The Captain, December 1908
IKE had refused to accompany Psmith to the meeting that evening, saying that he got too many chances in the ordinary way of business of hearing Mr. Bickersdyke speak, without going out of his way to make more. So Psmith had gone off to Kenningford alone, and Mike, feeling too lazy to sally out to any place of entertainment, had remained at the flat with a novel.
He was deep in this, when there was the sound of a key in the latch, and shortly afterwards Psmith entered the room. On Psmith’s brow there was a look of pensive care, and also a slight discolouration. When he removed his overcoat, Mike saw that his collar was burst and hanging loose, and that he had no tie. On his erstwhile speckless and gleaming shirt-front were a number of finger-impressions, of a boldness and clearness of outline which would have made a Bertillon expert leap with joy.
“Hullo!” said Mike, dropping his book.
Psmith nodded in silence, went to his bedroom, and returned with a looking-glass. Propping this up on a table, he proceeded to examine himself with the utmost care. He shuddered slightly as his eye fell on the finger-marks; and without a word he went into his bedroom again. He emerged after an interval of ten minutes in sky-blue pyjamas, slippers, and an Old Etonian blazer. He lit a cigarette; and, sitting down, stared pensively into the fire.
“What the dickens have you been playing at?” demanded Mike.
Psmith heaved a sigh.
“That,” he replied, “I could not say precisely. At one moment it seemed to be Rugby football, at another a Jiu-jitsu séance. Later, it bore a resemblance to a pantomime rally. However, whatever it was, it was all very bright and interesting. A distinct experience.”
“Have you been scrapping?” asked Mike. “What happened? Was there a row?”
“There was,” said Psmith, “in a measure what might be described as a row. At least, when you find a perfect stranger attaching himself to your collar and pulling, you begin to suspect that something of that kind is on the bill.”
“Did they do that?”
“A merchant in a moth-eaten bowler started brawling to a certain extent with me. It was all very trying for a man of culture. He was a man who had, I should say, discovered that alcohol was a food long before the doctors found it out. A good chap, possibly, but a little boisterous in his manner. Well, well.”
Psmith shook his head sadly.
“He got you one on the forehead,” said Mike, “or somebody did. Tell us what happened. I wish the dickens I’d come with you. I’d no notion there would be a rag of any sort. What did happen?”
“Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith sorrowfully, “how sad it is in this life of ours to be consistently misunderstood. You know, of course, how wrapped up I am in Comrade Bickersdyke’s welfare. You know that all my efforts are directed towards making a decent man of him; that, in short, I am his truest friend. Does he show by so much as a word that he appreciates my labours? Not he. I believe that man is beginning to dislike me, Comrade Jackson.”
“What happened, anyhow? Never mind about Bickersdyke.”
“Perhaps it was mistaken zeal on my part but . . . Well, I will tell you all. Make a long arm for the shovel, Comrade Jackson, and pile on a few more coals. I thank you. Well, all went quite smoothly for a while. Comrade B. in quite good form. Got his second wind, and was going strongly for the tape, when a regrettable incident occurred. He informed the meeting that, while up in the Lake Country, fishing, he went to an inn and saw a remarkably large stuffed trout in a glass case. He made inquiries, and found that five separate and distinct people had caught——”
“Why, dash it all,” said Mike, “that’s a frightful chestnut.”
“It certainly has appeared in print,” he said. “In fact I should have said it was rather a well-known story. I was so interested in Comrade Bickersdyke’s statement that the thing had happened to himself that, purely out of good-will towards him, I got up and told him that I thought it was my duty, as a friend, to let him know that a man named Jerome had pinched his story, put it in a book, and got money by it. Money, mark you, that should by rights have been Comrade Bickersdyke’s. He didn’t appear to care much about sifting the matter thoroughly. In fact, he seemed anxious to get on with his speech, and slur the matter over. But, tactlessly perhaps, I continued rather to harp on the thing. I said that the book in which the story had appeared was published in 1889. I asked him how long ago it was that he had been on his fishing-tour, because it was important to know, in order to bring the charge home against Jerome. Well, after a bit, I was amazed, and pained, too, to hear Comrade Bickersdyke urging certain bravoes in the audience to turn me out. If ever there was a case of biting the hand that fed him. . . . Well, well. . . . By this time the meeting had begun to take sides to some extent. What I might call my party, the Earnest Investigators, were whistling between their fingers, stamping on the floor, and shouting, “Chestnuts!” while the opposing party, the bravoes, seemed to be trying, as I say, to do Jiu-jitsu tricks with me. It was a painful situation. I know the cultivated man of affairs should have passed the thing off with a short, careless laugh; but, owing to the above-mentioned alcohol-expert having got both hands under my collar, short, careless laughs were off. I was compelled, very reluctantly, to conclude the interview by tapping the bright boy on the jaw. He took the hint, and sat down on the floor. I thought no more of the matter, and was making my way thoughtfully to the exit, when a second man of wrath put the above on my forehead. You can’t ignore a thing like that. I collected some of his waistcoat and one of his legs, and hove him with some vim into the middle distance. By this time a good many of the Earnest Investigators were beginning to join in; and it was just there that the affair began to have certain points of resemblance to a pantomime rally. Everybody seemed to be shouting a good deal and hitting everybody else. It was no place for a man of delicate culture, so I edged towards the door, and drifted out. There was a cab in the offing. I boarded it. And, having kicked a vigorous politician in the stomach, as he was endeavouring to climb in too, I drove off home.”
