Grand Magazine, September 1923
CHAPTER VII (Continued).
PSMITH withdrew his ear with a touch of hauteur, but he looked at his companion with a little more interest. He had feared, when he saw Freddie stagger in with such melodramatic despair and emit so hollow a groan, that the topic on which he wished to converse was the already exhausted one of his broken heart. It now began to appear that weightier matters were on his mind.
“I fail to understand you, Comrade Threepwood,” he said. “The last time I had the privilege of conversing with you, you informed me that Susan, or whatever her name is, merely giggled and told you not to be silly when you embraced her. In other words, she is not a detective. What has happened since then to get you all worked up?”
“What has Baxter been doing?”
“Only giving the whole bally show away to me, that’s all,” said Freddie, feverishly. He clutched Psmith’s arm violently, causing that exquisite to utter a slight moan and smooth out the wrinkles thus created in his sleeve. “Listen! I’ve just been talking to the blighter. I was passing the library just now when he popped out of the door and hauled me in. And, dash it! he hadn’t been talking two seconds before I realized that he has seen through the whole damn thing practically from the moment you got here, though he doesn’t seem to know that I’ve anything to do with it, thank goodness!”
“I should imagine not, if he makes you his confidant. Why did he do that, by the way? What made him select you as the recipient of his secrets?”
“As far as I can make out, his idea was to form a gang, if you know what I mean. He said a lot of stuff about him and me being the only two able-bodied young men in the place, and we ought to be prepared to tackle you if you started anything.”
“I see. And now tell me how our delightful friend ever happened to begin suspecting that I was not all I seemed to be. I had been flattering myself that I had put the little deception over with complete success.”
“Well, in the first place, dash it! that damn fellow McTodd—the real one, you know—sent a telegram saying that he wasn’t coming. So it seemed rummy to Baxter bang from the start when you blew in all merry and bright.”
“Ah! That was what they all meant by saying they were glad I had come ‘after all.’ A phrase which at the moment, I confess, rather mystified me.”
“And then you went and wrote in the Peavey female’s autograph-book.”
“In what way was that a false move?”
“Why, that was the biggest bloomer on record, as it has turned out,” said Freddie, vehemently. “Baxter apparently keeps every letter that comes to the place on a file, and he’d skewered McTodd’s original letter with the rest. I mean, the one he wrote accepting the invitation to come here. And Baxter compared his handwriting with what you wrote in the Peavey’s album, and, of course, they weren’t a damn bit alike. And that put the lid on it.”
Psmith lit another cigarette and drew at it thoughtfully. He realized that he had made a tactical error in underestimating the antagonism of the Efficient One.
“Does he seem to have any idea why I have come to the castle?” he asked.
“Any idea? Why, dash it! the very first thing he said to me was that you must have come to sneak Aunt Connie’s necklace.”
“In that case, why has he made no move till to-day? I should have supposed that he would long since have denounced me before as large an audience as he could assemble. Why this reticence on the part of genial old Baxter?”
A crimson flush of chivalrous indignation spread itself over Freddie’s face.
“He told me that, too.”
“There seem to have been no reserves between Comrade Baxter and yourself. And very healthy, too, this spirit of confidence. What was his reason for abstaining from loosing the bomb?”
“He said he was pretty sure you wouldn’t try to do anything on your own. He thought you would wait till your accomplice arrived. And, damn him!” cried Freddie, heatedly, “do you know who he’s got the infernal gall to think is your accomplice? Miss Halliday! Dash him!”
Psmith smoked in thoughtful silence.
“Well, of course, now that this has happened,” said Freddie, “I suppose it’s no good thinking of going on with the thing. You’d better pop off, what? If I were you, I’d leg it to-day and have your luggage sent on after you.”
Psmith threw away his cigarette and stretched himself. During the last few moments he had been thinking with some tenseness.
“Comrade Threepwood,” he said, reprovingly, “you suggest a cowardly and weak-minded action. I admit that the outlook would be distinctly rosier if no such person as Baxter were on the premises, but nevertheless the thing must be seen through to a finish. At least we have this advantage over our spectacled friend, that we know he suspects me and he doesn’t know I know. I think that with a little resource and ingenuity we may yet win through.” He turned to the window and looked out.
“Sad,” he sighed, “that these idyllic surroundings should have become oppressed with a cloud of sinister menace. One thinks one sees a faun popping about in the undergrowth, and, on looking more closely, perceives that it is in reality a detective with a note-book. What one fancied was the piping of Pan turns out to be a police-whistle summoning assistance. Still, we must bear these things without wincing. They are our cross. What you have told me will render me, if possible, warier and more snake-like than ever, but my purpose remains firm. The cry goes round the castle battlements: ‘Psmith intends to keep the old flag flying!’ So charge off and soothe your quivering ganglions with a couple of aspirins, Comrade Threepwood, and leave me to my thoughts. All will doubtless come right in the future.”
FROM out of the scented shade of the big cedar on the lawn in front of the castle Psmith looked at the flower-beds, jaunty and gleaming in the afternoon sun, then he looked back at Eve, incredulity in every feature.
“I must have misunderstood you. Surely,” he said, in a voice vibrant with reproach, “you do not seriously intend to work in weather like this?”
“I must. I’ve got a conscience. They aren’t paying me a handsome salary—a fairly handsome salary—to sit about in deck-chairs.”
“But you only came yesterday.”
“Well, I ought to have worked yesterday.”
“It seems to me,” said Psmith, “the nearest thing to slavery that I have ever struck. I had hoped, seeing that everybody had gone off and left us alone, that we were going to spend a happy and instructive afternoon together under the shade of this noble tree, talking of this and that. Is it not to be?”
“No, it is not. It’s lucky you’re not the one who’s supposed to be cataloguing this library. It would never get finished.”
“And why, as your employer would say, should it? He has expressed the opinion several times in my hearing that the library has jogged along quite comfortably for a great number of years without being catalogued. Why shouldn’t it go on like that indefinitely?”
“It’s no good trying to tempt me. There’s nothing I should like better than to loaf here for hours and hours, but what would Mr. Baxter say when he got back and found out?”
“It is becoming increasingly clear to me each day that I stay in this place,” said Psmith, moodily, “that Comrade Baxter is little short of a blister on the community. Tell me, how do you get on with him?”
“I don’t like him much.”
“Nor do I. It is on these communities of taste that life-long attachments are built. Sit down and let us exchange confidences on the subject of Baxter.”
“I won’t. You’re simply trying to lure me into staying out here and neglecting my duty. I really must be off now. You have no idea what a lot of work there is to be done.”
“You are entirely spoiling my afternoon.”
“No, I’m not. You’ve got a book. What is it?”
Psmith picked up the brightly-jacketed volume and glanced at it.
“ ‘The Man with the Missing Toe.’ Comrade Threepwood lent it to me. He has a vast store of this type of narrative. I expect he will be wanting you to catalogue his library next.”
“Well, it looks interesting.”
“Ah, but what does it teach? How long do you propose to shut yourself up in that evil-smelling library?”
“An hour or so.”
“Then I shall rely on your society at the end of that period. We might go for another saunter on the lake.”
“All right. I’ll come and find you when I’ve finished.”
Psmith watched her disappear into the house, then seated himself once more in the long chair under the cedar. A sense of loneliness oppressed him. He gave one look at “The Man with the Missing Toe,” and, having rejected the entertainment it offered, gave himself up to meditation.
Blandings Castle dozed in the midsummer heat like a Palace of Sleep. There had been an exodus of its inmates shortly after lunch, when Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance, Mr. Keeble, Miss Peavey, and the Efficient Baxter had left for the neighbouring town of Bridgeford in the big car, with the Hon. Freddie puffing in its wake in a natty two-seater.
