The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VI. The Outcasts
Three months of his new life had gone by before Kirk awoke from the stupor which had gripped him as the result of the general upheaval of his world. Ever since his return from Colombia he had honestly been intending to resume his painting, and, attacking it this time in a business-like way, to try to mould himself into the semblance of an efficient artist.
His mind had been full of fine resolutions. He would engage a good teacher, some competent artist whom fortune had not treated well and who would be glad of the job--Washington Square and its neighbourhood were full of them--and settle down grimly, working regular hours, to recover lost ground.
But the rush of life, as lived on the upper avenue, had swept him away. He had been carried along on the rapids of dinners, parties, dances, theatres, luncheons, and the rest, and his great resolve had gone bobbing away from him on the current.
He had recovered it now and climbed painfully ashore, feeling bruised and exhausted, but determined.
* * * * *
Among the motley crowd which had made the studio a home in the days of Kirk's bachelorhood had been an artist--one might almost say an ex-artist--named Robert Dwight Penway. An over-fondness for rye whisky at the Brevoort cafe had handicapped Robert as an active force in the world of New York art. As a practical worker he was not greatly esteemed--least of all by the editors of magazines, who had paid advance cheques to him for work which, when delivered at all, was delivered too late for publication. These, once bitten, were now twice shy of Mr. Penway. They did not deny his great talents, which were, indeed, indisputable; but they were fixed in their determination not to make use of them.
Fate could have provided no more suitable ally for Kirk. It was universally admitted around Washington Square and--grudgingly--down-town that in the matter of theory Mr. Penway excelled. He could teach to perfection what he was too erratic to practise.
Robert Dwight Penway, run to earth one sultry evening in the Brevoort, welcomed Kirk as a brother, as a rich brother. Even when his first impression, that he was to have the run of the house on Fifth Avenue and mix freely with touchable multi-millionaires, had been corrected, his altitude was still brotherly. He parted from Kirk with many solemn promises to present himself at the studio daily and teach him enough art to put him clear at the top of the profession. "Way above all these other dubs," asserted Mr. Penway.
Robert Dwight Penway's attitude toward his contemporaries in art bore a striking resemblance to Steve's estimate of his successors in the middle-weight department of the American prize-ring.
Surprisingly to those who knew him, Mr. Penway was as good as his word. Certainly Kirk's terms had been extremely generous; but he had thrown away many a contract of equal value in his palmy days. Possibly his activity was due to his liking for Kirk; or it may have been that the prospect of sitting by with a cigar while somebody else worked, with nothing to do all day except offer criticism, and advice, appealed to him.
At any rate, he appeared at the studio on the following afternoon, completely sober and excessively critical. He examined the canvases which Kirk had hauled from shelves and corners for his inspection. One after another he gazed upon them in an increasingly significant silence. When the last one was laid aside he delivered judgment.
"Golly!" he said.
Kirk flushed. It was not that he was not in complete agreement with the verdict. Looking at these paintings, some of which he had in the old days thought extremely good, he was forced to admit that "Golly" was the only possible criticism.
He had not seen them for a long time, and absence had enabled him to correct first impressions. Moreover, something had happened to him, causing him to detect flaws where he had seen only merits. Life had sharpened his powers of judgment. He was a grown man looking at the follies of his youth.
"Burn them!" said Mr. Penway, lighting a cigar with the air of one restoring his tissues after a strenuous ordeal. "Burn the lot. They're awful. Darned amateur nightmares. They offend the eye. Cast them into a burning fiery furnace."
Kirk nodded. The criticism was just. It erred, if at all, on the side of mildness. Certainly something had happened to him since he perpetrated those daubs. He had developed. He saw things with new eyes.
"I guess I had better start right in again at the beginning," he sad.
"Earlier than that," amended Mr. Penway.
* * * * *
So Kirk settled down to a routine of hard work; and, so doing, drove another blow at the wedge which was separating his life from Ruth's. There were days now when they did not meet at all, and others when they saw each other for a few short moments in which neither seemed to have much to say.
