Without The Option
by P.G. Wodehouse
The evidence was all in. The machinery of the law had worked without a hitch. And the beak, having adjusted a pair of pince-nez which looked as though they were going to do a nose dive any moment, coughed like a pained sheep and slipped us the bad news. 'The prisoner, Wooster,' he said—and who can paint the shame and agony of Bertram at hearing himself so described?—'will pay a fine of five pounds.'
'Oh, rather!' I said. 'Absolutely! Like a shot!'
I was dashed glad to get the thing settled at such a reasonable figure. I gazed across what they call the sea of faces till I picked up Jeeves, sitting at the back. Stout fellow, he had come to see the young master through his hour of trial.
'I say, Jeeves,' I sang out, 'have you got a fiver? I'm a bit short.'
'Silence!' bellowed some officious blighter.
'It's all right,' I said; 'just arranging the financial details. Got the stuff, Jeeves?'
'Are you a friend of the prisoner?' asked the beak.
'I am in Mr Wooster's employment, Your Worship, in the capacity of gentleman's personal gentleman.'
'Then pay the fine to the clerk.'
'Very good, Your Worship.'
The beak gave a coldish nod in my direction, as much as to say that they might now strike the fetters from my wrists; and having hitched up the pince-nez once more, proceeded to hand poor old Sippy one of the nastiest looks ever seen in Bosher Street Police Court.
'The case of the prisoner Leon Trotzky—which,' he said, giving Sippy the eye again, 'I am strongly inclined to think an assumed and fictitious name—is more serious. He has been convicted of a wanton and violent assault upon the police. The evidence of the officer has proved that the prisoner struck him in the abdomen, causing severe internal pain, and in other ways interfered with him in the execution of his duties. I am aware that on the night following the annual aquatic contest between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a certain licence is traditionally granted by the authorities, but aggravated acts of ruffianly hooliganism like that of the prisoner Trotzky cannot be overlooked or palliated. He will serve a sentence of thirty days in the Second Division without the option of a fine.'
'No, I say—here—hi—dash it all!' protested poor old Sippy.
'Silence!' bellowed the officious blighter.
'Next case,' said the beak. And that was that.
The whole affair was most unfortunate. Memory is a trifle blurred; but as far as I can piece together the facts, what happened was more or less this:
Abstemious cove though I am as a general thing, there is one night in the year when, putting all other engagements aside, I am rather apt to let myself go a bit and renew my lost youth, as it were. The night to which I allude is the one following the annual aquatic contest between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; or, putting it another way, Boat-Race Night. Then, if ever, you will see Bertram under the influence. And on this occasion, I freely admit, I had been doing myself rather juicily, with the result that when I ran into old Sippy opposite the Empire I was in quite fairly bonhomous mood. This being so, it cut me to the quick to perceive that Sippy, generally the brightest of revellers, was far from being his usual sunny self. He had the air of a man with a secret sorrow.
'Bertie,' he said as we strolled along towards Piccadilly Circus, 'the heart bowed down by weight of woe to weakest hope will cling.' Sippy is by way of being an author, though mainly dependent for the necessaries of life on subsidies from an old aunt who lives in the country, and his conversation often takes a literary turn. 'But the trouble is that I have no hope to cling to, weak or otherwise. I am up against it, Bertie.'
'In what way, laddie?'
'I've got to go tomorrow and spend three weeks with some absolutely dud—I will go further—some positively scaly friends of my Aunt Vera. She has fixed the thing up, and may a nephew's curse blister every bulb in her garden.'
'Who are these hounds of hell?' I asked.
'Some people named Pringle. I haven't seen them since I was ten, but I remember them at that time striking me as England's premier warts.'
'Tough luck. No wonder you've lost your morale.'
'The world,' said Sippy, 'is very grey. How can I shake off this awful depression?'
It was then that I got one of those bright ideas one does get round about 11.30 on Boat-Race Night.
'What you want, old man,' I said, 'is a policeman's helmet.'
'Do I, Bertie?'
'If I were you, I'd just step straight across the street and get that one over there.'
'But there's a policeman inside it. You can see him distinctly.'
'What does that matter?' I said. I simply couldn't follow his reasoning.
Sippy stood for a moment in thought.
'I believe you're absolutely right,' he said at last. 'Funny I never thought of it before. You really recommend me to get that helmet?'
'I do, indeed.'
'Then I will,' said Sippy, brightening up in the most remarkable manner.
So there you have the posish, and you can see why, as I left the dock a free man, remorse gnawed at my vitals. In his twenty-fifth year, with life opening out before him and all that sort of thing, Oliver Randolph Sipperley had become a jail-bird, and it was all my fault. It was I who had dragged that fine spirit down into the mire, so to speak, and the question now arose, What could I do to atone?
Obviously the first move must be to get in touch with Sippy and see if he had any last messages and what-not. I pushed about a bit, making inquiries, and presently found myself in a little dark room with whitewashed walls and a wooden bench. Sippy was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands.
