There was one of those long silences. Pregnant, I believe, is what they’re generally called. Aunt looked at butler. Butler looked at aunt. I looked at both of them. An eerie stillness seemed to envelop the room like a linseed poultice. I happened to be biting on a slice of apple in my fruit salad at the moment, and it sounded as if Carnera had jumped off the top of the Eiffel Tower on to a cucumber frame.
Aunt Dahlia steadied herself against the sideboard, and spoke in a low, husky voice:
“Through the skylight?”
“You mean he’s sitting on the roof?”
“Yes, madam. It has upset Monsieur Anatole very much.”
I suppose it was that word “upset” that touched Aunt Dahlia off. Experience had taught her what happened when Anatole got upset. I had always known her as a woman who was quite active on her pins, but I had never suspected her of being capable of the magnificent burst of speed which she now showed. Pausing merely to get a rich hunting-field expletive off her chest, she was out of the room and making for the stairs before I could swallow a sliver of—I think—banana. And feeling, as I had felt when I got that telegram of hers about Angela and Tuppy, that my place was by her side, I put down my plate and hastened after her, Seppings following at a loping gallop.
I say that my place was by her side, but it was not so dashed easy to get there, for she was setting a cracking pace. At the top of the first flight she must have led by a matter of half a dozen lengths, and was still shaking off my challenge when she rounded into the second. At the next landing, however, the gruelling going appeared to tell on her, for she slackened off a trifle and showed symptoms of roaring, and by the time we were in the straight we were running practically neck and neck. Our entry into Anatole’s room was as close a finish as you could have wished to see.
1. Aunt Dahlia.
Won by a short head. Half a staircase separated second and third.
The first thing that met the eye on entering was Anatole. This wizard of the cooking-stove is a tubby little man with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type, and you can generally take a line through it as to the state of his emotions. When all is well, it turns up at the ends like a sergeant-major’s. When the soul is bruised, it droops.
It was drooping now, striking a sinister note. And if any shadow of doubt had remained as to how he was feeling, the way he was carrying on would have dispelled it. He was standing by the bed in pink pyjamas, waving his fists at the skylight. Through the glass, Gussie was staring down. His eyes were bulging and his mouth was open, giving him so striking a resemblance to some rare fish in an aquarium that one’s primary impulse was to offer him an ant’s egg.
Watching this fist-waving cook and this goggling guest, I must say that my sympathies were completely with the former. I considered him thoroughly justified in waving all the fists he wanted to.
Review the facts, I mean to say. There he had been, lying in bed, thinking idly of whatever French cooks do think about when in bed, and he had suddenly become aware of that frightful face at the window. A thing to jar the most phlegmatic. I know I should hate to be lying in bed and have Gussie popping up like that. A chap’s bedroom—you can’t get away from it—is his castle, and he has every right to look askance if gargoyles come glaring in at him.
While I stood musing thus, Aunt Dahlia, in her practical way, was coming straight to the point:
“What’s all this?”
Anatole did a sort of Swedish exercise, starting at the base of the spine, carrying on through the shoulder-blades and finishing up among the back hair.
Then he told her.
In the chats I have had with this wonder man, I have always found his English fluent, but a bit on the mixed side. If you remember, he was with Mrs. Bingo Little for a time before coming to Brinkley, and no doubt he picked up a good deal from Bingo. Before that, he had been a couple of years with an American family at Nice and had studied under their chauffeur, one of the Maloneys of Brooklyn. So, what with Bingo and what with Maloney, he is, as I say, fluent but a bit mixed.
He spoke, in part, as follows:
“Hot dog! You ask me what is it? Listen. Make some attention a little. Me, I have hit the hay, but I do not sleep so good, and presently I wake and up I look, and there is one who make faces against me through the dashed window. Is that a pretty affair? Is that convenient? If you think I like it, you jolly well mistake yourself. I am so mad as a wet hen. And why not? I am somebody, isn’t it? This is a bedroom, what-what, not a house for some apes? Then for what do blighters sit on my window so cool as a few cucumbers, making some faces?”
