The Captain, March 1909
breaking the news.
ASHING away from the call-box, Mike nearly cannoned into Psmith, who was making his way pensively to the telephone with the object of ringing up the box office of the Haymarket Theatre.
“Sorry,” said Mike. “Hullo, Smith.”
“Hullo indeed,” said Psmith, courteously. “I rejoice, Comrade Jackson, to find you going about your commercial duties like a young bomb. How is it, people repeatedly ask me, that Comrade Jackson contrives to catch his employer’s eye and win the friendly smile from the head of his department? My reply is that where others walk, Comrade Jackson runs. Where others stroll, Comrade Jackson legs it like a highly-trained mustang of the prairie. He does not loiter. He gets back to his department bathed in perspiration, in level time. He——”
“I say, Smith,” said Mike, “you might do me a favour.”
“A thousand. Say on.”
“Just look in at the Fixed Deposits and tell old Gregory that I shan’t be with him to-day, will you? I haven’t time myself. I must rush!”
Psmith screwed his eyeglass into his eye, and examined Mike carefully.
“What, exactly——?” he began.
“Tell the old ass I’ve popped off.”
“Just so, just so,” murmured Psmith, as one who assents to a thoroughly reasonable proposition. “Tell him you have popped off. It shall be done. But it is within the bounds of possibility that Comrade Gregory may inquire further. Could you give me some inkling as to why you are popping?”
“My brother Joe has just rung me up from Lord’s. The county are playing Middlesex and they’re one short. He wants me to roll up.”
Psmith shook his head sadly.
“I don’t wish to interfere in any way,” he said, “but I suppose you realize that, by acting thus, you are to some extent knocking the stuffing out of your chances of becoming manager of this bank? If you dash off now, I shouldn’t count too much on that marrying the Governor’s daughter scheme I sketched out for you last night. I doubt whether this is going to help you to hold the gorgeous East in fee, and all that sort of thing.”
“Oh, dash the gorgeous East.”
“By all means,” said Psmith obligingly. “I just thought I’d mention it. I’ll look in at Lord’s this afternoon. I shall send my card up to you, and trust to your sympathetic co-operation to enable me to effect an entry into the pavilion on my face. My father is coming up to London to-day. I’ll bring him along, too.”
“Right ho. Dash it, it’s twenty to. So long. See you at Lord’s.”
Psmith looked after his retreating form till it had vanished through the swing-door, and shrugged his shoulders resignedly, as if disclaiming all responsibility.
“He has gone without his hat,” he murmured. “It seems to me that this is practically a case of running amok. And now to break the news to bereaved Comrade Gregory.”
He abandoned his intention of ringing up the Haymarket Theatre, and turning away from the call-box, walked meditatively down the aisle till he came to the Fixed Deposits Department, where the top of Mr. Gregory’s head was to be seen over the glass barrier, as he applied himself to his work.
Psmith, resting his elbows on the top of the barrier and holding his head between his hands, eyed the absorbed toiler for a moment in silence, then emitted a hollow groan.
Mr. Gregory, who was ruling a line in a ledger—most of the work in the Fixed Deposits Department consisted of ruling lines in ledgers, sometimes in black ink, sometimes in red—started as if he had been stung, and made a complete mess of the ruled line. He lifted a fiery, bearded face, and met Psmith’s eye, which shone with kindly sympathy.
He found words.
“What the dickens are you standing there for, mooing like a blanked cow?” he inquired.
“I was groaning,” explained Psmith with quiet dignity. “And why was I groaning?” he continued. “Because a shadow has fallen on the Fixed Deposits Department. Comrade Jackson, the Pride of the Office, has gone.”
Mr. Gregory rose from his seat.
“I don’t know who the dickens you are——” he began.
“I am Psmith,” said the old Etonian.
“Oh, you’re Smith, are you?”
“With a preliminary P. Which, however, is not sounded.”
“And what’s all this dashed nonsense about Jackson?”
“He is gone. Gone like the dew from the petal of a rose.”
“Gone! Where’s he gone to?”
Psmith waved his hand gently.
“You misunderstand me. Comrade Jackson has not gone to mix with any member of our gay and thoughtless aristocracy. He has gone to Lord’s cricket ground.”
Mr. Gregory’s beard bristled even more than was its wont.
“What!” he roared. “Gone to watch a cricket match! Gone——!”
“Not to watch. To play. An urgent summons, I need not say. Nothing but an urgent summons could have wrenched him from your very delightful society, I am sure.”
Mr. Gregory glared.
“I don’t want any of your impudence,” he said.
Psmith nodded gravely.
“We all have these curious likes and dislikes,” he said tolerantly. “You do not like my impudence. Well, well, some people don’t. And now, having broken the sad news, I will return to my own department.”
“Half a minute. You come with me and tell this yarn of yours to Mr. Bickersdyke.”
“You think it would interest, amuse him? Perhaps you are right. Let us buttonhole Comrade Bickersdyke.”
Mr. Bickersdyke was disengaged. The head of the Fixed Deposits Department stumped into the room. Psmith followed at a more leisurely pace.
