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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Little Warrior By P. G. Wodehouse Characters: 16700

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The boat-train slid into the station. Bells rang, engines blew off steam, porters shouted, baggage-trucks rattled over the platform. The train began to give up its contents, now in ones and twos, now in a steady stream. Most of the travellers seemed limp and exhausted, and were pale with the pallor that comes of a choppy Channel crossing. Almost the only exception to the general condition of collapse was the eagle-faced lady in the brown ulster, who had taken up her stand in the middle of the platform and was haranguing a subdued little maid in a voice that cut the gloomy air like a steel knife. Like the other travellers, she was pale, but she bore up resolutely. No one could have told from Lady Underhill's demeanor that the solid platform seemed to heave beneath her feet like a deck.

"Have you got a porter, Ferris? Where is he, then? Ah! Have you got all the bags? My jewel-case? The suit-case? The small brown bag? The rugs? Where are the rugs?

"Yes, I can see them, my good girl. There is no need to brandish them in my face. Keep the jewel-case and give the rest of the things to the porter, and take him to look after the trunks. You remember which they are? The steamer trunk, the other trunk, the black box … Very well. Then make haste. And, when you've got them all together, tell the porter to find you a four-wheeler. The small things will go inside. Drive to the Savoy and ask for my suite. If they make any difficulty, tell them that I engaged the rooms yesterday by telegraph from Mentone. Do you understand?"

"Yes, m'lady."

"Then go along. Oh, and give the porter sixpence. Sixpence is ample."

"Yes, m'lady."

The little maid, grasping the jewel-case, trotted off beside the now pessimistic porter, who had started on this job under the impression that there was at least a bob's-worth in it. The remark about the sixpence had jarred the porter's faith in his species.

Derek approached, acutely conscious of Freddie, Ronny, and Algy, who were skirmishing about his flank. He had enough to worry him without them. He had listened with growing apprehension to the catalogue of his mother's possessions. Plainly this was no flying visit. You do not pop over to London for a day or two with a steamer trunk, another trunk, a black box, a suit-case, and a small brown bag. Lady Underhill had evidently come prepared to stay; and the fact seemed to presage trouble.

"Well, mother! So there you are at last!"

"Well, Derek!"

Derek kissed his mother. Freddie, Ronny, and Algy shuffled closer, like leopards. Freddie, with the expression of one who leads a forlorn hope, moved his Adam's apple briskly up and down several times, and spoke.

"How do you do, Lady Underhill?"

"How do you do, Mr Rooke?"

Lady Underhill bowed stiffly and without pleasure. She was not fond of the Last of the Rookes. She supposed the Almighty had had some wise purpose in creating Freddie, but it had always been inscrutable to her.

"Like you," mumbled Freddie, "to meet my friends. Lady Underhill. Mr Devereux."

"Charmed," said Ronny affably.

"Mr Martyn."

"Delighted," said Algy with old-world courtesy.

Lady Underhill regarded this mob-scene with an eye of ice.

"How do you do?" she said. "Have you come to meet somebody?"

"I-er-we-er-why-er-" This woman always made Freddie feel as if he were being disembowelled by some clumsy amateur. He wished that he had defied the dictates of his better nature and remained in his snug rooms at the Albany, allowing Derek to go through this business by himself. "I-er-we-er-came to meet you, don't you know!"

"Indeed! That was very kind of you!"

"Oh, not at all."

"Thought we'd welcome you back to the old homestead," said Ronny, beaming.

"What could be sweeter?" said Algy. He produced a cigar-case, and extracted a formidable torpedo-shaped Havana. He was feeling delightfully at his ease, and couldn't understand why Freddie had made such a fuss about meeting this nice old lady. "Don't mind if I smoke, do you? Air's a bit raw today. Gets into the lungs."

Derek chafed impotently. These unsought allies were making a difficult situation a thousand times worse. A more acute observer than young Mr Martyn, he noted the tight lines about his mother's mouth and knew them for the danger-signal they were. Endeavoring to distract her with light conversation, he selected a subject which was a little unfortunate.

"What sort of crossing did you have, mother?"

Lady Underhill winced. A current of air had sent the perfume of Algy's cigar playing about her nostrils. She closed her eyes, and her face turned a shade paler. Freddie, observing this, felt quite sorry for the poor old thing. She was a pest and a pot of poison, of course, but all the same, he reflected charitably, it was a shame that she should look so green about the gills. He came to the conclusion that she must be hungry. The thing to do was to take her mind off it till she could be conducted to a restaurant and dumped down in front of a bowl of soup.

"Bit choppy, I suppose, what?" he bellowed, in a voice that ran up and down Lady Underhill's nervous system like an electric needle. "I was afraid you were going to have a pretty rough time of it when I read the forecast in the paper. The good old boat wobbled a bit, eh?"

