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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Damsel In Distress - Chapter 23
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A Damsel In Distress - Chapter 23 Post by :xpress Category :Long Stories Author :P G Wodehouse Date :June 2011 Read :817

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A Damsel In Distress - Chapter 23

CHAPTER 23


Life is like some crazy machine that is always going either too
slow or too fast. From the cradle to the grave we alternate between
the Sargasso Sea and the rapids--forever either becalmed or
storm-tossed. It seemed to Maud, as she looked across the
dinner-table in order to make sure for the twentieth time that it
really was George Bevan who sat opposite her, that, after months in
which nothing whatever had happened, she was now living through a
period when everything was happening at once. Life, from being a
broken-down machine, had suddenly begun to race.

To the orderly routine that stretched back to the time when she had
been hurried home in disgrace from Wales there had succeeded a mad
whirl of events, to which the miracle of tonight had come as a
fitting climax. She had not begun to dress for dinner till somewhat
late, and had consequently entered the drawing-room just as Keggs
was announcing that the meal was ready. She had received her first
shock when the love-sick Plummer, emerging from a mixed crowd of
relatives and friends, had informed her that he was to take her in.
She had not expected Plummer to be there, though he lived in the
neighbourhood. Plummer, at their last meeting, had stated his
intention of going abroad for a bit to mend his bruised heart: and
it was a little disconcerting to a sensitive girl to find her
victim popping up again like this. She did not know that, as far as
Plummer was concerned, the whole affair was to be considered opened
again. To Plummer, analysing the girl's motives in refusing him,
there had come the idea that there was Another, and that this other
must be Reggie Byng. From the first he had always looked upon
Reggie as his worst rival. And now Reggie had bolted with the
Faraday girl, leaving Maud in excellent condition, so it seemed to
Plummer, to console herself with a worthier man. Plummer knew all
about the Rebound and the part it plays in the affairs of the
heart. His own breach-of-promise case two years earlier had been
entirely due to the fact that the refusal of the youngest Devenish
girl to marry him had caused him to rebound into the dangerous
society of the second girl from the O.P. end of the first row in
the "Summertime is Kissing-time" number in the Alhambra revue. He
had come to the castle tonight gloomy, but not without hope.

Maud's second shock eclipsed the first entirely. No notification
had been given to her either by her father or by Percy of the
proposed extension of the hand of hospitality to George, and the
sight of him standing there talking to her aunt Caroline made her
momentarily dizzy. Life, which for several days had had all the
properties now of a dream, now of a nightmare, became more unreal
than ever. She could conceive no explanation of George's presence.
He could not be there--that was all there was to it; yet there
undoubtedly he was. Her manner, as she accompanied Plummer down the
stairs, took on such a dazed sweetness that her escort felt that in
coming there that night he had done the wisest act of a lifetime
studded but sparsely with wise acts. It seemed to Plummer that this
girl had softened towards him. Certainly something had changed her.
He could not know that she was merely wondering if she was awake.

George, meanwhile, across the table, was also having a little
difficulty in adjusting his faculties to the progress of events. He
had given up trying to imagine why he had been invited to this
dinner, and was now endeavouring to find some theory which would
square with the fact of Billie Dore being at the castle. At
precisely this hour Billie, by rights, should have been putting the
finishing touches on her make-up in a second-floor dressing-room at
the Regal. Yet there she sat, very much at her ease in this
aristocratic company, so quietly and unobtrusively dressed in some
black stuff that at first he had scarcely recognized her. She was
talking to the Bishop. . .

The voice of Keggs at his elbow broke in on his reverie.

"Sherry or 'ock, sir?"

George could not have explained why this reminder of the butler's
presence should have made him feel better, but it did. There was
something solid and tranquilizing about Keggs. He had noticed it
before. For the first time the sensation of having been smitten
over the head with some blunt instrument began to abate. It was as
if Keggs by the mere intonation of his voice had said, "All this
no doubt seems very strange and unusual to you, but feel no alarm!
I am here!"

George began to sit up and take notice. A cloud seemed to have
cleared from his brain. He found himself looking on his
fellow-diners as individuals rather than as a confused mass. The
prophet Daniel, after the initial embarrassment of finding himself
in the society of the lions had passed away, must have experienced
a somewhat similar sensation.

He began to sort these people out and label them. There had been
introductions in the drawing-room, but they had left him with a
bewildered sense of having heard somebody recite a page from
Burke's peerage. Not since that day in the free library in London,
when he had dived into that fascinating volume in order to discover
Maud's identity, had he undergone such a rain of titles. He now
took stock, to ascertain how many of these people he could
identify.

The stock-taking was an absolute failure. Of all those present the
only individuals he could swear to were his own personal little
playmates with whom he had sported in other surroundings. There was
Lord Belpher, for instance, eyeing him with a hostility that could
hardly be called veiled. There was Lord Marshmoreton at the head of
the table, listening glumly to the conversation of a stout woman
with a pearl necklace, but who was that woman? Was it Lady Jane
Allenby or Lady Edith Wade-Beverly or Lady Patricia Fowles? And
who, above all, was the pie-faced fellow with the moustache talking
to Maud?