“Allow me,” he said with a winning smile, as Mr. Gregory opened his mouth to speak, “to take this opportunity of congratulating you on your success at the election. A narrow but well-deserved victory.”
There was nothing cordial in the manager’s manner.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Myself, nothing,” said Psmith. “But I understand that Mr. Gregory has some communication to make.”
“Tell Mr. Bickersdyke that story of yours,” said Mr. Gregory.
“Surely,” said Psmith reprovingly, “this is no time for anecdotes. Mr. Bickersdyke is busy. He——”
“Tell him what you told me about Jackson.”
Mr. Bickersdyke looked up inquiringly.
“Jackson,” said Psmith, “has been obliged to absent himself from work to-day owing to an urgent summons from his brother, who, I understand, has suffered a bereavement.”
“It’s a lie,” roared Mr. Gregory. “You told me yourself he’d gone to play in a cricket match.”
“True. As I said, he received an urgent summons from his brother.”
“What about the bereavement, then?”
“The team was one short. His brother was very distressed about it. What could Comrade Jackson do? Could he refuse to help his brother when it was in his power? His generous nature is a byword. He did the only possible thing. He consented to play.”
Mr. Bickersdyke spoke.
“Am I to understand,” he asked, with sinister calm, “that Mr. Jackson has left his work and gone off to play in a cricket match?”
“Something of that sort has, I believe, happened,” said Psmith. “He knew, of course,” he added, bowing gracefully in Mr. Gregory’s direction, “that he was leaving his work in thoroughly competent hands.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Bickersdyke. “That will do. You will help Mr. Gregory in his department for the time being, Mr. Smith. I will arrange for somebody to take your place in your own department.”
“It will be a pleasure,” murmured Psmith.
“Show Mr. Smith what he has to do, Mr. Gregory,” said the manager.
They left the room.
“How curious, Comrade Gregory,” mused Psmith, as they went, “are the workings of Fate! A moment back, and your life was a blank. Comrade Jackson, that prince of Fixed Depositors, had gone. How, you said to yourself despairingly, can his place be filled? Then the cloud broke, and the sun shone out again. I came to help you. What you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts. Now show me what I have to do, and then let us make this department sizzle. You have drawn a good ticket, Comrade Gregory.”
IKE got to Lord’s just as the umpires moved out into the field. He raced round to the pavilion. Joe met him on the stairs.
“It’s all right,” he said. “No hurry. We’ve won the toss. I’ve put you in fourth wicket.”
“Right ho,” said Mike. “Glad we haven’t to field just yet.”
“We oughtn’t to have to field to-day if we don’t chuck our wickets away.”
“Like a billiard-table. I’m glad you were able to come. Have any difficulty in getting away?”
Joe Jackson’s knowledge of the workings of a bank was of the slightest. He himself had never, since he left Oxford, been in a position where there were obstacles to getting off to play in first-class cricket. By profession he was agent to a sporting baronet whose hobby was the cricket of the county, and so, far from finding any difficulty in playing for the county, he was given to understand by his employer that that was his chief duty. It never occurred to him that Mike might find his bank less amenable in the matter of giving leave. His only fear, when he rang Mike up that morning, had been that this might be a particularly busy day at the New Asiatic Bank. If there was no special rush of work, he took it for granted that Mike would simply go to the manager, ask for leave to play in the match, and be given it with a beaming smile.
Mike did not answer the question, but asked one on his own account.
“How did you happen to be short?” he said.
“It was rotten luck. It was like this. We were altering our team after the Sussex match, to bring in Ballard, Keene, and Willis. They couldn’t get down to Brighton, as the ’Varsity had a match, but there was nothing on for them in the last half of the week, so they’d promised to roll up.”
Ballard, Keene, and Willis were members of the Cambridge team, all very capable performers and much in demand by the county, when they could get away to play for it.
“Well?” said Mike.
“Well, we all came up by train from Brighton last night. But these three asses had arranged to motor down from Cambridge early to-day, and get here in time for the start. What happens? Why, Willis, who fancies himself as a chauffeur, undertakes to do the driving; and naturally, being an absolute rotter, goes and smashes up the whole concern just outside St. Albans. The first thing I knew of it was when I got to Lord’s at half past ten, and found a wire waiting for me to say that they were all three of them crocked, and couldn’t possibly play. I tell you, it was a bit of a jar to get half an hour before the match started. Willis has sprained his ankle, apparently; Keene’s damaged his wrist; and Ballard has smashed his collar-bone. I don’t suppose they’ll be able to play in the ’Varsity match. Rotten luck for Cambridge. Well, fortunately we’d had two reserve pros with us at Brighton, who had come up to London with the team in case they might be wanted, so, with them, we were only one short. Then I thought of you. That’s how it was.”
“I see,” said Mike. “Who are the pros?”
“Davis and Brockley. Both bowlers. It weakens our batting a lot. Ballard or Willis might have got a stack of runs on this wicket. Still, we’ve got a certain amount of batting as it is. We oughtn’t to do badly, if we’re careful. You’ve been getting some practice, I suppose, this season?”
“In a sort of a way. Nets and so on. No matches of any importance.”
