THE ARTIST CLAIMS HIS WORK
The line of action which Psmith had called Stout Denial is an excellent
line to adopt, especially if you really are innocent, but it does not
lead to anything in the shape of a bright and snappy dialogue between
accuser and accused. Both Mike and the headmaster were oppressed by a
feeling that the situation was difficult. The atmosphere was heavy, and
conversation showed a tendency to flag. The headmaster had opened
brightly enough, with a summary of the evidence which Mr. Downing had
laid before him, but after that a massive silence had been the order of
the day. There is nothing in this world quite so stolid and
uncommunicative as a boy who has made up his mind to be stolid and
uncommunicative; and the headmaster, as he sat and looked at Mike, who
sat and looked past him at the bookshelves, felt awkward. It was a scene
which needed either a dramatic interruption or a neat exit speech. As it
happened, what it got was the dramatic interruption.
The headmaster was just saying, "I do not think you fully realize,
Jackson, the extent to which appearances ..."--which was practically
going back to the beginning and starting again--when there was a knock
at the door. A voice without said, "Mr. Downing to see you, sir," and
the chief witness for the prosecution burst in.
"I would not have interrupted you," said Mr. Downing, "but--"
"Not at all, Mr. Downing. Is there anything I can ..."
"I have discovered ... I have been informed ... In short, it was not
Jackson, who committed the--who painted my dog."
Mike and the headmaster both looked at the speaker. Mike with a feeling
of relief--for Stout Denial, unsupported by any weighty evidence, is a
wearing game to play--the headmaster with astonishment.
"Not Jackson?" said the headmaster.
"No. It was a boy in the same house. Smith."
Psmith! Mike was more than surprised. He could not believe it. There is
nothing which affords so clear an index to a boy's character as the type
of rag which he considers humorous. Between what is a rag and what is
merely a rotten trick there is a very definite line drawn. Masters, as a
rule, do not realize this, but boys nearly always do. Mike could not
imagine Psmith doing a rotten thing like covering a housemaster's dog
with red paint, any more than he could imagine doing it himself. They
had both been amused at the sight of Sammy after the operation, but
anybody, except possibly the owner of the dog, would have thought it
funny at first. After the first surprise, their feeling had been that it
was a rotten thing to have done and beastly rough luck on the poor
brute. It was a kid's trick. As for Psmith having done it, Mike simply
did not believe it."
"Smith!" said the headmaster. "What makes you think that?"
"Simply this," said Mr. Downing, with calm triumph, "that the boy
himself came to me a few moments ago and confessed."
Mike was conscious of a feeling of acute depression. It did not make him
in the least degree jubilant, or even thankful, to know that he himself
was cleared of the charge. All he could think of was that Psmith was
done for. This was bound to mean the sack. If Psmith had painted Sammy
it meant that Psmith had broken out of his house at night; and it was
not likely that the rules about nocturnal wandering were less strict at
Sedleigh than at any other school in the kingdom. Mike felt, if
possible, worse than he had felt when Wyatt had been caught on a similar
occasion. It seemed as if Fate had a special grudge against his best
friends. He did not make friends very quickly or easily, though he had
always had scores of acquaintances--and with Wyatt and Psmith he had
found himself at home from the first moment he had met them.
He sat there, with a curious feeling of having swallowed a heavy weight,
hardly listening to what Mr. Downing was saying. Mr. Downing was talking
rapidly to the headmaster, who was nodding from time to time.
Mike took advantage of a pause to get up. "May I go, sir?" he said.
"Certainly, Jackson, certainly," said the Head. "Oh, and er--if you are
going back to your house, tell Smith that I should like to see him."
He had reached the door, when again there was a knock.
"Come in," said the headmaster.
It was Adair.
Adair was breathing rather heavily, as if he had been running.
"It was about Sammy--Sampson, sir," he said, looking at Mr. Downing.
"Ah, we know ... Well, Adair, what did you wish to say?"
"It wasn't Jackson who did it, sir."
"No, no, Adair. So Mr. Downing--"
"It was Dunster, sir."
