The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XII. "Peaceful Moments"
The man in the street did not appear to know it, but a great crisis was imminent in New York journalism.
Everything seemed much as usual in the city. The cars ran blithely on Broadway. Newsboys shouted their mystic slogan, "Wuxtry!" with undiminished vim. Society thronged Fifth Avenue without a furrow on its brow. At a thousand street corners a thousand policemen preserved their air of massive superiority to the things of this world. Of all the four million not one showed the least sign of perturbation.
Nevertheless, the crisis was at hand. Mr. J. Brabazon Renshaw, Editor-in-chief of Peaceful Moments, was about to leave his post and start on a three-months' vacation.
Peaceful Moments, as its name (an inspiration of Mr. Renshaw's own) was designed to imply, was a journal of the home. It was the sort of paper which the father of the family is expected to take back with him from the office and read aloud to the chicks before bedtime under the shade of the rubber plant.
Circumstances had left the development of the paper almost entirely to Mr. Renshaw. Its contents were varied. There was a "Moments in the Nursery" page, conducted by Luella Granville Waterman and devoted mainly to anecdotes of the family canary, by Jane (aged six), and similar works of the younger set. There was a "Moments of Meditation" page, conducted by the Reverend Edwin T. Philpotts; a "Moments among the Masters" page, consisting of assorted chunks looted from the literature of the past, when foreheads were bulged and thoughts profound, by Mr. Renshaw himself; one or two other special pages; a short story; answers to correspondents on domestic matters; and a "Moments of Mirth" page, conducted by one B. Henderson Asher--a very painful affair.
The proprietor of this admirable journal was that Napoleon of finance, Mr. Benjamin Scobell.
That this should have been so is but one proof of the many-sidedness of that great man.
Mr. Scobell had founded Peaceful Moments at an early stage in his career, and it was only at very rare intervals nowadays that he recollected that he still owned it. He had so many irons in the fire now that he had no time to waste his brain tissues thinking about a paper like Peaceful Moments. It was one of his failures. It certainly paid its way and brought him a small sum each year, but to him it was a failure, a bombshell that had fizzled.
He had intended to do big things with Peaceful Moments. He had meant to start a new epoch in the literature of Manhattan.
"I gottan idea," he had said to Miss Scobell. "All this yellow journalism--red blood and all that--folks are tired of it. They want something milder. Wholesome, see what I mean? There's money in it. Guys make a roll too big to lift by selling soft drinks, don't they? Well, I'm going to run a soft-drink paper. See?"
The enterprise had started well. To begin with, he had found the ideal editor. He had met Mr. Renshaw at a down-East gathering presided over by Mrs. Oakley, and his Napoleonic eye had seen in J. Brabazon the seeds of domestic greatness. Before they parted, he had come to terms with him. Nor had the latter failed to justify his intuition. He made an admirable editor. It was not Mr. Renshaw's fault that the new paper had failed to electrify America. It was the public on whom the responsibility for the failure must be laid. They spoiled the whole thing. Certain of the faithful subscribed, it is true, and continued to subscribe, but the great heart of the public remained untouched. The great heart of the public declined to be interested in the meditations of Mr. Philpotts and the humor of Mr. B. Henderson Asher, and continued to spend its money along the bad old channels. The thing began to bore Mr. Scobell. He left the conduct of the journal more and more to Mr. Renshaw, until finally--it was just after the idea for extracting gold from sea water had struck him--he put the whole business definitely out of his mind. (His actual words were that he never wanted to see or hear of the darned thing again, inasmuch as it gave him a pain in the neck.) Mr. Renshaw was given a free hand as to the editing, and all matters of finance connected with the enterprise were placed in the hands of Mr. Scobell's solicitors, who had instructions to sell the journal, if, as its owner crisply put it, they could find any chump who was enough of a darned chump to give real money for it. Up to the present the great army of chumps had fallen short of this ideal standard of darned chumphood.
