The Strand Magazine, September 1922
NOBODY is more alive than I am to the fact that young Bingo Little is in many respects a sound old egg: but I must say there are things about him that could be improved. The man’s too expansive altogether. When it comes to letting the world in on the secrets of his heart, he has about as much shrinking reticence as a steam calliope. Well, for instance, here’s the telegram I got from him one evening in November:—
I say Bertie old man I am in love at last. She is the most wonderful girl Bertie old man. This is the real thing at last Bertie. Come here at once and bring Jeeves. Oh I say you know that tobacco shop in Bond Street on the left side as you go up. Will you get me a hundred of their special cigarettes and send them to me here. I have run out. I know when you see her you will think she is the most wonderful girl. Mind you bring Jeeves. Don’t forget the cigarettes.
It had been handed in at Twing Post Office. In other words, he had submitted that frightful rot to the goggling eye of a village post-mistress who was probably the mainspring of local gossip and would have the place ringing with the news before nightfall. He couldn’t have given himself away more completely if he had hired the town-crier. When I was a kid, I used to read stories about knights and Vikings and that species of chappie who would get up without a blush in the middle of a crowded banquet and loose off a song about how perfectly priceless they thought their best girl. I’ve often felt that those days would have suited young Bingo down to the ground.
Jeeves had brought the thing in with the evening drink, and I slung it over to him.
“It’s about due, of course,” I said. “Young Bingo hasn’t been in love for at least a couple of months. I wonder who it is this time?”
“Miss Mary Burgess, sir,” said Jeeves, “the niece of the Reverend Mr. Heppenstall. She is staying at Twing Vicarage.”
“Great Scott!” I knew that Jeeves knew practically everything in the world, but this sounded like second-sight. “How do you know that?”
“When we were visiting Twing Hall in the summer, sir, I formed a somewhat close friendship with Mr. Heppenstall’s butler. He is good enough to keep me abreast of the local news from time to time. From this account, sir, the young lady appears to be a very estimable young lady. Of a somewhat serious nature, I understand. Mr. Little is very épris, sir. Brookfield, my correspondent, writes that last week he observed him in the moonlight at an advanced hour gazing up at his window.”
“Whose window? Brookfield’s?”
“Yes, sir. Presumably under the impression that it was the young lady’s.”
“But what the deuce is he doing at Twing at all?”
“Mr. Little was compelled to resume his old position as tutor to Lord Wickhammersley’s son at Twing Hall, sir. Owing to having been unsuccessful in some speculations at Hurst Park at the end of October.”
“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?”
“I could not say, sir.”
I picked up the telegram.
“I suppose he wants us to go down and help him out a bit?”
“That would appear to be his motive in dispatching the message, sir.”
“Well, what shall we do? Go?”
“I would advocate it, sir. If I may say so, I think that Mr. Little should he encouraged in this particular matter.”
“You think he’s picked a winner this time?”
“I hear nothing but excellent reports of the young lady, sir. I think it is beyond question that she would be an admirable influence for Mr. Little, should the affair come to a happy conclusion. Such a union would also, I fancy, go far to restore Mr. Little to the good graces of his uncle, the young lady being well connected and possessing private means. In short, sir, I think that if there is anything that we can do we should do it.”
“Well, with you behind him,” I said, “I don’t see how he can fail to click.”
“You are very good, sir,” said Jeeves. “The tribute is much appreciated.”
BINGO met us at Twing station next day, and insisted on my sending Jeeves on in the car with the bags while he and I walked. He started in about the female the moment we had begun to hoof it.
“She is very wonderful, Bertie. She is not one of these flippant, shallow-minded modern girls. She is sweetly grave and beautifully earnest. She reminds me of—what is the name I want?”
“Saint Cecilia,” said young Bingo, eyeing me with a good deal of loathing. “She reminds me of Saint Cecilia. She makes me yearn to be a better, nobler, deeper, broader man.”
“What beats me.” I said, following up a train of thought, “is what principle you pick them on. The girls you fall in love with, I mean. I mean to say, what’s your system? As far as I can see, no two of them are alike. First it was Mabel the waitress, then Honoria Glossop, then that fearful blister Charlotte Corday Rowbotham——”
I own that Bingo had the decency to shudder. Thinking of Charlotte always made me shudder, too.
