The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter X. Accepting the Gifts of the Gods
It was fortunate, considering the magnitude of the shock which she was to receive, that circumstances had given Steve's Mamie unusual powers of resistance in the matter of shocks. For years before her introduction into the home of the Winfield family her life had been one long series of crises. She had never known what the morrow might bring forth, though experience had convinced her that it was pretty certain to bring forth something agitating which would call for all her well-known ability to handle disaster.
The sole care of three small brothers and a weak-minded father gives a girl exceptional opportunities of cultivating poise under difficult conditions. It had become second nature with Mamie to keep her head though the heavens fell.
Consequently, when she entered the nursery next morning and found it empty, she did not go into hysterics. She did not even scream. She read Steve's note twice very carefully, then sat down to think what was her best plan of action.
Her ingrained habit of looking on the bright side of things, the result of a life which, had pessimism been allowed to rule it, might have ended prematurely with what the papers are fond of calling a "rash act," led her to consider first those points in the situation which she labelled in her meditations as "bits of luck."
It was a bit of luck that Mrs. Porter happened to be away for the moment. It gave her time for reflection. It was another bit of luck that, as she had learned from Keggs, whom she met on the stairs on her way to the nursery, a mysterious telephone-call had caused Ruth to rise from her bed some three hours before her usual time and depart hurriedly in a cab. This also helped.
Keggs had no information to give as to Ruth's destination or the probable hour of her return. She had vanished without a word, except a request to Keggs to tell the driver of her taxi to go to the Thirty-Third Street subway.
"Must 'a' 'ad bad noos," Keggs thought, "because she were look'n' white as a sheet."
Mamie was sorry that Ruth had had bad news, but her departure certainly helped to relieve the pressure of an appalling situation.
With the absence of Ruth and Mrs. Porter the bits of luck came to an end. Try as she would, Mamie could discover no other silver linings in the cloud-bank. And even these ameliorations of the disaster were only temporary.
Ruth would return. Worse, Mrs. Porter would return. Like two Mother Hubbards, they would go to the cupboard, and the cupboard would be bare. And to her, Mamie, would fall the task of explanation.
The only explanation that occurred to her was that Steve had gone suddenly mad. He had given no hint of his altruistic motives in the hurried scrawl which she had found on the empty cot. He had merely said that he had taken away William Bannister, but that "it was all right."
Why Steve should imagine that it was all right baffled Mamie. Anything less all right she had never come across in a lifetime of disconcerting experiences.
She was aware that things were not as they should be between Ruth and Kirk, and the spectacle of the broken home had troubled her gentle heart; but she failed to establish a connection between Kirk's departure and Steve's midnight raid.
After devoting some ten minutes to steady brainwork she permitted herself the indulgence of a few tears. She did not often behave in this shockingly weak way, her role in life hitherto having been that of the one calm person in a disrupted world. When her father had lost his job, and the rent was due, and Brother Jim had fallen in the mud to the detriment of his only suit of clothes, and Brothers Terence and Mike had developed respectively a sore throat and a funny feeling in the chest, she had remained dry-eyed and capable. Her father had cried, her brother Jim had cried, her brother Terence had cried, and her brother Mike had cried in a manner that made the weeping of the rest of the family seem like the uncanny stillness of a summer night; but she had not shed a tear.
Now, however, she gave way. She buried her little face on the pillow which so brief a while before had been pressed by the round head of William Bannister and mourned like a modern Niobe.
At the end of two minutes she rose, sniffing but courageous, herself again. In her misery an idea had come to her. It was quite a simple and obvious idea, but till now it had eluded her.
She would go round to the studio and see Kirk. After all, it was his affair as much as anybody else's, and she had a feeling that it would be easier to break the news to him than to Ruth and Mrs. Porter.
She washed her eyes, put on her hat, and set out.
Luck, however, was not running her way that morning. Arriving at the studio, she rang the bell, and rang and rang again without result except a marked increase in her already substantial depression. When it became plain to her that the studio was empty she desisted.
It is an illustration of her remarkable force of character that at this point, refusing to be crushed by the bludgeoning of fate, she walked to Broadway and went into a moving-picture palace. There was nothing to be effected by staying in the house and worrying, so she resolutely declined to worry.
From this point onward her day divided itself into a series of three movements repeated at regular intervals. From the moving pictures she went to the house on Fifth Avenue. Finding that neither Ruth nor Mrs. Porter had returned, she went to the studio. Ringing the bell there and getting no answer, she took in the movies once more.
Mamie was a philosopher.
The atmosphere of the great house was still untroubled on her second visit. The care of the White Hope had always been left exclusively in the hands of the women, and the rest of the household had not yet detected his absence. It was not their business to watch his comings in and his goings out. Besides, they had other things to occupy them.
The unique occasion of the double absence of Ruth and Mrs. Porter was being celebrated by a sort of Saturnalia or slaves' holiday. It was true that either or both might return at any moment, but there was a disposition on the part of the domestic staff to take a chance on it.
Keggs, that sinful butler, had strolled round to an apparently untenanted house on Forty-First Street, where those who knew their New York could, by giving the signal, obtain admittance and the privilege of losing their money at the pleasing game of roulette with a double zero.
George, the footman, in company with Henriette, the lady's-maid, and Rollins, the chauffeur, who had butted in absolutely uninvited to George's acute disgust, were taking the air in the park. The rest of the staff, with the exception of a house-maid, who had been bribed, with two dollars and an old dress which had once been Ruth's and was now the property of Henriette, to stand by the ship, were somewhere on the island, amusing themselves in the way that seemed best to them. For all practical purposes, it was a safe and sane Fourth provided out of a blue sky by the god of chance.