He sought assistance from the girl he had taken in to dinner. She
appeared, as far as he could ascertain from a short acquaintance,
to be an amiable little thing. She was small and young and fluffy,
and he had caught enough of her name at the moment of introduction
to gather that she was plain "Miss" Something--a fact which seemed
to him to draw them together.

"I wish you would tell me who some of these people are," he said,
as she turned from talking to the man on her other-side. "Who is
the man over there?"

"Which man?"

"The one talking to Lady Maud. The fellow whose face ought to be
shuffled and dealt again."

"That's my brother."

That held George during the soup.

"I'm sorry about your brother," he said rallying with the fish.

"That's very sweet of you."

"It was the light that deceived me. Now that I look again, I see
that his face has great charm."

The girl giggled. George began to feel better.

"Who are some of the others? I didn't get your name, for instance.
They shot it at me so quick that it had whizzed by before I could
catch it."

"My name is Plummer."

George was electrified. He looked across the table with more vivid
interest. The amorous Plummer had been just a Voice to him till
now. It was exciting to see him in the flesh.

"And who are the rest of them?"

"They are all members of the family. I thought you knew them."

"I know Lord Marshmoreton. And Lady Maud. And, of course, Lord
Belpher." He caught Percy's eye as it surveyed him coldly from the
other side of the table, and nodded cheerfully. "Great pal of
mine, Lord Belpher."

The fluffy Miss Plummer twisted her pretty face into a grimace of
disapproval.

"I don't like Percy."

"No!"

"I think he's conceited."

"Surely not? 'What could he have to be conceited about?"

"He's stiff."

"Yes, of course, that's how he strikes people at first. The first
time I met him, I thought he was an awful stiff. But you should see
him in his moments of relaxation. He's one of those fellows you
have to get to know. He grows on you."

"Yes, but look at that affair with the policeman in London.
Everybody in the county is talking about it."

"Young blood!" sighed George. "Young blood! Of course, Percy is
wild."

"He must have been intoxicated."

"Oh, undoubtedly," said George.

Miss Plummer glanced across the table.

"Do look at Edwin!"

"Which is Edwin?"

"My brother, I mean. Look at the way he keeps staring at Maud.
Edwin's awfully in love with Maud," she rattled on with engaging
frankness. "At least, he thinks he is. He's been in love with a
different girl every season since I came out. And now that Reggie
Byng has gone and married Alice Faraday, he thinks he has a chance.
You heard about that, I suppose?"

"Yes, I did hear something about it."

"Of course, Edwin's wasting his time, really. I happen to
know"--Miss Plummer sank her voice to a whisper--"I happen to know
that Maud's awfully in love with some man she met in Wales last
year, but the family won't hear of it."

"Families are like that," agreed George.

"Nobody knows who he is, but everybody in the county knows all about
it. Those things get about, you know. Of course, it's out of the
question. Maud will have to marry somebody awfully rich or with a
title. Her family's one of the oldest in England, you know."

"So I understand."

"It isn't as if she were the daughter of Lord Peebles, somebody
like that."

"Why Lord Peebles?"

"Well, what I mean to say is," said Miss Plummer, with a silvery
echo of Reggie Byng, "he made his money in whisky."

"That's better than spending it that way," argued George.

Miss Plummer looked puzzled. "I see what you mean," she said a
little vaguely. "Lord Marshmoreton is so different."

"Haughty nobleman stuff, eh?"

"Yes."

"So you think this mysterious man in Wales hasn't a chance?"

"Not unless he and Maud elope like Reggie Byng and Alice. Wasn't
that exciting? Who would ever have suspected Reggie had the dash to
do a thing like that? Lord Marshmoreton's new secretary is very
pretty, don't you think?"

"Which is she?"

"The girl in black with the golden hair."

"Is she Lord Marshmoreton's secretary?"

"Yes. She's an American girl. I think she's much nicer than Alice
Faraday. I was talking to her before dinner. Her name is Dore. Her
father was a captain in the American army, who died without leaving
her a penny. He was the younger son of a very distinguished family,
but his family disowned him because he married against their
wishes."

"Something ought to be done to stop these families," said George.
"They're always up to something."

"So Miss Dore had to go out and earn her own living. It must have
been awful for her, mustn't it, having to give up society."

"Did she give up society?"

"Oh, yes. She used to go everywhere in New York before her father
died. I think American girls are wonderful. They have so much
enterprise."

George at the moment was thinking that it was in imagination that
they excelled.

"I wish I could go out and earn my living," said Miss Plummer.
"But the family won't dream of it."

"The family again!" said George sympathetically. "They're a perfect
curse."

"I want to go on the stage. Are you fond of the theatre?"

"Fairly."

"I love it. Have you seen Hubert Broadleigh in ''Twas Once in
Spring'?"

"I'm afraid I haven't."

