The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter III. The Misadventure of Steve
Kirk was not the only person whom the sudden change in the financial position of the Winfield family had hit hard. The blighting effects of sudden wealth had touched Steve while Kirk was still in Colombia.
In a sense, it had wrecked Steve's world. Nobody had told him to stop or even diminish the number of his visits, but the fact remained that, by the time Kirk returned to New York, he had practically ceased to go to the house on Fifth Avenue.
For all his roughness, Steve possessed a delicacy which sometimes almost amounted to diffidence; and he did not need to be told that there was a substantial difference, as far as he was concerned, between the new headquarters of the family and the old. At the studio he had been accustomed to walk in when it pleased him, sure of a welcome; but he had an idea that he did not fit as neatly into the atmosphere of Fifth Avenue as he had done into that of Sixty-First Street; and nobody disabused him of it.
It was perhaps the presence of Mrs. Porter that really made the difference. In spite of the compliments she had sometimes paid to his common sense, Mrs. Porter did not put Steve at his ease. He was almost afraid of her. Consequently, when he came to Fifth Avenue, he remained below stairs, talking pugilism with Keggs.
It was from Keggs that he first learned of the changes that had taken place in the surroundings of William Bannister.
"I've 'ad the privilege of serving in some of the best houses in England," said the butler one evening, as they sat smoking in the pantry, "and I've never seen such goings on. I don't hold with the pampering of children."
"What do you mean, pampering?" asked Steve.
"Well, Lord love a duck!" replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type. "If you don't call it pampering, what do you call pampering? He ain't allowed to touch nothing that ain't been--it's slipped my memory what they call it, but it's got something to do with microbes. They sprinkle stuff on his toys and on his clothes and on his nurse; what's more, and on any one who comes to see him. And his nursery ain't what I call a nursery at all. It's nothing more or less than a private 'ospital, with its white tiles and its antiseptics and what not, and the temperature just so and no lower nor higher. I don't call it 'aving a proper faith in Providence, pampering and fussing over a child to that extent."
"You're stringing me!"
"Not a bit of it, Mr. Dingle. I've seen the nursery with my own eyes, and I 'ave my information direct from the young person who looks after the child."
"But, say, in the old days that kid was about the dandiest little sport that ever came down the pike. You seen him that day I brought him round to say hello to the old man. He didn't have no nursery at all then, let alone one with white tiles. I've seen him come up off the studio floor looking like a coon with the dust. And Miss Ruth tickled to see him like that, too. For the love of Mike, what's come to her?"
"It's all along of this Porter," said Keggs morosely. "She's done it all. And if," he went on with sudden heat, "she don't break her 'abit of addressing me in a tone what the 'umblest dorg would resent, I'm liable to forget my place and give her a piece of my mind. Coming round and interfering!"
"Got your goat, has she?" commented Steve, interested. "She's what you'd call a tough proposition, that dame. I used to have my eye on her all the time in the old days, waiting for her to start something. But say, I'd like to see this nursery you've been talking about. Take me up and let me lamp it."
Keggs shook his head.
"I daren't, Mr. Dingle. It 'ud be as much as my place is worth."
"But, darn it! I'm the kid's godfather."
"That wouldn't make no difference to that Porter. She'd pick on me just the same. But, if you care to risk it, Mr. Dingle, I'll show you where it is. You'll find the young person up there. She'll tell you more about the child's 'abits and daily life than I can."
"Good enough," said Steve.
He had not seen Mamie for some time, and absence had made the heart grow fonder. It embittered him that his meetings with her were all too rare nowadays. She seemed to have abandoned the practice of walking altogether, for, whenever he saw her now she was driving in the automobile with Bill. Keggs' information about the new system threw some light upon this and made him all the more anxious to meet her now.
It was a curious delusion of Steve's that he was always going to pluck up courage and propose to Mamie the very next time he saw her. This had gone on now for over two years, but he still clung to it. Repeated failures to reveal his burning emotions never caused him to lose the conviction that he would do it for certain next time.
