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Rain In The Doorway

BY

Thorne Smith



CHAPTER XVIII

THE PARTNERS PURCHASE A WHALE

THE party had now been augmented by the presence of two contortionists and one snake charmer. The contortionists were man and wife. The snake charmer was just man and snake, but that was enough. By his side was an old potato sack which Mr. Owen regarded with the deepest mistrust. He could not help wondering how the senior partner ever managed to meet such odd characters. Then he thought of the senior partner and ceased to wonder. The man himself was an odd character. They did not come any odder.

They were gathered round a large table in a large café. This festive establishment was situated in an amusement resort contiguous to the park. Merry-go-round music droned and shrieked through the air. The energetic voices of barkers, proclaiming the allurements of their respective attractions, could be heard. Occasionally the shattering sound of a scenic railway broke in upon them as the cars hurtled round the sharp curves. Everyone was apparently having a good time in a vigorous sort of way, but no one was having a better time than the partners themselves. Mr. Owen marvelled at their recuperative powers. He was exhausted beyond measure, while they seemed as fresh as the dawn.

"See over there?" said the Major to Mr. Owen, pointing to a high wall in the distance. "Well, that's where the bears live."

"In happy amity with their trainer of sterling character," Mr. Owen replied with a grin. The Major thought this over. "No," he said at last. "They hate him. They even hate themselves, those bears."

Mr. Larkin got up from his chair and raised his glass.

"To our saviour!" he cried, indicating Mr. Owen. "Without him we would have been full of pool water instead of champagne."

Everyone at the table save Mr. Owen arose and drank the toast. He regarded them with a caustic smile.

"I wonder," he said when they had reseated themselves, "just what is going to happen next. This is supposed to be a holiday, and yet all we do is to punish ourselves almost beyond endurance. That lascivious dancing was a dangerous riot. The pool was a downright disaster. Are we going to settle down now and have a nice quiet time?"

As he spoke he glanced about the table, then became rigid in his chair. A six-foot snake was peering deeply into his eyes. Honor Knightly gave a small shriek and put her napkin over her head. Mr. Owen, considering it a wise idea, falteringly did likewise. The snake charmer was laughing heartily and with truly disgusting oiliness. "Kim is hungry," he gurgled. "Poor Kim."

"Tell Kim he can have my steak," replied Mr. Owen in tremulous tones, "if he'll only go away."

"But, my dear sir, Kim is quite harmless," explained its owner. "He merely wants to play."

"He isn't harmless to me," Mr. Owen assured the man, "and I'm far from feeling playful. I've been unhappy before in my life, but never quite as unhappy as I am at this moment."

In a burst of affection Kim curled himself gently round Mr. Owen's neck. The snake charmer roared his approval. Mr. Owen sat very still in his chair.

"Listen," he said in a low voice, "I believe I'm going to die."

"What's it doing to you?" came Satin's muffled voice.

"More than flesh can bear," Mr. Owen answered, then laughed crazily. "Luncheon!" he said in a bitter voice. "A nice quiet luncheon."

Kim, disturbed by the laughter, slowly uncoiled himself and returned to his master, who dropped him carelessly back in the sack.

"Has Kim gone away yet?" asked Satin in a hushed voice.

"Entirely," Mr. Larkin assured her. "To the last inch. You may come out from under your napkin."

Pale and wan, Mr. Owen's face reappeared. He regarded the table feverishly, then gulped down a glass of wine.

"I hope that exhibition failed to amuse you," he said to his partners. "You weren't convulsed with mirth?"

"Not with mirth," put in Mr. Dinner. "Kim did me little good."

"I agree," said the senior partner. "A mere fraction of Kim goes a long, long way."

Mr. Owen returned to his plate and manfully endeavoured to eat. He felt that he owed his stomach a little solid food. As he raised his fork to his mouth he chanced to glance across the table at the lady contortionist. His mouth remained open but the fork refused to enter. In some weird manner the woman had contrived to dislocate her neck so that her head was hanging down between her side and her left arm. In this inverted position she was daintily sipping champagne while gazing unwinkingly at Mr. Owen. That gentleman was fit for the madhouse. His eyes bulged in his head. Never in all his life had he been so shockingly revolted. He tried to speak, but no words came. At last his tongue obeyed the dictates of his tortured mind.

