The Saturday Evening Post, November 21, 1925
“ LADDIE,” said Ukridge, “I need capital, old horse—need it sorely.”
He removed his glistening silk hat, looked at it in a puzzled way and replaced it on his head. We had met by chance near the eastern end of Piccadilly, and the breathtaking gorgeousness of his costume told me that since I had seen him last there must have occurred between him and his Aunt Julia one of those periodical reconciliations which were wont to punctuate his hectic and disreputable career. For those who know Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, that much-enduring man, are aware that he is the nephew of Miss Julia Ukridge, the wealthy and popular novelist; and that from time to time, when she can bring herself to forgive and let bygones be bygones, he goes to dwell for a while in gilded servitude at her house in Wimbledon.
“Yes, Corky, my boy, I want a bit of capital.”
“And want it quick. The truest saying in this world is that you can’t accumulate if you don’t speculate. But how the deuce are you to start speculating unless you accumulate a few quid to begin with?”
“Ah,” I said, noncommittally.
“Take my case,” proceeded Ukridge, running a large, beautifully gloved finger round the inside of a spotless collar which appeared to fit a trifle too snugly to the neck. “I have an absolutely safe double for Kempton Park on the fifteenth, and even a modest investment would bring me in several hundred pounds. But bookies, blast them, require cash down in advance, so where am I? Without capital, enterprise is strangled at birth.”
“Can’t you get some from your Aunt Julia?” I asked him.
“Not a cent. She is one of those women who simply do not disgorge. All her surplus cash is devoted to adding to her collection of moldy snuffboxes. When I look at those snuffboxes and reflect that any single one of them, judiciously put up the spout, would set my feet on the road to fortune, only my innate sense of honesty keeps me from pinching them.”
“You mean they’re locked up.”
“It’s hard, laddie; very hard and bitter and ironical. She buys me suits, she buys me hats, she buys me boots, she buys me spats; and, what is more, insists on my wearing the damned things. With what result? Not only am I infernally uncomfortable but my exterior creates a totally false impression in the minds of any blokes I meet to whom I may happen to owe a bit of money. When I go about looking as if I owned the mint, it becomes difficult to convince them that I am not in a position to pay them their beastly one pound fourteen and eleven or whatever it is. I tell you, laddie, the strain has begun to weigh upon me to such an extent that the breaking point may arrive at any moment. Every day it is becoming more imperative that I clear out and start life again upon my own. But this cannot be done without cash. And that is why I look around me and say to myself, ‘How am I to acquire a bit of capital?’ ”
I thought it best to observe at this point that my own circumstances were extremely straitened. Ukridge received the information with a sad, indulgent smile.
“I was not dreaming of biting your ear, old horse,” he said. “What I require is something far beyond your power to supply. Five pounds at least—or three, anyway. Of course, if, before we part, you think fit to hand over a couple of bob or half a crown as a small temporary ——”
He broke off with a start, and there came into his face the look of one who has perceived snakes in his path. He gazed along the street; then, wheeling round, hurried abruptly down Church Place.
“One of your creditors?” I asked.
“Girl with flags,” said Ukridge briefly. A peevish note crept into his voice. “This modern practice, laddie, of allowing females with trays of flags and collecting boxes to flood the metropolis is developing into a scourge. If it isn’t Rose Day it’s Daisy Day, and if it isn’t Daisy Day it’s Pansy Day. And though now, thanks to a bit of quick thinking, we have managed to escape without ——”
At this moment a second flag girl, emerging from Jermyn Street, held us up with a brilliant smile, and we gave till it hurt—which, in Ukridge’s case, was almost immediately.
“And so it goes on,” he said bitterly. “Sixpence here, a shilling there. Only last Friday I was touched for twopence at my very door. How can a man amass a huge fortune if there is this constant drain on his resources? What was that girl collecting for?”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Nor did I. One never does. For all we know, we may have contributed to some cause of which we heartily disapprove. And that reminds me, Corky, my aunt is lending her grounds on Tuesday for a bazaar in aid of the local temperance league. I particularly wish you to put aside all other engagements and roll up.”
“No, thanks; I don’t want to meet your aunt again.”
