Jeeves and the hard-boiled egg
Sometimes of a morning, as I've sat in bed sucking down the early cup of tea and watched my man Jeeves flitting about the room and putting out the raiment for the day, I've wondered what the deuce I should do if the fellow ever took it into his head to leave me. It's not so bad now I'm in New York, but in London the anxiety was frightful. There used to be all sorts of attempts on the part of low blighters to sneak him away from me. Young Reggie Foljambe to my certain knowledge offered him double what I was giving him, and Alistair Bingham-Reeves, who's got a valet who had been known to press his trousers sideways, used to look at him, when he came to see me, with a kind of glittering hungry eye which disturbed me deucedly. Bally pirates!
The thing, you see, is that Jeeves is so dashed competent. You can spot it even in the way he shoves studs into a shirt.
I rely on him absolutely in every crisis, and he never lets me down. And, what's more, he can always be counted on to extend himself on behalf of any pal of mine who happens to be to all appearances knee-deep in the bouillon. Take the rather rummy case, for instance, of dear old Bicky and his uncle, the hard-boiled egg.
It happened after I had been in America for a few months. I got back to the flat latish one night, and when Jeeves brought me the final drink he said:
"Mr. Bickersteth called to see you this evening, sir, while you were out."
"Oh?" I said.
"Twice, sir. He appeared a trifle agitated."
"He gave that impression, sir."
I sipped the whisky. I was sorry if Bicky was in trouble, but, as a matter of fact, I was rather glad to have something I could discuss freely with Jeeves just then, because things had been a bit strained between us for some time, and it had been rather difficult to hit on anything to talk about that wasn't apt to take a personal turn. You see, I had decided—rightly or wrongly—to grow a moustache and this had cut Jeeves to the quick. He couldn't stick the thing at any price, and I had been living ever since in an atmosphere of bally disapproval till I was getting jolly well fed up with it. What I mean is, while there's no doubt that in certain matters of dress Jeeves's judgment is absolutely sound and should be followed, it seemed to me that it was getting a bit too thick if he was going to edit my face as well as my costume. No one can call me an unreasonable chappie, and many's the time I've given in like a lamb when Jeeves has voted against one of my pet suits or ties; but when it comes to a valet's staking out a claim on your upper lip you've simply got to have a bit of the good old bulldog pluck and defy the blighter.
"He said that he would call again later, sir."
"Something must be up, Jeeves."
I gave the moustache a thoughtful twirl. It seemed to hurt Jeeves a good deal, so I chucked it.
"I see by the paper, sir, that Mr. Bickersteth's uncle is arriving on the Carmantic."
"His Grace the Duke of Chiswick, sir."
This was news to me, that Bicky's uncle was a duke. Rum, how little one knows about one's pals! I had met Bicky for the first time at a species of beano or jamboree down in Washington Square, not long after my arrival in New York. I suppose I was a bit homesick at the time, and I rather took to Bicky when I found that he was an Englishman and had, in fact, been up at Oxford with me. Besides, he was a frightful chump, so we naturally drifted together; and while we were taking a quiet snort in a corner that wasn't all cluttered up with artists and sculptors and what-not, he furthermore endeared himself to me by a most extraordinarily gifted imitation of a bull-terrier chasing a cat up a tree. But, though we had subsequently become extremely pally, all I really knew about him was that he was generally hard up, and had an uncle who relieved the strain a bit from time to time by sending him monthly remittances.
"If the Duke of Chiswick is his uncle," I said, "why hasn't he a title? Why isn't he Lord What-Not?"
"Mr. Bickersteth is the son of his grace's late sister, sir, who married Captain Rollo Bickersteth of the Coldstream Guards."
Jeeves knows everything.
"Is Mr. Bickersteth's father dead, too?"
"Leave any money?"
