The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VI. Breaking the News
Old John Bannister returned that night. Learning from Bailey's trembling lips the tremendous events that had been taking place in his absence, he was first irritated, then coldly amused. His coolness dampened, while it comforted, Bailey.
A bearer of sensational tidings likes to spread a certain amount of dismay and terror; but, on the other hand, it was a relief to him to find that his father appeared to consider trivial a crisis which, to Bailey, had seemed a disaster without parallel in the annals of American social life.
"She said she was going to marry him!"
Old Bannister opened the nut-cracker mouth that always had the appearance of crushing something. His pale eyes glowed for an instant.
"Did she?" he said.
"She seemed very--ah--determined."
Silence falling like a cloud at this point, Bailey rightly conjectured that the audience was at an end and left the room. His father bit the end off a cigar and began to smoke.
Smoking, he reviewed the situation, and his fighting spirit rose to grapple with it. He was not sorry that this had happened. His was a patriarchal mind, and he welcomed opportunities of exercising his authority over his children. It had always been his policy to rule them masterfully, and he had often resented the fact that his daughter, by the nature of things, was to a great extent outside his immediate rule.
During office hours business took him away from her. The sun never set on his empire over Bailey, but it needed a definite crisis like the present one to enable him to jerk at the reins which guided Ruth, and he was glad of the chance to make his power felt.
The fact that this affair brought him into immediate contact with Mrs. Porter added to his enjoyment. Of all the people, men or women, with whom his business or social life had brought him into conflict, she alone had fought him squarely and retired with the honours of war. When his patriarchal mind had led him to bully his late wife, it was Mrs. Porter who had fought her cause. It was Mrs. Porter who openly expressed her contempt for his money and certain methods of making it. She was the only person in his immediate sphere over whom he had no financial hold.
He was a man who liked to be surrounded by dependents, and Mrs. Porter stoutly declined to be a dependent. She moved about the world, blunt and self-sufficing, and he hated her as he hated no one else. The thought that she had now come to grips with him and that he could best her in open fight was pleasant to him. All his life, except in his conflicts with her, he had won. He meant to win now.
Bailey's apprehensions amused him. He had a thorough contempt for all actors, authors, musicians, and artists, whom he classed together in one group as men who did not count, save in so far as they gave mild entertainment to the men who, like himself, did count. The idea of anybody taking them seriously seemed too fantastic to be considered.
Of affection for his children he had little. Bailey was useful in the office, and Ruth ornamental at home. They satisfied him. He had never troubled to study their characters. It had never occurred to him to wonder if they were fond of him. They formed a necessary part of his household, and beyond that he was not interested in them. If he had ever thought about Ruth's nature, he had dismissed her as a feminine counterpart of Bailey, than whom no other son and heir in New York behaved so exactly as a son and heir should.
That Ruth, even under the influence of Lora Delane Porter, should have been capable of her present insubordination, was surprising, but the thing was too trivial to be a source of anxiety. The mischief could be checked at once before it amounted to anything.
Bailey had not been gone too long before Ruth appeared. She stood in the doorway looking at him for a moment. Her face was pale and her eyes bright. She was breathing quickly.
"Are you busy, father? I--I want to tell you something."
John Bannister smiled. He had a wintry smile, a sort of muscular affection of the mouth, to which his eyes contributed nothing. He had made up his mind to be perfectly calm and pleasant with Ruth. He had read in novels and seen on the stage situations of this kind, where the father had stormed and blustered. The foolishness of such a policy amused him. A strong man had no need to behave like that.
"I think I have heard it already," he said. "I have just been seeing Bailey."
"What did Bailey tell you, father?"
"That you fancied yourself in love with some actor or artist or other whose name I have forgotten."
"It is not fancy. I do love him."
There was a pause.
"Are you very angry, father?"
"Why should I be? Let's talk it over quietly. There's no need to make a tragedy of it."
"I'm glad you feel like that, father."
John Bannister lit another cigar.
"Tell me all about it," he said.
