The Strand Magazine, May 1923
“LADDIE,” said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, that much-enduring man, helping himself to my tobacco and slipping the pouch absently into his pocket, “listen to me, you son of Belial.”
“What?” I said, retrieving the pouch.
“Do you want to make an enormous fortune?”
“Then write my biography. Bung it down on paper, and we’ll split the proceeds. I’ve been making a pretty close study of your stuff lately, old horse, and it’s all wrong. The trouble with you is that you don’t plumb the well-springs of human nature and all that. You just think up some rotten yarn about some-dam-thing-or-other and shove it down. Now, if you tackled my life, you’d have something worth writing about. Pots of money in it, my boy—English serial rights and American serial rights and book rights and dramatic rights and movie rights—well, you can take it from me that, at a conservative estimate, we should clean up at least fifty thousand pounds apiece.”
“As much as that?”
“Fully that. And listen, laddie, I’ll tell you what. You’re a good chap and we’ve been pals for years, so I’ll let you have my share of the English serial rights for a hundred pounds down.”
“What makes you think I’ve got a hundred pounds?”
“Well, then, I’ll make it my share of the English and American serial rights for fifty.”
“Your collar’s come off its stud.”
“How about my complete share of the whole dashed outfit for twenty-five?”
“Not for me, thanks.”
“Then I’ll tell you what, old horse,” said Ukridge, inspired. “Just lend me half a crown to be going on with.”
IF the leading incidents of S. F. Ukridge’s disreputable career are to be given to the public—and not, as some might suggest, decently hushed up—I suppose I am the man to write them. Ukridge and I have been intimate since the days of school. Together we sported on the green, and when he was expelled no one missed him more than I. An unfortunate business, this expulsion. Ukridge’s generous spirit, ever ill-attuned to school rules, caused him eventually to break the solemnest of them all by sneaking out at night to try his skill at the coco-nut-shies of the local village fair; and his foresight in putting on scarlet whiskers and a false nose for the expedition was completely neutralized by the fact that he absent-mindedly wore his school cap throughout the entire proceedings. He left the next morning, regretted by all.
After this there was a hiatus of some years in our friendship. I was at Cambridge, absorbing culture, and Ukridge, as far as I could gather from his rare letters and the reports of mutual acquaintances, flitting about the world like a snipe. Somebody met him in New York, just off a cattle-ship. Somebody else saw him in Buenos Ayres. Somebody, again, spoke sadly of having been pounced on by him at Monte Carlo and touched for a fiver. It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Piccadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had been broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
Then he disappeared again, and it was a month or more before I got news of him.
It was George Tupper who brought the news. George was head of the school in my last year, and he has fulfilled exactly the impeccable promise of those early days. He is in the Foreign Office, doing well and much respected. He has an earnest, pulpy heart and takes other people’s troubles very seriously. Often he had mourned to me like a father over Ukridge’s erratic progress through life, and now, as he spoke, he seemed to be filled with a solemn joy, as over a reformed prodigal.
“Have you heard about Ukridge?” said George Tupper. “He has settled down at last. Gone to live with an aunt of his who owns one of those big houses on Wimbledon Common. A very rich woman. I am delighted. It will be the making of the old chap.”
I suppose he was right in a way, but to me this tame subsidence into companionship with a rich aunt in Wimbledon seemed somehow an indecent, almost a tragic, end to a colourful career like that of S. F. Ukridge. And when I met the man a week later my heart grew heavier still.
IT was in Oxford Street at the hour when women come up from the suburbs to shop; and he was standing among the dogs and commissionaires outside Selfridge’s. His arms were full of parcels, his face was set in a mask of wan discomfort, and he was so beautifully dressed that for an instant I did not recognize him. Everything which the Correct Man wears was assembled on his person, from the silk hat to the patent-leather boots; and, as he confided to me in the first minute, he was suffering the tortures of the damned. The boots pinched him, the hat hurt his forehead, and the collar was worse than the hat and boots combined.
“She makes me wear them,” he said, moodily, jerking his head towards the interior of the store and uttering a sharp howl as the movement caused the collar to gouge his neck.
