The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XII. The Lurid Past of Jno. Peters
"That's right!" said Sir Mallaby Marlowe. "Work while you're young, Sam, work while you're young." He regarded his son's bent head with affectionate approval. "What's the book to-day?"
"Widgery on Nisi Prius Evidence," said Sam, without looking up.
"Capital!" said Sir Mallaby. "Highly improving and as interesting as a novel--some novels. There's a splendid bit on, I think, page two hundred and fifty-four where the hero finds out all about Copyhold and Customary Estates. It's a wonderfully powerful situation. It appears--but I won't spoil it for you. Mind you don't skip to see how it all comes out in the end!" Sir Mallaby suspended conversation while he addressed an imaginary ball with the mashie which he had taken out of his golf-bag. For this was the day when he went down to Walton Heath for his weekly foursome with three old friends. His tubby form was clad in tweed of a violent nature, with knickerbockers and stockings. "Sam!"
"Sam, a man at the club showed me a new grip the other day. Instead of overlapping the little finger of the right hand.... Oh, by the way, Sam."
"I should lock up the office to-day if I were you, or anxious clients will be coming in and asking for advice, and you'll find yourself in difficulties. I shall be gone, and Peters is away on his holiday. You'd better lock the outer door."
"All right," said Sam absently. He was finding Widgery stiff reading. He had just got to the bit about Raptu Haeredis, which--as of course you know, is a writ for taking away an heir holding in socage.
Sir Mallaby looked at his watch.
"Well, I'll have to be going. See you later, Sam."
Sir Mallaby went out, and Sam, placing both elbows on the desk and twining his fingers in his hair, returned with a frown of consternation to his grappling with Widgery. For perhaps ten minutes the struggle was an even one, then gradually Widgery got the upper hand. Sam's mind, numbed by constant batterings against the stony ramparts of legal phraseology, weakened, faltered, and dropped away; and a moment later his thoughts, as so often happened when he was alone, darted off and began to circle round the image of Billie Bennett.
Since they had last met, at Sir Mallaby's dinner-table, Sam had told himself perhaps a hundred times that he cared nothing about Billie, that she had gone out of his life and was dead to him; but unfortunately he did not believe it. A man takes a deal of convincing on a point like this, and Sam had never succeeded in convincing himself for more than two minutes at a time. It was useless to pretend that he did not still love Billie more than ever, because he knew he did; and now, as the truth swept over him for the hundred and first time, he groaned hollowly and gave himself up to the grey despair which is the almost inseparable companion of young men in his position.
So engrossed was he in his meditation that he did not hear the light footstep in the outer office, and it was only when it was followed by a tap on the door of the inner office that he awoke with a start to the fact that clients were in his midst. He wished that he had taken his father's advice and locked up the office. Probably this was some frightful bore who wanted to make his infernal will or something, and Sam had neither the ability nor the inclination to assist him.
Was it too late to escape? Perhaps if he did not answer the knock, the blighter might think there was nobody at home. But suppose he opened the door and peeped in? A spasm of Napoleonic strategy seized Sam. He dropped silently to the floor and concealed himself under the desk. Napoleon was always doing that sort of thing.
There was another tap. Then, as he had anticipated, the door opened. Sam, crouched like a hare in its form, held his breath. It seemed to him that he was going to bring this delicate operation off with success. He felt he had acted just as Napoleon would have done in a similar crisis. And so, no doubt, he had to a certain extent; only Napoleon would have seen to it that his boots and about eighteen inches of trousered legs were not sticking out, plainly visible to all who entered.
"Good morning," said a voice.
Sam thrilled from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. It was the voice which had been ringing in his ears through all his waking hours.
"Are you busy, Mr. Marlowe?" asked Billie, addressing the boots.
Sam wriggled out from under the desk like a disconcerted tortoise.
"Dropped my pen," he mumbled, as he rose to the surface.
He pulled himself together with an effort that was like a physical exercise. He stared at Billie dumbly. Then, recovering speech, he invited her to sit down, and seated himself at the desk.
"Dropped my pen!" he gurgled again.
"Yes?" said Billie.
"Fountain-pen," babbled Sam, "with a broad nib."
"A broad gold nib," went on Sam, with the painful exactitude which comes only from embarrassment or the early stages of intoxication.
"Really?" said Billie, and Sam blinked and told himself resolutely that this would not do. He was not appearing to advantage. It suddenly occurred to him that his hair was standing on end as the result of his struggle with Widgery. He smoothed it down hastily, and felt a trifle more composed. The old fighting spirit of the Marlowes now began to assert itself to some extent. He must make an effort to appear as little of a fool as possible in this girl's eyes. And what eyes they were! Golly! Like stars! Like two bright planets in....
However, that was neither here nor there. He pulled down his waistcoat and became cold and business-like,--the dry young lawyer.
