The Strand Magazine, October 1923
THE girl from the typewriting and stenographic bureau had a quiet but speaking eye. At first it had registered nothing but enthusiasm and the desire to please. But now, rising from that formidable notebook, it met mine with a look of exasperated bewilderment. There was an expression of strained sweetness on her face, as of a good woman unjustly put upon. I could read what was in her mind as clearly as if she had been impolite enough to shout it. She thought me a fool. And as this made the thing unanimous, for I had been feeling exactly the same myself for the last quarter of an hour, I decided that the painful exhibition must now terminate.
It was Ukridge who had let me in for the thing. He had fired my imagination with tales of authors who were able to turn out five thousand words a day by dictating their stuff to a stenographer instead of writing it; and though I felt at the time that he was merely trying to drum up trade for the typewriting bureau in which his young friend Dora Mason was now a partner, the lure of the idea had gripped me. Like all writers, I had a sturdy distaste for solid work, and this seemed to offer a pleasant way out, turning literary composition into a jolly tête-à-tête chat. It was only when those gleaming eyes looked eagerly into mine and that twitching pencil poised itself to record the lightest of my golden thoughts that I discovered what I was up against. For fifteen minutes I had been experiencing all the complex emotions of a nervous man who, suddenly called upon to make a public speech, realizes too late that his brain has been withdrawn and replaced by a cheap cauliflower substitute: and I was through.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m afraid it’s not much use going on. I don’t seem able to manage it.”
Now that I had come frankly out into the open and admitted my idiocy, the girl’s expression softened. She closed her notebook forgivingly.
“Lots of people can’t,” she said. “It’s just a knack.”
“Everything seems to go out of my head.”
“I’ve often thought it must be very difficult to dictate.”
Two minds with but a single thought, in fact. Her sweet reasonableness, combined with the relief that the thing was over, induced in me a desire to babble. One has the same feeling when the dentist lets one out of his chair.
“You’re from the Norfolk Street Agency, aren’t you?” I said. A silly question, seeing that I had expressly rung them up on the telephone and asked them to send somebody round; but I was still feeling the effects of the ether.
“That’s in Norfolk Street, isn’t it? I mean,” I went on hurriedly, “I wonder if you know a Miss Mason there? Miss Dora Mason.”
She seemed surprised.
“My name is Dora Mason,” she said.
I was surprised, too. I had not supposed that partners in typewriting businesses stooped to going out on these errands. And I was conscious of a return of my former embarrassment, feeling—quite unreasonably, for I had only seen her once in my life, and then from a distance—that I ought to have remembered her.
“We were short-handed at the office,” she explained, “so I came along. But how do you know my name?”
“I am a great friend of Ukridge’s.”
“Why, of course! I was wondering why your name was so familiar. I’ve heard him talk so much about you.”
And after that we really did settle down to the cosy tête-à-tête of which I had had visions. She was a nice girl, the only noticeable flaw in her character being an absurd respect for Ukridge’s intelligence and abilities. I, who had known that foe of the human race from boyhood up and was still writhing beneath the memory of the night when he had sneaked my dress clothes, could have corrected her estimate of him, but it seemed unkind to shatter her girlish dreams.
“He was wonderful about this typewriting business,” she said. “It was such a splendid opportunity, and but for Mr. Ukridge I should have had to let it slip. You see, they were asking two hundred pounds for the partnership, and I only had a hundred. And Mr. Ukridge insisted on putting up the rest of the money. You see—I don’t know if he told you—he insisted that he ought to do something because he says he lost me the position I had with his aunt. It wasn’t his fault at all, really, but he kept saying that if I hadn’t gone to that dance with him I shouldn’t have got back late and been dismissed. So——”
She was a rapid talker, and it was only now that I was able to comment on the amazing statement which she had made in the opening portion of her speech. So stunning had been the effect of those few words on me that I had hardly heard her subsequent remarks.
“Did you say that Ukridge insisted on finding the rest?” I gasped.
“Yes. Wasn’t it nice of him?”
“He gave you a hundred pounds? Ukridge!”
“Guaranteed it,” said Miss Mason. “I arranged to pay a hundred pounds down and the rest in sixty days.”
“But suppose the rest is not paid in sixty days?”
