The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XV. Mrs. Porter's Waterloo
Of the little band of revellers it would be hard to say which was the most taken aback at this invasion. The excitement of the moment had kept them from hearing the sound of the automobile which Mrs. Porter, mistrusting the rough road that led to the shack, had stopped some distance away.
Perhaps, on the whole, Kirk was more surprised than either of his companions. Their guilty consciences had never been quite free from the idea of the possibility of pursuit; but Kirk, having gathered from Mamie that neither Ruth nor her aunt was aware of what had happened, had counted upon remaining undisturbed till the time for return came on the morrow.
He stood staring at Ruth, who had followed Mrs. Porter into the room.
Mrs. Porter took charge of the situation. She was in her element. She stood with one hand resting on the table as if she were about to make an after-dinner speech--as indeed she was.
Lora Delane Porter was not dissatisfied with the turn events had taken. On the whole, perhaps, it might be said that she was pleased. She intended, when she began to speak, to pulverize Kirk and the abandoned young woman whom he had selected as his partner in his shameful escapade, but in this she was swayed almost entirely by a regard for abstract morality.
As concerned Ruth, she felt that the situation was, on the whole, the best thing that could have happened. To her Napoleonic mind, which took little account of the softer emotions, concerning itself entirely with the future of the race, Kirk had played his part and was now lagging superfluous on the stage. His tendency, she felt, was to retard rather than to assist William Bannister's development. His influence, such as it was, clashed with hers. She did not forget that there had been a time when Ruth, having practically to choose between them, had chosen to go Kirk's way and had abandoned herself to a life which could only be considered unhygienic and retrograde. Her defeat in the matter of Whiskers, the microbe-harbouring dog from Ireland, still rankled.
It was true that in what might be called the return match she had utterly routed Kirk; but until this moment she had always been aware of him as an opponent who might have to be reckoned with. She was quite convinced that it would be in the best interests of everybody, especially of William Bannister, if he could be eliminated. There were signs of human weakness in Ruth which sometimes made her uneasy. Ruth, she told herself, might "bear the torch," but when it came to "not faltering" she was less certain of her.
Ruth, it was true, had behaved admirably in the matter of the upbringing of William from the moment of her conversion till now, but might she not at any moment become a backslider and fill the white-tiled nursery with abominable long-haired dogs? Most certainly she might. In a woman who had once been a long-haired dogist there are always possibilities of a relapse into long-haired dogism, just as in a converted cannibal there are always possibilities of a return to the gods of wood and stone and the disposition to look on his fellow-man purely in the light of breakfast-food.
For these reasons Mrs. Porter was determined to push home her present advantage, to wipe Kirk off the map as an influence in Ruth's life. It was her intention, having recovered William Bannister and bathed him from head to foot in a weak solution of boric acid, to stand over Ruth while she obtained a divorce. That done, she would be in a position to defy Kirk and all his antagonistic views on the subject of the hygienic upbringing of children.
She rapped the table and prepared to speak.
Even a Napoleon, however, may err from lack of sufficient information; and there was a flaw in her position of which she was unaware. From the beginning of the drive to the end of it Ruth had hardly spoken a word, and Mrs. Porter, in consequence, was still in ignorance of what had been happening that day in Wall Street and the effect of these happenings on her niece's outlook on life. Could she have known it, the silent girl beside her had already suffered the relapse which she had feared as a remote possibility.
Ruth's mind during that drive had been in a confusion of regrets and doubts and hopes. There were times when she refused absolutely to believe the story of Kirk's baseness which her aunt poured into her ear during the first miles of the journey. It was absurd and incredible. Yet, as they raced along the dark roads, doubt came to her and would not be driven out.
A single unfortunate phrase of Kirk's, spoken in haste, but remembered at leisure, formed the basis of this uncertainty. That afternoon when he had left her he had said that Mamie was the real mother of the child. Could it be that Mamie's undeviating devotion to the boy had won the love which she had lost? It was possible. Considered in the light of what Mrs. Porter had told her, it seemed, in her blackest moments, certain.
She knew how wrapped up in the boy Kirk had been. Was it not a logical outcome of his estrangement from herself that he should have turned for consolation to the one person in sympathy with him in his great love for his child?
