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Thorne Smith


Much Ado About Honour

"WELL, well, well," drawled Sergeant Devlin, letting his pleased eyes dwell ironically on the strange figure of Mr. Carl Bentley. "What have we here?"

"Damned if I rightly know," replied one of the state troopers. "I've never laid violent hands on anything exactly like it since I've been in the force. It's all wet and nasty."

"I shall remember the revolting circumstances when recommending you for promotion," observed the sergeant, returning once more to his rapt contemplation of the miserable object under discussion. "You know," he continued, in his calm, deliberate voice, "I've sat here behind this desk for many a long year and during that time some mighty unpalatable-looking specimens have been dragged in off the streets, but this one is by all odds the queerest—the most difficult to classify as a member of the human race. It's enough to unseat one's reason." Having delivered himself of this scholarly observation—Sergeant Devlin being an exceptionally well-educated officer—he let his eyes refresh themselves on the figure of one he mistook for a small but none the less appealingly fashioned woman. Suddenly he started and a dismayed expression appeared in his eyes. "Joe," he said to one of the troopers, "what is the little lady doing with that large gun in her hand? That doesn't strike me as being quite prudent. Ladies with revolvers are notoriously irregular. However, it doesn't really matter. Everything connected with this affair seems to be somewhat irregular." Giving the officer addressed as Joe no opportunity to reply, the sergeant resumed his dispassionate scrutiny of Carl Bentley. "Couldn't you have arranged to put a little something on before getting yourself brought before me?" he inquired, with surprising gentleness. "Had it been the lady, now, I would have offered no word of protest, but then I suppose in my job one shouldn't expect too much in the way of amusement." At this point in the officer's monologue it was on Sally's stubble-covered face rather than on Tim's smooth one that the blush of modesty appeared. Tim in his vulgar manner giggled rather indecently. Sergeant Devlin was quick to note the incongruity of these reactions. "Who is that man?" he demanded, inclining his head in the direction of Sally.

"Seems to be the lady's husband," one of the troopers replied.

"He seems to be?" repeated Devlin. "'Seems' is hardly the word. Either he is or he isn't the lady's husband. However, it doesn't matter. That may be irregular, too."

"We're man and wife," spoke up Sally, with truly ladylike hauteur.

"That could easily be possible," replied Sergeant Devlin, looking more searchingly at the male owner of the female voice, "but which is the man and which is the wife is still a question in my mind. Your attributes seem to have become strangely confused." Once more he turned his attention to Carl Bentley. "You know," he remarked easily to that individual, "your quaint idea of a gentleman's walking attire has placed you in a very unfortunate position, my dear sir. Even before this obviously involved situation has been made clear to me I feel strongly inclined to charge you with several disgusting offences."

"I had no opportunity," Carl Bentley protested in a feeble voice. "I was fleeing for my life."

"Was it worth it?" asked the sergeant, with the detached interest of the true sceptic. "I believe things would have worked out better for you in the long run if you had lost your life. Many persons—I don't say all—but many nice-minded persons would rather be found dead than caught the way you are."

"But that woman was trying to murder me," whined the no longer statuesque Mr. Bentley, pointing an accusing finger at the cause of his degradation. "She's a terrible woman, Sergeant. You don't know. There's something strange about her."

A smothered exclamation broke from the undeniably provocative lips that circumstance had thrust on Tim.

"You horrid man!" he cried threateningly. "You just wait until I tell the nice officer all about how you tried to do in my honour. If you'd had your way with me I wouldn't have had enough honour left to dust a fiddle with."

As Sergeant Devlin smiled approvingly on Tim the miserable Mr. Bentley shivered with apprehension. The poor man seemed to realise he had not the ghost of a chance. The sergeant's next remark made assurance doubly sure.

"I can see nothing strange in the lady's conduct," Devlin observed. "I would very much like to murder you myself. Unfortunately duty forbids." He turned graciously to Tim. "Not that it matters much," continued the sergeant, "but did you have any definite reason for wanting to kill this creature, madam, or were you merely trying to perform a public service? I've always been interested in trifles."

"Well, this wasn't any matter to trifle with," said Tim promptly. "It was a good old-fashioned, free-for-all assault. Never have I been so shocked and surprised."

