The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter V. Wherein Opposites Agree
The maid who opened the door showed a reluctance to let Bailey in. She said that Mrs. Porter was busy with her writing and had given orders that she was not to be disturbed.
Nothing could have infuriated Bailey more. He, Bailey Bannister, was to be refused admittance because this preposterous woman wished to write! It was the duty of all decent citizens to stop her writing. If it had not been for her and her absurd books Ruth would never have made it necessary for him to pay this visit at all.
"Kindly take my card to Mrs. Porter and tell her that I must see her at once on a matter of the utmost urgency," he directed.
The domestic workers of America had not been trained to stand up against Bailey's grand manner. The maid vanished meekly with the card, and presently returned and requested him to step in.
Bailey found himself in a comfortable room, more like a man's study than a woman's boudoir. Books lined the walls. The furniture was strong and plain. At the window, on a swivel-chair before a roll-top desk, Mrs. Porter sat writing, her back to the door.
"The gentleman, ma'am," announced the maid.
"Sit down," said his aunt, without looking round or ceasing to write.
The maid went out. Bailey sat down. The gentle squeak of the quill pen continued.
"I have called this morning----"
The left hand of the writer rose and waggled itself irritably above her left shoulder.
"Aunt Lora," spoke Bailey sternly.
"Shish!" said the authoress. Only that and nothing more. Bailey, outraged, relapsed into silence. The pen squeaked on.
After what seemed to Bailey a considerable time, the writing ceased. It was succeeded by the sound of paper vigorously blotted. Then, with startling suddenness, Mrs. Porter whirled round on the swivel-chair, tilted it back, and faced him.
"Well, Bailey?" she said.
She looked at Bailey. Bailey looked at her. Her eyes had the curious effect of driving out of his head what he had intended to say.
"Well?" she said again.
He tried to remember the excellent opening speech which he had prepared in the cab.
"Good gracious, Bailey!" cried Mrs. Porter, "you have not come here and ruined my morning's work for the pleasure of looking at me surely? Say something."
Bailey found his voice.
"I have called to see Ruth, who, I am informed, is with you."
"She is in her room. I made her breakfast in bed. Is there any message I can give her?"
Bailey suddenly remembered the speech he had framed in the cab.
"Aunt Lora," he said, "I am sorry to have to intrude upon you at so early an hour, but it is imperative that I see Ruth and ask her to explain the meaning of a most disturbing piece of news that has come to my ears."
Mrs. Porter did not appear to have heard him.
"A man of your height should weigh more," she said. "What is your weight?"
"My weight; beside the point----"
"Your weight is under a hundred and forty pounds, and it ought to be over a hundred and sixty. Eat more. Avoid alcohol. Keep regular hours."
"I wish to see my sister."
"You will have to wait. What did you wish to see her about?"
"That is a matter that concerns----No! I will tell you, for I believe you to be responsible for the whole affair."
"Last night, quite by chance, I found out that Ruth has for some time been paying visits to the studio of an artist."
Mrs. Porter nodded.
"Quite right. Mr. Kirk Winfield. She is going to marry him."
Bailey's hat fell to the floor. His stick followed. His mouth opened widely. His glasses shot from his nose and danced madly at the end of their string.
"It will be a most suitable match in every way," said Mrs. Porter.
Bailey bounded to his feet.
"It's incredible!" he shouted. "It's ridiculous! It's abominable! It's--it's incredible!"
Mrs. Porter gazed upon his transports with about the same amount of interest which she would have bestowed upon a whirling dervish at Coney Island.
"You have not seen Mr. Winfield, I gather?"
"When I do, he will have reason to regret it. I----"
Bailey sat down.
"Ruth and Mr. Winfield are both perfect types. Mr. Winfield is really a splendid specimen of a man. As to his intelligence, I say nothing. I have ceased to expect intelligence in man, and I am grateful for the smallest grain. But physically, he is magnificent. I could not wish dear Ruth a better husband."
Bailey had pulled himself together with a supreme effort and had achieved a frozen calm.
"Such a marriage is, of course, out of the question," he said.
"My sister cannot marry a--a nobody, an outsider----"
"Mr. Winfield is not a nobody. He is an extraordinarily healthy young man."
"Are you aware that Ruth, if she had wished, could have married a prince?"
"She told me. A little rat of a man, I understand. She had far too much sense to do any such thing. She has a conscience. She knows what she owes to the future of the----"
"Bah!" cried Bailey rudely.
