The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter VIII. Suspense
It seemed to Kirk, as the days went by, that a mist of unreality fell like a curtain between him and the things of this world. Commonplace objects lost their character and became things to marvel at. There was a new bond of sympathy between the world and himself.
A citizen walking in the park with his children became a kind of miracle. Here was a man who had travelled the road which he was travelling now, who had had the same hopes and fear and wonder. Once he encountered a prosperous looking individual moving, like a liner among tugs, in the midst of no fewer than six offspring. Kirk fixed him with such a concentrated stare of emotion and excitement that the other was alarmed and went on his way alertly, as one in the presence of danger. It is probable that, if Kirk had happened to ask him the time at that moment, or indeed addressed him at all, he would have screamed for the police.
The mystery of childbirth and the wonder of it obsessed Kirk as time crept on. And still more was he conscious of the horrible dread that was gathering within him. Ruth's unvarying cheerfulness was to him almost uncanny. None of the doubts and fears which blackened his life appeared to touch her. Once he confided these to his friend, the little doctor, and was thoroughly bullied by him for his foolishness. But in spite of ridicule the fear crept back, cringingly, like a whipped dog.
And then, time moving on its leisurely but businesslike fashion, the day arrived, and for the first time in his life Kirk knew what fear really meant. All that he had experienced till now had, he saw, been a mild apprehension, not worthy of a stronger name. His flesh crawled with the thoughts which rose in his mind like black bubbles in a pond. There were moments when the temptation to stupefy himself with drink was almost irresistible.
It was his utter uselessness that paralysed him. He seemed destined to be of no help to Ruth at just those crises when she needed him most. When she was facing her father with the news of the marriage he had not been at her side. And now, when she was fighting for her life, he could do nothing but pace the empty, quiet studio and think.
The doctor had arrived at eight o'clock, cheery as ever, and had come downstairs after seeing Ruth to ask him to telephone to Mrs. Porter. In his overwrought state, this had jarred upon Kirk. Here, he felt, was somebody who could help where he was useless.
Mrs. Porter had appeared in a cab and had had the cold brutality to ask for a glass of sherry and a sandwich before going upstairs. She put forward the lame excuse that she had not dined. Kirk gave her the sherry and sandwich and resumed his patrol in a glow of indignation. The idea of any one requiring food at this moment struck him as gross and revolting.
His wrath did not last. In a short while fear came back into its own.
The hands of the clock pointed to ten before he stooped to following Mrs. Porter's example. George Pennicut had been sent out, so he went into the little kitchen, where he found eggs, which he mixed with milk and swallowed. After this he was aware of a momentary excess of optimism. The future looked a little brighter. But not for long. Presently he was prowling the studio as restlessly as ever.
Men of Kirk's type are not given to deep thought. Until now he had probably never spent more than a couple of minutes consecutively in self-examination. This vigil forced him upon himself and caused him to pass his character under review, with strange and unsatisfactory results. He had never realised before what a curiously contemptible and useless person he was. It seemed to him that this was all he was fit for--to hang about doing nothing while everybody else was busy and proving his or her own worth.
A door opened and the little doctor came quietly down the stairs. Kirk sprang at him.
"My dear man, everything's going splendidly. Couldn't be better." The doctor's eyes searched his face. "When did you have anything to eat last?"
"I don't know. I had some eggs and milk. I don't know when."
The doctor took him by the shoulders and hustled him into the kitchen, where he searched and found meat and bread.
"Eat that," he said. "I'll have some, too."
"And some whisky. Where do you keep it?"
After the first few mouthfuls Kirk ate wolfishly. The doctor munched a sandwich with the placidity of a summer boarder at a picnic. His calmness amazed and almost shocked Kirk.
"You can't help her by killing yourself," said the doctor philosophically. "I like that woman with the gimlet eyes. At least I don't, but she's got sense. Go on. You haven't done yet. Another highball won't hurt you." He eyed Kirk with some sympathy. "It's a bad time for you, of course."
"For me? Good God!"
"You want to keep your nerve. Nothing awful is going to happen."
"If only there was something I could do."
"'They also serve who only stand and wait,'" quoted the doctor sententiously. "There is something you can do."
"Light your pipe and take it easy."
"I mean it. In a very short while now you will be required to take the stage and embrace your son or daughter, as the case may be. You don't want to appear looking as if you had been run over by an automobile after a night out. You want your appearance to give Mrs. Winfield as little of a shock as possible. Bear that in mind. Well, I must be going."
And Kirk was alone again.
The food and the drink and the doctor's words had a good effect. His mind became quieter. He sat down and filled his pipe. After a few puffs he replaced it in his pocket. It seemed too callous to think of smoking now. The doctor was a good fellow, but he did not understand. All the same, he was glad that he had had that whisky. It had certainly put heart into him for the moment.
