P. G. Wodehouse’s
BY RHIAN JONES
The affair of the inferior business card is one which casts rather a gloom over the otherwise illustrious annals of Bateman family history. The fault, if it comes to that, was entirely that of Paul Owen, and the solution was, as ever, down to Jean, the finest secretary for which a man could wish.
I had, on the morning in question, breakfasted as usual on the old bran muffin and decaffeinated herbal tea before completing a thousand physical jerks and setting off downtown to Pierce & Pierce. Whilst performing my ablutions I’d gained the fleeting impression of there being something distinctly odd about my reflection, as if I wasn’t quite there, but I put it down to the previous evening’s indulgences at the club and paid it no mind.
Beneath the old six-button double-breasted tailcoat, I was sporting shoes by Susan Warren Bennis Edwards and some frankly tremendous trousers, which allowed me to feel inordinately pleased with myself. This happy state of affairs had of course as much likelihood of lasting as the early grace enjoyed by Milton’s Satan. I realised as much upon entering the meeting room, where I beheld my chums engaged in conversation with Paul Owen, a chap whose company I must admit I struggle at the best of times to tolerate.
This particular morning, as if his success rate with restaurant reservations hadn’t proved provoking enough, dash it all if the blighter didn’t also mistake me for Marcus “Boofy” Halberstam, a tiresome sort of cove whose acquaintance as a colleague I hadn’t been able to avoid making. While I’ll grant you a certain similarity between us in the sartorial department, when it comes to our choice of hairdresser he and I part courses like rocketing pheasants, so this was quite a faux pas on Owen’s part. Ignoring him, I bent my head to the desk and hoovered up a line of the old Bolivian marching powder with what I felt was the appropriate degree of hauteur.
Owen eventually left, but it seemed the morning’s ordeals had simply been awaiting the starting pistol. When I happened to produce the business card I’d had printed that morning, I was set upon by my colleagues with a flurry of increasingly expensive and superior specimens. This reached its giddy limit when Owen’s card was sprung upon us, whereupon it emerged that no one could top his effort, which even carried a watermark. I don’t mind telling you—in fact, I think I’d tell you even if I did mind—that Patrick was decidedly on the back foot here.
My discomfiture did not pass unnoticed by Luis Carruthers, who had inveigled himself into the seat next to mine with all the sliminess of the snake in that poem I couldn’t quite call to mind.
“I say, Patrick—everything all right?” he enquired. “You seem a bit damp around the collar, what?”
I shook him off, and made my departure, aware that this conundrum would tax the finest brains on Wall Street.
“Jean!” I called, upon entering my inner sanctum. “Surge round!”
My secretary looked up, her expression resembling that of a mildly curious Sphinx.
“I couldn’t help overhearing. Might I make a suggestion, Patrick?”
“Yes,” I said. “In fact I rather hoped you would.”
“What I take to be your contretemps with Mr. Owen,” she said, with her usual perspicacity, “might be solved by the expedient of your taking him to lunch.”
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the restaurant Texarkana, or indeed with the company of Paul Owen, but if you are then I hope you’ll understand the need I felt to fortify myself throughout the luncheon with the help of every cocktail on the menu. Owen was dressed in almost exactly the same outfit as me, and pretty silly he looked in it.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back at my apartment, where, in an attempt to display a modicum of bonhomie, I seated myself at the unspeakably expensive piano and essayed a few bars of “Hip to be Square.” Owen was singularly unappreciative of this, which reminded me that the man that hath no music in his soul is, as the poet rightly remarked, fit for any number of treasons, stratagems and spoils that I didn’t at all care for. As I considered his lack of response, I’m afraid to say I felt the old crushing ennui descend, and, before I quite knew what I was about, I’d swung a hatchet at him. When no rejoinder from him was forthcoming, I did so again, until his neck cracked like that of an especially recalcitrant fox, and, not to put too fine a point on it, before time’s winged chariot had covered much more ground I found I’d managed to murder the fellow in what you might, were you of a judicial persuasion, describe as cold blood.
Now, we Batemans are perfectly accustomed to taking the rough in life with the smooth, but even so, this seemed like a serious misstep. I supposed I stood in no small danger of arrest and imprisonment, not to mention finally having my allowance cut off.
I wiped my hands on Owen’s discarded dinner jacket and thought the thing through. There was nothing for it but to get Jean back on the case.
“Look here, Jean,” I began, the following morning. “It turns out I’m in something of a pickle—”
“Am I to assume from your demeanour, Patrick, that Mr. Owen has met with what might be perceived as his just desserts?”
Her sagacity was not to be topped. “As it happens, Jean, he has—and at the hands of yours truly, no less! What am I to do?”
“I had anticipated that something of that nature might transpire, which is why I took the liberty of putting down newspaper in your apartment last night and secreting in your bathroom a hatchet, which I’m glad to see you managed to make use of.”
“Well, indeed I did, but—how on earth am I to get out of it?”
“Is it not the case, Patrick, that Mr. Owen dined with you in the belief that you were, in fact, Mr. Marcus Halberstam?”
I goggled at the depth to which her knowledge penetrated. “Well, yes, but—”
“Therefore, it’s almost certain that he and not yourself will be blamed for Mr. Owen’s murder. I can only presume you agree that this is the most feasible, not to mention felicitous, turn of events?”
I felt bound to remonstrate with her. “What, old ‘Boofy’ Halberstam on some kind of psychotic killing spree? That’s hardly the sort of thing that would stand up in court—I mean to say, there was that business with the policeman’s helmet back at Harvard, true enough, but even so—”
“Not to worry, Patrick. You see, yesterday evening I took the further liberty of murdering Mr. Halberstam.”
I stood agog.
“In this very office,” she continued. “I dispatched him with alacrity.”
“You dispatched him with a nail gun, I would have thought!” I cried, going by the state of the office carpet, which had, what with one thing and another, hitherto escaped my notice.
“Quite so. His absence will of course, once certain rumours are put about, account for the simultaneous disappearance of Mr. Owen. Now, might I remind you of your reservations at Barcadia this evening—yourself and Miss Rawlinson, I believe, for eight-thirty?’
“But—now look here, Jean,” I expostulated, if that’s the word I’m after. “One can’t simply go around merrily decapitating one’s fellow man whenever one feels the occasion calls for it —”
I paused. "Can one? "
Jean held my gaze. "It is a curiosity of your chosen social and professional milieu, Patrick, that one can do more or less what one likes, owing to the pathological individualism generated by the social mores of late entrepreneurial capitalism, whereby no one really knows what anyone else looks like, or cares what they do. "
“Good lord, Jean! " I cried with mounting excitement, or as near to it as a chap can get before cocktail hour. "Do you mean to say that the mechanisms of corporate America, the very cogs in which we find ourselves enmeshed, constitute some sort of life-draining parasite by which we’re all rendered emotionless husks of humanity, about as capable of empathising with or even noticing the lives of others as my Aunt Agatha would be of appreciating hardcore pornography—for instance, Inside Lydia’s Ass? "
“That is, regrettably, the case, Patrick. And consequently it means that, in the higher echelons of society, manifestations of deep psychological disturbance are all too likely to pass wholly unnoticed, and go unpunished accordingly. "
“Capital!” I exclaimed, and lit up a cigar.
Jean bowed her faithful head back to the desk diary. “Indeed, sir.”
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