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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 9845

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


The first thing that met my eyes as we entered the hall was the body of a man lying by the front door. The light of the lamp fell on his face and I saw that it was White. His hands and feet were tied. As I looked at him, he moved, as if straining against his bonds, and I was conscious of a feeling of relief. That sound that had reached me in the classroom, that thud of a falling body, had become, in the light of what had happened later, very sinister. It was good to know that he was still alive. I gathered-correctly, as I discovered subsequently-that in his case the sand-bag had been utilized. He had been struck down and stunned the instant he opened the door.

There was a masked man leaning against the wall by Glossop's classroom. He was short and sturdy. The Buck MacGinnis gang seemed to have been turned out on a pattern. Externally, they might all have been twins. This man, to give him a semblance of individuality, had a ragged red moustache. He was smoking a cigar with the air of the warrior taking his rest.

'Hello!' he said, as we appeared. He jerked a thumb towards the classroom. 'I've locked dem in. What's doin', Buck?' he asked, indicating me with a languid nod.

'We're going t'roo de joint,' explained Mr MacGinnis. 'De kid ain't in dere. Hump yourself, Sam!'

His colleague's languor disappeared with magic swiftness.

'Sam! Is dat Sam? Here, let me beat de block off'n him!'

Few points in this episode struck me as more remarkable than the similarity of taste which prevailed, as concerned myself, among the members of Mr MacGinnis's gang. Men, doubtless of varying opinions on other subjects, on this one point they were unanimous. They all wanted to assault me.

Buck, however, had other uses for me. For the present, I was necessary as a guide, and my value as such would be impaired were the block to be beaten off me. Though feeling no friendlier towards me than did his assistants, he declined to allow sentiment to interfere with business. He concentrated his attention on the upward journey with all the earnestness of the young gentleman who carried the banner with the strange device in the poem.

Briefly requesting his ally to cheese it-which he did-he urged me on with the nozzle of the pistol. The red-moustached man sank back against the wall again with an air of dejection, sucking his cigar now like one who has had disappointments in life, while we passed on up the stairs and began to draw the rooms on the first floor.

These consisted of Mr Abney's study and two dormitories. The study was empty, and the only occupants of the dormitories were the three boys who had been stricken down with colds on the occasion of Mr MacGinnis's last visit. They squeaked with surprise at the sight of the assistant-master in such questionable company.

Buck eyed them disappointedly. I waited with something of the feelings of a drummer taking a buyer round the sample room.

'Get on,' said Buck.

'Won't one of those do?'

'Hump yourself, Sam.'

'Call me Sammy,' I urged. 'We're old friends now.'

'Don't get fresh,' he said austerely. And we moved on.

The top floor was even more deserted than the first. There was no one in the dormitories. The only other room was Mr Abney's; and, as we came opposite it, a sneeze from within told of the sufferings of its occupant.

The sound stirred Buck to his depths. He 'pointed' at the door like a smell-dog.

'Who's in dere?' he demanded.

'Only Mr Abney. Better not disturb him. He has a bad cold.'

He placed a wrong construction on my solicitude for my employer.

His manner became excited.

'Open dat door, you,' he cried.

'It'll give him a nasty shock.'

'G'wan! Open it!'

No one who is digging a Browning pistol into the small of my back will ever find me disobliging. I opened the door-knocking first, as a mild concession to the conventions-and the procession passed in.

My stricken employer was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, and our entrance did not at first cause him to change this position.

'Yes?' he said thickly, and disappeared beneath a huge pocket-handkerchief. Muffled sounds, as of distant explosions of dynamite, together with earthquake shudderings of the bedclothes, told of another sneezing-fit.

'I'm sorry to disturb you,' I began, when Buck, ever the man of action, with a scorn of palaver, strode past me, and, having prodded with the pistol that part of the bedclothes beneath which a rough calculation suggested that Mr Abney's lower ribs were concealed, uttered the one word, 'Sa-a-ay!'

Mr Abney sat up like a Jack-in-the-box. One might almost say that he shot up. And then he saw Buck.

