Grand Magazine, June 1923
the diamond necklace
AT the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth stood gazing out over his domain.
It was a lovely morning, and the air was fragrant with gentle summer scents. Yet in his lordship’s pale blue eyes there was a look of melancholy. His brow was furrowed, his mouth peevish. And this was all the more strange in that he was normally as happy as only a fluffy-minded man with excellent health and a large income can be.
A writer, describing Blandings Castle in a magazine article, had once said: “Tiny mosses have grown in the cavities of the stones, until, viewed near at hand, the place seems shaggy with vegetation.” It would not have been a bad description of the proprietor. Fifty-odd years of serene and unruffled placidity had given Lord Emsworth a curiously moss-covered look.
Very few things had the power to disturb him. Even his younger son, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, could only do it occasionally.
Yet now he was sad. And—not to make a mystery of it any longer—the reason of his sorrow was the fact that he had mislaid his glasses, and without them was as blind, to use his own neat simile, as a bat. He was keenly aware of the sunshine that poured down on his gardens, and was yearning to pop out and potter among the flowers he loved. But no man, pop he never so wisely, can hope to potter with any good result if the world is a mere blur.
The door behind him opened, and Beach, the butler, entered, a dignified procession of one.
“Who’s that?” inquired Lord Emsworth, spinning on his axis.
“It is I, your lordship—Beach.”
“Have you found them?”
“Not yet, your lordship,” sighed the butler.
“You can’t have looked.”
“I have searched assiduously, your lordship, but without avail. Thomas and Charles also announce non-success. Stokes has not yet made his report.”
“I am re-despatching Thomas and Charles to your lordship’s bedroom,” said the Master of the Hunt. “I trust that their efforts will be rewarded.”
Beach withdrew, and Lord Emsworth turned to the window again. The scene that spread itself beneath him—though he was unfortunately not able to see it—was a singularly beautiful one, for the castle, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England, stands upon a knoll of rising ground at the southern end of the celebrated Vale of Blandings in the county of Shropshire.
Away in the blue distance wooded hills ran down to where the Severn gleamed like an unsheathed sword; while up from the river rolling park-land, mounting and dipping, surged in a green wave almost to the castle walls, breaking on the terraces in a many-coloured flurry of flowers as it reached the spot where the province of Angus McAllister, his lordship’s head-gardener, began.
The day being June the thirtieth, which is the very high-tide time of summer flowers, the immediate neighbourhood of the castle was ablaze with roses, pinks, pansies, carnations, hollyhocks, columbines, larkspurs, London pride, Canterbury bells, and a multitude of other choice blooms of which only Angus could have told you the names. A conscientious man was Angus; and, in spite of being a good deal hampered by Lord Emsworth’s amateur assistance, he showed excellent results in his department.
Scarcely had Beach removed himself when Lord Emsworth was called upon to turn again. The door had opened for the second time, and a young man in a beautifully cut suit of grey flannel was standing in the doorway. He had a long and vacant face topped by shining hair, brushed back and heavily brilliantined after the prevailing mode, and he was standing on one leg. For Freddie Threepwood was seldom completely at his ease in his parent’s presence.
It would be paltering with the truth to say that Lord Emsworth’s greeting was a warm one. It lacked the note of true affection. A few weeks before he had had to pay a matter of five hundred pounds to settle certain racing debts for his offspring; and, while this had not actually dealt an irretrievable blow at his bank-account, it had undeniably tended to diminish Freddie’s charm in his eyes.
“Hear you’ve lost your glasses, guv’nor.”
“That is so.”
“Ought to have a spare pair.”
“I have broken my spare pair.”
“Tough luck! Have you looked for the bally things?”
“Must be somewhere, I mean.”
“Where,” asked Freddie, warming to his work, “did you see them last?”
“Go away!” said Lord Emsworth, on whom his child’s conversation had begun to exercise an oppressive effect.
The door closed. His lordship returned to the window once more.
He had been standing there some few minutes when one of those miracles occurred which happen in libraries. Without sound or warning a section of books started to move away from the parent body, and, swinging out in a solid chunk into the room, showed a glimpse of a small, study-like apartment. A young man in spectacles came noiselessly through and the books returned to their place.
The contrast between Lord Emsworth and the new comer, as they stood there, was striking, almost dramatic. Lord Emsworth was so acutely spectacle-less; Rupert Baxter, his secretary, so pronouncedly spectacled. It was his spectacles that struck you first as you saw the man. They gleamed efficiently at you. If you had a guilty conscience they pierced you through and through, and even if your conscience was one hundred per cent. pure you could not ignore them. “Here,” you said to yourself, “is an efficient young man in spectacles.”
In describing Rupert Baxter as efficient, you did not over-estimate him. He was essentially that. Technically but a salaried subordinate, he had become by degrees, owing to the limp amiability of his employer, the real master of the house. He was the Brains of Blandings, the man at the switch, the person in charge, and the pilot, so to speak, who weathered the storm. Lord Emsworth left everything to Baxter, only asking to be allowed to potter in peace; and Baxter, more than equal to the task, shouldered it without wincing.
Having got within range, Baxter coughed; and Lord Emsworth, recognising the sound, wheeled round with a faint flicker of hope. It might be that even this apparently insoluble problem of the missing pince-nez would yield before the other’s efficiency.
“Baxter, my dear fellow, I’ve lost my glasses. My glasses. I have mislaid them. I cannot think where they can have gone to. You haven’t seen them anywhere by any chance?”
“Yes, Lord Emsworth,” replied the secretary, quietly equal to the crisis. “They are hanging down your back.”
“Down my back? Why, bless my soul!” His lordship tested the statement and found it—like all Baxter’s statements—accurate. “Why, bless my soul, so they are! Do you know, Baxter, I really believe I must be growing absent-minded.” He hauled in the slack, secured the pince-nez, adjusted them beamingly. His irritability had vanished like the dew off one of his roses. “Thank you, Baxter, thank you. You are invaluable.”
And with a radiant smile Lord Emsworth made buoyantly for the door, en route for God’s air and the society of McAllister. The movement drew from Baxter another cough—a sharp, peremptory cough this time; and his lordship paused, reluctantly, like a dog whistled back from the chase. A cloud fell over the sunniness of his mood. Admirable as Baxter was in so many respects, he had a tendency to worry him at times; and something told Lord Emsworth that he was going to worry him now.
“The car will be at the door,” said Baxter, with quiet firmness, “at two sharp.”
“Car? What car?”
“The car to take you to the station.”
“Station? What station?”
Rupert Baxter preserved his calm. There were times when he found his employer a little trying, but he never showed it.
“You have perhaps forgotten, Lord Emsworth, that you arranged with Lady Constance to go to London this afternoon.”
“Go to London!” gasped Lord Emsworth, appalled. “In weather like this? With a thousand things to attend to in the garden? What a perfectly preposterous notion! Why should I go to London? I hate London.”
“You arranged with Lady Constance that you would give Mr. McTodd lunch to-morrow at your club.”
“Who the devil is Mr. McTodd?”
“The well-known Canadian poet.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Lady Constance has long been a great admirer of his work. She wrote inviting him, should he ever come to England, to pay a visit to Blandings. He is now in London, and is to come down to-morrow. Lady Constance’s suggestion was that, as a compliment to Mr. McTodd’s eminence in the world of literature, you should meet him in London and bring him back here yourself.”
Lord Emsworth remembered now. He also remembered that this positively infernal scheme had not been his sister Constance’s in the first place. It was Baxter who had made the suggestion, and Constance had approved.
He made use of the recovered pince-nez to glower through them at his secretary; and not for the first time in recent months was aware of a feeling that this fellow Baxter was becoming a dashed infliction. Baxter was getting above himself, throwing his weight about, making himself a confounded nuisance. He wished he could get rid of the man. But where could he find an adequate successor? That was the trouble.
With all his drawbacks, Baxter was efficient. Nevertheless, for a moment Lord Emsworth toyed with the pleasant dream of dismissing him. And it is possible, such was his exasperation, that he might on this occasion have done something practical in that direction had not the library door at this moment opened for the third time, to admit yet another intruder—at the sight of whom his lordship’s belligerent mood faded weakly.
“Oh—hullo, Connie!” he said, guiltily, like a small boy caught in the jam-cupboard. Somehow his sister always had this effect upon him.
Of all those who had entered the library that morning the new arrival was the best worth looking at. Lord Emsworth was tall and lean and scraggy, Rupert Baxter thick-set and handicapped by that vaguely grubby appearance which is presented by swarthy young men of bad complexion; and even Beach, though dignified, and Freddie, though slim, would never have got far in a beauty competition. But Lady Constance Keeble really took the eye.
She was a strikingly handsome woman in the middle forties. She had a fair, broad brow, teeth of a perfect even whiteness, and the carriage of an empress. Her eyes were large and grey and gentle—and incidentally misleading, for gentle was hardly the adjective which anybody who knew her would have applied to Lady Constance. Though genial enough when she got her way, on the rare occasions when people attempted to thwart her she was apt to comport herself in a manner reminiscent of Cleopatra on one of the latter’s bad mornings.
“I hope I am not disturbing you,” said Lady Constance, with a bright smile. “I just came in to tell you to be sure not to forget, Clarence, that you are going to London this afternoon to meet Mr. McTodd.”
“I was just telling Lord Emsworth,” said Baxter, “that the car would be at the door at two.”
“Thank you, Mr. Baxter. Of course, I might have known that you would not forget. You are so wonderfully capable. I don’t know what in the world we would do without you.”
The efficient Baxter bowed. But, though gratified, he was not overwhelmed by the tribute. The same thought had often occurred to him independently.
“If you will excuse me,” he said, “I have one or two things to attend to . . .”
“Certainly, Mr. Baxter.”
The Efficient One withdrew through the door in the bookshelf. He realized that his employer was in fractious mood, but knew that he was leaving him in capable hands.
Lord Emsworth turned from the window, out of which he had been gazing with a plaintive detachment.
“Look here, Connie,” he grumbled, feebly. “You know I hate literary fellows. It’s bad enough having them in the house, but when it comes to going to London to fetch ’em . . .”
He shuffled morosely. It was a perpetual grievance of his, this practice of his sister’s of collecting literary celebrities and dumping them down in the home for indeterminate visits.
You never knew when she was going to spring another on you. At this very moment his life was being poisoned by the fact that Blandings was sheltering a certain Miss Aileen Peavey, the mere thought of whom was enough to turn the sunshine off as with a tap.
“Can’t stand literary fellows,” proceeded his lordship. “Never could. And, by Jove! literary females are worse. Miss Peavey . . .” Here words temporarily failed the owner of Blandings. “Miss Peavey . . .” he resumed, after an eloquent pause. “Who is Miss Peavey?”
“My dear Clarence,” replied Lady Constance, tolerantly, for the fine morning had made her mild and amiable, “if you do not know that Aileen is one of the leading poetesses of the younger school, you must be very ignorant.”
“I don’t mean that. I know she writes poetry. I mean, who is she? You suddenly produced her here like a rabbit out of a hat,” said his lordship, in a tone of strong resentment. “Where did you find her?”
“I first made Aileen’s acquaintance on an Atlantic liner when Joe and I were coming back from our trip round the world. She was very kind to me when I was feeling the motion of the vessel. . . . If you mean what is her family, I think Aileen told me once that she was connected with the Rutlandshire Peaveys.”
“Never heard of them!” snapped Lord Emsworth. “And if they’re anything like Miss Peavey, God help Rutlandshire!”
Tranquil as Lady Constance’s mood was this morning, an ominous stoniness came into her grey eyes at these words, and there is little doubt that in another instant she would have discharged at her mutinous brother one of those shattering retorts for which she had been celebrated in the family from nursery days onward; but at this juncture the Efficient Baxter appeared again through the bookshelf.
“Excuse me,” said Baxter, securing attention with a flash of his spectacles. “I forgot to mention, Lord Emsworth, that to suit everybody’s convenience, I have arranged that Miss Halliday shall call to see you at your club to-morrow after lunch.”
“Good lord, Baxter!” The harassed peer started as if he had been bitten in the leg. “Who’s Miss Halliday? Not another literary female?”
“Miss Halliday is the young lady who is coming to Blandings to catalogue the library.”
“Catalogue the library? What does it want cataloguing for?”
“It has not been done since the year 1885.”
“Well, and look how splendidly we’ve got along without it,” said Lord Emsworth, acutely.
“Don’t be so ridiculous, Clarence,” said Lady Constance, annoyed. “The catalog of a great library like this must be brought up to date.” She moved to the door. “I do wish you would try to wake up and take an interest in things. If it wasn’t for Mr. Baxter, I don’t know what would happen.”
And, with a beaming glance of approval at her ally, she left the room. Baxter, coldly austere, returned to the subject under discussion.
“I have written to Miss Halliday suggesting two-thirty as a suitable hour for the interview.”
“But look here . . .”
“You will wish to see her before definitely confirming the engagement.”
“Yes, but look here, I wish you wouldn’t go tying me up with all these appointments.”
“I thought that as you were going to London to meet Mr. McTodd . . .”
“But I’m not going to London to meet Mr. McTodd,” cried Lord Emsworth, with weak fury. “It’s out of the question. I can’t possibly leave Blandings. The weather may break at any moment. I don’t want to miss a day of it.”
“The arrangements are all made.”
“Send the fellow a wire . . . unavoidably detained.”
“I could not take the responsibility for such a course myself,” said Baxter, coldly. “But possibly if you were to make the suggestion to Lady Constance . . .”
