Grand Magazine, November 1923
CHAPTER XII (Continued)
THE customary attitude of the Earl of Emsworth towards all mundane affairs was one of vague detachment; but this phenomenon was so remarkable that he found himself stirred to quite a little flutter of excitement and interest. His brain still refused to cope with the problem of why anybody should be throwing flower-pots into his room at this hour—or, indeed, at any hour; but it seemed a good idea to go and ascertain who this peculiar person was.
He put on his glasses and hopped out of bed and trotted to the window. And it was while he was on his way there that memory stirred in him, as some minutes ago it had stirred in the Efficient Baxter. He recalled that odd episode of a few days back, when that delightful girl, Miss What’s-her-name, had informed him that his secretary had been throwing flower-pots at that poet fellow, McTodd.
He had been annoyed, he remembered, that Baxter should so far have forgotten himself. Now he found himself more frightened than annoyed. Just as every dog is permitted one bite without having its sanity questioned, so, if you consider it in a broadminded way, may every man be allowed to throw one flower-pot. But let the thing become a habit and we look askance.
This strange hobby of his appeared to be growing on Baxter like a drug, and Lord Emsworth did not like it at all. He had never before suspected his secretary of an unbalanced mind, but now he mused, as he tip-toed cautiously to the window, that the Baxter sort of man, the energetic, restless type, was just the kind that does go off his head. Just some such calamity as this, his lordship felt, he might have foreseen.
Day in, day out, Rupert Baxter had been exercising his brain ever since he had come to the castle—and now he had gone and sprained it. Lord Emsworth peeped timidly out from behind a curtain.
His worst fears were realized. It was Baxter, sure enough; and a towsled, wild-eyed Baxter, incredibly clad in lemon-coloured pyjamas.
LORD EMSWORTH stepped back from the window. He had seen sufficient. The pyjamas had in some curious way set the coping-stone on his dismay, and he was now in a condition approximating to panic. That Baxter should be so irresistibly impelled by his strange mania as actually to omit to attire himself decently before going out on one of these flower-pot-hurling expeditions of his seemed to make it all so sad and hopeless.
The dreamy peer was no poltroon, but he was past his first youth; and it came to him very forcibly that the interviewing and pacifying of secretaries who ran amok was young man’s work. He stole across the room and opened the door. It was his purpose to put this matter into the hands of an agent.
KEEPING to the corridor in which his bedroom was situated, his lordship had the choice of about a dozen rooms to which to apply for assistance. He stood there hesitating for a moment, wondering on which door to knock; and his selection was finally determined by a brain-wave which, as being the only one he had ever had in his life, should be noted and spread upon the records. It was probably due entirely to fear, but there it is. He had it, and should be given the credit.
The corridor in which he stood was dotted at intervals along its length with pairs of boots, placed there by the occupants of the various rooms to be ready for early morning collection by the official cleaner. With superb common-sense, Lord Emsworth simply made a bee-line for the door before which reposed the largest pair. And so it came about that Psmith, who was two inches over six feet in height and wore foot-gear in proportion, was aroused from slumber by a touch on the arm, and sat up to find his host’s pale face peering at him in the weird light of early morning.
“My dear fellow,” quavered Lord Emsworth.
Psmith, like Baxter, was a light sleeper; and it was only a moment before he was wide awake and exerting himself to do the courtesies.
“Good morning,” he said, pleasantly. “Will you take a seat?”
“I am extremely sorry to be obliged to wake you, my dear fellow,” said his lordship, “but the fact of the matter is, my secretary, Baxter, has gone off his head.”
“Much?” inquired Psmith, interested.
“He is out in the garden in his pyjamas, throwing flower-pots through my window.”
“Oh, flower-pots!” said Psmith, frowning thoughtfully, as if he had expected it would be something else. “And what steps are you proposing to take? That is to say,” he went on, “unless you want him to continue throwing flower-pots.”
“My dear fellow . . . !”
“Some people like it,” explained Psmith. “But you do not? Quite so, quite so. I understand perfectly. We all have our likes and dislikes. Well, what would you suggest?”
“I was hoping that you might consent to go down—er, having possibly armed yourself with a good stout stick—and induce him to desist and return to bed.”
“A sound suggestion in which I can see no flaw,” said Psmith, approvingly. “If you will make yourself at home in here—pardon me for issuing invitations to you in your own house—I will see what can be done. I have always found Comrade Baxter a reasonable man, ready to welcome suggestions from outside sources, and I have no doubt that we shall easily be able to reach some arrangement.”
He got out of bed and, having put on his slippers and his monocle, paused before the mirror to brush his hair with extreme care.
“For,” he explained, “one must be natty when entering the presence of a Baxter.”
He went to the closet and took from among a number of hats a neat Homburg. Then, having selected from a bowl of flowers on the mantelpiece a simple white rose, he pinned it in the coat of his pyjama-suit and announced himself ready.
THE sudden freshet of vicious energy which had spurred the Efficient Baxter on to his recent exhibition of marksmanship had not lasted. Lethargy was creeping back on him even as he stooped to pick up the flower-pot which had found its billet on Lord Emsworth’s spine. And, as he stood there after hurling that final missile, he had realized that that was his last shot. If that produced no results, he was finished.
And, as far as he could gather, it had produced no results whatever. No head had popped inquiringly out of the window. No sound of anybody stirring had reached his ears. The place was as still as if he had been throwing marsh-mallows. A weary sigh escaped from Baxter’s lips. And a moment later he was reclining on the ground with his head propped against the terrace wall, a beaten man.
His eyes closed. Sleep, which he had been denying to himself for so long, would be denied no more. When Psmith arrived daintily swinging the Hon. Freddie Threepwood’s niblick like a clouded cane, he had just begun to snore.
PSMITH was a kindly soul. He did not like Rupert Baxter, but that was no reason why he should allow him to continue lying on turf wet with the morning dew, thus courting lumbago and sciatica. He prodded Baxter in the stomach with the niblick, and the secretary sat up, blinking. And with returning consciousness came a burning sense of grievance.
“Well, you’ve been long enough,” he growled. Then, as he rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and was able to see more clearly, he perceived who it was that had come to his rescue. The spectacle of Psmith of all people beaming benignly down at him was an added offence. “Oh, it’s you?” he said, morosely.
