Tit-Bits, August 20, 1910
EXPLANATIONS AND AN INTERRUPTION.
Jimmy, like Lord Dreever, had been trapped at the beginning of the duologue, and had not been able to get away till it was nearly over. He had been introduced by Lady Julia to an elderly and adhesive baronet, who had recently spent ten days in New York, and escape had not been won without a struggle. The baronet on his return to England had published a book entitled “Modern America and Its People,” and it was with regard to the opinions expressed in this volume that he invited Jimmy’s views. He had no wish to see the duologue, and it was only after the loss of much precious time that Jimmy was enabled to tear himself away on the plea of having to dress. He anathematized the authority on “Modern America and Its People” freely as he ran upstairs.
While the duologue was in progress there had been no chance of Sir Thomas taking it into his head to visit his dressing-room. He had been, as his valet-detective had observed to Mr. Galer, too busy jollying along the swells. It would only be the work of a few moments restoring the necklace to its place. But for the tenacity of the elderly baronet the thing would have been done by this time. But now there was no knowing what might not happen. Anybody might come along the passage and see him.
He had one point in his favour. There was no likelihood of the jewels being required by their owner till the conclusion of the theatricals. The part which Lady Julia had been persuaded by Charteris to play mercifully contained no scope for the display of gems.
Before going down to dinner he had locked up the necklace in a drawer. It was still there, Spike having apparently been able to resist the temptation of recapturing it. He took it out and went into the corridor. He looked up and down it. There was nobody about. He shut his door and walked quickly in the direction of the dressing-room.
He had provided himself with a lamp from a bicycle belonging to one of the grooms. Once inside, having closed the door, he lit this and looked about him.
Spike had given him minute directions as to the position of the jewel-box. He found it without difficulty. To his untrained eye it seemed tolerably massive and impregnable, but Spike had evidently known how to open it without much difficulty. The lid was shut, but it came up without an effort when he tried to raise it, and he saw that the lock had been broken.
“Spike’s coming on!” he said.
He was dangling the necklace over the box, preparatory to dropping it in, when there was a quick rustle at the other side of the room. The curtain was plucked aside and Molly came out.
“Jimmy!” she cried.
Jimmy’s nerves were always in pretty good order, but at the sight of this apparition he certainly jumped.
“Great Scot!” he said.
The curtain again became agitated by some unseen force, violently this time, and from its depths a plaintive voice made itself heard.
“Dash it all,” said the voice, “I’ve stuck!”
There was another upheaval, and his lordship emerged, his yellow locks ruffled and upstanding, his face crimson.
“Caught my head in a coat or something,” he explained at large. “Halloa, Pitt!”
Pressed rigid against the wall, Molly had listened with growing astonishment to the movements on the other side of the curtain. Her mystification deepened every moment. It seemed to her that the room was still in darkness. She could hear the sound of breathing; and then the light of the lantern caught her eye. Who could this be, and why had he not switched on the electric light?
She strained her ears to catch a sound. For a while she heard nothing except the soft breathing. Then came a voice that she knew well; and, abandoning her hiding-place, she came out into the room, and found Jimmy standing with a lamp in his hand over some dark object in the corner of the room.
It was a full minute after Jimmy’s first exclamation of surprise before either of them spoke again. The light of the lamp hurt Molly’s eyes. She put up a hand to shade them. It seemed to her that they had been standing like this for years.
Jimmy had not moved. There was something in his attitude which filled Molly with a vague fear. In the shadow behind the lamp he looked shapeless and inhuman.
“You’re hurting my eyes,” she said at last.
“I’m sorry,” said Jimmy. “I didn’t think. Is that better?” He turned the light from her face. Something in his voice and the apologetic haste with which he moved the lamp seemed to relax the strain of the situation. The feeling of stunned surprise began to leave her. She found herself thinking coherently again.
The relief was but momentary. Why was Jimmy in the room at that time? Why had he a lamp? What had he been doing? The questions shot from her brain like sparks from an anvil.
