1. THE ABOMINABLE ACTION OF AN UNCLE
Unaware that doom was overtaking him, Adrian Rookwhistle, in his shirt sleeves, was occupied in making faces at himself in his looking-glass. At seven o’clock every morning Adrian would stand in his attic bedroom and commune thus with his reflection. The mirror was a large one with a wide gilt frame, and its surface was grey and pitted, like a tired iced pond at the end of a hard winter. It reflected both Adrian and his room in a sort of greyish haze, as though the whole scene was being viewed through a large cobweb. Adrian gazed at his reflection with some animosity.
“Thirty years!” he said, accusingly, “Thirty years . . . half your life gone And what have you seen? What have you done? Nothing!”
He glared at himself in the mirror, disliking his unruly dark hair that no amount of water would flatten, his large, rather soulful dark eyes and his wide mouth. It was, he decided, a thoroughly unattractive face. He lowered his lids fractionally, moulded his mouth into the nearest approach to a sneer that it was capable of, and breathed deeply through his nose so that his nostrils flared out in the most satisfactory way.
“Sir,” he snarled through clenched teeth, “unhand the lady or I will be forced to deal with you. Ignorant though you are, you cannot be unaware of the fact that I am the finest swordsman outside France.”
He paused and stared at his reflection; he had to confess that, even allowing for his natural prejudice, he did not look like the finest swordsman outside France. Adventure, he had decided some time ago, was what he really craved, but it seemed that adventure so seldom came to people with his sort of face. There had been one occasion (and he blushed now even to think of it) when he had seized what he thought to be his great opportunity and had stopped what he assumed to be a runaway horse-drawn bus. It transpired that the bus was in fact a horse-drawn fire engine performing an errand of mercy. The broken leg he had sustained was a mere nothing compared to the reprimand that the Magistrate had given him, and the fact that the shop that was on fire had been burnt to the ground.
Adrian was the product of a union between the Reverend Sebastian Rookwhistle and Rowena Rookwhistle. His parents bad conceived him—in a moment of mental aberration—during the wane of a long and extremely dull married life entirely devoted to carrying out God’s commands. For a long time, indeed, Adrian was under the impression that his father was the only man in the country who had direct access to the Almighty. Adrian’s appearance in the world had been treated by his father with a certain embarrassment, and by his mother with an air of pleased surprise.
His upbringing in the village of Meadowsweet, had been so placid, so blameless and so dull that Adrian had difficulty in remembering anything about it at all. Meadowsweet was one of those tiny, remote hamlets where conversation was confined to meteorological or agricultural subjects, conducted in a series of inarticulate grunts, and where the greatest excitement of the day was the earth-shattering recollection that ten years previously Farmer Raddle’s cow had given birth to twin calves. Here Adrian grew up, and his only entertainments were bell-ringing, tea parties at the vicarage once a week, and visit, to those sick members of the local peasantry who were too weak to fend off the ponderous patronage of the Reverend Rookwhistle.
When Adrian had reached the age of twenty, his father and mother were removed from this world in one fell swoop, the Almighty (in one of his more absent-minded moments) having failed to inform the Reverend Rookwhistle that the bridge between the villages of Meadowsweet and Hellebore had been washed away. So Adrian was deprived of mother, father and vicarage. His father’s savings turned out to be so modest as to be almost non-existent, and it beacame obvious that Adrian would have to work for his living. So, in the brilliant summer of 1890, armed with a letter of introduction from one of his father’s friends, he made his way to the great, sprawling, rattling, jingling, smoke-shrouded City, and there became a clerk in the highly respectable establishment of Bindweed, Cornelius and Chunter, purveiors of green groceries to Ladies and Gentlemen of Quality. Here he had spent ten hardworking but uneventful years on the princely salary of fifteen shillings a week. But Adrian felt that there was more to life than being enshrined for ever in the emporium of Bindweed, Cornelius and Chunter. Recently this problem had been occupying his mind to the exclusion of practically everything else, and he talked about it to his reflection in the minor:
“Other people,” he muttered as he paced up and dawn his room, with an occasional sideways glance at the mirror, to make sure he was still there, “other people lead exciting. interesting lives. They have extraordinary things happen to them . . . they have adventures. Why can’t they happen to me?”
He squared up to the minor again. His eyelids drooped. He sneered.
“I have warned you, sir,” he said, his voice quivering with ill-concealed passion, “unhand that lady or ’twill be the worse for you.”
He made a vague chopping motion with his hand that knocked his hair-brush on to the floor.
So occupied was he with his own thoughts that he had been unaware of the slow, strange thumping and wheezing noise which should have warned him that his landlady was making one of her infrequent sorties to the attic. A thunderous knocking on the door made him jump so badly that he dropped his imaginary sword.
