Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
It was the fourth morning of the voyage. Of course, when this story is done in the movies they won't be satisfied with a bald statement like that; they will have a Spoken Title or a Cut-Back Sub-Caption or whatever they call the thing in the low dens where motion-picture scenario-lizards do their dark work, which will run:--
AND SO, CALM AND GOLDEN, THE DAYS WENT BY, EACH FRAUGHT WITH HOPE AND YOUTH AND SWEETNESS, LINKING TWO YOUNG HEARTS IN SILKEN FETTERS FORGED BY THE LAUGHING LOVE-GOD.
and the males in the audience will shift their chewing gum to the other cheek and take a firmer grip of their companions' hands and the man at the piano will play "Everybody wants a key to my cellar" or something equally appropriate, very soulfully and slowly, with a wistful eye on the half-smoked cigarette which he has parked on the lowest octave and intends finishing as soon as the picture is over. But I prefer the plain frank statement that it was the fourth day of the voyage. That is my story and I mean to stick to it.
Samuel Marlowe, muffled in a bathrobe, came back to the stateroom from his tub. His manner had the offensive jauntiness of the man who has had a cold bath when he might just as easily have had a hot one. He looked out of the porthole at the shimmering sea. He felt strong and happy and exuberant.
It was not merely the spiritual pride induced by a cold bath that was uplifting this young man. The fact was that, as he towelled his glowing back, he had suddenly come to the decision that this very day he would propose to Wilhelmina Bennett. Yes, he would put his fortune to the test, to win or lose it all. True, he had only known her for four days, but what of that?
Nothing in the way of modern progress is more remarkable than the manner in which the attitude of your lover has changed concerning proposals of marriage. When Samuel Marlowe's grandfather had convinced himself, after about a year and a half of respectful aloofness, that the emotion which he felt towards Samuel Marlowe's grandmother-to-be was love, the fashion of the period compelled him to approach the matter in a roundabout way. First, he spent an evening or two singing sentimental ballads, she accompanying him on the piano and the rest of the family sitting on the side-lines to see that no rough stuff was pulled. Having noted that she drooped her eyelashes and turned faintly pink when he came to the "Thee--only thee!" bit, he felt a mild sense of encouragement, strong enough to justify him in taking her sister aside next day and asking if the object of his affections ever happened to mention his name in the course of conversation. Further pour-parlers having passed with her aunt, two more sisters, and her little brother, he felt that the moment had arrived when he might send her a volume of Shelley, with some of the passages marked in pencil. A few weeks later, he interviewed her father and obtained his consent to the paying of his addresses. And finally, after writing her a letter which began "Madam! you will not have been insensible to the fact that for some time past you have inspired in my bosom feelings deeper than those of ordinary friendship...." he waylaid her in the rose-garden and brought the thing off.
How different is the behaviour of the modern young man. His courtship can hardly be called a courtship at all. His methods are those of Sir W. S. Gilbert's Alphonso.
"Alphonso, who for cool assurance all creation licks, He up and said to Emily who has cheek enough for six: 'Miss Emily, I love you. Will you marry? Say the word!' And Emily said: 'Certainly, Alphonso, like a bird!'"
Sam Marlowe was a warm supporter of the Alphonso method. He was a bright young man and did not require a year to make up his mind that Wilhelmina Bennett had been set apart by Fate from the beginning of time to be his bride. He had known it from the moment he saw her on the dock, and all the subsequent strolling, reading, talking, soup-drinking, tea-drinking, and shuffle-board-playing which they had done together had merely solidified his original impression. He loved this girl with all the force of a fiery nature--the fiery nature of the Marlowes was a byword in Bruton Street, Berkeley Square--and something seemed to whisper that she loved him. At any rate she wanted somebody like Sir Galahad, and, without wishing to hurl bouquets at himself, he could not see where she could possibly get anyone liker Sir Galahad than himself. So, wind and weather permitting, Samuel Marlowe intended to propose to Wilhelmina Bennett this very day.
He let down the trick basin which hung beneath the mirror and, collecting his shaving materials, began to lather his face.
"I am the Bandolero!" sang Sam blithely through the soap, "I am, I am the Bandolero! Yes, yes, I am the Bandolero!"
The untidy heap of bedclothes in the lower berth stirred restlessly.
"Oh, God!" said Eustace Hignett thrusting out a tousled head.
Sam regarded his cousin with commiseration. Horrid things had been happening to Eustace during the last few days, and it was quite a pleasant surprise each morning to find that he was still alive.