“I in person,” said Psmith, genially. “Awake, beloved! Awake, for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight; and lo! the hunter of the East has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light. The Sultan himself,” he added, “you will find behind yonder window, speculating idly on your motives for bunging flower-pots at him. Why, if I may venture the question, did you?”
Baxter was in no confiding mood. Without replying, he rose to his feet and started to trudge wearily along the terrace to the front door. Psmith fell into step beside him.
“If I were you,” said Psmith, “and I offer the suggestion in the most cordial spirit of good-will, I would use every effort to prevent this passion for flinging flower-pots from growing upon me. I know you will say that you can take it or leave it alone; that just one more pot won’t hurt you; but can you stop at one? Isn’t it just that first insidious flower-pot that does all the mischief? Be a man, Comrade Baxter!”
He laid his hand appealingly on the secretary’s shoulder. “The next time the craving comes on you, fight it. Fight it! Are you, the heir of the ages, going to become a slave to a habit? Tush! You know and I know that there is better stuff in you than that. Use your will-power, man, use your will-power!”
Whatever reply Baxter might have intended to make to this powerful harangue—and his attitude as he turned on his companion suggested that he had much to say—was checked by a voice from above.
“Baxter! My dear fellow!”
The Earl of Emsworth, having observed the secretary’s awakening from the safe observation-post of Psmith’s bedroom, and having noted that he seemed to be exhibiting no signs of violence, had decided to make his presence known. His panic had passed, and he wanted to go into first causes.
Baxter gazed wanly up at the window.
“I can explain everything, Lord Emsworth.”
“What?” said his lordship, leaning farther out.
“I can explain everything!” bellowed Baxter.
“It turns out, after all,” said Psmith, pleasantly, “to be very simple. He was practising for the Jerking the Geranium event at the next Olympic Games.”
Lord Emsworth adjusted his glasses.
“Your face is dirty,” he said, peering down at his dishevelled secretary. “Baxter, my dear fellow, your face is dirty.”
“I was digging,” replied Baxter, sullenly.
“The terrier complex,” explained Psmith. “What,” he asked, kindly, turning to his companion, “were you digging for? Forgive me if the question seems an impertinent one, but we are naturally curious.”
“What were you digging for?” asked Lord Emsworth.
“You see,” said Psmith. “He wants to know.”
Not for the first time since they had become associated, a mad feeling of irritation at his employer’s woolly persistence flared up in Rupert Baxter’s bosom. The old ass was always pottering about asking questions. Fury and want of sleep combined to dull the secretary’s normal prudence. Dimly he realized that he was imparting Psmith, the scoundrel who he was convinced was the ringleader of last night’s outrage, valuable information; but anything was better than to have to stand here shouting up at Lord Emsworth. He wanted to get it over and go to bed.
“I thought Lady Constance’s necklace was in one of the flower-pots,” he shrilled.
The secretary’s powers of endurance gave out. This maddening inquisition, coming on top of the restless night he had had, was too much for him. With a low moan he made one agonized leap for the front door and passed through it to where beyond these voices there was peace.
Psmith, deprived thus abruptly of his stimulating society, remained for some moments standing near the front door, drinking in with grave approval the fresh scents of the summer morning. It was many years since he had been up and about as early as this, and he had forgotten how delightful the first beginnings of a July day can be. Unlike Baxter, on whose self-centred soul these things had been lost, he revelled in the soft breezes, the singing birds, the growing pinkness of the eastern sky. He awoke at length from his reverie to find that Lord Emsworth had toddled down and was tapping him on the arm.
“What did he say?” inquired his lordship. He was feeling like a man who has been cut off in the midst of an absorbing telephone conversation.
“Say?” said Psmith. “Oh, Comrade Baxter? Now, let me think. What did he say?”
“Something about something being in a flower-pot,” prompted his lordship.
“Ah, yes. He said he thought that Lady Constance’s necklace was in one of the flower-pots.”
Lord Emsworth, it should be mentioned, was not completely in touch with recent happenings in his home. His habit of going early to bed had caused him to miss the sensational events in the drawing-room; and, as he was a sound sleeper, the subsequent screams—or, as Stokes, the footman, would have said, shrieks—had not disturbed him. He stared at Psmith aghast. For a while the apparent placidity of Baxter had lulled his first suspicions, but now they returned with renewed force.
“Baxter thought my sister’s necklace was in a flower-pot?” he gasped.
“So I understood him to say.”
“But why should my sister keep her necklace in a flower-pot?”
“Ah, there you take me into deep waters.”
“The man’s mad!” cried Lord Emsworth, his last doubts removed. “Stark, staring mad! I thought so before, and now I’m convinced of it.
“I must get rid of him,” he said. And at the thought the fair morning seemed to Lord Emsworth to take on a sudden new beauty. Many a time had he toyed wistfully with the idea of dismissing his efficient but tyrannical secretary, but never before had that sickeningly competent young man given him any reasonable cause to act. Hitherto, moreover, he had feared his sister’s wrath should he take the plunge. But now . . . Surely even Connie, pig-headed as she was, could not blame him for dispensing with the services of a secretary who thought she kept her necklaces in flower-pots and went out into the garden in the early dawn to hurl them at his bedroom window.
His demeanour took on a sudden buoyancy. He hummed a gay air.
“Get rid of him,” he murmured, rolling the blessed words round his tongue. He patted Psmith genially on the shoulder. “Well, my dear fellow,” he said, “I suppose we had better be getting back to bed and seeing if we can’t get a little sleep.”
Psmith gave a little start. He had been somewhat deeply immersed in thought.
“Do not,” he said, courteously, “let me keep you from the hay if you wish to retire. To me—you know what we poets are—this lovely morning has brought inspiration. I think I will push off to my little nook in the woods and write a poem about something.”
He accompanied his host up the silent stairs, and they parted with mutual good will at their respective doors. Psmith, having cleared his brain with a hurried cold bath, began to dress.
As a rule, the donning of his clothes was a solemn ceremony over which he dwelt lovingly, but this morning he abandoned his customary leisurely habit. He climbed into his trousers with animation, and lingered but a moment over the tying of his tie. He was convinced that there was that before him which would pay for haste.
