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   Chapter 1 ENVIRONMENT

A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 24603

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Thursday morning was always an interesting time for Philip, for it was on that day that he received letters from ladies.

On Mondays he used to write to them, from the dictation of Uncle Joseph. On Tuesdays he had an easy time of it, for Uncle Joseph was away all day, interviewing East End vicars, and Salvation Army officials, and editors of newspapers which made a speciality of discriminating between genuine and bogus charities. Uncle Joseph was a well-known figure in the philanthropic world,-that part of it which works without limelight and spends every penny it receives upon relieving distress, and knows nothing of Charity Balls and Grand Bazaars, with their incidental expenses and middlemen's profits,-and it was said that no deserving case was ever brought to his notice in vain. He would serve on no committees, and his name figured on no subscription list; but you could be quite certain that when Uncle Joseph wrote a cheque that cheque relieved a real want; for he had an infallible nose for an impostor and a most uncanny acquaintance with the habits and customs of the great and prosperous brotherhood of professional beggars.

Hard-worked curates and overdriven doctors, who called-and never in vain-at the snug but unpretentious house in Hampstead on behalf of some urgent case, sometimes wondered, as they walked away with a light heart and a heavy pocket, what Uncle Joseph was worth; for it was said by those who were supposed to know that his benefactions ran into four figures annually. As a matter of fact his income from all sources was exactly seven hundred and fifty pounds a year, and none of this was spent on charity.

Uncle Joseph had one peculiarity. He transacted no business with the female sex. If help was required of him, application must be made by a man.

On Wednesdays Philip wrote-or more usually typed-more letters, but none to ladies. On this day he addressed himself to gentlemen, tersely informing such that if they made search in the envelope they would find a cheque enclosed, "in aid of the most excellent object mentioned in your letter," which it would be a kindness to acknowledge in due course. Uncle Joseph used to sign these.

This brings us round to Thursday again; and, as already indicated, this was Philip's field day. On Thursday morning one James Nimmo, the factotum of the establishment, used to arrive shortly after breakfast in a cab, from an excursion into regions unknown, with quite a budget of letters. They were all from ladies, and were replies to Philip's letters of Monday. Most of them contained cheques, chaperoned by lengthy screeds; some enclosed lengthy screeds but no cheques; while a few, written in a masculine hand, stated briefly that "If my wife is pestered in this fashion again," Yours Faithfully proposed to communicate with the police.

Although these letters were all addressed to Philip, Uncle Joseph opened them himself, ticking off the cheques and postal orders and dictating the names and addresses of their senders to Philip, who posted them up in a big book.

On Fridays Philip wrote acknowledging the letters. For a boy of fourteen he was a very fair stenographer, and could take down the sentences almost as quickly as Uncle Joseph could dictate them. His typing, too, was almost first-class, and he possessed the useful, if risky, accomplishment of being able to write two separate and distinct hands.

Saturday was a particularly delightful day, for then Uncle Joseph and Philip put all business cares behind them and held high revel. Sometimes they went up the River; sometimes they went to Lords; and sometimes they took the train into the country and tramped over the Hog's Back or the South Downs.

It was upon these occasions that Uncle Joseph would discourse upon Woman, and wonder, with Philip, why she had been sent into the world.

"There appears to be no parallel to the female mind," Uncle Joseph would say, "in any of the works of nature. It seems almost incredible that God should invent such a wonderful piece of mechanism as Man-invent him for the express purpose of controlling and developing this marvellous world of ours-and then deliberately stultify his own work and handicap his own beautifully designed and perfectly balanced engines by linking them up with others which are conspicuous for nothing but bias and instability. What a world this might have been, Philip, if all its inhabitants had been constructed upon a rational plan, instead of only one half! Why is it, I wonder?"

Philip, who could not remember having spoken to a woman for ten years, except once or twice across a counter, would shake his head despondingly.

