The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter III. John
Ten days after Mr. Scobell's visit to General Poineau, John, Prince of Mervo, ignorant of the greatness so soon to be thrust upon him, was strolling thoughtfully along one of the main thoroughfares of that outpost of civilization, Jersey City. He was a big young man, tall and large of limb. His shoulders especially were of the massive type expressly designed by nature for driving wide gaps in the opposing line on the gridiron. He looked like one of nature's center-rushes, and had, indeed, played in that position for Harvard during two strenuous seasons. His face wore an expression of invincible good-humor. He had a wide, good-natured mouth, and a pair of friendly gray eyes. One felt that he liked his follow men and would be surprised and pained if they did not like him.
As he passed along the street, he looked a little anxious. Sherlock Holmes--and possibly even Doctor Watson--would have deduced that he had something on his conscience.
At the entrance to a large office building, he paused, and seemed to hesitate. Then, as if he had made up his mind to face an ordeal, he went in and pressed the button of the elevator.
Leaving the elevator at the third floor, he went down the passage, and pushed open a door on which was inscribed the legend, "Westley, Martin & Co."
A stout youth, walking across the office with his hands full of papers, stopped in astonishment.
"Hello, John Maude!" he cried.
The young man grinned.
"Say, where have you been? The old man's been as mad as a hornet since he found you had quit without leave. He was asking for you just now."
"I guess I'm up against it," admitted John cheerfully.
"Where did you go yesterday?"
John put the thing to him candidly, as man to man.
"See here, Spiller, suppose you got up one day and found it was a perfectly bully morning, and remembered that the Giants were playing the Athletics, and looked at your mail, and saw that someone had sent you a pass for the game--"
"Were you at the ball-game? You've got the nerve! Didn't you know there would be trouble?"
"Old man," said John frankly, "I could no more have turned down that pass-- Oh, well, what's the use? It was just great. I suppose I'd better tackle the boss now. It's got to be done."
It was not a task to which many would have looked forward. Most of those who came into contact with Andrew Westley were afraid of him. He was a capable rather than a lovable man, and too self-controlled to be quite human. There was no recoil in him, no reaction after anger, as there would have been in a hotter-tempered man. He thought before he acted, but, when he acted, never yielded a step.
John, in all the years of their connection, had never been able to make anything of him. At first, he had been prepared to like him, as he liked nearly everybody. But Mr. Westley had discouraged all advances, and, as time went by, his nephew had come to look on him as something apart from the rest of the world, one of those things which no fellow could understand.
On Mr. Westley's side, there was something to be said in extenuation of his attitude. John reminded him of his father, and he had hated the late Prince of Mervo with a cold hatred that had for a time been the ruling passion of his life. He had loved his sister, and her married life had been one long torture to him, a torture rendered keener by the fact that he was powerless to protect either her happiness or her money. Her money was her own, to use as she pleased, and the use which pleased her most was to give it to her husband, who could always find a way of spending it. As to her happiness, that was equally out of his control. It was bound up in her Prince, who, unfortunately, was a bad custodian for it. At last, an automobile accident put an end to His Highness's hectic career (and, incidentally, to that of a blonde lady from the Folies Bergeres), and the Princess had returned to her brother's home, where, a year later, she died, leaving him in charge of her infant son.
Mr. Westley's desire from the first had been to eliminate as far as possible all memory of the late Prince. He gave John his sister's name, Maude, and brought him up as an American, in total ignorance of his father's identity. During all the years they had spent together, he had never mentioned the Prince's name.
He disliked John intensely. He fed him, clothed him, sent him to college, and gave him a place in his office, but he never for a moment relaxed his bleakness of front toward him. John was not unlike his father in appearance, though built on a larger scale, and, as time went on, little mannerisms, too, began to show themselves, that reminded Mr. Westley of the dead man, and killed any beginnings of affection.
John, for his part, had the philosophy which goes with perfect health. He fitted his uncle into the scheme of things, or, rather, set him outside them as an irreconcilable element, and went on his way enjoying life in his own good-humored fashion.
It was only lately, since he had joined the firm, that he had been conscious of any great strain. College had given him a glimpse of a larger life, and the office cramped him. He felt vaguely that there were bigger things in the world which he might be doing. His best friends, of whom he now saw little, were all men of adventure and enterprise, who had tried their hand at many things; men like Jimmy Pitt, who had done nearly everything that could be done before coming into an unexpected half-million; men like Rupert Smith, who had been at Harvard with him and was now a reporter on the News; men like Baker, Faraday, Williams--he could name half-a-dozen, all men who were doing something, who were out on the firing line.
