FICTION

A Man and a Hundred Maids

Today's lesson : Too many girls may be worse than none at all

FRANK BUNCE July 15 1936
FICTION

A Man and a Hundred Maids

Today's lesson : Too many girls may be worse than none at all

FRANK BUNCE July 15 1936

A Man and a Hundred Maids

Today's lesson : Too many girls may be worse than none at all

MR. HATFIELD estimated with approval, faintly mixed with foreboding, the head and shoulders of the young man across the employment desk from him. As one of those persons who promote things, he had seen a great deal of the world and people, and he knew how much that particular kind of head and shoulders can mean to a man in most parts of the Occident, where they are considered approximately the standard of masculine beauty. Also, knowing something of women, he realized just how much trouble they can get their possessor into.

“This here is kind of a peculiar job, Mr. Williams,” he said. It was significant that he did not have to glance at the card form, as usual, to verify the name; also that he was not on his best grammatical behavior. The young man was known to him through his close reading of the sjDorts pages of newspapers; and he was always consciously vulgar with people he wished to set at ease. “The man we want must be able to swim, of course. And he must be young and single. But the big thing is, he’s got to be the kind that can take his women or leave them alone. I le’ll be, kind of, you might say, a man with a hundred maids.”

“You interest me strangely,” the young man said.

"It’s like this,” Mr. Hatfield elucidated. “A lady named Miss Harmon has asked us to get her a lifeguard for the summer. She has that Girls’ Summeratorium up by Point Gloster. Maybe you’ve heard about it, if you’ve been around in society much?”

“I haven’t been around in society much,” the young man said.

“Well, it’s a joint where the upper crust, so to speak, have gone to sending their sub-deb daughters during the summer months. It gets them out of underfoot, you might say, until they’re ready to be turned loose on other people.” “A nice idea,” the young man approved with the fervor of one who has suffered much from sub-debs getting under foot.

“Well, they got to be amused, of course,” Mr. Hatfield went on. “So there’s ponies for them to ride and games arranged for them to play, like putting the shot and shooting bows and arrows and such. And of course there’s a beach and water for them to swim in. And there,” he said, frowning heavily, “is where the trouble comes in. Look now: You can have an old bald-headed man for a riding instructor. You can have big, wide lady athletes to show them how to put the shot and shoot bow-s and arrows. But for a lifeguard you got to have a young man, and he’s got to be husky and handsome. The girls won’t stand for anything else. Y'ou know how they are about lifeguards.” “Yes,” the young man said. “I know how they are about lifeguards.”

“Well, the thing is, Miss Harmon hasn’t ever been able to get a lifeguard that can hold out more than a week or so. Last year she had to change lifeguards sixteen times. They’d be all right for a day or two, treating all the girls nice and, so to sjjeak, lolling in a Mohammedan’s paradise. But then they’d fall for some special little bit of fluff, and all the other girls would get mad and pack up and threaten to leave. So you see why I say if you want this job you gotta be able to take your women or leave them alone.”

"Where's your cramp?" Randy asked. "I never had any," Miss Harmon confessed.

FRANK BUNCE

“I can leave them alone.” the young man said, with determination, stretching out his long, firm legs. He had been loose in the city for six weeks, ample time to convince him that a mere diploma in mining engineering and a shining record in college athletics were not enough to get him a job. and he was getting very tired of his two-by-four bedroom and twenty-five-cent meals.

“Well, then ...” said Mr. Hatfield, relieved: and twenty minutes later, the young man, Randy Williams, was on the way to the building exit with a letter to be presented to a Miss Wilma Harmon at Camp Summeratorium, and the thoughtful addition of boat and bus tickets good for transportation there.

"D FFORE he left town, Randy stopped in at a half dozen other agencies to inform them of his change of address. There was always a thin chance that someone would want a man for something too dangerous or remote or difficult to suit the long string of applicants ahead of him, and he wanted to miss no bets. Then, because he needed very badly the attractive salary this summer job would bring him, he went into rigorous training for it. On the Ixiat up, he squelched successively a lovely blonde girl who thought it would be heavenly to wander aft into a spot of darkness under the bridge; then a willowy, hennaed woman, who used her eyes and shoulder ends skilfully; and finally, a shy, unformed little thing who went mad about him in the blatant, unrepressed way of shy, unformed little things when they crack. The kiss the willowy woman bestowed upon him at departure was quite chaste.

