The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter I. Empty-handed
The steamship Santa Barbara, of the United Fruit Line, moved slowly through the glittering water of the bay on her way to dock. Out at quarantine earlier in the morning there had been a mist, through which passing ships loomed up vague and shapeless; but now the sun had dispersed it and a perfect May morning welcomed the Santa Barbara home.
Kirk leaned on the rail, looking with dull eyes on the city he had left a year before. Only a year! It seemed ten. As he stood there he felt an old man.
A drummer, a cheery soul who had come aboard at Porto Rico, sauntered up, beaming with well-being and good-fellowship.
"Looks pretty good, sir," said he.
Kirk did not answer. He had not heard.
"Some burg," ventured the drummer.
Again encountering silence, he turned away, hurt. This churlish attitude on the part of one returning to God's country on one of God's own mornings surprised and wounded him.
To him all was right with the world. He had breakfasted well; he was smoking a good cigar; and he was strong in the knowledge that he had done well by the firm this trip and that bouquets were due to be handed to him in the office on lower Broadway. He was annoyed with Kirk for having cast even a tiny cloud upon his contentment.
He communicated his feelings to the third officer, who happened to come on deck at that moment.
"Say, who is that guy?" he asked complainingly. "The big son of a gun leaning on the rail. Seems like he'd got a hangover this morning. Is he deaf and dumb or just plain grouchy?"
The third officer eyed Kirk's back with sympathy.
"I shouldn't worry him, Freddie," he said. "I guess if you had been up against it like him you'd be shy on the small talk. That's a fellow called Winfield. They carried him on board at Colon. He was about all in. Got fever in Colombia, inland at the mines, and nearly died. His pal did die. Ever met Hank Jardine?"
"Long, thin man?"
The other nodded.
"One of the best. He made two trips with us."
"And he's dead?"
"Died of fever away back in the interior, where there's nothing much else except mosquitoes. He and Winfield went in there after gold."
"Did they get any?" asked the drummer, interested.
The third officer spat disgustedly over the rail.
"You ask Winfield. Or, rather, don't, because I guess it's not his pet subject. He told me all about it when he was getting better. There was gold there, all right, in chunks. It only needed to be dug for. And somebody else did the digging. Of all the skin games! It made me pretty hot under the collar, and it wasn't me that was stung.
"Out there you can't buy land if you're a foreigner; you have to lease it from the natives. Poor old Hank leased his bit, all right, and when he'd got to his claim he found somebody else working on it. It seemed there had been a flaw in his agreement and the owners had let it over his head to these other guys, who had slipped them more than what Hank had done."
"What did he do?"
"He couldn't do anything. They were the right side of the law, or what they call law out there. There was nothing to do except beat it back again three hundred miles to the coast. That's where they got the fever which finished Hank. So you can understand," concluded the third officer, "that Mr. Winfield isn't in what you can call a sunny mood. If I were you, I'd go and talk to someone else, if conversation's what you need."
Kirk stood motionless at the rail, thinking. It was not what was past that occupied his thoughts, as the third officer had supposed; it was the future.
The forlorn hope had failed; he was limping back to Ruth wounded and broken. He had sent her a wireless message. She would be at the dock to meet him. How could he face her? Fate had been against him, it was true, but he was in no mood to make excuses for himself. He had failed. That was the beginning and the end of it. He had set out to bring back wealth and comfort to her, and he was returning empty-handed.
That was what the immediate future held, the meeting with Ruth. And after? His imagination was not equal to the task of considering that. He had failed as an artist. There was no future for him there. He must find some other work. But he was fit for no other work. He had no training. What could he do in a city where keenness of competition is a tradition? It would be as if an unarmed man should attack a fortress.
The thought of the years he had wasted was very bitter. Looking back, he could see how fate had tricked him into throwing away his one talent. He had had promise. With hard work he could have become an artist, a professional--a man whose work was worth money in the open market. He had never had it in him to be a great artist, but he had had the facility which goes to make a good worker of the second class. He had it still. Given the time for hard study, it was still in him to take his proper place among painters.
But time for study was out of his reach now. He must set to work at once, without a day's delay, on something which would bring him immediate money. The reflection brought his mind back abruptly to the practical consideration of the future.
