The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter II. Ruth States Her Intentions
At about the time when Lora Delane Porter was cross-examining Kirk Winfield, Bailey Bannister left his club hurriedly.
Inside the club a sad, rabbit-faced young gentleman, who had been unburdening his soul to Bailey, was seeking further consolation in an amber drink with a cherry at the bottom of it. For this young man was one of nature's cherry-chasers. It was the only thing he did really well. His name was Grayling, his height five feet three, his socks pink, and his income enormous.
So much for Grayling. He is of absolutely no importance, either to the world or to this narrative, except in so far that the painful story he has been unfolding to Bailey Bannister has so wrought upon that exquisite as to send him galloping up Fifth Avenue at five miles an hour in search of his sister Ruth.
Let us now examine Bailey. He is a faultlessly dressed young man of about twenty-seven, who takes it as a compliment when people think him older. His mouth, at present gaping with agitation and the unwonted exercise, is, as a rule, primly closed. His eyes, peering through gold-rimmed glasses, protrude slightly, giving him something of the dumb pathos of a codfish.
His hair is pale and scanty, his nose sharp and narrow. He is a junior partner in the firm of Bannister & Son, and it is his unalterable conviction that, if his father would only give him a chance, he could show Wall Street some high finance that would astonish it.
The afternoon was warm. The sun beat down on the avenue. Bailey had not gone two blocks before it occurred to him that swifter and more comfortable progress could be made in a taxicab than on his admirably trousered legs. No more significant proof of the magnitude of his agitation could be brought forward than the fact that he had so far forgotten himself as to walk at all. He hailed a cab and gave the address of a house on the upper avenue.
He leaned back against the cushions, trying to achieve a coolness of mind and body. But the heat of the day kept him unpleasantly soluble, and dismay, that perspiration of the soul, refused to be absorbed by the pocket-handkerchief of philosophy.
Bailey Bannister was a young man who considered the minding of other people's business a duty not to be shirked. Life is a rocky road for such. His motto was "Let me do it!" He fussed about the affairs of Bannister & Son; he fussed about the welfare of his friends at the club; especially, he fussed about his only sister Ruth.
He looked on himself as a sort of guardian to Ruth. Their mother had died when they were children, and old Mr. Bannister was indifferently equipped with the paternal instinct. He was absorbed, body and soul, in the business of the firm. He lived practically a hermit life in the great house on Fifth Avenue; and, if it had not been for Bailey, so Bailey considered, Ruth would have been allowed to do just whatever she pleased. There were those who said that this was precisely what she did, despite Brother Bailey.
It is a hard world for a conscientious young man of twenty-seven.
Bailey paid the cab and went into the house. It was deliciously cool in the hall, and for a moment peace descended on him. But the distant sound of a piano in the upper regions ejected it again by reminding him of his mission. He bounded up the stairs and knocked at the door of his sister's private den.
The piano stopped as he entered, and the girl on the music-stool glanced over her shoulder.
"Well, Bailey," she said, "you look warm."
"I am warm," said Bailey in an aggrieved tone. He sat down solemnly.
"I want to speak to you, Ruth."
Ruth shut the piano and caused the music-stool to revolve till she faced him.
"Well?" she said.
Ruth Bannister was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, "a daughter of the gods, divinely tall, and most divinely fair." From her mother she had inherited the dark eyes and ivory complexion which went so well with her mass of dark hair; from her father a chin of peculiar determination and perfect teeth. Her body was strong and supple. She radiated health.
To her friends Ruth was a source of perplexity. It was difficult to understand her. In the set in which she moved girls married young; yet season followed season, and Ruth remained single, and this so obviously of her own free will that the usual explanation of such a state of things broke down as soon as it was tested.
In shoals during her first two seasons, and lately with less unanimity, men of every condition, from a prince--somewhat battered, but still a prince--to the Bannisters' English butler--a good man, but at the moment under the influence of tawny port, had laid their hearts at her feet. One and all, they had been compelled to pick them up and take them elsewhere. She was generally kind on these occasions, but always very firm. The determined chin gave no hope that she might yield to importunity. The eyes that backed up the message of the chin were pleasant, but inflexible.
Generally it was with a feeling akin to relief that the rejected, when time had begun to heal the wound, contemplated their position. There was something about this girl, they decided, which no fellow could understand: she frightened them; she made them feel that their hands were large and red and their minds weak and empty. She was waiting for something. What it was they did not know, but it was plain that they were not it, and off they went to live happily ever after with girls who ate candy and read best-sellers. And Ruth went on her way, cool and watchful and mysterious, waiting.
