The Saturday Evening Post, March 10, 1923
CHAPTER IX (Continued) VI
FOR some moments after the butler had withdrawn in his stately, pigeon-toed way through the green-baize door, Psmith lay back in his chair with the feeling that something attempted, something done, had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’ 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 cozy 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:
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 get-away 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 smoldering 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? 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 somberly 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 a meal. The symptoms——”
There was nothing but courteous sympathy in Psmith’s gaze as he listened to what sounded like an eyewitness’ 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 maneuver 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 sometime. 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 aerie 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 forever.”
“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 a gamekeeper’s cottage in the west wood that I believe is unoccupied, 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 fulfillment 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 onto 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 into 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.
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; Lady Constance was interviewing the housekeeper, Lord Emsworth harrying head gardener McAllister among the flower beds; 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.
One regrets this. Except for that slight bias towards dishonesty which led her to steal everything she could lay her hands on that was not nailed down, Aileen Peavey’s was an admirable character; and, oddly enough, it was the nobler side of her nature to which these coarse-fibered critics objected. 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; and, though she had been compelled to pay for the production of the first of the series, the other five had been brought out at her publisher’s own risk and had even made a little money.
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 to go and force Psmith at the pistol’s point to introduce him into the castle, and since that moment he had vanished completely. Miss Peavey could not understand it.
His nonappearance was all the more galling in that her superb brain had just completed in every detail a scheme for the seizure of Lady Constance Keeble’s diamond necklace, and to the success of this plot his aid was an indispensable adjunct. She was in the position of a general who comes from his tent with a plan of battle all mapped out and finds that his army has strolled off somewhere and left him. Little wonder that, as she paced the Yew Alley, there was a frown on Miss Peavey’s fair forehead.
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 arbors. As Miss Peavey was passing one of these a voice suddenly addressed her:
Miss Peavey started violently.
A damp face with twigs sticking to it was protruding from a near-by yew. It rolled its eyes in an ineffectual effort to see round the corner.
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.
“You dish-faced gazooni!” she exclaimed heatedly, her voice trembling with a sense of ill usage. “Where do you get that stuff, hiding in trees and barking a girl’s head off?”
“Sorry, Liz. I——”
“And where,” proceeded Miss Peavey, ventilating another grievance, “have you been all this darned time? Gosh dingit, you leave me a coupla days back saying you’re going to stick up this bozo that calls himself McTodd with a gat and make him get you into the house, and that’s the last I see of you. What’s the big idea?”
“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. The way the help has to keep itself to itself in this joint, we might as well have been in different counties. If I hadn’t happened to see you snooping off by yourself this morning——”
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 doped 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 gook 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 snoop 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’m not worrying about him. Let him go and roost in the woods all he wants to. I’ve got a scheme all ready, and it’s gilt-edged. And unless you ball up your end of it, Ed, it can’t fail to drag home the gravy.”
“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.”
“Spill it, Liz,” said Mr. Cootes humbly.
As always in the presence of this dynamic woman, he was suffering from an inferiority complex. From the very start of their combined activities she had been the brains of the firm, he merely the instrument to carry into effect the plans she dictated.
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:
“Now, listen, Ed, and get this straight, because maybe I shan’t have another chance of talking to you.”
“I’m listening,” said Mr. Cootes obsequiously.
“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. It’s a lalapaloosa.”
“As good as that?”
“Ask me! You don’t know the half of 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 and maybe having the whole bunch pile on the back of my neck. I believe in getting things easy. Well, tonight this bimbo that calls himself McTodd is going to give a reading of his poems in the big drawing-room. You know where that is?”
“I can find out.”
“And you better had find out,” said Miss Peavey vehemently. “And before tonight at that. Well, there you are! Do you begin to get wise?”
Mr. Cootes, his head protruding unhappily from the yew tree, would have given much to have been able to make the demanded claim to wisdom, for he knew of old the store his alert partner set upon quickness of intellect. He was compelled, however, to disturb the branches by shaking his head.
“You always were pretty dumb,” said Miss Peavey with scorn. “I’ll say that you’ve got good solid qualities, Ed—from the neck up. Why, I’m going to sit behind Lady Constance while that goof is shooting his fool head off, 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 any strong-arm work in front of everybody like the way you say, 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 joint. 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 pick up your dogs and run round as quick as you can make it and pouch the thing. I guess it won’t be hard for you to locate it. The window’s just over the terrace, all smooth turf, and it isn’t real dark nights now, and you ought to have plenty of time to hunt around before they can get the lights going again. Well, what do you think of it?”
There was a brief silence.
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes at length.
“Is it or is it not,” demanded Miss Peavey, “a ball of fire?”
“Liz,” said Mr. Cootes, and his voice was husky with such awe as some young officer of Napoleon’s staff might have felt on hearing the details of the latest plan of campaign—“Liz, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 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’ fine eyes and she giggled a little. Dumb-bell though he was, she loved this man.
“Yes, Miss Halliday?”
