The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XII. Dolls with Souls
Ruth had not seen Bailey since the afternoon when he had called to warn her against Basil Milbank. Whether it was offended dignity that kept him away, or merely pressure of business, she did not know.
That pressure of business existed, she was aware. The papers were full, and had been full for several days, of wars and rumours of wars down in Wall Street; and, though she understood nothing of finance, she knew that Bailey was in the forefront of the battle. Her knowledge was based partly on occasional references in the papers to the firm of Bannister & Co. and partly on what she heard in society.
She did not hear all that was said in society about Bailey's financial operations--which, as Bailey had the control of her money, was unfortunate for her. The manipulation of money bored her, and she had left the investing of her legacy entirely to Bailey. Her father, she knew, had always had a high opinion of Bailey's business instincts, and that was good enough for her.
She could not know how completely revolutionized the latter's mind had become since the old man's death, and how freedom had turned him from a steady young man of business to a frenzied financier.
It was common report now that Bailey was taking big chances. Some went so far as to say that he was "asking for it," "it" in his case being presumably the Nemesis which waits on those who take big chances in an uncertain market. It was in the air that he was "going up against" the Pinkey-Dowd group and the Norman-Graham combination, and everybody knew that the cemeteries of Wall Street were full of the unhonoured graves of others who in years past had attempted to do the same.
Pinkey, that sinister buccaneer, could have eaten a dozen Baileys. Devouring aspiring young men of the Bailey type was Norman's chief diversion.
Ruth knew nothing of these things. She told herself that it was her abruptness that had driven Bailey away.
Weariness and depression had settled on Ruth since that afternoon of the storm. It was as if the storm had wrought an awakening in her. It had marked a definite point of change in her outlook. She felt as if she had been roused from a trance by a sharp blow.
If Steve had but known, she had had the "jolt" by which he set such store. She knew now that she had thrown away the substance for the shadow.
Kirk's anger, so unlike him, so foreign to the weak, easy-going person she had always thought him, had brought her to herself. But it was too late. There could be no going back and picking up the threads. She had lost him, and must bear the consequences.
The withdrawal of Bailey was a small thing by comparison, a submotive in the greater tragedy. But she had always been fond of Bailey, and it hurt her to think that she should have driven him out of her life.
It seemed to her that she was very much alone now. She was marooned on a desert island of froth and laughter. Everything that mattered she had lost.
Even Bill had gone from her. The bitter justice of Kirk's words came home to her now in her time of clear thinking. It was all true. In the first excitement of the new life he had bored her. She had looked upon Mrs. Porter as a saviour who brought her freedom together with an easy conscience. It had been so simple to deceive herself, to cheat herself into the comfortable belief that all that could be done for him was being done, when, as concerned the essential thing, as Kirk had said, there was no child of the streets who was not better off.
She tramped her round of social duties mechanically. Everything bored her now. The joy of life had gone out of her. She ate the bread of sorrow in captivity.
And then, this morning, had come a voice from the world she had lost--little Mrs. Bailey's voice, small and tearful.
Could she possibly come out by the next train? Bailey was very ill. Bailey was dying. Bailey had come home last night looking ghastly. He had not slept. In the early morning he had begun to babble--Mrs. Bailey's voice had risen and broken on the word, and Ruth at the other end of the wire had heard her frightened sobs. The doctor had come. The doctor had looked awfully grave. The doctor had telephoned to New York for another doctor. They were both upstairs now. It was awful, and Ruth must come at once.
This was the bad news which had brought about the pallor which had impressed Mr. Keggs as he helped Ruth into her cab.
Little Mrs. Bailey was waiting for her on the platform when she got out of the train. Her face was drawn and miserable. She looked like a beaten kitten. She hugged Ruth hysterically.
"Oh, my dear, I'm so glad you've come. He's better, but it has been awful. The doctors have had to fight him to keep him in bed. He was crazy to get to town. He kept saying over and over again that he must be at the office. They gave him something, and he was asleep when I left the house."
