The Saturday Evening Post, February 10, 1923
AT ABOUT the hour when Lord Emsworth’s train, whirling him and his son Freddie to London, had reached the halfway point in its journey, a very tall, very thin, very solemn young man, gleaming in a speckless top hat and a morning coat of irreproachable fit, mounted the steps of Number 18 Wallingford Street, West Kensington, and rang the front-door bell. This done, he removed the hat; and having touched his forehead lightly with a silk handkerchief, for the afternoon sun was warm, gazed about him with a grave distaste.
“A scaly neighborhood,” he murmured.
The young man’s judgment was one at which few people with an eye for beauty would have caviled. When the great revolution against London’s ugliness really starts and yelling hordes of artists and architects, maddened beyond endurance, finally take the law into their own hands and rage through the city, burning and destroying, Wallingford Street, West Kensington, will surely not escape the torch. Long since it must have been marked down for destruction. For though it possesses certain merits of a low practical kind, being inexpensive in the matter of rents and handy for the busses and the Underground, it is a peculiarly beastly little street. Situated in the middle of one of those districts where London breaks out into a sort of eczema of red brick, it consists of two parallel rows of semi-detached villas, all exactly alike, each guarded by a ragged evergreen hedge, each with colored glass of an extremely regrettable nature let into the panels of the front door; and sensitive young impressionists from the artists’ colony up Holland Park way may sometimes be seen stumbling through it with hands over their eyes, muttering between clenched teeth, “How long? How long?”
A small maid-of-all-work appeared in answer to the bell and stood transfixed as the visitor, producing a monocle, placed it in his right eye and inspected her through it.
“A warm afternoon,” he said cordially.
“But pleasant,” urged the young man. “Tell me, is Mrs. Jackson at home?”
“Not at home?”
The young man sighed.
“Ah, well,” he said, “we must always remember that these disappointments are sent to us for some good purpose. No doubt they make us more spiritual. Will you inform her that I called? The name is Psmith. P-smith.”
“No, no! P-s-m-i-t-h. I should explain to you that I started life without the initial letter, and my father always clung ruggedly to the plain Smith. But it seemed to me that there were so many Smiths in the world that a little variety might well be introduced. Smythe I look on as a cowardly evasion, nor do I approve of the too prevalent custom of tacking another name on in the front by means of a hyphen. So I decided to adopt the Psmith. The P, I should add for your guidance, is silent as in phthisis, psychic and ptarmigan. You follow me?”
“You don’t think,” he said anxiously, “that I did wrong in pursuing this course?”
“Splendid!” said the young man, flicking a speck of dust from his coat sleeve. “Splendid! Splendid!”
And with a courteous bow he descended the steps and made his way down the street. The little maid, having followed him with bulging eyes till he was out of sight, closed the door and returned to her kitchen.
Psmith strolled meditatively on. The genial warmth of the afternoon soothed him. He hummed lightly, only stopping when, as he reached the end of the street, a young man of his own age, rounding the corner rapidly, almost ran into him.
“Sorry,” said the young man. “Hullo, Smith.”
Psmith gazed upon him with benevolent affection.
“Comrade Jackson,” he said, “this is well met. The one man of all others whom I would have wished to encounter. We will pop off somewhere, Comrade Jackson, should your engagements permit, and restore our tissues with a cup of tea. I had hoped to touch the Jackson family for some slight refreshment, but I was informed that your wife was out.”
Mike Jackson laughed.
“Phyllis isn’t out. She——”
“Not out? Then,” said Psmith, pained, “there has been dirty work done this day. For I was turned from the door. It would not be exaggerating to say that I was given the bird. Is this the boasted Jackson hospitality?”
“Phyllis is giving a tea to some of her old school pals,” explained Mike. “She told the maid to say she wasn’t at home to anybody else. I’m not allowed in myself.”
“Enough, Comrade Jackson!” said Psmith agreeably. “Say no more. If you yourself have been booted out in spite of all the loving, honoring and obeying your wife promised at the altar, who am I to complain? And possibly, one must reflect, we are well out of it. These gatherings of old girls’ school chums are not the sort of function your man of affairs wants to get lugged into. Capital company as we are, Comrade Jackson, we should doubtless have been extremely in the way. I suppose the conversation would have dealt exclusively with reminiscences of the dear old school, of tales of surreptitious cocoa drinking in the dormitories and what the deportment mistress said when Angela was found chewing tobacco in the shrubbery. Yes, I fancy we have not missed a lot. . . . By the way, I don’t think much of the new home. True, I only saw it from the outside, but—no, I don’t think much of it.”
“Best we can afford.”
“And who,” said Psmith, “am I to taunt my boyhood friend with his honest poverty? Especially as I myself am standing on the very brink of destitution.”
“I, in person. That low moaning sound you hear is the wolf bivouacked outside my door.”
“But I thought your uncle gave you rather a good salary.”
“So he did. But my uncle and I are about to part company. From now on he, so to speak, will take the high road and I’ll take the low road. I dine with him tonight, and over the nuts and wine I shall hand him the bad news that I propose to resign my position in the firm. I have no doubt that he supposed he was doing me a good turn by starting me in his fish business, but even what little experience I have had of it has convinced me that it is not my proper sphere. The whisper flies round the clubs, ‘Psmith has not found his niche!’ I am not,” said Psmith, “an unreasonable man. I realize that humanity must be supplied with fish. I am not averse from a bit of fish myself. But to be professionally connected with a firm that handles the material in the raw is not my idea of a large life work. Remind me to tell you sometime what it feels like to sling yourself out of bed at four a.m. and go down to toil in Billingsgate Market. No, there is money in fish. My uncle has made a pot of it, but what I feel is that there must be other walks in life for a bright young man. I chuck it tonight.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“That, Comrade Jackson, is more or less on the knees of the gods. Tomorrow morning I think I will stroll round to an employment agency and see how the market for bright young men stands. Do you know a good one?”
“Phyllis always goes to Miss Clarkson’s in Shaftesbury Avenue. But——”
“Miss Clarkson’s in Shaftesbury Avenue. I will make a note of it. Meanwhile, I wonder if you saw the Morning Globe today.”
“I had an advertisement in it in which I expressed myself as willing—indeed, eager—to tackle any undertaking that had nothing to do with fish. I am confidently expecting shoals of replies. I look forward to winnowing the heap and selecting the most desirable.”
“Pretty hard to get a job these days,” said Mike doubtfully.
“Not if you have something superlatively good to offer.”
“What have you got to offer?”
“My services,” said Psmith with faint reproach.
“As anything. I made no restrictions. Would you care to take a look at my manifesto? I have a copy in my pocket.”
Psmith produced from inside his immaculate waistcoat a folded clipping.
“I should welcome your opinion of it, Comrade Jackson. I have frequently said that for sturdy common sense you stand alone. Your judgment should be invaluable.”
