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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Damsel In Distress - Chapter 26
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A Damsel In Distress - Chapter 26 Post by :rissens2004 Category :Long Stories Author :P G Wodehouse Date :June 2011 Read :1578

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A Damsel In Distress - Chapter 26

CHAPTER 26


At a quarter past four in the afternoon, two days after the
memorable dinner-party at which Lord Marshmoreton had behaved with
so notable a lack of judgment, Maud sat in Ye Cosy Nooke, waiting
for Geoffrey Raymond. He had said in his telegram that he would
meet her there at four-thirty: but eagerness had brought Maud to the
tryst a quarter of an hour ahead of time: and already the sadness
of her surroundings was causing her to regret this impulsiveness.
Depression had settled upon her spirit. She was aware of something
that resembled foreboding.

Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who
know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by
distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes
distressed--which she seems to do on the slightest provocation--she
collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen,
forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West-End, which she
calls Ye Oak Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye
Snug Harbour, according to personal taste. There, dressed in
Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she
and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a
proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest
customer. Here you will find none of the coarse bustle and
efficiency of the rival establishments of Lyons and Co., nor the
glitter and gaiety of Rumpelmayer's. These places have an
atmosphere of their own. They rely for their effect on an
insufficiency of light, an almost total lack of ventilation, a
property chocolate cake which you are not supposed to cut, and the
sad aloofness of their ministering angels. It is to be doubted
whether there is anything in the world more damping to the spirit
than a London tea-shop of this kind, unless it be another London
tea-shop of the same kind.

Maud sat and waited. Somewhere out of sight a kettle bubbled in an
undertone, like a whispering pessimist. Across the room two
distressed gentlewomen in fancy dress leaned against the wall.
They, too, were whispering. Their expressions suggested that they
looked on life as low and wished they were well out of it, like the
body upstairs. One assumed that there was a body upstairs. One
cannot help it at these places. One's first thought on entering is
that the lady assistant will approach one and ask in a hushed voice
"Tea or chocolate? And would you care to view the remains?"

Maud looked at her watch. It was twenty past four. She could
scarcely believe that she had only been there five minutes, but the
ticking of the watch assured her that it had not stopped. Her
depression deepened. Why had Geoffrey told her to meet him in a
cavern of gloom like this instead of at the Savoy? She would have
enjoyed the Savoy. But here she seemed to have lost beyond recovery
the first gay eagerness with which she had set out to meet the man
she loved.

Suddenly she began to feel frightened. Some evil spirit, possibly
the kettle, seemed to whisper to her that she had been foolish in
coming here, to cast doubts on what she had hitherto regarded as
the one rock-solid fact in the world, her love for Geoffrey. Could
she have changed since those days in Wales? Life had been so
confusing of late. In the vividness of recent happenings those days
in Wales seemed a long way off, and she herself different from the
girl of a year ago. She found herself thinking about George Bevan.

It was a curious fact that, the moment she began to think of George
Bevan, she felt better. It was as if she had lost her way in a
wilderness and had met a friend. There was something so capable, so
soothing about George. And how well he had behaved at that last
interview. George seemed somehow to be part of her life. She could
not imagine a life in which he had no share. And he was at this
moment, probably, packing to return to America, and she would never
see him again. Something stabbed at her heart. It was as if she
were realizing now for the first time that he was really going.

She tried to rid herself of the ache at her heart by thinking of
Wales. She closed her eyes, and found that that helped her to
remember. With her eyes shut, she could bring it all back--that
rainy day, the graceful, supple figure that had come to her out of
the mist, those walks over the hills . . . If only Geoffrey would
come! It was the sight of him that she needed.

"There you are!"

Maud opened her eyes with a start. The voice had sounded like
Geoffrey's. But it was a stranger who stood by the table. And not
a particularly prepossessing stranger. In the dim light of Ye Cosy
Nooke, to which her opening eyes had not yet grown accustomed, all
she could see of the man was that he was remarkably stout. She
stiffened defensively. This was what a girl who sat about in
tea-rooms alone had to expect.

"Hope I'm not late," said the stranger, sitting down and breathing
heavily. "I thought a little exercise would do me good, so I
walked."

Every nerve in Maud's body seemed to come to life simultaneously.
She tingled from head to foot. It was Geoffrey!

