UNCLE FRED IN THE SPRINGTIME
The door of the Drones Club swung open, and a young man in form-fitting tweeds came down the steps and started to walk westwards. An observant passerby, scanning his face, would have fancied that he discerned on it a keen, tense look, like that of an African hunter stalking a hippopotamus. And he would have been right. Pongo Twistleton — for it was he — was on his way to try to touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport for two hundred pounds.
To touch Horace Pendlebury-Davenport, if you are coming from the Drones, you go down Hay Hill, through Berkeley Square, along Mount Street and up Park Lane to the new block of luxury flats which they have built where Bloxham House used to be: and it did not take Pongo long to reach journey’s end. It was perhaps ten minutes later that Webster, Horace’s man, opened the door in answer to his ring.
‘What ho, Webster. Mr Davenport in?’
‘No, sir. He has stepped out to take a dancing lesson.’
‘Well, he won’t be long, I suppose, what? I’ll come in, shall I?’
‘Very good, sir. Perhaps you would not mind waiting in the library. The sitting room in some little disorder at the moment.’
‘No, sir. Mr Davenport has been entertaining his uncle, the Duke of Dunstable, to luncheon, and over the coffee His Grace broke most of the sitting-room furniture with the poker.’
To say that this information surprised Pongo would be correct. To say that he was astounded, however, would be going too far. His Uncle Alaric’s eccentricities were a favourite theme of conversation with Horace Davenport, and in Pongo he had always found a sympathetic confidant, for Pongo had an eccentric uncle himself. Though hearing Horace speak of his Uncle Alaric and thinking of his own Uncle Fred, he felt like Noah listening to someone making a fuss about a drizzle.
‘What made him do that?’
‘I am inclined to think, sir, that something may have occurred to annoy His Grace.’
This seemed plausible, and in the absence of further data Pongo left it at that. He made his way to the small apartment dignified by the name of library, and wandering to the window stood looking out on Park Lane.
It was a cheerless prospect that met his eyes. Like all English springs, the one which had just come to London seemed totally unable to make up its fat-headed mind whether it was supposed to be that ethereal mildness of which the poet sings or something suitable for skiers left over from the winter. A few moments before, the sun had been shining with extraordinary brilliance, but now a sort of young blizzard was raging, and the spectacle had the effect of plunging Pongo into despondency.
Horace was engaged to marry his sister Valerie, but was it conceivable, he asked himself, that any man, even to oblige a future brother-in-law, would cough up the colossal sum of two hundred potatoes? The answer, he felt, was in the negative, and with a mournful sigh he turned away and began to pace the room.
If you pace the library of Number 52 Bloxham Mansions, starting at the window and going straight across country, your outward journey takes you past the writing-table. And as Pongo reached this writing-table, something there attracted his eye. From beneath the blotter the end of a paper was protruding, and on it were written the intriguing words:
They brought him up with as round a turn as if he had seen a baronet lying on the floor with an Oriental paperknife of antique design in his back. An overwhelming desire came upon him to see what all this was about. He was not in the habit of reading other people’s letters, but here was one which a man of the nicest scruples could scarcely be expected to pass up.
The thing was cast in narrative form, being, he found on examination, a sort of saga in which the leading character — a star part, if ever there was one — was somebody referred to as The Subject. From the activities of this individual Claude Pott seemed unable to tear himself away.
The Subject, who appeared to be abroad somewhere, for there was frequent mention of a Casino, was evidently one of those people who live for pleasure alone. You didn’t catch The Subject doing good to the poor or making a thoughtful study of local political conditions. When he — or she — was not entering Casino in comp. of friends (two male, one female) at 11.17 p.m., he — or she, for there was no clue as to whether this was a story with a hero or a heroine — was playing tenn., riding h’s, out on the golf links, lunching with three f’s, driving to Montreuil with one in., or dancing with party consisting of four m’s, ditto f’s, and in this latter case keeping it up into the small hours. Pongo was familiar with the expression ‘living the life of Riley’, and that it was a life of this nature that The Subject had been leading was manifest in the document’s every sentence.
But what the idea behind the narrative could be he found himself unable to divine. Claude Pott had a nice, crisp style, but his work was marred by the same obscurity which has caused complaint in the case of the poet Browning.
He had begun to read it for the third time, hoping for enlightenment, when the click of a latchkey came to his ears, and as he hastily restored the paper to its place the door opened and there entered a young man of great height but lacking the width of shoulder and ruggedness of limb which make height impressive. Nature, stretching Horace Davenport out, had forgotten to stretch him sideways, and one could have pictured Euclid, had they met, nudging a friend and saying. ‘Don’t look now, but this chap coming along illustrates exactly what I was telling you about a straight line having length without breadth.’
Farthest north of this great expanse there appeared a tortoise-shell-rimmed-spectacled face of so much amiability of expression that Pongo, sighting it, found himself once again hoping for the best.
‘What ho, Horace,’ he said, almost exuberantly.
‘Hullo, Pongo. You here? Has Webster told you about my uncle’s latest?’
‘He did just touch on it. His theory is that the old boy was annoyed about something. Does that seem to fit the facts?’