“You won’t meet her. She will be away. She’s going north on a lecturing tour.”
“Well, I don’t want to come to any bazaar. I can’t afford it.”
“Have no fear, laddie. There will be no expense involved. You will pass the entire afternoon in the house with me. My aunt, though she couldn’t get out of lending these people her grounds, is scared that, with so many strangers prowling about, somebody might edge in and sneak her snuffboxes. So I am left on guard, with instructions not to stir out till they’ve all gone—and a very wise precaution too. There is absolutely nothing which blokes whose passions have been inflamed by constant ginger beer will stick at. You will share my vigil. We will smoke a pipe or two in the study, talk of this and that; and it may be that, if we put our heads together, we shall be able to think up some sort of scheme for collecting a bit of capital.”
“Oh, well, in that case ——”
“I shall rely on you. And now, if I don’t want to be late I’d better be getting along. I’m lunching with my aunt at Prince’s.”
He gazed malevolently at the flag girl, who had just stopped another pedestrian, and strode off.
Heath House, Wimbledon, the residence of Miss Julia Ukridge, was one of that row of large mansions which face the common, standing back from the road in the seclusion of spacious grounds. On any normal day the prevailing note of the place would have been a dignified calm; but when I arrived on the Tuesday afternoon a vast unusual activity was in progress. Over the gates there hung large banners advertising the bazaar, and through these gates crowds of people were passing. From somewhere in the interior of the garden came the brassy music of a merry-go-round.
I added myself to the throng, and was making for the front door when a silvery voice spoke in my ear, and I was aware of a very pretty girl at my elbow.
“Buy a buttercup?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Buy a buttercup?”
I then perceived that, attached to her person with a strap, she carried a tray containing a mass of yellow paper objects.
“What’s all this?” I inquired, automatically feeling in my pocket.
She beamed upon me like a high priestess initiating some favorite novice into a rite.
“Buttercup Day,” she said winningly.
A man of greater strength of mind would no doubt have asked what Buttercup Day was, but I have a spine of wax. I produced the first decent-sized coin on which my fumbling fingers rested and slipped it into her money box. She thanked me with a good deal of fervor and pinned one of the yellow objects in my buttonhole.
The interview then terminated. The girl flitted off like a sunbeam in the direction of a prosperous-looking man who had just gone by, and I went on to the house, where I found Ukridge in the study, gazing earnestly through the French windows which commanded a view of the grounds. He turned as I entered; and as his eye fell upon the saffron ornament in my coat a soft smile of pleasure played about his mouth.
“I see you’ve got one,” he said.
“One of those thingummies.”
“Oh, these? Yes; there was a girl with a tray of them in the front garden. It’s Buttercup Day. In aid of something or other, I suppose.”
“It’s in aid of me,” said Ukridge, the soft smile developing into a face-splitting grin.
“What do you mean?”
“Corky, old horse,” said Ukridge, motioning me to a chair, “the great thing in this world is to have a good level business head. Many men in my position, wanting capital, and not seeing where they were going to get it, would have given up the struggle as a bad job. Why? Because they lacked vision and the big, broad, flexible outlook. But what did I do? I sat down and thought. And after many hours of concentrated meditation I was rewarded with an idea. You remember that painful affair in Jermyn Street the other day, when that female bandit got into our ribs? You recall that neither of us knew what we had coughed up our good money for?”
“Well, laddie, it suddenly flashed upon me like an inspiration from above that nobody ever does know what they are coughing up for when they meet a girl with a tray of flags. I hit upon the great truth, old horse—one of the profoundest truths in this modern civilization of ours—that any given man, confronted by a pretty girl with a tray of flags, will automatically and without inquiry shove a coin into her money box. So I got hold of a girl I know—a dear little soul, full of beans—and arranged for her to come here this afternoon. I confidently anticipate a clean-up on an impressive scale. The outlay on the pins and bits of paper was practically nil, so there is no overhead and all that comes in will be pure velvet.”
A strong pang shot through me.
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded with feeling, “that that half crown of mine goes into your beastly pocket?”
