Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
There was a tap at the door. Sam sat up dizzily. He had lost all count of time.
"I have a note for you, sir."
It was the level voice of J. B. Midgeley, the steward. The stewards of the White Star Line, besides being the civillest and most obliging body of men in the world, all have soft and pleasant voices. A White Star steward, waking you up at six-thirty, to tell you that your bath is ready, when you wanted to sleep on till twelve, is the nearest human approach to the nightingale.
"A note, sir."
Sam jumped up and switched on the light. He went to the door and took the note from J. B. Midgeley, who, his mission accomplished, retired in an orderly manner down the passage. Sam looked at the letter with a thrill. He had never seen the hand-writing before, but, with the eye of love, he recognized it. It was just the sort of hand he would have expected Billie to write, round and smooth and flowing, the writing of a warm-hearted girl. He tore open the envelope.
"Please come up to the top deck. I want to speak to you."
Sam could not disguise it from himself that he was a little disappointed. I don't know if you see anything wrong with the letter, but the way Sam looked at it was that, for a first love-letter, it might have been longer and perhaps a shade warmer. And, without running any risk of writer's cramp, she might have signed it.
However, these were small matters. No doubt she had been in a hurry and all that sort of thing. The important point was that he was going to see her. When a man's afraid, sings the bard, a beautiful maid is a cheering sight to see; and the same truth holds good when a man has made an exhibition of himself at a ship's concert. A woman's gentle sympathy, that was what Samuel Marlowe wanted more than anything else at the moment. That, he felt, was what the doctor ordered. He scrubbed the burnt cork off his face with all possible speed and changed his clothes and made his way to the upper deck. It was like Billie, he felt, to have chosen this spot for their meeting. It would be deserted and it was hallowed for them both by sacred associations.
She was standing at the rail, looking out over the water. The moon was quite full. Out on the horizon to the south its light shone on the sea, making it look like the silver beach of some distant fairy island. The girl appeared to be wrapped in thought, and it was not till the sharp crack of Sam's head against an overhanging stanchion announced his approach that she turned.
"Oh, is that you?"
"You've been a long time."
"It wasn't an easy job," explained Sam, "getting all that burnt cork off. You've no notion how the stuff sticks. You have to use butter...."
"But I did. You have to with burnt cork."
"Don't tell me these horrible things." Her voice rose almost hysterically. "I never want to hear the words burnt cork mentioned again as long as I live."
"I feel exactly the same." Sam moved to her side.
"Darling," he said in a low voice, "it was like you to ask me to meet you here. I know what you were thinking. You thought that I should need sympathy. You wanted to pet me, to smooth my wounded feelings, to hold me in your arms, and tell me that, as we loved each other, what did anything else matter?"
"No, I didn't."
"Oh, you didn't! I thought you did!" He looked at her wistfully.
"I thought," he said, "that possibly you might have wished to comfort me. I have been through a great strain. I have had a shock...."
"And what about me?" she demanded passionately. "Haven't I had a shock?"
He melted at once.
"Have you had a shock, too? Poor little thing! Sit down and tell me all about it."
She looked away from him, her face working.
"Can't you understand what a shock I have had? I thought you were the perfect knight."
"Yes, isn't it?"
"I thought you said it was a perfect night."
"I said I thought you were a perfect knight."
A sailor crossed the deck, a dim figure in the shadows, went over to a sort of raised summerhouse with a brass thingummy in it, fooled about for a moment, and went away again. Sailors earn their money easily.
"Yes?" said Sam when he had gone.
"I forget what I was saying."
"Something about my being the perfect knight."
"Yes. I thought you were."
"But you're not!"
Silence fell. Sam was feeling hurt and bewildered. He could not understand her mood. He had come up expecting to be soothed and comforted and she was like a petulant iceberg. Cynically, he recalled some lines of poetry which he had had to write out a hundred times on one occasion at school as a punishment for having introduced a white mouse into chapel.
"Oh, woman in our hours of ease, Un-something, something, something, please. When tiddly-umpty umpty brow, A something, something, something, thou!"
He had forgotten the exact words, but the gist of it had been that woman, however she might treat a man in times of prosperity, could be relied on to rally round and do the right thing when he was in trouble. How little the poet had known women.
"Why not?" he said huffily..
She gave a little sob.
"I put you on a pedestal and I find you have feet of clay. You have blurred the image which I formed of you. I can never think of you again without picturing you as you stood in that saloon, stammering and helpless...."
"Well, what can you do when your pianist runs out on you?"
"You could have done something. I can't forgive a man for looking ridiculous. Oh, what, what," she cried, "induced you to try to give an imitation of Bert Williams?"
Sam started, stung to the quick.
"It wasn't Bert Williams. It was Frank Tinney!"
"Well, how was I to know?"
"I did my best," said Sam sullenly.
"That is the awful thought."
"I did it for your sake."
"I know. It gives me a horrible sense of guilt." She, shuddered again. Then suddenly, with the nervous quickness of a woman unstrung, thrust a small black golliwog into his hand.