Ruth had made a perfunctory protest against the new departure.
"Really," she said, "it does seem absurd for you to spend all your time down at that old studio. It isn't as if you had to. But, of course, if you want to----"
And she had gone on to speak of other subjects. It was plain to Kirk that his absence scarcely affected her. She was still in the rapids, and every day carried her farther away from him.
It did not hurt him now. A sort of apathy seemed to have fallen on him. The old days became more and more remote. Sometimes he doubted whether anything remained of her former love for him, and sometimes he wondered if he still loved her. She was so different that it was almost as if she were a stranger. Once they had had everything in common. Now it seemed to him that they had nothing--not even Bill.
He did not brood upon it. He gave himself no time for that. He worked doggedly on under the blasphemous but efficient guidance of Mr. Penway. He was becoming a man with a fixed idea--the idea of making good.
He began to make headway. His beginnings were small, but practical. He no longer sat down when the spirit moved him to dash off vague masterpieces which might turn into something quite unexpected on the road to completion; he snatched at anything definite that presented itself.
Sometimes it was a couple of illustrations to a short story in one of the minor magazines, sometimes a picture to go with an eulogy of a patent medicine. Whatever it was, he seized upon it and put into it all the talent he possessed. And thanks to the indefatigable coaching of Robert Dwight Penway, a certain merit was beginning to creep into his work. His drawing was growing firmer. He no longer shirked difficulties.
Mr. Penway was good enough to approve of his progress. Being free from any morbid distaste for himself, he attributed that progress to its proper source. As he said once in a moment of expansive candour, he could, given a free hand and something to drink and smoke while doing it, make an artist out of two sticks and a lump of coal.
"Why, I've made you turn out things that are like something on earth, my boy," he said proudly. "And that," he added, as he reached out for the bottle of Bourbon which Kirk had provided for him, "is going some."
Kirk was far too grateful to resent the slightly unflattering note a more spirited man might have detected in the remark.
* * * * *
Only once during those days did Kirk allow himself to weaken and admit to himself how wretched he was. He was drawing a picture of Steve at the time, and Steve had the sympathy which encourages weakness in others.
It was a significant sign of his changed attitude towards his profession that he was not drawing Steve as a figure in an allegorical picture or as "Apollo" or "The Toiler," but simply as a well-developed young man who had had the good sense to support his nether garments with Middleton's Undeniable Suspenders. The picture, when completed, would show Steve smirking down at the region of his waist-line and announcing with pride and satisfaction: "They're Middleton's!" Kirk was putting all he knew into the work, and his face, as he drew, was dark and gloomy.
Steve noted this with concern. He had perceived for some time that Kirk had changed. He had lost all his old boyish enjoyment of their sparring-bouts, and he threw the medicine-ball with an absent gloom almost equal to Bailey's.
It had not occurred to Steve to question Kirk about this. If Kirk had anything on his mind which he wished to impart he would say it. Meanwhile, the friendly thing for him to do was to be quiet and pretend to notice nothing.
It seemed to Steve that nothing was going right these days. Here was he, chafing at his inability to open his heart to Mamie. Here was Kirk, obviously in trouble. And--a smaller thing, but of interest, as showing how universal the present depression was--there was Bailey Bannister, equally obviously much worried over something or other.
For Bailey had reinstated Steve in the place he had occupied before old John Bannister had dismissed him, and for some time past Steve had marked him down as a man with a secret trouble. He had never been of a riotously cheerful disposition, but it had been possible once to draw him into conversation at the close of the morning's exercises. Now he hardly spoke. And often, when Steve arrived in the morning, he was informed that Mr. Bannister had started for Wall Street early on important business.
These things troubled Steve. His simple soul abhorred a mystery.
But it was the case of Kirk that worried him most, for he half guessed that the latter's gloom had to do with Ruth; and he worshipped Ruth.
Kirk laid down his sketch and got up.
