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The Baiting of Mr. Bentley
MR. RAM should never have done the thing he did. But, then, one never can tell about Egyptians. Especially with old Egyptians. With new Egyptians it's different. Nobody knows just what a new Egyptian is. One can't very well dig up a new Egyptian. Old Egyptians are much easier to get to know. They seem to have had a quaint idea of humour. Like Mr. Ram.
There was no sense in giving Tim Willows the body of a woman and leaving him the mind of a man. It was a flagrant example of perverted sorcery, and just what one would expect from an old Egyptian, an old and cynical Egyptian deeply steeped in all the more exasperating phases of the black arts.
One may say that in the case of Mr. Ram there were extenuating circumstances. Perhaps there were. No one enjoys less than an old Egyptian being forced to listen to the constant bickerings of a married couple. An occasional row is diverting, but a daily diet of recrimination and vain regrets wears on one's nerves and saps one's moral fibre. Even at that Mr. Ram might have tried something a little less drastic. For example, he could easily have made Sally dumb and Tim deaf or vice versâ. It would not have mattered much just how he went about it. But, seemingly, Mr. Ram did not choose to act reasonably in the matter. Probably he decided that the only way to get these two unreasonable persons to understand him was to be thoroughly unreasonable himself. Either that or he suddenly lost his temper after long years of provocation, and did the first thing that popped into his head. He might have figured it out this way: Give people what they ask for and then wait and see what they make of it. Both Tim and Sally had made a mess of it. But Tim had made a bigger mess of it than Sally. Perhaps a woman is more adaptable than a man. She must be if there is any truth in the rumour that from a mere rib—an unsightly object at best—she developed into the complicated creature of curves and nerves she represents to-day. You would never catch a man allowing a thing like that being done to him. If the process had been reversed and the rib extracted from Eve's side, that rib would have hemmed and hawed and argued and compromised until there was not a bone left in the poor woman's body. Men are like that. They have a fine sense of dignity. No real man would be willing to run the risk of having his wife turn on him suddenly and cry: "Shut up, you mere rib." A man would not stand for that, but a woman would. A woman will stand for anything so long as she gets the best of the man. Eve did not care a snap of her fig leaf about being Adam's rib, whereas Adam would have put up an awful howl had the tables been turned or the ribs reversed. Eve knew perfectly well that as soon as she got working properly, that is, as soon as she had developed her curves and acquired her nerves, Adam would forget all about the rib part of it and try to get familiar. Men are even more like that. In a paroxysm of nervous hysteria she forced the apple on Adam, saying he never liked anything she picked, then with a skilful use of her curves she got the best of him as she had all along known she would even when a mere rib. And that must have been about the way of it. Adam never had a chance. Neither had Tim Willows. Nor Carl Bentley, for that matter. Certainly the latter had no chance at all when he was so ill-advised as to call on one he mistakenly supposed to be the delectable Sally Willows on the same day when that young lady in her husband's aching body was seeing the last of Tom Burdock.
Tim, thoroughly convinced that his condition justified a little self-indulgence, was lolling in bed with his morning paper and a cigar when Mr. Bentley, like the astute snake in the grass he was, telephoned to ascertain if the coast was clear. Tim answered the call in Sally's most affected voice.
"Hello. Who's speaking?" he asked.
"Sally, is that you?" came the low inquiry.
Tim's face darkened, but his tones remained just as dulcet. He had recognised Mr. Bentley's hateful voice. "Oh, dear," he said vibrantly, emitting the while a cloud of pungent cigar smoke. "It's ages since I've seen you."
At the other end of the wire Mr. Bentley was beginning to feel better and better. He liked to keep his women feeling that way.
"You said it, baby," he replied, in that whimsically slangy way of his that proved so effective with women. "Is it all right for me to come round now?"
"But Carl, dear," protested Tim, smiling grimly, "baby's still in bed."
"Then I'll hurry right over," said Bentley. "Don't trouble to get up for me."
"What a man!" exclaimed Tim coyly as he viciously jabbed the receiver down on its hook. "I'll make him pay for this," he continued to himself as he sprang from the bed. "By God, I'll make him wish he'd never been born a man. One of these birds who refuses to learn a lesson. All right, I'll teach him. Thinks I'm at work, does he? Ha! I'll make him sweat."
