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Romance at Droitgate Spa



When young Freddie Fitch-Fitch went down to Droitgate Spa, that celebrated cure resort in the west of England, to ask his uncle and trustee, Major-General Sir Aylmer Bastable, to re­lease his capital in order that he might marry Annabel Purvis, he was fully alive to the fact that the interview might prove a disagreeable one. However, his great love bore him on, and he made the journey and was shown into the room where the old man sat nursing a gouty foot.

'Hullo-ullo-ullo, uncle,' he cried, for it was always his policy on these occasions to be buoyant till thrown out. 'Good morn­ing, good morning, good morning.'

'Gaw!' said Sir Aylmer, with a sort of long, shuddering sigh. 'It's you, is it?'

And he muttered something which Freddie did not quite catch, though he was able to detect the words 'last straw'.

Freddie's heart sank a little. He could see that his flesh and blood was in difficult mood, and he guessed what must have happened. No doubt Sir Aylmer had been to the Pump Room earlier in the day to take the waters, and while there had met and been high-hatted by some swell whom the doctors had twice given up for dead. These snobs, he knew, were always snub­bing the unfortunate old man.

On coming to settle in Droitgate Spa, Sir Aylmer Bastable had had a humiliating shock. The head of a fine old family and the possessor of a distinguished military record, he had expected on arrival to be received with open arms by the best people and welcomed immediately into the inner set. But when it was discovered that all he had wrong with him was a touch of gout in the right foot, he found himself cold-shouldered by the men who mattered and thrust back on the society of the asthma patients and the fellows with slight liver trouble.

For though few people are aware of it - so true is it that half the world does not know how the other half lives - there is no section of the community in which class-consciousness is so rampant as among invalids. The ancient Spartans, one gathers, were far from cordial towards their Helots, and the French aristocrat of pre-Revolution days tended to be a little stand-offish with his tenantry, but their attitude was almost back-slapping compared with that of - let us say - the man who has been out in Switzerland taking insulin for his diabetes towards one who is simply undergoing treatment from the village doc­tor for an ingrowing toe-nail. And this was particularly so, of course, in those places where invalids collect in gangs - Baden-Baden, for example, or Hot Springs, Virginia, or, as in Sir Aylmer's case, Droitgate Spa.

In such resorts the atmosphere is almost unbelievably cliquy. The old aristocracy, the top-notchers with maladies that get written up in the medical journals, keep themselves to them­selves pretty rigidly, and have a very short way with the smaller fry.

It was this that had soured Sir Aylmer Bastable's once sunny disposition and caused him now to glare at Freddie with an unfriendly eye.

'Well,' he said, 'what do you want?'

'Oh, I just looked in,' said Freddie. 'How's everything?'

'Rotten,' replied Sir Aylmer. 'I've just lost my nurse.'


'Worse. Married. The cloth-headed girl has gone off and got spliced to one of the canaille - a chap who's never even had so much as athlete's foot. She must be crazy.'

'Still, one sees her point of view.'

'No, one doesn't.'

'I mean,' said Freddie, who felt strongly on this subject, 'it's love that makes the world go round.'

'It isn't anything of the kind,' said Sir Aylmer. Like so many fine old soldiers, he was inclined to be a little literal-minded. 'I never heard such dashed silly nonsense in my life. What makes the world go round is ... Well, I've forgotten at the moment, but it certainly isn't love. How the dooce could it?'

'Oh, right ho. I see what you mean,' said Freddie. 'But put it another way. Love conquers all. Love's all right. Take it from me.'

The old man looked at him sharply.

'Are you in love?'


'Of all the young cuckoos! And I suppose you've come to ask for money to get married on?'

'Not at all. I just dropped round to see how you were. Still, as the subject has happened to crop up—'

Sir Aylmer brooded for a moment, snorting in an undertone.

'Who's the girl?' he demanded.

Freddie coughed, and fumbled with his collar. The crux of the situation, he realized, had now been reached. He had feared from the first that this was where the good old snag might conceivably sidle into the picture. For his Annabel was of humble station, and he knew how rigid were his relative's views on the importance of birth. No bigger snob ever swallowed a salicylate pill.

'Well, as a matter of fact,' he said, 'she's a conjurer's stooge.'

'A what?'

'A conjurer's assistant, don't you know. I saw her first at a charity matinee. She was abetting a bloke called The Great Boloni.'

