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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Little Nugget - Part 2 - Peter Burns' Narrative - Chapter 1
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The Little Nugget - Part 2 - Peter Burns' Narrative - Chapter 1 Post by :blake Category :Long Stories Author :P G Wodehouse Date :June 2011 Read :1484

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The Little Nugget - Part 2 - Peter Burns' Narrative - Chapter 1

Chapter 1


PART TWO:
In which other interested parties, notably one Buck MacGinnis and
a trade rival, Smooth Sam Fisher, make other plans for the Nugget's
future. Of stirring times at a private school for young gentlemen.
Of stratagems, spoils, and alarms by night. Of journeys ending in
lovers' meetings. The whole related by Mr Peter Burns, gentleman
of leisure, who forfeits that leisure in a good cause.


Peter Burns's Narrative

I

I am strongly of the opinion that, after the age of twenty-one, a
man ought not to be out of bed and awake at four in the morning.
The hour breeds thought. At twenty-one, life being all future, it
may be examined with impunity. But, at thirty, having become an
uncomfortable mixture of future and past, it is a thing to be
looked at only when the sun is high and the world full of warmth
and optimism.

This thought came to me as I returned to my rooms after the
Fletchers' ball. The dawn was breaking as I let myself in. The air
was heavy with the peculiar desolation of a London winter morning.
The houses looked dead and untenanted. A cart rumbled past, and
across the grey street a dingy black cat, moving furtively along
the pavement, gave an additional touch of forlornness to the
scene.

I shivered. I was tired and hungry, and the reaction after the
emotions of the night had left me dispirited.

I was engaged to be married. An hour back I had proposed to
Cynthia Drassilis. And I can honestly say that it had come as a
great surprise to me.

Why had I done it? Did I love her? It was so difficult to analyse
love: and perhaps the mere fact that I was attempting the task was
an answer to the question. Certainly I had never tried to do so
five years ago when I had loved Audrey Blake. I had let myself be
carried on from day to day in a sort of trance, content to be
utterly happy, without dissecting my happiness. But I was five
years younger then, and Audrey was--Audrey.

I must explain Audrey, for she in her turn explains Cynthia.

I have no illusions regarding my character when I first met Audrey
Blake. Nature had given me the soul of a pig, and circumstances
had conspired to carry on Nature's work. I loved comfort, and I
could afford to have it. From the moment I came of age and
relieved my trustees of the care of my money, I wrapped myself in
comfort as in a garment. I wallowed in egoism. In fact, if,
between my twenty-first and my twenty-fifth birthdays, I had one
unselfish thought, or did one genuinely unselfish action, my
memory is a blank on the point.

It was at the height of this period that I became engaged to
Audrey. Now that I can understand her better and see myself,
impartially, as I was in those days, I can realize how indescribably
offensive I must have been. My love was real, but that did not
prevent its patronizing complacency being an insult. I was King
Cophetua. If I did not actually say in so many words, 'This
beggar-maid shall be my queen', I said it plainly and often in my
manner. She was the daughter of a dissolute, evil-tempered artist
whom I had met at a Bohemian club. He made a living by painting
an occasional picture, illustrating an occasional magazine-story,
but mainly by doing advertisement work. A proprietor of a patent
Infants' Food, not satisfied with the bare statement that Baby
Cried For It, would feel it necessary to push the fact home to the
public through the medium of Art, and Mr Blake would be commissioned
to draw the picture. A good many specimens of his work in this vein
were to be found in the back pages of the magazines.

A man may make a living by these means, but it is one that
inclines him to jump at a wealthy son-in-law. Mr Blake jumped at
me. It was one of his last acts on this earth. A week after he
had--as I now suspect--bullied Audrey into accepting me, he died
of pneumonia.

His death had several results. It postponed the wedding: it
stirred me to a very crescendo of patronage, for with the removal
of the bread-winner the only flaw in my Cophetua pose had
vanished: and it gave Audrey a great deal more scope than she had
hitherto been granted for the exercise of free will in the choice
of a husband.

This last aspect of the matter was speedily brought to my notice,
which till then it had escaped, by a letter from her, handed to me
one night at the club, where I was sipping coffee and musing on
the excellence of life in this best of all possible worlds.

It was brief and to the point. She had been married that morning.

To say that that moment was a turning point in my life would be to
use a ridiculously inadequate phrase. It dynamited my life. In a
sense it killed me. The man I had been died that night, regretted,
I imagine, by few. Whatever I am today, I am certainly not the
complacent spectator of life that I had been before that night.

I crushed the letter in my hand, and sat staring at it, my pigsty
in ruins about my ears, face to face with the fact that, even in a
best of all possible worlds, money will not buy everything.