"Er--how do you do, Miss Bennett?" he said with a question in his voice, raising his eyebrows in a professional way. He modelled this performance on that of lawyers he had seen on the stage, and wished he had some snuff to take or something to tap against his front teeth. "Miss Bennett, I believe?"
The effect of the question upon Billie was disastrous. She had come to this office with beating heart, prepared to end all misunderstandings, to sob on her soul-mate's shoulder and generally make everything up; but at this inane exhibition the fighting spirit of the Bennetts--which was fully as militant as that of the Marlowes--became roused. She told herself that she had been mistaken in supposing that she still loved this man. She was a proud girl and refused to admit herself capable of loving any man who looked at her as if she was something that the cat had brought in. She drew herself up stiffly.
"Yes," she replied. "How clever of you to remember me."
"I have a good memory."
"How nice! So have I!"
There was a pause, during which Billie allowed her gaze to travel casually about the room. Sam occupied the intermission by staring furtively at her profile. He was by now in a thoroughly overwrought condition, and the thumping of his heart sounded to him as if workmen were mending the street outside. How beautiful she looked, with that red hair peeping out beneath her hat and.... However!
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked in the sort of voice Widgery might have used. Sam always pictured Widgery as a small man with bushy eyebrows, a thin face, and a voice like a rusty file.
"Well, I really wanted to see Sir Mallaby."
"My father has been called away on important business to Walton Heath. Cannot I act as his substitute?"
"Do you know anything about the law?"
"Do I know anything about the law!" echoed Sam, amazed. "Do I know----! Why, I was reading my Widgery on Nisi Prius Evidence when you came in."
"Oh, were you?" said Billie, interested. "Do you always read on the floor?"
"I told you I dropped my pen," said Sam coldly.
"And of course you couldn't read without that! Well, as a matter of fact, this has nothing to do with Nisi--what you said."
"I have not specialised exclusively on Nisi Prius Evidence. I know the law in all its branches."
"Then what would you do if a man insisted on playing the orchestrion when you wanted to get to sleep?"
"The orchestrion, eh? Ah! H'm!" said Sam.
"You still haven't made it quite clear," said Billie.
"I was thinking."
"Oh, if you want to think!"
"Tell me the facts," said Sam.
"Well, Mr. Mortimer and my father have taken a house together in the country...."
"I knew that."
"What a memory you have!" said Billie kindly. "Well, for some reason or other they have quarrelled, and now Mr. Mortimer is doing everything he can to make father uncomfortable. Yesterday afternoon father wanted to sleep, and Mr. Mortimer started this orchestrion just to annoy him."
"I think--I'm not quite sure--I think that's a tort," said Sam.
"Either a tort or a malfeasance."
"Why, you do know something about it after all!" cried Billie, startled into a sort of friendliness in spite of herself. And at the words and the sight of her quick smile Sam's professional composure reeled on its foundations. He had half risen, with the purpose of springing up and babbling of the passion that consumed him, when the chill reflection came to him that this girl had once said that she considered him ridiculous. If he let himself go, would she not continue to think him ridiculous? He sagged back into his seat; and at that moment there came another tap on the door which, opening, revealed the sinister face of the holiday-making Peters.
"Good morning, Mr. Samuel," said Jno. Peters. "Good morning, Miss Milliken. Oh!"
He vanished as abruptly as he had appeared. He perceived that what he had taken at first glance for the stenographer was a client, and that the junior partner was engaged on a business conference. He left behind him a momentary silence.
"What a horrible-looking man!" said Billie, breaking it with a little gasp. Jno. Peters often affected the opposite sex like that at first sight.
"I beg your pardon?" said Sam absently.
"What a dreadful-looking man! He quite frightened me!"
For some moments Sam sat without speaking. If this had not been one of his Napoleonic mornings, no doubt the sudden arrival of his old friend, Mr. Peters, whom he had imagined at his home in Putney packing for his trip to America, would have suggested nothing to him. As it was, it suggested a great deal. He had had a brain-wave, and for fully a minute he sat tingling under its impact. He was not a young man who often had brain-waves, and, when they came, they made him rather dizzy.
"Who is he?" asked Billie. "He seemed to know you? And who," she demanded after a slight pause, "is Miss Milliken?"
Sam drew a deep breath.
"It's rather a sad story," he said. "His name is John Peters. He used to be clerk here."
"But he isn't any longer?"
"No." Sam shook his head. "We had to get rid of him."
"I don't wonder. A man looking like that...."
"It wasn't that so much," said Sam. "The thing that annoyed father was that he tried to shoot Miss Milliken."
Billie uttered a cry of horror.
"He tried to shoot Miss Milliken!"
"He did shoot her--the third time," said Sam, warming to his work. "Only in the arm, fortunately," he added. "But my father is rather a stern disciplinarian and he had to go. I mean, we couldn't keep him after that."
"She used to be my father's stenographer, and she was thrown a good deal with Peters. It was quite natural that he should fall in love with her. She was a beautiful girl, with rather your own shade of hair. Peters is a man of volcanic passions, and, when, after she had given him to understand that his love was returned, she informed him one day that she was engaged to a fellow at Ealing West, he went right off his onion--I mean, he became completely distraught. I must say that he concealed it very effectively at first. We had no inkling of his condition till he came in with the pistol. And, after that ... well, as I say, we had to dismiss him. A great pity, for he was a good clerk. Still, it wouldn't do. It wasn't only that he tried to shoot Miss Milliken. The thing became an obsession with him, and we found that he had a fixed idea that every red-haired woman who came into the office was the girl who had deceived him. You can see how awkward that made it. Red hair is so fashionable now-a-days."
"My hair is red!" whispered Billie pallidly.
"Yes, I noticed it myself. I told you it was much the same shade as Miss Milliken's. It's rather fortunate that I happened to be here with you when he came."
"But he may be lurking out there still!"
"I expect he is," said Sam carelessly. "Yes, I suppose he is. Would you like me to go and send him away? All right."
"But--but is it safe?"
Sam uttered a light laugh.
"I don't mind taking a risk or two for your sake," he said, and sauntered from the room, closing the door behind him. Billie followed him with worshipping eyes.
Jno. Peters rose politely from the chair in which he had seated himself for the more comfortable perusal of the copy of Home Whispers which he had brought with him to refresh his mind in the event of the firm being too busy to see him immediately. He was particularly interested in the series of chats with Young Mothers.
"Hullo, Peters," said Sam. "Want anything?"
"Very sorry to have disturbed you, Mr. Samuel. I just looked in to say good-bye. I sail on Saturday, and my time will be pretty fully taken up all the week. I have to go down to the country to get some final instructions from the client whose important papers I am taking over. I'm sorry to have missed your father, Mr. Samuel."
"Yes, this is his golf day. I'll tell him you looked in."
"Is there anything I can do before I go?"
"Well--"--Jno. Peters coughed tactfully--"I see that you are engaged with a client, Mr. Samuel, and I was wondering if any little point of law had arisen with which you did not feel yourself quite capable of coping, in which case I might perhaps be of assistance."
"Oh, that lady," said Sam. "That was Miss Milliken's sister."
"Indeed? I didn't know Miss Milliken had a sister."
"No?" said Sam.
"She is not very like her in appearance."
"No. This one is the beauty of the family, I believe. A very bright, intelligent girl. I was telling her about your revolver just before you came in, and she was most interested. It's a pity you haven't got it with you now, to show to her."
"Oh, but I have it! I have, Mr. Samuel!" said Peters, opening a small handbag and taking out a hymn-book, half a pound of mixed chocolates, a tongue sandwich, and the pistol, in the order named. "I was on my way to the Rupert Street range for a little practice. I should be glad to show it to her."
"Well, wait here a minute or two," said Sam. "I'll have finished talking business in a moment."
He returned to the inner office.
"Well?" cried Billie.
"Eh? Oh, he's gone," said Sam. "I persuaded him to go away. He was a little excited, poor fellow. And now let us return to what we were talking about. You say...." He broke off with an exclamation, and glanced at his watch. "Good Heavens! I had no idea of the time. I promised to run up and see a man in one of the offices in the next court. He wants to consult me on some difficulty which has arisen with one of his clients. Rightly or wrongly he values my advice. Can you spare me for a short while? I shan't be more than ten minutes."
"Here is something you may care to look at while I'm gone. I don't know if you have read it? Widgery on Nisi Prius Evidence. Most interesting."
He went out. Jno. Peters looked up from his Home Whispers.
"You can go in now," said Sam.
"Certainly, Mr. Samuel, certainly."
Sam took up the copy of Home Whispers and sat down with his feet on the desk. He turned to the serial story and began to read the synopsis.
In the inner room Billie, who had rejected the mental refreshment offered by Widgery and was engaged on making a tour of the office, looking at the portraits of whiskered men whom she took correctly to be the Thorpes, Prescotts, Winslows, and Applebys mentioned on the contents-bill outside, was surprised to hear the door open at her back. She had not expected Sam to return so instantaneously.
Nor had he done so. It was not Sam who entered. It was a man of repellent aspect whom she recognised instantly, for Jno. Peters was one of those men who, once seen, are not easily forgotten. He was smiling a cruel, cunning smile--at least, she thought he was; Mr. Peters himself was under the impression that his face was wreathed in a benevolent simper; and in his hand he bore the largest pistol ever seen outside a motion-picture studio.
"How do you do, Miss Milliken?" he said.