The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma by P.G. Wodehouse
Although this story is concerned principally with the Man and the Maid, the Miasma pervades it to such an extent that I feel justified in putting his name on the bills. Webster's Dictionary gives the meaning of the word 'miasma' as 'an infection floating in the air; a deadly exhalation'; and, in the opinion of Mr Robert Ferguson, his late employer, that description, though perhaps a little too flattering, on the whole summed up Master Roland Bean pretty satisfactorily. Until the previous day he had served Mr Ferguson in the capacity of office-boy; but there was that about Master Bean which made it practically impossible for anyone to employ him for long. A syndicate of Galahad, Parsifal, and Marcus Aurelius might have done it, but to an ordinary erring man, conscious of things done which should not have been done, and other things equally numerous left undone, he was too oppressive. One conscience is enough for any man. The employer of Master Bean had to cringe before two. Nobody can last long against an office-boy whose eyes shine with quiet, respectful reproof through gold-rimmed spectacles, whose manner is that of a middle-aged saint, and who obviously knows all the Plod and Punctuality books by heart and orders his life by their precepts. Master Bean was a walking edition of Stepping-Stones to Success, Millionaires who Have Never Smoked, and Young Man, Get up Early. Galahad, Parsifal, and Marcus Aurelius, as I say, might have remained tranquil in his presence, but Robert Ferguson found the contract too large. After one month he had braced himself up and sacked the Punctual Plodder.
Yet now he was sitting in his office, long after the last clerk had left, long after the hour at which he himself was wont to leave, his mind full of his late employee.
Was this remorse? Was he longing for the touch of the vanished hand, the gleam of the departed spectacles? He was not. His mind was full of Master Bean because Master Bean was waiting for him in the outer office; and he lingered on at his desk, after the day's work was done, for the same reason. Word had been brought to him earlier in the evening, that Master Roland Bean would like to see him. The answer to that was easy: 'Tell him I'm busy.' Master Bean's admirably dignified reply was that he understood how great was the pressure of Mr Ferguson's work, and that he would wait till he was at liberty. Liberty! Talk of the liberty of the treed possum, but do not use the word in connexion with a man bottled up in an office, with Roland Bean guarding the only exit.
Mr Ferguson kicked the waste-paper basket savagely. The unfairness of the thing hurt him. A sacked office-boy ought to stay sacked. He had no business to come popping up again like Banquo's ghost. It was not playing the game.
The reader may wonder what was the trouble--why Mr Ferguson could not stalk out and brusquely dispose of his foe; but then the reader has not employed Master Bean for a month. Mr Ferguson had, and his nerve had broken.
A slight cough penetrated the door between the two offices. Mr Ferguson rose and grabbed his hat. Perhaps a sudden rush--he shot out with the tense concentration of one moving towards the refreshment-room at a station where the train stops three minutes.
'Good evening, sir!' was the watcher's view-hallo.
'Ah, Bean,' said Mr Ferguson, flitting rapidly, 'you still here? I thought you had gone. I'm afraid I cannot stop now. Some other time--'
He was almost through.
'I fear, sir, that you will be unable to get out,' said Master Bean, sympathetically. 'The building is locked up.'
Men who have been hit by bullets say the first sensation is merely a sort of dull shock. So it was with Mr Ferguson. He stopped in his tracks and stared.
'The porter closes the door at seven o'clock punctually, sir. It is now nearly twenty minutes after the hour.'
Mr Ferguson's brain was still in the numbed stage.
'Closes the door?' he said.
'Then how are we to get out?'
'I fear we cannot get out, sir.'
Mr Ferguson digested this.
'I am no longer in your employment, sir,' said Master Bean, respectfully, 'but I hope that in the circumstances you will permit me to remain here during the night.'
'During the night!'
'It would enable me to sleep more comfortably than on the stairs.'
'But we can't stop here all night,' said Mr Ferguson, feebly.
He had anticipated an unpleasant five minutes in Master Bean's company. Imagination boggled at the thought of an unpleasant thirteen hours.
He collapsed into a chair.
'I called,' said Master Bean, shelving the trivial subject of the prospective vigil, 'in the hope that I might persuade you, sir, to reconsider your decision in regard to my dismissal. I can assure you, sir, that I am extremely anxious to give satisfaction. If you would take me back and inform me how I have fallen short, I would endeavour to improve, I--'
'We can't stop here all night,' interrupted Mr Ferguson, bounding from his chair and beginning to pace the floor.
