Authors: P G Wodehouse
"Not so excellent, because I am only to get it if he approves of the man I want to marry. And he won't approve of you."
"You're an artist."
"What's wrong with artists?"
"Uncle Francis thinks they spend all their time having orgies in studios and painting foreign princesses sitting on leopard skins in the nude."
"Uncle Francis is a fathead."
"Very true. But he's the one who controls the cash."
"And you feel he won't part?"
"The betting's against it."
"Then let's do without it. I've plenty," said Lancelot, who was more fortunate than most artists in having a nice private income.
Gladys shook her head. It seemed to him that she was always shaking her head tonight.
"No," she said. "I need that money, and I won't get married without it. I'm not going to be one of those pauper wives who have to come and plead brokenly with their husbands every time they want the price of a new hat. Some of my married friends tell me it sometimes takes fully half a pint of tears before their mate can be induced to disgorge the most trifling sum. I couldn't do it. My pride forbids it."
And though Lancelot argued eloquently with her all through the
poulet roti au cresson
course and later during the after-dinner coffee, she was not to be moved from her decision. It was a gloomy young rising artist who saw her home and then went oil and got plastered in a series of pubs. What, he was asking himself, would the harvest be and where did he go from here? He tried to tell himself that this was a mere whim on her part, but the theory brought him little consolation. He knew only too well that she had a whim of iron.
His hangover on the following day precluded for a space all thought of anything except bicarbonate of soda, but even when several beakers of the refreshing fluid had built him up physically he was no nearer to being his customary carefree self, for anguish and despair took over and he sat brooding and listless in his studio, incapable of putting brush to canvas. If a nude princess had looked in wanting her portrait painted, he would have refused the commission without hesitation, pleading in excuse that he was not in the mood. All he could do in the way of alleviating the agony that seared his soul was to play the accordion, always his solace in times of stress, and he had worked his way through Over The Rainbow and was preparing tackle Old Man River, when the door flew open and Gladys bounded in, her manner animated and eyes shining, it seemed to him from a quick glance, like twin stars.
"Put away that stomach Steinway, my Prince Charming," she cried, "and listen to me, for I bring news that will make you go dancing about London like a nautch girl. Guess what arrived by the morning post. A letter from Uncle Francis."
Lancelot was unable to see why this should be considered a cause for rejoicing.
"Oh, yes?" he said, not attempting to share her enthusiasm.
"And what do you think he was writing about? He's asked me to find him an artist to paint his portrait, to be presented to the Explorers Club. You get. the job."
Lancelot blinked, still unenthusiastic. His head had begun to pain him again, and he could imagine nothing less agreeable than painting the portrait of a big game hunter who would probably want to be portrayed with a gun in his hand and a solar topee on his head, standing with one foot on a stuffed antelope.
"Me?" he said. "Why me?"
"Don't you see what this means? You'll be closeted with him
day after day, and if you can't fascinate him under those conditions, you're not the king among men I've always thought you. By the end of a couple of weeks you'll have got him so that he can deny you nothing. You then tell him we're going to get married and he gives you his blessing and reaches for his fountain pen and cheque book. Any questions?"
Lancelot's listlessness fell from him like a garment. Even though his mind was working slowly this morning he was able to see the merits of the scheme.
"None," he said. "It's terrific."
"I knew you'd think so."
A thought occurred to Lancelot, As an artist he belonged to the ultra-modern school, expressing himself most readily in pictures showing a sardine tin, two empty beer bottles, a bunch of carrots and a dead cat, the whole intended to represent Paris In Springtime. He doubted his ability to work in another vein. "Would I be any good at a portrait?"
"Good enough for a gaggle of explorers. All explorers have weak eyes through staring at the sunrise on the Lower Zambesi, They won't notice a thing."
"Well, if you say so. Then what's the drill?"
"Uncle Francis has a house down at Bittleton in Sussex. You go there tomorrow with your paints and brushes. I'll phone him to be expecting you."
