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The Bishop's Jaegers
IN PURSUIT OF PRIVACY
'YOU have the most evil-looking head of red hair I ever saw,' Peter vouchsafed lazily some time later. 'Just like some of the smaller flames of hell or those snake-like locks of Medusa. And your face is baleful, too, in a beautiful sort of way.'
He was lying on his right side, critically surveying the girl's face, touching it here and there with an inquiring finger-tip.
'I don't know how I can lie here in bed and look at yours,' she told him, with a small companionable yawn. 'God must have run out of colour or lost interest when He came to your hair and eyes. You're merely tinted. To me you are singularly rabbit-like.'
'In what sense, may I ask?'
'In appearance,' she said. 'I daresay you consider yourself the Casanova of the coffee world now.'
'No,' he replied. 'I have no such exalted aspirations. I am merely a man who will stand for so much and no more.'
'It's too bad you're not the kind who will go just so far and no further,' Jo retorted.
'One can hardly do that with you,' he said easily. 'You'd drag them the rest of the way.'
'Oh, so I'm the responsible party,' she observed, gouging him in the cheek, 'while you, you poor dear, are the wronged one.'
'Exactly,' was the complacent reply. 'I look upon myself, thank God, in the most detached light. Only in a remote way, like an extra on a crowded stage, am I connected with the drama of your inevitable downfall.'
'I don't like that crowded-stage crack,' the girl replied sombrely. 'You were the first player in my young life. And as for that downfall stuff, don't confuse life with fiction. There're more ruined women in the world to-day eating three square meals with an easy conscience than there are homes for wayward girls.'
'You're hard,' said Peter.
'No, I'm not,' she retorted. 'I'm reasonable. And I'm not at all unromantic. For instance, I think it's quite beautiful being here with you like this. Won't forget it for some time.'
'When you feel that you're beginning to, just drop round when you're not busy and I'll try to refresh your memory,' said Peter.
'You see,' asserted Jo triumphantly, 'you're really the hard-boiled member of this team. Men usually pretend to make quite a fuss over the women they've ruined. You strike me as being a little proud, a little strutty.'
'I confess I don't know,' he admitted. 'No man ever attempted to ruin me, but as you say, I do suspect myself of a slight feeling of elation.'
'As much as I hate to take the wind out of your sails,' she said, 'in justice to myself I must remind you that far from being your victim you're jolly well mine.'
'Stuff and nonsense,' scoffed Peter. 'You're merely a butterfly on the wheel, crushed and broken—another conquest, no more and no less.'
'You'll be crushed and broken, you little coffee bean,' she retorted hotly, 'if you don't watch your step. I ruined you, my lad. You didn't ruin me.'
'It hardly seems sensible to be lying here disputing over which of us ruined the other,' he remarked. 'It's a highly technical question.'
'My eye, it is,' exclaimed Jo. 'You're damn well seduced and I did it.'
'Have it your way,' he said amiably. 'Just so long as one of us was seduced, I don't care much who it is.'
'Oh, you don't,' she snapped. 'Just like a man. Ruination means nothing to you.'
'Inasmuch as you insist on me being the ruined party,' he mildly protested, 'I'm doing my best to be as cheerful as possible among all the debris.'
'And succeeding almost too well,' she retorted. 'One would think you actually enjoyed it.'
'Well,' confessed Peter ruminatively, 'you must admit it has its lighter side.'
'I admit nothing,' she said.
'Under the circumstances that would perhaps be best,' he agreed. 'In fact, I'd deny everything, if you don't mind an impersonal suggestion.'
'I'm telling Yolanda right off,' she told the man with malicious enjoyment. 'Then I'm going to tell the Bishop, and after that I'm going to get him to marry you to me.'
'How are you going to manage that? Seduce him, too?'
'Rather than that should happen, I'll marry you, if not of my own free will, at least without public lamentation.'
'Then you do care!' cried Jo, impulsively flinging herself upon him. 'How sweet!'
'I was thinking of the Bishop,' he protested, making a poor showing of warding off her flashing arms.
Fortunately for this record Josephine's hoydenish activities were interrupted by a peremptory knocking on the door which was followed by the command of a stern voice. The sound of the knocking returned to Peter a terrible realization of the situation in which he found himself. And with the arrival of this realization his presence of mind departed. In a naked panic he sprang from the bed.
Open the door!' cried the voice. 'This is strictly against the rules. Open the door immediately.'
I don't know the rules,' chattered Peter.
'You should know enough not to do a thing like that,' the voice replied in high reproof.
My God,' muttered Peter, his face blanching. 'The whole world seems to know already. Like what?' he asked aloud.
'Don't quibble with me, young man,' said the voice. 'If you don't open this door I'll have it broken down. Is there a woman in there with you?'
