The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XI. Stung to Action
It was in the third year of the White Hope's life that the placid evenness of Kirk's existence began to be troubled. The orderly procession of the days was broken by happenings of unusual importance, one at least of them extraordinarily unpleasant. This was the failure of a certain stock in which nearly half of Kirk's patrimony was invested, that capital which had always seemed to him as solid a part of life as the asphalt on which he walked, as unchangeable a part of nature as the air he breathed. He had always had it, and he could hardly bring himself to realize that he was not always to have it.
It gave him an extraordinary feeling of panic and discomfort when at length he faced the fact squarely that his private means, on the possession of which he had based the whole lazy scheme of his life, were as much at the mercy of fate as the stake which a gambler flings on the green cloth. He did not know enough of business to understand the complicated processes by which a stock hitherto supposed to be as impregnable as municipal bonds had been hammered into a ragged remnant in the course of a single day; but the result of them was unpleasantly clear and easily grasped.
His income was cut in half, and instead of being a comfortably off young man, idly watching the pageant of life from a seat in the grand stand, he must now plunge into the crowd and endeavour to earn a living as others did.
For his losses did not begin and end with the ruin of this particular stock. At intervals during the past two years he had been nibbling at his capital, and now, forced to examine his affairs frankly and minutely, he was astonished at the inroads he had made upon it.
There had been the upkeep of the summer shack he had bought in Connecticut. There had been expenses in connection with William Bannister. There had been little treats for Ruth. There had been cigars and clothes and dinners and taxi-cabs and all the other trifles which cost nothing but mount up and make a man wander beyond the bounds of his legitimate income.
It was borne in upon Kirk, as he reflected upon these things, that the only evidence he had shown of the possession of the artistic temperament had been the joyous carelessness of his extravagance. In that only had he been the artist. It shocked him to think how little honest work he had done during the past two years. He had lived in a golden haze into which work had not entered.
He was to be shocked still more very soon.
Stung to action by his thoughts, he embarked upon a sweeping attack on the stronghold of those who exchange cash for artists' dreams. He ransacked the studio and set out on his mission in a cab bulging with large, small, and medium-sized canvases. Like a wave receding from a breakwater he returned late in the day, a branded failure.
The dealers had eyed his canvases, large, small, and medium-sized, and, in direct contravention of their professed object in life, had refused to deal. Only one of them, a man with grimy hands but a moderately golden heart, after passing a sepia thumb over some of the more ambitious works, had offered him fifteen dollars for a little sketch which he had made in an energetic moment of William Bannister crawling on the floor. This, the dealer asserted, was the sort of "darned mushy stuff" the public fell for, and he held it to be worth the fifteen, but not a cent more. Kirk, humble by now, accepted three battered-looking bills and departed.
He had a long talk with Ruth that night, and rose from it in the frame of mind which in some men is induced by prayer. Ruth was quite marvellously sensible and sympathetic.
"I wanted you," she said in answer to his self-reproaches, "and here we are, together. It's simply nonsense to talk about ruining my life and dragging me down. What does it matter about this money? We have got plenty left."
"We've got about as much left as you used to spend on hats in the old days."
"Well, we can easily make it do. I've thought for some time that we were growing too extravagant. And talking of hats, I had no right to have that last one you bought me. It was wickedly expensive. We can economize there, at any rate. We can get along splendidly on what you have now. Besides, directly you settle down and start to paint, we shall be quite rich again."
Kirk laughed grimly.
"I wish you were a dealer," he said. "Fifteen dollars is what I have managed to extract from them so far. One of the Great Unwashed on Sixth Avenue gave me that for that sketch I did of Bill on the floor."
"Which took you about three minutes to do," Ruth pointed out triumphantly. "You see! You're bound to make a fortune if you stick to it."
Kirk put his arm round her and gave her a silent hug of gratitude. He had dreaded this talk, and lo! it was putting new life into him.
They sat for a few moments in silence.
"I don't deserve it," said Kirk at last. "Instead of comforting me like this, and making me think I'm rather a fine sort of a fellow, you ought to be lashing me with scorpions. I don't suppose any man has ever made such a criminal idiot of himself in this city before."
"You couldn't tell that this stock was going to fail."
"No; but I could have done some work these last three years and made it not matter whether it failed or not. You can't comfort me out of that knowledge. I knew all along that I was being a waster and a loafer, but I was so happy that I didn't mind. I was so interested in seeing what you and the kid would do next that I didn't seem to have time to work. And the result is that I've gone right back.
"There was a time when I really could paint a bit. Not much, it's true, but enough to get along with. Well, I'm going to start it again in earnest now, and if I don't make good, well, there's always Hank's offer."
Ruth turned a little pale. They had discussed Hank's offer before, but then life had been bright and cloudless and Hank's offer a thing to smile at. Now it had assumed an uncomfortably practical aspect.
"You will make good," said Ruth.
