The Saturday Evening Post, March 3, 1923
CHAPTER VIII (Continued) IV
PSMITH was the first of the little group to recover from the shock of this unexpected encounter, the Honorable Freddie the last. That unfortunate youth, meeting Eve’s astonished eye as he raised his head, froze where he stood and remained with his mouth open until she had disappeared, which she did a few moments later, led away by Psmith, who, as he went, directed at his young friend a look in which surprise, pain and reproof were so nicely blended that it would have been hard to say which predominated. All that a spectator could have said with certainty was that Psmith’s finer feelings had suffered a severe blow.
“A painful scene,” he remarked to Eve as he drew her away in the direction of the house. “But we must always strive to be charitable. He may have been taking a fly out of her eye; or teaching her jiujitsu.”
He looked at her searchingly.
“You seem less revolted,” he said, “than one might have expected. This argues a sweet—shall we say angelic?—disposition and confirms my already high opinion of you.”
“Not at all. Mark you,” said Psmith, “I don’t think that this sort of thing is a hobby of Comrade Threepwood’s. He probably has many other ways of passing his spare time. Remember that before you pass judgment upon him. Also—young blood, and all that sort of thing.”
“I haven’t any intention of passing judgment upon him. It doesn’t interest me what Mr. Threepwood does, either in his spare time or out of it.”
“His interest in you, on the other hand, is vast. I forgot to tell you before, but he loves you. He asked me to mention it if the conversation happened to veer round in that direction.”
“I know he does,” said Eve ruefully.
“And does the fact stir no chord in you?”
“I think he’s a nuisance.”
“That,” said Psmith cordially, “is the right spirit. I like to see it. Very well, then, we will discard the topic of Freddie, and I will try to find others that may interest, elevate and amuse you. We are now approaching the main buildings. I am no expert in architecture, so cannot tell you all I could wish about the façade, but you can see there is a façade, and in my opinion—for what it is worth—a jolly good one. We approach by a sweeping gravel walk.”
“I am going in to report to Mr. Baxter,” said Eve with decision. “It’s too absurd. I mustn’t spend my time strolling about the grounds. I’m not a guest; I’m an employe. I must see Mr. Baxter at once.”
Psmith inclined his head courteously.
“Nothing easier. That big open window there is the library. Doubtless Comrade Baxter is somewhere inside, toiling away among the archives.”
“Yes, but I can’t announce myself by shouting to him.”
“Assuredly not,” said Psmith. “No need for that at all. Leave it to me.” He stopped and picked up a large flowerpot which stood under the terrace wall, and before Eve could intervene had tossed it lightly through the open window. A muffled thud, followed by a sharp exclamation from within, caused a faint smile of gratification to illumine his solemn countenance.
“He is in. I thought he would be. Ah, Baxter,” he said graciously, as the upper half of a body surmounted by a spectacled face framed itself suddenly in the window, “a pleasant, sunny afternoon. How is everything?”
The Efficient Baxter struggled for utterance.
“You look like the Blessed Damozel gazing down from the gold bar of heaven,” said Psmith genially. “Baxter, I want to introduce you to Miss Halliday. She arrived safely after a somewhat fatiguing journey. You will like Miss Halliday. If I had a library I could not wish for a more courteous, obliging and capable cataloguist.”
This striking and unsolicited testimonial made no appeal to the Efficient Baxter. His mind seemed occupied with other matters.
“Did you throw that flowerpot?” he demanded coldly.
“You will, no doubt,” said Psmith, “wish on some later occasion to have a nice long chat with Miss Halliday in order to give her an outline of her duties. I have been showing her the grounds and am about to take her for a row on the lake. But after that she will—and I know I may speak for Miss Halliday in this matter—be entirely at your disposal.”
“Did you throw that flowerpot?”
“I look forward confidently to the pleasantest of associations between you and Miss Halliday. You will find her,” said Psmith warmly, “a willing assistant, a tireless worker.”
“But now,” said Psmith, “I must be tearing myself away. In order to impress Miss Halliday, I put on my best suit when I went to meet her. For a row upon the lake something simpler in pale flannel is indicated. I shall only be a few minutes,” he said to Eve. “Would you mind meeting me at the boathouse?”
“I am not coming on the lake with you.”
“At the boathouse in—say, six and a quarter minutes,” said Psmith with a gentle smile, and pranced into the house like a long-legged mustang.
Eve remained where she stood, struggling between laughter and embarrassment. The Efficient Baxter was still leaning wrathfully out of the library window, and it began to seem a little difficult to carry on an ordinary conversation. The problem of what she was to say in order to continue the scene in an agreeable manner was solved by the arrival of Lord Emsworth, who pottered out from the bushes with a spud in his hand. He stood eying Eve for a moment, then memory seemed to wake. Eve’s appearance was easier to remember, possibly, than some of the things which his lordship was wont to forget. He came forward beamingly.
“Ah, there you are, Miss—dear me, I’m really afraid I have forgotten your name. My memory is excellent as a rule, but I cannot remember names. . . . Miss Halliday! Of course, of course! Baxter, my dear fellow,” he proceeded, sighting the watcher at the window, “this is Miss Halliday.”
“Mr. McTodd,” said the efficient one sourly, “has already introduced me to Miss Halliday.”
“Has he? Deuced civil of him, deuced civil of him. But where is he?” inquired his lordship, scanning the surrounding scenery with a vague eye.
“He went into the house—after,” said Baxter in a cold voice, “throwing a flowerpot at me.”
“He threw a flowerpot at me,” said Baxter, and vanished moodily.
Lord Emsworth stared at the open window, then turned to Eve for enlightenment.
“Why did Baxter throw a flowerpot at McTodd?” he said. “And,” he went on, ventilating an even deeper question, “where the deuce did he get a flowerpot? There are no flowerpots in the library.”
Eve, on her side, was also seeking information.
“Did you say his name was McTodd, Lord Emsworth?”
“No, no! Baxter. That was Baxter, my secretary.”
“No, I mean the one who met me at the station.”
“Baxter did not meet you at the station. The man who met you at the station,” said Lord Emsworth, speaking slowly, for women are so apt to get things muddled, “was McTodd. He’s staying here. Constance asked him, and I’m bound to say when I first heard of it I was not any too well pleased. I don’t like poets as a rule. But this fellow’s so different from the other poets I’ve met. Different altogether.
“And,” said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, “I strongly object to Baxter throwing flowerpots at him. I won’t have Baxter throwing flowerpots at my guests,” he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.
“Is Mr. McTodd a poet?” said Eve, her heart beating.
“Eh? Oh yes, yes. There seems to be no doubt about that. A Canadian poet. Apparently they have poets out there. And,” demanded his lordship, ever a fair-minded man, “why not? A remarkably growing country. I was there in the year ’98. Or was it,” he added thoughtfully, passing a muddy hand over his chin and leaving a rich brown stain, “ ’99? I forget. My memory isn’t good for dates. . . . If you will excuse me, Miss—Miss Halliday, of course—if you will excuse me, I must be leaving you. I have to see McAllister, my head gardener. An obstinate man. A Scotchman. If you go into the house my sister Constance will give you a cup of tea. I don’t know what the time is, but I suppose there will be tea soon. Never take it myself.”
“Mr. McTodd asked me to go for a row on the lake.”
“On the lake, eh? On the lake?” said his lordship, as if this was the last place in the neighborhood where he would have expected to hear of people proposing to row. Then he brightened. “Of course, yes, on the lake. I think you will like the lake. I take a dip there myself every morning before breakfast. I find it good for the health and appetite. I plunge in and swim perhaps fifty yards, and then return.” Lord Emsworth suspended the gossip from the training camp in order to look at his watch. “Dear me,” he said. “I must be going. McAllister has been waiting fully ten minutes. Good-by, then, for the present, Miss—er—good-by.”
And Lord Emsworth ambled off, on his face that look of tense concentration which it always wore when interviews with Angus McAllister were in prospect; the look which stern warriors wear when about to meet a foeman worthy of their steel.
