The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IV. Troubled Waters
It is not easy in this world to take any definite step without annoying somebody, and Kirk, in embarking on his wooing of Ruth Bannister, failed signally to do so. Lora Delane Porter beamed graciously upon him, like a pleased Providence, but the rest of his circle of acquaintances were ill at ease.
The statement does not include Hank Jardine, for Hank was out of New York; but the others--Shanklyn, the actor; Wren, the newspaper-man; Bryce, Johnson, Willis, Appleton, and the rest--sensed impending change in the air, and were uneasy, like cattle before a thunder-storm. The fact that the visits of Mrs. Porter and Ruth to inquire after George, now of daily occurrence, took place in the afternoon, while they, Kirk's dependents, seldom or never appeared in the studio till drawn there by the scent of the evening meal, it being understood that during the daytime Kirk liked to work undisturbed, kept them ignorant of the new development.
All they knew was that during the last two weeks a subtle change had taken place in Kirk. He was less genial, more prone to irritability than of old. He had developed fits of absent-mindedness, and was frequently to be found staring pensively at nothing. To slap him on the back at such moments, as Wren ventured to do on one occasion, Wren belonging to the jovial school of thought which holds that nature gave us hands in order to slap backs, was to bring forth a new and unexpected Kirk, a Kirk who scowled and snarled and was hardly to be appeased with apology. Stranger still, this new Kirk could be summoned into existence by precisely the type of story at which, but a few weeks back, he would have been the first to laugh.
Percy Shanklyn, whose conversation consisted of equal parts of autobiography and of stories of the type alluded to, was the one to discover this. His latest, which he had counted on to set the table in a roar, produced from Kirk criticism so adverse and so crisply delivered that he refrained from telling his latest but one and spent the rest of the evening wondering, like his fellow visitors, what had happened to Kirk and whether he was sickening for something.
Not one of them had the faintest suspicion that these symptoms indicated that Kirk, for the first time in his easy-going life, was in love. They had never contemplated such a prospect. It was not till his conscientious and laborious courtship had been in progress for over two weeks and was nearing the stage when he felt that the possibility of revealing his state of mind to Ruth was not so remote as it had been, that a chance visit of Percy Shanklyn to the studio during the afternoon solved the mystery.
One calls it a chance visit because Percy had not been meaning to borrow twenty dollars from Kirk that day at all. The man slated for the loan was one Burrows, a kindly member of the Lambs Club. But fate and a telegram from a manager removed Burrows to Chicago, while Percy was actually circling preparatory to the swoop, and the only other man in New York who seemed to Percy good for the necessary sum at that precise moment was Kirk.
He flew to Kirk and found him with Ruth. Kirk's utter absence of any enthusiasm at the sight of him, the reluctance with which he made the introduction, the glumness with which he bore his share of the three-cornered conversation--all these things convinced Percy that this was no ordinary visitor.
Many years of living by his wits had developed in Percy highly sensitive powers of observation. Brief as his visit was, he came away as certain that Kirk was in love with this girl, and the girl was in love with Kirk, as he had ever been of anything in his life.
As he walked slowly down-town he was thinking hard. The subject occupying his mind was the problem of how this thing was to be stopped.
Percy Shanklyn was a sleek, suave, unpleasant youth who had been imported by a theatrical manager two years before to play the part of an English dude in a new comedy. The comedy had been what its enthusiastic backer had described in the newspaper advertisements as a "rousing live-wire success." That is to say, it had staggered along for six weeks on Broadway to extremely poor houses, and after three weeks on the road, had perished for all time, leaving Percy out of work.
Since then, no other English dude part having happened along, he had rested, living in the mysterious way in which out-of-work actors do live. He had a number of acquaintances, such as the amiable Burrows, who were good for occasional loans, but Kirk Winfield was the king of them all. There was something princely about the careless open-handedness of Kirk's methods, and Percy's whole soul rose in revolt against the prospect of being deprived of this source of revenue, as something, possibly Ruth's determined chin, told him that he would be, should Kirk marry this girl.
He had placed Ruth at once, directly he had heard her name. He remembered having seen her photograph in the society section of the Sunday paper which he borrowed each week. This was the daughter of old John Bannister. There was no doubt about that. How she had found her way to Kirk's studio he could not understand; but there she certainly was, and Percy was willing to bet the twenty dollars which, despite the excitement of the moment, he had forgotten to extract from Kirk in a hurried conversation at the door, that her presence there was not known and approved by her father.
The only reasonable explanation that Kirk was painting her portrait he dismissed. There had been no signs of any portrait, and Kirk's embarrassment had been so obvious that, if there had been any such explanation, he would certainly have given it. No, Ruth had been there for other reasons than those of art.