Psmith got up, looked at his forehead once more in the glass, sighed, and sat down again.
“All very disturbing,” he said.
“Great Scott,” said Mike, “I wish I’d come. Why on earth didn’t you tell me you were going to rag? I think you might as well have done. I wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.”
Psmith regarded him with raised eyebrows.
“Rag!” he said. “Comrade Jackson, I do not understand you. You surely do not think that I had any other object in doing what I did than to serve Comrade Bickersdyke? It’s terrible how one’s motives get distorted in this world of ours.”
“Well,” said Mike, with a grin, “I know one person who’ll jolly well distort your motives, as you call it, and that’s Bickersdyke.”
Psmith looked thoughtful.
“True,” he said, “true. There is that possibility. I tell you, Comrade Jackson, once more that my bright young life is being slowly blighted by the frightful way in which that man misunderstands me. It seems almost impossible to try to do him a good turn without having the action misconstrued.”
“What’ll you say to him to-morrow?”
“I shall make no allusion to the painful affair. If I happen to meet him in the ordinary course of business routine, I shall pass some light, pleasant remark—on the weather, let us say, or the Bank rate—and continue my duties.”
“How about if he sends for you, and wants to do the light, pleasant remark business on his own?”
“In that case I shall not thwart him. If he invites me into his private room, I shall be his guest, and shall discuss, to the best of my ability, any topic which he may care to introduce. There shall be no constraint between Comrade Bickersdyke and myself.”
“No, I shouldn’t think there would be. I wish I could come and hear you.”
“I wish you could,” said Psmith courteously.
“Still, it doesn’t matter much to you. You don’t care if you do get sacked.”
“In that way possibly, as you say, I am agreeably situated. If the New Asiatic Bank does not require Psmith’s services, there are other spheres where a young man of spirit may carve a place for himself. No, what is worrying me, Comrade Jackson, is not the thought of the push. It is the growing fear that Comrade Bickersdyke and I will never thoroughly understand and appreciate one another. A deep gulf lies between us. I do what I can do to bridge it over, but he makes no response. On his side of the gulf building operations appear to be at an entire standstill. That is what is carving these lines of care on my forehead, Comrade Jackson. That is what is painting these purple circles beneath my eyes. Quite inadvertently to be disturbing Comrade Bickersdyke, annoying him, preventing him from enjoying life. How sad this is. Life bulges with these tragedies.”
Mike picked up the evening paper.
“Don’t let it keep you awake at night,” he said. “By the way, did you see that Manchester United were playing this afternoon? They won. You’d better sit down and sweat up some of the details. You’ll want them to-morrow.”
“You are very right, Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith, reseating himself. “So the Mancunians pushed the bulb into the meshes beyond the uprights no fewer than four times, did they? Bless the dear boys, what spirits they do enjoy, to be sure. Comrade Jackson, do not disturb me. I must concentrate myself. These are deep waters.”
in a nutshell.
R. BICKERSDYKE sat in his private room at the New Asiatic Bank with a pile of newspapers before him. At least, the casual observer would have said that it was Mr. Bickersdyke. In reality, however, it was an active volcano in the shape and clothes of the bank-manager. It was freely admitted in the office that morning that the manager had lowered all records with ease. The staff had known him to be in a bad temper before—frequently; but his frame of mind on all previous occasions had been, compared with his present frame of mind, that of a rather exceptionally good-natured lamb. Within ten minutes of his arrival the entire office was on the jump. The messengers were collected in a pallid group in the basement, discussing the affair in whispers and endeavouring to restore their nerve with about sixpenn’orth of the beverage known as “unsweetened.” The heads of departments, to a man, had bowed before the storm. Within the space of seven minutes and a quarter Mr. Bickersdyke had contrived to find some fault with each of them. Inward Bills was out at an A.B.C. shop snatching a hasty cup of coffee, to pull him together again. Outward Bills was sitting at his desk with the glazed stare of one who has been struck in the thorax by a thunderbolt. Mr. Rossiter had been torn from Psmith in the middle of a highly technical discussion of the Manchester United match, just as he was showing—with the aid of a ball of paper—how he had once seen Meredith centre to Sandy Turnbull in a Cup match; and was now leaping about like a distracted grasshopper. Mr. Waller, head of the Cash Department, had been summoned to the Presence, and after listening meekly to a rush of criticism, had retired to his desk with the air of a beaten spaniel.
Only one man of the many in the building seemed calm and happy—Psmith.
Psmith had resumed the chat about Manchester United, on Mr. Rossiter’s return from the lion’s den, at the spot where it had been broken off; but, finding that the head of the Postage Department was in no mood for discussing football (or anything else), he had postponed his remarks and placidly resumed his work.
Mr. Bickersdyke picked up a paper, opened it, and began searching the columns. He had not far to look. It was a slack season for the newspapers, and his little trouble, which might have received a paragraph in a busy week, was set forth fully in three-quarters of a column.
The column was headed, “Amusing Heckling.”
Mr. Bickersdyke read a few lines, and crumpled the paper up with a snort.
The next he examined was an organ of his own shade of political opinion. It too, gave him nearly a column, headed “Disgraceful Scene at Kenningford.” There was also a leaderette on the subject.
The leaderette said so exactly what Mr. Bickersdyke thought himself that for a moment he was soothed. Then the thought of his grievance returned, and he pressed the bell.
“Send Mr. Smith to me,” he said.
William, the messenger, proceeded to inform Psmith of the summons.
Psmith’s face lit up.
