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The Bishop's Jaegers
SIX CHARACTERS EMBARK IN A FOG
WHEN Peter Van Dyck closed the door to his room his action was accompanied by such violence that Little Arthur, doglike at his heels, barely escaped bisection. Unlike a dog, however, the small, dishonest man emitted no yelp of protest. He merely stood looking at the door and thought of the policeman whose indignant voice still sounded discordantly in the hall below.
'Sanders,' he heard Aunt Sophie saying, 'take the officer to the kitchen and provide for him properly. Perhaps a bottle or so of that Canadian ale might help to relieve his pain.'
Little Arthur's heart sank. Retreat was cut off in the rear. Ahead of him lay a decidedly delicate, not to say dangerous, interview. Squaring his thin shoulders, he raised a timid hand and knocked.
'Come in, you criminal!' a hoarse voice shouted. 'Since when have you troubled to knock on doors?'
Automatically the shoulders resumed their former droop of nervous exhaustion as the criminal entered the room.
'Since when have you troubled to knock?' the voice repeated disagreeably. 'Answer me that.'
Arthur noticed with increasing dread that the owner of the voice was drinking whisky straight in great gulps.
'Always knock, mister,' he muttered. 'Outa hours, that is.'
'When not calling in a professional capacity,' Peter added sarcastically.
'That would be silly,' said Little Arthur on the defensive.
'You malignant germ!' replied Peter, his throat working horribly, Arthur thought, as whisky splashed down its bobbing length. 'You less than louse—worse than louse!'
'Mister,' protested Little Arthur, for some strange reason feeling more hurt for the other's lack of refinement than for any reflection cast on either himself or his habits, 'is that a nice way ter talk?'
'Perhaps not,' said Peter after a moment's reflection. 'There isn't any nice way to talk—not to you.'
'But I'm only a pickpocket,' the man modestly explained. 'This was my first second-storey.'
Peter gulped down some more whisky while considering this statement.
'How do you mean,' he asked, 'your first second-storey? Are you trying to confuse me?'
'No, mister,' said the little dip, 'I'm giving it to you straight. This is the first time I ever done a second-storey. I was only after some drawers—an old pair or so.'
'You lie,' Peter told him. 'You know as well as I do you couldn't wear my drawers. They'd hang all over your little wizened legs.'
'I ain't perticular,' Little Arthur said stoutly. 'Scrunch 'em on somehow, what with a pin or a string or an old nail, for that matter.'
Peter thought this possibility over while absently re-donning his recently shed raiment.
'You must be mad about drawers,' he admitted at last, 'and I don't care a damn if you are. Might be much worse. As a matter of fact, some nice, clean persons might even consider it creditable, Little Arthur, for a man to risk losing his shirt for the sake of a pair of drawers. But I, who don't care a snap of my fingers about either shirt or drawers, can't see it in that light.'
'That's a powerful queer-looking pair you got on now,' vouchsafed Little Arthur. 'Orange stripes, no less! Can't say as I'd care a lot for them drawers myself.'
'Critical, eh?' Peter remarked coldly. 'Well, I'd like to know what sat you up in judgment on my drawers? You never had a pair of silk drawers on your mean little shanks in your life. Not real silk,' he added, his thoughts reverting to Josephine Duval.
'No, mister,' Little Arthur agreed. 'I wear regular drawers—men's drawers. After taking a pike at them things, I can see that all my trouble has been a sheer waste of time.'
'Just for that,' said Peter, with a whisky glitter in his eye, 'I'm going to make you wear a pair of my drawers, the funniest pair I've got, and believe me, I've got some funny ones. Much funnier than these,' his voice trailed on as he rummaged busily in a bureau. 'Ha! This pair's a humdinger. A regular scream. You'll go well in these. Wonder how I was ever so mad as to buy them myself. Red and purple grapes—bunches of 'em. A cute idea.' He turned with the garment to confront the stricken eyes of the petty felon. 'Down with those trousers,' he grated. 'Yank 'em off with a snap.'
'But, mister,' objected the shocked man, 'I'd have to undress naked to put them things on. You see, I wear allovers like—long legs and all.'
'Eh?' said Peter. 'Oh, all right. That doesn't matter a bit. You can drag 'em up over your long ones. Make it snappy now.'
'That wouldn't look right, mister.' Arthur's voice was eloquent with reproach.
'You're going to wear these drawers,' Peter told the pitiful object, 'if I have to disjoint you to get 'em on. Hurry up, man. Don't make me lose my temper.'
'If you make me put them dreadful drawers on,' said the other, 'I think I'll lose my mind.'
'You'll lose more than that if you don't,' Peter snapped, taking a step towards the man.
'Oh, Gord,' whined the unfortunate creature, hastily removing his outer garments, 'all this terror and disgrace just because I got a yen ter feel clean!'