“Half of it. Naturally, my colleague and partner is in on the division. Did you really give half a crown?” said Ukridge, pleased. “It was like you, laddie. Generous to a fault. If everyone had your lavish disposition, this world would be a better, sweeter place.”
“I suppose you realize,” I said, “that in about ten minutes at the outside your colleague and partner, as you call her, will be arrested for obtaining money under false pretenses?”
“Not a chance.”
“After which, they will—thank God!—proceed to pinch you.”
“Quite impossible, laddie. I rely on my knowledge of psychology. What did she say when she stung you?”
“I forget. ‘Buy a buttercup’ or something.”
“Then I asked what it was all about, and she said ‘Buttercup Day.’ ”
“Exactly. And that’s all she will need to say to anyone. Is it likely, is it reasonable to suppose that even in these materialistic days chivalry has sunk so low that any man will require to be told more by a girl as pretty as that than that it is Buttercup Day?” He walked to the window and looked out. “Ah! She’s come round into the back garden,” he said with satisfaction. “She seems to be doing a roaring trade. Every second man is wearing a buttercup. She is now putting it across a curate, bless her heart.”
“And in a couple of minutes she will probably try to put it across a plain-clothes detective, and that will be the end.”
Ukridge eyed me reproachfully.
“You persist in looking on the gloomy side, Corky. A little more of the congratulatory attitude is what I could wish to see in you, laddie. You do not appear to realize that your old friend’s foot is at last on the ladder that leads to wealth. Suppose—putting it at the lowest figure—I net four pounds out of this buttercup business. It goes on Caterpillar in the two o’clock selling race at Kempton. Caterpillar wins, the odds being, let us say, ten to one. Stake and winnings go on Bismuth for the Jubilee Cup, again at ten to one. There you have a nice, clean four hundred-odd pounds of capital, ample for a man of keen business sense to build a fortune on. For, between ourselves, Corky, I have my eye on the investment of a lifetime.”
“Yes; I was reading about it the other day. A cat ranch out in America.”
“A cat ranch?”
“That’s it. You collect a hundred thousand cats. Each cat has twelve kittens a year. The skins range from ten cents each for the white ones to seventy-five for the pure black. That gives you a million two hundred thousand skins a year to sell at an average price of thirty cents a skin, making your annual revenue at a conservative estimate three hundred and sixty thousand dollars. But, you will say, what about overhead?”
“That has all been allowed for. To feed the cats you start a rat ranch next door. The rats multiply four times as fast as the cats; so if you begin with a million rats it gives you four rats per day per cat, which is plenty. You feed the rats on what is left over of the cats after removing the skins, allowing one-quarter of a cat per rat, the business thus becoming automatically self-supporting. The cats will eat the rats, the rats will eat the cats.”
There was a knock upon the door.
“Come in,” bellowed Ukridge irritably. These captains of industry hate to be interrupted when in conference.
It was the butler who had broken in upon his statistics.
“A gentleman to see you, sir,” said he.
“Who is he?”
“He did not give his name, sir. He is in holy orders.”
“Not the vicar?” cried Ukridge in alarm.
“No, sir; the gentleman is a curate. He inquired for Miss Ukridge. I informed him that Miss Ukridge was absent, but that you were on the premises, and he then desired to see you, sir.”
“Oh, all right,” said Ukridge resignedly. “Show him in. Though we are running grave risks, Corky,” he added, as the door closed. “These curates frequently have subscription lists up their sleeves and are extremely apt, unless you are very firm, to soak you for a donation to the church-organ fund or something. Still, let us hope ——”
The door opened and our visitor entered. He was rather a small size in curates, with an engaging, ingenuous face, adorned with a pair of pince-nez. He wore a paper buttercup in his coat; and directly he began to speak, revealed himself as the possessor of a peculiar stammer.
“Pup-pup-pup ——” he said.
“Eh?” said Ukridge.
“Yes. This is my friend, Mr. Corcoran,” I bowed. The curate bowed. “Take a seat,” urged Ukridge hospitably. “You’ll have a drink?”
The visitor raised a deprecatory hand.
“No, thank you,” he replied. “I find it more beneficial to my health to abstain entirely from alcoholic liquids. At the university I was a moderate drinker, but since I came down I have found it better to pup-pup-pup completely. But pray do not let me stop you. I am no bigot.”