“Oh, dash it!” said Lord Emsworth, unhappily, at once realizing the impossibility of the scheme. “Oh, well, if I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go,” he said, after a gloomy pause. “But to leave my garden and stew in London at this time of the year . . .”
There seemed nothing further to say on the subject. After all, he reflected, even though the car was coming for him at two, at least he had the morning, and he proposed to make the most of it. But his first careless rapture at the prospect of pottering among his flowers was dimmed and would not be recaptured. He did not entertain any project so mad as the idea of defying his sister Constance, but he felt extremely bitter about the whole affair. Confound Constance! . . . Dash Baxter! . . . Miss Peavey . . .
The door closed behind Lord Emsworth.
LADY CONSTANCE meanwhile, proceeding downstairs, had reached the big hall, when the door of the smoking-room opened and a head popped out. A round, grizzled head with a healthy pink face attached to it.
“Connie!” said the head.
Lady Constance halted.
“Come in here a minute,” said the head. “Want to speak to you.”
Lady Constance went into the smoking-room. It was large and cosily book-lined, and its window looked out on to an Italian garden. A wide fireplace occupied nearly the whole of one side of it, and in front of this, his legs spread to an invisible blaze, Mr. Joseph Keeble had already taken his stand. His manner was bluff, but an acute observer might have detected embarrassment in it.
“What is it, Joe?” asked Lady Constance, and smiled pleasantly at her husband. When, two years previously, she had married this elderly widower, of whom the world knew nothing beyond the fact that he had amassed a large fortune in South African diamond mines, there had not been wanting cynics to set the match down as one of convenience, a purely business arrangement by which Mr. Keeble exchanged his money for Lady Constance’s social position.
Such was not the case. It had been a genuine marriage of affection on both sides. Mr. Keeble worshipped his wife, and she was devoted to him, though never foolishly indulgent. They were a happy and united couple.
Mr. Keeble cleared his throat. He seemed to find some difficulty in speaking. And when he spoke it was not on the subject which he had intended to open, but on one which had already been worn out in previous conversations.
“Connie, I’ve been thinking about that necklace again.”
Lady Constance laughed.
“Oh, don’t be silly, Joe. You haven’t called me into this stuffy room on a lovely morning like this to talk about that for the hundredth time.”
“Well, you know, there’s no sense in taking risks.”
“Don’t be absurd. What risks can there be?”
“There was a burglary over at Winstone Court, not ten miles from here, only a day or two ago.”
“Don’t be so fussy, Joe.”
“That necklace cost nearly twenty thousand pounds,” said Mr. Keeble, in the reverent voice in which men of business traditions speak of large sums.
“It ought to be in the bank.”
“Once and for all, Joe,” said Lady Constance, losing her amiability and becoming suddenly imperious and Cleopatrine, “I will not keep that necklace in a bank. What on earth is the use of having a beautiful necklace if it is lying in the strong-room of a bank all the time? There is the Hunt Ball coming on, and the County Ball after that and . . . well, I need it. I will send the thing to the bank when we pass through London on our way to Scotland, but not till then. And I do wish you would stop worrying me about it.”
There was a silence. Mr. Keeble was regretting now that his unfortunate poltroonery had stopped him from tackling in a straightforward and manly fashion the really important matter which was weighing on his mind, for he perceived that his remarks about the necklace, eminently sensible though they were, had marred the genial mood in which his wife had begun this interview.
It was going to be more difficult now than ever to approach the main issue. Still, ruffled though she might be, the thing had to be done, for it involved a matter of finance, and in matters of finance Mr. Keeble was no longer a free agent.
He and Lady Constance had a mutual banking-account, and it was she who supervised the spending of it. This was an arrangement, subsequently regretted by Mr. Keeble, which had been come to in the early days of the honeymoon, when men are apt to do foolish things.
Mr. Keeble coughed. Not the sharp, efficient cough which we have heard Rupert Baxter uttering in the library, but a feeble, strangled thing.
“Connie,” he said. “Er—Connie.”
And at the words a sort of cold film seemed to come over Lady Constance’s eyes, for some sixth sense told her what subject it was that was now about to be introduced.
“Connie, I—er—had a letter from Phyllis this morning.”
Lady Constance said nothing. Her eyes gleamed for an instant, then became frozen again. Her intuition had not deceived her.
Into the married life of this happy couple only one shadow had intruded itself up to the present. But unfortunately it was a shadow of considerable proportions, a kind of super-shadow; and its effect had been chilling. It was Phyllis, Mr. Keeble’s step-daughter, who had caused it—by the simple process of jilting the rich and suitable young man whom Lady Constance had attached to her (rather in the manner of a conjurer forcing a card upon his victim) and running off and marrying a far from rich and quite unsuitable person of whom all that seemed to be known was that his name was Jackson.
Mr. Keeble, whose simple creed was that Phyllis could do no wrong, had been prepared to accept the situation philosophically; but his wife’s wrath had been deep and enduring. So much so that the mere mentioning of the girl’s name must be accounted to him for a brave deed, Lady Constance having specifically stated that she never wished to hear it again.
Keenly alive to this prejudice of hers, Mr. Keeble stopped after making his announcement, and had to rattle his keys in his pocket in order to acquire the necessary courage to continue.
“She says in her letter,” proceeded Mr. Keeble, his eyes on the carpet and his cheeks a deeper pink, “that young Jackson has got the chance of buying a big farm . . . in Lincolnshire, I think she said . . . if he can raise three thousand pounds.”
He paused and stole a glance at his wife. It was as he had feared. Like some spell, the name Jackson had apparently turned her to marble. It was like the Pygmalion and Galatea business working the wrong way round. She was presumably breathing, but there was no sign of it. She had congealed.
“So I was just thinking,” said Mr. Keeble, producing another obligato on the keys. “It just crossed my mind . . . it isn’t as if the thing were a speculation . . . the place is apparently coining money . . . present owner only selling because he wants to go abroad . . . it occurred to me . . . and they would pay good interest on the loan . . .”
“What loan?” inquired the statue, icily, coming to life.
“Well, what I was thinking . . . just a suggestion, you know . . . what struck me was that if you were willing we might . . . good investment, you know, and nowadays it’s deuced hard to find good investments . . . I was thinking that we might lend them the money.”
He stopped. But he had got the thing out, and felt happier. He rattled his keys again, and rubbed the back of his head against the mantelpiece. The friction seemed to give him confidence.
“We had better settle this thing once and for all, Joe,” said Lady Constance. “As you know, when we were married, I was ready to do everything for Phyllis. I was prepared to be a mother to her. I gave her every chance, took her everywhere. And what happened?”
“Yes, I know. But . . .”
“She became engaged to a man with plenty of money . . .”
“Shocking young ass,” interjected Mr. Keeble, perking up for a moment at the recollection of the late lamented, whom he had never liked. “And a rip, what’s more. I’ve heard stories.”
“Nonsense! If you are going to believe all the gossip you hear about people, nobody would be safe. He was a delightful young man, and he would have made Phyllis perfectly happy. Instead of marrying him, she chose to go off with this—Jackson.”
Lady Constance’s voice quivered. Greater scorn could hardly have been packed into two syllables. “After what has happened I certainly intend to have nothing more to do with her. I shall not lend them a penny, so please do not let us continue this discussion any longer. I hope I am not an unjust woman, but I must say that I consider, after the way Phyllis behaved . . .”
The sudden opening of the door caused her to break off. Lord Emsworth, mould-stained and wearing a deplorable old jacket, pottered into the room. He peered benevolently at his sister and his brother-in-law, but seemed unaware that he was interrupting o conversation.
“ ‘Gardening as a Fine Art’,” he murmured. “Connie, have you seen a book called ‘Gardening as a Fine Art’? I was reading it in here last night. ‘Gardening as a Fine Art.’ That is the title. Now, where can it have got to?” His dreamy eye flitted to and fro. “I want to show it to McAllister. There is a passage in it that directly refutes his anarchistic views on . . .”
“It is probably on one of the shelves,” said Lady Constance, shortly.
“On one of the shelves?” said Lord Emsworth, obviously impressed by this bright suggestion. “Why, of course, to be sure!”
Mr. Keeble was rattling his keys moodily. A mutinous expression was on his pink face. These moments of rebellion did not come to him very often, for he loved his wife with a dog-like affection and had grown accustomed to being ruled by her, but now resentment filled him. She was unreasonable, he considered. She ought to have realized how strongly he felt about poor little Phyllis. It was too infernally cold-blooded to abandon the poor child like an old shoe simply because . . .
“Are you going?” he asked, observing his wife moving to the door.
“Yes, I am going into the garden,” said Lady Constance. “Why? Was there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”
“No,” said Mr. Keeble, despondently. “Oh, no.”
Lady Constance left the room, and a deep masculine silence fell. Mr. Keeble rubbed the back of his head meditatively against the mantelpiece, and Lord Emsworth scratched among the bookshelves.
“Clarence!” said Mr. Keeble, suddenly. An idea—one might almost say an inspiration—had come to him.
“Eh?” responded his lordship, absently. He had found his book, and was turning its pages, absorbed.
“Clarence, can you . . .”
“Angus McAllister,” observed Lord Emsworth, bitterly, “is an obstinate, stiff-necked son of Belial. The writer of this book distinctly states in so many words . . .”
“Clarence, can you lend me three thousand pounds on good security and keep it dark from Connie?”
Lord Emsworth blinked.
“Keep something dark from Connie?” He raised his eyes from his book in order to peer at this visionary with a gentle pity. “My dear fellow, it can’t be done.”
“She would never know. I will tell you just why I want this money . . .”
“Money?” Lord Emsworth’s eye had become vacant again. He was reading once more. “Money? Money, my dear fellow? What money? If I have said once,” declared Lord Emsworth, “that Angus McAllister is all wrong on the subject of hollyhocks, I’ve said it a hundred times.”
“Let me explain. This three thousand pounds . . .”
“My dear fellow, no. No, no. It was like you,” said his lordship, with a vague heartiness, “it was like you—good and generous—to make this offer, but I have ample, thank you, ample. I don’t need three thousand pounds.”
“You don’t understand. I . . .”
“No, no. No, no. But I am very much obliged, all the same. It was kind of you, my dear fellow, to give me the opportunity. Very kind. Very, very, very kind,” proceeded his lordship, trailing to the door and reading as he went. “Oh, very, very, very . . .”
The door closed behind him.
“Oh, damn!” said Mr. Keeble.
He sank into a chair in a state of profound dejection. He thought of the letter he would have to write to Phyllis. Poor little Phyllis . . . he would have to tell her that what she asked could not be managed. And why, thought Mr. Keeble sourly, as he rose from his seat and went to the writing-table, could it not be managed? Simply because he was a weak-kneed, spineless creature who was afraid of a pair of grey eyes that had a tendency to freeze.
“My dear Phyllis,” he wrote.
Here he stopped. How on earth was he to put it? What a letter to have to write! Mr. Keeble placed his head between his hands and groaned aloud.
“Hullo, Uncle Joe!”
The letter-writer, turning sharply, was aware, without pleasure, of his nephew, Frederick, standing beside his chair. He eyed him resentfully, for he was not only exasperated but startled; he had not heard the door open. It was as if the smooth-haired youth had popped up out of a trap.
“Came in through the window,” explained the Hon. Freddie. “I say, Uncle Joe.”
“Well, what is it?”
“I say, Uncle Joe,” said Freddie, “can you lend me a thousand quid?”
Mr. Keeble uttered a yelp like a pinched Pomeranian.
AS Mr. Keeble, red-eyed and overwrought, rose slowly from his chair and began to swell in ominous silence, his nephew raised his hand appealingly.
“Half a jiffy!” he entreated. “I say, don’t go in off the deep end for just a second. I can explain.”
Mr. Keeble’s feelings expressed themselves in a loud snort.
“Well, I can. Whole trouble was, I started at the wrong end. Shouldn’t have sprung it on you like that. The fact is, Uncle Joe, I’ve got a scheme. I give you my word that if you’ll only put off having apoplexy for about three minutes,” said Freddie, scanning his fermenting relative with some anxiety, “I can shove you on to a good thing. And all I say is, if this scheme I’m talking about is worth a thousand quid to you, will you slip it across? I’m game to spill it and leave it to your honesty to cash up if the thing looks good to you.”
“A thousand pounds!”
“Nice round sum,” urged Freddie, ingratiatingly.
“Why,” demanded Mr. Keeble, now somewhat recovered, “do you want a thousand pounds?”
“Well, who doesn’t, if it comes to that?” said Freddie. “But I don’t mind telling you my special reason for wanting it at just this moment, if you’ll swear to keep it under your hat as far as the guv’nor is concerned.”
“If you mean that you wish me not to repeat to your father anything you may tell me in confidence, naturally I should not dream of doing such a thing.”
“Good old Uncle Joe!” said Freddie, relieved. “A topper! I’ve always said so. Well, look here, you know all the trouble there’s been about my dropping a bit on the races lately?”
“Between ourselves, I dropped about five hundred of the best. And I just want to ask you one simple question. Why did I drop it?”
“Because you were an infernal young ass.”
“Well, yes,” agreed Freddie, having considered the point, “you might put it that way, of course. But why was I an ass?”
“Good God!” exclaimed the exasperated Mr. Keeble. “Am I a psycho-analyst?”
