“Today,” said the bearded bloke, “we are all happy to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fitz-Wattle——”
At the beginning of the address, Gussie had subsided into a sort of daydream, with his mouth hanging open. About half-way through, faint signs of life had begun to show. And for the last few minutes he had been trying to cross one leg over the other and failing and having another shot and failing again. But only now did he exhibit any real animation. He sat up with a jerk.
“Fink-Nottle,” he said, opening his eyes.
“I should say Fink-Nottle.”
“Of course you should, you silly ass,” said Gussie genially. “All right, get on with it.”
And closing his eyes, he began trying to cross his legs again.
I could see that this little spot of friction had rattled the bearded bloke a bit. He stood for a moment fumbling at the fungus with a hesitating hand. But they make these head masters of tough stuff. The weakness passed. He came back nicely and carried on.
“We are all happy, I say, to welcome as the guest of the afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle, who has kindly consented to award the prizes. This task, as you know, is one that should have devolved upon that well-beloved and vigorous member of our board of governors, the Rev. William Plomer, and we are all, I am sure, very sorry that illness at the last moment should have prevented him from being here today. But, if I may borrow a familiar metaphor from the—if I may employ a homely metaphor familiar to you all—what we lose on the swings we gain on the roundabouts.”
He paused, and beamed rather freely, to show that this was comedy. I could have told the man it was no use. Not a ripple. The corn chandler leaned against me and muttered “Whoddidesay?” but that was all.
It’s always a nasty jar to wait for the laugh and find that the gag hasn’t got across. The bearded bloke was visibly discomposed. At that, however, I think he would have got by, had he not, at this juncture, unfortunately stirred Gussie up again.
“In other words, though deprived of Mr. Plomer, we have with us this afternoon Mr. Fink-Nottle. I am sure that Mr. Fink-Nottle’s name is one that needs no introduction to you. It is, I venture to assert, a name that is familiar to us all.”
“Not to you,” said Gussie.
And the next moment I saw what Jeeves had meant when he had described him as laughing heartily. “Heartily” was absolutely the mot juste. It sounded like a gas explosion.
“You didn’t seem to know it so dashed well, what, what?” said Gussie. And, reminded apparently by the word “what” of the word “Wattle,” he repeated the latter some sixteen times with a rising inflection.
“Wattle, Wattle, Wattle,” he concluded. “Right-ho. Push on.”
But the bearded bloke had shot his bolt. He stood there, licked at last; and, watching him closely, I could see that he was now at the crossroads. I could spot what he was thinking as clearly as if he had confided it to my personal ear. He wanted to sit down and call it a day, I mean, but the thought that gave him pause was that, if he did, he must then either uncork Gussie or take the Fink-Nottle speech as read and get straight on to the actual prize-giving.
It was a dashed tricky thing, of course, to have to decide on the spur of the moment. I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.
So with the bearded bloke. Whether he was abreast of the inside facts in Gussie’s case, I don’t know, but it was obvious to him by this time that he had run into something pretty hot. Trial gallops had shown that Gussie had his own way of doing things. Those interruptions had been enough to prove to the perspicacious that here, seated on the platform at the big binge of the season, was one who, if pushed forward to make a speech, might let himself go in a rather epoch-making manner.
On the other hand, chain him up and put a green-baize cloth over him, and where were you? The proceeding would be over about half an hour too soon.
P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves ch. 17 (1934).