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Something Fresh, Page 1

P. G. Wodehouse


  by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse


  The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously on London town. Out in Piccadilly its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike a novel jauntiness, so that bus drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts--clerks, on their way to work; beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.

  At nine o'clock precisely the door of Number Seven Arundel Street, Leicester Square, opened and a young man stepped out.

  Of all the spots in London which may fairly be described as backwaters there is none that answers so completely to the description as Arundel Street, Leicester Square. Passing along the north sidewalk of the square, just where it joins Piccadilly, you hardly notice the bottleneck opening of the tiny cul-de-sac. Day and night the human flood roars past, ignoring it. Arundel Street is less than forty yards in length; and, though there are two hotels in it, they are not fashionable hotels. It is just a backwater.

  In shape Arundel Street is exactly like one of those flat stone jars in which Italian wine of the cheaper sort is stored. The narrow neck that leads off Leicester Square opens abruptly into a small court. Hotels occupy two sides of this; the third is at present given up to rooming houses for the impecunious. These are always just going to be pulled down in the name of progress to make room for another hotel, but they never do meet with that fate; and as they stand now so will they in all probability stand for generations to come.

  They provide single rooms of moderate size, the bed modestly hidden during the day behind a battered screen. The rooms contain a table, an easy-chair, a hard chair, a bureau, and a round tin bath, which, like the bed, goes into hiding after its useful work is performed. And you may rent one of these rooms, with breakfast thrown in, for five dollars a week.

  Ashe Marson had done so. He had rented the second-floor front of Number Seven.

  Twenty-six years before this story opens there had been born to Joseph Marson, minister, and Sarah his wife, of Hayling, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, a son. This son, christened Ashe after a wealthy uncle who subsequently double-crossed them by leaving his money to charities, in due course proceeded to Harvard to study for the ministry. So far as can be ascertained from contemporary records, he did not study a great deal for the ministry; but he did succeed in running the mile in four minutes and a half and the half mile at a correspondingly rapid speed, and his researches in the art of long jumping won him the respect of all.

  That he should be awarded, at the conclusion of his Harvard career, one of those scholarships at Oxford University instituted by the late Cecil Rhodes for the encouragement of the liberal arts, was a natural sequence of events.

  That was how Ashe came to be in England.

  The rest of Ashe's history follows almost automatically. He won his blue for athletics at Oxford, and gladdened thousands by winning the mile and the half mile two years in succession against Cambridge at Queen's Club. But owing to the pressure of other engagements he unfortunately omitted to do any studying, and when the hour of parting arrived he was peculiarly unfitted for any of the learned professions. Having, however, managed to obtain a sort of degree, enough to enable him to call himself a Bachelor of Arts, and realizing that you can fool some of the people some of the time, he applied for and secured a series of private tutorships.

  A private tutor is a sort of blend of poor relation and nursemaid, and few of the stately homes of England are without one. He is supposed to instill learning and deportment into the small son of the house; but what he is really there for is to prevent the latter from being a nuisance to his parents when he is home from school on his vacation.

  Having saved a little money at this dreadful trade, Ashe came to London and tried newspaper work. After two years of moderate success he got in touch with the Mammoth Publishing Company.

  The Mammoth Publishing Company, which controls several important newspapers, a few weekly journals, and a number of other things, does not disdain the pennies of the office boy and the junior clerk. One of its many profitable ventures is a series of paper-covered tales of crime and adventure. It was here that Ashe found his niche. Those adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator, which are so popular with a certain section of the reading public, were his work.

  Until the advent of Ashe and Mr. Quayle, the British Pluck Library had been written by many hands and had included the adventures of many heroes: but in Gridley Quayle the proprietors held that the ideal had been reached, and Ashe received a commission to conduct the entire British Pluck Library--monthly--himself. On the meager salary paid him for these labors he had been supporting himself ever since.

  That was how Ashe came to be in Arundel Street, Leicester Square, on this May morning.

  He was a tall, well-built, fit-looking young man, with a clear eye and a strong chin; and he was dressed, as he closed the front door behind him, in a sweater, flannel trousers, and rubber-soled gymnasium shoes. In one hand he bore a pair of Indian clubs, in the other a skipping rope.

  Having drawn in and expelled the morning air in a measured and solemn fashion, which the initiated observer would have recognized as that scientific deep breathing so popular nowadays, he laid down his clubs, adjusted his rope and began to skip.

  When he had taken the second-floor front of Number Seven, three months before, Ashe Marson had realized that he must forego those morning exercises which had become a second nature to him, or else defy London's unwritten law and brave London's mockery. He had not hesitated long. Physical fitness was his gospel. On the subject of exercise he was confessedly a crank. He decided to defy London.