Nothing in this world is sadder than the frequency with which we suspect our fellows without just cause. In the happenings of the night before Psmith had seen the hand of Edward Cootes. Edward Cootes, he considered, had been indulging in what—in another—he would certainly have described as funny business.
Like Miss Simmons, Psmith had quickly arrived at the conclusion that the necklace had been thrown out of the drawing-room window by one of those who made up the audience at his reading; and it was his firm belief that it had been picked up and hidden by Mr. Cootes. He had been trying to think ever since where that persevering man could have concealed it, and Baxter had provided the clue. But Psmith saw clearer than Baxter. The secretary, having disembowelled fifteen flower-pots and found nothing, had abandoned his theory. Psmith went further, and suspected the existence of a sixteenth. And he proposed as soon as he was dressed to sally downstairs in search of it.
He put on his shoes and left the room, buttoning his waistcoat as he went.
THE hands of the clock over the stables were pointing to half-past five when Eve Halliday, tip-toeing furtively, made another descent of the stairs. Her feelings as she went were very different from those which had caused her to jump at every sound when she had started on this same journey three hours earlier. Then she had been a prowler in the darkness and, as such, a fitting object of suspicion; now, if she happened to run into anybody, she was merely a girl who, unable to sleep, had risen early to take a stroll in the garden. It was a distinction that made all the difference.
Moreover, it covered the facts. She had not been able to sleep, except for an hour when she had dozed off in a chair by her window, and she certainly proposed to take a stroll in the garden. It was her intention to recover the necklace from the place where she had deposited it and bury it somewhere where no one could possibly find it. There it could lie until she had a chance of meeting and talking to Mr. Keeble and ascertaining what was the next step he wished taken.
Two reasons had led Eve, after making her panic dash back into the house after lurking in the bushes while Baxter patrolled the terrace, to leave her precious flower-pot on the sill of the window beside the front door. She had read in stories of sensation that for purposes of concealment the most open place is the best place, and, secondly, the nearer the front door she put the flower-pot, the less distance would she have to carry it when the time came for its removal. In the present excited condition of the household, with every guest an amateur detective, the spectacle of a girl tripping downstairs with a flower-pot in her arms would excite remark.
Eve felt exhilarated. She was not used to getting only one hour’s sleep in the course of a night, but excitement and the reflection that she had played a difficult game and won it against odds bore her up so strongly that she was not conscious of fatigue; and so uplifted did she feel that as she reached the landing above the hall she abandoned her cautious mode of progress and ran down the remaining stairs. She had the sensation of being in the last few yards of a winning race.
The hall was quite light now. Every object in it was plainly visible. There was the huge dinner-gong; there was the long leather settee; there was the table which she had upset in the darkness. And there was the sill of the window by the front door. But the flower-pot which had been on it was gone.
a touch of colour
IN any community in which a sensational crime has recently been committed, the feelings of the individuals who go to make up that community must of necessity vary somewhat sharply according to the degree in which the personal fortunes of each are affected by the outrage. Vivid in their own way as may be the emotions of one who sees a fellow-citizen sandbagged in a quiet street, they differ in kind from those experienced by the victim himself.
And so, though the theft of Lady Constance Keeble’s diamond necklace had stirred Blandings Castle to its depths, it had not affected all those present in quite the same way. It left the house-party divided into two distinct schools of thought—the one finding in the occurrence material for gloom and despondency, the other deriving from it nothing but joyful excitement.
To this latter section belonged those free young spirits who had chafed at the prospect of being herded into the drawing-room on the eventful night to listen to Psmith’s reading of Songs of Squalor. It made them tremble now to think of what they would have missed had Lady Constance’s vigilance relaxed sufficiently to enable them to execute the quiet sneak for the billiard-room, of which even at the eleventh hour they had thought so wistfully.
As far as the Reggies, Berties, Claudes, and Archies at that moment enjoying Lord Emsworth’s hospitality were concerned, the thing was top-hole, priceless, and indisputably what the doctor ordered. They spent a great deal of their time going from one country house to another, and as a rule found the routine a little monotonous. A happening like that of the previous night gave a splendid zip to rural life. And when they reflected that, right on top of this binge, there was coming the County Ball, it seemed to them that God was in his heaven and all right with the world. They stuck cigarettes in long holders and collected in groups, chattering like starlings.
The gloomy brigade, those with hearts bowed down, listened to their effervescent babbling with wan distaste. These last were a small body numerically, but very select. Lady Constance might have been described as their head and patroness. Morning found her still in a state bordering on collapse. After breakfast, however, which she took in her room and which was sweetened by an interview with Mr. Joseph Keeble, her husband, she brightened considerably.
Mr. Keeble, thought Lady Constance, behaved magnificently. She had always loved him dearly, but never so much as when, abstaining from the slightest reproach of her obstinacy in refusing to allow the jewels to be placed in the bank, he spaciously informed her that he would buy her another necklace, just as good and costing every penny as much as the old one. It was at this point that Lady Constance almost seceded from the ranks of gloom. She kissed Mr. Keeble gratefully and attacked with something approaching animation the boiled egg at which she had been pecking when he came in.
But a few minutes later the average of despair was restored by the enrolment of Mr. Keeble in the ranks of the despondent. He had gladsomely assumed overnight that one of his agents, either Eve or Freddie, had been responsible for the disappearance of the necklace. The fact that Freddie, interviewed by stealth in his room, gapingly disclaimed any share in the matter had not damped him. He had never expected results from Freddie. But when, after leaving Lady Constance, he encountered Eve and was given a short outline of history, beginning with her acquisition of the necklace and ending—like a modern novel—on the sombre note of her finding the flower-pot gone, he, too, sat him down and mourned as deeply as anyone.
Passing with a brief mention over Freddie, whose morose bearing was the subject of considerable comment among the younger set; over Lord Emsworth, who woke at twelve o’clock disgusted to find that he had missed several hours among his beloved flower-beds; and over the Efficient Baxter, who was roused from sleep at twelve-fifteen by Thomas, the footman, knocking on his door in order to hand him a note from his employer enclosing a cheque and dispensing with his services; we come to Miss Peavey.