She began to cry helplessly. The fates had not bestowed upon Sybil Bannister the same care in the matter of education for times of crisis which they had accorded to Steve's Mamie. Her life till now had been sheltered and unruffled, and disaster, swooping upon her, had found her an easy victim.
She was trying to be brave, but her powers of resistance were small like her body. She clung to Ruth as a child clings to its mother. Ruth, as she tried to comfort her, felt curiously old. It occurred to her with a suggestion almost of grotesqueness that she and Sybil had been debutantes in the same season.
They walked up to the house. The summer cottage which Bailey had taken was not far from the station. On the way, in the intervals of her sobs, Sybil told Ruth the disjointed story of what had happened.
Bailey had not been looking well for some days. She had thought it must be the heat or business worries or something. He had not eaten very much, and he had seemed too tired to talk when he got home each evening. She had begged him to take a few days' rest. That had been the only occasion in the whole of the last week when she had heard him laugh; and it had been such a horrid, ugly sort of laugh that she wished she hadn't.
He had said that if he stayed away from the office for some time to come it would mean love in a cottage for them for the rest of their lives--and not a summer cottage at Tuxedo at that. "'My dear child,'" he had gone on, "and you know when Bailey calls me that," said Sybil, "it means that there is something the matter; for, as a rule, he never calls me anything but my name, or baby, or something like that."
Which gave Ruth a little shock of surprise. Somehow the idea of the dignified Bailey addressing his wife as baby startled her. She was certainly learning these days that she did not know people as completely as she had supposed. There seemed to be endless sides to people's characters which had never come under her notice. A sudden memory of Kirk on that fateful afternoon came to her and made her wince.
Mrs. Bailey continued: "'My dear child,' he went on, 'this week is about the most important week you and I are ever likely to live through. It's the show-down. We either come out on top or we blow up. It's one thing or the other. And if I take a few days' holiday just now you had better start looking about for the best place to sell your jewellery.'
"Those were his very words," she said tearfully. "I remember them all. It was so unlike his usual way of talking."
Ruth acknowledged that it was. More than ever she felt that she did not know the complete Bailey.
"He was probably exaggerating," she said for the sake of saying something.
Sybil was silent for a moment.
"It isn't that that's worrying me," she went on then. "Somehow I don't seem to care at all whether we come out right or not, so long as he gets well. Last night, when I thought he was going to die, I made up my mind that I couldn't go on living without him. I wouldn't have, either."
This time the shock of surprise which came to Ruth was greater by a hundred-fold than the first had been. She gave a quick glance at Sybil. Her small face was hard, and the little white teeth gleamed between her drawn lips. It was the face, for one brief instant, of a fanatic. The sight of it affected Ruth extraordinarily. It was as if she had seen a naked soul where she had never imagined a soul to be.
She had weighed Sybil in the same calm, complacent almost patronizing fashion in which she had weighed Bailey, Kirk, everybody. She had set her down as a delightful child, an undeveloped, feather-brained little thing, pleasant to spend an afternoon with, but not to be taken seriously by any one as magnificent and superior as Ruth Winfield. And what manner of a man must Bailey be, Bailey whom she had always looked on as a dear, but as quite a joke, something to be chaffed and made to look foolish, if he was capable of inspiring love like this?
A wave of humility swept over her. The pygmies of her world were springing up as giants, dwarfing her. The pinnacle of superiority on which she had stood so long was crumbling into dust.
She was finding herself. She winced again as the thought stabbed her that she was finding herself too late.
They reached the house in silence, each occupied with her own thoughts. The defiant look had died out of Sybil's face and she was once more a child, crying because unknown forces had hurt it. But Ruth was not looking at her now.
She was too busy examining this new world into which she had been abruptly cast, this world where dolls had souls and jokes lost their point.
At the cottage good news awaited them. The crisis was past. Bailey was definitely out of danger. He was still asleep, and sleeping easily. It had just been an ordinary breakdown, due to worrying and overwork, said the doctor, the bigger of the doctors, the one who had been summoned from New York.
