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Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse

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Flushed with the favour of the many-headed, Charlie now proceeded from
threats to action. His right fist swung round suddenly. But Beale was
on the alert. He ducked sharply, and the next moment Charlie was
sitting on the ground beside his fallen friend. A hush fell on the
Ring, and the little man in the purple tie was left repeating his
formula without support.

I advanced. It seemed to me that the time had come to be conciliatory.
Charlie was struggling to his feet, obviously anxious for a second
round, and Beale was getting into position once more. In another five
minutes conciliation would be out of the question.

"What's all this?" I said.

I may mention here that I do not propose to inflict dialect upon the
reader. If he had borne with my narrative thus far, I look on him as a
friend, and feel that he deserves consideration. I may not have
brought out the fact with sufficient emphasis in the foregoing pages,
but nevertheless I protest that I have a conscience. Not so much as a
"thiccy" shall he find.

My advent caused a stir. Excited men left Beale, and rallied round me.
Charlie, rising to his feet, found himself dethroned from his position
of Man of the Moment, and stood blinking at the setting sun and
opening and shutting his mouth. There was a buzz of conversation.

"Don't all speak at once, please," I said. "I can't possibly follow
what you say. Perhaps you will tell me what you want?"

I singled out a short, stout man in grey. He wore the largest whiskers
ever seen on human face.

"It's like this, sir. We all of us want to know where we are."

"I can tell you that," I said, "you're on our lawn, and I should be
much obliged if you would stop digging your heels into it."

This was not, I suppose, Conciliation in the strictest and best sense
of the word; but the thing had to be said. It is the duty of every
good citizen to do his best to score off men with whiskers.

"You don't understand me, sir," he said excitedly. "When I said we
didn't know where we were, it was a manner of speaking. We want to
know how we stand."

"On your heels," I replied gently, "as I pointed out before."

"I am Brass, sir, of Axminster. My account with Mr. Ukridge is ten
pounds eight shillings and fourpence. I want to know----"

The whole strength of the company now joined in.

"You know me, Mr. Garnet. Appleby, in the High----" (Voice lost in the
general roar).

" . . . and eightpence."

"My account with Mr. Uk . . ."

" . . . settle . . ."

"I represent Bodger . . ."

A diversion occurred at this point. Charlie, who had long been eyeing
Beale sourly, dashed at him with swinging fists, and was knocked down
again. The whole trend of the meeting altered once more, Conciliation
became a drug. Violence was what the public wanted. Beale had three
fights in rapid succession. I was helpless. Instinct prompted me to
join the fray; but prudence told me that such a course would be fatal.

At last, in a lull, I managed to catch the Hired Retainer by the arm,
as he drew back from the prostrate form of his latest victim. "Drop
it, Beale," I whispered hotly, "drop it. We shall never manage these
people if you knock them about. Go indoors, and stay there while I
talk to them."

"Mr. Garnet, sir," said he, the light of battle dying out of his eyes,
"it's 'ard. It's cruel 'ard. I ain't 'ad a turn-up, not to /call/ a
turn-up, since I've been a time-expired man. I ain't hitting of 'em,
Mr. Garnet, sir, not hard I ain't. That there first one of 'em he
played me dirty, hittin' at me when I wasn't looking. They can't say
as I started it."

"That's all right, Beale," I said soothingly. "I know it wasn't your
fault, and I know it's hard on you to have to stop, but I wish you
would go indoors. I must talk to these men, and we shan't have a
moment's peace while you're here. Cut along."

"Very well, sir. But it's 'ard. Mayn't I 'ave just one go at that
Charlie, Mr. Garnet?" he asked wistfully.

"No, no. Go in."

"And if they goes for you, sir, and tries to wipe the face off you?"

"They won't, they won't. If they do, I'll shout for you."

He went reluctantly into the house, and I turned again to my audience.

"If you will kindly be quiet for a moment--" I said.

"I am Appleby, Mr. Garnet, in the High Street. Mr. Ukridge--"

"Eighteen pounds fourteen shillings--"

"Kindly glance--"

I waved my hands wildly above my head.

"Stop! stop! stop!" I shouted.