The brains of Blandings looked abstractedly up from his desk. It was only some half hour since luncheon had finished, but already he was in the library surrounded by large books like a sea beast among rocks. Most of his time was spent in the library when the castle was full of guests, for his lofty mind was ill attuned to the frivolous babblings of society butterflies.
“I wonder if you could spare me this afternoon,” said Eve.
Baxter directed the glare of his spectacles upon her inquisitorially.
“The whole afternoon?”
“If you don’t mind. You see, I had a letter by the second post from a great friend of mine, saying that she will be in Market Blandings this afternoon and asking me to meet her there. I must see her, Mr. Baxter, please. You’ve no notion how important it is.”
Eve’s manner was excited, and her eyes as they met Baxter’s sparkled in a fashion that might have disturbed a man made of less stern stuff. If it had been the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, for instance, who had been gazing into their blue depths, that impulsive youth would have tied himself into knots and yapped like a dog. Baxter, the superman, felt no urge towards any such display.
He reviewed her request calmly and judicially and decided that it was a reasonable one.
“Very well, Miss Halliday.”
“Thank you ever so much. I’ll make up for it by working twice as hard tomorrow.”
Eve flitted to the door, pausing there to bestow a grateful smile upon him before going out; and Baxter returned to his reading. For a moment he was conscious of a feeling of regret that this quite attractive and uniformly respectful girl should be the partner in crime of a man of whom he disapproved even more than he disapproved of most malefactors. Then he crushed down the weak emotion and was himself again.
Eve trotted downstairs, humming happily to herself. She had expected a longer and more strenuous struggle before she obtained her order of release, and told herself that, despite a manner which seldom deviated from the forbidding, Baxter was really quite nice. In short, it seemed to her that nothing could possibly occur to mar the joyfulness of this admirable afternoon, and it was only when a voice hailed her as she was going through the hall a few minutes later that she realized that she was mistaken. The voice, which trembled throatily, was that of the Honorable Freddie; and her first look at him told Eve, an expert diagnostician, that he was going to propose to her again.
“Well, Freddie?” said Eve resignedly.
The Hon. Frederick Threepwood was a young man who was used to hearing people say “Well, Freddie?” resignedly when he appeared. His father said it; his Aunt Constance said it; all his other aunts and uncles said it. Widely differing personalities in every other respect, they all said “Well, Freddie?” resignedly directly they caught sight of him. Eve’s words, therefore, and the tone in which they were spoken, did not damp him as they might have damped another. His only feeling was one of solemn gladness at the thought that at last he had managed to get her alone for half a minute.
The fact that this was the first time he had been able to get her alone since her arrival at the castle had caused Freddie a good deal of sorrow.
Bad luck was what he attributed it to, thereby giving the object of his affections less credit than was her due for a masterly policy of evasion. He sidled up, looking like a well-dressed sheep.
“Going anywhere?” he inquired.
“Yes, I’m going to Market Blandings. Isn’t it a lovely afternoon? I suppose you are busy all the time, now that the house is full. Good-by,” said Eve.
“Eh?” said Freddie, blinking.
“Good-by. I must be hurrying.”
“Where did you say you were going?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No, I want to be alone. I’ve got to meet someone there.”
“Come with you as far as the gates,” said Freddie, the human limpet.
The afternoon sun seemed to Eve to be shining a little less brightly as they started down the drive. She was a kind-hearted girl and it irked her to have to be continually acting as a black frost in Freddie’s garden of dreams. There appeared, however, to be but two ways out of the thing: Either she must accept him or he must stop proposing. The first of these alternatives she resolutely declined to consider; and, as far as was ascertainable from his actions, Freddie declined just as resolutely to consider the second. The result was that solitary interviews between them were seldom wholly free from embarrassing developments.
They walked for a while in silence. Then, “You’re dashed hard on a fellow,” said Freddie.
“How’s your putting coming on?” asked Eve.
“Your putting. You told me you had so much trouble with it.”
She was not looking at him, for she had developed a habit of not looking at him on these occasions; but she assumed that the odd sound which greeted her remark was a hollow, mirthless laugh.
“Well, you told me yourself it’s the most important part of golf.”
“Golf! Do you think I have time to worry about golf these days?”
“Oh, how splendid, Freddie! Are you really doing some work of some kind? It’s quite time, you know. Think how pleased your father will be!”
“I say,” said Freddie, “I do think you might marry a chap.”
“I suppose I shall some day,” said Eve, “if I meet the right one.”
“No, no,” said Freddie despairingly. She was not usually so dense as this. He had always looked on her as a dashed clever girl. “I mean me.”
Eve sighed. She had hoped to avert the inevitable.
“Oh, Freddie!” she exclaimed, exasperated.
She was still sorry for him, but she could not help being irritated. It was such a splendid afternoon and she had been feeling so happy, and now he had spoiled everything. It always took her at least half an hour to get over the nervous strain of refusing his proposals.
“I love you, dash it!” said Freddie.