“Well, then I’m afraid I should lose my hundred. But it will be, of course. Mr. Ukridge told me to have no anxiety about that at all. Well, good-bye, Mr. Corcoran. I must be going now. I’m sorry we didn’t get better results with the dictating. I should think it must be very difficult to do till you get used to it.”
Her cheerful smile as she went out struck me as one of the most pathetic sights I had ever seen. Poor child, bustling off so brightly when her whole future rested on Ukridge’s ability to raise a hundred pounds! I presumed that he was relying on one of those Utopian schemes of his which were to bring him in thousands—“at a conservative estimate, laddie!”—and not for the first time in a friendship of years the reflection came to me that Ukridge ought to be in some sort of a home. A capital fellow in many respects, but not a man lightly to be allowed at large.
I WAS pursuing this train of thought when the banging of the front door, followed by a pounding of footsteps on the stairs and a confused noise without, announced his arrival.
“I say, laddie,” said Ukridge, entering the room, as was his habit, like a north-easterly gale, “was that Dora Mason I saw going down the street? It looked like her back. Has she been here?”
“Yes. I asked her agency to send someone to take dictation, and she came.”
Ukridge reached out for the tobacco jar, filled his pipe, replenished his pouch, sank comfortably on to the sofa, adjusted the cushions, and bestowed an approving glance upon me.
“Corky, my boy,” said Ukridge, “what I like about you and the reason why I always maintain that you will be a great man one of these days is that you have Vision. You have the big, broad, flexible outlook. You’re not too proud to take advice. I say to you, ‘Dictate your stuff, it’ll pay you,’ and, damme, you go straight off and do it. No arguing or shilly-shallying. You just go and do it. It’s the spirit that wins to success. I like to see it. Dictating will add thousands a year to your income. I say it advisedly, laddie—thousands. And if you continue leading a steady and sober life and save your pennies, you’ll be amazed at the way your capital will pile up. Money at five per cent. compound interest doubles itself every fourteen years. By the time you’re forty——”
It seemed churlish to strike a jarring note after all these compliments, but it had to be done.
“Never mind about what’s going to happen to me when I’m forty,” I said. “What I want to know is what is all this I hear about you guaranteeing Miss Mason a hundred quid?”
“Ah, she told you? Yes,” said Ukridge, airily, “I guaranteed it. Matter of conscience, old son. Man of honour, no alternative. You see, there’s no getting away from it, it was my fault that she was sacked by my aunt. Got to see her through, laddie, got to see her through.”
I goggled at the man.
“Look here,” I said, “let’s get this thing straight. A couple of days ago you touched me for five shillings and said it would save your life.”
“It did, old man, it did.”
“And now you’re talking of scattering hundred quids about the place as if you were Rothschild. Do you smoke it or inject it with a hypodermic needle?”
There was pain in Ukridge’s eyes as he sat up and gazed at me through the smoke.
“I don’t like this tone, laddie,” he said, reproachfully. “Upon my Sam, it wounds me. It sounds as if you had lost faith in me, in my vision.”
“Oh, I know you’ve got vision. And the big, broad, flexible outlook. Also snap, ginger, enterprise, and ears that stick out at right angles like the sails of a windmill. But that doesn’t help me to understand where on earth you expect to get a hundred quid.”
Ukridge smiled tolerantly.
“You don’t suppose I would have guaranteed the money for poor little Dora unless I knew where to lay my hands on it, do you? If you ask me, Have I got the stuff at this precise moment? I candidly reply, No, I haven’t. But it’s fluttering on the horizon, laddie, fluttering on the horizon. I can hear the beating of its wings.”
“Is Battling Billson going to fight someone and make your fortune again?”
Ukridge winced, and the look of pain flitted across his face once more.
“Don’t mention that man’s name to me, old horse,” he begged. “Every time I think of him everything seems to go all black. No, the thing I have on hand now is a real, solid business proposition. Gilt-edged, you might call it. I ran into a bloke the other day whom I used to know out in Canada.”
“I didn’t know you had ever been in Canada,” I interrupted.