The advertisement, which some hours earlier had so electrified the Hon. Freddie Threepwood in the smoking room at Blandings Castle, seemed to affect Mike, whose mind was of the stolid and serious type, somewhat differently. He finished his perusal and stared speechlessly.
“Neat, don’t you think?” said Psmith. “Covers the ground adequately? I think so, I think so.”
“Do you mean to say you’re going to put drivel like that in the paper?” asked Mike.
“I have put it in the paper. As I told you, it appeared this morning. By this time tomorrow I shall no doubt have finished sorting out the replies.”
Mike’s emotion took him back to the phraseology of school days.
“You are an ass!”
Psmith restored the clipping to his waistcoat pocket.
“You wound me, Comrade Jackson,” he said. “I had expected a broader outlook from you. In fact, I rather supposed that you would have rushed round instantly to the offices of the journal and shoved in a similar advertisement yourself. But nothing that you can say can damp my buoyant spirit. The cry goes round Kensington—and district—‘Psmith is off!’ In what direction the cry omits to state, but that information the future will supply. And now, Comrade Jackson, let us trickle into yonder tea shop and drink success to the venture in a cup of the steaming. I had a particularly hard morning today among the whitebait, and I need refreshment.”
AFTER Psmith had withdrawn his spectacular person from it, there was an interval of perhaps twenty minutes before anything else occurred to brighten the drabness of Wallingford Street. The lethargy of afternoon held the thoroughfare in its grip. Occasionally a tradesman’s cart would rattle round the corner, and from time to time cats appeared, stalking purposefully among the evergreens. But at ten minutes to five a girl ran up the steps of Number 18 and rang the bell.
She was a girl of medium height, very straight and slim; and her fair hair, her cheerful smile and the boyish suppleness of her body all contributed to a general effect of valiant gayety, a sort of golden sunniness, accentuated by the fact that, like all girls who looked to Paris for inspiration in their dress that season, she was wearing black. The small maid appeared again.
“Is Mrs. Jackson at home?” said the girl. “I think she’s expecting me. Miss Halliday.”
A door at the end of the narrow hall had opened.
“Is that you, Eve?”
“Hullo, Phyl darling.”
Phyllis Jackson fluttered down the passage like a rose leaf on the wind and hurled herself into Eve’s arms. She was small and fragile, with great brown eyes under a cloud of dark hair. She had a wistful look, and most people who knew her wanted to pet her. Eve had always petted her, from their first days at school together.
“Am I late or early?” asked Eve.
“You’re the first, but we won’t wait. Jane, will you bring tea into the drawing-room?”
“And remember, I don’t want to see anyone for the rest of the afternoon. If anybody calls, tell them I’m not at home. Except Miss Clarkson and Mrs. McTodd, of course.”
“Who is Mrs. McTodd?” inquired Eve. “Is that Cynthia?”
“Yes. Didn’t you know she had married Ralston McTodd, the Canadian poet? You knew she went out to Canada?”
“I knew that, yes. But I hadn’t heard that she was married. Funny how out of touch one gets with girls who were one’s best friends at school. Do you realize it’s nearly two years since I saw you?”
“I know. Isn’t it awful? I got your address from Elsa Wentworth two or three days ago, and then Clarkie told me that Cynthia was over here on a visit with her husband, so I thought how jolly it would be to have a regular reunion. We three were such friends in the old days. . . . You remember Clarkie, of course. Miss Clarkson, who used to be English mistress at Wayland House.”
“Yes, of course. Where did you run into her?”
“Oh, I see a lot of her. She runs a domestic employment agency in Shaftesbury Avenue now, and I have to go there about once a fortnight to get a new maid. She supplied Jane.”
“Is Cynthia’s husband coming with her this afternoon?”
“No; I wanted it to be simply us four. Do you know him? But of course you don’t. This is his first visit to England.”
“I know his poetry. He’s quite a celebrity. Cynthia’s lucky.”
They had made their way into the drawing-room, a gruesome little apartment full of all those antimacassars, wax flowers and china dogs inseparable from the cheaper type of London furnished house. Eve, though the exterior of Number 18 should have prepared her for all this, was unable to check a slight shudder as she caught the eye of the least prepossessing of the dogs, goggling at her from the mantelpiece.
“Don’t look at them,” recommended Phyllis, following her gaze. “I try not to. We’ve only just moved in here, so I haven’t had time to make the place nice. Here’s tea. All right, Jane, put it down there. Tea, Eve?”
Eve sat down. She was puzzled and curious. She threw her mind back to the days at school and remembered the Phyllis of that epoch as almost indecently opulent. A millionaire stepfather there had been then, she recollected. What had become of him now, that he should allow Phyllis to stay in surroundings like this? Eve scented a mystery, and in her customary straightforward way went to the heart of it.
“Tell me all about yourself,” she said, having achieved as much comfort as the peculiar structure of her chair would permit.
“And remember that I haven’t seen you for two years, so don’t leave anything out.”
“It’s so difficult to know just where to start.”
“Well, you signed your letter Phyllis Jackson. Start with the mysterious Jackson. Where does he come in? The last I heard about you was an announcement in the Morning Post that you were engaged to—I’ve forgotten the name, but I’m certain it wasn’t Jackson.”
“Was it? Well, what has become of Rollo? You seem to have mislaid him. Did you break off the engagement?”
“Well, it sort of broke itself off. I mean, you see, I went and married Mike.”
“Eloped with him, do you mean?”
“I’m awfully ashamed about that, Eve. I suppose I treated Rollo awfully badly.”
“Never mind. A man with a name like that was made for suffering.”
“I never really cared for him. He had horrid swimmy eyes——”
“I understand. So you eloped with your Mike. Tell me about him. Who is he? What does he do?”
“Well, at present he’s master at a school. But he doesn’t like it. He wants to get back to the country again. When I met him he was agent on a place in the country belonging to some people named Smith. Mike had been at school and Cambridge with the son. They were very rich then and had a big estate. It was the next place to the Edgelows’. I had gone to stay with Mary Edgelow—I don’t know if you remember her at school? I met Mike first at a dance, and then I met him out riding, and then—well, after that we used to meet every day. And we fell in love right from the start, and we went and got married. Oh, Eve, I wish you could have seen our darling little house! It was all over ivy and roses, and we had horses and dogs and——”
Phyllis’ narrative broke off with a gulp. Eve looked at her sympathetically. All her life she herself had been joyously impecunious, but it had never seemed to matter. She was strong and adventurous, and reveled in the perpetual excitement of trying to make both ends meet. But Phyllis was one of those sweet porcelain girls whom the roughness of life bruises instead of stimulates. She needed comfort and pleasant surroundings. Eve looked morosely at the china dog, which leered back at her with an insufferable good-fellowship.