“Dash it, I wish you’d had a game or two in decent-class cricket. Still, nets are better than nothing. I hope you’ll be in form. We may want a pretty long knock from you, if things go wrong. These men seem to be settling down all right, thank goodness,” he added, looking out of the window at the county’s first pair, Warrington and Mills, two professionals, who, as the result of ten minutes’ play, had put up twenty.
“I’d better go and change,” said Mike, picking up his bag. “You’re in first wicket, I suppose?”
“Yes. And Reggie, second wicket.”
Reggie was another of Mike’s brothers, not nearly so fine a player as Joe, but a sound bat, who generally made runs if allowed to stay in.
Mike changed, and went out into the little balcony at the top of the pavilion. He had it to himself. There were not many spectators in the pavilion at this early stage of the game.
There are few more restful places, if one wishes to think, than the upper balconies of Lord’s pavilion. Mike, watching the game making its leisurely progress on the turf below, set himself seriously to review the situation in all its aspects. The exhilaration of bursting the bonds had begun to fade, and he found himself able to look into the matter of his desertion and weigh up the consequences. There was no doubt that he had cut the painter once and for all. Even a friendly-disposed management could hardly overlook what he had done. And the management of the New Asiatic Bank was the very reverse of friendly. Mr. Bickersdyke, he knew, would jump at this chance of getting rid of him. He realized that he must look on his career in the bank as a closed book. It was definitely over, and he must now think about the future.
It was not a time for half-measures. He could not go home. He must carry the thing through, now that he had begun, and find something definite to do, to support himself.
There seemed only one opening for him. What could he do, he asked himself. Just one thing. He could play cricket. It was by his cricket that he must live. He would have to become a professional. Could he get taken on? That was the question. It was impossible that he should play for his own county on his residential qualification. He could not appear as a professional in the same team in which his brothers were playing as amateurs. He must stake all on his birth qualification for Surrey.
On the other hand, had he the credentials which Surrey would want? He had a school reputation. But was that enough? He could not help feeling that it might not be.
Thinking it over more tensely than he had ever thought over anything in his whole life, he saw clearly that everything depended on what sort of show he made in this match which was now in progress. It was his big chance. If he succeeded, all would be well. He did not care to think what his position would be if he did not succeed.
A distant appeal and a sound of clapping from the crowd broke in on his thoughts. Mills was out, caught at the wicket. The telegraph-board gave the total as forty-eight. Not sensational. The success of the team depended largely on what sort of a start the two professionals made.
The clapping broke out again as Joe made his way down the steps. Joe, as an All England player, was a favourite with the crowd.
Mike watched him play an over in his strong, graceful style: then it suddenly occurred to him that he would like to know how matters had gone at the bank in his absence.
He went down to the telephone, rang up the bank, and asked for Psmith.
Presently the familiar voice made itself heard.
“Hullo. Is that Comrade Jackson? How are things progressing?”
“Fairly well. We’re in first. We’ve lost one wicket, and the fifty’s just up. I say, what’s happened at the bank?”
“I broke the news to Comrade Gregory. A charming personality. I feel that we shall be friends.”
“Was he sick?”
“In a measure, yes. Indeed, I may say he practically foamed at the mouth. I explained the situation, but he was not to be appeased. He jerked me into the presence of Comrade Bickersdyke, with whom I had a brief but entertaining chat. He had not a great deal to say, but he listened attentively to my narrative, and eventually told me off to take your place in the Fixed Deposits. That melancholy task I am now performing to the best of my ability. I find the work a little trying. There is too much ledger-lugging to be done for my simple tastes. I have been hauling ledgers from the safe all the morning. The cry is beginning to go round, ‘Psmith is willing, but can his physique stand the strain?’ In the excitement of the moment just now I dropped a somewhat massive tome on to Comrade Gregory’s foot. Unfortunately, I understand, the foot in which he has of late been suffering twinges of gout. I passed the thing off with ready tact, but I cannot deny that there was a certain temporary coolness, which, indeed, is not yet past. These things, Comrade Jackson, are the whirlpools in the quiet stream of commercial life.”
“Have I got the sack?”
“No official pronouncement has been made to me as yet on the subject, but I think I should advise you, if you are offered another job in the course of the day, to accept it. I cannot say that you are precisely the pet of the management just at present. However, I have ideas for your future, which I will divulge when we meet. I propose to slide coyly from the office at about four o’clock. I am meeting my father at that hour. We shall come straight on to Lord’s.”
“Right ho,” said Mike. “I’ll be looking out for you.”
“Is there any little message I can give Comrade Gregory from you?”
“You can give him my love, if you like.”
“It shall be done. Good-bye.”
Mike replaced the receiver, and went up to his balcony again.
As soon as his eye fell on the telegraph-board he saw with a start that things had been moving rapidly in his brief absence. The numbers of the batsmen on the board were three and five.
“Great Scott!” he cried. “Why, I’m in next. What on earth’s been happening?”
He put on his pads hurriedly, expecting every moment that a wicket would fall and find him unprepared. But the batsmen were still together when he rose, ready for the fray, and went downstairs to get news.
He found his brother Reggie in the dressing-room.
“What’s happened?” he said. “How were you out?”
“L.b.w.,” said Reggie. “Goodness knows how it happened. My eyesight must be going. I mistimed the thing altogether.”