Lady Underhill uttered a faint moan. Freddie noticed that she was looking deucedly chippy, even chippier than a moment ago.

"It's an extraordinary thing about that Channel crossing," said Algy Martyn meditatively, as he puffed a refreshing cloud. "I've known fellows who could travel quite happily everywhere else in the world-round the Horn in sailing-ships and all that sort of thing-yield up their immortal soul crossing the Channel! Absolutely yield up their immortal soul! Don't know why. Rummy, but there it is!"

"I'm like that myself," assented Ronny Devereux. "That dashed trip from Calais gets me every time. Bowls me right over. I go aboard, stoked to the eyebrows with seasick remedies, swearing that this time I'll fool 'em, but down I go ten minutes after we've started and the next thing I know is somebody saying, 'Well, well! So this is Dover!'"

"It's exactly the same with me," said Freddie, delighted with the smooth, easy way the conversation was flowing. "Whether it's the hot, greasy smell of the engines …"

"It's not the engines," contended Ronny Devereux.

"Stands to reason it can't be. I rather like the smell of engines. This station is reeking with the smell of engine-grease, and I can drink it in and enjoy it." He sniffed luxuriantly. "It's something else."

"Ronny's right," said Algy cordially. "It isn't the engines. It's the way the boat heaves up and down and up and down and up and down …" He shifted his cigar to his left hand in order to give with his right a spirited illustration of a Channel steamer going up and down and up and down and up and down. Lady Underhill, who had opened her eyes, had an excellent view of the performance, and closed her eyes again quickly.

"Be quiet!" she snapped.

"I was only saying …"

"Be quiet!"

"Oh, rather!"

Lady Underhill wrestled with herself. She was a woman of great will-power and accustomed to triumph over the weaknesses of the flesh. After awhile her eyes opened. She had forced herself, against the evidence of her senses, to recognize that this was a platform on which she stood and not a deck.

There was a pause. Algy, damped, was temporarily out of action, and his friends had for the moment nothing to remark.

"I'm afraid you had a trying journey, mother," said Derek. "The train was very late."

"Now, train-sickness," said Algy, coming to the surface again, "is a thing lots of people suffer from. Never could understand it myself."

"I've never had a touch of train-sickness," said Ronny.

"Oh, I have," said Freddie. "I've often felt rotten on a train. I get floating spots in front of my eyes and a sort of heaving sensation, and everything kind of goes black …"

"Mr Rooke!"

"Eh?"

"I should be greatly obliged if you would keep these confidences for the ear of your medical adviser."

"Freddie," intervened Derek hastily, "my mother's rather tired. Do you think you could be going ahead and getting a taxi?"

"My dear old chap, of course! Get you one in a second. Come along, Algy. Pic

k up the old waukeesis, Ronny."

And Freddie, accompanied by his henchmen, ambled off, well pleased with himself. He had, he felt, helped to break the ice for Derek and had seen him safely through those awkward opening stages. Now he could totter off with a light heart and get a bite of lunch.

Lady Underhill's eyes glittered. They were small, keen, black eyes, unlike Derek's, which were large and brown. In their other features the two were obviously mother and son. Each had the same long upper lip, the same thin, firm mouth, the prominent chin which was a family characteristic of the Underhills, and the jutting Underhill nose. Most of the Underhills came into the world looking as though they meant to drive their way through life like a wedge.

"A little more," she said tensely, "and I should have struck those unspeakable young men with my umbrella. One of the things I have never been able to understand, Derek, is why you should have selected that imbecile Rooke as your closest friend."

Derek smiled tolerantly.

"It was more a case of him selecting me. But Freddie is quite a good fellow really. He's a man you've got to know."

"I have not got to know him, and I thank heaven for it!"

"He's a very good-natured fellow. It was decent of him to put me up at the Albany while our house was let. By the way, he has some seats for the first night of a new piece this evening. He suggested that we might all dine at the Albany and go on to the theatre." He hesitated a moment. "Jill will be there," he said, and felt easier now that her name had at last come into the talk. "She's longing to meet you."

"Then why didn't she meet me?"

"Here, do you mean? At the station? Well, I-I wanted you to see her for the first time in pleasanter surroundings."

"Oh!" said Lady Underhill shortly.

It is a disturbing thought that we suffer in this world just as much by being prudent and taking precautions as we do by being rash and impulsive and acting as the spirit moves us. If Jill had been permitted by her wary fiancé to come with him to the station to meet his mother, it is certain that much trouble would have been avoided. True, Lady Underhill would probably have been rude to her in the opening stages of the interview, but she would not have been alarmed and suspicious; or, rather, the vague suspicion which she had been feeling would not have solidified, as it did now, into definite certainty of the worst. All that Derek had effected by his careful diplomacy had been to convince his mother that he considered his bride-elect something to be broken gently to her.

She stopped and faced him.

"Who is she?" she demanded. "Who is this girl?"

