The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter IX. The White Hope is Turned Down
William Bannister Winfield was the most wonderful child. Of course, you had to have a certain amount of intelligence to see this. To the vapid and irreflective observer he was not much to look at in the early stages of his career, having a dough-like face almost entirely devoid of nose, a lack-lustre eye, and the general appearance of a poached egg. His immediate circle of intimates, however, thought him a model of manly beauty; and there was the undeniable fact that he had come into the world weighing nine pounds. Take him for all in all, a lad of promise.
Kirk's sense of being in a dream continued. His identity seemed to have undergone a change. The person he had known as Kirk Winfield had disappeared, to be succeeded by a curious individual bubbling over with an absurd pride for which it was not easy to find an outlet. Hitherto a rather reserved man, he was conscious now of a desire to accost perfect strangers in the street and inform them that he was not the ordinary person they probably imagined, but a father with an intensely unusual son at home, and if they did not believe him they could come right along and see for themselves.
The only flaw in his happiness at the moment was the fact that his circle of friends was so small. He had not missed the old brigade of the studio before, but now the humblest of them would have been welcome, provided he would have sat still and listened. Even Percy Shanklyn would have been acceptable as an audience.
Steve, excellent fellow, was always glad to listen to him on his favourite subject. He had many long talks with Steve on the question of William's future. Steve, as the infant's godfather, which post he had claimed and secured at an early date, had definite views on the matter.
Here, held Steve, was the chance of a lifetime. With proper training, a baby of such obvious muscular promise might be made the greatest fighter that ever stepped into the ring. He was the real White Hope. He advised Kirk to direct William's education on the lines which would insure his being, when the time was ripe, undisputed heavy-weight champion of the world. To Steve life outside the ring was a poor affair, practically barren of prizes for the ambitious.
Mrs. Lora Delane Porter, eyeing William's brow, of which there was plenty, he being at this time extremely short of hair, predicted a less robust and more intellectual future for him. Something more on the lines of president of some great university or ambassador at some important court struck her as his logical sphere.
Kirk's view was that he should combine both careers and be an ambassador who took a few weeks off every now and then in order to defend his champion's belt. In his spare time he might paint a picture or two.
Ruth hesitated between the army, the navy, the bar, and business. But every one was agreed that William was to be something special.
This remarkable child had a keen sense of humour. Thus he seldom began to cry in his best vein till the small hours of the morning; and on these occasions he would almost invariably begin again after he had been officially pronounced to be asleep. His sudden grab at the hair of any adult who happened to come within reach was very droll, too.
As to his other characteristics, he was of rather an imperious nature. He liked to be waited on. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. The greater part of his attention being occupied at this period with the important duty of chewing his thumb, he assigned the drudgery of life to his dependants. Their duties were to see that he got up in the morning, dressed, and took his tub; and after that to hang around on the chance of general orders.
Any idea Kirk may have had of resuming his work was abandoned during these months. No model, young and breezy or white-haired and motherly, passed the studio doors. Life was far too interesting for work. The canvas which might have become "Carmen" or "A Reverie" or even "The Toreador's Bride" lay unfinished and neglected in a corner.
It astonished Kirk to find how strong the paternal instinct was in him. In the days when he had allowed his mind to dwell upon the abstract wife he had sometimes gone a step further and conjured up the abstract baby. The result had always been to fill him with a firm conviction that the most persuasive of wild horses should not drag him from his bachelor seclusion. He had had definite ideas on babies as a class. And here he was with his world pivoting on one of them. It was curious.
The White Hope, as Steve called his godson--possibly with the idea of influencing him by suggestion--grew. The ailments which attacked lesser babies passed him by. He avoided croup, and even whooping-cough paid him but a flying visit hardly worth mentioning. His first tooth gave him a little trouble, but that is the sort of thing which may happen to anyone; and the spirited way in which he protested against the indignity of cutting it was proof of a high soul.
