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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 12724

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


That Buck MacGinnis was not the man to let the grass grow under his feet in a situation like the present one, I would have gathered from White's remarks if I had not already done so from personal observation. The world is divided into dreamers and men of action. From what little I had seen of him I placed Buck MacGinnis in the latter class. Every day I expected him to act, and was agreeably surprised as each twenty-four hours passed and left me still unfixed. But I knew the hour would come, and it did.

I looked for frontal attack from Buck, not subtlety; but, when the attack came, it was so excessively frontal that my chief emotion was a sort of paralysed amazement. It seemed incredible that such peculiarly Wild Western events could happen in peaceful England, even in so isolated a spot as Sanstead House.

It had been one of those interminable days which occur only at schools. A school, more than any other institution, is dependent on the weather. Every small boy rises from his bed of a morning charged with a definite quantity of devilry; and this, if he is to sleep the sound sleep of health, he has got to work off somehow before bedtime. That is why the summer term is the one a master longs for, when the intervals between classes can be spent in the open. There is no pleasanter sight for an assistant-master at a private school than that of a number of boys expending their venom harmlessly in the sunshine.

On this particular day, snow had begun to fall early in the morning, and, while his pupils would have been only too delighted to go out and roll in it by the hour, they were prevented from doing so by Mr Abney's strict orders. No schoolmaster enjoys seeing his pupils running risks of catching cold, and just then Mr Abney was especially definite on the subject. The Saturnalia which had followed Mr MacGinnis' nocturnal visit to the school had had the effect of giving violent colds to three lords, a baronet, and the younger son of an honourable. And, in addition to that, Mr Abney himself, his penetrating tenor changed to a guttural croak, was in his bed looking on the world with watering eyes. His views, therefore, on playing in the snow as an occupation for boys were naturally prejudiced.

The result was that Glossop and I had to try and keep order among a mob of small boys, none of whom had had any chance of working off his superfluous energy. How Glossop fared I can only imagine. Judging by the fact that I, who usually kept fair order without excessive effort, was almost overwhelmed, I should fancy he fared badly. His classroom was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and at frequent intervals his voice would penetrate my door, raised to a frenzied fortissimo.

Little by little, however, we had won through the day, and the boys had subsided into comparative quiet over their evening preparation, when from outside the front door there sounded the purring of the engine of a large automobile. The bell rang.

I did not, I remember, pay much attention to this at the moment. I supposed that somebody from one of the big houses in the neighbourhood had called, or, taking the lateness of the hour into consideration, that a motoring party had come, as they did sometimes-Sanstead House standing some miles from anywhere in the middle of an intricate system of by-roads-to inquire the way to Portsmouth or London. If my class had allowed me, I would have ignored the sound. But for them it supplied just that break in the monotony of things which they had needed. They welcomed it vociferously.

A voice: 'Sir, please, sir, there's a motor outside.'

Myself (austerely): I know there's a motor outside. Get on with your work.'

Various voices: 'Sir, have you ever ridden in a motor?'

'Sir, my father let me help drive our motor last Easter, sir.'

'Sir, who do you think it is?'

An isolated genius (imitating the engine): 'Pr-prr! Pr-prr! Pr-prr!'

I was on the point of distributing bad marks (the schoolmaster's stand-by) broadcast, when a curious sound checked me. It followed directly upon the opening of the front door. I heard White's footsteps crossing the hall, then the click of the latch, and then-a sound that I could not define. The closed door of the classroom deadened it, but for all that it was audible. It resembled the thud of a falling body, but I knew it could not be that, for in peaceful England butlers opening front doors did not fall with thuds.

My class, eager listeners, found fresh material in the sound for friendly conversation.

'Sir, what was that, sir?'

'Did you hear that, sir?'

'What do you think's happened, sir?'

'Be quiet,' I shouted. 'Will you be-'

There was a quick footstep outside, the door flew open, and on the threshold stood a short, sturdy man in a motoring coat and cap. The upper part of his face was covered by a strip of white linen, with holes for the eyes, and there was a Browning pistol in his hand.

It is my belief that, if assistant-masters were allowed to wear white masks and carry automatic pistols, keeping order in a school would become child's play. A silence such as no threat of bad marks had ever been able to produce fell instantaneously upon the classroom. Out of the corner of my eye, as I turned to face our visitor, I could see small boys goggling rapturously at this miraculous realization of all the dreams induced by juvenile adventure fiction. As far as I could ascertain, on subsequent inquiry, not one of them felt a tremor of fear. It was all too tremendously exciting for that. For their exclusive benefit an illustration from a weekly paper for boys had come to life, and they had no time to waste in being frightened.

As for me, I was dazed. Motor bandits may terrorize France, and desperadoes hold up trains in America, but this was peaceful England. The fact that Buck MacGinnis was at large in the neighbourhood did not make the thing any the less incredible. I had looked on my affair with Buck as a thing of the open air and the darkness. I had figured him lying in wait in lonely roads, possibly, even, lurking about the grounds; but in my most apprehensive moments I had not imagined him calling at the front door and holding me up with a revolver in my own classroom.

And yet it was the simple, even the obvious, thing for him to do. Given an automobile, success

was certain. Sanstead House stood absolutely alone. There was not even a cottage within half a mile. A train broken down in the middle of the Bad Lands was not more cut off.

