The Saturday Evening Post, March 17, 1923
CHAPTER X (Continued) V
TO BE prepared is everything in this life. Ever since her talk with Mr. Joseph Keeble in the High Street of Market Blandings that afternoon, Eve’s mind had been flitting nimbly from one scheme to another, all designed to end in this very act of seizing the necklace in her hands, and each rendered impracticable by some annoying flaw. And now that fate in its impulsive way had achieved for her what she had begun to feel she could never accomplish for herself, she wasted no time in bewildered inaction. The miracle found her ready for it.
For an instant she debated with herself the chances of a dash through the darkened hall up the stairs to her room. But the lights might go on again, and she might meet someone. Memories of sensational novels read in the past told her that on occasions such as this people were detained and searched.
Suddenly, as she stood there, she found the way. Close beside her, lying on its side, was the flowerpot which Psmith had overturned as he came to join her on the terrace wall. It might have defects as a cache, but at the moment she could perceive none. Most flowerpots are alike, but this was a particularly easily remembered flowerpot; for in its journeyings from the potting shed to the terrace it had acquired on its side a splash of white paint. She would be able to distinguish it from its fellows when, late that night, she crept out to retrieve the spoil. And surely nobody would ever think of suspecting——
She plunged her fingers into the soft mold and straightened herself, breathing quickly. It was not an ideal piece of work, but it would serve.
She rubbed her fingers on the turf; put the flowerpot back in the row with the others; and then, like a flying white phantom, darted across the terrace and into the house, and so, with beating heart, groping her way to the bathroom to wash her hands.
The twenty-thousand-pound flowerpot looked placidly up at the winking stars.
IT WAS perhaps two minutes later that Mr. Cootes, sprinting lustily, rounded the corner of the house and burst onto the terrace—late as usual.
THE Efficient Baxter prowled feverishly up and down the yielding carpet of the big drawing-room. His eyes gleamed behind their spectacles, his domelike brow was corrugated. Except for himself, the room was empty. As far as the scene of the disaster was concerned, the tumult and the shouting had died. It was going on vigorously in practically every other part of the house, but in the drawing-room there was stillness, if not peace.
Baxter paused, came to a decision, went to the wall and pressed the bell.
“Thomas,” he said when that footman presented himself a few moments later.
“Send Susan to me.”
“Yes, Susan,” snapped the efficient one, who had always a short way with the domestic staff. “Susan, Susan, Susan! The new parlor maid.”
“Oh, yes, sir. Very good, sir.”
Thomas withdrew, outwardly all grave respectfulness, inwardly piqued, as was his wont, at the airy manner in which the secretary flung his orders about at the castle. The domestic staff at Blandings lived in a perpetual state of smoldering discontent under Baxter’s rule.
“Susan,” said Thomas when he arrived in the lower regions, “you’re to go up to the drawing-room. Nosey Parker wants you.”
The pleasant-faced young woman whom he addressed laid down her knitting. “Who?” she asked.
“Mister Blooming Baxter. When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll know that he’s the feller that owns the place. How he got it I don’t know. Found it,” said Thomas satirically, “in his Christmas stocking, I expect. Anyhow, you’re to go up.”
Thomas’ fellow footman, Stokes, a serious-looking man with a bald forehead, shook that forehead solemnly. “Something’s the matter,” he asserted. “You can’t tell me that wasn’t a scream we heard when them lights was out. Or,” he added weightily, for he was a man who looked at every side of a question, “a shriek. It was a shriek or scream. I said so at the time. ‘There,’ I said, ‘listen!’ I said. ‘That’s somebody screaming,’ I said. ‘Or shrieking.’ Something’s up, I’m sure.”
“Well, Baxter hasn’t been murdered, worse luck,” said Thomas. “He’s up there screaming or shrieking for Susan. ‘Send Susan to me!’ ” proceeded Thomas, giving an always popular imitation. “ ‘Susan, Susan, Susan!’ So you’d best go, my girl, and see what he wants.”
“And, Susan,” said Thomas, a tender note creeping into his voice, for already, brief as had been her sojourn at Blandings, he had found the new parlor maid making a deep impression on him, “if it’s a row of any kind——”
“Or description,” interjected Stokes.
“Or description,” continued Thomas, accepting the word; “if ’e’s ’arsh with you for some reason or other, you come right back to me and sob out your troubles on my chest, see? Lay your little ’ead on my shoulder and tell me all about it.”
The new parlor maid, primly declining to reply to this alluring invitation, started on her journey upstairs; and Thomas, with a not unmanly sigh, resumed his interrupted game of halfpenny nap with colleague Stokes.
The Efficient Baxter had gone to the open window and was gazing out into the night when Susan entered the drawing-room.
“You wished to see me, Mr. Baxter?”
The secretary spun round. So softly had she opened the door and so noiselessly had she moved when inside the room that it was not until she spoke that he had become aware of her arrival. It was a characteristic of this girl Susan that she was always apt to be among those present some time before the latter became cognizant of the fact.
“Oh, good evening, Miss Simmons. You came in very quietly.”
“Habit,” said the parlor maid.
“You gave me quite a start.”
“I’m sorry. What was it,” she asked, dismissing in a positively unfeeling manner the subject of her companion’s jarred nerves, “that you wished to see me about?”
“Shut that door.”
“I have. I always shut doors.”
“Please sit down.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Baxter. It might look odd if anyone should come in.”
“Of course. You think of everything.”
“I always do.”
Baxter stood for a moment, frowning.
