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It was the hour of the morning snifter, and a little group of Eggs and Beans and Crumpets had assembled in the smoking room of the Drones Club to do a bit of inhaling. There had been a party of sorts overnight, and the general disposition of the company was toward a restful and somewhat glassy-eyed silence. This was broken at length by one of the Crumpets.
"Old Freddie's back," he observed.
Some moments elapsed before any of those present felt equal to commenting on this statement. Then a Bean spoke.
"I mean, back from what spot?"
"I didn't know Freddie had been to New York."
"Well, you can take it from me he has. Or else how," argued the Crumpet, "could he have got back?"
The Bean considered the point.
"Something in that," he agreed. "What sort of a time did he have?"
"Not so good. He lost the girl he loved."
"I wish I had a quid for every girl Freddie Widgeon has loved and lost," sighed an Egg wistfully. "If I had, I shouldn't be touching you for a fiver."
"You aren't," said the Crumpet.
The Bean frowned. His head was hurting him, and he considered that the conversation was becoming sordid.
"How did he lose his girl?"
"Because of the suitcase."
"The suitcase he carried for the other girl."
"What other girl?"
"The one he carried the suitcase for."
The Bean frowned again.
"A bit complex, all this, isn't it?" he said. "Hardly the sort of stuff, I mean, to spring on personal friends who were up a trifle late last night."
"It isn't really," the Crumpet assured him. "Not when you know the facts. The way old Freddie told me the story it was as limpid as dammit. And what he thinks and what I think, too is that it just shows what toys we are in the hands of Fate, if you know what I mean. I mean to say, it's no good worrying and trying to look ahead and plan and scheme and weigh your every action, if you follow me, because you never can tell when doing such-and-such won't make so-and-so happen while, on the other hand, if you do so-and-so it may just as easily lead to such-and-such."
A pale-faced Egg with heavy circles under his eyes rose at this point and excused himself. He said his head had begun to throb again and he proposed to step round to the chemist on the corner for another of his dark-brown pick-me-ups.
"I mean to say," resumed the Crumpet, "if Freddie with the best motives in the world hadn't carried that suitcase for that girl, he might at this moment be walking up the aisle with a gardenia in his buttonhole and Mavis Peasemarch, only daughter of the fifth Earl of Bodsham, on his arm."
The Bean demurred. He refused to admit the possibility of such a thing, even if Freddie Widgeon had sworn off suitcases for life.
"Old Bodders would never have allowed Mavis to marry a bird of Freddie's caliber. He would think him worldly and frivolous. I don't know if you are personally acquainted with the Bod, but I may tell you that my people once lugged me to a week end at his place and not only were we scooped in and shanghaied to church twice on the Sunday, regardless of age or sex, but on the Monday morning at eight o'clock eight, mark you there were family prayers in the dining room. There you have old Bodders in a nutshell. Freddie's a good chap, but he can't have stood a dog's chance from the start."
"On the contrary," said the Crumpet warmly. "He made his presence felt right from the beginning to an almost unbelievable extent, and actually clicked as early as the fourth day out."
"Were Bodders and Mavis on the boat, then?"
"They certainly were. All the way over."
"And Bodders, you say, actually approved of Freddie?"
"He couldn't have been more all over him, Freddie tells me, if Freddie had been a Pan-Anglican Congress. What you overlook is that Bodsham living, as he does, all the year round in the country knew nothing of Freddie except that one of his uncles was his old school friend, Lord Blicester, and another of his uncles was actually a bishop. Taking a line through them, he undoubtedly regarded Freddie as a pretty hot potato."
The Bean seemed shaken, but he put another point.
"What about Mavis, then?"
"What about her?"
"I should have thought Freddie would have been the last bloke she would have considered hitching up with. I've seen her in action down at Peasemarch, and you can take it from me that she is very far from being one of the boys. You needn't let it get about, of course, but that girl, to my certain knowledge, plays the organ in the local church and may often be seen taking soup to the deserving villagers with many a gracious word."
The Crumpet had his answer to this, too.
"She knew nothing of Freddie, either. She liked his quiet, saintly manner and considered that he had a soul. At any rate, I can assure you that everything went like a breeze. Helped by the fact that the sea was calm and that there was a dashed fine moon every night, old Freddie shoved his nose past the judge's box at 10:45 P.M. on the fourth day out. And when next morning he informed old Bodsham that he had now a son to comfort his declining years, there was not a discordant note. The old boy said that he could wish no better husband for his daughter than a steady, respectable young fellow like Freddie, and they arrived in New York a happy and united family."
