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The Malicious Magic of Mr. Ram
MR. GIBBER did not return to the conference room. Few men would have in the face of such overwhelming odds. Instead, he sought the privacy of his office in which he did some highly concentrated fuming. Gibber's skin was thick, but not impenetrable. Tim Willows and that Meades girl had done terrible things to him that morning. He would not forget the pair. When the trees began to fall they would be the first to go.
Meanwhile the conference, relieved of the presence of its presiding officer, was rapidly assuming the aspect of a meeting of convivial friends from which those earnest spirits in whose nostrils advertising was the very breath of life promptly disassociated themselves amid the maledictions of the harder-boiled.
Tim Willows and Miss Meades were among the last to leave. They decided it was no more than their duty to await the return of Mr. Gibber. They were conscientious about it. While so doing there was nothing to prevent them from discussing the more important things of life such as books and plays and places to go and the numerous persons they disliked. It was a quiet, restful morning and Tim was both surprised and delighted to discover upon consulting his watch that it was time to be doing something about luncheon. Accordingly he took Dolly Meades to a lunch club, at which they prolonged the conference well into the afternoon. Tim drank ale, which Dolly was unable to stomach. She had to be satisfied with rye. And she was. Back at the office Tim spent the remainder of the afternoon listening to the bedtime stories of several newspaper and magazine representatives, all of whom displayed a sort of well-bred pride in the quality and size of the circulations of their respective publications.
In this manner Tim passed his last day, had he but known it, at the Nationwide Advertising Agency, an organisation to which he had already given almost all of his self-respect in return for just sufficient money to enable him to exist in comparative ease, what with buying things on time.
Sally did not meet him at the station, but she was waiting for him at the door. As a matter of fact, when he opened it she almost popped out of the house.
"It's gone!" were her first words, her eyes round and fearful.
"What's gone?" asked Tim, his mind on other matters, chief among which was the possibility of getting a drink.
"The body," replied Sally. "It's gone, it's not there."
Tim then deliberately did a little husbandly tormenting.
"What are you talking about?" he demanded "Whose body has gone where?"
"Don't be dull," continued Sally sharply. "The body in the bin. The body of the man you murdered in cold blood. The body you struck down in its prime."
"Oh, that body," exclaimed Tim comprehendingly. "That body never had any prime."
"Well, it would have had a prime if you hadn't struck it down," retorted Sally.
"How do you know that?" her husband asked. "Some bodies never have any prime."
"Yours, for example," said Sally. "Your withered, mean, little rat of a body."
"Come, come," protested Tim Willows. "That's no way to refer to your husband's body. Why, only last night you were swearing to high heaven you were never going to have anything to do with anyone's body save the one you are now so harshly criticising."
"Well, prime or no prime," said Sally, "I've got to make the best of it, such as it is."
"You mean the most of it," he told her crisply. "And I do wish you'd stop referring to my body as if it were a rather questionable rib of beef. Now tell me about this other body. You seem to miss it. Do you want it back in the bin? I should think the disappearance of that long, lugubrious stiff has saved us no end of mental anguish, not to mention unremunerative labour."
"I know," she said, "but we can't have a dead body knocking about the streets. People will begin to talk."
Tim laughed shortly.
"I suppose they'll criticise us for not knowing how to entertain a dead body," he remarked. "Well, if that dead body has left my bed and board I wash my hands of all further responsibility for it. It's not my dead body if it goes visiting neighbours."
"But suppose it hasn't gone visiting?" asked Sally in a hushed voice. "Suppose it tries to crawl in bed with one of us to-night? That's what's burning me up."
"Then it will be a doubly dead body," said Tim, who, having divested himself of his hat and overcoat, was strolling in the direction of a cocktail shaker gleaming cheerfully on the sideboard. "By the way," he called back casually over his shoulders, "that dead body rather intimated to me that he mistook my bed for yours this morning."
"The nerve of the thing," said Sally, then, suddenly grasping the full significance of Tim's remark, she asked, "What do you mean by that, you grub?"
"Nothing," the other replied. "Merely that the grub rode into the city this morning in the poisonous company of that dead body."