"Unchaperoned, too, by Jove!" thought Percy virtuously, ignorant of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter, who at the time of his call, had been busily occupied in a back room instilling into George Pennicut the gospel of the fit body. For George, now restored to health, had ceased to be a mere student of "Elementary Rules for the Preservation of the Body" and had become an active, though unwilling, practiser of its precepts.
Every morning Mrs. Porter called and, having shepherded him into the back room, put him relentlessly through his exercises. George's groans, as he moved his stout limbs along the dotted lines indicated in the book's illustrated plates, might have stirred a faint heart to pity. But Lora Delane Porter was made of sterner stuff. If George so much as bent his knees while touching his toes he heard of it instantly, in no uncertain voice.
Thus, in her decisive way, did Mrs. Porter spread light and sweetness with both hands, achieving the bodily salvation of George while, at the same time, furthering the loves of Ruth and Kirk by leaving them alone together to make each other's better acquaintance in the romantic dimness of the studio.
* * * * *
Percy proceeded down-town, pondering. His first impulse, I regret to say, was to send Ruth's father an anonymous letter. This plan he abandoned from motives of fear rather than of self-respect. Anonymous letters are too frequently traced to their writers, and the prospect of facing Kirk in such an event did not appeal to him.
As he could think of no other way of effecting his object, he had begun to taste the bitterness of futile effort, when fortune, always his friend, put him in a position to do what he wanted in the easiest possible way with the minimum of unpleasantness.
Bailey Bannister, that strong, keen Napoleon of finance, was not above a little relaxation of an evening when his father happened to be out of town. That giant mind, weary with the strain of business, needed refreshment.
And so, at eleven thirty that night, his father being in Albany, and not expected home till next day, Bailey might have been observed, beautifully arrayed and discreetly jovial, partaking of lobster at one of those Broadway palaces where this fish is in brisk demand. He was in company with his rabbit-faced friend, Clarence Grayling, and two members of the chorus of a neighbouring musical comedy.
One of the two, with whom Clarence was conversing in a lively manner that showed his heart had not been irreparably broken as the result of his recent interview with Ruth, we may dismiss. Like Clarence, she is of no importance to the story. The other, who, not finding Bailey's measured remarks very gripping, was allowing her gaze to wander idly around the room, has this claim to a place in the scheme of things, that she had a wordless part in the comedy in which Percy Shanklyn had appeared as the English dude and was on terms of friendship with him.
Consequently, seeing him enter the room, as he did at that moment, she signalled him to approach.
"It's a little feller who was with me in 'The Man from Out West'," she explained to Bailey as Percy made his way toward them. At which Bailey's prim mouth closed with an air of disapproval.
The feminine element of the stage he found congenial to his business- harassed brain, but with the "little fellers" who helped them to keep the national drama sizzling he felt less in sympathy; and he resented extremely his companion's tactlessness in inciting this infernal mummer to intrude upon his privacy.
He prepared to be cold and distant with Percy. And when Bailey, never a ray of sunshine, deliberately tried to be chilly, those with him at the time generally had the sensation that winter was once more in their midst.
Percy, meanwhile, threaded his way among the tables, little knowing that fate had already solved the problem which had worried him the greater part of the day.
He had come to the restaurant as a relief from his thoughts. If he could find some kind friend who would invite him to supper, well and good. If not, he was feeling so tired and depressed that he was ready to take the bull by the horns and pay for his meal himself. He had obeyed Miss Freda Reece's signal because it was impossible to avoid doing so; but one glance at Bailey's face had convinced him that not there was his kind host.
"Why, Perce," said Miss Reece, "I ain't saw you in years. Where you been hiding yourself?"
Percy gave a languid gesture indicative of the man of affairs whose time is not his own.
"Percy," continued Miss Reece, "shake hands with my friend Mr. Bannister. I been telling him about how you made such a hit as the pin in 'Pinafore'!"
The name galvanized Percy like a bugle-blast.
"Mr. Bannister!" he exclaimed. "Any relation to Mr. John Bannister, the millionaire?"
Bailey favoured him with a scrutiny through the gold-rimmed glasses which would have frozen his very spine.
"My father's name is--ah--John, and he is a millionaire."
Percy met the scrutiny with a suave smile.
"By Jove!" he said. "I know your sister quite well, Mr. Bannister. I meet her frequently at the studio of my friend Kirk Winfield. Very frequently. She is there nearly every day. Well, I must be moving on. Got a date with a man. Goodbye, Freda. Glad you're going strong. Good night, Mr. Bannister. Delighted to have made your acquaintance. You must come round to the studio one of these days. Good night."
He moved softly away. Miss Reece watched him go with regret.
"He's a good little feller, Percy," she said. "And so he knows your sister. Well, ain't that nice!"