He was looking over his shoulder and endeavouring by snapping his
fingers to attract the attention of the nearest distressed
gentlewoman; and this gave Maud time to recover from the frightful
shock she had received. Her dizziness left her; and, leaving, was
succeeded by a panic dismay. This couldn't be Geoffrey! It was
outrageous that it should be Geoffrey! And yet it undeniably was
Geoffrey. For a year she had prayed that Geoffrey might be given
back to her, and the gods had heard her prayer. They had given her
back Geoffrey, and with a careless generosity they had given her
twice as much of him as she had expected. She had asked for the
slim Apollo whom she had loved in Wales, and this colossal
changeling had arrived in his stead.

We all of us have our prejudices. Maud had a prejudice against fat
men. It may have been the spectacle of her brother Percy, bulging
more and more every year she had known him, that had caused this
kink in her character. At any rate, it existed, and she gazed in
sickened silence at Geoffrey. He had turned again now, and she was
enabled to get a full and complete view of him. He was not merely
stout. He was gross. The slim figure which had haunted her for a
year had spread into a sea of waistcoat. The keen lines of his face
had disappeared altogether. His cheeks were pink jellies.

One of the distressed gentlewomen had approached with a
slow disdain, and was standing by the table, brooding on the
corpse upstairs. It seemed a shame to bother her.

"Tea or chocolate?" she inquired proudly.

"Tea, please," said Maud, finding her voice.

"One tea," sighed the mourner.

"Chocolate for me," said Geoffrey briskly, with the air of one
discoursing on a congenial topic. "I'd like plenty of whipped
cream. And please see that it's hot."

"One chocolate."

Geoffrey pondered. This was no light matter that occupied him.

"And bring some fancy cakes--I like the ones with icing on
them--and some tea-cake and buttered toast. Please see there's
plenty of butter on it."

Maud shivered. This man before her was a man in whose lexicon there
should have been no such word as butter, a man who should have
called for the police had some enemy endeavoured to thrust butter
upon him.

"Well," said Geoffrey leaning forward, as the haughty ministrant
drifted away, "you haven't changed a bit. To look at, I mean."

"No?" said Maud.

"You're just the same. I think I"--he squinted down at his
waistcoat--"have put on a little weight. I don't know if you notice
it?"

Maud shivered again. He thought he had put on a little weight, and
didn't know if she had noticed it! She was oppressed by the eternal
melancholy miracle of the fat man who does not realize that he has
become fat.

"It was living on the yacht that put me a little out of condition,"
said Geoffrey. "I was on the yacht nearly all the time since I saw
you last. The old boy had a Japanese cook and lived pretty high. It
was apoplexy that got him. We had a great time touring about. We
were on the Mediterranean all last winter, mostly at Nice."

"I should like to go to Nice," said Maud, for something to say. She
was feeling that it was not only externally that Geoffrey had
changed. Or had he in reality always been like this, commonplace
and prosaic, and was it merely in her imagination that he had been
wonderful?

"If you ever go," said Geoffrey, earnestly, "don't fail to lunch at
the Hotel Cote d'Azur. They give you the most amazing selection of
hors d'oeuvres you ever saw. Crayfish as big as baby lobsters! And
there's a fish--I've forgotten it's name, it'll come back to
me--that's just like the Florida pompano. Be careful to have it
broiled, not fried. Otherwise you lose the flavour. Tell the
waiter you must have it broiled, with melted butter and a little
parsley and some plain boiled potatoes. It's really astonishing.
It's best to stick to fish on the Continent. People can say what
they like, but I maintain that the French don't really understand
steaks or any sort of red meat. The veal isn't bad, though I prefer
our way of serving it. Of course, what the French are real geniuses
at is the omelet. I remember, when we put in at Toulon for coal, I
went ashore for a stroll, and had the most delicious omelet with
chicken livers beautifully cooked, at quite a small, unpretentious
place near the harbour. I shall always remember it."

The mourner returned, bearing a laden tray, from which she removed
the funeral bakemeats and placed them limply on the table. Geoffrey
shook his head, annoyed.

"I particularly asked for plenty of butter on my toast!" he said.
"I hate buttered toast if there isn't lots of butter. It isn't
worth eating. Get me a couple of pats, will you, and I'll spread it
myself. Do hurry, please, before the toast gets cold. It's no good
if the toast gets cold. They don't understand tea as a meal at
these places," he said to Maud, as the mourner withdrew. "You have
to go to the country to appreciate the real thing. I remember we
lay off Lyme Regis down Devonshire way, for a few days, and I went
and had tea at a farmhouse there. It was quite amazing! Thick
Devonshire cream and home-made jam and cakes of every kind. This
sort of thing here is just a farce. I do wish that woman would
make haste with that butter. It'll be too late in a minute."