THERE was a cold expression in Eve’s eyes as she made her way slowly to the boathouse. The information which she had just received had come as a shock, and she was trying to adjust her mind to it. When Miss Clarkson had told her of the unhappy conclusion to her old school friend’s marriage to Ralston McTodd she had immediately, without knowing anything of the facts, arrayed herself loyally on Cynthia’s side and condemned the unknown McTodd uncompromisingly and without hesitation. It was many years since she had seen Cynthia, and their friendship might almost have been said to have lapsed; but Eve’s affection, when she had once given it, was a durable thing, capable of surviving long separation. She had loved Cynthia at school, and she could feel nothing but animosity towards anyone who had treated her badly. She eyed the glittering water of the lake from under lowered brows, and prepared to be frigid and hostile when the villain of the piece should arrive. It was only when she heard footsteps behind her and turned to perceive Psmith hurrying up, radiant in gleaming flannel, that it occurred to her for the first time that there might have been faults on both sides. She had not known Psmith long, it was true; but already his personality had made a somewhat deep impression on her, and she was loath to believe that he could be the callous scoundrel of her imagination. She decided to suspend judgment until they should be out in midwater and in a position to discuss the matter without interruption.
“I am a little late,” said Psmith as he came up; “I was detained by our young friend Freddie. He came into my room and started talking about himself at the very moment when I was tying my tie and needed every ounce of concentration for that delicate task. The recent painful episode appeared to be weighing on his mind to some extent.” He helped Eve into the boat and started to row. “I consoled him as best I could by telling him that it would probably have made you think all the more highly of him. I ventured the suggestion that girls worship the strong, rough, dashing type of man. And after I had done my best to convince him that he was a strong, rough, dashing man, I came away. By now, of course, he may have had a relapse into despair; so if you happen to see a body bobbing about in the water as we row along it will probably be Freddie’s.”
“Never mind about Freddie.”
“I don’t if you don’t,” said Psmith agreeably. “Very well, then, if we see a body we will ignore it.” He rowed on a few strokes. “Correct me if I am wrong,” he said, resting on his oars and leaning forward, “but you appear to be brooding about something. If you will give me a clew I will endeavor to assist you to grapple with any little problem which is troubling you. What is the matter?”
Eve, questioned thus directly, found it difficult to open the subject. She hesitated a moment and let the water ripple through her fingers.
“I have only just found out your name, Mr. McTodd,” she said at length.
“It is always thus,” he said. “Passing through this life, we meet a fellow mortal, chat a while and part; and the last thing we think of doing is to ask him in a manly and direct way what his label is. There is something oddly furtive and shamefaced in one’s attitude towards people’s names. It is as if we shrank from probing some hideous secret. We say to ourselves, ‘This pleasant stranger may be a Snooks or a Buggins. Better not inquire.’ But in my case——”
“It was a great shock to me.”
“Now, there,” said Psmith, “I cannot follow you. I wouldn’t call McTodd a bad name, as names go. Don’t you think there is a sort of Highland strength about it? It sounds to me like something out of the Lady of the Lake or the Lay of the Last Minstrel. ‘The stag at eve had drunk its fill adoon the glen beyint the hill, and welcomed with a friendly nod old Scotland’s pride, young Laird McTodd’—you don’t think it has a sort of wild romantic ring?”
“I ought to tell you, Mr. McTodd,” said Eve, “that I was at school with Cynthia.”
Psmith was not a young man who often found himself at a loss, but this remark gave him a bewildered feeling such as comes in dreams. It was plain to him that this delightful girl thought she had said something serious, even impressive; but for the moment it did not seem to him to make sense.
He sparred warily for time.
“Indeed? With Cynthia? That must have been jolly.”
The harmless observation appeared to have the worst effect upon his companion. The frown came back to her face.
“Oh, don’t speak in that flippant, sneering way,” she said. “It’s so cheap.”
Psmith, having nothing to say, remained silent, and the boat drifted on. Eve’s face was delicately pink, for she was feeling extraordinarily embarrassed. There was something in the solemn gaze of the man before her which made it difficult for her to go on. But with the stout-heartedness which was one of her characteristics, she stuck to her task.
“After all,” she said, “however you may feel about her now, you must have been fond of poor Cynthia at one time, or I don’t see why you should have married her.”
Psmith, for want of conversation, had begun rowing again. The start he gave at these remarkable words caused him to skim the surface of the water with the left oar in such a manner as to send a liberal pint into Eve’s lap. He started forward with apologies.
“Oh, never mind about that!” said Eve impatiently. “It doesn’t matter. . . . Mr. McTodd,” she said, and there was a note of gentleness in her voice, “I do wish you would tell me what the trouble was.”
Psmith stared at the floor of the boat in silence. He was wrestling with a feeling of injury. True, he had not during their brief conversation at the Senior Conservative Club specifically inquired of Mr. McTodd whether he was a bachelor; but somehow he felt that the man should have dropped some hint as to his married state. True, again, Mr. McTodd had not asked him to impersonate him at Blandings Castle. And yet undeniably he felt that he had a grievance. Psmith’s was an orderly mind. He had proposed to continue the pleasant relations which had begun between Eve and himself, seeing to it that every day they became a little pleasanter, until eventually, in due season, they should reach the point where it would become possible to lay heart and hand at her feet. For there was no doubt in his mind that in a world congested to overflowing with girls Eve Halliday stood entirely alone. And now this infernal Cynthia had risen from nowhere to stand between them. Even a young man as liberally endowed with calm assurance as he was might find it awkward to conduct his wooing with such a handicap as a wife in the background.
Eve misinterpreted his silence.
“I suppose you are thinking that it is no business of mine?”
Psmith came out of his thoughts with a start.
“No, no; not at all.”
“You see, I’m devoted to Cynthia—and I like you.” She smiled for the first time. Her embarrassment was passing. “That is the whole point,” she said. “I do like you. And I’m quite sure that if you were really the sort of man I thought you when I first heard about all this, I shouldn’t. The friend who told me about you and Cynthia made it seem as if the whole fault had been yours. I got the impression that you had been very unkind to Cynthia. I thought you must be a brute, and when Lord Emsworth told me who you were my first impulse was to hate you. I think if you had come along just then I should have been rather horrid to you. But you were late and that gave me time to think it over. And then I remembered how nice you had been to me and I felt somehow that—that you must really be quite nice, and it occurred to me that there might be some explanation. And I thought that, perhaps, if you would let interfere in your private affairs—and if things hadn’t gone too far—I might do something to help—try to bring you together, you know.”
She broke off, a little confused, for now that the words were out she was conscious of a return of her former shyness. Even though she was an old friend of Cynthia’s there did seem something insufferably officious in this meddling; and when she saw the look of pain on her companion’s face she regretted that she had spoken. Naturally, she thought, he was offended.
In supposing that Psmith was offended she was mistaken. Internally he was glowing with a renewed admiration for all those beautiful qualities in her which he had detected, before they had ever met, at several yards’ range across the street from the window of the Drones Club smoking room. His look of pain was due to the fact that, having now had time to grapple with the problem, he had decided to dispose of this Cynthia once and for all. He proposed to eliminate her forever from his life, and the elimination of even such a comparative stranger seemed to him to call for a pained look. So he assumed one.
“That,” he said gravely, “would, I fear, be impossible. It is like you to suggest it, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the kindness which has made you interest yourself in my troubles; but it is too late for any reconciliation. Cynthia and I are divorced.”
For a moment the temptation had come to him to kill the woman off with some wasting sickness, but this he resisted as tending towards possible future complications. He was resolved, however, that there should be no question of bringing them together again.
He was disturbed to find Eve staring at him in amazement.
“Divorced? But how can you be divorced? It’s only a few days since you and she were in London together.”
Psmith ceased to wonder that Mr. McTodd had had trouble with his wife. The woman was a perfect pest.
“I used the term in a spiritual rather than a legal sense,” he replied. “True, there has been no actual decree, but we are separated beyond hope of reunion.” He saw the distress in Eve’s eyes and hurried on. “There are things,” he said, “which it is impossible for a man to overlook, however broad-minded he may be. Love, Miss Halliday, is a delicate plant. It needs tending, nursing, assiduous fostering. This cannot be done by throwing the breakfast bacon at a husband’s head.”
