The Strand Magazine, February 1924
THE late Sir Rupert Lakenheath, K.C.M.G., C.B., M.V.O., was one of those men at whom their countries point with pride. Until his retirement on a pension in the year 1906, he had been Governor of various insanitary outposts of the British Empire situated around the Equator, and as such had won respect and esteem from all. A kindly editor of my acquaintance secured for me the job of assisting the widow of this great administrator to prepare his memoirs for publication; and on a certain summer afternoon I had just finished arraying myself suitably for my first call on her at her residence in Thurloe Square, South Kensington, when there was a knock at the door and Bowles, my landlord, entered, bearing gifts.
These consisted of a bottle with a staring label and a large cardboard hat-box. I gazed at them blankly, for they held no message for me.
Bowles, in his ambassadorial manner, condescended to explain.
“Mr. Ukridge,” he said, with the ring of paternal affection in his voice which always crept into it when speaking of that menace to civilization, “called a moment ago, sir, and desired me to hand you these.”
Having now approached the table on which he had placed the objects, I was enabled to solve the mystery of the bottle. It was one of those fat, bulging bottles, and it bore across its diaphragm in red letters the single word “PEPPO.” Beneath this, in black letters, ran the legend, “It Bucks You Up.” I had not seen Ukridge for more than two weeks, but at our last meeting, I remembered, he had spoken of some foul patent medicine of which he had somehow secured the agency. This, apparently, was it.
“But what’s in the hat-box?” I asked.
“I could not say, sir,” replied Bowles.
At this point the hat-box, which had hitherto not spoken, uttered a crisp, sailorly oath, and followed it up by singing the opening bars of “Annie Laurie.” It then relapsed into its former moody silence.
A few doses of Peppo would, no doubt, have enabled me to endure this remarkable happening with fortitude and phlegm. Not having taken that specific, the thing had a devastating effect upon my nervous centres. I bounded back and upset a chair, while Bowles, his dignity laid aside, leaped silently towards the ceiling. It was the first time I had ever seen him lay off the mask, and even in that trying moment I could not help being gratified by the spectacle. It gave me one of those thrills that come once in a lifetime.
“For Gord’s sake!” ejaculated Bowles.
“Have a nut,” observed the hat-box, hospitably. “Have a nut.”
Bowles’s panic subsided.
“It’s a bird, sir. A parrot!”
“What the deuce does Ukridge mean,” I cried, becoming the outraged householder, “by cluttering up my rooms with his beastly parrots? I’d like that man to know——”
The mention of Ukridge’s name seemed to act on Bowles like a soothing draught. He recovered his poise.
“I have no doubt, sir,” he said, a touch of coldness in his voice that rebuked my outburst, “that Mr. Ukridge has good reasons for depositing the bird in our custody. I fancy he must wish you to take charge of it for him.”
“He may wish it——” I was beginning, when my eye fell on the clock. If I did not want to alienate my employer by keeping her waiting, I must be on my way immediately.
“Put that hat-box in the other room, Bowles,” I said. “And I suppose you had better give the bird something to eat.”
“Very good, sir. You may leave the matter in my hands with complete confidence.”
THE drawing-room into which I was shown on arriving at Thurloe Square was filled with many mementoes of the late Sir Rupert’s gubernatorial career. In addition the room contained a small and bewilderingly pretty girl in a blue dress, who smiled upon me pleasantly.
“My aunt will be down in a moment,” she said, and for a few moments we exchanged commonplaces. Then the door opened and Lady Lakenheath appeared.
The widow of the Administrator was tall, angular, and thin, with a sun-tanned face of a cast so determined as to make it seem a tenable theory that in the years previous to 1906 she had done at least her share of the administrating. Her whole appearance was that of a woman designed by Nature to instil law and order into the bosoms of boisterous cannibal kings. She surveyed me with an appraising glance, and then, as if reconciled to the fact that, poor specimen though I might be, I was probably as good as anything else that could be got for the money, received me into the fold by pressing the bell and ordering tea.
Tea had arrived, and I was trying to combine bright dialogue with the difficult feat of balancing my cup on the smallest saucer I had ever seen, when my hostess, happening to glance out of window into the street below, uttered something midway between a sigh and a click of the tongue.
“Oh, dear! That extraordinary man again!”
The girl in the blue dress, who had declined tea and was sewing in a distant corner, bent a little closer over her work.
“Millie!” said the administratress, plaintively, as if desiring sympathy in her trouble.
“Yes, Aunt Elizabeth?”
“That man is calling again!”
There was a short but perceptible pause. A delicate pink appeared in the girl’s cheeks.