I began to understand why poor old Bicky was always more or less on the rocks. To the casual and irreflective observer, if you know what I mean, it may sound a pretty good wheeze having a duke for an uncle, but the trouble about old Chiswick was that, though an extremely wealthy old buster, owning half London and about five counties up north, he was notoriously the most prudent spender in England. He was what American chappies would call a hard-boiled egg. If Bicky's people hadn't left him anything and he depended on what he could prise out of the old duke, he was in a pretty bad way. Not that that explained why he was hunting me like this, because he was a chap who never borrowed money. He said he wanted to keep his pals, so never bit any one's ear on principle.
At this juncture the door bell rang. Jeeves floated out to answer it.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Wooster has just returned," I heard him say. And Bicky came trickling in, looking pretty sorry for himself.
"Halloa, Bicky!" I said. "Jeeves told me you had been trying to get me. Jeeves, bring another glass, and let the revels commence. What's the trouble, Bicky?"
"I'm in a hole, Bertie. I want your advice."
"Say on, old lad!"
"My uncle's turning up to-morrow, Bertie."
"So Jeeves told me."
"The Duke of Chiswick, you know."
"So Jeeves told me."
Bicky seemed a bit surprised.
"Jeeves seems to know everything."
"Rather rummily, that's exactly what I was thinking just now myself."
"Well, I wish," said Bicky gloomily, "that he knew a way to get me out of the hole I'm in."
Jeeves shimmered in with the glass, and stuck it competently on the table.
"Mr. Bickersteth is in a bit of a hole, Jeeves," I said, "and wants you to rally round."
"Very good, sir."
Bicky looked a bit doubtful.
"Well, of course, you know, Bertie, this thing is by way of being a bit private and all that."
"I shouldn't worry about that, old top. I bet Jeeves knows all about it already. Don't you, Jeeves?"
"Eh!" said Bicky, rattled.
"I am open to correction, sir, but is not your dilemma due to the fact that you are at a loss to explain to his grace why you are in New York instead of in Colorado?"
Bicky rocked like a jelly in a high wind.
"How the deuce do you know anything about it?"
"I chanced to meet his grace's butler before we left England. He informed me that he happened to overhear his grace speaking to you on the matter, sir, as he passed the library door."
Bicky gave a hollow sort of laugh.
"Well, as everybody seems to know all about it, there's no need to try to keep it dark. The old boy turfed me out, Bertie, because he said I was a brainless nincompoop. The idea was that he would give me a remittance on condition that I dashed out to some blighted locality of the name of Colorado and learned farming or ranching, or whatever they call it, at some bally ranch or farm or whatever it's called. I didn't fancy the idea a bit. I should have had to ride horses and pursue cows, and so forth. I hate horses. They bite at you. I was all against the scheme. At the same time, don't you know, I had to have that remittance."
"I get you absolutely, dear boy."
"Well, when I got to New York it looked a decent sort of place to me, so I thought it would be a pretty sound notion to stop here. So I cabled to my uncle telling him that I had dropped into a good business wheeze in the city and wanted to chuck the ranch idea. He wrote back that it was all right, and here I've been ever since. He thinks I'm doing well at something or other over here. I never dreamed, don't you know, that he would ever come out here. What on earth am I to do?"
"Jeeves," I said, "what on earth is Mr. Bickersteth to do?"
"You see," said Bicky, "I had a wireless from him to say that he was coming to stay with me—to save hotel bills, I suppose. I've always given him the impression that I was living in pretty good style. I can't have him to stay at my boarding-house."
"Thought of anything, Jeeves?" I said.
"To what extent, sir, if the question is not a delicate one, are you prepared to assist Mr. Bickersteth?"
"I'll do anything I can for you, of course, Bicky, old man."
"Then, if I might make the suggestion, sir, you might lend Mr. Bickersteth——"
"No, by Jove!" said Bicky firmly. "I never have touched you, Bertie, and I'm not going to start now. I may be a chump, but it's my boast that I don't owe a penny to a single soul—not counting tradesmen, of course."
"I was about to suggest, sir, that you might lend Mr. Bickersteth this flat. Mr. Bickersteth could give his grace the impression that he was the owner of it. With your permission I could convey the notion that I was in Mr. Bickersteth's employment, and not in yours. You would be residing here temporarily as Mr. Bickersteth's guest. His grace would occupy the second spare bedroom. I fancy that you would find this answer satisfactorily, sir."