The only thing in the nature of a flaw that Freddie found in New York, he tells me, was the fact that the populace, to judge from the daily papers, didn't seem to be so ideally happy in its love life as he was. What I mean to say, he wanted smiling faces about him, so to speak, and it looked to him as if everybody in the place were cutting up their wives and hiding them in sacks in the Jersey marshes or else putting detectives on to them to secure the necessary evidence.
It saddened him, he tells me, when he opened his illustrated tabloid of a morning, to have to try to eat eggs and bacon while gazing at a photograph of Mae Belle McGinnis, taken when she was not looking her best because Mr. McGinnis had just settled some domestic dispute with the meat ax.
Also, there seemed to him far too much of all that stuff about Sugar Daddies being Discovered in Love Nest As Blizzard Grips City.
However, when you are the guest of a great nation, you have to take the rough with the smooth. And there appears to be no doubt that, despite all the marital unrest around him, Freddie at this juncture was indisputably in the pink. I've never been engaged myself, so I know nothing of the symptoms at first hand, but Freddie tells me that the way it takes a fellow is to make him feel as if he were floating on a fleecy cloud, high up in the air, and only touching the ground at odd spots.
Most of the time, he says, he just hovered over New York like some winged thing. But occasionally he would come down and emerge from the ether, and on one of these rare occasions he found himself wandering in the neighborhood of Seventy-second Street, somewhere on the West Side.
And just in front of him was a girl lugging a dashed great heavy suitcase.
Now, I want you to follow me very closely here. This is where Freddie stands or falls. He was pretty eloquent at this point, when he told me the story; and, as far as I am concerned, I may say fearlessly that I dismiss him without a stain on his character. I consider his motives to have been pure to the last drop.
One of the things that being engaged does to you, you must remember, is to fill you to the gills with a sort of knightly chivalry. So Freddie tells me. You go about the place like a Boy Scout, pouncing out on passers-by and doing acts of kindness to them. Three times that day Freddie had chased seedy-looking birds up side streets and forced cash on them. He had patted four small boys on the head and asked them if they meant to be President some day. He had beamed benevolently on the citizenry till his cheeks ached. And he was still full of the milk of human kindness and longing to assist some less fortunate fellow traveler along the road of Life, when he saw this girl in front of him, staggering under the weight of the suitcase.
Now, although the impulse to help her with her burden was intense, he tells me that, if she had been a pretty girl, he would have resisted it. His sense of loyalty to Mavis was so great that he was right off pretty girls. They were the only persons he had excluded from his beaming operations. Toward them, in spite of all that milk of human kindness, he had been consistently aloof and austere. The cold face. The unwobbly eye. Something seemed to tell him that Mavis would prefer it so.
But this girl before him was not pretty. She was distinctly plain. Even ugly. She looked as if she might be a stenographer selected for some business magnate by his wife out of a number of competing applicants. And, such being so, he did not hesitate. Already the suitcase seemed to be giving the poor little thing a crick in the back, and it was as if he heard Mavis's voice in his ear, whispering: "Go to it!"
He ambled up like a courtly mustang.
"Excuse me," he said. "May I help you with that apparatus of yours?"
The girl gave him a keen look through her spectacles, and either thought he was thoroughly to be trusted, or didn't. At any rate, she passed over the bag.
"And now where?" asked Freddie.
The girl said she lived in Sixty-ninth Street, and Freddie right-hoed, and they set off. And presently they came to a brownstone building, in which she had Flat B on the fourth floor.
Well, of course, you may say that, having deposited female and suitcase at their destination, old Freddie should have uttered a brief, courteous "Pip-pip!" and legged it. And very possibly you are right. But consider the facts. The flat, as I have indicated, was four flights up. There was no lift, so he had to hoof it up all those stairs. It was a warm day. And the suitcase appeared to be packed with sheet iron or something.
I mean to say, by the time he had reached Journey's End, he was in sore need of a spot of repose. So, rightly or wrongly, he didn't biff off, but sort of collapsed into a chair and sat there restoring his tissues.
The girl, meanwhile, prattled in friendly vein. As far as Freddie can recall her remarks, her name was Myra Jennings. She was employed in the office of a wholesale silk importer. She had just come back from the country. The photograph over the sideboard was her mother's, who lived in Waterbury, Connecticut. The girl friend with whom she shared the flat was away on her vacation. And all that sort of thing, don't you know. I mean, pleasant gossip from the home.
