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The Bishop's Jaegers
LITTLE ARTHUR IN QUEST OF DRAWERS
LITTLE ARTHUR'S aggrieved meditations on the greater advantages enjoyed by second-storey men in providing themselves with the drawers of others had led him far afield. As a result of these meditations he had momentarily yielded to the temptation to stray adventurously a little outside the professional limits of his calling. Having established the fact that Central Park was virtually barren of loot of the smaller species, he found himself this afternoon wandering watchfully through the streets of the West 70's, his disarmingly mild blue eyes constantly on the alert for a convenient house to second-storey. Once he had selected a suitable subject for his nefarious project, he had certain ideas of his own in regard to carrying it to a successful conclusion.
After tentatively weighing the pros and cons of an area-way that impressed his sensitive nature with its unmistakable air of good breeding, Little Arthur proceeded down it until it eventually terminated in Martha, one of the trimmest of the Van Dyck maids. The kitchen being unchaperoned at the moment, Little Arthur with his usual subtleness prevailed upon Martha to invite him in for a cup of tea. He achieved this by convincing the guileless maid that in him she was beholding not merely one of the offshoots but absolutely the very flower itself of depression.
Presently, seated at the kitchen table and made confidential by a cup of tea, the two of them were bending their heads prettily over the tepidly glowing allurements of a spurious ruby ring.
'Wouldn't be a bit surprised,' Little Arthur admitted softly, 'if that gem hasn't belonged in its time to one of them far-Indian potentates.'
'No!' exclaimed young Martha. 'You don't mean ter say? One of them redskins like?'
'How should I know,' put in Little Arthur, 'not ever rightly having seen the colour of this here potentate's skin? May have been red. May have been brown. May have been as white as the back of me hand.'
The back of Little Arthur's hand somewhat spoiled the effect of this ill-chosen comparison.
'That far-Indian potentate wouldn't have been so white, at that,' remarked the maid, Martha, prompted no doubt by that nasty streak which lies ever close to the surface in all members of her sex.
Little Arthur delicately removed his hand from the critical examination of the girl's frankly sceptical eyes.
'It's the hand of an honest man, at any rate,' said he with a note of bitterness.
'Mean ter say this old potentate's hands weren't strictly honest?' Martha's large grey eyes grew larger and a little frightened.
'I keep telling you I never met this here far-Indian potentate,' Little Arthur protested, amazed by the hopeless irrelevance of the feminine mind. 'But you know how them potentates are.'
'No,' the girl admitted quite frankly. 'I don't know much about potentates. How are they, now?'
'Well,' replied Little Arthur, heartily wishing he had never brought up the subject, 'you can't quite say how they are. They sort of take things when they fancy 'em—like women and gold and jewels.'
'Maybe this jewel belonged to one of this potentate's women,' said Martha in an awed voice. 'Think of it! This jewel being on the hand of one of his favourite slaves! Guess she didn't need to wear much more than that.'
Little Arthur embodied his disapproval of the trend of the girl's remarks in a slightly offended cough.
'I hope,' he replied, 'that the lady who wore that ring was a step above a harem hussy.'
'What's a harem really like, mister?' Martha asked him wistfully. 'I've often wanted ter know.'
A gentle pink was finding its way into Little Arthur's ears. The conversation was becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain. Once more he endeavoured to signify his disapproval through the medium of an especially refined cough.
'Shouldn't think you'd want to fill your head with a lot of truck like that,' he observed with some severity.
'But I do, mister,' pleaded the maid. 'Go on and tell me. The movies make 'em fine.'
Fearing lest refusal might endanger the outcome of his enterprise, Little Arthur compromised with his scruples as have many an artist before him. He made a brave attempt.
'Well,' he began, 'a harem, properly speaking, is sort of like a nursery only for grown-ups, yer understand. It's a place where you sort of have fun in and lark about.'