Bicky had stopped rocking himself and was staring at Jeeves in an awed sort of way.
"I would advocate the dispatching of a wireless message to his grace on board the vessel, notifying him of the change of address. Mr. Bickersteth could meet his grace at the dock and proceed directly here. Will that meet the situation, sir?"
"Thank you, sir."
Bicky followed him with his eye till the door closed.
"How does he do it, Bertie?" he said. "I'll tell you what I think it is. I believe it's something to do with the shape of his head. Have you ever noticed his head, Bertie, old man? It sort of sticks out at the back!"
* * * * *
I hopped out of bed early next morning, so as to be among those present when the old boy should arrive. I knew from experience that these ocean liners fetch up at the dock at a deucedly ungodly hour. It wasn't much after nine by the time I'd dressed and had my morning tea and was leaning out of the window, watching the street for Bicky and his uncle. It was one of those jolly, peaceful mornings that make a chappie wish he'd got a soul or something, and I was just brooding on life in general when I became aware of the dickens of a spate in progress down below. A taxi had driven up, and an old boy in a top hat had got out and was kicking up a frightful row about the fare. As far as I could make out, he was trying to get the cab chappie to switch from New York to London prices, and the cab chappie had apparently never heard of London before, and didn't seem to think a lot of it now. The old boy said that in London the trip would have set him back eightpence; and the cabby said he should worry. I called to Jeeves.
"The duke has arrived, Jeeves."
"That'll be him at the door now."
Jeeves made a long arm and opened the front door, and the old boy crawled in, looking licked to a splinter.
"How do you do, sir?" I said, bustling up and being the ray of sunshine. "Your nephew went down to the dock to meet you, but you must have missed him. My name's Wooster, don't you know. Great pal of Bicky's, and all that sort of thing. I'm staying with him, you know. Would you like a cup of tea? Jeeves, bring a cup of tea."
Old Chiswick had sunk into an arm-chair and was looking about the room.
"Does this luxurious flat belong to my nephew Francis?"
"It must be terribly expensive."
"Pretty well, of course. Everything costs a lot over here, you know."
He moaned. Jeeves filtered in with the tea. Old Chiswick took a stab at it to restore his tissues, and nodded.
"A terrible country, Mr. Wooster! A terrible country! Nearly eight shillings for a short cab-drive! Iniquitous!" He took another look round the room. It seemed to fascinate him. "Have you any idea how much my nephew pays for this flat, Mr. Wooster?"
"About two hundred dollars a month, I believe."
"What! Forty pounds a month!"
I began to see that, unless I made the thing a bit more plausible, the scheme might turn out a frost. I could guess what the old boy was thinking. He was trying to square all this prosperity with what he knew of poor old Bicky. And one had to admit that it took a lot of squaring, for dear old Bicky, though a stout fellow and absolutely unrivalled as an imitator of bull-terriers and cats, was in many ways one of the most pronounced fatheads that ever pulled on a suit of gent's underwear.
"I suppose it seems rummy to you," I said, "but the fact is New York often bucks chappies up and makes them show a flash of speed that you wouldn't have imagined them capable of. It sort of develops them. Something in the air, don't you know. I imagine that Bicky in the past, when you knew him, may have been something of a chump, but it's quite different now. Devilish efficient sort of chappie, and looked on in commercial circles as quite the nib!"
"I am amazed! What is the nature of my nephew's business, Mr. Wooster?"
"Oh, just business, don't you know. The same sort of thing Carnegie and Rockefeller and all these coves do, you know." I slid for the door. "Awfully sorry to leave you, but I've got to meet some of the lads elsewhere."
Coming out of the lift I met Bicky bustling in from the street.
"Halloa, Bertie! I missed him. Has he turned up?"
"He's upstairs now, having some tea."
"What does he think of it all?"
"He's absolutely rattled."
"Ripping! I'll be toddling up, then. Toodle-oo, Bertie, old man. See you later."