She had just begun to tell him that, though she yielded to no one in her admiration for Ronald Colman, she couldn't help saying that William Powell had a sort of something that kind of seemed to place him sort of even higher in a girl's estimation, when there occurred one of those interruptions which, I understand, are always happening in New York.
If you're a native, you hardly notice them. You just look over your shoulder and say "Oh, ah?" and go on trying to get Los Angeles on the radio.
But Freddie, being new to the place, was a little startled. Because you see, what happened was that just as they were sitting there, chatting of this and that, there was a sudden crash. The door of the hall-way which opened onto the landing outside was burst open. And in surged an extraordinarily hefty bloke with a big mustache. He wore a bowler hat. Behind him came a couple of other birds, also hefty and similarly bowler-hatted.
"Ah!" said Bloke A, in a satisfied sort of voice.
Freddie did a bit of gaping. He was a good deal on the nonplused side. He supposed, as his head began to clear, that this was one of those cases of "Bandits Break into House and Rob Two."
"Seems to me," said the Bloke, addressing his associate Blokes, "this case is open and shut."
The other two nodded.
"That's right," said one.
"Open and shut," said the other.
"Yes," said the Bloke, summing up. "That's about what it is. Open and shut."
Miss Jennings, who had been dusting the photograph of her mother, now appeared to notice for the first time that she had visitors. She spoke as follows:
"What in the world do you think you're doing?"
The Bloke lit a cigar. So did his associates. Two cigars.
"That's all right, Mrs. Silvers," he said.
"Sure, it's all right," said the other two.
"You boys are witnesses," said the Bloke.
"Sure, we're witnesses," said the other two.
"You can give evidence that we found Mrs. Silvers alone in her apartment with this pie-faced cluck."
"Sure, we can give evidence that we found her alone in her apartment with this pie-faced cluck."
"Then that's all right," said the Bloke contentedly. "That is all her husband will want to know. It makes the thing open and shut."
And it came home to Freddie with a sickening thud that these fellows were not, as he had supposed, a holdup gang, but detectives. He ought to have recognized them from the start, he tells me, by the bowler hats. What had misled him was the fact that at the outset they weren't smoking cigars. When they started smoking cigars, the scales fell from his eyes.
He gulped a bit. In fact, he gulped rather more than a bit. He realized now what his mistaken sense of knightly chivalry had made him stumble into. The soup, no less. With the best intentions, meaning only to scatter light and sweetness on every side, he had become a Sugar Daddy Surprised in Love Nest.
The female of the species, however, appeared unwilling to take this thing lying down. Her chin was up, her shoulders were squared, she had both feet on the ground, and she looked the troupe steadily in the eye through her spectacles.
"Just for fun," she said, "tell me where you fellows think you are?"
"Where do we think we are?" said the Bloke. "That's all right where we think we are. We're in Flat 4A. And you're Mrs. Silvers. And I'm from the Alert Detective Agency. And I'm acting under instructions from your husband. Laugh that off!"
"I will," said the girl. "I'm not Mrs. Silvers. I haven't a husband. And this isn't Flat A, it's Flat B."
The Bloke gasped. He reminded Freddie of his Uncle Joseph, the time he swallowed the bad oyster. The same visible emotion.
"Don't tell me we've busted into the wrong flat?" he said pleadingly.
"That's just what I am telling you."
"The wrong flat?"
"The wrong flat."
There was a pause.
"I'll tell you what it is," said one of the assistant blokes, a pretty acute chap, quick in the uptake. "We've been and busted into the wrong flat."
"That's it," said the other. "The wrong flat."
Well, they were very decent about it, Freddie tells me. They didn't take off their hats, and they went on smoking their cigars, but they paid for the door. And presently the party broke up, the Bloke protesting to the last that this was the first mistake he had made in twenty years.
Having had a hearty laugh with the Jennings over the whole amusing episode, Freddie hopped into a taxi and started off for Forty-sixth Street, for he was lunching with old Bodsham and Mavis at the Ritz-Carlton and a bit late already. All the way down there, he was chuckling to himself at the thought of what a capital story he had to tell them. Put him one up, he thought it would.
You see, if there was a snag in the wholehearted joy of being engaged to Mavis Peasemarch, it was the fact that, when in the society of herself and father, he occasionally found the going a bit sticky as regarded conversation.
