The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IX. At One in the Morning
William Bannister Winfield slept the peaceful sleep of childhood in his sterilized cot. The light gleamed faintly on the white tiles. It lit up the brass knobs on the walls, the spotless curtains, the large thermometer.
An intruder, interested in these things, would have seen by a glance at this last that the temperature of the room was exactly that recommended by doctors as the correct temperature for the nursery of a sleeping child; no higher, no lower. The transom over the door was closed, but the window was open at the top to precisely the extent advocated by the authorities, due consideration having been taken for the time of year and the condition of the outer atmosphere.
The hour was one in the morning.
Childhood is a readily adaptable time of life, and William Bannister, after a few days of blank astonishment, varied by open mutiny, had accepted the change in his surroundings and daily existence with admirable philosophy. His memory was not far-reaching, and, as time went on and he began to accommodate himself to the new situation, he had gradually forgotten the days at the studio, as, it is to be supposed, he had forgotten the clouds of glory which he had trailed on his entry into this world. If memories of past bear-hunts among the canvases on the dusty floor ever came to him now, he never mentioned it.
A child can weave romance into any condition of life in which fate places him; and William Bannister had managed to interest himself in his present existence with a considerable gusto. Scraps of conversation between Mrs. Porter and Mamie, overheard and digested, had given him a good working knowledge of the system of hygiene of which he was the centre. He was vague as to details, but not vaguer than most people.
He knew that something called "sterilizing" was the beginning and end of life, and that things known as germs were the Great Peril. He had expended much thought on the subject of germs. Mamie, questioned, could give him no more definite information than that they were "things which got at you and hurt you," and his awe of Mrs. Porter had kept him from going to the fountainhead of knowledge for further data.
Building on the information to hand, he had formed in his mind an odd kind of anthropomorphic image of the germ. He pictured it as a squat, thick-set man of repellent aspect and stealthy movements, who sneaked up on you when you were not looking and did unpleasant things to you, selecting as the time for his attacks those nights when you had allowed your attention to wander while saying your prayers.
On such occasions it was Bill's practice to fool him by repeating his prayers to himself in bed after the official ceremony. Some times, to make certain, he would do this so often that he fell asleep in mid-prayer.
He was always glad of the night-light. A germ hates light, preferring to do his scoundrelly work when it is so black that you can't see your hand in front of your face and the darkness presses down on you like a blanket. Occasionally a fear would cross his mind that the night-light might go out; but it never did, being one of Mr. Edison's best electric efforts neatly draped with black veiling.
Apart from this he had few worries, certainly none serious enough to keep him awake.
He was sleeping now, his head on his right arm, a sterilized Teddy-bear clutched firmly in his other hand, with the concentration of one engaged upon a feat at which he is an expert.
* * * * *
The door opened slowly. A head insinuated itself into the room, furtively, as if uncertain of its welcome. The door continued to open and Steve slipped in.
He closed the door as gently as he had opened it, and stood there glancing about him. A slow grin appeared upon his face, to be succeeded by an expression of serious resolve. For Steve was anxious.
It was still Steve's intention to remove, steal, purloin, and kidnap William Bannister that night, but now that the moment had come for doing it he was nervous.
He was not used to this sort of thing. He was an honest ex-middleweight, not a burglar; and just now he felt particularly burglarious. The stillness of the house oppressed him. He had not relished the long wait between the moment of his apparent departure and that of his entry into the nursery.
He had acted with simple cunning. He had remained talking pugilism with Keggs in the pantry till a prodigious yawn from his host had told him that the time was come for the breaking up of the party. Then, begging Keggs not to move, as he could find his way out, he had hurried to the back door, opened and shut it, and darted into hiding. Presently Keggs, yawning loudly, had toddled along the passage, bolted the door, and made his way upstairs to bed, leaving Steve to his vigil.
