The Captain, January 1910
* Former tales about “Psmith” are “The Lost Lambs” and “The New Fold,” in Vols. XIX and XX of The Captain.
HE promptitude and despatch with which the Kid had attended to the gentleman with the black-jack had not been without its effect on the followers of the stricken one. Physical courage is not an outstanding quality of the New York hooligan. His personal preference is for retreat when it is a question of unpleasantness with a stranger. And, in any case, even when warring among themselves, the gangs exhibit a lively distaste for the hard knocks of hand-to-hand fighting. Their chosen method of battling is to lie down on the ground and shoot. This is more suited to their physique, which is rarely great. The gangsman, as a rule, is stunted and slight of build.
The Kid’s rapid work on the present occasion created a good deal of confusion. There was no doubt that much had been hoped for from speedy attack. Also, the generalship of the expedition had been in the hands of the fallen warrior. His removal from the sphere of active influence had left the party without a head. And, to add to their discomfiture, they could not account for the Kid. Psmith they knew, and Billy Windsor they knew, but who was this stranger with the square shoulders and the upper-cut that landed like a cannon-ball? Something approaching a panic prevailed among the gang.
It was not lessened by the behaviour of the intended victims. Billy Windsor, armed with the big stick which he had bought after the visit of Mr. Parker, was the first to join issue. He had been a few paces behind the others during the black-jack incident; but, dark as it was, he had seen enough to show him that the occasion was, as Psmith would have said, one for the Shrewd Blow rather than the Prolonged Parley. With a whoop of the purest Wyoming brand, he sprang forward into the confused mass of the enemy. A moment later Psmith and the Kid followed, and there raged over the body of the fallen leader a battle of Homeric type.
It was not a long affair. The rules and conditions governing the encounter offended the delicate sensibilities of the gang. Like artists who feel themselves trammelled by distasteful conventions, they were damped and could not do themselves justice. Their forte was long-range fighting with pistols. With that they felt en rapport. But this vulgar brawling in the darkness with muscular opponents who hit hard and often with sticks and hands was distasteful to them. They could not develop any enthusiasm for it. They carried pistols, but it was too dark and the combatants were too entangled to allow them to use these. Besides, this was not the dear, homely old Bowery, where a gentleman may fire a pistol without exciting vulgar comment. It was up-town, where curious crowds might collect at the first shot.
There was but one thing to be done. Reluctant as they might be to abandon their fallen leader, they must tear themselves away. Already they were suffering grievously from the stick, the black-jack, and the lightning blows of the Kid. For a moment they hung, wavering; then stampeded in half a dozen different directions, melting into the night whence they had come.
Billy, full of zeal, pursued one fugitive some fifty yards down the street, but his quarry, exhibiting a rare turn of speed, easily outstripped him.
He came back, panting, to find Psmith and the Kid examining the fallen leader of the departed ones with the aid of a match, which went out just as Billy arrived.
“It is our friend of the earlier part of the evening, Comrade Windsor,” said Psmith. “The merchant with whom we hob-nobbed on our way to the Highfield. In a moment of imprudence I mentioned Cosy Moments. I fancy that this was his first intimation that we were in the offing. His visit to the Highfield was paid, I think, purely from sport-loving motives. He was not on our trail. He came merely to see if Comrade Brady was proficient with his hands. Subsequent events must have justified our fighting editor in his eyes. It seems to be a moot point whether he will ever recover consciousness.”
“Mighty good thing if he doesn’t,” said Billy uncharitably.
“From one point of view, Comrade Windsor, yes. Such an event would undoubtedly be an excellent thing for the public good. But from our point of view, it would be as well if he were to sit up and take notice. We could ascertain from him who he is and which particular collection of horny-handeds he represents. Light another match, Comrade Brady.”
The Kid did so. The head of it fell off and dropped upon the up-turned face. The hooligan stirred, shook himself, sat up, and began to mutter something in a foggy voice.
“He’s still woozy,” said the Kid.
“Still—what exactly, Comrade Brady?”
“In the air,” explained the Kid. “Bats in the belfry. Dizzy. See what I mean? It’s often like that when a feller puts one in with a bit of weight behind it just where that one landed. Gum! I remember when I fought Martin Kelly; I was only starting to learn the game then. Martin and me was mixing it good and hard all over the ring, when suddenly he puts over a stiff one right on the point. What do you think I done? Fall down and take the count? Not on your life. I just turns round and walks straight out of the ring to my dressing-room. Willie Harvey, who was seconding me, comes tearing in after me, and finds me getting into my clothes. ‘What’s doing, Kid?’ he asks. ‘I’m going fishin’, Willie,’ I says. ‘It’s a lovely day.’ ‘You’ve lost the fight,’ he says. ‘Fight?’ says I. ‘What fight?’ See what I mean? I hadn’t a notion of what had happened. It was a half an hour and more before I could remember a thing.”
During this reminiscence, the man on the ground had contrived to clear his mind of the mistiness induced by the Kid’s upper-cut. The first sign he showed of returning intelligence was a sudden dash for safety up the road. But he had not gone five yards when he sat down limply.
The Kid was inspired to further reminiscence. “Guess he’s feeling pretty poor,” he said. “It’s no good him trying to run for a while after he’s put his chin in the way of a real live one. I remember when Joe Peterson put me out, way back when I was new to the game—it was the same year I fought Martin Kelly. He had an awful punch, had old Joe, and he put me down and out in the eighth round. After the fight they found me on the fire-escape outside my dressing-room. ‘Come in, Kid,’ says they. ‘It’s all right, chaps,’ I says, ‘I’m dying.’ Like that. ‘It’s all right, chaps, I’m dying.’ Same with this guy. See what I mean?”
They formed a group about the fallen black-jack expert.
“Pardon us,” said Psmith courteously, “for breaking in upon your reverie; but, if you could spare us a moment of your valuable time, there are one or two things which we should like to know.”
“Sure thing,” agreed the Kid.
“In the first place,” continued Psmith, “would it be betraying professional secrets if you told us which particular bevy of energetic sandbaggers it is to which you are attached?”
“Gent,” explained the Kid, “wants to know what’s your gang.”
The man on the ground muttered something that to Psmith and Billy was unintelligible.
“It would be a charity,” said the former, “if some philanthropist would give this blighter elocution lessons. Can you interpret, Comrade Brady?”
“Says it’s the Three Points,” said the Kid.
“The Three Points? Let me see, is that Dude Dawson, Comrade Windsor, or the other gentleman?”
“It’s Spider Reilly. Dude Dawson runs the Table Hill crowd.”
“Perhaps this is Spider Reilly?”
“Nope,” said the Kid. “I know the Spider. This ain’t him. This is some other mutt.”
