The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XX. Betty at Large
It was not till Betty found herself many blocks distant from the office of Peaceful Moments that she checked her headlong flight. She had run down the stairs and out into the street blindly, filled only with that passion for escape which had swept her away from Mervo. Not till she had dived into the human river of Broadway and reached Times Square did she feel secure. Then, with less haste, she walked on to the park, and sat down on a bench, to think.
Inevitably she had placed her own construction on John's sudden appearance in New York and at the spot where only one person in any way connected with Mervo knew her to be. She did not know that Smith and he were friends, and did not, therefore, suspect that the former and not herself might be the object of his visit. Nor had any word reached her of what had happened at Mervo after her departure. She had taken it for granted that things had continued as she had left them; and the only possible explanation to her of John's presence in New York was that, acting under orders from Mr. Scobell, he had come to try and bring her back.
She shuddered as she conjured up the scene that must have taken place if Pugsy had not mentioned his name and she had gone on into the inner room. In itself the thought that, after what she had said that morning on the island, after she had forced on him, stripping it of the uttermost rag of disguise, the realization of how his position appeared to her, he should have come, under orders, to bring her back, was well-nigh unendurable. But to have met him, to have seen the man she loved plunging still deeper into shame, would have been pain beyond bearing. Better a thousand times than that this panic flight into the iron wilderness of New York.
It was cool and soothing in the park. The roar of the city was hushed. It was pleasant to sit there and watch the squirrels playing on the green slopes or scampering up into the branches through which one could see the gleam of water. Her thoughts became less chaotic. The peace of the summer afternoon stole upon her.
It did not take her long to make up her mind that the door of Peaceful Moments was closed to her. John, not finding her, might go away, but he would return. Reluctantly, she abandoned the paper. Her heart was heavy when she had formed the decision. She had been as happy at Peaceful Moments as it was possible for her to be now. She would miss Smith and the leisurely work and the feeling of being one of a team, working in a good cause. And that, brought Broster Street back to her mind, and she thought of the children. No, she could not abandon them. She had started the tenement articles, and she would go on with them. But she must do it without ever venturing into the dangerous neighborhood of the office.
A squirrel ran up and sat begging for a nut. Betty searched in the grass in the hope of finding one, but came upon nothing but shells. The squirrel bounded away, with a disdainful flick of the tail.
"You think of nothing but food. You ought to be ashamed to be so greedy."
And then it came to her suddenly that it was no trifle, this same problem of food.
The warm, green park seemed to grow chill and gray. Once again she must deal with life's material side.
Her case was at the same time better and worse than it had been on that other occasion when she had faced the future in the French train; better, because then New York had been to her something vague and terrifying, while now it was her city; worse, because she could no longer seek help from Mrs. Oakley.
That Mrs. Oakley had given John the information which had enabled him to discover her hiding-place, Betty felt certain. By what other possible means could he have found it? Why Mrs. Oakley, whom she had considered an ally, should have done so, she did not know. She attributed it to a change of mind, a reconsideration of the case when uninfluenced by sentiment. And yet it seemed strange. Perhaps John had gone to her and the sight of him had won the old lady over to his side. It might be so. At any rate, it meant that the cottage on Staten Island, like the office of Peaceful Moments, was closed to her. She must look elsewhere for help, or trust entirely to herself.
She sat on, thinking, with grave, troubled eyes, while the shadows lengthened and the birds rustled sleepily in the branches overhead.
* * * * *
Among the good qualities, none too numerous, of Mr. Bat Jarvis, of Groome Street in the Bowery, early rising was not included. It was his habit to retire to rest at an advanced hour, and to balance accounts by lying abed on the following morning. This idiosyncrasy of his was well known in the neighborhood and respected, and it was generally bold to be both bad taste and unsafe to visit Bat's shop until near the fashionable hour for luncheon, when the great one, shirt-sleeved and smoking a short pipe, would appear in the doorway, looking out upon the world and giving it to understand that he was now open to be approached by deserving acquaintances.
When, therefore, at ten o'clock in the morning his slumbers were cut short by a sharp rapping at the front door, his first impression was that he had been dreaming. When, after a brief interval, the noise was resumed, he rose in his might and, knuckling the sleep from his eyes, went down, tight-lipped, to interview this person.