"Is she going to be like that," he quavered, "throughout the rest of the meal?"

"Why not?" inquired her husband.

"Can't you see that for yourself?" muttered Mr. Owen. "Do you expect me to swallow food with that head dangling there before my eyes?"

"They feel that they owe us something for their luncheon," soothingly explained Mr. Larkin.

"Her debt is paid with interest," Mr. Owen replied. "Tell her she's too kind. Tell her I'd be more than satisfied if she'd stick to cracking her knuckles or dislocating her thumbs. It takes so little to amuse me."

The contortionist spoke to his wife in a low voice. The lady angrily shook her head. This gesture of negation had a devastating effect on Mr. Owen. He closed his eyes and clung to the table.

"She says," came the voice of the contortionist, "that she intends to stay that way. She gets double the effect from the champagne with her head hanging down."

"So do I," muttered Mr. Owen. "In fact, I don't have to drink at all."

"Perhaps this will take your mind off the head," suggested the contortionist. "It's one of my favourite stunts."

"What is?" asked Mr. Owen, clinging to a straw. He opened his eyes, then almost fell from his chair. With unhurried efficiency the contortionist was feeding himself with his feet. The daintiness with which he did this only added to Mr. Owen's feeling of horror and revulsion.

"My word!" Mr. Larkin exclaimed in a voice of awe. "That's enough to take one's mind off everything. I'm actually rotating in my chair."

"If they'll only stop what they're doing," said Mr. Owen, "I'll let that snake sit on my lap."

"Why, this is a cinch to do, the contortionist proclaimed. "I can keep it up all day."

"It must be easier to do than to look at," Mr. Owen told him. "If you enjoy your food that way, won't you eat it at another table?—at some table far back of me."

"Nonsense," scoffed the contortionist, deftly spearing a piece of steak with a fork held in his left foot.

With fascinated eyes Mr. Owen watched the leg as it conveyed the fork to its owner's mouth. Then he looked at Mr. Larkin, who was feeling no little disturbed himself.

"Did I understand you to say," asked Mr. Owen distinctly, "that we must all relax, that the strain has been terrific, and that we needed a bit of a holiday?"

Mr. Larkin met his partner's cold eyes apologetically. "Well, you see," he began lamely, "I'm always hoping things will turn out for the best. It's my nature."

"If this keeps up much longer," announced Mr. Dinner, "I'm going to put my plate on the floor and gnash my food like a beast."

"The trouble is," said Major Barney, "they get me all mixed up. I can no longer co-ordinate my movements. Only a moment ago I was deliberately trying to sip champagne with my ear."

"I was searching for my mouth," put in Satin, "and I jabbed myself an awful crack in the stomach. Bet you it left marks. Shall I look?" Here she glanced at Mr. Owen.

"Don't begin!" he admonished her. "Don't begin! We'll take those marks for granted. There are enough public exhibitions going on as it is."

At this moment Kim's malevolent head slid stealthily between Mr. Owen's frozen limbs and appeared at the table. For a long minute, during which the man was too petrified to breathe, the snake examined the contents of his plate. At length, having come to a decision, Kim selected the steak, snapped it up with a hiss of pleasure, and started to withdraw. Mr. Owen sucked in his stomach as the snake slid down the front of him. His eyes were tightly shut, and there was a prayer in his heart.

"Ah, what a pity," came the solicitous voice of the snake charmer. "He has taken the gentleman's steak. He must put it right back."

"Oh, no, he mustn't," cried Mr. Owen with all possible haste. "Kim can have the steak. He's entirely welcome to it. In fact, I'd buy Kim a cow if he'd keep away from me."

A sudden burst of clapping startled his eyes wide open. Satin and the partners were also looking about with expressions of consternation. Mistaking the events taking place at the table for a public exhibition, the public had responded as only the public can. The party was surrounded by a wall of peering faces. Mr. Owen felt sorely tempted to hide his head once more beneath his napkin.

"Honor," he said to the girl, "will you hold a glass of wine to my lips? My hand is shaking like a shuttle." As Mr. Owen was drinking his wine, a little boy pointed an unclean finger at him.

"Mom," shrilled the little boy, "that must be the Bloodless Man. Take a look at his face. There ain't nothing in it."