Ever since this parting of the ways, Mr. Renshaw had been in his element. Under his guidance Peaceful Moments had reached a level of domesticity which made other so-called domestic journals look like sporting supplements. But at last the work had told upon him. Whether it was the effort of digging into the literature of the past every week, or the strain of reading B. Henderson Asher's "Moments of Mirth" is uncertain. At any rate, his labors had ended in wrecking his health to such an extent that the doctor had ordered him three months' complete rest, in the woods or mountains, whichever he preferred; and, being a farseeing man, who went to the root of things, had absolutely declined to consent to Mr. Renshaw's suggestion that he keep in touch with the paper during his vacation. He was adamant. He had seen copies of Peaceful Moments once or twice, and refused to permit a man in Mr. Renshaw's state of health to come in contact with Luella Granville Waterman's "Moments in the Nursery" and B. Henderson Asher's "Moments of Mirth."
"You must forget that such a paper exists," he said. "You must dismiss the whole thing from your mind, live in the open, and develop some flesh and muscle."
Mr. Renshaw had bowed before the sentence, howbeit gloomily, and now, on the morning of Betty's departure from Mrs. Oakley's house with the letter of introduction, was giving his final instructions to his temporary successor.
This temporary successor in the editorship was none other than John's friend, Rupert Smith, late of the News.
Smith, on leaving Harvard, had been attracted by newspaper work, and had found his first billet on a Western journal of the type whose society column consists of such items as "Jim Thompson was to town yesterday with a bunch of other cheap skates. We take this opportunity of once more informing Jim that he is a liar and a skunk," and whose editor works with a pistol on his desk and another in his hip-pocket. Graduating from this, he had proceeded to a reporter's post on a daily paper in Kentucky, where there were blood feuds and other Southern devices for preventing life from becoming dull. All this was good, but even while he enjoyed these experiences, New York, the magnet, had been tugging at him, and at last, after two eventful years on the Kentucky paper, he had come East, and eventually won through to the staff of the News.
His presence in the office of Peaceful Moments was due to the uncomfortable habit of most of the New York daily papers of cutting down their staff of reporters during the summer. The dismissed had, to sustain them, the knowledge that they would return, like the swallows, anon, and be received back into their old places; but in the meantime they suffered the inconvenience of having to support themselves as best they could. Smith, when, in the company of half-a-dozen others, he had had to leave the News, had heard of the vacant post of assistant editor on Peaceful Moments, and had applied for and received it. Whereby he was more fortunate than some of his late colleagues; though, as the character of his new work unrolled itself before him, he was frequently doubtful on that point. For the atmosphere of Peaceful Moments, however wholesome, was certainly not exciting, and his happened to be essentially a nature that needed the stimulus of excitement. Even in Park Row, the denizens of which street are rarely slaves to the conventional and safe, he had a well-established reputation in this matter. Others of his acquaintances welcomed excitement when it came to them in the course of the day's work, but it was Smith's practise to go in search of it. He was a young man of spirit and resource.
His appearance, to those who did not know him, hardly suggested this. He was very tall and thin, with a dark, solemn face. He was a purist in the matter of clothes, and even in times of storm and stress presented an immaculate appearance to the world. In his left eye, attached to a cord, he wore a monocle.
Through this, at the present moment, he was gazing benevolently at Mr. Renshaw, as the latter fussed about the office in the throes of departure. To the editor's rapid fire of advice and warning he listened with the pleased and indulgent air of a father whose infant son frisks before him. Mr. Renshaw interested him. To Smith's mind Mr. Renshaw, put him in any show you pleased, would alone have been worth the price of admission.
"Well," chirruped the holiday-maker--he was a little man with a long neck, and he always chirruped--"Well, I think that is all, Mr. Smith. Oh, ah, yes! The stenographer. You will need a new stenographer."
The Peaceful Moments stenographer had resigned her position three days before, in order to get married.
"Unquestionably, Comrade Renshaw," said Smith. "A blonde."
