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The Bishop's Jaegers


Thorne Smith



IT really does not matter who fired the shot or at whom it was fired, save for the fact that it caused Little Arthur to fall promptly to the afterdeck of the outgoing ferry-boat and to remain there, to all intents and purposes a dead pickpocket. And let it be added that no one was more convinced of this fact than was Little Arthur himself. To begin with, the day had proved too much for his delicately organized nervous structure. Add to this a frail body and two suitcases, and it immediately becomes evident that Little Arthur was in no condition to stand a great deal more of anything. In short, this pocket edition of petty larceny was through—a broken reed.

At the same moment that his newly acquired valet fell to the deck, Peter Van Dyck lurched a little as a stinging sensation manifested itself in his left upper arm. This he promptly dismissed in favour of peering down into the face of the stricken man. It was not much of a face to peer down into—in truth, it was a face he would much rather not have seen at all. From the unprepossessing expression Little Arthur turned to the world, it was obvious he had been mortally wounded.

But what creature in the world was so lacking in aspiration as to want to wound Little Arthur? At his most vigorous moments the small felon was only half alive. This did not mean that the man responsible for his death would be regarded by law as only half a murderer. Not at all. Peter in his heart swore that if he ever discovered who had fired the shot he, Peter Van Dyck, would make it his business to see that the wretch was regarded as being something more than a murderer. In the short time Little Arthur had been with him, Peter had formed a sort of watchful yet commiserating attachment for this unreliable visitant from the underworld. It was one of those inexplicable affections that defy all natural laws, because it was far from natural to be fond of Little Arthur. Most people found it impossible. But Peter was not like most people. He was a great deal worse than those who knew him suspected, and at the same time much better. They had been through a lot together in a few crowded hours, he and Little Arthur. They had suffered much. Side by side they had passed through humiliation and public disgrace.

With a sudden pang Peter thought of the drawers he had forced upon the now lifeless legs. Then came another thought—a worse one. What would the undertaker think about those drawers? Would the man be able to survive the shock? Would he be able to approach those drawers in a purely professional capacity or would he consider them in the light of a personal affront? No undertaker, no matter how case-hardened, would be able to regard them with indifference. No, those drawers presented a problem. Peter felt a little responsible. Life was funny —always letting one in for things.

While these thoughts were flashing through his mind, a small but keenly interested crowd had collected round Peter and the fallen man. Peter knelt down and began to examine him. There was no mark of a bullet wound. No sign of blood.

'Who pipped him, mister?' asked a man's hoarse voice.

'Who did what?' Peter inquired.

'Pipped,' replied the voice. 'You know—gave the little bloke an airing.'

'If you mean who murdered this poor devil,' said Peter, strongly objecting to the speaker's language, 'I wouldn't be surprised if it were you. Gave him an airing! Is that any way to speak of a man shot down in cold blood?'

'Where's the cold blood?' another spectator morbidly wanted to know.

'There ain't a speck on him,' announced still another spectator disappointedly. 'Not a speck. And blood ain't cold to begin with, even a silly-looking geezer's like that.'

Peter was moved to reply.

'Don't let's go into the temperature of his blood right now,' he observed with what he hoped was withering sarcasm. 'You'd look silly yourself if you were murdered, and I'd feel greatly pleased.'

'No, mister,' answered the other. 'I'd look plain scared.'

Dismissing this person as unimportant, Peter endeavoured to turn Little Arthur over to ascertain if he had been shot from behind. Once more he felt a stinging sensation in his left arm.

'Yolanda,' he called, for the first time remembering his fiancée. 'Would you very much mind giving me a hand with Little Arthur? He's been shot.'

'I wouldn't touch Little Arthur with a pair of tongs,' Yolanda coldly replied from the outer fringe of the crowd. 'I am waiting for you to take me to my seat.'

'I'll help you,' said a familiar voice, as Jo knelt down beside him. 'Aren't you strong enough to turn the little blighter over yourself?'

Peter tried without success to conceal his relief when his worried blue eyes looked into the warmly brown ones of Josephine.

'I'm strong enough,' he muttered. 'Merely a little nervous.'

'I get you, mister,' the girl replied in a voice that denoted long years of close companionship. 'Let's go.'

'This isn't a sporting event,' said Peter. 'Don't be so snappy about it. You'll roll him off the boat.'

Together they turned the still figure over. Peter was unable to find any sign of bullet marks. He had been cowardly enough to leave the trousers for Jo to examine. This did not appear to gag her in the least. Several heads were peering down interestedly over her shoulder.

