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The Bishop's Jaegers
RIDING TO A FALL
BETTY BRYANT was not a bad-looking girl. Peter realized this when, a few minutes after Jo's impassioned exit, the young girl entered his office and stood waiting expectantly before his desk. Since the demoralizing revelation of his secretary's knees and legs Peter had begun to feel that he was looking at women through an entirely new and improved pair of eyes. Now, when it was almost too late to take advantage of his clearer vision, he was beginning to regret the opportunities he had missed in the past as well as those he would have to forego in the future. The situation was nothing less than tragic. Life owed him many unclaimed women. The reprehensible blood of the elder Van Dyck throbbed rebelliously in his veins.
'Miss Bryant,' he said, protecting sections of his features behind a letter, 'I wish you would toss on your hat and buy half a dozen pairs of stockings at one of the smarter shops in the district. Would you mind?'
Miss Bryant certainly would not mind. She would be glad to go to even greater lengths for Mr. Peter Van Dyck. She would, however, have been interested to know what clearly impure motives lay behind this unexpected request. From the little she could see of Peter's features she was convinced they did not belong to a thoroughly honest face.
'Have you any particular shade in mind, sir?' she asked him.
'Shade in mind?' repeated Peter. 'Er—oh yes, of course. Naturally.' He laughed for no reason. 'Flesh,' he announced, colouring slightly. 'I mean all shades. You know. All the fashionable shades. Youthful. They're for my Aunt Sophie. She has rather silly ideas—ambitions, one might say.'
'Oh,' said Miss Bryant. 'So they're for your aunt.'
'Yes,' retorted Peter. 'I said they were for my aunt. Why? Is it funny?'
'No. Oh no. Not at all. I was wondering what size stocking your Aunt Sophie wears, that's all.'
'Any size I give her,' replied Peter, striving to maintain a casual note in his voice. 'I should say about the same size as that Josephine Duval or any other girl her size.'
'I think I understand,' said Miss Bryant thoughtfully.
'I was very much afraid you would,' remarked Peter as he handed the young lady several crisp notes. 'And while you're about it, treat your own legs to a pair on the house,' he added. 'Fine feathers make fine birds, you know. Ha, ha! Capital!'
With her employer's false laughter ringing in her ears, Miss Bryant departed, wondering why she had never suspected him before of being mentally unsteady. These old families got that way in spots. Too bad.
When she had successfully fulfilled her mission and delivered the stockings to Peter, he summoned his secretary. Although she had flatly announced her intention of never entering his office again, Josephine Duval appeared almost immediately.
'What improper suggestions have you been making to that Bryant thing?' she demanded. 'She's gone light in the head all of a sudden.'
'I know nothing about that,' said Peter. 'She struck me as being an uncommonly sensible and willing young lady.'
'Willing, no doubt,' snapped Josephine, and laughed disagreeably.
'I particularly dislike the sound of that laugh,' said Peter, 'as well as the coarse implications behind it. Here are half a dozen pairs of stockings—pure silk stockings—all silk stockings, in fact. Yank a couple of them over your legs and let's hear no more on the subject. This has been a fruitless day, and it's not going to get any better.'
Josephine took the extended package and tore off its wrappings. For a moment there was silence in the office as she examined the contents with an experienced and rapidly calculating eye. Presently she turned and looked darkly at Peter Van Dyck.
'And for this,' she said, 'I suppose you expect to own me, body and soul.'
'I'm not interested in your soul,' Peter informed her curtly.
'Oh,' said Josephine, momentarily nonplussed. 'All right. It's a bargain. We'll let it go at a body.'
'I have no idea what you are planning on letting go,' Peter replied uneasily, 'but I strongly advise you to hold everything. And please get it into your head that I have no desire to own either your body or your soul.'
'How about a little loan?' Josephine suggested.
'Will you now go away and stop talking wildly,' said Peter. 'After all, I am your employer. You're supposed to be working here, you know, and not paying me little visits throughout the day.'
Josephine looked at him furiously.
'You're going to own my body,' she said between her teeth, 'if I have to ruin yours in the struggle.'
'An edifying picture,' Peter dryly observed. 'However, I shall keep on the alert.'
'If they weren't pure silk I'd cut these stockings to ribbons.'
'Glad you like them,' said Peter mildly. 'If I were you, I wouldn't carry them about with me in the office. People might talk.'
'I'll stick 'em down here,' she declared, thrusting the six pairs of stockings down the front of her dress, where they produced an interesting, not to say scandalous effect.
'If you go out there in that condition,' observed Peter, 'people will do more than talk. They'll swoon in your face. Even I, in full possession of all the facts, cannot suppress a pang of uneasiness.'
'You're responsible for my condition,' she flung back.