“Which other mutt in particular?” asked Psmith. “Try and find out, Comrade Brady. You seem to be able to understand what he says. To me, personally, his remarks sound like the output of a gramophone with a hot potato in its mouth.”
“Says he’s Jack Repetto,” announced the interpreter.
There was another interruption at this moment. The bashful Mr. Repetto, plainly a man who was not happy in the society of strangers, made another attempt to withdraw. Reaching out a pair of lean hands, he pulled the Kid’s legs from under him with a swift jerk, and, wriggling to his feet, started off again down the road. Once more, however, desire outran performance. He got as far as the nearest street-lamp, but no farther. The giddiness seemed to overcome him again, for he grasped the lamp-post, and, sliding slowly to the ground, sat there motionless.
The Kid, whose fall had jolted and bruised him, was inclined to be wrathful and vindictive. He was the first of the three to reach the elusive Mr. Repetto, and if that worthy had happened to be standing instead of sitting it might have gone hard with him. But the Kid was not the man to attack a fallen foe. He contented himself with brushing the dust off his person and addressing a richly abusive flow of remarks to Mr. Repetto.
Under the rays of the lamp it was possible to discern more closely the features of the black-jack exponent. There was a subtle but noticeable resemblance to those of Mr. Bat Jarvis. Apparently the latter’s oiled forelock, worn low over the forehead, was more a concession to the general fashion prevailing in gang circles than an expression of personal taste. Mr. Repetto had it, too. In his case it was almost white, for the fallen warrior was an albino. His eyes, which were closed, had white lashes and were set as near together as Nature had been able to manage without actually running them into one another. His under-lip protruded and drooped. Looking at him, one felt instinctively that no judging committee of a beauty contest would hesitate a moment before him.
It soon became apparent that the light of the lamp, though bestowing the doubtful privilege of a clearer view of Mr. Repetto’s face, held certain disadvantages. Scarcely had the staff of Cosy Moments reached the faint yellow pool of light, in the centre of which Mr. Repetto reclined, than, with a suddenness which caused them to leap into the air, there sounded from the darkness down the road the crack-crack-crack of a revolver. Instantly from the opposite direction came other shots. Three bullets flicked grooves in the roadway almost at Billy’s feet. The Kid gave a sudden howl. Psmith’s hat, suddenly imbued with life, sprang into the air and vanished, whirling into the night.
The thought did not come to them consciously at the moment, there being little time to think, but it was evident as soon as, diving out of the circle of light into the sheltering darkness, they crouched down and waited for the next move, that a somewhat skilful ambush had been effected. The other members of the gang, who had fled with such remarkable speed, had by no means been eliminated altogether from the game. While the questioning of Mr. Repetto had been in progress, they had crept back, unperceived except by Mr. Repetto himself. It being too dark for successful shooting, it had become Mr. Repetto’s task to lure his captors into the light, which he had accomplished with considerable skill.
For some minutes the battle halted. There was dead silence. The circle of light was empty now. Mr. Repetto had vanished. A tentative shot from nowhere ripped through the air close to where Psmith lay flattened on the pavement. And then the pavement began to vibrate and give out a curious resonant sound. To Psmith it conveyed nothing, but to the opposing army it meant much. They knew it for what it was. Somewhere—it might be near or far—a policeman had heard the shots, and was signalling for help to other policemen along the line by beating on the flag-stones with his night-stick, the New York constable’s substitute for the London police-whistle.
The noise grew, filling the still air. From somewhere down the road sounded the ring of running feet.
“De cops!” cried a voice. “Beat it!”
Next moment the night was full of clatter. The gang was “beating it.”
Psmith rose to his feet and dusted his clothes ruefully. For the first time he realised the horrors of war. His hat had gone for ever. His trousers could never be the same again after their close acquaintance with the pavement.
The rescue party was coming up at the gallop.
The New York policeman may lack the quiet dignity of his London rival, but he is a hustler.
“Nothing now,” said the disgusted voice of Billy Windsor from the shadows. “They’ve beaten it.”
The circle of lamplight became as if by mutual consent a general rendezvous. Three grey-clad policemen, tough, clean-shaven men with keen eyes and square jaws, stood there, revolver in one hand, night-stick in the other. Psmith, hatless and dusty, joined them. Billy Windsor and the Kid, the latter bleeding freely from his left ear, the lobe of which had been chipped by a bullet, were the last to arrive.
“What’s bin the rough-house?” inquired one of the policemen, mildly interested.
“Do you know a sportsman of the name of Repetto?” inquired Psmith.
“Jack Repetto? Sure.”
“He belongs to the Three Points,” said another intelligent officer, as one naming some fashionable club.
“When next you see him,” said Psmith, “I should be obliged if you would use your authority to make him buy me a new hat. I could do with another pair of trousers, too; but I will not press the trousers. A new hat, is, however, essential. Mine has a six-inch hole in it.”
“Shot at you, did they?” said one of the policemen, as who should say, “Dash the lads, they’re always up to some of their larks.”
“Shot at us!” burst out the ruffled Kid. “What do you think’s bin happening? Think an aeroplane ran into my ear and took half of it off? Think the noise was somebody opening bottles of pop? Think those guys that sneaked off down the road was just training for a Marathon?”
“Comrade Brady,” said Psmith, “touches the spot. He——”
“Say, are you Kid Brady?” inquired one of the officers. For the first time the constabulary had begun to display any real animation.
“Reckoned I’d seen you somewhere!” said another. “You licked Cyclone Al. all right, Kid, I hear.”
“And who but a bone-head thought he wouldn’t?” demanded the third warmly. “He could whip a dozen Cyclone Al.’s in the same evening with his eyes shut.”
“He’s the next champeen,” admitted the first speaker.
“If he puts it over Jimmy Garvin,” argued the second.
“Jimmy Garvin!” cried the third. “He can whip twenty Jimmy Garvins with his feet tied. I tell you——”
“I am loath,” observed Psmith, “to interrupt this very impressive brain-barbecue, but, trivial as it may seem to you, to me there is a certain interest in this other little matter of my ruined hat. I know that it may strike you as hypersensitive of us to protest against being riddled with bullets, but——”
“Well, what’s bin doin’?” inquired the Force. It was a nuisance, this perpetual harping on trifles when the deep question of the light-weight Championship of the World was under discussion, but the sooner it was attended to, the sooner it would be over.
Billy Windsor undertook to explain.
“The Three Points laid for us,” he said. “Jack Repetto was bossing the crowd. I don’t know who the rest were. The Kid put one over on to Jack Repetto’s chin, and we were asking him a few questions when the rest came back, and started into shooting. Then we got to cover quick, and you came up and they beat it.”
“That,” said Psmith, nodding, “is a very fair précis of the evening’s events. We should like you, if you will be so good, to corral this Comrade Repetto, and see that he buys me a new hat.”