'Without presumption, sir, I feel that if you were to give me another chance I should work to your satisfaction. I should endeavour--'
Mr Ferguson stared at him in dumb horror. He had a momentary vision of a sleepless night spent in listening to a nicely-polished speech for the defence. He was seized with a mad desire for flight. He could not leave the building, but he must get away somewhere and think.
He dashed from the room and raced up the dark stairs. And as he arrived at the next floor his eye was caught by a thin pencil of light which proceeded from a door on the left.
No shipwrecked mariner on a desert island could have welcomed the appearance of a sail with greater enthusiasm. He bounded at the door. He knew to whom the room belonged. It was the office of one Blaythwayt; and Blaythwayt was not only an acquaintance, but a sportsman. Quite possibly there might be a pack of cards on Blaythwayt's person to help pass the long hours. And if not, at least he would be company and his office a refuge. He flung open the door without going through the formality of knocking. Etiquette is not for the marooned.
'I say, Blaythwayt--' he began, and stopped abruptly.
The only occupant of the room was a girl.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I thought--'
He stopped again. His eyes, dazzled with the light, had not seen clearly. They did so now.
'You!' he cried.
The girl looked at him, first with surprise, then with a cool hostility. There was a long pause. Eighteen months had passed since they had parted, and conversation does not flow easily after eighteen months of silence, especially if the nature of the parting has been bitter and stormy.
He was the first to speak.
'What are you doing here?' he said.
'I thought my doings had ceased to interest you,' she said. 'I am Mr Blaythwayt's secretary, I have been here a fortnight. I have wondered if we should meet. I used to see you sometimes in the street.'
'I never saw you.'
'No?' she said indifferently.
He ran his hand through his hair in a dazed way.
'Do you know we are locked in?' he said.
He had expected wild surprise and dismay. She merely clicked her tongue in an annoyed manner.
'Again!' she said. 'What a nuisance! I was locked in only a week ago.'
He looked at her with unwilling respect, the respect of the novice for the veteran. She was nothing to him now, of course. She had passed out of his life. But he could not help remembering that long ago--eighteen months ago--what he had admired most in her had been this same spirit, this game refusal to be disturbed by Fate's blows. It braced him up.
He sat down and looked curiously at her.
'So you left the stage?' he said.
'I thought we agreed when we parted not to speak to one another,' said she, coldly.
'Did we? I thought it was only to meet as strangers.'
'It's the same thing.'
'Is it? I often talk to strangers.'
'What a bore they must think you!' she said, hiding one-eighth of a yawn with the tips of two fingers. 'I suppose,' she went on, with faint interest, 'you talk to them in trains when they are trying to read their paper?'
'I don't force my conversation on anyone.'
'Don't you?' she said, raising her eyebrows in sweet surprise. 'Only your company--is that it?'
'Are you alluding to the present occasion?'
'Well, you have an office of your own in this building, I believe.'
'I am at perfect liberty,' he said, with dignity, 'to sit in my friend Blaythwayt's office if I choose. I wish to see Mr Blaythwayt.'
He proved that she had established no corner in raised eyebrows.
'I fear,' he said, 'that I cannot discuss my affairs with Mr Blaythwayt's employees. I must see him personally.'
'Mr Blaythwayt is not here.'
'I will wait.'
'He will not be here for thirteen hours.'
'Very well,' she burst out; 'you have brought it on yourself. You've only yourself to blame. If you had been good and had gone back to your office, I would have brought you down some cake and cocoa.'
'Cake and cocoa!' said he, superciliously.
'Yes, cake and cocoa,' she snapped. 'It's all very well for you to turn up your nose at them now, but wait. You've thirteen hours of this in front of you. I know what it is. Last time I had to spend the night here I couldn't get to sleep for hours, and when I did I dreamed that I was chasing chocolate eclairs round and round Trafalgar Square. And I never caught them either. Long before the night was finished I would have given anything for even a dry biscuit. I made up my mind I'd always keep something here in case I ever got locked in again--yes, smile. You'd better while you can.'
He was smiling, but wanly. Nobody but a professional fasting man could have looked unmoved into the Inferno she had pictured. Then he rallied.
'Cake!' he said, scornfully.
She nodded grimly.
Again that nod, ineffably sinister.
