The Captain, October 1909
* Former tales about “Psmith” are “The Lost Lambs” and “The New Fold,” in Vols. XIX and XX of The Captain.
HE man in the street would not have known it, but a great crisis was imminent in New York journalism.
Everything seemed much as usual in the city. The cars ran blithely on Broadway. Newsboys shouted “Wux-try!” into the ears of nervous pedestrians with their usual Caruso-like vim. Society passed up and down Fifth Avenue in its automobiles, and was there a furrow of anxiety upon Society’s brow? None. At a thousand street corners a thousand policemen preserved their air of massive superiority to the things of this world. Not one of them showed the least sign of perturbation. Nevertheless, the crisis was at hand. Mr. J. Fillken Wilberfloss, editor-in-chief of Cosy Moments, was about to leave his post and start on a ten weeks’ holiday.
In New York one may find every class of paper which the imagination can conceive. Every grade of society is catered for. If an Esquimau came to New York, the first thing he would find on the bookstalls in all probability would be the Blubber Magazine, or some similar production written by Esquimaux for Esquimaux. Everybody reads in New York, and reads all the time. The New Yorker peruses his favourite paper while he is being jammed into a crowded compartment on the subway or leaping like an antelope into a moving street car.
There was thus a public for Cosy Moments. Cosy Moments, as its name (an inspiration of Mr. Wilberfloss’s own) is designed to imply, is a journal for the home. It is the sort of paper which the father of the family is expected to take home with him from his office and read aloud to the chicks before bed-time. It was founded by its proprietor, Mr. Benjamin White, as an antidote to yellow journalism. One is forced to admit that up to the present yellow journalism seems to be competing against it with a certain measure of success. Headlines are still of as generous a size as heretofore, and there is no tendency on the part of editors to scamp the details of the last murder-case.
Nevertheless, Cosy Moments thrives. It has its public.
Its contents are mildly interesting, if you like that sort of thing. There is a “Moments in the Nursery” page, conducted by Luella Granville Waterman, to which parents are invited to contribute the bright speeches of their offspring, and which bristles with little stories about the nursery canary, by Jane (aged six), and other works of rising young authors. There is a “Moments of Meditation” page, conducted by the Reverend Edwin T. Philpotts; a “Moments Among the Masters” page, consisting of assorted chunks looted from the literature of the past, when foreheads were bulgy and thoughts profound, by Mr. Wilberfloss himself; one or two other pages; a short story; answers to correspondents on domestic matters; and a “Moments of Mirth” page, conducted by an alleged humorist of the name of B. Henderson Asher, which is about the most painful production ever served up to a confiding public.
The guiding spirit of Cosy Moments was Mr. Wilberfloss. Circumstances had left the development of the paper mainly to him. For the past twelve months the proprietor had been away in Europe, taking the waters at Carlsbad, and the sole control of Cosy Moments had passed into the hands of Mr. Wilberfloss. Nor had he proved unworthy of the trust or unequal to the duties. In that year Cosy Moments had reached the highest possible level of domesticity. Anything not calculated to appeal to the home had been rigidly excluded. And as a result the circulation had increased steadily. Two extra pages had been added, “Moments Among the Shoppers” and “Moments with Society.” And the advertisements had grown in volume. But the work had told upon the Editor. Work of that sort carries its penalties with it. Success means absorption, and absorption spells softening of the brain. Whether it was the strain of digging into the literature of the past every week, or the effort of reading B. Henderson Asher’s “Moments of Mirth” is uncertain. At any rate, his duties, combined with the heat of a New York summer, had sapped Mr. Wilberfloss’s health to such an extent that the doctor had ordered him ten weeks’ complete rest in the mountains. This Mr. Wilberfloss could, perhaps, have endured, if this had been all. There are worse places than the mountains of America in which to spend ten weeks of the tail-end of summer, when the sun has ceased to grill and the mosquitoes have relaxed their exertions. But it was not all. The doctor, a far-seeing man who went down to first causes, had absolutely declined to consent to Mr. Wilberfloss’s suggestion that he should keep in touch with the paper during his vacation. He was adamant. He had seen copies of Cosy Moments once or twice, and he refused to permit a man in the editor’s state of health to come in contact with Luella Granville Waterman’s “Moments in the Nursery” and B. Henderson Asher’s “Moments of Mirth.” The medicine-man put his foot down firmly.
“You must not see so much as the cover of the paper for ten weeks,” he said. “And I’m not so sure that it shouldn’t be longer. You must forget that such a paper exists. You must dismiss the whole thing from your mind, live in the open, and develop a little flesh and muscle.”
To Mr. Wilberfloss the sentence was almost equivalent to penal servitude. It was with tears in his voice that he was giving his final instructions to his sub-editor, in whose charge the paper would be left during his absence. He had taken a long time doing this. For two days he had been fussing in and out of the office, to the discontent of its inmates, more especially Billy Windsor, the sub-editor, who was now listening moodily to the last harangue of the series, with the air of one whose heart is not in the subject. Billy Windsor was a tall, wiry, loose-jointed young man, with unkempt hair and the general demeanour of a caged eagle. Looking at him, one could picture him astride of a broncho, rounding up cattle, or cooking his dinner at a camp-fire. Somehow he did not seem to fit into the Cosy Moments atmosphere.
“Well, I think that that is all, Mr. Windsor,” chirruped the editor. He was a little man with a long neck and large pince-nez, and he always chirruped. “You understand the general lines on which I think the paper should be conducted?” The sub-editor nodded. Mr. Wilberfloss made him tired. Sometimes he made him more tired than at other times. At the present moment he filled him with an aching weariness. The editor meant well, and was full of zeal, but he had a habit of covering and recovering the ground. He possessed the art of saying the same obvious thing in a number of different ways to a degree which is found usually only in politicians. If Mr. Wilberfloss had been a politician, he would have been one of those dealers in glittering generalities who used to be fashionable in American politics.
“There is just one thing,” he continued “Mrs. Julia Burdett Parslow is a little inclined—I may have mentioned this before——”
“You did,” said the sub-editor.
Mr. Wilberfloss chirruped on, unchecked.