Steve's reflections during this period had not been of the pleasantest. Exactly what his explanation was to be, if by any mischance he should make a noise and be detected, he had been unable to decide. Finally he had dismissed the problem as insoluble, and had concentrated his mind on taking precautions to omit any such noise.
So far he had succeeded. He had found his way to the nursery easily enough, having marked the location earnestly on his previous visits. During the whole of his conversation with Keggs in the pantry he had been repeating to himself the magic formula which began: "First staircase to the left--turn to the right-----" and here he was now at his goal and ready to begin.
But it was just this question of beginning which exercised him so grievously. How was he to begin? Should he go straight to the cot and wake the kid? Suppose the kid was scared and let out a howl?
A warm, prickly sensation about the forehead was Steve's silent comment on this reflection. He took a step forward and stopped again. He was conscious of tremors about the region of the spine. The thought crossed his mind at that moment that burglars earned their money.
As he stood, hesitating, his problem was solved for him. There came a heavy sigh from the direction of the cot which made him start as if a pistol had exploded in his ear; and then he was aware of two large eyes staring at him.
There was a tense pause. A drop of perspiration rolled down his cheek-bone and anchored itself stickily on the angle of his jaw. It tickled abominably, but he did not dare to move for fear of unleashing the scream which brooded over the situation like a cloud.
At any moment now a howl of terror might rip the silence and bring the household on the run. And then--the explanations! A second drop of perspiration started out in the wake of the first.
The large eyes continued to inspect him. They were clouded with sleep. Suddenly a frightened look came into them, and, as he saw it, Steve braced his muscles for the shock.
"Here it comes!" he said miserably to himself. "Oh, Lord! We're off!"
He searched in his brain for speech, desperately, as the best man at a wedding searches for that ring while the universe stands still, waiting expectantly.
He found no speech.
The child's mouth opened. Steve eyed him, fascinated. No bird, encountering a snake, was ever so incapable of movement as he.
"Are you a germ?" inquired William Bannister.
Steve tottered to the cot and sat down on it. The relief was too much for him.
"Gee, kid!" he said, "you had my goat then. I've got to hand it to you."
His sudden approach had confirmed William Bannister's worst suspicions. This was precisely how he had expected the germ to behave. He shrank back on the pillow, gulping.
"Why, for the love of Mike," said Steve, "don't you know me, kid? I'm not a porch-climber. Don't you remember Steve who used to raise Hades with you at the studio? Darn it, I'm your godfather! I'm Steve!"
William Bannister sat up, partially reassured.
"What's Steve?" he inquired.
"How do you mean--why?"
The large eyes inspected him gravely.
"I remember," he said finally.
"Well, don't go forgetting, kid. I couldn't stand a second session like that. I got a weak heart."
"That's right. Stick to that and we'll get along fine."
"I thought you were a germ."
"They get at you and hurt you."
"Who said so?"
"Are you scared of germs?"
The White Hope nodded gravely.
"I have to be sterilized because of them. Are you sterilized?"
"Nobody ever told me so. But, say, kid, you don't want to be frightened of germs or microbes or bacilli or any of the rest of the circus. You don't want to be frightened of nothing. You're the White Hope, the bear-cat that ain't scared of anything on earth. What's this germ thing like, anyway?"
"It's a----I've never seen one, but Mamie says they get at you and hurt you. I think it's a kind of big sort of ugly man that creeps in when you're asleep."
"So that's why you thought I was one?"
The White Hope nodded.
"Forget it!" said Steve. "Mamie is a queen, all right, believe me, but she's got the wrong dope on this microbe proposition. You don't need to be scared of them any more. Why, some of me best pals are germs."
"Why, friends. You and me are pals. Me and your pop are pals."
"He's gone away."
"He thought he needed a change of air. Don't you ever need a change of air?"
"I don't know."
"Well, you do. Take it from me. This is about the punkest joint I ever was in. You don't want to stay in a dairy-kitchen like this."
"This is. All these white tiles and fixings. It makes me feel like a pint of milk to look at 'em."