"Pip-pip, Bicky, dear boy."
He trotted off, full of merriment and good cheer, and I went off to the club to sit in the window and watch the traffic coming up one way and going down the other.
It was latish in the evening when I looked in at the flat to dress for dinner.
"Where's everybody, Jeeves?" I said, finding no little feet pattering about the place. "Gone out?"
"His grace desired to see some of the sights of the city, sir. Mr. Bickersteth is acting as his escort. I fancy their immediate objective was Grant's Tomb."
"I suppose Mr. Bickersteth is a bit braced at the way things are going—what?"
"I say, I take it that Mr. Bickersteth is tolerably full of beans."
"Not altogether, sir."
"What's his trouble now?"
"The scheme which I took the liberty of suggesting to Mr. Bickersteth and yourself has, unfortunately, not answered entirely satisfactorily, sir."
"Surely the duke believes that Mr. Bickersteth is doing well in business, and all that sort of thing?"
"Exactly, sir. With the result that he has decided to cancel Mr. Bickersteth's monthly allowance, on the ground that, as Mr. Bickersteth is doing so well on his own account, he no longer requires pecuniary assistance."
"Great Scot, Jeeves! This is awful."
"Somewhat disturbing, sir."
"I never expected anything like this!"
"I confess I scarcely anticipated the contingency myself, sir."
"I suppose it bowled the poor blighter over absolutely?"
"Mr. Bickersteth appeared somewhat taken aback, sir."
My heart bled for Bicky.
"We must do something, Jeeves."
"Can you think of anything?"
"Not at the moment, sir."
"There must be something we can do."
"It was a maxim of one of my former employers, sir—as I believe I mentioned to you once before—the present Lord Bridgnorth, that there is always a way. I remember his lordship using the expression on the occasion—he was then a business gentleman and had not yet received his title—when a patent hair-restorer which he chanced to be promoting failed to attract the public. He put it on the market under another name as a depilatory, and amassed a substantial fortune. I have generally found his lordship's aphorism based on sound foundations. No doubt we shall be able to discover some solution of Mr. Bickersteth's difficulty, sir."
"Well, have a stab at it, Jeeves!"
"I will spare no pains, sir."
I went and dressed sadly. It will show you pretty well how pipped I was when I tell you that I near as a toucher put on a white tie with a dinner-jacket. I sallied out for a bit of food more to pass the time than because I wanted it. It seemed brutal to be wading into the bill of fare with poor old Bicky headed for the breadline.
When I got back old Chiswick had gone to bed, but Bicky was there, hunched up in an arm-chair, brooding pretty tensely, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth and a more or less glassy stare in his eyes. He had the aspect of one who had been soaked with what the newspaper chappies call "some blunt instrument."
"This is a bit thick, old thing—what!" I said.
He picked up his glass and drained it feverishly, overlooking the fact that it hadn't anything in it.
"I'm done, Bertie!" he said.
He had another go at the glass. It didn't seem to do him any good.
"If only this had happened a week later, Bertie! My next month's money was due to roll in on Saturday. I could have worked a wheeze I've been reading about in the magazine advertisements. It seems that you can make a dashed amount of money if you can only collect a few dollars and start a chicken-farm. Jolly sound scheme, Bertie! Say you buy a hen—call it one hen for the sake of argument. It lays an egg every day of the week. You sell the eggs seven for twenty-five cents. Keep of hen costs nothing. Profit practically twenty-five cents on every seven eggs. Or look at it another way: Suppose you have a dozen eggs. Each of the hens has a dozen chickens. The chickens grow up and have more chickens. Why, in no time you'd have the place covered knee-deep in hens, all laying eggs, at twenty-five cents for every seven. You'd make a fortune. Jolly life, too, keeping hens!" He had begun to get quite worked up at the thought of it, but he slopped back in his chair at this juncture with a good deal of gloom. "But, of course, it's no good," he said, "because I haven't the cash."
"You've only to say the word, you know, Bicky, old top."
