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The Glorious Pool
BAGGAGE CHECKS OUT
NEITHER Mr. Pebble nor his mistress felt in the least inclined to discuss any subject with Nockashima. Time passed in brooding silence which Rex Pebble devoted to the restoration of his cherished poise through the consumption of numerous cocktails. Feeling considerably fortified, he rose at last, and placed a friendly arm round the happy little servant's shoulder.
"How can you bring yourself to touch the vile body of that misbegotten little monstrosity?" Spray Summers demanded.
"Oh well," said Mr. Pebble, none too definitely, then added, for lack of anything more adequate to say, another "Oh well."
"Our dinner has gone to the dog," Spray continued bitterly, "and you more than shake the hand of the telephoning drunkard who fed it to him. You actually caress the withered marmoset."
"I know," said Mr. Pebble with alcoholic tolerance, "but you still have your slippers, and you must admit the marmoset can shake a two-fisted cocktail."
"Get out of my sight, you soiled camels!" the irascible woman exclaimed, "and take these damn slippers with you. Mr. Henry might like them for a little gouté, the dirty dog."
This time it was the rear of Mr. Pebble that received the slippers instead of the stomach. He accepted them there with unflinching heroism, thanking his lucky stars he had been fortunate enough to escape a frontal attack.
"You should join a major league," he tossed back over his shoulder. "Remarkable control."
Gently but firmly he propelled Nockashima from the room.
"Madam no like Mist' Henry to eat steak all up?" the small Jap inquired when safely out of earshot.
"Not all up, Nocka," Mr. Pebble explained. "She's funny that way. Madam likes it better to eat her own steak. I'll telephone for another one."
"Let me telephone, boss," said Nockashima quickly. "I get a steak of most rarefied succulence plenty quick."
Remembering the servant's passion for the telephone, Mr. Pebble interposed no objection, feeling that as long as the Japanese was having such a thoroughly good time he might as well make a night of it. Accordingly, he abandoned Nockashima to the telephone, then quit the kitchen and the house by a side door. It would be just as well, he reflected, to let Spray simmer for a while.
Blending the fragrance of moist herbage with the scent of cocktails, Rex Pebble bore his sixty years along an uneven brick wall that led to a walled garden at the back of the house. And the moment he entered this quiet place the summer twilight claimed him. It was a spacious garden with fine turf pierced by the trunks of trees, and it sloped gently to the brow of a hill which lay without the walls, thus giving the spot a fair, broad view of the valley below and the villages nestling in it. A long green pool, now glowing in the sunset, dreamed tranquilly within the garden and all day long reflected the changing moods of the sky. In the middle of the pool the statue of a naiad stood lightly poised on the surface of the water. A border of flagstones circled the pool, converging at the steps of a little white pavilion which stood partly hidden among the trees. This small but luxuriously appointed structure had been built essentially for privacy, which was just as well, for it had been the scene of full many a revel in those days when sixty years were an inconceivable distance off to Rex Pebble. He gazed at the pavilion now, then certain memories forced him politely to avert his eyes. They rested on the statue of the naiad, and Mr. Pebble seated himself on a bench beside the pool the better to contemplate this wild nude figure.
For many years Rex Pebble had been contemplating this naiad, and for many years the naiad had been contemplating him with the same provocative smile on her half-parted lips. He had given her the name of Baggage because he was fully convinced she was both saucy and promiscuous. And he liked her the better for it, although in his heart he chided her gently for her folly.
Baggage was a lush figure of a wench, the creation of vanished hands that either had known women too well or else had been deprived of them entirely. Certainly the stone had been caressed with desire and fashioned with a hungry ruthlessness that had left it a brazen challenge to the eyes of man. Yet there was something refreshingly honest and direct in Baggage's lack of modesty. Her seeming depravity sprang not so much from weakness or viciousness as from an ordered philosophy of existence—a desire to share with others the good things of life of which she herself was one of the best. If endowed with life Baggage would never be one of those women who tearfully proclaim, "I didn't mean to do it." Not Baggage. She would say instead, "Sure I did it, and if you don't watch out I'll go and do it again." Also, one would always know where to find Baggage. One would only have to look for the nearest man, and if there were two men, no doubt the other one would be waiting for her as patiently as possible.
These unedifying reflections upon the probable character of Baggage passed through Mr. Pebble's mind as his eyes dwelt on the lithe, lovely lines of the full-blown figure.
He had found Baggage in a storage warehouse. She had been sold in default of payment for her keep. Yet even the dusty mantle gathered from her long incarceration had failed to rob her body of its wild pagan grace. Mr. Pebble had an eye that automatically discounted the outer draperies of women in favor of what lay beneath. He had bought her on the spot.
"Wouldn't you like a sheet about her?" the man had asked when Baggage had been deposited in the back of the open motor.
"I might," Mr. Pebble had told the man. In fact, I'm sure I would, but I doubt if the lady would like it."
Leaving the man a little shocked, Mr. Pebble had driven off with Baggage. Later he had presented her to his mistress. Since then she had become a part of the establishment, like Nockashima and the bloodhound, Mr. Henry.
