LEAVE IT TO PSMITH (41)
October 29, 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!
How wonderful, if we pause to examine it, is Nature’s inexorable law of compensation. Instead of wasting time in envy of our mental superiors, we would do well to reflect that these gifts of theirs which excite our wistful jealousy are ever attended by corresponding penalties. To take an example that lies to hand, it was the very fact that he possessed a brain like a buzz saw that rendered the Efficient Baxter a bad sleeper. Just as he would be dropping off, bing! would go that brain of his, melting the mists of sleep like snow in a furnace.
This was so even when life was running calmly for him and without excitement. Tonight, his mind, bearing the load it did, firmly declined even to consider the question of slumber. The hour of two, chiming from the clock over the stables, found him as wide awake as ever he was at high noon.
Lying in bed in the darkness, he reviewed the situation as far as he had the data. Shortly before he retired Miss Simmons had made her report about the bedrooms. Though subjected to the severest scrutiny, neither Psmith’s boudoir nor Cootes’ attic nor Eve’s little nook on the third floor had yielded up treasure of any description. And this, Miss Simmons held, confirmed her original view that the necklace must be lying concealed in what might almost be called a public spot — on some window ledge, maybe, or somewhere in the hall.
Baxter lay considering this theory. It did appear to be the only tenable one; but it offended him by giving the search a frivolous suggestion of being some sort of round game, like hunt the slipper or find the thimble. As a child he had held austerely aloof from these silly pastimes, and he resented being compelled to play them now. Still ——
He sat up, tingling. He had heard a noise.
The attitude of the majority of people toward noises in the night is one of cautious noninterference. But Rupert Baxter was made of sterner stuff. The sound had seemed to come from downstairs somewhere; perhaps from that very hall where, according to Miss Simmons, the stolen necklace might even now be lying hid. Whatever it was, it must certainly not be ignored. He reached for the spectacles which lay ever ready to his hand on the table beside him; then climbed out of bed, and having put on a pair of slippers and opened the door crept forth into the darkness. As far as he could ascertain, by holding his breath and straining his ears, all was still from cellar to roof; but nevertheless he was not satisfied. He continued to listen. His room was on the second floor, one of a series that ran along a balcony overlooking the hall; and he stood, leaning over the balcony rail.
The noise which had acted so electrically upon the Efficient Baxter had been a particularly noisy noise, and only the intervening distance and the fact that his door was closed had prevented it sounding to him like an explosion. It had been caused by the crashing downfall of a small table containing a vase, a jar of potpourri, an Indian sandal-wood box of curious workmanship and a cabinet-size photograph of the Earl of Emsworth’s eldest son, Lord Bosham; and the table had fallen because Eve, en route across the hall in quest of her precious flowerpot, had collided with it while making for the front door. Of all indoor sports — and Eve, as she stood pallidly among the ruins, would have been the first to endorse this dictum — the one which offers the minimum of pleasure is that of roaming in pitch darkness through the hall of a country house. Easily navigable in the daytime, these places become at night mere traps for the unwary.
Eve paused breathlessly. So terrific had the noise sounded to her guilty ears that every moment she was expecting doors to open all over the castle, belching forth shouting men with pistols. But as nothing happened, courage returned to her, and she resumed her journey. She found the great door, ran her fingers along its surface and drew the chain. The shooting back of the bolts occupied but another instant, and then she was out on the terrace running her hardest toward the row of flowerpots.
Up on his balcony, meanwhile, the Efficient Baxter was stopping, looking and listening. The looking brought no results, for all below was black as pitch; but the listening proved more fruitful. Faintly from down in the well of the hall there floated up to him a peculiar sound like something rustling in the darkness. Had he reached the balcony a moment earlier he would have heard the rattle of the chain and the click of the bolts; but these noises had occurred just before he came out of his room. Now all that was audible was this rustling. He could not analyze the sound; but the fact that there was any sound at all in such a place at such an hour increased his suspicions that dark doings were afoot which would pay for investigation. With stealthy steps he crept to the head of the stairs and descended.
One uses the verb “descend” advisedly, for what is required is some word suggesting instantaneous activity. About Baxter’s progress from the second floor to the first there was nothing halting or hesitating. He, so to speak, did it now. Planting his foot firmly on a golf ball which the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had been practicing putting in the corridor before retiring to bed, had left in his casual fashion just where the steps began, he took the entire staircase in one majestic, volplaning sweep. There were eleven stairs in all separating his landing from the landing below, and the only ones he hit were the third and the tenth. He came to rest with a squattering thud on the lower landing, and for a moment or two the fever of the chase left him.
