The Beautiful and Damned/Book One/Chapter III
The Connoisseur of Kisses
From his undergraduate days as editor of The Harvard Crimson Richard Caramel had desired to write. But as a senior he had picked up the glorified illusion that certain men were set aside for "service" and, going into the world, were to accomplish a vague yearnful something which would react either in eternal reward or, at the least, in the personal satisfaction of having striven for the greatest good of the greatest number.
This spirit has long rocked the colleges in America. It begins, as a rule, during the immaturities and facile impressions of freshman year—sometimes back in preparatory school. Prosperous apostles known for their emotional acting go the rounds of the universities and, by frightening the amiable sheep and dulling the quickening of interest and intellectual curiosity which is the purpose of all education, distil a mysterious conviction of sin, harking back to childhood crimes and to the ever-present menace of "women." To these lectures go the wicked youths to cheer and joke and the timid to swallow the tasty pills, which would be harmless if administered to farmers' wives and pious drug-clerks but are rather dangerous medicine for these "future leaders of men."
This octopus was strong enough to wind a sinuous tentacle about Richard Caramel. The year after his graduation it called him into the slums of New York to muck about with bewildered Italians as secretary to an "Alien Young Men's Rescue Association." He labored at it over a year before the monotony began to weary him. The aliens kept coming inexhaustibly—Italians, Poles, Scandinavians, Czechs, Armenians—with the same wrongs, the same exceptionally ugly faces and very much the same smells, though he fancied that these grew more profuse and diverse as the months passed. His eventual conclusions about the expediency of service were vague, but concerning his own relation to it they were abrupt and decisive. Any amiable young man, his head ringing with the latest crusade, could accomplish as much as he could with the debris of Europe—and it was time for him to write.
He had been living in a down-town Y.M.C.A., but when he quit the task of making sow-ear purses out of sows' ears, he moved up-town and went to work immediately as a reporter for The Sun. He kept at this for a year, doing desultory writing on the side, with little success, and then one day an infelicitous incident peremptorily closed his newspaper career. On a February afternoon he was assigned to report a parade of Squadron A. Snow threatening, he went to sleep instead before a hot fire, and when he woke up did a smooth column about the muffled beats of the horses' hoofs in the snow... This he handed in. Next morning a marked copy of the paper was sent down to the City Editor with a scrawled note: "Fire the man who wrote this." It seemed that Squadron A had also seen the snow threatening—had postponed the parade until another day.
A week later he had begun "The Demon Lover."...
In January, the Monday of the months, Richard Caramel's nose was blue constantly, a sardonic blue, vaguely suggestive of the flames licking around a sinner. His book was nearly ready, and as it grew in completeness it seemed to grow also in its demands, sapping him, overpowering him, until he walked haggard and conquered in its shadow. Not only to Anthony and Maury did he pour out his hopes and boasts and indecisions, but to any one who could be prevailed upon to listen. He called on polite but bewildered publishers, he discussed it with his casual vis-a-vis at the Harvard Club; it was even claimed by Anthony that he had been discovered, one Sunday night, debating the transposition of Chapter Two with a literary ticket-collector in the chill and dismal recesses of a Harlem subway station. And latest among his confidantes was Mrs. Gilbert, who sat with him by the hour and alternated between Bilphism and literature in an intense cross-fire.
"Shakespeare was a Bilphist," she assured him through a fixed smile. "Oh, yes! He was a Bilphist. It's been proved."
At this Dick would look a bit blank.
"If you've read 'Hamlet' you can't help but see."
"Well, he—he lived in a more credulous age—a more religious age."
But she demanded the whole loaf:
"Oh, yes, but you see Bilphism isn't a religion. It's the science of all religions." She smiled defiantly at him. This was the bon mot of her belief. There was something in the arrangement of words which grasped her mind so definitely that the statement became superior to any obligation to define itself. It is not unlikely that she would have accepted any idea encased in this radiant formula—which was perhaps not a formula; it was the reductio ad absurdum of all formulas.
Then eventually, but gorgeously, would come Dick's turn.
"You've heard of the new poetry movement. You haven't? Well, it's a lot of young poets that are breaking away from the old forms and doing a lot of good. Well, what I was going to say was that my book is going to start a new prose movement, a sort of renaissance."
"I'm sure it will," beamed Mrs. Gilbert. "I'm sure it will. I went to Jenny Martin last Tuesday, the palmist, you know, that every one's mad about. I told her my nephew was engaged upon a work and she said she knew I'd be glad to hear that his success would be extraordinary. But she'd never seen you or known anything about you—not even your name."
Having made the proper noises to express his amazement at this astounding phenomenon, Dick waved her theme by him as though he were an arbitrary traffic policeman, and, so to speak, beckoned forward his own traffic.