Opening a bureau drawer he examined his automatic to see if it was properly loaded, then, dressing rapidly, he deluged himself with perfume and hurried downstairs.
When Carl Bentley arrived a few minutes later and found his prey already up and dressed, his face eloquently expressed his disappointment.
"You needn't have gone to all that trouble for me," he said. "I've often been received by ladies in bed."
"Especially when their husbands are safely out of the way at their stupid old offices," put in Tim with a wicked smile.
Mr. Bentley smiled back fatuously and approached Tim with carnal intent.
"I took a day off from my office just for this opportunity," he said in a low voice. "Are you going to make it worth while, Sally?"
"What do you think?" asked Tim teasingly, then added to himself, "You low-lived louse, you'll get more than you ever expected in your wildest dreams."
As Bentley's eager arms enfolded him, Tim managed to lock one foot back of that gentleman's heel, then, as if in a frenzy of passion, he hurled himself suddenly against the opposing chest and let gravity claim its own. It did. Carl Bentley went down with a crash, landing painfully on the sharp edge of a footstool. At the same moment Dopey lumbered in from the kitchen and, seeing a man in an apparently helpless condition, immediately attacked him. Bentley emitted feeble cries of fear and suffering as Tim clumsily strove to disengage the gallant dog's teeth from the prostrate man's trousers. Eventually Tim succeeded, but not without leaving a nice big V-shaped rip. Everything was going splendidly. Tim had not counted on the collaboration of Dopey. He appreciated the dog's intervention. Kneeling down by the writhing figure he proceeded to scold it playfully for being so easily thrown off its balance. Carl Bentley's vanity was challenged. He rose weakly from the floor and hobbled over to a chair, into which he tenderly eased his injured torso.
"I know," he complained, "but I wasn't expecting an assault. You pretty nearly ruined me."
"I'm that way," murmured Tim with downcast eyes. "You make me lose my self-control and then I don't know what I'm doing. Anything might happen. You'll have to protect me against myself, Carl dear."
Carl dear had no such intentions, but he did resolve to protect himself a little better against Sally in the future.
"What am I going to do about my trousers?" he asked, looking ruefully at the rip.
"I'll sew that up after you've taken them off," said Tim, then added hastily, "Oh, dear, what have I said? What could I have been thinking about? Do forgive me, Carl. Of course you don't have to take off your trousers."
"But I will if you think it best," replied Mr. Bentley quite willingly.
"I think it best," Tim said decisively.
Before Mr. Bentley had time to reply to this one Tim undulated from the room and mixed a huge cocktail composed of medicated alcohol. He had tried the stuff once himself in a moment of desperation and as a result had become violently and lingeringly ill.
"Sorry I can't join you," he said enviously when he had returned to Mr. Bentley, "But it's the doctor's orders. I'm off the stuff for a month, maybe longer. I'll just snuggle up close to you and watch you enjoy yourself. If you don't like that cocktail I'll know you don't love me and I'll turn you out of the house."
The doomed man tossed down the proffered cocktail, then his face became a horrid thing to see. It looked all smeared and twisted. Nevertheless, remembering Tim's words about turning him out of the house, he contorted his lips into a grimace of a smile and tried to give the impression he had swallowed wrong. For several moments he feared he was going to strangle to death. His eyes began to rove desperately round in their sockets as he wheezily sought to entice some air down the sizzling reaches of his seared throat.
"Delicious," he said at last in a husky voice, wiping the tears from his eyes. "What do you call the thing?"
"I call it a Rub-down Special," was Tim's proud reply. "It's so soothing inside. Now you can have just one more and then you'll have to be a good boy. I wouldn't think of letting you make love to me if you kept on drinking."
"As a matter of fact," Mr. Bentley stated, "I think I've had about enough already. I don't enjoy drinking alone, and"—here he made a weak attempt to smile alluringly—"I'd much rather make love to you."
"I guess one more won't do you any harm," replied Tim, in a voice just a little too gruff for Sally's. "If you don't take it I'll not like you one little bit."
Once more the crippled hero of many liaisons subjected himself to the brutal punishment of a Rub-down Special, thinking as he did so that whatever favours he received at the hands of his hostess would be well earned indeed. Shortly after the consumption of this second cocktail he faintly asked to be excused for a moment to enable him to brush up a bit. When he dragged himself back to the room Tim had the satisfaction of beholding a wan and haggard Mr. Bentley. The man sank wearily into a chair and made revolting noises in his throat.