With a slight start Mr. Pebble raised his snow-white head, then shrugged his shoulders as if remonstrating with himself. Had those cocktails made him drowsy, and had his thoughts gone straying into the realms of pure fancy? Surely he had imagined he had seen the tawny, voluptuous form of Baggage step down from her little pedastal and come gliding towards him across the path of the slanting sun now flickering on the still waters of the pool. Surely he had imagined this, and yet— Mr. Pebble half rose from the bench and looked at the spot where the statue had been but where it was no more.
"My god!" he muttered. "Did the poor girl fall in? This is indeed a night of catastrophe."
"Sit down, old man," said a low voice beside him. "I didn't fall in the pool. I have come to pay you a long deferred visit."
Mr. Pebble resumed his seat. Quite calmly he accepted the situation.
"Hello, Baggage," he said. "I'm afraid you've come too late. I'm an old man now, as you have just reminded me."
He glanced at the beautiful figure beside him, then savored as if on the tip of his tongue the full bitterness of his years. There was something so imperatively urgent in the sleek young body of the girl sitting so close to him on the bench, Mr. Pebble felt that a just God should do a little something about it. Either the cocktails or the animal magnetism of his companion was making him a bit dizzy. His old, tired heart was thumping dangerously against his vest. What was it the doctor had told him about that heart—no excitement? That was it, no excitement. How absurd. If the doctor himself were here he would be fit to be tied. In fact, he would have to be tied if only for the sake of propriety. The low voice was speaking again. "You were too busy when you were young to pay any attention to me," said Baggage. "What were you always doing in that little pavilion down there?"
"You know all the answers," Mr. Pebble told her. "Hadn't you better let me get you some clothes?"
"And you know me better than that," said the girl, with a mocking laugh. "I never wore a stitch of clothes in my life. Why should I begin now?"
"Well, times are not what they were, my child," Mr. Pebble answered feebly. "Women wear clothes nowadays —not much of them, I'll admit, but still they wear a few."
"I wish you were young again," said the girl, fixing Mr. Pebble with a pair of wickedly disturbing eyes.
"Oh, how I do," muttered Mr. Pebble. "Don't look at me like that. It won't do you a bit of good, and it's upsetting me terribly. After all, I did you a good turn once. What's the idea now? Why are you trying to torment me?"
"I'm jealous," replied Baggage, "jealous of the youth you've lost. I want you back again."
"Listen, Baggage," Rex Pebble said earnestly. "Nobody wants to get back more passionately than I do, but you can see for yourself, my child, it just can't be done. There's no going back for me. I'm an old man now, with a heart too weak to hold its memories."
"Your memories would overtax the strongest heart," she told him; then asked curiously, "Has all desire vanished from your body?"
"Yes, my dear," responded Mr. Pebble a little sadly, "but not from my brain. That's what makes it so difficult to look upon you as you deserve—to estimate you dispassionately for what you are."
"And what am I?" asked the girl.
"A saucy, impertinent young wanton with a single-track mind," he told her; then added reflectively, "Not that the track doesn't run through diverting pastures."
"You've said it, old man," replied Baggage commonly. "I need a spot of diversion."
"I'm afraid you won't find any here," said Rex Pebble, "unless you'd like to have me try to improve your morals."
"How can one improve what never existed?" Baggage wanted to know. "I never had any morals. That's why I've always remained an essentially honest girl."
"Perhaps you're right at that," observed Mr. Pebble. "Human beings are cluttered up with morals altogether too early in life. A wise providence should wait until our bodies are too old and weak to resent them—to get our backs up, so to speak."
"How do you mean, get our backs up?" Baggage asked in a puzzled voice. She paused, then smiled delightedly. "Ah," she said, "I think I see. What an odd way to put it.".
"You don't see at all," declared Mr. Pebble, "but you're quite right about having no morals. You remind me of my mistress."
"What!" exclaimed the girl. "That old——"
"If you please," Mr. Pebble hastily interrupted.
"Oh, all right," said Baggage impatiently. "I'd remind you of all women if you only really knew them. At heart we're not nearly so refined as you men try to make us, and we know a lot of words, too."
"Don't I know!" replied Mr. Pebble. "Not only do you know a lot of words, but you also love to use them. My life has not been overburdened by too many refined women."
"Then you should know a lot of bad words I've missed," the girl said hopefully. "Tell me some."
Mr. Pebble looked really affronted.
"You'd better talk with my mistress," he replied a little coldly, "or better still, with my wife."
"I won't have any dealings with either of those hags," Baggage retorted. "They had all the youth of you. What have I got? Nothing but an old horrid."
"Why don't you join the army?" Mr. Pebble ungallantly suggested. "You should be able to get plenty of action there."
"I've had my heart set on you for years," said Baggage. "I hate to let you escape me."
She cuddled up closer to him on the bench and put a cool arm round his neck.
"Heaven protect me," muttered Mr. Pebble. "If that woman of mine called Spray finds us together like this there'll be no escaping her."
