LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (33)
September 2, 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!
For some moments after the butler had withdrawn in his stately, pigeon-toed way through the green-baize door, Psmith lay back in his chair with the feeling that something attempted, something done, had earned a night’s repose. He was not so sanguine as to suppose that he had actually checkmated an adversary of Mr. Cootes’ strenuousness by the simple act of removing a revolver from his possession; but there was no denying the fact that the feel of the thing in his pocket engendered a certain cozy satisfaction. The little he had seen of Mr. Cootes had been enough to convince him that the other was a man who was far better off without an automatic pistol. There was an impulsiveness about his character which did not go well with the possession of firearms.
Psmith’s meditations had taken him thus far when they were interrupted by an imperative voice:
Only one person of Psmith’s acquaintance was in the habit of opening his remarks in this manner. It was consequently no surprise to him to find Mr. Edward Cootes standing at his elbow.
“All right, Comrade Cootes,” said Psmith with a touch of austerity; “I heard you the first time. And may I remind you that this habit of yours of popping out from unexpected places and saying ‘Hey!’ is one which should be overcome? Valets are supposed to wait till rung for. At least, I think so. I must confess that until this moment I have never had a valet.”
“And you wouldn’t have one now if I could help it,” responded Mr. Cootes.
Psmith raised his eyebrows.
“Why,” he inquired, surprised, “this peevishness? Don’t you like being a valet?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You astonish me. I should have thought you would have gone singing about the house. Have you considered that the tenancy of such a position throws you into the constant society of Comrade Beach, than whom it would be difficult to imagine a more delightful companion?”
“Old stiff!” said Mr. Cootes sourly. “If there’s one thing that makes me tired, it’s a guy that talks about his darned stomach all the time.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Beach gook,” explained Mr. Cootes, “has got something wrong with the lining of his stomach, and if I hadn’t made my get-away he’d be talking about it yet.”
“If you fail to find entertainment and uplift in first-hand information about Comrade Beach’s stomach, you must indeed be hard to please. I am to take it, then, that you came snorting out here, interrupting my daydreams merely in order to seek my sympathy?”
Mr. Cootes gazed upon him with a smoldering eye.
“I came to tell you I suppose you think you’re darned smart.”
“And very nice of you, too,” said Psmith warmly. “A pretty compliment, for which I am grateful.”
“You got that gun away from me mighty smoothly, didn’t you?”
“Since you mention it, not unsmoothly.”
“And now I suppose you think you’re going to slip in ahead of me and get away with that necklace. Well, say, listen! Lemme tell you it’ll take someone better than a half-baked string bean like you to put one over on me.”
“I seem,” said Psmith, pained, “to detect a certain animus creeping into your tone. Surely we can be trade rivals without this spirit of hostility. My attitude toward you is one of kindly tolerance.”
“Even if you get it, where do you think you’re going to hide it? And believe me, it’ll take some hiding! Say, lemme tell you something! I’m your valet, ain’t I? Well, then, I can come into your room and be tidying up whenever I darn please, can’t I? I’ll tell the world I can do just that little thing. And you take it from me, Bill —”
“You persist in the delusion that my name is William.”
“You take it from me, Bill, that if ever that necklace disappears, and it isn’t me that’s done the disappearing, you’ll find me tidying up in a way that’ll make you dizzy. I’ll go through that room of yours with a fine-tooth comb. So chew on that, will you?”
And Edward Cootes, moving somberly across the hall, made a sinister exit. The mood of cool reflection was still to come, when he would realize that, in his desire to administer what he would have described as a hot one, he had acted a little rashly in putting his enemy on his guard. All he was thinking now was that his brief sketch of the position of affairs would have the effect of diminishing Psmith’s complacency a trifle. He had, he flattered himself, slipped over something that could be classed as a jolt.
Nor was he unjustified in this view. The aspect of the matter on which he had touched was one that had not previously presented itself to Psmith; and, musing on it as he resettled himself in his chair, he could see that it afforded food for thought. As regarded the disposal of the necklace, should it ever come into his possession, he had formed no definite plan. He had assumed that he would conceal it somewhere until the first excitement of the chase slackened, and it was only now that he realized the difficulty of finding a suitable hiding place outside his bedroom. Yes, it was certainly a matter on which, as Mr. Cootes had suggested, he would do well to chew. For ten minutes, accordingly, he did so. And — it being practically impossible to keep a good man down — at the end of that period he was rewarded with an idea. He rose from his chair and pressed the bell. “Ah, Beach,” he said affably, as the green-baize door swung open, “I must apologize once more for troubling you. I keep ringing, don’t I?”
“No trouble at all, sir,” responded the butler paternally. “But if you were ringing to summon your personal attendant, I fear he is not immediately available. He left me somewhat abruptly a few moments ago. I was not aware that you would be requiring his services until the dressing gong sounded or I would have detained him.”
“Never mind. It was you I wished to see. Beach,” said Psmith, “I am concerned about you. I learn from my man that the lining of your stomach is not all it should be.”
“That is true, sir,” replied Beach, an excited gleam coming into his dull eyes. He shivered slightly, as might a war horse at the sound of the bugle. “I do have trouble with the lining of my stomach.”
“Every stomach has a silver lining.”
“I said, tell me all about it.”
“Well, really, sir —” said Beach wistfully.
“To please me,” urged Psmith.