She tried to read his face as he stood looking at her now, but she could find no hope in it. The eyes that met hers were cold and expressionless.
Mrs. Porter rapped the table a second time.
"Mr. Winfield," she said in the metallic voice with which she was wont to cow publishers insufficiently equipped with dash and enterprise in the matter of advertising treatises on the future of the race, "I have no doubt you are surprised to see us. You appear to be looking your wife in the face. It speaks well for your courage but badly for your sense of shame. If you had the remnants of decent feeling in you, you would be physically incapable of the feat. If you would care to know how your conduct strikes an unprejudiced spectator, I may tell you that I consider you a scoundrel of the worst type and unfit to associate with any but the low company in which I find you."
Steve, who had been listening with interest, and indeed, a certain relish while Kirk was, as he put it to himself, "getting his" in this spirited fashion, started at the concluding words of the address, which, in his opinion, seemed slightly personal. He had long ago made up his mind that Lora Delane Porter, though an entertaining woman and, on the whole, more worth while than a moving-picture show, was quite mad; but, he felt, even lunatics ought to realize that there is a limit to what they may say.
He moaned protestingly, and rashly, for he drew the speaker's attention upon himself.
"This person," went on Mrs. Porter, indicating Steve with a wave of her hand which caused him to sidestep swiftly and throw up an arm, as had been his habit in the ring when Battling Dick or Fighting Jack endeavoured to blot him out with a right swing, "who, I observe, retains the tattered relics of a conscience, seeing that he winces, you employed to do the only dangerous part of your dirty work. I hope he will see that he gets his money. In his place I should be feeling uneasy."
"Ma'am!" protested Steve.
Mrs. Porter silenced him with a gesture.
"Be quiet!" she said.
Steve was quiet.
Mrs. Porter returned to Kirk.
Of all her burning words, Kirk had not heard one. His eyes had never left Ruth's. Like her, he was trying to read a message from a face that seemed only cold. In this crisis of their two lives he had no thought for anybody but her. He had a sense of great issues, of being on the verge of the tremendous; but his brain felt numbed and heavy. He could not think. He could see nothing except her eyes.
His inattention seemed to communicate itself to Mrs. Porter. She rapped imperatively upon the table for the third time. The report galvanized Steve, as, earlier in the day, a similar report had galvanized Mr. Penway; but Kirk did not move.
Still Kirk made no sign that he had heard her. It was discouraging, but Lora Delane Porter was not made of the stuff that yields readily to discouragement. She resumed:
"As for this wretched girl"--she indicated the silent Mamie with a wave of her hand--"this abandoned creature whom you have led astray, this shameless partner of your----"
The exclamation came from Steve, and it stopped Mrs. Porter like a bullet. To her this interruption from one whom she had fallen upon and wiped out resembled a voice from the tomb. She was not accustomed to having her victims rise up and cut sharply, even peremptorily, into the flow of her speech. Macbeth, confronted by the ghost of Banquo, may have been a little more taken aback, but not much.
She endeavoured to quell Steve with a glance, but it was instantly apparent that he was immune for the time being to quelling glances. His brown eyes were fixed upon her in a cold stare which she found arresting and charged with menace. His chin protruded and his upper lip was entirely concealed behind its fellow in a most uncomfortable manner.
She had never had the privilege of seeing Steve in the active exercise of his late profession, or she would have recognized the look. It was the one which proclaims the state of mind commonly known as "being fighting mad," and in other days had usually heralded a knock-out for some too persistent opponent.
"Say, ma'am, you want to cut that out. That line of talk don't go."
Great is the magic of love that can restore a man in an instant of time from being an obsequious wreck to a thing of fire and resolution. A moment before Steve's only immediate object in life had been to stay quiet and keep out of the way as much as possible. He had never been a man of ready speech in the presence of an angry woman; words intimidated him as blows never did, especially the whirl of words which were at Lora Delane Porter's command in moments of emotion.
But this sudden onslaught upon Mamie, innocent Mamie who had done nothing to anybody, scattered his embarrassment and filled him with much the same spirit which sent bantam-weight knights up against heavy-weight dragons in the Middle Ages. He felt inspired.
"Nix on the 'abandoned creature,'" he said with dignity. "You're on the wrong wire! This here lady is my affianced wife!"