“You don’t seriously mean, Bertie, that you are intending to compare the feeling I have for Mary Burgess, the holy devotion, the spiritual——”
“Oh, all right, let it go,” I said. “I say, old lad, aren’t we going rather a long way round?”
Considering that we were supposed to be heading for Twing Hall, it seemed to me that we were making a longish job of it. The Hall is about two miles from the station by the main road, and we had cut off down a lane, gone across country for a bit, climbed a stile or two, and were now working our way across a field that ended in another lane.
“She sometimes takes her little brother for a walk round this way,” explained Bingo. “I thought we would meet her and bow, and you could see her, you know, and then we would walk on.”
“Of course,” I said, “that’s enough excitement for anyone, and undoubtedly a corking reward for tramping three miles out of one’s way over ploughed fields with tight boots, but don’t we do anything else? Don’t we tack on to the girl and buzz along with her?”
“Good Lord!” said Bingo, honestly amazed. “You don’t suppose I’ve got nerve enough for that, do you? I just look at her from afar and all that sort of thing. Quick! Here she comes! No, I’m wrong!”
It was like that song of Harry Lauder’s where he’s waiting for the girl and says “This is her-r-r. No, it’s a rabbut.” Young Bingo made me stand there in the teeth of a nor’-east half-gale for ten minutes, keeping me on my toes with a series of false alarms, and I was just thinking of suggesting that we should lay off and give the rest of the proceedings a miss, when round the corner there came a fox-terrier, and Bingo quivered like an aspen. Then there hove in sight a small boy, and he shook like a jelly. Finally, like a star whose entrance has been worked up by the personnel of the ensemble, a girl appeared, and his emotion was painful to witness. His face got so red that, what with his white collar and the fact that the wind had turned his nose blue, he looked more like a French flag than anything else. He sagged from the waist upwards, as if he had been filleted.
He was just raising his fingers limply to his cap when he suddenly saw that the girl wasn’t alone. A chappie in clerical costume was also among those present, and the sight of him didn’t seem to do Bingo a bit of good. His face got redder and his nose bluer, and it wasn’t till they had nearly passed that he managed to get hold of his cap.
The girl bowed, the curate said: “Ah Little. Rough weather,” the dog barked, and then they toddled on and the entertainment was over.
THE curate was a new factor in the situation to me. I reported his movements to Jeeves when I got to the Hall. Of course, Jeeves knew all about it already.
“That is the Reverend Mr. Wingham, Mr. Heppenstall’s new curate, sir. I gather from Brookfield that he is Mr. Little’s rival and that at the moment the young lady appears to favour him. Mr. Wingham has the advantage of being on the premises. He and the young lady play duets after dinner, which acts as a bond. Mr. Little on these occasions, I understand, prowls about in the road, chafing visibly.”
“That seems to be all the poor fish is able to do, dash it. He can chafe all right, but there he stops. He’s lost his pep. He’s got no dash. Why, when we met her just now, he hadn’t even the common manly courage to say ‘Good evening’!”
“I gather that Mr. Little’s affection is not unmingled with awe, sir.”
“Well, how are we to help a man when he’s such a rabbit as that? Have you anything to suggest? I shall be seeing him after dinner, and he’s sure to ask first thing what you advise.”
“In my opinion, sir, the most judicious course for Mr. Little to pursue would be to concentrate on the young gentleman.”
“The small brother? How do you mean?”
“Make a friend of him, sir—take him for walks and so forth.”
“It doesn’t sound one of your red-hottest ideas. I must say I expected something fruitier than that.”
“It would be a beginning, sir, and might lead to better things.”
“Well, I’ll tell him. I liked the look of her, Jeeves.”
“A thoroughly estimable young lady, sir.”
I slipped Bingo the tip from the stable that night, and was glad to observe that it seemed to cheer him up.
“Jeeves is always right,” he said. “I ought to have thought of it myself. I’ll start in to-morrow.”
It was amazing how the chappie bucked up. Long before I left for town it had become a mere commonplace for him to speak to the girl. I mean, he didn’t simply look stuffed when they met. The brother was forming a bond that was a dashed sight stronger than the curate’s duets. She and Bingo used to take him for walks together. I asked Bingo what they talked about on these occasions, and he said Wilfred’s future. The girl hoped that Wilfred would one day become a curate, but Bingo said no, there was something about curates he didn’t quite like.
