The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XI. Mr. Bennett Has a Bad Night
The fragment of a lobster-shell which had entered Mr. Bennett's tongue at twenty minutes to two in the afternoon was still in occupation at half-past eleven that night, when that persecuted gentleman blew out his candle and endeavoured to compose himself for a night's slumber. Its unconscious host had not yet been made aware of its presence. He had a vague feeling that the tip of his tongue felt a little sore, but his mind was too engrossed with the task of keeping a look-out for the preliminary symptoms of mumps to have leisure to bestow much attention on this phenomenon. The discomfort it caused was not sufficient to keep him awake, and presently he turned on his side and began to fill the room with a rhythmical snoring.
How pleasant if one could leave him so--the good man taking his rest. Facts, however, are facts; and, having crept softly from Mr. Bennett's side with the feeling that at last everything is all right with him, we are compelled to return three hours later to discover that everything is all wrong. It is so dark in the room that our eyes can at first discern nothing; then, as we grow accustomed to the blackness, we perceive him sitting bolt upright in bed, staring glassily before him, while with the first finger of his right hand he touches apprehensively the tip of his protruding tongue.
At this point Mr. Bennett lights his candle--one of the charms of Windles was the old-world simplicity of its lighting system--and we are enabled to get a better view of him.
Mr. Bennett sat in the candlelight with his tongue out and the first beads of a chilly perspiration bedewing his forehead. It was impossible for a man of his complexion to turn pale, but he had turned as pale as he could. Panic gripped him. A man whose favourite reading was medical encyclopaedias, he needed no doctor to tell him that this was the end. Fate had dealt him a knockout blow; his number was up; and in a very short while now people would be speaking of him in the past tense and saying what a pity it all was.
A man in Mr. Bennett's position experiences strange emotions, and many of them. In fact, there are scores of writers, who, reckless of the cost of white paper, would devote two chapters at this point to an analysis of the unfortunate man's reflections and be glad of the chance. It is sufficient, however, merely to set on record that there was no stint. Whatever are the emotions of a man in such a position, Mr. Bennett had them. He had them all, one after another, some of them twice. He went right through the list from soup to nuts, until finally he reached remorse. And, having reached remorse, he allowed that to monopolise him.
In his early days, when he was building up his fortune, Mr. Bennett had frequently done things to his competitors in Wall Street which would not have been tolerated in the purer atmosphere of a lumber-camp, and, if he was going to be remorseful about anything, he might well have started by being remorseful about that. But it was on his most immediate past that his wistful mind lingered. He had quarrelled with his lifelong friend, Henry Mortimer. He had broken off his daughter's engagement with a deserving young man. He had spoken harsh words to his faithful valet. The more Mr. Bennett examined his conduct, the deeper the iron entered into his soul.
Fortunately, none of his acts were irreparable. He could undo them. He could make amends. The small hours of the morning are not perhaps the most suitable time for making amends, but Mr. Bennett was too remorseful to think of that. Do It Now had ever been his motto, so he started by ringing the bell for Webster.
The same writers who would have screamed with joy at the chance of dilating on Mr. Bennett's emotions would find a congenial task in describing the valet's thought-processes when the bell roused him from a refreshing sleep at a few minutes after three a.m. However, by the time he entered his employer's room he was his own calm self again.
"Good morning, sir," he remarked equably. "I fear that it will be the matter of a few minutes to prepare your shaving water. I was not aware," said Webster in manly apology for having been found wanting, "that you intended rising so early."
"Webster," said Mr. Bennett, "I'm a dying man!"
"A dying man!" repeated Mr. Bennett.
"Very good, sir. Which of your suits would you wish me to lay out?"
Mr. Bennett had the feeling that something was going wrong with the scene.
"Webster," he said, "this morning we had an unfortunate misunderstanding. I'm sorry."
"Pray don't mention it, sir."
"I was to blame. Webster, you have been a faithful servant! You have stuck to me, Webster, through thick and thin!" said Mr. Bennett, who had half persuaded himself by this time that the other had been in the family for years instead of having been engaged at a registry-office a little less than a month ago. "Through thick and thin!" repeated Mr. Bennett.
"I have endeavoured to give satisfaction, sir."
"I want to reward you, Webster."
"Thank you very much, sir."
"Take my trousers!"
Webster raised a deprecating hand.
"No, no, sir, thanking you exceedingly, I couldn't really! You will need them, sir, and I assure you I have an ample supply."
"Take my trousers," repeated Mr. Bennett, "and feel in the right-hand pocket. There is some money there."
"I'm sure I'm very much obliged, sir," said Webster, beginning for the first time to feel that there was a bright side. He embarked upon the treasure-hunt. "The sum is sixteen pounds eleven shillings and threepence, sir."
