The Man With Two Left Feet
P. G. Wodehouse
Part 5 out of 5
peace had reigned.
Gradually, therefore, as the chase warmed up, citizens of all shapes
and sizes began to assemble. Miss Pillenger's screams and the general
appearance of Mr Meggs gave food for thought. Having brooded over the
situation, they decided at length to take a hand, with the result that
as Mr Meggs's grasp fell upon Miss Pillenger the grasp of several of
his fellow-townsmen fell upon him.
'Save me!' said Miss Pillenger.
Mr Meggs pointed speechlessly to the letters, which she still grasped
in her right hand. He had taken practically no exercise for twenty
years, and the pace had told upon him.
Constable Gooch, guardian of the town's welfare, tightened his hold on
Mr Meggs's arm, and desired explanations.
'He--he was going to murder me,' said Miss Pillenger.
'Kill him,' advised an austere bystander.
'What do you mean you were going to murder the lady?' inquired
Mr Meggs found speech.
'I--I--I--I only wanted those letters.'
'You charge her with stealing 'em?'
'He gave them me to post with his own hands,' cried Miss Pillenger.
'I know I did, but I want them back.'
By this time the constable, though age had to some extent dimmed his
sight, had recognized beneath the perspiration, features which, though
they were distorted, were nevertheless those of one whom he respected
as a leading citizen.
'Why, Mr Meggs!' he said.
This identification by one in authority calmed, if it a little
disappointed, the crowd. What it was they did not know, but, it was
apparently not a murder, and they began to drift off.
'Why don't you give Mr Meggs his letters when he asks you, ma'am?' said
Miss Pillenger drew herself up haughtily.
'Here are your letters, Mr Meggs, I hope we shall never meet again.'
Mr Meggs nodded. That was his view, too.
All things work together for good. The following morning Mr Meggs awoke
from a dreamless sleep with a feeling that some curious change had
taken place in him. He was abominably stiff, and to move his limbs was
pain, but down in the centre of his being there was a novel sensation
of lightness. He could have declared that he was happy.
Wincing, he dragged himself out of bed and limped to the window. He
threw it open. It was a perfect morning. A cool breeze smote his face,
bringing with it pleasant scents and the soothing sound of God's
creatures beginning a new day.
An astounding thought struck him.
'Why, I feel well!'
'It must be the exercise I took yesterday. By George, I'll do it
He drank in the air luxuriously. Inside him, the wild-cat gave him a
sudden claw, but it was a half-hearted effort, the effort of one who
knows that he is beaten. Mr Meggs was so absorbed in his thoughts that
he did not even notice it.
'London,' he was saying to himself. 'One of these physical culture
places.... Comparatively young man.... Put myself in their hands....
Mild, regular exercise....'
He limped to the bathroom.
THE MAN WITH TWO LEFT FEET
Students of the folk-lore of the United States of America are no doubt
familiar with the quaint old story of Clarence MacFadden. Clarence
MacFadden, it seems, was 'wishful to dance, but his feet wasn't gaited
that way. So he sought a professor and asked him his price, and said he
was willing to pay. The professor' (the legend goes on) 'looked down
with alarm at his feet and marked their enormous expanse; and he tacked
on a five to his regular price for teaching MacFadden to dance.'
I have often been struck by the close similarity between the case of
Clarence and that of Henry Wallace Mills. One difference alone presents
itself. It would seem to have been mere vanity and ambition that
stimulated the former; whereas the motive force which drove Henry Mills
to defy Nature and attempt dancing was the purer one of love. He did it
to please his wife. Had he never gone to Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm,
that popular holiday resort, and there met Minnie Hill, he would
doubtless have continued to spend in peaceful reading the hours not
given over to work at the New York bank at which he was employed as
paying-cashier. For Henry was a voracious reader. His idea of a
pleasant evening was to get back to his little flat, take off his coat,
put on his slippers, light a pipe, and go on from the point where he
had left off the night before in his perusal of the BIS-CAL volume of
the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_--making notes as he read in a stout
notebook. He read the BIS-CAL volume because, after many days, he had
finished the A-AND, AND-AUS, and the AUS-BIS. There was something
admirable--and yet a little horrible--about Henry's method of study. He
went after Learning with the cold and dispassionate relentlessness of a
stoat pursuing a rabbit. The ordinary man who is paying instalments on
the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_ is apt to get over-excited and to
skip impatiently to Volume XXVIII (VET-ZYM) to see how it all comes out
in the end. Not so Henry. His was not a frivolous mind. He intended to
read the _Encyclopaedia_ through, and he was not going to spoil
his pleasure by peeping ahead.