"I'm absorbed, Aunt Catherine," he assured her, "I really am. All my friends are joshing me—oh, I see the humor in it and I don't care. I think a person ought to be able to take joshing. But I've got a sort of conviction," he concluded gloomily.
"You're an ancient soul, I always say."
"Maybe I am." Dick had reached the stage where he no longer fought, but submitted. He must be an ancient soul, he fancied grotesquely; so old as to be absolutely rotten. However, the reiteration of the phrase still somewhat embarrassed him and sent uncomfortable shivers up his back. He changed the subject.
"Where is my distinguished cousin Gloria?"
"She's on the go somewhere, with some one."
Dick paused, considered, and then, screwing up his face into what was evidently begun as a smile but ended as a terrifying frown, delivered a comment.
"I think my friend Anthony Patch is in love with her."
Mrs. Gilbert started, beamed half a second too late, and breathed her "Really?" in the tone of a detective play-whisper.
"I think so," corrected Dick gravely. "She's the first girl I've ever seen him with, so much."
"Well, of course," said Mrs. Gilbert with meticulous carelessness, "Gloria never makes me her confidante. She's very secretive. Between you and me"—she bent forward cautiously, obviously determined that only Heaven and her nephew should share her confession—"between you and me, I'd like to see her settle down."
Dick arose and paced the floor earnestly, a small, active, already rotund young man, his hands thrust unnaturally into his bulging pockets.
"I'm not claiming I'm right, mind you," he assured the infinitely-of-the-hotel steel-engraving which smirked respectably back at him. "I'm saying nothing that I'd want Gloria to know. But I think Mad Anthony is interested—tremendously so. He talks about her constantly. In any one else that'd be a bad sign."
"Gloria is a very young soul—" began Mrs. Gilbert eagerly, but her nephew interrupted with a hurried sentence:
"Gloria'd be a very young nut not to marry him." He stopped and faced her, his expression a battle map of lines and dimples, squeezed and strained to its ultimate show of intensity—this as if to make up by his sincerity for any indiscretion in his words. "Gloria's a wild one, Aunt Catherine. She's uncontrollable. How she's done it I don't know, but lately she's picked up a lot of the funniest friends. She doesn't seem to care. And the men she used to go with around New York were—" He paused for breath.
"Yes-yes-yes," interjected Mrs. Gilbert, with an anaemic attempt to hide the immense interest with which she listened.
"Well," continued Richard Caramel gravely, "there it is. I mean that the men she went with and the people she went with used to be first rate. Now they aren't."
Mrs. Gilbert blinked very fast—her bosom trembled, inflated, remained so for an instant, and with the exhalation her words flowed out in a torrent.
She knew, she cried in a whisper; oh, yes, mothers see these things. But what could she do? He knew Gloria. He'd seen enough of Gloria to know how hopeless it was to try to deal with her. Gloria had been so spoiled—in a rather complete and unusual way. She had been suckled until she was three, for instance, when she could probably have chewed sticks. Perhaps—one never knew—it was this that had given that health and hardiness to her whole personality. And then ever since she was twelve years old she'd had boys about her so thick—oh, so thick one couldn't move. At sixteen she began going to dances at preparatory schools, and then came the colleges; and everywhere she went, boys, boys, boys. At first, oh, until she was eighteen there had been so many that it never seemed one any more than the others, but then she began to single them out.
She knew there had been a string of affairs spread over about three years, perhaps a dozen of them altogether. Sometimes the men were undergraduates, sometimes just out of college—they lasted on an average of several months each, with short attractions in between. Once or twice they had endured longer and her mother had hoped she would be engaged, but always a new one came—a new one—
The men? Oh, she made them miserable, literally! There was only one who had kept any sort of dignity, and he had been a mere child, young Carter Kirby, of Kansas City, who was so conceited anyway that he just sailed out on his vanity one afternoon and left for Europe next day with his father. The others had been—wretched. They never seemed to know when she was tired of them, and Gloria had seldom been deliberately unkind. They would keep phoning, writing letters to her, trying to see her, making long trips after her around the country. Some of them had confided in Mrs. Gilbert, told her with tears in their eyes that they would never get over Gloria ... at least two of them had since married, though.... But Gloria, it seemed, struck to kill—to this day Mr. Carstairs called up once a week, and sent her flowers which she no longer bothered to refuse.
Several times, twice, at least, Mrs. Gilbert knew it had gone as far as a private engagement—with Tudor Baird and that Holcome boy at Pasadena. She was sure it had, because—this must go no further—she had come in unexpectedly and found Gloria acting, well, very much engaged indeed. She had not spoken to her daughter, of course. She had had a certain sense of delicacy and, besides, each time she had expected an announcement in a few weeks. But the announcement never came; instead, a new man came.