He had got as far as a preliminary "Say!" when speech was wiped from his lips as with a sponge, and he stood gaping and ashamed, for the murderer of sleep and untimely knocker on front doors was Betty.
Mr. Jarvis had not forgotten Betty. His meeting with her at the office of Peaceful Moments had marked an epoch in his life. Never before had anyone quite like her crossed his path, and at that moment romance had come to him. His was essentially a respectful admiration. He was content--indeed, he preferred to worship from afar. Of his own initiative he would never have met her again. In her presence, with those gray eyes of hers looking at him, tremors ran down his spine, and his conscience, usually a battered and downtrodden wreck, became fiercely aggressive. She filled him with novel emotions, and whether these were pleasant or painful was more than he could say. He had not the gift of analysis where his feelings were concerned. To himself he put it, broadly, that she made him feel like a nickel with a hole in it. But that was not entirely satisfactory. There were other and pleasanter emotions mixed in with this humility. The thought of her made him feel, for instance, vaguely chivalrous. He wanted to do risky and useful things for her. Thus, if any fresh guy should endeavor to get gay with her, it would, he felt, be a privilege to fix that same guy. If she should be in bad, he would be more than ready to get busy on her behalf.
But he had never expected to meet her again, certainly not on his own doorstep at ten in the morning. To Bat ten in the morning was included with the small hours.
Betty smiled at him, a little anxiously. She had no suspicion that she played star to Mr. Jarvis' moth in the latter's life, and, as she eyed him, standing there on the doorstep, her excuse for coming to him began to seem terribly flimsy. Not being aware that he was in reality a tough Bayard, keenly desirous of obeying her lightest word, she had staked her all on the chance of his remembering the cat episode and being grateful on account of it; and in the cold light of the morning this idea, born in the watches of the night, when things tend to lose their proportion, struck her as less happy than she had fancied. Suppose he had forgotten all about it! Suppose he should be violent! For a moment her heart sank. He certainly was not a pleasing and encouraging sight, as he stood there blinking at her. No man looks his best immediately on rising from bed, and Bat, even at his best, was not a hero of romance. His forelock drooped dankly over his brow; there was stubble on his chin; his eyes were red, like a dog's. He did not look like the Fairy Prince who was to save her in her trouble.
"I--I hope you remember me, Mr. Jarvis," she faltered. "Your cat. I--"
He nodded speechlessly. Hideous things happened to his face. He was really trying to smile pleasantly, but it seemed a scowl to Betty, and her voice died away.
Mr. Jarvis spoke.
Betty followed him into the shop. There were birds in cages on the walls, and, patroling the floor, a great company of cats, each with its leather collar. One rubbed itself against Betty's skirt. She picked it up, and began to stroke it. And, looking over its head at Mr. Jarvis, she was aware that he was beaming sheepishly.
His eyes darted away the instant they met hers, but Betty had seen enough to show her that she had mistaken nervousness for truculence. Immediately, she was at her ease, and womanlike, had begun to control the situation. She made conversation pleasantly, praising the cats, admiring the birds, touching lightly on the general subject of domestic pets, until her woman's sixth sense told her that her host's panic had passed, and that she might now proceed to discuss business.
"I hope you don't mind my coming to you, Mr. Jarvis," she said. "You know you told me to if ever I were in trouble, so I've taken you at your word. You don't mind?"
Mr. Jarvis gulped, and searched for words.
"Glad," he said at last.
"I've left Peaceful Moments. You know I used to be stenographer there."
She was surprised and gratified to see a look of consternation spread itself across Mr. Jarvis' face. It was a hopeful sign that he should take her cause to heart to such an extent.
But Mr. Jarvis' consternation was not due wholly to solicitude for her. His thoughts at that moment, put, after having been expurgated, into speech, might have been summed up in the line: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these, 'It might have been'!"
"Ain't youse woikin' dere no more? Is dat right?" he gasped. "Gee! I wisht I'd 'a' known it sooner. Why, a guy come to me and wants to give me half a ton of the long green to go to dat poiper what youse was woikin' on and fix de guy what's runnin' it. An' I truns him down 'cos I don't want you to be frown out of your job. Say, why youse quit woikin' dere?" His eyes narrowed as an idea struck him. "Say," he went on, "you ain't bin fired? Has de boss give youse de trun-down? 'Cos if he has, say de woid and I'll fix him for youse, loidy. An' it won't set you back a nickel," he concluded handsomely.