"I suppose," said Mrs. Porter, "that, like most men, you care nothing for the future of the race? You are not interested in eugenics?"
Bailey quivered with fury at the word, but said nothing.
"If you have ever studied even so elementary a subject as the colour heredity of the Andalusian fowl----"
The colour heredity of the Andalusian fowl was too much for Bailey.
"I decline to discuss any such drivel," he said, rising. "I came here to see Ruth, and--"
"And here she is," said Mrs. Porter.
The door opened, and Ruth appeared. She looked, to Bailey, insufferably radiant and pleased with herself.
"Bailey!" she cried. "Whatever brings my little Bailey here, when he ought to be working like a good boy in Wall Street?"
"I will tell you," Bailey's demeanour was portentous.
"He's frowning," said Ruth. "You have been stirring his hidden depths, Aunt Lora!"
"Bailey, don't! You don't know how terrible you look when you're roused."
"Ruth, kindly answer me one question. Aunt Lora informs me that you are going to marry this man Winfield. Is it or is it not true?"
"Of course it's true."
Bailey drew in his breath. He gazed coldly at Ruth, bowed to Mrs. Porter, and smoothed the nap of his hat.
"Very good," he said stonily. "I shall now call upon this Mr. Winfield and thrash him." With that he walked out of the room.
He directed his cab to the nearest hotel, looked up Kirk's address in the telephone-book, and ten minutes later was ringing the studio bell.
A look of relief came into George Pennicut's eyes as he opened the door. To George, nowadays, every ring at the bell meant a possible visit from Lora Delane Porter.
"Is Mr. Kirk Winfield at home?" inquired Bailey.
"Yes, sir. Who shall I say, sir?"
"Kindly tell Mr. Winfield that Mr. Bannister wishes to speak to him."
"Yes, sir. Will you step this way, sir?"
Bailey stepped that way.
* * * * *
While Bailey was driving to the studio in his taxicab, Kirk, in boxing trunks and a sleeveless vest, was engaged on his daily sparring exercise with Steve Dingle.
This morning Steve seemed to be amused at something. As they rested, at the conclusion of their fifth and final round, Kirk perceived that he was chuckling, and asked the reason.
"Why, say," explained Steve, "I was only thinking that it takes all kinds of ivory domes to make a nuttery. I ran across a new brand of simp this morning. Just before I came to you I'm scheduled to show up at one of these Astorbilt homes t'other side of the park. First I mix it with the old man, then son and heir blows in and I attend to him.
"Well, this morning, son acts like he's all worked up. He's one of these half-portion Willie-boys with Chippendale legs, but he throws out a line of talk that would make you wonder if it's safe to let him run around loose. Says his mind's made up; he's going to thrash a gink within an inch of his life; going to muss up his features so bad he'll have to have 'em replanted.
"'Why?' I says. 'Never you mind,' says he. 'Well, who is he?' I asks. What do you think happens then? He thinks hard for a spell, rolls his eyes, and says: 'Search me. I've forgotten.' 'Know where he lives?' I asks him. 'Nope,' he says.
"Can you beat it! Seems to me if I had a kink in my coco that big I'd phone to an alienist and have myself measured for a strait-jacket. Gee! You meet all kinds, going around the way I do."
Kirk laughed and lit a cigarette.
"If you want to use the shower, Steve," he said, "you'd better get up there now. I shan't be ready yet awhile. Then, if this is one of your energetic mornings and you would care to give me a rub-down----"
"Sure," said Steve obligingly. He picked up his clothes and went upstairs to the bathroom, which, like the bedrooms, opened on to the gallery. Kirk threw himself on the couch, fixed his eyes on the ceiling, and began to think of Ruth.
"Mr. Bannister," announced George Pennicut at the door.
Kirk was on his feet in one bound. The difference, to a man whose mind is far away, between "Mr. Bannister" and "Miss Bannister" is not great, and his first impression was that it was Ruth who had arrived.
He was acutely conscious of his costume, and was quite relieved when he saw, not Ruth, but a severe-looking young man, who advanced upon him in a tight-lipped, pop-eyed manner that suggested dislike and hostility. The visitor was a complete stranger to him, but, his wandering wits returning to their duties, he deduced that this must be one of Ruth's relatives.
It is a curious fact that the possibility of Ruth having other relatives than Mrs. Porter had not occurred to him till now. She herself filled his mind to such an extent that he had never speculated on any possible family that might be attached to her. To him Ruth was Ruth. He accepted the fact that she was Mrs. Porter's niece. That she might also be somebody's daughter or sister had not struck him. The look on Bailey's face somehow brought it home to him that the world was about to step in and complicate the idyllic simplicity of his wooing.