At twenty minutes past eleven on this morning, when so much was happening to so many people, Miss Peavey stood in the Yew Alley gazing belligerently at the stemless mushroom finial of a tree about half-way between the entrance and the point where the alley merged into the west wood. She appeared to be soliloquizing. For, though words were proceeding from her with considerable rapidity, there seemed to be no one in sight to whom they were being addressed. Only an exceptionally keen observer would have noted a slight significant quivering among the tree’s tightly-woven branches.
“You poor bone-headed fish,” the poetess was saying, with that strained tenseness which results from the churning up of a generous and emotional nature, “isn’t there anything in this world you can do without tumbling over your feet and making a mess of it? All I ask of you is to stroll round under a window and pick up a few jewels, and now you come and tell me . . .”
“But, Liz!” said the tree, plaintively.
“I do all the difficult part of the job. All that there was left for you to handle was something a child of three could have done on its ear. And now . . .”
“But, Liz! I’m telling you I couldn’t find the stuff. I was down there all right, but I couldn’t find it.”
“You couldn’t find it!” Miss Peavey pawed restlessly at the soft turf with a shapely shoe. “You didn’t look.”
“I did look. Honest, I did.”
“Well, the stuff was there. I threw it down the moment the lights went out.”
“Somebody must have got there first and swiped it.”
“Who could have got there first? Everybody was up in the room where I was.
“Am I sure? Am I . . .” The poetess’s voice trailed off. She was staring down the Yew Alley at a couple who had just entered. She hissed a warning in a sharp undertone. “Hsst! Shut up, Ed. There’s someone coming.”
The two intruders who had caused Miss Peavey to suspend her remarks to her erring lieutenant were of opposite sexes—a tall girl with fair hair and a taller young man irreproachably clad in white flannels, who beamed down at his companion through a single eyeglass. Miss Peavey gazed at them searchingly as they approached. A sudden thought had come to her at the sight of them. Mistrusting Psmith as she had done ever since Mr. Cootes had unmasked him for the impostor that he was, the fact that they were so often together had led her to extend her suspicion to Eve.
It might, of course, be nothing but a casual friendship, begun here at the castle; but Miss Peavey had always felt that Eve would bear watching. And now, seeing them together again this morning, it had suddenly come to her that she did not recall having observed Eve among the gathering in the drawing-room last night. True, there had been many people present, but Eve’s appearance was striking, and she was sure that she would have noticed her if she had been there. And, if she had not been there, why should she not have been on the terrace? Somebody had been on the terrace last night, that was certain.
For all her censorious attitude in their recent conversation, Miss Peavey had not really in her heart believed that even a fool like Eddie Cootes would not have found the necklace if it had been lying under the window on his arrival.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. McTodd,” she cooed. “I’m feeling so upset about this terrible affair. Aren’t you, Miss Halliday?”
“Yes,” said Eve, and she had never said a more truthful word.
Psmith, for his part, was in more debonair and cheerful mood even than was his wont. He had examined the position of affairs and found life good. He was particularly pleased with the fact that he had persuaded Eve to stroll with him this morning and inspect his cottage in the woods. Buoyant as was his temperament, he had been half afraid that last night’s interview on the terrace might have had disastrous effects on their intimacy. He was now feeling full of kindliness and goodwill towards all mankind, even Miss Peavey, and he bestowed on the poetess a dazzling smile.
“We must always,” he said, “endeavour to look on the bright side. It was a pity, no doubt, that my reading last night had to be stopped at a cost of about twenty thousand pounds to the Keeble coffers, but let us not forget that but for that timely interruption I should have gone on for about another hour. I am like that. My friends have frequently told me that when once I start talking it requires something in the nature of a cataclysm to stop me. But, of course, there are drawbacks to everything, and last night’s affair perhaps shook your nervous system to some extent?”
“I was dreadfully frightened,” said Miss Peavey. She turned to Eve with a delicate shiver. “Weren’t you, Miss Halliday?”
“I wasn’t there,” said Eve, absently.
“Miss Halliday,” explained Psmith, “has had the last few days some little experience of myself as orator, and with her usual good sense decided not to go out of her way to get more of me than was absolutely necessary. I was perhaps a trifle wounded at the moment, but on thinking it over came to the conclusion that she was perfectly justified in her attitude. I endeavour always in my conversation to instruct, elevate, and entertain, but there is no gainsaying the fact that a purist might consider enough of my chit-chat to be sufficient.
“Such, at any rate, was Miss Halliday’s view, and I honour her for it. But here I am, rambling on again just when I can see that you wish to be alone. We will leave you, therefore, to muse. No doubt we have been interrupting a train of thought which would have resulted, but for my arrival, in a rondel or a ballade or some other poetic morceau. Come, Miss Halliday!”
“A weird and repellent female,” he said to Eve, as they drew out of hearing, “created for some purpose which I cannot fathom. Everything in this world, I like to think, is placed there for some useful end; but why the authorities unleashed Miss Peavey on us is beyond me. It is not too much to say that she gives me a pain in the gizzard.”
Miss Peavey, unaware of these harsh views, had watched them out of sight, and now she turned excitedly to the tree which sheltered her ally.
“Hello?” replied the muffled voice of Mr. Cootes.
“Did you hear?”
“Oh, my heavens!” cried his overwrought partner. “He’s gone deaf now! That girl—you didn’t hear what she was saying? She said that she wasn’t in the drawing-room when those lights went out. Ed., she was down below on the terrace, that’s where she was, picking up the stuff. And if it isn’t hidden somewheres in that McTodd’s shack down there in the woods I’ll eat my Sunday rubbers.”
Eve, with Psmith prattling amiably at her side, pursued her way through the wood. She was pondering why she had come. She ought, she felt, to have been very cold and distant to this young man after what had occurred between them last night. But somehow it was difficult to be cold and distant with Psmith. He cheered her stricken soul. By the time they reached the little clearing and came in sight of the squat, shed-like building with its funny windows and stained door, her spirits, always mercurial, had risen to a point where she found herself almost able to forget her troubles.
“What a horrible-looking place!” she exclaimed. “Whatever did you want it for?”
