Something New (Wodehouse)/Chapter 7

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Something New by P. G. Wodehouse
Chapter VII

It is worthy of record, in the light of after events, that at the beginning of their visit it was the general opinion of the guests gathered together at Blandings Castle that the place was dull. The house party had that air of torpor which one sees in the saloon passengers of an Atlantic liner—that appearance of resignation to an enforced idleness and a monotony to be broken only by meals. Lord Emsworth's guests gave the impression, collectively, of being just about to yawn and look at their watches.

This was partly the fault of the time of year, for most house parties are dull if they happen to fall between the hunting and the shooting seasons, but must be attributed chiefly to Lord Emsworth's extremely sketchy notions of the duties of a host.

A host has no right to interne a regiment of his relations in his house unless he also invites lively and agreeable outsiders to meet them. If he does commit this solecism the least he can do is to work himself to the bone in the effort to invent amusements and diversions for his victims. Lord Emsworth had failed badly in both these matters. With the exception of Mr. Peters, his daughter Aline and George Emerson, there was nobody in the house who did not belong to the clan; and, as for his exerting himself to entertain, the company was lucky if it caught a glimpse of its host at meals.

Lord Emsworth belonged to the people-who-like-to-be-left-alone- to-amuse-themselves-when-they-come-to-a-place school of hosts. He pottered about the garden in an old coat—now uprooting a weed, now wrangling with the autocrat from Scotland, who was theoretically in his service as head gardener—-dreamily satisfied, when he thought of them at all, that his guests were as perfectly happy as he was.

Apart from his son Freddie, whom he had long since dismissed as a youth of abnormal tastes, from whom nothing reasonable was to be expected, he could not imagine anyone not being content merely to be at Blandings when the buds were bursting on the trees.

A resolute hostess might have saved the situation; but Lady Ann Warblington's abilities in that direction stopped short at leaving everything to Mrs. Twemlow and writing letters in her bedroom. When Lady Ann Warblington was not writing letters in her bedroom—which was seldom, for she had an apparently inexhaustible correspondence—she was nursing sick headaches in it. She was one of those hostesses whom a guest never sees except when he goes into the library and espies the tail of her skirt vanishing through the other door.

As for the ordinary recreations of the country house, the guests could frequent the billiard room, where they were sure to find Lord Stockheath playing a hundred up with his cousin, Algernon Wooster—a spectacle of the liveliest interest—or they could, if fond of golf, console themselves for the absence of links in the neighborhood with the exhilarating pastime of clock golf; or they could stroll about the terraces with such of their relations as they happened to be on speaking terms with at the moment, and abuse their host and the rest of their relations.

This was the favorite amusement; and after breakfast, on a morning ten days after Joan and Ashe had formed their compact, the terraces were full of perambulating couples. Here, Colonel Horace Mant, walking with the Bishop of Godalming, was soothing that dignitary by clothing in soldierly words thoughts that the latter had not been able to crush down, but which his holy office scarcely permitted him to utter.

There, Lady Mildred Mant, linked to Mrs. Jack Hale, of the collateral branch of the family, was saying things about her father in his capacity of host and entertainer, that were making her companion feel like another woman. Farther on, stopping occasionally to gesticulate, could be seen other Emsworth relations and connections. It was a typical scene of quiet, peaceful English family life.

Leaning on the broad stone balustrade of the upper terrace, Aline Peters and George Emerson surveyed the malcontents. Aline gave a little sigh, almost inaudible; but George's hearing was good.

"I was wondering when you are going to admit it," he said, shifting his position so that he faced her.

"Admit what?"

"That you can't stand the prospect; that the idea of being stuck for life with this crowd, like a fly on fly paper, is too much for you; that you are ready to break off your engagement to Freddie and come away and marry me and live happily ever after."

"George!"

"Well, wasn't that what it meant? Be honest!"

"What what meant?"

"That sigh."

"I didn't sigh. I was just breathing."

"Then you can breathe in this atmosphere! You surprise me!" He raked the terraces with hostile eyes. "Look at them! Look at them—crawling round like doped beetles. My dear girl, it's no use your pretending that this sort of thing wouldn't kill you. You're pining away already. You're thinner and paler since you came here. Gee! How we shall look back at this and thank our stars that we're out of it when we're back in old New York, with the elevated rattling and the street cars squealing over the points, and something doing every step you take. I shall call you on the 'phone from the office and have you meet me down town somewhere, and we'll have a bite to eat and go to some show, and a bit of supper afterward and a dance or two; and then go home to our cozy—-"

"George, you mustn't—really!"

