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Rain In The Doorway
THE BURNING BEARD
"THERE'S no doubt about it, I do feel giddy," said Mr. Larkin, giggling behind his hand as the partners pushed their way through the crush of smartly dressed gentlemen in the get-together-room of the Kiarian banqueting quarters. "At any moment now I may begin to veer like a tidy little typhoon. Don't see a face I like. They're all smug and acquisitive. Look! What is Dinner doing?"
Mr. Dinner was merely doing what appeared to be the normal thing to a drunken mind. Unable to attract the attention of his friend the Major, the little fellow, stooping over, was vigorously jabbing his cane at his huge partner between the legs of a stout gentleman. This endeavour to establish contact by means of a short cut proved effective but disconcerting. The stout gentleman, looking down to see what was disturbing him, uttered a cry of frightened amazement. What incredible metamorphosis was he going through, he wondered. In his endeavour to get away from whatever the thing was, he turned sharply, and thus entangled the cane between the legs of another earnest Kiarian. The Major thereupon seizing the free end of the stick gave it a violent upward tug. The shrieks of the two impaled gentlemen rang through the room. Mr. Dinner, now deeply absorbed in his occupation, which had become in his addled brain a battle of wits and deftness, yanked up his end of the cane with equal determination. The noise the gentlemen made merely whetted his enthusiasm. Even at that late date the situation might have been saved had the two Kiarians not attributed their unhappy plight to the other's deliberate intent.
"Is that a nice thing to do?" one of them demanded furiously, endeavouring to ease himself on his objectionable as well as painful perch.
"Nice," grated the other. "You've nearly ruined me, and still you keep on doing it. Do you want to get poked in the eye?"
"I don't much care where I get poked now," the other man said in a hopeless voice. "Please stop doing it."
"I'd rather have been stabbed than to have had this happen," his vis-a-vis retorted. "If you don't take that stick away I'll do something to you."
"You are doing something to me already," cried the stout man. "You're doing plenty. Don't twiggle it like that."
"But he isn't doing it at all," a Kiarian spectator helpfully informed the speaker.
"Oh, dear," Mr. Larkin observed reflectively to Hector Owen. "Dinner can think of the damnedest things to do with a stick. Those gentlemen must be in great distress."
"I hate to think of it," said Mr. Owen. "Look how the Major's pulling. He'll cut those men in two."
From the sounds the men were making this was not difficult to believe. Drink had lent strength to Dinner's arms and added to that already possessed by the Major's. The gentlemen, turning on the stick, were imploring their tormentors to abandon this contest in which they themselves had never expressed the slightest desire to participate.
"Oh, very well," said the Major to his small partner. "You can have your old stick."
With this he abruptly released his hold, and the two gentlemen fell weakly to the floor, from which they were presently assisted by a number of sympathetic Kiarians.
"Certainly I'm going to have my stick," little Dinner declared stoutly. "And no big bully is going to take it away from me either."
"May I ask," inquired Mr. Larkin, "how you managed to get two Kiarians on the end of your stick?"
"They got themselves there," said Dinner. "I didn't get them there. Must have thought they were playing horse. I think some of these Kiarians drink too much. Come along. Let's get our badges."
Without even so much as glancing at the tortured men, Mr. Dinner led the way to a table at which an official was importantly giving out badges bearing the Christian name or the nick-name and the occupation of the member presenting himself. The senior partner received one that informed the world he was "Larkie" and that he passed his days as a merchant. This trophy he immediately pinned on the back of an innocent bystander. Mr. Dinner's was affixed with strategic craft by the Major to the seat of another gentleman's trousers. Whenever he bent over, this gentleman announced to the gathering at large that he made a practice of referring to that section of his body simply as Lu. The Major, with much unnecessary adjusting, pinned his badge on the breast of a pretty cloakroom girl who did not seem to mind. Taking it all in all, Mr. Owen decided his partners were men with excessively puerile minds and futile ways. Why they had insisted on their badges and waited in line to get them only to make them objects of ridicule and derision was more than even his somewhat confused mind could understand.
