The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IV. The Widening Gap
The new life hit Kirk as a wave hits a bather; and, like a wave, swept him off his feet, choked him, and generally filled him with a feeling of discomfort.
He should have been prepared for it, but he was not. He should have divined from the first that the money was bound to produce changes other than a mere shifting of headquarters from Sixty-First Street to Fifth Avenue. But he had deluded himself at first with the idea that Ruth was different from other women, that she was superior to the artificial pleasures of the Society which is distinguished by the big S.
In a moment of weakness, induced by hair-ruffling, he had given in on the point of the hygienic upbringing of William Bannister; but there, he had imagined, his troubles were to cease. He had supposed that he was about to resume the old hermit's-cell life of the studio and live in a world which contained only Ruth, Bill, and himself.
He was quickly undeceived. Within two days he was made aware of the fact that Ruth was in the very centre of the social whirlpool and that she took it for granted that he would join her there. There was nothing of the hermit about Ruth now. She was amazingly undomestic.
Her old distaste for the fashionable life of New York seemed to have vanished absolutely. As far as Kirk could see, she was always entertaining or being entertained. He was pitched head-long into a world where people talked incessantly of things which bored him and did things which seemed to him simply mad. And Ruth, whom he had thought he understood, revelled in it all.
At first he tried to get at her point of view, to discover what she found to enjoy in this lunatic existence of aimlessness and futility. One night, as they were driving home from a dinner which had bored him unspeakably, he asked the question point-blank. It seemed to him incredible that she could take pleasure in an entertainment which had filled him with such depression.
"Ruth," he said impulsively, as the car moved off, "what do you see in this sort of thing? How can you stand these people? What have you in common with them?"
"Poor old Kirk. I know you hated it to-night. But we shan't be dining with the Baileys every night."
Bailey Bannister had been their host on that occasion, and the dinner had been elaborate and gorgeous. Mrs. Bailey was now one of the leaders of the younger set. Bailey, looking much more than a year older than when Kirk had seen him last, had presided at the head of the table with great dignity, and the meeting with him had not contributed to the pleasure of Kirk's evening.
"Were you awfully bored? You seemed to be getting along quite well with Sybil."
"I like her. She's good fun."
"She's certainly having good fun. I'd give anything to know what Bailey really thinks of it. She is the most shockingly extravagant little creature in New York. You know the Wilburs were quite poor, and poor Sybil was kept very short. I think that marrying Bailey and having all this money to play with has turned her head."
It struck Kirk that the criticism applied equally well to the critic.
"She does the most absurd things. She gave a freak dinner when you were away that cost I don't know how much. She is always doing something. Well, I suppose Bailey knows what he is about; but at her present pace she must be keeping him busy making money to pay for all her fads. You ought to paint a picture of Bailey, Kirk, as the typical patient American husband. You couldn't get a better model."
"Suggest it to him, and let me hide somewhere where I can hear what he says. Bailey has his own opinion of my pictures."
Ruth laughed a little nervously. She had always wondered exactly what had taken place that day in the studio, and the subject was one which she was shy of exhuming. She turned the conversation.
"What did you ask me just now? Something about----"
"I asked you what you had in common with these people."
"Oh, well, it's rather difficult to say if you put it like that. They're just people, you know. They are amusing sometimes. I used to know most of them. I suppose that is the chief thing which brings us together. They happen to be there, and if you're travelling on a road you naturally talk to your fellow travellers. But why? Don't you like them? Which of them didn't you like?"
It was Kirk's turn to reflect.
"Well, that's hard to answer, too. I don't think I actively liked or disliked any of them. They seemed to me just not worth while. My point is, rather, why are we wasting a perfectly good evening mixing with them? What's the use? That's my case in a nut-shell."
"If you put it like that, what's the use of anything? One must do something. We can't be hermits."