'How are you, old lad?' I asked in a hushed, bedside voice.
'I'm a ruined man,' said Sippy, looking like a poached egg.
'Oh, come,' I said, 'it's not so bad as all that. I mean to say, you had the swift intelligence to give a false name. There won't be anything about you in the papers.'
'I'm not worrying about the papers. What's bothering me is, how can I go and spend three weeks with the Pringles, starting today, when I've got to sit in a prison cell with a ball and chain on my ankle?'
'But you said you didn't want to go.'
'It isn't a question of wanting, fathead. I've got to go. If I don't my aunt will find out where I am. And if she finds out that I am doing thirty days, without the option, in the lowest dungeon beneath the castle moat—well, where shall I get off?'
I saw his point.
'This is not a thing we can settle for ourselves,' I said gravely. 'We must put our trust in a higher power. Jeeves is the man we must consult.'
And having collected a few of the necessary data, I shook his hand, patted him on the back and tooled off home to Jeeves.
'Jeeves,' I said, when I had climbed outside the pick-me-up which he had thoughtfully prepared against my coming, 'I've got something to tell you; something important; something that vitally affects one whom you have always regarded with—one whom you have always looked upon—one whom you have—well, to cut a long story short, as I'm not feeling quite myself—Mr Sipperley.'
'Jeeves, Mr Souperley is in the sip.'
'I mean, Mr Sipperley is in the soup.'
'And all owing to me. It was I who, in a moment of mistaken kindness, wishing only to cheer him up and give him something to occupy his mind, recommended him to pinch that policeman's helmet.'
'Is that so, sir?'
'Do you mind not intoning the responses, Jeeves?' I said. 'This is a most complicated story for a man with a headache to have to tell, and if you interrupt you'll make me lose the thread. As a favour to me, therefore, don't do it. Just nod every now and then to show that you're following me.'
I closed my eyes and marshalled the facts.
'To start with then, Jeeves, you may or may not know that Mr Sipperley is practically dependent on his Aunt Vera.'
'Would that be Miss Sipperley of the Paddock, Beckley-on-the-Moor, in Yorkshire, sir?'
'Yes. Don't tell me you know her!'
'Not personally, sir. But I have a cousin residing in the village who has some slight acquaintance with Miss Sipperley. He has described her to me as an imperious and quick-tempered old lady.... But I beg your pardon, sir, I should have nodded.'
'Quite right, you should have nodded. Yes, Jeeves, you should have nodded. But it's too late now.'
I nodded myself. I hadn't had my eight hours the night before, and what you might call a lethargy was showing a tendency to steal over me from time to time.
'Yes, sir?' said Jeeves.
'Oh—ah—yes,' I said, giving myself a bit of a hitch up. 'Where had I got to?'
'You were saying that Mr Sipperley is practically dependent upon Miss Sipperley, sir.'
'You were, sir.'
'You're perfectly right; so I was. Well, then, you can readily understand, Jeeves, that he has got to take jolly good care to keep in with her. You get that?'
'Now mark this closely: The other day she wrote to old Sippy, telling him to come down and sing at her village concert. It was equivalent to a royal command, if you see what I mean, so Sippy couldn't refuse in so many words. But he had sung at her village concert once before and had got the bird in no uncertain manner, so he wasn't playing any return dates. You follow so far, Jeeves?'
'So what did he do, Jeeves? He did what seemed to him at the moment a rather brainy thing. He told her that, though he would have been delighted to sing at her village concert, by a most unfortunate chance an editor had commissioned him to write a series of articles on the colleges of Cambridge and he was obliged to pop down there at once and would be away for quite three weeks. All clear up to now?'
Jeeves inclined the coco-nut.
'Whereupon, Jeeves, Miss Sipperley wrote back, saying that she quite realized that work must come before pleasure—pleasure being her loose way of describing the act of singing songs at the Beckley-on-the-Moor concert and getting the laugh from the local toughs; but that, if he was going to Cambridge, he must certainly stay with her friends, the Pringles, at their house just outside the town. And she dropped them a line telling them to expect him on the twenty-eighth, and they dropped another line saying right-ho, and the thing was settled. And now Mr Sipperley is in the jug, and what will be the ultimate outcome or upshot? Jeeves, it is a problem worthy of your great intellect. I rely on you.'
'I will do my best to justify your confidence, sir.'
'Carry on, then. And meanwhile pull down the blinds and bring a couple more cushions and heave that small chair this way so that I can put my feet up, and then go away and brood and let me hear from you in—say, a couple of hours, or maybe three. And if anybody calls and wants to see me, inform them that I am dead.'
'Dead. You won't be so far wrong.'
It must have been well towards evening when I woke up with a crick in my neck but otherwise somewhat refreshed. I pressed the bell.
'I looked in twice, sir,' said Jeeves, 'but on each occasion you were asleep and I did not like to disturb you.'
'The right spirit, Jeeves.... Well?'
'I have been giving close thought to the little problem which you indicated, sir, and I can see only one solution.'