On the way to the luncheon room they were accosted by numerous members who, in spite of the absence of badges, addressed the partners in cloyingly familiar terms, anyway.
"Well, B. B.," cried one gentleman, clapping the Major on a shrinking shoulder. "It does my eyes good to see you, old boy. How's the Little Lady?"
"You must be not only dumb but also blind," the Major told him. "If you ever saw my wife you'd damn well know she wasn't little, and if you'd ever heard her line of talk you'd never call her a lady. Go fawn on somebody else. I don't like that way of talking."
As surprised as he was at this display of brutal frankness on the part of the Major, Mr. Owen was even more so by the language of Mr. Dinner. A gentleman named Buddy was addressing the small man in hearty accents.
"Hello, Lu," this person cried. "Tickled to death to see you."
"You're a liar," said Dinner coldly. "You know you hate my guts."
And with this he turned his back on the much discomfited Buddy. Another well-meaning Kiarian had cornered the glowering Major.
"It isn't the heat," this man was saying, "it's the hu——"
But the man never finished his sentence. The Major knocked him down with a single blow, wiped his hand with an expensive silk handkerchief delicately scented with eau de Cologne, and deliberately walked away.
"We can't let them get too friendly with us," Mr. Larkin informed the astounded Owen. "If we did, they'd ruin our lives."
"I don't see why they want to know you at all," said Mr. Owen, "if you treat them that way."
"You don't know Kiarians," the senior partner replied. "They'd forgive a murder for the sake of prosperity and sell their wives for a boom in business."
"What do you think of our city, Mr. Owen?" a person calling himself Benny wanted to know a few minutes later, during the course of an introduction.
"Tell him it smells." whispered Mr. Dinner, at Mr. Owen's shoulder. "I want to watch his face."
"It smells." said Mr. Owen obediently, and he, too, watched Benny's face. It merely became more foolish, if possible, than it had been before he asked the question.
"You should never have brought him along," Benny told Mr. Larkin when he had recovered from the shock. "He'll never mix with the boys."
"Go away," said Mr. Larkin in a dead voice, "or I'll pull your inquisitive nose."
"But I didn't mean it smells, really," Mr. Owen explained when the man had tottered off.
"I know," replied Mr. Larkin, "but it does when he's around. If you say the first thing that comes into your head at one of these luncheons you're pretty sure to be right."
"Why do you ever come?" asked Mr. Owen.
"To annoy people," said Mr. Larkin, "and to be annoyed in turn. It's good for everybody. Yet sometimes, when I come away from one of these luncheons, I get the feeling it must all have been a dream—that these people didn't really exist but were culled up from a fit of depression. Why, they even sing at one. All together they sing—boosting songs, patriotic songs, mother songs. You'll hear them soon yourself."
Mr. Owen did, and although there was too much of it and the songs were either too optimistic or sentimental, he had to admit to himself the singing was pretty good. Nevertheless, he wished it would stop.
Mr. Larkin enlivened his table by surreptitiously pouring some essence he had purchased for his cigarette lighter into his neighbour's glass of water. The other partners were as innocent of this affair as was the owner of the water himself. And the owner was a personage of note, a man high up in the deliberations of the Kiarians. His inspirational speeches were listened to frequently and indefinitely. He was a man with a long square beard, lots of white to his eyes, and a deep, beautiful voice. He was large and he was lofty. He was the president of one of the most progressive advertising agencies in town and had grown used to having himself referred to by his initials which through some trick of fate chanced to be W.C. Just previous to the serving of the soup this magnificent gentleman felt himself called upon to discover how well his voice sounded in public to-day. Accordingly he rose, and with a fat hand holding an unlighted cigar, silenced the singing mouths.
"Kiarians! " he cried. "I am no longer your chairman, your leader."
"Good!" croaked a disguised voice from somewhere in the neighbourhood of the sleepy-looking Mr. Dinner.