The darkness began to tear at her nerves. She felt along the wall for the switch and flooded the room with light.
Jimmy laid down the lantern and stood for a moment undecided. He had concealed the necklace behind him. Now he brought it forward and dangled it silently before the eyes of Molly and his lordship. Excellent as were his motives for being in that room with the necklace in his hand, he could not help feeling, as he met Molly’s startled gaze, quite as guilty as if his intentions had been quite different.
His lordship, having by this time pulled himself together to some extent, was the first to speak.
“I say, you know, what-ho!” he observed, not without emotion. “What?”
Molly drew back.
“Jimmy! You were—— Oh, you can’t have been!”
“Looks jolly like it!” said his lordship, judicially.
“I wasn’t,” said Jimmy. “I was putting them back.”
“Putting them back?”
“Pitt, old man,” said his lordship, solemnly, “that sounds a bit thin.”
“Dreever, old man,” said Jimmy, “I know it does. But it’s the truth.”
His lordship’s manner became kindly.
“Now, look here, Pitt, old son,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’re all pals here. You can pitch it straight to us. We won’t give you away. We——”
“Be quiet!” cried Molly. “Jimmy!”
Her voice was strained. She spoke with an effort. She was suffering torments. The words her father had said to her on the terrace were pouring back into her mind. She seemed to hear his voice now, cool and confident, warning her against Jimmy, saying that he was crooked. There was a curious whirring in her head. Everything in the room was growing large and misty. She heard Lord Dreever begin to say something that sounded as if someone were speaking at the end of a telephone; and then she was aware that Jimmy was holding her in his arms and calling to Lord Dreever to bring water.
“When a girl goes like that,” said his lordship, with an insufferable air of omniscience, “you want to cut her——”
“Come along!” said Jimmy. “Are you going to be a week getting that water?”
His lordship proceeded to soak a sponge without further parley; but as he carried his dripping burden across the room Molly recovered. She tried weakly to free herself.
Jimmy helped her to a chair. He had dropped the necklace on the floor, and Lord Dreever nearly trod on it.
“What-ho!” observed his lordship, picking it up. “Go easy with the jewellery!”
Jimmy was bending over Molly. Neither of them seemed to be aware of his lordship’s presence. Spennie was the sort of person whose existence is apt to be forgotten. Jimmy had had a flash of intuition. For the first time it occurred to him that Mr. McEachern might have hinted to Molly something of his own suspicions.
“Molly, dear,” he said, “it isn’t what you think. I can explain everything. Do you feel better now? Can you listen? I can explain everything.”
“Pitt, old boy,” protested his lordship, “you don’t understand. We aren’t going to give you away. We’re all——”
Jimmy ignored him.
“Molly, listen,” he said.
She sat up.
“Go on, Jimmy,” she said.
“I wasn’t stealing the necklace. I was putting it back. The man who came to the castle with me, Spike Mullins, took it this afternoon and brought it to me.”
Spike Mullins! Molly remembered the name.
“He thinks I am a crook—a sort of Raffles. It was my fault. I was a fool. It all began that night in New York when we met at your house. I had been to the opening performance of a play called ‘Love, the Cracksman’—one of those burglar plays.”
“Jolly good show!” interpolated his lordship, chattily. “It was at the Circle over here. I went twice.”
“A friend of mine, a man named Mifflin, had been playing the hero in it; and after the show, at the club, he started in talking about the art of burglary—he’d been studying it—and I said that anybody could burgle a house. And in another minute it somehow happened that I had made a bet that I would do it that night. Heaven knows whether I ever really meant to; but that same night this man Mullins broke into my flat, and I caught him. We got into conversation, and I worked off on him a lot of technical stuff I’d heard from this actor-friend of mine, and he jumped to the conclusion that I was an expert. And then it suddenly occurred to me that it would be a good joke on Mifflin if I went out with Mullins and did break into a house. I wasn’t in the mood to think what a fool I was at the time. Well, anyway, we went out, and—well, that’s how it all happened. And then I met Spike in London, down and out, and brought him here.”