'I'm afraid I don't care for either,' he said.
'If you will excuse me,' she said, indifferently, 'I have a little work that I must finish.'
She turned to her desk, leaving him to his thoughts. They were not exhilarating. He had maintained a brave front, but inwardly he quailed. Reared in the country, he had developed at an early age a fine, healthy appetite. Once, soon after his arrival in London, he had allowed a dangerous fanatic to persuade him that the secret of health was to go without breakfast.
His lunch that day had cost him eight shillings, and only decent shame had kept the figure as low as that. He knew perfectly well that long ere the dawn of day his whole soul would be crying out for cake, squealing frantically for cocoa. Would it not be better to--no, a thousand times no! Death, but not surrender. His self-respect was at stake. Looking back, he saw that his entire relations with this girl had been a series of battles of will. So far, though he had certainly not won, he had not been defeated. He must not be defeated now.
He crossed his legs and sang a gay air under his breath.
'If you wouldn't mind,' said the girl, looking up.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Your groaning interrupts my work.'
'I was not groaning. I was singing.'
'Oh, I'm sorry!'
'Not at all.'
Eight bars rest.
Mr Ferguson, deprived of the solace of song, filled in the time by gazing at the toiler's back-hair. It set in motion a train of thought--an express train bound for the Land of Yesterday. It recalled days in the woods, evenings on the lawn. It recalled sunshine--storm. Plenty of storm. Minor tempests that burst from a clear sky, apparently without cause, and the great final tornado. There had been cause enough for that. Why was it, mused Mr Ferguson, that every girl in every country town in every county of England who had ever recited 'Curfew shall not ring tonight' well enough to escape lynching at the hands of a rustic audience was seized with the desire to come to London and go on the stage?
'Please don't snort,' said a cold voice, from behind the back-hair.
There was a train-wreck in the Land of Yesterday. Mr Ferguson, the only survivor, limped back into the Present.
The Present had little charm, but at least it was better than the cakeless Future. He fixed his thoughts on it. He wondered how Master Bean was passing the time. Probably doing deep-breathing exercises, or reading a pocket Aristotle. The girl pushed back her chair and rose.
She went to a small cupboard in the corner of the room, and from it produced in instalments all that goes to make cake and cocoa. She did not speak. Presently, filling Space, there sprang into being an Odour; and as it reached him Mr Ferguson stiffened in his chair, bracing himself as for a fight to the death. It was more than an odour. It was the soul of the cocoa singing to him. His fingers gripped the arms of the chair. This was the test.
The girl separated a section of cake from the parent body. She caught his eye.
'You had better go,' she said. 'If you go now it's just possible that I may--but I forgot, you don't like cocoa.'
'No,' said he, resolutely, 'I don't.'
She seemed now in the mood for conversation.
'I wonder why you came up here at all,' she said.
'There's no reason why you shouldn't know. I came up here because my late office-boy is downstairs.'
'Why should that send you up?'
'You've never met him or you wouldn't ask. Have you ever had to face someone who is simply incarnate Saintliness and Disapproval, who--'
'Are you forgetting that I was engaged to you for several weeks?'
He was too startled to be hurt. The idea of himself as a Roland Bean was too new to be assimilated immediately. It called for meditation.
'Was I like that?' he said at last, almost humbly.
'You know you were. Oh, I'm not thinking only about your views on the stage! It was everything. Whatever I did you were there to disapprove like a--like a--like an aunt,' she concluded triumphantly. 'You were too good for anything. If only you would, just once, have done something wrong. I think I'd have--But you couldn't. You're simply perfect.'
A man will remain cool and composed under many charges. Hint that his tastes are criminal, and he will shrug his shoulders. But accuse him of goodness, and you rouse the lion.
Mr Ferguson's brow darkened.
'As a matter of fact,' he said, haughtily, 'I was to have had supper with a chorus-girl this very night.'
'How very appalling!' said she, languidly.
She sipped her cocoa.
'I suppose you consider that very terrible?' she said.
'For a beginner.'
She crumbled her cake. Suddenly she looked up.
'Who is she?' she demanded, fiercely.
'I beg your pardon?' he said, coming out of a pleasant reverie.
'Who is this girl?'
'She--er--her name--her name is Marie--Marie Templeton.'
She seemed to think for a moment.
'That dear old lady?' she said.' I know her quite well.'