"Why mustn't I?"

"It's wrong. You can't talk like that when we are both enjoying the hospitality—"

A wild laugh, almost a howl, disturbed the talk of the most adjacent of the perambulating relations. Colonel Horace Mant, checked in mid-sentence, looked up resentfully at the cause of the interruption.

"I wish somebody would tell me whether it's that American fellow, Emerson, or young Freddie who's supposed to be engaged to Miss Peters. Hanged if you ever see her and Freddie together, but she and Emerson are never to be found apart. If my respected father-in-law had any sense I should have thought he would have had sense enough to stop that."

"You forget, my dear Horace," said the bishop charitably; "Miss Peters and Mr. Emerson have known each other since they were children."

"They were never nearly such children as Emsworth is now," snorted the colonel. "If that girl isn't in love with Emerson I'll be—I'll eat my hat."

"No, no," said the bishop. "No, no! Surely not, Horace. What were you saying when you broke off?"

"I was saying that if a man wanted his relations never to speak to each other again for the rest of their lives the best thing he could do would be to herd them all together in a dashed barrack of a house a hundred miles from anywhere, and then go off and spend all his time prodding dashed flower beds with a spud—dash it!"

"Just so; just so. So you were. Go on, Horace; I find a curious comfort in your words."

On the terrace above them Aline was looking at George with startled eyes.

"George!"

"I'm sorry; but you shouldn't spring these jokes on me so suddenly. You said enjoying! Yes—reveling in it, aren't we!"

"It's a lovely old place," said Aline defensively.

"And when you've said that you've said everything. You can't live on scenery and architecture for the rest of your life. There's the human element to be thought of. And you're beginning—"

"There goes father," interrupted Aline. "How fast he is walking! George, have you noticed a sort of difference in father these last few days?"

"I haven't. My specialty is keeping an eye on the rest of the Peters family." "He seems better somehow. He seems to have almost stopped smoking—and I'm very glad, for those cigars were awfully bad for him. The doctor expressly told him he must stop them, but he wouldn't pay any attention to him. And he seems to take so much more exercise. My bedroom is next to his, you know, and every morning I can hear things going on through the wall—father dancing about and puffing a good deal. And one morning I met his valet going in with a pair of Indian clubs. I believe father is really taking himself in hand at last."

George Emerson exploded.

"And about time, too! How much longer are you to go on starving yourself to death just to give him the resolution to stick to his dieting? It maddens me to see you at dinner. And it's killing you. You're getting pale and thin. You can't go on like this."

A wistful look came over Aline's face.

"I do get a little hungry sometimes—late at night generally."

"You want somebody to take care of you and look after you. I'm the man. You may think you can fool me; but I can tell. You're weakening on this Freddie proposition. You're beginning to see that it won't do. One of these days you're going to come to me and say: 'George, you were right. I take the count. Me for the quiet sneak to the station, without anybody knowing, and the break for London, and the wedding at the registrar's.' Oh, I know! I couldn't have loved you all this time and not know. You're weakening."

The trouble with these supermen is that they lack reticence. They do not know how to omit. They expand their chests and whoop. And a girl, even the mildest and sweetest of girls—even a girl like Aline Peters—cannot help resenting the note of triumph. But supermen despise tact. As far as one can gather, that is the chief difference between them and the ordinary man.

A little frown appeared on Aline's forehead and she set her mouth mutinously.

"I'm not weakening at all," she said, and her voice was—for her—quite acid. "You—you take too much for granted."

George was contemplating the landscape with a conqueror's eye.

"You are beginning to see that it is impossible—this Freddie foolishness."

"It is not foolishness," said Aline pettishly, tears of annoyance in her eyes. "And I wish you wouldn't call him Freddie."

"He asked me to. He asked me to!"

Aline stamped her foot.

"Well, never mind. Please don't do it."

"Very well, little girl," said George softly. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you."

The fact that it never even occurred to George Emerson he was being offensively patronizing shows the stern stuff of which these supermen are made.

  • * *

The Efficient Baxter bicycled broodingly to Market Blandings for tobacco. He brooded for several reasons. He had just seen Aline Peters and George Emerson in confidential talk on the upper terrace, and that was one thing which exercised his mind, for he suspected George Emerson. He suspected him nebulously as a snake in the grass; as an influence working against the orderly progress of events concerning the marriage that had been arranged and would shortly take place between Miss Peters and the Honorable Frederick Threepwood.