“Purely as a nook,” said Psmith, taking out his key. “You know how the man of sensibility and refinement needs a nook? In this rushing age it is imperative that the thinker shall have a place, however humble, where he can be alone.”
“But you aren’t a thinker.”
“You wrong me. For the last few days I have been doing some extremely brisk thinking. And the strain has taken its toll. The fierce whirl of life at Blandings is wearing me away. There are dark circles under my eyes and I see floating spots.” He opened the door. “Well, here we are. Will you pop in for a moment?”
Eve went in. The single sitting-room of the cottage certainly bore out the promise of the exterior. It contained a table with a red cloth, a chair, three stuffed birds in a glass case on the wall, and a small horsehair sofa. A depressing musty scent pervaded the place, as if a cheese had recently died there in painful circumstances. Eve gave a little shiver of distaste.
“I understand your silent criticism,” said Psmith. “You are saying to yourself that plain living and high thinking is evidently the ideal of the gamekeepers on the Blandings estate. They are strong, rugged men, who care little for the refinements of interior decoration. But shall we blame them? If I had to spend most of the day and night chivvying poachers and keeping an eye on the local rabbits, I imagine that in my off-hours practically anything with a roof would satisfy me.
“It was in the hope that you might be able to offer some hints and suggestions for small improvements here and there that I invited you to inspect my little place. There is no doubt that it wants doing up a bit by a woman’s gentle hand. Will you take a look round and give out a few ideas? The wallpaper is, I fear, a fixture, but in every other direction consider yourself untrammelled.”
Eve looked about her.
“Well,” she began, dubiously, “I don’t think. . . .”
She stopped abruptly, tingling all over. A second glance had shown her something which her first careless inspection had overlooked. Half hidden by a ragged curtain there stood on the window-sill a large flower-pot containing a geranium. And across the surface of the flower-pot was a broad splash of white paint.
“You were saying . . . ?” said Psmith, courteously.
Eve did not reply. She hardly heard him. Her mind was in a confused whirl. A monstrous suspicion was forming itself in her brain.
“You are admiring the shrub?” said Psmith. “I found it lying about up at the castle this morning and pinched it. I thought it would add a touch of colour to the place.”
Eve, looking at him keenly as his gaze shifted to the flower-pot, told herself that her suspicion had been absurd. Surely this blandness could not be a cloak for guilt?
“Where did you find it?”
“By one of the windows in the hall, more or less wasting its sweetness. I am bound to say I am a little disappointed in the thing. I had a sort of idea it would turn the old homestead into a floral bower, but it doesn’t seem to.”
“It’s a beautiful geranium.”
“There,” said Psmith, “I cannot agree with you. It seems to me to have the glanders or something.”
“It only wants watering.”
“And unfortunately this cosy little place appears to possess no water-supply. I take it that the late proprietor when in residence used to trudge to the back door of the castle and fetch what he needed in a bucket. If this moribund plant fancies that I am going to spend my time racing to and fro with refreshments, it is vastly mistaken. To-morrow it goes into the dust-bin.”
Eve shut her eyes. She was awed by a sense of having arrived at a supreme moment. She had the sensations of a gambler who risks all on a single throw.
“What a shame!” she said, and her voice, though she tried to control it, shook. “You had better give it to me. I’ll take care of it. It’s just what I want for my room.”
“Pray take it,” said Psmith. “It isn’t mine, but pray take it. And very encouraging it is, let me add, that you should be accepting gifts from me in this hearty fashion, for it is well known that there is no surer sign of the dawning of the divine emotion—love,” he explained, “than this willingness to receive presents from the hands of the adorer. I make progress, I make progress.”
“You don’t do anything of the kind,” said Eve. Her eyes were sparkling and her heart sang within her. In the revulsion of feeling which had come to her on finding her suspicions unfounded she was aware of a warm friendliness towards this absurd young man.
“Pardon me,” said Psmith, firmly. “I am quoting an established authority—Auntie Belle of Home Gossip.”
“I must be going,” said Eve. She took the flower-pot and hugged it to her. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Work, work, always work!” sighed Psmith. “The curse of the age. Well, I will escort you back to your cell.”
“No, you won’t,” said Eve. “I mean, thank you for your polite offer, but I want to be alone.”
“Alone?” Psmith looked at her, astonished. “When you have the chance of being with me? This is a strange attitude.”
“Good-bye,” said Eve. “Thank you for being so hospitable and lavish. I’ll try to find some cushions and muslin and stuff to brighten up this place.”
“Your presence does that adequately,” said Psmith, accompanying her to the door. “By the way, returning to the subject we were discussing last night, I forgot to mention, when asking you to marry me, that I can do card-tricks.”
“And also a passable imitation of a cat calling to her young. Has this no weight with you? Think! These things come in very handy in the long winter evenings.”
“But I sha’n’t be there when you are imitating cats in the long winter evenings.”
“I think you are wrong. As I visualize my little home, I can see you there very clearly sitting before the fire. Your maid has put you into something loose. The light of the flickering flames reflects itself in your lovely eyes. You are pleasantly tired after an afternoon’s shopping, but not so tired as to be unable to select a card—any card—from the pack which I offer. . . .”
“Good-bye,” said Eve.
“If it must be so—good-bye. For the present. I shall see you anon?”
“I expect so.”
“Good! I will count the minutes.”
EVE walked rapidly away. As she snuggled the flower-pot under her arm she was feeling like a child about to open its Christmas stocking. Before she had gone far a shout stopped her, and she perceived Psmith galloping gracefully in her wake.
“Can you spare me a moment?” said Psmith.
“I should have added that I can also recite ‘Gunga-Din.’ Will you think that over?”
“Thank you,” said Psmith. “Thank you. I have a feeling that it may just turn the scale.”
He raised his hat ambassadorially and galloped away again.
Eve found herself unable to wait any longer. Psmith was out of sight now, and the wood was very still and empty. Birds twittered in the branches and the sun made little pools of gold upon the ground. She cast a swift glance about her and crouched down in the shelter of a tree.
The birds stopped singing. The sun no longer shone. The wood had become cold and sinister. For Eve, with a heart of lead, was staring blankly at a little pile of mould at her feet—mould which she had sifted again and again in a frenzied, fruitless effort to find a necklace which was not there.