He was not a man who worried. He had not that temperament. But sometimes he would wonder in rather a vague way whether he was not allowing life to slip by him a little too placidly. An occasional yearning for something larger would attack him. There seemed to be something in him that made for inaction. His soul was sleepy.
If he had been told of the identity of his father, it is possible that he might have understood. The Princes of Mervo had never taken readily to action and enterprise. For generations back, if they had varied at all, son from father, it had been in the color of hair or eyes, not in character--a weak, shiftless procession, with nothing to distinguish them from the common run of men except good looks and a talent for wasting money.
John was the first of the line who had in him the seeds of better things. The Westley blood and the bracing nature of his education had done much to counteract the Mervo strain. He did not know it, but the American in him was winning. The desire for action was growing steadily every day.
It had been Mervo that had sent him to the polo grounds on the previous day. That impulse had been purely Mervian. No prince of that island had ever resisted a temptation. But it was America that was sending him now to meet his uncle with a quiet unconcern as to the outcome of the interview. The spirit of adventure was in him. It was more than possible that Mr. Westley would sink the uncle in the employer and dismiss him as summarily as he would have dismissed any other clerk in similar circumstances. If so, he was prepared to welcome dismissal. Other men fought an unsheltered fight with the world, so why not he?
He moved towards the door of the inner office with a certain exhilaration.
As he approached, it flew open, disclosing Mr. Westley himself, a tall, thin man, at the sight of whom Spiller shot into his seat like a rabbit.
John went to meet him.
"Ah," said Mr. Westley; "come in here. I want to speak to you."
John followed him into the room.
"Sit down," said his uncle.
John waited while he dictated a letter. Neither spoke till the stenographer had left the room. John met the girl's eye as she passed. There was a compassionate look in it. John was popular with his fellow employes. His absence had been the cause of discussion and speculation among them, and the general verdict had been that there would be troublous times for him on the morrow.
When the door closed, Mr. Westley leaned back in his chair, and regarded his nephew steadily from under a pair of bushy gray eyebrows which lent a sort of hypnotic keenness to his gaze.
"You were at the ball-game yesterday?" he said.
The unexpectedness of the question startled John into a sharp laugh.
"Yes," he said, recovering himself.
"It didn't seem worth while asking for leave."
"You mean that you relied so implicitly on our relationship to save you from the consequences?"
"No, I meant--"
"Well, we need not try and discover what you may have meant. What claim do you put forward for special consideration? Why should I treat you differently from any other member of the staff?"
John had a feeling that the interview was being taken at too rapid a pace. He felt confused.
"I don't want you to treat me differently," he said.
Mr. Westley did not reply. John saw that he had taken a check-book from its pigeonhole.
"I think we understand each other," said Mr. Westley. "There is no need for any discussion. I am writing you a check for ten thousand dollars--"
"Ten thousand dollars!"
"It happens to be your own. It was left to me in trust for you by your mother. By a miracle your father did not happen to spend it."
John caught the bitter note which the other could not keep out of his voice, and made one last attempt to probe this mystery. As a boy he had tried more than once before he realized that this was a forbidden topic.
"Who was my father?" he said.
Mr. Westley blotted the check carefully.
"Quite the worst blackguard I ever had the misfortune to know," he replied in an even tone. "Will you kindly give me a receipt for this? Then I need not detain you. You may return to the ball-game without any further delay. Possibly," he went on, "you may wonder why you have not received this money before. I persuaded your mother to let me use my discretion in choosing the time when it should be handed over to you. I decided to wait until, in my opinion, you had sense enough to use it properly. I do not think that time has arrived. I do not think it will ever arrive. But as we are parting company and shall, I hope, never meet again, you had better have it now."
John signed the receipt in silence.
"Thank you," said Mr. Westley. "Good-by."
At the door John hesitated. He had looked forward to this moment as one of excitement and adventure, but now that it had come it had left him in anything but an uplifted mood. He was naturally warm-hearted, and his uncle's cold anger hurt him. It was so different from anything sudden, so essentially not of the moment. He felt instinctively that it had been smoldering for a long time, and realized with a shock that his uncle had not been merely indifferent to him all these years, but had actually hated him. It was as if he had caught a glimpse of something ugly. He felt that this was the last scene of some long drawn-out tragedy.
Something made him turn impulsively back towards the desk.
"Uncle--" he cried.
He stopped. The hopelessness of attempting any step towards a better understanding overwhelmed him. Mr. Westley had begun to write. He must have seen John's movement, but he continued to write as if he were alone in the room.
John turned to the door again.
"Good-by," he said.
Mr. Westley did not look up.