LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (30)
August 9, 2019
Leave It to Psmith (1923) is the last and most rewarding of four novels featuring the dandy, wit, and would-be adventurer Ronald Eustace Psmith, one of P.G. Wodehouse‘s most popular characters. (“One can date exactly,” Evelyn Waugh claimed, in reference to Psmith’s debut in the 1909 novel Mike, “the first moment when Wodehouse was touched by the sacred flame.”) Leave It to Psmith‘s copyright enters the public domain in 2019; HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this terrific book here at HILOBROW. Enjoy!
“What,” inquired the visitor, raising a damp face that shone pallidly in the dim light, “are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing, comrade. By the way, what is your name?”
“Nothing, Comrade Cootes. Nothing whatever. You are free to leg it hence. In fact, the sooner you do so the better I shall be pleased.”
“Say, that’s darned good of you!”
“Not at all, not at all.”
“You’re an ace —”
“Oh, hush!” interrupted Psmith modestly. “But before you go tell me one or two things. I take it that your object in coming here was to have a pop at Lady Constance’s necklace?”
“I thought as much. And what made you suppose that the real McTodd would not be here when you arrived?”
“Oh, that was all right. I traveled over with that guy McTodd on the boat, and saw a good deal of him when we got to London. He was full of how he’d been invited here, and I got it out of him that no one here knew him by sight. And then one afternoon I met him in the Strand, all worked up, madder than a hornet. Said he’d been insulted and wouldn’t come down to this place if they came and begged him on their bended knees. I couldn’t make out what it was all about, but apparently he had met Lord Emsworth and hadn’t been treated right. He told me he was going straight off to Paris.”
“And did he?”
“Sure! I saw him off myself at Charing Cross. That’s why it seemed such a cinch coming here instead of him. It’s just my darned luck that the first man I run into is a friend of his.”
“In this life, Comrade Cootes,” said Psmith, “we must always distinguish between the unlikely and the impossible. It was unlikely, as you say, that you would meet any friend of McTodd’s in this out-of-the-way spot; and you rashly ordered your movements on the assumption that it was impossible. With what result? The cry goes round the underworld, ‘Poor old Cootes has made a bloomer!’ ”
“You needn’t rub it in.”
“I am only doing so for your good. It is my earnest hope that you will lay this lesson to heart and profit by it. Who knows that it may not be the turning point in your career? Years hence, when you are a white-haired and opulent man of leisure, having retired from the crook business with a comfortable fortune, you may look back on your experience of today and realize that it was the means of starting you on the road to success. You will lay stress on it when you are interviewed for the Weekly Burglar on ‘How I Began’… But, talking of starting on roads, I think that perhaps it would be as well if you now had a pop at the one leading to the railway station. The household may be returning at any moment now.”
“That’s right,” agreed the visitor.
“I think so,” said Psmith. “I think so. You will be happier when you are away from here. Once outside the castle precincts, a great weight will roll off your mind. You know your way out?”
He shepherded the young man to the door and with a cordial push started him on his way. Then with long strides he ran upstairs to the library to find Eve.
At about the same moment, on the platform of Market Blandings station, Miss Aileen Peavey was alighting from the train which had left Bridgeford some half an hour earlier. A headache, the fruit of standing about in the hot sun, had caused her to forgo the pleasure of hearing Lord Emsworth deliver his speech; and she had slipped back on a convenient train with the intention of lying down and resting. Finding, on reaching Market Blandings, that her head was much better, and the heat of the afternoon being now over, she started to walk to the castle, greatly refreshed by a cool breeze which had sprung up from the west. She left the town at almost the exact time when the disconsolate Mr. Cootes was passing out of the big gates at the end of the castle drive.
The gray melancholy which accompanied Mr. Cootes like a diligent specter as he began his walk back to the town of Market Blandings, and which not even the delightful evening could dispel, was due primarily, of course, to that sickening sense of defeat which afflicts a man whose high hopes have been wrecked at the very instant when success has seemed in sight. Once or twice in the life of every man there falls to his lot something which can only be described as a soft snap, and it had seemed to Mr. Cootes that this venture of his to Blandings Castle came into that category.
He had, like most members of his profession, had his ups and downs in the past; but at last, he told himself, the Goddess Fortune had handed him something on a plate with watercress round it. Once established in the castle, there would have been a hundred opportunities of achieving the capture of Lady Constance’s necklace; and it had looked as though all he had to do was to walk in, announce himself and be treated as the honored guest. As he slouched moodily between the dusty hedges that fringed the road to Market Blandings, Edward Cootes tasted the bitterness that only those know whose plans have been upset by the hundredth chance.
But this was not all. In addition to the sadness of frustrated hope, he was also experiencing the anguish of troubled memories. Not only was the present torturing him, but the past had come to life and jumped out and bitten him. A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things, and this was what Edward Cootes was doing now. It is at moments like this that a man needs a woman’s tender care, and Mr. Cootes had lost the only woman in whom he could have confided his grief, the only woman who would have understood and sympathized.
We have been introduced to Mr. Cootes at a point in his career when he was practicing upon dry land; but that was not his chosen environment. Until a few months back his business had lain upon deep waters. The salt scent of the sea was in his blood. To put it more exactly, he had been by profession a card sharper on the Atlantic liners; and it was during this period that he had loved and lost. For three years and more he had worked in perfect harmony with the lady who, though she adopted a variety of names for purposes of travel, was known to her immediate circle as Smooth Lizzie. He had been the practitioner, she the decoy, and theirs had been one of those ideal business partnerships which one so seldom meets with in a world of cynicism and mistrust. Comradeship had ripened into something deeper and more sacred, and it was all settled between them that when they next touched New York Mr. Cootes, if still at liberty, should proceed to the City Hall for a marriage license; when they had quarreled — quarreled irrevocably over one of those trifling points over which lovers do quarrel. Some absurd dispute as to the proper division of the quite meager sum obtained from a cattle millionaire on their last voyage had marred their golden dreams. One word had led to another. The lady, after woman’s habit, had the last of the series, and even Mr. Cootes was forced to admit that it was a pippin. She had spoken it on the pier at New York, and then passed out of his life. And with her had gone all his luck. It was as if her going had brought a curse upon him. On the very next trip he had had an unfortunate misunderstanding with an irritable gentleman from the Middle West, who, piqued at what he considered — not unreasonably — the undue proportion of kings and aces in the hands which Mr. Cootes had been dealing himself, expressed his displeasure by biting off the first joint of the other’s right index finger, thus putting an abrupt end to a brilliant career. For it was on this finger that Mr. Cootes principally relied for the almost magical effects which he was wont to produce with a pack of cards after a little quiet shuffling.
With an aching sense of what might have been, he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they had still been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way if getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.
Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who it will be remembered was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when she found the society of her hostess and her hostess’ relations something of a strain; and she was glad to be alone. Her headache had disappeared and she reveled in the quiet evening hush as she passed on her way at a leisurely gait. About now, if she had not had the sense to detach herself from the castle platoon, she would, she presumed, be listening to Lord Emsworth’s speech on the subject of the late Hartley Reddish, J.P., M.P.; a topic which even the noblest of orators might have failed to render really gripping. And what she knew of her host gave her little confidence in his powers of oratory.
Yes, she was well out of it. The gentle breeze played soothingly upon her face. Her delicately modeled nostrils drank in gratefully the scent from the hedgerows. Somewhere out of sight a thrush was singing. And so moved was Miss Peavey by the peace and sweetness of it all that she, too, began to sing.
Had those who enjoyed the privilege of her acquaintance at Blandings Castle been informed that Miss Peavey was about to sing, they would doubtless have considered themselves on firm ground if called upon to make a conjecture as to the type of song which she would select. Something quaint, dreamy, a little wistful — that would have been the universal guess — some Old World ballad, possibly.
What Miss Peavey actually sang — in a soft, meditative voice like that of a starling waking to greet a new dawn — was that curious composition known as the Beale Street Blues.
As she reached the last line she broke off abruptly. She was, she perceived, no longer alone. Down the road toward her, walking pensively like one with a secret sorrow, a man was approaching; and for an instant, as she turned the corner, something in his appearance seemed to catch her by the throat and her breath came sharply.
“Gee!” said Miss Peavey.
She was herself again the next moment. A chance resemblance had misled her. She could not see the man’s face, for his head was bent; but how was it possible —
And then, when he was quite close, he raised his head, and the county of Shropshire, as far as it was visible to her amazed eyes, executed a sudden and eccentric dance. Trees bobbed up and down, hedgerows shimmied like a Broadway chorus; and from out of the midst of the whirling countryside a voice spoke:
“Eddie!” ejaculated Miss Peavey faintly, and sat down in a heap on a grassy bank.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.