As the only passenger aboard the bus that drove him to the camp, he was able to let his defenses drop and speculate upon what he might be getting into. The girls, of course, would be of a pattern with girls everywhere. Seventy-five per cent of them would be pretty, the remaining twentyfive per cent would have robustly developed personalities, and all of them would be clever. With determination he felt he could handle them. His employer, however, might be more difficult. Undoubtedly, with a name like Wilma Harmon, she would be old, brittle, and starved for romance. Such women always wanted attention, but personable young men had to be careful not to exercise too much charm on them or they found themselves with an embarrassing situation on their hands. He would be circumspect with Miss Wilma Harmon.

The bus s\\ ung on to a sudden driveway between noble pines, bisected a village of log cabins infested with vague girls, and stopped before one of those sprawling manor houses most people never see outside the movies. One porter scampered to take Randy’s luggage, while another porter trailed uselessly, and a major-domoish person, after a moment of shock when Randy made known his errand and identity, apologetically detoured them from the manor house to a male servants’ barracks set well back from it. Randy in last years flannels and a jersey coat looked like one of those high-born persons who should be given guest suites and an uncomfortable amount of attention before they lecture, and the major-domo’s sense of the fitness of things was grievously shaken. Later, after Randy was installed and furbished, he was seized by one of the lady athletic instructors, who was not pretty but had a robustly developed personality, and taken in to Miss Harmon.

Randy for a while didn’t know she was Miss Harmon, or things might not have turned out as they did. He made the natural deduction from the fact that she sat at a desk in the manor-house office, that she was some kind of secretary and as such could be esrmated merely as a woman. He looked at her once and decided she was extremely restful to the eyes after the sun glare of out-of-doors. He looked at her again and concluded that her chief charm was her eyes, which were long and well lashed and of a deep blue or

violet. Then without actually staring in a rude way, he checked up on her nose and mouth and hair, and was lost . . . And then the lady athletic instructor finished discussing with her whatever it was they had been discussing, and turned to say casually: “OhMiss Harmon, this is Mr. Williams.”

Randy gave her the letter from Mr. Hatfield.

rT'HERE WERE any number of other things he might -*• have done. He might have talked wittily, charmingly about inconsequential things until she had time to get interested in him as a man. He might have paid her that superbest of compliments of staring at her with a slow glow in his eyes or being clumsy or inarticulate. He might have given her something to remember tenderly always by saying: “Miss Harmon, I am sorry. I came here on the understanding that I was not to fall in love with anybody. Since a moment ago. when I paused before this desk and looked at you, I know that that is impossible. 1 trust I have not inconvenienced you. Good-by.” But being well broken to the tradition that no gentleman misrepresents himself, even tacit ly, or makes love without certain proper preliminaries, he offered her the letter.

She took it, after one rather breathless glance at him, and gave it her attention. When she looked up. her manner was that of employer to employee, with something else added a vague but determined frostiness that puzzled and disconcerted him.

“Sit down. Mr. Williams,” she said.

He sitt down.

“Mr. Hatfield has told you something of the nature of your duties here?” she suggested, lie nodded, and she went on, without kxiking at him: “He also told you of a certain rather unusual stipulation we have found it

necessary to make?”

“That your lifeguards must not devote too much attention to any one girl? Yes,” he said.

“Do you think you can conscientiously promise that?” Her manner was brisk, impersonal as if she had been asking him whether he could do some such thing as a double flip from the springboard.

“Yes,” Randy said.

“You seem very sure of yourself,” she commented, and it seemed for a moment, unreasonably, that she was angry. Then she was brisk, business-like again.

“You’ll find some of the girls very troublesome.” she said. “The majority, of course, will just moon from a decent distance, but there are half a dozen or so who are accustomed to getting what they want and won’t rest until they have it. Perhaps I’d best identify them for you so you won’t be taken entirely off guard.”

“Please,” he said. The humor of the situation impressed itself upon him and he grinned.