I remember, as I sat there, a man, a club acquaintance, a bore
from whom I had fled many a time, came and settled down beside me
and began to talk. He was a small man, but he possessed a voice to
which one had to listen. He talked and talked and talked. How I
loathed him, as I sat trying to think through his stream of words.
I see now that he saved me. He forced me out of myself. But at the
time he oppressed me. I was raw and bleeding. I was struggling to
grasp the incredible. I had taken Audrey's unalterable affection
for granted. She was the natural complement to my scheme of
comfort. I wanted her; I had chosen and was satisfied with her,
therefore all was well. And now I had to adjust my mind to the
impossible fact that I had lost her.

Her letter was a mirror in which I saw myself. She said little,
but I understood, and my self-satisfaction was in ribbons--and
something deeper than self-satisfaction. I saw now that I loved
her as I had not dreamed myself capable of loving.

And all the while this man talked and talked.

I have a theory that speech, persevered in, is more efficacious in
times of trouble than silent sympathy. Up to a certain point it
maddens almost beyond endurance; but, that point past, it soothes.
At least, it was so in my case. Gradually I found myself hating
him less. Soon I began to listen, then to answer. Before I left
the club that night, the first mad frenzy, in which I could have
been capable of anything, had gone from me, and I walked home,
feeling curiously weak and helpless, but calm, to begin the new
life.

Three years passed before I met Cynthia. I spent those years
wandering in many countries. At last, as one is apt to do, I
drifted back to London, and settled down again to a life which,
superficially, was much the same as the one I had led in the days
before I knew Audrey. My old circle in London had been wide, and I
found it easy to pick up dropped threads. I made new friends,
among them Cynthia Drassilis.

I liked Cynthia, and I was sorry for her. I think that, about that
time I met her, I was sorry for most people. The shock of Audrey's
departure had had that effect upon me. It is always the bad nigger
who gets religion most strongly at the camp-meeting, and in my
case 'getting religion' had taken the form of suppression of self.
I never have been able to do things by halves, or even with a
decent moderation. As an egoist I had been thorough in my egoism;
and now, fate having bludgeoned that vice out of me, I found
myself possessed of an almost morbid sympathy with the troubles of
other people.

I was extremely sorry for Cynthia Drassilis. Meeting her mother
frequently, I could hardly fail to be. Mrs Drassilis was a
representative of a type I disliked. She was a widow, who had been
left with what she considered insufficient means, and her outlook
on life was a compound of greed and querulousness. Sloane Square
and South Kensington are full of women in her situation. Their
position resembles that of the Ancient Mariner. 'Water, water
everywhere, and not a drop to drink.' For 'water' in their case
substitute 'money'. Mrs Drassilis was connected with money on all
sides, but could only obtain it in rare and minute quantities. Any
one of a dozen relations-in-law could, if they had wished, have
trebled her annual income without feeling it. But they did not so
wish. They disapproved of Mrs Drassilis. In their opinion the Hon.
Hugo Drassilis had married beneath him--not so far beneath him as
to make the thing a horror to be avoided in conversation and
thought, but far enough to render them coldly polite to his wife
during his lifetime and almost icy to his widow after his death.
Hugo's eldest brother, the Earl of Westbourne, had never liked the
obviously beautiful, but equally obviously second-rate, daughter
of a provincial solicitor whom Hugo had suddenly presented to the
family one memorable summer as his bride. He considered that, by
doubling the income derived from Hugo's life-insurance and
inviting Cynthia to the family seat once a year during her
childhood, he had done all that could be expected of him in the
matter.

He had not. Mrs Drassilis expected a great deal more of him, the
non-receipt of which had spoiled her temper, her looks, and the
peace of mind of all who had anything much to do with her.

It used to irritate me when I overheard people, as I occasionally
have done, speak of Cynthia as hard. I never found her so myself,
though heaven knows she had enough to make her so, to me she was
always a sympathetic, charming friend.

Ours was a friendship almost untouched by sex. Our minds fitted so
smoothly into one another that I had no inclination to fall in
love. I knew her too well. I had no discoveries to make about her.
Her honest, simple soul had always been open to me to read. There
was none of that curiosity, that sense of something beyond that
makes for love. We had reached a point of comradeship beyond which
neither of us desired to pass.

Yet at the Fletchers' ball I asked Cynthia to marry me, and she
consented.

* * * * *

Looking back, I can see that, though the determining cause was Mr
Tankerville Gifford, it was Audrey who was responsible. She had
made me human, capable of sympathy, and it was sympathy,
primarily, that led me to say what I said that night.

But the immediate cause was certainly young Mr Gifford.

