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By P. G. WODEHOUSE
THE OVERLOOK PRESS I had just begun to write this story, when a literary pal of mine who had had a sticky night out with the P. E. N. Club blew in to borrow bicarbonate of soda, and I thought it would be as well to have him vet what I'd done, in case I might have foozled my tee-shot. Because, except for an occasional anecdote in the Drones smoking-room about Scotsmen, Irishmen, and Jews, and even then I generally leave out the point, I've never told a story in my life. And the one thing all the cognoscenti stress is that you must get started right.
Copyright © 1964 P.G. Wodehouse.
All rights reserved.
So I said: `I say, can I read you something?' and he said: `If you must,' and I said: `Right ho.'
`I am trying to get down on paper,' I said, `a rather rummy experience that happened to me about a year ago. I haven't got very far yet. I start with where I met the kid.'
`The kid I met,' I said, and kicked off as follows:
The kid was sitting in one arm-chair. I was sitting in another. His left cheek was bulging. My left cheek was bulging. He was turning the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. So was I. In short, there we both were.
He seemed a bit restless, I thought, as if the National Geographic wasn't holding him absolutely spellbound. He would put it down for a minute and take it up for a minute and then put it down for a minute again, and it was during one of theseputting-it-down-for-a-minute phases that he looked over at me.
`Where,' he asked, `are the rest of the boys?'
At this point, my literary pal opened his eyes, which he had closed in a suffering sort of way. His manner was that of one who has had a dead fish thrust under his nose.
`Is this bilge,' he asked, `to be printed?'
`Privately. It will be placed in the family archives for the benefit of my grandchildren.'
`Well, if you ask me,' he said, `the little perishers won't be able to make head or tail of it. Where's it all supposed to be happening?'
`Well, you'll have to explain that. And these arm-chairs. What about them? What arm-chairs? Where?'
`Those were in a dentist's waiting-room. That's where the kid and I met.'
`Who is this kid?'
`He turns out to be little Joey Cooley, the child film star, the Idol of American Motherhood.'
And who are you?'
`Me?' I said, a bit surprised, for we had been at school together. `Why, you know me, old man. Reggie Havershot.'
`What I mean is, you've got to introduce yourself to the reader. He doesn't know by intuition who you are.'
`You wouldn't let it gradually dawn upon him in the course of the narrative?'
`Certainly not. The first rule in telling a story is to make it thoroughly clear at the outset who's who, when, where, and why. You'd better start again from the beginning.'
He then took his bicarbonate and withdrew.
Well, then, harking back and buckling down to it once more, my name, as foreshadowed in the foregoing, is Reggie Havershot. Reginald John Peter Swithin, third Earl of Havershot, if you want to be formal, but Reggie to my pals. I'm about twenty-eight and a bit, and at the time of which I am writing was about twenty-seven and a bit. Height six feet one, eyes brown, hair a sort of carroty colour.
Mark you, when I say I'm the third Earl of Havershot, I don't mean that I was always that. No, indeed. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. For years and years I plugged along as plain R. J. P. Swithin, fully expecting that that would be the name carved on my tombstone when the question of tombstones should arise. As far as my chances of ever copping the title went, I don't suppose I was originally more than about a hundred-to-eight shot, if that. The field was full of seasoned performers who could give me a couple of stone.
But you know how it is. Uncles call it a day. Cousins hand in their spades and buckets. And little by little and bit by bit, before you know where you are why, there you are, don't you know.
Well, that's who I am, and apart from that I don't know that there is much of interest to tell you re self. I got my boxing Blue at Cambridge, but that's about all. I mean to say, I'm just one of those chaps. So we'll shift on at once to how I happened to be in Hollywood.
* * *
One morning, as I was tucking away the eggs and bacon at my London residence, the telephone rang, and it was old Horace Plimsoll asking if I could look in at his office on a matter of some importance. Certainly, I said, certainly, and off I went. Only too pleased.
I liked old Plimsoll. He was the family lawyer, and recently, what with all the business of taking over and all that, we had been seeing a good deal of one another. I pushed round to his office and found him, as usual, up to the thorax in bills of replevin and what not. He brushed these aside and came to the surface and looked at me over his spectacles.
`Good morning, Reginald,' he said.
`Good morning,' I said.
He took off his spectacles, polished them and put them on again.
`Reginald,' he said, giving me the eye once more, `you are now the head of the family.'
`I know,' I said. `Isn't it a scream? Have I got to sign something?'
`Not at the moment. What I wished to see you about today has to do with a more personal matter. I wished to point out to you that, as head of the family, certain responsibilities devolve upon you, which I feel sure you will not neglect. You have obligations now, Reginald, and those obligations must be fulfilled, no matter what the cost. Noblesse oblige.'
`Oh, ah?' I said, not liking the sound of this much. It began to look to me like a touch. `What's the bad news? Does one of the collateral branches want to dip into the till?'
`Let me begin at the beginning,' said old Plimsoll. He picked a notice of distraint or something off his coat sleeve. `I have just been in communication with your Aunt Clara. She is worried.'
`Extremely worried, about your Cousin Egremont.'
Well, of course, I tut-tutted sympathetically, but I can't say I was surprised. Ever since he grew to man's estate, this unfortunate aunt has been chronically worried about the lad under advisement, who is pretty generally recognized as London W.I's most prominent souse. For years everybody has been telling Eggy that it's hopeless for him to attempt to drink up all the alcoholic liquor in England, but he keeps on trying. The good old bull-dog spirit, of course, but it worries Aunt Clara.
`You know Egremont's record?'
I had to think a bit.
