The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter X. Trouble at Windles
Mr. Rufus Bennett stood at the window of the drawing-room of Windles, looking out. From where he stood he could see all those natural and artificial charms which had made the place so desirable to him when he first beheld them. Immediately below, flower beds, bright with assorted blooms, pressed against the ivied stone wall of the house. Beyond, separated from these by a gravel pathway, a smooth lawn, whose green and silky turf rivalled the lawns of Oxford colleges, stretched to a picturesque shrubbery, not so dense as to withhold altogether from the eye of the observer an occasional silvery glimpse of the lake that lay behind it. To the left, through noble trees, appeared a white suggestion of old stable yards; while to the right, bordering on the drive as it swept round to a distant gate, nothing less than a fragment of a ruined castle reared itself against a background of firs.
It had been this sensational fragment of Old England which had definitely captured Mr. Bennett on his first visit to the place. He could not have believed that the time would ever come when he could gaze on it without any lightening of the spirits.
The explanation of his gloom was simple. In addition to looking at the flower beds, the lawn, the shrubbery, the stable yard, and the castle, Mr. Bennett was also looking at the fifth heavy shower that had fallen since breakfast. This was the third afternoon of his tenancy. The first day it had rained all the time. The second day it had rained from eight till twelve-fifteen, from twelve-thirty till four, and from five till eleven. And on this, the third day, there had been no intermission longer than ten minutes. It was a trying Summer. Even the writers in the daily papers seemed mildly surprised, and claimed that England had seen finer Julys. Mr. Bennett, who had lived his life in a country of warmth and sunshine, the thing affected in much the same way as the early days of the Flood must have affected Noah. A first startled resentment had given place to a despair too militant to be called resignation. And with the despair had come a strong distaste for his fellow human beings, notably and in particular his old friend Mr. Mortimer, who at this moment broke impatiently in on his meditations.
"Come along, Bennett. It's your deal. It's no good looking at the rain. Looking at it won't stop it."
Mr. Mortimer's nerves also had become a little frayed by the weather.
Mr. Bennett returned heavily to the table, where, with Mr. Mortimer as partner he was playing one more interminable rubber of bridge against Bream and Billie. He was sick of bridge, but there was nothing else to do.
Mr. Bennett sat down with a grunt, and started to deal. Half-way through the operation the sound of rather stertorous breathing began to proceed from beneath the table. Mr. Bennett glanced agitatedly down, and curled his legs round his chair.
"I have fourteen cards," said Mr. Mortimer. "That's the third time you've mis-dealt."
"I don't care how many cards you've got!" said Mr. Bennett with heat. "That dog of yours is sniffing at my ankles!"
He looked malignantly at a fine bulldog which now emerged from its cover and, sitting down, beamed at the company. He was a sweet-tempered dog, handicapped by the outward appearance of a canine plug-ugly. Murder seemed the mildest of the desires that lay behind that rugged countenance. As a matter of fact, what he wanted was cake. His name was Smith, and Mr. Mortimer had bought him just before leaving London to serve the establishment as a watch-dog.
"He won't hurt you," said Mr. Mortimer carelessly.
"You keep saying that!" replied Mr. Bennett pettishly. "How do you know? He's a dangerous beast, and if I had had any notion that you were buying him, I would have had something to say about it!"
"Whatever you might have said would have made no difference. I am within my legal rights in purchasing a dog. You have a dog. At least, Wilhelmina has."
"Yes, and Pinky-Boodles gets on splendidly with Smith," said Billie. "I've seen them playing together."
Mr. Bennett subsided. He was feeling thoroughly misanthropic. He disliked everybody, with perhaps the exception of Billie, for whom a faint paternal fondness still lingered. He disliked Mr. Mortimer. He disliked Bream, and regretted that Billie had become engaged to him, though for years such an engagement had been his dearest desire. He disliked Jane Hubbard, now out walking in the rain with Eustace Hignett. And he disliked Eustace.
Eustace, he told himself, he disliked rather more than any of the others. He resented the young man's presence in the house; and he resented the fact that, being in the house, he should go about, pale and haggard, as though he were sickening for something. Mr. Bennett had the most violent objection to associating with people who looked as though they were sickening for something.
He got up and went to the window. The rain leaped at the glass like a frolicking puppy. It seemed to want to get inside and play with Mr. Bennett.
Mr. Bennett slept late on the following morning. He looked at his watch on the dressing table when he got up, and found that it was past ten. Taking a second look to assure himself that he had really slumbered to this unusual hour, he suddenly became aware of something bright and yellow resting beside the watch, and paused, transfixed, like Robinson Crusoe staring at the footprint in the sand. If he had not been in England, he would have said that it was a patch of sunshine.