Bailey, meanwhile, as Kirk's hundred and eighty pounds of bone and muscle detached themselves from the couch and loomed up massively before him, was conscious of a weakening of his determination to inflict bodily chastisement. The truth of Steve's remark, that it made a difference whether one's intended victim is a heavyweight, a middle, or a welter, came upon him with some force.
Kirk, in a sleeveless vest that showed up his chest and shoulders was not an inviting spectacle for a man intending assault and battery. Bailey decided to confine himself to words. There was nothing to be gained by a vulgar brawl. A dignified man of the world avoided violence.
It was at this point that Steve, having bathed and dressed, came out on the gallery. The voices below halted him, and the sound of Bailey's decided him to remain where he was. Steve was not above human curiosity, and he was anxious to know the reason for Bailey's sudden appearance.
"That is my name. It is familiar to you. My sister," said Bailey bitterly, "has made it so."
"Won't you sit down?" said Kirk.
"No, thank you. I will not detain you long, Mr. Winfield."
"My dear fellow! There's no hurry. Will you have a cigarette?"
"No, thank you."
Kirk was puzzled by his visitor's manner. So, unseen in the shadows of the gallery, was Steve.
"I can say what I wish to say in two words, Mr. Winfield," said Bailey. "This marriage is quite out of the question."
"My father would naturally never consent to it. As soon as he hears of what has happened he will forbid it absolutely. Kindly dismiss from your mind entirely the idea that my sister will ever be permitted to marry you, Mr. Winfield."
Steve, in the gallery, with difficulty suppressed a whoop of surprise. Kirk laughed ruefully.
"Aren't you a little premature, Mr. Bannister? Aren't you taking a good deal for granted?"
"In what way?"
"Well, that Miss Bannister cares the slightest bit for me, for instance; that I've one chance in a million of ever getting her to care the slightest bit for me?"
Bailey was disgusted at this futile attempt to hide the known facts of the case from him.
"You need not trouble to try and fool me, Mr. Winfield," he said tartly. "I know everything. I have just seen my sister, and she told me herself in so many words that she intended to marry you."
To his amazement he found his hand violently shaken.
"My dear old man!" Kirk was stammering in his delight. "My dear old sport, you don't know what a weight you've taken off my mind. You know how it is. A fellow falls in love and instantly starts thinking he hasn't a chance on earth. I hadn't a notion she felt that way about me. I'm not fit to shine her shoes. My dear old man, if you hadn't come and told me this I never should have had the nerve to say a word to her.
"You're a corker. You've changed everything. You'll have to excuse me. I must go to her. I can't wait a minute. I must rush and dress. Make yourself at home here. Have you breakfasted? George! George! Say, George, I've got to rush away. See that Mr. Bannister has everything he wants. Get him some breakfast. Good-bye, old man." He gripped Bailey's hand once more. "You're all right. Good-bye!"
He sprang for the staircase. George Pennicut turned to the speechless Bailey.
"How would it be if I made you a nice cup of hot tea and a rasher of 'am, sir?" he inquired with a kindly smile.
Bailey eyed him glassily, then found speech.
"Go to hell!" he shouted. He strode to the door and shot into the street, a seething volcano.
George, for his part, was startled, but polite.
"Yes, sir," he said. "Very good, sir," and withdrew.
Kirk, having reached the top of the stairs, had to check the wild rush he was making for the bathroom in order not to collide with Steve, whom he found waiting for him with outstretched hand and sympathetic excitement writ large upon his face.
"Excuse me, squire," said Steve, "I've been playing the part of Rubberneck Rupert in that little drama you've just been starring in. I just couldn't help listening. Say, this mitt's for you. Shake it! So you're going to marry Bailey's sister, Ruth, are you? You're the lucky guy. She's a queen!"
"Do you know her, Steve?"
"Do I know her! Didn't I tell you I was the tame physical instructor in that palace? I wish I had a dollar for every time I've thrown the medicine-ball at her. Why, I'm the guy that gave her that figure of hers. She don't come to me regular, like Bailey and the old man, but do I know her? I should say I did know her."
Kirk shook his hand.
"You're all right, Steve!" he said huskily, and vanished into the bathroom. A sound as of a tropical deluge came from within.
Steve hammered upon the door. The downpour ceased.
