‘No, I’m sorry,’ said Noel Foster, ‘not sufficiently attractive.’
He said this in unusually firm and final accents, and with a determination which for him was rare he hung up his office telephone receiver. He leant back in his chair. ‘That’s the last time,’ he thought. Never again, except possibly in regard to the heiresses he now intended to pursue, would he finish long and dreary conversations with the words, ‘Not sufficiently attractive.’
Now that he was leaving the office for good he felt himself in no particular hurry to be off . Unlike other Friday evenings he made no dash for the street; on the contrary he sat still and took a long gloating look round that room which for the last two years had been his prison. With the heavenly knowledge that he would never see them again he was able to gaze in perfect detachment at the stained-glass windows (a cheerful amber shade, full of bubbles too, just like champagne), and the old oak furnishing – which made such a perfectly delightful setting for the charms of Miss Clumps the pretty typist, Miss Brisket the plain typist, and Mr Farmer the head clerk. This amiable trio had been his fellow prisoners for the last two years, he most sincerely hoped never to see any of them again. He said goodbye to them cordially enough, however, took his hat and his umbrella, and then, rich and free, he sauntered into the street.
He had not yet had time since good fortune had befallen him to leave his dreary lodging in Ebury Street, and as a matter of habit returned to it now. He then rang up Jasper Aspect. This he did knowing perfectly well that it was a mistake of the first order. Poor young men who have just received notice of agreeable but moderate legacies can do nothing more stupid than to ring up Jasper Aspect. Noel, who had been intimate with Jasper for most of his life,
was aware that he was behaving with deplorable indiscretion, nevertheless some irresistible impulse led him to the telephone where the following conversation took place:
‘My dear old boy, I was just going to ring you up myself.’
‘Oh, what are you doing to-night?’
‘I thought it would be exceedingly agreeable to take a little dinner off you.’
‘All right, I wanted to see you; where shall we dine – how about Boulestins? Meet you there at eight?’
‘Look here, I haven’t got any money, you know.’
That’s all right,’ said Noel. He would keep his glorious news until such time as he could see the incredulity and disgust which would no doubt illumine Jasper’s honest countenance when it was broken to him. Jasper now once more proclaimed his inability to pay, was once more reassured and rang off.
‘This is all exceedingly mysterious,’ he said when they met.
‘Why?’ said Noel.
‘Well, my dear old boy, it isn’t every day of the week one can get a free meal off you, let alone an expensive one like this is going to be. Why did you choose me for the jolly treat? I find it very puzzling indeed.’
‘Oh! I wanted to see you. I want your advice about one or two things actually, and after all one must eat somewhere, so why not here?’ And fishing for his handkerchief he produced, as though by accident, and replaced with nonchalance, a roll of ten pound notes.
Jasper’s expression did not change however, as Noel had hopefully anticipated that it would. He merely ordered another champagne cocktail. When it came he said, ‘Well, here’s to the Scrubs old boy, hope you’ll find it comfy there, you can come and see me sometimes in between terms, I’m never at all up-stage about my jail-bird friends.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Noel, coldly.
‘Don’t you? Well it’s fairly obvious that you’ve got the skates on, isn’t it? And I suppose you want me to help you get away with the dough. Now I suggest that we should go fifty-fifty on it, and do a bunk together. That suit you?’
‘First of all you had better tell me frankly if you are wanted. I’ve been wanted in Paris, and not wanted anywhere else, for simply ages, there’s nothing I don’t know on the subject of wanting.’
‘My dear old boy,’ said Noel, comfortably. ‘I’m afraid you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick.’
‘But you came to me for advice.’
Yes, I did, I thought you might be able to put me in touch with some rich girl who would like to marry me.’
‘That’s a good one I’m bound to say. To begin with, if I was lucky enough to know any rich girls can you see me handing them out to you? And to go on with, I shouldn’t think the girl is born who would like to marry you.’
‘Oh! nonsense, girls will marry anybody. Besides, I’m a pretty attractive chap you know.’
‘Not very. Anyhow, let me tell you something. Courting heiresses is an exceedingly expensive occupation. You didn’t give me time just then to count exactly how much you have managed to extract from the till, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t enough to finance a racket of that sort. Why, you don’t know what these girls run you in for, nights out, lunches, orchids, weekends to all parts of the Continent, that’s not the beginning, I’ve been through it, I know what I’m talking about. I suppose the worst part of it,’ he went on, warming to his subject, ‘is the early-morning telephoning. The precious little poppet, buried in lace pillows, likes to have a nice long cosy chat between 9 and 10 a.m., she doesn’t realize that you, meanwhile, are shivering half-way up your landlady’s staircase with an old woman scrubbing the linoleum round your feet. And what’s the end of it all? When she marries her Roumanian prince she may remember to ask you to be one of those pretty young gentlemen who leave the guests to find their own pews at weddings. It’s all fearfully dismal I can tell you.’
Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Mitford Introduction by Charlotte Mosley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.