“Quite,” I said. Dashed reasonable, was my verdict.
He threw another look up at Gussie, and did Exercise 2—the one where you clutch the moustache, give it a tug and then start catching flies.
“Wait yet a little. I am not finish. I say I see this type on my window, making a few faces. But what then? Does he buzz off when I shout a cry, and leave me peaceable? Not on your life. He remain planted there, not giving any damns, and sit regarding me like a cat watching a duck. He make faces against me and again he make faces against me, and the more I command that he should get to hell out of here, the more he do not get to hell out of here. He cry something towards me, and I demand what is his desire, but he do not explain. Oh, no, that arrives never. He does but shrug his head. What damn silliness! Is this amusing for me? You think I like it? I am not content with such folly. I think the poor mutt’s loony. Je me fiche de ce type infect. C’est idiot de faire comme ça l’oiseau. … Allez-vous-en, louffier. …Tell the boob to go away. He is mad as some March hatters.”
I must say I thought he was making out a jolly good case, and evidently Aunt Dahlia felt the same. She laid a quivering hand on his shoulder.
“I will, Monsieur Anatole, I will,” she said, and I couldn’t have believed that robust voice capable of sinking to such an absolute coo. More like a turtle dove calling to its mate than anything else. “It’s quite all right.”
She had said the wrong thing. He did Exercise 3.
“All right? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! The hell you say it’s all right! Of what use to pull stuff like that? Wait one half-moment. Not yet quite so quick, my old sport. It is by no means all right. See yet again a little. It is some very different dishes of fish. I can take a few smooths with a rough, it is true, but I do not find it agreeable when one play larks against me on my windows. That cannot do. A nice thing, no. I am a serious man. I do not wish a few larks on my windows. I enjoy larks on my windows worse as any. It is very little all right. If such rannygazoo is to arrive, I do not remain any longer in this house no more. I buzz off and do not stay planted.”
Sinister words, I had to admit, and I was not surprised that Aunt Dahlia, hearing them, should have uttered a cry like the wail of a master of hounds seeing a fox shot. Anatole had begun to wave his fists again at Gussie, and she now joined him. Seppings, who was puffing respectfully in the background, didn’t actually wave his fists, but he gave Gussie a pretty austere look. It was plain to the thoughtful observer that this Fink-Nottle, in getting on to that skylight, had done a mistaken thing. He couldn’t have been more unpopular in the home of G. G. Simmons.
“Go away, you crazy loon!” cried Aunt Dahlia, in that ringing voice of hers which had once caused nervous members of the Quorn to lose stirrups and take tosses from the saddle.
Gussie’s reply was to waggle his eyebrows. I could read the message he was trying to convey.
“I think he means,” I said—reasonable old Bertram, always trying to throw oil on the troubled w’s—“that if he does he will fall down the side of the house and break his neck.”
“Well, why not?” said Aunt Dahlia.
I could see her point, of course, but it seemed to me that there might be a nearer solution. This skylight happened to be the only window in the house which Uncle Tom had not festooned with his bally bars. I suppose he felt that if a burglar had the nerve to climb up as far as this, he deserved what was coming to him.
“If you opened the skylight, he could jump in.”
The idea got across.
“Seppings, how does this skylight open?”
“With a pole, madam.”
“Then get a pole. Get two poles. Ten.”
And presently Gussie was mixing with the company, Like one of those chaps you read about in the papers, the wretched man seemed deeply conscious of his position.
I must say Aunt Dahlia’s bearing and demeanour did nothing to assist toward a restored composure. Of the amiability which she had exhibited when discussing this unhappy chump’s activities with me over the fruit salad, no trace remained, and I was not surprised that speech more or less froze on the Fink-Nottle lips. It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia, normally as genial a bird as ever encouraged a gaggle of hounds to get their noses down to it, lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.
“Well?” she said.
In answer to this, all that Gussie could produce was a sort of strangled hiccough.
Aunt Dahlia’s face grew darker. Hunting, if indulged in regularly over a period of years, is a pastime that seldom fails to lend a fairly deepish tinge to the patient’s complexion, and her best friends could not have denied that even at normal times the relative’s map tended a little toward the crushed strawberry. But never had I seen it take on so pronounced a richness as now. She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.
