The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VII. Sufficient Unto Themselves
Some months after John Bannister had spoken his ultimatum in the library two drought-stricken men met on the Rialto. It was a close June evening, full of thirst.
"I could do with a drink," said the first man. "Several."
"My tongue is black clear down to the roots," said the second.
"Let's go up to Kirk Winfield's," proposed the first man, inspired.
"Not for me," said the other briefly. "Haven't you heard about Kirk? He's married!"
"And when I say married, I mean married. She's old John Bannister's daughter, you know, and I guess she inherits her father's character. She's what I call a determined girl. She seems to have made up her mind that the old crowd that used to trail around the studio aren't needed any longer, and they've been hitting the sidewalk on one ear ever since the honeymoon.
"If you want to see her in action, go up there now. She'll be perfectly sweet and friendly, but somehow you'll get the notion that you don't want to go there again, and that she can bear up if you don't. It's something in her manner. I guess it's a trick these society girls learn. You've seen a bouncer handling a souse. He doesn't rough-house him. He just puts his arm round his waist and kind of suggests he should leave the place. Well, it's like that."
"But doesn't Kirk kick? He used to like having us around."
His friend laughed.
"Kick? Kirk? You should see him! He just sits there waiting for you to go, and, when you do go, shuts the door on you so quick you have to jump to keep from getting your coat caught in it. I tell you, those two are about all the company either of them needs. They've got the Newly-weds licked to a whisper."
"It's always the best fellows that get it the worse," said the other philosophically, "and it's always the fellows you think are safe too. I could have bet on Kirk. Six months ago I'd have given you any odds you wanted that he would never marry."
"And I wouldn't have taken you. It's always the way."
The criticisms of the two thirsty men, though prejudiced, were accurate. Marriage had undeniably wrought changes in Kirk Winfield. It had blown up, decentralized, and re-arranged his entire scheme of life. Kirk's was one of those natures that run to extremes. He had been a whole-hearted bachelor, and he was assuredly a much-married man. For the first six months Ruth was almost literally his whole world. His friends, the old brigade of the studio, had dropped away from him in a body. They had visited the studio once or twice at first, but after that had mysteriously disappeared. He was too engrossed in his happiness to speculate on the reasons for this defection: he only knew that he was glad of it.
Their visits had not been a success. Conversation had flowed fitfully. Some sixth sense told him that Ruth, though charming to them all, had not liked them; and he himself was astonished to find what bull dogs they really were. It was odd how out of sympathy he felt with them. They seemed so unnecessary: yet what a large part of his life they had once made up!
Something had come between him and them. What it was he did not know.
Ruth could have told him. She was the angel with the flaming sword who guarded their paradise. Marriage was causing her to make unexpected discoveries with regard to herself. Before she had always looked on herself as a rather unusually reasonable, and certainly not a jealous, woman. But now she was filled with an active dislike for these quite harmless young men who came to try and share Kirk with her.
She knew it was utterly illogical. A man must have friends. Life could not be forever a hermitage of two. She tried to analyse her objection to these men, and came to the conclusion that it was the fact that they had known Kirk before she did that caused it.
She made a compromise with herself. Kirk should have friends, but they must be new ones. In a little while, when this crazy desire to keep herself and him alone together in a world of their own should have left her, they would begin to build up a circle. But these men whose vocabulary included the words "Do you remember?" must be eliminated one and all.
Kirk, blissfully unconscious that his future was being arranged for him and the steering-wheel of his life quietly taken out of his hands, passed his days in a state of almost painful happiness. It never crossed his mind that he had ceased to be master of his fate and captain of his soul. The reins were handled so gently that he did not feel them. It seemed to him that he was travelling of his own free will along a pleasant path selected by himself.
He saw his friends go from him without a regret. Perhaps at the bottom of his heart he had always had a suspicion of contempt for them. He had taken them on their surface value, as amusing fellows who were good company of an evening. There was not one of them whom he had ever known as real friends know each other--not one, except Hank Jardine; and Hank had yet to be subjected to the acid test of the new conditions.
There were moments when the thought of Hank threw a shadow across his happiness. He could let these others go, but Hank was different. And something told him that Ruth would not like Hank.
But these shadows were not frequent. Ruth filled his life too completely to allow him leisure to brood on possibilities of future trouble.