The babble continued, but diminished gradually in volume. Through the
trees, as I waited, I caught a glimpse of the sea. I wished I was out
on the Cob, where beyond these voices there was peace. My head was
beginning to ache, and I felt faint for want of food.

"Gentlemen," I cried, as the noise died away.

The latch of the gate clicked. I looked up, and saw a tall thin young
man in a frock coat and silk hat enter the garden. It was the first
time I had seen the costume in the country.

He approached me.

"Mr. Ukridge, sir?" he said.

"My name is Garnet. Mr. Ukridge is away at the moment."

"I come from Whiteley's, Mr. Garnet. Our Mr. Blenkinsop having written
on several occasions to Mr. Ukridge calling his attention to the fact
that his account has been allowed to mount to a considerable figure,
and having received no satisfactory reply, desired me to visit him. I
am sorry that he is not at home."

"So am I," I said with feeling.

"Do you expect him to return shortly?"

"No," I said, "I do not."

He was looking curiously at the expectant band of duns. I forestalled
his question.

"Those are some of Mr. Ukridge's creditors," I said. "I am just about
to address them. Perhaps you will take a seat. The grass is quite dry.
My remarks will embrace you as well as them."

Comprehension came into his eyes, and the natural man in him peeped
through the polish.

"Great Scott, has he done a bunk?" he cried.

"To the best of my knowledge, yes," I said.

He whistled.

I turned again to the local talent.

"Gentlemen," I shouted.

"Hear, hear," said some idiot.

"Gentlemen, I intend to be quite frank with you. We must decide just
how matters stand between us. (A voice: Where's Ukridge?) Mr. Ukridge
left for London suddenly (bitter laughter) yesterday afternoon.
Personally I think he will come back very shortly."

Hoots of derision greeted this prophecy. I resumed.

"I fail to see your object in coming here. I have nothing for you. I
couldn't pay your bills if I wanted to."

It began to be borne upon me that I was becoming unpopular.

"I am here simply as Mr. Ukridge's guest," I proceeded. After all, why
should I spare the man? "I have nothing whatever to do with his
business affairs. I refuse absolutely to be regarded as in any way
indebted to you. I am sorry for you. You have my sympathy. That is all
I can give you, sympathy--and good advice."

Dissatisfaction. I was getting myself disliked. And I had meant to be
so conciliatory, to speak to these unfortunates words of cheer which
should be as olive oil poured into a wound. For I really did
sympathise with them. I considered that Ukridge had used them
disgracefully. But I was irritated. My head ached abominably.

"Then am I to tell our Mr. Blenkinsop," asked the frock-coated one,
"that the money is not and will not be forthcoming?"

"When next you smoke a quiet cigar with your Mr. Blenkinsop," I
replied courteously, "and find conversation flagging, I rather think I
/should/ say something of the sort."

"We shall, of course, instruct our solicitors at once to institute
legal proceedings against your Mr. Ukridge."

"Don't call him my Mr. Ukridge. You can do whatever you please."

"That is your last word on the subject?"

"I hope so. But I fear not."

"Where's our money?" demanded a discontented voice from the crowd.

An idea struck me.

"Beale!" I shouted.

Out came the Hired Retainer at the double. I fancy he thought that his
help was needed to save me from my friends.

He slowed down, seeing me as yet unassaulted.

"Sir?" he said.

"Isn't there a case of that whisky left somewhere, Beale?"

I had struck the right note. There was a hush of pleased anticipation
among the audience.

"Yes, sir. One."

"Then bring it out here and open it."

Beale looked pained

"For /them/, sir!" he ejaculated.

"Yes. Hurry up."

He hesitated, then without a word went into the house. A hearty cheer
went up as he reappeared with the case. I proceeded indoors in search
of glasses and water.

Coming out, I realised my folly in having left Beale alone with our
visitors even for a minute. A brisk battle was raging between him and
a man whom I did not remember to have seen before. The frock-coated
young man was looking on with pale fear stamped upon his face; but the
rest of the crowd were shouting advice and encouragement was being
given to Beale. How I wondered, had he pacified the mob?

