The Man With Two Left Feet
P. G. Wodehouse
Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Suzanne L. Shell, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
THE MAN WITH TWO LEFT FEET
_and Other Stories_
by P. G. WODEHOUSE
BILL THE BLOODHOUND
EXTRICATING YOUNG GUSSIE
THE MAKING OF MAC'S
ONE TOUCH OF NATURE
BLACK FOR LUCK
THE ROMANCE OF AN UGLY POLICEMAN
A SEA OF TROUBLES
THE MAN WITH TWO LEFT FEET
BILL THE BLOODHOUND
There's a divinity that shapes out ends. Consider the case of Henry
Pifield Rice, detective.
I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said
he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the
reader's interest under false pretences. He was really only a sort of
detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford's International
Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did
not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had
never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about
bloodstains would have filled a library. The sort of job they gave
Henry was to stand outside a restaurant in the rain, and note what time
someone inside left it. In short, it is not 'Pifield Rice,
Investigator. No. 1.--The Adventure of the Maharajah's Ruby' that I
submit to your notice, but the unsensational doings of a quite
commonplace young man, variously known to his comrades at the Bureau as
'Fathead', 'That blighter what's-his-name', and 'Here, you!'
Henry lived in a boarding-house in Guildford Street. One day a new girl
came to the boarding-house, and sat next to Henry at meals. Her name
was Alice Weston. She was small and quiet, and rather pretty. They got
on splendidly. Their conversation, at first confined to the weather and
the moving-pictures, rapidly became more intimate. Henry was surprised
to find that she was on the stage, in the chorus. Previous chorus-girls
at the boarding-house had been of a more pronounced type--good girls,
but noisy, and apt to wear beauty-spots. Alice Weston was different.
'I'm rehearsing at present,' she said. 'I'm going out on tour next
month in "The Girl From Brighton". What do you do, Mr Rice?'
Henry paused for a moment before replying. He knew how sensational he
was going to be.
'I'm a detective.'
Usually, when he told girls his profession, squeaks of amazed
admiration greeted him. Now he was chagrined to perceive in the brown
eyes that met his distinct disapproval.
'What's the matter?' he said, a little anxiously, for even at this
early stage in their acquaintance he was conscious of a strong desire
to win her approval. 'Don't you like detectives?'
'I don't know. Somehow I shouldn't have thought you were one.'
This restored Henry's equanimity somewhat. Naturally a detective does
not want to look like a detective and give the whole thing away right
at the start.
'I think--you won't be offended?'
'I've always looked on it as rather a _sneaky_ job.'
'Sneaky!' moaned Henry.
'Well, creeping about, spying on people.'
Henry was appalled. She had defined his own trade to a nicety. There
might be detectives whose work was above this reproach, but he was a
confirmed creeper, and he knew it. It wasn't his fault. The boss told
him to creep, and he crept. If he declined to creep, he would be sacked
_instanter_. It was hard, and yet he felt the sting of her words,
and in his bosom the first seeds of dissatisfaction with his occupation
You might have thought that this frankness on the girl's part would
have kept Henry from falling in love with her. Certainly the dignified
thing would have been to change his seat at table, and take his meals
next to someone who appreciated the romance of detective work a little
more. But no, he remained where he was, and presently Cupid, who never
shoots with a surer aim than through the steam of boarding-house hash,
sniped him where he sat.
He proposed to Alice Weston. She refused him.
'It's not because I'm not fond of you. I think you're the nicest man I
ever met.' A good deal of assiduous attention had enabled Henry to win
this place in her affections. He had worked patiently and well before
actually putting his fortune to the test. 'I'd marry you tomorrow if
things were different. But I'm on the stage, and I mean to stick there.
Most of the girls want to get off it, but not me. And one thing I'll
never do is marry someone who isn't in the profession. My sister
Genevieve did, and look what happened to her. She married a commercial
traveller, and take it from me he travelled. She never saw him for more
than five minutes in the year, except when he was selling gent's
hosiery in the same town where she was doing her refined speciality,
and then he'd just wave his hand and whiz by, and start travelling
again. My husband has got to be close by, where I can see him. I'm
sorry, Henry, but I know I'm right.'
It seemed final, but Henry did not wholly despair. He was a resolute
young man. You have to be to wait outside restaurants in the rain for
any length of time.
He had an inspiration. He sought out a dramatic agent.
'I want to go on the stage, in musical comedy.'
'Let's see you dance.'
'I can't dance.'
'Sing,' said the agent. 'Stop singing,' added the agent, hastily.
'You go away and have a nice cup of hot tea,' said the agent,
soothingly, 'and you'll be as right as anything in the morning.'
Henry went away.
A few days later, at the Bureau, his fellow-detective Simmonds hailed
'Here, you! The boss wants you. Buck up!'
Mr Stafford was talking into the telephone. He replaced the receiver as
'Oh, Rice, here's a woman wants her husband shadowed while he's on the
road. He's an actor. I'm sending you. Go to this address, and get
photographs and all particulars. You'll have to catch the eleven
o'clock train on Friday.'
'He's in "The Girl From Brighton" company. They open at Bristol.'
It sometimes seemed to Henry as if Fate did it on purpose. If the
commission had had to do with any other company, it would have been
well enough, for, professionally speaking, it was the most important
with which he had ever been entrusted. If he had never met Alice
Weston, and heard her views upon detective work, he would have been
pleased and flattered. Things being as they were, it was Henry's
considered opinion that Fate had slipped one over on him.
In the first place, what torture to be always near her, unable to
reveal himself; to watch her while she disported herself in the company
of other men. He would be disguised, and she would not recognize him;
but he would recognize her, and his sufferings would be dreadful.
In the second place, to have to do his creeping about and spying
practically in her presence--
Still, business was business.
At five minutes to eleven on the morning named he was at the station, a
false beard and spectacles shielding his identity from the public eye.
If you had asked him he would have said that he was a Scotch business
man. As a matter of fact, he looked far more like a motor-car coming
through a haystack.
The platform was crowded. Friends of the company had come to see the
company off. Henry looked on discreetly from behind a stout porter,
whose bulk formed a capital screen. In spite of himself, he was
impressed. The stage at close quarters always thrilled him. He
recognized celebrities. The fat man in the brown suit was Walter
Jelliffe, the comedian and star of the company. He stared keenly at him
through the spectacles. Others of the famous were scattered about. He
saw Alice. She was talking to a man with a face like a hatchet, and
smiling, too, as if she enjoyed it. Behind the matted foliage which he
had inflicted on his face, Henry's teeth came together with a snap.
In the weeks that followed, as he dogged 'The Girl From Brighton'
company from town to town, it would be difficult to say whether Henry
was happy or unhappy. On the one hand, to realize that Alice was so
near and yet so inaccessible was a constant source of misery; yet, on
the other, he could not but admit that he was having the very dickens
of a time, loafing round the country like this.
He was made for this sort of life, he considered. Fate had placed him
in a London office, but what he really enjoyed was this unfettered
travel. Some gipsy strain in him rendered even the obvious discomforts
of theatrical touring agreeable. He liked catching trains; he liked
invading strange hotels; above all, he revelled in the artistic
pleasure of watching unsuspecting fellow-men as if they were so many
That was really the best part of the whole thing. It was all very well
for Alice to talk about creeping and spying, but, if you considered it
without bias, there was nothing degrading about it at all. It was an
art. It took brains and a genius for disguise to make a man a
successful creeper and spyer. You couldn't simply say to yourself, 'I
will creep.' If you attempted to do it in your own person, you would be
detected instantly. You had to be an adept at masking your personality.
You had to be one man at Bristol and another quite different man at
Hull--especially if, like Henry, you were of a gregarious disposition,
and liked the society of actors.
The stage had always fascinated Henry. To meet even minor members of
the profession off the boards gave him a thrill. There was a resting
juvenile, of fit-up calibre, at his boarding-house who could always get
a shilling out of him simply by talking about how he had jumped in and
saved the show at the hamlets which he had visited in the course of his
wanderings. And on this 'Girl From Brighton' tour he was in constant
touch with men who really amounted to something. Walter Jelliffe had
been a celebrity when Henry was going to school; and Sidney Crane, the
baritone, and others of the lengthy cast, were all players not unknown
in London. Henry courted them assiduously.
It had not been hard to scrape acquaintance with them. The principals
of the company always put up at the best hotel, and--his expenses being
paid by his employer--so did Henry. It was the easiest thing possible
to bridge with a well-timed whisky-and-soda the gulf between
non-acquaintance and warm friendship. Walter Jelliffe, in particular,
was peculiarly accessible. Every time Henry accosted him--as a
different individual, of course--and renewed in a fresh disguise the
friendship which he had enjoyed at the last town, Walter Jelliffe met
him more than half-way.
It was in the sixth week of the tour that the comedian, promoting him
from mere casual acquaintanceship, invited him to come up to his room
and smoke a cigar.
Henry was pleased and flattered. Jelliffe was a personage, always
surrounded by admirers, and the compliment was consequently of a high
He lit his cigar. Among his friends at the Green-Room Club it was
unanimously held that Walter Jelliffe's cigars brought him within the
scope of the law forbidding the carrying of concealed weapons; but
Henry would have smoked the gift of such a man if it had been a
cabbage-leaf. He puffed away contentedly. He was made up as an old
Indian colonel that week, and he complimented his host on the aroma
with a fine old-world courtesy.