“Miss Simmons,” he said, “when I thought it expedient to install a private detective in this house I insisted on Wragge’s sending you. We had worked together before.”
“Sixteenth of December, 1918, to January 12, 1919, when you were secretary to Mr. Horace Jevons, the American millionaire,” said Miss Simmons as promptly as if he had touched a spring. It was her hobby to remember dates with precision.
“Exactly! I insisted upon your being sent, because I knew from experience that you were reliable. At that time I looked on your presence here merely as a precautionary measure. Now, I am sorry to say——”
“Did someone steal Lady Constance’s necklace tonight?”
“When the lights went out just now?”
“Well, why couldn’t you say so at once? Good gracious, man, you don’t have to break the thing gently to me!”
The Efficient Baxter, though he strongly objected to being addressed as “man,” decided to overlook the solecism.
“The lights suddenly went out,” he said. “There was a certain amount of laughter and confusion. Then a piercing shriek——”
“I heard it.”
“And immediately after Lady Constance’s voice crying that her jewels had been snatched from her neck.”
“Then what happened?”
“Still greater confusion, which lasted until one of the maids arrived with a candle. Eventually the lights went on again, but of the necklace there was no sign whatever.”
“Well, were you expecting the thief to wear it as a watch chain, or hang it from his teeth?”
Baxter was finding his companion’s manner more trying every minute, but he preserved his calm.
“Naturally the doors were barred and a complete search instituted, and extremely embarrassing it was. With the single exception of the scoundrel who has been palming himself off as McTodd, all those present were well-known members of society.”
“Well-known members of society might not object to getting hold of a twenty-thousand-pound necklace. But still, with the McTodd fellow there, you oughtn’t to have had far to look. What had he to say about it?”
“He was among the first to empty his pockets.”
“Well, then, he must have hidden the thing somewhere.”
“Not in this room. I have searched assiduously.”
There was a silence.
“It is baffling,” said Baxter—“baffling.”
“It is nothing of the kind,” replied Miss Simmons tartly. “This wasn’t a one-man job. How could it have been? I should be inclined to call it a three-man job. One to switch off the lights, one to snitch the necklace and one to—was that window open all the time? I thought so. And—and one to pick up the necklace when the second fellow threw it out onto the terrace.”
The word shot from Baxter’s lips with explosive force. Miss Simmons looked at him curiously.
“Thought of something?”
“Miss Simmons,” said the efficient one impressively, “everybody was assembled in here waiting for the reading to begin, but the pseudo McTodd was nowhere to be found. I discovered him eventually on the terrace in close talk with the Halliday girl.”
“His partner,” said Miss Simmons, nodding. “We thought so all along. And let me add my little bit. There’s a fellow down in the servants’ hall that calls himself a valet, and I’ll bet he didn’t know what a valet was till he came here. I thought he was a crook the moment I set eyes on him. I can tell ’em in the dark. Now, do you know whose valet he is? This McTodd fellow’s!”
Baxter bounded to and fro like a caged tiger.
“And with my own ears,” he cried excitedly, “I heard the Halliday girl refuse to come to the drawing-room to listen to the reading. She was out on the terrace throughout the whole affair. Miss Simmons, we must act! We must act!”
“Yes, but not like idiots,” replied the detective frostily.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can’t charge out—as you looked as if you wanted to just then—and denounce these crooks where they sit. We’ve got to go carefully.”
“But meanwhile they will smuggle the necklace away!”
“They won’t smuggle any necklace away, not while I’m around. Suspicion’s no good. We’ve made out a nice little case against the three of them, but it’s no use unless we catch them with the goods. The first thing we have to do is to find out where they’ve hidden the stuff, and that’ll take patience. I’ll start by searching that girl’s room. Then I’ll search the valet fellow’s room. And if the stuff isn’t there it’ll mean they’ve hidden it out in the open somewhere.”
“But this McTodd fellow—this fellow who poses as McTodd—he may have it all the while.”
“No. I’ll search his room, too, but the stuff won’t be there. He’s the fellow who’s going to get it in the end, because he’s got that place out in the woods to hide it in. But they wouldn’t have had time to slip it to him yet. That necklace is somewhere right here. And if,” said Miss Simmons with grim facetiousness, “they can hide it from me they may keep it as a birthday present.”
HOW wonderful, if we pause to examine it, is Nature’s inexorable law of compensation. Instead of wasting time in envy of our mental superiors, we would do well to reflect that these gifts of theirs which excite our wistful jealousy are ever attended by corresponding penalties. To take an example that lies to hand, it was the very fact that he possessed a brain like a buzz saw that rendered the Efficient Baxter a bad sleeper. Just as he would be dropping off, bing! would go that brain of his, melting the mists of sleep like snow in a furnace.
This was so even when life was running calmly for him and without excitement. Tonight, his mind, bearing the load it did, firmly declined even to consider the question of slumber. The hour of two, chiming from the clock over the stables, found him as wide awake as ever he was at high noon.
Lying in bed in the darkness, he reviewed the situation as far as he had the data. Shortly before he retired Miss Simmons had made her report about the bedrooms. Though subjected to the severest scrutiny, neither Psmith’s boudoir nor Cootes’ attic nor Eve’s little nook on the third floor had yielded up treasure of any description. And this, Miss Simmons held, confirmed her original view that the necklace must be lying concealed in what might almost be called a public spot—on some window ledge, maybe, or somewhere in the hall.
