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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 19604

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


I am strongly of the opinion that, after the age of twenty-one, a man ought not to be out of bed and awake at four in the morning. The hour breeds thought. At twenty-one, life being all future, it may be examined with impunity. But, at thirty, having become an uncomfortable mixture of future and past, it is a thing to be looked at only when the sun is high and the world full of warmth and optimism.

This thought came to me as I returned to my rooms after the Fletchers' ball. The dawn was breaking as I let myself in. The air was heavy with the peculiar desolation of a London winter morning. The houses looked dead and untenanted. A cart rumbled past, and across the grey street a dingy black cat, moving furtively along the pavement, gave an additional touch of forlornness to the scene.

I shivered. I was tired and hungry, and the reaction after the emotions of the night had left me dispirited.

I was engaged to be married. An hour back I had proposed to Cynthia Drassilis. And I can honestly say that it had come as a great surprise to me.

Why had I done it? Did I love her? It was so difficult to analyse love: and perhaps the mere fact that I was attempting the task was an answer to the question. Certainly I had never tried to do so five years ago when I had loved Audrey Blake. I had let myself be carried on from day to day in a sort of trance, content to be utterly happy, without dissecting my happiness. But I was five years younger then, and Audrey was-Audrey.

I must explain Audrey, for she in her turn explains Cynthia.

I have no illusions regarding my character when I first met Audrey Blake. Nature had given me the soul of a pig, and circumstances had conspired to carry on Nature's work. I loved comfort, and I could afford to have it. From the moment I came of age and relieved my trustees of the care of my money, I wrapped myself in comfort as in a garment. I wallowed in egoism. In fact, if, between my twenty-first and my twenty-fifth birthdays, I had one unselfish thought, or did one genuinely unselfish action, my memory is a blank on the point.

It was at the height of this period that I became engaged to Audrey. Now that I can understand her better and see myself, impartially, as I was in those days, I can realize how indescribably offensive I must have been. My love was real, but that did not prevent its patronizing complacency being an insult. I was King Cophetua. If I did not actually say in so many words, 'This beggar-maid shall be my queen', I said it plainly and often in my manner. She was the daughter of a dissolute, evil-tempered artist whom I had met at a Bohemian club. He made a living by painting an occasional picture, illustrating an occasional magazine-story, but mainly by doing advertisement work. A proprietor of a patent Infants' Food, not satisfied with the bare statement that Baby Cried For It, would feel it necessary to push the fact home to the public through the medium of Art, and Mr Blake would be commissioned to draw the picture. A good many specimens of his work in this vein were to be found in the back pages of the magazines.

A man may make a living by these means, but it is one that inclines him to jump at a wealthy son-in-law. Mr Blake jumped at me. It was one of his last acts on this earth. A week after he had-as I now suspect-bullied Audrey into accepting me, he died of pneumonia.

His death had several results. It postponed the wedding: it stirred me to a very crescendo of patronage, for with the removal of the bread-winner the only flaw in my Cophetua pose had vanished: and it gave Audrey a great deal more scope than she had hitherto been granted for the exercise of free will in the choice of a husband.

This last aspect of the matter was speedily brought to my notice, which till then it had escaped, by a letter from her, handed to me one night at the club, where I was sipping coffee and musing on the excellence of life in this best of all possible worlds.

It was brief and to the point. She had been married that morning.

To say that that moment was a turning point in my life would be to use a ridiculously inadequate phrase. It dynamited my life. In a sense it killed me. The man I had been died that night, regretted, I imagine, by few. Whatever I am today, I am certainly not the complacent spectator of life that I had been before that night.

I crushed the letter in my hand, and sat staring at it, my pigsty in ruins about my ears, face to face with the fact that, even in a best of all possible worlds, money will not buy everything.

I remember, as I sat there, a man, a club acquaintance, a bore from whom I had fled many a time, came and settled down beside me and began to talk. He was a small man, but he possessed a voice to which one had to listen. He talked and talked and talked. How I loathed him, as I sat trying to think through his stream of words. I see now that he saved me. He forced me out of myself. But at the time he oppressed me. I was raw and bleeding. I was struggling to grasp the incredible. I had taken Audrey's unalterable affection for granted. She was the natural complement to my scheme of comfort. I wanted her; I had chosen and was satisfied with her, therefore all was well. And now I had to adjust my mind to the impossible fact that I had lost her.

