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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 7763

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


I owed it to my colleague Glossop that I was in the centre of the surprising things that occurred that night. By sheer weight of boredom, Glossop drove me from the house, so that it came about that, at half past nine, the time at which the affair began, I was patrolling the gravel in front of the porch.

It was the practice of the staff of Sanstead House School to assemble after dinner in Mr Abney's study for coffee. The room was called the study, but it was really more of a master's common room. Mr Abney had a smaller sanctum of his own, reserved exclusively for himself.

On this particular night he went there early, leaving me alone with Glossop. It is one of the drawbacks of the desert-island atmosphere of a private school that everybody is always meeting everybody else. To avoid a man for long is impossible. I had been avoiding Glossop as long as I could, for I knew that he wanted to corner me with a view to a heart-to-heart talk on Life Insurance.

These amateur Life Insurance agents are a curious band. The world is full of them. I have met them at country-houses, at seaside hotels, on ships, everywhere; and it has always amazed me that they should find the game worth the candle. What they add to their incomes I do not know, but it cannot be very much, and the trouble they have to take is colossal. Nobody loves them, and they must see it; yet they persevere. Glossop, for instance, had been trying to buttonhole me every time there was a five minutes' break in the day's work.

He had his chance now, and he did not mean to waste it. Mr Abney had scarcely left the room when he began to exude pamphlets and booklets at every pocket.

I eyed him sourly, as he droned on about 'reactionable endowment', 'surrender-value', and 'interest accumulating on the tontine policy', and tried, as I did so, to analyse the loathing I felt for him. I came to the conclusion that it was partly due to his pose of doing the whole thing from purely altruistic motives, entirely for my good, and partly because he forced me to face the fact that I was not always going to be young. In an abstract fashion I had already realized that I should in time cease to be thirty, but the way in which Glossop spoke of my sixty-fifth birthday made me feel as if it was due tomorrow. He was a man with a manner suggestive of a funeral mute suffering from suppressed jaundice, and I had never before been so weighed down with a sense of the inevitability of decay and the remorseless passage of time. I could feel my hair whitening.

A need for solitude became imperative; and, murmuring something about thinking it over, I escaped from the room.

Except for my bedroom, whither he was quite capable of following me, I had no refuge but the grounds. I unbolted the front door and went out.

It was still freezing, and, though the stars shone, the trees grew so closely about the house that it was too dark for me to see more than a few feet in front of me.

I began to stroll up and down. The night was wonderfully still. I could hear somebody walking up the drive-one of the maids, I supposed, returning from her evening out. I could even hear a bird rustling in the ivy on the walls of the stables.

I fell into a train of thought. I think my mind must still have been under Glossop's gloom-breeding spell, for I was filled with a sense of the infinite pathos of Life. What was the good of it all? Why was a man given chances of happiness without the sense to realize and use them? If Nature had made me so self-satisfied that I had lost Audrey because of my self-satisfaction why had she not made me so self-satisfied that I could lose her without a pang? Audrey! It annoyed me that, whenever I was free for a moment from active work, my thoughts should keep turning to her. It frightened me, too. Engaged to Cynthia, I had no right to have such thoughts.

Perh

aps it was the mystery which hung about her that kept her in my mind. I did not know where she was. I did not know how she fared. I did not know what sort of a man it was whom she had preferred to me. That, it struck me, was the crux of the matter. She had vanished absolutely with another man whom I had never seen and whose very name I did not know. I had been beaten by an unseen foe.

I was deep in a very slough of despond when suddenly things began to happen. I might have known that Sanstead House would never permit solitary brooding on Life for long. It was a place of incident, not of abstract speculation.

I had reached the end of my 'beat', and had stopped to relight my pipe, when drama broke loose with the swift unexpectedness which was characteristic of the place. The stillness of the night was split by a sound which I could have heard in a gale and recognized among a hundred conflicting noises. It was a scream, a shrill, piercing squeal that did not rise to a crescendo, but started at its maximum and held the note; a squeal which could only proceed from one throat: the deafening war-cry of the Little Nugget.

I had grown accustomed, since my arrival at Sanstead House, to a certain quickening of the pace of life, but tonight events succeeded one another with a rapidity which surprised me. A whole cinematograph-drama was enacted during the space of time it takes for a wooden match to burn.

At the moment when the Little Nugget gave tongue, I had just struck one, and I stood, startled into rigidity, holding it in the air as if I had decided to constitute myself a sort of limelight man to the performance.

It cannot have been more than a few seconds later before some person unknown nearly destroyed me.

I was standing, holding my match and listening to the sounds of confusion indoors, when this person, rounding the angle of the house in a desperate hurry, emerged from the bushes and rammed me squarely.

He was a short man, or he must have crouched as he ran, for his shoulder-a hard, bony shoulder-was precisely the same distance from the ground as my solar plexus. In the brief impact which ensued between the two, the shoulder had the advantage of being in motion, while the solar plexus was stationary, and there was no room for any shadow of doubt as to which had the worst of it.

That the mysterious unknown was not unshaken by the encounter was made clear by a sharp yelp of surprise and pain. He staggered. What happened to him after that was not a matter of interest to me. I gather that he escaped into the night. But I was too occupied with my own affairs to follow his movements.

Of all cures for melancholy introspection a violent blow in the solar plexus is the most immediate. If Mr Corbett had any abstract worries that day at Carson City, I fancy they ceased to occupy his mind from the moment when Mr Fitzsimmons administered that historic left jab. In my case the cure was instantaneous. I can remember reeling across the gravel and falling in a heap and trying to breathe and knowing that I should never again be able to, and then for some minutes all interest in the affairs of this world left me.

How long it was before my breath returned, hesitatingly, like some timid Prodigal Son trying to muster up courage to enter the old home, I do not know; but it cannot have been many minutes, for the house was only just beginning to disgorge its occupants as I sat up. Disconnected cries and questions filled the air. Dim forms moved about in the darkness.

I had started to struggle to my feet, feeling very sick and boneless, when it was borne in upon me that the sensations of this remarkable night were not yet over. As I reached a sitting position, and paused before adventuring further, to allow a wave of nausea to pass, a hand was placed on my shoulder and a voice behind me said, 'Don't move!'

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