The empty flower-pot seemed to leer up at her in mockery.
BLANDINGS CASTLE was astir from roof to hall. Lights blazed, voices shouted, bells rang. All over the huge building there prevailed a vast activity like that of a barracks on the eve of the regiment’s departure for abroad. Dinner was over, and the expeditionary force was making its final preparations before starting off in many motor-cars for the County Ball at Shifley. In the bedrooms on every floor, Reggies, doubtful at the last moment about their white ties, were feverishly arranging new ones; Berties brushed their already glistening hair; and Claudes shouted to Archies along the passages insulting inquiries as to whether they had been sneaking their handkerchiefs.
Valets skimmed like swallows up and down corridors, maids fluttered in and out of rooms in aid of Beauty in distress. The noise penetrated into every nook and corner of the house. It vexed the Efficient Baxter, going through his papers in the library preparatory to leaving Blandings on the morrow for ever. It disturbed Lord Emsworth, who, stoutly declining to go within ten miles of the County Ball, had retired to his room with a book on herbaceous borders. It troubled the peace of Beach, the butler, refreshing himself after his activities around the dinner-table with a glass of sound port in the housekeeper’s room. The only person in the place who paid no attention to it was Eve Halliday.
Eve was too furious to pay attention to anything but her deleterious thoughts. As she walked on the terrace, to which she had fled in quest of solitude, her teeth were set and her blue eyes glowed belligerently. As Miss Peavey would have put it in one of her colloquial moods, she was mad clear through. For Eve was a girl of spirit, and there is nothing your girl of spirit so keenly resents as being made a fool of, whether it be by Fate or by a fellow human creature. Eve was in the uncomfortable position of having had this indignity put upon her by both. But, while as far as Fate was concerned she merely smouldered rebelliously, her animosity towards Psmith was vivid in the extreme.
A hot wave of humiliation made her writhe as she remembered the infantile guilelessness with which she had accepted the preposterous story he had told her in explanation of his presence at Blandings in another man’s name. He had been playing with her all the time . . . fooling her . . . And, most unforgivable crime of all, he had dared to pretend that he was fond of her and—Eve’s face burned again—to make her . . . almost . . . fond of him. How he must have laughed. . . .
Well, she was not beaten yet. Her chin went up and she began to walk quicker. He was clever, but she would be cleverer. The game was not over. . . .
A white waistcoat was gleaming at her side. Polished shoes shuffled on the turf. Light hair, brushed and brilliantined to the last possible pitch of perfection, shone in the light of the stars. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood was in her midst.
“Well, Freddie?” said Eve, resignedly.
“I say,” said Freddie, in a voice in which self-pity fought with commiseration for her, “beastly shame you aren’t coming to the hop.”
“I don’t mind.”
“But I do, dash it! The thing won’t be anything without you. A bally wash-out. And I’ve been trying out some new steps with the Victrola.”
“Well, there will be plenty of other girls there for you to step on.”
“I don’t want other girls, dash them! I want you.”
“That’s very nice of you,” said Eve. The first truculence of her manner had softened. She reminded herself, as she had so often been obliged to remind herself before, that Freddie meant well. “But it can’t be helped. I’m only an employée here, not a guest. I’m not invited.”
“I know,” said Freddie. “And that’s what makes it so dashed sickening. It’s like that picture I saw once, A Modern Cinderella. Only there the girl nipped off to the dance—disguised, you know—and had a most topping time. I wish life was a bit more like the movies.”
“Well, it was enough like the movies last night when . . . Oh!”
Eve stopped. Her heart gave a sudden jump. Somehow, the presence of Freddie was so inextricably associated in her mind with limp proposals of marriage that she had completely forgotten that there was another and a more dashing side to his nature, that side which Mr. Keeble had revealed to her at their meeting in Market Blandings on the previous afternoon. She looked at him with new eyes.
“Anything up?” said Freddie.
Eve took him excitedly by the sleeve and drew him farther away from the house. Not that there was any need to do so, for the bustle within continued unabated.
“Freddie,” she whispered, “listen! I met Mr. Keeble yesterday after I had left you, and he told me all about how you and he had planned to steal Lady Constance’s necklace.”
“Good Lord!” cried Freddie, and leaped like a stranded fish.
“And I’ve got an idea,” said Eve.
She had, and it was one which had only in this instant come to her. Until now, though she had tilted her chin bravely and assured herself that the game was not over and that she was not yet beaten, a small discouraging voice had whispered to her all the while that this was mere bravado. What, the voice had asked, are you going to do? And she had not been able to answer it. But now, with Freddie as an ally, she could act.
“Told you all about it?” Freddie was muttering, pallidly. He had never had a very high opinion of his Uncle Joseph’s mentality, but he had supposed him capable of keeping a thing like that to himself. He was, indeed, thinking of Mr. Keeble almost the identical thoughts which Mr. Keeble in the first moments of his interview with Eve in Market Blandings had thought of him. And these reflections brought much the same qualms which they had brought to the elder conspirator. Once these things got talked about, mused Freddie agitatedly, you never knew where they would stop. Before his mental eye there swam a painful picture of his Aunt Constance, informed of the plot, tackling him and demanding the return of her necklace.
“Told you all about it?” he bleated, and, like Mr. Keeble, mopped his brow.
“It’s all right,” said Eve, impatiently. “It’s quite all right. He asked me to steal the necklace, too.”
“You?” said Freddie, gaping.
“My Gosh!” cried Freddie, electrified, “then was it you who got the thing last night?”
“Yes, it was. But . . .”
For a moment Freddie had to wrestle with something that was almost a sordid envy. Then better feelings prevailed. He quivered with manly generosity. He gave Eve’s hand a tender pat. It was too dark for her to see it, but he was registering renunciation.
“Little girl,” he murmured, “there’s no one I’d rather got that thousand quid than you. If I couldn’t have it myself, I mean to say. Little girl . . .”
“Oh, be quiet!” cried Eve. “I wasn’t doing it for any thousand pounds. I didn’t want Mr. Keeble to give me money . . .”
“You didn’t want him to give you money!” repeated Freddie, wonderingly.