"Put it another way," continued Uncle Joseph. "What master-mariner, having set up a carefully designed, perfectly balanced compass upon the bridge of his ship, would then proceed to surround that compass-upon the steadiness of which the very life of the ship depends-with a casual collection of bar-magnets or soft iron bolts? What compass could be expected to point to the Magnetic North for one moment in such a field of force? It would not even be a constant field of force; for the magnets would come and go, or at least wax and wane in attractive power, altering the resultant intensity from year to year-from day to day, even. No compass could give a true bearing under such circumstances. And yet the Supreme Architect of the Universe has done that to us! He creates man, and having set him to direct the course of this planet, surrounds him with women! Why, Philip? Why?"

At this Philip would endeavour to look as wise as possible, but once more would find himself unable to contribute to the debate.

Uncle Joseph would nod his head.

"Quite right, Philip," he would say. "We don't know why, and we never shall. All we can do is to bow to God's will, accept the situation, and adopt the best means at our disposal of mitigating our disabilities. There is only one thing to do. What is it, Philip?"

Philip was always quite ready this time.

"Avoid women," he would reply gravely, "at all times and in all places."

After that they would talk about bird-migration, or high-tension magnetos-subjects affording easier and more profitable ground for speculation.

* * *

On the particular Thursday morning with which we are dealing, Philip and Uncle Joseph sat in the library prepared for business. Philip was installed at the broad writing-table, with a reporter's notebook and a pencil. Beside him, ready for use, stood the typewriter. Uncle Joseph sprawled for the moment in an easy-chair, industriously perusing a copy of the current issue of the "Searchlight," a weekly organ whose editor possessed an almost indecent acquaintance with the private lives of most of the rogues and quacks who batten upon the British Public. He even went so far as to publish an annual list of their names, aliases, and addresses. Uncle Joseph had figured therein more than once, but not as Uncle Joseph.

There was a knock at the door, and James Nimmo entered, carrying a cowhide bag. This he opened, and poured its contents upon the table-letters of every shape, size, colour, and scent.

"A heavy post this week, James Nimmo," commented Uncle Joseph.

"Mph'm," replied James Nimmo (who was a Scotsman). "Could I get speaking with you, Colonel?" he added. He called Uncle Joseph "Colonel" because he was a colonel.

Uncle Joseph looked up sharply.

"Anything wrong?" he asked.

James Nimmo looked at him, and like the Eldest Oyster, shook his heavy head. Uncle Joseph rightly took this to be a sign of assent.

"Where?" he asked.

"At Commercial Road." (As a matter of fact James Nimmo said "Commaircial Rod," but it will be simpler to transcribe as we go.)

"I expected it," said Uncle Joseph. He held up the "Searchlight." "These people say they have been making enquiries. Listen."

Do any of my readers happen to know anything of the Reverend Aubrey Buck? He appears to be devoting his undoubted talents to the furtherance of a crusade against what he calls "The Popish Invasion of the English Home"; and to that end he is circularising the country with a passionate appeal for funds. A copy of this appeal has been forwarded to me by a correspondent. The head offices of the Anti-Popery League (from which this document emanates) are situated at 374a Commercial Road. Noting this illuminating fact, and failing to find any reference to the establishment in the Post-Office Directory, I last week despatched a representative to the Commercial Road, to seek out and interrogate the Anti-Popish Buck. As I expected, 374a Commercial Road proved to be a small greengrocer's shop-an "accommodation address" of the most ordinary type-whose proprietor admitted that he was in the habit of taking in letters on behalf of some of his customers, but declined any further information. Enthusiastic but credulous Protestants should therefore be on their guard. The Reverend Aubrey is evidently an experienced hand, for his dupes are most judiciously selected, being entirely maiden ladies of independent means and advanced Evangelical views. From his epistolary style I cherish a shrewd suspicion that Aubrey is nearly related to my old friend Howard Glennie ("Searchlight" Rogues' Catalogue, No. 847), who-

"Man, he's a marvel, yon felly!" observed James Nimmo admiringly. He was referring apparently to the editor of the "Searchlight."