“We had hardly got married,” resumed Phyllis, blinking, “when poor Mr. Smith died and the whole place was broken up. He must have been speculating or something, I suppose, because he hardly left any money, and the estate had to be sold. And the people who bought it—they were coal people from Wolverhampton—had a nephew for whom they wanted the agent job, so Mike had to go. So here we are.”
Eve put the question which she had been waiting to ask ever since she had entered the house:
“But what about your stepfather? Surely, when we were at school you had a rich stepfather in the background. Has he lost his money too?”
“Well, why doesn’t he help you then?”
“He would, I know, if he was left to himself. But it’s Aunt Constance.”
“What’s Aunt Constance? And who is Aunt Constance?”
“Well, I call her that, but she’s really my stepmother—sort of. I suppose she’s really my step-stepmother. My stepfather married again two years ago. It was Aunt Constance who was so furious when I married Mike. She wanted me to marry Rollo. She has never forgiven me, and she won’t let my stepfather do anything to help us.”
“But the man must be a worm!” said Eve indignantly. “Why doesn’t he insist? You always used to tell me how fond he was of you.”
“He isn’t a worm, Eve. He’s a dear. It’s just that he has let her boss him. She’s rather a terror, you know. She can be quite nice, and they’re awfully fond of each other; but she is as hard as nails sometimes.”
Phyllis broke off. The front door had opened and there were footsteps in the hall.
“Here’s Clarkie. I hope she has brought Cynthia with her. She was to pick her up on her way. Don’t talk about what I’ve been telling you in front of her, Eve; there’s an angel.”
“She’s so motherly about it. It’s sweet of her, but——”
“All right; later on.”
The door opened to admit Miss Clarkson.
The adjective which Phyllis had applied to her late schoolmistress was obviously well chosen. Miss Clarkson exuded motherliness. She was large, wholesome and soft, and she swooped on Eve like a hen on its chicken almost before the door had closed.
“Eve! How nice to see you after all this time! My dear, you’re looking perfectly lovely—and so prosperous. What a beautiful hat!”
“I’ve been envying it ever since you came, Eve,” said Phyllis. “Where did you get it?”
“Madeleine Sœurs, in Regent Street.”
Miss Clarkson, having acquired and stirred a cup of tea, started to improve the occasion. Eve had always been a favorite of hers at school. She beamed affectionately upon her.
“Now doesn’t this show—what I always used to say to you in the dear old days, Eve—that one must never despair, however black the outlook may seem? I remember you at school, dear, as poor as a church mouse, and with no prospects, none whatever. And yet here you are, rich——”
Eve laughed. She got up and kissed Miss Clarkson. She regretted that she was compelled to strike a jarring note, but it had to be done.
“I’m awfully sorry, Clarkie dear,” she said, “but I’m afraid I’ve misled you. I’m just as broke as I ever was. In fact, when Phyllis told me you were running an employment agency, I made a note to come and see you and ask if you had some attractive billet to dispose of; governess to a thoroughly angelic child would do. Or isn’t there some nice cozy author or something who wants his letters answered and his press clippings pasted in an album?”
“Oh, my dear!” Miss Clarkson was deeply concerned. “I did hope—that hat——”
“The hat’s the whole trouble. Of course I had no business even to think of it, but I saw it in the shop window and coveted it for days, and finally fell. And then, you see, I had to live up to it—buy shoes and a dress to match. I tell you, it was a perfect orgy, and I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself now. Too late, as usual.”
“Oh, dear! You always were such a wild, impetuous child, even at school. I remember how often I used to speak to you about it.”
“Well, when it was all over and I was sane again I found I had only a few pounds left, not nearly enough to see me through till the relief expedition arrived. So I thought it over and decided to invest my little all.”
“I hope you chose something safe.”
“It ought to have been. The Sporting Express called it Today’s Safety Bet. It was Bounding Willie for the 2:30 race at Sandown last Wednesday.”
“That’s what I said when poor old Willie came in sixth. But it’s no good worrying, is it? What it means is that I simply must find something to do that will carry me through till I get my next quarter’s allowance, and that won’t be till September. But don’t let’s talk business here. I’ll come round to your office, Clarkie, tomorrow. . . . Where’s Cynthia? Didn’t you bring her?”
“Yes, I thought you were going pick Cynthia up on your way, Clarkie,” said Phyllis.
If Eve’s information as to her financial affairs had caused Miss Clarkson to mourn, the mention of Cynthia plunged her into the very depths of woe.
Her mouth quivered and a tear stole down her cheek. Eve and Phyllis exchanged bewildered glances.
“I say,” said Eve, after a moment’s pause and a silence broken only by a smothered sob from their late instructress, “we aren’t being cheerful, are we?—considering that this is supposed to be a joyous reunion. Is anything wrong with Cynthia?”
So poignant was Miss Clarkson’s anguish that Phyllis, in a flutter of alarm, rose and left the room swiftly in search of the only remedy that suggested itself to her—her smelling salts.
“Poor dear Cynthia!” moaned Miss Clarkson.
“Why, what’s the matter with her?” asked Eve.
She was not callous to Miss Clarkson’s grief, but she could not help the tiniest of smiles. In a flash she had been transported to her school days, when the other’s habit of extracting the utmost tragedy out of the slimmest material had been a source of ever-fresh amusement to her. Not for an instant did she expect to hear any worse news of her old friend than that she was in bed with a cold or had twisted her ankle.
“She’s married, you know,” said Miss Clarkson.
“Well, I see no harm in that, Clarkie. If a few more safety bets go wrong I shall probably have to rush out and marry someone myself; some nice, rich, indulgent man who will spoil me.”
“Oh, Eve, my dear,” pleaded Miss Clarkson, bleating with alarm, “do please be careful whom you marry! I never hear of one of my girls marrying without feeling that the worst may happen, and that, all unknowing, she may be stepping over a grim precipice.”
“You don’t tell them that, do you? Because I should think it would rather cast a damper on the wedding festivities. Has Cynthia gone stepping over grim precipices? I was just saying to Phyllis that I envied her, marrying a celebrity like Ralston McTodd.”
Miss Clarkson gulped.
“The man must be a fiend!” she said brokenly. “I have just left poor dear Cynthia in floods of tears at the Cadogan Hotel—she has a very nice quiet room on the fourth floor, though the carpet does not harmonize with the wall paper. She was broken-hearted, poor child. I did what I could to console her, but it was useless. She was always so highly strung. I must be getting back to her very soon. I only came on from her because I did not want to disappoint you two dear girls.”
“Why?” said Eve with quiet intensity.
She knew from experience that Miss Clarkson, unless firmly checked, would pirouette round and round the point for minutes without ever touching it.
“Why?” echoed Miss Clarkson, blinking as if the word was something solid that had struck her unexpectedly.
“Why was Cynthia in floods of tears?”
“But, I’m telling you, my dear. That man has left her!”
