The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XXVI. Journey's End
The capacity of the human brain for surprise, like that of the human body for pain, is limited. For a single instant a sense of utter unreality struck John like a physical blow. The world flickered before his eyes and the air seemed full of strange noises. Then, quite suddenly, these things passed, and he found himself looking at her with a total absence of astonishment, mildly amused in some remote corner of his brain at his own calm. It was absurd, he told himself, that he should be feeling as if he had known of her presence there all the time. Yet it was so. If this were a dream, he could not be taking the miracle more as a matter of course. Joy at the sight of her he felt, keen and almost painful, but no surprise. The shock had stunned his sense of wonder.
She was wearing a calico apron over her dress, an apron that had evidently been designed for a large woman. Swathed in its folds, she suggested a child playing at being grown up. Her sleeves were rolled back to the elbow, and her slim arms dripped with water. Strands of brown hair were blowing loose in the evening breeze. To John she had never seemed so bewitchingly pretty. He stared at her till the pallor of her face gave way to a warm red glow.
As they stood there, speechless, there came from the other side of the chimney, softly at first, then swelling, the sound of a child's voice, raised in a tentative wail. Betty started violently. The next moment she was gone, and from the unseen parts beyond the chimney came the noise of splashing water.
And at the same instant, through the trap, came a trampling of feet and the sound of whispering. The enemy had reached the top floor.
John was conscious of a remarkable exhilaration. He felt insanely light-hearted. He laughed aloud at the thought that until then he had completely forgotten the very existence of these earnest seekers after his downfall. He threw back his head and shouted. There was something so ridiculous in their assumption that they mattered to a man who had found Betty again.
He thrust his head down through the trap, to see what was going on. The dark passage was full of indistinct forms, gathered together in puzzled groups. The mystery of the vanished object of their pursuit was being discussed in hoarse whispers.
Suddenly there was an excited shout, then a rush of feet. John drew back his head, and waited, gripping his stick.
Voices called to each other in the passage below.
"On top de roof!"
"He's beaten it for de roof!"
Feet shuffled on the stone floor. The voices ceased abruptly. And then, like a jack-in-the-box, there popped through the trap a head and shoulders.
The new arrival was a young man with a shock of red hair, a broken nose, and a mouth from which force or the passage of time had removed three front teeth. He held on to the edge of the trap, and stared up at John.
John beamed down at him, and shifted his grip on the stick.
"Who's here?" he cried. "Historic picture. 'Old Dr. Cook discovers the North Pole.'"
The red-headed young man blinked. The strong light of the open air was trying to his eyes.
"Youse had best come down," he observed coldly. "We've got youse."
"And," continued John, unmoved, "is instantly handed a gum-drop by his faithful Eskimo."
As he spoke, he brought the stick down on the knuckles which disfigured the edges of the trap. The intruder uttered a howl and dropped out of sight. In the passage below there were whisperings and mutterings, growing gradually louder till something resembling coherent conversation came to John's ears, as he knelt by the trap making meditative billiard shots with the stick at a small pebble.
"Aw g'wan! Don't be a quitter."
"Who's a quitter?"
"Youse a quitter. Get on top de roof. He can't hoit youse."
"De guy's gotten a big stick."
John nodded appreciatively.
"I and Theodore," he murmured.
A somewhat baffled silence on the part of the attacking force was followed by further conversation.
"Gee! Some guy's got to go up."
Murmur of assent from the audience.
A voice, in inspired tones: "Let Sam do it."
The suggestion made a hit. There was no doubt about that. It was a success from the start. Quite a little chorus of voices expressed sincere approval of the very happy solution to what had seemed an insoluble problem. John, listening from above, failed to detect in the choir of glad voices one that might belong to Sam himself. Probably gratification had rendered the chosen one dumb.
"Yes, let Sam do it," cried the unseen chorus. The first speaker, unnecessarily, perhaps--for the motion had been carried almost unanimously--but possibly with the idea of convincing the one member of the party in whose bosom doubts might conceivably be harbored, went on to adduce reasons.
"Sam bein' a coon," he argued, "ain't goin' to git hoit by no stick. Youse can't hoit a coon by soakin' him on de coco, can you, Sam?"
John waited with some interest for the reply, but it did not come. Possibly Sam did not wish to generalize on insufficient experience.
"We can but try," said John softly, turning the stick round in his fingers.
A report like a cannon sounded in the passage below. It was merely a revolver shot, but in the confined space it was deafening. The bullet sang up into the sky.
"Never hit me," said John cheerfully.
The noise was succeeded by a shuffling of feet. John grasped his stick more firmly. This was evidently the real attack. The revolver shot had been a mere demonstration of artillery to cover the infantry's advance.
Sure enough, the next moment a woolly head popped through the opening, and a pair of rolling eyes gleamed up at him.
"Why, Sam!" he said cordially, "this is great. Now for our interesting experiment. My idea is that you can hurt a coon's head with a stick if you hit it hard enough. Keep quite still. Now. What, are you coming up? Sam, I hate to do it, but--"
A yell rang out. John's theory had been tested and proved correct.
By this time the affair had begun to attract spectators. The noise of the revolver had proved a fine advertisement. The roof of the house next door began to fill up. Only a few of the occupants could get a clear view of the proceedings, for the chimney intervened. There was considerable speculation as to what was passing in the Three Points camp. John was the popular favorite. The early comers had seen his interview with Sam, and were relating it with gusto to their friends. Their attitude toward John was that of a group of men watching a dog at a rat hole. They looked to him to provide entertainment for them, but they realized that the first move must be with the attackers. They were fair-minded men, and they did not expect John to make any aggressive move.
Their indignation, when the proceedings began to grow slow, was directed entirely at the dilatory Three Pointers. They hooted the Three Pointers. They urged them to go home and tuck themselves up in bed. The spectators were mostly Irishmen, and it offended them to see what should have been a spirited fight so grossly bungled.
"G'wan away home, ye quitters!" roared one.
A second member of the audience alluded to them as "stiffs."
It was evident that the besieging army was beginning to grow a little unpopular. More action was needed if they were to retain the esteem of Broster Street.
Suddenly there came another and a longer explosion from below, and more bullets wasted themselves on air. John sighed.
"You make me tired," he said.
The Irish neighbors expressed the same sentiment in different and more forcible words. There was no doubt about it--as warriors, the Three Pointers were failing to give satisfaction.
A voice from the passage called to John.
"Well?" said John.
"Are youse comin' down off out of dat roof?"
"Would you mind repeating that remark?"
"Are youse goin' to quit off out of dat roof?"
"Go away and learn some grammar," said John severely.
"No, my son," said John, "since you ask it, I am not. I like being up here. How is Sam?"
There was silence below. The time began to pass slowly. The Irishmen on the other roof, now definitely abandoning hope of further entertainment, proceeded with hoots of derision to climb down one by one into the recesses of their own house.
And then from the street far below there came a fusillade of shots and a babel of shouts and counter-shouts. The roof of the house next door filled again with a magical swiftness, and the low wall facing the street became black with the backs of those craning over. There appeared to be great doings in the street.
John smiled comfortably.
In the army of the corridor confusion had arisen. A scout, clattering upstairs, had brought the news of the Table Hillites' advent, and there was doubt as to the proper course to pursue. Certain voices urged going down to help the main body. Others pointed out that this would mean abandoning the siege of the roof. The scout who had brought the news was eloquent in favor of the first course.
"Gee!" he cried, "don't I keep tellin' youse dat de Table Hills is here? Sure, dere's a whole bunch of dem, and unless youse come on down dey'll bite de hull head off of us lot. Leave dat stiff on de roof. Let Sam wait here wit' his canister, and den he can't get down, 'cos Sam'll pump him full of lead while he's beatin' it t'roo de trapdoor. Sure!"
John nodded reflectively.
"There is certainly something in that," he murmured. "I guess the grand rescue scene in the third act has sprung a leak. This will want thinking over."
In the street the disturbance had now become terrible. Both sides were hard at it, and the Irishmen on the roof, rewarded at last for their long vigil, were yelling encouragement promiscuously and whooping with the unfettered ecstasy of men who are getting the treat of their lives without having paid a penny for it.
The behavior of the New York policeman in affairs of this kind is based on principles of the soundest practical wisdom. The unthinking man would rush in and attempt to crush the combat in its earliest and fiercest stages. The New York policeman, knowing the importance of his safety, and the insignificance of the gangsman's, permits the opposing forces to hammer each other into a certain distaste for battle, and then, when both sides have begun to have enough of it, rushes in himself and clubs everything in sight. It is an admirable process in its results, but it is sure rather than swift.
Proceedings in the affair below had not yet reached the police-interference stage. The noise, what with the shots and yells from the street and the ear-piercing approval of the roof audience, was just working up to a climax.
John rose. He was tired of kneeling by the trap, and there was no likelihood of Sam making another attempt to climb through. He got up and stretched himself.
And then he saw that Betty was standing beside him, holding with each hand a small and--by Broster Street standards--uncannily clean child. The children were scared and whimpering, and she stooped to soothe them. Then she turned to John, her eyes wide with anxiety.
"Are you hurt?" she cried. "What has been happening? Are you hurt?"
John's heart leaped at the anxious break in her voice.
"It's all right," he said soothingly. "It's absolutely all right. Everything's over."
As if to give him the lie, the noise in the street swelled to a crescendo of yells and shots.
"What's that?" cried Betty, starting.
"I fancy," said John, "the police must be taking a hand. It's all right. There's a little trouble down below there between two of the gangs. It won't last long now."
"Who were those men?"
"My friends in the passage?" he said lightly. "Those were some of the Three Points gang. We were holding the concluding exercise of a rather lively campaign that's been--"
Betty leaned weakly against the chimney. There was silence now in the street. Only the distant rumble of an elevated train broke the stillness. She drew her hands from the children's grasp, and covered her face. As she lowered them again, John saw that the blood had left her cheeks. She was white and shaking. He moved forward impulsively.
She tottered, reaching blindly for the chimney for support, and without further words he gathered her into his arms as if she had been the child she looked, and held her there, clutching her to him fiercely, kissing the brown hair that brushed against his face, and soothing her with vague murmurings.
Her breath came in broken gasps. She laughed hysterically.
"I thought they were killing you--killing you--and I couldn't leave my babies--they were so frightened, poor little mites--I thought they were killing you."
Her arms about his neck tightened their grip convulsively, forcing his head down until his face rested against hers. And so they stood, rigid, while the two children stared with round eyes and whimpered unheeded.
Her grip relaxed. Her hands dropped slowly to her side. She leaned back against the circle of his arms, and looked up at him--a strange look, full of a sweet humility.
"I thought I was strong," she said quietly. "I'm weak--but I don't care."
He looked at her with glowing eyes, not understanding, but content that the journey was ended, that she was there, in his arms, speaking to him.
"I always loved you, dear," she went on. "You knew that, didn't you? But I thought I was strong enough to give you up for--for a principle--but I was wrong. I can't do without you--I knew it just now when I saw--" She stopped, and shuddered. "I can't do without you," she repented.
She felt the muscles of his arms quiver, and pressed more closely against them. They were strong arms, protecting arms, restful to lean against at the journey's end.