-Who, not long ago, as regular students of the "Searchlight" will recollect, spent a very profitable two years raising the small sum necessary to enable him to make provision for his aged mother before leaving this country for good, in order to devote his life to spiritual work in a leper colony-a colony situated in an island so distant that I was ultimately able to prove, to the profound chagrin of Howard Glennie, that it did not exist at all. The name of Aubrey Buck, I may add, not does appear in "Crockford."

Uncle Joseph laid down the paper.

"And what do you think of that?" he enquired.

"We shall need to be getting another address," replied James Nimmo.

"We shall have to drop Aubrey Buck, too," said Uncle Joseph. "However, we can't complain. We have done pretty well out of him. Let me think. I know! We will turn him into a retired University Don with paralysis in both legs, who has to do typewriting for a living. He shall send an appeal for work to every lady novelist in the country. Their name is legion. In nine cases out of ten they will send money instead of manuscript."

"And if they do send manuscript?" enquired James Nimmo dubiously.

"We will keep it for a week," replied Uncle Joseph readily, "and then return it, accompanied by a manly but resigned letter announcing that the paralysis has spread to the Don's arms as well, and he supposes there is nothing for it now but the workhouse. That ought to bring in a double donation. Tell your brother to move from Commercial Road to Islington. We have never had an address there. Were the other places all right?"

While James Nimmo proceeded with his report Philip sorted the letters on the table. The conversation did not interest him-he was accustomed to it. But the editor of the "Searchlight" would have appreciated it keenly.

Presently James Nimmo departed, and Uncle Joseph and Philip went through their correspondence. The letters were arranged into three heaps. The first addressed itself to Master T. Smith, care of the Reverend Vitruvius Smith, 172 Laburnum Road, Balham. The other two were directed to The Honorary Secretary of the International Brotherhood of Kind Young Hearts, Pontifex Mansions, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Reverend Aubrey Buck, Head Office, The Anti-Popery League, 374a Commercial Road, respectively.

Most of Master T. Smith's envelopes contained postal orders, some of them accompanied by lengthy epistles which blended heavy-handed patronage and treacly sentiment in equal proportions. Uncle Joseph read one or two aloud.

My dear little Tommy,-I feel that I must send you something in response to your little letter, which has touched me to the depths of my heart.

"Only five shillings," commented Uncle Joseph, referring to the postal order.

I hope your father is better, and will soon be about his parish work agai

n. The expense of his illness must have been very great, and I cannot wonder that you should have overheard your mother crying in the night, when she thought you were all fast asleep. Perhaps it was wrong of you to write to me for help without consulting your parents; but, as you point out, it would, indeed, be a splendid surprise if you could go to your father's study with a little money in your hand and say:-"That is for household expenses, dear Father, from an anonymous well-wisher." I think it was clever of you to spell "anonymous" correctly.

"It was infernally silly of you," amended Uncle Joseph, looking up for a moment. "However:-

I feel therefore that I must fall in with your little plot. I am not allowed by law to send actual coin through the post, or you should have had a bright new five-shilling piece. [This woman ought to be put into a Home.] So I enclose what is called a postal order. If you sign your name on it and take it round to the nearest Post-Office, they will give you five shillings in exchange.

Do not apologise for your handwriting. I think it is quite good for a boy of ten. Give my love to your baby brother.

Your sincere friend,

Jane Roper.

P.S. I wonder how you heard of me.

"They all want to know that," grunted Uncle Joseph. "None of the silly creatures seem ever to have heard of directories."

Master Thomas Smith gravely signed the postal order which Uncle Joseph had pushed over to him, remarking that it was a good thing Miss Roper had not filled up the name of the post-office.

There were fifteen more letters in a very similar strain. They were not all read right through, but the name and address of the sender were always entered in the book and the postal orders were carefully extracted and filed.