“Well, sir, it is extremely kind of you to take an interest. It generally starts with a dull shooting pain on the right side of the abdomen from twenty minutes to half an hour after the conclusion of a meal. The symptoms —”
There was nothing but courteous sympathy in Psmith’s gaze as he listened to what sounded like an eyewitness’ account of the San Francisco earthquake; but inwardly he was wishing that his companion could see his way to making it a bit briefer and snappier. However, all things come to an end. Even the weariest river winds somewhere to the sea. With a moving period, the butler finally concluded his narrative.
“Parks’ Pepsinine,” said Psmith promptly.
“That’s what you want. Parks’ Pepsinine. It would set you right in no time.”
“I will make a note of the name, sir. The specific has not come to my notice until now. And, if I may say so,” added Beach with a glassy but adoring look at his benefactor, “I should like to express my gratitude for your kindness.”
“Not at all, Beach, not at all . . . Oh, Beach,” he said as the other started to maneuver towards the door, “I’ve just remembered. There was something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I thought it might be as well to speak to you about it before approaching Lady Constance. The fact is, Beach, I am feeling cramped.”
“Indeed, sir? I forgot to mention that one of the symptoms from which I suffer is a sharp cramp.”
“Too bad. But let us, if you do not mind, shelve for the moment the subject of your interior organism and its ailments. When I say I am feeling cramped, I mean spiritually. Have you ever written poetry, Beach?”
“Ah! Then it may be a little difficult for you to understand my feelings. My trouble is this: Out in Canada, Beach, I grew accustomed to doing my work in the most solitary surroundings. You remember that passage in my Songs of Squalor which begins, ‘Across the pale parabola of joy’?”
“I fear, sir —”
“You missed it? Tough luck. Try to get hold of it sometime. It’s a bird. Well, that passage was written in a lonely hut on the banks of the Saskatchewan, miles away from human habitation. I am like that, Beach. I need the stimulus of the great open spaces. When I am surrounded by my fellows, inspiration slackens and dies. You know how it is when there are people about. Just as you are starting in to write a nifty, someone comes and sits down on the desk and begins talking about himself. Every time you get going nicely, in barges some alien influence and the muse goes blooey. You see what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” said Beach, gaping slightly.
“Well, that is why for a man like me existence in Blandings Castle has its drawbacks. I have got to get a place where I can be alone, Beach — alone with my dreams and visions. Some little aerie perched on the cliffs of Time. In other words, do you know of an empty cottage somewhere on the estate where I could betake myself when in the mood and swing a nib without any possibility of being interrupted?”
“A little cottage, sir?”
“A little cottage. With honeysuckle over the door and Old Mister Moon climbing up above the trees. A cottage, Beach, where I can meditate, where I can turn the key in the door and bid the world go by. Now that the castle is going to be full of all these people who are coming for the county ball, it is imperative that I wangle such a haven. Otherwise, a considerable slab of priceless poetry will be lost to humanity forever.”
“You desire,” said Beach, feeling his way cautiously, “a small cottage where you can write poetry, sir?”
“You follow me like a leopard. Do you know of such a one?”
“There is a gamekeeper’s cottage in the west wood that I believe is unoccupied, sir, but it is an extremely humble place.”
“Be it never so humble, it will do for me. Do you think Lady Constance would be offended if I were to ask for the loan of it for a few days?”
“I fancy that her ladyship would receive the request with equanimity, sir. She is used to — she is not unaccustomed — well, I can only say, sir, that there was a literary gentleman visiting the castle last summer who expressed a desire to take sun baths in the garden each morning before breakfast. In the nood, sir. And, beyond instructing me to warn the maids, her ladyship placed no obstacle in the way of the fulfillment of his wishes. So —”
“So a modest request like mine isn’t likely to cause a heart attack? Admirable! You don’t know what it means to me to feel that I shall soon have a little refuge of my own, to which I can retreat and be in solitude.”
“I can imagine that it must be extremely gratifying, sir.”
“Then I will put the motion before the board directly Lady Constance returns.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I should like to splash it on the record once more, Beach, that I am much obliged to you for your sympathy and advice in this matter. I knew you would not fail me.”
“Not at all, sir. I am only too glad to have been able to be of assistance.”
“Oh, and Beach —”
“Just one other thing. Will you be seeing Cootes, my valet, again shortly?”
“Quite shortly, sir, I should imagine.”
“Then would you mind just prodding him smartly in the lower ribs?”
“Sir?” cried Beach, startled out of his butlerian calm.
He swallowed a little convulsively. For eighteen months and more, ever since Lady Constance Keeble had first begun to cast her fly and hook over the murky water of the artistic world and jerk its denizens onto the pile carpets of Blandings Castle, Beach had had his fill of eccentricity. But until this moment he had hoped that Psmith was going to prove an agreeable change from the stream of literary lunatics which had been coming and going all that weary time. And lo! Psmith’s name led all the rest. Even the man who had come for a week in April and had wanted to eat jam with his fish paled in comparison.
“Prod him in the ribs, sir?” he quavered.
“Prod him in the ribs,” said Psmith firmly. “And at the same time whisper into his ear the word ‘Aha!’ ”
Beach licked his dry lips.
“Aha! And say it came from me.”
“Very good, sir. The matter shall be attended to,” said Beach. And with a muffled sound that was half a sigh, half a death rattle, he tottered through the green-baize door.
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”.
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