Uncle Dynamite, page 1
On the little branch line which starts at Wockley Junction and conveys passengers to Eggmarsh St John, Ashenden Oakshott, Bishop’s Ickenham and other small and somnolent hamlets of the south of England the early afternoon train had just begun its leisurely journey.
It was a train whose patrons, sturdy sons of the soil who did not intend to let a railway company trouser more of their money than they could help, had for the most part purchased third-class tickets. But a first-class compartment had been provided for the rich and thriftless, and today it had two occupants, a large youth of open and ingenuous countenance, much sunburned, and a tall, slim, distinguished-looking man of some thirty years his senior with a jaunty grey moustache and a bright and enterprising eye, whose air was that of one who has lived to the full every minute of an enjoyable life and intends to go on doing so till further notice. His hat was on the side of his head, and he bore his cigar like a banner.
For some ten minutes after the train had started, the usual decent silence of the travelling Englishman prevailed in the compartment. Then the young man, who had been casting covert glances at his companion, cleared his throat and said ‘Er.’
The elderly gentleman looked up enquiringly. Deepening in colour, for he was of bashful temperament and was already wondering why he had been ass enough to start this, the sunburned youth proceeded.
‘I say, excuse me. Aren’t you Lord Ickenham?’
The elderly gentleman seemed puzzled.
‘I’m pretty pleased about it myself,’ he admitted. ‘But why do you rejoice?’
‘Well, if you hadn’t been —‘ said the young man, and paused aghast at the thought of what horrors might not have resulted from the wanton addressing of a perfect stranger. ‘What I mean is, I used to know you. Years ago. Sort of. I was a pal of your nephew Pongo, and I came over to your place for tennis sometimes. You once tipped me five bob.’
‘That’s how the money goes.’
‘I don’t suppose you remember me. Bill Oakshott.’
‘Of course I remember you, my dear fellow,’ said Lord Ickenham heartily and quite untruthfully. ‘I wish I had a tenner for every time I’ve said to my wife “Whatever became of Bill Oakshott?”‘
‘No, really? Fine. How is Lady Ickenham?’
‘Fine. She once tipped me half a crown.’
‘You will generally find women loosen up less lavishly than men. It’s something to do with the bone structure of the head. Yes, my dear wife, I am glad to say, continues in the pink. I’ve just been seeing her off on the boat at Southampton. She is taking a trip to the West Indies.’
‘No, she went of her own free will.’
The human tomato digested this for a moment in silence, seemed on the point of saying ‘Fine,’ then changed his mind, and enquired after Pongo.
‘Pongo,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘is in terrific form. He bestrides the world like a Colossus. It would not be too much to say that Moab is his washpot and over what’s-its-name has he cast his shoe. He came into the deuce of a lot of money the other day from a deceased godfather in America, and can now face his tailor without a tremor. He is also engaged to be married.’
‘Yes,’ said Lord Ickenham, rather startled by this evidence of an unexpectedly wide vocabulary. ‘Yes, he seems fairly radiant about it. I myself, I must confess, am less enthusiastic. I don’t know if you have noticed it, Bill Oakshott, but nothing in this world ever works out one hundred per cent satisfactorily for all parties. Thus, while A is waving his hat and giving a series of rousing cheers, we see B frowning dubiously. And the same is true of X and Z. Take this romance of Pongo’s for instance. I was hoping that he would marry another girl, a particular protégée of mine whom I have watched grow from a child, and a singularly fascinating child, at that, to a young woman of grace, charm and strength of character who in my opinion has everything. Among other advantages which she possesses is sense enough for two, which, it seems to me, is just the amount the wife of Reginald (“Pongo”) Twistleton will require. But it was not to be. However, let us look on the bright side. Shall we?’