The bearded gentleman paused, frowned heavily, then filled his lungs with air.
"Kiarians!" he burst forth again, and Mr. Dinner, who had been perfecting the art in secret, promptly began to quack like a duck.
"Kiarians!" cried the man. "Is there a duck in this room?"
"You haven't begun on your soup yet," said the Major in a loud admonitory voice. "What do you want with a duck?"
"I don't want a duck," thundered W.C.
"But you did ask for a duck," said the Major, stubbornly sticking to his guns.
"I asked if there was a duck," the man retorted.
"Well, is there?" Mr. Larkin inquired pleasantly.
"How should I know?" snapped the great man. "There were duck-like sounds in the room. If it wasn't a duck I'll eat it."
"May I eat it if it is?" the Major asked brightly.
"What!" exploded the man. "I have no duck for you to eat. I want to get rid of this duck."
"Will somebody please throw that duck out," Mr. Larkin called in a voice of authority, then murmured to Mr. Owen, "Isn't this amusing? It's better than I hoped."
"What duck?" asked several earnest voices.
A volley of unpleasant sounds shattered the brooding silence of the room. Mr. Dinner, startled himself by his remarkable performance, appeared from behind his napkin and looked about him with an innocent face.
"Kiarians! " called W.C., now at the end of his patience. "You speak as if I personally knew this duck, as if deliberately I had brought this duck among you, as if this duck were my boon companion." He paused, then flung at them, "How should I know what duck?"
"Lord love a duck!" cried Dinner for no apparent reason.
W.C. shivered. His temper was out of hand.
"I hate a duck," he shouted. "I'd like to wring its neck." A fresh burst of protesting quacking from Dinner greeted this impassioned avowal.
"There it goes again!" cried W.C. "Am I to be mocked by this pest of the barnyard?"
"Maybe he's in your beard," suggested Major Britt-Britt in a penetrating voice, "and is squawking to get out. I know I would if I were a duck."
"I wish to God you were," thundered the incensed Kiarian, "and in the barnyard, where you belong."
"You'd be the first worm I'd gobble," said the Major with surprising self-control, and added thoughtfully, "Even if it killed me."
"Kiarians!" once more cried the bearded gentleman, who had never before been talked down by any man and who proudly refused to be defeated at the bill of a fowl. "Now that the duck has stilled its brazen voice I will again raise mine."
Mr. Dinner was quacking tearfully behind his napkin, but the great man pretended not to hear the sounds. Mr. Larkin was watching him closely, waiting for that inevitable moment when the hand would raise the glass of water to the bearded lips. That moment was not far off. The senior partner held a match pressed to the side of a matchbox.
"Kiarians!" thrilled the orator's voice, his hand reaching for the glass. "I no longer govern your deliberations." The glass was raised slightly from the table. "I no longer give you the light——"
Mr. Larkin struck, and as if performing some well-polished feat of legerdemain W.C. lifted a flaming glass which promptly ignited his beard. The applause in the room was tremendous. Kiarians rose and cheered. They had never before suspected good old W.C. of such ability in sleight-of-hand. Admirers in the room cried out, but none cried louder than W.C. himself.
"Don't applaud, you damn fools!" he shouted through the fumes and smoke. "Somebody put me out!"
"Do you mean throw you out?" the Major inquired lazily. "Like the duck, for instance?"
Mr. Dinner, in his drunken excitement, was quacking unrestrainedly. Mr. Owen, still undecided whether he was witnessing a trick or a burning Kiarian, remained quietly in his seat. The senior partner had risen and was holding a bowl of soup carefully poised beneath the burning beard.
"Now," he said in a voice of great composure, "if you'll be so good as to lower your head a trifle, then plunge the beard in this bowl of delicious soup, I think we'll have you extinguished in a jiffy. It would be better if you closed your eyes. The fumes will be terrific, 1 fear."