Walter Jelliffe seemed gratified.
'Quite comfortable?' he asked.
'Quite, I thank you,' said Henry, fondling his silver moustache.
'That's right. And now tell me, old man, which of us is it you're
Henry nearly swallowed his cigar.
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, come,' protested Jelliffe; 'there's no need to keep it up with me.
I know you're a detective. The question is, Who's the man you're after?
That's what we've all been wondering all this time.'
All! They had all been wondering! It was worse than Henry could have
imagined. Till now he had pictured his position with regard to 'The
Girl From Brighton' company rather as that of some scientist who,
seeing but unseen, keeps a watchful eye on the denizens of a drop of
water under his microscope. And they had all detected him--every one of
It was a stunning blow. If there was one thing on which Henry prided
himself it was the impenetrability of his disguises. He might be slow;
he might be on the stupid side; but he could disguise himself. He had a
variety of disguises, each designed to befog the public more hopelessly
than the last.
Going down the street, you would meet a typical commercial traveller,
dapper and alert. Anon, you encountered a heavily bearded Australian.
Later, maybe, it was a courteous old retired colonel who stopped you
and inquired the way to Trafalgar Square. Still later, a rather flashy
individual of the sporting type asked you for a match for his cigar.
Would you have suspected for one instant that each of these widely
differing personalities was in reality one man?
Certainly you would.
Henry did not know it, but he had achieved in the eyes of the small
servant who answered the front-door bell at his boarding-house a
well-established reputation as a humorist of the more practical kind.
It was his habit to try his disguises on her. He would ring the bell,
inquire for the landlady, and when Bella had gone, leap up the stairs
to his room. Here he would remove the disguise, resume his normal
appearance, and come downstairs again, humming a careless air. Bella,
meanwhile, in the kitchen, would be confiding to her ally the cook that
'Mr Rice had jest come in, lookin' sort o' funny again'.
He sat and gaped at Walter Jelliffe. The comedian regarded him
'You look at least a hundred years old,' he said. 'What are you made up
as? A piece of Gorgonzola?'
Henry glanced hastily at the mirror. Yes, he did look rather old. He
must have overdone some of the lines on his forehead. He looked
something between a youngish centenarian and a nonagenarian who had
seen a good deal of trouble.
'If you knew how you were demoralizing the company,' Jelliffe went on,
'you would drop it. As steady and quiet a lot of boys as ever you met
till you came along. Now they do nothing but bet on what disguise
you're going to choose for the next town. I don't see why you need to
change so often. You were all right as the Scotchman at Bristol. We
were all saying how nice you looked. You should have stuck to that. But
what do you do at Hull but roll in in a scrubby moustache and a tweed
suit, looking rotten. However, all that is beside the point. It's a
free country. If you like to spoil your beauty, I suppose there's no
law against it. What I want to know is, who's the man? Whose track are
you sniffing on, Bill? You'll pardon my calling you Bill. You're known
as Bill the Bloodhound in the company. Who's the man?'
'Never mind,' said Henry.
He was aware, as he made it, that it was not a very able retort, but he
was feeling too limp for satisfactory repartee. Criticisms in the
Bureau, dealing with his alleged solidity of skull, he did not resent.
He attributed them to man's natural desire to chaff his fellow-man. But
to be unmasked by the general public in this way was another matter. It
struck at the root of all things.
'But I do mind,' objected Jelliffe. 'It's most important. A lot of
money hangs on it. We've got a sweepstake on in the company, the holder
of the winning name to take the entire receipts. Come on. Who is he?'
Henry rose and made for the door. His feelings were too deep for words.
Even a minor detective has his professional pride; and the knowledge
that his espionage is being made the basis of sweepstakes by his quarry
cuts this to the quick.
'Here, don't go! Where are you going?'
'Back to London,' said Henry, bitterly. 'It's a lot of good my staying
here now, isn't it?'
'I should say it was--to me. Don't be in a hurry. You're thinking that,
now we know all about you, your utility as a sleuth has waned to some
extent. Is that it?'
'Well, why worry? What does it matter to you? You don't get paid by
results, do you? Your boss said "Trail along." Well, do it, then. I
should hate to lose you. I don't suppose you know it, but you've been
the best mascot this tour that I've ever come across. Right from the
start we've been playing to enormous business. I'd rather kill a black
cat than lose you. Drop the disguises, and stay with us. Come behind
all you want, and be sociable.'
A detective is only human. The less of a detective, the more human he
is. Henry was not much of a detective, and his human traits were
consequently highly developed. From a boy, he had never been able to
resist curiosity. If a crowd collected in the street he always added
himself to it, and he would have stopped to gape at a window with
'Watch this window' written on it, if he had been running for his life
from wild bulls. He was, and always had been, intensely desirous of
some day penetrating behind the scenes of a theatre.
And there was another thing. At last, if he accepted this invitation,
he would be able to see and speak to Alice Weston, and interfere with
the manoeuvres of the hatchet-faced man, on whom he had brooded with
suspicion and jealousy since that first morning at the station. To see
Alice! Perhaps, with eloquence, to talk her out of that ridiculous
resolve of hers!
'Why, there's something in that,' he said.
'Rather! Well, that's settled. And now, touching that sweep, who
'I can't tell you that. You see, so far as that goes, I'm just where I
was before. I can still watch--whoever it is I'm watching.'
'Dash it, so you can. I didn't think of that,' said Jelliffe, who
possessed a sensitive conscience. 'Purely between ourselves, it isn't
_me_, is it?'
Henry eyed him inscrutably. He could look inscrutable at times.
'Ah!' he said, and left quickly, with the feeling that, however poorly
he had shown up during the actual interview, his exit had been good. He
might have been a failure in the matter of disguise, but nobody could
have put more quiet sinister-ness into that 'Ah!' It did much to soothe
him and ensure a peaceful night's rest.
On the following night, for the first time in his life, Henry found
himself behind the scenes of a theatre, and instantly began to
experience all the complex emotions which come to the layman in that
situation. That is to say, he felt like a cat which has strayed into a
strange hostile back-yard. He was in a new world, inhabited by weird
creatures, who flitted about in an eerie semi-darkness, like brightly
coloured animals in a cavern.
'The Girl From Brighton' was one of those exotic productions specially
designed for the Tired Business Man. It relied for a large measure of
its success on the size and appearance of its chorus, and on their
constant change of costume. Henry, as a consequence, was the centre of
a kaleidoscopic whirl of feminine loveliness, dressed to represent
such varying flora and fauna as rabbits, Parisian students, colleens,
Dutch peasants, and daffodils. Musical comedy is the Irish stew of the
drama. Anything may be put into it, with the certainty that it will
improve the general effect.
He scanned the throng for a sight of Alice. Often as he had seen the
piece in the course of its six weeks' wandering in the wilderness he
had never succeeded in recognizing her from the front of the house.
Quite possibly, he thought, she might be on the stage already, hidden
in a rose-tree or some other shrub, ready at the signal to burst forth
upon the audience in short skirts; for in 'The Girl From Brighton'
almost anything could turn suddenly into a chorus-girl.
Then he saw her, among the daffodils. She was not a particularly
convincing daffodil, but she looked good to Henry. With wabbling knees
he butted his way through the crowd and seized her hand
'Why, Henry! Where did you come from?'
'I _am_ glad to see you!'
'How did you get here?'
'I _am_ glad to see you!'
At this point the stage-manager, bellowing from the prompt-box, urged
Henry to desist. It is one of the mysteries of behind-the-scenes
acoustics that a whisper from any minor member of the company can be
heard all over the house, while the stage-manager can burst himself
without annoying the audience.
Henry, awed by authority, relapsed into silence. From the unseen stage
came the sound of someone singing a song about the moon. June was also
mentioned. He recognized the song as one that had always bored him. He
disliked the woman who was singing it--a Miss Clarice Weaver, who
played the heroine of the piece to Sidney Crane's hero.
In his opinion he was not alone. Miss Weaver was not popular in the
company. She had secured the role rather as a testimony of personal
esteem from the management than because of any innate ability. She sang
badly, acted indifferently, and was uncertain what to do with her
hands. All these things might have been forgiven her, but she
supplemented them by the crime known in stage circles as 'throwing her
weight about'. That is to say, she was hard to please, and, when not
pleased, apt to say so in no uncertain voice. To his personal friends
Walter Jelliffe had frequently confided that, though not a rich man, he
was in the market with a substantial reward for anyone who was man
enough to drop a ton of iron on Miss Weaver.
Tonight the song annoyed Henry more than usual, for he knew that very
soon the daffodils were due on the stage to clinch the verisimilitude
of the scene by dancing the tango with the rabbits. He endeavoured to
make the most of the time at his disposal.
'I _am_ glad to see you!' he said.
'Sh-h!' said the stage-manager.
Henry was discouraged. Romeo could not have made love under these
conditions. And then, just when he was pulling himself together to
begin again, she was torn from him by the exigencies of the play.
He wandered moodily off into the dusty semi-darkness. He avoided the
prompt-box, whence he could have caught a glimpse of her, being loath
to meet the stage-manager just at present.
Walter Jelliffe came up to him, as he sat on a box and brooded on life.
