Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
For some moments Sam remained where he was staring after the girl as she flitted down the passage. He felt dizzy. Mental acrobatics always have an unsettling effect, and a young man may be excused for feeling a little dizzy when he is called upon suddenly and without any warning to readjust all his preconceived views on any subject. Listening to Eustace Hignett's story of his blighted romance, Sam had formed an unflattering opinion of this Wilhelmina Bennett who had broken off her engagement simply because on the day of the marriage his cousin had been short of the necessary wedding garment. He had, indeed, thought a little smugly how different his goddess of the red hair was from the object of Eustace Hignett's affections. And how they had proved to be one and the same. It was disturbing. It was like suddenly finding the vampire of a five-reel feature film turn into the heroine.
Some men, on making the discovery of this girl's identity, might have felt that Providence had intervened to save them from a disastrous entanglement. This point of view never occurred to Samuel Marlowe. The way he looked at it was that he had been all wrong about Wilhelmina Bennett. Eustace, he felt, had been to blame throughout. If this girl had maltreated Eustace's finer feelings, then her reason for doing so must have been excellent and praiseworthy.
After all ... poor old Eustace ... quite a good fellow, no doubt in many ways ... but, coming down to brass tacks, what was there about Eustace that gave him any license to monopolise the affections of a wonderful girl? Where, in a word, did Eustace Hignett get off? He made a tremendous grievance of the fact that she had broken off the engagement, but what right had he to go about the place expecting her to be engaged to him? Eustace Hignett, no doubt, looked upon the poor girl as utterly heartless. Marlowe regarded her behaviour as thoroughly sensible. She had made a mistake, and, realising this at the eleventh hour, she had had the force of character to correct it. He was sorry for poor old Eustace, but he really could not permit the suggestion that Wilhelmina Bennett--her friends called her Billie--had not behaved in a perfectly splendid way throughout. It was women like Wilhelmina Bennett--Billie to her intimates--who made the world worth living in.
Her friends called her Billie. He did not blame them. It was a delightful name and suited her to perfection. He practised it a few times. "Billie ... Billie ... Billie...." It certainly ran pleasantly off the tongue. "Billie Bennett." Very musical. "Billie Marlowe." Still better. "We noticed among those present the charming and popular Mrs. 'Billie' Marlowe."
A consuming desire came over him to talk about the girl to someone. Obviously indicated as the party of the second part was Eustace Hignett. If Eustace was still capable of speech--and after all the boat was hardly rolling at all--he would enjoy a further chat about his ruined life. Besides, he had another reason for seeking Eustace's society. As a man who had been actually engaged to marry this supreme girl, Eustace Hignett had an attraction for Sam akin to that of some great public monument. He had become a sort of shrine. He had taken on a glamour. Sam entered the state-room almost reverentially with something of the emotions of a boy going into his first dime museum.
The exhibit was lying on his back staring at the roof of the berth. By lying absolutely still and forcing himself to think of purely inland scenes and objects he had contrived to reduce the green in his complexion to a mere tinge. But it would be paltering with the truth to say that he felt debonair. He received Sam with a wan austerity.
"Sit down!" he said. "Don't stand there swaying like that. I can't bear it."
"Why, we aren't out of the harbour yet. Surely you aren't going to be sea-sick already."
"I can issue no positive guarantee. Perhaps if I can keep my mind off it ... I have had good results for the last ten minutes by thinking steadily of the Sahara. There," said Eustace Hignett with enthusiasm, "is a place for you! That is something like a spot! Miles and miles of sand and not a drop of water anywhere!"
Sam sat down on the lounge.
"You're quite right. The great thing is to concentrate your mind on other topics. Why not, for instance, tell me some more about your unfortunate affair with that girl--Billie Bennett I think you said her name was."
"Wilhelmina Bennett. Where on earth did you get the idea that her name was Billie?"
"I had a notion that girls called Wilhelmina were sometimes Billie to their friends."
"I never call her anything but Wilhelmina. But I really cannot talk about it. The recollection tortures me."
"That's just what you want. It's the counter-irritation principle. Persevere and you'll soon forget that you're on board ship at all."
"There's something in that," admitted Eustace reflectively. "It's very good of you to be so sympathetic and interested."
"My dear fellow ... anything that I can do ... where did you meet her first, for instance?"
"At a dinner...." Eustace Hignett broke off abruptly. He had a good memory and he had just recollected the fish they had served at that dinner--a flabby and exhausted looking fish, half sunk beneath the surface of a thick white sauce.
"And what struck you most forcibly about her at first? Her lovely hair, I suppose?"
"How did you know she had lovely hair?"
"My dear chap, I naturally assumed that any girl with whom you fell in love would have nice hair."
"Well, you are perfectly right, as it happens. Her hair was remarkably beautiful. It was red...."