Freddie, as you know, is a bird who, when the conditions are right, can be the life and soul of the party. Shoot a few stiffish cocktails into him and give him his head in the matter of sprightly anecdotes and the riper kind of Limerick, and he will hold you spellbound. But, cut off from these resources, he frequently found himself a trifle tongue-tied when taking a bite with old Bodsham.
And, as no fellow likes to feel that his future father-in-law is beginning to regard him as a loony deaf-mute, he welcomed the opportunity of showing himself a gay and gifted raconteur.
If the story of his morning's adventure, told as he proposed to tell it, didn't have the old boy hiccupping and wiping the tears from his eyes, he would be jolly well dashed.
And the same applied to Mavis.
"Capital! Capital! Ah, Van Sprunt, this is my son-in-law-to-be, Frederick Widgeon. A most entertaining young fellow. Get him to tell you his story about the detectives in the wrong flat. You'll die laughing. We all think very highly of Frederick Widgeon."
And all that sort of thing, I mean. What? I mean to say, you follow his reasoning.
Well, he didn't get a chance to spring the story over the melon and powdered ginger, because old Bodsham was rather holding the floor a bit on the subject of iniquitous Socialist attacks on the House of Lords. Then, with the côtelettes and mashed, Mavis started to haul up her slacks about the Soul of America. In fact, it wasn't till the coffee had arrived that he secured a genuine opening.
"I say," said Freddie, catching the Speaker's eye at this juncture, "a most awfully funny thing happened to me this morning. Make you scream. You'll burst your corsets."
And, lighting a carefree cigarette, he embarked upon the narrative.
He told it well. Looking back, he says, he can't remember when he has ever done more justice to a yarn, squeezed the last drop of juice out of it with a firmer hand, if you know what I mean. The grave, intent faces of his audience, he tells me, only spurred him on to further efforts. He approved of their self-restraint. He realized that they realized that a story like this was not the sort of story to fritter away with giggles. You saved yourself up for the big howl at the finish.
And then suddenly he couldn't tell just when there stole over him a sort of feeling that the conte wasn't getting across quite so big as he had hoped. There seemed to him to be a certain definite something in the atmosphere. You know how it is when you strike a cold audience. Old Bodsham was looking a little like a codfish with something on its mind, and there was an odd kind of expression in Mavis's eye.
When he had finished, there was a longish silence. Mavis looked at old Bodsham. Old Bodsham looked at Mavis.
"I don't quite understand, Frederick," said Mavis at length. "You say this girl was a stranger?"
"Why, yes," said Freddie.
"And you accosted her in the street?"
"Why, yes," said Freddie.
"Oh?" said Mavis.
"I was sorry for her," said Freddie.
"Oh?" said Mavis.
"In fact, you might say that my heart bled for her."
"Oh?" said Mavis.
Old Bodsham let his breath go in a sort of whistling sigh.
"Is it your practice, may I ask," he said, "to scrape acquaintance in the public streets with young persons of the opposite sex?"
"You must remember, father," said Mavis, in a voice which would have had an Eskimo slapping his ribs and calling for the steam heat, "that this girl was probably very pretty. So many of these New York girls are. That would, of course, explain Frederick's behavior."
"She wasn't!" yipped Freddie. "She was a gargoyle."
"Oh?" said Mavis.
"Spectacled to bursting point and utterly lacking in feminine allure."
"Oh?" said Mavis.
"And when I saw her frail form bowed down by that dashed great suitcase...I should have thought," said Freddie, injured, "that, having learned the salient facts, you would have fawned on me for my bighearted chivalry."
"Oh?" said Mavis.
There was another silence.
"I must be going, father," said Mavis. "I have some shopping to do."
"Shall I come with you?" said Freddie.
"I would prefer to be alone," said Mavis.
"I must be going," said old Bodsham. "I have some thinking to do."
"Thinking?" said Freddie.
"Thinking," said old Bodsham. "Some serious thinking. Some extremely serious thinking. Some very serious thinking indeed."
"We will leave Frederick to finish his cigarette," said Mavis.
"Yes," said old Bodsham. "We will leave Frederick to finish his cigarette."
"But listen," bleated Freddie. "I give you my honest word she looked like something employed by the government for scaring crows in the cornfields of Minnesota."
"Oh?" said Mavis.
"Oh?" said old Bodsham.
"Come, father," said Mavis.
And old Freddie found himself alone, and not feeling so frightfully good.