“I mean to say, if you come right down to it, I lost all that stuff simply because I was on the wrong side of the fence. It’s a mug’s game betting on horses. The only way to make money is to be a bookie, and that’s what I’m going to do if you’ll part with that thousand. Pal of mine, who was up at Oxford with me, is in a bookie’s office, and they’re game to take me in too if I can put up a thousand quid. Only I must let them know quick, because the offer’s not going to be open for ever. You’ve no notion what a deuce of a lot of competition there is for that sort of job.”
Mr. Keeble, who had been endeavouring with some energy to get a word in during this harangue, now contrived to speak.
“And you seriously suppose that I would . . . But what’s the use of wasting time talking? I have no means of laying my hands on the sum you mention. If I had,” said Mr. Keeble, wistfully. “If I had . . . And his eye strayed to the letter on the desk, the letter which had got as far as “My dear Phyllis” and stuck there.
Freddie gazed upon him with cordial sympathy.
“Oh, I know how you’re situated, Uncle Joe, and I’m dashed sorry for you. I mean, Aunt Constance and all that.”
“What!” Irksome as Mr. Keeble sometimes found the peculiar condition of his financial arrangements, he had always had the consolation of supposing that they were a secret between his wife and himself. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I know that Aunt Constance keeps an eye on the doubloons, and checks the outgoings pretty narrowly. And I think it’s a dashed shame that she won’t unbuckle to help poor old Phyllis. A girl,” said Freddie, “I always liked. Bally shame! Why the dickens shouldn’t she marry that fellow Jackson? I mean, love’s love,” said Freddie, who felt strongly on this point.
Mr. Keeble was making curious gulping noises.
“Perhaps I ought to explain,” said Freddie, “that I was having a quiet after-breakfast smoke outside the window there and heard the whole thing. I mean, you and Aunt Constance going to the mat about poor old Phyllis and you trying to bite the guv’nor’s ear and so forth.”
Mr. Keeble bubbled for awhile.
“You—you listened!” he managed to ejaculate at length.
“And dashed lucky for you,” said Freddie, with a cordiality unimpaired by the frankly unfriendly stare under which a nicer-minded youth would have withered. “Dashed lucky for you that I did. Because I’ve got a scheme.”
Mr. Keeble’s estimate of his young relative’s sagacity was not a high one, and it is doubtful whether, had the latter caught him in a less despondent mood, he would have wasted time in inquiring into the details of this scheme, the mention of which had been playing in and out of Freddie’s conversation like a will-o’-the-wisp. But such was his reduced state at the moment that a reluctant gleam of hope crept into his troubled eye.
“A scheme? Do you mean a scheme to help me out of—out of my difficulty?”
“Absolutely! You want the best seats, we have ’em. I mean,” Freddie went on, in interpretation of these peculiar words, “you want three thousand quid, and I can show you how to get it.”
“Then kindly do so,” said Mr. Keeble; and, having opened the door, peered cautiously out, and closed it again, he crossed the room and shut the window.
“Makes it a bit fuggy, but perhaps you’re right,” said Freddie, eyeing these manœuvres. “Well, it’s like this, Uncle Joe. You remember what you were saying to Aunt Constance about some bird being apt to sneak up and pinch her necklace?”
“Well, why not?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why don’t you?”
Mr. Keeble regarded his nephew with unconcealed astonishment. He had been prepared for imbecility, but this exceeded his expectations.
“Steal my wife’s necklace?”
“That’s it. Pinch Aunt Connie’s necklace. For, mark you,” continued Freddie, so far forgetting the respect due from a nephew as to prod his uncle with some sharpness in the lower ribs, “if a husband pinches anything from a wife, it isn’t stealing. That’s law. I found that out from a movie I saw in town.”
“Are you insane?” growled Mr. Keeble.
“It wouldn’t be hard for you to get hold of it. And once you’d got it everybody would be happy. I mean, all you’d have to do would be to draw a cheque to pay for another one for Aunt Connie—which would make her perfectly chirpy, as well as putting you one up, if you follow me. Then you would have the other necklace, the pinched one, to play about with. See what I mean? You could sell it privily and by stealth, ship Phyllis her three thousand, push across my thousand, and what was left over would be a nice little private account for you to tuck away somewhere where Aunt Connie wouldn’t know anything about it. And a dashed useful thing,” said Freddie, “to have up your sleeve in case of emergencies.”
“Are you . . . ?”
Mr. Keeble was on the point of repeating his previous remark when suddenly there came the realization that, despite all preconceived opinions, the young man was anything but insane. The scheme, at which he had been prepared to scoff, was so brilliant, yet simple, that it seemed almost incredible that its sponsor could have thought it out for himself.
“Not my own,” said Freddie, modestly, scorning to accept undue credit. “Saw much the same thing in a movie once. Only there the fellow, I remember, wanted to do down an insurance company, and it wasn’t a necklace that he pinched, but bonds. Still, the principle’s the same. Well, how do we go, Uncle Joe? How about it? Is that worth a thousand quid or not?”
Even though he had seen in person to the closing of the door and the window, Mr. Keeble could not refrain from a conspirator-like glance about him. They had been speaking with lowered voices, but now words came from him in an almost inaudible whisper.
“Could it really be done? Is it feasible?”
“Feasible? Why, dash it, what the dickens is there to stop you? You could do it in a second. And the beauty of the whole thing is that, if you were copped, nobody could say a word, because husband pinching from wife isn’t stealing. Law.”
The statement that in the circumstances indicated nobody could say a word seemed to Mr. Keeble so at variance with the facts that he was compelled to challenge it.
“Your aunt would have a good deal to say,” he observed, ruefully.
“Eh? Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Well, you would have to risk that. After all, the chances would be dead against her finding out.”
“But she might.”
“Oh, well, if you put it like that, I suppose she might.”
“Freddie, my boy,” said Mr. Keeble, weakly, “I daren’t do it!”
The vision of his thousand pounds slipping from his grasp so wrought upon Freddie that he expressed himself in a manner far from fitting in one of his years towards an older man.
“Oh, I say, don’t be such a rabbit!”
Mr. Keeble shook his head.
“No,” he repeated, “I daren’t.”
It might have seemed that the negotiations had reached a deadlock, but Freddie, with a thousand pounds in sight, was in far too stimulated a condition to permit so tame an ending to such a promising plot. As he stood there, chafing at his uncle’s pusillanimity, an idea was vouchsafed to him.
“By Jove! I’ll tell you what!” he cried.
“Not so loud!” moaned the apprehensive Mr. Keeble. “Not so loud!”
“I’ll tell you what,” repeated Freddie, in a hoarse whisper. “How would it be if I did the pinching?”
“How would it . . .”
“Would you?” Hope, which had vanished from Mr. Keeble’s face, came flooding back. “My boy, would you really?”
“For a thousand quid, you bet I would.”
Mr. Keeble clutched at his young relative’s hand and gripped it feverishly.
“Freddie,” he said, “the moment you place that necklace in my hands I will give you not a thousand, but two thousand pounds.”
“Uncle Joe,” said Freddie, with equal intensity, “it’s a bet!”
Mr. Keeble mopped at his forehead.
“You think you can manage it?”
“Manage it?” Freddie laughed a light laugh. “Just watch me!”
Mr. Keeble grasped his hand again with the utmost warmth.
“I must go out and get some air,” he said. “I’m all upset. May I really leave this matter to you, Freddie?”
“Good! Then to-night I will write to Phyllis and say that I may be able to do what she wishes.”
“Don’t say ‘may,’ ” cried Freddie, buoyantly. “The word is ‘will.’ Bally will! What ho!”
EXHILARATION is a heady drug; but, like other drugs, it has the disadvantage that its stimulating effects seldom last for very long. For perhaps ten minutes after his uncle had left him Freddie Threepwood lay back in his chair in a sort of ecstasy. He felt strong, vigorous, alert. Then by degrees, like a chilling wind, doubt began to creep upon him—faintly at first, then more and more insistently, till by the end of a quarter of an hour he was in a state of pronounced self-mistrust. Or, to put it with less elegance, he was suffering from an exceedingly severe attack of cold feet.
The more he contemplated the venture which he had undertaken, the less alluring did it appear to him. His was not a keen imagination, but even he could shape with a gruesome clearness a vision of the frightful bust-up that would ensue should he be detected stealing his Aunt Constance’s diamond necklace.
Common decency would in such an event seal his lips as regarded his Uncle Joseph’s share in the matter. And even if, as might conceivably happen, common decency failed at the crisis, reason told him that his uncle Joseph would infallibly disclaim any knowledge of or connection with the rash act. And then where would he be? In the soup, undoubtedly. For Freddie could not conceal it from himself that there was nothing in his previous record to make it seem inconceivable to his nearest and dearest that he should steal the jewellery of a female relative for purely personal ends. The verdict in the event of detection would be one of uncompromising condemnation.
And yet he hated the idea of meekly allowing that two thousand pounds to escape from his clutch . . .
A young man’s cross-roads.
The agony of spirit into which these meditations cast him had brought him up with a bound from the comfortable depths of his armchair and had set him prowling restlessly about the room. His wanderings led him at this point to collide somewhat painfully with the long table on which Beach, the butler, a tidy soul, was in the habit of arranging in a neat row the daily papers, weekly papers, and magazines which found their way into the castle. The shock had the effect of rousing him from his stupor, and in an absent way he clutched the nearest daily paper, which happened to be the Morning Globe, and returned to his chair in the hope of quieting his nerves with a perusal of the racing intelligence. For, though far removed now from any practical share in the doings of the racing world, he still took a faint melancholy interest in ascertaining what Captain Curb, the Head Lad, Little Brighteyes, and the rest of the newspaper experts fancied for the day’s big event. He lit a cigarette and unfolded the journal.
The next moment, instead of passing directly, as was his usual practice, to the last page, which was devoted to sport, he was gazing with a strange dry feeling in his throat at a certain advertisement on page one.
It was a well-displayed advertisement, and one that had caught the eye of many other readers of the paper that morning. It was worded to attract attention, and it had achieved its object. But where others who read it had merely smiled and marvelled idly how anybody could spend good money putting nonsense like this in the paper, to Freddie its import was wholly serious. It read to him like the Real Thing. His motion-picture-trained mind accepted this advertisement at its face-value.
It ran as follows:—
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone to Manage Your Affairs?
Someone to Handle Your Business?
Someone to Take the Dog for a Run?
Someone to Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have to Offer
(Provided it has Nothing to Do with Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Address Applications to “ R. Psmith,
Box 365 ”
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Freddie laid the paper down with a deep intake of breath. He picked it up again and read the advertisement a second time. Yes, it sounded good.
More, it had something of the quality of a direct answer to prayer. Very vividly now Freddie realized that what he had been wishing for was a partner to share the perils of this enterprise which he had so rashly undertaken. In fact, not so much to share them as to take them off his shoulders altogether. And such a partner he was now in a position to command. Uncle Joe was going to give him two thousand if he brought the thing off. This advertisement fellow would probably be charmed to come in for a few hundred . . .
Two minutes later Freddie was at the writing-desk, scribbling a letter. From time to time he glanced furtively over his shoulder at the door. But the house was still. No footsteps came to interrupt him at his task.
FREDDIE went out into the garden. He had not wandered far when from somewhere close at hand there was borne to him on the breeze a remark in a high voice about Scottish obstinacy, which could only have proceeded from one source. He quickened his steps.
“I say, guv’nor, do you think I might go up to town with you this afternoon?”
“Fact is, I ought to see my dentist. Haven’t been to him for a deuce of a time.”
“I cannot see the necessity for you to visit a London dentist. There is an excellent man in Shrewsbury, and you know I have the strongest objection to your going to London.”
“Well, you see, this fellow understands my snappers. Always been to him, I mean to say. Anybody who knows anything about these things will tell you the greatest mistake go buzzing about to different dentists.”
Already Lord Emsworth’s attention was wandering back to the waiting McAllister.
“Oh, very well, very well.”
“Thanks awfully, guv’nor.”
“But on one thing I insist, Frederick. I cannot have you loafing about London all to-morrow. You must catch the twelve-fifty train back.”
“Right ho. That’ll be all right, guv’nor.”
“Now, listen to reason, McAllister,” said his lordship. “That is all I ask you to do—listen to reason . . .”
a fishy business
AT about the hour when Lord Emsworth’s train, whirling him and his son Freddie to London, had reached the half-way point in its journey, a very tall, very thin, very solemn young man, gleaming in a speckless top hat and a morning-coat of irreproachable fit, mounted the steps of Number Eighteen, Wallingford Street, West Kensington, and rang the front-door bell. This done, he removed the hat, and having touched his forehead lightly with a silk handkerchief, for the afternoon sun was warm, gazed about him with a grave distaste.
“A scaly neighbourhood!” he murmured.
The young man’s judgment was one at which few people with an eye for beauty would have cavilled. When the great revolution against London’s ugliness really starts, and yelling hordes of artists and architects, maddened beyond endurance, finally take the law into their own hands and rage through the city burning and destroying, Wallingford Street, West Kensington, will surely not escape the torch. Long since it must have been marked down for destruction.
Situated in the middle of one of those districts where London breaks out into a sort of eczema of red brick, it consists of two parallel rows of semi-detached villas, all exactly alike, each guarded by a ragged evergreen hedge, each with coloured glass, of an extremely regrettable nature, let into the panels of the front door.
A small maid-of-all-work appeared in answer to the bell, and stood transfixed as the visitor, producing a monocle, placed it in his right eye and inspected her through it.
“A warm afternoon,” he said, cordially.