He went to Mamie and, putting his arm round her waist, pressed her to him. He was conscious, as he did so, of a sensation of wonderment at himself. This was the attitude he had dreamed of a thousand times and had been afraid to assume. For the last three years he had been picturing himself in precisely this position, and daily had cursed the lack of nerve which had held him back. Yet here he was, and it had all happened in a moment. A funny thing, life.
"What!" exclaimed Mrs. Porter.
"Sure thing," said Steve. His coolness, the ease with which he found words astonished him as much as his rapidity of action.
"I stole the kid," he said, "and it was my idea at that. Kirk didn't know anything about it. I wired to him to-day what I had done and that he was to come right along. And," added Steve in a burst of inspiration, "I said bring along Mamie, too, as the kid's used to her and there ought to be a woman around. And she could be here, all right, and no harm, she being my affianced wife." He liked that phrase. He had read it in a book somewhere, and it was the goods.
He eyed Mrs. Porter jauntily. Mrs. Porter's gaze wavered. She was not feeling comfortable. Hers was a nature that did not lend itself easily to apologies, yet apologies were obviously what the situation demanded. The thought of all the eloquence which she had expended to no end added to her discomfort. For the first time she was pleased that Kirk had so manifestly not been listening to a word of it.
"Oh!" she said.
"That puts a different complexion on this affair."
She paused once more. It was some moments before she could bring herself to speak. She managed it at last.
"I beg your pardon," she said.
"Mine, ma'am?" said Steve grandly. Five minutes before, the idea that he could ever speak grandly to Lora Delane Porter would have seemed ridiculous to him; but he was surprised at nothing now.
"And the young wom---- And the future Mrs. Dingle's," said Mrs. Porter with an effort.
"Thank you, ma'am," said Steve, and released Mamie, who forthwith bolted from the room like a scared rabbit.
Steve had started to follow her when Mrs. Porter, magnificent woman, snatching what was left from defeat, stopped him.
"Wait!" she said. "What you have said alters the matter in one respect; but there is another point. On your own confession you have been guilty of the extremely serious offence, the penal offence of kidnapping a child who--"
"Drop me a line about it, ma'am," said Steve. "Me time's rather full just now."
He disappeared into the outer darkness after Mamie.
* * * * *
In the room they had left, Kirk and Ruth faced each other in silence. Lora Delane Porter eyed them grimly. It was the hour of her defeat, and she knew it. Forces too strong for her were at work. Her grand attack, the bringing of these two together that Ruth might confront Kirk in his guilt, had recoiled upon her. The Old Guard had made their charge up the hill, and it had failed. Victory had become a rout. With one speech Steve had destroyed her whole plan of campaign.
She knew it was all over, that in another moment if she remained, she would be compelled to witness the humiliating spectacle of Ruth in Kirk's arms, stammering the words which intuition told her were even now trembling on her lips. She knew Ruth. She could read her like a primer. And her knowledge told her that she was about to capitulate, that all her pride and resentment had been swept away, that she had gone over to the enemy.
Elemental passions were warring against Lora Delane Porter, and she bowed before them.
"Mr. Winfield," she said sharply, her voice cutting the silence like a knife, "I beg your pardon. I seem to have made a mistake. Good night."
Kirk did not answer.
"Good night, Ruth."
Ruth made no sign that she had heard.
Mrs. Porter, grand in defeat, moved slowly to the door.
But even in the greatest women there is that germ of feminine curiosity which cannot be wholly eliminated, that little grain of dust that asserts itself and clogs the machinery. It had been Mrs. Porter's intention to leave the room without a glance, her back defiantly toward the foe. But, as she reached the door, there came from behind her a sound of movement, a stifled cry, a little sound whose meaning she knew too well.
She hesitated. She stood still, fighting herself. But the grain of dust had done its work. For an instant she ceased to be a smoothly working machine and became a woman subject to the dictates of impulse.
Intuition had not deceived her. Ruth had gone over to the enemy. She was in Kirk's arms, holding him to her, her face hidden against his shoulder, for all the world as if Lora Delane Porter, her guiding force, had ceased to exist.
Mrs. Porter closed the door and walked stiffly through the scented night to where the headlights of her automobile cleft the darkness. Birds, asleep in the trees, fluttered uneasily at the sudden throbbing of the engine.