The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter X. An Interlude of Peace
Two events of importance in the small world which centred round William B. Winfield occurred at about this time. The first was the entrance of Mamie, the second the exit of Mrs. Porter.
Mamie was the last of a series of nurses who came and went in somewhat rapid succession during the early years of the White Hope's life. She was introduced by Steve, who, it seemed, had known her since she was a child. She was the nineteen-year-old daughter of a compositor on one of the morning papers, a little, mouselike thing, with tiny hands and feet, a soft voice, and eyes that took up far more than their fair share of her face.
She had had no professional experience as a nursery-maid; but, as Steve pointed out, the fact that, in the absence of her mother, who had died some years previously, she had had sole charge of three small brothers at the age when small brothers are least easily handled, and had steered them through to the office-boy age without mishap, put her extremely high in the class of gifted amateurs. Mamie was accordingly given a trial, and survived it triumphantly. William Bannister, that discerning youth, took to her at once. Kirk liked the neat way she moved about the studio, his heart being still sore at the performance of one of her predecessors, who had upset and put a substantial foot through his masterpiece, that same "Ariadne in Naxos" which Lora Delane Porter had criticised on the occasion of her first visit to the studio. Ruth, for her part, was delighted with Mamie.
As for Steve, though as an outside member of the firm he cannot be considered to count, he had long ago made up his mind about her. Some time before, when he had found it impossible for him to be in her presence, still less to converse with her, without experiencing a warm, clammy, shooting sensation and a feeling of general weakness similar to that which follows a well-directed blow at the solar plexus, he had come to the conclusion that he must be in love. The furious jealousy which assailed him on seeing her embraced by and embracing a stout person old enough to be her father convinced him of this.
The discovery that the stout man actually was her father's brother relieved his mind to a certain extent, but the episode left him shaken. He made up his mind to propose at once and get it over. When Mamie joined the garrison of No. 90 a year later the dashing feat was still unperformed. There was that about Mamie which unmanned Steve. She was so small and dainty that the ruggedness which had once been his pride seemed to him, when he thought of her, an insuperable defect. The conviction that he was a roughneck deepened in him and tied his tongue.
The defection of Mrs. Porter was a gradual affair. From a very early period in the new regime she had been dissatisfied. Accustomed to rule, she found herself in an unexpectedly minor position. She had definite views on the hygienic upbringing of children, and these she imparted to Ruth, who listened pleasantly, smiled, and ignored them.
Mrs. Porter was not used to such treatment. She found Ruth considerably less malleable than she had been before marriage, and she resented the change.
Kirk, coming in one afternoon, found Ruth laughing.
"It's only Aunt Lora," she said. "She will come in and lecture me on how to raise babies. She's crazy about microbes. It's the new idea. Sterilization, and all that. She thinks that everything a child touches ought to be sterilized first to kill the germs. Bill's running awful risks being allowed to play about the studio like this."
Kirk looked at his son and heir, who was submitting at that moment to be bathed. He was standing up. It was a peculiarity of his that he refused to sit down in a bath, being apparently under the impression, when asked to do so, that there was a conspiracy afoot to drown him.
"I don't see how the kid could be much fitter."
"It's not so much what he is now. She is worrying about what might happen to him. She can talk about bacilli till your flesh creeps. Honestly, if Bill ever did get really ill, I believe Aunt Lora could talk me round to her views about them in a minute. It's only the fact that he is so splendidly well that makes it seem so absurd."
"It's all very well to laugh. You haven't heard her. I've caught myself wavering a dozen times. Do you know, she says a child ought not to be kissed?"
"It has struck me," said Kirk meditatively, "that your Aunt Lora, if I may make the suggestion, is the least bit of what Steve would call a shy-dome. Is there anything else she had mentioned?'
"Hundreds of things. Bill ought to be kept in a properly sterilized nursery, with sterilized toys and sterilized everything, and the temperature ought to be just so high and no higher, and just so low and no lower. Get her to talk about it to you. She makes you wonder why everybody is not dead."
"This is a new development, surely? Has she ever broken out in this place before?"