"I guess that'll do for the moment, Steve," he said.
Steve relaxed the attitude of proud satisfaction which he had assumed in order to do justice to the Undeniable Suspenders. He stretched himself and sat down.
"You certainly are working to beat the band just now, squire," he remarked.
"It's a pretty good thing, work, Steve," said Kirk. "If it does nothing else, it keeps you from thinking."
He knew it was feeble of him, but he was powerfully impelled to relieve himself by confiding his wretchedness to Steve. He need not say much, he told himself plausibly--only just enough to lighten the burden a little.
He would not be disloyal to Ruth--he had not sunk to that--but, after all Steve was Steve. It was not like blurting out his troubles to a stranger. It would harm nobody, and do him a great deal of good, if he talked to Steve.
He relit his pipe, which had gone out during a tense spell of work on the suspenders.
"Well, Steve," he said, "what do you think of life? How is this best of all possible worlds treating you?"
Steve deposed that life was pretty punk.
"You're a great describer, Steve. You've hit it first time. Punk is the word. It's funny, if you look at it properly. Take my own case. The superficial observer, who is apt to be a bonehead, would say that I ought to be singing psalms of joy. I am married to the woman I wanted to marry. I have a son who, not to be fulsome, is a perfectly good sort of son. I have no financial troubles. I eat well. I have ceased to tremble when I see a job of work. In fact, I have advanced in my art to such an extent that shrewd business men like Middleton put the pictorial side of their Undeniable Suspenders in my hands and go off to play golf with their minds easy, having perfect confidence in my skill and judgment. If I can't be merry and bright, who can? Do you find me merry and bright, Steve?"
"I've seen you in better shape," said Steve cautiously.
"I've felt in better shape."
Steve coughed. The conversation was about to become delicate.
"What's eating you, colonel?" he asked presently.
Kirk frowned in silence at the Undeniable for a few moments. Then the pent-up misery of months exploded in a cascade of words. He jumped up and began to walk restlessly about the studio.
"Damn it! Steve, I ought not to say a word, I know. It's weak and cowardly and bad taste and everything else you can think of to speak of it--even to you. One's supposed to stand this sort of roasting at the stake with a grin, as if one enjoyed it. But, after all, you are different. It's not as if it was any one. You are different, aren't you?"
"Well, you know what's wrong as well as I do."
"Surest thing you know. It's hit me, too."
"Well, things ain't the same. That's about what it comes to."
Kirk stopped and looked at him. His expression was wistful. "I ought not to be talking about it."
"You go right ahead, squire," said Steve soothingly. "I know just how you feel, and I guess talking's not going to do any harm. Act as if I wasn't here. Look on it as a monologue. I don't amount to anything."
"When did you go to the house last, Steve?"
"About a couple of weeks ago, I reckon."
"See the kid?"
Steve shook his head.
"Seeing his nibs ain't my long suit these days. I may be wrong, but I got the idea there was a dead-line for me about three blocks away from the nursery. I asked Keggs was the coast clear, but he said the Porter dame was in the ring, so I kind of thought I'd better away. I don't seem to fit in with all them white tiles and thermometers."
"You used to see him every day when we were here. And you didn't seem to contaminate him, as far as any one could notice."
There was a silence.
"Do you see him often, colonel?"
"Oh, yes. I'm favoured. I pay a state visit every day. Think of that! I sit in a chair at the other end of the room while Mrs. Porter stands between to see that I don't start anything. Bill plays with his sterilized bricks. Occasionally he and I exchange a few civil words. It's as jolly and sociable as you could want. We have great times."
"Say, on the level, I wonder you stand for it."
"I've got to stand for it."
"He's your kid."
"Not exclusively. I have a partner, Steve."
Steve snorted dolefully.
"Ain't it hell the way things break loose in this world!" he sighed. "Who'd have thought two years ago----"
"Do you make it only two? I should have put it at about two thousand."
"Honest, squire, if any one had told me then that Miss Ruth had it in her to take up with all these fool stunts----"
"Well, I can't say I was prepared for it."