I cannot even faintly imagine what were Mr Abney's emotions at that moment. He was a man who, from boyhood up, had led a quiet and regular life. Things like Buck had appeared to him hitherto, if they appeared at all, only in dreams after inju

dicious suppers. Even in the ordinary costume of the Bowery gentleman, without such adventitious extras as masks and pistols, Buck was no beauty. With that hideous strip of dingy white linen on his face, he was a walking nightmare.

Mr Abney's eyebrows had risen and his jaw had fallen to their uttermost limits. His hair, disturbed by contact with the pillow, gave the impression of standing on end. His eyes seemed to bulge like a snail's. He stared at Buck, fascinated.

'Say, you, quit rubberin'. Youse ain't in a dime museum. Where's dat Ford kid, huh?'

I have set down all Mr MacGinnis's remarks as if they had been uttered in a bell-like voice with a clear and crisp enunciation; but, in doing so, I have flattered him. In reality, his mode of speech suggested that he had something large and unwieldy permanently stuck in his mouth; and it was not easy for a stranger to follow him. Mr Abney signally failed to do so. He continued to gape helplessly till the tension was broken by a sneeze.

One cannot interrogate a sneezing man with any satisfaction to oneself. Buck stood by the bedside in moody silence, waiting for the paroxysm to spend itself.

I, meanwhile, had remained where I stood, close to the door. And, as I waited for Mr Abney to finish sneezing, for the first time since Buck's colleague Lefty had entered the classroom the idea of action occurred to me. Until this moment, I suppose, the strangeness and unexpectedness of these happenings had numbed my brain. To precede Buck meekly upstairs and to wait with equal meekness while he interviewed Mr Abney had seemed the only course open to me. To one whose life has lain apart from such things, the hypnotic influence of a Browning pistol is irresistible.

But now, freed temporarily from this influence, I began to think; and, my mind making up for its previous inaction by working with unwonted swiftness, I formed a plan of action at once.

It was simple, but I had an idea that it would be effective. My strength lay in my acquaintance with the geography of Sanstead House and Buck's ignorance of it. Let me but get an adequate start, and he might find pursuit vain. It was this start which I saw my way to achieving.

To Buck it had not yet occurred that it was a tactical error to leave me between the door and himself. I supposed he relied too implicitly on the mesmeric pistol. He was not even looking at me.

The next moment my fingers were on the switch of the electric light, and the room was in darkness.

There was a chair by the door. I seized it and swung it into the space between us. Then, springing back, I banged the door and ran.

I did not run without a goal in view. My objective was the study. This, as I have explained, was on the first floor. Its window looked out on to a strip of lawn at the side of the house ending in a shrubbery. The drop would not be pleasant, but I seemed to remember a waterspout that ran up the wall close to the window, and, in any case, I was not in a position to be deterred by the prospect of a bruise or two. I had not failed to realize that my position was one of extreme peril. When Buck, concluding the tour of the house, found that the Little Nugget was not there-as I had reason to know that he would-there was no room for doubt that he would withdraw the protection which he had extended to me up to the present in my capacity of guide. On me the disappointed fury of the raiders would fall. No prudent consideration for their own safety would restrain them. If ever the future was revealed to man, I saw mine. My only chance was to get out into the grounds, where the darkness would make pursuit an impossibility.

It was an affair which must be settled one way or the other in a few seconds, and I calculated that it would take Buck just those few seconds to win his way past the chair and find the door-handle.

I was right. Just as I reached the study, the door of the bedroom flew open, and the house rang with shouts and the noise of feet on the uncarpeted landing. From the hall below came answering shouts, but with an interrogatory note in them. The assistants were willing, but puzzled. They did not like to leave their posts without specific instructions, and Buck, shouting as he clattered over the bare boards, was unintelligible.

I was in the study, the door locked behind me, before they could arrive at an understanding. I sprang to the window.

The handle rattled. Voices shouted. A panel splintered beneath a kick, and the door shook on its hinges.

And then, for the first time, I think, in my life, panic gripped me, the sheer, blind fear which destroys the reason. It swept over me in a wave, that numbing terror which comes to one in dreams. Indeed, the thing had become dream-like. I seemed to be standing outside myself, looking on at myself, watching myself heave and strain with bruised fingers at a window that would not open.

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