Three From Dunsterville by P.G. Wodehouse
Once upon a time there was erected in Longacre Square, New York, a large white statue, labelled 'Our City', the figure of a woman in Grecian robes holding aloft a shield. Critical citizens objected to it for various reasons, but its real fault was that its symbolism was faulty. The sculptor should have represented New York as a conjuror in evening dress, smiling blandly as he changed a rabbit into a bowl of goldfish. For that, above all else, is New York's speciality. It changes.
Between 1 May, when she stepped off the train, and 16 May, when she received Eddy Moore's letter containing the information that he had found her a post as stenographer in the office of Joe Rendal, it had changed Mary Hill quite remarkably.
Mary was from Dunsterville, which is in Canada. Emigrations from Dunsterville were rare. It is a somnolent town; and, as a rule, young men born there follow in their father's footsteps, working on the paternal farm or helping in the paternal store. Occasionally a daring spirit will break away, but seldom farther than Montreal. Two only of the younger generation, Joe Rendal and Eddy Moore, had set out to make their fortunes in New York; and both, despite the gloomy prophecies of the village sages, had prospered.
Mary, third and last emigrant, did not aspire to such heights. All she demanded from New York for the present was that it should pay her a living wage, and to that end, having studied by stealth typewriting and shorthand, she had taken the plunge, thrilling with excitement and the romance of things; and New York had looked at her, raised its eyebrows, and looked away again. If every city has a voice, New York's at that moment had said 'Huh!' This had damped Mary. She saw that there were going to be obstacles. For one thing, she had depended so greatly on Eddy Moore, and he had failed her. Three years before, at a church festival, he had stated specifically that he would die for her. Perhaps he was still willing to do that--she had not inquired--but, at any rate, he did not see his way to employing her as a secretary. He had been very nice about it. He had smiled kindly, taken her address, and said he would do what he could, and had then hurried off to meet a man at lunch. But he had not given her a position. And as the days went by and she found no employment, and her little stock of money dwindled, and no word came from Eddy, New York got to work and changed her outlook on things wonderfully. What had seemed romantic became merely frightening. What had been exciting gave her a feeling of dazed helplessness.
But it was not until Eddy's letter came that she realized the completeness of the change. On 1 May she would have thanked Eddy politely for his trouble, adding, however, that she would really prefer not to meet poor Joe again. On 16 May she welcomed him as something Heaven-sent. The fact that she was to be employed outweighed a thousand-fold the fact that her employer was to be Joe.
It was not that she disliked Joe. She was sorry for him.
She remembered Joe, a silent, shambling youth, all hands, feet, and shyness, who had spent most of his spare time twisting his fingers and staring adoringly at her from afar. The opinion of those in the social whirl of Dunsterville had been that it was his hopeless passion for her that had made him fly to New York. It would be embarrassing meeting him again. It would require tact to discourage his silent worshipping without wounding him more deeply. She hated hurting people.
But, even at the cost of that, she must accept the post. To refuse meant ignominious retreat to Dunsterville, and from that her pride revolted. She must revisit Dunsterville in triumph or not at all.
Joe Rendal's office was in the heart of the financial district, situated about half-way up a building that, to Mary, reared amidst the less impressive architecture of her home-town, seemed to reach nearly to the sky. A proud-looking office-boy, apparently baffled and mortified by the information that she had an appointment, took her name, and she sat down, filled with a fine mixed assortment of emotions, to wait.
For the first time since her arrival in New York she felt almost easy in her mind. New York, with its shoving, jostling, hurrying crowds; a giant fowl-run, full of human fowls scurrying to and fro; clucking, ever on the look-out for some desired morsel, and ever ready to swoop down and snatch it from its temporary possessor, had numbed her. But now she felt a slackening of the strain. New York might be too much for her, but she could cope with Joe.
The haughty boy returned. Mr Rendal was disengaged. She rose and went into an inner room, where a big man was seated at a desk.
It was Joe. There was no doubt about that. But it was not the Joe she remembered, he of the twisted ringers and silent stare. In his case, New York had conjured effectively. He was better-looking, better-dressed, improved in every respect. In the old days one had noticed the hands and feet and deduced the presence of Joe somewhere in the background. Now they were merely adjuncts. It was with a rush of indignation that Mary found herself bucolic and awkward. Awkward with Joe! It was an outrage.