'One is enough. What do you suggest?'
'That you go to Cambridge in Mr Sipperley's place, sir.'
I stared at the man. Certainly I was feeling a good deal better than I had been a few hours before; but I was far from being in a fit condition to have rot like this talked to me.
'Jeeves,' I said sternly, 'pull yourself together. This is mere babble from the sickbed.'
'I fear I can suggest no other plan of action, sir, which will extricate Mr Sipperley from his dilemma.'
'But think! Reflect! Why, even I, in spite of having had a disturbed night and a most painful morning with the minions of the law, can see that the scheme is a loony one. To put the finger on only one leak in the thing, it isn't me these people want to see; it's Mr Sipperley. They don't know me from Adam.'
'So much the better, sir. For what I am suggesting is that you go to Cambridge, affecting actually to be Mr Sipperley.'
This was too much.
'Jeeves,' I said, and I'm not half sure there weren't tears in my eyes, 'surely you can see for yourself that this is pure banana oil. It is not like you to come into the presence of a sick man and gibber.'
'I think the plan I have suggested would be practicable, sir. While you were sleeping, I was able to have a few words with Mr Sipperley, and he informed me that Professor and Mrs Pringle have not set eyes upon him since he was a lad of ten.'
'No, that's true. He told me that. But even so, they would be sure to ask him questions about my aunt—or rather his aunt. Where would I be then?'
'Mr Sipperley was kind enough to give me a few facts respecting Miss Sipperley, sir, which I jotted down. With these, added to what my cousin has told me of the lady's habits, I think you would be in a position to answer any ordinary question.'
There is something dashed insidious about Jeeves. Time and again since we first came together he has stunned me with some apparently drivelling suggestion or scheme or ruse or plan of campaign, and after about five minutes has convinced me that it is not only sound but fruity. It took nearly a quarter of an hour to reason me into this particular one, it being considerably the weirdest to date; but he did it. I was holding out pretty firmly, when he suddenly clinched the thing.
'I would certainly suggest, sir,' he said, 'that you left London as soon as possible and remained hid for some little time in some retreat where you would not be likely to be found.'
'During the last hours Mrs Spenser has been on the telephone three times, sir, endeavouring to get into communication with you.'
'Aunt Agatha!' I cried, paling beneath my tan.
'Yes, sir. I gathered from her remarks that she had been reading in the evening paper a report of this morning's proceedings in the police court.'
I hopped from the chair like a jack rabbit of the prairie. If Aunt Agatha was out with her hatchet, a move was most certainly indicated.
'Jeeves,' I said, 'this is a time for deeds, not words. Pack—and that right speedily.'
'I have packed, sir.'
'Find out when there is a train for Cambridge.'
'There is one in forty minutes, sir.'
'Call a taxi.'
'A taxi is at the door, sir.'
'Good!' I said. 'Then lead me to it.'
The Maison Pringle was quite a bit of a way out of Cambridge, a mile or two down the Trumpington Road; and when I arrived everybody was dressing for dinner. So it wasn't till I had shoved on the evening raiment and got down to the drawing-room that I met the gang.
'Hullo-ullo!' I said, taking a deep breath and floating in.
I tried to speak in a clear and ringing voice, but I wasn't feeling my chirpiest. It is always a nervous job for a diffident and unassuming bloke to visit a strange house for the first time; and it doesn't make the thing any better when he goes there pretending to be another fellow. I was conscious of a rather pronounced sinking feeling, which the appearance of the Pringles did nothing to allay.
Sippy had described them as England's premier warts, and it looked to me as if he might be about right. Professor Pringle was a thinnish, baldish, dyspeptic-lookingish cove with an eye like a haddock, while Mrs Pringle's aspect was that of one who had had bad news round about the year 1900 and never really got over it. And I was just staggering under the impact of these two when I was introduced to a couple of ancient females with shawls all over them.
'No doubt you remember my mother?' said Professor Pringle mournfully, indicating Exhibit A.
'Oh-ah!' I said, achieving a bit of a beam.
'And my aunt,' sighed the prof, as if things were getting worse and worse.
'Well, well, well!' I said, shooting another beam in the direction of Exhibit B.
'They were saying only this morning that they remembered you,' groaned the prof, abandoning all hope.
There was a pause. The whole strength of the company gazed at me like a family group out of one of Edgar Allan Poe's less cheery yarns, and I felt my joie de vivre dying at the roots.
'I remember Oliver,' said Exhibit A. She heaved a sigh. 'He was such a pretty child. What a pity! What a pity!'
Tactful, of course, and calculated to put the guest completely at his ease.
'I remember Oliver,' said Exhibit B, looking at me in much the same way as the Bosher Street beak had looked at Sippy before putting on the black cap. 'Nasty little boy! He teased my cat.'
'Aunt Jane's memory is wonderful, considering that she will be eighty-seven next birthday,' whispered Mrs Pringle with mournful pride.
