Liberty, December 11, 1926
“INDEED?” said Delancy Cabot.
“And my name isn’t Finch,” babbled George. “It—it is—er—Briskett. And I don’t live in that apartment up there, I live in——”
He was aware of Giuseppe at his side. And Giuseppe was being unspeakably furtive and conspiratorial with a long glass and a coffeepot.
“Is that my ginger ale?” twittered George. “My ginger ale—is that what you’ve got there?”
“Yes, sare. Your ginger ale. Your ginger ale, Mr. Feench. Ha, ha, ha! You are vairy fonny gentleman,” said Giuseppe approvingly.
George could have kicked the man.
“Take it away,” he said, quivering. “I don’t want it in a coffeepot.”
“We always sairve the whisky in the coffeepot, Mr. Feench. You know that.”
Across the table George was appalled by a sinister sight. The man opposite was rising. Yards and yards of him were beginning to uncoil, and on his face there was a strange look of determination and menace.
George knew what the next word would have been. It would have been the verb “pinched.” But it was never uttered. With a sudden frenzy, George Finch acted. He was not normally a man of violence, but there are occasions when violence and nothing but violence will meet the case.
There flashed through his mind a vision of what would be, did he not act with promptitude and dispatch. He would be arrested, hauled to jail, immured in a dungeon cell. And Molly would come back and find no one there to welcome her and—what was even worse—no one to marry her on the morrow.
George did not hesitate. Seizing the tablecloth, he swept it off in a hideous whirl of apple pie, ice water, bread, potatoes, salad, and poulet roti. He raised it on high like a retarius in the arena, and brought it down in an enveloping mass on the policeman’s head.
INTERESTED cries arose on all sides. The Purple Chicken was one of those jolly, informal restaurants in which a spirit of clean Bohemian fun is the prevailing note; but even in the Purple Chicken occurrences like this were unusual and calculated to excite remark. Four diners laughed happily, a fifth exclaimed, “Hot pazazas!” and a sixth said, “Well, would you look at that!”
The New York police are not quitters. They may be down, but they are never out. A clutching hand emerged from the tablecloth and gripped George’s shoulder. Another clutching hand was groping about not far from his collar.
George was not in the frame of mind to be tolerant of this sort of thing. He hit out and smote something solid.
“Casta dimura salve e pura! ’At-a-boy! Soak him again,” said Giuseppe, the waiter, convinced now that the man in the tablecloth was one who had at heart not the best interests of the Purple Chicken.
George did so. The tablecloth became still more agitated. The hand fell from his shoulder.
At this moment there was a confused noise of shouting from the inner room, and all the lights went out.
George would not have had it otherwise. Darkness just suited him. He leaped for the fire escape and climbed up it with as great a celerity as Mrs. Waddington, some little time before, had used in climbing down.
He reached the roof, and paused for an instant, listening to the tumult below. Then, hearing through the din the sound of somebody climbing, he ran to the sleeping-porch and dived beneath the bed. To seek refuge inside his apartment was, he realized, useless. That would be the first place the pursuer would draw.
He lay there, breathless. Footsteps came to the door. The door opened and the light was switched on.
In supposing that the person or persons whom he had heard climbing up the fire escape were in pursuit of himself, George Finch had made a pardonable error. Various circumstances had combined to render his departure from the Purple Chicken unobserved.
In the first place, just as Officer Garroway was on the point of releasing his head from the folds of the tablecloth, Giuseppe, with a loyalty to his employers that it would be difficult to overpraise, hit him in the eye with the coffeepot. This had once more confused the policeman’s outlook, and by the time he was able to think clearly again the lights went out.
Simultaneously the moon, naturally on George’s side and anxious to do all it could to help, went behind a thick cloud and stayed there.
No human eye, therefore, had witnessed the young man’s climb for life.
The persons whom he had heard on the fire escape were a couple who, like himself, had no object in mind other than a swift removal of themselves from the danger zone. And so far were they from being hostile to George that each, had they seen him, would have urged him on and wished him luck. For one of them was Madame Eulalie and the other no less a man than J. Hamilton Beamish in person.
HAMILTON BEAMISH, escorting his bride-to-be, had arrived at the Purple Chicken a few minutes after George, and, like George, had found the place crowded to its last table. But, unlike George, he had not meekly accepted this situation as unalterable. Exerting the full force of his majestic personality, he had caused an extra table to appear, to be set, and to be placed in the fairway at the spot where the indoor restaurant joined the outdoor annex.