Before him, as he stood there, the ragged battlements of New York seemed to frown down on him with a cold cruelty that paralysed his mind. He had seen them a hundred times before. They should have been familiar and friendly. But this morning they were strange and sinister. The skyline which daunts the emigrant as he comes up the bay to his new home struck fear into Kirk's heart.
He turned away and began to walk up and down the deck.
He felt tired and lonely. For the first time he realized just what it meant to him that he should never see Hank again. It had been hard, almost impossible, till now to force his mind to face that fact. He had winced away from it. But now it would not be avoided. It fell upon him like a shadow.
Hank had filled a place of his own in Kirk's life. Theirs had been one of those smooth friendships which absence cannot harm. Often they had not seen each other for months at a time. Indeed, now that he thought of it, Hank was generally away; and he could not remember that they had ever exchanged letters. Yet even so there had been a bond between them which had never broken. And now Hank had dropped out.
Kirk began to think about death. As with most men of his temperament, it was a subject on which his mind had seldom dwelt, never for any length of time. His parents had died when he was too young to understand; and circumstances had shielded him from the shadow of the great mystery. Birth he understood; it had forced itself into the scheme of his life; but death till now had been a stranger to him.
The realization of it affected him oddly. In a sense, he found it stimulating; not stimulating as birth had been, but more subtly. He could recall vividly the thrill that had come to him with the birth of his son. For days he had walked as one in a trance. The world had seemed unreal, like an opium-smoker's dream. There had been magic everywhere.
But death had exactly the opposite effect. It made everything curiously real--himself most of all. He had the sensation, as he thought of Hank, of knowing himself for the first time. Somehow he felt strengthened, braced for the fight, as a soldier might who sees his comrade fall at his side.
There was something almost vindictive in the feeling that came to him. It was too vague to be analysed, but it filled him with a desire to fight, gave him a sense of determination of which he had never before been conscious. It toughened him, and made the old, easy-going Kirk Winfield seem a stranger at whom he could look with detachment and a certain contempt.
As he walked back along the deck the battlements of the city met his gaze once more. But now they seemed less formidable.
In the leisurely fashion of the home-coming ship the Santa Barbara slid into her dock. The gangplank was thrust out. Kirk walked ashore.
For a moment he thought that Ruth had not come to meet him. Then his heart leaped madly. He had seen her.
* * * * *
There are worse spots in the world than the sheds of the New York customs, but few more desolate; yet to Kirk just then the shadowy vastness seemed a sunlit garden. A flame of happiness blazed up in his mind, blotting out in an instant the forebodings which had lurked there like evil creatures in a dark vault. The future, with its explanations and plans, could take care of itself. Ruth was a thing of the present.
He put his arms round her and held her. The friendly drummer, who chanced to be near, observed them with interest and a good deal of pleasure. The third officer's story had temporarily destroyed his feeling that all was right with the world, and his sympathetic heart welcomed this evidence that life held compensations even for men who had been swindled out of valuable gold-mines.
"I guess he's not feeling so worse, after all," he mused, and went on his way with an easy mind to be fawned upon by his grateful firm.
Ruth was holding Kirk at arm's length, her eyes full of tears at the sight.
"You poor boy, how thin you are!"
"I had fever. It's an awful place for fever out there."
"Oh, I'm all right now. The voyage set me up. They made a great fuss over me on board."
Ruth's hand was clinging to his arm. He squeezed it against his side. It was wonderful to him, this sense of being together again after these centuries of absence. It drove from his mind the thought of all the explanations which sooner or later he had got to make. Whatever might come after, he would keep this moment in his memory golden and untarnished.
"Don't you worry about me," he said. "Now that I've found you again I'm feeling better than I ever did in my life. You wait till you see me sparring with Steve to-morrow. By the way, how is Steve?"
Ruth drew herself up haughtily.
"You dare to ask about your son after Steve? How clumsy that sounds! I mean you dare to put Steve before your son. I believe you've only just realized that you have a son."
"I've only just realized there's anybody or anything in the world except my wife."