'"Mother" we used to call her. Have you met her son?'
'A rather nice-looking man. He plays heavy parts on tour. He's married and has two of the sweetest children. Their grandmother is devoted to them. Hasn't she ever mentioned them to you?'
She poured herself out another cup of cocoa. Conversation again languished.
'I suppose you're very fond of her?' she said at length.
'I'm devoted to her.' He paused. 'Dear little thing!' he added.
She rose and moved to the door. There was a nasty gleam in her eyes.
'You aren't going?' he said.
'I shall be back in a moment. I'm just going to bring your poor little office-boy up here. He must be missing you.'
He sprang up, but she had gone. Leaning over the banisters, he heard a door open below, then a short conversation, and finally footsteps climbing the stairs.
It was pitch dark on the landing. He stepped aside, and they passed without seeing him. Master Bean was discoursing easily on cocoa, the processes whereby it was manufactured, and the remarkable distances which natives of Mexico had covered with it as their only food. The door opened, flooding the landing with light, and Mr Ferguson, stepping from ambush, began to descend the stairs.
The girl came to the banisters.
'Did you want me?' he asked.
'Are you going back to your office?'
'I am. I hope you will enjoy Bean's society. He has a fund of useful information on all subjects.'
He went on. After a while she returned to the room and closed the door.
Mr Ferguson went into his office and sat down.
* * * * *
There was once a person of the name of Simeon Stylites, who took up a position on top of a pillar and stayed there, having no other engagements, for thirty years. Mr Ferguson, who had read Tennyson's poem on the subject, had until tonight looked upon this as a pretty good thing. Reading the lines:
...thrice ten years, Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs, In hunger and in thirsts, fevers and colds, In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes, and cramps, ... Patient on this tall pillar I have borne. Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow,
he had gathered roughly, as it were, that Simeon had not been comfortable. He had pitied him. But now, sitting in his office-chair, he began to wonder what the man had made such a fuss about. He suspected him of having had a touch of the white feather in him. It was not as if he had not had food. He talked about 'hungers and thirsts', but he must have had something to eat, or he could not have stayed the course. Very likely, if the truth were known, there was somebody below who passed him up regular supplies of cake and cocoa.
He began to look on Simeon as an overrated amateur.
Sleep refused to come to him. It got as far as his feet, but no farther. He rose and stamped to restore the circulation.
It was at this point that he definitely condemned Simeon Stylites as a sybaritic fraud.
If this were one of those realistic Zolaesque stories I would describe the crick in the back that--but let us hurry on.
It was about six hours later--he had no watch, but the numbers of aches, stitches, not to mention cramps, that he had experienced could not possibly have been condensed into a shorter period--that his manly spirit snapped. Let us not judge him too harshly. The girl upstairs had broken his heart, ruined his life, and practically compared him to Roland Bean, and his pride should have built up an impassable wall between them, but--she had cake and cocoa. In similar circumstances King Arthur would have grovelled before Guinevere.
He rushed to the door and tore it open. There was a startled exclamation from the darkness outside.
'I hope I didn't disturb you,' said a meek voice.
Mr Ferguson did not answer. His twitching nostrils were drinking in a familiar aroma.
'Were you asleep? May I come in? I've brought you some cake and cocoa.'
He took the rich gifts from her in silence. There are moments in a man's life too sacred for words. The wonder of the thing had struck him dumb. An instant before and he had had but a desperate hope of winning these priceless things from her at the cost of all his dignity and self-respect. He had been prepared to secure them through a shower of biting taunts, a blizzard of razor-like 'I told you so's'. Yet here he was, draining the cup, and still able to hold his head up, look the world in the face, and call himself a man.
His keen eye detected a crumb on his coat-sleeve. This retrieved and consumed, he turned to her, seeking explanation.
She was changed. The battle-gleam had faded from her eyes. She seemed scared and subdued. Her manner was of one craving comfort and protection. 'That awful boy!' she breathed.
'Bean?' said Mr Ferguson, picking a crumb off the carpet.
'I thought you might get a little tired of him! What has he been doing?'
'Talking. I feel battered. He's like one of those awful encyclopedias that give you a sort of dull leaden feeling in your head directly you open them. Do you know how many tons of water go over Niagara Falls every year?'