Eve’s astonishment was such that the word came out in a startled squeak.
“In the dish,” said Psmith sadly.
Eve’s blue eyes opened wide.
“Cynthia did that?”
“On more than one occasion. Her temper in the mornings was terrible. I have known her lift the cat over two chairs and a settee with a single kick, and all because there were no mushrooms.”
“But—but I can’t believe it!”
“It is true,” said Psmith. “Come over to Canada and I will show you the cat.”
“Cynthia did that! Cynthia—why, she was always the gentlest little creature!”
“At school, you mean?”
“That,” said Psmith, “would, I suppose, be before she had taken to drink.”
“Taken to drink!”
Psmith was feeling happier. A passing thought did come to him that all this was perhaps a trifle rough on the absent Cynthia, but he mastered the unmanly weakness. It was necessary that Cynthia should suffer in the good cause. Already he had begun to detect in Eve’s eyes the faint dawnings of an angelic pity, and pity is recognized by all the best authorities as one of the most valuable emotions which your wooer can awaken.
“Drink!” Eve repeated with a little shudder.
“We lived in one of the dry provinces of Canada, and, as so often happens, that started the trouble. From the moment when she installed a private still her downfall was swift. I have seen her, under the influence of home-brew, rage through the house like a devastating cyclone. . . . I hate speaking like this of one who was your friend,” said Psmith in a low, vibrating voice. “I would not tell these things to anyone but you. The world, of course, supposes that the entire blame for the collapse of our home was mine. I took care that it should be so. The opinion of the world matters little to me. But with you it is different. I should not like you to think badly of me, Miss Halliday. I do not make friends easily. . . . I am a lonely man. . . . But somehow it has seemed to me since we met that you and I might be friends.”
Eve stretched her hand out impulsively.
“Why, of course!”
Psmith took her hand and held it far longer than was, strictly speaking, necessary.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
He turned the nose of the boat to the shore and rowed slowly back.
“I have suffered,” said Psmith gravely as he helped her ashore. “But, if you will be my friend, I think that I may forget.”
They walked in silence up the winding path to the castle.
TO PSMITH five minutes later, as he sat in his room smoking a cigarette and looking dreamily out at the distant hills, there entered the Hon. Frederick Threepwood, who, having closed the door behind him, tottered to the bed and uttered a deep and discordant groan. Psmith, his mind thus rudely wrenched from pleasant meditations, turned and regarded the gloomy youth with disfavor.
“At any other time, Comrade Threepwood,” he said politely but with firmness, “certainly. But not now. I am not in the vein.”
“What?” said the Honorable Freddie vacantly.
“I say that at any other time I shall be delighted to listen to your farmyard imitations, but not now. At the moment I am deep in thoughts of my own, and I may say frankly that I regard you as more or less of an excrescence. I want solitude, solitude. I am in a beautiful reverie, and your presence jars upon me somewhat profoundly.”
The Honorable Freddie ruined the symmetry of his hair by passing his fingers feverishly through it.
“Don’t talk so much! I never met a fellow like you for talking.”
Having rumpled his hair to the left he went through it again and rumpled it to the right. “I say, do you know what? You’ve jolly well got to clear out of here quick!” He got up from the bed and approached the window. Having done which, he bent towards Psmith and whispered in his ear. “The game’s up!”
Psmith withdrew his ear with a touch of hauteur, but he looked at his companion with a little more interest. He had feared, when he saw Freddie stagger in with such melodramatic despair and emit so hollow a groan, that the topic on which he wished to converse was the already exhausted one of his broken heart. It now began to appear that weightier matters were on his mind.
“I fail to understand you, Comrade Threepwood,” he said. “The last time I had the privilege of conversing with you, you informed me that Susan, or whatever her name is, merely giggled and told you not to be silly when you embraced her. In other words, she is not a detective. What has happened since then to get you all worked up?”
“What has Baxter been doing?”
“Only giving the whole bally show away to me, that’s all,” said Freddie feverishly. He clutched Psmith’s arm violently, causing that exquisite to utter a slight moan and smooth out the wrinkles thus created in his sleeve. “Listen! I’ve just been talking to the blighter. I was passing the library just now, when he popped out of the door and hauled me in. And, dash it, he hadn’t been talking two seconds before I realized that he has seen through the whole damn thing practically from the moment you got here. Though he doesn’t seem to know that I’ve anything to do with it, thank goodness.”
“I should imagine not, if he makes you his confidant. Why did he do that, by the way? What made him select you as the recipient of his secrets?”
“As far as I can make out, his idea was to form a gang, if you know what I mean. He said a lot of stuff about him and me being the only two able-bodied young men in the place, and we ought to be prepared to tackle you if you decided to start anything.”
“I see. And now tell me how our delightful friend ever happened to begin suspecting that I was not all I seemed to be. I had been flattering myself that I had put the little deception over with complete success.”
“Well, in the first place, dash it, that damn fellow McTodd—the real one, you know—sent a telegram saying that he wasn’t coming. So it seemed rummy to Baxter bang from the start when you blew in all merry and bright.”
“Ah! That was what they all meant by saying they were glad I had come ‘after all’—a phrase which at the moment, I confess, rather mystified me.”
“And then you went and wrote in the Peavey female’s autograph book.”
“In what way was that a false move?”
“Why, that was the biggest bloomer on record, as it has turned out,” said Freddie vehemently. “Baxter apparently keeps every letter that comes to the place on a file, and he’d skewered McTodd’s original letter with the rest. I mean, the one he wrote accepting the invitation to come here. And Baxter compared his handwriting with what you wrote in the Peavey’s album, and, of course, they weren’t a damn bit alike—and that put the lid on it.”
Psmith lit another cigarette and drew at it thoughtfully. He realized that he had made a tactical error in underestimating the antagonism of the efficient one.
“Does he seem to have any idea why I have come to the castle?” he asked.
“Any idea? Why, dash it, the very first thing he said to me was that you must have come to sneak Aunt Connie’s necklace!”
“In that case, why has he made no move till today? I should have supposed that he would long since have denounced me before as large an audience as he could assemble. Why this reticence on the part of genial old Baxter?”
A crimson flush of chivalrous indignation spread itself over Freddie’s face.
“He told me that too.”
“There seem to have been no reserves between Comrade Baxter and yourself. And very healthy, too, this spirit of confidence. What was his reason for abstaining from loosing the bomb?”
“He said he was pretty sure you wouldn’t try to do anything on your own. He thought you would wait till your accomplice arrived.
“And, damn him,” cried Freddie heatedly, “do you know who he’s got the infernal gall to think is your accomplice? Miss Halliday! Dash him!”
Psmith smoked in thoughtful silence.
“Well, of course, now that this has happened,” said Freddie, “I suppose it’s no good thinking of going on with the thing. You’d better pop off, what? If I were you I’d leg it today and have your luggage sent on after you.”
Psmith threw away his cigarette and stretched himself. During the last few moments he had been thinking with some tenseness.
“Comrade Threepwood,” he said reprovingly, “you suggest a cowardly and weak-minded action. I admit that the outlook would be distinctly rosier if no such person as Baxter were on the premises, but nevertheless the thing must be seen through to a finish. At least we have this advantage over our spectacled friend—that we know he suspects me and he doesn’t know we know. I think that with a little resource and ingenuity we may yet win through.” He turned to the window and looked out. “Sad,” he sighed, “that these idyllic surroundings should have become oppressed with a cloud of sinister menace. One thinks one sees a faun popping about in the undergrowth, and on looking more closely perceives that it is in reality a detective with a notebook. What one fancied was the piping of Pan turns out to be a police whistle, summoning assistance. Still, we must bear these things without wincing. They are our cross. What you have told me will render me if possible warier and more snakelike than ever, but my purpose remains firm. The cry goes round the castle battlements, ‘Psmith intends to keep the old flag flying!’ So charge off and soothe your quivering ganglions with a couple of aspirins, Comrade Threepwood, and leave me to my thoughts. All will doubtless come right in the future.”
FROM out of the scented shade of the big cedar on the lawn in front of the castle Psmith looked at the flower beds, jaunty and gleaming in the afternoon sun; then he looked back at Eve, incredulity in every feature.