'What did you say?' asked the Exhibit suspiciously.
'I said your memory was wonderful.'
'Ah!' The dear old creature gave me another glare. I could see that no beautiful friendship was to be looked for by Bertram in this quarter. 'He chased my Tibby all over the garden, shooting arrows at her from a bow.'
At this moment a cat strolled out from under the sofa and made for me with its tail up. Cats always do take to me, which made it all the sadder that I should be saddled with Sippy's criminal record. I stooped to tickle it under the ear, such being my invariable policy, and the Exhibit uttered a piercing cry.
'Stop him! Stop him!'
She leaped forward, moving uncommonly well for one of her years, and having scooped up the cat, stood eyeing me with bitter defiance, as if daring me to start anything. Most unpleasant.
'I like cats,' I said feebly.
It didn't go. The sympathy of the audience was not with me. And conversation was at what you might call a low ebb, when the door opened and a girl came in.
'My daughter Heloise,' said the prof moodily, as if he hated to admit it.
I turned to mitt the female, and stood there with my hand out, gaping. I can't remember when I've had such a nasty shock.
I suppose everybody has had the experience of suddenly meeting somebody who reminded them frightfully of some fearful person. I mean to say, by way of an example, once when I was golfing in Scotland I saw a woman come into the hotel who was the living image of my Aunt Agatha. Probably a very decent sort, if I had only waited to see, but I didn't wait. I legged it that evening, utterly unable to stand the spectacle. And on another occasion I was driven out of a thoroughly festive night club because the head waiter reminded me of my Uncle Percy.
Well, Heloise Pringle, in the most ghastly way, resembled Honoria Glossop.
I think I may have told you before about this Glossop scourge. She was the daughter of Sir Roderick Glossop, the loony-doctor, and I had been engaged to her for about three weeks, much against my wishes, when the old boy most fortunately got the idea that I was off my rocker and put the bee on the proceedings. Since then the mere thought of her had been enough to make me start out of my sleep with a loud cry. And this girl was exactly like her.
'Er—how are you?' I said.
'How do you do?'
Her voice put the lid on it. It might have been Honoria herself talking. Honoria Glossop has a voice like a lion tamer making some authoritative announcement to one of the troupe, and so had this girl. I backed away convulsively and sprang into the air as my foot stubbed itself against something squashy. A sharp yowl rent the air, followed by an indignant cry, and I turned to see Aunt Jane, on all fours, trying to put things right with the cat, which had gone to earth under the sofa. She gave me a look, and I could see that her worst fears had been realized.
At this juncture dinner was announced—not before I was ready for it.
'Jeeves,' I said, when I got him alone that night, 'I am no faint heart, but I am inclined to think that this binge is going to prove a shade above the odds.'
'You are not enjoying your visit, sir?'
'I am not, Jeeves. Have you seen Miss Pringle?'
'Yes, sir, from a distance.'
'The best way to see her. Did you observe her keenly?'
'Did she remind you of anybody?'
'She appeared to me to bear a remarkable likeness to her cousin, Miss Glossop, sir.'
'Her cousin! You don't mean to say she's Honoria Glossop's cousin!'
'Yes, sir. Mrs Pringle was a Miss Blatherwick—the younger of two sisters, the elder of whom married Sir Roderick Glossop.'
'Great Scott! That accounts for the resemblance.'
'And what a resemblance, Jeeves! She even talks like Miss Glossop.'
'Indeed, sir? I have not yet heard Miss Pringle speak.'
'You have missed little. And what it amounts to, Jeeves, is that, though nothing will induce me to let old Sippy down, I can see that this visit is going to try me high. At a pinch, I could stand the prof and wife. I could even make the effort of a lifetime and bear up against Aunt Jane. But to expect a man to mix daily with the girl Heloise—and to do it, what is more, on lemonade, which is all there was to drink at dinner—is to ask too much of him. What shall I do, Jeeves?'
'I think that you should avoid Miss Pringle's society as much as possible.'
'The same great thought had occurred to me,' I said.
It is all very well, though, to talk airily about avoiding a female's society; but when you are living in the same house with her, and she doesn't want to avoid you, it takes a bit of doing. It is a peculiar thing in life that the people you most particularly want to edge away from always seem to cluster round like a poultice. I hadn't been twenty-four hours in the place before I perceived that I was going to see a lot of this pestilence.
She was one of those girls you're always meeting on the stairs and in passages. I couldn't go into a room without seeing her drift in a minute later. And if I walked in the garden she was sure to leap out at me from a laurel bush or the onion bed or something. By about the tenth day I had begun to feel absolutely haunted.
'Jeeves,' I said, 'I have begun to feel absolutely haunted.'
'This woman dogs me. I never seem to get a moment to myself. Old Sippy was supposed to come here to make a study of the Cambridge colleges, and she took me round about fifty-seven this morning. This afternoon I went to sit in the garden, and she popped up through a trap and was in my midst. This evening she cornered me in the morning-room. It's getting so that, when I have a bath, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find her nestling in the soap dish.'