It would be too much to say that he had any idea that George was putting in such hard and consistent work in his serpentine role; indeed if he could have overheard the conversation just recorded it is probable that Rupert Baxter would have had heart failure; but he had observed the intimacy between the two as he observed most things in his immediate neighborhood, and he disapproved of it. It was all very well to say that George Emerson had known Aline Peters since she was a child. If that was so, then in the opinion of the Efficient Baxter he had known her quite long enough and ought to start making the acquaintance of somebody else.

He blamed the Honorable Freddie. If the Honorable Freddie had been a more ardent lover he would have spent his time with Aline, and George Emerson would have taken his proper place as one of the crowd at the back of the stage. But Freddie's view of the matter seemed to be that he had done all that could be expected of a chappie in getting engaged to the girl, and that now he might consider himself at liberty to drop her for a while.

So Baxter, as he bicycled to Market Blandings for tobacco, brooded on Freddie, Aline Peters and George Emerson. He also brooded on Mr. Peters and Ashe Marson. Finally he brooded in a general way, because he had had very little sleep the past week.

The spectacle of a young man doing his duty and enduring considerable discomforts while doing it is painful; but there is such uplift in it, it affords so excellent a moral picture, that I cannot omit a short description of the manner in which Rupert Baxter had spent the nights which had elapsed since his meeting with Ashe in the small hours in the hall.

In the gallery which ran above the hall there was a large chair, situated a few paces from the great staircase. On this, in an overcoat—for the nights were chilly—and rubber-soled shoes, the Efficient Baxter had sat, without missing a single night, from one in the morning until daybreak, waiting, waiting, waiting. It had been an ordeal to try the stoutest determination. Nature had never intended Baxter for a night bird. He loved his bed. He knew that doctors held that insufficient sleep made a man pale and sallow, and he had always aimed at the peach-bloom complexion which comes from a sensible eight hours between the sheets.

One of the King Georges of England—I forget which—once said that a certain number of hours' sleep each night—I cannot recall at the moment how many—made a man something, which for the time being has slipped my memory. Baxter agreed with him. It went against all his instincts to sit up in this fashion; but it was his duty and he did it.

It troubled him that, as night after night went by and Ashe, the suspect, did not walk into the trap so carefully laid for him, he found an increasing difficulty in keeping awake. The first two or three of his series of vigils he had passed in an unimpeachable wakefulness, his chin resting on the rail of the gallery and his ears alert for the slightest sound; but he had not been able to maintain this standard of excellence.

On several occasions he had caught himself in the act of dropping off, and the last night he had actually wakened with a start to find it quite light. As his last recollection before that was of an inky darkness impenetrable to the eye, dismay gripped him with a sudden clutch and he ran swiftly down to the museum. His relief on finding that the scarab was still there had been tempered by thoughts of what might have been.

Baxter, then, as he bicycled to Market Blandings for tobacco, had good reason to brood. Having bought his tobacco and observed the life and thought of the town for half an hour—it was market day and the normal stagnation of the place was temporarily relieved and brightened by pigs that eluded their keepers, and a bull calf which caught a stout farmer at the psychological moment when he was tying his shoe lace and lifted him six feet—he made his way to the Emsworth Arms, the most respectable of the eleven inns the citizens of Market Blandings contrived in some miraculous way to support.

In English country towns, if the public houses do not actually outnumber the inhabitants, they all do an excellent trade. It is only when they are two to one that hard times hit them and set the innkeepers to blaming the government.

It was not the busy bar, full to overflowing with honest British yeomen—many of them in a similar condition—that Baxter sought. His goal was the genteel dining-room on the first floor, where a bald and shuffling waiter, own cousin to a tortoise, served luncheon to those desiring it. Lack of sleep had reduced Baxter to a condition where the presence and chatter of the house party were insupportable. It was his purpose to lunch at the Emsworth Arms and take a nap in an armchair afterward.

He had relied on having the room to himself, for Market Blandings did not lunch to a great extent; but to his annoyance and disappointment the room was already occupied by a man in brown tweeds.

Occupied is the correct word, for at first sight this man seemed to fill the room. Never since almost forgotten days when he used to frequent circuses and side shows, had Baxter seen a fellow human being so extraordinarily obese. He was a man about fifty years old, gray-haired, of a mauve complexion, and his general appearance suggested joviality.

To Baxter's chagrin, this person engaged him in conversation directly he took his seat at the table. There was only one table in the room, as is customary in English inns, and it had the disadvantage that it collected those seated at it into one party. It was impossible for Baxter to withdraw into himself and ignore this person's advances.

