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The Bishop's Jaegers
ON A PARK BENCH
SEVERAL hours after these undignified happenings Peter Van Dyck emerged from a restaurant in which he had been lone-wolfing, being able to think of no language fit for decent conversation. In the crowd outside the door Josephine Duval caught sight of his slim and dejected-looking shoulders. Without a moment's hesitation the young lady abandoned her window-shopping and blithely set off to dog the footsteps of her employer. Having snatched a glimpse of the girl out of the tail of his eye, Peter immediately divined her intention. This stalking procedure had occurred more than once. Accordingly he quickened his pace. Emphatically he assured himself he had seen quite enough of his secretary for one day. She was a creature totally lacking in either pride or pity. Several times he glanced back to ascertain if his dodging tactics had succeeded in eluding pursuit. Each time he was disappointed. Josephine was still there—grimly there. A most annoying situation. Disgraceful. Why was she making no effort to cut down the distance? Was it torture? Peter was seized by a nervous impulse to take to his heels and run. However, he checked himself, feeling convinced that Jo would have no compunction in doing likewise. She might even find it amusing to shout his name through the streets. Hang it all, what did the girl want with him, anyway? The street was littered with unattached men. Why did she not confine her attentions to one or more of them? He was an engaged man. Within a few short hours he would be a doubly engaged man. Officially hooked if not spliced. Vaguely he wondered whether he was endeavouring to elude Josephine or the thought of that engagement. He crossed over to Battery Park and sat down on a bench close to the water-front. The fragrance of Jo's perfume still lingered in his nostrils. Presently it grew stronger. He stirred restlessly. She was there.
'You'll be late at the office,' he announced, without turning his head.
'I'll say I was out with you,' said a small voice beside him. 'And I'll say you deliberately followed me through the streets of New York,' he told her.
Would you like the office to know that?' asked Jo.
'No. I would not.'
'Then why not be friendly?'
'I'm quite friendly enough for a person who wants to commit murder. In fact, I'm damned patient. Don't let's talk, then people won't suspect we know each other.'
'Why won't they suspect?'
'They'd never think that a person like me would talk to a girl like you.'
Jo considered this insult judicially while swinging her small feet.
'Oh, I don't know,' she said at last. 'You don't look so awful.'
'What?' exclaimed the man indignantly. 'You entirely misunderstood my meaning.'
'Peter?' In a very small voice.
'Yes.' Grudgingly. 'Mr. Van Dyck to you.'
'Your father called you Peter.'
'Well, you're not my father.'
'But I helped to bring you up in the business. It's been three years now.'
'Does it? Well, it hasn't been long enough to make a coffee man of you.'
'Is that so?'
'Yes, that's so. You're a hell of a coffee man.' Peter looked pained.
'It doesn't speak well for your teaching,' he said.
'You never give me a tumble. Don't even call me Jo. Everybody else in the office calls me Jo.'
'What do I call you?'
'You don't call me anything. It's "Please take a letter," or "How do you feel to-day?" or "Sorry to keep you late." Never any name. To you I'm a nameless woman. Might just as well be a—a—little bastard for all you care.'
This time Peter was profoundly shocked. He actually looked at the girl beside him. His eyes held a mixture of alarm and disapproval.
'Don't use bad language,' he said.
'Why not use bad language?' she retorted. 'You flaunt your drawers in my face.'
'Is that quite fair?' he asked her. 'You stormed into my private office. Didn't stop to knock. And there I was. That's all there is to it.'
Jo laughed tragically.
'So that's all there is to it,' she flung back with a mean sneer. 'I suppose you think I'm going to be satisfied with that—a mere matter of drawers.'
When Peter looked at her this time, alarm had utterly routed disapproval.
'My God!' he managed to get out. 'What do you mean about not being satisfied with that?'
'Exactly what I said,' she replied. 'I want to see all. Everything! It's the whole hog or nothing—that's how I am.'
Peter felt his reason slipping. He could not believe his ears.
Well,' he said at last, 'all I can say is that it's not a very nice way to be. It must be your French blood.'
'I don't care whose blood it is,' she replied stubbornly. ' I want to see all.'
'Let me get this straight,' said Peter. ' Do you mean all of me?'
Josephine looked him over from head to foot. Peter felt a little undressed. Then suddenly she began to laugh. ' You'd look awfully funny,' she said at last, as if actually seeing him that way. ' What a fright! Imagine!'
'Don't trouble yourself,' said Peter acidulously. ' I'm not exactly deformed, you know.'
Jo stopped laughing and regarded him through moist eyes.