“They had a quarrel and he walked straight out of the hotel. That was the day before yesterday, and he has not been back since. This afternoon the curtest note came from him to say that he never intended to return. He had secretly and in a most underhand way arranged for his luggage to be removed from the hotel to a district-messenger office, and from there he has taken it no one knows where. He has completely disappeared.”
Eve stared. She had not been prepared for news of this momentous order.
“But what did they quarrel about?”
“Cynthia, poor child, was too overwrought to tell me.”
Eve clenched her teeth.
“The beast! Poor old Cynthia! Shall I come round with you?”
“No, my dear, better let me look after her alone. I will tell her to write and let you know when she can see you. I must be going, Phyllis dear,” she said as her hostess reëntered, bearing a small bottle.
“But you’ve only just come!” said Phyllis, surprised.
“Poor old Cynthia’s husband has left her,” explained Eve briefly. “And Clarkie’s going back to look after her. She’s in a pretty bad way, it seems.”
“Yes, indeed! And I really must be going at once,” said Miss Clarkson.
Eve waited in the drawing-room till the front door banged and Phyllis came back to her. Phyllis was more wistful than ever. She had been looking forward to this tea party, and it had not been the happy occasion she had anticipated. The two girls sat in silence for a moment.
“What brutes some men are!” said Eve at length.
“Mike,” said Phyllis dreamily, “is an angel.”
Eve welcomed the unspoken invitation to return to a more agreeable topic. She felt very deeply for the stricken Cynthia; but she hated aimless talk, and nothing could have been more aimless than for her and Phyllis to sit there exchanging lamentations concerning a tragedy of which neither knew more than the bare outlines. Phyllis had her tragedy, too, and it was one where Eve saw the possibility of doing something practical and helpful. She was a girl of action and was glad to be able to attack a living issue.
“Yes, let’s go on talking about you and Mike,” she said. “At present I can’t understand the position at all. When Clarkie came in you were just telling me about your stepfather and why he wouldn’t help you, and I thought you made out a very poor case for him. Tell me some more. I’ve forgotten his name, by the way.”
“Oh! Well, I think you ought to write and tell him how hard up you are. He may be under the impression that you are still living in luxury and don’t need any help. After all, he can’t know unless you tell him; and I should ask him straight out to come to the rescue. It isn’t as if it was your Mike’s fault that you’re broke. He married you on the strength of a very good position which looked like a permanency, and lost it through no fault of his own. I should write to him, Phyl. Pitch it strong.”
“I have. I wrote today. Mike’s just been offered a wonderful opportunity. A sort of farm place in Lincolnshire. You know—cows and things. Just what he would like and just what he would do awfully well. And we only need three thousand pounds to get it. But I’m afraid nothing will come of it.”
“Because of Aunt Constance, you mean?”
“You must make something come of it.” Eve’s chin went up. She looked like a goddess of determination. “If I were you I’d haunt their doorstep till they had to give you the money to get rid of you. The idea of anybody doing that absurd driving-into-the-snow business in these days! Why shouldn’t you marry the man you were in love with? If I were you I’d go and chain myself to their railings and howl like a dog till they rushed out with check books just to get some peace. Do they live in London?”
“They are down in Shropshire at present, at a place called Blandings Castle.”
“Blandings Castle? Good gracious!”
“Aunt Constance is Lord Emsworth’s sister.”
“But this is the most extraordinary thing. I’m going to Blandings myself.”
“They’ve engaged me to catalogue the castle library.”
“But, Eve, were you only joking when you asked Clarkie to find you something to do? She took you quite seriously.”
“No, I wasn’t joking. There’s a drawback to my going to Blandings. I suppose you know the place pretty well?”
“I’ve often stayed there. It’s beautiful.”
“Then you know Lord Emsworth’s second son, Freddie Threepwood?”
“Well, he’s the drawback. He wants to marry me, and I certainly don’t want to marry him. He’s quite nice in a way, but he isn’t my ideal or anything like it. And what I’ve been wondering is whether a nice easy job like that, which would tide me over beautifully till September, is attractive enough to make up for the nuisance of having to be always squelching poor Freddie. I ought to have thought of it right at the beginning, of course, when he wrote and told me to apply for the work; but I was so delighted at the idea of regular work that it didn’t occur to me. Then I began to wonder. He’s such a persevering young man. He proposes early and often. . . . Tell me about Blandings.”
“The library’s wonderful. There’s a cozy little room opening off it, where I suppose you would work.”
“Large enough for Freddie to come and propose to me in?”
“Where did you meet Freddie?”
“At a theater party, about two months ago. He was living in London then, but he suddenly disappeared; and I had a heart-broken letter from him, saying that he had been running up debts and things and his father had snatched him away to live at Blandings, which apparently is Freddie’s idea of the inferno. The world seems full of hard-hearted relatives.”
“Oh, Lord Emsworth isn’t really hard-hearted. You will love him. He’s so dreamy and absent-minded. He potters about the garden all the time. I don’t think you’ll like Aunt Constance much. But I suppose you won’t see a great deal of her.”
“Who shall I see much of—except Freddie, of course?”
“Mr. Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s secretary, I expect. I don’t like him at all. He’s a sort of spectacled cave man.”
“He doesn’t sound attractive. But you say the place is nice?”
“It’s gorgeous. I should go, if I were you, Eve.”
“Well, I had intended not to. But now you’ve told me about Mr. Keeble and Aunt Constance, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll have to look in at Clarkie’s office tomorrow and tell her I’m fixed up and shan’t need her help. I’m going to take your sad case in hand, darling. I shall go to Blandings and I will dog your stepfather’s footsteps. If persuasion doesn’t effect anything I shall steal your step-stepmother’s jewelry and send it to you by parcel post. I suppose she’s got some jewelry?”
“I wish you would. She’s got one necklace that’s worth twenty thousand pounds. My stepfather gave it to her when they were married.”
“Well, that makes it simple. I’ll steal that and send it to you, and you can sell it and take the three thousand pounds and forward her the change. Anyhow, I’ll stir things up for you if I see a chance. If Freddie gives me any leisure for anything besides rejecting his loathsome addresses, that is to say. . . . Come and see me to the front door or I’ll be losing my way in the miles of stately corridors. . . . I suppose I mayn’t smash that china dog before I go? Oh, well, I just thought I’d ask.”
Out in the hall the little maid-of-all-work bobbed up and intercepted them.
“I forgot to tell you, mum, a gentleman called. I told him you was out.”
“Quite right, Jane.”
“Said his name was Smith, ’m.”
Phyllis gave a cry of dismay.
“Oh, no! What a shame! I particularly wanted you to meet him, Eve. I wish I’d known.”
“Smith?” said Eve. “The name seems familiar. Why were you so anxious for me to meet him?”
“He’s Mike’s best friend. Mike worships him. He’s the son of the Mr. Smith I was telling you about—the one Mike was at school and Cambridge with. He’s a perfect darling, Eve, and you would love him. He’s just your sort. I do wish we had known. And now you’re going to Blandings for goodness knows how long, and you won’t be able to see him.”