"Say!" called Steve.
"I don't want to discourage you, squire, but----"
The door opened and Kirk's head appeared.
"What's the matter?"
"Well, you heard what Bailey said?"
"About his father?"
"Sure. It goes."
Kirk came out into the gallery, towelling himself vigorously.
"Who is her father?" he asked, seating himself on the rail.
"He's a son of a gun," said Steve with emphasis. "As rich as John D. pretty nearly and about as chummy as a rattlesnake. Were you thinking of calling and asking him for a father's blessing?"
"Something of the sort, I suppose."
"Forget it! He'd give you the hook before you'd got through asking if you might call him daddy."
"You're comforting, Steve. They call you Little Sunbeam at home, don't they?"
"Hell!" said Steve warmly, "I'm not shooting this at you just to make you feel bad. I gotta reason. I want to make you see this ain't going to be no society walk-over, with the Four Hundred looking on from the pews and poppa signing cheques in the background. Say, did I ever tell you how I beat Kid Mitchell?"
"Does it apply to the case in hand?"
"Does it what to the which?"
"Had it any bearing on my painful position? I only ask, because that's what is interesting me most just now, and, if you're going to change the subject, there's a chance that my attention may wander."
"Sure it does. It's a--what d'you call it when you pull something that's got another meaning tucked up its sleeve?"
"That's right. A--what you said. Well, this Kid Mitchell was looked on as a coming champ in those days. He had cleaned up some good boys, while I had only gotten a rep about as big as a nickel with a hole in it. I guess I looked pie to him. He turkey-trotted up to me for the first round and stopped in front of me as if he was wondering what had blown in and whether the Gerry Society would stand for his hitting it. I could see him thinking 'This is too easy' as plain as if he'd said it. And then he took another peek at me, as much as to say, 'Well, let's get it over. Where shall I soak him first?' And while he's doing this I get in range and I put my left pretty smart into his lunch-wagon and I pick up my right off the carpet and hand it to him, and down he goes. And when he gets up again it's pretty nearly to-morrow morning and I've drawn the winner's end and gone home."
"And the moral?"
"Why, don't spar. Punch! Don't wait for the wallop. Give it."
"Why, when old man Bannister says: 'Nix! You shall never marry my child!' come back at him by saying: 'Thanks very much, but I've just done it!'"
"Good heavens, Steve!"
"You'll never win out else. You don't know old man Bannister. I do."
The door-bell rang.
"Who on earth's that?" said Kirk. "It can't be Bailey back again."
"Good morning, Pennicut," spoke the clear voice of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter. "I wish to see Mr. Winfield."
"Yes, ma'am. He's upstairs in 'is bath!"
"I will wait in the studio."
"Good Lord!" cried Kirk, bounding from his seat on the rail. "For Heaven's sake, Steve, go and talk to her while I dress. I'll be down in a minute."
"Sure. What's her name?"
"Mrs. Porter. You'll like her. Tell her all about yourself--where you were born, how much you are round the chest, what's your favourite breakfast food. That's what she likes to chat about. And tell her I'll be down in a second."
Steve, reaching the studio, found Mrs. Porter examining the boxing-gloves which had been thrown on a chair.
"Eight-ounce, ma'am," he said genially, by way of introduction. "Kirk'll be lining up in a moment. He's getting into his rags."
Mrs. Porter looked at him with the gimlet stare which made her so intensely disliked by practically every man she knew.
"Are you a friend of Mr. Winfield?" she said.
"Sure. We just been spieling together up above. He sent me down to tell you he won't be long."
Mrs. Porter concluded her inspection.
"What is your name?"
"You are extraordinarily well developed. You have unusually long arms for a man of your height."
"Yep. I got a pretty good reach."
"Are you an artist?"
"An artist. A painter."
Steve smiled broadly.
"I've been called a good many things, but no one's ever handed me that. No, ma'am, I'm a has-been."
"I beg your pardon."
"What did you say you were?" asked Mrs. Porter after a pause.
"A has-been. I used to be a middle, but mother kicked, and I quit. All through taking a blue eye home! Wouldn't that jar you?"
"I have no doubt you intend to be explicit----"
"Not on your life!" protested Steve. "I may be a rough-neck, but I've got me manners. I wouldn't get explicit with a lady."
Mrs. Porter sat down.
"We appear to be talking at cross-purposes," she said. "I still do not gather what your profession is or was."
"Why, ain't I telling you? I used to be a middle----"
"What is a middle?"