The day we left, Bingo came to see us off with Wilfred frisking about him like an old college chum. The last I saw of them, Bingo was standing him chocolates out of the slot-machine. A scene of peace and cheery good-will. Dashed promising, I thought.
WHICH made it all the more of a jar, about a fortnight later, when his telegram arrived. As follows:—
Bertie old man I say Bertie could you possibly come down here at once. Everything gone wrong hang it all. Dash it Bertie you simply must come. I am in a state of absolute despair and heart-broken. Would you mind sending another hundred of those cigarettes. Bring Jeeves when you come Bertie. You simply must come Bertie. I rely on you. Don’t forget to bring Jeeves.
For a chap who’s perpetually hard-up. I must say that young Bingo is the most wasteful telegraphist I ever struck. He’s got no notion of condensing. The silly ass simply pours out his wounded soul at twopence a word, or whatever it is, without a thought.
“How about it, Jeeves?” I said. “I’m getting a bit fed. I can’t go chucking all my engagements every second week in order to biff down to Twing and rally round young Bingo. Send him a wire telling him to end it all in the village pond.”
“If you could spare me for the night, sir, I should be glad to run down and investigate.”
“Oh, dash it! Well, I suppose there’s nothing else to be done. After all, you’re the fellow he wants. All right, carry on.”
Jeeves got back late the next day.
“Well?” I said.
Jeeves appeared perturbed. He allowed his left eyebrow to flicker upwards in a concerned sort of manner.
“I have done what I could, sir,” he said, “but I fear Mr. Little’s chances do not appear bright. Since our last visit, sir, there has been a decidedly sinister and disquieting development.”
“Oh, what’s that?”
“You may remember Mr. Steggles, sir—the young gentleman who was studying for an examination with Mr. Heppenstall at the Vicarage?”
Of course I remembered Steggles. You’ll place him if you throw your mind back. Recollect the rat-faced chappie of sporting tastes who made the book on the Sermon Handicap and then made another on the Choir Boys’ Sports? That’s the fellow. A blighter of infinite guile and up to every shady scheme on the list. Though, thanks to Jeeves, we had let him in pretty badly on the Girls’ Egg-and-Spoon Race and collected a parcel off him in spite of his villainies.
“What’s Steggles got to do with it?” I asked.
“I gather from Brookfield, sir, who chanced to overhear a conversation, that Mr. Steggles is interesting himself in the affair.”
“Good Lord! What, making a book on it?”
“I understand that he is accepting wagers from those in his immediate circle, sir. Against Mr. Little, whose chances he does not seem to fancy.”
“I don’t like that, Jeeves.”
“No, sir. It is sinister.”
“From what I know of Steggles there will be dirty work.”
“It has already occurred, sir.”
“Yes, sir. It seems that in pursuance of the policy which he had been good enough to allow me to suggest to him, Mr. Little escorted Master Burgess to the church bazaar, and there met Mr. Steggles, who was in the company of young Master Heppenstall, the Reverend Mr. Heppenstall’s second son, who is home from Rugby just now, having recently recovered from an attack of mumps. The encounter took place in the refreshment-room, where Mr. Steggles was at that moment entertaining Master Heppenstall. To cut a long story short, sir, the two gentlemen became extremely interested in the hearty manner in which the lads were fortifying themselves; and Mr. Steggles offered to back his nominee in a weight-for-age eating contest against Master Burgess for a pound a side. Mr. Little admitted to me that he was conscious of a certain hesitation as to what the upshot might be, should Miss Burgess get to hear of the matter, but his sporting blood was too much for him and he agreed to the contest. This was duly carried out, both lads exhibiting the utmost willingness and enthusiasm, and eventually Master Burgess justified Mr. Little’s confidence by winning, but only after a bitter struggle. Next day both contestants were in considerable pain; inquiries were made and confessions extorted, and Mr. Little—I learn from Brookfield, who happened to be near the door of the drawing-room at the moment—had an extremely unpleasant interview with the young lady, which ended in her desiring him never to speak to her again.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that, if ever a man required watching, it’s Steggles. Machiavelli could have taken his correspondence course.
“It was a put-up job, Jeeves!” I said. “I mean, Steggles worked the whole thing on purpose. It’s his old nobbling game.”
