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Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest as I entered it; and one of them, I gathered from his low, excited voice and wide gestures, was telling the other a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional `Biggest I ever saw in my life!' and `Fully as large as that!' but in such a place it was not difficult to imagine the rest; and when the second man, catching my eye, winked at me with a sort of humorous misery, I smiled sympathetically back at him.
The action had the effect of establishing a bond between us; and when the story-teller finished his tale and left, he came over to my table as if answering a formal invitation.
`Dreadful liars some men are,' he said genially.
`Fishermen,' I suggested, `are traditionally careless of the truth.'
`He wasn't a fisherman,' said my companion. `That was our local doctor. He was telling me about his latest case of dropsy. Besides' — he tapped me earnestly on the knee — `you must not fall into the popular error about fishermen. Tradition has maligned them. I am a fisherman myself, and I have never told a lie in my life.'
I could well believe it. He was a short, stout, comfortable man of middle age, and the thing that struck me first about him was the extraordinarily childlike candour of his eyes. They were large and round and honest. I would have bought oil stock from him without a tremor.
The door leading into the white dusty road opened, and a small man with rimless pince-nez and an anxious expression shot in like a rabbit and had consumed a gin and ginger-beer almost before we knew he was there. Having thus refreshed himself, he stood looking at us, seemingly ill at ease.
`N-n-n-n-n-n—' he said.
We looked at him inquiringly.
His nerve appeared to fail him, and he vanished as abruptly as he had come.
`I think he was leading up to telling us that it was a nice day,' hazarded my companion.
`'It must be very embarrassing,' I said, `for a man with such a painful impediment in his speech to open conversation with strangers.'
`Probably trying to cure himself. Like my nephew George. Have I ever told you about my nephew George?'
I reminded him that we had only just met, and that this was the first time I had learned that he had a nephew George.
`Young George Mulliner. My name is Mulliner. I will tell you about George's case — in many ways a rather remarkable one.'
My nephew George (said Mr Mulliner) was as nice a young fellow as you would ever wish to meet, but from childhood up he had been cursed with a terrible stammer. If he had had to earn his living, he would undoubtedly have found this affliction a great handicap, but fortunately his father had left him a comfortable income; and George spent a not unhappy life, residing in the village where he had been born and passing his days in the usual country sports and his evenings in doing crossword puzzles. By the time he was thirty he knew more about Eli, the prophet, Ra, the Sun God, and the bird Emu than anybody else in the country except Susan Blake, the vicar's daughter, who had also taken up the solving of crossword puzzles and was the first girl in Worcestershire to find out the meaning of `stearine' and `crepuscular'.
It was his association with Miss Blake that first turned George's thoughts to a serious endeavour to cure himself of his stammer. Naturally, with this hobby in common, the young people saw a great deal of one another: for George was always looking in at the vicarage to ask her if she knew a word of seven letters meaning `appertaining to the profession of plumbing', and Susan was just as constant a caller at George's cosy little cottage — being frequently stumped, as girls will be, by words of eight letters signifying `largely used in the manufacture of poppet-valves'. The consequence was that one evening, just after she had helped him out of a tight place with the word `disestablishmentarianism', the boy suddenly awoke to the truth and realized that she was all the world to him — or, as he put it to himself from force of habit, precious, beloved, darling, much-loved, highly esteemed or valued.
And yet, every time he tried to tell her so, he could get no farther than a sibilant gurgle which was no more practical use than a hiccup.
Something obviously had to be done, and George went to London to see a specialist.
`Yes?' said the specialist.
`I-I-I-I-I-I-I—' said George.
`You were saying—?'
'Sing it,' said the specialist.
`S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s—?' said George, puzzled.
The specialist explained. He was a kindly man with moth-eaten whiskers and an eye like a meditative cod-fish.
`Many people,' he said, `who are unable to articulate clearly in ordinary speech find themselves lucid and bell-like when they burst into song.'
It seemed a good idea to George. He thought for a moment; then threw his head back, shut his eyes, and let it go in a musical baritone.
`I love a lassie, a bonny, bonny lassie,' sang George. `She's as pure as the lily in the dell.'
`No doubt,' said the specialist, wincing a little. `She's as sweet as the heather, the bonny purple heather — Susan, my Worcestershire bluebell.'
`Ah!' said the specialist. `Sounds a nice girl. Is this she?' he asked, adjusting his glasses and peering at the photograph which George had extracted from the interior of the left side of his under-vest.
George nodded, and drew in breath.
`Yes, sir,' he carolled, `that's my baby. No, sir, don't mean maybe. Yes, sir, that's my baby now. And, by the way, by the way, when I meet that preacher I shall say—"Yes, sir, that's my—"'
`Quite,' said the specialist, hurriedly. He had a sensitive ear. `Quite, quite.'