"Thanks awfully, Bertie, but I'm not going to sponge on you."
That's always the way in this world. The chappies you'd like to lend money to won't let you, whereas the chappies you don't want to lend it to will do everything except actually stand you on your head and lift the specie out of your pockets. As a lad who has always rolled tolerably free in the right stuff, I've had lots of experience of the second class. Many's the time, back in London, I've hurried along Piccadilly and felt the hot breath of the toucher on the back of my neck and heard his sharp, excited yapping as he closed in on me. I've simply spent my life scattering largesse to blighters I didn't care a hang for; yet here was I now, dripping doubloons and pieces of eight and longing to hand them over, and Bicky, poor fish, absolutely on his uppers, not taking any at any price.
"Well, there's only one hope, then."
There was Jeeves, standing behind me, full of zeal. In this matter of shimmering into rooms the chappie is rummy to a degree. You're sitting in the old armchair, thinking of this and that, and then suddenly you look up, and there he is. He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly fish. The thing startled poor old Bicky considerably. He rose from his seat like a rocketing pheasant. I'm used to Jeeves now, but often in the days when he first came to me I've bitten my tongue freely on finding him unexpectedly in my midst.
"Did you call, sir?"
"Oh, there you are, Jeeves!"
"Jeeves, Mr. Bickersteth is still up the pole. Any ideas?"
"Why, yes, sir. Since we had our recent conversation I fancy I have found what may prove a solution. I do not wish to appear to be taking a liberty, sir, but I think that we have overlooked his grace's potentialities as a source of revenue."
Bicky laughed, what I have sometimes seen described as a hollow, mocking laugh, a sort of bitter cackle from the back of the throat, rather like a gargle.
"I do not allude, sir," explained Jeeves, "to the possibility of inducing his grace to part with money. I am taking the liberty of regarding his grace in the light of an at present—if I may say so—useless property, which is capable of being developed."
Bicky looked at me in a helpless kind of way. I'm bound to say I didn't get it myself.
"Couldn't you make it a bit easier, Jeeves!"
"In a nutshell, sir, what I mean is this: His grace is, in a sense, a prominent personage. The inhabitants of this country, as no doubt you are aware, sir, are peculiarly addicted to shaking hands with prominent personages. It occurred to me that Mr. Bickersteth or yourself might know of persons who would be willing to pay a small fee—let us say two dollars or three—for the privilege of an introduction, including handshake, to his grace."
Bicky didn't seem to think much of it.
"Do you mean to say that anyone would be mug enough to part with solid cash just to shake hands with my uncle?"
"I have an aunt, sir, who paid five shillings to a young fellow for bringing a moving-picture actor to tea at her house one Sunday. It gave her social standing among the neighbours."
"If you think it could be done——"
"I feel convinced of it, sir."
"What do you think, Bertie?"
"I'm for it, old boy, absolutely. A very brainy wheeze."
"Thank you, sir. Will there be anything further? Good night, sir."
And he floated out, leaving us to discuss details.
Until we started this business of floating old Chiswick as a money-making proposition I had never realized what a perfectly foul time those Stock Exchange chappies must have when the public isn't biting freely. Nowadays I read that bit they put in the financial reports about "The market opened quietly" with a sympathetic eye, for, by Jove, it certainly opened quietly for us! You'd hardly believe how difficult it was to interest the public and make them take a flutter on the old boy. By the end of the week the only name we had on our list was a delicatessen-store keeper down in Bicky's part of the town, and as he wanted us to take it out in sliced ham instead of cash that didn't help much. There was a gleam of light when the brother of Bicky's pawnbroker offered ten dollars, money down, for an introduction to old Chiswick, but the deal fell through, owing to its turning out that the chap was an anarchist and intended to kick the old boy instead of shaking hands with him. At that, it took me the deuce of a time to persuade Bicky not to grab the cash and let things take their course. He seemed to regard the pawnbroker's brother rather as a sportsman and benefactor of his species than otherwise.
