So, The Paris Review held acontest to explicate this image in 300 words or less, in the style of Ernest Hemingway, P. G. Wodehouse, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Bishop, or Ray Bradbury. I did a Wodehouse style bit, but I found 300 words insufficient for a proper Plum-like tale. Here’s the full version which I first wrote, and then had to somehow boil down.
In the end, my short bit was chosen as one of the finalists, but not the winner of the grand prize, a bicycle.
Bike Thee Behind Me, Satan
Niffy Mainwaring and Billie Menzies had been engaged about six months when one morning he turned up on my doorstep looking like something the cat had coughed up.
“What ho, Niffy, old son. Whence this bedragglement?”
“It’s off, Reggie. She’s given me the shove.”
“Come in, sit down and unburden, old man.”
Though rather choked up, a stiff W&S soon loosened the floodgates and he began to spill.
It seems he and Billie had had words over the presumptive best man. Niffy wanted me to stand up for him. After all, we’d been pals since school, even before he was called Niffy.
(He’d gotten that moniker in the fourth form, when he’d returned from a less than successful ramble in the woods smelling like an unsavory Aberdeen terrier; and it was his peculiar fate to live up to that unusual sobriquet. It’s not that his natural fragrance was opprobrious, fresh from the bath he’d the aura of dew on the rose, but he had the misfortune of attracting aromas. If he passed a cheese shop the Limburger would fairly leap from the case and cling to him like a limpet. He once said to me that he’d be hanged before he’d visit America. “They have skunks there, Reggie.” And if you think it odd that a fellow wouldn’t stick at being called Niffy, you only need to consider that his Christian name was Beverly.)
Billie, however, wanted her brother, Wendell, to stand at Niffy’s right hand.
“I know you’ve always considered Wendell to be a bit of a pill, Niffy, old scout, but if it will pour oil on the roiled waters of romance I’m glad to forgo the chumly prerogatives.”
“Reggie, I’m afraid I got a bit hot. You see, she said that she’d never consider having as a member of the wedding a man with your taste in ties.”
Now, I’ve been called many things in my time, and there are many aspersions cast on my character I’d be willing to put up with in the cause of helping out a pal, but this was too much. We Peppers have a code, which has come down to us from the days of chivalry, that the fairer sex always be treated with the greatest respect. But when you start deprecating a fellow’s tie, well, that’s the thingummy that broke the whats-it’s back, and I’m afraid my language became rather ripe.
“Oh, I say! I mean, really! I say, don’t you know!” Pretty strong stuff, I’ll admit, but in my defense, I was distraught.
“Almost my words exactly, Reggie.”
“Still, while I understand her being upset at such language, it seems a bit much to chuck the whole engagement.”
“There was something else,” he admitted. “In the throes of defending the old school honor, I happened to opine that her brother was a simpering pustule for whom parboiling was too good.”
“Ah, I see the difficulty. No woman likes to hear her near and dear, however great a gawd-help-us he may be, referred to as a simpering excrescence.”
“Even better. So that’s when she broke it off?”
“No, that’s when she hit me with a niblick. She gave me the push afterI came to. What am I to do, Reggie? I love her!”
“This requires thought, Niffy. And an empty stomach is no fulcrum upon which to place a lever that can move the world, as that Greek chappie had it.”
After getting outside of a couple of good chops and a companionly half-bottle of claret at the Savoy, we rubbered round to the Drones and settled down to a couple of B&Ses and some serious head scratching.
“You know, Niffy, everyone knows that Billie’s been devoted to you ever since you squashed that wasp for her at the Drones’ picnic. Seems to me you only have to give her a day or two to cool down and when next you meet the warm regard in which she holds you will reassert itself.”
“You think I’ve not considered that? But she is adamant that she will not see me for any reason. She’s refusing me entrance at her flat. The doorman has orders to turn me away, with prejudice if necessary. I simply don’t know how I’m to get together with her.”
Just then Gussie Fink-Nottle sidled up with the clear intent to engage in conversation. Gussie’s a fine fellow, but we’d no desire at that point to listen to him go on about his favorite subject. For once, however, the topic he’d in mind was not newts.
“Cheers, Chaps. Any idea yet what you’re wearing to the party?”
“Not that it’s germane to our current discussion,” I said, “but what party is this?”
“Why, the fancy dress. The Anacreon club is throwing a fancy dress next week at Ambleton Hall down in Hampshire.”
“Niffy,” I cried, “isn’t Billie in the ladies auxiliary of the Anacreon? Surely she’ll be at that do. All we need is to get on the guest list.”
“And how are we to do that?”
“Nothing simpler,” chimed in Gussie, “Emerald is on the party committee. She’ll put you on the list.”
“Yes,” moaned Niffy, “but if Billie gets wind I’m going she’ll be sure to stay away.”
“Why would Billie stay away from her fiance?” asked Gussie. So we put him wise to the sitch.
“No problem at all,” he said, “Emerald will be thrilled to help the cause of true love and all that. I’m sure she can keep your prospective attendance dark until the last min. And then it’ll be too late for Billie to absent herself.”
One thing about Gussie, he’ll come through for a friend in a pinch, even if newts don’t enter into the equation.
A week later, the Pierrot outfit rented, I was standing outside Ambleton Hall waiting for Niffy to turn up. Ambleton Hall, if you’ve never been, is one of those stately old piles wherein the family, while venerable in the extreme, has of late fallen on hard times. Three quarters of the rooms were pretty permanently shut up, the family lived in a modest set of suites on the top floor, and the ballroom and other large public spaces were rented out for weddings, balls and other festivities. All in all a pretty good dodge. Kept the family on the grounds and the house out of the hands of creditors or the National Trust.
Finally Niffy arrived dressed in the most complete devil’s costume I’d ever seen.
“What’s that on your feet?”
“They’re a kind of high-heeled boot. Don’t they look like hooves?”
“Yes. But how do you expect to dance in those things?”
“Girls do it all the time. How hard can it be?”
Pretty hard, as it turns out.
After a couple of cups of the rather stiff punch they were serving, Niffy had got round Billie enough for her to let him lead her onto the floor. But in those devilish boots it was all he could do to keep his footing. The worst of it was that he kept treading on her costume. She’d come dressed as a “Muse of Modern Dance,” all chiffon and gauze, and her trailing scarf continually insinuated itself between his feet and the floor.
Now, as I’ve intimated, we Peppers have a Code, and one of its articles is that a gentleman, as the leader in the dance, while he may not be the proximate cause of missteps on the lady’s part, must accept ultimate accountability for any mishaps. Many’s the time I’ve apologized to a partner for mistakenly placing my foot where hers was just about to come down. I’m sure the Mainwarings have their own code, but I suspect it is not as punctilious as that of the Peppers.
I’d just stepped out onto the portico for a cigarette when Billie came tearing out of the hall and legged it down the drive. There was a rack of bicycles further along and she hopped on one and took off. Niffy stumbled out a moment later, and seeing her making off grabbed another machine and pursued. Though attempting to overtake with manly perseverance he was making no headway. He just couldn’t get good purchase on the pedals while wearing that getup. Makes you realize why they’re called velocipedes, not velocihooves.
So there was Billie, flying down the road, scarf streaming behind, for all the world like Isadora Duncan about to be throttled, and Niffy well behind, pedaling for all he was worth but losing ground every furlong; a lack-of-speed demon if ever there was one. As they disappeared round a bend I ran after them, expecting nothing more than to buck up Niffy and tell him all was not lost, and if at first you don’t succeed and that sort of thing. But when I rounded the bend I found I wasn’t needed.
It was the scarf that’d done it. Like that of the well-known danseuse it’d gotten tangled in the spokes, but to far less fatal consequence, merely throwing Billie a tumble. Niffy was sitting on the ground, cradling Billie’s head and murmuring how much he loved her and how he was sorry and that of course Wendell could be the best man, he was a lovely boy, merely misunderstood, and covering her face in kisses. And as Billie came round and opened her eyes and saw the concern and regret in Niffy’s face, her resolve melted, and so did she.
Beverly and Wilhelmina! I ask you!