The Strand Magazine, November 1923
TO Ukridge, as might be expected from one of his sunny optimism, the whole affair has long since come to present itself in the light of yet another proof of the way in which all things in this world of ours work together for good. In it, from start to finish, he sees the finger of Providence; and, when marshalling evidence to support his theory that a means of escape from the most formidable perils will always be vouchsafed to the righteous and deserving, this is the episode which he advances as Exhibit A.
The thing may be said to have had its beginning in the Haymarket one afternoon towards the middle of the summer. We had been lunching at my expense at the Pall Mall Restaurant, and as we came out a large and shiny car drew up beside the kerb and the chauffeur, alighting, opened the bonnet and began to fiddle about in its interior with a pair of pliers. Had I been alone, a casual glance in passing would have contented me, but for Ukridge the spectacle of somebody else working always had an irresistible fascination, and, gripping my arm, he steered me up to assist him in giving the toiler moral support. About two minutes after he had started to breathe earnestly on the man’s neck, the latter, seeming to become aware that what was tickling his back hair was not some wandering June zephyr, looked up with a certain petulance.
“ ’Ere!” he said, protestingly. Then his annoyance gave place to something which—for a chauffeur—approached cordiality.
“ ’Ullo!” he observed.
“Why, hullo, Frederick,” said Ukridge. “Didn’t recognize you. Is this the new car?”
“Ah,” nodded the chauffeur.
“Pal of mine,” explained Ukridge to me in a brief aside. “Met him in a pub.” London was congested with pals whom Ukridge had met in pubs. “What’s the trouble?”
“Missing,” said Frederick the chauffeur. “Soon ’ave her right.”
His confidence in his skill was not misplaced. After a short interval he straightened himself, closed the bonnet, and wiped his hands.
“Nice day,” he said.
“Terrific,” agreed Ukridge. “Where are you off to?”
“Got to go to Addington. Pick up the guv’nor, playin’ golf there.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then the mellowing influence of the summer sunshine asserted itself. “Like a ride as far as East Croydon? Get a train back from there.”
It was a handsome offer, and one which neither Ukridge nor myself felt disposed to decline. We climbed in, Frederick trod on the self-starter, and off we bowled, two gentlemen of fashion taking their afternoon airing. Speaking for myself, I felt tranquil and debonair, and I have no reason to suppose that Ukridge was otherwise. The deplorable incident which now occurred was thus rendered doubly distressing. We had stopped at the foot of the street to allow the north-bound traffic to pass, when our pleasant after-luncheon torpidity was shattered by a sudden and violent shout.
That the shouter was addressing us there was no room for doubt. He was standing on the pavement not four feet away, glaring unmistakably into our costly tonneau—a stout, bearded man of middle age, unsuitably clad, considering the weather and the sartorial prejudices of Society, in a frock-coat and a bowler hat. “Hi! You!” he bellowed, to the scandal of all good passers-by.
Frederick the chauffeur, after one swift glance of godlike disdain out of the corner of his left eye, had ceased to interest himself in this undignified exhibition on the part of one of the lower orders, but I was surprised to observe that Ukridge was betraying all the discomposure of some wild thing taken in a trap. His face had turned crimson and assumed a bulbous expression, and he was staring straight ahead of him with a piteous effort to ignore what manifestly would not be ignored.
“I’d like a word with you,” boomed the bearded one.
And then matters proceeded with a good deal of rapidity. The traffic had begun to move on now, and as we moved with it, travelling with increasing speed, the man appeared to realize that if ’twere done ’twere well ’twere done quickly. He executed a cumbersome leap and landed on our running-board; and Ukridge, coming suddenly to life, put out a large, flat hand and pushed. The intruder dropped off, and the last I saw of him he was standing in the middle of the road, shaking his fist, in imminent danger of being run over by a number three omnibus.
“Gosh!” sighed Ukridge, with some feverishness.
“What was it all about?” I inquired.
“Bloke I owe a bit of money to,” explained Ukridge, tersely.
“Ah!” I said, feeling that all had been made clear. I had never before actually seen one of Ukridge’s creditors in action, but he had frequently given me to understand that they lurked all over London like leopards in the jungle, waiting to spring on him. There were certain streets down which he would never walk for fear of what might befall.
“Been trailing me like a bloodhound for two years,” said Ukridge. “Keeps bobbing up when I don’t expect him and turning my hair white to the roots.”
I was willing to hear more, and even hinted as much, but he relapsed into a moody silence. We were moving at a brisk clip into Clapham Common when the second of the incidents occurred which were to make this drive linger in the memory. Just as we came in sight of the Common, a fool of a girl loomed up right before our front wheels. She had been crossing the road, and now, after the manner of her species, she lost her head. She was a large, silly-looking girl, and she darted to and fro like a lunatic hen; and as Ukridge and I rose simultaneously from our seats, clutching each other in agony, she tripped over her feet and fell. But Frederick, master of his craft, had the situation well in hand. He made an inspired swerve, and when we stopped a moment later the girl was picking herself up, dusty, but still in one piece.
THESE happenings affect different men in different ways. In Frederick’s cold grey eye as he looked over his shoulder and backed the car there was only the weary scorn of a superman for the never-ending follies of a woollen-headed proletariat. I, on the other hand, had reacted in a gust of nervous profanity. And Ukridge, I perceived as I grew calmer, the affair had touched on his chivalrous side. All the time we were backing he was mumbling to himself, and he was out of the car, bleating apologies, almost before we bad stopped.