Gussie tried hard. And for a moment it seemed as if something was going to come through. But in the end it turned out nothing more than a sort of death-rattle.
“Oh, take him away, Bertie, and put ice on his head,” said Aunt Dahlia, giving the thing up. And she turned to tackle what looked like the rather man’s size job of soothing Anatole, who was now carrying on a muttered conversation with himself in a rapid sort of way.
Seeming to feel that the situation was one to which he could not do justice in Bingo-cum-Maloney Anglo-American, he had fallen back on his native tongue. Words like “marmiton de Domange,” “pignouf,” “hurluberlu” and “roustisseur” were fluttering from him like bats out of a barn. Lost on me, of course, because, though I sweated a bit at the Gallic language during that Cannes visit, I’m still more or less in the Esker-vous-avez stage. I regretted this, for they sounded good.
I assisted Gussie down the stairs. A cooler thinker than Aunt Dahlia, I had already guessed the hidden springs and motives which had led him to the roof. Where she had seen only a cockeyed reveller indulging himself in a drunken prank or whimsy, I had spotted the hunted fawn.
“Was Tuppy after you?” I asked sympathetically.
What I believe is called a frisson shook him.
“He nearly got me on the top landing. I shinned out through a passage window and scrambled along a sort of ledge.”
“That baffled him, what?”
“Yes. But then I found I had stuck. The roof sloped down in all directions. I couldn’t go back. I had to go on, crawling along this ledge. And then I found myself looking down the skylight. Who was that chap?”
“That was Anatole, Aunt Dahlia’s chef.”
“To the core.”
“That explains why I couldn’t make him understand. What asses these Frenchmen are. They don’t seem able to grasp the simplest thing. You’d have thought if a chap saw a chap on a skylight, the chap would realize the chap wanted to be let in. But no, he just stood there.”
“Waving a few fists.”
“Yes. Silly idiot. Still, here I am.”
“Here you are, yes—for the moment.”
“I was thinking that Tuppy is probably lurking somewhere.”
He leaped like a lamb in springtime.
“What shall I do?”
I considered this.
“Sneak back to your room and barricade the door. That is the manly policy.”
“Suppose that’s where he’s lurking?”
“In that case, move elsewhere.”
But on arrival at the room, it transpired that Tuppy, if anywhere, was infesting some other portion of the house. Gussie shot in, and I heard the key turn. And feeling that there was no more that I could do in that quarter, I returned to the dining-room for further fruit salad and a quiet think. And I had barely filled my plate when the door opened and Aunt Dahlia came in. She sank into a chair, looking a bit shopworn.
“Give me a drink, Bertie.”
“Any sort, so long as it’s strong.”
Approach Bertram Wooster along these lines, and you catch him at his best. St. Bernard dogs doing the square thing by Alpine travellers could not have bustled about more assiduously. I filled the order, and for some moments nothing was to be heard but the sloshing sound of an aunt restoring her tissues.
“Shove it down, Aunt Dahlia,” I said sympathetically. “These things take it out of one, don’t they? You’ve had a toughish time, no doubt, soothing Anatole,” I proceeded, helping myself to anchovy paste on toast. “Everything pretty smooth now, I trust?”
She gazed at me in a long, lingering sort of way, her brow wrinkled as if in thought.
“Attila,” she said at length. “That’s the name. Attila, the Hun.”
“I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing.” she said, drinking me in once more. “To look at you, one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot—certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are worse a scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.”
Pained and surprised, I would have spoken, but the stuff I had thought was anchovy paste had turned out to be something far more gooey and adhesive. It seemed to wrap itself round the tongue and impede utterance like a gag. And while I was still endeavouring to clear the vocal cords for action, she went on:
“Do you realize what you started when you sent that Spink-Bottle man down here? As regards his getting blotto and turning the prize-giving ceremonies at Market Snodsbury Grammar School into a sort of two-reel comic film, I will say nothing, for frankly I enjoyed it. But when he comes leering at Anatole through skylights, just after I had with infinite pains and tact induced him to withdraw his notice, and makes him so temperamental that he won’t hear of staying on after tomorrow—”
The paste stuff gave way. I was able to speak:
“Yes, Anatole goes tomorrow, and I suppose poor old Tom will have indigestion for the rest of his life. And that is not all. I have just seen Angela, and she tells me she is engaged to this Bottle.”