Baxter lay considering this theory. It did appear to be the only tenable one; but it offended him by giving the search a frivolous suggestion of being some sort of round game, like hunt the slipper or find the thimble. As a child he had held austerely aloof from these silly pastimes, and he resented being compelled to play them now. Still——
He sat up, tingling. He had heard a noise.
The attitude of the majority of people toward noises in the night is one of cautious noninterference. But Rupert Baxter was made of sterner stuff. The sound had seemed to come from downstairs somewhere; perhaps from that very hall where, according to Miss Simmons, the stolen necklace might even now be lying hid. Whatever it was, it must certainly not be ignored. He reached for the spectacles which lay ever ready to his hand on the table beside him; then climbed out of bed, and having put on a pair of slippers and opened the door crept forth into the darkness. As far as he could ascertain, by holding his breath and straining his ears, all was still from cellar to roof; but nevertheless he was not satisfied. He continued to listen. His room was on the second floor, one of a series that ran along a balcony overlooking the hall; and he stood, leaning over the balcony rail.
The noise which had acted so electrically upon the Efficient Baxter had been a particularly noisy noise, and only the intervening distance and the fact that his door was closed had prevented it sounding to him like an explosion. It had been caused by the crashing downfall of a small table containing a vase, a jar of potpourri, an Indian sandal-wood box of curious workmanship and a cabinet-size photograph of the Earl of Emsworth’s eldest son, Lord Bosham; and the table had fallen because Eve, en route across the hall in quest of her precious flowerpot, had collided with it while making for the front door. Of all indoor sports—and Eve, as she stood pallidly among the ruins, would have been the first to endorse this dictum—the one which offers the minimum of pleasure is that of roaming in pitch darkness through the hall of a country house. Easily navigable in the daytime, these places become at night mere traps for the unwary.
Eve paused breathlessly. So terrific had the noise sounded to her guilty ears that every moment she was expecting doors to open all over the castle, belching forth shouting men with pistols. But as nothing happened, courage returned to her, and she resumed her journey. She found the great door, ran her fingers along its surface and drew the chain. The shooting back of the bolts occupied but another instant, and then she was out on the terrace running her hardest toward the row of flowerpots.
Up on his balcony, meanwhile, the Efficient Baxter was stopping, looking and listening. The looking brought no results, for all below was black as pitch; but the listening proved more fruitful. Faintly from down in the well of the hall there floated up to him a peculiar sound like something rustling in the darkness. Had he reached the balcony a moment earlier he would have heard the rattle of the chain and the click of the bolts; but these noises had occurred just before he came out of his room. Now all that was audible was this rustling. He could not analyze the sound; but the fact that there was any sound at all in such a place at such an hour increased his suspicions that dark doings were afoot which would pay for investigation. With stealthy steps he crept to the head of the stairs and descended.
One uses the verb “descend” advisedly, for what is required is some word suggesting instantaneous activity. About Baxter’s progress from the second floor to the first there was nothing halting or hesitating. He, so to speak, did it now. Planting his foot firmly on a golf ball which the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had been practicing putting in the corridor before retiring to bed, had left in his casual fashion just where the steps began, he took the entire staircase in one majestic, volplaning sweep. There were eleven stairs in all separating his landing from the landing below, and the only ones he hit were the third and the tenth. He came to rest with a squattering thud on the lower landing, and for a moment or two the fever of the chase left him.
The fact that many writers in their time have commented at some length on the mysterious manner in which fate is apt to perform its work must not deter us now from a brief survey of this latest manifestation of its ingenious methods. Had not his interview with Eve that afternoon so stimulated the Honorable Freddie as to revive in him a faint yet definite desire to putt, there would have been no golf ball waiting for Baxter on the stairs. And had he been permitted to negotiate the stairs in a less impetuous manner, Baxter would not at this juncture have switched on the light. It had not been his original intention to illuminate the theater of action, but after that Luciferlike descent from the second floor to the first he was taking no more chances. Safety First was Baxter’s slogan. As soon, therefore, as he had shaken off a dazed sensation of mental and moral collapse, akin to that which comes to the man who steps on the teeth of a rake and is smitten on the forehead by the handle, he rose with infinite caution to his feet, and, feeling his way down by the banisters, groped for the switch and pressed it. And so it came about that Eve, heading for home with her precious flowerpot in her arms, was stopped when at the very door by a sudden warning flood of light. Another instant and she would have been across the threshold of disaster.
For a moment paralysis gripped her. The light had affected her like someone shouting loudly and unexpectedly in her ear. Her heart gave one convulsive bound and she stood frozen. Then, filled with a blind desire for flight, she dashed like a hunted rabbit into the friendly shelter of a clump of bushes.
Baxter stood blinking. Gradually his eyes adjusted themselves to the light, and immediately they had done so he was seized by a fresh frenzy of zeal. Now that all things were made visible to him he could see that that sound had been caused by a curtain flapping in the breeze, and that the breeze which made the curtain flap was coming in through the open front door.
Baxter wasted no time in abstract thought. He acted swiftly and with decision. Straightening his spectacles on his nose, he girded up his pajamas and galloped out into the night.
The smooth terrace slept under the stars. To a more poetic man than Baxter it would have seemed to wear that faintly reproachful air which a garden always assumes when invaded at unseemly hours by people who ought to be in bed. Baxter, never fanciful, was blind to this. He was thinking, thinking. That shaking up on the stairs had churned into activity the very depths of his brain, and he was at the fever point of his reasoning powers. A thought had come like a full-blown rose, flushing his brow. Miss Simmons, arguing plausibly, had suggested that the stolen necklace might be concealed in the hall. Baxter, inspired, fancied not. Whoever it was that had been at work in the hall just now had been making for the garden. It was not the desire to escape which had led him—or her—to open the front door, for the opening had been done before he, Baxter, had come out onto the balcony; otherwise he must have heard the shooting of the bolts. No; the enemy’s objective had been the garden; in other words, the terrace.
