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Blundell's Improvement by W.W. Jacobs

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Produced by David Widger


By W.W. Jacobs


Venia Turnbull in a quiet, unobtrusive fashion was enjoying herself. The
cool living-room at Turnbull's farm was a delightful contrast to the hot
sunshine without, and the drowsy humming of bees floating in at the open
window was charged with hints of slumber to the middle-aged. From her
seat by the window she watched with amused interest the efforts of her
father--kept from his Sunday afternoon nap by the assiduous attentions of
her two admirers--to maintain his politeness.

"Father was so pleased to see you both come in," she said, softly; "it's
very dull for him here of an afternoon with only me."

[Illustration: "Father was so pleased to see you both come in," she said,

"I can't imagine anybody being dull with only you," said Sergeant Dick
Daly, turning a bold brown eye upon her.

Mr. John Blundell scowled; this was the third time the sergeant had said
the thing that he would have liked to say if he had thought of it.

"I don't mind being dull," remarked Mr. Turnbull, casually.

Neither gentleman made any comment.

"I like it," pursued Mr. Turnbull, longingly; "always did, from a child."

The two young men looked at each other; then they looked at Venia; the
sergeant assumed an expression of careless ease, while John Blundell sat
his chair like a human limpet. Mr. Turnbull almost groaned as he
remembered his tenacity.

"The garden's looking very nice," he said, with a pathetic glance round.

"Beautiful," assented the sergeant. "I saw it yesterday."

"Some o' the roses on that big bush have opened a bit more since then,"
said the farmer.

Sergeant Daly expressed his gratification, and said that he was not
surprised. It was only ten days since he had arrived in the village on a
visit to a relative, but in that short space of time he had, to the great
discomfort of Mr. Blundell, made himself wonderfully at home at Mr.
Turnbull's. To Venia he related strange adventures by sea and land, and
on subjects of which he was sure the farmer knew nothing he was a perfect
mine of information. He began to talk in low tones to Venia, and the
heart of Mr. Blundell sank within him as he noted her interest. Their
voices fell to a gentle murmur, and the sergeant's sleek, well-brushed
head bent closer to that of his listener. Relieved from his attentions,
Mr. Turnbull fell asleep without more ado.

Blundell sat neglected, the unwilling witness of a flirtation he was
powerless to prevent. Considering her limited opportunities, Miss
Turnbull displayed a proficiency which astonished him. Even the sergeant
was amazed, and suspected her of long practice.

"I wonder whether it is very hot outside?" she said, at last, rising and
looking out of the window.

"Only pleasantly warm," said the sergeant. "It would be nice down by the

"I'm afraid of disturbing father by our talk," said the considerate
daughter. "You might tell him we've gone for a little stroll when he
wakes," she added, turning to Blundell.

Mr. Blundell, who had risen with the idea of acting the humble but, in
his opinion, highly necessary part of chaperon, sat down again and
watched blankly from the window until they were out of sight. He was
half inclined to think that the exigencies of the case warranted him in
arousing the farmer at once.

It was an hour later when the farmer awoke, to find himself alone with
Mr. Blundell, a state of affairs for which he strove with some
pertinacity to make that aggrieved gentleman responsible.

"Why didn't you go with them?" he demanded. "Because I wasn't asked,"
replied the other.

Mr. Turnbull sat up in his chair and eyed him disdainfully. "For a
great, big chap like you are, John Blundell," he exclaimed, "it's
surprising what a little pluck you've got."

"I don't want to go where I'm not wanted," retorted Mr. Blundell.

"That's where you make a mistake," said the other, regarding him
severely; "girls like a masterful man, and, instead of getting your own
way, you sit down quietly and do as you're told, like a tame--tame--"

"Tame what?" inquired Mr. Blundell, resentfully.

"I don't know," said the other, frankly; "the tamest thing you can think
of. There's Daly laughing in his sleeve at you, and talking to Venia
about Waterloo and the Crimea as though he'd been there. I thought it
was pretty near settled between you."

"So did I," said Mr. Blundell.

"You're a big man, John," said the other, "but you're slow. You're all
muscle and no head."

"I think of things afterward," said Blundell, humbly; "generally after I
get to bed."

Mr. Turnbull sniffed, and took a turn up and down the room; then he
closed the door and came toward his friend again.

