The Bishop's Jaegers
AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION
VAN DYCK coffee had been responsible for keeping more generations of New Yorkers awake than had the product of any other importer in lower Manhattan. In the early days of the company's activities the Van Dycks had endeavoured to popularize the beverage among various tribes of the less homicidally inclined Indians. However, finding that these original Americans seemed to prefer gin almost as avidly as Americans do to-day, the cannily hospitable old Dutchmen promptly broke out the square bottles and prospered greatly thereby.
With this phase of the business the current generation of Van Dycks habitually dealt with commendable vagueness. Inasmuch as the Van Dycks had been fairly respectable even before they took up the New World in a big way, it never occurred to their descendants that their present exalted state was established on the hang-overs of a great multitude of red men.
Peter Van Dyck knew far less about coffee than had any of his predecessors. He was somewhat less backward where gin was concerned. Peter found it difficult to break himself of the habit of regarding coffee in the light of a personal indulgence rather than as a commercial asset. Some mornings it tasted better than others. That was about the extent of Peter's knowledge. This morning, he decided, it did not taste so good.
As he left his house in the West Seventies he was wondering vaguely why his eyes had such a harassed expression and his coffee such a comfortless flavour. The season of the year was propitious—late spring with summer lounging among the buds. Business not too bad when compared with that of his competitors. As a matter of fact, the morning paper had announced the untimely end of one of his closest rivals, yet even this gratifying occurrence failed to lend zest to Peter's day. Something was radically wrong with him.
Then, suddenly, a thought rose bleakly from his sub-conscious mind and flopped down heavily on his conscious one, where it lay like a dead weight. This afternoon his Aunt Sophie, his statuesque and painfully modern Aunt Sophie who presided over his household, was giving a cocktail party for Yolanda Bates Wilmont. And at this party the cat which had long since been out of the bag was obligingly going to crawl back into it again to permit itself to be officially released. After to-day he, Peter, would no longer be a free lance in the courts of light dalliance. He would be irrevocably engaged to Yolanda with all her beauty and wealth and firmly rooted convictions. This knowledge somehow failed even more lamentably than had the sudden departure of his business rival to add zest to Peter's day. Yes, there was no doubt about it. Something was radically wrong with him. His responsive faculties seemed to have become strangely atrophied by the thought of life and Yolanda Wilmont.
For a few brief moments Peter's troubled blue eyes dwelt on the lines of a well-formed girl sitting opposite him in the downtown subway express. Little suspecting the highly improper trend of his thoughts, Peter felt that he would like to lie down quietly somewhere with that girl and talk the situation over. He felt the need of a female confessor as well as entertainer. There had been too few women in his life. With a sense of panic he began to realize this as the imminence of his official betrothal confronted him. Quickly he averted his eyes. The girl was chewing gum. This girl, in spite of her lines, was definitely out of the picture. Well, was not life exactly like that? At its most alluring moments it suddenly began to chew gum in one's face. Revolted, Peter shrank slightly and returned to his paper.
It was not until he had reached the seclusion of his private office that the extra pair of drawers he was unconsciously wearing began to manifest themselves. Even then he was not aware of the exact nature of his difficulties. He experienced merely a sense of unwonted fullness—a growing sensation of insecurity. Suddenly, however, as the drawers gathered headway his alarm and discomfort became acute. In his anxiety forgetting that his office though private was not quite impenetrable, Peter allowed his trousers to descend several inches, the better to deal with the perplexing situation.
Miss Josephine Duval, armed with the morning mail, entered the room quietly and closed the door behind her. For a moment she allowed her cool but curious gaze to dwell on the orange and black stripes decorating all that could be seen of the southern exposure of Mr. Peter Van Dyck's shorts.
'Looks like summer awnings,' she observed more to herself than to her employer. 'And to think I never suspected!'
With a low moan of distress Peter's body went into a huddle as only a body can when plunged into such a situation.
'Haven't you got sense enough to get out!' he demanded, twisting a strained but indignant face over his shoulder.
