them that we were coming to-day. They will be ready for us.”
They were at the front door by this time. Ukridge rang the bell. The noise reechoed through the house, but there were no answering footsteps. He rang again. There is no mistaking the note of a bell in an empty house. It was plain that the most competent man and his wife were out.
“Now what will we do?” said Garnet.
Mrs. Ukridge looked at her husband with quiet confidence.
As usual, Ukridge fell back on reminiscence.
“This,” he said, leaning against the door, and endeavoring to button his collar at the back, “reminds me of an afternoon in the Argentine. Two other men and myself tried for three-quarters of an hour to get into an empty house, where there looked as if there might be something to eat, and we’d just got the door open when the owner turned up from behind a tree with a shotgun. It was a little difficult to explain. There was a dog, too. We were glad to say good-by.”
At this moment history partially repeated itself. From the other side of the door came a dissatisfied whine, followed by a short bark.
“Hullo,” said Ukridge, “Beale has a dog.”
“And the dog,” said Garnet, “will have us if we’re not careful. What are you going to do?”
“Let’s try the back,” said Ukridge. “We must get in. What right,” he added, with pathos, “has a beastly mongrel belonging to a man I employ to keep me out of my own house? It’s a little hard. Here am I, slaving to support Beale, and when I try to get into my house his infernal dog barks at me. But we will try kindness first. Let me get to the keyhole. I will parley with the animal.”
He put his mouth to the keyhole, and roared the soothing words “Goo’ dog!” through it. Instantly the door shook as some heavy object hurled itself against it. The barking rang through the house.
“Kindness seems to be a drug in the market,” said Garnet. “Do you see your way to trying a little force?”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said Ukridge, rising. “We’ll go round and get in at the kitchen-window.”
“And how long are we to stay there? Till the dog dies?”
“I never saw such a man as you,” protested Ukridge. “You have a perfect mania for looking on the dark side. The dog won’t guard the kitchen door. We shall manage to shut him up somewhere.”
“Oh,” said Garnet.
“And now let’s get in and have something to eat, for goodness’ sake.”
The kitchen-window proved to be insecurely latched. Ukridge flung it open, and they climbed in.
The dog, hearing the sound of voices, raced back along the passage and flung himself at the door. He then proceeded to scratch at the panels in the persevering way of one who feels that he is engaged upon a business at which he is a specialist.
Inside the kitchen, Ukridge took command.
“Never mind the dog,” he said, “let it scratch. Personally I mean to have some tea. Millie, you know how to light a fire. Garnet and I will be collecting cups and things. When that scoundrel Beale arrives I shall tear him limb from limb. Deserting us like this! The man must be a thorough fraud. He told me he was an old soldier. If this was the sort of discipline they used to keep in his regiment, I don’t wonder that the Service is going to the dogs. There goes a plate! How is the fire getting on, Millie? I’ll chop Beale into little bits. What’s that you’ve got there, Garny, old horse? Tea? Good. Where’s the bread? There! another plate. Look here, I’ll give that dog three minutes, and, if it doesn’t stop scratching that door by then, I’ll take the bread-knife, and go out and have a soul-to-soul talk with it. It’s a little hard. My own house, and the first thing I find in it when I arrive is somebody else’s beastly dog scratching holes in the doors. Stop it, you beast!”
The dog’s reply was to continue his operations piu mosso.musical direction (in Italian, più mosso) for “with more motion; faster”
Ukridge’s eyes gleamed behind their glasses.
“Give me a good large jug,” he said, with ominous calm.
He took the largest of the jugs from the dresser, and strode with it into the scullery, whence came the sound of running water. He returned carrying the jug in both hands.
“Garny, old horse,” he said, “tack on to the handle, and, when I give the word, fling wide the gatestitle of a well-known chorus from John Stainer’s 1887 oratorio The Crucifixion. Then watch that beast beyond the door get the surprise of its lifetime.”