"All your husband needs now, Mrs. Bannister, is rest. See that he is kept quiet. That's all there is to it."
As if by way of a commentary on his words, a small boy on a bicycle rode up with a telegram.
Sybil opened it. She read it, and looked at Ruth with large eyes.
"From the office," she said, handing it to her.
Ruth read it. It was a C. D. Q., an S.O.S. from the front; an appeal for help from the forefront of the battle. She did not understand the details of it, but the purport was clear. The battle had begun, and Bailey was needed. But Bailey lay sleeping in his tent.
She handed it back in silence. There was nothing to be done.
The second telegram arrived half an hour after the first. It differed from the first only in its greater emphasis. Panic seemed to be growing in the army of the lost leader.
The ringing of the telephone began almost simultaneously with the arrival of the second telegram. Ruth went to the receiver. A frantic voice was inquiring for Mr. Bannister even as she put it to her ear.
"This is Mrs. Winfield speaking," she said steadily, "Mr. Bannister's sister. Mr. Bannister is very ill and cannot possibly attend to any business."
There was a silence at the other end of the wire. Then a voice, with the calm of desperation, said: "Thank you." There was a pause. "Thank you," said the voice again in a crushed sort of way, and the receiver was hung up. Ruth went back to Sybil.
The hours passed. How she got through them Ruth hardly knew. Time seemed to have stopped. For the most part they sat in silence. In the afternoon Sybil was allowed to see Bailey for a few minutes. She returned thoughtful. She kissed Ruth before she sat down, and once or twice after that Ruth, looking up, found her eyes fixed upon her. It seemed to Ruth that there was something which she was trying to say, but she asked no questions.
After dinner they sat out on the porch. It was a perfect night. The cool dusk was soothing.
Ruth broke a long silence.
"May I tell you something?"
"I'm afraid it's bad news."
Sybil turned quickly.
"You called up the office while I was with Bailey?"
"How did you know?"
"I guessed. I have been trying to do it all day, but I hadn't the pluck. Well?"
"I'm afraid things are about as bad as they can be. A Mr. Meadows spoke to me. He was very gloomy. He told me a lot of things which I couldn't follow, details of what had happened, but I understood all that was necessary, I'm afraid----"
"Bailey's ruined?" said Sybil quietly.
"Mr. Meadows seemed to think so. He may have exaggerated."
Sybil shook her head.
"No. Bailey was talking to me upstairs. I expected it."
There was a long silence.
A sudden light of understanding came to Ruth. She knew what it was that Sybil was trying to say, had been trying to say ever since she spoke with Bailey.
"My money has gone, too? Is that it?"
Sybil did not answer. Ruth went quickly to her and took her in her arms.
"You poor baby," she cried. "Was that what was on your mind, wondering how you should tell me? I knew there was something troubling you."
Sybil began to sob.
"I didn't know how to tell you," she whispered.
Ruth laughed excitedly. She felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders--a weight which had been crushing the life out of her. In the last few days the scales had fallen from her eyes and she had seen clearly.
She realized now what Kirk had realized from the first, that what had forced his life apart from hers had been the golden wedge of her father's money. It was the burden of wealth that had weighed her down without her knowing it. She felt as if she had been suddenly set free.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," said Sybil feebly.
Ruth laughed again.
"I'm not," she said. "If you knew how glad I was you would be congratulating me instead of looking as if you thought I was going to bite you."
"Of course I'm glad. Everything's going to be all right again now. Sybil dear, Kirk and I had the most awful quarrel the other day. We--we actually decided it would be better for us to separate. It was all my fault. I had neglected Kirk, and I had neglected Bill, and Kirk couldn't stand it any longer. But now that this has happened, don't you see that it will be all right again? You can't stand on your dignity when you're up against real trouble. If this had not happened, neither of us would have had the pluck to make the first move; but now, you see, we shall just naturally fall into each other's arms and be happy again, he and I and Bill, just as we were before."
