“What-ho, Bertie,” he said. “What-ho, what-ho, what-ho, and again what-ho. What a beautiful world this is, Bertie. One of the nicest I ever met.”
I stared at him, speechless. We Woosters are as quick as lightning, and I saw at once that something had happened.
I mean to say, I told you about him walking round in circles. I recorded what passed between us on the lawn. And if I portrayed the scene with anything like adequate skill, the picture you will have retained of this Fink-Nottle will have been that of a nervous wreck, sagging at the knees, green about the gills, and picking feverishly at the lapels of his coat in an ecstasy of craven fear. In a word, defeatist. Gussie, during that interview, had, in fine, exhibited all the earmarks of one licked to a custard.
Vastly different was the Gussie who stood before me now. Self-confidence seemed to ooze from the fellow’s every pore. His face was flushed, there was a jovial light in his eyes, the lips were parted in a swashbuckling smile. And when with a genial hand he sloshed me on the back before I could sidestep, it was as if I had been kicked by a mule.
“Well, Bertie,” he proceeded, as blithely as a linnet without a thing on his mind, “you will be glad to hear that you were right. Your theory has been tested and proved correct. I feel like a fighting cock.”
My brain ceased to reel. I saw all.
“Have you been having a drink?”
“I have. As you advised. Unpleasant stuff. Like medicine. Burns your throat, too, and makes one as thirsty as the dickens. How anyone can mop it up, as you do, for pleasure, beats me. Still, I would be the last to deny that it tunes up the system. I could bite a tiger.”
“What did you have?”
“Whisky. At least, that was the label on the decanter, and I have no reason to suppose that a woman like your aunt—staunch, true-blue, British—would deliberately deceive the public. If she labels her decanters Whisky, then I consider that we know where we are.”
“A whisky and soda, eh? You couldn’t have done better.”
“Soda?” said Gussie thoughtfully. “I knew there was something I had forgotten.”
“Didn’t you put any soda in it?”
“It never occurred to me. I just nipped into the dining-room and drank out of the decanter.”
“Oh, about ten swallows. Twelve, maybe. Or fourteen. Say sixteen medium-sized gulps. Gosh, I’m thirsty.”
He moved over to the wash-stand and drank deeply out of the water bottle. I cast a covert glance at Uncle Tom’s photograph behind his back. For the first time since it had come into my life, I was glad that it was so large. It hid its secret well. If Gussie had caught sight of that jug of orange juice, he would unquestionably have been on to it like a knife.
“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling braced,” I said.
He moved buoyantly from the wash-hand stand, and endeavoured to slosh me on the back again. Foiled by my nimble footwork, he staggered to the bed and sat down upon it.
“Braced? Did I say I could bite a tiger?”
“Make it two tigers. I could chew holes in a steel door. What an ass you must have thought me out there in the garden. I see now you were laughing in your sleeve.”
“Yes,” insisted Gussie. “That very sleeve,” he said, pointing. “And I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine why I made all that fuss about a potty job like distributing prizes at a rotten little country grammar school. Can you imagine, Bertie?”
“Exactly. Nor can I imagine. There’s simply nothing to it. I just shin up on the platform, drop a few gracious words, hand the little blighters their prizes, and hop down again, admired by all. Not a suggestion of split trousers from start to finish. I mean, why should anybody split his trousers? I can’t imagine. Can you imagine?”
“Nor can I imagine. I shall be a riot. I know just the sort of stuff that’s needed—simple, manly, optimistic stuff straight from the shoulder. This shoulder,” said Gussie, tapping. “Why I was so nervous this morning I can’t imagine. For anything simpler than distributing a few footling books to a bunch of grimy-faced kids I can’t imagine. Still, for some reason I can’t imagine, I was feeling a little nervous, but now I feel fine, Bertie—fine, fine, fine—and I say this to you as an old friend. Because that’s what you are, old man, when all the smoke has cleared away—an old friend. I don’t think I’ve ever met an older friend. How long have you been an old friend of mine, Bertie?”
“Oh, years and years.”
“Imagine! Though, of course, there must have been a time when you were a new friend…. Hullo, the luncheon gong. Come on, old friend.”
And, rising from the bed like a performing flea, he made for the door.
I followed rather pensively. What had occurred was, of course, so much velvet, as you might say. I mean, I had wanted a braced Fink-Nottle— indeed, all my plans had had a braced Fink-Nottle as their end and aim —but I found myself wondering a little whether the Fink-Nottle now sliding down the banister wasn’t, perhaps, a shade too braced. His demeanour seemed to me that of a man who might quite easily throw bread about at lunch.
Fortunately, however, the settled gloom of those round him exercised a restraining effect upon him at the table. It would have needed a far more plastered man to have been rollicking at such a gathering.
P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves ch. 16 (1934).