And why? Because somewhere on the terrace was the stolen necklace.
Standing there in the starlight, the Efficient Baxter endeavored to reconstruct the scene, and did so with remarkable accuracy. He saw the jewels flashing down. He saw them picked up. But there he stopped. Try as he might, he could not see them hidden. And yet that they had been hidden, and that within a few feet of where he was now standing, he felt convinced.
He moved from his position near the door and began to roam restlessly. His slippered feet padded over the soft turf.
Eve peered out from her clump of bushes. It was not easy to see any great distance, but fate, her friend, was still with her. There had been a moment that night when Baxter, disrobing for bed, had wavered absently between his brown and his lemon-colored pajamas, little recking of what hung upon the choice. Fate had directed his hand to the lemon-colored, and he had put them on—with the result that he shone now in the dim light like the white plume of Navarre. Eve could follow his movements perfectly, and when he was far enough away from his base to make the enterprise prudent she slipped out and raced for home and safety. Baxter at the moment was leaning on the terrace wall, thinking, thinking, thinking.
It was possibly the cool air, playing about his bare ankles, that at last chilled the secretary’s dashing mood and brought the disquieting thought that he was doing something distinctly dangerous in remaining out here in the open like this. A gang of thieves are ugly customers, likely to stick at little when a valuable necklace is at stake, and it came to the Efficient Baxter that in his light pajamas he must be offering a tempting mark for any marauder lurking—say, in those bushes. And at the thought, the summer night, though pleasantly mild, grew suddenly chilly. With an almost convulsive rapidity he turned to re-enter the house. Zeal was well enough, but it was silly to be rash. He covered the last few yards of his journey at a rare burst of speed.
It was at this point that he discovered that the lights in the hall had been switched off and that the front door was closed and bolted.
IT IS the opinion of most thoughtful students of life that happiness in this world depends chiefly on the ability to take things as they come. An instance of one who may be said to have perfected this attitude is to be found in the writings of a certain eminent Arabian author who tells of a traveler who, sinking to sleep one afternoon upon a patch of turf containing an acorn, discovered when he woke that the warmth of his body had caused the acorn to germinate and that he was now some sixty feet above the ground in the upper branches of a massive oak. Unable to descend, he faced the situation equably.
“I cannot,” he observed, “adapt circumstances to my will; therefore I shall adapt my will to circumstances. I decide to remain here.” Which he did.
Rupert Baxter, as he stood, like the peri at the gates of paradise, before the barred door of Blandings Castle, was very far from imitating this admirable philosopher. To find oneself locked out of a country house at half past two in the morning in lemon-colored pajamas can never be an unmixedly agreeable experience, and Baxter was a man less fitted by nature to endure it with equanimity than most men. His was a fiery and an arrogant soul, and he seethed in furious rebellion against the intolerable position into which fate had maneuvered him. He even went so far as to give the front door a petulant kick. Finding, however, that this hurt his toes and accomplished no useful end, he addressed himself to the task of ascertaining whether there was any way of getting in—short of banging the knocker and rousing the house, a line of action which did not commend itself to him. He made a practice of avoiding as far as possible the ribald type of young men of which the castle was now full, and he had no desire to meet them at this hour in his present costume. He left the front door and proceeded to make a circuit of the castle walls, and his spirits sank even lower.
In the Middle Ages, during that stormy period of England’s history when walls were built six feet thick and a window was not so much a window as a handy place for pouring molten lead on the heads of visitors, Blandings had been an impregnable fortress. But in all its career it can seldom have looked more of a fortress to anyone than it did now to the Efficient Baxter.
One of the disadvantages of being a man of action, impervious to the softer emotions, is that in moments of trial the beauties of Nature are powerless to soothe the anguished heart. Had Baxter been of a dreamy and poetic temperament, he might now have been drawing all sorts of balm from the loveliness of his surroundings. The air was full of the scent of growing things; strange shy creatures came and went about him as he walked; down in the woods a nightingale had begun to sing; and there was something grandly majestic in the huge bulk of the castle as it towered against the sky. But Baxter had temporarily lost his sense of smell; he feared and disliked the strange shy creatures; the nightingale left him cold; and the only thought the towering castle inspired in him was that it looked as if a fellow would need half a ton of dynamite to get into it.
Baxter paused. He was back now near the spot from which he had started, having completed two laps without finding any solution of his difficulties. The idea in his mind had been to stand under somebody’s window and attract the sleeper’s attention with soft, significant whistles. But the first whistle he emitted had sounded to him in the stillness of early morn so like a steam siren that thereafter he had merely uttered timid, mouselike sounds which the breezes had carried away the moment they crept out. He proposed now to halt for a while and rest his lips before making another attempt. He proceeded to the terrace wall and sat down. The clock over the stables struck three.