“What a pity!” said Eve, politely uninterested.
“I’m so sorry for him.”
“He’s in the fish business.”
“Well, he hates it, poor dear! But he was left stranded like all the rest of us after the crash, and he was put into the business by an uncle who is a sort of fish magnate.”
“Well, why does he stay there if he dislikes it so much?” said Eve with indignation. The helpless type of man was her pet aversion. “I hate a man who’s got no enterprise.”
“I don’t think you could call him unenterprising. He never struck me like that. You simply must meet him when you come back to London.”
“All right,” said Eve indifferently. “Just as you like. I might put business in his way. I’m very fond of fish.”
WHAT strikes the visitor to London most forcibly, as he enters the heart of that city’s fashionable shopping district, is the almost entire absence of ostentation in the shop windows, the studied avoidance of garish display. About the front of the premises of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe, for instance, who sell coal in Dover Street, there is as a rule nothing whatever to attract fascinated attention. You might give the place a glance as you passed, but you would certainly not pause and stand staring at it as at the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal.
Yet at 10:30 on the morning after Eve Halliday had taken tea with her friend Phyllis Jackson in West Kensington, Psmith, lounging gracefully in the smoking-room window of the Drones Club, which is immediately opposite the Thorpe & Briscoe establishment, had been gazing at it fixedly for a full five minutes. One would have said that the spectacle enthralled him. He seemed unable to take his eyes off it.
There is always a reason for the most apparently inexplicable happenings. It is the practice of Thorpe—or Briscoe—during the months of summer to run out an awning over the shop; a quiet, genteel awning, of course; nothing to offend the eye; but an awning which offers a quite adequate protection against those sudden showers which are such a delightfully piquant feature of the English summer, one of which had just begun to sprinkle the west end of London with a good deal of heartiness and vigor. And under this awning, peering plaintively out at the rain, Eve Halliday, on her way to the Ada Clarkson Employment Bureau, had taken refuge. It was she who had so enchanted Psmith’s interest. It was his considered opinion that she improved the Thorpe & Briscoe frontage by about 95 per cent.
Pleased and gratified as Psmith was to have something nice to look at out of the smoking-room window, he was also somewhat puzzled. This girl seemed to him to radiate an atmosphere of wealth. Starting at farthest south and proceeding northward, she began in a gleam of patent-leather shoes. Fawn stockings, obviously expensive, led up to a black-crêpe frock. And then, just as the eye was beginning to feel that there could be nothing more, it was stunned by a supreme hat of soft, dull satin, with a black bird-of-paradise feather falling down over the left shoulder—even to the masculine eye, which is notoriously to seek in these matters, a whale of a hat. And yet this sumptuously upholstered young woman had been marooned by a shower of rain beneath the awning of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe. Why, Psmith asked himself, was this? Even, he argued, if Charles the chauffeur had been given the day off, or was driving her father, the millionaire, to the City to attend to his vast interests, she could surely afford a cab fare. We who are familiar with the state of Eve’s finances can understand her inability to take cabs, but Psmith was frankly perplexed.
Being, however, both ready-witted and chivalrous, he perceived that this was no time for idle speculation. His not to reason why; his obvious duty was to take steps to assist Beauty in distress. He left the window of the smoking room and, having made his way with a certain smooth dignity to the club’s cloakroom, proceeded to submit a row of umbrellas to a close inspection. He was not easy to satisfy. Two which he went so far as to pull out of the rack he returned with a shake of the head. Quite good umbrellas, but not fit for this special service. At length, however, he found a beauty and a gentle smile flickered across his solemn face. He put up his monocle and gazed searchingly at this umbrella. It seemed to answer every test. He was well pleased with it.
“Whose,” he inquired of the attendant, “is this?”
“Belongs to the Honorable Mr. Walderwick, sir.”
“Ah!” said Psmith tolerantly.
He tucked the umbrella under his arm and went out.
Meanwhile Eve Halliday, lightening up the somber austerity of Messrs. Thorpe & Briscoe’s shop front, continued to think hard thoughts of the English climate and to inspect the sky in the hope of detecting a spot of blue. She was engaged in this cheerless occupation, when at her side a voice spoke.
A hatless young man was standing beside her, holding an umbrella. He was a striking-looking young man, very tall, very thin and very well dressed. In his right eye there was a monocle and through this he looked down at her with a grave friendliness. He said nothing further; but, taking her fingers, clasped them round the handle of the umbrella, which he had obligingly opened, and then with a courteous bow proceeded to dash with long strides across the road, disappearing through the doorway of a gloomy building which, from the number of men who had gone in and out during her vigil, she had set down as a club of some sort.
A good many surprising things had happened to Eve since first she had come to live in London, but nothing quite so surprising as this. For several minutes she stood where she was without moving, staring round-eyed at the building opposite. The episode was, however, apparently ended. The young man did not reappear. He did not even show himself at the window. The club had swallowed him up. And eventually Eve, deciding that this was not the sort of day on which to refuse umbrellas even if they dropped inexplicably from heaven, stepped out from under the awning, laughing helplessly, and started to resume her interrupted journey to Miss Clarkson’s.
The offices of the Ada Clarkson International Employment Bureau—Promptitude, Courtesy, Intelligence—are at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, a little way past the Palace Theater. Eve, closing the umbrella, which had prevented even a spot of rain falling on her hat, climbed the short stair leading to the door and tapped on the window marked Inquiries.
“Can I see Miss Clarkson?”
“What name, please?” responded Inquiries promptly and with intelligent courtesy.
Brief interlude, involving business with speaking tube.
“Will you go into the private office, please?” said Inquiries a moment later in a voice which now added respect to the other advertised qualities, for she had now had time to observe and digest the hat.
Eve passed in through the general waiting room with its magazine-covered table, and tapped at the door beyond marked Private.
“Eve, dear!” exclaimed Miss Clarkson the moment she had entered. “I don’t know how to tell you; but I have been looking through my books and I have nothing, simply nothing. There is not a single place that you could possibly take. What is to be done?”
“That’s all right, Clarkie.”
“I didn’t come to talk business. I came to ask after Cynthia. How is she?”
Miss Clarkson sighed.
“Poor child, she is still in a dreadful state, and no wonder. No news at all from her husband. He has simply deserted her.”
“Poor darling! Can’t I see her?”
“Not at present. I have persuaded her to go down to Brighton for a day or two. I think the sea air will pick her up. So much better than mooning about in a London hotel. She is leaving on the eleven o’clock train. I gave her your love, and she was most grateful that you should have remembered your old friendship and be sorry for her in her affliction.”
“Well, I can write to her. Where is she staying?”
“I don’t know her Brighton address, but no doubt the Cadogan Hotel would forward letters. I think she would be glad to hear from you, dear.”
