The Glorious Pool - 15

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The Glorious Pool


Thorne Smith



THE idea of giving poor little Rex Pebble a drink of sherry was a charitable one, to begin with, but in execution the scheme took on a slight tinge of manhandling. Spray Summers had suggested the wine with the best of intentions, out of genuine sympathy for this man whom she loved, now so pathetically reduced to the shape and the figure of a babe-in-arms.

But it had been a long time since Spray Summers had been to her cellar. Rex himself was in the habit of getting up what was required in drink, or else Nockashima would go scuttling down the steep, tortuous steps into those regions. Spray didn't realize how dark the place was until she led the party of wine seekers thither. It smelled musty and sweet, as indeed it might, in view of the rows of shelves so amply stocked with choice liquids of all kinds, including a fine wine supply.

"Ooh! how dark!" squealed Spray. "I can't see a thing."

"There's nothing to see that I can make out," responded Sue Pebble suspiciously. "You aren't now conspiring to lure me down into this imitation afterlife and bump me off, are you?"

"Why should I clutter up a perfectly good cellar with extra bodies?" inquired Spray Summers. "If I were going to dispose of you, I think I'd find a pleasanter place to do so. Out of the way, something quiet and retiring, to match the corpse."

"It is dark," admitted Major Jaffey, who was experiencing some difficulty in locating each next step. "I just don't think I can find a thing around here."

"Now, Major," warned Spray, "remember, we're all going to behave down here in this nice dark place."

Spray led the parade, followed by Sue, then Hal, who was muttering incoherently to himself about the absurdity of going down into cellars in the pitch black of night. After that came Major Jaffey and Nockashima bearing Rex Pebble.

"Stop being so silly," screamed the baby, "just take me back upstairs and give me a drink of whisky. That's all I want."

"No, you must have wine," said Sue; "it will be good for you. This is the first time I ever had a chance to have a hand in regulating your diet, and I think I'll just be pretty firm about it."

"Look here, after all," remarked Major Jaffey, "I can't see why the whole bloody lot of us should be diving down into this hole. We could send one person down and get the stuff."

"That's not a bad idea," agreed Sue. "Let's just sit down here nice and cozy in the dark and have a little drink on the steps while we're waiting for Nockashima to come back. I'll hold Rex."

"Oh no, I hardly think so," said Spray. "This is my house, and I'll hold him." Both women made a snatch for the man-child, one in the dark clutching a small leg, while the other grabbed a hand; both tugged.

"Let go of me," screamed the infant. "What do you think I am—a mere thing, a mama-doll ?"

"Best leave honorable boss alone," suggested Nockashima timidly as he held on to Rex with the idea of protecting him from the overzealous wife and mistress. Sue and Spray, however, continued to grab at the man until he piped at the top of his tiny voice:

"Goddamn it, leave me alone!"

Hal, the fireman, sensed the tensity of the situation. "Hold on," he said, "let's think of some way we could all share Mr. Pebble."

The baby groaned.

"No, best I hold master," objected Nocka. "Have seen ladies loose with babies. Impossible to predict what happen to this one should fall into clutches."

Both women laughed sneeringly, but Hal pursued his idea. "Why not tie a string to his safety pin and lower him down to find the bottle himself ?"

It seemed a little hard on the child, but since it was practically impossible for any member of the party to regard Rex in any other than an adult light, the thought was considered a good one. Of course, the baby might bang his nose, or he might bump into a large healthy rodent, or Nockashima might even let go of the string, by mistake. Human bodies seemed so comparatively easy to obtain that evening that no one except Rex Pebble took these hazards as serious.

"If I ever get back to where I was," breathed Rex Pebble, "I'll fix you two women."

"Is that a threat or a promise, you shrunken shadow of a husband?" inquired the man's wife.

Nockashima took a firm stance and began to lower the body, hand over fist, into the deep well of darkness. Hal held the Japanese around the waist, while Major Jaffey clung to Hal. It was a little ridiculous, as Rex Pebble, since his magic reducing swim, could have been held by one little finger. However, the men above him panted and held to each other in desperation, as though they were letting a grand piano over a cliff. The baby screamed. "Ouch!" it cried, "you're banging me against the stairway. Keep clear to the right. Ouch! Look out for that stone wall. You hit me behind."

"Watch your grammar!" called Sue Pebble sharply. "You sound like an Irishman."

"You'll find the bottle over by the coke bin," instructed Spray Summers sweetly. "You may have to look around a little, but it's there all right. Only don't get the wrong one. There's some absinthe around there somewhere."