'I have the sense, but not the power,' Miss Duval retorted calmly. 'Your condition has robbed me of that.'
'For God's sake,' the man almost chattered, 'hurry! suppose some one should come in and find you here?'
'I'm all right,' said Miss Duval. 'It's you who would give rise to comment.'
Something was slipping farther and farther down the right leg of Peter's trousers, slipping stealthily but relentlessly to the floor. And the trouble was that Peter, not suspecting the presence of a stowaway, visualized the worst. What a fearful picture he must be presenting from the rear, yet the front view would not improve matters any. How could such a demeaning thing happen to a man in this day and age?
'Won't you please go way?' he asked in an agitated voice. 'What would people think?'
'Well,' replied Jo with dispassionate deliberation, 'from the trouble you seem to be having with your trousers, people might get the impression you'd asked me in here to watch you do tricks with your shorts.'
'What's that!' exclaimed Peter, more upset by the girl's attitude than by her words. 'Oh, you're fired. There's no doubt about that. This time you're through for good.'
'Do you realize that I could play a decidedly dirty trick!' Jo inquired lightly.
'What do you mean!' asked Peter, his fingers furtively fumbling with various buttons.
'If I should scream now—' began Jo, but was interrupted by Peter's heartfelt, 'Oh, my God!'
'If I should begin to shout and rush about,' she continued, as if savouring the idea, 'there's not a jury in the world that wouldn't convict you of at least breach of promise.'
'Swear to God I never knew there was such a woman in the world,' Peter Van Dyck replied in an emotional voice as if appealing to some unseen audience. 'If you'll only go away and let me finish what I'm doing you'll not be fired.'
'How about all this mail?' she demanded.
'Am I in a condition to go into that now?'
'I should say not,' said the girl. 'You don't know how awful you are.'
'Then don't trouble to tell me. I can very well imagine.'
'Before I go,' Josephine continued, placing the letters on the desk, 'would you mind explaining what was in your mind when you got yourself into this terrible condition?'
'I don't know,' Peter answered. ' And I fail to see how it's any of your business.'
'Well, it's a sight a young lady doesn't see every day of her life,' replied Jo. 'Especially in an office building and at this time of day.'
'I don't make a practice of it,' Peter retorted, with an attempt at dignity.
'I wouldn't,' Miss Duval assured him. 'There's an unpleasant suggestion of senility about it. And by the way, if you're looking for an extra pair of drawers you'll find them sticking out of the right leg of your trousers. Although why you want two pairs I can't for the life of me understand. The ones you have on are giddy enough.'
As the door closed quietly on his tormentor, Peter Van Dyck reached down, and, seizing the offending drawers, hurled them furiously in the general direction of the waste basket, upon the edge of which they sprawled unbecomingly.
'Damn my absent mind,' he muttered, 'and damn that woman's impudence. What a decidedly unpleasant occurrence! She actually seemed to enjoy it. These modern girls ...'
A few minutes later Jo briskly followed her perfunctory knock into the room and found her employer wearily seated at his desk. He was gloomily scanning a letter.
'Oh,' exclaimed Miss Duval amicably. 'Quite an improvement. All tucked in, I see.'
Before Peter had time to think up a fitting retort, William, the office handy-man, entered the room and cast about for something on which to exercise his talents. Spying the drawers dangling over the waste-paper basket, he held them aloft admiringly.
'Fine pair o' drawers, these,' he observed in a conversational tone of voice. ' A real fancy pair. Begging your pardon, sir, but are they yours, Mr. Peter?'
Mr. Peter preferred not to notice William's polite inquiry. Jo saw fit to bring it to his attention.
'William wants to know,' she said in level tones as she seated herself in a chair with her dictation pad open on her knee, 'William is anxious to find out if those—if that florid object belongs to you.'
'Tell him they don't,' Peter mumbled unhappily.
'It would be more manly if you spoke of such things yourself,' the girl replied. 'However—he says they're not his, William.'
