The Man, the
Maid, and the
Miasma by P. G. Wodehouse
Although this story is concerned principally with the Man and the
Maid, the Miasma pervades it to such an extent that I feel justified in
putting his name on the bills. Webster's Dictionary gives the meaning
of the word 'miasma' as 'an infection floating in the air; a deadly
exhalation'; and, in the opinion of Mr Robert Ferguson, his late
employer, that description, though perhaps a little too flattering, on
the whole summed up Master Roland Bean pretty satisfactorily. Until the
previous day he had served Mr Ferguson in the capacity of office-boy;
but there was that about Master Bean which made it practically
impossible for anyone to employ him for long. A syndicate of Galahad,
Parsifal, and Marcus Aurelius might have done it, but to an ordinary
erring man, conscious of things done which should not have been done,
and other things equally numerous left undone, he was too oppressive.
One conscience is enough for any man. The employer of Master Bean had
to cringe before two. Nobody can last long against an office-boy whose
eyes shine with quiet, respectful reproof through gold-rimmed
spectacles, whose manner is that of a middle-aged saint, and who
obviously knows all the Plod and Punctuality books by heart and orders
his life by their precepts. Master Bean was a walking edition of
Stepping-Stones to Success, Millionaires who Have Never Smoked, and
Young Man, Get up Early. Galahad, Parsifal, and Marcus Aurelius, as
I say, might have remained tranquil in his presence, but Robert
Ferguson found the contract too large. After one month he had braced
himself up and sacked the Punctual Plodder.
Yet now he was sitting in his office, long after the last clerk had
left, long after the hour at which he himself was wont to leave, his
mind full of his late employee.
Was this remorse? Was he longing for the touch of the vanished hand,
the gleam of the departed spectacles? He was not. His mind was full of
Master Bean because Master Bean was waiting for him in the outer
office; and he lingered on at his desk, after the day's work was done,
for the same reason. Word had been brought to him earlier in the
evening, that Master Roland Bean would like to see him. The answer to
that was easy: 'Tell him I'm busy.' Master Bean's admirably dignified
reply was that he understood how great was the pressure of Mr
Ferguson's work, and that he would wait till he was at liberty.
Liberty! Talk of the liberty of the treed possum, but do not use the
word in connexion with a man bottled up in an office, with Roland Bean
guarding the only exit.
Mr Ferguson kicked the waste-paper basket savagely. The unfairness
of the thing hurt him. A sacked office-boy ought to stay sacked. He had
no business to come popping up again like Banquo's ghost. It was not
playing the game.
The reader may wonder what was the trouble—why Mr Ferguson could
not stalk out and brusquely dispose of his foe; but then the reader has
not employed Master Bean for a month. Mr Ferguson had, and his nerve
A slight cough penetrated the door between the two offices. Mr
Ferguson rose and grabbed his hat. Perhaps a sudden rush—he shot out
with the tense concentration of one moving towards the refreshment-room
at a station where the train stops three minutes.
'Good evening, sir!' was the watcher's view-hallo.
'Ah, Bean,' said Mr Ferguson, flitting rapidly, 'you still here? I
thought you had gone. I'm afraid I cannot stop now. Some other time—'
He was almost through.
'I fear, sir, that you will be unable to get out,' said Master Bean,
sympathetically. 'The building is locked up.'
Men who have been hit by bullets say the first sensation is merely a
sort of dull shock. So it was with Mr Ferguson. He stopped in his
tracks and stared.
'The porter closes the door at seven o'clock punctually, sir. It is
now nearly twenty minutes after the hour.'
Mr Ferguson's brain was still in the numbed stage.
'Closes the door?' he said.
'Then how are we to get out?'
'I fear we cannot get out, sir.'
Mr Ferguson digested this.
'I am no longer in your employment, sir,' said Master Bean,
respectfully, 'but I hope that in the circumstances you will permit me
to remain here during the night.'
'During the night!'
'It would enable me to sleep more comfortably than on the stairs.'
'But we can't stop here all night,' said Mr Ferguson, feebly.
He had anticipated an unpleasant five minutes in Master Bean's
company. Imagination boggled at the thought of an unpleasant thirteen
He collapsed into a chair.
'I called,' said Master Bean, shelving the trivial subject of the
prospective vigil, 'in the hope that I might persuade you, sir, to
reconsider your decision in regard to my dismissal. I can assure you,
sir, that I am extremely anxious to give satisfaction. If you would
take me back and inform me how I have fallen short, I would endeavour
to improve, I—'
'We can't stop here all night,' interrupted Mr Ferguson, bounding
from his chair and beginning to pace the floor.
