A certain critic – for such men, I regret to say, do exist – made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’.
He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against
With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
This story is a sort of Old Home Week for my – if I may coin a phrase – puppets. Hugo Carmody and Ronnie Fish appeared in
Money for Nothing.
Pilbeam was in
And the rest of them, Lord Emsworth, the Efficient Baxter, Butler Beach, and the others have all done their bit before in
Leave it to Psmith.
Even Empress of Blandings, that pre-eminent pig, is coming up for the second time, having made her debut in a short story called ‘Pig-hoo-oo-ey!’, which, with other Blandings Castle stories too fascinating to mention, will eventually appear in volume form.
The fact is, I cannot tear myself away from Blandings Castle. The place exercises a sort of spell over me. I am always popping down to Shropshire and looking in there to hear the latest news, and there always seems to be something to interest me. It is in the hope that it will also interest My Public that I have jotted down the bit of gossip from the old spot which I have called
A word about the title. It is related of Thackeray that, hitting upon
after retiring to rest one night, he leaped out of bed and ran seven times round the room, shouting at the top of his voice. Oddly enough, I behaved in exactly the same way when I thought of
I recognized it immediately as the ideal title for a novel.
My exuberance has been a little diminished since by the discovery that I am not the only one who thinks highly of it. Already I have been informed that two novels with the same name have been published in England, and my agent in America cables to say that three have recently been placed on the market in the United States. As my story has appeared in serial form under its present label, it is too late to alter it now. I can only express the modest hope that this story will be considered worthy of inclusion in the list of the Hundred Best Books Called Summer Lightning.
P. G. WODEHOUSE
SUMMER LIGHTNING - P. G. Wodehouse
1 TROUBLE BREWING AT BLANDINGS
Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat-mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.
In the shade of a laurel bush outside the back premises of this stately home of England, Beach, butler to Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, its proprietor, sat sipping the contents of a long glass and reading a weekly paper devoted to the doings of Society and the Stage. His attention had just been arrested by a photograph in an oval border on one of the inner pages: and for perhaps a minute he scrutinized this in a slow, thorough, pop-eyed way, absorbing its every detail. Then, with a fruity chuckle, he took a penknife from his pocket, cut out the photograph, and placed it in the recesses of his costume.
At this moment, the laurel bush, which had hitherto not spoken, said ‘Psst!’
The butler started violently. A spasm ran through his ample frame.
‘Beach!’said the bush.
Something was now peering out of it. This might have been a wood-nymph, but the butler rather thought not, and he was right. It was a tall young man with light hair. He recognized his employer’s secretary, Mr Hugo Carmody, and rose with pained reproach.
His heart was still jumping, and he had bitten his tongue.
‘Startle you, Beach?’
‘I’m sorry. Excellent for the liver, though. Beach, do you want to earn a quid?’
The butler’s austerity softened. The hard look died out of his eyes.
‘Can you get hold of Miss Millicent alone?’
‘Then give her this note, and don’t let anyone see you do it. Especially – and this is where I want you to follow me very closely, Beach – Lady Constance Keeble.’
‘I will attend to the matter immediately, sir.’
He smiled a paternal smile. Hugo smiled back. A perfect understanding prevailed between these two. Beach understood that he ought not to be giving his employer’s niece surreptitious notes: and Hugo understood that he ought not to be urging a good man to place such a weight upon his conscience.
‘Perhaps you are not aware, sir,’ said the butler, having trousered the wages of sin, ‘that her ladyship went up to London on the three-thirty train?’
Hugo uttered an exclamation of chagrin.
‘You mean that all this Red Indian stuff – creeping from bush to bush and not letting a single twig snap beneath my feet – has simply been a waste of time?’ He emerged, dusting his clothes. ‘I wish I’d known that before,’ he said. ‘I’ve severely injured a good suit, and it’s a very moot question whether I haven’t got some kind of a beetle down my back. However, nobody ever took a toss through being careful.’
‘Very true, sir.’
Relieved by the information that the X-ray eye of the aunt of the girl he loved was operating elsewhere, Mr Carmody became conversational.
‘Nice day, Beach.’
‘You know, Beach, life’s rummy. I mean to say, you never can tell what the future holds in store. Here I am at Blandings Castle, loving it. Sing of joy, sing of bliss, home was never like this. And yet, when the project of my coming here was first placed on the agenda, I don’t mind telling you the heart was rather bowed down with weight of woe.’
‘Yes. Noticeably bowed down. If you knew the circumstances, you would understand why.’
Beach did know the circumstances. There were few facts concerning the dwellers in Blandings Castle of which he remained in ignorance for long. He was aware that young Mr Carmody had been, until a few weeks back, co-proprietor with Mr Ronald Fish, Lord Emsworth’s nephew, of a night-club called the Hot Spot, situated just off Bond Street in the heart of London’s pleasure-seeking area; that, despite this favoured position, it had proved a financial failure; that Mr Ronald had gone off with his mother, Lady Julia Fish, to recuperate at Biarritz; and that Hugo, on the insistence of Ronnie that unless some niche was found for his boyhood friend he would not stir a step towards Biarritz or any other blighted place, had come to Blandings as Lord Emsworth’s private secretary.
‘No doubt you were reluctant to leave London, sir?’
‘Exactly. But now, Beach, believe me or believe me not, as far as I am concerned, anyone who likes can have London. Mark you, I’m not saying that just one brief night in the Piccadilly neighbourhood would come amiss. But to dwell in, give me Blandings Castle.
What a spot, Beach!’
‘A Garden of Eden, shall I call it?’