'In what sense, abetting?'

'Well, she stood there up-stage, don't you know, and every now and then she would skip down-stage, hand this chap a bowl of goldfish or something, beam at the audience, do a sort of dance step and skip back again. You know the kind of thing.'

A dark frown had come into Sir Aylmer's face.

'I do,' he said grimly. 'My only nephew has been ensnared by a bally, beaming goldfish-handler! Ha!'

'I wouldn't call it ensnared exactly,' said Freddie deferen-tially. 'I would,' said Sir Aylmer. 'Get out of here.'

'Right,' said Freddie, and caught the two-thirty-five express back to London. And it was during the journey that an idea flashed upon him.


The last of the Fitch-Fitches was not a great student of literature, but he occasionally dipped into a magazine: and everybody who has ever dipped into a magazine has read a story about a hard-hearted old man who won't accept the hero's girl at any price, so what do they do but plant her on him without telling him who she is and, by Jove, he falls under her spell completely, and then they tear off their whiskers and there they are. There was a story of this nature in the magazine which Freddie had purchased at the bookstall at Droitgate Spa Station, and, as he read it, he remembered what his uncle had told him about his nurse handing in her portfolio.

By the time the train checked in at Paddington, his plans were fully formed.

'Listen,' he said to Annabel Purvis, who had met him at the terminus, and Annabel said: 'What?'

'Listen,' said Freddie, and Annabel again said: 'What?'

'Listen,' said Freddie, clasping her arm tenderly and steering her off in the direction of the refreshment-room, where it was his intention to have a quick one. 'To a certain extent I am compelled to admit that my expedition has been a wash-out ...'

Annabel caught her breath sharply.

'No blessing?'

'No blessing.'

'And no money?'

No money. The old boy ran entirely true to stable form. He listened to what I had to say, snorted in an unpleasant manner and threw me out. The old routine. But what I'm working round to is that the skies are still bright and the blue bird on the job. I have a scheme. Could you be a nurse?'

'I used to nurse my Uncle Joe.'

Then you shall nurse my Uncle Aylmer. The present in­cumbent, he tells me, has just tuned out, and he needs a suc­cessor. I will phone him that I am dispatching immediately a red-hot nurse whom he will find just the same as Mother makes, and you shall go down to Droitgate Spa and ingratiate yourself.'

'But how?'

'Why, cluster round him. Smooth his pillow. Bring him cooling drinks. Coo to him, and give him the old oil. Tell him you are of gentle birth, if that's the expression I want. And when the time is ripe, when you have entwined yourself about his heart and he looks upon you as his daughter, shoot me a wire and I'll come down and fall in love with you and he will give us his consent, blessing and the stuff. I guarantee this plan. It works.'

So Annabel went to Droitgate Spa, and about three weeks later a telegram arrived for Freddie, running as follows:


'Have ingratiated self. Come at once. Love and kisses. 'Annabel.'


Within an hour of its arrival, Freddie was on his way to Podagra Lodge, his uncle's residence.

He found Sir Aylmer in his study. Annabel was sitting by his side reading aloud to him from a recently published mono­graph on certain obscure ailments of the medulla oblongata. For the old man, though a mere gout patient, had pathetic aspirations towards higher things. There was a cooling drink on the table, and, as Freddie entered, the girl paused in her reading to smooth her employer's pillow.

'Gaw!' said Sir Aylmer. 'You again?'

'Here I am,' said Freddie.

'Well, by an extraordinary chance, I'm glad to see you. Leave us for a moment, Miss Purvis. I wish to speak to my nephew here, such as he is, on a serious and private matter. Did you notice that girl?' he said, as the door closed.

'I did, indeed.'


'An eyeful.'

'And as good,' said Sir Aylmer, 'as she is beautiful. You should see her smooth pillows. And what a cooling drink she mixes! Excellent family, too, I understand. Her father is a colonel. Or, rather, was. He's dead.'

'Ah, well, all flesh is as grass.'

'No, it isn't. It's nothing of the kind. The two things are entirely different. I've seen flesh and I've seen grass. No resem­blance whatever. However, that is not the point at issue. What I wanted to say was that if you were not a damn fool, that's the sort of girl you would be in love with.'

'I am.'

'A damn fool?'

'No. In love with that girl.'

'What! You have fallen in love with Miss Purvis? Already?'