Scenes! Young men walking up and down the library like caged tigers! Young men glaring at each other in the hall as one came and the other left! Young men calling up on the telephone and being hung up upon in desperation! Young men threatening South America! ... Young men writing the most pathetic letters! (She said nothing to this effect, but Dick fancied that Mrs. Gilbert's eyes had seen some of these letters.)
... And Gloria, between tears and laughter, sorry, glad, out of love and in love, miserable, nervous, cool, amidst a great returning of presents, substitution of pictures in immemorial frames, and taking of hot baths and beginning again—with the next.
That state of things continued, assumed an air of permanency. Nothing harmed Gloria or changed her or moved her. And then out of a clear sky one day she informed her mother that undergraduates wearied her. She was absolutely going to no more college dances.
This had begun the change—not so much in her actual habits, for she danced, and had as many "dates" as ever—but they were dates in a different spirit. Previously it had been a sort of pride, a matter of her own vainglory. She had been, probably, the most celebrated and sought-after young beauty in the country. Gloria Gilbert of Kansas City! She had fed on it ruthlessly—enjoying the crowds around her, the manner in which the most desirable men singled her out; enjoying the fierce jealousy of other girls; enjoying the fabulous, not to say scandalous, and, her mother was glad to say, entirely unfounded rumors about her—for instance, that she had gone in the Yale swimming-pool one night in a chiffon evening dress.
And from loving it with a vanity that was almost masculine—it had been in the nature of a triumphant and dazzling career—she became suddenly anaesthetic to it. She retired. She who had dominated countless parties, who had blown fragrantly through many ballrooms to the tender tribute of many eyes, seemed to care no longer. He who fell in love with her now was dismissed utterly, almost angrily. She went listlessly with the most indifferent men. She continually broke engagements, not as in the past from a cool assurance that she was irreproachable, that the man she insulted would return like a domestic animal—but indifferently, without contempt or pride. She rarely stormed at men any more—she yawned at them. She seemed—and it was so strange—she seemed to her mother to be growing cold.
Richard Caramel listened. At first he had remained standing, but as his aunt's discourse waxed in content—it stands here pruned by half, of all side references to the youth of Gloria's soul and to Mrs. Gilbert's own mental distresses—he drew a chair up and attended rigorously as she floated, between tears and plaintive helplessness, down the long story of Gloria's life. When she came to the tale of this last year, a tale of the ends of cigarettes left all over New York in little trays marked "Midnight Frolic" and "Justine Johnson's Little Club," he began nodding his head slowly, then faster and faster, until, as she finished on a staccato note, it was bobbing briskly up and down, absurdly like a doll's wired head, expressing—almost anything.
In a sense Gloria's past was an old story to him. He had followed it with the eyes of a journalist, for he was going to write a book about her some day. But his interests, just at present, were family interests. He wanted to know, in particular, who was this Joseph Bloeckman that he had seen her with several times; and those two girls she was with constantly, "this" Rachael Jerryl and "this" Miss Kane—surely Miss Kane wasn't exactly the sort one would associate with Gloria!
But the moment had passed. Mrs. Gilbert having climbed the hill of exposition was about to glide swiftly down the ski-jump of collapse. Her eyes were like a blue sky seen through two round, red window-casements. The flesh about her mouth was trembling.
And at the moment the door opened, admitting into the room Gloria and the two young ladies lately mentioned.
Two Young Women
"How do you do, Mrs. Gilbert!"
Miss Kane and Miss Jerryl are presented to Mr. Richard Caramel. "This is Dick" (laughter).
"I've heard so much about you," says Miss Kane between a giggle and a shout.
"How do you do," says Miss Jerryl shyly.
Richard Caramel tries to move about as if his figure were better. He is torn between his innate cordiality and the fact that he considers these girls rather common—not at all the Farmover type.
Gloria has disappeared into the bedroom.
"Do sit down," beams Mrs. Gilbert, who is by now quite herself. "Take off your things." Dick is afraid she will make some remark about the age of his soul, but he forgets his qualms in completing a conscientious, novelist's examination of the two young women.
Muriel Kane had originated in a rising family of East Orange. She was short rather than small, and hovered audaciously between plumpness and width. Her hair was black and elaborately arranged. This, in conjunction with her handsome, rather bovine eyes, and her over-red lips, combined to make her resemble Theda Bara, the prominent motion picture actress. People told her constantly that she was a "vampire," and she believed them. She suspected hopefully that they were afraid of her, and she did her utmost under all circumstances to give the impression of danger. An imaginative man could see the red flag that she constantly carried, waving it wildly, beseechingly—and, alas, to little spectacular avail. She was also tremendously timely: she knew the latest songs, all the latest songs—when one of them was played on the phonograph she would rise to her feet and rock her shoulders back and forth and snap her fingers, and if there was no music she would accompany herself by humming.
