The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XI. Mr. Penway on the Grill
Fate moves in a mysterious way. Luck comes hand in hand with misfortune. What we lose on the swings we make up on the roundabouts. If Keggs had not seen twenty-five of his hard-earned dollars pass at one swoop into the clutches of the croupier at the apparently untenanted house on Forty-First Street, and become disgusted with the pleasing game of roulette, he might have delayed his return to the house on Fifth Avenue till a later hour; in which case he would have missed the remarkable and stimulating spectacle of Kirk driving to the door in an automobile with Mamie at his side; of Mamie, jumping out and entering the house; of Mamie leaving the house with a suit-case; of Kirk helping her into the automobile, and of the automobile disappearing with its interesting occupants up the avenue at a high rate of speed.
Having lost his money, as stated, and having returned home, he was enabled to be a witness, the only witness, of these notable events, and his breast was filled with a calm joy in consequence. This was something special. This was exclusive, a scoop. He looked forward to the return of Mrs. Porter with an eagerness which, earlier in the day, he would have considered impossible. Somehow Ruth did not figure in his picture of the delivery of the sensational news that Mr. Winfield had eloped with the young person engaged to look after her son. Mrs. Porter's was one of those characters which monopolize any stage on which they appear. Besides, Keggs disliked Mrs. Porter, and the pleasure of the prospect of giving her a shock left no room for other thoughts.
It was nearly seven o'clock when Mrs. Porter reached the house. She was a little tired from the journey, but in high good humour. She had had a thoroughly satisfactory interview with her publishers--satisfactory, that is to say, to herself; the publishers had other views.
"Is Mrs. Winfield in?" she asked Keggs as he admitted her.
Ruth was always sympathetic about her guerrilla warfare with the publishers. She looked forward to a cosy chat, in the course of which she would trace, step by step, the progress of the late campaign which had begun overnight and had culminated that morning in a sort of Gettysburg, from which she had emerged with her arms full of captured flags and all the other trophies of conquest.
"No, madam," said Keggs. "Mrs. Winfield has not yet returned."
Keggs was an artist in tragic narration. He did not give away his climax; he led up to it by degrees as slow as his audience would permit.
"Returned? I did not know she intended to go away. Her yacht party is next week, I understand."
"Where has she gone?"
"To Tuxedo, madam."
"Mrs. Winfield has just rung us up from there upon the telephone to request that necessaries for an indefinite stay be despatched to her. She is visiting Mrs. Bailey Bannister."
If Mrs. Porter had been Steve, she would probably have said "For the love of Mike!" at this point. Being herself, she merely repeated the butler's last words.
"If I may be allowed to say so, madam, I think that there must have been trouble at Mrs. Bannister's. A telephone-call came from her very early this morning for Mrs. Winfield which caused Mrs. Winfield to rise and leave in a taximeter-cab in an extreme hurry. If I might be allowed to suggest it, it is probably a case of serious illness. Mrs. Winfield was looking very disturbed."
"H'm!" said Mrs. Porter. The exclamation was one of disappointment rather than of apprehension. Sudden illnesses at the Bailey home did not stir her, but she was annoyed that her recital of the squelching of the publishers would have to wait.
She went upstairs. Her intention was to look in at the nursery and satisfy herself that all was well with William Bannister. She had given Mamie specific instructions as to his care on her departure; but you never knew. Perhaps her keen eye might be able to detect some deviation from the rules she had laid down.
It detected one at once. The nursery was empty. According to schedule, the child should have been taking his bath.
She went downstairs again. Keggs was waiting in the hall. He had foreseen this return. He had allowed her to go upstairs with his story but half heard because that appealed to his artistic sense. This story, to his mind, was too good to be bolted at a sitting; it was the ideal serial.
"Where is Master William?"
"I fear I do not know, madam."
"When did he go out? It is seven o'clock; he should have been in an hour ago."
"I have been making inquiries, madam, and I regret to inform you that nobody appears to have seen Master William all day."
"It not being my place to follow his movements, I was unaware of this until quite recently, but from conversation with the other domestics, I find that he seems to have disappeared!"
A glow of enjoyment such as he had sometimes experienced when the ticker at the Cadillac Hotel informed him that the man he had backed in some San Francisco fight had upset his opponent for the count began to permeate Keggs.
"Disappeared, madam," he repeated.
"Perhaps Mrs. Winfield took him with her to Tuxedo."
"No, madam. Mrs. Winfield was alone. I was present when she drove away."
"Send Mamie to me at once," said Mrs. Porter.
Keggs could have whooped with delight had not such an action seemed to him likely to prejudice his chances of retaining a good situation. He contented himself with wriggling ecstatically. "The young person is not in the house, madam."
"Not in the house? What business has she to be out? Where is she?"
"I could not tell you, madam." Keggs paused, reluctant to deal the final blow, as a child lingers lovingly over the last lick of ice-cream in a cone. "I last saw her at about five o'clock, driving off with Mr. Winfield in an automobile."