“I am always glad to sweeten the monotony of toil with a chat with Little Clarence,” he said. “I shall be with him in a moment.”
He cleaned his pen very carefully, placed it beside his ledger, flicked a little dust off his coat-sleeve, and made his way to the manager’s room.
Mr. Bickersdyke received him with the ominous restraint of a tiger crouching for its spring. Psmith stood beside the table with languid grace, suggestive of some favoured confidential secretary waiting for instructions.
A ponderous silence brooded over the room for some moments. Psmith broke it by remarking that the Bank Rate was unchanged. He mentioned this fact as if it afforded him a personal gratification.
Mr. Bickersdyke spoke.
“Well, Mr. Smith?” he said.
“You wished to see me about something, sir?” inquired Psmith, ingratiatingly.
“You know perfectly well what I wished to see you about. I want to hear your explanation of what occurred last night.”
“May I sit, sir?”
He dropped gracefully into a chair, without waiting for permission, and, having hitched up the knees of his trousers, beamed winningly at the manager.
“A deplorable affair,” he said, with a shake of his head. “Extremely deplorable. We must not judge these rough, uneducated men too harshly, however. In a time of excitement the emotions of the lower classes are easily stirred. Where you or I would——”
Mr. Bickersdyke interrupted.
“I do not wish for any more buffoonery, Mr. Smith——”
Psmith raised a pained pair of eyebrows.
“I cannot understand what made you act as you did last night, unless you are perfectly mad, as I am beginning to think.”
“But, surely, sir, there was nothing remarkable in my behaviour? When a merchant has attached himself to your collar, can you do less than smite him on the other cheek? I merely acted in self-defence. You saw for yourself——”
“You know what I am alluding to. Your behaviour during my speech.”
“An excellent speech,” murmured Psmith courteously.
“Well?” said Mr. Bickersdyke.
“It was, perhaps, mistaken zeal on my part, sir, but you must remember that I acted purely from the best motives. It seemed to me——”
“That is enough, Mr. Smith. I confess that I am absolutely at a loss to understand you——”
“It is too true, sir,” sighed Psmith.
“You seem,” continued Mr. Bickersdyke, warming to his subject, and turning gradually a richer shade of purple, “you seem to be determined to endeavour to annoy me.” (“No no,” from Psmith.) “I can only assume that you are not in your right senses. You follow me about in my club——”
“Our club, sir,” murmured Psmith.
“Be good enough not to interrupt me, Mr. Smith. You dog my footsteps in my club——”
“Purely accidental, sir. We happen to meet—that is all.”
“You attend meetings at which I am speaking, and behave in a perfectly imbecile manner.”
Psmith moaned slightly.
“It may seem humorous to you, but I can assure you it is extremely bad policy on your part. The New Asiatic Bank is no place for humour, and I think——”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Psmith.
The manager started at the familiar phrase. The plum-colour of his complexion deepened.
“I entirely agree with you, sir,” said Psmith, “that this bank is no place for humour.”
“Very well, then. You——”
“And I am never humorous in it. I arrive punctually in the morning, and I work steadily and earnestly till my labours are completed. I think you will find, on inquiry, that Mr. Rossiter is satisfied with my work.”
“That is neither here nor——”
“Surely, sir,” said Psmith, “you are wrong? Surely your jurisdiction ceases after office hours? Any little misunderstanding we may have at the close of the day’s work cannot affect you officially. You could not, for instance, dismiss me from the service of the bank if we were partners at bridge at the club and I happened to revoke.”
“I can dismiss you, let me tell you, Mr. Smith, for studied insolence, whether in the office or not.”
“I bow to superior knowledge,” said Psmith politely, “but I confess I doubt it. And,” he added, “there is another point. May I continue to some extent?”
“If you have anything to say, say it.”
Psmith flung one leg over the other, and settled his collar.
“It is perhaps a delicate matter,” he said, “but it is best to be frank. We should have no secrets. To put my point quite clearly, I must go back a little, to the time when you paid us that very welcome week-end visit at our house in August.”
“If you hope to make capital out of the fact that I have been a guest of your father——”
“Not at all,” said Psmith deprecatingly. “Not at all. You do not take me. My point is this. I do not wish to revive painful memories, but it cannot be denied that there was, here and there, some slight bickering between us on that occasion. The fault,” said Psmith magnanimously, “was possibly mine. I may have been too exacting, too capricious. Perhaps so. However, the fact remains that you conceived the happy notion of getting me into this bank, under the impression that, once I was in, you would be able to—if I may use the expression—give me beans. You said as much to me, if I remember. I hate to say it, but don’t you think that if you give me the sack, although my work is satisfactory to the head of my department, you will be by way of admitting that you bit off rather more than you could chew? I merely make the suggestion.”
Mr. Bickersdyke half rose from his chair.
“Just so, just so, but—to return to the main point—don’t you? The whole painful affair reminds me of the story of Agesilaus and the Petulant Pterodactyl, which as you have never heard, I will now proceed to relate. Agesilaus——”
Mr. Bickersdyke made a curious clucking noise in his throat.
“I am boring you,” said Psmith, with ready tact. “Suffice it to say that Comrade Agesilaus interfered with the pterodactyl, which was doing him no harm; and the intelligent creature, whose motto was ‘Nemo me impune lacessit,’ turned and bit him. Bit him good and hard, so that Agesilaus ever afterwards had a distaste for pterodactyls. His reluctance to disturb them became quite a byword. The Society papers of the period frequently commented upon it. Let us draw the parallel.”