'Without presumption, sir, I feel that if you were to give me
another chance I should work to your satisfaction. I should
Mr Ferguson stared at him in dumb horror. He had a momentary vision
of a sleepless night spent in listening to a nicely-polished speech for
the defence. He was seized with a mad desire for flight. He could not
leave the building, but he must get away somewhere and think.
He dashed from the room and raced up the dark stairs. And as he
arrived at the next floor his eye was caught by a thin pencil of light
which proceeded from a door on the left.
No shipwrecked mariner on a desert island could have welcomed the
appearance of a sail with greater enthusiasm. He bounded at the door.
He knew to whom the room belonged. It was the office of one Blaythwayt;
and Blaythwayt was not only an acquaintance, but a sportsman. Quite
possibly there might be a pack of cards on Blaythwayt's person to help
pass the long hours. And if not, at least he would be company and his
office a refuge. He flung open the door without going through the
formality of knocking. Etiquette is not for the marooned.
'I say, Blaythwayt—' he began, and stopped abruptly.
The only occupant of the room was a girl.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I thought—'
He stopped again. His eyes, dazzled with the light, had not seen
clearly. They did so now.
'You!' he cried.
The girl looked at him, first with surprise, then with a cool
hostility. There was a long pause. Eighteen months had passed since
they had parted, and conversation does not flow easily after eighteen
months of silence, especially if the nature of the parting has been
bitter and stormy.
He was the first to speak.
'What are you doing here?' he said.
'I thought my doings had ceased to interest you,' she said. 'I am Mr
Blaythwayt's secretary, I have been here a fortnight. I have wondered
if we should meet. I used to see you sometimes in the street.'
'I never saw you.'
'No?' she said indifferently.
He ran his hand through his hair in a dazed way.
'Do you know we are locked in?' he said.
He had expected wild surprise and dismay. She merely clicked her
tongue in an annoyed manner.
'Again!' she said. 'What a nuisance! I was locked in only a week
He looked at her with unwilling respect, the respect of the novice
for the veteran. She was nothing to him now, of course. She had passed
out of his life. But he could not help remembering that long
ago—eighteen months ago—what he had admired most in her had been this
same spirit, this game refusal to be disturbed by Fate's blows. It
braced him up.
He sat down and looked curiously at her.
'So you left the stage?' he said.
'I thought we agreed when we parted not to speak to one another,'
said she, coldly.
'Did we? I thought it was only to meet as strangers.'
'It's the same thing.'
'Is it? I often talk to strangers.'
'What a bore they must think you!' she said, hiding one-eighth of a
yawn with the tips of two fingers. 'I suppose,' she went on, with faint
interest, 'you talk to them in trains when they are trying to read
'I don't force my conversation on anyone.'
'Don't you?' she said, raising her eyebrows in sweet surprise. 'Only
your company—is that it?'
'Are you alluding to the present occasion?'
'Well, you have an office of your own in this building, I believe.'
'I am at perfect liberty,' he said, with dignity, 'to sit in my
friend Blaythwayt's office if I choose. I wish to see Mr Blaythwayt.'
He proved that she had established no corner in raised eyebrows.
'I fear,' he said, 'that I cannot discuss my affairs with Mr
Blaythwayt's employees. I must see him personally.'
'Mr Blaythwayt is not here.'
'I will wait.'
'He will not be here for thirteen hours.'
'Very well,' she burst out; 'you have brought it on yourself. You've
only yourself to blame. If you had been good and had gone back to your
office, I would have brought you down some cake and cocoa.'
'Cake and cocoa!' said he, superciliously.
'Yes, cake and cocoa,' she snapped. 'It's all very well for you to
turn up your nose at them now, but wait. You've thirteen hours of this
in front of you. I know what it is. Last time I had to spend the night
here I couldn't get to sleep for hours, and when I did I dreamed that I
was chasing chocolate eclairs round and round Trafalgar Square.
And I never caught them either. Long before the night was finished I
would have given anything for even a dry biscuit. I made up my
mind I'd always keep something here in case I ever got locked in
again—yes, smile. You'd better while you can.'
He was smiling, but wanly. Nobody but a professional fasting man
could have looked unmoved into the Inferno she had pictured. Then he
'Cake!' he said, scornfully.
She nodded grimly.
