The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter II. An Unknown Path
Kirk blinked. He closed his eyes and opened them again. The automobile was still there, and he was still in it. Ruth was still gazing at him with the triumphant look in her eyes. The chauffeur, silent emblem of a substantial bank-balance, still sat stiffly at the steering-wheel.
"Rich?" Kirk repeated.
"Rich," Ruth assured him.
"I don't understand."
Ruth's smile faded.
"He died just after you sailed. Just before Bill got ill." She gave a little sigh. "Kirk, how odd life is!"
"It was terrible. It was some kind of a stroke. He had been working too hard and taking no exercise. You know when he sent Steve away that time he didn't engage anybody else in his place. He went back to his old way of living, which the doctor had warned him against. He worked and worked, until one day, Bailey says, he fainted at the office. They brought him home, and he just went out like a burned-out candle. I--I went to him, but for a long time he wouldn't see me.
"Oh, Kirk, the hours I spent in the library hoping that he would let me come to him! But he never did till right at the end. Then I went up, and he was dying. He couldn't speak. I don't know now how he felt toward me at the last. I kissed him. He was all shrunk to nothing. I had a horrible feeling that I had never been a real daughter to him. But--but--you know, he made it difficult, awfully difficult. And then he died; Bailey was on one side of the bed and I was on the other, and the nurse and the doctor were whispering outside the door. I could hear them through the transom."
She slipped her hand into Kirk's and sat silent while the car slid into the traffic of Fifth Avenue. For the second time the shadow of the Great Mystery had fallen on the brightness of the perfect morning.
The car had stopped at Thirty-Fourth Street to allow the hurrying crowds to cross the avenue. Kirk looked at them with a feeling of sadness. It was not caused by John Bannister's death. He was too honest to be able to plunge himself into false emotion at will. His feeling was more a vague uneasiness, almost a presentiment. Things changed so quickly in this world. Old landmarks shifted as the crowd of strangers was shifting before him now, hurrying into his life and hurrying out of it.
He, too, had changed. Ruth, though he had detected no signs of it, must be different from the Ruth he had left a year ago. The old life was dead. What had the new life in store for him? Wealth for one thing--other standards of living--new experiences.
An odd sensation of regret that this stream of gold had descended upon him deepened his momentary depression. They had been so happy, he and Ruth and the kid, in the old days of the hermit's cell. Something that was almost a superstitious fear of this unexpected legacy came upon him.
It was unlucky money, grudgingly given at the eleventh hour. He seemed to feel John Bannister watching him with a sneer, and he was afraid of him. His nerves were still a little unstrung from the horror of his wanderings, and the fever had left him weak. It seemed to him that there was a curse on the old man's wealth, that somehow it was destined to bring him unhappiness.
The policeman waved his hand. The car jerked forward. The sudden movement brought him to himself. He smiled, a little ashamed of having been so fanciful; the sky was blue; the sun shone; a cool breeze put the joy of life into him; and at his side Ruth sat, smiling now. From her, too, the cloud had been lifted.
"It seems like a fairy-story," said Kirk, breaking the silence that had fallen between them.
"I think it must have been the thought of Bill that made him do it," said Ruth. "He left half his money to Bailey and half to me during my lifetime. Bailey's married now, by the way." She paused. "I'm afraid father never forgave you, dear," she added. "He made Bailey the trustee for the money, and it goes to Bill in trust after my death."
She looked at him rather nervously it seemed to Kirk. The terms of the will had been the cause of some trouble to her. Especially had she speculated on his reception of the news that Bailey was to play so important a part in the administration of the money. Kirk had never told her what had passed between him and Bailey that afternoon in the studio, but her quick intelligence had enabled her to guess at the truth; and she was aware that the minds of the two men, their temperaments, were naturally antagonistic.
Kirk's reception of the news relieved her.
"Of course," he said. "He couldn't do anything else. He knew nothing of me except that I was a kind of man with whom he was quite out of sympathy. He mistrusted all artists, I expect, in a bunch. And, anyway, an artist is pretty sure to be a bad man of business. He would know that. And--and, well, what I mean is, it strikes me as a very sensible arrangement. Why are we stopping here?"