“Well, do stop loving me,” said Eve. “I’m an awful girl, really. I’d make you miserable.”
“Happiest man in the world,” corrected Freddie devoutly.
“I’ve got a frightful temper.”
“You’re an angel.”
Eve’s exasperation increased. She always had a curious fear that one of these days, if he went on proposing, she might say yes by mistake. She wished that there was some way known to science of stopping him for once and for all, and in her desperation she thought of a line of argument which she had not yet employed.
“It’s so absurd, Freddie,” she said. “Really, it is. Apart from the fact that I don’t want to marry you, how can you marry anyone? Anyone, I mean, who hasn’t plenty of money.”
“Wouldn’t dream of marrying for money.”
“No, of course not; but——”
“Cupid,” said Freddie woodenly, “pines and sickens in a gilded cage.”
Eve had not expected to be surprised by anything her companion might say, it being her experience that he possessed a vocabulary of about forty-three words and a sum total of ideas that hardly ran into two figures; but this poetic remark took her aback.
Freddie repeated the observation. When it had been flashed on the screen as a spoken subtitle in the six-reel wonder film, Love or Mammon—Leatrice Comely and Brian Fraser—he had approved and made a note of it.
“Oh?” said Eve, and was silent. As Miss Peavey would have put it, it held her for a while. “What I meant,” she went on after a moment, “was that you can’t possibly marry a girl without money unless you’ve some money of your own.”
“I say, dash it!” A strange note of jubilation had come into the wooer’s voice. “I say, is that really all that stands between us? Because——”
“No, it isn’t!”
“Because, look here, I’m going to have quite a good deal of money at any moment. It’s more or less of a secret, you know; in fact, a pretty deadish secret, so keep it dark; but Uncle Joe is going to give me a couple of thousand quid. He promised me. Two thousand of the crispest. Absolutely!”
“You know—old Keeble. He’s going to give me a couple of thousand quid, and then I’m going to buy a partnership in a bookie’s business and simply coin money. Stands to reason, I mean. You can’t help making your bally fortune. Look at all the mugs who are losing money all the time at the races. It’s the bookies that get the stuff. A pal of mine who was up at Oxford with me is in a bookie’s office and they’re going to let me in if I——”
The momentous nature of his information had caused Eve to deviate now from her policy of keeping her eyes off Freddie when in emotional vein. And if she had desired to check his lecture on finance, she could have chosen no better method than to look at him; for, meeting her gaze, Freddie immediately lost the thread of his discourse and stood yammering. A direct hit from Eve’s eyes always affected him in this way.
“Mr. Keeble is going to give you two thousand pounds!”
A wave of mortification swept over Eve. If there was one thing on which she prided herself it was the belief that she was a loyal friend, a staunch pal; and now for the first time she found herself facing the unpleasant truth that she had been neglecting Phyllis Jackson’s interest in the most abominable way ever since she had come to Blandings. She had definitely promised Phyllis that she would tackle this stepfather of hers and shame him with burning words into yielding up the three thousand pounds which Phyllis needed so desperately for her Lincolnshire farm. And what had she done? Nothing!
Eve was honest to the core, even in her dealings with herself. A less conscientious girl might have argued that she had had no opportunity of a private interview with Mr. Keeble. She scorned to soothe herself with this specious plea. If she had given her mind to it she could have brought about a dozen private interviews, and she knew it. No; she had allowed the pleasant persistence of Psmith to take up her time, and Phyllis and her troubles had been thrust into the background. She confessed, despising herself, that she had hardly given Phyllis a thought.
And all the while this Mr. Keeble had been in a position to scatter largess, thousands of pounds of it, to undeserving people like Freddie. Why, a word from her about Phyllis would have——
“Two thousand pounds?” she repeated dizzily. “Mr. Keeble?”
“Absolutely!” cried Freddie radiantly.
The first shock of looking into her eyes had passed and he was now reveling in that occupation.
Freddie’s rapt gaze flickered. Love, he perceived, had nearly caused him to be indiscreet.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he mumbled. “He’s just giving it me, you know, don’t you know.”
“Did you simply go to him and ask him for it?”
“Well—er—well, yes. That was about the strength of it.”
“And he didn’t object?”
“No; he seemed rather pleased.”
Eve found breathing difficult. She was feeling rather like a man who suddenly discovers that the hole in his back yard which he has been passing nonchalantly for months is a gold mine. If the operation of extracting money from Mr. Keeble was not only easy but also agreeable to the victim—— She became aware of a sudden imperative need for Freddie’s absence. She wanted to think this thing over.
“Well, then,” said Freddie, “coming back to it, will you?”
“What?” said Eve, distrait.
“Marry me, you know. What I mean to say is, I worship the very ground you walk on and all that sort of rot—I mean, and all that. And now that you realize that I’m going to get this couple of thousand—and the bookie’s business—and what not, I mean to say——”
“Freddie,” said Eve tensely, expressing her harassed nerves in a voice that came hotly through clenched teeth, “go away!”
