The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XXVII. A Lemon
That bulwark of Peaceful Moments, Pugsy Maloney, was rather the man of action than the man of tact. Otherwise, when, a moment later, he thrust his head up through the trap, he would have withdrawn delicately, and not split the silence with a raucous "Hey!" which acted on John and Betty like an electric shock.
John glowered at him. Betty was pink, but composed. Pugsy climbed leisurely on to the roof, and surveyed the group.
"Why, hello!" he said, as he saw Betty more closely.
"Well, Pugsy," said Betty. "How are you?"
John turned in surprise.
"Do you know Pugsy?"
Betty looked at him, puzzled.
"Why, of course I do."
"Sure," said Pugsy. "Miss Brown was stenographer on de poiper till she beat it."
There was utter bewilderment in John's face.
"I changed my name when I went to Peaceful Moments."
"Then are you--did you--?"
"Yes, I wrote those articles. That's how I happen to be here now. I come down every day and help look after the babies. Poor little souls, there seems to be nobody else here who has time to do it. It's dreadful. Some of them--you wouldn't believe--I don't think they could ever have had a real bath in their lives."
"Baths is foolishness," commented Master Maloney austerely, eying the scoured infants with a touch of disfavor.
John was reminded of a second mystery that needed solution.
"How on earth did you get up here, Pugsy?" he asked. "How did you get past Sam?"
"Sam? I didn't see no Sam. Who's Sam?"
"One of those fellows. A coon. They left him on guard with a gun, so that I shouldn't get down."
"Ah, I met a coon beating it down de stairs. I guess dat was him. I guess he got cold feet."
"Then there's nothing to stop us from getting down."
"Nope. Dat's right. Dere ain't a T'ree Pointer wit'in a mile. De cops have been loadin' dem into de patrol-wagon by de dozen."
John turned to Betty.
"We'll go and have dinner somewhere. You haven't begun to explain things yet."
Betty shook her head with a smile.
"I haven't got time to go out to dinners," she said. "I'm a working-girl. I'm cashier at Fontelli's Italian Restaurant. I shall be on duty in another half-hour."
John was aghast.
"It's a very good situation," said Betty demurely. "Six dollars a week and what I steal. I haven't stolen anything yet, and I think Mr. Jarvis is a little disappointed in me. But of course I haven't settled down properly."
"Jarvis? Bat Jarvis?"
"Yes. He has been very good to me. He got me this place, and has looked after me all the time."
"I'll buy him a thousand cats," said John fervently. "But, Betty, you mustn't go there any more. You must quit. You--"
"If Peaceful Moments would reengage me?" said Betty.
She spoke lightly, but her face was serious.
"Dear," she said quickly, "I can't be away from you now, while there's danger. I couldn't bear it. Will you let me come?"
"You will. You must." Her manner changed again. "That's settled, then. Pugsy, I'm coming back to the paper. Are you glad?"
"Sure t'ing," said Pugsy. "You're to de good."
"And now," she went on, "I must give these babies back to their mothers, and then I'll come with you."
She lowered herself through the trap, and John handed the children down to her. Pugsy looked on, smoking a thoughtful cigarette.
John drew a deep breath. Pugsy, removing the cigarette from his mouth, delivered himself of a stately word of praise.
"She's a boid," he said.
"Pugsy," said John, feeling in his pocket, and producing a roll of bills, "a dollar a word is our rate for contributions like that."
* * * * *
John pushed back his chair slightly, stretched out his legs, and lighted a cigarette, watching Betty fondly through the smoke. The resources of the Knickerbocker Hotel had proved equal to supplying the staff of Peaceful Moments with an excellent dinner, and John had stoutly declined to give or listen to any explanations until the coffee arrived.
"Thousands of promising careers," he said, "have been ruined by the fatal practise of talking seriously at dinner. But now we might begin."
Betty looked at him across the table with shining eyes. It was good to be together again.
"My explanations won't take long," she said. "I ran away from you. And, when you found me, I ran away again."
"But I didn't find you," objected John. "That was my trouble."
"But my aunt told you I was at Peaceful Moments!"
"On the contrary, I didn't even know you had an aunt."
"Well, she's not exactly that. She's my stepfather's aunt--Mrs. Oakley. I was certain you had gone straight to her, and that she had told you where I was."
"The Mrs. Oakley? The--er--philanthropist?"
"Don't laugh at her," said Betty quickly. "She was so good to me!"
"She passes," said John decidedly.
"And now," said Betty, "it's your turn."
John lighted another cigarette.
"My story," he said, "is rather longer. When they threw me out of Mervo--"
"I'm afraid you don't keep abreast of European history," he said. "Haven't you heard of the great revolution in Mervo and the overthrow of the dynasty? Bloodless, but invigorating. The populace rose against me as one man--except good old General Poineau. He was for me, and Crump was neutral, but apart from them my subjects were unanimous. There's a republic again in Mervo now."
"But why? What had you done?"
"Well, I abolished the gaming-tables. But, more probably," he went on quickly, "they saw what a perfect dub I was in every--"
She interrupted him.
"Do you mean to say that, just because of me--?"
"Well," he said awkwardly, "as a matter of fact what you said did make me think over my position, and, of course, directly I thought over it--oh, well, anyway, I closed down gambling in Mervo, and then--"
He was aware of a small hand creeping round the table under cover of the cloth. He pressed it swiftly, and, looking round, caught the eye of a hovering waiter, who swooped like a respectful hawk.
"Did you want anything, sir?"
"I've got it, thanks," said John.
The waiter moved away.
