The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XVII. The Man at the Astor
Refraining from discussing with Master Maloney the alleged bone-headedness of girls, Smith went through into the inner room, and found John sitting in the editorial chair, glancing through the latest number of Peaceful Moments.
"Why, John, friend of my youth," he said, "where have you been hiding all this time? I called you up at your office weeks ago, and an acid voice informed me that you were no longer there. Have you been fired?"
"Yes," said John. "Why aren't you on the News any more? Nobody seemed to know where you were, till I met Faraday this morning, who told me you were here."
Smith was conscious of an impression that in some subtle way John had changed since their last meeting. For a moment he could not have said what had given him this impression. Then it flashed upon him. Before, John had always been, like Mrs. Fezziwig in "The Christmas Carol," one vast substantial smile. He had beamed cheerfully on what to him was evidently the best of all possible worlds. Now, however, it would seem that doubts had occurred to him as to the universal perfection of things. His face was graver. His eyes and his mouth alike gave evidence of disturbing happenings.
In the matter of confidences, Smith was not a believer in spade-work. If they were offered to him, he was invariably sympathetic, but he never dug for them. That John had something on his mind was obvious, but he intended to allow him, if he wished to reveal it, to select his own time for the revelation.
John, for his part, had no intention of sharing this particular trouble even with Smith. It was too new and intimate for discussion.
It was only since his return to New York that the futility of his quest had really come home to him. In the belief of having at last escaped from Mervo he had been inclined to overlook obstacles. It had seemed to him, while he waited for his late subjects to dismiss him, that, once he could move, all would be simple. New York had dispelled that idea. Logically, he saw with perfect clearness, there was no reason why he and Betty should ever meet again.
To retain a spark of hope beneath this knowledge was not easy and John, having been in New York now for nearly three weeks without any encouragement from the fates, was near the breaking point. A gray apathy had succeeded the frenzied restlessness of the first few days. The necessity for some kind of work that would to some extent occupy his mind was borne in upon him, and the thought of Smith had followed naturally. If anybody could supply distraction, it would be Smith. Faraday, another of the temporary exiles from the News, whom he had met by chance in Washington Square, had informed him of Smith's new position and of the renaissance of Peaceful Moments, and he had hurried to the office to present himself as an unskilled but willing volunteer to the cause. Inspection of the current number of the paper had convinced him that the Peaceful Moments atmosphere, if it could not cure, would at least relieve.
"Faraday told me all about what you had done to this paper," he said. "I came to see if you would let me in on it. I want work."
"Excellent!" said Smith. "Consider yourself one of us."
"I've never done any newspaper work, of course, but--"
"Never!" cried Smith. "Is it so long since the deaf old college days that you forget the Gridiron?"
In their last year at Harvard, Smith and John, assisted by others of a congenial spirit, had published a small but lively magazine devoted to college topics, with such success--from one point of view--that on the appearance of the third number it was suppressed by the authorities.
"You were the life and soul of the Gridiron," went on Smith. "You shall be the life and soul of Peaceful Moments. You have special qualifications for the post. A young man once called at the office of a certain newspaper, and asked for a job. 'Have you any specialty?' enquired the editor. 'Yes,' replied the bright boy, 'I am rather good at invective.' 'Any particular kind of invective?' queried the man up top. 'No,' replied our hero, 'just general invective.' Such is your case, my son. You have a genius for general invective. You are the man Peaceful Moments has been waiting for."
"If you think so--"
"I do think so. Let us consider it settled. And now, tell me, what do you think of our little journal?"
"Well--aren't you asking for trouble? Isn't the proprietor--?"
Smith waved his hand airily.
"Dismiss him from your mind," he said. "He is a gentleman of the name of Benjamin Scobell, who--"
"Who lives in Europe and never sees the paper. I happen to know that he is anxious to get rid of it. His solicitors have instructions to accept any reasonable offer. If only I could close in on a small roll, I would buy it myself, for by the time we have finished our improvements, it will be a sound investment for the young speculator. Have you read the Broster Street story? It has hit somebody already. Already some unknown individual is grasping the lemon in his unwilling fingers. And--to remove any diffidence you may still have about lending your sympathetic aid--that was written by no hardened professional, but by our stenographer. She'll be in soon, and I'll introduce you. You'll like her. I do not despair, later on, of securing an epoch-making contribution from Comrade Maloney."
As he spoke, that bulwark of the paper entered in person, bearing an envelope.