The room which Ruth had taken for her own gave, like all rooms when intelligently considered, a clue to the character of its owner. It was the only room in the house furnished with any taste or simplicity. The furniture was exceedingly expensive, but did not look so. The key-note of the colour-scheme was green and white. All round the walls were books. Except for a few prints, there were no pictures; and the only photograph visible stood in a silver frame on a little table.
It was the portrait of a woman of about fifty, square-jawed, tight-lipped, who stared almost threateningly out of the frame; exceedingly handsome, but, to the ordinary male, too formidable to be attractive. On this was written in a bold hand, bristling with emphatic down-strokes and wholly free from feminine flourish: "To my dear Ruth from her Aunt Lora." And below the signature, in what printers call "quotes," a line that was evidently an extract from somebody's published works: "Bear the torch and do not falter."
Bailey inspected this photograph with disfavour. It always irritated him. The information, conveyed to him by amused friends, that his Aunt Lora had once described Ruth as a jewel in a dust-bin, seemed to him to carry an offensive innuendo directed at himself and the rest of the dwellers in the Bannister home. Also, she had called him a worm. Also, again, his actual encounters with the lady, though few, had been memorably unpleasant. Furthermore, he considered that she had far too great an influence on Ruth. And, lastly, that infernal sentence about the torch, which he found perfectly meaningless, had a habit of running in his head like a catch-phrase, causing him the keenest annoyance.
He pursed his lips disapprovingly and averted his eyes.
"Don't sniff at Aunt Lora, Bailey," said Ruth. "I've had to speak to you about that before. What's the matter? What has sent you flying up here?"
"I have had a shock," said Bailey. "I have been very greatly disturbed. I have just been speaking to Clarence Grayling."
He eyed her accusingly through his gold-rimmed glasses. She remained tranquil.
"And what had Clarence to say?"
"A great many things."
"I gather he told you I had refused him."
"If it were only that!"
Ruth rapped the piano sharply.
"Bailey," she said, "wake up. Either get to the point or go or read a book or do some tatting or talk about something else. You know perfectly well that I absolutely refuse to endure your impressive manner. I believe when people ask you the time you look pained and important and make a mystery of it. What's troubling you? I should have thought Clarence would have kept quiet about insulting me. But apparently he has no sense of shame."
Bailey gaped. Bailey was shocked and alarmed.
"Insulting you! What do you mean? Clarence is a gentleman. He is incapable of insulting a woman."
"Is he? He told me I was a suitable wife for a wretched dwarf with the miserably inadequate intelligence which nature gave him reduced to practically a minus quantity by alcohol! At least, he implied it. He asked me to marry him."
"I have just left him at the club. He is very upset."
"I should imagine so." A soft smile played over Ruth's face. "I spoke to Clarence. I explained things to him. I lit up Clarence's little mind like a searchlight."
Bailey rose, tremulous with just wrath.
"You spoke to him in a way that I can only call outrageous and improper, and--er--outrageous."
He paced the room with agitated strides. Ruth watched him calmly.
"If the overflowing emotion of a giant soul in torment makes you knock over a table or smash a chair," she said, "I shall send the bill for repairs to you. You had far better sit down and talk quietly. What is worrying you, Bailey?"
"Is it nothing," demanded her brother, "that my sister should have spoken to a man as you spoke to Clarence Grayling?"
With an impassioned gesture he sent a flower-vase crashing to the floor.
"I told you so," said Ruth. "Pick up the bits, and don't let the water spoil the carpet. Use your handkerchief. I should say that that would cost you about six dollars, dear. Why will you let yourself be so temperamental? Now let me try and think what it was I said to Clarence. As far as I can remember it was the mere A B C of eugenics."
Bailey, on his knees, picking up broken glass, raised a flushed and accusing face.
"Ah! Eugenics! You admit it!"
"I think," went on Ruth placidly, "I asked him what sort of children he thought we were likely to have if we married."
"A nice girl ought not to think about such things."
"I don't think about anything else much. A woman can't do a great deal, even nowadays, but she can have a conscience and feel that she owes something to the future of the race. She can feel that it is her duty to bring fine children into the world. As Aunt Lora says, she can carry the torch and not falter."
Bailey shied like a startled horse at the hated phrase. He pointed furiously at the photograph of the great thinker.
"You're talking like that--that damned woman!"
"Bailey precious! You mustn't use such wicked, wicked words."
Bailey rose, pink and wrathful.