Mr. Bennett stared at the yellow blob with the wistful mistrust of a traveller in a desert who has been taken in once or twice by mirages. It was not till he had pulled up the blind and was looking out on a garden full of brightness and warmth and singing birds that he definitely permitted himself to accept the situation.
It was a superb morning. It was as if some giant had uncorked a great bottle full of the distilled scent of grass, trees, flowers, and hay. Mr. Bennett rang the bell joyfully, and presently there entered a grave, thin, intellectual-looking man who looked like a duke, only more respectable. This was Webster, Mr. Bennett's valet. He carried in one hand a small mug of hot water, reverently, as if it were a present of jewellery.
"Good morning, sir."
"Morning, Webster," said Mr. Bennett. "Rather late, eh?"
"It is" replied Webster precisely, "a little late, sir. I would have awakened you at the customary hour, but it was Miss Bennett's opinion that a rest would do you good."
Mr. Bennett's sense of well-being deepened. What more could a man want in this world than fine weather and a dutiful daughter?
"She did, eh?"
"Yes, sir. She desired me to inform you that, having already breakfasted, she proposed to drive Mr. Mortimer and Mr. Bream Mortimer into Southampton in the car. Mr. Mortimer senior wished to buy a panama hat."
"A panama hat!" exclaimed Mr. Bennett.
"A panama hat, sir."
Mr. Bennett's feeling of satisfaction grew still greater. It was a fine day; he had a dutiful daughter; and he was going to see Henry Mortimer in a panama hat. Providence was spoiling him.
The valet withdrew like a duke leaving the Royal Presence, not actually walking backwards but giving the impression of doing so; and Mr. Bennett, having decanted the mug of water into the basin, began to shave himself.
Having finished shaving, he opened the drawer in the bureau where lay his white flannel trousers. Here at last was a day worthy of them. He drew them out, and as he did so, something gleamed pinkly up at him from a corner of the drawer. His salmon-coloured bathing-suit.
Mr. Bennett started. He had not contemplated such a thing, but, after all, why not? There was the lake, shining through the trees, a mere fifty yards away. What could be more refreshing? He shed his pyjamas, and climbed into the bathing-suit. And presently, looking like the sun on a foggy day, he emerged from the house and picked his way with gingerly steps across the smooth surface of the lawn.
At this moment, from behind a bush where he had been thriftily burying a yesterday's bone, Smith the bulldog waddled out on to the lawn. He drank in the exhilarating air through an upturned nose which his recent excavations had rendered somewhat muddy. Then he observed Mr. Bennett, and moved gladly towards him. He did not recognise Mr. Bennett, for he remembered his friends principally by their respective bouquets, so he cantered silently across the turf to take a sniff at him. He was half-way across the lawn when some of the mud which he had inhaled when burying the bone tickled his lungs and he paused to cough.
Mr. Bennett whirled round; and then with a sharp exclamation picked up his pink feet from the velvet turf and began to run. Smith, after a momentary pause of surprise, lumbered after him, wheezing contentedly. This man, he felt, was evidently one of the right sort, a merry playfellow.
Mr. Bennett continued to run; but already he had begun to pant and falter, when he perceived looming upon his left the ruins of that ancient castle which had so attracted him on his first visit. On that occasion, it had made merely an aesthetic appeal to Mr. Bennett; now he saw in a flash that its practical merits also were of a sterling order. He swerved sharply, took the base of the edifice in his stride, clutched at a jutting stone, flung his foot at another, and, just as his pursuer arrived and sat panting below, pulled himself on to a ledge, where he sat with his feet hanging well out of reach. The bulldog Smith, gazed up at him expectantly. The game was a new one to Smith, but it seemed to have possibilities. He was a dog who was always perfectly willing to try anything once.
Mr. Bennett now began to address himself in earnest to the task of calling for assistance. His physical discomfort was acute. Insects, some winged, some without wings but--through Nature's wonderful law of compensation--equipped with a number of extra pairs of legs, had begun to fit out exploring expeditions over his body. They roamed about him as if he were some newly opened recreation ground, strolled in couples down his neck, and made up jolly family parties on his bare feet. And then, first dropping like the gentle dew upon the place beneath, then swishing down in a steady flood, it began to rain again.
It was at this point that Mr. Bennett's manly spirit broke and time ceased to exist for him.
Aeons later, a voice spoke from below.
