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Extricating Young Gussie
SHE sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can't have been half-past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:
"Mrs. Gregson to see you, sir."
I thought she must be walking in her sleep, but I crawled out of bed and got into a dressing-gown. I knew Aunt Agatha well enough to know that, if she had come to see me, she was going to see me. That's the sort of woman she is.
She was sitting bolt upright in a chair, staring into space. When I came in she looked at me in that dam critical way that always makes me feel as if I had gelatine where my spine ought to be. Aunt Agatha is one of those strong-minded women. I should think Queen Elizabeth must have been something like her. She bosses her husband, Spencer Gregson, a battered little chappie on the Stock Exchange. She bosses my cousin, Gussie Mannering-Phipps. She bosses her sister-in-law, Gussie's mother. And, worst of all, she bosses me. She has an eye like a man-eating fish, and she has got moral suasion down to a fine point.
I dare say there are fellows in the world—men of blood and iron, don't you know, and all that sort of thing — whom she couldn't intimidate; but if you're a chappie like me, fond of a quiet life, you simply curl into a ball when you see her coming, and hope for the best. My experience is that when Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
"Halloa, Aunt Agatha!" I said.
"Bertie," she said, "you look a sight. You look perfectly dissipated."
I was feeling like a badly wrapped brown-paper parcel. I'm never at my best in the early morning. I said so.
"Early morning! I had breakfast three hours ago, and have been walking in the park ever since, trying to compose my thoughts."
If I ever breakfasted at half-past eight I should walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
"I am extremely worried, Bertie. That is why I have come to you."
And then I saw she was going to start something, and I bleated weakly to Jeeves to bring me tea. But she had begun before I could get it.
"What are your immediate plans, Bertie?"
"Well, I rather thought of tottering out for a bite of lunch later on, and then possibly staggering round to the club, and after that, if I felt strong enough, I might trickle off to Walton Heath for a round of golf."
"I am not interested in your totterings and tricklings. I mean, have you any important engagements in the next week or so?"
I scented danger..
"Rather," I said. "Heaps! Millions! Booked solid!"
"What are they?"
"I – er – well, I don't quite know."
"I thought as much. You have no engagements. Very well, then, I want you to start immediately for America."
Do not lose sight of the fact that all this was taking place on an empty stomach, shortly after the rising of the lark.
"Yes, America. I suppose even you have heard of America?"
"But why America?"
"Because that is where your Cousin Gussie is. He is in New York, and I can't get at him."
"What's Gussie been doing?"
"Gussie is making a perfect idiot of himself."
To one who knew young Gussie as well as I did, the words opened up a wide field for speculation.
"In what way?"
"He has lost his head over a creature."
On past performances this rang true. Ever since he arrived at man's estate Gussie had been losing his head over creatures. He's that sort of chap. But, as the creatures never seemed to lose their heads over him, it had never amounted to much.
"I imagine you know perfectly well why Gussie went to America, Bertie. You know how wickedly extravagant your Uncle Cuthbert was."
She alluded to Gussie's governor, the late head of the family, and I am bound to say she spoke the truth. Nobody was fonder of old Uncle Cuthbert than I was, but everybody knows that, where money was concerned, he was the most complete chump in the annals of the nation. He had an expensive thirst. He never backed a horse that didn't get housemaid's knee in the middle of the race. He had a system of beating the bank at Monte Carlo which used to make the administration hang out the bunting and ring the joy-bells when he was sighted in the offing. Take him for all in all, dear old Uncle Cuthbert was as willing a spender as ever called the family lawyer a bloodsucking vampire because he wouldn't let Uncle Cuthbert cut down the timber to raise another thousand.
"He left your Aunt Julia very little money for a woman in her position. Beechwood requires a great deal of keeping up, and poor dear Spencer, though he does his best to help, has not unlimited resources. It was clearly understood why Gussie went to America. He is not clever, but he is very good-looking, and, though he has no title, the Mannering-Phippses are one of the best and oldest families in England. He had some excellent letters of introduction, and when he wrote home to say that he had met the most charming and beautiful girl in the world I felt quite happy. He continued to rave about her for several mails, and then this morning a letter has come from him in which he says, quite casually as a sort of afterthought, that he knows we are broadminded enough not to think any the worse of her because she is on the vaudeville stage."
"Oh, I say!"
"It was like a thunderbolt. The girl's name, it seems, is Ray Denison, and according to Gussie she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degraded performance may be I have not the least notion. As a further recommendation he states that she lifted them out of their seats at Mosenstein's last week. Who she may be, and how or why, and who or what Mr. Mosenstein may be, I cannot tell you."
