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The Bishop's Jaegers


Thorne Smith



THE day was dragging on, and by now that liner must be far out at sea. Peter sat thinking about it. In his thoughts were mingled fleeting visions of Yolanda Wilmont and Josephine Duval. What was it all about, all this uneasy speculation, this sensation of approaching loss and separation? Separation from what, from whom? Obviously, he must be in love with Yolanda Wilmont—had been in love with her for years. That was all settled, one of the established facts of his life. She was beautiful, she was cultured, and she seemed to find nothing especially wrong with him. Of course, she had never allowed either herself nor him to become in any sense intimate on the strength of this engagement of theirs. She was not at all like that. Just the opposite of this Duval woman. That was something to be thankful for—but was it? Peter wondered. On the other hand, he seriously doubted if one man could last long with an oversexed creature like Josephine without calling in outside assistance, which did not make for a happy married life. Josephine was impossible. He failed to know why he was thinking about her at all. What business had that brazen vixen preening herself in his thoughts? She was merely his private secretary, an efficient one, but forward. She, too, had become a fixture in his life. His father had found her amusing, but then, the elder Van Dyck had been a loose liver after office hours. He had found any good-looking wench amusing. Peter was not like that. He had never had the chance. As he sat there thinking, he found himself rather envying his father's disregard of convention. Closer than had any other Van Dyck immortalized in the family record, the old gentleman had approached the open ground of disreputability. He had been keenly alert to every female leg in the office, and he had personally seen to it that every leg in the office was first-rate. Yet every one had been fond of old Peter Van Dyck, including his son. Young Peter had been too greatly occupied fearing the consequences of his father's ambitious but questionable experiments to embark on any of his own. Many a father has lost his morals in saving those of a son, although it is highly problematical that the elder Van Dyck had this idea in mind as he tidily tottered among his vices. His interest in Jo Duval, however, had been restrained to one of fatherly admiration mixed with a little fear and respect, emotions few women had ever inspired in him.

Peter's thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of Josephine Duval. Without so much as favouring him with a glance, she marched up to his desk, smacked down on it an intra-office memorandum, then turned and retraced her steps. At the door she paused and fixed him with a pair of glittering eyes. Peter quailed before their malevolence. In the way she closed the door behind her there was a suggestion of a challenge.

Why was this creature so disturbing? Peter wondered. At times, when it so pleased her mood, she acted exactly as if she were in a play. It wasn't natural. Imagine! This stalking into a man's office, then stalking out again with never a word. And what a look she had left behind—what a downright sinister look! What had she meant by that?

With the least interest in the world in intra-office routine Peter picked up the memorandum and glanced at it. Quite suddenly his bored expression changed to one of consternation. He read :

To PETER VAN DYCK, President:

The moment you consummate your marriage with Yolanda Wilmont (what a name!) I want my resignation to take effect. However, until that moment it's still anybody's game, catch-as-catch-can, and you're It.

Respectfully yours,

P.S.—A carbon of this memorandum will be found in my files under 'Unfinished Business.'

As if it were scorching his fingers, Peter hastily destroyed the compromising slip of paper. This was going too far. He rang for his secretary.

'Haven't you got any better sense than to start in playing childish games with me?' he demanded.

'The games I intend to play with you will be far from childish,' she assured him.

Peter began to think this over, then decided it would be better to leave it alone.

'Sit down,' he said in a reasonable voice, 'and let's try to get things straight.'

Josephine flopped down and recklessly tossed one silken leg over the other.

'In the first place,' began Peter, 'why have you selected to-day of all days to deport yourself in an especially hellish manner?'

'I'm like this every day, only some days I let go,' she told him.

Peter considered this for a moment.

'Do you mean you're like this with everybody,' he inquired, 'or just with me?'

'Just with you,' she confided. 'If I was like this with everybody I'd have a much nicer time.'

'You don't mean nicer,' said Peter. 'You mean better, perhaps.'

'It's too fine a distinction for me to understand,' she replied. 'But it's the truth just the same. I let go only with you.'

'Why with me, may I ask? Do you regard me in the light of a small office boy—a person to tease?'

'Hardly,' she said. 'I regard you as a weak but adult male.'

'Apparently,' replied Peter. 'But would you mind not letting go with me, or try letting go with some one else, for a change?'

She looked at him thoughtfully.

'I'd rather not,' she said.

'So would I,' replied Peter, not realizing what he was saying.

'You mean you'd care if I let go with some one else?' she asked.

'Certainly not,' replied Peter. 'I don't care if you let go with Mahatma Gandhi, with all due respect to that gentleman.'

'It wouldn't be hard to let go with that one,' Jo observed. 'He has so very little to let go of.'