'I knew you had fun,' admitted Martha innocently, 'but I'd never heard about that nursery part before. Sounds kinda dull.'
From beneath eyebrows arched in pain, Little Arthur distastefully regarded the girl.
It's like that,' he said shortly. 'Dull. Now about this here jewel. I—'
'Always thought I'd like to join one of them harem places,' Martha interrupted dreamily. 'Dancing all dayand resting on piles of pillars .. . eating fruit and drinking wine and telling great big naked slaves to get a move on with them fans. Flies tickle something fierce when you ain't dressed for 'em.'
Little Arthur's eyes were almost bulging from his head.
'Just a minute,' he put in hastily to prevent further disgraceful admissions on the part of his alarming companion. 'Let's get back to this here potentate's jewel.'
He had no intention of allowing the situation to develop any further along its present lines. He had insinuated himself into the good graces of this girl with a definite object in view. He had staked his professional reputation to procure what he firmly believed to be the most personal article of a gentleman's attire. It was far beyond the scope of his operations to jeopardize the integrity of his own in so doing. To victimize the maid was one thing. To become her victim was quite another. He would leave that sort of conduct to his betters.
'All right, mister,' said the girl. 'What about that jewel?'
'Now you're talking,' replied the little man, allowing a note of approval to rob his voice of its former austerity. 'I'll let this jewel go for less than nothing because of the tea and all.'
'And how much is that in money?' the girl inquired nervously.
'About two dollars,' he confided. 'And I should be shot for doing it.'
Not for a moment suspecting how thoroughly the artful little man deserved to be shot, Martha rose from the table.
'All right, mister,' she announced. 'I'll run upstairs and get my purse.'
'Where's that?' he demanded.
'Servants' quarters,' she told him. 'Top floor.' This suited Arthur's plans to perfection.
'Don't be long,' he warned her as she turned to the service stairway.
The moment the sound of her tripping feet had died away in the upper regions of the house, Little Arthur deposited the ring on the table and silently hastened up the stairs. Attaining the second floor with a thrill of elation, he crept up to the nearest door and listened. Then, like a half-starved shadow, he faded noiselessly into the room. It was a large, pleasant room—a man's room, he was quick to note—and heavy portieres were hanging from the windows. Crossing swiftly to one of these, he looked out to ascertain the easiest means of exit. There was no easiest means of exit. It was a sheer drop to the street from every window. At that moment he heard the knob of the door turning. Little Arthur could not recall ever having listened to a more unwanted sound. Ducking round a table laden with bottles and a syphon, he secreted his small person with the deftness of desperation behind one of the portieres. To have been released from his present predicament, not only would he have willingly sacrificed his prospects of ever obtaining the drawers of others but also tossed his own into the bargain as a gesture of goodwill.
Peter Van Dyck, ruffled by the world in general and the subway in particular, slowly entered the room. Little Arthur, catching a furtive glimpse of his expression, decided that here indeed was a man who would regard none too favourably any slight familiarity from a member of the criminal class. Why had he, Little Arthur, not been satisfied with the drawers that had served him so long and well? Why had he allowed shallow frivolity to cloud and confound his discretion? All the drawers in all the world were not worth the anxiety he was experiencing there behind that curtain.
Suddenly the small, unhappy man caught his breath. Good God! What next? The owner of the room was actually undressing. Could he be going to bed at this hour? What a glutton for sleep! But some men were like that, only they seldom stopped to undress. It was shoes and all with them. Suppose this chap took it into his head to sit up and read? He himself was given to that small relaxation after a difficult day. He might be forced to remain concealed until he fainted from sheer exhaustion. Little Arthur was becoming panic-stricken.
While this scene was working up to its inevitable climax, Josephine Duval was resolutely ascending the front step of the Van Dyck residence. Just what she intended to do when she got inside, she had not the slightest idea. However, Jo was one of the world's most successful opportunists. Something would be sure to turn up. Something always did. But what turned up at first was not any too reassuring. This was no less a personage than Sanders, the Van Dyck butler.