Her conversation was also timely: "I don't care," she would say, "I should worry and lose my figure"—and again: "I can't make my feet behave when I hear that tune. Oh, baby!"
Her finger-nails were too long and ornate, polished to a pink and unnatural fever. Her clothes were too tight, too stylish, too vivid, her eyes too roguish, her smile too coy. She was almost pitifully overemphasized from head to foot.
The other girl was obviously a more subtle personality. She was an exquisitely dressed Jewess with dark hair and a lovely milky pallor. She seemed shy and vague, and these two qualities accentuated a rather delicate charm that floated about her. Her family were "Episcopalians," owned three smart women's shops along Fifth Avenue, and lived in a magnificent apartment on Riverside Drive. It seemed to Dick, after a few moments, that she was attempting to imitate Gloria—he wondered that people invariably chose inimitable people to imitate.
"We had the most hectic time!" Muriel was exclaiming enthusiastically. "There was a crazy woman behind us on the bus. She was absitively, posolutely nutty! She kept talking to herself about something she'd like to do to somebody or something. I was petrified, but Gloria simply wouldn't get off."
Mrs. Gilbert opened her mouth, properly awed.
"Oh, she was crazy. But we should worry, she didn't hurt us. Ugly! Gracious! The man across from us said her face ought to be on a night-nurse in a home for the blind, and we all howled, naturally, so the man tried to pick us up."
Presently Gloria emerged from her bedroom and in unison every eye turned on her. The two girls receded into a shadowy background, unperceived, unmissed.
"We've been talking about you," said Dick quickly, "—your mother and I."
"Well," said Gloria.
A pause—Muriel turned to Dick.
"You're a great writer, aren't you?"
"I'm a writer," he confessed sheepishly.
"I always say," said Muriel earnestly, "that if I ever had time to write down all my experiences it'd make a wonderful book."
Rachael giggled sympathetically; Richard Caramel's bow was almost stately. Muriel continued:
"But I don't see how you can sit down and do it. And poetry! Lordy, I can't make two lines rhyme. Well, I should worry!"
Richard Caramel with difficulty restrained a shout of laughter. Gloria was chewing an amazing gum-drop and staring moodily out the window. Mrs. Gilbert cleared her throat and beamed.
"But you see," she said in a sort of universal exposition, "you're not an ancient soul—like Richard."
The Ancient Soul breathed a gasp of relief—it was out at last.
Then as if she had been considering it for five minutes, Gloria made a sudden announcement:
"I'm going to give a party."
"Oh, can I come?" cried Muriel with facetious daring.
"A dinner. Seven people: Muriel and Rachael and I, and you, Dick, and Anthony, and that man named Noble—I liked him—and Bloeckman."
Muriel and Rachael went into soft and purring ecstasies of enthusiasm. Mrs. Gilbert blinked and beamed. With an air of casualness Dick broke in with a question:
"Who is this fellow Bloeckman, Gloria?"
Scenting a faint hostility, Gloria turned to him.
"Joseph Bloeckman? He's the moving picture man. Vice-president of 'Films Par Excellence.' He and father do a lot of business."
"Well, will you all come?"
They would all come. A date was arranged within the week. Dick rose, adjusted hat, coat, and muffler, and gave out a general smile.
"By-by," said Muriel, waving her hand gaily, "call me up some time."
Richard Caramel blushed for her.
Deplorable End Of The Chevalier O'keefe
It was Monday and Anthony took Geraldine Burke to luncheon at the Beaux Arts—afterward they went up to his apartment and he wheeled out the little rolling-table that held his supply of liquor, selecting vermouth, gin, and absinthe for a proper stimulant.
Geraldine Burke, usher at Keith's, had been an amusement of several months. She demanded so little that he liked her, for since a lamentable affair with a debutante the preceding summer, when he had discovered that after half a dozen kisses a proposal was expected, he had been wary of girls of his own class. It was only too easy to turn a critical eye on their imperfections: some physical harshness or a general lack of personal delicacy—but a girl who was usher at Keith's was approached with a different attitude. One could tolerate qualities in an intimate valet that would be unforgivable in a mere acquaintance on one's social level.
Geraldine, curled up at the foot of the lounge, considered him with narrow slanting eyes.
"You drink all the time, don't you?" she said suddenly.
"Why, I suppose so," replied Anthony in some surprise. "Don't you?"
"Nope. I go on parties sometimes—you know, about once a week, but I only take two or three drinks. You and your friends keep on drinking all the time. I should think you'd ruin your health."
