The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter I. A Pawn of Fate
Mrs. Lora Delane Porter dismissed the hireling who had brought her automobile around from the garage and seated herself at the wheel. It was her habit to refresh her mind and improve her health by a daily drive between the hours of two and four in the afternoon.
The world knows little of its greatest women, and it is possible that Mrs. Porter's name is not familiar to you. If this is the case, I am pained, but not surprised. It happens only too often that the uplifter of the public mind is baulked by a disinclination on the part of the public mind to meet him or her half-way. The uplifter does his share. He produces the uplifting book. But the public, instead of standing still to be uplifted, wanders off to browse on coloured supplements and magazine stories.
If you are ignorant of Lora Delane Porter's books that is your affair. Perhaps you are more to be pitied than censured. Nature probably gave you the wrong shape of forehead. Mrs. Porter herself would have put it down to some atavistic tendency or pre-natal influence. She put most things down to that. She blamed nearly all the defects of the modern world, from weak intellects to in-growing toe-nails, on long-dead ladies and gentlemen who, safe in the family vault, imagined that they had established their alibi. She subpoenaed grandfathers and even great-grandfathers to give evidence to show that the reason Twentieth-Century Willie squinted or had to spend his winters in Arizona was their own shocking health 'way back in the days beyond recall.
Mrs. Porter's mind worked backward and forward. She had one eye on the past, the other on the future. If she was strong on heredity, she was stronger on the future of the race. Most of her published works dealt with this subject. A careful perusal of them would have enabled the rising generation to select its ideal wife or husband with perfect ease, and, in the event of Heaven blessing the union, her little volume, entitled "The Hygienic Care of the Baby," which was all about germs and how to avoid them, would have insured the continuance of the direct succession.
Unfortunately, the rising generation did not seem disposed to a careful perusal of anything except the baseball scores and the beauty hints in the Sunday papers, and Mrs. Porter's public was small. In fact, her only real disciple, as she sometimes told herself in her rare moods of discouragement, was her niece, Ruth Bannister, daughter of John Bannister, the millionaire. It was not so long ago, she reflected with pride, that she had induced Ruth to refuse to marry Basil Milbank--a considerable feat, he being a young man of remarkable personal attractions and a great match in every way. Mrs. Porter's objection to him was that his father had died believing to the last that he was a teapot.
There is nothing evil or degrading in believing oneself a teapot, but it argues a certain inaccuracy of the thought processes; and Mrs. Porter had used all her influence with Ruth to make her reject Basil. It was her success that first showed her how great that influence was. She had come now to look on Ruth's destiny as something for which she was personally responsible--a fact which was noted and resented by others, in particular Ruth's brother Bailey, who regarded his aunt with a dislike and suspicion akin to that which a stray dog feels towards the boy who saunters towards him with a tin can in his hand.
To Bailey, his strong-minded relative was a perpetual menace, a sort of perambulating yellow peril, and the fact that she often alluded to him as a worm consolidated his distaste for her.
* * * * *
Mrs. Porter released the clutch and set out on her drive. She rarely had a settled route for these outings of hers, preferring to zigzag about New York, livening up the great city at random. She always drove herself and, having, like a good suffragist, a contempt for male prohibitions, took an honest pleasure in exceeding a man-made speed limit.
One hesitates to apply the term "joy-rider" to so eminent a leader of contemporary thought as the authoress of "The Dawn of Better Things," "Principles of Selection," and "What of To-morrow?" but candour compels the admission that she was a somewhat reckless driver. Perhaps it was due to some atavistic tendency. One of her ancestors may have been a Roman charioteer or a coach-racing maniac of the Regency days. At any rate, after a hard morning's work on her new book she felt that her mind needed cooling, and found that the rush of air against her face effected this satisfactorily. The greater the rush, the quicker the cooling. However, as the alert inhabitants of Manhattan Island, a hardy race trained from infancy to dodge taxicabs and ambulance wagons, had always removed themselves from her path with their usual agility, she had never yet had an accident.
But then she had never yet met George Pennicut. And George, pawn of fate, was even now waiting round the corner to upset her record.
George, man of all work to Kirk Winfield, one of the youngest and least efficient of New York's artist colony, was English. He had been in America some little time, but not long enough to accustom his rather unreceptive mind to the fact that, whereas in his native land vehicles kept to the left, in the country of his adoption they kept to the right; and it was still his bone-headed practice, when stepping off the sidewalk, to keep a wary look-out in precisely the wrong direction.
The only problem with regard to such a man is who will get him first. Fate had decided that it should be Lora Delane Porter.