“A little inclined to be late with her ‘Moments with Budding Girlhood.’ If this should happen while I am away, just write her a letter, quite a pleasant letter, you understand, pointing out the necessity of being in good time. The machinery of a weekly paper, of course, cannot run smoothly unless contributors are in good time with their copy. She is a very sensible woman, and she will understand, I am sure, if you point it out to her.”
The sub-editor nodded.
“And there is just one other thing. I wish you would correct a slight tendency I have noticed lately in Mr. Asher to be just a trifle—well, not precisely risky, but perhaps a shade broad in his humour.”
“His what?” said Billy Windsor.
“Mr. Asher is a very sensible man, and he will be the first to acknowledge that his sense of humour has led him just a little beyond the bounds. You understand? Well, that is all, I think. Now I must really be going, or I shall miss my train. Good-bye, Mr. Windsor.”
“Good-bye,” said the sub-editor thankfully.
At the door Mr. Wilberfloss paused with the air of an exile bidding farewell to his native land, sighed, and trotted out.
Billy Windsor put his feet upon the table, and with a deep scowl resumed his task of reading the proofs of Luella Granville Waterman’s “Moments in the Nursery.”
ILLY WINDSOR HAD started life twenty-five years before this story opens on his father’s ranch in Wyoming. From there he had gone to a local paper of the type whose Society column consists of such items as “Pawnee Jim Williams was to town yesterday with a bunch of other cheap skates. We take this opportunity of once more informing Jim that he is a liar and a skunk,” and whose editor works with a revolver on his desk and another in his hip-pocket. Graduating from this, he had proceeded to a reporter’s post on a daily paper in a Kentucky town, where there were blood feuds and other Southern devices for preventing life from becoming dull. All this time New York, the magnet, had been tugging at him. All reporters dream of reaching New York. At last, after four years on the Kentucky paper, he had come East, minus the lobe of one ear and plus a long scar that ran diagonally across his left shoulder, and had worked without much success as a free-lance. He was tough and ready for anything that might come his way, but these things are a great deal a matter of luck. The cub-reporter cannot make a name for himself unless he is favoured by fortune. Things had not come Billy Windsor’s way. His work had been confined to turning in reports of fires and small street-accidents, which the various papers to which he supplied them cut down to a couple of inches.
Billy had been in a bad way when he had happened upon the sub-editorship of Cosy Moments. He despised the work with all his heart, and the salary was infinitesimal. But it was regular, and for a while Billy felt that a regular salary was the greatest thing on earth. But he still dreamed of winning through to a post on one of the big New York dailies, where there was something doing and a man would have a chance of showing what was in him.
The unfortunate thing, however, was that Cosy Moments took up his time so completely. He had no chance of attracting the notice of big editors by his present work, and he had no leisure for doing any other.
All of which may go to explain why his normal aspect was that of a caged eagle.
To him, brooding over the outpourings of Luella Granville Waterman, there entered Pugsy Maloney, the office-boy, bearing a struggling cat.
“Say!” said Pugsy.
He was a nonchalant youth, with a freckled, mask-like face, the expression of which never varied. He appeared unconscious of the cat. Its existence did not seem to occur to him.
“Well?” said Billy, looking up. “Hello, what have you got there?”
Master Maloney eyed the cat, as if he were seeing it for the first time.
“It’s a kitty what I got in de street,” he said.
“Don’t hurt the poor brute. Put her down.”
Master Maloney obediently dropped the cat, which sprang nimbly on to an upper shelf of the book-case.
“I wasn’t hoitin’ her,” he said, without emotion. “Dere was two fellers in de street sickin’ a dawg on to her. An’ I comes up an’ says, ‘G’wan! What do youse t’ink you’re doin,’ fussin’ de poor dumb animal?’ An’ one of de guys, he says, ‘G’wan! Who do youse t’ink youse is?’ An’ I says, ‘I’m de guy what’s goin’ to swat youse one on de coco if youse don’t quit fussin’ de poor dumb animal.’ So wit dat he makes a break at swattin’ me one, but I swats him one, an’ I swats de odder feller one, an’ den I swats dem bote some more, an’ I gets de kitty, an’ I brings her in here, cos I t’inks maybe youse’ll look after her.”
And having finished this Homeric narrative, Master Maloney fixed an expressionless eye on the ceiling, and was silent.
Billy Windsor, like most men of the plains, combined the toughest of muscle with the softest of hearts. He was always ready at any moment to become the champion of the oppressed on the slightest provocation. His alliance with Pugsy Maloney had begun on the occasion when he had rescued that youth from the clutches of a large negro who, probably from the soundest of motives, was endeavouring to slay him. Billy had not inquired into the rights and wrongs of the matter: he had merely sailed in and rescued the office-boy. And Pugsy, though he had made no verbal comment on the affair, had shown in many ways that he was not ungrateful.
“Bully for you, Pugsy!” he cried. “You’re a little sport. Here” —he produced a dollar-bill—“go out and get some milk for the poor brute. She’s probably starving. Keep the change.”
“Sure thing,” assented Master Maloney. He strolled slowly out, while Billy Windsor, mounting a chair, proceeded to chirrup and snap his fingers in the effort to establish the foundations of an entente cordiale with the rescued cat.
By the time that Pugsy returned, carrying a five-cent bottle of milk, the animal had vacated the book-shelf, and was sitting on the table, washing her face. The milk having been poured into the lid of a tobacco-tin, in lieu of a saucer, she suspended her operations and adjourned for refreshments. Billy, business being business, turned again to Luella Granville Waterman, but Pugsy, having no immediate duties on hand, concentrated himself on the cat.
“Say!” he said.
“What about her?”
“Pipe de leather collar she’s wearing.”
Billy had noticed earlier in the proceedings that a narrow leather collar encircled the cat’s neck. He had not paid any particular attention to it. “What about it?” he said.
“Guess I know where dat kitty belongs. Dey all have dose collars. I guess she’s one of Bat Jarvis’s kitties. He’s got a lot of dem for fair, and every one wit one of dem collars round deir neck.”
“Who’s Bat Jarvis? Do you mean the gang-leader?”
“Sure. He’s a cousin of mine,” said Master Maloney with pride.
“Is he?” said Billy. “Nice sort of fellow to have in the family. So you think that’s his cat?”
“Sure. He’s got twenty-t’ree of dem, and dey all has dose collars.”
“Are you on speaking terms with the gentleman?”
“Do you know Bat Jarvis to speak to?”
“Sure. He’s me cousin.”
“Well, tell him I’ve got the cat, and that if he wants it he’d better come round to my place. You know where I live?”
“Fancy you being a cousin of Bat’s, Pugsy. Why did you never tell us? Are you going to join the gang some day?”
“Nope. Nothin’ doin’. I’m goin’ to be a cow-boy.”
“Good for you. Well, you tell him when you see him. And now, my lad, out you get, because if I’m interrupted any more I shan’t get through to-night.”
“Sure,” said Master Maloney, retiring.
“Oh, and Pugsy.”
“Go out and get a good big basket. I shall want one to carry this animal home in.”
“Sure,” said Master Maloney.
T would ill beseem me, Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith, thoughtfully sipping his coffee, “to run down the metropolis of a great and friendly nation, but candour compels me to state that New York is in some respects a singularly blighted town.”
“What’s the matter with it?” asked Mike.
“Too decorous, Comrade Jackson. I came over here principally, it is true, to be at your side, should you be in any way persecuted by scoundrels. But at the same time I confess that at the back of my mind there lurked a hope that stirring adventures might come my way. I had heard so much of the place. Report had it that an earnest seeker after amusement might have a tolerably spacious rag in this modern Byzantium. I thought that a few weeks here might restore that keen edge to my nervous system which the languor of the past term had in a measure blunted. I wished my visit to be a tonic rather than a sedative. I anticipated that on my return the cry would go round Cambridge, ‘Psmith has been to New York. He is full of oats. For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise. He is hot stuff. Rah!’ But what do we find?”
He paused, and lit a cigarette.
“What do we find?” he asked again.
“I don’t know,” said Mike. “What?”
“A very judicious query, Comrade Jackson. What, indeed? We find a town very like London. A quiet, self-respecting town, admirable to the apostle of social reform, but disappointing to one who, like myself, arrives with a brush and a little bucket of red paint, all eager for a treat. I have been here a week, and I have not seen a single citizen clubbed by a policeman. No negroes dance cake-walks in the street. No cow-boy has let off his revolver at random in Broadway. The cables flash the message across the ocean, ‘Psmith is losing his illusions.’ ”
Mike had come to America with a team of the M.C.C. which was touring the cricket-playing section of the United States. Psmith had accompanied him in a private capacity. It was the end of their first year at Cambridge, and Mike, with a century against Oxford to his credit, had been one of the first to be invited to join the tour. Psmith, who had played cricket in a rather desultory way at the University, had not risen to these heights. He had merely taken the opportunity of Mike’s visit to the other side to accompany him. Cambridge had proved pleasant to Psmith, but a trifle quiet. He had welcomed the chance of getting a change of scene.
So far the visit had failed to satisfy him. Mike, whose tastes in pleasure were simple, was delighted with everything. The cricket so far had been rather of the picnic order, but it was very pleasant; and there was no limit to the hospitality with which the visitors were treated. It was this more than anything which had caused Psmith’s grave disapproval of things American. He was not a member of the team, so that the advantages of the hospitality did not reach him. He had all the disadvantages. He saw far too little of Mike. When he wished to consult his confidential secretary and adviser on some aspect of Life, that invaluable official was generally absent at dinner with the rest of the team. To-night was one of the rare occasions when Mike could get away. Psmith was becoming bored. New York is a better city than London to be alone in, but it is never pleasant to be alone in any big city.
As they sat discussing New York’s shortcomings over their coffee, a young man passed them, carrying a basket, and seated himself at the next table. He was a tall, loose-jointed young man, with unkempt hair.
A waiter made an ingratiating gesture towards the basket, but the young man stopped him. “Not on your life, sonny,” he said. “This stays right here.” He placed it carefully on the floor beside his chair, and proceeded to order dinner.
Psmith watched him thoughtfully.
“I have a suspicion, Comrade Jackson,” he said, “that this will prove to be a somewhat stout fellow. If possible, we will engage him in conversation. I wonder what he’s got in the basket. I must get my Sherlock Holmes system to work. What is the most likely thing for a man to have in a basket? You would reply, in your unthinking way, ‘sandwiches.’ Error. A man with a basketful of sandwiches does not need to dine at restaurants. We must try again.”
The young man at the next table had ordered a jug of milk to be accompanied by a saucer. These having arrived, he proceeded to lift the basket on to his lap, pour the milk into the saucer, and remove the lid from the basket. Instantly, with a yell which made the young man’s table the centre of interest to all the diners, a large grey cat shot up like a rocket, and darted across the room. Psmith watched with silent interest.
It is hard to astonish the waiters at a New York restaurant, but when the cat performed this feat there was a squeal of surprise all round the room. Waiters rushed to and fro, futile but energetic. The cat, having secured a strong strategic position on the top of a large oil-painting which hung on the far wall, was expressing loud disapproval of the efforts of one of the waiters to drive it from its post with a walking-stick. The young man, seeing these manœuvres, uttered a wrathful shout, and rushed to the rescue.
“Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith, rising, “we must be in this.”
When they arrived on the scene of hostilities, the young man had just possessed himself of the walking-stick, and was deep in a complex argument with the head-waiter on the ethics of the matter. The head-waiter, a stout, impassive German, had taken his stand on a point of etiquette. “Id is,” he said, “to bring gats into der grill-room vorbidden. No gendleman would gats into der grill-room bring. Der gendleman——”
The young man meanwhile was making enticing sounds, to which the cat was maintaining an attitude of reserved hostility. He turned furiously on the head-waiter.
“For goodness’ sake,” he cried, “can’t you see the poor brute’s scared stiff? Why don’t you clear your gang of German comedians away, and give her a chance to come down?”
“Der gendleman——” argued the head-waiter.
Psmith stepped forward and touched him on the arm.
“May I have a word with you in private?”
Psmith drew him away.
“You don’t know who that is?” he whispered, nodding towards the young man.
“No gendleman he is,” asserted the head-waiter. “Der gendleman would not der gat into——”
Psmith shook his head pityingly.
“These petty matters of etiquette are not for his Grace—but, hush, he wishes to preserve his incognito.”
“You understand. You are a man of the world, Comrade—may I call you Freddie? You understand, Comrade Freddie, that in a man in his Grace’s position a few little eccentricities may be pardoned. You follow me, Frederick?”
The head-waiter’s eye rested upon the young man with a new interest and respect.
“He is noble?” he inquired with awe.
“He is here strictly incognito, you understand,” said Psmith warningly. The head-waiter nodded.
The young man meanwhile had broken down the cat’s reserve, and was now standing with her in his arms, apparently anxious to fight all-comers in her defence. The head-waiter approached deferentially.
“Der gendleman,” he said, indicating Psmith, who beamed in a friendly manner through his eye-glass, “haf everything exblained. All will now quite satisfactory be.”
The young man looked inquiringly at Psmith, who winked encouragingly. The head-waiter bowed.
“Let me present Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith, “the pet of our English Smart Set. I am Psmith, one of the Shropshire Psmiths. This is a great moment. Shall we be moving back? We were about to order a second instalment of coffee, to correct the effects of a fatiguing day. Perhaps you would care to join us?”
“Sure,” said the alleged duke.
“This,” said Psmith, when they were seated, and the head-waiter had ceased to hover, “is a great meeting. I was complaining with some acerbity to Comrade Jackson, before you introduced your very interesting performing-animal speciality, that things in New York were too quiet, too decorous. I have an inkling, Comrade——”
“Windsor’s my name.”
“I have an inkling, Comrade Windsor, that we see eye to eye on the subject.”
“I guess that’s right. I was raised in the plains, and I lived in Kentucky a while. There’s more doing there in a day than there is here in a month. Say, how did you fix it with the old man?”
“With Comrade Freddie? I have a certain amount of influence with him. He is content to order his movements in the main by my judgment. I assured him that all would be well, and he yielded.” Psmith gazed with interest at the cat, which was lapping milk from the saucer. “Are you training that animal for a show of some kind, Comrade Windsor, or is it a domestic pet?”
“I’ve adopted her. The office-boy on our paper got her away from a dog this morning, and gave her to me.”
“Cosy Moments,” said Billy Windsor, with a touch of shame.
“Cosy Moments?” said Psmith reflectively. “I regret that the bright little sheet has not come my way up to the present. I must seize an early opportunity of perusing it.”
“Don’t you do it.”
“You’ve no paternal pride in the little journal?”
“It’s bad enough to hurt,” said Billy Windsor disgustedly. “If you really want to see it, come along with me to my place, and I’ll show you a copy.”
“It will be a pleasure,” said Psmith. “Comrade Jackson, have you any previous engagement for to-night?”
“I’m not doing anything,” said Mike.
“Then let us stagger forth with Comrade Windsor. While he is loading up that basket, we will be collecting our hats. . . . I am not half sure, Comrade Jackson,” he added, as they walked out, “that Comrade Windsor may not prove to be the genial spirit for whom I have been searching. If you could give me your undivided company, I should ask no more. But with you constantly away, mingling with the gay throng, it is imperative that I have some solid man to accompany me in my ramblings hither and thither. It is possible that Comrade Windsor may possess the qualifications necessary for the post. But here he comes. Let us foregather with him and observe him in private life before arriving at any premature decision.”
ILLY WINDSOR lived in a single room on East Fourteenth Street. Space in New York is valuable, and the average bachelor’s apartments consist of one room with a bathroom opening off it. During the daytime this one room loses all traces of being used for sleeping purposes at night. Billy Windsor’s room was very much like a public-school study. Along one wall ran a settee. At night this became a bed; but in the daytime it was a settee and nothing but a settee. There was no space for a great deal of furniture. There was one rocking-chair, two ordinary chairs, a table, a book-stand, a typewriter—nobody uses pens in New York—and on the walls a mixed collection of photographs, drawings, knives, and skins, relics of their owner’s prairie days. Over the door was the head of a young bear.
Billy’s first act on arriving in this sanctum was to release the cat, which, having moved restlessly about for some moments, finally came to the conclusion that there was no means of getting out, and settled itself on a corner of the settee. Psmith, sinking gracefully down beside it, stretched out his legs and lit a cigarette. Mike took one of the ordinary chairs; and Billy Windsor, planting himself in the rocker, began to rock rhythmically to and fro, a performance which he kept up untiringly all the time.
“A peaceful scene,” observed Psmith. “Three great minds, keen, alert, restless during business hours, relax. All is calm and pleasant chit-chat. You have snug quarters up here, Comrade Windsor. I hold that there is nothing like one’s own roof-tree. It is a great treat to one who, like myself, is located in one of these vast caravanserai—to be exact, the Astor—to pass a few moments in the quiet privacy of an apartment such as this.”
“It’s beastly expensive at the Astor,” said Mike.
“The place has that drawback also. Anon, Comrade Jackson, I think we will hunt around for some such cubby-hole as this, built for two. Our nervous systems must be conserved.”
“On Fourth Avenue,” said Billy Windsor, “you can get quite good flats very cheap. Furnished, too. You should move there. It’s not much of a neighbourhood. I don’t know if you mind that?”
“Far from it, Comrade Windsor. It is my aim to see New York in all its phases. If a certain amount of harmless revelry can be whacked out of Fourth Avenue, we must dash there with the vim of highly-trained smell-dogs. Are you with me, Comrade Jackson?”
“All right,” said Mike.
“And now, Comrade Windsor, it would be a pleasure to me to peruse that little journal of which you spoke. I have had so few opportunities of getting into touch with the literature of this great country.”
Billy Windsor stretched out an arm and pulled a bundle of papers from the book-stand. He tossed them on to the settee by Psmith’s side.
“There you are,” he said, “if you really feel like it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’ve got the nerve, read on.”
Psmith had picked up one of the papers when there came a shuffling of feet in the passage outside, followed by a knock upon the door. The next moment there appeared in the doorway a short, stout young man. There was an indescribable air of toughness about him, partly due to the fact that he wore his hair in a well-oiled fringe almost down to his eyebrows, which gave him the appearance of having no forehead at all. His eyes were small and set close together. His mouth was wide, his jaw prominent. Not, in short, the sort of man you would have picked out on sight as a model citizen.
His entrance was marked by a curious sibilant sound, which, on acquaintance, proved to be a whistled tune. During the interview which followed, except when he was speaking, the visitor whistled softly and unceasingly.
“Mr. Windsor?” he said to the company at large.
Psmith waved a hand towards the rocking-chair. “That,” he said, “is Comrade Windsor. To your right is Comrade Jackson, England’s favourite son. I am Psmith.”
The visitor blinked furtively, and whistled another tune. As he looked round the room, his eye fell on the cat. His face lit up.
“Say!” he said, stepping forward, and touching the cat’s collar, “mine, mister.”
“Are you Bat Jarvis?” asked Windsor with interest.
“Sure,” said the visitor, not without a touch of complacency, as of a monarch abandoning his incognito.
For Mr. Jarvis was a celebrity.
By profession he was a dealer in animals, birds, and snakes. He had a fancier’s shop in Groome Street, in the heart of the Bowery. This was on the ground-floor. His living abode was in the upper storey of that house, and it was there that he kept the twenty-three cats whose necks were adorned with leather collars, and whose numbers had so recently been reduced to twenty-two. But it was not the fact that he possessed twenty-three cats with leather collars that made Mr. Jarvis a celebrity.
A man may win a purely local reputation, if only for eccentricity, by such means. But Mr. Jarvis’s reputation was far from being purely local. Broadway knew him, and the Tenderloin. Tammany Hall knew him. Long Island City knew him. In the underworld of New York his name was a by-word. For Bat Jarvis was the leader of the famous Groome Street Gang, the most noted of all New York’s collections of Apaches. More, he was the founder and originator of it. And, curiously enough it had come into being from motives of sheer benevolence. In Groome Street in those days there had been a dance-hall, named the Shamrock and presided over by one Maginnis, an Irishman and a friend of Bat’s. At the Shamrock nightly dances were given and well attended by the youth of the neighbourhood at ten cents a head. All might have been well, had it not been for certain other youths of the neighbourhood who did not dance and so had to seek other means of getting rid of their surplus energy. It was the practice of these light-hearted sportsmen to pay their ten cents for admittance, and once in, to make hay. And this habit, Mr. Maginnis found, was having a marked effect on his earnings. For genuine lovers of the dance fought shy of a place where at any moment Philistines might burst in and break heads and furniture. In this crisis the proprietor thought of his friend Bat Jarvis. Bat at that time had a solid reputation as a man of his hands. It is true that, as his detractors pointed out, he had killed no one—a defect which he had subsequently corrected; but his admirers based his claim to respect on his many meritorious performances with fists and with the black-jack. And Mr. Maginnis for one held him in the very highest esteem. To Bat accordingly he went, and laid his painful case before him. He offered him a handsome salary to be on hand at the nightly dances and check undue revelry by his own robust methods. Bat had accepted the offer. He had gone to Shamrock Hall; and with him, faithful adherents, had gone such stalwarts as Long Otto, Red Logan, Tommy Jefferson, and Pete Brodie. Shamrock Hall became a place of joy and order; and—more important still—the nucleus of the Groome Street Gang had been formed. The work progressed. Off-shoots of the main gang sprang up here and there about the East Side. Small thieves, pickpockets and the like, flocked to Mr. Jarvis as their tribal leader and protector and he protected them. For he, with his followers, were of use to the politicians. The New York gangs, and especially the Groome Street Gang, have brought to a fine art the gentle practice of “repeating”; which, broadly speaking, is the art of voting a number of different times at different polling-stations on election days. A man who can vote, say, ten times in a single day for you, and who controls a great number of followers who are also prepared, if they like you, to vote ten times in a single day for you, is worth cultivating. So the politicians passed the word to the police, and the police left the Groome Street Gang unmolested and they waxed fat and flourished.
Such was Bat Jarvis.
“Pipe de collar,” said Mr. Jarvis, touching the cat’s neck. “Mine, mister.”
“Pugsy said it must be,” said Billy Windsor. “We found two fellows setting a dog on to it, so we took it in for safety.”
Mr. Jarvis nodded approval.
“There’s a basket here, if you want it,” said Billy.
“Nope. Here, kit.”
Mr. Jarvis stooped, and, still whistling softly, lifted the cat. He looked round the company, met Psmith’s eye-glass, was transfixed by it for a moment, and finally turned again to Billy Windsor.
“Say!” he said, and paused. “Obliged,” he added.
He shifted the cat on to his left arm, and extended his right hand to Billy.
“Shake!” he said.
Billy did so.
Mr. Jarvis continued to stand and whistle for a few moments more.
“Say!” he said at length, fixing his roving gaze once more upon Billy. “Obliged. Fond of de kit, I am.”
Psmith nodded approvingly.
“And rightly,” he said. “Rightly, Comrade Jarvis. She is not unworthy of your affection. A most companionable animal, full of the highest spirits. Her knockabout act in the restaurant would have satisfied the most jaded critic. No diner-out can afford to be without such a cat. Such a cat spells death to boredom.”
Mr. Jarvis eyed him fixedly, as if pondering over his remarks. Then he turned to Billy again.
“Say!” he said. “Any time you’re in bad. Glad to be of service. You know the address. Groome Street. Bat Jarvis. Good night. Obliged.”
He paused and whistled a few more bars, then nodded to Psmith and Mike, and left the room. They heard him shuffling downstairs.
“A blithe spirit,” said Psmith. “Not garrulous, perhaps, but what of that? I am a man of few words myself. Comrade Jarvis’s massive silences appeal to me. He seems to have taken a fancy to you, Comrade Windsor.”
Billy Windsor laughed.
“I don’t know that he’s just the sort of side-partner I’d go out of my way to choose, from what I’ve heard about him. Still, if one got mixed up with any of that East-Side crowd, he would be a mighty useful friend to have. I guess there’s no harm done by getting him grateful.”
“Assuredly not,” said Psmith. “We should not despise the humblest. And now, Comrade Windsor,” he said, taking up the paper again, “let me concentrate myself tensely on this very entertaining little journal of yours. Comrade Jackson, here is one for you. For sound, clear-headed criticism,” he added to Billy, “Comrade Jackson’s name is a by-word in our English literary salons. His opinion will be both of interest and of profit to you, Comrade Windsor.”
Y the way,” said Psmith, “what is your exact position on this paper? Practically, we know well, you are its back-bone, its life-blood; but what is your technical position? When your proprietor is congratulating himself on having secured the ideal man for your job, what precise job does he congratulate himself on having secured the ideal man for?”
“Merely sub? You deserve a more responsible post than that, Comrade Windsor. Where is your proprietor? I must buttonhole him and point out to him what a wealth of talent he is allowing to waste itself. You must have scope.”
“He’s in Europe. At Carlsbad, or somewhere. He never comes near the paper. He just sits tight and draws the profits. He lets the editor look after things. Just at present I’m acting as editor.”
“Ah! then at last you have your big chance. You are free, untrammelled.”
“You bet I’m not,” said Billy Windsor. “Guess again. There’s no room for developing free untrammelled ideas on this paper. When you’ve looked at it, you’ll see that each page is run by some one. I’m simply the fellow who minds the shop.”
Psmith clicked his tongue sympathetically. “It is like setting a gifted French chef to wash up dishes,” he said. “A man of your undoubted powers, Comrade Windsor, should have more scope. That is the cry, more scope. I must look into this matter. When I gaze at your broad, bulging forehead, when I see the clear light of intelligence in your eyes, and hear the grey matter splashing restlessly about in your cerebellum, I say to myself without hesitation, ‘Comrade Windsor must have more scope.’ ” He looked at Mike, who was turning over the leaves of his copy of Cosy Moments in a sort of dull despair. “Well, Comrade Jackson, and what is your verdict?”
Mike looked at Billy Windsor. He wished to be polite, yet he could find nothing polite to say. Billy interpreted the look.
“Go on,” he said. “Say it. It can’t be worse than what I think.”
“I expect some people would like it awfully,” said Mike.
“They must, or they wouldn’t buy it. I’ve never met any of them yet, though.”
Psmith was deep in Luella Granville Waterman’s “Moments in the Nursery.” He turned to Billy Windsor.
“Luella Granville Waterman,” he said, “is not by any chance your nom-de-plume, Comrade Windsor?”
“Not on your life. Don’t think it.”
“I am glad,” said Psmith courteously. “For, speaking as man to man, I must confess that for sheer, concentrated bilge she gets away with the biscuit with almost insolent ease. Luella Granville Waterman must go.”
“How do you mean?”
“She must go,” repeated Psmith firmly. “Your first act, now that you have swiped the editorial chair, must be to sack her.”
“But, say, I can’t. The editor thinks a heap of her stuff.”
“We cannot help his troubles. We must act for the good of the paper. Moreover, you said, I think, that he was away?”
“So he is. But he’ll come back.”
“Sufficient unto the day, Comrade Windsor. I have a suspicion that he will be the first to approve your action. His holiday will have cleared his brain. Make a note of improvement number one—the sacking of Luella Granville Waterman.”
“I guess it’ll be followed pretty quick by improvement number two—the sacking of William Windsor. I can’t go monkeying about with the paper that way.”
Psmith reflected for a moment.
“Has this job of yours any special attractions for you, Comrade Windsor?”
“I guess not.”
“As I suspected. You yearn for scope. What exactly are your ambitions?”
“I want to get a job on one of the big dailies. I don’t see how I’m going to fix it, though, at the present rate.”
Psmith rose, and tapped him earnestly on the chest.
“Comrade Windsor, you have touched the spot. You are wasting the golden hours of your youth. You must move. You must hustle. You must make Windsor of Cosy Moments a name to conjure with. You must boost this sheet up till New York rings with your exploits. On the present lines that is impossible. You must strike out a line for yourself. You must show the world that even Cosy Moments cannot keep a good man down.”
He resumed his seat.
“How do you mean?” said Billy Windsor.
Psmith turned to Mike.
“Comrade Jackson, if you were editing this paper, is there a single feature you would willingly retain?”
“I don’t think there is,” said Mike. “It’s all pretty bad rot.”
“My opinion in a nutshell,” said Psmith, approvingly. “Comrade Jackson,” he explained, turning to Billy, “has a secure reputation on the other side for the keenness and lucidity of his views upon literature. You may safely build upon him. In England when Comrade Jackson says ‘Turn’ we all turn. Now, my views on the matter are as follows. Cosy Moments, in my opinion (worthless, were it not backed by such a virtuoso as Comrade Jackson), needs more snap, more go. All these putrid pages must disappear. Letters must be despatched to-morrow morning, informing Luella Granville Waterman and the others (and in particular B. Henderson Asher, who from a cursory glance strikes me as an ideal candidate for a lethal chamber) that, unless they cease their contributions instantly, you will be compelled to place yourself under police protection. After that we can begin to move.”
Billy Windsor sat and rocked himself in his chair without replying. He was trying to assimilate this idea. So far the grandeur of it had dazed him. It was too spacious, too revolutionary. Could it be done? It would undoubtedly mean the sack when Mr. J. Fillken Wilberfloss returned and found the apple of his eye torn asunder and, so to speak, deprived of its choicest pips. On the other hand. . . . His brow suddenly cleared. After all, what was the sack? One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name, and he would have no name as long as he clung to his present position. The editor would be away ten weeks. He would have ten weeks in which to try himself out. Hope leaped within him. In ten weeks he could change Cosy Moments into a real live paper. He wondered that the idea had not occurred to him before. The trifling fact that the despised journal was the property of Mr. Benjamin White, and that he had no right whatever to tinker with it without that gentleman’s approval, may have occurred to him, but, if it did, it occurred so momentarily that he did not notice it. In these crises one cannot think of everything.
“I’m on,” he said, briefly.
Psmith smiled approvingly.
“That,” he said, “is the right spirit. You will, I fancy, have little cause to regret your decision. Fortunately, if I may say so, I happen to have a certain amount of leisure just now. It is at your disposal. I have had little experience of journalistic work, but I foresee that I shall be a quick learner. I will become your sub-editor, without salary.”
“Bully for you,” said Billy Windsor.
“Comrade Jackson,” continued Psmith, “is unhappily more fettered. The exigencies of his cricket tour will compel him constantly to be gadding about, now to Philadelphia, now to Saskatchewan, anon to Onehorseville, Ga. His services, therefore, cannot be relied upon continuously. From him, accordingly, we shall expect little but moral support. An occasional congratulatory telegram. Now and then a bright smile of approval. The bulk of the work will devolve upon our two selves.”
“Let it devolve,” said Billy Windsor, enthusiastically.
“Assuredly,” said Psmith. “And now to decide upon our main scheme. You, of course, are the editor, and my suggestions are merely suggestions, subject to your approval. But, briefly, my idea is that Cosy Moments should become red-hot stuff. I could wish its tone to be such that the public will wonder why we do not print it on asbestos. We must chronicle all the live events of the day, murders, fires, and the like in a manner which will make our readers’ spines thrill. Above all, we must be the guardians of the People’s rights. We must be a search-light, showing up the dark spot in the souls of those who would endeavour in any way to do the PEOPLE in the eye. We must detect the wrong-doer, and deliver him such a series of resentful biffs that he will abandon his little games and become a model citizen. The details of the campaign we must think out after, but I fancy that, if we follow those main lines, we shall produce a bright, readable little sheet which will in a measure make this city sit up and take notice. Are you with me, Comrade Windsor?”
“Surest thing you know,” said Billy with fervour.
O alter the scheme of a weekly from cover to cover is not a task that is completed without work. The dismissal of Cosy Moments’ entire staff of contributors left a gap in the paper which had to be filled, and owing to the nearness of press day there was no time to fill it before the issue of the next number. The editorial staff had to be satisfied with heading every page with the words “Look out! Look out!! Look out!!! See foot of page!!!!” printing in the space at the bottom the legend, “Next Week! See Editorial!” and compiling in conjunction a snappy editorial, setting forth the proposed changes. This was largely the work of Psmith.
“Comrade Jackson,” he said to Mike, as they set forth one evening in search of their new flat, “I fancy I have found my métier. Commerce, many considered, was the line I should take; and doubtless, had I stuck to that walk in life, I should soon have become a financial magnate. But something seemed to whisper to me, even in the midst of my triumphs in the New Asiatic Bank, that there were other fields. For the moment it seems to me that I have found the job for which nature specially designed me. At last I have Scope. And without Scope, where are we? Wedged tightly in among the ribstons. There are some very fine passages in that editorial. The last paragraph, beginning ‘Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled,’ in particular. I like it. It strikes the right note. It should stir the blood of a free and independent people till they sit in platoons on the doorstep of our office, waiting for the next number to appear.”
“How about that next number?” asked Mike. “Are you and Windsor going to fill the whole paper yourselves?”
“By no means. It seems that Comrade Windsor knows certain stout fellows, reporters on other papers, who will be delighted to weigh in with stuff for a moderate fee.”
“How about Luella What’s-her-name and the others? How have they taken it?”
“Up to the present we have no means of ascertaining. The letters giving them the miss-in-baulk in no uncertain voice were only despatched yesterday. But it cannot affect us how they writhe beneath the blow. There is no reprieve.”
Mike roared with laughter.
“It’s the rummiest business I ever struck,” he said. “I’m jolly glad it’s not my paper. It’s pretty lucky for you two lunatics that the proprietor’s in Europe.”
Psmith regarded him with pained surprise.
“I do not understand you, Comrade Jackson. Do you insinuate that we are not acting in the proprietor’s best interests? When he sees the receipts, after we have handled the paper for a while, he will go singing about his hotel. His beaming smile will be a by-word in Carlsbad. Visitors will be shown it as one of the sights. His only doubt will be whether to send his money to the bank or keep it in tubs and roll in it. We are on to a big thing, Comrade Jackson. Wait till you see our first number.”
“And how about the editor? I should think that first number would bring him back foaming at the mouth.”
“I have ascertained from Comrade Windsor that there is nothing to fear from that quarter. By a singular stroke of good fortune Comrade Wilberfloss—his name is Wilberfloss—has been ordered complete rest during his holiday. The kindly medico, realising the fearful strain inflicted by reading Cosy Moments in its old form, specifically mentioned that the paper was to be withheld from him until he returned.”
“And when he does return, what are you going to do?”
“By that time, doubtless, the paper will be in so flourishing a state that he will confess how wrong his own methods were and adopt ours without a murmur. In the meantime, Comrade Jackson, I would call your attention to the fact that we seem to have lost our way. In the exhilaration of this little chat, our footsteps have wandered. Where we are, goodness only knows. I can only say that I shouldn’t care to have to live here.”
“There’s a name up on the other side of that lamp-post.”
“Let us wend in that direction. Ah, Pleasant Street? I fancy that the master-mind who chose that name must have had the rudiments of a sense of humour.”
It was indeed a repellent neighbourhood in which they had arrived. The New York slum stands in a class of its own. It is unique. The height of the houses and the narrowness of the streets seem to condense its unpleasantness. All the smells and noises, which are many and varied, are penned up in a sort of canyon, and gain in vehemence from the fact. The masses of dirty clothes hanging from the fire-escapes increase the depression. Nowhere in the city does one realise so fully the disadvantages of a lack of space. New York, being an island, has had no room to spread. It is a town of human sardines. In the poorer quarters the congestion is unbelievable.
Psmith and Mike picked their way through the groups of ragged children who covered the roadway. There seemed to be thousands of them.
“Poor kids!” said Mike. “It must be awful living in a hole like this.”
Psmith said nothing. He was looking thoughtful. He glanced up at the grimy buildings on each side. On the lower floors one could see into dark, bare rooms. These were the star apartments of the tenement-houses, for they opened on to the street, and so got a little light and air. The imagination jibbed at the thought of the back rooms.
“I wonder who owns these places,” said Psmith. “It seems to me that there’s what you might call room for improvement. It wouldn’t be a scaly idea to turn that Cosy Moments search-light we were talking about on to them.”
They walked on a few steps.
“Look here,” said Psmith, stopping. “This place makes me sick. I’m going in to have a look round. I expect some muscular householder will resent the intrusion and boot us out, but we’ll risk it.”