Here Mr. Bickersdyke, who had been clucking throughout this speech, essayed to speak; but Psmith hurried on.
“You are Agesilaus,” he said. “I am the Petulant Pterodactyl. You, if I may say so, butted in of your own free will, and took me from a happy home, simply in order that you might get me into this place under you, and give me beans. But, curiously enough, the major portion of that vegetable seems to be coming to you. Of course, you can administer the push if you like; but, as I say, it will be by way of a confession that your scheme has sprung a leak. Personally,” said Psmith, as one friend to another, “I should advise you to stick it out. You never know what may happen. At any moment I may fall from my present high standard of industry and excellence; and then you have me, so to speak, where the hair is crisp.”
He paused. Mr. Bickersdyke’s eyes, which even in their normal state protruded slightly, now looked as if they might fall out at any moment. His face had passed from the plum-coloured stage to something beyond. Every now and then he made the clucking noise, but except for that he was silent. Psmith, having waited for some time for something in the shape of comment or criticism on his remarks, now rose.
“It has been a great treat to me, this little chat,” he said affably, “but I fear that I must no longer allow purely social enjoyments to interfere with my commercial pursuits. With your permission, I will rejoin my department, where my absence is doubtless already causing comment and possibly dismay. But we shall be meeting at the club shortly, I hope. Good-bye, sir, good-bye.”
He left the room, and walked dreamily back to the Postage Department, leaving the manager still staring glassily at nothing.
mike is moved on.
HIS episode may be said to have concluded the first act of the commercial drama in which Mike and Psmith had been cast for leading parts. And, as usually happens after the end of an act, there was a lull for awhile until things began to work up towards another climax. Mike, as day succeeded day, began to grow accustomed to the life of the bank, and to find that it had its pleasant side after all. Whenever a number of people are working at the same thing, even though that thing is not perhaps what they would have chosen as an object in life, if left to themselves, there is bound to exist an atmosphere of good-fellowship; something akin to, though a hundred times weaker than, the public school spirit. Such a community lacks the main motive of the public school spirit, which is pride in the school and its achievements. Nobody can be proud of the achievements of a bank. When the business of arranging a new Japanese loan was given to the New Asiatic Bank, its employees did not stand on stools, and cheer. On the contrary, they thought of the extra work it would involve; and they cursed a good deal, though there was no denying that it was a big thing for the bank—not unlike winning the Ashburton would be to a school. There is a cold impersonality about a bank. A school is a living thing.
Setting aside this important difference, there was a good deal of the public school about the New Asiatic Bank. The heads of departments were not quite so autocratic as masters, and one was treated more on a grown-up scale, as man to man; but, nevertheless, there remained a distinct flavour of a school republic. Most of the men in the bank, with the exception of certain hard-headed Scotch youths drafted in from other establishments in the City, were old public school men. Mike found two Old Wrykinians in the first week. Neither was well known to him. They had left in his second year in the team. But it was pleasant to have them about, and to feel that they had been educated at the right place.
As far as Mike’s personal comfort went, the presence of these two Wrykinians was very much for the good. Both of them knew all about his cricket, and they spread the news. The New Asiatic Bank, like most London banks, was keen on sport, and happened to possess a cricket team which could make a good game with most of the second-rank clubs. The disappearance to the East of two of the best bats of the previous season caused Mike’s advent to be hailed with a good deal of enthusiasm. Mike was a county man. He had only played once for his county, it was true, but that did not matter. He had passed the barrier which separates the second-class bat from the first-class, and the bank welcomed him with awe. County men did not come their way every day.
Mike did not like being in the bank, considered in the light of a career. But he bore no grudge against the inmates of the bank, such as he had borne against the inmates of Sedleigh. He had looked on the latter as bound up with the school, and, consequently, enemies. His fellow workers in the bank he regarded as companions in misfortune. They were all in the same boat together. There were men from Tonbridge, Dulwich, Bedford, St. Paul’s, and a dozen other schools. One or two of them he knew by repute from the pages of Wisden. Bannister, his cheerful predecessor in the Postage Department, was the Bannister, he recollected now, who had played for Geddington against Wrykyn in his second year in the Wrykyn team. Munroe, the big man in the Fixed Deposits, he remembered as leader of the Ripton pack. Every day brought fresh discoveries of this sort, and each made Mike more reconciled to his lot. They were a pleasant set of fellows in the New Asiatic Bank, and but for the dreary outlook which the future held—for Mike, unlike most of his follow workers, was not attracted by the idea of a life in the East—he would have been very fairly content.
The hostility of Mr. Bickersdyke was a slight drawback. Psmith had developed a habit of taking Mike with him to the club of an evening; and this did not do anything towards wiping out of the manager’s mind the recollection of his former passage of arms with the Old Wrykinian. The glass remaining Set Fair as far as Mr. Rossiter’s approval was concerned, Mike was enabled to keep off the managerial carpet to a great extent; but twice, when he posted letters without going through the preliminary formality of stamping them, Mr. Bickersdyke had opportunities of which he availed himself. But for these incidents life was fairly enjoyable. Owing to Psmith’s benevolent efforts, the Postage Department became quite a happy family, and ex-occupants of the postage desk, Bannister especially, were amazed at the change that had come over Mr. Rossiter. He no longer darted from his lair like a pouncing panther. To report his subordinates to the manager seemed now to be a lost art with him. The sight of Psmith and Mr. Rossiter proceeding high and disposedly to a mutual lunch became quite common, and ceased to excite remark.