Terrific sensation! The headmaster gave a sort of strangled yelp of
astonishment. Mr. Downing leaped in his chair. Mike's eyes opened to
their fullest extent.
There was almost a wail in the headmaster's voice. The situation had
suddenly become too much for him. His brain was swimming. That Mike,
despite the evidence against him, should be innocent, was curious,
perhaps, but not particularly startling. But that Adair should inform
him, two minutes after Mr. Downing's announcement of Psmith's
confession, that Psmith, too, was guiltless, and that the real criminal
was Dunster--it was this that made him feel that somebody, in the words
of an American author, had played a mean trick on him, and substituted
for his brain a side order of cauliflower. Why Dunster, of all people?
Dunster, who, he remembered dizzily, had left the school at Christmas.
And why, if Dunster had really painted the dog, had Psmith asserted that
he himself was the culprit? Why--why anything? He concentrated his mind
on Adair as the only person who could save him from impending
"What--_what_ do you mean?"
"It _was_ Dunster, sir. I got a letter from him only five minutes ago,
in which he said that he had painted Sammy--Sampson, the dog, sir, for a
rag--for a joke, and that, as he didn't want anyone here to get into a
row--be punished for it, I'd better tell Mr. Downing at once. I tried to
find Mr. Downing, but he wasn't in the house. Then I met Smith outside
the house, and he told me that Mr. Downing had gone over to see
"Smith told you?" said Mr. Downing.
"Did you say anything to him about your having received this letter from
"I gave him the letter to read, sir."
"And what was his attitude when he had read it?"
"He laughed, sir."
"_Laughed_!" Mr. Downing's voice was thunderous.
"Yes, sir. He rolled about."
Mr. Downing snorted.
"But Adair," said the headmaster, "I do not understand how this thing
could have been done by Dunster. He has left the school."
"He was down here for the Old Sedleighans' match, sir. He stopped the
night in the village."
"And that was the night the--it happened?"
"I see. Well, I am glad to find that the blame can not be attached to
any boy in the school. I am sorry that it is even an Old Boy. It was a
foolish, discreditable thing to have done, but it is not as bad as if
any boy still at the school had broken out of his house at night to
"The sergeant," said Mr. Downing, "told me that the boy he saw was
attempting to enter Mr. Outwood's house."
"Another freak of Dunster's, I suppose," said the headmaster. "I shall
write to him."
"If it was really Dunster who painted my dog," said Mr. Downing, "I
cannot understand the part played by Smith in this affair. If he did not
do it, what possible motive could he have had for coming to me of his
own accord and deliberately confessing?"
"To be sure," said the headmaster, pressing a bell. "It is certainly a
thing that calls for explanation. Barlow," he said, as the butler
appeared, "kindly go across to Mr. Outwood's house and inform Smith that
I should like to see him."
"If you please, sir, Mr. Smith is waiting in the hall."
"In the hall!"
"Yes, sir. He arrived soon after Mr. Adair, sir, saying that he would
wait, as you would probably wish to see him shortly."
'H'm. Ask him to step up, Barlow."
There followed one of the tensest "stage waits" of Mike's experience. It
was not long, but, while it lasted, the silence was quite solid. Nobody
seemed to have anything to say, and there was not even a clock in the
room to break the stillness with its ticking. A very faint drip-drip of
rain could be heard outside the window.
Presently there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. The door was
"Mr. Smith, sir."
The Old Etonian entered as would the guest of the evening who is a few
moments late for dinner. He was cheerful, but slightly deprecating. He
gave the impression of one who, though sure of his welcome, feels that
some slight apology is expected from him. He advanced into the room with
a gentle half-smile which suggested good will to all men.
"It is still raining," he observed. "You wished to see me, sir?"
"Sit down, Smith."
"Thank you, sir."
He dropped into a deep armchair (which both Adair and Mike had avoided
in favor of less luxurious seats) with the confidential cosiness of a
fashionable physician calling on a patient, between whom and himself
time has broken down the barriers of restraint and formality.
Mr. Downing burst out, like a reservoir that has broken its banks.
Psmith turned his gaze politely in the housemaster's direction.
"Smith, you came to me a quarter of an hour ago and told me that it was
you who had painted my dog Sampson."