I soon discovered. As I ran up as quickly as I could, hampered as I
was by the jugs and glasses, Beale knocked his man out with the clean
precision of the experienced boxer; and the crowd explained in chorus
that it was the pot-boy, from the Net and Mackerel. Like everything
else, the whisky had not been paid for and the pot-boy, arriving just
as the case was being opened, had made a gallant effort to save it
from being distributed free to his fellow-citizens. By the time he
came to, the glasses were circulating merrily; and, on observing this,
he accepted the situation philosophically enough, and took his turn
and turn about with the others.

Everybody was now in excellent fettle. The only malcontents were
Beale, whose heart plainly bled at the waste of good Scotch whisky,
and the frock-coated young man, who was still pallid.

I was just congratulating myself, as I eyed the revellers, on having
achieved a masterstroke of strategy, when that demon Charlie, his
defeat, I suppose, still rankling, made a suggestion. From his point
of view a timely and ingenious suggestion.

"We can't see the colour of our money," he said pithily, "but we can
have our own back."

That settled it. The battle was over. The most skilful general must
sometime recognise defeat. I recognised it then, and threw up my hand.
I could do nothing further with them. I had done my best for the farm.
I could do no more.

I lit my pipe, and strolled into the paddock.

Chaos followed. Indoors and out-of-doors they raged without check.
Even Beale gave the thing up. He knocked Charlie into a flower-bed,
and then disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

It was growing dusk. From inside the house came faint sounds of
bibulous mirth, as the sacking party emptied the rooms of their
contents. In the fowl-run a hen was crooning sleepily in its coop. It
was a very soft, liquid, soothing sound.

Presently out came the invaders with their loot, one with a picture,
another with a vase, another bearing the gramophone upside down. They
were singing in many keys and times.

Then I heard somebody--Charlie again, it seemed to me--propose a raid
on the fowl-run.

The fowls had had their moments of unrest since they had been our
property, but what they had gone through with us was peace compared
with what befell them then. Not even on the second evening of our
visit, when we had run unmeasured miles in pursuit of them, had there
been such confusion. Roused abruptly from their beauty-sleep they fled
in all directions. Their pursuers, roaring with laughter, staggered
after them. They tumbled over one another. The summer evening was made
hideous with the noise of them.

"Disgraceful, sir. Is it not disgraceful!" said a voice in my ear.

The young man from Whiteley's stood beside me. He did not look happy.
His forehead was damp. Somebody seemed to have stepped on his hat, and
his coat was smeared with mould.

I was turning to answer him when from the dusk in the direction of the
house came a sudden roar. A passionate appeal to the world in general
to tell the speaker what all this meant.

There was only one man of my acquaintance with a voice like that.

I walked without hurry towards him.

"Good evening, Ukridge," I said.



A yell of welcome drowned the tumult of the looters.

"Is that you, Garny, old horse? What's up? What's the matter? Has
everyone gone mad? Who are those infernal scoundrels in the fowl-run?
What are they doing? What's been happening?"

"I have been entertaining a little meeting of your creditors," I said.
"And now they are entertaining themselves."

"But what did you let them do it for?"

"What is one amongst so many?"

"Well, 'pon my Sam," moaned Ukridge, as, her sardonic calm laid aside,
that sinister hen which we called Aunt Elizabeth flashed past us
pursued by the whiskered criminal, "it's a little hard! I can't go
away for a day--"

"You certainly can't! You're right there. You can't go away without a

"Without a word? What do you mean? Garny, old boy, pull yourself
together. You're over-excited. Do you mean to tell me you didn't get
my note?"

"What note?"

"The one I left on the dining-room table."

"There was no note there."


I was reminded of the scene that had taken place on the first day of
our visit.

"Feel in your pockets," I said.

"Why, damme, here it is!" he said in amazement.

"Of course. Where did you expect it would be? Was it important?"

"Why, it explained the whole thing."

"Then," I said, "I wish you would let me read it. A note like that
ought to be worth reading."

"It was telling you to sit tight and not worry about us going away--"

"That's good about worrying. You're a thoughtful chap, Ukridge."

"--because we should be back immediately."

"And what sent you up to town?"

"Why, we went to touch Millie's Aunt Elizabeth."

"Oh!" I said, a light shining on the darkness of my understanding.