To-day Mrs. Porter, having circled the park in rapid time, turned her car down Central Park West. She was feeling much refreshed by the pleasant air. She was conscious of a glow of benevolence toward her species, not excluding even the young couple she had almost reduced to mincemeat in the neighbourhood of Ninety-Seventh Street. They had annoyed her extremely at the time of their meeting by occupying till the last possible moment a part of the road which she wanted herself.
On reaching Sixty-First Street she found her way blocked by a lumbering delivery wagon. She followed it slowly for a while; then, growing tired of being merely a unit in a procession, tugged at the steering-wheel, and turned to the right.
George Pennicut, his anxious eyes raking the middle distance--as usual, in the wrong direction--had just stepped off the kerb. He received the automobile in the small of the back, uttered a yell of surprise and dismay, performed a few improvised Texas Tommy steps, and fell in a heap.
In a situation which might have stimulated another to fervid speech, George Pennicut contented himself with saying "Goo!" He was a man of few words.
Mrs. Porter stopped the car. From all points of the compass citizens began to assemble, many swallowing their chewing-gum in their excitement. One, a devout believer in the inscrutable ways of Providence, told a friend as he ran that only two minutes before he had almost robbed himself of this spectacle by going into a moving-picture palace.
Mrs. Porter was annoyed. She had never run over anything before except a few chickens, and she regarded the incident as a blot on her escutcheon. She was incensed with this idiot who had flung himself before her car, not reflecting in her heat that he probably had a pre-natal tendency to this sort of thing inherited from some ancestor who had played "last across" in front of hansom cabs in the streets of London.
She bent over George and passed experienced hands over his portly form. For this remarkable woman was as competent at first aid as at anything else. The citizens gathered silently round in a circle.
"It was your fault," she said to her victim severely. "I accept no liability whatever. I did not run into you. You ran into me. I have a jolly good mind to have you arrested for attempted suicide."
This aspect of the affair had not struck Mr. Pennicut. Presented to him in these simple words, it checked the recriminatory speech which, his mind having recovered to some extent from the first shock of the meeting, he had intended to deliver. He swallowed his words, awed. He felt dazed and helpless. Mrs. Porter had that effect upon men.
Some more citizens arrived.
"No bones broken," reported Mrs. Porter, concluding her examination. "You are exceedingly fortunate. You have a few bruises, and one knee is slightly wrenched. Nothing to signify. More frightened than hurt. Where do you live?"
"There," said George meekly.
"Yes, ma'am." George's voice was that of a crushed worm.
"Are you an artist?"
"No, ma'am. I'm Mr. Winfield's man."
"Mr. Winfield's, ma'am."
"Is he in?"
"I'll fetch him. And if the policeman comes along and wants to know why you're lying there, mind you tell him the truth, that you ran into me."
"Very well. Don't forget."
She crossed the street and rang the bell over which was a card hearing the name of "Kirk Winfield". Mr. Pennicut watched her in silence.
Mrs. Porter pressed the button a second time. Somebody came at a leisurely pace down the passage, whistling cheerfully. The door opened.
It did not often happen to Lora Delane Porter to feel insignificant, least of all in the presence of the opposite sex. She had well-defined views upon man. Yet, in the interval which elapsed between the opening of the door and her first words, a certain sensation of smallness overcame her.
The man who had opened the door was not, judged by any standard of regularity of features, handsome. He had a rather boyish face, pleasant eyes set wide apart, and a friendly mouth. He was rather an outsize in young men, and as he stood there he seemed to fill the doorway.
It was this sense of bigness that he conveyed, his cleanness, his magnificent fitness, that for the moment overcame Mrs. Porter. Physical fitness was her gospel. She stared at him in silent appreciation.
To the young man, however, her forceful gaze did not convey this quality. She seemed to him to be looking as if she had caught him in the act of endeavouring to snatch her purse. He had been thrown a little off his balance by the encounter.
Resource in moments of crisis is largely a matter of preparedness, and a man, who, having opened his door in the expectation of seeing a ginger-haired, bow-legged, grinning George Pennicut, is confronted by a masterful woman with eyes like gimlets, may be excused for not guessing that her piercing stare is an expression of admiration and respect.
Mrs. Porter broke the silence. It was ever her way to come swiftly to the matter in hand.
"Mr. Kirk Winfield?"
"Have you in your employment a red-haired, congenital idiot who ambles about New York in an absent-minded way, as if he were on a desert island? The man I refer to is a short, stout Englishman, clean-shaven, dressed in black."
"That sounds like George Pennicut."
"I have no doubt that that is his name. I did not inquire. It did not interest me. My name is Mrs. Lora Delane Porter. This man of yours has just run into my automobile."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I cannot put it more lucidly. I was driving along the street when this weak-minded person flung himself in front of my car. He is out there now. Kindly come and help him in."
"Is he hurt?"
"More frightened than hurt. I have examined him. His left knee appears to be slightly wrenched."