Her letter was a mirror in which I saw myself. She said little, but I understood, and my self-satisfaction was in ribbons-and something deeper than self-satisfaction. I saw now that I loved her as I had not dreamed myself capable of loving.

And all the while this man talked and talked.

I have a theory that speech, persevered in, is more efficacious in times of trouble than silent sympathy. Up to a certain point it maddens almost beyond endurance; but, that point past, it soothes. At least, it was so in my case. Gradually I found myself hating him less. Soon I began to listen, then to answer. Before I left the club that night, the first mad frenzy, in which I could have been capable of anything, had gone from me, and I walked home, feeling curiously weak and helpless, but calm, to begin the new life.

Three years passed before I met Cynthia. I spent those years wandering in many countries. At last, as one is apt to do, I drifted back to London, and settled down again to a life which, superficially, was much the same as the one I had led in the days before I knew Audrey. My old circle in London had been wide, and I found it easy to pick up dropped threads. I made new friends, among them Cynthia Drassilis.

I liked Cynthia, and I was sorry for her. I think that, about that time I met her, I was sorry for most people. The shock of Audrey's departure had had that effect upon me. It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp-meeting, and in my case 'getting religion' had taken the form of suppression of self. I never have been able to do things by halves, or even with a decent moderation. As an egoist I had been thorough in my egoism; and now, fate having bludgeoned that vice out of me, I found myself possessed of an almost morbid sympathy with the troubles of other people.

I was extremely sorry for Cynthia Drassilis. Meeting her mother frequently, I could hardly fail to be. Mrs Drassilis was a representative of a type I disliked. She was a widow, who had been left with what she considered insufficient means, and her outlook on life was a compound of greed and querulousness. Sloane Square and South Kensington are full of women in her situation. Their position resembles that of the Ancient Mariner. 'Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.' For 'water' in their case substitute 'money'. Mrs Drassilis was connected with money on all sides, but could only obtain it in rare and minute quantities. Any one of a dozen relations-in-law could, if they had wished, have trebled her annual income without feeling it. But they did not so wish. They disapproved of Mrs Drassilis. In their opinion the Hon. Hugo Drassilis had married beneath him-not so far beneath him as to make the thing a horror to be avoided in conversation and thought, but far enough to render them coldly polite to his wife during his lifetime and almost icy to his widow after his death. Hugo's eldest brother, the Earl of Westbourne, had never liked the obviously beautiful, but equally obviously second-rate, daughter of a provincial solicitor whom Hugo had suddenly presented to the family one memorable summer as his bride. He considered that, by doubling the income derived from Hugo's life-insurance and inviting Cynthia to the family seat once a year during her childhood, he had done all that could be expected of him in the matter.

He had not. Mrs Drassilis expected a great deal more of him, the non-receipt of which had spoiled her temper, her looks, and the peace of mind of all who had anything much to do with her.

It used to irritate me when I overheard people, as I occasionally have done, speak of Cynthia as hard. I never found her so myself, though heaven knows she had enough to make her so, to me she was always a sympathetic, charming friend.

Ours was a friendship almost untouched by sex. Our minds fitted so smoothly into one another that I had no inclination to fall in love. I knew her too well. I had no discoveries to make about her. Her honest, simple soul had always been open to me to read. There was none of that curiosity, that sense of something beyond that makes for love. We had reached a point of comradeship beyond which neither of us desired to pass.

Yet at the Fletchers' ball I asked Cynthia to marry me, and she consented.

* * * * *

Looking back, I can see that, though the determining cause was Mr Tankerville Gifford, it was Audrey who was responsible. She had

made me human, capable of sympathy, and it was sympathy, primarily, that led me to say what I said that night.

But the immediate cause was certainly young Mr Gifford.