Such was the remarkableness of this child that it annoyed Kirk more and more that he should be obliged to give the exhibition of his extraordinary qualities to so small an audience. Ruth felt the same; and it was for this reason that the first overtures were made to the silent camp which contained her father and her brother Bailey.
Since that evening in the library there had come no sign from the house on Fifth Avenue that its inmates were aware of her existence. Life had been too full till now to make this a cause of trouble to her; but with William Bannister becoming every day more amazing the desire came to her to try and heal the breach. Her father had so ordered his life in his relation to his children that Ruth's affection was not so deep as it might have been; but, after all, he was William Bannister's grandfather, and, as such, entitled to consideration.
It was these reflections that led to Steve's state visit to John Bannister--probably the greatest fiasco on record.
Steve had been selected for the feat on the strength of his having the right of entry to the Fifth Avenue house, for John Bannister was still obeying his doctor's orders and taking his daily spell of exercise with the pugilist--and Steve bungled it hopelessly.
His task was not a simple one. He was instructed to employ tact, to hint rather than to speak, to say nothing to convey the impression that Ruth in any way regretted the step she had taken, to give the idea that it was a matter of complete indifference to her whether she ever saw her father again or not, yet at the same time to make it quite clear that she was very anxious to see him as soon as possible.
William Bannister, grown to maturity and upholding the interests of his country as ambassador at some important court, might have jibbed at the mission.
William Bannister was to accompany Steve and be produced dramatically to support verbal arguments. It seemed to Ruth that for her father to resist William when he saw him was an impossibility. William's position was that of the ace of trumps in the cards which Steve was to play.
Steve made a few objections. His chief argument against taking up the post assigned to him was that he was a roughneck, and that the job in question was one which no roughneck, however gifted in the matter of left hooks, could hope to carry through with real success. But he yielded to pressure, and the expedition set out.
William Bannister at this time was at an age when he was beginning to talk a little and walk a little and take a great interest in things. His walking was a bit amateurish, and his speech rather hard to follow unless you had the key to it. But nobody could have denied that his walk, though staggery, was a genuine walk, and his speech, though limited, genuine speech, within the meaning of the act.
He made no objections to the expedition. On being told that he was going to see his grandpa he nodded curtly and said: "Gwa-wah," after his custom. For, as a conversationalist, perhaps the best description of him is to say that he tried hard. He rarely paused for a word. When in difficulties he said something; he did not seek refuge in silence. That the something was not always immediately intelligible was the fault of his audience for not listening more carefully.
Perhaps the real mistake of the expedition was the nature of its baggage. William Bannister had stood out for being allowed to take with him his wheelbarrow, his box of bricks, and his particular favourite, the dying pig, which you blew out and then allowed to collapse with a pleasing noise. These properties had struck his parents as excessive, but he was firm; and when he gave signs of being determined to fight it out on these lines if it took all the summer, they gave in.
Steve had no difficulty in smuggling William into his grandfather's house. He was a great favourite below stairs there. His great ally was the English butler, Keggs.
Keggs was a stout, dignified, pigeon-toed old sinner, who cast off the butler when not on duty and displayed himself as something of a rounder. He was a man of many parts. It was his chief relaxation to look in at Broadway hotels while some big fight was in progress out West to watch the ticker and assure himself that the man he had backed with a portion of the loot which he had accumulated in the form of tips was doing justice to his judgment, for in private Keggs was essentially the sport.
It was this that so endeared Steve to him. A few years ago Keggs had won considerable sums by backing Steve, and the latter was always given to understand that, as far as the lower regions of it were concerned, the house on Fifth Avenue was open to him at all hours.
To-day he greeted Steve with enthusiasm and suggested a cigar in the pantry before the latter should proceed to his work.
"He ain't ready for you yet, Mr. Dingle. He's lookin' over some papers in--for goodness' sake, who's this?"