'A little less of the double forte, old man,' he said. 'Miss Weaver has
been kicking about the noise on the side. She wanted you thrown out,
but I said you were my mascot, and I would die sooner than part with
you. But I should go easy on the chest-notes, I think, all the same.'
Henry nodded moodily. He was depressed. He had the feeling, which comes
so easily to the intruder behind the scenes, that nobody loved him.
The piece proceeded. From the front of the house roars of laughter
indicated the presence on the stage of Walter Jelliffe, while now and
then a lethargic silence suggested that Miss Clarice Weaver was in
action. From time to time the empty space about him filled with girls
dressed in accordance with the exuberant fancy of the producer of the
piece. When this happened, Henry would leap from his seat and endeavour
to locate Alice; but always, just as he thought he had done so, the
hidden orchestra would burst into melody and the chorus would be called
to the front.
It was not till late in the second act that he found an opportunity for
The plot of 'The Girl From Brighton' had by then reached a critical
stage. The situation was as follows: The hero, having been disinherited
by his wealthy and titled father for falling in love with the heroine,
a poor shop-girl, has disguised himself (by wearing a different
coloured necktie) and has come in pursuit of her to a well-known
seaside resort, where, having disguised herself by changing her dress,
she is serving as a waitress in the Rotunda, on the Esplanade. The
family butler, disguised as a Bath-chair man, has followed the hero,
and the wealthy and titled father, disguised as an Italian
opera-singer, has come to the place for a reason which, though
extremely sound, for the moment eludes the memory. Anyhow, he is there,
and they all meet on the Esplanade. Each recognizes the other, but
thinks he himself is unrecognized. _Exeunt_ all, hurriedly,
leaving the heroine alone on the stage.
It is a crisis in the heroine's life. She meets it bravely. She sings a
song entitled 'My Honolulu Queen', with chorus of Japanese girls and
Alice was one of the Japanese girls.
She was standing a little apart from the other Japanese girls. Henry
was on her with a bound. Now was his time. He felt keyed up, full of
persuasive words. In the interval which had elapsed since their last
conversation yeasty emotions had been playing the dickens with his
self-control. It is practically impossible for a novice, suddenly
introduced behind the scenes of a musical comedy, not to fall in love
with somebody; and, if he is already in love, his fervour is increased
to a dangerous point.
Henry felt that it was now or never. He forgot that it was perfectly
possible--indeed, the reasonable course--to wait till the performance
was over, and renew his appeal to Alice to marry him on the way back to
her hotel. He had the feeling that he had got just about a quarter of a
minute. Quick action! That was Henry's slogan.
He seized her hand.
'Sh-h!' hissed the stage-manager.
'Listen! I love you. I'm crazy about you. What does it matter whether
I'm on the stage or not? I love you.'
'Stop that row there!'
'Won't you marry me?'
She looked at him. It seemed to him that she hesitated.
'Cut it out!' bellowed the stage-manager, and Henry cut it out.
And at this moment, when his whole fate hung in the balance, there came
from the stage that devastating high note which is the sign that the
solo is over and that the chorus are now about to mobilize. As if drawn
by some magnetic power, she suddenly receded from him, and went on to
A man in Henry's position and frame of mind is not responsible for his
actions. He saw nothing but her; he was blind to the fact that
important manoeuvres were in progress. All he understood was that she
was going from him, and that he must stop her and get this thing
He clutched at her. She was out of range, and getting farther away
He sprang forward.
The advice that should be given to every young man starting life is--if
you happen to be behind the scenes at a theatre, never spring forward.
The whole architecture of the place is designed to undo those who so
spring. Hours before, the stage-carpenters have laid their traps, and
in the semi-darkness you cannot but fall into them.
The trap into which Henry fell was a raised board. It was not a very
highly-raised board. It was not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door, but 'twas enough--it served. Stubbing it squarely with his
toe, Henry shot forward, all arms and legs.
It is the instinct of Man, in such a situation, to grab at the nearest
support. Henry grabbed at the Hotel Superba, the pride of the
Esplanade. It was a thin wooden edifice, and it supported him for
perhaps a tenth of a second. Then he staggered with it into the
limelight, tripped over a Bulgarian officer who was inflating himself
for a deep note, and finally fell in a complicated heap as exactly in
the centre of the stage as if he had been a star of years' standing.
It went well; there was no question of that. Previous audiences had
always been rather cold towards this particular song, but this one got
on its feet and yelled for more. From all over the house came rapturous
demands that Henry should go back and do it again.
But Henry was giving no encores. He rose to his feet, a little stunned,
and automatically began to dust his clothes. The orchestra, unnerved by
this unrehearsed infusion of new business, had stopped playing.
Bulgarian officers and Japanese girls alike seemed unequal to the
situation. They stood about, waiting for the next thing to break loose.
From somewhere far away came faintly the voice of the stage-manager
inventing new words, new combinations of words, and new throat noises.
And then Henry, massaging a stricken elbow, was aware of Miss Weaver at
his side. Looking up, he caught Miss Weaver's eye.
A familiar stage-direction of melodrama reads, 'Exit cautious through
gap in hedge'. It was Henry's first appearance on any stage, but he did
it like a veteran.
'My dear fellow,' said Walter Jelliffe. The hour was midnight, and he
was sitting in Henry's bedroom at the hotel. Leaving the theatre, Henry
had gone to bed almost instinctively. Bed seemed the only haven for
him. 'My dear fellow, don't apologize. You have put me under lasting
obligations. In the first place, with your unerring sense of the stage,
you saw just the spot where the piece needed livening up, and you
livened it up. That was good; but far better was it that you also sent
our Miss Weaver into violent hysterics, from which she emerged to hand
in her notice. She leaves us tomorrow.'
Henry was appalled at the extent of the disaster for which he was
'What will you do?'
'Do! Why, it's what we have all been praying for--a miracle which
should eject Miss Weaver. It needed a genius like you to come to bring
it off. Sidney Crane's wife can play the part without rehearsal. She
understudied it all last season in London. Crane has just been speaking
to her on the phone, and she is catching the night express.'
Henry sat up in bed.
'What's the trouble now?'
'Sidney Crane's wife?'
'What about her?'
A bleakness fell upon Henry's soul.
'She was the woman who was employing me. Now I shall be taken off the
job and have to go back to London.'
'You don't mean that it was really Crane's wife?'
Jelliffe was regarding him with a kind of awe.
'Laddie,' he said, in a hushed voice, 'you almost scare me. There seems
to be no limit to your powers as a mascot. You fill the house every
night, you get rid of the Weaver woman, and now you tell me this. I
drew Crane in the sweep, and I would have taken twopence for my chance
of winning it.'
'I shall get a telegram from my boss tomorrow recalling me.'
'Don't go. Stick with me. Join the troupe.'
'What do you mean? I can't sing or act.'
Jelliffe's voice thrilled with earnestness.
'My boy, I can go down the Strand and pick up a hundred fellows who can
sing and act. I don't want them. I turn them away. But a seventh son of
a seventh son like you, a human horseshoe like you, a king of mascots
like you--they don't make them nowadays. They've lost the pattern. If
you like to come with me I'll give you a contract for any number of
years you suggest. I need you in my business.' He rose. 'Think it over,
laddie, and let me know tomorrow. Look here upon this picture, and on
that. As a sleuth you are poor. You couldn't detect a bass-drum in a
telephone-booth. You have no future. You are merely among those
present. But as a mascot--my boy, you're the only thing in sight. You
can't help succeeding on the stage. You don't have to know how to act.
Look at the dozens of good actors who are out of jobs. Why? Unlucky. No
other reason. With your luck and a little experience you'll be a star
before you know you've begun. Think it over, and let me know in the
Before Henry's eyes there rose a sudden vision of Alice: Alice no
longer unattainable; Alice walking on his arm down the aisle; Alice
mending his socks; Alice with her heavenly hands fingering his salary
'Don't go,' he said. 'Don't go. I'll let you know now.'
* * * * *
The scene is the Strand, hard by Bedford Street; the time, that restful
hour of the afternoon when they of the gnarled faces and the bright
clothing gather together in groups to tell each other how good they
Hark! A voice.
'Rather! Courtneidge and the Guv'nor keep on trying to get me, but I
turn them down every time. "No," I said to Malone only yesterday, "not
for me! I'm going with old Wally Jelliffe, the same as usual, and there
isn't the money in the Mint that'll get me away." Malone got all worked
It is the voice of Pifield Rice, actor.
EXTRICATING YOUNG GUSSIE
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a
complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely
about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed
me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small
hours. It can't have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me
out of the dreamless and broke the news:
'Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.'
I thought she must be walking in her sleep, but I crawled out of bed
and got into a dressing-gown. I knew Aunt Agatha well enough to know
that, if she had come to see me, she was going to see me. That's the
sort of woman she is.
She was sitting bolt upright in a chair, staring into space. When I
came in she looked at me in that darn critical way that always makes me
feel as if I had gelatine where my spine ought to be. Aunt Agatha is
one of those strong-minded women. I should think Queen Elizabeth must
have been something like her. She bosses her husband, Spencer Gregson,
a battered little chappie on the Stock Exchange. She bosses my cousin,
Gussie Mannering-Phipps. She bosses her sister-in-law, Gussie's mother.
And, worst of all, she bosses me. She has an eye like a man-eating
fish, and she has got moral suasion down to a fine point.
