The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XV. The Honeyed Word
The offices of Peaceful Moments were in a large building in a street off Madison Avenue. They consisted of a sort of outer lair, where Pugsy Maloney spent his time reading tales of life on the prairies and heading off undesirable visitors; a small room, into which desirable but premature visitors were loosed, to wait their turn for admission into the Presence; and a larger room beyond, which was the editorial sanctum.
Smith, returning from luncheon on the day following his announcement of the great change, found both Betty and Pugsy waiting in the outer lair, evidently with news of import.
"Mr. Smith," began Betty.
"Dey're in dere," said Master Maloney with his customary terseness.
"Who, exactly?" asked Smith.
"De whole bunch of dem."
Smith inspected Pugsy through his eyeglass. "Can you give me any particulars?" he asked patiently. "You are well-meaning, but vague, Comrade Maloney. Who are in there?"
"About 'steen of dem!" said Pugsy.
"Mr. Asher," said Betty, "and Mr. Philpotts, and all the rest of them." She struggled for a moment, but, unable to resist the temptation, added, "I told you so."
A faint smile appeared upon Smith's face.
"Dey just butted in," said Master Maloney, resuming his narrative. "I was sittin' here, readin' me book, when de foist of de guys blows in. 'Boy,' says he, 'is de editor in?' 'Nope,' I says. 'I'll go in and wait,' says he. 'Nuttin' doin',' says I. 'Nix on de goin'-in act.' I might as well have saved me breat! In he butts. In about t'ree minutes along comes another gazebo. 'Boy,' says he, 'is de editor in?' 'Nope,' I says. 'I'll wait,' says he, lightin' out for de door, and in he butts. Wit' dat I sees de proposition's too fierce for muh. I can't keep dese big husky guys out if dey bucks center like dat. So when de rest of de bunch comes along, I don't try to give dem de trun down. I says, 'Well, gent,' I says, 'it's up to youse. De editor ain't in, but, if you feels lonesome, push t'roo. Dere's plenty dere to keep youse company. I can't be boddered!'"
"And what more could you have said?" agreed Smith approvingly. "Tell me, did these gentlemen appear to be gay and light-hearted, or did they seem to be looking for someone with a hatchet?"
"Dey was hoppin' mad, de whole bunch of dem."
"Dreadfully," attested Betty.
"As I suspected," said Smith, "but we must not repine. These trifling contretemps are the penalties we pay for our high journalistic aims. I fancy that with the aid of the diplomatic smile and the honeyed word I may manage to win out. Will you come and give me your moral support, Comrade Brown?"
He opened the door of the inner room for Betty, and followed her in.
Master Maloney's statement that "about 'steen" visitors had arrived proved to be a little exaggerated. There were five men in the room.
As Smith entered, every eye was turned upon him. To an outside spectator he would have seemed rather like a very well-dressed Daniel introduced into a den of singularly irritable lions. Five pairs of eyes were smoldering with a long-nursed resentment. Five brows were corrugated with wrathful lines. Such, however, was the simple majesty of Smith's demeanor that for a moment there was dead silence. Not a word was spoken as he paced, wrapped in thought, to the editorial chair. Stillness brooded over the room as he carefully dusted that piece of furniture, and, having done so to his satisfaction, hitched up the knees of his trousers and sank gracefully into a sitting position.
This accomplished, he looked up and started. He gazed round the room.
"Ha! I am observed!" he murmured.
The words broke the spell. Instantly the five visitors burst simultaneously into speech.
"Are you the acting editor of this paper?"
"I wish to have a word with you, sir."
"Mr. Maloney, I presume?"
"I should like a few moments' conversation."
The start was good and even, but the gentleman who said "Pardon me!" necessarily finished first, with the rest nowhere.
Smith turned to him, bowed, and fixed him with a benevolent gaze through his eyeglass.
"Are you Mr. Maloney, may I ask?" enquired the favored one.
The others paused for the reply. Smith shook his head. "My name is Smith."
"Where is Mr. Maloney?"
Smith looked across at Betty, who had seated herself in her place by the typewriter.
"Where did you tell me Mr. Maloney had gone to, Miss Brown? Ah, well, never mind. Is there anything I can do for you, gentlemen? I am on the editorial staff of this paper."
"Then, maybe," said a small, round gentleman who, so far, had done only chorus work, "you can tell me what all this means? My name is Waterman, sir. I am here on behalf of my wife, whose name you doubtless know."
"Correct me if I am wrong," said Smith, "but I should say it, also, was Waterman."
"Luella Granville Waterman, sir!" said the little man proudly. "My wife," he went on, "has received this extraordinary communication from a man signing himself P. Maloney. We are both at a loss to make head or tail of it."
"It seems reasonably clear to me," said Smith, reading the letter.