"You bought it for me yesterday at the barber's shop. It is the only present that you have given me. Take it back."
"I don't want it. I shouldn't know what to do with it."
"You must take it," she said in a low voice. "It is a symbol."
"A symbol of our broken love."
"I don't see how you make that out. It's a golliwog."
"I can never marry you now."
"What! Good heavens! Don't be absurd."
"Oh, go on, have a dash at it," he said encouragingly, though his heart was sinking.
She shook her head.
"No, I couldn't."
"Oh, hang it all!"
"I couldn't. I'm a strange girl...."
"You're a darned silly girl...."
"I don't see what right you have to say that," she flared.
"I don't see what right you have to say you can't marry me and try to load me up with golliwogs," he retorted with equal heat.
"Oh, can't you understand?"
"No, I'm dashed if I can."
She looked at him despondently.
"When I said I would marry you, you were a hero to me. You stood to me for everything that was noble and brave and wonderful. I had only to shut my eyes to conjure up the picture of you as you dived off the rail that morning. Now"--her voice trembled--"if I shut my eyes now,--I can only see a man with a hideous black face making himself the laughing stock of the ship. How can I marry you, haunted by that picture?"
"But, good heavens, you talk as if I made a habit of blacking up! You talk as if you expected me to come to the altar smothered in burnt cork."
"I shall always think of you as I saw you to-night."
She looked at him sadly, "There's a bit of black still on your left ear."
He tried to take her hand. But she drew it away. He fell back as if struck.
"So this is the end," he muttered.
"Yes. It's partly on your ear and partly on your cheek."
"So this is the end," he repeated.
"You had better go below and ask your steward to give you some more butter."
He laughed bitterly.
"Well, I might have expected it, I might have known what would happen! Eustace warned me. Eustace was right. He knows women--as I do--now. Women! What mighty ills have not been done by women? Who was't betrayed the what's-its-name? A woman! Who lost ... lost ... who lost ... who-- er--and so on? A woman ... So all is over! There is nothing to be said but good-bye?"
"Good-bye, then, Miss Bennett!"
"Good-bye," said Billie sadly. "I--I'm sorry."
"Don't mention it!"
"You do understand, don't you?"
"You have made everything perfectly clear."
"I hope--I hope you won't be unhappy."
"Unhappy!" Sam produced a strangled noise from his larynx, like the cry of a shrimp in pain. "Unhappy! I'm not unhappy! Whatever gave you that idea? I'm smiling! I'm laughing! I feel I've had a merciful escape."
"It's very unkind and rude of you to say that."
"It reminds me of a moving picture I saw in New York. It was called 'Saved from the Scaffold.'"
"I'm not unhappy. What have I got to be unhappy about? What on earth does any man want to get married for? I don't ... Give me my gay bachelor life! My uncle Charlie used to say 'It's better luck to get married than it is to be kicked in the head by a mule.' But he was an optimist. Good-night, Miss Bennett. And good-bye--for ever."
He turned on his heel and strode across the deck. From a white heaven the moon still shone benignantly down, mocking him. He had spoken bravely: the most captious critic could not but have admitted that he had made a good exit. But already his heart was aching.
As he drew near to his stateroom, he was amazed and disgusted to hear a high tenor voice raised in song proceeding from behind the closed door.
"I fee-er naw faw in shee-ining arr-mor, Though his lance be sharrrp and-er keen; But I fee-er, I fee-er the glah-mour Therough thy der-rooping lashes seen: I fee-er, I fee-er the glah-mour...."
Sam flung open the door wrathfully. That Eustace Hignett should still be alive was bad--he had pictured him hurling himself overboard and bobbing about, a pleasing sight, in the wake of the vessel; that he should be singing was an outrage. Remorse, Sam thought should have stricken Eustace Hignett dumb. Instead of which, here he was comporting himself like a blasted linnet. It was all wrong. The man could have no conscience whatever.
"Well," he said sternly, "so there you are!"
Eustace Hignett looked up brightly, even beamingly. In the brief interval which had elapsed since Sam had seen him last, an extraordinary transformation had taken place in this young man. His wan look had disappeared. His eyes were bright. His face wore that beastly self-satisfied smirk which you see in pictures advertising certain makes of fine-mesh underwear. If Eustace Hignett had been a full-page drawing in a magazine with "My dear fellow, I always wear Sigsbee's Superfine Featherweight!" printed underneath him, he could not have looked more pleased with himself.
"Hullo!" he said. "I was wondering where you had got to."
"Never mind," said Sam coldly, "where I had got to! Where did you get to, and why? You poor, miserable worm," he went on in a burst of generous indignation, "what have you to say for yourself? What do you mean by dashing away like that and killing my little entertainment?"
"Awfully sorry, old man. I hadn't foreseen the cigar. I was bearing up tolerably well till I began to sniff the smoke. Then everything seemed to go black--I don't mean you, of course. You were black already--and I got the feeling that I simply must get on deck and drown myself."
"Well, why didn't you?" demanded Sam, with a strong sense of injury. "I might have forgiven you then. But to come down here and find you singing...."