Looking back, it struck him that on their wedding-day they had been almost strangers. They had taken each other blindly, trusting to instinct. Since then he had been getting to know her. It was astonishing how much there was to know. There was a fresh discovery to be made about her every day. She was a perpetually recurring miracle.
The futility of his old life made him wince whenever he dared think of it. How he had drifted, a useless log on a sluggish current!
He was certainly a whole-hearted convert. As to Saul of Tarsus, so to him there had come a sudden blinding light. He could hardly believe that he was the same person who had scoffed at the idea of a man giving up his life to one woman and being happy. But then the abstract wife had been a pale, bloodless phantom, and Ruth was real.
It was the realness of her that kept him in a state of perpetual amazement. To see her moving about the studio, to touch her, to look at her across the dinner-table, to wake in the night and hear her breathing at his side.... It seemed to him that centuries might pass, yet these things would still be wonderful.
And always in his heart there was the gratitude for what she had done for him. She had given up everything to share his life. She had weighed him in the balance against wealth and comfort and her place among the great ones of the world, and had chosen him. There were times when the thought filled him with a kind of delirious pride: times, again, when he felt a grateful humility that made him long to fall down and worship this goddess who had stooped to him.
In a word, he was very young, very much in love, and for the first time in his life was living with every drop of blood in his veins.
* * * * *
Hank returned to New York in due course. He came to the studio the same night, and he had not been there five minutes before a leaden weight descended on Kirk's soul. It was as he had feared. Ruth did not like him.
Hank was not the sort of man who makes universal appeal. Also, he was no ladies' man. He was long and lean and hard-bitten, and his supply of conventional small talk was practically non-existent. To get the best out of Hank, as has been said, you had to let him take his coat off and put his feet up on the back of a second chair and reconcile yourself to the pestiferous brand of tobacco which he affected.
Ruth conceded none of these things. Throughout the interview Hank sat bolt upright, tucking a pair of shoes of the dreadnought class coyly underneath his chair, and drew suspiciously at Turkish cigarettes from Kirk's case. An air of constraint hung over the party. Again and again Kirk hoped that Hank would embark on the epic of his life, but shyness kept Hank dumb.
He had heard, on reaching New York, that Kirk was married, but he had learned no details, and had conjured up in his mind the vision of a jolly little girl of the Bohemian type, who would make a fuss over him as Kirk's oldest friend. Confronted with Ruth, he lost a nerve which had never before failed him. This gorgeous creature, he felt, would never put up with those racy descriptions of wild adventures which had endeared him to Kirk. As soon as he could decently do so, he left, and Kirk, returning to the studio after seeing him out, sat down moodily, trying to convince himself against his judgment that the visit had not been such a failure after all.
Ruth was playing the piano softly. She had turned out all the lights except one, which hung above her head, shining on her white arms as they moved. From where he sat Kirk could see her profile. Her eyes were half closed.
The sight of her, as it always did, sent a thrill through him, but he was conscious of an ache behind it. He had hoped so much that Hank would pass, and he knew that he had not. Why was it that two people so completely one as Ruth and himself could not see Hank with the same eyes?
He knew that she had thought him uncouth and impossible. Why could not Hank have exerted himself more, instead of sitting there in that stuffed way? Why could not Ruth have unbent? Why had not he himself done something to save the situation? Of the three, he blamed himself most. He was the one who should have taken the lead and made things pleasant for everybody instead of forcing out conversational platitudes.
Once or twice he had caught Hank's eye, and had hated himself for understanding what it said and not being able to deny it. He had marked the end of their old relationship, the parting of the ways, and that a tragedy had been played out that night.
He found himself thinking of Hank as of a friend who had died. What times they had had! How smoothly they had got on together! He could not recall a single occasion on which they had fallen out, from the time when they had fought as boys at the prep. school and cemented their friendship the next day. After that there had been periods when they had parted, sometimes for more than a year, but they had always come together again and picked up the threads as neatly as if there had been no gap in their intimacy.
He had gone to college: Hank had started on the roving life which suited his temperament. But they had never lost touch with each other. And now it was all over. They would meet again, but it would not be the same. The angel with the flaming sword stood between them.
For the first time since the delirium of marriage had seized upon him, Kirk was conscious of a feeling that all was not for the best in a best of all possible worlds, a feeling of regret, not that he had married--the mere thought would have been a blasphemy--but that marriage was such a complicated affair. He liked a calm life, free from complications, and now they were springing up on every side.
