The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XXIX. A Representative Gathering
When John returned to the office, he found that his absence had been causing Betty an anxious hour's waiting. She had been informed by Pugsy that he had gone out in the company of Mr. Parker, and she felt uneasy. She turned white at his story of the ride, but he minimized the dangers.
"I don't think he ever meant to shoot. I think he was going to shut me up somewhere out there, and keep me till I promised to be good."
"Do you think my stepfather told him to do it?"
"I doubt it. I fancy Parker is a man who acts a good deal on his own inspirations. But we'll ask him, when he calls to-day."
"Is he going to call?"
"I have an idea he will," said John. "I sent him a note just now, asking if he could manage a visit."
It was unfortunate, in the light of subsequent events, that Mr. Jarvis should have seen fit to bring with him to the office that afternoon two of his collection of cats, and that Long Otto, who, as before, accompanied him, should have been fired by his example to the extent of introducing a large yellow dog For before the afternoon was ended, space in the office was destined to be at premium.
Mr. Jarvis, when he had recovered from the surprise of seeing Betty and learning that she had returned to her old situation, explained:
"T'ought I'd bring de kits along," he said. "Dey starts fuss'n' wit' each odder yesterday, so I brings dem along."
John inspected the menagerie without resentment.
"Sure!" he said. "They add a kind of peaceful touch to the scene."
The atmosphere was, indeed, one of peace. The dog, after an inquisitive journey round the room, lay down and went to sleep. The cats settled themselves comfortably, one on each of Mr. Jarvis' knees. Long Otto, surveying the ceiling with his customary glassy stare, smoked a long cigar. And Bat, scratching one of the cats under the ear, began to entertain John with some reminiscences of fits and kittens.
But the peace did not last. Ten minutes had barely elapsed when the dog, sitting up with a start, uttered a whine. The door burst open and a little man dashed in. He was brown in the face, and had evidently been living recently in the open air. Behind him was a crowd of uncertain numbers. They were all strangers to John.
"Yes?" he said.
The little man glared speechlessly at the occupants of the room. The two Bowery boys rose awkwardly. The cats fell to the floor.
The rest of the party had entered. Betty recognized the Reverend Edwin T. Philpotts and Mr. B. Henderson Asher.
"My name is Renshaw," said the little man, having found speech.
"What can I do for you?" asked John.
The question appeared to astound the other.
"What can you--! Of all--!"
"Mr. Renshaw is the editor of Peaceful Moments," she said. "Mr. Smith was only acting for him."
Mr. Renshaw caught the name.
"Yes. Mr. Smith. I want to see Mr. Smith. Where is he?"
"In prison," said John.
"A good many things have happened since you left for your vacation. Smith assaulted a policeman, and is now on Blackwell's Island."
Mr. Renshaw gasped. Mr. B. Henderson Asher stared, and stumbled over the cat.
"And who are you?" asked the editor.
"My name is Maude. I--"
He broke off, to turn his attention to Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Asher, between whom unpleasantness seemed to have arisen. Mr. Jarvis, holding a cat in his arms, was scowling at Mr. Asher, who had backed away and appeared apprehensive.
"What is the trouble?" asked John.
"Dis guy here wit' two left feet," said Bat querulously, "treads on de kit."
Mr. Renshaw, eying Bat and the silent Otto with disgust, intervened.
"Who are these persons?" he enquired.
"Poison yourself," rejoined Bat, justly incensed. "Who's de little squirt, Mr. Maude?"
John waved his hands.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," he said, "why descend to mere personalities? I ought to have introduced you. This is Mr. Renshaw, our editor. These, Mr. Renshaw, are Bat Jarvis and Long Otto, our acting fighting editors, vice Kid Brady, absent on unavoidable business."
The name stung Mr. Renshaw to indignation, as Smith's had done.
"Brady!" he shrilled. "I insist that you give me a full explanation. I go away by my doctor's orders for a vacation, leaving Mr. Smith to conduct the paper on certain clearly defined lines. By mere chance, while on my vacation, I saw a copy of the paper. It had been ruined."
"Ruined?" said John. "On the contrary. The circulation has been going up every week."
"Who is this person, Brady? With Mr. Philpotts I have been going carefully over the numbers which have been issued since my departure--"
"An intellectual treat," murmured John.
"--and in each there is a picture of this young man in a costume which I will not particularize--"
"There is hardly enough of it to particularize."
"--together with a page of disgusting autobiographical matter."