I arrived at Marlow Square, where I was to pick up Cynthia and her
mother, a little late, and found Mrs Drassilis, florid and
overdressed, in the drawing-room with a sleek-haired, pale young
man known to me as Tankerville Gifford--to his intimates, of whom
I was not one, and in the personal paragraphs of the coloured
sporting weeklies, as 'Tanky'. I had seen him frequently at
restaurants. Once, at the Empire, somebody had introduced me to
him; but, as he had not been sober at the moment, he had missed
any intellectual pleasure my acquaintanceship might have afforded
him. Like everybody else who moves about in London, I knew all
bout him. To sum him up, he was a most unspeakable little cad,
and, if the drawing-room had not been Mrs Drassilis's, I should
have wondered at finding him in it.

Mrs Drassilis introduced us.

'I think we have already met,' I said.

He stared glassily.

'Don't remember.'

I was not surprised.

At this moment Cynthia came in. Out of the corner of my eye I
observed a look of fuddled displeasure come into Tanky's face at
her frank pleasure at seeing me.

I had never seen her looking better. She is a tall girl, who
carries herself magnificently. The simplicity of her dress gained
an added dignity from comparison with the rank glitter of her
mother's. She wore unrelieved black, a colour which set off to
wonderful advantage the clear white of her skin and her pale-gold
hair.

'You're late, Peter,' she said, looking at the clock.

'I know. I'm sorry.'

'Better be pushing, what?' suggested Tanky.

'My cab's waiting.'

'Will you ring the bell, Mr Gifford?' said Mrs Drassilis. 'I will
tell Parker to whistle for another.'

'Take me in yours,' I heard a voice whisper in my ear.

I looked at Cynthia. Her expression had not changed. Then I looked
at Tanky Gifford, and I understood. I had seen that stuffed-fish
look on his face before--on the occasion when I had been
introduced to him at the Empire.

'If you and Mr Gifford will take my cab,' I said to Mrs Drassilis,
'we will follow.'

Mrs Drassilis blocked the motion. I imagine that the sharp note in
her voice was lost on Tanky, but it rang out like a clarion to me.

'I am in no hurry,' she said. 'Mr Gifford, will you take Cynthia?
I will follow with Mr Burns. You will meet Parker on the stairs.
Tell him to call another cab.'

As the door closed behind them, she turned on me like a many-coloured
snake.

'How can you be so extraordinarily tactless, Peter?' she cried.
'You're a perfect fool. Have you no eyes?'

'I'm sorry,' I said.

'He's devoted to her.'

'I'm sorry.'

'What do you mean?'

'Sorry for her.'

She seemed to draw herself together inside her dress. Her eyes
glittered. My mouth felt very dry, and my heart was beginning to
thump. We were both furiously angry. It was a moment that had been
coming for years, and we both knew it. For my part I was glad that
it had come. On subjects on which one feels deeply it is a relief
to speak one's mind.

'Oh!' she said at last. Her voice quivered. She was clutching at
her self-control as it slipped from her. 'Oh! And what is my
daughter to you, Mr Burns!'

'A great friend.'

'And I suppose you think it friendly to try to spoil her chances?'

'If Mr Gifford is a sample of them--yes.'

'What do you mean?'

She choked.

'I see. I understand. I am going to put a stop to this once and
for all. Do you hear? I have noticed it for a long time. Because I
have given you the run of the house, and allowed you to come in
and out as you pleased, like a tame cat, you presume--'

'Presume--' I prompted.

'You come here and stand in Cynthia's way. You trade on the fact
that you have known us all this time to monopolize her attention.
You spoil her chances. You--'

The invaluable Parker entered to say that the cab was at the door.

We drove to the Fletchers' house in silence. The spell had been
broken. Neither of us could recapture that first, fine, careless
rapture which had carried us through the opening stages of the
conflict, and discussion of the subject on a less exalted plane
was impossible. It was that blessed period of calm, the rest
between rounds, and we observed it to the full.

When I reached the ballroom a waltz was just finishing. Cynthia, a
statue in black, was dancing with Tanky Gifford. They were
opposite me when the music stopped, and she caught sight of me
over his shoulder.

She disengaged herself and moved quickly towards me.

'Take me away,' she said under her breath. 'Anywhere. Quick.'

It was no time to consider the etiquette of the ballroom. Tanky,
startled at his sudden loneliness, seemed by his expression to be
endeavouring to bring his mind to bear on the matter. A couple
making for the door cut us off from him, and following them, we
passed out.

Neither of us spoke till we had reached the little room where I
had meditated.

She sat down. She was looking pale and tired.

'Oh, dear!' she said.

I understood. I seemed to see that journey in the cab, those
dances, those terrible between-dances ...

It was very sudden.

I took her hand. She turned to me with a tired smile. There were
tears in her eyes ...

I heard myself speaking ...

She was looking at me, her eyes shining. All the weariness seemed
to have gone out of them.

I looked at her.

