The Strand Magazine, September 1928
THE HON. FREDDIE THREEPWOOD, married to the charming daughter of Donaldson’s Dog-Biscuits of Long Island City, N.Y., and sent home by his father-in-law to stimulate the sale of the firm’s products in England, naturally thought right away of his Aunt Georgiana. There was a woman who literally ate dog-biscuits. She had owned, when he was last in the country, a matter of four Pekes, two Poms, a Yorkshire terrier, three Sealyhams, and a Borzoi; and if that didn’t constitute a promising market for Donaldson’s Dog-Joy, Freddie would like to know what did.
A day or so after his arrival, accordingly, he hastened round to Upper Brook Street to make a sales-talk; and it was as he was coming rather pensively out of the house at the conclusion of the interview that he ran into old Beefy Bingham, who had been up at Oxford with him. Several years had passed since the other, then a third-year Blood and Trial Eights man, had bicycled along towpaths saying rude things through a megaphone about Freddie’s stomach, but he recognized him instantly. And this in spite of the fact that the passage of time appeared to have turned old Beefers into a clergyman. His colossal frame was clad in sober black, and he was wearing one of those collars which are kept in position without studs purely by the exercise of will-power.
“Beefers!” cried Freddie, his slight gloom vanishing in the pleasure of this happy reunion.
The Rev. Rupert Bingham returned his greeting with cordiality but without exuberance. He, too, seemed gloomy.
“Oh, hullo, Freddie,” he said. And his voice was that of a man with a secret sorrow. “I haven’t seen you for years. What were you doing in that house?”
“Trying to sell my aunt dog-biscuits.”
“I didn’t know Lady Alcester was your aunt.”
“Didn’t you, Beefers, old man? I thought it was all over London.”
“I suppose she told you about me, then?”
“What about you?” Freddie stared. “Great Scott! Are you the impoverished bloke who wants to marry Gertrude?”
“Yes. And now they’ve gone and sent her off to Blandings, to be out of my way.”
“But why are you impoverished? What about tithes? I always understood you birds made a pot out of tithes.”
“There aren’t any tithes where I am.”
“Oh? H’m! Not so hot. Well, what are you going to do about it, Beefers?”
“I thought of calling on your aunt and trying to reason with her.”
Freddie took his old friend’s arm sympathetically and drew him away.
“No earthly good, old man. If a woman won’t buy Dog-Joy, it means she has some sort of mental kink and it’s no use trying to reason with her. We must think of some other procedure. So Gertrude is at Blandings, is she? She would be. The family seem to look on the place as a sort of Bastille. Whenever the young of the species make a floater like falling in love with the wrong man, they are always shot off to Blandings to recover. The guv’nor has often complained about it bitterly. Now, let me think.”
They passed into Park Street. Some workmen were busy tearing up the paving with pneumatic drills, but the whirring of Freddie’s brain made the sound almost inaudible.
“I’ve got it,” he said at length, his features relaxing from the terrific strain. “And it’s a dashed good thing for you, my lad, that I went last night to see that super-film, ‘Young Hearts Adrift,’ featuring Rosalie Norton and Otto Byng. Beefers, old man, you’re legging it straight down to Blandings this very afternoon.”
“By the first train after lunch. I’ve got the whole thing planned out. In this super-film, ‘Young Hearts Adrift,’ a poor but deserving young man was in love with the daughter of rich and haughty parents, and they took her away to the country so that she could forget, and a few days later a mysterious stranger turned up at the place and ingratiated himself with the parents and said he wanted to marry their daughter, and they gave their consent, and the wedding took place, and then he tore off his whiskers and it was Jim!”
“Don’t argue. The thing’s settled. My aunt needs a sharp lesson. You would think a woman would be only too glad to put business in the way of her nearest and dearest, especially when shown samples and offered a fortnight’s free trial. But no! She insists on sticking to Peterson’s Pup-Food, a wholly inferior product—lacking, I happen to know, in many of the essential vitamins, and from now on, old boy, I am heart and soul in your cause.”
“Whiskers?” said the Rev. Rupert, doubtfully.
“You won’t have to wear any whiskers. My guv’nor’s never seen you. Or has he?”