“Of course I’ve been in Canada. Go over there and ask the first fellow you meet if I was ever in Canada. Canada! I should say I had been in Canada. Why, when I left Canada, I was seen off on the steamer by a couple of policemen. Well, I ran into this bloke in Piccadilly. He was wandering up and down and looking rather lost. Couldn’t make out what the deuce he was doing over here, because, when I knew him, he hadn’t a cent. Well, it seems that he got fed up with Canada and went over to America to try and make his fortune. And, by Jove, he did, first crack out of the box. Bought a bit of land about the size of a pocket-handkerchief in Texas or Oklahoma or somewhere, and one morning, when he was hoeing the soil or planting turnips or something, out buzzed a whacking great oil-well. Apparently that sort of thing’s happening every day out there. If I could get a bit of capital together, I’m dashed if I wouldn’t go to Texas myself. Great open spaces where men are men, laddie—suit me down to the ground. Well, we got talking, and he said that he intended to settle in England. Came from London as a kid, but couldn’t stick it at any price now because they had altered it so much. I told him the thing for him to do was to buy a house in the country with a decent bit of shooting, and he said, ‘Well, how do you buy a house in the country with a decent bit of shooting?’ and I said, ‘Leave it entirely in my hands, old horse. I’ll see you’re treated right.’ So he told me to go ahead, and I went to Farmingdons, the house-agent blokes in Cavendish Square. Had a chat with the manager. Very decent old bird with moth-eaten whiskers. I said I’d got a millionaire looking for a house in the country. ‘Find him one, laddie,’ I said, ‘and we split the commish.’ He said ‘Right-o,’ and any day now I expect to hear that he’s dug up something suitable. Well, you can see for yourself what that’s going to mean. These house-agent fellows take it as a personal affront if a client gets away from them with anything except a collar-stud and the clothes he stands up in, and I’m in halves. Reason it out, my boy, reason it out.”
“You’re sure this man really has money?”
“Crawling with it, laddie. Hasn’t found out yet there’s anything smaller than a five-pound note in circulation. He took me to lunch, and when he tipped the waiter the man burst into tears and kissed him on both cheeks.”
I am bound to admit that I felt easier in my mind, for it really did seem as though the fortunes of Miss Mason rested on firm ground. I had never supposed that Ukridge could be associated with so sound a scheme, and I said so. In fact, I rather overdid my approval, for it encouraged him to borrow another five shillings; and before he left we were in treaty over a further deal which was to entail my advancing him half a sovereign in one solid payment. Business breeds business.
FOR the next ten days I saw nothing of Ukridge. As he was in the habit of making these periodical disappearances, I did not worry unduly as to the whereabouts of my wandering boy, but I was conscious from time to time of a mild wonder as to what had become of him. The mystery was solved one night when I was walking through Pall Mall on my way home after a late session with an actor acquaintance who was going into vaudeville, and to whom I hoped—mistakenly, as it turned out—to sell a one-act play.
I say night, but it was nearly two in the morning. The streets were black and deserted, silence was everywhere, and all London slept except Ukridge and a friend of his whom I came upon standing outside Hardy’s fishing tackle shop. That is to say, Ukridge was standing outside the shop. His friend was sitting on the pavement with his back against a lamp-post.
As far as I could see in the uncertain light, he was a man of middle age, rugged of aspect and grizzled about the temples. I was able to inspect his temples because—doubtless from the best motives—he was wearing his hat on his left foot. He was correctly clad in dress clothes, but his appearance was a little marred by a splash of mud across his shirt-front and the fact that at some point earlier in the evening he had either thrown away or been deprived of his tie. He gazed fixedly at the hat with a poached-egg-like stare. He was the only man I had ever seen who was smoking two cigars at the same time.
Ukridge greeted me with the warmth of a beleaguered garrison welcoming the relieving army.
“My dear old horse! Just the man I wanted!” he cried, as if he had picked me out of a number of competing applicants. “You can give me a hand with Hank, laddie.”
“Is this Hank?” I inquired, glancing at the recumbent sportsman, who had now closed his eyes as if the spectacle of the hat had begun to pall.
“Yes. Hank Philbrick. This is the bloke I was telling you about, the fellow who wants the house.”
“He doesn’t seem to want any house. He looks quite satisfied with the great open spaces.”
“Poor old Hank’s a bit under the weather,” explained Ukridge, regarding his stricken friend with tolerant sympathy. “It takes him this way. The fact is, old man, it’s a mistake for these blokes to come into money. They overdo things. The only thing Hank ever got to drink for the first fifty years of his life was water, with buttermilk as a treat on his birthday, and he’s trying to make up for lost time. He’s only just discovered that there are such things as liqueurs in the world, and he’s making them rather a hobby. Says they’re such a pretty colour. It wouldn’t be so bad if he stuck to one at a time, but he likes making experiments. Mixes them, laddie. Orders the whole lot and blends them in a tankard. Well, I mean to say,” said Ukridge reasonably, “you can’t take more than five or six tankards of mixed benedictine, chartreuse, kummel, crème de menthe, and old brandy without feeling the strain a bit. Especially if you stoke up on champagne and burgundy.”
