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The Heel of Achilles by P. G. Wodehouse

 

On the young man's face, as he sat sipping his ginger-ale in the club-house smoking-room, there was a look of disillusionment. “Never again!” he said.

The Oldest Member glanced up from his paper.

“You are proposing to give up golf once more?” he queried.

“Not golf. Betting on golf.” The Young Man frowned. “I've just been let down badly. Wouldn't you have thought I had a good thing, laying seven to one on McTavish against Robinson?”

“Undoubtedly,” said the Sage. “The odds, indeed, generous as they are, scarcely indicate the former's superiority. Do you mean to tell me that the thing came unstitched?”

“Robinson won in a walk, after being three down at the turn.

“Strange! What happened?”

“Why, they looked in at the bar to have a refresher before starting for the tenth,” said the young man, his voice quivering, “and McTavish suddenly discovered that there was a hole in his trouser-pocket and sixpence had dropped out. He worried so frightfully about it that on the second nine he couldn't do a thing right. Went completely off his game and didn't win a hole.”

The Sage shook his head gravely.

“If this is really going to be a lesson to you, my boy, never to bet on the result of a golf-match, it will be a blessing in disguise. There is no such thing as a certainty in golf. I wonder if I ever told you a rather curious episode in the career of Vincent Jopp?”

The Vincent Jopp? The American multi-millionaire?”

“The same. You never knew he once came within an ace of winning the American Amateur Championship, did you?”

“I never heard of his playing golf.”

“He played for one season. After that he gave it up and has not touched a club since. Ring the bell and get me a small lime-juice, and I will tell you all.”

       * * * * *

It was long before your time (said the Oldest Member) that the events which I am about to relate took place. I had just come down from Cambridge, and was feeling particularly pleased with myself because I had secured the job of private and confidential secretary to Vincent Jopp, then a man in the early thirties, busy in laying the foundations of his present remarkable fortune. He engaged me, and took me with him to Chicago.

Jopp was, I think, the most extraordinary personality I have encountered in a long and many-sided life. He was admirably equipped for success in finance, having the steely eye and square jaw without which it is hopeless for a man to enter that line of business. He possessed also an overwhelming confidence in himself, and the ability to switch a cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other without wiggling his ears, which, as you know, is the stamp of the true Monarch of the Money Market. He was the nearest approach to the financier on the films, the fellow who makes his jaw-muscles jump when he is telephoning, that I have ever seen.

Like all successful men, he was a man of method. He kept a pad on his desk on which he would scribble down his appointments, and it was my duty on entering the office each morning to take this pad and type its contents neatly in a loose-leaved ledger. Usually, of course, these entries referred to business appointments and deals which he was contemplating, but one day I was interested to note, against the date May 3rd, the entry:

    “Propose to Amelia

I was interested, as I say, but not surprised. Though a man of steel and iron, there was nothing of the celibate about Vincent Jopp. He was one of those men who marry early and often. On three separate occasions before I joined his service he had jumped off the dock, to scramble back to shore again later by means of the Divorce Court lifebelt. Scattered here and there about the country there were three ex-Mrs. Jopps, drawing their monthly envelope, and now, it seemed, he contemplated the addition of a fourth to the platoon.

I was not surprised, I say, at this resolve of his. What did seem a little remarkable to me was the thorough way in which he had thought the thing out. This iron-willed man recked nothing of possible obstacles. Under the date of June 1st was the entry:

    “Marry Amelia”;

while in March of the following year he had arranged to have his first-born christened Thomas Reginald. Later on, the short-coating of Thomas Reginald was arranged for, and there was a note about sending him to school. Many hard things have been said of Vincent Jopp, but nobody has ever accused him of not being a man who looked ahead.

On the morning of May 4th Jopp came into the office, looking, I fancied, a little thoughtful. He sat for some moments staring before him with his brow a trifle furrowed; then he seemed to come to himself. He rapped his desk.

“Hi! You!” he said. It was thus that he habitually addressed me.

“Mr. Jopp?” I replied.

“What's golf?”