“Still,” I said, trying to turn his mind to happier things, “you must be having a great time. George Tupper tells me that your aunt is rich. I suppose you’re living off the fat of the land.”
“The browsing and sluicing are good,” admitted Ukridge. “But it’s a wearing life, laddie. A wearing life, old horse.”
“Why don’t you come and see me sometimes?”
“I’m not allowed out at night.”
“Well, shall I come and see you?”
A look of poignant alarm shot out from under the silk hat.
“Don’t dream of it, laddie,” said Ukridge, earnestly. “Don’t dream of it. You’re a good chap—my best pal and all that sort of thing—but the fact is, my standing in the home’s none too solid even now, and one sight of you would knock my prestige into hash. Aunt Julia would think you worldly.”
“I’m not worldly.”
“Well, you look worldly. You wear a squash hat and a soft collar. If you don’t mind my suggesting it, old horse, I think, if I were you, I’d pop off now before she comes out. Good-bye, laddie.”
“Ichabod!” I murmured sadly to myself, as I passed on down Oxford Street. “Ichabod!”
I should have had more faith. I should have known my Ukridge better. I should have realized that a London suburb could no more imprison that great man permanently than Elba did Napoleon.
ONE afternoon, as I let myself into the house in Ebury Street of which I rented at that time the bedroom and sitting-room on the first floor, I came upon Bowles, my landlord, standing in listening attitude at the foot of the stairs.
“Good afternoon, sir,” said Bowles. “A gentleman is waiting to see you. I fancy I heard him calling me a moment ago.”
“Who is he?”
“A Mr. Ukridge, sir. He——”
A vast voice boomed out from above.
“Bowles, old horse!”
Bowles, like all other proprietors of furnished apartments in the south-western district of London, was an ex-butler, and about him, as about all ex-butlers, there clung like a garment an aura of dignified superiority which had never failed to crush my spirit. He was a man of portly aspect, with a bald head and prominent eyes of a lightish green—eyes that seemed to weigh me dispassionately and find me wanting. “H’m!” they seemed to say. “Young—very young. And not at all what I have been accustomed to in the best places.” To hear this dignitary addressed—and in a shout at that—as “old horse” affected me with much the same sense of imminent chaos as would afflict a devout young curate if he saw his bishop slapped on the back. The shock, therefore, when he responded not merely mildly but with what almost amounted to camaraderie was numbing.
“Sir?” cooed Bowles.
“Bring me six bones and a corkscrew.”
“Very good, sir.”
Bowles retired, and I bounded upstairs and flung open the door of my sitting-room.
“Great Scott!” I said, blankly.
THE place was a sea of Pekingese dogs. Later investigation reduced their numbers to six, but in that first moment there seemed to be hundreds. Goggling eyes met mine wherever I looked. The room was a forest of waving tails. With his back against the mantelpiece, smoking placidly, stood Ukridge.
“Hullo, laddie!” he said, with a genial wave of the hand, as if to make me free of the place. “You’re just in time. I’ve got to dash off and catch a train in a quarter of an hour. Stop it, you mutts!” he bellowed, and the six Pekingese, who had been barking steadily since my arrival, stopped in mid-yap, and were still. Ukridge’s personality seemed to exercise a magnetism over the animal kingdom, from ex-butlers to Pekes, which bordered on the uncanny. “I’m off to Sheep’s Cray, in Kent. Taken a cottage there.”
“Are you going to live there?”
“But what about your aunt?”
“Oh, I’ve left her. Life is stern and life is earnest, and if I mean to make a fortune I’ve got to bustle about and not stay cooped up in a place like Wimbledon.”
“Something in that.”
“Besides which, she told me the very sight of me made her sick and she never wanted to see me again.”
I might have guessed, directly I saw him, that some upheaval had taken place. The sumptuous raiment which had made him such a treat to the eye at our last meeting was gone, and he was back in his pre-Wimbledon costume, which was, as the advertisements say, distinctively individual. Over grey flannel trousers, a golf coat, and a brown sweater he wore like a royal robe a bright yellow mackintosh. His collar had broken free from its stud and showed a couple of inches of bare neck. His hair was disordered, and his masterful nose was topped by a pair of steel-rimmed pince-nez cunningly attached to his flapping ears with ginger-beer wire. His whole appearance spelled revolt.
Bowles manifested himself with a plateful of bones.
“That’s right. Chuck ’em down on the floor.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I like that fellow,” said Ukridge, as the door closed. “We had a dashed interesting talk before you came in. Did you know he had a cousin on the music-halls?”
“He hasn’t confided in me much.”
“He’s promised me an introduction to him later on. May be useful to be in touch with a man who knows the ropes. You see, laddie, I’ve hit on the most amazing scheme.” He swept his arm round dramatically, overturning a plaster cast of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. “All right, all right, you can mend it with glue or something, and, anyway, you’re probably better without it. Yessir, I’ve hit on a great scheme. The idea of a thousand years.”
“I’m going to train dogs.”
“For the music-hall stage. Dog acts, you know. Performing dogs. Pots of money in it. I start in a modest way with these six. When I’ve taught ’em a few tricks, I sell them to a fellow in the profession for a large sum and buy twelve more. I train those, sell ’em for a large sum, and with the money buy twenty-four more. I train those——”
“Here, wait a minute.” My head was beginning to swim. I had a vision of England paved with Pekingese dogs, all doing tricks. “How do you know you’ll be able to sell them?”
“Of course I shall. The demand’s enormous. Supply can’t cope with it. At a conservative estimate I should think I ought to scoop in four or five thousand pounds the first year. That, of course, is before the business really starts to expand.”
“When I get going properly, with a dozen assistants under me and an organized establishment, I shall begin to touch the big money. What I’m aiming at is a sort of Dogs’ College out in the country somewhere. Big place with a lot of ground. Regular classes and a set curriculum. Large staff, each member of it with so many dogs under his care, me looking on and superintending. Why, once the thing starts moving it’ll run itself, and all I shall have to do will be to sit back and endorse the cheques. It isn’t as if I would have to confine my operations to England. The demand for performing dogs is universal throughout the civilized world. America wants performing dogs. Australia wants performing dogs. Africa could do with a few, I’ve no doubt. My aim, laddie, is gradually to get a monopoly of the trade. I want everybody who needs a performing dog of any description to come automatically to me. And I’ll tell you what, laddie. If you like to put up a bit of capital, I’ll let you in on the ground floor.”
“All right. Have it your own way. Only don’t forget that there was a fellow who put nine hundred dollars into the Ford Car business when it was starting and he collected a cool forty million. I say, is that clock right? Great Scott! I’ll be missing my train. Help me mobilize these dashed animals.”
Five minutes later, accompanied by the six Pekingese and bearing about him a pound of my tobacco, three pairs of my socks, and the remains of a bottle of whisky, Ukridge departed in a taxi-cab for Charing Cross Station to begin his life-work.
Perhaps six weeks passed, six quiet Ukridgeless weeks, and then one morning I received an agitated telegram. Indeed, it was not so much a telegram as a cry of anguish. In every word of it there breathed the tortured spirit of a great man who has battled in vain against overwhelming odds. It was the sort of telegram which Job might have sent off after a lengthy session with Bildad the Shuhite:—
Come here immediately, laddie. Life and death matter, old horse. Desperate situation. Don’t fail me.
It stirred me like a bugle. I caught the next train.
THE White Cottage, Sheep’s Cray—destined, presumably, to become in future years an historic spot and a Mecca for dog-loving pilgrims—was a small and battered building standing near the main road to London at some distance from the village. I found it without difficulty, for Ukridge seemed to have achieved a certain celebrity in the neighbourhood; but to effect an entry was a harder task. I rapped for a full minute without result, then shouted; and I was about to conclude that Ukridge was not at home when the door suddenly opened. As I was just giving a final bang at the moment, I entered the house in a manner reminiscent of one of the Ballet Russe practising a new and difficult step.
“Sorry, old horse,” said Ukridge. “Wouldn’t have kept you waiting if I’d known who it was. Thought you were Gooch, the grocer—goods supplied to the value of six pounds three and a penny.”
“He keeps hounding me for his beastly money,” said Ukridge, bitterly, as he led the way into the sitting-room. “It’s a little hard. Upon my Sam it’s a little hard. I come down here to inaugurate a vast business and do the natives a bit of good by establishing a growing industry in their midst, and the first thing you know they turn round and bite the hand that was going to feed them. I’ve been hampered and rattled by these blood-suckers ever since I got here. A little trust, a little sympathy, a little of the good old give-and-take spirit—that was all I asked. And what happened? They wanted a bit on account! Kept bothering me for a bit on account, I’ll trouble you, just when I needed all my thoughts and all my energy and every ounce of concentration at my command for my extraordinarily difficult and delicate work. I couldn’t give them a bit on account. Later on, if they had only exercised reasonable patience, I would no doubt have been in a position to settle their infernal bills fifty times over. But the time was not ripe. I reasoned with the men. I said, ‘Here am I, a busy man, trying hard to educate six Pekingese dogs for the music-hall stage, and you come distracting my attention and impairing my efficiency by babbling about a bit on account. It isn’t the pull-together spirit,’ I said. ‘It isn’t the spirit that wins to wealth. These narrow petty-cash ideas can never make for success.’ But no, they couldn’t see it. They started calling here at all hours and waylaying me in the public highways till life became an absolute curse. And now what do you think has happened?”
“No. Worse. My landlord’s pinched them as security for his infernal rent! Sneaked the stock. Tied up the assets. Crippled the business at the very outset. Have you ever in your life heard of anything so dastardly? I know I agreed to pay the damned rent weekly and I’m about six weeks behind, but, my gosh! surely a man with a huge enterprise on his hands isn’t supposed to have to worry about these trifles when he’s occupied with the most delicate—— Well, I put all that to old Nickerson, but a fat lot of good it did. So then I wired to you.”
“Ah!” I said, and there was a brief and pregnant pause.
“I thought,” said Ukridge, meditatively, “that you might be able to suggest somebody I could touch.”
He spoke in a detached and almost casual way, but his eye was gleaming at me significantly, and I avoided it with a sense of guilt. My finances at the moment were in their customary unsettled condition—rather more so, in fact, than usual, owing to unsatisfactory speculations at Kempton Park on the previous Saturday, and it seemed to me that, if ever there was a time for passing the buck, this was it. I mused tensely. It was an occasion for quick thinking.
“George Tupper!” I cried, on the crest of a brain-wave.
“George Tupper?” echoed Ukridge, radiantly, his gloom melting like fog before the sun. “The very man, by Gad! It’s a most amazing thing, but I never thought of him. George Tupper, of course! Big-hearted George, the old school-chum. He’ll do it like a shot and won’t miss the money. These Foreign Office blokes have always got a spare tenner or two tucked away in the old sock. They pinch it out of the public funds. Rush back to town, laddie, with all speed, get hold of Tuppy, lush him up, and bite his ear for twenty quid. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.”
I HAD been convinced that George Tupper would not fail us, nor did he. He parted without a murmur—even with enthusiasm. The consignment was one that might have been made to order for him. As a boy, George used to write sentimental poetry for the school magazine, and now he is the sort of man who is always starting subscription lists and getting up memorials and presentations. He listened to my story with the serious official air which these Foreign Office fellows put on when they are deciding whether to declare war on Switzerland or send a firm note to San Marino, and was reaching for his cheque-book before I had been speaking two minutes. Ukridge’s sad case seemed to move him deeply.
“Too bad,” said George. “So he is training dogs, is he? Well, it seems very unfair that, if he has at last settled down to real work, he should be hampered by financial difficulties at the outset. We ought to do something practical for him. After all, a loan of twenty pounds cannot relieve the situation permanently.”
“I think you’re a bit optimistic if you’re looking on it as a loan.”
“What Ukridge needs is capital.”
“He thinks that, too. So does Gooch, the grocer.”
“Capital,” repeated George Tupper, firmly, as if he were reasoning with the plenipotentiary of some Great Power. “Every venture requires capital at first.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Where can we obtain capital for Ukridge?”
“Rob a bank.”
George Tupper’s face cleared.
“I have it!” he said. “I will go straight over to Wimbledon to-night and approach his aunt.”
“Aren’t you forgetting that Ukridge is about as popular with her as a cold welsh rabbit?”
“There may be a temporary estrangement, but if I tell her the facts and impress upon her that Ukridge is really making a genuine effort to earn a living——”
“Well, try it if you like. But she will probably set the parrot on to you.”
“It will have to be done diplomatically, of course. It might be as well if you did not tell Ukridge what I propose to do. I do not wish to arouse hopes which may not be fulfilled.”
A BLAZE of yellow on the platform of Sheep’s Cray Station next morning informed me that Ukridge had come to meet my train. The sun poured down from a cloudless sky, but it took more than sunshine to make Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge discard his mackintosh. He looked like an animated blob of mustard.
When the train rolled in, he was standing in solitary grandeur trying to light his pipe, but as I got out I perceived that he had been joined by a sad-looking man, who, from the rapid and earnest manner in which he talked and the vehemence of his gesticulations, appeared to be ventilating some theme on which he felt deeply. Ukridge was looking warm and harassed, and, as I approached, I could hear his voice booming in reply.
“My dear sir, my dear old horse, do be reasonable, do try to cultivate the big, broad, flexible outlook——”
He saw me and broke away—not unwillingly; and, gripping my arm, drew me off along the platform. The sad-looking man followed irresolutely.
“Have you got the stuff, laddie?” inquired Ukridge, in a tense whisper. “Have you got it?”
“Yes, here it is.”
“Put it back, put it back!” moaned Ukridge in agony, as I felt in my pocket. “Do you know who that was I was talking to? Gooch, the grocer!”
“Goods supplied to the value of six pounds three and a penny?”
“Well, now’s your chance. Fling him a purse of gold. That’ll make him look silly.”
“My dear old horse, I can’t afford to go about the place squandering my cash simply in order to make grocers look silly. That money is earmarked for Nickerson, my landlord.”
“Oh! I say, I think the six pounds three and a penny bird is following us.”
“Then for goodness’ sake, laddie, let’s get a move on! If that man knew we had twenty quid on us, our lives wouldn’t be safe. He’d make one spring.”
He hurried me out of the station and led the way up a shady lane that wound off through the fields, slinking furtively “like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once looked back walks on and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.” As a matter of fact, the frightful fiend had given up the pursuit after the first few steps, and a moment later I drew this fact to Ukridge’s attention, for it was not the sort of day on which to break walking records unnecessarily.
He halted, relieved, and mopped his spacious brow with a handkerchief which I recognized as having once been my property.
“Thank goodness we’ve shaken him off,” he said. “Not a bad chap in his way, I believe—a good husband and father, I’m told, and sings in the church choir. But no vision. That’s what he lacks, old horse—vision. He can’t understand that all vast industrial enterprises have been built up on a system of liberal and cheerful credit. Won’t realize that credit is the life-blood of commerce. Without credit commerce has no elasticity. And if commerce has no elasticity what dam’ good is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nor does anybody else. Well, now that he’s gone, you can give me that money. Did old Tuppy cough up cheerfully?”
“I knew it,” said Ukridge, deeply moved, “I knew it. A good fellow. One of the best. I’ve always liked Tuppy. A man you can rely on. Some day, when I get going on a big scale, he shall have this back a thousandfold. I’m glad you brought small notes.”
“I want to scatter ’em about on the table in front of this Nickerson blighter.”
“Is this where he lives?”
We had come to a red-roofed house, set back from the road amidst trees. Ukridge wielded the knocker forcefully.
“Tell Mr. Nickerson,” he said to the maid, “that Mr. Ukridge has called and would like a word.”
ABOUT the demeanour of the man who presently entered the room into which we had been shown there was that subtle but well-marked something which stamps your creditor all the world over. Mr. Nickerson was a man of medium height, almost completely surrounded by whiskers, and through the shrubbery he gazed at Ukridge with frozen eyes, shooting out waves of deleterious animal magnetism. You could see at a glance that he was not fond of Ukridge. Take him for all in all, Mr. Nickerson looked like one of the less amiable prophets of the Old Testament about to interview the captive monarch of the Amalekites.
“Well?” he said, and I have never heard the word spoken in a more forbidding manner.
“I’ve come about the rent.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Nickerson, guardedly.
“To pay it,” said Ukridge.
“To pay it!” ejaculated Mr. Nickerson, incredulously.
“Here!” said Ukridge, and with a superb gesture flung money on the table.
I understood now why the massive-minded man had wanted small notes. They made a brave display. There was a light breeze blowing in through the open window, and so musical a rustling did it set up as it played about the heaped-up wealth that Mr. Nickerson’s austerity seemed to vanish like breath off a razor-blade. For a moment a dazed look came into his eyes and he swayed slightly; then, as he started to gather up the money, he took on the benevolent air of a bishop blessing pilgrims. As far as Mr. Nickerson was concerned, the sun was up.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Ukridge, I’m sure,” he said. “Thank you very much. No hard feelings, I trust?”
“Not on my side, old horse,” responded Ukridge, affably. “Business is business.”
“Well, I may as well take those dogs now,” said Ukridge, helping himself to a cigar from a box which he had just discovered on the mantelpiece and putting a couple more in his pocket in the friendliest way. “The sooner they’re back with me, the better. They’ve lost a day’s education as it is.”
“Why, certainly, Mr. Ukridge; certainly. They are in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I will get them for you at once.”
He retreated through the door, babbling ingratiatingly.
“Amazing how fond these blokes are of money,” sighed Ukridge. “It’s a thing I don’t like to see. Sordid, I call it. That blighter’s eyes were gleaming, positively gleaming, laddie, as he scooped up the stuff. Good cigars these,” he added, pocketing three more.
There was a faltering footstep outside, and Mr. Nickerson re-entered the room. The man appeared to have something on his mind. A glassy look was in his whisker-bordered eyes, and his mouth, though it was not easy to see it through the jungle, seemed to me to be sagging mournfully. He resembled a minor prophet who has been hit behind the ear with a stuffed eel-skin.
“The—the little dogs!”
“The little dogs!”
“What about them?”
“They have gone!”
“Run away? How the devil could they run away?”
“There seems to have been a loose board at the back of the shed. The little dogs must have wriggled through. There is no trace of them to be found.”
Ukridge flung up his arms despairingly. He swelled like a captive balloon. His pince-nez rocked on his nose, his mackintosh flapped menacingly, and his collar sprang off its stud. He brought his fist down with a crash on the table.
“Upon my Sam!”
“I am extremely sorry——”
“Upon my Sam!” cried Ukridge. “It’s hard. It’s pretty hard. I come down here to inaugurate a great business, which would eventually have brought trade and prosperity to the whole neighbourhood, and I have hardly had time to turn round and attend to the preliminary details of the enterprise when this man comes and sneaks my dogs. And now he tells me with a light laugh——”
“Mr. Ukridge, I assure you——”
“Tells me with a light laugh that they’ve gone. Gone! Gone where? Why, dash it, they may be all over the county. A fat chance I’ve got of ever seeing them again. Six valuable Pekingese, already educated practically to the stage where they could have been sold at an enormous profit——”
Mr. Nickerson was fumbling guiltily, and now he produced from his pocket a crumpled wad of notes, which he thrust agitatedly upon Ukridge, who waved them away with loathing.
“This gentleman,” boomed Ukridge, indicating me with a sweeping gesture, “happens to be a lawyer. It is extremely lucky that he chanced to come down to-day to pay me a visit. Have you followed the proceedings closely?”
I said I had followed them very closely.
“Is it your opinion that an action will lie?”
I said it seemed highly probable, and this expert ruling appeared to put the final touch on Mr. Nickerson’s collapse. Almost tearfully be urged the notes on Ukridge.
“What’s this?” said Ukridge, loftily.
“I—I thought, Mr. Ukridge, that, if it were agreeable to you, you might consent to take your money back, and—and consider the episode closed.”
Ukridge turned to me with raised eyebrows.
“Ha!” he cried. “Ha, ha!”
“Ha, ha!” I chorused, dutifully.
“He thinks that he can close the episode by giving me my money back. Isn’t that rich?”
“Fruity,” I agreed.
“Those dogs were worth hundreds of pounds, and he thinks he can square me with a rotten twenty. Would you have believed it if you hadn’t heard it with your own ears, old horse?”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Ukridge, after thought. “I’ll take this money.” Mr. Nickerson thanked him. “And there are one or two trifling accounts which want settling with some of the local tradesmen. You will square those——”
“Certainly, Mr. Ukridge, certainly.”
“And after that—well, I’ll have to think it over. If I decide to institute proceedings my lawyer will communicate with you in due course.”
And we left the wretched man, cowering despicably behind his whiskers.
IT seemed to me, as we passed down the tree-shaded lane and out into the white glare of the road, that Ukridge was bearing himself in his hour of disaster with a rather admirable fortitude. His stock-in-trade, the life-blood of his enterprise, was scattered all over Kent, probably never to return, and all that he had to show on the other side of the balance-sheet was the cancelling of a few weeks’ back rent and the paying-off of Gooch, the grocer, and his friends. It was a situation which might well have crushed the spirit of an ordinary man, but Ukridge seemed by no means dejected. Jaunty, rather. His eyes shone behind their pince-nez and he whistled a rollicking air. When presently he began to sing, I felt that it was time to create a diversion.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Who, me?” said Ukridge, buoyantly. “Oh, I’m coming back to town on the next train. You don’t mind hoofing it to the next station, do you? It’s only five miles. It might be a trifle risky to start from Sheep’s Cray.”
“Because of the dogs, of course.”
Ukridge hummed a gay strain.
“Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you about that. I’ve got ’em.”
“Yes. I went out late last night and pinched them out of the shed.” He chuckled amusedly. “Perfectly simple. Only needed a clear, level head. I borrowed a dead cat and tied a string to it, legged it to old Nickerson’s garden after dark, dug a board out of the back of the shed, and shoved my head down and chirruped. The dogs came trickling out and I hared off, towing old Colonel Cat on his string. Great run while it lasted, laddie. Hounds picked up the scent right away and started off in a bunch at fifty miles an hour. Cat and I doing a steady fifty-five. Thought every minute old Nickerson would hear and start blazing away with a gun, but nothing happened. I led the pack across country for a run of twenty minutes without a check, parked the dogs in my sitting-room, and so to bed. Took it out of me, by gosh! Not so young as I was.”
I was silent for a moment, conscious of a feeling almost of reverence. This man was undoubtedly spacious. There had always been something about Ukridge that dulled the moral sense.
“Well,” I said at length, “you’ve certainly got vision.”
“Yes?” said Ukridge, gratified.
“And the big, broad, flexible outlook.”
“Got to, laddie, nowadays. The foundation of a successful business career.”
“And what’s the next move?”
WE were drawing near to the White Cottage. It stood and broiled in the sunlight, and I hoped that there might be something cool to drink inside it. The window of the sitting-room was open, and through it came the yapping of Pekingese.
“Oh, I shall find another cottage somewhere else,” said Ukridge, eyeing his little home with a certain sentimentality. “That won’t be hard. Lots of cottages all over the place. And then I shall buckle down to serious work. You’ll be astounded at the progress I’ve made already. In a minute I’ll show you what those dogs can do.”
“They can bark all right.”