'You don't look so hot, yourself,' Peter assured him as he contemplated the homely lines of the battered union suit. 'From the back you look simply shocking—worse than I ever thought a man could get.'
Little Arthur spun round as if stung.
'Cut it out,' he said in some confusion.
'Now yank these on right over them,' commanded Peter. 'Anything to blot out that awful sight. The back especially.'
Little Arthur yanked them on, and Peter was vividly reminded of a medieval court chamberlain who had fallen upon evil days.
A knock sounded obsequiously on the door. Sanders entered on silent feet. Even his iron self-control was taxed to its utmost to restrain a slight outcry. All the human side of the butler cried out to inquire what inconceivable events were taking place in this room. However, his professional ethics forced him to present a passive face. In his eyes alone could be detected a faint gleam of revulsion. The expression in Little Arthur's eyes as he stood like a shamed maiden in a slave market, as well he might in his weird attire, defied all description. This was because Little Arthur, realizing the delicacy of his position, had bashfully lowered his gaze. Sanders cleared his throat behind a large fat hand.
'Beg pardon, Mr. Peter,' he murmured. 'Is this the new valet?'
'The very newest, Sanders,' replied Peter. 'I've been trying to get some conception of how I look in my own drawers. Never had the opportunity before. What do you think of them, Sanders?'
'Very nice, sir, I am sure,' said Sanders, who prided himself on his asthetic reactions. 'The background is a trifle dingy.'
Oh, that's all right,' remarked Peter airily. 'We can remove the background and have them washed.'
'Burned,' suggested Sanders.
That ain't nice,' broke in Little Arthur with a sob in his voice. 'Call that there copper and let him take me away.'
'I was instructed to inform you, Mr. Peter,' went on the butler, disdainfully disregarding the little crook, 'that Miss Yolanda and your aunt await your presence below, sir. It is almost time to call the motor if you intend to cross by ferry.'
'Why the ferry?' demanded Peter.
'Miss Yolanda finds the tube rather common, sir,' said Sanders, and God only knew what the man was thinking. 'She has decided objections to the ventilation.'
Peter took another drink.
'Little Arthur,' snapped Peter, suddenly brisk, 'pack a suitcase for me—not for yourself, mind you, but for me.'
'Me, mister!' protested the pickpocket. 'Pack it like I am?'
'Certainly,' replied Peter. 'It will amuse me while I'm dressing. And listen to me, Sanders. Tell Miss Yolanda with my compliments that if she doesn't like the tubes she'll have to bear with the subway downtown. I won't drive or be driven in traffic on a night like this.'
'I quite understand, Mr. Peter,' said Sanders, and with a lingering glance at Little Arthur quietly withdrew.
'You oughten ter have let him see me like this,' complained the little man in the large drawers. 'It's more than flesh can bear.'
'I think Sanders took it admirably, taking you all in all,' asserted Peter, 'which is the only way to take you. Step lively with that packing.'
Half an hour later Peter and Yolanda left the Van Dyck residence on foot for a week-end in New Jersey. Behind them came Little Arthur. He was bearing up as well as he could under the weight of two suitcases. Peter was a little drunk and Yolanda a little peeved. Peter's explanations of his conduct had been almost incoherent. He had expected her to take too many things for granted. Still, until the country had recovered somewhat from its protracted attack of melancholia she saw no advantage to herself in precipitating an open break with her fiancé, who was indubitably more than enough mad. As long as coffee remained in popular favour, she would put up with his eccentricities —humour them, in fact.
'The rest will do you good,' she told him as they walked to the subway.
'I never find these house parties in the least way restful,' replied Peter complainingly. 'They wear me down a lot.'
'I know, my dear,' she said tolerantly, 'but one must be seen. Especially persons in our position. Can't afford to stagnate, you know. Must carry on. In these bad times it is expected of us.'
'You mean going to house parties, dinners, dances, and all?' incredulously Peter asked her.
'Obviously,' she replied with the superior patience of a higher being.
'What good does that do?' the man wanted to know.
'Keeps society on an even keel. Offsets the influences of radicalism—communism,' she assured him without batting an eye. 'Shows the nation at large that the real people are not taking seriously all this talk about depression.'
'Strikes me as being a bad excuse for doing even worse,' observed Peter. 'And as for stagnation, that's all you do at these house parties—stagnate. Not that I object to that, but I prefer to do it in my own home.'
'You're such a child,' said Yolanda, tapping him lightly on the arm.
Peter's reply to this was rotten but inaudible.
From the shadows of a building a small figure in a ridiculous duster watched Peter's progress with wicked but devoted eyes. When Little Arthur had lurched by with his burden, the figure discarded the duster and became an exceedingly well-built young woman. With a set face and a determined eye Josephine Duval proceeded to stalk her prey. She was bound for New Jersey herself. She might just as well kill two birds with one stone. And if she did not succeed in killing them, she could at least make them quite uncomfortable.