“Yes, Aunt Elizabeth?” she said.
“Mr. Ukridge,” announced the maid at the door.
It seemed to me that if this sort of thing was to continue, if existence was to become a mere series of shocks and surprises, Peppo would have to be installed as an essential factor in my life. I stared speechlessly at Ukridge as he breezed in with the unmistakable air of sunny confidence which a man shows on familiar ground. Even if I had not had Lady Lakenheath’s words as evidence, his manner would have been enough to tell me that he was a frequent visitor in her drawing-room; and how he had come to be on calling terms with a lady so pre-eminently respectable it was beyond me to imagine. I awoke from my stupor to find that we were being introduced, and that Ukridge, for some reason clear, no doubt, to his own tortuous mind but inexplicable to me, was treating me as a complete stranger. He nodded courteously but distantly, and I, falling in with his unspoken wishes, nodded back. Plainly relieved, he turned to Lady Lakenheath and plunged forthwith into the talk of intimacy.
“I’ve got good news for you,” he said. “News about Leonard.”
The alteration in our hostess’s manner at these words was remarkable. Her somewhat forbidding manner softened in an instant to quite a tremulous fluttering. Gone was the hauteur which had caused her but a moment back to allude to him as “that extraordinary man.” She pressed tea upon him, and scones.
“Oh, Mr. Ukridge!” she cried.
“I don’t want to rouse false hopes and all that sort of thing, laddie—I mean, Lady Lakenheath, but, upon my Sam, I really believe I am on the track. I have been making the most assiduous inquiries.”
“How very kind of you!”
“No, no,” said Ukridge, modestly.
“I have been so worried,” said Lady Lakenheath, “that I have scarcely been able to rest.”
“Last night I had a return of my wretched malaria.”
At these words, as if he had been given a cue, Ukridge reached under his chair and produced from his hat, like some conjurer, a bottle that was own brother to the one he had left in my rooms. Even from where I sat I could read those magic words of cheer on its flaunting label.
“Then I’ve got the very stuff for you,” he boomed. “This is what you want. Glowing reports on all sides. Two doses, and cripples fling away their crutches and join the Beauty Chorus.”
“I am scarcely a cripple, Mr. Ukridge,” said Lady Lakenheath, with a return of her earlier bleakness.
“No, no! Good heavens, no! But you can’t go wrong by taking Peppo.”
“Peppo?” said Lady Lakenheath, doubtfully.
“It bucks you up.”
“You think it might do me good?” asked the sufferer, wavering. There was a glitter in her eye that betrayed the hypochondriac, the woman who will try anything once.
“Well, it is most kind and thoughtful of you to have brought it. What with worrying over Leonard——”
“I know, I know,” murmured Ukridge, in a positively bedside manner.
“It seems so strange,” said Lady Lakenheath, “that, after I had advertised in all the papers, someone did not find him.”
“Perhaps someone did find him!” said Ukridge, darkly.
“You think he must have been stolen?”
“I am convinced of it. A beautiful parrot like Leonard, able to talk in six languages——”
“And sing,” murmured Lady Lakenheath.
“——and sing,” added Ukridge, “is worth a lot of money. But don’t you worry, old—er—don’t you worry. If the investigations which I am conducting now are successful, you will have Leonard back safe and sound to-morrow.”
“Absolutely to-morrow. Now tell me all about your malaria.”
I felt that the time had come for me to leave. It was not merely that the conversation had taken a purely medical turn and that I was practically excluded from it; what was really driving me away was the imperative necessity of getting out in the open somewhere and thinking. My brain was whirling. The world seemed to have become suddenly full of significant and disturbing parrots. I seized my hat and rose. My hostess was able to take only an absent-minded interest in my departure. The last thing I saw as the door closed was Ukridge’s look of big-hearted tenderness as he leaned forward so as not to miss a syllable of his companion’s clinical revelations. He was not actually patting Lady Lakenheath’s hand and telling her to be a brave little woman, but short of that he appeared to be doing everything a man could do to show her that, rugged though his exterior might be, his heart was in the right place and aching for her troubles.
I WALKED back to my rooms. I walked slowly and pensively, bumping into lampposts and pedestrians. It was a relief, when I finally reached Ebury Street, to find Ukridge smoking on my sofa. I was resolved that before he left he should explain what this was all about, if I had to wrench the truth from him.
“Hullo, laddie!” he said. “Upon my Sam, Corky, old horse, did you ever in your puff hear of anything so astounding as our meeting like that? Hope you didn’t mind my pretending not to know you. The fact is, my position in that house—— What the dickens were you doing there, by the way?”