There was something missing. I had felt it when I was speaking. To
me my voice had had no ring of conviction. And then I saw what it
was. There was no mystery. We knew each other too well. Friendship
kills love.

She put my thought into words.

'We have always been brother and sister,' she said doubtfully.

'Till tonight.'

'You have changed tonight? You really want me?'

Did I? I tried to put the question to myself and answer it
honestly. Yes, in a sense, I had changed tonight. There was an
added appreciation of her fineness, a quickening of that blend of
admiration and pity which I had always felt for her. I wanted with
all my heart to help her, to take her away from her dreadful
surroundings, to make her happy. But did I want her in the sense
in which she had used the word? Did I want her as I had wanted
Audrey Blake? I winced away from the question. Audrey belonged to
the dead past, but it hurt to think of her.

Was it merely because I was five years older now than when I had
wanted Audrey that the fire had gone out of me?

I shut my mind against my doubts.

'I have changed tonight,' I said.

And I bent down and kissed her.

I was conscious of being defiant against somebody. And then I knew
that the somebody was myself.

I poured myself out a cup of hot coffee from the flask which
Smith, my man, had filled against my return. It put life into me.
The oppression lifted.

And yet there remained something that made for uneasiness, a sort
of foreboding at the back of my mind.

I had taken a step in the dark, and I was afraid for Cynthia. I
had undertaken to give her happiness. Was I certain that I could
succeed? The glow of chivalry had left me, and I began to doubt.

Audrey had taken from me something that I could not recover--poetry
was as near as I could get to a definition of it. Yes, poetry.
With Cynthia my feet would always be on the solid earth. To the
end of the chapter we should be friends and nothing more.

I found myself pitying Cynthia intensely. I saw her future a
series of years of intolerable dullness. She was too good to be
tied for life to a battered hulk like myself.

I drank more coffee and my mood changed. Even in the grey of a
winter morning a man of thirty, in excellent health, cannot pose
to himself for long as a piece of human junk, especially if he
comforts himself with hot coffee.

My mind resumed its balance. I laughed at myself as a sentimental
fraud. Of course I could make her happy. No man and woman had ever
been more admirably suited to each other. As for that first
disaster, which I had been magnifying into a life-tragedy, what of
it? An incident of my boyhood. A ridiculous episode which--I rose
with the intention of doing so at once--I should now proceed to
eliminate from my life.

I went quickly to my desk, unlocked it, and took out a photograph.

And then--undoubtedly four o'clock in the morning is no time for a
man to try to be single-minded and decisive--I wavered. I had
intended to tear the thing in pieces without a glance, and fling
it into the wastepaper-basket. But I took the glance and I
hesitated.

The girl in the photograph was small and slight, and she looked
straight out of the picture with large eyes that met and
challenged mine. How well I remembered them, those Irish-blue eyes
under their expressive, rather heavy brows. How exactly the
photographer had caught that half-wistful, half-impudent look, the
chin tilted, the mouth curving into a smile.

In a wave all my doubts had surged back upon me. Was this mere
sentimentalism, a four-in-the-morning tribute to the pathos of the
flying years, or did she really fill my soul and stand guard over
it so that no successor could enter in and usurp her place?

I had no answer, unless the fact that I replaced the photograph in
its drawer was one. I felt that this thing could not be decided
now. It was more difficult than I had thought.

All my gloom had returned by the time I was in bed. Hours seemed
to pass while I tossed restlessly aching for sleep.

When I woke my last coherent thought was still clear in my mind.
It was a passionate vow that, come what might, if those Irish eyes
were to haunt me till my death, I would play the game loyally with
Cynthia.


II

The telephone bell rang just as I was getting ready to call at
Marlow Square and inform Mrs Drassilis of the position of affairs.
Cynthia, I imagined, would have broken the news already, which
would mitigate the embarrassment of the interview to some extent;
but the recollection of my last night's encounter with Mrs
Drassilis prevented me from looking forward with any joy to the
prospect of meeting her again.

Cynthia's voice greeted me as I unhooked the receiver.

'Hullo, Peter! Is that you? I want you to come round here at
once.'

'I was just starting,' I said.

'I don't mean Marlow Square. I'm not there. I'm at the Guelph. Ask
for Mrs Ford's suite. It's very important. I'll tell you all about
it when you get here. Come as soon as you can.'

My rooms were conveniently situated for visits to the Hotel
Guelph. A walk of a couple of minutes took me there. Mrs Ford's
suite was on the third floor. I rang the bell and Cynthia opened
the door to me.

'Come in,' she said. 'You're a dear to be so quick.'