“No, I’ve not met Lord Emsworth.”
“Very well, then.”
“But what good will it do me, ingratiating myself, as you call it, with your father? He’s only Gertrude’s uncle.”
“What good? My dear chap, are you aware that the guv’nor owns the countryside for miles around? He has all sorts of livings up his sleeve—livings simply dripping with tithes, and can distribute them to whomever he likes. I know, because at one time there was an idea of making me a parson. But I would have none of it.”
The Rev. Rupert’s face cleared.
“Freddie, there’s something in this.”
“You bet there’s something in it.”
“But how can I ingratiate myself with your father?”
“Perfectly easy. Cluster round him. Hang on his every word. Interest yourself in his pursuits. Do him little services. Help him out of chairs—why, great Scott, I’d undertake to ingratiate myself with a man-eating tiger if I gave my mind to it. Pop off and pack the old toothbrush, and I’ll go and get the guv’nor on the ’phone.”
AT about the time when this pregnant conversation was taking place in London, W.1, far away in distant Shropshire Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, sat brooding in the library of Blandings Castle. Fate, usually indulgent to this dreamy peer, had suddenly turned nasty and smitten him a grievous blow beneath the belt.
They say Great Britain is still a first-class Power, doing well and winning respect from the nations: and, if so, it is, of course, extremely gratifying. But what of the future? That was what Lord Emsworth was asking himself. Could this happy state of things last? He thought not. Without wishing to be pessimistic, he was dashed if he saw how a country containing men like Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe of Matchingham Hall could hope to survive.
Strong? No doubt. Bitter? Granted. But not, we think, too strong, not—in the circumstances—unduly bitter. Consider the facts.
When, shortly after the triumph of Lord Emsworth’s pre-eminent sow. Empress of Blandings, in the Fat Pigs class at the eighty-seventh annual Shropshire Agricultural Show, George Cyril Wellbeloved, his lordship’s pig-man, had expressed a desire to hand in his portfolio and seek employment elsewhere, the amiable peer, though naturally grieved, felt no sense of outrage. He put the thing down to the old roving spirit of the Wellbeloveds. George Cyril, he assumed, wearying of Shropshire, wished to try a change of air in some southern or eastern county. A nuisance, undoubtedly, for the man, when sober, was beyond question a force in the piggery. He had charm and personality. Pigs liked him. Still, if he wanted to resign office, there was nothing to be done about it.
But when, not a week later, word was brought to Lord Emsworth that, so far from having migrated to Sussex or Norfolk or Kent or somewhere, the fellow was actually just round the corner in the neighbouring village of Much Matchingham, serving under the banner of Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe of Matchingham Hall, the scales fell from his eyes. He realized that black treachery had been at work. George Cyril Wellbeloved had sold himself for gold, and Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, hitherto looked upon as a high-minded friend and fellow Justice of the Peace, was in reality that lowest of created things, a lurer-away of other people’s pig-men.
And there was nothing one could do about it.
So deeply was Lord Emsworth occupied with the consideration of this appalling state of affairs that it was only when the knock upon the door was repeated that it reached his consciousness.
“Come in,” he said, hollowly.
He hoped it was not his niece Gertrude. A gloomy young woman. He could hardly stand Gertrude’s society just now.
It was not Gertrude. It was Beach, the butler.
“Mr. Frederick wishes to speak to your lordship on the telephone.”
An additional layer of greyness fell over Lord Emsworth’s spirit as he toddled down the great staircase to the telephone-closet in the hall. It was his experience that almost any communication from Freddie indicated trouble.
But there was nothing in his son’s voice as it floated over the wire to suggest that all was not well.
“How’s everything at Blandings?”
Lord Emsworth was not the man to exhibit the vultures gnawing at his heart to a babbler like the Hon. Freddie. He replied, though it hurt him to do so, that everything at Blandings was excellent.
“Good-oh!” said Freddie. “Is the old doss-house very full up at the moment?”
“If,” replied his lordship, “you are alluding to Blandings Castle, there is nobody at present staying here except myself and your cousin Gertrude. Why,” he added in quick alarm, “were you thinking of coming down?”