"Hullo!" said the voice.
Mr. Bennett looked down. The stalwart form of Jane Hubbard was standing beneath him, gazing up from under a tam o'shanter cap. Smith, the bulldog, gambolled about her shapely feet.
"Whatever are you doing up there?" said Jane. "I say, do you know if the car has come back?"
"No. It has not."
"I've got to go to the doctor's. Poor little Mr. Hignett is ill. Oh, well, I'll have to walk. Come along, Smith!" She turned towards the drive, Smith caracoling at her side.
Mr. Bennett, though free now to move, remained where he was, transfixed. That sinister word "ill" held him like a spell. Eustace Hignett was ill! He had thought all along that the fellow was sickening for something, confound him!
"What's the matter with him?" bellowed Mr. Bennett after Jane Hubbard's retreating back.
"Eh?" queried Jane, stopping.
"What's the matter with Hignett?"
"I don't know."
"Is it infectious?"
"I expect so."
"Great Heavens!" cried Mr. Bennett, and, lowering himself cautiously to the ground, squelched across the dripping grass.
In the hall, Webster the valet, dry and dignified, was tapping the barometer with the wrist action of an ambassador knocking on the door of a friendly monarch.
"A sharp downpour, sir," he remarked.
"Have you been in the house all the time?" demanded Mr. Bennett.
"Didn't you hear me shouting?"
"I did fancy I heard something, sir."
"Then why the devil didn't you come to me?"
"I supposed it to be the owls, sir, a bird very frequent in this locality. They make a sort of harsh, hooting howl, sir. I have sometimes wondered," said Webster, pursuing a not uninteresting train of thought, "whether that might be the reason of the name."
Before Mr. Bennett could join him in the region of speculation into which he had penetrated, there was a grinding of brakes on the gravel outside, and the wettest motor car in England drew up at the front door.
From Windles to Southampton is a distance of about twenty miles; and the rain had started to fall when the car, an open one lacking even the poor protection of a cape hood, had accomplished half the homeward journey. For the last ten miles Mr. Mortimer had been nursing a sullen hatred for all created things; and, when entering the house, he came upon Mr. Bennett hopping about in the hall, endeavouring to detain him and tell him some long and uninteresting story, his venom concentrated itself upon his erstwhile friend.
"Oh, get out of the way!" he snapped, shaking off the other's hand. "Can't you see I'm wet?"
"Wet! Wet!" Mr. Bennett's voice quivered with self-pity. "So am I wet!"
"Father dear," said Billie reprovingly, "you really oughtn't to have come into the house after bathing without drying yourself. You'll spoil the carpet."
"I've not been bathing! I'm trying to tell you...."
"Hullo!" said Bream, with amiable innocence, coming in at the tail-end of the party. "Been having a jolly bathe?"
Mr. Bennett danced with silent irritation, and, striking a bare toe against the leg of a chair, seized his left foot and staggered into the arms of Webster, who had been preparing to drift off to the servants' hall. Linked together, the two proceeded across the carpet in a movement which suggested in equal parts the careless vigour of the cake-walk and the grace of the old-fashioned mazurka.
"What the devil are you doing, you fool?" cried Mr. Bennett.
"Nothing, sir. And I should be glad if you would accept my week's notice," replied Webster calmly.
"My notice sir, to take effect at the expiration of the current week. I cannot acquiesce in being cursed and sworn at."
"Oh, go to blazes!"
"Very good, sir." Webster withdrew like a plenipotentiary who has been handed his papers on the declaration of war, and Mr. Bennett, sprang to intercept Mr. Mortimer, who had slipped by and was making for the stairs.
"Oh, what is it?"
"That infernal dog of yours. I insist on your destroying it."
"What's it been doing?"
"The savage brute chased me all over the garden and kept me sitting up on that damned castle the whole of the morning!"
"Father darling," interposed Billie, pausing on her way up the stairs, "you mustn't get excited. You know it's bad for you. I don't expect poor old Smith meant any harm," she added pacifically, as she disappeared in the direction of the landing.
"Of course he didn't," snapped Mr. Mortimer. "He's as quiet as a lamb."
"I tell you he chased me from one end of the garden to the other! I had to run like a hare!"
The unfortunate Bream, whose sense of the humorous was simple and childlike, was not proof against the picture thus conjured up.
"C'k!" giggled Bream helplessly. "C'k, c'k, c'k!"
Mr. Bennett turned on him. "Oh, it strikes you as funny, does it? Well, let me tell you that if you think you can laugh at me with--with--er--with one hand and--and--marry my daughter with the other, you're wrong! You can consider your engagement at an end."