“Are you there, Mr. Rookwhistle?” enquired Mrs. Lavinia Dredge in her trenchant baritone, as if it were the last place in the world that she expected to find him.
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Dredge,” said Adrian, hastily glancing round the room to make sure it would meet with her approval. “Do come in.”
Mrs. Dredge pushed open the door and leant against it, gasping with all the vigour of a leviathan that had just zoomed up from several hundred fathoms. She was large-boned, like one of the better varieties of Shire horse, and on this stalwart framework there hung great, soft, voluptuous rolls of avoirdupois. A buttress-work of stays, linen and rubber was required to keep this bulk under control, so Mrs. Dredge’s body creaked and groaned alarmingly with each breath she took. Her black hair was piled high on her head and nailed in place with a forest of pins and round her massive neck hung a vast array of necklaces and pendants that tinkled and clattered as her massive bosom heaved.
This early morning appearance of Mrs. Dredge threw Adrian into a panic. What awful crime, he wondered, had he committed now? He distinctly remembered having wiped his boots last evening when he came in, so it could not be that. Had he forgotten to put the cat out? No, it could not be that. Had he cleaned the bath?
“Do . . . er . . . do you want to see me?” asked Adrian, thinking as he said it what a fatuous question it was. Mrs. Dredge would hardly have dragged her blubbersome body up three flights of stairs unless she had wanted to see him. However, such is the art of conversation in England, Mrs. Dredge admitted that, yes, she had wanted to see him. She then proceeded to wrinkle up her nose and upper lip and sniff loudly and ferociously, so that her well-developed moustache quivered.
“You ’aven’t, I ’ope, Mr. Rookwhistle, been smoking in ’ere?” she enquired ominously.
“No, no. Good heavens, no,” said Adrian, wondering if he had hidden his pipe successfully from those prying, black-currant eyes.
“I’m glad,” said Mrs. Dredge, giving a great sigh that produced the most musical creakings from her scaffolding. “Mr. Dredge never smokes in the ’ouse.”
Quite early on in his association with Mrs. Dredge, Adrian had learnt that her husband was dead (presumably smothered, Adrian imagined). But Mrs. Dredge, being a firm believer in the after-life, always referred to him as if he were still in residence. It was confusing, and one of Adrian’s private nightmares was that one day he would suddenly come face to face with Mr. Dredge—perhaps neatly stuffed with horse-hair and with glass eyes—occupying a position in the hall on the landing.
“I come up to call you,” Mrs. Dredge went on, “in case you ’ad slept in.”
“Oh, thank you very much,” said Adrian.
This sudden and unprecedented solicitude puzzled Adrian considerably.
“Also,” Mrs. Dredge said, fixing her little black eyes on him accusingly, “there’s a letter for you.”
Of all the things that Adrian might have expected Mrs Dredge to say, this was the least likely. Never, since the death of his mother and father, had he received a letter from anyone. What few friends he had were living in such close proximity to him that there was no need to communicate by letter.
“A letter? Are you sure, Mrs. Dredge?” asked Adrian, bewildered.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Dredge firmly, “a letter addressed to you,” and added, as if to remove any doubt, “in an envelope.”
Adrian stared at her. Mrs. Dredge coloured and bridled under his glance.
“Mr. Dredge,” she said haughtily, “receives any number of letters, so I ’opes I knows what one looks like.”
“Oh yes, yes, I’m sure,” said Adrian quickly, “but how extraordinary. I wonder who’s writing to me? Thank you very much, Mrs. Dredge, for coming up to tell me. You really needn’t have bothered.”
“Not at all,” said Mrs. Dredge regally, swivelling her bulk round so that she faced more or less in the direction of the stairs. “Mr. Dredge always says you should do unto your neighbour the same as what ’e would do to you, only you’re given the chance and ’e probably isn’t.”
With these words she creaked heavily down the stairs, and Adrian closed the door and resumed his pacing. Who on earth, he wondered, could be writing to him? As he put on his collar and tie and shrugged himself into his coat he came to the conclusion that the only people who would waste a halfpenny stamp on him were Bindweed, Cornelius and Chunter, informing him that they no longer required his services. Full of foreboding he clattered downstairs and into the kitchen. Mrs. Dredge was performing her daily all-in wrestling match with saucepans, frying-pans and various other kitchen utensils which most women seem to regard as friends but which Mrs. Dredge regarded as the serried ranks of an implacable enemy. Adrian sat down and there, next to his plate, was an envelope with his name and address dearly written in a neat, bold copperplate hand. Mrs. Dredge waddled over from the stove, clasping in one large hand a frying-pan containing the incinerated remains of three quarters of a black pudding which she shovelled on to Adrian’s plate. They both coughed rather furtively over the pale blue smoke that rose from it.