“Awfully sorry. Might have killed you. Can’t forgive myself.”
The girl treated the affair in still another way. She giggled. And somehow that brainless laugh afflicted me more than anything that had gone before. It was not her fault, I suppose. This untimely mirth was merely due to disordered nerves. But I had taken a prejudice against her at first sight.
“I do hope,” babbled Ukridge, “you aren’t hurt? Do tell me you aren’t hurt.”
The girl giggled again. And she was at least twelve pounds too heavy to be a giggler. I wanted to pass on and forget her.
“No, reely, thanks.”
“But shaken, what?”
“I did come down a fair old bang,” chuckled this repellent female.
“I thought so. I was afraid so. Shaken. Ganglions vibrating. You must let me drive you home.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“I insist. Positively I insist!”
“ ’Ere!” said Frederick the chauffeur, in a low, compelling voice.
“Got to get on to Addington.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Ukridge, with testy impatience, quite the seigneur resenting interference from an underling. “But there’s plenty of time to drive this lady home. Can’t you see she’s shaken? Where can I take you?”
“It’s only just round the corner in the next street. Balbriggan the name of the house is.”
“Balbriggan, Frederick, in the next street,” said Ukridge, in a tone that brooked no argument.
I suppose the spectacle of the daughter of the house rolling up to the front door in a Daimler is unusual in Peabody Road, Clapham Common. At any rate, we had hardly drawn up when Balbriggan began to exude its occupants in platoons. Father, mother, three small sisters, and a brace of brothers were on the steps in the first ten seconds. They surged down the garden path in a solid mass.
Ukridge was at his most spacious. Quickly establishing himself on the footing of a friend of the family, he took charge of the whole affair. Introductions sped to and fro, and in a few moving words he explained the situation, while I remained mute and insignificant in my corner and Frederick the chauffeur stared at his oil-gauge with a fathomless eye.
“Couldn’t have forgiven myself, Mr. Price, if anything had happened to Miss Price. Fortunately my chauffeur is an excellent driver and swerved just in time. You showed great presence of mind, Frederick,” said Ukridge, handsomely, “great presence of mind.”
Frederick continued to gaze aloofly at his oil-gauge.
“What a lovely car, Mr. Ukridge!” said the mother of the family.
“Yes?” said Ukridge, airily. “Yes, quite a good old machine.”
“Can you drive yourself?” asked the smaller of the two small brothers, reverently.
“Oh, yes. Yes, but I generally use Frederick for town work.”
“Would you and your friend care to come in for a cup of tea?” said Mrs. Price.
I could see Ukridge hesitate. He had only finished an excellent lunch, but there was that about the offer of a free meal which never failed to touch a chord in him. At this point, however, Frederick spoke.
“ ’Ere!” said Frederick.
“Got to get on to Addington,” said Frederick, firmly.
Ukridge started as one waked from a dream. I really believe he had succeeded in persuading himself that the car belonged to him.
“Of course, yes. I was forgetting. I have to be at Addington almost immediately. Promised to pick up some golfing friends. Some other time, eh?”
“Any time you’re in the neighbourhood, Mr. Ukridge,” said Mr. Price, beaming upon the popular pet.
“Tell me, Mr. Ukridge,” said Mrs. Price. “I’ve been wondering ever since you told me your name. It’s such an unusual one. Are you any relation to the Miss Ukridge who writes books?”
“My aunt,” beamed Ukridge.
“No, really? I do love her stories so. Tell me——”
Frederick, whom I could not sufficiently admire, here broke off what promised to be a lengthy literary discussion by treading on the self-starter, and we drove off in a flurry of good wishes and invitations. I rather fancy I heard Ukridge, as he leaned over the back of the car, promising to bring his aunt round to Sunday supper some time. He resumed his seat as we turned the corner and at once began to moralize.
“Always sow the good seed, laddie. Absolutely nothing to beat the good seed. Never lose the chance of establishing yourself. It is the secret of a successful life. Just a few genial words, you see, and here I am with a place I can always pop into for a bite when funds are low.”
I was shocked at his sordid outlook, and said so. He rebuked me out of his larger wisdom.
“It’s all very well to take that attitude, Corky my boy, but do you realize that a family like that has cold beef, baked potatoes, pickles, salad, blanc-mange, and some sort of cheese every Sunday night after Divine service? There are moments in a man’s life, laddie, when a spot of cold beef with blanc-mange to follow means more than words can tell.”
IT was about a week later that I happened to go to the British Museum to gather material for one of those brightly informative articles of mine which appeared from time to time in the weekly papers. I was wandering through the place, accumulating data, when I came upon Ukridge with a small boy attached to each hand. He seemed a trifle weary, and he welcomed me with something of the gratification of the shipwrecked mariner who sights a sail.
“Run along and improve your bally minds, you kids,” he said to the children. “You’ll find me here when you’ve finished.”
“All right, Uncle Stanley,” chorused the children.
“Uncle Stanley?” I said, accusingly.
He winced a little. I had to give him credit for that.
“Those are the Price kids. From Clapham.”
“I remember them.”
“I’m taking them out for the day. Must repay hospitality, Corky my boy.”
“Then you have really been inflicting yourself on those unfortunate people?”
“I have looked in from time to time,” said Ukridge, with dignity.