Keggs was content. His climax had not missed fire. Its staggering effect was plain on the face of his hearer. For once Mrs. Porter's poise had deserted her. Her one word had been a scream.
"She did not tell me her destination, madam," went on Keggs, making all that could be made of what was left of the situation after its artistic finish. "She came in and packed a suit-case and went out again and joined Mr. Winfield in the automobile, and they drove off together."
Mrs. Porter recovered herself. This was a matter which called for silent meditation, not for chit-chat with a garrulous butler.
"That will do, Keggs."
"Very good, madam."
Keggs withdrew to his pantry, well pleased. He considered that he had done himself justice as a raconteur. He had not spoiled a good story in the telling.
Mrs. Porter went to her room and sat down to think. She was a woman of action, and she soon reached a decision.
The errant pair must be followed, and at once. Her great mind, playing over the situation like a searchlight, detected a connection between this elopement and the disappearance of William Bannister. She had long since marked Kirk down as a malcontent, and she now labelled the absent Mamie as a snake in the grass who had feigned submission to her rule, while meditating all the time the theft of the child and the elopement with Kirk. She had placed the same construction on Mamie's departure with Kirk as had Mr. Penway, showing that it is not only great minds that think alike.
A latent conviction as to the immorality of all artists, which had been one of the maxims of her late mother, sprang into life. She blamed herself for having allowed a nurse of such undeniable physical attractions to become a member of the household. Mamie's very quietness and apparent absence of bad qualities became additional evidence against her now, Mrs. Porter arguing that these things indicated deep deceitfulness. She told herself, what was not the case, that she had never trusted that girl.
But Lora Delane Porter was not a woman to waste time in retrospection. She had not been in her room five minutes before her mind was made up. It was improbable that Kirk and his guilty accomplice had sought so near and obvious a haven as the studio, but it was undoubtedly there that pursuit must begin. She knew nothing of his way of living at that retreat, but she imagined that he must have appointed some successor to George Pennicut as general factotum, and it might be that this person would have information to impart.
The task of inducing him to impart it did not daunt Mrs. Porter. She had a just confidence in her powers of cross-examination.
She went to the telephone and called up the garage where Ruth's automobiles were housed. Her plan of action was now complete. If no information were forthcoming at the studio, she would endeavour to find out where Kirk had hired the car in which he had taken Mamie away. He would probably have secured it from some garage near by. But this detective work would be a last resource. Like a good general, she did not admit of the possibility of failing in her first attack.
And, luck being with her, it happened that at the moment when she set out, Mr. Penway, feeling pretty comfortable where he was, abandoned his idea of going out for a stroll along Broadway and settled himself to pass the next few hours in Kirk's armchair.
Mr. Penway's first feeling when the bell rang, rousing him from his peaceful musings, was one of mild vexation. A few minutes later, when Mrs. Porter had really got to work upon him, he would not have recognized that tepid emotion as vexation at all.
Mrs. Porter wasted no time. She perforated Mr. Penway's spine with her eyes, reduced it to the consistency of summer squash, and drove him before her into the studio, where she took a seat and motioned him to do the same. For a moment she sat looking at him, by way of completing the work of subjection, while Mr. Penway writhed uneasily on his chair and thought of past sins.
"My name is Mrs. Porter," she began abruptly.
"Mine's Penway," said the miserable being before her. It struck him as the only thing to say.
"I have come to inquire about Mr. Winfield."
As she paused Mr. Penway felt it incumbent upon him to speak again.
"Dear old Kirk," he mumbled.
"Nothing of the kind," said Mrs. Porter sharply. "Mr. Winfield is a scoundrel of the worst type, and if you are as intimate a friend of his as your words imply, it does not argue well for your respectability."
Mr. Penway opened his mouth feebly and closed it again. Having closed it, he reopened it and allowed it to remain ajar, as it were. It was his idea of being conciliatory.
"Tell me." Mr. Penway started violently. "Tell me, when did you last see Mr. Winfield?"
"We went to Long Beach together this afternoon."
"In an automobile?"
"Ah! Were you here when Mr. Winfield left again?"
For the life of him Mr. Penway had not the courage to say no. There was something about this woman's stare which acted hypnotically upon his mind, never at its best as early in the evening.
"There was a young woman with him?" pursued Mrs. Porter.
At this moment Mr. Penway's eyes, roving desperately about the room, fell upon the bottle of Bourbon which Kirk's kindly hospitality had provided. His emotions at the sight of it were those of the shipwrecked mariner who see a sail. He sprang at it and poured himself out a stiff dose. Before Mrs. Porter's disgusted gaze he drained the glass and then turned to her, a new man.
The noble spirit restored his own. For the first time since the interview had begun he felt capable of sustaining his end of the conversation with ease and dignity.
"How's that?" he said.
"There was a young woman with him?" repeated Mrs. Porter.
