“It’s a cert!” I said.
“An absolute cinch!” said Corky.
And a day or two later he meandered up the Avenue to my apartment to tell me that all was well. The uncle had written Muriel a letter so dripping with the milk of human kindness that if he hadn’t known Mr. Worple’s handwriting Corky would have refused to believe him the author of it. Any time it suited Miss Singer to call, said the uncle, he would be delighted to make her acquaintance.
Shortly after this I had to go out of town. Divers sound sportsmen had invited me to pay visits to their country places, and it wasn’t for several months that I settled down in the city again. I had been wondering a lot, of course, about Corky, whether it all turned out right, and so forth, and my first evening in New York, happening to pop into a quiet sort of little restaurant which I go to when I don’t feel inclined for the bright lights, I found Muriel Singer there, sitting by herself at a table near the door. Corky, I took it, was out telephoning. I went up and passed the time of day.
“Well, well, well, what?” I said.
“Why, Mr. Wooster! How do you do?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re waiting for Corky, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I didn’t understand. No, I’m not waiting for him.”
It seemed to me that there was a sort of something in her voice, a kind of thingummy, you know.
“I say, you haven’t had a row with Corky, have you?”
“A spat, don’t you know—little misunderstanding—faults on both sides—er—and all that sort of thing.”
“Why, whatever makes you think that?”
“Oh, well, as it were, what? What I mean is—I thought you usually dined with him before you went to the theatre.”
“I’ve left the stage now.”
Suddenly the whole thing dawned on me. I had forgotten what a long time I had been away.
“Why, of course, I see now! You’re married!”
“How perfectly topping! I wish you all kinds of happiness.”
“Thank you, so much. Oh Alexander,” she said, looking past me, “this is a friend of mine—Mr. Wooster.”
I spun round. A chappie with a lot of stiff grey hair and a red sort of healthy face was standing there. Rather a formidable Johnnie, he looked, though quite peaceful at the moment.
“I want you to meet my husband, Mr. Wooster. Mr. Wooster is a friend of Bruce’s, Alexander.”
The old boy grasped my hand warmly, and that was all that kept me from hitting the floor in a heap. The place was rocking. Absolutely.
“So you know my nephew, Mr. Wooster,” I heard him say. “I wish you would try to knock a little sense into him and make him quit this playing at painting. But I have an idea that he is steadying down. I noticed it first that night he came to dinner with us, my dear, to be introduced to you. He seemed altogether quieter and more serious. Something seemed to have sobered him. Perhaps you will give us the pleasure of your company at dinner to-night, Mr. Wooster? Or have you dined?”
I said I had. What I needed then was air, not dinner. I felt that I wanted to get into the open and think this thing out.
When I reached my apartment I heard Jeeves moving about in his lair. I called him.
“Jeeves,” I said, “now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party. A stiff b.-and-s. first of all, and then I’ve a bit of news for you.”
He came back with a tray and a long glass.
“Better have one yourself, Jeeves. You’ll need it.”
“Later on, perhaps, thank you, sir.”
“All right. Please yourself. But you’re going to get a shock. You remember my friend, Mr. Corcoran?”
“And the girl who was to slide gracefully into his uncle’s esteem by writing the book on birds?”
“Well, she’s slid. She’s married the uncle.”
He took it without blinking. You can’t rattle Jeeves.
“That was always a development to be feared, sir.”
“You don’t mean to tell me that you were expecting it?”
“It crossed my mind as a possibility.”
“Did it, by Jove! Well, I think, you might have warned us!”
“I hardly liked to take the liberty, sir.”
Of course, as I saw after I had had a bite to eat and was in a calmer frame of mind, what had happened wasn’t my fault, if you come down to it. I couldn’t be expected to foresee that the scheme, in itself a cracker-jack, would skid into the ditch as it had done; but all the same I’m bound to admit that I didn’t relish the idea of meeting Corky again until time, the great healer, had been able to get in a bit of soothing work. I cut Washington Square out absolutely for the next few months. I gave it the complete miss-in-baulk. And then, just when I was beginning to think I might safely pop down in that direction and gather up the dropped threads, so to speak, time, instead of working the healing wheeze, went and pulled the most awful bone and put the lid on it. Opening the paper one morning, I read that Mrs. Alexander Worple had presented her husband with a son and heir.