Again that nod, ineffably sinister.
'I'm afraid I don't care for either,' he said.
'If you will excuse me,' she said, indifferently, 'I have a little
work that I must finish.'
She turned to her desk, leaving him to his thoughts. They were not
exhilarating. He had maintained a brave front, but inwardly he quailed.
Reared in the country, he had developed at an early age a fine, healthy
appetite. Once, soon after his arrival in London, he had allowed a
dangerous fanatic to persuade him that the secret of health was to go
His lunch that day had cost him eight shillings, and only decent
shame had kept the figure as low as that. He knew perfectly well that
long ere the dawn of day his whole soul would be crying out for cake,
squealing frantically for cocoa. Would it not be better to—no, a
thousand times no! Death, but not surrender. His self-respect was at
stake. Looking back, he saw that his entire relations with this girl
had been a series of battles of will. So far, though he had certainly
not won, he had not been defeated. He must not be defeated now.
He crossed his legs and sang a gay air under his breath.
'If you wouldn't mind,' said the girl, looking up.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Your groaning interrupts my work.'
'I was not groaning. I was singing.'
'Oh, I'm sorry!'
'Not at all.'
Eight bars rest.
Mr Ferguson, deprived of the solace of song, filled in the time by
gazing at the toiler's back-hair. It set in motion a train of
thought—an express train bound for the Land of Yesterday. It recalled
days in the woods, evenings on the lawn. It recalled sunshine—storm.
Plenty of storm. Minor tempests that burst from a clear sky, apparently
without cause, and the great final tornado. There had been cause enough
for that. Why was it, mused Mr Ferguson, that every girl in every
country town in every county of England who had ever recited 'Curfew
shall not ring tonight' well enough to escape lynching at the hands of
a rustic audience was seized with the desire to come to London and go
on the stage?
'Please don't snort,' said a cold voice, from behind the back-hair.
There was a train-wreck in the Land of Yesterday. Mr Ferguson, the
only survivor, limped back into the Present.
The Present had little charm, but at least it was better than the
cakeless Future. He fixed his thoughts on it. He wondered how Master
Bean was passing the time. Probably doing deep-breathing exercises, or
reading a pocket Aristotle. The girl pushed back her chair and rose.
She went to a small cupboard in the corner of the room, and from it
produced in instalments all that goes to make cake and cocoa. She did
not speak. Presently, filling Space, there sprang into being an Odour;
and as it reached him Mr Ferguson stiffened in his chair, bracing
himself as for a fight to the death. It was more than an odour. It was
the soul of the cocoa singing to him. His fingers gripped the arms of
the chair. This was the test.
The girl separated a section of cake from the parent body. She
caught his eye.
'You had better go,' she said. 'If you go now it's just possible
that I may—but I forgot, you don't like cocoa.'
'No,' said he, resolutely, 'I don't.'
She seemed now in the mood for conversation.
'I wonder why you came up here at all,' she said.
'There's no reason why you shouldn't know. I came up here because my
late office-boy is downstairs.'
'Why should that send you up?'
'You've never met him or you wouldn't ask. Have you ever had to face
someone who is simply incarnate Saintliness and Disapproval, who—'
'Are you forgetting that I was engaged to you for several weeks?'
He was too startled to be hurt. The idea of himself as a Roland Bean
was too new to be assimilated immediately. It called for meditation.
'Was I like that?' he said at last, almost humbly.
'You know you were. Oh, I'm not thinking only about your views on
the stage! It was everything. Whatever I did you were there to
disapprove like a—like a—like an aunt,' she concluded triumphantly.
'You were too good for anything. If only you would, just once, have
done something wrong. I think I'd have—But you couldn't. You're simply
A man will remain cool and composed under many charges. Hint that
his tastes are criminal, and he will shrug his shoulders. But accuse
him of goodness, and you rouse the lion.
Mr Ferguson's brow darkened.
'As a matter of fact,' he said, haughtily, 'I was to have had supper
with a chorus-girl this very night.'
'How very appalling!' said she, languidly.
She sipped her cocoa.
'I suppose you consider that very terrible?' she said.
'For a beginner.'
She crumbled her cake. Suddenly she looked up.
'Who is she?' she demanded, fiercely.
'I beg your pardon?' he said, coming out of a pleasant reverie.
'Who is this girl?'
'She—er—her name—her name is Marie—Marie Templeton.'
She seemed to think for a moment.
'That dear old lady?' she said.' I know her quite well.'