'From the holes in them pants,' said an awed voice, 'it looks like he'd fairly been riddled with bullets.'

'Must have been a machine gun that pinged him in the pants,' another observer declared.

Peter also objected to the use of the term 'ping.' However, he refrained from protesting, realizing that these callous persons must have cut their teeth on lethal weapons and played tag with machine-gun bullets.

'If he was hit by a machine gun,' said Jo in a brisk voice, 'the bullets must have balked at his drawers. From the little I can see, I don't much blame them at all.'

'These are my drawers,' objected Peter.

'What are your drawers doing on him, mister?' a deeply interested voice inquired.

Peter looked pained.

'Does it matter,' he asked, 'what my drawers are doing on this man? He's been mortally wounded. That's what matters now. Whether my drawers are off or on him makes absolutely no difference. In fact,' he added, with a touch of bitterness, 'it doesn't very much matter if he's wearing any drawers at all.'

'Well, a guy's got to wear some sort of drawers,' retorted the rebuked spectator in an injured voice.

'Not the sort I see bits of,' objected another. Josephine's calm voice cut short Peter's reply to this fresh insult.

'Why do you let yourself become involved in these futile discussions?' she asked. 'There might be some life left in the little crook yet.'

They returned the body to its former position and looked at it with baffled eyes. Peter's left hand brushed against the pale face. Instinctively he drew his hand back. Little Arthur's face presented a red smear.

Gord,' a voice whispered, 'the little feller's just beginning to bleed. How do you make that out?'

'Ain't bleedin' from no hole,' said another member of the helpful gathering. 'Must be bleedin' through his pores.'

'How do you mean,' a third voice inquired, 'bleedin' through his paws? He ain't no dog.'

Didn't say he was a dog,' the second voice snapped back. 'Don't have to be a dog to bleed through your pores.'

'But you got to be an animal,' the other announced triumphantly. 'I ain't as dumb as all that.'

'I mean the pores of his skin,' the second speaker replied somewhat wearily.

'Never knew skin had no paws,' said his stubborn opponent.

'You keep thinking of dogs' paws,' the second man replied almost pleadingly, 'while all the time I'm talking about skin pores—tiny little holes.'

Well, why don't you say little holes,' the persistent party demanded, 'instead of using a lot of foreign language?'

'Would you believe it possible?' Peter asked Josephine in a low voice. 'And in the presence of death, at that.'

'The trouble with you,' said the girl, 'is that you let yourself get dragged in. You're just as dumb as they are. Help me—

She stopped suddenly and looked at a dark stain on the left sleeve of Peter's coat; then her eyes sought his hand. Blood was dripping slowly from his knuckles. For a moment her hand flew to her mouth, stifling a little cry. Then she said quite calmly, trying to keep her feelings from flooding through:

'You've been shot in the arm, Mr. Van Dyck.'

'Me?' inquired Peter. 'That's odd. My arm does feel a bit funny now that I come to think of it.'

'What I want to know,' put in a fresh voice, a rough argumentative voice, 'how can this guy bleed when the other feller's shot?'

'Perhaps the bullet went clean through the little feller,' a spectator explained, 'stopping on its way first to kill him, and then bunged into this other bloke.'

'Knew it wasn't his paws,' an all too familiar voice put in. 'He ain't shot at all. Them holes in his pants are just natural holes, worn out, like.'

'Mean to tell me,' another man demanded, 'this big guy gets shot and the little one falls down for him? It ain't reasonable.'

'I don't mean to tell you nothing,' the first voice cried excitedly. 'Wasn't talking to you anyway. Just making a harmless suggestion.'

'You mean useless,' sneered the other.

By this time it was Peter's turn to become indignant. He looked darkly upon the recumbent form of Little Arthur while Josephine did things to his arm.

'Then that dirty dog of a thief,' he said as if to himself, 'has been having a nice long rest while all the time I've been shot in the arm and feeling sorry as hell for him.'

'If you will select your valets from the scum of the underworld,' Josephine told him, looking closely at Little Arthur, 'you must expect things like this to happen.'

'Nobody could have expected this,' said Peter.

'Say, mister,' put in a voice admiringly, 'you must be pretty used to bullets if you don't know when you're shot.'

'Either that or he's just plain dumb,' another passenger explained. 'I'd damn well know if I was shot.'

'I damn well wish you were,' grated Peter; then, turning to the girl beside him : 'I've a good mind to pull down his trousers and see if he hasn't been shot. Something's surely wrong with him.'