There was no sound from Rex.

"When you're ready to come up, just tug on the string," called Hal, originator of the idea. Hal had read about pearl diving. The weakest and least professional part of their equipment, he had pointed out, was the string. No diver would go down unless he was sure that his rope was strong enough to withstand pressure. Hal had just happened to find this string around a packing case. It wasn't awfully strong.

"I hope he comes back sometime," murmured Spray, "I think there're a lot of things I could still do for him. Things that make you sad when you think of them," she sighed.

"I should think they would make you sad," remarked Mrs. Pebble, "but considering his present state I think that you did quite a bit for him! What's the little fella doing now?"

There was silence from the depths of the cellar. Everyone's ear was cocked, but nothing happened. No tug came on the rope; no sound was heard. "Drop the string a little farther, Nocka," said the Major. "Perhaps that will bring him to."

"It ought to bring him to something," added Hal. "He must be at the bottom by now."

"Well," suggested the Major, "I think we ought to give a little toast to Mr. Pebble's expedition. To the Rex Pebble Research Foundation!" The bottle was passed.

As the party sat huddled on the basement stairs waiting for news from below, there was a great clatter above in the bar and the kitchen. Evidently Baggage had returned with her latest catch, young Kippie. Sounds indicated, however, that there was a third person accompanying the couple, and that this person was being most unwillingly dragged around.

"It's no time of night to go about telling fortunes," remonstrated an elderly female voice, "and I can't understand how you could find that many people up at this hour to have their fortunes told them, anyhow. Just give me that drink you mentioned, and I think I'll be going along."

"Oh no, you won't," cut in Baggage. "There're a lot of things these particular people ought to be told, and you're going to do it. Besides, the way we happened up with you is anything but creditable to your character. Suppose I were to tell?"

The party on the steps listened in tense silence.

"Yes," interrupted Kippie heatedly. "I never would have imagined that even a fortune teller could be so base."

"I can't see anything wrong with what I did: it's what you were doing that was so shameless," protested the strange woman's voice.

"Answer me this," demanded Baggage, "and we'll call it quits: would you have known we were in that hedge if you hadn't been psychic?"

"Well, my dear," returned the voice, "I can only say that even a medium uses her ears."

"Very good," said Baggage, "however it was, I'm expecting you to help us out. We're lucky to have you around. Come, Kippie, my pet, I think we'll just let Alma do her stuff. Where are my friends now?"

On the floor above the group there came the sounds of the tap-tapping of a cane. "Holy Christmas," murmured Hal, "she's got a witch after us!"

The tapping wavered in apparent uncertainty as to direction for a moment, then headed straight for the head of the stairs. "I should say they are somewhere in this neighborhood," wheezed Alma. "What is it?"

"I can't see what they'd be doing in there," Baggage speculated, "but you may be right. There's no telling what these people are likely to do. What are you doing to find them?"

"I'm following a mystic call for help," returned Alma. "It seems to come from the lips of a babe. This child seems to have fallen into bad company. The words it uses are anything but polite."

"Is this babe a gentleman or a lady?" inquired Baggage. "I know a couple of babes here, but both of them use that kind of language."

"Neither a gentleman nor a lady," snapped the woman, "as far as I can tell. It seems to be making a terrific effort to do something."

"That must be Uncle Rex trying to get away from Sue and Spray," guessed Kippie.

"Well, open the door. They can't be up to any good if they're all down there in the dark," returned Baggage. "Let's see what they're doing."

"Aha," sneered Alma the medium, "who's being curious now?"

The door to the stairway was opened, dropping a plane of bright electric light across the men and women on the steps. Faces flashed around guiltily. Hal and the Major grinned sheepishly, standing close around Nockashima's bent-over body, hoping to conceal the little man and his nefarious operations.

"So!" Baggage packed a wealth of meaning into the word.

"How long has this been going on?" inquired Kippie. "And where is my dear harassed uncle Rex?"

"Oh, he's hanging around," Sue Pebble informed the girl, with some degree of truth.

"Who's that," countered Major Jaffey, "that you have with you?"

Baggage was not to be thrown off the track. "It's a fortune teller and character reader," she said, "and I want you all, including Rex Pebble, to come up here right now and have your characters read."

"You flatter us," Spray Summers said sweetly. "Do you read between the lines?"

"I tell everything I see, the whole story," said Alma the medium, with professional pride.