"Like autumn leaves with the sun on them!" said Marlowe ecstatically.
"What an extraordinary thing! That is an absolutely exact description. Her eyes were a deep blue...."
"Or, rather, green."
"Green. There is a shade of green that looks blue."
"What the devil do you know about the colour of her eyes?" demanded Eustace heatedly. "Am I telling you about her, or are you telling me?"
"My dear old man, don't get excited. Don't you see I am trying to construct this girl in my imagination, to visualise her? I don't pretend to doubt your special knowledge, but after all green eyes generally do go with red hair and there are all shades of green. There is the bright green of meadow grass, the dull green of the uncut emerald, the faint yellowish green of your face at the present moment...."
"Don't talk about the colour of my face! Now you've gone and reminded me just when I was beginning to forget."
"Awfully sorry! Stupid of me! Get your mind off it again--quick! What were you saying? Oh, yes, this girl. I always think it helps one to form a mental picture of people if one knows something about their tastes--what sort of things they are interested in, their favourite topics of conversation, and so on. This Miss Bennett now, what did she like talking about?"
"Oh, all sorts of things."
"Yes, but what?"
"Well, for one thing she was very fond of poetry. It was that which first drew us together."
"Poetry!" Sam's heart sank a little. He had read a certain amount of poetry at school, and once he had won a prize of three shillings and sixpence for the last line of a limerick in a competition in a weekly paper, but he was self-critic enough to know that poetry was not his long suit. Still there was a library on board ship and no doubt it would be possible to borrow the works of some standard poet and bone them up from time to time.
"Any special poet?"
"Well, she seemed to like my stuff. You never read my sonnet-sequence on Spring, did you?"
"No. What other poets did she like besides you?"
"Tennyson principally," said Eustace Hignett with a reminiscent quiver in his voice. "The hours we have spent together reading the Idylls of the King!"
"The which of what?" enquired Sam, taking a pencil from his pocket and shooting out a cuff.
"The Idylls of the King. My good man, I know you have a soul which would be considered inadequate by a common earthworm, but you have surely heard of Tennyson's Idylls of the King?"
"Oh, those! Why, my dear old chap; Tennyson's Idylls of the King! Well, I should say! Have I heard of Tennyson's Idylls of the King? Well, really! I suppose you haven't a copy with you on board by any chance?"
"There is a copy in my kit-bag. The very one we used to read together. Take it and keep it or throw it overboard. I don't want to see it again."
Sam prospected among the shirts, collars and trousers in the bag and presently came upon a morocco-bound volume. He laid it beside him on the lounge.
"Little by little, bit by bit," he said, "I am beginning to form a sort of picture of this girl, this--what was her name again? Bennett--this Miss Bennett. You have a wonderful knack of description. You make her seem so real and vivid. Tell me some more about her. She wasn't keen on golf, by any chance, I suppose?"
"I believe she did play. The subject came up once and she seemed rather enthusiastic. Why?"
"Well, I'd much sooner talk to a girl about golf than poetry."
"You are hardly likely to be in a position to have to talk to Wilhelmina Bennett about either, I should imagine."
"No, there's that, of course. I was thinking of girls in general. Some girls bar golf, and then it's rather difficult to know how to start conversation. But, tell me, were there any topics which got on Miss Bennett's nerves, if you know what I mean? It seems to me that at one time or another you may have said something that offended her. I mean, it seems curious that she should have broken off the engagement if you had never disagreed or quarrelled about anything."
"Well, of course, there was always the matter of that dog of hers. She had a dog, you know, a snappy brute of a Pekingese. If there was ever any shadow of disagreement between us, it had to do with that dog. I made rather a point of it that I would not have it about the home after we were married."
"I see!" said Sam. He shot his cuff once more and wrote on it: "Dog-conciliate."
"Yes, of course, that must have wounded her."
"Not half so much as he wounded me! He pinned me by the ankle the day before we--Wilhelmina and I, I mean--were to have been married. It is some satisfaction to me in my broken state to remember that I got home on the little beast with considerable juiciness and lifted him clean over the Chesterfield."
Sam shook his head reprovingly.
"You shouldn't have done that!" he said. He extended his cuff and added the words "Vitally important" to what he had just written. "It was probably that which decided her."
"Well, I hate dogs," said Eustace Hignett querulously. "I remember Wilhelmina once getting quite annoyed with me because I refused to step in and separate a couple of the brutes, absolute strangers to me, who were fighting in the street. I reminded her that we were all fighters now-a-ways, that life itself was in a sense a fight: but she wouldn't be reasonable about it. She said that Sir Galahad would have done it like a shot. I thought not. We have no evidence whatsoever that Sir Galahad was ever called upon to do anything half as dangerous. And, anyway, he wore armour. Give me a suit of mail reaching well down over the ankles, and I will willingly intervene in a hundred dog fights. But in thin flannel trousers no!"
