The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XIV. The Sixty-First Street Cyclone
It was past seven o'clock when Kirk, bending over the wheel, with Mamie at his side came in sight of the shack. The journey had been checked just outside the city by a blow-out in one of the back tyres. Kirk had spent the time, while the shirt-sleeved rescuer from the garage toiled over the injured wheel, walking up and down with a cigar. Neither he nor Mamie had shown much tendency towards conversation. Mamie was habitually of a silent disposition, and Kirk's mind was too full of his thoughts to admit of speech.
Ever since he had read Steve's telegram he had been in the grip of a wild exhilaration. He had not stopped to ask himself what this mad freak of Steve's could possibly lead to in the end--he was satisfied to feel that its immediate result would be that for a brief while, at any rate, he would have his son to himself, away from all the chilling surroundings which had curbed him and frozen his natural feelings in the past.
He tried to keep his mind from dwelling upon Ruth. He had thought too much of her of late for his comfort. Since they had parted that day of the thunder-storm the thought that he had lost her had stabbed him incessantly. He had tried to tell himself that it was the best thing they could do, to separate, since it was so plain that their love had died; but he could not cheat himself into believing it.
It might be true in her case--it must be, or why had she let him go that afternoon?--but, for himself, the separation had taught him that he loved her as much as ever, more than ever. Absence had purified him of that dull anger which had been his so short a while before. He looked back and marvelled that he could ever have imagined for a moment that he had ceased to love her.
Now, as he drove along the empty country roads, he forced his mind to dwell, as far as he could, only upon his son. There was a mist before his eyes as he thought of him. What a bully lad he had been! What fun they had had in the old days! But that brought his mind back to Ruth, and he turned his mind resolutely to the future again.
He chuckled silently as he thought of Steve. Of all the mad things to do! What had made him think of it? How had such a wild scheme ever entered his head? This, he supposed, was what Steve called punching instead of sparring. But he had never given him credit for the imagination that could conceive a punch of this magnitude.
And how had he carried it out? He could hardly have broken into the house. Yet that seemed the only way in which it could have been done.
From Steve his thoughts returned to William Bannister. He smiled again. What a time they would have--while it lasted! The worst of it was, it could not last long. To-morrow, he supposed, he would have to take the child back to his home. He could not be a party to this kidnapping raid for any length of time. This must be looked on as a brief holiday, not as a permanent relief.
That was the only flaw in his happiness as he stopped the car at the door of the shack, for by now he had succeeded at last in thrusting the image of Ruth from his mind.
There was a light in the ground-floor window. He raised his head and shouted:
The door opened.
"Hello, Kirk. That you? Come along in. You're just in time for the main performance."
He caught sight of Mamie standing beside Kirk.
"Who's that?" he cried. For a moment he thought it was Ruth, and his honest heart leaped at the thought that his scheme had worked already and brought Kirk and her together again.
"It's me, Steve," said Mamie in her small voice. And Steve, as he heard it, was seized with the first real qualm he had had since he had embarked upon his great adventure.
As Kirk had endeavoured temporarily to forget Ruth, so had he tried not to think of Mamie. It was the only thing he was ashamed of in the whole affair, the shock he must have given her.
"Hello, Mamie," he said sheepishly, and paused. Words did not come readily to him.
Mamie entered the house without speaking. It seemed to Steve that invective would have been better than this ominous silence. He looked ruefully at her retreating back and turned to greet Kirk.
"You're mighty late," he said.
"I only got your telegram toward the end of the afternoon. I had been away all day. I came here as fast as I could hit it up directly I read it. We had a blow-out, and that delayed us."
Steve ventured a question.
"Say, Kirk, why 'us,' while we're talking of it? How does Mamie come to be here?"
"She insisted on coming. It seems that everybody in the house was away to-day, so she tells me, so she came round to me with your note."
"I guess this has put me in pretty bad with Mamie," observed Steve regretfully. "Has she been knocking me on the trip?"
"Not a word."
Steve brightened, but became subdued again next moment.
"I guess she's just saving it," he said resignedly.
"Steve, what made you do it?"
"Oh, I reckoned you could do with having the kid to yourself for a spell," said Steve awkwardly.
"You're all right, Steve. But how did you manage it? I shouldn't have thought it possible."
"Oh, it wasn't so hard, that part. I just hid in the house, and--but say, let's forget it; it makes me feel kind of mean, somehow. It seems to me I may have lost Mamie her job. It's mighty hard to do the right thing by every one in this world, ain't it? Come along in and see the kid. He's great. Are you feeling ready for supper? Him and me was just going to start."
It occurred to Kirk for the first time that he was hungry.
"Have you got anything to eat, Steve?"