"Tell you what," proposed Major Jaffey, "if she tells everything she sees and she can see without light, why not have her sit down right here and talk to us in the dark? That won't be any hardship on her, and it may save us a lot of blushes." There was no tug on the string from the Pebble infant. The whole party was beginning to undergo distinct misgivings as to Rex's whereabouts and condition. Supposing the poor creature had bashed in its head on the hard cement floor or strained its baby figure by the band around its middle? Any one of many horrible things might have overcome that small, bawling, protesting wine seeker in the dark of the underground place.

"All right," Baggage conceded dubiously, "I guess we can do that. How about it, Alma?"

"O.K. by me," responded the medium blithely. "All I need is a hand to look at, and a crack of light from the door here"—she seated herself—"will fix that." Baggage and Kippie joined the band on the stairs. "Who's first?" asked Alma.

This threw the company into considerable confusion. Spray maintained that Sue, as the wife of Rex Pebble, should be first. Sue, on the other hand, declared that Spray Summers, as the mistress of the house, should be first. Alma spied Nockashima.

"Bring him here," she commanded.

Major Jaffey, of those in on the secret about little Rex Pebble, was the first to use his wits. "Oh, he's permanent," the Major said. "You can't move him. He has to stay there. Anyway, he'd be too hard to read."

"I could read that fellow myself," remarked Baggage. "Come, come, there're a lot of fortunes to be done here tonight."

"You couldn't do him," Alma objected in a hurt tone, "but I can, and I like 'em hard. Give me your hand, fella."

Nockashima extended his left hand, with the right still clinging to the rope that held Rex Pebble. "No, the other," said Alma. "Don't be dumb." With the agility of Orientals, Nocka switched hands without letting go of the rope, on which there now came a violent tug.

"What's the matter?" asked Alma. "Are you afraid? That's the way with guilty minds." The hag bent inscrutably over the hand. It was wrinkled and tiny and difficult to see, but to the fortune-telling mind it contained a secret of great import. Alma started up in alarm. "He has something to do with a baby, something to do with that baby I was telling you about." She addressed Baggage. "There's some mighty funny business going on here."

"I quite agree," said Baggage, "but that's not news. Now, get your mind off babies and tell us what you see."

Alma, however, was insistent in her messages of alarm. On the rope from Rex came heavier and heavier tugs of warning. Nocka found it hard to keep the rope in his fingers. He tried to slip it to Major Jaffey, but Alma intercepted him.

"Stop twitching," she commanded. "Do you do that all the time? You Japanese have too much ju-jutsu in your blood." She scrutinized the hand. "I see blackness and a bottle and a baby and a rope."

"It sounds like the difference between a hanging and a cocktail party," said Baggage. The girl was growing impatient; there was a great deal to be done. Somehow, in the last few hours, she had begun to have her doubts as to whether or not mortals were ever happy. Give them youth, restore their physical attractions, smooth out their wrinkles, their memories, and what happened? What use did they make of their happiness, of this good fortune? Baggage remembered all her years on the marble column, the days of boredom and the nights of yearning. She thought of Rex Pebble and the graceful, manly form she had watched change with the years into the lines of age, distinguished though it was. There was a great deal, she felt, that she could tell human beings about their lives, and she longed for the opportunity to do so. Baggage had a growing feeling that, with an apparently incompetent medium in charge, she should take over the works and reveal what was on her mind.

"Here," said the girl roughly to Alma. "Stop jabbering about babies, and I'll tell you a few things." She grabbed Nocka's hand. So excited was the little man with these rapid developments that he almost dropped the rope.

"Excuse, madam," he murmured, "but greatly disturbed in mind. Impossible to have fortune told. You miss fortune."

"I think I'm beginning to understand that you're all hiding something from me. Which hand shall I take?" Baggage grasped Nocka firmly around the waist and wrested the rope from him. "So," she said. "Maybe the old girl wasn't so wrong after all. Whose body is on the end of the string?"

"That's what we've been disagreeing about," Major Jaffey informed her as she hauled the rope up hand over fist. The whole party looked aghast, watching with horror for the sight that should meet their eyes when Baggage drew in the last few feet of rope.

The sight was deplorable but altogether different from what might have been expected. Rex Pebble held a bottle in one hand while with the other he swung his makeshift elevator from side to side. He was singing to himself. The voice was small, but it was hearty. The song was something about a French girl who had three lovers and what happened when they all went to war. Its tone was lewd, but Mr. Pebble, in his infantile way, seemed to find it highly amusing.

"Hello," said the baby, interrupting his song. "So this is Baggage. Well, well, well! Where've you been since I dropped out of the picture? Have a drink, anybody?" Rex had gotten into the whisky section. His small, sweet mouth put forth a large, offensive breath. "If you won't give me a drink, I guess I'll just have to go around cellars grubbing for myself."

