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The Glorious Pool
THE MAJOR'S OLD AND RARE
MR. HENRY, the non-smeller, felt nervously exhausted. By awkward leaps and bounds he was rapidly becoming a mental case. These leaps and bounds had carried him to the comparative seclusion of the front hall closet. Here he lay and considered the demolishment of his comfortable routine. The trying events of the evening had shot it full of holes. Mr. Henry seriously doubted if he would ever have the heart or the strength to reestablish it again.
From street corners the dog had hitherto been fearsomely impressed by fire engines and had vaguely wondered what devil's work they were about, but until to-night he had never had any dealings with the rough-and-ready gentlemen who clung to these moving vehicles on their terrific dashes through the streets. This one experience had been more than enough for Mr. Henry. Being a dog of delicate sensibilities, he had formed the lowest opinion of the swarm of heavy-handed ruffians that had so ruthlessly invaded the privacy of his home. The vast quantities of water they had brought with them, together with the alarming appearance of so much smoke, had forced the animal to retreat with streaming eyes and a wet hide to his present place of safety.
Here Mr. Pebble and his mistress discovered Mr. Henry on their way upstairs. For a moment they stopped to consider the fitfully trembling bloodhound; then Spray's lips slowly curved in scornful lines.
"Look at the recumbent coward," she said. "Look at him." She waved a hand disparagingly at the dog. "He lets the house burn down. He lets us all die in agony. He says, 'To hell with all that so long as I am safe and undisturbed.' And there he plops his great body down in that closet and reclines in a half swoon. If there ever was a pansy bloodhound that dog is it."
"Not necessarily a pansy, Spray." Mr. Pebble spoke up in defense of the dog. "That's a pretty hard term to apply to a bloodhound. Only a short time ago I would have swooned with the greatest relief in the nearest closet at hand. The poor beast is a little fastidious about firemen, perhaps. Can't say as I blame him for that."
"Well, I blame him for everything," retorted Spray. "If he hadn't eaten up our steak there wouldn't have been any fire, and if there hadn't been any fire there wouldn't have been any firemen. The dog deliberately got us into this jam. He couldn't have done any worse had he gone rushing through the streets screaming, 'Fire!' at the top of his lungs."
"You're beginning to talk like Nockashima," Rex Pebble warned her gently. "Don't do it, for my sake. I'm not even convinced there is a fire."
"Then you're just as dumb as those firemen," she retorted. "Never sure of anything. I suppose you'd have me believe there isn't a fire raging somewhere in this house? Don't be an ass. We're actually trembling on the brink of a volcano. It's terrific. And there that foolish sissy soul-fully luxuriates in the clutch of abject fear. No wonder he hasn't any girl friends. The poor mutt hasn't stayed away from this house a single night in his life. Does he expect us to carry him out in our arms? I'd like to torch-murder the beast."
"You're a little unfair to Mr. Henry," said Rex Pebble mildly. "I hope you wouldn't like the dog to become a debauched bloodhound. He's bashful about his nose, perhaps. I should imagine a smell-less nose would be a terrible handicap to a dog in his relations with the opposite sex. You must know what a high value a dog places on his nose."
"I neither know nor care what a dog places on his nose," she replied. "I'd like to place a price on that dog's head. I have my own nose to worry about, and it's fairly gushing out smoke. And another thing, Mr. Henry isn't atrophied in all his parts. He must be alive somewhere. Even if I were deaf, dumb, and blind I'd still find my man, believe me."
"I do, Spray," Mr. Pebble said with great sincerity. "I don't doubt it for a moment. You'd even find your men, but you shouldn't judge a clean-living bloodhound by your low standards."
Mr. Henry did not at all relish the situation in which he found himself placed. He strongly objected to having himself discussed by persons he believed to be perfect strangers. Unable to recognize his old friends by their respective smells, he could find no traces in their radically altered bodies to give him a clue to their real identities. One thing alone remained familiar, and that was the sound of their voices. But this strange phenomenon, instead of comforting the dog, disturbed him all the more. How could these apparently new bodies make noises exactly like the old ones? Furthermore, these strangers had succeeded in ascertaining his name. That looked bad. They were doubtless up to some mischief—probably trying to snatch him for ransom. Unwilling to give any cause for offense, he wagged a deprecating tail, twisted his back to his audience, and lay still, hoping against hope that his little yellow boy friend would stagger to his rescue.
"Mr. Henry's so lazy with his tail," Rex Pebble remarked sadly as he slowly mounted the stairs.