To the restless type of thinker like Rupert Baxter, the act of sitting down is nearly always the signal for the brain to begin working with even more than its customary energy. The relaxed body seems to invite thought. And Baxter, having suspended for the moment his physical activities—and glad to do so, for his slippers hurt him—gave himself up to tense speculation as to the hiding place of Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace. From the spot where he now sat he was probably, he reflected, actually in a position to see that hiding place—if only, when he saw it, he were able to recognize it for what it was. Somewhere out here—in yonder bushes or in some unsuspected hole in yonder tree—the jewels must have been placed. Or——
Something seemed to go off inside Baxter like a touched spring. One moment he was sitting limply, keenly conscious of a blister on the sole of his left foot; the next, regardless of the blister, he was off the wall and racing madly along the terrace in a flurry of flying slippers. Inspiration had come to him.
Day dawns early in the summer months, and already a sort of unhealthy pallor had begun to manifest itself in the sky. It was still far from light, but objects hitherto hidden in the gloom had begun to take on uncertain shape; and among these there had come into the line of Baxter’s vision a row of fifteen flower pots.
There they stood, side by side, round and inviting, each with a geranium in its bed of mold. Fifteen flower pots. There had originally been sixteen, but Baxter knew nothing of that. All he knew was that he was on the trail.
The quest for buried treasure is one which right through the ages has exercised an irresistible spell over humanity. Confronted with a spot where buried treasure may lurk, men do not stand upon the order of their digging; they go at it with both hands. No solicitude for his employer’s geraniums came to hamper Rupert Baxter’s researches. To grasp the first flowerpot and tilt out its contents was with him the work of a moment. He scrabbled his fingers through the little pile of mold.
A second geranium lay broken on the ground.
The Efficient Baxter straightened himself painfully. He was unused to stooping, and his back ached. But physical discomfort was forgotten in the agony of hope frustrated. As he stood there, wiping his forehead with an earth-stained hand, fifteen geranium corpses gazed up at him in the growing light, it seemed with reproach. But Baxter felt no remorse. He included all geraniums, all thieves and most of the human race in one comprehensive black hatred.
All that Rupert Baxter wanted in this world now was bed. The clock over the stables had just struck four and he was aware of an overpowering fatigue. Somehow or other, if he had to dig through the walls with his bare hands, he must get into the house. He dragged himself painfully from the scene of carnage and blinked up at the row of silent windows above him. He was past whistling now. He stooped for a pebble and tossed it up at the nearest window.
Nothing happened. Whoever was sleeping up there continued to sleep. The sky had turned pink, birds were twittering in the ivy, other birds had begun to sing in the bushes. All Nature, in short, was waking—except the unseen sluggard up in that room.
He threw another pebble.
It seemed to Rupert Baxter that he had been standing there throwing pebbles through a nightmare eternity. The whole universe had now become concentrated in his efforts to rouse that loglike sleeper; and for a brief instant fatigue left him, driven away by a sort of berserk fury. And there floated into his mind, as if from some previous existence, a memory of somebody once standing near where he was standing now and throwing a flowerpot in at a window at someone. Who it was that had thrown the thing at whom he could not at the moment recall; but the outstanding point on which his mind focused itself was the fact that the man had had the right idea. This was no time for pebbles. Pebbles were feeble and inadequate. With one voice the birds, the breezes, the grasshoppers, the whole chorus of Nature waking to another day seemed to shout to him, “Say it with flowerpots!”
THE ability to sleep soundly and deeply is the prerogative, as has been pointed out earlier in this straightforward narrative of the simple home life of the English upper classes, of those who do not think quickly. The Earl of Emsworth, who had not thought quickly since the occasion in the summer of 1874 when he had heard his father’s footsteps approaching the stable loft in which he, a lad of fifteen, sat smoking his first cigar, was an excellent sleeper. He started early and finished late. It was his gentle boast that for more than twenty years he had never missed his full eight hours. Generally he managed to get something nearer ten.
But then, as a rule, people did not fling flowerpots through his window at four in the morning.
Even under this unusual handicap, however, he struggled bravely to preserve his record. The first of Baxter’s missiles, falling on a settee, produced no change in his regular breathing. The second, which struck the carpet, caused him to stir. It was the third, colliding sharply with his humped back, that definitely woke him. He sat up in bed and stared at the thing.
In the first moment of his waking relief was, oddly enough, his chief emotion. The blow had roused him from a disquieting dream in which he had been arguing with Angus McAllister about early spring bulbs, and McAllister, worsted verbally, had hit him in the ribs with a spud. Even in his dream Lord Emsworth had been perplexed as to what his next move ought to be, and when he found himself awake and in his bedroom he was at first merely thankful that the necessity for making a decision had been postponed. Angus McAllister might on some future occasion smite him with a spud, but he had not done it yet.
There followed a period of vague bewilderment. He looked at the flowerpot. It held no message for him. He had not put it there. He never took flowerpots to bed. Once, as a child, he had taken a dead pet rabbit, but never a flowerpot. The whole affair was completely inscrutable; and his lordship, unable to solve the mystery, was on the point of taking the statesmanlike course of going to sleep again, when something large and solid whizzed through the open window and crashed against the wall, where it broke, but not into such small fragments that he could not perceive that in its prime it, too, had been a flowerpot. And at this moment his eyes fell on the carpet and then on the settee, and the affair passed still further into the realm of the inexplicable. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had a poor singing voice but was a game trier, had been annoying his father of late by crooning a ballad ending in the words:
It is not raining rain at all;
It’s raining vi-o-lets.
It seemed to Lord Emsworth now that matters had gone a step farther. It was raining flowerpots.
