That’s always the way in this world. The chappies you’d like to lend money to won’t let you, whereas the chappies you don’t want to lend it to will do everything except actually stand you on your head and lift the specie out of your pockets. As a lad who has always rolled tolerably free in the right stuff, I’ve had lots of experience of the second class. Many’s the time, back in London, I’ve hurried along Piccadilly and felt the hot breath of the toucher on the back of my neck and heard his sharp, excited yapping as he closed in on me. I’ve simply spent my life scattering largesse to blighters I didn’t care a hang for; yet here was I now, dripping doubloons and pieces of eight and longing to hand them over, and Bicky, poor fish, absolutely on his uppers, not taking any at any price.
“Well, there’s only one hope, then.”
There was Jeeves, standing behind me, full of zeal. In this matter of shimmering into rooms the chappie is rummy to a degree. You’re sitting in the old arm-chair, thinking of this and that, and then suddenly you look up, and there he is. He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly fish. The thing startled poor old Bicky considerably. He rose from his seat like a rocketing pheasant. I’m used to Jeeves now, but often in the days when he first came to me I’ve bitten my tongue freely on finding him unexpectedly in my midst.
“Did you call, sir?”
“Oh, there you are, Jeeves!”
“Jeeves, Mr. Bickersteth is still up the pole. Any ideas?”
“Why, yes, sir. Since we had our recent conversation I fancy I have found what may prove a solution. I do not wish to appear to be taking a liberty, sir, but I think that we have overlooked his grace’s potentialities as a source of revenue.”
Bicky laughed, what I have sometimes seen described as a hollow, mocking laugh, a sort of bitter cackle from the back of the throat, rather like a gargle.
“I do not allude, sir,” explained Jeeves, “to the possibility of inducing his grace to part with money. I am taking the liberty of regarding his grace in the light of an at present—if I may say so—useless property, which is capable of being developed.”
Bicky looked at me in a helpless kind of way. I’m bound to say I didn’t get it myself.
“Couldn’t you make it a bit easier, Jeeves!”
“In a nutshell, sir, what I mean is this: His grace is, in a sense, a prominent personage. The inhabitants of this country, as no doubt you are aware, sir, are peculiarly addicted to shaking hands with prominent personages. It occurred to me that Mr. Bickersteth or yourself might know of persons who would be willing to pay a small fee—let us say two dollars or three—for the privilege of an introduction, including handshake, to his grace.”
Bicky didn’t seem to think much of it.
“Do you mean to say that anyone would be mug enough to part with solid cash just to shake hands with my uncle?”
“I have an aunt, sir, who paid five shillings to a young fellow for bringing a moving-picture actor to tea at her house one Sunday. It gave her social standing among the neighbours.”
“If you think it could be done——”
“I feel convinced of it, sir.”
“What do you think, Bertie?”
“I’m for it, old boy, absolutely. A very brainy wheeze.”
“Thank you, sir. Will there be anything further? Good night, sir.”
And he floated out, leaving us to discuss details.
Until we started this business of floating old Chiswick as a money-making proposition I had never realized what a perfectly foul time those Stock Exchange chappies must have when the public isn’t biting freely. Nowadays I read that bit they put in the financial reports about “The market opened quietly” with a sympathetic eye, for, by Jove, it certainly opened quietly for us! You’d hardly believe how difficult it was to interest the public and make them take a flutter on the old boy. By the end of the week the only name we had on our list was a delicatessen-store keeper down in Bicky’s part of the town, and as he wanted us to take it out in sliced ham instead of cash that didn’t help much. There was a gleam of light when the brother of Bicky’s pawnbroker offered ten dollars, money down, for an introduction to old Chiswick, but the deal fell through, owing to its turning out that the chap was an anarchist and intended to kick the old boy instead of shaking hands with him. At that, it took me the deuce of a time to persuade Bicky not to grab the cash and let things take their course. He seemed to regard the pawnbroker’s brother rather as a sportsman and benefactor of his species than otherwise.