The car had drawn up before a large house on the upper avenue, one of those houses which advertise affluence with as little reticence as a fat diamond solitaire.
"We live here," said Ruth, laughing.
Kirk drew a long breath.
"Do we? By George!" he exclaimed. "I see it's going to take me quite a while to get used to this state of things."
A thought struck him.
"How about the studio? Have you got rid of it?"
"Of course not. The idea! After the perfect times we had there! We're going to keep it on as an annex. Every now and then, when we are tired of being rich, we'll creep off there and boil eggs over the gas-stove and pretend we are just ordinary persons again."
"And oftener than every now and then this particular plutocrat is going to creep off there and try to teach himself to paint pictures."
"Yes, I think you ought to have a hobby. It's good for you."
Kirk said nothing. But it was not as a hobby that he was regarding his painting. He had come to a knowledge of realities in the wilderness and to an appreciation of the fact that he had a soul which could not be kept alive except by honest work.
He had the decent man's distaste for living on his wife's money. He supposed it was inevitable that a certain portion of it must go to his support, but he was resolved that there should be in the sight of the gods who look down on human affairs at least a reasonable excuse for his existence. If work could make him anything approaching a real artist, he would become one.
Meanwhile he was quite willing that Ruth should look upon his life-work as a pleasant pastime to save him from ennui. Even to his wife a man is not always eager to exhibit his soul in its nakedness.
"By the way," said Ruth, "you won't find George Pennicut at the studio. He has gone back to England."
"I'm sorry. I liked George."
"He liked you. He left all sorts of messages. He nearly wept when he said good-bye. But he wouldn't stop. In a burst of confidence he told me what the trouble was. Our blue sky had got on his nerves. He wanted a London drizzle again. He said the thought of it made him homesick."
Kirk entered the house thoughtfully. Somehow this last piece of news had put the coping-stone on the edifice of his--his what? Depression? It was hardly that. No, it was rather a kind of vague regret for the life which had so definitely ended, the feeling which the Romans called desiderium and the Greeks pathos. The defection of George Pennicut was a small thing in itself, but it meant the removal of another landmark.
"We had some bully good times in that studio," he said.
The words were a requiem.
The first person whom he met in this great house, in the kingdom of which he was to be king-consort, was a butler of incredible stateliness. This was none other than Steve's friend Keggs. But round the outlying portions of this official he had perceived, as the door opened, a section of a woman in a brown dress.
The butler moving to one side, he found himself confronting Mrs. Lora Delane Porter.
If other things in Kirk's world had changed, time had wrought in vain upon the great authoress. She looked as masterful, as unyielding, and as efficient as she had looked at the time of his departure. She took his hand without emotion and inspected him keenly.
"You are thinner," she remarked.
"I said that, Aunt Lora," said Ruth. "Poor boy, he's a skeleton."
"You are not so robust."
"I have been ill."
"He's had fever, Aunt Lora, and you are not to tease him."
"I should be the last person to tease any man. What sort of fever?"
"I think it was a blend of all sorts," replied Kirk. "A kind of Irish stew of a fever."
"You are not infectious?"
Mrs. Porter checked Ruth as she was about to speak.
"We owe it to William to be careful," she explained. "After all the trouble we have taken to exclude him from germs it is only reasonable to make these inquiries."
"Come along, dear," said Ruth, "and I'll show you the house. Don't mind Aunt Lora," she whispered; "she means well, and she really is splendid with Bill."
Kirk followed her. He was feeling chilled again. His old mistrust of Mrs. Porter revived. If their brief interview was to be taken as evidence, she seemed to have regained entirely her old ascendancy over Ruth. He felt vaguely uneasy, as a man might who walks in a powder magazine.
"Aunt Lora lives here now," observed Ruth casually, as they went upstairs.
"Literally, do you mean? Is this her home?"
Ruth smiled at him over her shoulder.
"She won't interfere with you," she said. "Surely this great house is large enough for the three of us. Besides, she's so devoted to Bill. She looks after him all the time; of course, nowadays I don't get quite so much time to be with him myself. One has an awful lot of calls on one. I feel Bill is so safe with Aunt Lora on the premises."
She stopped at a door on the first floor.
"This is Bill's nursery. He's out just now. Mamie takes him for a drive every morning when it's fine."