“I don’t want to marry you, and I’m sick of having to keep on telling you so. Will you please go away and leave me alone?”
She stopped. Her sense of fairness told her that she was working off on her hapless suitor venom which should have been expended on herself.
“I’m sorry, Freddie,” she said, softening; “I didn’t mean to be such a beast as that. I know you’re awfully fond of me, but really, really I can’t marry you. You don’t want to marry a girl who doesn’t love you, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” said Freddie stoutly. “If it’s you, I mean. Love is a tiny seed that coldness can wither, but if tended and nurtured in the fostering warmth of an honest heart——”
“——blossoms into a flower,” concluded Freddie rapidly. “What I mean to say is, love would come after marriage.”
“Well, that’s the way it happened in A Society Mating.”
“Freddie,” said Eve, “I really don’t want to talk any more. Will you be a dear and just go away? I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”
“Oh, thinking?” said Freddie, impressed. “Right-ho!”
“Thank you so much.”
“Oh—er—not at all. Well, pip-pip.”
“See you later, what?”
“Of course, of course.”
“Fine! Well, toodle-oo!”
And the Honorable Freddie, not ill pleased, for it seemed to him that at long last he detected signs of melting in the party of the second part, swiveled round on his long legs and started for home.
THE little town of Market Blandings was a peaceful sight as it slept in the sun. For the first time since Freddie had left her, Eve became conscious of a certain tranquility as she entered the old gray High Street which was the center of the place’s life and thought. Market Blandings had a comforting air of having been exactly the same for centuries. Troubles might vex the generations it housed, but they did not worry that lichened church with its sturdy foursquare tower, or those red-roofed shops, or the age-old inns whose second stories bulged so comfortably out over the pavements. As Eve walked in slow meditation towards the Emsworth Arms, the intensely respectable hostelry which was her objective, archways met her gaze, opening with a picturesque unexpectedness to show heartening glimpses of ancient nooks all cool and green. There was about the High Street of Market Blandings a suggestion of a slumbering cathedral close. Nothing was modern in it except the motion-picture house, and even that called itself an electric theater and was ivy covered and surmounted by stone gables.
On second thoughts, that statement is too sweeping. There was one other modern building in the High Street—Jno. Banks, Hairdresser, to wit—and Eve was just coming abreast of Mr. Banks’ emporium now.
In any ordinary surroundings these premises would have been a tolerably attractive sight, but in Market Blandings they were almost an eyesore; and Eve, finding herself at the door, was jarred out of her reverie as if she heard a false note in a solemn anthem. She was on the point of hurrying past, when the door opened and a short, solid figure came out. And at the sight of this short, solid figure Eve stopped abruptly.
It was with the object of getting his grizzled locks clipped in preparation for the county ball that Joseph Keeble had come to Mr. Banks’ shop as soon as he had finished lunch. As he emerged now into the High Street he was wondering why he had permitted Mr. Banks to finish off the job with a heliotrope-scented hair wash. It seemed to Mr. Keeble that the air was heavy with heliotrope, and it came to him suddenly that heliotrope was a scent which he always found particularly objectionable.
Ordinarily Joseph Keeble was accustomed to show an iron front to hairdressers who tried to inflict lotions upon him; and the reason his vigilance had relaxed under the ministrations of Jno. Banks was that the second post, which arrived at the castle at the luncheon hour, had brought him a plaintive letter from his stepdaughter Phyllis—the second he had had from her since the one which had caused him to tackle his masterful wife in the smoking room. Immediately after the conclusion of his business deal with the Honorable Freddie he had written to Phyllis in a vein of optimism rendered glowing by Freddie’s promises, assuring her that at any moment he would be in a position to send her the three thousand pounds which she required to clinch the purchase of that dream farm in Lincolnshire. To this she had replied with thanks. And after that there had been a lapse of days, and still he had not made good. Phyllis was becoming worried, and said so in six closely written pages.
Mr. Keeble, as he sat in the barber’s chair going over this letter in his mind, had groaned in spirit, while Jno. Banks, with gleaming eyes, did practically what he liked with the heliotrope bottle. Not for the first time since the formation of their partnership, Joseph Keeble was tormented with doubts as to his wisdom in intrusting a commission so delicate as the purloining of his wife’s diamond necklace to one of his nephew Freddie’s known feebleness of intellect. Here, he told himself unhappily, was a job of work which would have tested the combined abilities of a syndicate consisting of Charles Peace and the James brothers, and he had put it in the hands of a young man who in all his life had only once shown genuine inspiration and initiative—on the occasion when he had parted his hair in the middle at a time when all the other members of the Bachelors’ Club were brushing it straight back. The more Mr. Keeble thought of Freddie’s chances the slimmer they appeared. By the time Jno. Banks had released him from the spotted apron he was thoroughly pessimistic, and as he passed out of the door, “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with him,” his estimate of his colleague’s abilities was reduced to a point where he began to doubt whether the stealing of a mere milk can was not beyond his scope. So deeply immersed was he in these gloomy thoughts that Eve had to call his name twice before he came out of them.
“Miss Halliday?” he said apologetically. “I beg your pardon. I was thinking.”
Eve, though they had hardly exchanged a word since her arrival at the castle, had taken a liking to Mr. Keeble; and she felt in consequence none of the embarrassment which might have handicapped her in the discussion of an extremely delicate matter with another man. By nature direct and straightforward, she came to the point at once.
“Can you spare me a moment or two, Mr. Keeble?” she said. She glanced at the clock on the church tower and saw that she had ample time before her own appointment. “I want to talk to you about Phyllis.”
Mr. Keeble jerked his head back in astonishment and the world became noisome with heliotrope. It was as if the voice of conscience had suddenly addressed him.
“Phyllis!” he gasped, and the letter crackled in his breast pocket.
“Your stepdaughter Phyllis.”
“Do you know her?”
“She was my best friend at school. I had tea with her just before I came to the castle.”
“Extraordinary!” said Mr. Keeble.
A customer in quest of a shave thrust himself between them and went into the shop. They moved away a few paces.
“Of course, if you say it is none of my business——”
“My dear young lady——”
“Well, it is my business, because she’s my friend,” said Eve firmly. “Mr. Keeble, Phyllis told me she had written to you about buying that farm. Why don’t you help her?”
The afternoon was warm, but not warm enough to account for the moistness of Mr. Keeble’s brow. He drew out a large handkerchief and mopped his forehead. A hunted look was in his eyes. The hand which was not occupied with the handkerchief had sought his pocket and was busy rattling keys.
“I want to help her. I would do anything in the world to help her.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“I—I am curiously situated.”
“Yes; Phyllis told me something about that. I can see that it is a difficult position for you. But, Mr. Keeble, surely, surely if you can manage to give Freddie Threepwood two thousand pounds to start a bookmaker’s business——”
Her words were cut short by a strangled cry from her companion. Sheer panic was in his eyes now, and in his heart an overwhelming regret that he had ever been fool enough to dabble in crime in the company of a mere animated talking machine like his nephew Freddie. This girl knew! And if she knew, how many others knew? The young imbecile had probably babbled his hideous secret into the ears of every human being in the place who would listen to him.
“He told you!” he stammered. “He t-told you!”
“Goosh!” muttered Mr. Keeble brokenly.
Eve stared at him in surprise. She could not understand this emotion. The handkerchief, after a busy session, was lowered now, and he was looking at her imploringly.
“You haven’t told anyone?” he croaked hoarsely.
“Of course not. I said I had only heard of it just now.”
“You wouldn’t tell anyone?”
“Why should I?”
Mr. Keeble’s breath, which had seemed to him for a moment gone forever, began to return timidly. Relief for a space held him dumb. What nonsense, he reflected, these newspapers and people talked about the modern girl. It was this very broadmindedness of hers, to which they objected so absurdly, that made her a creature of such charm. She might behave in certain ways in a fashion that would have shocked her grandmother, but how comforting it was to find her calm and unmoved in the contemplation of another’s crime! His heart warmed to Eve.
“You’re wonderful!” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Of course,” argued Mr. Keeble, “it isn’t really stealing.”
“I shall buy my wife another necklace.”
“So everything will be all right. Constance will be perfectly happy, and Phyllis will have her money, and——”
Something in Eve’s astonished gaze seemed to smite Mr. Keeble.
“Don’t you know?” he broke off.
“Know? Know what?”
Mr. Keeble perceived that he had wronged Freddie. The young ass had been a fool even to mention the money to this girl, but he had at least, it seemed, stopped short of disclosing the entire plot. An oysterlike reserve came upon him.
“Nothing, nothing,” he said hastily. “Forget what I was going to say. Well, I must be going, I must be going.”
Eve clutched wildly at his retreating sleeve. Unintelligible though his words had been, one sentence had come home to her, the one about Phyllis having her money.
It was no time for half measures. She grabbed him.
“Mr. Keeble,” she cried urgently, “I don’t know what you mean; but you were just going to say something which sounded—— Mr. Keeble, do trust me. I’m Phyllis’ best friend, and if you’ve thought out any way of helping her I wish you would tell me. You must tell me; I might be able to help.”
Mr. Keeble, as she began her broken speech, had been endeavoring with deprecatory tugs to disengage his coat from her grasp. But now he ceased to struggle. Those doubts of Freddie’s efficiency which had troubled him in Jno. Banks’ chair still lingered. His opinion that Freddie was but a broken reed had not changed. Indeed, it had grown. He looked at Eve. He looked at her searchingly. Into her pleading eyes he directed a stare that sought to probe her soul, and saw there honesty, sympathy and—better still—intelligence. He might have stood and gazed into Freddie’s fishy eyes for weeks without discovering a tithe of such intelligence.
His mind was made up. This girl was an ally; a girl of dash and vigor; a girl worth a thousand Freddies—not, however, reflected Mr. Keeble, that that was saying much. He hesitated no longer.
“It’s like this,” said Mr. Keeble.
THE information authoritatively conveyed to him during breakfast by Lady Constance, that he was scheduled that night to read select passages from Ralston McTodd’s Songs of Squalor to the entire house party assembled in the big drawing-room, had come as a complete surprise to Psmith; and to his fellow guests—such of them as were young and of the soulless sex—as a shock from which they found it hard to rally. True, they had before now gathered in a vague sort of way that he was one of those literary fellows; but so normal and engaging had they found his whole manner and appearance that it had never occurred to them that he concealed anything up his sleeve as lethal as Songs of Squalor. Among these members of the younger set the consensus of opinion was that it was a bit thick, and that at such a price even the lavish hospitality of Blandings was scarcely worth having. Only those who had visited the castle before during the era of her ladyship’s flirtation with art could have been described as resigned. These stout hearts argued that while this latest blister was probably going to be pretty bad, he could hardly be worse than the chappie who had lectured on theosophy last November, and must almost of necessity be better than the bird who during the Shiffley race week had attempted in a two-hour discourse to convert them to vegetarianism.
Psmith himself regarded the coming ordeal with equanimity. He was not one of those whom the prospect of speaking in public afflicts with nervous horror. He liked the sound of his own voice, and night when it came found him entirely cheerful. He listened contentedly to the sound of the drawing-room filling up as he strolled on the starlit terrace, smoking a last cigarette before duty called him elsewhere. And when, some few yards away, seated on the terrace wall, gazing out into the velvet darkness, he perceived Eve Halliday, his sense of well-being became acute.
All day he had been conscious of a growing desire for another of those cozy chats with Eve which had done so much to make life agreeable for him during his stay at Blandings. Her prejudice—which he deplored—in favor of doing a certain amount of work to justify her salary had kept him during the morning away from the little room off the library where she was wont to sit cataloguing books; and when he had gone there after lunch he had found it empty. As he approached her now he was thinking pleasantly of all those delightful walks, those excellent driftings on the lake and those cheery conversations which had gone to cement his conviction that of all possible girls she was the only possible one. It seemed to him that in addition to being beautiful she brought out all that was best in him of intellect and soul. That is to say, she let him talk oftener and longer than any girl he had ever known.
It struck him as a little curious that she made no move to greet him. She remained apparently unaware of his approach. And yet the summer night was not of such density as to hide him from view; and, even if she could not see him, she must undoubtedly have heard him; for only a moment before he had tripped with some violence over a large flower pot, one of a row of sixteen which Angus McAllister, doubtless for some good purpose, had placed in the fairway that afternoon.
“A pleasant night,” he said, seating himself gracefully beside her on the wall.
She turned her head for a brief instant and, having turned it, looked away again.
“Yes,” she said.
Her manner was not effusive, but Psmith persevered.
“The stars,” he proceeded, indicating them with a kindly yet not patronizing wave of the hand—“bright, twinkling, and—if I may say so—rather neatly arranged. When I was a mere lad someone whose name I cannot recollect taught me which was Orion. Also Mars, Venus and Jupiter. This thoroughly useless chunk of knowledge has, I am happy to say, long since passed from my mind. However, I am in a position to state that that wiggly thing up there a little to the right is King Charles’ Wain.”
“Yes, indeed, I assure you.” It struck Psmith that astronomy was not gripping his audience, so he tried travel. “I hear,” he said, “you went to Market Blandings this afternoon.”
“An attractive settlement.”
There was a pause. Psmith removed his monocle and polished it thoughtfully. The summer night seemed to him to have taken on a touch of chill.
“What I like about the English rural districts,” he went on, “is that when the authorities have finished building a place they stop. Somewhere about the reign of Henry the Eighth, I imagine that the master mason gave the final house a pat with his trowel and said, ‘Well, boys, that’s Market Blandings.’ To which his assistants no doubt assented with many a hearty ‘Gramercy!’ and ‘I’fackins!’ these being expletives to which they were much addicted. And they went away and left it, and nobody has touched it since. And I for one thoroughly approve. I think it makes the place soothing. Don’t you?”
As far as the darkness would permit, Psmith subjected Eve to an inquiring glance through his monocle. This was a strange new mood in which he had found her. Hitherto, though she had always endeared herself to him by permitting him the major portion of the dialogue, they had usually split conversations on at least a seventy-five-twenty-five basis. And though it gratified Psmith to be allowed to deliver a monologue when talking with most people, he found Eve more companionable when in a slightly chattier vein.
“Are you coming in to hear me read?” he asked.
It was a change from yes, but that was the best that could be said of it. A good deal of discouragement was always required to damp Psmith, but he could not help feeling a slight diminution of buoyancy. However, he kept on trying.
“You show your usual sterling good sense,” he said approvingly. “A scalier method of passing the scented summer night could hardly be hit upon.” He abandoned the topic of the reading. It did not grip. That was manifest. It lacked appeal. “I went to Market Blandings this afternoon too,” he said. “Comrade Baxter informed me that you had gone thither, so I went after you. Not being able to find you, I turned in for half an hour at the local motion-picture palace. They were showing Episode Eleven of a serial. It concluded with the heroine, kidnaped by Indians, stretched on the sacrificial altar with the high priest making passes at her with a knife. The hero meanwhile had started to climb a rather nasty precipice on his way to the rescue. The final picture was a close-up of his fingers slipping slowly off a rock. Episode Twelve next week.”
Eve looked out into the night without speaking.
“I’m afraid it won’t end happily,” said Psmith with a sigh. “I think he’ll save her.”
Eve turned on him with a menacing abruptness.
“Shall I tell you why I went to Market Blandings this afternoon?” she said.
“Do,” said Psmith cordially. “It is not for me to criticize; but as a matter of fact, I was rather wondering when you were going to begin telling me about all your adventures. I have been monopolizing the conversation.”
“I went to meet Cynthia.”
Psmith’s monocle fell out of his eye and swung jerkily on its cord. He was not easily disconcerted, but this unexpected piece of information, coming on top of her peculiar manner, undoubtedly jarred him. He foresaw difficulties, and once again found himself thinking hard thoughts of this confounded female who kept bobbing up when least expected. How simple life would have been, he mused wistfully, had Ralston McTodd only had the good sense to remain a bachelor.
“Oh, Cynthia?” he said.
“Yes, Cynthia,” said Eve.
The inconvenient Mrs. McTodd possessed a Christian name admirably adapted for being hissed between clenched teeth, and Eve hissed it now. It became evident to Psmith that the dear girl was in a condition of hardly suppressed fury and that trouble was coming his way. He braced himself to meet it.
“Directly after we had that talk on the lake, the day I arrived,” continued Eve tensely, “I wrote to Cynthia, telling her to come here at once and meet me at the Emsworth Arms.”
“In the High Street,” said Psmith. “I know it. Good beer.”
“I said they sell good beer.”
“Never mind about the beer,” cried Eve.
“No; I merely mentioned it in passing.”
“At lunch today I got a letter from her saying that she would be there this afternoon, so I hurried off. I wanted”—Eve laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh of a caliber which even the Hon. Freddie Threepwood would have found beyond his powers, and he was a specialist—“I wanted to try to bring you two together. I thought that if I could see her and have a talk with her that you might become reconciled.”
Psmith, though obsessed with a disquieting feeling that he was fighting in the last ditch, pulled himself together sufficiently to pat her hand as it lay beside him on the wall like some white and fragile flower.
“That was like you,” Psmith murmured. “That was an act worthy of your great heart. But I fear that the rift between Cynthia and myself has reached such dimensions——”
Eve drew her hand away. She swung round, and the battery of her indignant gaze raked him furiously.
“I saw Cynthia,” she said, “and she told me that her husband was in Paris.”
“Now how in the world,” said Psmith, struggling bravely but with a growing sense that they were coming over the plate a bit too fast for him—“how in the world did she get an idea like that?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Then I’ll tell you. She got the idea because she had had a letter from him, begging her to join him there. She had just finished telling me this when I caught sight of you from the inn window, walking along the High Street. I pointed you out to Cynthia and she said she had never seen you before in her life.”
“Women soon forget,” sighed Psmith.
“The only excuse I can find for you,” stormed Eve in a vibrant undertone necessitated by the fact that somebody had just emerged from the castle door and they no longer had the terrace to themselves, “is that you’re mad. When I think of all you said to me about poor Cynthia on the lake that afternoon, when I think of all the sympathy I wasted on you——”
“Not wasted,” corrected Psmith firmly. “It was by no means wasted. It made me love you—if possible—even more.”
Eve had supposed that she had embarked on a tirade which would last until she had worked off her indignation and felt composed again, but this extraordinary remark scattered the thread of her harangue so hopelessly that all she could do was to stare at him in amazed silence.
“Womanly intuition,” proceeded Psmith gravely, “will have told you long ere this that I love you with a fervor which with my poor vocabulary I cannot hope to express. True, as you are about to say, we have known each other but a short time, as time is measured. But what of that?”
Eve raised her eyebrows. Her voice was cold and hostile.
“After what has happened,” she said, “I suppose I ought not to be surprised at finding you capable of anything, but are you really choosing this moment to—to propose to me?”
“To employ a favorite word of your own—yes.”
“And you expect me to take you seriously?”
“Assuredly not. I look upon the present disclosure purely as a sighting shot. You may regard it, if you will, as a kind of formal proclamation. I wish simply to go on record as an aspirant to your hand. I want you, if you will be so good, to make a note of my words and give them a thought from time to time. As Comrade Cootes—a young friend of mine whom you have not yet met—would say, chew on them.”
“It is possible,” continued Psmith, “that black moments will come to you—for they come to all of us, even the sunniest—when you will find yourself saying ‘Nobody loves me!’ On such occasions I should like you to add, ‘No, I am wrong. There is somebody who loves me.’ At first, it may be, that reflection will bring but scant balm. Gradually, however, as the days go by and we are constantly together and my nature unfolds itself like the petals of some timid flower beneath the rays of the sun——”
Eve’s eyes opened wider. She had supposed herself incapable of further astonishment, but she saw that she had been mistaken.
“You surely aren’t dreaming of staying on here now?” she gasped.
“Most decidedly! Why not?”
“But—but what is to prevent me telling everybody that you are not Mr. McTodd?”
“Your sweet generous nature,” said Psmith; “your big heart; your angelic forbearance.”
“Considering that I only came here as McTodd—and if you had seen him you would realize that he is not a person for whom the man of sensibility and refinement would lightly allow himself to be mistaken—I say, considering that I only took on the job of understudy so as to get to the castle and be near you, I hardly think that you will be able to bring yourself to get me slung out. You must try to understand what happened. When Lord Emsworth started chatting with me under the impression that I was Comrade McTodd, I encouraged the mistake purely with the kindly intention of putting him at his ease. Even when he informed me that he was expecting me to come down to Blandings with him on the five o’clock train, it never even occurred to me to do so. It was only when I saw you talking to him in the street, and he revealed the fact that you were about to enjoy his hospitality, that I decided that there was no other course open to the man of spirit. Consider! Twice that day you had passed out of my life—may I say taking the sunshine with you?—and I began to fear you might pass out of it forever. So, loath though I was to commit the solecism of planting myself in this happy home under false pretenses, I could see no other way. And here I am!”
“You must be mad!”
“Well, as I was saying, the days will go by; you will have ample opportunity of studying my personality, and it is quite possible that in due season the love of an honest heart may impress you as worth having. I may add that I have loved you since the moment when I saw you sheltering from the rain under that awning in Dover Street, and I recall saying as much to Comrade Walderwick when he was chatting with me some short time later on the subject of his umbrella. I do not press you for an answer now——”
“I should hope not!”
“I merely say, think it over. It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to the list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive. Consider, also, how little you actually have against me. What, indeed, does it amount to, when you come to examine it narrowly? All you have against me is the fact that I am not Ralston McTodd. Think how comparatively few people are Ralston McTodd. Let your meditations proceed along these lines and——”
He broke off, for at this moment the individual who had come out of the front door a short while back loomed beside them.
“Everybody is waiting, Mr. McTodd,” said the Efficient Baxter. He spoke the name, as always, with a certain sardonic emphasis.
“Of course,” said Psmith affably, “of course. I was forgetting. I will get to work at once. You are quite sure you do not wish to hear a scuttleful of modern poetry, Miss Halliday?”
“And yet even now, so our genial friend here informs us, a bevy of youth and beauty is crowding the drawing-room, agog for the treat. Well, well! It is these strange clashings of personal taste which constitute what we call life. I think I shall write a poem about it some day. Come, Comrade Baxter, let us be up and doing. I must not disappoint my public.”
For some moments after the two had left her—Baxter silent and chilly, Psmith all debonair chumminess, kneading the other’s arm and pointing out as they went objects of interest by the wayside—Eve remained on the terrace wall, thinking. She was laughing now, but behind her amusement there was another feeling, and one that perplexed her. A good many men had proposed to her in the course of her career, but none of them had ever left her with this odd feeling of exhilaration. Psmith was different from any other man who had come her way, and difference was a quality which Eve esteemed.
She had just reached the conclusion that life for whatever girl might eventually decide to risk it in Psmith’s company would never be dull, when strange doings in her immediate neighborhood roused her from her meditations.
The thing happened as she rose from her seat on the wall and started to cross the terrace on her way to the front door. She had stopped for an instant beneath the huge open window of the drawing-room to listen to what was going on inside. Faintly, with something of the quality of a far-off phonograph, the sound of Psmith reading came to her; and even at this distance there was a composed blandness about his voice which brought a smile to her lips.
And then, with a startling abruptness, the lighted window was dark; and she was aware that all the lighted windows on that side of the castle had suddenly become dark. The lamp that shone over the great door ceased to shine, and above the hubbub of voices in the drawing-room she heard Psmith’s patient drawl:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think the lights have gone out.”
The night air was rent by a single piercing scream. Something flashed like a shooting star and fell at her feet; and, stooping, Eve found in her hands Lady Constance Keeble’s diamond necklace.
(to be continued)
Annotations to the UK book edition of this novel are available elsewhere on this site.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In Ch. IX, part VI, magazine had
“Well, really, sir”—said Beach wistfully.
A two-em dash was moved inside the quotation marks to conform to the magazine style, just as after “symptoms” two lines later.
In Ch. X, part I, magazine omitted ‘of’: “There’ll be a big fuss going on in the room on account the darkness and all that”; all other versions read “on account of the darkness” here.
In Ch. X, part IV, magazine omitted ‘the’: “I encouraged the mistake purely with kindly intention of putting him at his ease.” All other versions have “purely with the kindly intention” here.