There was the matter of the models. Kirk had supposed that it was only in the comic papers that the artist's wife objected to his employing models. He had classed it with the mother-in-law joke, respecting it for its antiquity, but not imagining that it ever really happened. And Ruth had brought this absurd situation into the sphere of practical politics only a few days ago.
Since his marriage Kirk had dropped his work almost entirely. There had seemed to be no time for it. He liked to spend his days going round the stores with Ruth, buying her things, or looking in at the windows of Fifth Avenue shops and choosing what he would buy her when he had made his fortune. It was agreed upon between them that he was to make his fortune some day.
Kirk's painting had always been more of a hobby with him than a profession. He knew that he had talent, but talent without hard work is a poor weapon, and he had always shirked hard work. He had an instinct for colour, but his drawing was uncertain. He hated linework, while knowing that only through steady practice at linework could he achieve his artistic salvation. He was an amateur, and a lazy amateur.
But once in a while the work fever would grip him. It had gripped him a few days before Hank's visit. An idea for a picture had come to him, and he had set to work upon it with his usual impulsiveness.
This had involved the arrival of Miss Hilda Vince at the studio. There was no harm in Miss Vince. Her morals were irreproachable. She supported a work-shy father, and was engaged to be married to a young gentleman who travelled for a hat firm. But she was of a chatty disposition and no respecter of persons. She had posed frequently for Kirk in his bachelor days, and was accustomed to call him by his first name--a fact which Kirk had forgotten until Ruth, who had been out in the park, came in.
Miss Vince was saying at the moment: "So I says to her, 'Kirk's just phoned to me to sit.' 'What! Kirk!' she says. 'Is he doin' a bit of work for a change? Well, it's about time.' 'Aw, Kirk don't need to work,' I says. 'He's a plute. He's got it in gobs.' So----"
"I didn't know you were busy, dear," said Ruth. "I won't interrupt you."
She went out.
"Was that your wife?" inquired Miss Vince. "She's got a sweet face. Say, I read the piece about you and her in the paper. You certainly got a nerve, Kirk, breaking in on the millionaires that way."
That night Ruth spoke her mind about Miss Vince. It was in vain that Kirk touched on the work-shy father, dwelt feelingly on the young gentleman who travelled in hats. Ruth had made up her mind. It was thumbs down for Miss Vince.
"But if I'm to paint," said Kirk, "I must have models."
"There must be hundreds who don't call you by your Christian name."
"After about five minutes they all do," said Kirk. "It's a way they've got. They mean no harm."
Ruth then made this brilliant suggestion: "Kirk, dear, why don't you paint landscapes?"
In spite of his annoyance, he laughed.
"Why don't I paint landscapes, Ruth? Because I'm not a landscape painter, that's why."
"You could learn."
"It's a different branch of the trade altogether. You might just as well tell a catcher to pitch."
"Well, anyhow," reported Ruth with spirit, "I won't have that Vince creature in the place again."
It was the first time she had jerked at the reins or given any sign that she was holding them, and undoubtedly this was the moment at which Kirk should have said: "My dearest, the time has come for me to state plainly that my soul is my own. I decline to give in to this absurd suggestion. Marriage is an affair of give and take, not a circus where one party holds the hoop while the other jumps through and shams dead. We shall be happier later on if we get this clearly into our heads now."
What he did say was: "Very well, dear. I'll write and tell her not to come."
He knew he was being abominably weak, but he did not care. He even felt a certain pleasure in his surrender. Big, muscular men are given to this feebleness with women. Hercules probably wore an idiotic grin of happiness when he spun wool for Omphale.
Since then the picture had been laid aside, but Kirk's desire to be up and at it had grown with inaction. When a lazy man does make up his mind to assail a piece of work, he is like a dog with a bone.
* * * * *
The music had stopped. Ruth swung round.
"What are you dreaming about Kirk?"
Kirk came to himself with a start.
"I was thinking of a lot of things. For one, about that picture of mine."
"What about it?"
"Well, when I was going to finish it."
"Why don't you?"
"Where's my model? You've scared her up a tree, and I can't coax her down."
Ruth came over to him and sat down on a low chair at his side. She put her arm round his waist and rested her head in the hollow of his shoulder.
"Is he pining for his horrid Vince girl, the poor boy?"
"He certainly is," said Kirk. "Or at any rate, for some understudy to her."
