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Authors: P.G. Wodehouse

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Uncle Fred in the Springtime

BOOK: Uncle Fred in the Springtime
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UNCLE FRED IN THE SPRINGTIME

 

P.G. Wodehouse

 

 

 

1

 

The door of the Drones
Club swung open, and a young man in form-fitting tweeds came down the steps and
started to walk westwards. An observant passerby, scanning his face, would have
fancied that he discerned on it a keen, tense look, like that of an African
hunter stalking a hippopotamus. And he would have been right. Pongo Twistleton
— for it was he — was on his way to try to touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport
for two hundred pounds.

To
touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport, if you are coming from the Drones, you go
down Hay Hill, through Berkeley Square, along Mount Street and up Park Lane to
the new block of luxury flats which they have built where Bloxham House used to
be: and it did not take Pongo long to reach journey’s end. It was perhaps ten
minutes later that Webster, Horace’s man, opened the door in answer to his
ring.

‘What
ho, Webster. Mr Davenport in?’

‘No,
sir. He has stepped out to take a dancing lesson.’

‘Well,
he won’t be long, I suppose, what? I’ll come in, shall I?’

‘Very
good, sir. Perhaps you would not mind waiting in the library. The sitting room
in some little disorder at the moment.’

‘Spring
cleaning?’

‘No,
sir. Mr Davenport has been entertaining his uncle, the Duke of Dunstable, to luncheon,
and over the coffee His Grace broke most of the sitting-room furniture with the
poker.’

To say
that this information surprised Pongo would be correct. To say that he was
astounded, however, would be going too far. His Uncle Alaric’s eccentricities
were a favourite theme of conversation with Horace Davenport, and in Pongo he
had always found a sympathetic confidant, for Pongo had an eccentric uncle
himself. Though hearing Horace speak of his Uncle Alaric and thinking of his
own Uncle Fred, he felt like Noah listening to someone making a fuss about a
drizzle.

‘What
made him do that?’

‘I am
inclined to think, sir, that something may have occurred to annoy His Grace.’

This
seemed plausible, and in the absence of further data Pongo left it at that. He
made his way to the small apartment dignified by the name of library, and
wandering to the window stood looking out on Park Lane.

It was
a cheerless prospect that met his eyes. Like all English springs, the one which
had just come to London seemed totally unable to make up its fat-headed mind
whether it was supposed to be that ethereal mildness of which the poet sings or
something suitable for skiers left over from the winter. A few moments before,
the sun had been shining with extraordinary brilliance, but now a sort of young
blizzard was raging, and the spectacle had the effect of plunging Pongo into
despondency.

Horace
was engaged to marry his sister Valerie, but was it conceivable, he asked
himself, that any man, even to oblige a future brother-in-law, would cough up
the colossal sum of two hundred potatoes? The answer, he felt, was in the
negative, and with a mournful sigh he turned away and began to pace the room.

If you
pace the library of Number 52 Bloxham Mansions, starting at the window and
going straight across country, your outward journey takes you past the
writing-table. And as Pongo reached this writing-table, something there
attracted his eye. From beneath the blotter the end of a paper was protruding,
and on it were written the intriguing words:

Signed

CLAUDE POTT

(Private Investigator)

 

They brought him up with
as round a turn as if he had seen a baronet lying on the floor with an Oriental
paperknife of antique design in his back. An overwhelming desire came upon him
to see what all this was about. He was not in the habit of reading other people’s
letters, but here was one which a man of the nicest scruples could scarcely be
expected to pass up.

The
thing was cast in narrative form, being, he found on examination, a sort of
saga in which the leading character — a star part, if ever there was one — was
somebody referred to as The Subject. From the activities of this individual
Claude Pott seemed unable to tear himself away.

The
Subject, who appeared to be abroad somewhere, for there was frequent mention of
a Casino, was evidently one of those people who live for pleasure alone. You
didn’t catch The Subject doing good to the poor or making a thoughtful study of
local political conditions. When he — or she — was not entering Casino in comp.
of friends (two male, one female) at 11.17 p.m., he — or she, for there was no
clue as to whether this was a story with a hero or a heroine — was playing
tenn., riding h’s, out on the golf links, lunching with three f’s, driving to
Montreuil with one in., or dancing with party consisting of four m’s, ditto f’s,
and in this latter case keeping it up into the small hours. Pongo was familiar
with the expression ‘living the life of Riley’, and that it was a life of this
nature that The Subject had been leading was manifest in the document’s every
sentence.

But
what the idea behind the narrative could be he found himself unable to divine.
Claude Pott had a nice, crisp style, but his work was marred by the same
obscurity which has caused complaint in the case of the poet Browning.

He had
begun to read it for the third time, hoping for enlightenment, when the click
of a latchkey came to his ears, and as he hastily restored the paper to its
place the door opened and there entered a young man of great height but lacking
the width of shoulder and ruggedness of limb which make height impressive.
Nature, stretching Horace Davenport out, had forgotten to stretch him sideways,
and one could have pictured Euclid, had they met, nudging a friend and saying. ‘Don’t
look now, but this chap coming along illustrates exactly what I was telling you
about a straight line having length without breadth.’

Farthest
north of this great expanse there appeared a tortoise-shell-rimmed-spectacled
face of so much amiability of expression that Pongo, sighting it, found himself
once again hoping for the best.