‘Absolutely. He was annoyed about quite a number of things. In the first place, he was going off to the country today and he had been counting on that fellow Baxter, his secretary, to go with him. He always likes to have someone with him on a railway journey.’
‘To dance before him, no doubt, and generally entertain him?’
‘And at the last moment Baxter said he would have to stay on in London to do some work at the British Museum in connection with that Family History Uncle Alaric has been messing about with for years. This made him shirty, for a start. He seemed to think it came under the head of being thwarted.’
‘A touch of thwarting about it, perhaps.’
‘And before coming to me he had been to see my cousin Ricky, and Ricky had managed to put his back up about something. So he was in dangerous mood when he got here. And we had scarcely sat down to lunch, when up popped a soufflé looking like a diseased custard. This did not help to ease the strain. And when we had had our coffee, and the time came for him to catch his train and he told me to go to the station with him and I said I couldn’t, that seemed to touch him off. He reached for the poker and started in.
‘Why wouldn’t you go to the station with him?’
‘I couldn’t. I was late for my dancing lesson.’
‘I was going to ask you about that. What’s this idea of your suddenly taking dancing lessons?’
‘Valerie insisted on it. She said I danced like a dromedary with the staggers.’
Pongo did not blame his sister. Indeed, in comparing her loved one to a dromedary with the staggers she had been, he thought, rather complimentary.
ow are you coming along?’
‘I think I’m making progress. Polly assures me so. Polly says I shall be able to go to the Ball tomorrow night. The Bohemian Ball at the Albert Hall. I’m going as a Boy Scout. I want to take Valerie to it and surprise her. Polly thinks I can get by all right.’
‘But isn’t Val at Le Touquet?’
‘She’s flying back today.’
‘Oh, I see. Tell me, who is this Polly who has crept into your conversation?’
‘She’s the girl who’s teaching me. I met her through Ricky. She’s a friend of his. Polly Pott. A nice, sympathetic sort of girl I’d always found her, so when this business of staggering dromedaries came up, I asked her if she would give me a few lessons.’
A pang of pity for this heroine shot through Pongo. He himself was reading for the Bar and had sometimes felt like cracking under the strain of it all, but he saw that compared with Polly Pott he was on velvet. Between trying to extract some meaning from the rambling writings of the Messrs Coke and Littleton and teaching dancing to Horace Davenport there was a substantial difference, and it was the person on whom life had thrust the latter task who must be considered to have drawn the short straw. The trouble was, he reflected, that Horace was so tall. A chap of that length didn’t really get on to what his feet were doing till some minutes after it had happened. What you wanted, of course, was to slice him in half and have two Horaces.
‘Polly Pott, eh? Any relation to Claude Pott, private investigator?’
‘His daughter. What do you know about Claude Pott, private investigator?’
Pongo stirred uneasily. Too late, he saw that he had rather invited the question.
‘Well, the fact is, old man, happening to pass the writing-table just now, and chancing inadvertently to catch sight of that document —’
‘I wish you wouldn’t read my letters.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t. But I could see that this wasn’t a letter. Just a document. So I ran my eye over it. I thought it might possibly be something with reference to which you were going to-seek my advice, knowing me to be a bit of a nib in legal matters, and I felt that a lot of time would be saved if I had the res at my fingers’ ends.’
‘And now I suppose you’ll go racing off to Valerie to tell her I had her watched by detectives while she was at Le Touquet.’
A blinding light flashed upon Pongo.
‘Great Scott! Was that what the thing was about?’
He pursed his lips — not too tightly, for he was still hoping to float that loan, but tightly enough to indicate that the Twistletons had their pride and resented their sisters being tailed up by detectives. Horace read his thoughts correctly.
‘Yes, I know, but you don’t realize the position, Pongo. It was the Drones Club weekend at Le Touquet. The thought of the girl I loved surrounded by about eighty-seven members of the Drones in the lax atmosphere of a foreign pleasure resort while I was far away was like a knife in my heart. Polly happened to mention that her father was a private investigator, never happier than when putting on a false nose and shadowing people, and the temptation was more than I could resist. Pongo, for heaven’s sake don’t breath a word about this to Valerie. If she has a fault, it is that she’s touchy. The sweetest of her sex, but a bit apt to go in off the deep end, when stirred. I can trust you?’
Pongo unpursed his lips. He understood all and pardoned all.
‘Of course, old man. She shall never learn from me. You don’t suppose I would wreck the happiness of my best friend… my oldest friend… my dearest friend… Horace, old top,’ said Pongo, for it was a Twistleton trait to recognize when the iron was hot, ‘I wonder if… I wonder whether … I wonder if you could possibly….’
‘Mr Claude Pott,’ announced Webster at the door.
To Pongo Twistleton, whose idea of a private investigator was a hawk-faced man with keen, piercing eyes and the general deportment of a leopard, Claude Pott came as a complete surprise. Hawks have no chins. Claude Pott had two. Leopards pad. Pott waddled. And his eyes, so far from being keen and piercing, were dull and expressionless, seeming, as is so often the case with those who go through life endeavouring to conceal their thoughts from the world, to be covered with a sort of film or glaze.