It would seem to be an inexorable law of Nature that no man shall shine
at both ends. If he has a high forehead and a thirst for wisdom, his
fox-trotting (if any) shall be as the staggerings of the drunken;
while, if he is a good dancer, he is nearly always petrified from the
ears upward. No better examples of this law could have been found than
Henry Mills and his fellow-cashier, Sidney Mercer. In New York banks
paying-cashiers, like bears, tigers, lions, and other fauna, are always
shut up in a cage in pairs, and are consequently dependent on each
other for entertainment and social intercourse when business is slack.
Henry Mills and Sidney simply could not find a subject in common.
Sidney knew absolutely nothing of even such elementary things as Abana,
Aberration, Abraham, or Acrogenae; while Henry, on his side, was
scarcely aware that there had been any developments in the dance since
the polka. It was a relief to Henry when Sidney threw up his job to
join the chorus of a musical comedy, and was succeeded by a man who,
though full of limitations, could at least converse intelligently on
Such, then, was Henry Wallace Mills. He was in the middle thirties,
temperate, studious, a moderate smoker, and--one would have said--a
bachelor of the bachelors, armour-plated against Cupid's well-meant but
obsolete artillery. Sometimes Sidney Mercer's successor in the teller's
cage, a sentimental young man, would broach the topic of Woman and
Marriage. He would ask Henry if he ever intended to get married. On
such occasions Henry would look at him in a manner which was a blend of
scorn, amusement, and indignation; and would reply with a single word:
It was the way he said it that impressed you.
But Henry had yet to experience the unmanning atmosphere of a lonely
summer resort. He had only just reached the position in the bank where
he was permitted to take his annual vacation in the summer. Hitherto he
had always been released from his cage during the winter months, and
had spent his ten days of freedom at his flat, with a book in his hand
and his feet on the radiator. But the summer after Sidney Mercer's
departure they unleashed him in August.
It was meltingly warm in the city. Something in Henry cried out for the
country. For a month before the beginning of his vacation he devoted
much of the time that should have been given to the _Encyclopaedia
Britannica_ in reading summer-resort literature. He decided at
length upon Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm because the advertisements spoke
so well of it.
Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm was a rather battered frame building many
miles from anywhere. Its attractions included a Lovers' Leap, a Grotto,
golf-links--a five-hole course where the enthusiast found unusual
hazards in the shape of a number of goats tethered at intervals between
the holes--and a silvery lake, only portions of which were used as a
dumping-ground for tin cans and wooden boxes. It was all new and
strange to Henry and caused him an odd exhilaration. Something of
gaiety and reckless abandon began to creep into his veins. He had a
curious feeling that in these romantic surroundings some adventure
ought to happen to him.
At this juncture Minnie Hill arrived. She was a small, slim girl,
thinner and paler than she should have been, with large eyes that
seemed to Henry pathetic and stirred his chivalry. He began to think a
good deal about Minnie Hill.
And then one evening he met her on the shores of the silvery lake. He
was standing there, slapping at things that looked like mosquitoes, but
could not have been, for the advertisements expressly stated that none
were ever found in the neighbourhood of Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, when
along she came. She walked slowly, as if she were tired. A strange
thrill, half of pity, half of something else, ran through Henry. He
looked at her. She looked at him.
'Good evening,' he said.
They were the first words he had spoken to her. She never contributed
to the dialogue of the dining-room, and he had been too shy to seek her
out in the open.
She said 'Good evening,' too, tying the score. And there was silence
for a moment.
Commiseration overcame Henry's shyness.
'You're looking tired,' he said.
'I feel tired.' She paused. 'I overdid it in the city.'
'Oh, dancing. Did you dance much?'
'Yes; a great deal.'