"Oh, yes. In the old days she often used to talk about it. She has written books about it."
"I thought her books were all about the selfishness of the modern young man in not marrying."
"Not at all. Some of them are about how to look after the baby. It's no good the modern young man marrying if he's going to murder his baby directly afterward, is it?"
"Something in that. There's just one objection to this sterilized nursery business, though, which she doesn't seem to have detected. How am I going to provide these things on an income of five thousand and at the same time live in that luxury which the artist soul demands? Bill, my lad, you'll have to sacrifice yourself for your father's good. When I'm a millionaire we'll see about it. Meanwhile--"
"Meanwhile," said Ruth, "come and be dried before you catch your death of cold." She gathered William Bannister into her lap.
"I pity any germ that tries to play catch-as-catch-can with that infant," remarked Kirk. "He'd simply flatten it out in a round. Did you ever see such a chest on a kid of that age?"
It was after the installation of Whiskers at the studio that the diminution of Mrs. Porter's visits became really marked. There was something almost approaching a battle over Whiskers, who was an Irish terrier puppy which Hank Jardine had presented to William Bannister as a belated birthday present.
Mrs. Porter utterly excommunicated Whiskers. Nothing, she maintained, was so notoriously supercharged with bacilli as a long-haired dog. If this was true, William Bannister certainly gave them every chance to get to work upon himself. It was his constant pleasure to clutch Whiskers to him in a vice-like clinch, to bury his face in his shaggy back, and generally to court destruction. Yet the more he clutched, the healthier did he appear to grow, and Mrs. Porter's demand for the dog's banishment was overruled.
Mrs. Porter retired in dudgeon. She liked to rule, and at No. 90 she felt that she had become merely among those present. She was in the position of a mother country whose colony has revolted. For years she had been accustomed to look on Ruth as a disciple, a weaker spirit whom she could mould to her will, and now Ruth was refusing to be moulded.
So Mrs. Porter's visits ceased. Ruth still saw her at the apartment when she cared to go there, but she kept away from the studio. She considered that in the matter of William Bannister her claim had been jumped, that she had been deposed; and she withdrew.
"I shall bear up," said Kirk, when this fact was brought home to him. "I mistrust your Aunt Lora as I should mistrust some great natural force which may become active at any moment and give you yours. An earthquake, for instance. I have no quarrel with your Aunt Lora in her quiescent state, but I fear the developments of that giant mind. We are better off without her."
"All the same," said Ruth loyally, "she's rather a dear. And we ought to remember that, if it hadn't been for her, you and I would never have met."
"I do remember it. And I'm grateful. But I can't help feeling that a woman capable of taking other people's lives and juggling with them as if they were india-rubber balls as she did with ours, is likely at any moment to break out in a new place. My gratitude to her is the sort of gratitude you would feel toward a cyclone if you were walking home late for dinner and it caught you up and deposited you on your doorstep. Your Aunt Lora is a human cyclone. No, on the whole, she's more like an earthquake. She has a habit of splitting up and altering the face of the world whenever she feels like it, and I'm too well satisfied with my world at present to relish the idea of having it changed."
Little by little the garrison of the studio had been whittled down. Except for Steve, the community had no regular members outside the family itself. Hank was generally out of town. Bailey paid one more visit, then seemed to consider that he could now absent himself altogether. And the members of Kirk's bachelor circle stayed away to a man.
Their isolation was rendered more complete by the fact that Ruth, when she had ornamented New York society, had made few real friends. Most of the girls she had known bored her. They were gushing creatures with a passion for sharing and imparting secrets, and Ruth's cool reserve had alienated her from them.
When she married she dropped out. The romance of her wedding gave people something to talk about for a few days, and then she was forgotten.
And so it came about that she had her desire and was able practically to monopolize Kirk. He and she and William Bannister lived in a kind of hermit's cell for three and enjoyed this highly unnatural state of things enormously. Life had never seemed so full either to Kirk or herself. There was always something to do, something to think about, something to look forward to, if it was only a visit to a theatre or the inspection of William Bannister's bath.