“We’ll round Jack up,” said one of the policemen indulgently.
“Do it nicely,” urged Psmith. “Don’t go hurting his feelings.”
The second policeman gave it as his opinion that Jack was getting too gay. The third policeman conceded this. Jack, he said, had shown signs for some time past of asking for it in the neck. It was an error on Jack’s part, he gave his hearers to understand, to assume that the lid was completely off the great city of New York.
“Too blamed fresh he’s gettin’,” the trio agreed. They could not have been more disapproving if they had been prefects at Haileybury and Mr. Repetto a first-termer who had been detected in the act of wearing his cap on the back of his head.
They seemed to think it was too bad of Jack.
“The wrath of the Law,” said Psmith, “is very terrible. We will leave the matter, then, in your hands. In the meantime, we should be glad if you would direct us to the nearest Subway station. Just at the moment, the cheerful lights of the Great White Way are what I seem chiefly to need.”
HUS ended the opening engagement of the campaign, seemingly in a victory for the Cosy Moments army. Billy Windsor, however, shook his head.
“We’ve got mighty little out of it,” he said.
“The victory,” said Psmith, “was not bloodless. Comrade Brady’s ear, my hat—these are not slight casualties. On the other hand, surely we are one up? Surely we have gained ground? The elimination of Comrade Repetto from the scheme of things in itself is something. I know few men I would not rather meet in a lonely road than Comrade Repetto. He is one of Nature’s sand-baggers. Probably the thing crept upon him slowly. He started, possibly, in a merely tentative way by slugging one of the family circle. His nurse, let us say, or his young brother. But, once started, he is unable to resist the craving. The thing grips him like dram-drinking. He sandbags now not because he really wants to, but because he cannot help himself. To me there is something consoling in the thought that Comrade Repetto will no longer be among those present.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I should imagine that a benevolent Law will put him away in his little cell for at least a brief spell.”
“Not on your life,” said Billy. “He’ll prove an alibi.”
Psmith’s eyeglass dropped out of his eye. He replaced it, and gazed, astonished, at Billy.
“An alibi? When three keen-eyed men actually caught him at it?”
“He can find thirty toughs to swear he was five miles away.”
“And get the court to believe it?” said Psmith.
“Sure,” said Billy disgustedly. “You don’t catch them hurting a gangsman unless they’re pushed against the wall. The politicians don’t want the gangs in gaol, especially as the Aldermanic elections will be on in a few weeks. Did you ever hear of Monk Eastman?”
“I fancy not, Comrade Windsor. If I did, the name has escaped me. Who was this cleric?”
“He was the first boss of the East Side gang, before Kid Twist took it on.”
“He was arrested dozens of times, but he always got off. Do you know what he said once, when they pulled him for thugging a fellow out in New Jersey?”
“I fear not, Comrade Windsor. Tell me all.”
“He said, ‘You’re arresting me, huh? Say, you want to look where you’re goin’; I cut some ice in this town. I made half the big politicians in New York!’ That was what he said.”
“His small-talk,” said Psmith, “seems to have been bright and well-expressed. What happened then? Was he restored to his friends and his relations?”
“Sure, he was. What do you think? Well, Jack Repetto isn’t Monk Eastman, but he’s in with Spider Reilly, and the Spider’s in with the men behind. Jack’ll get off.”
“It looks to me, Comrade Windsor,” said Psmith thoughtfully, “as if my stay in this great city were going to cost me a small fortune in hats.”
Billy’s prophecy proved absolutely correct. The police were as good as their word. In due season they rounded up the impulsive Mr. Repetto, and he was haled before a magistrate. And then, what a beautiful exhibition of brotherly love and auld-lang-syne camaraderie was witnessed! One by one, smirking sheepishly, but giving out their evidence with unshaken earnestness, eleven greasy, wandering-eyed youths mounted the witness-stand and affirmed on oath that at the time mentioned dear old Jack had been making merry in their company in a genial and law-abiding fashion, many, many blocks below the scene of the regrettable assault. The magistrate discharged the prisoner, and the prisoner, meeting Billy and Psmith in the street outside, leered triumphantly at them.
Billy stepped up to him. “You may have wriggled out of this,” he said furiously, “but if you don’t get a move on and quit looking at me like that, I’ll knock you over the Singer Building. Hump yourself.”
Mr. Repetto humped himself.
So was victory turned into defeat, and Billy’s jaw became squarer and his eye more full of the light of battle than ever. And there was need of a square jaw and a battle-lit eye, for now began a period of guerilla warfare such as no New York paper had ever had to fight against.
It was Wheeler, the gaunt manager of the business side of the journal, who first brought it to the notice of the editorial staff. Wheeler was a man for whom in business hours nothing existed but his job; and his job was to look after the distribution of the paper. As to the contents of the paper he was absolutely ignorant. He had been with Cosy Moments from its start, but he had never read a line of it. He handled it as if it were so much soap. The scholarly writings of Mr. Wilburfloss, the mirth-provoking sallies of Mr. B. Henderson Asher, the tender outpourings of Louella Granville Waterman—all these were things outside his ken. He was a distributor, and he distributed.
A few days after the restoration of Mr. Repetto to East Side Society, Mr. Wheeler came into the editorial room with information and desire for information.
He endeavoured to satisfy the latter first.
“What’s doing, anyway?” he asked. He then proceeded to his information. “Some one’s got it in against the paper, sure,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s all about. I ha’n’t never read the thing. Don’t see what any one could have against a paper with a name like Cosy Moments, anyway. The way things have been going last few days, seems it might be the organ of a blamed mining-camp what the boys have took a dislike to.”
“What’s been happening?” asked Billy with gleaming eyes.
“Why, nothing in the world to fuss about, only our carriers can’t go out without being beaten up by gangs of toughs. Pat Harrigan’s in the hospital now. Just been looking in on him. Pat’s a feller who likes to fight. Rather fight he would than see a ball-game. But this was too much for him. Know what happened? Why, see here, just like this it was. Pat goes out with his cart. Passing through a low-down street on his way up-town he’s held up by a bunch of toughs. He shows fight. Half a dozen of them attend to him, while the rest gets clean away with every copy of the paper there was in the cart. When the cop comes along, there’s Pat in pieces on the ground and nobody in sight but a Dago chewing gum. Cop asks the Dago what’s been doing, and the Dago says he’s only just come round the corner and ha’n’t seen nothing of anybody. What I want to know is, what’s it all about? Who’s got it in for us and why?”
Mr. Wheeler leaned back in his chair, while Billy, his hair rumpled more than ever and his eyes glowing, explained the situation. Mr. Wheeler listened absolutely unmoved, and, when the narrative had come to an end, gave it as his opinion that the editorial staff had sand. That was his sole comment.
“It’s up to you,” he said, rising. “You know your business. Say, though, some one had better get busy right quick and do something to stop these guys rough-housing like this. If we get a few more carriers beat up the way Pat was, there’ll be a strike. It’s not as if they were all Irishmen. The most of them are Dagoes and such, and they don’t want any more fight than they can get by beating their wives and kicking kids off the sidewalk. I’ll do my best to get this paper distributed right and it’s a shame if it ain’t, because it’s going big just now—but it’s up to you. Good-day, gents.”
He went out. Psmith looked at Billy.
“As Comrade Wheeler remarks,” he said, “it is up to us. What do you propose to do about it? This is a move of the enemy which I had not anticipated. I had fancied that their operations would be confined exclusively to our two selves. If they are going to strew the street with our carriers, we are somewhat in the soup.”
Billy said nothing. He was chewing the stem of an unlighted pipe. Psmith went on.
“It means, of course, that we must buck up to a certain extent. If the campaign is to be a long one, they have us where the hair is crisp. We cannot stand the strain. Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled, but it can undoubtedly be choked. What we want to do is to find out the name of the man behind the tenements as soon as ever we can and publish it; and, then, if we perish, fall yelling the name.”
Billy admitted the soundness of this scheme, but wished to know how it was to be done.
“Comrade Windsor,” said Psmith. “I have been thinking this thing over, and it seems to me that we are on the wrong track, or rather we aren’t on any track at all; we are simply marking time. What we want to do is to go out and hustle round till we stir up something. Our line up to the present has been to sit at home and scream vigorously in the hope of some stout fellow hearing and rushing to help. In other words, we’ve been saying in the paper what an out-size in scugs the merchant must be who owns those tenements, in the hope that somebody else will agree with us and be sufficiently interested to get to work and find out who the blighter is. That’s all wrong. What we must do now, Comrade Windsor, is put on our hats, such hats as Comrade Repetto has left us, and sally forth as sleuth-hounds on our own account.”
“Yes, but how?” demanded Billy. “That’s all right in theory, but how’s it going to work in practice? The only thing that can corner the man is a commission.”
“Far from it, Comrade Windsor. The job may be worked more simply. I don’t know how often the rents are collected in these places, but I should say at a venture once a week. My idea is to hang negligently round till the rent-collector arrives, and when he has loomed up on the horizon, buttonhole him and ask him quite politely, as man to man, whether he is collecting those rents for himself or for somebody else, and if somebody else, who that somebody else is. Simple, I fancy? Yet brainy. Do you take me, Comrade Windsor?”
Billy sat up, excited. “I believe you’ve hit it.”
Psmith shot his cuffs modestly.
T was Pugsy Maloney who, on the following morning, brought to the office the gist of what is related in this chapter. Pugsy’s version was, however, brief and unadorned, as was the way with his narratives. Such things as first causes and piquant details he avoided, as tending to prolong the telling excessively, thus keeping him from perusal of his cowboy stories. The way Pugsy put it was as follows. He gave the thing out merely as an item of general interest, a bubble on the surface of the life of a great city. He did not know how nearly interested were his employers in any matter touching that gang which is known as the Three Points. Pugsy said: “Dere’s trouble down where I live. Dude Dawson’s mad at Spider Reilly, an’ now de Table Hills are layin’ for de T’ree Points. Sure.” He had then retired to his outer fastness, yielding further details jerkily and with the distrait air of one whose mind is elsewhere.
Skilfully extracted and pieced together, these details formed themselves into the following typical narrative of East Side life in New York.
The really important gangs of New York are four. There are other less important institutions, but these are little more than mere friendly gatherings of old boyhood chums for purposes of mutual companionship. In time they may grow, as did Bat Jarvis’s coterie, into formidable organisations, for the soil is undoubtedly propitious to such growth. But at present the amount of ice which good judges declare them to cut is but small. They “stick up” an occasional wayfarer for his “cush,” and they carry “canisters” and sometimes fire them off, but these things do not signify the cutting of ice. In matters political there are only four gangs which count, the East Side, the Groome Street, the Three Points, and the Table Hill. Greatest of these by virtue of their numbers are the East Side and the Groome Street, the latter presided over at the time of this story by Mr. Bat Jarvis. These two are colossal, and, though they may fight each other, are immune from attack at the hands of lesser gangs. But between the other gangs, and especially between the Table Hill and the Three Points, which are much of a size, warfare rages as briskly as among the republics of South America. There has always been bad blood between the Table Hill and the Three Points, and until they wipe each other out after the manner of the Kilkenny cats, it is probable that there always will be. Little events, trifling in themselves, have always occurred to shatter friendly relations just when there has seemed a chance of their being formed. Thus, just as the Table Hillites were beginning to forgive the Three Points for shooting the redoubtable Paul Horgan down at Coney Island, a Three Pointer injudiciously wiped out another of the rival gang near Canal Street. He pleaded self-defence, and in any case it was probably mere thoughtlessness, but nevertheless the Table Hillites were ruffled.
That had been a month or so back. During that month things had been simmering down, and peace was just preparing to brood when there occurred the incident to which Pugsy had alluded, the regrettable falling out of Dude Dawson and Spider Reilly at Mr. Maginnis’ dancing saloon, Shamrock Hall, the same which Bat Jarvis had been called in to protect in the days before the Groome Street gang began to be.
Shamrock Hall, being under the eyes of the great Bat, was, of course, forbidden ground; and it was with no intention of spoiling the harmony of the evening that Mr. Dawson had looked in. He was there in a purely private and peaceful character.
As he sat smoking, sipping, and observing the revels, there settled at the next table Mr. Robert (“Nigger”) Coston, an eminent member of the Three Points.
There being temporary peace between the two gangs, the great men exchanged a not unfriendly nod and, after a short pause, a word or two. Mr. Coston, alluding to an Italian who had just pirouetted past, remarked that there sure was some class to the way that wop hit it up. Mr. Dawson said Yup, there sure was. You would have said that all Nature smiled.
Alas! The next moment the sky was covered with black clouds and the storm broke. For Mr. Dawson, continuing in this vein of criticism, rather injudiciously gave it as his opinion that one of the lady dancers had two left feet.
For a moment Mr. Coston did not see which lady was alluded to.
“De goil in de pink skoit,” said Mr. Dawson, facilitating the other’s search by pointing with a much-chewed cigarette. It was at this moment that Nature’s smile was shut off as if by a tap. For the lady in the pink skirt had been in receipt of Mr. Coston’s respectful devotion for the past eight days.
From this point onwards the march of events was rapid.
Mr. Coston, rising, asked Mr. Dawson who he thought he, Mr. Dawson, was.
Mr. Dawson, extinguishing his cigarette and placing it behind his ear, replied that he was the fellow who could bite his, Mr. Coston’s, head off.
Mr. Coston said: “Huh?”
Mr. Dawson said: “Sure.”
Mr. Coston called Mr. Dawson a pie-faced rubber-necked four-flusher.
Mr. Dawson called Mr. Coston a coon.
And that was where the trouble really started.
It was secretly a great grief to Mr. Coston that his skin was of so swarthy a hue. To be permitted to address Mr. Coston face to face by his nickname was a sign of the closest friendship, to which only Spider Reilly, Jack Repetto, and one or two more of the gang could aspire. Others spoke of him as Nigger, or, more briefly, Nig—strictly behind his back. For Mr. Coston had a wide reputation as a fighter, and his particular mode of battling was to descend on his antagonist and bite him. Into this action he flung himself with the passionate abandonment of the artist. When he bit he bit. He did not nibble.
If a friend had called Mr. Coston “Nig” he would have been running grave risks. A stranger, and a leader of a rival gang, who addressed him as “coon” was more than asking for trouble. He was pleading for it.
Great men seldom waste time. Mr. Coston, leaning towards Mr. Dawson, promptly bit him on the cheek. Mr. Dawson bounded from his seat. Such was the excitement of the moment that, instead of drawing his “canister,” he forgot that he had one on his person, and, seizing a mug which had held beer, bounced it vigorously on Mr. Coston’s skull, which, being of solid wood, merely gave out a resonant note and remained unbroken.
So far the honours were comparatively even, with perhaps a slight balance in favour of Mr. Coston. But now occurred an incident which turned the scale, and made war between the gangs inevitable. In the far corner of the room, surrounded by a crowd of admiring friends, sat Spider Reilly, monarch of the Three Points. He had noticed that there was a slight disturbance at the other side of the hall, but had given it little attention till, the dancing ceasing suddenly and the floor emptying itself of its crowd, he had a plain view of Mr. Dawson and Mr. Coston squaring up at each other for the second round. We must assume that Mr. Reilly was not thinking what he did, for his action was contrary to all rules of gang-etiquette. In the street it would have been perfectly legitimate, even praiseworthy, but in a dance-hall belonging to a neutral power it was unpardonable.
What he did was to produce his “canister” and pick off the unsuspecting Mr. Dawson just as that exquisite was preparing to get in some more good work with the beer-mug. The leader of the Table Hillites fell with a crash, shot through the leg; and Spider Reilly, together with Mr. Coston and others of the Three Points, sped through the doorway for safety, fearing the wrath of Bat Jarvis, who, it was known, would countenance no such episodes at the dance-hall which he had undertaken to protect.
Mr. Dawson, meanwhile, was attended to and helped home. Willing informants gave him the name of his aggressor, and before morning the Table Hill camp was in ferment. Shooting broke out in three places, though there were no casualties. When the day dawned there existed between the two gangs a state of war more bitter than any in their record; for this time it was no question of obscure nonentities. Chieftain had assaulted chieftain; royal blood had been spilt.
“Comrade Windsor,” said Psmith, when Master Maloney had spoken his last word, “we must take careful note of this little matter. I rather fancy that sooner or later we may be able to turn it to our profit. I am sorry for Dude Dawson, anyhow. Though I have never met him, I have a sort of instinctive respect for him. A man such as he would feel a bullet through his trouser-leg more than one of common clay who cared little how his clothes looked.”
AREFUL inquiries, conducted incognito by Master Maloney among the denizens of Pleasant Street, brought the information that rents in the tenements were collected not weekly but monthly, a fact which must undoubtedly cause a troublesome hitch in the campaign. Rent-day, announced Pugsy, fell on the last day of the month.
“I rubbered around,” he said, “and did de sleut’ act, and I finds t’ings out. Dere’s a feller comes round ’bout supper time dat day, an’ den it’s up to de fam’lies what lives in de tenements to dig down into deir jeans fer de stuff, or out dey goes dat same night.”
“Evidently a hustler, our nameless friend,” said Psmith.
“I got dat from a kid what knows anuder kid what lives dere,” explained Master Maloney. “Say,” he proceeded confidentially, “dat kid’s in bad, sure he is. Dat second kid, de one what lives dere. He’s a wop kid, an—”
“A what, Comrade Maloney?”
“A wop. A Dago. Why, don’t you get next? Why, an Italian. Sure, dat’s right. Well, dis kid, he is sure to de bad, ’cos his father come over from Italy to work on de Subway.”
“I don’t see why that puts him in bad,” said Billy Windsor wonderingly.
“Nor I,” agreed Psmith. “Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning. Why should the fact that this stripling’s father has come over from Italy to work on the Subway be a misfortune?”
“Why, sure, because he got fired an’ went an’ swatted de foreman one on de coco, an’ de magistrate gives him t’oity days.”
“And then, Comrade Maloney? This thing is beginning to get clearer. You are like Sherlock Holmes. After you’ve explained a thing from start to finish—or, as you prefer to do, from finish to start—it becomes quite simple.”
“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ’cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones——”
“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”
“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons? It’ll be outside for his, quick.”
Billy warmed up at this tale of distress in his usual way. “Somebody ought to do something. It’s a vile shame the kid being turned out like that.”
“We will see to it, Comrade Windsor. Cosy Moments shall step in. We will combine business with pleasure, paying the stripling’s rent and corralling the rent-collector at the same time. What is today? How long before the end of the month? Another week! A murrain on it, Comrade Windsor. Two murrains. This delay may undo us.”
But the days went by without any further movement on the part of the enemy. A strange quiet seemed to be brooding over the other camp. As a matter of fact, the sudden outbreak of active hostilities with the Table Hill contingent had had the effect of taking the minds of Spider Reilly and his warriors off Cosy Moments and its affairs, much as the unexpected appearance of a mad bull would make a man forget that he had come out butterfly-hunting. Psmith and Billy could wait; they were not likely to take the offensive; but the Table Hillites demanded instant attention.
War had broken out, as was usual between the gangs, in a somewhat tentative fashion at first sight. There had been sniping and skirmishes by the wayside, but as yet no pitched battle. The two armies were sparring for an opening.
The end of the week arrived, and Psmith and Billy, conducted by Master Maloney, made their way to Pleasant Street. To get there it was necessary to pass through a section of the enemy’s country; but the perilous passage was safely negotiated. The expedition reached its unsavoury goal intact.
The wop kid, whose name, it appeared, was Giuseppe Orloni, inhabited a small room at the very top of the building next to the one Psmith and Mike had visited on their first appearance in Pleasant Street. He was out when the party, led by Pugsy up dark stairs, arrived; and, on returning, seemed both surprised and alarmed to see visitors. Pugsy undertook to do the honours. Pugsy as interpreter was energetic but not wholly successful. He appeared to have a fixed idea that the Italian language was one easily mastered by the simple method of saying “da” instead of “the,” and tacking on a final “a” to any word that seemed to him to need one.
“Say, kid,” he began, “has da rent-a-man come yet-a?”
The black eyes of the wop kid clouded. He gesticulated, and said something in his native language.
“He hasn’t got next,” reported Master Maloney. “He can’t git on to me curves. Dese wop kids is all boneheads. Say, kid, look-a here.” He walked out of the room and closed the door; then, rapping on it smartly from the outside, re-entered and, assuming a look of extreme ferocity, stretched out his hand and thundered: “Unbelt-a! Slip-a me da stuff!”
The wop kid’s puzzlement became pathetic.
“This,” said Psmith, deeply interested, “is getting about as tense as anything I ever struck. Don’t give in, Comrade Maloney. Who knows but that you may yet win through? I fancy the trouble is that your too perfect Italian accent is making the youth home-sick. Once more to the breach, Comrade Maloney.”
Master Maloney made a gesture of disgust. “I’m t’roo. Dese Dagoes makes me tired. Dey don’t know enough to go upstairs to take de Elevated. Beat it, you mutt,” he observed with moody displeasure to the wop kid, accompanying the words with a gesture which conveyed its own meaning. The wop kid, plainly glad to get away, slipped out of the door like a shadow.
Pugsy shrugged his shoulders.
“Gents,” he said resignedly, “it’s up to youse.”
“I fancy,” said Psmith, “that this is one of those moments when it is necessary for me to unlimber my Sherlock Holmes system. As thus. If the rent collector had been here, it is certain, I think, that Comrade Spaghetti, or whatever you said his name was, wouldn’t have been. That is to say, if the rent collector had called and found no money waiting for him, surely Comrade Spaghetti would have been out in the cold night instead of under his own roof-tree. Do you follow me, Comrade Maloney?”
“That’s right,” said Billy Windsor. “Of course.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” murmured Psmith.
“So all we have to do is to sit here and wait.”
“All?” said Psmith sadly. “Surely it is enough. For of all the scaly localities I have struck this seems to me the scaliest. The architect of this Stately Home of America seems to have had a positive hatred for windows. His idea of ventilation was to leave a hole in the wall about the size of a lima bean and let the thing go at that. If our friend does not arrive shortly, I shall pull down the roof. Why, gadzooks! Not to mention stap my vitals! Isn’t that a trap-door up there? Make a long arm, Comrade Windsor.”
Billy got on a chair and pulled the bolt. The trap-door opened downwards. It fell, disclosing a square of deep blue sky.
“Gum!” he said. “Fancy living in this atmosphere when you don’t have to. Fancy these fellows keeping that shut all the time.”
“I expect it is an acquired taste,” said Psmith, “like Limburger cheese. They don’t begin to appreciate air till it is thick enough to scoop chunks out of with a spoon. Then they get up on their hind legs and inflate their chests and say, ‘This is fine! This beats ozone hollow!’ Leave it open, Comrade Windsor. And now, as to the problem of dispensing with Comrade Maloney’s services?”
“Sure,” said Billy. “Beat it, Pugsy, my lad.”
Pugsy looked up, indignant.
“Beat it?” he queried.
“While your shoe leather’s good,” said Billy. “This is no place for a minister’s son. There may be a rough-house in here any minute, and you would be in the way.”
“I want to stop and pipe de fun,” objected Master Maloney.
“Never mind. Cut off. We’ll tell you all about it to-morrow.”
Master Maloney prepared reluctantly to depart. As he did so there was a sound of a well-shod foot on the stairs, and a man in a snuff-coloured suit, wearing a brown Homburg hat and carrying a small notebook in one hand, walked briskly into the room. It was not necessary for Psmith to get his Sherlock Holmes system to work. His whole appearance proclaimed the newcomer to be the long-expected collector of rents.
E stood in the doorway looking with some surprise at the group inside. He was a smallish, pale-faced man with protruding eyes and teeth which gave him a certain resemblance to a rabbit.
“Hello,” he said.
“Welcome to New York,” said Psmith.
Master Maloney, who had taken advantage of the interruption to edge further into the room, now appeared to consider the question of his departure permanently shelved. He sidled to a corner and sat down on an empty soap-box with the air of a dramatic critic at the opening night of a new play. The scene looked good to him. It promised interesting developments. Master Maloney was an earnest student of the drama, as exhibited in the theatres of the East Side, and few had ever applauded the hero of “Escaped from Sing-Sing,” or hissed the villain of “Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak-Model” with more fervour than he. He liked his drama to have plenty of action, and to his practised eye this one promised well. Psmith he looked upon as a quite amiable lunatic, from whom little was to be expected; but there was a set expression on Billy Windsor’s face which suggested great things.
His pleasure was abruptly quenched. Billy Windsor, placing a firm hand on his collar, led him to the door and pushed him out, closing the door behind him.
The rent collector watched these things with a puzzled eye. He now turned to Psmith.
“Say, seen anything of the wops that live here?” he inquired.
“I am addressing——?” said Psmith courteously.
“My name’s Gooch.”
“Touching these wops, Comrade Gooch,” he said, “I fear there is little chance of your seeing them to-night, unless you wait some considerable time. With one of them—the son and heir of the family, I should say—we have just been having a highly interesting and informative chat. Comrade Maloney, who has just left us, acted as interpreter. The father, I am told, is in the dungeon below the castle moat for a brief spell for punching his foreman in the eye. The result? The rent is not forthcoming.”
“Then it’s outside for theirs,” said Mr. Gooch definitely.
“It’s a big shame,” broke in Billy, “turning the kid out. Where’s he to go?”
“That’s up to him. Nothing to do with me. I’m only acting under orders from up top.”
“Whose orders, Comrade Gooch?” inquired Psmith.
“The gent who owns this joint.”
“Who is he?” said Billy.
Suspicion crept into the protruding eyes of the rent collector. He waxed wroth.
“Say!” he demanded. “Who are you two guys, anyway, and what do you think you’re doing here? That’s what I’d like to know. What do you want with the name of the owner of this place? What business is it of yours?”
“The fact is, Comrade Gooch, we are newspaper men.”
“I guessed you were,” said Mr. Gooch with triumph. “You can’t bluff me. Well, it’s no good, boys. I’ve nothing for you. You’d better chase off and try something else.”
He became more friendly.
“Say, though,” he said, “I just guessed you were from some paper. I wish I could give you a story, but I can’t. I guess it’s this Cosy Moments business that’s been and put your editor on to this joint, ain’t it? Say, though, that’s a queer thing, that paper. Why, only a few weeks ago it used to be a sort of take-home-and-read-to-the-kids affair. A friend of mine used to buy it regular. And then suddenly it comes out with a regular whoop, and started knocking these tenements and boosting Kid Brady, and all that. I can’t understand it. All I know is that it’s begun to get this place talked about. Why, you see for yourselves how it is. Here is your editor sending you down to get a story about it. But, say, those Cosy Moments guys are taking big risks. I tell you straight they are, and that goes. I happen to know a thing or two about what’s going on on the other side, and I tell you there’s going to be something doing if they don’t cut it out quick. Mr.——” he stopped and chuckled, “Mr. Jones isn’t the man to sit still and smile. He’s going to get busy. Say, what paper do you boys come from?”
“Cosy Moments, Comrade Gooch,” Psmith replied. “Immediately behind you, between you and the door, is Comrade Windsor, our editor. I am Psmith. I sub-edit.”
For a moment the inwardness of the information did not seem to come home to Mr. Gooch. Then it hit him. He spun round. Billy Windsor was standing with his back against the door and a more than nasty look on his face.
“What’s all this?” demanded Mr. Gooch.
“I will explain all,” said Psmith soothingly. “In the first place, however, this matter of Comrade Spaghetti’s rent. Sooner than see that friend of my boyhood slung out to do the wandering-cheild-in-the-snow act, I will brass up for him.”
“Confound his rent. Let me out.”
“Business before pleasure. How much is it? Twelve dollars? For the privilege of suffocating in this compact little Black Hole? By my halidom, Comrade Gooch, that gentleman whose name you are so shortly to tell us has a very fair idea of how to charge! But who am I that I should criticise? Here are the simoleons, as our young friend, Comrade Maloney, would call them. Push me over a receipt.”
“Let me out.”
“Anon, gossip, anon.—Shakespeare. First, the receipt.”
Mr. Gooch scribbled a few words in his notebook and tore out the page. Psmith thanked him.
“I will see that it reaches Comrade Spaghetti,” he said. “And now to a more important matter. Don’t put away that notebook. Turn to a clean page, moisten your pencil, and write as follows. Are you ready? By the way, what is your Christian name? . . . Gooch, Gooch, this is no way to speak! Well, if you are sensitive on the point, we will waive the Christian name. It is my duty to tell you, however, that I suspect it to be Percy. Let us push on. Are you ready, once more? Pencil moistened? Very well, then. ‘I’—comma—‘being of sound mind and body’—comma—‘and a bright little chap altogether’—comma—Why, you’re not writing.”
“Let me out,” bellowed Mr. Gooch. “I’ll summon you for assault and battery. Playing a fool game like this! Get away from that door.”
“There has been no assault and battery—yet, Comrade Gooch, but who shall predict how long so happy a state of things will last? Do not be deceived by our gay and smiling faces, Comrade Gooch. We mean business. Let me put the whole position of affairs before you; and I am sure a man of your perception will see that there is only one thing to be done.”
He dusted the only chair in the room with infinite care and sat down. Billy Windsor, who had not spoken a word or moved an inch since the beginning of the interview, continued to stand and be silent. Mr. Gooch shuffled restlessly in the middle of the room.
“As you justly observed a moment ago,” said Psmith, “the staff of Cosy Moments is taking big risks. We do not rely on your unsupported word for that. We have had practical demonstration of the fact from one J. Repetto, who tried some few nights ago to put us out of business. Well, it struck us both that we had better get hold of the name of the blighter who runs these tenements as quickly as possible, before Comrade Repetto’s next night out. That is what we should like you to give us, Comrade Gooch. And we should like it in writing. And, on second thoughts, in ink. I have one of those patent non-leakable fountain pens in my pocket. The Old Journalist’s Best Friend. Most of the ink has come out and is permeating the lining of my coat, but I think there is still sufficient for our needs. Remind me later, Comrade Gooch, to continue on the subject of fountain pens. I have much to say on the theme. Meanwhile, however, business, business. That is the cry.”
He produced a pen and an old letter, the last page of which was blank, and began to write.
“How does this strike you?” he said. “‘I’—(I have left a blank for the Christian name: you can write it in yourself later)—‘I, blank Gooch, being a collector of rents in Pleasant Street, New York, do hereby swear’—hush, Comrade Gooch, there is no need to do it yet—‘that the name of the owner of the Pleasant Street tenements, who is responsible for the perfectly foul conditions there, is—’ And that is where you come in, Comrade Gooch. That is where we need your specialised knowledge. Who is he?”
Billy Windsor reached out and grabbed the rent collector by the collar. Having done this, he proceeded to shake him.
Billy was muscular, and his heart was so much in the business that Mr. Gooch behaved as if he had been caught in a high wind. It is probable that in another moment the desired information might have been shaken out of him, but before this could happen there was a banging at the door, followed by the entrance of Master Maloney. For the first time since Psmith had known him, Pugsy was openly excited.
“Say,” he began, “Youse had better beat it quick, you had. Dey’s coming!”
“And now go back to the beginning, Comrade Maloney,” said Psmith patiently, “which in the exuberance of the moment you have skipped. Who are coming?”
“Why, dem. De guys.”
Psmith shook his head.
“Your habit of omitting essentials, Comrade Maloney, is going to undo you one of these days. When you get to that ranch of yours, you will probably start out to gallop after the cattle without remembering to mount your mustang. There are four million guys in New York. Which section is it that is coming?”
“Gum! I don’t know how many dere is ob dem. I seen Spider Reilly an’ Jack Repetto an’——”
“Say no more,” said Psmith. “If Comrade Repetto is there, that is enough for me. I am going to get on the roof and pull it up after me.”
Billy released Mr. Gooch, who fell, puffing, on to the low bed which stood in one corner of the room.
“They must have spotted us as we were coming here,” he said, “and followed us. Where did you see them, Pugsy?”
“On de Street just outside. Dere was a bunch of dem talkin’ togedder, and I hears dem say you was in here. One of dem seen you come in, an dere ain’t no ways out but de front, so dey ain’t hurryin’! Dey just reckon to pike along upstairs, lookin’ into each room till dey finds you. An dere’s a bunch of dem goin’ to wait on de Street in case youse beat it past down de stairs while de udder guys is rubberin’ for youse. Say, gents, it’s pretty fierce, dis proposition. What are youse goin’ to do?”
Mr. Gooch, from the bed, laughed unpleasantly.
“I guess you ain’t the only assault-and-batter artists in the business,” he said. “Looks to me as if some one else was going to get shaken up some.”
Billy looked at Psmith.
“Well?” he said. “What shall we do? Go down and try and rush through?”
Psmith shook his head.
“Not so, Comrade Windsor, but about as much otherwise as you can jolly well imagine.”
“Well, what then?”
“We will stay here. Or rather we will hop nimbly up on to the roof through that skylight. Once there, we may engage these varlets on fairly equal terms. They can only get through one at a time. And while they are doing it I will give my celebrated imitation of Horatius. We had better be moving. Our luggage, fortunately, is small. Merely Comrade Gooch. If you will get through the skylight, I will pass him up to you.”
Mr. Gooch, with much verbal embroidery, stated that he would not go. Psmith acted promptly. Gripping the struggling rent collector round the waist, and ignoring his frantic kicks as mere errors in taste, he lifted him to the trap-door, whence the head, shoulders and arms of Billy Windsor protruded into the room. Billy collected the collector, and then Psmith turned to Pugsy.
“Have I your ear?”
“Are you listening till you feel that your ears are the size of footballs? Then drink this in. For weeks you have been praying for a chance to show your devotion to the great cause; or if you haven’t, you ought to have been. That chance has come. You alone can save us. In a sense, of course, we do not need to be saved. They will find it hard to get at us, I fancy, on the roof. But it ill befits the dignity of the editorial staff of a great New York weekly to roost like pigeons for any length of time; and consequently it is up to you.”
“Shall I go for de cops, Mr. Smith?”
“No, Comrade Maloney, I thank you. I have seen the cops in action, and they did not impress me. We do not want allies who will merely shake their heads at Comrade Repetto and the others, however sternly. We want some one who will swoop down upon these merry roisterers, and, as it were, soak to them good. Do you know where Dude Dawson lives?”
The light of intelligence began to shine in Master Maloney’s face. His eye glistened with respectful approval. This was strategy of the right sort.
“Dude Dawson? Nope. But I can ask around.”
“Do so, Comrade Maloney. And when found, tell him that his old college chum, Spider Reilly, is here. He will not be able to come himself, I fear, but he can send representatives.”
“That’s all, then. Go downstairs with a gay and jaunty air, as if you had no connection with the old firm at all. Whistle a few lively bars. Make careless gestures. Thus shall you win through. And now it would be no bad idea, I fancy, for me to join the rest of the brains of the paper up aloft. Off you go, Comrade Maloney. And, in passing, don’t take a week about it. Leg it with all the speed you possess.”
Pugsy vanished, and Psmith closed the door behind him. Inspection revealed the fact that it possessed no lock. As a barrier it was useless. He left it ajar, and, jumping up, gripped the edge of the opening in the roof and pulled himself through.
Billy Windsor was seated comfortably on Mr. Gooch’s chest a few feet away. By his side was his big stick. Psmith possessed himself of this, and looked about him. The examination was satisfactory. The trap-door appeared to be the only means of access to the roof, and between their roof and that of the next house there was a broad gulf.
“Practically impregnable,” he murmured. “Only one thing can dish us, Comrade Windsor; and that is if they have the sense to get on to the roof next door and start shooting. Even in that case, however, we have cover in the shape of the chimneys. I think we may fairly say that all is well. How are you getting along? Has the patient responded at all?”
“Not yet,” said Billy. “But he’s going to.”
“He will be in your charge. I must devote myself exclusively to guarding the bridge. It is a pity that the trap has not got a bolt this side. If it had, the thing would be a perfect picnic. As it is, we must leave it open. But we mustn’t expect everything.”
Billy was about to speak, but Psmith suddenly held up his hand warningly. From the room below came a sound of feet.
For a moment the silence was tense. Then from Mr. Gooch’s lips there escaped a screech.
“This way! They’re up——”
The words were cut short as Billy banged his hand over the speaker’s mouth. But the thing was done.
“On top de roof,” cried a voice. “Dey’ve beaten it for de roof.”
The chair rasped over the floor. Feet shuffled. And then, like a jack-in-the-box, there popped through the opening a head and shoulders.
(To be continued)
In ch. XVII, the name of the editor of Cosy Moments is spelled “Mr. Wilburfloss” in the paragraph about Wheeler, the business manager. I have preserved this inconsistency in the transcription here, as it sheds some light on an obscure puzzle.
Tony Ring pointed out some years ago (Plum Lines, Summer–Autumn 1998, and Appendix 5 of Wodehouse With Old Friends, vol. 7 of the Millennium Wodehouse Concordance) that in Wodehouse’s autograph manuscript of what was originally titled Psmith, U.S.A., the name is clearly written “J. Filliken Wilburfloss”; this was changed to J. Fillken Wilberfloss in both this Captain serialization and the later book publication. Tony wrote that “it would be interesting to discover why it was changed.”
However it may have happened, the same name first appeared in print as a character in a 1909 New York Evening World newspaper comic series called “School Days” by Clare Victor Dwiggins. I could not have tracked this down without clues from several lovers of classic comics who sprinkled breadcrumbs of data through their blogs and web sites, but my greatest thanks is to Allan Holtz, who presents several panels on his blog. In the first panel shown there, a young boy of scholarly appearance is shown holding up a large book where some of his classmates are gathered on a bench; the label nearby reads “J. Filliken Wilburfloss’ private class in esoteric poetry.” Unfortunately, I currently have no specific publication date for the panel shown, only the April 3 to September 18, 1909, lifespan of the cartoon series. Dwiggins continued to use the name in cartoons at least through the 1930s, and was quoted in 1945 (see scanned p. 13 at this link) as having been proud of inventing the name.
At this remove of time, we can only speculate as to how the coincidence of names occurred. A completely independent coinage is so unlikely as to be rejected out of hand, I believe. It is just barely possible that Dwiggins knew Wodehouse (or knew close mutual friends) and heard of a character name in Wodehouse’s manuscript draft that he proposed to use in a serial published in England only, then appropriated it for the New York cartoon. It is rather more likely, to my way of thinking, that Wodehouse unconsciously reused a funny name he’d seen somewhere while writing the manuscript, then, seeing it again in the newspaper cartoon series, realized it as unintentional plagiarism and wired The Captain to alter the name before printing. It seems doubtful that “The Old Fag,” editor of The Captain, would have spotted the borrowing from a short-lived New York newspaper cartoon and have forced the spelling change.
In any case, the accidental preservation of Wodehouse’s manuscript spelling of “Wilburfloss” at this point in ch. XVII of the Captain serial would seem to suggest that the change was a last-minute one, however it was motivated.
Ian Michaud helpfully points out that when a good deal of the plot of this story was adapted and incorporated into the American book edition of The Prince and Betty (New York: W. J. Watt, 1912), the editor’s name was changed completely to J. Brabazon Renshaw—further suggesting that Wodehouse was aware that he had inadvertently borrowed the original name, and that the minor change made for the English publication would not be enough for American readers of Dwiggins’s cartoons.
Printer’s error corrected above:
In ch. XIX, magazine had the misspelling “Guiseppe” for the Italian kid’s name.
—Neil Midkiff (June 2014)