His manner heightened the feeling. If he had given the least sign of embarrassment she might have softened towards him. He showed no embarrassment whatever. He was very much at his ease. He was cheerful. He was even flippant.
'Welcome to our beautiful little city,' he said.
Mary was filled with a helpless anger. What right had he to ignore the past in this way, to behave as if her presence had never reduced him to pulp?
'Won't you sit down?' he went on. 'It's splendid, seeing you again, Mary. You're looking very well. How long have you been in New York? Eddy tells me you want to be taken on as a secretary. As it happens, there is a vacancy for just that in this office. A big, wide vacancy, left by a lady who departed yester-day in a shower of burning words and hairpins. She said she would never return, and between ourselves, that was the right guess. Would you mind letting me see what you can do? Will you take this letter down?'
Certainly there was something compelling about this new Joe. Mary took the pencil and pad which he offered--and she took them meekly. Until this moment she had always been astonished by the reports which filtered through to Dunsterville of his success in the big city. Of course, nobody had ever doubted his perseverance; but it takes something more than perseverance to fight New York fairly and squarely, and win. And Joe had that something. He had force. He was sure of himself.
'Read it please,' he said, when he had finished dictating. 'Yes, that's all right. You'll do.'
For a moment Mary was on the point of refusing. A mad desire gripped her to assert herself, to make plain her resentment at this revolt of the serf. Then she thought of those scuttling, clucking crowds, and her heart failed her.
'Thank you,' she said, in a small voice.
As she spoke the door opened.
'Well, well, well!' said Joe. 'Here we all are! Come in, Eddy. Mary has just been showing me what she can do.'
If time had done much for Joe, it had done more for his fellow-emigrant, Eddy Moore. He had always been good-looking and--according to local standards--presentable. Tall, slim, with dark eyes that made you catch your breath when they looked into yours, and a ready flow of speech, he had been Dunsterville's prize exhibit. And here he was with all his excellence heightened and accentuated by the polish of the city. He had filled out. His clothes were wonderful. And his voice, when he spoke, had just that same musical quality.
'So you and Joe have fixed it up? Capital! Shall we all go and lunch somewhere?'
'Got an appointment,' said Joe. 'I'm late already. Be here at two sharp, Mary.' He took up his hat and went out.
The effect of Eddy's suavity had been to make Mary forget the position in which she now stood to Joe. Eddy had created for the moment quite an old-time atmosphere of good fellowship. She hated Joe for shattering this and reminding her that she was his employee. Her quick flush was not lost on Eddy.
'Dear old Joe is a little abrupt sometimes,' he said. 'But--'
'He's a pig!' said Mary, defiantly.
'But you mustn't mind it. New York makes men like that.'
'It hasn't made you--not to me, at any rate. Oh, Eddy,' she cried, impulsively, 'I'm frightened. I wish I had never come here. You're the only thing in this whole city that isn't hateful.'
'Poor little girl!' he said. 'Never mind. Let me take you and give you some lunch. Come along.'
Eddy was soothing. There was no doubt of that. He stayed her with minced chicken and comforted her with soft shelled crab. His voice was a lullaby, lulling her Joe-harassed nerves to rest.
They discussed the dear old days. A carper might have said that Eddy was the least bit vague on the subject of the dear old days. A carper might have pointed out that the discussion of the dear old days, when you came to analyse it, was practically a monologue on Mary's part, punctuated with musical 'Yes, yes's' from her companion. But who cares what carpers think? Mary herself had no fault to find. In the roar of New York Dunsterville had suddenly become very dear to her, and she found in Eddy a sympathetic soul to whom she could open her heart.
'Do you remember the old school, Eddy, and how you and I used to walk there together, you carrying my dinner-basket and helping me over the fences?'
'And we'd gather hickory-nuts and persimmons?'
'Persimmons, yes,' murmured Eddy.
'Do you remember the prizes the teacher gave the one who got best marks in the spelling class? And the treats at Christmas, when we all got twelve sticks of striped peppermint candy? And drawing the water out of the well in that old wooden bucket in the winter, and pouring it out in the playground and skating on it when it froze? And wasn't it cold in the winter, too! Do you remember the stove in the schoolroom? How we used to crowd round it!'
