Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
"Good God!" cried Eustace Hignett.
He stared at the figure which loomed above him in the fading light which came through the porthole of the stateroom. The hour was seven-thirty and he had just woken from a troubled doze, full of strange nightmares, and for the moment he thought that he must still be dreaming, for the figure before him could have walked straight into any nightmare and no questions asked. Then suddenly he became aware that it was his cousin, Samuel Marlowe. As in the historic case of father in the pigstye, he could tell him by his hat. But why was he looking like that? Was it simply some trick of the uncertain light, or was his face really black and had his mouth suddenly grown to six times its normal size and become a vivid crimson?
Sam turned. He had been looking at himself in the mirror with a satisfaction which, to the casual observer, his appearance would not have seemed to justify. Hignett had not been suffering from a delusion. His cousin's face was black; and, even as he turned, he gave it a dab with a piece of burnt cork and made it blacker.
"Hullo! You awake?" he said and switched on the light.
Eustace Hignett shied like a startled horse. His friend's profile, seen dimly, had been disconcerting enough. Full face, he was a revolting object. Nothing that Eustace Hignett had encountered in his recent dreams--and they had included such unusual fauna as elephants in top hats and running shorts--had affected him so profoundly. Sam's appearance smote him like a blow. It seemed to take him straight into a different and dreadful world.
"What ... what ... what...?" he gurgled.
Sam squinted at himself in the glass and added a touch of black to his nose.
"How do I look?"
Eustace Hignett began to fear that his cousin's reason must have become unseated. He could not conceive of any really sane man, looking like that, being anxious to be told how he looked.
"Are my lips red enough? It's for the ship's concert, you know. It starts in half an hour, though I believe I'm not on till the second part. Speaking as a friend, would you put a touch more black round the ears, or are they all right?"
Curiosity replaced apprehension in Hignett's mind.
"What on earth are you doing performing at the ship's concert?"
"Oh, they roped me in. It got about somehow that I was a valuable man and they wouldn't take no." Sam deepened the colour of his ears. "As a matter of fact," he said casually, "my fiancee made rather a point of my doing something."
A sharp yell from the lower berth proclaimed the fact that the significance of the remark had not been lost on Eustace.
"The girl I'm engaged to. Didn't I tell you about that? Yes, I'm engaged."
Eustace sighed heavily.
"I feared the worst. Tell me, who is she?"
"Didn't I tell you her name?"
"Curious! I must have forgotten." He hummed an airy strain as he blackened the tip of his nose. "It's rather a curious coincidence, really. Her name is Bennett."
"She may be a relation."
"That's true. Of course, girls do have relations."
"What is her first name?"
"That is another rather remarkable thing. It's Wilhelmina."
"Of course, there must be hundreds of girls in the world called Wilhelmina Bennett, but still it is a coincidence."
"What colour is her hair?" demanded Eustace Hignett in a hollow voice. "Her hair! What colour is it?"
"Her hair? Now, let me see. You ask me what colour is her hair. Well, you might call it auburn ... or russet ... or you might call it Titian...."
"Never mind what you might call it. Is it red?"
"Red? Why, yes. That is a very good description of it. Now that you put it to me like that, it is red."
"Has she a trick of grabbing at you suddenly, when she gets excited, like a kitten with a ball of wool?"
"Yes. Yes, she has."
Eustace Hignett uttered a sharp cry.
"Sam," he said, "can you bear a shock?"
"I'll have a dash at it."
"The girl you are engaged to is the same girl who promised to marry me."
"Well, well!" said Sam.
There was a silence.
"Awfully sorry, of course, and all that," said Sam.
"Don't apologise to me!" said Eustace. "My poor old chap, my only feeling towards you is one of the purest and profoundest pity." He reached out and pressed Sam's hand. "I regard you as a toad beneath the harrow!"
"Well, I suppose that's one way of offering congratulations and cheery good wishes."
"And on top of that," went on Eustace, deeply moved. "You have got to sing at the ship's concert."
"Why shouldn't I sing at the ship's concert?"
"My dear old man, you have many worthy qualities, but you must know that you can't sing. You can't sing for nuts! I don't want to discourage you, but, long ago as it is, you can't have forgotten what an ass you made of yourself at that house-supper at school. Seeing you up against it like this, I regret that I threw a lump of butter at you on that occasion, though at the time it seemed the only course to pursue."
"Was it you who threw that bit of butter?"
"I wish I'd known! You silly chump, you ruined my collar."