It was a position that at first had seemed to have drawbacks. The waiters who passed at frequent intervals were compelled to bump into Mr. Beamish’s chair, which is always unpleasant when one is trying to talk to the girl one loves.
At the moment when the raid may be said to have formally opened, Hamilton Beamish was helping the girl of his heart to what the management had assured him was champagne.
He was interrupted in this kindly action by a large hand placed heavily on his shoulder and a gruff voice informing him that he was under arrest.
Whether Hamilton Beamish would have pursued George Finch’s spirited policy of enveloping the man in the tablecloth and thereafter plugging him in the eye, will never be known; for the necessity for such a procedure was removed by the sudden extinction of the lights, and it was at this point that the advantage of being in that particular spot became apparent.
From the table to the fire escape was only a few steps; and Hamilton Beamish, seizing his fiancee by the hand, dragged her thither and, placing her foot on the lowest step, gave her an upward boost that left no room for misapprehension. A moment later Madame Eulalie was hurrying roofward, with Hamilton Beamish in close attendance.
They stood together, at the end of their journey, looking down. The lights of the Purple Chicken were still out, and from the darkness there rose a confused noise indicative of certain persons unknown being rather rough with certain other persons unknown.
IT seemed to Madame Eulalie that she and her mate were well out of it, and she said so.
“I never realized before what a splendid man you were to have by one in an emergency, Jimmy dear,” she said. “Anything slicker than the way you scooped us out of that place, I never saw.”
Hamilton Beamish was passing a handkerchief over his domelike forehead. The night was warm and the going had been fast.
“I shall never forgive myself,” he said, “for exposing you to such an experience.”
“Oh, but I enjoyed it.”
“Well, all has ended well, thank goodness——”
“But has it?” interrupted Madame Eulalie.
“What do you mean?”
She pointed downward.
“There’s somebody coming up!”
“What shall we do? Go out by the stairs?”
Hamilton Beamish shook his head.
“In all probability they will be guarding the entrance.”
It is at moments like these that the big brain really tells. Hamilton Beamish, with one flash of his giant mind, had the problem neatly solved in a brace of seconds.
He took his bride-to-be by the arm and turned her around.
“What?” Bewilderment was limned upon the girl’s fair face. “I don’t understand. What do you want me to specially look at?”
“At what do you want me specially to look?” corrected Hamilton Beamish mechanically. He drew her across the roof. “You see that summerhouse thing? It is George Finch’s open-air sleeping-porch. Go in, shut the door, switch on the light.”
“——and remove a portion of your clothes.”
“And if anybody comes, tell him that George Finch rented you the apartment and that you are dressing to go out to dinner. I, meanwhile, will go down to my apartment and will come up in a few minutes to see if you are ready to be taken out to dine.” Pardonable pride so overcame Hamilton Beamish that he discarded the English Pure and relapsed into the argot of the proletariat: “Is that a crackajack?” he demanded with gleaming eyes. “Is that a wam? Am I the bozo with the big bean or am I not?”
The girl eyed him worshipingly. One of the consolations that we men of intellect have is that, when things come to a crisis, what captures the female heart is brains. Women may permit themselves in time of peace to stray after sheiks and look languishingly at lizards whose only claim to admiration is that they can do the first three steps of the Charleston; but let matters go wrong, let some sudden peril threaten, and who then is the king pippin, who the main squeeze? The man with the eight and a quarter hat!
“Jimmy,” she cried, “it’s the goods!”
“Precisely. Be quick, then. There is no time to waste.”
And so it came about that George Finch, nestling beneath the bed, received a shock that seemed to him to turn every hair on his head instantaneously gray.
* * *
THE first thing that impressed itself on George Finch’s consciousness, after his eyes had grown accustomed to the light, was an ankle. It was clad in a stocking of diaphanous silk, and was joined almost immediately by another ankle, the two, though slender, bulking so large in George’s world that they may be said to have filled his whole horizon. Then they disappeared.
A moment before this happened, George, shrinking modestly against the wall, would have said that nothing could have pleased him better than to have these ankles disappear. Nevertheless, when they did so, it was all he could do to keep himself from uttering a stricken cry. For the reason they disappeared was that at this moment a dress of some filmy material fell over them, hiding them from view.
It was a dress that had the appearance of having been cut by fairy scissors out of moonbeams and star dust, and in a shop window George would have admired it. But seeing it in a shop window and seeing it bunched like prismatic foam on the floor of this bedroom were two separate and distinct things, and so warmly did George Finch blush that he felt as if his face must be singeing the carpet.
WAS this, he asked himself, the end or but a beginning?