The whole thing, I’m inclined to think, would have been off if it hadn’t been for Jeeves. There is no doubt that Jeeves is in a class of his own. In the matter of brain and resource I don’t think I have ever met a chappie so supremely like mother made. He trickled into my room one morning with a good old cup of tea, and intimated that there was something doing.
“Might I speak to you with regard to that matter of his grace, sir?”
“It’s all off. We’ve decided to chuck it.”
“It won’t work. We can’t get anybody to come.”
“I fancy I can arrange that aspect of the matter, sir.”
“Do you mean to say you’ve managed to get anybody?”
“Yes, sir. Eighty-seven gentlemen from Birdsburg, sir.”
I sat up in bed and spilt the tea.
“Birdsburg, Missouri, sir.”
“How did you get them?”
“I happened last night, sir, as you had intimated that you would be absent from home, to attend a theatrical performance, and entered into conversation between the acts with the occupant of the adjoining seat. I had observed that he was wearing a somewhat ornate decoration in his buttonhole, sir—a large blue button with the words ‘Boost for Birdsburg’ upon it in red letters, scarcely a judicious addition to a gentleman’s evening costume. To my surprise I noticed that the auditorium was full of persons similarly decorated. I ventured to inquire the explanation, and was informed that these gentlemen, forming a party of eighty-seven, are a convention from a town of the name if Birdsburg, in the State of Missouri. Their visit, I gathered, was purely of a social and pleasurable nature, and my informant spoke at some length of the entertainments arranged for their stay in the city. It was when he related with a considerable amount of satisfaction and pride, that a deputation of their number had been introduced to and had shaken hands with a well-known prizefighter, that it occurred to me to broach the subject of his grace. To make a long story short, sir, I have arranged, subject to your approval, that the entire convention shall be presented to his grace to-morrow afternoon.”
I was amazed. This chappie was a Napoleon.
“Eighty-seven, Jeeves. At how much a head?”
“I was obliged to agree to a reduction for quantity, sir. The terms finally arrived at were one hundred and fifty dollars for the party.”
I thought a bit.
“Payable in advance?”
“No, sir. I endeavoured to obtain payment in advance, but was not successful.”
“Well, any way, when we get it I’ll make it up to five hundred. Bicky’ll never know. Do you suspect Mr. Bickersteth would suspect anything, Jeeves, if I made it up to five hundred?”
“I fancy not, sir. Mr. Bickersteth is an agreeable gentleman, but not bright.”
“All right, then. After breakfast run down to the bank and get me some money.”
“You know, you’re a bit of a marvel, Jeeves.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Very good, sir.”
When I took dear old Bicky aside in the course of the morning and told him what had happened he nearly broke down. He tottered into the sitting-room and buttonholed old Chiswick, who was reading the comic section of the morning paper with a kind of grim resolution.
“Uncle,” he said, “are you doing anything special to-morrow afternoon? I mean to say, I’ve asked a few of my pals in to meet you, don’t you know.”
The old boy cocked a speculative eye at him.
“There will be no reporters among them?”
“Reporters? Rather not! Why?”
“I refuse to be badgered by reporters. There were a number of adhesive young men who endeavoured to elicit from me my views on America while the boat was approaching the dock. I will not be subjected to this persecution again.”
“That’ll be absolutely all right, uncle. There won’t be a newspaper-man in the place.”
“In that case I shall be glad to make the acquaintance of your friends.”
“You’ll shake hands with them and so forth?”
“I shall naturally order my behaviour according to the accepted rules of civilized intercourse.”
Bicky thanked him heartily and came off to lunch with me at the club, where he babbled freely of hens, incubators, and other rotten things.
After mature consideration we had decided to unleash the Birdsburg contingent on the old boy ten at a time. Jeeves brought his theatre pal round to see us, and we arranged the whole thing with him. A very decent chappie, but rather inclined to collar the conversation and turn it in the direction of his home-town’s new water-supply system. We settled that, as an hour was about all he would be likely to stand, each gang should consider itself entitled to seven minutes of the duke’s society by Jeeves’s stop-watch, and that when their time was up Jeeves should slide into the room and cough meaningly. Then we parted with what I believe are called mutual expressions of goodwill, the Birdsburg chappie extending a cordial invitation to us all to pop out some day and take a look at the new water-supply system, for which we thanked him.