"It's because of the germs."
"Ain't I telling you the germs don't want to hurt you?"
"Aunt Lora told Mamie they do."
"Say, cull, you tell your Aunt Lora to make a noise like an ice-cream in the sun and melt away. She's a prune, and what she says don't go. Do you want to know what a germ or a microbe--it's the same thing--really is? It's a fellow that has the best time you can think of. They've been fooling you, kid. They saw you were easy, so they handed it to you on a plate. I'm the guy that can put you wise about microbes."
"Sure. Well, a microbe is a kid that just runs wild out in the country. He don't have to hang around in a white-tiled nursery and eat sterilized junk and go to bed when they tell him to. He has a swell time out in the woods, fishing and playing around in the dirt and going after birds' eggs and picking berries, and--oh, shucks, anything else you can think of. Wouldn't you like to do that?"
William Bannister nodded.
"Well, say, as it happens, there's a fine chance for you to be a germ right away. I know a little place down in the Connecticut woods which would just hit you right. You could put on overalls----"
"Sort of clothes. Not like the fussed-up scenery you have to wear now, but the real sort of clothes which you can muss up and nobody cares a darn. You can put 'em on and go out and tear up Jack like a regular kid all you want. Say, don't you remember the fool stunts you and me used to pull off in the studio?"
"Gee! you're a bit shy on your English, ain't you? It makes it sort of hard for a guy to keep up what you might call a flow of talk. Still, you should worry. Why, don't you remember where you used to live before you came to this joint? Big, dusty sort of place, where you and me used to play around on the floor?"
The White Hope nodded.
"Well, wouldn't you like to do that again?"
"And be a regular microbe?"
Steve looked at his watch.
"Well, that's lucky," he said. "It happens to be exactly the right time for starting out to be one. That's curious, ain't it?"
"I've got a pal--friend, you know----"
"Is he a germ?"
"Sure. He's waiting for me now in an automobile in the park----"
"Because I asked him to. He owns a garage. Place where automobiles live, you know. I asked him to bring out a car and wait around near by, because I might be taking a pal of mine--that's you--for a ride into the country to-night. Of course, you don't have to come if you don't want to. Only it's mighty nice out there. You can spend all to-morrow rolling about in the grass and listening to the birds. I shouldn't wonder if we couldn't borrow a farmer's kid for you to play with. There's lots of them around. He should show you the best time you've had in months."
William Bannister's eyes gleamed. The finer points of the scheme were beginning to stand out before him with a growing clarity.
"Would I have to take my bib?" he asked excitedly.
Steve uttered a scornful laugh.
"No, sir! We don't wear bibs out there."
As far as William Bannister was concerned, this appeared to settle it. Of all the trials of his young life he hated most his bib.
Steve breathed a sigh of relief.
"Right, squire; we will," he said. "But I guess we had best leave a letter for Mamie, so's she won't be wondering where you've got to."
"Will Mamie be cross?"
"Not on your life. She'll be tickled to death."
He scribbled a few lines on a piece of paper and left them on the cot, from which William Bannister had now scrambled.
"Can you dress yourself?" asked Steve.
"Oh, yes." It was an accomplishment of which the White Hope was extremely proud.
"Well, go to it, then."
"Won't it be a surprise for Mamie?"
"You bet it will. And she won't be the only one, at that."
"Will mother be surprised?"
"She sure will."
William Bannister chuckled delightedly.
"Ready?" said Steve.
"Now listen. We've got to get out of this joint as quiet as mice. It would spoil the surprise if they was to hear us and come out and ask what we were doing. Get that?"
"Well, see how quiet you can make it. You don't want even to breathe more than you can help."
* * * * *
They left the room and crept down the dark stairs. In the hall Steve lit a match and switched on the electric light. He unbolted the door and peered out into the avenue. Close by, under the trees, stood an automobile, its headlights staring into the night.
"Quick!" cried Steve.
He picked up the White Hope, closed the door, and ran.