A promising, even a dashing start But how to continue? For the first
time Henry regretted the steady determination of his methods with the
_Encyclopaedia_. How pleasant if he could have been in a position
to talk easily of Dancing. Then memory reminded him that, though he had
not yet got up to Dancing, it was only a few weeks before that he had
been reading of the Ballet.
'I don't dance myself,' he said, 'but I am fond of reading about it.
Did you know that the word "ballet" incorporated three distinct modern
words, "ballet", "ball", and "ballad", and that ballet-dancing was
originally accompanied by singing?'
It hit her. It had her weak. She looked at him with awe in her eyes.
One might almost say that she gaped at Henry.
'I hardly know anything,' she said.
'The first descriptive ballet seen in London, England,' said Henry,
quietly, 'was "The Tavern Bilkers", which was played at Drury Lane
'And the earliest modern ballet on record was that given by--by someone
to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of Milan in 1489.'
There was no doubt or hesitation about the date this time. It was
grappled to his memory by hoops of steel owing to the singular
coincidence of it being also his telephone number. He gave it out with
a roll, and the girl's eyes widened.
'What an awful lot you know!'
'Oh, no,' said Henry, modestly. 'I read a great deal.'
'It must be splendid to know a lot,' she said, wistfully. 'I've never
had time for reading. I've always wanted to. I think you're wonderful!'
Henry's soul was expanding like a flower and purring like a
well-tickled cat. Never in his life had he been admired by a woman. The
sensation was intoxicating.
Silence fell upon them. They started to walk back to the farm, warned
by the distant ringing of a bell that supper was about to materialize.
It was not a musical bell, but distance and the magic of this unusual
moment lent it charm. The sun was setting. It threw a crimson carpet
across the silvery lake. The air was very still. The creatures,
unclassified by science, who might have been mistaken for mosquitoes
had their presence been possible at Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, were
biting harder than ever. But Henry heeded them not. He did not even
slap at them. They drank their fill of his blood and went away to put
their friends on to this good thing; but for Henry they did not exist.
Strange things were happening to him. And, lying awake that night in
bed, he recognized the truth. He was in love.
After that, for the remainder of his stay, they were always together.
They walked in the woods, they sat by the silvery lake. He poured out
the treasures of his learning for her, and she looked at him with
reverent eyes, uttering from time to time a soft 'Yes' or a musical
In due season Henry went back to New York.
'You're dead wrong about love, Mills,' said his sentimental
fellow-cashier, shortly after his return. 'You ought to get married.'
'I'm going to,' replied Henry, briskly. 'Week tomorrow.'
Which stunned the other so thoroughly that he gave a customer who
entered at that moment fifteen dollars for a ten-dollar cheque, and had
to do some excited telephoning after the bank had closed.
Henry's first year as a married man was the happiest of his life. He
had always heard this period described as the most perilous of
matrimony. He had braced himself for clashings of tastes, painful
adjustments of character, sudden and unavoidable quarrels. Nothing of
the kind happened. From the very beginning they settled down in perfect
harmony. She merged with his life as smoothly as one river joins
another. He did not even have to alter his habits. Every morning he had
his breakfast at eight, smoked a cigarette, and walked to the
Underground. At five he left the bank, and at six he arrived home, for
it was his practice to walk the first two miles of the way, breathing
deeply and regularly. Then dinner. Then the quiet evening. Sometimes
the moving-pictures, but generally the quiet evening, he reading the
_Encyclopaedia_--aloud now--Minnie darning his socks, but never
ceasing to listen.
Each day brought the same sense of grateful amazement that he should be
so wonderfully happy, so extraordinarily peaceful. Everything was as
perfect as it could be. Minnie was looking a different girl. She had
lost her drawn look. She was filling out.
Sometimes he would suspend his reading for a moment, and look across at
her. At first he would see only her soft hair, as she bent over her
sewing. Then, wondering at the silence, she would look up, and he would
meet her big eyes. And then Henry would gurgle with happiness, and
demand of himself, silently:
'Can you beat it!'
It was the anniversary of their wedding. They celebrated it in fitting
style. They dined at a crowded and exhilarating Italian restaurant on a
street off Seventh Avenue, where red wine was included in the bill, and
excitable people, probably extremely clever, sat round at small tables
and talked all together at the top of their voices. After dinner they
saw a musical comedy. And then--the great event of the night--they
went on to supper at a glittering restaurant near Times Square.