She did not. “There is one girl named Pewee who will be very bad, I know,” she went on in a directors’-report voice. “She is small, extremely shapely, and though she is not yet seventeen, the record of her conquests would make much better story material than the loves of Helen and Cleopatra and such people.”

“I’ll gird myself against Pewee,” he promised.

“And then there is Clara. Clara.” Miss Harmon said, with telling simplicity, “is a red-head. And Mac apd Tillie and Betty and Bob. They hunt in couples, but they would cheerfully slit each other’s throats where a man is involved.”

“Oh.” said Randy.

“They’ll be the worst.” she summed up. “Though you’ll find the others annoying enough in various degrees. Aside from that, I think you ought to find the job rather pleasant. You’ll be required to be on duty only in the afternoons from two to five-thirty, and occasionally at night, when someone gets a hankering for a moonlight swim. We permit the girls to have their boys up once or twice a month for a dance in the pavilion, but that needn’t concern you unless you choose to attend.” She raised her eyes to him. “Now do you still think you want the job?”

“Yes,” he said. “But there’s one thing I ought to mention. I have my application on file with several agencies for another job. It isn’t likely that anything will come up this summer, but if it should I’d have to ask you to get someone to replace me. I’d give you due notice, of course.”

To that she assented, and likewise to his offer to begin work that afternoon.

THE DAY took on a cloudy chill, and on the beach when he went out were only a scant handful of girls, the stout fellas who enjoyed swimming for its own sake. But when he returned from a trial spin in his motor boat, the whole hundred were there. To him at first they were only a blur of vociferous pink and tan things decorated with wisps of suits in vivid colors. It was only gradually that various personalities emerged from the mass. Pewee, who in addition to being extremely shapely, had the kind of eyes that smite like hammers, made herself felt first. Then he became aware of a pair of very fetching girls, who might have been either Mac and Tillie or Betty and Bob. At about the same time a head of red hair began to impress itself by reiteration upon his consciousness. And, of course, there were three other girls who nearly drowned.

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Randy didn’t mind so much the ones who tried drowning, even though the total of near-fatalities day by day increased to unreasonable proportions. The type that would use such a hackneyed device seemed satisfied with merely being hauled out and pumped over, and no one could object to a lifeguard doing his duty. But more troublesome issues arose. Pewee showed a sudden interest in the backstroke and a pathetic inability to learn it. I íe worked with her in snatches for several days, and then a delegation of girls waited on him to inform him that Pewee was actually a duck in the water and knew more about the backstroke than most people who went to the Olympics to do their swimming. When he refused her instruction next day, however, she reproachfully went out into the water and turned over on her back and, feeblythreshing, sank, repeating the process until he was whipped into tutoring her again.

Then a round score of others began to try the backstroke and sink . . The red-

headed Clara lumped together a heap of scrambled stones in her cabin and insisted upon his coming, in his capacity of gradu-

ate mineralogist, to pass judgment upon them. He went, properly accompanied by one of the lady athletic instructors, but a committee of girls promptly petitioned Miss Harmon to expel Clara for unfair and cutthroat competition; they called it indecency. Also, there was complaint about the four who hunted in couples. It was considered antisocial for them to jump in and ride with Randy every time he had to go out and rescue somebody. Especially since the boat was so small.

Miss Hannon summoned him to the office.

“You’ve done better than some of the others,” she said. Her tone was strongly tinctured with irony. “They concentrated on one girl. You seem to be heavily interested in six.”

Randy flushed. He wondered what would happen if he took her by the shoul-

ders and shook hêr until she began to rattle. Probably she’d start to take an interest in him. He decided not to risk it, however, and answered reasonably:

“Yoy have it wrong. It’s not I that’s interested ”

“I admire your modesty,” she murmured.

Again he was tempted to make her rattle, and again he curbed the impulse.

“I thought we could discuss this impersonally,” he said. “You know, and I know, that any male human being would stand in danger of being torn limb from limb in a pack of man-eating adolescents like these. J'he fact that Pewee and Clara and the Ferine Four have the others biting their nails only means that they have shown superior audacity and ingenuity, not that I’ve encouraged them.”

She regarded him with more approval.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I seem to have had you typed wrong. I thought you were conceited. Most attractive men are.”