A curious feeling of being infinitely far from Ruth came over Kirk. She dismissed his dream as a whimsical impossibility not worthy of serious consideration. Why could they not be hermits? They had been hermits before, and it had been the happiest period of both their lives. Why, just because an old man had died and left them money, must they rule out the best thing in life as impossible and plunge into a nightmare which was not life at all?
He had tried to deceive himself, but he could do so no longer. Ruth had changed. The curse with which his sensitive imagination had invested John Bannister's legacy was, after all no imaginary curse. Like a golden wedge, it had forced Ruth and himself apart.
Everything had changed. He was no longer the centre of Ruth's life. He was just an encumbrance, a nuisance who could not be got rid of and must remain a permanent handicap, always in the way.
So thought Kirk morbidly as the automobile passed through the silent streets. It must be remembered that he had been extremely bored for a solid three hours, and was predisposed, consequently, to gloomy thoughts.
Whatever his faults, Kirk rarely whined. He had never felt so miserable in his life, but he tried to infuse a tone of lightness into the conversation. After all, if Ruth's intuition fell short of enabling her to understand his feelings, nothing was to be gained by parading them.
"I guess it's my fault," he said, "that I haven't got abreast of the society game as yet. You had better give me a few pointers. My trouble is that, being new to them, I can't tell whether these people are types or exceptions. Take Clarence Grayling, for instance. Are there any more at home like Clarence?"
"My dear child, all Bailey's special friends are like Clarence, exactly like. I remember telling him so once."
"Who was the specimen with the little black moustache who thought America crude and said that the only place to live in was southern Italy? Is he an isolated case or an epidemic?"
"He is scarcer than Clarence, but he's quite a well-marked type. He is the millionaire's son who has done Europe and doesn't mean you to forget it."
"There was a chesty person with a wave of hair coming down over his forehead. A sickeningly handsome fellow who looked like a poet. I think they called him Basil. Does he run around in flocks, or is he unique?"
Ruth did not reply for a moment. Basil Milbank was a part of the past which, in the year during which Kirk had been away, had come rather startlingly to life.
There had been a time when Basil had been very near and important to her. Indeed, but for the intervention of Mrs. Porter, described in an earlier passage, she would certainly have married Basil. Then Kirk had crossed her path and had monopolized her. During the studio period the recollection of Basil had grown faint. After that, just at the moment when Kirk was not there to lend her strength, he had come back into her life. For nearly a year she had seen him daily; and gradually--at first almost with fear--she had realized that the old fascination was by no means such a thing of the past as she had supposed.
She had hoped for Kirk's return as a general, sorely pressed, hopes for reinforcements. With Kirk at her side she felt Basil would slip back into his proper place in the scheme of things. And, behold! Kirk had returned and still the tension remained unrelaxed.
For Kirk had changed. After the first day she could not conceal it from herself. That it was she who had changed did not present itself to her as a possible explanation of the fact that she now felt out of touch with her husband. All she knew was that they had been linked together by bonds of sympathy, and were so no longer.
She found Kirk dull. She hated to admit it, but the truth forced itself upon her. He had begun to bore her.
She collected her thoughts and answered his question.
"Basil Milbank? Oh, I should call him unique."
She felt a wild impulse to warn him, to explain the real significance of this man whom he classed contemptuously with Clarence Grayling and that absurd little Dana Ferris as somebody of no account. She wanted to cry out to him that she was in danger and that only he could help her. But she could not speak, and Kirk went on in the same tone of half-tolerant contempt:
"Who is he?"
She controlled herself with an effort, and answered indifferently.
"Oh, Basil? Well, you might say he's everything. He plays polo, leads cotillions, yachts, shoots, plays the piano wonderfully--everything. People usually like him very much." She paused. "Women especially."
She had tried to put something into her tone which might serve to awaken him, something which might prepare the way for what she wanted to say--and what, if she did not say it now--when the mood was on her, she could never say. But Kirk was deaf.
"He looks that sort of man," he said.
And, as he said it, the accumulated boredom of the past three hours found vent in a vast yawn.