“Yes?” said a voice suddenly. And George’s head, jerking convulsively, seemed for an instant to have parted company with a loosely attached neck.
The voice had spoken, he divined as soon as the power of thought returned to him, in response to a sharp and authoritative knock on the door, delivered by some hard instrument which sounded like a policeman’s night stick, and there followed immediately upon this knock sharp and authoritative words:
“Open up, there!”
The possessor of the ankles was plainly a girl of spirit.
“I won’t,” she said. “I’m dressing.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
“Never mind who I am.”
“Well, never mind who I am, then!”
There was a pause. It seemed to George, judging the matter dispassionately, that the ankles had had slightly the better of the exchanges to date.
“What are you doing in there?” asked the male duettist.
“I’m dressing, I keep telling you.”
There was another pause. And then into this tense debate there entered a third party.
“What’s all this?” said the newcomer sharply.
George recognized the voice of his old friend Hamilton Beamish.
“Garroway,” said Hamilton Beamish, with annoyed severity, “what the devil are you doing, hanging about outside this lady’s door? Upon my soul,” proceeded Mr. Beamish warmly, “I’m beginning to wonder what the duties of the New York constabulary are. Their life seems to consist of endless leisure, which they employ in roaming about and annoying women. Are you aware that the lady inside there is my fiancee and that she is dressing in order to dine with me at a restaurant?”
Officer Garroway, as always, cringed before the superior intelligence.
“I am extremely sorry, Mr. Beamish.”
“So you ought to be. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“There has been some little trouble down below on the premises of the Purple Chicken, and I was violently assaulted by Mr. Finch. I followed him up here on the fire escape.”
“Mr. Finch? You are driveling, Garroway. Mr. Finch is on his wedding trip. He very kindly lent this lady his apartment during his absence.”
“But, Mr. Beamish, I was talking to him only just now. We sat at the same table.”
The dress had disappeared from George’s range of vision now, and he heard the door open.
“What does this man want, Jimmy?”
“A doctor, apparently,” said Hamilton Beamish. “He says he met George Finch just now.”
“But George is miles away.”
“Precisely. Are you ready, darling? Then we will go off and have some dinner. What you need, Garroway, is something to wake you up. Come down to my apartment and I will mix you one. Who blacked your eye?”
“I wish I knew,” said Officer Garroway wistfully. “I received the injury during the fracas at the Purple Chicken. There was a tablecloth over my head at the moment, and I was unable to ascertain the identity of my assailant.”
“Yes, Mr. Beamish. And while I was endeavoring to extricate myself from its folds, somebody hit me in the eye with a coffeepot.”
“How do you know it was a coffeepot?”
“I found it lying beside me when I emerged.”
“Ah! Well,” said Hamilton Beamish, summing up, “I hope that this will be a lesson to you not to go into places like the Purple Chicken. You are lucky to have escaped so lightly. You might have had to eat their cheese. Well, come along, Garroway, and we will see what we can do for you.”
* * *
GEORGE stayed where he was. If he had known of a better ’ole he would have gone to it, but he did not. He would have been the last person to pretend that it was comfortable lying underneath this bed with fluff tickling his nose, but in the circumstances there seemed nothing else to do.
To a man unable to fly there were only two modes of exit from this roof: he could climb down the fire escape, probably into the very arms of the police; or he could try to sneak down the stairs, and most likely run straight into the vengeful Garroway. Possibly he was even now patrolling the staircase. And George, recalling the man’s physique, decided that the risk was too great to be taken. Numerous as were the defects of his little niche beneath the bed considered as a spot to spend a happy evening, it was a good place to be for a man in his delicate position. So he dug himself in and tried to while away the time by thinking.
He thought of many things. He thought of his youth in East Gilead, of his manhood in New York. He thought of Molly and how much he loved her; of Mrs. Waddington and what a blot she was on the great scheme of things; of Hamilton Beamish and his off-hand way of dealing with policemen. He thought of Officer Garroway and his night stick; of Giuseppe and his coffeepot; of the Rev. Gideon Voules and his white socks. He even thought of Sigsbee H. Waddington.
Musing idly on Sigsbee H. and wondering how he got that way, George became suddenly aware of approaching footsteps.
He curled himself up into a ball, and his ears stood straight up like a greyhound’s. Yes, footsteps. And, what was more, they seemed to be making straight for the sleeping-porch.
A wave of self-pity flooded over George Finch. Why should he be so ill used? He asked so little of life—merely to be allowed to lie quietly under a bed and inhale fluff—and what happened? Nothing but interruptions. Nothing but boots, boots, boots, boots, marching up and down again, as Kipling has so well put it. Ever since he had found his present hiding place, the world had seemed to become one gray inferno of footsteps. It was wrong and unjust.