'My rooms are only just round the corner.' She shut the door, and
for the first time we looked at one another. I could not say that
I was nervous, but there was certainly, to me, a something strange
in the atmosphere. Last night seemed a long way off and somehow a
little unreal. I suppose I must have shown this in my manner, for
she suddenly broke what had amounted to a distinct pause by giving
a little laugh. 'Peter,' she said, 'you're embarrassed.' I denied
the charge warmly, but without real conviction. I was embarrassed.
'Then you ought to be,' she said. 'Last night, when I was looking
my very best in a lovely dress, you asked me to marry you. Now you
see me again in cold blood, and you're wondering how you can back
out of it without hurting my feelings.'

I smiled. She did not. I ceased to smile. She was looking at me in
a very peculiar manner.

'Peter,' she said, 'are you sure?'

'My dear old Cynthia,' I said, 'what's the matter with you?'

'You are sure?' she persisted.

'Absolutely, entirely sure.' I had a vision of two large eyes
looking at me out of a photograph. It came and went in a flash.

I kissed Cynthia.

'What quantities of hair you have,' I said. 'It's a shame to cover
it up.' She was not responsive. 'You're in a very queer mood
today, Cynthia,' I went on. 'What's the matter?'

'I've been thinking.'

'Out with it. Something has gone wrong.' An idea flashed upon me.
'Er--has your mother--is your mother very angry about--'

'Mother's delighted. She always liked you, Peter.'

I had the self-restraint to check a grin.

'Then what is it?' I said. 'Tired after the dance?'

'Nothing as simple as that.'

'Tell me.'

'It's so difficult to put it into words.'

'Try.'

She was playing with the papers on the table, her face turned
away. For a moment she did not speak.

'I've been worrying myself, Peter,' she said at last. 'You are so
chivalrous and unselfish. You're quixotic. It's that that is
troubling me. Are you marrying me just because you're sorry for
me? Don't speak. I can tell you now if you will just let me say
straight out what's in my mind. We have known each other for two
years now. You know all about me. You know how--how unhappy I am
at home. Are you marrying me just because you pity me and want to
take me out of all that?'

'My dear girl!'

'You haven't answered my question.'

'I answered it two minutes ago when you asked me if--'

'You do love me?'

'Yes.'

All this time she had been keeping her face averted, but now she
turned and looked into my eyes with an abrupt intensity which, I
confess, startled me. Her words startled me more.

'Peter, do you love me as much as you loved Audrey Blake?'

In the instant which divided her words from my reply my mind flew
hither and thither, trying to recall an occasion when I could have
mentioned Audrey to her. I was convinced that I had not done so. I
never mentioned Audrey to anyone.

There is a grain of superstition in the most level-headed man. I
am not particularly level-headed, and I have more than a grain in
me. I was shaken. Ever since I had asked Cynthia to marry me, it
seemed as if the ghost of Audrey had come back into my life.

'Good Lord!' I cried. 'What do you know of Audrey Blake?'

She turned her face away again.

'Her name seems to affect you very strongly,' she said quietly.

I recovered myself.

'If you ask an old soldier,' I said, 'he will tell you that a
wound, long after it has healed, is apt to give you an occasional
twinge.'

'Not if it has really healed.'

'Yes, when it has really healed--when you can hardly remember how
you were fool enough to get it.'

She said nothing.

'How did you hear about--it?' I asked.

'When I first met you, or soon after, a friend of yours--we
happened to be talking about you--told me that you had been engaged
to be married to a girl named Audrey Blake. He was to have been
your best man, he said, but one day you wrote and told him there
would be no wedding, and then you disappeared; and nobody saw you
again for three years.'

'Yes,' I said: 'that is all quite true.'

'It seems to have been a serious affair, Peter. I mean--the sort
of thing a man would find it hard to forget.'

I tried to smile, but I knew that I was not doing it well. It was
hurting me extraordinarily, this discussion of Audrey.

'A man would find it almost impossible,' I said, 'unless he had a
remarkably poor memory.'

'I didn't mean that. You know what I mean by forget.'

'Yes,' I said, 'I do.'

She came quickly to me and took me by the shoulders, looking into
my face.

'Peter, can you honestly say you have forgotten her--in the sense
I mean?'

'Yes,' I said.

Again that feeling swept over me--that curious sensation of being
defiant against myself.

'She does not stand between us?'

'No,' I said.

I could feel the effort behind the word. It was as if some
subconscious part of me were working to keep it back.

'Peter!'

There was a soft smile on her face; as she raised it to mine I put
my arms around her.

She drew away with a little laugh. Her whole manner had changed.
She was a different being from the girl who had looked so gravely
into my eyes a moment before.

'Oh, my dear boy, how terribly muscular you are! You've crushed
me. I expect you used to be splendid at football, like Mr
Broster.'

I did not reply at once. I cannot wrap up the deeper emotions and
put them back on their shelf directly I have no further immediate
use for them. I slowly adjusted myself to the new key of the
conversation.