"Dear me," murmured the sergeant, looking severely upon Mr. Bentley. "At this late day and age do you still find it necessary to go about assaulting women? You must be an out-of-luck guy indeed. It's really too bad the little lady missed her mark. Then we might have been able to hush the matter up. Instead of being buried beneath a nice, clean, protective layer of quiet earth you will now be crushed beneath the weight of public scorn and indignation."

Sergeant Devlin was now thoroughly enjoying himself. His life as a whole was a dull one. There had not been much crime of late. He had come to look on a law-breaker as a generous gift from God. This case promised to become unusually sweet and pungent. Although it pleased him to feign ignorance he was quite well aware of the identities of his three visitors. He knew the names, residences, and social standing of each actor involved in this diverting little drama. It gave him infinite satisfaction to get his hooks into some members of the upper strata for a change. Both from report and personal observation he had formed an especially low opinion of Mr. Carl Bentley. He would make that so-called gentleman suffer for the good fortune of birth and position.

"Do I understand, then, madam," he asked politely, "that you wish to lodge a charge of assault against this prisoner?"

"I surely do, Sergeant," declared Tim earnestly. "Exaggerated assault. The worst sort of assault."

Devlin scratched his head in some perplexity.

"Just what is the worst sort of assault, lady?" he asked. "Opinions might differ, you know. One man's meat is another man's poison."

"Well, this man is all poison to me," retorted Tim. "I've always been true to my husband, haven't I, dear?"

This question, coming so unexpectedly upon Sally, completely shattered the pose of calm reserve she had been striving to maintain since her first break. A flutelike voice popped out surprisingly from between her lips, the upper one of which stood sadly in need of a razor. At the sound of a woman's voice proceeding from a man's body Sergeant Devlin looked up and scanned the speaker's face with a mystified expression in which there was a shade of mistrust. This case, to his way of thinking, bade fair to develop some rather sensational sidelights.

"Always, darling," Sally was saying in answer to Tim's question. "We all of us have our faults, but misplacing or forgetting your honour is not one of yours. That I will say for you."

"You'd have been fit to be tied to-day," Tim continued volubly. "The way that man went on was nobody's business. It was nip and tuck for a while. Didn't look as if I was going to have any honour left at all."

"May I ask how far this fiend succeeded?" inquired the sergeant. "Merely as a matter of record, you understand, my dear lady."

"Well, I wouldn't like to go into details, Sergeant," Tim modestly replied. "No lady would, but the assault proper was a complete flop. I still have all my honour left right down to the last shred, such as it is. Still, it's the only honour I have."

Tim seemed to regard his honour as he would a powder puff or lipstick or any other small article women usually carry about with them in their handbags. Sergeant Devlin would not have been a bit surprised if the little lady had produced her honour and proudly displayed it for his inspection.

"Well," he remarked after a moment of reflection, "I'm sure we're mighty glad about that."

"You're not nearly so glad as I am," said Tim. "You know, Sergeant, a girl's honour is just about the best thing she has, and sometimes it's not so good, at that. I always try to keep my honour spick and span, right up to the minute."

"Up to what minute?" Devlin inquired, with justifiable curiosity.

By this time Mr. Bentley was writhing in mental as well as bodily anguish. If this terrible woman continued to make ground at her present rate of progress he would have no more chance than the proverbially proverbial snowball in a proverbially proverbial hell. It was high time that his voice was heard.

"It's all a lie, officer," he broke in furiously. "That woman has no honour. She's trying deliberately to frame me. Why——"

"What's that?" interrupted Tim. "Do you hear what he's saying, Sergeant? He's actually got the nerve to stand up there and tell me to my face that I haven't any honour—no honour at all. Why, you big, hulking stiff, I'll have you know that I've got the least tarnished honour of any woman in town, which isn't saying a great deal, now that I come to think of it."

"Don't you believe her, Sergeant." Carl Bentley pleaded as a man pleads for his life. "That woman, that she-dragon masquerading behind a thin veil of virtue, actually dragged my trousers off with her two bare hands. Then, still unsatisfied by that display of female ferocity, she held me up at the point of a gun and forced me to walk through the streets in this terrible condition."