“I’m helping Lady Lakenheath prepare her husband’s memoirs.”
“Of course, yes. I remember hearing her say she was going to rope in someone. But what a dashed extraordinary thing it should be you! However, where was I? Oh, yes. My position in the house, Corky, is so delicate that I simply didn’t dare risk entering into any entangling alliances. What I mean to say is, if we had rushed into each other’s arms, and you had been established in the old lady’s eyes as a friend of mine, and then one of these days you had happened to make a bloomer of some kind—as you well might, laddie—and got heaved into the street on your left ear—well, you see where I would be. I should be involved in your downfall. And I solemnly assure you, laddie, that my whole existence is staked on keeping in with that female. I must get her consent!”
“Her consent. To the marriage.”
Ukridge blew a cloud of smoke, and gazed through it sentimentally at the ceiling.
“Isn’t she a perfect angel?” he breathed, softly.
“Do you mean Lady Lakenheath?” I asked, bewildered.
“Fool! No, Millie.”
“Millie? The girl in blue?”
Ukridge sighed dreamily.
“She was wearing that blue dress when I first met her, Corky. And a hat with thingummies. It was on the Underground. I gave her my seat, and, as I hung over her suspended by a strap, I fell in love absolutely in a flash. I give you my honest word, laddie, I fell in love with her for all eternity between Sloane Square and South Kensington stations. She got out at South Kensington. So did I. I followed her to the house, rang the bell, got the maid to show me in, and, once I was in, put up a yarn about being misdirected and coming to the wrong address and all that sort of thing. I think they thought I was looney or trying to sell life insurance or something, but I didn’t mind that. A few days later I called, and after that I hung about, keeping an eye on their movements, met ’em everywhere they went, and bowed and passed a word and generally made my presence felt, and—well, to cut a long story short, old horse, we’re engaged. I happened to find out that Millie was in the habit of taking the dog for a run in Kensington Gardens every morning at eleven, and after that things began to move. It took a bit of doing, of course, getting up so early, but I was on the spot every day and we talked and bunged sticks for the dog, and—well, as I say, we’re engaged. She is the most amazing, wonderful girl, laddie, that you ever encountered in your life.”
I had listened to this recital dumbly. The thing was too cataclysmal for my mind. It overwhelmed me.
“But——” I began.
“But,” said Ukridge, “the news has yet to be broken to the old lady, and I am striving with every nerve in my body, with every fibre of my brain, old horse, to get in right with her. That is why I brought her that Peppo. Not much, you may say, but every little helps. Shows zeal. Nothing like zeal. But, of course, what I’m really relying on is the parrot. That’s my ace of trumps.”
I passed a hand over my corrugated forehead.
“The parrot!” I said, feebly. “Explain about the parrot.” Ukridge eyed me with honest astonishment.
“Do you mean to tell me you haven’t got on to that? A man of your intelligence! Corky, you amaze me. Why, I pinched it, of course. Or, rather, Millie and I pinched it together. Millie—a girl in a million, laddie!—put the bird in a string-bag one night when her aunt was dining out and lowered it to me out of the drawing-room window. And I’ve been keeping it in the background till the moment was ripe for the spectacular return. Wouldn’t have done to take it back at once. Bad strategy. Wiser to hold it in reserve for a few days and show zeal and work up the interest. Millie and I are building on the old lady’s being so supremely bucked at having the bird restored to her that there will be nothing she won’t be willing to do for me.”
“But what do you want to dump the thing in my rooms for?” I demanded, reminded of my grievance. “I never got such a shock as when that damned hat-box began to back-chat at me.”
“I’m sorry, old man, but it had to be. I could never tell that the old lady might not take it into her head to come round to my rooms about something. I’d thrown out—mistakenly, I realize now—an occasional suggestion about tea there some afternoon. So I had to park the bird with you. I’ll take it away to-morrow.”
“You’ll take it away to-night!”
“Not to-night, old man,” pleaded Ukridge. “First thing to-morrow. You won’t find it any trouble. Just throw it a word or two every now and then and give it a bit of bread dipped in tea or something, and you won’t have to worry about it at all. And I’ll be round by noon at the latest to take it away. May Heaven reward you, laddie, for the way you have stood by me this day!”