"It was absolutely untrue?"
"I am afraid so, sir."
"But, Smith ..." began the headmaster.
Psmith bent forward encouragingly.
"... This is a most extraordinary affair. Have you no explanation to
offer? What induced you to do such a thing?"
Psmith sighed softly.
"The craze of notoriety, sir," he replied sadly. "The curse of the
"What!" replied the headmaster.
"It is remarkable," proceeded Psmith placidly, with the impersonal touch
of one lecturing on generalities, "how frequently, when a murder has
been committed, one finds men confessing that they have done it when it
is out of the question that they should have committed it. It is one of
the most interesting problems with which anthropologists are confronted.
The headmaster interrupted.
"Smith," he said, "I should like to see you alone for a moment. Mr.
Downing, might I trouble...? Adair, Jackson."
He made a motion toward the door.
When he and Psmith were alone, there was silence. Psmith leaned back
comfortably in his chair. The headmaster tapped nervously with his foot
on the floor.
"Er ... Smith."
The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding. He paused
again. Then he went on.
"Er ... Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you ...
er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any ...
er ... severe illness? Any ... er ... _mental_ illness?"
"There is no--forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject--there is
no ... none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I ...
er ... have described?"
"There isn't a lunatic on the list, sir," said Psmith cheerfully.
"Of course, Smith, of course," said the headmaster hurriedly, "I did not
mean to suggest--quite so, quite so. ... You think, then, that you
confessed to an act which you had not committed purely from some sudden
impulse which you cannot explain?"
"Strictly between ourselves, sir ..."
Privately, the headmaster found Psmith's man-to-man attitude somewhat
disconcerting, but he said nothing.
"I should not like it to go any further, sir."
"I will certainly respect any confidence ..."
"I don't want anybody to know, sir. This is strictly between ourselves."
"I think you are sometimes apt to forget, Smith, the proper relations
existing between boy and--Well, never mind that for the present. We can
return to it later. For the moment, let me hear what you wish to say. I
shall, of course, tell nobody, if you do not wish it."
"Well, it was like this, sir," said Psmith, "Jackson happened to tell me
that you and Mr. Downing seemed to think he had painted Mr. Downing's
dog, and there seemed some danger of his being expelled, so I thought it
wouldn't be an unsound scheme if I were to go and say I had done it.
That was the whole thing. Of course, Dunster writing created a certain
amount of confusion."
There was a pause.
"It was a very wrong thing to do, Smith," said the headmaster, at last,
"but.... You are a curious boy, Smith. Good night."
He held out his hand.
"Good night, sir," said Psmith.
"Not a bad old sort," said Psmith meditatively to himself, as he walked
downstairs. "By no means a bad old sort. I must drop in from time to
time and cultivate him."
Mike and Adair were waiting for him outside the front door.
"Well?" said Mike.
"You _are_ the limit," said Adair. "What's he done?"
"Nothing. We had a very pleasant chat, and then I tore myself away."
"Do you mean to say he's not going to do a thing?"
"Not a thing."
"Well, you're a marvel," said Adair.
Psmith thanked him courteously. They walked on toward the houses.
"By the way, Adair," said Mike, as the latter started to turn in at
Downing's, "I'll write to Strachan tonight about that match."
"What's that?" asked Psmith.
"Jackson's going to try and get Wrykyn to give us a game," said Adair.
"They've got a vacant date. I hope the dickens they'll do it."
"Oh, I should think they're certain to," said Mike. "Good night."
"And give Comrade Downing, when you see him," said Psmith, "my very best
love. It is men like him who make this Merrie England of ours what
* * * * *
"I say, Psmith," said Mike suddenly, "what really made you tell Downing
you'd done it?"
"The craving for--"
"Oh, chuck it. You aren't talking to the Old Man now. I believe it was
simply to get me out of a jolly tight corner."
Psmith's expression was one of pain.
"My dear Comrade Jackson," said he, "you wrong me. You make me writhe.
I'm surprised at you. I never thought to hear those words from
"Well, I believe you did, all the same," said Mike obstinately. "And it
was jolly good of you, too."