I arrived at Marlow Square, where I was to pick up Cynthia and her mother, a little late, and found Mrs Drassilis, florid and overdressed, in the drawing-room with a sleek-haired, pale young man known to me as Tankerville Gifford-to his intimates, of whom I was not one, and in the personal paragraphs of the coloured sporting weeklies, as 'Tanky'. I had seen him frequently at restaurants. Once, at the Empire, somebody had introduced me to him; but, as he had not been sober at the moment, he had missed any intellectual pleasure my acquaintanceship might have afforded him. Like everybody else who moves about in London, I knew all about him. To sum him up, he was a most unspeakable little cad, and, if the drawing-room had not been Mrs Drassilis's, I should have wondered at finding him in it.

Mrs Drassilis introduced us.

'I think we have already met,' I said.

He stared glassily.

'Don't remember.'

I was not surprised.

At this moment Cynthia came in. Out of the corner of my eye I observed a look of fuddled displeasure come into Tanky's face at her frank pleasure at seeing me.

I had never seen her looking better. She is a tall girl, who carries herself magnificently. The simplicity of her dress gained an added dignity from comparison with the rank glitter of her mother's. She wore unrelieved black, a colour which set off to wonderful advantage the clear white of her skin and her pale-gold hair.

'You're late, Peter,' she said, looking at the clock.

'I know. I'm sorry.'

'Better be pushing, what?' suggested Tanky.

'My cab's waiting.'

'Will you ring the bell, Mr Gifford?' said Mrs Drassilis. 'I will tell Parker to whistle for another.'

'Take me in yours,' I heard a voice whisper in my ear.

I looked at Cynthia. Her expression had not changed. Then I looked at Tanky Gifford, and I understood. I had seen that stuffed-fish look on his face before-on the occasion when I had been introduced to him at the Empire.

'If you and Mr Gifford will take my cab,' I said to Mrs Drassilis, 'we will follow.'

Mrs Drassilis blocked the motion. I imagine that the sharp note in her voice was lost on Tanky, but it rang out like a clarion to me.

'I am in no hurry,' she said. 'Mr Gifford, will you take Cynthia?

I will follow with Mr Burns. You will meet Parker on the stairs.

Tell him to call another cab.'

As the door closed behind them, she turned on me like a many-coloured snake.

'How can you be so extraordinarily tactless, Peter?' she cried.

'You're a perfect fool. Have you no eyes?'

'I'm sorry,' I said.

'He's devoted to her.'

'I'm sorry.'

'What do you mean?'

'Sorry for her.'

She seemed to draw herself together inside her dress. Her eyes glittered. My mouth felt very dry, and my heart was beginning to thump. We were both furiously angry. It was a moment that had been coming for years, and we both knew it. For my part I was glad that it had come. On subjects on which one feels deeply it is a relief to speak one's mind.

'Oh!' she said at last. Her voice quivered. She was clutching at her self-control as it slipped from her. 'Oh! And what is my daughter to you, Mr Burns!'

'A great friend.'

'And I suppose you think it friendly to try to spoil her chances?'

'If Mr Gifford is a sample of them-yes.'

'What do you mean?'

She choked.

'I see. I understand. I am going to put a stop to this once and for all. Do you hear? I have noticed it for a long time. Because I have given you the run of the house, and allowed you to come in and out as you pleased, like a tame cat, you presume-'

'Presume-' I prompted.

'You come here and stand in Cynthia's way. You trade on the fact that you have known us all this time to monopolize her attention. You spoil her chances. You-'

The invaluable Parker entered to say that the cab was at the door.

We drove to the Fletchers' house in silence. The spell had been broken. Neither of us could recapture that first, fine, careless rapture which had carried us through the opening stages of the conflict, and discussion of the subject on a less exalted plane was impossible. It was that blessed period of calm, the rest between rounds, and we observed it to the full.

When I reached the ballroom a waltz was just finishing. Cynthia, a statue in black, was dancing with Tanky Gifford. They were opposite me when the music stopped, and she caught sight of me over his shoulder.

She disengaged herself and moved quickly towards me.

'Take me away,' she said under her breath. 'Anywhere. Quick.'

It was no time to consider the etiquette of the ballroom. Tanky, startled at his sudden loneliness, seemed by his expression to be endeavouring to bring his mind to bear on the matter. A couple making for the door cut us off from him, and following them, we passed out.

Neither of us spoke till we had reached the little room where I had meditated.

She sat down. She was looking pale and tired.

'Oh, dear!' she said.

I understood. I seemed to see that journey in the cab, those dances, those terrible between-dances …

It was very sudden.

I took her hand. She turned to me with a tired smile. There were tears in her eyes …

I heard myself speaking …

She was looking at me, her eyes shining. All the weariness seemed to have gone out of them.

I looked at her.

There was something missing. I had felt it when I was speaking. To me my voice had had no ring of conviction. And then I saw what it was. There was no mystery. We knew each other too well. Friendship kills love.

She put my thought into words.

'We have always been brother and sister,' she said doubtfully.

'Till tonight.'

'You have changed tonight? You really want me?'

Did I? I tried to put the question to myself and answer it honestly. Yes, in a sense, I had changed tonight. There was an added appreciation of her fineness, a quickening of that blend of admiration and pity which I had always felt for her. I wanted with all my heart to help her, to take her away from her dreadful surroundings, to make her happy. But did I want her in the sense in which she had used the word? Did I want her as I had wanted Audrey Blake? I winced away from the question. Audrey belonged to the dead past, but it hurt to think of her.

Was it merely because I was five years older now than when I had wanted Audrey that the fire had gone out of me?

I shut my mind against my doubts.

'I have changed tonight,' I said.

And I bent down and kissed her.

I was conscious of being defiant against somebody. And then I knew that the somebody was myself.

I poured myself out a cup of hot coffee from the flask which

Smith, my man, had filled against my return. It put life into me.

The oppression lifted.

And yet there remained something that made for uneasiness, a sort of foreboding at the back of my mind.

I had taken a step in the dark, and I was afraid for Cynthia. I had undertaken to give her happiness. Was I certain that I could succeed? The glow of chivalry had left me, and I began to doubt.

Audrey had taken from me something that I could not recover-poetry was as near as I could get to a definition of it. Yes, poetry. With Cynthia my feet would always be on the solid earth. To the end of the chapter we should be friends and nothing more.

I found myself pitying Cynthia intensely. I saw her future a series of years of intolerable dullness. She was too good to be tied for life to a battered hulk like myself.

I drank more coffee and my mood changed. Even in the grey of a winter morning a man of thirty, in excellent health, cannot pose to himself for long as a piece of human junk, especially if he comforts himself with hot coffee.

My mind resumed its balance. I laughed at myself as a sentimental fraud. Of course I could make her happy. No man and woman had ever been more admirably suited to each other. As for that first disaster, which I had been magnifying into a life-tragedy, what of it? An incident of my boyhood. A ridiculous episode which-I rose with the intention of doing so at once-I should now proceed to eliminate from my life.

I went quickly to my desk, unlocked it, and took out a photograph.

And then-undoubtedly four o'clock in the morning is no time for a man to try to be single-minded and decisive-I wavered. I had intended to tear the thing in pieces without a glance, and fling it into the wastepaper-basket. But I took the glance and I hesitated.

The girl in the photograph was small and slight, and she looked straight out of the picture with large eyes that met and challenged mine. How well I remembered them, those Irish-blue eyes under their expressive, rather heavy brows. How exactly the photographer had caught that half-wistful, half-impudent look, the chin tilted, the mouth curving into a smile.

In a wave all my doubts had surged back upon me. Was this mere sentimentalism, a four-in-the-morning tribute to the pathos of the flying years, or did she really fill my soul and stand guard over it so that no successor could enter in and usurp her place?

I had no answer, unless the fact that I replaced the photograph in its drawer was one. I felt that this thing could not be decided now. It was more difficult than I had thought.

All my gloom had returned by the time I was in bed. Hours seemed to pass while I tossed restlessly aching for sleep.

When I woke my last coherent thought was still clear in my mind.

It was a passionate vow that, come what might, if those Irish eyes

were to haunt me till my death, I would play the game loyally with

Cynthia.

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