LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (38)
October 7, 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!
The information authoritatively conveyed to him during breakfast by Lady Constance, that he was scheduled that night to read select passages from Ralston McTodd’s Songs of Squalor to the entire house party assembled in the big drawing-room, had come as a complete surprise to Psmith; and to his fellow guests — such of them as were young and of the soulless sex — as a shock from which they found it hard to rally. True, they had before now gathered in a vague sort of way that he was one of those literary fellows; but so normal and engaging had they found his whole manner and appearance that it had never occurred to them that he concealed anything up his sleeve as lethal as Songs of Squalor. Among these members of the younger set the consensus of opinion was that it was a bit thick, and that at such a price even the lavish hospitality of Blandings was scarcely worth having. Only those who had visited the castle before during the era of her ladyship’s flirtation with art could have been described as resigned. These stout hearts argued that while this latest blister was probably going to be pretty bad, he could hardly be worse than the chappie who had lectured on theosophy last November, and must almost of necessity be better than the bird who during the Shiffley race week had attempted in a two-hour discourse to convert them to vegetarianism.
Psmith himself regarded the coming ordeal with equanimity. He was not one of those whom the prospect of speaking in public afflicts with nervous horror. He liked the sound of his own voice, and night when it came found him entirely cheerful. He listened contentedly to the sound of the drawing-room filling up as he strolled on the starlit terrace, smoking a last cigarette before duty called him elsewhere. And when, some few yards away, seated on the terrace wall, gazing out into the velvet darkness, he perceived Eve Halliday, his sense of well-being became acute.
All day he had been conscious of a growing desire for another of those cozy chats with Eve which had done so much to make life agreeable for him during his stay at Blandings. Her prejudice — which he deplored —in favor of doing a certain amount of work to justify her salary had kept him during the morning away from the little room off the library where she was wont to sit cataloguing books; and when he had gone there after lunch he had found it empty. As he approached her now he was thinking pleasantly of all those delightful walks, those excellent driftings on the lake and those cheery conversations which had gone to cement his conviction that of all possible girls she was the only possible one. It seemed to him that in addition to being beautiful she brought out all that was best in him of intellect and soul. That is to say, she let him talk oftener and longer than any girl he had ever known.
It struck him as a little curious that she made no move to greet him. She remained apparently unaware of his approach. And yet the summer night was not of such density as to hide him from view; and, even if she could not see him, she must undoubtedly have heard him; for only a moment before he had tripped with some violence over a large flower pot, one of a row of sixteen which Angus McAllister, doubtless for some good purpose, had placed in the fairway that afternoon.
“A pleasant night,” he said, seating himself gracefully beside her on the wall.
She turned her head for a brief instant and, having turned it, looked away again.
“Yes,” she said.
Her manner was not effusive, but Psmith persevered.
“The stars,” he proceeded, indicating them with a kindly yet not patronizing wave of the hand — “bright, twinkling, and — if I may say so — rather neatly arranged. When I was a mere lad someone whose name I cannot recollect taught me which was Orion. Also Mars, Venus and Jupiter. This thoroughly useless chunk of knowledge has, I am happy to say, long since passed from my mind. However, I am in a position to state that that wiggly thing up there a little to the right is King Charles’ Wain.”
“Yes, indeed, I assure you.” It struck Psmith that astronomy was not gripping his audience, so he tried travel. “I hear,” he said, “you went to Market Blandings this afternoon.”
“An attractive settlement.”
There was a pause. Psmith removed his monocle and polished it thoughtfully. The summer night seemed to him to have taken on a touch of chill.
“What I like about the English rural districts,” he went on, “is that when the authorities have finished building a place they stop. Somewhere about the reign of Henry the Eighth, I imagine that the master mason gave the final house a pat with his trowel and said, ‘Well, boys, that’s Market Blandings.’ To which his assistants no doubt assented with many a hearty ‘Gramercy!’ and ‘I’fackins!’ these being expletives to which they were much addicted. And they went away and left it, and nobody has touched it since. And I for one thoroughly approve. I think it makes the place soothing. Don’t you?”
As far as the darkness would permit, Psmith subjected Eve to an inquiring glance through his monocle. This was a strange new mood in which he had found her. Hitherto, though she had always endeared herself to him by permitting him the major portion of the dialogue, they had usually split conversations on at least a seventy-five-twenty-five basis. And though it gratified Psmith to be allowed to deliver a monologue when talking with most people, he found Eve more companionable when in a slightly chattier vein.
“Are you coming in to hear me read?” he asked.
It was a change from yes, but that was the best that could be said of it. A good deal of discouragement was always required to damp Psmith, but he could not help feeling a slight diminution of buoyancy. However, he kept on trying.