"You remember Aunt Elizabeth? The old girl who wrote that letter."

"I know. She called you a gaby."

"And a guffin."

"Yes. I remember thinking her a shrewd and discriminating old lady,
with a great gift for character delineation. So you went to touch

"That's it. We had to have more money. So I naturally thought of her.
Aunt Elizabeth isn't what you might call an admirer of mine--"

"Bless her for that."

"--but she's very fond of Millie, and would do anything if she's
allowed to chuck about a few home-truths before doing it. So we went
off together, looked her up at her house, stated our case, and
collected the stuff. Millie and I shared the work. She did the asking,
while I inquired after the rheumatism. She mentioned the figure that
would clear us; I patted the dog. Little beast! Got after me when I
wasn't looking and chewed my ankle!"

"Thank Heaven!"

"In the end Millie got the money, and I got the home-truths."

"Did she call you a gaby?"

"Twice. And a guffin three times."

"Your Aunt Elizabeth is beginning to fascinate me. She seems just the
sort of woman I would like. Well, you got the money?"

"Rather! And I'll tell you another thing, old horse. I scored heavily
at the end of the visit. She'd got to the quoting-proverbs stage by
that time. 'Ah, my dear,' she said to Millie. 'Marry in haste, repent
at leisure.' Millie stood up to her like a little brick. 'I'm afraid
that proverb doesn't apply to me, Aunt Elizabeth,' she said, 'because
I haven't repented!' What do you think of that, Laddie?"

"Of course, she /hasn't/ had much leisure lately," I agreed.

Ukridge's jaw dropped slightly. But he rallied swiftly.

"Idiot! That wasn't what she meant. Millie's an angel!"

"Of course she is," I said cordially. "She's a precious sight too good
for you, you old rotter. You bear that fact steadily in mind, and
we'll make something of you yet."

At this point Mrs. Ukridge joined us. She had been exploring the
house, and noting the damage done. Her eyes were open to their fullest

"Oh, Mr. Garnet, /couldn't/ you have stopped them?"

I felt a worm. Had I done as much as I might have done to stem the

"I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Ukridge," I said humbly. "I really don't
think I could have done much more. We tried every method. Beale had
seven fights, and I made a speech on the lawn, but it was all no good.
Directly they had finished the whisky--"

Ukridge's cry was like that of a lost spirit.

"They didn't get hold of the whisky!"

"They did! It seemed to me that it would smooth things down a little
if I served it out. The mob had begun to get a trifle out of hand."

"I thought those horrid men were making a lot of noise," said Mrs.

Ukridge preserved a gloomy silence. Of all the disasters of that
stricken field, I think the one that came home most poignantly to him
was the loss of the whisky. It seemed to strike him like a blow.

"Isn't it about time to collect these men and explain things?" I
suggested. "I don't believe any of them know you've come back."

"They will!" said Ukridge grimly, coming out of his trance. "They soon
will! Where's Beale! Beale!"

The Hired Retainer came running out at the sound of the well-
remembered voice.

"Lumme, Mr. Ukridge, sir!" he gasped.

It was the first time Beale had ever betrayed any real emotion in my
presence. To him, I suppose, the return of Ukridge was as sensational
and astonishing an event as a re-appearance from the tomb. He was not
accustomed to find those who had shot the moon revisiting their
ancient haunts.

"Beale, go round the place and tell those scoundrels that I've come
back, and would like a word with them on the lawn. And, if you find
any of them stealing the fowls, knock them down!"

"I 'ave knocked down one or two," said Beale, with approval. "That

"Beale," said Ukridge, much moved, "you're an excellent fellow! One of
the very best. I will pay you your back wages before I go to bed."

"These fellars, sir," said Beale, having expressed his gratification,
"they've bin and scattered most of them birds already, sir. They've
bin chasin' of them this half-hour back."

Ukridge groaned.

"Scoundrels! Demons!"

Beale went off.

"Millie, old girl," said Ukridge, adjusting the ginger-beer wire
behind his ears and hoisting up his grey flannel-trousers, which
showed an inclination to sag, "you'd better go indoors. I propose to
speak pretty chattily to these blighters, and in the heat of the
moment one or two expressions might occur to me which you would not
like. It would hamper me, your being here."