Bailey did not reply. And to the feast of reason and flow of soul that went on at the table during the rest of the meal he contributed so little that Miss Reece, in conversation that night with her friend alluded to him, not without justice, first as "that stiff," and, later, as "a dead one."
* * * * *
If Percy Shanklyn could have seen Bailey in the small hours of that night he would have been satisfied that his words had borne fruit. Like a modern Prometheus, Bailey writhed, sleepless, on his bed till daylight appeared. The discovery that Ruth was in the habit of paying clandestine visits to artists' studios, where she met men like the little bounder who had been thrust upon him at supper, rent his haughty soul like a bomb.
He knew no artists, but he had read novels of Bohemian life in Paris, and he had gathered a general impression that they were, as a class, shock-headed, unwashed persons of no social standing whatever, extremely short of money and much addicted to orgies. And his sister had lowered herself by association with one of these.
He rose early. His appearance in the mirror shocked him. He looked positively haggard.
Dressing with unwonted haste, he inquired for Ruth, and was told that a telephone message had come from her late the previous evening to say that she was spending the night at the apartment of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter. The hated name increased Bailey's indignation. He held Mrs. Porter responsible for the whole trouble. But for her pernicious influence, Ruth would have been an ordinary sweet American girl, running as, Bailey held, a girl should, in a decent groove.
It increased his troubles that his father was away from New York. Bailey, who enjoyed the dignity of being temporary head of the firm of Bannister & Son, had approved of his departure. But now he would have given much to have him on the spot. He did not doubt his own ability to handle this matter, but he felt that his father ought to know what was going on.
His wrath against this upstart artist who secretly entertained his sister in his studio grew with the minutes. It would be his privilege very shortly to read that scrubby dauber a lesson in deportment which he would remember.
In the interests of the family welfare he decided to stay away from the office that day. The affairs of Bannister & Son would be safe for the time being in the hands of the head clerk. Having telephoned to Wall Street to announce his decision, he made a moody breakfast and then proceeded, as was his custom of a morning, to the gymnasium for his daily exercise.
The gymnasium was a recent addition to the Bannister home. It had been established as the result of a heart-to-heart talk between old John Bannister and his doctor. The doctor spoke earnestly of nervous prostration and stated without preamble the exact number of months which would elapse before Mr. Bannister living his present life, would make first-hand acquaintance with it. He insisted on a regular routine of exercise. The gymnasium came into being, and Mr. Steve Dingle, physical instructor at the New York Athletic Club, took up a position in the Bannister household which he was wont to describe to his numerous friends as a soft snap.
Certainly his hours were not long. Thirty minutes with old Mr. Bannister and thirty minutes with Mr. Bailey between eight and nine in the morning and his duties were over for the day. But Steve was conscientious and checked any disposition on the part of his two clients to shirk work with a firmness which Lora Delane Porter might have envied.
There were moments when he positively bullied old Mr. Bannister. It would have amazed the clerks in his Wall Street office to see the meekness with which the old man obeyed orders. But John Bannister was a man who liked to get his money's worth, and he knew that Steve was giving it to the last cent.
Steve at that time was twenty-eight years old. He had abandoned an active connection with the ring, which had begun just after his seventeenth birthday, twelve months before his entry into the Bannister home, leaving behind him a record of which any boxer might have been proud. He personally was exceedingly proud of it, and made no secret of the fact.
He was a man in private life of astonishingly even temper. The only thing that appeared to have the power to ruffle him to the slightest extent was the contemplation of what he described as the bunch of cheeses who pretended to fight nowadays. He would have considered it a privilege, it seemed, to be allowed to encounter all the middle-weights in the country in one ring in a single night without training. But it appeared that he had promised his mother to quit, and he had quit.
Steve's mother was an old lady who in her day had been the best washerwoman on Cherry Hill. She was, moreover, completely lacking in all the qualities which go to make up the patroness of sport. Steve had been injudicious enough to pay her a visit the day after his celebrated unpleasantness with that rugged warrior, Pat O'Flaherty (ne Smith), and, though he had knocked Pat out midway through the second round, he bore away from the arena a black eye of such a startling richness that old Mrs. Dingle had refused to be comforted until he had promised never to enter the ring again. Which, as Steve said, had come pretty hard, he being a man who would rather be a water-bucket in a ring than a president outside it.
But he had given the promise, and kept it, leaving the field to the above-mentioned bunch of cheeses. There were times when the temptation to knock the head off Battling Dick this and Fighting Jack that became almost agony, but he never yielded to it. All of which suggests that Steve was a man of character, as indeed he was.
Bailey, entering the gymnasium, found Steve already there, punching the bag with a force and precision which showed that the bunch of cheeses ought to have been highly grateful to Mrs. Dingle for her anti-pugilistic prejudices.
"Good morning, Dingle," said Bailey precisely.
