The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XXIV. The Campaign Quickens
Mr. Jarvis was as good as his word. Early in the afternoon he made his appearance at the office of Peaceful Moments, his forelock more than usually well oiled in honor of the occasion, and his right coat-pocket bulging in a manner that betrayed to the initiated eye the presence of his trusty "canister." With him, in addition, he brought a long, thin young man who wore under his brown tweed coat a blue-and-red striped sweater. Whether he brought him as an ally in case of need or merely as a kindred soul with whom he might commune during his vigil, did not appear.
Pugsy, startled out of his wonted calm by the arrival of this distinguished company, gazed after the pair, as they passed into the inner office, with protruding eyes.
John greeted the allies warmly, and explained Smith's absence. Mr. Jarvis listened to the story with interest, and introduced his colleague.
"T'ought I'd let him chase along. Long Otto's his monaker."
"Sure!" said John. "The more the merrier. Take a seat. You'll find cigars over there. You won't mind my not talking for the moment? There's a wad of work to clear up."
This was an overstatement. He was comparatively free of work, press day having only just gone by; but he was keenly anxious to avoid conversation on the subject of cats, of his ignorance of which Mr. Jarvis's appearance had suddenly reminded him. He took up an old proof sheet and began to glance through it, frowning thoughtfully.
Mr. Jarvis regarded the paraphernalia of literature on the table with interest. So did Long Otto, who, however, being a man of silent habit, made no comment. Throughout the seance and the events which followed it he confined himself to an occasional grunt. He seemed to lack other modes of expression.
"Is dis where youse writes up pieces fer de poiper?" enquired Mr. Jarvis.
"This is the spot," said John. "On busy mornings you could hear our brains buzzing in Madison Square Garden. Oh, one moment."
He rose and went into the outer office.
"Pugsy," he said, "do you know Broster Street?"
"Could you find out for me exactly when the man comes round collecting the rents?"
"Surest t'ing you know. I knows a kid what knows anodder kid what lives dere."
"Then go and do it now. And, after you've found out, you can take the rest of the day off."
"Me fer dat," said Master Maloney with enthusiasm. "I'll take me goil to de Bronx Zoo."
"Your girl? I didn't know you'd got a girl, Pugsy. I always imagined you as one of those strong, stern, blood-and-iron men who despised girls. Who is she?"
"Aw, she's a kid," said Pugsy. "Her pa runs a delicatessen shop down our street. She ain't a bad mutt," added the ardent swain. "I'm her steady."
"Well, mind you send me a card for the wedding. And if two dollars would be a help--"
"Sure t'ing. T'anks, boss. You're all right."
It had occurred to John that the less time Pugsy spent in the outer office during the next few days, the better. The lull in the warfare could not last much longer, and at any moment a visit from Spider Reilly and his adherents might be expected. Their probable first move in such an event would be to knock Master Maloney on the head to prevent his giving warning of their approach.
Events proved that he had not been mistaken. He had not been back in the inner office for more than a quarter of an hour when there came from without the sound of stealthy movements. The handle of the door began--to revolve slowly and quietly. The next moment three figures tumbled into the room.
It was evident that they had not expected to find the door unlocked, and the absence of resistance when they applied their weight had surprising effects. Two of the three did not pause in their career till they cannoned against the table. The third checked himself by holding the handle.
John got up coolly.
"Come right in," he said. "What can we do for you?" It had been too dark on the other occasion of his meeting with the Three Pointers to take note of their faces, though he fancied that he had seen the man holding the door-handle before. The others were strangers. They were all exceedingly unprepossessing in appearance.
There was a pause. The three marauders had become aware of the presence of Mr. Jarvis and his colleague, and the meeting was causing them embarrassment, which may have been due in part to the fact that both had produced and were toying meditatively with ugly-looking pistols.
Mr. Jarvis spoke.
"Well," he said, "what's doin'?"
The man to whom the question was directly addressed appeared to have some difficulty in finding a reply. He shuffled his feet, and looked at the floor. His two companions seemed equally at a loss.
"Goin' to start anything?" enquired Mr. Jarvis, casually.
The humor of the situation suddenly tickled John. The embarrassment of the uninvited guests was ludicrous.
"You've just dropped in for a quiet chat, is that it?" he said. "Well, we're all delighted to see you. The cigars are on the table. Draw up your chairs."
Mr. Jarvis opposed the motion. He drew slow circles in the air with his revolver.
"Say! Youse had best beat it. See?"
Long Otto grunted sympathy with the advice.
"And youse had best go back to Spider Reilly," continued Mr. Jarvis, "and tell him there ain't nothin' doing in the way of rough-house wit' dis gent here. And you can tell de Spider," went on Bat with growing ferocity, "dat next time he gits fresh and starts in to shootin' up my dance-joint, I'll bite de head off'n him. See? Dat goes. If he t'inks his little two-by-four crowd can git way wit' de Groome Street, he's got anodder guess comin'. An' don't fergit dis gent here and me is friends, and anyone dat starts anyt'ing wit' dis gent is going to find trouble. Does dat go? Beat it."
He jerked his shoulder in the direction of the door.
The delegation then withdrew.
"Thanks," said John. "I'm much obliged to you both. You're certainly there with the goods as fighting editors. I don't know what I should have done without you."
"Aw, Chee!" said Mr. Jarvis, handsomely dismissing the matter. Long Otto kicked the leg of a table, and grunted.