Mr. Penway imagined that he had placed her by this time. Here, he told himself in his own crude language, was the squab's mother camping on Kirk's trail with an axe. Mr. Penway's moral code was of the easiest description. His sympathies were entirely with Kirk. Fortified by the Bourbon, he set himself resolutely to the task of lying whole-heartedly on behalf of his absent friend.
"No," he said firmly.
"No!" exclaimed Mrs. Porter.
"No," repeated Mr. Penway with iron resolution. "No young woman. No young woman whatsoever. I noticed it particularly, because I thought it strange, don't you know--what I mean is, don't you know, strange there shouldn't be!"
How tragic is a man's fruitless fight on behalf of a friend! For one short instant Mrs. Porter allowed Mr. Penway to imagine that the victory was his, then she administered the coup-de-grace.
"Don't lie, you worthless creature," she said. "They stopped at my house on their way while the girl packed a suitcase."
Mr. Penway threw up his brief. There are moments when the stoutest- hearted, even under the influence of old Bourbon, realize that to fight on is merely to fight in vain.
He condensed his emotions into four words.
"Of all the chumps!" he remarked, and, pouring himself out a further instalment of the raw spirit, he sat down, a beaten man.
Mrs. Porter continued to harry him.
"Exactly," she said. "So you see that there is no need for any more subterfuge and concealment. I do not intend to leave this room until you have told me all you have to tell, so you had better be quick about it. Kindly tell me the truth in as few words as possible--if you know what is meant by telling the truth."
A belated tenderness for his dignity came to Mr. Penway.
"You are insulting," he remarked. "You are--you are--most insulting."
"I meant to be," said Mrs. Porter crisply. "Now. Tell me. Where has Mr. Winfield gone?"
Mr. Penway preserved an offended silence. Mrs. Porter struck the table a blow with a book which caused him to leap in his seat.
"Where has Mr. Winfield gone?"
"How should I know?"
"How should you know? Because he told you, I should imagine. Where--has--Mr.--Winfield--gone?"
"C'nnecticut," said Mr. Penway, finally capitulating.
"What part of Connecticut?"
"I don't know."
"What part of Connecticut?"
"I tell you I don't know. He said: 'I'm off to Connecticut,' and left." It suddenly struck Mr. Penway that his defeat was not so overwhelming as he had imagined. "So you haven't got much out of me, you see, after all," he added.
Mrs. Porter rose.
"On the contrary," she said; "I have got out of you precisely the information which I required, and in considerably less time than I had supposed likely. If it interests you, I may tell you that Mr. Winfield has gone to a small house which he owns in the Connecticut woods."
"Then what," demanded Mr. Penway indignantly, "did you mean by keeping on saying 'What part of C'nnecticut? What part of C'nnecticut? What part----'"
"Because Mr. Winfield's destination has only just occurred to me." She looked at him closely. "You are a curious and not uninteresting object, Mr. Penway."
Mr. Penway started. "Eh?"
"Object lesson, I should have said. I should like to exhibit you as a warning to the youth of this country."
"From the look of your frame I should imagine that you were once a man of some physique. Your shoulders are good. Even now a rigorous course of physical training might save you. I have known more helpless cases saved by firm treatment. You have allowed yourself to deteriorate much as did a man named Pennicut who used to be employed here by Mr. Winfield. I saved him. I dare say I could make something of you. I can see at a glance that you eat, drink, and smoke too much. You could not hold out your hand now, at this minute, without it trembling."
"I could," said Mr. Penway indignantly.
He held it out, and it quivered like a tuning-fork.
"There!" said Mrs. Porter calmly. "What do you expect? You know your own business best, I suppose, but I should like to tell you that if you do not become a teetotaller instantly, and begin taking exercise, you will probably die suddenly within a very few years. Personally I shall bear the calamity with fortitude. Good evening, Mr. Penway."
For some moments after she had gone Mr. Penway sat staring before him. His eyes wore a glassy look. His mouth was still ajar.
"Damn woman!" he said at length.
He turned to his meditations.
"Damn impertinent woman!"
Another interval for reflection, and he spoke again.
"Damn impertinent, interfering woman that!"
He reached out for the bottle of Bourbon and filled his glass. He put it to his lips, then slowly withdrew it.
"Damn impertinent, inter--I wonder!"
There was a small mirror on the opposite wall. He walked unsteadily toward it and put out his tongue. He continued in this attitude for a time, then, with increased dejection, turned away.
He placed a hand over his heart. This seemed to depress him still further. Finally he went to the table, took up the glass, poured its contents carefully back into the bottle, which he corked and replaced on the shelf.
On the floor against the wall was a pair of Indian clubs. He picked these up and examined them owlishly. He gave them little tentative jerks. Finally, with the air of a man carrying out a great resolution, he began to swing them. He swung them in slow, irregular sweeps, his eyes the while, still glassy, staring fixedly at the ceiling.