It is doubtful whether he could have done it, however, had they been separated by yards of floor, for the fat man was not only naturally talkative but, as appeared from his opening remarks, speech had been dammed up within him for some time by lack of a suitable victim.

"Morning!" he began; "nice day. Good for the farmers. I'll move up to your end of the table if I may, sir. Waiter, bring my beef to this gentleman's end of the table."

He creaked into a chair at Baxter's side and resumed:

"Infernally quiet place, this, sir. I haven't found a soul to speak to since I arrived yesterday afternoon except deaf-and-dumb rustics. Are you making a long stay here?"

"I live outside the town."

"I pity you. Wouldn't care to do it myself. Had to come here on business and shan't be sorry when it's finished. I give you my word I couldn't sleep a wink last night because of the quiet. I was just dropping off when a beast of a bird outside the window gave a chirrup, and it brought me up with a jerk as though somebody had fired a gun. There's a damned cat somewhere near my room that mews. I lie in bed waiting for the next mew, all worked up.

"Heaven save me from the country! It may be all right for you, if you've got a comfortable home and a pal or two to chat with after dinner; but you've no conception what it's like in this infernal town—I suppose it calls itself a town. What a hole! There's a church down the street. I'm told it's Norman or something. Anyway, it's old. I'm not much of a man for churches as a rule, but I went and took a look at it.

"Then somebody told me there was a fine view from the end of High Street; so I went and took a look at that. And now, so far as I can make out, I've done the sights and exhausted every possibility of entertainment the town has to provide—unless there's another church. I'm so reduced that I'll go and see the Methodist Chapel, if there is one."

Fresh air, want of sleep and the closeness of the dining-room combined to make Baxter drowsy. He ate his lunch in a torpor, hardly replying to his companion's remarks, who, for his part, did not seem to wish or to expect replies. It was enough for him to be talking.

"What do people do with themselves in a place like this? When they want amusement, I mean. I suppose it's different if you've been brought up to it. Like being born color-blind or something. You don't notice. It's the visitor who suffers. They've no enterprise in this sort of place. There's a bit of land just outside here that would make a sweet steeplechase course; natural barriers; everything. It hasn't occurred to 'em to do anything with it. It makes you despair of your species—that sort of thing. Now if I—"

Baxter dozed. With his fork still impaling a piece of cold beef, he dropped into that half-awake, half-asleep state which is Nature's daytime substitute for the true slumber of the night. The fat man, either not noticing or not caring, talked on. His voice was a steady drone, lulling Baxter to rest.

Suddenly there was a break. Baxter sat up, blinking. He had a curious impression that his companion had said "Hello, Freddie!" and that the door had just opened and closed.

"Eh?" he said.

"Yes?" said the fat man.

"What did you say?"

"I was speaking of—"

"I thought you said, 'Hello, Freddie!'"

His companion eyed him indulgently.

"I thought you were dropping off when I looked at you. You've been dreaming. What should I say, 'Hello, Freddie!' for?"

The conundrum was unanswerable. Baxter did not attempt to answer it. But there remained at the back of his mind a quaint idea that he had caught sight, as he woke, of the Honorable Frederick Threepwood, his face warningly contorted, vanishing through the doorway. Yet what could the Honorable Freddie be doing at the Emsworth Arms?

A solution of the difficulty occurred to him: he had dreamed he had seen Freddie and that had suggested the words which, reason pointed out, his companion could hardly have spoken. Even if the Honorable Freddie should enter the room, this fat man, who was apparently a drummer of some kind, would certainly not know who he was, nor would he address him so familiarly.

Yes, that must be the explanation. After all, the quaintest things happened in dreams. Last night, when he had fallen asleep in his chair, he had dreamed that he was sitting in a glass case in the museum, making faces at Lord Emsworth, Mr. Peters, and Beach, the butler, who were trying to steal him, under the impression that he was a scarab of the reign of Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty—a thing he would never have done when awake. Yes; he must certainly have been dreaming.

In the bedroom into which he had dashed to hide himself, on discovering that the dining-room was in possession of the Efficient Baxter, the Honorable Freddie sat on a rickety chair, scowling. He elaborated a favorite dictum of his:

"You can't take a step anywhere without stumbling over that damn feller, Baxter!"

He wondered whether Baxter had seen him. He wondered whether Baxter had recognized him. He wondered whether Baxter had heard R. Jones say, "Hello, Freddie!" He wondered, if such should be the case, whether R. Jones' presence of mind and native resource had been equal to explaining away the remark.