‘Fine. Well, looking on the bright side, I haven’t met this new girl, but she sounds all right. And of course the great thing is to get the young blighter safely married and settled down, thus avoiding the risk of his coming in one day and laying on the mat something with a platinum head and an Oxford accent which he picked up on the pier at Blackpool. You remember what a pushover he always was for the gentle sex.’
‘I haven’t seen Pongo since we were kids.’
‘Even then he was flitting from flower to flower like a willowy butterfly. He was the Don Juan of his dancing class when he wore Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, his heart an open door with “Welcome” on the mat.’
‘He’ll chuck all that sort of thing now.’
‘Let us hope so. But you remember what the fellow said. Can the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his hue? Or is it skin? And talking of Ethiopians,’ said Lord Ickenham, allowing himself to become personal, ‘has someone been cooking you over a slow fire, or did you sit in the sun without your parasol?’
Bill Oakshott grinned sheepishly.
‘I am a bit sunburned, aren’t I? I’ve been in Brazil. I’m on my way home from the boat.’
‘You reside in this neighbourhood?’
‘At Ashenden Manor.’
‘No. I live with my uncle. Or, rather, he lives with me.’
‘What is the distinction?’
‘Well, what I mean is, Ashenden really belongs to me, but I was only about sixteen when my father died, and my uncle came barging over from Cheltenham and took charge. He dug in, and has been there ever since. Running the whole show. You’d think from the way he goes on,’ said Bill, stirred to unwonted loquacity by the recollection of his wrongs, ‘that he owned the bally place. Well, to give you an instance, he’s pinched the best room in the house for his damned collection of African curios.’
‘Does he collect African curios? God help him.’
‘And that’s not all. Who has the star bedroom? Me? No! Uncle Aylmer. Who collars the morning paper? Me? No! Uncle Aylmer. Who gets the brown egg at breakfast?’
‘Don’t tell me. Let me guess. Uncle Aylmer?’
‘Yes. Blast him!’
Lord Ickenham stroked his moustache.
‘A certain guarded something in your manner, Bill Oakshott,’ he said, ‘suggests to me that you do not like having your Uncle Aylmer living at Ashenden Manor. Am I correct?’
‘Then why not bung him out?’
The truculence faded from Bill Oakshott’s demeanour, leaving in its place embarrassment. He could have answered the question, but to do so would have involved revealing his great love for his uncle’s daughter, Hermione, and agreeable old bird though Lord Ickenham was, he did not feel that he knew him intimately enough.
‘Oh, well,’ he said, and coyly scraped a shoe like a violin case along the floor of the compartment. ‘No, I don’t quite see how I could do that.’
‘There are complications?’
It was plain to Lord Ickenham that he had stumbled upon a delicate domestic situation, and he tactfully forbore to probe into it. Picking up his Times, he turned to the crossword puzzle, and Bill Oakshott sat gazing out of the window at the passing scenery.
But he did not see the familiar fields and spinneys, only the lovely face of his cousin Hermione. It rose b
In which event, what would the procedure be? Would he, as before, just gape and shuffle his feet? Or would he, fortified by three months in bracing Brazil, at last be able to shake off his distressing timidity and bring himself to reveal a silent passion which had been functioning uninterruptedly for some nine years?
He hoped so, but at the same time was compelled to recognize the point as a very moot one.
A tap on the knee interrupted his meditations.
‘Next stop, Ashenden Oakshott,’ Lord Ickenham reminded him.
‘Eh? Oh, yes. That’s right, so it is.’
‘You had better be girding up your loins.’
‘Yes,’ said Bill, and rose and hauled down his suitcase from the rack. Then, as the train puffed out of the tunnel, he gave a sudden sharp cry and stood staring. As if unable to believe his eyes, he blinked them twice with great rapidity. But they had not deceived him. He still saw what he thought he had seen.