Another thought struck Lancelot.
"I suppose I'm in for a thin time as regards meals. Don't big game hunters live on pemmican and native maize and that sort of thing?"
"Uncle Francis doesn't. He has the most sensational cook. Every dish a poem."
"That sounds all right," said Lancelot, brightening. Being an artist, he usually made do of an evening with the knuckle end of a ham or something out of a tin, but he was by no means incapable of appreciating good cooking and had often wished, when at the Crushed Pansy, that the
poulet roli au cresson
had been a bit better
"I go tomorrow, you say?"
"Better perhaps the day after tomorrow. That'll give you time to mug up Uncle Francis's book, My Life With Rod And Gun, so that you can draw him out about the things he used to shoot. He gave me a copy at Christmas, when I was expecting at least a wrist watch."
"That's how it goes," said Lancelot sympathetically.
"Yes, that's life," Gladys agreed. "And the best offer I got from the secondhand book shop was threepence, so the volume is still on my shelves. You can come and fetch it this afternoon."
“And I leave the day after tomorrow?"
"That's right. I'll come and see you off at the station."
As Lancelot sat in his compartment waiting for the train to start and gazing at Gladys, who was standing on the platform, he was thinking how much he loved her and what a dreadful thought it was that they were to be separated like this for who knew how long. He was to learn almost immediately that there were other dreadful thoughts going around. She now gave utterance to one of them.
Oh, by the way, angel," she said, "there's one other thing. I almost forgot to tell you. Uncle Francis is rabidly opposed to smoking.”
He is?" said Lancelot, feeling that the more he heard of this uncle of hers, the less attractive a character he appeared to be.
"So of course you'll have to knock it off for the duration."
A strong shudder shook Lancelot. He was a heavy smoker in spite of having two aunts who belonged to the Anti-Tobacco League and kept sending him pamphlets showing how disastrous for the health the practice was. His jaw fell a couple of notches, and he stared at her incredulously.
"Knock off smoking?" he gasped, wondering if he could have heard her correctly.
"For weeks and weeks? I couldn't! "
"You couldn't, eh?"
"No, I couldn't."
"Well, you'd jolly well better, or---"
"Else," said Gladys, and the train moved off.
It was one of those trains that have not become attuned to the modern spirit of speed and hustle, and as it sauntered through the sunlit countryside Lancelot had ample opportunity to turn over Gladys's parting words in his mind and examine them. And the more he did so, the less he liked the sound of them. Nor is this surprising. There are probably no words in the language which a lover more dislikes to hear on the lips of his loved one than those two words 'or else'. They have a sinister ring calculated to chill the hardiest.
He mused. One cannot say that he was standing at a man's crossroads, for he was sitting, but it was plain to him that he was confronted with the most serious dilemma of his lifetime. If, on the one hand, he obeyed her behest and refrained from smoking, every nerve in his body would soon be sticking out and starting to curl at the ends and the softest chirrup of the early bird attending to its worm outside his window would send him shooting up to the ceiling as if some fun-loving practical joker had exploded a bomb beneath his bed. He had once knocked off smoking for two or three days, and he knew what it was like.
If, however, on the other hand, he took a strong line and stoutly refused to keep away from the box of fifty excellent cigars which he had brought with him, what then? He knew very well what then. There would be for him no wedding bells or whatever registrars substitute for them. Gladys was as nearly as made no matter an angel in human shape, but she was inclined, like so many girls who have what it takes, to be imperious and of a trend of mind to resent hotly anything in the nature of what might be called funny business. And that she would class as funny business a deliberate flouting of her orders was sickeningly clear to him. She would return the ring, his letters and what was left of the bottle of scent he had given her on her birthday within minutes of learning of his disobedience.