Their total value was found to be seven pounds ten-this despite a disappointment caused by the last letter in the heap, which bore a small coronet on the back and promised a cheque at least. It ran:-

My dear little boy,-I read your letter with great interest and indignation. It only proves what I have always said, that some of our noble clergy are shamefully underpaid. I do not send you any money, for to do so would be to insult a sacred profession, and I am quite sure that your little plan of offering a contribution of your own towards your household expenses, though creditable to your feelings, would meet with your dear father's deepest disapproval. I will do better than that. I have some little influence with the kind Bishop of your diocese, and if you will send me your father's full name and the name of his church and parish,-all I have at present is your home address,-I will make strong representations to His Lordship on your behalf. Indeed, I expect to meet him at dinner next week. I have been unable to verify your father's name in "Crockford's Clerical Directory," which I always keep by me. But you see, there are so many Smiths-

"Quite so," murmured Uncle Joseph, in tones of deep satisfaction.

-And the task is too difficult. However, if you will send me the details I ask for, I feel sure that the dear Bishop will make a searching enquiry into your father's case.

Your affectionate friend,

Sarah Brickshire.

P.S. I wonder how such a little boy as you found out my address.

"Interfering old tabby!" observed Uncle Joseph testily. "If she persists in this preposterous nonsense we shall have to change your venue, Philip. Now for the Kind Young Hearts!"

To judge by the contents of the second heap of envelopes, the International Brotherhood of Kind Young Hearts was an institution of variegated aims and comfortable income. A five-pound note dropped out of the first letter opened, the sender, in her covering epistle, expressing her warm admiration for the character of a heroic (but unfortunately fictitious) individual named Dimitri Papodoodlekos,-or something to that effect,-an Armenian gentleman of enlightened views and stiff moral fibre, who, having been converted late in life to the principles of Wesleyan Methodism, had persisted, in the very heart of the Ottoman Empire and in the face of all Islam, in maintaining and practising the tenets of his newly embraced creed until summarily deported from his native Armenia by direction of the Sultan himself. The writer begged to enclose a small contribution towards the sum of fifty pounds which she understood the Brotherhood of Kind Young Hearts was endeavouring to raise in order to set up the expatriated Papodoodlekos in a cigar-divan in Stoke Newington.

The next letter contained a postal order for one pound, contributed by a warm-hearted but gullible female in Leicestershire, as a contribution towards the sum required to purchase a dress-suit for Samuel Mings, the Walthamstow garotter, who, having recently completed a term of fifteen years' penal servitude, was now anxious to atone for past misdeeds by plunging into a life of intense respectability. Samuel, it seemed, had decided to follow the calling of a waiter at suburban dinner-parties; and, being a man of agreeable address and imposing appearance, had already booked several conditional engagements in the Golder's Green district. A second-hand dress-suit was now all that was requisite to ensure for him a permanent residence in the paths of virtue.

It may be mentioned here that sufficient cash to equip Samuel with an entire Bond Street trousseau was yielded by this post alone.

But the begging-letter writer, charm he never so wisely, draws a blank sometimes. Presently Uncle Joseph picked up a large grey envelope from the heap.

"Man's handwriting," he observed.

From the envelope he extracted a letter and a cheque. A casual glance at the face of the cheque caused him to raise his eyebrows comically and whistle. Then he skimmed through the letter.

"Here's a fellow with a sense of humour," he said. "What a tonic after all these women!

Sir,-My wife, who occasionally permits me to take charge of her correspondence (especially when she is asked for money), has handed me your very interesting communication. I learn from it that the International Brotherhood of Kind Young Hearts is in need of funds for fifteen different objects-prettily described by you as "this week's List of Mercy." The list includes:-

(1) Appeal on behalf of an Armenian undesirable, who appears to have evaded the Immigration Laws of this country and so planted himself in our unhappy midst.

(2) Appeal on behalf of a retired garotter, who, before setting up in business as a suburban burglar, evidently desires to study the architecture and internal arrangements of the residences of our wealthy bourgeoisie.

(3) Appeal for a sum sufficient to send one thousand slum children to the seaside.

This appears to be a laudable object, though it is perhaps undesirable to despatch children of that age and condition to the seaside in early December, as you apparently propose to do. It would, moreover, have established greater confidence in the minds of your clients if you had mentioned the name of the slum, the name of the watering-place to which you propose to send the children, and the nature of your arrangements for conveying and maintaining them there. If I may say so, there is a lack of names, places, and figures in your scheme. But perhaps, as in the case of John Wesley, "the world is your parish."