Maud sipped her tea in silence. Her heart was like lead within her.
The recurrence of the butter theme as a sort of leit motif in her
companion's conversation was fraying her nerves till she felt she
could endure little more. She cast her mind's eye back over the
horrid months and had a horrid vision of Geoffrey steadily
absorbing butter, day after day, week after week--ever becoming
more and more of a human keg. She shuddered.

Indignation at the injustice of Fate in causing her to give her
heart to a man and then changing him into another and quite
different man fought with a cold terror, which grew as she realized
more and more clearly the magnitude of the mistake she had made.
She felt that she must escape. And yet how could she escape? She
had definitely pledged herself to this man. ("Ah!" cried Geoffrey
gaily, as the pats of butter arrived. "That's more like it!" He
began to smear the toast. Maud averted her eyes.) She had told him
that she loved him, that he was the whole world to her, that there
never would be anyone else. He had come to claim her. How could she
refuse him just because he was about thirty pounds overweight?

Geoffrey finished his meal. He took out a cigarette. ("No smoking,
please!" said the distressed gentlewoman.) He put the cigarette
back in its case. There was a new expression in his eyes now, a
tender expression. For the first time since they had met Maud
seemed to catch a far-off glimpse of the man she had loved in
Wales. Butter appeared to have softened Geoffrey.

"So you couldn't wait!" he said with pathos.

Maud did not understand.

"I waited over a quarter of an hour. It was you who were late."

"I don't mean that. I am referring to your engagement. I saw the
announcement in the Morning Post. Well, I hope you will let me
offer you my best wishes. This Mr. George Bevan, whoever he is, is
lucky."

Maud had opened her mouth to explain, to say that it was all a
mistake. She closed it again without speaking.

"So you couldn't wait!" proceeded Geoffrey with gentle regret.
"Well, I suppose I ought not to blame you. You are at an age when
it is easy to forget. I had no right to hope that you would be
proof against a few months' separation. I expected too much. But it
is ironical, isn't it! There was I, thinking always of those days
last summer when we were everything to each other, while you had
forgotten me--Forgotten me!" sighed Geoffrey. He picked a fragment
of cake absently off the tablecloth and inserted it in his mouth.

The unfairness of the attack stung Maud to speech. She looked back
over the months, thought of all she had suffered, and ached with
self-pity.

"I hadn't," she cried.

"You hadn't? But you let this other man, this George Bevan, make
love to you."

"I didn't! That was all a mistake."

"A mistake?"

"Yes. It would take too long to explain, but . . ." She stopped. It
had come to her suddenly, in a flash of clear vision, that the
mistake was one which she had no desire to correct. She felt like
one who, lost in a jungle, comes out after long wandering into the
open air. For days she had been thinking confusedly, unable to
interpret her own emotions: and now everything had abruptly become
clarified. It was as if the sight of Geoffrey had been the key to a
cipher. She loved George Bevan, the man she had sent out of her
life for ever. She knew it now, and the shock of realization made
her feel faint and helpless. And, mingled with the shock of
realization, there came to her the mortification of knowing that
her aunt, Lady Caroline, and her brother, Percy, had been right
after all. What she had mistaken for the love of a lifetime had
been, as they had so often insisted, a mere infatuation, unable to
survive the spectacle of a Geoffrey who had been eating too much
butter and had put on flesh.

Geoffrey swallowed his piece of cake, and bent forward.

"Aren't you engaged to this man Bevan?"

Maud avoided his eye. She was aware that the crisis had arrived,
and that her whole future hung on her next words.

And then Fate came to her rescue. Before she could speak, there was
an interruption.

"Pardon me," said a voice. "One moment!"

So intent had Maud and her companion been on their own affairs that
neither of them observed the entrance of a third party. This was a
young man with mouse-coloured hair and a freckled, badly-shaven
face which seemed undecided whether to be furtive or impudent. He
had small eyes, and his costume was a blend of the flashy and the
shabby. He wore a bowler hat, tilted a little rakishly to one side,
and carried a small bag, which he rested on the table between them.

"Sorry to intrude, miss." He bowed gallantly to Maud, "but I want
to have a few words with Mr. Spenser Gray here."

Maud, looking across at Geoffrey, was surprised to see that his
florid face had lost much of its colour. His mouth was open, and
his eyes had taken a glassy expression.

"I think you have made a mistake," she said coldly. She disliked
the young man at sight. "This is Mr. Raymond."

Geoffrey found speech.

"Of course I'm Mr. Raymond!" he cried angrily. "What do you mean by
coming and annoying us like this?"

The young man was not discomposed. He appeared to be used to being
unpopular. He proceeded as though there had been no interruption.
He produced a dingy card.