A strong shudder ran through me at the thought. I gazed at the human cellar on the pavement with a feeling bordering on awe.
“Does he really?”
“Every night for the last two weeks. I’ve been with him most of the time. I’m the only pal he’s got in London, and he likes to have me round.”
“What plans have you for his future? His immediate future, I mean. Do we remove him somewhere or is he going to spend the night out here under the quiet stars?”
“I thought, if you would lend a hand, old man, we could get him to the Carlton. He’s staying there.”
“He won’t be long, if he comes in in this state.”
“Bless you, my dear old man, they don’t mind. He tipped the night-porter twenty quid yesterday and asked me if I thought it was enough. Lend a hand, laddie. Let’s go.”
I lent a hand, and we went.
THE effect which that nocturnal encounter had upon me was to cement the impression that in acting as agent for Mr. Philbrick in the purchase of a house Ukridge was on to a good thing. What little I had seen of Hank had convinced me that he was not the man to be finicky about price. He would pay whatever they asked him without hesitation. Ukridge would undoubtedly make enough out of his share of the commission to pay off Dora Mason’s hundred without feeling it. Indeed, for the first time in his life he would probably be in possession of that bit of capital of which he was accustomed to speak so wistfully. I ceased, therefore, to worry about Miss Mason’s future and concentrated myself on my own troubles.
They would probably have seemed to anyone else minor troubles, but nevertheless they were big enough to depress me. Two days after my meeting with Ukridge and Mr. Philbrick in Pall Mall I had received rather a disturbing letter.
There was a Society paper for which at that time I did occasional work and wished to do more; and the editor of this paper had sent me a ticket for the forthcoming dance of the Pen and Ink Club, with instructions to let him have a column and a half of bright descriptive matter. It was only after I had digested the pleasant reflection that here was a bit of badly needed cash dropping on me out of a clear sky that I realized why the words Pen and Ink Club seemed to have a familiar ring. It was the club of which Ukridge’s aunt Julia was the popular and energetic president, and the thought of a second meeting with that uncomfortable woman filled me with a deep gloom. I had not forgotten—and probably would never forget—my encounter with her in her drawing-room at Wimbledon.
I was not in a financial position, however, to refuse editors their whims, so the thing had to be gone through; but the prospect damped me, and I was still brooding on it when a violent ring at the front-door bell broke in on my meditations. It was followed by the booming of Ukridge’s voice inquiring if I were in. A moment later he had burst into the room. His eyes were wild, his pince-nez at an angle of forty-five, and his collar separated from its stud by a gap of several inches. His whole appearance clearly indicated some blow of fate, and I was not surprised when his first words revealed an aching heart.
“Hank Philbrick,” said Ukridge without preamble, “is a son of Belial, a leper, and a worm.”
“What’s happened now?”
“He’s let me down, the weak-minded Tishbite! Doesn’t want that house in the country after all. My gosh, if Hank Philbrick is the sort of man Canada is producing nowadays, Heaven help the British Empire.”
I shelved my petty troubles. They seemed insignificant beside this majestic tragedy.
“What made him change his mind?” I asked.
“The wobbling, vacillating hell-hound! I always had a feeling that there was something wrong with that man. He had a nasty, shifty eye. You’ll bear me out, laddie, in that? Haven’t I spoken to you a hundred times about his shifty eye?”
“Certainly. Why did he change his mind?”
“Didn’t I always say he wasn’t to be trusted?”
“Repeatedly. What made him change his mind?”
Ukridge laughed with a sharp bitterness that nearly cracked the window-pane. His collar leaped like a live thing. Ukridge’s collar was always a sort of thermometer that registered the warmth of his feelings. Sometimes, when his temperature was normal, it would remain attached to its stud for minutes at a time; but the slightest touch of fever sent it jumping up, and the more he was moved the higher it jumped.