“How was Warrington out?”
“Caught in the slips.”
“By Jove!” said Mike. “This is pretty rocky. Three for sixty-one. We shall get mopped.”
“Unless you and Joe do something. There’s no earthly need to get out. The wicket’s as good as you want, and the bowling’s nothing special. Well played, Joe!”
A beautiful glide to leg by the greatest of the Jacksons had rolled up against the pavilion rails. The fieldsmen changed across for the next over.
“If only Peters stops a bit——” began Mike, and broke off. Peters’ off stump was lying at an angle of forty-five degrees.
“Well, he hasn’t,” said Reggie grimly. “Silly ass, why did he hit at that one? All he’d got to do was to stay in with Joe. Now it’s up to you. Do try and do something, or we’ll be out under the hundred.”
Mike waited till the outcoming batsman had turned in at the professionals’ gate. Then he walked down the steps and out into the open, feeling more nervous than he had felt since that far-off day when he had first gone in to bat for Wrykyn against the M.C.C. He found his thoughts flying back to that occasion. To-day, as then, everything seemed very distant and unreal. The spectators were miles away. He had often been to Lord’s as a spectator, but the place seemed entirely unfamiliar now. He felt as if he were in a strange land.
He was conscious of Joe leaving the crease to meet him on his way. He smiled feebly. “Buck up,” said Joe in that robust way of his which was so heartening. “Nothing in the bowling, and the wicket like a shirt-front. Play just as if you were at the nets. And for goodness’ sake don’t try to score all your runs in the first over. Stick in, and we’ve got them.”
Mike smiled again more feebly than before, and made a weird gurgling noise in his throat.
It had been the Middlesex fast bowler who had destroyed Peters. Mike was not sorry. He did not object to fast bowling. He took guard, and looked round him, taking careful note of the positions of the slips.
As usual, once he was at the wicket the paralysed feeling left him. He became conscious again of his power. Dash it all, what was there to be afraid of ? He was a jolly good bat, and he would jolly well show them that he was, too.
The fast bowler, with a preliminary bound, began his run. Mike settled himself into position, his whole soul concentrated on the ball. Everything else was wiped from his mind.
psmith arranges his future.
T was exactly four o’clock when Psmith, sliding unostentatiously from his stool, flicked divers pieces of dust from the leg of his trousers, and sidled towards the basement, where he was wont to keep his hat during business hours. He was aware that it would be a matter of some delicacy to leave the bank at that hour. There was a certain quantity of work still to be done in the Fixed Deposits Department—work in which, by rights, as Mike’s understudy, he should have lent a sympathetic and helping hand. “But what of that?” he mused, thoughtfully smoothing his hat with his knuckles. “Comrade Gregory is a man who takes such an enthusiastic pleasure in his duties that he will go singing about the office when he discovers that he has got a double lot of work to do.”
With this comforting thought, he started on his perilous journey to the open air. As he walked delicately, not courting observation, he reminded himself of the hero of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” On all sides of him lay fearsome beasts, lying in wait to pounce upon him. At any moment Mr. Gregory’s hoarse roar might shatter the comparative stillness, or the sinister note of Mr. Bickersdyke make itself heard.
“However,” said Psmith philosophically, “these are Life’s Trials, and must be borne patiently.”
A roundabout route, via the Postage and Inwards Bills Departments, took him to the swing-doors. It was here that the danger became acute. The doors were well within view of the Fixed Deposits Department, and Mr. Gregory had an eye compared with which that of an eagle was more or less bleared.
Psmith sauntered to the door and pushed it open in a gingerly manner.
As he did so a bellow rang through the office, causing a timid customer, who had come in to arrange about an overdraft, to lose his nerve completely and postpone his business till the following afternoon.
Psmith looked up. Mr. Gregory was leaning over the barrier which divided his lair from the outer world, and gesticulating violently.
“Where are you going?” roared the head of the Fixed Deposits.
Psmith did not reply. With a benevolent smile and a gesture intended to signify all would come right in the future, he slid through the swing-doors, and began to move down the street at a somewhat swifter pace than was his habit.
Once round the corner, he slackened his speed.
“This can’t go on,” he said to himself. “This life of commerce is too great a strain. One is practically a hunted hare. Either the heads of my department must refrain from View Halloos when they observe me going for a stroll, or I abandon Commerce for some less exacting walk in life.”
He removed his hat, and allowed the cool breeze to play upon his forehead. The episode had been disturbing.
He was to meet his father at the Mansion House. As he reached that land-mark he saw with approval that punctuality was a virtue of which he had not the sole monopoly in the Smith family. His father was waiting for him at the tryst.
“Certainly, my boy,” said Mr. Smith senior, all activity in a moment, when Psmith had suggested going to Lord’s. “Excellent. We must be getting on. We must not miss a moment of the match. Bless my soul! I haven’t seen a first-class match this season. Where’s a cab? Hi, cabby! No, that one’s got some one in it. There’s another. Hi! Here, lunatic! Are you blind? Good, he’s seen us. That’s right. Here he comes. Lord’s Cricket Ground, cabby, as quick as you can. Jump in, Rupert, my boy, jump in.”