“Is that why you’ve taken so much trouble to ignore me?” he asked. He realized that he wasn’t talking quite like an employee to an employer. But neither was it customary for an employer to care much whether or not an employee was conceited.

“Perhaps,” she admitted. “Mr. Hat field in his letter was so insistent upon your devastating charm.” She gave attention to a litter of paj)ers on the desk while she seemed to decide something. “You don’t have a chance to do much swimming for yourself, do you?” she asked suddenly, raising her eyes.

“No,” he said.

“I find it pleasant to do most of my swimming in the early mornings. Before sun-up,” she said. “It’s cooler then, and there’s never such a crowd around.”

“I like to get up early, too.” he told her, and rose.

HE WAS at the beach next morning at four. He waited an hour, and then, more angry than he had ever been before, was preparing to go back in when he sighted a bright bathing cap bobbing out in the lake from a finger of land a half mile or so up from him. He cursed himself for an idiot as he sprinted along the shore to the point where the finger crooked abruptly down to a deep cove that made an ideal diving hole. He might have known she wasn’t the kind to want to wade in.

From far out she was circling to return when he caught up with her. For most of the distance back they swam side by side, wordlessly. Then he became aware that she had slowed and dropped behind. Turning, he saw that she was floating, rather unskilfully, so that small waves washed over her face. Unmistakably she was frightened.

“Would you think—I was just showing audacity and ingenuity—if I told you I had a cramp?” she gasped.

“Hold steady.” he said crisply. The occasion, he felt, was hardly of the kind that calls for clever repartee. He put the flat of one hand into the flat of her back and struck out powerfully for the beach. She remained perfectly quiescent, even though she swallowed a great deal of water, until they were well in. Then she found her feet and unsteadily waded ashore, dropping down into the sand.

“Thanks a lot,” she said presently, in a small voice.

“Where’s your cramp?” he asked, preparing with professional zest to go about ironing it out.

“I never had any,” she confessed ruefully. “It’s just that I gave out. I swam farther out than I should have. I was trying to show off.”

“I’m disappointed. I wanted to show off a little, too,” he said, dropping down into the sand beside her.

They were silent for a while, watching the dawn in that intimacy of silence possible only to old, tried friends or to topnotch young animals becoming urgently aware of each other. Then she said, as if he had asked her a question:

“I’m twenty-one, nearly twenty-two, and more serious than frivolous, and I hope to get married some time and have four or five children. This place is my idea, but I don’t own it. I merely manage it, at a salary that enables me to keep out of the bread line for the rest of the year. Now tell me something about yourself.”

He told her more than he had ever told anyone; not so much about what had happened to him, which was unimportant, but about what he hoped to make happen.

“So you see why this job and the salary that goes with it is so important to me,” he finished. “It will give me another chance at the work I really want to do, before I succumb and take a bank job my roommate’s father has offered me.”

“But you think you’ll have to succumb sooner or later?”

“Perhaps,” he admitted. “All that I have to recommend me above many other applicants with experience and proved ability is that I’m single, unattached, and willing to go anywhere or tackle anything. There are things, you know, that a family man wouldn’t take on. He’d feel he couldn’t conscientiousl y take long chances. ” “I see,” she said slowly. She had become suddenly very grave and thoughtful. She rose abruptly. “Isn’t it about time for us to get back?”

At the point where the driveway divided, one fork to go toward the house, the other to curve around it to his own quarters, she stopped and held out her hand. She was smiling, but it was a smile of dismissal rather than invitation.

“It’s been fun, this morning’s adventure,” she said. “But we mustn’t let it happen again.”

He caught her hand with abrupt violence. “Why not?”

She indicated the dining room of the house with a backward tilt of her head. Several girls were at the windows and frankly staring.

“You see,” she said. “It won’t do. Before long we’d have a mutiny.”

"I don’t care,” he asserted rashly.

“But I do.” She took her hand away. “I’m dependent on this establishment for a living, you know. And besides,” she added, speaking very rapidly and jerkily, “Major Harrison, a very good friend of mine, will be up before long. For the dance I’m giving for the girls. And he’s not too broad-minded.”

“Oh,” he said. He went back to his quarters glowing as if he had been slapped.

He should have been, he reminded himself.