I was so darned sorry for poor old Corky that I hadn’t the heart to touch my breakfast. I told Jeeves to drink it himself. I was bowled over. Absolutely. It was the limit.
I hardly knew what to do. I wanted, of course, to rush down to Washington Square and grip the poor blighter silently by the hand; and then, thinking it over, I hadn’t the nerve. Absent treatment seemed the touch. I gave it him in waves.
But after a month or so I began to hesitate again. It struck me that it was playing it a bit low-down on the poor chap, avoiding him like this just when he probably wanted his pals to surge round him most. I pictured him sitting in his lonely studio with no company but his bitter thoughts, and the pathos of it got me to such an extent that I bounded straight into a taxi and told the driver to go all out for the studio.
I rushed in, and there was Corky, hunched up at the easel, painting away, while on the model throne sat a severe-looking female of middle age, holding a baby.
A fellow has to be ready for that sort of thing.
“Oh, ah!” I said, and started to back out.
Corky looked over his shoulder.
“Halloa, Bertie. Don’t go. We’re just finishing for the day. That will be all this afternoon,” he said to the nurse, who got up with the baby and decanted it into a perambulator which was standing in the fairway.
“At the same hour to-morrow, Mr. Corcoran?”
Corky stood there, looking at the door, and then he turned to me and began to get it off his chest. Fortunately, he seemed to take it for granted that I knew all about what had happened, so it wasn’t as awkward as it might have been.
“It’s my uncle’s idea,” he said. “Muriel doesn’t know about it yet. The portrait’s to be a surprise for her on her birthday. The nurse takes the kid out ostensibly to get a breather, and they beat it down here. If you want an instance of the irony of fate, Bertie, get acquainted with this. Here’s the first commission I have ever had to paint a portrait, and the sitter is that human poached egg that has butted in and bounced me out of my inheritance. Can you beat it! I call it rubbing the thing in to expect me to spend my afternoons gazing into the ugly face of a little brat who to all intents and purposes has hit me behind the ear with a blackjack and swiped all I possess. I can’t refuse to paint the portrait because if I did my uncle would stop my allowance; yet every time I look up and catch that kid’s vacant eye, I suffer agonies. I tell you, Bertie, sometimes when he gives me a patronizing glance and then turns away and is sick, as if it revolted him to look at me, I come within an ace of occupying the entire front page of the evening papers as the latest murder sensation. There are moments when I can almost see the headlines: ‘Promising Young Artist Beans Baby With Axe.'”
I patted his shoulder silently. My sympathy for the poor old scout was too deep for words.
I kept away from the studio for some time after that, because it didn’t seem right to me to intrude on the poor chappie’s sorrow. Besides, I’m bound to say that nurse intimidated me. She reminded me so infernally of Aunt Agatha. She was the same gimlet-eyed type.
But one afternoon Corky called me on the ‘phone.
“Are you doing anything this afternoon?”
“You couldn’t come down here, could you?”
“What’s the trouble? Anything up?”
“I’ve finished the portrait.”
“Good boy! Stout work!”
“Yes.” His voice sounded rather doubtful. “The fact is, Bertie, it doesn’t look quite right to me. There’s something about it—My uncle’s coming in half an hour to inspect it, and—I don’t know why it is, but I kind of feel I’d like your moral support!”
I began to see that I was letting myself in for something. The sympathetic co-operation of Jeeves seemed to me to be indicated.
“You think he’ll cut up rough?”
I threw my mind back to the red-faced chappie I had met at the restaurant, and tried to picture him cutting up rough. It was only too easy. I spoke to Corky firmly on the telephone.
“I’ll come,” I said.
“But only if I may bring Jeeves!”
“Why Jeeves? What’s Jeeves got to do with it? Who wants Jeeves? Jeeves is the fool who suggested the scheme that has led——”
“Listen, Corky, old top! If you think I am going to face that uncle of yours without Jeeves’s support, you’re mistaken. I’d sooner go into a den of wild beasts and bite a lion on the back of the neck.”
“Oh, all right,” said Corky. Not cordially, but he said it; so I rang for Jeeves, and explained the situation.