Psmith rarely jumped. He entered the cab with something of the stateliness of an old Roman Emperor boarding his chariot, and settled himself comfortably in his seat. Mr. Smith dived in like a rabbit.
A vendor of newspapers came to the cab thrusting an evening paper into the interior. Psmith bought it.
“Let’s see how they’re getting on,” he said, opening the paper. “Where are we? Lunch scores. Lord’s. Aha! Comrade Jackson is in form.”
“Jackson?” said Mr. Smith, “is that the same youngster you brought home last summer? The batsman? Is he playing to-day?”
“He was not out thirty at lunch-time. He would appear to be making something of a stand with his brother Joe, who has made sixty-one up to the moment of going to press. It’s possible he may still be in when we get there. In which case we shall not be able to slide into the pavilion.”
“A grand bat, that boy. I said so last summer. Better than any of his brothers. He’s in the bank with you, isn’t he?”
“He was this morning. I doubt, however, whether he can be said to be still in that position.”
“Eh? what? How’s that?”
“There was some slight friction between him and the management. They wished him to be glued to his stool; he preferred to play for the county. I think we may say that Comrade Jackson has secured the Order of the Boot.”
“What? Do you mean to say——?”
Psmith related briefly the history of Mike’s departure.
Mr. Smith listened with interest.
“Well,” he said at last, “hang me if I blame the boy. It’s a sin cooping up a fellow who can bat like that in a bank. I should have done the same myself in his place.”
Psmith smoothed his waistcoat.
“Do you know, father,” he said, “this bank business is far from being much of a catch. Indeed, I should describe it definitely as a bit off. I have given it a fair trial, and I now denounce it unhesitatingly as a shade too thick.”
“What? Are you getting tired of it?”
“Not precisely tired. But, after considerable reflection, I have come to the conclusion that my talents lie elsewhere. At lugging ledgers I am among the also-rans—a mere cipher. I have been wanting to speak to you about this for some time. If you have no objection, I should like to go to the Bar.”
“The Bar? Well——”
“I fancy I should make a pretty considerable hit as a barrister.”
Mr. Smith reflected. The idea had not occurred to him before. Now that it was suggested, his always easily-fired imagination took hold of it readily. There was a good deal to be said for the Bar as a career. Psmith knew his father, and he knew that the thing was practically as good as settled. It was a new idea, and as such was bound to be favourably received.
“What I should do, if I were you,” he went on, as if he were advising a friend on some course of action certain to bring him profit and pleasure, “is to take me away from the bank at once. Don’t wait. There is no time like the present. Let me hand in my resignation to-morrow. The blow to the management, especially to Comrade Bickersdyke, will be a painful one, but it is the truest kindness to administer it swiftly. Let me resign to-morrow, and devote my time to quiet study. Then I can pop up to Cambridge next term, and all will be well.”
“I’ll think it over——” began Mr. Smith.
“Let us hustle,” urged Psmith. “Let us Do It Now. It is the only way. Have I your leave to shoot in my resignation to Comrade Bickersdyke to-morrow morning?”
Mr. Smith hesitated for a moment, then made up his mind.
“Very well,” he said. “I really think it is a good idea. There are great opportunities open to a barrister. I wish we had thought of it before.”
“I am not altogether sorry that we did not,” said Psmith. “I have enjoyed the chances my commercial life has given me of associating with such a man as Comrade Bickersdyke. In many ways a master-mind. But perhaps it is as well to close the chapter. How it happened it is hard to say, but somehow I fancy I did not precisely hit it off with Comrade Bickersdyke. With Psmith, the worker, he had no fault to find; but it seemed to me sometimes, during our festive evenings together at the club, that all was not well. From little, almost imperceptible signs I have suspected now and then that he would just as soon have been without my company. One cannot explain these things. It must have been some incompatibility of temperament. Perhaps he will manage to bear up at my departure. But here we are,” he added, as the cab drew up. “I wonder if Comrade Jackson is still going strong.”
They passed through the turnstile, and caught sight of the telegraph-board.
“By Jove!” said Psmith, “he is. I don’t know if he’s number three or number six. I expect he’s number six. In which case he has got ninety-eight. We’re just in time to see his century.”
OR nearly two hours Mike had been experiencing the keenest pleasure that it had ever fallen to his lot to feel. From the moment he took his first ball till the luncheon interval he had suffered the acutest discomfort. His nervousness had left him to a great extent, but he had never really settled down. Sometimes by luck, and sometimes by skill, he had kept the ball out of his wicket; but he was scratching, and he knew it. Not for a single over had he been comfortable. On several occasions he had edged balls to leg and through the slips in quite an inferior manner, and it was seldom that he managed to hit with the centre of the bat.
Nobody is more alive to the fact that he is not playing up to his true form than the batsman. Even though his score mounted little by little into the twenties, Mike was miserable. If this was the best he could do on a perfect wicket, he felt there was not much hope for him as a professional.
The poorness of his play was accentuated by the brilliance of Joe’s. Joe combined science and vigour to a remarkable degree. He laid on the wood with a graceful robustness which drew much cheering from the crowd. Beside him Mike was oppressed by that leaden sense of moral inferiority which weighs on a man who has turned up to dinner in ordinary clothes when everybody else has dressed. He felt awkward and conspicuously out of place.
Then came lunch—and after lunch a glorious change.
Volumes might be written on the cricket lunch and the influence it has on the run of the game; how it undoes one man, and sends another back to the fray like a giant refreshed; how it turns the brilliant fast bowler into the sluggish medium, and the nervous bat into the masterful smiter.
On Mike its effect was magical. He lunched wisely and well, chewing his food with the concentration of a thirty-three-bites-a-mouthful crank, and drinking dry ginger-ale. As he walked out with Joe after the interval he knew that a change had taken place in him. His nerve had come back, and with it his form.
It sometimes happens at cricket that when one feels particularly fit one gets snapped in the slips in the first over, or clean bowled by a full toss; but neither of these things happened to Mike. He stayed in, and began to score. Now there were no edgings through the slips and snicks to leg. He was meeting the ball in the centre of the bat, and meeting it vigorously. Two boundaries in successive balls off the fast bowler, hard, clean drives past extra-cover, put him at peace with all the world. He was on top. He had found himself.
Joe, at the other end, resumed his brilliant career. His century and Mike’s fifty arrived in the same over. The bowling began to grow loose.
Joe, having reached his century, slowed down somewhat, and Mike took up the running. The score rose rapidly.
A leg-theory bowler kept down the pace of the run-getting for a time, but the bowlers at the other end continued to give away runs. Mike’s score passed from sixty to seventy, from seventy to eighty, from eighty to ninety. When the Smiths, father and son, came on to the ground the total was ninety-eight. Joe had made a hundred and thirty-three.
Mike reached his century just as Psmith and his father took their seats. A square cut off the slow bowler was just too wide for point to get to. By the time third man had sprinted across and returned the ball the batsmen had run two.
Mr. Smith was enthusiastic.
“I tell you,” he said to Psmith, who was clapping in a gently encouraging manner, “the boy’s a wonderful bat. I said so when he was down with us. I remember telling him so myself. ‘I’ve seen your brothers play,’ I said, ‘and you’re better than any of them.’ I remember it distinctly. He’ll be playing for England in another year or two. Fancy putting a cricketer like that into the City! It’s a crime.”
“I gather,” said Psmith, “that the family coppers had got a bit low. It was necessary for Comrade Jackson to do something by way of saving the Old Home.”
“He ought to be at the University. Look, he’s got that man away to the boundary again. They’ll never get him out.”
At six o’clock the partnership was broken, Joe running himself out in trying to snatch a single where no single was. He had made a hundred and eighty-nine.
Mike flung himself down on the turf with mixed feelings. He was sorry Joe was out, but he was very glad indeed of the chance of a rest. He was utterly fagged. A half-day match once a week is no training for first-class cricket. Joe, who had been playing all the season, was as tough as india-rubber, and trotted into the pavilion as fresh as if he had been having a brief spell at the nets. Mike, on the other hand, felt that he simply wanted to be dropped into a cold bath and left there indefinitely. There was only another half-hour’s play, but he doubted if he could get through it.
He dragged himself up wearily as Joe’s successor arrived at the wickets. He had crossed Joe before the latter’s downfall, and it was his turn to take the bowling.
Something seemed to have gone out of him. He could not time the ball properly. The last ball of the over looked like a half-volley, and he hit out at it. But it was just short of a half-volley, and his stroke arrived too soon. The bowler, running in the direction of mid-on, brought off an easy c.-and-b.
Mike turned away towards the pavilion. He heard the gradually swelling applause in a sort of dream. It seemed to him hours before he reached the dressing-room.
He was sitting on a chair, wishing that somebody would come along and take off his pads, when Psmith’s card was brought to him. A few moments later the old Etonian appeared in person.
“Hullo, Smith,” said Mike. “By Jove! I’m done.”
“ ‘How Little Willie Saved the Match,’ ” said Psmith. “What you want is one of those gin and ginger-beers we hear so much about. Remove those pads, and let us flit downstairs in search of a couple. Well, Comrade Jackson, you have fought the good fight this day. My father sends his compliments. He is dining out, or he would have come up. He is going to look in at the flat latish.”
“How many did I get?” asked Mike. “I was so jolly done I didn’t think of looking.”
“A hundred and forty-eight of the best,” said Psmith. “What will they say at the old homestead about this? Are you ready? Then let us test this fruity old ginger-beer of theirs.”
The two batsmen who had followed the big stand were apparently having a little stand all of their own. No more wickets fell before the drawing of stumps. Psmith waited for Mike while he changed, and carried him off in a cab to Simpson’s, a restaurant which, as he justly observed, offered two great advantages, namely, that you need not dress, and, secondly, that you paid your half-crown, and were then at liberty to eat till you were helpless, if you felt so disposed, without extra charge.
Mike stopped short of this giddy height of mastication, but consumed enough to make him feel a great deal better. Psmith eyed his inroads on the menu with approval.
“There is nothing,” he said, “like victualling up before an ordeal.”
“What’s the ordeal?” said Mike.
“I propose to take you round to the club anon, where I trust we shall find Comrade Bickersdyke. We have much to say to one another.”
“Look here, I’m hanged——” began Mike.
“Yes, you must be there,” said Psmith. “Your presence will serve to cheer Comrade B. up. Fate compels me to deal him a nasty blow, and he will want sympathy. I have got to break it to him that I am leaving the bank.”
“What, are you going to chuck it?”
Psmith inclined his head.
“The time,” he said, “has come to part. It has served its turn. The startled whisper runs round the City, ‘Psmith has had sufficient.’ ”
“What are you going to do?”
“I propose to enter the University of Cambridge, and there to study the intricacies of the Law, with a view to having a subsequent dash at becoming Lord Chancellor.”
“By Jove!” said Mike, “you’re lucky. I wish I were coming too.”
Psmith knocked the ash off his cigarette.
“Are you absolutely set on becoming a pro.?” he asked.
“It depends on what you call set. It seems to me it’s about all I can do.”
“I can offer you a not entirely scaly job,” said Smith, “if you feel like taking it. In the course of conversation with my father during the match this afternoon, I gleaned the fact that he is anxious to secure your services as a species of agent. The vast Psmith estates, it seems, need a bright boy to keep an eye upon them. Are you prepared to accept the post?”
“Me! Dash it all, how old do you think I am? I’m only nineteen.”
“I had suspected as much from the alabaster clearness of your unwrinkled brow. But my father does not wish you to enter upon your duties immediately. There would be a preliminary interval of three, possibly four, years at Cambridge, during which, I presume, you would be learning divers facts concerning spuds, turmuts, and the like. At least,” said Psmith airily, “I suppose so. Far be it from me to dictate the line of your researches.”
“Then I’m afraid it’s off,” said Mike gloomily. “My pater couldn’t afford to send me to Cambridge.”
“That obstacle,” said Psmith, “can be surmounted. You would, of course, accompany me to Cambridge, in the capacity, which you enjoy at the present moment, of my confidential secretary and adviser. Any expenses that might crop up would be defrayed from the Psmith family chest.”
Mike’s eyes opened wide again.
“Do you mean,” he asked bluntly, “that your pater would pay for me at the ’Varsity? No, I say—dash it—I mean, I couldn’t——”
“Do you suggest,” said Psmith, raising his eyebrows, “that I should go to the University without a confidential secretary and adviser?”
“No, but I mean——” protested Mike.
“Then that’s settled,” said Psmith. “I knew you would not desert me in my hour of need, Comrade Jackson. ‘What will you do,’ asked my father, alarmed for my safety, ‘among these wild undergraduates? I fear for my Rupert.’ ‘Have no fear, father,’ I replied. ‘Comrade Jackson will be beside me.’ His face brightened immediately. ‘Comrade Jackson,’ he said, ‘is a man in whom I have the supremest confidence. If he is with you I shall sleep easy of nights.’ It was after that that the conversation drifted to the subject of agents.”
Psmith called for the bill and paid it in the affable manner of a monarch signing a charter. Mike sat silent, his mind in a whirl. He saw exactly what had happened. He could almost hear Psmith talking his father into agreeing with his scheme. He could think of nothing to say. As usually happened in any emotional crisis in his life, words absolutely deserted him. The thing was too big. Anything he could say would sound too feeble. When a friend has solved all your difficulties and smoothed out all the rough places which were looming in your path, you cannot thank him as if he had asked you to lunch. The occasion demanded some neat, polished speech; and neat, polished speeches were beyond Mike.
“I say, Psmith——” he began.
“Let us now,” he said, “collect our hats and meander to the club, where, I have no doubt, we shall find Comrade Bickersdyke, all unconscious of impending misfortune, dreaming pleasantly over coffee and a cigar in the lower smoking-room.”
the last sad farewells.
S it happened, that was precisely what Mr. Bickersdyke was doing. He was feeling thoroughly pleased with life. For nearly nine months Psmith had been to him a sort of spectre at the feast inspiring him with an ever-present feeling of discomfort which he had found impossible to shake off. And to-night he saw his way of getting rid of him.
At five minutes past four Mr. Gregory, crimson and wrathful, had plunged into his room with a long statement of how Psmith, deputed to help in the life and thought of the Fixed Deposits Department, had left the building at four o’clock, when there was still another hour and a half’s work to be done.
Moreover, Mr. Gregory deposed, the errant one, seen sliding out of the swinging door, and summoned in a loud, clear voice to come back, had flatly disobeyed and had gone upon his way. “Grinning at me,” said the aggrieved Mr. Gregory, “like a dashed ape.” A most unjust description of the sad, sweet smile which Psmith had bestowed upon him from the doorway.
Ever since that moment Mr. Bickersdyke had felt that there was a silver lining to the cloud. Hitherto Psmith had left nothing to be desired in the manner in which he performed his work. His righteousness in the office had clothed him as in a suit of mail. But now he had slipped. To go off an hour and a half before the proper time, and to refuse to return when summoned by the head of his department—these were offences for which he could be dismissed without fuss. Mr. Bickersdyke looked forward to to-morrow’s interview with his employee.
