The Saturday Evening Mail: New York, September 21, 1912.
THE PRINCE AND BETTY
By Pelhan G. Wodehouse
ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN V. RANCK
“I THINK we understand each other,” said Mr. Westley. “There is no need for any discussion. I am writing you a check for ten thousand dollars——”
“Ten thousand dollars!”
“It happens to be your own. It was left to me in trust for you by your mother. By a miracle your father did not happen to spend it.”
John caught the bitter note which the other could not keep out of his voice, and made one last attempt to probe this mystery. As a boy he had tried more than once before he realized that this was a forbidden topic.
“Who was my father?” he said.
Mr. Westley blotted the check carefully.
“Quite the worst blackguard I ever had the misfortune to know,” he replied in an even tone. “Will you kindly give me a receipt for this? Then I need not detain you. You may return to the ball game without any further delay. Possibly,” he went on, “you may wonder why you have not received this money before. I persuaded your mother to let me use my discretion in choosing the time when it should be handed over to you. I decided to wait until, in my opinion, you had sense enough to use it properly. I do not think that time has arrived. I do not think it will ever arrive. But as we are parting company and shall, I hope, never meet again, you had better have it now.”
John signed the receipt in silence.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Westley. “Good-by.”
AT the door John hesitated. He had looked forward to this moment as one of excitement and adventure, but now that it had come it had left him in anything but an uplifted mood. He was naturally warm hearted, and his uncle’s cold anger hurt him. It was so different from anything sudden, so essentially not of the moment. He felt instinctively that it had been smoldering for a long time, and realized with a shock that his uncle had not been merely indifferent to him all these years, but had actually hated him. It was as if he had caught a glimpse of something ugly. He felt that this was the last scene of some long-drawn-out tragedy.
Something made him turn impulsively back toward the desk. “Uncle——” he cried.
He stopped. The hopelessness of attempting any step toward a better understanding overwhelmed him. Mr. Westley had begun to write. He must have seen John’s movement, but he continued to write as if he were alone in the room. John turned to the door again.
“Good-by,” he said. Mr. Westley did not look up.
VIVE LE ROI!
WHEN, an hour later, John landed in New York from the ferry, his mood had changed. The sun and the breeze had done their work. He looked on life once more with a cheerful and optimistic eye. His first act, on landing, was to proceed to the office of the News and inquire for Rupert Smith. He felt that he had urgent need of a few minutes’ conversation with him. Now that the painter had been definitely cut that bound him to the safe and conventional, and he had set out on his own account to lead the life adventurous, he was conscious of an absurd diffidence. New York looked different to him. It made him feel positively shy. A pressing need for a friendly native in this strange land manifested itself. Smith would have ideas and advice to bestow—he was notoriously prolific of both—and in this crisis both were highly necessary.
Smith, however, was not at the office. He had gone out, John was informed, earlier in the morning to cover a threatened strike somewhere down on the East Side. John did not go in search of him. The chance of finding him in that maze of mean streets was remote. He decided to go uptown, select a hotel, and lunch. To the need for lunch he attributed a certain sinking sensation of which he was becoming more and more aware, and which bore much too close a resemblance to dismay to be pleasant. The poet’s statement that “the man who’s square, his chances always are best; no circumstance can shoot a scare into the contents of his vest,” is only true within limits. The squarest man, deposited suddenly in New York and faced with the prospect of earning his living there, is likely to quail for a moment. New York is not like other cities. London greets the stranger with a sleepy grunt. Paris giggles. New York howls. A gladiator, waiting in the center of the arena while the Colosseum officials fumbled with the bolts of the door behind which paced the noisy tiger he was to fight, must have had some of the emotions which John experienced during his first hour as a masterless man in Gotham.
A SURFACE car carried him up Broadway. At Times square the Astor Hotel loomed up on the left. It looked a pretty good hotel to John. He dismounted.
Half an hour later he decided that he was acclimated. He had secured a base of operations in the shape of a room on the seventh floor, his check was safely deposited in the hotel bank, and he was half way through a lunch which had caused him already to look on New York not only as the finest city in the world, but also, on the whole, as the one city of all others in which a young man might make a fortune with the maximum of speed and the minimum of effort.
After lunch, having telegraphed his address to his uncle in case of mail, he took the latter’s excellent advice and went to the Polo grounds. Returning in time to dress, he dined at the hotel, after which he visited a near-by theatre, and completed a pleasant and strenuous day at one of those friendly restaurants where the music is continuous and the waiters are apt to burst into song in the intervals of their other duties.
A second attempt to find Smith next morning failed, as the first had done. The staff of the News were out of bed and at work ridiculously early, and when John called up the office between 11 and 12 o’clock—nature’s breakfast hour—Smith was again down east, observing the movements of those who were about to strike or who had already struck.
It hardly seemed worth while starting to lay the bed plates of his fortune till he had consulted the expert. What would Rockefeller have done? He would, John felt certain, have gone to the ball game.
He imitated the great financier.
IT was while he was smoking a cigar after dinner that night, musing on the fortunes of the day’s game and, in particular, on the almost criminal imbecility of the umpire, that he was dreamily aware that he was being “paged.” A small boy in uniform was meandering through the room, chanting his name.
“Gent wants five minutes wit’ you,” announced the boy, intercepted. “Hasn’t got no card. Business, he says.”
This disposed of the idea that Rupert Smith had discovered his retreat. John was puzzled. He could not think of another person in New York who knew of his presence at the Astor. But it was the unknown that he was in search of, and he decided to see the mysterious stranger.
“Send him along,” he said.
The boy disappeared, and presently John observed him threading his way back among the tables, followed by a young man of extraordinary gravity of countenance, who was looking about him with an intent gaze through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
John got up to meet him.
“My name is Maude,” he said. “Won’t you sit down? Have you had dinner?”
“Thank you, yes,” said the spectacled young man.
“You’ll have a cigar and coffee, then?”
“Thank you, yes.”
The young man remained silent until the waiter had filled his cup.
“My name is Crump,” he said. “I am Mr. Benjamin Scobell’s private secretary.”
“Yes?” said John. “Snug job?”
The other seemed to miss something in his voice.
“You have heard of Mr. Scobell?” he asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” said John.
“Ah! you have lost touch very much with Mervo, of course.”
It sounded like some patent medicine.
“I have been instructed,” said Mr. Crump solemnly, “to inform your highness that the republic has been dissolved, and that your subjects offer you the throne of your ancestors.”
JOHN leaned back in his chair, and looked at the speaker in dumb amazement. The thought flashed across him that Mr. Crump had been perfectly correct in saying that he had dined. His attitude appeared to astound Mr. Crump. He goggled through his spectacles at John, who was reminded of some rare fish.
“You are John Maude? You said you were.”
“I’m John Maude right enough. We’re solid on that point.”
“And your mother was the only sister of Mr. Andrew Westley?”
“You’re right there, too.”
“Then there is no mistake. I say the republic——” He paused, as if struck with an idea. “Don’t you know?” he said. “Your father——”
John became suddenly interested.
“If you’ve got anything to tell me about my father, go right ahead. You’ll be the only man I’ve ever met who has said a word about him. Who the deuce was he, anyway?”
Mr. Crump’s face cleared.
“I understand. I had not expected this. You have been kept in ignorance. Your father, Mr. Maude, was the late Prince Charles of Mervo.”
It was not easy to astonish John, but this announcement did so. He dropped his cigar in a shower of gray ash on to his trousers, and retrieved it almost mechanically, his wide-open eyes fixed on the other’s face.
“What!” he cried.
Mr. Crump nodded gravely.
“You are Prince John of Mervo, and I am here”—he got into his stride as he reached the familiar phrase—“to inform your highness that the republic has been dissolved, and that your subjects offer you the throne of your ancestors.”
A horrid doubt seized John.
“You’re stringing me. One of those Indians at the News, Rupert Smith, or some one, has put you up to this.”
Mr. Crump appeared wounded.
“If your highness would glance at these documents— This is a copy of the register of the church in which your mother and father were married.”
JOHN glanced at the document. It was perfectly lucid. “Then—then it’s true!” he said.
“Perfectly true, your highness. And I am here to inform——”
“But where the deuce is Mervo? I never heard of the place.”
“It is an island principality in the Mediterranean, your high——”
“For goodness’ sake, old man, don’t keep calling me ‘your highness.’ It may be fun to you, but it makes me feel a perfect ass. Let me get into the thing gradually.”
Mr. Crump felt in his pocket.
“Mr. Scobell,” he said, producing a roll of bills, “entrusted me with money to defray any expenses——”
More than any words, this spectacle removed any lingering doubt which John might have had as to the possibility of this being some intricate practical joke.
“Are these for me?” he said.
Mr. Crump passed them across to him.
“There are a thousand dollars here,” he said. “I am also instructed to say that you are at liberty to draw further against Mr. Scobell’s account at the Wall street office of the European and Asiatic Bank.”
THE name Scobell had been recurring like a leit-motif in Mr. Crump’s conversation. This suddenly came home to John.
“Before we go any further,” he said, “let’s get one thing clear. Who is this Mr. Scobell? How does he get mixed up in this?”
“He is the proprietor of the Casino at Mervo.”
“He seems to be one of those generous, open-handed fellows. Nothing of the tightwad about him.”
“He is deeply interested in your high— in your return.”
John laid the roll of bills beside his coffee cup, and relighted his cigar.
“That’s mighty good of him,” he said. “It strikes me, old man, that I am not absolutely up to date as regards the internal affairs of this important little kingdom of mine. How would it be if you were to put me next to one or two facts? Start at the beginning and go right on.”
When Mr. Crump had finished a condensed history of Mervo and Mervian politics, John smoked in silence for some minutes.
“Life, Crump,” he said at last, “is certainly speeding up as far as I am concerned. Up till now nothing in particular has ever happened to me. A couple of days ago I lost my job, was given ten thousand dollars that I didn’t know existed, and now you tell me I’m a prince. Well, well! These are stirring times. When do we start for the old homestead?”
“Mr. Scobell was exceedingly anxious that we should return by Saturday’s boat.”
“Saturday? What, to-morrow?”
“Perhaps it is too soon. You will not be able to settle your affairs?”
“I guess I can settle my affairs all right. I’ve only got to pack a grip and tip the bell hops. And as Scobell seems to be financing this show, perhaps it’s up to me to step lively if he wants it. But it’s a pity. I was just beginning to like this place. There is generally something doing along the White Way after twilight, Crump.”
THE gravity of Mr. Scobell’s secretary broke up unexpectedly into a slow, wide smile. His eyes behind their glasses gleamed with a wistful light.
“Gee!” he murmured.
John looked at him, amazed.
“Crump,” he cried. “Crump, I believe you’re a sport!”
Mr. Crump seemed completely to have forgotten his responsible position as secretary to a millionaire and special messenger to a prince. He smirked.
“I’d have liked a day or two in the old burg,” he said softly. “I haven’t been to Rector’s since Ponto was a pup.”
John reached across the table and seized the secretary’s hand.
“Crump,” he said, “you are a sport. This is no time for delay. If we are to liven up this great city, we must get busy right away. Grab your hat and come along. One doesn’t become a prince every day. The occasion wants celebrating. Are you with me, Crump, old scout?”
“Sure thing,” said the envoy ecstatically.
AT 8 o’clock on the following morning two young men, hatless and a little rumpled, but obviously cheerful, entered the Astor Hotel, demanding breakfast.
A bellboy who met them was addressed by the larger of the two and asked his name.
“Desmond Ryan,” he replied.
The young man patted him on his shoulder.
“I appoint you, Desmond Ryan,” he said, “Grand Hereditary Bell Hop to the Court of Mervo.”
Thus did Prince John formally enter into his kingdom.
MR. SCOBELL HAS ANOTHER IDEA.
OWING to collaboration between Fate and Mr. Scobell, John’s state entry into Mervo was an interesting blend between a pageant and a vaudeville sketch. The pageant idea was Mr. Scobell’s. Fate supplied the vaudeville.
The reception at the quay, when the little steamer that plied between Marseilles and the island principality gave up its precious freight, was not on quite so impressive a scale as might have been given to the monarch of a more powerful kingdom; but John was not disappointed. During the voyage from New York, in the intervals of seasickness—for he was a poor sailor—Mr. Crump had supplied him with certain facts about Mervo, one of which was that its adult population numbered just under thirteen thousand, and this had prepared him for any shortcomings in the way of popular demonstration.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Scobell was exceedingly pleased with the scale of the reception, which to his mind amounted practically to pomp. The palace guard, forty strong, lined the quay. Besides these, there were four officers, a band, and sixteen mounted carbineers. The rest of the army was dotted along the streets. In addition to the military, there was a gathering of a hundred and fifty civilians, mainly drawn from fishing circles. The majority of these remained stolidly silent throughout, but three, more emotional, cheered vigorously as a young man was seen to step on to the gangway, carrying a grip and make for the shore. Gen. Poineau, a white-haired warrior with a fierce mustache, strode forward and saluted. The palace guards presented arms. The band struck up the Mervian national anthem. Gen. Poineau, lowering his hand, put on a pair of pince-nez and began to unroll an address of welcome.
IT was then seen that the young man was Mr. Crump. Gen. Poineau removed his glasses and gave an impatient twirl to his mustache. Mr. Scobell, who for possibly the first time in his career was not smoking (though, as was afterward made manifest, he had the materials on his person), bustled to the front.
“Where’s his nibs, Crump?” he inquired.
The secretary’s reply was swept away in a flood of melody. To the band Mr. Crump’s face was strange. They had no reason to suppose that he was not Prince John, and they acted accordingly. With a rattle of drums they burst once more into their spirited rendering of the national anthem.
Mr. Scobell sawed the air with his arms, but was powerless to dam the flood.
“His highness is shaving, sir!” bawled Mr. Crump, depositing his grip on the quay and making a trumpet of his hands.
“Yes, sir. I told him he ought to come along, but his highness said he wasn’t going to land looking like a tramp comedian.”
By this time Gen. Poineau had explained matters to the band and they checked the national anthem abruptly in the middle of a bar, with the exception of the cornet player, who continued gallantly by himself till a feeling of loneliness brought the truth home to him. An awkward stage wait followed, which lasted until John was seen crossing the deck, when there were more cheers, and Gen. Poineau, resuming his pince-nez, brought out the address of welcome again.
At this point Mr. Scobell made his presence felt. “Glad to meet you, prince,” he said, coming forward. “Scobell’s my name. Shake hands with Gen. Poineau. No, that’s wrong. I guess he kisses your hand, don’t he?”
“I’ll swing on him if he does,” said John cheerfully.
Mr. Scobell eyed him doubtfully. His highness did not appear to him to be treating the inaugural ceremony with that reserved dignity which we like to see in princes on these occasions. Mr. Scobell was a business man. He wanted his money’s worth. His idea of a Prince of Mervo was something statuesquely aloof, something—he could not express it exactly—on the lines of the illustrations in the Zenda stories in the magazines—about eight feet high and shinily magnificent, something that would give the place a tone. That was what he had had in his mind when he sent for John. He did not want a cheerful young man in a soft hat and a flannel suit who looked as if at any moment he might burst into a college yell.
Gen. Poineau, meanwhile, had embarked on the address of welcome. John regarded him thoughtfully.
“I can see,” he said to Mr. Scobell, “that the gentleman is making a good speech, but what is he saying? That is what gets past me.”
“He is welcoming your highness,” said Mr. Crump, the linguist, “in the name of the people of Mervo.”
“Who, I notice, have had the bully good sense to stay in bed. I guess they knew that the Boy Orator would do all that was necessary. He hasn’t said anything about a bite of breakfast, has he? Has his address happened to work around to the subject of shredded wheat and shirred eggs yet? That’s the part that’s going to make a hit with me.”
“There’ll be breakfast at my villa, your highness,” said Mr. Scobell. “My automobile is waiting along there.”
THE general reached his peroration, worked his way through it, and finished with a military clash of heels and a salute. The band rattled off the national anthem once more.
“Now, what?” said John, turning to Mr. Scobell. “Breakfast?”
“I guess you’d better say a few words to them, your highness; they’ll expect it.”
“But I can’t speak the language, and they can’t understand English. The thing’ll be a stand-off.”
“Crump will hand it to ’em. Here, Crump.”
“Line up and shoot his highness’s remarks into ’em.”
“It’s all very well for you, Crump,” said John. “You probably enjoy this sort of thing. I don’t. I haven’t felt such a fool since I sang ‘The Maiden’s Prayer’ on Tremont street when I was joining the frat.”
“Tell ’em you’re tickled to death,” advised Mr. Scobell anxiously.
John smiled in a friendly manner at the populace. Then he coughed.
“Gentlemen,” he said—“and more particularly the sport on my left who has just spoken his piece whose name I can’t remember—I thank you for the warm welcome you have given me. If it is any satisfaction to you to know that it has made me feel like thirty cents, you may have that satisfaction. Thirty is a liberal estimate.”
“ ‘His highness is overwhelmed by your loyal welcome. He thanks you warmly,’ ” translated Mr. Crump, tactfully.
“I feel that we shall get along nicely together,” continued John. “If you are chumps enough to turn out of your comfortable beds at this time of the morning simply to see me, you can’t be very hard to please. We shall hit it off fine.”
Mr. Crump—“His highness hopes and believes that he will always continue to command the affection of his people.”
“I—” John paused. “That’s the lot,” he said. “The flow of inspiration has ceased. The magic fire has gone out. Break it to ’em, Crump. For me, breakfast.”
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In Ch. IV, newspaper had “John observed him treading his way back among the tables”; amended to “threading” as in Ainslee’s and American book versions
In Ch. IV, newspaper had “That’s mighty good for him”; amended to “good of him” as in previous versions
In Ch. IV, newspaper had “hatless and a little rumbled”; amended to “rumpled” as in book version
Text from American book edition omitted from this serial:
In Ch. V, book had three short sentences after “on Tremont street when I was joining the frat.” John continued speaking: “Are you ready? No, it’s no good. I don’t know what to say.”