The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IV. Vive le Roi!
When, an hour later, John landed in New York from the ferry, his mood had changed. The sun and the breeze had done their work. He looked on life once more with a cheerful and optimistic eye.
His first act, on landing, was to proceed to the office of the News and enquire for Rupert Smith. He felt that he had urgent need of a few minutes' conversation with him. Now that the painter had been definitely cut that bound him to the safe and conventional, and he had set out on his own account to lead the life adventurous, he was conscious of an absurd diffidence. New York looked different to him. It made him feel positively shy. A pressing need for a friendly native in this strange land manifested itself. Smith would have ideas and advice to bestow--he was notoriously prolific of both--and in this crisis both were highly necessary.
Smith, however, was not at the office. He had gone out, John was informed, earlier in the morning to cover a threatened strike somewhere down on the East Side. John did not go in search of him. The chance of finding him in that maze of mean streets was remote. He decided to go uptown, select a hotel, and lunch. To the need for lunch he attributed a certain sinking sensation of which he was becoming more and more aware, and which bore much too close a resemblance to dismay to be pleasant. The poet's statement that "the man who's square, his chances always are best; no circumstance can shoot a scare into the contents of his vest," is only true within limits. The squarest men, deposited suddenly in New York and faced with the prospect of earning his living there, is likely to quail for a moment. New York is not like other cities. London greets the stranger with a sleepy grunt. Paris giggles. New York howls. A gladiator, waiting in the center of the arena while the Colosseum officials fumbled with the bolts of the door behind which paced the noisy tiger he was to fight, must have had some of the emotions which John experienced during his first hour as a masterless man in Gotham.
A surface car carried him up Broadway. At Times Square the Astor Hotel loomed up on the left. It looked a pretty good hotel to John. He dismounted.
Half an hour later he decided that he was acclimated. He had secured a base of operations in the shape of a room on the seventh floor, his check was safely deposited in the hotel bank, and he was half-way through a lunch which had caused him already to look on New York not only as the finest city in the world, but also, on the whole, as the one city of all others in which a young man might make a fortune with the maximum of speed and the minimum of effort.
After lunch, having telegraphed his address to his uncle in case of mail, he took the latter's excellent advice and went to the polo grounds. Returning in time to dress, he dined at the hotel, after which he visited a near-by theater, and completed a pleasant and strenuous day at one of those friendly restaurants where the music is continuous and the waiters are apt to burst into song in the intervals of their other duties.
A second attempt to find Smith next morning failed, as the first had done. The staff of the News were out of bed and at work ridiculously early, and when John called up the office between eleven and twelve o'clock--nature's breakfast-hour--Smith was again down East, observing the movements of those who were about to strike or who had already struck.
It hardly seemed worth while starting to lay the bed plates of his fortune till he had consulted the expert. What would Rockefeller have done? He would, John felt certain, have gone to the ball-game.
He imitated the great financier.
* * * * *
It was while he was smoking a cigar after dinner that night, musing on the fortunes of the day's game and, in particular, on the almost criminal imbecility of the umpire, that he was dreamily aware that he was being "paged." A small boy in uniform was meandering through the room, chanting his name.
"Gent wants five minutes wit' you," announced the boy, intercepted. "Hasn't got no card. Business, he says."
This disposed of the idea that Rupert Smith had discovered his retreat. John was puzzled. He could not think of another person in New York who knew of his presence at the Astor. But it was the unknown that he was in search of, and he decided to see the mysterious stranger.
"Send him along," he said.
The boy disappeared, and presently John observed him threading his way back among the tables, followed by a young man of extraordinary gravity of countenance, who was looking about him with an intent gaze through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
John got up to meet him.
"My name is Maude," he said. "Won't you sit down? Have you had dinner?"
"Thank you, yes," said the spectacled young man.
"You'll have a cigar and coffee, then?"
"Thank you, yes."
The young man remained silent until the waiter had filled his cup.
"My name is Crump," he said. "I am Mr. Benjamin Scobell's private secretary."
"Yes?" said John. "Snug job?"
The other seemed to miss something in his voice.
"You have heard of Mr. Scobell?" he asked.
"Not to my knowledge," said John.
"Ah! you have lost touch very much with Mervo, of course."
It sounded like some patent medicine.
"I have been instructed," said Mr. Crump solemnly, "to inform Your Highness that the Republic has been dissolved, and that your subjects offer you the throne of your ancestors."
John leaned back in his chair, and looked at the speaker in dumb amazement. The thought flashed across him that Mr. Crump had been perfectly correct in saying that he had dined.
His attitude appeared to astound Mr. Crump. He goggled through his spectacles at John, who was reminded of some rare fish.
"You are John Maude? You said you were."
"I'm John Maude right enough. We're solid on that point."
"And your mother was the only sister of Mr. Andrew Westley?"
"You're right there, too."