A soft light came into Eustace Hignett's eyes.
"I want to tell you all about that," he said, "It's the most astonishing story. A miracle, you might almost call it. Makes you believe in Fate and all that sort of thing. A week ago I was on the Subway in New York...."
He broke off while Sam cursed him, the Subway, and the city of New York, in the order named.
"My dear chap, what is the matter?"
"What is the matter? Ha!"
"Something is the matter," persisted Eustace Hignett, "I can tell it by your manner. Something has happened to disturb and upset you. I know you so well that I can pierce the mask. What is it? Tell me."
"You surely can't still be brooding on that concert business? Why, that's all over. I take it that after my departure you made the most colossal ass of yourself, but why let that worry you? These things cannot affect one permanently."
"Can't they? Let me tell you that as a result of that concert my engagement is broken off."
Eustace sprang forward with outstretched hand.
"Not really? How splendid! Accept my congratulations! This is the finest thing that could possibly have happened. These are not idle words. As one who has been engaged to the girl himself, I speak feelingly. You are well out of it, Sam."
Sam thrust aside his hand. Had it been his neck he might have clutched it eagerly, but he drew the line at shaking hands with Eustace Hignett.
"My heart is broken," he said with dignity.
"That feeling will pass, giving way to one of devout thankfulness. I know! I've been there. After all ... Wilhelmina Bennett ... what is she? A rag and a bone and a hank of hair?"
"She is nothing of the kind," said Sam, revolted.
"Pardon me," said Eustace firmly, "I speak as an expert. I know her and I repeat, she is a rag and a bone and a hank of hair!"
"She is the only girl in the world, and owing to your idiotic behaviour I have lost her."
"You speak of the only girl in the world," said Eustace blithely. "If you want to hear about the only girl in the world, I will tell you. A week ago I was in the Subway in New York...."
"I'm going to bed," said Sam brusquely.
"All right. I'll tell you while you're undressing."
"I don't want to listen."
"A week ago," said Eustace Hignett, "I will ask you to picture me seated after some difficulty in a carriage in a New York subway; I got into conversation with a girl with an elephant gun."
Sam revised his private commination service in order to include the elephant gun.
"She was my soul-mate," proceeded Eustace with quiet determination. "I didn't know it at the time, but she was. She had grave brown eyes, a wonderful personality, and this elephant gun. She was bringing the gun away from the down-town place where she had taken it to be mended."
"Did she shoot you with it?"
"Shoot me? What do you mean? Why, no!"
"The girl must have been a fool!" said Sam bitterly. "The chance of a life-time and she missed it. Where are my pyjamas?"
"I haven't seen your pyjamas. She talked to me about this elephant gun, and explained its mechanism. You can imagine how she soothed my aching heart. My heart, if you recollect, was aching at the moment--quite unnecessarily if I had only known--because it was only a couple of days since my engagement to Wilhelmina Bennett had been broken off. Well, we parted at Sixty-sixth Street, and, strange as it may seem, I forgot all about her."
"Do it again!"
"Tell it again?"
"Good heavens, no! Forget all about her again."
"Nothing," said Eustace Hignett gravely, "could make me do that. Our souls have blended. Our beings have called to one another from their deepest depths, saying ... There are your pyjamas, over in the corner ... saying, 'You are mine!' How could I forget her after that? Well, as I was saying, we parted. Little did I know that she was sailing on this very boat! But just now she came to me as I writhed on deck...."
"Did you writhe?" asked Sam with a flicker of moody interest.
"I certainly did."
"But not for long."
"She came to me and healed me. Sam, that girl is an angel."
"Switch off the light when you've finished."
"She seemed to understand without a word how I was feeling. There are some situations which do not need words. She went away and returned with a mixture of some kind in a glass.
"I don't know what it was. It had Worcester sauce in it. She put it to my lips. She made me drink it. She said it was what her father always used in Africa for bull-calves with the staggers. Well, believe me or believe me not ... Are you asleep?"
"Believe me or believe me not, in under two minutes I was not merely freed from the nausea caused by your cigar. I was smoking myself! I was walking the deck with her without the slightest qualm. I was even able to look over the side from time to time and comment on the beauty of the moon on the water ... I have said some mordant things about women since I came on board this boat. I withdraw them unreservedly. They still apply to girls like Wilhelmina Bennett, but I have ceased to include the whole sex in my remarks. Jane Hubbard has restored my faith in woman. Sam! Sam!"
"I said that Jane Hubbard had restored my faith in woman."
"Oh, all right."
Eustace Hignett finished undressing and got into bed. With a soft smile on his face he switched off the light. There was a long silence, broken only by the distant purring of engines. At about twelve-thirty a voice came from the lower berth.
"What is it now?"
"There is a sweet womanly strength about her, Sam. She was telling me she once killed a panther with a hat-pin."
Sam groaned and tossed on his mattress.
Silence fell again.
"At least I think it was a panther," said Eustace Hignett, at a quarter past one. "Either a panther or a puma."