Mr. Renshaw looked annoyed.
"I have told you before, Mr. Smith, I object to your addressing me as Comrade. It is not--it is not--er--fitting."
Smith waved a deprecating hand.
"Say no more," he said. "I will correct the habit. I have been studying the principles of Socialism somewhat deeply of late, and I came to the conclusion that I must join the cause. It looked good to me. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start in by swiping all you can and sitting on it. A noble scheme. Me for it. But I am interrupting you."
Mr. Renshaw had to pause for a moment to reorganize his ideas.
"I think--ah, yes. I think it would be best perhaps to wait for a day or two in case Mrs. Oakley should recommend someone. I mentioned the vacancy in the office to her, and she said she would give the matter her attention. I should prefer, if possible, to give the place to her nominee. She--"
"--has eighteen million a year," said Smith. "I understand. Scatter seeds of kindness."
Mr. Renshaw looked at him sharply. Smith's face was solemn and thoughtful.
"Nothing of the kind," the editor said, after a pause. "I should prefer Mrs. Oakley's nominee because Mrs. Oakley is a shrewd, practical woman who--er--who--who, in fact--"
"Just so," said Smith, eying him gravely through the monocle. "Entirely."
The scrutiny irritated Mr. Renshaw.
"Do put that thing away, Mr. Smith," he said.
"Yes, that ridiculous glass. Put it away."
"Instantly," said Smith, replacing the monocle in his vest-pocket. "You object to it? Well, well, many people do. We all have these curious likes and dislikes. It is these clashings of personal taste which constitute what we call life. Yes. You were saying?"
Mr. Renshaw wrinkled his forehead.
"I have forgotten what I intended to say," he said querulously. "You have driven it out of my head."
Smith clicked his tongue sympathetically. Mr. Renshaw looked at his watch.
"Dear me," he said, "I must be going. I shall miss my train. But I think I have covered the ground quite thoroughly. You understand everything?"
"Absolutely," said Smith. "I look on myself as some engineer controlling a machine with a light hand on the throttle. Or like some faithful hound whose master--"
"Ah! There is just one thing. Mrs. Julia Burdett Parslow is a little inclined to be unpunctual with her 'Moments with Budding Girlhood.' If this should happen while I am away, just write her a letter, quite a pleasant letter, you understand, pointing out the necessity of being in good time. She must realize that we are a machine."
"Exactly," murmured Smith.
"The machinery of the paper cannot run smoothly unless contributors are in good time with their copy."
"Precisely," said Smith. "They are the janitors of the literary world. Let them turn off the steam heat, and where are we? If Mrs. Julia Burdett Parslow is not up to time with the hot air, how shall our 'Girlhood' escape being nipped in the bud?"
"And there is just one other thing. I wish you would correct a slight tendency I have noticed lately in Mr. Asher to be just a trifle--well, not precisely risky, but perhaps a shade broad in his humor."
"Young blood!" sighed Smith. "Young blood!"
"Mr. Asher is a very sensible man, and he will understand. Well, that is all, I think. Now, I really must be going. Good-by, Mr. Smith."
At the door Mr. Renshaw paused with the air of an exile bidding farewell to his native land, sighed and trotted out.
Smith put his feet upon the table, flicked a speck of dust from his coat-sleeve, and resumed his task of reading the proofs of Luella Granville Waterman's "Moments in the Nursery."
* * * * *
He had not been working long, when Pugsy Maloney, the office boy, entered.
"Say!" said Pugsy.
"Say on, Comrade Maloney."
"Dere's a loidy out dere wit a letter for Mr. Renshaw."
"Have you acquainted her with the fact that Mr. Renshaw has passed to other climes?"
"Have you, in the course of your conversation with this lady, mentioned that Mr. Renshaw has beaten it?"
"Sure, I did. And she says can she see you?"
Smith removed his feet from the table.
"Certainly," he said. "Who am I that I should deny people these little treats? Ask her to come in, Comrade Maloney."