'What made you get that quaint idea?' asked Peter, notioning Jo to silence.
'There's a girl missing,' came the answer. 'And sometimes new arrivals carry on.'
'Carry on how?' called Peter, sparring desperately for time.
'When were you born?' queried the voice.
'This is hardly the proper moment for vital statistics,' retorted Peter. 'Go away and leave that door alone.'
Fresh voices could be heard in the hall—the patter of bare feet. There were sounds of suppressed laughter and giggling—frolicsome slaps on bare flesh. Peter closed his eyes and shuddered. He pictured a mass of naked bodies waiting outside the door to witness his disgrace. The pounding was resumed. In his desperation he forgot his wounded arm and began to tear a sheet in strips, thoughtfully putting one aside.
'What are you doing that for?' Jo asked in a low voice.
'Through the window,' he told her. 'Tie the blankets together.'
'I mean the sheet you put aside,' said the girl.
'I'm going to wear that,' he replied briefly.
'What about me?' she asked.
'Haven't time to think of that now,' he muttered. 'I'm much too busy.'
'Sir Galahad in the flesh,' she said in an awful whisper as she sprang from the bed. 'A little nude coward.'
Busily she began to tie the blankets together as the pounding was redoubled on the door.
'Open this door, I tell you!' cried the voice. 'What are you doing now? What can you be doing?'
'Use your imagination,' snapped Peter.
'It seems fairly obvious,' shouted the voice on a note of bitterness. 'Here goes the door.'
A resounding thud shook the door as Peter grabbed the blankets from Jo, added his strip to them, and, securing one end of the rude line to a leg of the bed, tossed the other end out of the window. Twisting the remaining sheet round his body in bizarre tufts and slashes, he hurried to the window.
'One moment, my small Mahatma,' said Jo in a low, unpleasant voice. 'Are you planning on leaving me behind?'
'Not making any plans for you,' he replied. 'I'm simply taking care of myself.'
Without even glancing down to see what fate lay below him, Peter seized the knotted bedclothing and disappeared through the window, his wounded arm paining unnoticed beneath its bandage.
'Damned if I'll let him get away with that,' Jo muttered, her eyes searching in vain for some garment to wear in her flight. 'Honour is lost, but pride dies hard.'
She ran to the window, and with a prayer in her heart to the god of impulsive maidens, lowered herself on the strip. Peter, glancing up with a strained face, almost lost his grip. More stunned by what he saw above than by what he feared below, he continued on his way, grimly wondering the while if the world had ever witnessed so indecent an escape staged in any language.
Jo speedily overtook the queer-looking object below her. Soon she was ready to pass him, but hardly in a position to do so.
'Can't you find some place to sit on, other than my head?' Peter inquired wanly.
'How can I?' she called down.
'I don't know,' he replied. 'That's what I'm asking you.'
'I'm doing my best,' she assured him.
'You're doing too damn well,' he grunted. 'If you want to know, you're doing your best to crush me to earth.'
For answer Jo reached down with a momentarily freed hand and snatched the sheet from his body. Peter emitted a small shriek of dismay.
'There are too many people on the lawn,' she told him. 'I need this.'
'Can't see a thing for your feet,' he got out. 'They're dangling in my eyes.'
'You must look pretty from down there,' she retorted. 'From here you're nothing to sneeze at, yourself,' he retorted.
'A lot of people are looking down at me,' said Jo. 'A lot of faces from your window. They're furious.'
'They'd be frozen from this end,' he assured her. 'Wish I were back in the fog.'
His wish was almost granted, for Jo, twisting the ends of the sheet round her neck, allowed the covering to flow down over her body and continue on over part of Peter's. The effect was astounding. It was that of a creature or thing that had started out in life as a red-headed woman and who at some time during the stages of a strangely attenuated evolution had decided to finish off her already sufficiently bewildering body with the long and skinnily dangling legs and feet of a man. The great expanse of mysteries that lay between the flaming head and shrinking feet was luckily more or less hidden from view by the frantically fluttering sheet. As this weird, synthetic figure crawled lumpily down the strip of bedclothing, new arrivals on the lawn were almost too frightened to ask what it was. They seemed to prefer to remain in ignorance rather than to face what could not be otherwise than a decidedly unpleasant fact.
'How much farther do we have to go?' asked Josephine, her strength rapidly failing.
'By this method not much farther, I fear,' Peter drearily communicated through the sheet. 'I'm about ready to fall to my death at any moment now. And, by the way, before I go I'd like to say how greatly I've enjoyed your comfortable rest on my head. You seem to think I'm an elevator.'
'Hurry up!' cried Jo. 'If I start to fall I'm going to take you with me.'