But before closing his eyes W.C. caught a vivid picture of the city's greatest advertising leader solemnly dipping his glorious beard into the depths of a bowl of soup. What an imperishable memory he would leave in the eyes of the assembled Kiarians! This was the end of his career as a public character. He could never hope now to complete the autobiography which one of his copy writers was doing for him on office time and without extra pay. The eyes he turned on the senior partner were filled with rage and hate.
"What do I care," he growled, "if the soup is delicious?"
Making a virtue of necessity, he bared his teeth in the semblance of a smile for the consumption of the watching Kiarians, then plunged his beard in the soup. Even as he did so, thoughts of moving-picture comedies of the slapstick variety flashed through his mind. There was a sizzling sound and a burst of smoke and through it all gleamed the white teeth of the advertising genius whose lips were contorted in a maniacal grin. Strong men caught their breath, while weak ones turned away. Mr. Dinner quacked like a duck and sleepily rubbed his eyes. One especially enthusiastic Kiarian cheered in a loud voice, a well-meaning display which only seemed to increase the mental anguish of the smouldering man.
"The beard is now extinguished," Mr. Larkin announced. "Pardon me if I cry a little. W.C.'s personally conducted bonfire has made my eyes water."
"It's fairly sickened me," commented the Major in a rough, coarse voice. "Barring none, that beard is the worst I've ever studied. I'll bet it hasn't been dusted off since Queen Victoria died."
This observation on his personal habits of cleanliness was too much for W.C. He raised his massive head and glared at the Major. The beard emerged from the delicious soup tastefully garnished with vegetables and spaghetti. Mr. Owen, for the sake of his own sensibilities, was moved to offer the gentleman a napkin.
"You wouldn't look quite so awful," he said in a sympathetic voice, "if you used this on what's left of those whiskers."
Automatically W.C. accepted the napkin and thoughtfully applied it to his damaged beard.
"May I do it for you?" Mr. Larkin asked, advancing on the man. "I'd dearly love to dry your poor dear beard."
The advertising genius started back with a cry of horror. The sparks of madness were gleaming in his eyes.
"I'll dry my own beard," he cried through wisps of smoke still straining through the hard dying tangle of hair. "Keep your hands off it. Don't come a step nearer."
"You wouldn't have to ask me twice," Major Britt-Britt informed the world. "It certainly is a mess."
"About the most revolting beard I ever saw," claimed little Mr. Dinner. "I wish he'd hide it somewhere."
"And I wish the lot of you would stop saying things about my beard," the great man retorted. "It's bad enough to have it burned, without having it discussed."
"That's right," agreed Mr. Larkin. "No beard looks its best immediately after a fire. We expect too much of W.C. He's done enough as it is."
At this point, Mr. Mark Crawly, universally known as Big Boy, presiding officer of the local Kiarians, deemed it expedient to introduce some semblance of order into all this acrimonious chaos. Mr. Crawly was a nice chap. One could not help liking him a little. He possessed what all Kiarians loved most—a fine front. Inside, Mr. Mark Crawly was just plain dumb, which was no handicap among his fellow members. He could say stupid things in a firm, manly voice and get away with them. Years ago his firm had recognised the value of his smile as a business getter and had elevated him to the position of general sales manager. It occasionally took new members of his staff almost a month to discover that he had only a vague idea of what it was all about. He smiled business in and competition down. Above his desk was a Keep Smiling sign. In the Nut and Bolt Trade Journal his words were often quoted. "'Meet depression with a grin and smile a boom into being,' says Mark Crawly at the Tenth Nut and Bolt Convention." Had it not been for his hardworking subordinates he would have smiled his firm into bankruptcy, but that, of course, was not generally known. Big Boy Crawly now addressed the still slightly smouldering W.C. in particular and the room in general.
"Gentlemen," he began, "we all like and respect our W.C."
Mr. Dinner giggled a little at this, but Mr. Crawly frowned.
"We are sorry about his beard," he resumed, "yet even now I'm not sure whether he did it on purpose or not."