THE only thing that could possibly be said in extenuation of the present footsteps was that they sounded too light to be those of any New York policeman. They had approached now to the very door. Indeed, they seemed to him to have stopped actually inside the room.
He was right in his conjecture. The switch clicked. Light jumped at him like a living thing. And when he opened his eyes he found himself once more looking at a pair of ankles clad in stockings of diaphanous silk.
The door closed. And Mrs. Waddington, who had just reached the top of the fire escape, charged across the roof and, putting her ear to the keyhole, stood listening intently. Things, felt Mrs. Waddington, were beginning to move.
* * *
FOR a moment all that George Finch felt, as he glared out at this latest visitation, was a weak resentment at the oafishness of Fate in using the same method for his tormenting that it had used so short a while before. Fate, he considered, was behaving childishly and ought to change its act. This ankle business might have been funny enough once, but overdone it became tedious.
Then to indignation there succeeded relief. The remarks of Hamilton Beamish in his conversation with the policeman had made it clear that the possessor of the ankles had been his old friend May Stubbs of East Gilead, Idaho; and, seeing ankles once again, George naturally assumed that they were attached, as before, to Miss Stubbs, and that the reason for her return was that she had come back to fetch something—some powder puff, for example, or a lipstick—which in the excitement of the recent altercation she had forgotten to take along with her.
This, of course, altered the whole position of affairs. What it amounted to was that instead of a new enemy he had found an ally. A broad-minded girl like May would understand at once the motives that had led him to hide under the bed and would sympathize with them. He could employ her, it occurred to him, as a scout, to see whether the staircase were now clear. In short, this latest interruption of his reverie, far from being a disaster, was the very best thing that could have happened.
Sneezing heartily, for he had got a piece of fluff up his nose, George rolled out from under the bed, and, scrambling to his feet with a laugh, found himself gazing into the bulging eyes of a complete stranger.
That, at least, was how the girl impressed him in the first instant of their meeting. But gradually, as he stared at her, there crept into his mind the belief that somewhere and at some time he had seen her before. But where? And when?
The girl continued to gape at him. She was small and pretty, with vivid black eyes and a mouth which, if it had not been hanging open at the moment, like that of a fish, would have been remarkably attractive.
Silence reigned in the sleeping-porch; and Mrs. Waddington, straining her ears outside, was beginning to think that George could not be in this lair, and that a further vigil was before her, when suddenly voices began to speak. What they were saying she was unable to hear, but beyond a doubt one of them was George’s.
Mrs. Waddington crept away, well content. Her suspicions had been confirmed, and now it remained only to decide what was best to do about it. She moved into the shadow of the water tank and there remained for a space in deep thought.
Inside the sleeping-porch, the girl, her eyes fixed on George, had begun to shrink back. At about the third shrink she bumped into the wall, and the shock seemed to restore her power of speech.
“What are you doing in my bedroom?” she cried.
The question had the effect of substituting for the embarrassment that had been gripping George a sudden bubbling fury. This, he felt, was too much. Circumstances had conspired that night to turn this sleeping-porch into a sort of meeting place of the nations, but he was darned if he was going to have his visitors looking on the room as their own.
“What do you mean, your bedroom?” he demanded hotly. “Who are you?”
“I’m Mrs. Mullett!”
“Mrs. Frederick Mullett.”
MRS. WADDINGTON had formed her plan of action. What she needed, she perceived, was a witness to come with her to this den of evil and add his testimony in support of hers. If only Lord Hunstanton had been present, as he should have been, she would have needed to look no further. But Lord Hunstanton was somewhere out in the great city, filling his ignoble tummy with food. Whom, then, could she enroll as a deputy? The question answered itself. Ferris was the man. He was ready to hand and could be fetched without delay.
Mrs. Waddington made for the stairs.
“MRS. MULLETT?” said George. “What do you mean? Mullett’s not married.”
“Yes, he is. We were married this morning.”
“Where is he?”
“I left him down below, finishing a cigar. He said we’d be all alone up here, nesting like two little birds in a tree top.”
George laughed a brassy, sardonic laugh.
“If Mullett thought anyone could ever be alone for five minutes up here, he’s an optimist. And what right has Mullett to go nesting like a little bird in my apartment?”
“Is this your apartment?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Stop it! Don’t make that noise. There are policemen about.”
Tears suddenly filled the eyes that looked into his. Two small hands clasped themselves in a passionate gesture of appeal.