'That's neither here nor there,' said Peter impatiently. 'You'll have to stop letting go with me or I'll let go with you.'

'I'd like that,' replied the girl quite seriously.

'I mean, I'll have to let you go,' he corrected himself.

'You haven't even got me yet,' she answered.

'And I don't even want you,' said Peter.

'How do you know?' she demanded. 'You don't know anything about me. You don't know I live in New Jersey, that I support a drunken uncle, that I'm an orphan on both sides and sleep on the left. You don't know that I love salted almonds and that I don't earn enough money here to keep myself in nice underthings. You wear pure silk drawers. Don't tell me—I saw them with my own two eyes. What sort of drawers do you think I wear? Answer me that. What sort of drawers do you think I wear? Pure silk? Bah!'

'I'm sure I don't care to know that,' Peter interrupted. 'And please don't keep repeating the question.'

'No,' she sneered, 'you don't care to know. You're too much of a coward. Well, if you must know, I'll tell you. Thev're artificial silk—not all silk like yours—but the lace on 'em is real.'

'Must I know all these things?' asked Peter weakly.

'Certainly you must,' she snapped. 'You're dealing in human souls.'

'I had hoped to deal in coffee,' he replied with a show of bitterness, 'but you don't give me time to sell a bean.'

'I wouldn't be found dead in those things you have on,' she continued. 'Mine are better for less money.'

'No doubt,' Peter said coldly. 'But did it ever occur to you that I have no desire to be found dead in yours?'

'Of course you wouldn't,' she flung back. 'Not dead.'

Here she laughed significantly—suggestively, in fact. Peter Van Dyck was most unpleasantly impressed by the insinuating look that followed. Helplessly he turned his eyes to the window.

'I fail to see where all this is leading to,' he said at length. 'Hadn't you better take a couple of letters?'

'All right,' she retorted. 'Give me a couple of letters. It's better than getting nothing. But while we're on the subject, there's another thing you don't know.'

'I'm off the subject. Most definitely off it.'

'Well, you've got to know this,' she continued. 'One of the last things your father asked me to do was to make a man of you.'

'If you followed his ideas on that subject,' said Peter, you'd make a wreck of me instead of a man, I'm afraid.'

'You're certainly not the man he was,' she admitted with uncomplimentary readiness, 'but I'm going to do my best with the little there is.'

'That's very gracious of you, I'm sure. But let me get this straight. Do you intend to make a man of me or a wreck?'

'I'm going to wreck you,' said the girl, 'and enjoy myself doing it.'

'A nice young girl!' murmured Peter Van Dyck. 'An admirable character all round!'

'And while you're talking of nice young girls,' said Jo, 'you might as well know your father wasn't any too fond of that nice young girl of yours with the name of a fairy princess. And as for an admirable character—pish! I'd rather have a swell shape.'

'Couldn't you strive to develop both?'

'I'm fully developed as it is,' she asserted. 'If anything, a little too much so in places, but you'd never know that.'

'I have no desire to be further enlightened,' Peter hastened to assure her.

'You have no ambition,' said Jo.

'How about a couple of letters?' he asked.

'All right. How about 'em? I'd almost given those letters up.'

'And will you take the carbon of that memorandum out of your files?' he asked her.

'If you don't hurry up with those letters,' Jo replied, 'I'll take it out of the files and tack it on the bulletin board.' This threat so upset Peter that he in turn upset a box of paper clips. As he bent over to pick them up, he came face to face with Josephine Duval's knee. Some artists claim that the knee of a woman is not an object of beauty. No such claim could be made against Josephine Duval's knee. If an artist lived who, upon seeing Josephine's knee, did not want to do something more than paint it, he was not worthy of his brush. And the wonder of it was that Josephine had two knees. Peter Van Dyck was gazing at them both. It was an experience he never forgot—a revelation. For the first time in his life he realized that a woman's knees and legs were capable of expressing personality. And with this realization came the explanation of his distaste for the cocktail party and what it represented. In the course of his life he had seen a lot of Yolanda's legs, but never once during the period of this long association with them had he been moved by a desire to do anything other than look at them, and not so strongly moved at that. As Peter sat half crouching in his chair, it came to him, with a sense of having been cheated, that Yolanda's legs had never meant anything more to him than something to separate her body from the ground, something to move her about on from place to place. They might as well have been a pair of stilts or a couple of wheels. In spite of their gracious proportions they were totally lacking in personality. They exercised no fascination, no irresistible appeal. They were cold but beautiful legs. Josephine's legs were different. The more Peter looked at them the more he wanted to see of them. He frankly admitted this. Not only were they beautiful but also extremely interesting—breath-taking legs, legs seen once in a lifetime. He wondered what had been wrong with him not to have noticed them before. Why had he made this startling discovery at this late date, virtually at the very moment when he was going to become officially engaged to an altogether different pair of legs— to legs he would have to live with for the remainder of his days?