'I have.'

'Well, that's the quickest thing I ever saw. What about your beaming goldfish?'

'Oh, that's all over. A mere passing boyish fancy.'

Sir Aylmer took a deep swig at his cooling drink, and re­garded him in silence for a moment.

'Well,' he said, at length, breathing heavily, 'if that's the airy, casual way in which you treat life's most sacred emotions, the sooner you are safely married and settled down, the better. If you're allowed to run around loose much longer, indulging those boyish fancies of yours, I foresee the breach of promise case of the century. However, I'm not saying I'm not relieved. I am relieved. I suppose she wore tights, this goldfish girl?'


'Disgusting. Thank God it's all over. Very good, then. You are free, I understand, to have a pop at Miss Purvis. Do you propose to do so?'

'I do.'

'Excellent. You get that sweet, refined, most-suitable-in-all-respects girl to marry you, and I'll hand over that money of yours, every penny of it.'

'I will start at once.'

'Heaven speed your wooing,' said Sir Aylmer.

And ten minutes later Freddie was able to inform his uncle that his whirlwind courtship had been successful, and Sir Aylmer said that when he had asked Heaven to speed his wooing he had had no notion that it would speed it to quite that extent. He congratulated Freddie warmly and said he hoped that he appreciated his good fortune, and Freddie said he certainly did, because his love was like a red, red rose, and Sir Aylmer said 'No, she wasn't,' and when Freddie added that he was walking on air Sir Aylmer said he couldn't be - the thing was physically impossible.

However, he gave his blessing and promised to release Freddie's capital as soon as the necessary papers were drawn up, and Freddie went back to London to see his lawyer about this.

His mood, as the train sped through the quiet countryside, was one of perfect tranquillity and happiness. It seemed to him that his troubles were now definitely ended. He looked down the vista of the years and saw nothing but joy and sunshine. If somebody had told Frederick Fitch-Fitch at that moment that even now a V-shaped depression was coming along which would shortly blacken the skies and lower the general tempera­ture to freezing-point, he would not have believed him.

Nor when, two days later, as he sat in his club, he was in­formed that a Mr Rackstraw was waiting to see him in the small smoking-room, did he have an inkling that there was the V-shaped depression in person. His heart was still light as he went down the passage, wondering idly, for the name was un­familiar to him, who this Mr Rackstraw might be. He entered the room, and found there a tall, thin man with pointed black moustaches who was pacing up and down, nervously taking rabbits out of his top-hat as he walked.

'Mr Rackstraw?'

His visitor spun round, dropping a rabbit. He gazed at Freddie piercingly. He had bright, glittering, sinister eyes.

'That is my name. Mortimer Rackstraw.'

Freddie's mind had flown back to the charity matinee at which he had first seen Annabel, and he recognized the fellow now.

'The Great Boloni, surely?'

'I call myself that professionally. So you are Mr Fitch? So you are Mr Fitch? Ha! Fiend !'


'I am not mistaken. You are Frederick Fitch?'

'Frederick Fitch-Fitch.'

'I beg your pardon. In that case, I should have said "Fiend! Fiend !"

He produced a pack of cards and asked Freddie to take one - any one - and memorize it and put it back. Freddie did so absently. He was considerably fogged. He could make nothing of all this.

'How do you mean- Fiend-Fiend?' he asked.

The other sneered unpleasantly.

'Cad!' he said, twirling his moustache.

'Cad?' said Freddie, mystified.

'Yes, sir. Cad. You have stolen the girl I love.'

'I don't understand.'

'Then you must be a perfect ass. It's quite simple, isn't it? I can't put it any plainer, can I? I say you have stolen ... Well, look here,' said Mortimer Rackstraw. 'Suppose this top-hat is me. This rabbit,' he went on, producing it from the lining, 'is the girl I love. You come along and - presto - the rabbit vanishes.'

'It's up your sleeve.'

'It is not up my sleeve. And if it were, if I had a thousand sleeves and rabbits up every one of them, that would not alter the fact that you have treacherously robbed me of Annabel Purvis.'

Freddie began to see daylight. He was able to appreciate the other's emotion. 'So you love Annabel, too?'

'I do.'

'I don't wonder. Nice girl. what? I see. I see. You wor­shipped her in secret, never telling your love.'

'I did tell my love. We were engaged.'