FOR a man like myself, who finds at least eight hours of sleep essential if that schoolgirl complexion is to be preserved, it was unfortunate that Leonard the parrot should have proved to be a bird of high-strung temperament, easily upset. The experiences which he had undergone since leaving home had, I was to discover, jarred his nervous system. He was reasonably tranquil during the hours preceding bedtime, and had started his beauty-sleep before I myself turned in; but at two in the morning something in the nature of a nightmare must have attacked him, for I was wrenched from slumber by the sound of a hoarse soliloquy in what I took to be some native dialect. This lasted without a break till two-fifteen, when he made a noise like a steam-riveter for some moments; after which, apparently soothed, he fell asleep again. I dropped off at about three, and at three-thirty was awakened by the strains of a deep-sea chanty. From then on our periods of sleep never seemed to coincide. It was a wearing night, and before I went out after breakfast I left imperative instructions with Bowles for Ukridge, on arrival, to be informed that, if anything went wrong with his plans for removing my guest that day, the mortality statistics among parrots would take an up-curve. Returning to my rooms in the evening, I was pleased to see that this manifesto had been taken to heart. The hat-box was gone, and about six o’clock Ukridge appeared, so beaming and effervescent that I understood what had happened before he spoke. “Corky, my boy,” he said, vehemently, “this is the maddest, merriest day of all the glad New Year, and you can quote me as saying so!”
“Lady Lakenheath has given her consent?”
“Not merely given it, but bestowed it blithely, jubilantly.”
“It beats me,” I said.
“What beats you?” demanded Ukridge, sensitive to the jarring note.
“Well, I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but I should have thought the first thing she would have done would be to make searching inquiries about your financial position.”
“My financial position? What’s wrong with my financial position? I’ve got considerably over fifty quid in the bank, and I’m on the eve of making an enormous fortune out of this Peppo stuff.”
“And that satisfied Lady Lakenheath?” I said, incredulously.
Ukridge hesitated for a moment.
“Well, to be absolutely frank, laddie,” he admitted, “I have an idea that she rather supposes that in the matter of financing the venture my aunt will rally round and keep things going till I am on my feet.”
“Your aunt! But your aunt has finally and definitely disowned you.”
“Yes. To be perfectly accurate, she has. But the old lady doesn’t know that. In fact, I rather made a point of keeping it from her. You see, I found it necessary, as things turned out, to play my aunt as my ace of trumps.”
“You told me the parrot was your ace of trumps.”
“I know I did. But these things slip up at the last moment. She seethed with gratitude about the bird, but when I seized the opportunity to ask her for her blessing I was shocked to see that she put her ears back and jibbed. Got that nasty steely look in her eyes and began to talk about clandestine meetings and things being kept from her. It was an occasion for the swiftest thinking, laddie. I got an inspiration. I played up my aunt. It worked like magic. It seems the old lady has long been an admirer of her novels, and has always wanted to meet her. She went down and out for the full count the moment I introduced my aunt into the conversation, and I have had no trouble with her since.”
“Have you thought what is going to happen when they do meet? I can’t see your aunt delivering a striking testimonial to your merits.”
“That’s all right. The fact of the matter is, luck has stood by me in the most amazing way all through. It happens that my aunt is out of town. She’s down at her cottage in Sussex finishing a novel, and on Saturday she sails for America on a lecturing tour.”
“How did you find that out?”
“Another bit of luck. I ran into her new secretary, a bloke named Wassick, at the Savage smoker last Saturday. There’s no chance of their meeting. When my aunt’s finishing a novel, she won’t read letters or telegrams, so it’s no good the old lady trying to get a communication through to her. It’s Wednesday now, she sails on Saturday, she will be away six months—why, damme, by the time she hears of the thing I shall be an old married man.”
IT had been arranged between my employer and myself during the preliminary negotiations that I should give up my afternoons to the memoirs and that the most convenient plan would be for me to present myself at Thurloe Square daily at three o’clock. I had just settled myself on the following day in the ground-floor study when the girl Millie came in, carrying papers.
“My aunt asked me to give you these,” she said. “They are Uncle Rupert’s letters home for the year 1889.”
I looked at her with interest and something bordering on awe. This was the girl who had actually committed herself to the appalling task of going through life as Mrs. Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge—and, what is more, seemed to like the prospect. Of such stuff are heroines made.
“Thank you,” I said, putting the papers on the desk. “By the way, may I—I hope you will—— What I mean is, Ukridge told me all about it. I hope you will be very happy.”
Her face lit up. She really was the most delightful girl to look at I had ever met. I could not blame Ukridge for falling in love with her.
“Thank you very much,” she said. She sat in the huge arm-chair, looking very small. “Stanley has been telling me what friends you and he are. He is devoted to you.”
“Great chap!” I said, heartily. I would have said anything which I thought would please her. She exercised a spell, this girl. “We were at school together.”