"Thank you very much, sir. Would there be anything further, sir?"
"Why, no," said Mr. Bennett, feeling dissatisfied nevertheless. There had been a lack of the deepest kind of emotion in the interview, and his yearning soul resented it. "Why, no."
"Stop a moment. Which is Mr. Mortimer's room?"
"Mr. Mortimer, senior, sir? It is at the further end of this passage, on the left facing the main staircase. Good-night, sir. I am extremely obliged. I will bring you your shaving-water when you ring."
Mr. Bennett, left alone, mused for awhile, then, rising from his bed, put on his dressing-gown, took his candle, and went down the passage.
In a less softened mood, the first thing Mr. Bennett would have done on crossing the threshold of the door facing the staircase would have been to notice resentfully that Mr. Mortimer, with his usual astuteness, had collared the best bedroom in the house. The soft carpet gave out no sound as Mr. Bennett approached the wide and luxurious bed. The light of the candle fell on the back of a semi-bald head. Mr. Mortimer was sleeping with his face buried in the pillow. It cannot have been good for him, but that was what he was doing. From the portion of the pillow in which his face was buried strange gurgles proceeded, like the distant rumble of an approaching train on the Underground.
"Mortimer," said Mr. Bennett.
The train stopped at a station to pick up passengers, and rumbled on again.
"Henry!" said Mr. Bennett, and nudged his sleeping friend in the small of the back.
"Leave it on the mat," mumbled Mr. Mortimer, stirring slightly and uncovering one corner of his mouth.
Mr. Bennett began to forget his remorse in a sense of injury. He felt like a man with a good story to tell who can get nobody to listen to him. He nudged the other again, more vehemently this time. Mr. Mortimer made a noise like a gramophone when the needle slips, moved restlessly for a moment, then sat up, staring at the candle.
"Rabbits! Rabbits! Rabbits!" said Mr. Mortimer, and sank back again. He had begun to rumble before he touched the pillow.
"What do you mean, rabbits?" said Mr. Bennett sharply.
The not unreasonable query fell on deaf ears. Mr. Mortimer was already entering a tunnel.
"Much too pink!" he murmured as the pillow engulfed him.
What steps Mr. Bennett would have taken at this juncture, one cannot say. Probably he would have given the thing up in despair and retired, for it is weary work forgiving a sleeping man. But, as he bent above his slumbering friend, a drop of warm grease detached itself from the candle and fell into Mr. Mortimer's exposed ear. The sleeper wakened.
"What? What? What?" he exclaimed, bounding up. "Who's that?"
"It's me--Rufus," said Mr. Bennett. "Henry, I'm dying!"
Mr. Mortimer yawned cavernously. The mists of sleep were engulfing him again.
"Eight rabbits sitting on the lawn," he muttered. "But too pink! Much too pink!"
And, as if considering he had borne his full share in the conversation and that no more could be expected of him, he snuggled down into the pillow again.
Mr. Bennett's sense of injury became more acute. For a moment he was strongly tempted to try the restorative effects of candle-grease once more, but, just as he was on the point of succumbing, a shooting pain, as if somebody had run a red-hot needle into his tongue, reminded him of his situation. A dying man cannot pass his last hours dropping candle-grease into people's ears. After all, it was perhaps a little late, and there would be plenty of time to become reconciled to Mr. Mortimer to-morrow. His task now was to seek out Bream and bring him the glad news of his renewed engagement.
He closed the door quietly, and proceeded upstairs. Bream's bedroom, he knew, was the one just off the next landing. He turned the handle quietly, and went in. Having done this, he coughed.
"Drop that pistol!" said the voice of Jane Hubbard immediately, with quiet severity. "I've got you covered!"
Mr. Bennett had no pistol, but he dropped the candle. It would have been a nice point to say whether he was more perturbed by the discovery that he had got into the wrong room, and that room a lady's, or by the fact that the lady whose wrong room it was had pointed what appeared to be a small cannon at him over the foot of the bed. It was not, as a matter of fact, a cannon but the elephant gun, which Miss Hubbard carried with her everywhere--a girl's best friend.
"My dear young lady!" he gasped.
On the five occasions during recent years on which men had entered her tent with the object of murdering her, Jane Hubbard had shot without making inquiries. What strange feminine weakness it was that had caused her to utter a challenge on this occasion, she could not have said. Probably it was due to the enervating effects of civilisation. She was glad now that she had done so, for, being awake and in full possession of her faculties, she perceived that the intruder, whoever he was, had no evil intentions.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"I don't know how to apologise!"
"That's all right! Let's have a light." A match flared in the darkness. Miss Hubbard lit her candle, and gazed at Mr. Bennett with quiet curiosity. "Walking in your sleep?" she inquired.