'Extremely trying, sir.'
'Dashed so. Have you any remedy to suggest?'
'Not at the moment, sir. Miss Pringle does appear to be distinctly interested in you, sir. She was asking me questions this morning respecting your mode of life in London.'
I stared at the man in horror. A ghastly thought had struck me. I quivered like an aspen.
At lunch that day a curious thing had happened. We had just finished mangling the cutlets and I was sitting back in my chair, taking a bit of an easy before being allotted my slab of boiled pudding, when, happening to look up, I caught the girl Heloise's eye fixed on me in what seemed to me a rather rummy manner. I didn't think much about it at the time, because boiled pudding is a thing you have to give your undivided attention to if you want to do yourself justice; but now, recalling the episode in the light of Jeeves's words, the full sinister meaning of the thing seemed to come home to me.
Even at the moment, something about that look had struck me as oddly familiar, and now I suddenly saw why. It had been the identical look which I had observed in the eye of Honoria Glossop in the days immediately preceding our engagement—the look of a tigress that has marked down its prey.
'Jeeves, do you know what I think?'
I gulped slightly.
'Jeeves,' I said, 'listen attentively. I don't want to give the impression that I consider myself one of those deadly coves who exercise an irresistible fascination over one and all and can't meet a girl without wrecking her peace of mind in the first half-minute. As a matter of fact, it's rather the other way with me, for girls on entering my presence are mostly inclined to give me the raised eyebrow and the twitching upper lip. Nobody, therefore, can say that I am a man who's likely to take alarm unnecessarily. You admit that, don't you?'
'Nevertheless, Jeeves, it is a known scientific fact that there is a particular style of female that does seem strangely attracted to the sort of fellow I am.'
'Very true, sir.'
'I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I've got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love-light in her eyes. I don't know how to account for it, but it is so.'
'It may be Nature's provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.'
'Very possibly. Anyway, it has happened to me over and over again. It was what happened in the case of Honoria Glossop. She was notoriously one of the brainiest women of her year at Girton, and she just gathered me in like a bull pup swallowing a piece of steak.'
'Miss Pringle, I am informed, sir, was an even more brilliant scholar than Miss Glossop.'
'Well, there you are! Jeeves, she looks at me.'
'I keep meeting her on the stairs and in passages.'
'She recommends me books to read, to improve my mind.'
'Highly suggestive, sir.'
'And at breakfast this morning, when I was eating a sausage, she told me I shouldn't, as modern medical science held that a four-inch sausage contained as many germs as a dead rat. The maternal touch, you understand; fussing over my health.'
'I think we may regard that, sir, as practically conclusive.'
I sank into a chair, thoroughly pipped.
'What's to be done, Jeeves?'
'We must think, sir.'
'You think. I haven't the machinery.'
'I will most certainly devote my very best attention to the matter, sir, and will endeavour to give satisfaction.'
Well, that was something. But I was ill at ease. Yes, there is no getting away from it, Bertram was ill at ease.
Next morning we visited sixty-three more Cambridge colleges, and after lunch I said I was going to my room to lie down. After staying there for half an hour to give the coast time to clear, I shoved a book and smoking materials in my pocket, and climbing out of a window, shinned down a convenient water-pipe into the garden. My objective was the summer-house, where it seemed to me that a man might put in a quiet hour or so without interruption.
It was extremely jolly in the garden. The sun was shining, the crocuses were all to the mustard and there wasn't a sign of Heloise Pringle anywhere. The cat was fooling about on the lawn, so I chirruped to it and it gave a low gargle and came trotting up. I had just got it in my arms and was scratching it under the ear when there was a loud shriek from above, and there was Aunt Jane half out of the window. Dashed disturbing.
'Oh, right-ho,' I said.
I dropped the cat, which galloped off into the bushes, and dismissing the idea of bunging a brick at the aged relative, went on my way, heading for the shrubbery. Once safely hidden there, I worked round till I got to the summer-house. And, believe me, I had hardly got my first cigarette nicely under way when a shadow fell on my book and there was young Sticketh-Closer-Than-a-Brother in person.
'So there you are,' she said.
She seated herself by my side, and with a sort of gruesome playfulness jerked the gasper out of the holder and heaved it through the door.
'You're always smoking,' she said, a lot too much like a lovingly chiding young bride for my comfort. 'I wish you wouldn't. It's so bad for you. And you ought not to be sitting out here without your light overcoat. You want someone to look after you.'
'I've got Jeeves.'
She frowned a bit.
'I don't like him,' she said.
'Eh? Why not?'
'I don't know. I wish you would get rid of him.'
My flesh absolutely crept. And I'll tell you why. One of the first things Honoria Glossop had done after we had become engaged was to tell me she didn't like Jeeves and wanted him shot out. The realization that this girl resembled Honoria not only in body but in blackness of soul made me go all faint.
'What are you reading?'
