The eccentric English-ness of the following scenario is born of a recent (and persistent) overdose of the fabulously funny and exquisitely written Jeeves & Wooster books by the talented P.G. Wodehouse. I have no doubt that my own efforts lack the mastery and delicious (for there is no other word) phrasing that he infuses his own work with, but it was jolly good fun to write nonetheless and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!
‘Your money or your life.’
The sudden flashing glint of naked steel in the sunlight was startling to the traveller, perhaps even more so than the bandit’s words. He shielded his eyes from both assailant and blade with an upraised arm, leaning heavily against the knobbled walking stick at his side.
‘I confess that you find me somewhat at a disadvantage, sir. Your statement presents a rather singular choice and one, I fear, that causes me some small consternation.’
The bandit’s face remained impassive, and he repeated his demand slowly, as if he considered the traveller a dullard, or short of wit.
‘Your money,’ he intoned, rubbing the thumb and forefinger of his free hand together over an imaginary bill, ‘or your life.’ On the latter, he emphasized the statement by angling the polished blade with a practiced twist of the wrist towards his faltering quarry, so that the mirrored glare fell squarely upon watering eyes. The traveller sought hurriedly to explain his predicament, blinking furiously.
‘Ah, yes, sir, quite. My money or my life: therein lies the essence of your request. A straightforward dichotomy, it would seem; for, if not the one, then the other, and, indeed, if not the latter then, logically, the first. Yet the statement taken in toto, standing as it does, poses a most difficult conundrum, viz that I lack one of the two fundamental objects of your desire, and greatly value the other. Logic dictates that I, sorely bereft of the ready stuff – broke, sir, damnably broke! – must therefore satisfy your proposition by offering up my life, having not the alternative to give; yet I regret to say that I find myself peculiarly attached to it at the present.’
The bandit had endured this lengthy sermon in silence, gazing mildly back at the tremulous traveller with the patient air of one who has heard such explanations before, and is incapable of surprise. Instead of reacting with outrage and incredulity, as might have been expected, the bandit merely sighed the long-suffering sigh of one throwing his hands up with a resigned here-we-go-again, deflating slightly as his dreams of ill-gotten gains dissipated in the bright summer air.
‘Well, sir,’ he said, brusquely, ‘if you are telling the truth – and, indeed, I fear that you are – then I believe that our short acquaintance is at an end. If I could just satisfy myself that you harbor no purse or wallet upon your person, then I shall let you be on your way.’
The traveller obligingly laid his knobbled walking stick gently on the ground and stepped forward, arms spread wide in a gesture intended to accommodate a speedy search. The luckless bandit sheathed his weapon and began a brisk, expert search of the traveller, patting at his sleeves and pockets. While this civilized search was underway the traveller took the opportunity to voice his curiosity over something that had been puzzling him.
‘If I may ask, good fellow,’ he inquired, ‘why have you not simply taken my life? I am glad, of course, that you have refrained from such a barbaric course of action, and grateful; but previously you expressed a keen interest in taking my life, and your enthusiasm regarding the deed seems rather to have waned. Why, just a minute ago your countenance, if you can forgive me for saying so, sir, was so fierce of aspect that I was convinced you intended to deal the killing blow right there and then.’ The bandit replied without suspension of his practiced search.
‘Well, sir – if you’ll just scootch your arm up a bit, that’s the way – murder is, quite frankly, uneconomical.’
‘Really? My finery, while faded, is surely worth a not inconsiderable amount.’
‘Oh, no doubt, sir, no doubt about it. Your suit would fetch a tidy sum at the second-hand clothier’s, as sure as spit. But – apologies for this, some fellows have the most ingenious pockets sewn in, miracle-workers, these modern tailors – a businessman can’t think only of the short term. It’s the long-term viability of an enterprise that’s the mark of a successful entrepreneur. Sure, it’s all to the good to stab a count here and a duchess there – leg up, please, sir, much obliged – but where does it all end, I ask you?’ The bandit spoke with passion, somewhere down by the traveller’s knees.
‘I’ll tell you, sir! It ends with your head in a noose and the constables luring your horse out with a carrot. A carrot! No, sir, it’s not for me.’ The bandit straightened up. ‘Well, that’s it, then, sir, all finished. I suppose you’ll be off now,’ he added, rather gloomily, as he withdrew.
‘I suppose I’d better,’ agreed the traveller, amiably. He stepped over to his staff and retrieved the knobbled thing, brushing off the dust of the road. He turned around to find the bandit where he’d left him, awkwardly scuffing up dirt with his feet.
‘Safe travels, then,’ said the bandit, morosely. His pathetic figure stirred up a perverse sense of pity in the traveller, whose heart ached to see this once-proud and threatening rogue of the highways reduced to the miserable figure before him.
‘To you as well!’ he exclaimed. ‘And best of luck with all the banditry and what-not, eh? Yes, indeed.’ And the traveller proceeded to make his hobbling way down the highway, conscious of having done a good deed in extending the velvet hand of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, as it were. Some men in his position, felt the traveller, would surely have borne a degree of resentment towards their assailant, no matter how civilized his manner.
Hardly had he advanced a dozen steps, though, when a cry came from behind.
‘Going to Piccadilly, are you, sir?’ It was the bandit, and the traveller turned painfully, once again shielding his eyes with an upraised arm.
‘Why, yes, I am,’ he called back, a shade less vociferously.
‘You wouldn’t mind if I accompanied you, would you? Only, these country roads are teeming with thugs and scoundrels of the very worst variety, and there’s safety in numbers and all that.’ The traveller was surprised.