I dare say there are fellows in the world--men of blood and iron, don't
you know, and all that sort of thing--whom she couldn't intimidate; but
if you're a chappie like me, fond of a quiet life, you simply curl into
a ball when you see her coming, and hope for the best. My experience is
that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you
find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a
fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
'Halloa, Aunt Agatha!' I said
'Bertie,' she said, 'you look a sight. You look perfectly dissipated.'
I was feeling like a badly wrapped brown-paper parcel. I'm never at my
best in the early morning. I said so.
'Early morning! I had breakfast three hours ago, and have been walking
in the park ever since, trying to compose my thoughts.'
If I ever breakfasted at half past eight I should walk on the
Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
'I am extremely worried, Bertie. That is why I have come to you.'
And then I saw she was going to start something, and I bleated weakly
to Jeeves to bring me tea. But she had begun before I could get it.
'What are your immediate plans, Bertie?'
'Well, I rather thought of tottering out for a bite of lunch later on,
and then possibly staggering round to the club, and after that, if I
felt strong enough, I might trickle off to Walton Heath for a round of
I am not interested in your totterings and tricklings. I mean, have you
any important engagements in the next week or so?'
I scented danger.
'Rather,' I said. 'Heaps! Millions! Booked solid!'
'What are they?'
'I--er--well, I don't quite know.'
'I thought as much. You have no engagements. Very well, then, I want
you to start immediately for America.'
Do not lose sight of the fact that all this was taking place on an
empty stomach, shortly after the rising of the lark.
'Yes, America. I suppose even you have heard of America?'
'But why America?'
'Because that is where your Cousin Gussie is. He is in New York, and I
can't get at him.'
'What's Gussie been doing?'
'Gussie is making a perfect idiot of himself.'
To one who knew young Gussie as well as I did, the words opened up a
wide field for speculation.
'In what way?'
'He has lost his head over a creature.'
On past performances this rang true. Ever since he arrived at man's
estate Gussie had been losing his head over creatures. He's that sort
of chap. But, as the creatures never seemed to lose their heads over
him, it had never amounted to much.
'I imagine you know perfectly well why Gussie went to America, Bertie.
You know how wickedly extravagant your Uncle Cuthbert was.'
She alluded to Gussie's governor, the late head of the family, and I am
bound to say she spoke the truth. Nobody was fonder of old Uncle
Cuthbert than I was, but everybody knows that, where money was
concerned, he was the most complete chump in the annals of the nation.
He had an expensive thirst. He never backed a horse that didn't get
housemaid's knee in the middle of the race. He had a system of beating
the bank at Monte Carlo which used to make the administration hang out
the bunting and ring the joy-bells when he was sighted in the offing.
Take him for all in all, dear old Uncle Cuthbert was as willing a
spender as ever called the family lawyer a bloodsucking vampire because
he wouldn't let Uncle Cuthbert cut down the timber to raise another
'He left your Aunt Julia very little money for a woman in her
position. Beechwood requires a great deal of keeping up, and
poor dear Spencer, though he does his best to help, has not
unlimited resources. It was clearly understood why Gussie went
to America. He is not clever, but he is very good-looking, and,
though he has no title, the Mannering-Phippses are one of the best
and oldest families in England. He had some excellent letters of
introduction, and when he wrote home to say that he had met the
most charming and beautiful girl in the world I felt quite happy.
He continued to rave about her for several mails, and then this
morning a letter has come from him in which he says, quite casually
as a sort of afterthought, that he knows we are broadminded enough
not to think any the worse of her because she is on the vaudeville
'Oh, I say!'
'It was like a thunderbolt. The girl's name, it seems, is Ray Denison,
and according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a
single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have
not the least notion. As a further recommendation he states that she
lifted them out of their seats at Mosenstein's last week. Who she may
be, and how or why, and who or what Mr Mosenstein may be, I cannot tell
'By jove,' I said, 'it's like a sort of thingummybob, isn't it? A sort
of fate, what?'
'I fail to understand you.'
'Well, Aunt Julia, you know, don't you know? Heredity, and so forth.
What's bred in the bone will come out in the wash, and all that kind of
thing, you know.'
'Don't be absurd, Bertie.'
That was all very well, but it was a coincidence for all that. Nobody
ever mentions it, and the family have been trying to forget it for
twenty-five years, but it's a known fact that my Aunt Julia, Gussie's
mother, was a vaudeville artist once, and a very good one, too, I'm
told. She was playing in pantomime at Drury Lane when Uncle Cuthbert
saw her first. It was before my time, of course, and long before I was
old enough to take notice the family had made the best of it, and Aunt
Agatha had pulled up her socks and put in a lot of educative work, and
with a microscope you couldn't tell Aunt Julia from a genuine
dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat. Women adapt themselves so quickly!
I have a pal who married Daisy Trimble of the Gaiety, and when I meet
her now I feel like walking out of her presence backwards. But there
the thing was, and you couldn't get away from it. Gussie had vaudeville
blood in him, and it looked as if he were reverting to type, or
whatever they call it.
'By Jove,' I said, for I am interested in this heredity stuff, 'perhaps
the thing is going to be a regular family tradition, like you read
about in books--a sort of Curse of the Mannering-Phippses, as it were.
Perhaps each head of the family's going to marry into vaudeville for
ever and ever. Unto the what-d'you-call-it generation, don't you know?'
'Please do not be quite idiotic, Bertie. There is one head of the
family who is certainly not going to do it, and that is Gussie. And you
are going to America to stop him.'
'Yes, but why me?'
'Why you? You are too vexing, Bertie. Have you no sort of feeling for
the family? You are too lazy to try to be a credit to yourself, but at
least you can exert yourself to prevent Gussie's disgracing us. You are
going to America because you are Gussie's cousin, because you have
always been his closest friend, because you are the only one of the
family who has absolutely nothing to occupy his time except golf and
'I play a lot of auction.'
'And as you say, idiotic gambling in low dens. If you require another
reason, you are going because I ask you as a personal favour.'
What she meant was that, if I refused, she would exert the full bent of
her natural genius to make life a Hades for me. She held me with her
glittering eye. I have never met anyone who can give a better imitation
of the Ancient Mariner.
'So you will start at once, won't you, Bertie?'
I didn't hesitate.
'Rather!' I said. 'Of course I will'
Jeeves came in with the tea.
'Jeeves,' I said, 'we start for America on Saturday.'
'Very good, sir,' he said; 'which suit will you wear?'
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America,
so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You
can't lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and
there you are, right in among it. The only possible objection any
reasonable chappie could find to the place is that they loose you into
it from the boat at such an ungodly hour.
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of
suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among
my new shirts, and drove to Gussie's hotel, where I requested the squad
of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
That's where I got my first shock. He wasn't there. I pleaded with them
to think again, and they thought again, but it was no good. No Augustus
Mannering-Phipps on the premises.
I admit I was hard hit. There I was alone in a strange city and no
signs of Gussie. What was the next step? I am never one of the master
minds in the early morning; the old bean doesn't somehow seem to get
into its stride till pretty late in the p.m.s, and I couldn't think
what to do. However, some instinct took me through a door at the back
of the lobby, and I found myself in a large room with an enormous
picture stretching across the whole of one wall, and under the picture
a counter, and behind the counter divers chappies in white, serving
drinks. They have barmen, don't you know, in New York, not barmaids.
I put myself unreservedly into the hands of one of the white chappies.
He was a friendly soul, and I told him the whole state of affairs. I
asked him what he thought would meet the case.
He said that in a situation of that sort he usually prescribed a
'lightning whizzer', an invention of his own. He said this was what
rabbits trained on when they were matched against grizzly bears, and
there was only one instance on record of the bear having lasted three
rounds. So I tried a couple, and, by Jove! the man was perfectly right.
As I drained the second a great load seemed to fall from my heart, and
I went out in quite a braced way to have a look at the city.
I was surprised to find the streets quite full. People were bustling
along as if it were some reasonable hour and not the grey dawn. In the
tramcars they were absolutely standing on each other's necks. Going to
business or something, I take it. Wonderful johnnies!
The odd part of it was that after the first shock of seeing all this
frightful energy the thing didn't seem so strange. I've spoken to
fellows since who have been to New York, and they tell me they found it
just the same. Apparently there's something in the air, either the
ozone or the phosphates or something, which makes you sit up and take
notice. A kind of zip, as it were. A sort of bally freedom, if you know
what I mean, that gets into your blood and bucks you up, and makes you
_God's in His Heaven:
All's right with the world_,
and you don't care if you've got odd socks on. I can't express it
better than by saying that the thought uppermost in my mind, as I
walked about the place they call Times Square, was that there were
three thousand miles of deep water between me and my Aunt Agatha.
It's a funny thing about looking for things. If you hunt for a needle
in a haystack you don't find it. If you don't give a darn whether you
ever see the needle or not it runs into you the first time you lean
against the stack. By the time I had strolled up and down once or
twice, seeing the sights and letting the white chappie's corrective
permeate my system, I was feeling that I wouldn't care if Gussie and I
never met again, and I'm dashed if I didn't suddenly catch sight of the
old lad, as large as life, just turning in at a doorway down the
I called after him, but he didn't hear me, so I legged it in pursuit
and caught him going into an office on the first floor. The name on the
door was Abe Riesbitter, Vaudeville Agent, and from the other side of
the door came the sound of many voices.