I had at that time just succeeded in getting my handicap down into single figures, and I welcomed the opportunity of dilating on the noblest of pastimes. But I had barely begun my eulogy when he stopped me.

“It's a game, is it?”

“I suppose you could call it that,” I said, “but it is an offhand way of describing the holiest——”

“How do you play it?”

“Pretty well,” I said. “At the beginning of the season I didn't seem able to keep 'em straight at all, but lately I've been doing fine. Getting better every day. Whether it was that I was moving my head or gripping too tightly with the right hand——”

“Keep the reminiscences for your grandchildren during the long winter evenings,” he interrupted, abruptly, as was his habit. “What I want to know is what a fellow does when he plays golf. Tell me in as few words as you can just what it's all about.”

“You hit a ball with a stick till it falls into a hole.”

“Easy!” he snapped. “Take dictation.”

I produced my pad.

“May the fifth, take up golf. What's an Amateur Championship?”

“It is the annual competition to decide which is the best player among the amateurs. There is also a Professional Championship, and an Open event.”

“Oh, there are golf professionals, are there? What do they do?”

“They teach golf.”

“Which is the best of them?”

“Sandy McHoots won both British and American Open events last year.”

“Wire him to come here at once.”

“But McHoots is in Inverlochty, in Scotland.”

“Never mind. Get him; tell him to name his own terms. When is the Amateur Championship?”

“I think it is on September the twelfth this year.”

“All right, take dictation. September twelfth win Amateur Championship.”

I stared at him in amazement, but he was not looking at me.

“Got that?” he said. “September thir—Oh, I was forgetting! Add September twelfth, corner wheat. September thirteenth, marry Amelia.”

“Marry Amelia,” I echoed, moistening my pencil.

“Where do you play this—what's-its-name—golf?”

“There are clubs all over the country. I belong to the Wissahicky Glen.”

“That a good place?”

“Very good.”

“Arrange today for my becoming a member.”

       * * * * *

Sandy McHoots arrived in due course, and was shown into the private office.

“Mr. McHoots?” said Vincent Jopp.

“Mphm!” said the Open Champion.

“I have sent for you, Mr. McHoots, because I hear that you are the greatest living exponent of this game of golf.”

“Aye,” said the champion, cordially. “I am that.”

“I wish you to teach me the game. I am already somewhat behind schedule owing to the delay incident upon your long journey, so let us start at once. Name a few of the most important points in connection with the game. My secretary will make notes of them, and I will memorize them. In this way we shall save time. Now, what is the most important thing to remember when playing golf?”

“Keep your heid still.”

“A simple task.”

“Na sae simple as it soonds.”

“Nonsense!” said Vincent Jopp, curtly. “If I decide to keep my head still, I shall keep it still. What next?”

“Keep yer ee on the ba'.”

“It shall be attended to. And the next?”

“Dinna press.”

“I won't. And to resume.”

Mr. McHoots ran through a dozen of the basic rules, and I took them down in shorthand. Vincent Jopp studied the list.

“Very good. Easier than I had supposed. On the first tee at Wissahicky Glen at eleven sharp tomorrow, Mr. McHoots. Hi! You!”

“Sir?” I said.

“Go out and buy me a set of clubs, a red jacket, a cloth cap, a pair of spiked shoes, and a ball.”

“One ball?”

“Certainly. What need is there of more?”

“It sometimes happens,” I explained, “that a player who is learning the game falls to hit his ball straight, and then he often loses it in the rough at the side of the fairway.”

“Absurd!” said Vincent Jopp. “If I set out to drive my ball straight, I shall drive it straight. Good morning, Mr. McHoots. You will excuse me now. I am busy cornering Woven Textiles.”

       * * * * *

Golf is in its essence a simple game. You laugh in a sharp, bitter, barking manner when I say this, but nevertheless it is true. Where the average man goes wrong is in making the game difficult for himself. Observe the non-player, the man who walks round with you for the sake of the fresh air. He will hole out with a single care-free flick of his umbrella the twenty-foot putt over which you would ponder and hesitate for a full minute before sending it right off the line. Put a driver in his hands and he pastes the ball into the next county without a thought. It is only when he takes to the game in earnest that he becomes self-conscious and anxious, and tops his shots even as you and I. A man who could retain through his golfing career the almost scornful confidence of the non-player would be unbeatable. Fortunately such an attitude of mind is beyond the scope of human nature.