“But pleasant,” urged the young man. “Tell me, is Mrs. Jackson at home?”
“Not at home?”
The young man sighed.
“Ah, well,” he said, “we must always remember that these disappointments are sent to us for some good purpose. No doubt they make us more spiritual. Will you inform her that I called? The name is Psmith. P-smith.”
“No, no. P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the initial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in the front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in pthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan. You follow me?”
“You don’t think,” he said, anxiously, “that I did wrong in pursuing this course?”
“Splendid!” said the young man, flicking a speck of dust from his coat-sleeve. “Splendid! Splendid!”
And with a courteous bow he descended the steps and made his way down the street. The little maid, having followed him with bulging eyes till he was out of sight, closed the door and returned to her kitchen.
Psmith strolled meditatively on. The genial warmth of the afternoon soothed him. He hummed lightly, only stopping when, as he reached the end of the street, a young man of his own age, rounding the corner rapidly, almost ran into him.
“Sorry,” said the young man. “Hullo, Smith.”
Psmith gazed upon him with benevolent affection.
“Comrade Jackson,” he said, “this is well met. The one man of all others whom I would have wished to encounter. We will pop off somewhere, Comrade Jackson, should your engagements permit, and restore our tissues with a cup of tea. I had hoped to touch the Jackson family for some slight refreshment, but I was informed that your wife was out.”
Mike Jackson laughed.
“Phyllis isn’t out. She . . .”
“Not out? Then,” said Psmith, pained, “there has been dirty work done this day. For I was turned from the door. It would not be exaggerating to say that I was given the bird. Is this the boasted Jackson hospitality?”
“Phyllis is giving a tea to some of her old school pals,” explained Mike. “She told the maid to say she wasn’t at home to anybody else. I’m not allowed in myself.”
“Enough, Comrade Jackson!” said Psmith, agreeably. “Say no more. If you yourself have been booted out in spite of all the loving, honouring, and obeying your wife promised at the altar, who am I to complain? And possibly, one must reflect, we are well out of it. These gatherings of old girl’s school chums are not the sort of function your man of affairs wants to get lugged into. Capital company as we are, Comrade Jackson, we should doubtless have been extremely in the way.
“I suppose the conversation would have dealt exclusively with reminiscences of the dear old school, of tales of surreptitious cocoa-drinking in the dormitories, and what the deportment mistress said when Angela was found chewing tobacco in the shrubbery. Yes, I fancy we have not missed a lot. . . . By the way, I don’t think much of the new home. True, I only saw it from the outside, but . . . no, I don’t think much of it.”
“Best we can afford.”
“And who,” said Psmith, “am I to taunt my boyhood friend with his honest poverty? Especially as I myself am standing on the very brink of destitution.”
“I in person. That low moaning sound you hear is the wolf bivouacked outside my door.”
“But I thought your uncle gave you rather a good salary.”
“So he did. But my uncle and I are about to part company. From now on he, so to speak, will take the high road and I’ll take the low road. I dine with him to-night, and over the nuts and wine I shall hand him the bad news that I propose to resign my position in the firm. I have no doubt that he supposed he was doing me a good turn by starting me in his fish business, but even what little experience I have had of it has convinced me that it is not my proper sphere. The whisper flies round the clubs ‘Psmith has not found his niche!’
“I am not,” said Psmith, “an unreasonable man. I realize that humanity must be supplied with fish. I am not averse from a bit of fish myself. But to be professionally connected with a firm that handles the material in the raw is not my idea of a large life-work. Remind me to tell you some time what it feels like to sling yourself out of bed at four a.m. and go down to toil in Billingsgate Market. No, there is money in fish—my uncle has made a pot of it; but what I feel is that there must be other walks in life for a bright young man. I chuck it to-night.”
“What are you going to do, then?”
“That, Comrade Jackson, is more or less on the knees of the gods. To-morrow morning I think I will stroll round to an employment agency and see how the market for bright young men stands. Do you know a good one?”
“Phyllis always goes to Miss Clarkson’s, in Shaftesbury Avenue. But . . .”
“Miss Clarkson’s, in Shaftesbury Avenue. I will make a note of it . . . Meanwhile, I wonder if you saw the Morning Globe to-day?”
“I had an advertisement in it, in which I expressed myself as willing—indeed, eager—to tackle any undertaking that had nothing to do with fish. I am confidently expecting shoals of replies. I look forward to winnowing the heap and selecting the most desirable.”
“Pretty hard to get a job these days,” said Mike, doubtfully.
“Not if you have something superlatively good to offer.”
“What have you got to offer?”
“My services,” said Psmith, with faint reproach.
“As anything. I made no restrictions. Would you care to take a look at my manifesto? I have a copy in my pocket.”
Psmith produced from inside his immaculate waistcoat a folded clipping.
“I should welcome your opinion of it, Comrade Jackson. I have frequently said that for sturdy common-sense you stand alone. Your judgment should be invaluable.”
The advertisement, which some hours earlier had so electrified the Hon. Freddie Threepwood in the smoking-room at Blandings Castle, seemed to affect Mike, whose mind was of the stolid and serious type, somewhat differently. He finished his perusal and stared speechlessly.
“Neat, don’t you think?” said Psmith. “Covers the ground adequately? I think so, I think so.”
“Do you mean to say you’re going to put drivel like that in the paper?” asked Mike.
“I have put it in the paper. As I told you, it appeared this morning. By this time to-morrow I shall no doubt have finished sorting out the replies.”
Mike’s emotion took him back to the phraseology of schooldays.
“You are an ass!”
Psmith restored the clipping to his waistcoat pocket.
“You wound me, Comrade Jackson,” he said. “I had expected a broader outlook from you. In fact, I rather supposed that you would have rushed round instantly to the offices of the journal and shoved in a similar advertisement yourself. But nothing that you can say can damp my buoyant spirit. The cry goes round Kensington (and district) ‘Psmith is off!’ In what direction the cry omits to state; but that information the future will supply. And now, Comrade Jackson, let us trickle into yonder tea-shop and drink success to the venture in a cup of the steaming. I had a particularly hard morning to-day among the whitebait, and I need refreshment.”
AFTER Psmith had withdrawn his spectacular person from it, there was an interval of perhaps twenty minutes before anything else occurred to brighten the drabness of Wallingford Street. The lethargy of afternoon held the thoroughfare in its grip. Occasionally a tradesman’s cart would rattle round the corner, and from time to time cats appeared, stalking purposefully among the evergreens. But at ten minutes to five a girl ran up the steps of Number Eighteen and rang the bell.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair, her cheerful smile, and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gaiety, a sort of golden sunniness—accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black.
The small maid appeared again.
“Is Mrs. Jackson at home?” said the girl. “I think she’s expecting me. Miss Halliday.”
A door at the end of the narrow hall had opened.
“Is that you, Eve?”
“Hullo, Phyl, darling!”
Phyllis Jackson fluttered down the passage like a rose-leaf on the wind, and hurled herself into Eve’s arms. She was small and fragile, with great brown eyes under a cloud of dark hair. She had a wistful look, and most people who knew her wanted to pet her. Eve had always petted her, from their first days at school together.
“Am I late or early?” asked Eve.
“You’re the first, but we won’t wait. Jane, will you bring tea into the drawing-room?”
“And remember, I don’t want to see anyone for the rest of the afternoon. If anybody calls, tell them I’m not at home. Except Miss Clarkson and Mrs. McTodd, of course.”
“Who is Mrs. McTodd?” inquired Eve. “Is that Cynthia?”
“Yes. Didn’t you know she had married Ralston McTodd, the Canadian poet? You knew she went out to Canada?”
“I knew that, yes. But I hadn’t heard that she was married. Funny how out of touch one gets with girls who were one’s best friends at school. Do you realize it’s nearly two years since I saw you?”
“I know. Isn’t it awful? I got your address from Elsa Wentworth two or three days ago, and then Clarkie told me that Cynthia was over here on a visit with her husband, so I thought how jolly it would be to have a regular reunion. We three were such friends in the old days. . . . You remember Clarkie, of course? Miss Clarkson, who used to be English mistress at Weyland House.”
“Yes, of course. Where did you run into her?”
“Oh, I see a lot of her. She runs a domestic employment agency in Shaftesbury Avenue now, and I have to go there about once a fortnight to get a new maid. She supplied Jane.”
“Is Cynthia’s husband coming with her this afternoon?”
“No. I wanted it to be simply us four. Do you know him? But, of course, you don’t. This is his first visit to England.”
“I know his poetry. He’s quite a celebrity. Cynthia’s lucky.”
They had made their way into the drawing-room, a gruesome little apartment full of all those antimacassars, wax flowers, and china dogs inseparable from the cheaper type of London furnished house. Eve, though the exterior of Number Eighteen should have prepared her for all this, was unable to check a slight shudder as she caught the eye of the least prepossessing of the dogs goggling at her from the mantelpiece.
“Don’t look at them,” recommended Phyllis, following her gaze. “I try not to. We’ve only just moved in here, so I haven’t had time to make the place nicer. Here’s tea. All right, Jane, put it down there. Tea, Eve?”
Eve sat down. She was puzzled and curious. She threw her mind back to the days at school and remembered the Phyllis of that epoch as almost indecently opulent. A millionaire stepfather there had been then, she recollected. What had become of him now, that he should allow Phyllis to stay in surroundings like this? Eve scented a mystery, and in her customary straightforward way, went to the heart of it.
“Tell me all about yourself,” she said, having achieved as much comfort as the peculiar structure of her chair would permit. “And remember that I haven’t seen you for two years, so don’t leave anything out.”
“It’s so difficult to know where to start.”
“Well, you signed your letter ‘Phyllis Jackson.’ Start with the mysterious Jackson. Where does he come in? The last I heard about you was an announcement in the Morning Post that you were engaged to—I’ve forgotten the name, but I’m certain it wasn’t Jackson.”
“Was it? Well, what has become of Rollo? You seem to have mislaid him. Did you break off the engagement?”
“Well, it—sort of broke itself off. I mean, you see, I went and married Mike.”
“Eloped with him, do you mean?”
“I’m awfully ashamed about that, Eve. I suppose I treated Rollo awfully badly.”
“Never mind. A man with a name like that was made for suffering.”
“I never really cared for him. He had horrid swimmy eyes. . . .”
“I understand. So you eloped with your Mike. Tell me about him. Who is he? What does he do?”
“Well, at present he’s master at a school. But he doesn’t like it. He wants to get back to the country again. When I met him he was agent on a place in the country belonging to some people named Smith. Mike had been at school and Cambridge with the son. They were very rich then and had a big estate. It was the next place to the Edgelows. I had gone to stay with Mary Edgelow—I don’t know if you remember her at school? I met Mike first at a dance, and then I met him out riding, and then—well, after that we used to meet every day. And we fell in love right from the start and we went and got married. Oh, Eve, I wish you could have seen our darling little house. It was all over ivy and roses, and we had horses and dogs and . . .”
Phyllis’s narrative broke off with a gulp. Eve looked at her sympathetically. All her life she herself had been joyously impecunious, but it had never seemed to matter. She was strong and adventurous, and revelled in the perpetual excitement of trying to make both ends meet. But Phyllis was one of those sweet porcelain girls whom the roughnesses of life bruise instead of stimulating. She needed comfort and pleasant surroundings.
“We had hardly got married,” resumed Phyllis, blinking, “when poor Mr. Smith died and the whole place was broken up. He must have been speculating or something, I suppose, because he hardly left any money, and the estate had to be sold. And the people who bought it—they were coal people from Wolverhampton—had a nephew for whom they wanted the agent job, so Mike had to go. So here we are.”
Eve put the question which she had been waiting to ask ever since she had entered the house.
“But what about your stepfather? Surely, when we were at school, you had a rich stepfather in the background. Has he lost his money, too?”
“Well, why doesn’t he help you, then?”
“He would, I know, if he was left to himself. But it’s Aunt Constance.”
“What’s Aunt Constance? And who is Aunt Constance?”
“Well, I call her that, but she’s really my stepmother—sort of. I suppose she’s really my step-stepmother. My stepfather married again two years ago. It was Aunt Constance who was so furious when I married Mike. She wanted me to marry Rollo. She has never forgiven me, and she won’t let my stepfather do anything to help us.”
“But the man must be a worm!” said Eve, indignantly. “Why doesn’t he insist? You always used to tell me how fond he was of you.”
“He isn’t a worm, Eve. He’s a dear. It’s just that he has let her boss him. She’s rather a terror, you know. She can be quite nice, and they’re awfully fond of each other, but she is as hard as nails sometimes.” Phyllis broke off.
The front door had opened, and there were footsteps in the hall.
“Here’s Clarkie. I hope she has brought Cynthia with her. She was to pick her up on her way. Don’t talk about what I’ve been telling you before her, Eve, there’s an angel.”
“She’s so—motherly about it. It’s sweet of her, but . . .”
“All right. Later on.”
The door opened to admit Miss Clarkson.
The adjective which Phyllis had applied to her late schoolmistress was obviously well-chosen. Miss Clarkson exuded motherliness. She was large, wholesome, and soft, and she swooped on Eve like a hen on its chicken almost before the door had closed.
“Eve! How nice to see you after all this time! My dear, you’re looking perfectly lovely! And so prosperous. What a beautiful hat!”
“I’ve been envying it ever since you came, Eve,” said Phyllis. “Where did you get it?”
“Madeleine Soeurs, in Regent Street.”