Mr. Pebble maintained a suite of rooms in his mistress's establishment. When things got too hot for him at his own home he frequently found it expedient thither to repair in search of mental tranquillity as well as bodily safety. Inasmuch as neither of these conditions lasted very long in the company of either woman, he was forced to do considerable traveling between the two houses. Mr. Pebble could not remember ever having been so fortunate as to find both of the ladies agreeably disposed towards him at one and the same time. Not infrequently in his endeavors to escape conflict he found himself leaping from the frying pan into the fire, both ladies being in their most hellish moods. In compensation he comforted himself with the thought that if Socrates achieved self-discipline by putting up with Xanthippe, he himself, by living with two shrews, might in the due course of time become twice as good as a philosopher—that is, if he did not crack under the strain. For the sake of convenience no less than cleanliness he found it helpful to maintain in each establishment a duplicate wardrobe and set of toilet accessories.
In the upper hall he took leave of his mistress and made his way to his own quarters. Here, for the good of his soul and the appeasement of his disgruntled poise, he poured himself a stiff drink and polished it off at a gulp. When both poise and soul were feeling somewhat bucked up, it occurred to him he might as well take a shower to dash off some of the wear and tear sustained by too long confinement in the smoke-filled kitchen. When this little matter had been safely put behind him, it again occurred to Mr. Pebble that it would be even a better idea to take still another drink for the purpose of keeping his soul and his poise in the pink of condition to which the first drink had jerked them.
It was while he was thus conscientiously employed that the sound of strange voices attracted his attention to the bedroom occupied by his mistress. Had that good lady been inhabiting the body she had possessed previous to her immersion in the pool, it would have mattered very little to Mr. Pebble if she had chosen to entertain the entire Marine Corps in her bedroom, but in her present rejuvenated condition he decided that such liberties smacked a trifle of immorality and were greatly to be deplored.
Tossing his soul and his poise to the four winds, but still retaining possession of his glass, Rex Pebble padded softly across the hall and bent an attentive ear to his mistress's door, sipping thoughtfully the while. It should be said for Rex Pebble that he was blissfully unconscious of the damning fact he was seriously involving himself in the low practice of eavesdropping. To make matters even, however, it should also be stated that had he been aware of the nature of his occupation it would have made very little difference to him. He had lived too long with two women not to know that the game was played without any rules. It was catch as catch can always. The great hother and pother which nice people felt themselves called upon to make about eavesdropping did not trouble Rex Pebble at all. While admitting the fact that the eaves-dropper seldom heard anything good about himself, experience had proved that he frequently gleaned some in-valuable sidelights about others. To him it was the logical and intelligent thing to do, especially when dealing with such an unreliable character as his self-dramatizing mistress. Therefore, with a placid conscience Rex Pebble addressed his lips to his drink and his ear to the door and eavesdropped for all he was worth. From the other side of the door Spray Summers' voice came to him in cold, dispassionate tones.
"For the second time," she was saying, "I ask you, Major Jaffey, to explain your remarkable conduct. What do you mean by taking a shower in a lady's bathroom?"
"I was told the house was on fire, madam," explained the apologetic voice of Major Jaffey, "so I thought I'd be less inflammable if I kept myself wet."
"If that was your brilliant idea," continued Spray, "why didn't you carry it out in Mr. Pebble's bathroom?"
"I didn't want to bother him with my old and rare,"
said the Major, as one who explains everything.
"And what, may I ask," she demanded, "have I ever done to make you think your old and rare would be warmly welcomed here?"
"It's still in tip-top condition," Major Jaffey replied hopefully. "I have it right with me."
"You have it with you," repeated Spray in a startled voice. "Quite naturally you would have. Where else could you keep it?"
"Oh, I sometimes forget it," the Major casually informed her. "Leave it knocking about, you know."
"I don't seem to understand all this," she declared, "and I'm afraid I should not be enlightened."
"But, madam," protested the Major, "it's very interesting, I assure you. You couldn't help being delighted."
"The mere thought of it even is revolting," she retorted. "What sort of a proposal are you trying to make, anyway?"
On the other side of the door Mr. Pebble's ear hinged forward in its anxiety to catch the Major's answer.
"I would welcome an opportunity," he told her, "to exhibit it to you and Mr. Pebble."
"Major," Spray Summers told the man, more in sorrow than in wrath, "I don't know why you haven't been run in long before this. Mr. Pebble is not the kind of man to be interested in your old and rare. He might be a bad man, but he's not morbid." She hesitated a moment, then added, "However, if it will make you feel any better I might take a little peek myself just to show you I'm broad-minded."
"What a woman!" Rex Pebble inwardly exclaimed. "Neither age nor youth teaches her any better."
"It's all wrapped up," said Major Jaffey, proudly. "No one can accuse me of not taking the best of care of it."