'There is a sea of faces below,' he informed her. 'I'd like to fall on all of them, but their mouths are shockingly filled with teeth.'
'You mean dogs?' asked Jo.
'Worse than dogs,' said Peter. 'Naked bodies that once were human.'
As if by special arrangement the sheet parted a moment, and Peter found himself gazing in through a window ona scene of domestic activity. A lady was drying herself with a towel while her husband, or rather, one whom Peter piously hoped was her husband, was busily combining the worst features of a setting-up exercise with those of an interpretive dance. Upon seeing Peter, they both nodded casually. Then as he seemed to continue on indefinitely they decided this manifestation was sufficiently interesting to justify closer examination. They hurried to the window.
'I thought you were one,' the man called down to Peter.
'Oh, no,' replied Peter, halting his descent. 'I'm at least two.'
'I mean,' said the man, 'there's something above in a sheet.'
'There is, indeed,' answered Peter. 'You don't know what all there is in that sheet.'
'Are you exercising?' asked the dripping woman. 'Is this some new wrinkle?'
'I'm wrinkled all over, lady,' came the voice of Jo, 'and every wrinkle hurts.'
'If you really want to know,' called Peter, 'we're trying to escape.'
'From what on earth?' asked the man.
'Oh, everything,' said Peter. 'All things on earth.'
'From our thoughts,' put in Jo.
'Just mentally run down,' said the wet woman to her husband. 'This place will do them a world of good.'
Peter laughed wildly. 'It's helped us a lot already,' he said. 'Morally as well as physically we feel like giants refreshed—like a couple of shooting stars, in fact.' Suddenly his voice took on a note of anguish. 'I'm going, Jo,' he called. 'Here drops nothing. My arm's gone bad.'
As Jo reached down to grab him, she felt herself being dragged from the line, and even as she fell through space she managed to find some comfort in the thought of what a low hound Peter Duane Van Dyck was to have pulled her with him.
They landed amid a lot of naked bodies, bearing some of them with them to the ground, upon which they lay for one startled moment; then, springing up, dashed across the grass in the direction of the nearest trees. The naked bodies capered after them, laughing and shouting to one another like sportive maniacs. And that was more or less what Peter judged them to be, only he was not so sure how long they would remain in a state of amiable hilarity. The pack of them might undergo a sudden change of mood and rend him limb from limb. There was no room in his thoughts at the moment for the safety of Josephine's limbs. Embarrassment added to fear forms a sufficiently strong combination to demoralize the stoutest souls. Dressed, Peter might have been willing to turn and face the world. Naked, he had only one idea, and that was to let the world and all its works very much alone.
Peter might have achieved his burning ambition—the blessed protection of those trees—and so might Josephine, his nearest rival; this temporary relief might have been vouchsafed them had it not been for the intervention of an unkind fate in the guise of ebullient flesh and lots of it. It so happened that as Peter was passing a large, formal flower bed, a large but informal-looking gentleman materialized from it and with amazing agility set himself in motion to spoil Peter's plans.
'A chase!' cried the man, dancing delightedly after Peter. 'Watch me catch you.'
'Not for a moment,' Peter jerked out. 'Go chase yourself.'
'This,' replied the man, leaving the ground and landing on Peter's back, 'is much more fun.'
'Damned if I see it,' muttered Peter as he fell earthward on his nose.
'Caught!' cried his excited antagonist. 'Now you chase me.'
So saying, he sprang up, and, taking a return pursuit for granted, sprinted busily across the lawn. Peter followed the man's example but not his direction.
'If he's foolish enough to think I'm going to chase him,' Peter reflected, 'he's due for a bitter disappointment.'
At this moment his speed was checked by the sound of a desperate cry.
'Help, Peter—screamed Josephine. 'If you don't come back I'll tell them what you did.'
Peter came back. In fact, he hurried back. Although he could not see Josephine, he had, from the noise she was making, a general idea of her whereabouts. She was under the large body of an exceedingly active woman. The mere thought of laying violent hands on so much bare flesh to which he had never been properly introduced somewhat retarded Peter's celerity of decision. Tentatively he grabbed the twisting woman, then quickly withdrew his hand. The physical contact had been too much for his nerve centres.
'Come on,' panted the woman, seizing his ankles. 'I'll get you down, too.'
And get him down she did. She got him down and literally incorporated him into the gyrating mass of bodies, arms and legs. He had never realized before that there could be so much unclad flesh in any given quarter of the universe. Even then in this primitive struggle Peter strove to conduct himself as he thought a gentleman should under the circumstances, although exactly how a gentleman should accomplish this was beyond his conception. However, as the woman's grabs and thrusts became more careless and at the same time more telling, Peter began to realize that if the last surviving male of one of New York's oldest families desired to acquit himself with honours he must abandon the restraint of a lifetime and do his level best. He must fight fire with fire, which in this situation meant to seize upon whatever part of the woman lay most convenient to his hand. Comforting himself with the reflection that she had exercised little restraint in the handling of his body, he rose, and, taking hold of the woman, threw her several feet away. She landed with a gurgle of laughter and promises of further endeavours.