Meanwhile, having enjoyed an excellent dinner, he was now, as Psmith had predicted, engaged with a cigar and a cup of coffee in the lower smoking-room of the Senior Conservative Club.
Psmith and Mike entered the room when he was about half through these luxuries.
Psmith’s first action was to summon a waiter, and order a glass of neat brandy.
“Not for myself,” he explained to Mike. “For Comrade Bickersdyke. He is about to sustain a nasty shock, and may need a restorative at a moment’s notice. For all we know, his heart may not be strong. In any case, it is safest to have a pick-me-up handy.”
He paid the waiter, and advanced across the room, followed by Mike. In his hand, extended at arm’s length, he bore the glass of brandy.
Mr. Bickersdyke caught sight of the procession, and started. Psmith set the brandy down very carefully on the table, beside the manager’s coffee cup, and, dropping into a chair, regarded him pityingly through his eye-glass. Mike, who felt embarrassed, took a seat some little way behind his companion. This was Psmith’s affair, and he proposed to allow him to do the talking.
Mr. Bickersdyke, except for a slight deepening of the colour of his complexion, gave no sign of having seen them. He puffed away at his cigar, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“An unpleasant task lies before us,” began Psmith in a low, sorrowful voice, “and it must not be shirked. Have I your ear, Mr. Bickersdyke?”
Addressed thus directly, the manager allowed his gaze to wander from the ceiling. He eyed Psmith for a moment like an elderly basilisk, then looked back at the ceiling again.
“I shall speak to you to-morrow,” he said.
Psmith heaved a heavy sigh.
“You will not see us to-morrow,” he said, pushing the brandy a little nearer.
Mr. Bickersdyke’s eyes left the ceiling once more.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Drink this,” urged Psmith sympathetically, holding out the glass. “Be brave,” he went on rapidly. “Time softens the harshest blows. Shocks stun us for the moment, but we recover. Little by little we come to ourselves again. Life, which we had thought could hold no more pleasure for us, gradually shows itself not wholly grey.”
Mr. Bickersdyke seemed about to make an observation at this point, but Psmith, with a wave of the hand, hurried on.
“We find that the sun still shines, the birds still sing. Things which used to entertain us resume their attraction. Gradually we emerge from the soup, and begin——”
“If you have anything to say to me,” said the manager, “I should be glad if you would say it, and go.”
“You prefer me not to break the bad news gently?” said Psmith. “Perhaps you are wise. In a word, then,”—he picked up the brandy and held it out to him—“Comrade Jackson and myself are leaving the bank.”
“I am aware of that,” said Mr. Bickersdyke drily.
Psmith put down the glass.
“You have been told already?” he said. “That accounts for your calm. The shock has expended its force on you, and can do no more. You are stunned. I am sorry, but it had to be. You will say that it is madness for us to offer our resignations, that our grip on the work of the bank made a prosperous career in Commerce certain for us. It may be so. But somehow we feel that our talents lie elsewhere. To Comrade Jackson the management of the Psmith estates seems the job on which he can get the rapid half-Nelson. For my own part, I feel that my long suit is the Bar. I am a poor, unready speaker, but I intend to acquire a knowledge of the Law which shall outweigh this defect. Before leaving you, I should like to say—I may speak for you as well as myself, Comrade Jackson——?”
Mike uttered his first contribution to the conversation—a gurgle—and relapsed into silence again.
“I should like to say,” continued Psmith, “how much Comrade Jackson and I have enjoyed our stay in the bank. The insight it has given us into your masterly handling of the intricate mechanism of the office has been a treat we would not have missed. But our place is elsewhere.”
He rose. Mike followed his example with alacrity. It occurred to Mr. Bickersdyke, as they turned to go, that he had not yet been able to get in a word about their dismissal. They were drifting away with all the honours of war.
“Come back,” he cried.
Psmith paused and shook his head sadly.
“This is unmanly, Comrade Bickersdyke,” he said. “I had not expected this. That you should be dazed by the shock was natural. But that you should beg us to reconsider our resolve and return to the bank is unworthy of you. Be a man. Bite the bullet. The first keen pang will pass. Time will soften the feeling of bereavement. You must be brave. Come, Comrade Jackson.”
Mike responded to the call without hesitation.
“We will now,” said Psmith, leading the way to the door, “push back to the flat. My father will be round there soon.” He looked over his shoulder. Mr. Bickersdyke appeared to be wrapped in thought.
“A painful business,” sighed Psmith. “The man seems quite broken up. It had to be, however. The bank was no place for us. An excellent career in many respects, but unsuitable for you and me. It is hard on Comrade Bickersdyke, especially as he took such trouble to get me into it, but I think we may say that we are well out of the place.”
Mike’s mind roamed into the future. Cambridge first, and then an open-air life of the sort he had always dreamed of. The Problem of Life seemed to him to be solved. He looked on down the years, and he could see no troubles there of any kind whatsoever. Reason suggested that there were probably one or two knocking about somewhere, but this was no time to think of them. He examined the future, and found it good.
“I should jolly well think,” he said simply, “that we might.”
Printer’s error corrected above:
In third paragraph of ch. 30, magazine had “Moreover, Mr. Gregory, the errant deposed one, seen sliding...”