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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Little Nugget By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 13971

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


I was given no leisure for wondering how Cynthia's mother came to be in the grounds of Sanstead House, for her companion, almost before the car had stopped, jumped out and clutched me by the arm, at the same time uttering this cryptic speech: 'Whatever he offers I'll double!'

She fixed me, as she spoke, with a commanding eye. She was a woman, I gathered in that instant, born to command. There seemed, at any rate, no doubt in her mind that she could command me. If I had been a black beetle she could not have looked at me with a more scornful superiority. Her eyes were very large and of a rich, fiery brown colour, and it was these that gave me my first suspicion of her identity. As to the meaning of her words, however, I had no clue.

'Bear that in mind,' she went on. 'I'll double it if it's a million dollars.'

'I'm afraid I don't understand,' I said, finding speech.

She clicked her tongue impatiently.

'There's no need to be so cautious and mysterious. This lady is a friend of mine. She knows all about it. I asked her to come. I'm Mrs Elmer Ford. I came here directly I got your letter. I think you're the lowest sort of scoundrel that ever managed to keep out of gaol, but that needn't make any difference just now. We're here to talk business, Mr Fisher, so we may as well begin.'

I was getting tired of being taken for Smooth Sam.

'I am not Smooth Sam Fisher.'

I turned to the automobile. 'Will you identify me, Mrs Drassilis?'

She was regarding me with wide-open eyes.

'What on earth are you doing down here? I have been trying everywhere to find you, but nobody-'

Mrs Ford interrupted her. She gave me the impression of being a woman who wanted a good deal of the conversation, and who did not care how she got it. In a conversational sense she thugged Mrs Drassilis at this point, or rather she swept over her like some tidal wave, blotting her out.

'Oh,' she said fixing her brown eyes, less scornful now but still imperious, on mine. 'I must apologize. I have made a mistake. I took you for a low villain of the name of Sam Fisher. I hope you will forgive me. I was to have met him at this exact spot just about this time, by appointment, so, seeing you here, I mistook you for him.'

'If I might have a word with you alone?' I said.

Mrs Ford had a short way with people. In matters concerning her own wishes, she took their acquiescence for granted.

'Drive on up to the house, Jarvis,' she said, and Mrs Drassilis was whirled away round the curve of the drive before she knew what had happened to her.

'Well?'

'My name is Burns,' I said.

'Now I understand,' she said. 'I know who you are now.' She paused, and I was expecting her to fawn upon me for my gallant service in her cause, when she resumed in quite a different strain.

'I can't think what you can have been about, Mr Burns, not to have been able to do what Cynthia asked you. Surely in all these weeks and months…. And then, after all, to have let this Fisher scoundrel steal him away from under your nose…!'

She gave me a fleeting glance of unfathomable scorn. And when I thought of all the sufferings I had gone through that term owing to her repulsive son and, indirectly, for her sake, I felt that the time had come to speak out.

'May I describe the way in which I allowed your son to be stolen away from under my nose?' I said. And in well-chosen words, I sketched the outline of what had happened. I did not omit to lay stress on the fact that the Nugget's departure with the enemy was entirely voluntary.

She heard me out in silence.

'That was too bad of Oggie,' she said tolerantly, when I had ceased dramatically on the climax of my tale.

As a comment it seemed to me inadequate.

'Oggie was always high-spirited,' she went on. 'No doubt you have noticed that?'

'A little.'

'He could be led, but never driven. With the best intentions, no doubt, you refused to allow him to leave the stables that night and return to the house, and he resented the check and took the matter into his own hands.' She broke off and looked at her watch. 'Have you a watch? What time is it? Only that? I thought it must be later. I arrived too soon. I got a letter from this man Fisher, naming this spot and this hour for a meeting, when we could discuss terms. He said that he had written to Mr Ford, appointing the same time.' She frowned. 'I have no doubt he will come,' she said coldly.

'Perhaps this is his car,' I said.

A second automobile was whirring up the drive. There was a shout as it came within sight of us, and the chauffeur put on the brake. A man sprang from the tonneau. He jerked a word to the chauffeur, and the car went on up the drive.

