Mike (Wodehouse)/Chapter 51
MAINLY ABOUT BOOTS
"Be quick, Smith," he said, as the latter stood looking at him without making any movement in the direction of the door.
"Quick, sir?" said Psmith meditatively, as if he had been asked a conundrum.
"Go and find Mr. Outwood at once."
Psmith still made no move.
"Do you intend to disobey me, Smith?" Mr. Downing's voice was steely.
There was one of those you-could-have-heard-a-pin-drop silences. Psmith was staring reflectively at the ceiling. Mr. Downing was looking as if at any moment he might say, "Thwarted to me face, ha, ha! And by a very stripling!"
It was Psmith, however, who resumed the conversation. His manner was almost too respectful; which made it all the more a pity that what he said did not keep up the standard of docility.
"I take my stand," he said, "on a technical point. I say to myself, 'Mr. Downing is a man I admire as a human being and respect as a master. In——'"
"This impertinence is doing you no good, Smith."
Psmith waved a hand deprecatingly.
"If you will let me explain, sir. I was about to say that in any other place but Mr. Outwood's house, your word would be law. I would fly to do your bidding. If you pressed a button, I would do the rest. But in Mr. Outwood's house I cannot do anything except what pleases me or what is ordered by Mr. Outwood. I ought to have remembered that before. One cannot," he continued, as who should say, "Let us be reasonable," "one cannot, to take a parallel case, imagine the colonel commanding the garrison at a naval station going on board a battleship and ordering the crew to splice the jibboom spanker. It might be an admirable thing for the Empire that the jibboom spanker should be spliced at that particular juncture, but the crew would naturally decline to move in the matter until the order came from the commander of the ship. So in my case. If you will go to Mr. Outwood, and explain to him how matters stand, and come back and say to me, 'Psmith, Mr. Outwood wishes you to ask him to be good enough to come to this study,' then I shall be only too glad to go and find him. You see my difficulty, sir?"
"Go and fetch Mr. Outwood, Smith. I shall not tell you again."
Psmith flicked a speck of dust from his coat-sleeve.
"Very well, Smith."
"I can assure you, sir, at any rate, that if there is a boot in that cupboard now, there will be a boot there when you return."
Mr. Downing stalked out of the room.
"But," added Psmith pensively to himself, as the footsteps died away, "I did not promise that it would be the same boot."
He took the key from his pocket, unlocked the cupboard, and took out the boot. Then he selected from the basket a particularly battered specimen. Placing this in the cupboard, he re-locked the door.
His next act was to take from the shelf a piece of string. Attaching one end of this to the boot that he had taken from the cupboard, he went to the window. His first act was to fling the cupboard-key out into the bushes. Then he turned to the boot. On a level with the sill the water-pipe, up which Mike had started to climb the night before, was fastened to the wall by an iron band. He tied the other end of the string to this, and let the boot swing free. He noticed with approval, when it had stopped swinging, that it was hidden from above by the window-sill.
He returned to his place at the mantelpiece.
As an after-thought he took another boot from the basket, and thrust it up the chimney. A shower of soot fell into the grate, blackening his hand.
The bathroom was a few yards down the corridor. He went there, and washed off the soot.
When he returned, Mr. Downing was in the study, and with him Mr. Outwood, the latter looking dazed, as if he were not quite equal to the intellectual pressure of the situation.
"Where have you been, Smith?" asked Mr. Downing sharply.
"I have been washing my hands, sir."
"H'm!" said Mr. Downing suspiciously.
"Yes, I saw Smith go into the bathroom," said Mr. Outwood. "Smith, I cannot quite understand what it is Mr. Downing wishes me to do."
"My dear Outwood," snapped the sleuth, "I thought I had made it perfectly clear. Where is the difficulty?"
"I cannot understand why you should suspect Smith of keeping his boots in a cupboard, and," added Mr. Outwood with spirit, catching sight of a Good-Gracious-has-the-man-no-sense look on the other's face, "why he should not do so if he wishes it."
"Exactly, sir," said Psmith, approvingly. "You have touched the spot."
"If I must explain again, my dear Outwood, will you kindly give me your attention for a moment. Last night a boy broke out of your house, and painted my dog Sampson red."
"He painted——!" said Mr. Outwood, round-eyed. "Why?"
"I don't know why. At any rate, he did. During the escapade one of his boots was splashed with the paint. It is that boot which I believe Smith to be concealing in this cupboard. Now, do you understand?"
Mr. Outwood looked amazedly at Smith, and Psmith shook his head sorrowfully at Mr. Outwood. Psmith's expression said, as plainly as if he had spoken the words, "We must humour him."
"So with your permission, as Smith declares that he has lost the key, I propose to break open the door of this cupboard. Have you any objection?"
Mr. Outwood started.
"Objection? None at all, my dear fellow, none at all. Let me see, what is it you wish to do?"
"This," said Mr. Downing shortly.