Anthony was somewhat touched.
"Why, aren't you sweet to worry about me!"
"Well, I do."
"I don't drink so very much," he declared. "Last month I didn't touch a drop for three weeks. And I only get really tight about once a week."
"But you have something to drink every day and you're only twenty-five. Haven't you any ambition? Think what you'll be at forty?"
"I sincerely trust that I won't live that long."
She clicked her tongue with her teeth.
"You cra-azy!" she said as he mixed another cocktail—and then: "Are you any relation to Adam Patch?"
"Yes, he's my grandfather."
"Really?" She was obviously thrilled.
"That's funny. My daddy used to work for him."
"He's a queer old man."
"Is he nice?" she demanded.
"Well, in private life he's seldom unnecessarily disagreeable."
"Tell us about him."
"Why," Anthony considered "—he's all shrunken up and he's got the remains of some gray hair that always looks as though the wind were in it. He's very moral."
"He's done a lot of good," said Geraldine with intense gravity.
"Rot!" scoffed Anthony. "He's a pious ass—a chickenbrain."
Her mind left the subject and flitted on.
"Why don't you live with him?"
"Why don't I board in a Methodist parsonage?"
Again she made a little clicking sound to express disapproval. Anthony thought how moral was this little waif at heart—how completely moral she would still be after the inevitable wave came that would wash her off the sands of respectability.
"Do you hate him?"
"I wonder. I never liked him. You never like people who do things for you."
"Does he hate you?"
"My dear Geraldine," protested Anthony, frowning humorously, "do have another cocktail. I annoy him. If I smoke a cigarette he comes into the room sniffing. He's a prig, a bore, and something of a hypocrite. I probably wouldn't be telling you this if I hadn't had a few drinks, but I don't suppose it matters."
Geraldine was persistently interested. She held her glass, untasted, between finger and thumb and regarded him with eyes in which there was a touch of awe.
"How do you mean a hypocrite?"
"Well," said Anthony impatiently, "maybe he's not. But he doesn't like the things that I like, and so, as far as I'm concerned, he's uninteresting."
"Hm." Her curiosity seemed, at length, satisfied. She sank back into the sofa and sipped her cocktail.
"You're a funny one," she commented thoughtfully. "Does everybody want to marry you because your grandfather is rich?"
"They don't—but I shouldn't blame them if they did. Still, you see, I never intend to marry."
She scorned this.
"You'll fall in love someday. Oh, you will—I know." She nodded wisely.
"It'd be idiotic to be overconfident. That's what ruined the Chevalier O'Keefe."
"Who was he?"
"A creature of my splendid mind. He's my one creation, the Chevalier."
"Cra-a-azy!" she murmured pleasantly, using the clumsy rope ladder with which she bridged all gaps and climbed after her mental superiors. Subconsciously she felt that it eliminated distances and brought the person whose imagination had eluded her back within range.
"Oh, no!" objected Anthony, "oh, no, Geraldine. You mustn't play the alienist upon the Chevalier. If you feel yourself unable to understand him I won't bring him in. Besides, I should feel a certain uneasiness because of his regrettable reputation."
"I guess I can understand anything that's got any sense to it," answered Geraldine a bit testily.
"In that case there are various episodes in the life of the Chevalier which might prove diverting."
"It was his untimely end that caused me to think of him and made him apropos in the conversation. I hate to introduce him end foremost, but it seems inevitable that the Chevalier must back into your life."
"Well, what about him? Did he die?"
"He did! In this manner. He was an Irishman, Geraldine, a semi-fictional Irishman—the wild sort with a genteel brogue and 'reddish hair.' He was exiled from Erin in the late days of chivalry and, of course, crossed over to France. Now the Chevalier O'Keefe, Geraldine, had, like me, one weakness. He was enormously susceptible to all sorts and conditions of women. Besides being a sentimentalist he was a romantic, a vain fellow, a man of wild passions, a little blind in one eye and almost stone-blind in the other. Now a male roaming the world in this condition is as helpless as a lion without teeth, and in consequence the Chevalier was made utterly miserable for twenty years by a series of women who hated him, used him, bored him, aggravated him, sickened him, spent his money, made a fool of him—in brief, as the world has it, loved him.
"This was bad, Geraldine, and as the Chevalier, save for this one weakness, this exceeding susceptibility, was a man of penetration, he decided that he would rescue himself once and for all from these drains upon him. With this purpose he went to a very famous monastery in Champagne called—well, anachronistically known as St. Voltaire's. It was the rule at St. Voltaire's that no monk could descend to the ground story of the monastery so long as he lived, but should exist engaged in prayer and contemplation in one of the four towers, which were called after the four commandments of the monastery rule: Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, and Silence.