Kirk Winfield passed a hand over his left forehead and followed her. Like George, he found Mrs. Porter a trifle overwhelming.
Out in the street George Pennicut, now the centre of quite a substantial section of the Four Million, was causing a granite-faced policeman to think that the age of miracles had returned by informing him that the accident had been his fault and no other's. He greeted the relief-party with a wan grin.
"Just broke my leg, sir," he announced to Kirk.
"You have done nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Porter. "You have wrenched your knee very slightly. Have you explained to the policeman that it was entirely your fault?"
"That's right. Always speak the truth."
"Mr. Winfield will help you indoors."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She turned to Kirk.
"Now, Mr. Winfield."
Kirk bent over the victim, gripped him, and lifted him like a baby.
"He's got his," observed one interested spectator.
"I should worry!" agreed another. "All broken up."
"Nothing of the kind," said Mrs. Porter severely. "The man is hardly hurt at all. Be more accurate in your remarks."
She eyed the speaker sternly. He wilted.
"Yes, ma'am," he mumbled sheepishly.
The policeman, with that lionlike courage which makes the New York constabulary what it is, endeavoured to assert himself at this point.
"Hey!" he boomed.
Mrs. Porter turned her gaze upon him, her cold, steely gaze.
"I beg your pardon?"
"This won't do, ma'am. I've me report to make. How did this happen?"
"You have already been informed. The man ran into my automobile."
"I shall not charge him."
She turned and followed Kirk.
"But, say----" The policeman's voice was now almost plaintive.
Mrs. Porter ignored him and disappeared into the house. The policeman, having gulped several times in a disconsolate way, relieved his feelings by dispersing the crowd with well-directed prods of his locust stick. A small boy who lingered, squeezing the automobile's hooter, in a sort of trance he kicked. The boy vanished. The crowd melted. The policeman walked slowly toward Ninth Avenue. Peace reigned in the street.
"Put him to bed," said Mrs. Porter, as Kirk laid his burden on a couch in the studio. "You seem exceedingly muscular, Mr. Winfield. I noticed that you carried him without an effort. He is a stout man, too. Grossly out of condition, like ninety-nine per cent of men to-day."
"I'm not so young as I was, ma'am," protested George. "When I was in the harmy I was a fine figure of a man."
"The more shame to you that you have allowed yourself to deteriorate," commented Mrs. Porter. "Beer?"
A grateful smile irradiated George's face.
"Thank you, ma'am. It's very kind of you, ma'am. I don't mind if I do."
"The man appears a perfect imbecile," said Mrs. Porter, turning abruptly to Kirk. "I ask him if he attributes his physical decay to beer and he babbles."
"I think he thought you were offering him a drink," suggested Kirk. "As a matter of fact, a little brandy wouldn't hurt him, after the shock he has had."
"On no account. The worst thing possible."
"This isn't your lucky day, George," said Kirk. "Well, I guess I'll phone to the doctor."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Entirely unnecessary. I have made an examination. There is practically nothing the matter with the man. Put him to bed, and let him sponge his knee with warm water."
"Are you a doctor, Mrs. Porter?"
"I have studied first aid."
"Well, I think, if you don't mind, I should like to have your opinion confirmed."
This was rank mutiny. Mrs. Porter stared haughtily at Kirk. He met her gaze with determination.
"As you please," she snapped.
"Thank you," said Kirk. "I don't want to take any risks with George. I couldn't afford to lose him. There aren't any more like him: they've mislaid the pattern."
He went to the telephone.
Mrs. Porter watched him narrowly. She was more than ever impressed by the perfection of his physique. She appraised his voice as he spoke to the doctor. It gave evidence of excellent lungs. He was a wonderfully perfect physical specimen.
An idea concerning this young man came into her mind, startling as all great ideas are at birth. The older it grew, the more she approved of it. She decided to put a few questions to him. She had a habit of questioning people, and it never occurred to her that they might resent it. If it had occurred to her, she would have done it just the same. She was like that.
"I should like to ask you a few questions."
This woman delighted Kirk.
"Please do," he said.
Mrs. Porter scanned him closely.
"You are an extraordinarily healthy man, to all appearances. Have you ever suffered from bad health?"
"Very unpleasant, though."
"Not to me. I looked like a water-melon."
"Nothing besides? No serious illnesses?"
"What is your age?"
"Are your parents living?"
"Were they healthy?"
"Fit as fiddles."
"And your grandparents?"
"Perfect bear-cats. I remember my grandfather at the age of about a hundred or something like that spanking me for breaking his pipe. I thought it was a steam-hammer. He was a wonderfully muscular old gentleman."
"By the way," said Kirk casually, "my life is insured."
"Very sensible. There has been no serious illness in your family at all, then, as far as you know?"
"I could hunt up the records, if you like; but I don't think so."