Derek flushed.

"I thought I made everything clear in my letter."

"You made nothing clear at all."

"By your leave!" chanted a porter behind them, and a baggage-truck clove them apart.

"We can't talk in a crowded station," said Derek irritably. "Let me get you to the taxi and take you to the hotel. … What do you want to know about Jill?"

"Everything. Where does she come from? Who are her people? I don't know any Mariners."

"I haven't cross-examined her," said Derek stiffly. "But I do know that her parents are dead. Her father was an American."

"American!"

"Americans frequently have daughters, I believe."

"There is nothing to be gained by losing your temper," said Lady Underhill with steely calm.

"There is nothing to be gained, as far as I can see, by all this talk," retorted Derek. He wondered vexedly why his mother always had this power of making him lose control of himself. He hated to lose control of himself. It upset him, and blurred that vision which he liked to have of himself as a calm, important man superior to ordinary weaknesses. "Jill and I are engaged, and there is an end of it."

"Don't be a fool," said Lady Underhill, and was driven away by another baggage-truck. "You know perfectly well," she resumed, returning to the attack, "that your marriage is a matter of the greatest concern to me and to the whole of the family."

"Listen, mother!" Derek's long wait on the draughty platform had generated an irritability which overcame the deep-seated awe of his mother which was the result of years of defeat in battles of the will. "Let me tell you in a few words all that I know of Jill, and then we'll drop the subject. In the first place, she is a lady. Secondly, she has plenty of money …"

"The Underhills do not need to marry for money."

"I am not marrying for money!"

"Well, go on."

"I have already described to you in my letter-very inadequately, but I did my best-what she looks like. Her sweetness, her loveableness, all the subtle things about her which go to make her what she is, you will have to judge for yourself."

"I intend to!"

"Well, that's all, then. She lives with her uncle, a Major Selby …"

"Major Selby? What regiment?"

"I didn't ask him," snapped the goaded Derek. "And, in the name of heaven, what does it matter?"

"Not the Guards?"

"I tell you I don't know."

"Probably a line regiment," said Lady Underhill with an indescribable sniff.

"Possibly. What then?" He paused, to play his trump card. "If you are worrying about Major Selby's social standing, I may as well tell you that he used to know father."

"What! When? Where?"

"Years ago. In India, when father was at Simla."

"Selby? Selby? Not Christopher Selby?"

"Oh, you remember him?"

"I certainly remember him! Not that he and I ever met, but your father often spoke of him."

Derek was relieved. It was abominable that this sort of thing should matter, but one had to face facts, and, as far as his mother was concerned, it did. The fact that Jill's uncle had known his dead father would make all the difference to Lady Underhill.

"Christopher Selby!" said Lady Underhill reflectively. "Yes! I have often heard your father speak of him. He was the man who gave your father an I.O.U. to pay a card debt, and redeemed it with a check which was returned by the bank!"

"What!"

"Didn't you hear what I said? I will repeat it, if you wish."

"There must have been some mistake."

"Only the one your father made when he trusted the man."

"It must have been some other fellow."

"Of course!" said Lady Underhill satirically. "No doubt your father knew hundreds of Christopher Selbys!"

Derek bit his lip.

"Well, after all," he said doggedly, "whether it's true or not …"

"I see no reason why your father should not have spoken the truth."

"All right. We'll say it is true, then. But what does it matter? I am marrying Jill, not her uncle."

"Nevertheless, it would be pleasanter if her only living relative were not a swindler!… Tell me, where and how did you meet this girl?"

"I should be glad if you would not refer to her as 'this girl.' The name, if you have forgotten it, is Mariner."

"Well, where did you meet Miss Mariner?"

"At Prince's."

"Restaurant?"

"Skating-rink," said Derek impatiently. "Just after you left for Mentone. Freddie Rooke introduced me."

"Oh, your intellectual friend Mr Rooke knows her?"

"They were children together. Her people lived next to the Rookes in Worcestershire."

"I thought you said she was an American."

"I said her father was. He settled in England. Jill hasn't been in America since she was eight or nine."

"The fact," said Lady Underhill, "that the girl is a friend of Mr Rooke is no great recommendation."

Derek kicked angrily at a box of matches which someone had thrown down on the platform.

"I wonder if you could possibly get it into your head, mother, that I want to marry Jill, not engage her as an under-housemaid. I don't consider that she requires recommendations, as you call them. However, don't you think the most sensible thing is for you to wait till you meet her at dinner tonight, and then you can form your own opinion? I'm beginning to get a little bored with this futile discussion."

"As you seem quite unable to talk on the subject of this girl without becoming rude," said Lady Underhill, "I agree with you. Let us hope that my first impression will be a favorable one. Experience has taught me that first impressions are everything."

"I'm glad you think so," said Derek, "for I fell in love with Jill the very first moment I saw her!"

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