The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XIV. A Change of Policy
The feeling of tranquillity which had come to Betty on her first acquaintance with Peaceful Moments seemed to deepen as the days went by, and with each day she found the sharp pain at her heart less vehement. It was still there, but it was dulled. The novelty of her life and surroundings kept it in check. New York is an egotist. It will suffer no divided attention. "Look at me!" says the voice of the city imperiously, and its children obey. It snatches their thoughts from their inner griefs, and concentrates them on the pageant that rolls unceasingly from one end of the island to the other. One may despair in New York, but it is difficult to brood on the past; for New York is the City of the Present, the City of Things that are Going On.
To Betty everything was new and strange. Her previous acquaintance with the metropolis had not been extensive. Mr. Scobell's home--or, rather, the house which he owned in America--was on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and it was there that she had lived when she was not paying visits. Occasionally, during horse-show week, or at some other time of festivity, she had spent a few days with friends who lived in Madison or upper Fifth Avenue, but beyond that, New York was a closed book to her.
It would have been a miracle in the circumstances, if John and Mervo and the whole of the events since the arrival of the great cable had not to some extent become a little dream-like. When she was alone at night, and had leisure to think, the dream became a reality once more; but in her hours of work, or what passed for work in the office of Peaceful Moments, and in the hours she spent walking about the streets and observing the ways of this new world of hers, it faded. Everything was so bright and busy! Every moment had its fresh interest.
And, above all, there was the sense of adventure. She was twenty-four; she had health and an imagination; and almost unconsciously she was stimulated by the thrill of being for the first time in her life genuinely at large. The child's love of hiding dies hard in us. To Betty, to walk abroad in New York in the midst of hurrying crowds, just Betty Brown--one of four million and no longer the beautiful Miss Silver of the society column, was to taste the romance of disguise, or invisibility.
During office hours she came near to complete contentment. To an expert stenographer the amount of work to be done would have seemed ridiculously small, but Betty, who liked plenty of time for a task, generally managed to make it last comfortably through the day.
This was partly owing to the fact that her editor, when not actually at work himself, was accustomed to engage her in conversation, and to keep her so engaged until the entrance of Pugsy Maloney heralded the arrival of some caller.
Betty liked Smith. His odd ways, his conversation, and his extreme solicitude for his clothes amused her. She found his outlook on life refreshing. Smith was an optimist. Whatever cataclysm might occur, he never doubted for a moment that he would be comfortably on the summit of the debris when all was over. He amazed Betty with his stories of his reportorial adventures. He told them for the most part as humorous stories at his own expense, but the fact remained that in a considerable proportion of them he had only escaped a sudden and violent death by adroitness or pure good luck. His conversation opened up a new world to Betty. She began to see that in America, and especially in New York, anything may happen to anybody. She looked on Smith with new eyes.
"But surely all this," she said one morning, after he had come to the end of the story of a highly delicate piece of interviewing work in connection with some Cumberland Mountains feudists, "surely all this--" She looked round the room.
"Domesticity?" suggested Smith.
"Yes," said Betty. "Surely it all seems rather tame to you?"
"Comrade Brown," he said, "you have touched the spot with an unerring finger."
Since Mr. Renshaw's departure, the flatness of life had come home to Smith with renewed emphasis. Before, there had always been the quiet entertainment of watching the editor at work, but now he was feeling restless. Like John at Mervo, he was practically nothing but an ornament. Peaceful Moments, like Mervo, had been set rolling and had continued to roll on almost automatically. The staff of regular contributors sent in their various pages. There was nothing for the man in charge to do. Mr. Renshaw had been one of those men who have a genius for being as busy over nothing as if it were some colossal work, but Smith had not that gift. He liked something that he could grip and that gripped him. He was becoming desperately bored. He felt like a marooned sailor on a barren rock of domesticity.