`If you knew Susie like I know Susie,' George was beginning, but the other stopped him.
`Quite. Exactly. I shouldn't wonder. And now,' said the specialist, `what precisely is the trouble? No,' he added, hastily, as George inflated his lungs, `don't sing it. Write the particulars on this piece of paper.'
George did so.
`H'm!' said the specialist, examining the screed. `You wish to woo, court, and become betrothed, engaged, affianced to this girl, but you find yourself unable, incapable, incompetent, impotent, and powerless. Every time you attempt it, your vocal cords fail, fall short, are insufficient, wanting, deficient, and go blooey.'
`A not unusual case. I have had to deal with this sort of thing before. The effect of love on the vocal cords of even a normally eloquent subject is frequently deleterious. As regards the habitual stammerer, tests have shown that in ninety-seven point five six nine recurring of cases the divine passion reduces him to a condition where he sounds like a soda-water siphon trying to recite Gunga Din. There is only one cure.'
`W-w-w-w-w—?' asked George.
`I will tell you. Stammering,' proceeded the specialist, putting the tips of his fingers together and eyeing George benevolently, `is mainly mental and is caused by shyness, which is caused by the inferiority complex, which in its turn is caused by suppressed desires or introverted inhibitions or something. The advice I give to all young men who come in here behaving like soda-water siphons is to go out and make a point of speaking to at least three perfect strangers every day. Engage these strangers in conversation, persevering no matter how priceless a chump you may feel, and before many weeks are out you will find that the little daily dose has had its effect. Shyness will wear off, and with it the stammer.'
And, having requested the young man — in a voice of the clearest timbre, free from all trace of impediment — to hand over a fee of five guineas, the specialist sent George out into the world.
The more George thought about the advice he had been given, the less he liked it. He shivered in the cab that took him to the station to catch the train back to East Wobsley. Like all shyyoung men, he had never hitherto looked upon himself as shy — preferring to attribute his distaste for the society of his fellows to some subtle rareness of soul. But now that the thing had been put squarely up to him, he was compelled to realize that in all essentials he was a perfect rabbit. The thought of accosting perfect strangers and forcing his conversation upon them sickened him.
But no Mulliner has ever shirked an unpleasant duty. As he reached the platform and strode along it to the train, his teeth were set, his eyes shone with an almost fanatical light of determination, and he intended before his journey was over to conduct three heart-to-heart chats if he had to sing every bar of them.
The compartment into which he had made his way was empty at the moment, but just before the train started a very large, fierce-looking man got in. George would have preferred somebody a little less formidable for his first subject, but he braced himself and bent forward. And, as he did so, the man spoke.
`The wur-wur-wur-wur-weather,' he said, `sus-sus-seems to be ter-ter-taking a tur-tur-turn for the ber-ber-better, der-doesn't it?'
George sank back as if he had been hit between the eyes. The train had moved out of the dimness of the station by now, and the sun was shining brightly on the speaker, illuminating his knobbly shoulders, his craggy jaw, and, above all, the shockingly choleric look in his eyes. To reply `Y-y-y-y-y-y-y-yes' to such a man would obviously be madness.
But to abstain from speech did not seem to be much better as a policy. George's silence appeared to arouse this man's worst passions. His face had turned purple and he glared painfully.
`I uk-uk-asked you a sus-sus-civil quk-quk-quk,' he said, irascibly. `Are you d-d-d-d-deaf?'
All we Mulliners have been noted for our presence of mind. To open his mouth, point to his tonsils, and utter a strangled gurgle was with George the work of a moment.
The tension relaxed. The man's annoyance abated.
`D-d-d-dumb?' he said, commiseratingly. `I beg your p-p-p-p-pup. I t-t-trust I have not caused you p-p-p-p-pup. It m-must be tut-tut-tut-tut-tut not to be able to sus-sus-speak fuf-fuf-fuf-fuf-fluently.'
He then buried himself in his paper, and George sank back in his corner, quivering in every limb.
To get to East Wobsley, as you doubtless know, you have to change at Ippleton and take the branch-line. By the time the train reached this junction, George's composure was somewhat restored. He deposited his belongings in a compartment of the East Wobsley train, which was waiting in a glued manner on the other side of the platform, and, finding that it would not start for some ten minutes, decided to pass the time by strolling up and down in the pleasant air.
It was a lovely afternoon. The sun was gilding the platform with its rays, and a gentle breeze blew from the west. A little brook ran tinkling at the side of the road; birds were singing in the hedgerows; and through the trees could be discerned dimly the noble façade of the County Lunatic Asylum. Soothed by his surroundings, George began to feel so refreshed that he regretted that in this wayside station there was no one present whom he could engage in talk.
It was at this moment that the distinguished-looking stranger entered the platform.