The customary attitude of the Earl of Emsworth towards all mundane affairs was one of vague detachment; but this phenomenon was so remarkable that he found himself stirred to quite a little flutter of excitement and interest. His brain still refused to cope with the problem of why anybody should be throwing flowerpots into his room at this hour—or, indeed, at any hour; but it seemed a good idea to go and ascertain who this peculiar person was.
He put on his glasses and hopped out of bed and trotted to the window. And it was while he was on his way there that memory stirred in him, as some minutes ago it had stirred in the Efficient Baxter. He recalled that odd episode of a few days back, when that delightful girl, Miss What’s-Her-Name, had informed him that his secretary had been throwing flowerpots at that poet fellow, McTodd. He had been annoyed, he remembered, that Baxter should so far have forgotten himself. Now, he found himself more frightened than annoyed. Just as every dog is permitted one bite without having its sanity questioned, so, if you consider it in a broadminded way, may every man be allowed to throw one flowerpot. But let the thing become a habit and we look askance. This strange hobby of his appeared to be growing on Baxter like a drug, and Lord Emsworth did not like it at all. He had never before suspected his secretary of an unbalanced mind; but now he mused, as he tiptoed cautiously to the window, that the Baxter sort of man, the energetic, restless type, was just the kind that does go off his head. Just some such calamity as this, his lordship felt, he might have foreseen. Day in, day out Rupert Baxter had been exercising his brain ever since he had come to the castle, and now he had gone and sprained it. Lord Emsworth peeped timidly out from behind a curtain.
His worst fears were realized. It was Baxter, sure enough; and a tousled, wild-eyed Baxter, incredibly clad in lemon-colored pajamas.
Lord Emsworth stepped back from the window. He had seen sufficient. The pajamas had in some curious way set the coping stone on his dismay, and he was now in a condition approximating to panic. That Baxter should be so irresistibly impelled by his strange mania as actually to omit to attire himself decently before going out on one of these flowerpot-hurling expeditions of his seemed to make it all so sad and hopeless.
The dreamy peer was no poltroon, but he was past his first youth, and it came to him very forcibly that the interviewing and pacifying of secretaries who ran amuck was young man’s work. He stole across the room and opened the door. It was his purpose to put this matter into the hands of an agent.
Keeping to the corridor in which his bedroom was situated, his lordship had the choice of about a dozen rooms to which to apply for assistance. He stood there hesitating for a moment, wondering on which door to knock; and his selection was finally determined by a brain wave which, as being the only one he had ever had in his life, should be noted and spread upon the records. It was probably due entirely to fear; but there it is; he had it, and should be given the credit.
The corridor in which he stood was dotted at intervals along its length with pairs of boots, placed there by the occupants of the various rooms to be ready for early morning collection by the official cleaner. With superb common sense Lord Emsworth simply made a bee line for the door before which reposed the largest pair. And so it came about that Psmith, who was two inches over six feet in height and wore footgear in proportion, was aroused from slumber by a touch on the arm and sat up to find his host’s pale face peering at him in the weird light of early morning.
“My dear fellow,” quavered Lord Emsworth.
Psmith, like Baxter, was a light sleeper; and it was only a moment before he was wide awake and exerting himself to do the courtesies.
“Good morning,” he said pleasantly. “Will you take a seat?”
“I am extremely sorry to be obliged to wake you, my dear fellow,” said his lordship; “but the fact of the matter is, my secretary, Baxter, has gone off his head.”
“Much?” inquired Psmith, interested.
“He is out in the garden in his pajamas, throwing flowerpots through my window.”
“Oh, flowerpots!” said Psmith, frowning thoughtfully, as if he had expected it would be something else. “And what steps are you proposing to take? That is to say,” he went on, “unless you wish him to continue throwing flowerpots.”
“My dear fellow——”
“Some people like it,” explained Psmith. “But you do not? Quite so, quite so. I understand perfectly. We all have our likes and dislikes. Well, what would you suggest?”
“I was hoping that you might consent to go down—er—having possibly armed yourself with a good stout stick—and induce him to desist and return to bed.”
“A sound suggestion in which I can see no flaw,” said Psmith approvingly. “If you will make yourself at home in here—pardon me for issuing invitations to you in your own house—I will see what can be done. I have always found Comrade Baxter a reasonable man, ready to welcome suggestions from outside sources, and I have no doubt that we shall easily be able to reach some arrangement.”
He got out of bed, and having put on his slippers and his monocle, paused before the mirror to brush his hair with extreme care.
“For,” he explained, “one must be natty when entering the presence of a Baxter.”
He went to the closet and took from among a number of hats a neat Homburg. Then, having selected from a bowl of flowers on the mantelpiece a simple white rose, he pinned it in the coat of his pajama suit and announced himself ready.
THE sudden freshet of vicious energy which had spurred the Efficient Baxter on to his recent exhibition of marksmanship had not lasted. Lethargy was creeping back on him even as he stooped to pick up the flowerpot which had found its billet on Lord Emsworth’s spine. And as he stood there after hurling that final missile, he had realized that that was his last shot. If that produced no results he was finished.
And, as far as he could gather, it had produced no results whatever. No head had popped inquiringly out of the window; no sound of anybody stirring had reached his ears. The place was as still as if he had been throwing marshmallows. A weary sigh escaped from Baxter’s lips, and a moment later he was reclining on the ground with his head propped against the terrace wall, a beaten man.
His eyes closed. Sleep, which he had been denying to himself for so long, would be denied no more. When Psmith arrived, daintily swinging the Hon. Freddie Threepwood’s niblick like a cane, he had just begun to snore.