Under normal conditions there is about the station of Ashenden Oakshott little or nothing to rouse the emotions and purge the soul with pity and terror. Once you have seen the stationmaster’s whiskers, which are of a Victorian bushiness and give the impression of having been grown under glass, you have drained it of all it has to offer in the way of thrills, unless you are one of those easily excited persons who can find drama in the spectacle of a small porter wrestling with a series of large milk cans. ‘Placid’ is the word that springs to the lips.
But today all this was changed, and it was obvious at a glance that Ashenden Oakshott was stepping out. From the penny-in-the-slot machine at the far end to the shed where the porter kept his brooms and buckets the platform was dark with what practically amounted to a sea of humanity. At least forty persons must have been present.
Two, selected for their muscle and endurance, were holding aloft on poles a streamer on which some loving hand, which had not left itself quite enough room, had inscribed the words:
WELCOME HOME, MR WILLM.
and in addition to these the eye noted a Silver Band, some Boy Scouts, a policeman, a clergyman, a mixed assortment of villagers of both sexes, what looked like an Infants ‘Bible Class (with bouquets) and an impressive personage with a large white moustache, who seemed to be directing the proceedings.
From his post by the window, Bill Oakshott continued to stand rigid and open-mouthed, like some character in a fairy story on whom a spell has been cast, and so limpid was his countenance that Lord Ickenham had no difficulty in analysing the situation.
Here, he perceived, was a young man of diffident and retiring disposition, one who shrank from the public eye and quailed at the thought of being conspicuous, and for some reason somebody had organized this stupendous reception for him. That was why he was now looking like a stag at bay.
Publicity was a thing from which Lord Ickenham himself had never been averse. He frankly enjoyed it. If Silver Bands and Boy Scouts had come to welcome him at a station, he would have leaped to meet them with a whoop and a holler, and would have been out taking bows almost before the train had stopped. But it was plain that this young friend of his was differently constituted, and his heart was moved by his distress.
The kindly peer had always been a practical man. He did not, as others might have done, content himself in this crisis with a pitying glance or a silent hand-clasp.
‘Nip under the seat,’ he advised.
To Bill it seemed like a voice from heaven. It was as if in the hour of deadly peril his guardian angel had suddenly come through with something constructive. He followed the counsel without delay, and presently there was a lurch and a heave and the train resumed its journey.
When he crawled out, dusting his hands, he found his companion regarding him with open admiration.
‘As neat a vanishing act as I have ever witnessed,’ said Lord Ickenham cordially. ‘It was like a performing seal going after a slice of fish. You’ve done this sort of thing before, Bill Oakshott. No? You amaze me. I would have sworn that you had had years of practice on race trains. Well, you certainly baffled them. I don’t think I have ever seen a Silver Band so nonplussed. It was as though a bevy of expectant wolves had overtaken a sleigh and found no Russian peasant aboard, than which I can imagine nothing more sickening. For the wolves, of course.’
Bill Oakshott was still quivering. He gazed gratefully at his benefactor and in broken words thanked him for his inspired counsel.
‘Not at all,’ said Lord Ickenham. ‘My dear fellow, don’t mention it. I am like the chap in Damon Runyan’s story, who always figured that if he could bring a little joy into any life, no matter how, he was doing a wonderful deed. It all comes under the head of spreading sweetness and light, which is my constant aim.’
‘Well, I shall never forget it, never,’ said Bill earnestly. ‘Do you realize that I should have had to make a speech, besides probably kissing all those ghastly children with the flowers?’ He shuddered strongly. ‘Did you see them? About a million of them, each with a posy.’
‘I did, indeed. And the sight confirmed me in my view that since the days when you used to play tennis at my place you must have become pretty illustrious. I have knocked about the world long enough to know that infants with bouquets don’t turn out for every Tom, Dick and Harry. I myself am a hell of a fellow — a first-class Earl who keeps his carriage — but have infants ever offered me bouquets? What have you been doing, Bill Oakshott, to merit this reception — nay, this Durbar?’
‘I haven’t done a thing.’
