The Coming of Bill
by P. G. Wodehouse
I. A PAWN OF FATE
II. RUTH STATES HER INTENTION
III. THE MATES MEET
IV. TROUBLED WATERS
V. WHEREIN OPPOSITES AGREE
VI. BREAKING THE NEWS
VII. SUFFICIENT UNTO THEMSELVES
IX. THE WHITE HOPE IS TURNED DOWN
X. AN INTERLUDE OF PEACE
XI. STUNG TO ACTION
XII. A CLIMAX
II. AN UNKNOWN PATH
III. THE MISADVENTURE OF STEVE
IV. THE WIDENING GAP
V. THE REAL THING
VI. THE OUTCASTS
VII. CUTTING THE TANGLED KNOT
VIII. STEVE TO THE RESCUE
IX. AT ONE IN THE MORNING
X. ACCEPTING THE GIFTS OF THE GODS
XI. MR. PENWAY ON THE GRILL
XII. DOLLS WITH SOULS
XIII. PASTURES NEW
XIV. THE SIXTY-FIRST STREET CYCLONE
XV. MRS. PORTER'S WATERLOO
XVI. THE WHITE-HOPE LINK
A Pawn of Fate
Mrs. Lora Delane Porter dismissed the hireling who had brought her automobile around from the garage and seated herself at the wheel. It was her habit to refresh her mind and improve her health by a daily drive between the hours of two and four in the afternoon.
The world knows little of its greatest women, and it is possible that Mrs. Porter's name is not familiar to you. If this is the case, I am pained, but not surprised. It happens only too often that the uplifter of the public mind is baulked by a disinclination on the part of the public mind to meet him or her half-way. The uplifter does his share. He produces the uplifting book. But the public, instead of standing still to be uplifted, wanders off to browse on coloured supplements and magazine stories.
If you are ignorant of Lora Delane Porter's books that is your affair. Perhaps you are more to be pitied than censured. Nature probably gave you the wrong shape of forehead. Mrs. Porter herself would have put it down to some atavistic tendency or pre-natal influence. She put most things down to that. She blamed nearly all the defects of the modern world, from weak intellects to in-growing toe-nails, on long-dead ladies and gentlemen who, safe in the family vault, imagined that they had established their alibi. She subpoenaed grandfathers and even great-grandfathers to give evidence to show that the reason Twentieth-Century Willie squinted or had to spend his winters in Arizona was their own shocking health 'way back in the days beyond recall.
Mrs. Porter's mind worked backward and forward. She had one eye on the past, the other on the future. If she was strong on heredity, she was stronger on the future of the race. Most of her published works dealt with this subject. A careful perusal of them would have enabled the rising generation to select its ideal wife or husband with perfect ease, and, in the event of Heaven blessing the union, her little volume, entitled "The Hygienic Care of the Baby," which was all about germs and how to avoid them, would have insured the continuance of the direct succession.
Unfortunately, the rising generation did not seem disposed to a careful perusal of anything except the baseball scores and the beauty hints in the Sunday papers, and Mrs. Porter's public was small. In fact, her only real disciple, as she sometimes told herself in her rare moods of discouragement, was her niece, Ruth Bannister, daughter of John Bannister, the millionaire. It was not so long ago, she reflected with pride, that she had induced Ruth to refuse to marry Basil Milbank—a considerable feat, he being a young man of remarkable personal attractions and a great match in every way. Mrs. Porter's objection to him was that his father had died believing to the last that he was a teapot.
There is nothing evil or degrading in believing oneself a teapot, but it argues a certain inaccuracy of the thought processes; and Mrs. Porter had used all her influence with Ruth to make her reject Basil. It was her success that first showed her how great that influence was. She had come now to look on Ruth's destiny as something for which she was personally responsible—a fact which was noted and resented by others, in particular Ruth's brother Bailey, who regarded his aunt with a dislike and suspicion akin to that which a stray dog feels towards the boy who saunters towards him with a tin can in his hand.
To Bailey, his strong-minded relative was a perpetual menace, a sort of perambulating yellow peril, and the fact that she often alluded to him as a worm consolidated his distaste for her.
* * * * *
Mrs. Porter released the clutch and set out on her drive. She rarely had a settled route for these outings of hers, preferring to zigzag about New York, livening up the great city at random. She always drove herself and, having, like a good suffragist, a contempt for male prohibitions, took an honest pleasure in exceeding a man-made speed limit.
One hesitates to apply the term "joy-rider" to so eminent a leader of contemporary thought as the authoress of "The Dawn of Better Things," "Principles of Selection," and "What of To-morrow?" but candour compels the admission that she was a somewhat reckless driver. Perhaps it was due to some atavistic tendency. One of her ancestors may have been a Roman charioteer or a coach-racing maniac of the Regency days. At any rate, after a hard morning's work on her new book she felt that her mind needed cooling, and found that the rush of air against her face effected this satisfactorily. The greater the rush, the quicker the cooling. However, as the alert inhabitants of Manhattan Island, a hardy race trained from infancy to dodge taxicabs and ambulance wagons, had always removed themselves from her path with their usual agility, she had never yet had an accident.
But then she had never yet met George Pennicut. And George, pawn of fate, was even now waiting round the corner to upset her record.
George, man of all work to Kirk Winfield, one of the youngest and least efficient of New York's artist colony, was English. He had been in America some little time, but not long enough to accustom his rather unreceptive mind to the fact that, whereas in his native land vehicles kept to the left, in the country of his adoption they kept to the right; and it was still his bone-headed practice, when stepping off the sidewalk, to keep a wary look-out in precisely the wrong direction.
The only problem with regard to such a man is who will get him first. Fate had decided that it should be Lora Delane Porter.
To-day Mrs. Porter, having circled the park in rapid time, turned her car down Central Park West. She was feeling much refreshed by the pleasant air. She was conscious of a glow of benevolence toward her species, not excluding even the young couple she had almost reduced to mincemeat in the neighbourhood of Ninety-Seventh Street. They had annoyed her extremely at the time of their meeting by occupying till the last possible moment a part of the road which she wanted herself.
On reaching Sixty-First Street she found her way blocked by a lumbering delivery wagon. She followed it slowly for a while; then, growing tired of being merely a unit in a procession, tugged at the steering-wheel, and turned to the right.
George Pennicut, his anxious eyes raking the middle distance—as usual, in the wrong direction—had just stepped off the kerb. He received the automobile in the small of the back, uttered a yell of surprise and dismay, performed a few improvised Texas Tommy steps, and fell in a heap.
In a situation which might have stimulated another to fervid speech, George Pennicut contented himself with saying "Goo!" He was a man of few words.
Mrs. Porter stopped the car. From all points of the compass citizens began to assemble, many swallowing their chewing-gum in their excitement. One, a devout believer in the inscrutable ways of Providence, told a friend as he ran that only two minutes before he had almost robbed himself of this spectacle by going into a moving-picture palace.
Mrs. Porter was annoyed. She had never run over anything before except a few chickens, and she regarded the incident as a blot on her escutcheon. She was incensed with this idiot who had flung himself before her car, not reflecting in her heat that he probably had a pre-natal tendency to this sort of thing inherited from some ancestor who had played "last across" in front of hansom cabs in the streets of London.
She bent over George and passed experienced hands over his portly form. For this remarkable woman was as competent at first aid as at anything else. The citizens gathered silently round in a circle.
"It was your fault," she said to her victim severely. "I accept no liability whatever. I did not run into you. You ran into me. I have a jolly good mind to have you arrested for attempted suicide."
This aspect of the affair had not struck Mr. Pennicut. Presented to him in these simple words, it checked the recriminatory speech which, his mind having recovered to some extent from the first shock of the meeting, he had intended to deliver. He swallowed his words, awed. He felt dazed and helpless. Mrs. Porter had that effect upon men.
Some more citizens arrived.
"No bones broken," reported Mrs. Porter, concluding her examination. "You are exceedingly fortunate. You have a few bruises, and one knee is slightly wrenched. Nothing to signify. More frightened than hurt. Where do you live?"