Psmith was a kindly soul. He did not like Rupert Baxter, but that was no reason why he should allow him to continue lying on turf wet with the morning dew, thus courting lumbago and sciatica. He prodded Baxter in the stomach with the niblick, and the secretary sat up, blinking, and with returning consciousness came a burning sense of grievance.
“Well, you’ve been long enough,” he growled. Then, as he rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and was able to see more clearly, he perceived who it was that had come to his rescue. The spectacle of Psmith of all people beaming benignly down at him was an added offense. “Oh, it’s you!” he said morosely.
“I, in person,” said Psmith genially. “Awake, beloved! Awake, for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight; and lo! the hunter of the East has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light. The sultan himself,” he added, “is lurking behind yonder window, speculating idly on your motives for bunging flowerpots at him. Why, if I may venture the question, did you?”
Baxter was in no confiding mood. Without replying, he rose to his feet and started to trudge wearily along the terrace to the front door. Psmith fell into step beside him.
“If I were you,” said Psmith, “and I offer the suggestion in the most cordial spirit of good will, I would use every effort to prevent this passion for flinging flowerpots from growing upon me. I know you will say that you can take it or leave it alone; that just one more pot won’t hurt you; but can you stop at one? Isn’t it just that first insidious flowerpot that does all the mischief? Be a man, Comrade Baxter!” He laid his hand appealingly on the secretary’s shoulder. “The next time the craving comes on you, fight it. Fight it! Are you, the heir of the ages, going to become a slave to a habit? Tush! You know and I know that there is better stuff in you than that. Use your will power, man, use your will power!”
Whatever reply Baxter might have intended to make to this powerful harangue—and his attitude as he turned on his companion suggested that he had much to say—was checked by a voice from above:
“Baxter! My dear fellow!”
The Earl of Emsworth, having observed the secretary’s awakening from the safe observation post of Psmith’s bedroom, and having noted that he seemed to be exhibiting no signs of violence, had decided to make his presence known. His panic had passed and he wanted to go into first causes.
Baxter gazed wanly up at the window.
“I can explain everything, Lord Emsworth.”
“What?” said his lordship, leaning farther out.
“I can explain everything,” bellowed Baxter.
“It turns out, after all,” said Psmith pleasantly, “to be very simple. He was practicing for the jerking-the-geranium event at the next Olympic games.”
Lord Emsworth adjusted his glasses.
“Your face is dirty,” he said, peering down at his disheveled secretary. “Baxter, my dear fellow, your face is dirty.”
“I was digging,” replied Baxter sullenly.
“The terrier complex,” explained Psmith. “What,” he asked kindly, turning to his companion, “were you digging for? Forgive me if the question seems an impertinent one, but we are naturally curious.”
“What were you digging for?” asked Lord Emsworth.
“You see?” said Psmith. “He wants to know.”
Not for the first time since they had become associated, a mad feeling of irritation at his employer’s woolly persistence flared up in Rupert Baxter’s bosom. The old ass was always pottering about asking questions. Fury and want of sleep combined to dull the secretary’s normal prudence. Dimly he realized that he was imparting to Psmith, the scoundrel who he was convinced was the ringleader of last night’s outrage, valuable information; but anything was better than to have to stand here shouting up at Lord Emsworth. He wanted to get it over and go to bed.
“I thought Lady Constance’s necklace was in one of the flowerpots,” he shrilled.
The secretary’s powers of endurance gave out. This maddening inquisition, coming on top of the dreadful night he had had, was too much for him. With a low moan he made one agonized leap for the front door and passed through it to where beyond these voices there was peace.
Psmith, deprived thus abruptly of his stimulating society, remained for some moments standing near the front door, drinking in with grave approval the fresh scents of the summer morning. It was many years since he had been up and about as early as this, and he had forgotten how delightful the first beginnings of a July day can be. Unlike Baxter, on whose self-centered soul these things had been lost, he reveled in the soft breezes, the singing birds, the growing pinkness of the eastern sky. He awoke at length from his reverie to find that Lord Emsworth had toddled down and was tapping him on the arm.
“What did he say?” inquired his lordship. He was feeling like a man who has been cut off in the midst of an absorbing telephone conversation.
“Say?” said Psmith. “Oh, Comrade Baxter? Now let me think. What did he say?”
“Something about something being in a flowerpot,” prompted his lordship.
“Ah, yes! He said he thought that Lady Constance’s necklace was in one of the flowerpots.”
Lord Emsworth, it should be mentioned, was not completely in touch with recent happenings in his home. His habit of going early to bed had caused him to miss the sensational events in the drawing-room; and as he was a sound sleeper, the subsequent screams—or, as Stokes the footman would have said, shrieks—had not disturbed him.
He stared at Psmith, aghast. For a while the apparent placidity of Baxter had lulled his first suspicions, but now they returned with renewed force.
“Baxter thought my sister’s necklace was in a flowerpot?” he gasped.
“So I understood him to say.”
“But why should my sister keep her necklace in a flowerpot?”
“Ah, there you take me into deep waters.”
“The man’s mad!” cried Lord Emsworth, his last doubts removed. “Stark, staring mad! I thought so before, and now I’m convinced of it.”
His lordship was no novice in the symptoms of insanity. Several of his best friends were residing in those palatial establishments set in pleasant parks and surrounded by high walls with broken bottles on them, to which the wealthy and aristocratic are wont to retire when the strain of modern life becomes too great.