“It’s just over a week since you met them. How often have you looked in?”
“Couple of times, perhaps. Maybe three.”
“There was a bit of browsing going on,” admitted Ukridge.
“And now you’re Uncle Stanley!”
“Fine, warm-hearted people,” said Ukridge, and it seemed to me that he spoke with a touch of defiance. “Made me one of the family right from the beginning. Of course, it cuts both ways. This afternoon, for instance, I got landed with those kids. But, all in all, taking the rough with the smooth, it has worked out distinctly on the right side of the ledger. I own I’m not over keen on the hymns after Sunday supper, but the supper, laddie, is undeniable. As good a bit of cold beef,” said Ukridge, dreamily, “as I ever chewed.”
“Greedy brute,” I said, censoriously.
“Must keep body and soul together, old man. Of course, there are one or two things about the business that are a bit embarrassing. For instance, somehow or other they seem to have got the idea that that car we turned up in that day belongs to me, and the kids are always pestering me to take them for a ride. Fortunately I’ve managed to square Frederick, and he thinks he can arrange for a spin or two during the next few days. And then Mrs. Price keeps asking me to bring my aunt round for a cup of tea and a chat, and I haven’t the heart to tell her that my aunt absolutely and finally disowned me the day after that business of the dance.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Didn’t I? Oh, yes. I got a letter from her saying that as far as she was concerned I had ceased to exist. I thought it showed a nasty, narrow spirit, but I can’t say I was altogether surprised. Still, it makes it awkward when Mrs. Price wants to get matey with her. I’ve had to tell her that my aunt is a chronic invalid and never goes out, being practically bedridden. I find all this a bit wearing, laddie.”
“I suppose so.”
“You see,” said Ukridge, “I dislike subterfuge.”
There seemed no possibility of his beating this, so I left the man and resumed my researches.
AFTER this I was out of town for a few weeks, taking my annual vacation. When I got back to Ebury Street, Bowles, my landlord, after complimenting me in a stately way on my sunburned appearance, informed me that George Tupper had called several times while I was away.
“Appeared remarkably anxious to see you, sir.”
I was surprised at this. George Tupper was always glad—or seemed to be glad—to see an old school friend when I called upon him, but he rarely sought me out in my home.
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“No, sir. He left no message. He merely inquired as to the probable date of your return and expressed a desire that you would visit him as soon as convenient.”
“I’d better go and see him now.”
“It might be advisable, sir.”
I found George Tupper at the Foreign Office, surrounded by important-looking papers.
“Here you are at last!” cried George, resentfully, it seemed to me. “I thought you were never coming back.”
“I had a splendid time, thanks very much for asking,” I replied. “Got the roses back to my cheeks.”
George, who seemed far from his usual tranquil self, briefly cursed my cheeks and their roses.
“Look here,” he said, urgently, “something’s got to be done. Have you seen Ukridge yet?”
“Not yet. I thought I would look him up this evening.”
“You’d better. Do you know what has happened? That poor ass has gone and got himself engaged to be married to a girl at Clapham!”
“Engaged! Girl at Clapham! Clapham Common,” added George Tupper, as if in his opinion that made the matter even worse.
“I’m not joking,” said George, peevishly. “Do I look as if I were joking? I met him in Battersea Park with her, and he introduced me. She reminded me,” said George Tupper, shivering slightly, for that fearful evening had seared his soul deeply, “of that ghastly female in pink he brought with him the night I gave you two dinner at the Regent Grill—the one who talked at the top of her voice all the time about her aunt’s stomach-trouble.”
Here I think he did Miss Price an injustice. She had struck me during our brief acquaintance as something of a blister, but I had never quite classed her with Battling Billson’s Flossie.
“Well, what do you want me to do?” I asked, not, I think, unreasonably.
“You’ve got to think of some way of getting him out of it. I can’t do anything. I’m busy all day.”
“So am I busy.”
“Busy my left foot!” said George Tupper, who in moments of strong emotion was apt to relapse into the phraseology of school days and express himself in a very un-Foreign Official manner. “About once a week you work up energy enough to write a rotten article for some rag of a paper on ‘Should Curates Kiss?’ or some silly subject, and the rest of the time you loaf about with Ukridge. It’s obviously your job to disentangle the poor idiot.”
“But how do you know he wants to be disentangled? It seems to me you’re jumping pretty readily to conclusions. It’s all very well for you bloodless officials to sneer at the holy passion, but it’s love, as I sometimes say, that makes the world go round. Ukridge probably feels that until now he never realized what true happiness could mean.”
“Does he?” snorted George Tupper. “Well, he didn’t look it when I met him. He looked like—well, do you remember when he went in for the heavyweights at school and that chap in Seymour’s house hit him in the wind in the first round? That’s how he looked when he was introducing the girl to me.”
I am bound to say the comparison impressed me. It is odd how these little incidents of one’s boyhood linger in the memory. Across the years I could see Ukridge now, half doubled up, one gloved hand caressing his diaphragm, a stunned and horrified bewilderment in his eyes. If his bearing as an engaged man had reminded George Tupper of that occasion, it certainly did seem as if the time had come for his friends to rally round him.
“You seem to have taken on the job of acting as a sort of unofficial keeper to the man,” said George. “You’ll have to help him now.”
“Well, I’ll go and see him.”
“The whole thing is too absurd,” said George Tupper. “How can Ukridge get married to anyone? He hasn’t a bob in the world.”