Eve looked sadly at the framed testimonials which decorated the wall. She was not often melancholy, but it was such a beast of a day and all her friends seemed to be having such a bad time.
“Oh, Clarkie,” she said, “what a lot of trouble there is in the world!”
“Yes, yes!” sighed Miss Clarkson, a specialist on this subject.
“All the horses you back finish sixth and all the girls you like best come croppers. Poor little Phyllis! Weren’t you sorry for her?”
“But her husband, surely, is most devoted!”
“Yes, but she’s frightfully hard up, and you remember how opulent she used to be at school. Of course, it must sound funny hearing me pitying people for having no money. But somehow other people’s hard-upness always seems so much worse than mine. Especially poor old Phyl’s, because she really isn’t fit to stand it. It made my heart bleed to see her in that awful, poky little drawing-room. I’ve been used to being absolutely broke all my life. Poor dear father always seemed to be writing an article against time, with creditors scratching earnestly at the door.” Eve laughed, but her eyes were misty. “He was a brick, wasn’t he? I mean, sending me to a first-class school like Wayland House when he often hadn’t enough money to buy tobacco, poor angel! I expect he wasn’t always up to time with fees, was he?”
“Well, my dear, of course I was only an assistant mistress at Wayland House and had nothing to do with the financial side, but I did hear sometimes——”
“Poor darling father! Do you know, one of my earliest recollections—I couldn’t have been more than ten—is of a ring at the front-door bell and father diving like a seal under the sofa and poking his head out and imploring me in a hoarse voice to hold the fort. I went to the door and found an indignant man with a blue paper. I prattled so prettily and innocently that he not only went away quite contentedly but actually patted me on the head and gave me a penny. And when the door had shut father crawled out from under the sofa and gave me twopence, making threepence in all—a good morning’s work. I bought father a diamond ring with it at a shop down the street, I remember. At least I thought it was a diamond. They may have swindled me, for I was very young.”
“You have had a hard life, dear.”
“Yes, but hasn’t it been a lark! I’ve loved every minute of it. Besides, you can’t call me really one of the submerged tenth. Uncle Thomas left me a hundred and fifty pounds a year, and mercifully I’m not allowed to touch the capital. If only there were no hats or safety bets in the world I should be smugly opulent. But I mustn’t keep you any longer, Clarkie dear. I expect the waiting room is full of dukes who want cooks and cooks who want dukes, all fidgeting and wondering how much longer you’re going to keep them. Good-by, darling.”
And having kissed Miss Clarkson fondly and straightened her hat, which the other’s motherly embrace had disarranged, Eve left the room.
MEANWHILE, at the Drones Club, a rather painful scene had been taking place. Psmith, having regained the shelter of the building, had made his way to the washroom, where, after studying his features with interest for a moment in the mirror, he smoothed his hair, which the rain had somewhat disordered. Then he brushed his clothes with extreme care and went to the cloakroom for his hat. The attendant regarded him as he entered with the air of one whose mind is not wholly at rest.
“Mr. Walderwick was in here a moment ago, sir,” said the attendant.
“Yes?” said Psmith, mildly interested. “An energetic, bustling soul, Comrade Walderwick. Always somewhere. Now here, now there.”
“Asking about his umbrella, he was,” pursued the attendant with a touch of coldness.
“Indeed? Asking about his umbrella, eh?”
“Made a great fuss about it, sir, he did.”
“And rightly,” said Psmith with approval. “The good man loves his umbrella.”
“Of course I had to tell him that you had took it, sir.”
“Of course. I would not have it otherwise,” assented Psmith heartily. “I like this spirit of candor. There must be no reservations, no subterfuges between you and Comrade Walderwick. Let all be open and aboveboard.”
“He seemed very put out, sir. He went off to find you.”
“I am always glad of a chat with Comrade Walderwick,” said Psmith. “Always.”
He left the cloakroom and made for the hall, where he desired the porter to procure him a cab. This having drawn up in front of the club, he descended the steps and was about to enter it when there was a hoarse cry in his rear and through the front door there came bounding a pinkly indignant youth, who called loudly:
“Here! Hi, Smith! Dash it!”
Psmith climbed into the cab and gazed benevolently out at the newcomer.
“Ah, Comrade Walderwick!” he said. “What have we on our mind?”
“Where’s my umbrella?” demanded the pink one. “The cloakroom waiter says you took my umbrella. I mean, a joke’s a joke, but that was a dashed good umbrella.”
“It was, indeed,” Psmith agreed cordially. “It may be of interest to you to know that I selected it as the only possible one from among a number of competitors. I fear this club is becoming very mixed, Comrade Walderwick. You with your pure mind would hardly believe the rottenness of some of the umbrellas I inspected in the cloakroom.”
“Where is it?”
“The cloakroom? You turn to the left as you go in at the main entrance and——”
“My umbrella, dash it! Where’s my umbrella?”
“Ah, there,” said Psmith, and there was a touch of manly regret in his voice, “you have me! I gave it to a young lady in the street. Where she is at the present moment I could not say.”
The pink youth tottered slightly.
“You gave my umbrella to a girl!”
“A very loose way of describing her. You would not speak of her in that light fashion if you had seen her. Comrade Walderwick, she was wonderful! I am a plain, blunt, rugged man, above the softer emotions as a general thing; but I frankly confess that she stirred a chord in me which is not often stirred. She thrilled my battered old heart, Comrade Walderwick. There is no other word. Thrilled it!”
“But, dash it——”
Psmith reached out a long arm and laid his hand paternally on the other’s shoulder.
“Be brave, Comrade Walderwick!” he said. “Be a man and bite the bullet! I am sorry to have been the means of depriving you of an excellent umbrella, but as a fair-minded man you will realize that I had no alternative. It was raining. She was over there, crouched despairingly beneath the awning of that shop. She wanted to be elsewhere, but the moisture lay in wait to damage her hat. What could I do? What could any man worthy of the name do but go down to the cloakroom and pinch the best umbrella in sight and take it to her? Yours was easily the best. There was absolutely no comparison. I gave it to her and she has gone off with it, happy once more. This explanation,” said Psmith, “will, I am sure, sensibly diminish your natural chagrin. You have lost your umbrella, Comrade Walderwick, but in what a cause! In what a cause, Comrade Walderwick! You are now entitled to rank with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. The latter is perhaps the closer historical parallel. He spread his cloak to keep a queen from wetting her feet. You—by proxy—yielded up your umbrella to save a girl’s hat. Posterity will be proud of you, Comrade Walderwick. You will go down in legend and song. Children in ages to come will cluster about their grandfather’s knees, saying, ‘Tell us how the great Walderwick lost his umbrella, grandpapa.’ And he will tell them, and they will rise from the recital, better, deeper, broader children. But now, as I see that the driver has started his meter, I fear I must conclude this little chat—which I, for one, have heartily enjoyed. Drive on,” he said, leaning out of the window. “I want to go to Ada Clarkson’s Employment Bureau in Shaftesbury Avenue.”
The cab moved off. The Hon. Hugo Walderwick, after one passionate glance in its wake, realized that he was getting wet and went back into the club.
Arriving at the address named, Psmith paid his cab, and having mounted the stairs delicately knuckled the ground-glass window of Inquiries.
“My dear Miss Clarkson,” he began in an affable voice the moment the window had shot up, “if you can spare me a few moments of your valuable time——”
“Miss Clarkson’s engaged.”
Psmith scrutinized her gravely through his monocle. “Aren’t you Miss Clarkson?”
Inquiries said she was not.
“Then,” said Psmith, “there has been a misunderstanding, for which,” he added cordially, “I am to blame. Perhaps I could see her anon? You will find me in the waiting room when required.”
He went into the waiting room, and having picked up a magazine from the table settled down to read a story in the Girl’s Friend—the January number of the year 1919, for employment agencies, like dentists, prefer their literature of a matured vintage. He was absorbed in this when Eve came out of the private office.
PSMITH rose courteously as she entered.
“My dear Miss Clarkson,” he said, “if you can spare me a moment of your valuable time——”
“Good gracious!” said Eve. “How extraordinary!”
“A singular coincidence,” agreed Psmith.
“You never gave me time to thank you for the umbrella,” said Eve reproachfully. “You must have thought me awfully rude. But you took my breath away.”
“My dear Miss Clarkson, please do not——”
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Aren’t you Miss Clarkson either?”
“Of course I’m not.”
“Then,” said Psmith, “I must start my quest all over again. These constant checks are trying to an ardent spirit. Perhaps you are a young bride come to engage her first cook?”
“No, I’m not married.”
Eve found his relieved thankfulness a little embarrassing. In the momentary pause which followed his remark Inquiries entered alertly.
“Miss Clarkson will see you now, sir.”
“Leave us,” said Psmith with a wave of his hand. “We would be alone.”
Inquiries stared; then, awed by his manner and general appearance of magnificence, withdrew.
“I suppose, really,” said Eve, toying with the umbrella, “I ought to give this back to you.” She glanced at the dripping window. “But it is raining rather hard, isn’t it?”
“Like the dickens,” assented Psmith.
“Then would you mind very much if I kept it till this evening?”
“Thanks ever so much. I will send it back to you tonight, if you will give me the name and address.”
Psmith waved his hand deprecatingly.
“No, no! If it is of any use to you, I hope that you will look on it as a present.”
“A gift,” explained Psmith.
“But I really can’t go about accepting expensive umbrellas from people. Where shall I send it?”
“If you insist, you may send it to the Hon. Hugo Walderwick, Drones Club, Dover Street. But it really isn’t necessary.”
“I won’t forget. And thank you very much, Mr. Walderwick.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Well, you said——”
“Ah, I see. A slight confusion of ideas. No, I am not Mr. Walderwick. And between ourselves I should hate to be. Comrade Walderwick is merely the man to whom the umbrella belongs.”
Eve’s eyes opened wide.
“Do you mean to say you gave me somebody else’s umbrella?”
“I had unfortunately omitted to bring my own out with me this morning.”
“I never heard of such a thing!”
“Merely practical socialism. Other people are content to talk about the redistribution of property. I go out and do it.”
“But won’t he be awfully angry when he finds out it has gone?”
“He has found out, and it was pretty to see his delight. I explained the circumstances and he was charmed to have been of service to you.”
The door opened again, and this time it was Miss Clarkson in person who entered. She had found Inquiries’ statement over the speaking tube rambling and unsatisfactory, and had come to investigate for herself the reason why the machinery of the office was being held up.
“Oh, I must go,” said Eve as she saw her. “I’m interrupting your business.”
“I’m so glad you’re still here, dear,” said Miss Clarkson. “I have just been looking over my files and I see that there is one vacancy—for a nurse,” said Miss Clarkson with a touch of the apologetic in her voice.
“Oh, no, that’s all right,” said Eve. “I don’t really need anything. But thanks ever so much for bothering.”
She smiled affectionately upon the proprietress, bestowed another smile upon Psmith as he opened the door for her, and went out. Psmith turned away from the door with a thoughtful look upon his face.
“Is that young lady a nurse?” he asked.
“Do you want a nurse?” inquired Miss Clarkson, at once the woman of business.
“I want that nurse,” said Psmith with conviction.
“She is a delightful girl,” said Miss Clarkson with enthusiasm. “There is no one whom I would feel more confidence in recommending to a position. She is a Miss Halliday, the daughter of a very clever but erratic writer who died some years ago. I can speak with particular knowledge of Miss Halliday, for I was for many years an assistant mistress at Wayland House, where she was at school. She is a charming, warm-hearted, impulsive girl. But you will hardly want to hear all this.”
“On the contrary,” said Psmith, “I could listen for hours. You have stumbled upon my favorite subject.”
Miss Clarkson eyed him a little doubtfully and decided that it would be best to reintroduce the business theme. “Perhaps when you say you are looking for a nurse you mean you need a hospital nurse.”
“My friends have sometimes suggested it.”
“Miss Halliday’s greatest experience has, of course, been as a governess.”
“A governess is just as good,” said Psmith agreeably.
Miss Clarkson began to be conscious of a sensation of being out of her depth.
“How old are your children, sir?” she asked.
“I fear,” said Psmith, “you are peeping into Volume Two. This romance has only just started.”
“I am afraid,” said Miss Clarkson, now completely fogged, “I do not quite understand. What exactly are you looking for?”
Psmith flicked a speck of fluff from his coat sleeve.
“A job,” he said.
“A job!” echoed Miss Clarkson, her voice breaking in an amazed squeak.
Psmith raised his eyebrows.
“You seem surprised. Isn’t this a job emporium?”
“This is an employment bureau,” admitted Miss Clarkson.
“I knew it, I knew it!” said Psmith. “Something seemed to tell me. Possibly it was the legend Employment Bureau over the door. And those framed testimonials would convince the most skeptical. Yes, Miss Clarkson, I want a job, and I feel somehow that you are the woman to find it for me. I have inserted an advertisement in the papers, expressing my readiness to undertake any form of employment; but I have since begun to wonder if, after all, this will lead to wealth and fame. At any rate, it is wise to attack the great world from another angle as well, so I come to you.”
“But you must excuse me if I remark that this application of yours strikes me as most extraordinary.”
“Why? I am young, active and extremely broke.”
“But your—er—your clothes——”
Psmith squinted, not without complacency, down a faultlessly fitted waistcoat and flicked another speck of dust off his sleeve.