'The stove, yes,' said Eddy, dreamily. 'Ah, yes, the stove. Yes, yes. Those were the dear old days!' Mary leaned her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands, and looked across at him with sparkling eyes.
'Oh, Eddy,' she said, 'you don't know how nice it is to meet someone who remembers all about those old times! I felt a hundred million miles from Dunsterville before I saw you, and I was homesick. But now it's all different.'
'Poor little Mary!'
'Do you remember--?'
He glanced at his watch with some haste.
'It's two o'clock,' he said. 'I think we should be going.'
Mary's face fell.
'Back to that pig, Joe! I hate him. And I'll show him that I do!'
Eddy looked almost alarmed.
'I--I shouldn't do that,' he said. 'I don't think I should do that. It's only his manner at first. You'll get to like him better. He's an awfully good fellow really, Joe. And if you--er--quarrelled with him you might find it hard--what I mean is, it's not so easy to pick up jobs in New York, I shouldn't like to think of you, Mary,' he added, tenderly, 'hunting for a job--tired--perhaps hungry--'
Mary's eyes filled with tears.
'How good you are, Eddy!' she said. 'And I'm horrid, grumbling when I ought to be thanking you for getting me the place. I'll be nice to him--if I can--as nice as I can.'
'That's right. Do try. And we shall be seeing quite a lot of each other. We must often lunch together.'
Mary re-entered the office not without some trepidation. Two hours ago it would have seemed absurd to be frightened of Joe, but Eddy had brought it home to her again how completely she was dependent on her former serf's good-will. And he had told her to be back at two sharp, and it was now nearly a quarter past.
The outer office was empty. She went on into the inner room.
She had speculated as she went on Joe's probable attitude. She had pictured him as annoyed, even rude. What she was not prepared for was to find him on all fours, grunting and rooting about in a pile of papers. She stopped short.
'What are you doing?' she gasped.
'I can't think what you meant,' he said. 'There must be some mistake. I'm not even a passable pig. I couldn't deceive a novice.'
He rose and dusted his knees.
'Yet you seemed absolutely certain in the restaurant just now. Did you notice that you were sitting near to a sort of jungle of potted palms? I was lunching immediately on the other side of the forest.'
Mary drew herself up and fixed him with an eye that shone with rage and scorn.
'Eavesdropper!' she cried.
'Not guilty,' he said, cheerfully. 'I hadn't a notion that you were there till you shouted, "That pig Joe, I hate him!" and almost directly afterwards I left.'
'I did not shout.'
'My dear girl, you cracked a wine-glass at my table. The man I was lunching with jumped clean out of his seat and swallowed his cigar. You ought to be more careful!'
Mary bit her lip.
'And now, I suppose, you are going to dismiss me?'
'Dismiss you? Not much. The thing has simply confirmed my high opinion of your qualifications. The ideal secretary must have two qualities: she must be able to sec. and she must think her employer a pig. You fill the bill. Would you mind taking down this letter?'
* * * * *
Life was very swift and stimulating for Mary during the early days of her professional career. The inner workings of a busy broker's office are always interesting to the stranger. She had never understood how business men made their money, and she did not understand now; but it did not take her long to see that if they were all like Joe Rendal they earned it. There were days of comparative calm. There were days that were busy. And there were days that packed into the space of a few hours the concentrated essence of a music-hall knock-about sketch, an earthquake, a football scrummage, and the rush-hour on the Tube; when the office was full of shouting men, when strange figures dived in and out and banged doors like characters in an old farce, and Harold, the proud office-boy, lost his air of being on the point of lunching with a duke at the club and perspired like one of the proletariat. On these occasions you could not help admiring Joe, even if you hated him. When a man is doing his own job well, it is impossible not to admire him. And Joe did his job well, superlatively well. He was everywhere. Where others trotted, he sprang. Where others raised their voices, he yelled. Where others were in two places at once, he was in three and moving towards a fourth.
