2. THE INTERMINABLE WAIT
It seemed to Adrian that the whole world had become dark and gloomy; an icy trickle of water was running up and down his spine, defying the laws of gravity. Through the dull buzzing in his ears he dimly heard Mrs. Dredge’s voice.
“Well?” she said, “what’s it all about?”
Dear heaven, thought Adrian, I can’t possibly tell her.
“It’s . . . it’s a letter . . . um . . . from . . . er . . . one of my father’s friends,” he said, prevaricating wildly. “He just thought that I would like to know how things were in the village.”
“After ten years?” snorted Mrs. Dredge. “’Es taken ’is time, ’asn’t ’e?”
“Yes . . . yes, it has been a long time,” said Adrian, folding the letter up and putting it in his pocket.
But Mrs. Dredge was not one of those people who could be fobbed off with a pr'ecis. Her own harrowing description of Mr. Dredge’s death generally occupied an hour and a half, so this flimsy explanation of the letter’s contents hardly satisfied her.
“Well, how are they all, then?” she enquired.
“Oh,” said Adrian, “they appear to be enjoying good health, you know.”
Mrs. Dredge waited, her black eyes fixed on him implacably.
“Several of the people I knew have got married,” Adrian went on desperately, “and . . . and . . . several of them have had babies.”
“You mean,” enquired Mrs. Dredge, a hopeful gleam in her eye, “you mean the ones that ’ave got married ’ave ’ad babies, or the other ones?”
“Both,” said Adrian unthinkingly. “No, no, of course I mean the ones that have got married. Anyway, they’re all in great . . . er . . . great spirits and I must . . . um . . . I must write and congratulate them.”
“You mean congratulate the ones that ’ave got married?” asked Mrs. Dredge, who liked to get things clear in her mind.
“Yes,” said Adrian, “and the ones who have had babies, of course.”
Mrs. Dredge sighed. This was not her idea of how to tell a story. If it had been her letter, now, she would have eked out the contents with miserly care and regaled Adrian for a week with snippets of information and speculation.
“Well,” she said philosophically, surging to her feet, “it will give you something to do in the evenings, I suppose.”
As rapidly as he could, his mind still reeling under the shock of his uncle’s letter, Adrian shovelled the unattractive remains of the black pudding into his mouth, washed it down with some tea, and rose from the table.
“Going already?” said Mrs. Dredge in surprise. “Yes. I thought I would just call in on Mr. Pucklehammer on my way to work,” said Adrian.
“Don’t you go spending too much time with ’im, now,” said Mrs. Dredge severely. “That man could be an evil influence on an upright, honest young man like yourself.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” said Adrian meekly. He numbered Mr. Pucklehammer among his closest friends, but he was not prepared to argue about it just then.
“Don’t be late for your supper,” said Mrs. Dredge. “I got a nice bit of ’addock.”
As an inducement to punctuality, Adrian felt, this left a lot to be desired.
“No, I won’t be late,” he promised, and made his escape from the house before Mm. Dredge could think up a fresh topic of conversation to delay him.
Mr. Pucklehammer was by trade a carpenter and coffin maker who owned a large yard about a quarter of a mile from Mrs. Dredge’s establishment. A few years previously Adrian had gone to the yard to have some minor repairs done to his big wooden trunk. He and Mr. Pucklehammer had taken an instant liking to each other and bad since become firm friends. Adrian, who did not make friends easily because of his shyness, had come to look upon Mr. Pucklehammer as his father confessor. His one thought now was to get down to the yard as quickly as possible and discuss with his friend the contents of this letter that threatened to undermine the very foundations of his quiet, orderly world. Mr. Pucklehammer, he felt sure, would know what to do.
As he hurried down the road he began to agree with his father’s estimation of his uncle Amos’s character. How could anyone do a thing like that? Leaving aside the money (which he admitted was generous), how could anyone suddenly plant on an innocent nephew a lady of indeterminate years with an addiction to the bottle? It was surely not humane. At this point another terrible thought struck him, and he stopped so suddenly his bowler hat fell off Dimly he remembered his father saying that his Uncle Amos had worked in circuses and fairgrounds. What if this Rosy turned out to be an acrobat, or—worse still—one of those fast, abandoned females who stood on the backs of horses in spangled tights? To have a female acrobat suddenly pushed into your life was bad enough, but to have a drunken female acrobat pushed into your life was surely more than anyone could endure. How could his uncle have done this to him? Retrieving his bowler hat, he made Mr. Pucklehammer’s yard almost at a run.