It was in his customary braced-up, do-or-die frame of mind that he entered the nursery now.
His visit to Keggs had been rather a late one and had lasted some time before the subject of the White Hope had been broached, with the result that, when Steve arrived among the white tiles and antiseptics, he found his godson in bed and asleep. In a chair by the cot Mamie sat sewing.
Her eyes widened with surprise when she saw who the visitor was, and she put a finger to her lip and pointed to the sleeper. And, as we have to record another of the long list of Steve's failures to propose we may say here, in excuse, that this reception took a great deal of the edge off the dashing resolution which had been his up to that moment. It made him feel self-conscious from the start.
"Whatever brings you up here, Steve?" whispered Mamie.
It was not a very tactful remark, perhaps, considering that Steve was the child's godfather, and, as such, might reasonably expect to be allowed a free pass to his nursery; but Mamie, like Keggs, had fallen so under the domination of Lora Delane Porter that she had grown to consider it almost a natural law that no one came to see Bill unless approved of and personally conducted by her.
Steve did not answer. He was gaping at the fittings of the place in which he found himself. It was precisely as Keggs had described it, white tiles and all.
He was roused from his reflections by the approach of Mamie, or, rather, not so much by her approach as by the fact that at this moment she suddenly squirted something at him. It was cold and wet and hit him in the face before, as he put it to Keggs later, he could get his guard up.
"For the love of----"
"Sh!" said Mamie warningly.
"What's the idea? What are you handing me?"
"I've got to. It's to sterilize you. I do it to every one."
"Gee! You've got a swell job! Well, go to it, then. Shoot! I'm ready."
"It's boric acid," explained Mamie.
"I shouldn't wonder. Is this all part of the Porter circus?"
"Where is she?" inquired Steve in sudden alarm. "Is she likely to butt in?"
"No. She's out."
"Good," said Steve, and sat down, relieved, to resume his inspection of the room.
When he had finished he drew a deep breath.
"Well!" he said softly. "Say, Mamie, what do you think about it?"
"I'm not paid to think about it, Steve."
"That means you agree with me that it's the punkest state of things you ever struck. Well, you're quite right. It is. It's a shame to think of that innocent kid having this sort of deal handed to him. Why, just think of him at the studio!"
But Mamie, whatever her private views, was loyal to her employers. She refused to be drawn into a discussion on the subject.
"Have you been downstairs with Mr. Keggs, Steve?"
"Yes. It was him that told me about all this. Say, Mame, we ain't seen much of each other lately."
Having got as far as this, Steve should, of course, have gone resolutely ahead. After all, it is not a very long step from telling a girl in a hushed whisper with a shake in it that you have not seen much of her lately to hinting that you would like to see a great deal more of her in the future.
Steve was on the right lines, and he knew it; but that fatal lack of nerve which had wrecked him on all the other occasions when he had got as far as this undid him now. He relapsed into silence, and Mamie went on sewing.
In a way, if you shut your eyes to the white tiles and the thermometer and the brass knobs and the shower-bath, it was a peaceful scene; and Steve, as he sat there and watched Mamie sew, was stirred by it. Remove the white tiles, the thermometer the brass knobs, and the shower-bath, and this was precisely the sort of scene his imagination conjured up when the business of life slackened sufficiently to allow him to dream dreams.
There he was, sitting in one chair; there was Mamie, sitting in another; and there in the corner was the little white cot--well, perhaps that was being a shade too prophetic; on the other hand, it always came into these dreams of his. There, in short, was everything arranged just as he pictured it; and all that was needed to make the picture real was for him to propose and Mamie to accept him.
It was the disturbing thought that the second condition did not necessarily follow on to the first that had kept Steve from taking the plunge for the last two years. Unlike the hero of the poem, he feared his fate too much to put it to the touch, to win or lose it all.