“Good God, no!” cried his son with equal horror. “I mean to say, I’d love to, of course, but just now I’m too busy with Dog-Joy.”
“Who is Popjoy?”
“Popjoy? Popjoy? Oh, ah, yes. He’s a pal of mine and, as you’ve plenty of room, I want you to put him up for a bit. Nice chap. You’ll like him. Right-ho; then I’ll ship him off on the three-fifteen.”
Lord Emsworth’s face had assumed an expression which made it fortunate for his son that television was not yet in operation on the telephone systems of England; and he had just recovered enough breath for the delivery of a blistering refusal to have any friend of Freddie’s within fifty miles of the place, when the other spoke again.
“He’ll be company for Gertrude.”
And at these words a remarkable change came over Lord Emsworth. His face untwisted itself. The basilisk glare died out of his eyes.
“God bless my soul! That’s true,” he exclaimed. “That’s certainly true. So he will. The three-fifteen, did you say? I will send the car to Market Blandings to meet it.”
COMPANY for Gertrude? A pleasing thought. A fragrant, refreshing, stimulating thought. Somebody to take Gertrude off his hands occasionally was what he had been praying for ever since his sister Georgiana had dumped her down on him.
One of the chief drawbacks to entertaining in your home a girl who has been crossed in love is that she is extremely apt to go about the place doing good. All that life holds for her now is the opportunity of being kind to others, and she intends to be kind if it chokes them. For two weeks Lord Emsworth’s beautiful young niece had been moving to and fro through the castle with it drawn face, doing good right and left: and his lordship, being handiest, had had to bear the brunt of it. It was with the first real smile he had smiled that day that he came out of the telephone-closet and found the object of his thoughts entering the hall in front of him.
“Well, well, well, my dear,” he said, cheerily. “And what have you been doing?”
There was no answering smile on his niece’s face. Indeed, looking at her, you could see that this was a girl who had forgotten how to smile. She suggested something symbolic out of Maeterlinck.
“I have been tidying your study, Uncle Clarence,” she replied, listlessly. “It was in a dreadful mess.”
Lord Emsworth winced as a man of set habits will who has been remiss enough to let a Little Mother get at his study while his back is turned, but he continued bravely on the cheerful note.
“I have been talking to Frederick on the telephone.”
“Yes?” Gertrude sighed, and a bleak wind seemed to blow through the hall. “Your tie’s crooked, Uncle Clarence.”
“I like it crooked,” said his lordship, backing. “I have a piece of news for you. A friend of Frederick’s is coming down here to-night for a visit. His name, I understand, is Popjoy. So you will have some young society at last.”
“I don’t want young society.”
“Oh, come, my dear.”
She looked at him thoughtfully with large, sombre eyes. Another sigh escaped her.
“It must be wonderful to be as old as you are, Uncle Clarence.”
“Eh?” said his lordship, starting.
“To feel that there is such a short, short step to the quiet tomb, to the ineffable peace of the grave. To me, life seems to stretch out endlessly, like a long, dusty desert. Twenty-three! That’s all I am. Only twenty-three. And all our family live to sixty.”
“What do you mean, sixty?” demanded his lordship with the warmth of a man who would be that next birthday. “My poor father was seventy-six when he was killed in the hunting-field. My Uncle Robert lived till nearly ninety. My cousin Claude was eighty-four when he broke his neck trying to jump a five-barred gate. My mother’s brother Alistair——”
“Don’t!” said the girl with a little shudder. “Don’t! It makes it all seem so awful and hopeless.”
Yes, that was Gertrude: and in Lord Emsworth’s opinion she needed company.
THE reactions of Lord Emsworth to the young man Popjoy, when he encountered him for the first time in the drawing-room shortly before dinner, were in the beginning wholly favourable. His son’s friend was an extraordinarily large and powerful person with a frank, open, ingenuous face about the colour of the inside of a salmon, and he seemed a little nervous. That, however, was in his favour. It was, his lordship felt, a pleasant surprise to find in one of the younger generation so novel an emotion as diffidence.