He beamed for an instant in friendly fashion; then there came into his face a look of gravity. Here was a man, one perceived, who had something on his mind.
“I came here, Mr, Ukridge,” he said, “on a pup-pup-pup-pup-pup ——”
“Parish matter?” I hazarded, to help him out.
He shook his head.
“No, a pup-pup-pup ——”
“Pleasure trip?” suggested Ukridge.
He shook his head again.
“No, a pup-pup-pup uncongenial errand. I understand that Miss Ukridge is absent and that you, as her nephew, are therefore the presiding genius, if I may use the expression, of these pup-pup-pup festivities.”
“Eh?” said Ukridge, fogged.
“I mean that it is to you that complaints should be made.”
“Of what is going on in Miss Ukridge’s garden—one might say under her imprimatur.”
Ukridge’s classical education had been cut short by the fact that at an early age he had unfortunately been expelled from the school of which in boyhood’s days we had been fellow members, and Latin small talk was not his forte. This one passed well over his head. He looked at me plaintively, and I translated.
“He means,” I said, “that your aunt lent her grounds for this binge and so has a right to early information about any rough stuff that is being pulled on the premises.”
“Exactly,” said the curate.
“But dash it, laddie,” protested Ukridge, now abreast of the situation, “it’s no good complaining of anything that happens at a charity bazaar. You know as well as I do that when the members of a charitable league get together and start selling things at stalls, anything goes except gouging and biting. The only thing to do is to be light on your feet and keep away.”
The curate shook his head sadly.
“I have no complaint to make concerning the manner in which the stalls are being conducted, Mr.-pup-pup-pup. It is only to be expected that at a bazaar in aid of a deserving cause the prices of the various articles on sale will be in excess of those charged in the ordinary marts of trade. But deliberate and calculated swindling is another matter.”
“There is a young woman in the grounds extorting money from the public on the plea that it is Buttercup Day. And here is the point, Mr. Ukridge: There is no such thing as Buttercup Day. This young person is deliberately cheating the public.”
Ukridge licked his lips with a hunted expression.
“Probably a local institution,” I suggested.
“That’s it,” said Ukridge gratefully. “Just what I was going to say myself. Probably a local institution. Fresh-air fund for the poor of the neighborhood, I shouldn’t wonder. I believe I’ve heard them talk about it, now I come to think.”
The curate refused to consider the theory.
“No,” he said. “If that had been so the young woman would have informed me. In answer to my questions, her manner was evasive and I could elicit no satisfactory reply. She merely smiled and repeated the words ‘Buttercup Day.’ I feel that the police should be called in.”
“The police!” gurgled Ukridge pallidly.
“It is our pup-pup-duty,” said the curate, looking like a man who writes letters to the press signed Pro Bono Publico.
Ukridge shot out of his chair with a convulsive bound. He led me to the door.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Corky,” he whispered tensely, dragging me out into the passage, “go and tell her to leg it—quick!”
“Right!” I said.
“You will no doubt find a constable in the road,” roared Ukridge.
“I bet I will,” I replied in a clear, carrying voice.
“We can’t have this sort of thing going on here,” bellowed Ukridge.
“Certainly not!” I shouted with enthusiasm.
He returned to the study and I went forth upon my errand of mercy. I had reached the front door and was about to open it, when it suddenly opened itself, and the next moment I was gazing into the clear blue eyes of Ukridge’s Aunt Julia.
“Oh—ah—er!” I said.
There are certain people in this world in whose presence certain other people can never feel completely at their ease. Notable among the persons beneath whose gaze I myself experience a sensation of extreme discomfort and guilt is Miss Julia Ukridge, author of so many widely read novels, and popular after-dinner speaker at the better class of literary reunions. This was the fourth time we had met, and on each of the previous occasions I had felt the same curious illusion of having just committed some particularly unsavory crime and—what is more—of having done it with swollen hands, enlarged feet and trousers bagging at the knee on a morning when I had omitted to shave.