Miss Clarkson, having acquired and stirred a cup of tea, started to improve the occasion. Eve had always been a favourite of hers at school. She beamed affectionately upon her.
“Now, doesn’t this show—what I always used to say to you in the dear old days, Eve—that one must never despair, however black the outlook may seem. I remember you at school, dear, as poor as a church mouse, and with no prospects, none whatever. And yet here you are—rich . . .”
Eve laughed. She got up and kissed Miss Clarkson. She regretted that she was compelled to strike a jarring note, but it had to be done.
“I’m awfully sorry, Clarkie, dear,” she said, “but I’m afraid I’ve misled you. I’m just as broke as I ever was. In fact, when Phyllis told me you were running an employment agency I made a note to come and see you and ask if you had some attractive billet to dispose of. Governess to a thoroughly angelic child would do. Or isn’t there some nice cosy author or something who wants his letters answered and his Press-clippings pasted in an album?”
“Oh, my dear!” Miss Clarkson was deeply concerned. “I did hope . . . That hat . . . !”
“The hat’s the whole trouble. Of course I had no business even to think of it, but I saw it in the shop-window and coveted it for days, and finally fell. And then, you see, I had to live up to it—buy shoes and a dress to match. I tell you it was a perfect orgy, and I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself now. Too late, as usual.”
“Oh, dear! You always were such a wild, impetuous child, even at school. I remember how often I used to speak to you about it.”
“Well, when it was all over and I was sane again, I found I had only a few pounds left, not nearly enough to see me through till the relief expedition arrived. So I thought it over and decided to invest my little all.”
“I hope you chose something safe?”
“It ought to have been. The Sporting Express called it ‘To-day’s Safety Bet.’ It was Bounding Willie for the two-thirty race at Sandown last Wednesday.”
“That’s what I said when poor old Willie came in sixth. But it’s no good worrying, is it? What it means is that I simply must find something to do that will carry me through till I get my next quarter’s allowance. And that won’t be till September. I’ll come round to your office, Clarkie, to-morrow. . . . Where’s Cynthia? Didn’t you bring her?”
“Yes, I thought you were going to pick Cynthia up on your way, Clarkie,” said Phyllis.
If Eve’s information as to her financial affairs had caused Miss Clarkson to mourn, the mention of Cynthia plunged her into the very depths of woe. Her mouth quivered and a tear stole down her cheek. Eve and Phyllis exchanged bewildered glances.
“I say,” said Eve, after a moment’s pause and a silence broken only by a smothered sob from their late instructress, “we aren’t being cheerful, are we, considering that this is supposed to be a joyous reunion. Is anything wrong with Cynthia?”
So poignant was Miss Clarkson’s anguish that Phyllis, in a flutter of alarm, rose and left the room swiftly in search of the only remedy that suggested itself to her—her smelling-salts.
“Poor dear Cynthia!” moaned Miss Clarkson.
“Why, what’s the matter with her?” asked Eve. She was not callous to Miss Clarkson’s grief, but she could not help the tiniest of smiles. In a flash she had been transported to her schooldays, when the other’s habit of extracting the utmost tragedy out of the slimmest material had been a source of ever-fresh amusement to her. Not for an instant did she expect to hear any worse news of her old friend than that she was in bed with a cold or had twisted her ankle.
“She’s married, you know,” said Miss Clarkson.
“Well, I see no harm in that, Clarkie. If a few more safety bets go wrong I shall probably have to rush out and marry someone myself. Some nice, rich, indulgent man who will spoil me.”
“Oh, Eve, my dear,” pleaded Miss Clarkson, bleating with alarm, “do please be careful whom you marry. I never hear of one of my girls marrying without feeling that the worst may happen and that, all unknowing, she may be stepping over a grim precipice!”
“You don’t tell them that, do you? Because I should think it would rather cast a damper on the wedding festivities. Has Cynthia gone stepping over grim precipices? I was just saying to Phyllis that I envied her marrying a celebrity like Ralston McTodd.”
Miss Clarkson gulped.
“The man must be a fiend!” she said, brokenly. “I have just left poor dear Cynthia in floods of tears at the Cadogan Hotel—she has a very nice quiet room on the fourth floor. She was broken-hearted, poor child. I did what I could to console her, but it was useless. She always was so highly-strung. I must be getting back to her very soon. I only came on here because I did not want to disappoint you two dear girls . . .”
“Why?” said Eve, with quiet intensity. She knew from experience that Miss Clarkson, unless firmly checked, would pirouette round and round the point for minutes without ever touching it.
“Why?” echoed Miss Clarkson, blinking as if the word was something solid that had struck her unexpectedly.
“Why was Cynthia in floods of tears?”
“But I’m telling you, my dear. That man has left her!”
“They had a quarrel, and he walked straight out of the hotel. That was the day before yesterday, and he has not been back since. This afternoon the curtest note came from him to say that he never intended to return. He had secretly and in a most underhand way arranged for his luggage to be removed from the hotel to a District Messenger office, and from there he has taken it no one knows where. He has completely disappeared.”
Eve stared. She had not been prepared for news of this momentous order.
“But what did they quarrel about?”
“Cynthia, poor child, was too overwrought to tell me!”
Eve clenched her teeth.
“The beast! . . . Poor old Cynthia! . . . Shall I come round with you?”
“No, my dear, better let me look after her alone. I will tell her to write and let you know when she can see you. I must be going, Phyllis, dear,” she said, as her hostess re-entered, bearing a small bottle.
“But you’ve only just come!” said Phyllis, surprised.
“Poor old Cynthia’s husband has left her,” explained Eve, briefly. “And Clarkie’s going back to look after her. She’s in a pretty bad way, it seems.”
“Yes, indeed. And I really must be going at once,” said Miss Clarkson.
Eve waited in the drawing-room till the front door banged and Phyllis came back to her. Phyllis was more wistful than ever. She had been looking forward to this tea-party, and it had not been the happy occasion she had anticipated. The two girls sat in silence for a moment.
“What brutes some men are!” said Eve, at length.
“Mike,” said Phyllis, dreamily, “is an angel.”
Eve welcomed the unspoken invitation to return to a more agreeable topic. She felt very deeply for the stricken Cynthia, but she hated aimless talk, and nothing could have been more aimless than for her and Phyllis to sit there exchanging lamentations concerning a tragedy of which neither knew more than the bare outlines. Phyllis had her tragedy, too, and it was one where Eve saw the possibility of doing something practical and helpful.
“Yes, let’s go on talking about you and Mike,” she said. “At present I can’t understand the position at all. When Clarkie came in, you were just telling me about your stepfather and why he wouldn’t help you. And I thought you made out a very poor case for him. Tell me some more. I’ve forgotten his name, by the way.”
“Oh? Well, I think you ought to write and tell him how hard-up you are. He may be under the impression that you are still living in luxury and don’t need any help. After all, he can’t know unless you tell him. And I should ask him straight out to come to the rescue. It isn’t as if it was your Mike’s fault that you’re broke. He married you on the strength of a very good position which looked like a permanency, and lost it through no fault of his own. I should write to him, Phyl. Pitch it strong.”
“I have. I wrote yesterday. Mike’s just been offered a wonderful opportunity. A sort of farm place in Lincolnshire. You know. Cows and things. Just what he would like and just what he would do awfully well. And we only need three thousand pounds to get it. . . . But I’m afraid nothing will come of it.”
“Because of Aunt Constance, you mean?”
“You must make something come of it.” Eve’s chin went up. She looked like a Goddess of Determination. “If I were you, I’d haunt their doorstep till they had to give you the money to get rid of you. The idea of anybody doing that absurd driving-into-the-snow business in these days! Why shouldn’t you marry the man you were in love with? If I were you, I’d go and chain myself to their railings and howl like a dog till they rushed out with cheque books just to get some peace. Do they live in London?”
“They are down in Shropshire at present at a place called Blandings Castle.”
“Blandings Castle? Good gracious!”
“Aunt Constance is Lord Emsworth’s sister.”
“But this is the most extraordinary thing. I’m going to Blandings myself in a few days.”
“They’ve engaged me to catalogue the castle library.”
“But, Eve, were you only joking when you asked Clarkie to find you something to do? She took you quite seriously.”
“No, I wasn’t joking. There’s a drawback to my going to Blandings. I suppose you know the place pretty well?”
“I’ve often stayed there. It’s beautiful.”
“Then you know Lord Emsworth’s second son, Freddie Threepwood?”
“Well, he’s the drawback. He wants to marry me, and I certainly don’t want to marry him. He’s quite nice in a way, but he isn’t my ideal or anything like it. And what I’ve been wondering is whether a nice easy job like that, which would tide me over beautifully till September, is attractive enough to make up for the nuisance of having to be always squelching poor Freddie. I ought to have thought of it right at the beginning, of course, when he wrote and told me to apply for the work, but I was so delighted at the idea of regular work that it didn’t occur to me. Then I began to wonder. He’s such a persevering young man. He proposes early and often. . . . Tell me about Blandings.”
“The library’s wonderful. There’s a cosy little room opening off it, where I suppose you would work.”
“Large enough for Freddie to come and propose to me in?”
“Where did you meet Freddie?”
“At a theatre-party. About two months ago. He was living in London then, but he suddenly disappeared, and I had a heart-broken letter from him, saying that he had been running up debts and things and his father had snatched him away to live at Blandings, which apparently is Freddie’s idea of the Inferno. The world seems full of hard-hearted relatives.”
“Oh, Lord Emsworth isn’t really hard-hearted. You will love him. He’s so dreamy and absent-minded. He potters about the garden all the time. I don’t think you’ll like Aunt Constance much. But I suppose you won’t see a great deal of her.”
“Who shall I see much of—except Freddie, of course?”
“Mr. Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s secretary, I expect. I don’t like him at all. He’s a sort of spectacled cave-man.”
“He doesn’t sound attractive. But you say the place is nice?”
“It’s gorgeous. I should go if I were you, Eve.”
“Well, I had intended not to. But now you’ve told me about Mr. Keeble and Aunt Constance I’ve changed my mind. I’ll have to look in at Clarkie’s office to-morrow and tell her I’m fixed up and shan’t need her help. I’m going to take your sad case in hand, darling. I shall go to Blandings, and I will dog your stepfather’s footsteps. If persuasion doesn’t effect anything, I shall steal your step-stepmother’s jewellery and send it to you by parcel-post. I suppose she’s got some jewellery?”
“I wish you would. She’s got one necklace that’s worth twenty thousand pounds. My stepfather gave it to her when they were married.”
“Well, that makes it simple. I’ll steal that and send it to you, and you can sell it and take the three thousand pounds and forward her the change. Anyhow, I’ll stir things up for you if I see a chance. If Freddie gives me any leisure for anything besides rejecting his loathsome addresses, that is to say . . . Come and see me to the front door, or I’ll be losing my way in the miles of stately corridors . . . I suppose I mayn’t smash that china dog before I go? Oh, well, I just thought I’d ask.”
Out in the hall the little maid-of-all-work bobbed up and intercepted them.
“I forgot to tell you, mum, a gentleman called. I told him you was out.”
“Quite right, Jane.”
“Said his name was Smith, ’m.”
Phyllis gave a cry of dismay.
“Oh, no! What a shame! I particularly wanted you to meet him, Eve. I wish I’d known.”
“Smith?” said Eve. “The name seems familiar. Why were you so anxious for me to meet him?”
“He’s Mike’s best friend. Mike worships him. He’s the son of the Mr. Smith I was telling you about—the one Mike was at school and Cambridge with. He’s a perfect darling, Eve, and you would love him. He’s just your sort. I do wish we had known. And now you’re going to Blandings for goodness knows how long, and you won’t be able to see him.”
“What a pity,” said Eve, politely uninterested.
“I’m so sorry for him.”
“He’s in the fish business.”
“Well, he hates it, poor dear. But he was left stranded like all the rest of us after the crash, and he was put into the business by an uncle who is a sort of fish magnate.”
“Well, why does he stay there if he dislikes it so much?” said Eve, with indignation. The helpless type of man was her pet aversion. “I hate a man who’s got no enterprise.”
“I don’t think you could call him unenterprising. He never struck me like that. . . . You simply must meet him when you come back to London.”
“All right,” said Eve, indifferently. “Just as you like. I might put business in his way. I’m very fond of fish.”
a young man and an umbrella
WHAT strikes the visitor to London most forcibly as he enters the heart of that city’s fashionable shopping district is the almost entire absence of ostentation in the shop-windows, the studied avoidance of garish display. About the front of the premises of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe, for instance, who sell coal in Dover Street, there is as a rule nothing whatever to attract fascinated attention.
Yet at ten-thirty on the morning after Eve Halliday had taken tea with her friend, Phyllis Jackson, in West Kensington, Psmith, lounging gracefully in the smoking-room window of the Drones Club, which is immediately opposite the Thorpe & Briscoe establishment, had been gazing at it fixedly for a full five minutes. One would have said that the spectacle enthralled him. He seemed unable to take his eyes off it.
There is always a reason for the most apparently inexplicable happenings. It is the practice of Thorpe (or Briscoe) during the months of summer to run out an awning over their shop. A quiet, genteel awning, of course, nothing to offend the eye—but an awning which offers a quite adequate protection against those sudden showers which are such a delightfully piquant feature of the English summer, one of which had just begun to sprinkle the West End of London with a good deal of heartiness and vigour. And under this awning, peering plaintively out at the rain, Eve Halliday, on her way to the Ada Clarkson Employment Bureau, had taken refuge.