Psmith, who had been invited to accompany them, had declined on the plea that he wished to write a poem. He felt but a tepid interest in the afternoon’s programme, which was to consist of the unveiling by his lordship of the recently completed memorial to the late Hartley Reddish, Esq., J.P., for so many years Member of Parliament for the Bridgeford and Shifley Division of Shropshire. Not even the prospect of hearing Lord Emsworth—clad, not without vain protest and weak grumbling, in a silk hat, morning coat, and sponge-bag trousers—deliver a speech had been sufficient to lure him from the castle grounds.
But at the moment when he had uttered his refusal, thereby incurring the ill-concealed envy both of Lord Emsworth and his son Freddie, the latter also an unwilling celebrant, he had supposed that his solitude would be shared by Eve. This deplorable conscientiousness of hers, this morbid craving for work, had left him at a loose end. The time and the place were both above criticism, but, as so often happens in this life of ours, he had been let down by the girl.
But, though he chafed for a while, it was not long before the dreamy peace of the afternoon began to exercise a soothing effect upon him. With the exception of the bees that worked with their usual misguided energy among the flowers and an occasional butterfly which flitted past in the sunshine, all Nature seemed to be taking a siesta. Somewhere out of sight a lawn-mower had begun to emphasize the stillness with its musical whir.
A telegraph-boy on a red bicycle passed up the drive to the front door, and seemed to have some difficulty in establishing communication with the domestic staff—from which Psmith deduced that Beach, the butler, like a good opportunist, was taking advantage of the absence of authority to enjoy a nap in some distant lair of his own. Eventually a parlourmaid appeared, accepted the telegram, and (apparently) a rebuke from the boy, and the bicycle passed out of sight, leaving silence and peace once more.
The noblest minds are not proof against atmospheric conditions of this kind. Psmith’s eyes closed, opened, closed again. And presently his regular breathing, varied by an occasional snore, was added to the rest of the small sounds of the summer afternoon.
The shadow of the cedar was appreciably longer when he awoke with that sudden start which generally terminates sleep in a garden-chair. A glance at his watch told him that it was close on five o’clock, a fact which was confirmed a moment later by the arrival of the parlourmaid who had answered the summons of the telegraph-boy. She appeared to be the sole survivor of the little world that had its centre in the servants’ hall. A sort of female Casabianca.
“I have put your tea in the hall, sir.”
“You could have performed no nobler or more charitable task,” Psmith assured her; and, having corrected a certain stiffness of limb by means of massage, went in. It occurred to him that Eve, assiduous worker though she was, might have knocked off in order to keep him company.
The hope proved vain. A single cup stood bleakly on the tray. Either Eve was superior to the feminine passion for tea or she was having hers up in the library. Filled with something of the sadness which he had felt at the sight of the toiling bees, Psmith embarked on his solitary meal, wondering sorrowfully at the perverseness which made girls work when there was no one to watch them.
It was very agreeable here in the coolness of the hall. The great door of the castle was open, and through it he had a view of lawns bathed in a thirst-provoking sunlight. Through the green baize door to his left, which led to the servants’ quarters, an occasional sharp giggle gave evidence of the presence of humanity, but apart from that he might have been alone in the world. Once again he fell into a dreamy meditation, and there is little reason to doubt that he would shortly have disgraced himself by falling asleep for the second time in a single afternoon, when he was restored to alertness by the sudden appearance of a foreign body in the open doorway. Against the background of golden light a black figure had abruptly manifested itself.
The sharp pang of apprehension which ran through Psmith’s consciousness like an electric shock, causing him to stiffen like some wild creature surprised in the woods, was due to the momentary belief that the new comer was the local vicar, of whose conversational powers he had had experience on the second day of his visit. Another glance showed him that he had been too pessimistic. This was not the vicar. It was someone whom he had never seen before—a slim and graceful young man with a dark, intelligent face, who stood blinking in the subdued light of the hall with eyes not yet accustomed to the absence of strong sunshine. Greatly relieved, Psmith rose and approached him.
“Hullo!” said the new comer. “I didn’t see you. It’s quite dark in here after outside.”
“The light is pleasantly dim,” agreed Psmith.
“Is Lord Emsworth anywhere about?”
“I fear not. He has legged it, accompanied by the entire household, to superintend the unveiling of a memorial at Bridgeford to—if my memory serves me rightly—the late Hartley Reddish, Esq., J.P., M.P. Is there anything I can do?”
“Well, I’ve come to stay, you know.”
“Lady Constance invited me to pay a visit as soon as I reached England.”
“Ah! Then you have come from foreign parts?”
Psmith started slightly. This, he perceived, was going to complicate matters. The last thing he desired was the addition to the Blandings circle of one familiar with Canada. Nothing would militate against his peace of mind more than the society of a man who would want to exchange with him views on that growing country.
“Oh, Canada?” he said.
“I wired,” proceeded the other, “but I suppose it came after everybody had left. Ah, that must be my telegram on that table over there. I walked up from the station.” He was rambling idly about the hall after the fashion of one breaking new ground. He paused at an occasional table, the one where, when taking after-dinner coffee, Miss Peavey was wont to sit. He picked up a book and uttered a gratified laugh. “One of my little things,” he said.
“One of what?” said Psmith.
“This book. ‘Songs of Squalor.’ I wrote it.”
“You wrote it!”
“Yes. My name’s McTodd. Ralston McTodd. I expect you have heard them speak of me?”
THE mind of a man who has undertaken a mission as delicate as Psmith’s at Blandings Castle is necessarily alert. Ever since he had stepped into the five o’clock train at Paddington, when his adventure might have been said formally to have started, Psmith had walked warily, like one in a jungle on whom sudden and unexpected things might pounce out at any moment.
This calm announcement from the slim young man, therefore, though it undoubtedly startled him, did not deprive him of his faculties. On the contrary, it quickened them. His first action was to step nimbly to the table on which the telegram lay awaiting the return of Lord Emsworth, his second was to slip the envelope into his pocket. It was imperative that telegrams signed McTodd should not lie about loose while he was enjoying the hospitality of the castle.
This done, he confronted the young man.
“Come, come!” he said, with quiet severity.
He was extremely grateful to a kindly Providence which had arranged that this interview should take place at a time when nobody but himself was in the house.
“You say that you are Ralston McTodd, the author of these poems?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then what,” said Psmith, incisively, “is a pale parabola of joy?”
“Er—what?” said the new comer, in an enfeebled voice. There was manifest in his demeanour now a marked nervousness.
“And here is another,” said Psmith. “ ‘The . . .’ . . . Wait a minute, I’ll get it in a moment. Yes. ‘The sibilant, scented silence that shimmered where we sat.’ Could you oblige me with a diagram of that one?”
“I . . . I . . . What are you talking about?”
Psmith stretched out a long arm and patted him almost affectionately on the shoulder.
“It’s lucky you met me before you had to face the others,” he said. “I fear that you undertook this little adventure without thoroughly equipping yourself. They would have detected your imposture in the first minute.”
“What do you mean—imposture? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Psmith waggled his forefinger at him reproachfully.
“My dear comrade, I may as well tell you at once that the genuine McTodd is an old and dear friend of mine. I had a long and entertaining conversation with him only a few days ago. So that, I think we may confidently assert, is that. Or am I wrong?”
“Oh, hell!” said the young man. And, flopping bonelessly into a chair, he mopped his forehead in undisguised and abject collapse.
Silence reigned for awhile.
“What,” inquired the visitor, raising a damp face that shone pallidly in the dim light, “are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, comrade . . . by the way, what is your name?”
“Nothing, Comrade Cootes. Nothing whatever. You are free to leg it hence whenever you feel disposed. In fact, the sooner you do so, the better I shall be pleased.”
“Say! That’s darned good of you.”
“Not at all, not at all.”
“You’re an ace . . .”
“Oh, hush!” interrupted Psmith, modestly. “But before you go tell me one or two things. I take it that your object in coming here was to have a pop at Lady Constance’s necklace?”
“I thought as much. And what made you suppose that the real McTodd would not be here when you arrived?”