Josephine had a lovely body, but her mind was altogether bad. An ideal combination.
Ahead of her Little Arthur stumbled through the fog blowing in from the river. He was wishing he had the courage to drop the bags and run, realizing with a pang of regret that he could not make his escape with them.
That same evening Bishop Waller was gratified to discover that both God and his own inclinations coincided in calling him and his newly acquired jaegers to the state of New Jersey. Accordingly he decided to answer this call in person as well as in jaegers. Furthermore, it was his ecclesiastical preference to approach this friendly state through the instrumentality of a ferry-boat, which he earnestly hoped would be less crowded than the tubes.
'And Blakely,' he told his man, at the same time striving to tune out of his voice an overtone of mundane pride, 'be sure you put in an extra pair of those new jaegers—the spring-weight ones.'
Blakely had hoped to be permitted to pack a pair of these new jaegers. He admired them tremendously. In fact, in his quiet humble heart of hearts he almost found the hardihood to wish that he too were a bishop so that he might be able to wear drawers similar to the man he served.
'They're an excellent pair, sir,' he observed as he reverentially carried the new jaegers to the suitcase. 'An excellent pair, if I may say so.'
'Certainly, Blakely,' beamed the Bishop. 'By all means admire the drawers.' He found himself greatly pleased. Crossing the room, he stood for a moment by his man and admired the drawers with him. 'They are excellent in every respect,' he continued pontifically. 'Honestly made and generously fashioned. I find then exceedingly comfortable.'
'I'm sure you must, sir,' agreed Blakely, his eyes involuntarily straying to the lower half of the Bishop as if endeavouring to visualize the ineffable comfort enjoyed by this man of God.
A few minutes later Bishop Waller departed. Stepping into a taxi, he instructed the driver to proceed with judicious perseverance to a downtown ferry slip. Then, with a clean conscience and a contented mind, he settled back in the cab and awaited future developments.
Bishop Waller had not long to wait. The future developed almost too soon.
At about this time Aspirin Liz, after a dust-mottled sort of day, felt herself deeply stirred by a craving for beer—beer and a little companionship over a table unspoiled by a cloth. She desired to relax for a while with the knowledge that a bar was within easy call, that she had merely to press her finger lazily on a bell to have her modest and essentially reasonable wishes filled to the brim, nay to overflowing.
In her youth, when she derived both pleasure and profit from her figure, she had sedulously eschewed beer. Now, when her once lovely body had become an expense without compensation, she indulged it affectionately for the sake of what it had been. She gave it beer up to and sometimes past the limits of its ample capacity. With grim satisfaction she plunged into it great sides of corned beef rising like rocks of Gibraltar from choppy seas of cabbage. She talked to middle-aged ladies of similar tastes, and discovered that, no matter how dissimilar their lives may have been, their interests in life were basically the same, a little rest, a little peace and quiet, food, drink, an audience, and a room of one's own where one could remove in comfort one's stays and shoes.
For Aspirin Liz the most satisfactory escape from the solitude of her four walls lay on the opposite bank of the Hudson. It was her custom occasionally to take a ferry headed for this bank and, arrived there, to seek out one of several water-front cafes in which she was both known and admired for her true worth—a good, solid, level-headed woman with a sincere fondness for beer and a capacity to hold it.
After a day devoted to aspirin, the retired model felt she owed herself beer. And this is an excellent way to feel—one of the most satisfactory feelings extant. Many persons want beer, and almost as many drink beer, but it is given to few—and then very rarely—to be convinced that not only do they want beer but that they actually deserve beer, need it, in fact.
Therefore, it was with a feeling of rectitude almost approaching the self-sacrificial that Aspirin Liz prepared her face, adjusted her hat, shrugged her hips into proper working relations with her corset and, after looking both for and into her pocket-book, departed in the direction of the river.
Thus it came about that the same ferry-boat was enabled to set at naught the various plans and prospects of a diversity of characters. Even more. It was given to this ferry-boat to mingle the interests and alter the destinies of persons whose lives had hitherto developed along seldom intersecting paths.
And as these several characters converged upon this ferry-boat, the fog blew in their faces and blanketed their lungs. Figures swift with purpose lived jerkily for an instant in the eyes of others, then faded out. Trucks tunnelled through wet fluff and dragged a hole behind them. Sound and light were muffled. Distance ceased to be. Each man carried with him the boundaries of his universe. Out there on the river a little hell of whistles dwelt in the heart of the fog.
The ferry-boat drew out. Mist rolled down on its exit. A sharp report and a spit of fire. Then fog where a figure had stood—a half-crouched shape peering in the direction of the ferry-boat now unseen.
There were very few passengers who ascribed the report of the gun to a cause other than the back-firing of an automobile.
Little Arthur was not one of these.
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