Mrs. Ukridge went into the house, and the vanguard of the audience
began to come on to the lawn. Several of them looked flushed and
dishevelled. I have a suspicion that Beale had shaken sobriety into
them. Charlie, I noticed, had a black eye.

They assembled on the lawn in the moonlight, and Ukridge, with his cap
well over his eyes and his mackintosh hanging round him like a Roman
toga, surveyed them sternly, and began his speech.

"You--you--you--you scoundrels! You blighters! You worms! You weeds!"

I always like to think of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge as I saw
him at that moment. There have been times during a friendship of many
years when his conduct did not recommend itself to me. It has
sometimes happened that I have seen flaws in him. But on this occasion
he was at his best. He was eloquent. He dominated his audience. Long
before he had finished I was feeling relieved that he had thought of
sending Mrs. Ukridge indoors when he did, and Beale was hanging on his
words with a look in his eyes which I had never seen there before,--a
look of reverence, almost of awe, the look of a disciple who listens
to a master.

He poured scorn upon his hearers, and they quailed. He flung invective
at them, and they wilted. Strange oaths, learned among strange men on
cattle-ships or gleaned on the waterfronts of Buenos Ayres and San
Francisco, slid into the stream of his speech. It was hard, he said in
part, it was, upon his Sam, a little hard that a gentleman--a
gentleman, moreover, who had done so much to stimulate local trade
with large orders and what not--could not run up to London for five
minutes on business without having his private grounds turned upside
down by a gang of cattle-ship adjectived San Francisco substantives
who behaved as if the whole of the Buenos Ayres phrased place belonged
to them. He had intended to do well by them. He had meant to continue
putting business in their way, expanding their trade. But would he
after what had occurred? Not by a jugful! As soon as ever the sun had
risen and another day begun, their miserable accounts should be paid
in full, and their connection with him cut off. Afterwards it was
probable that he would institute legal proceedings against them in the
matter of trespass and wholesale damage to property, and if they
didn't all end their infernal days in some dashed prison they might
consider themselves uncommonly lucky, and if they didn't make
themselves scarce in considerably under two ticks, he proposed to see
what could be done with Beale's shot-gun. (Beale here withdrew with a
pleased expression to fetch the weapon.) He was sick of them. They
were blighters. Creatures that it would be fulsome flattery to
describe as human beings. He would call them skunks, only he did not
see what the skunks had done to be compared with them. And now they
might go--/quick/!

* * * * *

We were quiet at the farm that night. Ukridge sat like Marius among
the ruins of Carthage, and refused to speak. Eventually he took Bob
with him and went for a walk.

Half an hour later I, too, wearied of the scene of desolation. My
errant steps took me in the direction of the sea. As I approached, I
was aware of a figure standing in the moonlight, gazing silently out
over the waters. Beside the figure was a dog.

The dark moments of optimistic minds are sacred, and I would no more
have ventured to break in on Ukridge's thoughts at that moment than,
if I had been a general in the Grand Army, I would have opened
conversation with Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow. I was
withdrawing as softly as I could, when my foot grated on the shingle.
Ukridge turned.

"Hullo, Garny."

"Hullo, old man." I murmured in a death-bedside voice.

He came towards me, Bob trotting at his heels: and, as he came, I saw
with astonishment that his mien was calm, even cheerful. I should have
known my Ukridge better than to be astonished. You cannot keep a good
man down, and already Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge was himself
again. His eyes sparkled buoyantly behind their pince-nez.

"Garny, old horse, I've been thinking, laddie! I've got an idea! The
idea of a lifetime. The best ever, 'pon my Sam! I'm going to start a
duck farm!"

"A duck farm?"

"A duck farm, laddie! And run it without water. My theory is, you see,
that ducks get thin by taking exercise and swimming about all over the
place, so that, if you kept them always on land, they'd get jolly fat
in about half the time--and no trouble and expense. See? What? Not a
flaw in it, old horse! I've thought the whole thing out." He took my
arm affectionately. "Now, listen. We'll say that the profits of the
first year at a conservative estimate . . ."


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