"It must be lovely for you having Bill," said little Mrs. Bailey wistfully. "I wish--"
She stopped. There was a corner of her mind into which she could not admit any one, even Ruth.
"Having him ought to have been enough for any woman." Ruth's voice was serious. "It was enough for me in the old days when we were at the studio. What fools women are sometimes! I suppose I lost my head, coming suddenly into all that money--I don't know why; for it was not as if I had not had plenty of time, when father was alive, to get used to the idea of being rich. I think it must have been the unexpectedness of it. I certainly did behave as if I had gone mad. Goodness! I'm glad it's over and that we can make a fresh start."
"What is it like being poor, Ruth? Of course, we were never very well off at home, but we weren't really poor."
"It's heaven if you're with the right man."
Mrs. Bailey sighed.
"Bailey's the right man, as far as I'm concerned. But I'm wondering how he will bear it, poor dear."
Ruth was feeling too happy herself to allow any one else to be unhappy if she could help it.
"Why, of course he will be splendid about it," she said. "You're letting your imagination run away with you. You have got the idea of Bailey and yourself as two broken creatures begging in the streets. I don't know how badly Bailey will be off after this smash, but I do know that he will have all his brains and his energy left."
Ruth was conscious of a momentary feeling of surprise that she should be eulogizing Bailey in this fashion, and--stranger still--that she should be really sincere in what she said. But to-day seemed to have changed everything, and she was regarding her brother with a new-born respect. She could still see Sybil's face as it had appeared in that memorable moment of self-revelation. It had made a deep impression upon her.
"A man like Bailey is worth a large salary to any one, even if he may not be able to start out for himself again immediately. I'm not worrying about you and Bailey. You will have forgotten all about this crash this time next year." Sybil brightened up. She was by nature easily moved, and Ruth's words had stimulated her imagination.
"He is awfully clever," she said, her eyes shining.
"Why, this sort of thing happens every six months to anybody who has anything to do with Wall Street," proceeded Ruth, fired by her own optimism. "You read about it in the papers every day. Nobody thinks anything of it."
Sybil, though anxious to look on the bright side, could not quite rise to these heights of scorn for the earthquake which had shaken her world.
"I hope not. It would be awful to go through a time like this again."
Ruth reassured her, though it entailed a certain inconsistency on her part. She had a true woman's contempt for consistency.
"Of course you won't have to go through it again. Bailey will be careful in future not to--not to do whatever it is that he has done."
She felt that the end of her inspiring speech was a little weak, but she did not see how she could mend it. Her talk with Mr. Meadows on the telephone had left her as vague as before as to the actual details of what had been happening that day in Wall Street. She remembered stray remarks of his about bulls, and she had gathered that something had happened to something which Mr. Meadows called G.R.D.'s, which had evidently been at the root of the trouble; but there her grasp of high finance ended.
Sybil, however, was not exigent. She brightened at Ruth's words as if they had been an authoritative pronouncement from an expert.
"Bailey is sure to do right," she said. "I think I'll creep in and see if he's still asleep."
Ruth, left alone on the porch, fell into a pleasant train of thought. There was something in her mental attitude which amused her. She wondered if anybody had ever received the announcement of financial ruin in quite the same way before. Yet to her this attitude seemed the only one possible.
How simple everything was now! She could go to Kirk and, as she had said to Sybil, start again. The golden barrier between them had vanished. One day had wiped out all the wretchedness of the last year. They were back where they had started, with all the accumulated experience of those twelve months to help them steer their little ship clear of the rocks on its new voyage.
* * * * *
She was roused from her dream by the sound of an automobile drawing up at the door. A voice that she recognised called her name. She went quickly down the steps.
"Is that you, Aunt Lora?"
Mrs. Porter, masterly woman, never wasted time in useless chatter.
"Jump in, my dear," she said crisply. "Your husband has stolen William and eloped with that girl Mamie (whom I never trusted) to Connecticut."