“There would seem to be no doubt about that, sir.”
“Well, he seems to have dished poor old Bingo all right.”
“That is the prevalent opinion, sir. Brookfield tells me that down in the village at the Cow and Horses seven to one is being freely offered Mr. Wingham and finding no takers.”
“Good Lord! Are they betting about it down in the village, too?”
“Yes, sir. And in adjoining hamlets also. The affair has caused widespread interest. I am told that there is a certain sporting reaction in even so distant a spot as Lower Bingley.”
“Well, I don’t see what there is to do. If Bingo is such a chump——”
“One is fighting a losing battle, I fear, sir, but I did venture to indicate to Mr. Little a course of action which might prove of advantage. I recommended him to busy himself with good works.”
“About the village, sir. Reading to the bedridden—chatting with the sick—that sort of thing, sir. We can but trust that good results will ensue.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” I said, doubtfully. “But, by gosh, if I was a sick man I’d hate to have a looney like young Bingo coming and gibbering at my bedside.”
“There is that aspect of the matter, sir,” said Jeeves.
I DIDN’T hear a word from Bingo for a couple of weeks, and I took it after a while that he had found the going too hard and had chucked in the towel. And then, one night not long before Christmas, I came back to the flat pretty lateish, having been out dancing at the Embassy. I was fairly tired, having swung a practically non-stop shoe from shortly after dinner till two a.m., and bed seemed to be indicated. Judge of my chagrin and all that sort of thing, therefore, when, tottering to my room and switching on the light, I observed the foul features of young Bingo all over the pillow. The blighter had appeared from nowhere and was in my bed, sleeping like an infant with a sort of happy dreamy smile on his map.
A bit thick, I mean to say! We Woosters are all for the good old mediæval hosp. and all that, but when it comes to finding chappies collaring your bed, the thing becomes a trifle too mouldy. I hove a shoe, and Bingo sat up, gurgling.
“ ’s matter? ’s matter?” said young Bingo.
“What the deuce are you doing in my bed?” I said.
“Oh, hallo, Bertie! So there you are!”
“Yes, here I am. What are you doing in my bed?”
“I came up to town for the night on business.”
“Yes, but what are you doing in my bed?”
“Dash it all, Bertie,” said young Bingo, querulously, “don’t keep harping on your beastly bed. There’s another made up in the spare room. I saw Jeeves make it with my own eyes. I believe he meant it for me, but I knew what a perfect host you were, so I just turned in here. I say, Bertie, old man,” said Bingo, apparently fed up with the discussion about sleeping-quarters, “I see daylight.”
“Well, it’s getting on for three in the morning.”
“I was speaking figuratively, you ass. I meant that hope has begun to dawn. About Mary Burgess, you know. Sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“I won’t. I’m going to sleep.”
“To begin with,” said young Bingo, settling himself comfortably against the pillows and helping himself to a cigarette from my special private box, “I must once again pay a marked tribute to good old Jeeves. A modern Solomon. I was badly up against it when I came to him for advice, but he rolled up with a tip which has put me—I use the term advisedly and in a conservative spirit—on velvet. He may have told you that he recommended me to win back the lost ground by busying myself with good works? Bertie, old man,” said young Bingo, earnestly, “for the last two weeks I’ve been comforting the sick to such an extent that, if I had a brother and you brought him to me on a sick-bed at this moment, by Jove, old man, I’d heave a brick at him. However, though it took it out of me like the deuce, the scheme worked splendidly. She softened visibly before I’d been at it a week. Started to bow again when we met in the street, and so forth. About a couple of days ago she distinctly smiled—in a sort of faint, saint-like kind of way, you know—when I ran into her outside the Vicarage. And yesterday—I say, you remember that curate chap, Wingham? Fellow with a long nose and a sort of goofy expression?”
“Of course I remember him. Your rival.”
“Rival?” Bingo raised his eyebrows. “Oh, well, I suppose you could have called him that at one time. Though it sounds a little far-fetched.”
“Does it?” I said, stung by the sickening complacency of the chump’s manner. “Well, let me tell you that the last I heard was that at the Cow and Horses in Twing village and all over the place as far as Lower Bingley they were offering seven to one on the curate and finding no takers.”
Bingo started violently, and sprayed cigarette-ash all over my bed.