There was a pair of dumb-bells on the floor, belonging to Mike. He never used them, but they always managed to get themselves packed with the rest of his belongings on the last day of the holidays. Mr. Downing seized one of these, and delivered two rapid blows at the cupboard-door. The wood splintered. A third blow smashed the flimsy lock. The cupboard, with any skeletons it might contain, was open for all to view.
Mr. Downing uttered a cry of triumph, and tore the boot from its resting-place.
"I told you," he said. "I told you."
"I wondered where that boot had got to," said Psmith. "I've been looking for it for days."
Mr. Downing was examining his find. He looked up with an exclamation of surprise and wrath.
"This boot has no paint on it," he said, glaring at Psmith. "This is not the boot."
"It certainly appears, sir," said Psmith sympathetically, "to be free from paint. There's a sort of reddish glow just there, if you look at it sideways," he added helpfully.
"Did you place that boot there, Smith?"
"I must have done. Then, when I lost the key——"
"Are you satisfied now, Downing?" interrupted Mr. Outwood with asperity, "or is there any more furniture you wish to break?"
The excitement of seeing his household goods smashed with a dumb-bell had made the archæological student quite a swashbuckler for the moment. A little more, and one could imagine him giving Mr. Downing a good, hard knock.
The sleuth-hound stood still for a moment, baffled. But his brain was working with the rapidity of a buzzsaw. A chance remark of Mr. Outwood's set him fizzing off on the trail once more. Mr. Outwood had caught sight of the little pile of soot in the grate. He bent down to inspect it.
"Dear me," he said, "I must remember to have the chimneys swept. It should have been done before."
Mr. Downing's eye, rolling in a fine frenzy from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, also focussed itself on the pile of soot; and a thrill went through him. Soot in the fireplace! Smith washing his hands! ("You know my methods, my dear Watson. Apply them.")
Mr. Downing's mind at that moment contained one single thought; and that thought was "What ho for the chimney!"
He dived forward with a rush, nearly knocking Mr. Outwood off his feet, and thrust an arm up into the unknown. An avalanche of soot fell upon his hand and wrist, but he ignored it, for at the same instant his fingers had closed upon what he was seeking.
"Ah," he said. "I thought as much. You were not quite clever enough, after all, Smith."
"No, sir," said Psmith patiently. "We all make mistakes."
"You would have done better, Smith, not to have given me all this trouble. You have done yourself no good by it."
"It's been great fun, though, sir," argued Psmith.
"Fun!" Mr. Downing laughed grimly. "You may have reason to change your opinion of what constitutes——"
His voice failed as his eye fell on the all-black toe of the boot. He looked up, and caught Psmith's benevolent gaze. He straightened himself and brushed a bead of perspiration from his face with the back of his hand. Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand, and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.
"Did - you - put - that - boot - there, Smith?" he asked slowly.
"Then what did you MEAN by putting it there?" roared Mr. Downing.
"Animal spirits, sir," said Psmith.
"Animal spirits, sir."
What Mr. Downing would have replied to this one cannot tell, though one can guess roughly. For, just as he was opening his mouth, Mr. Outwood, catching sight of his Chirgwin-like countenance, intervened.
"My dear Downing," he said, "your face. It is positively covered with soot, positively. You must come and wash it. You are quite black. Really you present a most curious appearance, most. Let me show you the way to my room."In all times of storm and tribulation there comes a breaking-point, a point where the spirit definitely refuses to battle any longer against the slings and arrows of
"Soot!" he murmured weakly. "Soot!"
"Your face is covered, my dear fellow, quite covered."
"It certainly has a faintly sooty aspect, sir," said Psmith.
His voice roused the sufferer to one last flicker of spirit.
"You will hear more of this, Smith," he said. "I say you will hear more of it."
Then he allowed Mr. Outwood to lead him out to a place where there were towels, soap, and sponges.
When they had gone, Psmith went to the window, and hauled in the string. He felt the calm after-glow which comes to the general after a successfully conducted battle. It had been trying, of course, for a man of refinement, and it had cut into his afternoon, but on the whole it had been worth it.
The problem now was what to do with the painted boot. It would take a lot of cleaning, he saw, even if he could get hold of the necessary implements for cleaning it. And he rather doubted if he would be able to do so. Edmund, the boot-boy, worked in some mysterious cell far from the madding crowd, at the back of the house. In the boot-cupboard downstairs there would probably be nothing likely to be of any use.
His fears were realised. The boot-cupboard was empty. It seemed to him that, for the time being, the best thing he could do would be to place the boot in safe hiding, until he should have thought out a scheme.
Having restored the basket to its proper place, accordingly, he went up to the study again, and placed the red-toed boot in the chimney, at about the same height where Mr. Downing had found the other. Nobody would think of looking there a second time, and it was improbable that Mr. Outwood really would have the chimneys swept, as he had said. The odds were that he had forgotten about it already.
Psmith went to the bathroom to wash his hands again, with the feeling that he had done a good day's work.