"I hope she does," said Baggage. "I'd love to annoy her."
"I feared as much," said Mr. Pebble. "She is annoyed enough already."
"Are you?" asked the girl, burrowing her small nose into his neck just behind his ear. "You smell awfully clean. Why don't you take your clothes off?"
With a startled ejaculation Mr. Pebble broke the girl's strangle hold and slid along the bench to momentary safety.
"You can think of the damnedest things," he complained. "Let me point out this to you: I am a clean old man, and you are a vile young woman. We have nothing at all in common."
"I want to bite your ear," said the girl. "That is always a good way to start."
"Keep your teeth to yourself," Mr. Pebble retorted. "What are you thinking of starting, anyway?"
"Something in the nature of a seduction," said Baggage. "That is, if you'll stop flitting about like some nervous old bird."
"I am a nervous old bird," replied Rex Pebble. "A very nervous old bird, indeed. Why can't you talk and be reasonable instead of mauling me about? You have even less consideration for a body than a professional wrestler."
"Then consider my body for a moment," said Baggage.
"What am I going to do with it?"
"Why don't you take it back to your pedestal, where it belongs?" asked Mr. Pebble.
"My body belongs with yours," replied the girl.
"Then it virtually belongs in the grave," said Mr. Pebble. "I'm going to fall down dead if this keeps up." "Let's fall down together," Baggage suggested.
"By God!" cried Rex Pebble. "If I were twenty years younger, or even ten——"
"Yes?" broke in the girl. "Go on. What would you do?"
"None of your damn business," said Mr. Pebble. "I'd teach you a lesson."
"How do you know you could?" Baggage challenged.
"By all that's holy," exclaimed Rex Pebble, now thoroughly aroused, "I will teach you a lesson if it's my last act in life."
He rose quickly from the bench, and ripping off his coat and vest in one ruthless movement, tossed them to the flags.
"Hurry!" cried the undismayed Baggage encouragingly. "Stick out your legs and I'll drag your pants off."
The hard-boiled ardor of the girl was too much for Rex Pebble. With a sudden revulsion of feeling he sank back on the bench.
"What a suggestion!" he muttered. "What a picture! Me with my legs stuck out and you dragging off my trousers. What do you think this is, a game?"
"Sure," replied Baggage. "You can keep your shoes on. I don't mind."
"I'd look crisp with my shoes on," observed Mr. Pebble. "Not to mention my socks and supporters."
"Who's going to worry about your feet?" demanded Baggage. "Snap off those pants."
"Snap them off?" repeated Mr. Pebble. "Oh, my word. Everything is all off. I am definitely beyond seduction."
"You're no such thing," cried the girl, flinging herself upon him and dragging out his shirt tails.
Once more the famous Pebble courage asserted itself. No woman was going to drag out his shirt tails. That was going too far. He rose from the bench and seized the girl by the shoulders. Mistaking his intentions she abandoned his shirt tails to the light summer breeze, and threw her arms round his neck. For a moment they struggled perilously on the edge of the pool, then Baggage with a low laugh wriggled from his grasp and sprang lightly away.
"Pist! She uttered in a piercing whisper. "Look behind you!"
The water of the pool parted smoothly as the even smoother body split its surface. Like a flash of silver Baggage streaked through the green depths, then dwindled and disappeared. Where had she gone? Rex Pebble wondered. Had the whole episode been a figment of his disordered imagination? Or had Nockashima mixed some curious Oriental dream-stuff in the cocktails? From cocktails to shirt tails was not a wide leap in thought. Mr. Pebble took the leap. His shirt tails were out. They were playing havoc with the Pebble poise. That was not a question of imagination. It was grim reality. And equally real was the fact that Baggage, in the flesh, had dragged those same shirt tails from their tender concealment. An impulsive wench.
Mr. Pebble realized with a pang of regret that he could not stand there forever gazing into the pool for a last glimpse of that swift silver body. Baggage had withdrawn from life as remarkably as she had appeared. He hated to turn about and face his mistress. Nevertheless, it would have to be done, or she would do it herself by force. He sighed, and without any unnecessary ostentation, collected his shirt tails and tucked them out of sight. It was not a neat job, but at least he felt less like a flag. Then slowly he turned his back on the pool and faced about to meet Spray Summers who, in spite of her feet, was bearing down upon him like a ship under full sail. Mr. Pebble noted with relief that the good lady appeared to be far more astonished than angry.
"A pretty way to be carrying on at your time of life," she announced, a trifle winded from the unaccustomed speed of her progress. "Tell me without even attempting to lie, you senile atrocity, just who was that naked trollop you were trying to assault before you chucked her into the pool."
"You've got your facts in reverse," said Mr. Pebble. "In the first place, the trollop was trying to assault me, and in the second place, she chucked herself in the pool the moment she saw you."
"Then why doesn't she come up," demanded Spray, "se I could give her a piece of my mind? Perhaps she's drowning. I hope so."
"It was Baggage," said Mr. Pebble. "But she's gone now. Look, Spray. The pedestal is vacant!"
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