These upheavals had the effect on Mary of making her feel curiously linked to the firm. On ordinary days work was work, but on these occasions of storm and stress it was a fight, and she looked on every member of the little band grouped under the banner of J. Rendal as a brother-in-arms. For Joe, while the battle raged, she would have done anything. Her resentment at being under his orders vanished completely. He was her captain, and she a mere unit in the firing line. It was a privilege to do what she was told. And if the order came sharp and abrupt, that only meant that the fighting was fierce and that she was all the more fortunate in being in a position to be of service.
The reaction would come with the end of the fight. Her private hostilities began when the firm's ceased. She became an ordinary individual again, and so did Joe. And to Joe, as an ordinary individual, she objected. There was an indefinable something in his manner which jarred on her. She came to the conclusion that it was principally his insufferable good-humour. If only he would lose his temper with her now and then, she felt he would be bearable. He lost it with others. Why not with her? Because, she told herself bitterly, he wanted to show her that she mattered so little to him that it was not worth while quarrelling with her; because he wanted to put her in the wrong, to be superior. She had a perfect right to hate a man who treated her in that way.
She compared him, to his disadvantage, with Eddy. Eddy, during these days, continued to be more and more of a comfort. It rather surprised her that he found so much time to devote to her. When she had first called on him, on her arrival in the city, he had given her the impression--more, she admitted, by his manner than his words--that she was not wanted. He had shown no disposition to seek her company. But now he seemed always to be on hand. To take her out to lunch appeared to be his chief hobby.
One afternoon Joe commented on it, with that air of suppressing an indulgent smile which Mary found so trying.
'I saw you and Eddy at Stephano's just now,' he said, between sentences of a letter which he was dictating. 'You're seeing a great deal of Eddy, aren't you?'
'Yes,' said Mary. 'He's very kind. He knows I'm lonely.' She paused. 'He hasn't forgotten the old days,' she said, defiantly.
'Good old Eddy!' he said.
There was nothing in the words to make Mary fire up, but much in the way they were spoken, and she fired up accordingly.
'What do you mean?' she cried.
'Mean?' queried Joe.
'You're hinting at something. If you have anything to say against Eddy, why don't you say it straight out?'
'It's a good working rule in life never to say anything straight out. Speaking in parables, I will observe that, if America was a monarchy instead of a republic and people here had titles, Eddy would be a certainty for first Earl of Pearl Street.'
Dignity fought with curiosity in Mary for a moment. The latter won.
'I don't know what you mean! Why Pearl Street?'
'Go and have a look at it.'
Dignity recovered its ground. Mary tossed her head.
'We are wasting a great deal of time,' she said, coldly. 'Shall I take down the rest of this letter?'
'Great idea!' said Joe, indulgently. 'Do.'
* * * * *
A policeman, brooding on life in the neighbourhood of City Hall Park and Broadway that evening, awoke with a start from his meditations to find himself being addressed by a young lady. The young lady had large grey eyes and a slim figure. She appealed to the aesthetic taste of the policeman.
'Hold to me, lady,' he said, with gallant alacrity. 'I'll see yez acrost.'
'Thank you, I don't want to cross,' she said. 'Officer!'
The policeman rather liked being called 'Officer'.
'Ma'am?' he beamed.
'Officer, do you know a street called Pearl Street?'
'I do that, ma'am.'
She hesitated. 'What sort of street is it?'
The policeman searched in his mind for a neat definition.
'Darned crooked, miss,' he said.
He then proceeded to point the way, but the lady had gone.
It was a bomb in a blue dress that Joe found waiting for him at the office next morning. He surveyed it in silence, then raised his hands over his head,
'Don't shoot,' he said. 'What's the matter?'
'What right had you to say that about Eddy? You know what I mean--about Pearl Street.'
'Did you take a look at Pearl Street?'
Mary's anger blazed out.
'I didn't think you could be so mean and cowardly,' she cried. 'You ought to be ashamed to talk about people behind their backs, when--when--besides, if he's what you say, how did it happen that you engaged me on his recommendation?'
He looked at her for an instant without replying. 'I'd have engaged you,' he said, 'on the recommendation of a syndicate of forgers and three-card-trick men.'
He stood fingering a pile of papers on the desk.
'Eddy isn't the only person who remembers the old days, Mary,' he said slowly.