Ruth set her teeth. She felt as if she had received a blow.
When he spoke again it was on the subject of street-paving defects in New York City.
* * * * *
It was true, as Ruth had said, that they did not dine with the Baileys every night, but that seemed to Kirk, as the days went on, the one and only bright spot in the new state of affairs. He could not bring himself to treat life with a philosophical resignation. His was not open revolt. He was outwardly docile, but inwardly he rebelled furiously.
Perhaps the unnaturally secluded life which he had led since his marriage had unfitted him for mixing in society even more than nature had done. He had grown out of the habit of mixing. Crowds irritated him. He hated doing the same thing at the same time as a hundred other people.
Like most Bohemians, he was at his best in a small circle. He liked his friends as single spies, not in battalions. He was a man who should have had a few intimates and no acquaintances; and his present life was bounded north, south, east, and west by acquaintances. Most of the men to whom he spoke he did not even know by name.
He would seek information from Ruth as they drove home.
"Who was the pop-eyed second-story man with the bald head and the convex waistcoat who glued himself to me to-night?"
"If you mean the fine old gentleman with the slightly prominent eyes and rather thin hair, that was Brock Mason, the vice-president of consolidated groceries. You mustn't even think disrespectfully of a man as rich as that."
"He isn't what you would call a sparkling talker."
"He doesn't have to be. His time is worth a hundred dollars a minute, or a second--I forget which."
"Put me down for a nickel's worth next time."
And then they began to laugh over Ruth's suggestion that they should save up and hire Mr. Mason for an afternoon and make him keep quiet all the time; for Ruth was generally ready to join him in ridiculing their new acquaintances. She had none of that reverence for the great and the near-great which, running to seed, becomes snobbery.
It was this trait in her which kept alive, long after it might have died, the hope that her present state of mind was only a phase, and that, when she had tired of the new game, she would become the old Ruth of the studio. But, when he was honest with himself, he was forced to admit that she showed no signs of ever tiring of it.
They had drifted apart. They were out of touch with each other. It was not an uncommon state of things in the circle in which Kirk now found himself. Indeed, it seemed to him that the semi-detached couple was the rule rather than the exception.
But there was small consolation in this reflection. He was not at all interested in the domestic troubles of the people he mixed with. His own hit him very hard.
Ruth had criticized little Mrs. Bailey, but there was no doubt that she herself had had her head turned quite as completely by the new life.
The first time that Kirk realized this was when he came upon an article in a Sunday paper, printed around a blurred caricature which professed to be a photograph of Mrs. Kirk Winfield, in which she was alluded to with reverence and gusto as one of society's leading hostesses. In the course of the article reference was made to no fewer than three freak dinners of varying ingenuity which she had provided for her delighted friends.
It was this that staggered Kirk. That Mrs. Bailey should indulge in this particular form of insanity was intelligible. But that Ruth should have descended to it was another thing altogether.
He did not refer to the article when he met Ruth, but he was more than ever conscious of the gap between them--the gap which was widening every day.
The experiences he had undergone during the year of his wandering had strengthened Kirk considerably, but nature is not easily expelled; and the constitutional weakness of character which had hampered him through life prevented him from making any open protests or appeal. Moreover, he could understand now her point of view, and that disarmed him.
He saw how this state of things had come about. In a sense, it was the natural state of things. Ruth had been brought up in certain surroundings. Her love for him, new and overwhelming, had enabled her to free herself temporarily from these surroundings and to become reconciled to a life for which, he told himself, she had never been intended. Fate had thrown her back into her natural sphere. And now she revelled in the old environment as an exile revels in the life of the homeland from which he has been so long absent.
That was the crux of the tragedy. Ruth was at home. He was not. Ruth was among her own people. He was a stranger among strangers, a prisoner in a land where men spoke with an alien tongue.
There was nothing to be done. The gods had played one of their practical jokes, and he must join in the laugh against himself and try to pretend that he was not hurt.