“When I knew Hank out in Canada,” he said, “he had the constitution of an ox. Ostriches took his correspondence course in digestion. But directly he comes into a bit of money—— Laddie,” said Ukridge earnestly, “when I’m a rich man, I want you to stand at my elbow and watch me very carefully. The moment you see signs of degeneration speak a warning word. Don’t let me coddle myself. Don’t let me get fussy about my health. Where was I? Oh, yes. Directly this man comes into a bit of money he gets the idea that he’s a sort of fragile, delicate flower.”
“I shouldn’t have thought so from what you were telling me the other night.”
“What happened the other night was the cause of all the trouble. Naturally he woke up with a bit of a head.”
“I can quite believe it.”
“Yes, but, my gosh, what’s a head! In the old days he would have gone and worked it off by taking a dose of pain-killer and chopping down half-a-dozen trees. But now what happens? Having all this money, he wouldn’t take a simple remedy like that. No, sir! He went to one of those Harley Street sharks who charge a couple of guineas for saying ‘Well, how are we this morning?’ A fatal move, laddie. Naturally, the shark was all over him. Tapped him here and prodded him there, said he was run down, and finally told him he ought to spend six months in a dry, sunny climate. Recommended Egypt. Egypt, I’ll trouble you, for a bloke who lived fifty years thinking that it was a town in Illinois. Well, the long and the short of it is that he’s gone off for six months, doesn’t want a place in England, and I hope he gets bitten by a crocodile. And the lease all drawn out and ready to sign. Upon my Sam, it’s a little hard. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth while going on struggling.”
A SOMBRE silence fell upon us. Ukridge, sunk in gloomy reverie, fumbled absently at his collar stud. I smoked with a heavy heart.
“What will your friend Dora do now?” I said at length.
“That’s what’s worrying me,” said Ukridge, lugubriously. “I’ve been trying to think of some other way of raising that hundred, but at the moment I don’t mind confessing I am baffled. I can see no daylight.”
Nor could I. His chance of raising a hundred pounds by any means short of breaking into the Mint seemed slight indeed.
“Odd the way things happen,” I said. I gave him the editor’s letter. “Look at that.”
“He’s sending me to do an article on the Pen and Ink Club dance. If only I had never been to see your aunt——”
“And made such a mess of it.”
“I didn’t make a mess of it. It just happened that——”
“All right, laddie, all right,” said Ukridge, tonelessly. “Don’t let’s split straws. The fact remains, whether it was your fault or not, the thing was a complete frost. What were you saying?”
“I was saying that, if only I had never been to your aunt, I could have met her in a perfectly natural way at this dance.”
“Done Young Disciple stuff,” said Ukridge, seizing on the idea. “Rubbed in the fact that you could do her a bit of good by boosting her in the paper.”
“And asked her to re-engage Miss Mason as her secretary.”
Ukridge fiddled with the letter.
“You don’t think even now——”
I was sorry for him and sorrier for Dora Mason, but on this point I was firm.
“No, I don’t.”
“But consider, laddie,” urged Ukridge. “At this dance she may well be in malleable mood. The lights, the music, the laughter, the jollity.”
“No,” I said. “It can’t be done. I can’t back out of going to the affair, because if I did I’d never get any more work to do for this paper. But I’ll tell you one thing. I mean to keep quite clear of your aunt. That’s final. I dream of her in the night sometimes and wake up screaming. And in any case it wouldn’t be any use my tackling her. She wouldn’t listen to me. It’s too late. You weren’t there that afternoon at Wimbledon, but you can take it from me that I’m not one of her circle of friends.”
“That’s the way it always happens,” sighed Ukridge. “Everything comes too late. Well, I’ll be popping off. Lot of heavy thinking to do, laddie. Lot of heavy thinking.”
And he left without borrowing even a cigar, a sure sign that his resilient spirit was crushed beyond recuperation.
THE dance of the Pen and Ink Club was held, like so many functions of its kind, at the Lotus Rooms, Knightsbridge, that barrack-like building which seems to exist only for these sad affairs. The Pen and Ink evidently went in for quality in its membership rather than quantity; and the band, when I arrived, was giving out the peculiarly tinny sound which bands always produce in very large rooms that are only one-sixth part full. The air was chilly and desolate, and a general melancholy seemed to prevail. The few couples dancing on the broad acres of floor appeared sombre and introspective, as if they were meditating on the body upstairs and realizing that all flesh is as grass. Around the room on those gilt chairs which are only seen in subscription-dance halls weird beings were talking in undertones, probably about the trend of Scandinavian literature. In fact, the only bright spot on the whole gloomy business was that it occurred before the era of tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles.