"Guess you're right," agreed Mom. "And look at the other little feller," Here Mom indicated Mr. Dinner. "He's what they call a midget," Mom explained, "and I guess the other one's a jint. They always look so stupid, them jints." The Major looked at Mr. Dinner, and Mr. Dinner looked at the Major, then both of them looked at Mr. Owen. Across the table Mr. Larkin sat convulsed. Tears were streaming down his face.

"Oh, God," he howled, "to think I have such peculiar partners."

His voice broke on a high contralto note.

"What's wrong with that guy?" a spectator wanted to know.

"I guess he's what they call a half-and-half," somebody suggested. "A weird sort of freak, he is."

"What's a half-and-half?" Mr. Larkin quickly asked Satin, his laughter stricken mute on his lips.

"I don't know," she told him, "but it must be pretty awful. Whatever it is, you're it."

Mr. Larkin looked dismayed, and for the first time in years, it seemed to him, Mr. Owen grinned maliciously.

"Go on, lady," a coarse voice called out. "Give us a bit of the kooch."

All four partners raised their heads at this insulting request. Without a word they rose from the table, singled out the speaker—a large, bull-faced individual—and knocked a hole through the crowd with him. Through this hole passed Satin. When the man was ready to rise she kicked him with brutal directness. The gross object doubled up in pain.

"I owed that to my sex," she explained to the partners as they walked towards the place where the bears lived, "as well as to my self-esteem." Then she added irrelevantly, "I can do the kooch."

"A highly successful luncheon," said Mr. Owen tonelessly. "Not a scrap of food passed my lips."

"The contortionists and the charmer seemed to enjoy it." remarked the senior partner, making an effort to glean comfort from something.

This unfortunate remark almost did for the Bloodless Man. Raising his clenched hands to heaven he confronted the senior partner, who stood regarding him with innocent interest. Sighing deeply, Mr. Owen let his hands fall to his sides. What was the use? He might as well strike an idiot child. The man knew no better.

"Holiday," he muttered. "A good time was had by all."

"Show him some bears," said Mr. Larkin to Major Barney. "He's all unstrung. Bears go very well when one is all unstrung."

They found the bear trainer of sterling character, and they found him exceedingly drunk. He too seemed to be unstrung. He declared himself to be bored to tears by bears.

"It's bears, bears, bears," wailed the man, "morning, noon, and night. Great shaggy beasts. Loafers. They get treated better than I do."

"May we look at some of your better class of bears?" asked the senior partner humbly.

"You may look at the whole damn lot," the trainer replied, fumbling with a locked gate. "Not out there where all those people are, but in here where you can get a better view."

With childlike confidence the partners followed the trainer and Satin through the barred gate, which locked itself behind them. The keeper, apparently losing interest, wandered off somewhere on his own affairs. The partners looked at a huge rock and beheld more bears than they had ever seen before or cared to see again. The bears in turn looked disagreeably down on Satin and the partners. Thus matters stood for a moment; then suddenly the air became charged with electricity.

"There's nothing," said Mr. Larkin vaguely. "Just nothing—nothing at all between us and all those bears."

"What!" cried Major Barney. "Has that drunken sot locked us in with his vile beasts?"

Mr. Dinner tried the gate. It stoutly refused to open. "He has," he announced with the utmost simplicity. "They won't get much off me. What little there was left I've lost during this day of giddy pleasure."

"Dear considerate God," murmured Mr. Larkin piously. "He might as well have let us drown if we're going to be consumed by those shaggy monsters."

"It's a holiday," observed Mr. Owen. "A feast day for the bears."

"Didn't the early martyrs do something in the line of song?" Satin asked coolly. "Who can dig up a snatch of a hymn? My business is pornography."

"You can't very well tell an infuriated bear a dirty story," observed Mr. Larkin. "And as for those early martyrs, I don't know how they did it. Why, I can't even shout for that drunken trainer, much less sing a hymn."

Apparently the bears had grown weary of watching this huddled conference. Behind their mighty leader they came lumbering down from the rocks. On the outside of the enclosure women were screaming frantically above the hoarse shouts of men. Looking decidedly sloppy, the bears lurched forward.

"Aren't they untidy in their appearance?" observed Mr. Larkin.

"All except their teeth," replied Mr. Owen. "They seem to be in perfect order."

Major Barney lighted a cigarette, then tossed the match aside.

"We should stick closer to business," he remarked. "All this gadding about doesn't get us anywhere."