Garnet attached himself to the handle as directed. Ukridge gave the word. They had a momentary vision of an excited dog, of the mongrel class, framed in the open doorway; then the passage was occupied by a spreading pool, and indignant barks from the distance told that the mongrel was thinking the thing over in some safe retreat.
“Settled his hash,” said Ukridge, complacently. “Nothing like resource, Garnet, my boy. Some men would have gone on letting a good door be ruined. How is the fire, Millie?”
“The kettle is just boiling, dear.”
Over a cup of tea Ukridge became the Man of Business.
“I wonder when those fowls are going to arrive. They should have been here to-day. If they don’t come to-morrow, I shall lodge a complaint. After tea I’ll show you the garden, and we will choose a place for a fowl-run. To-morrow we must buckle to. Serious work will begin immediately after breakfast.”
“Suppose,” said Garnet, “the fowls arrive before we are ready for them.”
“Why, then they must wait.”
“But you can’t keep fowls cooped up indefinitely in a crate. I suppose they will come in a crate. I don’t know much about these things.”
“Oh, that’ll be all right. There’s a basement to this house. We’ll let ’em run about there till we’re ready for them. There’s always a way of doing things if you look for it. Well, I’m hanged! that dog again. Where’s that jug?”
But this time an unforeseen interruption prevented the manoeuvre from being the success it had been before. Garnet had turned the handle, and was just about to pull the door open, while Ukridge stood beside him with his jug poised, when a hoarse voice spoke from the window.
“Stand still!” said the voice, “or I’ll corpse you.”
Garnet dropped the handle, Ukridge dropped the jug. Mrs. Ukridge screamed.
At the window, with a double-barrelled gun in his hands, stood a short, square, red-headed man. The muzzle of his gun, which rested on the sill, was pointing in a straight line at the third button on Garnet’s waistcoat. With a distant recollection of the Deadwood Dicka fictional character in a series of 19th century Western dime novels by sensational American author Edward Lytton Wheeler (c.1854–1885) [IM] literature of his childhood Garnet flung both hands above his head.
Ukridge emitted a roar like that of a hungry lion.
“Beale!” he shouted. “You scoundrelly, unprincipled blackguard! What are you doing with that gun? Why were you out? What have you been doing? Why did you shout like that? Look what you’ve made me do.”
He pointed to the floor. Broken crockery, spreading water, his own shoes—exceedingly old tennis shoes—well soaked, attested the fact that damage had been done.
“Lor! Mr. Ukridge, sir, is that you?” said the red-headed man, calmly. “I thought you was burglars.”
A sharp bark from the other side of the kitchen door, followed by a renewal of the scratching, drew Mr. Beale’s attention to his faithful hound.
“That’s Bob,” he said.
“I don’t know what you call the brute,” said Ukridge. “Come in and tie him up.”
“ ’Ow am I to get in, Mr. Ukridge, sir?”
“Come in through the window, and mind what you’re doing with that gun. After you’ve finished with the dog, I should like a brief chat with you, if you can spare the time and have no other engagements.”
Mr. Beale, having carefully deposited his gun against the wall of the kitchen, and dropped a pair of very limp rabbits with a thud to the floor, proceeded to climb through the window. This operation performed, he stood on one side while the besieged garrison passed out by the same road.
“You will find me in the garden, Beale,” said Ukridge. “I have one or two little things to say to you.”
Mr. Beale grinned affably.
The cool air of the garden was grateful after the warmth of the kitchen. It was a pretty garden, or would have been if it had not been so neglected. Garnet seemed to see himself sitting in a deck-chair on the lawn, looking through the leaves of the trees at the harbor below. It was a spot, he felt, in which it would be an easy and pleasant task to shape the plot of his novel. He was glad he had come.
“Here you are, Beale,” said Ukridge, as the red-headed man approached. “Now then, what have you to say?”
The Hired Man looked thoughtful for a while, then observed that it was a fine evening.
“Fine evening?” shouted Ukridge. “What—on—earth has that got to do with it? I want to know why you and Mrs. Beale were both out when we arrived? You will have to explain that.”
“The missus went to Axminster, Mr. Ukridge, sir.”