'Well, I'd like to know how they got here, then,' William continued stubbornly. 'All spread out like that. They must be his.'
If William had not emptied many a waste-paper basket for Peter's departed father, the man would have been fired on the spot. As it was, a friendship of many years now stood in serious danger of an open break.
'Is there any reason why you should doubt my word about those drawers?' Peter asked the man coldly. 'Some one might have left them here as a sample.'
At this William shook the drawers playfully and chuckled his incredulity.
'Not these, Mr. Peter,' he declared. 'We're in the coffee business.'
'Well, even coffee merchants are supposed to have some self-respect,' replied Peter.
'Not the coffee merchant who wore these,' asserted William, with a wise shake of his head. 'Couldn't keep much self-respect in them things. They'd suit my Alf to a tee. He'd go crazy about them drawers with their funny little pink dots.'
'I'll damn well go crazy myself if you don't get them out of my sight,' Peter assured his handy-man.
'Yes, William,' put in Jo Duval. 'Why not take them through the office and inquire of the gentlemen if they have lost a pair? We might be able to find a home for them that way.'
'No need to do that,' said Peter hurriedly. ' Take 'em home to Alf with my compliments. Do anything with them you like so long as you let me hear no more upon the subject. I'm completely exhausted by drawers.'
'Thanks, Mr. Peter,' the grateful man replied, giving the garment a possessive flirt as he made his way to the door. ' As neat a little pair o' drawers as ever I laid eyes on. All full of funny pink spots, they are.'
'William is getting old,' observed Peter Van Dyck, to break the pause following the man's departure. 'I'll have to lay him off with a pension one of these days.'
'Wouldn't mind a little bit of that sort of thing myself,' replied Jo, carelessly crossing her legs and fixing her employer with a level gaze. 'Why don't you pension yourself off, for a change? You're not interested in business.'
'What makes you say a thing like that?'
'Well, obviously a man who has such playful ideas in drawers can hardly be expected to keep his mind on work.'
'Is that so?' grumbled Peter. ' You've been with this company altogether too long. Take a couple of letters.'
Jo indulged in a short but ironical laugh.
'What's wrong now?' he asked suspiciously.
'I was only thinking that while you're dictating letters to me,' she replied easily, 'William is probably exhibiting your disinherited drawers to the entire office force.'
'Take a couple of letters, nevertheless,' said Peter Van Dyck, with characteristically Dutch stubbornness. 'Just because an old fool chooses to make a public display of a private affair, I can't leave the coffee business flat.'
'What a man!' remarked Joe in a low, admiring voice.
Once more he regarded her suspiciously.
'How long have you been with us?' he asked.
'Much longer than I expected to remain in a purely professional capacity,' she told him.
'I very much doubt if you could remain long purely in any capacity,' said Peter, feeling a little set up by his unexpected burst of repartee.
'Some girls might take that amiss,' said Jo, 'but I consider it a compliment. I didn't think you knew.'
'My attitude—my moral outlook.'
'Oh, I don't know that,' he said hastily. 'And I don't want to find out. You take too many liberties as it is. If you hadn't been here already when I took over the reins, I'd have fired you on sight.'
'And driven the business into a ditch,' Jo replied complacently. ' You haven't the foggiest idea where anything is—not even the most personal of things such as your—'
'Don't let's go into that again,' he interrupted.
'I have no desire to,' she assured him.
But Peter Van Dyck was destined to take up the matter of drawers once more before it was definitely dropped. There was a scrambling noise outside the door, a nervous scraping on the glass partition, then the door flew open and Freddie, the small but aggressive office boy, excitedly waving the erstwhile drawers of his employer, hurried into the room with William close at his heels.
'Beg your pardon, sir,' said Freddie, waving the spotted garment in the indignant William's face, 'but ain't these drawers yours? He says they're his. I saw you with my own eyes—you had 'em on one day when you were in the—'
'Stop! Stop!' cried Peter Van Dyck in a stricken voice. 'And please close the door.'