He turned and stared at me.
'Bertie! What on earth are you doing? Where have you sprung from? When
did you arrive?'
'Landed this morning. I went round to your hotel, but they said you
weren't there. They had never heard of you.'
'I've changed my name. I call myself George Wilson.'
'Why on earth?'
'Well, you try calling yourself Augustus Mannering-Phipps over here,
and see how it strikes you. You feel a perfect ass. I don't know what
it is about America, but the broad fact is that it's not a place where
you can call yourself Augustus Mannering-Phipps. And there's another
reason. I'll tell you later. Bertie, I've fallen in love with the
dearest girl in the world.'
The poor old nut looked at me in such a deuced cat-like way, standing
with his mouth open, waiting to be congratulated, that I simply hadn't
the heart to tell him that I knew all about that already, and had come
over to the country for the express purpose of laying him a stymie.
So I congratulated him.
'Thanks awfully, old man,' he said. 'It's a bit premature, but I fancy
it's going to be all right. Come along in here, and I'll tell you about
'What do you want in this place? It looks a rummy spot.'
'Oh, that's part of the story. I'll tell you the whole thing.'
We opened the door marked 'Waiting Room'. I never saw such a crowded
place in my life. The room was packed till the walls bulged.
'Pros,' he said, 'music-hall artistes, you know, waiting to see old Abe
Riesbitter. This is September the first, vaudeville's opening day. The
early fall,' said Gussie, who is a bit of a poet in his way, 'is
vaudeville's springtime. All over the country, as August wanes,
sparkling comediennes burst into bloom, the sap stirs in the veins of
tramp cyclists, and last year's contortionists, waking from their
summer sleep, tie themselves tentatively into knots. What I mean is,
this is the beginning of the new season, and everybody's out hunting
'But what do you want here?'
'Oh, I've just got to see Abe about something. If you see a fat man
with about fifty-seven chins come out of that door there grab him, for
that'll be Abe. He's one of those fellows who advertise each step up
they take in the world by growing another chin. I'm told that way back
in the nineties he only had two. If you do grab Abe, remember that he
knows me as George Wilson.'
'You said that you were going to explain that George Wilson business to
me, Gussie, old man.'
'Well, it's this way--'
At this juncture dear old Gussie broke off short, rose from his seat,
and sprang with indescribable vim at an extraordinarily stout chappie
who had suddenly appeared. There was the deuce of a rush for him, but
Gussie had got away to a good start, and the rest of the singers,
dancers, jugglers, acrobats, and refined sketch teams seemed to
recognize that he had won the trick, for they ebbed back into their
places again, and Gussie and I went into the inner room.
Mr Riesbitter lit a cigar, and looked at us solemnly over his zareba of
'Now, let me tell ya something,' he said to Gussie. 'You lizzun t' me.'
Gussie registered respectful attention. Mr Riesbitter mused for a
moment and shelled the cuspidor with indirect fire over the edge of the
'Lizzun t' me,' he said again. 'I seen you rehearse, as I promised Miss
Denison I would. You ain't bad for an amateur. You gotta lot to learn,
but it's in you. What it comes to is that I can fix you up in the
four-a-day, if you'll take thirty-five per. I can't do better than
that, and I wouldn't have done that if the little lady hadn't of kep'
after me. Take it or leave it. What do you say?'
'I'll take it,' said Gussie, huskily. 'Thank you.'
In the passage outside, Gussie gurgled with joy and slapped me on the
back. 'Bertie, old man, it's all right. I'm the happiest man in New
'Well, you see, as I was telling you when Abe came in, Ray's father
used to be in the profession. He was before our time, but I remember
hearing about him--Joe Danby. He used to be well known in London before
he came over to America. Well, he's a fine old boy, but as obstinate as
a mule, and he didn't like the idea of Ray marrying me because I wasn't
in the profession. Wouldn't hear of it. Well, you remember at Oxford I
could always sing a song pretty well; so Ray got hold of old Riesbitter
and made him promise to come and hear me rehearse and get me bookings
if he liked my work. She stands high with him. She coached me for
weeks, the darling. And now, as you heard him say, he's booked me in
the small time at thirty-five dollars a week.'
I steadied myself against the wall. The effects of the restoratives
supplied by my pal at the hotel bar were beginning to work off, and I
felt a little weak. Through a sort of mist I seemed to have a vision of
Aunt Agatha hearing that the head of the Mannering-Phippses was about
to appear on the vaudeville stage. Aunt Agatha's worship of the family
name amounts to an obsession. The Mannering-Phippses were an
old-established clan when William the Conqueror was a small boy going
round with bare legs and a catapult. For centuries they have called
kings by their first names and helped dukes with their weekly rent; and
there's practically nothing a Mannering-Phipps can do that doesn't blot
his escutcheon. So what Aunt Agatha would say--beyond saying that it
was all my fault--when she learned the horrid news, it was beyond me to
'Come back to the hotel, Gussie,' I said. 'There's a sportsman there
who mixes things he calls "lightning whizzers". Something tells me I
need one now. And excuse me for one minute, Gussie. I want to send a
It was clear to me by now that Aunt Agatha had picked the wrong man for
this job of disentangling Gussie from the clutches of the American
vaudeville profession. What I needed was reinforcements. For a moment I
thought of cabling Aunt Agatha to come over, but reason told me that
this would be overdoing it. I wanted assistance, but not so badly as
that. I hit what seemed to me the happy mean. I cabled to Gussie's
mother and made it urgent.
'What were you cabling about?' asked Gussie, later.
'Oh just to say I had arrived safely, and all that sort of tosh,' I
* * * * *
Gussie opened his vaudeville career on the following Monday at a rummy
sort of place uptown where they had moving pictures some of the time
and, in between, one or two vaudeville acts. It had taken a lot of
careful handling to bring him up to scratch. He seemed to take my
sympathy and assistance for granted, and I couldn't let him down. My
only hope, which grew as I listened to him rehearsing, was that he
would be such a frightful frost at his first appearance that he would
never dare to perform again; and, as that would automatically squash
the marriage, it seemed best to me to let the thing go on.
He wasn't taking any chances. On the Saturday and Sunday we practically
lived in a beastly little music-room at the offices of the publishers
whose songs he proposed to use. A little chappie with a hooked nose
sucked a cigarette and played the piano all day. Nothing could tire
that lad. He seemed to take a personal interest in the thing.
Gussie would cleat his throat and begin:
'There's a great big choo-choo waiting at the deepo.'
THE CHAPPIE (playing chords): 'Is that so? What's it waiting for?'
GUSSIE (rather rattled at the interruption): 'Waiting for me.'
THE CHAPPIE (surprised): For you?'
GUSSIE (sticking to it): 'Waiting for me-e-ee!'
THE CHAPPIE (sceptically): 'You don't say!'
GUSSIE: 'For I'm off to Tennessee.'
THE CHAPPIE (conceding a point): 'Now, I live at Yonkers.'
He did this all through the song. At first poor old Gussie asked him to
stop, but the chappie said, No, it was always done. It helped to get
pep into the thing. He appealed to me whether the thing didn't want a
bit of pep, and I said it wanted all the pep it could get. And the
chappie said to Gussie, 'There you are!' So Gussie had to stand it.
The other song that he intended to sing was one of those moon songs. He
told me in a hushed voice that he was using it because it was one of
the songs that the girl Ray sang when lifting them out of their seats
at Mosenstein's and elsewhere. The fact seemed to give it sacred
associations for him.
You will scarcely believe me, but the management expected Gussie to
show up and start performing at one o'clock in the afternoon. I told
him they couldn't be serious, as they must know that he would be
rolling out for a bit of lunch at that hour, but Gussie said this was
the usual thing in the four-a-day, and he didn't suppose he would ever
get any lunch again until he landed on the big time. I was just
condoling with him, when I found that he was taking it for granted that
I should be there at one o'clock, too. My idea had been that I should
look in at night, when--if he survived--he would be coming up for the
fourth time; but I've never deserted a pal in distress, so I said
good-bye to the little lunch I'd been planning at a rather decent
tavern I'd discovered on Fifth Avenue, and trailed along. They were
showing pictures when I reached my seat. It was one of those Western
films, where the cowboy jumps on his horse and rides across country at
a hundred and fifty miles an hour to escape the sheriff, not knowing,
poor chump! that he might just as well stay where he is, the sheriff
having a horse of his own which can do three hundred miles an hour
without coughing. I was just going to close my eyes and try to forget
till they put Gussie's name up when I discovered that I was sitting
next to a deucedly pretty girl.
No, let me be honest. When I went in I had seen that there was a
deucedly pretty girl sitting in that particular seat, so I had taken
the next one. What happened now was that I began, as it were, to drink
her in. I wished they would turn the lights up so that I could see her
better. She was rather small, with great big eyes and a ripping smile.
It was a shame to let all that run to seed, so to speak, in
Suddenly the lights did go up, and the orchestra began to play a tune
which, though I haven't much of an ear for music, seemed somehow
familiar. The next instant out pranced old Gussie from the wings in a
purple frock-coat and a brown top-hat, grinned feebly at the audience,
tripped over his feet blushed, and began to sing the Tennessee song.