"There," said George meekly.
"Yes, ma'am." George's voice was that of a crushed worm.
"Are you an artist?"
"No, ma'am. I'm Mr. Winfield's man."
"Mr. Winfield's, ma'am."
"Is he in?"
"I'll fetch him. And if the policeman comes along and wants to know why you're lying there, mind you tell him the truth, that you ran into me."
"Very well. Don't forget."
She crossed the street and rang the bell over which was a card hearing the name of "Kirk Winfield". Mr. Pennicut watched her in silence.
Mrs. Porter pressed the button a second time. Somebody came at a leisurely pace down the passage, whistling cheerfully. The door opened.
It did not often happen to Lora Delane Porter to feel insignificant, least of all in the presence of the opposite sex. She had well-defined views upon man. Yet, in the interval which elapsed between the opening of the door and her first words, a certain sensation of smallness overcame her.
The man who had opened the door was not, judged by any standard of regularity of features, handsome. He had a rather boyish face, pleasant eyes set wide apart, and a friendly mouth. He was rather an outsize in young men, and as he stood there he seemed to fill the doorway.
It was this sense of bigness that he conveyed, his cleanness, his magnificent fitness, that for the moment overcame Mrs. Porter. Physical fitness was her gospel. She stared at him in silent appreciation.
To the young man, however, her forceful gaze did not convey this quality. She seemed to him to be looking as if she had caught him in the act of endeavouring to snatch her purse. He had been thrown a little off his balance by the encounter.
Resource in moments of crisis is largely a matter of preparedness, and a man, who, having opened his door in the expectation of seeing a ginger-haired, bow-legged, grinning George Pennicut, is confronted by a masterful woman with eyes like gimlets, may be excused for not guessing that her piercing stare is an expression of admiration and respect.
Mrs. Porter broke the silence. It was ever her way to come swiftly to the matter in hand.
"Mr. Kirk Winfield?"
"Have you in your employment a red-haired, congenital idiot who ambles about New York in an absent-minded way, as if he were on a desert island? The man I refer to is a short, stout Englishman, clean-shaven, dressed in black."
"That sounds like George Pennicut."
"I have no doubt that that is his name. I did not inquire. It did not interest me. My name is Mrs. Lora Delane Porter. This man of yours has just run into my automobile."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I cannot put it more lucidly. I was driving along the street when this weak-minded person flung himself in front of my car. He is out there now. Kindly come and help him in."
"Is he hurt?"
"More frightened than hurt. I have examined him. His left knee appears to be slightly wrenched."
Kirk Winfield passed a hand over his left forehead and followed her. Like George, he found Mrs. Porter a trifle overwhelming.
Out in the street George Pennicut, now the centre of quite a substantial section of the Four Million, was causing a granite-faced policeman to think that the age of miracles had returned by informing him that the accident had been his fault and no other's. He greeted the relief-party with a wan grin.
"Just broke my leg, sir," he announced to Kirk.
"You have done nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Porter. "You have wrenched your knee very slightly. Have you explained to the policeman that it was entirely your fault?"
"That's right. Always speak the truth."
"Mr. Winfield will help you indoors."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She turned to Kirk.
"Now, Mr. Winfield."
Kirk bent over the victim, gripped him, and lifted him like a baby.
"He's got his," observed one interested spectator.
"I should worry!" agreed another. "All broken up."
"Nothing of the kind," said Mrs. Porter severely. "The man is hardly hurt at all. Be more accurate in your remarks."
She eyed the speaker sternly. He wilted.
"Yes, ma'am," he mumbled sheepishly.
The policeman, with that lionlike courage which makes the New York constabulary what it is, endeavoured to assert himself at this point.
"Hey!" he boomed.
Mrs. Porter turned her gaze upon him, her cold, steely gaze.
"I beg your pardon?"
"This won't do, ma'am. I've me report to make. How did this happen?"
"You have already been informed. The man ran into my automobile."
"I shall not charge him."
She turned and followed Kirk.
"But, say——" The policeman's voice was now almost plaintive.
Mrs. Porter ignored him and disappeared into the house. The policeman, having gulped several times in a disconsolate way, relieved his feelings by dispersing the crowd with well-directed prods of his locust stick. A small boy who lingered, squeezing the automobile's hooter, in a sort of trance he kicked. The boy vanished. The crowd melted. The policeman walked slowly toward Ninth Avenue. Peace reigned in the street.
"Put him to bed," said Mrs. Porter, as Kirk laid his burden on a couch in the studio. "You seem exceedingly muscular, Mr. Winfield. I noticed that you carried him without an effort. He is a stout man, too. Grossly out of condition, like ninety-nine per cent of men to-day."
"I'm not so young as I was, ma'am," protested George. "When I was in the harmy I was a fine figure of a man."
"The more shame to you that you have allowed yourself to deteriorate," commented Mrs. Porter. "Beer?"
A grateful smile irradiated George's face.
"Thank you, ma'am. It's very kind of you, ma'am. I don't mind if I do."
"The man appears a perfect imbecile," said Mrs. Porter, turning abruptly to Kirk. "I ask him if he attributes his physical decay to beer and he babbles."
"I think he thought you were offering him a drink," suggested Kirk. "As a matter of fact, a little brandy wouldn't hurt him, after the shock he has had."
"On no account. The worst thing possible."
"This isn't your lucky day, George," said Kirk. "Well, I guess I'll phone to the doctor."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Entirely unnecessary. I have made an examination. There is practically nothing the matter with the man. Put him to bed, and let him sponge his knee with warm water."
"Are you a doctor, Mrs. Porter?"
"I have studied first aid."
"Well, I think, if you don't mind, I should like to have your opinion confirmed."
This was rank mutiny. Mrs. Porter stared haughtily at Kirk. He met her gaze with determination.
"As you please," she snapped.
"Thank you," said Kirk. "I don't want to take any risks with George. I couldn't afford to lose him. There aren't any more like him: they've mislaid the pattern."
He went to the telephone.
Mrs. Porter watched him narrowly. She was more than ever impressed by the perfection of his physique. She appraised his voice as he spoke to the doctor. It gave evidence of excellent lungs. He was a wonderfully perfect physical specimen.
An idea concerning this young man came into her mind, startling as all great ideas are at birth. The older it grew, the more she approved of it. She decided to put a few questions to him. She had a habit of questioning people, and it never occurred to her that they might resent it. If it had occurred to her, she would have done it just the same. She was like that.
"I should like to ask you a few questions."
This woman delighted Kirk.
"Please do," he said.
Mrs. Porter scanned him closely.
"You are an extraordinarily healthy man, to all appearances. Have you ever suffered from bad health?"
"Very unpleasant, though."
"Not to me. I looked like a water-melon."
"Nothing besides? No serious illnesses?"
"What is your age?"
"Are your parents living?"
"Were they healthy?"
"Fit as fiddles."
"And your grandparents?"
"Perfect bear-cats. I remember my grandfather at the age of about a hundred or something like that spanking me for breaking his pipe. I thought it was a steam-hammer. He was a wonderfully muscular old gentleman."
"By the way," said Kirk casually, "my life is insured."
"Very sensible. There has been no serious illness in your family at all, then, as far as you know?"
"I could hunt up the records, if you like; but I don't think so."
"Consumption? No? Cancer? No? As far as you are aware, nothing? Very satisfactory."
"I'm glad you're pleased."
"Are you married?"
"Good Lord, no!"
"At your age you should be. With your magnificent physique and remarkable record of health, it is your duty to the future of the race to marry."
"I'm not sure I've been worrying much about the future of the race."
"No man does. It is the crying evil of the day, men's selfish absorption in the present, their utter lack of a sense of duty with regard to the future. Have you read my 'Dawn of Better Things'?"
"I'm afraid I read very few novels."
"It is not a novel. It is a treatise on the need for implanting a sense of personal duty to the future of the race in the modern young man."
"It sounds a crackerjack. I must get it."
"I will send you a copy. At the same time I will send you my 'Principles of Selection' and 'What of To-morrow?' They will make you think."
"I bet they will. Thank you very much."