“I’ll point that out to him. He’s probably overlooked it.”
IT was my custom when I visited Ukridge at his lodgings to stand underneath his window and bellow his name—upon which, if at home and receiving, he would lean out and drop me down his latchkey, thus avoiding troubling his landlady to come up from the basement to open the door. A very judicious proceeding, for his relations with that autocrat were usually in a somewhat strained condition. I bellowed now, and his head popped out.
It seemed to me, even at this long range, that there was something peculiar about his face, but it was not till I had climbed the stairs to his room that I was able to be certain. I then perceived that he had somehow managed to acquire a black eye, which, though past its first bloom, was still of an extraordinary richness.
“Great Scott!” I cried, staring at this decoration. “How and when?”
Ukridge drew at his pipe moodily.
“It’s a long story,” he said. “Do you remember some people named Price at Clapham——”
“You aren’t going to tell me your fiancée has biffed you in the eye already?”
“Have you heard?” said Ukridge, surprised. “Who told you I was engaged?”
“George Tupper. I’ve just been seeing him.”
“Oh, well, that saves a lot of explanation. Laddie,” said Ukridge, solemnly, “let this be a warning to you. Never——”
I wanted facts, not moralizings.
“How did you get the eye?” I interrupted.
Ukridge blew out a cloud of smoke and his other eye glowed sombrely.
“That was Ernie Finch,” he said, in a cold voice.
“Who is Ernie Finch? I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s a sort of friend of the family, and as far as I can make out was going rather strong as regards Mabel till I came along. When we got engaged he was away, and no one apparently thought it worth while to tell him about it, and he came along one night and found me kissing her good-bye in the front garden. Observe how these things work out, Corky. The sight of him coming along suddenly gave Mabel a start, and she screamed; the fact that she screamed gave this man Finch a totally wrong angle on the situation; and this caused him, blast him, to rush up, yank off my glasses with one hand, and hit me with the other right in the eye. And before I could get at him the family were roused by Mabel’s screeches and came out and separated us and explained that I was engaged to Mabel. Of course, when he heard that, the man apologized. And I wish you could have seen the beastly smirk he gave when he was doing it. Then there was a bit of a row and old Price forbade him the house. A fat lot of good that was! I’ve had to stay indoors ever since waiting for the colour-scheme to dim a bit.”
“Of course,” I urged, “one can’t help being sorry for the chap in a way.”
“I can,” said Ukridge, emphatically. “I’ve reached the conclusion that there is not room in this world for Ernie Finch and myself, and I’m living in the hope of meeting him one of these nights down in a dark alley.”
“You sneaked his girl,” I pointed out.
“I don’t want his beastly girl,” said Ukridge, with ungallant heat.
“Then you really do want to get out of this thing?”
“Of course I want to get out of it.”
“But, if you feel like that, how on earth did you ever let it happen?”
“I simply couldn’t tell you, old horse,” said Ukridge, frankly. “It’s all a horrid blur. The whole affair was the most ghastly shock to me. It came absolutely out of a blue sky. I had never so much as suspected the possibility of such a thing. All I know is that we found ourselves alone in the drawing-room after Sunday supper, and all of a sudden the room became full of Prices of every description babbling blessings. And there I was!”
“But you must have given them something to go on.”
“I was holding her hand. I admit that.”
“Well, my gosh, I don’t see why there should have been such a fuss about that. What does a bit of hand-holding amount to? The whole thing, Corky my boy, boils down to the question, Is any man safe? It’s got so nowadays,” said Ukridge, with a strong sense of injury, “that you’ve only to throw a girl a kindly word, and the next thing you know you’re in the Lord Warden Hotel at Dover, picking the rice out of your hair.”
“Well, you must own that you were asking for it. You rolled up in a new Daimler and put on enough dog for half-a-dozen millionaires. And you took the family for rides, didn’t you?”
“Perhaps a couple of times.”
“And talked about your aunt, I expect, and how rich she was?”
“I may have touched on my aunt occasionally.”
“Well, naturally these people thought you were sent from heaven. The wealthy son-in-law.” Ukridge projected himself from the depths sufficiently to muster up the beginnings of a faint smile of gratification at the description. Then his troubles swept him back again. “All you’ve got to do, if you want to get out of it, is to confess to them that you haven’t a bob.”
“But, laddie, that’s the difficulty. It’s a most unfortunate thing, but, as it happens, I am on the eve of making an immense fortune, and I’m afraid I hinted as much to them from time to time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Since I saw you last I’ve put all my money in a bookmaker’s business.”
“How do you mean—all your money? Where did you get any money?”
“You haven’t forgotten the fifty quid I made selling tickets for my aunt’s dance? And then I collected a bit more here and there out of some judicious bets. So there it is. The firm is in a small way at present, but with the world full of mugs shoving and jostling one another to back losers, the thing is a potential gold-mine, and I’m a sleeping partner. It’s no good my trying to make these people believe I’m hard up. They would simply laugh in my face and rush off and start breach-of-promise actions. Upon my Sam, it’s a little hard! Just when I have my foot firmly planted on the ladder of success, this has to happen.” He brooded in silence for awhile. “There’s just one scheme that occurred to me,” he said at length. “Would you have any objection to writing an anonymous letter?”
“What’s the idea?”
“I was just thinking that, if you were to write them an anonymous letter, accusing me of all sorts of things—— Might say I was married already.”