"Who would even think of it, I'd like to know?" retorted Spray Summers. "It seems to be the only thing in the world you give a tinker's damn about."
"It keeps the wolf from the door," observed the Major cheerfully.
"Does it?" replied the woman. "What a remarkable statement to make. I can't see the slightest connection between wolves and your old and rare."
"Madam," responded the Major, "I was speaking merely figuratively."
"Major," Spray said wearily, "I don't give a damn how you were speaking. Either produce this old and rare of which you seem so inordinately proud, or else have the grace to take it away. I want to put on some clothes."
"Very well, dear lady," said the Major. "I won't be half a minute."
Rex Pebble, on the other side of the door, was in a small flutter of excitement. He wanted to be in on this. His curiosity was only natural. He had heard too much about the Major's highly vaunted old and rare not to be interested on his own behalf. It must be something extra special, he reflected, as he removed his ear from the door and placed an eye to the keyhole. His vision was disappointingly limited. All he could see were small sections of two towels. Making the best of a trying situation he riveted his gaze on one of these and waited breathlessly. At last this remarkable old and rare was about to be revealed. But unfortunately it never was—that is, not on on this occasion. The three actors involved in this unedifying little drama were doomed to disappointment by the unexpected arrival of a fourth. A small protesting shriek from Spray greeted his arrival.
"What do you mean," Rex Pebble heard her demand, "by crawling in my window? Can't you see I'm nearly undressed?"
"Sorry, lady," said a bored voice. "Hope you don't think I'm blind. Nearly's not the word. You damn well are undressed. Why don't you put something on?"
"I've been much too busy," said the lady haughtily.
"So I see, lady," said the fireman, "but you'll have to cut all this funny business out for awhile. The house is on fire."
"This part of it isn't," objected Spray. "What are you doing up here?"
"I'm looking for the fire, lady," the voice explained patiently. "The boys downstairs are sick and tired of looking for it. And they're drinking something fierce. Say, lady, is that old bird your father or just a friend?"
"What's that to you?" snapped Spray.
"Not a thing, lady," replied the fireman. "Not a thing. I was just wondering what he was to you."
"That, also, is none of your business," Spray retorted, "but if you must know, the gentleman was just about to show me his old and rare."
"No shame," muttered Mr. Pebble sorrowfully. "No shame at all. Just a gregarious old moll."
"What was he going to show you, lady?" asked the fireman in an awed voice. "His old and rare, did you say? And you're telling me? Fire or no fire, I guess I'll go away."
"I didn't suggest it," Spray replied defensively, "but the man seems to be frantic to have someone look at his old and rare."
"Well, I won't be a party to this sort of thing," said the fireman. "I'm going to clear out."
"Don't go," said the Major politely. "Perhaps I could interest you. I make my living by it, you know."
"Not off guys like me you don't," proclaimed the fire-man with some show of heat. "We've got old and rares of our own. Why should I look at yours? Is there anything funny about it—you know—anything strange?"
"Of course, I can hardly say," replied the Major in a professional voice, "until I've looked yours over."
"You'll never get the chance to do that," said the fire-man stubbornly, "not unless you throw me down and hold me, the two of you."
"We could hardly bring ourselves to do that," declared the Major. "I merely thought you might be interested in comparing items, that's all."
"That's too much," retorted the fireman. "You have some paralyzing thoughts, mister."
"I'm getting sick and tired of all this talk," broke in Spray Summers. "Why don't you both toddle off with your old rares? They're no novelty in my young life. Here I come peacefully and decently into my own room to put on some clothes, and what do I find? I ask you that. What do I find? One man taking a shower and another one crawling in my window, and both of them trying to show me their old and rares. What chance has a poor girl got, anyway? I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that shrimp Nockashima came crawling out from under the bed."
"Listen, lady," put in the fireman in an injured voice, "I didn't climb up this ladder for the express purpose of showing you my old and rare. You've got me all wrong. I'm not like that, lady. I generally have to know a person a long time before I even think of such a thing. I know how to act. It's the old bird that started all this, him and his precious old and rare. What's he got to be so proud about, anyway?"
"I'm sure I can't tell you," Spray declared, "but he does seem to be just mad about it. That's all he's had on his mind since the moment I first set eyes on him."
"How they do run on," Rex Pebble mused, looking into his empty glass. "I wonder what it's all about?"
He was not long in learning. Major Lynnhaven Jaffey had been wondering the same thing himself. He now decided to take definite steps to bring the situation to a head.
"Aren't either of you fond of reading?" he asked, "because, if you're not, I might just as well call the whole thing off."
"Sure I'm fond of reading," retorted Spray, "but what has that to do with your old and rare?"