“I know. He is always talking about it.” She looked at me with round eyes exactly like a Persian kitten’s. “I suppose you will be his best man?” She bubbled with happy laughter. “At one time I was awfully afraid there wouldn’t be any need for a best man. Do you think it was very wrong of us to steal Aunt Elizabeth’s parrot?”
“Wrong?” I said, stoutly. “Not a bit of it. What an idea!”
“She was terribly worried,” argued the girl
“Best thing in the world,” I assured her. “Too much peace of mind leads to premature old age.”
“All the same, I have never felt so wicked and ashamed of myself. And I know Stanley felt just like that, too.”
“I bet he did!” I agreed, effusively. Such was the magic of this Dresden China child that even her preposterous suggestion that Ukridge possessed a conscience could not shake me.
“He’s so wonderful and chivalrous and considerate.”
“The very words I should have used myself!”
“Why, to show you what a beautiful nature he has, he’s gone out now with my aunt to help her do her shopping.”
“You don’t say so!”
“Just to try to make it up to her, you see, for the anxiety we caused her.”
“It’s noble! That’s what it is. Absolutely noble!”
“And if there’s one thing in the world he loathes it is carrying parcels.”
“The man,” I exclaimed, with fanatical enthusiasm, “is a perfect Sir Galahad!”
“Isn’t he? Why, only the other day——”
SHE was interrupted. Outside, the front door slammed. There came a pounding of large feet in the passage. The door of the study flew open, and Sir Galahad himself charged in, his arms full of parcels.
“Corky!” he began. Then, perceiving his future wife, who had risen from the chair in alarm, he gazed at her with a wild pity in his eyes, as one who has bad news to spring. “Millie, old girl,” he said, feverishly, “we’re in the soup!”
The girl clutched the table.
“Oh, Stanley, darling!”
“There is just one hope. It occurred to me as I was——”
“You don’t mean that Aunt Elizabeth has changed her mind?”
“She hasn’t yet. But,” said Ukridge, grimly, “she’s pretty soon going to, unless we move with the utmost dispatch.”
“But what has happened?”
Ukridge shed the parcels. The action seemed to make him calmer.
“We had just come out of Harrod’s,” he said, “and I was about to leg it home with these parcels, when she sprang it on me! Right out of a blue sky!”
“What, Stanley, dear? Sprang what?”
“This ghastly thing. This frightful news that she proposes to attend the dinner of the Pen and Ink Club on Friday night. I saw her talking to a pug-nosed female we met in the fruit, vegetable, birds, and pet dogs department, but I never guessed what they were talking about. She was inviting the old lady to that infernal dinner!”
“But, Stanley, why shouldn’t Aunt Elizabeth go to the Pen and Ink Club dinner?”
“Because my aunt is coming up to town on Friday specially to speak at that dinner, and your aunt is going to make a point of introducing herself and having a long chat about me.”
We gazed at one another silently. There was no disguising the gravity of the news. Like the coming together of two uncongenial chemicals, this meeting of aunt with aunt must inevitably produce an explosion. And in that explosion would perish the hopes and dreams of two loving hearts.
“Oh, Stanley! What can we do?”
If the question had been directed at me, I should have been hard put to it to answer; but Ukridge, that man of resource, though he might be down, was never out.
“There is just one scheme. It occurred to me as I was sprinting along the Brompton Road. Laddie,” he proceeded, laying a heavy hand on my shoulder, “it involves your co-operation.”
“Oh, how splendid!” cried Millie.
It was not quite the comment I would have made myself. She proceeded to explain.
“Mr. Corcoran is so clever. I’m sure, if it’s anything that can be done, he will do it.”
This ruled me out as a potential resister. Ukridge I might have been able to withstand, but so potently had this girl’s spell worked upon me that in her hands I was as wax.
Ukridge sat down on the desk, and spoke with a tenseness befitting the occasion.
“It’s rummy in this life, laddie,” he began in moralizing vein, “how the rottenest times a fellow goes through may often do him a bit of good in the end. I don’t suppose I have ever enjoyed any period of my existence less than those months I spent at my aunt’s house in Wimbledon. But mark the sequel, old horse! It was while going through that ghastly experience that I gained a knowledge of her habits which is going to save us now. You remember Dora Mason?”
“Who is Dora Mason?” inquired Millie, quickly.
“A plain, elderly sort of female who used to be my aunt’s secretary,” replied Ukridge, with equal promptness.
Personally, I remembered Miss Mason as a rather unusually pretty and attractive girl, but I felt that it would be injudicious to say so. I contented myself with making a mental note to the effect that Ukridge, whatever his drawbacks as a husband, had at any rate that ready tact which is so helpful in the home.