"When the day came that was to witness the Chevalier's farewell to the world he was utterly happy. He gave all his Greek books to his landlady, and his sword he sent in a golden sheath to the King of France, and all his mementos of Ireland he gave to the young Huguenot who sold fish in the street where he lived.
"Then he rode out to St. Voltaire's, slew his horse at the door, and presented the carcass to the monastery cook.
"At five o'clock that night he felt, for the first time, free—forever free from sex. No woman could enter the monastery; no monk could descend below the second story. So as he climbed the winding stair that led to his cell at the very top of the Tower of Chastity he paused for a moment by an open window which looked down fifty feet on to a road below. It was all so beautiful, he thought, this world that he was leaving, the golden shower of sun beating down upon the long fields, the spray of trees in the distance, the vineyards, quiet and green, freshening wide miles before him. He leaned his elbows on the window casement and gazed at the winding road.
"Now, as it happened, Therese, a peasant girl of sixteen from a neighboring village, was at that moment passing along this same road that ran in front of the monastery. Five minutes before, the little piece of ribbon which held up the stocking on her pretty left leg had worn through and broken. Being a girl of rare modesty she had thought to wait until she arrived home before repairing it, but it had bothered her to such an extent that she felt she could endure it no longer. So, as she passed the Tower of Chastity, she stopped and with a pretty gesture lifted her skirt—as little as possible, be it said to her credit—to adjust her garter.
"Up in the tower the newest arrival in the ancient monastery of St. Voltaire, as though pulled forward by a gigantic and irresistible hand, leaned from the window. Further he leaned and further until suddenly one of the stones loosened under his weight, broke from its cement with a soft powdery sound—and, first headlong, then head over heels, finally in a vast and impressive revolution tumbled the Chevalier O'Keefe, bound for the hard earth and eternal damnation.
"Therese was so much upset by the occurrence that she ran all the way home and for ten years spent an hour a day in secret prayer for the soul of the monk whose neck and vows were simultaneously broken on that unfortunate Sunday afternoon.
"And the Chevalier O'Keefe, being suspected of suicide, was not buried in consecrated ground, but tumbled into a field near by, where he doubtless improved the quality of the soil for many years afterward. Such was the untimely end of a very brave and gallant gentleman. What do you think, Geraldine?"
But Geraldine, lost long before, could only smile roguishly, wave her first finger at him, and repeat her bridge-all, her explain-all:
"Crazy!" she said, "you cra-a-azy!"
His thin face was kindly, she thought, and his eyes quite gentle. She liked him because he was arrogant without being conceited, and because, unlike the men she met about the theatre, he had a horror of being conspicuous. What an odd, pointless story! But she had enjoyed the part about the stocking!
After the fifth cocktail he kissed her, and between laughter and bantering caresses and a half-stifled flare of passion they passed an hour. At four-thirty she claimed an engagement, and going into the bathroom she rearranged her hair. Refusing to let him order her a taxi she stood for a moment in the doorway.
"You will get married," she was insisting, "you wait and see."
Anthony was playing with an ancient tennis ball, and he bounced it carefully on the floor several times before he answered with a soupcon of acidity:
"You're a little idiot, Geraldine."
She smiled provokingly.
"Oh, I am, am I? Want to bet?"
"That'd be silly too."
"Oh, it would, would it? Well, I'll just bet you'll marry somebody inside of a year."
Anthony bounced the tennis ball very hard. This was one of his handsome days, she thought; a sort of intensity had displaced the melancholy in his dark eyes.
"Geraldine," he said, at length, "in the first place I have no one I want to marry; in the second place I haven't enough money to support two people; in the third place I am entirely opposed to marriage for people of my type; in the fourth place I have a strong distaste for even the abstract consideration of it."
But Geraldine only narrowed her eyes knowingly, made her clicking sound, and said she must be going. It was late.
"Call me up soon," she reminded him as he kissed her goodbye, "you haven't for three weeks, you know."
"I will," he promised fervently.
He shut the door and coming back into the room stood for a moment lost in thought with the tennis ball still clasped in his hand. There was one of his lonelinesses coming, one of those times when he walked the streets or sat, aimless and depressed, biting a pencil at his desk. It was a self-absorption with no comfort, a demand for expression with no outlet, a sense of time rushing by, ceaselessly and wastefully—assuaged only by that conviction that there was nothing to waste, because all efforts and attainments were equally valueless.
He thought with emotion—aloud, ejaculative, for he was hurt and confused.
"No idea of getting married, by God!"
Of a sudden he hurled the tennis ball violently across the room, where it barely missed the lamp, and, rebounding here and there for a moment, lay still upon the floor.