“She had no right to go to Axminster. I don’t pay her large sums to go to Axminster. You knew I was coming this evening.”
“No, Mr. Ukridge, sir.”
“No, Mr. Ukridge, sir.”
“Beale,” said Ukridge with studied calm, “one of us two is a fool.”
“I noticed that, sir.”
“Let us sift this matter to the bottom. You got my letter?”
“No, Mr. Ukridge, sir.”
“My letter saying that I should arrive to-night. You did not get it?”
“Now, look here, Beale,” said Ukridge, “I am certain that that letter was posted. I remember placing it in my pocket for that purpose. It is not there now. See. These are all the contents of my—well, I’m hanged!”
He stood looking at the envelope he had produced from his breast-pocket. Mr. Beale coughed.
“Beale,” said Ukridge, “you—er—there seems to have been a mistake.”
“You are not so much to blame as I thought.”
“Anyhow,” said Ukridge, in inspired tones, “I’ll go and slay that infernal dog. Where’s your gun, Beale?Magazine had a period here; 1909 book had question mark.”
But better counsels prevailed, and the proceedings closed with a cold but pleasant little dinner, at which the spared mongrel came out unexpectedly strong with brainy and diverting tricks.
SUNSHINE, streaming into his bedroom through the open window, woke Garnet next day as distant clocks were striking eight. It was a lovely morning, cool and fresh. The grass of the lawn, wet with dew, sparkled in the sun. On the gravel in front of the house lay the mongrel Bob, blinking lazily. The gleam of the sea through the trees turned Garnet’s thoughts to bathing. He dressed quickly, and went out. Bob rose to meet him, waving an absurdly long tail. The hatchet was definitely buried now. That little matter of the jug of water was forgotten.
“Well, Bob,” said Garnet, “coming down to watch me bathe?” Bob uttered a bark of approval, and ran before him to the gate.
A walk of ten minutes brought Garnet to the cobThe man-made harbor of Lyme Regis, usually spelled Cobb, that combination of pier and breakwater which the misadventures of one of Jane Austen’s young missesIn Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls when jumping off the steps and receives a concussion. In the 1921 revision of Love Among the Chickens, Wodehouse sets the novel’s farm near the fictional town of Coombe Regis, and omits the reference to Austen and this mention of the cob, but names it in Chapter 19. have made known to the outside public.
The tide was high, and Garnet, leaving his clothes to the care of Bob, dived into twelve feet of clear, cold water. As he swam, he compared it with the morning tub of town, and felt that he had done well to come with Ukridge to this pleasant spot. But he could not rely on unbroken calm during the whole of his visit. He did not know a great deal about chicken farming, but he was certain that Ukridge knew less. At the thought of Ukridge toiling on a hot afternoon to manage an undisciplined mob of fowls, and becoming more and more heated and profane in the struggle, he laughed, and promptly swallowed a generous mouthful of salt water. There are few things which depress the swimmer more than an involuntary draught of water. Garnet turned and swam back to Bob and the clothes.
He found Ukridge in his shirt-sleeves and minus a collar assailing a large ham. Mrs. Ukridge, looking younger and more childlike than ever in brown hollandan unbleached linen fabric, smiled at him over the teapot.
“Here he is!” shouted Ukridge, catching sight of him. “Where have you been, old horse? Bathing? Hope it’s made you feel fit for work, because we’ve got to buckle to this morning.”
“The fowls have arrived, Mr. Garnet,” said Mrs. Ukridge, opening her eyes till she looked like an astonished kitten. “Such a lot of them. They’re making such a noise.”
And to support her statement there floated through the window a cackling which for volume and variety of key beat anything that Garnet had ever heard. Judging from the noise, it seemed as if England had been drained of fowls and the entire tribe of them dumped into the yard of the Ukridge farm.
“There seems to have been no stint,” he said, sitting down. “Did you order a million or only nine hundred thousand?”
“Good many, aren’t there?” said Ukridge, complacently. “But that’s what we want. No good starting on a small scale. The more you have, the bigger the profits.”