"Ah, well, it's seven years ago. You would have had to send it to the wash anyhow by this time. But don't let us brood on the past. Let us put our heads together and think how we can get you out of this terrible situation."
"I don't want to get out of it. I confidently expect to be the hit of the evening."
"The hit of the evening! You! Singing!"
"I'm not going to sing. I'm going to do that imitation of Frank Tinney which I did at the Trinity Smoker. You haven't forgotten that? You were at the piano taking the part of the conductor of the orchestra. What a riot I was--we were! I say, Eustace, old man, I suppose you don't feel well enough to come up now and take your old part? You could do it without a rehearsal. You remember how it went ... 'Hullo, Ernest!' 'Hullo, Frank!' Why not come along?"
"The only piano I will ever sit at will be one firmly fixed on a floor that does not heave and wobble under me."
"Nonsense! The boat's as steady as a rock now. The sea's like a mill-pond."
"Nevertheless, thanking you for your suggestion, no!"
"Oh, well, then I shall have to get on as best I can with that fellow Mortimer. We've been rehearsing all the afternoon and he seems to have the hang of the thing. But he won't be really right. He has no pep, no vim. Still, if you won't ... well, I think I'll be getting along to his stateroom. I told him I would look in for a last rehearsal."
The door closed behind Sam, and Eustace Hignett, lying on his back, gave himself up to melancholy meditation. He was deeply disturbed by his cousin's sad story. He knew what it meant being engaged to Wilhelmina Bennett. It was like being taken aloft in a balloon and dropped with a thud on the rocks.
His reflections were broken by the abrupt opening of the door. Marlowe rushed in. Eustace peered anxiously out of his berth. There was too much cork on his cousin's face to allow of any real registering of emotion, but he could tell from his manner that all was not well.
"What's the matter?"
Sam sank on the lounge.
"The bounder has quit!"
"The bounder? What bounder?"
"There is only one! Bream Mortimer, curse him! There may be others whom thoughtless critics rank as bounders, but he is the only man really deserving of the title. He refuses to appear! He has walked out on the act! He has left me flat! I went into his stateroom just now, as arranged, and the man was lying on his bunk, groaning."
"I thought you said the sea was like a millpond."
"It wasn't that! He's perfectly fit. But it seems that the silly ass took it into his head to propose to Billie just before dinner-- apparently he's loved her for years in a silent, self-effacing way--and of course she told him that she was engaged to me, and the thing upset him to such an extent that he says the idea of sitting down at a piano and helping me give an imitation of Frank Tinney revolts him. He says he intends to spend the evening in bed, reading Schopenhauer. I hope it chokes him."
"But this is splendid! This lets you out."
"What do you mean? Lets me out?"
"Why, now you won't be able to appear. Oh, you will be thankful for this in years to come."
"Won't I appear! Won't I dashed well appear! Do you think I'm going to disappoint that dear girl when she is relying on me? I would rather die!"
"But you can't appear without a pianist."
"I've got a pianist."
"Yes. A little undersized shrimp of a fellow with a green face and ears like water-wings."
"I don't think I know him."
"Yes, you do. He's you!"
"Yes, you. You are going to sit at the piano to-night."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it's impossible. I gave you my views on the subject just now."
"You've altered them."
"Well, you soon will, and I'll tell you why. If you don't get up out of that damned berth you've been roosting in all your life, I'm going to ring for J. B. Midgeley and I'm going to tell him to bring me a bit of dinner in here and I'm going to eat it before your eyes."
"But you've had dinner."
"Well, I'll have another. I feel just ready for a nice fat pork chop...."
"A nice fat pork chop with potatoes and lots of cabbage," repeated Sam, firmly. "And I shall eat it here on this very lounge. Now, how do we go?"
"You wouldn't do that!" said Eustace piteously.
"I would and will."
"But I shouldn't be any good at the piano. I've forgotten how the thing used to go."
"You haven't done anything of the kind. I come in and say, 'Hullo, Ernest!' and you say 'Hullo, Frank!' and then you help me tell the story about the Pullman car. A child could do your part of it."
"Perhaps there is some child on board...."
"No! I want you. I shall feel safe with you. We've done it together before."
"But honestly, I really don't think ... it isn't as if...."
Sam rose and extended a finger towards the bell.
"Stop! Stop!" cried Eustace Hignett. "I'll do it!"
Sam withdrew his finger.
"Good!" he said. "We've just got time for a rehearsal while you're dressing. 'Hullo, Ernest!'"
"Hullo, Frank," said Eustace Hignett, brokenly, as he searched for his unfamiliar trousers.