'Certainly. And this morning I get a letter from her saying that it's all off, because she has changed her mind and is going to marry you. She has thrown me over.'

'Oh, ah? Well, I'm frightfully sorry - deepest sympathy, and all that, but I don't see what's to be done about it, what?'

'I do. There still remains - revenge.'

'Oh, I say, dash it! You aren't going to be stuffy about it?'

'I am going to be stuffy about it. For the moment you triumph. But do not imagine that this is the end. You have not heard the last of me. Not by any means. You may have stolen the woman I love with your underhand chicanery, but I'll fix you.'


'Never mind how. You will find out how quite soon enough. A nasty jolt you're going to get, my good fiend, and almost immediately. As sure,' said Mortimer Rackstraw, illustrating by drawing one from Freddie's back hair, 'as eggs are eggs. I wish you a very good afternoon.'

He took up his top-hat, which in his emotion he had allowed to fall to the ground, brushed it on his coat-sleeve, extracted from it a cage of love-birds and strode out.

A moment later, he returned, bowed a few times to right and left and was gone again.


To say that Freddie did not feel a little uneasy as the result of this scene would be untrue. There had been something in the confident manner in which the other had spoken of revenging himself that he had not at all liked. The words had had a sinister ring, and all through the rest of the day he pondered thoughtfully, wondering what a man so trained in the art of having things up his sleeve might have up it now. It was in meditative mood that he dined, and only on the following morning did his equanimity return to him.

Able, now that he had slept on it, to review the disturbing conversation in its proper perspective, he came to the conclu­sion that the fellow's threats had been mere bluff. What, after all, he asked himself, could this conjurer do? It was as if they had been living in the Middle Ages, when chaps of that sort used to put spells on you and change you into things.

No, he decided, it was mere bluff, and with his complacency completely restored had just lighted a cigarette and fallen to dreaming of the girl he loved, when a telegram was brought to him.

It ran as follows:


Come at once. All lost. Ruin stares in face. Love and kisses. Annabel.


Half an hour later he was in the train, speeding towards Droitgate Spa.

It had been Freddie's intention, on entering the train, to de­vote the journey to earnest meditation. But, as always hap­pens when one wishes to concentrate and brood during a rail­way journey, he found himself closeted with a talkative fellow-traveller.

The one who interrupted Freddie's thoughts was a flabby, puffy man of middle age, wearing a red waistcoat, brown shoes. a morning coat and a bowler hat. With such a Grade A bounder, even had his mind been at rest. Freddie would have had little in common, and he sat chafing while the prismatic fellow prattled on. Nearly an hour passed before he was freed from the infliction of the other's conversation, but eventually the man's head began to nod, and presently he was snoring and Freddie was able to give himself up to his reverie.

His thoughts became less and less agreeable as the train rolled on. And what rendered his mental distress so particularly acute was the lack of detail in Annabel's telegram. It seemed to him to offer so wide a field for uncomfortable speculation.

'All lost,' for instance. A man could do a lot of thinking about a phrase like that. And 'Ruin stares face.' Why, he asked himself, did ruin stare face? While commending Annabel's thriftiness in keeping the thing down to twelve words, he could not help wishing that she could have brought herself to spring another twopence and be more lucid.

But of one thing he felt certain. All this had something to do with his recent visitor. Behind that mystic telegram he seemed to see the hand of Mortimer Rackstraw, that hand whose quickness deceived the eye, and he knew that in lightly dismissing the other as a negligible force he had been too sanguine.

By the time he reached Podagra Lodge, the nervous strain had become almost intolerable. As he rang the bell he was quivering like some jelly set before a diet-patient, and the sight of Annabel's face as she opened the door did nothing to alle­viate his perturbation. The girl was obviously all of a twitter.

'Oh. Freddie !' she cried. 'The worst has happened.'

Freddie gulped.


'Yes,' said Annabel. 'But how did you know about him?'

'He came to see me, bubbling over a good deal with veiled menaces and what not,' explained Freddie. He frowned, and eyed her closely. 'Why didn't you tell me you had been engaged to that bird?'

'I didn't think you would be interested. It was just a passing girlish fancy.'

'You're sure? You didn't really love this blighted prestidi­gitator?'

'No, no. I was dazzled for a while, as any girl might have , been when he sawed me in half, but then you came along and I saw that I had been mistaken, and that you were the only man in the world for me.'