“Miss Mason,” he proceeded, speaking, I thought, in a manner a shade more careful and measured, “used to talk to me about her job from time to time. I was sorry for the poor old thing, you understand, because hers was a grey life, and I made rather a point of trying to cheer her up now and then.”
“How like you, dear!”
It was not I who spoke—it was Millie. She regarded her betrothed with shining and admiring eyes, and I could see that she was thinking that my description of him as a modern Galahad was altogether too tame.
“And one of the things she told me,” continued Ukridge, “was that my aunt, though she’s always speaking at these bally dinners, can’t say a word unless she has her speech written for her and memorizes it. Miss Mason swore solemnly to me that she had written every word my aunt had spoken in public in the last two years. You begin to get on to the scheme, laddie? The long and the short of it is that we must get hold of that speech she’s going to deliver at the Pen and Ink Club binge. We must intercept it, old horse, before it can reach her. We shall thus spike her guns. Collar that speech, Corky, old man, before she can get her hooks on it, and you can take it from me that she’ll find she has a headache on Friday night and can’t appear.”
There stole over me that sickening conviction that comes to those in peril that I was for it.
“But it may be too late,” I faltered, with a last feeble effort at self-preservation. “She may have the speech already.”
“Not a chance. I know what she’s like when she’s finishing one of these beastly books. No distractions of any sort are permitted. Wassick, the secretary bloke, will have had instructions to send the thing to her by registered post to arrive Friday morning, so that she can study it in the train. Now, listen carefully, laddie, for I have thought this thing out to the last detail. My aunt is at her cottage at Market Deeping, in Sussex. I don’t know how the trains go, but there’s sure to be one that’ll get me to Market Deeping to-night. Directly I arrive I shall send a wire to Wassick—signed ‘Ukridge,’ ” said the schemer. “I have a perfect right to sign telegrams ‘Ukridge,’ ” he added, virtuously, “in which I tell him to hand the speech over to a gentleman who will call for it, as arrangements have been made for him to take it down to the cottage. All you have to do is to call at my aunt’s house, see Wassick—a splendid fellow, and just the sort of chump who won’t suspect a thing—get the manuscript, and biff off. Once round the corner, you dump it in the nearest garbage-box and all is well.”
“Isn’t he wonderful, Mr. Corcoran?” cried Millie.
“I can rely on you, Corky? You will not let me down over your end of the business?”
“You will do this for us, Mr. Corcoran, won’t you?” pleaded Millie.
I gave one look at her. Her Persian kitten eyes beamed into mine—gaily, trustfully, confidently. I gulped.
“All right,” I said, huskily.
A LEADEN premonition of impending doom weighed me down next morning as I got into the cab which was to take me to Heath House, Wimbledon Common. I tried to correct this shuddering panic by telling myself that it was simply due to my recollection of what I had suffered at my previous visit to the place, but it refused to leave me. A black devil of apprehension sat on my shoulder all the way, and as I rang the front-door bell it seemed to me that this imp emitted a chuckle more sinister than any that had gone before. And suddenly as I waited there I understood.
No wonder the imp had chuckled! Like a flash I perceived where the fatal flaw in this enterprise lay. It was just like Ukridge, poor impetuous, woollen-headed ass, not to have spotted it; but that I myself should have overlooked it was bitter indeed. The simple fact which had escaped our joint attention was this—that, as I had visited the house before, the butler would recognize me. I might succeed in purloining the speech, but it would be reported to the Woman Up Top that the mysterious visitor who had called for the manuscript was none other than the loathly Mr. Corcoran of hideous memory—and what would happen then? Prosecution? Jail? Social ruin?
I was on the very point of retreating down the steps when the door was flung open, and there swept over me the most exquisite relief I have ever known.
It was a new butler who stood before me.
He did not actually speak the word, but he had a pair of those expressive, beetling eyebrows, and they said it for him. A most forbidding man, fully as grim and austere as his predecessor.
“I wish to see Mr. Wassick,” I said, firmly.
The butler’s manner betrayed no cordiality, but he evidently saw that I was not to be trifled with. He led the way down that familiar hall, and presently I was in the drawing-room, being inspected once more by the six Pekingese, who, as on that other occasion, left their baskets, smelt me, registered disappointment, and made for their baskets again.
“What name shall I say, sir?”
I was not to be had like that.
“Mr. Wassick is expecting me,” I replied, coldly.
“Very good, sir.”
I strolled buoyantly about the room, inspecting this object and that. I hummed lightly. I spoke kindly to the Pekes.