It was she who had so enchained Psmith’s interest. It was his considered opinion that she improved the Thorpe & Briscoe frontage by about ninety-five per cent.
Pleased and gratified as Psmith was to have something nice to look at out of the smoking-room window, he was also somewhat puzzled. This girl seemed to him to radiate an atmosphere of wealth. Starting at furthest south and proceeding northward, she began in a gleam of patent-leather shoes. Fawn stockings, obviously expensive, led up to a black crêpe frock. And then, just as the eye was beginning to feel that there could be nothing more, it was stunned by a supreme hat of soft, dull satin with a black bird of Paradise feather falling down over the left shoulder. Even to the masculine eye, which is notoriously to seek in these matters, a whale of a hat. And yet this sumptuously upholstered young woman had been marooned by a shower of rain beneath the awning of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe.
Why, Psmith asked himself, was this? Even, he argued, if Charles the chauffeur had been given the day off or was driving her father the millionaire to the City to attend to his vast interests, she could surely afford a cab-fare? We, who are familiar with the state of Eve’s finances, can understand her inability to take cabs, but Psmith was frankly perplexed.
Being, however, both ready-witted and chivalrous, he perceived that this was no time for idle speculation. His not to reason why; his obvious duty was to take steps to assist Beauty in distress.
He left the window of the smoking-room; and, having made his way with a certain smooth dignity to the club’s cloakroom, proceeded to submit a row of umbrellas to a close inspection. He was not easy to satisfy. Two which he went so far as to pull out of the rack he returned with a shake of the head. Quite good umbrellas, but not fit for this special service. At length, however, he found a beauty, and a gentle smile flickered across his solemn face.
He put up his monocle and gazed searchingly at this umbrella. It seemed to answer every test. He was well pleased with it.
“Whose,” he inquired of the attendant, “is this?”
“Belongs to the Honourable Mr. Walderwick, sir.”
“Ah!” said the young man, tolerantly.
He tucked the umbrella under his arm and went out.
Meanwhile, Eve Halliday, lightening up the sombre austerity of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe’s shop-front, continued to think hard thoughts of the English climate and to inspect the sky in the hope of detecting a spot of blue. She was engaged in this cheerless occupation when at her side a voice spoke.
A hatless young man was standing beside her, holding an umbrella. He was a striking-looking young man, very tall, very thin, and very well-dressed. In his right eye there was a monocle, and through this he looked down at her with a grave friendliness.
He said nothing further, but, taking her fingers, clasped them round the handle of the umbrella, which he had obligingly opened, and then with a courteous bow proceeded to dash with long strides across the road, disappearing through the doorway of a gloomy building which, from the number of men who had gone in and out during her vigil, she had set down as a club of some sort.
A good many surprising things had happened to Eve since first she had come to live in London, but nothing quite so surprising as this. For several minutes she stood where she was without moving, staring round-eyed at the building opposite.
The episode was, however, apparently ended. The young man did not reappear. He did not even show himself at the window. The club had swallowed him up. And eventually Eve, deciding that this was not the sort of day on which to refuse umbrellas, even if they dropped inexplicably from heaven, stepped out from under the awning, laughing helplessly, and started to resume her interrupted journey to Miss Clarkson’s.
The offices of the Ada Clarkson International Employment Bureau (“Promptitude—Courtesy—Intelligence”) are at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, a little way past the Palace Theatre. Eve, closing the umbrella, which had prevented even a spot of rain falling on her hat, climbed the short stair leading to the door and tapped on the window marked “Inquiries.”
“Can I see Miss Clarkson?”
“What name, please?” responded Inquiries, promptly and with intelligent courtesy.
Brief interlude, involving business with speaking-tube.
“Will you go into the private office, please,” said Inquiries a moment later, in a voice which now added respect to the other advertised qualities, for she had now had time to observe and digest the hat.
“Eve, dear!” exclaimed Miss Clarkson the moment she had entered, “I don’t know how to tell you, but I have been looking through my books, and I have nothing, simply nothing. There is not a single place that you could possibly take. What is to be done?”
“That’s all right, Clarkie.”
“But . . .”
“I didn’t come to talk business. I came to ask after Cynthia. How is she?”
Miss Clarkson sighed.
“Poor child, she is still in a dreadful state, and no wonder. No news at all from her husband. He has simply deserted her.”
“Poor darling! Can’t I see her?”
“Not at present. I have persuaded her to go down to Brighton for a day or two. I think the sea air will pick her up. So much better than mooning about in a London hotel. She is leaving on the eleven o’clock train. I gave her your love, and she was most grateful that you should have remembered your old friendship and be sorry for her in her affliction.”
“Well, I can write to her. Where is she staying?”
“I don’t know her Brighton address, but no doubt the Cadogan Hotel would forward letters. I think she would be glad to hear from you, dear.”
Eve looked sadly at the framed testimonials which decorated the wall. She was not often melancholy, but it was such a beast of a day, and all her friends seemed to be having such a bad time.
“Oh, Clarkie,” she said, “what a lot of trouble there is in the world!”
“Yes, yes!” sighed Miss Clarkson, a specialist on this subject.
“All the horses you back finish sixth and all the girls you like best come croppers. Poor little Phyllis! Weren’t you sorry for her?”
“But her husband, surely, is most devoted?”
“Yes, but she’s frightfully hard-up, and you remember how opulent she used to be at school. Of course, it must sound funny hearing me pitying people for having no money. But somehow other people’s hard-upness always seems so much worse than mine. Especially poor old Phyl’s, because she really isn’t fit to stand it. I’ve been used to being absolutely broke all my life. Poor dear father always seemed to be writing an article against time, with creditors scratching earnestly at the door.”
Eve laughed, but her eyes were misty. “He was a brick, wasn’t he? I mean, sending me to a first-class school like Wayland House when he often hadn’t enough money to buy tobacco, poor angel! I expect he wasn’t always up to time with fees, was he?”
“Well, my dear, of course I was only an assistant-mistress at Wayland House, and had nothing to do with the financial side, but I did hear sometimes . . .”
“Poor darling father! Do you know, one of my earliest recollections—I couldn’t have been more than ten—is of a ring at the front-door bell and father diving like a seal under the sofa and poking his head out and imploring me in a hoarse voice to hold the fort. I went to the door and found an indignant man with a blue paper. I prattled so prettily and innocently that he not only went away quite contentedly, but actually patted me on the head and gave me a penny. And when the door had shut father crawled out from under the sofa and gave me twopence, making threepence in all—a good morning’s work. I bought father a diamond ring with it at a shop down the street, I remember. At least, I thought it was a diamond. They may have swindled me, for I was very young.”
“You have had a hard life, dear.”
“Yes, but hasn’t it been a lark! I’ve loved every minute of it. Besides, you can’t call me really one of the submerged tenth. Uncle Thomas left me a hundred and fifty pounds a year, and mercifully I’m not allowed to touch the capital. If only there were no hats or safety bets in the world, I should be smugly opulent. But I mustn’t keep you any longer, Clarkie, dear. I expect the waiting-room is full of dukes who want cooks and cooks who want dukes, all fidgeting and wondering how much longer you’re going to keep them. Good-bye, darling.”
And, having kissed Miss Clarkson fondly and straightened her hat, which the other’s motherly embrace had disarranged, Eve left the room.
MEANWHILE, at the Drones Club, a rather painful scene had been taking place. Psmith, having regained the shelter of the building, had made his way to the wash-room, where, after studying his features with interest for a moment in the mirror, he smoothed his hair, which the rain had somewhat disordered. Then he brushed his clothes with extreme care, and went to the cloak-room for his hat. The attendant regarded him as he entered with the air of one whose mind is not wholly at rest.
“Mr. Walderwick was in here a moment ago, sir,” said the attendant.
“Yes?” said Psmith, mildly interested. “An energetic, bustling soul, Comrade Walderwick. Always somewhere. Now here, now there.”
“Asking about his umbrella, he was,” pursued the attendant, with a touch of coldness.
“Indeed? Asking about his umbrella, eh?”
“Made a great fuss about it, sir, he did.”
“And rightly,” said Psmith, with approval. “The good man loves his umbrella.”
“Of course I had to tell him that you had took it, sir.”
“Of course. I would not have it otherwise,” assented Psmith, heartily. “I like this spirit of candour. There must be no reservations, no subterfuges between you and Comrade Walderwick. Let all be open and above-board.”
“He seemed very put out, sir. He went off to find you.”
“I am always glad of a chat with Comrade Walderwick,” said Psmith. “Always.”
He left the cloak-room and made for the hall, where he desired the porter to procure him a cab. This having drawn up in front of the club, he descended the steps, and was about to enter it when there was a hoarse cry in his rear, and through the front door there came bounding a pinkly indignant youth, who called loudly:—
“Here! Hi, Smith! Dash it!”
Psmith climbed into the cab and gazed benevolently out at the new comer.
“Ah, Comrade Walderwick!” he said. “What have we on our mind?”
“Where’s my umbrella?” demanded the pink one. “The cloak-room waiter says you took my umbrella. I mean, a joke’s a joke, but that was a dashed good umbrella.”
“It was, indeed,” Psmith agreed, cordially. “It may be of interest to you to know that I selected it as the only possible one from among a number of competitors. I fear this club is becoming very mixed, Comrade Walderwick. You with your pure mind would hardly believe the rottenness of some of the umbrellas I inspected in the cloak-room.”
“Where is it?”
“The cloak-room? You turn to the left as you go in at the main entrance and . . .”
“My umbrella, dash it! Where’s my umbrella?”
“Ah, there,” said Psmith, and there was a touch of manly regret in his voice, “you have me. I gave it to a young lady in the street. Where she is at the present moment I could not say.”
The pink youth tottered slightly.
“You gave my umbrella to a girl?”
“A very loose way of describing her. You would not speak of her in that light fashion if you had seen her. Comrade Walderwick, she was wonderful! I am a plain, blunt, rugged man, above the softer emotions as a general thing, but I frankly confess that she stirred a chord in me which is not often stirred. She thrilled my battered old heart, Comrade Walderwick. There is no other word. Thrilled it!”
“But, dash it! . . .”
Psmith reached out a long arm and laid his hand paternally on the other’s shoulder.
“Be brave, Comrade Walderwick!” he said. “Be a man and bite the bullet. I am sorry to have been the means of depriving you of an excellent umbrella, but as a fair-minded man you will realize that I had no alternative. It was raining. She was over there, crouched despairingly beneath the awning of that shop. She wanted to be elsewhere, but the moisture lay in wait to damage her hat. What could I do? What could any man worthy of the name do but go down to the cloak-room and pinch the best umbrella in sight and take it to her? Yours was easily the best. There was absolutely no comparison. I gave it to her and she has gone off with it, happy once more.
“This explanation,” said Psmith, “will, I am sure, sensibly diminish your natural chagrin. You have lost your umbrella, Comrade Walderwick, but in what a cause! In what a cause, Comrade Walderwick! You are now entitled to rank with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. The latter is perhaps the closer historical parallel. He spread his cloak to keep a queen from wetting her feet. You—by proxy—yielded up your umbrella to save a girl’s hat. Posterity will be proud of you, Comrade Walderwick. You will go down with legend and song. Children in ages to come will cluster about their grandfather’s knees, saying: ‘Tell us how the great Walderwick lost his umbrella, grandpa!’ And he will tell them, and they will rise from the recital better, deeper, broader children. . . .
“But now, as I see that the driver has started his meter, I fear I must conclude this little chat—which I, for one, have heartily enjoyed. Drive on,” he said, leaning out of the window. “I want to go to Ada Clarkson’s International Employment Bureau in Shaftesbury Avenue.”
The cab moved off. The Hon. Hugo Walderwick, after one passionate glance in its wake, realized that he was getting wet, and went back into the club.
Arriving at the address named, Psmith paid his cab and, having mounted the stairs, delicately knuckled the ground-glass window of Inquiries.
“My dear Miss Clarkson,” he began, in an affable voice, the moment the window had shot up, “if you can spare me a few moments of your valuable time . . .”
“Miss Clarkson’s engaged.”
Psmith scrutinized her gravely through his monocle.
“Aren’t you Miss Clarkson?”
Inquiries said she was not.
“Then,” said Psmith, “there has been a misunderstanding, for which,” he added, cordially, “I am to blame. Perhaps I could see her anon? You will find me in the waiting-room when required.”
He went into the waiting-room and, having picked up a magazine from the table, settled down to read a story in The Girls’ Pet—the January number of the year 1919, for employment agencies, like dentists, prefer their literature of a matured vintage. He was absorbed in this when Eve came out of the private office.
the whitebait wizard
PSMITH rose courteously as she entered.
“My dear Miss Clarkson,” he said, “if you can spare me a moment of your valuable time . . .”
“Good gracious!” said Eve. “How extraordinary!”
“A singular coincidence,” agreed Psmith.
“You never gave me time to thank you for the umbrella,” said Eve, reproachfully. “You must have thought me awfully rude. But you took my breath away.”
“My dear Miss Clarkson, please do not . . .”
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Aren’t you Miss Clarkson, either?”
“Of course I’m not.”
“Then,” said Psmith, “I must start my quest all over again. These constant checks are trying to an ardent spirit. Perhaps you are a young bride come to engage her first cook?”
“No. I’m not married.”
Eve found his relieved thankfulness a little embarrassing. In the momentary pause which followed his remark Inquiries entered alertly.
“Miss Clarkson will see you now, sir.”