"What!" gasped Sally. "Do you mean the body has taken up travelling?"
"Just that," returned the other. "The body was most unappreciatively alive. Only the body, though, for as you yourself know, it never did have any brain."
Sally sank down in a chair and considered this new situation. The dead body of Mr. Bentley was one thing. His live body was quite another.
"A body like that doesn't need any brain," she said at last. "Make it snappy with that cocktail, you shadow of a midget."
Tim rang for Peter and immediately that aged creature appeared. He was small, sharp, and unbent, and he gave the impression of having been kept too long in front of a drying machine. He had swapped all of his hair with the years in exchange for a face full of wrinkles. From somewhere near the centre of this complicated system a thin hooked nose projected itself, and on either side of this object two small eyes glittered as brightly as a thieving sparrow's. Peter had a way of swinging his arms at his sides as if he were keeping them in readiness for immediate action. Unlike the majority of domestics, he enjoyed being summoned to duty. If Tim did not call for him in the course of an evening he would invent an excuse to call on Tim, because, as he expressed it, Mr. Tim was his personal responsibility with whom he had spent many pleasant days in the past when both of them had been a whole lot younger.
Tim now fumbled in his vest pocket and produced three cigars, the day's gleanings from the visiting representatives.
"Here's your share, Peter," he said, extending them to the old man. "They look pretty good to-night. Better than usual."
Peter subjected each cigar to the expert examination of his nose, then permitted himself a smile of appreciation.
"Fifteen cents straight, at least," he gloated. "This one looks like a quarter. I shall smoke them, Mr. Tim."
"I know damn well you will," said Tim, "but in the meantime can you do a little something helpful about orange juice and ice?"
When the shaker had ceased its shaking and the cocktails had been poured, Tim turned to Sally.
"I don't know whether I'm to be congratulated or not," he told her, "but the fact is I don't happen to be a murderer any more. It all comes from not putting on enough coal. That body came to life some time after we went to bed, finished off a bottle of gin, and went barging drunkenly about the house before it went home."
"Was it—I mean, was he—in great pain?" asked Sally a little timidly.
"Yes," said Tim complacently, delicately moistening his lips at the rim of the glass. "He was in excruciating pain. Agony, I'd call it. I made him feel even worse."
"You would, you scorpion," his wife replied. "Does he know all the things that happened to him—the part I played?"
"Not yet," he smiled. "I'm saving that for some future occasion, my dear little accessory after the fact."
Sally remained thoughtfully silent.
Because of a great lassitude induced by the high revelry and nervous tension of the previous night the Willowses did not linger long in the lounge after dinner had been served. Dopey appeared footily for a brief review of the events of the day, which he immediately forgot upon suspecting the presence of a few pieces of candy concealed in a bowl. After mouthing these individually and collectively he discovered they were not so good. Accordingly he left them messily on the rug and clumped back to his box in the kitchen and the soothing conversation of Mr. and Mrs. Twill. Tim and Sally proceeded to their room, where they became busy about going to bed. Tim was always a little puzzled at the speed and ease with which Sally completed these preparations. At one moment she would be fully clad, at the next there would be just Sally, unadorned, then amazingly she would appear decked out in some tricky nightgown all set for the sheets. Tim decided that she must wear practically no clothes at all to be able to disrobe with such breath-taking precision and dispatch. For him the business of getting undressed was a long, involved, and laborious one necessitating no end of searching for this thing and that. The good Mrs. Twill believed in putting everything in some place, but preferably not in the same place twice if a new one could be found. To-night, for example, he eventually found his slippers resting on a row of books on the lowest shelf of the bookcase. It was a good place he had to admit, a splendid place, but then any place would have been good had he but known where it was. Thus cogitating on the strange ways of Sally and Mrs, Twill he came at last to his socks, and at this point he seemed to run down. After a few tentative pluckings his fingers ceased to work. He was thinking of Claire Meadows and wondering what she was thinking. That had been a queer experience, too. Like a song growing fainter in a swiftly fading dream. It seemed quite apart from life and the ordinary affairs of life. It was as if Time had suddenly remembered a moment it had forgotten to give him and had tossed it back at random. It could never be recaptured. He knew that, and strangely enough he was not disappointed.