“By kindness,” said Psmith to Mike, after one of these expeditions. “By tact and kindness. That is how it is done. I do not despair of training Comrade Rossiter one of these days to jump through paper hoops.”
So that, altogether, Mike’s life in the bank had become very fairly pleasant.
Out of office-hours he enjoyed himself hugely. London was strange to him, and with Psmith as a companion, he extracted a vast deal of entertainment from it. Psmith was not unacquainted with the West End, and he proved an excellent guide. At first Mike expostulated with unfailing regularity at the other’s habit of paying for everything, but Psmith waved aside all objections with languid firmness.
“I need you, Comrade Jackson,” he said, when Mike lodged a protest on finding himself bound for the stalls for the second night in succession. “We must stick together. As my confidential secretary and adviser, your place is by my side. Who knows but that between the acts to-night I may not be seized with some luminous thought? Could I utter this to my next-door neighbour or the programme-girl? Stand by me, Comrade Jackson, or we are undone.”
So Mike stood by him.
By this time Mike had grown so used to his work that he could tell to within five minutes when a rush would come; and he was able to spend a good deal of his time reading a surreptitious novel behind a pile of ledgers, or down in the tea-room. The New Asiatic Bank supplied tea to its employees. In quality it was bad, and the bread-and-butter associated with it was worse. But it had the merit of giving one an excuse for being away from one’s desk. There were large printed notices all over the tea-room, which was in the basement, informing gentlemen that they were only allowed ten minutes for tea, but one took just as long as one thought the head of one’s department would stand, from twenty-five minutes to an hour and a quarter.
This state of things was too good to last. Towards the beginning of the New Year a new man arrived, and Mike was moved on to another department.
mr. waller appears in a new light.
HE department into which Mike was sent was the Cash, or, to be more exact, that section of it which was known as Paying Cashier. The important task of shooting doubloons across the counter did not belong to Mike himself, but to Mr. Waller. Mike’s work was less ostentatious, and was performed with pen, ink, and ledgers in the background. Occasionally, when Mr. Waller was out at lunch, Mike had to act as substitute for him, and cash cheques; but Mr. Waller always went out at a slack time, when few customers came in, and Mike seldom had any very startling sum to hand over.
He enjoyed being in the Cash Department. He liked Mr. Waller. The work was easy; and when he did happen to make mistakes, they were corrected patiently by the grey-bearded one, and not used as levers for boosting him into the presence of Mr. Bickersdyke, as they might have been in some departments. The cashier seemed to have taken a fancy to Mike; and Mike, as was usually the way with him when people went out of their way to be friendly, was at his best. Mike at his ease and unsuspicious of hostile intentions was a different person from Mike with his prickles out.
Psmith, meanwhile, was not enjoying himself. It was an unheard-of thing, he said, depriving a man of his confidential secretary without so much as asking his leave.
“It has caused me the greatest inconvenience,” he told Mike, drifting round in a melancholy way to the Cash Department during a slack spell one afternoon. “I miss you at every turn. Your keen intelligence and ready sympathy were invaluable to me. Now where am I? In the cart. I evolved a slightly bright thought on life just now. There was nobody to tell it to except the new man. I told it him, and the fool gaped. I tell you, Comrade Jackson, I feel like some lion that has been robbed of its cub. I feel as Marshall would feel if they took Snelgrove away from him, or as Peace might if he awoke one morning to find Plenty gone. Comrade Rossiter does his best. We still talk brokenly about Manchester United—they got routed in the first round of the Cup yesterday, and Comrade Rossiter is wearing black—but it is not the same. I try work, but that is no good either. From ledger to ledger they hurry me, to stifle my regret. And when they win a smile from me, they think that I forget. But I don’t. I am a broken man. That new exhibit they’ve got in your place is about as near to the Extreme Edge as anything I’ve ever seen. One of Nature’s blighters. Well, well, I must away. Comrade Rossiter awaits me.”
Mike’s successor, a youth of the name of Bristow, was causing Psmith a great deal of pensive melancholy. His worst defect—which he could not help—was that he was not Mike. His others—which he could—were numerous. His clothes were cut in a way that harrowed Psmith’s sensitive soul every time he looked at them. The fact that he wore detachable cuffs, which he took off on beginning work and stacked in a glistening pile on the desk in front of him, was no proof of innate viciousness of disposition, but it prejudiced the Old Etonian against him. It was part of Psmith’s philosophy that a man who wore detachable cuffs had passed beyond the limit of human toleration. In addition, Bristow wore a small black moustache and a ring, and that, as Psmith informed Mike, put the lid on it.
Mike would sometimes stroll round to the Postage Department to listen to the conversations between the two. Bristow was always friendliness itself. He habitually addressed Psmith as Smithy, a fact which entertained Mike greatly but did not seem to amuse Psmith to any overwhelming extent. On the other hand, when, as he generally did, he called Mike “Mister Cricketer,” the humour of the thing appeared to elude Mike, though the mode of address always drew from Psmith a pale, wan smile, as of a broken heart made cheerful against its own inclination.