“You consider me well dressed?” he said. “You find me natty? Well, well, perhaps you are right, perhaps you are right. But consider, Miss Clarkson. If one expects to find employment in these days of strenuous competition one must be neatly and decently clad. Employers look askance at a baggy trousers leg. A zippy waistcoat is more to them than an honest heart. This beautiful crease was obtained with the aid of the mattress upon which I tossed feverishly last night in my attic room.”
“I can’t take you seriously.”
“Oh, don’t say that, please!”
“You really want me to find you work?”
“I prefer the term ‘employment.’ ”
Miss Clarkson produced a notebook and pencil.
“If you are really not making this application just as a joke——”
“I assure you, no. My entire capital consists, in specie, of about ten pounds.”
“Then perhaps you will tell me your name.”
“Ah, things are beginning to move! The name is Psmith. P-smith. The P is silent.”
Miss Clarkson brooded over this for a moment in almost pained silence, then recovered her slipping grip of affairs.
“I think,” she said, “you had better give me a few particulars about yourself.”
“Tell you the story of my life? There is nothing I should like better,” responded Psmith warmly. “I am always ready—I may say eager—to tell people the story of my life, but in this rushing age I get little encouragement. Let us start at the beginning—my infancy. When I was but a babe my eldest sister was bribed with sixpence an hour by my nurse to keep an eye on me and see that I did not raise Cain. At the end of the first day she struck for a shilling and got it. We now pass to my boyhood. At an early age I was sent to Eton, everybody predicting a bright career for me. Those were happy days, Miss Clarkson. A merry laughing lad with curly hair and a sunny smile, it is not too much to say that I was the pet of the place. The old cloisters—but I am boring you. I can see it in your eye.”
“No, no!” protested Miss Clarkson. “But what I meant was—I thought you might have had some experience in some particular line of—in fact, what sort of work——”
“What sort of employment do you require?”
“Broadly speaking,” said Psmith, “any reasonably salaried position that has nothing to do with fish.”
“Fish!” quavered Miss Clarkson, slipping again. “Why fish?”
“Because, Miss Clarkson, the fish trade was until this morning my walk in life, and my soul has sickened of it.”
“You are in the fish trade?” squeaked Miss Clarkson with an amazed glance at the knifelike crease in his trousers.
“These are not my working clothes,” said Psmith, following and interpreting her glance. “Yes, owing to a financial upheaval in my branch of the family, I was until this morning at the beck and call of an uncle who unfortunately happens to be a mackerel monarch or a sardine sultan or whatever these merchant princes are called who rule the fish market. He insisted on my going into the business to learn it from the bottom up, thinking, no doubt, that I would follow in his footsteps and eventually work my way to the position of a whitebait wizard. Alas, he was too sanguine. It was not to be,” said Psmith solemnly, fixing an owl-like gaze on Miss Clarkson through his eyeglass.
“No?” said Miss Clarkson.
“No. Last night I was obliged to inform him that the fish business was all right, but it wouldn’t do, and that I proposed to sever my connection with the firm forever. I may say at once that there ensued something in the nature of a family earthquake. Hard words,” sighed Psmith. “Black looks. Unseemly wrangle. And the upshot of it all was that my uncle washed his hands of me and drove me forth into the great world. Hence my anxiety to find employment. My uncle has definitely withdrawn his countenance from me, Miss Clarkson.”
“Dear, dear!” murmured the proprietress sympathetically.
“Yes. He is a hard man, and he judges his fellows solely by their devotion to fish. I never in my life met a man so wrapped up in a subject. For years he has been practically a monomaniac on the subject of fish. So much so that he actually looks like one. It is as if he had taken one of those auto-suggestion courses and had kept saying to himself, ‘Every day, in every respect, I grow more and more like a fish.’ His closest friends can hardly tell now whether he more nearly resembles a halibut or a cod. But I am boring you again with this family gossip.”
He eyed Miss Clarkson with such a sudden and penetrating glance that she started nervously.
“No, no!” she exclaimed.
“You relieve my apprehensions. I am only too well aware that, when fairly launched on the topic of fish, I am more than apt to weary my audience. I cannot understand this enthusiasm for fish. My uncle used to talk about an unusually large catch of pilchards in Cornwall in much the same awed way as a right-minded curate would talk about the spiritual excellence of his bishop. To me, Miss Clarkson, from the start the fish business was what I can only describe as a washout. It nauseated my finer feelings. It got right in amongst my fibers. I had to rise and partake of a simple breakfast at about four in the morning, after which I would make my way to Billingsgate Market and stand for some hours knee-deep in dead fish of every description. A jolly life for a cat, no doubt, but a bit too thick for a Shropshire Psmith. Mine, Miss Clarkson, is a refined and poetic nature. I like to be surrounded by joy and life, and I know nothing more joyless and deader than a dead fish. Multiply that dead fish by a million and you have an environment which only a Dante could contemplate with equanimity. My uncle used to tell me that the way to ascertain whether a fish was fresh was to peer into its eyes. Could I spend the springtime of life staring into the eyes of dead fish? No!” He rose. “Well, I will not detain you any longer. Thank you for the unfailing courtesy and attention with which you have listened to me. You can understand now why my talents are on the market, and why I am compelled to state specifically that no employment can be considered which has anything to do with fish. I am convinced that you will shortly have something particularly good to offer me.”
“I don’t know that I can say that, Mr. Psmith.”
“The P is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her. “Oh, by the way,” he said, pausing at the door, “there is one other thing before I go. While I was waiting for you to be disengaged, I chanced on an installment of a serial story in the Girl’s Friend for January, 1919. My search for the remaining issues proved fruitless. The title was Her Honor at Stake, by Jane Emmeline Moss. You don’t happen to know how it all came out in the end, do you? Did Lord Eustace ever learn that, when he found Clarice in Sir Jasper’s rooms at midnight, she had only gone there to recover some compromising letters for a girl friend? You don’t know? I feared as much. Well, good morning, Miss Clarkson, good morning; I leave my future in your hands with a light heart.”
“I will do my best for you, of course.”
“And what,” said Psmith cordially, “could be better than Miss Clarkson’s best?”
He closed the door gently behind him and went out. Struck by a kindly thought, he tapped upon Inquiries’ window and beamed benevolently as her bobbed head shot into view.
“They tell me,” he said, “that Aspidistra is much fancied for the four o’clock race at Birmingham this afternoon. I give the information without prejudice, for what it is worth. Good day.”
(to be continued)
Annotations to the UK book edition of this novel are available elsewhere on this site.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
In chapter II, part II, magazine had “horse and dogs”; corrected to “horses” as in all other editions.
In chapter II, part II, magazine had a comma instead of a period after “I wrote today”; changed to match other editions.
In chapter III, magazine failed to capitalize “City” (referring to London’s financial district) in Psmith’s speculation about Charles the chauffeur; corrected as in all other editions.
In chapter III, magazine had incorrect spelling “Shaftsbury” (correctly spelled in chapters II and V).