He condoned, therefore, the other’s trick of laughing hysterically even when the subject under discussion was the not irresistibly ludicrous one of slugs in the rose-garden. He excused him for appearing to find something outstandingly comic in the statement that the glass was going up. And when, springing to his feet at the entrance of Gertrude, the young man performed some complicated steps in conjunction with a table covered with china and photograph frames, he joined in the mirth which the feat provoked not only from the visitor, but actually from Gertrude herself.
Yes, amazing though it must seem, his niece Gertrude, on seeing this young Popjoy, had suddenly burst into a peal of happy laughter. The gloom of the last two weeks appeared to be gone. She laughed. He laughed. The young man laughed. They proceeded down to dinner in a perfect gale of merriment, rather like a chorus of revellers exiting after a concerted number in an old-fashioned comic opera.
And at dinner the young man had spilt his soup, broken a wine-glass, and almost taken another spectacular toss when leaping up at the end of the meal to open the door. At which Gertrude had laughed, and the young man had laughed, and his lordship had laughed—though not, perhaps, quite so heartily as the young folks, for that wine-glass had been one of a set which he valued.
However, weighing profit and loss as he sipped his port, Lord Emsworth considered that the ledger worked out on the right side. True, he had taken into his home what appeared to be a half-witted acrobat; but then any friend of his son Frederick was bound to be weak in the head, and, after all, the great thing was that Gertrude seemed to appreciate the new-comer’s society. He looked forward contentedly to a succession of sunshine days of peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away; days when he would be able to work in his garden without the fear, which had been haunting him for the last two weeks, of finding his niece drooping wanly at his side and asking him if he was wise to stand about in the hot sun. She had company now that would occupy her elsewhere.
His lordship’s opinion of his guest’s mental deficiencies was strengthened late that night when, hearing footsteps on the terrace, he poked his head out and found him standing beneath his window, blowing kisses at it.
At the sight of his host he appeared somewhat confused.
“Lovely evening,” he said, with his usual hyæna-esque laugh. “I—er—thought . . . or, rather . . . that is to say . . . Ha, ha, ha!”
“Is anything the matter?”
“No, no. No. No, thanks, no. No. No, no. I—er—ho, ho, ho!—just came out for a stroll, ha, ha!”
Lord Emsworth returned to his bed a little thoughtfully. Perhaps some premonition of what was to come afflicted his subconscious mind, for, as he slipped between the sheets, he shivered. But gradually, as he dozed off, his equanimity became restored.
Looking at the thing in the right spirit, it might have been worse. After all, he felt, the mists of sleep beginning to exert their usual beneficent influence, he might have been entertaining at Blandings Castle one of his nephews, or one of his sisters, or even—though this was morbid—his younger son Frederick.
IN matters where shades of feeling are involved, it is not always easy for the historian to be as definite as he would wish. He wants to keep the record straight, and yet he cannot take any one particular moment of time, pin it down for the scrutiny of Posterity, and say, “This was the moment when Lord Emsworth for the first time found himself wishing that his guest would tumble out of an upper window and break his neck.” To his lordship it seemed that this had been from the beginning his constant day-dream, but such was not the case. When, on the second morning of the other’s visit, the luncheon-gong had found them chatting in the library, and the young man, bounding up, had extended a hand like a ham, and, placing it beneath his host’s arm, gently helped him to rise, Lord Emsworth had been distinctly pleased by the courteous attention.
But when the fellow did the same thing day after day, night after night, every time he caught him sitting; when he offered him an arm to help him across floors; when he assisted him up stairs, along corridors, down paths, out of rooms, and into raincoats; when he snatched objects from his hands to carry them himself; when he came galloping out of the house on dewy evenings laden down with rugs, mufflers, hats, and, on one occasion, positively a blasted respirator—why, then Lord Emsworth’s proud spirit rebelled. He was a tough old gentleman, and, like most tough old gentlemen, did not enjoy having his juniors look on him as something pathetically helpless that crawled the earth waiting for the end.