The net result of the coming of Bristow was that Psmith spent most of his time, when not actually oppressed by a rush of work, in the precincts of the Cash Department, talking to Mike and Mr. Waller. The latter did not seem to share the dislike common among the other heads of departments of seeing his subordinates receiving visitors. Unless the work was really heavy, in which case a mild remonstrance escaped him, he offered no objection to Mike being at home to Psmith. It was this tolerance which sometimes got him into trouble with Mr. Bickersdyke. The manager did not often perambulate the office, but he did occasionally, and the interview which ensued upon his finding Hutchinson, the underling in the Cash Department at that time, with his stool tilted comfortably against the wall, reading the sporting news from a pink paper to a friend from the Outward Bills Department who lay luxuriously on the floor beside him, did not rank among Mr. Waller’s pleasantest memories. But Mr. Waller was too soft-hearted to interfere with his assistants unless it was absolutely necessary. The truth of the matter was that the New Asiatic Bank was over-staffed. There were too many men for the work. The London branch of the bank was really only a nursery. New men were constantly wanted in the Eastern branches, so they had to be put into the London branch to learn the business, whether there was any work for them to do or not.
It was after one of these visits of Psmith’s that Mr. Waller displayed a new and unsuspected side to his character. Psmith had come round in a state of some depression to discuss Bristow, as usual. Bristow, it seemed, had come to the bank that morning in a fancy waistcoat of so emphatic a colour-scheme that Psmith stoutly refused to sit in the same department with it.
“What with Comrades Bristow and Bickersdyke combined,” said Psmith plaintively, “the work is becoming too hard for me. The whisper is beginning to circulate, ‘Psmith’s number is up. As a reformer he is merely among those present. He is losing his dash.’ But what can I do? I cannot keep an eye on both of them at the same time. The moment I concentrate myself on Comrade Bickersdyke for a brief spell, and seem to be doing him a bit of good, what happens? Why, Comrade Bristow sneaks off and buys a sort of woollen sunset. I saw the thing unexpectedly. I tell you I was shaken. It is the suddenness of that waistcoat which hits you. It’s discouraging, this sort of thing. I try always to think well of my fellow man. As an energetic Socialist, I do my best to see the good that is in him, but it’s hard. Comrade Bristow’s the most striking argument against the equality of man I’ve ever come across.”
Mr. Waller intervened at this point.
“I think you must really let Jackson go on with his work, Smith,” he said. “There seems to be too much talking.”
“My besetting sin,” said Psmith sadly. “Well, well, I will go back and do my best to face it, but it’s a tough job.”
He tottered wearily away in the direction of the Postage Department.
“Oh, Jackson,” said Mr. Waller, “will you kindly take my place for a few minutes? I must go round and see the Inward Bills about something. I shall be back very soon.”
Mike was becoming accustomed to deputizing for the cashier for short spaces of time. It generally happened that he had to do so once or twice a day. Strictly speaking, perhaps, Mr. Waller was wrong to leave such an important task as the actual cashing of cheques to an inexperienced person of Mike’s standing; but the New Asiatic Bank differed from most banks in that there was not a great deal of cross-counter work. People came in fairly frequently to cash cheques of two or three pounds, but it was rare that any very large dealings took place.
Having completed his business with the Inward Bills, Mr. Waller made his way back by a circuitous route, taking in the Postage desk.
He found Psmith with a pale, set face, inscribing figures in a ledger. The Old Etonian greeted him with the faint smile of a persecuted saint who is determined to be cheerful even at the stake.
“Comrade Bristow,” he said.
“Hullo, Smithy?” said the other, turning.
Psmith sadly directed Mr. Waller’s attention to the waistcoat, which was certainly definite in its colouring.
“Nothing,” said Psmith. “I only wanted to look at you.”
“Funny ass,” said Bristow, resuming his work. Psmith glanced at Mr. Waller, as who should say, “See what I have to put up with. And yet I do not give way.”
“Oh—er—Smith,” said Mr. Waller, “when you were talking to Jackson just now——”
“Say no more,” said Psmith. “It shall not occur again. Why should I dislocate the work of your department in my efforts to win a sympathetic word? I will bear Comrade Bristow like a man here. After all, there are worse things at the Zoo.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Waller hastily, “I did not mean that. By all means pay us a visit now and then, if it does not interfere with your own work. But I noticed just now that you spoke to Bristow as Comrade Bristow.”
“It is too true,” said Psmith. “I must correct myself of the habit. He will be getting above himself.”
“And when you were speaking to Jackson, you spoke of yourself as a Socialist.”
“Socialism is the passion of my life,” said Psmith.
Mr. Waller’s face grew animated. He stammered in his eagerness.
“I am delighted,” he said. “Really, I am delighted. I also——”
“A fellow worker in the Cause?” said Psmith.
Psmith extended his hand gravely. Mr. Waller shook it with enthusiasm.
“I have never liked to speak of it to anybody in the office,” said Mr. Waller, “but I, too, am heart and soul in the movement.”
“Yours for the Revolution?” said Psmith.
“Just so. Just so. Exactly. I was wondering—the fact is, I am in the habit of speaking on Sundays in the open air, and——”
“No. No. Clapham Common. It is—er—handier for me where I live. Now, as you are interested in the movement, I was thinking that perhaps you might care to come and hear me speak next Sunday. Of course, if you have nothing better to do.”
“I should like to excessively,” said Psmith.
“Excellent. Bring Jackson with you, and both of you come to supper afterwards, if you will.”
“Thanks very much.”
“Perhaps you would speak yourself?”
“No,” said Psmith. “No. I think not. My Socialism is rather of the practical sort. I seldom speak. But it would be a treat to listen to you. What—er—what type of oratory is yours?”
“Oh, well,” said Mr. Waller, pulling nervously at his beard, “of course I—. Well, I am perhaps a little bitter——”
“A little mordant and ironical.”