She looked at him, surprised. There was a note in his voice that she had not heard before. She was conscious of a curious embarrassment and a subtler feeling which she could not analyse. But before she could speak, Harold, the office-boy, entered the room with a card, and the conversation was swept away on a tidal wave of work.
* * * * *
Joe made no attempt to resume it. That morning happened to be one of the earthquake, knock-about-sketch mornings, and conversation, what there was of it, consisted of brief, strenuous remarks of a purely business nature.
But at intervals during the day Mary found herself returning to his words. Their effect on her mind puzzled her. It seemed to her that somehow they caused things to alter their perspective. In some way Joe had become more human. She still refused to believe that Eddy was not all that was chivalrous and noble, but her anger against Joe for his insinuations had given way to a feeling of regret that he should have made them. She ceased to look on him as something wantonly malevolent, a Thersites recklessly slandering his betters. She felt that there must have been a misunderstanding somewhere and was sorry for it.
Thinking it over, she made up her mind that it was for her to remove this misunderstanding. The days which followed strengthened the decision; for the improvement in Joe was steadily maintained. The indefinable something in his manner which had so irritated her had vanished. It had been, when it had existed, so nebulous that words were not needed to eliminate it. Indeed, even now she could not say exactly in what it had consisted. She only knew that the atmosphere had changed. Without a word spoken on either side it seemed that peace had been established between them, and it amazed her what a difference it made. She was soothed and happy, and kindly disposed to all men, and every day felt more strongly the necessity of convincing Joe and Eddy of each other's merits, or, rather, of convincing Joe, for Eddy, she admitted, always spoke most generously of the other.
For a week Eddy did not appear at the office. On the eighth day, however, he rang her up on the telephone, and invited her to lunch.
Later in the morning Joe happened to ask her out to lunch.
'I'm so sorry,' said Mary; 'I've just promised Eddy. He wants me to meet him at Stephano's, but--' She hesitated. 'Why shouldn't we all lunch together?' she went on, impulsively.
She hurried on. This was her opening, but she felt nervous. The subject of Eddy had not come up between them since that memorable conversation a week before, and she was uncertain of her ground.
'I wish you liked Eddy, Joe,' she said. 'He's very fond of you, and it seems such a shame that--I mean--we're all from the same old town, and--oh, I know I put it badly, but--'
'I think you put it very well,' said Joe; 'and if I could like a man to order I'd do it to oblige you. But--well, I'm not going to keep harping on it. Perhaps you'll see through Eddy yourself one of these days.'
A sense of the hopelessness of her task oppressed Mary. She put on her hat without replying, and turned to go.
At the door some impulse caused her to glance back, and as she did so she met his eye, and stood staring. He was looking at her as she had so often seen him look three years before in Dunsterville--humbly, appealingly, hungrily.
He took a step forward. A sort of panic seized her. Her fingers were on the door-handle. She turned it, and the next moment was outside.
She walked slowly down the street. She felt shaken. She had believed so thoroughly that his love for her had vanished with his shyness and awkwardness in the struggle for success in New York. His words, his manner--everything had pointed to that. And now--it was as if those three years had not been. Nothing had altered, unless it were--herself.
Had she altered? Her mind was in a whirl. This thing had affected her like some physical shock. The crowds and noises of the street bewildered her. If only she could get away from them and think quietly--
And then she heard her name spoken, and looked round, to see Eddy.
'Glad you could come,' he said. 'I've something I want to talk to you about. It'll be quiet at Stephano's.'
She noticed, almost unconsciously, that he seemed nervous. He was unwontedly silent. She was glad of it. It helped her to think.
He gave the waiter an order, and became silent again, drumming with his fingers on the cloth. He hardly spoke till the meal was over and the coffee was on the table. Then he leant forward.
'Mary,' he said, 'we've always been pretty good friends, haven't we?'
His dark eyes were looking into hers. There was an expression in them that was strange to her. He smiled, but it seemed to Mary that there was effort behind the smile.
'Of course we have, Eddy,' she said. He touched her hand.
'Dear little Mary!' he said, softly.
He paused for a moment.
'Mary,' he went on, 'you would like to do me a good turn? You would, wouldn't you, Mary?'
'Why, Eddy, of course!'