"Oh, I say!" ejaculated Bream, abruptly sobered.
"Mortimer!" bawled Mr. Bennett, once more arresting the other as he was about to mount the stairs. "Do you or do you not intend to destroy that dog?"
"I do not."
"I insist on your doing so. He is a menace."
"He is nothing of the kind. On your own showing he didn't even bite you once. And every dog is allowed one bite by law. The case of Wilberforce v. Bayliss covers that point thoroughly."
"I don't care about the case of Wilberforce and Bayliss...."
"You will find that you have to. It is a legal precedent."
There is something about a legal precedent which gives pause to the angriest man. Mr. Bennett felt, as every layman feels when arguing with a lawyer, as if he were in the coils of a python.
"Say, Mr. Bennett...." began Bream at his elbow.
"Get out!" snarled Mr. Bennett.
"Yes, but, say...!"
The green baize door at the end of the hall opened, and Webster appeared.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Webster, "but luncheon will be served within the next few minutes. Possibly you may wish to make some change of costume."
"Bring me my lunch on a tray in my room," said Mr. Bennett. "I am going to bed."
"Very good, sir."
"But, say, Mr. Bennett...." resumed Bream.
"Grrh!" replied his ex-prospective-father-in-law, and bounded up the stairs like a portion of the sunset which had become detached from the main body.
Even into the blackest days there generally creeps an occasional ray of sunshine, and there are few crises of human gloom which are not lightened by a bit of luck. It was so with Mr. Bennett in his hour of travail. There were lobsters for lunch, and his passion for lobsters had made him the talk of three New York clubs. He was feeling a little happier when Billie came in to see how he was getting on.
"Hullo, father. Had a nice lunch?"
"Yes," said Mr. Bennett, cheering up a little at the recollection. "There was nothing wrong with the lunch."
How little we fallible mortals know! Even as he spoke, a tiny fragment of lobster shell, which had been working its way silently into the tip of his tongue, was settling down under the skin and getting ready to cause him the most acute mental distress which he had ever known.
"The lunch," said Mr. Bennett, "was excellent. Lobsters!" He licked his lips appreciatively.
"And, talking of lobsters," he went on, "I suppose that boy Bream has told you that I have broken off your engagement?"
"You don't seem very upset," said Mr. Bennett, who was in the mood for a dramatic scene and felt a little disappointed.
"Oh, I've become a fatalist on the subject of my engagements."
"I don't understand you."
"Well, I mean, they never seem to come to anything." Billie gazed wistfully at the counterpane. "Do you know, father, I'm beginning to think that I'm rather impulsive. I wish I didn't do silly things in such a hurry."
"I don't see where the hurry comes in as regards that Mortimer boy. You took ten years to make up your mind."
"I was not thinking of Bream. Another man."
"Great Heavens! Are you still imagining yourself in love with young Hignett?"
"Oh, no! I can see now that I was never in love with poor Eustace. I was thinking of a man I got engaged to on the boat!"
Mr. Bennett sat bolt upright in bed, and stared incredulously at his surprising daughter. His head was beginning to swim.
"Of course I've misunderstood you," he said. "There's a catch somewhere and I haven't seen it. But for a moment you gave me the impression that you had promised to marry some man on the boat!"
"But...!" Mr. Bennett was doing sums on his fingers. "Do you mean to tell me," he demanded, having brought out the answer to his satisfaction, "do you mean to tell me that you have been engaged to three men in three weeks?"
"Yes," said Billie in a small voice.
"Great Godfrey! Er----?"
"No, only three."
Mr. Bennett sank back on to his pillow with a snort.
"The trouble is," continued Billie, "one does things and doesn't know how one is going to feel about it afterwards. You can do an awful lot of thinking afterwards, father."
"I'm doing a lot of thinking now," said Mr. Bennett with austerity. "You oughtn't to be allowed to go around loose!"
"Well, it doesn't matter. I shall never get engaged again. I shall never love anyone again."
"Don't tell me you are still in love with this boat man?"
Billie nodded miserably. "I didn't realise it till we came down here. But, as I sat and watched the rain, it suddenly came over me that I had thrown away my life's happiness. It was as if I had been offered a wonderful jewel and had refused it. I seemed to hear a voice reproaching me and saying, 'You have had your chance. It will never come again!'"
"Don't talk nonsense!" said Mr. Bennett.
Billie stiffened. She had thought she had been talking rather well.