She picked up my book and frowned again. The thing was one I had brought down from the old flat in London, to glance at in the train—a fairly zippy effort in the detective line called The Trail of Blood. She turned the pages with a nasty sneer.
'I can't understand you liking nonsense of this—' She stopped suddenly. 'Good gracious!'
'What's the matter?'
'Do you know Bertie Wooster?'
And then I saw that my name was scrawled right across the title page, and my heart did three back somersaults.
'Oh—er—well—that is to say—well, slightly.'
'He must be a perfect horror. I'm surprised that you can make a friend of him. Apart from anything else, the man is practically an imbecile. He was engaged to my Cousin Honoria at one time, and it was broken off because he was next door to insane. You should hear my Uncle Roderick talk about him!'
I wasn't keen.
'Do you see much of him?'
'A goodish bit.'
'I saw in the paper the other day that he was fined for making a disgraceful disturbance in the street.'
'Yes, I saw that.'
She gazed at me in a foul, motherly way.
'He can't be a good influence for you,' she said. 'I do wish you would drop him. Will you?'
'Well—' I began. And at this point old Cuthbert, the cat, having presumably found it a bit slow by himself in the bushes, wandered in with a matey expression on his face and jumped on my lap. I welcomed him with a good deal of cordiality. Though but a cat, he did make a sort of third at this party; and he afforded a good excuse for changing the conversation.
'Jolly birds, cats,' I said.
She wasn't having any.
'Will you drop Bertie Wooster?' she said, absolutely ignoring the cat motif.
'It would be so difficult.'
'Nonsense! It only needs a little will-power. The man surely can't be so interesting a companion as all that. Uncle Roderick says he is an invertebrate waster.'
I could have mentioned a few things that I thought Uncle Roderick was, but my lips were sealed, so to speak.
'You have changed a great deal since we last met,' said the Pringle disease reproachfully. She bent forward and began to scratch the cat under the other ear. 'Do you remember, when we were children together, you used to say that you would do anything for me?'
'I remember once you cried because I was cross and wouldn't let you kiss me.'
I didn't believe it at the time, and I don't believe it now. Sippy is in many ways a good deal of a chump, but surely even at the age of ten he cannot have been such a priceless ass as that. I think the girl was lying, but that didn't make the position of affairs any better. I edged away a couple of inches and sat staring before me, the old brow beginning to get slightly bedewed.
And then suddenly—well, you know how it is, I mean. I suppose everyone has had that ghastly feeling at one time or another of being urged by some overwhelming force to do some absolutely blithering act. You get it every now and then when you're in a crowded theatre, and something seems to be egging you on to shout 'Fire!' and see what happens. Or you're talking to someone and all at once you feel, 'Now, suppose I suddenly biffed this bird in the eye!'
Well, what I'm driving at is this, at this juncture, with her shoulder squashing against mine and her black hair tickling my nose, a perfectly loony impulse came sweeping over me to kiss her.
'No, really?' I croaked.
'Have you forgotten?'
She lifted the old onion and her eyes looked straight into mine. I could feel myself skidding. I shut my eyes. And then from the doorway there spoke the most beautiful voice I had ever heard in my life:
'Give me that cat!'
I opened my eyes. There was good old Aunt Jane, that queen of her sex, standing before me, glaring at me as if I were a vivisectionist and she had surprised me in the middle of an experiment. How this pearl among women had tracked me down I don't know, but there she stood, bless her dear, intelligent old soul, like the rescue party in the last reel of a motion picture.
I didn't wait. The spell was broken and I legged it. As I went, I heard that lovely voice again.
'He shot arrows at my Tibby from a bow,' said this most deserving and excellent octogenarian.
For the next few days all was peace. I saw comparatively little of Heloise. I found the strategic value of that water-pipe outside my window beyond praise. I seldom left the house now by any other route. It seemed to me that, if only the luck held like this, I might after all be able to stick this visit out for the full term of the sentence.
But meanwhile, as they say in the movies—
The whole family appeared to be present and correct as I came down to the drawing-room a couple of nights later. The Prof, Mrs Prof, the two Exhibits and the girl Heloise were scattered about at intervals. The cat slept on the rug, the canary in its cage. There was nothing, in short, to indicate that this was not just one of our ordinary evenings.
'Well, well, well!' I said cheerily. 'Hullo-ullo-ullo!'
I always like to make something in the nature of an entrance speech, it seeming to me to lend a chummy tone to the proceedings.
The girl Heloise looked at me reproachfully.
'Where have you been all day?' she asked.
'I went to my room after lunch.'
'You weren't there at five.'
'No. After putting in a spell of work on the good old colleges I went for a stroll. Fellow must have exercise if he means to keep fit.'
'Mens sana in corpore sano,' observed the prof.
'I shouldn't wonder,' I said cordially.
At this point, when everything was going as sweet as a nut and I was feeling on top of my form, Mrs Pringle suddenly socked me on the base of the skull with a sandbag. Not actually, I don't mean. No, no. I speak figuratively, as it were.