'Granted,' replied Peter reasonably. 'But I'm not responsible for what others might erroneously conclude was your condition.'
'Anyway, here I go,' said Josephine. 'We have a secret between us now.'
'It looks as if we have a great deal more than that,' Peter replied.
'Nobody will notice anything if I go like this,' the girl explained, placing her hands across her stomach.
'Oh no,' agreed Peter. 'They'll merely think I kicked you in a moment of playfulness, that's all. Please hurry. It upsets me to look at you the way you are.'
At the door Jo turned and glanced back at him.
'You can't tell me,' she said, 'you didn't have something else in your mind when you gave me these.'
The door closed behind her, and Peter leaned back in his chair. He was wondering himself exactly what he had in his mind in regard to Jo Duval. Time passed while Peter sat thus steadily accomplishing nothing. He had contributed very little to the success of the Van Dyck coffee business that day. Presently he stirred and reached for his watch. After thoughtfully considering the time of day it announced, he compared it with the clock on his desk.
To make assurance doubly sure, he rose, and, opening the door, glanced at the office clock. As he closed the door he got the impression that Betty Bryant was studying him with new interest. Perhaps there were others, he unhappily decided. Crossing the room to the window, he stood looking down on the narrow street. People were already turning their released expressions homeward. They were looking forward to a few hours of personal living, a few hours of individual freedom. Five p.m. was for them a daily declaration of temporary independence. Not so for him. He had to go home presently and let that damn cat out of the bag. He would much rather wring its neck. Was he not voluntarily thrusting his own neck into a noose for life? It was still not too late. Why not take a ferry-boat to Staten Island and live among the trees somewhere? Why not cross a bridge and lose himself in a swarm of unfamiliar streets? Why not scuttle through a tube and seek oblivion in a water-front speakeasy? There were any number of things he could do. As he stood there by the window, he became uneasily aware of the fog drifting through the street. Figures of men and women were cutting through it, zigzagging past one another, going north, going south, ducking down the side streets. Boys were whistling. Boys always were. Why? Why were they always whistling? From two rivers came the haunting voices of ships—tugs, liners, ferry-boats, yachts going up to pleasant moorings. Foggy as hell somewhere. What sort of mooring was he going up to? An anchorage for life. Maybe something would happen. Lots of things could happen in a fog. He turned from the window, walked slowly to the hat rack, and collected his hat and stick. As he bade his office staff good night, he felt he was saying good-bye. Josephine Duval had already gone.
The subway crowd was familiar, but not friendly. It was composed of individuals, each having tenaciously held ideas about his or her place on the platform. They knew where they wanted to go and how they wanted to go there, and nothing was going to stop them or change them or soften them. Looking slightly pained, Peter Van Dyck, with a delicate but nevertheless protesting arc in his back, allowed himself to be catapulted into a train in which he stood tightly wedged, suffering from a loss of both dignity and breath. He decided he was lucky to lose no more than that in such a frenzied stampede.
'If you don't stop doing that to me,' said a woman's voice somewhere in the neighbourhood of his chest, 'I'll slap you in the face.'
Peter's first reaction was to glance nervously about him to ascertain if the entire car had overheard the woman's intentions. Then he spoke in a low, reassuring voice in which was a note of appeal.
'I'm not doing it,' he whispered.
'Don't tell me that,' said the woman. 'Can't I feel? There you go, doing it again. You're getting a lot for a nickel ride, mister.'
'My God,' thought Peter, striving unsuccessfully to remove himself from the woman, 'what a thing for her to say!' Crouching over, he muttered to the top of a small hat, 'Madam, I can't help it. I'm—'
'Do you mean you've lost control of yourself?' the woman's voice cut in.
'No,' he protested. 'I can't think of what I'm doing.'
'I don't like to think of what you are doing,' the woman continued. 'Lay off, that's all. Do you want me to scream for help?'
Straining his neck down and to the side, Peter succeeded in getting a glimpse of his accuser. It was as he had been suspecting for the past few moments. She was there—Jo.
Peter did not know whether to be relieved by this or alarmed.
'Don't go on like that,' he pleaded.
'Don't you go on like that,' she told him. 'Should be ashamed of yourself. Of all the things to do.'
'But what in God's name am I doing?' he asked in desperation.
'To explain what you're doing would be even more embarrassing than to submit to it,' she told him with elaborate dignity.
'It can't be as bad as all that,' he said.
'I'd hate it to get any worse,' she replied, 'at least with so much public about, I would.'
'It is too close for decency,' agreed Peter.
'You seem to find it so,' she retorted. 'Suppose they knew at the office?'
'Never mind about what. You know perfectly well. I hate that sort of thing—that type of man.'
'So do I,' replied Peter earnestly. 'The very idea is revolting to me.'