Signlight And Moonlight
For her dinner Gloria had taken a table in the Cascades at the Biltmore, and when the men met in the hall outside a little after eight, "that person Bloeckman" was the target of six masculine eyes. He was a stoutening, ruddy Jew of about thirty-five, with an expressive face under smooth sandy hair—and, no doubt, in most business gatherings his personality would have been considered ingratiating. He sauntered up to the three younger men, who stood in a group smoking as they waited for their hostess, and introduced himself with a little too evident assurance—nevertheless it is to be doubted whether he received the intended impression of faint and ironic chill: there was no hint of understanding in his manner.
"You related to Adam J. Patch?" he inquired of Anthony, emitting two slender strings of smoke from nostrils overwide.
Anthony admitted it with the ghost of a smile.
"He's a fine man," pronounced Bloeckman profoundly. "He's a fine example of an American."
"Yes," agreed Anthony, "he certainly is."
—I detest these underdone men, he thought coldly. Boiled looking! Ought to be shoved back in the oven; just one more minute would do it.
Bloeckman squinted at his watch.
"Time these girls were showing up ..."
—Anthony waited breathlessly; it came—
"... but then," with a widening smile, "you know how women are."
The three young men nodded; Bloeckman looked casually about him, his eyes resting critically on the ceiling and then passing lower. His expression combined that of a Middle Western farmer appraising his wheat crop and that of an actor wondering whether he is observed—the public manner of all good Americans. As he finished his survey he turned back quickly to the reticent trio, determined to strike to their very heart and core.
"You college men? ... Harvard, eh. I see the Princeton boys beat you fellows in hockey."
Unfortunate man. He had drawn another blank. They had been three years out and heeded only the big football games. Whether, after the failure of this sally, Mr. Bloeckman would have perceived himself to be in a cynical atmosphere is problematical, for—
Gloria arrived. Muriel arrived. Rachael arrived. After a hurried "Hello, people!" uttered by Gloria and echoed by the other two, the three swept by into the dressing room.
A moment later Muriel appeared in a state of elaborate undress and crept toward them. She was in her element: her ebony hair was slicked straight back on her head; her eyes were artificially darkened; she reeked of insistent perfume. She was got up to the best of her ability as a siren, more popularly a "vamp"—a picker up and thrower away of men, an unscrupulous and fundamentally unmoved toyer with affections. Something in the exhaustiveness of her attempt fascinated Maury at first sight—a woman with wide hips affecting a panther-like litheness! As they waited the extra three minutes for Gloria, and, by polite assumption, for Rachael, he was unable to take his eyes from her. She would turn her head away, lowering her eyelashes and biting her nether lip in an amazing exhibition of coyness. She would rest her hands on her hips and sway from side to side in tune to the music, saying:
"Did you ever hear such perfect ragtime? I just can't make my shoulders behave when I hear that."
Mr. Bloeckman clapped his hands gallantly.
"You ought to be on the stage."
"I'd like to be!" cried Muriel; "will you back me?"
"I sure will."
With becoming modesty Muriel ceased her motions and turned to Maury, asking what he had "seen" this year. He interpreted this as referring to the dramatic world, and they had a gay and exhilarating exchange of titles, after this manner:
MURIEL: Have you seen "Peg o' My Heart"?
MAURY: No, I haven't.
MURIEL: (Eagerly) It's wonderful! You want to see it.
MAURY: Have you seen "Omar, the Tentmaker"?
MURIEL: No, but I hear it's wonderful. I'm very anxious to see it. Have you seen "Fair and Warmer"?
MAURY: (Hopefully) Yes.
MURIEL: I don't think it's very good. It's trashy.
MAURY: (Faintly) Yes, that's true.
MURIEL: But I went to "Within the Law" last night and I thought it was fine. Have you seen "The Little Cafe"?...
This continued until they ran out of plays. Dick, meanwhile, turned to Mr. Bloeckman, determined to extract what gold he could from this unpromising load.
"I hear all the new novels are sold to the moving pictures as soon as they come out."
"That's true. Of course the main thing in a moving picture is a strong story."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"So many novels are all full of talk and psychology. Of course those aren't as valuable to us. It's impossible to make much of that interesting on the screen."
"You want plots first," said Richard brilliantly.
"Of course. Plots first—" He paused, shifted his gaze. His pause spread, included the others with all the authority of a warning finger. Gloria followed by Rachael was coming out of the dressing room.