He looked at her anxiously. It did not need his lordship’s owlish expression of doubt to tell him how weak his story must sound. He had felt it even as he was telling it. He was bound to admit that if ever a story rang false in every sentence it was this one.
“Pitt, old man,” said his lordship, shaking his head, more in sorrow than in anger, “it won’t do, old top. What’s the point of putting up any old yarn like that? Don’t you see, what I mean is, it’s not as if we minded. Don’t I keep telling you we’re all pals here? I’ve often thought what a jolly good feller old Raffles was. Regular sportsman. I don’t blame a chappie for doing the gentleman burglar touch. Seems to me it’s a dashed sporting——”
Molly turned on him suddenly, cutting short his views on the ethics of gentlemanly theft in a blaze of indignation.
“What do you mean?” she cried. “Do you think I don’t believe every word Jimmy has said?”
His lordship jumped.
“Well, don’t you know, it seemed to me a bit thin. What I mean is——” He met Molly’s eye. “Oh, well!” he concluded, lamely.
Molly turned to Jimmy.
“Jimmy, of course I believe you. I believe every word.”
His lordship looked on, marvelling. The thought crossed his mind that he had lost the ideal wife. A girl who would believe any old yarn a feller cared to—— If it hadn’t been for Katie—— For a moment he felt almost sad.
Jimmy and Molly were looking at each other in silence. From the expression on their faces his lordship gathered that his existence had once more been forgotten. He saw her hold out her hands to Jimmy. It was embarrassing for a chap! He looked away.
The next moment the door opened and closed again, and she had gone.
He looked at Jimmy. Jimmy was still apparently unconscious of his presence.
His lordship coughed.
“Pitt, old man——”
“Halloa!” said Jimmy, coming out of his thoughts with a start. “You still here? By the way”—he eyed Lord Dreever curiously—“I never thought of asking before—what on earth are you doing here? Why were you behind the curtain? Were you playing hide-and-seek?”
His lordship was not one of those who invent circumstantial stories easily on the spur of the moment. He searched rapidly for something that would pass muster, then abandoned the hopeless struggle. After all, why not be frank? He still believed Jimmy to be of the class of the hero of “Love, the Cracksman.” There would be no harm in confiding in him. He was a good fellow, a kindred soul, and would sympathize.
“It’s like this,” he said. And, having prefaced his narrative with the sound remark that he had been a bit of an ass, he gave Jimmy a summary of recent events.
“What!” said Jimmy. “You taught Hargate piquet? Why, my dear man, he was playing piquet like a professor when you were in short frocks. He’s a wonder at it.”
His lordship stared.
“How’s that?” he said. “You don’t know him, do you?”
“I met him in New York at the Strollers’ Club. A pal of mine, an actor, this fellow Mifflin I mentioned just now, put him up as a guest. He coined money at piquet. And there were some pretty useful players in the place, too. I don’t wonder you found him a promising pupil.”
“Then—then—why, dash it, then he’s a bally sharper!”
“You’re a genius at crisp description,” said Jimmy. “You’ve got him summed up to rights first shot.”
“I sha’n’t pay him a bally penny.”
“Of course not. If he makes any objection refer him to me.”
His lordship’s relief was extreme. The more overpowering effects of the elixir had passed away, and he saw now what he had not seen in his more exuberant frame of mind, the cloud of suspicion which must hang over him when the loss of the bank-notes was discovered.
He wiped his forehead.
“By Jove!” he said. “That’s something off my mind! By George, I feel like a two-year-old! I say, you’re a dashed good sort, Pitt.”
“You flatter me,” said Jimmy. “I strive to please.”
“I say, Pitt, that yarn you told us just now. The bet and all that. Honestly, you don’t mean to say that was true, was it? I mean—— By Jove! I’ve got an idea.”