That curious grey hopelessness which always afflicts me when I am confronted with literary people in the bulk was not lightened by the reflection that at any moment I might encounter Miss Julia Ukridge. I moved warily about the room, keenly alert, like a cat that has wandered into a strange alley and sees in every shadow the potential hurler of a half-brick. I could envisage nothing but awkwardness and embarrassment springing from such a meeting. The lesson which I had drawn from my previous encounter with her was that happiness for me lay in keeping as far away from Miss Julia Ukridge as possible.
My precautions had been in vain. She had sneaked up on me from behind.
“Good evening,” I said.
It is never any good rehearsing these scenes in advance. They always turn out so differently. I had been assuming, when I slunk into this hall, that if I met this woman I should feel the same shrinking sense of guilt and inferiority which had proved so disintegrating at Wimbledon. I had omitted to make allowances for the fact that that painful episode had taken place on her own ground, and that right from the start my conscience had been far from clear. To-night the conditions were different.
“Are you a member of the Pen and Ink Club?” said Ukridge’s aunt, frostily.
Her stony blue eyes were fixed on me with an expression that was not exactly loathing, but rather a cold and critical contempt. So might a fastidious cook look at a black-beetle in her kitchen.
“No,” I replied, “I am not.”
I felt bold and hostile. This woman gave me a pain in the neck, and I endeavoured to express as much in the language of the eyes.
“Then will you please tell me what you are doing here? This is a private dance.”
One has one’s moments. I felt much as I presume Battling Billson must have felt in his recent fight with Alf Todd, when he perceived his antagonist advancing upon him wide-open, inviting the knock-out punch.
“The editor of Society sent me a ticket. He wanted an article written about it.”
If I was feeling like Mr. Billson, Ukridge’s aunt must have felt very like Mr. Todd. I could see that she was shaken. In a flash I had changed from a black-beetle to a godlike creature, able, if conciliated, to do a bit of that log-rolling which is so dear to the heart of the female novelist. And she had not conciliated me. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been. It is too much to say that her jaw fell, but certainly the agony of this black moment caused her lips to part in a sort of twisted despair. But there was good stuff in this woman. She rallied gamely.
“A Press ticket,” she murmured.
“A Press ticket,” I echoed.
“May I see it?”
“Not at all.”
She passed on.
I RESUMED my inspection of the dancers with a lighter heart. In my present uplifted mood they did not appear so bad as they had a few minutes back. Some of them, quite a few of them, looked almost human. The floor was fuller now, and whether owing to my imagination or not, the atmosphere seemed to have taken on a certain cheeriness. The old suggestion of a funeral still lingered, but now it was possible to think of it as a less formal, rather jollier funeral. I began to be glad that I had come.
I had thought that I was finished with this sort of thing for the evening, and I turned with a little impatience. It was a refined tenor voice that had addressed me, and it was a refined tenor-looking man whom I saw. He was young and fattish, with a Jovian coiffure and pince-nez attached to a black cord.
“Pardon me,” said this young man, “but are you a member of the Pen and Ink Club?”
My momentary annoyance vanished, for it suddenly occurred to me that, looked at in the proper light, it was really extremely flattering, this staunch refusal on the part of these people to entertain the belief that I could be one of them. No doubt, I felt, they were taking up the position of the proprietor of a certain night-club, who, when sued for defamation of character by a young lady to whom he had refused admittance on the ground that she was not a fit person to associate with his members, explained to the court that he had meant it as a compliment.
“No, thank Heaven!” I replied.
“Press ticket,” I explained.
“Press ticket? What paper?”
There was nothing of the Julia Ukridge spirit in this young man, no ingrained pride which kept him aloof and outwardly indifferent. He beamed like the rising sun. He grasped my arm and kneaded it. He gambolled about me like a young lamb in the springtime.
“My dear fellow!” he exclaimed, exuberantly, and clutched my arm more firmly, lest even now I might elude him. “My dear fellow, I really must apologize. I would not have questioned you, but there are some persons present who were not invited. I met a man only a moment ago who said that he had bought a ticket. Some absurd mistake. There were no tickets for sale. I was about to question him further, but he disappeared into the crowd and I have not seen him since. This is a quite private dance, open only to members of the club. Come with me, my dear fellow, and I will give you a few particulars which you may find of use for your article.”