“Don’t turn me over to the bulls, mister! I only did it for ma’s sake. If you was out of work and starvin’, and you had to sit and watch your poor old ma bendin’ over the wash-tub——”
“I haven’t got a poor old ma,” said George curtly. “And what on earth do you think you’re talking about?”
He stopped suddenly, speech wiped from his lips by a stunning discovery. The girl had unclasped her hands, and now she flung them out before her; and the gesture was all that George’s memory needed to spur it to the highest efficiency. For unconsciously Fanny Mullett had assumed the exact attitude that had lent such dramatic force to her entrance into the dining-room of Mrs. Waddington’s house at Hempstead earlier in the day.
The moment he saw those outstretched arms, George remembered where he had met this girl before; and, forgetting everything else, forgetting that he was trapped on a roof with a justly exasperated policeman guarding the only convenient exit, he uttered a short, sharp bark of exultation.
“You!” he cried. “Give me that necklace.”
“The one you stole at Hempstead this afternoon.”
The girl drew herself up haughtily.
“Do you dare to say I stole a necklace?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Oh? And do you know what I’ll do if you bring a charge like that against me? I’ll——”
She broke off. A discreet tap had sounded on the door.
FANNY looked at George. George looked at Fanny.
“My husband!” whispered Fanny.
George was in no mood to be intimidated by a mere Mullett. He strode to the door.
George flung the door open.
The valet fell back a pace, his eyes widening. He passed the tip of his tongue over his lips.
“A wasp in the beehive!” cried Mullett.
“Don’t be an idiot,” said George.
Mullett was gazing at him in the manner of one stricken to the core.
“Isn’t your own bridal trip enough for you, Mr. Finch,” he said reproachfully, “that you’ve got to come butting in on mine?”
“Don’t be a fool. My wedding was temporarily postponed.”
“I see. And misery loves company, so you start in breaking up my home.”
“Nothing of the kind.”
“If I had known that you were on the premises, Mr. Finch,” said Mullett with dignity, “I would not have taken the liberty of making use of your domicile. Come, Fanny, we will go to a hotel.”
“Will you?” said George unpleasantly. “Let me tell you, there’s a little matter to be settled before you start going to any hotel. Perhaps you are not aware that your wife is in possession of a valuable necklace belonging to the lady who, if it hadn’t been for her, would now be Mrs. George Finch?”
Mullett clapped a hand to his forehead.
“It’s a lie!” cried his bride.
Mullett shook his head sadly. He was putting two and two together.
“When did this occur, Mr. Finch?”
“This afternoon, down at Hempstead.”
“Don’t you listen to him, Freddy. He’s dippy.”
“What, precisely, happened, Mr. Finch?”
“THIS woman suddenly burst into the room where everybody was, and pretended that I had made love to her and deserted her. Then she fell on the table where the wedding presents were and pretended to faint. And then she dashed out, and some time afterward it was discovered that the necklace had gone. And don’t,” he added, turning to the accused, “say that you only did it for your poor old ma’s sake, because I’ve had a lot to put up with today and that will be just too much.”
Mr. Mullett clicked his tongue with a sort of sorrowful pride. Girls will be girls, Frederick Mullett seemed to say, but how few girls could be as clever as his little wife!
“Give Mr. Finch his necklace, pettie,” he said mildly.
“I haven’t got any necklace.”
“Give it to him, dearie, just like Freddie says, or there’ll only be unpleasantness.”
“Unpleasantness,” said George, breathing hard, “is right!”
“It was a beautiful bit of work, honey, and there isn’t another girl in New York that could have thought it out, let alone gone and got away with it. Even Mr. Finch will admit it was a beautiful bit of work.”
Many amazing climaxes are coming in the year’s funniest serial. Things keep happening to George Finch’s romance which he is fartherest from expecting. Watch for next week’s issue.
Not corrected above:
Wodehouse apparently was responsible for the spelling of retarius, as it appears thus in all original editions and in several of his other books. The correct term for the Roman gladiator who fought with a net is retiarius.
The Liberty editor seems to have been responsible for changing Wodehouse’s “cracker-jack” (as in the other three original editions) to “crackajack,” possibly to avoid a mention of the trade name of a popcorn candy; this spelling appears in other Liberty stories and in other US magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “in a shop windown George would have”; corrected to “window”.
In the paragraph beginning “The voice had spoken” magazine had “night-stick” hyphenated at a line break, but it appears as two unhyphenated words everywhere else in the serial, so changed to “night stick” for consistency.
Magazine omitted closing quotation marks after “my assailant.”