“We live in stirring times!”
“Did you say your actor pal’s name was Mifflin?” He broke off suddenly before Jimmy could answer. “Great Scot!” he whispered, “what’s that? Good lord! Somebody’s coming!”
He dived behind the curtain like a rabbit. It had only just ceased to shake when the door opened and Sir Thomas Blunt walked in.
STIRRING TIMES FOR SIR THOMAS.
For a man whose intentions towards the jewels and their owner were so innocent, and even benevolent, Jimmy was in a singularly compromising position. It would have been difficult, even under more favourable conditions, to have explained to Sir Thomas’s satisfaction his presence in the dressing-room. As things stood it was even harder, for his lordship’s last action before seeking cover had been to fling the necklace from him like a burning coal. For the second time in ten minutes it had fallen to the carpet, and it was just as Jimmy straightened himself after picking it up that Sir Thomas got a full view of him.
The knight stood in the doorway, his face expressing the most lively astonishment. His bulging eyes were fixed upon the necklace in Jimmy’s hand. Jimmy could see him struggling to find words to cope with so special a situation, and he felt rather sorry for him. Excitement of this kind was bad for a short-necked man of Sir Thomas’s type.
With kindly tact he endeavoured to help him out.
“Good evening,” he said, pleasantly.
Sir Thomas stammered. He was gradually nearing speech.
“What—what—what——” he said.
“Out with it,” said Jimmy.
“I knew a man once in South Dakota who stammered,” said Jimmy. “He used to chew dog-biscuit while he was speaking. It cured him; besides being nutritious. Another good way is to count ten while you’re thinking what to say, and then get it out quick.”
Jimmy placed the necklace carefully on the dressing-table. Then he turned to Sir Thomas, with his hands in the pockets of his coat. Over the knight’s head he could see the folds of the curtain quivering gently, as if stirred by some zephyr. Evidently the drama of the situation was not lost on Hildebrand Spencer, twelfth Earl of Dreever.
Nor was it lost on Jimmy. This was precisely the sort of situation that appealed to him. He had his plan of action clearly mapped out. He knew that it would be useless to tell the knight the true facts of the case. Sir Thomas was as deficient in simple faith as in Norman blood.
To all appearances this was a tight corner, but Jimmy fancied that he saw his way out of it. Meanwhile, the situation appealed to him. Curiously enough, it was almost identical with the big scene in Act III. of “Love, the Cracksman,” in which Arthur Mifflin had made such a hit as the debonair burglar.
Jimmy proceeded to give his own idea of what the rendering of a debonair burglar should be. Arthur Mifflin had lit a cigarette, and had shot out smoke-rings and repartee alternately. A cigarette would have been a great help here, but Jimmy prepared to do his best without properties.
“So—so it’s you, is it?” said Sir Thomas.
“Who told you?”
“Thief! Low thief!”
“Come, now,” protested Jimmy. “Why low? Just because you don’t know me over here, why scorn me? How do you know I haven’t got a big American reputation? For all you can tell, I may be Boston Willie or Sacramento Sam, or someone. Let us preserve the decencies of debate.”
“I had my suspicions of you. I had my suspicions from the first, when I heard that my idiot of a nephew had made a casual friend in London. So this was what you were! A thief, who——”
“I don’t mind personally,” interrupted Jimmy, “but I hope, if ever you mix with cracksmen, you won’t go calling them thieves. They are frightfully sensitive. You see, there’s a world of difference between the two branches of the profession, and a good deal of snobbish caste prejudice. Let us suppose that you were an actor-manager. How would you enjoy being called a super? You see the idea, don’t you? You’d hurt their feelings. Now, an ordinary thief would probably use violence in a case like this; but violence, except in extreme cases—I hope this won’t be one of them—is contrary, I understand, to cracksmen’s etiquette. On the other hand, Sir Thomas, candour compels me to add that I have you covered.”