He had caught sight of William Bannister, who having wriggled free of Steve, was being made much of by the maids.
"The kid," said Steve briefly.
"Sure. His grandson."
Keggs' solemnity increased.
"You aren't going to take him upstairs with you?"
"Surest thing you know. That's why I brought him."
"Don't you do it, Mr. Dingle. 'E's in an awful temper this morning--he gets worse and worse--he'll fire you as soon as look at you."
"Can't be helped. I've got me instructions."
"You always were game," said Keggs admiringly. "I used to see that quick enough before you retired from active work. Well, good luck to you, Mr. Dingle."
Steve gathered up William Bannister, the wheelbarrow, the box of bricks, and the dying pig and made his way to the gymnasium.
The worst of these pre-arranged scenes is that they never happen just as one figured them in one's mind. Steve had expected to have to wait a few minutes in the gymnasium, then there would be a step outside and the old man would enter. The beauty of this, to Steve's mind, was that he himself would be "discovered," as the stage term is; the onus of entering and opening the conversation would be on Mr. Bannister. And, as everybody who has ever had an awkward interview knows, this makes all the difference.
But the minutes passed, and still no grandfather. The nervousness which he had with difficulty expelled began to return to Steve. This was exactly like having to wait in the ring while one's opponent tried to get one's goat by dawdling in the dressing room.
An attempt to relieve himself by punching the ball was a dismal failure. At the first bang of the leather against the wood William Bannister, who had been working in a pre-occupied way at the dying pig, threw his head back and howled, and would not be comforted till Steve took out the rope and skipped before him, much as dancers used to dance before oriental monarchs in the old days.
Steve was just saying to himself for the fiftieth time that he was a fool to have come, when Keggs arrived with the news that Mr. Bannister was too busy to take his usual exercise this morning and that Steve was at liberty to go.
It speaks well for Steve's character that he did not go. He would have given much to retire, for the old man was one of the few people who inspired in him anything resembling fear. But he could not return tamely to the studio with his mission unaccomplished.
"Say, ask him if he can see me for a minute. Say it is important."
Keggs' eye rested on William Bannister, and he shook his head.
"I shouldn't, Mr. Dingle. Really I shouldn't. You don't know what an ugly mood he's in. Something's been worrying him. It's what you might call courting disaster."
"Gee! Do you think I want to do it? I've just got to. That's all there is to it."
A few moments later Keggs returned with the news that Mr. Bannister would see Dingle in the library.
"Come along, kid," said Steve. "Gimme hold of the excess baggage, and let's get a move on."
So in the end it was Mr. Bannister who was discovered and Steve who made the entrance. And, as Steve pointed out to Kirk later, it just made all the difference.
The effect of the change on Steve was to make him almost rollicking in his manner, as if he and Mr. Bannister were the nucleus of an Old Home Week celebration or two old college chums meeting after long absence. Nervousness, on the rare occasions when he suffered from it, generally had that effect on him.
He breezed into the library, carrying the wheelbarrow, the box of bricks, and the dying pig, and trailing William in his wake. William's grandfather was seated with his back to the door, dictating a letter to one of his secretaries.
He looked up as Steve entered. He took in Steve and William in a rapid glance and guessed the latter's identity in an instant. He had expected something of this sort ever since he had heard of his grandson's birth. Indeed, he had been somewhat surprised that the visit had not occurred before.
He betrayed no surprise.
"One moment, Dingle," he said, and turned to the secretary again. A faint sneer came and went on his face.
The delay completed Steve's discomfiture. He placed the wheel harrow on the floor, the box of bricks on the wheelbarrow, and the dying pig on the box of bricks, whence it was instantly removed and inflated by William.
"'Referring to your letter of the eighth--'" said Mr. Bannister in his cold, level voice.
He was interrupted by the incisive cry of the dying pig.
"Ask your son to be quiet, Dingle," he said impassively.
Steve was staggered.