It was about five o'clock when Mamie, having, at a modest estimate, seen five hundred persecuted heroes, a thousand ill-used heroines, several regiments of cowboys, and perhaps two thousand comic men pursued by angry mobs, returned from her usual visit to the studio.
This time there were signs of hope in the shape of a large automobile opposite the door. She rang the bell, and there came from within the welcome sound of footsteps. An elderly man of a somewhat dissipated countenance opened the door.
"I want to see Mr. Winfield," said Mamie.
Mr. Penway, for it was he, gave her the approving glance which your man of taste and discrimination does not fail to bestow upon youth and beauty and bawled over his shoulder--
Kirk came down the passage. He was looking brown and healthy. He was in his shirt-sleeves.
"Oh, Mr. Winfield. I'm in such trouble."
"Why, Mamie! What's the matter? Come in."
Mamie followed him into the studio, eluding Mr. Penway, whose arm was hovering in the neighbourhood of her waist.
"Sit down," said Kirk. "What's the trouble? Have you been trying to get at me before? We've been down to Long Beach."
"A delightful spot," observed Mr. Penway, who had followed. "Sandy, but replete with squabs. Why didn't you come earlier? We could have taken you."
"May I talk privately with you, Mr. Winfield?"
Kirk looked at Mr. Penway, who nodded agreeably.
"Outside for Robert?" he inquired amiably. "Very well. There is no Buttinsky blood in the Penway family. Let me just fix myself a high-ball and borrow one of your cigars and I'll go and sit in the car and commune with nature. Take your time."
"Just a moment, Mamie," said Kirk, when he had gone. He picked up a telegram which lay on the table. "I'll read this and see if it's important, and then we'll get right down to business. We only got back a moment before you arrived, so I'm a bit behind with my correspondence."
As he read the telegram a look of astonishment came into his face. He sat down and read the message a second time. Mamie waited patiently.
"Good Lord!" he muttered.
A sudden thought struck Mamie.
"Mr. Winfield, is it from Steve?" she said.
Kirk started, and looked at her incredulously.
"How on earth did you know? Good Heavens! Are you in this, Mamie, too?"
Mamie handed him her note. He read it without a word. When he had finished he sat back in his chair, thinking.
"I thought Steve might have telegraphed to you," said Mamie.
Kirk roused himself from his thoughts.
"Was this what you came to see me about?"
"What does Ruth--what do they think of it--up there?"
"They don't know anything about it. Mrs. Winfield went away early this morning. Mr. Keggs said she had had a telephone call, Mrs. Porter is in Boston. She will be back to-day some time. What are we to do?"
"Do!" Kirk jumped up and began to pace the floor. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. Steve has taken the boy up to my shack in Connecticut. I'm going there as fast as the auto can take me."
"Is he? Steve's the best pal I've got. For two years I've been aching to get at this boy, and Steve has had the sense to show me the way."
He went on as if talking to himself.
"Steve's a man. I'm just a fool who hangs round without the nerve to act. If I had had the pluck of a rabbit I'd have done this myself six months ago. But I've hung round doing nothing while that damned Porter woman played the fool with the boy. I'll be lucky now if he remembers who I am."
He turned abruptly to Mamie.
"Mamie, you can tell them whatever you please when you get home. They can't blame you. It's not your fault. Tell them that Steve was acting for me with my complete approval. Tell them that the kid's going to be brought up right from now on. I've got him, and I'm going to keep him."
Mamie had risen and was facing him, a very determined midget, pink and resolute.
"I'm not going home, Mr. Winfield."
"If you are going to Bill, I am coming with you."
"That's my place--with him."
"But you can't. It's impossible."
"Not more impossible than what has happened already."
"I won't take you."
"Then I'll go by train. I know where your house is. Steve told me."
"It's out of the question."
Mamie's Irish temper got the better of her professional desire to maintain the discreetly respectful attitude of employee toward employer.
"Is it then? We'll see. Do you think I'm going to leave you and Steve to look after my Bill? What do men know about taking care of children? You would choke the poor mite or let him kill himself a hundred ways."
She glared at him defiantly. He glared back at her. Then his sense of humour came to his rescue. She looked so absurdly small standing there with her chin up and her fists clenched. He laughed delightedly. He went up to her and placed a hand on each of her shoulders, looking down at her. He felt that he loved her for her championship of Bill.
"You're a brick, Mamie. Of course you shall come. We'll call at the house and you can pack your grip. But, by George, if you put that infernal thermometer in I'll run the automobile up against a telegraph-pole, and then Bill will lose us both."
"Finished?" said a voice. "Oh, I beg your pardon. Sorry."
Mr. Penway was gazing at them with affectionate interest from the doorway. Kirk released Mamie and stepped back.
"I only looked in," explained Mr. Penway. "Didn't mean to intrude. Thought you might have finished your chat, and it was a trifle lonely communing with nature."
"Bob," said Kirk, "you'll have to get on without me for a day or two. Make yourself at home. You know where everything is."
"I can satisfy my simple needs. Thinking of going away?"
"I've got to go up to Connecticut. I don't know how long I shall be away."
"Take your time," said Mr. Penway affably. "Going in the auto?"
"The weather is very pleasant for automobiling just now," remarked Mr. Penway.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, having thrown a few things together into a bag, Kirk took his place at the wheel. Mamie sat beside him. The bag had the rear seat to itself.
"There seems to be plenty of room still," said Mr. Penway. "I have half a mind to come with you."
He looked at Mamie.
"But on reflection I fancy you can get along without me."
He stood at the door, gazing after the motor as it moved down the street. When it had turned the corner he went back into the studio and mixed himself a high-ball.
"Kirk does manage to find them," he said enviously.