“And yet, Jeeves,” I said, twiddling a thoughtful steering wheel, “there is always the bright side.”
Some twenty minutes had elapsed, and having picked the honest fellow up outside the front door, I was driving in the two-seater to the picturesque town of Market Snodsbury. Since we had parted—he to go to his lair and fetch his hat, I to remain in my room and complete the formal costume—I had been doing some close thinking.
The results of this I now proceeded to hand on to him.
“However dark the prospect may be, Jeeves, however murkily the storm clouds may seem to gather, a keen eye can usually discern the blue bird. It is bad, no doubt, that Gussie should be going, some ten minutes from now, to distribute prizes in a state of advanced intoxication, but we must never forget that these things cut both ways.”
“You imply, sir—”
“Precisely. I am thinking of him in his capacity of wooer. All this ought to have put him in rare shape for offering his hand in marriage. I shall be vastly surprised if it won’t turn him into a sort of caveman. Have you ever seen James Cagney in the movies?”
“Something on those lines.”
I heard him cough, and sniped him with a sideways glance. He was wearing that informative look of his.
“Then you have not heard, sir?”
“You are not aware that a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Mr. Fink-Nottle and Miss Bassett?”
“When did this happen?”
“Shortly after Mr. Fink-Nottle had left your room, sir.”
“Ah! In the post-orange-juice era?”
“But are you sure of your facts? How do you know?”
“My informant was Mr. Fink-Nottle himself, sir. He appeared anxious to confide in me. His story was somewhat incoherent, but I had no difficulty in apprehending its substance. Prefacing his remarks with the statement that this was a beautiful world, he laughed heartily and said that he had become formally engaged.”
“But one can picture the scene.”
“I mean, imagination doesn’t boggle.”
And it didn’t. I could see exactly what must have happened. Insert a liberal dose of mixed spirits in a normally abstemious man, and he becomes a force. He does not stand around, twiddling his fingers and stammering. He acts. I had no doubt that Gussie must have reached for the Bassett and clasped her to him like a stevedore handling a sack of coals. And one could readily envisage the effect of that sort of thing on a girl of romantic mind.
“Well, well, well, Jeeves.”
“This is splendid news.”
“You see now how right I was.”
“It must have been rather an eye-opener for you, watching me handle this case.”
“The simple, direct method never fails.”
“Whereas the elaborate does.”
“Right ho, Jeeves.”
We had arrived at the main entrance of Market Snodsbury Grammar School. I parked the car, and went in, well content. True, the Tuppy-Angela problem still remained unsolved and Aunt Dahlia’s five hundred quid seemed as far off as ever, but it was gratifying to feel that good old Gussie’s troubles were over, at any rate.
The Grammar School at Market Snodsbury had, I understood, been built somewhere in the year 1416, and, as with so many of these ancient foundations, there still seemed to brood over its Great Hall, where the afternoon’s festivities were to take place, not a little of the fug of the centuries. It was the hottest day of the summer, and though somebody had opened a tentative window or two, the atmosphere remained distinctive and individual.
In this hall the youth of Market Snodsbury had been eating its daily lunch for a matter of five hundred years, and the flavour lingered. The air was sort of heavy and languorous, if you know what I mean, with the scent of Young England and boiled beef and carrots.
Aunt Dahlia, who was sitting with a bevy of the local nibs in the second row, sighted me as I entered and waved to me to join her, but I was too smart for that. I wedged myself in among the standees at the back, leaning up against a chap who, from the aroma, might have been a corn chandler or something on that order. The essence of strategy on these occasions is to be as near the door as possible.
The hall was gaily decorated with flags and coloured paper, and the eye was further refreshed by the spectacle of a mixed drove of boys, parents, and whatnot, the former running a good deal to shiny faces and Eton collars, the latter stressing the black-satin note rather when female, and looking as if their coats were too tight, if male. And presently there was some applause—sporadic, Jeeves has since told me it was—and I saw Gussie being steered by a bearded bloke in a gown to a seat in the middle of the platform.
And I confess that as I beheld him and felt that there but for the grace of God went Bertram Wooster, a shudder ran through the frame. It all reminded me so vividly of the time I had addressed that girls’ school.