There flitted into his mind an insidious line from an old poem of Rudyard Kipling's. 'A woman is only a woman,' it ran, 'but a good cigar is a smoke', and for one awful moment he found himself feeling that Mr. Kipling had said a mouthful. Then he remembered Gladys's starlike eyes, her slender figure and the little freckle on the tip of her nose and was strong again. It was with the resolve that however great his sufferings he would retain her love that he alighted at Bittleton station and a short time later was meeting the man whose rugged features he was about to record on canvas.
They were features, particularly the three chins, of an undisguised opulence, and his body was in keeping with his face. Colonel Pashley-Drake was, in short, a stout man. Indeed, the thought flashed through Lancelot's mind that if he wanted to have himself painted full length, it would be necessary to send back to London for a larger canvas than any that he had brought with him. He knew from reading My Life With Rod And Gun that the Colonel, when hunting big game, had frequently hidden behind a tree. To conceal him in this the evening of his life only a Californian redwood would have served. And when later they sat together at the dinner table, he got an inkling as to how this obesity had come about.
The dinner was a long one and in every respect superb. It was plain to Lancelot from the first spoonful of soup that Gladys had well described his host's cook as sensational. The fish confirmed his view that she was a cook in a thousand. He mentioned this to the Colonel, and the latter, a look of holy ecstasy in his eye, agreed that Mrs. Potter-for such was the gifted woman's name-was at the very head of her profession. After that he did not speak very much, being otherwise occupied.
Coffee after the meal was served in a study or library, a large room tastefully decorated with the heads of various fauna which had had the misfortune to meet the other when he was out with his gun. As they seated themselves, the Colonel wheezed apologetically.
"I am afraid I cannot offer you a cigar," he said, and Lancelot raised a deprecating hand.
"Had you done so," he assured him, "I should have been obliged to decline it, with thanks of course for the kind thought. I do not smoke. Smoking," said Lancelot, remembering a pamphlet sent to him by one of his aunts, "causes nervous dyspepsia, sleeplessness, headache, weak eyes, asthma, bronchitis, neurasthenia, rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica, loss of memory, falling out of hair and red spots on the skin. I wouldn't smoke so much as a cigarette to please a dying grandfather. My friends often rally me on what they consider my finnicky objection to having red spots on my skin, but I remain firm."
"You are very sensible," said Colonel Pashley-Drake with such obvious approval that Lancelot felt that the task of fascinating him would prove even easier than Gladys had predicted. He looked forward to the moment-at no distant date-when he would have the old buster rolling on the floor with paws in the air like a tickled dachshund.
The love feast became intensified as the time went on. The Colonel was plainly delighted that Lancelot had derived such pleasure from his little book and spoke fluently and well on the subject of tigers he had met and what to do when confronted with a charging rhinoceros, together with many an anecdote about the selected portions of gnus, giraffes and the like which ornamented the walls. At long last he stifled a yawn and said he thought he would be turning in, and they parted in an atmosphere of the utmost cordiality.
The dinner, as has been said, had been a long and heavy one, and it had left Lancelot with a feeling of repletion which only fresh air could relieve, and before going to bed he felt the prudent thing to do was to take a half-hour stroll in the garden. He proceeded to do so, and what with the beauty of the night and the thinking of long loving thoughts of Gladys he exceeded the estimated time by a wide margin. It was some two hours later when the advisability of going to bed presented itself, and he made his way back to the house - only to discover when he reached it that in his absence some hidden hand had locked the front door.
It was a blow which might have crushed a weaker man, but Lancelot was resourceful and the idea of trying the back door occurred to him almost immediately. He found that, too, securely fastened, and it became evident that unless he was prepared to pass the remainder of the night in the open it would be necessary to break a window. This, as noiselessly as possible, he did and climbing through found himself in what from the smell he took to be the kitchen. And he was about to grope in the darkness in the hope of finding the door, when a voice spoke, a harsh, guttural voice which jarred unpleasantly in his sensitive ear, though the most musical voice speaking at that moment would equally have given him the illusion that the top of his head had parted from its moorings. It said rather curtly:
"Who are you?"