What was happening upstairs? He strained his ears, but could hear nothing.
Gradually, as he waited, his mood of morbid self-criticism returned. He had sunk once more into the depths when he was aware of a soft tapping. The door bell rang very gently. He went to the door and opened it.
"I kinder thought I'd look in and see how things were getting along," said a voice.
It was Steve. A subdued and furtive Steve. Kirk's heart leaped at the sight of him. It was as if he had found something solid to cling to in a shifting world.
"Come in, Steve."
He spoke huskily. Steve sidled into the studio, embarrassment written on every line of him.
"Don't mind my butting in, do you? I've been walking up and down and round the block till every cop on the island's standing by waiting for me to pull something. Another minute and they'd have pinched me on suspicion. I just felt I had to come and see how Miss Ruth was making out."
"The doctor was down here just now. He said everything was going well."
"I guess he knows his business."
There was a silence. Kirk's ears were straining for sounds from above.
"It's hell," said Steve.
Kirk nodded. This kind of talk was more what he wanted. The doctor meant well, but he was too professional. Steve was human.
"Go and get yourself a drink, Steve. I expect you need one."
Steve shook his head.
"Waggon," he said briefly. And there was silence again.
"What a wonder she is. Miss Ruth, I mean. I've helped her throw that medicine-ball--often--you wouldn't believe. She's a wonder." He paused. "Say, this is hell, ain't it?"
Kirk did not answer. It was very quiet in the studio now. In the street outside a heavy waggon rumbled part. Somebody shouted a few words of a popular song. Steve sprang to his feet.
"I'll fix that guy," he said. But the singing ceased, and he sat down again.
Kirk got up and began to walk quickly up and down. Steve watched him furtively.
"You want to take your mind off it," he said. "You'll be all in if you keep on worrying about it in that way."
Kirk stopped in his stride.
"That's what the doctor said," he snapped savagely. "What do you two fools think I'm made of?" He recovered himself quickly, ashamed of the outburst. "I'm sorry, Steve. Don't mind anything I say. It's awfully good of you to have come here, and I'm not going to forget it."
Steve scratched his chin reflectively.
"Say, I'll tell you something," he said. "My mother told me once that when I was born my old dad took it just like you. Found he was getting all worked up by having to hang around and do nothing, so he says to himself: 'I've got to take my mind off this business, or it's me for the foolish-house.'
"Well, sir, there was a big guy down on that street who'd been picking on dad good and hard for a mighty long while. And this guy suddenly comes into dad's mind. He felt of his muscle, dad did. 'Gee!' he says to himself, 'I believe the way I'm feeling, I could just go and eat up that gink right away.' And the more he thought of it, the better it looked to him, so all of a sudden he grabs his hat and beats it like a streak down to the saloon on the corner, where he knew the feller would be at that time, and he goes straight up to him and hands him one.
"Back comes the guy at him--he was a great big son of a gun, weighing thirty pounds more than dad--and him and dad mixes it right there in the saloon till the barkeep and about fifty other fellers throws them out, and they goes off to a vacant lot to finish the thing. And dad's so worked up that he gives the other guy his till he hollers that that's all he'll want. And then dad goes home and waits quite quiet and happy and peaceful till they tell him I'm there."
"Kirk," he said then, "how would you like a round or two with the small gloves, just to get things off your mind for a spell and pass the time? My dad said he found it eased him mighty good."
Kirk stared at him.
"Just a couple of rounds," urged Steve. "And you can go all out at that. I shan't mind. Just try to think I'm some guy that's been picking on you and let me have it. See what I mean?"
For the first time that day the faint ghost of a grin appeared on Kirk's face.
"I wonder if you're right, Steve?"
"I know I'm right. And, say, don't think I don't need it, too. I ain't known Miss Ruth all this time for nothing. You'll be doing me a kindness if you knock my face in."
The small gloves occupied a place of honour to themselves in a lower drawer. It was not often that Kirk used them in his friendly bouts with Steve. For ordinary occasions the larger and more padded species met with his approval. Steve, during these daily sparring encounters, was amiability itself; but he could not be counted upon not to forget himself for an occasional moment in the heat of the fray; and though Kirk was courageous enough, he preferred to preserve the regularity of his features at the expense of a little extra excitement.
Once, after a brisk rally, he had gone about the world looking as if he was suffering from mumps, owing to a right hook which no one regretted more than Steve himself.
But to-day was different; and Kirk felt that even a repetition of that lethal punch would be welcome.