It was not, however, beyond the scope of Vincent Jopp, the superman. Vincent Jopp, was, I am inclined to think, the only golfer who ever approached the game in a spirit of Pure Reason. I have read of men who, never having swum in their lives, studied a text-book on their way down to the swimming bath, mastered its contents, and dived in and won the big race. In just such a spirit did Vincent Jopp start to play golf. He committed McHoots's hints to memory, and then went out on the links and put them into practice. He came to the tee with a clear picture in his mind of what he had to do, and he did it. He was not intimidated, like the average novice, by the thought that if he pulled in his hands he would slice, or if he gripped too tightly with the right he would pull. Pulling in the hands was an error, so he did not pull in his hands. Gripping too tightly was a defect, so he did not grip too tightly. With that weird concentration which had served him so well in business he did precisely what he had set out to do—no less and no more. Golf with Vincent Jopp was an exact science.

The annals of the game are studded with the names of those who have made rapid progress in their first season. Colonel Quill, we read in our Vardon, took up golf at the age of fifty-six, and by devising an ingenious machine consisting of a fishing-line and a sawn-down bedpost was enabled to keep his head so still that he became a scratch player before the end of the year. But no one, I imagine, except Vincent Jopp, has ever achieved scratch on his first morning on the links.

The main difference, we are told, between the amateur and the professional golfer is the fact that the latter is always aiming at the pin, while the former has in his mind a vague picture of getting somewhere reasonably near it. Vincent Jopp invariably went for the pin. He tried to hole out from anywhere inside two hundred and twenty yards. The only occasion on which I ever heard him express any chagrin or disappointment was during the afternoon round on his first day out, when from the tee on the two hundred and eighty yard seventh he laid his ball within six inches of the hole.

“A marvellous shot!” I cried, genuinely stirred.

“Too much to the right,” said Vincent Jopp, frowning.

He went on from triumph to triumph. He won the monthly medal in May, June, July, August, and September. Towards the end of May he was heard to complain that Wissahicky Glen was not a sporting course. The Greens Committee sat up night after night trying to adjust his handicap so as to give other members an outside chance against him. The golf experts of the daily papers wrote columns about his play. And it was pretty generally considered throughout the country that it would be a pure formality for anyone else to enter against him in the Amateur Championship—an opinion which was borne out when he got through into the final without losing a hole. A safe man to have betted on, you would have said. But mark the sequel.

       * * * * *

The American Amateur Championship was held that year in Detroit. I had accompanied my employer there; for, though engaged on this nerve-wearing contest, he refused to allow his business to be interfered with. As he had indicated in his schedule, he was busy at the time cornering wheat; and it was my task to combine the duties of caddy and secretary. Each day I accompanied him round the links with my note-book and his bag of clubs, and the progress of his various matches was somewhat complicated by the arrival of a stream of telegraph-boys bearing important messages. He would read these between the strokes and dictate replies to me, never, however, taking more than the five minutes allowed by the rules for an interval between strokes. I am inclined to think that it was this that put the finishing touch on his opponents' discomfiture. It is not soothing for a nervous man to have the game hung up on the green while his adversary dictates to his caddy a letter beginning “Yours of the 11th inst. received and contents noted. In reply would state——” This sort of thing puts a man off his game.

I was resting in the lobby of our hotel after a strenuous day's work, when I found that I was being paged. I answered the summons, and was informed that a lady wished to see me. Her card bore the name “Miss Amelia Merridew.” Amelia! The name seemed familiar. Then I remembered. Amelia was the name of the girl Vincent Jopp intended to marry, the fourth of the long line of Mrs. Jopps. I hurried to present myself, and found a tall, slim girl, who was plainly labouring under a considerable agitation.

“Miss Merridew?” I said.

“Yes,” she murmured. “My name will be strange to you.”