‘What
ho, Horace,’ he said, almost exuberantly.

‘Hullo,
Pongo. You here? Has Webster told you about my uncle’s latest?’

‘He did
just touch on it. His theory is that the old boy was annoyed about something.
Does that seem to fit the facts?’

‘Absolutely.
He was annoyed about quite a number of things. In the first place, he was going
off to the country today and he had been counting on that fellow Baxter, his
secretary, to go with him. He always likes to have someone with him on a
railway journey.’

‘To
dance before him, no doubt, and generally entertain him?’

‘And at
the last moment Baxter said he would have to stay on in London to do some work
at the British Museum in connection with that Family History Uncle Alaric has
been messing about with for years. This made him shirty, for a start. He seemed
to think it came under the head of being thwarted.’

‘A
touch of thwarting about it, perhaps.’

‘And
before coming to me he had been to see my cousin Ricky, and Ricky had managed
to put his back up about something. So he was in dangerous mood when he got
here. And we had scarcely sat down to lunch, when up popped a
soufflé
looking
like a diseased custard. This did not help to ease the strain. And when we had
had our coffee, and the time came for him to catch his train and he told me to
go to the station with him and I said I couldn’t, that seemed to touch him off.
He reached for the poker and started in.

‘Why
wouldn’t you go to the station with him?’

‘I
couldn’t. I was late for my dancing lesson.’

‘I was
going to ask you about that. What’s this idea of your suddenly taking dancing
lessons?’

‘Valerie
insisted on it. She said I danced like a dromedary with the staggers.’

Pongo
did not blame his sister. Indeed, in comparing her loved one to a dromedary
with the staggers she had been, he thought, rather complimentary.

‘How
are you coming along?’

‘I
think I’m making progress. Polly assures me so. Polly says I shall be able to
go to the Ball tomorrow night. The Bohemian Ball at the Albert Hall. I’m going
as a Boy Scout. I want to take Valerie to it and surprise her. Polly thinks I
can get by all right.’

‘But
isn’t Val at Le Touquet?’

‘She’s
flying back today.’

‘Oh, I
see. Tell me, who is this Polly who has crept into your conversation?’

‘She’s
the girl who’s teaching me. I met her through Ricky. She’s a friend of his.
Polly Pott. A nice, sympathetic sort of girl I’d always found her, so when this
business of staggering dromedaries came up, I asked her if she would give me a few
lessons.’

A pang
of pity for this heroine shot through Pongo. He himself was reading for the Bar
and had sometimes felt like cracking under the strain of it all, but he saw
that compared with Polly Pott he was on velvet. Between trying to extract some meaning
from the rambling writings of the Messrs Coke and Littleton and teaching
dancing to Horace Davenport there was a substantial difference, and it was the
person on whom life had thrust the latter task who must be considered to have
drawn the short straw. The trouble was, he reflected, that Horace was so tall.
A chap of that length didn’t really get on to what his feet were doing till
some minutes after it had happened. What you wanted, of course, was to slice
him in half and have two Horaces.

‘Polly
Pott, eh? Any relation to Claude Pott, private investigator?’

‘His
daughter. What do you know about Claude Pott, private investigator?’

Pongo
stirred uneasily. Too late, he saw that he had rather invited the question.

‘Well,
the fact is, old man, happening to pass the writing-table just now, and
chancing inadvertently to catch sight of that document —’

‘I wish
you wouldn’t read my letters.’

‘Oh, I
wouldn’t. But I could see that this wasn’t a letter. Just a document. So I ran
my eye over it. I thought it might possibly be something with reference to
which you were going to-seek my advice, knowing me to be a bit of a nib in
legal matters, and I felt that a lot of time would be saved if I had the
res
at my fingers’ ends.’

‘And
now I suppose you’ll go racing off to Valerie to tell her I had her watched by
detectives while she was at Le Touquet.’

A
blinding light flashed upon Pongo.

‘Great
Scott! Was that what the thing was about?’

He
pursed his lips — not too tightly, for he was still hoping to float that loan,
but tightly enough to indicate that the Twistletons had their pride and
resented their sisters being tailed up by detectives. Horace read his thoughts
correctly.

‘Yes, I
know, but you don’t realize the position, Pongo. It was the Drones Club weekend
at Le Touquet. The thought of the girl I loved surrounded by about eighty-seven
members of the Drones in the lax atmosphere of a foreign pleasure resort while
I was far away was like a knife in my heart. Polly happened to mention that her
father was a private investigator, never happier than when putting on a false
nose and shadowing people, and the temptation was more than I could resist.
Pongo, for heaven’s sake don’t breath a word about this to Valerie. If she has
a fault, it is that she’s touchy. The sweetest of her sex, but a bit apt to go
in off the deep end, when stirred. I can trust you?’

Pongo
unpursed his lips. He understood all and pardoned all.

‘Of
course, old man. She shall never learn from me. You don’t suppose I would wreck
the happiness of my best friend… my oldest friend… my dearest friend…
Horace, old top,’ said Pongo, for it was a Twistleton trait to recognize when
the iron was hot, ‘I wonder if… I wonder whether … I wonder if you could
possibly….’

‘Mr
Claude Pott,’ announced Webster at the door.

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