“I must have misunderstood you. Surely,” he said in a voice vibrant with reproach, “you do not seriously intend to work in weather like this?”
“I must. I’ve got a conscience. They aren’t paying me a handsome salary—a fairly handsome salary—to sit about in deck chairs.”
“But you came only yesterday.”
“Well, I ought to have worked yesterday.”
“It seems to me,” said Psmith, “the nearest thing to slavery that I have ever struck. I had hoped, seeing that everybody had gone off and left us alone, that we were going to spend a happy and instructive afternoon together under the shade of this noble tree, talking of this and that. Is it not to be?”
“No, it is not. It’s lucky you’re not the one who’s supposed to be cataloguing this library. It would never get finished.”
“And why, as your employer would say, should it? He has expressed the opinion several times in my hearing that the library has jogged along quite comfortably for a great number of years without being catalogued. Why shouldn’t it go on like that indefinitely?”
“It’s no good trying to tempt me. There’s nothing I should like better than to loaf here for hours and hours, but what would Mr. Baxter say when he got back and found out?”
“It is becoming increasingly clear to me each day that I stay in this place,” said Psmith moodily, “that Comrade Baxter is little short of a blister on the community. Tell me, how do you get on with him?”
“I don’t like him much.”
“Nor do I. It is on these communities of taste that lifelong attachments are built. Sit down and let us exchange confidences on the subject of Baxter.”
“I won’t. You’re simply trying to lure me into staying out here and neglecting my duty. I really must be off now. You have no idea what a lot of work there is to be done.”
“You are entirely spoiling my afternoon.”
“No, I’m not. You’ve got a book. What is it?”
Psmith picked up the brightly jacketed volume and glanced at it.
“The Man With the Missing Toe. Comrade Threepwood lent it to me. He has a vast store of this type of narrative. I expect he will be wanting you to catalogue his library next.”
“Well, it looks interesting.”
“Ah, but what does it teach? How long do you propose to shut yourself up in that evil-smelling library?”
“An hour or so.”
“Then I shall rely on your society at the end of that period. We might go for another saunter on the lake.”
“All right. I’ll come and find you when I’ve finished.”
Psmith watched her disappear into the house, then seated himself once more in the long chair under the cedar. A sense of loneliness oppressed him. He gave one look at The Man With the Missing Toe, and having rejected the entertainment it offered gave himself up to meditation.
Blandings Castle dozed in the midsummer heat like a palace of sleep. There had been an exodus of its inmates shortly after lunch, when Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance, Mr. Keeble, Miss Peavey and the efficient Baxter had left for the neighboring town of Bridgeford in the big car, with the Honorable Freddie puffing in its wake in a natty two-seater. Psmith, who had been invited to accompany them, had declined on the plea that he wished to write a poem. He felt but a tepid interest in the afternoon’s program, which was to consist of the unveiling by his lordship of the recently completed memorial to the late Hartley Reddish, Esq., J.P., for so many years Member of Parliament for the Bridgeford and Shifley Division of Shropshire. Not even the prospect of hearing Lord Emsworth—clad, not without vain protest and weak grumbling, in a silk hat, morning coat and sponge-bag trousers—deliver a speech had been sufficient to lure him from the castle grounds.
But at the moment when he had uttered his refusal, thereby incurring the ill-concealed envy both of Lord Emsworth and his son Freddie, the latter also an unwilling celebrant, he had supposed that his solitude would be shared by Eve. This deplorable conscientiousness of hers, this morbid craving for work, had left him at a loose end. The time and the place were both above criticism; but, as so often happens in this life of ours, he had been let down by the girl.
But, though he chafed for a while, it was not long before the dreamy peace of the afternoon began to exercise a soothing effect upon him. With the exception of the bees that worked with their usual misguided energy among the flowers, and an occasional butterfly which flitted past in the sunshine, all Nature seemed to be taking a siesta. Somewhere out of sight a lawnmower had begun to emphasize the stillness with its musical whir. A telegraph boy on a red bicycle passed up the drive to the front door and seemed to have some difficulty in establishing communication with the domestic staff, from which Psmith deduced that Beach the butler, like a good opportunist, was taking advantage of the absence of authority to enjoy a nap in some distant lair of his own. Eventually a parlor maid appeared, accepted the telegram and—apparently—a rebuke from the boy, and the bicycle passed out of sight, leaving silence and peace once more.
The noblest minds are not proof against atmospheric conditions of this kind. Psmith’s eyes closed, opened, closed again. And presently his regular breathing, varied by an occasional snore, was added to the rest of the small sounds of the summer afternoon.
The shadow of the cedar was appreciably longer when he awoke with that sudden start which generally terminates sleep in a garden chair.
A glance at his watch told him that it was close on five o’clock, a fact which was confirmed a moment later by the arrival of the parlor maid who had answered the summons of the telegraph boy. She appeared to be the sole survivor of the little world that had its center in the servants’ hall; a sort of female Casabianca.
“I have put your tea in the hall, sir.”
“You could have performed no nobler or more charitable task,” Psmith assured her; and, having corrected a certain stiffness of limb by means of massage, went in. It occurred to him that Eve, assiduous worker though she was, might have knocked off in order to keep him company.
The hope proved vain. A single cup stood bleakly on the tray. Either Eve was superior to the feminine passion for tea or she was having hers up in the library. Filled with something of the sadness which he had felt at the sight of the toiling bees, Psmith embarked on his solitary meal, wondering sorrowfully at the perverseness which made girls work when there was no one to watch them.
It was very agreeable here in the coolness of the hall. The great door of the castle was open, and through it he had a view of lawns bathed in a thirst-provoking sunlight. Through the green-baize door to his left, which led to the servants’ quarters, an occasional sharp giggle gave evidence of the presence of humanity; but apart from that he might have been alone in the world. Once again he fell into a dreamy meditation, and there is little reason to doubt that he would shortly have disgraced himself by falling asleep for the second time in a single afternoon, when he was restored to alertness by the sudden appearance of a foreign body in the open doorway. Against the background of golden light a black figure had abruptly manifested itself.
The sharp pang of apprehension which ran through Psmith’s consciousness like an electric shock, causing him to stiffen like some wild creature surprised in the woods, was due to the momentary belief that the newcomer was the local vicar, of whose conversational powers he had had experience on the second day of his visit. Another glance showed him that he had been too pessimistic. This was not the vicar. It was someone whom he had never seen before—a slim and graceful young man with a dark, intelligent face, who stood blinking in the subdued light of the hall with eyes not yet accustomed to the absence of strong sunshine. Greatly relieved, Psmith rose and approached him.
“Hullo!” said the newcomer, “I didn’t see you. It’s quite dark in here after outside.”
“The light is pleasantly dim,” agreed Psmith.
“Is Lord Emsworth anywhere about?”
“I fear not. He has legged it, accompanied by the entire household, to superintend the unveiling of a memorial at Bridgeford to—if my memory serves me rightly—the late Hartley Reddish, Esq., J.P., M.P. Is there anything I can do?”
“Well, I’ve come to stay, you know.”
“Lady Constance invited me to pay a visit as soon as I reached England.”
“Ah! Then you have come from foreign parts?”
Psmith started slightly. This, he perceived, was going to complicate matters. The last thing he desired was the addition to the Blandings circle of one familiar with Canada. Nothing could militate against his peace of mind more than the society of a man who would want to exchange with him views on that growing country.
“Oh, Canada?” he said.
“I wired,” proceeded the other, “but I suppose it came after everybody had left. Ah, that must be my telegram on that table over there. I walked up from the station.” He was rambling idly about the hall after the fashion of one breaking new ground. He paused at an occasional table, the one where, when taking after-dinner coffee, Miss Peavey was wont to sit. He picked up a book and uttered a gratified laugh. “One of my little things,” he said.
“One of what?” said Psmith.
“This. Songs of Squalor. I wrote it.”
“You wrote it!”
“Yes. My name’s McTodd—Ralston McTodd. I expect you have heard them speak of me?”