Something impelled Kirk to speak.
"Don't you ever take him for walks in the morning now?" he asked. "He used to love it."
"Silly! Of course I do, when I can manage it. For drives, rather. Aunt Lora is rather against his walking much in the city. He might so easily catch something, you know."
She opened the door.
"There!" she said. "What do you think of that for a nursery?"
If Kirk had spoken his mind he would have said that of all the ghastly nurseries the human brain could have conceived this was the ghastliest. It was a large, square room, and to Kirk's startled eyes had much the appearance of an operating theatre at a hospital.
There was no carpet on the tiled floor. The walls, likewise tiled, were so bare that the eye ached contemplating them. In the corner by the window stood the little white cot. Beside it on the wall hung a large thermometer. Various knobs of brass decorated the opposite wall. At the farther end of the room was a bath, complete with shower and all the other apparatus of a modern tub.
It was probably the most horrible room in all New York.
"Well, what do you think of it?" demanded Ruth proudly.
Kirk gazed at her, speechless. This, he said to himself, was Ruth, his wife, who had housed his son in the spare bedroom of the studio and allowed a shaggy Irish terrier to sleep on his bed; who had permitted him to play by the hour in the dust of the studio floor, who had even assisted him to do so by descending into the dust herself in the role of a bear or a snake.
What had happened to this world from which he had been absent but one short year? Was everybody mad, or was he hopelessly behind the times?
"Well?" Ruth reminded him.
Kirk eyed the dreadful room.
"It looks clean," he said at last.
"It is clean," said the voice of Lora Delane Porter proudly behind him. She had followed them up the stairs to do the honours of the nursery, the centre of her world. "It is essentially clean. There is not an object in that room which is not carefully sterilized night and morning with a weak solution of boric acid!"
"Even Mamie?" inquired Kirk.
It had been his intention to be mildly jocular, but Mrs. Porter's reply showed him that in jest he had spoken the truth.
"Certainly. Have you any idea, Kirk, of the number of germs there are on the surface of the human body? It runs into billions. You"--she fixed him with her steely eye--"you are at the present moment one mass of microbes."
"I sneaked through quarantine all right."
"To the adult there is not so much danger in these microbes, provided he or she maintains a reasonable degree of personal cleanliness. That is why adults may be permitted to mix with other adults without preliminary sterilization. But in the case of a growing child it is entirely different. No precaution is excessive. So----"
From below at this point there came the sound of the front-door bell. Ruth went to the landing and looked over the banisters.
"That ought to be Bill and Mamie back from their drive," she said.
The sound of a child's voice came to Kirk as he stood listening; and as he heard it all the old feeling of paternal pride and excitement, which had left him during his wanderings, swept over him like a wave. He reproached himself that, while the memory of Ruth had been with him during every waking moment of the past year, there had been occasions when that of William Bannister had become a little faded.
He ran down the stairs.
"Hello, Mamie!" he said. "How are you? You're looking well."
Mamie greeted him with the shy smile which was wont to cause such havoc in Steve's heart.
"And who's this you've got with you? Mamie, you know you've no business going about with young men like this. Who is he?"
He stood looking at William Bannister, and William Bannister stood looking at him, Kirk smiling, William staring with the intense gravity of childhood and trying to place this bearded stranger among his circle of friends. He seemed to be thinking that the familiarity of the other's manner indicated a certain amount of previous acquaintanceship.
"Watch that busy brain working," said Kirk. "He's trying to place me. It's all right, Bill, old man; it's my fault. I had no right to spring myself on you with eight feet of beard. It isn't giving you a square deal. Never mind, it's coming off in a few minutes, never to return, and then, perhaps, you'll remember that you've a father."
"Fa-a-a-ar!" shrieked William Bannister triumphantly, taking the cue with admirable swiftness.
He leaped at Kirk, and Kirk swung him up in the air. It was quite an effort, for William Bannister had grown astonishingly in the past year.
"Pop," said he firmly, as if resolved to prevent any possibility of mistake. "Daddy," he added, continuing to play upon the theme. He summed up. "You're my pop."
Then, satisfied that this was final and that there could now be no chance for Kirk to back out of the contract, he reached out a hand and gave a tug at the beard which had led to all the confusion.