There was a pipe in the pocket of his coat. He thrust the stem earnestly against the lining. Sir Thomas eyed the protuberance apprehensively, and turned a little pale. Jimmy was scowling ferociously. Arthur Mifflin’s scowl in Act III. had been much admired.
“My gun,” said Jimmy, “is, as you see, in my pocket. I always shoot from the pocket, in spite of the tailor’s bills. The little fellow is loaded and cocked. He’s pointing straight at your diamond solitaire. That fatal spot! No one has ever been hit in the diamond solitaire and survived. My finger is on the trigger. So I should recommend you not to touch that bell you are looking at. There are other reasons why you shouldn’t, but those I will go into presently.”
Sir Thomas’s hand wavered.
“Do, if you like, of course,” said Jimmy, agreeably. “It’s your own house. But I shouldn’t. I am a dead shot at a yard and a half. You wouldn’t believe the number of sitting haystacks I’ve picked off at that distance. I simply can’t miss. On second thoughts, I sha’n’t fire to kill you. Let us be humane on this joyful occasion. I shall just smash your knees. Painful, but not fatal.”
He waggled the pipe suggestively. Sir Thomas blanched. His hand fell to his side.
“Great!” said Jimmy. “After all, why should you be in a hurry to break up this very pleasant little meeting? I’m sure I’m not. Let us chat. How are the theatricals going? Was the duologue a success? Wait till you see our show. Three of us knew our lines at the dress rehearsal.”
Sir Thomas had backed away from the bell, but the retreat was merely for the convenience of the moment. He understood that it might be injudicious to press the button just then; but he had recovered his composure by this time, and he saw that ultimately the game must be his.
Jimmy was trapped.
His face resumed its normal hue. Automatically his hands began to move towards his coat-tails and his feet to spread themselves. Jimmy noted with a smile these signs of restored complacency. He hoped ere long to upset that complacency somewhat.
Sir Thomas addressed himself to making Jimmy’s position clear to him.
“How, may I ask,” he said, “do you propose to leave the castle?”
“Won’t you let me have the motor?” said Jimmy. “But I expect I sha’n’t be leaving just yet.”
Sir Thomas laughed shortly.
“No,” he said. “No; I fancy not. I am with you there!”
“Great minds,” said Jimmy. “I shouldn’t be surprised if we thought alike on all sorts of subjects. Just think how you came round to my views on ringing bells. In a flash! But what made you fancy that I intended to leave the castle?”
“I should hardly have supposed that you would be anxious to stay.”
“On the contrary. It’s the one place I have been in in the last two years that I have felt really satisfied with. Usually I want to move on after a week. But I could stop here for ever.”
“I am afraid, Mr. Pitt——by the way, an alias, of course?”
Jimmy shook his head.
“I fear not,” he said. “If I had chosen an alias, it would have been Tressilyan, or Trevelyan, or something. I call Pitt a poor thing in names. I once knew a man called Ronald Cheylesmore. Lucky fellow!”
Sir Thomas returned to the point on which he had been about to touch.
“I am afraid, Mr. Pitt, that you hardly realize your position.”
“No?” said Jimmy, interested.
“I find you in the act of stealing my wife’s necklace——”
“Would there be any use in telling you that I was not stealing it, but putting it back?”
Sir Thomas raised his eyebrows in silence.
“No?” said Jimmy. “I was afraid not. You were saying——?”
“I find you in the act of stealing my wife’s necklace,” proceeded Sir Thomas, “and because for the moment you succeed in postponing arrest by threatening me with a revolver——”
An agitated look came into Jimmy’s face.
“Great Scot!” he cried. He felt hastily in his pocket. “Yes,” he said; “as I had begun to fear. I owe you an apology, Sir Thomas,” he went on with manly dignity, producing the briar. “I am entirely to blame. How the mistake arose I cannot imagine, but I find it isn’t a revolver after all.”