Moreover, one of his uncles by marriage, who believed that he was a loaf of bread, had made his first public statement on the matter in the smoking room of this very castle. What Lord Emsworth did not know about lunatics was not worth knowing.
“I must get rid of him,” he said, and at the thought the fair morning seemed to Lord Emsworth to take on a sudden new beauty.
Many a time had he toyed wistfully with the idea of dismissing his efficient but tyrannical secretary, but never before had that sickeningly competent young man given him any reasonable cause to act. Hitherto, moreover, he had feared his sister’s wrath should he take the plunge. But now—surely even Connie, pig-headed as she was, could not blame him for dispensing with the services of a secretary who thought she kept her necklaces in flowerpots and went out into the garden in the early dawn to hurl them at his bedroom window.
His demeanor took on a sudden buoyancy. He hummed a gay air.
“Get rid of him,” he murmured, rolling the blessed words round his tongue. He patted Psmith genially on the shoulder. “Well, my dear fellow,” he said, “I suppose we had better be getting back to bed and seeing if we can’t get a little sleep.”
Psmith gave a little start. He had been somewhat deeply immersed in thought.
“Do not,” he said courteously, “let me keep you from the hay if you wish to retire. To me—you know what we poets are—this lovely morning has brought inspiration. I think I will push off to my little nook in the woods and write a poem about something.”
He accompanied his host up the silent stairs and they parted with mutual good will at their respective doors. Psmith, having cleared his brain with a hurried cold bath, began to dress.
As a rule, the donning of his clothes was a solemn ceremony over which he dwelt lovingly; but this morning he abandoned his customary leisurely habit. He climbed into his trousers with animation and lingered but a moment over the tying of his tie. He was convinced that there was that before him which would pay for haste.
Nothing in this world is sadder than the frequency with which we suspect our fellows without just cause. In the happenings of the night before Psmith had seen the hand of Edward Cootes. Edward Cootes, he considered, had been indulging in what—in another—he would certainly have described as funny business. Like Miss Simmons, Psmith had quickly arrived at the conclusion that the necklace had been thrown out of the drawing-room window by one of those who made up the audience at his reading; and it was his firm belief that it had been picked up and hidden by Mr. Cootes. He had been trying to think ever since where that persevering man could have concealed it, and Baxter had provided the clue. But Psmith saw clearer than Baxter. The secretary, having disemboweled fifteen flowerpots and found nothing, had abandoned his theory. Psmith went further, and suspected the existence of a sixteenth; and he proposed as soon as he was dressed to sally downstairs in search of it.
He put on his shoes and left the room, buttoning his waistcoat as he went.
THE hands of the clock over the stables were pointing to half past five when Eve Halliday, tiptoeing furtively, made another descent of the stairs. Her feelings as she went were very different from those which had caused her to jump at every sound when she had started on this same journey three hours earlier.
Then, she had been a prowler in the darkness, and, as such, a fitting object of suspicion; now, if she happened to run into anybody, she was merely a girl who, unable to sleep, had risen early to take a stroll in the garden. It was a distinction that made all the difference.
Moreover, it covered the facts. She had not been able to sleep, except for an hour when she had dozed off in a chair by her window; and she certainly proposed to take a stroll in the garden. It was her intention to recover the necklace from the place where she had deposited it and bury it somewhere where no one could possibly find it.
There it could lie until she had a chance of meeting and talking to Mr. Keeble and ascertaining what was the next step he wished taken.
Two reasons had led Eve, after making her panic dash back into the house after lurking in the bushes while Baxter patrolled the terrace, to leave her precious flowerpot on the sill of the window beside the front door. She had read in stories of sensation that for purposes of concealment the most open place is the best place; and secondly, the nearer the front door she put the flowerpot the less distance would she have to carry it when the time came for its removal.
In the present excited condition of the household, with every guest an amateur detective, the spectacle of a girl tripping downstairs with a flowerpot in her arms would excite remark.
Eve felt exhilarated. She was not used to getting only one hour’s sleep in the course of a night, but excitement and the reflection that she had played a difficult game and won it against odds bore her up so strongly that she was not conscious of fatigue.
So uplifted did Eve feel that as she reached the landing above the hall she abandoned her cautious mode of progress and ran down the remaining stairs. She had the sensation of being in the last few yards of a winning race.
The hall was quite light now. Every object in it was plainly visible. There was the huge dinner gong; there was the long leather settee; there was the table which she had upset in the darkness; and there was the sill of the window by the front door. But the flowerpot which had been on it was gone.
(to be concluded)
Annotations to the UK book edition of this novel are available elsewhere on this site.
In the opening paragraph, “And now that fate in its impulsive way” appears with “fate” lower-cased in the magazine by the choice of the Post editor; all other versions capitalize “Fate” here and in similar places throughout this episode.
Printer’s errors and editorial interventions corrected above:
In chapter XI, part II, magazine inserted a comma in “This was so even when life was running calmly for him, and without excitement.” No other version has the comma, and it seems extraneous, so has been removed above.
Later in the same part, magazine had “Of all indoor sports—and Eve, as she stood pallidly among the ruins, would have been the first to indorse this dictum…” All other versions have “endorse” which is Wodehouse’s invariable spelling, so it has been changed above to “endorse.”
Later, magazine had “One uses the verb ‘descend’ advisedly, for what it required is some word suggesting instantaneous activity”; corrected to “what is required” as in all other versions.
In chapter XI, part III, magazine inserted a comma in “the writings of a certain eminent Arabian author, who tells of a traveler…” No other version has the comma, and it seems extraneous, so has been removed above.