"We must think. Do they all call you Kirk?"
"I've never met one who didn't."
"What horrible creatures you artists are!"
"My dear kid, you don't understand the thing at all. When you're painting a model she ceases to be a girl at all. You don't think of her as anything except a sort of lay-figure."
"Good gracious! Does your lay-figure call you Kirk too?"
"It always looks as if it were going to."
"It's a repulsive thing. I hate it. It gives me the creeps. I came in here last night and switched on the light, and there it was, goggling at me."
"Are you getting nervous?"
Ruth's face grew grave.
"Do you know, Kirk, I really believe I am. This morning as I was dressing, I suddenly got the most awful feeling that something terrible was going to happen. I don't know what. It was perfectly vague. I just felt a kind of horror. It passed off in a moment or two; but, while it lasted--ugh!"
"How ghastly! Why didn't you tell me before? You must be run down. Look here, let's shut up this place and get out to Florida or somewhere for the winter!"
"Let's don't do anything of the kind. Florida indeed! For the love of Mike, as Steve would say, it's much too expensive. You know, Kirk, we are both frightfully extravagant. I'm sure we are spending too much money as it is. You know you sold out some of your capital only the other day."
"It was only that once. And you had set your heart on that pendant. Surely to goodness, if I drag you away from a comfortable home to live in a hovel, the least I can do is to----"
"You didn't drag me. I just walked in and sat down, and you couldn't think how to get rid of me, so in despair you married me."
"That was it. And now I've got to set to work and make a fortune and--what do you call it?--support you in the style to which you have been accustomed. Which brings us back to the picture. I don't suppose I shall get ten dollars for it, but I feel I shall curl up and die if I don't get it finished. Are you absolutely determined about the Vince girl?"
"I'm adamant. I'm granite. I'm chilled steel. Oh! Kirk, can't you find a nice, motherly old model, with white hair and spectacles? I shouldn't mind her calling you by your first name."
"But it's absurd. I told you just now that an artist doesn't look on his models as human beings while----"
"I know. I've read all about that in books, and I believed it then. Why, when I married you, I said to myself: 'I mustn't be foolish. Kirk's an artist, I mustn't be a comic-supplement wife and object to his using models!' Oh, I was going to be so good and reasonable. You would have loved me! And then, when it came to the real thing, I found I just could not stand it. I know it's silly of me. I know just as well as you do that Miss Vince is quite a nice girl really, and is going to make a splendid Mrs. Travelling Salesman, but that doesn't help me. It's my wicked nature, I suppose. I'm just a plain cat, and that's all there is to it. Look at the way I treat your friends!"
"You jumped!" said Ruth. "You jerked my head. Do you think I didn't know you had noticed it? I knew how unhappy you were when Mr. Jardine was here, and I just hated myself."
"Didn't you like Hank?" asked Kirk.
Ruth was silent for a moment.
"I wish you would," Kirk went on. "You don't know what a real white man old Hank is. You didn't see him properly that night. He was nervous. But he's one of the very best God ever made. We've known each other all our lives. He and I----"
"Don't tell me!" cried Ruth. "Don't you see that that's just the reason why I can't like him? Don't tell me about the things you and he did together, unless you want me to hate him. Don't you understand, dear? It's the same with all your friends. I'm jealous of them for having known you before I did. And I hate these models because they come into a part of your life into which I can't. I want you all to myself. I want to be your whole life. I know it's idiotic and impossible, but I do."
"You are my whole life," said Kirk seriously. "I wasn't born till I met you. There isn't a single moment when you are not my whole life."
She pressed her head contentedly against his arm.
"Let me pose for your picture."
"What! You couldn't!"
"It's terribly hard work. It's an awful strain."
"I'm sure I'm as strong as that Vince girl. You ask Steve; he's seen me throw the medicine-ball."
"But posing is different. Hilda Vince has been trained for it."
"Well let me try, at any rate."
"Do! And I'll promise to like your Hank and not put on my grand manner when he begins telling me what fun you and he used to have in the good old days before I was born or thought of. May I?"
"You dear! I'll be the best model you ever had. I won't move a muscle, and I'll stand there till I drop."
"You'll do nothing of the kind. You'll come right down off that model-throne the instant you feel the least bit tired."