John held up his hand.
"I protest," he said. "We court criticism, but this is mere abuse. I appeal to these gentlemen to say whether this, for instance, is not bright and interesting."
He picked up the current number of Peaceful Moments, and turned to the Kid's page.
"This," he said, "describes a certain ten-round unpleasantness with one Mexican Joe. 'Joe comes up for the second round and he gives me a nasty look, but I thinks of my mother and swats him one in the lower ribs. He gives me another nasty look. "All right, Kid," he says; "now I'll knock you up into the gallery." And with that he cuts loose with a right swing, but I falls into the clinch, and then--'"
"Pah!" exclaimed Mr. Renshaw.
"Go on, boss," urged Mr. Jarvis approvingly. "It's to de good, dat stuff."
"There!" said John triumphantly. "You heard? Mr. Jarvis, one of the most firmly established critics east of Fifth Avenue stamps Kid Brady's reminiscences with the hall-mark of his approval."
"I falls fer de Kid every time," assented Mr. Jarvis.
"Sure! You know a good thing when you see one. Why," he went on warmly, "there is stuff in these reminiscences which would stir the blood of a jellyfish. Let me quote you another passage, to show that they are not only enthralling, but helpful as well. Let me see, where is it? Ah, I have it. 'A bully good way of putting a guy out of business is this. You don't want to use it in the ring, because rightly speaking it's a foul, but you will find it mighty useful if any thick-neck comes up to you in the street and tries to start anything. It's this way. While he's setting himself for a punch, just place the tips of the fingers of your left hand on the right side of the chest. Then bring down the heel of your left hand. There isn't a guy living that could stand up against that. The fingers give you a leverage to beat the band. The guy doubles up, and you upper-cut him with your right, and out he goes.' Now, I bet you never knew that before, Mr. Philpotts. Try it on your parishioners."
"Peaceful Moments," said Mr. Renshaw irately, "is no medium for exploiting low prize-fighters."
"Low prize-fighters! No, no! The Kid is as decent a little chap as you'd meet anywhere. And right up in the championship class, too! He's matched against Eddie Wood at this very moment. And Mr. Waterman will support me in my statement that a victory over Eddie Wood means that he gets a cast-iron claim to meet Jimmy Garvin for the championship."
"It is abominable," burst forth Mr. Renshaw. "It is disgraceful. The paper is ruined."
"You keep saying that. It really isn't so. The returns are excellent. Prosperity beams on us like a sun. The proprietor is more than satisfied."
"Indeed!" said Mr. Renshaw sardonically.
"Sure," said John.
Mr. Renshaw laughed an acid laugh.
"You may not know it," he said, "but Mr. Scobell is in New York at this very moment. We arrived together yesterday on the Mauretania. I was spending my vacation in England when I happened to see the copy of the paper. I instantly communicated with Mr. Scobell, who was at Mervo, an island in the Mediterranean--"
"I seem to know the name--"
"--and received in reply a long cable desiring me to return to New York immediately. I sailed on the Mauretania, and found that he was one of the passengers. He was extremely agitated, let me tell you. So that your impudent assertion that the proprietor is pleased--"
John raised his eyebrows.
"I don't quite understand," he said. "From what you say, one would almost imagine that you thought Mr. Scobell was the proprietor of this paper."
Mr. Renshaw stared. Everyone stared, except Mr. Jarvis, who, since the readings from the Kid's reminiscences had ceased, had lost interest in the proceedings, and was now entertaining the cats with a ball of paper tied to a string.
"Thought that Mr. Scobell--?" repeated Mr. Renshaw. "Who is, if he is not?"
"I am," said John.
There was a moment's absolute silence.
"You!" cried Mr. Renshaw.
"You!" exclaimed Mr. Waterman, Mr. Asher, and the Reverend Edwin T. Philpotts.
"Sure thing," said John.
Mr. Renshaw groped for a chair, and sat down.
"Am I going mad?" he demanded feebly. "Do I understand you to say that you own this paper?"
"Roughly speaking, about three days."
Among his audience (still excepting Mr. Jarvis, who was tickling one of the cats and whistling a plaintive melody) there was a tendency toward awkward silence. To start assailing a seeming nonentity and then to discover he is the proprietor of the paper to which you wish to contribute is like kicking an apparently empty hat and finding your rich uncle inside it. Mr. Renshaw in particular was disturbed. Editorships of the kind to which he aspired are not easy to get. If he were to be removed from Peaceful Moments he would find it hard to place himself anywhere else. Editors, like manuscripts, are rejected from want of space.