“I just wanted to help Phyllis. She’s my friend.”
“Pals, pardner, pals! Pals till Hell freezes!” cried Freddie, deeply moved.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sorry. That was a sub-title from a thing called Prairie Nell, you know. Just happened to cross my mind. It was in the second reel where the two fellows are . . .”
“Yes, yes, never mind.”
“Thought I’d mention it.”
“Tell me . . .”
“It seemed to fit in.”
“Do stop, Freddie!”
“Tell me,” resumed Eve, “is Mr. McTodd going to the ball?”
“Eh? Why, yes, I suppose so.”
“Then listen. You know that little cottage your father has let him have?”
“Yes. In the wood past the Yew Alley.”
“Little cottage? I never heard of any little cottage.”
“Well, he’s got one,” said Eve. “And as soon as everybody has gone to the ball you and I are going to burgle it.”
“Yes, burgle it!”
“Look here, old thing,” he said, plaintively, “this is a bit beyond me. It doesn’t seem to me to make sense.”
Eve forced herself to be patient. After all, she reflected, perhaps she had been approaching the matter a little rapidly. The desire to beat Freddie violently over the head passed, and she began to speak slowly and, as far as she could manage it, in words of one syllable.
“I can make it quite clear if you will listen and not say a word till I’ve done. This man who calls himself McTodd is not Mr. McTodd at all. He is a thief who got into the place by saying that he was McTodd. He stole the jewels from me last night and hid them in his cottage.”
“But, I say!”
“Don’t interrupt. I know he has them there, so when he has gone to the ball and the coast is clear you and I will go and search till we find them.”
“But, I say!”
Eve crushed down her impatience once more.
“Do you really think this cove has got the necklace?”
“I know he has.”
“Well, then, it’s jolly well the best thing that could possibly have happened, because I got him here to pinch it for Uncle Joseph.”
“Absolutely. You see, I began to have a doubt or two as to whether I was quite equal to the contract, so I roped in this bird by way of a gang.”
“You got him here? You mean you sent for him and arranged that he should pass himself off as Mr. McTodd?”
“Well, no, not exactly that. He was coming here as McTodd, anyway, as far as I can gather. But I’d talked it over with him, you know, before that and asked him to pinch the necklace.”
“Then you know him quite well? He is a friend of yours?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly. He says he was at school with me.”
“Yes. I’m dashed if I can remember him, though. And he said he was a great pal of Phyllis and her husband.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“In the train.”
“I mean, was it before or after you had told him why you wanted the necklace stolen?”
“Eh? Let me think. After.”
“Tell me exactly what happened,” said Eve. “I can’t understand it at all at present.”
Freddie marshalled his thoughts.
“Well, let’s see. Well, to start with, I told Uncle Joe I would pinch the necklace and slip it to him, and he said if I did he’d give me a thousand quid. As a matter of fact, he made it two thousand, and very decent of him I thought it. Is that straight?”
“Then I sort of got cold feet. Began to wonder, don’t you know, if I hadn’t bitten off rather more than I could chew.”
“And then I saw this advertisement in the paper.”
“Advertisement? What advertisement?”
“There was an advertisement in the paper saying, if anybody wanted anything done, simply apply to this chap. So I wrote him a letter and went up and had a talk with him in the lobby of the Piccadilly Palace. Only, unfortunately, I’d promised the guv’nor I’d catch the twelve-fifty home, so I had to dash off in the middle. Must have thought me rather an ass, it’s sometimes occurred to me since. I mean, practically all I said was: ‘Will you pinch my aunt’s necklace?’ and then buzzed off to catch the train.
“Never thought I’d see the man again, but when I got into the five o’clock train—I missed the twelve-fifty—there he was as large as life, and the guv’nor suddenly trickled in from another compartment and introduced him to me as McTodd, the poet. Now, he’d just told me he’d been at school with me, and I knew jolly well I hadn’t known anybody called McTodd at Eton, so I said ‘What ho!’ or words to that effect. He then said he wasn’t really McTodd, only pretending to be McTodd.”
“Didn’t that strike you as strange?”
“Yes, rather rummy.”
“Did you ask him why he was doing such an extraordinary thing?”
“Oh, yes. But he wouldn’t tell me. And then he asked me why I wanted him to pinch Aunt Connie’s necklace, and it suddenly occurred to me that everything was working rather smoothly—I mean, him being on his way to the castle like that. Right on the spot, don’t you know. So I told him all about Phyllis, and it was then that he said that he had been a pal of hers and her husband’s for years. So we fixed it up that he was to get the necklace and hand it over. I must say I was rather drawn to the chappie. He said he didn’t want any money for swiping the thing.”
Eve laughed bitterly.
“Why should he when he was going to get twenty thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds and keep them? Oh, Freddie, I should have thought that even you would have seen through him. You go to this perfect stranger and tell him that there is a valuable necklace waiting here to be stolen, you find him on his way to steal it, and you trust him implicitly just because he tells you he knows Phyllis—whom he had never heard of in his life till you mentioned her. Freddie, really!”
The Hon. Freddie scratched his beautifully shaven chin.
“Well, when you put it like that,” he said, “I must own it does sound a bit off. But he seemed such a dashed matey sort of bird. Cheery and all that. I liked the feller.”
“Well, but you liked him too. I mean to say, you were about with him a goodish lot.”
“I hate him!” said Eve, angrily. “I wish I had never seen him. And if I let him get away with that necklace and cheat poor little Phyllis out of her money, I’ll . . . I’ll . . .”
She raised a grimly determined chin to the stars. Freddie watched her admiringly.
“I say, you know, you are a wonderful girl,” he said.
“He sha’n’t get away with it if I have to pull the place down.”
“When you chuck your head up like that you remind me a bit of What’s-her-name, the Famous Players star, you know, girl who was in Wed to a Satyr. Only,” added Freddie, hurriedly, “she isn’t half so pretty. I say, I was rather looking forward to that jolly old County Ball, but now this has happened I don’t mind missing it a bit. I mean, it seems to draw us closer together somehow, if you follow me. I say, honestly, all kidding aside, you think that love might some day awaken in . . .”
“We shall want a lamp, of course,” said Eve.