He touched her hand again. This time, somehow, the action grated on her. Before, it had seemed impulsive, a mere spontaneous evidence of friendship. Now there was a suggestion of artificiality,--of calculation. She drew back a little in her chair. Deep down in her some watchful instinct had sounded an alarm. She was on guard.
He drew in a quick breath.
'It's nothing much. Nothing at all. It's only this. I--I--Joe will be writing a letter to a man called Weston on Thursday--Thursday remember. There won't be anything in it--nothing of importance--nothing private--but--I--I want you to mail me a copy of it, Mary. A--a copy of--'
She was looking at him open-eyed. Her face was white and shocked.
'For goodness' sake,' he said, irritably, 'don't look like that. I'm not asking you to commit murder. What's the matter with you? Look here, Mary; you'll admit you owe me something, I suppose? I'm the only man in New York that's ever done anything for you. Didn't I get you your job? Well, then, it's not as if I were asking you to do anything dangerous, or difficult, or--'
She tried to speak, but could not. He went on rapidly. He did not look at her. His eyes wandered past her, shifting restlessly.
'Look here,' he said; 'I'll be square with you. You're in New York to make money. Well, you aren't going to make it hammering a typewriter. I'm giving you your chance. I'm going to be square with you. Let me see that letter, and--'
His voice died away abruptly. The expression on his face changed. He smiled, and this time the effort was obvious.
'Halloa, Joe!' he said.
Mary turned. Joe was standing at her side. He looked very large and wholesome and restful.
'I don't want to intrude,' he said; 'but I wanted to see you, Eddy, and I thought I should catch you here. I wrote a letter to Jack Weston yesterday--after I got home from the office--and one to you; and somehow I managed to post them in the wrong envelopes. It doesn't matter much, because they both said the same thing.'
'The same thing?'
'Yes; I told you I should be writing to you again on Thursday, to tip you something good that I was expecting from old Longwood. Jack Weston has just rung me up on the 'phone to say that he got a letter that doesn't belong to him. I explained to him and thought I'd drop in here and explain to you. Why, what's your hurry, Eddy?'
Eddy had risen from his seat.
'I'm due back at the office,' he said, hoarsely.
'Busy man! I'm having a slack day. Well, good-bye. I'll see Mary back.'
Joe seated himself in the vacant chair.
'You're looking tired,' he said. 'Did Eddy talk too much?'
'Yes, he did ... Joe, you were right.'
'Ah--Mary!' Joe chuckled. 'I'll tell you something I didn't tell Eddy. It wasn't entirely through carelessness that I posted those letters in the wrong envelopes. In fact, to be absolutely frank, it wasn't through carelessness at all. There's an old gentleman in Pittsburgh by the name of John Longwood, who occasionally is good enough to inform me of some of his intended doings on the market a day or so before the rest of the world knows them, and Eddy has always shown a strong desire to get early information too. Do you remember my telling you that your predecessor at the office left a little abruptly? There was a reason. I engaged her as a confidential secretary, and she overdid it. She confided in Eddy. From the look on your face as I came in I gathered that he had just been proposing that you should perform a similar act of Christian charity. Had he?'
Mary clenched her hands.
'It's this awful New York!' she cried. 'Eddy was never like that in Dunsterville.'
'Dunsterville does not offer quite the same scope,' said Joe.
'New York changes everything,' Mary returned. 'It has changed Eddy--it has changed you.'
He bent towards her and lowered his voice.
'Not altogether,' he said. 'I'm just the same in one way. I've tried to pretend I had altered, but it's no use. I give it up. I'm still just the same poor fool who used to hang round staring at you in Dunsterville.'
A waiter was approaching the table with the air, which waiters cultivate, of just happening by chance to be going in that direction. Joe leaned farther forward, speaking quickly.
'And for whom,' he said, 'you didn't care a single, solitary snap of your fingers, Mary.'
She looked up at him. The waiter hovered, poising for his swoop. Suddenly she smiled.
'New York has changed me too, Joe,' she said.
'Mary!' he cried.
'Ze pill, sare,' observed the waiter.
'Ze what!' he exclaimed. 'Well, I'm hanged! Eddy's gone off and left me to pay for his lunch! That man's a wonder! When it comes to brain-work, he's in a class by himself.' He paused. 'But I have the luck,' he said.