The whole thing, I'm inclined to think, would have been off if it hadn't been for Jeeves. There is no doubt that Jeeves is in a class of his own. In the matter of brain and resource I don't think I have ever met a chappie so supremely like mother made. He trickled into my room one morning with a good old cup of tea, and intimated that there was something doing.
"Might I speak to you with regard to that matter of his grace, sir?"
"It's all off. We've decided to chuck it."
"It won't work. We can't get anybody to come."
"I fancy I can arrange that aspect of the matter, sir."
"Do you mean to say you've managed to get anybody?"
"Yes, sir. Eighty-seven gentlemen from Birdsburg, sir."
I sat up in bed and spilt the tea.
"Birdsburg, Missouri, sir."
"How did you get them?"
"I happened last night, sir, as you had intimated that you would be absent from home, to attend a theatrical performance, and entered into conversation between the acts with the occupant of the adjoining seat. I had observed that he was wearing a somewhat ornate decoration in his buttonhole, sir—a large blue button with the words 'Boost for Birdsburg' upon it in red letters, scarcely a judicious addition to a gentleman's evening costume. To my surprise I noticed that the auditorium was full of persons similarly decorated. I ventured to inquire the explanation, and was informed that these gentlemen, forming a party of eighty-seven, are a convention from a town of the name if Birdsburg, in the State of Missouri. Their visit, I gathered, was purely of a social and pleasurable nature, and my informant spoke at some length of the entertainments arranged for their stay in the city. It was when he related with a considerable amount of satisfaction and pride, that a deputation of their number had been introduced to and had shaken hands with a well-known prizefighter, that it occurred to me to broach the subject of his grace. To make a long story short, sir, I have arranged, subject to your approval, that the entire convention shall be presented to his grace to-morrow afternoon."
I was amazed. This chappie was a Napoleon.
"Eighty-seven, Jeeves. At how much a head?"
"I was obliged to agree to a reduction for quantity, sir. The terms finally arrived at were one hundred and fifty dollars for the party."
I thought a bit.
"Payable in advance?"
"No, sir. I endeavoured to obtain payment in advance, but was not successful."
"Well, any way, when we get it I'll make it up to five hundred. Bicky'll never know. Do you suspect Mr. Bickersteth would suspect anything, Jeeves, if I made it up to five hundred?"
"I fancy not, sir. Mr. Bickersteth is an agreeable gentleman, but not bright."
"All right, then. After breakfast run down to the bank and get me some money."
"You know, you're a bit of a marvel, Jeeves."
"Thank you, sir."
"Very good, sir."
When I took dear old Bicky aside in the course of the morning and told him what had happened he nearly broke down. He tottered into the sitting-room and buttonholed old Chiswick, who was reading the comic section of the morning paper with a kind of grim resolution.
"Uncle," he said, "are you doing anything special to-morrow afternoon? I mean to say, I've asked a few of my pals in to meet you, don't you know."
The old boy cocked a speculative eye at him.
"There will be no reporters among them?"
"Reporters? Rather not! Why?"
"I refuse to be badgered by reporters. There were a number of adhesive young men who endeavoured to elicit from me my views on America while the boat was approaching the dock. I will not be subjected to this persecution again."
"That'll be absolutely all right, uncle. There won't be a newspaper-man in the place."
"In that case I shall be glad to make the acquaintance of your friends."
"You'll shake hands with them and so forth?"
"I shall naturally order my behaviour according to the accepted rules of civilized intercourse."
Bicky thanked him heartily and came off to lunch with me at the club, where he babbled freely of hens, incubators, and other rotten things.
After mature consideration we had decided to unleash the Birdsburg contingent on the old boy ten at a time. Jeeves brought his theatre pal round to see us, and we arranged the whole thing with him. A very decent chappie, but rather inclined to collar the conversation and turn it in the direction of his home-town's new water-supply system. We settled that, as an hour was about all he would be likely to stand, each gang should consider itself entitled to seven minutes of the duke's society by Jeeves's stop-watch, and that when their time was up Jeeves should slide into the room and cough meaningly. Then we parted with what I believe are called mutual expressions of goodwill, the Birdsburg chappie extending a cordial invitation to us all to pop out some day and take a look at the new water-supply system, for which we thanked him.