There was something about supper at an expensive restaurant which had
always appealed to Henry's imagination. Earnest devourer as he was of
the solids of literature, he had tasted from time to time its lighter
face--those novels which begin with the hero supping in the midst of
the glittering throng and having his attention attracted to a
distinguished-looking elderly man with a grey imperial who is entering
with a girl so strikingly beautiful that the revellers turn, as she
passes, to look after her. And then, as he sits and smokes, a waiter
comes up to the hero and, with a soft '_Pardon, m'sieu!_' hands
him a note.
The atmosphere of Geisenheimer's suggested all that sort of thing to
Henry. They had finished supper, and he was smoking a cigar--his second
that day. He leaned back in his chair and surveyed the scene. He felt
braced up, adventurous. He had that feeling, which comes to all quiet
men who like to sit at home and read, that this was the sort of
atmosphere in which he really belonged. The brightness of it all--the
dazzling lights, the music, the hubbub, in which the deep-throated
gurgle of the wine-agent surprised while drinking soup blended with the
shriller note of the chorus-girl calling to her mate--these things got
Henry. He was thirty-six next birthday, but he felt a youngish
A voice spoke at his side. Henry looked up, to perceive Sidney Mercer.
The passage of a year, which had turned Henry into a married man, had
turned Sidney Mercer into something so magnificent that the spectacle
for a moment deprived Henry of speech. Faultless evening dress clung
with loving closeness to Sidney's lissom form. Gleaming shoes of
perfect patent leather covered his feet. His light hair was brushed
back into a smooth sleekness on which the electric lights shone like
stars on some beautiful pool. His practically chinless face beamed
amiably over a spotless collar.
Henry wore blue serge.
'What are you doing here, Henry, old top?' said the vision. 'I didn't
know you ever came among the bright lights.'
His eyes wandered off to Minnie. There was admiration in them, for
Minnie was looking her prettiest.
'Wife,' said Henry, recovering speech. And to Minnie: 'Mr Mercer. Old
'So you're married? Wish you luck. How's the bank?'
Henry said the bank was doing as well as could be expected.
'You still on the stage?'
Mr Mercer shook his head importantly.
'Got better job. Professional dancer at this show. Rolling in money.
Why aren't you dancing?'
The words struck a jarring note. The lights and the music until that
moment had had a subtle psychological effect on Henry, enabling him to
hypnotize himself into a feeling that it was not inability to dance
that kept him in his seat, but that he had had so much of that sort of
thing that he really preferred to sit quietly and look on for a change.
Sidney's question changed all that. It made him face the truth.
'I don't dance.'
'For the love of Mike! I bet Mrs Mills does. Would you care for a turn,
'No, thank you, really.'
But remorse was now at work on Henry. He perceived that he had been
standing in the way of Minnie's pleasure. Of course she wanted to
dance. All women did. She was only refusing for his sake.
'Nonsense, Min. Go to it.'
Minnie looked doubtful.
'Of course you must dance, Min. I shall be all right. I'll sit here and
The next moment Minnie and Sidney were treading the complicated
measure; and simultaneously Henry ceased to be a youngish twenty-one
and was even conscious of a fleeting doubt as to whether he was really
Boil the whole question of old age down, and what it amounts to is that
a man is young as long as he can dance without getting lumbago, and, if
he cannot dance, he is never young at all. This was the truth that
forced itself upon Henry Wallace Mills, as he sat watching his wife
moving over the floor in the arms of Sidney Mercer. Even he could see
that Minnie danced well. He thrilled at the sight of her gracefulness;
and for the first time since his marriage he became introspective. It
had never struck him before how much younger Minnie was than himself.
When she had signed the paper at the City Hall on the occasion of the
purchase of the marriage licence, she had given her age, he remembered
now, as twenty-six. It had made no impression on him at the time. Now,
however, he perceived clearly that between twenty-six and thirty-five
there was a gap of nine years; and a chill sensation came upon him of
being old and stodgy. How dull it must be for poor little Minnie to be
cooped up night after night with such an old fogy? Other men took their
wives out and gave them a good time, dancing half the night with them.