"Glance at that," he said. "Messrs. Willoughby and Son, Solicitors.
I'm son. The guv'nor put this little matter into my hands. I've
been looking for you for days, Mr. Gray, to hand you this paper."
He opened the bag like a conjurer performing a trick, and brought
out a stiff document of legal aspect. "You're a witness, miss, that
I've served the papers. You know what this is, of course?" he said
to Geoffrey. "Action for breach of promise of marriage. Our client,
Miss Yvonne Sinclair, of the Regal Theatre, is suing you for ten
thousand pounds. And, if you ask me," said the young man with
genial candour, dropping the professional manner, "I don't mind
telling you, I think it's a walk-over! It's the best little action
for breach we've handled for years." He became professional again.
"Your lawyers will no doubt communicate with us in due course. And,
if you take my advice," he concluded, with another of his swift
changes of manner, "you'll get 'em to settle out of court, for,
between me and you and the lamp-post, you haven't an earthly!"

Geoffrey had started to his feet. He was puffing with outraged
innocence.

"What the devil do you mean by this?" he demanded. "Can't you see
you've made a mistake? My name is not Gray. This lady has told you
that I am Geoffrey Raymond!"

"Makes it all the worse for you," said the young man imperturbably,
"making advances to our client under an assumed name. We've got
letters and witnesses and the whole bag of tricks. And how about
this photo?" He dived into the bag again. "Do you recognize that,
miss?"

Maud looked at the photograph. It was unmistakably Geoffrey. And it
had evidently been taken recently, for it showed the later
Geoffrey, the man of substance. It was a full-length photograph and
across the stout legs was written in a flowing hand the legend, "To
Babe from her little Pootles". Maud gave a shudder and handed it
back to the young man, just as Geoffrey, reaching across the table,
made a grab for it.

"I recognize it," she said.

Mr. Willoughby junior packed the photograph away in his bag, and
turned to go.

"That's all for today, then, I think," he said, affably.

He bowed again in his courtly way, tilted the hat a little more to
the left, and, having greeted one of the distressed gentlewomen who
loitered limply in his path with a polite "If you please, Mabel!"
which drew upon him a freezing stare of which he seemed oblivious,
he passed out, leaving behind him strained silence.

Maud was the first to break it.

"I think I'll be going," she said.

The words seemed to rouse her companion from his stupor.

"Let me explain!"

"There's nothing to explain."

"It was just a . . . it was just a passing . . . It was nothing
. . . nothing."

"Pootles!" murmured Maud.

Geoffrey followed her as she moved to the door.

"Be reasonable!" pleaded Geoffrey. "Men aren't saints!
It was nothing! . . . Are you going to end . . . everything
. . . just because I lost my head?"

Maud looked at him with a smile. She was conscious of an
overwhelming relief. The dim interior of Ye Cosy Nooke no longer
seemed depressing. She could have kissed this unknown "Babe" whose
businesslike action had enabled her to close a regrettable chapter
in her life with a clear conscience.

"But you haven't only lost your head, Geoffrey," she said. "You've
lost your figure as well."

She went out quickly. With a convulsive bound Geoffrey started to
follow her, but was checked before he had gone a yard.

There are formalities to be observed before a patron can leave Ye
Cosy Nooke.

"If you please!" said a distressed gentlewomanly voice.

The lady whom Mr. Willoughby had addressed as Mabel--erroneously,
for her name was Ernestine--was standing beside him with a slip of
paper.

"Six and twopence," said Ernestine.

For a moment this appalling statement drew the unhappy man's mind
from the main issue.

"Six and twopence for a cup of chocolate and a few cakes?" he
cried, aghast. "It's robbery!"

"Six and twopence, please!" said the queen of the bandits with
undisturbed calm. She had been through this sort of thing before.
Ye Cosy Nooke did not get many customers; but it made the most of
those it did get.

"Here!" Geoffrey produced a half-sovereign. "I haven't time to
argue!"

The distressed brigand showed no gratification. She had the air of
one who is aloof from worldly things. All she wanted was rest and
leisure--leisure to meditate upon the body upstairs. All flesh is
as grass. We are here today and gone tomorrow. But there, beyond
the grave, is peace.

"Your change?" she said.

"Damn the change!"

"You are forgetting your hat."

"Damn my hat!"

Geoffrey dashed from the room. He heaved his body through the door.
He lumbered down the stairs.

Out in Bond Street the traffic moved up and the traffic moved down.
Strollers strolled upon the sidewalks.

But Maud had gone.

Content of CHAPTER 26 (P G Wodehouse's novel: A Damsel in Distress)

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