'Here's a go,' murmured Jo Duval. 'Those drawers seem to have a mind of their own.'
Peter Van Dyck looked hatefully at her, then drummed distractedly on his desk. Once his glance strayed in the direction of the drawers. With an effort he averted his fascinated eyes. Finally he spoke. His voice was low and cultured. In it was a note of despair.
'Freddie,' he said, 'those drawers are the property of William. They are his without let or hindrance—his irrevocably. Do you understand that, Freddie? Then hand those drawers back to William who I hope to God will put them in his pocket and take them home to Alf. If he doesn't I'm going to fire you all, and that includes you.' His eves burned with bitterness as he studied the expression of bland enjoyment on his secretary's face. His voice gathered volume. 'And as for you, Freddie, if you kept your eyes more on your business and less on other people's drawers you might grow up to be a coffee broker yourself some day.' He paused to consider his words. Somehow this rebuke of Freddie seemed to lack in strength what it gained in dignity. Once more his eyes were attracted to the drawers; then his dignity and self-control departed. He rose, spluttering. ' William,' he thundered, 'if you don't take those miserable drawers away I'll drag yours off your baggy-looking legs.'
'No need to get personal,' Jo reminded the aroused man.
'What!' cried Peter. 'I'd like to drag yours off, too.'
'Thanks,' she answered. 'Hadn't you better ask the gentlemen to withdraw first?'
'Oh!' said Peter as if stung to the quick. 'Oh, my God!' He sank back in his chair and held his forehead in his hands. 'That will be all about drawers for this morning,' he said at last. 'Please leave the room quietly with—with them. Don't bring them back.'
When Freddie and William and the drawers had departed, silence reigned in the room. Peter looked wearily out of the window. He was considering whether it would not be simpler to hurl himself through it. The door opened and William thrust in an apologetic head.
'Sorry, Mr. Peter,' he said. ' I kept telling young Freddie that just because he happened to see you yanking 'em up once it didn't mean you were going to wear 'em all the time. He hasn't gumption enough to know that a gentleman changes his—'
'Can't you explain to William?' Peter interrupted, turning appealingly to Josephine. 'He doesn't seem to understand.'
'William,' said the girl quietly, 'Mr. Van Dyck is too upset to hear any more about his drawers to-day.'
'Ever,' put in Peter.
'Yes, William,' Jo continued. ' Don't ever talk to Mr. Peter about his drawers again. Talk about something else—his socks, for instance.'
Peter winced. His eyes were filled with disgust.'
Thank you, miss,' said William. ' I'll try to remember. You said his socks, didn't you?'
'yes,' replied Jo. 'His socks, although from his expression he doesn't seem so fond of those either.'
'The door—the door!' grated Peter. 'Close it on your horrid face, William.' The door was closed.
'Did you want to dictate a couple of letters?' Jo asked imperturbably.
'Yes,' replied Peter. ' Take a couple of letters.' For some time he sat in gloomy concentration, then abandoned the effort. 'Oh, hell,' he said, 'I can't think of one letter, much less two.'
'I'll answer them for you,' Jo assured him soothingly. 'You need a long rest.' She looked him over appraisingly. 'Wonder how Alf's going to look in those—'
A strangling sound from Peter cut short her sentence.
'Go!' he whispered, pointing to the door with a trembling finger. 'Get out! I don't give a damn how Alf looks.'
'You should consult a doctor,' she told him as she prepared to leave the room. 'There's something preying on your mind. Do you drug, perhaps?'
'Do I what!' demanded Peter.
'Do you drug?' she answered simply.
'No,' he replied confronting her, 'but I can still drag, and that's what I'll damn well do to you if you don't get out of here.'
With a glance of deep commiseration Josephine gracefully left the room. The provocative fragrance of her perfume lingered in the air. Peter Van Dyck wondered why he did not discharge the girl. Little did he realize that her perfume was one of the reasons.