'Go on,' replied Jo. 'Pull his trousers off for all I care.'

Whatever the part of Little Arthur it was that remained alive must have been the modest part, for at the mention of his trousers his hands clutched them firmly and his eyes snapped open.

'None of that,' he got out weakly but distinctly. 'Them pants are up for good.'

'Ain't you even shot, buddy?' a voice called out.

'How do I know?' Little Arthur answered. 'I heard a shot and felt its breath.'

The interrogator laughed ironically.

'I guess you're O.K.,' he said. 'To hear a shot is one thing, and to feel a shot's another. You just fainted from fright.'

'Oh, yeah retorted the small man, sitting up with an indignant snap. 'Well, this shot didn't sound like no lullaby to me. It didn't exactly croon in my ear, if yer get what I mean. You'd of fainted, too.'

Little Arthur turned a pair of injured eyes on Peter, whom he regarded in the light of a patron and protector, but he found scant comfort in that quarter.

'If you've settled your discussion entirely to your own satisfaction, Little Arthur—' Peter began coldly.

'Oh, I don't mind the likes of him,' the recovered crook assured Peter.

'That's good,' continued Peter with false solicitude. 'But as I was saying, do you think it would inconvenience you too much if you got yourself to hell off that deck and looked for those two bags?'

'Can't you hunt 'em up yourself while I'm getting my breath?' was the pickpocket's reasonable suggestion.

'Little Arthur,' replied Peter, a feverish glitter burning in his eyes, 'I'm afraid you don't quite understand the position. By rights I should be lying down where you are and you should be where I am. In other words, while you have been taking it easy on the flat of your back I've been slowly bleeding to death looking for your wound, you craven-spirited, low-down, grubby little snatch-purse. Is everything quite clear? Get up, damn your eyes.'

Little Arthur rose hastily from the deck.

'Mean ter say you're shot, mister?' he asked nervously.

'Sure, I'm shot,' growled Peter, 'and have been shot ever since this ferry-boat shoved off a couple of days ago.'

'Then why are you standing up on your feet?' the small thief incredulously inquired.

'We all can't lie down on our backs,' Peter told him with due bitterness. 'You got there first. Find those suitcases and come inside. I'm getting weak.'

Before they moved away, Josephine found an opportunity to add to the pickpocket's mental unrest.

'And if anything happens to Mr. Peter,' she assured the small man, 'anything serious, that is, you're going to spend the rest of your life flat on your back in jail, and I'm going to put you there.'

'Gord, lady!' said Arthur. 'Don't feel that way. I ain't done a thing.'

'No,' she replied coldly, leading Peter away. 'And you look as if your never will, you dip.'

Yolanda met them at the entrance of the women's section of the cabin.

'It's taking terribly long to get across,' she complained; then coolly surveying Josephine—You have met a friend, I see, Peter.'

'Don't you remember me?' Jo asked her sweetly. 'I was the young lady behind the goggles. Your fiancé was nude with me in the closet.'

'Heavens!' exclaimed Yolanda. 'I should think you'd be ashamed to admit it. Are you really going to have a baby?'

'Several, I hope, some day, but not to-day,' said Jo. 'You see, Miss Wilmont, your quondam fiancé has been wounded.'

'Why do you say quondam?' asked Yolanda.—Mr. Van Dyck is still my fiancé.'

'You mean—after all that went on in that closet?'

'Would one of you mind taking a look at this arm?' Peter edged in weakly.

'Just a minute,' retorted Yolanda. 'What did happen in that closet, now that this woman has brought up the subject? I insist on knowing.'

'In detail?' Jo inquired.

'Don't be common,' snapped Yolanda. 'I demand a plain statement from Mr. Van Dyck.'

'Well,' said Josephine with a shrug of her charming shoulders, 'we might as well confess, Peter.' She turned to the waiting girl and extended her outspread hands in a help-less gesture. 'The usual thing,' she said. 'You know—the usual thing.'

'I think I do know,' replied the other, 'but I certainly did not know it was the usual thing. Is she speaking the truth, Peter?'

'Well, didn't you see for yourself?' Jo cried in exasperation. 'He was as naked as a coot, wasn't he? What else but the usual thing?'

'It might be usual with you,' said Yolanda, 'but I didn't think it was with Mr. Van Dyck—especially in a closet. Is it, Peter?'

'Eh?' asked Peter. 'What's that? Oh, no. Certainly not. Most unusual in a closet—almost unthinkable.'

'There you are,' said Josephine with finality. 'He admits it. Says it's unusual, but only in a closet, mind you.'