The new-comer was a man of imposing physique, simply dressed in pyjamas, brown boots, and a mackintosh. In his hand he carried a top-hat, and into this he was dipping his fingers, taking them out, and then waving them in a curious manner to right and left. He nodded so affably to George that the latter, though a little surprised at the other's costume, decided to speak. After all, he reflected, clothes do not make the man, and, judging from the other's smile, a warm heart appeared to beat beneath that orange-and-mauve striped pyjama jacket.
`N-n-n-n-nice weather,' he said.
`Glad you like it,' said the stranger. `I ordered it specially.'
George was a little puzzled by this remark, but he persevered.
`M-might I ask wur-wur-what you are dud-doing?'
`With that her-her-her-her-hat?'
`Oh, with this hat? I see what you mean. Just scattering largesse to the multitude,' replied the stranger, dipping his fingers once more and waving them with a generous gesture. `Devil of a bore, but it's expected of a man in my position. The fact is,' he said, linking his arm in George's and speaking in a confidential undertone, I'm the Emperor of Abyssinia. That's my palace over there,' he said, pointing through the trees. `Don't let it go any farther. It's not supposed to be generally known.'
It was with a rather sickly smile that George now endeavoured to withdraw his arm from that of his companion, but the other would have none of this aloofness. He seemed to be in complete agreement with Shakespeare's dictum that a friend, when found, should be grappled to you with hooks of steel. He held George in a vice-like grip and drew him into a recess of the platform. He looked about him, and seemed satisfied.
`We are alone at last,' he said.
This fact had already impressed itself with sickening clearness on the young man. There are few spots in the civilized world more deserted than the platform of a small country station. The sun shone on the smooth asphalt, on the gleaming rails, and on the machine which, in exchange for a penny placed in the slot marked `Matches', would supply a package of wholesome butter-scotch — but on nothing else.
What George could have done with at the moment was a posse of police armed with stout clubs, and there was not even a dog in sight.
`I've been wanting to talk to you for a long time,' said the stranger, genially.
`Huh-huh-have you?' said George.
`Yes. I want your opinion of human sacrifices.'
George said he didn't like them.
`Why not?' asked the other, surprised.
George said it was hard to explain. He just didn't.
`Well, I think you're wrong,' said the Emperor. `I know there's a school of thought growing up that holds your views, but I disapprove of it. I hate all this modern advanced thought. Human sacrifices have always been good enough for the Emperors of Abyssinia, and they're good enough for me. Kindly step in here, if you please.'
He indicated the lamp-and-mop room, at which they had now arrived. It was a dark and sinister apartment, smelling strongly of oil and porters, and was probably the last place on earth in which George would have wished to be closeted with a man of such peculiar views. He shrank back. `You go in first,' he said.
`No larks,' said the other, suspiciously.
`Yes. No pushing a fellow in and locking the door and squirting water at him through the window. I've had that happen to me before.'
`Right? said the Emperor. `You're a gentleman and I'm a gentleman. Both gentlemen. Have you a knife, by the way? We shall need a knife.'
`No. No knife.'
`Ah, well,' said the Emperor, `then we'll have to look about for something else. No doubt we shall manage somehow.'
And with the debonair manner which so became him, he scattered another handful of largesse and walked into the lamp-room.
It was not the fact that he had given his word as a gentleman that kept George from locking the door. There is probably no family on earth more nicely scrupulous as regards keeping its promises than the Mulliners, but I am compelled to admit that, had George been able to find the key, he would have locked that door without hesitation. Not being able to find the key, he had to be satisfied with banging it. This done, he leaped back and raced away down the platform. A confused noise within seemed to indicate that the Emperor had become involved with some lamps.
George made the best of the respite. Covering the ground at a high rate of speed, he flung himself into the train and took refuge under the seat.
There he remained, quaking. At one time he thought that his uncongenial acquaintance had got upon his track, for the door of the compartment opened and a cool wind blew in upon him. Then, glancing along the floor, he perceived feminine ankles. The relief was enormous, but even in his relief George, who was the soul of modesty, did not forget his manners. He closed his eyes.
A voice spoke.
`What was all that disturbance as I came into the station?'
`Patient escaped from the asylum, ma'am.'
The voice would undoubtedly have spoken further, but at this moment the train began to move. There came the sound of a body descending upon a cushioned seat, and some little time later the rustling of a paper. The train gathered speed and jolted on.
Excerpted from Meet Mr Mulliner by P. G. WODEHOUSE. Copyright © 1955 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.
|1||The Truth About George||11|
|2||A Slice of Life||31|
|4||The Bishop's Move||70|
|5||Came The Dawn||93|
|6||The Story of William||113|
|7||Portrait of a Disciplinarian||133|
|8||The Romance of a Bulbsqueezer||154|
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