“Mr. Dredge likes black pudding,” said Mrs Dredge with a faintly defensive air.
“Did he? I means does he?” said Adrian, stirring the charred remains on his plate with his fork. “I expect it’s awfully good for one.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Dredge with satisfaction, “it’s what kept ’im going.”
Adrian inserted a forkful of red hot, tasteless, leather-like substance into his mouth, and tried to compose his features into an expression of delight.
“Good, eh?” said Mrs. Dredge, who was watching him like a hawk.
“Delicious!” said Adrian, who had burnt his tongue severely. Mrs. Dredge sat down heavily, and rested her massive bosom on the table-top.
“Well,” she asked, her little black eyes fixed on the letter, “aren’t you going to open it?”
“Oh, yes,” said Adrian, who had been overcome with reluctance to open the letter at all, “in a minute. This black pudding is really excellent, Mrs. Dredge.”
But Mrs. Dredge was not going to be led aside by any gastronomic exchanges.
“It might be important,” she said.
Adrian sighed and picked up the envelope. He would get no peace from Mrs. Dredge until he had read the letter and divulged its contents to her. Aware of her eyes upon him, he tore the letter open and unfolded the two sheets of paper it contained.
The very first words riveted his attention, for it began: “My dear Nephew.” He dimly remembered that when he was ten years old or so, his Uncle Amos had arrived, unheralded, at the vicarage accompanied by three morose-looking Collie dogs and a green parrot, whose command over the shorter and more virulent words in the language was complete.
He remembered his uncle as being a kindly and exuberant man, whose unannounced arrival and the linguistic abilities of whose parrot had tried even the Reverend Sebastian’s Christian charity to breaking point After staying a couple of days, Uncle Amos had disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived. His father had told him later that Uncle Amos was the black sheep of the family, “lacking in moral fibre,” and as the subject was obviously painful. Adrian had never mentioned his uncle again.
He now read his uncle’s letter with staring eyes and a sinking sensation that convinced him that his entire stomach, including the black pudding, had been suddenly and deftly removed.
“MY DEAR NEPHEW,
You probably will not recall the occasion when, some years ago, I made your acquaintance at the rather repulsive vicarage which your father and mother insisted on inhabiting. Since then I have learnt of their demise—not, I must confess, with any great sorrow since, in the conversations I have had with both your parents over the years they always gave me to understand that their one desire in life was to leave it and be enfolded in the bosom of the Lord. However, these circumstances make it appear that you are my only living relative. From what I remember of you, you seemed a nice enough boy at the time, though whether in the intervening years your parents have managed to fill your head with a lot of flim-flam and nitty-water I have no way of knowing.
Be that as it may, I am not at this juncture in a position to argue with fate. The local leech has apprised me of the fact that I have not long to live. The thought does not particularly alarm me, since I have led a full life and committed nearly all the more attractive sins. What does worry me, however, is the fate of my co-partner. She has been with me now for the last eighteen years, and together we have seen fair weather and foul. Therefore I should not like to feel that upon my demise she would be cast out friendless into the world, without a man to look after her. I say ‘man’ advisedly, for she does not get on with members of her own sex.
Having given the matter considerable thought I have decided that you—as my only living relative—should be the person to undertake this duty. This will not prove to be an irksome burden upon your pocket for if you go to Ammasor and Twist Merchant Bankers of 11o Cottonwall Street in the City, you will find—lodged in your name—the sum of lb500. I beg that you will use this to sustain Rosy in the style to which she is accustomed.
As death-bed scenes are always unpleasant, I am sending Rosy down to join you immediately so that she will not have to stand by and be harrowed by the sight of me drawing my last breath. She should, in fact, arrive almost simultaneously with this letter.
Whatever your father may have said of me (and it’s probably all true) this is, at least, one good act that I am performing in an otherwise satisfactorily corrupt existence. Your father was, in his rather weak-minded way, always a champion of those unfortunates who were left friendless in the world, and I can only hope that you have inherited this trait. Therefore, I beg, do what you can for Rosy. The whole thing has been a great shock to her, and I look to you to soothe her in her grief.
Your very affectionate Uncle,
P.S. Rosy, unfortunately—and I feel that I am, in some small measure, to blame for this—has a certain inclination towards what your father (never at a loss for a trite phrase) frequently described as ‘The Demon Drink.’ I beg that you will watch her alcohol consumption, as a surfeit tends to make her intractable. But then she is, alas, not alone in this.