Of course, looking at it dispassionately, you may say that for horror and peril there is no comparison between an almost human audience like the one before me and a mob of small girls with pigtails down their backs, and this, I concede, is true. Nevertheless, the spectacle was enough to make me feel like a fellow watching a pal going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and the thought of what I had escaped caused everything for a moment to go black and swim before my eyes.
When I was able to see clearly once more, I perceived that Gussie was now seated. He had his hands on his knees, with his elbows out at right angles, like a nigger minstrel of the old school about to ask Mr. Bones why a chicken crosses the road, and he was staring before him with a smile so fixed and pebble-beached that I should have thought that anybody could have guessed that there sat one in whom the old familiar juice was plashing up against the back of the front teeth.
In fact, I saw Aunt Dahlia, who, having assisted at so many hunting dinners in her time, is second to none as a judge of the symptoms, give a start and gaze long and earnestly. And she was just saying something to Uncle Tom on her left when the bearded bloke stepped to the footlights and started making a speech. From the fact that he spoke as if he had a hot potato in his mouth without getting the raspberry from the lads in the ringside seats, I deduced that he must be the head master.
With his arrival in the spotlight, a sort of perspiring resignation seemed to settle on the audience. Personally, I snuggled up against the chandler and let my attention wander. The speech was on the subject of the doings of the school during the past term, and this part of a prize-giving is always apt rather to fail to grip the visiting stranger. I mean, you know how it is. You’re told that J. B. Brewster has won an Exhibition for Classics at Cat’s, Cambridge, and you feel that it’s one of those stories where you can’t see how funny it is unless you really know the fellow. And the same applies to G. Bullett being awarded the Lady Jane Wix Scholarship at the Birmingham College of Veterinary Science.
In fact, I and the corn chandler, who was looking a bit fagged I thought, as if he had had a hard morning chandling the corn, were beginning to doze lightly when things suddenly brisked up, bringing Gussie into the picture for the first time.
“Today,” said the bearded bloke, “we are all happy to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fitz-Wattle—”
At the beginning of the address, Gussie had subsided into a sort of daydream, with his mouth hanging open. About halfway through, faint signs of life had begun to show. And for the last few minutes he had been trying to cross one leg over the other and failing and having another shot and failing again. But only now did he exhibit any real animation. He sat up with a jerk.
“Fink-Nottle,” he said, opening his eyes.
“I should say Fink-Nottle.”
“Of course you should, you silly ass,” said Gussie genially. “All right, get on with it.”
And closing his eyes, he began trying to cross his legs again.
I could see that this little spot of friction had rattled the bearded bloke a bit. He stood for a moment fumbling at the fungus with a hesitating hand. But they make these head masters of tough stuff. The weakness passed. He came back nicely and carried on.
“We are all happy, I say, to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle, who has kindly consented to award the prizes. This task, as you know, is one that should have devolved upon that well-beloved and vigorous member of our board of governors, the Rev. William Plomer, and we are all, I am sure, very sorry that illness at the last moment should have prevented him from being here today. But, if I may borrow a familiar metaphor from the—if I may employ a homely metaphor familiar to you all—what we lose on the swings we gain on the roundabouts.”
He paused, and beamed rather freely, to show that this was comedy. I could have told the man it was no use. Not a ripple. The corn chandler leaned against me and muttered “Whoddidesay?” but that was all.
It’s always a nasty jar to wait for the laugh and find that the gag hasn’t got across. The bearded bloke was visibly discomposed. At that, however, I think he would have got by, had he not, at this juncture, unfortunately stirred Gussie up again.
“In other words, though deprived of Mr. Plomer, we have with us this afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle. I am sure that Mr. Fink-Nottle’s name is one that needs no introduction to you. It is, I venture to assert, a name that is familiar to us all.”
“Not to you,” said Gussie.
And the next moment I saw what Jeeves had meant when he had described him as laughing heartily. “Heartily” was absolutely the mot juste. It sounded like a gas explosion.
“You didn’t seem to know it so dashed well, what, what?” said Gussie. And, reminded apparently by the word “what” of the word “Wattle,” he repeated the latter some sixteen times with a rising inflection.