“What sort have you got mostly?”
“Oh, all sorts. Bless you, people don’t mind what breed a fowl is, so long as it is a fowl. These dealer chaps were so infernally particular. ‘Any DorkingsAn ancient breed of chickens, introduced into Britain at the Roman conquest, noted for both egg and meat production.?’ they said. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘bring on your Dorkings.’ ‘Or perhaps you want a few MinorcasAn ornamental chicken of Spanish origin, medium in size, laying about 120 eggs a year?’ ‘Very well,’ I said, ‘show Minorcas.’ They were going on—they’d have gone on for hours, but I stopped ’em. ‘Look here, Maximilian,’ I said to the manager johnny—decent old buck, with the manners of a marquisAn allusion to W. S. Gilbert’s Ruddigore, in which Robin Oakapple “combines the manners of a Marquis with the morals of a Methodist”—‘look here,’ I said, ‘life is short, and we’re neither of us as young as we used to be. Don’t let us waste the golden hours playing guessing games. I want fowls. You sell fowls. So give me some of all sorts.’ And he has, by Jove. You go into the yard, and look at them. Beale has turned them out of the crates. There must be one of every breed ever invented.”
“Where are you going to put them?”
“That spot we chose by the paddock. That’s the place. Plenty of mud for them to scratch about in, and they can go into the field when they want to, and pick up worms, or whatever they feed on. We must rig them up some sort of a shanty, I suppose, this morning. We’ll go and tell ’em to send up some wire netting and stuff from the town.”
“Then we shall want hen-coops. We shall have to make those.”
“Of course. So we shall. Millie, didn’t I tell you that old Garnet was the man to think of things! I forgot the coops. We can’t buy some, I suppose? On tick?”
“Cheaper to make them. Suppose we get a lot of boxes. Soap boxes are as good as any. It won’t take long to knock up a few coops.”
Ukridge thumped the table with enthusiasm.
“Garny, old horse, you’re a marvel. You think of everything. We’ll buckle to right away. What a noise those fowls are making. I suppose they don’t feel at home in the yard. Wait till they see the A1 residential mansions we’re going to put up for them. Finished breakfast? Then let’s go out. Come along, Millie.”
The red-headed Beale, discovered leaning in an attitude of thought on the yard gate, was despatched to the town for the wire and soap boxes. Ukridge, taking his place at the gate, gazed at the fowls with the affectionate eye of a proprietor.
“Well, they have certainly taken you at your word,” said Garnet, “as far as variety is concerned.”
The man with the manners of a marquis seemed to have been at great pains to send a really representative supply of fowls. There were blue ones, black ones, white, gray, yellow, brown, big, little, Dorkings, Minorcas, Cochin ChinasA Chinese variety of chicken, large in size, with plentiful ornamental plumage and a calm disposition; better as show birds or pets than as dependable egg-layers, BantamsAny of several miniature varieties of chicken, OrpingtonsA variety of chicken developed in Victorian Britain, originally black, but the buff color is also common; bred originally to be a dependable egg-layer (up to 340 per year), in more recent years breeders have emphasized its large size and soft, rich plumage for show, at the expense of egg-laying production, WyandottesAn American variety of chicken, of medium size, kept both for eggs and meat, and also bred in eight colors for show, and a host more. It was an imposing spectacle.
The Hired Man returned toward the end of the morning, preceded by a cart containing the necessary wire and boxes, and Ukridge, whose enthusiasm brooked no delay, started immediately the task of fashioning the coops, while Garnet, assisted by Beale, draped the wire netting about the chosen spot next to the paddock. There were little unpleasantnesses—once a roar of anguish told that Ukridge’s hammer had found the wrong billet, and on another occasion Garnet’s flannel trousers suffered on the wire—but the work proceeded steadily. By the middle of the afternoon things were in a sufficiently advanced state to suggest to Ukridge the advisability of a halt for refreshments.
“That’s the way to do it,” said he; “at this rate we shall have the place in A1 condition before bedtime. What do you think of those four coops, Beale?”