"Feeling bad again, old man?"
"I was feeling all right," replied Hignett churlishly, "until you began the farmyard imitations. What sort of a day is it?"
"Glorious! The sea...."
"Don't talk about the sea!"
"Sorry! The sun is shining brighter than it has ever shone in the history of the race. Why don't you get up?"
"Nothing will induce me to get up."
"Well, go a regular buster and have an egg for breakfast."
Eustace Hignett shuddered.
"Do you think I am an ostrich?" He eyed Sam sourly. "You seem devilish pleased with yourself this morning!"
Sam dried the razor carefully and put it away. He hesitated. Then the desire to confide in somebody got the better of him.
"The fact is," he said apologetically, "I'm in love!"
"In love!" Eustace Hignett sat up and bumped his head sharply against the berth above him. "Has this been going on long?"
"Ever since the voyage started."
"I think you might have told me," said Eustace reproachfully. "I told you my troubles. Why did you not let me know that this awful thing had come upon you?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, old man, during these last few days I had a notion that your mind was, so to speak, occupied elsewhere."
"Who is she?"
"Oh, a girl I met on board."
"Don't do it!" said Eustace Hignett solemnly. "As a friend I entreat you not to do it! Take my advice, as a man who knows women, and don't do it!"
"Don't do what?"
"Propose to her. I can tell by the glitter in your eye that you are intending to propose to this girl--probably this morning. Don't do it. Women are the devil, whether they marry you or jilt you. Do you realise that women wear black evening dresses that have to be hooked up in a hurry when you are late for the theatre, and that, out of sheer wanton malignity, the hooks and eyes on those dresses are also made black? Do you realise...?"
"Oh, I've thought it all out."
"And take the matter of children. How would you like to become the father--and a mere glance around you will show you that the chances are enormously in favour of such a thing happening--of a boy with spectacles and protruding front teeth who asks questions all the time? Out of six small boys whom I saw when I came on board, four wore spectacles and had teeth like rabbits. The other two were equally revolting in different styles. How would you like to become the father...?"
"There is no need to be indelicate," said Sam stiffly. "A man must take these chances."
"Give her the miss in baulk," pleaded Hignett. "Stay down here for the rest of the voyage. You can easily dodge her when you get to Southampton. And, if she sends messages, say you're ill and can't be disturbed."
Sam gazed at him, revolted. More than ever he began to understand how it was that a girl with ideals had broken off her engagement with this man. He finished dressing, and, after a satisfying breakfast, went on deck.
* * * * *
It was, as he had said, a glorious morning. The sample which he had had through the porthole had not prepared him for the magic of it. The ship swam in a vast bowl of the purest blue on an azure carpet flecked with silver. It was a morning which impelled a man to great deeds, a morning which shouted to him to chuck his chest out and be romantic. The sight of Billie Bennett, trim and gleaming in a pale green sweater and a white skirt had the effect of causing Marlowe to alter the programme which he had sketched out. Proposing to this girl was not a thing to be put off till after lunch. It was a thing to be done now and at once. The finest efforts of the finest cooks in the world could not put him in better form than he felt at present.
"Good morning, Miss Bennett."
"Good morning, Mr. Marlowe."
"Isn't it a perfect day?"
"It makes all the difference on board ship if the weather is fine."
"Yes, doesn't it?"
"Shall we walk round?" said Billie.
Sam glanced about him. It was the time of day when the promenade deck was always full. Passengers in cocoons of rugs lay on chairs, waiting in a dull trance till the steward should arrive with the eleven o'clock soup. Others, more energetic, strode up and down. From the point of view of a man who wished to reveal his most sacred feelings to a beautiful girl, the place was practically Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street.
"It's so crowded," he said. "Let's go on to the upper deck."
"All right. You can read to me. Go and fetch your Tennyson."
Sam felt that fortune was playing into his hands. His four-days' acquaintance with the bard had been sufficient to show him that the man was there forty ways when it came to writing about love. You could open his collected works almost anywhere and shut your eyes and dab down your finger on some red-hot passage. A proposal of marriage is a thing which it is rather difficult to bring neatly into the ordinary run of conversation. It wants leading up to. But, if you once start reading poetry, especially Tennyson's, almost anything is apt to give you your cue. He bounded light-heartedly into the state-room, waking Eustace Hignett from an uneasy dose.
"Now what?" said Eustace.
"Where's that copy of Tennyson you gave me? I left it--ah, here it is. Well, see you later!"