I stood and gaped. Although she had no doubt made her entry by the simple process of inserting a latchkey in the front door and turning it, her abrupt appearance had on me the effect of a miracle.
“Mr. Corcoran!” she observed, without pleasure.
“What are you doing here?”
An inhospitable remark; but justified, perhaps, by the circumstances of our previous relations, which had not been of the most agreeable.
“I came to see—er—Stanley.”
“He wanted me with him this afternoon.”
“Indeed!” she said; and her manner suggested surprise at what she evidently considered a strange and even morbid taste on her nephew’s part.
“I thought—we thought—we both thought you were lecturing up north.”
“When I arrived at my club for luncheon I found a telegram postponing my visit,” she condescended to explain. “Where is Stanley?”
“In your study.”
“I will go there. I wish to see him.”
I began to feel like Horatius at the bridge. It seemed to me that, foe of the human race though Ukridge was in so many respects, it was my duty as a lifelong friend to prevent this woman winning through to him until that curate was well out of the way. I have a great belief in woman’s intuition, and I was convinced that, should Miss Julia Ukridge learn that there was a girl in her grounds selling paper buttercups for a nonexistent charity, her keen intelligence would leap without the slightest hesitation to the fact of her nephew’s complicity in the disgraceful affair. She had had previous experience of Ukridge’s financial methods. In this crisis I thought rapidly.
“Oh, by the way,” I said, “it nearly slipped my mind. The—er—the man in charge of all this business told me he particularly wanted to see you directly you came back.”
“What do you mean by the man in charge of all this business?”
“The fellow who got up the bazaar, you know.”
“Do you mean Mr. Prosser, the president of the charitable league?”
“That’s right. He told me he wanted to see you.”
“How could he possibly know that I should be coming back?”
“Oh, in case you did, I mean.” I had what Ukridge would have called an inspiration from above. “I think he wants you to say a few words.”
I doubt if anything else would have shifted her. There came into her eyes, softening their steely glitter for a moment, that strange light which is seen only in the eyes of confirmed public speakers who are asked to say a few words.
“Well, I will go and see him.”
She turned away, and I bounded back to the study. The advent of the mistress of the house had materially altered my plans for the afternoon. What I proposed to do now was to inform Ukridge of her arrival, advise him to eject the curate with all possible speed, give him my blessing and then slide quietly and unostentatiously away, without any further formalities of farewell. I am not unduly sensitive, but there had been that in Miss Ukridge’s manner at our recent meeting which told me that I was not her ideal guest.
I entered the study. The curate was gone, and Ukridge, breathing heavily, was fast asleep in an armchair.
The disappearance of the curate puzzled me for a moment. He was rather an insignificant little man, but not so insignificant that I would not have noticed him if he had passed me while I was standing at the front door. And then I saw that the French windows were open.
It seemed to me that there was nothing to keep me. The strong distaste for this house which I had never lost since my first entry into it had been growing, and now the great open spaces called to me with an imperious voice. I turned softly—and found my hostess standing in the doorway.
“Oh—ah!” I said; and once more was afflicted by that curious sensation of having swelled in a very loathsome manner about the hands and feet. I have observed my hands from time to time during my life, and have never been struck by anything particularly hideous about them; but whenever I encounter Miss Julia Ukridge they invariably take on the appearance and proportions of uncooked hams.
“Did you tell me, Mr. Corcoran,” said the woman in that quiet, purring voice which must lose her so many friends, not only in Wimbledon but in the larger world outside, “that you saw Mr. Prosser and he said that he wished to speak to me?”
“Curious,” said Miss Ukridge. “I find that Mr. Prosser is confined to his bed with a chill and has not been here today.”
I could sympathize with Mr. Prosser’s chill. I felt as if I had caught one myself. I would—possibly—have made some reply, but at this moment an enormous snore proceeded from the armchair behind me, and such was my overwrought condition that I leaped like a young ram.
“Stanley!” cried Miss Ukridge, sighting the chair.
Another snore rumbled through the air, competing with the music of the merry-go-round. Miss Ukridge advanced and shook her nephew’s arm.
“I think,” I said, being in the frame of mind when one does say silly things of that sort—“I think he’s asleep.”