"Oh, what a whale of a lie he told," Tim exclaimed in righteous indignation. "I was merely protecting this confounded honour of mine I've been telling you about. The first thing I knew that the man was feeling that way was when he came dashing into my house and began to tear off his clothes—even his pants, Sergeant—think of it—what a sight—and then he began to make noises just like an animal. That's no way to act. After that he started lunging—that's what he did—he made lunges at me, and I can't stand being lunged at. So I very quietly said to myself, 'Sally Willows, my good woman,' I said, 'if you don't do something constructive mighty quick it's good-night for your honour.' Then I took up my husband's revolver that he won the war with in Fort Leavenworth, and I made this man stop his lunging. And that's the low-down on the whole beastly affair, so help me God."

Tim stopped for lack of breath and looked triumphantly at Carl Bentley. That gentleman's pendulous jaw was hanging low. Above the cavity thus revealed peered the stricken eyes of a beaten man. He seemed to be seeing himself as he actually might have been—lunging. Sergeant Devlin himself appeared to be deeply moved. For some moments he did not speak, but sat as if in contemplation of the vivid picture Tim had painted of Carl Bentley in action. At last he stirred and spoke.

"Mrs. Willows," he said, "you have been through a most trying ordeal, from which you luckily emerged—thanks to your courage—with your honour quite okay." He paused and allowed his eyes to burn up Carl Bentley, then he spoke coldly to the man. "Do you wish me to believe," he asked, "that this frail woman, this lady of culture and refinement, was able, in spite of all your efforts, to drag the trousers off your large, fat, repulsive-looking legs?"

"Well," hedged Mr. Bentley, realising too late the mistake he had made, "almost she did. She lured them off, so to speak. It was a trap—a snare. I tell you she was out to frame me and she stopped at nothing. She enticed my trousers off after she had first tried to drown me."

"This situation becomes more involved as time goes on," sighed the sergeant. "You now would have me believe that this lady also made an attempt to drown you. How can I believe a statement like that, I ask you? It's impossible on the face of it. Why, this little woman couldn't drown even a kitten, let alone a gorilla of a guy like you."

"That's because you don't know her," replied Carl Bentley, endeavouring to summon to his aid the last remnants of his depleted dignity. "If she attempts to lodge a charge of assault against me I, on my part, will prefer charges of attempted murder, defamation of character, and mental anguish against her."

"All of those," observed Sergeant Devlin, slightly elevating his thick eyebrows as he jotted down some notes on his record. "Well, this situation is altogether too delicate and at the same time too serious for a mere policeman to handle. I'll have to let you both tell your troubles to Judge Clark. He should be here in about five minutes if he doesn't get so furious at something on his way down to court that he forgets where he's going. He's like that, Judge Clark is. A man of sound and fury." At this point he paused, and, after adding a few cogent sentences to his report, passed the paper to a policeman, who vanished with it through a side door. "Joe," resumed Devlin, addressing a state trooper, "present this little party to Judge Clark with my compliments. He'll be tickled scarlet to see them. And just slip a coat over our friend here. His Honour would have a stroke if he saw him the way he is."

Mr. Bentley was hustled into an old police overcoat which made him look worse, if possible, than he was before, and then pushed through a door. Tim and Sally made ready to follow.

"Don't worry about your honour any more, Mrs. Willows," said the sergeant to Tim with a friendly smile. "But if I were in your place I would worry a little about His Honour. Judge Clark is an exceptionally irascible gentleman. Good luck to you."

"You've been so sweet to me, Sergeant," replied Tim. "And for your sake I'll forget all about my honour. I've a feeling the judge and myself will get along as thick as thieves."

"There's no honour among thieves, Mrs. Willows," the sergeant reminded Tim.

"What a blessed relief that must be for lady crooks," replied Tim, pausing at the door. "I'm getting pretty well fed up with mine. It's a greatly overrated encumbrance, Sergeant, believe me. Always needs protection."

At that moment Sally dug her husband in the ribs, an act which elicited a deep-throated oath, but which nevertheless made him move on. Sergeant Devlin remained seated at his desk, thoughtfully worrying his hair. "From the way that baby talks," he said to himself, "and from the way she uses those eyes of hers I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that poor sap didn't have a little something on his side after all. Just the same he deserves to be hung on general principles. I must get a look at the judge's face when he first lays eyes on him."

Sergeant Devlin leaned back in his chair and smiled broadly.

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