"Well, after that I suppose I've got to forgive you. Since you have asked after Bill at last, I may tell you that he's very well indeed."
Kirk's eyes glowed.
"He ought to be a great kid by now."
"And Mamie? Have you still got her?"
"I wouldn't lose her for a million."
"I'm afraid Whiskers is gone."
"No. I gave him away."
"For Heaven's sake! Why?"
"Well, dear, the fact is, I've come around to Aunt Lora's way of thinking."
Kirk laughed, the first real laugh he had had for a year.
"That insane fad of hers!"
Ruth was serious.
"I have," she said. "We're taking a great deal more care of Bill than in the old days. I hate to think of the way I used to let him run around wild then. He might have died."
"What nonsense! He was simply bursting with health all the time."
"I had a horrible shock after you left," Ruth went on. "The poor little fellow was awfully ill with some kind of a fever. The doctor almost gave him up."
"Aunt Lora helped me to nurse him, and she made me see how I had been exposing him to all sorts of risks, and--well, now we guard against them."
There was a silence.
"I grew to rely on her a great deal, Kirk, when you were away. You know I always used to before we were married. She's so wonderfully strong. And then when your letters stopped coming----"
"There aren't any postal arrangements out there in the interior. It was the worst part of it--not being able to write to you or hear from you. Heavens, what an exile I've been this last year! Anything may have happened!"
"Perhaps something has," said Ruth mysteriously.
"What do you mean?"
"Wait and see. Oh, I know one thing that has happened. I've been looking at you all this while trying to think what it was. You've grown a beard, and it looks perfectly horrid."
"Sheer laziness. It shall come off this very day. I knew you would hate it."
"I certainly do. It makes you look so old."
Kirk's face clouded.
"I feel old."
For the first time since he had left the ship the memory of Hank had come back to him. The sight of Ruth had driven it away, but now it swept back on him. The golden moment was over. Life with all its troubles and its explanations and its burdening sense of failure must be faced.
"What's the matter?" asked Ruth, startled by the sudden change.
"I was thinking of poor old Hank."
"Where is Mr. Jardine? Didn't he come back with you?"
"He's dead, dear," said Kirk gently. "He died of fever while we were working our way back to the coast."
It was the idea of death that shocked Ruth, not the particular manifestation of it. Hank had not touched her life. She had begun by disliking him and ended by feeling for him the tolerant sort of affection which she might have bestowed upon a dog or a cat. Hank as a man was nothing to her, and she could not quite keep her indifference out of her voice.
It was only later, when he looked back on this conversation, that Kirk realized this. At the moment he was unconscious of it, significant as it was of the fact that there were points at which his mind and Ruth's did not touch.
When Ruth spoke again it was to change the subject.
"Well, Kirk," she said, "have you come back with your trunk crammed with nuggets? You haven't said a word about the mine yet, and I'm dying to know."
He groaned inwardly. The moment he had been dreading had arrived more swiftly than he had expected. It was time for him to face facts.
"No," he said shortly.
Ruth looked at him curiously. She met his eyes and saw the pain in them, and intuition told her in an instant what Kirk, stumbling through his story, could not have told her in an hour. She squeezed his arm affectionately.
"Don't tell me," she said. "I understand. And it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter a bit."
"Doesn't matter? But----"
Ruth's eyes were dancing.
"Kirk, dear, I've something to tell you. Wait till we get outside."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll soon see?"
They went out into the street. Against the kerb a large red automobile was standing. The chauffeur touched his cap as he saw them. Kirk stared at him dumbly.
"In you get, dear," said Ruth.
She met his astonished gaze with a smile of triumph. This was her moment, the moment for which she had been waiting. The chauffeur started the machine.
"I don't understand. Whose car is this?"
"Mine. Yours. Ours. Oh, Kirk, darling, I was so afraid that you would come back bulging with a fortune that would make my little one look like nothing. But you haven't, you haven't, and it's just splendid." She caught his hand and pressed it. "It's simply sweet of you to look so astonished. I was hoping you would. This car belongs to us, and there's another just as big besides, and a house, and--oh--everything you can think of. Kirk, dear, we've nothing to worry us any longer. We're rich!"