It had been bad enough when Gertrude was being the Little Mother. This was infinitely worse. Apparently having conceived for him one of those unreasoning, overwhelming devotions, this young Popjoy stuck closer than a brother; and for the first time Lord Emsworth began to appreciate what must have been the feelings of that Mary who aroused a similar attachment in the bosom of her lamb. It was as if he had been an Oldest Inhabitant fallen into the midst of a troop of Boy Scouts, all doing Good Deeds simultaneously, and he resented it with an indescribable bitterness. One can best illustrate his frame of mind by saying that, during the last phase, if he had been called upon to choose between his guest and Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe as a companion for a summer ramble through the woods, he would have chosen Sir Gregory.
And then, on top of all this, there occurred the episode of the step-ladder.
THE HON. FREDDIE THREEPWOOD, who had decided to run down and see how matters were developing, learned the details of this rather unfortunate occurrence from his cousin Gertrude. She met him at Market Blandings Station, and he could see there was something on her mind. She had not become positively Maeterlinckian again, but there was sorrow in her beautiful eyes: and Freddie, rightly holding that with a brainy egg like himself directing her destinies they should have contained only joy and sunshine, was disturbed by this.
“Don’t tell me the binge has sprung a leak,” he said, anxiously.
“Well, yes and no.”
“What do you mean, yes and no? Properly worked, the thing can’t fail. This points to negligence somewhere. Has old Beefers been ingratiating himself?”
“Hanging on the guv’nor’s every word? Interesting himself in his pursuits? Doing him little services? And been at it two weeks? Good heavens! By now the guv’nor should be looking on him as a prize pig. Why isn’t he?”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t. Till this afternoon I rather think he was. At any rate, Rupert says he often found Uncle Clarence staring at him in a sort of lingering, rather yearning way. But when that thing happened this afternoon, I’m afraid he wasn’t very pleased.”
“That step-ladder business. It was like this. Rupert and I sort of went for a walk after lunch, and by the time I had persuaded him that he ought to go and find Uncle Clarence and ingratiate himself with him, Uncle Clarence had disappeared. So Rupert hunted about for a long time, and at last he heard a snipping noise and found him miles away standing on a step-ladder, sort of pruning some kind of tree with a pair of shears. So Rupert said: ‘Oh, there you are!’ and Uncle Clarence said Yes, there he was, and Rupert said, ‘Ought you to tire yourself? Won’t you let me do that for you?’ ”
“The right note,” said Freddie, approvingly. “Assiduity. Zeal. Well?”
“Well, Uncle Clarence said, ‘No, thank you’—Rupert thinks it was ‘Thank you’—and Rupert stood there for a bit, sort of talking, and then he suddenly remembered and told Uncle Clarence that you had just ’phoned that you were coming down this evening, and I think Uncle Clarence must have got a touch of cramp or something, because he gave a kind of sudden sharp groan, Rupert says, and sort of quivered all over. This made the steps wobbly, of course, so Rupert dashed forward to steady them, and he doesn’t know how it happened, but they suddenly seemed to sort of shut up like a pair of scissors, and the next thing he knew Uncle Clarence was sitting on the grass, not seeming to like it much, Rupert says. He had ricked his ankle a bit and shaken himself up a bit, and altogether, Rupert says, he wasn’t fearfully sunny. Rupert says he thinks he may have lost ground a little.”
Freddie pondered with knit brows. He was feeling something of the chagrin of a general who, after sweating himself to a shadow planning a great campaign, finds his troops unequal to carrying it out.
“It’s such a pity it should have happened. One of the vicars near here has just been told by the doctor that he’s got to go off to the South of France, and the living is in Uncle Clarence’s gift. If only Rupert could have had that, we could have got married. However, he’s bought Uncle Clarence some lotion.”
Freddie started. A more cheerful expression came into his sternly careworn face.
“For his ankle.”
“He couldn’t have done better,” said Freddie, warmly. “Apart from showing the contrite heart, he has given the guv’nor medicine, and medicine to the guv’nor is what catnip is to the cat. Above all things he dearly loves a little bit of amateur doctoring. As a rule he tries it on somebody else—two years ago he gave one of the housemaids some patent ointment for chilblains and she went screaming about the house—but, no doubt, now that the emergency has occurred, he will be equally agreeable to treating himself. Old Beefers has made the right move.”