“Leave us,” said Psmith, with a wave of his hand. “We would be alone.”
Inquiries stared; then, awed by his manner and general appearance of magnificence, withdrew.
“I suppose really,” said Eve, toying with the umbrella, “I ought to give this back to you.” She glanced at the dripping window. “But it is raining rather hard, isn’t it?”
“Like the dickens,” assented Psmith.
“Then would you mind very much if I kept it till this evening?”
“Thanks ever so much. I will send it back to you to-night, if you will give me the name and address.”
Psmith waved his hand deprecatingly.
“No, no. If it is of any use to you, I hope that you will look on it as a present.”
“A gift,” explained Psmith.
“But I really can’t go about accepting expensive umbrellas from people. Where shall I send it?”
“If you insist, you may send it to the Hon. Hugo Walderwick, Drones Club, Dover Street. But it really isn’t necessary.”
“I won’t forget. And thank you very much, Mr. Walderwick.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Well, you said . . .”
“Ah, I see. A slight confusion of ideas. No, I am not Mr. Walderwick. And between ourselves, I should hate to be. His is a very C3 intelligence. Comrade Walderwick is merely the man to whom the umbrella belongs.”
Eve’s eyes opened wide.
“Do you mean to say you gave me somebody else’s umbrella?”
“I had unfortunately omitted to bring my own out with me this morning.”
“I never heard of such a thing!”
“Merely practical Socialism. Other people are content to talk about the Redistribution of Property. I go out and do it.”
“But won’t he be awfully angry when he finds out it has gone?”
“He has found out. And it was pretty to see his delight. I explained the circumstances, and he was charmed to have been of service to you.”
The door opened again, and this time it was Miss Clarkson in person who entered. She had found Inquiries’ statement over the speaking-tube rambling and unsatisfactory, and had come to investigate for herself the reason why the machinery of the office was being held up.
“Oh, I must go,” said Eve, as she saw her. “I’m interrupting your business.”
“I’m so glad you’re still here, dear,” said Miss Clarkson. “I have just been looking over my files, and I see that there is one vacancy. For a nurse,” said Miss Clarkson, with a touch of the apologetic in her voice.
“Oh, no, that’s all right,” said Eve. “I don’t really need anything. But thanks ever so much for bothering.”
She smiled affectionately upon the proprietress, bestowed another smile upon Psmith as he opened the door for her, and went out. Psmith turned away from the door with a thoughtful look upon his face.
“Is that young lady a nurse?” he asked.
“Do you want a nurse?” inquired Miss Clarkson, at once the woman of business.
“I want that nurse,” said Psmith, with conviction.
“She is a delightful girl,” said Miss Clarkson, with enthusiasm. “There is no one whom I would feel more confidence in recommending to a position. She is a Miss Halliday, the daughter of a very clever but erratic writer, who died some years ago. I can speak with particular knowledge of Miss Halliday, for I was for many years an assistant-mistress at Wayland House, where she was at school. She is a charming, warm-hearted, impulsive girl. . . . But you will hardly want to hear all this.”
“On the contrary,” said Psmith. “I could listen for hours. You have stumbled upon my favourite subject.”
Miss Clarkson eyed him a little doubtfully, and decided that it would be best to reintroduce the business theme.
“Perhaps, when you say you are looking for a nurse, you mean you need a hospital nurse?”
“My friends have sometimes suggested it.”
“Miss Halliday’s greatest experience has, of course, been as a governess.”
“A governess is just as good,” said Psmith, agreeably.
Miss Clarkson began to be conscious of a sensation of being out of her depth.
“How old are your children, sir?” she asked.
“I fear,” said Psmith, “you are peeping into Volume Two. This romance has only just started.”
“I am afraid,” said Miss Clarkson, now completely fogged, “I do not quite understand. What exactly are you looking for?”
Psmith flicked a speck of fluff from his coat-sleeve.
“A job,” he said.
“A job!” echoed Miss Clarkson, her voice breaking in an amazed squeak.
Psmith raised his eyebrows.
“You seem surprised. Isn’t this a job emporium?”
“This is an employment bureau,” admitted Miss Clarkson.
“I knew it, I knew it,” said Psmith. “Something seemed to tell me. Possibly it was the legend ‘Employment Bureau’ over the door. And those framed testimonials would convince the most sceptical. Yes, Miss Clarkson, I want a job, and I feel somehow that you are the woman to find it for me. I have inserted an advertisement in the papers, expressing my readiness to undertake any form of employment, but I have since begun to wonder if, after all, this will lead to wealth and fame. At any rate, it is wise to attack the great world from another angle as well, so I come to you.”
“But you must excuse me if I remark that this application of yours strikes me as most extraordinary.”
“Why? I am young, active, and extremely broke.”
“But your—er—your clothes . . .”
Psmith squinted not without complacency down a faultlessly fitted waistcoat, and flicked another speck of dust off his sleeve.
“You consider me well-dressed?” he said. “You find me natty? Well, well, perhaps you are right, perhaps you are right. But consider, Miss Clarkson. If one expects to find employment in these days of strenuous competition one must be neatly and decently clad. Employers look askance at a baggy trouser-leg. A zippy waistcoat is more to them than an honest heart. This beautiful crease was obtained with the aid of the mattress upon which I tossed feverishly last night in my attic room.”
“I can’t take you seriously.”
“Oh, don’t say that, please.”
“You really want me to find you work?”
“I prefer the term ‘employment.’ ”
Miss Clarkson produced a note-book.
“If you are really not making this application just as a joke . . .”
“I assure you, no. My entire capital consists, in specie, of about ten pounds.”
“Then perhaps you will tell me your name.”
“Ah! Things are beginning to move. The name is Psmith. P-smith. The ‘p’ is silent.”
Miss Clarkson brooded over this for a moment in almost pained silence, then recovered her slipping grip of affairs.
“I think,” she said, “you had better give me a few particulars about yourself.”
“Tell you the story of my life? There is nothing I should like better,” responded Psmith, warmly. “I am always ready—I may say eager—to tell people the story of my life, but in this rushing age I get little encouragement. Let us start at the beginning. My infancy. When I was but a babe, my eldest sister was bribed with sixpence an hour by my nurse to keep an eye on me and see that I did not raise Cain. At the end of the first day she struck for a shilling and got it. We now pass to my boyhood. At an early age I was sent to Eton, everybody predicting a bright career for me. Those were happy days, Miss Clarkson. A merry, laughing lad, with curly hair and a sunny smile, it is not too much to say that I was the pet of the place. The old cloisters . . . But I am boring you. I can see it in your eye.”
“No, no,” protested Miss Clarkson, “But what I meant was . . . I thought you might have had some experience in some particular line of . . . In fact, what sort of work . . . ?”
“What sort of employment do you require?”
“Broadly speaking,” said Psmith, “any reasonably salaried position that has nothing to do with fish.”
“Fish!” quavered Miss Clarkson, slipping again. “Why fish?”
“Because, Miss Clarkson, the fish-trade was until this morning my walk in life, and my soul has sickened of it.”
“You are in the fish trade?” squeaked Miss Clarkson, with an amazed glance at the knife-like crease in his trousers.
“These are not my working-clothes,” said Psmith, following and interpreting her glance. “Yes, owing to a financial upheaval in my branch of the family, I was until this morning at the beck and call of an uncle who, unfortunately, happens to be a Mackerel Monarch or a Sardine Sultan or whatever these merchant princes are called who rule the fish market. He insisted on my going into the business to learn it from the bottom up, thinking, no doubt, that I would follow in his footsteps and eventually work my way to the position of a Whitebait Wizard. Alas! he was too sanguine. It was not to be,” said Psmith, solemnly, fixing an owl-like gaze on Miss Clarkson through his eyeglass.
“No?” said Miss Clarkson.
“No. Last night I was obliged to inform him that the fish business was all right, but it wouldn’t do, and that I proposed to sever my connection with the firm for ever. I may say at once that there ensued something in the nature of a family earthquake. Hard words,” sighed Psmith. “Black looks. Unseemly wrangle. And the upshot of it all was that my uncle washed his hands of me and drove me forth into the great world. Hence my anxiety to find employment. My uncle has definitely withdrawn his countenance from me, Miss Clarkson.”
“Dear, dear!” murmured the proprietress, sympathetically.
“Yes. He is a hard man, and he judges his fellows solely by their devotion to fish. I never in my life met a man so wrapped up in a subject. For years he has been practically a mono-maniac on the subject of fish. So much so that he actually looks like one. His closest friends can hardly tell now whether he more nearly resembles a halibut or a cod. . . . But I am boring you again with this family gossip?”
He eyed Miss Clarkson with such a sudden and penetrating glance that she started nervously.
“No, no,” she exclaimed.
“You relieve my apprehensions. I am only too well aware that, when fairly launched on the topic of fish, I am more than apt to weary my audience. I cannot understand this enthusiasm for fish. To me, Miss Clarkson, from the very start, the fish business was what I can only describe as a washout. It nauseated my finer feelings. It got right in amongst my fibres. I had to rise and partake of a simple breakfast at about four in the morning, after which I would make my way to Billingsgate Market and stand for some hours knee-deep in dead fish of every description.
“A jolly life for a cat, no doubt, but a bit too thick for a Shropshire Psmith. Mine, Miss Clarkson, is a refined and poetic nature. I like to be surrounded by joy and life, and I know nothing more joyless and deader than a dead fish. My uncle used to tell me that the way to ascertain whether a fish was fresh was to peer into its eyes. Could I spend the spring-time of life staring into the eyes of dead fish? No!” He rose. “Well, I will not detain you any longer. Thank you for the unfailing courtesy and attention with which you have listened to me. You can understand now why my talents are on the market and why I am compelled to state specifically that no employment can be considered which has anything to do with fish. I am convinced that you will shortly have something particularly good to offer me.”
“I don’t know that I can say that, Mr. Psmith.”
“The ‘p’ is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her. “Oh, by the way,” he said, pausing at the door, “there is one other thing before I go. While I was waiting for you to be disengaged, I chanced on an instalment of a serial story in The Girls’ Pet for January, 1919. My search for the remaining issues proved fruitless. The title was ‘Her Honour at Stake,’ by Jane Emmeline Moss. You don’t happen to know how it all came out in the end, do you? Did Lord Eustace ever learn that, when he found Clarice in Sir Jasper’s rooms at midnight, she had only gone there to recover some compromising letters for a girl friend? You don’t know? I feared as much. Well, good morning, Miss Clarkson, good morning. I leave my future in your hands with a light heart.”
“I will do my best for you, of course.”
“And what,” said Psmith, cordially, “could be better than Miss Clarkson’s best?”
He closed the door gently behind him and went out. Struck by a kindly thought, he tapped upon Inquiries’ window, and beamed benevolently as her bobbed head shot into view.
“They tell me,” he said, “that Aspidistra is much fancied for the four o’clock race at Birmingham this afternoon. I give the information, without prejudice, for what it is worth. Good day!”
“good for the crops”
THE rain had stopped when Psmith stepped out into the street, and the sun was shining again in that half-blustering, half-apologetic manner which it affects on its reappearance after a summer shower. The pavements glistened cheerfully, and the air had a welcome freshness. Pausing at the corner, he meditated idly as to the best method of passing the hour and twenty minutes which must elapse before he could reasonably think of lunching. The fact that the offices of the Morning Globe were within easy strolling distance decided him to go thither and see if the first post had brought anything in the shape of answers to his advertisements. And his energy was rewarded a few minutes later when Box 365 on being opened yielded up quite a little budget of literary matter. No fewer than seven letters in all. A nice bag.
What, however, had appeared at first sight evidence of a pleasing ebullition of enterprise on the part of the newspaper-reading public turned out on closer inspection, when he had retired to a corner where he could concentrate in peace, a hollow delusion. These letters were not at all what he had paid good money to receive. They missed the point altogether. The right spirit, it seemed to him, was entirely absent.
The first envelope, of an expensive brand of stationery and gaily adorned with a somewhat startling crest, merely contained a pleasantly worded offer from a Mr. Alistair MacDougall to advance him any sum from ten to fifty thousand pounds on his note of hand only. The second and third revealed similar proposals, and all these philanthropists had but one stipulation to make—they would have no dealings with minors. But they cordially urged Psmith, in the event of his having celebrated his twenty-first birthday, to come round to the office and take the stuff away in a sack.
Keeping his head well in the midst of this shower of riches, Psmith dropped the three letters with a sigh into the waste-paper basket, and opened the next in order. This was a bulky envelope, and its contents consisted of a printed brochure entitled “This Night Shall Thy Soul Be Required Of Thee,” while, by a curious and appropriate coincidence, number five proved to be a circular from an energetic firm of coffin-makers offering to bury him for eight pounds ten. Number six, also printed, was a manifesto from one Howard Hill, of Newmarket, recommending him to apply without delay for “Hill’s Three-Horse Special,” without which (“Who,” demanded Mr. Hill in large type, “gave you Wibbly-Wob for the Jubilee Cup?”) no sportsman could hope to accomplish the undoing of the bookmakers.
There now remained only number seven, and a slight flicker of hope returned to him when he perceived that this envelope was addressed by hand and not in typescript. He opened it.
Beyond a doubt, he had kept the pick of the bunch to the last. Written in a scrawly and apparently agitated hand, the letter ran as follows:—
If R. Psmith will meet the writer in the lobby of the Piccadilly Palace Hotel at twelve sharp, Friday, July 1, business may result if business meant and terms reasonable. R. Psmith will wear a pink chrysanthemum in his buttonhole, and will say to the writer: “There will be rain in Northumberland to-morrow,” to which the writer will reply: “Good for the crops.” Kindly be punctual.