"Ah, Comrade Maloney," said Smith. "Is that your contribution? What is the subject? 'Mustangs I have Met?'"
"A kid brought dis," said Pugsy. "Dere ain't no answer."
Smith read the letter with raised eyebrows.
"We shall have to get another stenographer," he said. "The gifted author of our Broster Street series has quit."
"Oh!" said John, not interested.
"Quit at a moment's notice and without explanation. I can't understand it."
"I guess she had some reason," said John, absently. He was inclined to be absent during these days. His mind was always stealing away to occupy itself with the problem of the discovery of Betty. The motives that might have led a stenographer to resign her position had no interest for him.
Smith shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, Woman, Woman!" he said resignedly.
"She says she will send in some more Broster Street stuff, though, which is a comfort. But I'm sorry she's quit. You would have liked her."
"Yes?" said John.
At this moment there came from the outer office a piercing squeal. It penetrated into the editorial sanctum, losing only a small part of its strength on the way. Smith looked up with patient sadness.
"If Comrade Maloney," he said, "is going to take to singing during business hours, I fear this journal must put up its shutters. Concentrated thought will be out of the question."
He moved to the door and flung it open as a second squeal rent the air, and found Master Maloney writhing in the grip of a tough-looking person in patched trousers and a stained sweater. His left ear was firmly grasped between the stranger's finger and thumb.
The tough person released Pugsy, and, having eyed Smith keenly for a moment, made a dash for the stairs, leaving the guardian of the gate rubbing his ear resentfully.
"He blows in," said Master Maloney, aggrieved, "an' asks is de editor in. I tells him no, an' he nips me by the ear when I tries to stop him buttin' t'roo."
"Comrade Maloney," said Smith, "you are a martyr. What would Horatius have done if somebody had nipped him by the ear when he was holding the bridge? It might have made all the difference. Did the gentleman state his business?"
"Nope. Just tried to butt t'roo."
"One of these strong, silent men. The world is full of us. These are the perils of the journalistic life. You will be safer and happier when you are a cowboy, Comrade Maloney."
Smith was thoughtful as he returned to the inner room.
"Things are warming up, John," he said. "The sport who has just left evidently came just to get a sight of me. Otherwise, why should he tear himself away without stopping for a chat. I suppose he was sent to mark me down for whichever gang Comrade Parker is employing."
"What do you mean?" said John. "All this gets past me. Who is Parker?"
Smith related the events leading up to Mr. Parker's visit, and described what had happened on that occasion.
"So, before you throw in your lot with this journal," he concluded, "it would be well to think the matter over. You must weigh the pros and cons. Is your passion for literature such that you do not mind being put out of business with a black-jack for the cause? Will the knowledge that a low-browed gentleman is waiting round the corner for you stimulate or hinder you in your work? There's no doubt now that we are up against a tough crowd."
"By Jove!" said John. "I hadn't a notion it was like that."
"You feel, then, that on the whole--"
"I feel that on the whole this is just the business I've been hunting for. You couldn't keep me out of it now with an ax."
Smith looked at him curiously, but refrained from enquiries. That there must be something at the back of this craving for adventure and excitement, he knew. The easy-going John he had known of old would certainly not have deserted the danger zone, but he would not have welcomed entry to it so keenly. It was plain that he was hungry for work that would keep him from thought. Smith was eminently a patient young man, and though the problem of what upheaval had happened to change John to such an extent interested him greatly, he was prepared to wait for explanations.
Of the imminence of the danger he was perfectly aware. He had known from the first that Mr. Parker's concluding words were not an empty threat. His experience as a reporter had given him the knowledge that is only given in its entirety to police and newspaper men: that there are two New Yorks--one, a modern, well-policed city, through which one may walk from end to end without encountering adventure; the other, a city as full of sinister intrigue, of whisperings and conspiracies, of battle, murder, and sudden death in dark byways, as any town of mediaeval Italy. Given certain conditions, anything may happen in New York. And Smith realized that these conditions now prevailed in his own case. He had come into conflict with New York's underworld. Circumstances had placed him below the surface, where only his wits could help him.
He would have been prepared to see the thing through by himself, but there was no doubt that John as an ally would be a distinct comfort.
Nevertheless, he felt compelled to give his friend a last chance of withdrawing.
"You know," he said, "there is really no reason why you should--"
"But I'm going to," interrupted John. "That's all there is to it. What's going to happen, anyway? I don't know anything about these gangs. I thought they spent all their time shooting each other up."