“Very good, sir,” said Jeeves.
That’s the sort of chap he is. You can’t rattle him.
We found Corky near the door, looking at the picture, with one hand up in a defensive sort of way, as if he thought it might swing on him.
“Stand right where you are, Bertie,” he said, without moving. “Now, tell me honestly, how does it strike you?”
The light from the big window fell right on the picture. I took a good look at it. Then I shifted a bit nearer and took another look. Then I went back to where I had been at first, because it hadn’t seemed quite so bad from there.
“Well?” said Corky, anxiously.
I hesitated a bit.
“Of course, old man, I only saw the kid once, and then only for a moment, but—but it was an ugly sort of kid, wasn’t it, if I remember rightly?”
“As ugly as that?”
I looked again, and honesty compelled me to be frank.
“I don’t see how it could have been, old chap.”
Poor old Corky ran his fingers through his hair in a temperamental sort of way. He groaned.
“You’re right quite, Bertie. Something’s gone wrong with the darned thing. My private impression is that, without knowing it, I’ve worked that stunt that Sargent and those fellows pull—painting the soul of the sitter. I’ve got through the mere outward appearance, and have put the child’s soul on canvas.”
“But could a child of that age have a soul like that? I don’t see how he could have managed it in the time. What do you think, Jeeves?”
“I doubt it, sir.”
“It—it sorts of leers at you, doesn’t it?”
“You’ve noticed that, too?” said Corky.
“I don’t see how one could help noticing.”
“All I tried to do was to give the little brute a cheerful expression. But, as it worked out, he looks positively dissipated.”
“Just what I was going to suggest, old man. He looks as if he were in the middle of a colossal spree, and enjoying every minute of it. Don’t you think so, Jeeves?”
“He has a decidedly inebriated air, sir.”
Corky was starting to say something when the door opened, and the uncle came in.
For about three seconds all was joy, jollity, and goodwill. The old boy shook hands with me, slapped Corky on the back, said that he didn’t think he had ever seen such a fine day, and whacked his leg with his stick. Jeeves had projected himself into the background, and he didn’t notice him.
“Well, Bruce, my boy; so the portrait is really finished, is it—really finished? Well, bring it out. Let’s have a look at it. This will be a wonderful surprise for your aunt. Where is it? Let’s——”
And then he got it—suddenly, when he wasn’t set for the punch; and he rocked back on his heels.
“Oosh!” he exclaimed. And for perhaps a minute there was one of the scaliest silences I’ve ever run up against.
“Is this a practical joke?” he said at last, in a way that set about sixteen draughts cutting through the room at once.
I thought it was up to me to rally round old Corky.
“You want to stand a bit farther away from it,” I said.
“You’re perfectly right!” he snorted. “I do! I want to stand so far away from it that I can’t see the thing with a telescope!” He turned on Corky like an untamed tiger of the jungle who has just located a chunk of meat. “And this—this—is what you have been wasting your time and my money for all these years! A painter! I wouldn’t let you paint a house of mine! I gave you this commission, thinking that you were a competent worker, and this—this—this extract from a comic coloured supplement is the result!” He swung towards the door, lashing his tail and growling to himself. “This ends it! If you wish to continue this foolery of pretending to be an artist because you want an excuse for idleness, please yourself. But let me tell you this. Unless you report at my office on Monday morning, prepared to abandon all this idiocy and start in at the bottom of the business to work your way up, as you should have done half a dozen years ago, not another cent—not another cent—not another—Boosh!”
Then the door closed, and he was no longer with us. And I crawled out of the bombproof shelter.
“Corky, old top!” I whispered faintly.
Corky was standing staring at the picture. His face was set. There was a hunted look in his eye.
“Well, that finishes it!” he muttered brokenly.
“What are you going to do?”
“Do? What can I do? I can’t stick on here if he cuts off supplies. You heard what he said. I shall have to go to the office on Monday.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I knew exactly how he felt about the office. I don’t know when I’ve been so infernally uncomfortable. It was like hanging round trying to make conversation to a pal who’s just been sentenced to twenty years in quod.
And then a soothing voice broke the silence.
“If I might make a suggestion, sir!”
It was Jeeves. He had slid from the shadows and was gazing gravely at the picture. Upon my word, I can’t give you a better idea of the shattering effect of Corky’s uncle Alexander when in action than by saying that he had absolutely made me forget for the moment that Jeeves was there.
“I wonder if I have ever happened to mention to you, sir, a Mr. Digby Thistleton, with whom I was once in service? Perhaps you have met him? He was a financier. He is now Lord Bridgnorth. It was a favourite saying of his that there is always a way. The first time I heard him use the expression was after the failure of a patent depilatory which he promoted.”
“Jeeves,” I said, “what on earth are you talking about?”
“I mentioned Mr. Thistleton, sir, because his was in some respects a parallel case to the present one. His depilatory failed, but he did not despair. He put it on the market again under the name of Hair-o, guaranteed to produce a full crop of hair in a few months. It was advertised, if you remember, sir, by a humorous picture of a billiard-ball, before and after taking, and made such a substantial fortune that Mr. Thistleton was soon afterwards elevated to the peerage for services to his Party. It seems to me that, if Mr. Corcoran looks into the matter, he will find, like Mr. Thistleton, that there is always a way. Mr. Worple himself suggested the solution of the difficulty. In the heat of the moment he compared the portrait to an extract from a coloured comic supplement. I consider the suggestion a very valuable one, sir. Mr. Corcoran’s portrait may not have pleased Mr. Worple as a likeness of his only child, but I have no doubt that editors would gladly consider it as a foundation for a series of humorous drawings. If Mr. Corcoran will allow me to make the suggestion, his talent has always been for the humorous. There is something about this picture—something bold and vigorous, which arrests the attention. I feel sure it would be highly popular.”
Corky was glaring at the picture, and making a sort of dry, sucking noise with his mouth. He seemed completely overwrought.
And then suddenly he began to laugh in a wild way.
“Corky, old man!” I said, massaging him tenderly. I feared the poor blighter was hysterical.
He began to stagger about all over the floor.
“He’s right! The man’s absolutely right! Jeeves, you’re a life-saver! You’ve hit on the greatest idea of the age! Report at the office on Monday! Start at the bottom of the business! I’ll buy the business if I feel like it. I know the man who runs the comic section of the Sunday Star. He’ll eat this thing. He was telling me only the other day how hard it was to get a good new series. He’ll give me anything I ask for a real winner like this. I’ve got a gold-mine. Where’s my hat? I’ve got an income for life! Where’s that confounded hat? Lend me a fiver, Bertie. I want to take a taxi down to Park Row!”
Jeeves smiled paternally. Or, rather, he had a kind of paternal muscular spasm about the mouth, which is the nearest he ever gets to smiling.
“If I might make the suggestion, Mr. Corcoran—for a title of the series which you have in mind—’The Adventures of Baby Blobbs.'”
Corky and I looked at the picture, then at each other in an awed way. Jeeves was right. There could be no other title.
“Jeeves,” I said. It was a few weeks later, and I had just finished looking at the comic section of the Sunday Star. “I’m an optimist. I always have been. The older I get, the more I agree with Shakespeare and those poet Johnnies about it always being darkest before the dawn and there’s a silver lining and what you lose on the swings you make up on the roundabouts. Look at Mr. Corcoran, for instance. There was a fellow, one would have said, clear up to the eyebrows in the soup. To all appearances he had got it right in the neck. Yet look at him now. Have you seen these pictures?”
“I took the liberty of glancing at them before bringing them to you, sir. Extremely diverting.”
“They have made a big hit, you know.”
“I anticipated it, sir.”
I leaned back against the pillows.
“You know, Jeeves, you’re a genius. You ought to be drawing a commission on these things.”
“I have nothing to complain of in that respect, sir. Mr. Corcoran has been most generous. I am putting out the brown suit, sir.”
“No, I think I’ll wear the blue with the faint red stripe.”
“Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir.”
“But I rather fancy myself in it.”
“Not the blue with the faint red stripe, sir.”
“Oh, all right, have it your own way.”
“Very good, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Of course, I know it’s as bad as being henpecked; but then Jeeves is always right. You’ve got to consider that, you know. What?