“Wattle, Wattle, Wattle,” he concluded. “Right-ho. Push on.”
But the bearded bloke had shot his bolt. He stood there, licked at last; and, watching him closely, I could see that he was now at the crossroads. I could spot what he was thinking as clearly as if he had confided it to my personal ear. He wanted to sit down and call it a day, I mean, but the thought that gave him pause was that, if he did, he must then either uncork Gussie or take the Fink-Nottle speech as read and get straight on to the actual prize-giving.
It was a dashed tricky thing, of course, to have to decide on the spur of the moment. I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.
So with the bearded bloke. Whether he was abreast of the inside facts in Gussie’s case, I don’t know, but it was obvious to him by this time that he had run into something pretty hot. Trial gallops had shown that Gussie had his own way of doing things. Those interruptions had been enough to prove to the perspicacious that here, seated on the platform at the big binge of the season, was one who, if pushed forward to make a speech, might let himself go in a rather epoch-making manner.
On the other hand, chain him up and put a green-baize cloth over him, and where were you? The proceeding would be over about half an hour too soon.
It was, as I say, a difficult problem to have to solve, and, left to himself, I don’t know what conclusion he would have come to. Personally, I think he would have played it safe. As it happened, however, the thing was taken out of his hands, for at this moment, Gussie, having stretched his arms and yawned a bit, switched on that pebble-beached smile again and tacked down to the edge of the platform.
“Speech,” he said affably.
He then stood with his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, waiting for the applause to die down.
It was some time before this happened, for he had got a very fine hand indeed. I suppose it wasn’t often that the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School came across a man public-spirited enough to call their head master a silly ass, and they showed their appreciation in no uncertain manner. Gussie may have been one over the eight, but as far as the majority of those present were concerned he was sitting on top of the world.
“Boys,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and boys, I do not detain you long, but I suppose on this occasion to feel compelled to say a few auspicious words; Ladies—and boys and gentlemen—we have all listened with interest to the remarks of our friend here who forgot to shave this morning—I don’t know his name, but then he didn’t know mine—Fitz-Wattle, I mean, absolutely absurd—which squares things up a bit—and we are all sorry that the Reverend Whatever-he-was-called should be dying of adenoids, but after all, here today, gone tomorrow, and all flesh is as grass, and whatnot, but that wasn’t what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this—and I say it confidently—without fear of contradiction—I say, in short, I am happy to be here on this auspicious occasion and I take much pleasure in kindly awarding the prizes, consisting of the handsome books you see laid out on that table. As Shakespeare says, there are sermons in books, stones in the running brooks, or, rather, the other way about, and there you have it in a nutshell.”
It went well, and I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t quite follow some of it, but anybody could see that it was real ripe stuff, and I was amazed that even the course of treatment he had been taking could have rendered so normally tongue-tied a dumb brick as Gussie capable of it.
It just shows, what any member of Parliament will tell you, that if you want real oratory, the preliminary noggin is essential. Unless pie-eyed, you cannot hope to grip.
“Gentlemen,” said Gussie, “I mean ladies and gentlemen and, of course, boys, what a beautiful world this is. A beautiful world, full of happiness on every side. Let me tell you a little story. Two Irishmen, Pat and Mike, were walking along Broadway, and one said to the other, ‘Begorrah, the race is not always to the swift,’ and the other replied, ‘Faith and begob, education is a drawing out, not a putting in.’ ”
I must say it seemed to me the rottenest story I had ever heard, and I was surprised that Jeeves should have considered it worth while shoving into a speech. However, when I taxed him with this later, he said that Gussie had altered the plot a good deal, and I dare say that accounts for it.
At any rate, that was the conte as Gussie told it, and when I say that it got a very fair laugh, you will understand what a popular favourite he had become with the multitude. There might be a bearded bloke or so on the platform and a small section in the second row who were wishing the speaker would conclude his remarks and resume his seat, but the audience as a whole was for him solidly.
There was applause, and a voice cried: “Hear, hear!”
“Yes,” said Gussie, “it is a beautiful world. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, there is optimism everywhere. And why not, boys and ladies and gentlemen? I’m happy, you’re happy, we’re all happy, even the meanest Irishman that walks along Broadway. Though, as I say, there were two of them—Pat and Mike, one drawing out, the other putting in. I should like you boys, taking the time from me, to give three cheers for this beautiful world. All together now.”
Presently the dust settled down and the plaster stopped falling from the ceiling, and he went on.
“People who say it isn’t a beautiful world don’t know what they are talking about. Driving here in the car today to award the kind prizes, I was reluctantly compelled to tick off my host on this very point. Old Tom Travers. You will see him sitting there in the second row next to the large lady in beige.”
He pointed helpfully, and the hundred or so Market Snods-buryians who craned their necks in the direction indicated were able to observe Uncle Tom blushing prettily.
“I ticked him off properly, the poor fish. He expressed the opinion that the world was in a deplorable state. I said, ‘Don’t talk rot, old Tom Travers.’ ‘I am not accustomed to talk rot,’ he said. ‘Then, for a beginner,’ I said, ‘you do it dashed well.’ And I think you will admit, boys and ladies and gentlemen, that that was telling him.”
The audience seemed to agree with him. The point went big. The voice that had said, “Hear, hear” said “Hear, hear” again, and my corn chandler hammered the floor vigorously with a large-size walking stick.
“Well, boys,” resumed Gussie, having shot his cuffs and smirked horribly, “this is the end of the summer term, and many of you, no doubt, are leaving the school. And I don’t blame you, because there’s a frost in here you could cut with a knife. You are going out into the great world. Soon many of you will be walking along Broadway. And what I want to impress upon you is that, however much you may suffer from adenoids, you must all use every effort to prevent yourselves becoming pessimists and talking rot like old Tom Travers. There in the second row. The fellow with a face rather like a walnut.”
He paused to allow those wishing to do so to refresh themselves with another look at Uncle Tom, and I found myself musing in some little perplexity. Long association with the members of the Drones has put me pretty well in touch with the various ways in which an overdose of the blushful Hippocrene can take the individual, but I had never seen anyone react quite as Gussie was doing.
There was a snap about his work which I had never witnessed before, even in Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps on New Year’s Eve.
Jeeves, when I discussed the matter with him later, said it was something to do with inhibitions, if I caught the word correctly, and the suppression of, I think he said, the ego. What he meant, I gathered, was that, owing to the fact that Gussie had just completed a five years’ stretch of blameless seclusion among the newts, all the goofiness which ought to have been spread out thin over those five years and had been bottled up during that period came to the surface on this occasion in a lump—or, if you prefer to put it that way, like a tidal wave.
There may be something in this. Jeeves generally knows.
Anyway, be that as it may, I was dashed glad I had had the shrewdness to keep out of that second row. It might be unworthy of the prestige of a Wooster to squash in among the proletariat in the standing-room-only section, but at least, I felt, I was out of the danger zone. So thoroughly had Gussie got it up his nose by now that it seemed to me that had he sighted me he might have become personal about even an old school friend.
“If there’s one thing in the world I can’t stand,” proceeded Gussie, “it’s a pessimist. Be optimists, boys. You all know the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. An optimist is a man who—well, take the case of two Irishmen walking along Broadway. One is an optimist and one is a pessimist, just as one’s name is Pat and the other’s Mike. … Why, hullo, Bertie; I didn’t know you were here.”
Too late, I endeavoured to go to earth behind the chandler, only to discover that there was no chandler there. Some appointment, suddenly remembered—possibly a promise to his wife that he would be home to tea—had caused him to ooze away while my attention was elsewhere, leaving me right out in the open.
Between me and Gussie, who was now pointing in an offensive manner, there was nothing but a sea of interested faces looking up at me.
“Now, there,” boomed Gussie, continuing to point, “is an instance of what I mean. Boys and ladies and gentlemen, take a good look at that object standing up there at the back—morning coat, trousers as worn, quiet grey tie, and carnation in buttonhole—you can’t miss him. Bertie Wooster, that is, and as foul a pessimist as ever bit a tiger. I tell you I despise that man. And why do I despise him? Because, boys and ladies and gentlemen, he is a pessimist. His attitude is defeatist. When I told him I was going to address you this afternoon, he tried to dissuade me. And do you know why he tried to dissuade me? Because he said my trousers would split up the back.”
The cheers that greeted this were the loudest yet. Anything about splitting trousers went straight to the simple hearts of the young scholars of Market Snodsbury Grammar School. Two in the row in front of me turned purple, and a small lad with freckles seated beside them asked me for my autograph.
“Let me tell you a story about Bertie Wooster.”
A Wooster can stand a good deal, but he cannot stand having his name bandied in a public place. Picking my feet up softly, I was in the very process of executing a quiet sneak for the door, when I perceived that the bearded bloke had at last decided to apply the closure.
Why he hadn’t done so before is beyond me. Spellbound, I take it. And, of course, when a chap is going like a breeze with the public, as Gussie had been, it’s not so dashed easy to chip in. However, the prospect of hearing another of Gussie’s anecdotes seemed to have done the trick. Rising rather as I had risen from my bench at the beginning of that painful scene with Tuppy in the twilight, he made a leap for the table, snatched up a book and came bearing down on the speaker.
He touched Gussie on the arm, and Gussie, turning sharply and seeing a large bloke with a beard apparently about to bean him with a book, sprang back in an attitude of self-defence.
“Perhaps, as time is getting on, Mr. Fink-Nottle, we had better—”
“Oh, ah,” said Gussie, getting the trend. He relaxed. “The prizes, eh? Of course, yes. Right-ho. Yes, might as well be shoving along with it. What’s this one?”
“Spelling and dictation—P. K. Purvis,” announced the bearded bloke.
“Spelling and dictation—P. K. Purvis,” echoed Gussie, as if he were calling coals. “Forward, P. K. Purvis.”
Now that the whistle had been blown on his speech, it seemed to me that there was no longer any need for the strategic retreat which I had been planning. I had no wish to tear myself away unless I had to. I mean, I had told Jeeves that this binge would be fraught with interest, and it was fraught with interest. There was a fascination about Gussie’s methods which gripped and made one reluctant to pass the thing up provided personal innuendoes were steered clear of. I decided, accordingly, to remain, and presently there was a musical squeaking and P. K. Purvis climbed the platform.
The spelling-and-dictation champ was about three foot six in his squeaking shoes, with a pink face and sandy hair. Gussie patted his hair. He seemed to have taken an immediate fancy to the lad.
“You P. K. Purvis?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“It’s a beautiful world, P. K. Purvis.”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Ah, you’ve noticed it, have you? Good. You married, by any chance?”
“Sir, no, sir.”
“Get married, P. K. Purvis,” said Gussie earnestly. “It’s the only life … Well, here’s your book. Looks rather bilge to me from a glance at the title page, but, such as it is, here you are.”
P. K. Purvis squeaked off amidst sporadic applause, but one could not fail to note that the sporadic was followed by a rather strained silence. It was evident that Gussie was striking something of a new note in Market Snodsbury scholastic circles. Looks were exchanged between parent and parent. The bearded bloke had the air of one who has drained the bitter cup. As for Aunt Dahlia, her demeanour now told only too clearly that her last doubts had been resolved and her verdict was in. I saw her whisper to the Bassett, who sat on her right, and the Bassett nodded sadly and looked like a fairy about to shed a tear and add another star to the Milky Way.
Gussie, after the departure of P. K. Purvis, had fallen into a sort of daydream and was standing with his mouth open and his hands in his pockets. Becoming abruptly aware that a fat kid in knickerbockers was at his elbow, he started violently.
“Hullo!” he said, visibly shaken. “Who are you?”
“This,” said the bearded bloke, “is R. V. Smethurst.”
“What’s he doing here?” asked Gussie suspiciously.
“You are presenting him with the drawing prize, Mr. Fink-Nottle.”
This apparently struck Gussie as a reasonable explanation. His face cleared.
“That’s right, too,” he said. … “Well, here it is, cocky. You off?” he said, as the kid prepared to withdraw.
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Wait, R. V. Smethurst. Not so fast. Before you go, there is a question I wish to ask you.”