All he could do was to sit at home and read Minnie dull stuff from the
_Encyclopaedia_. What a life for the poor child! Suddenly, he felt
acutely jealous of the rubber-jointed Sidney Mercer, a man whom
hitherto he had always heartily despised.
The music stopped. They came back to the table, Minnie with a pink glow
on her face that made her younger than ever; Sidney, the insufferable
ass, grinning and smirking and pretending to be eighteen. They looked
like a couple of children--Henry, catching sight of himself in a
mirror, was surprised to find that his hair was not white.
Half an hour later, in the cab going home, Minnie, half asleep, was
aroused by a sudden stiffening of the arm that encircled her waist and
a sudden snort dose to her ear.
It was Henry Wallace Mills resolving that he would learn to dance.
Being of a literary turn of mind and also economical, Henry's first
step towards his new ambition was to buy a fifty-cent book entitled
_The ABC of Modern Dancing_, by 'Tango'. It would, he felt--not
without reason--be simpler and less expensive if he should learn the
steps by the aid of this treatise than by the more customary method of
taking lessons. But quite early in the proceedings he was faced by
complications. In the first place, it was his intention to keep what he
was doing a secret from Minnie, in order to be able to give her a
pleasant surprise on her birthday, which would be coming round in a few
weeks. In the second place, _The ABC of Modern Dancing_ proved on
investigation far more complex than its title suggested.
These two facts were the ruin of the literary method, for, while it was
possible to study the text and the plates at the bank, the home was the
only place in which he could attempt to put the instructions into
practice. You cannot move the right foot along dotted line A B and
bring the left foot round curve C D in a paying-cashier's cage in a
bank, nor, if you are at all sensitive to public opinion, on the
pavement going home. And while he was trying to do it in the parlour of
the flat one night when he imagined that Minnie was in the kitchen
cooking supper, she came in unexpectedly to ask how he wanted the steak
cooked. He explained that he had had a sudden touch of cramp, but the
incident shook his nerve.
After this he decided that he must have lessons.
Complications did not cease with this resolve. Indeed, they became more
acute. It was not that there was any difficulty about finding an
instructor. The papers were full of their advertisements. He selected a
Mme Gavarni because she lived in a convenient spot. Her house was in a
side street, with a station within easy reach. The real problem was
when to find time for the lessons. His life was run on such a regular
schedule that he could hardly alter so important a moment in it as the
hour of his arrival home without exciting comment. Only deceit could
provide a solution.
'Min, dear,' he said at breakfast
Henry turned mauve. He had never lied to her before.
'I'm not getting enough exercise.'
'Why you look so well.'
'I get a kind of heavy feeling sometimes. I think I'll put on another
mile or so to my walk on my way home. So--so I'll be back a little
later in future.'
'Very well, dear.'
It made him feel like a particularly low type of criminal, but, by
abandoning his walk, he was now in a position to devote an hour a day
to the lessons; and Mme Gavarni had said that that would be ample.
'Sure, Bill,' she had said. She was a breezy old lady with a military
moustache and an unconventional manner with her clientele. 'You come to
me an hour a day, and, if you haven't two left feet, we'll make you the
pet of society in a month.'
'Is that so?'
'It sure is. I never had a failure yet with a pupe, except one. And
that wasn't my fault.'
'Had he two left feet?'
'Hadn't any feet at all. Fell off of a roof after the second lesson,
and had to have 'em cut off him. At that, I could have learned him to
tango with wooden legs, only he got kind of discouraged. Well, see you
Monday, Bill. Be good.'
