We all sat back, as if encouraging him to tell it.
"It took him years and years to amass the collection, and yet there were only a dozen or so books in it."
"Not many for a collection," said Major Garforth.
"No, indeed," said Lord Callway. "That is because it took him most of that 30 years just to get one book signed. You see, he started off with an Aldous Huxley book signed by the author, and another by Compton Mackenzie, and another by Ernest Draggle
"Who on earth was Ernest Draggle?" said Major Garforth.
"Exactly what my father said," said Lord Callway. "He asked me and I didn't know, and he asked my mother and she said she didn't know, and he asked the gardener and he didn't know, and he asked the housekeeper ..."
"Don't go round the whole dratted staff," said old Hugh Ingot-Jones, or we'll be here all night."
"And the housekeeper said," went on Lord Callway, ignoring interruptions, as was his wont, "that it would save everyone a lot of time if he looked it up in Who's Who. My father saw the sense of this, and got down his copy of Who's Who 1954, which was the year this happened, and as he was browsing through it, it suddenly occurred to him how nice it would be to have a signed copy of Who's Who."
"How could you have a signed copy of Who's Who?" I said. "There must be dozens of authors. You could never track them all down."
"Ah, that's just the point!" said Lord Callway. "You know exactly who the authors are because every entry in Who's Who is written by the subject himself or herself. So what my father set out to do was get every entry in that edition of Who's Who signed by the person involved. Now, he couldn't get people just to send him their signature, because the book itself had to be signed. He had to take the book physically to all the thousands of people mentioned. It was quite easy to begin with, because he knew a lot of them personally and was related to quite a lot of others, so pretty soon he had several hundred signatures.
"But he had a narrow escape with one of them, his uncle, Lord Pastrell, who was rather ill and could only just sign his name - indeed, Lord Pastrell died a year later in a hunting accident."
"Fell from his horse?" inquired Garforth.
"What? Oh, no - he was savaged by a fox one day when they were short of foxhounds. Anyway, this alerted my father to the fact that he ought to collect the signatures of the old and infirm first in case they died off. So he worked down from the oldest, and by a stroke of luck found them all alive and kicking. Of course, a lot of the distinguished johnnies in Who's Who are foreign - professors of dentistry in Sri Lanka, politicians in Paraguay, that sort of thing - so he took a year off travelling round the world, staying with all his ambassador friends. Some of the politicians had been put behind bars by the time he got there, and my father and his book became quite a familiar sight in the top prisons of the world.
"Anyway, to cut a long story short, he counted up his signatures one day and found he had got every one in the book, except one entry. And guess who that missing entry was?"
We all gave up.
"Ernest Draggle! Ernest Draggle, the very author who had started the whole thing in the first place. Draggle's publishers said that it was a pseudonym for an author who wanted to keep his identity secret, as he had penned rather a racy series of novels, so they couldn't possibly reveal who it was. My father was not to be thwarted and put a private detective on the hunt. It took the sleuth four months to discover who it was. And guess who it was?"
We hazarded guesses. Dennis Wheatley? Barbara Cartland? James Hadley Chase? Winston Churchill?
"No, none of those. It was my mother! All those years Lady Callway had been writing near-the-knuckle novels and he had never known! She owned up, but she refused to sign his Who's Who. She said that Ernest was a very private person who would never agree to such a thing. Heartbroken at being so close to a complete signed copy of Who's Who, my father went into a decline from which he never recovered."
Lord Callway slid into a peaceful slumber to signify that his tale was now over. A few days later I bumped into his younger brother, Sir Dudley Hardstaff, and asked him to verify the story, but he said that there was not a word of truth in it.