IN predicting that Lord Emsworth would appreciate the gift of lotion, Freddie had spoken with an unerring knowledge of his father’s character. The master of Blandings was one of those fluffy-minded old gentlemen who are happiest when experimenting with strange drugs. In a less censorious age he would have been a Borgia. It was not until he had retired to bed that he discovered the paper-wrapped bottle on the table by his side. Then he remembered that the pest Popjoy had mumbled something at dinner about buying him something or other for his injured ankle. He tore off the paper and examined the contents of the bottle with a lively satisfaction. The liquid was a dingy grey and sloshed pleasantly when you shook it. The name on the label—Blake’s Balsam—was new to him, and that in itself was a recommendation.
His ankle had long since ceased to pain him, and to some men this might have seemed an argument against smearing it with balsam; but not to Lord Emsworth. He decanted a liberal dose into the palm of his hand. He sniffed it. It had a strong, robust, bracing sort of smell. He spent the next five minutes thoughtfully rubbing it in. Then he put the light out and went to sleep.
It is a truism to say that in the world as it is at present constituted few things have more far-reaching consequences than the accident of birth. Lord Emsworth had probably suspected this. He was now to receive direct proof. If he had been born a horse instead of the heir to an earldom, that lotion would have been just right for him. It was for horses, though the Rev. Rupert Bingham had omitted to note the fact, that Blake had planned his balsam: and anyone enjoying even a superficial acquaintance with horses and earls knows that an important difference between them is that the latter have the more sensitive skins. Waking at a quarter to two from dreams of being burned at the stake by Red Indians, Lord Emsworth found himself suffering acute pain in the right leg.
He was a little surprised. He had not supposed that that fall from the ladder had injured him so badly. However, being a good amateur doctor, he bore up bravely and took immediate steps to cope with the trouble. Having shaken the bottle till it foamed at the mouth, he rubbed in some more lotion. It occurred to him that the previous application might have been too sketchy, so this time he did it thoroughly, He rubbed and kneaded for some twenty minutes. Then he tried to go to sleep.
Nature has made some men quicker thinkers than others. Lord Emsworth’s was one of those leisurely brains. It was not till nearly four o’clock that the truth came home to him. When it did, he was just on the point of applying a fifth coating of the balsam to his leg. He stopped abruptly, replaced the cork, and, jumping out of bed, hobbled to the cold-water tap and put as much of himself under it as he could manage.
The relief was perceptible, but transitory. At five he was out again, and once more at half-past. At a quarter to six, succeeding in falling asleep, he enjoyed a slumber, somewhat disturbed by the intermittent biting of sharks, which lasted till a few minutes past eight. Then he woke as if an alarum-clock had rung, and realized that further sleep was out of the question.
He rose from his bed and peered out of the window. It was a beautiful morning. There had been rain in the night, and a world that looked as if it had just come back from the cleaner’s sparkled under a beaming sun. Cedars cast long shadows over the smooth green lawns. Rooks cawed soothingly; thrushes bubbled in their liquid and musical way; and the air was full of summer humming. Among those present of the insect world, Lord Emsworth noticed several prominent gnats.
Beyond the terrace, glittering through the trees, gleamed the waters of the lake. They seemed to call to him like a bugle. Although he had neglected the practice of late, there was nothing Lord Emsworth enjoyed more than a before-breakfast dip: and to-day anything in the nature of water had a particularly powerful appeal for him. The pain in his ankle had subsided by now to a dull throbbing, and it seemed to him that a swim might remove it altogether. Putting on a dressing-gown and slippers, he took his bathing-suit from its drawer and went downstairs.
THE beauties of a really fine English summer day are so numerous that it is excusable in a man if he fails immediately to notice them all. Only when the pleasurable agony of the first plunge had passed and he was floating out in mid-water did Lord Emsworth realize that in some extraordinary way he had overlooked what was beyond dispute the best thing that this perfect morning had to offer him. Gazing from his bedroom window, he had observed the sun, the shadows, the birds, the trees, and the insects, but he had omitted to appreciate the fact that nowhere in this magic world that stretched before him was there a trace of his young guest, Popjoy. For the first time in two weeks he appeared to be utterly alone and free from him.