The Hired Man examined them gravely.
“I’ve seen worse, sir.”
He continued his examination.
“But not many,” he added. Beale’s passion for truth had made him unpopular in three regiments.
“They aren’t so bad,” said Garnet, “but I’m glad I’m not a fowl.”
“So you ought to be,” said Ukridge, “considering the way you’ve put up that wire. You’ll have them strangling themselves.”
In spite of earnest labor the housing arrangements of the fowls were still in an incomplete state at the end of the day. The details of the evening’s work are preserved in a letter which Garnet wrote that night to his friend Lickford.
. . . “Have you ever played a game called ‘Pigs in Clover?’a handheld puzzle of dexterity in which marbles must be rolled to the center of a maze of concentric circles with openings on alternate sides
We have just finished a bout of it (with hens instead of marbles) which has lasted for an hour and a half. We are all dead tired, except the Hired Man, who seems to be made of india rubber. He has just gone for a stroll to the beach. Wants some exercise, I suppose. Personally, I feel as if I should never move again. I have run faster and farther than I have done since I was at school. You have no conception of the difficulty of rounding up fowls and getting them safely to bed. Having no proper place to put them, we were obliged to stow some of them inside soap boxes and the rest in the basement. It has only just occurred to me that they ought to have had perches to roost on. It didn’t strike me before. I shall not mention it to Ukridge, or that indomitable man will start making some, and drag me into it, too. After all, a hen can rough it for one night, and if I did a stroke more work I should collapse.
“My idea was to do the thing on the slow but sure principle. That is to say, take each bird singly, and carry it to bed. It would have taken some time, but there would have been no confusion. But you can imagine that that sort of thing would not appeal to Ukridge. There is a touch of the Napoleon about him. He likes his maneuvers to be daring and on a large scale. He said: ‘Open the yard gate, and let the fowls come out into the open; then sail in and drive them in a mass through the back door into the basement.’ It was a great idea, but there was one fatal flaw in it. It didn’t allow for the hens scattering. We opened the gate, and out they all came like an audience coming out of a theater. Then we closed in on them to bring off the big drive. For about three seconds it looked as if we might do it. Then Bob, the Hired Man’s dog, an animal who likes to be in whatever’s going on, rushed out of the house into the middle of them, barking. There was a perfect stampede, and Heaven only knows where some of those fowls are now. There was one in particular, a large yellow bird, which, I should imagine, is nearing London by this time. The last I saw of it, it was navigating at the rate of knots, so to speak, in that direction with Bob after it, barking his hardest. Presently Bob came back, panting, having evidently given up the job. We, in the meantime, were chasing the rest of the birds all over the garden. The thing had now resolved itself into the course of action I had suggested originally, except that instead of collecting them quietly and at our leisure we had to run miles for each one we captured. After a time we introduced some sort of system into it. Mrs. Ukridge (fancy him married! Did you know?) stood at the door. We chased the hens, and brought them in. Then as we put each through into the basement, she shut the door on it. We also arranged Ukridge’s soap box coops in a row, and when we caught a fowl we put it into the coop, and stuck a board in front of it. By these strenuous means we gathered in about two-thirds of the lot. The rest are all over England. A few may be in Dorsetshire, but I should not like to bet on it. There are one or two in the innermost depths of a big wood-stack near the paddock. Bob drove them in there, and no human power can take them out again. It would mean moving all the wood. However, they are safe enough if they stay there. If they come out during the night a local fox will probably snap them up. In which case R. I. P. I expect a good many are in the shrubbery. We drew it, but not thoroughly.
“So you see things are being managed on the up-to-date chicken-farm on good, sound, Ukridge principles. This is only the beginning. I look with confidence for further exciting events. I believe, if Ukridge kept white mice, he would manage to knock some feverish excitement out of it. He is at present lying on the sofa, smoking one of his infernal brand of cigars. From the basement I can hear faintly the murmur of innumerable fowls. We are a happy family, we are, we are, weMusic hall actor/singer Arthur Roberts popularized the song “We Are a Merry Family, We Are, We Are, We Are!” written by Frederick Bowyer and Gilbert Harrow about 1881. The first verse in the sheet music substitutes “happy” for “merry”; this is the form Wodehouse always quotes. See By the Way: 200 Verses, edited by Tony Ring, for several examples of Wodehouse’s parodies on the lyric. are!