"And now," said Mrs. Porter, switching the conversation to the gaping George, "you had better put this man to bed."
George Pennicut's opinion of Mrs. Porter, to which he was destined to adhere on closer acquaintance, may be recorded.
"A hawful woman, sir," he whispered as Kirk bore him off.
"Nonsense, George," said Kirk. "One of the most entertaining ladies I have ever met. Already I love her like a son. But how she escaped from Bloomingdale beats me. There's been carelessness somewhere."
The bedrooms attached to the studio opened off the gallery that ran the length of the east wall. Looking over the edge of the gallery before coming downstairs Kirk perceived his visitor engaged in a tour of the studio. At that moment she was examining his masterpiece, "Ariadne in Naxos." He had called it that because that was what it had turned into.
At the beginning he had had no definite opinion as to its identity. It was rather a habit with his pictures to start out in a vague spirit of adventure and receive their label on completion. He had an airy and a dashing way in his dealings with the goddess Art.
Nevertheless, he had sufficient of the artist soul to resent the fact that Mrs. Porter was standing a great deal too close to the masterpiece to get its full value.
"You want to stand back a little," he suggested over the rail.
Mrs. Porter looked up.
"Oh, there you are!" she said.
"Yes, here I am," agreed Kirk affably.
"Is this yours?"
"You painted it?"
"It is poor. It shows a certain feeling for colour, but the drawing is weak," said Mrs. Porter. For this wonderful woman was as competent at art criticism as at automobile driving and first aid. "Where did you study?"
"In Paris, if you could call it studying. I'm afraid I was not the model pupil."
"Kindly come down. You are giving me a crick in the neck."
Kirk descended. He found Mrs. Porter still regarding the masterpiece with an unfavourable eye.
"Yes," she said, "the drawing is decidedly weak."
"I shouldn't wonder," assented Kirk. "The dealers to whom I've tried to sell it have not said that in so many words, but they've all begged me with tears in their eyes to take the darned thing away, so I guess you're right."
"Do you depend for a living on the sale of your pictures?"
"Thank Heaven, no. I'm the only artist in captivity with a private income."
"A large income?"
"'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. All told, about five thousand iron men per annum."
"I should have said dollars."
"You should. I detest slang."
"Sorry," said Kirk.
Mrs. Porter resumed her tour of the studio. She was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor, a cheerful little old man with the bearing of one sure of his welcome. He was an old friend of Kirk's.
"Well, what's the trouble? I couldn't come sooner. I was visiting a case. I work."
"There is no trouble," said Mrs. Porter. The doctor spun round, startled. In the dimness of the studio he had not perceived her. "Mr. Winfield's servant has injured his knee very superficially. There is practically nothing wrong with him. I have made a thorough examination."
The doctor looked from one to the other.
"Is the case in other hands?" he asked.
"You bet it isn't," said Kirk. "Mrs. Porter just looked in for a family chat and a glimpse of my pictures. You'll find George in bed, first floor on the left upstairs, and a very remarkable sight he is. He is wearing red hair with purple pyjamas. Why go abroad when you have not yet seen the wonders of your native land?"
* * * * *
That night Lora Delane Porter wrote in the diary which, with that magnificent freedom from human weakness that marked every aspect of her life, she kept all the year round instead of only during the first week in January.
This is what she wrote:
"Worked steadily on my book. It progresses. In the afternoon an annoying occurrence. An imbecile with red hair placed himself in front of my automobile, fortunately without serious injury to the machine—though the sudden application of the brake cannot be good for the tyres. Out of evil, however, came good, for I have made the acquaintance of his employer, a Mr. Winfield, an artist. Mr. Winfield is a man of remarkable physique. I questioned him narrowly, and he appears thoroughly sound. As to his mental attainments, I cannot speak so highly; but all men are fools, and Mr. Winfield is not more so than most. I have decided that he shall marry my dear Ruth. They will make a magnificent pair."
Ruth States Her Intentions
At about the time when Lora Delane Porter was cross-examining Kirk Winfield, Bailey Bannister left his club hurriedly.
Inside the club a sad, rabbit-faced young gentleman, who had been unburdening his soul to Bailey, was seeking further consolation in an amber drink with a cherry at the bottom of it. For this young man was one of nature's cherry-chasers. It was the only thing he did really well. His name was Grayling, his height five feet three, his socks pink, and his income enormous.
So much for Grayling. He is of absolutely no importance, either to the world or to this narrative, except in so far that the painful story he has been unfolding to Bailey Bannister has so wrought upon that exquisite as to send him galloping up Fifth Avenue at five miles an hour in search of his sister Ruth.
Let us now examine Bailey. He is a faultlessly dressed young man of about twenty-seven, who takes it as a compliment when people think him older. His mouth, at present gaping with agitation and the unwonted exercise, is, as a rule, primly closed. His eyes, peering through gold-rimmed glasses, protrude slightly, giving him something of the dumb pathos of a codfish.
His hair is pale and scanty, his nose sharp and narrow. He is a junior partner in the firm of Bannister & Son, and it is his unalterable conviction that, if his father would only give him a chance, he could show Wall Street some high finance that would astonish it.
The afternoon was warm. The sun beat down on the avenue. Bailey had not gone two blocks before it occurred to him that swifter and more comfortable progress could be made in a taxicab than on his admirably trousered legs. No more significant proof of the magnitude of his agitation could be brought forward than the fact that he had so far forgotten himself as to walk at all. He hailed a cab and gave the address of a house on the upper avenue.
He leaned back against the cushions, trying to achieve a coolness of mind and body. But the heat of the day kept him unpleasantly soluble, and dismay, that perspiration of the soul, refused to be absorbed by the pocket-handkerchief of philosophy.
Bailey Bannister was a young man who considered the minding of other people's business a duty not to be shirked. Life is a rocky road for such. His motto was "Let me do it!" He fussed about the affairs of Bannister & Son; he fussed about the welfare of his friends at the club; especially, he fussed about his only sister Ruth.
He looked on himself as a sort of guardian to Ruth. Their mother had died when they were children, and old Mr. Bannister was indifferently equipped with the paternal instinct. He was absorbed, body and soul, in the business of the firm. He lived practically a hermit life in the great house on Fifth Avenue; and, if it had not been for Bailey, so Bailey considered, Ruth would have been allowed to do just whatever she pleased. There were those who said that this was precisely what she did, despite Brother Bailey.
It is a hard world for a conscientious young man of twenty-seven.
Bailey paid the cab and went into the house. It was deliciously cool in the hall, and for a moment peace descended on him. But the distant sound of a piano in the upper regions ejected it again by reminding him of his mission. He bounded up the stairs and knocked at the door of his sister's private den.
The piano stopped as he entered, and the girl on the music-stool glanced over her shoulder.
"Well, Bailey," she said, "you look warm."
"I am warm," said Bailey in an aggrieved tone. He sat down solemnly.
"I want to speak to you, Ruth."
Ruth shut the piano and caused the music-stool to revolve till she faced him.
"Well?" she said.
Ruth Bannister was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, "a daughter of the gods, divinely tall, and most divinely fair." From her mother she had inherited the dark eyes and ivory complexion which went so well with her mass of dark hair; from her father a chin of peculiar determination and perfect teeth. Her body was strong and supple. She radiated health.
To her friends Ruth was a source of perplexity. It was difficult to understand her. In the set in which she moved girls married young; yet season followed season, and Ruth remained single, and this so obviously of her own free will that the usual explanation of such a state of things broke down as soon as it was tested.
In shoals during her first two seasons, and lately with less unanimity, men of every condition, from a prince—somewhat battered, but still a prince—to the Bannisters' English butler—a good man, but at the moment under the influence of tawny port, had laid their hearts at her feet. One and all, they had been compelled to pick them up and take them elsewhere. She was generally kind on these occasions, but always very firm. The determined chin gave no hope that she might yield to importunity. The eyes that backed up the message of the chin were pleasant, but inflexible.