Mr. Bennett was silent for a moment. Then he started up with an exclamation. The mention of Eustace Hignett had stirred his memory. "What's young Hignett got wrong with him?" he asked.
"Mumps! Good God! Not mumps!" Mr. Bennett quailed. "I've never had mumps! One of the most infectious ... this is awful!... Oh, heavens! Why did I ever come to this lazar-house!" cried Mr. Bennett, shaken to his depths.
"There isn't the slightest danger, father, dear. Don't be silly. If I were you, I should try to get a good sleep. You must be tired after this morning."
"Sleep! If I only could!" said Mr. Bennett, and did so five minutes after the door had closed.
He awoke half an hour later with a confused sense that something was wrong. He had been dreaming that he was walking down Fifth Avenue at the head of a military brass band, clad only in a bathing suit. As he sat up in bed, blinking in the dazed fashion of the half-awakened, the band seemed to be playing still. There was undeniably music in the air. The room was full of it. It seemed to be coming up through the floor and rolling about in chunks all round his bed.
Mr. Bennett blinked the last fragments of sleep out of his system, and became filled with a restless irritability. There was only one instrument in the house which could create this infernal din--the orchestrion in the drawing-room, immediately above which, he recalled, his room was situated.
He rang the bell for Webster.
"Is Mr. Mortimer playing that--that damned gas-engine in the drawing-room?"
"Yes, sir. Tosti's 'Good-bye.' A charming air, sir."
"Go and tell him to stop it!"
"Very good, sir."
Mr. Bennett lay in bed and fumed. Presently the valet returned. The music still continued to roll about the room.
"I am sorry to have to inform you, sir," said Webster, "that Mr. Mortimer declines to accede to your request."
"Oh, he said that, did he?"
"That is the gist of his remarks, sir."
"Very good! Then give me my dressing-gown!"
Webster swathed his employer in the garment indicated, and returned to the kitchen, where he informed the cook that, in his opinion, the guv'nor was not a force, and that, if he were a betting man, he would put his money in the forthcoming struggle on Consul, the Almost-Human--by which affectionate nickname Mr. Mortimer senior was generally alluded to in the servants' hall.
Mr. Bennett, meanwhile, had reached the drawing-room, and found his former friend lying at full length on a sofa, smoking a cigar, a full dozen feet away from the orchestrion, which continued to thunder out its dirge on the passing of Summer.
"Will you turn that infernal thing off!" said Mr. Bennett.
"No!" said Mr. Mortimer.
"Now, now, now!" said a voice.
Jane Hubbard was standing in the doorway with a look of calm reproof on her face.
"We can't have this, you know!" said Jane Hubbard. "You're disturbing my patient."
She strode without hesitation to the instrument, explored its ribs with a firm finger, pushed something, and the orchestrion broke off in the middle of a bar. Then, walking serenely to the door, she passed out and closed it behind her.
The baser side of his nature urged Mr. Bennett to triumph over the vanquished.
"Now, what about it!" he said, ungenerously.
"Interfering girl!" mumbled Mr. Mortimer, chafing beneath defeat. "I've a good mind to start it again."
"I dare you!" whooped Mr. Bennett, reverting to the phraseology of his vanished childhood. "Go on! I dare you!"
"I've a perfect legal right.... Oh well," he said, "there are lots of other things I can do!"
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Mr. Bennett, alarmed.
"Never mind!" said Mr. Mortimer, taking up a book.
Mr. Bennett went back to bed in an uneasy frame of mind.
He brooded for half an hour, and, at the expiration of that period, rang for Webster and requested that Billie should be sent to him.
"I want you to go to London," he said, when she appeared. "I must have legal advice. I want you to go and see Sir Mallaby Marlowe. Tell him that Henry Mortimer is annoying me in every possible way and sheltering himself behind his knowledge of the law, so that I can't get at him. Ask Sir Mallaby to come down here. And, if he can't come himself, tell him to send someone who can advise me. His son would do, if he knows anything about the business."
"Oh, I'm sure he does!"
"Eh? How do you know?"
"Well, I mean, he looks as if he does!" said Billie hastily. "He looks so clever!"
"I didn't notice it myself. Well, he'll do, if Sir Mallaby's too busy to come himself. I want you to go up to-night, so that you can see him first thing to-morrow morning. You can stop the night at the Savoy. I've sent Webster to look out a train."
"There's a splendid train in about an hour. I'll take that."
"It's giving you a lot of trouble," said Mr. Bennett, with belated consideration.
"Oh, no!" said Billie. "I'm only too glad to be able to do this for you, father dear!"