Steve nodded. Bailey began to don his gymnasium costume. Steve gave the ball a final punch and turned to him. He was a young man who gave the impression of being, in a literal sense, perfectly square. This was due to the breadth of his shoulders, which was quite out of proportion to his height. His chest was extraordinarily deep, and his stomach and waist small, so that to the observer seeing him for the first time in boxing trunks, he seemed to begin as a big man and, half-way down, change his mind and become a small one.
His arms, which were unusually long and thick, hung down nearly to his knees and were decorated throughout with knobs and ridges of muscle that popped up and down and in and out as he moved, in a manner both fascinating and frightening. His face increased the illusion of squareness, for he had thick, straight eyebrows, a straight mouth, and a chin of almost the minimum degree of roundness. He inspected Bailey with a pair of brilliant brown eyes which no detail of his appearance could escape. And Bailey, that morning, as has been said, was not looking his best.
"You're lookin' kind o' sick, bo," was Steve's comment. "I guess you was hittin' it up with the gang last night in one of them lobster parlours."
Bailey objected to being addressed as "bo," and he was annoyed that Steve should have guessed the truth respecting his overnight movements. Still more was he annoyed that Steve's material mind should attribute to a surfeit of lobster a pallor that was superinduced by a tortured soul.
"I did--ah--take supper last night, it is true," he said. "But if I am a little pale to-day, that is not the cause. Things have occurred to annoy me intensely."
"You should worry!" advised Steve. "Catch!"
The heavy medicine-ball struck Bailey in the chest before he could bring up his hands and sent him staggering back.
"Damn it, Dingle," he gasped. "Kindly give me warning before you do that sort of thing."
Steve was delighted. It amused his simple, honest soul to catch Bailey napping, and the incident gave him a text on which to hang a lecture. And, next to fighting, he loved best the sound of his own voice.
"Warning? Nix!" he said. "Ain't it just what I been telling you every day for weeks? You gotta be ready always. You seen me holding the pellet. You should oughter have been saying to yourself: 'I gotta keep an eye on that gink, so's he don't soak me one with that thing when I ain't looking.' Then you would have caught it and whizzed it back at me, and maybe, if I hadn't been ready for it, you might have knocked the breeze out of me."
"I should have derived no pleasure-----"
"Why, say, suppose a plug-ugly sasshays up to you on the street to take a crack at your pearl stick-pin, do you reckon he's going to drop you a postal card first? You gotta be ready for him. See what I mean?"
"Let us spar," said Bailey austerely. He had begun to despair of ever making Steve show him that deference and respect which he considered due to the son of the house. The more frigid he was, the more genial and friendly did Steve become. The thing seemed hopeless.
It was a pleasing sight to see Bailey spar. He brought to the task the measured dignity which characterized all his actions. A left jab from him had all the majesty of a formal declaration of war. If he was a trifle slow in his movements for a pastime which demands a certain agility from its devotees he at least got plenty of exercise and did himself a great deal of good.
He was perspiring freely as he took off the gloves. A shower-bath, followed by brisk massage at the energetic hands of Steve, made him feel better than he had imagined he could feel after that night of spiritual storm and stress. He was glowing as he put on his clothes, and a certain high resolve which had come to him in the night watches now returned with doubled force.
"Dingle," he said, "how did I seem to-day?"
"Fine," answered Steve courteously. "You're gettin' to be a regular terror."
"You think I shape well?"
"I am glad. This morning I am going to thrash a man within an inch of his life."
Steve spun round. Bailey's face was set and determined.
"You are?" said Steve feebly.
"What's he been doing to you?"
"I am afraid I cannot tell you that. But he richly deserves what he will get."
Steve eyed him with affectionate interest.
"Well, ain't you the wildcat!" he said. "Who'd have thought it? I'd always had you sized up as a kind o' placid guy."
"I can be roused."
"Gee, can't I see it! But, say, what sort of a gook is this gink, anyway?"
"In what respect?"
"Well, I mean is he a heavy or a middle or a welter or what? It makes a kind o' difference, you know."
"I cannot say. I have not seen him."
"What! Not seen him? Then how's there this fuss between you?"
"That is a matter into which I cannot go."
"Well, what's his name, then? Maybe I know him. I know a few good people in this burg."
"I have no objection to telling you that. He is an artist, and his name is--his name is----"
Wrinkles appeared in Bailey's forehead. His eyes bulged anxiously behind their glasses.
"I've forgotten," he said blankly.
"For the love of Mike! Know where he lives?"
"I am afraid not."
Steve patted him kindly on the shoulder.
"Take my advice, bo," he said. "Let the poor fellow off this time."
And so it came about that Bailey, instead of falling upon Kirk Winfield, hailed a taxicab and drove to the apartment of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter.