Vain Tale.—No. DCLIII.


By P. G. Wodehouse.

Vanity Fair (UK), June 25, 1903


THERE was once upon a time a fairy of no fixed abode or occupation, and, indeed, no visible means of support, who was wont to relieve the boredom of existence by a practical joke. It was the only joke in her repertory, and she was immensely proud of it. She used to hunt up a deserving couple, and give them three gifts between them. This was, strictly speaking, where the fun began. The husband, slightly sceptical, would wish for something trivial and useless, with a view of testing the validity of the gifts, and ascertaining if everything was in working order. Then the wife would wish for something unpleasant to happen to her husband as a punishment, and the remaining gift was generally used as an antidote, to clear things up a little. And the fairy would stagger about the room, roaring with laughter, and vowing that Dan Leno was literally not in it.

It happened one day that the fairy—her name was Malevola—chanced to feel a little hipped, and, by way of cheering herself up, determined to try her joke again. She found a likely-looking couple, and made known her errand.

“I propose,” she said, “to give you three wishes, which please sign for on the subjoined form. You share the wishes, you understand. Here they are, and much good may they do you.”

But, instead of wishing for the conventional foolishness, the man turned the wishes over in his hand curiously, and seemed a trifle suspicious.

“You couldn’t give me a guarantee?” he inquired.

“A guarantee?”

“Yes. Just a line or two in writing to say exactly what these wishes are, and that they are warranted sound, and so on. Mere formality, of course, but it would be a convenience.”

And the fairy, slightly puzzled—for modern business methods were strange to her—wrote the desired statement, and the man took an omnibus and went to Somerset House to get the document stamped.

On the following day the fairy called again.

“Well,” she said, in her cheery way, “used those wishes yet?”

“Why, no,” said the man. “The fact is, we can’t quite settle what to wish for.”

“Oh, come,” chuckled the fairy, “don’t say that. Why can’t you wish for a black-pudding?”

“ ’M’no,” said the man, “I don’t think black-puddings are much in our line. I must try and think of something.”

“Well, be quick about it. Those wishes won’t last for ever, you know. Especially if you don’t keep them in an air-tight case or on ice. I should decide on something within the next few days if I were you. G’morning.”

“A most promising case,” she said to herself as she went away, “an exceedingly promising case. If that man doesn’t wish for something foolish, I am no judge of human character. I must keep my eye on him. This business, I foresee, is going to have its humorous side.”

For the next week an unusually heavy press of business kept her working full time. She had got somewhat behindhand of late with her engagements, and they had accumulated. There were a considerable number of changelings to be substituted for babies, and babies to be converted into hedgehogs (by a process of which this fairy happened to be the sole patentee). And an apparatus had to be devised for a King to enable an acquaintance of his to spit toads whenever he opened his mouth, and a rather similar apparatus for the acquaintance to enable the King to spit lizards. In short, in one way and another, the fairy had her hands full for some days. At last, however, she cleared off all arrears, and, hailing a passing dragon-fly, called at the man’s residence. His name was Jones, and he lived at Clapham.

“Mr. Jones lives here, does he not?” inquired the fairy of the servant who opened the door.

“There used to be a Mr. Brown who lived here years and years ago,” replied the servant, who had recently taken up the study of Ollendorf in her spare time, “but no Mr.— Oh, Mr. Jones. Oh, ’e’s gorn to live in Park Lane. Number 10 B Park Lane ’e said his letters was to be forwarded to.”

“Park Lane,” said the fairy to herself as she flew off, “surely the man cannot have wished for a house in Park Lane. Well, well, it may be all right after all. He may have forgotten to wish for money enough to keep it up.”

She called at number 10 B Park Lane. A supercilious footman opened the door and regarded her coldly.

“Is Mr. Jones in?” asked the fairy.

“Mr. Jones is in, but he’s not at home,” said the footman.

“Oh, but please tell him the Fairy Malevola has called. I am sure he will see me.”

The footman took her card, and returned to say that Mr. Jones could give her two minutes if she would step this way. The fairy stepped that way.

Mr. Jones was reclining on a scented sofa, smoking a priceless Flor di Cabbagio cheroot, and lazily peeling a prize nectarine. “Ah, pray take a seat,” he said. “Can I be of assistance to you in any way?”

“Well,” said the fairy, “so here you are. And how about the other two wishes? Have you used them yet?”

“As a matter of fact, I personally have not used any of the wishes. You see, it was like this: After you left a fortnight ago, I consulted with my wife, and we came to the conclusion that we had better dispose of the gifts. So we—ah—did.”

“Dispose of them!”

“Yes, by auction. You see, that three wish-trick may have done for the days of your youth and that sort of thing, but to take in the modern business man in these days of American competition you want something a little fresher, a little more subtle, if you understand me. I published your guarantee in the advertisement columns of the morning papers, put the wishes up to public auction in three lots of one wish apiece, and retired on the proceeds. And here, as you very justly observe, I am. I should really advise you—I know you will not take offence at a friendly hint—to make an effort to move with the times to a greater extent. In these days your methods are antiquated. Out of date completely. What, must you really go? Good afternoon.”

It was noticed in supernatural circles that evening that the Fairy Malevola was careworn and preoccupied.