"Not all, unfortunately, Comrade John. They are always charmed to take on a small job like this on the side."
"And what does it come to? Do we have an entire gang camping on our trail in a solid mass, or only one or two toughs?"
"Merely a section, I should imagine. Comrade Parker would go to the main boss of the gang--Bat Jarvis, if it was the Groome Street gang, or Spider Reilly and Dude Dawson if he wanted the Three Points or the Table Hill lot. The boss would chat over the matter with his own special partners, and they would fix it up among themselves. The rest of the gang would probably know nothing about it. The fewer in the game, you see, the fewer to divide the Parker dollars. So what we have to do is to keep a lookout for a dozen or so aristocrats of that dignified deportment which comes from constant association with the main boss, and, if we can elude these, all will be well."
* * * * *
It was by Smith's suggestion that the editorial staff of Peaceful Moments dined that night at the Astor roof-garden.
"The tired brain," he said, "needs to recuperate. To feed on such a night as this in some low-down hostelry on the level of the street, with German waiters breathing heavily down the back of one's neck and two fiddles and a piano hitting up ragtime about three feet from one's tympanum, would be false economy. Here, fanned by cool breezes and surrounded by passably fair women and brave men, one may do a certain amount of tissue-restoring. Moreover, there is little danger up here of being slugged by our moth-eaten acquaintance of this afternoon. We shall probably find him waiting for us at the main entrance with a black-jack, but till then--"
He turned with gentle grace to his soup. It was a warm night, and the roof-garden was full. From where they sat they could see the million twinkling lights of the city. John, watching them, as he smoked a cigarette at the conclusion of the meal, had fallen into a dream. He came to himself with a start, to find Smith in conversation with a waiter.
"Yes, my name is Smith," he was saying.
The waiter retired to one of the tables and spoke to a young man sitting there. John, recollected having seen this solitary diner looking in their direction once or twice during dinner, but the fact had not impressed him.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"The man at that table sent over to ask if my name was Smith. It was. He is now coming along to chat in person. I wonder why. I don't know him from Adam."
The stranger was threading his way between the tables.
"Can I have a word with you, Mr. Smith?" he said. The waiter brought a chair and he seated himself.
"By the way," said Smith, "my friend, Mr. Maude. Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chitchat over the coffee-cups."
"Not on your tintype it won't," said the stranger decidedly. "It won't be needed. Is Mr. Maude on your paper? That's all right, then. I can go ahead."
He turned to Smith.
"It's about that Broster Street thing."
"More fame!" murmured Smith. "We certainly are making a hit with the great public over Broster Street."
"Well, you understand certain parties have got it in against you?"
"A charming conversationalist, one Comrade Parker, hinted at something of the sort in a recent conversation. We shall endeavor, however, to look after ourselves."
"You'll need to. The man behind is a big bug."
"Who is he?"
The stranger shrugged his shoulders.
"Search me. You wouldn't expect him to give that away."
"Then on what system have you estimated the size of the gentleman's bug-hood? What makes you think that he's a big bug?"
"By the number of dollars he was ready to put up to have you put through."
Smith's eyes gleamed for an instant, but he spoke as coolly as ever.
"Oh!" he said. "And which gang has he hired?"
"I couldn't say. He--his agent, that is--came to Bat Jarvis. Bat for some reason turned the job down."
"He did? Why?"
"Search me. Nobody knows. But just as soon as he heard who it was he was being asked to lay for, he turned it down cold. Said none of his fellows was going to put a finger on anyone who had anything to do with your paper. I don't know what you've been doing to Bat, but he sure is the long-lost brother to you."
"A powerful argument in favor of kindness to animals!" said Smith. "One of his celebrated stud of cats came into the possession of our stenographer. What did she do? Instead of having the animal made into a nourishing soup, she restored it to its bereaved owner. Observe the sequel. We are very much obliged to Comrade Jarvis."
"He sent me along," went on the stranger, "to tell you to watch out, because one of the other gangs was dead sure to take on the job. And he said you were to know that he wasn't mixed up in it. Well, that's all. I'll be pushing along. I've a date. Glad to have met you, Mr. Maude. Good-night."
For a few moments after he had gone, Smith and John sat smoking in silence.
"What's the time?" asked Smith suddenly. "If it's not too late--Hello, here comes our friend once more."
The stranger came up to the table, a light overcoat over his dress clothes. From the pocket of this he produced a watch.
"Force of habit," he said apologetically, handing it to John. "You'll pardon me. Good-night again."