An animal-like howl burst from the advertising man's singed lips.
"Do you think I'd deliberately set fire to my beard," he asked in an impassioned voice, "to amuse you damn fools?"
"I assumed you were trying to amuse us," Big Boy Crawly replied good-naturedly. "It was funny, you know. How did it catch?"
"It was very dry," announced Dinner in a solemn voice. "That beard was a public menace."
"It was nothing of the sort," shouted W.C. "I've worn that beard for years."
"When was it last dry cleaned?" Major Barney inquired.
"It never was dry cleaned," retorted the other.
"I feared as much," said the Major. "The damn thing burned of its own accord like a heath fire. Spontaneous combustion sort of—that's how I figure it out."
"The Major means," Mr. Larkin explained to the room, "that the regrettable fire which broke out in the beard was due to the accumulation of years of debris. Am I right, Major?"
"As always," the big chap replied. "Wonder if he had it insured?"
"Was the beard insured, W. C?" the senior partner inquired, turning politely to that infuriated gentleman. "Not against theft, of course, but for fire?"
"Bah!" ejaculated W.C. "Bah!"
"He's bleating like a sheep," cried Mr. Dinner, who was professionally interested in animal noises. "There's no end to the things the man can do."
"One moment," called Mr. Crawly. "I asked W.C. a simple question, and you gentlemen have made the thing seem terribly involved. W.C., can you tell us how your beard caught fire?"
"How should I know?" shot back the mighty man in the agony of his soul.
"Aren't you even interested?" Major Barney asked innocently. "I know if I had a beard and it happened to go off like yours did, I'd never rest until I'd discovered the cause. The damn thing might do it again."
"It would be awful to have it happen in bed with a woman," Mr. Dinner observed reflectively. "What would she think?"
W.C. sprang to his feet. Beard or no beard, he would put a stop to this. These people were not going to continue talking about himself and his beard as if neither of them were present.
"Kiarians!" he cried, showing the whites of his eyes. "Let's abandon this talk about beards and turn to other things."
"We haven't settled that matter of the duck yet," Mr. Dinner suggested. "We might take that up."
"Someone was making duck noises," W.C. replied. "I've thought that out, too. There is no duck."
The volley of quacking and squawking that greeted this denial far surpassed all previous demonstrations. W.C. paused and shook himself like a punch-drunk fighter.
"I may as well sit down," he observed at last in a hopeless voice, "if that duck is going to interrupt every word I say."
"It seems to be coming from the direction of your table," a Kiarian called out.
"You look under the table, Dinner," the Major commanded, "and I'll look under what remains of his beard. That duck must be one place or the other."
"If you touch my beard I'll cut your throat!" cried W.C., grabbing up a knife.
"A pretty way for a man to talk," complained Mr. Dinner. "We were only trying to help."
"I wasn't going to touch his old beard," explained Major Barney in an injured voice. "I was just going to peep under it."
"Kiarians!" almost screamed the distracted man. "Are you going to allow these ruffians to turn this dignified meeting into a discussion of my beard? Are you going to permit them to torture me about it—to throw my beard in my face?"
"Better than burning it in ours," put in Major Barney.
"Very well, then," called out the senior partner in a conciliatory voice. "Let's table the beard now that he's finished souping it."
"How do you do that?" asked the unintelligent Dinner. "Do you mean flatten it out and iron it?"
"Bah!" exclaimed the great leader. "And bah again."
"Why again?" asked Major Barney. "We heard the first bah, and it didn't mean anything either. I like the duck better."
Mr. Dinner lifted his napkin and behind it quacked his thanks. W.C., with a despairing cry, flung up his hands and sank heavily to his chair. Then he brought his hands down and rested his head in them. He would never appear in public again, he vowed to himself. But he did. He appeared many times until at last he died in public and had a public Kiarian funeral and then was promptly and publicly forgotten as such men should be.
He could never have been tolerated in private.
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