'Would you mind telling your mistress,' said Jo, neatly slipping past the great man, 'that there's a lady calling on her who is in an interesting condition?'
Now this form of announcing herself, especially in view of the fact that it was entirely misleading if not worse, might strike some as being particularly ill-advised. However, Jo found herself in the position of one suddenly called upon to speak when there is absolutely nothing to say, and so she very wisely decided that it really did not matter much what she said so long as she said something —anything. Furthermore, it cannot be denied that her opening speech was not without an element of surprise. Even the impeccable Sanders found the information difficult to take in his stately stride.
'Thank you, madam,' he replied, his suavity jarred a note off key. 'Has my mistress any special reason to be interested in your interesting condition, may I ask?'
'No,' snapped Jo, 'but her nephew has. And while we're on the subject you might as well know that I'm not a madam yet. I'm still a miss, if in name only. And you'd better carry on with a click. My condition grows more interesting by leaps and bounds. Soon it may become engrossing.'
Sanders had encountered many extraordinary young women in the course of a long and inactive career, but never one quite so buoyantly extraordinary as Josephine. She impressed the astonished butler as being actually exuberant over a situation which any properly constituted girl would have considered, if not desperate, at least disturbing.
'I quite understand, miss,' he replied soothingly. 'If you'll pardon me a moment I'll withdraw to consult—'
'And if I'm not here when you get back,' Jo broke in, 'you can look for my body in the nearest river—which one is that?'
'The Hudson, miss,' said Sanders hopefully. 'About three blocks over to your left as you go out.'
'You're almost too eagerly explicit,' Josephine observed as the butler turned a dignified back and departed.
As soon as he had gone, Josephine looked quickly about her. From a room opening off the hall about ten feet away came the hum of conversation. Also the sound of clinking glasses. The cocktail tea-party was already getting under way. Josephine was greatly interested. She yearned to see everything—how these people lived and what they intended to do to Peter, who by now had become in her illogical mind irrevocably her man. Regardless of the laws of decency and self-respect, she must prevent this engagement. The door to what appeared to be a clothes closet presented itself as the most obvious means to this end. As she slipped into this closet and closed the door behind her, she was still assuring herself that something would turn up to delay the formal announcement of Peter's betrothal to that snake-hipped Yolanda Wilmont. The closet was fairly commodious, but without light. Innumerable unseen coats were hanging on all sides of the girl—fur coats, storm coats, top coats, motor robes, and dusters. Thinking how grandly the rich lived, she disappeared behind the coats and temporarily withdrew from active participation in the destiny of the Van Dycks.
Above stairs, in his room, Peter was wondering if the shower-bath he fully intended to take was going to improve matters any. Did condemned men take showers before they faced the firing squad or marched to the chair? The only condemned man he knew anything about was himself, and what little he knew about him was hardly interesting enough to be told. However, things might be worse. He was not actually getting married to-day. There was always poison as a last resort. He wondered whether he should take it himself or give it to Yolanda.
And while these speculations were passing through Peter's mind, equally perplexing ones were engaging the mind of Sanders as he stood in the hall below and looked round for signs of the vanished Jo. Presently he shrugged his shoulders as if to dismiss the incident. Evidently the young lady had decided in favour of the river. Under the circumstances that was probably the most tactful arrangement for all concerned. In spite of her bold manner the young woman must have had some sense of the fitness of things. Had he said the river was three or four blocks over? He did not quite recall. Too many things to think about. By now she should be quite definitely drowned if she had not changed her mind. She had seemed like a determined character, if a little callous. There were other things to be done. Cocktails to serve. Sanders moved away, leaving the hall deserted.
Several times while undressing, Peter had approached dangerously close to the curtain behind which Little Arthur stood concealed. Altogether too close for the peace of mind of that small pickpocket. Now that his uninvited host was completely naked, there was the possibility he might be prompted by modesty to draw the curtains entirely. That was what Little Arthur would have done had he been in the same condition. Maybe the rich were different. Maybe they did not care. If he could only create some diversion, thought the man behind the curtain, some little distraction sufficient to occupy the other's attention long enough to enable one to get out of that fateful room.
What could he do? Peter had turned and was looking intently at the portiere. Had he noticed anything, any slight, betraying movement? Little Arthur broke out into a gentle sweat. Those eyes—those probing eyes. As soon as Peter looked away, the pickpocket's arm slid from behind the portiere and withdrew with the syphon. Little Arthur had not the vaguest idea what he intended to do with the bottle, but at least it was better than having nothing at all, better than facing with bare hands an infuriated and naked property owner. Once more Peter's eyes strayed towards the portieres. Why did he look at that one portiere always instead of some other? Surely he suspected something. Yes. He did suspect something. He actually knew something. Once more he was approaching the portiere. He was half way across the room, and naked as a primitive man. Little Arthur was as much unnerved by what he saw as by what he feared. His grip tightened on the object in his hand. Two-thirds across the room Peter stopped and, turning his bare back, reached down and meditatively scratched his leg as men will. This was a trick, Little Arthur decided. No man, unless fired by some sinister determination, would permit himself to appear in such an unfavourable light. Furthermore, the rich, if they took advantage of their opportunities, should have no occasion thus to scratch themselves. Little Arthur was not to be deceived. This was a trick. If Peter Van Dyck had been hoping to rattle the small criminal, he had virtually succeeded. To witness these preparations was even worse than facing the attack itself.
It was at this moment that Little Arthur was seized by a mad impulse, an uncontrollable desire to squirt the contents of the syphon on the exposed back of the busily scratching man. It was an impulse not difficult to understand. Virtually every one is visited by it at least once in the course of his life. Some persons never outgrow it. To them a syphon and a naked back mean only one thing —immediate contact. At the moment Little Arthur had not sufficient mental stamina to resist any impulse. He raised the syphon, drew an accurate bead on the exposed surface, then pressed the lever. The liquid missile splashed smartly against Peter Van Dyck's back and broke into little cascades along the ridges of his spine. The effect was instantaneous. Peter snapped erect and looked wildly about him. Astonishment, shock, and indignation fought for ascendancy in his eyes. But his gaze encountered nothing enlightening. For a moment he feared for his reason. Was it possible that in his spiritual turmoil he had imagined himself under the shower? The water trickling down his flanks annoyed but reassured him. Then anger mounted within his breast. A Van Dyck would stand for no nonsense, especially a nude Van Dyck. The perpetrator of this outrage against his privacy and person must be concealed somewhere within the room. Probably behind one of those portieres. Almost slithering with excitement, Peter warily advanced upon one of the hangings. That he had selected the wrong one did not rob his activities of interest. Little Arthur was interested and also a bit relieved. As a matter of fact he was even faintly amused. The idea of a naked man stalking an empty portiere had its lighter side.
As Peter, quivering with purpose, sprang upon his portiere, Little Arthur, quivering with no less purpose, sprang from behind his and sprinted to the door. Reaching this before Peter had time to turn, the flying pickpocket dashed out into the hall and slammed the door behind him. The sound of the door brought Peter back to action. Passionately cursing the portiere, he sped across the room and threw open the door. The intruder was gone, obviously having succeeded in putting the front flight of stairs between himself and pursuit. This time Peter was right. Little Arthur, tossing discretion to the winds, had nipped down the first flight of stairs that offered itself to his frantic feet. For a brief moment Peter hesitated in the doorway, then, adding decency to discretion, he tossed them both to the winds and took up the chase.
On the landing he ran into Martha.
'Gord, Mr. Peter!' She gasped 'Whacha doing?'
'Running,' said Peter briefly. He had no time for explanations
'I should say,' murmured the maid after his bare back. 'Running wild like Adam hisself.'
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