"He's wonderful. Have you see Cynthia Dane in 'A Woman's No'?"

"I missed that one too."

"Perhaps you prefer musical pieces? I saw an awfully good musical
comedy before I left town. It's called 'Follow the Girl'. It's at
the Regal Theatre. Have you see it?"

"I wrote it."

"You--what!"

"That is to say, I wrote the music."

"But the music's lovely," gasped little Miss Plummer, as if the
fact made his claim ridiculous. "I've been humming it ever since."

"I can't help that. I still stick to it that I wrote it."

"You aren't George Bevan!"

"I am!"

"But--" Miss Plummer's voice almost failed here--"But I've been
dancing to your music for years! I've got about fifty of your
records on the Victrola at home."

George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get
used to Fame at close range.

"Why, that tricky thing--you know, in the second act--is the
darlingest thing I ever heard. I'm mad about it."

"Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?"

"No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum.
You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy."

"I'm not responsible for the words, you know," urged George
hastily. "Those are wished on me by the lyrist."

"I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks its
improper, Granny's always doing it and nobody can stop her! I loved
it." Miss Plummer leaned forward excitedly. She was an impulsive
girl. "Lady Caroline."

Conversation stopped. Lady Caroline turned.

"Yes, Millie?"

"Did you know that Mr. Bevan was THE Mr. Bevan?"

Everybody was listening now. George huddled pinkly in his chair. He
had not foreseen this bally-hooing. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego
combined had never felt a tithe of the warmth that consumed him. He
was essentially a modest young man.

"THE Mr. Bevan?" echoed Lady Caroline coldly. It was painful to her
to have to recognize George's existence on the same planet as
herself. To admire him, as Miss Plummer apparently expected her to
do, was a loathsome task. She cast one glance, fresh from the
refrigerator, at the shrinking George, and elevated her
aristocratic eyebrows.

Miss Plummer was not damped. She was at the hero-worshipping age,
and George shared with the Messrs. Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman,
and one or two tennis champions an imposing pedestal in her Hall of
Fame.

"You know! George Bevan, who wrote the music of 'Follow the Girl'."

Lady Caroline showed no signs of thawing. She had not heard of
'Follow the Girl'. Her attitude suggested that, while she admitted
the possibility of George having disgraced himself in the manner
indicated, it was nothing to her.

"And all those other things," pursued Miss Plummer indefatigably.
"You must have heard his music on the Victrola."

"Why, of course!"

It was not Lady Caroline who spoke, but a man further down the
table. He spoke with enthusiasm.

"Of course, by Jove!" he said. "The Schenectady Shimmy, by Jove,
and all that! Ripping!"

Everybody seemed pleased and interested. Everybody, that is to say,
except Lady Caroline and Lord Belpher. Percy was feeling that he
had been tricked. He cursed the imbecility of Keggs in suggesting
that this man should be invited to dinner. Everything had gone
wrong. George was an undoubted success. The majority of the
company were solid for him. As far as exposing his unworthiness in
the eyes of Maud was concerned, the dinner had been a ghastly
failure. Much better to have left him to lurk in his infernal
cottage. Lord Belpher drained his glass moodily. He was seriously
upset.

But his discomfort at that moment was as nothing to the agony which
rent his tortured soul a moment later. Lord Marshmoreton, who had
been listening with growing excitement to the chorus of approval,
rose from his seat. He cleared his throat. It was plain that Lord
Marshmoreton had something on his mind.

"Er. . . ." he said.

The clatter of conversation ceased once more--stunned, as it always
is at dinner parties when one of the gathering is seen to have
assumed an upright position. Lord Marshmoreton cleared his throat
again. His tanned face had taken on a deeper hue, and there was a
look in his eyes which seemed to suggest that he was defying
something or somebody. It was the look which Ajax had in his eyes
when he defied the lightning, the look which nervous husbands have
when they announce their intention of going round the corner to bowl
a few games with the boys. One could not say definitely that Lord
Marshmoreton looked pop-eyed. On the other hand, one could not
assert truthfully that he did not. At any rate, he was manifestly
embarrassed. He had made up his mind to a certain course of action
on the spur of the moment, taking advantage, as others have done,
of the trend of popular enthusiasm: and his state of mind was
nervous but resolute, like that of a soldier going over the top.
He cleared his throat for the third time, took one swift glance at
his sister Caroline, then gazed glassily into the emptiness above
her head.

"Take this opportunity," he said rapidly, clutching at the
table-cloth for support, "take this opportunity of announcing the
engagement of my daughter Maud to Mr. Bevan. And," he concluded
with a rush, pouring back into his chair, "I should like you all to
drink their health!"

There was a silence that hurt. It was broken by two sounds,
occurring simultaneously in different parts of the room. One was a
gasp from Lady Caroline. The other was a crash of glass.

For the first time in a long unblemished career Keggs the butler
had dropped a tray.

Content of CHAPTER 23 (P G Wodehouse's novel: A Damsel in Distress)

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