"Wait! What are you going to do?"
"Oh, that girl I told you about," said Sam making for the door. "She wants me to read Tennyson to her on the upper deck."
"On the upper deck?"
"That's the spot."
"This is the end," said Eustace Hignett, turning his face to the wall.
Sam raced up the companion-way as far as it went; then, going out on deck, climbed a flight of steps and found himself in the only part of the ship which was ever even comparatively private. The main herd of passengers preferred the promenade deck, two layers below.
He threaded his way through a maze of boats, ropes, and curious-shaped steel structures which the architect of the ship seemed to have tacked on at the last moment in a spirit of sheer exuberance. Above him towered one of the funnels, before him a long, slender mast. He hurried on, and presently came upon Billie sitting on a garden seat, backed by the white roof of the smoke-room; beside this was a small deck which seemed to have lost its way and strayed up here all by itself. It was the deck on which one could occasionally see the patients playing an odd game with long sticks and bits of wood--not shuffleboard but something even lower in the mental scale. This morning, however, the devotees of this pastime were apparently under proper restraint, for the deck was empty.
"This is jolly," he said, sitting down beside the girl and drawing a deep breath of satisfaction.
"Yes, I love this deck. It's so peaceful."
"It's the only part of the ship where you can be reasonably sure of not meeting stout men in flannels and nautical caps. An ocean voyage always makes me wish that I had a private yacht."
"It would be nice."
"A private yacht," repeated Sam sliding a trifle closer. "We would sail about, visiting desert islands which lay like jewels in the heart of tropic seas."
"Most certainly we. It wouldn't be any fun if you were not there."
"That's very complimentary."
"Well, it wouldn't. I'm not fond of girls as a rule...."
"Oh, aren't you?"
"No!" said Sam decidedly. It was a point which he wished to make clear at the outset. "Not at all fond. My friends have often remarked upon it. A palmist once told me that I had one of those rare spiritual natures which cannot be satisfied with substitutes but must seek and seek till they find their soul-mate. When other men all round me were frittering away their emotions in idle flirtations which did not touch their deeper natures, I was ... I was ... well, I wasn't, if you see what I mean."
"Oh, you wasn't ... weren't--?"
"No. Some day I knew I should meet the only girl I could possibly love, and then I would pour out upon her the stored-up devotion of a lifetime, lay an unblemished heart at her feet, fold her in my arms and say 'At last!'"
"How jolly for her. Like having a circus all to oneself."
"Well, yes," said Sam after a momentary pause.
"When I was a child I always thought that that would be the most wonderful thing in the world."
"The most wonderful thing in the world is love, a pure and consuming love, a love which...."
"Oh, hello!" said a voice.
All through this scene, right from the very beginning of it, Sam had not been able to rid himself of a feeling that there was something missing. The time and the place and the girl--they were all present and correct; nevertheless there was something missing, some familiar object which seemed to leave a gap. He now perceived that what had caused the feeling was the complete absence of Bream Mortimer. He was absent no longer. He was standing in front of them with one leg, his head lowered as if he were waiting for someone to scratch it. Sam's primary impulse was to offer him a nut.
"Oh, hello, Bream!" said Billie.
"Hullo!" said Sam.
"Hullo!" said Bream Mortimer. "Here you are!"
There was a pause.
"I thought you might be here," said Bream.
"Yes, here we are," said Billie.
"Yes, we're here," said Sam.
There was another pause.
"Mind if I join you?" said Bream.
"N-no," said Billie.
"N-no," said Sam.
"No," said Billie again. "No ... that is to say ... oh no, not at all."
There was a third pause.
"On second thoughts," said Bream, "I believe I'll take a stroll on the promenade deck, if you don't mind."
They said they did not mind. Bream Mortimer, having bumped his head twice against overhanging steel ropes, melted away.
"Who is that fellow?" demanded Sam wrathfully.
"He's the son of father's best friend."
Sam started. Somehow this girl had always been so individual to him that he had never thought of her having a father.
"We have known each other all our lives," continued Billie. "Father thinks a tremendous lot of Bream. I suppose it was because Bream was sailing by her that father insisted on my coming over on this boat. I'm in disgrace, you know. I was cabled for and had to sail at a few days' notice. I...."
"Why, Bream!" said Billie, looking at him as he stood on the old spot in the same familiar attitude with rather less affection than the son of her father's best friend might have expected. "I thought you said you were going down to the Promenade Deck."