"Did the doctor tell you especially not to drink those cocktails?" he asked after he had rested for a moment.
"Yes," replied Tim innocently. "He said the things would kill me if I kept on drinking them. He claimed I was poisoning myself."
"Can't see that," declared Bentley gamely. "They seem mighty fine to me."
"You're a regular old darling," cried Tim, slapping the enfeebled man so appreciatively on the back that he was forced once more hurriedly to leave the room. This time when he swayingly returned Mr. Bentley was unquestionably not in the pink. Still, he hoped against hope for better things. The fair object of his foul ends seemed to have noticed nothing. It was an odd thing, though, how everything seemed to go wrong whenever he entered the Willows' house. There seemed to be a curse on the place. Again he sank into a chair and made some more queer noises, this time apologising profusely for his little lapses.
"What you need," proclaimed Tim, "is a little fresh air. That's what we both need. I'm going to take my great big beautiful man for a nice walk and after that—ah-ha, what then?"
The great big beautiful man allowed himself to be bundled into his overcoat and pushed with playful vigour out of the front door. In some mysterious manner he missed his footing on the top veranda step and a moment later found himself sprawling at the bottom of the flight. Two stout matrons of Cliffside had the pleasure of witnessing Carl Bentley's grotesque debacle. Too dejected to put up a pretence, he lay on the walk with his head cocked at an awkward angle on the bottom step and looked at the two passing matrons from out of his dim, unseeing eyes. In the back of his throbbing mind a suspicion was growing that all these things could not happen to a man without there being some directing force, either human or supernatural, behind them. However, the sympathy and consternation so eloquently expressed on the face that Tim was wearing as he helped the fallen man to his feet dispelled such unworthy doubts.
"We'll go by the river path," decided Tim as he led Mr. Bentley down a side street. "It's so lovely there and quiet, and there are no prying eyes. We'll be quite alone—just you and I and the river."
For some reason the way Tim brought out the words "river" and "alone" made Carl Bentley shudder slightly. He was the sort of person who confined his reading to the most lurid passages of the current novels. Quite naturally he had never made a complete job of Dreiser's two-deck American Tragedy but he did recall the drowning scene, and felt no better for it. His mind had reached that stage of morbidity at which only the most unpleasant eventualities seemed probable.
The success Tim had so far achieved in subjecting Carl Bentley to pain and humiliation had put him in the best of spirits. He felt that if Sally had only been present to witness his various artful dodges his triumph would have been complete. He experienced no compunction for what he had done to Bentley, nor for what he was going to do to Bentley. In fact, he was mildly surprised he had not already murdered the man. As he summed up the score between them he concluded he held a decided advantage over this would-be home wrecker. Once he had almost put an end to his unwholesome activities for all time. Now he was about to repeat the experiment. Tim looked forward to it. Tim Willows was not really a bad man at heart, but when people were mean to him he enjoyed being just a little bit meaner.
There was still a thin coating of ice on the river. The path that ran close to its edge was narrow, slippery, and disagreeable—the last place in the world to select for a walk at that time of year. Tim pretended to enjoy it. Carl Bentley, a little revived by the fresh air, still clung to his fixed idea. He was going to have his will with Sally Willows. How else could he justify to himself the pain and indignities he had already suffered at her hands? Once more he resumed his tentative endeavour. Winding an arm round his companion's waist he slipped and sloshed laboriously along at the side of his intended victim. In so doing he received a rather unpleasant impression. Sally Willows's waist as he remembered it had been delightfully slim and firm. The same could not be said of it now. It was still firm but most decidedly not slim. In fact, it was almost fat. It was fat. Moodily Bentley wondered if Sally was a secret eater—a greedy woman. It would not have surprised him in the least. She was so strange, so different from other women. The truth of the matter was that Tim's pregnancy was increasing by leaps and bounds. Unaccustomed as he was to pregnancy, especially as applied to his own person, each time he observed his mounting displacement he was freshly indignant with nature and Mr. Ram for the unfair advantage they were taking of him.
"Soon I'll be sitting about the house like a jovial female Falstaff unable to rise without assistance," he had recently complained to Sally.
"Well, you can't eat your cake and have it, had been that lady's unfeeling rejoinder.