* * * * *
The picture which Kirk was painting was one of those pictures which thousands of young artists are working on unceasingly every day. Kirk's ideas about it were in a delightfully vague state. He had a notion that it might turn out in the end as "Carmen." On the other hand, if anything went wrong and he failed to insert a sufficient amount of wild devilry into it, he could always hedge by calling it "A Reverie" or "The Spanish Maiden."
Possibly, if the thing became too pensive and soulful altogether, he might give it some title suggestive of the absent lover at the bull-fight--"The Toreador's Bride"--or something of that sort. The only point on which he was solid was that it was to strike the Spanish note; and to this end he gave Ruth a costume of black and orange and posed her on the model-throne with a rose in her hair.
Privately he had decided that ten minutes would be Ruth's limit. He knew something of the strain of sitting to an artist.
"Tired?" he asked at the end of this period.
Ruth shook her head and smiled.
"You must be. Come and sit down and take a rest."
"I'm quite all right, dear. Go on with your work."
"Well, shout out the moment you feel you've had enough."
He began to paint again. The minutes went by and Ruth made no movement. He began to grow absorbed in his work. He lost count of time. Ruth ceased to be Ruth, ceased even to be flesh and blood. She was just something he was painting.
The sharp suddenness of the cry brought him to his feet, quivering. Ruth was swaying on the model-throne. Her eyes were staring straight before her and her face was twisted with fear.
As he sprang forward she fell, pitching stiffly head foremost, as he had seen men fall in the ring, her arms hanging at her sides; and he caught her.
He carried her to the couch and laid her down. He hung for an instant in doubt whether to go for water or telephone for the doctor. He decided on the telephone.
He hung up the receiver and went back to Ruth. She stirred and gave a little moan. He flew upstairs and returned with a pitcher of water. When he got back Ruth was sitting up. The look of terror was gone from her face. She smiled at him, a faint, curiously happy smile. He flung himself on his knees beside her, his arm round her waist, and burst into a babble of self-reproach.
He cursed himself for being such a brute, such a beast as to let her stand there, tiring herself to death. She must never do it again. He was a devil. He ought to have known she could not stand it. He was not fit to be married. He was not fit to live.
Ruth ruffled his hair.
"Stop abusing my husband," she said. "I'm fond of him. Did you catch me, Kirk?"
"Yes, thank God. I got to you just in time."
"That's the last thing I remember, wondering if you would. You seemed such miles and miles away. It was like looking at something in a mist through the wrong end of a telescope. Oh, Kirk!"
"It came again, that awful feeling as if something dreadful was going to happen. And then I felt myself going." She paused. "Kirk, I think I know now. I understand; and oh, I'm so happy!"
She buried her face on his shoulder, and they stayed there silent, till there came a ring at the bell. Kirk got up. George Pennicut ushered in the doctor. It was the same little old doctor who had ministered to George in his hour of need.
"Feeling better, Mrs. Winfield?" he said, as he caught sight of Ruth. "Your husband told me over the 'phone that you were unconscious."
"She fainted," cried Kirk. "It was all through me. I-----"
The doctor took him by the shoulders. He had to stretch to do it.
"You go away, young man," he said. "Take a walk round the block. You aren't on in this scene."
* * * * *
Kirk was waiting in the hall when he left a few minutes later.
"Well?" he said anxiously.
"Well?" said the little doctor.
"Is she all right? There's nothing wrong, is there?"
The doctor grinned a friendly grin.
"On the contrary," he said. "You ought to be very pleased."
"What do you mean?"
"It's quite a commonplace occurrence, though I suppose it will seem like a miracle to you. But, believe me, it has happened before. If it hadn't, you and I wouldn't be here now."
Kirk looked at him in utter astonishment. His words seemed meaningless. And then, suddenly, he understood, and his heart seemed to stand still.
"You don't mean-----" he said huskily.
"Yes, I do," said the doctor. "Good-bye, my boy. I've got to hurry off. You caught me just as I was starting for the hospital."
* * * * *
Kirk went back to the studio, his mind in a whirl. Ruth was lying on the couch. She looked up as the door opened. He came quickly to her side.
"Ruth!" he muttered.
Her eyes were shining with a wonderful light of joy. She drew his head down and kissed him.
"Oh, Kirk," she whispered. "I'm happy. I'm happy. I've wanted this so."
He could not speak. He sat on the edge of the couch and looked at her. She had been wonderful to him before. She was a thousand times more wonderful now.