“Hullo, you Pekes!” I said.
I sauntered over to the mantelpiece, over which was a mirror. I was gazing at myself and thinking that it was not such a bad sort of face—not handsome, perhaps, but with a sort of something about it—when of a sudden the mirror reflected something else.
That something was the figure of that popular novelist and well-known after-dinner speaker, Miss Julia Ukridge.
“Good morning,” she said.
It is curious how often the gods who make sport of us poor humans defeat their own ends by overdoing the thing. Any contretemps less awful than this, however slightly less awful, would undoubtedly have left me as limp as a sheet of carbon paper, rattled and stammering, in prime condition to be made sport of. But as it was I found myself strangely cool. I had a subconscious feeling that there would be a reaction later, and that the next time I looked in a mirror I should find my hair strangely whitened, but for the moment I was unnaturally composed, and my brain buzzed like a circular-saw in an ice-box.
“How do you do?” I heard myself say. My voice seemed to come from a long distance, but it was steady and even pleasing in timbre.
“You wished to see me, Mr. Corcoran?”
“Then why,” inquired Miss Ukridge, softly, “did you ask for my secretary?”
There was that same acid sub-tinkle in her voice which had been there at our previous battle in the same ring. But that odd alertness stood by me well.
“I understood that you were out of town,” I said.
“Who told you that?”
“They were saying so at the Savage Club the other night.” This seemed to hold her.
“Why did you wish to see me?” she asked, baffled by my ready intelligence.
“I hoped to get a few facts concerning your proposed lecture tour in America.”
“How did you know that I was about to lecture in America?” I raised my eyebrows. This was childish.
“They were saying so at the Savage Club,” I replied. Baffled again.
“I had an idea, Mr. Corcoran,” she said, with a nasty gleam in her blue eyes, “that you might be the person alluded to in my nephew Stanley’s telegram.”
“Yes. I altered my plans and returned to London last night instead of waiting till this evening, and I had scarcely arrived when a telegram came, signed Ukridge, from the village where I had been staying. It instructed my secretary to hand over to a gentleman who would call this morning the draft of the speech which I am to deliver at the dinner of the Pen and Ink Club. I assume the thing to have been some obscure practical joke on the part of my nephew Stanley. And I also assumed, Mr. Corcoran, that you must be the gentleman alluded to.”
I could parry this sort of stuff all day.
“What an odd idea!” I said.
“You think it odd? Then why did you tell my butler that my secretary was expecting you?”
It was the worst one yet, but I blocked it.
“The man must have misunderstood me. He seemed,” I added, loftily, “an unintelligent sort of fellow.”
Our eyes met in silent conflict for a brief instant, but all was well. Julia Ukridge was a civilized woman, and this handicapped her in the contest. For people may say what they like about the artificialities of modern civilization and hold its hypocrisies up to scorn, but there is no denying that it has one outstanding merit. Whatever its defects, civilization prevents a gently-bred lady of high standing in the literary world from calling a man a liar and punching him on the nose, however convinced she may be that he deserves it. Miss Ukridge’s hands twitched, her lips tightened, and her eyes gleamed bluely—but she restrained herself. She shrugged her shoulders.
“What do you wish to know about my lecture tour?” she said.
It was the white flag.
UKRIDGE and I had arranged to dine together at the Regent Grill Room that night and celebrate the happy ending of his troubles. I was first at the tryst, and my heart bled for my poor friend as I noted the care-free way in which he ambled up the aisle to our table. I broke the bad news as gently as I could, and the man sagged like a filleted fish. It was not a cheery meal. I extended myself as host, plying him with rich foods and spirited young wines, but he would not be comforted. The only remark he contributed to the conversation, outside of scattered monosyllables, occurred as the waiter retired with the cigar-box.
“What’s the time, Corky, old man?”
I looked at my watch.
“Just on half-past nine.”
“About now,” said Ukridge, dully, “my aunt is starting to give the old lady an earful!”
LADY LAKENHEATH was never, even at the best of times, what I should call a sparkling woman, but it seemed to me, as I sat with her at tea on the following afternoon, that her manner was more sombre than usual. She had all the earmarks of a woman who has had disturbing news. She looked, in fact, exactly like a woman who has been told by the aunt of the man who is endeavouring to marry into her respectable family the true character of that individual.
It was not easy in the circumstances to keep the ball rolling on the subject of the ’Mgomo-’Mgomos, but I was struggling bravely, when the last thing happened which I should have predicted.
“Mr. Ukridge,” announced the maid.