“Am I right,” I queried, “in supposing that you are the lady to whom Mr. Jopp——”

“I am! I am!” she replied. “And, oh, what shall I do?”

“Kindly give me particulars,” I said, taking out my pad from force of habit.

She hesitated a moment, as if afraid to speak.

“You are caddying for Mr. Jopp in the Final tomorrow?” she said at last.

“I am.”

“Then could you—would you mind—would it be giving you too much trouble if I asked you to shout 'Boo!' at him when he is making his stroke, if he looks like winning?”

I was perplexed.

“I don't understand.”

“I see that I must tell you all. I am sure you will treat what I say as absolutely confidential.”

“Certainly.”

“I am provisionally engaged to Mr. Jopp.”

“Provisionally?”

She gulped.

“Let me tell you my story. Mr. Jopp asked me to marry him, and I would rather do anything on earth than marry him. But how could I say 'No!' with those awful eyes of his boring me through? I knew that if I said 'No', he would argue me out of it in two minutes. I had an idea. I gathered that he had never played golf, so I told him that I would marry him if he won the Amateur Championship this year. And now I find that he has been a golfer all along, and, what is more, a plus man! It isn't fair!”

“He was not a golfer when you made that condition,” I said. “He took up the game on the following day.”

“Impossible! How could he have become as good as he is in this short time?”

“Because he is Vincent Jopp! In his lexicon there is no such word as impossible.”

She shuddered.

“What a man! But I can't marry him,” she cried. “I want to marry somebody else. Oh, won't you help me? Do shout 'Boo!' at him when he is starting his down-swing!”

I shook my head.

“It would take more than a single 'boo' to put Vincent Jopp off his stroke.”

“But won't you try it?”

“I cannot. My duty is to my employer.”

“Oh, do!”

“No, no. Duty is duty, and paramount with me. Besides, I have a bet on him to win.”

The stricken girl uttered a faint moan, and tottered away.

       * * * * *

I was in our suite shortly after dinner that night, going over some of the notes I had made that day, when the telephone rang. Jopp was out at the time, taking a short stroll with his after-dinner cigar. I unhooked the receiver, and a female voice spoke.

“Is that Mr. Jopp?”

“Mr. Jopp's secretary speaking. Mr. Jopp is out.”

“Oh, it's nothing important. Will you say that Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp called up to wish him luck? I shall be on the course tomorrow to see him win the final.”

I returned to my notes. Soon afterwards the telephone rang again.

“Vincent, dear?”

“Mr. Jopp's secretary speaking.”

“Oh, will you say that Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp called up to wish him luck? I shall be there tomorrow to see him play.”

I resumed my work. I had hardly started when the telephone rang for the third time.

“Mr. Jopp?”

“Mr. Jopp's secretary speaking.”

“This is Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp. I just called up to wish him luck. I shall be looking on tomorrow.”

I shifted my work nearer to the telephone-table so as to be ready for the next call. I had heard that Vincent Jopp had only been married three times, but you never knew.

Presently Jopp came in.

“Anybody called up?” he asked.

“Nobody on business. An assortment of your wives were on the wire wishing you luck. They asked me to say that they will be on the course tomorrow.”

For a moment it seemed to me that the man's iron repose was shaken.

“Luella?” he asked.

“She was the first.”

“Jane?”

“And Jane.”

“And Agnes?”

“Agnes,” I said, “is right.”

“H'm!” said Vincent Jopp. And for the first time since I had known him I thought that he was ill at ease.

       * * * * *

The day of the final dawned bright and clear. At least, I was not awake at the time to see, but I suppose it did; for at nine o'clock, when I came down to breakfast, the sun was shining brightly. The first eighteen holes were to be played before lunch, starting at eleven. Until twenty minutes before the hour Vincent Jopp kept me busy taking dictation, partly on matters connected with his wheat deal and partly on a signed article dealing with the Final, entitled “How I Won.” At eleven sharp we were out on the first tee.

Jopp's opponent was a nice-looking young man, but obviously nervous. He giggled in a distraught sort of way as he shook hands with my employer.

“Well, may the best man win,” he said.

“I have arranged to do so,” replied Jopp, curtly, and started to address his ball.

There was a large crowd at the tee, and, as Jopp started his down-swing, from somewhere on the outskirts of this crowd there came suddenly a musical “Boo!” It rang out in the clear morning air like a bugle.

I had been right in my estimate of Vincent Jopp. His forceful stroke never wavered. The head of his club struck the ball, despatching it a good two hundred yards down the middle of the fairway. As we left the tee I saw Amelia Merridew being led away with bowed head by two members of the Greens Committee. Poor girl! My heart bled for her. And yet, after all, Fate had been kind in removing her from the scene, even in custody, for she could hardly have borne to watch the proceedings. Vincent Jopp made rings round his antagonist. Hole after hole he won in his remorseless, machine-like way, until when lunch-time came at the end of the eighteenth he was ten up. All the other holes had been halved.

It was after lunch, as we made our way to the first tee, that the advance-guard of the Mrs. Jopps appeared in the person of Luella Mainprice Jopp, a kittenish little woman with blond hair and a Pekingese dog. I remembered reading in the papers that she had divorced my employer for persistent and aggravated mental cruelty, calling witnesses to bear out her statement that he had said he did not like her in pink, and that on two separate occasions had insisted on her dog eating the leg of a chicken instead of the breast; but Time, the great healer, seemed to have removed all bitterness, and she greeted him affectionately.

“Wassums going to win great big championship against nasty rough strong man?” she said.

“Such,” said Vincent Jopp, “is my intention. It was kind of you, Luella, to trouble to come and watch me. I wonder if you know Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp?” he said, courteously, indicating a kind-looking, motherly woman who had just come up. “How are you, Agnes?”

“If you had asked me that question this morning, Vincent,” replied Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, “I should have been obliged to say that I felt far from well. I had an odd throbbing feeling in the left elbow, and I am sure my temperature was above the normal. But this afternoon I am a little better. How are you, Vincent?”

Although she had, as I recalled from the reports of the case, been compelled some years earlier to request the Court to sever her marital relations with Vincent Jopp on the ground of calculated and inhuman brutality, in that he had callously refused, in spite of her pleadings, to take old Dr. Bennett's Tonic Swamp-Juice three times a day, her voice, as she spoke, was kind and even anxious. Badly as this man had treated her—and I remember hearing that several of the jury had been unable to restrain their tears when she was in the witness-box giving her evidence—there still seemed to linger some remnants of the old affection.

“I am quite well, thank you, Agnes,” said Vincent Jopp.

“Are you wearing your liver-pad?”

A frown flitted across my employer's strong face.

“I am not wearing my liver-pad,” he replied, brusquely.

“Oh, Vincent, how rash of you!”

He was about to speak, when a sudden exclamation from his rear checked him. A genial-looking woman in a sports coat was standing there, eyeing him with a sort of humorous horror.

“Well, Jane,” he said.

I gathered that this was Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp, the wife who had divorced him for systematic and ingrowing fiendishness on the ground that he had repeatedly outraged her feelings by wearing a white waistcoat with a dinner-jacket. She continued to look at him dumbly, and then uttered a sort of strangled, hysterical laugh.

“Those legs!” she cried. “Those legs!”

Vincent Jopp flushed darkly. Even the strongest and most silent of us have our weaknesses, and my employer's was the rooted idea that he looked well in knickerbockers. It was not my place to try to dissuade him, but there was no doubt that they did not suit him. Nature, in bestowing upon him a massive head and a jutting chin, had forgotten to finish him off at the other end. Vincent Jopp's legs were skinny.

“You poor dear man!” went on Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp. “What practical joker ever lured you into appearing in public in knickerbockers?”

“I don't object to the knickerbockers,” said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, “but when he foolishly comes out in quite a strong east wind without his liver-pad——”

“Little Tinky-Ting don't need no liver-pad, he don't,” said Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp, addressing the animal in her arms, “because he was his muzzer's pet, he was.”