THE mind of a man who has undertaken a mission as delicate as Psmith’s at Blandings Castle is necessarily alert. Ever since he had stepped into the five o’clock train at Paddington, when his adventure might have been said formally to have started, Psmith had walked warily, like one in a jungle on whom sudden and unexpected things might pounce out at any moment. This calm announcement from the slim young man, therefore, though it undoubtedly startled him, did not deprive him of his faculties. On the contrary, it quickened them. His first action was to step nimbly to the table on which the telegram lay awaiting the return of Lord Emsworth, his second was to slip the envelope into his pocket. It was imperative that telegrams signed McTodd should not lie about loose while he was enjoying the hospitality of the castle. This done, he confronted the young man.
“Come, come!” he said with quiet severity.
He was extremely grateful to a kindly Providence which had arranged that this interview should take place at a time when nobody but himself was in the house.
“You say that you are Ralston McTodd, the author of these poems?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then what,” said Psmith incisively, “is a pale parabola of joy?”
“Er—what?” said the newcomer in an enfeebled voice. There was manifest in his demeanor now a marked nervousness.
“And here is another,” said Psmith. “ ‘The——’ Wait a minute, I’ll get it in a moment. Yes, ‘The sibilant, scented silence that shimmered where we sat.’ Could you oblige me with a diagram of that one?”
“I—I—what are you talking about?”
Psmith stretched out a long arm and patted him almost affectionately on the shoulder.
“It’s lucky you met me before you had to face the others,” he said. “I fear that you undertook this little venture without thoroughly equipping yourself. They would have detected your imposture in the first minute.”
“What do you mean—imposture? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Psmith waggled his forefinger at him reproachfully.
“My dear comrade, I may as well tell you at once that the genuine McTodd is an old and dear friend of mine. I had a long and entertaining conversation with him only a few days ago. So that, I think we may confidently assert, is that. Or am I wrong?”
“Oh, hell!” said the young man, and flopping bonelessly into a chair he mopped his forehead in undisguised and abject collapse.
Silence reigned for a while.
“What,” inquired the visitor, raising a damp face that shone pallidly in the dim light, “are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, comrade. By the way, what is your name?”
“Nothing, Comrade Cootes. Nothing whatever. You are free to leg it hence. In fact, the sooner you do so the better I shall be pleased.”
“Say, that’s darned good of you!”
“Not at all, not at all.”
“You’re an ace——”
“Oh, hush!” interrupted Psmith modestly. “But before you go tell me one or two things. I take it that your object in coming here was to have a pop at Lady Constance’s necklace?”
“I thought as much. And what made you suppose that the real McTodd would not be here when you arrived?”
“Oh, that was all right. I traveled over with that guy McTodd on the boat, and saw a good deal of him when we got to London. He was full of how he’d been invited here, and I got it out of him that no one here knew him by sight. And then one afternoon I met him in the Strand, all worked up, madder than a hornet. Said he’d been insulted and wouldn’t come down to this place if they came and begged him on their bended knees. I couldn’t make out what it was all about, but apparently he had met Lord Emsworth and hadn’t been treated right. He told me he was going straight off to Paris.”
“And did he?”
“Sure! I saw him off myself at Charing Cross. That’s why it seemed such a cinch coming here instead of him. It’s just my darned luck that the first man I run into is a friend of his.”
“In this life, Comrade Cootes,” said Psmith, “we must always distinguish between the unlikely and the impossible. It was unlikely, as you say, that you would meet any friend of McTodd’s in this out-of-the-way spot; and you rashly ordered your movements on the assumption that it was impossible. With what result? The cry goes round the underworld, ‘Poor old Cootes has made a bloomer!’ ”
“You needn’t rub it in.”
“I am only doing so for your good. It is my earnest hope that you will lay this lesson to heart and profit by it. Who knows that it may not be the turning point in your career? Years hence, when you are a white-haired and opulent man of leisure, having retired from the crook business with a comfortable fortune, you may look back on your experience of today and realize that it was the means of starting you on the road to success. You will lay stress on it when you are interviewed for the Weekly Burglar on How I Began—— But, talking of starting on roads, I think that perhaps it would be as well if you now had a pop at the one leading to the railway station. The household may be returning at any moment now.”
“That’s right,” agreed the visitor.
“I think so,” said Psmith. “I think so. You will be happier when you are away from here. Once outside the castle precincts, a great weight will roll off your mind. You know your way out?”
He shepherded the young man to the door and with a cordial push started him on his way. Then with long strides he ran upstairs to the library to find Eve.
At about the same moment, on the platform of Market Blandings station, Miss Aileen Peavey was alighting from the train which had left Bridgeford some half an hour earlier. A headache, the fruit of standing about in the hot sun, had caused her to forgo the pleasure of hearing Lord Emsworth deliver his speech; and she had slipped back on a convenient train with the intention of lying down and resting. Finding, on reaching Market Blandings, that her head was much better, and the heat of the afternoon being now over, she started to walk to the castle, greatly refreshed by a cool breeze which had sprung up from the west. She left the town at almost the exact time when the disconsolate Mr. Cootes was passing out of the big gates at the end of the castle drive.
THE gray melancholy which accompanied Mr. Cootes like a diligent specter as he began his walk back to the town of Market Blandings, and which not even the delightful evening could dispel, was due primarily, of course, to that sickening sense of defeat which afflicts a man whose high hopes have been wrecked at the very instant when success has seemed in sight. Once or twice in the life of every man there falls to his lot something which can only be described as a soft snap, and it had seemed to Mr. Cootes that this venture of his to Blandings Castle came into that category.
He had, like most members of his profession, had his ups and downs in the past; but at last, he told himself, the Goddess Fortune had handed him something on a plate with watercress round it. Once established in the castle, there would have been a hundred opportunities of achieving the capture of Lady Constance’s necklace; and it had looked as though all he had to do was to walk in, announce himself and be treated as the honored guest. As he slouched moodily between the dusty hedges that fringed the road to Market Blandings, Edward Cootes tasted the bitterness that only those know whose plans have been upset by the hundredth chance.
But this was not all. In addition to the sadness of frustrated hope, he was also experiencing the anguish of troubled memories. Not only was the present torturing him, but the past had come to life and jumped out and bitten him. A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things, and this was what Edward Cootes was doing now. It is at moments like this that a man needs a woman’s tender care, and Mr. Cootes had lost the only woman in whom he could have confided his grief, the only woman who would have understood and sympathized.
We have been introduced to Mr. Cootes at a point in his career when he was practicing upon dry land; but that was not his chosen environment. Until a few months back his business had lain upon deep waters. The salt scent of the sea was in his blood. To put it more exactly, he had been by profession a card sharper on the Atlantic liners; and it was during this period that he had loved and lost. For three years and more he had worked in perfect harmony with the lady who, though she adopted a variety of names for purposes of travel, was known to her immediate circle as Smooth Lizzie. He had been the practitioner, she the decoy, and theirs had been one of those ideal business partnerships which one so seldom meets with in a world of cynicism and mistrust. Comradeship had ripened into something deeper and more sacred, and it was all settled between them that when they next touched New York Mr. Cootes, if still at liberty, should proceed to the City Hall for a marriage license; when they had quarreled—quarreled irrevocably over one of those trifling points over which lovers do quarrel. Some absurd dispute as to the proper division of the quite meager sum obtained from a cattle millionaire on their last voyage had marred their golden dreams. One word had led to another. The lady, after woman’s habit, had the last of the series, and even Mr. Cootes was forced to admit that it was a pippin. She had spoken it on the pier at New York, and then passed out of his life. And with her had gone all his luck. It was as if her going had brought a curse upon him. On the very next trip he had had an unfortunate misunderstanding with an irritable gentleman from the Middle West, who, piqued at what he considered—not unreasonably—the undue proportion of kings and aces in the hands which Mr. Cootes had been dealing himself, expressed his displeasure by biting off the first joint of the other’s right index finger, thus putting an abrupt end to a brilliant career. For it was on this finger that Mr. Cootes principally relied for the almost magical effects which he was wont to produce with a pack of cards after a little quiet shuffling.
With an aching sense of what might have been, he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they had still been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way if getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.
Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who it will be remembered was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when she found the society of her hostess and her hostess’ relations something of a strain; and she was glad to be alone. Her headache had disappeared and she reveled in the quiet evening hush as she passed on her way at a leisurely gait. About now, if she had not had the sense to detach herself from the castle platoon, she would, she presumed, be listening to Lord Emsworth’s speech on the subject of the late Hartley Reddish, J.P., M.P.; a topic which even the noblest of orators might have failed to render really gripping. And what she knew of her host gave her little confidence in his powers of oratory.
Yes, she was well out of it. The gentle breeze played soothingly upon her face. Her delicately modeled nostrils drank in gratefully the scent from the hedgerows. Somewhere out of sight a thrush was singing. And so moved was Miss Peavey by the peace and sweetness of it all that she, too, began to sing.
Had those who enjoyed the privilege of her acquaintance at Blandings Castle been informed that Miss Peavey was about to sing, they would doubtless have considered themselves on firm ground if called upon to make a conjecture as to the type of song which she would select. Something quaint, dreamy, a little wistful—that would have been the universal guess—some Old World ballad, possibly.
What Miss Peavey actually sang—in a soft, meditative voice like that of a starling waking to greet a new dawn—was that curious composition known as the Beale Street Blues.
As she reached the last line she broke off abruptly. She was, she perceived, no longer alone. Down the road toward her, walking pensively like one with a secret sorrow, a man was approaching; and for an instant, as she turned the corner, something in his appearance seemed to catch her by the throat and her breath came sharply.
“Gee!” said Miss Peavey.
She was herself again the next moment. A chance resemblance had misled her. She could not see the man’s face, for his head was bent; but how was it possible——
And then, when he was quite close, he raised his head, and the county of Shropshire, as far as it was visible to her amazed eyes, executed a sudden and eccentric dance. Trees bobbed up and down, hedgerows shimmied like a Broadway chorus; and from out of the midst of the whirling countryside a voice spoke:
“Eddie!” ejaculated Miss Peavey faintly, and sat down in a heap on a grassy bank.
“WELL, for goodness’ sake!” said Miss Peavey.
Shropshire had become static once more. She stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Can you tie it?” said Miss Peavey.
She ran her gaze over him once again from head to foot.
“Well, if this ain’t the cat’s whiskers!” said Miss Peavey. And with this final pronouncement she rose from her bank, somewhat restored, and addressed herself to the task of picking up old threads.
“Wherever,” she inquired, “did you spring from, Ed?”
There was nothing but affection in her voice. Her gaze was that of a mother contemplating her long-lost child. The past was past and a new era had begun. In the past she had been compelled to describe this man as a hunk of cheese and to express the opinion that his crookedness was such as to enable him to hide at will behind a spiral staircase; but now, in the joy of this unexpected reunion, all these harsh views were forgotten. This was Eddie Cootes, her old side kick, come back to her after many days; and only now was it borne in upon her what a gap in her life his going had made. She flung herself into his arms with a glad cry.
Mr. Cootes, who had not been expecting this demonstration of esteem, staggered a trifle at the impact; but recovered himself sufficiently to return the embrace with something of his ancient warmth. He was delighted at this cordiality, but also surprised. The memory of the lady’s parting words on the occasion of their last meeting was still green, and he had not realized how quickly women forget and forgive, and how a sensitive girl, stirred by some fancied injury, may address a man as a pie-faced plug-ugly, and yet retain in her inmost heart all the old love and affection. He kissed Miss Peavey fondly.
“Liz,” he said with fervor, “you’re prettier than ever.”
“Now you behave,” responded Miss Peavey coyly.
The arrival of a baaing flock of sheep, escorted by an earnest and rather priggish dog and followed by a couple of the local peasantry, caused an intermission in these tender exchanges; and by the time the procession had moved off down the road they were in a more suitable frame of mind to converse quietly and in a practical spirit, to compare notes and to fill up the blanks.
“Wherever,” inquired Miss Peavey again, “did you spring from, Ed? You could of knocked me down with a feather when I saw you coming along the road. I couldn’t have believed it was you, this far from the ocean. What are you doing inland like this? Taking a vacation? Or aren’t you working the boats any more?”
“No, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes sadly. “I’ve had to give that up.”
And he exhibited the hiatus where an important section of his finger had been and told his painful tale. His companion’s sympathy was balm to his wounded soul.
“The risks of the profession, of course,” said Mr. Cootes moodily, removing the exhibit in order to place his arm about her slender waist. “Still, it’s done me in. I tried once or twice, but I couldn’t seem to make the cards behave no more, so I quit. Ah, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes with feeling, “you can take it from me that I’ve had no luck since you left me. Regular hoodoo there’s been on me. If I’d walked under a ladder on a Friday to smash a mirror over the dome of a black cat I couldn’t have had it tougher.”
“You poor boy!”
Mr. Cootes nodded somberly.
“Tough,” he agreed; “but there it is. Only this afternoon my jinx gummed the game for me and threw a spanner into the prettiest little scenario you ever thought of. . . . But let’s not talk about my troubles. What are you doing now, Liz?”
“Me? Oh, I’m living near here.”
Mr. Cootes started.
“Not married?” he exclaimed in alarm.
“No!” cried Miss Peavey with vehemence, and shot a tender glance up at his face. “And I guess you know why, Ed.”
“You don’t mean—you hadn’t forgotten me?”
“As if I could ever forget you, Eddie! There’s only one tintype on my mantelpiece.”
“But it struck me—it sort of occurred to me as a passing thought that when we saw each other last you were a mite peeved with your Eddie.”
It was the first allusion either of them had made to the past unpleasantness, and it caused a faint blush to dye Miss Peavey’s soft cheek.
“Oh, shucks!” she said. “I’d forgotten all about that next day. I was good and mad at the time, I’ll allow; but if only you’d called me up next morning, Ed——”
There was a silence as they mused on what might have been.
“What are you doing—living here?” asked Mr. Cootes after a pregnant pause. “Have you retired?”
“No, sir! I’m sitting in at a game with real worth-while stakes. But, darn it,” said Miss Peavey regretfully, “I’m wondering if it isn’t too big for me to put through alone. Oh, Eddie, if only there was some way you and me could work it together like in the old days!”
“What is it?”
“Diamonds, Eddie. A necklace. I’ve only had one look at it so far, but that was enough. Some of the best ice I’ve saw in years, Ed. Worth every cent of a hundred thousand berries.”
The coincidence drew from Mr. Cootes a sharp exclamation.
“Listen, Ed, while I slip you the low-down. And, say, if you knew the relief it was to me talking good United States again! Like taking off a pair of tight shoes. I’m doing the high-toned stuff for the moment—soulful—you remember, like I used to pull once or twice in the old days. Just after you and me had that little spat of ours I thought I’d take another trip on the old Atlantic—force of habit or something, I guess. Anyway, I sailed, and we weren’t two days out from New York when I made the biggest kind of a hit with the dame this necklace belongs to. Seemed to take a shine to me right away.”
“I don’t blame her!” murmured Mr. Cootes devotedly.
“Now don’t you interrupt,” said Miss Peavey, administering a gratified slap. “Where was I? Oh, yes! This here now Lady Constance Keeble I’m telling you about——”
“What’s the matter now?”
“Lady Constance Keeble?”
“That’s the name. She’s Lord Emsworth’s sister, who lives at a big place up the road. Blandings Castle, it’s called. She didn’t seem like she was able to let me out of her sight, and I’ve been with her off and on ever since we landed. I’m visiting at the castle now.”
A deep sigh, like the groan of some great spirit in travail, forced itself from between Mr. Cootes’ lips.
“Now, wouldn’t that jar you?” he demanded of circumambient space. “Of all the lucky ones! Getting into the place like that, with the band playing and a red carpet laid down for you to walk on! Gee, if you fell down a well, Liz, you’d come up with the bucket! You’re a human horseshoe, that’s what you are! Say, listen! Lemme tell ya sumf’n. Do you know what I’ve been doing this afternoon? Only trying to edge into the damn place myself, and getting the air two minutes after I was past the front door.”
“What? You, Ed?”
“Sure! You’re not the only one that’s heard of that collection of ice.”