Mr. Pucklehammer was sitting on a newly completed coffin finishing his breakfast, which consisted of a pint of beer and a cheese sandwich of mammoth dimensions. He was a short, stocky little man with a face like an amiable bulldog. In his time he had been—among many other things—a champion wrestler and weightlifter. The excesses of this career had left him completely musclebound so that now, although every muscle and sinew stood out in carunculations like a melting candle, he could only move with difficulty.
“Hello, boy,” he greeted Adrian, waving the sandwich at him amicably. “Want some breakfast? Spot of beer, eh?”
“No, no,” said Adrian, out of breath and pale with emotion, “I want your advice.”
“Ho?” said Mr. Pucklehammer, raising his shaggy brows. “What’s to do? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Far worse, far worse,” said Adrian dramatically. “I’m ruined . . . read this.”
He thrust the letter at Mr. Pucklehammer, who surveyed it with interest.
“I can’t read,” said Mr. Pucklehammer simply. “Never seem to have had time to learn, somehow, what with one thing and another. You read it to me, boy.”
In a voice trembling with emotion Adrian read him the Contents of his Uncle Amos’s letter. When he came to the end there was silence as Mr. Pucklehammer inserted a large section of cheese sandwich into his mouth and chewed meditatively.
“Well,” said Adrian at last, “what am I to do?”
“To do?” said Mr. Pucklehammer, swallowing his sandwich in surprise. “Why, do exactly as your uncle wants you to do.”
Adrian gazed at his friend in amazement, wondering if Pucklehammer had either misunderstood the letter or had taken leave of his senses.
“But how can I?” he said, his voice rising. “How can I take on a strange female . . . a strange, drunken female? Mrs. Dredge would never allow her in the house . . . then there’s my job. Good Lord, if they got to know about it they’d sack me. And suppose she’s one of those female acrobats, what do I do then?”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” said Mr. Pucklehammer judicially. “Saw one of them myself once. Nice fleshy piece she was too. Had sequins all over her. Lovely bit of dolly-roll.”
“Oh, my God,” said Adrian hi agony, “I hope she’s not going to arrive here all covered with sequins.”
“There’s no denying,” said Mr. Pucklehammer musingly, “there’s no denying that five hundred pounds is a very generous sum, very generous indeed. Why, with that sort of money you could give up your job . . . you’ve often said you wanted to.”
“And what about this inebriated female?” asked Adrian sarcastically.
“Well, you two could live very comfortably on a hundred and twenty a year and in four years you could set up a little business,” said Mr. Pucklehammer. “If she’s one of the fair folk you want to go in for something like a Punch and Judy. I’ve got a nice Punch and Judy I could let you have cheap.”
“I have no intention of spending the next four years with a large, sequin-covered drunk playing at Punch and Judy,” said Adrian loudly and clearly. “I wish you’d be more constructive.”
“I don’t see what you’re flapdoodling about, boy,” said Mr. Pucklehammer severely. “Here you’ve got a nice legacy with a female thrown in. Lots of young men would give anything to be in your shoes.”
“I wish they were in my shoes,” said Adrian desperately. “If they want to spend the rest of their lives with a drunken acrobat, they’re welcome.”
“Your uncle didn’t say she was drunk all the time,” said Mr. Pucklehammer fairly. “She might be quite nice. Why don’t you just wait and see what she’s like when she turns up?”
“I can imagine what she’s like, and the thought appals me,” said Adrian. “Why, I don’t even know her surname.”
“Well, as long as you know her Christian name that’s the main thing,” said Mr. Pucklehammer philosophically. “Gets you on to a more intimate footing straight away.”
“I don’t want to get on an intimate footing with her,” shouted Adrian, and the; smitten by a dreadful thought, “My God! What happens if she turns up while I’m at work and Mrs. Dredge meets her?”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Pucklehammer musingly, “that’s a point. You want to avoid that if you can.”
