Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
Billie had been standing near the wall, inspecting a portrait of the late Mr. Josiah Appleby, of which the kindest thing one can say is that one hopes it did not do him justice. She now shrank back against this wall, as if she were trying to get through it. The edge of the portrait's frame tilted her hat out of the straight, but in this supreme moment she did not even notice it.
"Er--how do you do?" she said.
If she had not been an exceedingly pretty girl, one would have said that she spoke squeakily. The fighting spirit of the Bennetts, though it was considerable fighting spirit, had not risen to this emergency. It had ebbed out of her, leaving in its place a cold panic. She had seen this sort of thing in the movies--there was one series of pictures, The Dangers of Diana, where something of the kind had happened to the heroine in every reel--but she had not anticipated that it would ever happen to her: and consequently she had not thought out any plan for coping with such a situation. A grave error. In this world one should be prepared for everything, or where is one? The best she could do was to stand and stare at the intruder. It would have done Sam Marlowe good--he had now finished the synopsis and was skimming through the current instalment--if he could have known how she yearned for his return.
"I've brought the revolver," said Mr. Peters.
"So--so I see!" said Billie.
Mr. Peters nursed the weapon affectionately in his hand. He was rather a shy man with women as a rule, but what Sam had told him about her being interested in his revolver had made his heart warm to this girl.
"I was just on my way to have a little practice at the range," he said. "Then I thought I might as well look in here."
"I suppose--I suppose you're a good shot?" quavered Billie.
"I seldom miss," said Jno. Peters.
Billie shuddered. Then, reflecting that the longer she engaged this maniac in conversation, the more hope there was of Sam coming back in time to save her, she essayed further small-talk.
"It's--it's very ugly!"
"Oh, no!" said Mr. Peters, hurt.
Billie perceived that she had said the wrong thing.
"Very deadly-looking, I meant," she corrected herself hastily.
"It may have deadly work to do, Miss Milliken," said Mr. Peters.
Conversation languished again. Billie had no further remarks to make of immediate interest, and Mr. Peters was struggling with a return of the deplorable shyness which so handicapped him in his dealings with the other sex. After a few moments, he pulled himself together again, and, as his first act was to replace the pistol in the pocket of his coat, Billie became conscious of a faint stirring of relief.
"The great thing," said Jno. Peters, "is to learn to draw quickly. Like this!" he added, producing the revolver with something of the smoothness and rapidity with which Billie, in happier moments, had seen conjurers take a bowl of gold fish out of a tall hat. "Everything depends on getting the first shot! The first shot, Miss Milliken, is vital."
Suddenly Billie had an inspiration. It was hopeless she knew, to try to convince this poor demented creature, obsessed with his idee fixe, that she was not Miss Milliken. Denial would be a waste of time, and might even infuriate him into precipitating the tragedy. It was imperative that she should humour him. And, while she was humouring him, it suddenly occurred to her, why not do it thoroughly.
"Mr. Peters," she cried, "you are quite mistaken!"
"I beg your pardon," said Jno. Peters, with not a little asperity. "Nothing of the kind!"
"I assure you I am not. Quickness in the draw is essential."
"You have been misinformed."
"Well, I had it direct from the man at the Rupert Street range," said Mr. Peters stiffly. "And if you had ever seen a picture called Two-Gun Thomas...."
"Mr. Peters!" cried Billie desperately. He was making her head swim with his meaningless ravings. "Mr. Peters, hear me! I am not married to a man at Ealing West!"
Mr. Peters betrayed no excitement at the information. This girl seemed for some reason to consider her situation an extraordinary one, but many women, he was aware, were in a similar position. In fact, he could not at the moment think of any of his feminine acquaintances who were married to men at Ealing West.
"Indeed?" he said politely.
"Won't you believe me?" exclaimed Billie wildly.
"Why, certainly, certainly," said Jno. Peters.
"Thank God!" said Billie. "I'm not even engaged! It's all been a terrible mistake!"
When two people in a small room are speaking on two distinct and different subjects and neither knows what on earth the other is driving at, there is bound to be a certain amount of mental confusion: but at this point Jno. Peters, though still not wholly equal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation, began to see a faint shimmer of light behind the clouds. In a nebulous kind of way he began to understand that the girl had come to consult the firm about a breach-of-promise action. Some unknown man at Ealing West had been trifling with her heart--hardened lawyer's clerk as he was, that poignant cry "I'm not engaged!" had touched Mr. Peters--and she wished to start proceedings. Mr. Peters felt almost in his depth again. He put the revolver in his pocket, and drew out a note-book.
"I should be glad to hear the facts," he said with professional courtesy. "In the absence of the Guv'nor...."
"I have told you the facts!"
"This man at Ealing West," said Mr. Peters, moistening the point of his pencil, "he wrote you letters proposing marriage?"
"No, no, no!"
"At any rate," said Mr. Peters, disappointed but hopeful, "he made love to you before witnesses?"
"Never! Never! There is no man at Ealing West! There never was a man at Ealing West!"