It was rotten. The poor nut had got stage fright so badly that it
practically eliminated his voice. He sounded like some far-off echo of
the past 'yodelling' through a woollen blanket.
For the first time since I had heard that he was about to go into
vaudeville I felt a faint hope creeping over me. I was sorry for the
wretched chap, of course, but there was no denying that the thing had
its bright side. No management on earth would go on paying thirty-five
dollars a week for this sort of performance. This was going to be
Gussie's first and only. He would have to leave the profession. The old
boy would say, 'Unhand my daughter'. And, with decent luck, I saw
myself leading Gussie on to the next England-bound liner and handing
him over intact to Aunt Agatha.
He got through the song somehow and limped off amidst roars of silence
from the audience. There was a brief respite, then out he came again.
He sang this time as if nobody loved him. As a song, it was not a very
pathetic song, being all about coons spooning in June under the moon,
and so on and so forth, but Gussie handled it in such a sad, crushed
way that there was genuine anguish in every line. By the time he
reached the refrain I was nearly in tears. It seemed such a rotten sort
of world with all that kind of thing going on in it.
He started the refrain, and then the most frightful thing happened. The
girl next to me got up in her seat, chucked her head back, and began to
sing too. I say 'too', but it wasn't really too, because her first note
stopped Gussie dead, as if he had been pole-axed.
I never felt so bally conspicuous in my life. I huddled down in my seat
and wished I could turn my collar up. Everybody seemed to be looking at
In the midst of my agony I caught sight of Gussie. A complete change
had taken place in the old lad. He was looking most frightfully bucked.
I must say the girl was singing most awfully well, and it seemed to act
on Gussie like a tonic. When she came to the end of the refrain, he
took it up, and they sang it together, and the end of it was that he
went off the popular hero. The audience yelled for more, and were only
quieted when they turned down the lights and put on a film.
When I had recovered I tottered round to see Gussie. I found him
sitting on a box behind the stage, looking like one who had seen
'Isn't she a wonder, Bertie?' he said, devoutly. 'I hadn't a notion she
was going to be there. She's playing at the Auditorium this week, and
she can only just have had time to get back to her _matinee_. She
risked being late, just to come and see me through. She's my good
angel, Bertie. She saved me. If she hadn't helped me out I don't know
what would have happened. I was so nervous I didn't know what I was
doing. Now that I've got through the first show I shall be all right.'
I was glad I had sent that cable to his mother. I was going to need
her. The thing had got beyond me.
* * * * *
During the next week I saw a lot of old Gussie, and was introduced to
the girl. I also met her father, a formidable old boy with quick
eyebrows and a sort of determined expression. On the following
Wednesday Aunt Julia arrived. Mrs Mannering-Phipps, my aunt Julia, is,
I think, the most dignified person I know. She lacks Aunt Agatha's
punch, but in a quiet way she has always contrived to make me feel,
from boyhood up, that I was a poor worm. Not that she harries me like
Aunt Agatha. The difference between the two is that Aunt Agatha conveys
the impression that she considers me personally responsible for all the
sin and sorrow in the world, while Aunt Julia's manner seems to suggest
that I am more to be pitied than censured.
If it wasn't that the thing was a matter of historical fact, I should
be inclined to believe that Aunt Julia had never been on the vaudeville
stage. She is like a stage duchess.
She always seems to me to be in a perpetual state of being about to
desire the butler to instruct the head footman to serve lunch in the
blue-room overlooking the west terrace. She exudes dignity. Yet,
twenty-five years ago, so I've been told by old boys who were lads
about town in those days, she was knocking them cold at the Tivoli in a
double act called 'Fun in a Tea-Shop', in which she wore tights and
sang a song with a chorus that began, 'Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay'.
There are some things a chappie's mind absolutely refuses to picture,
and Aunt Julia singing 'Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay' is one of them.
She got straight to the point within five minutes of our meeting.
'What is this about Gussie? Why did you cable for me, Bertie?'
'It's rather a long story,' I said, 'and complicated. If you don't
mind, I'll let you have it in a series of motion pictures. Suppose we
look in at the Auditorium for a few minutes.'
The girl, Ray, had been re-engaged for a second week at the Auditorium,
owing to the big success of her first week. Her act consisted of three
songs. She did herself well in the matter of costume and scenery. She
had a ripping voice. She looked most awfully pretty; and altogether the
act was, broadly speaking, a pippin.
Aunt Julia didn't speak till we were in our seats. Then she gave a sort
'It's twenty-five years since I was in a music-hall!'
She didn't say any more, but sat there with her eyes glued on the
After about half an hour the johnnies who work the card-index system at
the side of the stage put up the name of Ray Denison, and there was a
good deal of applause.
'Watch this act, Aunt Julia,' I said.
She didn't seem to hear me.
'Twenty-five years! What did you say, Bertie?'
'Watch this act and tell me what you think of it.'
'Who is it? Ray. Oh!'
'Exhibit A,' I said. 'The girl Gussie's engaged to.'
The girl did her act, and the house rose at her. They didn't want to
let her go. She had to come back again and again. When she had finally
disappeared I turned to Aunt Julia.
'Well?' I said.
'I like her work. She's an artist.'
'We will now, if you don't mind, step a goodish way uptown.'
And we took the subway to where Gussie, the human film, was earning his
thirty-five per. As luck would have it, we hadn't been in the place ten
minutes when out he came.
'Exhibit B,' I said. 'Gussie.'
I don't quite know what I had expected her to do, but I certainly
didn't expect her to sit there without a word. She did not move a
muscle, but just stared at Gussie as he drooled on about the moon. I
was sorry for the woman, for it must have been a shock to her to see
her only son in a mauve frockcoat and a brown top-hat, but I thought it
best to let her get a strangle-hold on the intricacies of the situation
as quickly as possible. If I had tried to explain the affair without
the aid of illustrations I should have talked all day and left her
muddled up as to who was going to marry whom, and why.
I was astonished at the improvement in dear old Gussie. He had got back
his voice and was putting the stuff over well. It reminded me of the
night at Oxford when, then but a lad of eighteen, he sang 'Let's All Go
Down the Strand' after a bump supper, standing the while up to his
knees in the college fountain. He was putting just the same zip into
the thing now.
When he had gone off Aunt Julia sat perfectly still for a long time,
and then she turned to me. Her eyes shone queerly.
'What does this mean, Bertie?'
She spoke quite quietly, but her voice shook a bit.
'Gussie went into the business,' I said, 'because the girl's father
wouldn't let him marry her unless he did. If you feel up to it perhaps
you wouldn't mind tottering round to One Hundred and Thirty-third
Street and having a chat with him. He's an old boy with eyebrows, and
he's Exhibit C on my list. When I've put you in touch with him I rather
fancy my share of the business is concluded, and it's up to you.'
The Danbys lived in one of those big apartments uptown which look as if
they cost the earth and really cost about half as much as a hall-room
down in the forties. We were shown into the sitting-room, and presently
old Danby came in.
'Good afternoon, Mr Danby,' I began.
I had got as far as that when there was a kind of gasping cry at my
'Joe!' cried Aunt Julia, and staggered against the sofa.
For a moment old Danby stared at her, and then his mouth fell open and
his eyebrows shot up like rockets.
And then they had got hold of each other's hands and were shaking them
till I wondered their arms didn't come unscrewed.
I'm not equal to this sort of thing at such short notice. The
change in Aunt Julia made me feel quite dizzy. She had shed her
_grande-dame_ manner completely, and was blushing and smiling. I
don't like to say such things of any aunt of mine, or I would go
further and put it on record that she was giggling. And old Danby, who
usually looked like a cross between a Roman emperor and Napoleon
Bonaparte in a bad temper, was behaving like a small boy.
'Dear old Joe! Fancy meeting you again!'
'Wherever have you come from, Julie?'
Well, I didn't know what it was all about, but I felt a bit out of it.
I butted in:
'Aunt Julia wants to have a talk with you, Mr Danby.'
'I knew you in a second, Joe!'
'It's twenty-five years since I saw you, kid, and you don't look a day
'Oh, Joe! I'm an old woman!'
'What are you doing over here? I suppose'--old Danby's cheerfulness
waned a trifle--'I suppose your husband is with you?'
'My husband died a long, long while ago, Joe.'
Old Danby shook his head.
'You never ought to have married out of the profession, Julie. I'm
not saying a word against the late--I can't remember his name; never
could--but you shouldn't have done it, an artist like you. Shall I ever
forget the way you used to knock them with "Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay"?'
'Ah! how wonderful you were in that act, Joe.' Aunt Julia sighed. 'Do
you remember the back-fall you used to do down the steps? I always have
said that you did the best back-fall in the profession.'
'I couldn't do it now!'
'Do you remember how we put it across at the Canterbury, Joe? Think of
it! The Canterbury's a moving-picture house now, and the old Mogul runs
'I'm glad I'm not there to see them.'
'Joe, tell me, why did you leave England?'
'Well, I--I wanted a change. No I'll tell you the truth, kid. I wanted
you, Julie. You went off and married that--whatever that stage-door
johnny's name was--and it broke me all up.'
Aunt Julia was staring at him. She is what they call a well-preserved
woman. It's easy to see that, twenty-five years ago, she must have been
something quite extraordinary to look at. Even now she's almost
beautiful. She has very large brown eyes, a mass of soft grey hair, and
the complexion of a girl of seventeen.