"Why, it's in between the light-heavies and the welters. I was a welter when I broke into the fighting game, but----"
"Now I understand. You are a pugilist?"
"Used to be. But mother kicked."
"You don't get me, ma'am. When I say she kicked, I mean my blue eye threw a scare into her, and she put a crimp in my career. Made me quit when I should have been champ in another couple of fights."
"I am afraid I cannot follow these domestic troubles of yours. And why do you speak of your blue eye? Your eyes are brown."
"This one wasn't. It was the fattest blue eye you ever seen. I ran up against a short right hook. I put him out next round, ma'am, mind you, but that didn't help me any with mother. Directly she seen me blue eye she said: 'That'll be all from you, Steve. You stop it this minute.' So I quit. But gee! It's tough on a fellow to have to sit out of the game and watch a bunch of cheeses like this new crop of middle-weights swelling around and calling themselves fighters when they couldn't lick a postage-stamp, not if it was properly trained. Hell! Beg pardon, ma'am."
"I find you an interesting study, Mr. Dingle," said Mrs. Porter thoughtfully. "I have never met a pugilist before. Do you box with Mr. Winfield?"
"Sure. Kirk and me go five rounds every morning."
"You have been boxing with him to-day? Then perhaps you can tell me if an absurd young man in eye-glasses has called here yet? He is wearing a grey----"
"Do you mean Bailey, ma'am. Bailey Bannister?"
"You know my nephew, Mr. Dingle?"
"Sure. I box with him every morning."
"I never expected to hear that my nephew Bailey did anything so sensible as to take regular exercise. He does not look as if he did."
"He certainly is a kind o' half-portion, ma'am. But say, if he's your nephew, Miss Ruth's your niece."
"Then you know all about this business?"
"Which business, Mr. Dingle?"
"Why, Kirk and Miss Ruth."
Mrs. Porter raised her eyebrows.
"Really, Mr. Dingle! Has Mr. Winfield made you his confidant?"
"Has Mr. Winfield told you about my niece and himself?"
"Hell, no! You don't find a real person like Kirk shooting his head about that kind of thing. I had it from Bailey."
"Surest thing you know. He blew in here and shouted it all out at the top of his voice."
"Indeed! I was wondering if he had arrived yet. He left my apartment saying he was going to thrash Mr. Winfield. I came here to save him from getting hurt. Was there any trouble?"
"Not so's you could notice it. I guess when he'd taken a slant at Kirk he thought he wouldn't bother to swat him. Say, ma'am--"
"Whose corner are you in for this scrap?"
"I don't understand you."
"Well, are you rooting for Kirk, or are you holding the towel for old man Bannister?"
"You mean, do I wish Mr. Winfield to marry my niece?"
"Most certainly I do. It was I who brought them together."
"Bully for you! Well, say, I just been shooting the dope into Kirk upstairs. I been--you didn't happen to read the report of a scrap I once had with a gazook called Kid Mitchell, did you, ma'am?"
"I seldom, I may say never, read the sporting section of the daily papers."
Steve looked at her in honest wonder.
"For the love of Pete! What else do you find to read in 'em?" he said. "Well, I was telling Kirk about it. The Kid came at me to soak me, but I soaked him first and put him out. It's the only thing to do, ma'am, when you're up against it. Get in the first wallop before the other guy can get himself set for his punch. 'Kirk,' I says, 'don't you wait for old man Bannister to tell you you can't marry Miss Ruth. Marry her before he can say it.' I wish you'd tell him the same thing, ma'am. You know the old man as well as I do--better, I guess--and you know that Kirk ain't got a chance in a million with him if he don't rush him. Ain't that right?"
"Mr. Dingle," said Mrs. Porter, "I should like to shake you by the hand. It is amazing to me to find such sound sense in a man. You have expressed my view exactly. If I have any influence with Mr. Winfield, he shall marry my niece to-day. You are a man of really exceptional intelligence, Mr. Dingle."
"Aw, check it with your hat, ma'am!" murmured Steve modestly. "Nix on the bouquets! I'm only a roughneck. But I fall for Miss Ruth, and there ain't many like Kirk, so I'd like to see them happy. It would sure get my goat the worst way to have the old man gum the game for them."
"I cannot understand a word you say," said Mrs. Porter, "but I fancy we mean the same thing. Here comes Mr. Winfield at last. I will speak to him at once."
"Spiel away, ma'am," said Steve. "The floor's yours."
Kirk entered the studio.