It was at this point that Jno. Peters began for the first time to entertain serious doubts of the girl's mental balance. The most elementary acquaintance with the latest census was enough to tell him that there were any number of men at Ealing West. The place was full of them. Would a sane woman have made an assertion to the contrary? He thought not, and he was glad that he had the revolver with him. She had done nothing as yet actively violent, but it was nice to feel prepared. He took it out and laid it nonchalantly in his lap.
The sight of the weapon acted on Billie electrically. She flung out her hands, in a gesture of passionate appeal, and played her last card.
"I love you!" she cried. She wished she could have remembered his first name. It would have rounded off the sentence neatly. In such a moment she could hardly call him 'Mr. Peters.' "You are the only man I love."
"My gracious goodness!" ejaculated Mr. Peters, and nearly fell over backwards. To a naturally shy man this sudden and wholly unexpected declaration was disconcerting: and the clerk was, moreover, engaged. He blushed violently. And yet, even in that moment of consternation, he could not check a certain thrill. No man ever thinks he is as homely as he really is, but Jno. Peters had always come fairly near to a correct estimate of his charms, and it had always seemed to him, that, in inducing his fiancee to accept him, he had gone some. He now began to wonder if he were not really rather a devil of a chap after all. There must, he felt, be precious few men going about capable of inspiring devotion like this on the strength of about six and a half minutes casual conversation.
Calmer thoughts succeeded this little flicker of complacency. The girl was mad. That was the fact of the matter. He got up and began to edge towards the door. Mr. Samuel would be returning shortly, and he ought to be warned.
"So that's all right, isn't it!" said Billie.
"Oh, quite, quite!" said Mr. Peters. "Er--thank you very much!"
"I thought you would be pleased," said Billie, relieved, but puzzled. For a man of volcanic passions, as Sam Marlowe had described him, he seemed to be taking the thing very calmly. She had anticipated a strenuous scene.
"Oh, it's a great compliment," Mr. Peters assured her.
At this point Sam came in, interrupting the conversation at a moment when it had reached a somewhat difficult stage. He had finished the instalment of the serial story in Home Whispers, and, looking at his watch he fancied that he had allowed sufficient time to elapse for events to have matured along the lines which his imagination had indicated.
The atmosphere of the room seemed to him, as he entered, a little strained. Billie looked pale and agitated. Mr. Peters looked rather agitated too. Sam caught Billie's eye. It had an unspoken appeal in it. He gave an imperceptible nod, a reassuring nod, the nod of a man who understood all and was prepared to handle the situation.
"Come, Peters," he said in a deep, firm, quiet voice, laying a hand on the clerk's arm. "It's time that you went."
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Samuel! yes, yes, indeed!"
"I'll see you out," said Sam soothingly, and led him through the outer office and on to the landing outside. "Well, good luck, Peters," he said, as they stood at the head of the stairs. "I hope you have a pleasant trip. Why, what's the matter? You seem upset."
"That girl, Mr. Samuel! I really think--really, she cannot be quite right in her head."
"Nonsense, nonsense!" said Sam firmly. "She's all right! Well, good-bye."
"Good-bye, Mr. Samuel."
"When did you say you were sailing?"
"Next Saturday, Mr. Samuel. But I fear I shall have no opportunity of seeing you again before then. I have packing to do and I have to see this gentleman down in the country...."
"All right. Then we'll say good-bye now. Good-bye, Peters. Mind you have a good time in America. I'll tell my father you called."
Sam watched him out of sight down the stairs, then turned and made his way back to the inner office. Billie was sitting limply on the chair which Jno. Peters had occupied. She sprang to her feet.
"Has he really gone?"
"Yes, he's gone this time."
"Was he--was he violent?"
"A little," said Sam, "a little. But I calmed him down." He looked at her gravely. "Thank God I was in time!"
"Oh, you are the bravest man in the world!" cried Billie, and, burying her face in her hands, burst into tears.
"There, there!" said Sam. "There, there! Come come! It's all right now! There, there, there!"
He knelt down beside her. He slipped one arm round her waist. He patted her hands.
I have tried to draw Samuel Marlowe so that he will live on the printed page. I have endeavoured to delineate his character so that it will be as an open book. And, if I have succeeded in my task, the reader will by now have become aware that he was a young man with the gall of an Army mule. His conscience, if he had ever had one, had become atrophied through long disuse. He had given this sensitive girl the worst fright she had had since a mouse had got into her bedroom at school. He had caused Jno. Peters to totter off to the Rupert Street range making low, bleating noises. And did he care? No! All he cared about was the fact that he had erased for ever from Billie's mind that undignified picture of himself as he had appeared on the boat, and substituted another which showed him brave, resourceful, gallant. All he cared about was the fact that Billie, so cold ten minutes before, had allowed him to kiss her for the forty-second time. If you had asked him, he would have said that he had acted for the best, and that out of evil cometh good, or some sickening thing like that. That was the sort of man Samuel Marlowe was.
His face was very close to Billie's, who had cheered up wonderfully by this time, and he was whispering his degraded words of endearment into her ear, when there was a sort of explosion in the doorway.
"Great Godfrey!" exclaimed Mr. Rufus Bennett, gazing on the scene from this point of vantage and mopping with a large handkerchief a scarlet face, which, as the result of climbing three flights of stairs, had become slightly soluble. "Great Heavens above!"