"If you're going to break another vase," said Ruth, "you will really have to go."
"Ever since that--that----" cried Bailey. "Ever since Aunt Lora----"
Ruth smiled indulgently.
"That's more like my little man," she said. "He knows as well as I do how wrong it is to swear."
"Be quiet! Ever since Aunt Lora got hold of you, I say, you have become a sort of gramophone, spouting her opinions."
"But what sensible opinions!"
"It's got to stop. Aunt Lora! My God! Who is she? Just look at her record. She disgraces the family by marrying a grubby newspaper fellow called Porter. He has the sense to die. I will say that for him. She thrusts herself into public notice by a series of books and speeches on subjects of which a decent woman ought to know nothing. And now she gets hold of you, fills you up with her disgusting nonsense, makes a sort of disciple of you, gives you absurd ideas, poisons your mind, and--er--er-----"
"Bailey! This is positive eloquence!"
"It's got to stop. It's bad enough in her; but every one knows she is crazy, and makes allowances. But in a young girl like you."
"In a young girl like me," prompted Ruth in a low, tragic voice.
"It--it's not right. It--it's not proper." He drew a long breath. "It's all wrong. It's got to stop."
"He's perfectly wonderful!" murmured Ruth. "He just opens his mouth and the words come out. But I knew he was somebody, directly I saw him, by his forehead. Like a dome!" Bailey mopped the dome.
"Perhaps you don't know it," he said, "but you're getting yourself talked about. You go about saying perfectly impossible things to people. You won't marry. You have refused nearly every friend I have."
"Your friends are awful, Bailey. They are all turned out on a pattern, like a flock of sheep. They bleat. They have all got little, narrow faces without chins or big, fat faces without foreheads. Ugh!"
"None of them good enough for you, is that it?"
Emotion rendered Bailey--for him--almost vulgar.
"I guess you hate yourself!" he snapped.
"No sir" beamed Ruth. "I think I'm perfectly beautiful."
Bailey grunted. Ruth came to him and gave him a sisterly kiss. She was very fond of Bailey, though she declined to reverence him.
"Cheer up, Bailey boy," she said. "Don't you worry yourself. There's a method in my madness. I'll find him sooner or later, and then you'll be glad I waited."
"Him? what do you mean?"
"Why, him, of course. The ideal young man. That's who--or is it whom?--I'm waiting for. Bailey, shall I tell you something? You're so scarlet already--poor boy, you ought not to rush around in this hot weather--that it won't make you blush. It's this. I'm ambitious. I mean to marry the finest man in the world and have the greatest little old baby you ever dreamed of. By the way, now I remember, I told Clarence that."
Bailey uttered a strangled exclamation.
"It has made you blush! You turned purple. Well, now you know. I mean my baby to be the most splendid baby that was ever born. He's going to be strong and straight and clever and handsome, and--oh, everything else you can think of. That's why I'm waiting for the ideal young man. If I don't find him I shall die an old maid. But I shall find him. We may pass each other on Fifth Avenue. We may sit next each other at a theatre. Wherever it is, I shall just reach right out and grab him and whisk him away. And if he's married already, he'll have to get a divorce. And I shan't care who he is. He may be any one. I don't mind if he's a ribbon clerk or a prize-fighter or a policeman or a cab-driver, so long as he's the right man."
Bailey plied the handkerchief on his streaming forehead. The heat of the day and the horror of this conversation were reducing his weight at the rate of ounces a minute. In his most jaundiced mood he had never imagined these frightful sentiments to be lurking in Ruth's mind.
"You can't mean that!" he cried.
"I mean every word of it," said Ruth. "I hope, for your sake, he won't turn out to be a waiter or a prize-fighter, but it won't make any difference to me."
"Well, just now you said Aunt Lora was. If she is, I am."
"I knew it! I said she had been putting these ghastly ideas into your head. I'd like to strangle that woman."
"Don't you try! Have you ever felt Aunt Lora's biceps? It's like a man's. She does dumb-bells every morning."
"I've a good mind to speak to father. Somebody's got to make you stop this insanity."
"Just as you please. But you know how father hates to be worried about things that don't concern business."
Bailey did. His father, of whom he stood in the greatest awe, was very little interested in any subject except the financial affairs of the firm of Bannister & Son. It required greater courage than Bailey possessed to place this matter before him. He had an uneasy feeling that Ruth knew it.
"I would, if it were necessary," he said. "But I don't believe you're serious."
"Stick to that idea as long as ever you can, Bailey dear," said Ruth. "It will comfort you."