HE led me resolutely into a small room off the floor, closed the door to prevent escape, and, on the principle on which you rub a cat’s paws with butter to induce it to settle down in a new home, began to fuss about with whisky and cigarettes.
“Do, do sit down.”
I sat down.
“First, about this club. The Pen and Ink Club is the only really exclusive organization of its kind in London. We pride ourselves on the fact. We are to the literary world what Brooks’s and the Carlton are to the social. Members are elected solely by invitation. Election, in short, you understand, is in the nature of an accolade. We have exactly one hundred members, and we include only those writers who in our opinion possess vision.”
“And the big, broad, flexible outlook?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The names of most of those here tonight must be very familiar to you.”
“I know Miss Ukridge, the president,” I said.
A faint, almost imperceptible shadow passed over the stout young man’s face. He removed his pince-nez and polished them with a touch of disfavour. There was a rather flat note in his voice.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “Julia Ukridge. A dear soul, but, between ourselves, strictly between ourselves, not a great deal of help in an executive capacity.”
“No. In confidence, I do all the work. I am the club’s secretary. My name, by the way, is Charlton Prout. You may know it?”
He eyed me wistfully, and I felt that something ought to be done about him. He was much too sleek, and he had no right to do his hair like that.
“Of course,” I said. “I have read all your books.”
“ ‘A Shriek in the Night.’ ‘Who Killed Jasper Bossom?’—all of them.”
He stiffened austerely.
“You must be confusing me with some other—ah—writer,” he said. “My work is on somewhat different lines. The reviewers usually describe the sort of thing I do as Pastels in Prose. My best-liked book, I believe, is ‘Grey Myrtles.’ Dunstable’s brought it out last year. It was exceedingly well received. And I do a good deal of critical work for the better class of review.” He paused. “If you think it would interest your readers,” he said, with a deprecating wave of the hand, “I will send you a photograph. Possibly your editor would like to use it.”
“I bet he would.”
“A photograph somehow seems to—as it were—set off an article of this kind.”
“That,” I replied, cordially, “is what it doesn’t do nothing else but.”
“And you won’t forget ‘Grey Myrtles.’ Well, if you have finished your cigarette, we might be returning to the ballroom. These people rather rely on me to keep things going, you know.”
A burst of music greeted us as he opened the door, and even in that first moment I had an odd feeling that it sounded different. That tinny sound had gone from it. And as we debouched from behind a potted palm and came in sight of the floor, I realized why.
The floor was full. It was crammed, jammed, and overflowing. Where couples had moved as single spies, they were now in battalions. The place was alive with noise and laughter. These people might, as my companion had said, be relying on him to keep things going, but they seemed to have been getting along uncommonly well in his absence. I paused and surveyed the mob in astonishment. I could not make the man’s figures balance.
“I thought you said the Pen and Ink Club had only a hundred members.”
The secretary was fumbling for his glasses. He had an almost Ukridge-like knack of dropping his pince-nez in moments of emotion.
“It—it has,” he stammered.
“Well, reading from left to right, I make it nearer seven hundred.”
“I cannot understand it.”
“Perhaps they have been having a new election and letting in some writers without vision,” I suggested.
I was aware of Miss Ukridge bearing down upon us, bristling.
The talented young author of “Grey Myrtles” leaped convulsively.
“Yes, Miss Ukridge?”
“Who are all these people?”
“I—I don’t know,” said the talented young man.
“You don’t know! It’s your business to know. You are the secretary of the club. I suggest that you find out as quickly as possible who they are and what they imagine they are doing here.”
The goaded secretary had something of the air of a man leading a forlorn hope, and his ears had turned bright pink, but he went at it bravely. A serene-looking man with a light moustache and a made-up tie was passing, and he sprang upon him like a stoutish leopard.
“Excuse me, sir.”
“Will you kindly—would you mind—pardon me if I ask——”
“What are you doing here?” demanded Miss Ukridge, curtly, cutting in on his flounderings with a masterful impatience. “How do you come to be at this dance?”
The man seemed surprised.
“Who, me?” he said. “I came with the rest of ’em.”
“What do you mean, the rest of them?”
“The members of the Warner’s Stores Social and Outing Club.”