Josephine's voice cut in on his meditations.

'Have you decided to conduct your business in that weird position?' she asked. 'Or have you been seized suddenly by a cramp?'

'I'm not going to be like this long,' he answered, 'nor am I subject to cramp. I am merely thinking.'

'Then I think you're overdoing it,' said the girl. 'First thing you know you'll be having a rush of blood to the head.'

'I have one already,' replied Peter in an odd voice.

Slowly he straightened up, then sank back in his chair. Almost immediately he fell into a brown study, and although he was looking directly at Josephine his gaze seemed to pass through and far beyond her. The girl eyed him curiously. What had come over this man? Little did she suspect that what she had so often wanted to happen actually had happened without her knowledge or contrivance.

In the presence of this startling revelation Peter Van Dyck sat bemused. For the first time in his life he concentrated his mental forces on legs. How, he wondered, had a leg, a mere leg, the power to move a man so profoundly —to revolutionize his entire outlook on such matters? All legs were more or less alike, he argued, so much skin and so much bone. Take his own legs, for example. He had never derived any pleasure or satisfaction in contemplating their hungry contours, if they had any contours to contemplate. He supposed they had, yet he was not in any way moved when he cast his eyes on them unless it was by a feeling of distaste. As a matter of fact, he preferred not to look at his legs at all. He rather avoided them. Yet wherein were they so different from those of Josephine Duval? They were composed of the same elements, served the same purpose and reacted to the same external influences —heat, cold, kicks, and bites. Certainly mosquitoes did not differentiate between legs. About Jo's legs there was something impudent and piquant, a devil-may-care attitude. She had, morally speaking, a wicked pair of legs.

'Take a couple of letters,' he began in a dull, pre-occupied voice.

'That would be amusing for a change,' said Jo sweetly.

'Almost anything would be amusing for a change,' he agreed. 'Get on with it. This is to Mr. Benjamin Clarke. You have his address. Dear Ben.' Peter's eyes strayed downward. 'Dear Ben,' he resumed.

'Dear Ben twice?' asked Jo.

'Once or twice,' replied Peter. 'It doesn't matter. He knows who he is. Dear Ben: Referring to our recent conversation about knees and legs—'

'Pardon me,' smoothly interrupted the girl. 'Did I understand you to say knees and legs?'

'Means and ways,' corrected Peter.

'Were you and Ben discussing means and ways to knees and legs?' she asked him. 'You've got me all mixed up.'

'That doesn't matter either,' said Peter. 'I never discuss such subjects. You should know that.'

'It would do you a world of good,' she assured him. 'Please keep such advice to yourself.'

It was at this moment that Jo became aware of the direction of her employer's intent gaze.

'Are you, by any chance, looking at my legs?' she inquired in a pleased voice.

'Yes,' he answered. 'One can scarcely look at anything else.'

'You mean they're so attractive?'

'No. I mean they're literally all over the place.'

'If I'm not being too bold,' said the girl, 'would you mind giving me a rough idea of what you think of them?'

'I don't think of them,' he answered coldly. 'I look at them the same as I would look at a chair or a desk or —or—the Pyramids.'

'Go on,' she said in a dangerous voice. 'Why bring up the Pyramids?'

'I am trying to explain to you the impersonal attitude I take to your legs.'

Jo sprang from her chair. Her face was flaming, and from her eyes fire flashed through two angry tears.

'And I'd like to explain to you,' she said in a low voice, 'the personal attitude I take to your words. You may criticize my typing as much as you please, but I won't allow you to say a word against my legs. Your Yolanda may be able to afford better stockings, but taking her leg for leg she's a hunchback compared to me.'

'Aren't you getting your anatomy a trifle scrambled?' asked Peter in a collected voice.

'I'd damn well like to scramble yours all over the map,' she retorted. 'Hitting below the belt.'

'Quite,' replied Peter, coolly measuring her figure with his eyes. 'I should say about twelve inches or more.'

'I'm going to get out of this room,' she declared, 'and never come back into it again. If you want to hurl insults at me and talk in a low, lewd manner, you'll have to do it outside where every one can hear what a lecherous creature you are.'

'On your way to your desk,' he called after her pleasantly, 'will you be so good as to ask Miss Bryant to step in?'

'Sure,' she flung over her shoulder. 'I suppose you'll compare hers to Pike's Peak or the Empire State.'

'I'll have to consider them first,' said Peter.

The sound the door made when it closed had in it the quality of a curse.

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