'Joe, you aren't going to tell me you were fond of me yourself!'
'Of course I was fond of you. Why did I let you have all the fat in
"Fun in a Tea-Shop"? Why did I hang about upstage while you sang
"Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay"? Do you remember my giving you a bag of buns
when we were on the road at Bristol?'
'Do you remember my giving you the ham sandwiches at Portsmouth?'
'Do you remember my giving you a seed-cake at Birmingham? What did you
think all that meant, if not that I loved you? Why, I was working up by
degrees to telling you straight out when you suddenly went off and
married that cane-sucking dude. That's why I wouldn't let my daughter
marry this young chap, Wilson, unless he went into the profession.
She's an artist--'
'She certainly is, Joe.'
'You've seen her? Where?'
'At the Auditorium just now. But, Joe, you mustn't stand in the way of
her marrying the man she's in love with. He's an artist, too.'
'In the small time.'
'You were in the small time once, Joe. You mustn't look down on him
because he's a beginner. I know you feel that your daughter is marrying
beneath her, but--'
'How on earth do you know anything about young Wilson?
'He's my son.'
'Yes, Joe. And I've just been watching him work. Oh, Joe, you can't
think how proud I was of him! He's got it in him. It's fate. He's my
son and he's in the profession! Joe, you don't know what I've been
through for his sake. They made a lady of me. I never worked so hard in
my life as I did to become a real lady. They kept telling me I had got
to put it across, no matter what it cost, so that he wouldn't be
ashamed of me. The study was something terrible. I had to watch myself
every minute for years, and I never knew when I might fluff my lines or
fall down on some bit of business. But I did it, because I didn't want
him to be ashamed of me, though all the time I was just aching to be
back where I belonged.'
Old Danby made a jump at her, and took her by the shoulders.
'Come back where you belong, Julie!' he cried. 'Your husband's dead,
your son's a pro. Come back! It's twenty-five years ago, but I haven't
changed. I want you still. I've always wanted you. You've got to come
back, kid, where you belong.'
Aunt Julia gave a sort of gulp and looked at him.
'Joe!' she said in a kind of whisper.
'You're here, kid,' said Old Danby, huskily. 'You've come back....
Twenty-five years!... You've come back and you're going to stay!'
She pitched forward into his arms, and he caught her.
'Oh, Joe! Joe! Joe!' she said. 'Hold me. Don't let me go. Take care of
And I edged for the door and slipped from the room. I felt weak. The
old bean will stand a certain amount, but this was too much. I groped
my way out into the street and wailed for a taxi.
Gussie called on me at the hotel that night. He curveted into the room
as if he had bought it and the rest of the city.
'Bertie,' he said, 'I feel as if I were dreaming.'
'I wish I could feel like that, old top,' I said, and I took another
glance at a cable that had arrived half an hour ago from Aunt Agatha. I
had been looking at it at intervals ever since.
'Ray and I got back to her flat this evening. Who do you think was
there? The mater! She was sitting hand in hand with old Danby.'
'He was sitting hand in hand with her.'
'They are going to be married.'
'Ray and I are going to be married.'
'I suppose so.'
'Bertie, old man, I feel immense. I look round me, and everything seems
to be absolutely corking. The change in the mater is marvellous. She is
twenty-five years younger. She and old Danby are talking of reviving
"Fun in a Tea-Shop", and going out on the road with it.'
I got up.
'Gussie, old top,' I said, 'leave me for a while. I would be alone. I
think I've got brain fever or something.'
'Sorry, old man; perhaps New York doesn't agree with you. When do you
expect to go back to England?'
I looked again at Aunt Agatha's cable.
'With luck,' I said, 'in about ten years.'
When he was gone I took up the cable and read it again.
'What is happening?' it read. 'Shall I come over?'
I sucked a pencil for a while, and then I wrote the reply.
It was not an easy cable to word, but I managed it.
'No,' I wrote, 'stay where you are. Profession overcrowded.'
When Jack Wilton first came to Marois Bay, none of us dreamed that he
was a man with a hidden sorrow in his life. There was something about
the man which made the idea absurd, or would have made it absurd if he
himself had not been the authority for the story. He looked so
thoroughly pleased with life and with himself. He was one of those men
whom you instinctively label in your mind as 'strong'. He was so
healthy, so fit, and had such a confident, yet sympathetic, look about
him that you felt directly you saw him that here was the one person you
would have selected as the recipient of that hard-luck story of yours.
You felt that his kindly strength would have been something to lean on.
As a matter of fact, it was by trying to lean on it that Spencer Clay
got hold of the facts of the case; and when young Clay got hold of
anything, Marois Bay at large had it hot and fresh a few hours later;
for Spencer was one of those slack-jawed youths who are
constitutionally incapable of preserving a secret.
Within two hours, then, of Clay's chat with Wilton, everyone in the
place knew that, jolly and hearty as the new-comer might seem, there
was that gnawing at his heart which made his outward cheeriness simply
Clay, it seems, who is the worst specimen of self-pitier, had gone to
Wilton, in whom, as a new-comer, he naturally saw a fine fresh
repository for his tales of woe, and had opened with a long yarn of
some misfortune or other. I forget which it was; it might have been any
one of a dozen or so which he had constantly in stock, and it is
immaterial which it was. The point is that, having heard him out very
politely and patiently, Wilton came back at him with a story which
silenced even Clay. Spencer was equal to most things, but even he could
not go on whining about how he had foozled his putting and been snubbed
at the bridge-table, or whatever it was that he was pitying himself
about just then, when a man was telling him the story of a wrecked
'He told me not to let it go any further,' said Clay to everyone he
met, 'but of course it doesn't matter telling you. It is a thing he
doesn't like to have known. He told me because he said there was
something about me that seemed to extract confidences--a kind of
strength, he said. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but his life
is an absolute blank. Absolutely ruined, don't you know. He told me the
whole thing so simply and frankly that it broke me all up. It seems
that he was engaged to be married a few years ago, and on the wedding
morning--absolutely on the wedding morning--the girl was taken suddenly
'And died. Died in his arms. Absolutely in his arms, old top.'
'What a terrible thing!'
'Absolutely. He's never got over it. You won't let it go any further,
will you old man?'
And off sped Spencer, to tell the tale to someone else.
* * * * *
Everyone was terribly sorry for Wilton. He was such a good fellow, such
a sportsman, and, above all, so young, that one hated the thought that,
laugh as he might, beneath his laughter there lay the pain of that
awful memory. He seemed so happy, too. It was only in moments of
confidence, in those heart-to-heart talks when men reveal their deeper
feelings, that he ever gave a hint that all was not well with him. As,
for example, when Ellerton, who is always in love with someone, backed
him into a corner one evening and began to tell him the story of his
latest affair, he had hardly begun when such a look of pain came over
Wilton's face that he ceased instantly. He said afterwards that the
sudden realization of the horrible break he was making hit him like a
bullet, and the manner in which he turned the conversation practically
without pausing from love to a discussion of the best method of getting
out of the bunker at the seventh hole was, in the circumstances, a
triumph of tact.
Marois Bay is a quiet place even in the summer, and the Wilton tragedy
was naturally the subject of much talk. It is a sobering thing to get a
glimpse of the underlying sadness of life like that, and there was a
disposition at first on the part of the community to behave in his
presence in a manner reminiscent of pall-bearers at a funeral. But
things soon adjusted themselves. He was outwardly so cheerful that it
seemed ridiculous for the rest of us to step softly and speak with
hushed voices. After all, when you came to examine it, the thing was
his affair, and it was for him to dictate the lines on which it should
be treated. If he elected to hide his pain under a bright smile and a
laugh like that of a hyena with a more than usually keen sense of
humour, our line was obviously to follow his lead.
We did so; and by degrees the fact that his life was permanently
blighted became almost a legend. At the back of our minds we were aware
of it, but it did not obtrude itself into the affairs of every day. It
was only when someone, forgetting, as Ellerton had done, tried to
enlist his sympathy for some misfortune of his own that the look of
pain in his eyes and the sudden tightening of his lips reminded us that
he still remembered.
Matters had been at this stage for perhaps two weeks when Mary Campbell
Sex attraction is so purely a question of the taste of the individual
that the wise man never argues about it. He accepts its vagaries as
part of the human mystery, and leaves it at that. To me there was no
charm whatever about Mary Campbell. It may have been that, at the
moment, I was in love with Grace Bates, Heloise Miller, and Clarice
Wembley--for at Marois Bay, in the summer, a man who is worth his salt
is more than equal to three love affairs simultaneously--but anyway,
she left me cold. Not one thrill could she awake in me. She was small
and, to my mind, insignificant. Some men said that she had fine eyes.
They seemed to me just ordinary eyes. And her hair was just ordinary
hair. In fact, ordinary was the word that described her.
But from the first it was plain that she seemed wonderful with Wilton,
which was all the more remarkable, seeing that he was the one man of us
all who could have got any girl in Marois Bay that he wanted. When a
man is six foot high, is a combination of Hercules and Apollo, and
plays tennis, golf, and the banjo with almost superhuman vim, his path
with the girls of a summer seaside resort is pretty smooth. But, when
you add to all these things a tragedy like Wilton's, he can only be
described as having a walk-over.