“A lamp. To see with when we are in the cottage. Can you get one?”
Freddie reluctantly perceived that the moment for sentiment had not arrived.
“A lamp? Oh yes, of course. Rather.”
“Better get two,” said Eve. “And meet me here about half an hour after everybody has gone to the ball.”
THE tiny sitting-room of Psmith’s haven of rest in the woods had never reached a high standard of decorativeness even in its best days; but as Eve paused from her labours and looked at it in the light of her lamp about an hour after her conversation with Freddie on the terrace, it presented a picture of desolation which would have startled the plain-living gamekeeper to whom it had once been a home. Even Freddie, though normally an unobservant youth, seemed awed by the ruin he had helped to create.
“Golly!” he observed. “I say, we’ve rather mucked the place up a bit!”
It was no over-statement. Eve had come to the cottage to search, and she had searched thoroughly. The torn carpet lay in an untidy heap against the wall. The table was overturned. Boards had been wrenched from the floor, bricks from the chimney-place. The horsehair sofa was in ribbons, and the one small cushion in the room lay limply in a corner, its stuffing distributed north, south, east, and west.
There was soot everywhere—on the walls, on the floor, on the fireplace, and on Freddie. A brace of dead bats, the further result of the latter’s groping in a chimney which had not been swept for seven months, reposed in the fender. The sitting-room had never been luxurious; it was now not even cosy.
Eve did not reply. She was struggling with what she was fair-minded enough to see was an entirely unjust fever of irritation, with her courteous and obliging assistant as its object. It was wrong, she knew, to feel like this. That she should be furious at her failure to find the jewels was excusable, but she had no possible right to be furious with Freddie. It was not his fault that soot had poured from the chimney in lieu of diamonds. If he had asked for a necklace and been given a dead bat, he was surely more to be pitied than censured.
Yet Eve, eyeing his grimy face, would have given very much to have been able to scream loudly and throw something at him. The fact is, the Hon. Freddie belonged to that unfortunate type of humanity which automatically gets blamed for everything in moments of stress.
“Well, the bally thing isn’t here,” said Freddie. He spoke thickly, as a man will whose mouth is covered with soot.
“I know it isn’t,” said Eve. “But this isn’t the only room in the house.”
“Think he might have hidden the stuff upstairs?”
Freddie shook his head, dislodging a portion of a third bat.
“Must be upstairs, if it’s anywhere. Mean to say there isn’t any downstairs.”
“There’s the cellar,” said Eve. “Take your lamp and go and have a look.”
For the first time in the proceedings a spirit of disaffection seemed to manifest itself in the bosom of her assistant. Up till this moment Freddie had taken his orders placidly and executed them with promptness and civility. Even when the first shower of soot had driven him choking from the fireplace his manly spirit had not been crushed; he had merely uttered a startled, “Oh, I say!” and returned gallantly to the attack. But now he obviously hesitated.
“Go on,” said Eve, impatiently.
“Yes, but, I say, you know . . .”
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t think the chap would be likely to hide a necklace in the cellar. I vote we give it a miss and try upstairs.”
“Don’t be silly, Freddie. He may have hidden it anywhere.”
“Well, to be absolutely honest, I’d much rather not go into any bally cellar, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Why ever not?”
“Beetles. Always had a horror of beetles. Ever since I was a kid.”
Eve bit her lip. She was feeling, as Miss Peavey had so often felt when associated in some delicate undertaking with Edward Cootes, that exasperating sense of Man’s inadequacy which comes to high-spirited girls at moments such as these. To achieve the end for which she had started out that night she would have waded waist-high through a sea of beetles. But, divining with that sixth sense which tells women when the male has been pushed just so far and can be pushed no farther that Freddie, wax though he might be in her hands in any other circumstances, was on this one point adamant, she made no further effort to bend him to her will.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll go down into the cellar. You go and look upstairs.”
“No, I say, sure you don’t mind?”
Eve took up her lamp and left the craven.
FOR a girl of iron resolution and unswerving purpose, Eve’s inspection of the cellar was decidedly cursory. A distinct feeling of relief came over her as she stood at the top of the steps and saw by the light of the lamp how small and bare it was.
The law of elimination was doing its remorseless work. It had ruled out the cellar, the kitchen, and the living-room—that is to say, the whole of the lower of the two floors which made up the cottage. There now remained only the rooms upstairs. There were probably not more than two, and Freddie must already have searched one of these. The quest seemed to be nearing its end. As Eve made for the narrow staircase that led to the second floor, the lamp shook in her hand and cast weird shadows.
It was to nerves that in the first instant of hearing it she attributed what sounded like a soft cough in the sitting-room, a few feet from where she stood. Then a chill feeling of dismay gripped her. It could only, she thought, be Freddie, returned from his search; and if Freddie had returned from his search already what could it mean except that those upstairs rooms, on which she had counted so confidently, had proved as empty as the others?
“Freddie,” she began, and broke off with a gasp.
It was not Freddie who had coughed. It was Psmith. He was seated on the remains of the horsehair sofa, toying with an automatic pistol and gravely surveying through his monocle the ruins of a home.
(The conclusion of this splendid story will appear in our next issue.)
See Part 1 for general notes about this edition.
Once again, the UK editors have watered down or omitted some of Liz and Ed’s American slang; “Cheese it, Ed” in other versions is “Shut up, Ed” here, for instance. Compare the American serial.
Printer’s errors and/or editorial interventions corrected above:
Magazine had “one of vague enchantment” in opening sentence; corrected to “detachment” as in all other versions.
Magazine omitted “in” in “being in the last few yards of a winning race”; corrected to match other versions.
Magazine had “a casual friendship, began here at the castle”; corrected to “begun” as in all other versions (and for the sake of grammar).
Magazine had “quiet sneak for the billard-room”; corrected as “billiard”.
Magazine had “fellow human-creature”; hyphen removed, as it is not found in other editions and makes no sense.
Magazine had “Mr. Keeble in his first moments of his interview”; corrected to “the first moments” as in other editions.
Magazine had “Or downstairs?”; other editions finish with a period here, and Eve is giving commands, not asking questions, in this scene, so changed to a period for consistency.