'Who's Broster?' I asked at length.

'He used to be tutor to'--she turned me round and pointed--'to
_that_.'

I had seen a picture standing on one of the chairs when I entered
the room but had taken no particular notice of it. I now gave it a
closer glance. It was a portrait, very crudely done, of a
singularly repulsive child of about ten or eleven years old.

_Was he, poor chap! Well, we all have our troubles, don't
we! Who _is this young thug! Not a friend of yours, I hope?'

'That is Ogden, Mrs Ford's son. It's a tragedy--'

'Perhaps it doesn't do him justice. Does he really squint like
that, or is it just the artist's imagination?'

'Don't make fun of it. It's the loss of that boy that is breaking
Nesta's heart.'

I was shocked.

'Is he dead? I'm awfully sorry. I wouldn't for the world--'

'No, no. He is alive and well. But he is dead to her. The court
gave him into the custody of his father.'

'The court?'

'Mrs Ford was the wife of Elmer Ford, the American millionaire.
They were divorced a year ago.'

'I see.'

Cynthia was gazing at the portrait.

'This boy is quite a celebrity in his way,' she said. 'They call
him "The Little Nugget" in America.'

'Oh! Why is that?'

'It's a nickname the kidnappers have for him. Ever so many
attempts have been made to steal him.'

She stopped and looked at me oddly.

'I made one today, Peter,' she said. I went down to the country,
where the boy was, and kidnapped him.'

'Cynthia! What on earth do you mean?'

'Don't you understand? I did it for Nesta's sake. She was breaking
her heart about not being able to see him, so I slipped down and
stole him away, and brought him back here.'

I do not know if I was looking as amazed as I felt. I hope not,
for I felt as if my brain were giving way. The perfect calmness
with which she spoke of this extraordinary freak added to my
confusion.

'You're joking!'

'No; I stole him.'

'But, good heavens! The law! It's a penal offence, you know!'

'Well, I did it. Men like Elmer Ford aren't fit to have charge of
a child. You don't know him, but he's just an unscrupulous
financier, without a thought above money. To think of a boy
growing up in that tainted atmosphere--at his most impressionable
age. It means death to any good there is in him.'

My mind was still grappling feebly with the legal aspect of the
affair.

'But, Cynthia, kidnapping's kidnapping, you know! The law doesn't
take any notice of motives. If you're caught--'

She cut through my babble.

'Would you have been afraid to do it, Peter?'

'Well--' I began. I had not considered the point before.

'I don't believe you would. If I asked you to do it for my sake--'

'But, Cynthia, kidnapping, you know! It's such an infernally low-down
game.'

'I played it. Do you despise _me_?'

I perspired. I could think of no other reply.

'Peter,' she said, 'I understand your scruples. I know exactly how
you feel. But can't you see that this is quite different from the
sort of kidnapping you naturally look on as horrible? It's just
taking a boy away from surroundings that must harm him, back to
his mother, who worships him. It's not wrong. It's splendid.'

She paused.

'You _will do it for me, Peter?' she said.

'I don't understand,' I said feebly. 'It's done. You've kidnapped
him yourself.'

'They tracked him and took him back. And now I want _you to
try.' She came closer to me. 'Peter, don't you see what it will
mean to me if you agree to try? I'm only human, I can't help, at
the bottom of my heart, still being a little jealous of this
Audrey Blake. No, don't say anything. Words can't cure me; but if
you do this thing for me, I shall be satisfied. I shall _know_.'

She was close beside me, holding my arm and looking into my face.
That sense of the unreality of things which had haunted me since
that moment at the dance came over me with renewed intensity. Life
had ceased to be a rather grey, orderly business in which day
succeeded day calmly and without event. Its steady stream had
broken up into rapids, and I was being whirled away on them.

'Will you do it, Peter? Say you will.'

A voice, presumably mine, answered 'Yes'.

'My dear old boy!'

She pushed me into a chair, and, sitting on the arm of it, laid
her hand on mine and became of a sudden wondrously business-like.

'Listen,' she said, 'I'll tell you what we have arranged.'

It was borne in upon me, as she began to do so, that she appeared
from the very beginning to have been extremely confident that that
essential part of her plans, my consent to the scheme, could be
relied upon as something of a certainty. Women have these
intuitions.


III

Looking back, I think I can fix the point at which this insane
venture I had undertaken ceased to be a distorted dream, from
which I vaguely hoped that I might shortly waken, and took shape
as a reality of the immediate future. That moment came when I met
Mr Arnold Abney by appointment at his club.