Steve, when the contest opened, was disposed to be consolatory in word as well as deed. He kept up a desultory conversation as he circled and feinted.
"You gotta look at it this way," he began, side-stepping a left, "it ain't often you hear of anything going wrong at times like this. You gotta remember"--he hooked Kirk neatly on the jaw--"that" he concluded.
Kirk came back with a swing at the body which made his adversary grunt.
"That's true," he said.
"Sure," rejoined Steve a little breathlessly, falling into a clinch.
They moved warily round each other.
"So," said Steve, blocking a left, "that ought to comfort you some."
Kirk nodded. He guessed correctly that the other was alluding to his last speech, not to the counter which had just made the sight of his left eye a little uncertain.
Gradually, as the bout progressed, Kirk began to lose the slight diffidence which had hampered him at the start. He had been feeling so wonderfully friendly toward Steve, so grateful for his presence, and his sympathy, that it had been hard, in spite of the other's admonitions, to enter into the fray with any real conviction. Moreover, subconsciously, he was listening all the time for sounds from above which never came.
These things gave a certain lameness to his operations. It was immediately after this blow in the eye, mentioned above, that he ceased to be an individual with private troubles and a wandering mind, and became a boxer pure and simple, his whole brain concentrated on the problem of how to get past his opponent's guard.
Steve, recognizing the change in an instant, congratulated himself on the success of his treatment. It had worked even more quickly than he had hoped. He helped the cure with another swift jab which shot over Kirk's guard.
Kirk came in with a rush. Steve slipped him. Kirk rushed again. Steve, receiving a hard punch on a nose which, though accustomed to such assaults, had never grown really to enjoy them, began to feel a slight diminution of his detached attitude toward this encounter. Till now his position had been purely that of the kindly physician soothing a patient. The rapidity with which the patient was permitting himself to be soothed rendered the post of physician something of a sinecure; and Steve, as Kirk had done, began to slip back into the boxer.
It was while he was in what might be called a transition stage that an unexpected swing sent him with some violence against the wall; and from that moment nature asserted itself. A curious, set look appeared on his face; wrinkles creased his forehead; his jaw protruded slightly.
Kirk made another rush. This time Steve did not slip; he went to meet it, head down and hands busy.
* * * * *
Mrs. Lora Delane Porter came downstairs with the measured impressiveness of one who bears weighty news. Her determined face was pale and tired, as it had every right to be; but she bore herself proudly, as one who has fought and not been defeated.
"Mr. Winfield," she said.
There was no answer. Looking about her, she found the studio empty.
Then, from behind the closed door of the inner room, she was aware of a strange, shuffling sound. She listened, astonished. She heard a gasp, then curious thuds, finally a bump louder than the thuds. And then there was silence.
These things surprised Mrs. Porter. She opened the door and looked in.
It says much for her iron self-control that she remained quiet at this point. A lesser person, after a far less tiring ordeal than she had passed through, would have found relief in some cry or exclamation-- possibly even in a scream.
Against the far wall, breathing hard and fondling his left eye with a four-ounce glove, leaned Steve Dingle. His nose was bleeding somewhat freely, but this he appeared to consider a trifle unworthy of serious attention. On the floor, an even more disturbing spectacle, Kirk lay at full length. To Mrs. Porter's startled gaze he appeared to be dead. He too, was bleeding, but he was not in a position to notice it.
"It's all right, ma'am," said Steve, removing the hand from his face and revealing an eye which for spectacular dilapidation must have rivalled the epoch-making one which had so excited his mother on a famous occasion. "It's nothing serious."
"Has Mr. Winfield fainted?"
"Not exactly fainted, ma'am. It's like this. He'd got me clear up in a corner, and I seen it's up to me if I don't want to be knocked through the wall, so I has to cross him. Maybe I'd gotten a little worked up myself by then. But it was my fault. I told him to go all out, and he sure did. This eye's going to be a pippin to-morrow."
Mrs. Porter examined the wounded organ with interest.
"That, I suppose Mr. Dingle, is what you call a blue eye?"
"It sure is, ma'am."
"What has been happening?"
"Well, it's this way. I see he's all worked up, sitting around doing nothing except wait, so I makes him come and spar a round to take his mind off it. My old dad, ma'am, when I was coming along, found that dope fixed him all right, so I reckoned it would do as much good here. My old dad went and beat the block off a fellow down our street, and it done him a lot of good."
Mrs. Porter shook his gloved hand.
"Mr. Dingle," she said with enthusiasm, "I really believe that you are the only sensible man I have ever met. Your common sense is astonishing. I have no doubt you saved Mr. Winfield from a nervous break-down. Would you be kind enough, when you are rested, to fetch some water and bring him to and inform him that he is the father of a son?"