Next day the deputation rolled in. The first shift consisted of the cove we had met and nine others almost exactly like him in every respect. They all looked deuced keen and businesslike, as if from youth up they had been working in the office and catching the boss's eye and what-not. They shook hands with the old boy with a good deal of apparent satisfaction—all except one chappie, who seemed to be brooding about something—and then they stood off and became chatty.
"What message have you for Birdsburg, Duke?" asked our pal.
The old boy seemed a bit rattled.
"I have never been to Birdsburg."
The chappie seemed pained.
"You should pay it a visit," he said. "The most rapidly-growing city in the country. Boost for Birdsburg!"
"Boost for Birdsburg!" said the other chappies reverently.
The chappie who had been brooding suddenly gave tongue.
He was a stout sort of well-fed cove with one of those determined chins and a cold eye.
The assemblage looked at him.
"As a matter of business," said the chappie—"mind you, I'm not questioning anybody's good faith, but, as a matter of strict business—I think this gentleman here ought to put himself on record before witnesses as stating that he really is a duke."
"What do you mean, sir?" cried the old boy, getting purple.
"No offence, simply business. I'm not saying anything, mind you, but there's one thing that seems kind of funny to me. This gentleman here says his name's Mr. Bickersteth, as I understand it. Well, if you're the Duke of Chiswick, why isn't he Lord Percy Something? I've read English novels, and I know all about it."
"This is monstrous!"
"Now don't get hot under the collar. I'm only asking. I've a right to know. You're going to take our money, so it's only fair that we should see that we get our money's worth."
The water-supply cove chipped in:
"You're quite right, Simms. I overlooked that when making the agreement. You see, gentlemen, as business men we've a right to reasonable guarantees of good faith. We are paying Mr. Bickersteth here a hundred and fifty dollars for this reception, and we naturally want to know——"
Old Chiswick gave Bicky a searching look; then he turned to the water-supply chappie. He was frightfully calm.
"I can assure you that I know nothing of this," he said, quite politely. "I should be grateful if you would explain."
"Well, we arranged with Mr. Bickersteth that eighty-seven citizens of Birdsburg should have the privilege of meeting and shaking hands with you for a financial consideration mutually arranged, and what my friend Simms here means—and I'm with him—is that we have only Mr. Bickersteth's word for it—and he is a stranger to us—that you are the Duke of Chiswick at all."
Old Chiswick gulped.
"Allow me to assure you, sir," he said, in a rummy kind of voice, "that I am the Duke of Chiswick."
"Then that's all right," said the chappie heartily. "That was all we wanted to know. Let the thing go on."
"I am sorry to say," said old Chiswick, "that it cannot go on. I am feeling a little tired. I fear I must ask to be excused."
"But there are seventy-seven of the boys waiting round the corner at this moment, Duke, to be introduced to you."
"I fear I must disappoint them."
"But in that case the deal would have to be off."
"That is a matter for you and my nephew to discuss."
The chappie seemed troubled.
"You really won't meet the rest of them?"
"Well, then, I guess we'll be going."
They went out, and there was a pretty solid silence. Then old Chiswick turned to Bicky:
Bicky didn't seem to have anything to say.
"Was it true what that man said?"
"What do you mean by playing this trick?"
Bicky seemed pretty well knocked out, so I put in a word.
"I think you'd better explain the whole thing, Bicky, old top."
Bicky's Adam's-apple jumped about a bit; then he started:
"You see, you had cut off my allowance, uncle, and I wanted a bit of money to start a chicken farm. I mean to say it's an absolute cert if you once get a bit of capital. You buy a hen, and it lays an egg every day of the week, and you sell the eggs, say, seven for twenty-five cents.
"Keep of hens cost nothing. Profit practically——"
"What is all this nonsense about hens? You led me to suppose you were a substantial business man."