'Roderick is very late,' she said.
You may think it strange that the sound of that name should have sloshed into my nerve centres like a half-brick. But, take it from me, to a man who has had any dealings with Sir Roderick Glossop there is only one Roderick in the world—and that is one too many.
'Roderick?' I gurgled.
'My brother-in-law, Sir Roderick Glossop, comes to Cambridge tonight,' said the prof. 'He lectures at St Luke's tomorrow. He is coming here to dinner.'
And while I stood there, feeling like the hero when he discovers that he is trapped in the den of the Secret Nine, the door opened.
'Sir Roderick Glossop,' announced the maid or some such person, and in he came.
One of the things that get this old crumb so generally disliked among the better element of the community is the fact that he has a head like the dome of St Paul's and eyebrows that want bobbing or shingling to reduce them to anything like reasonable size. It is a nasty experience to see this bald and bushy bloke advancing on you when you haven't prepared the strategic railways in your rear.
As he came into the room I backed behind a sofa and commended my soul to God. I didn't need to have my hand read to know that trouble was coming to me through a dark man.
He didn't spot me at first. He shook hands with the prof and wife, kissed Heloise and waggled his head at the Exhibits.
'I fear I am somewhat late,' he said. 'A slight accident on the road, affecting what my chauffeur termed the—'
And then he saw me lurking on the outskirts and gave a startled grunt, as if I hurt him a good deal internally.
'This—' began the prof, waving in my direction.
'I am already acquainted with Mr Wooster.'
'This,' went on the prof, 'is Miss Sipperley's nephew, Oliver. You remember Miss Sipperley?'
'What do you mean?' barked Sir Roderick. Having had so much to do with loonies has given him a rather sharp and authoritative manner on occasion. 'This is that wretched young man, Bertram Wooster. What is all this nonsense about Olivers and Sipperleys?'
The prof was eyeing me with some natural surprise. So were the others. I beamed a bit weakly.
'Well, as a matter of fact—' I said.
The prof was wrestling with the situation. You could hear his brain buzzing.
'He said he was Oliver Sipperley,' he moaned.
'Come here!' bellowed Sir Roderick. 'Am I to understand that you have inflicted yourself on this household under the pretence of being the nephew of an old friend?'
It seemed a pretty accurate description of the facts.
'Well—er—yes,' I said.
Sir Roderick shot an eye at me. It entered the body somewhere about the top stud, roamed around inside for a bit and went out at the back.
'Insane! Quite insane, as I knew from the first moment I saw him.'
'What did he say?' asked Aunt Jane.
'Roderick says this young man is insane,' roared the prof.
'Ah!' said Aunt Jane, nodding. 'I thought so. He climbs down water-pipes.'
'I've seen him—ah, many a time!'
Sir Roderick snorted violently.
'He ought to be under proper restraint. It is abominable that a person in his mental condition should be permitted to roam the world at large. The next stage may quite easily be homicidal.'
It seemed to me that, even at the expense of giving old Sippy away, I must be cleared of this frightful charge. After all, Sippy's number was up anyway.
'Let me explain,' I said. 'Sippy asked me to come here.'
'What do you mean?'
'He couldn't come himself, because he was jugged for biffing a cop on Boat-Race Night.'
Well, it wasn't easy to make them get the hang of the story, and even when I'd done it it didn't seem to make them any chummier towards me. A certain coldness about expresses it, and when dinner was announced I counted myself out and pushed off rapidly to my room. I could have done with a bit of dinner, but the atmosphere didn't seem just right.
'Jeeves,' I said, having shot in and pressed the bell, 'we're sunk.'
'Hell's foundations are quivering and the game is up.'
He listened attentively.
'The contingency was one always to have been anticipated as a possibility, sir. It only remains to take the obvious step.'
'Go and see Miss Sipperley, sir.'
'What on earth for?'
'I think it would be judicious to apprise her of the facts yourself, sir, instead of allowing her to hear of them through the medium of a letter from Professor Pringle. That is to say, if you are still anxious to do all in your power to assist Mr Sipperley.'
'I can't let Sippy down. If you think it's any good—'
'We can but try it, sir. I have an idea, sir, that we may find Miss Sipperley disposed to look leniently upon Mr Sipperley's misdemeanour.'
'What makes you think that?'
'It is just a feeling that I have, sir.'
'Well, if you think it would be worth trying—How do we get there?'
'The distance is about a hundred and fifty miles, sir. Our best plan would be to hire a car.'
'Get it at once,' I said.
The idea of being a hundred and fifty miles away from Heloise Pringle, not to mention Aunt Jane and Sir Roderick Glossop, sounded about as good to me as anything I had ever heard.
The Paddock, Beckley-on-the-Moor, was about a couple of parasangs from the village, and I set out for it next morning, after partaking of a hearty breakfast at the local inn, practically without a tremor. I suppose when a fellow has been through it as I had in the last two weeks his system becomes hardened. After all, I felt, whatever this aunt of Sippy's might be like, she wasn't Sir Roderick Glossop, so I was that much on velvet from the start.