And the kindly old soul, retrieving her chewing gum from the panel of
the door where she had placed it to facilitate conversation, dismissed
And now began what, in later years, Henry unhesitatingly considered the
most miserable period of his existence. There may be times when a man
who is past his first youth feels more unhappy and ridiculous than when
he is taking a course of lessons in the modern dance, but it is not
easy to think of them. Physically, his new experience caused Henry
acute pain. Muscles whose existence he had never suspected came into
being for--apparently--the sole purpose of aching. Mentally he suffered
This was partly due to the peculiar method of instruction in vogue at
Mme Gavarni's, and partly to the fact that, when it came to the actual
lessons, a sudden niece was produced from a back room to give them. She
was a blonde young lady with laughing blue eyes, and Henry never
clasped her trim waist without feeling a black-hearted traitor to his
absent Minnie. Conscience racked him. Add to this the sensation of
being a strange, jointless creature with abnormally large hands and
feet, and the fact that it was Mme Gavarni's custom to stand in a
corner of the room during the hour of tuition, chewing gum and making
comments, and it is not surprising that Henry became wan and thin.
Mme Gavarni had the trying habit of endeavouring to stimulate Henry by
frequently comparing his performance and progress with that of a
cripple whom she claimed to have taught at some previous time.
She and the niece would have spirited arguments in his presence as to
whether or not the cripple had one-stepped better after his third
lesson than Henry after his fifth. The niece said no. As well, perhaps,
but not better. Mme Gavarni said that the niece was forgetting the way
the cripple had slid his feet. The niece said yes, that was so, maybe
she was. Henry said nothing. He merely perspired.
He made progress slowly. This could not be blamed upon his
instructress, however. She did all that one woman could to speed him
up. Sometimes she would even pursue him into the street in order to
show him on the side-walk a means of doing away with some of his
numerous errors of _technique_, the elimination of which would
help to make him definitely the cripple's superior. The misery of
embracing her indoors was as nothing to the misery of embracing her on
Nevertheless, having paid for his course of lessons in advance, and
being a determined man, he did make progress. One day, to his surprise,
he found his feet going through the motions without any definite
exercise of will-power on his part--almost as if they were endowed with
an intelligence of their own. It was the turning-point. It filled him
with a singular pride such as he had not felt since his first rise of
salary at the bank.
Mme Gavarni was moved to dignified praise.
'Some speed, kid!' she observed. 'Some speed!'
Henry blushed modestly. It was the accolade.
Every day, as his skill at the dance became more manifest, Henry found
occasion to bless the moment when he had decided to take lessons. He
shuddered sometimes at the narrowness of his escape from disaster.
Every day now it became more apparent to him, as he watched Minnie,
that she was chafing at the monotony of her life. That fatal supper had
wrecked the peace of their little home. Or perhaps it had merely
precipitated the wreck. Sooner or later, he told himself, she was bound
to have wearied of the dullness of her lot. At any rate, dating from
shortly after that disturbing night, a lack of ease and spontaneity
seemed to creep into their relations. A blight settled on the home.
Little by little Minnie and he were growing almost formal towards each
other. She had lost her taste for being read to in the evenings and had
developed a habit of pleading a headache and going early to bed.
Sometimes, catching her eye when she was not expecting it, he surprised
an enigmatic look in it. It was a look, however, which he was able to
read. It meant that she was bored.
It might have been expected that this state of affairs would have
distressed Henry. It gave him, on the contrary, a pleasurable thrill.
It made him feel that it had been worth it, going through the torments
of learning to dance. The more bored she was now the greater her
delight when he revealed himself dramatically. If she had been
contented with the life which he could offer her as a non-dancer, what
was the sense of losing weight and money in order to learn the steps?
He enjoyed the silent, uneasy evenings which had supplanted those
cheery ones of the first year of their marriage. The more uncomfortable
they were now, the more they would appreciate their happiness later on.
Henry belonged to the large circle of human beings who consider that
there is acuter pleasure in being suddenly cured of toothache than in
never having toothache at all.
He merely chuckled inwardly, therefore, when, on the morning of her
birthday, having presented her with a purse which he knew she had long
coveted, he found himself thanked in a perfunctory and mechanical way.
'I'm glad you like it,' he said.
Minnie looked at the purse without enthusiasm.
'It's just what I wanted,' she said, listlessly.
'Well, I must be going. I'll get the tickets for the theatre while I'm
Minnie hesitated for a moment.
'I don't believe I want to go to the theatre much tonight, Henry.'
'Nonsense. We must have a party on your birthday. We'll go to the
theatre and then we'll have supper at Geisenheimer's again. I may be
working after hours at the bank today, so I guess I won't come home.
I'll meet you at that Italian place at six.'