"It has now," replied Mr. Larkin. "Don't be silly, my dear chap. It's got us in a terrible place, and it's going to get us into a worse one—inside those bears, you know."

Satin pressed Mr. Owen's arm as the bears came on. When she looked up at his thin, unremarkable face she did not feel afraid. She could see no sign of fear written on his features. He looked like a man who had been annoyed beyond endurance. And that was exactly how Mr. Owen felt as he stood there eyeing the bears with cynical animosity. To him they were not so much bears as fresh sources of irritation. And then an amazing thing happened—something that made the spectators gasp, and the partners rub their eyes. Mr. Owen completely lost his temper, also his poise.

"I'm sick and tired of all this," he exclaimed. "You all wait here. I'll be back in half a moment."

He took a few rapid strides forward, filling the air with sizzling obscenities, and with the heavy end of his walking stick struck the horrified leader a vicious blow across his nose. The great beast uttered a gasp of dismay and sat down stupidly. His followers did likewise. They had never heard of such a thing. Were they not bears? Certainly. This madman did not seem to realise it. Blow after blow from the heavy stick descended upon the unfortunate beast. Mr. Owen's temper was far out of control.

"Heavens! " exclaimed Mr. Larkin. "My heart actually bleeds for that poor animal I disliked so greatly only a few minutes ago."

"I hope he gets his temper back," said Mr. Dinner, "after he polishes off that bear. If he doesn't, he'll disjoint us on our feet."

With squeals of pain and anguish the stricken leader turned and lumbered off in the direction of his less enterprising associates. It was at this point that Mr. Owen really outdid himself. In the bitterness of his heart he made a dive after the retreating animal and seized him by one of his hind legs. This he proceeded to bite with the utmost ferocity. It is difficult to say whether the bear was more pained than surprised. He cast one frightened glance over his shoulder, made a pitiful noise deep in his throat, then fell swooning to the rock, his paws pressed against his eyes. At this stage of the game the drunken keeper came staggering up to Mr. Owen.

"You've got to stop knocking my bear about," said the man of sterling character, smelling heavily of gin. "No more of this. Come away from that bear's leg."

Mr. Owen came away and attached himself to the trainer's ear. Picking up his discarded stick, he dragged the drunkard to the gate.

"Open it," said Mr. Owen, and the man obeyed as well as his fumbling hands would permit.

The partners, following Satin, passed through the gate with dignity and aplomb—as usual. Mr. Owen came last. The gate closed behind him. People were cheering on all sides, running from all directions. Mr. Owen, his good temper completely restored, turned to Mr. Larkin.

"Do you drink?" he asked the senior partner.

"Well, if I didn't I'd be afraid to say no to you," said Mr. Larkin, "but it just so happens I do."

"How did that bear taste?" asked Satin, slipping her arm through Mr. Owen's.

"Execrable," he told her. "Far, far from pungent."

"You should gargle with champagne," suggested the Major.

"We all should," put in the senior partner. "Facing a flock of infuriated bears is no way to spend a holiday. No way at all. I suggest we find comfortable chairs and refuse to be lured out of them. I'm veering more than that scenic railway. We'd have been dead twice over had not the lion-hearted Owen been along to save our lives. Too bad about that bear, though. The old boy actually fainted. Fancy that—a bear."

The senior partner's sudden burst of loquacity expressed the depth of his relief at having escaped from the place of the bears. Mr. Owen regarded him with mild affection. Perhaps after so much sound and fury the party might settle down now in some relatively quiet spot and keep itself out of trouble. And seemingly this is exactly what the party did for some few hours, but it could not be expected to keep out of trouble for ever. Late in the evening, more or less wall-eyed from over-indulgence, its members found themselves ranged before nothing less than a preserved whale lying at full length on a huge six-wheeled trailer. The owner of this preserved whale was sitting by it on a box. His attitude was one of listlessness and dejection.

"Dear, dear me," observed Mr. Larkin, balancing himself on his stick "Yards and yards of sheer fish. My eyes swirl in their sockets."

"It's a whale," muttered Mr. Dinner. "A whale in the flesh."

"Is it, now?" exclaimed Mr. Larkin; then, addressing himself to the dejected-looking owner, "That's a very nice whale you have there, my friend."