He was a stout, round, bald, pursy little man of about fifty, who might have been taken for a Silver Ring bookie or a minor Shakespearian actor — and, oddly enough, in the course of a life in which he had played many parts, he had actually been both.
‘Good afternoon, Mr D.,’ said this gargoyle.
‘Hullo, Mr Pott. When did you get back?’
‘Last night, sir. And thinking it over in bed this morning it occurred to me that it might be best if I were to deliver the concluding portion of my report verbally, thus saving time.’
‘Oh, there’s some more?’
‘Yes, sir. I will apprise you of the facts,’ said Claude Pott, giving Pongo a rather hard stare, ‘when you are at liberty.’
‘Oh, that’s all right. You may speak freely before Mr Twistleton. He knows all. This is Mr Twistleton, The Subject’s brother.’
‘Pongo to pals,’ murmured that young man weakly. He was finding the hard stare trying.
The austerity of the investigator’s manner relaxed.
‘Mr Pongo Twistleton? Then you must be the nephew of the Earl of Ickenham that he used to talk about.’
‘Yes, he’s my uncle.’
‘A splendid gentleman. One of the real old school. A sportsman to his fingertips.’
Pongo, though fond of his uncle, could not quite bring himself to share this wholehearted enthusiasm.
‘Yes, Uncle Fred’s all right, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Apart from being loopy to the tonsils. You know him, do you?’
‘I do indeed, sir. It was he who most kindly advanced me the money to start in business as a private investigator. So The Subject is Lord I.’s niece, is she? How odd! That his lordship should have financed me in my venture, I mean, and before I know where I am, I’m following his niece and taking notes of her movements. Strange!’ said Mr Pott. ‘Queer!’
‘Curious,’ assented Pongo.
‘Unusual,’ said Claude Pott.
‘Bizarre,’ suggested Pongo.
‘Most. Shows what a small world it is.’
Horace, who had been listening to these philosophical exchanges with some impatience, intervened.
‘You were going to make your report, Mr Pott.’
‘Cool!’ said Claude Pott, called to order. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? Well then, Mr D., to put the thing in a nutshell, I regret to have to inform you that there’s been what you might call a bit of an unfortunate occurrence. On the nineteenth Ap., which was yesterday, The Subject, having lunched at Hotel Picardy with party consisting of two females, three males, proceeded to the golf club, where she took out her hockey-knockers and started playing round with one associate, the junior professional, self following at a cautious distance. For some time nothing noteworthy transpired, but at the fourteenth hole … I don’t know if you happen to be familiar with the golf links at Le Touquet, sir?’
‘Then you will be aware that as you pass from the fourteenth tee along the fairway you come opposite a house with a hedge in front of it. And just as The Subject came opposite this house, there appeared behind the hedge two males, one with cocktail shaker. They started yodelling to The Subject, evidently inviting her to step along and have one, and The Subject, dismissing her associate, went through the gate in the hedge and by the time I came up was lost to sight in the house.’
A soft groan broke from Horace Davenport. He had the air of a man who was contemplating burying his face in his hands.
‘Acting in your interests, I, too, passed through the gate and crept to the window from behind which I could hear chat and revelry in progress. And I was just stooping down to investigate further, when a hand fell on my shoulder and, turning, I perceived one male. And at the same moment
The Subject, poking her head out of the window, observed “Nice work, Barmy. That’s the blighter that’s been following me about all the week. You be knocking his head off, while Catsmeat phones for the police. We’ll have him sent to the guillotine for ingrowing molestation.” And I saw that there was only one course for me to pursue.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought even that,’ said Pongo, who had been following the narrative with close attention.
‘Yes, sir — one. I could clear myself by issuing a full statement.’
A sharp, agonized cry escaped Horace Davenport.
‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry, but there was no alternative. I had no desire to get embroiled with French rozzers. I issued my statement. While the male, Barmy, was calling me a trailing arbutus and the male, Catsmeat, was saying did anyone know the French for “police” and The Subject was talking about horsewhips, I explained the situation fully. It took me some time to get the facts into their heads, but I managed it finally and was permitted to depart, The Subject saying that if she ever set eyes on me again —’Miss Twistleton,’ announced Webster.
‘Well, goodbye, all,’ said Claude Pott.
A critic who had been disappointed by the absence of the leopard note in Mr Pott’s demeanour would have found nothing to complain of in that of Pongo’s sister Valerie. She was a tall, handsome girl, who seemed to be running a temperature, and her whole aspect, as she came into the room, was that of some jungle creature advancing on its prey.
‘Worm!’ she said, opening the conversation. ‘Valerie, darling, let me explain!’
‘Let me explain,’ said Pongo.
His sister directed at him a stare of a hardness far exceeding that of Mr Pott.
‘No, I couldn’t keep my fat head out of it,’ said Pongo. ‘You don’t think I’m going to stand supinely by and see a good man wronged, do you? Why should you barge in here, gnashing your bally teeth, just because Horace sicked Claude Pott, private investigator, on to you? If you had any sense, you would see that it was a compliment, really. Shows how much he loves you.
Uncle Fred in the Springtime Page 1