"You may well ask," said Kirk. "I got struck that way because I left you and mummy for a whole year. But now I'm back I'm going to be allowed to take it off and give it away. Whom shall I give it to? Steve? Do you think Steve would like it? Yes, you can go on pulling it; it won't break. On the other hand, I should just like to mention that it's hurting something fierce, my son. It's fastened on at the other end, you know."
"Don't ask me. That's the way it's built."
William Bannister obligingly disentangled himself from the beard.
"Where you been?" he inquired.
"Miles and miles away. You know the Battery?"
William Bannister nodded.
"Well, a long way past that. First I took a ship and went ever so many miles. Then I landed and went ever so many more miles, with all sorts of beasts trying to bite pieces out of me."
This interested William Bannister.
"Tigers?" he inquired.
"I didn't actually see any tigers, but I expect they were sneaking round. There were mosquitoes, though. You know what a mosquito is?"
"Bumps," he observed crisply.
"That's right. You see this lump here, just above my mouth? Well, that's not a mosquito-bite; that's my nose; but think of something about that size and you'll have some idea of what a mosquito-bite is like out there. But why am I boring you with my troubles? Tell me all about yourself. You've certainly been growing, whatever else you may have been doing while I've been away; I can hardly lift you. Has Steve taught you to box yet?"
At this moment he was aware that he had become the centre of a small group. Looking round he found himself gazing into a face so stiff with horror and disapproval that he was startled almost into dropping William. What could have happened to induce Mrs. Porter to look like that he could not imagine; but her expression checked his flow of light conversation as if it had been turned off with a switch. He lowered Bill to the ground.
"What on earth's the matter?" he asked. "What has happened?"
Without replying, Mrs. Porter made a gesture in the direction of the nursery, which had the effect of sending Mamie and her charge off again on the journey upstairs which Kirk's advent had interrupted. Bill seemed sorry to go, but he trudged sturdily on without remark. Kirk followed him with his eyes till he disappeared at the bend of the stairway.
"What's the matter?" he repeated.
"Are you mad, Kirk?" demanded Mrs. Porter in a tense voice.
Kirk turned helplessly to Ruth.
"You had better let me explain, Aunt Lora," she said. "Of course Kirk couldn't be expected to know, poor boy. You seem to forget that he has only this minute come into the house."
Aunt Lora was not to be appeased.
"That is absolutely no excuse. He has just left a ship where he cannot have failed to pick up bacilli of every description. He has himself only recently recovered from a probably infectious fever. He is wearing a beard, notoriously the most germ-ridden abomination in existence."
Kirk started. He was not proud of his beard, but he had not regarded it as quite the pestilential thing which it seemed to be in the eyes of Mrs. Porter.
"And he picks up the child!" she went on. "Hugs him! Kisses him! And you say he could not have known better! Surely the most elementary common sense--"
"Aunt Lora!" said Ruth.
She spoke quietly, but there was a note in her voice which acted on Mrs. Porter like magic. Her flow of words ceased abruptly. It was a small incident, but it had the effect of making Kirk, grateful as he was for the interruption, somehow vaguely uneasy for a moment.
It seemed to indicate some subtle change in Ruth's character, some new quality of hardness added to it. The Ruth he had left when he sailed for Colombia would, he felt, have been incapable of quelling her masterful aunt so very decisively and with such an economy of words. It suggested previous warfare, in which the elder women had been subdued to a point where a mere exclamation could pull her up when she forgot herself.
Kirk felt uncomfortable. He did not like these sudden discoveries about Ruth.
"I will explain to Kirk," she said. "You go up and see that everything is right in the nursery."
And--amazing spectacle!--off went Mrs. Porter without another word.
Ruth put her arm in Kirk's and led him off to the smoking-room.
"You may smoke a cigar while I tell you all about Bill," she said.
Kirk lit a cigar, bewildered. It is always unpleasant to be the person to whom things have to be explained.
"Poor old boy," Ruth went on, "you certainly are thin. But about Bill. I am afraid you are going to be a little upset about Bill, Kirk. Aunt Lora has no tact, and she will make a speech on every possible occasion; but she was right just now. It really was rather dangerous, picking Bill up like that and kissing him."