A visitor who called at the office at this time did nothing to remove this sensation of being outside everything that made life worth living. Betty, returning to the office one afternoon, found Smith in the doorway, just parting from a thickset young man. There was a rather gloomy expression on the thickset young man's face.
Smith, too, she noted, when they were back in the inner office, seemed to have something on his mind. He was strangely silent.
"Comrade Brown," he said at last, "I wish this little journal of ours had a sporting page."
"Less ribaldry," protested Smith pained. "This is a sad affair. You saw the man I was talking to? That was Kid Brady. I used to know him when I was out West. He wants to fight anyone in the country at a hundred and thirty-three pounds. We all have our hobbies. That is Comrade Brady's."
"Is he a boxer?"
"He would like to be. Out West, nobody could touch him. He's in the championship class. But he has been pottering about New York for a month without being able to get a fight. If we had a sporting page on Peaceful Moments we could do him some good, but I don't see how we can write him up," said Smith, picking up a copy of the paper, and regarding it gloomily, "in 'Moments in the Nursery' or 'Moments with Budding Girlhood.'"
He put up his eyeglass, and stared at the offending journal with the air of a vegetarian who has found a caterpillar in his salad. Incredulity, dismay, and disgust fought for precedence in his expression.
"B. Henderson Asher," he said severely, "ought to be in some sort of a home. Cain killed Abel for telling him that story."
He turned to another page, and scrutinized it with deepening gloom.
"Is Luella Granville Waterman by any chance a friend of yours, Comrade Brown? No? I am glad. For it seems to me that for sheer, concentrated piffle, she is in a class by herself."
He read on for a few moments in silence, then looked up and fixed Betty with his monocle. There was righteous wrath in his eyes.
"And people," he said, "are paying money for this! Money! Even now they are sitting down and writing checks for a year's subscription. It isn't right! It's a skin game. I am assisting in a carefully planned skin game!"
"But perhaps they like it," suggested Betty.
Smith shook his head.
"It is kind of you to try and soothe my conscience, but it is useless. I see my position too clearly. Think of it, Comrade Brown! Thousands of poor, doddering, half-witted creatures in Brooklyn and Flatbush, who ought not really to have control of their own money at all, are getting buncoed out of whatever it is per annum in exchange for--how shall I put it in a forcible yet refined and gentlemanly manner?--for cat's meat of this description. Why, selling gold bricks is honest compared with it. And I am temporarily responsible for the black business!"
He extended a lean hand with melodramatic suddenness toward Betty. The unexpectedness of the movement caused her to start back in her chair with a little exclamation of surprise. Smith nodded with a kind of mournful satisfaction.
"Exactly!" he said. "As I expected! You shrink from me. You avoid my polluted hand. How could it be otherwise? A conscientious green-goods man would do the same." He rose from his seat. "Your attitude," he said, "confirms me in a decision that has been in my mind for some days. I will no longer calmly accept this terrible position. I will try to make amends. While I am in charge, I will give our public something worth reading. All these Watermans and Ashers and Parslows must go!"
"Go!" repeated Smith firmly. "I have been thinking it over for days. You cannot look me in the face, Comrade Brown, and say that there is a single feature which would not be better away. I mean in the paper, not in my face. Every one of these punk pages must disappear. Letters must be despatched at once, informing Julia Burdett Parslow and the others, and in particular B. Henderson Asher, who, on brief acquaintance, strikes me as an ideal candidate for a lethal chamber--that, unless they cease their contributions instantly, we shall call up the police reserves. Then we can begin to move."
Betty, like most of his acquaintances, seldom knew whether Smith was talking seriously or not. She decided to assume, till he should dismiss the idea, that he meant what he said.
"But you can't!" she exclaimed.
"With your kind cooperation, nothing easier. You supply the mechanical work. I will compose the letters. First, B. Henderson Asher. 'Dear Sir'--"
"But--" she fell back on her original remark--"but you can't. What will Mr. Renshaw say when he comes back?"