"No, no," cried Betty, horrified. "Mr. Smith has been very kind to me. I left of my own free will."
Mr. Jarvis looked disappointed. His demeanor was like that of some mediaeval knight called back on the eve of starting out to battle with the Paynim for the honor of his lady.
"What was that you said about the man who came to you and offered you money?" asked Betty.
Her mind had flashed back to Mr. Parker's visit, and her heart was beating quickly.
"Sure! He come to me all right an' wants de guy on de poiper fixed. An' I truns him down."
"Oh! You won't dream of doing anything to hurt Mr. Smith, will you, Mr. Jarvis?" said Betty anxiously.
"Not if you say so, loidy."
"And your--friends? You won't let them do anything?"
Betty breathed freely again. Her knowledge of the East Side was small, and that there might be those there who acted independently of Mr. Jarvis, disdainful of his influence, did not occur to her. She returned to her own affairs, satisfied that danger no longer threatened.
"Mr. Jarvis, I wonder if you can help me. I want to find some work to do," she said.
"I have to earn my living, you see, and I'm afraid I don't know how to begin."
Mr. Jarvis pondered. "What sort of woik?"
"Any sort," said Betty valiantly. "I don't care what it is."
Mr. Jarvis knitted his brows in thought. He was not used to being an employment agency. But Betty was Betty, and even at the cost of a headache he must think of something.
At the end of five minutes inspiration came to him.
"Say," he said, "what do youse call de guy dat sits an' takes de money at an eatin'-joint? Cashier? Well, say, could youse be dat?"
"It would be just the thing. Do you know a place?"
"Sure. Just around de corner. I'll take you dere."
Betty waited while he put on his coat, and they started out. Betty chatted as they walked, but Mr. Jarvis, who appeared a little self-conscious beneath the unconcealed interest of the neighbors, was silent. At intervals he would turn and glare ferociously at the heads that popped out of windows or protruded from doorways. Fame has its penalties, and most of the population of that portion of the Bowery had turned out to see their most prominent citizen so romantically employed as a squire of dames.
After a short walk Bat halted the expedition before a dingy restaurant. The glass window bore in battered letters the name, Fontelli.
"Dis is de joint," he said.
Inside the restaurant a dreamy-eyed Italian sat gazing at vacancy and twirling a pointed mustache. In a far corner a solitary customer was finishing a late breakfast.
Signor Fontelli, for the sad-eyed exile was he, sprang to his feet at the sight of Mr. Jarvis' well-known figure. An ingratiating, but nervous, smile came into view behind the pointed mustache.
"Hey, Tony," said Mr. Jarvis, coming at once to the point, "I want you to know dis loidy. She's going to be cashier at dis joint."
Signor Fontelli looked at Betty and shook his head. He smiled deprecatingly. His manner seemed to indicate that, while she met with the approval of Fontelli, the slave of her sex, to Fontelli, the employer, she appealed in vain. He gave his mustache a sorrowful twirl.
"Ah, no," he sighed. "Not da cashier do I need. I take-a myself da money."
Mr. Jarvis looked at him coldly. He continued to look at him coldly. His lower jaw began slowly to protrude, and his forehead retreated further behind its zareba of forelock.
There was a pause. The signor was plainly embarrassed.
"Dis loidy," repeated Mr. Jarvis, "is cashier at dis joint at six per--" He paused. "Does dat go?" he added smoothly.
Certainly there was magnetism about Mr. Jarvis. With a minimum of words he produced remarkable results. Something seemed to happen suddenly to Signor Fontelli's spine. He wilted like a tired flower. A gesture, in which were blended resignation, humility, and a desire to be at peace with all men, particularly Mr. Jarvis, completed his capitulation.
Mr. Jarvis waited while Betty was instructed in her simple duties, then drew her aside.
"Say," he remarked confidentially, "youse'll be all right here. Six per ain't all de dough dere is in de woild, but, bein' cashier, see, you can swipe a whole heap more whenever you feel like it. And if Tony registers a kick, I'll come around and talk to him--see? Dat's right. Good-morning, loidy."
And, having delivered these admirable hints to young cashiers in a hurry to get rich, Mr. Jarvis ducked his head in a species of bow, declined to be thanked, and shuffled out into the street, leaving Betty to open her new career by taking thirty-seven cents from the late breakfaster.