Sam rose. His heart was light. He had never, of course, supposed that the girl was anything but perfect; but it was nice to find his high opinion of her corroborated by one who had no reason to exhibit her in a favourable light. He understood her point of view and sympathised with it. An idealist, how could she trust herself to Eustace Hignett? How could she be content with a craven who, instead of scouring the world in the quest for deeds of daring do, had fallen down so lamentably on his first assignment? There was a specious attractiveness about poor old Eustace which might conceivably win a girl's heart for a time; he wrote poetry, talked well, and had a nice singing voice; but, as a partner for life ... well, he simply wouldn't do. That was all there was to it. He simply didn't add up right. The man a girl like Wilhelmina Bennett required for a husband was somebody entirely different ... somebody, felt Samuel Marlowe, much more like Samuel Marlowe.
Swelled almost to bursting-point with these reflections, he went on deck to join the ante-luncheon promenade. He saw Billie almost at once. She had put on one of these nice sacky sport-coats which so enhance feminine charms, and was striding along the deck with the breeze playing in her vivid hair like the female equivalent of a Viking. Beside her walked young Mr. Bream Mortimer.
Sam had been feeling a good deal of a fellow already, but at the sight of her welcoming smile his self-esteem almost caused him to explode. What magic there is in a girl's smile! It is the raisin which, dropped in the yeast of male complacency, induces fermentation.
"Oh, there you are, Mr. Marlowe!"
"Oh, there you are," said Bream Mortimer, with a slightly different inflection.
"I thought I'd like a breath of fresh air before lunch," said Sam.
"Oh, Bream!" said the girl.
"Do be a darling and take this great heavy coat of mine down to my state-room will you? I had no idea it was so warm."
"I'll carry it," said Bream.
"Nonsense. I wouldn't dream of burdening you with it. Trot along and put it on the berth. It doesn't matter about folding it up."
"All right," said Bream moodily.
He trotted along. There are moments when a man feels that all he needs in order to be a delivery wagon is a horse and a driver.
"He had better chirrup to the dog while he's there, don't you think?" suggested Sam. He felt that a resolute man with legs as long as Bream's might well deposit a cloak on a berth and be back under the half-minute.
"Oh, yes! Bream!"
"While you're down there just chirrup a little more to poor Pinky. He does appreciate it so!"
Bream disappeared. It is not always easy to interpret emotion from a glance at a man's back; but Bream's back looked like that of a man to whom the thought has occurred that, given a couple of fiddles and a piano, he would have made a good hired orchestra.
"How is your dear little dog, by the way?" enquired Sam solicitously, as he fell into step by her side.
"Much better now, thanks. I've made friends with a girl on board--did you ever hear her name--Jane Hubbard--she's a rather well-known big-game hunter and she fixed up some sort of a mixture for Pinky which did him a world of good. I don't know what was in it except Worcester Sauce, but she said she always gave it to her mules in Africa when they had the botts ... it's very nice of you to speak so affectionately of poor Pinky when he bit you."
"Animal spirits!" said Sam tolerantly. "Pure animal spirits! I like to see them. But, of course, I love all dogs."
"Oh, do you? So do I!"
"I only wish they didn't fight so much. I'm always stopping dog fights."
"I do admire a man who knows what to do at a dog fight. I'm afraid I'm rather helpless myself. There never seems anything to catch hold of." She looked down. "Have you been reading? What is the book?"
"It's a volume of Tennyson."
"Are you fond of Tennyson?"
"I worship him," said Sam reverently. "Those--" he glanced at his cuff--"those Idylls of the King! I do not like to think what an ocean voyage would be if I had not my Tennyson with me."
"We must read him together. He is my favourite poet!"
"We will! There is something about Tennyson...."
"Yes, isn't there! I've felt that myself so often!"
"Some poets are whales at epics and all that sort of thing, while others call it a day when they've written something that runs to a couple of verses, but where Tennyson had the bulge was that his long game was just as good as his short. He was great off the tee and a marvel with his chip-shots."
"That sounds as though you played golf."
"When I am not reading Tennyson, you can generally find me out on the links. Do you play?"
"I love it. How extraordinary that we should have so much in common. We really ought to be great friends."
He was pausing to select the best of three replies when the lunch bugle sounded.
"Oh, dear!" she cried. "I must rush. But we shall see one another again up here afterwards?"
"We will," said Sam.
"We'll sit and read Tennyson."
"Fine! Er--you and I and Mortimer?"
"Oh, no, Bream is going to sit down below and look after poor Pinky."
"Does he--does he know he is?"
"Not yet," said Billie. "I'm going to tell him at lunch."