'Good egg,' said Freddie, relieved.

He kissed her fondly and, as he did so, there came to his ears the sound of rhythmic hammering from somewhere below.

'What's that?'he asked.

Annabel wrung her hands.

'It's Mortimer!'

'Is he here?'

'Yes. He arrived on the one-fifteen. I locked him in the cellar.'


'To stop him going to the Pump Room.'

'Why shouldn't he go to the Pump Room?'

'Because Sir Aylmer has gone there to listen to the band, and they must not meet. If they do, we are lost. Mortimer has hatched a fearful plot.'

Freddie's heart seemed to buckle under within him. He had tried to be optimistic, but all along he had known that Morti­mer Rackstraw would hatch some fearful plot. He could have put his shirt on it. A born hatcher.

'What plot?'

Annabel wrung her hands again.

'He means to introduce Sir Aylmer to my Uncle Joe. He wired Uncle Joe to come down to Droitgate Spa. He had arranged to meet him at the Pump Room, and then he is going to introduce him to Sir Aylmer.'

Freddie was a little fogged. It did not seem to him much of a plot.

'Now that I can never be his, all he wants is to make himself unpleasant and prevent our marriage. And he knows that Sir Aylmer will never consent to your marrying me if he finds out that I have an uncle like Uncle Joe.'

Freddie ceased to be fogged. He saw the whole devilish scheme now - a scheme worthy of the subtle brain that could put the ace of spades back in the pack, shuffle, cut three times, and then produce it from the inside of a lemon.

'Is he so frightful?' he quavered.

'Look,' said Annabel simply. She took a photograph from her bosom and extended it towards him with a trembling hand. 'That is Uncle Joe, taken in the lodge regalia of a Grand Exalted Periwinkle of the Mystic Order of Whelks.'

Freddie glanced at the photograph and started back with a hoarse cry. Annabel nodded sadly.

'Yes,' she said, 'That is how he takes most people. The only faint hope I have is that he won't have been able to come. But if he has—'

'He has,' cried Freddie, who had been fighting for breath. 'We travelled down in the train together.'


'Yes. He must be waiting at the Pump Room now.'

'And at any moment Mortimer will break his way out of the cellar. The door is not strong. What shall we do?'

'There is only one thing to do. I have all the papers ...'

'You have no time to read now.'

'The legal papers, the ones my uncle has to sign in order to release my money. There is just a chance that if I rush to the Pump Room I may get him to put his name on the dotted line before the worst happens.'

'Then rush,' cried Annabel.

'I will,' said Freddie. He kissed her quickly, grabbed his hat, and was off the mark like a jack rabbit.


A man who is endeavouring to lower the record for the dis­tance between Podagra Lodge, which is in Arterio-Sclerosis Avenue, and the Droitgate Spa Pump Room has little leisure for thinking, but Freddie managed to put in a certain amount as his feet skimmed the pavement. And the trend of his thought was such as to give renewed vigour to his legs. He could scarcely have moved more rapidly if he had been a character in a two-reel film with the police after him.

And there was need for speed. Beyond a question. Annabel had been right when she had said that Sir Aylmer would never consent to their union if he found out that she had an uncle like her Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe would get right in amongst him. Let them but meet, and nothing was more certain than that the haughty old man would veto the proposed nuptials.

A final burst of speed took him panting up the Pump Room steps into the rotunda where all that was best and most re­fined in Droitgate Spa was accustomed to assemble of an after­noon and listen to the band. He saw Sir Aylmer in a distant seat and hurried towards him.

'Gaw!' said Sir Aylmer. 'You?'

Freddie could only nod.

'Well, stop puffing like that and sit down,' said Sir Aylmer. They're just going to play "Poet and Peasant".'

Freddie recovered his breath.

'Uncle,' he began. But it was too late. Even as he spoke, the conductor's baton fell and Sir Aylmer's face assumed that reverent doughlike expression of attention so familiar to the rotundas of cure resorts.

'S'h,' he said.

Of all the uncounted millions who in their time have listened to bands playing 'Poet and Peasant', few can ever have listened with such a restless impatience as did Frederick Pitch-Fitch on this occasion. Time was flying. Every second was precious. At any moment disaster might befall. And the band went on play­ing as if it had taken on a life-job. It seemed to him an eternity before the final oom-pom-pa.