“Betting!” he gargled. “Betting! You don’t mean that they’re betting on this holy, sacred—— Oh, I say, dash it all! Haven’t people any sense of decency and reverence? Is nothing safe from their beastly, sordid graspingness? I wonder,” said young Bingo, thoughtfully, “if there’s a chance of my getting any of that seven-to-one money? Seven to one! What a price! Who’s offering it, do you know? Oh, well, I suppose it wouldn’t do. No, I suppose it wouldn’t be quite the thing.”
“You seem dashed confident,” I said. “I’d always thought that Wingham——”
“Oh, I’m not worried about him,” said Bingo. “I was just going to tell you. Wingham’s got the mumps, and won’t be out and about for weeks. And, jolly as that is in itself, it’s not all. You see, he was producing the Village School Christmas Entertainment, and now I’ve taken over the job. I went to old Heppenstall last night and clinched the contract. Well, you see what that means. It means that I shall be absolutely the centre of the village life and thought for three solid weeks, with a terrific triumph to wind up with. Everybody looking up to me and fawning on me, don’t you see, and all that. It’s bound to have a powerful effect on Mary’s mind. It will show her that I am capable of serious effort; that there is a solid foundation of worth in me; that, mere butterfly as she may once have thought me, I am in reality——”
“Oh, all right, let it go!”
“It’s a big thing, you know, this Christmas Entertainment. Old Heppenstall very much wrapped up in it. Nibs from all over the countryside rolling up. The Squire present, with family. A big chance for me, Bertie, my boy, and I mean to make the most of it. Of course. I’m handicapped a bit by not having been in on the thing from the start. Will you credit it that that uninspired doughnut of a curate wanted to give the public some rotten little fairy play out of a book for children published about fifty years ago, without one good laugh or the semblance of a gag in it? It’s too late to alter the thing entirely, but at least I can jazz it up. I’m going to write them in something zippy to brighten the thing up a bit.”
“You can’t write.”
“Well, when I say write, I mean pinch. That’s why I’ve popped up to town. I’ve been to see that revue, ‘Cuddle Up!’ at the Palladium, to-night. Full of good stuff. Of course, it’s rather hard to get anything in the nature of a big spectacular effect in the Twing Village Hall, with no scenery to speak of and a chorus of practically imbecile kids of ages ranging from nine to fourteen, but I think I see my way. Have you seen ‘Cuddle Up’?”
“Well, there’s some good stuff in the first act, and I can lift practically all the numbers. Then there’s that show at the Palace. I can see the matinée of that to-morrow before I leave. There’s sure to be some decent bits in that. Don’t you worry about my not being able to write a hit. Leave it to me, laddie, leave it to me. And now, my dear old chap,” said young Bingo, snuggling down cosily, “you mustn’t keep me up talking all night. It’s all right for you fellows who have nothing to do, but I’m a busy man. Good night, old thing. Close the door quietly after you and switch out the light. Breakfast about ten to-morrow, I suppose, what? Right-o. Good night.”
FOR the next three weeks I didn’t see Bingo. He became a sort of Voice Heard Off, developing a habit of ringing me up on long-distance and consulting me on various points arising at rehearsal, until the day when he got me out of bed at eight in the morning to ask whether I thought “Merry Christmas!” was a good title. I told him then that this nuisance must now cease, and after that he cheesed it, and practically passed out of my life till one afternoon when I got back to the flat to dress for dinner and found Jeeves inspecting a whacking big poster sort of thing which he had draped over the back of an arm-chair.
“Good Lord, Jeeves!” I said. I was feeling rather weak that day, and the thing shook me. “What on earth’s that?”
“Mr. Little sent it to me, sir, and desired me to bring it to your notice.”
“Well, you’ve certainly done it!”
I took another look at the object. There was no doubt about it, it caught the eye. It was about seven feet long, and most of the lettering in about as bright red ink as I ever struck.
“What do you make of it, Jeeves?” I said.
“I confess I am a little doubtful, sir. I think Mr. Little would have done better to follow my advice and confine himself to good works about the village.”
“You think the thing will be a frost?”
“I could not hazard a conjecture, sir. But my experience has been that what pleases the London public is not always so acceptable to the rural mind. The metropolitan touch sometimes proves a trifle too exotic for the provinces.”