Ruth found herself surprisingly near tears. She had come into the room with every nerve in her body braced for a supreme struggle. Her father's unexpected gentleness weakened her, exactly as he had foreseen. The plan of action which he had determined upon was that of the wrestler who yields instead of resisting, in order to throw an antagonist off his balance.
"How did it begin?" he asked.
"Well," said Ruth, "it began when Aunt Lora took me to his studio."
"Yes, I heard that it was she who set the whole thing going. She is a friend of this fellow-what is his name?"
"Kirk Winfield. Yes, she seemed to know him quite well."
In spite of her anxiety, Ruth smiled.
"Well, that's all," she said. "I just fell in love with him."
Mr. Bannister nodded.
"You just fell in love with him," he repeated. "Pretty quick work, wasn't it?"
"I suppose it was."
"You just took one look at him and saw he was the affinity, eh?"
"I suppose so."
"And what did he do? Was he equally sudden?"
Ruth laughed. She was feeling quite happy now.
"He would have liked to be, poor dear, but he felt he had to be cautious and prepare the way before telling me. If it hadn't been for Bailey, he might be doing it still. Apparently, Bailey went to him and said I had said I was going to marry him, and Kirk came flying round, and--well, then it was all right."
Mr. Bannister drew thoughtfully at his cigar. He was silent for a few moments.
"Well, my dear," he said at last. "I think you had better consider the engagement broken off."
Ruth looked at him quickly. He still smiled, but his eyes were cold and hard. She realized suddenly that she had been played with, that all his kindliness and amiability had been merely a substitute for the storm which she had expected. After all, it was to be war between them, and she braced herself for it!
"Father!" she cried.
Mr. Bannister continued to puff serenely at his cigar.
"We needn't get worked up about it," he said. "Let's keep right on talking it over quietly."
"Very well," said Ruth. "But, after what you have just said, what is there to talk over?"
"You might be interested to hear my reasons for saying it."
"And I will argue my side."
Mr. Bannister waved his hand gently.
"You don't have to argue. You just listen."
Ruth bit her lip.
"In the first place," said her father, "about this young man. What is he? Bailey says he is an artist. Well, what has he ever done? Why don't I know his name? I buy a good many pictures, but I don't remember ever signing a cheque for one of his. I read the magazines now and then, but I can't recall seeing his signature to any of the illustrations. How does he live, anyway, without going into the question of how he intends to support a wife?"
"Aunt Lora told me he had private means."
"Five thousand dollars a year."
"Exactly the amount necessary to let him live without working. I have him placed now. I know his type. I could show you a thousand men in this city in exactly the same position. They don't starve and they don't work. This young man of yours is a loafer."
Ruth's voice was quiet, but a faint colour had crept into her face and her eyes were blazing.
"Now perhaps you would care to hear what I think of his principles. How do you feel that he comes out of this business? Does he show to advantage? Isn't there just a suspicion of underhandedness about his behaviour?"
"No? He lets you pay these secret visits----"
"There was nothing secret about them--to him. Aunt Lora brought me to the studio in the first place, and she kept on bringing me. I don't suppose it ever occurred to Kirk to wonder who I was and who my father might be. He has been perfectly straight. If you like to say I have been underhanded, I admit it. I have. More so than you imagine. I just wanted him, and I didn't care for anything except that."
"It did not strike you that you owed anything to me, for instance?"
"I should have thought that, as your father, I had certain claims."
Ruth was silent.
Mr. Bannister sighed.
"I thought you were fond of me, Ruth," he said wistfully. It was the wrestler yielding instead of resisting. Ruth's hard composure melted instantly. She flung her arms round his neck in a burst of remorseful affection.
"Of course I am, father dear. You're making this awfully hard for me."
Mr. Bannister chuckled inwardly. It seemed to him that victory was in sight. He always won, he told himself, always.
"I only want you to be sensible."
Ruth stiffened at the word. It jarred upon her. She felt that they were leagues apart, that they could never be in sympathy with each other.
"Father," she said.