'“Mother” we used to call her. Have you met her son?'
'A rather nice-looking man. He plays heavy parts on tour. He's
married and has two of the sweetest children. Their grandmother is
devoted to them. Hasn't she ever mentioned them to you?'
She poured herself out another cup of cocoa. Conversation again
'I suppose you're very fond of her?' she said at length.
'I'm devoted to her.' He paused. 'Dear little thing!' he added.
She rose and moved to the door. There was a nasty gleam in her eyes.
'You aren't going?' he said.
'I shall be back in a moment. I'm just going to bring your poor
little office-boy up here. He must be missing you.'
He sprang up, but she had gone. Leaning over the banisters, he heard
a door open below, then a short conversation, and finally footsteps
climbing the stairs.
It was pitch dark on the landing. He stepped aside, and they passed
without seeing him. Master Bean was discoursing easily on cocoa, the
processes whereby it was manufactured, and the remarkable distances
which natives of Mexico had covered with it as their only food. The
door opened, flooding the landing with light, and Mr Ferguson, stepping
from ambush, began to descend the stairs.
The girl came to the banisters.
'Did you want me?' he asked.
'Are you going back to your office?'
'I am. I hope you will enjoy Bean's society. He has a fund of useful
information on all subjects.'
He went on. After a while she returned to the room and closed the
Mr Ferguson went into his office and sat down.
* * * * *
There was once a person of the name of Simeon Stylites, who took up
a position on top of a pillar and stayed there, having no other
engagements, for thirty years. Mr Ferguson, who had read Tennyson's
poem on the subject, had until tonight looked upon this as a pretty
good thing. Reading the lines:
...thrice ten years,
Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,
In hunger and in thirsts, fevers and colds,
In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes, and cramps, ...
Patient on this tall pillar I have borne.
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow,
he had gathered roughly, as it were, that Simeon had not been
comfortable. He had pitied him. But now, sitting in his office-chair,
he began to wonder what the man had made such a fuss about. He
suspected him of having had a touch of the white feather in him. It was
not as if he had not had food. He talked about 'hungers and thirsts',
but he must have had something to eat, or he could not have stayed the
course. Very likely, if the truth were known, there was somebody below
who passed him up regular supplies of cake and cocoa.
He began to look on Simeon as an overrated amateur.
Sleep refused to come to him. It got as far as his feet, but no
farther. He rose and stamped to restore the circulation.
It was at this point that he definitely condemned Simeon Stylites as
a sybaritic fraud.
If this were one of those realistic Zolaesque stories I would
describe the crick in the back that—but let us hurry on.
It was about six hours later—he had no watch, but the numbers of
aches, stitches, not to mention cramps, that he had experienced could
not possibly have been condensed into a shorter period—that his manly
spirit snapped. Let us not judge him too harshly. The girl upstairs had
broken his heart, ruined his life, and practically compared him to
Roland Bean, and his pride should have built up an impassable wall
between them, but—she had cake and cocoa. In similar circumstances
King Arthur would have grovelled before Guinevere.
He rushed to the door and tore it open. There was a startled
exclamation from the darkness outside.
'I hope I didn't disturb you,' said a meek voice.
Mr Ferguson did not answer. His twitching nostrils were drinking in
a familiar aroma.
'Were you asleep? May I come in? I've brought you some cake and
He took the rich gifts from her in silence. There are moments in a
man's life too sacred for words. The wonder of the thing had struck him
dumb. An instant before and he had had but a desperate hope of winning
these priceless things from her at the cost of all his dignity and
self-respect. He had been prepared to secure them through a shower of
biting taunts, a blizzard of razor-like 'I told you so's'. Yet here he
was, draining the cup, and still able to hold his head up, look the
world in the face, and call himself a man.
His keen eye detected a crumb on his coat-sleeve. This retrieved and
consumed, he turned to her, seeking explanation.
She was changed. The battle-gleam had faded from her eyes. She
seemed scared and subdued. Her manner was of one craving comfort and
protection. 'That awful boy!' she breathed.
'Bean?' said Mr Ferguson, picking a crumb off the carpet.
'I thought you might get a little tired of him! What has he been
'Talking. I feel battered. He's like one of those awful
encyclopedias that give you a sort of dull leaden feeling in your head
directly you open them. Do you know how many tons of water go over
Niagara Falls every year?'
'I told you he had a fund of useful information. The Purpose and
Tenacity books insist on it. That's how you Catch your Employer's Eye.