‘Well, it’s all very odd. I suppose it was in your honour that the affair was arranged? They would hardly have said “Mr Willm,” if they had meant someone else.’
‘No, that’s true.’
‘Have you any suspicions as to the ringleaders?’
‘I suppose my uncle was at the bottom of it.’
‘Was he the impressive citizen with the moustache, who looked like Clemenceau?’
‘Yes. He must have got the thing up.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Search your memory. Can you think of nothing you have done recently which could have put you in the Silver Band and Boy Scout class?’
‘Well, I went on this expedition up the Amazon.’
‘Oh, you went on an expedition, did you, and up the Amazon, to boot. I didn’t realize that. I assumed that you had merely been connected with the Brazil nut industry or something. That might account for it, of course. And why did you commit this rash act? Wanted to get some girl out of your system, I suppose?’
Bill blushed. It had indeed been the seeming hoplessness of his love for his cousin Hermione that had driven him to try a cure which, as he might have foreseen, had proved quite ineffective.
‘Why, yes. Something of the sort.’
‘In my day we used to go to the Rocky Mountains and shoot grizzlies. What made you choose Brazil?’
‘I happened to see an advertisement in The Times about an expedition that was starting off for the Lower Amazon, run by a chap called Major Plank, and I thought it might be a good idea to sign on.’
‘I see. Well, I wish I had known of this before. I could have stuck on a lot of dog on the strength of having met you as a boy. But we shall be at Bishop’s Ickenham in a minute or two, and the question arises, what do you propose to do? Wait for a train back? Or shall I take you to my place and give you a drink and send you home in the car?’
‘Wouldn’t that be a nuisance?’
‘On the contrary. Nothing could suit my book better. That’s settled then. We now come to a matter to which I think we ought to devote some little attention. What story are you going to tell your uncle, to account for your non-appe
A thoughtful look came into Bill Oakshott’s face. He winced slightly, as if a Brazilian alligator had attached itself to the fleshy part of his leg.
‘I was rather wondering about that,’ he confessed.
‘A good, coherent story will undoubtedly be required. He will be feeling chagrined at your failure to materialize, and he looked a dangerous specimen, the sort of man whose bite spells death. What is he? An all-in wrestler? A chap who kills rats with his teeth?’
‘He used to be Governor of one of those Crown colonies.’
‘Then we must strain every nerve to pacify him. I know these ex-Governors. Tough nuts. You didn’t mention his name, by the way.’
‘Bostock. Sir Aylmer Bostock.’
‘What? Is that who he is? Well, I’ll be dashed.’
‘You know him?’
‘I have not seen him for more than forty years, but at one time I knew him well. We were at school together.’
‘Mugsy we used to call him. He was younger than me by some three years, one of those tough, chunky, beetle-browed kids who scowl at their seniors and bully their juniors. I once gave him six of the juiciest with a fives bat in the hope of correcting this latter tendency. Well, the mystery of that civic welcome is now explained. Mugsy is to stand for Parliament shortly, my paper informs me, and no doubt he thought it would give him a leg up. Like me, he hopes to trade on his connection with a man who has extended the bounds of Civilization.’
‘I didn’t extend the bounds of Civilization.’
‘Nonsense. I’ll bet you extended them like elastic. But we are getting away from our discussion of what story you are to tell. How would it be to say that the warmth of the day caused you to drop off into a light slumber, and when you woke up blowed if you weren’t at Bishop’s Ickenham?’
‘You like it? I don’t think it’s so bad myself. Simple, which is always good. Impossible to disprove, which is better. And with the added advantage of having a historic precedent; the case, if you remember, of the lady who wanted to go to Birmingham and they were taking her on to Crewe. Yes, I fancy it ought to get by. So that was young Mugsy, was it?’ said Lord Ickenham. ‘I must say I’m surprised that he should have finished up as anything so comparatively respectable as Governor of a Crown colony. It just shows you never can tell.’
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