"I'll do my best," said Kirk. But even as he spoke his mind was pondering on the proposition which Hank had made.
Hank, always flitting from New York into the unknown and back again, had called at the studio one evening, after a long absence, looking sick and tired. He was one of those lean, wiry men whom it is unusual to see in this condition, and Kirk was sympathetic and inquisitive.
Hank needed no pressing. He was full of his story.
"I've been in Colombia," he said. "I got back on a fruit-steamer this morning. Do you know anything of Colombia?"
"Only that there's generally a revolution there," he said.
"There wasn't anything of that kind this trip, except in my interior." Hank pulled thoughtfully at his pipe. The odour of his remarkable brand of tobacco filled the studio. "I've had a Hades of a time," he said simply.
Kirk looked at him curiously. Hank was in a singularly chastened mood to-night.
"What took you there?"
"I didn't know there were gold-mines in that part of the world," said Kirk.
"There are. The gold that filled the holds of Spanish galleons in the sixteenth century came from Colombia. The place is simply stiff with old Spanish relics."
"But surely the mines must have been worked out ages ago."
"Only on the surface."
"How do you mean, only on the surface? Explain. I don't know a thing about gold, except that getting it out of picture-dealers is like getting blood out of a turnip."
"It's simple enough. The earth hoards its gold in two ways. There's auriferous rock and auriferous dirt. If the stuff is in the rock, you crush it. If it's in the dirt, you wash it."
"It sounds simple."
"It is. The difficult part is finding it."
"And you have done that?"
"I have. Or I'm practically certain I have. At any rate, I know that I have discovered the ditches made by the Spaniards three hundred years ago. If there was gold there in those days there is apt to be gold there now. Only it isn't on the surface any longer. They cleaned up as far as the surface is concerned, so I have to sink shafts and dig tunnels."
"I see. It isn't so simple as it used to be."
"It is, practically, if you have any knowledge of mining."
"Well, what's your trouble?" asked Kirk. "Why did you come back? Why aren't you out there grabbing it with both hands and getting yourself into shape to be a walking gold-mine to your friends? I don't like to see this idle spirit in you, Hank."
Hank smoked long and thoughtfully.
"Kirk," he said suddenly.
Hank shook his head.
"No, it's no good."
"What is no good? What do you mean?"
"I came back," said Hank, suddenly lucid, "with a wild notion of getting you to come in with me on this thing."
"What! Go to Colombia with you?"
"But, of course, it's not possible. It's no job for a married man."
"Why not? If this gold of yours is just lying about in heaps it seems to me that a married man is exactly the man who ought to be around grabbing it. Or do you believe that old yarn about two being able to live as cheaply as one? Take it from me, it's not so. If there is gold waiting to be gathered up in handfuls, me for it. When do we start? Can I bring Ruth and the kid?"
"I wish we could start. If I could have had you with me these last few months I'd never have quit. But I guess it's out of the question. You've no idea what sort of an inferno it is, and I won't let you come into it with your eyes shut. But if ever you are in a real tight corner let me know. It might be worth your while then to take a few risks."
"Oh! there are risks?"
"Risks! My claims are located along the Atrato River in the Choco district. Does that convey anything to you?"
"Not a thing."
"The workings are three hundred miles inland. Just three hundred miles of pure Hades. You can get all the fevers you ever heard of, and a few more, I got most of them last trip."
"I thought you were looking pretty bad."
"I ought to be. I've swallowed so much quinine since I saw you last that my ears are buzzing still. And then there are the insects. They all bite. Some bite worse than others, but not much. Darn it! even the butterflies bite out there. Every animal in the country has some other animal constantly chasing it until a white man comes along, when they call a truce and both chase him. And the vegetation is so thick and grows so quickly that you have to cut down the jungle about the workings every few days or so to avoid being swamped by it. Otherwise," finished Hank, refilling his pipe and lighting it, "the place is a pretty good kind of summer resort."
"And you're going back to it? Back to the quinine and the beasts and the butterflies?"
"Sure. The gold runs up to twenty dollars the cubic yard and is worth eighteen dollars an ounce."
"When are you going?"
"I'm in no hurry. This year, next year, some time, never. No, not never. Call it some time."
"And you want me to come, too?"
"I would give half of whatever there is in the mine to have you come. But things being as they are, well, I guess we can call it off. Is there any chance in the world, Kirk, of your ever ceasing to be a bloated capitalist? Could any of your stocks go back on you?"
"I doubt it. They're pretty gilt-edged, I fancy, though I've never studied the question of stocks. My little gold-mine isn't in the same class with yours, but it's as solid as a rock, and no fevers and insects attached to it, either."
* * * * *
And now the gold-mine had proved of less than rock-like solidity. The most gilt-edged of all the stocks had failed. The capitalist had become in one brief day the struggling artist.
Hank's proposal seemed a good deal less fantastic now to Kirk as he prepared for his second onslaught, the grand attack, on the stronghold of those who bought art with gold.