"I dare say you're surprised at me being so anxious to get rid of Venia,"
he said, slowly, "but the fact is I'm thinking of marrying again myself."

"You!" said the startled Mr. Blundell.

"Yes, me," said the other, somewhat sharply. "But she won't marry so
long as Venia is at home. It's a secret, because if Venia got to hear of
it she'd keep single to prevent it. She's just that sort of girl."

Mr. Blundell coughed, but did not deny it. "Who is it?" he inquired.

"Miss Sippet," was the reply. "She couldn't hold her own for half an
hour against Venia."

Mr. Blundell, a great stickler for accuracy, reduced the time to five

"And now," said the aggrieved Mr. Turnbull, "now, so far as I can see,
she's struck with Daly. If she has him it'll be years and years before
they can marry. She seems crazy about heroes. She was talking to me the
other night about them. Not to put too fine a point on it, she was
talking about you."

Mr. Blundell blushed with pleased surprise.

"Said you were not a hero," explained Mr. Turnbull. "Of course, I stuck
up for you. I said you'd got too much sense to go putting your life into
danger. I said you were a very careful man, and I told her how
particular you was about damp sheets. Your housekeeper told me."

"It's all nonsense," said Blundell, with a fiery face. "I'll send that
old fool packing if she can't keep her tongue quiet."

"It's very sensible of you, John," said Mr. Turnbull, "and a sensible
girl would appreciate it. Instead of that, she only sniffed when I told
her how careful you always were to wear flannel next to your skin. She
said she liked dare-devils."

"I suppose she thinks Daly is a dare-devil," said the offended Mr.
Blundell. "And I wish people wouldn't talk about me and my skin. Why
can't they mind their own business?"

Mr. Turnbull eyed him indignantly, and then, sitting in a very upright
position, slowly filled his pipe, and declining a proffered match rose
and took one from the mantel-piece.

"I was doing the best I could for you," he said, staring hard at the
ingrate. "I was trying to make Venia see what a careful husband you
would make. Miss Sippet herself is most particular about such things--
and Venia seemed to think something of it, because she asked me whether
you used a warming-pan."

[Illustration: "She asked me whether you used a warming-pan."]

Mr. Blundell got up from his chair and, without going through the
formality of bidding his host good-by, quitted the room and closed the
door violently behind him. He was red with rage, and he brooded darkly
as he made his way home on the folly of carrying on the traditions of a
devoted mother without thinking for himself.

For the next two or three days, to Venia's secret concern, he failed to
put in an appearance at the farm--a fact which made flirtation with the
sergeant a somewhat uninteresting business. Her sole recompense was the
dismay of her father, and for his benefit she dwelt upon the advantages
of the Army in a manner that would have made the fortune of a recruiting-

"She's just crazy after the soldiers," he said to Mr. Blundell, whom he
was trying to spur on to a desperate effort. "I've been watching her
close, and I can see what it is now; she's romantic. You're too slow and
ordinary for her. She wants somebody more dazzling. She told Daly only
yesterday afternoon that she loved heroes. Told it to him to his face.
I sat there and heard her. It's a pity you ain't a hero, John."

"Yes," said Mr. Blundell; "then, if I was, I expect she'd like something

The other shook his head. "If you could only do something daring," he
murmured; "half-kill some-body, or save somebody's life, and let her see
you do it. Couldn't you dive off the quay and save some-body's life from

"Yes, I could," said Blundell, "if somebody would only tumble in."

"You might pretend that you thought you saw somebody drowning," suggested
Mr. Turnbull.

"And be laughed at," said Mr. Blundell, who knew his Venia by heart.

"You always seem to be able to think of objections," complained Mr.
Turnbull; "I've noticed that in you before."

"I'd go in fast enough if there was anybody there," said Blundell. "I'm
not much of a swimmer, but--"

"All the better," interrupted the other; "that would make it all the more

"And I don't much care if I'm drowned," pursued the younger man,

Mr. Turnbull thrust his hands in his pockets and took a turn or two up
and down the room. His brows were knitted and his lips pursed. In the
presence of this mental stress Mr. Blundell preserved a respectful

"We'll all four go for a walk on the quay on Sunday afternoon," said Mr.
Turnbull, at last.