Generally it was with a feeling akin to relief that the rejected, when time had begun to heal the wound, contemplated their position. There was something about this girl, they decided, which no fellow could understand: she frightened them; she made them feel that their hands were large and red and their minds weak and empty. She was waiting for something. What it was they did not know, but it was plain that they were not it, and off they went to live happily ever after with girls who ate candy and read best-sellers. And Ruth went on her way, cool and watchful and mysterious, waiting.
The room which Ruth had taken for her own gave, like all rooms when intelligently considered, a clue to the character of its owner. It was the only room in the house furnished with any taste or simplicity. The furniture was exceedingly expensive, but did not look so. The key-note of the colour-scheme was green and white. All round the walls were books. Except for a few prints, there were no pictures; and the only photograph visible stood in a silver frame on a little table.
It was the portrait of a woman of about fifty, square-jawed, tight-lipped, who stared almost threateningly out of the frame; exceedingly handsome, but, to the ordinary male, too formidable to be attractive. On this was written in a bold hand, bristling with emphatic down-strokes and wholly free from feminine flourish: "To my dear Ruth from her Aunt Lora." And below the signature, in what printers call "quotes," a line that was evidently an extract from somebody's published works: "Bear the torch and do not falter."
Bailey inspected this photograph with disfavour. It always irritated him. The information, conveyed to him by amused friends, that his Aunt Lora had once described Ruth as a jewel in a dust-bin, seemed to him to carry an offensive innuendo directed at himself and the rest of the dwellers in the Bannister home. Also, she had called him a worm. Also, again, his actual encounters with the lady, though few, had been memorably unpleasant. Furthermore, he considered that she had far too great an influence on Ruth. And, lastly, that infernal sentence about the torch, which he found perfectly meaningless, had a habit of running in his head like a catch-phrase, causing him the keenest annoyance.
He pursed his lips disapprovingly and averted his eyes.
"Don't sniff at Aunt Lora, Bailey," said Ruth. "I've had to speak to you about that before. What's the matter? What has sent you flying up here?"
"I have had a shock," said Bailey. "I have been very greatly disturbed. I have just been speaking to Clarence Grayling."
He eyed her accusingly through his gold-rimmed glasses. She remained tranquil.
"And what had Clarence to say?"
"A great many things."
"I gather he told you I had refused him."
"If it were only that!"
Ruth rapped the piano sharply.
"Bailey," she said, "wake up. Either get to the point or go or read a book or do some tatting or talk about something else. You know perfectly well that I absolutely refuse to endure your impressive manner. I believe when people ask you the time you look pained and important and make a mystery of it. What's troubling you? I should have thought Clarence would have kept quiet about insulting me. But apparently he has no sense of shame."
Bailey gaped. Bailey was shocked and alarmed.
"Insulting you! What do you mean? Clarence is a gentleman. He is incapable of insulting a woman."
"Is he? He told me I was a suitable wife for a wretched dwarf with the miserably inadequate intelligence which nature gave him reduced to practically a minus quantity by alcohol! At least, he implied it. He asked me to marry him."
"I have just left him at the club. He is very upset."
"I should imagine so." A soft smile played over Ruth's face. "I spoke to Clarence. I explained things to him. I lit up Clarence's little mind like a searchlight."
Bailey rose, tremulous with just wrath.
"You spoke to him in a way that I can only call outrageous and improper, and—er—outrageous."
He paced the room with agitated strides. Ruth watched him calmly.
"If the overflowing emotion of a giant soul in torment makes you knock over a table or smash a chair," she said, "I shall send the bill for repairs to you. You had far better sit down and talk quietly. What is worrying you, Bailey?"
"Is it nothing," demanded her brother, "that my sister should have spoken to a man as you spoke to Clarence Grayling?"
With an impassioned gesture he sent a flower-vase crashing to the floor.
"I told you so," said Ruth. "Pick up the bits, and don't let the water spoil the carpet. Use your handkerchief. I should say that that would cost you about six dollars, dear. Why will you let yourself be so temperamental? Now let me try and think what it was I said to Clarence. As far as I can remember it was the mere A B C of eugenics."
Bailey, on his knees, picking up broken glass, raised a flushed and accusing face.
"Ah! Eugenics! You admit it!"
"I think," went on Ruth placidly, "I asked him what sort of children he thought we were likely to have if we married."
"A nice girl ought not to think about such things."
"I don't think about anything else much. A woman can't do a great deal, even nowadays, but she can have a conscience and feel that she owes something to the future of the race. She can feel that it is her duty to bring fine children into the world. As Aunt Lora says, she can carry the torch and not falter."
Bailey shied like a startled horse at the hated phrase. He pointed furiously at the photograph of the great thinker.
"You're talking like that—that damned woman!"
"Bailey precious! You mustn't use such wicked, wicked words."
Bailey rose, pink and wrathful.
"If you're going to break another vase," said Ruth, "you will really have to go."
"Ever since that—that——" cried Bailey. "Ever since Aunt Lora——"
Ruth smiled indulgently.
"That's more like my little man," she said. "He knows as well as I do how wrong it is to swear."
"Be quiet! Ever since Aunt Lora got hold of you, I say, you have become a sort of gramophone, spouting her opinions."
"But what sensible opinions!"
"It's got to stop. Aunt Lora! My God! Who is she? Just look at her record. She disgraces the family by marrying a grubby newspaper fellow called Porter. He has the sense to die. I will say that for him. She thrusts herself into public notice by a series of books and speeches on subjects of which a decent woman ought to know nothing. And now she gets hold of you, fills you up with her disgusting nonsense, makes a sort of disciple of you, gives you absurd ideas, poisons your mind, and—er—er——-"
"Bailey! This is positive eloquence!"
"It's got to stop. It's bad enough in her; but every one knows she is crazy, and makes allowances. But in a young girl like you."
"In a young girl like me," prompted Ruth in a low, tragic voice.
"It—it's not right. It—it's not proper." He drew a long breath. "It's all wrong. It's got to stop."
"He's perfectly wonderful!" murmured Ruth. "He just opens his mouth and the words come out. But I knew he was somebody, directly I saw him, by his forehead. Like a dome!" Bailey mopped the dome.
"Perhaps you don't know it," he said, "but you're getting yourself talked about. You go about saying perfectly impossible things to people. You won't marry. You have refused nearly every friend I have."
"Your friends are awful, Bailey. They are all turned out on a pattern, like a flock of sheep. They bleat. They have all got little, narrow faces without chins or big, fat faces without foreheads. Ugh!"
"None of them good enough for you, is that it?"
Emotion rendered Bailey—for him—almost vulgar.
"I guess you hate yourself!" he snapped.
"No sir" beamed Ruth. "I think I'm perfectly beautiful."
Bailey grunted. Ruth came to him and gave him a sisterly kiss. She was very fond of Bailey, though she declined to reverence him.
"Cheer up, Bailey boy," she said. "Don't you worry yourself. There's a method in my madness. I'll find him sooner or later, and then you'll be glad I waited."
"Him? what do you mean?"
"Why, him, of course. The ideal young man. That's who—or is it whom?—I'm waiting for. Bailey, shall I tell you something? You're so scarlet already—poor boy, you ought not to rush around in this hot weather—that it won't make you blush. It's this. I'm ambitious. I mean to marry the finest man in the world and have the greatest little old baby you ever dreamed of. By the way, now I remember, I told Clarence that."
Bailey uttered a strangled exclamation.
"It has made you blush! You turned purple. Well, now you know. I mean my baby to be the most splendid baby that was ever born. He's going to be strong and straight and clever and handsome, and—oh, everything else you can think of. That's why I'm waiting for the ideal young man. If I don't find him I shall die an old maid. But I shall find him. We may pass each other on Fifth Avenue. We may sit next each other at a theatre. Wherever it is, I shall just reach right out and grab him and whisk him away. And if he's married already, he'll have to get a divorce. And I shan't care who he is. He may be any one. I don't mind if he's a ribbon clerk or a prize-fighter or a policeman or a cab-driver, so long as he's the right man."
Bailey plied the handkerchief on his streaming forehead. The heat of the day and the horror of this conversation were reducing his weight at the rate of ounces a minute. In his most jaundiced mood he had never imagined these frightful sentiments to be lurking in Ruth's mind.
"You can't mean that!" he cried.
"I mean every word of it," said Ruth. "I hope, for your sake, he won't turn out to be a waiter or a prize-fighter, but it won't make any difference to me."
"Well, just now you said Aunt Lora was. If she is, I am."
"I knew it! I said she had been putting these ghastly ideas into your head. I'd like to strangle that woman."
"Don't you try! Have you ever felt Aunt Lora's biceps? It's like a man's. She does dumb-bells every morning."
"I've a good mind to speak to father. Somebody's got to make you stop this insanity."
"Just as you please. But you know how father hates to be worried about things that don't concern business."
Bailey did. His father, of whom he stood in the greatest awe, was very little interested in any subject except the financial affairs of the firm of Bannister & Son. It required greater courage than Bailey possessed to place this matter before him. He had an uneasy feeling that Ruth knew it.
"I would, if it were necessary," he said. "But I don't believe you're serious."
"Stick to that idea as long as ever you can, Bailey dear," said Ruth. "It will comfort you."
The Mates Meet
Kirk Winfield was an amiable, if rather weak, young man with whom life, for twenty-five years, had dealt kindly. He had perfect health, an income more than sufficient for his needs, a profession which interested without monopolizing him, a thoroughly contented disposition, and the happy knack of surrounding himself with friends.
That he had to contribute to the support of the majority of these friends might have seemed a drawback to some men. Kirk did not object to it in the least. He had enough money to meet their needs, and, being a sociable person who enjoyed mixing with all sorts and conditions of men, he found the Liberty Hall regime pleasant.
He liked to be a magnet, attracting New York's Bohemian population. If he had his preferences among the impecunious crowd who used the studio as a chapel of ease, strolling in when it pleased them, drinking his whisky, smoking his cigarettes, borrowing his money, and, on occasion, his spare bedrooms and his pyjamas, he never showed it. He was fully as pleasant to Percy Shanklyn, the elegant, perpetually resting English actor, whom he disliked as far as he was capable of disliking any one, as he was to Hank Jardine, the prospector, and Hank's prize-fighter friend, Steve Dingle, both of whom he liked enormously.
It seemed to him sometimes that he had drifted into the absolutely ideal life. He lived entirely in the present. The passage of time left him untouched. Day followed day, week followed week, and nothing seemed to change. He was never unhappy, never ill, never bored.
He would get up in the morning with the comfortable knowledge that the day held no definite duties. George Pennicut would produce one of his excellent breakfasts. The next mile-stone would be the arrival of Steve Dingle. Five brisk rounds with Steve, a cold bath, and a rub-down took him pleasantly on to lunch, after which it amused him to play at painting.
There was always something to do when he wearied of that until, almost before the day had properly begun, up came George with one of his celebrated dinners. And then began the incursion of his friends. One by one they would drop in, making themselves very much at home, to help their host through till bedtime. And another day would slip into the past.
It never occurred to Kirk that he was wasting his life. He had no ambitions. Ambition is born of woman, and no woman that he had ever met had ever stirred him deeply. He had never been in love, and he had come to imagine that he was incapable of anything except a mild liking for women. He considered himself immune, and was secretly glad of it. He enjoyed his go-as-you-please existence too much to want to have it upset. He belonged, in fact, to the type which, when the moment arrives, falls in love very suddenly, very violently, and for all time.
Nothing could have convinced him of this. He was like a child lighting matches in a powder-magazine. When the idea of marriage crossed his mind he thrust it from him with a kind of shuddering horror. He could not picture to himself a woman who could compensate him for the loss of his freedom and, still less, of his friends.
His friends were men's men; he could not see them fitting into a scheme of life that involved the perpetual presence of a hostess. Hank Jardine, for instance. To Kirk, the great point about Hank was that he had been everywhere, seen everything, and was, when properly stimulated with tobacco and drink, a fountain of reminiscence. But he could not talk unless he had his coat off and his feet up on the back of a chair. No hostess could be expected to relish that.
Hank was a bachelor's friend; he did not belong in a married household. The abstract wife could not be reconciled to him, and Kirk, loving Hank like a brother, firmly dismissed the abstract wife.
He came to look upon himself as a confirmed bachelor. He had thought out the question of marriage in all its aspects, and decided against it. He was the strong man who knew his own mind and could not be shaken.
Yet, on the afternoon of the day following Mrs. Lora Delane Porter's entry into his life, Kirk sat in the studio, feeling, for the first time in recent years, a vague discontent. He was uneasy, almost afraid. The slight dislocation in the smooth-working machinery of his existence, caused by the compulsory retirement of George Pennicut, had made him thoroughly uncomfortable. With discomfort had come introspection, and with introspection this uneasiness that was almost fear.
A man, living alone, without money troubles to worry him, sinks inevitably into a routine. Fatted ease is good for no one. It sucks the soul out of a man. Kirk, as he sat smoking in the cool dusk of the studio, was wondering, almost in a panic, whether all was well with himself.
This mild domestic calamity had upset him so infernally. It could not be right that so slight a change in his habits should have such an effect upon him. George had been so little hurt—the doctor gave him a couple of days before complete recovery—that it had not seemed worth while to Kirk to engage a substitute. It was simpler to go out for his meals and make his own bed. And it was the realization that this alteration in his habits had horribly disturbed and unsettled him that was making Kirk subject himself now to an examination of quite unusual severity.
He hated softness. Physically, he kept himself always in perfect condition. Had he become spiritually flabby? Certainly this unexpected call on his energies would appear to have found him unprepared. It spoiled his whole day, knowing, when he got out of bed in the morning, that he must hunt about and find his food instead of sitting still and having it brought to him. It frightened him to think how set he had become.
Forty-eight hours ago he would have scorned the suggestion that he coddled himself. He would have produced as evidence to the contrary his cold baths, his exercises, his bouts with Steve Dingle. To-day he felt less confidence. For all his baths and boxing, the fact remained that he had become, at the age of twenty-six, such a slave to habit that a very trifling deviation from settled routine had been enough to poison life for him.
Bachelors have these black moments, and it is then that the abstract wife comes into her own. To Kirk, brooding in the dusk, the figure of the abstract wife seemed to grow less formidable, the fact that she might not get on with Hank Jardine of less importance.
The revolutionary thought that life was rather a bore, and would become more and more of a bore as the years went on, unless he had some one to share it with, crept into his mind and stayed there.
He shivered. These were unpleasant thoughts, and in his hour of clear vision he knew whence they came. They were entirely due to the knowledge that, instead of sitting comfortably at home, he would be compelled in a few short hours to go out and get dinner at some restaurant. To such a pass had he come in the twenty-sixth year of his life.
Once the gods have marked a bachelor down, they give him few chances of escape. It was when Kirk's mood was at its blackest, and the figure of the abstract wife had ceased to be a menace and become a shining angel of salvation, that Lora Delane Porter, with Ruth Bannister at her side, rang the studio bell.
Kirk went to the door. He hoped it was a tradesman; he feared it was a friend. In his present state of mind he had no use for friends. When he found himself confronting Mrs. Porter he became momentarily incapable of speech. It had not entered his mind that she would pay him a second visit. Possibly it was joy that rendered him dumb.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Winfield," said Mrs. Porter. "I have come to inquire after the man Pennicut. Ruth, this is Mr. Winfield. Mr. Winfield, my niece, Miss Bannister."
And Kirk perceived for the first time that his visitor was not alone. In the shadow behind her a girl was standing. He stood aside to let Mrs. Porter pass, and Ruth came into the light.
If there are degrees in speechlessness, Kirk's aphasia became doubled and trebled at the sight of her. It seemed to him that he went all to pieces, as if he had received a violent blow. Curious physical changes were taking place in him. His legs, which only that morning he had looked upon as eminently muscular, he now discovered to be composed of some curiously unstable jelly.
He also perceived—a fact which he had never before suspected—that he had heart-disease. His lungs, too, were in poor condition; he found it practically impossible to breathe. The violent trembling fit which assailed him he attributed to general organic weakness.