"If the situation were reversed," Tim had observed, "and you were in my fix I'd be a damn sight more sympathetic with you than you are with me."
"That's because you're not really a woman," she had said. "A woman is rarely sympathetic with another woman for performing her natural functions. She either looks on a prospective mother with envy or considers her extremely careless."
"Well, after all, it's your figure that's being enlarged," Tim had replied.
Carl Bentley was now finding things out for himself. Sally Willows's waist was actually gross. When he attempted to elevate his grip, Tim gave a little scream and halted.
"Let's play clap hands!" he cried girlishly, skilfully manoeuvring Mr. Bentley so that he was standing with his back to the river and perilously close to its edge. "My patties are awfully cold."
Without much display of enthusiasm Mr. Bentley extended his large hands and allowed himself to go through the vapid passes of this exceedingly childish game. But if Mr. Bentley was deficient in enthusiasm his companion more than made up for it. The game, which at its wildest could hardly be called gripping, seemed to stimulate his fair opponent to a frenzy of excitement. So madly did Tim's hands slap and lunge that Carl Bentley began to wonder whether the woman had mistaken boxing for a simple nursery game. At last he found himself wholly on the defensive, busily engaged in warding off blows. A sense of unreality stole over him as he strove to hold his ground. Why should he be standing there, he wondered, permitting this silly thing to go on? Unconsciously he stepped back several paces, seeking a better foothold. He never found it. At that moment Tim broke through his guard and with a cry of innocent glee gave him a violent shove. The game ended abruptly in a crash and a plop. Carl Bentley had found his foothold on the bed of the river. Only his head was visible, but that was quite enough. From the expression on the man's face one would have been led to believe that he was seriously contemplating suicide, whether life still held sufficient promise to make a return to it desirable. Never had Tim beheld such a brooding and disgusted countenance. This was good. He laughed shrilly and hysterically.
"You know," he cried, "you do look a sight. Just like John the Baptist with his head hygienically transferred to ice. Stop moping about and hurry out of there. I'm getting cold standing here on this freezing ground."
"Do the misfortunes of others always strike you in a humorous light?" Bentley demanded.
"Misfortunes, nonsense!" exclaimed Tim. "You just didn't know how to play the game, that's all there is to it. Hurry up and let me help you. I'm simply freezing."
"That's too darned bad," replied Bentley, beginning to chatter a little himself, "but please don't try to help me. You might get all wet. I couldn't bear that."
But Tim insisted on being helpful. In his eagerness he kept getting in Mr. Bentley's way and thwarting his most desperate effort to climb ashore. A dispassionate observer would have gained the impression that a very small woman was grimly endeavouring to prevent a very large man from quitting an ice-cold river. The dispassionate observer would have been quite right.
In desperation the exhausted and chilled Bentley was forced to drop to his hands and knees and literally to claw his way past the obstructing legs of his rescuer. He fell panting and shivering on the muddy bank, a spent man weary of life and of all that it had to offer.
"Hurry!" cried Tim. "I must get you home and make you strip. It's a lucky thing I was here or you might have been standing there yet."
"If you hadn't been here," replied Mr. Bentley, with the uncivil logic of the wet male, "I wouldn't have been standing there at all."
"Cheer up," continued Tim. "What's a little river between friends?"
"If the river had been between us," declared Mr. Bentley as he struggled to his feet, "it would have been a damn sight safer for me."
"Nonsense," replied Tim. "Don't go on so. You're not the first man who ever fell in a river. Thousands drown every year. Suppose you were a lumberjack."
"I have no intention of ever becoming a lumberjack," retorted Mr. Bentley.
"But that doesn't keep you from supposing you were one, does it?" asked Tim.
"No," admitted the other, "but I can't see how supposing I was a lumberjack is going to make me any warmer or drier."
"It certainly won't make you any colder or wetter, will it?" demanded Tim argumentatively.
"All right," said Bentley desperately. "I'm a lumberjack. What happens now?"
"Very well, then," replied Tim. "Come along. I knew it would be like this."
"Then why did you ever start out?"
"I wanted to make sure. Thought at least we might be able to take a quiet walk without your flopping and splashing about in a river."
Mr. Bentley could not trust himself to reply to this unreasonable observation. Instead he gave an outlet to his pent-up emotions by sneezing inartistically all over the adjacent landscape.