"It's an outrage. My wife has been a contributor to this journal since its foundation. We are both intimate friends of Mr. Renshaw, to whom my wife's work has always given complete satisfaction. And now, without the slightest warning, comes this peremptory dismissal from P. Maloney. Who is P. Maloney? Where is Mr. Renshaw?"
The chorus burst forth. It seemed that that was what they all wanted to know. Who was P. Maloney? Where was Mr. Renshaw?
"I am the Reverend Edwin T. Philpott, sir," said a cadaverous-looking man with light blue eyes and a melancholy face. "I have contributed 'Moments of Meditation' to this journal for some considerable time."
"I know, yours has always seemed to me work which the world will not willingly let die."
The Reverend Edwin's frosty face thawed into a bleak smile.
"And yet," continued Smith, "I gather that P. Maloney, on the other hand, actually wishes to hurry on its decease. Strange!"
A man in a serge suit, who had been lurking behind Betty, bobbed into the open.
"Where's this fellow Maloney? P. Maloney. That's the man we want to see. I've been working for this paper without a break, except when I had the grip, for four years, and now up comes this Maloney fellow, if you please, and tells me in so many words that the paper's got no use for me."
"These are life's tragedies," sighed Smith.
"What does he mean by it? That's what I want to know. And that's what these gentlemen want to know. See here--"
"I am addressing--" said Smith.
"Asher's my name. B. Henderson Asher. I write 'Moments of Mirth.'"
A look almost of excitement came into Smith's face, such a look as a visitor to a foreign land might wear when confronted with some great national monument. He stood up and shook Mr. Asher reverently by the hand.
"Gentlemen," he said, reseating himself, "this is a painful case. The circumstances, as you will admit when you have heard all, are peculiar. You have asked me where Mr. Renshaw is. I don't know."
"You don't know!" exclaimed Mr. Asher.
"Nobody knows. With luck you may find a black cat in a coal cellar on a moonless night, but not Mr. Renshaw. Shortly after I joined this journal, he started out on a vacation, by his doctor's orders, and left no address. No letters were to be forwarded. He was to enjoy complete rest. Who can say where he is now? Possibly racing down some rugged slope in the Rockies with two grizzlies and a wildcat in earnest pursuit. Possibly in the midst of Florida Everglades, making a noise like a piece of meat in order to snare alligators. Who can tell?"
Silent consternation prevailed among his audience.
"Then, do you mean to say," demanded Mr. Asher, "that this fellow Maloney's the boss here, and that what he says goes?"
"Exactly. A man of intensely masterful character, he will brook no opposition. I am powerless to sway him. Suggestions from myself as to the conduct of the paper would infuriate him. He believes that radical changes are necessary in the policy of Peaceful Moments, and he will carry them through if it snows. Doubtless he would gladly consider your work if it fitted in with his ideas. A rapid-fire impression of a glove fight, a spine-shaking word picture of a railway smash, or something on those lines, would be welcomed. But--"
"I have never heard of such a thing," said Mr. Waterman indignantly.
"In this life," said Smith, shaking his head, "we must be prepared for every emergency. We must distinguish between the unusual and the impossible. It is unusual for the acting editor of a weekly paper to revolutionize its existing policy, and you have rashly ordered your life on the assumption that it is impossible. You are unprepared. The thing comes on you as a surprise. The cry goes round New York, 'Comrades Asher, Waterman, Philpotts, and others have been taken unawares. They cannot cope with the situation.'"
"But what is to be done?" cried Mr. Asher.
"Nothing, I fear, except to wait. It may be that when Mr. Renshaw, having dodged the bears and eluded the wildcat, returns to his post, he will decide not to continue the paper on the lines at present mapped out. He should be back in about ten weeks."
"Till then, the only thing to do is to wait. You may rely on me to keep a watchful eye on your interests. When your thoughts tend to take a gloomy turn say to yourselves, 'All is well. Smith is keeping a watchful eye on our interests.'"
"All the same, I should like to see this P. Maloney," said Mr. Asher.
"I shouldn't," said Smith. "I speak in your best interests. P. Maloney is a man of the fiercest passions. He cannot brook interference. If you should argue with him, there is no knowing what might not happen. He would be the first to regret any violent action, when once he had cooled off, but-- Of course, if you wish it I could arrange a meeting. No? I think you are wise. And now, gentlemen, as I have a good deal of work to get through--
"All very disturbing to the man of culture and refinement," said Smith, as the door closed behind the last of the malcontents. "But I think that we may now consider the line clear. I see no further obstacle in our path. I fear I have made Comrade Maloney perhaps a shade unpopular with our late contributors, but these things must be. We must clench our teeth and face them manfully. He suffers in an excellent cause."