‘Certainly, sir, if you wish.’
‘And now that old Ronnie’s coming here, joy, as you might say, will be unconfined.’
‘Is Mr Ronald expected, sir?’
‘Coming either to-morrow or the day after. I had a letter from him this morning. Which reminds me. He sends his regards to you, and asks me to tell you to put your shirt on Baby Bones for the Medbury Selling Plate.’
The butler pursed his lips dubiously.
A long shot, sir. Not generally fancied.’
‘Rank outsider. Leave it alone, is my verdict.’
And yet Mr Ronald is usually very reliable. It is many years now since he first began to advise me in these matters, and I have done remarkably well by following him. Even as a lad at Eton he was always singularly fortunate in his information.’
‘Well, suit yourself,’ said Hugo, indifferently. ‘What was that thing you were cutting out of the paper just now?’
A photograph of Mr Galahad, sir. I keep an album in which I paste items of interest relating to the Family.’
‘What that album needs is an eye-witness’s description of Lady Constance Keeble falling out of a window and breaking her neck.’
A nice sense of the proprieties prevented Beach from endorsing this view verbally, but he sighed a little wistfully. He had frequently felt much the same about the chatelaine of Blandings.
‘If you would care to see the clipping, sir? There is a reference to Mr Galahad’s literary work.’
Most of the photographs in the weekly paper over which Beach had been relaxing were of peeresses trying to look like chorus-girls and chorus-girls trying to look like peeresses: but this one showed the perky features of a dapper little gentleman in the late fifties.
Beneath it, in large letters, was the single word:
Under this ran a caption in smaller print.
‘The Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth. A little bird tells us
that “Gaily” is at Blandings Castle, Shropshire, the ancestral seat of the family, busily
engaged in writing his Reminiscences. As every member of the Old Brigade will testify,
they ought to be as warm as the weather, if not warmer.’
Hugo scanned the exhibit thoughtfully, and handed it back, to be placed in the archives.
‘Yes,’ he observed, ‘I should say that about summed it up. That old bird must have been pretty hot stuff, I imagine, back in the days of Edward the Confessor.’
‘Mr Galahad was somewhat wild as a young man,’ agreed the butler with a sort of feudal pride in his voice. It was the opinion of the Servants’ Hall that the Hon. Galahad shed lustre on Blandings Castle.
‘Has it ever occurred to you, Beach, that that book of his is going to make no small stir when it comes out?’
‘Well, I’m saving up for my copy. By the way, I knew there was something I wanted to ask you. Can you give me any information on the subject of a bloke named Baxter?’
‘Mr Baxter, sir? He used to be private secretary to his lordship.’
‘Yes, so I gathered. Lady Constance was speaking to me about him this morning. She happened upon me as I was taking the air in riding kit and didn’t seem overpleased. ‘You appear to enjoy a great deal of leisure, Mr Carmody,” she said. “Mr Baxter,” she continued, giving me the meaning eye, “never seemed to find time to go riding when he was Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Mr Baxter was always so hard at work. But, then, Mr Baxter,” she added, the old lamp becoming more meaning than ever, “loved his work. Mr Baxter took a real interest in his duties. Dear me! What a very conscientious man Mr Baxter was, to be sure!” Or words to that effect. I may be wrong, but I classed it as a dirty dig. And what I want to know is, if Baxter was such a world-beater, why did they ever let him go?’
The butler gazed about him cautiously.
‘I fancy, sir, there was some Trouble.’
‘Pinched the spoons, eh? Always the way with these zealous workers.’
‘I never succeeded in learning the full details, sir, but there was something about some flower-pots.’
‘He pinched the flower-pots?’
‘Threw them at his lordship, I was given to understand.’
Hugo looked injured. He was a high-spirited young man who chafed at injustice.
‘Well, I’m dashed if I see then,’ he said, ‘where this Baxter can claim to rank so jolly high above me as a secretary. I may be leisurely, I may forget to answer letters, I may occasionally on warm afternoons go in to some extent for the folding of the hands in sleep, but at least I don’t throw flower-pots at people. Not so much as a pen-wiper have I ever bunged at Lord Ems-worth. Well, I must be getting about my duties. That ride this morning and a slight slumber after lunch have set the schedule back a bit. You won’t forget that note, will you?’
‘On second thoughts,’ he said, ‘perhaps you’d better hand it back to me. Safer not to have too much written matter circulating about the place. Just tell Miss Millicent that she will find me in the rose-garden at six sharp.’
‘In the rose-garden . . .’
‘At six sharp.’
‘Very good, sir. I will see that she receives the information.’
For two hours after this absolutely nothing happened in the grounds of Blandings Castle.
At the end of that period there sounded through the mellow, drowsy stillness a drowsy, mellow chiming. It was the clock over the stables striking five. Simultaneously, a small but noteworthy procession filed out of the house and made its way across the sun-bathed lawn to where the big cedar cast a grateful shade. It was headed by James, a footman, bearing a laden tray. Following him came Thomas, another footman, with a gate-leg table. The rear was brought up by Beach, who carried nothing, but merely lent a tone.
The instinct which warns all good Englishmen when tea is ready immediately began to perform its silent duty. Even as Thomas set the gate-leg table to earth there appeared, as if answering a cue, an elderly gentleman in stained tweeds and a hat he should have been ashamed of. Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, in person. He was a long, lean, stringy man of about sixty, slightly speckled at the moment with mud, for he had spent most of the afternoon pottering round pig-styes. He surveyed the preparations for the meal with vague amiability through rimless pince-nez.