“Yes. They seem excited about something. You know, laddie, I’ve had a great idea. When I saw you at your rooms my scheme was to specialize in performing dogs for the music-halls—what you might call professional dogs. But I’ve been thinking it over, and now I don’t see why I shouldn’t go in for developing amateur talent as well. Say you have a dog—Fido, the household pet—and you think it would brighten the home if he could do a few tricks from time to time. Well, you’re a busy man, you haven’t the time to give up to teaching him. So you just tie a label to his collar and ship him off for a month to the Ukridge Dog College, and back he comes, thoroughly educated. No trouble, no worry, easy terms. Upon my Sam, I’m not sure there isn’t more money in the amateur branch than in the professional. I don’t see why eventually dog owners shouldn’t send their dogs to me as a regular thing, just as they send their sons to Eton and Winchester. My golly! this idea’s beginning to develop. I’ll tell you what—how would it be to issue special collars to all dogs which have graduated from my college? Something distinctive which everybody would recognize. See what I mean? Sort of badge of honour. Fellow with a dog entitled to wear the Ukridge collar would be in a position to look down on the bloke whose dog hadn’t got one. Gradually it would get so that anybody in a decent social position would be ashamed to be seen out with a non-Ukridge dog. The thing would become a landslide. Dogs would pour in from all corners of the country. More work than I could handle. Have to start branches. The scheme’s colossal. Millions in it, my boy! Millions!” He paused with his fingers on the handle of the front door. “Of course,” he went on, “just at present it’s no good blinking the fact that I’m hampered and handicapped by lack of funds and can only approach the thing on a small scale. What it amounts to, laddie, is that somehow or other I’ve got to get capital.”
It seemed the moment to spring the glad news.
“I promised him I wouldn’t mention it,” I said, “for fear it might lead to disappointment, but as a matter of fact George Tupper is trying to raise some capital for you. I left him last night starting out to get it.”
“George Tupper!” Ukridge’s eyes dimmed with a not unmanly emotion. “George Tupper! By Gad, that fellow is the salt of the earth. Good, loyal fellow! A true friend. A man you can rely on. Upon my Sam, if there were more fellows about like old Tuppy, there wouldn’t be all this modern pessimism and unrest. Did he seem to have any idea where he could raise a bit of capital for me?”
“Yes. He went round to tell your aunt about your coming down here to train those Pekes, and—— What’s the matter?”
A fearful change had come over Ukridge’s jubilant front. His eyes bulged, his jaw sagged. With the addition of a few feet of grey whiskers he would have looked exactly like the recent Mr. Nickerson.
“My aunt?” he mumbled, swaying on the door-handle.
“Yes. What’s the matter? He thought, if he told her all about it, she might relent and rally round.”
The sigh of a gallant fighter at the end of his strength forced its way up from Ukridge’s mackintosh-covered bosom.
“Of all the dashed, infernal, officious, meddling, muddling, fat-headed, interfering asses,” he said, wanly, “George Tupper is the worst.”
“What do you mean?”
“The man oughtn’t to be at large. He’s a public menace.”
“Those dogs belong to my aunt. I pinched them when she chucked me out!”
Inside the cottage the Pekingese were still yapping industriously.
“Upon my Sam,” said Ukridge, “it’s a little hard.”
I think he would have said more, but at this point a voice spoke with a sudden and awful abruptness from the interior of the cottage. It was a woman’s voice, a quiet, steely voice, a voice, it seemed to me, that suggested cold eyes, a beaky nose, and hair like gun-metal.
That was all it said, but it was enough. Ukridge’s eye met mine in a wild surmise. He seemed to shrink into his mackintosh like a snail surprised while eating lettuce.
“Yes, Aunt Julia?” quavered Ukridge.
“Come here. I wish to speak to you.”
“Yes, Aunt Julia.”
I SIDLED out into the road. Inside the cottage the yapping of the Pekingese had become quite hysterical. I found myself trotting, and then—though it was a warm day—running quite rapidly. I could have stayed if I had wanted to, but somehow I did not want to. Something seemed to tell me that on this holy domestic scene I should be an intruder.
What it was that gave me that impression I do not know—probably vision or the big, broad, flexible outlook.
(Another amusing adventure of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge will appear next month.)