Steve brightened again.
"Have we?" he said. "We've got everything there is in Connecticut! Why, say, we're celebrating. This is our big day. Know what's happened? Why--"
He stopped short, as if somebody had choked him. They had gone into the sitting-room while he was speaking. The table was laid for supper. A chafing-dish stood at one end, and the remainder of the available space was filled with a collection of foods, from cold chicken to candy, which did credit to Steve's imagination.
But it was not the sight of these that checked his flow of speech. It was the look on Mamie's face as he caught sight of it in the lamplight. The White Hope was sitting at the table in the attitude of one who has heard the gong and is anxious to begin; while Mamie, bending over him, raised her head as the two men entered and fixed Steve with a baleful stare.
"What have you been doing to the poor mite?" she demanded fiercely, "to get his face scratched this way?"
There was no doubt about the scratch. It was a long, angry red line running from temple to chin. The White Hope, becoming conscious of the fact that the attention of the public was upon him, and diagnosing the cause, volunteered an explanation.
"Bad boy," he said, and looked meaningly again at the candy.
"What does he mean by 'bad boy'?"
"Just what he says, Mamie, honest. Gee! you don't think I done it, do you?"
"Have you been letting the precious lamb fight?" cried Mamie, her eyes two circles of blue indignation.
Steve's enthusiasm overcame his sense of guilt. He uttered a whoop.
"Letting him! Gee! Listen to her! Why, say, that kid don't have to be let! He's a scrapper from Swatville-on-the-Bingle. Honest! That's what all this food is about. We're celebrating. This is a little supper given in his honour by a few of his admirers and backers, meaning me. Why, say, Kirk, that kid of yours is just the greatest thing that ever happened. Get that chafing-dish going and I'll tell you all about it."
"How did he come by that scratch?" said Mamie, coldly sticking to her point.
"I'll tell you quick enough. But let's start in on the eats first. You wouldn't keep a coming champ waiting for his grub, would you? Look how he's lamping that candy."
"Were you going to let the poor mite stuff himself with candy, Steve Dingle?"
"Sure. Whatever he says goes. He owns the joint after this afternoon."
Mamie swiftly removed the unwholesome delicacy.
Kirk was busying himself with the chafing-dish.
"What have you got in here, Steve?"
"Lobster, colonel. I had to do thirty miles to get it, too."
Mamie looked at him fixedly.
"Were you going to feed lobster to this child?" she asked with ominous calm. "Were you intending to put him to bed full of broiled lobster and marshmallows?"
"Nix on the rough stuff, Mamie," pleaded the embarrassed pugilist. "How was I to know what kids feed on? And maybe he would have passed up the lobster at that and stuck to the sardines."
"Ain't kids allowed sardines?" said Steve anxiously. "The guy at the store told me they were wholesome and nourishing. It looked to me as if that ought to hit young Fitzsimmons about right. What's the matter with them?"
"A little bread-and-milk is all that he ever has before he goes to bed."
Steve detected a flaw in this and hastened to make his point.
"Sure," he said, "but he don't win the bantam-weight champeenship of Connecticut every night."
"Is that what he's done to-day, Steve?" asked Kirk.
"It certainly is. Ain't I telling you?"
"That's the trouble. You're not. You and Mamie seem to be having a discussion about the nourishing properties of sardines and lobster. What has been happening this afternoon?"
"Bad boy," remarked William Bannister with his mouth full.
"That's right," said Steve. "That's it in a nutshell. Say, it was this way. It seemed to me that, having no kid of his own age to play around with, his nibs was apt to get lonesome, so I asked about and found that there was a guy of the name of Whiting living near here who had a kid of the same age or thereabouts. Maybe you remember him? He used to fight at the feather-weight limit some time back. Called himself Young O'Brien. He was a pretty good scrapper in his time, and now he's up here looking after some gent's prize dogs.
"Well, I goes to him and borrows his kid. He's a scrappy sort of kid at that and weighs ten pounds more than his nibs; but I reckoned he'd have to do, and I thought I could stay around and part 'em if they got to mixing it."
Mamie uttered an indignant exclamation, but Kirk's eyes were gleaming proudly.
"Well?" he said.
Steve swallowed lobster and resumed.
"Well, you know how it is. You meet a guy who's been in the same line of business as yourself and you find you've got a heap to talk about. I'd never happened across the gink Whiting, but I knew of him, and, of course, he'd heard of me, and we got to discussing things. I seen him lose on a foul to Tommy King in the eighteenth round out in Los Angeles, and that kept us busy talking, him having it that he hadn't gone within a mile of fouling Tommy and me saying I'd been in a ring-seat and had the goods on him same as if I'd taken a snap-shot. Well, we was both getting pretty hot under the collar about it when suddenly there's the blazes of a noise behind us, and there's the two kids scrapping all over the lot. The Whiting kid had started it, mind you, and him ten pounds heavier than Bill, and tough, too."