'I want to sit down,' said Peter. 'Aren't either one of you going to do a thing about this arm?'

'I'll look after you in a minute, Peter,' Yolanda told him.

'No, you won't,' said Josephine. 'After all that has passed between us, that is my privilege.'

'My dear young woman,' replied Yolanda, 'you have no official standing.'

'I can hardly stand at all,' said Peter. 'I'm going to sit down before I fall down.'

Finding a place on the long seat, he sank wearily down beside a stout, neatly arrayed woman with an anticipatory expression in her eyes. Although Peter did not know it at the moment, this woman was thinking entirely in terms of beer. So engrossed had she been in her thoughts, so spiritually steeped in beer, as it were, she had failed to notice how long it was taking for the ferry-boat to nose its way across the fog-piled river. Beneath her breath the woman had been humming 'California, Here I Come'—an old favourite with Aspirin Liz. Peter's near collapse on the bench beside her drew the thoughts of the bemused woman back to her present surroundings, which were not nearly so congenial as those of a water-front cafes. She gave the wounded man a quick survey, then turned halfway round on the bench and faced him. Her eyes were fixed on the dark, moist stain on his sleeve. Liz promptly drew the logical inference. Here was a wounded gunman who with the invariable delicacy of his kind refrained from drawing attention to his little contretemps. From the appearance of this gunman, racketeer, gangster, or whatever his class or creed, Aspirin Liz concluded that his present contretemps was something more than a little. The man looked downright bad. Aspirin Liz, with the quick camaraderie of her training, was worried about him.

'In trouble?' she asked in a low voice.

Peter started nervously. Liz attributed the movement to guilt.

'Yes,' he muttered. 'Terrible trouble. Shot in the arm.'

'Are you asking for a shot in the arm?' Liz asked him. 'Or have you been shot in the arm?'

'Yes,' said Peter. 'I've been. Never take dope.'

'Good,' replied Liz. 'That's one thing you've missed, anyway.'

'What do you mean?' demanded Peter. 'Did you take me for a dope fiend?'

'Never can tell,' said Liz. 'Ought to do something about that arm.'

'What should I do about it?' asked Peter.

'Take it out of its coat sleeve and shirt, for one thing, then take a look at it.'

'In front of all these people?'

'Why not? Never been in your shirt-sleeves before?'

'Much less than that,' said Peter, thinking back over the past few hours. 'You might not believe me, madam, but I've been dashing about naked.'

Liz's opinion of the man underwent a quick change.

'Oh, I see,' she said. 'That explains it. Then you're not a gangster?'

'Certainly not!' indignantly.

'Sort of shot in the line of nobody's business,' said Liz. 'In the pursuit of pleasure, so to speak. Are all husbands born with gats? Come on. Off with that coat.'

'It wasn't that,' complained Peter as she helped him to slip out of his coat. 'Not what you mean at all.'

Josephine and Yolanda, having succeeded in giving each other thoroughly bad tempers, presented themselves before Peter at this moment.

'What did I tell you?' demanded Jo, pointing a finger at Peter. 'There he goes again. Getting undressed already, and I bet he hadn't known the woman five minutes.'

'You viper!' said Peter. 'You'd rather let me bleed to death than stop telling lies.'

'I see you brought your trouble with you,' observed Liz in level tones. 'Those two your molls?'

'Not both of us,' said Jo promptly, with a nod indicating Yolanda. 'She is. I'm just his fancy lady.'

'What am I?' Yolanda demanded.

'It doesn't matter,' replied Aspirin Liz with an amused smile. 'I don't care if you're a couple of nuns. This man's been wounded. You can wash your dirty linen later.'

'Dirty linen!' put in Yolanda disdainfully. 'Peter, am I to be insulted in your presence?'

'Yes,' said Peter, disgusted. 'You are. I'd like to do it myself.'

'You have,' replied Yolanda.

'And speaking about linen,' Jo tossed in, 'I know the colour of his drawers.' Peter groaned aloud at this. 'That,' continued the girl, 'should be enough to convince you of the irregularity of our relations. They're not linen, his drawers. They're silk—all silk with orange stripes. Look for yourself, if you don't believe me.'

'Is that true, Peter?' Yolanda demanded.

'Oh, I don't know,' he answered distractedly, flinching beneath the investigating hands of Liz. 'Maybe she does and maybe she doesn't. I forgot myself. Why don't you drag my trousers off and get my damned drawers witnessed by a notary public?'

'Apparently,' remarked Yolanda, 'you don't care what woman undresses you so long as you get undressed.'

'No,' gritted Peter. 'I like myself that way.'

At this moment an impressive gentleman in clerical attire introduced himself to the contentious group.

'I was told a passenger had been shot,' he began, as if passengers were always being shot. 'Can I be of any help?'

'Well,' Jo replied, favouring the Bishop with a glowing smile, 'he's not quite ready to be buried yet, but if this boat doesn't land somewhere soon you may have the pleasure of chucking him out to sea.'

Bishop Waller permitted himself a faint smile, then stooped over and examined Peter's arm while Aspirin Liz looked at him with respect bred of the awareness of a slightly dappled past. Soon the two of them were working in complete accord to staunch the wound and bandage it, Liz acting in the capacity of water carrier to the man of God. When it came to procuring a bandage she promptly solved the difficulty with a coy look at the Bishop.

'I can see those two ladies don't wear them,' she said reprovingly, 'but I do and always have and always will. Here goes.'

Turning her back on the Bishop, who in justice to his exalted spirit was not at all interested, she did some considerable ripping. Her face flushed from exertion rather than from the inquiring scrutiny of several dozen passengers who sat patiently following her movements with the dull curiosity of the mentally vacant, she turned back to the Bishop and offered him a strip of cloth. This he accepted with a word of dignified commendation, then bound Peter's arm.

'Under the circumstances,' he said when his task was finished, 'this is about the best we can do, but the moment you get ashore, sir, I strongly advise you to see a physician to guard against infection. May I ask how the unfortunate accident occurred?'

'Merely one of the commoner risks of contemporary life in America,' said Peter. 'A stray shot, you know.'

'Exactly,' replied the Bishop. 'To-day one can hardly telephone without having the booth shot from around one.'

He seated himself beside Peter with the air of a man both able and willing to watch the whole night through.

'Most people in telephone booths deserve to be shot,' Josephine declared. 'It's the only way you can get 'em to come out.'

Bishop Waller received this bloodthirsty sentiment with unexpected approval. He had frequently felt that way himself about people in telephone booths, but had never gone so far as to put his feelings into words.

'Of course,' he said judicially, 'one's attitude may change considerably according to whether one is doing the telephoning or the shooting.'

'That's so,' replied Jo. 'Hadn't thought of that.' The Bishop's smile embraced her.

'Of course, my dear,' he said. 'Such minor considerations escape us all at times.'

Hardly had the Bishop rounded off his sentence as such gentlemen will and must, when the ferry-boat fairly tore its heart out in a protesting blast against fate in the guise of fog. As the engines sent chills along its timbers the reversed propellers bit back into the hidden water. From dead ahead came the answering scream of a half-crazed whistle. Danger ten feet off. Passengers ran to look at it, faces pressed against the windows. Eyes too filled with the wonder of ignorance to know they should look frightened. Waiting . . . drifting smoothly . . . then a soft, silly bump, a mere touch in the fog.

'Well, your reverence,' said Aspirin Liz, 'there's one of those minor considerations we didn't quite escape.'

'Bishop Waller, madam,' the excellent man informed her calmly. 'Episcopal bishop of the Eastern States. And should this present consideration prove a little less minor than we would like it, let us face it with the fortitude and courage of true Christians-civilized Christians, that is.'

Even at this serious moment Bishop Waller insisted on stressing that nice distinction existing between civilized Christians and savage ones—those who always wore drawers and those who gleefully discarded them after the closing hymn.

A small figure between two suitcases was taking up a great deal of room as it staggered across the cabin towards Peter Van Dyck.

'Here's your bags, mister,' gasped the pickpocket, supporting himself between them.

'Thank you, Little Arthur,' said Peter. 'But we have neither the time nor privacy to dress before sinking, I fear.'

'Are we doing that?' the small man asked in an even smaller voice.

'You had best prepare yourself to meet your God either now or a little later,' Bishop Waller told the pick-pocket in a gentle voice.

'If you don't mind, your honour,' Little Arthur chattered, 'I'm going to pray to God to meet Him much later—with all due respect to Heaven and Himself.'

'You'll never meet Him at all, you thing!' Josephine assured him.

'Peter, please do something,' Yolanda burst out. 'My nerves are on an edge.'

'Don't worry,' said Liz brightly. 'They might be all wet, you know.'

'Ugh!' gasped Little Arthur. 'What are we going to do?'

Then a great voice drilling down through the fog told Little Arthur in no uncertain language exactly what to do.

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