Adrian paced up and down, thinking desperately, while Mr. Pucklehammer finished off the remains of his beer and wiped his mouth.
“I’ve got it,” said Adrian at last, “It’s Mrs. Dredge’s Day to-day . . . you know, she goes to visit Mr. Dredge at the cemetery and spends the whole day there. She doesn’t generally get back until evening. If I could send a message to work to say that I’m ill, or something, then I could hang around and wait for this Rosy person.”
“Good idea,” agreed Mr. Pucklehammer. “Look, I’ll send young Davey round to the shop to tell ’em you’re not well. Don’t you worry about that. What you’d better do is to nip back smartish and keep an eye on the house. I’ll be here if you want me.”
So Adrian, cursing the day he said he wanted adventure, made his way back to Mrs. Dredge’s establishment, and lurked furtively on the corner. Presently, to his relief, Mrs. Dredge appeared, clad in flowing black bombazine and with a large, purple hat on her head, clasping in her hand an enormous bunch of roses which were her weekly tribute to Mr. Dredge’s grave. She passed down the road like a large and ominous galleon in full sail, and disappeared from sight.
Adrian paced up and down, his mind filled with wild, impracticable solutions to the problem. He would run away to sea. He rejected this almost immediately, for he felt sick on the top deck of a horse-drawn bus travelling very slowly, so he knew that he—or rather, his stomach—was not cut out for a nautical career. Should he pose as Mr. Dredge and say that he, Rookwhistle, had unfortunately just died? Intriguing though this solution was he was compelled to admit that it would require someone more skilled in the art of duplicity to achieve success.
It’s no good, he thought desperately, wiping his damp hands on his handkerchief, I shall just have to be firm with her. I shall point out that I am a young man making my way in the world, and that I cannot, at this stage, accept the responsibility of a strange woman. I will let her have the five hundred pounds and she must go But what if she bursts into tears and has hysterics or, worse still, what if she is drunk and turns belligerent? The sweat broke out on his brow at the thought. No, he must remain firm, kind but firm. Hoping that he would have the courage to be kind but firm when the moment arrived, Adrian resumed his pacing.
By midday he was in such a state of nervous tension that a leaf falling from a tree made him start uncontrollably. He had just decided that death would be preferable to this agony of waiting, when the dray turned into the road. It was an enormous dray, pulled by eight extremely exhausted-looking cart horses, and driven by a stout, choleric looking little man in a bright yellow bowler hat and a red and yellow check waistcoat. Idly, Adrian wondered what such an enormous dray could contain. The man in the yellow bowler was obviously nearing his destination, for he had pulled a piece of paper out of his waistcoat pocket and was comparing it with the numbers of the houses as he passed. Then to Adrian’s astonishment he pulled up his team of horses outside Mrs. Dredge’s house. What on earth, thought Adrian, had his frugal landlady been buying? The dray was large enough to contain almost anything. He walked down the road to where the driver was mopping his face with a large handkerchief.
“Good morning,” said Adrian, full of curiosity. The man settled his bowler hat more firmly on his head and gave Adrian a withering look.
“’Morning,” he said, brusquely, “if it is a good morning, which I, for one, doubt.”
“Are you . . . er . . . have you got something for this house?” enquired Adrian.
“Yes,” said the man, consulting the piece of paper in his hand. “Leastways, I got something for a Mr. Rookwhistle.”
Adrian jumped and broke out in a cold sweat. “Rookwhistle . . . are you sure?” he asked faintly. “Yes,” said the man, “Rookwhistle. Mr. A. Rookwhistle.”
“I am Mr. A. Rookwhistle,” quavered Adrian. “What . . .?”
“Ah!” said the man, giving him a malevolent look, “so you’re Mr. Rookwhistle, are you? Well, the sooner you collect your property, the sooner I’ll be ’appy.”
He stamped off round the back of the dray and Adrian, following him, found him struggling with the massive doors.
“But what have you got?” asked Adrian desperately.
By way of an answer the man threw back the great double doors and revealed to Adrian’s incredulous and horrified gaze a large, wrinkled and exceptionally benign-looking elephant.