“You show your usual sterling good sense,” he said approvingly. “A scalier method of passing the scented summer night could hardly be hit upon.” He abandoned the topic of the reading. It did not grip. That was manifest. It lacked appeal. “I went to Market Blandings this afternoon too,” he said. “Comrade Baxter informed me that you had gone thither, so I went after you. Not being able to find you, I turned in for half an hour at the local motion-picture palace. They were showing Episode Eleven of a serial. It concluded with the heroine, kidnaped by Indians, stretched on the sacrificial altar with the high priest making passes at her with a knife. The hero meanwhile had started to climb a rather nasty precipice on his way to the rescue. The final picture was a close-up of his fingers slipping slowly off a rock. Episode Twelve next week.”
Eve looked out into the night without speaking.
“I’m afraid it won’t end happily,” said Psmith with a sigh. “I think he’ll save her.”
Eve turned on him with a menacing abruptness.
“Shall I tell you why I went to Market Blandings this afternoon?” she said.
“Do,” said Psmith cordially. “It is not for me to criticize; but as a matter of fact, I was rather wondering when you were going to begin telling me about all your adventures. I have been monopolizing the conversation.”
“I went to meet Cynthia.”
Psmith’s monocle fell out of his eye and swung jerkily on its cord. He was not easily disconcerted, but this unexpected piece of information, coming on top of her peculiar manner, undoubtedly jarred him. He foresaw difficulties, and once again found himself thinking hard thoughts of this confounded female who kept bobbing up when least expected. How simple life would have been, he mused wistfully, had Ralston McTodd only had the good sense to remain a bachelor.
“Oh, Cynthia?” he said.
“Yes, Cynthia,” said Eve.
The inconvenient Mrs. McTodd possessed a Christian name admirably adapted for being hissed between clenched teeth, and Eve hissed it now. It became evident to Psmith that the dear girl was in a condition of hardly suppressed fury and that trouble was coming his way. He braced himself to meet it.
“Directly after we had that talk on the lake, the day I arrived,” continued Eve tensely, “I wrote to Cynthia, telling her to come here at once and meet me at the Emsworth Arms.”
“In the High Street,” said Psmith. “I know it. Good beer.”
“I said they sell good beer.”
“Never mind about the beer,” cried Eve.
“No; I merely mentioned it in passing.”
“At lunch today I got a letter from her saying that she would be there this afternoon, so I hurried off. I wanted” — Eve laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh of a caliber which even the Hon. Freddie Threepwood would have found beyond his powers, and he was a specialist — “I wanted to try to bring you two together. I thought that if I could see her and have a talk with her that you might become reconciled.”
Psmith, though obsessed with a disquieting feeling that he was fighting in the last ditch, pulled himself together sufficiently to pat her hand as it lay beside him on the wall like some white and fragile flower.
“That was like you,” Psmith murmured. “That was an act worthy of your great heart. But I fear that the rift between Cynthia and myself has reached such dimensions ——”
Eve drew her hand away. She swung round, and the battery of her indignant gaze raked him furiously.
“I saw Cynthia,” she said, “and she told me that her husband was in Paris.”
“Now how in the world,” said Psmith, struggling bravely but with a growing sense that they were coming over the plate a bit too fast for him — “how in the world did she get an idea like that?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Then I’ll tell you. She got the idea because she had had a letter from him, begging her to join him there. She had just finished telling me this when I caught sight of you from the inn window, walking along the High Street. I pointed you out to Cynthia and she said she had never seen you before in her life.”
“Women soon forget,” sighed Psmith.
“The only excuse I can find for you,” stormed Eve in a vibrant undertone necessitated by the fact that somebody had just emerged from the castle door and they no longer had the terrace to themselves, “is that you’re mad. When I think of all you said to me about poor Cynthia on the lake that afternoon, when I think of all the sympathy I wasted on you ——”
“Not wasted,” corrected Psmith firmly. “It was by no means wasted. It made me love you — if possible — even more.”
Eve had supposed that she had embarked on a tirade which would last until she had worked off her indignation and felt composed again, but this extraordinary remark scattered the thread of her harangue so hopelessly that all she could do was to stare at him in amazed silence.
“Womanly intuition,” proceeded Psmith gravely, “will have told you long ere this that I love you with a fervor which with my poor vocabulary I cannot hope to express. True, as you are about to say, we have known each other but a short time, as time is measured. But what of that?”
Eve raised her eyebrows. Her voice was cold and hostile.
“After what has happened,” she said, “I suppose I ought not to be surprised at finding you capable of anything, but are you really choosing this moment to — to propose to me?”
“To employ a favorite word of your own — yes.”
“And you expect me to take you seriously?”
“Assuredly not. I look upon the present disclosure purely as a sighting shot. You may regard it, if you will, as a kind of formal proclamation. I wish simply to go on record as an aspirant to your hand. I want you, if you will be so good, to make a note of my words and give them a thought from time to time. As Comrade Cootes — a young friend of mine whom you have not yet met — would say, chew on them.”
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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