When Tim had hauled his visitor home he hustled the dripping creature up to the bedroom preparatory to the last act. Here he made Mr. Bentley strip to his union suit, practically dragging the clothes off the miserable man with his own two hands.
"You wear union suits, I see," Tim remarked as he yanked off Bentley's soaking trousers. "Yes," chattered Mr. Bentley. "What does Willows wear?"
"Rags," replied Tim. "Old, unsightly rags. He picks up things about the house and tries them on."
"Tough on you," observed Mr. Bentley, his vanity getting the better of him. "I like to look nice this way. A man owes it to himself. Poor Willows. I'll never forget the night when he hid behind the portière"
It was this remark that settled Carl Bentley's fate. Not only was this great oaf labouring under the delusion that he was going to seduce poor Willows's wife, but also he was actually pitying the husband with horrid condescension.
"That tears it," said Tim decisively, in his natural voice.
"Tears what?" asked Bentley, momentarily startled out of his self-satisfaction.
"You'll soon find out," said Tim, walking over to the bureau and producing the automatic. With this lethal weapon held carelessly in his hands he turned on Mr. Bentley and grinned unpleasantly. "Instead of ruining me," he continued, "I'm going to pretty well ruin you. But before I start in I want to let you know that ycu look simply terrible in that union suit with its tricky little trapdoor arrangement in the back. You make me ashamed of my sex, as undecided as it is at the moment."
Mr. Bentley's amazement as he listened to Tim's voice crisply issuing from Sally's lips mounted to stupefaction. Had it not been for the blue-black automatic covering him he would have been inclined to believe that Sally was playing another trick and not a very nice one at that. The automatic, however, was altogether too convincing. Try as he would he could not find a laugh in his system sufficiently robust to do away with that disagreeable-looking object. So unnerved was Mr. Bentley that he was not even able to work up the sickest sort of a smile. Recalling his embarrassing experience on the train, he came to the conclusion that the voices of the Willows must have become interchangeable. Tim's voice continued. He was methodically lashing himself into a fury. He fully intended to make himself madder than he had ever been in his life. It would be a fairly easy matter. One short look at Carl Bentley was enough to set him going. A long look was sure to bring on a violent rage.
"You thought I looked so funny hiding behind that portière" he went on. "You'll never forget it, will you?"
Mr. Bentley was far too frightened to become further confused. He made no attempt to answer, but kept his fascinated eyes on that gun.
"Well, here's something else you'll never forget," continued Tim. "Something that will live with you to your dying day." Tim's voice changed suddenly to a note of sharp command. "Unbutton your little trap door," he snapped.
"But," faltered Mr. Bentley, wondering what on earth was in store for him, "that's hardly——"
"There's no buts about it," interrupted Tim. "I have a desire to see it flap as you go. I want everybody to see it flap."
Reluctantly Carl Bentley did as he was told. He felt as if he had been deprived of his last shred of self-respect. He was not only unbuttoned, but also undone.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," observed Tim. "Now about-face and march. Go right down the stairs and directly out of this house. Don't stop or hesitate. I'll be close behind you with this gun. Once in the street, walk rapidly but don't try to run. If you do I'll start shooting. Get a move on now, and don't talk back. You can still save your useless life if you do exactly as I tell you. Off you go."
Thus it came about that Mr. Carl Bentley, clad in a dripping union suit not properly arranged in the back, was seen walking briskly along the streets by practically the entire population of that suburban town. About ten yards behind this arresting figure came Tim Willows. In his hand was an automatic.
Carl Bentley at first endeavoured to give the impression of a man walking in a trance or in sleep, but as he neared the more populous quarter of the town his frayed nerves snapped and he incontinently fled. Tim, in spite of the fact that he was running for two, did his best to keep up with the fleeing man. The sight of the flapping trap door added greatly to the pleasure of the pursuit. It was then that the shooting began, which terminated only when Mr. Bentley sought protection behind Sally.
The little party, escorted by the state troopers, proceeded down the street and entered the police station, which also served as the courthouse. As Mr. Bentley was about to go in, one of the troopers rapped him smartly with his club.
"Button that up," said the trooper. "Have you no pride?"
Mechanically Mr. Bentley's fingers began to grope for the button of what Tim had been pleased to call the little trap door.
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