The man looked up with a spark of hope in his eyes. "Thank you." he said politely in behalf of his whale, "but you people are the only ones who have looked at her to-day. Something's wrong with this town. It doesn't seem to be whale-minded. I'm actually starving here alongside of my whale."

"Can't you eat a bit of the whale?" suggested Mr. Owen. "With so much whale about, no one would ever miss a bite here and there."

"I couldn't touch Minnie," retorted the owner. "We've been together for years."

"Under the circumstances," observed Satin, "I wouldn't eat a morsel of Minnie myself."

"Minnie," murmured the fascinated senior partner. "How chic. How very, very chic. It takes a man of vast daring to call a whale Minnie."

"She's a good whale, Minnie," said the man with morbid pride.

"Do you mean, a virtuous whale?" inquired Mr. Larkin.

"She hasn't had a chance," replied the owner of the whale. "She's preserved."

"Poor, poor Minnie," contributed Miss Honor Knightly with sincere emotion.

The partners turned and seriously considered that young lady. She met their gaze with large, innocent eyes. Mr. Owen looked at his partners, then shrugged eloquently. They turned back to the whale.

"She's a sperm." the man told them.

"Huh?" said Mr. Dinner. "I thought she was a whale."

"She's a sperm whale," wearily replied the man.

"I see, I see," said the senior partner. "How exceptionally nice." He turned to his companions. "She's a sperm, is Minnie," he told them. "A sperm whale, no less."

"And to think that she once sported in the ocean round her mammy." murmured Mr. Dinner with a surprising burst of sentiment.

Mr. Larkin turned and looked deep into the eyes of his small partner.

"Mammy?" said Mr. Larkin with a rising inflection.

"Yes," answered Mr. Dinner innocently. "Mother, you know."

"Yes, I know," pursued Mr. Larkin. "But this isn't a negroid whale. From the way you talk you'd think she had been born and bred in the cotton belt. Don't get silly about her. You must have been thinking of a black fish."

"All right," said Mr. Dinner. "Don't go on about it. I was merely thinking."

"Don't," the senior partner warned him. "It might throw you off entirely. Just be yourself." He turned back to the owner. "Now, about this whale," continued Mr. Larkin. "You were saying?"

"I was saying she was a good whale," the man replied. "One of the best in the country."

"Have whales taken up living in the country?" broke in the irrepressible Mr. Dinner. "I thought they lived in the sea."

"This sort of whales don't," said the man. "This is a preserved whale."

"Odd they don't come in tins," remarked Mr. Larkin. "Or in jars. However——"

"My heart is fair breaking," interrupted the man. "I'm afraid they're going to attach Minnie. Nobody pays to look at her, and I can't meet my bills."

"It would be awful to let a whale fall into the hands of strangers," observed Mr. Larkin in a serious voice. "Nothing less than a tragedy."

"How much would you want for this whale?" asked Major Barney. "We would give her a good home. She'd be among friends—people of education and refinement."

"You don't know any such yourself," put in Mr. Dinner.

"And I suppose you do." snapped the Major.

"No, thank God," the little man replied. The owner of Minnie pondered several minutes, then mentioned a price.

"That's a lot of money for a mere fish," said Mr. Larkin.

"That's a lot of fish," the man replied, measuring the huge body with his eye.

"Come over here to this table and sit down," suggested the Major, indicating a near-by refreshment hall. "One doesn't purchase a whale every day in the week. The occasion demands a little thoughtful drinking."

Eventually, after much give and take, the ownership of Minnie passed from the dejected man—now no longer dejected—to the partners. It was a joint enterprise. A truck was attached to the huge trailer and a sleepy driver provided. The partners and Satin swarmed somewhat unsteadily into the body of the truck. After taking an affectionate farewell of the whale's erstwhile owner, the truck and trailer moved majestically through the broad gates of the amusement park. They had hardly proceeded a block before they were stopped by an outraged policeman.

"What are you doing with that great fish all over our streets?" he demanded.

"Nothing at all, officer," Mr. Larkin called out cheerily. "Nothing at all. Merely taking Minnie home to bed. It's a late hour for whales. Proceed, driver, proceed."

The policeman was baffled. He had no precedent for the regulation of whales. The last thing the partners saw of him he was standing in the middle of the avenue, diligently scratching his head as it has been ordained that men should scratch when subjected to intolerable mental strain.

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