“But this is the dance of the Pen and Ink Club,” bleated Mr. Prout.
“Some mistake,” said the other, confidently. “It’s a bloomer of some kind. Here,” he added, beckoning to a portly gentleman of middle age who was bustling by, “you’d better have a talk with our hon. sec. He’ll know. Mr. Biggs, this gentleman seems to think there’s been some mistake about this dance.”
Mr. Biggs stopped, looked, and listened. Seen at close range, he had a forceful, determined air. I liked his looks.
“May I introduce Mr. Charlton Prout?” I said. “Author of ‘Grey Myrtles.’ Mr. Prout,” I went on, as this seemed to make little or no sensation, “is the secretary of the Pen and Ink Club.”
“I’m the secretary of the Warner’s Stores Social and Outing Club,” said Mr. Biggs.
The two secretaries eyed each other warily, like two dogs.
“But what are you doing here?” moaned Mr. Prout, in a voice like the wind in the tree-tops. “This is a private dance.”
“Nothing of the kind,” said Mr. Biggs, resolutely. “I personally bought tickets for all my members.”
“But there were no tickets for sale. The dance was for the exclusive——”
“It’s perfectly evident that you have come to the wrong hall or chosen the wrong evening,” snapped Miss Ukridge, abruptly superseding Mr. Prout in the supreme command. I did not blame her for feeling a little impatient. The secretary was handling the campaign very feebly.
The man behind the Warner’s Stores Social and Outing Club cocked a polite but belligerent eye at this new enemy. I liked his looks more than ever. This was a man who would fight it out on these lines if it took all the summer.
“I have not the honour of this lady’s acquaintance,” he said, smoothly, but with a gradually reddening eye. The Biggses, that eye seemed to say, were loath to war upon women, but if the women asked for it they could be men of iron, ruthless. “Might I ask who this lady is?”
“This is our president.”
“Happy to meet you, ma’am.”
“Miss Ukridge,” added Mr. Prout, completing the introduction.
The name appeared to strike a chord in Mr. Biggs. He bent forward and a gleam of triumph came into his eyes.
“Ukridge, did you say?”
“Miss Julia Ukridge.”
“Then it’s all right,” said Mr. Biggs, briskly. “There’s been no mistake. I bought our tickets from a gentleman named Ukridge. I got seven hundred at five bob apiece, reduction for taking a quantity and ten per cent. discount for cash. If Mr. Ukridge acted contrary to instructions, it’s too late to remedy the matter now. You should have made it clear to him what you wanted him to do before he went and did it.”
And with this extremely sound sentiment the honorary secretary of the Warner’s Stores Social and Outing Club turned on the heel of his shining dancing-pump and was gone. And I, too, sauntered away. There seemed nothing to keep me. As I went, I looked over my shoulder. The author of “Grey Myrtles” appeared to be entering upon the opening stages of what promised to be a painful tête-à-tête. My heart bled for him. If ever a man was blameless Mr. Prout was, but the president of the Pen and Ink Club was not the woman to allow a trifle like that to stand in her way.
“OH, it just came to me, laddie,” said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge modestly, interviewed later by our representative. “You know me. One moment mind a blank, then—bing!—some dashed colossal idea. It was your showing me that ticket for the dance that set me thinking. And I happened to meet a bloke in a pub who worked in Warner’s Stores. Nice fellow, with a fair amount of pimples. Told me their Social and Outing Club was working up for its semi-annual beano. One thing led to another, I got him to introduce me to the hon. sec., and we came to terms. I liked the man, laddie. Great treat to meet a bloke with a good, level business head. We settled the details in no time. Well, I don’t mind telling you, Corky my boy, that at last for the first time in many years I begin to see my way clear. I’ve got a bit of capital now. After sending poor little Dora her hundred, I shall have at least fifty quid left over. Fifty quid! My dear old son, you may take it from me that there’s no limit—absolutely no limit—to what I can accomplish with fifty o’goblins in my kick. From now on I see my way clear. My feet are on solid ground. The world, laddie, is my oyster. Nothing can stop me from making a colossal fortune. I’m not exaggerating, old horse, a colossal fortune. Why, by a year from now I calculate, at a conservative estimate——”
Our representative then withdrew.
(Another story by P. G. Wodehouse will appear next month.)
Annotations to this story may be found elsewhere on this site.