“You would be,” agreed Psmith. “I shall look forward to Sunday with every fibre quivering. And Comrade Jackson shall be at my side.”
“Excellent,” said Mr. Waller. “I will go and tell him now.”
Stirring Times on the Common
HE first thing to do,” said Psmith, “is to ascertain that such a place as Clapham Common really exists. One has heard of it, of course, but has its existence ever been proved? I think not. Having accomplished that, we must then try to find out how to get to it. I should say at a venture that it would necessitate a sea-voyage. On the other hand, Comrade Waller, who is a native of the spot, seems to find no difficulty in rolling to the office every morning. Therefore—you follow me, Jackson?—it must be in England. In that case, we will take a taximeter cab, and go out into the unknown, hand in hand, trusting to luck.”
“I expect you could get there by tram,” said Mike.
Psmith suppressed a slight shudder.
“I fear, Comrade Jackson,” he said, “that the old noblesse oblige traditions of the Psmiths would not allow me to do that. No. We will stroll gently, after a light lunch, to Trafalgar Square, and hail a taxi.”
“But with what an object! Can any expenditure be called excessive which enables us to hear Comrade Waller being mordant and ironical at the other end?”
“It’s a rum business,” said Mike. “I hope the dickens he won’t mix us up in it. We should look frightful fools.”
“I may possibly say a few words,” said Psmith carelessly, “if the spirit moves me. Who am I that I should deny people a simple pleasure?”
Mike looked alarmed.
“Look here,” he said, “I say, if you are going to play the goat, for goodness’ sake don’t go lugging me into it. I’ve got heaps of troubles without that.”
Psmith waved the objection aside.
“You,” he said, “will be one of the large, and, I hope, interested audience. Nothing more. But it is quite possible that the spirit may not move me. I may not feel inspired to speak. I am not one of those who love speaking for speaking’s sake. If I have no message for the many-headed, I shall remain silent.”
“Then I hope the dickens you won’t have,” said Mike. Of all things he hated most being conspicuous before a crowd—except at cricket, which was a different thing—and he had an uneasy feeling that Psmith would rather like it than otherwise.
“We shall see,” said Psmith absently. “Of course, if in the vein, I might do something big in the way of oratory. I am a plain, blunt man, but I feel convinced that, given the opportunity, I should haul up my slacks to some effect. But—well, we shall see. We shall see.”
And with this ghastly state of doubt Mike had to be content.
It was with feelings of apprehension that he accompanied Psmith from the flat to Trafalgar Square in search of a cab which should convey them to Clapham Common.
They were to meet Mr. Waller at the edge of the Common nearest the old town of Clapham. On the journey down Psmith was inclined to be débonnair. Mike, on the other hand, was silent and apprehensive. He knew enough of Psmith to know that, if half an opportunity were offered him, he would extract entertainment from this affair after his own fashion; and then the odds were that he himself would be dragged into it. Perhaps—his scalp bristled at the mere idea—he would even be let in for a speech.
This grisly thought had hardly come into his head, when Psmith spoke.
“I’m not half sure,” he said thoughtfully, “I sha’n’t call on you for a speech, Comrade Jackson.”
“Look here, Psmith——” began Mike agitatedly.
“I don’t know. I think your solid, incisive style would rather go down with the masses. However, we shall see, we shall see.”
Mike reached the Common in a state of nervous collapse.
Mr. Waller was waiting for them by the railings near the pond. The apostle of the Revolution was clad soberly in black, except for a tie of vivid crimson. His eyes shone with the light of enthusiasm, vastly different from the mild glow of amiability which they exhibited for six days in every week. The man was transformed.
“Here you are,” he said. “Here you are. Excellent. You are in good time. Comrades Wotherspoon and Prebble have already begun to speak. I shall commence now that you have come. This is the way. Over by these trees.”
They made their way towards a small clump of trees, near which a fair-sized crowd had already begun to collect. Evidently listening to the speakers was one of Clapham’s fashionable Sunday amusements. Mr. Waller talked and gesticulated incessantly as he walked. Psmith’s demeanour was perhaps a shade patronizing, but he displayed interest. Mike proceeded to the meeting with the joyous abandon of an about-to-be-washed dog. He was loathing the whole business with a heartiness worthy of a better cause. Somehow, he felt he was going to be made to look a fool before the afternoon was over. But he registered a vow that nothing should drag him on to the small platform which had been erected for the benefit of the speaker.
As they drew nearer, the voices of Comrades Wotherspoon and Prebble became more audible. They had been audible all the time, very much so, but now they grew in volume. Comrade Wotherspoon was a tall, thin man with side-whiskers and a high voice. He scattered his aitches as a fountain its sprays in a strong wind. He was very earnest. Comrade Prebble was earnest, too. Perhaps even more so than Comrade Wotherspoon. He was handicapped to some extent, however, by not having a palate. This gave to his profoundest thoughts a certain weirdness, as if they had been uttered in an unknown tongue. The crowd was thickest round his platform. The grown-up section plainly regarded him as a comedian, pure and simple, and roared with happy laughter when he urged them to march upon Park Lane and loot the same without mercy or scruple. The children were more doubtful. Several had broken down, and been led away in tears.