He was a massively built man of middle age, with powerful shoulders, and a face-when he had removed his motor-goggles very like any one of half a dozen of those Roman emperors whose features have come down to us on coins and statues, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and aggressive. Like his late wife (who was now standing, drawn up to her full height, staring haughtily at him) he had the air of one born to command. I should imagine that the married life of these two must have been something more of a battle even than most married lives. The clashing of those wills must have smacked of a collision between the immovable mass and the irresistible force.

He met Mrs Ford's stare with one equally militant, then turned to me.

'I'll give you double what she has offered you,' he said. He paused, and eyed me with loathing. 'You damned scoundrel,' he added.

Custom ought to have rendered me immune to irritation, but it had not. I spoke my mind.

'One of these days, Mr Ford,' I said, 'I am going to publish a directory of the names and addresses of the people who have mistaken me for Smooth Sam Fisher. I am not Sam Fisher. Can you grasp that? My name is Peter Burns, and for the past term I have been a master at this school. And I may say that, judging from what I know of the little brute, any one who kidnapped your son as long as two days ago will be so anxious by now to get rid of him that he will probably want to pay you for taking him back.'

My words almost had the effect of bringing this divorced couple together again. They made common cause against me. It was probably the first time in years that they had formed even a temporary alliance.

'How dare you talk like that!' said Mrs Ford. 'Oggie is a sweet boy in every respect.'

'You're perfectly right, Nesta,' said Mr Ford. 'He may want intelligent handling, but he's a mighty fine boy. I shall make inquiries, and if this man has been ill-treating Ogden, I shall complain to Mr Abney. Where the devil is this man Fisher?' he broke off abruptly.

'On the spot,' said an affable voice. The bushes behind me parted, and Smooth Sam stepped out on to the gravel.

I had recognized him by his voice. I certainly should not have done so by his appearance. He had taken the precaution of 'm

aking up' for this important meeting. A white wig of indescribable respectability peeped out beneath his black hat. His eyes twinkled from under two penthouses of white eyebrows. A white moustache covered his mouth. He was venerable to a degree.

He nodded to me, and bared his white head gallantly to Mrs Ford.

'No worse for our little outing, Mr Burns, I am glad to see. Mrs Ford, I must apologize for my apparent unpunctuality, but I was not really behind time. I have been waiting in the bushes. I thought it just possible that you might have brought unwelcome members of the police force with you, and I have been scouting, as it were, before making my advance. I see, however, that all is well, and we can come at once to business. May I say, before we begin, that I overheard your recent conversation, and that I entirely disagree with Mr Burns. Master Ford is a charming boy. Already I feel like an elder brother to him. I am loath to part with him.'

'How much?' snapped Mr Ford. 'You've got me. How much do you want?'

'I'll give you double what he offers,' cried Mrs Ford.

Sam held up his hand, his old pontifical manner intensified by the white wig.

'May I speak? Thank you. This is a little embarrassing. When I asked you both to meet me here, it was not for the purpose of holding an auction. I had a straight-forward business proposition to make to you. It will necessitate a certain amount of plain and somewhat personal speaking. May I proceed? Thank you. I will be as brief as possible.'

His eloquence appeared to have had a soothing effect on the two

Fords. They remained silent.

'You must understand,' said Sam, 'that I am speaking as an expert. I have been in the kidnapping business many years, and I know what I am talking about. And I tell you that the moment you two got your divorce, you said good-bye to all peace and quiet. Bless you'-Sam's manner became fatherly-'I've seen it a hundred times. Couple get divorced, and, if there's a child, what happens? They start in playing battledore-and-shuttlecock with him. Wife sneaks him from husband. Husband sneaks him back from wife. After a while along comes a gentleman in my line of business, a professional at the game, and he puts one across on both the amateurs. He takes advantage of the confusion, slips in, and gets away with the kid. That's what has happened here, and I'm going to show you the way to stop it another time. Now I'll make you a proposition. What you want to do'-I have never heard anything so soothing, so suggestive of the old family friend healing an unfortunate breach, as Sam's voice at this juncture-'what you want to do is to get together again right quick. Never mind the past. Let bygones be bygones. Kiss and be friends.'