“Oh, Ed!” Bitter disappointment rang in Miss Peavey’s voice. “If only you could have worked it! Me and you partners again! It hurts to think of it. What was the stuff you pulled to get you in?”
Mr. Cootes so far forgot himself in his agony of spirit as to expectorate disgustedly at a passing frog, and even in this trivial enterprise failure dogged him. He missed the frog, which withdrew into the grass with a cold look of disapproval.
“Me?” said Mr. Cootes. “I thought I’d got it smooth. I’d chummed up with a fellow who had been invited down to the place and had thought it over and decided not to go, so I said to myself, ‘What’s the matter with going there instead of him?’ A gink called McTodd this was, a poet, and none of the folks had ever set eyes on him, so——”
Miss Peavey interrupted.
“You don’t mean to tell me, Ed Cootes, that you thought you could get into the castle by pretending to be Ralston McTodd?”
“Sure I did! Why not? It didn’t seem like there was anything to it. A cinch, that’s what it looked like. And the first guy I meet in the joint is a mutt who knows this McTodd well. We had a couple of words and I beat it. I know when I’m not wanted.”
“But, Ed! Ed! What do you mean? Ralston McTodd is at the castle now, this very moment!”
“Sure! Been there coupla days and more. Long, thin bird with an eyeglass.”
Mr. Cootes’ mind was in a whirl. He could make nothing of this matter.
“Nothing like it! McTodd’s not so darned tall or so thin, if it comes to that. And he didn’t wear no eyeglass all the time I was with him.” He broke off sharply as a monstrous suspicion blazed across his mind. “My gosh! I wonder!” he cried. “Liz! How many men are there in the joint right now?”
“Only four besides Lord Emsworth. There’s a big party coming down for the hunt ball, but that’s all there is at present. There’s Lord Emsworth’s son Freddie——”
“What does he look like?”
“Sort of a dude with blond hair slicked back. Then there’s Mr. Keeble. He’s short with a red face.”
“And Baxter. He’s Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Wears spectacles.”
“And that’s the lot?”
“That’s all there is, not counting this here McTodd and the help.”
Mr. Cootes brought his hand down with a resounding report on his leg. The mildly pleasant look which had been a feature of his appearance during his interview with Psmith had vanished now, its place taken by one of sinister malevolence.
“And I let him shoo me out as if I was a stray pup!” he muttered through clenched teeth. “Of all the bunk games!”
“What are you talking about, Ed?”
“And I thanked him! Thanked him!” moaned Edward Cootes, writhing at the memory. “I thanked him for letting me go!”
“Eddie Cootes, whatever are you——”
“Listen, Liz!” Mr. Cootes mastered his emotion with a strong effort. “I blew into that joint and met this fellow with the eyeglass, and he told me he knew McTodd well and that I wasn’t him. And, from what you tell me, this must be the very guy that’s passing himself off as McTodd! Don’t you see?
“This baby must have started working on the same lines I did. Got to know McTodd, found he wasn’t coming to the castle and came down instead of him, same as me. Only he got there first, damn him! Wouldn’t that give you a pain in the neck?”
Amazement held Miss Peavey dumb for an instant. Then she spoke.
“The big stiff!” said Miss Peavey.
Mr. Cootes, regardless of the lady’s presence, went even further in his censure.
“I had a feeling from the first that there was something not on the level about that guy!” said Miss Peavey. “Gee! He must be after that necklace too.”
“Sure he’s after the necklace,” said Mr. Cootes impatiently. “What did you think he’d come down for? A change of air?”
“But, Ed! Say! You aren’t going to let him get away with it?”
“Am I going to let him get away with it?” said Mr. Cootes, annoyed by the foolish question. “Wake me up in the night and ask me!”
“But what are you going to do?”
“Do!” said Mr. Cootes. “Do! I’ll tell you what I’m going to——” He paused, and the stern resolve that shone in his face seemed to flicker. “Say, what the hell am I going to do?” he went on somewhat weakly.
“You won’t get anything by putting the folks wise that he’s a fake. That would be the finish of him, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere.”
“No,” said Mr. Cootes.
“Wait a minute while I think,” said Miss Peavey.
There was a pause. Miss Peavey sat with knit brows.
“How would it be——” ventured Mr. Cootes.
“Cheese it!” said Miss Peavey.
Mr. Cootes cheesed it. The minutes ticked on.
“I’ve got it!” said Miss Peavey. “This guy’s ace high with Lady Constance. You’ve got to get him alone right away and tell him he’s got to get you invited to the place as a friend of his.”
“I knew you’d think of something, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes almost humbly. “You always were a wonder like that. How am I to get him alone?”
“I can fix that. I’ll ask him to come for a stroll with me. He’s not what you’d call crazy about me, but he can’t very well duck if I keep after him. We’ll go down the drive. You’ll be in the bushes—I’ll show you the place. Then I’ll send him to fetch me a wrap or something, and while I walk on he’ll come back past where you’re hiding and you jump out at him.”
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, lost in admiration, “when it comes to doping out a scheme, you’re the snake’s eyebrows!”
“But what are you going to do if he just turns you down?”
Mr. Cootes uttered a bleak laugh, and from the recesses of his costume produced a neat little revolver.
“He won’t turn me down!” he said.
“FANCY!” said Miss Peavey. “If I had not had a headache and come back early, we should never have had this little chat!”
She gazed up at Psmith in her gentle, wistful way as they started together down the broad gravel drive. A timid, soulful little thing she looked.
“No,” said Psmith.
It was not a gushing reply, but he was not feeling at his sunniest. The idea that Miss Peavey might return from Bridgeford in advance of the main body had not occurred to him. As he would have said himself, he had confused the unlikely with the impossible. And the result had been that she had caught him beyond hope of retreat as he sat in his garden chair and thought of Eve Halliday, who on their return from the lake had been seized with a fresh spasm of conscience and had gone back to the library to put in another hour’s work before dinner. To decline Miss Peavey’s invitation to accompany her down the drive in order to see if there were any signs of those who had been doing honor to the late Hartley Reddish, J.P., M.P., had been out of the question. But Psmith, though he went, went without pleasure. Every moment he spent in her society tended to confirm him more and more in the opinion that Miss Peavey was the curse of the species.
“And I have been so longing,” continued his companion, “to have a nice long talk. All these days I have felt that I haven’t been able to get as near you as I should wish.”
“Well, of course, with the others always about——”
“I meant in a spiritual sense, of course.”
“I wanted so much to discuss your wonderful poetry with you. You haven’t so much as mentioned your work since you came here, have you?”
“Ah, but, you see, I am trying to keep my mind off it.”
“My medical adviser warned me that I had been concentrating a trifle too much. He offered me the choice, in fact, between a complete rest and the loony bin.”
“The what, Mr. McTodd?”
“The lunatic asylum, he meant. These medical men express themselves oddly.”
“But surely, then, you ought not to dream of trying to compose if it is as bad as that! And you told Lord Emsworth that you wished to stay at home this afternoon to write a poem.”
Her glance showed nothing but tender solicitude, but inwardly Miss Peavey was telling herself that that would hold him for a while.
“True,” said Psmith; “true! But you know what art is. An inexorable mistress. The inspiration came and I felt that I must take the risk. But it has left me weak, weak.”
“You big stiff!” said Miss Peavey. But not aloud.
They walked on a few steps.
“In fact,” said Psmith, with another inspiration, “I’m not sure l ought not to be going back and resting now.”
Miss Peavey eyed a clump of bushes some dozen yards further down the drive. They were quivering slightly, as though they sheltered some alien intruder; and Miss Peavey, whose temper was apt to be impatient, registered a resolve to tell Edward Cootes that if he couldn’t hide behind a bush without dancing about like a cat on hot bricks he had better give up his profession and take to selling jellied eels. In which, it may be mentioned, she wronged her old friend.
Cootes had been as still as a statue until a moment before, when a large and excitable beetle had fallen down the space between his collar and his neck, an experience which might well have tried the subtlest woodsman.
“Oh, please don’t go in yet!” said Miss Peavey. “It is such a lovely evening. Hark to the music of the breeze in the tree tops! So soothing. Like a far-away harp. I wonder if it is whispering secrets to the birds.”