“I suppose I ought to go down and see the dashed thing?”
“I think Mr. Little would be wounded were you not present, sir.”
THE Village Hall at Twing is a smallish building, smelling of apples. It was full when I turned up on the evening of the twenty-third, for I had purposely timed myself to arrive not long before the kick-off. I had had experience of one or two of these binges, and didn’t want to run any risk of coming early and finding myself shoved into a seat in one of the front rows where I wouldn’t be able to execute a quiet sneak into the open air half-way through the proceedings, if the occasion seemed to demand it. I secured a nice strategic position near the door at the back of the hall.
From where I stood I had a good view of the audience. As always on these occasions, the first few rows were occupied by the Nibs—consisting of the Squire, a fairly mauve old sportsman with white whiskers, his family, a platoon of local parsons, and perhaps a couple of dozen of prominent pew-holders. Then came a dense squash of what you might call the lower middle classes. And at the back, where I was, we came down with a jerk in the social scale, this end of the hall being given up almost entirely to a collection of frankly Tough Eggs, who had rolled up not so much for any love of the drama as because there was a free tea after the show. Take it for all in all, a representative gathering of Twing life and thought. The Nibs were whispering in a pleased manner to each other, the Lower Middles were sitting up very straight as if they’d been bleached, and the Tough Eggs whiled away the time by cracking nuts and exchanging low rustic wheezes. The girl, Mary Burgess, was at the piano, playing a waltz. Beside her stood the curate, Wingham, apparently recovered. The temperature, I should think, was about a hundred and twenty-seven.
Somebody jabbed me heartily in the lower ribs, and I perceived the man Steggles.
“Hallo!” he said. “I didn’t know you were coming down.”
I didn’t like the chap, but we Woosters can wear the mask. I beamed a bit.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Bingo wanted me to roll up and see his show.”
“I hear he’s giving us something pretty ambitious,” said the man Steggles. “Big effects and all that sort of thing.”
“I believe so.”
“Of course, it means a lot to him, doesn’t it? He’s told you about the girl, of course?”
“Yes. And I hear you’re laying seven to one against him,” I said, eyeing the blighter a trifle austerely.
He didn’t even quiver.
“Just a little flutter to relieve the monotony of country life,” he said. “But you’ve got the facts a bit wrong. It’s down in the village that they’re laying seven to one. I can do you better than that, if you feel in a speculative mood. How about a tenner at a hundred to eight?”
“Good Lord! Are you giving that?”
“Yes. Somehow,” said Steggles, meditatively, “I have a sort of feeling, a kind of premonition, that something’s going to go wrong to-night. You know what Little is. A bungler if ever there was one. Something tells me that this show of his is going to be a frost. And if it is, of course I should think it would prejudice the girl against him pretty badly. His standing always was rather shaky.”
“Are you going to try and smash up the show?” I said, sternly.
“Me!” said Steggles. “Why, what could I do? Half a minute, I want to go and speak to a man.”
He buzzed off, leaving me distinctly disturbed. I could see from the fellow’s eye that he was meditating some of his customary rough stuff, and I thought Bingo ought to be warned. But there wasn’t time and I couldn’t get at him. Almost immediately after Steggles had left me the curtain went up.
Except as a prompter, Bingo wasn’t much in evidence in the early part of the performance. The thing at the outset was merely one of those weird dramas which you dig out of books published around Christmas time and entitled “Twelve Little Plays for the Tots,” or something like that. The kids drooled on in the usual manner, the booming voice of Bingo ringing out from time to time behind the scenes when the fat-heads forgot their lines; and the audience was settling down into the sort of torpor usual on these occasions, when the first of Bingo’s interpolated bits occurred. It was that number which What’s-her-name sings in that revue at the Palace—you would recognize the tune if I hummed it, but I never can get hold of the dashed thing. It always got three encores at the Palace, and it went well now, even with a squeaky-voiced child jumping on and off the key like a chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag. Even the Tough Eggs liked it. At the end of the second refrain the entire house was shouting for an encore, and the kid with the voice like a slate-pencil took a deep breath and started to let it go once more.
At this point all the lights went out.
I DON’T know when I’ve had anything so sudden and devastating happen to me before. They didn’t flicker. They just went out. The hall was in complete darkness.