"Sufficient unto the day. I have a suspicion that he will be the first to approve. His vacation will have made him see things differently--purified him, as it were. His conscience will be alive once more."
"Why should we worry ourselves because the end of this venture is wrapped in obscurity? Why, Columbus didn't know where he was going to when he set out. All he knew was some highly interesting fact about an egg. What that was, I do not at the moment recall, but I understand it acted on Columbus like a tonic. We are the Columbuses of the journalistic world. Full steam ahead, and see what happens. If Comrade Renshaw is not pleased, why, I shall have been a martyr to a good cause. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done, so to speak. Why should I allow possible inconvenience to myself to stand in the way of the happiness which we propose to inject into those Brooklyn and Flatbush homes? Are you ready then, once more? 'Dear Sir--'"
Betty gave in.
When the letters were finished, she made one more objection.
"They are certain to call here and make a fuss," she said, "Mr. Asher and the rest."
"You think they will not bear the blow with manly fortitude?"
"I certainly do. And I think it's hard on them, too. Suppose they depend for a living on what they make from Peaceful Moments?"
"They don't," said Smith reassuringly. "I've looked into that. Have no pity for them. They are amateurs--degraded creatures of substance who take the cocktails out of the mouths of deserving professionals. B. Henderson Asher, for instance, is largely interested in gents' haberdashery. And so with the others. We touch their pride, perhaps, but not their purses."
Betty's soft heart was distinctly relieved by the information.
"I see," she said. "But suppose they do call, what will you do? It will be very unpleasant."
"True," he said. "True. I think you are right there. My nervous system is so delicately attuned that anything in the shape of a brawl would reduce it to a frazzle. I think that, for this occasion only, we will promote Comrade Maloney to the post of editor. He is a stern, hard, rugged man who does not care how unpopular he is. Yes, I think that would be best."
He signed the letters with a firm hand, "per pro P. Maloney, editor."
Then he lit a cigarette, and leaned back in his chair.
"An excellent morning's work," he said. "Already I begin to feel the dawnings of a new self-respect."
Betty, thinking the thing over, a little dazed by the rapidity of Smith's method of action, had found a fresh flaw in the scheme.
"If you send Mr. Asher and the others away, how are you going to bring the paper out at all? You can't write it all yourself."
Smith looked at her with benevolent admiration.
"She thinks of everything," he murmured. "That busy brain is never still. No, Comrade Brown, I do not propose to write the whole paper myself. I do not shirk work when it gets me in a corner and I can't side-step, but there are limits. I propose to apply to a few of my late companions of Park Row, bright boys who will be delighted to come across with red-hot stuff for a moderate fee."
"And the proprietor of the paper? Won't he make any objection?"
Smith shook his head with a touch of reproof.
"You seem determined to try to look on the dark side. Do you insinuate that we are not acting in the proprietor's best interests? When he gets his check for the receipts, after I have handled the paper awhile, he will go singing about the streets. His beaming smile will be a byword. Visitors will be shown it as one of the sights. His only doubt will be whether to send his money to the bank or keep it in tubs and roll in it. And anyway," he added, "he's in Europe somewhere, and never sees the paper, sensible man."
He scratched a speck of dust off his coat-sleeve with his finger nail.
"This is a big thing," he resumed. "Wait till you see the first number of the new series. My idea is that Peaceful Moments shall become a pretty warm proposition. Its tone shall be such that the public will wonder why we do not print it on asbestos. We shall comment on all the live events of the week--murders, Wall Street scandals, glove fights, and the like, in a manner which will make our readers' spines thrill. Above all, we shall be the guardians of the people's rights. We shall be a spot light, showing up the dark places and bringing into prominence those who would endeavor in any way to put the people in Dutch. We shall detect the wrongdoer, and hand him such a series of resentful wallops that he will abandon his little games and become a model citizen. In this way we shall produce a bright, readable little sheet which will make our city sit up and take notice. I think so. I think so. And now I must be hustling about and seeing our new contributors. There is no time to waste."