  The first time he appeared in Arundel Street in his sweater and flannels he had barely whirled his Indian clubs once around his head before he had attracted the following audience:

  a) Two cabmen--one intoxicated; b) Four waiters from the Hotel Mathis; c) Six waiters from the Hotel Previtali; d) Six chambermaids from the Hotel Mathis; e) Five chambermaids from the Hotel Previtali; f) The proprietor of the Hotel Mathis; g) The proprietor of the Hotel Previtali; h) A street cleaner; i) Eleven nondescript loafers; j) Twenty-seven children; k) A cat.

  They all laughed--even the cat--and kept on laughing. The intoxicated cabman called Ashe "Sunny Jim." And Ashe kept on swinging his clubs.

  A month later, such is the magic of perseverance, his audience had narrowed down to the twenty-seven children. They still laughed, but without that ringing conviction which the sympathetic support of their elders had lent them.

  And now, after three months, the neighborhood, having accepted Ashe and his morning exercises as a natural phenomenon, paid him no further attention.

  On this particular morning Ashe Marson skipped with even more than his usual vigor. This was because he wished to expel by means of physical fatigue a small devil of discontent, of whose presence within him he had been aware ever since getting out of bed. It is in the Spring that the ache for the larger life comes on us, and this was a particularly mellow Spring morning. It was the sort of morning when the air gives us a feeling of anticipation--a feeling that, on a day like this, things surely cannot go jogging along in the same dull old groove; a premonition that something romantic and exciting is about to happen to us.

  But the southwest wind of Spring brings also remorse. We catch the vague spirit of unrest in the air and we regret our misspent youth.

  Ashe was doing this. Even as he skipped, he was conscious of a wish that he had studied harder at college and was now in a position to be doing something
better than hack work for a soulless publishing company. Never before had he been so completely certain that he was sick to death of the rut into which he had fallen.

  Skipping brought no balm. He threw down his rope and took up the Indian clubs. Indian clubs left him still unsatisfied. The thought came to him that it was a long time since he had done his Larsen Exercises. Perhaps they would heal him.

  The Larsen Exercises, invented by a certain Lieutenant Larsen, of the Swedish Army, have almost every sort of merit. They make a man strong, supple, and slender. But they are not dignified. Indeed, to one seeing them suddenly and without warning for the first time, they are markedly humorous. The only reason why King Henry, of England, whose son sank with the White Ship, never smiled again, was because Lieutenant Larsen had not then invented his admirable exercises.

  So complacent, so insolently unselfconscious had Ashe become in the course of three months, owing to his success in inducing the populace to look on anything he did with the indulgent eye of understanding, that it simply did not occur to him, when he abruptly twisted his body into the shape of a corkscrew, in accordance with the directions in the lieutenant's book for the consummation of Exercise One, that he was doing anything funny.

  And the behavior of those present seemed to justify his confidence. The proprietor of the Hotel Mathis regarded him without a smile. The proprietor of the Hotel Previtali might have been in a trance, for all the interest he displayed. The hotel employees continued their tasks impassively. The children were blind and dumb. The cat across the way stropped its backbone against the railings unheeding.

  But, even as he unscrambled himself and resumed a normal posture, from his immediate rear there rent the quiet morning air a clear and musical laugh. It floated out on the breeze and hit him like a bullet.

  Three months ago Ashe would have accepted the laugh as inevitable, and would have refused to allow it to embarrass him; but long immunity from ridicule had sapped his resolution. He spun round with a jump, flushed and self-conscious.

  From the window of the first-floor front of Number Seven a girl was leaning. The Spring sunshine played on her golden hair and lit up her bright blue eyes, fixed on his flanneled and sweatered person with a fascinated amusement. Even as he turned, the laugh smote him afresh.

  For the space of perhaps two seconds they stared at each other, eye to eye. Then she vanished into the room.

  Ashe was beaten. Three months ago a million girls could have laughed at his morning exercises without turning him from his purpose. Today this one scoffer, alone and unaided, was sufficient for his undoing. The depression which exercise had begun to dispel surged back on him. He had no heart to continue. Sadly gathering up his belongings, he returned to his room, and found a cold bath tame and uninspiring.

  The breakfasts--included in the rent--provided by Mrs. Bell, the landlady of Number Seven, were held by some authorities to be specially designed to quell the spirits of their victims, should they tend to soar excessively. By the time Ashe had done his best with the disheveled fried egg, the chicory blasphemously called coffee, and the charred bacon, misery had him firmly in its grip. And when he forced himself to the table, and began to try to concoct the latest of the adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator, his spirit groaned within him.

  This morning, as he sat and chewed his pen, his loathing for Gridley seemed to have reached its climax. It was his habit, in writing these stories to think of a good title first, and then fit an adventure to it. And overnight, in a moment of inspiration, he had jotted down on an envelope the words: "The Adventure of the Wand of Death."

  It was with the sullen repulsion of a vegetarian who finds a caterpillar in his salad that he now sat glaring at them.

  The title had seemed so promising overnight--so full of strenuous possibilities. It was still speciously attractive; but now that the moment had arrived for writing the story its flaws became manifest.