“P. S. Have you ever caught a fowl and carried it to roost? You take it under the wings, and the feel of it sets one’s teeth on edge. It is a grisly experience. All the time you are carrying it, it makes faint protesting noises and struggles feebly to escape.
“P. P. S. You know the opinion of Pythagoras respecting fowls. That ‘the soul of our granddam might haply inhabit a bird.’Quoted from Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, IV, ii I hope that yellow hen which Bob chased into the purple night is not the grandmamma of any friend of mine. It would really be too dreadful.”
Mr. Garnet’s Narrative—Has to Do with a Reunion
THE day was Thursday, the date July the twenty-second. We had been chicken-farmers for a whole week, and things were beginning to settle down to a certain extent. The coops were finished. They were not masterpieces, and I have seen chickens pause before them in deep thought, as who should say, “Now, what in the world have we struck here?” But they were coops, within the meaning of the act, and we induced the hens to become tenants. The hardest work had been the fixing of the wire netting. This was the department of the Hired Man and myself. Beale and I worked ourselves into a fever in the sun, while the senior partner of the firm sat in the house writing out plans and ideas and scribbling down his accounts (which must have been complicated) on gilt-edged correspondence cards. From time to time he abused his creditors, who were numerous.
Ukridge’s financial methods were always puzzling to the
ordinary mind. We had hardly been at the farm a day before he began to order in
a vast supply of necessary and unnecessary articles, all on credit. Some he got
from the village, others from neighboring towns. He has a way with him, like
Father O’Flynn“Och! Father O’Flynn, you’ve the wonderful way wid you”
—Line from a popular Irish song lyric by Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931) [see endnote for link to the full lyric], and the tradesmen behaved beautifully. The things began to pour in from all sides—suits, groceries (of the very best), a piano, a gramaphone, and pictures of all kinds. He was not one of those men who want but little here below. He wanted a great deal and of a superior quality. If a tradesman suggested that a small cheque on account would not be taken amiss, he became pathetic. “Confound it, sir,” he would say, with tears in his voice, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder in an elder brotherly way, “it’s a trifle hard, when a gentleman comes to settle here, that you should dun him for things before he has settled the preliminary expenses about his house.” This sounded well, and suggested the disbursement of huge sums for rent. The fact that the house had been lent him rent free was kept with some care in the background. Having weakened the man with pathos, he would strike a sterner note. “A little more of this,” he would go on, “and I’ll close my account. As it is, I think I will remove my patronage to a firm which will treat me civilly. Why, sir, I’ve never heard anything like it in all my experience.” Upon which the man would knuckle under, and go away, forgiven, with a large order for more goods.
Once, when Ukridge and I were alone, I ventured to expostulate. High Finance was always beyond my mental grasp. “Pay?” he exclaimed. “Of course we shall pay. You don’t seem to realize the possibilities of this business. Garny, my boy, we are on to a big thing. The money isn’t coming in yet. We must give it time. But soon we shall be turning over hundreds every week. I am in touch with Whiteley’sLondon’s first department store, founded in 1863 as a drapery shop but diversified so that by 1890 it employed 6,000 workers and owned extensive farmlands and processing factories to supply its food sales and Harrod’s and all the big places. Perfectly simple business matter. Here I am, I said, with a large chicken-farm with all the modern improvements. You want eggs, I said. I supply them. I will let you have so many hundred eggs a week, I said; what will you give for them? Well, their terms did not come up to my scheduled prices, I admit, but we mustn’t sneer at small prices at first.”