“Temporarily, yes,” I had to admit.
“Temporarily be blowed. She’s definitely engaged to him and talks with a sort of hideous coolness of getting married in October. So there it is. If the prophet Job were to walk into the room at this moment, I could sit swapping hard-luck stories with him till bedtime. Not that Job was in my class.”
“He had boils.”
“Well, what are boils?”
“Dashed painful, I understand.”
“Nonsense. I’d take all the boils on the market in exchange for my troubles. Can’t you realize the position? I’ve lost the best cook in England. My husband, poor soul, will probably die of dyspepsia. And my only daughter, for whom I had dreamed such a wonderful future, is engaged to be married to an inebriated newt fancier. And you talk about boils!”
I corrected her on a small point:
“I don’t absolutely talk about boils. I merely mentioned that Job had them. Yes, I agree with you, Aunt Dahlia, that things are not looking too oojah-cum-spiff at the moment, but be of good cheer. A Wooster is seldom baffled for more than the nonce.”
“You rather expect to be coming along shortly with another of your schemes?”
“At any minute.”
She sighed resignedly.
“I thought as much. Well, it needed but this. I don’t see how things could possibly be worse than they are, but no doubt you will succeed in making them so. Your genius and insight will find the way. Carry on, Bertie. Yes, carry on. I am past caring now. I shall even find a faint interest in seeing into what darker and profounder abysses of hell you can plunge this home. Go to it, lad. … What’s that stuff you’re eating?”
“I find it a little difficult to classify. Some sort of paste on toast. Rather like glue flavoured with beef extract.”
“Gimme,” said Aunt Dahlia listlessly.
“Be careful how you chew,” I advised. “It sticketh closer than a brother. … Yes, Jeeves?”
The man had materialized on the carpet. Absolutely noiseless, as usual.
“A note for you, sir.”
“A note for me, Jeeves?”
“A note for you, sir.”
“From whom, Jeeves?”
“From Miss Bassett, sir.”
“From whom, Jeeves?”
“From Miss Bassett, sir.”
“From Miss Bassett, Jeeves?”
“From Miss Bassett, sir.”
At this point, Aunt Dahlia, who had taken one nibble at her whatever-it-was-on-toast and laid it down, begged us—a little fretfully, I thought—for heaven’s sake to cut out the crosstalk vaudeville stuff, as she had enough to bear already without having to listen to us doing our imitation of the Two Macs. Always willing to oblige, I dismissed Jeeves with a nod, and he flickered for a moment and was gone. Many a spectre would have been less slippy.
“But what,” I mused, toying with the envelope, “can this female be writing to me about?”
“Why not open the damn thing and see?”
“A very excellent idea,” I said, and did so.
“And if you are interested in my movements,” proceeded Aunt Dahlia, heading for the door, “I propose to go to my room, do some Yogi deep breathing, and try to forget.”
“Quite,” I said absently, skimming p. 1. And then, as I turned over, a sharp howl broke from my lips, causing Aunt Dahlia to shy like a startled mustang.
“Don’t do it!” she exclaimed, quivering in every limb.
“Yes, but dash it—”
“What a pest you are, you miserable object,” she sighed. “I remember years ago, when you were in your cradle, being left alone with you one day and you nearly swallowed your rubber comforter and started turning purple. And I, ass that I was, took it out and saved your life. Let me tell you, young Bertie, it will go very hard with you if you ever swallow a rubber comforter again when only I am by to aid.”
“But, dash it!” I cried. “Do you know what’s happened? Madeline Bassett says she’s going to marry me!”
“I hope it keeps fine for you,” said the relative, and passed from the room looking like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.