"On the chance?" inquired his staring friend.

"On the chance," assented the other; "it's just possible Daly might fall

"He might if we walked up and down five million times," said Blundell,

"He might if we walked up and down three or four times," said Mr.
Turnbull, "especially if you happened to stumble."

"I never stumble," said the matter-of-fact Mr. Blundell. "I don't know
anybody more sure-footed than I am."

"Or thick-headed," added the exasperated Mr. Turnbull.

Mr. Blundell regarded him patiently; he had a strong suspicion that his
friend had been drinking.

"Stumbling," said Mr. Turnbull, conquering his annoyance with an effort
"stumbling is a thing that might happen to anybody. You trip your foot
against a stone and lurch up against Daly; he tumbles overboard, and you
off with your jacket and dive in off the quay after him. He can't swim a

Mr. Blundell caught his breath and gazed at him in speechless amaze.

"There's sure to be several people on the quay if it's a fine afternoon,"
continued his instructor. "You'll have half Dunchurch round you,
praising you and patting you on the back--all in front of Venia, mind
you. It'll be put in all the papers and you'll get a medal."

"And suppose we are both drowned?" said Mr. Blundell, soberly.

"Drowned? Fiddlesticks !" said Mr. Turnbull. "However, please
yourself. If you're afraid----"

"I'll do it," said Blundell, decidedly.

"And mind," said the other, "don't do it as if it's as easy as kissing
your fingers; be half-drowned yourself, or at least pretend to be. And
when you're on the quay take your time about coming round. Be longer
than Daly is; you don't want him to get all the pity."

"All right," said the other.

"After a time you can open your eyes," went on his instructor; "then, if
I were you, I should say, 'Good-bye, Venia,' and close 'em again. Work
it up affecting, and send messages to your aunts."

"It sounds all right," said Blundell.

"It is all right," said Mr. Turnbull. "That's just the bare idea I've
given you. It's for you to improve upon it. You've got two days to
think about it."

Mr. Blundell thanked him, and for the next two days thought of little
else. Being a careful man he made his will, and it was in a
comparatively cheerful frame of mind that he made his way on Sunday
afternoon to Mr. Turnbull's.

The sergeant was already there conversing in low tones with Venia by the
window, while Mr. Turnbull, sitting opposite in an oaken armchair,
regarded him with an expression which would have shocked Iago.

"We were just thinking of having a blow down by the water," he said, as
Blundell entered.

"What! a hot day like this?" said Venia.

"I was just thinking how beautifully cool it is in here," said the
sergeant, who was hoping for a repetition of the previous Sunday's

"It's cooler outside," said Mr. Turnbull, with a wilful ignoring of
facts; "much cooler when you get used to it."

He led the way with Blundell, and Venia and the sergeant, keeping as much
as possible in the shade of the dust-powdered hedges, followed. The sun
was blazing in the sky, and scarce half-a-dozen people were to be seen on
the little curved quay which constituted the usual Sunday afternoon
promenade. The water, a dozen feet below, lapped cool and green against
the stone sides.

At the extreme end of the quay, underneath the lantern, they all stopped,
ostensibly to admire a full-rigged ship sailing slowly by in the
distance, but really to effect the change of partners necessary to the
after-noon's business. The change gave Mr. Turnbull some trouble ere it
was effected, but he was successful at last, and, walking behind the two
young men, waited somewhat nervously for developments.

Twice they paraded the length of the quay and nothing happened. The ship
was still visible, and, the sergeant halting to gaze at it, the company
lost their formation, and he led the complaisant Venia off from beneath
her father's very nose.

"You're a pretty manager, you are, John Blundell," said the incensed Mr.

"I know what I'm about," said Blundell, slowly.

"Well, why don't you do it?" demanded the other. "I suppose you are
going to wait until there are more people about, and then perhaps some of
them will see you push him over."

"It isn't that," said Blundell, slowly, "but you told me to improve on
your plan, you know, and I've been thinking out improvements."

"Well?" said the other.

"It doesn't seem much good saving Daly," said Blundell; "that's what I've
been thinking. He would be in as much danger as I should, and he'd get
as much sympathy; perhaps more."

"Do you mean to tell me that you are backing out of it?" demanded Mr.