'Then obviously, you don't believe in letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing,' she retorted. 'Both of my hands are busy,' he declared.
'Don't I know that?' said Jo. 'I'd call them frantic. Only married couples should be allowed to travel in the subway during rush hours.'
'What did you do with the stockings?' he asked her, hoping to change the subject.
'You couldn't get closer to them unless you put them on,' she assured him.
'Then they're still in the same place?'
'Either there or hanging on my backbone.'
'It's your fault if they are,' she replied. 'Do you still intend to go through that mock engagement announcement?'
'Why not?' demanded Peter.
'Shouldn't think you'd have the nerve after this ride.'
'Don't be silly.'
'I'm not being silly when I tell you,' she replied quite seriously, 'that I doubt very much if you get yourself engaged to-day.'
Peter glanced quickly down into her upturned face. In her eyes he read an expression of grim determination. For some reason her portentous threat or warning did not strike the disagreeable note one might have expected. Peter received it almost with a feeling of relief. In fact, he found in her words a fragile straw of salvation. If it would have served to delay the formal betrothal announcement, Peter would have welcomed a localized earthquake. So far as his engagement to Yolanda was concerned, he found himself strictly neutral. He was on the fence. It was not as if he wanted to call the engagement off definitely and for ever. Peter simply did not know. Why had they not gone through with it several years ago, instead of waiting until the idea had grown stale? No. Yolanda had wanted to travel on the Continent unattached. She had wanted to develop her art. She had wanted to enjoy her position as a much sought after debutante. She was one of those young ladies who wanted Life with a capital L, yet who would not know what to do with it should it come to her. She had wanted ever so many things and she had got all of them. And in the background she had also wanted Peter, Peter in a waiting capacity safely packed in ice. She was such a glittering, assured sort of person, so certain to be right, so well versed in all the social amenities. She would be quite a comfort when people called, as they inevitably would call, in droves—dumb, well-dressed, well-nourished, chatty little droves of really nice people. Peter wondered unhappily in his increasing morbidness what they were going to do with all the people who called. Where were they going to put them? How deal with them? The years ahead presented themselves to Peter as pillars in an endless hall lined with nice people who shook hands and chatted delightfully about non-essentials.
And all the while he was puzzling over these things, Jo was looking up into his troubled, rather sensitive face from beneath the heavy lashes of her amused but devoted eyes.
'Hang it all,' he said at last, 'why do you like me, anyway? I should think you'd fall for a truck driver or a professional wrestler or a strong man, or for one of those great big silent chaps who make the maximum amount of empire on the minimum amount of words. The movies are full of them. Look at me—I'm virtually a physical and mental wreck. Might just as well be an idiot. I catch cold almost always, my nose gets red in the winter and even worse in the summer—frost and sunburn vie for honours—I probably snore enormously and, as you know for yourself, I don't even know how many pairs of drawers I'm wearing half the time, whereas during the other half I dare say I'm not wearing any drawers at all. I'm quite impossible any way you look at it.'
'I realize all that,' she said, 'but I bet you know a lot of dirty stories, and I fairly wallow in those.'
Peter groaned spiritually. This creature was beyond belief—literally incredible. And to think that he had been in the same office with her for three whole years, and before that his father had been subjected to the same demoralizing influence. Perhaps that accounted for the old gentleman's perennial bloomings.
'Furthermore,' the girl's voice continued, 'professional wrestlers and strong men and those silent birds you mentioned are notoriously moral. They hold deep-rooted convictions and have exceedingly piggish ways. Now you —you're quite another proposition. Without realizing it you are so morally flexible that you must have been born corrupted. I'd much rather live amid physical ruins than stagnate amid moral perfection.'
'Your sentiments and opinions do us both credit, I'm sure,' observed Peter Van Dyck. 'What sort of life are you planning for me to live with you—one of pillage, rape, and arson?'
'Pillage and arson, perhaps,' she said briefly. 'The other will not be necessary.'
'Aren't you getting off soon?' asked Peter.
'Yes,' she replied as the train lurched into Times Square. 'Right here. Good-bye, for the moment, and don't be surprised at anything that happens. Remember, I'm on your side.'
Peter's gaze followed her through the door of the train and out on to the platform. As she looked back at him Josephine decided she had never seen a more lost and miserable expression in any man's eyes. Being of a primitive nature, she still had room for pity. Her scheme for helping this man and at the same time helping herself crystallized there in her mind as Peter's train drew out. Tossing her shopping expedition to the winds, she boarded the next up-town express.
On her way to 72nd Street she revolved many desperate remedies in her mind. At the same time she found occasion to congratulate herself for having come to a decision while still in the subway, for thus she had saved the price of another fare. Jo was passionate about everything—even thrift.
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