Both Sue and Spray reached for the child as his body drew alongside the stairs. "Hi, there, Sue old girl," he sang out. "Been thinking about you. Business is better. I've got something big coming up."

"That," remarked Sue, "would be news to me. Give him to me," she demanded. "I'm his wife."

"Yes, and I'm his mistress, and this is our anniversary," complained Spray Summers.

The women struggled to get at the baby. To Baggage, observing the pathetic situation of Rex Pebble, this was a crowning blow. For years she had worshiped the idea of the man. Had it not been for him, she would never have dived off the pedestal. Then he had been restored to youth; but so had Spray, dashing into the water in angry jealousy, and so had Sue, because Baggage her. self, out of pity and jealousy, had helped her. Baggage looked at Kippie. He was young and handsome, and he looked amazingly like the young Rex at whom she had gazed longingly for so many hours from her classic imprisonment, but there was something of Rex that the youth lacked. Baggage grew thoughtful. What was that escaped quality? Was it that she had grown used to Rex, had watched him so long that without the gestures he had acquired with time Kippie seemed lacking somehow? And was it that no one else in the world, however attractive he might be, or how near a replica of the original, could bear for her the same charm?

Nockashima had rescued Rex Pebble from his two wrangling women, but they continued to fight for possession of him. The rest of the party looked on in awed silence. Things seemed to be drawing to a dramatic climax. Rex Pebble's face was a study in changing emotions; something magic and curious seemed to be working in it.

"Here," said Baggage suddenly to the astonished Alma, "give me your hand and I'll tell you a thing or two."

"I see two women fighting over a man," Baggage broadcast. "One woman has loved him a long time but never quite enough. The other has loved him a long time also, but too much. I see that their struggles over him have put lines into his face, because, even if they were given eternal youth, human beings would always fight over each other and make themselves old. I see that the longer they fight the older they grow before their time. I also see that something very strange is happening to a baby named Rex Pebble."

As indeed it was. For, as the women argued, Rex grew older with each sentence, and the older he grew the tighter his home-made diapers fit him.

"For heaven's sake, shut up," said Rex, "or you'll have me busting this bath towel." He was almost full-grown now, and the towel stretched around him like the skin on a very fat pig.

"I think I know what you need," suggested Baggage, pushing the full-grown man off her lap. "Come with me," she said.

"I think I can see that, for all your charity, you're still up to your old tricks," remarked Spray, who had not lost her grip.

Rex Pebble, in splitting bath towel, sped up the steps, followed by the whole pack of guests and relations. He felt somehow gayer and more elated than during the whole evening, for the world had taken on a surety of beauty that he had not known before. After all that had happened, things seemed rather beautiful in the ways in which they best belonged. That is to say, being a distinguished old man would never seem quite so much a hardship again, he considered, provided one had a certain amount of wisdom not to wish for too much, and a lusty, unvarying sense of the ridiculous. He looked behind him as he sped, completely naked now, because the towel, unable longer to stand the strain, had burst asunder. Baggage was running almost as fast as he, and she was catching up. At his heels leaped the gay bloodhound puppy, Mr. Henry. After that came Spray and Sue, two beautiful, bounding figures of blonde and brunette youth, shouting wisecracks at one another as they sped. Then came Nockashima as fast as his short legs would carry him, Hal, and the Major. Alma, the old crone, lagged by the house, smirking and cursing.

Rex wondered about his two women. The magic of the pool had given him a new light on them both, and the evening had been a curious kind of beautiful adventure, unique in the world. Sparkling satisfaction of the senses was all right, but he wouldn't care now if it came to a sudden end. For there was Spray Summers, a delightful, incurable wanton—Habeas Corpus was her middle name—and Sue Pebble, a strangely faithful and harshly helpful wife, both of whom loved him, and both of whom he loved.

Baggage was the unattainable. When it came to running, he couldn't even keep up with her. She sped past him now, shedding her clothing as she ran.

"Come on, Nurmi," she called, and her voice seemed almost to vanish in distance as she passed. "I'll race you to the pool."

Rex Pebble exerted his last ounce of effort, with Sue and Spray hot after him. He wondered what the water would mean to them this time. It was clear to see where Baggage was headed: straight for the empty pedestal. If that was what the girl was going to do, what would he and Sue and Spray Summers do? The magic of the evening had not failed. Rex was not uneasy. Whatever might happen now, he was practically sure that it would be fun.

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