Well, of course, that sort of broke the spell, as you might put it. People started to shout directions, and the Tough Eggs stamped their feet and settled down for a pleasant time. And, of course, young Bingo had to make an ass of himself. His voice suddenly shot at us out of the darkness.
“Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone wrong with the lights——”
The Tough Eggs were tickled by this bit of information straight from the stable. They took it up as a sort of battle-cry. Then, after about five minutes, the lights went up again, and the show was resumed.
It took ten minutes after that to get the audience back into its state of coma, but eventually they began to settle down, and everything was going nicely when a small boy with a face like a turbot edged out in front of the curtain, which had been lowered after a pretty painful scene about a wishing-ring or a fairy’s curse or something of that sort, and started to sing that song of George Thingummy’s out of “Cuddle Up.” You know the one I mean. “Always Listen to Mother, Girls!” it’s called, and he gets the audience to join in and sing the refrain. Quite a ripeish ballad, and one which I myself have frequently sung in my bath with not a little vim; but by no means—as anyone but a perfect sapheaded prune like young Bingo would have known—by no means the sort of thing for a children’s Christmas entertainment in the old village hall. Right from the start of the first refrain the bulk of the audience had begun to stiffen in their seats and fan themselves, and the Burgess girl at the piano was accompanying in a stunned, mechanical sort of way, while the curate at her side averted his gaze in a pained manner. The Tough Eggs, however, were all for it.
At the end of the second refrain the kid stopped and began to sidle towards the wings. Upon which the following brief duologue took place:—
Young Bingo (Voice heard off, ringing against the rafters): “Go on!”
The Kid (Coyly): “I don’t like to.”
Young Bingo (Still louder): “Go on, you little blighter, or I’ll slay you!”
I suppose the kid thought it over swiftly and realized that Bingo, being in a position to get at him, had better be conciliated whatever the harvest might be; for he shuffled down to the front and, having shut his eyes and giggled hysterically, said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I will now call upon Squire Tressidder to oblige by singing the refrain!”
You know, with the most charitable feelings towards him, there are moments when you can’t help thinking that young Bingo ought to be in some sort of a home. I suppose, poor fish, he had pictured this as the big punch of the evening. He had imagined, I take it, that the Squire would spring jovially to his feet, rip the song off his chest, and all would be gaiety and mirth. Well, what happened was simply that old Tressidder—and, mark you, I’m not blaming him—just sat where he was, swelling and turning a brighter purple every second. The lower middle classes remained in frozen silence, waiting for the roof to fall. The only section of the audience that really seemed to enjoy the idea was the Tough Eggs, who yelled with enthusiasm. It was jam for the Tough Eggs.
And then the lights went out again.
WHEN they went up, some minutes later, they disclosed the Squire marching stiffly out at the head of his family, fed up to the eyebrows; the Burgess girl at the piano with a pale, set look; and the curate gazing at her with something in his expression that seemed to suggest that, though all this was no doubt deplorable, he had spotted the silver lining.
The show went on once more. There were great chunks of Plays-for-the-Tots dialogue, and then the girl at the piano struck up the prelude to that Orange-Girl number that’s the big hit of the Palace revue. I took it that this was to be Bingo’s smashing act one finale. The entire company was on the stage, and a clutching hand had appeared round the edge of the curtain, ready to pull at the right moment. It looked like the finale all right. It wasn’t long before I realized that it was something more. It was the finish.
I take it you know that Orange number at the Palace? It goes—
Oh, won’t you something something oranges,
My something oranges,
My something oranges;
Oh, won’t you something something something I forget,
Something something something tumty tumty yet:
or words to that effect. It’s a dashed clever lyric, and the tune’s good, too; but the thing that made the number was the business where the girls take oranges out of their baskets, you know, and toss them lightly to the audience. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but it always seems to tickle an audience to bits when they get things thrown at them from the stage. Every time I’ve been to the Palace the customers have simply gone wild over this number. But at the Palace, of course, the oranges are made of yellow wool and the girls don’t so much chuck them as drop them limply into the first and second rows. I began to gather that the business was going to be treated rather differently to-night, when a dashed great chunk of pips and mildew sailed past my ear and burst on the wall behind me. Another landed with a squelch on the neck of one of the Nibs in the third row. And then a third took me right on the tip of the nose, and I kind of lost interest in the proceedings for awhile.