He gaped at Ruth.
Ruth, outwardly, remained unaffected by the meeting, but inwardly she was feeling precisely the same sensation of smallness which had come to Mrs. Porter on her first meeting with Kirk. If this sensation had been novel to Mrs. Porter, it was even stranger to Ruth.
To think humbly of herself was an experience that seldom happened to her. She was perfectly aware that her beauty was remarkable even in a city of beautiful women, and it was rarely that she permitted her knowledge of that fact to escape her. Her beauty, to her, was a natural phenomenon, impossible to overlook. The realization of it did not obtrude itself into her mind, it simply existed subconsciously.
Yet for an instant it ceased to exist. She was staggered by a sense of inferiority.
It lasted but a pin-point of time, this riotous upheaval of her nature. She recovered herself so swiftly that Kirk, busy with his own emotions, had no suspicion of it.
A moment later he, too, was himself again. He was conscious of feeling curiously uplifted and thrilled, as if the world had suddenly become charged with ozone and electricity, and for some reason he felt capable of great feats of muscle and energy; but the aphasia had left him, and he addressed himself with a clear brain to the task of entertaining his visitors.
"George is better to-day," he reported.
"He never was bad," said Mrs. Porter succinctly.
"He doesn't think so."
"Possibly not. He is hopelessly weak-minded."
Ruth laughed. Kirk thrilled at the sound.
"Poor George!" she observed.
"Don't waste your sympathy, my dear," said Mrs. Porter. "That he is injured at all is his own fault. For years he has allowed himself to become gross and flabby, with the result that the collision did damage which it would not have done to a man in hard condition. You, Mr. Winfield," she added, turning abruptly to Kirk, "would scarcely have felt it. But then you," went on Mrs. Porter, "are in good condition. Cold baths!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you take cold baths?"
"Do you do Swedish exercises?"
"I go through a series of evolutions every morning, with the utmost loathing. I started them as a boy, and they have become a habit like dram-drinking. I would leave them off if I could, but I can't."
"Do nothing of the kind. They are invaluable."
"Let me feel your biceps, Mr. Winfield," said Mrs. Porter. She nodded approvingly. "Like iron." She poised a finger and ran a meditative glance over his form. Kirk eyed her apprehensively. The finger darted forward and struck home in the region of the third waistcoat button. "Wonderful!" she exclaimed. "Ruth!"
"Prod Mr. Winfield where my finger is pointing. He is extraordinarily muscular."
"I say, really!" protested Kirk. He was a modest young man, and this exploration of his more intimate anatomy by the finger-tips of the girl he loved was not to be contemplated.
"Just as you please," said Mrs. Porter. "If I were a man of your physique, I should be proud of it."
"Wouldn't you like to go up and see George?" asked Kirk. It was hard on George, but it was imperative that this woman be removed somehow.
"Very well. I have brought him a little book to read, which will do him good. It is called 'Elementary Rules for the Preservation of the Body'."
"He has learned one of them, all right, since yesterday," said Kirk. "Not to walk about in front of automobiles."
"The rules I refer to are mainly concerned with diet and wholesome exercise," explained Mrs. Porter. "Careful attention to them may yet save him. His case is not hopeless. Ruth, let Mr. Winfield show you his pictures. They are poor in many respects, but not entirely without merit."
Ruth, meanwhile, had been sitting on the couch, listening to the conversation without really hearing it. She was in a dreamy, contented mood. She found herself curiously soothed by the atmosphere of the studio, with its shaded lights and its atmosphere of peace. That was the keynote of the place, peace.
From outside came the rumble of an elevated train, subdued and softened, like faintly heard thunder. Somebody passed the window, whistling. A barrier seemed to separate her from these noises of the city. New York was very far away.
"I believe I could be wonderfully happy in a place like this," she thought.
She became suddenly aware, in the midst of her meditations, of eyes watching her intently. She looked up and met Kirk's.
She could read the message in them as clearly as if he had spoken it, and she was conscious of a little thrill of annoyance at the thought of all the tiresome formalities which must be gone through before he could speak it. They seemed absurd.
It was all so simple. He wanted her; she wanted him. She had known it from the moment of their meeting. The man had found his woman, the woman her man. Nature had settled the whole affair in an instant. And now civilization, propriety, etiquette, whatever one cared to call it, must needs step in with the rules and regulations and precedents.
The goal was there, clear in sight, but it must be reached by the winding road appointed. She, being a woman and, by virtue of her sex, primeval, scorned the road, and would have ignored it. But she knew men, and especially, at that moment as their eyes met, she knew Kirk; and she understood that to him the road was a thing that could not be ignored. The mere idea of doing so would seem grotesque and impossible, probably even shocking, to him. Men were odd, formal creatures, slaves to precedent.
He must have time, it was the prerogative of the male; time to reveal himself to her, to strut before her, to go through the solemn comedy of proving to her, by the exhibition of his virtues and the careful suppression of his defects, what had been clear to her from the first instant, that here was her mate, the man nature had set apart for her.
He would begin by putting on a new suit of clothes and having his hair cut.
She smiled. It was silly and tiresome, but it was funny.
"Will you show me your pictures, Mr. Winfield?" she asked.
"If you'd really care to see them. I'm afraid they're pretty bad."
"Exhibit A. Modesty," thought Ruth.
The journey had begun.
It is not easy in this world to take any definite step without annoying somebody, and Kirk, in embarking on his wooing of Ruth Bannister, failed signally to do so. Lora Delane Porter beamed graciously upon him, like a pleased Providence, but the rest of his circle of acquaintances were ill at ease.
The statement does not include Hank Jardine, for Hank was out of New York; but the others—Shanklyn, the actor; Wren, the newspaper-man; Bryce, Johnson, Willis, Appleton, and the rest—sensed impending change in the air, and were uneasy, like cattle before a thunder-storm. The fact that the visits of Mrs. Porter and Ruth to inquire after George, now of daily occurrence, took place in the afternoon, while they, Kirk's dependents, seldom or never appeared in the studio till drawn there by the scent of the evening meal, it being understood that during the daytime Kirk liked to work undisturbed, kept them ignorant of the new development.
All they knew was that during the last two weeks a subtle change had taken place in Kirk. He was less genial, more prone to irritability than of old. He had developed fits of absent-mindedness, and was frequently to be found staring pensively at nothing. To slap him on the back at such moments, as Wren ventured to do on one occasion, Wren belonging to the jovial school of thought which holds that nature gave us hands in order to slap backs, was to bring forth a new and unexpected Kirk, a Kirk who scowled and snarled and was hardly to be appeased with apology. Stranger still, this new Kirk could be summoned into existence by precisely the type of story at which, but a few weeks back, he would have been the first to laugh.
Percy Shanklyn, whose conversation consisted of equal parts of autobiography and of stories of the type alluded to, was the one to discover this. His latest, which he had counted on to set the table in a roar, produced from Kirk criticism so adverse and so crisply delivered that he refrained from telling his latest but one and spent the rest of the evening wondering, like his fellow visitors, what had happened to Kirk and whether he was sickening for something.
Not one of them had the faintest suspicion that these symptoms indicated that Kirk, for the first time in his easy-going life, was in love. They had never contemplated such a prospect. It was not till his conscientious and laborious courtship had been in progress for over two weeks and was nearing the stage when he felt that the possibility of revealing his state of mind to Ruth was not so remote as it had been, that a chance visit of Percy Shanklyn to the studio during the afternoon solved the mystery.
One calls it a chance visit because Percy had not been meaning to borrow twenty dollars from Kirk that day at all. The man slated for the loan was one Burrows, a kindly member of the Lambs Club. But fate and a telegram from a manager removed Burrows to Chicago, while Percy was actually circling preparatory to the swoop, and the only other man in New York who seemed to Percy good for the necessary sum at that precise moment was Kirk.
He flew to Kirk and found him with Ruth. Kirk's utter absence of any enthusiasm at the sight of him, the reluctance with which he made the introduction, the glumness with which he bore his share of the three-cornered conversation—all these things convinced Percy that this was no ordinary visitor.
Many years of living by his wits had developed in Percy highly sensitive powers of observation. Brief as his visit was, he came away as certain that Kirk was in love with this girl, and the girl was in love with Kirk, as he had ever been of anything in his life.
As he walked slowly down-town he was thinking hard. The subject occupying his mind was the problem of how this thing was to be stopped.
Percy Shanklyn was a sleek, suave, unpleasant youth who had been imported by a theatrical manager two years before to play the part of an English dude in a new comedy. The comedy had been what its enthusiastic backer had described in the newspaper advertisements as a "rousing live-wire success." That is to say, it had staggered along for six weeks on Broadway to extremely poor houses, and after three weeks on the road, had perished for all time, leaving Percy out of work.
Since then, no other English dude part having happened along, he had rested, living in the mysterious way in which out-of-work actors do live. He had a number of acquaintances, such as the amiable Burrows, who were good for occasional loans, but Kirk Winfield was the king of them all. There was something princely about the careless open-handedness of Kirk's methods, and Percy's whole soul rose in revolt against the prospect of being deprived of this source of revenue, as something, possibly Ruth's determined chin, told him that he would be, should Kirk marry this girl.
He had placed Ruth at once, directly he had heard her name. He remembered having seen her photograph in the society section of the Sunday paper which he borrowed each week. This was the daughter of old John Bannister. There was no doubt about that. How she had found her way to Kirk's studio he could not understand; but there she certainly was, and Percy was willing to bet the twenty dollars which, despite the excitement of the moment, he had not forgotten to extract from Kirk in a hurried conversation at the door, that her presence there was not known and approved by her father.
The only reasonable explanation that Kirk was painting her portrait he dismissed. There had been no signs of any portrait, and Kirk's embarrassment had been so obvious that, if there had been any such explanation, he would certainly have given it. No, Ruth had been there for other reasons than those of art.
"Unchaperoned, too, by Jove!" thought Percy virtuously, ignorant of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter, who at the time of his call, had been busily occupied in a back room instilling into George Pennicut the gospel of the fit body. For George, now restored to health, had ceased to be a mere student of "Elementary Rules for the Preservation of the Body" and had become an active, though unwilling, practiser of its precepts.
Every morning Mrs. Porter called and, having shepherded him into the back room, put him relentlessly through his exercises. George's groans, as he moved his stout limbs along the dotted lines indicated in the book's illustrated plates, might have stirred a faint heart to pity. But Lora Delane Porter was made of sterner stuff. If George so much as bent his knees while touching his toes he heard of it instantly, in no uncertain voice.
Thus, in her decisive way, did Mrs. Porter spread light and sweetness with both hands, achieving the bodily salvation of George while, at the same time, furthering the loves of Ruth and Kirk by leaving them alone together to make each other's better acquaintance in the romantic dimness of the studio.
* * * * *
Percy proceeded down-town, pondering. His first impulse, I regret to say, was to send Ruth's father an anonymous letter. This plan he abandoned from motives of fear rather than of self-respect. Anonymous letters are too frequently traced to their writers, and the prospect of facing Kirk in such an event did not appeal to him.
As he could think of no other way of effecting his object, he had begun to taste the bitterness of futile effort, when fortune, always his friend, put him in a position to do what he wanted in the easiest possible way with the minimum of unpleasantness.
Bailey Bannister, that strong, keen Napoleon of finance, was not above a little relaxation of an evening when his father happened to be out of town. That giant mind, weary with the strain of business, needed refreshment.
And so, at eleven thirty that night, his father being in Albany, and not expected home till next day, Bailey might have been observed, beautifully arrayed and discreetly jovial, partaking of lobster at one of those Broadway palaces where this fish is in brisk demand. He was in company with his rabbit-faced friend, Clarence Grayling, and two members of the chorus of a neighbouring musical comedy.
One of the two, with whom Clarence was conversing in a lively manner that showed his heart had not been irreparably broken as the result of his recent interview with Ruth, we may dismiss. Like Clarence, she is of no importance to the story. The other, who, not finding Bailey's measured remarks very gripping, was allowing her gaze to wander idly around the room, has this claim to a place in the scheme of things, that she had a wordless part in the comedy in which Percy Shanklyn had appeared as the English dude and was on terms of friendship with him.
Consequently, seeing him enter the room, as he did at that moment, she signalled him to approach.
"It's a little feller who was with me in 'The Man from Out West'," she explained to Bailey as Percy made his way toward them. At which Bailey's prim mouth closed with an air of disapproval.
The feminine element of the stage he found congenial to his business- harassed brain, but with the "little fellers" who helped them to keep the national drama sizzling he felt less in sympathy; and he resented extremely his companion's tactlessness in inciting this infernal mummer to intrude upon his privacy.
He prepared to be cold and distant with Percy. And when Bailey, never a ray of sunshine, deliberately tried to be chilly, those with him at the time generally had the sensation that winter was once more in their midst.
Percy, meanwhile, threaded his way among the tables, little knowing that fate had already solved the problem which had worried him the greater part of the day.
He had come to the restaurant as a relief from his thoughts. If he could find some kind friend who would invite him to supper, well and good. If not, he was feeling so tired and depressed that he was ready to take the bull by the horns and pay for his meal himself. He had obeyed Miss Freda Reece's signal because it was impossible to avoid doing so; but one glance at Bailey's face had convinced him that not there was his kind host.
"Why, Perce," said Miss Reece, "I ain't saw you in years. Where you been hiding yourself?"
Percy gave a languid gesture indicative of the man of affairs whose time is not his own.
"Percy," continued Miss Reece, "shake hands with my friend Mr. Bannister. I been telling him about how you made such a hit as the pin in 'Pinafore'!"
The name galvanized Percy like a bugle-blast.
"Mr. Bannister!" he exclaimed. "Any relation to Mr. John Bannister, the millionaire?"
Bailey favoured him with a scrutiny through the gold-rimmed glasses which would have frozen his very spine.
"My father's name is—ah—John, and he is a millionaire."
Percy met the scrutiny with a suave smile.
"By Jove!" he said. "I know your sister quite well, Mr. Bannister. I meet her frequently at the studio of my friend Kirk Winfield. Very frequently. She is there nearly every day. Well, I must be moving on. Got a date with a man. Goodbye, Freda. Glad you're going strong. Good night, Mr. Bannister. Delighted to have made your acquaintance. You must come round to the studio one of these days. Good night."
He moved softly away. Miss Reece watched him go with regret.
"He's a good little feller, Percy," she said. "And so he knows your sister. Well, ain't that nice!"
Bailey did not reply. And to the feast of reason and flow of soul that went on at the table during the rest of the meal he contributed so little that Miss Reece, in conversation that night with her friend alluded to him, not without justice, first as "that stiff," and, later, as "a dead one."
* * * * *
If Percy Shanklyn could have seen Bailey in the small hours of that night he would have been satisfied that his words had borne fruit. Like a modern Prometheus, Bailey writhed, sleepless, on his bed till daylight appeared. The discovery that Ruth was in the habit of paying clandestine visits to artists' studios, where she met men like the little bounder who had been thrust upon him at supper, rent his haughty soul like a bomb.
He knew no artists, but he had read novels of Bohemian life in Paris, and he had gathered a general impression that they were, as a class, shock-headed, unwashed persons of no social standing whatever, extremely short of money and much addicted to orgies. And his sister had lowered herself by association with one of these.
He rose early. His appearance in the mirror shocked him. He looked positively haggard.
Dressing with unwonted haste, he inquired for Ruth, and was told that a telephone message had come from her late the previous evening to say that she was spending the night at the apartment of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter. The hated name increased Bailey's indignation. He held Mrs. Porter responsible for the whole trouble. But for her pernicious influence, Ruth would have been an ordinary sweet American girl, running as, Bailey held, a girl should, in a decent groove.
It increased his troubles that his father was away from New York. Bailey, who enjoyed the dignity of being temporary head of the firm of Bannister & Son, had approved of his departure. But now he would have given much to have him on the spot. He did not doubt his own ability to handle this matter, but he felt that his father ought to know what was going on.
