Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim

PICCADILLY JIM PELHAM GRENVILLE WODEHOUSE CHAPTER I A RED-HAIRED GIRL The residence of Mr. Peter Pett the well-known financier on Riverside Drive is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus it jumps out and bites at you. Architects confronted with it reel and throw up their hands defensively and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral a suburban villa a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York's Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it for she was a woman who liked to be noticed. Through the rich interior of this mansion Mr. Pett its nominal proprietor was wandering like a lost spirit. The hour was about ten of a fine Sunday morning but the Sabbath calm which was upon the house had not communicated itself to him. There was a look of exasperation on his usually patient face and a muttered oath picked up no doubt on the godless Stock Exchange escaped his lips. "Darn it!" He was afflicted by a sense of the pathos of his position. It was not as if he demanded much from life. He asked but little here below. At that moment all that he wanted was a quiet spot where he might read his Sunday paper in solitary peace and he could not find one. Intruders lurked behind every door. The place was congested. This sort of thing had been growing worse and worse ever since his marriage two years previously. There was a strong literary virus in Mrs. Pett's system. She not only wrote voluminously herself--the name Nesta Ford Pett is familiar to all lovers of sensational fiction--but aimed at maintaining a salon. Starting in pursuance of this aim with a single specimen--her nephew Willie Partridge who was working on a new explosive which would eventually revolutionise war--she had gradually added to her collections until now she gave shelter beneath her terra-cotta roof to no fewer than six young and unrecognised geniuses. Six brilliant youths mostly novelists who had not yet started and poets who were about to begin cluttered up Mr. Pett's rooms on this fair June morning while he clutching his Sunday paper wandered about finding like the dove in Genesis no rest. It was at such times that he was almost inclined to envy his wife's first husband a business friend of his named Elmer Ford who had perished suddenly of an apoplectic seizure: and the pity which he generally felt for the deceased tended to shift its focus. Marriage had certainly complicated life for Mr. Pett as it frequently does for the man who waits fifty years before trying it. In addition to the geniuses Mrs. Pett had brought with her to her new home her only son Ogden a fourteen-year-old boy of a singularly unloveable type. Years of grown-up society and the absence of anything approaching discipline had given him a precocity on which the earnest efforts of a series of private tutors had expended themselves in vain. They came full of optimism and self-confidence to retire after a brief interval shattered by the boy's stodgy resistance to education in any form or shape. To Mr. Pett never at his ease with boys Ogden Ford was a constant irritant. He disliked his stepson's personality and he more than suspected him of stealing his cigarettes. It was an additional annoyance that he was fully aware of the impossibility of ever catching him at it. Mr. Pett resumed his journey. He had interrupted it for a moment to listen at the door of the morning-room but a remark in a high tenor voice about the essential Christianity of the poet Shelley filtering through the oak he had moved on. Silence from behind another door farther down the passage encouraged him to place his fingers on the handle but a crashing chord from an unseen piano made him remove them swiftly. He roamed on and a few minutes later the process of elimination had brought him to what was technically his own private library--a large soothing room full of old books of which his father had been a great collector. Mr. Pett did not read old books himself but he liked to be among them and it is proof of his pessimism that he had not tried the library first. To his depressed mind it had seemed hardly possible that there could be nobody there. He stood outside the door listening tensely. He could hear nothing. He went in and for an instant experienced that ecstatic thrill which only comes to elderly gentlemen of solitary habit who in a house full of their juniors find themselves alone at last. Then a voice spoke shattering his dream of solitude. "Hello pop!" Ogden Ford was sprawling in a deep chair in the shadows. "Come in pop come in. Lots of room." Mr. Pett stood in the doorway regarding his step-son with a sombre eye. He resented the boy's tone of easy patronage all the harder to endure with philosophic calm at the present moment from the fact that the latter was lounging in his favourite chair. Even from an aesthetic point of view the sight of the bulging child offended him. Ogden Ford was round and blobby and looked overfed. He had the plethoric habit of one to whom wholesome exercise is a stranger and the sallow complexion of the confirmed candy-fiend. Even now a bare half hour after breakfast his jaws were moving with a rhythmical champing motion. "What are you eating boy?" demanded Mr. Pett his disappointment turning to irritability. "Candy." "I wish you would not eat candy all day." "Mother gave it to me" said Ogden simply. As he had anticipated the shot silenced the enemy's battery. Mr. Pett grunted but made no verbal comment. Ogden celebrated his victory by putting another piece of candy in his mouth. "Got a grouch this morning haven't you pop?" "I will not be spoken to like that!" "I thought you had" said his step-son complacently. "I can always tell. I don't see why you want to come picking on me though. I've done