That Ukridge should be here at all was astounding; but that he should bustle in, as he did, with that same air of being the household pet which had marked his demeanour at our first meeting in this drawing-room soared into the very empyrean of the inexplicable. So acutely was I affected by the spectacle of this man, whom I had left on the previous night a broken hulk, behaving with the ebullience of an honoured member of the family, that I did what I had been on the verge of doing every time I had partaken of Lady Lakenheath’s hospitality—upset my tea.
“I wonder,” said Ukridge, plunging into speech with the same old breezy abruptness, “if this stuff would be any good, Aunt Elizabeth.”
I had got my cup balanced again as he started speaking, but at the sound of this affectionate address over it went again. Only a juggler of long experience could have manipulated Lady Lakenheath’s miniature cups and saucers successfully under the stress of emotions such as I was experiencing.
“What is it, Stanley?” asked Lady Lakenheath, with a flicker of interest.
They were bending their heads over a bottle which Ukridge had pulled out of his pocket.
“It’s some new stuff, Aunt Elizabeth. Just put on the market. Said to be excellent for parrots. Might be worth trying.”
“It is exceedingly thoughtful of you, Stanley, to have brought it,” said Lady Lakenheath, warmly. “And I shall certainly try the effect of a dose if Leonard has another seizure. Fortunately, he seems almost himself again this afternoon.”
“My parrot,” said Lady Lakenheath, including me in the conversation, “had a most peculiar attack last night. I cannot account for it. His health has always been so particularly good. I was dressing for dinner at the time, and so was not present at the outset of the seizure, but my niece, who was an eye-witness of what occurred, tells me he behaved in a most unusual way. Quite suddenly, it appears, he started to sing very excitedly; then, after awhile, he stopped in the middle of a bar and appeared to be suffering. My niece, who is a most warm-hearted girl, was naturally exceedingly alarmed. She ran to fetch me, and when I came down poor Leonard was leaning against the side of his cage in an attitude of complete exhaustion, and all he would say was, ‘Have a nut!’ He repeated this several times in a low voice, and then closed his eyes and tumbled off his perch. I was up half the night with him, but now he seems mercifully to have turned the corner. This afternoon he is almost his old bright self again, and has been talking in Swahili, always a sign that he is feeling cheerful.”
I murmured my condolences and congratulations.
“It was particularly unfortunate,” observed Ukridge, sympathetically, “that the thing should have happened last night, because it prevented Aunt Elizabeth going to the Pen and Ink Club dinner.”
“What!” Fortunately I had set down my cup by this time.
“Yes,” said Lady Lakenheath, regretfully. “And I had been so looking forward to meeting Stanley’s aunt there. Miss Julia Ukridge, the novelist. I have been an admirer of hers for many years. But, with Leonard in this terrible state, naturally I could not stir from the house. His claims were paramount. I shall have to wait till Miss Ukridge returns from America.”
“Next April,” murmured Ukridge, softly.
“I think, if you will excuse me now, Mr. Corcoran, I will just run up and see how Leonard is.”
The door closed.
“Laddie,” said Ukridge, solemnly, “doesn’t this just show——”
I gazed at him accusingly.
“Did you poison that parrot?”
“Me? Poison the parrot? Of course I didn’t poison the parrot. The whole thing was due to an act of mistaken kindness carried out in a spirit of the purest altruism. And, as I was saying, doesn’t it just show that no little act of kindness, however trivial, is ever wasted in the great scheme of things? One might have supposed that when I brought the old lady that bottle of Peppo the thing would have begun and ended there with a few conventional words of thanks. But mark, laddie, how all things work together for good. Millie, who, between ourselves, is absolutely a girl in a million, happened to think the bird was looking a bit off colour last night, and with a kindly anxiety to do him a bit of good gave him a slice of bread soaked in Peppo. Thought it might brace him up. Now, what they put in that stuff, old man, I don’t know, but the fact remains that the bird almost instantly became perfectly pie-eyed. You have heard the old lady’s account of the affair, but, believe me, she doesn’t know one half of it. Millie informs me that Leonard’s behaviour had to be seen to be believed. When the old lady came down he was practically in a drunken stupor, and all to-day he has been suffering from a shocking head. If he’s really sitting up and taking notice again, it simply means that he has worked off one of the finest hangovers of the age. Let this be a lesson to you, laddie, never to let a day go by without its act of kindness. What’s the time, old horse?”
“Getting on for five.”
Ukridge seemed to muse for a moment, and a happy smile irradiated his face.
“About now,” he said, complacently, “my aunt is out in the Channel somewhere. And I see by the morning paper that there is a nasty gale blowing up from the southeast!”
Annotations for this story are elsewhere on this site.