"Then there is no mistake. I say the Republic--" He paused, as if struck with an idea. "Don't you know?" he said. "Your father--"
John became suddenly interested.
"If you've got anything to tell me about my father, go right ahead. You'll be the only man I've ever met who has said a word about him. Who the deuce was he, anyway?"
Mr. Crump's face cleared.
"I understand. I had not expected this. You have been kept in ignorance. Your father, Mr. Maude, was the late Prince Charles of Mervo."
It was not easy to astonish John, but this announcement did so. He dropped his cigar in a shower of gray ash on to his trousers, and retrieved it almost mechanically, his wide-open eyes fixed on the other's face.
"What!" he cried.
Mr. Crump nodded gravely.
"You are Prince John of Mervo, and I am here--" he got into his stride as he reached the familiar phrase--"to inform Your Highness that the Republic has been dissolved, and that your subjects offer you the throne of your ancestors."
A horrid doubt seized John.
"You're stringing me. One of those Indians at the News, Rupert Smith, or someone, has put you up to this."
Mr. Crump appeared wounded.
"If Your Highness would glance at these documents-- This is a copy of the register of the church in which your mother and father were married."
John glanced at the document. It was perfectly lucid.
"Then--then it's true!" he said.
"Perfectly true, Your Highness. And I am here to inform--"
"But where the deuce is Mervo? I never heard of the place."
"It is an island principality in the Mediterranean, Your High--"
"For goodness' sake, old man, don't keep calling me 'Your Highness.' It may be fun to you, but it makes me feel a perfect ass. Let me get into the thing gradually."
Mr. Crump felt in his pocket.
"Mr. Scobell," he said, producing a roll of bills, "entrusted me with money to defray any expenses--"
More than any words, this spectacle removed any lingering doubt which John might have had as to the possibility of this being some intricate practical joke.
"Are these for me?" he said.
Mr. Crump passed them across to him.
"There are a thousand dollars here," he said. "I am also instructed to say that you are at liberty to draw further against Mr. Scobell's account at the Wall Street office of the European and Asiatic Bank."
The name Scobell had been recurring like a leit-motif in Mr. Crump's conversation. This suddenly came home to John.
"Before we go any further," he said, "let's get one thing clear. Who is this Mr. Scobell? How does he get mixed up in this?"
"He is the proprietor of the Casino at Mervo."
"He seems to be one of those generous, open-handed fellows. Nothing of the tight wad about him."
"He is deeply interested in Your High--in your return."
John laid the roll of bills beside his coffee cup, and relighted his cigar.
"That's mighty good of him," he said. "It strikes me, old man, that I am not absolutely up-to-date as regards the internal affairs of this important little kingdom of mine. How would it be if you were to put me next to one or two facts? Start at the beginning and go right on."
When Mr. Crump had finished a condensed history of Mervo and Mervian politics, John smoked in silence for some minutes.
"Life, Crump," he said at last, "is certainly speeding up as far as I am concerned. Up till now nothing in particular has ever happened to me. A couple of days ago I lost my job, was given ten thousand dollars that I didn't know existed, and now you tell me I'm a prince. Well, well! These are stirring times. When do we start for the old homestead?"
"Mr. Scobell was exceedingly anxious that we should return by Saturday's boat."
"Saturday? What, to-morrow?"
"Perhaps it is too soon. You will not be able to settle your affairs?"
"I guess I can settle my affairs all right. I've only got to pack a grip and tip the bell hops. And as Scobell seems to be financing this show, perhaps it's up to me to step lively if he wants it. But it's a pity. I was just beginning to like this place. There is generally something doing along the White Way after twilight, Crump."
The gravity of Mr. Scobell's secretary broke up unexpectedly into a slow, wide smile. His eyes behind their glasses gleamed with a wistful light.
"Gee!" he murmured.
John looked at him, amazed.
"Crump," he cried. "Crump, I believe you're a sport!"
Mr. Crump seemed completely to have forgotten his responsible position as secretary to a millionaire and special messenger to a prince. He smirked.
"I'd have liked a day or two in the old burg," he said softly. "I haven't been to Rector's since Ponto was a pup."
John reached across the table and seized the secretary's hand.
"Crump," he said, "you are a sport. This is no time for delay. If we are to liven up this great city, we must get busy right away. Grab your hat, and come along. One doesn't become a prince every day. The occasion wants celebrating. Are you with me, Crump, old scout?"
"Sure thing," said the envoy ecstatically.
* * * * *
At eight o'clock on the following morning, two young men, hatless and a little rumpled, but obviously cheerful, entered the Astor Hotel, demanding breakfast.
A bell boy who met them was addressed by the larger of the two, and asked his name.
"Desmond Ryan," he replied.
The young man patted him on his shoulder.
"I appoint you, Desmond Ryan," he said, "Grand Hereditary Bell Hop to the Court of Mervo."
Thus did Prince John formally enter into his kingdom.