I was standing quite near to Vincent Jopp, and at this moment I saw a bead of perspiration spring out on his forehead, and into his steely eyes there came a positively hunted look. I could understand and sympathize. Napoleon himself would have wilted if he had found himself in the midst of a trio of females, one talking baby-talk, another fussing about his health, and the third making derogatory observations on his lower limbs. Vincent Jopp was becoming unstrung.

“May as well be starting, shall we?”

It was Jopp's opponent who spoke. There was a strange, set look on his face—the look of a man whose back is against the wall. Ten down on the morning's round, he had drawn on his reserves of courage and was determined to meet the inevitable bravely.

Vincent Jopp nodded absently, then turned to me.

“Keep those women away from me,” he whispered tensely. “They'll put me off my stroke!”

“Put you off your stroke!” I exclaimed, incredulously.

“Yes, me! How the deuce can I concentrate, with people babbling about liver-pads, and—and knickerbockers all round me? Keep them away!”

He started to address his ball, and there was a weak uncertainty in the way he did it that prepared me for what was to come. His club rose, wavered, fell; and the ball, badly topped, trickled two feet and sank into a cuppy lie.

“Is that good or bad?” inquired Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp.

A sort of desperate hope gleamed in the eye of the other competitor in the final. He swung with renewed vigour. His ball sang through the air, and lay within chip-shot distance of the green.

“At the very least,” said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, “I hope, Vincent, that you are wearing flannel next your skin.”

I heard Jopp give a stifled groan as he took his spoon from the bag. He made a gallant effort to retrieve the lost ground, but the ball struck a stone and bounded away into the long grass to the side of the green. His opponent won the hole.

We moved to the second tee.

“Now, that young man,” said Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp, indicating her late husband's blushing antagonist, “is quite right to wear knickerbockers. He can carry them off. But a glance in the mirror must have shown you that you——”

“I'm sure you're feverish, Vincent,” said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, solicitously. “You are quite flushed. There is a wild gleam in your eyes.”

“Muzzer's pet got little buttons of eyes, that don't never have no wild gleam in zem because he's muzzer's own darling, he was!” said Mrs. Luella Mainprice Jopp.

A hollow groan escaped Vincent Jopp's ashen lips.

I need not recount the play hole by hole, I think. There are some subjects that are too painful. It was pitiful to watch Vincent Jopp in his downfall. By the end of the first nine his lead had been reduced to one, and his antagonist, rendered a new man by success, was playing magnificent golf. On the next hole he drew level. Then with a superhuman effort Jopp contrived to halve the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth. It seemed as though his iron will might still assert itself, but on the fourteenth the end came.

He had driven a superb ball, outdistancing his opponent by a full fifty yards. The latter played a good second to within a few feet of the green. And then, as Vincent Jopp was shaping for his stroke, Luella Mainprice gave tongue.

“Vincent!”

“Well?”

“Vincent, that other man—bad man—not playing fair. When your back was turned just now, he gave his ball a great bang. I was watching him.”

“At any rate,” said Mrs. Agnes Parsons Jopp, “I do hope, when the game is over, Vincent, that you will remember to cool slowly.”

“Flesho!” cried Mrs. Jane Jukes Jopp triumphantly. “I've been trying to remember the name all the afternoon. I saw about it in one of the papers. The advertisements speak most highly of it. You take it before breakfast and again before retiring, and they guarantee it to produce firm, healthy flesh on the most sparsely-covered limbs in next to no time. Now, will you remember to get a bottle tonight? It comes in two sizes, the five-shilling (or large size) and the smaller at half-a-crown. G. K. Chesterton writes that he used it regularly for years.”

Vincent Jopp uttered a quavering moan, and his hand, as he took the mashie from his bag, was trembling like an aspen.

Ten minutes later, he was on his way back to the club-house, a beaten man.

       * * * * *

And so (concluded the Oldest Member) you see that in golf there is no such thing as a soft snap. You can never be certain of the finest player. Anything may happen to the greatest expert at any stage of the game. In a recent competition George Duncan took eleven shots over a hole which eighteen-handicap men generally do in five. No! Back horses or go down to Throgmorton Street and try to take it away from the Rothschilds, and I will applaud you as a shrewd and cautious financier. But to bet at golf is pure gambling.

 
 
 

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