"I had a little money to invest," continued John. "And it seemed to me that I couldn't do better than put it into Peaceful Moments. If it did nothing else, it would give me a free hand in pursuing a policy in which I was interested. Smith told me that Mr. Scobell's representatives had instructions to accept any offer, so I made an offer, and they jumped at it."
Pugsy Maloney entered, bearing a card.
"Ask him to wait just one moment," said John, reading it.
He turned to Mr. Renshaw.
"Mr. Renshaw," he said, "if you took hold of the paper again, helped by these other gentlemen, do you think you could gather in our old subscribers and generally make the thing a live proposition on the old lines? Because, if so, I should be glad if you would start in with the next number. I am through with the present policy. At least, I hope to be in a few minutes. Do you think you can undertake that?"
Mr. Renshaw, with a sigh of relief, intimated that he could.
"Good," said John. "And now I'm afraid I must ask you to go. A rather private and delicate interview is in the offing. Bat, I'm very much obliged to you and Otto for your help. I don't know what we should have done without it."
"Aw, Chee!" said Mr. Jarvis.
"Then good-by for the present."
"Good-by, boss. Good-by, loidy."
Long Otto pulled his forelock, and, accompanied by the cats and the dog, they left the room.
When Mr. Renshaw and the others had followed them, John rang the bell for Pugsy.
"Ask Mr. Scobell to step in," he said.
The man of many enterprises entered. His appearance had deteriorated since John had last met him. He had the air of one who has been caught in the machinery. His face was even sallower than of yore, and there was no gleam in his dull green eyes.
He started at the sight of Betty, but he was evidently too absorbed in the business in hand to be surprised at seeing her. He sank into a chair, and stared gloomily at John.
"Well?" he said.
"Well?" said John.
"This," observed Mr. Scobell simply, "is hell." He drew a cigar stump mechanically from his vest pocket and lighted it.
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
"What are you?" said John. "It's up to you."
Mr. Scobell gazed heavily into vacancy.
"Ever since I started in to monkey with that darned Mervo," he said sadly, "there ain't a thing gone right. I haven't been able to turn around without bumping into myself. Everything I touch turns to mud. I guess I can still breathe, but I'm not betting on that lasting long. Of all the darned hoodoos that island was the worst. Say, I gotta close down that Casino. What do you know about that! Sure thing. The old lady won't stand for it. I had a letter from her." He turned to Betty. "You got her all worked up, Betty. I'm not blaming you. It's just my jinx. She took it into her head I'd been treating you mean, and she kicked at the Casino. I gotta close it down or nix on the heir thing. That was enough for me. I'm going to turn it into a hotel."
He relighted his cigar.
"And now, just as I got her smoothed down, along comes this darned tenement business. Say, Prince, for the love of Mike cut it out. If those houses are as bad as you say they are, and the old lady finds out that I own them, it'll be Katie bar the door for me. She wouldn't stand for it for a moment. I guess I didn't treat you good, Prince, but let's forget it. Ease up on this rough stuff. I'll do anything you want."
"We only want you to make the houses fit to live in," she said. "I don't believe you know what they're like."
"Why, no. I left Parker in charge. It was up to him to do what was wanted. Say, Prince, I want to talk to you about that guy, Parker. I understand he's been rather rough with you and your crowd. That wasn't my doing. I didn't know anything about it till he told me. It's the darned Wild West strain in him coming out. He used to do those sort of things out there, and he's forgotten his manners. I pay him well, and I guess he thinks that's the way it's up to him to earn it. You mustn't mind Parker."
"Oh, well! So long as he means well--!" said John. "I've no grudge against Parker. I've settled with him."
"Well, then, what about this Broster Street thing? You want me to fix some improvements, is that it?"
"Why, say, I'll do that. Sure. And then you'll quit handing out the newspaper stories? That goes. I'll start right in."
"That's taken a heap off my mind," he said.
"There's just one other thing," said John. "Have you by any chance such a thing as a stepfather's blessing on you?"
John took Betty's hand.
"We've come round to your views, Mr. Scobell," he said. "That scheme of yours for our future looks good to us."
Mr. Scobell bit through his cigar in his emotion.
"Now, why the Heck," he moaned, "couldn't you have had the sense to do that before, and save all this trouble?"