But the beard bloke’s aim now seemed to be to rush the ceremonies a bit. He hustled R. V. Smethurst off stage rather like a chucker-out in a pub regretfully ejecting an old and respected customer, and starting paging G. G. Simmons. A moment later the latter was up and coming, and conceive my emotion when it was announced that the subject on which he had clicked was Scripture knowledge. One of us, I mean to say.
G. G. Simmons was an unpleasant, perky-looking stripling, mostly front teeth and spectacles, but I gave him a big hand. We Scripture-knowledge sharks stick together.
Gussie, I was sorry to see, didn’t like him. There was in his manner, as he regarded G. G. Simmons, none of the chumminess which had marked it during his interview with P. K. Purvis or, in a somewhat lesser degree, with R. V. Smethurst. He was cold and distant.
“Well, G. G. Simmons.”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“What do you mean—sir, yes, sir? Dashed silly thing to say. So you’ve won the Scripture-knowledge prize, have you?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Yes,” said Gussie, “you look just the sort of little tick who would. And yet,” he said, pausing and eyeing the child keenly, “how are we to know that this has all been open and above board? Let me test you, G. G. Simmons. What was What’s-His-Name—the chap who begat Thingummy? Can you answer me that, Simmons?”
“Sir, no, sir.”
Gussie turned to the bearded bloke.
“Fishy,” he said. “Very fishy. This boy appears to be totally lacking in Scripture knowledge.”
The bearded bloke passed a hand across his forehead.
“I can assure you, Mr. Fink-Nottle, that every care was taken to ensure a correct marking and that Simmons outdistanced his competitors by a wide margin.”
“Well, if you say so,” said Gussie doubtfully. “All right, G. G. Simmons, take your prize.”
“Sir, thank you, sir.”
“But let me tell you that there’s nothing to stick on side about in winning a prize for Scripture knowledge. Bertie Wooster—”
I don’t know when I’ve had a nastier shock. I had been going on the assumption that, now that they had stopped him making his speech, Gussie’s fangs had been drawn, as you might say. To duck my head down and resume my edging toward the door was with me the work of a moment.
“Bertie Wooster won the Scripture-knowledge prize at a kids’ school we were at together, and you know what he’s like. But, of course, Bertie frankly cheated. He succeeded in scrounging that Scripture-knowledge trophy over the heads of better men by means of some of the rawest and most brazen swindling methods ever witnessed even at a school where such things were common. If that man’s pockets, as he entered the examination-room, were not stuffed to bursting-point with lists of the kings of Judah—”
I heard no more. A moment later I was out in God’s air, fumbling with a fevered foot at the self-starter of the old car.
The engine raced. The clutch slid into position. I tooted and drove off.
My ganglions were still vibrating as I ran the car into the stables of Brinkley Court, and it was a much shaken Bertram who tottered up to his room to change into something loose. Having donned flannels, I lay down on the bed for a bit, and I suppose I must have dozed off, for the next thing I remember is finding Jeeves at my side.
I sat up. “My tea, Jeeves?”
“No, sir. It is nearly dinnertime.”
The mists cleared away.
“I must have been asleep.”
“Nature taking its toll of the exhausted frame.”
“And enough to make it.”
“And now it’s nearly dinnertime, you say? All right. I am in no mood for dinner, but I suppose you had better lay out the clothes.”
“It will not be necessary, sir. The company will not be dressing tonight. A cold collation has been set out in the dining-room.”
“It was Mrs. Travers’s wish that this should be done in order to minimize the work for the staff, who are attending a dance at Sir Percival Stretchley-Budd’s residence tonight.”
“Of course, yes. I remember. My Cousin Angela told me. Tonight’s the night, what? You going, Jeeves?”
“No, sir. I am not very fond of this form of entertainment in the rural districts, sir.”
“I know what you mean. These country binges are all the same. A piano, one fiddle, and a floor like sandpaper. Is Anatole going? Angela hinted not.”
“Miss Angela was correct, sir. Monsieur Anatole is in bed.”
“Temperamental blighters, these Frenchmen.”
There was a pause.
“Well, Jeeves,” I said, “it was certainly one of those afternoons, what?”