The fact that many writers in their time have commented at some length on the mysterious manner in which fate is apt to perform its work must not deter us now from a brief survey of this latest manifestation of its ingenious methods. Had not his interview with Eve that afternoon so stimulated the Honorable Freddie as to revive in him a faint yet definite desire to putt, there would have been no golf ball waiting for Baxter on the stairs. And had he been permitted to negotiate the stairs in a less impetuous manner, Baxter would not at this juncture have switched on the light. It had not been his original intention to illuminate the theater of action, but after that Luciferlike descent from the second floor to the first he was taking no more chances. Safety First was Baxter’s slogan. As soon, therefore, as he had shaken off a dazed sensation of mental and moral collapse, akin to that which comes to the man who steps on the teeth of a rake and is smitten on the forehead by the handle, he rose with infinite caution to his feet, and, feeling his way down by the banisters, groped for the switch and pressed it. And so it came about that Eve, heading for home with her precious flowerpot in her arms, was stopped when at the very door by a sudden warning flood of light. Another instant and she would have been across the threshold of disaster.
For a moment paralysis gripped her. The light had affected her like someone shouting loudly and unexpectedly in her ear. Her heart gave one convulsive bound and she stood frozen. Then, filled with a blind desire for flight, she dashed like a hunted rabbit into the friendly shelter of a clump of bushes.
Baxter stood blinking. Gradually his eyes adjusted themselves to the light, and immediately they had done so he was seized by a fresh frenzy of zeal. Now that all things were made visible to him he could see that that sound had been caused by a curtain flapping in the breeze, and that the breeze which made the curtain flap was coming in through the open front door.
Baxter wasted no time in abstract thought. He acted swiftly and with decision. Straightening his spectacles on his nose, he girded up his pajamas and galloped out into the night.
The smooth terrace slept under the stars. To a more poetic man than Baxter it would have seemed to wear that faintly reproachful air which a garden always assumes when invaded at unseemly hours by people who ought to be in bed. Baxter, never fanciful, was blind to this. He was thinking, thinking. That shaking up on the stairs had churned into activity the very depths of his brain, and he was at the fever point of his reasoning powers. A thought had come like a full-blown rose, flushing his brow. Miss Simmons, arguing plausibly, had suggested that the stolen necklace might be concealed in the hall. Baxter, inspired, fancied not. Whoever it was that had been at work in the hall just now had been making for the garden. It was not the desire to escape which had led him — or her — to open the front door, for the opening had been done before he, Baxter, had come out onto the balcony; otherwise he must have heard the shooting of the bolts. No; the enemy’s objective had been the garden; in other words, the terrace.
And why? Because somewhere on the terrace was the stolen necklace.
Standing there in the starlight, the Efficient Baxter endeavored to reconstruct the scene, and did so with remarkable accuracy. He saw the jewels flashing down. He saw them picked up. But there he stopped. Try as he might, he could not see them hidden. And yet that they had been hidden, and that within a few feet of where he was now standing, he felt convinced.
He moved from his position near the door and began to roam restlessly. His slippered feet padded over the soft turf.
Eve peered out from her clump of bushes. It was not easy to see any great distance, but fate, her friend, was still with her. There had been a moment that night when Baxter, disrobing for bed, had wavered absently between his brown and his lemon-colored pajamas, little recking of what hung upon the choice. Fate had directed his hand to the lemon-colored, and he had put them on — with the result that he shone now in the dim light like the white plume of Navarre. Eve could follow his movements perfectly, and when he was far enough away from his base to make the enterprise prudent she slipped out and raced for home and safety. Baxter at the moment was leaning on the terrace wall, thinking, thinking, thinking.
It was possibly the cool air, playing about his bare ankles, that at last chilled the secretary’s dashing mood and brought the disquieting thought that he was doing something distinctly dangerous in remaining out here in the open like this. A gang of thieves are ugly customers, likely to stick at little when a valuable necklace is at stake, and it came to the Efficient Baxter that in his light pajamas he must be offering a tempting mark for any marauder lurking — say, in those bushes. And at the thought, the summer night, though pleasantly mild, grew suddenly chilly. With an almost convulsive rapidity he turned to re-enter the house. Zeal was well enough, but it was silly to be rash. He covered the last few yards of his journey at a rare burst of speed.
It was at this point that he discovered that the lights in the hall had been switched off and that the front door was closed and bolted.
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.