“Oh, that was all right. I travelled over with that guy McTodd on the boat and saw a good deal of him when we got to London. He was full of how he’d been invited here, and I got it out of him that no one here knew him by sight. And then one afternoon I met him in the Strand, all worked up. Madder than a hornet. Said he’d been insulted and wouldn’t come down to this place if they came and begged him on their bended knees. I couldn’t make out what it was all about, but apparently he had met Lord Emsworth and hadn’t been treated right. He told me he was going straight off to Paris.”
“And did he?”
“Sure. I saw him off myself at Charing Cross. That’s why it seemed such a cinch coming here instead of him. It’s just my darned luck that the first man I run into is a friend of his. How was I to know that he had any friends this side? He told me he’d never been in England before.”
“In this life, Comrade Cootes,” said Psmith, “we must always distinguish between the Unlikely and the Impossible. It was unlikely, as you say, that you would meet any friend of McTodd’s in this out-of-the-way spot; and you rashly ordered your movements on the assumption that it was impossible. With what result? The cry goes round the Underworld, ‘poor old Cootes has made a bloomer!’ ”
“You needn’t rub it in.”
“I am only doing so for your good. It is my earnest hope that you will lay this lesson to heart and profit by it. Who knows that it may not be the turning-point in your career? Years hence, when you are a white-haired and opulent man of leisure, having retired from the crook business with a comfortable fortune, you may look back on your experience of to-day and realize that it was the means of starting you on the road to success. You will lay stress on it when you are interviewed for the Weekly Burglar on ‘How I Began’ . . . But, talking of starting on roads, I think that perhaps it would be as well if you now had a pop at the one leading to the railway station. The household may be returning at any moment now.”
“That’s right,” agreed the visitor.
“I think so,” said Psmith. “I think so. You will be happier when you are away from here. Once outside the castle precincts, a great weight will roll off your mind. You know your way out?”
He shepherded the young man to the door and with a cordial push started him on his way. Then with long strides he ran upstairs to the library to find Eve.
AT about the same moment, on the platform of Market Blandings Station, Miss Aileen Peavey was alighting from the train which had left Bridgeford some half-an-hour earlier. A headache, the fruit of standing about in the hot sun, had caused her to forego the pleasure of hearing Lord Emsworth deliver his speech; and she had slipped back on a convenient train with the intention of lying down and resting. Finding, on reaching Market Blandings, that her head was much better, and the heat of the afternoon being now over, she started to walk to the castle, greatly refreshed by a cool breeze which had sprung up from the west. She left the town at almost the exact time when the disconsolate Mr. Cootes was passing out of the big gates at the end of the castle drive.
THE grey melancholy which accompanied Mr. Cootes like a diligent spectre as he began his walk back to the town of Market Blandings, and which not even the delightful evening could dispel, was due primarily, of course, to that sickening sense of defeat which afflicts a man whose high hopes have been wrecked at the very instant when success has seemed in sight. Once or twice in the life of every man there falls to his lot something which can only be described as a soft snap, and it had seemed to Mr. Cootes that this venture of his to Blandings Castle came into that category.
He had, like most members of his profession, had his ups and downs in the past, but at last, he told himself, the goddess Fortune had handed him something on a plate with watercress round it. Once established in the castle, there would have been a hundred opportunities of achieving the capture of Lady Constance’s necklace; and it had looked as though all he had to do was to walk in, announce himself, and be treated as the honoured guest. As he slouched moodily between the dusty hedges that fringed the road to Market Blandings, Edward Cootes tasted the bitterness that only those know whose plans have been upset by the hundredth chance.
But this was not all. In addition to the sadness of frustrated hope, he was also experiencing the anguish of troubled memories. Not only was the present torturing him, but the past had come to life and jumped out and bitten him. A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things, and this was what Edward Cootes was doing now. It is at moments like this that a man needs a woman’s tender care, and Mr. Cootes had lost the only woman in whom he could have confided his grief, the only woman who would have understood and sympathized.
We have been introduced to Mr. Cootes at a point in his career when he was practising upon dry land; but that was not his chosen environment. Until a few months back his business had lain upon deep waters. The salt scent of the sea was in his blood. To put it more exactly, he had been by profession a card-sharper on the Atlantic liners; and it was during this period that he had loved and lost.
For three years and more he had worked in perfect harmony with the lady who, though she adopted a variety of names for purposes of travel, was known to her immediate circle as Smooth Lizzie. He had been the practitioner, she the decoy, and theirs had been one of those ideal business partnerships which one so seldom meets with in a world of cynicism and mistrust. Comradeship had ripened into something deeper and more sacred, and it was all settled between them that when they next touched New York Mr. Cootes, if still at liberty, should proceed to the City Hall for a marriage licence; then they had quarrelled—quarrelled irrevocably over one of those trifling points over which lovers do quarrel.
Some absurd dispute as to the proper division of the quite meagre sum obtained from a cattle millionaire on their last voyage had marred their golden dreams. One word had led to another. The lady, after woman’s habit, had the last of the series, and even Mr. Cootes was forced to admit that it was a pippin. She had spoken it on the pier at New York, and then passed out of his life. And with her had gone all his luck. It was as if her going had brought a curse upon him.
On the very next trip he had had an unfortunate misunderstanding with an irritable gentleman from the Middle West, who, piqued at what he considered—not unreasonably—the undue proportion of kings and aces in the hands which Mr. Cootes had been dealing himself, expressed his displeasure by biting off the first joint of the other’s right index finger—thus putting an abrupt end to a brilliant career. For it was on this finger that Mr. Cootes principally relied for the almost magical effects which he was wont to produce with a pack of cards after a little quiet shuffling.
With an aching sense of what might have been he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully, he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they had still been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way of getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.
Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who, it will be remembered, was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when she found the society of her hostess and her hostess’s relations something of a strain; and she was glad to be alone. Her headache had disappeared, and she revelled in the quiet evening hush as she passed on her way at a leisurely gait. About now, if she had not had the sense to detach herself from the castle platoon, she would, she presumed, be listening to Lord Emsworth’s speech on the subject of the late Hartley Reddish, J.P., M.P., a topic which even the noblest of orators might have failed to render really gripping. And what she knew of her host gave her little confidence in his powers of oratory.
Yes, she was well out of it. The gentle breeze played soothingly upon her face. Her delicately modelled nostrils drank in gratefully the scent from the hedgerows. Somewhere out of sight a thrush was singing. And so moved was Miss Peavey by the peace and sweetness of it all that she, too, began to sing.
Had those who enjoyed the privilege of her acquaintance at Blandings Castle been informed that Miss Peavey was about to sing, they would doubtless have considered themselves on firm ground if called upon to make a conjecture as to the type of song which she would select. Something quaint, dreamy, a little wistful . . . that would have been the universal guess . . . some old-world ballad, possibly . . .
What Miss Peavey actually sang—in a soft, meditative voice like that of a starling waking to greet a new dawn—was that curious composition known as the “Beale Street Blues.”
As she reached the last line she broke off abruptly. She was, she perceived, no longer alone. Down the road toward her, walking pensively like one with a secret sorrow, a man was approaching; and for an instant, as she turned the corner, something in his appearance seemed to catch her by the throat and her breath came sharply.
“Gee!” said Miss Peavey.
She was herself again the next moment. A chance resemblance had misled her. She could not see the man’s face, for his head was bent, but how was it possible . . . ?
And then, when he was quite close, he raised his head, and the county of Shropshire, as far as it was visible to her amazed eyes, executed a sudden and eccentric dance. Trees bobbed up and down, hedgerows shimmied like a Broadway chorus; and from out of the midst of the whirling countryside a voice spoke:—
“Eddie!” ejaculated Miss Peavey, faintly, and sat down in a heap on a grassy bank.
“WELL, for goodness’ sake!” said Miss Peavey.
Shropshire had become static once more. She stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Can you tie it?” said Miss Peavey.
She ran her gaze over him once again from head to foot.
“Well, if this ain’t the cat’s whiskers!” said Miss Peavey. And with this final pronouncement she rose from her bank, somewhat restored, and addressed herself to the task of picking up old threads.
“Wherever,” she inquired, “did you spring from, Ed?”
There was nothing but affection in her voice. Her gaze was that of a mother contemplating her long-lost child. The past was past and a new era had begun. In the past she had been compelled to describe this man as a hunk of cheese and to express the opinion that his crookedness was such as to enable him to hide at will behind a spiral staircase; but now, in the joy of this unexpected reunion, all these harsh views were forgotten.
This was Eddie Cootes, come back to her after many days, and only now was it borne in upon her what a gap in her life his going had made. She flung herself into his arms with a glad cry.
Mr. Cootes, who had not been expecting this demonstration of esteem, staggered a trifle at the impact, but recovered himself sufficiently to return the embrace with something of his ancient warmth. He was delighted at this cordiality, but also surprised. The memory of the lady’s parting words on the occasion of their last meeting was still green, and he had not realized how quickly women forget and forgive and how a sensitive girl, stirred by some fancied injury, may address a man as a pie-faced plugugly and yet retain in her inmost heart all the old love and affection. He kissed Miss Peavey fondly.
“Liz,” he said, with fervour, “you’re prettier than ever.”
“Now you behave,” responded Miss Peavey, coyly.
The arrival of a baaing flock of sheep, escorted by an earnest and rather priggish dog and followed by a couple of local peasantry, caused an intermission in these tender exchanges; and by the time the procession had moved off down the road they were in a more suitable frame of mind to converse quietly and in a practical spirit, to compare notes, and to fill up the blanks.
“Wherever,” inquired Miss Peavey again, “did you spring from, Ed? You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw you coming along the road. I couldn’t have believed it was you, this far from the ocean. What are you doing inland like this? Taking a vacation, or aren’t you working the boats any more?”
“No, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, sadly. “I’ve had to give that up.”
And he exhibited the hiatus where an important section of his finger had been and told his painful tale. His companion’s sympathy was balm to his wounded soul.
“The risks of the profession, of course,” said Mr. Cootes, moodily, removing the exhibit in order to place his arm about her slender waist. “Still, it’s done me in. I tried once or twice, but I couldn’t seem to make the cards behave no more, so I quit. Ah, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, with feeling, “you can take it from me that I’ve had no luck since you left me. Regular hoodoo there’s been on me. If I’d walked under a ladder on a Friday to smash a mirror over the dome of a black cat, I couldn’t have had it tougher.”
“You poor boy!”
Mr. Cootes nodded sombrely.
“Tough,” he agreed, “but there it is. Only this afternoon my jinx gummed the game for me and threw a spanner into the prettiest little scenario you ever thought of . . . But let’s not talk about my troubles. What are you doing now, Liz?”
“Me? Oh, I’m living near here.”
Mr. Cootes started.
“Not married?” he exclaimed, in alarm.
“No!” cried Miss Peavey, with vehemence, and shot a tender glance up at his face. “And I guess you know why, Ed.”
“You don’t mean . . . you hadn’t forgotten me?”
“As if I could ever forget you, Eddie! There’s only one tintype on my mantelpiece!”
“But it struck me . . . it sort of occurred to me as a passing thought that, when we saw each other last, you were a mite peeved with your Eddie . . .”
It was the first allusion either of them had made to the past unpleasantness, and it caused a faint blush to dye Miss Peavey’s soft cheek.
“Oh, shucks!” she said. “I’d forgotten all about that next day. I was good and mad at the time, I’ll allow, but if only you’d called me up next morning, Ed . . .”
There was a silence as they mused on what might have been.
“What are you doing, living here?” asked Mr. Cootes, after a pregnant pause. “Have you retired?”
“No, sir. I’m sitting in at a game with real worth-while stakes. But, darn it,” said Miss Peavey, regretfully, “I’m wondering if it isn’t too big for me to put through alone. Oh, Eddie, if only there was some way you and me could work it together like in the old days.”
“What is it?”
“Diamonds, Eddie. A necklace. I’ve only had one look at it so far, but that was enough. Some of the best ice I’ve saw in years, Ed. Worth every cent of a hundred thousand berries.”
The coincidence drew from Mr. Cootes a sharp exclamation. “A necklace!”
“Listen, Ed, while I slip you the low-down. And, say, if you knew the relief it was to me talking good United States again! Like taking off a pair of tight shoes. I’m doing the high-toned stuff for the moment. Soulful. You remember, like I used to pull once or twice in the old days. Just after you and me had that little spat of ours I thought I’d take another trip in the old Atlantic—force of habit or something, I guess. Anyway, I sailed, and we weren’t two days out from New York when I made the biggest kind of a hit with the dame this necklace belongs to. Seemed to take a shine to me right away . . .”
“I don’t blame her!” murmured Mr. Cootes, devotedly.
“Now don’t you interrupt,” said Miss Peavey, administering a gratified slap. “Where was I? Oh, yes. This here now Lady Constance Keeble I’m telling you about . . .”
“What’s the matter now?”
“Lady Constance Keeble?”
“That’s the name. She’s Lord Emsworth’s sister, who lives at a big place up the road. Blandings Castle it’s called. She didn’t seem like she was able to let me out of her sight, and I’ve been with her off and on ever since we landed. I’m visiting at the castle now.”
A deep sigh, like the groan of some great spirit in travail, forced itself from between Mr. Cootes’s lips.
“Now, wouldn’t that jar you?” he demanded of circumambient space. “Of all the lucky ones! Getting into the place like that, with the band playing and a red carpet laid down for you to walk on! Gee, if you fell down a well, Liz, you’d come up with the bucket. You’re a human horseshoe, that’s what you are. Say, listen! Lemme-tell-ya-sumf’n. Do you know what I’ve been doing this afternoon? Only trying to edge into the damn place myself and getting the air two minutes after I was past the front door.”
“What! You, Ed?”
“Sure. You’re not the only one that’s heard of that collection of ice.”
“Oh, Ed!” Bitter disappointment rang in Miss Peavey’s voice. “If only you could have worked it! Me and you partners again! It hurts to think of it. What was the stuff you pulled to get you in?”
Mr. Cootes so far forgot himself in his agony of spirit as to expectorate disgustedly at a passing frog. And even in this trivial enterprise failure dogged him. He missed the frog, which withdrew into the grass with a cold look of disapproval.
“Me?” said Mr. Cootes. “I thought I’d got it smooth. I’d chummed up with a fellow who had been invited down to the place and had thought it over and decided not to go, so I said to myself what’s the matter with going there instead of him. A gink called McTodd this was, a poet, and none of the folks had ever set eyes on him, except Lord Emsworth, who can’t see a thing, he’s so shortsighted.”
Miss Peavey interrupted.
“You don’t mean to tell me, Ed Cootes, that you thought you could get into the castle pretending to be Ralston McTodd?”
“Sure I did. Why not? It didn’t seem like there was anything to it. A cinch, that’s what it looked like. And the first guy I meet in the joint is a mutt who knows this McTodd well. We had a couple of words and I beat it. I know when I’m not wanted.”
“But, Ed! Ed! What do you mean? Ralston McTodd is at the castle now, this very moment.”
“Sure. Been there coupla days and more. Long, thin bird with an eyeglass.”
Mr. Cootes’s mind was in a whirl. He could make nothing of this matter.
“Nothing like it! McTodd’s not so darned tall or so thin, if it comes to that. And he didn’t wear no eyeglass all the time I was with him.” He broke off sharply, as a monstrous suspicion blazed across his mind. “My gosh! I wonder!” he cried. “Liz! How many men are there in the joint right now?”
“Only four besides Lord Emsworth. There’s a big party coming down for the Hunt Ball, but that’s all there is at present. There’s Lord Emsworth’s son, Freddie . . .”
“What does he look like?”
“Sort of a dude with blond hair slicked back. Then there’s Mr. Keeble. He’s short with a red face.”
“And Baxter. He’s Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Wears spectacles.”
“And that’s the lot?”
“That’s all there is, not counting this here now McTodd and the help.”
Mr. Cootes brought his hand down with a resounding report on his leg. The mildly pleasant look which had been a feature of his appearance during his interview with Psmith had vanished now, its place taken by one of an extremely sinister malevolence.
“And I let him shoo me out as if I was a stray pup!” he muttered, through clenched teeth. “Of all the bunk games!”
“What are you talking about, Ed?”
“And I thanked him! Thanked him!” moaned Edward Cootes, writhing at the memory. “I thanked him for letting me go!”
“Eddie Cootes, whatever are you . . . ?”
“Listen, Liz,” Mr. Cootes mastered his emotion with a strong effort. “I blew into that joint and met this fellow with the eyeglass, and he told me he knew McTodd well and that I wasn’t him. And, from what you tell me, this must be the very guy that’s passing himself off as McTodd! Don’t you see? This baby must have started working on the same lines I did. Got to know McTodd, found he wasn’t coming to the castle, and came down instead of him, same as me. Only he got there first, damn him! Wouldn’t that give you a pain in the neck!”
Amazement held Miss Peavey dumb for an instant. Then she spoke.
“The big stiff!” said Miss Peavey.
Mr. Cootes, regardless of the lady’s presence, went even further in his censure.
“I had a feeling from the first that there was something not on the level about that guy!” said Miss Peavey. “Gee! He must be after that necklace, too.”
“Sure he’s after the necklace,” said Mr. Cootes, impatiently. “What did you think he’d come down for? A change of air?”
“But, Ed! Say! You aren’t going to let him get away with it?”
“Am I going to let him get away with it!” said Mr. Cootes, annoyed by the foolish question. “Wake me up in the night and ask me!”
“But what are you going to do?”
“Do!” said Mr. Cootes. “Do! I’ll tell you what I’m going to . . .” He paused, and the stern resolve that shone in his face seemed to flicker. “Say, what the hell am I going to do?” he went on, somewhat weakly.
“You won’t get anything by putting the folks wise that he’s a fake. That would be the finish of him, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere.”
“No,” said Mr. Cootes.
“Wait a minute while I think,” said Miss Peavey.
There was a pause. Miss Peavey sat with knit brows.
“How would it be . . . ?” ventured Mr. Cootes.
“Cheese it!” said Miss Peavey.
Mr. Cootes cheesed it. The minutes ticked on.
“I’ve got it,” said Miss Peavey. “This guy’s ace-high with Lady Constance. You’ve got to get him alone right away and tell him he’s got to get you invited to the place as a friend of his.”
“I knew you’d think of something, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, almost humbly. “You always were a wonder like that. How am I to get him alone?”
“I can fix that. I’ll ask him to come for a stroll with me. He’s not what you’d call crazy about me, but he can’t very well duck if I keep after him. We’ll go down the drive. You’ll be in the bushes—I’ll show you the place. Then I’ll send him to fetch me a wrap or something, and while I walk on he’ll come back past where you’re hiding, and you jump out at him.”
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, lost in admiration, “when it comes to doping out a scheme, you’re the snake’s eyebrows!”
“But what are you going to do if he just turns you down?”
Mr. Cootes uttered a bleak laugh, and from the recesses of his costume produced a neat little revolver.
“He won’t turn me down!” he said.
“FANCY!” said Miss Peavey. “If I had not had a headache and come back early we should never have had this little chat!”
She gazed up at Psmith in her gentle, wistful way as they started together down the broad gravel drive. A timid, soulful little thing she looked.
“No,” said Psmith.
It was not a gushing reply, but he was not feeling at his sunniest. The idea that Miss Peavey might return from Bridgeford in advance of the main body had not occurred to him. As he would have said himself, he had confused the unlikely with the impossible. And the result had been that she had caught him beyond hope of retreat as he sat in his garden chair and thought of Eve Halliday, who, on their return from the lake, had been seized with a fresh spasm of conscience and had gone back to the library to put in another hour’s work before dinner.
To decline Miss Peavey’s invitation to accompany her down the drive in order to see if there were any signs of those who had been doing honour to the late Hartley Reddish, M.P., had been out of the question. But Psmith, though he went, went without pleasure. Every moment he spent in her society tended to confirm him more and more in the opinion that Miss Peavey was the curse of the species.
“And I have been so longing,” continued his companion, “to have a nice long talk. All these days I have felt that I haven’t been able to get as near you as I should wish.”
“Well, of course, with the others always about . . .”
“I meant in a spiritual sense, of course.”
“I wanted so much to discuss your wonderful poetry with you. You haven’t so much as mentioned your work since you came here. Have you!”
“Ah, but, you see, I am trying to keep my mind off it.”
“My medical adviser warned me that I had been concentrating a trifle too much. He offered me the choice, in fact, between a complete rest and the loony-bin.”
“The what, Mr. McTodd?”
“The lunatic asylum, he meant. These medical men express themselves oddly.”
“But surely, then, you ought not to dream of trying to compose if it is as bad as that. And you told Lord Emsworth that you wished to stay at home this afternoon to write a poem.”
Her glance showed nothing but tender solicitude, but inwardly Miss Peavey was telling herself that that would hold him for a while.
“True,” said Psmith, “true. But you know what Art is. An inexorable mistress. The inspiration came, and I felt I must take the risk. But it has left me weak, weak.”
“You Big Stiff!” said Miss Peavey. But not aloud.
They walked on a few steps.
“In fact,” said Psmith, with another inspiration, “I’m not sure I ought not to be going back and resting now.”
Miss Peavey eyed a clump of bushes some dozen yards farther down the drive. They were quivering slightly, as though they sheltered some alien intruder; and Miss Peavey, whose temper was apt to be impatient, registered a resolve to tell Edward Cootes that if he couldn’t hide behind a bush without dancing about like a cat on hot bricks, he had better give up his profession and take to selling jellied eels. In which, it may be mentioned, she wronged her old friend. He had been as still as a statue until a moment before, when a large and excitable beetle had fallen down the space between his collar and his neck, an experience which might well have tried the subtlest woodsman.
“Oh, please, don’t go in yet,” said Miss Peavey. “It is such a lovely evening. Hark to the music of the breeze in the tree-tops. So soothing. Like a far-away harp. I wonder if it is whispering secrets to the birds.”
Psmith forbore to follow her into this region of speculation, and they walked past the bushes in silence.
Some little distance farther on, however, Miss Peavey seemed to relent.
“You are looking tired, Mr. McTodd,” she said, anxiously. “I am afraid you really have been overtaxing your strength. Perhaps, after all, you had better go back and lie down.”
“You think so?”
“I am sure of it. I will just stroll on to the gates and see if the car is in sight.”
“I feel that I am deserting you.”
“Oh, please!” said Miss Peavey, deprecatingly.
With something of the feelings of a long-sentence convict unexpectedly released immediately on his arrival in gaol, Psmith retraced his steps. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Miss Peavey had disappeared round a bend in the drive; and he paused to light a cigarette. He had just thrown away the match and was walking on, well content with life, when a voice behind him said, “Hey!” and the well-remembered form of Mr. Edward Cootes stepped out of the bushes.
“See this?” said Mr. Cootes, exhibiting his revolver.
“I do, indeed, Comrade Cootes,” replied Psmith. “And if it is not an untimely question, what is the idea?”
“That,” said Mr. Cootes, “is just in case you try any funny business.” And, replacing the weapon in a handy pocket, he proceeded to slap vigorously at the region between his shoulder blades. He also wriggled with not a little animation.
Psmith watched these manœuvres gravely.
“You did not stop me at the pistol’s point merely to watch you go through your Swedish exercises?” he said.
Mr. Cootes paused for an instant.
“Got a beetle or something down my back,” he explained, curtly.
“Ah? Then, as you will naturally wish to be alone in such a sad moment, I will be bidding you a cordial good evening and strolling on.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Don’t I?” said Psmith, resignedly. “Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are right.” Mr. Cootes replaced the revolver once more. “I take it, then, Comrade Cootes, that you would have speech with me. Carry on, old friend, and get it off your diaphragm. What seems to be on your mind?”
A lucky blow appeared to have stunned Mr. Cootes’s beetle, and he was able to give his full attention to the matter in hand. He stared at Psmith with considerable distaste.
“I’m on to you, Bill!” he said.
“My name is not Bill,” said Psmith.
“No,” snapped Mr. Cootes, his annoyance by this time very manifest. “And it’s not McTodd.”
Psmith looked at his companion thoughtfully. This was an unforeseen complication, and for the moment he would readily have admitted that he saw no way of overcoming it. That the other was in no genial frame of mind towards him the expression on his face would have showed, even if actions had not been sufficient indication of the fact. Mr. Cootes, having disposed of his beetle and being now at leisure to concentrate his whole attention on Psmith, was eyeing that immaculate young man with a dislike which he did not attempt to conceal.
“Shall we be strolling on?” suggested Psmith. “Walking may assist thought. At the moment I am free to confess that you have opened up a subject which causes me some perplexity. I think, Comrade Cootes, having given the position of affairs a careful examination, that we may say that the next move is with you. I don’t know how you found me out, but you have found me out. What do you propose to do about it?”
“I’d like,” said Mr. Cootes, with asperity, “to beat your block off.”
“No doubt. But . . .”
“I’d like to knock you for a goal!”
Psmith discouraged these Utopian dreams with a deprecating wave of the hand.
“I can readily understand it,” he said, courteously. “But to keep within the sphere of practical politics, what is the actual move which you contemplate? You could expose me, no doubt, to my host, but I cannot see how that would profit you.”
“I know that. But you can remember I’ve got that up my sleeve in case you try any funny business.”
“You persist in harping on that possibility, Comrade Cootes. The idea seems to be an obsession with you. I can assure you that I contemplate no such thing. What, to return to the point, do you intend to do?”
They had reached the broad expanse opposite the front door, where the drive, from being a river, spread out into a lake of gravel. Psmith stopped.
“You’ve got to get me into this joint,” said Mr. Cootes.
“I feared that that was what you were about to suggest. In my peculiar position I have naturally no choice but to endeavour to carry out your wishes. Any attempt not to do so would, I imagine, infallibly strike so keen a critic as yourself as ‘funny business.’ But how can I get you into what you breezily describe as ‘this joint’?”
“You can say I’m a friend of yours, and ask them to invite me.”
Psmith shook his head gently.
“Not one of your brightest suggestions, Comrade Cootes. Tactfully refraining from stressing the point, which can hardly have escaped your notice, that an instant lowering of my prestige would inevitably ensue should it be supposed that you were a friend of mine, I will merely mention that, being myself merely a guest in this stately home of England, I can hardly go about inviting my chums here for indefinite visits. No, we must find another way . . . You’re sure you want to stay? Quite so, quite so; I merely asked . . . Now, let us think.”
Through the belt of rhododendrons which jutted out from one side of the castle a portly form at this point made itself visible, moving high and disposedly in the direction of the back premises of the place. It was Beach, the butler, returning from the pleasant ramble in which he had indulged himself on the departure of his employer and the rest of the party. Revived by some gracious hours in the open air, Beach was returning to duty. And with the sight of him there came to Psmith a neat solution of the problem confronting him.
“Oh, Beach!” he called.
“Sir?” responded a fruity voice. There was a brief pause while the butler navigated into the open. He removed the straw hat which he had donned for his excursion, and enfolded Psmith in a pop-eyed but not unkindly gaze. A thoughtful critic of country-house humanity, he had long since decided that he approved of Psmith. Since Lady Constance had first begun to offer the hospitality of the castle to the literary and artistic world, he had been profoundly shocked by some of the rare and curious specimens who had nodded their disordered locks and flaunted their ill-cut evening clothes at the dinner table over which he presided; and Psmith had come as a pleasant surprise.
“Sorry to trouble you, Beach.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“This,” said Psmith, indicating Mr. Cootes, who was viewing this scene with a wary and suspicious eye, an eye obviously alert for any signs of funny business, “is my man. My valet, you know. He has just arrived from town. I had to leave him behind to attend the bedside of a sick aunt. Your aunt was better when you came away, Cootes?” he inquired, graciously.
Edward Cootes was a man who, through a chequered career, had acquired to a high degree the faculty of quick thinking. He interpreted this question correctly as a feeler with regard to his views on this new development, and decided to accept the situation. True, he had hoped to enter the castle in a slightly higher capacity than that of a gentleman’s personal gentleman, but he was an old campaigner. Once in, as he put it to himself with admirable common-sense, he would be in.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Capital,” said Psmith. “Capital. Then will you look after Cootes, Beach?”
“Very good, sir,” said the butler, in a voice of cordial approval. The only point he had found to cavil at in Psmith had been removed; for it had pained him hitherto a little that a gentleman with so nice a taste in clothes as that dignified guest should have embarked on a visit to such a place as Blandings Castle without a personal attendant. Now all was explained and, as far as Beach was concerned, forgiven. He proceeded to escort Mr. Cootes to the rear. They disappeared behind the rhododendrons.
They had hardly gone when a sudden thought came to Psmith as he sat once more in the coolness of the hall. Strange, he reflected, how one overlooked these obvious things. That was how generals lost battles. He pressed the bell.
“Sir?” said Beach, appearing through the green baize door.
“Sorry to trouble you again, Beach.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“I hope you will make Cootes comfortable. I think you will like him. His, when you get to know him, is a very winning personality.”
“He seems a nice young fellow, sir.”
“Oh, by the way, Beach. You might ask him if he brought my revolver from town with him.”
“Yes, sir,” said Beach, who would have scorned to betray emotion if it had been a Lewis gun.
“He was to have picked it up at the gunsmith’s on his way to the station. I think I saw it sticking out of his pocket. You might bring it to me, will you?”
“Very good, sir.”
Beach retired, to return a moment later. On the silver salver which he carried the lethal weapon was duly reposing.
“Your revolver, sir,” said Beach.
“Thank you,” said Psmith.
a little cottage
FOR some moments after the butler had withdrawn in his stately pigeon-toed way through the green baize door, Psmith lay back in his chair with the feeling that something attempted, something done, had earned a night’s repose. He was not so sanguine as to suppose that he had actually checkmated an adversary of Mr. Cootes’s strenuousness by the simple act of removing a revolver from his possession; but there was no denying the fact that the feel of the thing in his pocket engendered a certain cosy satisfaction.
The little he had seen of Mr. Cootes had been enough to convince him that the other was a man who was far better off without an automatic pistol. There was an impulsiveness about his character which did not go well with the possession of firearms.
Psmith’s meditations had taken him thus far when they were interrupted by an imperative voice. “Hey!”
Only one person of Psmith’s acquaintance was in the habit of opening his remarks in this manner. It was consequently no surprise to him to find Mr. Edward Cootes standing at his elbow.
“All right, Comrade Cootes,” said Psmith, with a touch of austerity, “I heard you the first time. And may I remind you that this habit of yours of popping out from unexpected places and saying ‘Hey!’ is one which should be overcome. Valets are supposed to wait till rung for. At least, I think so. I must confess that until this moment I have never had a valet.”
“And you wouldn’t have one now if I could help it,” responded Mr. Cootes.
Psmith raised his eyebrows.
“Why,” he inquired, surprised, “this peevishness? Don’t you like being a valet?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You astonish me. I should have thought you would have gone singing about the house. Have you considered that the tenancy of such a position throws you into the constant society of Comrade Beach, than whom it would be difficult to imagine a more delightful companion?”
“Old stiff!” said Mr. Cootes, sourly. “If there’s one thing that makes me tired, it’s a guy that talks about his darned stomach all the time.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Beach gook,” explained Mr. Cootes, “has got something wrong with the lining of his stomach, and if I hadn’t made my getaway he’d be talking about it yet.”
“If you fail to find entertainment and uplift in first-hand information about Comrade Beach’s stomach, you must indeed be hard to please. I am to take it, then, that you came snorting out here, interrupting my daydreams, merely in order to seek my sympathy?”
Mr. Cootes gazed upon him with a smouldering eye.
“I came to tell you I suppose you think you’re darned smart.”
“And very nice of you, too,” said Psmith, warmly. “A pretty compliment, for which I am grateful.”
“You got that gun away from me mighty smoothly, didn’t you?”
“Since you mention it, not unsmoothly.”
“And now I suppose you think you’re going to slip in ahead of me and get away with that necklace? Well, say, listen, lemme tell you it’ll take someone better than a half-baked string-bean like you to put one over on me.”
“I seem,” said Psmith, pained, “to detect a certain animus creeping into your tone. Surely we can be trade rivals without this spirit of hostility. My attitude toward you is one of kindly tolerance.”
“Even if you get it, where do you think you’re going to hide it? And, believe me, it’ll take some hiding. Say, lemme tell you something. I’m your valet, ain’t I? Well, then, I can come into your room and be tidying up whenever I darn please, can’t I? Sure I can. I’ll tell the world I can do just that little thing. And you take it from me, Bill . . .”
“You persist in the delusion that my name is William . . .”
“You take it from me, Bill, that if ever that necklace disappears and it isn’t me that’s done the disappearing, you’ll find me tidying up in a way that’ll make you dizzy. I’ll go through that room of yours with a fine-tooth comb. So chew on that, will you?”
And Edward Cootes, moving sombrely across the hall, made a sinister exit. The mood of cool reflection was still to come, when he would realize that, in his desire to administer what he would have described as a hot one, he had acted a little rashly in putting his enemy on his guard. All he was thinking now was that his brief sketch of the position of affairs would have the effect of diminishing Psmith’s complacency a trifle. He had, he flattered himself, slipped over something that could be classed as a jolt.
Nor was he unjustified in this view. The aspect of the matter on which he had touched was one that had not previously presented itself to Psmith; and, musing on it as he resettled himself in his chair, he could see that it afforded food for thought. As regarded the disposal of the necklace, should it ever come into his possession, he had formed no definite plan.
He had assumed that he would conceal it somewhere until the first excitement of the chase slackened, and it was only now that he realized the difficulty of finding a suitable hiding-place outside his bedroom. Yes, it was certainly a matter on which, as Mr. Cootes had suggested, he would do well to chew. For ten minutes, accordingly, he did so. And—it being practically impossible to keep a good man down—at the end of that period he was rewarded with an idea. He rose from his chair and pressed the bell.
“Ah, Beach,” he said, affably, as the green baize door swung open, “I must apologize once more for troubling you. I keep ringing, don’t I?”
“No trouble at all, sir,” responded the butler, paternally. “But if you were ringing to summon your personal attendant, I fear he is not immediately available. He left me somewhat abruptly a few moments ago. I was not aware that you would be requiring his services until the dressing-gong sounded, or I would have detained him.”
“Never mind. It was you I wished to see. Beach,” said Psmith, “I am concerned about you. I learn from my man that the lining of your stomach is not all it should be.”
“That is true, sir,” replied Beach, an excited gleam coming into his dull eyes. He shivered slightly, as might a war-horse at the sound of the bugle. “I do have trouble with the lining of my stomach.”
“Every stomach has a silver lining.”
“I said, tell me all about it.”
“Well, really, sir. . .” said Beach, wistfully.
“To please me,” urged Psmith.
“Well, sir, it is extremely kind of you to take an interest. It generally starts with a dull shooting pain on the right side of the abdomen from twenty minutes to half-an-hour after the conclusion of the meal. The symptoms . . .”
There was nothing but courteous sympathy in Psmith’s gaze as he listened to what sounded like an eye-witness’s account of the San Francisco earthquake, but inwardly he was wishing that his companion could see his way to making it a bit briefer and snappier. However, all things come to an end. Even the weariest river winds somewhere to the sea. With a moving period the butler finally concluded his narrative.
“Parks’ Pepsinine,” said Psmith, promptly.
“That’s what you want. Parks’ Pepsinine. It would set you right in no time.”
“I will make a note of the name, sir. The specific has not come to my notice until now. And, if I may say so,” added Beach, with a glassy but adoring look at his benefactor, “I should like to express my gratitude for your kindness.”
“Not at all, Beach, not at all. Oh, Beach,” he said, as the other started to manœuvre towards the door, “I’ve just remembered. There was something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I thought it might be as well to speak to you about it before approaching Lady Constance. The fact is, Beach, I am feeling cramped.”
“Indeed, sir? I forgot to mention that one of the symptoms from which I suffer is a sharp cramp.”
“Too bad. But let us, if you do not mind, shelve for the moment the subject of your interior organism and its ailments. When I say I am feeling cramped, I mean spiritually. Have you ever written poetry, Beach?”
“Ah! Then it may be a little difficult for you to understand my feelings. My trouble is this. Out in Canada, Beach, I grew accustomed to doing my work in the most solitary surroundings. You remember that passage in my ‘Songs of Squalor’ which begins ‘Across the pale parabola of Joy . . .’?”
“I fear, sir . . .”
“You missed it? Tough luck. Try to get hold of it some time. It’s a bird. Well, that passage was written in a lonely hut on the banks of the Saskatchewan, miles away from human habitation. I am like that, Beach. I need the stimulus of the great open spaces. When I am surrounded by my fellows inspiration slackens and dies. You know how it is when there are people about. Just as you are starting in to write a nifty, someone comes and sits down on the desk and begins talking about himself. Every time you get going nicely, in barges some alien influence and the Muse goes blooey. You see what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” said Beach, gaping slightly.
“Well, that is why for a man like me existence in Blandings Castle has its drawbacks. I have got to get a place where I can be alone, Beach—alone with my dreams and visions. Some little eyrie perched on the cliffs of Time . . . In other words, do you know of an empty cottage somewhere on the estate where I could betake myself when in the mood and swing a nib without any possibility of being interrupted?”
“A little cottage, sir?”
“A little cottage. With honeysuckle over the door and Old Mister Moon climbing up above the trees. A cottage, Beach, where I can meditate, where I can turn the key in the door and bid the world go by. Now that the castle is going to be full of all these people who are coming for the County Ball, it is imperative that I wangle such a haven. Otherwise a considerable slab of priceless poetry will be lost to humanity for ever.”
“You desire,” said Beach, feeling his way cautiously, “a small cottage where you can write poetry, sir?”
“You follow me like a leopard. Do you know of such a one?”
“There is an unoccupied gamekeeper’s cottage in the west wood, sir, but it is an extremely humble place.”
“Be it never so humble, it will do for me. Do you think Lady Constance would be offended if I were to ask for the loan of it for a few days?”
“I fancy that her ladyship would receive the request with equanimity, sir. She is used to . . . She is not unaccustomed . . . Well, I can only say, sir, that there was a literary gentleman visiting the castle last summer who expressed a desire to take sun-baths in the garden each morning before breakfast. In the nood, sir. And beyond instructing me to warn the maids, her ladyship placed no obstacle in the way of the fulfilment of his wishes. So . . .”
“So a modest request like mine isn’t likely to cause a heart-attack? Admirable! You don’t know what it means to me to feel that I shall soon have a little refuge of my own, to which I can retreat and be in solitude.”
“I can imagine that it must be extremely gratifying, sir.”
“Then I will put the motion before the board directly Lady Constance returns.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I should like to splash it on the record once more, Beach, that I am much obliged to you for your sympathy and advice in this matter. I knew you would not fail me.”
“Not at all, sir. I am only too glad to have been able to be of assistance.”
“Oh, and, Beach . . .”
“Just one other thing. Will you be seeing Cootes, my valet, again shortly?”
“Quite shortly, sir, I should imagine.”
“Then would you mind just prodding him smartly in the lower ribs . . .”
“Sir?” cried Beach, startled out of his butlerian calm. He swallowed a little convulsively. For eighteen months and more, ever since Lady Constance Keeble had first begun to cast her fly and hook over the murky water of the artistic world and jerk its denizens on to the pile carpets of Blandings Castle, Beach had had his fill of eccentricity. But until this moment he had hoped that Psmith was going to prove an agreeable change from the stream of literary lunatics which had been coming and going all that weary time. And lo! Psmith’s name led all the rest. Even the man who had come for a week in April and had wanted to eat jam with his fish paled in comparison.
“Prod him in the ribs, sir?” he quavered.
“Prod him in the ribs,” said Psmith, firmly. “And at the same time whisper in his ear the word ‘Aha!’ ”
Beach licked his dry lips.
“Aha! And say it came from me.”
“Very good, sir. The matter shall be attended to,” said Beach. And with a muffled sound that was half a sigh, half a death-rattle, he tottered through the green baize door.
the brains of the firm
BREAKFAST was over, and the guests of Blandings had scattered to their morning occupations. Some were writing letters, some were in the billiard-room; some had gone to the stables, some to the links, and in the Yew Alley, the dappled sunlight falling upon her graceful head, Miss Peavey walked pensively up and down.
She was alone. It is a sad but indisputable fact that in this imperfect world genius is too often condemned to walk alone—if the earthier members of the community see it coming and have time to duck. Not one of the horde of visitors who had arrived overnight for the County Ball had shown any disposition whatever to court Miss Peavey’s society.
Of Miss Peavey, the purloiner of other people’s goods, they knew nothing; the woman they were dodging was Miss Peavey, the poetess. And it may be mentioned that, however much she might unbend in the presence of a congenial friend like Mr. Edward Cootes, she was a perfectly genuine poetess. Those six volumes under her name in the British Museum catalogue were her own genuine and unaided work.
Miss Peavey, however, was not sorry to be alone; for she had that on her mind which called for solitary thinking. The matter engaging her attention was the problem of what on earth had happened to Mr. Edward Cootes. Two days had passed since he had left her to go and force Psmith at the pistol’s point to introduce him into the castle; and since that moment he had vanished completely.
The Yew Alley, as Lord Emsworth had indicated in his extremely interesting lecture to Mr. Ralston McTodd at the Senior Conservative Club, contained, among other noteworthy features, certain yews which rose in solid blocks with rounded roof and stemless mushroom finials, the majority possessing arched recesses, forming arbours. As Miss Peavey was passing one of these, a voice suddenly addressed her.
A damp face with twigs sticking to it was protruding from a near-by yew.
Miss Peavey drew nearer, breathing heavily. The question as to the whereabouts of her wandering boy was solved; but the abruptness of his return had caused her to bite her tongue; and joy, as she confronted him, was blended with other emotions.
“And where,” proceeded Miss Peavey, ventilating another grievance, “have you been all this darned time? You leave me a coupla days back saying you’re going to stick up this chap that calls himself McTodd and make him get you into the house, and that’s the last I see of you.”
“It’s all right, Liz. He did get me into the house. I’m his valet. That’s why I couldn’t get at you before.”
Miss Peavey’s keen mind grasped the position of affairs.
“All right, all right,” she interrupted, ever impatient of long speeches from others. “I understand. Well, this is good, Ed. It couldn’t have worked out better. I’ve got a scheme all worked out, and now you’re here we can get busy.”
“A pippin,” assented Miss Peavey.
“It’ll need to be,” said Mr. Cootes, on whom the events of the last few days had caused pessimism to set its seal. “I tell you that McTodd is smooth. He, somehow,” said Mr. Cootes, prudently, for he feared harsh criticisms from his lady-love, should he reveal the whole truth, “he somehow got wise to the notion that, as I was his valet, I could go and look round in his room, where he’d be wanting to hide the stuff if he ever got it, and now he’s gone and got them to let him have a kind of shack in the woods.”
“H’m!” said Miss Peavey. “Well,” she resumed after a thoughtful pause, “I’ve got a scheme all ready, and it’s gilt-edged. And, unless you mix up your end of it, Ed, it can’t fail to drag home the spoil.”
“Am I in it?”
“You bet you’re in it. I can’t work it without you. That’s what’s been making me so darned mad when you didn’t show up all this time.”
Miss Peavey glanced swiftly up and down the Yew Alley. It was still the same peaceful, lonely spot. She turned to Mr. Cootes again and spoke with brisk decision.
“Well, to begin with, now that the house is full, Her Nibs is wearing that necklace every night. And you can take it from me, Ed, that you want to put on your smoked glasses before you look at it.”
“Where does she keep it, Liz? Have you found that out?” asked Mr. Cootes, a gleam of optimism playing across his sad face for an instant.
“No, I haven’t. And I don’t want to. I’ve not got time to waste monkeying about with safes. I believe in getting things easy. Well, to-night this fool that calls himself McTodd is going to give a reading of his poems in the big drawing-room. You know where that is? I’m going to sit behind Lady Constance while that McTodd is reading, and I’m going to reach out and grab that necklace off of her. See?”
“But, Liz”—Mr. Cootes diffidently summoned up courage to point out what appeared to him to be a flaw in the scheme—“if you start that in front of everybody, won’t they——?”
“No, they won’t. And I’ll tell you why they won’t. They aren’t going to see me do it, because when I do it it’s going to be good and dark in that room. And it’s going to be dark because you’ll be somewheres out at the back of the house, wherever they keep the main electric-light works, turning the switch as hard as you can go. See? That’s your end of it, and pretty soft for you at that. All you have to do is to find out where the thing is and what you have to do to it to put out all the lights in the place. I guess I can trust you not to bungle that?”
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, and there was reverence in his voice, “you can do just that little thing. But what——?”
“All right, I know what you’re going to say. What happens after that, and how do I get away with the stuff? Well, the window’ll be open and I’ll just get to it and fling the necklace out. See? There’ll be a big fuss going on in the room on account of the darkness and all that, and while everybody’s cutting up and what-the-helling, you’ll run round as quick as you can make it and grab the thing.”
There was a brief silence.
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, “when it comes to the smooth stuff, old girl, you’re the works!”
And, reaching out an arm from the recesses of the yew, he took Miss Peavey’s hand in his and gave it a tender squeeze. A dreamy look came into the poetess’s fine eyes and she giggled a little. Fool though he was, she loved this man.
(Another long instalment of this splendid story will appear in our next issue.)
See Part 1 for general notes about this edition.
In both magazine serials, Miss Peavey refers to the Hunt Ball when talking with Ed Cootes; that is changed to County Ball in both US and UK book editions. See the notes to Episode 1 for more on this.
The Grand editors toned down many of Liz and Ed’s more piquant Americanisms in the scenes in which they talk together in their native dialect. Compare this edition with the US magazine version, in chapter IX, section IV of episode 5 of the Saturday Evening Post appearance.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “Dish him!”; corrected to “Dash him!” as in all other versions.
Magazine had a period after “lost in admiration” and a capitalized “When” to begin a new sentence; corrected to match other versions, which have a single sentence for Cootes to say here.
Magazine had “Parks’s Pepsinine”; changed to “Parks’ Pepsinine” as in other versions, and for consistency with “Mr. Banks’ emporium” in next episode.
Magazine had “arched recesses, forming arbors”; corrected to “arbours” for consistency with earlier references.