“I cannot recall one more packed with incident. And I left before the finish.”
“Yes, sir. I observed your departure.”
“You couldn’t blame me for withdrawing.”
“No, sir. Mr. Fink-Nottle had undoubtedly become embarrassingly personal.”
“Was there much more of it after I went?”
“No, sir. The proceedings terminated very shortly. Mr. Fink-Nottle’s remarks with reference to Master G. G. Simmons brought about an early closure.”
“But he had finished his remarks about G. G. Simmons.”
“Only temporarily, sir. He resumed them immediately after your departure. If you recollect, sir, he had already proclaimed himself suspicious of Master Simmons’s bona fides, and he now proceeded to deliver a violent verbal attack upon the young gentleman, asserting that it was impossible for him to have won the Scripture-knowledge prize without systematic cheating on an impressive scale. He went so far as to suggest that Master Simmons was well known to the police.”
“Yes, sir. The words did create a considerable sensation. The reaction of those present to this accusation I should describe as mixed. The young students appeared pleased and applauded vigorously, but Master Simmons’s mother rose from her seat and addressed Mr. Fink-Nottle in terms of strong protest.”
“Did Gussie seem taken aback? Did he recede from his position?”
“No, sir. He said that he could see it all now, and hinted at a guilty liaison between Master Simmons’s mother and the head master, accusing the latter of having cooked the marks, as his expression was, in order to gain favour with the former.”
“You don’t mean that?”
“Egad, Jeeves! And then—”
“They sang the national anthem, sir.”
“At a moment like that?”
“Well, you were there and you know, of course, but I should have thought the last thing Gussie and this woman would have done in the circs. would have been to start singing duets.”
“You misunderstand me, sir. It was the entire company who sang. The head master turned to the organist and said something to him in a low tone. Upon which the latter began to play the national anthem, and the proceedings terminated.”
“I see. About time, too.”
“Yes, sir. Mrs. Simmons’s attitude had become unquestionably menacing.”
I pondered. What I had heard was, of course, of a nature to excite pity and terror, not to mention alarm and despondency, and it would be paltering with the truth to say that I was pleased about it. On the other hand, it was all over now, and it seemed to me that the thing to do was not to mourn over the past but to fix the mind on the bright future. I mean to say, Gussie might have lowered the existing Worcestershire record for goofiness and definitely forfeited all chance of becoming Market Snodsbury’s favourite son, but you couldn’t get away from the fact that he had proposed to Madeline Bassett, and you had to admit that she had accepted him.
I put this to Jeeves.
“A frightful exhibition,” I said, “and one which will very possibly ring down history’s pages. But we must not forget, Jeeves, that Gussie, though now doubtless looked upon in the neighbourhood as the world’s worst freak, is all right otherwise.”
I did not get quite this.
“When you say ‘No, sir,’ do you mean ‘Yes, sir’?”
“No, sir. I mean ‘No, sir.’ ”
“He is not all right otherwise?”
“But he’s betrothed.”
“No longer, sir. Miss Bassett has severed the engagement.”
“You don’t mean that?”
I wonder if you have noticed a rather peculiar thing about this chronicle. I allude to the fact that at one time or another practically everybody playing a part in it has had occasion to bury his or her face in his or her hands. I have participated in some pretty glutinous affairs in my time, but I think that never before or since have I been mixed up with such a solid body of brow clutchers.
Uncle Tom did it, if you remember. So did Gussie. So did Tuppy. So, probably, though I have no data, did Anatole, and I wouldn’t put it past the Bassett. And Aunt Dahlia, I have no doubt, would have done it, too, but for the risk of disarranging the carefully fixed coiffure.
Well, what I am trying to say is that at this juncture I did it myself. Up went the hands and down went the head, and in another jiffy I was clutching as energetically as the best of them.
And it was while I was still massaging the coconut and wondering what the next move was that something barged up against the door like the delivery of a ton of coals.
“I think this may very possibly be Mr. Fink-Nottle himself, sir,” said Jeeves.
His intuition, however, had led him astray. It was not Gussie but Tuppy. He came in and stood breathing asthmatically. It was plain that he was deeply stirred.