The White Hope confirmed this.
"Bad boy," he remarked, and with a deep breath resumed excavating work on a grapefruit.
"Well, I was just making a jump to separate them when this Whiting gook says, 'Betcha a dollar my kid wins!' and before I knew what I was doing I'd taken him. It wasn't that that stopped me, though. It was his saying that his kid took after his dad and could eat up anything of his own age in America. Well, darn it, could I take that from a slob of a mixed-ale scrapper when it was handed out at the finest kid that ever came from New York?"
"Of course not," said Kirk indignantly, and even Mamie forbore to criticize. She bent over the White Hope and gave his grapefruit-stained cheek a kiss.
"Well, I should say not!" cried Steve. "I just hollered to his nibs, 'Soak it to him, kid! for the honour of No. 99'; and, believe me, the young bear-cat sort of gathered himself together, winked at me, and began to hammer the stuffing out of the scrappy kid. Say, there wasn't no sterilized stuff about his work. You were a regular germ, all right, weren't you squire?"
"Germ," agreed the White Hope. He spoke drowsily.
"Gee!" Steve resumed his saga in a whirl of enthusiasm. "Gee! if they're right to start with, if they're born right, if they've got the grit in them, you can't sterilize it out of 'em if you use up half the germ-killer in the country. From the way that kid acted you'd have thought he'd been spending the last year in a training-camp. The other kid rolled him over, but he come up again as if that was just the sort of stuff he liked, and pretty soon I see that he's uncovered a yellow streak in the Whiting kid as big as a barn door. You were on it, weren't you, colonel?"
But the White Hope had no remarks to offer this time. His head had fallen forward and was resting peacefully in his grapefruit.
"He's asleep," said Mamie.
She picked him up gently and carried him out.
"He's a champeen at that too," said Steve. "I had to pull him out of the hay this morning. Well, I guess he's earned it. He's had a busy day."
"What happened then, Steve?"
"Why, after that there wasn't a thing to it. Whiting, poor simp, couldn't see it. 'Betcha ten dollars my kid wins,' he hollers. 'He's got him going.' 'Take you,' I shouts; and at that moment the scrappy kid sees it's all over, so he does the old business of fouling, same as his pop done when he fought Tommy King. It's in the blood, I guess. He takes and scratches poor Bill on the cheek."
"That was enough for me. I jumps in. 'All over,' I says. 'My kid wins on a foul.' 'Foul nothing,' says Whiting. 'It was an accident, and you lose because you jumped into the fight, same as Connie McVey did when Corbett fought Sharkey. Think you can get away with it, pulling that old-time stuff?' I didn't trouble to argue with him. 'Oh,' I says, 'is that it? Say, just take a slant at your man. If you don't stop him quick he'll be in Texas.'
"For the scrappy kid was beating it while the going was good and was half a mile away, running hard. Well, that was enough even for the Whiting guy. 'I guess we'll call it a draw,' he says, 'and all bets off.' I just looks at him and says, quite civil and polite: 'You darned half-baked slob of a rough-house scrapper,' I says, 'it ain't a draw or anything like it. My kid wins, and I'll trouble you now to proceed to cash in with the dough, or else I'm liable to start something.' So he paid up, and I took the White Hope indoors and give him a wash and brush-up, and we cranks up the bubble and hikes off to the town and spends the money on getting food for the celebration supper. And what's over I slips into the kid's pocket and says: 'That's your first winner's end, kid, and you've earned it.'"
Steve paused and filled his glass.
"I'm on the waggon as a general thing nowadays," he said; "but I reckon this an occasion. Right here is where we drink his health."
And, overcome by his emotion, he burst into discordant song.
"Fo-or he's a jolly good fellow," bellowed Steve. "For he's a jolly good fellow. For he's--"
There was a sound of quick footsteps outside, and Mamie entered the room like a small whirlwind.
"Be quiet!" she cried. "Do you want to wake him?"
"Wake him?" said Steve. "You can't wake that kid with dynamite."
He raised his glass.
"Ladeez'n gentlemen, the boy wonder! Here's to him! The bantam-weight champeen of Connecticut. The Sixty-First Street Cyclone! The kid they couldn't sterilize! The White Hope!"
"The White Hope!" echoed Kirk.
"Fo-or he's a jolly good fellow--" sang Steve.
"Be quiet!" said Mrs. Porter from the doorway, and Steve, wheeling round, caught her eye and collapsed like a pricked balloon.