When I had scrubbed my face and got my eyes to stop watering for a moment, I saw that the evening’s entertainment had begun to resemble one of Belfast’s livelier nights. The air was thick with shrieks and fruit. The kids on the stage, with Bingo buzzing distractedly to and fro in their midst, were having the time of their lives. I suppose they realized that this couldn’t go on for ever, and were making the most of their chances. The Tough Eggs had begun to pick up all the oranges that hadn’t burst and were shooting them back, so that the audience got it both coming and going. In fact, take it all round, there was a certain amount of confusion; and, just as things had begun really to hot up, out went the lights again.
It seemed to me about my time for leaving, so I slid for the door. I was hardly outside when the audience began to stream out. They surged about me in twos and threes, and I’ve never seen a public body so dashed unanimous on any point. To a man—and to a woman—they were cursing poor old Bingo; and there was a large and rapidly growing school of thought which held that the best thing to do would be to waylay him as he emerged and splash him about in the village pond a bit.
There were such a dickens of a lot of these enthusiasts and they looked so jolly determined that it seemed to me that the only matey thing to do was to go behind and warn young Bingo to turn his coat-collar up and breeze off snakily by some side-exit. I went behind, and found him sitting on a box in the wings, perspiring pretty freely and looking more or less like the spot marked with a cross where the accident happened. His hair was standing up and his ears were hanging down, and one harsh word would undoubtedly have made him burst into tears.
“Bertie,” he said hollowly, as he saw me, “it was that blighter Steggles! I caught one of the kids before he could get away and got it all out of him. Steggles substituted real oranges for the balls of wool which with infinite sweat and at a cost of nearly a quid I had specially prepared. Well, I will now proceed to tear him limb from limb. It’ll be something to do.”
I hated to spoil his day-dreams, but it had to be.
“Good heavens, man,” I said, “you haven’t time for frivolous amusements now. You’ve got to get out. And quick!”
“Bertie,” said Bingo in a dull voice, “she was here just now. She said it was all my fault and that she would never speak to me again. She said she had always suspected me of being a heartless practical joker, and now she knew. She said—— Oh, well, she ticked me off properly.”
“That’s the least of your troubles,” I said. It seemed impossible to rouse the poor zib to a sense of his position. “Do you realize that about two hundred of Twing’s heftiest are waiting for you outside to chuck you into the pond?”
For a moment the poor chap seemed crushed. But only for a moment. There has always been something of the good old English bulldog breed about Bingo. A strange, sweet smile flickered for an instant over his face.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I can sneak out through the cellar and climb over the wall at the back. They can’t intimidate me!”
IT couldn’t have been more than a week later when Jeeves, after he had brought me my tea, gently steered me away from the sporting page of the Morning Post and directed my attention to an announcement in the engagements and marriages column.
It was a brief statement that a marriage had been arranged and would shortly take place between the Hon. and Rev. Hubert Wingham, third son of the Right Hon. the Earl of Sturridge, and Mary, only daughter of the late Matthew Burgess, of Weatherly Court, Hants.
“Of course,” I said, after I had given it the east-to-west, “I expected this, Jeeves.”
“She would never forgive him what happened that night.”
“Well,” I said, as I took a sip of the fragrant and steaming, “I don’t suppose it will take old Bingo long to get over it. It’s about the hundred and eleventh time this sort of thing has happened to him. You’re the man I’m sorry for.”
“Well, dash it all, you can’t have forgotten what a deuce of a lot of trouble you took to bring the thing off for Bingo. It’s too bad that all your work should have been wasted.”
“Not entirely wasted, sir.”
“It is true that my efforts to bring about the match between Mr. Little and the young lady were not successful, but still I look back upon the matter with a certain satisfaction.”
“Because you did your best, you mean?”
“Not entirely, sir, though of course that thought also gives me pleasure. I was alluding more particularly to the fact that I found the affair financially remunerative.”
“Financially remunerative? What do you mean?”
“When I learned that Mr. Steggles had interested himself in the contest, sir, I went shares with my friend Brookfield and bought the book which had been made on the issue by the landlord of the Cow and Horses. It has proved a highly profitable investment. Your breakfast will be ready almost immediately, sir. Kidneys on toast and mushrooms. I will bring it when you ring.”
Next month: “The Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace”
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.