"Say, this ain't my son, squire," he began breezily.
"Your nephew, then, or whatever relation he happens to be to you."
He resumed his dictation. Steve wiped his forehead and looked helplessly at the White Hope, who, having discarded the dying pig, was now busy with the box of bricks.
Steve wished he had not come. He was accustomed to the primitive exhibition of emotions, having moved in circles where the wrathful expressed their wrath in a normal manner.
Anger which found its expression in an exaggerated politeness was out of his line and made him uncomfortable.
After what seemed to him a century, John Bannister dismissed the secretary. Even then, however, he did not come immediately to Steve. He remained for a few moments writing, with his back turned. Then, just when Steve had given up hope of ever securing his attention, he turned suddenly.
"Say, it's this way, colonel," Steve had begun, when a triumphant cry from the direction of the open window stopped him. The White Hope was kneeling on a chair, looking down into the street.
"Bix," he explained over his shoulder.
"Kindly ring the bell, Dingle," said Mr. Bannister, unmoved. "Your little nephew appears to have dropped his bricks into Fifth Avenue."
In answer to the summons Keggs appeared. He looked anxious.
"Keggs," said Mr. Bannister, "tell one of the footmen to go out into the avenue and pick up some wooden bricks which he will find there. Dingle's little brother has let some fall."
As Keggs left the room Steve's pent-up nervousness exploded in a whirl of words.
"Aw say, boss, quit yer kiddin'. You know this kid ain't anything to do with me. Why, say, how would he be any relation of a roughneck like me? Come off the roof, bo. You know well enough who he is. He's your grandson. On the level."
Mr. Bannister looked at William, now engaged in running the wheelbarrow up and down the room, emitting the while a curious sound, possibly to encourage an imaginary horse. The inspection did not seem to excite him or afford him any pleasure.
"Oh!" he said.
Steve was damped, but resumed gamely:
"Say, boss, this is the greatest kid on earth. I'm not stringing you, honest. He's a wonder. On the level, did you ever see a kid that age with a pair of shoulders on him like what this kid's got? Say, squire, what's the matter with calling the fight off and starting fair? Miss Ruth would be tickled to death if you would. Can the rough stuff, colonel. I know you think you've been given a raw deal, Kirk chipping in like that and copping off Miss Ruth, but for the love of Mike, what does it matter? You seen for yourself what a dandy kid this is. Well, then, check your grouch with your hat. Do the square thing. Have out the auto and come right round to the studio and make it up. What's wrong with that, colonel? Honest, they'd be tickled clean through."
At this point Keggs entered, followed by a footman carrying wooden bricks.
"Keggs," said Mr. Bannister, "telephone for the automobile at once--"
"That's the talk, colonel," cried Steve joyfully. "I know you were a sport."
"----to take me down to Wall Street."
"Oh Keggs," said Mr. Bannister, as he turned to leave.
"Another thing. See that Dingle does not enter the house again."
And Mr. Bannister resumed his writing, while Steve, gathering up the wheelbarrow, the box of bricks, and the dying pig, took William by the hand and retreated.
* * * * *
That terminated Ruth's attempts to conciliate her father.
There remained Bailey. From Bailey she was prepared to stand no nonsense. Meeting him on the street, she fairly kidnapped him, driving him into a taxicab and pushing him into the studio, where he was confronted by his nephew.
Bailey came poorly through the ordeal. William Bannister, a stern critic, weighed him up in one long stare, found him wanting, and announced his decision with all the strength of powerful lungs. In the end he had to be removed, hiccupping, and Bailey, after lingering a few uneasy moments making conversation to Kirk, departed, with such a look about the back of him as he sprang into his cab that Ruth felt that the visit was one which would not be repeated.
She went back into the studio with a rather heavy heart. She was fond of Bailey.
The sight of Kirk restored her. After all, what had happened was only what she had expected. She had chosen her path, and she did not regret it.