Presently the silence began to oppress Steve. Mamie had her needlework, and that apparently served her in lieu of conversation; but Steve had nothing to occupy him, and he began to grow restless. He always despised himself thoroughly for his feebleness on these occasions; and he despised himself now. He determined to make a big effort.
"Mamie!" he said.
As he was nervous and had been silent so long that his vocal cords had gone off duty under the impression that their day's work was over, the word came out of him like a husky gunshot. Mamie started, and the White Hope, who had been sleeping peacefully, stirred and muttered.
"S-sh!" hissed Mamie.
Steve collapsed with the feeling that it was not his lucky night, while Mamie bent anxiously over the cot. The sleeper, however, did not wake. He gurgled, gave a sigh, then resumed his interrupted repose. Mamie returned to her seat.
"Yes?" she said, as if nothing had occurred, and as if there had been no interval between Steve's remark and her reply.
Steve could not equal her calmness. He had been strung up when he spoke, and the interruption had undone him. He reflected ruefully that he might have said something to the point if he had been allowed to go straight on; now he had forgotten what he had meant to say.
"Oh, nothing," he replied.
Silence fell once more on the nursery.
Steve was bracing himself up for another attack when suddenly there came a sound of voices from the stairs. One voice was a mere murmur, but the other was sharp and unmistakable, the incisive note of Lora Delane Porter. It brought Steve and Mamie to their feet simultaneously.
"What's it matter?" said Steve stoutly, answering the panic in Mamie's eyes. "It's not her house, and I got a perfect right to be here."
"You don't know her. I shall get into trouble."
Mamie was pale with apprehension. She knew her Lora Delane Porter, and she knew what would happen if Steve were to be discovered there. It was, as Keggs put it, as much as her place was worth.
For a brief instant Mamie faced a future in which she was driven from Bill's presence into outer darkness, dismissed, and told never to return. That was what would happen. Sitting and talking with Steve in the sacred nursery at this time of night was a crime, and she had known it all the time. But she had been glad to see Steve again after all this while--if Steve had known how glad, he would certainly have found courage and said what he had so often failed to say--and, knowing that Mrs. Porter was out, she had thought the risk of his presence worth taking. Now, with discovery imminent, panic came upon her.
The voices were quite close now. There was no doubt of the destination of the speakers. They were heading slowly but directly for the nursery.
Steve, not being fully abreast of the new rules and regulations of the sacred apartment, could not read Mamie's mind completely. He did not know that, under Mrs. Porter's code, the admission of a visitor during the hours of sleep was a felony in the first degree, punishable by instant dismissal. But Mamie's face and her brief reference to trouble were enough to tell him that the position was critical, and with the instinct of the trapped he looked round him for cover.
But the White Hope's nursery was not constructed with a view to providing cover for bulky gentlemen who should not have been there. It was as bare as a billiard-table as far as practicable hiding-places were concerned.
And then his eye caught the water-proof sheet of the shower-bath. Behind that there was just room for concealment.
With a brief nod of encouragement to Mamie, he leaped at it. The door opened as he disappeared.
Mrs. Porter's rules concerning visitors, though stringent as regarded Mamie, were capable of being relaxed when she herself was the person to relax them. She had a visitor with her now--a long, severe-looking lady with a sharp nose surmounted by spectacles, who, taking in the white tiles, the thermometer, the cot, and the brass knobs in a single comprehensive glance, observed: "Admirable!"
Mrs, Porter was obviously pleased with this approval. Her companion was a woman doctor of great repute among the advanced apostles of hygiene; and praise from her was praise indeed. She advanced into the room with an air of suppressed pride.
"These tiles are thoroughly cleaned twice each day with an antiseptic solution."
"Just so," said the spectacled lady.
"You notice the thermometer."
"Those knobs you see on the wall have various uses."