nothing." Mr. Pett was sniffing suspiciously. "You've been smoking." "Me!!" "Smoking cigarettes." "No sir!" "There are two butts in the ash-tray." "I didn't put them there." "One of them is warm." "It's a warm day." "You dropped it there when you heard me come in." "No sir! I've only been here a few minutes. I guess one of the fellows was in here before me. They're always swiping your coffin-nails. You ought to do something about it pop. You ought to assert yourself." A sense of helplessness came upon Mr. Pett. For the thousandth time he felt himself baffled by this calm goggle-eyed boy who treated him with such supercilious coolness. "You ought to be out in the open air this lovely morning" he said feebly. "All right. Let's go for a walk. I will if you will." "I--I have other things to do" said Mr. Pett recoiling from the prospect. "Well this fresh-air stuff is overrated anyway. Where's the sense of having a home if you don't stop in it?" "When I was your age I would have been out on a morning like this--er--bowling my hoop." "And look at you now!" "What do you mean?" "Martyr to lumbago." "I am not a martyr to lumbago" said Mr. Pett who was touchy on the subject. "Have it your own way. All I know is--" "Never mind!" "I'm only saying what mother . . ." "Be quiet!" Ogden made further researches in the candy box. "Have some pop?" "No." "Quite right. Got to be careful at your age." "What do you mean?" "Getting on you know. Not so young as you used to be. Come in pop if you're coming in. There's a draft from that door." Mr. Pett retired fermenting. He wondered how another man would have handled this situation. The ridiculous inconsistency of the human character infuriated him. Why should he be a totally different man on Riverside Drive from the person he was in Pine Street? Why should he be able to hold his own in Pine Street with grown men--whiskered square-jawed financiers--and yet be unable on Riverside Drive to eject a fourteen-year-old boy from an easy chair? It seemed to him sometimes that a curious paralysis of the will came over him out of business hours. Meanwhile he had still to find a place where he could read his Sunday paper. He stood for a while in thought. Then his brow cleared and he began to mount the stairs. Reaching the top floor he walked along the passage and knocked on a door at the end of it. From behind this door as from behind those below sounds proceeded but this time they did not seem to discourage Mr. Pett. It was the tapping of a typewriter that he heard and he listened to it with an air of benevolent approval. He loved to hear the sound of a typewriter: it made home so like the office. "Come in" called a girl's voice. The room in which Mr. Pett found himself was small but cosy and its cosiness--oddly considering the sex of its owner--had that peculiar quality which belongs as a rule to the dens of men. A large bookcase almost covered one side of it its reds and blues and browns smiling cheerfully at whoever entered. The walls were hung with prints judiciously chosen and arranged. Through a window to the left healthfully open at the bottom the sun streamed in bringing with it the pleasantly subdued whirring of automobiles out on the Drive. At a desk at right angles to this window her vivid red-gold hair rippling in the breeze from the river sat the girl who had been working at the typewriter. She turned as Mr. Pett entered and smiled over her shoulder. Ann Chester Mr. Pett's niece looked her best when she smiled. Although her hair was the most obviously striking feature of her appearance her mouth was really the most individual thing about her. It was a mouth that suggested adventurous possibilities. In repose it had a look of having just finished saying something humorous a kind of demure appreciation of itself. When it smiled a row of white teeth flashed out: or if the lips did not part a dimple appeared on the right cheek giving the whole face an air of mischievous geniality. It was an enterprising swashbuckling sort of mouth the mouth of one who would lead forlorn hopes with a jest or plot whimsically lawless conspiracies against convention. In its corners and in the firm line of the chin beneath it there lurked too more than a hint of imperiousness. A physiognomist would have gathered correctly that Ann Chester liked having her own way and was accustomed to get it. "Hello uncle Peter" she said. "What's the trouble?" "Am I interrupting you Ann?" "Not a bit. I'm only copying out a story for aunt Nesta. I promised her I would. Would you like to hear some of it?" Mr. Pett said he would not. "You're missing a good thing" said Ann turning the pages. "I'm all worked up over it. It's called 'At Dead of Night' and it's full of crime and everything. You would never think aunt Nesta had such a feverish imagination. There are detectives and kidnappers in it and all sorts of luxuries. I suppose it's the effect of reading it but you look to me as if you were trailing something. You've got a sort of purposeful air." Mr. Pett's amiable face writhed into what was intended to be a bitter smile. "I'm only trailing a quiet place to read in. I never saw such a place as this house. It looks big enough outside for a regiment. Yet when you're inside there's a poet or something in every room." "What about the library? Isn't that sacred to you?" "The boy Ogden's there." "What a shame!" "Wallowing in my best chair" said Mr. Pett morosely. "Smoking cigarettes." "Smoking? I thought he had promised aunt Nesta he wouldn't smoke." "Well he said he wasn't of course but I know he had been. I don't know what to do with that boy. It's no good my talking to him. He--he patronises me!" concluded Mr. Pett indignantly. "Sits there on his shoulder blades with his feet on the table and talks to me with his mouth full of candy as if I were his grandson." "Little