"Well, directly they had fired me, I came over here. I don't know what I expected to do. I suppose I thought I might find you by chance. I pretty soon saw how hopeless it was, and it struck me that, if I didn't get some work to do mighty quick, I shouldn't be much good to anyone except the alienists."
The waiter stared, but John's eyes stopped him in mid-swoop.
"Then I found Smith--"
"Where is Mr. Smith?"
"In prison," said John with a chuckle.
"He resisted and assaulted the police. I'll tell you about it later. Well, Smith told me of the alterations in Peaceful Moments, and I saw that it was just the thing for me. And it has occupied my mind quite some. To think of you being the writer of those Broster Street articles! You certainly have started something, Betty! Goodness knows where it will end. I hoped to have brought off a coup this afternoon, but the arrival of Sam and his friends just spoiled it."
"This afternoon? Yes, why were you there? What were you doing?"
"I was interviewing the collector of rents and trying to dig his employer's name out of him. It was Smith's idea. Smith's theory was that the owner of the tenements must have some special private reason for lying low, and that he would employ some special fellow, whom he could trust, as a rent-collector. And I'm pretty certain he was right. I cornered the collector, a little, rabbit-faced man named Gooch, and I believe he was on the point of--What's the matter?"
Betty's forehead was wrinkled. Her eyes wore a far-away expression.
"I'm trying to remember something. I seem to know the name, Gooch. And I seem to associate it with a little, rabbit-faced man. And--quick, tell me some more about him. He's just hovering about on the edge of my memory. Quick! Push him in!"
John threw his mind back to the interview in the dark passage, trying to reconstruct it.
"He's small," he said slowly. "His eyes protrude--so do his teeth--He--he--yes, I remember now--he has a curious red mark--"
"On his right cheek," said Betty triumphantly.
"By Jove!" cried John. "You've got him?"
"I remember him perfectly. He was--" She stopped with a little gasp.
"John, he was one of my stepfather's secretaries," she said.
They looked at each other in silence.
"It can't be," said John at length.
"It can. It is. He must be. He has scores of interests everywhere. He prides himself on it. It's the most natural thing."
John shook his head doubtfully.
"But why all the fuss? Your stepfather isn't the man to mind public opinion--"
"But don't you see? It's as Mr. Smith said. The private reason. It's as clear as daylight. Naturally he would do anything rather than be found out. Don't you see? Because of Mrs. Oakley."
"Because of Mrs. Oakley?"
"You don't know her as I do. She is a curious mixture. She's double-natured. You called her the philanthropist just now. Well, she would be one, if--if she could bear to part with money. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous. But it's so. She is mean about money, but she honestly hates to hear of anybody treating poor people badly. If my stepfather were really the owner of those tenements, and she should find it out, she would have nothing more to do with him. It's true. I know her."
The smile passed away from John's face.
"By George!" he said. "It certainly begins to hang together."
"I know I'm right."
"I think you are."
He sat meditating for a moment.
"Well?" he said at last.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what are we to do? Do we go on with this?"
"Go on with it? I don't understand."
"I mean--well, it has become rather a family matter, you see. Do you feel as--warlike against Mr. Scobell as you did against an unknown lessee?"
Betty's eyes sparkled.
"I don't think I should feel any different if--if it was you," she said. "I've been spending days and days in those houses, John dear, and I've seen such utter squalor and misery, where there needn't be any at all if only the owner would do his duty, and--and--"
She stopped. Her eyes were misty.
"Thumbs down, in fact," said John, nodding. "I'm with you."
As he spoke, two men came down the broad staircase into the grill-room. Betty's back was towards them, but John saw them, and stared.
"What are you looking at?" asked Betty.
"Will you count ten before looking round?"
"What is it?"
"Your stepfather has just come in."
"He's sitting at the other side of the room, directly behind you. Count ten!"
But Betty had twisted round in her chair.
"Just where you're looking. Don't let him see you."
"I don't-- Oh!"
He leaned back in his chair.
"The plot thickens, eh?" he said. "What is Mr. Scobell doing in New York, I wonder, if he has not come to keep an eye on his interests?"
Betty had whipped round again. Her face was white with excitement.
"It's true," she whispered. "I was right. Do you see who that is with him? The man?"
"Do you know him? He's a stranger to me."
"It's Mr. Parker," said Betty.
John drew in his breath sharply.
"Are you sure?"
John laughed quietly. He thought for a moment, then beckoned to the hovering waiter.
"What are you going to do?" asked Betty.
"Bring me a small lemon," said John.
"Lemon squash, sir?"
"Not a lemon squash. A plain lemon. The fruit of that name. The common or garden citron, which is sharp to the taste and not pleasant to have handed to one. Also a piece of note paper, a little tissue paper, and an envelope.
"What are you going to do?" asked Betty again.
"Did you ever read the Sherlock Holmes story entitled 'The Five Orange Pips'? Well, when a man in that story received a mysterious envelope containing five orange pips, it was a sign that he was due to get his. It was all over, as far as he was concerned, except 'phoning for the undertaker. I propose to treat Mr. Scobell better than that. He shall have a whole lemon."
The waiter returned. John wrapped up the lemon carefully, wrote on the note paper the words, "To B. Scobell, Esq., Property Owner, Broster Street, from Prince John of Peaceful Moments, this gift," and enclosed it in the envelope.
"Do you see that gentleman at the table by the pillar?" he said. "Give him these. Just say a gentleman sent them."
The waiter smiled doubtfully. John added a two-dollar bill to the collection in his hand.
"You needn't give him that," he said.
The waiter smiled again, but this time not doubtfully.
"And now," said John as the messenger ambled off, "perhaps it would be just as well if we retired."