His wrath against this upstart artist who secretly entertained his sister in his studio grew with the minutes. It would be his privilege very shortly to read that scrubby dauber a lesson in deportment which he would remember.
In the interests of the family welfare he decided to stay away from the office that day. The affairs of Bannister & Son would be safe for the time being in the hands of the head clerk. Having telephoned to Wall Street to announce his decision, he made a moody breakfast and then proceeded, as was his custom of a morning, to the gymnasium for his daily exercise.
The gymnasium was a recent addition to the Bannister home. It had been established as the result of a heart-to-heart talk between old John Bannister and his doctor. The doctor spoke earnestly of nervous prostration and stated without preamble the exact number of months which would elapse before Mr. Bannister living his present life, would make first-hand acquaintance with it. He insisted on a regular routine of exercise. The gymnasium came into being, and Mr. Steve Dingle, physical instructor at the New York Athletic Club, took up a position in the Bannister household which he was wont to describe to his numerous friends as a soft snap.
Certainly his hours were not long. Thirty minutes with old Mr. Bannister and thirty minutes with Mr. Bailey between eight and nine in the morning and his duties were over for the day. But Steve was conscientious and checked any disposition on the part of his two clients to shirk work with a firmness which Lora Delane Porter might have envied.
There were moments when he positively bullied old Mr. Bannister. It would have amazed the clerks in his Wall Street office to see the meekness with which the old man obeyed orders. But John Bannister was a man who liked to get his money's worth, and he knew that Steve was giving it to the last cent.
Steve at that time was twenty-eight years old. He had abandoned an active connection with the ring, which had begun just after his seventeenth birthday, twelve months before his entry into the Bannister home, leaving behind him a record of which any boxer might have been proud. He personally was exceedingly proud of it, and made no secret of the fact.
He was a man in private life of astonishingly even temper. The only thing that appeared to have the power to ruffle him to the slightest extent was the contemplation of what he described as the bunch of cheeses who pretended to fight nowadays. He would have considered it a privilege, it seemed, to be allowed to encounter all the middle-weights in the country in one ring in a single night without training. But it appeared that he had promised his mother to quit, and he had quit.
Steve's mother was an old lady who in her day had been the best washerwoman on Cherry Hill. She was, moreover, completely lacking in all the qualities which go to make up the patroness of sport. Steve had been injudicious enough to pay her a visit the day after his celebrated unpleasantness with that rugged warrior, Pat O'Flaherty (ne Smith), and, though he had knocked Pat out midway through the second round, he bore away from the arena a black eye of such a startling richness that old Mrs. Dingle had refused to be comforted until he had promised never to enter the ring again. Which, as Steve said, had come pretty hard, he being a man who would rather be a water-bucket in a ring than a president outside it.
But he had given the promise, and kept it, leaving the field to the above-mentioned bunch of cheeses. There were times when the temptation to knock the head off Battling Dick this and Fighting Jack that became almost agony, but he never yielded to it. All of which suggests that Steve was a man of character, as indeed he was.
Bailey, entering the gymnasium, found Steve already there, punching the bag with a force and precision which showed that the bunch of cheeses ought to have been highly grateful to Mrs. Dingle for her anti-pugilistic prejudices.
"Good morning, Dingle," said Bailey precisely.
Steve nodded. Bailey began to don his gymnasium costume. Steve gave the ball a final punch and turned to him. He was a young man who gave the impression of being, in a literal sense, perfectly square. This was due to the breadth of his shoulders, which was quite out of proportion to his height. His chest was extraordinarily deep, and his stomach and waist small, so that to the observer seeing him for the first time in boxing trunks, he seemed to begin as a big man and, half-way down, change his mind and become a small one.
His arms, which were unusually long and thick, hung down nearly to his knees and were decorated throughout with knobs and ridges of muscle that popped up and down and in and out as he moved, in a manner both fascinating and frightening. His face increased the illusion of squareness, for he had thick, straight eyebrows, a straight mouth, and a chin of almost the minimum degree of roundness. He inspected Bailey with a pair of brilliant brown eyes which no detail of his appearance could escape. And Bailey, that morning, as has been said, was not looking his best.
"You're lookin' kind o' sick, bo," was Steve's comment. "I guess you was hittin' it up with the gang last night in one of them lobster parlours."
Bailey objected to being addressed as "bo," and he was annoyed that Steve should have guessed the truth respecting his overnight movements. Still more was he annoyed that Steve's material mind should attribute to a surfeit of lobster a pallor that was superinduced by a tortured soul.
"I did—ah—take supper last night, it is true," he said. "But if I am a little pale to-day, that is not the cause. Things have occurred to annoy me intensely."
"You should worry!" advised Steve. "Catch!"
The heavy medicine-ball struck Bailey in the chest before he could bring up his hands and sent him staggering back.
"Damn it, Dingle," he gasped. "Kindly give me warning before you do that sort of thing."
Steve was delighted. It amused his simple, honest soul to catch Bailey napping, and the incident gave him a text on which to hang a lecture. And, next to fighting, he loved best the sound of his own voice.
"Warning? Nix!" he said. "Ain't it just what I been telling you every day for weeks? You gotta be ready always. You seen me holding the pellet. You should oughter have been saying to yourself: 'I gotta keep an eye on that gink, so's he don't soak me one with that thing when I ain't looking.' Then you would have caught it and whizzed it back at me, and maybe, if I hadn't been ready for it, you might have knocked the breeze out of me."
"I should have derived no pleasure——-"
"Why, say, suppose a plug-ugly sasshays up to you on the street to take a crack at your pearl stick-pin, do you reckon he's going to drop you a postal card first? You gotta be ready for him. See what I mean?"
"Let us spar," said Bailey austerely. He had begun to despair of ever making Steve show him that deference and respect which he considered due to the son of the house. The more frigid he was, the more genial and friendly did Steve become. The thing seemed hopeless.
It was a pleasing sight to see Bailey spar. He brought to the task the measured dignity which characterized all his actions. A left jab from him had all the majesty of a formal declaration of war. If he was a trifle slow in his movements for a pastime which demands a certain agility from its devotees he at least got plenty of exercise and did himself a great deal of good.
He was perspiring freely as he took off the gloves. A shower-bath, followed by brisk massage at the energetic hands of Steve, made him feel better than he had imagined he could feel after that night of spiritual storm and stress. He was glowing as he put on his clothes, and a certain high resolve which had come to him in the night watches now returned with doubled force.
"Dingle," he said, "how did I seem to-day?"
"Fine," answered Steve courteously. "You're gettin' to be a regular terror."
"You think I shape well?"
"I am glad. This morning I am going to thrash a man within an inch of his life."
Steve spun round. Bailey's face was set and determined.
"You are?" said Steve feebly.
"What's he been doing to you?"
"I am afraid I cannot tell you that. But he richly deserves what he will get."
Steve eyed him with affectionate interest.
"Well, ain't you the wildcat!" he said. "Who'd have thought it? I'd always had you sized up as a kind o' placid guy."
"I can be roused."
"Gee, can't I see it! But, say, what sort of a gook is this gink, anyway?"
"In what respect?"
"Well, I mean is he a heavy or a middle or a welter or what? It makes a kind o' difference, you know."
"I cannot say. I have not seen him."
"What! Not seen him? Then how's there this fuss between you?"
"That is a matter into which I cannot go."
"Well, what's his name, then? Maybe I know him. I know a few good people in this burg."
"I have no objection to telling you that. He is an artist, and his name is—his name is——"
Wrinkles appeared in Bailey's forehead. His eyes bulged anxiously behind their glasses.
"I've forgotten," he said blankly.
"For the love of Mike! Know where he lives?"
"I am afraid not."
Steve patted him kindly on the shoulder.
"Take my advice, bo," he said. "Let the poor fellow off this time."
And so it came about that Bailey, instead of falling upon Kirk Winfield, hailed a taxicab and drove to the apartment of Mrs. Lora Delane Porter.
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.