[This hitherto undiscovered story is transcribed from The Novel Magazine, March 1915. It was discovered by Charles Stone-Tolcher while searching at the University of Queensland, Australia. We express our gratitude to the Wodehouse Estate for allowing us to present it to the world, for the first time since its original publication in 1915 . . . as far as is currently known.
So here it is, ladies and gentlemen, a new Wodehouse story for your enjoyment. We wish to thank Charles Stone-Tolcher for sharing this lovely little story with the fans of P. G. Wodehouse.]
A HUMOROUS TALE.
P. G. WODEHOUSE.
(Author of “Love Among the Chickens,” “Mike,” “The Intrusions of Jimmy,” etc.)
The Editor foresees a revolution in dental surgery—the executioner will no longer administer laughing-gas to his victims, he will read them this screamingly funny yarn about the Disentangling Agency.
HARK! What is that?
“Tweetle, tweetle, tweetle.”
“Twootle, twootle, twootle.”
It is the thrush calling to his mate, and the dove, similarly employed. For it is Spring—Spring which sends the blood racing through the veins; Spring, which unlocks the flowers to paint the laughing soil; Spring, which causes the human race to commit more varieties of foolishness in a day than they would so much as contemplate in the whole of the Autumn and Winter.
* * * * *
The object of the Systematic Disentangling Agency is, as its name implies, systematically to disentangle. It takes hold of and systematically disentangles those young couples who, unsuited to each other in every way, propose to go through life together on the strength of having the same idea of how to dance the Tango or because their judgment, such as it is, is temporarily clouded by the effects of romantic fiction and a little moonlight.
In the pre-S.D.A. days, disentangling was a crude and generally unsuccessful process. Amateurs were permitted a free hand. The parents stormed or wept, according to their sex; the elderly relatives did their best with platitudes. In the majority of cases the young couple eloped at the end of the first week.
Then came the S.D.A., with its corps of workers, male and female. Whether male or female, the procedure of these workers was the same. The assistant would introduce himself, or herself, into the situation in the capacity of a rival; and such were the fascinations of the employees of the Agency that failure was almost unknown. The S.D.A. could disentangle anyone from anybody. Under its magnetic influence, chorus girls gave up heirs to peerages, and it is an open secret that an eminent Mahomedan was restrained from his seventy-eighth plunge into matrimony entirely by its efforts.
Business was always brisk with the S.D.A. in the Spring. Kindly old Mr. Smith, its founder and proprietor, was busy from morning till night, opening letters, reading telegrams, answering telephone calls, interviewing callers, and dispatching his assistants on their errands of mercy to all parts of the country.
There was nothing in Mr. Smith’s appearance to suggest that he was England’s leading genius and philanthropist. Yet from the brain of this one man had sprung the entire conception of the noblest project that ever came to help a suffering world.
The truly great are essentially retiring, and I have been able to discover little concerning the early history of this remarkable man. It is certain, however, that for many years he was employed in the office of a well-known lawyer who specialised in divorce. One can readily imagine that it was the spectacle of the ill-mated pairs who crowded his employer’s sanctum, clamouring for freedom, that first created in his mind the germ of his great scheme. One can see young Smith, his spirits slowly wilting beneath this stream of incompatible temperaments, saying to himself: “What a pity that all these disastrous marriages were not nipped in the bud before the worst had time to happen.” From that thought to the foundation of the S.D.A. was but a step.
As this great and good man sat smoking a cigar in his comfortable office in Oxford Street, Cyril, the gentlemanly office-boy, entered with a letter. A thoughtful frown wrinkled Mr. Smith’s brow as he read.
“Get Mr. Jones on the ’phone,” he said; “and ask him to come at once.”
About twenty minutes later the door opened, and a young man walked in.
Spenser Jones was the star assistant of the S.D.A. Nature had planned him for the profession. The lean, keen grace of his body, the pre-eminent Charles Dana Gibsonity of his profile—these were only two of the things which had made him, at twenty-seven, the most valued member of Mr. Smith’s staff.
“Come in, Jones, my boy!” said Mr. Smith. “Take a cigar and sit down. I have a job for you!”
Spenser Jones selected a cigar, and bit the end off with an indescribable grace. The ordinary young man attacks a cigar as if it were a bone and he a dog just finishing a fast-cure. Jones was different. He imparted an air almost of romance to the action. In everything he did there was this subtle—what-shall-we-call-it—this indefinable je-ne-sais-quoi!
“An S.O.S.,” said Mr. Smith. “Read that!”
The letter, which was headed, “The White Farm, Lesser Burple, Salop,” and signed “Clarence Tremayne,” ran as follows:
On receipt of this, kindly send without a moment’s delay your very best man to disentangle me. Your Agency was recommended to me by my friend Rollo Wackerbath. He said you never failed. For Heaven’s sake don’t fail me now, for my life’s happiness is at stake. Send the best man on your staff. Expense no object.
“P.S.—Take two-twenty train, Paddington to Bridgnorth. A carriage will wait.
“P.P.S.—For goodness’ sake send a real good man. I myself am a man of extraordinary personal attractions, and the arrival of any cheap competition will only precipitate the worst.
“P.P.S.S.—Double fee for the right man.”
Jones handed the letter back to his employer.
“A serious case!” he said.
“So serious, Jones, that I shall ask you to start for The White Farm at once. That is the letter of a desperate man.”
“One thing perplexes me, Mr. Smith. If this Mr. Tremayne is so scared, why does he not leave the place?”
“There may be a variety of reasons. One that suggests itself is that he is at the farm convalescing after some illness. That would account for it, and also for the fact that he appears to be incapable of resisting the amatory impulse. These cases are not unusual at this time of year. I myself, when I was your age, proposed marriage to a girl I disliked intensely simply because I was a little run-down and the trees looked so jolly coming out in the Green Park. She refused me, I am glad to say. However, these reminiscences are not business. You will be able to ascertain all the facts from Mr. Tremayne himself. You can make your preparations in time to catch the two-twenty train?”
“Then, good-bye, Jones, and good luck to you. And,” he added with a smile, “may you bring it off without having to fulfil Rule Sixty-three.”
In the little red-covered brochure, entitled “Rules for Assistants,” which Mr. Smith presented to each member of his staff on his or her enlistment, Rule Sixty-three was printed in large letters. It embraced the rescue from drowning.
All his life Mr. Smith had been an indefatigable reader of the fiction of his native land, and his researches had convinced him that nothing so quickly and securely established a tender understanding between the male and female of the species than this rescuing from drowning. In a course of reading that extended over forty years, he had never come across a case of a man not falling in love with the woman he had rescued in this fashion, or of a woman not falling in love with the man who had rescued her. Apparently there was some natural law that governed the matter.
It was understood, therefore, in the S.D.A. that no case must be considered hopeless until Rule Sixty-three had been tried and proved unsuccessful. It was the last resort.
The remoteness of the spot for which he was bound had led Spenser Jones to expect that he would be the only passenger on the dilapidated carriage which waited at Bridgnorth in accordance with the telegram which he had dispatched from Paddington.
To his surprise, however, he found that he was to have a companion. As he reached the carriage, a girl stepped from its shadow, beamed upon him, and spoke:
“Mr. Jones? I hope you won’t mind my sharing this carriage with you? You see, it’s the only one there is, and I had some business in Bridgnorth, so I came in by it. I don’t want to walk back, so there it is!”
Years of professional disentangling had given Spenser Jones an almost impregnable poise, but for a moment he found himself at a loss for words. Violent emotions were leaping within him like young lambkins. He could feel the blood sizzling madly in his veins. The sun shone more brightly, and the song of the birds sounded like a million heavenly squeaking slate-pencils.
He stared at the girl with the dumb, tense, wide-eyed stare of a sheep chewing grass.
She was a wonderfully pretty girl. There was an irresistible picture-postcardidity about her face which really made it unfair for her to go about in the spring without a veil. To see her was to love her. Meeting her on that May morning, with the sun shining, and the birds singing and the breeze wafting the scent of the wild flowers, a man with decent eyesight simply had no more chance than a helpless bottle of beer at the annual outing of the staff of a London music hall.
Jones found his voice.
“I should be delighted!”
“It’s very kind of you.”
A sudden idea struck Jones. At a place like the White Farm, miles from anywhere, there could not be many girls. Could it be that this was the girl from whom he had to disentangle Clarence Tremayne? If so, history could show no such ideal instance of the blending of business with pleasure.
“Are you staying at the White Farm by any chance?” he asked.
“Yes. By the way, my name is Mary Shields.”
“Then you know Mr. Tremayne?”
“Oh, yes!” The enthusiastic ring in her voice confirmed Jones’ suspicion. “Do you know him?”
“He’s a dear!”
Spenser Jones began to disentangle.
“Yes,” he said, “I suppose there is no real harm in Clarence.”
She looked at him, surprised.
“What do you mean, no real harm?”
“Why, it is probably mere thoughtlessness.”
“And vanity, of course; and a certain want of imagination and delicacy; and innate vice. And his misfortune in being—shall I say—not quite a gentleman.”
“I don’t understand!”
“I am alluding to the way in which he makes love to every girl he meets. I am sure that when he reflects,” went on Jones, thoughtfully, “he is as sorry as anyone for the misery he causes.”
“Miss Shields,” said Jones, in a low, grave voice, “it is not an easy thing for a man to say of an old college chum, but where women are concerned Clarence Tremayne simply does not know the meaning of the word honour.”
She gave a startled cry.
“That,” said Jones to himself, “should hold Clarence for a while.” And for the remainder of the drive he turned the conversation into pleasanter channels.
The first stunning force of the shock which he had received when he looked into her eyes and realised that he was definitely in love had passed, and he was able once more to be his debonnair self. In the mellow voice which had done such service in the past to the coffers of the S.D.A. he talked to this girl. He spoke of the sun, the birds, the flowers, and the breeze. He quoted Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. He was becoming prematurely tender in his manner when the old horse stopped, and, looking up, he realised that they were at their destination.
A young man who, despite the balmy warmth of the day, wore a winter overcoat, came out of the house and approached them. Spenser Jones ran to meet him.
“Clarence, old lad!” he cried, taking a chance on it.
The other raised his eyebrows disapprovingly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s all right,” explained Spencer Jones in a hurried undertone. “I’m Jones of the S.D.A. Mr. Smith sent me in answer to your letter. I told her we were at college together.”
“Miss Shields. She’s the girl you want to be disentangled from, isn’t she?”
“On the contrary. I hardly know Miss Shields. She only came here yesterday. But if you are from the S.D.A., come inside. I want to talk to you.”
They went into the house together and a few minutes later Clarence Tremayne was pouring his woes into the sympathetic ears of his rival.
“The lady,” said Clarence, “in connection with whom I require your professional services, is a Miss Heriot. I will place the facts of the case before you as concisely as I can. A few years ago, Miss Heriot and I were engaged to be married. The engagement was broken by mutual consent, each of us realising that our temperaments were hopelessly antagonistic. I saw no more of her till two weeks ago, when my doctor sent me to this benighted spot for convalescence after an attack of influenza. Conceive my horror and dismay when, on my arrival, I found Miss Heriot here! She, too, it appeared, had had influenza, and her doctor had recommended this farm for her convalescence.”
His sallow face turned a little paler at the recollection of that moment. Then, mastering his emotion, he proceeded:
“I need scarcely tell a man of your profession, Mr. Jones, that in the spring a man recovering from an attack of influenza is not in full control of his emotions. As the days went by, propinquity and the force of old associations began—slowly at first, then more rapidly—to get in their deadly work. The weather was perfect. The grass was so green, the breeze so soft, the apple-blossoms so white, and the magic of spring so overwhelming, that resistance in my enfeebled state was impossible. Gradually I felt myself yielding against my saner judgment to a horrible sentimentality which could only have one end. It was then that I remembered your Agency. Mr. Jones, my life’s happiness is in your hands. If I marry that woman, I shall spend a lifetime of refined torture. You must save me!”
“I will do my best,” said Jones, somewhat moved. “Have you a photograph of Miss Heriot, may I ask?”
“I am wearing it next my heart.”
He fished about in the recesses of his costume, as the diver dives for pearls, and brought out the picture of a girl.
Jones looked at it in silence. He began to realise the magnitude of his task. His profession had made him a student of physiognomy, and he told himself that this was going to be no easy case.
It was not unhandsome, this face. On the whole, perhaps, it might be called good-looking. What impressed Jones was its frightful determination. The eyes were cold and imperious; the mouth a thin line; the jaw square and resolute.
No, this was not to be one of those easy cases. If this girl wanted Clarence Tremayne it would take all the trained skill of the best man in the S.D.A. to make her change her mind.
He rose, serious and resolute.
“I will do my best, Mr. Tremayne,” he said. “I cannot say more.”
Miss Heriot in the flesh fell not a whit short of the threat of the photograph. Five minutes’ conversation with her at the dinner-table that night convinced Jones that all his anticipations were correct. If anything, her determination was greater than he had expected, her manner more coldly repellent. He tried her with Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and she did not soften. He mentioned the sun, the birds, the flowers, and the breeze, and she did not seem to think much of them.
A lesser man might have retired from the struggle then and there. Spenser Jones, however, was made of sterner stuff. Grimly he addressed himself to the task before him, and as the days went by, it seemed to him that he made progress—slight, it was true, but nevertheless progress. Once or twice at the evening meal, towards the end of the first week, Miss Heriot allowed statements of his to pass without flat contradiction. Once she thanked him for handing her the pepper, in a tone which suggested that she thought that he might be trying to do her a kindness. Hitherto, she had implied by her manner that while accepting the extended cruet, she resented it with all the force of her womanly purity.
These were small things, but they marked an advance; and, had he been purely the professional, he would have been pleased. But for the first time in his career his mind was not wholly on his job. Even while he attended to Miss Heriot, his mind would stray to Mary Shields. Even as he passed Miss Heriot the pepper, a mad impulse urged him to pass it to Mary Shields instead, and cry: “Take it, Mary, and with it my heart. You are the one I love.” But always duty would restrain him.
In the whole course of his professional career, Spenser Jones had never been in so mortifying a situation. His duty to his employer compelled him to be assiduous in his attentions to Miss Heriot, and this necessitated an almost complete neglect of the girl whom, he now knew, he loved as nobody had ever loved before.
He could see that the first impression which he had made on her had faded. How could it be otherwise? Doubtless, he thought bitterly, as he pressed the bread upon Miss Heriot or strove to win a smile from her with the boiled potatoes, Mary considered him the mere fickle butterfly, which, during that first drive of theirs, he had accused Clarence of being. Her manner grew colder towards him daily. He could read her thoughts. She despised him.
Clarence, it seemed, was the man who attracted her. That was the horrible thing. Towards him, she was all smiles and amiability. She courted his society. To come upon them in some shady corner of the orchard, or to see them rowing together on the lake, was pure torture to Spenser Jones, and it happened several times a day.
He determined to end this impossible state of things. Swift measures must be taken, or he could not answer for the consequences. Finesse must be abandoned, and the case cleared up one way or the other by the immediate application of Rule Sixty-three.
The lake, on the shores of which the farm was built, was one of those which Nature in her beneficent way has set apart for the use of the summer visitor. It was one of those lakes the first glimpse of which causes a man to look absently round for the Lover’s Leap, the Grotto, and the hotel “with every convenience and cheerful, refined society.”
It was not difficult to induce Miss Heriot to come out on it with him. As a rule, she made him take her against his will. Her chief relaxation was to sit in a boat, while he rowed, and muse silently on the future of the Feminist Movement, a subject in which she was keenly interested.
On this afternoon, therefore, the calm surface of the water was dotted, in addition to the small islands and the water-fowl, with a rather rickety boat. On the rower’s seat sat Spenser Jones, rowing; in the stern sat Miss Amelie Heriot, musing silently on the future of the Feminist Movement.
Spenser Jones was ill at ease. He loathed the prospect before him. He looked down at the chilly water so soon to receive his shuddering form, and cursed the generations of fiction-writers who by sheer force of repetition had established the tradition on which Rule Sixty-three had been based.
He made one last effort to avoid destiny. It might be that on such a day as this, in such surroundings, Miss Heriot would at last show herself susceptible to the softening effects of poetry. He coughed.
“ ‘On thy fair bosom, silver lake,’ ” he said, “ ‘the wild swan spreads his snowy sail, and round his breast the ripples break, as down he bears before the gale.’ ”
Miss Heriot concentrated herself silently on the future of the Feminist Movement.
He tried again.
“How irresistibly, Miss Heriot, this recalls those lines of Gray! ‘Fair laughs the morn, and soft the zephyr blows; while proudly riding o’er the azure realm in gallant trim the gilded vessel goes, Youth on the prow and pleasure at the helm.’ Does it not?”
“It does not.”
A faint sigh escaped Spenser Jones.
“Let me arrange those cushions for you,” he said dully.
The water was even colder than he had feared, and tasted of frogs. Expelling as much of it as he could on his return to the surface, he looked round for his late companion, and found her at his side. The upturned boat bobbed lazily on the swell.
Miss Heriot brushed the water from her eyes.
“Idiot!” she cried. “Fool! Imbecile!”
Jones trod water dumbly. There was nothing in Rule Sixty-three that had prepared him for this development of the situation.
It was exceedingly awkward. She was glaring at him with unconcealed dislike. You cannot rescue a woman who glares at you with unconcealed dislike.
The etiquette of the ballroom came into his mind.
“May I have the pleasure of—er—this rescue?” he asked courteously.
“You may not. I am quite competent to rescue myself. I have won handsome prizes for my swimming!”
Here was another complication. Rule Sixty-three had been framed on the theory that no woman knew how to swim. There seemed nothing to say. Jones swam about in meditative circles.
Then, at his elbow, he heard a voice say: “Amelie, be brave. I am here!” and Clarence Tremayne shot past him, using a strong trudgeon stroke.
Jones looked after him, astonished. Where Clarence had come from was more than he could say. A moment before, the lake had apparently been free from him; and now here he was in the middle of things.
Miss Heriot, in her strong-minded way, had paid no attention to the newcomer. With a workmanlike Australian crawl she had begun her journey to the shore. Jones watched them, and anticipated a close finish. Now one gained, now the other. It was anybody’s race.
The water was so unpleasantly cold that his sporting blood was speedily chilled; and, his interest in the race waning, he was about to make for the shore, when he was checked by a bubbling cry of “Help!”
The mystery of Clarence’s sudden appearance was solved. There, round the corner of a small island, bobbed a second upturned boat; and close beside it he perceived the head and shoulders of Mary Shields.
He sped in her direction, and with a strong hand supported her while she made up arrears of breath.
“Keep calm,” he said.
She clung to him, gasping.
“I’m all right now. How horrible the water tastes!”
“Awful! When one reflects that that’s the stuff many people drink for pleasure, it makes one despair of one’s species.”
As he spoke, something knocked against his cheek. He looked down. It was a small red book. Something in the look of it seemed familiar to him. He seized it with his free hand.
In small gold letters on the cover he read the words “Rules For Assistants, by Paul Smith.”
The girl caught sight of it, and uttered an exclamation.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “That belongs to me. It must have fallen out when the boat upset. It’s nothing. Just a—a book of mine.”
The scales had fallen from Spenser’s eyes. He saw all.
“Then you——? Then that is why——? Mary, are you one of us? Are you, too, on the staff of the S.D.A.?”
“Too? Are you?”
“I have been on the staff for years. I was sent down here to disentangle Clarence Tremayne. He sent us an S.O.S.”
“Then that is why your boat upset! Yes, I am on the staff. Miss Heriot sent in a hurry call, and they gave the case to me.”
“And that is why your boat upset! Clarence was to have rescued you?”
“Yes, and he swam right off, the pig, without a glance at me.”
“Brute! Well, after this she will probably marry him. And serve him right. Mary——”
“You must not call me Mary.”