“Not a bit of good.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” said Ukridge, gloomily, and after a few minutes more of thoughtful silence I left him. I was standing on the front steps when I heard him clattering down the stairs.
“Corky, old man!”
“I think I’ve got it,” said Ukridge, joining me on the steps. “Came to me in a flash a second ago. How would it be if someone were to go down to Clapham and pretend to be a detective making inquiries about me? Dashed sinister and mysterious, you know. A good deal of meaning nods and shakes of the head. Give the impression that I was wanted for something or other. You get the idea? You would ask a lot of questions and take notes in a book——”
“How do you mean—I would?”
Ukridge looked at me in pained surprise.
“Surely, old horse, you wouldn’t object to doing a trifling service like this for an old friend?”
“I would, strongly. And in any case, what would be the use of my going? They’ve seen me.”
“Yes, but they wouldn’t recognize you. Yours,” said Ukridge, ingratiatingly, “is an ordinary, meaningless sort of face. Or one of those theatrical costumier people would fit you out with a disguise——”
“No!” I said, firmly. “I’m willing to do anything in reason to help you out of this mess, but I refuse to wear false whiskers for you or anyone.”
“All right, then,” said Ukridge, despondently; “in that case, there’s nothing to be——”
At this moment he disappeared. It was so swiftly done that he seemed to have been snatched up to heaven. Only the searching odour of his powerful tobacco lingered to remind me that he had once been at my side, and only the slam of the front door told me where he had gone. I looked about, puzzled to account for this abrupt departure, and as I did so heard galloping footsteps and perceived a stout, bearded gentleman of middle age, clad in a frock-coat and a bowler hat. He was one of those men who, once seen, are not readily forgotten; and I recognized him at once. It was the creditor, the bloke Ukridge owed a bit of money to, the man who had tried to board our car in the Haymarket. Halting on the pavement below me, he removed the hat and dabbed at his forehead with a large coloured silk handkerchief.
“Was that Mr. Smallweed you were talking to?” he demanded, gustily. He was obviously touched in the wind.
“No,” I replied, civilly. “No. Not Mr. Smallweed.”
“You’re lying to me, young man!” cried the creditor, his voice rising in a too-familiar shout. And at the words, as if they had been some magic spell, the street seemed suddenly to wake from slumber. It seethed with human life. Maids popped out of windows, areas disgorged landladies, the very stones seemed to belch forth excited spectators. I found myself the centre of attraction—and, for some reason which was beyond me, cast for the rôle of the villain of the drama. What I had actually done to the poor old man, nobody appeared to know; but the school of thought which held that I had picked his pocket and brutally assaulted him had the largest number of adherents, and there was a good deal of informal talk of lynching me. Fortunately a young man in a blue flannel suit, who had been one of the earliest arrivals on the scene, constituted himself a peacemaker.
“Come along, o’ man,” he said, soothingly, his arm weaving itself into that of the fermenting creditor. “You don’t want to make yourself conspicuous, do you?”
“In there!” roared the creditor, pointing at the door.
The crowd seemed to recognize that there had been an error in its diagnosis. The prevalent opinion now was that I had kidnapped the man’s daughter and was holding her prisoner behind that sinister door. The movement in favour of lynching me became almost universal.
“Now, now!” said the young man, whom I was beginning to like more every minute.
“I’ll kick the door in!”
“Now, now! You don’t want to go doing anything silly or foolish,” pleaded the peacemaker. “There’ll be a policeman along before you know where you are, and you’ll look foolish if he finds you kicking up a silly row.”
I MUST say that, if I had been in the bearded one’s place and had had right so indisputably on my side, this argument would not have influenced me greatly, but I suppose respectable citizens with a reputation to lose have different views on the importance of colliding with the police, however right they may be. The creditor’s violence began to ebb. He hesitated. He was plainly trying to approach the matter in the light of pure reason.
“You know where the fellow lives,” argued the young man. “See what I mean? Meantersay, you can come and find him whenever you like.”
This, too, sounded thin to me. But it appeared to convince the injured man. He allowed himself to be led away, and presently, the star having left the stage, the drama ceased to attract. The audience melted away. Windows closed, areas emptied themselves, and presently the street was given over once more to the cat lunching in the gutter and the coster hymning his Brussels sprouts.
A hoarse voice spoke through the letter-box.
“Has he gone, laddie?”
I put my mouth to the slit, and we talked together like Pyramus and Thisbe.
“He isn’t lurking round the corner somewhere, waiting to pop out?”
“No. He’s gone.”
The door opened and an embittered Ukridge emerged.
“It’s a little hard!” he said, querulously. “You would scarcely credit it, Corky, but all that fuss was about a measly one pound two and threepence for a rotten little clockwork man that broke the first time I wound it up. Absolutely the first time, old man! It’s not as if it had been a tandem bicycle, an enlarging camera, a Kodak, and a magic lantern.”
I could not follow him.
“Why should a clockwork man be a tandem bicycle and the rest of it?”
“It’s like this,” said Ukridge. “There was a bicycle and photograph shop down near where I lived a couple of years ago, and I happened to see a tandem bicycle there which I rather liked the look of. So I ordered it provisionally from this cove. Absolutely provisionally, you understand. Also an enlarging camera, a Kodak, and a magic lantern. The goods were to be delivered when I had made up my mind about them. Well, after about a week the fellow asks if there are any further particulars I want to learn before definitely buying the muck. I say I am considering the matter, and in the meantime will he be good enough to let me have that little clockwork man in his window which walks when wound up?”