The Paddock was one of those medium-sized houses with a goodish bit of very tidy garden and a carefully rolled gravel drive curving past a shrubbery that looked as if it had just come back from the dry cleaner—the sort of house you take one look at and say to yourself, 'Somebody's aunt lives there.' I pushed on up the drive, and as I turned the bend I observed in the middle distance a woman messing about by a flower-bed with a trowel in her hand. If this wasn't the female I was after, I was very much mistaken, so I halted, cleared the throat and gave tongue.
She had had her back to me, and at the sound of my voice she executed a sort of leap or bound, not unlike a barefoot dancer who steps on a tin-tack half-way through the Vision of Salome. She came to earth and goggled at me in a rather goofy manner. A large, stout female with a reddish face.
'Hope I didn't startle you,' I said.
'Who are you?'
'My name's Wooster. I'm a pal of your nephew, Oliver.'
Her breathing had become more regular.
'Oh?' she said. 'When I heard your voice I thought you were someone else.'
'No, that's who I am. I came up here to tell you about Oliver.'
'What about him?'
I hesitated. Now that we were approaching what you might call the nub, or crux, of the situation, a good deal of my breezy confidence seemed to have slipped from me.
'Well, it's rather a painful tale, I must warn you.'
'Oliver isn't ill? He hasn't had an accident?'
She spoke anxiously, and I was pleased at this evidence of human feeling. I decided to shoot the works with no more delay.
'Oh, no, he isn't ill,' I said; 'and as regards having accidents, it depends on what you call an accident. He's in chokey.'
'It was entirely my fault. We were strolling along on Boat-Race Night and I advised him to pinch a policeman's helmet.'
'I don't understand.'
'Well, he seemed depressed, don't you know; and rightly or wrongly, I thought it might cheer him up if he stepped across the street and collared a policeman's helmet. He thought it a good idea, too, so he started doing it, and the man made a fuss and Oliver sloshed him.'
'Biffed him—smote him a blow—in the stomach.'
'My nephew Oliver hit a policeman in the stomach?'
'Absolutely in the stomach. And next morning the beak sent him to the bastille for thirty days without the option.'
I was looking at her a bit anxiously all this while to see how she was taking the thing, and at this moment her face seemed suddenly to split in half. For an instant she appeared to be all mouth, and then she was staggering about the grass, shouting with laughter and waving the trowel madly.
It seemed to me a bit of luck for her that Sir Roderick Glossop wasn't on the spot. He would have been sitting on her head and calling for the strait-waistcoat in the first half-minute.
'You aren't annoyed?' I said.
'Annoyed?' She chuckled happily. 'I've never heard such a splendid thing in my life.'
I was pleased and relieved. I had hoped the news wouldn't upset her too much, but I had never expected it to go with such a roar as this.
'I'm proud of him,' she said.
'If every young man in England went about hitting policemen in the stomach, it would be a better country to live in.'
I couldn't follow her reasoning, but everything seemed to be all right; so after a few more cheery words I said good-bye and legged it.
'Jeeves,' I said when I got back to the inn, 'everything's fine. But I am far from understanding why.'
'What actually occurred when you met Miss Sipperley, sir?'
'I told her Sippy was in the jug for assaulting the police. Upon which she burst into hearty laughter, waved her trowel in a pleased manner and said she was proud of him.'
'I think I can explain her apparently eccentric behaviour, sir. I am informed that Miss Sipperley has had a good deal of annoyance at the hands of the local constable during the past two weeks. This has doubtless resulted in a prejudice on her part against the force as a whole.'
'Really? How was that?'
'The constable has been somewhat over-zealous in the performance of his duties, sir. On no fewer than three occasions in the last ten days he has served summonses upon Miss Sipperley—for exceeding the speed limit in her car; for allowing her dog to appear in public without a collar; and for failing to abate a smoky chimney. Being in the nature of an autocrat, if I may use the term, in the village, Miss Sipperley has been accustomed to do these things in the past with impunity, and the constable's unexpected zeal has made her somewhat ill-disposed to policemen as a class and consequently disposed to look upon such assaults as Mr Sipperley's in a kindly and broadminded spirit.'
I saw his point.
'What an amazing bit of luck, Jeeves!'
'Where did you hear all this?'
'My informant was the constable himself, sir. He is my cousin.'
I gaped at the man. I saw, so to speak, all.
'Good Lord, Jeeves! You didn't bribe him?'
'Oh, no, sir. But it was his birthday last week, and I gave him a little present. I have always been fond of Egbert, sir.'
'A matter of five pounds, sir.'
I felt in my pocket.
'Here you are,' I said. 'And another fiver for luck.'
'Thank you very much, sir.'
'Jeeves,' I said, 'you move in a mysterious way your wonders to perform. You don't mind if I sing a bit, do you?'
'Not at all, sir,' said Jeeves.
End of Without The Option by P.G. Wodehouse