Next day the deputation rolled in. The first shift consisted of the cove we had met and nine others almost exactly like him in every respect. They all looked deuced keen and businesslike, as if from youth up they had been working in the office and catching the boss’s eye and what-not. They shook hands with the old boy with a good deal of apparent satisfaction—all except one chappie, who seemed to be brooding about something—and then they stood off and became chatty.
“What message have you for Birdsburg, Duke?” asked our pal.
The old boy seemed a bit rattled.
“I have never been to Birdsburg.”
The chappie seemed pained.
“You should pay it a visit,” he said. “The most rapidly-growing city in the country. Boost for Birdsburg!”
“Boost for Birdsburg!” said the other chappies reverently.
The chappie who had been brooding suddenly gave tongue.
He was a stout sort of well-fed cove with one of those determined chins and a cold eye.
The assemblage looked at him.
“As a matter of business,” said the chappie—”mind you, I’m not questioning anybody’s good faith, but, as a matter of strict business—I think this gentleman here ought to put himself on record before witnesses as stating that he really is a duke.”
“What do you mean, sir?” cried the old boy, getting purple.
“No offence, simply business. I’m not saying anything, mind you, but there’s one thing that seems kind of funny to me. This gentleman here says his name’s Mr. Bickersteth, as I understand it. Well, if you’re the Duke of Chiswick, why isn’t he Lord Percy Something? I’ve read English novels, and I know all about it.”
“This is monstrous!”
“Now don’t get hot under the collar. I’m only asking. I’ve a right to know. You’re going to take our money, so it’s only fair that we should see that we get our money’s worth.”
The water-supply cove chipped in:
“You’re quite right, Simms. I overlooked that when making the agreement. You see, gentlemen, as business men we’ve a right to reasonable guarantees of good faith. We are paying Mr. Bickersteth here a hundred and fifty dollars for this reception, and we naturally want to know——”
Old Chiswick gave Bicky a searching look; then he turned to the water-supply chappie. He was frightfully calm.
“I can assure you that I know nothing of this,” he said, quite politely. “I should be grateful if you would explain.”
“Well, we arranged with Mr. Bickersteth that eighty-seven citizens of Birdsburg should have the privilege of meeting and shaking hands with you for a financial consideration mutually arranged, and what my friend Simms here means—and I’m with him—is that we have only Mr. Bickersteth’s word for it—and he is a stranger to us—that you are the Duke of Chiswick at all.”
Old Chiswick gulped.
“Allow me to assure you, sir,” he said, in a rummy kind of voice, “that I am the Duke of Chiswick.”
“Then that’s all right,” said the chappie heartily. “That was all we wanted to know. Let the thing go on.”
“I am sorry to say,” said old Chiswick, “that it cannot go on. I am feeling a little tired. I fear I must ask to be excused.”
“But there are seventy-seven of the boys waiting round the corner at this moment, Duke, to be introduced to you.”
“I fear I must disappoint them.”
“But in that case the deal would have to be off.”
“That is a matter for you and my nephew to discuss.”
The chappie seemed troubled.
“You really won’t meet the rest of them?”
“Well, then, I guess we’ll be going.”
They went out, and there was a pretty solid silence. Then old Chiswick turned to Bicky:
Bicky didn’t seem to have anything to say.
“Was it true what that man said?”
“What do you mean by playing this trick?”
Bicky seemed pretty well knocked out, so I put in a word.
“I think you’d better explain the whole thing, Bicky, old top.”
Bicky’s Adam’s-apple jumped about a bit; then he started:
“You see, you had cut off my allowance, uncle, and I wanted a bit of money to start a chicken farm. I mean to say it’s an absolute cert if you once get a bit of capital. You buy a hen, and it lays an egg every day of the week, and you sell the eggs, say, seven for twenty-five cents.
“Keep of hens cost nothing. Profit practically——”
“What is all this nonsense about hens? You led me to suppose you were a substantial business man.”
“Old Bicky rather exaggerated, sir,” I said, helping the chappie out. “The fact is, the poor old lad is absolutely dependent on that remittance of yours, and when you cut it off, don’t you know, he was pretty solidly in the soup, and had to think of some way of closing in on a bit of the ready pretty quick. That’s why we thought of this handshaking scheme.”
Old Chiswick foamed at the mouth.
“So you have lied to me! You have deliberately deceived me as to your financial status!”
“Poor old Bicky didn’t want to go to that ranch,” I explained. “He doesn’t like cows and horses, but he rather thinks he would be hot stuff among the hens. All he wants is a bit of capital. Don’t you think it would be rather a wheeze if you were to——”
“After what has happened? After this—this deceit and foolery? Not a penny!”
“Not a penny!”
There was a respectful cough in the background.
“If I might make a suggestion, sir?”
Jeeves was standing on the horizon, looking devilish brainy.
“Go ahead, Jeeves!” I said.
“I would merely suggest, sir, that if Mr. Bickersteth is in need of a little ready money, and is at a loss to obtain it elsewhere, he might secure the sum he requires by describing the occurrences of this afternoon for the Sunday issue of one of the more spirited and enterprising newspapers.”
“By Jove!” I said.
“By George!” said Bicky.
“Great heavens!” said old Chiswick.
“Very good, sir,” said Jeeves.
Bicky turned to old Chiswick with a gleaming eye.
“Jeeves is right. I’ll do it! The Chronicle would jump at it. They eat that sort of stuff.”
Old Chiswick gave a kind of moaning howl.
“I absolutely forbid you, Francis, to do this thing!”
“That’s all very well,” said Bicky, wonderfully braced, “but if I can’t get the money any other way——”
“Wait! Er—wait, my boy! You are so impetuous! We might arrange something.”
“I won’t go to that bally ranch.”
“No, no! No, no, my boy! I would not suggest it. I would not for a moment suggest it. I—I think——”
He seemed to have a bit of a struggle with himself. “I—I think that, on the whole, it would be best if you returned with me to England. I—I might—in fact, I think I see my way to doing—to—I might be able to utilize your services in some secretarial position.”
“I shouldn’t mind that.”
“I should not be able to offer you a salary, but, as you know, in English political life the unpaid secretary is a recognized figure——”
“The only figure I’ll recognize,” said Bicky firmly, “is five hundred quid a year, paid quarterly.”
“My dear boy!”
“But your recompense, my dear Francis, would consist in the unrivalled opportunities you would have, as my secretary, to gain experience, to accustom yourself to the intricacies of political life, to—in fact, you would be in an exceedingly advantageous position.”
“Five hundred a year!” said Bicky, rolling it round his tongue. “Why, that would be nothing to what I could make if I started a chicken farm. It stands to reason. Suppose you have a dozen hens. Each of the hens has a dozen chickens. After a bit the chickens grow up and have a dozen chickens each themselves, and then they all start laying eggs! There’s a fortune in it. You can get anything you like for eggs in America. Chappies keep them on ice for years and years, and don’t sell them till they fetch about a dollar a whirl. You don’t think I’m going to chuck a future like this for anything under five hundred o’ goblins a year—what?”
A look of anguish passed over old Chiswick’s face, then he seemed to be resigned to it. “Very well, my boy,” he said.
“What-o!” said Bicky. “All right, then.”
“Jeeves,” I said. Bicky had taken the old boy off to dinner to celebrate, and we were alone. “Jeeves, this has been one of your best efforts.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“It beats me how you do it.”
“The only trouble is you haven’t got much out of it—what!”
“I fancy Mr. Bickersteth intends—I judge from his remarks—to signify his appreciation of anything I have been fortunate enough to do to assist him, at some later date when he is in a more favourable position to do so.”
“It isn’t enough, Jeeves!”
It was a wrench, but I felt it was the only possible thing to be done.
“Bring my shaving things.”
A gleam of hope shone in the chappie’s eye, mixed with doubt.
“You mean, sir?”
“And shave off my moustache.”
There was a moment’s silence. I could see the fellow was deeply moved.
“Thank you very much indeed, sir,” he said, in a low voice, and popped off.