Now, it was Freddie's practice and a very prudent practice, too to carry on his person, concealed in his hip pocket, a small but serviceable flask full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene. Friends whom he had made since his arrival in New York had advocated this policy, pointing out that you never knew when it would come in useful. His first act, accordingly, after the two Vice-Presidents of the Knickerbocker Ice Company had left him and he had begun to thaw out a bit, was to produce this flask and take a quick, sharp snort.
The effect was instantaneous. His numbed brain began to work. And presently, after a couple more swift ones, he saw daylight.
The whole nub of the thing, he perceived clearly, was the personal appearance of the girl Jennings. In the matter of her loved one's acts of chivalry toward damsels in distress, a fiancée holds certain definite views. If the damsels he assists are plain, he is a good chap and deserves credit. If they are pretty, he is a low hound who jolly well gets his ring and letters back by the first post.
Obviously, then, his only course was to return to Sixty-ninth Street, dig up the Jennings, and parade her before Mavis. Her mere appearance, he was convinced, would clear him completely.
Of course, the thing would have to be done delicately. I mean to say, you can't just go to a comparatively strange female and ask her to trot round to see a friend of yours so that the latter can ascertain at first hand what a repellently unattractive girl she is. But Freddie, now full of the juice, fancied he could work it all right. All it wanted was just a little tact.
"Yoicks!" said Freddie to himself. "Hark for'ard!" And, in his opinion, that about summed it up.
It was a lovely afternoon as Freddie got into his taxi outside the Ritz and tooled uptown. Alighting at Sixty-ninth Street, he braced himself with a visible effort and started the long climb up the four flights of stairs. And presently he was outside the door of Flat 4B and tootling on the bell.
Nothing happened. He tootled again. He knocked. He even went so far as to kick the door. But there were no signs of human occupation, and after a bit he was reluctantly forced to the conclusion that the Jennings was out.
Freddie had not foreseen this possibility, and he leaned against the wall for a space, thinking out his next move. He had just come to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to edge away for the nonce and have another pop later on, when a door opposite opened and a female appeared.
"Hullo," said this bird.
"Hullo," said Freddie.
He spoke, he tells me, a little doubtfully, for a glance had shown him that this woman was not at all the kind of whom Mavis would have approved. A different species altogether. Her eyes were blue and totally free from spectacles. Her teeth were white and even. Her hair was a beautiful gold.
Judging by her costume, she seemed to be a late riser. The hour was three-thirty, but she had not yet progressed beyond the negligee and slippers stage. That negligee, moreover, was a soft pink in color and was decorated throughout with a series of fowls of some kind. Lovebirds, Freddie tells me he thinks they were. And a man who is engaged to be married and who, already, is not any too popular with the bride-to-be, shrinks automatically, as it were from blue-eyed, golden-haired females in pink negligees picked out with ultramarine lovebirds.
However, a fellow has to be civil. So, having said "Hullo!" he threw in a reserved, gentlemanly sort of smile for good measure.
He assures me that it was merely one of those aloof smiles which the Honorary Secretary of a Bible Class would have given the elderly aunt of a promising pupil; but it had the effect of encouraging the contents of the negligee to further conversation.
"Looking for someone?" she asked.
"Why, yes," said Freddie. "I suppose you couldn't tell me when Miss Jennings will be in?"
"How do you spell it?"
"Oh, much in the usual way, I expect. Start off with a J and then a good many n's and g's and things."
"Miss Jennings, did you say?"
"That's right. Jennings."
"I'll tell you something," said the female frankly. "I've never seen any Miss Jennings. I've never heard of any Miss Jennings. I don't know who she is. She means literally nothing in my life. And I'll tell you something else. I've been breaking my back for half an hour trying to open my living-room window, and do you think I can do it? No, sir! What do you advise?"
"Leave it shut," said Freddie.
"But it's so warm. The weather, I mean."
"It is warm," agreed Freddie.
"I'm just stifling. Yes, sir. That's what I am. Stifling in my tracks."
At this point, undoubtedly, old Freddie should have said "Oh?" or "Well, best o' luck!" or something on that order, and buzzed off. But once a fellow drops into the habit of doing acts of kindness, he tells me, it's dashed difficult to pull up. The thing becomes second nature.
So now, instead of hoofing it, he unshipped another of those polished smiles of his, and asked if there was anything he could do.
"Well, it's a shame to trouble you..."
"Not at all."