Pugsy Maloney's report on the following morning was entirely satisfactory. Rents were collected in Broster Street on Thursdays. Nothing could have been more convenient, for that very day happened to be Thursday.
"I rubbered around," said Pugsy, "an' done de sleut' act, an' it's this way. Dere's a feller blows in every T'ursday 'bout six o'clock, an' den it's up to de folks to dig down inter deir jeans for de stuff, or out dey goes before supper. I got dat from my kid frien' what knows a kid what lives dere. An' say, he has it pretty fierce, dat kid. De kid what lives dere. He's a wop kid, an Italian, an' he's in bad 'cos his pa comes over from Italy to woik on de subway."
"I don't see why that puts him in bad," said John wonderingly. "You don't construct your stories well, Pugsy. You start at the end, then go back to any part which happens to appeal to you at the moment, and eventually wind up at the beginning. Why is this kid in bad because his father has come to work on the subway?"
"Why, sure, because his pa got fired an' swatted de foreman one on de coco, an' dey gives him t'oity days. So de kid's all alone, an' no one to pay de rent."
"I see," said John. "Well, come along with me and introduce me, and I'll look after that."
At half-past five John closed the office for the day, and, armed with a big stick and conducted by Master Maloney, made his way to Broster Street. To reach it, it was necessary to pass through a section of the enemy's country, but the perilous passage was safely negotiated. The expedition reached its unsavory goal intact.
The wop kid inhabited a small room at the very top of a building half-way down the street. He was out when John and Pugsy arrived.
It was not an abode of luxury, the tenement; they had to feel their way up the stairs in almost pitch darkness. Most of the doors were shut, but one on the second floor was ajar. Through the opening John had a glimpse of a number of women sitting on up-turned boxes. The floor was covered with little heaps of linen. All the women were sewing. Stumbling in the darkness, John almost fell against the door. None of the women looked up at the noise. In Broster Street time was evidently money.
On the top floor Pugsy halted before the open door of an empty room. The architect in this case had apparently given rein to a passion for originality, for he had constructed the apartment without a window of any sort whatsoever. The entire stock of air used by the occupants came through a small opening over the door.
It was a warm day, and John recoiled hastily.
"Is this the kid's room?" he said. "I guess the corridor's good enough for me to wait in. What the owner of this place wants," he went on reflectively, "is scalping. Well, we'll do it in the paper if we can't in any other way. Is this your kid?"
A small boy had appeared. He seemed surprised to see visitors. Pugsy undertook to do the honors. Pugsy, as interpreter, was energetic, but not wholly successful. He appeared to have a fixed idea that the Italian language was one easily mastered by the simple method of saying "da" instead of "the," and adding a final "a" to any word that seemed to him to need one.
"Say, kid," he began, "has da rent-a-man come yet-a?"
The black eyes of the wop kid clouded. He gesticulated, and said something in his native language.
"He hasn't got next," reported Master Maloney. "He can't git on to me curves. Dese wop kids is all bone-heads. Say, kid, look-a here." He walked to the door, rapped on it smartly, and, assuming a look of extreme ferocity, stretched out his hand and thundered: "Unbelt-a! Slip-a me da stuff!"
The wop kid's puzzlement in the face of this address became pathetic.
"This," said John, deeply interested, "is getting exciting. Don't give in, Pugsy. I guess the trouble is that your too perfect Italian accent is making the kid homesick."
Master Maloney made a gesture of disgust.
"I'm t'roo. Dese Dagoes makes me tired. Dey don't know enough to go upstairs to take de elevated. Beat it, you mutt," he observed with moody displeasure, accompanying the words with a gesture which conveyed its own meaning. The wop kid, plainly glad to get away, slipped down the stairs like a shadow.
Pugsy shrugged his shoulders.
"Boss," he said resignedly, "it's up to youse."
"It's all right," he said. "Of course, if the collector had been here, the kid wouldn't be. All I've got to do is to wait."
He peered over the banisters into the darkness below.
"Not that it's not enough," he said; "for of all the poisonous places I ever met this is the worst. I wish whoever built it had thought to put in a few windows. His idea of ventilation was apparently to leave a hole about the size of a lima bean and let the thing go at that."
"I guess there's a door on to de roof somewhere," suggested Pugsy. "At de joint where I lives dere is."
His surmise proved correct. At the end of the passage a ladder, nailed against the wall, ended in a large square opening, through which was visible, if not "that narrow strip of blue which prisoners call the sky," at any rate a tall brick chimney and a clothesline covered with garments that waved lazily in the breeze.
John stood beneath it, looking up.
"Well," he said, "this isn't much, but it's better than nothing. I suppose the architect of this place was one of those fellows who don't begin to appreciate air till it's thick enough to scoop chunks out with a spoon. It's an acquired taste, I guess, like Limburger cheese. And now, Pugsy, old scout, you had better beat it. There may be a rough-house here any minute now."
Pugsy looked up, indignant.
"While your shoe-leather's good," said John firmly. "This is no place for a minister's son. Take it from me."
"I want to stop and pipe de fun," objected Master Maloney.
"I guess you ain't here to play ball," surmised Pugsy shrewdly, eying the big stick.
"Never mind why I'm here," said John. "Beat it. I'll tell you all about it to-morrow."
Master Maloney prepared reluctantly to depart. As he did so there was a sound of well-shod feet on the stairs, and a man in a snuff-colored suit, wearing a brown Homburg hat and carrying a small notebook in one hand, walked briskly up the stairs. His whole appearance proclaimed him to be the long-expected collector of rents.