"Not so loud! You'll wake Mr. Hignett. He's next door. That's why I took this room, in case he was restless in the night."
"I want to see Bream Mortimer," said Mr. Bennett.
"He's in my old room, two doors along the passage. What do you want to see him about?"
"I wish to inform him that he may still consider himself engaged to my daughter."
"Oh, well, I don't suppose he'll mind being woken up to hear that. But what's the idea?"
"It's a long story."
"That's all right. Let's make a night of it."
"I am a dying man. I awoke an hour ago with a feeling of acute pain...."
Miss Hubbard listened to the story of his symptoms with interest but without excitement.
"What nonsense!" she said at the conclusion.
"I assure you...."
"I'd like to bet it's nothing serious at all."
"My dear young lady," said Mr. Bennett, piqued. "I have devoted a considerable part of my life to medical study...."
"I know. That's the trouble. People oughtn't to be allowed to read medical books."
"Well, we need not discuss it," said Mr. Bennett stiffly. He resented being dragged out of the valley of the shadow of death by the scruff of his neck like this. A dying man has his dignity to think of. "I will leave you now, and go and see young Mortimer." He clung to a hope that Bream Mortimer at least would receive him fittingly. "Good-night!"
"But wait a moment!"
Mr. Bennett left the room, unheeding. He was glad to go. Jane Hubbard irritated him.
His expectation of getting more satisfactory results from Bream was fulfilled. It took some time to rouse that young man from a slumber almost as deep as his father's; but, once roused, he showed a gratifying appreciation of the gravity of affairs. Joy at one half of his visitor's news competed with consternation and sympathy at the other half. He thanked Mr. Bennett profusely, showed a fitting concern on learning of his terrible situation, and evinced a practical desire to help by offering him a bottle of liniment which he had found useful for gnat-stings. Declining this, though not ungratefully, Mr. Bennett withdrew and made his way down the passage again with something approaching a glow in his heart. The glow lasted till he had almost reached the landing, when it was dissipated by a soft but compelling voice from the doorway of Miss Hubbard's room.
"Come here!" said Miss Hubbard. She had put on a blue bath-robe, and looked like a pugilist about to enter the ring.
"Well?" said Mr. Bennett coldly, coming nevertheless.
"I'm going to have a look at that tongue of yours," said Jane firmly. "It's my opinion that you're making a lot of fuss over nothing."
Mr. Bennett drew himself up as haughtily as a fat man in a dressing-gown can, but the effect was wasted on his companion, who had turned and gone into her room.
"Come in here," she said.
Tougher men than Mr. Bennett had found it impossible to resist the note of calm command in that voice, but for all that he reproached himself for his weakness in obeying.
"Sit down!" said Jane Hubbard.
She indicated a low stool beside the dressing-table.
"Put your tongue out!" she said, as Mr. Bennett, still under her strange influence, lowered himself on to the stool. "Further out! That's right. Keep it like that!"
"Ouch!" exclaimed Mr. Bennett, bounding up.
"Don't make such a noise! You'll wake Mr. Hignett. Sit down again!"
Mr. Bennett sat down. Miss Hubbard extended once more the hand holding the needle which had caused his outcry. He winced away from it desperately.
"Baby!" said Miss Hubbard reprovingly. "Why, I once sewed eighteen stitches in a native bearer's head, and he didn't make half the fuss you're making. Now, keep quite still."
Mr. Bennett did--for perhaps the space of two seconds. Then he leaped from his seat once more. It was a tribute to the forceful personality of the fair surgeon, if one were needed, that the squeal he uttered was a subdued one. He was just about to speak--he had framed the opening words of a strong protest--when suddenly he became aware of something in his mouth, something small and hard. He removed it and examined it as it lay on his finger. It was a minute fragment of lobster-shell. And at the same time he became conscious of a marked improvement in the state of his tongue. The swelling had gone.
"I told you so!" said Jane Hubbard placidly. "What is it?"
"It--it appears to be a piece of...."
"Lobster-shell. And we had lobster for lunch. Good-night."
Half-way down the stairs, it suddenly occurred to Mr. Bennett that he wanted to sing. He wanted to sing very loud, and for quite some time. He restrained the impulse, and returned to bed. But relief such as his was too strong to keep bottled up. He wanted to tell someone all about it. He needed a confidant.
Webster, the valet, awakened once again by the ringing of his bell, sighed resignedly and made his way downstairs.
"Did you ring, sir?"
"Webster," cried Mr. Bennett, "it's all right! I'm not dying after all! I'm not dying after all, Webster!"
"Very good, sir," said Webster. "Will there be anything further?"