"I hate to impose on you...."
"Not a tall," said Freddie, becoming more preux every moment. "Only too pleased."
And he trotted after her into the flat.
"There it is," said the female. "The window, I mean."
Freddie surveyed it carefully. He went over and gave it a shake. It certainly seemed pretty tightly stuck.
"The way they build these joints nowadays," observed the female, with a certain amount of severity, "the windows either won't open at all or else they drop out altogether."
"Well, that's life, isn't it?" said Freddie.
The thing didn't look any too good to him, but he buckled to like a man, and for some moments nothing was to be heard in the room but his tense breathing.
"How are you getting on?" asked the female.
"I've a sort of rummy buzzing in my head," said Freddie. "You don't think it's apoplexy or something?"
"I'd take a rest if I was you," said his hostess. "You look warm."
"I am warm," said Freddie.
"Take your coat off."
"May I? Thanks."
"Your collar, too, if you like."
The removal of the upholstery made Freddie feel a little better.
"I once knew a man who opened a window in a Pullman car," said the female.
"No, really?" said Freddie.
"Ah, what a man!" sighed the female wistfully. "They don't make 'em like that nowadays."
I don't suppose she actually intended anything in the way of a slur or innuendo, if you know what I mean, but Freddie tells me he felt a bit stung. It was as if his manly spirit had been challenged. Setting his teeth, he charged forward and had another go.
"Try pulling it down from the top," said the female.
Freddie tried pulling it down from the top, but nothing happened.
"Try wiggling it sideways," said the female.
Freddie tried wiggling it sideways, but his efforts were null and void.
"Have a drink," said the female.
This seemed to old Freddie by miles the best suggestion yet. He sank into a chair and let his tongue hang out. And presently a brimming glass stole into his hand, and he quaffed deeply.
"That's some stuff I brought away from home," said the female.
"From where?" said Freddie.
"But isn't this your home?"
"Well, it is now. But I used to live in Utica. Mr. Silvers made this stuff. About the only good thing he ever did. Mr. Silvers, I mean."
Freddie pondered a bit.
"Mr. Silvers? Don't I seem to know that name?"
"I wish I didn't," said the female. "There was a palooka, if you want one."
"A palooka. Mr. Silvers. Slice him where you like, he was still baloney."
The rather generous nature of the fluid he was absorbing was making Freddie feel a bit clouded.
"I don't altogether follow this. Who is Mr. Silvers?"
"Ed Silvers. My husband. And is he jealous? Ask me!"
"Ask you what?"
"I'm telling you. I left him flat, because he didn't have no ideals."
"Ah!" said Freddie. "Now we've got it straight."
He quaffed again. The foundation of the beverage manufactured by Mr. Silvers seemed to be neat vitriol, but, once you had got used to the top of your head going up and down like the lid of a kettle with boiling water in it, the effects were far from unpleasant. Mr. Silvers may not have had ideals, but he unquestionably knew what to do when you handed him a still and a potato.
"He made me very unhappy," said the female.
"Mr. Silvers made you unhappy?"
"You're darn tooting Mr. Silvers made me unhappy. Entertaining his low suspicions."
Freddie was shocked.
"Did Mr. Silvers entertain low suspicions?"
"He certainly did."
"Mr. Ed Silvers?"
"I bet that made you unhappy."
"You never said a truer word."
"You poor little thing," said Freddie. "You poor little Mrs. Silvers."
"Mrs. Ed Silvers."
"You poor little Mrs. Ed Silvers. I never heard anything so dashed monstrous in my life. May I pat your hand?"
"You bet your lavender spats you may pat my hand."
"I will," said Freddie, and did so.
He even went further. He squeezed her hand. His whole attitude toward her, he tells me, was that of a brother toward a suffering sister.
And at this moment the door flew open, and a number of large objects crashed in. Without any warning the air had suddenly become full of bowler hats.
Freddie, gazing upon them, was conscious of an odd feeling. You know that feeling you sometimes feel of feeling you're feeling that something has happened which has happened before. I believe doctors explain it by saying that the two halves of the brain aren't working strictly on the up-and-up. Anyway, that was how Freddie felt at this point. He felt he had seen those bowler hats before perhaps in some previous existence.
"What ho!" he said. "Callers, what?"
And then his brain seemed to clear or the two halves clicked together, or something and he recognized the Bloke who had interrupted his tête-à-tête with Miss Myra Jennings that morning.