"No," said Blundell, slowly, "but it would be much better if I saved
somebody else. I don't want Daly to be pitied."

"Bah! you are backing out of it," said the irritated Mr. Turnbull.
"You're afraid of a little cold water."

[Illustration: "Bah! you are backing out of it,' said the irritated Mr.

"No, I'm not," said Blundell; "but it would be better in every way to
save somebody else. She'll see Daly standing there doing nothing, while
I am struggling for my life. I've thought it all out very carefully. I
know I'm not quick, but I'm sure, and when I make up my mind to do a
thing, I do it. You ought to know that."

"That's all very well," said the other; "but who else is there to push

"That's all right," said Blundell, vaguely. "Don't you worry about that;
I shall find somebody."

Mr. Turnbull turned and cast a speculative eye along the quay. As a
rule, he had great confidence in Blundell's determination, but on this
occasion he had his doubts.

"Well, it's a riddle to me," he said, slowly. "I give it up. It seems--
Halloa! Good heavens, be careful. You nearly had me in then."

"Did I?" said Blundell, thickly. "I'm very sorry."

Mr. Turnbull, angry at such carelessness, accepted the apology in a
grudging spirit and trudged along in silence. Then he started nervously
as a monstrous and unworthy suspicion occurred to him. It was an
incredible thing to suppose, but at the same time he felt that there was
nothing like being on the safe side, and in tones not quite free from
significance he intimated his desire of changing places with his awkward

"It's all right," said Blundell, soothingly.

"I know it is," said Mr. Turnbull, regarding him fixedly; "but I prefer
this side. You very near had me over just now."

"I staggered," said Mr. Blundell.

"Another inch and I should have been overboard," said Mr. Turnbull, with
a shudder. "That would have been a nice how d'ye do."

Mr. Blundell coughed and looked seaward. "Accidents will happen," he

They reached the end of the quay again and stood talking, and when they
turned once more the sergeant was surprised and gratified at the ease
with which he bore off Venia. Mr. Turnbull and Blundell followed some
little way behind, and the former gentleman's suspicions were somewhat
lulled by finding that his friend made no attempt to take the inside
place. He looked about him with interest for a likely victim, but in

"What are you looking at?" he demanded, impatiently, as Blundell suddenly
came to a stop and gazed curiously into the harbour.

"Jelly-fish," said the other, briefly. "I never saw such a monster. It
must be a yard across."

Mr. Turnbull stopped, but could see nothing, and even when Blundell
pointed it out with his finger he had no better success. He stepped
forward a pace, and his suspicions returned with renewed vigour as a hand
was laid caressingly on his shoulder. The next moment, with a wild
shriek, he shot suddenly over the edge and disappeared. Venia and the
sergeant, turning hastily, were just in time to see the fountain which
ensued on his immersion.

[Illustration: "With a wild shriek, he shot suddenly over the edge and

"Oh, save him!" cried Venia.

The sergeant ran to the edge and gazed in helpless dismay as Mr. Turnbull
came to the surface and disappeared again. At the same moment Blundell,
who had thrown off his coat, dived into the harbour and, rising rapidly
to the surface, caught the fast-choking Mr. Turnbull by the collar.

"Keep still," he cried, sharply, as the farmer tried to clutch him; "keep
still or I'll let you go."

"Help!" choked the farmer, gazing up at the little knot of people which
had collected on the quay.

A stout fisherman who had not run for thirty years came along the edge of
the quay at a shambling trot, with a coil of rope over his arm. John
Blundell saw him and, mindful of the farmer's warning about kissing of
fingers, etc., raised his disengaged arm and took that frenzied gentleman
below the surface again. By the time they came up he was very glad for
his own sake to catch the line skilfully thrown by the old fisherman and
be drawn gently to the side.

"I'll tow you to the steps," said the fisherman; "don't let go o' the

Mr. Turnbull saw to that; he wound the rope round his wrist and began to
regain his presence of mind as they were drawn steadily toward the steps.
Willing hands drew them out of the water and helped them up on to the
quay, where Mr. Turnbull, sitting in his own puddle, coughed up salt
water and glared ferociously at the inanimate form of Mr. Blundell.
Sergeant Daly and another man were rendering what they piously believed
to be first aid to the apparently drowned, while the stout fisherman,
with both hands to his mouth, was yelling in heart-rending accents for a

"He--he--push--pushed me in," gasped the choking Mr. Turnbull.