“Well, damme,” said Ukridge, aggrieved, “it didn’t walk. It broke the first time I tried to wind it. Then a few weeks went by and this bloke started to make himself dashed unpleasant. Wanted me to pay him money! I reasoned with the blighter. I said: ‘Now, look here, my man, need we say any more about this? Really, I think you’ve come out of the thing extremely well. Which,’ I said, ‘would you rather be owed for? A clockwork man, or a tandem bicycle, an enlarging camera, a Kodak, and a magic lantern?’ You’d think that would have been simple enough for the meanest intellect, but no, he continued to make a fuss, until finally I had to move out of the neighbourhood. Fortunately, I had given him a false name——”
“Just an ordinary business precaution,” explained Ukridge.
“I looked on the matter as closed. But ever since then he has been bounding out at me when I least expect him. Once, by gad, he nearly nailed me in the middle of the Strand, and I had to leg it like a hare up Burleigh Street and through Covent Garden. I’d have been collared to a certainty, only he tripped over a basket of potatoes. It’s persecution, damme, that’s what it is—persecution!”
“Why don’t you pay the man?” I suggested.
“Corky, old horse,” said Ukridge, with evident disapproval of these reckless fiscal methods, “talk sense. How can I pay the man? Apart from the fact that at this stage of my career it would be madness to start flinging money right and left, there’s the principle of the thing!”
THE immediate result of this disturbing episode was that Ukridge, packing his belongings in a small suit-case and reluctantly disgorging a week’s rent in lieu of notice, softly and silently vanished away from his own lodgings and came to dwell in mine, to the acute gratification of Bowles, who greeted his arrival with a solemn joy and brooded over him at dinner the first night like a father over a long-lost son. I had often given him sanctuary before in his hour of need, and he settled down with the easy smoothness of an old campaigner. He was good enough to describe my little place as a home from home, and said that he had half a mind to stay on and end his declining years there.
I cannot say that this suggestion gave me the rapturous pleasure it seemed to give Bowles, who nearly dropped the potato dish in his emotion; but still I must say that on the whole the man was not an exacting guest. His practice of never rising before lunch-time insured me those mornings of undisturbed solitude which are so necessary to the young writer if he is to give Interesting Bits of his best; and if I had work to do in the evenings he was always ready to toddle downstairs and smoke a pipe with Bowles, whom he seemed to find as congenial a companion as Bowles found him. His only defect, indeed, was the habit he had developed of looking in on me in my bedroom at all hours of the night to discuss some new scheme designed to relieve him of his honourable obligations to Miss Mabel Price, of Balbriggan, Peabody Road, Clapham Common. My outspoken remarks on this behaviour checked him for forty-eight hours, but at three o’clock on the Sunday morning that ended the first week of his visit light flashing out above my head told me that he was in again.
“I think, laddie,” I heard a satisfied voice remark, as a heavy weight descended on my toes, “I think, laddie, that at last I have hit the bull’s-eye and rung the bell. Hats off to Bowles, without whom I would never have got the idea. It was only when he told me the plot of that story he is reading that I began to see daylight. Listen, old man,” said Ukridge, settling himself more comfortably on my feet, “and tell me if you don’t think I am on to a good thing. About a couple of days before Lord Claude Tremaine was to marry Angela Bracebridge, the most beautiful girl in London——”
“What the devil are you talking about? And do you know what the time is?”
“Never mind the time, Corky my boy. To-morrow is the day of rest and you can sleep on till an advanced hour. I was telling you the plot of this Primrose Novelette thing that Bowles is reading.”
“You haven’t woken me up at three in the morning to tell me the plot of a rotten novelette!”
“You haven’t been listening, old man,” said Ukridge, with gentle reproach. “I was saying that it was this plot that gave me my big idea. To cut it fairly short, as you seem in a strange mood, this Lord Claude bloke, having had a rummy pain in his left side, went to see a doctor a couple of days before the wedding, and the doc. gave him the start of his young life by telling him that he had only six months to live. There’s a lot more of it, of course, and in the end it turns out that the fool of a doctor was all wrong; but what I’m driving at is that this development absolutely put the bee on the wedding. Everybody sympathized with Claude and said it was out of the question that he could dream of getting married. So it suddenly occurred to me, laddie, that here was the scheme of a lifetime. I’m going to supper at Balbriggan to-morrow, and what I want you to do is simply to——”
“You can stop right there,” I said, with emotion. “I know what you want me to do. You want me to come along with you, disguised in a top-hat and a stethoscope, and explain to these people that I am a Harley Street specialist, and have been sounding you and have discovered that you are in the last stages of heart-disease.”
“Nothing of the kind, old man, nothing of the kind. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do anything like that.”
“Yes, you would, if you had happened to think of it.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, since you mention it,” said Ukridge, thoughtfully, “it wouldn’t be a bad scheme. But if you don’t feel like taking it on——”
“Well, then, all I want you to do is to come to Balbriggan at about nine. Supper will be over by then. No sense,” said Ukridge, thoughtfully, “in missing supper. Come to Balbriggan at about nine, ask for me, and tell me in front of the gang that my aunt is dangerously ill.”
“What’s the sense in that?”
“You aren’t showing that clear, keen intelligence of which I have often spoken so highly, Corky. Don’t you see? The news is a terrible shock to me. It bowls me over. I clutch at my heart——”
“They’ll see through it in a second.”
“I ask for water——”
“Ah, that’s a convincing touch. That’ll make them realize you aren’t yourself.”
“And after awhile we leave. In fact, we leave as quickly as we jolly well can. You see what happens? I have established the fact that my heart is weak, and in a few days I write and say I’ve been looked over and the wedding must unfortunately be off because——”
“Damned silly idea!”
“Corky my boy,” said Ukridge, gravely, “to a man as up against it as I am no idea is silly that looks as if it might work. Don’t you think this will work?”
“Well, it might, of course,” I admitted.
“Then I shall have a dash at it. I can rely on you to do your part?”
“How am I supposed to know that your aunt is ill?”
“Perfectly simple. They ’phoned from her house, and you are the only person who knows where I’m spending the evening.”
“And will you swear that this is really all you want me to do?”
“No getting me there and letting me in for something foul?”
“My dear old man!”
“All right,” I said. “I feel in my bones that something’s going to go wrong, but I suppose I’ve got to do it.”
“Spoken like a true friend,” said Ukridge.
AT nine o’clock on the following evening I stood on the steps of Balbriggan waiting for my ring at the bell to be answered. Cats prowled furtively in the purple dusk, and from behind a lighted window on the ground floor of the house came the tinkle of a piano and the sound of voices raised in one of the more mournful types of hymn. I recognized Ukridge’s above the rest. He was expressing with a vigour which nearly cracked the glass a desire to be as a little child washed clean of sin, and it somehow seemed to deepen my already substantial gloom. Long experience of Ukridge’s ingenious schemes had given me a fatalistic feeling with regard to them. With whatever fair prospects I started out to co-operate with him on these occasions, I almost invariably found myself entangled sooner or later in some nightmare imbroglio.
The door opened. A maid appeared.
“Is Mr. Ukridge here?”
“Could I see him for a moment?”
I followed her into the drawing-room.
“Gentleman to see Mr. Ukridge, please,” said the maid, and left me to do my stuff.
I was aware of a peculiar feeling. It was a sort of dry-mouthed panic, and I suddenly recognized it as the same helpless stage-fright which I had experienced years before on the occasion when, the old place presumably being short of talent, I had been picked on to sing a solo at the annual concert at school. I gazed upon the roomful of Prices, and words failed me. Near the bookshelf against the wall was a stuffed seagull of blackguardly aspect, suspended with outstretched wings by a piece of string. It had a gaping gamboge beak and its eye was bright and sardonic. I found myself gazing at it in a hypnotized manner. It seemed to see through me at a glance.
It was Ukridge who came to the rescue. Incredibly at his ease in this frightful room, he advanced to welcome me, resplendent in a morning-coat, patent-leather shoes, and tie, all of which I recognized as my property. As always when he looted my wardrobe, he exuded wealth and respectability.
“Want to see me, laddie?”
His eye met mine meaningly, and I found speech. We had rehearsed this little scene with a good deal of care over the luncheon-table, and the dialogue began to come back to me. I was able to ignore the seagull and proceed.
“I’m afraid I have serious news, old man,” I said, in a hushed voice.
“Serious news?” said Ukridge, trying to turn pale.
I had warned him during rehearsals that this was going to sound uncommonly like a vaudeville cross-talk act of the Argumentative College Chums type, but he had ruled out the objection as far-fetched. Nevertheless, that is just what it did sound like, and I found myself blushing warmly.
“What is it?” demanded Ukridge, emotionally, clutching me by the arm in a grip like the bite of a horse.
“Ouch!” I cried. “Your aunt!”
“They telephoned from the house just now,” I proceeded, warming to my work, “to say that she had had a relapse. Her condition is very serious. They want you there at once. Even now it may be too late.”
“Water!” said Ukridge, staggering back and clawing at his waistcoat—or rather at my waistcoat, which I had foolishly omitted to lock up. “Water!”
It was well done. Even I, much as I wished that he would stop wrenching one of my best ties all out of shape, was obliged to admit that. I suppose it was his lifelong training in staggering under the blows of Fate that made him so convincing. The Price family seemed to be shaken to its foundations. There was no water in the room, but a horde of juvenile Prices immediately rushed off in quest of some, and meanwhile the rest of the family gathered about the stricken man, solicitous and sympathetic.
“My aunt! Ill!” moaned Ukridge.
“I shouldn’t worry, o’ man,” said a voice at the door.
So sneering and altogether unpleasant was this voice that for a moment I almost thought that it must have been the seagull that had spoken. Then, turning, I perceived a young man in a blue flannel suit. A young man whom I had seen before. It was the Peacemaker, the fellow who had soothed and led away the infuriated bloke to whom Ukridge owed a bit of money.
“I shouldn’t worry,” he said again, and looked malevolently upon Ukridge. His advent caused a sensation. Mr. Price, who had been kneading Ukridge’s shoulder with a strong man’s silent sympathy, towered as majestically as his five feet six would permit him.
“Mr. Finch,” he said, “may I inquire what you are doing in my house?”
“All right, all right——”
“I thought I told you——”
“All right, all right,” repeated Ernie Finch, who appeared to be a young man of character. “I’ve only come to expose an impostor.”
“Him!” said young Mr. Finch, pointing a scornful finger at Ukridge.
I think Ukridge was about to speak, but he seemed to change his mind. As for me, I had edged out of the centre of things, and was looking on as inconspicuously as I could from behind a red plush sofa. I wished to disassociate myself entirely from the proceedings.
“Ernie Finch,” said Mrs. Price, swelling, “what do you mean?”
The young man seemed in no way discouraged by the general atmosphere of hostility. He twirled his small moustache and smiled a frosty smile.
“I mean,” he said, feeling in his pocket and producing an envelope, “that this fellow here hasn’t got an aunt. Or, if he has, she isn’t Miss Julia Ukridge, the well-known and wealthy novelist. I had my suspicions about this gentleman right from the first, I may as well tell you, and ever since he came to this house I’ve been going round making a few inquiries about him. The first thing I did was to write his aunt—the lady he says is his aunt—making out I wanted her nephew’s address, me being an old school chum of his. Here’s what she writes back—you can see it for yourselves if you want to: ‘Miss Ukridge acknowledges receipt of Mr. Finch’s letter, and in reply wishes to state that she has no nephew.’ No nephew! That’s plain enough, isn’t it?” He raised a hand to check comment. “And here’s another thing,” he proceeded. “That motor-car he’s been swanking about in. It doesn’t belong to him at all. It belongs to a man named Fillimore. I noted the number and made investigations. This fellow’s name isn’t Ukridge at all. It’s Smallweed. He’s a penniless impostor, who’s been pulling all your legs from the moment he came into the house; and if you let Mabel marry him you’ll be making the biggest bloomer of your lives!”
There was an awestruck silence. Price looked upon Price in dumb consternation.
“I don’t believe you,” said the master of the house at length, but he spoke without conviction.
“Then, perhaps,” retorted Ernie Finch, “you’ll believe this gentleman. Come in, Mr. Grindlay.”
Bearded, frock-coated, and sinister beyond words, the Creditor stalked into the room.
“You tell ’em,” said Ernie Finch.
The Creditor appeared more than willing. He fixed Ukridge with a glittering eye, and his bosom heaved with pent-up emotion.
“Sorry to intrude on a family on Sunday evening,” he said, “but this young man told me I should find Mr. Smallweed here, so I came along. I’ve been hunting for him high and low for two years and more about a matter of one pound two and threepence for goods supplied.”
“He owes you money?” faltered Mr. Price.
“He bilked me,” said the Creditor, precisely.
“Is this true?” said Mr. Price, turning to Ukridge.
Ukridge had risen and seemed to be wondering whether it was possible to sidle unobserved from the room. At this question he halted, and a weak smile played about his lips.
“Well——” said Ukridge.
The head of the family pursued his examination no further. His mind appeared to be made up. He had weighed the evidence and reached a decision. His eyes flashed. He raised a hand and pointed to the door.
“Leave my house!” he thundered.
“Right-o!” said Ukridge, mildly.
“And never enter it again!”
“Right-o!” said Ukridge.
Mr. Price turned to his daughter.
“Mabel,” he said, “this engagement of yours is broken. Broken, do you understand? I forbid you ever to see this scoundrel again. You hear me?”
“All right, pa,” said Miss Price, speaking for the first and last time. She seemed to be of a docile and equable disposition. I fancied I caught a not-displeased glance on its way to Ernie Finch.
“And now, sir,” cried Mr. Price, “go!”
“Right-o!” said Ukridge.
But here the Creditor struck a business note.
“And what,” he inquired, “about my one pound two and threepence?”
It seemed for a moment that matters were about to become difficult. But Ukridge, ever ready-witted, found the solution.
“Have you got one pound two and threepence on you, old man?” he said to me.
And with my usual bad luck I had.
WE walked together down Peabody Road. Already Ukridge’s momentary discomfiture had passed.
“It just shows, laddie,” he said, exuberantly, “that one should never despair. However black the outlook, old horse, never, never despair. That scheme of mine might or might not have worked—one cannot tell. But, instead of having to go to all the bother of subterfuge, to which I always object, here we have a nice, clean-cut solution of the thing without any trouble at all.” He mused happily for a moment. “I never thought,” he said, “that the time would come when I would feel a gush of kindly feeling towards Ernie Finch; but, upon my Sam, laddie, if he were here now, I would embrace the fellow. Clasp him to my bosom, dash it!” He fell once more into a reverie. “Amazing, old horse,” he proceeded, “how things work out. Many a time I’ve been on the very point of paying that blighter Grindlay his money, merely to be rid of the annoyance of having him always popping up, but every time something seemed to stop me. I can’t tell you what it was—a sort of feeling. Almost as if one had a guardian angel at one’s elbow guiding one. My gosh, just think where I would have been if I had yielded to the impulse. It was Grindlay blowing in that turned the scale. By gad, Corky my boy, this is the happiest moment of my life.”
“It might be the happiest of mine,” I said, churlishly, “if I thought I should ever see that one pound two and threepence again.”
“Now, laddie, laddie,” protested Ukridge, “these are not the words of a friend. Don’t mar a moment of unalloyed gladness. Don’t you worry, you’ll get your money back. A thousandfold!”
“One of these days,” said Ukridge, buoyantly. “One of these days.”
(Another story by P. G. Wodehouse will appear next month.)
Annotations to this story may be found elsewhere on this site. In addition, see the initial US magazine appearance in Cosmopolitan for more details of slight variants between the versions of this story.