  What was a wand of death? It sounded good; but, coming down to hard facts, what was it? You cannot write a story about a wand of death without knowing what a wand of death is; and, conversely, if you have thought of such a splendid title you cannot jettison it offhand. Ashe rumpled his hair and gnawed his pen.

  There came a knock at the door.

  Ashe spun round in his chair. This was the last straw! If he had told Mrs. Ball once that he was never to be disturbed in the morning on any pretext whatsoever, he had told her twenty times. It was simply too infernal to be endured if his work time was to be cut into like this. Ashe ran over in his mind a few opening remarks.

  "Come in!" he shouted, and braced himself for battle.

  A girl walked in--the girl of the first-floor front; the girl with the blue eyes, who had laughed at his Larsen Exercises.

  Various circumstances contributed to the poorness of the figure Ashe cut in the opening moments of this interview. In the first place, he was expecting to see his landlady, whose height was about four feet six, and the sudden entry of somebody who was about five feet seven threw the universe temporarily out of focus. In the second place, in anticipation of Mrs. Bell's entry, he had twisted his face into a forbidding scowl, and it was no slight matter to change this on the spur of the moment into a pleasant smile. Finally, a man who has been sitting for half an hour in front of a sheet of paper bearing the words: "The Adventure of the Wand of Death," and trying to decide what a wand of death might be, has not his mind under proper control.

  The net result of these things was that, for perhaps half a minute, Ashe behaved absurdly. He goggled and he yammered. An alienist, had one been present, would have made up his mind about him without further investigation. For an appreciable time he did not think of rising from his seat. When he did, the combined leap and twist he executed practically amounted to a Larsen Exercise.

  Nor was the girl unembarrassed. If Ashe had been calmer he would have observed on her cheek the flush which told that she, too, was finding the situation trying. But, woman being ever better equipped with poise than man, it was she who spoke first.

  "I'm afraid I'm disturbing you."

  "No, no!" said Ashe. "Oh, no; not at all--not at all! No. Oh, no--not at all--no!" And would have continued to play on the theme indefinitely had not the girl spoken again.

  "I wanted to apologize," she said, "for my abominable rudeness in laughing at you just now. It was idiotic of me and I don't know why I did it. I'm sorry."

  Science, with a thousand triumphs to her credit, has not yet succeeded in discovering the correct reply for a young man to make who finds himself in the appalling position of being apologized to by a pretty girl. If he says nothing he seems sullen and unforgiving. If he says anything he makes a fool of himself. Ashe, hesitating between these two courses, suddenly caught sight of the sheet of paper over which he had been poring so long.

  "What is a wand of death?" he asked.

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "A wand of death?"

  "I don't understand."

  The delirium of the conversation was too much for Ashe. He burst out laughing. A moment later the girl did the same. And simultaneously embarrassment ceased to be.

  "I suppose you think I'm mad?" said Ashe.

  "Certainly," said the girl.

  "Well, I should have been if you hadn't come in."

  "Why was that?"

  "I was trying to write a detective story."

  "I was wondering whether you were a writer."

  "Do you write?"

  "Yes. Do you ever read Home Gossip?"


  "You are quite right to speak in that thankful tone. It's a horrid little paper--all brown-paper patterns and advice to the lovelorn and puzzles. I do a short story for it every week, under various names. A duke or an earl goes with each story. I loathe it intensely."

  "I am sorry for your troubles," said Ashe firmly; "but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?"

  "A wand of death?"

  "A wand of death."

The girl frowned reflectively.

  "Why, of course; it's the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple, which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?"

  Ashe could not restrain his admiration.

  "This is genius!"

  "Oh, no!"

  "Absolute genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery; and there am I, with another month's work done."

  She looked at him with interest.

  "Are you the author of Gridley Quayle?"

  "Don't tell me you read him!"

  "I do not read him! But he is published by the same firm that publishes Home Gossip, and I can't help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting in the waiting room to see the editress."

  Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood's chum on a desert island. Here was a real bond between them.

  "Does the Mammoth publish you, too? Why, we are comrades in misfortune fellow serfs! We should be friends. Shall we be friends?"

  "I should be delighted."

  "Shall we shake hands, sit down, and talk about ourselves a little?"

  "But I am keeping you from your work."

  "An errand of mercy."

  She sat down. It is a simple act, this of sitting down; but, like everything else, it may be an index to character. There was something wholly satisfactory to Ashe in the manner in which this girl did it. She neither seated herself on the extreme edge of the easy-chair, as one braced for instant flight; nor did she wallow in the easy-chair, as one come to stay for the week-end. She carried herself in an unconventional situation with an unstudied self-confidence that he could not sufficiently admire.

  Etiquette is not rigid in Arundel Street; but, nevertheless, a girl in a first-floor front may he excused for showing surprise and hesitation when invited to a confidential chat with a second-floor front young man whom she has known only five minutes. But there is a freemasonry among those who live in large cities on small earnings.