They examined the knobs with an air of profound seriousness, Mrs. Porter erect and complacent, the other leaning forward and peering through her spectacles. Mamie took advantage of their backs and turned to cast a hurried glance at the water-proof curtain. It was certainly an admirable screen; no sign of Steve was visible; but nevertheless she did not cease to quake.
"This," said Mrs. Porter, "controls the heat. This, this, and this are for the ventilation."
"Just so, just so, just so," said the doctor. "And this, of course, is for the shower-bath? I understand!"
And, extending a firm finger, she gave the knob a forceful push.
Mrs. Porter nodded.
"That is the cold shower," she said. "This is the hot. It is a very ingenious arrangement, one of Malcolmson's patents. There is a regulator at the side of the bath which enables the nurse to get just the correct temperature. I will turn on both, and then----"
It was as Mrs. Porter's hand was extended toward the knob that the paralysis which terror had put upon Mamie relaxed its grip. She had stood by without a movement while the cold water splashed down upon the hidden Steve. Her heart had ached for him, but she had not stirred. But now, with the prospect of allowing him to be boiled alive before her, she acted.
It is generally only on the stage that a little child comes to the rescue of adults at critical moments; but William Bannister was accorded the opportunity of doing so off it. It happened that at the moment of Mrs. Porter's entry Mamie had been standing near his cot, and she had not moved since. The consequence was that she was within easy reach of him; and, despair giving her what in the circumstances amounted to a flash of inspiration, she leaned quickly forward, even as Mrs. Porter's finger touched the knob, and gave the round head on the pillow a rapid push.
William Bannister sat up with a grunt, rubbed his eyes, and, seeing strangers, began to cry.
It was so obvious to Mrs. Porter and her companion, both from the evidence of their guilty consciences and the look of respectful reproach on Mamie's face, that the sound of their voices had disturbed the child, that they were routed from the start.
"Oh, dear me! He is awake," said the lady doctor.
"I am afraid we did not lower our voices," added Mrs. Porter. "And yet William is usually such a sound sleeper. Perhaps we had better----"
"Just so," said the doctor.
"----go downstairs while the nurse gets him off to sleep again."
The door closed behind them.
* * * * *
"Oh, Steve!" said Mamie.
The White Hope had gone to sleep again with the amazing speed of childhood, and Mamie was looking pityingly at the bedraggled object which had emerged cautiously from behind the waterproof.
"I got mine," muttered Steve ruefully. "You ain't got a towel anywhere, have you, Mame?"
Mamie produced a towel and watched him apologetically as he attempted to dry himself.
"I'm so sorry, Steve."
"Cut it out. It was my fault. I oughtn't to have been there. Say, it was a bit of luck the kid waking just then."
"Yes," said Mamie.
Observe the tricks that conscience plays us. If Mamie had told Steve what had caused William to wake he would certainly have been so charmed by her presence of mind, exerted on his behalf to save him from the warm fate which Mrs. Porter's unconscious hand had been about to bring down upon him, that he would have forgotten his diffidence then and there and, as the poet has it, have eased his bosom of much perilous stuff.
But conscience would not allow Mamie to reveal the secret. Already she was suffering the pangs of remorse for having, in however good a cause, broken her idol's rest with a push that might have given the poor lamb a headache. She could not confess the crime even to Steve.
And if Steve had had the pluck to tell Mamie that he loved her, as he stood before her dripping with the water which he had suffered in silence rather than betray her, she would have fallen into his arms. For Steve at that moment had all the glamour for her of the self-sacrificing hero of a moving-picture film. He had not actually risked death for her, perhaps, but he had taken a sudden cold shower-bath without a murmur--all for her.
Mamie was thrilled. She looked at him with the gleaming eyes of devotion.
But Steve, just because he knew that he was wet and fancied that he must look ridiculous, held his peace.
And presently, his secret still locked in his bosom, and his collar sticking limply to his neck, he crept downstairs, avoiding the society of his fellow man, and slunk out into the night where, if there was no Mamie, there were, at any rate, dry clothes.