The upshot of it was that the firms mentioned supplied us with a quantity of goods, agreeing to receive phantom eggs in exchange. This satisfied Ukridge. He had a faith in the laying powers of his hens which would have flattered those birds if they could have known of it. It might also have stimulated their efforts in that direction, which up to date were feeble. This, however, I attributed to the fact that the majority of our fowls—perhaps through some sinister practical joke on the part of the manager who had the manners of a marquis—were cocks.
Meanwhile, we were creating quite a small sensation in the neighborhood. The interest of the native was aroused at first by the fact that nearly all of them received informal visits from our fowls, which had strayed. Small boys would arrive in platoons, each bearing his quota of stragglers. “Be these your ’ens, zur?” was the formula. “If they be, we’ve got twenty-fower mower in our yard. Could ’ee coom over, and fetch ’em?” But after the Hired Retainer and I had completed our work with the wire netting, desertions became less frequent. People poured in from villages for miles around to look at the up-to-date chicken-farm. It was a pleasing and instructive spectacle to see Ukridge, in a pink shirt, without a collar, and very dirty flannel trousers, lecturing the intelligent native on the breeding of fowls. They used to go away with the dazed air of men who have heard strange matters, and Ukridge, unexhausted, would turn to interview the next batch.
It was now, as I have said, Thursday, the twenty-second of July, a memorable date to me. A glorious, sunny morning, of the kind which Nature provides occasionally in an ebullition of benevolence. It is at times such as this that we dream our dreams and compose our masterpieces.
And a masterpiece I was, indeed, making. The new novel was growing nobly. Striking scenes and freshets of scintillating dialogue rushed through my mind. I had neglected my writing for the past week in favor of the tending of fowls, but I was making up for lost time now. Another uninterrupted quarter of an hour, and, I firmly believe, I should have completed the framework of a novel that would have placed me with the Great, in that select band whose members have no Christian names. Another quarter of an hour, and Posterity would have known me as “Garnet.”
But it was not to be. I had just framed the most poignant, searching conversation between my heroine and my hero, when I heard—
“Stop her! Catch her! Garnet!”
I was in the paddock at the time. Coming toward me at her best pace was a small hen. Behind the hen was Bob, doing, as usual, the thing that he ought not have done“we have done those things which we ought not to have done”: from the General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer. Behind Bob, some way behind, was Ukridge. It was his shout I had heard.
“After her, Garny, old horse!” he repeated.
When not in a catalepsy of literary composition, I am essentially the Man of Action. I laid aside my novel for future reference, and, after a fruitless lunge at the hen as it passed, joined in the chase.
We passed out of the paddock in the following order: First the hen, as fresh as paint, and good for a five-mile spin. Next, Bob, panting, but fit for anything. Lastly, myself, determined, but mistrustful of my powers of pedestrianism. In the distance Ukridge gesticulated and shouted.
After the first field Bob gave up the chase, and sauntered off to scratch at a rabbit-hole. He seemed to think that he had done all that could be expected of him in setting the thing going.
The exertions of the past few days had left me in very fair condition; but I could not help feeling that in competition with the hen I was overmatched. Neither in speed nor in staying power was I its equal. But I pounded along doggedly.
We had been traveling down hill all this time, but at this point we crossed the road, and the ground began to rise. I was in that painful condition which occurs when one has lost one’s first wind and has not yet got one’s second. I was hotter than I had ever been in my life.
Whether the hen, too, was beginning to feel the effects of its run I do not know, but it slowed down to a walk, and even began to peck in a tentative manner at the grass. This assumption on its part that the chase was at an end irritated me. I felt that I should not be worthy of the name of Englishman if I allowed myself to be treated as a cipher by a mere bird.
A judicious increase of pace brought me within a yard or two of my quarry. But it darted from me with a startled exclamation, and moved off rapidly up the hill. I followed, distressed. The pace was proving too much for me. The sun blazed down. It seemed to concentrate its rays on my back, to the exclusion of the surrounding scenery, in much the same way as the moon behaves to the heroine of a melodrama. A student of the drama has put it on record that he has seen the moon follow the heroine round the stage and go off with her. The sun was just as attentive to me.