"By Jove," I said, "it's like a sort of thingummy-bob, isn't it? A sort of fate, what?"
"I fail to understand you."
"Well, Aunt Julia, you know, don't you know? Heredity, and so forth. What's bred in the bone will come out in the wash, and all that kind of thing, you know."
"Don't be absurd, Bertie."
That was all very well, but it was a coincidence for all that. Nobody ever mentions it, and the family have been trying to forget it for twenty-five years, but it's a known fact that my Aunt Julia, Gussie's mother, was a vaudeville artist once, and a very good one, too, I'm told. She was playing in pantomime at Drury Lane when Uncle Cuthbert saw her first. It was before my time, of course, and long before I was old enough to take notice the family had made the best of it, and Aunt Agatha had pulled up her socks and put in a lot of educative work, and with a microscope you couldn't tell Aunt Julia from a genuine dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat. Women adapt themselves so quickly!
I have a pal who married Daisy Trimble of the Gaiety, and when I meet her now I feel like walking out of her presence backwards. But there the thing was, and you couldn't get away from it. Gussie had vaudeville blood in him, and it looked as if he were reverting to type, or whatever they call it.
"By Jove," I said, for I am interested in this heredity stuff, "perhaps the thing is going to be a regular family tradition, like you read about in books – a sort of Curse of the Mannering-Phippses, as it were. Perhaps each head of the family's going to marry into vaudeville for ever and ever. Unto the what-d'you-call-it generation, don't you know?"
"Please do not be quite idiotic, Bertie. There is one head of the family who is certainly not going to do it, and that is Gussie. And you are going to America to stop him."
"Yes, but why me?"
"Why you? You are too vexing, Bertie. Have you no sort of feeling for the family? You are too lazy to try to be a credit to yourself, but at least you can exert yourself to prevent Gussie's disgracing us. You are going to America because you are Gussie's cousin, because you have always been his closest friend, because you are the only one of the family who has absolutely nothing to occupy his time except golf and night clubs."
"I play a lot of auction."
"And, as you say, idiotic gambling in low dens. If you require another reason, you are going because I ask you as a personal favour."
What she meant was that, if I refused, she would exert the full bent of her natural genius to make life a Hades for me. She held me with her glittering eye. I have never met anyone who can give a better imitation of the Ancient Mariner.
"So you will start at once, won't you, Bertie?"
I didn't hesitate.
"Rather!" I said. "Of course I will."
Jeeves came in with the tea.
"Jeeves," I said, "we start for America on Saturday."
"Very good, sir," he said; "which suit will you wear?"
New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can't lose your way. You go out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it. The only possible objection any reasonable chappie could find to the place is that they loose you into it from the boat at such an ungodly hour.
I left Jeeves to get my baggage safely past an aggregation of suspicious-minded pirates who were digging for buried treasures among my new shirts, and drove to Gussie's hotel, where I requested the squad of gentlemanly clerks behind the desk to produce him.
That's where I got my first shock. He wasn't there. I pleaded with them to think again, and they thought again, but it was no good. No Augustus Mannering-Phipps on the premises.
I admit I was hard hit. There I was alone in a strange city and no signs of Gussie. What was the next step? I am never one of the master minds in the early morning; the old bean doesn't somehow seem to get into its stride till pretty late in the p.m.'s, and I couldn't think what to do. However, some instinct took me through a door at the back of the lobby, and I found myself in a large room with an enormous picture stretching across the whole of one wall, and under the picture a counter, and behind the counter divers chappies in white, serving drinks. They have barmen, don't you know, in New York, not barmaids. Rum idea!
I put myself unreservedly into the hands of one of the white chappies. He was a friendly soul, and I told him the whole state of affairs. I asked him what he thought would meet the case.
He said that in a situation of that sort he usually prescribed a "lightning whizzer," an invention of his own. He said this was what rabbits trained on when they were matched against grizzly bears, and there was only one instance on record of the bear having lasted three rounds. So I tried a couple, and, by Jove! the man was perfectly right. As I drained the second a great load seemed to fall from my heart, and I went out in quite a braced way to have a look at the city.
I was surprised to find the streets quite full. People were bustling along as if it were some reasonable hour and not the grey dawn. In the tramcars they were absolutely standing on each other's necks. Going to business or something, I take it. Wonderful johnnies!
The odd part of it was that after the first shock of seeing all this frightful energy the thing didn't seem so strange. I've spoken to fellows since who have been to New York, and they tell me they found it just the same. Apparently there's something in the air, either the ozone or the phosphates or something, which makes you sit up and take notice. A kind of zip, as it were. A sort of bally freedom, if you know what I mean, that gets into your blood and bucks you up, and makes you feel that
God's in His Heaven:
All's right with the world,
and you don't care if you've got odd socks on. I can't express it better than by saying that the thought uppermost in my mind, as I walked about the place they call Times Square, was that there were three thousand miles of deep water between me and my Aunt Agatha.
It's a funny thing about looking for things. If you hunt for a needle in a haystack you don't find it. If you don't give a darn whether you ever see the needle or not it runs into you the first time you lean against the stack. By the time I had strolled up and down once or twice, seeing the sights and letting the white chappie's corrective permeate my system, I was feeling that I wouldn't care if Gussie and I never met again, and I'm dashed if I didn't suddenly catch sight of the old lad, as large as life, just turning in at a doorway down the street.
I called after him, but he didn't hear me, so I legged it in pursuit and caught him going into an office on the first floor. The name on the door was Abe Riesbitter, Vaudeville Agent, and from the other side of the door came the sound of many voices.
He turned and stared at me.
"Bertie! What on earth are you doing? Where have you sprung from? When did you arrive?"
"Landed this morning. I went round to your hotel, but they said you weren't there. They had never heard of you."
"I've changed my name. I call myself George Wilson."
"Why on earth?"
"Well, you try calling yourself Augustus Mannering-Phipps over here, and see how it strikes you. You feel a perfect ass. I don't know what it is about America, but the broad fact is that it's not a place where you can call yourself Augustus Mannering-Phipps. And there's another reason. I'll tell you later. Bertie, I've fallen in love with the dearest girl in the world."
The poor old nut looked at me in such a deuced cat-like way, standing with his mouth open, waiting to be congratulated, that I simply hadn't the heart to tell him that I knew all about that already, and had come over to the country for the express purpose of laying him a stymie.
So I congratulated him.
"Thanks awfully, old man," he said. "It's a bit premature, but I fancy it's going to be all right. Come along in here, and I'll tell you about it."
"What do you want in this place? It looks a rummy spot?"
"Oh, that's part of the story. I'll tell you the whole thing."
We opened the door marked "Waiting Room." I never saw such a crowded place in my life. The room was packed till the walls bulged.
"Pros," he said, "music-hall artistes, you know, waiting to see old Abe Riesbitter. This is September the first, vaudeville's opening day. The early fall," said Gussie, who is a bit of a poet in his way, "is vaudeville's springtime. All over the country, as August wanes, sparkling comediennes burst into bloom, the sap stirs in the veins of tramp cyclists, and last year's contortionists, waking from their summer sleep, tie themselves tentatively into knots. What I mean is, this is the beginning of the new season, and everybody's out hunting for bookings."
"But what do you want here?"
"Oh, I've just got to see Abe about something. If you see a fat man with about fifty-seven chins come out of that door there grab him, for that'll be Abe. He's one of those fellows who advertise each step up they take in the world by growing another chin. I'm told that way back in the nineties he only had two. If you do grab Abe, remember that he knows me as George Wilson."
"You said that you were going to explain that George Wilson business to me, Gussie, old man."
"Well, it's this way –"
At this juncture dear old Gussie broke off short, rose from his seat, and sprang with indescribable vim at an extraordinarily stout chappie who had suddenly appeared. There was the deuce of a rush for him but Gussie had got away to a good start, and the rest of the singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, and refined sketch teams seemed to recognize that he had won the trick, for they ebbed back into their places again, and Gussie and I went into the inner room.
Mr. Riesbitter lit a cigar, and looked at us solemnly over his zareba of chins.
"Now, let me tell ya something," he said to Gussie. "You lizzun t' me." Gussie registered respectful attention. Mr. Riesbitter mused for a moment and shelled the cuspidor with indirect fire over the edge of the desk.
"Lizzun t' me," he said again. "I seen you rehearse, as I promised Miss Denison I would. You ain't bad for an amateur. You gotta lot to learn, but it's in you. What it comes to is that I can fix you up in the four-a-day, if you'll take thirty-five per. I can't do better than that, and I wouldn't have done that if the little lady hadn't of kep' after me. Take it or leave it. What do you say?"
"I'll take it," said Gussie, huskily. "Thank you."
In the passage outside, Gussie gurgled with joy and slapped me on the back. "Bertie, old man, it's all right. I'm the happiest man in New York."
Excerpted from Enter Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, David A. Jasen. Copyright © 1997 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 21, 2001
Very good collection! Many funny early Jeeves, plus the complete Reggie Pepper, Bertie Wooster's prototype. He gets into the same absurd situations as Berti but has no Jeeves to help him out.
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