Floating on his back and gazing up into the turquoise sky, his lordship thrilled at the thought. He kicked sportively in a spasm of pure happiness. But this, he felt, was not enough. It failed to express his full happiness. To the beatitude of this golden moment only music, that mystic language of the soul, could really do justice. The next moment there had cut quiveringly into the summer stillness that hung over the gardens of Blandings Castle a sudden sharp wail that seemed to tell of a human being in mortal distress. It was the voice of Lord Emsworth, raised in song.
It was a gruesome sound, calculated to startle the stoutest: and two bees, buzzing among the lavender, stopped as one bee and looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Nor were they alone affected. Snails withdrew into their shells; a squirrel doing calisthenics on the cedar nearly fell off its branch: and—moving a step up in the animal kingdom—the Rev. Rupert Bingham, standing behind the rhododendron bushes and wondering how long it would be before the girl he loved came to keep her tryst, started violently, dropped his cigarette, and, tearing off his coat, rushed to the water’s edge.
Out in the middle of the lake. Lord Emsworth’s transports continued undiminished. His dancing feet kicked up a flurry of foam. His short-sighted, but sparkling, eyes stared into the blue. His voice rose to a pulsing scream.
“Love me,” sang Lord Emsworth, “and the wo-o-o-rld is—ah—mi-yun!”
“It’s all right,” said a voice in his ear. “Keep cool. Keep quite cool.”
The effect of a voice speaking suddenly, as it were, out of the void is always, even in these days of wireless, disconcerting to a man. Had he been on dry land, Lord Emsworth would have jumped. Being in ten feet of water, he went under as if a hand had pushed him. He experienced a momentary feeling of suffocation, and then a hand gripped him painfully by the fleshy part of the arm and he was on the surface again, spluttering.
“Keep quite cool,” murmured the voice. “There’s no danger.”
And now he recognized whose voice it was.
There is a point beyond which the human brain loses its kinship with the Infinite and becomes a mere seething mass of deleterious passions. Malays, when pushed past this point, take down the old kris from its hook and go out and start carving up the neighbours. Women have hysterics. Earls, if Lord Emsworth may be taken as a sample, haul back their right fists and swing them as violently as their age and physique will permit. For two long weeks Lord Emsworth had been enduring this pestilential young man with outward nonchalance, but the strain had told. Suppressed emotions are always the most dangerous. Little by little, day by day, he had been slowly turning into a human volcano, and this final outrage blew the lid off him.
He raged with a sense of intolerable injury. Was it not enough that this porous plaster of a young man should dog his steps on shore? Must he even pursue him out into the waste of waters and come fooling about and pawing at him when he was enjoying the best swim he had had that summer? In all their long and honourable history no member of his ancient family had ever so far forgotten the sacred obligations of hospitality as to plug a guest in the eye. But then they had never had guests like this. With a sharp, passionate snort, Lord Emsworth extracted his right hand from the foam, clenched it, drew it back, and let it go.
He could have made no more imprudent move. If there was one thing the Rev. Rupert Bingham, who in his time had swum for Oxford, knew, it was what to do when drowning men struggled. Something that might have been a very hard and knobbly leg of mutton smote Lord Emsworth violently behind the ear; the sun was turned off at the main; the stars came out, many of them of a singular brightness; there was a sound of rushing waters; and he knew no more.
WHEN Lord Emsworth came to himself he was lying in bed. And as it seemed a very good place to be, he remained there. His head ached abominably, but he scarcely noticed this, so occupied was he with the thoughts that surged inside it. He mused on the young man Popjoy; he meditated on Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe; and wondered from time to time which ho disliked the more. It was a problem almost too nice for human solution. Here, on the one hand, you had a man who pestered you for two weeks and wound up by nearly murdering you as you bathed, but who did not steal pig-men; there, on the other, one who stole pig-men but who stopped short of actual assault on the person. Who could hope to hold the scales between such a pair?
He had just remembered the lotion and was wondering if this might not be considered the deciding factor in this contest for the position of the world’s premier blot, when the door opened and the Hon. Freddie Threepwood insinuated himself into the room.
“How are you feeling?”