A pleased smile played about Psmith’s solemn face as he read this communication for the second time. This, he felt, was the right stuff. Although his closest friend, Mike Jackson, was a young man of complete ordinariness, Psmith’s tastes when he sought companionship lay as a rule in the direction of the bizarre. He preferred his humanity eccentric. And “the writer,” to judge him by the specimen of his correspondence, appeared to be eccentric enough for the most exacting taste. Whether this promising person turned out to be a ribald jester or an earnest crank, Psmith felt no doubt whatever as to the advisability of following the matter up.
Whichever he might be, his society ought to afford entertainment during the interval before lunch. Psmith glanced at his watch. The hour was a quarter to twelve. He would be able to secure the necessary chrysanthemum and reach the Piccadilly Palace Hotel by twelve sharp, thus achieving the businesslike punctuality on which the unknown writer seemed to set such store.
It was not until he had entered a florist’s shop on the way to the tryst that it was borne in upon him that the adventure was going to have its drawbacks. The first of these was the chrysanthemum. Preoccupied with the rest of the communication, Psmith, when he had read the letter, had not given much thought to the decoration which it would be necessary for him to wear; and it was only when, in reply to his demand for a chrysanthemum, the florist came forward, almost hidden, like the army at Dunsinane, behind what looked like a small shrubbery, that he realized what he, a correct and fastidious dresser, was up against.
“Is that a chrysanthemum?”
“Yes, sir. Pink chrysanthemum.”
“Yes, sir. One pink chrysanthemum.”
Psmith regarded the repellent object with disfavour through his eyeglass. Then, having placed it in his buttonhole, he proceeded on his way, feeling like some wild thing peering through the undergrowth. The distressing shrub completely spoiled his walk.
Arrived at the hotel and standing in the lobby, he perceived the existence of further complications. The lobby was in its usual state of congestion, it being a recognized meeting-place for those who did not find it convenient to go as far east as that traditional rendezvous of Londoners, the spot under the clock at Charing Cross Station; and “the writer,” while giving instructions as to how Psmith should ornament his exterior, had carelessly omitted to mention how he himself was to be recognized. A rollicking, slap-dash conspirator, was Psmith’s opinion.
It seemed best to take up a position as nearly as possible in the centre of the lobby and stand there until “the writer,” lured by the chrysanthemum, should come forward and start something. This he accordingly did, but when at the end of ten minutes nothing had happened beyond a series of collisions with perhaps a dozen hurrying visitors to the hotel, he decided on a more active course. A young man of sporting appearance had been standing beside him for the last five minutes, and ever and anon this young man had glanced with some impatience at his watch. He was plainly waiting for someone, so Psmith tried the formula on him.
“There will be rain,” said Psmith, “in Northumberland to-morrow.”
The young man looked at him, not without interest, certainly, but without that gleam of intelligence in his eyes which Psmith had hoped to see.
“What?” he replied.
“There will be rain in Northumberland to-morrow.”
“Thanks, Zadkiel,” said the young man. “Deuced gratifying, I’m sure. I suppose you couldn’t predict the winner of the Goodwood Cup as well?”
He then withdrew rapidly to intercept a young woman in a large hat who had just come through the swing doors. Psmith was forced to the conclusion that this was not his man. He was sorry on the whole, for he had seemed a pleasant fellow.
As Psmith had taken up the stationary position and the population of the lobby was for the most part in a state of flux, he was finding himself next to someone new all the time; and now he decided to accost the individual whom the re-shuffle had just brought elbow to elbow with him. This was a jovial-looking soul with a flowered waistcoat, a white hat, and a mottled face. Just the man who might have written that letter.
The effect upon this person of Psmith’s meteorological remark was instantaneous. A light of the utmost friendliness shone in his beautifully-shaven face as he turned. He seized Psmith’s hand and gripped it with a delightful heartiness. He had the air of a man who has found a friend, and, what is more, an old friend. He had a sort of journeys-end-in-lovers-meeting look.
“My dear old chap!” he cried. “I’ve been waiting for you to speak for the last five minutes. Knew we’d met before somewhere, but couldn’t place you. Face familiar as the dickens, of course. Well, well, well! And how are they all?”
“Who?” said Psmith, courteously.
“Why, the boys, my dear chap.”
“Oh, the boys?”
“The dear old boys,” said the other, specifying more exactly. He slapped Psmith on the shoulder. “What times those were, eh?”
“Which?” said Psmith.
“The times we all used to have together.”
“Oh, those?” said Psmith.
Something of discouragement seemed to creep over the other’s exuberance, as a cloud creeps over the summer sky. But he persevered.
“Fancy meeting you again like this!”
“It is a small world,” agreed Psmith.
“I’d ask you to come and have a drink,” said the jovial one, “but the fact is my ass of a man sent me out this morning without a penny. Forgot to give me my note-case. Damn careless! I’ll have to sack the fellow.”
“Annoying, certainly,” said Psmith.
“I wish I could have stood you a drink,” said the other, wistfully.
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been,’ ” sighed Psmith.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the jovial one, inspired. “Lend me a fiver, my dear old boy. That’s the best way out of the difficulty. I can send it round to your hotel or wherever you are this evening when I get home.”
A sweet, sad smile played over Psmith’s face.
“Leave me, Comrade!” he murmured.
“Pass along, old friend, pass along.”
Resignation displaced joviality in the other’s countenance.
“Nothing doing?” he inquired.
“Well, there was no harm in trying,” argued the other.
“You see,” said the now far less jovial man, confidentially, “you look such a perfect mug with that eyeglass that it tempts a chap.”
“I can quite understand how it must.”
The white hat disappeared through the swing-doors, and Psmith returned to his quest. He engaged the attention of a middle-aged man in a snuff-coloured suit who had just come within hail.
“There will be rain in Northumberland to-morrow,” he said.
The man peered at him inquiringly.
“Hey?” he said.
Psmith repeated his observation.
“Huh?” said the man.
Psmith was beginning to lose the unruffled calm which made him such an impressive figure to the public eye. He had not taken into consideration the possibility that the object of his search might be deaf. It undoubtedly added to the embarrassment of the pursuit. To have to stand in the lobby of a large London hotel bellowing barometric predictions concerning the northern counties was no occupation for a man of sentiment. He was moving away when he felt his coat-sleeve clutched.
Psmith turned. The hand which still grasped his sleeve belonged to an elegantly dressed young man of somewhat nervous and feverish appearance. During his recent vigil Psmith had noticed this young man standing not far away, and had had half a mind to include him in the platoon of new friends he was making that morning. There was something about the other’s face which stirred a chord in his memory. He had the feeling that they had met before. But where memory failed to state.
“I say,” said this young man, in a tense whisper, “did I hear you say that there would be rain in Northumberland to-morrow?”
“If,” said Psmith, “you were anywhere within the radius of a dozen yards while I was chatting with the recent deaf adder, I think it is possible that you did.”
“Good for the crops,” said the young man. “Come over here, where we can talk quietly.”
“SO you’re R. Psmith?” said the young man, when they had made their way to a remote corner of the lobby, apart from the throng.
“I say, dash it, you’re frightfully late, you know. I told you to be here at twelve sharp. It’s nearly twelve past.”
“You wrong me,” said Psmith. “I arrived here precisely at twelve. Since when I have been standing like Patience on a monument. . . .”
“Let it go,” said Psmith. “It is not important.”
“I asked you to wear a pink chrysanthemum. So I could recognise you, you know.”
“I am wearing a pink chrysanthemum. I should have imagined that that was a fact that the most casual could hardly have overlooked.”
“That thing?” The other gazed disparagingly at the floral decoration. “I thought it was some kind of cabbage. I meant one of those little what-d’you-may-call-its that people do wear in their buttonholes.”
“Carnation! That’s right.”
Psmith removed the chrysanthemum and dropped it behind his chair. He looked at his companion reproachfully.
“If you had studied botany at school, Comrade,” he said, “much misery might have been averted. I cannot begin to tell you the spiritual agony I suffered trailing through the metropolis behind that shrub.”
Whatever decent sympathy and remorse the other might have shown at these words was swept away in the shock resultant on a glance at his watch. Not for an instant during this brief return of his to London had Freddie Threepwood been unmindful of his father’s stern injunction to him to catch the twelve-fifty train back to Market Blandings. If he missed it there would be the deuce of a lot of unpleasantness, and unpleasantness in the home was the one thing Freddie wanted to avoid nowadays; for, like the prudent convict in a prison, he hoped by exemplary behaviour to get his sentence of imprisonment at Blandings Castle reduced for good conduct.
“Good Lord! I’ve only got about five minutes. Got to talk quick . . . about this thing. This business. That advertisement of yours.”
“Ah, yes. My advertisement. It interested you?”
“Was it on the level?”
“Assuredly. We Psmiths do not deceive.”
Freddie looked at him doubtfully.
“You know, you aren’t a bit like I expected you’d be.”
“In what respect,” inquired Psmith, “do I fall short of the ideal?”
“It isn’t so much falling short. It’s . . . Oh, I don’t know. . . . Well, yes, if you want to know, I thought you’d be a tougher specimen altogether. I got the impression from your advertisement that you were down and out and ready for anything, and you look as if you were on your way to a garden-party at Buckingham Palace.”
“Ah!” said Psmith, enlightened. “It is my costume that is causing these doubts in your mind. This is the second time this morning that such a misunderstanding has occurred. Have no misgivings, Comrade I-Have-Yet-To-Have-The-Privilege-Of-Learning-Your-Name. These trousers may sit well, but, if they do, it is because the pockets are empty.”
“Are you really broke?”
“As broke as the Ten Commandments.”
“I’m hanged if I can believe it.”
“Suppose I brush my hat the wrong way for a moment?” said Psmith, obligingly. “Would that help?”
His companion remained silent for a few moments. In spite of the fact that he was in so great a hurry and that every minute that passed brought nearer the moment when he would be compelled to tear himself away and make a dash for Paddington Station, Freddie was finding it difficult to open the subject he had come there to discuss.
“Look here,” he said, at length, “I shall have to trust you, dash it!”
“You could pursue no better course.”
“It’s like this. I’m trying to raise a thousand quid . . .”
“I regret that I cannot offer to advance it to you myself. I have, indeed, already been compelled to decline to lend a gentleman who claimed to be an old friend of mine so small a sum as a fiver. But there is a dear obliging soul of the name of Alistair McDougall who . . .”
“Good Lord! You don’t think I’m trying to touch you?”
“That impression did flit through my mind.”
“Oh, dash it, no. No, but . . . . well, as I was saying, I’m frightfully keen to get hold of a thousand quid.”
“So am I,” said Psmith. “Two minds with but a single thought. How do you propose to start about it? For my part, I must freely confess that I haven’t a notion. I am stumped. The cry goes through the chancelleries, ‘Psmith is baffled!’ ”
“I say, old thing,” said Freddie, plaintively, “you couldn’t talk a bit less, could you? I’ve only got about two minutes.”
“I beg your pardon. An old failing of mine, I fear. Proceed.”
“It’s so dashed difficult to know how to begin a thing. I mean it’s all a bit complicated till you get the hang of it. . . . Look here, you said in your advertisement that you had no objection to crime.”
Psmith considered the point.
“Within reason—and if undetected—I see no objection to two-pennorth of crime.”
“Well, look here . . . look here . . . Well, look here,” said Freddie, “will you steal my aunt’s diamond necklace?”
(Another long instalment of this fascinating story will appear in our next issue.)
Compare this with the American serialization in the Saturday Evening Post.
Note that the chapter divisions and their titles and numbering are different in this edition than in other versions of the novel.
Annotations to the book version of the novel are on this site and at The Annotated Psmith Project.
Notes specific to magazine version:
In both US and UK magazine serials, Lady Constance argues “There is the Hunt Ball coming on, and the County Ball after that”; in book editions this is changed to “County Ball coming on, and the Bachelors’ Ball after that”—similarly, in episode 4 of this serial (episode 5 of the US serial), Miss Peavey refers to the Hunt Ball, which is changed to the County Ball in book editions. Diego Seguí notes that Hunt Balls take place during the fox-hunting season (November through March), though this novel happens in summertime; also two other Blandings novels (Pigs Have Wings and Full Moon) that mention county balls are also set in summer; the mention of Hunt Balls was apparently a slip on Wodehouse’s part that was realized and corrected for books. Neil Midkiff wonders if Wodehouse remembered this mistake, and later attributed it to Ivor Llewellyn in The Luck of the Bodkins, who hired an English advisor so that he wouldn’t again make a movie showing fox-hunting in July.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “I wish you wouldn’t get tying me up”; “get” corrected to “go” as in other editions.
Magazine had “Her paused and stole a glance at his wife.” Corrected to “He paused”
Magazine had “By jove! I’ll tell you what!”; capitalized Jove to match Lord Emsworth’s exclamation and book versions.
Magazine had period instead of question mark in “Will you inform her that I called?”
Magazine had “girl’s school”; corrected as in other editions.
Magazine omitted “ ’m” from maid Jane’s second “Yes’m!”
Magazine inserted a question mark after “hold the fort”; changed to period as in all other editions.
Magazine had the misspelling “fidgetting”.
Magazine had “How old are your children, sir,”; question mark inserted as in other editions.
Magazine had extraneous apostrophe in “Psmiths”.