"Consumption? No? Cancer? No? As far as you are aware, nothing? Very satisfactory."
"I'm glad you're pleased."
"Are you married?"
"Good Lord, no!"
"At your age you should be. With your magnificent physique and remarkable record of health, it is your duty to the future of the race to marry."
"I'm not sure I've been worrying much about the future of the race."
"No man does. It is the crying evil of the day, men's selfish absorption in the present, their utter lack of a sense of duty with regard to the future. Have you read my 'Dawn of Better Things'?"
"I'm afraid I read very few novels."
"It is not a novel. It is a treatise on the need for implanting a sense of personal duty to the future of the race in the modern young man."
"It sounds a crackerjack. I must get it."
"I will send you a copy. At the same time I will send you my 'Principles of Selection' and 'What of To-morrow?' They will make you think."
"I bet they will. Thank you very much."
"And now," said Mrs. Porter, switching the conversation to the gaping George, "you had better put this man to bed."
George Pennicut's opinion of Mrs. Porter, to which he was destined to adhere on closer acquaintance, may be recorded.
"A hawful woman, sir," he whispered as Kirk bore him off.
"Nonsense, George," said Kirk. "One of the most entertaining ladies I have ever met. Already I love her like a son. But how she escaped from Bloomingdale beats me. There's been carelessness somewhere."
The bedrooms attached to the studio opened off the gallery that ran the length of the east wall. Looking over the edge of the gallery before coming downstairs Kirk perceived his visitor engaged in a tour of the studio. At that moment she was examining his masterpiece, "Ariadne in Naxos." He had called it that because that was what it had turned into.
At the beginning he had had no definite opinion as to its identity. It was rather a habit with his pictures to start out in a vague spirit of adventure and receive their label on completion. He had an airy and a dashing way in his dealings with the goddess Art.
Nevertheless, he had sufficient of the artist soul to resent the fact that Mrs. Porter was standing a great deal too close to the masterpiece to get its full value.
"You want to stand back a little," he suggested over the rail.
Mrs. Porter looked up.
"Oh, there you are!" she said.
"Yes, here I am," agreed Kirk affably.
"Is this yours?"
"You painted it?"
"It is poor. It shows a certain feeling for colour, but the drawing is weak," said Mrs. Porter. For this wonderful woman was as competent at art criticism as at automobile driving and first aid. "Where did you study?"
"In Paris, if you could call it studying. I'm afraid I was not the model pupil."
"Kindly come down. You are giving me a crick in the neck."
Kirk descended. He found Mrs. Porter still regarding the masterpiece with an unfavourable eye.
"Yes," she said, "the drawing is decidedly weak."
"I shouldn't wonder," assented Kirk. "The dealers to whom I've tried to sell it have not said that in so many words, but they've all begged me with tears in their eyes to take the darned thing away, so I guess you're right."
"Do you depend for a living on the sale of your pictures?"
"Thank Heaven, no. I'm the only artist in captivity with a private income."
"A large income?"
"'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. All told, about five thousand iron men per annum."
"I should have said dollars."
"You should. I detest slang."
"Sorry," said Kirk.
Mrs. Porter resumed her tour of the studio. She was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor, a cheerful little old man with the bearing of one sure of his welcome. He was an old friend of Kirk's.
"Well, what's the trouble? I couldn't come sooner. I was visiting a case. I work."
"There is no trouble," said Mrs. Porter. The doctor spun round, startled. In the dimness of the studio he had not perceived her. "Mr. Winfield's servant has injured his knee very superficially. There is practically nothing wrong with him. I have made a thorough examination."
The doctor looked from one to the other.
"Is the case in other hands?" he asked.
"You bet it isn't," said Kirk. "Mrs. Porter just looked in for a family chat and a glimpse of my pictures. You'll find George in bed, first floor on the left upstairs, and a very remarkable sight he is. He is wearing red hair with purple pyjamas. Why go abroad when you have not yet seen the wonders of your native land?"
* * * * *
That night Lora Delane Porter wrote in the diary which, with that magnificent freedom from human weakness that marked every aspect of her life, she kept all the year round instead of only during the first week in January.
This is what she wrote:
"Worked steadily on my book. It progresses. In the afternoon an annoying occurrence. An imbecile with red hair placed himself in front of my automobile, fortunately without serious injury to the machine--though the sudden application of the brake cannot be good for the tyres. Out of evil, however, came good, for I have made the acquaintance of his employer, a Mr. Winfield, an artist. Mr. Winfield is a man of remarkable physique. I questioned him narrowly, and he appears thoroughly sound. As to his mental attainments, I cannot speak so highly; but all men are fools, and Mr. Winfield is not more so than most. I have decided that he shall marry my dear Ruth. They will make a magnificent pair."