'I don't believe it,' she said. ' You're hiding something from me.'
'Do you expect me to walk about my office naked?' he asked.
'After this morning I don't know what to expect.'
Peter Van Dyck shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
'I'd prefer not to continue this conversation,' he remarked coldly. 'No good can come of it.'
'Very well,' replied Jo. 'Let's sit like a couple of bumps on a log.'
'You may sit as you jolly well please,' replied Peter. 'However, I don't see why you are sitting here at all.'
'Why don't you push me off?'
'Nothing would please me more, but I'm too much of a gentleman.'
'You mean, you're afraid,' she taunted.
'Please be quiet.'
'I suppose you're afraid Mr. Morgan or some other international banker might come along and see us talking together?'
I am,' replied Peter.
Well, listen to me, Mr. Peter Duane Van Dyck. If one of those old bozos got an eyeful of me he'd give you money instead of lending it to you.'
'You seem to fancy yourself.'
'I know my own value, and that's more than you do,' she retorted. 'I've a good mind to sell my body to an international banker.'
'I wish to God you'd sell it to an international vivisectionist and have done with it,' Peter asserted brutally.
'Why?' she inquired. 'Does my body bother you?'
'Not at all. It means nothing to me.'
'You mean you can take it or leave it—just as you please?'
'Will you kindly keep quiet? I've a lot of things to think about. If I could take it and leave it somewhere else I'd feel much better.'
Several minutes of silence passed. Josephine's gaze was idly sweeping the harbour. Presently she spoke.
'Peter,' she said.
'Yes,' replied Peter. 'What is it now?'
'Do you see that liner?'
'Can't help seeing that liner. It's blocking up the whole harbour.'
Jo snaked her supple young body close up beside her employer.
'Would you like to be on that liner, Peter?' she asked him.
'Listen,' protested Peter. 'Are you trying to sit on my knees? We're huddled up together on this bench like a couple of lost waifs. It's not a cold day.'
'Sorry, Peter. Wasn't looking where I was going. But you haven't answered my question. Would you like to be on that liner?'
Peter considered the girl briefly; then his gaze returned to the outbound ship now stepping delicately on her way to open water. The bay glinted with sunlight, and its blue was very blue indeed. Like a virgin murmuring indiscreetly in her dreams, the soft air spoke of summer, of summer and secret places remote from the haunts of man. There was a note of promise too in the voice of the old gentleman who owned the long telescope gleaming on its tripod.
'Visit the harbour and its institutions without budging your feet an inch! The Statue of Liberty and Governor's Island—all points of interest like as if you was there in the flesh.'
Moodily Peter watched a customer tentatively approach a self-conscious eye to the telescope and begin his visit to the harbour. Peter followed the movements of the man with some anxiety. He wondered what point of interest the fellow was visiting now. Was he seeing anything at all or just pretending to, as most people did when involved with the end of a telescope? Peter had peered through a telescope once. There had been certain things on the moon—mountains, craters, or warts, for all he had been able to discover. He had lied about that moon. Said he had seen everything. Dwelt on the wonder of it all. Inwardly he had suffered from a sneaking sense of guilt and frustration. This visitor to the harbour was doubtless experiencing similar difficulties. That dusty mop of a dog curled up under the instrument knew perfectly well that the visitor was seeing nothing—less than nothing. They never did. For a moment the dog leered cynically at Peter, then transferred his gaze to a sparrow. He would dearly love to chew on some of that sparrow.
Now the liner was spreading her wake along the channel. Soon she would find the sea. What the hell was wrong with him, anyway? Mooning here on a park bench with an impudent chit of an office girl for a companion. Maybe it was spring fever. Then maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was the thought of that cocktail party. He rather more than suspected it was. After the party he was scheduled to take Yolanda to some stuffy house party in New Jersey over the week-end. Not much comfort in that. Peter objected to house parties. Bridge, booze, and boredom. Gay laughter as false as hell. Feeble wisecracks and smart talk—the smug assurance of one's daily bread whether school kept or not. Golf links, motor cars, tennis courts, and swimming pools —all the paraphernalia of good, clean sport. Healthy bodies and tanned hides. Thoughts and manners cast in the same mould, case-hardened with the same prejudices and polished with the same culture. And here this poor devil, having paid his ten cents, stood all straddled out vainly endeavouring to snatch a moment's enjoyment from the end of a telescope. The subtle invitation of Jo's perfume once more assaulted his nerves. Peter liked that perfume, and the fact that he suspected he also liked its owner a little more than was seemly made him deliberately hostile.
'You haven't answered my question,' she said.