"I don't understand. Did you expect me to wave my hand to him? Or would it have been more correct to bow?"
"Don't be so satirical, Kirk; you wither me. No, seriously, you really mustn't kiss Bill. I never do. Nobody does."
"I dare say it sounds ridiculous to you, but you were not here when he was so ill and nearly died. You remember what I was telling you at the dock? About giving Whiskers away? Well, this is all part of it. After what happened I feel, like Aunt Lora, that we simply can't take too many precautions. You saw his nursery. Well, it would be simply a waste of money giving him a nursery like that if he was allowed to be exposed to infection when he was out of it."
"And I am supposed to be infectious?"
"Not more than anybody else. There's no need to be hurt about it. It's just as much a sacrifice for me."
"So nobody makes a fuss over Bill now--is that it?"
"Well, no. Not in the way you mean."
"Pretty dreary outlook for the kid, isn't it?"
"It's all for his good."
"What a ghastly expression!"
Ruth left her chair and came and sat on the arm of Kirk's. She ruffled his hair lightly with the tips of her fingers. Kirk, who had been disposed to be militant, softened instantly. The action brought back a flood of memories. It conjured up recollections of peaceful evenings in the old studio, for this had been a favourite habit of Ruth's. It made him feel that he loved her more than he had ever done in his life; and--incidentally--that he was a brute to try and thwart her in anything whatsoever.
"I know it's horrid for you, dear old boy," said Ruth coaxingly; "but do be good and not make a fuss about it. Not kissing Bill doesn't mean that you need be any the less fond of him. I know it will be strange at first--I didn't get used to it for ever so long--but, honestly, it is for his good, however ghastly the expression of the thing may sound."
"It's treating the kid like a wretched invalid," grumbled Kirk.
"You wait till you see him playing, and then you'll know if he's a wretched invalid or not!"
"May I see him playing?"
"Don't be silly. Of course."
"I thought I had better ask. Being the perambulating plague-spot I am, I was not taking any risks."
"How horribly self-centred you are! You will talk as if you were in some special sort of quarantine. I keep on telling you it's the same for all of us."
"I suppose when I'm with him I shall have to be sterilized?"
"I don't think it necessary myself, but Aunt Lora does, so it's always done. It humours her, and it really isn't any trouble. Besides, it may be necessary after all. One never knows, and it's best to be on the safe side."
Kirk laid down his cigar firmly, the cold cigar which stress of emotion had made him forget to keep alight.
"Ruth, old girl," he said earnestly, "this is pure lunacy."
Ruth's fingers wandered idly through his hair. She did not speak for some moments.
"You will be good about it, won't you, Kirk dear?" she said at last.
It is curious what a large part hair and its treatment may play in the undoing of strong men. The case of Samson may be recalled in this connection. Kirk, with Ruth ruffling the wiry growth that hid his scalp, was incapable of serious opposition. He tried to be morose and resolute, but failed miserably.
"Oh, very well," he grunted.
"That's a good boy. And you promise you won't go hugging Bill again?"
"There's an angel for you. Now I'll fix you a cocktail as a reward."
"Well, mind you sterilize it carefully."
Ruth laughed. Having gained her point she could afford to. She made the cocktail and brought it to him.
"And now I'll be off and dress, and then you can take me out to lunch somewhere."
"Aren't you dressed?"
"My goodness, no. Not for going to restaurants. You forget that I'm one of the idle rich now. I spend my whole day putting on different kinds of clothes. I've a position to keep up now, Mr. Winfield."
Kirk lit a fresh cigar and sat thinking. The old feeling of desolation which had attacked him as he came up the bay had returned. He felt like a stranger in a strange world. Life was not the same. Ruth was not the same. Nothing was the same.
The more he contemplated the new regulations affecting Bill the chillier and more unfriendly did they seem to him. He could not bring himself to realize Ruth as one of the great army of cranks preaching and carrying out the gospel of Lora Delane Porter. It seemed so at variance with her character as he had known it. He could not seriously bring himself to believe that she genuinely approved of these absurd restrictions. Yet, apparently she did.
He looked into the future. It had a grey and bleak aspect. He seemed to himself like a man gazing down an unknown path full of unknown perils.