“Asleep!” said Miss Ukridge briefly.
Her eye fell on the half-empty glass on the table, and she shuddered austerely. The interpretation which she obviously placed on the matter seemed incredible to me. On the stage and in motion pictures one frequently sees victims of drink keel over in a state of complete unconsciousness after a single glass, but Ukridge was surely of sterner stuff.
“I can’t understand it,” I said.
“Indeed!” said Miss Ukridge.
“Why, I have only been out of the room half a minute, and when I left him, he was talking to a curate.”
“Absolutely a curate! It’s hardly likely, is it, that when he was talking to a curate he would ——”
My speech for the defense was cut short by a sudden sharp noise which, proceeding from immediately behind me, caused me once more to quiver convulsively.
“Well, sir?” said Miss Ukridge.
She was looking past me; and turning, I perceived that a stranger had joined us. He was standing in the French windows, and the noise which had startled me had apparently been caused by him rapping on the glass with the knob of a stick.
“Miss Ukridge?” said the newcomer.
He was one of those hard-faced, keen-eyed men. There clung about him as he advanced into the room a subtle air of authority. That he was a man of character and resolution was proved by the fact that he met Miss Ukridge’s eye without a tremor.
“I am Miss Ukridge. Might I inquire ——”
The visitor looked harder-faced and more keen-eyed than ever.
“My name is Dawson. From the Yard.”
“What yard?” asked the lady of the house, who, it seemed, did not read detective stories.
“I have come to warn you, Miss Ukridge,” said Mr. Dawson, looking at me as if I were a bloodstain, “to be on your guard. One of the greatest rascals in the profession is hanging about your grounds.”
“Then why don’t you arrest him?” demanded Miss Ukridge. The visitor smiled faintly.
“Because I want to get him good,” he said.
“Get him good? Do you mean reform him?”
“I do not mean reform him,” said Mr. Dawson grimly. “I mean that I want to catch him trying on something worth pulling him in for. There’s no sense in taking a man like Stuttering Sam for being a suspected person.”
“Stuttering Sam!” I cried, and Mr. Dawson eyed me keenly once more, this time almost as intently as if I had been the blunt instrument with which the murder was committed.
“Eh?” he said.
“Oh, nothing. Only it’s curious ——”
“Oh, no, it couldn’t be. This fellow was a curate, a most respectable man.”
“Have you seen a curate who stuttered?” exclaimed Mr. Dawson.
“Why, yes. He ——”
“Hullo!” said Mr. Dawson. “Who’s this?”
“That,” replied Miss Ukridge, eying the armchair with loathing, “is my nephew, Stanley.”
“I prefer not to talk about him.”
“Tell me about this curate,” said Mr. Dawson brusquely.
“Well, he came in ——”
“Came in? In here?”
“He must have had some story. What was it?”
I thought it judicious, in the interests of my sleeping friend, to depart somewhat from the precise truth.
“He—er—I think he said something about being interested in Miss Ukridge’s collection of snuffboxes.”
“Have you a collection of snuffboxes, Miss Ukridge?”
“Where do you keep them?”
“In the drawing-room.”
“Take me there, if you please.”
“But I don’t understand.”
Mr. Dawson clicked his tongue in an annoyed manner. He seemed to be an irritable sleuthhound.
“I should have thought the thing was clear enough by this time. This man worms his way into your house with a plausible story, gets rid of this gentleman here —— How did he get rid of you?”
“Oh, I just went, you know. I thought I would like a stroll.”
“Oh? Well, having contrived to be alone with your nephew, Miss Ukridge, he slips knock-out drops in his drink.”
“A drug of some kind,” explained Mr. Dawson, chafing at her slowness of intelligence.
“But the man was a curate!”
Mr. Dawson barked shortly.
“Posing as a curate is the thing Stuttering Sam does best. He works the races in that character. Is this the drawing-room?”
It was. And it did not need the sharp agonized cry which proceeded from its owner’s lips to tell us that the worst had happened. The floor was covered with splintered wood and broken glass.
“They’re gone!” cried Miss Ukridge.