'Uncle,' he cried, as the echoes died away.

'S'h,' said Sir Aylmer testily, and Freddie, with a dull des­pair, perceived that they were going to get an encore.

Of all the far-flung myriads who year in and year out have listened to bands playing the overture to 'Raymond', few can ever have chafed as did Frederick Fitch-Fitch now. This sus­pense was unmanning him, this delay was torture. He took the papers and a fountain-pen from his pocket and toyed with them nervously. He wondered dully as he sat there how the opera 'Raymond' had ever managed to get itself performed, if the overture was as long as this. They must have rushed it through in the last five minutes of the evening as the audience groped for its hats and wraps.

But there is an end to all things, even to the overture from 'Raymond'. Just as the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea, so does this overture eventually finish. And when it did, when the last notes faded into silence and the conductor stood bowing and smiling with that cool assumption, common to all conductors, that it is they and not the perspiring orchestra who have been doing the work, he started again.

'Uncle,' he said,'may I trouble you for a moment?'... These papers.'

Sir Aylmer cocked an eye at the documents.

'What papers are those?'

'The ones you have to sign, releasing my capital.'

'Oh, those,' said Sir Aylmer genially. The music had plainly mellowed him. 'Of course, yes. Certainly, certainly. Give me ...'

He broke off, and Freddie saw that he was looking at a dis­tinguished, silvery-haired man with thin, refined features, who was sauntering by.

'Afternoon, Rumbelow,' he said.

There was an unmistakable note of obsequiousness in Sir Aylmer's voice. His voice had become pink, and he was shuffl­ing his feet and twiddling his fingers. The man to whom he had spoken paused and looked down. Seeing who it was that accosted him, he raised a silvery eyebrow. His manner was un-disguisedly supercilious.

'Ah, Bastable,' he said distantly.

A duller man than Sir Aylmer Bastable could not have failed to detect the cold hauteur in his voice. Freddie saw the flush on his uncle's face deepen. Sir Aylmer mumbled something about hoping that the distinguished-looking man was feeling better today.

'Worse,' replied the other curtly. 'Much worse. The doctors are baffled. Mine is a very complicated case.' He paused for a moment, and his delicately chiselled lip curled in a sneer. 'And how is the gout, Bastable? Gout! Ia, ha!'

Without waiting for a reply he passed on and joined a group that stood chatting close by. Sir Aylmer choked down a morti­fied oath.

'Snob!' he muttered. 'Thinks he's everybody just because he's got telangiectasis. I don't see what's so wonderful about having telangiectasis. Anybody could have ... What on earth are you doing? What the devil's all this you're waving under my nose? Papers? Papers? I don't want any papers. Take them away, sir!'

And before Freddie could burst into the impassioned plea which trembled on his lips, a commotion in the doorway dis­tracted his attention. His heart missed a beat, and he sat there, frozen.

On the threshold stood Mortimer Rackstraw. He was making some inquiry of an attendant, and Freddie could guess only too well what that inquiry was. Mortimer Rackstraw was asking which of those present was Major-General Aylmer Bastable. Attached to his arm, obviously pleading with him and appeal­ing to his better self, Annabel Purvis gazed up into his face with tear-filled eyes.

A moment later, the conjurer strode up, still towing the girl. He halted before Sir Aylmer and threw Annabel aside like a soiled glove. His face was cold and hard and remorseless.

With one hand he was juggling mechanically with two billiard balls and a bouquet of roses.

'Sir Aylmer Bastable?'


'I forbid the banns.'

'What banns?'

Their banns,' said Mortimer Rackstraw. removing from his lips the hand with which he had been coldly curling his mous­tache and jerking it in the direction of Annabel and Freddie, who stood clasped in each other's arms, waiting for they knew not what.

'They're not up yet,' Said Annabel.

The conjurer seemed a little taken aback.

'Oh?' he said. 'Well, when they are, I forbid them. And so will you. Sir Aylmer, when you hear all.'

Sir Aylmer puffed.

'Who is this tight bounder?' he asked irritably.

Mortimer Rackstraw shook his head and took the two of clubs from it.

'A bounder, maybe,' he said, 'but not tight. I have come here, Sir Aylmer, in a spirit of altruism to warn you that if you allow your nephew to marry this girl the grand old name of Bastable will be mud.'

Sir Aylmer started.