Sir Thomas’s cheeks took on a richer tint of purple. He glared dumbly at the pipe.
“In the excitement of the moment, I suppose——” began Jimmy.
Sir Thomas interrupted. The recollection of his needless panic rankled within him.
“You—what you propose to gain by this buffoonery I am at a loss——”
“How can you say such savage things?” protested Jimmy. “Not buffoonery! Wit! Esprit! Flow of soul such as circulates daily in the best society.”
Sir Thomas almost leaped towards the bell. With his finger on it, he turned to deliver a final speech.
“I believe you’re insane,” he cried; “but I’ll have no more of it. I have endured this foolery long enough. I’ll——”
“Just one moment,” said Jimmy. “I said just now that there were other reasons besides the revol—well, pipe—why you should not ring that bell. One of them is that all the servants will be in their places in the audience, so that there won’t be anyone to answer it. But that’s not the most convincing reason. Will you listen to one more before getting busy?”
“I see your game. Don’t imagine for a moment that you trick me.”
“Nothing could be further——”
“You fancy you can gain time by talking, and find some way to escape——”
“But I don’t want to escape. Don’t you realize that in about ten minutes I am due to play an important part in a great drama on the stage?”
“I’ll keep you here, I tell you. You’ll leave this room,” said Sir Thomas, grandly, “over my body.”
“Steeplechasing in the home,” murmured Jimmy. “No more dull evenings. But listen. Do listen. I won’t keep you a minute, and if you want to push that bell after I’ve finished, you may push it six inches into the wall if you like.”
“Well?” said Sir Thomas, shortly.
“Would you like me to lead gently up to what I want to say, gradually preparing you for the reception of the news, or shall I——”
The knight took out his watch.
“I shall give you one minute,” he said.
“Heavens, I must hustle! How many seconds have I got now?”
“If you have anything to say, say it.”
“Very well, then,” said Jimmy. “It’s only this. That necklace is a fraud. The diamonds aren’t diamonds at all. They’re paste!”
ten days in New York: How often does Wodehouse poke fun at authors who characterize an entire country in a book after a brief visit? We hear of Sir Roger Cremorne as well as Lady Malvern in “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest”; Lord Wildersham writes America and Its People after a fortnight in “The Fatal Kink in Algernon”; I seem to remember others but don’t have a suitable index for such things.
anathematized: The American text has the more direct synonym “cursed” here.
short frocks: Both boys and girls were clothed in short frocks (ankle-length dresses) beginning at a few months of age; earlier, as “babes in arms” they were in longer frocks that came well over their feet—usually seen today only as formal christening gowns (see this article). Boys were transitioned from short frocks to short trousers at ages varying from about two to eight, so in any case the intent is that Hargate was hustling at piquet when Spennie was quite a young boy.
simple faith: Tennyson, “Lady Clara Vere de Vere”:
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.
super: short for supernumerary, an “extra”: someone who appears on stage without dialogue or individual character action, as to fill out a crowd scene.
Trevelyan: Wodehouse was fond of giving the surname Trevelyan to the heroes of short snippets of fiction, though he seems not to have used the name for a character in a full-length story. See Under the Flail in the Public School Magazine, Our Boys Again and Our Boys—III in Punch, The Gold Bat in The Captain, and A Drama of Tomorrow in the London Echo for other examples. “Alan Beverley” in The Man Upstairs might have chosen Cyril Trevelyan as his nom de pinceau if the coin toss had gone the other way.
paste: imitation gems made from a hard brilliant glass containing lead oxide; also called rhinestones or strass from their origin in Strasbourg.
Printer’s error (or editorial goof) corrected above:
In Ch. XXV, magazine had “jollying among the swells”; Spike’s original quotation of the valet in Ch. XXII was “jollyin’ along de swells,” and American book text has ‘along’ both times. And “jolly along” is a common informal British phrase for continuing to encourage someone to have a good time.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff