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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 11288

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


The telephone bell rang just as I was getting ready to call at Marlow Square and inform Mrs Drassilis of the position of affairs. Cynthia, I imagined, would have broken the news already, which would mitigate the embarrassment of the interview to some extent; but the recollection of my last night's encounter with Mrs Drassilis prevented me from looking forward with any joy to the prospect of meeting her again.

Cynthia's voice greeted me as I unhooked the receiver.

'Hullo, Peter! Is that you? I want you to come round here at once.'

'I was just starting,' I said.

'I don't mean Marlow Square. I'm not there. I'm at the Guelph. Ask for Mrs Ford's suite. It's very important. I'll tell you all about it when you get here. Come as soon as you can.'

My rooms were conveniently situated for visits to the Hotel Guelph. A walk of a couple of minutes took me there. Mrs Ford's suite was on the third floor. I rang the bell and Cynthia opened the door to me.

'Come in,' she said. 'You're a dear to be so quick.'

'My rooms are only just round the corner.' She shut the door, and for the first time we looked at one another. I could not say that I was nervous, but there was certainly, to me, a something strange in the atmosphere. Last night seemed a long way off and somehow a little unreal. I suppose I must have shown this in my manner, for she suddenly broke what had amounted to a distinct pause by giving a little laugh. 'Peter,' she said, 'you're embarrassed.' I denied the charge warmly, but without real conviction. I was embarrassed. 'Then you ought to be,' she said. 'Last night, when I was looking my very best in a lovely dress, you asked me to marry you. Now you see me again in cold blood, and you're wondering how you can back out of it without hurting my feelings.'

I smiled. She did not. I ceased to smile. She was looking at me in a very peculiar manner.

'Peter,' she said, 'are you sure?'

'My dear old Cynthia,' I said, 'what's the matter with you?'

'You are sure?' she persisted.

'Absolutely, entirely sure.' I had a vision of two large eyes looking at me out of a photograph. It came and went in a flash.

I kissed Cynthia.

'What quantities of hair you have,' I said. 'It's a shame to cover it up.' She was not responsive. 'You're in a very queer mood today, Cynthia,' I went on. 'What's the matter?'

'I've been thinking.'

'Out with it. Something has gone wrong.' An idea flashed upon me.

'Er-has your mother-is your mother very angry about-'

'Mother's delighted. She always liked you, Peter.'

I had the self-restraint to check a grin.

'Then what is it?' I said. 'Tired after the dance?'

'Nothing as simple as that.'

'Tell me.'

'It's so difficult to put it into words.'

'Try.'

She was playing with the papers on the table, her face turned away. For a moment she did not speak.

'I've been worrying myself, Peter,' she said at last. 'You are so chivalrous and unselfish. You're quixotic. It's that that is troubling me. Are you marrying me just because you're sorry for me? Don't speak. I can tell you now if you will just let me say straight out what's in my mind. We have known each other for two years now. You know all about me. You know how-how unhappy I am at home. Are you marrying me just because you pity me and want to take me out of all that?'

'My dear girl!'

'You haven't answered my question.'

'I answered it two minutes ago when you asked me if-'

'You do love me?'

'Yes.'

All this time she had been keeping her face averted, but now she turned and looked into my eyes with an abrupt intensity which, I confess, startled me. Her words startled me more.

'Peter, do you love me as much as you loved Audrey Blake?'

In the instant which divided her words from my reply my mind flew hither and thither, trying to recall an occasion when I could have mentioned Audrey to her. I was convinced that I had not done so. I never mentioned Audrey to anyone.

There is a grain of superstition in the most level-headed man. I am not particularly level-headed, and I have more than a grain in me. I was shaken. Ever since I had asked Cynthia to marry me, it seemed as if the ghost of Audrey had come back into my life.

'Good Lord!' I cried. 'What do you know of Audrey Blake?'

She turned her face away again.

'Her name seems to affect you very strongly,' she said quietly.

I recovered myself.

'If you ask an old soldier,' I said, 'he will tell you that a wound, long after it has healed, is apt to give you an occasional twinge.'

'Not if it has really healed.'

'Yes, when it has really healed-when you can hardly remember how you were fool enough to get it.'

She said nothing.

'How did you hear about-it?' I asked.

'When I first met you, or soon after, a friend of yours-we happened to be talking about you-told me that you had been engaged to be married to a girl named Audrey Blake. He was to have been your best man, he said, but one day you wrote and told him there would be no wedding, and then you disappeared; and nobody saw you again for three years.'

'Yes,' I said: 'that is all quite true.'

'It seems to have been a serious affair, Peter. I mean-the sort of thing a man would find it hard to forget.'

I tried to smile, but I knew that I was not doing it well. It was hurting me extraordinarily, this discussion of Audrey.

'A man would find it almost impossible,' I said, 'unless he had a remarkably poor memory.'

'I didn't mean that. You know what I mean by forget.'

'Yes,' I said, 'I do.'

She came quickly to me and took me by the shoulders, looking into my face.

'Peter, can you honestly say you have forgotten her-in the sense

I mean?'

'Yes,' I said.

Again that feeling swept over me-that curious sensation of being defiant against myself.

'She does not stand between us?'

'No,' I said.

I could feel the effort behind the word. It was as if some subconscious part of me were working to keep it back.

'Peter!'

There was a soft smile on her face; as she raised it to mine I put my arms around her.

She drew away with a little laugh. Her whole manner had changed. She was a different being from the girl who had looked so gravely into my eyes a moment before.

'Oh, my dear boy, how terribly muscular you are! You've crushed me. I expect you used to be splendid at football, like Mr Broster.'

I did not reply at once. I cannot wrap up the deeper emotions and put them back on their shelf directly I have no further immediate use for them. I slowly adjusted myself to the new key of the conversation.

'Who's Broster?' I asked at length.

'He used to be tutor to'-she turned me round and pointed-'to that.'

I had seen a picture standing on one of the chairs when I entered the room but had taken no particular notice of it. I now gave it a closer glance. It was a portrait, very crudely done, of a singularly repulsive child of about ten or eleven years old.

Was he, poor chap! Well, we all have our troubles, don't we! Who is this young thug! Not a friend of yours, I hope?'

'That is Ogden, Mrs Ford's son. It's a tragedy-'

'Perhaps it doesn't do him justice. Does he really squint like that, or is it just the artist's imagination?'

'Don't make fun of it. It's the loss of that boy that is breaking

Nesta's heart.'

I was shocked.

'Is he dead? I'm awfully sorry. I wouldn't for the world-'

'No, no. He is alive and well. But he is dead to her. The court gave him into the custody of his father.'

'The court?'

'Mrs Ford was the wife of Elmer Ford, the American millionaire.

They were divorced a year ago.'

'I see.'

Cynthia was gazing at the portrait.

'This boy is quite a celebrity in his way,' she said. 'They call him "The Little Nugget" in America.'

'Oh! Why is that?'

'It's a nickname the kidnappers have for him. Ever so many attempts have been made to steal him.'

She stopped and looked at me oddly.

'I made one today, Peter,' she said. I went down to the country, where the boy was, and kidnapped him.'

'Cynthia! What on earth do you mean?'

'Don't you understand? I did it for Nesta's sake. She was breaking her heart about not being able to see him, so I slipped down and stole him away, and brought him back here.'

I do not know if I was looking as amazed as I felt. I hope not, for I felt as if my brain were giving way. The perfect calmness with which she spoke of this extraordinary freak added to my confusion.

'You're joking!'

'No; I stole him.'

'But, good heavens! The law! It's a penal offence, you know!'

'Well, I did it. Men like Elmer Ford aren't fit to have charge of a child. You don't know him, but he's just an unscrupulous financier, without a thought above money. To think of a boy growing up in that tainted atmosphere-at his most impressionable age. It means death to any good there is in him.'

My mind was still grappling feebly with the legal aspect of the affair.

'But, Cynthia, kidnapping's kidnapping, you know! The law doesn't take any notice of motives. If you're caught-'

She cut through my babble.

'Would you have been afraid to do it, Peter?'

'Well-' I began. I had not considered the point before.

'I don't believe you would. If I asked you to do it for my sake-'

'But, Cynthia, kidnapping, you know! It's such an infernally low-down game.'

'I played it. Do you despise me?'

I perspired. I could think of no other reply.

'Peter,' she said, 'I understand your scruples. I know exactly how you feel. But can't you see that this is quite different from the sort of kidnapping you naturally look on as horrible? It's just taking a boy away from surroundings that must harm him, back to his mother, who worships him. It's not wrong. It's splendid.'

She paused.

'You will do it for me, Peter?' she said.

'I don't understand,' I said feebly. 'It's done. You've kidnapped him yourself.'

'They tracked him and took him back. And now I want you to try.' She came closer to me. 'Peter, don't you see what it will mean to me if you agree to try? I'm only human, I can't help, at the bottom of my heart, still being a little jealous of this Audrey Blake. No, don't say anything. Words can't cure me; but if you do this thing for me, I shall be satisfied. I shall know.'

She was close beside me, holding my arm and looking into my face. That sense of the unreality of things which had haunted me since that moment at the dance came over me with renewed intensity. Life had ceased to be a rather grey, orderly business in which day succeeded day calmly and without event. Its steady stream had broken up into rapids, and I was being whirled away on them.

'Will you do it, Peter? Say you will.'

A voice, presumably mine, answered 'Yes'.

'My dear old boy!'

She pushed me into a chair, and, sitting on the arm of it, laid her hand on mine and became of a sudden wondrously business-like.

'Listen,' she said, 'I'll tell you what we have arranged.'

It was borne in upon me, as she began to do so, that she appeared from the very beginning to have been extremely confident that that essential part of her plans, my consent to the scheme, could be relied upon as something of a certainty. Women have these intuitions.

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