It is curious how differently the same phenomenon can strike different people. Miss Ukridge was a frozen statue of grief. Mr. Dawson, on the other hand, seemed pleased. He stroked his short mustache with an air of indulgent complacency and spoke of neat jobs. He described Stuttering Sam as a tough baby and gave it as his opinion that the absent one might justly be considered one of the lads, and not the worst of them.
“What shall I do?” wailed Miss Ukridge.
I was sorry for the woman. I did not like her, but she was suffering.
“The first thing to do,” said Mr. Dawson briskly, “is to find out how much the fellow has got away with. Have you any other valuables in the house?”
“My jewels are in my bedroom.”
“I keep them in a box in the dress cupboard.”
“Well, it’s hardly likely that he would find them there, but I’d better go and see. You be taking a look round in here and make a complete list of what has been stolen.”
“All my snuffboxes are gone.”
“Well, see if there is anything else missing. Where is your bedroom?”
“On the first floor, facing the front.”
Mr. Dawson, all briskness and efficiency, left us. I was sorry to see him go. I had an idea that it would not be pleasant being left alone with this bereaved woman. Nor was it.
“Why on earth,” said Miss Ukridge, rounding on me as if I had been a relation, “did you not suspect this man when he came in?”
“Why, I—he ——”
“A child ought to have been able to tell that he was not a real curate.”
“He seemed ——”
“Seemed!” She wandered restlessly about the room, and suddenly a sharp cry proceeded from her—“My jade Buddha!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That scoundrel has stolen my jade Buddha. Go and tell the detective.”
“Go on! What are you waiting for?”
I fumbled at the handle.
“I don’t seem able to get the door open,” I explained meekly.
“Tchah!” said Miss Ukridge, swooping down.
One of the rooted convictions of each member of the human race is that he or she is able without difficulty to open a door which has baffled their fellows. She took the handle and gave it a vigorous tug. The door creaked, but remained unresponsive.
“What’s the matter with the thing?” exclaimed Miss Ukridge petulantly.
“I know it has stuck. Please do something at once. Good gracious, Mr. Corcoran, surely you are at least able to open a drawing-room door!”
It seemed, put in that tone of voice, a feat sufficiently modest for a man of good physique and fair general education; but I was reluctantly compelled to confess, after a few more experiments, that it was beyond my powers. This appeared to confirm my hostess in the opinion, long held by her, that I was about the most miserable worm that an inscrutable Providence had ever permitted to enter the world. She did not actually say as much, but she sniffed and I interpreted her meaning exactly.
“Ring the bell!”
I rang the bell.
“Ring it again!”
I rang it again.
“Go on shouting!”
I went on shouting. I was in good voice that day. I shouted “Hi!” I shouted “Here!” I shouted “Help!” I also shouted in a broad, general way. It was a performance which should have received more than a word of grateful thanks. But all Miss Ukridge said, when I paused for breath, was, “Don’t whisper!”
I nursed my aching vocal cords in a wounded silence.
“Help!” cried Miss Ukridge.
Considered as a shout, it was not in the same class as mine. It lacked body, vim, and even timbre. But by that curious irony which governs human affairs, it produced results. Outside the door a thick voice spoke in answer.
“Open this door!”
The handle rattled.
“It’s stuck,” said the voice, which I now recognized as that of my old friend Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.
“I know it has stuck. Is that you, Stanley? See what is causing it to stick.”
A moment of silence followed. Investigations were apparently in progress without.
“There’s a wedge jammed under it.”
“Well, take it out at once.”
“I’ll have to get a knife or something.”
Another interval for rest and meditation succeeded. Miss Ukridge paced the floor with knit brows; while I sidled into a corner and stood there, feeling a little like an inexperienced young animal trainer who has managed to get himself locked in the lions’ den and is trying to remember what Lesson Three of his correspondence course said he ought to do in such circumstances.
Footsteps sounded outside, and then a wrenching and scratching. The door opened, and we beheld on the mat Ukridge, with a carving knife in his hand, looking headachy and disheveled, and the butler, his professional poise rudely disturbed and his face stained with coal dust.
It was characteristic of Miss Ukridge that it was to the erring domestic rather than the rescuing nephew that she turned first.
“Baxter,” she hissed—as far as a woman, even of her intellectual gifts, is capable of hissing the word “Baxter”—“why didn’t you come when I rang?”
“I did not hear the bell, madam. I was ——”
“You must have heard the bell.”
“Because I was in the coal cellar, madam.”
“What on earth were you doing in the coal cellar?”
“I was induced to go there, madam, by a man. He intimidated me with a pistol. He then locked me in.”
“What? What man?”
“A person with a short mustache and penetrating eyes. He ——”
A raconteur with a story as interesting as his to tell might reasonably have expected to be allowed to finish it, but Butler Baxter at this point ceased to grip his audience. With a gasping moan his employer leaped past him, and we heard her running up the stairs. Ukridge turned to me plaintively.
“What is all this, laddie? Gosh, I’ve got a headache! What has been happening?”
“The curate put knock-out drops in your drink, and then ——”
I have seldom seen anyone display such poignant emotion as Ukridge did then.
“The curate! It’s a little hard. Upon my Sam, it’s a trifle thick. Corky, old horse, I have traveled all over the world in tramp steamers and what not. I have drunk in water-front saloons from Montevideo to Cardiff. And the only time anyone has ever succeeded in doctoring the stuff on me it was done in Wimbledon—and by a curate. Tell me, laddie, are all curates like that? Because, if so ——”
“He has also pinched your aunt’s collection of snuffboxes.”
“Golly!” said Ukridge in a low, reverent voice, and I could see a new respect for the cloth dawning within him.
“And then this other fellow came along—his accomplice, pretending to be a detective—and locked us in and shut the butler in the coal cellar. And I rather fancy he has got away with your aunt’s jewels.”
A piercing scream from above rent the air.
“He has,” I said briefly. “Well, old man, I think I’ll be going.”
“Corky,” said Ukridge, “stand by me!”
I shook my head.
“In any reasonable circumstances, yes. But I will not meet your aunt again just now. In a year or so, perhaps, but not now.”
Hurrying footsteps sounded on the staircase.
“Good-by,” I said, pushing past and heading for the open. “I must be off. Thanks for a very pleasant afternoon.”
Money was tight in those days, but it seemed to me next morning that an outlay of twopence on a telephone call to Heath House could not be considered an unjustifiable extravagance.
I was conscious of a certain curiosity to learn at long range what had happened after I had removed myself on the previous afternoon.
“Are you there?” said a grave voice in answer to my ring.
“Is that Baxter?”
“This is Mr. Corcoran. I want to speak to Mr. Ukridge.”
“Mr. Ukridge is no longer here, sir. He left perhaps an hour ago.”
“Oh? Do you mean left—er—forever?”
I rang off; and pondering deeply, returned to my rooms.
I was not surprised to be informed by Bowles, my landlord, that Ukridge was in my sitting room. It was this storm-tossed man’s practice in times of stress to seek refuge with me.
“Hullo, laddie,” said Ukridge in a graveyard voice.
“So here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“She kicked you out?”
Ukridge winced slightly, as at some painful recollection.
“Words passed, old horse, and in the end we decided that we were better apart.”
“I don’t see why she should blame you for what happened.”
“A woman like my aunt, Corky, is capable of blaming anybody for anything. And so I start life again, laddie, a penniless man, with no weapons against the great world but my vision and my brain.”
I endeavored to attract his attention to the silver lining.
“You’re all right,” I said. “You’re just where you wanted to be. You have the money which your buttercup girl collected.”
A strong spasm shook my poor friend, causing, as always happened with him in moments of mental agony, his collar to shoot off its stud and his glasses to fall from his nose.
“The money that girl collected,” he replied, “is not available. It has passed away. I saw her this morning and she told me.”
“Told you what?”
“That a curate came up to her in the garden while she was selling those buttercups and—in spite of a strong stammer—put it to her so eloquently that she was obtaining money under false pretenses that she gave him the entire takings for his church-expenses fund and went home, resolved to lead a better life. Women are an unstable, emotional sex, laddie. Have as little to do with them as possible. And for the moment, give me a drink, old horse, and mix it fairly strong. These are the times that try men’s souls.”