"I did go down to the promenade deck. And I'd hardly got there when a fellow who's getting up the ship's concert to-morrow night nobbled me to do a couple of songs. He wanted to know if I knew anyone else who would help. I came up to ask you," he said to Sam, "if you would do something."
"No," said Sam. "I won't."
"He's got a man who's going to lecture on deep-sea fish and a couple of women who both want to sing 'The Rosary' but he's still an act or two short. Sure you won't rally round?"
"Oh, all right." Bream Mortimer hovered wistfully above them. "It's a great morning, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Sam.
"Oh, Bream!" said Billie.
"Do be a pet and go and talk to Jane Hubbard. I'm sure she must be feeling lonely. I left her all by herself down on the next deck."
A look of alarm spread itself over Bream's face.
"Jane Hubbard! Oh, say, have a heart!"
"She's a very nice girl."
"She's so darned dynamic. She looks at you as if you were a giraffe or something and she would like to take a pot at you with a rifle."
"Nonsense! Run along. Get her to tell you some of her big-game hunting experiences. They are most interesting."
Bream drifted sadly away.
"I don't blame Miss Hubbard," said Sam.
"What do you mean?"
"Looking at him as if she wanted to pot at him with a rifle. I should like to do it myself. What were you saying when he came up?"
"Oh, don't let's talk about me. Read me some Tennyson."
Sam opened the book very willingly. Infernal Bream Mortimer had absolutely shot to pieces the spell which had begun to fall on them at the beginning of their conversation. Only by reading poetry, it seemed to him, could it be recovered. And when he saw the passage at which the volume had opened he realised that his luck was in. Good old Tennyson! He was all right. He had the stuff. You could send him to hit in a pinch every time with the comfortable knowledge that he would not strike out.
He cleared his throat.
"'Oh let the solid ground Not fail beneath my feet Before my life has found What some have found so sweet; Then let come what come may, What matter if I go mad, I shall have had my day. Let the sweet heavens endure, Not close and darken above me Before I am quite quite sure That there is one to love me....'"
This was absolutely topping. It was like diving off a spring-board. He could see the girl sitting with a soft smile on her face, her eyes, big and dreamy, gazing out over the sunlit sea. He laid down the book and took her hand.
"There is something," he began in a low voice, "which I have been trying to say ever since we met, something which I think you must have read in my eyes."
Her head was bent. She did not withdraw her hand.
"Until this voyage began," he went on, "I did not know what life meant. And then I saw you! It was like the gate of heaven opening. You're the dearest girl I ever met, and you can bet I'll never forget...." He stopped. "I'm not trying to make it rhyme," he said apologetically. "Billie, don't think me silly ... I mean ... if you had the merest notion, dearest ... I don't know what's the matter with me ... Billie, darling, you are the only girl in the world! I have been looking for you for years and years and I have found you at last, my soul-mate. Surely this does not come as a surprise to you? That is, I mean, you must have seen that I've been keen ... There's that damned Walt Mason stuff again!" His eyes fell on the volume beside him and he uttered an exclamation of enlightenment. "It's those poems!" he cried. "I've been boning them up to such an extent that they've got me doing it too. What I'm trying to say is, Will you marry me?"
She was drooping towards him. Her face was very sweet and tender, her eyes misty. He slid an arm about her waist. She raised her lips to his.
* * * * *
Suddenly she drew herself away, a cloud on her face.
"Darling," she said, "I've a confession to make."
"A confession? You? Nonsense!"
"I can't get rid of a horrible thought. I was wondering if this will last."
"Our love? Don't be afraid that it will fade ... I mean ... why, it's so vast, it's bound to last ... that is to say, of course, it will."
She traced a pattern on the deck with her shoe.
"I'm afraid of myself. You see, once before--and it was not so very long ago,--I thought I had met my ideal, but...."
Sam laughed heartily.
"Are you worrying about that absurd business of poor old Eustace Hignett?"
She started violently.
"Of course! He told me himself."
"Do you know him? Where did you meet him?"
"I've known him all my life. He's my cousin. As a matter of fact, we are sharing a stateroom on board now."
"Eustace is on board! Oh, this is awful! What shall I do when I meet him?"
"Oh, pass it off with a light laugh and a genial quip. Just say: 'Oh, here you are!' or something. You know the sort of thing."
"It will be terrible."