There are twelve other appeals of a similar nature, all equally hard to resist and all equally entertaining. Subscribers, I note, are requested to place a mark opposite to the particular item of your programme to which they wish their contribution to be devoted. I confess I find my sympathy excited less by some of the appeals than by the others. For instance, I fear I cannot support your view of the desirability of providing a one-armed protégé of yours, Albert Edward Skewby, with a hurdy-gurdy. In my opinion there are only two musicians in history-Bach and Tchaikowsky-and neither of these sounds to advantage on a hurdy-gurdy. Besides, Albert probably has another arm inside his waistcoat. You look and see. Neither can I find it in my heart to support your Home of Rest for unwanted Doggies. Sausages are dear enough as it is, and if you are going to corner the market in this well-meaning but misguided fashion, I fear they will soon be out of my reach altogether.

However, some of your other appeals moved me deeply, and I confess I have experienced great difficulty in making my final choice. I was strongly attracted at first by the case of the gentleman who has just terminated a protracted visit to an inebriates' home, and who, I gather, is anxious to raise a sum sufficient to enable him to qualify for readmission at an early date. I nearly succumbed, again, to your appeal on behalf of the lady who has recently been rendered a widow by reason of the hasty and ill-considered action of a band of African cannibals. On second thoughts, however, remembering that the pangs of the good lady over the loss of her husband must be as nothing in comparison with those of the unfortunate savages who are probably still trying to digest him, I held my hand, and passed on to my final choice-the purchase of an annuity for the aged and badly-used butler, Lemuel Bloote-(what fun it must be making up names like that!)

Lemuel, I gather, has severed his connection with his employer-a nobleman to whose family and person the Blootes have been faithfully attached for more than forty years-owing to an unfortunate misunderstanding with regard to a valuable and massive service of Sheffield plate, unaccountably missing from the baronial strong-room. Lemuel naturally left the court without a stain upon his character, but wounded pride forbade him to reènter the service of his aristocratic traducer. Too old to start life afresh, too self-respecting to beg, he has thrown himself, you say, upon the compassion of the International Brotherhood of the Kind Young Hearts. I cannot resist this appeal. I set my mark against the name of Lemuel Bloote, and beg you to be so kind as to accept my cheque on his behalf. I do not know how great a sum is required to purchase an annuity for a Bloote, so I leave the cheque blank. Kindly fill it up at your discretion. I make only one stipulation. I am a collector of Sheffield plate. If Lemuel has not already disposed of his stock, perhaps you will kindly put me into direct communication with him.

Let me close with a word of advice. When you write your next batch of appeals, do not allow your sense of humour to run away with you altogether. I admire and respect a cheerful knave, but let there be moderation in all things.

Yours faithfully,

Julius Mablethorpe.

The cheque was headed Bank of Expectation, and bore the somewhat unexpected signature of the head of the house of Rothschild. It was drawn to the order of A. S. Windeller, Esq., and was dated April the First, 2013.

"I should like to meet that fellow," said Uncle Joseph appreciatively.

"So should I," said Philip.

His uncle looked up.

"Hallo!" he said. "Is your sense of humour beginning to sprout, Philip? You are growing up, my boy. How old are you?"

"Nearly fifteen," said Philip.

"Well, you don't look it, but you possess certain attainments which a young man of thirty might envy. In other respects you must be considered backward. But you are an excellent secretary, you can keep accounts, and you are exceptionally well up in English literature and modern science. I have directed you to the best of my ability in the right way of life. At any rate, I have kept you away from wrong influences. You are healthy in body and prompt in mind, and you are thoroughly inoculated against the female virus. Now your sense of humour is developing. You should go far. But we are wasting time. Let us polish off Aubrey Buck's correspondence, and then I will dictate to you one or two new letters which I have drafted. Your attention appears to be wandering. What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing in particular, Uncle Joseph," said Philip. He took up his pen briskly.

But for all that he had been thinking about something in particular. Uncle Joseph's reference to the female virus had brought it to his mind. It was a little girl in a blue cotton frock.

* * *

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