brute." Ann was sorry for Mr. Pett. For many years now ever since the death of her mother they had been inseparable. Her father who was a traveller explorer big-game hunter and general sojourner in the lonelier and wilder spots of the world and paid only infrequent visits to New York had left her almost entirely in Mr. Pett's care and all her pleasantest memories were associated with him. Mr. Chester's was in many ways an admirable character but not a domestic one; and his relations with his daughter were confined for the most part to letters and presents. In the past few years she had come almost to regard Mr. Pett in the light of a father. Hers was a nature swiftly responsive to kindness; and because Mr. Pett besides being kind was also pathetic she pitied as well as loved him. There was a lingering boyishness in the financier the boyishness of the boy who muddles along in an unsympathetic world and can never do anything right: and this quality called aloud to the youth in her. She was at the valiant age when we burn to right wrongs and succour the oppressed and wild rebel schemes for the reformation of her small world came readily to her. From the first she had been a smouldering spectator of the trials of her uncle's married life and if Mr. Pett had ever asked her advice and bound himself to act on it he would have solved his domestic troubles in explosive fashion. For Ann in her moments of maiden meditation had frequently devised schemes to that end which would have made his grey hair stand erect with horror. "I've seen a good many boys" she said "but Ogden is in a class by himself. He ought to be sent to a strict boarding-school of course." "He ought to be sent to Sing-Sing" amended Mr. Pett. "Why don't you send him to school?" "Your aunt wouldn't hear of it. She's afraid of his being kidnapped. It happened last time he went to school. You can't blame her for wanting to keep her eye on him after that." Ann ran her fingers meditatively over the keys. "I've sometimes thought . . ." "Yes?" "Oh nothing. I must get on with this thing for aunt Nesta." Mr. Pett placed the bulk of the Sunday paper on the floor beside him and began to run an appreciative eye over the comic supplement. That lingering boyishness in him which endeared him to Ann always led him to open his Sabbath reading in this fashion. Grey-headed though he was he still retained both in art and in real life a taste for the slapstick. No one had ever known the pure pleasure it had given him when Raymond Green his wife's novelist protege had tripped over a loose stair-rod one morning and fallen an entire flight. From some point farther down the corridor came a muffled thudding. Ann stopped her work to listen. "There's Jerry Mitchell punching the bag." "Eh?" said Mr. Pett. "I only said I could hear Jerry Mitchell in the gymnasium." "Yes he's there." Ann looked out of the window thoughtfully for a moment. Then she swung round in her swivel-chair. "Uncle Peter." Mr. Pett emerged slowly from the comic supplement. "Eh?" "Did Jerry Mitchell ever tell you about that friend of his who keeps a dogs' hospital down on Long Island somewhere? I forget his name. Smithers or Smethurst or something. People--old ladies you know and people--bring him their dogs to be cured when they get sick. He has an infallible remedy Jerry tells me. He makes a lot of money at it." "Money?" Pett the student became Pett the financier at the magic word. "There might be something in that if one got behind it. Dogs are fashionable. There would be a market for a really good medicine." "I'm afraid you couldn't put Mr. Smethurst's remedy on the market. It only works when the dog has been overeating himself and not taking any exercise." "Well that's all these fancy dogs ever have the matter with them. It looks to me as if I might do business with this man. I'll get his address from Mitchell." "It's no use thinking of it uncle Peter. You couldn't do business with him--in that way. All Mr. Smethurst does when any one brings him a fat unhealthy dog is to feed it next to nothing--just the simplest kind of food you know--and make it run about a lot. And in about a week the dog's as well and happy and nice as he can possibly be." "Oh" said Mr. Pett disappointed. Ann touched the keys of her machine softly. "Why I mentioned Mr. Smethurst" she said "it was because we had been talking of Ogden. Don't you think his treatment would be just what Ogden needs?" Mr. Pett's eyes gleamed. "It's a shame he can't have a week or two of it!" Ann played a little tune with her finger-tips on the desk. "It would do him good wouldn't it?" Silence fell upon the room broken only by the tapping of the typewriter. Mr. Pett having finished the comic supplement turned to the sporting section for he was a baseball fan of no lukewarm order. The claims of business did not permit him to see as many games as he could wish but he followed the national pastime closely on the printed page and had an admiration for the Napoleonic gifts of Mr. McGraw which would have gratified that gentleman had he known of it. "Uncle Peter" said Ann turning round again. "Eh?" "It's funny you should have been talking about Ogden getting kidnapped. This story of aunt Nesta's is all about an angel-child--I suppose it's meant to be Ogden--being stolen and hidden and all that. It's odd that she should write stories like this. You wouldn't expect it of her." "Your aunt" said Mr. Pett "lets her mind run on that sort of thing a good deal. She tells me there was a time not so long ago when half the kidnappers in America were after him. She sent him to school in England--or rather her husband did. They were separated then--and as far as I can follow the story they all took the next boat and besieged the place." "It's a pity somebody doesn't smuggle him away now and keep him ...