'Very well. You'll miss your walk, then?'
'Yes. It doesn't matter for once.'
'No. You're still going on with your walks, then?'
'Oh, yes, yes.'
'Three miles every day?'
'Never miss it. It keeps me well.'
Yes, there was a distinct chill in the atmosphere. Thank goodness,
thought Henry, as he walked to the station, it would be different
tomorrow morning. He had rather the feeling of a young knight who has
done perilous deeds in secret for his lady, and is about at last to
receive credit for them.
Geisenheimer's was as brilliant and noisy as it had been before when
Henry reached it that night, escorting a reluctant Minnie. After a
silent dinner and a theatrical performance during which neither had
exchanged more than a word between the acts, she had wished to abandon
the idea of supper and go home. But a squad of police could not have
kept Henry from Geisenheimer's. His hour had come. He had thought of
this moment for weeks, and he visualized every detail of his big scene.
At first they would sit at their table in silent discomfort. Then
Sidney Mercer would come up, as before, to ask Minnie to dance. And
then--then--Henry would rise and, abandoning all concealment, exclaim
grandly: 'No! I am going to dance with my wife!' Stunned amazement of
Minnie, followed by wild joy. Utter rout and discomfiture of that
pin-head, Mercer. And then, when they returned to their table, he
breathing easily and regularly as a trained dancer in perfect condition
should, she tottering a little with the sudden rapture of it all, they
would sit with their heads close together and start a new life. That
was the scenario which Henry had drafted.
It worked out--up to a certain point--as smoothly as ever it had done
in his dreams. The only hitch which he had feared--to wit, the
non-appearance of Sidney Mercer, did not occur. It would spoil the
scene a little, he had felt, if Sidney Mercer did not present himself
to play the role of foil; but he need have had no fears on this point.
Sidney had the gift, not uncommon in the chinless, smooth-baked type of
man, of being able to see a pretty girl come into the restaurant even
when his back was towards the door. They had hardly seated themselves
when he was beside their table bleating greetings.
'Why, Henry! Always here!'
'Many happy returns of the day, Mrs Mills. We've just time for one turn
before the waiter comes with your order. Come along.'
The band was staggering into a fresh tune, a tune that Henry knew well.
Many a time had Mme Gavarni hammered it out of an aged and unwilling
piano in order that he might dance with her blue-eyed niece. He rose.
'No!' he exclaimed grandly. 'I am going to dance with my wife!'
He had not under-estimated the sensation which he had looked forward to
causing. Minnie looked at him with round eyes. Sidney Mercer was
'I thought you couldn't dance.'
'You never can tell,' said Henry, lightly. 'It looks easy enough.
Anyway, I'll try.'
'Henry!' cried Minnie, as he clasped her.
He had supposed that she would say something like that, but hardly in
that kind of voice. There is a way of saying 'Henry!' which conveys
surprised admiration and remorseful devotion; but she had not said it
in that way. There had been a note of horror in her voice. Henry's was
a simple mind, and the obvious solution, that Minnie thought that he
had drunk too much red wine at the Italian restaurant, did not occur to
He was, indeed, at the moment too busy to analyse vocal inflections.
They were on the floor now, and it was beginning to creep upon him like
a chill wind that the scenario which he had mapped out was subject to
At first all had been well. They had been almost alone on the floor,
and he had begun moving his feet along dotted line A B with the smooth
vim which had characterized the last few of his course of lessons. And
then, as if by magic, he was in the midst of a crowd--a mad, jigging
crowd that seemed to have no sense of direction, no ability whatever to
keep out of his way. For a moment the tuition of weeks stood by him.
Then, a shock, a stifled cry from Minnie, and the first collision had
occurred. And with that all the knowledge which he had so painfully
acquired passed from Henry's mind, leaving it an agitated blank. This
was a situation for which his slidings round an empty room had not
prepared him. Stage-fright at its worst came upon him. Somebody charged
him in the back and asked querulously where he thought he was going. As
he turned with a half-formed notion of apologizing, somebody else
rammed him from the other side. He had a momentary feeling as if he
were going down the Niagara Rapids in a barrel, and then he was lying
on the floor with Minnie on top of him. Somebody tripped over his head.