He had been too bumptious, assumed too ¡ much. He should have guessed there | would be strings on her. Girls like that didn’t get very far in life before some man cornered them. Afterward came the cheerless reflection that he had been out of line anyhow'. He had no right to ask anything of her when his whole stock-in-trade was the fact that he was unattached, hence could take anything that offered. The wild thought occurred to him that he might still take that cushy bank job. And then he ; remembered Major Harrison.

YY WORKMEN came dowm a few days

YV iater tQ repair a pavilion in the pines j behind his barracks and erect avenues of gaily-papered lights leading up to it. On the night before the dance some of the boys | w'hom the girls had invited arrived in automobiles, mostly in a sad state of decay. They were allowed to stay, jxarked on the grounds, until a chaste eleven o’clock, then firmly pried loose and sent away. Next day they were back, with others; and that afternoon at the beach Randy for once was permitted some solitude. Only Pewee interrupted it.

“I didn’t invite any boy,” she said, reproachfully smiting him with her eyes as she dropped down into the sand at his feet. “And I w'ent to bed at eight last night. I , thought loyalty and virtue might bring results, if nothing else would, but you don’t even seem to have noticed it. Aren’t I you human?”

For the first time Randy permitted himself to really look at her. She was very pleasant to look at; and he was remem¡ bering a tall, soldierly figure that he had j seen deposited before the office just as he j was coming out to the beach. Lured by the one fact, goaded by the other, he reacted exactly as most men would have.

He grinned at her.

“I’m human enough to wish you’d dance I with me once or twice tonight,” he said. “I’m all caught up with my serious readj ing, and I hate to stand around in corners watching other people have all the fun.”

“Hallelujah! Prayers are answered!” Pewee cried ecstatically, and springing up. j embraced him lavishly, then whirled out into the lake.

He began to realize what he had done | when, that night, he found her waiting for him at the barracks door. She put an arm possessively through his and saw to it 1 that the way they took led them past at least two-thirds of the cars drawn up around the pavilion. From then on, it was plain, he was to be hers as long as he stayed around. Only, the conditions of his employment being what they were, he automatically wouldn’t stay around long.

About that he was not worried. For some days he had felt it would be impossible for him to hang on much longer; and a telegram from the city that afternoon had assured him it would no longer be necessary. What did ruin his evening was the discovery that Miss Harmon’s Major Harrison was a decidedly high-grade specimen, even in unostentatious civies. and exactly the kind one would have expected a person like her to select for herself. Against all reason, Randy had clung to the hope that he would be old or dissolute-looking or in some way impossible.

AFTER TWO and one-half dances Pewee settled down enough to notice that there was something wrong with him.

“It’s not your dancing,” she said sagely. “You do better than most. But your mind isn’t on your work. Break down and tell me what’s the matter. 1 have an understanding nature.”

“I believe you,” he agreed gravely, looking down at her. She was as much a savage as anyone of her years, but there were evidences in her of that warm, maternal sympathy which probably has been an essential part of the equipment of every woman who has turned men’s heads in wholesale lots for more than an hour. “You’re a nice little thing, Pewee,” he said sincerely. “And if there weren’t someone else, I suppose I’d be crazy about you.”

“I thought so,” she said, with only a suggestion of a catch in her voice. She went through a few more steps in silence, and then said: “Don’t tell me it’s Clara. You’re not the kind that could be struck out by somebody that had nothing on the ball but red hair. And,” she added conscientiously, “a pair of eyes that seem to promise things.”

“No,” he said. “It isn’t Clara.”

“I know!” she cried, interrupting him. “It’s Billie, of course.” And then, when he stared at her uncomprehendingly: “Billie —Wilma Miss 1 larmon ! I )on’t you even know her name?”

Billie. He liked that. It made her seem more friendly and attainable. . .This is our mine site, Billie. Pretty crude now, but in a year we’ll have a town here . . . Billie ...”

“Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Pewee was demanding, watching him intently.

He returned his mind to her. “When I might have done something, I couldn’t. And now that it’s possible, it’s too late.”

“Hooey !” Pewee scoffed. “It’s never too late until your teeth drop out. Want me to show' you?”

He caught a glimpse just then of Miss

Harmon’s—Billie’s—brown head resting very delicately against Major Harrison’s correct blue shoulder, and his jaws clamped together.

“Yes,” he said grimly.

Pewee suddenly became outrageous. One of her soft young arms slid up to encircle his neck. Her bright face lifted and her eyes blatantly wooed him. Her feet slowed, and she became a languorous, lovely, intimate part of him.

“Pewee!” he protested in horror.

“Pipe down,” she commanded masterfully into his ear. “Don’t you know that a slight display of vulgarity in a man will bring a woman to her knees quicker than anything else? Especially if she suspects she is responsible for bringing it out?”

Her eyes slithered very briefly toward the sidelines and returned full of satisfaction.

“She’s seen us, and she’s furious,” she said, adding with gusto: “And lots of the other girls have, Lx). They’re beginning to think they may have missed a trick.”

"What now?” he asked, abandoning himself completely to her.

“Steer me toward an exit—oh, the nearest one . . . Now we fade ...”

Outside, with the dark eyes of long rows of automobiles staring at them accusingly, he turned to her.

“I don’t quite get the idea,” he said, in bewilderment.

“Don’t talk,” she said, glancing swiftly back toward the pavilion. She came close to him and lifted her mouth. "Kiss me. Make it a good one.”

He kissed her, and she made it a good one. A little dazed, for nobody can take a kiss like that without reeling, he felt her suddenly pull away from him with a choked, guilty exclamation. She fled precipitately, and in her place appeared Miss Harmon. Billie.

Y\ rELL.” said she. A single word, but W ^ expressed better than many sentences the contempt and loathing and the special kind of rage a woman is capable of feeling only once toward one man in one given set of circumstances.

He said nothing.

“That child!” she said witheringly.

He reached out and caught her shoulders. He felt her trembling. Both of them had forgotten that they were civilized. Thanks to Pewee, they were down to fundamentals.

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a line from Turgeniev that tells it all. When a part of your life is empty, you fill it up with something. Anything. As you would fill a {lacking box, part full, with straw.”

He had the g(x>d sense then to stop talking.

“But it’s so impossible, with us,” she said presently. “You’ve got to be unattached—ready to risk anything—to get along at all. You said so.”

“Is that the only reason you wouldn’t swim any more with me? And had Major Harrison up?” he demanded tensely.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s fine and admirable; he’s the kind you always intend to marry some time, but never do until something hurts you.”

“Then look here.” He drew her into one of the avenues of gay lights, and gave her a telegram he had had that afternoon.

The telegram was from Hatfield, and it read:

Have job for husky young hustler in gold mine Northern Manitoba stop Safe sane three thousand a year more when worth it so no objection to wife if you have something lined up up there as you should with one hundred and one girls all to yourself.

“I’m not going to yammer about not

being able to support you in the style to which you have been accustomed,” he told her, when she looked up from a second reading. “Three thousand a year looks like darned gcxxl money to me right now.”

“It does to me, too,” she said.

“And I’m not going to apologize because I'll have to ask you to live in a company house which would lack some of the prestige and convenience of a city apartment.” he went on. “I’m just nut enough to think that perhaps those things won’t matter if you feel about me as I feel about you.”

“I probably feel worse,” she said.

He took her hands. He took her shoulders. His head bent to hers . . .

And then from all along the line of cars, horns burred insanely. A crowd of young maniacs rushed out into the light and frothed up around them. They pumped Randy’s hand until it ached. They kissed Billie exuberantly. They talked. They said it had been better than a movie. They said Pewee had told them it was going tc come off. Some of the girls said they felt low, naturally, but they could take it, and they wished the pair of them a lot of luck. They’d need it, Clara said, shuddering, on three thousand a year. In Northern Manitoba.

“But George—Major Harrison!” Miss Harmon, Billie, cried, in sudden, distressed recollection. “He didn’t see us, did he?” She was gradually putting on civilization again.

“See? Him? Say, he’s in no shape to see anything,” said one of the boys. He jerked a thumb back toward the pavilion.

She looked, and Randy looked, and they saw Pewee superbly completing her evening’s work. Almost alone on che floor, she and the major were dancing to a slow, glamorous waltz. Her bright face was lifted to his in ecstatic adoration and her soft young arm was high ujxgt;n his shoulders.