“Might have been worse, you know.”
“Watery grave and all that.”
“Tchah!” said Lord Emsworth.
There was a pause. Freddie, wandering about the room, picked up and fidgeted with a chair, a vase, a hair-brush, a comb, and a box of matches; then, retracing his steps, fidgeted with them all over again in the reverse order. Finally he came to the foot of his father’s bed and drooped over it like, it seemed to the sufferer’s prejudiced eye, some hideous animal gaping over a fence.
“I say, guv’nor.”
“Narrow squeak, that, you know.”
“Do you wish to thank your brave preserver?”
Lord Emsworth plucked at the coverlet.
“If that young man comes near me,” he said, “I will not be answerable for the consequences.”
“Eh?” Freddie stared. “Don’t you like him?”
“Like him? I think he is the most appalling young man I ever met.”
It is customary when making statements of this kind to except present company, but so deeply did Lord Emsworth feel on the subject that he omitted to do so. Freddie, having announced that he was dashed, removed himself from the bed-rail, and, wandering once more about the room, fidgeted with a toothbrush, a soap-dish, a shoe, a volume on Spring bulbs, and a collar-stud.
“I say, guv’nor.”
“That’s all very well, you know, guv’nor,’’ said the Hon. Freddie, returning to his post, and seeming to draw moral support from the feel of the bed-rail, “but after what’s happened it looks to me as if you were jolly well bound to lend your countenance to the union, if you know what I mean?”
“Union? What are you talking about? What union?”
“Gertrude and old Beefers.”
“Who the devil is old Beefers?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. This bird Popjoy’s name isn’t Popjoy. It’s Bingham. Old Beefy Bingham. You know, the fellow Aunt Georgie doesn’t want to marry Gertrude.”
“Throw your mind back. They pushed her off to Blandings to keep her out of his way. And I had the idea of sending him down here incog. to ingratiate himself with you. The scheme being that, when you had learned to love him, you would slip him a vacant vicarage, thus enabling them to get married. Beefers is a parson, you know.”
Lord Emsworth did not speak. It was not so much the shock of this revelation that kept him dumb as the astounding discovery that any man could really want to marry Gertrude and any girl this Popjoy. Like many a thinker before him, he was feeling that there is really no limit to the eccentricity of human tastes. The thing made his head swim.
But when it had ceased swimming he perceived that this was but one aspect of the affair. Before him stood the man who had inflicted Popjoy on him, and with something of King Lear in his demeanour, Lord Emsworth rose slowly from the pillows. Words trembled on his lips, but he rejected them as not strong enough and sought in his mind for others.
“ YOU know, guv’nor,” proceeded Freddie, “there’s nothing to prevent you doing the square thing and linking two young hearts in the bonds of the love-god, if you want to. I mean to say, old Braithwaite at Much Matchingham has been ordered to the South of France by his doctor, so there’s a living going that you’ve got to slip to somebody.”
Lord Emsworth sank back on the pillows.
“Oh, dash it, you must know Much Matchingham, guv’nor. It’s just round the corner. Where old Parsloe-Parsloe lives.”
Lord Emsworth was blinking, as if his eyes had seen a dazzling light. How wrong, he felt, how wickedly mistaken and lacking in faith he had been when he had said to himself in his folly that Providence offers no method of retaliation to the just whose pig-men have been persuaded by Humanity’s dregs to leave their employment and seek advanced wages elsewhere. Conscience could not bring remorse to Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, and the Law, in its imperfect state, was powerless to punish. But there was still a way. With this young man, Popjoy—or Bingham—or whatever his name was—permanently established not a hundred yards from his park-gates, would Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe ever draw another really care-free breath? From his brief, but sufficient, acquaintance with the young man Bingham—or Popjoy—Lord Emsworth thought not.
The punishment was severe, but who could say that Sir Gregory had not earned it?
“A most admirable idea,” said Lord Emsworth, cordially. “Certainly I will give your friend the living of Much Matchingham.”
“At-a-boy, guv’nor!” said Freddie. “Came the Dawn!”
Annotations to this story as it appeared in book form are in the notes to Blandings Castle and Elsewhere on this site.