'Mud. She comes from the very dregs of society.'

'I don't,' cried Annabel.

'Of course she doesn't,' cried Freddie.

'Certainly she does not,' assented Sir Aylmer warmly. 'She told me herself that her father was a colonel.'

Mortimer Rackstraw uttered a short, sneering laugh and took an egg from his left elbow.

'She did, eh? Did she add that he was a colonel in the Sal­vation Army?'


'And that before he saw the light he was a Silver Ring bookie, known to all the heads as Rat-Faced Rupert, the Ber-mondsey Twister?'

'Good God!'

Sir Aylmer turned to the girl with an awful frown.

'Is this true?'

'Of course it's true,' said Mortimer Rackstraw. 'And if you want further proof of her unfitness to be your nephew's bride, just take a look at her Uncle Joe, who is now entering left-centre.'

And Freddie, listless now and without hope, saw that his companion of the train was advancing towards them. He heard Sir Aylmer gasp and was aware that Annabel had stiffened in his arms. He was not surprised. The sun, filtering through the glass of the rotunda, lit up the man's flabby puffiness, his morning coat, his red waistcoat and his brown shoes, and rarely if ever, thought Freddie, could the sun of Droitgate Spa have shone on a more ghastly outsider.

There was nothing, however, in the newcomer's demeanour to suggest that he felt himself out of place in these refined sur­roundings. His manner had an easy self-confidence. He saun­tered up and without gene slapped the conjurer on the back and patted Annabel on the shoulder.

''Ullo, Mort. 'UIlo, Annie, my dear.'

Sir Aylmer, who had blinked, staggered and finally recovered himself, spoke in a voice of thunder.

 'You, sir! Is this true?'

'What's that, old cock?'

'Are you this girl's uncle?'

'That's right.'

'Gaw!' said Sir Aylmer.

He would have spoken further, but at this point the band burst into 'Pomp and Circumstance', and conversation was temporarily suspended. When it became possible once more for the human voice to make itself heard, it was Annabel's Uncle Joe who took the floor. He had recognized Freddie.

'Why, I've met you,' he said. 'We travelled down in the train together. Who's this young feller, Annie, that's huggin' and squeezin' you?'

'He is the man I am going to marry,' said Annabel.

'He is not the man you are going to marry,' said Sir Aylmer.

'Yes, I am the man she is going to marry,' said Freddie.

'No, you're not the man she is going to marry,' said Mor­timer Rackstraw.

Annabel's Uncle Joe seemed puzzled. He appeared not to know what to make of this conflict of opinion.

'Well, settle it among yourselves,' he said genially. 'All I know is that whoever does marry you, Annie, is going to get a good wife.'

'That's me,' said Freddie.

'No, it isn't,' said Sir Aylmer.

'Yes, it is,' said Annabel.

'No, it's not,' said Mortimer Rackstraw.

'Because I'm sure no man,' proceeded Uncle Joe, 'ever had a better niece. I've never forgotten the way you used to come and smooth my pillow and bring me cooling drinks when I was in the hospital.'

There was the sound of a sharp intake of breath. Sir Aylmer, who was saying, 'It isn't, it isn't, it isn't,' had broken off abruptly.

'Hospital?' he said. 'Were you ever in a hospital?'

Mr Boffin laughed indulgently.

'Was I ever in a hospital! That's a good 'un. That would make the boys on the Medical Council giggle. Ask them at St Luke's if Joe Boffin was ever in a hospital. Ask them at St Christopher's. Why, I've spent most of my life in hospitals. Started as a child with Congenital Pyloric Hypertrophy of the Stomach and never looked back.'

Sir Aylmer was trembling violently. A look of awe had come into his face, the look which a small boy wears when he sees a heavyweight champion of the world.

'Did you say your name was Joe Boffin?'

'That's right.'

'Not the Joe Boffin? Not the man there was that interview with in the Christmas number of The Lancet?'

 'That's me.'

Sir Aylmer started forward impulsively,

'May I shake your hand?'

'Put it there.'

'I am proud to meet you, Mr Boffin. I am one of your greatest admirers.'

'Nice of you to say so, ol' man.'

'Your career has been an inspiration to me. Is it really true that you have Thrombosis of the Heart and Vesicular Emphy­sema of the Lungs?'

'That's right.'

'And that your temperature once went up to 107.5?'