"Would you like to see Kirk?"
"I have been wondering when he was going to appear on the scene. I always thought it was customary on these occasions for the young man to present himself in person, and not let the lady fight his battles for him. Is this Mr. Winfield a little deficient in nerve?"
Ruth flushed angrily.
"I particularly asked Kirk not to come here before I had seen you. I insisted on it. Naturally, he wanted to."
There was a sneer in his voice which he did not try to hide. It flicked Ruth like a whip. Her painfully preserved restraint broke up under it.
"Do you think Kirk is afraid of you, father?"
"It crossed my mind."
"He is not."
"I have only your word for it."
"You can have his if you want it. There is the telephone. You can have him here in ten minutes if you want to see him."
"A very good idea. But, as it happens, I do not want to see him. There is no necessity. His views on this matter do not interest me. I----"
There was a hurried knock at the door. Bailey burst in, ruffled and wild as to the eyes.
"Father," he cried, "I don't want to interrupt you, but that infernal woman, Aunt Lora, has arrived, and says she won't go till she has seen you. She's downstairs now."
"Not now," said Lora Delane Porter, moving him to one side and entering the room. "I thought it would be a comfort to you, Ruth, to have me with you to help explain exactly how matters stand. Good evening, John. Go away, Bailey. Now let us discuss things quietly."
"She is responsible for the whole thing, father," cried Bailey.
Mr. Bannister rose.
"There is nothing to discuss," he said shortly. "I have no wish to speak to you at all. As you appear to have played a large part in this affair, I may as well tell you that it is settled. Ruth will not marry Mr. Winfield."
Lora Delane Porter settled herself comfortably in a chair. She drew off her gloves and placed them on the table.
"Please ask that boy Bailey to go," she said. "He annoys me. I cannot marshal my thoughts in his presence."
Quelled by her eye, Bailey removed himself. His father remained standing. Ruth, who had risen at her aunt's entry, sat down again. Mrs. Porter looked round the room with some approval.
"You have a nice taste in pictures, John," she said. "That is a Corot, surely, above the mantelpiece?"
"But about this little matter. You dislike the idea of Ruth marrying Mr. Winfield? Have you seen Mr. Winfield?"
"I have not."
"Then how can you possibly decide whether he is a fit husband for Ruth?"
"I know all about him."
"What do you know?"
"What Ruth has told me. That he is a loafer who pretends to be an artist."
"He is a poor artist. I grant you that. His drawing is weak. But are you aware that he is forty-three inches round the chest, six feet tall, and in perfect physical condition?"
"What has that got to do with it?"
"Everything. You have not read my 'Principles of Selection'?"
"I have not."
"I will send you a copy to-morrow."
"I will burn it directly it arrives."
"Then you will miss a great deal of valuable information," said Mrs. Porter tranquilly.
There was a pause. John Bannister glared furiously at Mrs. Porter, but her gaze was moving easily about the room, taking in each picture in turn in a leisurely inspection.
An exclamation from Ruth broke the silence, a sharp cry like that of an animal in pain. She sprang up, her face working, her eyes filled with tears.
"I can't stand it!" she cried. "I can't stand it any longer! Father, Kirk and I were married this afternoon."
Mrs. Porter went quickly to her and put her arm round her. Ruth was sobbing helplessly. The strain had broken her. John Bannister's face was leaden. The veins stood out on his forehead. His mouth twisted dumbly.
Mrs. Porter led Ruth gently to the door and pushed her out. Then she closed it and turned to him.
"So now you know, John," she said. "Well, what are you going to do about it?"
Self-control was second nature with John Bannister. For years he had cultivated it as a commercial asset. Often a fortune had depended on his mastery of his emotions. Now, in an instant, he had himself under control once more. His face resumed its normal expression of cold impassiveness. Only his mouth twitched a little.
"Well?" asked Mrs. Porter.
"Take her away," he said quietly. "Take her out of here. Let her go to him. I have done with her."
"I suppose so," said Mrs. Porter, and left the room.