`Well, one Boat Race night I saw him put away sixteen double whiskies and soda, but whether he has beaten that since or not'
`For years he has been causing Lady Clara the gravest concern. And now'
I raised a hand.
`Don't tell me. Let me guess. He's been bonneting policemen?'
`Throwing soft-boiled eggs at the electric fan in the better class of restaurant?'
`Not murder, surely?'
`No. He has escaped to Hollywood.'
`Escaped to Hollywood?'
`Es-caped to Hollywood,' said old Plimsoll.
I didn't get his drift, and said so. He continued snowing.
`Some little while ago, Lady Clara became alarmed at the state of Egremont's health. His hands were shaky, and he complained of spiders on the back of his neck. So, acting on the advice of a Harley Street specialist, she decided to send him on one of these cruises round the world, in the hope that the fresh air and change of scene'
I spotted the obvious flaw.
`But these boats have bars.'
`The bar-attendants had strict orders not to serve Egremont.'
`He wouldn't like that.'
`He did not like it. His letters home his almost daily wireless messages also were full of complaints. Their tone was uniformly querulous. And when, on the homeward journey, the boat touched at Los Angeles, he abandoned it and went to Hollywood, where he now is.'
`Golly! Drinking like the stag at eve, I suppose?'
`Direct evidence on the point is lacking, but I think that one may assume such to be the case. But that is not the worst. That is not what has occasioned Lady Clara this excessive perturbation.'
`No. We have reason to believe from certain passages in his latest communication that he is contemplating matrimony.'
`Yes. His words leave no room for doubt. He is either betrothed or on the verge of becoming betrothed to some young woman out there. And you know the sort of young women that abound in Hollywood.'
`Pippins, I have always been given to understand.'
`Physically, no doubt, they are as you describe. But they are by no means suitable mates for your cousin Egremont.'
I couldn't see this. I should have thought, personally, that a bird like Eggy was dashed lucky to get any girl to take him on. However, I didn't say so. Old Plimsoll has a sort of gruesome reverence for the family, and the remark would have hurt him. Instead, I asked what the idea was. Where did I come in? What, I asked, did he imagine that I could do about it?
He looked like a high priest sicking the young chief of the tribe on to noble deeds.
`Why, go to Hollywood, Reginald, and reason with this misguided young man. Put a stop to all this nonsense. Exert your authority as head of the family.'
`Don't say "h'm".'
`And don't say "ha". Your duty is plain. You cannot shirk it.'
`But Hollywood's such miles away.'
`Nevertheless, I insist that it is incumbent upon you, as head of the family, to go there, and without an instant's delay.'
I chewed the lower lip a bit. I must say I couldn't see why I should go butting in, trying to put a stopper on Eggy's as far as I could make out quite praiseworthy amours. Live and let live is my motto. If Eggy wanted to get spliced, let him, was the way I looked at it. Marriage might improve him. It was difficult to think of anything that wouldn't. `H'm,' I said again.
Old Plimsoll was fiddling with pencil and paper working out routes and so on, apparently.
`The journey is, as you say, a long one, but perfectly simple. On arriving in New York, you would, I understand, take the train known as the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago. A very brief wait there'
I sat up.
`Chicago? You don't go through Chicago, do you?'
`Yes. You change trains at Chicago. And from there to Los Angeles is a mere'
`But wait a second,' I said. `This is beginning to look more like a practical proposition. Your mention of Chicago opens up a new line of thought. The fight for the heavyweight championship of the world is coming off in Chicago in a week or so.'
I examined the matter in the light of these new facts. All my life I had wanted to see one of these world's championships, and I had never been able to afford the trip. It now dawned upon me that, having come into the title and trimmings, I could do it on my head. The amazing thing was that I hadn't thought of it before. It always takes you some little time to get used to the idea that you are on Easy Street.
`How far is it from Chicago to Hollywood?'
`Little more than a two days' journey, I believe.'
`Then say no more,' I said. `It's a go. I don't suppose for a moment that I'll be able to do a thing about old Eggy, but I'll go and see him.'
There was a pause. I could see that something else was coming.
`And er Reginald.'
`You will be careful?'
He coughed, and fiddled with an application for soccage in fief.
`Where you yourself are concerned, I mean. These Hollywood women are, as you were saying a moment ago, of considerable personal attractions ...'
I laughed heartily.
`Good Lord!' I said. `No girl's going to look at me.'
This seemed to jar his reverence for the family. He frowned in a rebuking sort of way.
`You are the Earl of Havershot.'
`I know. But even so'
`And, if I am not mistaken, girls have looked at you in the past.'
I knew what he meant. A couple of years before, while at Cannes, I had got engaged to a girl named Ann Bannister, an American newspaper girl who was spending her holiday there, and as I was the heir apparent at the time this had caused some stir in the eider branches of the family. There was a considerable sense of relief, I believe, when the thing had been broken off.
`All the Havershots have been highly susceptible and impulsive. Your hearts rule your heads. So'
`Oh, right ho. I'll be careful.'
`Then I will say no more. Verbum ah sapienti saris. And you will start for Hollywood as soon as possible?'
`Immediately,' I said.
There was a boat leaving on the Wednesday. Hastily throwing together a collar and a toothbrush, I caught it. A brief stay in New York, a couple of days in Chicago, and I was on the train to Los Angeles, bowling along through what I believe is called Illinois.
And it was as I sat outside the observation car on the second morning of the journey, smoking a pipe and thinking of this and that, that April June came into my life.
The general effect was rather as if I had swallowed sixpennorth of dynamite and somebody had touched it off inside me.
Excerpted from Laughing Gas by P. G. WODEHOUSE. Copyright © 1964 by P.G. Wodehouse. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.