We were on level ground now. The hen had again slowed to a walk, and I was capable of no better pace. Very gradually I closed in on it. There was a high boxwood hedge in front of us. Just as I came close enough to stake my all on a single grab, the hen dived into this, and struggled through in the mysterious way in which birds do get through hedges.
I was in the middle of the obstacle, very hot, tired and dirty, when from the other side I heard a sudden shout of “Mark over! Bird to the right!” and the next moment I found myself emerging, with a black face and tottering knees, on to the gravel path of a private garden.
Beyond the path was a croquet lawn, on which I perceived, as through a glass darkly1 Corinthians 13:12, three figures. The mist cleared from my eyes, and I recognized two of the trio.
One was my Irish fellow-traveler. The other was his daughter.
The third member of the party was a man, a stranger to me. By some miracle of adroitness he had captured the hen, and was holding it, protesting, in a workmanlike manner behind the wings.
(To be continued)
halt and maimed: lame and crippled; cf. Luke 14:21 KJV
piu mosso: musical direction (in Italian, più mosso) for “with more motion; faster” [IM]
fling wide the gates: title of a well-known chorus from John Stainer’s 1887 oratorio The Crucifixion
Deadwood Dick: a fictional character in a series of 19th century Western dime novels by sensational American author Edward Lytton Wheeler (c.1854–1885) [IM]
cob: The man-made harbor and breakwater of Lyme Regis, usually spelled Cobb
the misadventures of one of Jane Austen’s young misses: In Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls when jumping off the steps and receives a concussion. In the 1921 revision of Love Among the Chickens, Wodehouse sets the novel’s farm near the fictional town of Coombe Regis, and omits the references to cob and Austen.
brown holland: an unbleached linen fabric
Dorkings: An ancient breed of chickens, introduced into Britain at the Roman conquest, noted for both egg and meat production
Minorcas: An ornamental chicken of Spanish origin, medium in size, laying about 120 eggs a year
the manners of a marquis: An allusion to W. S. Gilbert’s Ruddigore, in which Robin Oakapple “combines the manners of a Marquis with the morals of a Methodist”
Cochin Chinas: A Chinese variety of chicken, large in size, with plentiful ornamental plumage and a calm disposition; better as show birds or pets than as dependable egg-layers
Bantams: Any of several miniature varieties of chicken
Orpingtons: A variety of chicken developed in Victorian Britain, originally black, but the buff color is also common; bred originally to be a dependable egg-layer (up to 340 per year), in more recent years breeders have emphasized its large size and soft, rich plumage for show, at the expense of egg-laying production.
Wyandottes: An American variety of chicken, of medium size, kept both for eggs and meat, and also bred in eight colors for show
a game called ‘Pigs in Clover’: a handheld puzzle of dexterity in which marbles must be rolled to the center of a maze of concentric circles with openings on alternate sides
We are a happy family, we are, we are, we are!: Music hall actor/singer Arthur Roberts popularized the song “We Are a Merry Family, We Are, We Are, We Are!” written by Frederick Bowyer and Gilbert Harrow about 1881. The first verse in the sheet music substitutes “happy” for “merry”; this is the form Wodehouse always quotes. See By the Way: 200 Verses, edited by Tony Ring, for several examples of Wodehouse’s parodies on the lyric.
‘the soul of our granddam might haply inhabit a bird’: Quoted from Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, IV, ii
has a way with him, like Father O’Flynn:
“Och! Father O’Flynn, you’ve the wonderful way wid you”
—Line from a popular Irish song lyric by Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931)
Whiteley’s: London’s first department store, founded in 1863 as a drapery shop, but diversified so that by 1890 it employed 6,000 workers and owned extensive farmlands and processing factories to supply its food sales
the thing that he ought not have done: “we have done those things which we ought not to have done”: from the General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer
as through a glass darkly: 1 Corinthians 13:12
Printer’s error corrected: Magazine had a period in “Where’s your gun, Beale.” Question mark substituted above, as in 1909 book edition.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff, with contributions from Ian Michaud