Now the last time Freddie had seen this Bloke, the latter had been bathed in confusion. You pictured his embarrassment. He was now looking far cheerier. He had the air of a bloke in a bowler hat who has won through to his objective.
"We're in, boys," he said.
The two subsidiary Blokes nodded briefly. One of them said: "Sure, we're in." The other said: "Hot dog!"
The head Bloke scrutinized Freddie closely.
"Well, I'm darned!" he exclaimed. "If it isn't you again! Boys," he said, a note of respect creeping into his voice, "take a good slant at this guy. Eye him reverently. The swiftest worker in New York. Mark how he flits from spot to spot. You can't go anywhere without finding him. And he hasn't even got a bicycle."
Freddie saw that it was time to draw himself up to his full height and put these fellows in their place. He endeavored to do so, but something seemed to prevent him.
"Let me explain," he said.
The Bloke sneered visibly.
"Are you going to tell us we are in the wrong flat again?"
"My answer to that," said Freddie, "is yes and no."
"What do you mean, yes and no? This is Flat 4A."
"True," said Freddie. "That point I yield. This is Flat 4A. But I assure you, on the word of an English gentleman, that this lady is a complete stranger to me."
"A complete and total stranger."
"Oh?" said the Bloke. "Then what's she doing sitting in your lap?"
And Freddie, with acute astonishment, perceived that this was indeed so. At what point in their conversation it had occurred, he could not have said, but Mrs. Ed Silvers was undeniably nestling on the spot indicated. It was this, he saw now, which had prevented him a moment ago drawing himself up to his full height.
"By Jove!" he said. "She is, isn't she?"
"She certainly is."
"Well, well!" said Freddie. "Well, well, well!"
You could have knocked him down with a feather, and he said as much.
Mrs. Silvers spoke.
"Listen," she said. "As Heaven is my witness I never saw this man before."
"Then what's he doing here?"
"Opening the window."
"I know it's shut."
"Open and shut," said the Bloke. "Like this case. Eh, boys?"
"Ah!" said one of the boys.
"Uh-huh," said the other.
The Bloke eyed Mrs. Silver severely.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, lady," he said. "Such goings on. I'm shocked. That's what I am. Shocked. And the boys are shocked, too."
Freddie was able to rise now, for the female had ceased to roost. He got up, and would have towered above the Bloke, only it so happened that the latter was about six inches taller.
"You are aspersing a woman's name," he said.
"Don't attempt to evade the issue," said Freddie, giving him a haughty glance. "You are aspersing a woman's name, and what makes it worse you are doing it in a bowler hat. Take off that hat," said Freddie.
The Bloke stared at him blankly. He was probably on the point of explaining that detectives' hats don't take off, when Freddie injudiciously, in my opinion got him in the right eye with one of the nicest wallops you could wish to see.
And after that, Freddie tells me, things got a bit mixed. He is conscious of having done his best, but he thinks he must have had rather the worse of the exchanges, because some little time later he became aware that he was in a prison cell and that one of his ears had swollen to the proportions of a medium-sized cauliflower. Also the black eye and the bees swarming in the head.
And scarcely had he coughed up the fifty dollars to the Clerk of the Court next morning when, coming out into the open and buying a paper, he found the events of the previous afternoon splashed over half a column of the very periodical which, he knew, old Bodsham was in the habit of reading with his morning Java and egg.
And, to show you how overwrought the poor chap must have been, Freddie had actually omitted to take the elementary precaution of giving a false name. He had even gone to the extraordinary length of revealing his middle one which, though I don't think we should hold it against him, is Fotheringay.
Well, that finished it. Rightly or wrongly, Freddie decided not to wait for the full returns. There was a boat starting back for England that night, and he leaped aboard it without having ascertained from a personal interview what old Bodsham and Mavis thought of the episode. He is a pretty intuitive chap, Freddie, and he was content to guess.
So now he's back, and more or less soured and morose. He was saying some pretty harsh things about Woman this morning, some very harsh things.
And I happen to know that, as the boat docked at Southampton, an extraordinarily pretty girl standing beside him stumbled and dropped her vanity bag. And Freddie, instead of springing to her aid, just folded his arms and looked away with a somber frown. He says that damsels in distress from now on must seek elsewhere for custom, because he has retired from business.
This fact, he tells me, cannot be too widely known.
Compilation Copyright © 1960 by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
Compilation Copyright renewed © 1988 by Edward Stephen Cazalet