“I must, I will call you Mary. I loved you the first time I saw you. I still love you. I shall never love anybody else. If you refuse me, I shall be a broken man, and probably become a hermit. I worship the ground you tread on—or will shortly tread on. All these days, while you have been making yourself pleasant to that ass Tremayne, I have been in torment. Mary, won’t you speak to me?”
“Yes, Spenser, if you will keep my head well above water. I, too, have always loved you; and there are moments, when you were gazing into Miss Heriot’s eyes, when I could gladly have had hysterics.”
“My darling! It was purely in the way of business.”
“I know, I know! And so was my flirting with Clarence. Ours is a hard life, dearest.”
“My angel, you have done your last piece of disentangling. I have saved money. I am a rich man. We will resign at once. Never again will you be subjected to the horrors of Rule Sixty-three.”
“I always hated Rule Sixty-three. You see, I can’t swim, and that makes it so awkward.”
“And Clarence left you without so much as a nod! I am loth to harbour resentment in my hour of happiness, but, when we get to shore, I shall certainly beat Clarence with a brick. Now put your hand on my shoulder, and we’ll be starting.”
As they walked home in the dusk, two figures loomed up before them.
“ ’Tis Clarence!” muttered Spenser Jones, and was springing forward when Mary laid a gentle hand on his arm.
From the darkness in front of them came the sound of Miss Heriot’s voice, speaking with deep feeling.
“You cannot think how glad I am, Clarence, that we have had this little talk.”
“And I,” said Clarence, “feel ten years younger.”
“When I return to Hampstead I shall prepare a paper on ‘Cold Water as an Antidote to Spring.’ It should be in the hands of every girl in England. Until that boat upset, I had been regarding you with a warmth of feeling which I can only describe as maudlin. I am ashamed to say that I slept nightly with your photograph beneath my pillow. In addition, I not infrequently kissed it. Purely owing to the influence of the spring, our propinquity, and a feebleness of will-power induced by my late attack of influenza, I had slipped into a condition of mind when—I blush to say it—I regarded you as my soulmate.”
“Me, too,” murmured Clarence.
“And now all that is over. I can look you in the eyes, and say that, as far as I have data, you are the most repulsive man in Great Britain. I say nothing of the Continent or the United States, for I have never travelled.”
“I have,” said Clarence eagerly. “And believe me, though I have seen thousands of women in every country on the map, I have never met one so utterly loathsome to me as yourself.”
She sighed contentedly.
“Your words are like music. And to think that only a few short hours ago——”
There was a silence.
“Do you know those curious wiggly insects you find under flat stones?”
“I do, Amelie.”
“That sensation of creepy horror with which they inspire me is as nothing compared with my feelings towards you.”
“I understand, I understand,” he said sympathetically. “It is the same with me. But a short while back, I worshipped you. You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it. And now—far away over the sea, Amelie, in sun-scorched Arizona, there is a creature called the Hydrophobia Skunk. It is neither sightly nor socially popular, but I can honestly say that I infinitely prefer it to you.”
Mary slipped her arm into Spenser’s.
“So that’s all right,” she murmured softly. “Come, Spenser, dear!”
She raised her face to his, and together they wandered slowly into the scented dusk.
Charles Dana Gibson: American illustrator (1867–1944), known today mostly for drawing the “Gibson Girl”; this 1914 print titled “Their First Quarrel” illustrates the profile that Wodehouse ascribed to Spenser Jones.
Bridgnorth: In Shropshire, right in the heart of Wodehouse country; Wodehouse’s parents lived nearby from 1895 to 1902, and he set Blandings Castle in the vicinity. Recall that the Empress’s prizes are noted in the Bridgnorth, Shifnal and Albrighton Argus.
“On thy fair bosom, silver lake”: Poem “To Seneca Lake” by James Gates Perceval (1795–1856).
“Fair laughs the morn, and soft the zephyr blows”: Ode “The Bard” by Thomas Gray (1716–1771).
trudgeon: The Trudgen stroke was named after English swimmer John Trudgen (1852–1902); the erroneous alternate spelling trudgeon is common enough to be mentioned in the original edition of the OED.
You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it: 1913 song (sheet music) by Joseph McCarthy and James Monaco (1913 recording by Al Jolson)