Till then the whole enterprise had been visionary. I gathered from
Cynthia that the boy Ogden was shortly to be sent to a preparatory
school, and that I was to insinuate myself into this school and,
watching my opportunity, to remove him; but it seemed to me that
the obstacles to this comparatively lucid scheme were insuperable.
In the first place, how were we to discover which of England's
million preparatory schools Mr Ford, or Mr Mennick for him, would
choose? Secondly, the plot which was to carry me triumphantly into
this school when--or if--found, struck me as extremely thin. I
was to pose, Cynthia told me, as a young man of private means,
anxious to learn the business, with a view to setting up a school
of his own. The objection to that was, I held, that I obviously
did not want to do anything of the sort. I had not the appearance
of a man with such an ambition. I had none of the conversation of
such a man.

I put it to Cynthia.

'They would find me out in a day,' I assured her. 'A man who wants
to set up a school has got to be a pretty brainy sort of fellow. I
don't know anything.'

'You got your degree.'

'A degree. At any rate, I've forgotten all I knew.'

'That doesn't matter. You have the money. Anybody with money can
start a school, even if he doesn't know a thing. Nobody would
think it strange.'

It struck me as a monstrous slur on our educational system, but
reflection told me it was true. The proprietor of a preparatory
school, if he is a man of wealth, need not be able to teach, any
more than an impresario need be able to write plays.

'Well, we'll pass that for the moment,' I said. 'Here's the real
difficulty. How are you going to find out the school Mr Ford has
chosen?'

'I have found it out already--or Nesta has. She set a detective to
work. It was perfectly easy. Ogden's going to Mr Abney's. Sanstead
House is the name of the place. It's in Hampshire somewhere. Quite
a small school, but full of little dukes and earls and things.
Lord Mountry's younger brother, Augustus Beckford, is there.'

I had known Lord Mountry and his family well some years ago. I
remembered Augustus dimly.

'Mountry? Do you know him? He was up at Oxford with me.'

She seemed interested.

'What kind of a man is he?' she asked.

'Oh, quite a good sort. Rather an ass. I haven't seen him for
years.'

'He's a friend of Nesta's. I've only met him once. He is going to
be your reference.'

'My what?'

'You will need a reference. At least, I suppose you will. And,
anyhow, if you say you know Lord Mountry it will make it simpler
for you with Mr Abney, the brother being at the school.'

'Does Mountry know about this business? Have you told him why I
want to go to Abney's?'

'Nesta told him. He thought it was very sporting of you. He will
tell Mr Abney anything we like. By the way, Peter, you will have
to pay a premium or something, I suppose. But Nesta will look
after all expenses, of course.'

On this point I made my only stand of the afternoon.

'No,' I said; 'it's very kind of her, but this is going to be
entirely an amateur performance. I'm doing this for you, and I'll
stand the racket. Good heavens! Fancy taking money for a job of
this kind!'

She looked at me rather oddly.

'That is very sweet of you, Peter,' she said, after a slight
pause. 'Now let's get to work.'

And together we composed the letter which led to my sitting, two
days later, in stately conference at his club with Mr Arnold
Abney, M.A., of Sanstead House, Hampshire.

Mr Abney proved to be a long, suave, benevolent man with an Oxford
manner, a high forehead, thin white hands, a cooing intonation,
and a general air of hushed importance, as of one in constant
communication with the Great. There was in his bearing something
of the family solicitor in whom dukes confide, and something of
the private chaplain at the Castle.

He gave me the key-note to his character in the first minute of
our acquaintanceship. We had seated ourselves at a table in the
smoking-room when an elderly gentleman shuffled past, giving a nod
in transit. My companion sprang to his feet almost convulsively,
returned the salutation, and subsided slowly into his chair again.

'The Duke of Devizes,' he said in an undertone. 'A most able man.
Most able. His nephew, Lord Ronald Stokeshaye, was one of my
pupils. A charming boy.'

I gathered that the old feudal spirit still glowed to some extent
in Mr Abney's bosom.

We came to business.

'So you wish to be one of us, Mr Burns, to enter the scholastic
profession?'

I tried to look as if I did.

'Well, in certain circumstances, the circumstances in which
I--ah--myself, I may say, am situated, there is no more delightful
occupation. The work is interesting. There is the constant
fascination of seeing these fresh young lives develop--and of
helping them to develop--under one's eyes; in any case, I may say,
there is the exceptional interest of being in a position to mould
the growing minds of lads who will some day take their place among
the country's hereditary legislators, that little knot of devoted
men who, despite the vulgar attacks of loudmouthed demagogues,
still do their share, and more, in the guidance of England's
fortunes. Yes.'

He paused. I said I thought so, too.

'You are an Oxford man, Mr Burns, I think you told me? Ah, I have
your letter here. Just so. You were at--ah, yes. A fine college.
The Dean is a lifelong friend of mine. Perhaps you knew my late
pupil, Lord Rollo?--no, he would have been since your time. A
delightful boy. Quite delightful ... And you took your degree?
Exactly. _And represented the university at both cricket and
Rugby football? Excellent. _Mens sana in_--ah--_corpore_, in fact,
_sano_, yes!'