Steve coughed again. Kirk was in an expansive mood this afternoon, and the occasion was ideal for the putting forward of certain views which he had long wished to impart. But, on the other hand, the subject was a peculiarly delicate one. It has been well said that it is better for a third party to quarrel with a buzz-saw than to interfere between husband and wife; and Steve was constitutionally averse to anything that savoured of butting in.
Still, Kirk had turned the talk into this channel. He decided to risk it.
"If I were you," he said, "I'd get busy and start something."
"Such as what?"
Steve decided to abandon caution and speak his mind. Him, almost as much as Kirk, the existing state of things had driven to desperation. Though in a sense he was only a spectator, the fact that the altered conditions of Kirk's life involved his almost complete separation from Mamie gave him what might be called a stake in the affair. The brief and rare glimpses which he got of her nowadays made it absolutely impossible for him to conduct his wooing on a business-like basis. A diffident man cannot possibly achieve any success in odd moments. Constant propinquity is his only hope.
That fact alone, he considered, almost gave him the right to interfere. And, apart from that, his affection for Kirk and Ruth gave him a claim. Finally, he held what was practically an official position in the family councils on the strength of being William Bannister Winfield's godfather.
He loved William Bannister as a son, and it had been one of his favourite day dreams to conjure up a vision of the time when he should be permitted to undertake the child's physical training. He had toyed lovingly with the idea of imparting to this promising pupil all that he knew of the greatest game on earth. He had watched him in the old days staggering about the studio, and had pictured him grown to his full strength, his muscles trained, his brain full of the wisdom of one who, if his mother had not kicked, would have been middle-weight champion of America.
He had resigned himself to the fact that the infant's social status made it impossible that he should be the real White Hope whom he had once pictured beating all comers in the roped ring; but, after all, there was a certain mild fame to be acquired even by an amateur. And now that dream was over--unless Kirk could be goaded into strong action in time.
"Why don't you sneak the kid away somewhere?" he suggested. "Why don't you go right in at them and say: 'It's my kid, and I'm going to take him away into the country out of all this white-tile stuff and let him roll in the mud same as he used to.' Why, say, there's that shack of yours in Connecticut, just made for it. That kid would have the time of his life there."
"You think that's the solution, do you, Steve?"
"I'm dead sure it is." Steve's voice became more and more enthusiastic as the idea unfolded itself. "Why, it ain't only the kid I'm thinking of. There's Miss Ruth. Say, you don't mind me pulling this line of talk?"
"Go ahead. I began it. What about Miss Ruth?"
"Well, you know just what's the matter with her. She's let this society game run away with her. I guess she started it because she felt lonesome when you were away; and now it's got her and she can't drop it. All she wants is a jolt. It would slow her up and show her just where she was. She's asking for it. One good, snappy jolt would put the whole thing right. And this thing of jerking the kid away to Connecticut would be the right dope, believe me."
Kirk shook his head.
"It wouldn't do, Steve. It isn't that I don't want to do it; but one must play to the rules. I can't explain what I mean. I can only say it's impossible. Let's think of a parallel case. When you were in the ring, there must have been times when you had a chance of hitting your man low. Why didn't you do it? It would have jolted him, all right."
"Why, I'd have lost on a foul."
"Well, so should I lose on a foul if I started the sort of rough-house you suggest."
"I don't get you."
"Well, if you want it in plain English, Ruth would never forgive me. Is that clear enough?"
"You're dead wrong, boss," said Steve excitedly. "I know her."
"I thought I did. Well, anyway, Steve, thanks for the suggestion; but, believe me, nothing doing. And now, if you feel like it, I wish you would resume your celebrated imitation of a man exulting over the fact that he is wearing Middleton's Undeniable. There isn't much more to do, and I should like to get through with it to-day, if possible. There, hold that pose. It's exactly right. The honest man gloating over his suspenders. You ought to go on the stage, Steve."