When Mr. Waller got up to speak on platform number three, his audience consisted at first only of Psmith, Mike, and a fox-terrier. Gradually however, he attracted others. After wavering for a while, the crowd finally decided that he was worth hearing. He had a method of his own. Lacking the natural gifts which marked Comrade Prebble out as an entertainer, he made up for this by his activity. Where his colleagues stood comparatively still, Mr. Waller behaved with the vivacity generally supposed to belong only to peas on shovels and cats on hot bricks. He crouched to denounce the House of Lords. He bounded from side to side while dissecting the methods of the plutocrats. During an impassioned onslaught on the monarchical system he stood on one leg and hopped. This was more the sort of thing the crowd had come to see. Comrade Wotherspoon found himself deserted, and even Comrade Prebble’s shortcomings in the way of palate were insufficient to keep his flock together. The entire strength of the audience gathered in front of the third platform.
Mike, separated from Psmith by the movement of the crowd, listened with a growing depression. That feeling which attacks a sensitive person sometimes at the theatre when somebody is making himself ridiculous on the stage—the illogical feeling that it is he and not the actor who is floundering—had come over him in a wave. He liked Mr. Waller, and it made his gorge rise to see him exposing himself to the jeers of a crowd. The fact that Mr. Waller himself did not know that they were jeers, but mistook them for applause, made it no better. Mike felt vaguely furious.
His indignation began to take a more personal shape when the speaker, branching off from the main subject of Socialism, began to touch on temperance. There was no particular reason why Mr. Waller should have introduced the subject of temperance, except that he happened to be an enthusiast. He linked it on to his remarks on Socialism by attributing the lethargy of the masses to their fondness for alcohol; and the crowd, which had been inclined rather to pat itself on the back during the assaults on Rank and Property, finding itself assailed in its turn, resented it. They were there to listen to speakers telling them that they were the finest fellows on earth, not pointing out their little failings to them. The feeling of the meeting became hostile. The jeers grew more frequent and less good-tempered.
“Comrade Waller means well,” said a voice in Mike’s ear, “but if he shoots it at them like this much more there’ll be a bit of an imbroglio.”
“Look here, Smith,” said Mike quickly, “can’t we stop him? These chaps are getting fed up, and they look bargees enough to do anything. They’ll be going for him or something soon.”
“How can we switch off the flow? I don’t see. The man is wound up. He means to get it off his chest if it snows. I feel we are by way of being in the soup once more, Comrade Jackson. We can only sit tight and look on.”
The crowd was becoming more threatening every minute. A group of young men of the loafer class who stood near Mike were especially fertile in comment. Psmith’s eyes were on the speaker; but Mike was watching this group closely. Suddenly he saw one of them, a thick-set youth wearing a cloth cap and no collar, stoop.
When he rose again, there was a stone in his hand.
The sight acted on Mike like a spur. Vague rage against nobody in particular had been simmering in him for half an hour. Now it concentrated itself on the cloth-capped one.
Mr. Waller paused momentarily before renewing his harangue. The man in the cloth cap raised his hand. There was a swirl in the crowd, and the first thing that Psmith saw as he turned was Mike seizing the would-be marksman round the neck and hurling him to the ground, after the manner of a forward at football tackling an opponent during a line-out from touch.
There is one thing which will always distract the attention of a crowd from any speaker, and that is a dispute between two of its units. Mr. Waller’s views on temperance were forgotten in an instant. The audience surged round Mike and his opponent.
The latter had scrambled to his feet now, and was looking round for his assailant.
“That’s ’im, Bill!” cried eager voices, indicating Mike.
“E’s the bloke wot ’it yer, Bill,” said others, more precise in detail.
Bill advanced on Mike in a sidelong, crab-like manner.
“ ’Oo’re you, I should like to know?” said Bill.
Mike, rightly holding that this was merely a rhetorical question and that Bill had no real thirst for information as to his family history, made no reply. Or, rather, the reply he made was not verbal. He waited till his questioner was within range, and then hit him in the eye. A reply far more satisfactory, if not to Bill himself, at any rate to the interested onlookers, than any flow of words.
A contented sigh went up from the crowd. Their Sunday afternoon was going to be spent just as they considered Sunday afternoons should be spent.
“Give us your coat,” said Psmith briskly, “and try and get it over quick. Don’t go in for any fancy sparring. Switch it on, all you know, from the start. I’ll keep a thoughtful eye open to see that none of his friends and relations join in.”
Outwardly Psmith was unruffled, but inwardly he was not feeling so composed. An ordinary turn-up before an impartial crowd which could be relied upon to preserve the etiquette of these matters was one thing. As regards the actual little dispute with the cloth-capped Bill, he felt that he could rely on Mike to handle it satisfactorily. But there was no knowing how long the crowd would be content to remain mere spectators. There was no doubt which way its sympathies lay. Bill, now stripped of his coat and sketching out in a hoarse voice a scenario of what he intended to do—knocking Mike down and stamping him into the mud was one of the milder feats he promised to perform for the entertainment of an indulgent audience—was plainly the popular favourite.
Psmith, though he did not show it, was more than a little apprehensive.
Mike, having more to occupy his mind in the immediate present, was not anxious concerning the future. He had the great advantage over Psmith of having lost his temper. Psmith could look on the situation as a whole, and count the risks and possibilities. Mike could only see Bill shuffling towards him with his head down and shoulders bunched.
“Gow it, Bill!” said someone.
“Pliy up, the Arsenal!” urged a voice on the outskirts of the crowd.
A chorus of encouragement from kind friends in front: “Step up, Bill!”
And Bill stepped.
(To be continued.)
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In ch. 11, “Jui-jitsu” is twice corrected to “Jiu-jitsu”
In ch. 14, “Pearce” is corrected to “Peace”