He folded the letter carefully and replaced it in his pocket.

'Your primary object in coming to me, Mr Burns, is, I gather, to
learn the--ah--the ropes, the business? You have had little or no
previous experience of school-mastering?'

'None whatever.'

'Then your best plan would undoubtedly be to consider yourself and
work for a time simply as an ordinary assistant-master. You would
thus get a sound knowledge of the intricacies of the profession
which would stand you in good stead when you decide to set up your
own school. School-mastering is a profession, which cannot be
taught adequately except in practice. "Only those who--ah--brave
its dangers comprehend its mystery." Yes, I would certainly
recommend you to begin at the foot of the ladder and go, at least
for a time, through the mill.'

'Certainly,' I said. 'Of course.'

My ready acquiescence pleased him. I could see that he was
relieved. I think he had expected me to jib at the prospect of
actual work.

'As it happens,' he said, 'my classical master left me at the end
of last term. I was about to go to the Agency for a successor when
your letter arrived. Would you consider--'

I had to think this over. Feeling kindly disposed towards Mr
Arnold Abney, I wished to do him as little harm as possible. I was
going to rob him of a boy, who, while no moulding of his growing
mind could make him into a hereditary legislator, did undoubtedly
represent a portion of Mr Abney's annual income; and I did not
want to increase my offence by being a useless assistant-master.
Then I reflected that, if I was no Jowett, at least I knew enough
Latin and Greek to teach the rudiments of those languages to small
boys. My conscience was satisfied.

'I should be delighted,' I said.

'Excellent. Then let us consider that as--ah--settled,' said Mr
Abney.

There was a pause. My companion began to fiddle a little
uncomfortably with an ash-tray. I wondered what was the matter,
and then it came to me. We were about to become sordid. The
discussion of terms was upon us.

And as I realized this, I saw simultaneously how I could throw one
more sop to my exigent conscience. After all, the whole thing was
really a question of hard cash. By kidnapping Ogden I should be
taking money from Mr Abney. By paying my premium I should be
giving it back to him.

I considered the circumstances. Ogden was now about thirteen years
old. The preparatory-school age limit may be estimated roughly at
fourteen. That is to say, in any event Sanstead House could only
harbour him for one year. Mr Abney's fees I had to guess at. To be
on the safe side, I fixed my premium at an outside figure, and,
getting to the point at once, I named it.

It was entirely satisfactory. My mental arithmetic had done me
credit. Mr Abney beamed upon me. Over tea and muffins we became
very friendly. In half an hour I heard more of the theory of
school-mastering than I had dreamed existed.

We said good-bye at the club front door. He smiled down at me
benevolently from the top of the steps.

'Good-bye, Mr Burns, good-bye,' he said. 'We shall meet
at--ah--Philippi.'

When I reached my rooms, I rang for Smith.

'Smith,' I said, 'I want you to get some books for me first thing
tomorrow. You had better take a note of them.'

He moistened his pencil.

'A Latin Grammar.'

'Yes, sir.'

'A Greek Grammar.'

'Yes, sir.'

'Brodley Arnold's Easy Prose Sentences.'

'Yes, sir.'

'And Caesar's Gallic Wars'

'What name, sir?'

'Caesar.'

'Thank you, sir. Anything else, sir?'

'No, that will be all.'

'Very good, sir.'

He shimmered from the room.

Thank goodness, Smith always has thought me mad, and is consequently
never surprised at anything I ask him to do.

Content of Part 2 - Peter Burns' Narrative: Chapter 1 (P G Wodehouse's novel: The Little Nugget)

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Peter Burns' Narrative: Chapter 2Sanstead House was an imposing building in the Georgian style. Itstood, foursquare, in the midst of about nine acres of land. Forthe greater part of its existence, I learned later, it had beenthe private home of a family of the name of Boone, and in itsearly days the estate had been considerable. But the progress ofthe years had brought changes to the Boones. Money losses hadnecessitated the sale of land. New roads had come into being,cutting off portions of the estate from their centre. Newfacilities for travel had drawn members of the family away fromhome. The old
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Part One: The Little NuggetIn which the Little Nugget is introduced to the reader, and plansare made for his future by several interested parties. In which,also, the future Mr Peter Burns is touched upon. The whole concludingwith a momentous telephone-call.THE LITTLE NUGGETIIf the management of the Hotel Guelph, that London landmark, couldhave been present at three o'clock one afternoon in early Januaryin the sitting-room of the suite which they had assigned to MrsElmer Ford, late of New York, they might well have felt a littleaggrieved. Philosophers among them would possibly have meditatedon the limitations of human effort; for they had done
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