"Say, lady," suggested the fireman, seized by a sudden inspiration, "maybe the old guy is tattooed. That might explain everything."
"Will you please keep still!" cried Spray.
The suggestion of the fireman had so intrigued Mr. Pebble that he actually tried to worm his eye through the key-hole. Perhaps, after all, the man had hit upon the explanation of the Major's quaint obsession.
"I confess I am quite unable to follow this conversation," that gentleman announced in distant tones, "but I am referring to my collection of old and rare books. I have some exceptionally fine items, I assure you."
For a moment dead silence followed this revelation; then Spray Summers rallied her scattered faculties and made as women will—a courageous effort to save her own face at the expense of someone else's.
"Oh," she said a little flatly. "Why, of course. For goodness sake, Major, old boy, what did you think I was talking about? Address your remarks to this dumb fireman. He's balled everything all up. But don't be too severe with him, Major. He doesn't know any better. You know how firemen are. They are born with low instincts—all of them."
"Is that so?" retorted the fireman. "Trying to make me the goat, are you? Well, it won't wash. I had nothing to do with this old and rare party to begin with. And if you'd like to know the truth you're about the rummiest couple I've run into since I've been on the force. There you stand, the two of you, with only a pair of towels for protection, and acting as high and mighty as if you were clad in blinking ermine."
"What's a blinking ermine?" asked Spray, hoping to change the subject.
"Aw, it's some sort of a skin, muttered the fireman sulkily. "You should know, lady. They get it off animals—some sort of animals."
"Who do?" Major Jaffey wanted to know.
"Does," corrected Spray.
"How do I know?" exclaimed the fireman. "The guys what go after the blinking ermine, I suppose. Don't ask me, lady. I'm just a dumb fireman with low instincts like you said."
"You're all of that," replied Spray, "but I have to ask you questions. What makes these ermine blink?"
"Oh, let me alone!" cried the fireman peevishly. "I can't stand any more. Maybe the blinking ermine blink because they don't know any better. Maybe they blink because their eyes get all watery from looking out for trappers. There might be a hundred reasons, and," he concluded in a hoarse voice, "maybe they don't blink at all. This house is burning up, and there you stand trying to get me to tell you bedtime stories about cute little blinking ermine. To hell with ermine, I say!"
"And that's about the only sensible thing you have said," Spray told him coldly.
"Madam," declared the Major, "this fireman deserves to be pitied. It's plain to see he's in a state of nerves. He might even be a little mad. Not dangerous, you know, but still scarcely responsible. I have long believed that all firemen eventually become a trifle mental—like nurses and doctors and dentists; also butchers and judges."
Horrid, gasping noises from the window put an end to the Major's observations.
"Ugh!" mouthed the enraged fireman, and this was followed by a sound not unlike a long drawn out, "o-o-o,h."
Neither noise the man made was very pretty to hear. "Just wait till I get my hands on the old guy," he continued more coherently. "I'm going to tear his naked body to bits."
"Be quiet, my good man," said the Major, not unkindly; then, turning to Spray, he politely inquired, "Shall I show you my old and rare now, madam? I took the liberty of tucking the bundle in the bathroom where it would be quite safe."
"Then you also took the liberty of tucking your body under the shower," she commented caustically, "where it would be quite safe. Go on and produce your old and rare, even if it is an anticlimax."
"Say, lady," said the fireman plaintively, as soon as the Major had left the room, "I'm geting awful tired standing out here on this ladder. Can I come in now and adjust my nozzle?"
"Adjust your what?" gasped Spray a little hysterically, swinging quickly about. "You don't know what you're saying. You must be delirious."
"My nozzle, lady," went on the fireman in a dull, patient voice. "My nozzle needs fixing."
"Be still!" Spray scolded. "Don't go on about it. You're as confiding as a boy of five." She looked at the fireman rebukingly; then her heart softened at the sight of his worried face. "Oh, all right," she continued in a hopeless voice. "It's all too much for a single mind to bear. Come on in if you have to, but you've got to wait until the Major gets out of the bathroom. What with you and your nozzle, as you so childishly call it, and that one with his blooming old and rare, I'm beginning to think I'm going a little mad myself."
And so was Rex Pebble. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, he flung open the door and strode majestically into the room. He was just in time to see the fireman entering through the window, laboriously dragging after him a length of hose with a gleaming nozzle.
"Oh!" exclaimed Spray, looking at the hose. "Oh dear, how stupid of me. I didn't understand."
"And I still don't," said Mr. Pebble. "What goes on in here?"
"Gord!" muttered the fireman, gazing at Rex Pebble with round, wondering eyes. "Another old and rare. Don't anybody ever wear any clothes at all in this joint?"
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