Followed by Mike, he turned in at one of the doors. A group of men leaning against the opposite wall looked at them without curiosity. Probably they took them for reporters hunting for a story. Reporters were the only tolerably well-dressed visitors Pleasant Street ever entertained.
It was almost pitch dark on the stairs. They had to feel their way up. Most of the doors were shut, but one on the second floor was ajar. Through the opening they had a glimpse of a number of women sitting round on boxes. The floor was covered with little heaps of linen. All the women were sewing. Mike, stumbling in the darkness, almost fell against the door. None of the women looked up at the noise. Time was evidently money in Pleasant Street.
On the fourth floor there was an open door. The room was empty. It was a good representative Pleasant Street back-room. The architect in this case had given rein to a passion for originality. He had constructed the room without a window of any sort whatsoever. There was a square opening in the door. Through this, it was to be presumed, the entire stock of air used by the occupants was supposed to come.
They stumbled downstairs again and out into the street. By contrast with the conditions indoors the street seemed spacious and breezy.
“This,” said Psmith, as they walked on, “is where Cosy Moments gets busy at a singularly early date.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Mike.
“I propose, Comrade Jackson,” said Psmith, “if Comrade Windsor is agreeable, to make things as warm for the owner of this place as I jolly well know how. What he wants, of course,” he proceeded in the tone of a family doctor prescribing for a patient, “is disembowelling. I fancy, however, that a mawkishly sentimental legislature will prevent our performing that national service. We must endeavour to do what we can by means of kindly criticism in the paper. And now, having settled that important point, let us try and get out of this place of wrath, and find Fourth Avenue.”
N the following morning Mike had to leave with the team for Philadelphia. Psmith came down to the ferry to see him off, and hung about moodily until the time of departure.
“It is saddening me to a great extent, Comrade Jackson,” he said, “this perpetual parting of the ways. When I think of the happy moments we have spent hand-in-hand across the seas, it fills me with a certain melancholy to have you flitting off in this manner without me. Yet there is another side to the picture. To me there is something singularly impressive in our unhesitating reply to the calls of Duty. Your Duty summons you to Philadelphia, to knock the cover off the local bowling. Mine retains me here, to play my part in the great work of making New York sit up. By the time you return, with a century or two, I trust, in your bag, the good work should, I fancy, be getting something of a move on. I will complete the arrangements with regard to the flat.”
After leaving Pleasant Street they had found Fourth Avenue by a devious route, and had opened negotiations for a large flat near Thirtieth Street. It was immediately above a saloon, which was something of a drawback, but the landlord had assured them that the voices of the revellers did not penetrate to it.
When the ferry-boat had borne Mike off across the river, Psmith turned to stroll to the office of Cosy Moments. The day was fine, and on the whole, despite Mike’s desertion, he felt pleased with life. Psmith’s was a nature which required a certain amount of stimulus in the way of gentle excitement; and it seemed to him that the conduct of the remodelled Cosy Moments might supply this. He liked Billy Windsor, and looked forward to a not unenjoyable time till Mike should return.
The offices of Cosy Moments were in a large building in the street off Madison Avenue. They consisted of a sort of outer lair, where Pugsy Maloney spent his time reading tales of life in the prairies and heading off undesirable visitors; a small room, which would have belonged to the stenographer if Cosy Moments had possessed one; and a larger room beyond, which was the editorial sanctum.
As Psmith passed through the front door, Pugsy Maloney rose.
“Say!” said Master Maloney.
“Say on, Comrade Maloney,” said Psmith.
“Dey’re in dere.”
“A whole bunch of dem.”
Psmith inspected Master Maloney through his eye-glass. “Can you give me any particulars?” he asked patiently. “You are well-meaning, but vague, Comrade Maloney. Who are in there?”
“De whole bunch of dem. Dere’s Mr. Asher and the Rev. Philpotts and a gazebo what calls himself Waterman and about ’steen more of dem.”
A faint smile appeared upon Psmith’s face.
“And is Comrade Windsor in there, too, in the middle of them?”
“Nope. Mr. Windsor’s out to lunch.”
“Comrade Windsor knows his business. Why did you let them in?”
“Sure, dey just butted in,” said Master Maloney complainingly. “I was sittin’ here, readin’ me book, when de foist of de guys blew in. ‘Boy,’ says he, ‘is de editor in?’ ‘Nope,’ I says. ‘I’ll go in an’ wait,’ says he. ‘Nuttin’ doin’,’ says I. ‘Nix on de goin’ in act.’ I might as well have saved me breat’. In he butts, and he’s in der now. Well, in about t’ree minutes along comes another gazebo. ‘Boy,’ says he, ‘is de editor in?’ ‘Nope,’ I says. ‘I’ll wait,’ says he lightin’ out for de door. Wit dat I sees de proposition’s too fierce for muh. I can’t keep dese big husky guys out if dey’s for buttin’ in. So when de rest of de bunch comes along, I don’t try to give dem de t’run down. I says, ‘Well, gents,’ I says, ‘it’s up to youse. De editor ain’t in, but if youse wants to join de giddy t’rong, push t’roo inter de inner room. I can’t be boddered.’ ”
“And what more could you have said?” agreed Psmith approvingly. “Tell me, Comrade Maloney, what was the general average aspect of these determined spirits?”
“Did they seem to you to be gay, lighthearted? Did they carol snatches of song as they went? Or did they appear to be looking for some one with a hatchet?”
“Dey was hoppin’-mad, de whole bunch of dem.”
“As I suspected. But we must not repine, Comrade Maloney. These trifling contretemps are the penalties we pay for our high journalistic aims. I will interview these merchants. I fancy that with the aid of the Diplomatic Smile and the Honeyed Word I may manage to pull through. It is as well, perhaps, that Comrade Windsor is out. The situation calls for the handling of a man of delicate culture and nice tact. Comrade Windsor would probably have endeavoured to clear the room with a chair. If he should arrive during the séance, Comrade Maloney, be so good as to inform him of the state of affairs, and tell him not to come in. Give him my compliments, and tell him to go out and watch the snowdrops growing in Madison Square Garden.”
“Sure,” said Master Maloney.
Then Psmith, having smoothed the nap of his hat and flicked a speck of dust from his coat-sleeve, walked to the door of the inner room and went in.
(To be continued)