Girls love a tragedy. At least, most girls do. It makes a man
interesting to them. Grace Bates was always going on about how
interesting Wilton was. So was Heloise Miller. So was Clarice Wembley.
But it was not until Mary Campbell came that he displayed any real
enthusiasm at all for the feminine element of Marois Bay. We put it
down to the fact that he could not forget, but the real reason, I now
know, was that he considered that girls were a nuisance on the links
and in the tennis-court. I suppose a plus two golfer and a Wildingesque
tennis-player, such as Wilton was, does feel like that. Personally, I
think that girls add to the fun of the thing. But then, my handicap is
twelve, and, though I have been playing tennis for many years, I doubt
if I have got my first serve--the fast one--over the net more than half
a dozen times.
But Mary Campbell overcame Wilton's prejudices in twenty-four hours. He
seemed to feel lonely on the links without her, and he positively egged
her to be his partner in the doubles. What Mary thought of him we did
not know. She was one of those inscrutable girls.
And so things went on. If it had not been that I knew Wilton's story, I
should have classed the thing as one of those summer love-affairs to
which the Marois Bay air is so peculiarly conducive. The only reason
why anyone comes away from a summer at Marois Bay unbetrothed is
because there are so many girls that he falls in love with that his
holiday is up before he can, so to speak, concentrate.
But in Wilton's case this was out of the question. A man does not get
over the sort of blow he had had, not, at any rate, for many years: and
we had gathered that his tragedy was comparatively recent.
I doubt if I was ever more astonished in my life than the night when he
confided in me. Why he should have chosen me as a confidant I cannot
say. I am inclined to think that I happened to be alone with him at the
psychological moment when a man must confide in somebody or burst; and
Wilton chose the lesser evil.
I was strolling along the shore after dinner, smoking a cigar and
thinking of Grace Bates, Heloise Miller, and Clarice Wembley, when I
happened upon him. It was a beautiful night, and we sat down and drank
it in for a while. The first intimation I had that all was not well
with him was when he suddenly emitted a hollow groan.
The next moment he had begun to confide.
'I'm in the deuce of a hole,' he said. 'What would you do in my
'Yes?' I said.
'I proposed to Mary Campbell this evening.'
'Thanks. She refused me.'
'Yes--because of Amy.'
It seemed to me that the narrative required footnotes.
'Who is Amy?' I said.
'Amy is the girl--'
'The girl who died, you know. Mary had got hold of the whole story. In
fact, it was the tremendous sympathy she showed that encouraged me to
propose. If it hadn't been for that, I shouldn't have had the nerve.
I'm not fit to black her shoes.'
Odd, the poor opinion a man always has--when he is in love--of his
personal attractions. There were times when I thought of Grace Bates,
Heloise Miller, and Clarice Wembley, when I felt like one of the beasts
that perish. But then, I'm nothing to write home about, whereas the
smallest gleam of intelligence should have told Wilton that he was a
kind of Ouida guardsman.
'This evening I managed somehow to do it. She was tremendously nice
about it--said she was very fond of me and all that--but it was quite
out of the question because of Amy.'
'I don't follow this. What did she mean?'
'It's perfectly clear, if you bear in mind that Mary is the most
sensitive, spiritual, highly strung girl that ever drew breath,' said
Wilton, a little coldly. 'Her position is this: she feels that, because
of Amy, she can never have my love completely; between us there would
always be Amy's memory. It would be the same as if she married a
'Well, widowers marry.'
'They don't marry girls like Mary.'
I couldn't help feeling that this was a bit of luck for the widowers;
but I didn't say so. One has always got to remember that opinions
differ about girls. One man's peach, so to speak, is another man's
poison. I have met men who didn't like Grace Bates, men who, if Heloise
Miller or Clarice Wembley had given them their photographs, would have
used them to cut the pages of a novel.
'Amy stands between us,' said Wilton.
I breathed a sympathetic snort. I couldn't think of anything noticeably
suitable to say.
'Stands between us,' repeated Wilton. 'And the damn silly part of the
whole thing is that there isn't any Amy. I invented her.'
'Invented her. Made her up. No, I'm not mad. I had a reason. Let me
see, you come from London, don't you?'
'Then you haven't any friends. It's different with me. I live in a
small country town, and everyone's my friend. I don't know what it is
about me, but for some reason, ever since I can remember, I've been
looked on as the strong man of my town, the man who's _all right_.
Am I making myself clear?'
'Well, what I am trying to get at is this. Either because I'm a strong
sort of fellow to look at, and have obviously never been sick in my
life, or because I can't help looking pretty cheerful, the whole of
Bridley-in-the-Wold seems to take it for granted that I can't possibly
have any troubles of my own, and that I am consequently fair game for
anyone who has any sort of worry. I have the sympathetic manner, and
they come to me to be cheered up. If a fellow's in love, he makes a
bee-line for me, and tells me all about it. If anyone has had a
bereavement, I am the rock on which he leans for support. Well, I'm a
patient sort of man, and, as far as Bridley-in-the-Wold is concerned, I
am willing to play the part. But a strong man does need an occasional
holiday, and I made up my mind that I would get it. Directly I got here
I saw that the same old game was going to start. Spencer Clay swooped
down on me at once. I'm as big a draw with the Spencer Clay type of
maudlin idiot as catnip is with a cat. Well, I could stand it at home,
but I was hanged if I was going to have my holiday spoiled. So I
invented Amy. Now do you see?'
'Certainly I see. And I perceive something else which you appear to
have overlooked. If Amy doesn't exist--or, rather, never did exist--she
cannot stand between you and Miss Campbell. Tell her what you have told
me, and all will be well.'
He shook his head.
'You don't know Mary. She would never forgive me. You don't know what
sympathy, what angelic sympathy, she has poured out on me about Amy. I
can't possibly tell her the whole thing was a fraud. It would make her
feel so foolish.'
'You must risk it. At the worst, you lose nothing.'
He brightened a little.
'No, that's true,' he said. 'I've half a mind to do it.'
'Make it a whole mind,' I said, 'and you win out.'
I was wrong. Sometimes I am. The trouble was, apparently, that I didn't
know Mary. I am sure Grace Bates, Heloise Miller, or Clarice Wembley
would not have acted as she did. They might have been a trifle stunned
at first, but they would soon have come round, and all would have been
joy. But with Mary, no. What took place at the interview I do not know;
but it was swiftly perceived by Marois Bay that the Wilton-Campbell
alliance was off. They no longer walked together, golfed together, and
played tennis on the same side of the net. They did not even speak to
* * * * *
The rest of the story I can speak of only from hearsay. How it became
public property, I do not know. But there was a confiding strain in
Wilton, and I imagine he confided in someone, who confided in someone
else. At any rate, it is recorded in Marois Bay's unwritten archives,
from which I now extract it.
* * * * *
For some days after the breaking-off of diplomatic relations, Wilton
seemed too pulverized to resume the offensive. He mooned about the
links by himself, playing a shocking game, and generally comported
himself like a man who has looked for the escape of gas with a lighted
candle. In affairs of love the strongest men generally behave with the
most spineless lack of resolution. Wilton weighed thirteen stone, and
his muscles were like steel cables; but he could not have shown less
pluck in this crisis in his life if he had been a poached egg. It was
pitiful to see him.
Mary, in these days, simply couldn't see that he was on the earth. She
looked round him, above him, and through him, but never at him; which
was rotten from Wilton's point of view, for he had developed a sort of
wistful expression--I am convinced that he practised it before the
mirror after his bath--which should have worked wonders, if only he
could have got action with it. But she avoided his eye as if he had
been a creditor whom she was trying to slide past on the street.
She irritated me. To let the breach widen in this way was absurd.
Wilton, when I said as much to him, said that it was due to her
wonderful sensitiveness and highly strungness, and that it was just one
more proof to him of the loftiness of her soul and her shrinking horror
of any form of deceit. In fact, he gave me the impression that, though
the affair was rending his vitals, he took a mournful pleasure in
contemplating her perfection.
Now one afternoon Wilton took his misery for a long walk along the
seashore. He tramped over the sand for some considerable time, and
finally pulled up in a little cove, backed by high cliffs and dotted
with rocks. The shore around Marois Bay is full of them.
By this time the afternoon sun had begun to be too warm for comfort,
and it struck Wilton that he could be a great deal more comfortable
nursing his wounded heart with his back against one of the rocks than
tramping any farther over the sand. Most of the Marois Bay scenery is
simply made as a setting for the nursing of a wounded heart. The cliffs
are a sombre indigo, sinister and forbidding; and even on the finest
days the sea has a curious sullen look. You have only to get away from
the crowd near the bathing-machines and reach one of these small coves
and get your book against a rock and your pipe well alight, and you can
simply wallow in misery. I have done it myself. The day when Heloise
Miller went golfing with Teddy Bingley I spent the whole afternoon in
one of these retreats. It is true that, after twenty minutes of
contemplating the breakers, I fell asleep; but that is bound to happen.
It happened to Wilton. For perhaps half an hour he brooded, and then
his pipe fell from his mouth and he dropped off into a peaceful
slumber. And time went by.
It was a touch of cramp that finally woke him. He jumped up with a
yell, and stood there massaging his calf. And he had hardly got rid of
the pain, when a startled exclamation broke the primeval stillness; and
there, on the other side of the rock, was Mary Campbell.
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