Psmith forbore to follow her into this region of speculation and they walked past the bushes in silence. Some little distance further on, however, Miss Peavey seemed to relent.
“You are looking tired, Mr. McTodd,” she said anxiously. “I am afraid you really have been overtaxing your strength. Perhaps, after all, you had better go back and lie down.”
“You think so?”
“I am sure of it. I will just stroll on to the gates and see if the car is in sight.”
“I feel that I am deserting you.”
“Oh, please!” said Miss Peavey deprecatingly.
With something of the feelings of a long-sentence convict unexpectedly released immediately on his arrival in jail, Psmith retraced his steps.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Miss Peavey had disappeared round a bend in the drive, and he paused to light a cigarette. He had just thrown away the match and was walking on, well content with life, when a voice behind him said “Hey!” and the well-remembered form of Mr. Edward Cootes stepped out of the bushes.
“See this?” said Mr. Cootes, exhibiting his revolver.
“I do, indeed, Comrade Cootes,” replied Psmith. “And, if it is not an untimely question, what is the idea?”
“That,” said Mr. Cootes, “is just in case you try any funny business.” And replacing the weapon in a handy pocket he proceeded to slap vigorously at the region between his shoulder blades. He also wriggled with not a little animation. Psmith watched these maneuvers gravely.
“You did not stop me at the pistol’s point merely to watch you go through your Swedish exercises?” he said.
Mr. Cootes paused for an instant.
“Got a beetle or something down my back,” he explained curtly.
“Ah! Then, as you will naturally wish to be alone in such a sad moment, I will be bidding you a cordial good evening and strolling on.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Don’t I?” said Psmith resignedly. “Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are right.” Mr. Cootes replaced the revolver once more. “I take it, then, Comrade Cootes, that you would have speech with me. Carry on, old friend, and get it off your diaphragm. What seems to be on your mind?”
A lucky blow appeared to have stunned Mr. Cootes’ beetle and he was able to give his full attention to the matter in hand. He stared at Psmith with considerable distaste.
“I’m onto you, Bill!” he said.
“My name is not Bill,” said Psmith.
“No,” snapped Mr. Cootes, his annoyance by this time very manifest. “And it’s not McTodd.”
Psmith looked at his companion thoughtfully. This was an unforeseen complication, and for the moment he would readily have admitted that he saw no way of overcoming it. That the other was in no genial frame of mind towards him the expression on his face would have showed, even if actions had not been sufficient indication of the fact. Mr. Cootes, having disposed of his beetle, and being now at leisure to concentrate his whole attention on Psmith, was eying that immaculate young man with a dislike which he did not attempt to conceal.
“Shall we be strolling on?” suggested Psmith. “Walking may assist thought. At the moment I am free to confess that you have opened up a subject which causes me some perplexity. I think, Comrade Cootes, having given the position of affairs a careful examination, that we may say that the next move is with you. I don’t know how you found me out, but you have found me out. What do you propose to do about it?”
“I’d like,” said Mr. Cootes with asperity, “to beat your block off.”
“No doubt. But——”
“I’d like to knock you for a goal!”
Psmith discouraged these Utopian dreams with a deprecating wave of the hand.
“I can readily understand it,” he said courteously. “But to keep within the sphere of practical politics, what is the actual move which you contemplate? You could expose me, no doubt, to my host; but I cannot see how that would profit you.”
“I know that. But you can remember I’ve got that up my sleeve in case you try any funny business.”
“You persist in harping on that possibility, Comrade Cootes. The idea seems to be an obsession with you. I can assure you that I contemplate no such thing. What, to return to the point, do you intend to do?”
They had reached the broad expanse opposite the front door, where the drive, from being a river, spread out into a lake of gravel. Psmith stopped.
“You’ve got to get me into this joint,” said Mr. Cootes.
“I feared that that was what you were about to suggest. In my peculiar position I have naturally no choice but to endeavor to carry out your wishes. Any attempt not to do so would, I imagine, infallibly strike so keen a critic as yourself as funny business. But how can I get you into what you breezily describe as this joint?”
“You can say I’m a friend of yours and ask them to invite me.”
Psmith shook his head gently.
“Not one of your brightest suggestions, Comrade Cootes. Tactfully refraining from stressing the point, which can hardly have escaped your notice, that an instant lowering of my prestige would inevitably ensue should it be supposed that you were a friend of mine, I will merely mention that, being myself merely a guest in this stately home of England, I can hardly go about inviting my chums here for indefinite visits. No, we must find another way. . . . You’re sure you want to stay? Quite so, I merely asked. Now, let us think.”
Through the belt of rhododendrons which jutted out from one side of the castle a portly form at this point made itself visible, moving high and disposedly in the direction of the back premises of the place. It was Beach the butler, returning from the pleasant ramble in which he had indulged himself on the departure of his employer and the rest of the party. Revived by some gracious hours in the open air, Beach was returning to duty; and with the sight of him there came to Psmith a neat solution of the problem confronting him.
“Oh, Beach!” he called.
“Sir?” responded a fruity voice.
There was a brief pause while the butler navigated into the open. He removed the straw hat which he had donned for his excursion and infolded Psmith in a pop-eyed but not unkindly gaze. A thoughtful critic of country-house humanity, he had long since decided that he approved of Psmith. Since Lady Constance had first begun to offer the hospitality of the castle to the literary and artistic world, he had been profoundly shocked by some of the rare and curious specimens who had nodded their disordered locks and flaunted their ill-cut evening clothes at the dinner table over which he presided; and Psmith had come as a pleasant surprise.
“Sorry to trouble you, Beach.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“This,” said Psmith, indicating Mr. Cootes, who was viewing the scene with a wary and suspicious eye, an eye obviously alert for any signs of funny business, “is my man. My valet, you know. He has just arrived from town. I had to leave him behind to attend the bedside of a sick aunt. Your aunt was better when you came away, Cootes?” he inquired graciously.
Edward Cootes was a man who through a checkered career had acquired to a high degree the faculty of quick thinking. He interpreted this question correctly as a feeler with regard to his views on this new development and decided to accept the situation. True, he had hoped to enter the castle in a slightly higher capacity than that of a gentleman’s personal gentleman, but he was an old campaigner. Once in, as he put it to himself with admirable common sense, he would be in.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Capital!” said Psmith. “Capital! Then will you look after Cootes, Beach?”
“Very good, sir,” said the butler in a voice of cordial approval.
The only point he had found to cavil at in Psmith had been removed, for it had pained him hitherto a little that a gentleman with so nice a taste in clothes as that dignified guest should have embarked on a visit to such a place as Blandings Castle without a personal attendant. Now all was explained and, as far as Beach was concerned, forgiven. He proceeded to escort Mr. Cootes to the rear. They disappeared behind the rhododendrons.
They had hardly gone when a sudden thought came to Psmith as he sat once more in the coolness of the hall. Strange, he reflected, how one overlooked these obvious things. That was how generals lost battles. He pressed the button.
“Sir?” said Beach, appearing through the green-baize door.
“Sorry to trouble you again, Beach.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“I hope you will make Cootes comfortable. I think you will like him. His, when you get to know him, is a very winning personality.”
“He seems a nice young fellow, sir.”
“Oh, by the way, Beach, you might ask him if he brought my revolver from town with him.”
“Yes, sir,” said Beach, who would have scorned to betray emotion if it had been a machine gun.
“He was to have picked it up at the gunsmith’s on his way to the station. I think I saw it sticking out of his pocket. You might bring it to me, will you?”
“Very good, sir.”
Beach retired, to return a moment later. On the silver salver which he carried the lethal weapon was duly reposing.
“Your revolver, sir,” said Beach.
“Thank you,” said Psmith.
(to be continued)
Annotations to the UK book edition of this novel are available elsewhere on this site.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In first section of chapter IX, magazine had “J. P., for so many years member of Parliament”; removed space to make it “J.P.” and capitalized “Member” as in other versions.
In chapter IX, section iv, magazine omitted a closing quotation mark following “you’re the snake’s eyebrows!”