Nobody paid any attention to him; even Venia, seeing that he was safe,
was on her knees by the side of the unconscious Blundell.

"He--he's shamming," bawled the neglected Mr. Turnbull.

"Shame!" said somebody, without even looking round.

"He pushed me in," repeated Mr. Turnbull. "He pushed me in."

"Oh, father," said Venia, with a scandalised glance at him, "how can

"Shame!" said the bystanders, briefly, as they, watched anxiously for
signs of returning life on the part of Mr. Blundell. He lay still with
his eyes closed, but his hearing was still acute, and the sounds of a
rapidly approaching barrel trundled by a breathless Samaritan did him
more good than anything.

"Good-bye, Venia," he said, in a faint voice; "good-bye."

Miss Turnbull sobbed and took his hand.

"He's shamming," roared Mr. Turnbull, incensed beyond measure at the
faithful manner in which Blundell was carrying out his instructions. "He
pushed me in."

There was an angry murmur from the bystanders. "Be reasonable, Mr.
Turnbull," said the sergeant, somewhat sharply.

"He nearly lost 'is life over you," said the stout fisherman. "As plucky
a thing as ever I see. If I 'adn't ha' been 'andy with that there line
you'd both ha' been drownded."

"Give--my love--to everybody," said Blundell, faintly. "Good-bye, Venia.
Good-bye, Mr. Turnbull."

"Where's that barrel?" demanded the stout fisher-man, crisply. "Going
to be all night with it? Now, two of you----"

Mr. Blundell, with a great effort, and assisted by Venia and the
sergeant, sat up. He felt that he had made a good impression, and had no
desire to spoil it by riding the barrel. With one exception, everybody
was regarding him with moist-eyed admiration. The exception's eyes were,
perhaps, the moistest of them all, but admiration had no place in them.

"You're all being made fools of," he said, getting up and stamping. "I
tell you he pushed me over-board for the purpose."

"Oh, father! how can you?" demanded Venia, angrily. "He saved your

"He pushed me in," repeated the farmer. "Told me to look at a jelly-fish
and pushed me in."

"What for?" inquired Sergeant Daly.

"Because--" said Mr. Turnbull. He looked at the unconscious sergeant,
and the words on his lips died away in an inarticulate growl.

"What for?" pursued the sergeant, in triumph. "Be reasonable, Mr.
Turnbull. Where's the reason in pushing you overboard and then nearly
losing his life saving you? That would be a fool's trick. It was as
fine a thing as ever I saw."

"What you 'ad, Mr. Turnbull," said the stout fisherman, tapping him on
the arm, "was a little touch o' the sun."

"What felt to you like a push," said another man, "and over you went."

"As easy as easy," said a third.

"You're red in the face now," said the stout fisherman, regarding him
critically, "and your eyes are starting. You take my advice and get 'ome
and get to bed, and the first thing you'll do when you get your senses
back will be to go round and thank Mr. Blundell for all 'e's done for

[Illustration: "You take my advice and get 'ome and get to bed."]

Mr. Turnbull looked at them, and the circle of intelligent faces grew
misty before his angry eyes. One man, ignoring his sodden condition,
recommended a wet handkerchief tied round his brow.

"I don't want any thanks, Mr. Turnbull," said Blundell, feebly, as he was
assisted to his feet. "I'd do as much for you again."

The stout fisherman patted him admiringly on the back, and Mr. Turnbull
felt like a prophet beholding a realised vision as the spectators
clustered round Mr. Blundell and followed their friends' example.
Tenderly but firmly they led the hero in triumph up the quay toward home,
shouting out eulogistic descriptions of his valour to curious neighbours
as they passed. Mr. Turnbull, churlishly keeping his distance in the
rear of the procession, received in grim silence the congratulations of
his friends.

The extraordinary hallucination caused by the sun-stroke lasted with him
for over a week, but at the end of that time his mind cleared and he saw
things in the same light as reasonable folk. Venia was the first to
congratulate him upon his recovery; but his extraordinary behaviour in
proposing to Miss Sippet the very day on which she herself became Mrs.
Blundell convinced her that his recovery was only partial.


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