‘They wouldn’t rob you, surely? Your fellow brigands? I was under the impression that you thieves clasped each other rather tight to the bosom.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, sir, I really wouldn’t. There’s some awfully unsavory types around these days that would steal from their own dear grandmother, never mind the aged relative’s coddling them from a suckling babe. They’re a stirring denunciation of the moral fabric of our society, according to those sociology chaps at the university. Besides, I’m going Piccadilly way myself, and it would be damned silly for us to walk apart like strangers.’ The bandit took a few hopeful steps forward, and when the traveller did nothing to dissuade him, paced quickly to his side.
‘Thank you, sir! Those lurking ne’er-do-wells will surely think twice before preying on a pair of such obviously alert men like ourselves, I’d wager.’ Thus acquainted, they set off, the bandit effortlessly matching his stride to the wizened tread of his new-found companion, appearing quite buoyed by the company.
‘Oh, rather,’ agreed the traveller, and conversation lapsed, his knowledge of the criminal element exhausted. After a spell of silent travel through the golden summer countryside, the traveller stirred, something having occurred to him.
‘Here, now!’ he exclaimed, startling the bandit, who had sunk into a similar stupor. ‘Here, now! If you’re a highwayman, where’s your horse?’
‘Had to sell the old mare,’ replied the bandit, voice tinged with emotion. ‘Couldn’t afford the overheads, you know. Not much money in banditry these days, to tell you the truth. Time was you could accost the odd wayfarer on Tuesday first and spend the next month in clover, sipping tea and napping, but not anymore. No, friend, banditry just isn’t what it used to be, thanks to the social revolution. The countryside’s littered with dukes and third cousins of the queen that haven’t a penny between them, while all the money’s holed up in the bourgeoisie’s studio apartments and two-storey terraces. Bloody country’s going down the flusher, sir, if you ask me.’ The traveller lit up, for here at last was a subject he was well versed in.
‘Hear, hear!’ he cried, with genuine feeling. ‘Having a spot of the old blue in your veins nowadays just paints you a target of the proletariat. Here I am, Earl of Westhampton-on-the-sea and Curator of the North-Western Seaboard, and I’m off to Piccadilly to work at Jenson’s waiting tables for the affluent middle-class. My wife left me last Friday,’ he added, forlornly. ‘Said I was a locust grown fat off the grain of the honest Englishman, and ran off to marry some artist fellow named George or Hubert or Randolph. When I protested, pointing out quite reasonably that the man considers clothing a conspiracy to oppress the working class, she told me that he may not wear pants but at least he’s not a bloated monument to the rampant corruption inherent to a sovereign system like yours truly.’
‘Rough luck, old man,’ sympathized the bandit. ‘I feel much the same way. Having to sell Sally was a bitter pill to swallow. Why, when I think of her thick, glossy coat, and the way she would flick her tail when I fed her her favorite oats -’ The bandit’s voice cut off, choked with emotion, and to the traveller it sounded like he was swallowing a sob. At the sight of his companion so stricken, the traveller’s voice rose in impassioned outrage, and he waved his knobbled walking stick about wildly, nearly losing his balance.
‘See! It’s just not right. It’s one thing to stick it to the privileged aristocracy, but when a hard-working businessman has to sell the horse that is dearer to him than his own sweet child and the essential tool of his trade just to make ends meet, why, it rankles one’s moral sensibilities! These so-called revolutionaries should be ashamed of themselves, ruining your livelihood like this. What happened to solidarity of the workers, eh? Where’s their enlightened common man now? Bankrupt and abandoned! Pfeh!’ The traveller spat out the last word, having stirred himself up into something of a lather. The bandit was immensely gratified by the traveller’s outrage on his behalf, and wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.
‘I couldn’t agree more, old chap. Took the words straight from my mouth.’ It was at that moment that a rather severe-looking gentleman wearing a well-patched suit passed them at a decent clip, they of course proceeding rather more slowly owing to the traveller’s leisurely hobble. The elderly gentleman did not hail his fellow travellers, as common courtesy might require, instead sparing them only a supercilious glance that suggested a deep-seated disdain for the ragged pair.
‘Well! How rude!’ exclaimed the bandit.
‘Not even a by-your-leave!’ injected the traveller.
‘Arrogance like that is what brought the revolution crashing down in the first place, eh?’
‘Precisely! I’d have nothing to do with such a stinker, let me tell you.’
‘Oh, quite! Still,’ The bandit paused, face screwing up in distaste. ‘Still,’ he mused, ‘business being what it is, the shrewd operator would be remiss to let any business opportunity, however unpleasant, catch him sleeping, as it were. If you wouldn’t mind, I’m afraid I must go attend to matters with that stinker of a fellow. Frightfully sorry, won’t be a tick, but duty before pleasure, as they say.’
‘No, no,’ said the traveller, warmly. ‘I quite understand. Difficult economic times call for desperate measures, what? Quite alright, quite alright. You toddle off, and I’ll catch up later.’
‘Thanks awfully, old bean! You’re a topper of a fellow.’ And with these last words of praise, the bandit dashed off towards the distant gentleman, fumbling with the dagger at his belt.
‘Hoy, there! Hold up!’ he bellowed, succeeding in freeing the blade. ‘Your money or your life, sir!’
The traveller watched his new companion go, filled with a quiet sense of admiration and respect. It spoke volumes of the courage and fortitude of the common Englishman that he went about his business with such zeal and industry even while suffering the afflictions and vagaries of a diseased social system.
Just goes to show, thought the traveller, that those valiant agents of the social revolution didn’t have the first clue what they were on about.