'Listen, lady,' said Jo, hoisting herself up wearily from the grass by means of Peter's leg, an action which in other surroundings would have filled him with consternation, but which in these he scarcely noticed. 'Please, lady,' she continued, 'we're not playing. Honest, we're not.'
'You give in?' cried the woman, gathering herself for a fresh assault.
Then the Van Dyck blood rose rebelliously in Peter's veins. Naked or fully clad, a Van Dyck would never give in. Either naked or clad, it was a rare Van Dyck indeed who had ever given anything. Van Dycks always took. So would this one. He took to his heels without further parley, and Josephine took right after him.
'They're trying to play with us, Peter,' she explained, a shade above her laboured breathing. 'It's all a game to them.'
'It may be a game to them,' he flung back, 'but it's serious as hell to me. Hurry up. Get a move on. That woman was simply awful. She was all everything.'
'Wasn't she lots?' agreed Jo. 'Where're we going, Peter?'
'How should I know?' he asked her. 'By rights we should be dashing gaily from the wings of the Follies.'
'The seduction scene in this drama,' said Jo, 'was enjoyable if not edifying. I can see some sense in a thing like that, but this naked chase is beyond me.'
'If you hadn't sneaked into my room,' complained Peter, 'this would not have happened.'
'Then do you admit you were seduced?' she asked.
'Is this a time to argue about that?' Peter demanded, glancing over his shoulder at their pursuers, now close at their heels. 'It's no go,' he continued, pausing to let the girl overtake him. 'Those naked fanatics can run like hell. We'll never make the woods.'
'I don't see what good it would do if we did,' Josephine asserted.
'We could climb trees,' Peter suggested dubiously, 'or dodge about behind them.'
'Playing Adam and Eve among the trees is about as comfortable as making love on a beach,' Josephine assured him crisply. 'Both are exploded theories.'
'My education along certain lines is less extensive than yours, it seems,' was Peter's tart rejoinder.
'Well,' replied Jo, 'be that as it may, but if any one had told me a few days ago I'd be spending the week-end arguing about such matters with a naked gentleman in the face of an onrushing multitude of naked lunatics, I'd have said that only the first part was either possible or desirable.'
'Occasionally I've dreamed about situations just like this,' said Peter.
'Was I alone in those dreams?' Jo asked. 'Don't let's run any more.'
'Those dreams were bad enough,' he replied, 'without you making them any worse. And we're not running, if you care to know. My arm hurts like hell.'
'It's bleeding,' said Jo, a spark of concern in her eyes.
'And the bandage is coming off. If I wasn't so worried about my own condition I'd be worried about yours.'
'I'd like to wind the bandage around me,' said Peter.
'It's not doing any good where it is,' replied Jo. 'Want me to do it for you?'
'God, no!' exclaimed Peter, bending on her a pair of agitated eyes. 'What a suggestion to make.'
'Why don't they come and get us?' asked the girl. 'Look! They've gone into a huddle.'
'A pretty sight,' mused Peter, gazing upon the nude grouping. 'Wonder what they're cooking up?'
He was not long in learning. Suddenly the intimate little mass of bodies resolved itself into individual nudes who galloped towards Jo and Peter. In a moment the two of them were surrounded by a dancing garland of men and women, all singing lustily a song which even in his own embarrassment made Peter feel a little embarrassed for the singers.
'I am coming, I am coming, for the dew is on my feet,' the singers informed the semi-crouching couple in the centre of the whirling circle of arms and legs and everything else.
'I don't give a damn what's on your feet,' Peter yelled back, 'if you'd only let me stagger away on mine.'
'I am coming, I am coming, where the little birdies tweet,' the naked dancers went on melodiously to explain.
'Aren't they silly?' Peter asked, turning to the girl beside him. 'Honestly, they almost make me forget the figure I cut.'
'The trouble with this arrangement,' Jo complained, 'is that when you turn your back on some of them you turn your front to the others. It's the viciousest damn circle I've ever been in.'
'Then why not stand still?' said Peter.' I'd like to lie down,' she told him.
'All right, let's,' he replied. 'Flat on our stomachs.'
'I think I'll curl,' said Jo.
'I'd like to wither,' said Peter.
And to the surprise of their prancing entertainers, Jo and Peter thereupon lay down on the grass and arranged their respective bodies according to their conception of what the occasion demanded and what was best to conceal.
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