He sat up. Somebody helped him to his feet. He was aware of Sidney
Mercer at his side.
'Do it again,' said Sidney, all grin and sleek immaculateness. 'It went
down big, but lots of them didn't see it.'
The place was full of demon laughter.
* * * * *
'Min!' said Henry.
They were in the parlour of their little flat. Her back was towards
him, and he could not see her face. She did not answer. She preserved
the silence which she had maintained since they had left the
restaurant. Not once during the journey home had she spoken.
The clock on the mantelpiece ticked on. Outside an Elevated train
rumbled by. Voices came from the street.
'Min, I'm sorry.'
'I thought I could do it. Oh, Lord!' Misery was in every note of
Henry's voice. 'I've been taking lessons every day since that night we
went to that place first. It's no good--I guess it's like the old woman
said. I've got two left feet, and it's no use my ever trying to do it.
I kept it secret from you, what I was doing. I wanted it to be a
wonderful surprise for you on your birthday. I knew how sick and tired
you were getting of being married to a man who never took you out,
because he couldn't dance. I thought it was up to me to learn, and give
you a good time, like other men's wives. I--'
She had turned, and with a dull amazement he saw that her whole face
had altered. Her eyes were shining with a radiant happiness.
'Henry! Was _that_ why you went to that house--to take dancing
He stared at her without speaking. She came to him, laughing.
'So that was why you pretended you were still doing your walks?'
'I saw you come out of that house. I was just going to the station at
the end of the street, and I saw you. There was a girl with you, a girl
with yellow hair. You hugged her!'
Henry licked his dry lips.
'Min,' he said huskily. 'You won't believe it, but she was trying to
teach me the Jelly Roll.'
She held him by the lapels of his coat.
'Of course I believe it. I understand it all now. I thought at the time
that you were just saying good-bye to her! Oh, Henry, why ever didn't
you tell me what you were doing? Oh, yes, I know you wanted it to be a
surprise for me on my birthday, but you must have seen there was
something wrong. You must have seen that I thought something. Surely
you noticed how I've been these last weeks?'
'I thought it was just that you were finding it dull.'
'Dull! Here, with you!'
'It was after you danced that night with Sidney Mercer. I thought the
whole thing out. You're so much younger than I, Min. It didn't seem
right for you to have to spend your life being read to by a fellow like
'But I loved it!'
'You had to dance. Every girl has to. Women can't do without it.'
'This one can. Henry, listen! You remember how ill and worn out I was
when you met me first at that farm? Do you know why it was? It was
because I had been slaving away for years at one of those places where
you go in and pay five cents to dance with the lady instructresses. I
was a lady instructress. Henry! Just think what I went through! Every
day having to drag a million heavy men with large feet round a big
room. I tell you, you are a professional compared with some of them!
They trod on my feet and leaned their two hundred pounds on me and
nearly killed me. Now perhaps you can understand why I'm not crazy
about dancing! Believe me, Henry, the kindest thing you can do to me is
to tell me I must never dance again.'
'You--you--' he gulped. 'Do you really mean that you can--can stand the
sort of life we're living here? You really don't find it dull?'
She ran to the bookshelf, and came back with a large volume.
'Read to me, Henry, dear. Read me something now. It seems ages and ages
since you used to. Read me something out of the _Encyclopaedia_!'
Henry was looking at the book in his hand. In the midst of a joy that
almost overwhelmed him, his orderly mind was conscious of something
'But this is the MED-MUM volume, darling.'
'Is it? Well, that'll be all right. Read me all about "Mum".'
'But we're only in the CAL-CHA--' He wavered. 'Oh, well--I' he went on,
recklessly. 'I don't care. Do you?'
'No. Sit down here, dear, and I'll sit on the floor.'
Henry cleared his throat.
'"Milicz, or Militsch (d. 1374), Bohemian divine, was the most
influential among those preachers and writers in Moravia and Bohemia
who, during the fourteenth century, in a certain sense paved the way
for the reforming activity of Huss."'
He looked down. Minnie's soft hair was resting against his knee. He put
out a hand and stroked it. She turned and looked up, and he met her big
'Can you beat it?' said Henry, silently, to himself.
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