'What question?' asked Peter uneasily.
'About that liner. How would you like to be on her?'
'I'd like it,' said Peter surprisingly.
'You mean us?' put in Jo. 'Just you and I . . . outward bound . . . springtime in France . . . windows on the sea—think of it, Peter. Just you and I. Married, perhaps, or almost the same thing.'
Peter gasped at the immoral conclusion to this lyrical outburst.
'I'd jump off the ship,' he said.
'Oh no, you wouldn't,' the girl replied with every show of confidence. 'If I had you alone for five minutes you'd jump in only one direction, and I'm too much of a lady to mention that.'
'Are you just naturally plain bad through and through?' Peter asked her. He was really interested to know.
'I'm what you've made me,' she answered humbly.
'What!' exclaimed Peter. ' I haven't done a thing to you.'
'I know. That's just the trouble. That's why I'm bad. Don't you realize a body has to be bad before it can plop down and be good?'
'I don't care to discuss bodies. Much rather swim after that ship.'
'Why don't you? I hope you drown.' Then with a sudden change in her voice, 'What's on your mind, Peter? You haven't been so gay lately.'
Her brown eyes studied the features of the man with their suggestion of gauntness. For a moment they rested on his expressive lips, broken by a faintly ironical twist. She moistened hers, then peered inquiringly into his eyes, unremarkable mild blue eyes, rather gentle and easily tired yet strangely capable of conveying a world of hidden meanings. He was not a good-looking man, yet Jo had always found him attractive. Especially his eyes, in which in spite of their apparent weariness he seemed to live most of his life. He was a kind of old young man to Jo, an old young man who had never been really young and who never would grow really old. He belonged to an unclassified type—no three-dimensional hero, Peter, yet very definitely himself. At present his eyes were haunted with all sorts of unexpressed difficulties.
'What's on your mind?' she repeated.
'Nothing definite,' said Peter, allowing his gaze to rest on the girl with a little less disapproval. 'You know. One of these cocktail teas—stupid things.'
Jo did not know. She was deeply interested, as are all daughters of Eve, in social functions in which they are not included.
'To-day?' she asked.
'After office,' said Peter. 'My aunt's doing it for Yolanda Wilmont. We get engaged at it—officially engaged and all that.'
All what?' she inquired suspiciously.
'Oh, just all that.'
'I hope you don't mean what I'm thinking,' said Jo.
'At my lowest moments,' he replied, ' I never could mean what you're thinking.'
'Thanks,' murmured Jo. 'What's she like? Of course, I've seen her pictures in the scandal sheets. They've given me many a good laugh.'
'You're just envious,' retorted Peter, hardly spirited enough to be stung to a defence of his fiancée.
'I might possibly be envious about all that,' she admitted, 'but certainly not about being engaged to you.'
'Neither am I,' replied Peter cryptically.
The girl cast him a swift look—a look of sparrow-like intelligence. She was snatching at crumbs of comfort now, yet at the same time finding room to feel a little bit sorry for Peter.
'So that's why you'd like to swim after that ship,' she observed in a thoughtful voice.
'After any ship,' said Peter.
I understand,' she answered.
'No, you don't,' replied Peter, suddenly getting up from the bench. 'As a matter of fact I'm very happy. I'm a decidedly lucky man.'
Of course you are, Peter,' she assured him.
This time he cast her a swift look.
'An exceptionally lucky man,' he reiterated with quite unnecessary emphasis. 'Getting far more than I deserve, in fact.'
'Now you're talking,' said Jo. 'Much more than you deserve, and you're pretty bad.'
'What do you mean by that?'
'I don't mean anything, Peter. I'm agreeing with you.'
'Well, don't,' he snapped. 'I dislike the way you do it. Anyway, it's time to get back to the office. Can't remember ever spending a more trying luncheon hour.'
'Would you believe it?' said Josephine. 'It's been much longer than that. Time passes so quickly for a young girl when she meets an interesting, middle-aged party'
'Middle-aged hell. How old are you?'
'Swear to God I'm twenty-four, mister.'
'Well, I'm only ten years older.'
'Just the right age, although you do look a wee bit faded.'
'The right age for what?' Peter was unwise enough to want to know.
'For fatherhood,' she told him, looking glowingly up into his face.
Some hidden strain of old Dutch modesty forced Peter to lower his lids.
'Come,' he said. 'We're going back to the office.'
But before they left, their eyes sought the liner nosing far down the Narrows. Jo gave a little sigh, the wistful ghost of a great big wish. In Peter's eyes the harassed look had deepened. It was verging on the desperate now.
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