One morning the boss suddenly wants to know how many horsehair sofas
there are in Brixton, the number of pins that would reach from London
Bridge to Waterloo. You tell him, and he takes you into partnership.
Later you become a millionaire. But I haven't thanked you for the
cocoa. It was fine.'
He waited for the retort, but it did not come. A pleased wonderment
filled him. Could these things really be thus?
'And it isn't only what he says,' she went on. 'I know what you mean
about him now. It's his accusing manner.'
'I've tried to analyse that manner. I believe it's the spectacles.'
'It's frightful when he looks at you; you think of all the wrong
things you have ever done or ever wanted to do.'
'Does he have that effect on you?' he said, excitedly. 'Why, that
exactly describes what I feel.'
The affinities looked at one another.
She was the first to speak.
'We always did think alike on most things, didn't we?' she said.
'Of course we did.'
He shifted his chair forward.
'It was all my fault,' he said. 'I mean, what happened.'
'It wasn't. It—'
'Yes, it was. I want to tell you something. I don't know if it will
make any difference now, but I should like you to know it. It's this.
I've altered a good deal since I came to London. For the better, I
think. I'm a pretty poor sort of specimen still, but at least I don't
imagine I can measure life with a foot-rule. I don't judge the world
any longer by the standards of a country town. London has knocked some
of the corners off me. I don't think you would find me the Bean type
any longer. I don't disapprove of other people much now. Not as a
habit. I find I have enough to do keeping myself up to the mark.'
'I want to tell you something, too,' she said. 'I expect it's too
late, but never mind. I want you to hear it. I've altered, too, since I
came to London. I used to think the Universe had been invented just to
look on and wave its hat while I did great things. London has put a
large piece of cold ice against my head, and the swelling has gone
down. I'm not the girl with ambitions any longer. I just want to keep
employed, and not have too bad a time when the day's work is over.'
He came across to where she sat.
'We said we would meet as strangers, and we do. We never have known
each other. Don't you think we had better get acquainted?' he said.
There was a respectful tap at the door.
'Come in?' snapped Mr Ferguson. 'Well?' Behind the gold-rimmed
spectacles of Master Bean there shone a softer look than usual, a look
rather complacent than disapproving.
'I must apologize, sir, for intruding upon you. I am no longer in
your employment, but I do hope that in the circumstances you will
forgive my entering your private office. Thinking over our situation
just now an idea came to me by means of which I fancy we might be
enabled to leave the building.'
'It occurred to me, sir, that by telephoning to the nearest
'Good heavens!' cried Mr Ferguson.
Two minutes later he replaced the receiver.
'It's all right,' he said. 'I've made them understand the trouble.
They're bringing a ladder. I wonder what the time is? It must be about
four in the morning.'
Master Bean produced a Waterbury watch.
'The time, sir, is almost exactly half past ten.'
'Half past ten! We must have been here longer than three hours. Your
watch is wrong.'
'No, sir, I am very careful to keep it exactly right. I do not wish
to run any risk of being unpunctual.'
'Half past ten!' cried Mr Ferguson. 'Why, we're in heaps of time to
look in at the Savoy for supper. This is great. I'll phone them to keep
'Supper! I thought—'
'What's that? Thought what?'
'Hadn't you an engagement for supper?'
He stared at her.
'Whatever gave you that idea? Of course not.'
'I thought you said you were taking Miss Templeton—'
'Miss Temp—Oh!' His face cleared. 'Oh, there isn't such a person. I
invented her. I had to when you accused me of being like our friend the
Miasma. Legitimate self-defence.'
'I do not wish to interrupt you, sir, when you are busy,' said
Master Bean, 'but—'
'Come and see me tomorrow morning,' said Mr Ferguson.
* * * * *
'Bob,' said the girl, as the first threatening mutters from the
orchestra heralded an imminent storm of melody, 'when that boy comes
tomorrow, what are going to do?'
'Call up the police.'
'No, but you must do something. We shouldn't have been here if it
hadn't been for him.'
'That's true!' He pondered. 'I've got it; I'll get him a job with
Raikes and Courtenay.'
'Why Raikes and Courtenay?'
'Because I have a pull with them. But principally,' said Mr
Ferguson, with a devilish grin, 'because they live in Edinburgh, which,
as you are doubtless aware, is a long, long way from London.'
He bent across the table.
'Isn't this like old times?' he said. 'Do you remember the first
time I ever ki—'
Just then the orchestra broke out.