Consider, too, the peculiar helplessness of a school in such a case. A school lives on the confidence of parents, a nebulous foundation which the slightest breath can destroy. Everything connected with it must be done with exaggerated discretion. I do not suppose Mr MacGinnis had thought the thing out in all its bearings, but he could not have made a sounder move if he had been a Napoleon. Where the owner of an ordinary country-house raided by masked men can raise the countryside in pursuit, a schoolmaster must do precisely the opposite. From his point of view, the fewer people that know of the affair the better. Parents are a jumpy race. A man may be the ideal schoolmaster, yet will a connection with melodrama damn him in the eyes of parents. They do not inquire. They are too panic-stricken for that. Golden-haired Willie may be receiving the finest education conceivable, yet if men with Browning pistols are familiar objects at his shrine of learning they will remove him. Fortunately for schoolmasters it is seldom that such visitors call upon them. Indeed, I imagine Mr MacGinnis's effort to have been the first of its kind.

I do not, as I say, suppose that Buck, whose forte was action rather than brain-work, had thought all this out. He had trusted to luck, and luck had stood by him. There would be no raising of the countryside in his case. On the contrary, I could see Mr Abney becoming one of the busiest persons on record in his endeavour to hush the thing up and prevent it getting into the papers. The man with the pistol spoke. He sighted me-I was standing with my back to the mantelpiece, parallel with the door-made a sharp turn, and raised his weapon.

'Put 'em up, sport,' he said.

It was not the voice of Buck MacGinnis. I put my hands up.

'Say, which of dese is de Nugget?'

He half turned his head to the class.

'Which of youse kids is Ogden Ford?'

The class was beyond speech. The silence continued.

'Ogden Ford is not here,' I said.

Our visitor had not that simple faith which is so much better than Norman blood. He did not believe me. Without moving his head he gave a long whistle. Steps sounded outside. Another, short, sturdy form, entered the room.

'He ain't in de odder room,' observed the newcomer. 'I been rubberin'!'

This was friend Buck beyond question. I could have recognized his voice anywhere!

'Well dis guy,' said the man with the pistol, indicating me, 'says he ain't here. What's de answer?'

'Why, it's Sam!' said Buck. 'Howdy, Sam? Pleased to see us, huh?

We're in on de ground floor, too, dis time, all right, all right.'

His words had a marked effect on his colleague.

'Is dat Sam? Hell! Let me blow de head off'n him!' he said, with simple fervour; and, advancing a step nearer, he waved his disengaged fist truculently. In my role of Sam I had plainly made myself very unpopular. I have never heard so much emotion packed into a few words.

Buck, to my relief, opposed the motion. I thought this decent of

Buck.

'Cheese it,' he said curtly.

The other cheesed it. The operation took the form of lowering the fist. The pistol he kept in position.

Mr MacGinnis resumed the conduct of affairs.

'Now den, Sam,' he said, 'come across! Where's de Nugget?'

'My name is not Sam,' I said. 'May I put my hands down?'

'Yep, if you want the top of your damn head blown off.'

Such was not my desire. I kept them up.

'Now den, you Sam,' said Mr MacGinnis again, 'we ain't got time to burn. Out with it. Where's dat Nugget?'

Some reply was obviously required. It was useless to keep protesting that I was not Sam.

'At this time in the evening he is generally working with Mr

Glossop.'

'Who's Glossop? Dat dough-faced dub in de room over dere?'

'Exactly. You have described him perfectly.'

'Well, he ain't dere. I bin rubberin.' Aw, quit yer foolin', Sam, where is he?'

'I couldn't tell you just where he is at the present moment,' I said precisely.

'Ahr chee! Let me swot him one!' begged the man with the pistol; a most unlovable person. I could never have made a friend of him.

'Cheese it, you!' said Mr MacGinnis.

The other cheesed it once more, regretfully.

'You got him hidden away somewheres, Sam,' said Mr MacGinnis. 'You can't fool me. I'm com' t'roo dis joint wit a fine-tooth comb till I find him.'

'By all means,' I said. 'Don't let me stop you.'

'You? You're coming wit me.'

'If you wish it. I shall be delighted.'

'An' cut out dat dam' sissy way of talking, you rummy,' bellowed Buck, with a sudden lapse into ferocity. 'Spiel like a regular guy! Standin' dere, pullin' dat dude stuff on me! Cut it out!'

'Say, why mayn't I hand him one?' demanded the pistol-bearer pathetically. 'What's your kick against pushin' his face in?'

I thought the question in poor taste. Buck ignored it.

'Gimme dat canister,' he said, taking the Browning pistol from him. 'Now den, Sam, are youse goin' to be good, and come across, or ain't you-which?'

'I'd be delighted to do anything you wished, Mr MacGinnis,' I said, 'but-'

'Aw, hire a hall!' said Buck disgustedly. 'Step lively, den, an' we'll go t'roo de joint. I t'ought youse 'ud have had more sense, Sam, dan to play dis fool game when you know you're beat. You-'

Shooting pains in my shoulders caused me to interrupt him.

'One moment,' I said. 'I'm going to put my hands down. I'm getting cramp.'

'I'll blow a hole in you if you do!'

'Just as you please. But I'm not armed.'

'Lefty,' he said to the other man, 'feel around to see if he's carryin' anyt'ing.'

Lefty advanced and began to tap me scientifically in the neighbourhood of my pockets. He grunted morosely the while. I suppose, at this close range, the temptation to 'hand me one' was almost more than he could bear.

'He ain't got no gun,' he announced gloomily.

'Den youse can put 'em down,' said Mr MacGinnis.

'Thanks,' I said.

'Lefty, youse stay here and look after dese kids. Get a move on,

Sam.'

We left the room, a little procession of two, myself leading, Buck in my immediate rear administering occasional cautionary prods with the faithful 'canister'.

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