'I told you he had a fund of useful information. The Purpose and Tenacity books insist on it. That's how you Catch your Employer's Eye. One morning the boss suddenly wants to know how many horsehair sofas there are in Brixton, the number of pins that would reach from London Bridge to Waterloo. You tell him, and he takes you into partnership. Later you become a millionaire. But I haven't thanked you for the cocoa. It was fine.'
He waited for the retort, but it did not come. A pleased wonderment filled him. Could these things really be thus?
'And it isn't only what he says,' she went on. 'I know what you mean about him now. It's his accusing manner.'
'I've tried to analyse that manner. I believe it's the spectacles.'
'It's frightful when he looks at you; you think of all the wrong things you have ever done or ever wanted to do.'
'Does he have that effect on you?' he said, excitedly. 'Why, that exactly describes what I feel.'
The affinities looked at one another.
She was the first to speak.
'We always did think alike on most things, didn't we?' she said.
'Of course we did.'
He shifted his chair forward.
'It was all my fault,' he said. 'I mean, what happened.'
'It wasn't. It--'
'Yes, it was. I want to tell you something. I don't know if it will make any difference now, but I should like you to know it. It's this. I've altered a good deal since I came to London. For the better, I think. I'm a pretty poor sort of specimen still, but at least I don't imagine I can measure life with a foot-rule. I don't judge the world any longer by the standards of a country town. London has knocked some of the corners off me. I don't think you would find me the Bean type any longer. I don't disapprove of other people much now. Not as a habit. I find I have enough to do keeping myself up to the mark.'
'I want to tell you something, too,' she said. 'I expect it's too late, but never mind. I want you to hear it. I've altered, too, since I came to London. I used to think the Universe had been invented just to look on and wave its hat while I did great things. London has put a large piece of cold ice against my head, and the swelling has gone down. I'm not the girl with ambitions any longer. I just want to keep employed, and not have too bad a time when the day's work is over.'
He came across to where she sat.
'We said we would meet as strangers, and we do. We never have known each other. Don't you think we had better get acquainted?' he said.
There was a respectful tap at the door.
'Come in?' snapped Mr Ferguson. 'Well?' Behind the gold-rimmed spectacles of Master Bean there shone a softer look than usual, a look rather complacent than disapproving.
'I must apologize, sir, for intruding upon you. I am no longer in your employment, but I do hope that in the circumstances you will forgive my entering your private office. Thinking over our situation just now an idea came to me by means of which I fancy we might be enabled to leave the building.'
'It occurred to me, sir, that by telephoning to the nearest police-station--'
'Good heavens!' cried Mr Ferguson.
Two minutes later he replaced the receiver.
'It's all right,' he said. 'I've made them understand the trouble. They're bringing a ladder. I wonder what the time is? It must be about four in the morning.'
Master Bean produced a Waterbury watch.
'The time, sir, is almost exactly half past ten.'
'Half past ten! We must have been here longer than three hours. Your watch is wrong.'
'No, sir, I am very careful to keep it exactly right. I do not wish to run any risk of being unpunctual.'
'Half past ten!' cried Mr Ferguson. 'Why, we're in heaps of time to look in at the Savoy for supper. This is great. I'll phone them to keep a table.'
'Supper! I thought--'
'What's that? Thought what?'
'Hadn't you an engagement for supper?'
He stared at her.
'Whatever gave you that idea? Of course not.'
'I thought you said you were taking Miss Templeton--'
'Miss Temp--Oh!' His face cleared. 'Oh, there isn't such a person. I invented her. I had to when you accused me of being like our friend the Miasma. Legitimate self-defence.'
'I do not wish to interrupt you, sir, when you are busy,' said Master Bean, 'but--'
'Come and see me tomorrow morning,' said Mr Ferguson.
* * * * *
'Bob,' said the girl, as the first threatening mutters from the orchestra heralded an imminent storm of melody, 'when that boy comes tomorrow, what are going to do?'
'Call up the police.'
'No, but you must do something. We shouldn't have been here if it hadn't been for him.'
'That's true!' He pondered. 'I've got it; I'll get him a job with Raikes and Courtenay.'
'Why Raikes and Courtenay?'
'Because I have a pull with them. But principally,' said Mr Ferguson, with a devilish grin, 'because they live in Edinburgh, which, as you are doubtless aware, is a long, long way from London.'
He bent across the table.
'Isn't this like old times?' he said. 'Do you remember the first time I ever ki--'
Just then the orchestra broke out.