A snort from Mr Ford checked him for a moment, but he resumed.

'I guess there were faults on both sides. Get together and talk it over. And when you've agreed to call the fight off and start fair again, that's where I come in. Mr Burns here will tell you, if you ask him, that I'm anxious to quit this business and marry and settle down. Well, see here. What you want to do is to give me a salary-we can talk figures later on-to stay by you and watch over the kid. Don't snort-I'm talking plain sense. You'd a sight better have me with you than against you. Set a thief to catch a thief. What I don't know about the fine points of the game isn't worth knowing. I'll guarantee, if you put me in charge, to see that nobody comes within a hundred miles of the kid unless he has an order-to-view. You'll find I earn every penny of that salary … Mr Burns and I will now take a turn up the drive while you think it over.'

He linked his arm in mine and drew me away. As we turned the corner of the drive I caught a glimpse over my shoulder of the Little Nugget's parents. They were standing where we had left them, as if Sam's eloquence had rooted them to the spot.

'Well, well, well, young man,' said Sam, eyeing me affectionately, 'it's pleasant to meet you again, under happier conditions than last time. You certainly have all the luck, sonny, or you would have been badly hurt that night. I was getting scared how the thing would end. Buck's a plain roughneck, and his gang are as bad as he is, and they had got mighty sore at you, mighty sore. If they had grabbed you, there's no knowing what might not have happened. However, all's well that ends well, and this little game has surely had the happy ending. I shall get that job, sonny. Old man Ford isn't a fool, and it won't take him long, when he gets to thinking it over, to see that I'm right. He'll hire me.'

'Aren't you rather reckoning without your partner?' I said. 'Where does Buck MacGinnis come in on the deal?'

Sam patted my shoulder paternally.

'He doesn't, sonny, he doesn't. It was a shame to do it-it was like taking candy from a kid-but business is business, and I was reluctantly compelled to double-cross poor old Buck. I sneaked the Nugget away from him next day. It's not worth talking about; it was too easy. Buck's all right in a rough-and-tumble, but when it comes to brains he gets left, and so he'll go on through life, poor fellow. I hate to think of it.'

He sighed. Buck's misfortunes seemed to move him deeply.

'I shouldn't be surprised if he gave up the profession after this. He has had enough to discourage him. I told you about what happened to him that night, didn't I? No? I thought I did. Why, Buck was the guy who did the Steve Brodie through the roof; and, when we picked him up, we found he'd broken his leg again! Isn't that enough to jar a man? I guess he'll retire from the business after that. He isn't intended for it.'

We were approaching the two automobiles now, and, looking back, I saw Mr and Mrs Ford walking up the drive. Sam followed my gaze, and I heard him chuckle.

'It's all right,' he said. 'They've fixed it up. Something in the way they're walking tells me they've fixed it up.'

Mrs Drassilis was still sitting in the red automobile, looking piqued but resigned. Mrs Ford addressed her.

'I shall have to leave you, Mrs Drassilis,' she said. 'Tell Jarvis to drive you wherever you want to go. I am going with my husband to see my boy Oggie.'

She stretched out a hand towards the millionaire. He caught it in

his, and they stood there, smiling foolishly at each other, while

Sam, almost purring, brooded over them like a stout fairy queen.

The two chauffeurs looked on woodenly.

Mr Ford released his wife's hand and turned to Sam.

'Fisher.'

'Sir?'

'I've been considering your proposition. There's a string tied to it.'

'Oh no, sir, I assure you!'

'There is. What guarantee have I that you won't double-cross me?'

Sam smiled, relieved.

'You forget that I told you I was about to be married, sir. My wife won't let me!'

Mr Ford waved his hand towards the automobile.

'Jump in,' he said briefly, 'and tell him where to drive to.

You're engaged!'

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