Twice. When I had Hyperpyrexia.'

Sir Aylmer sighed.

‘The best I've ever done is 102.2.'

Joe Boffin patted him on the back.

'Well, that's not bad,' he said. 'Not bad at all.'

'Excuse me,' said a well-bred voice.

It was the distinguished-looking man with the silvery hair who had approached them, the man Sir Aylmer had addressed as Rumbelow. His manner was diffident. Behind him stood an eager group, staring and twiddling their fingers.

'Excuse me, my dear Bastable, for intruding on a private conversation, but I fancied ... and my friends fancied ...'

'We all fancied,' said the group.

'That we overheard the name Boffin. Can it be, sir, that you are Mr Joseph Boffin?'

'That's right.'

'Boffin of St Luke's?'

'That's right.'

The silvery-haired man seemed overcome by a sudden shy­ness. He giggled nervously.

'Then may we say - my friends and I - how much ... We felt we would just like ... Unwarrantable intrusion, of course, but we are all such great admirers. I suppose you have to go through a good deal of this sort of thing, Mr Boffin ... People coming up to you, I mean, and ... Perfect strangers, I mean to say...'

'Quite all right, old man, quite all right. Always glad to meet the fans.'

'Then may I introduce myself. I am Lord Rumbelow. These are my friends, the Duke of Mull, the Marquis of Peckham, Lord Percy ...'

' 'Ow are you, 'ow are you? Come and join us, boys. My niece. Miss Purvis.'


'The young chap she's going to marry.'

'How do you do?'

'And his uncle. Sir Aylmer Bastable.'

All heads were turned towards the Major-General. Lord Rumbelow spoke in awed voice.

'Is this really so, Bastable? Your nephew is actually going to marry Mr Boffin's niece? I congratulate you, my dear fellow. A most signal honour.' A touch of embarrassment came into bis manner. He coughed. 'We were just talking about you, oddly enough, Bastable, my friends and I. Saying what a pity it was that we saw so little of you. And we were wondering - it was the Duke's suggestion - if you would care to become a member of a little club we have - quite a small affair - rather exclusive, we like to feel - the Twelve Jolly Stretcher-Cases ...'

'My dear Rumbelow!'

'We have felt for a long time that our company was incom­plete without you. So you will join us? Capital, capital! Per­haps you will look in there tonight? Mr Boffin, of course,' he  went on deprecatingly, 'would, I am afraid, hardly condescend to allow himself to be entertained by so humble a little circle. Otherwise -'

Joe Boffin slapped him affably on the back.

'My dear feller, I'd be delighted. There's nothing stuck-up about me.'

'Well, really! I hardly know what to say ...'

'We can't all be Joe Boffins. That's the way I look at it.'

‘The true democratic spirit.'

'Why, I was best man at a chap's wedding last week, and all he'd got was emotional dermatitis.'

'Amazing! Then you and Sir Aylmer will be with us to­night? Delightful. We can give you a bottle of lung tonic which I think you will appreciate. We pride ourselves on our cellar.'

A babble of happy chatter had broken out, almost drowning the band, and Mr Boffin, opening his waistcoat, was showing the Duke of Mull the scar left by his first operation. Sir Aylmer, watching them with throbbing heart, was dizzily aware of a fountain-pen being thrust into his hand.

'Eh?' he said. 'What? What's this? What, what?'

'The papers,' said Freddie. The merry old documents in the case. You sign here, where my thumb is.'

'Eh? What? Eh? Ah, yes, to be sure. Yes, yes, yes,' said Sir Aylmer, absently affixing his signature.

'Thank you, uncle, a thousand ...'

'Quite, quite. But don't bother me now, my boy. Busy. Got a lot to talk about to those friends of mine. Take the girl away and give her a sulphur water.'

And, brushing aside Mortimer Rackstraw, who was offering him a pack of cards, he joined the group about Joe Boffin. Freddie clasped Annabel in a fond embrace. Mortimer Rack-straw stood glaring for a moment, twisting his moustache. Then he took the flags of all nations from Annabel's back hair and, with a despairing gesture, strode from the room.


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Index from book Wodehouse on Wodehouse. | Article "About Stories" | Dedications1 | Dedications 2 | Prefaces1 | Prefaces2 | Prefaces3 | Prefaces4 | "Facts from Usborn" (forewords from Vintage Wodehouse)