"Tim," he heard Sally saying, and her voice sounded grimly determined, "if you don't stop doddering over those socks I'll come over there and drag them off."
"So you feel as strongly about it as that, do you?" replied Tim Willows, looking at her with a slow, irritating smile. "Well, what I want to know is, why should I take off these socks?"
"It's customary to take off one's socks before going to bed," his wife replied with withering dignity. "Gentlemen don't sleep in their socks."
"How do you know that?" Tim shot back. "From the way you talk one would gain the impression that you'd made a life study of sleeping gentlemen. Thousands of gentlemen are sleeping in their socks every night of the year. Sleeping in everything—clothes and all, even their hats. And here's another thing. These socks are my socks and these feet are my feet and that bed is my bed. If I want to take these feet, clad in these socks, and tuck them into that bed I don't see that it's anyone's business save my own. What do you say to that?"
"I have nothing to say to that," replied Sally. "Nothing at all. Just the same, you and your socks constitute a form of mental torture that would fully justify a divorce in any enlightened community. You're so gross, so utterly common. You—you revolt me, you and your socks and your shirt and your thin flanks and——"
"My toes," interrupted Tim hotly. "Go on and pick on my toes. Say things about my toes. Your own toes are so damn crooked you look as if you were walking backward."
"That's a lie," said Sally, deeply insulted. "I have perfect toes and you know it. Take a look at other women's toes and see what scrambled monstrosities they are."
"I don't keep my eyes on the ground under such circumstances," said Tim virtuously.
"No doubt you don't," said his wife, "you lecherous little animal man."
"If anyone overheard this conversation," remarked Tim bitterly, "they wouldn't believe it possible. They'd put you down as mad."
"And I suppose you'd be considered an abused husband," said Sally, with elaborate sarcasm.
"That's stating it mildly," answered Tim. "All day long I've been working at the office, standing on wind-swept platforms and travelling on badly ventilated trains with the body of a man I almost murdered. I'm tired. I'm unstrung. I'm in a highly nervous condition. And all you can do is to throw my socks in my face."
"I think more of your socks than to throw them in that face," said Sally. "You'd bite a hole in 'em and swear I did it."
"Speaking figuratively," continued Tim in a weary voice. "You should know when I'm speaking figuratively."
"You're such a liar," broke in his wife, "that one never can tell just how you're speaking."
"And with the knowledge of murder in my heart," continued Tim as if he had not heard her. "I get up in the morning and carry on. I go to the office, by God, and put in a full day's work. Catch any other husband doing it. And you talk about socks."
"Exactly," Sally hastened to answer. "You wouldn't catch any other husband doing it, not even the lowest. You murder a man in the evening and the first thing in the morning you rush out of the house, leaving a dead body on my hands. How would you like to be cooped up in the house all day with a dead body? Pleasant, isn't it? Lovely."
"Why didn't you take a walk?" he demanded.
"And leave the dead body behind?" asked Sally.
"You couldn't very well have taken it with you," replied Tim. "And certainly a dead body doesn't demand much in the way of entertainment. You don't have to play games with a dead body."
Mr. Ram on the bookcase was rapidly losing patience. This constant, futile bickering was doing things to his usually tolerant and friendly disposition. He felt like taking the two of them and knocking their heads together. They deserved even less considerate treatment than that. Upon hearing Sally's next contribution the little man decided to go the limit.
"You and your work and your stuffy trains," she was saying. "It's all a lot of bunk. Horses couldn't have held you in this house. I'll bet you didn't draw an easy breath until you shut the door behind you. I guess you know what I mean now when I say I'd be glad to change places with you. I wish I could. I'm tired of being left alone in this house with dead bodies and clownish dogs and doddering old people who might die on my hands at any minute and add to the dead bodies. I want to change——"
"I daresay I'll come home some night and see you sitting on top of a pile of dead bodies," remarked Tim. "You'll be literally swimming in dead bodies. And by the way, lay off that dog of mine. He's far from clownish. I'd like to change places with you if only for the pleasure of being able to stay home and keep him company. He's a damn sight more agreeable than you."
"That settles it," said Mr. Ram to himself. "I'll have to take steps this very night."
"Then why don't you go and sleep with your dog?" Sally demanded. "You're just like a dog, yourself. You've got no more shame than a dog. Might as well sleep like a dog."
"I wouldn't talk about sleep if I were in your place," said Tim. "You're a horrid sloth yourself."
"I'm not going to talk about sleep," answered Sally. "I'm going to do it. Keep your damn socks on and your great mouth shut. Goodnight!"
"Sweet woman," observed Tim Willows as he watched, with a feeling of defeat, his wife curl herself up in bed.
"Miserable little man," she murmured, and that was the last word. It was all Sally's.
Mr. Ram, however, won the last trick.
The slumber of this happily married couple was troubled that night by strangely realistic dreams. Vague and intangible figures seemed to be flitting noiselessly about the room. There was much peering into faces, and Tim got the impression that his body was being critically inspected. Sally later admitted that she had experienced the same feeling. And through all these dreams and dim imaginings the figure of Mr. Ram was inextricably woven. The little man had grown to full stature and appeared to be directing the activities of the other figures that peopled the darkness. Occasionally he would pause to exchange a few words with a group of Egyptian friends and at such times Tim distinctly saw Mr. Ram's white teeth bared in a malicious smile. Once or twice when the god glanced over at the twin beds Tim could have sworn he heard a subdued chuckle. Then amazingly the figures melted away and in his dream Tim saw Mr. Ram returning to his former size on the bookcase. It was all disturbingly vague and confusing. So much so, in fact, that Sally for the first time in her life woke up before her husband and immediately appropriated the bathroom, knowing full well that this would irritate him beyond measure and precipitate a morning row.
A few minutes later the sound of running water brought Tim back to consciousness. He sat up with a start, glanced suspiciously at the figure of Mr. Ram, who seemed to have changed his position during the night, then promptly rolled out of bed. Stripping off his shirt he stood before a pier-glass mirror to ascertain if his body was as ill-favoured as Sally so eloquently made it out to be. The moment he did so he received a decided shock. In some manner unknown to him his wife had managed to get to the mirror first. He had not seen her do it, yet nevertheless there she was, standing in front of him and cutting off his view of himself.
"Please get out of the way," he told her irritably. "I can't see a thing of myself. And, furthermore, you're a nice person to be talking about nakedness. Here you are flaunting yourself totally nude in front of this mirror. You should be ashamed,"
He was surprised at the sound of his own voice. It was unnaturally soft and had a distinctly feminine quality in it. He cleared his throat and tried again.
"Go on out of here," he said. "I've got to get to my office."
The woman seemed to be mocking him silently. Every time he opened his mouth to speak she very cleverly mimicked the movements of his lips.
"How childish of you," Tim exclaimed, and was petrified on the spot by a wild cry issuing from the bathroom.
"What the hell!" began Mr. Willows, then said no more.
A figure looking strangely like himself came dashing out of the bathroom as if pursued by all the devils in hell.
"Oh, look!" chattered the figure in a voice reminiscent of his wife's.
Tim looked incredulously at the figure before him, then quickly surveyed his own body. The sight that met his eyes almost unhinged his reason.
"My God!" he gasped. "Oh, my God! What has happened to us, or are we both going mad?"
"Oh-h-h, I don't know," breathed the other. "It all seems terrible to me. Here I stand talking to myself and yet I am you—you to the last detail. I can't stand it, I tell you, I can't stand it."
"Well, I suppose you think I'm tickled to death to be occupying your body," said Tim. "How do you fancy I feel?"
She looked ruefully at the body of which she had been so mysteriously deprived, and her heart sank.
"I had such a beautiful figure," she murmured. "And now you've got it. I suppose you'll put that silly-looking shirt on it when you go to bed at night?"
"No," replied Tim triumphantly, "I'm going to wear your best and most expensive night dresses."
"What!" exclaimed Sally. "You're going to start in wearing my clothes?"
"Naturally," replied Tim. "Do you want me to make your body look ridiculous? You don't seem to realise that in the eyes of the world I am you."
Tim was treated to the unnerving experience of seeing his own body wringing its hands.
"Oh, this is just terrible," moaned Sally. "It's the worst thing that ever happened. You won't know how to wear anything and you'll make me look all sloppy and probably end up by becoming a loose woman."
Tim laughed hatefully.
"You know what I'm going to do?" he asked. "I'm going to torture Carl Bentley. I think he deserves it."
"You leave that man alone," cried Sally furiously. "Keep your hands off him and be careful what you do with my body. First thing you know you'll be presenting me witk a nameless child. I could never bear that."
This thought sobered Tim Willows. He was truly in an extremely precarious position. Once he had been able to take his chances with the best of them, but now if he slipped from the path of virtue he would have to be continually worrying about the consequences. This was a most disagreeable realisation. It wasn't fair. What a devil of a thing to have happened to a full-grown man! And how the devil could it have happened? Tim very much wanted his body back.
"You won't have to bear it," he said slowly. "I'd have to bear it. Wouldn't that be awful?"
"I don't see why," replied Sally. "I think it would be just dandy. It would teach you what women have to go through in this world. Please put something on my body and try to hold it a little better. I can't stand seeing the poor thing the way it is."
She passed Tim her abandoned night dress and that shrinking creature allowed it to be draped over his nakedness. The ordeal proved too much for him. He sank down on the bed and refused to meet his wife's eyes.
"I've never been so ashamed of myself in all my life," he murmured. "To think of me in this." He plucked at the diaphanous material with nervous fingers. "In this of all things."
"You're the living image of myself," said Sally, sitting down beside him and slipping an arm round his waist. "You certainly are a sweet little thing. I think you're about the most attractive woman I've seen in years."
"Take your arm away from me," gasped Tim in a strangled voice. "And for God's sake, don't be common. I'll stand for no monkey business. The sooner you know that the better."
He sprang to his feet and stood looking down at himself with outraged eyes. Then something occurred that humiliated him to the very depth of his being. Sally picked him up in her arms and tossed him back on the bed.
"I'll settle your hash later," she said, and swaggered over to the mirror. After gazing into it for a moment she turned to the rumpled figure on the bed. "This vapid face of yours needs a shave terribly. What are we going to do about that?"
"Don't give a damn what you do about it," came gloomily from the bed. "You can cut the face to ribbons if you like. It isn't any good to me any more."
"Well, as bad as it is," replied Sally, "it's the only face I have and I'm certainly not going to allow whiskers to grow all over it."
"I wish you'd stop talking about my face as if it were a mere thing," Tim almost sobbed. "It was always a good face to me. If you don't take care of it I'll make such a fright of yours that babies will have convulsions and mothers will pass out the moment they clap eyes on me. You'll hear people saying, 'that hideous Willows woman.'"
"You'd never do a thing like that," said Sally in a shocked voice. "I'll hang this body of yours in the attic."
"I will if you're not mighty good to my face," replied Tim, "and put in a new blade."
"Oh, I'll be good to your face," promised Sally. "I'm going to try to improve it. God knows there's enough room."
Tim sat suddenly up in the bed and looked at his watch on the night table.
"Cripes!" he exclaimed. "You'll be late at the office. Hurry up and get dressed."
"What! Me go to your office?" Tim's former face was starched with amazement.
"Who else?" he demanded. "I can't go. You've got to carry on. We can't starve, you know."
"Do you mean that I actually have to go to work, catch trains, and be on time and all that?"
"Certainly," replied Tim, beginning to enjoy the situation.
"But, Tim," protested Sally, "I don't know the first thing about it. I've never written a word of copy and I won't even know the people at the office."
"You'll catch on quickly enough," said Tim reassuringly. "Luckily I'm working on a chain of women's shops at present. You'll probably be able to write that copy a whole lot better than I could. And just pretend you know everybody. Be particularly nice to the girl at the desk and also to Dolly Meades. They're pals of mine. Also Steve Jones."
"How pally are you with the two women?" asked Sally.
"Not consummated," said Tim briefly.
"Then I'll consummate," replied Sally.
"Lucky dog," observed Tim. "And they'll blame it all on me."
"But it is you," said Sally. "I'm only inside."
"Yes," remarked Tim moodily, "and the trouble is you haven't any gentlemanly instincts. You'll do the first woman dirt who comes your way."
"You shouldn't be so irresistibly attractive," explained Sally. "It won't be my fault."
"I have always exercised remarkable self-control," Tim told her. "And that's more than you will do."
"I'm exercising it right now," said Sally, looking darkly at the figure on the bed. "I've a good mind to have my will with you, young lady."
"Don't!" pleaded Tim. "Don't! Even in fun it's too much."
"So that's what you think of yourself," said the other with a sneer. "Do you wonder I've been revolted?"
"I'm all right," replied Tim. "Only thing is, I haven't got used to being you yet, that's all."
"Then you'd better make it snappy," replied Sally. "Remember, from now on, I am the dominant male."
But by the time Sally had got herself shaved and dressed she no longer felt quite so dominant. Her mind was full of misgivings. She was loath to face the world alone.
"I just can't go to your office," she protested, sinking down in a chair. "I won't know what to do or what to say or anything. I'll just be a mess."
"But that's what you've been claiming all along you wanted," replied Tim gloatingly. "Every night of your life you've kept dinning in my ears how much you'd like to change places with me. Well, now you've got your wish. Make the most of it."
"Tim," said Sally in an awed voice, "that must be it. We've kept wishing to change places with each other so long that someone has granted our wish. Only they've let us retain our personalities so we'll know exactly what's happened. Wonder who could have done this thing?"
"I rather suspect Mr. Ram," Tim replied slowly. "There's a funny look about him this morning and I seem to remember having met him in my dreams last night."
"So do I," exclaimed Sally. "I recall him now quite distinctly."
For the first time since they had owned him Mr. Ram refused to meet their gaze. His position was changed so that he now stood looking innocently out of the window at the house across the way.
"I guess we had it coming to us," remarked Tim. "God knows you wished it often enough."
"Who wouldn't," said Sally, "if they had to live with a creature like you?"
"Go on, get to your office," answered Tim, crawling back into bed. "I'm going to have a nice, lazy drowse. And by the way, you'd better try to do something about your voice. You sound awfully ladylike. Speak from your chest like I do."
"But you shouldn't speak from your chest."
"Then I'll practise feminine elocution while you work hard at the office," Tim replied, yawning lazily.
Sally stamped over to the bed and stood there looking down at him.
"Do you mean to say," she demanded, "that you're going to lie there in that bed and let me go out to work for you, you worm?"
"Why not?" inquired Tim. "Isn't that just exactly what I did?"
"And you're not even enough of a gentleman to drive me down to the station?" she continued.
"Certainly not," replied Tim smilingly. "I'm not supposed to be a gentleman. You never drove me down. You've changed places with me and got exactly what you've been asking for—now make the best of it."
"Then do you know what I'm going to do?" she demanded in a voice cold with fury. "I'm going to give you a baby and I hope it's twins. You just wait and see if I don't."
"I won't be the mother of your children if I have to hang myself," declared Tim. "I'll jump in the river first."
Sally paused at the door. She was laughing to herself.
"Then you'll have to do one or the other," she told him, "because I'm going to do you in. You just wait."
"Get to your office," shouted Tim, white with anger. "And I won't be here when you get back. Remember that."
"Good!" exclaimed Sally. "I'll call up one of your conquests and get her to come over."
"And I'll divorce you flat," threatened Tim. "I'll drag your name through the mud."
"It's your own name you'll be dragging," said Sally. "Don't forget that." She paused and blew him a kiss. "See you later, cutie."
The howl of a maddened animal followed her down the hall. The terrible sound died away and the person who had once been Tim Willows lay chattering on the bed. He was not going to be a mother. He was dead sure of that.
"Damn you, Ram," he muttered. "You dog-faced Egyptian crook."
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