"Not a bit of it. Why should you feel embarrassed? He must have realised by now that you acted in the only possible way. It was absurd his ever expecting you to marry him. I mean to say, just look at it dispassionately ... Eustace ... poor old Eustace ... and you! The Princess and the Swineherd!"
"Does Mr. Hignett keep pigs?" she asked, surprised.
"I mean that poor old Eustace is so far below you, darling, that, with the most charitable intentions, one can only look on his asking you to marry him in the light of a record exhibition of pure nerve. A dear, good fellow, of course, but hopeless where the sterner realities of life are concerned. A man who can't even stop a dog-fight! In a world which is practically one seething mass of fighting dogs, how could you trust yourself to such a one? Nobody is fonder of Eustace Hignett than I am, but ... well, I mean to say!"
"I see what you mean. He really wasn't my ideal."
"Not by a mile."
She mused, her chin in her hand.
"Of course, he was quite a dear in a lot of ways."
"Oh, a splendid chap," said Sam tolerantly.
"Have you ever heard him sing? I think what first attracted me to him was his beautiful voice. He really sings extraordinarily well."
A slight but definite spasm of jealousy afflicted Sam. He had no objection to praising poor old Eustace within decent limits, but the conversation seemed to him to be confining itself too exclusively to one subject.
"Yes?" he said. "Oh yes, I've heard him sing. Not lately. He does drawing-room ballads and all that sort of thing still, I suppose?"
"Have you ever heard him sing 'My love is like a glowing tulip that in an old-world garden grows'?"
"I have not had that advantage," replied Sam stiffly. "But anyone can sing a drawing-room ballad. Now something funny, something that will make people laugh, something that really needs putting across ... that's a different thing altogether."
"Do you sing that sort of thing?"
"People have been good enough to say...."
"Then," said Billie decidedly, "you must certainly do something at the ship's concert to-morrow! The idea of your trying to hide your light under a bushel! I will tell Bream to count on you. He is an excellent accompanist. He can accompany you."
"Yes, but ... well, I don't know," said Sam doubtfully. He could not help remembering that the last time he had sung in public had been at a house-supper at school, seven years before, and that on that occasion somebody whom it was a lasting grief to him that he had been unable to identify had thrown a pat of butter at him.
"Of course you must sing," said Billie. "I'll tell Bream when I go down to lunch. What will you sing?"
"Well, I'm sure it will be wonderful whatever it is. You are so wonderful in every way. You remind me of one of the heroes of old!"
Sam's discomposure vanished. In the first place, this was much more the sort of conversation which he felt the situation indicated. In the second place he had remembered that there was no need for him to sing at all. He could do that imitation of Frank Tinney which had been such a hit at the Trinity smoker. He was on safe ground there. He knew he was good. He clasped the girl to him and kissed her sixteen times.
Suddenly, as he released her, the cloud came back into her face.
"My angel," he asked solicitously, "what's the matter?"
"I was thinking of father," she said.
The glowing splendour of the morning took on a touch of chill for Sam.
"Father!" he said thoughtfully. "Yes, I see what you mean! He will think that we have been a little precipitate, eh? He will require a little time in order to learn to love me, you think?"
"He is sure to be pretty angry at first," agreed Billie. "You see I know he has always hoped that I would marry Bream."
"Bream! Bream Mortimer! What a silly thing to hope!"
"Well, you see, I told you that Mr. Mortimer was father's best friend. They are both over in England now, and are trying to get a house in the country for the summer which we can all share. I rather think the idea is to bring me and Bream closer together."
"How the deuce could that fellow be brought any closer to you? He's like a burr as it is."
"Well, that was the idea, I'm sure. Of course, I could never look at Bream now."
"I hate looking at him myself," said Sam feelingly.
A group of afflicted persons, bent upon playing with long sticks and bits of wood, now invaded the upper deck. Their weak-minded cries filled the air. Sam and the girl rose.
"Touching on your father once more," he said as they made their way below, "is he a very formidable sort of man?"
"He can be a dear. But he's rather quick-tempered. You must be very ingratiating."
"I will practise it in front of the glass every morning for the rest of the voyage," said Sam.
He went down to the stateroom in a mixed mood of elation and apprehension. He was engaged to the most wonderful girl in the world, but over the horizon loomed the menacing figure of Father. He wished he could induce Billie to allow him to waive the formality of thawing Father. Eustace Hignett had apparently been able to do so. But that experience had presumably engendered a certain caution in her. The Hignett fiasco had spoiled her for runaway marriages. Well, if it had to be done, it must be done, and that was all there was to it.