"Old Bicky rather exaggerated, sir," I said, helping the chappie out. "The fact is, the poor old lad is absolutely dependent on that remittance of yours, and when you cut it off, don't you know, he was pretty solidly in the soup, and had to think of some way of closing in on a bit of the ready pretty quick. That's why we thought of this handshaking scheme."
Old Chiswick foamed at the mouth.
"So you have lied to me! You have deliberately deceived me as to your financial status!"
"Poor old Bicky didn't want to go to that ranch," I explained. "He doesn't like cows and horses, but he rather thinks he would be hot stuff among the hens. All he wants is a bit of capital. Don't you think it would be rather a wheeze if you were to——"
"After what has happened? After this—this deceit and foolery? Not a penny!"
"Not a penny!"
There was a respectful cough in the background.
"If I might make a suggestion, sir?"
Jeeves was standing on the horizon, looking devilish brainy.
"Go ahead, Jeeves!" I said.
"I would merely suggest, sir, that if Mr. Bickersteth is in need of a little ready money, and is at a loss to obtain it elsewhere, he might secure the sum he requires by describing the occurrences of this afternoon for the Sunday issue of one of the more spirited and enterprising newspapers."
"By Jove!" I said.
"By George!" said Bicky.
"Great heavens!" said old Chiswick.
"Very good, sir," said Jeeves.
Bicky turned to old Chiswick with a gleaming eye.
"Jeeves is right. I'll do it! The Chronicle would jump at it. They eat that sort of stuff."
Old Chiswick gave a kind of moaning howl.
"I absolutely forbid you, Francis, to do this thing!"
"That's all very well," said Bicky, wonderfully braced, "but if I can't get the money any other way——"
"Wait! Er—wait, my boy! You are so impetuous! We might arrange something."
"I won't go to that bally ranch."
"No, no! No, no, my boy! I would not suggest it. I would not for a moment suggest it. I—I think——"
He seemed to have a bit of a struggle with himself. "I—I think that, on the whole, it would be best if you returned with me to England. I—I might—in fact, I think I see my way to doing—to—I might be able to utilize your services in some secretarial position."
"I shouldn't mind that."
"I should not be able to offer you a salary, but, as you know, in English political life the unpaid secretary is a recognized figure——"
"The only figure I'll recognize," said Bicky firmly, "is five hundred quid a year, paid quarterly."
"My dear boy!"
"But your recompense, my dear Francis, would consist in the unrivalled opportunities you would have, as my secretary, to gain experience, to accustom yourself to the intricacies of political life, to—in fact, you would be in an exceedingly advantageous position."
"Five hundred a year!" said Bicky, rolling it round his tongue. "Why, that would be nothing to what I could make if I started a chicken farm. It stands to reason. Suppose you have a dozen hens. Each of the hens has a dozen chickens. After a bit the chickens grow up and have a dozen chickens each themselves, and then they all start laying eggs! There's a fortune in it. You can get anything you like for eggs in America. Chappies keep them on ice for years and years, and don't sell them till they fetch about a dollar a whirl. You don't think I'm going to chuck a future like this for anything under five hundred o' goblins a year—what?"
A look of anguish passed over old Chiswick's face, then he seemed to be resigned to it. "Very well, my boy," he said.
"What-o!" said Bicky. "All right, then."
"Jeeves," I said. Bicky had taken the old boy off to dinner to celebrate, and we were alone. "Jeeves, this has been one of your best efforts."
"Thank you, sir."
"It beats me how you do it."
"The only trouble is you haven't got much out of it—what!"
"I fancy Mr. Bickersteth intends—I judge from his remarks—to signify his appreciation of anything I have been fortunate enough to do to assist him, at some later date when he is in a more favourable position to do so."
"It isn't enough, Jeeves!"
It was a wrench, but I felt it was the only possible thing to be done.
"Bring my shaving things."
A gleam of hope shone in the chappie's eye, mixed with doubt.
"You mean, sir?"
"And shave off my moustache."
There was a moment's silence. I could see the fellow was deeply moved.
"Thank you very much indeed, sir," he said, in a low voice, and popped off.