Among other things it developed during dinner that Joseph Bloeckman never danced, but spent the music time watching the others with the bored tolerance of an elder among children. He was a dignified man and a proud one. Born in Munich he had begun his American career as a peanut vender with a travelling circus. At eighteen he was a side show ballyhoo; later, the manager of the side show, and, soon after, the proprietor of a second-class vaudeville house. Just when the moving picture had passed out of the stage of a curiosity and become a promising industry he was an ambitious young man of twenty-six with some money to invest, nagging financial ambitions and a good working knowledge of the popular show business. That had been nine years before. The moving picture industry had borne him up with it where it threw off dozens of men with more financial ability, more imagination, and more practical ideas...and now he sat here and contemplated the immortal Gloria for whom young Stuart Holcome had gone from New York to Pasadena—watched her, and knew that presently she would cease dancing and come back to sit on his left hand.
He hoped she would hurry. The oysters had been standing some minutes.
Meanwhile Anthony, who had been placed on Gloria's left hand, was dancing with her, always in a certain fourth of the floor. This, had there been stags, would have been a delicate tribute to the girl, meaning "Damn you, don't cut in!" It was very consciously intimate.
"Well," he began, looking down at her, "you look mighty sweet to-night."
She met his eyes over the horizontal half foot that separated them.
"In fact you're uncomfortably beautiful," he added. There was no smile this time.
"And you're very charming."
"Isn't this nice?" he laughed. "We actually approve of each other."
"Don't you, usually?" She had caught quickly at his remark, as she always did at any unexplained allusion to herself, however faint.
He lowered his voice, and when he spoke there was in it no more than a wisp of badinage.
"Does a priest approve the Pope?"
"I don't know—but that's probably the vaguest compliment I ever received."
"Perhaps I can muster a few bromides."
"Well, I wouldn't have you strain yourself. Look at Muriel! Right here next to us."
He glanced over his shoulder. Muriel was resting her brilliant cheek against the lapel of Maury Noble's dinner coat and her powdered left arm was apparently twisted around his head. One was impelled to wonder why she failed to seize the nape of his neck with her hand. Her eyes, turned ceiling-ward, rolled largely back and forth; her hips swayed, and as she danced she kept up a constant low singing. This at first seemed to be a translation of the song into some foreign tongue but became eventually apparent as an attempt to fill out the metre of the song with the only words she knew—the words of the title—
"He's a rag-picker, A rag-picker; A rag-time picking man, Rag-picking, picking, pick, pick, Rag-pick, pick, pick."
—and so on, into phrases still more strange and barbaric. When she caught the amused glances of Anthony and Gloria she acknowledged them only with a faint smile and a half-closing of her eyes, to indicate that the music entering into her soul had put her into an ecstatic and exceedingly seductive trance.
The music ended and they returned to their table, whose solitary but dignified occupant arose and tendered each of them a smile so ingratiating that it was as if he were shaking their hands and congratulating them on a brilliant performance.
"Blockhead never will dance! I think he has a wooden leg," remarked Gloria to the table at large. The three young men started and the gentleman referred to winced perceptibly.
This was the one rough spot in the course of Bloeckman's acquaintance with Gloria. She relentlessly punned on his name. First it had been "Block-house." lately, the more invidious "Blockhead." He had requested with a strong undertone of irony that she use his first name, and this she had done obediently several times—then slipping, helpless, repentant but dissolved in laughter, back into "Blockhead."
It was a very sad and thoughtless thing.
"I'm afraid Mr. Bloeckman thinks we're a frivolous crowd," sighed Muriel, waving a balanced oyster in his direction.
"He has that air," murmured Rachael. Anthony tried to remember whether she had said anything before. He thought not. It was her initial remark.
Mr. Bloeckman suddenly cleared his throat and said in a loud, distinct voice:
"On the contrary. When a man speaks he's merely tradition. He has at best a few thousand years back of him. But woman, why, she is the miraculous mouthpiece of posterity."
In the stunned pause that followed this astounding remark, Anthony choked suddenly on an oyster and hurried his napkin to his face. Rachael and Muriel raised a mild if somewhat surprised laugh, in which Dick and Maury joined, both of them red in the face and restraining uproariousness with the most apparent difficulty.
"—My God!" thought Anthony. "It's a subtitle from one of his movies. The man's memorized it!"
Gloria alone made no sound. She fixed Mr. Bloeckman with a glance of silent reproach.
"Well, for the love of Heaven! Where on earth did you dig that up?"
Bloeckman looked at her uncertainly, not sure of her intention. But in a moment he recovered his poise and assumed the bland and consciously tolerant smile of an intellectual among spoiled and callow youth.
The soup came up from the kitchen—but simultaneously the orchestra leader came up from the bar, where he had absorbed the tone color inherent in a seidel of beer. So the soup was left to cool during the delivery of a ballad entitled "Everything's at Home Except Your Wife."
Then the champagne—and the party assumed more amusing proportions. The men, except Richard Caramel, drank freely; Gloria and Muriel sipped a glass apiece; Rachael Jerryl took none. They sat out the waltzes but danced to everything else—all except Gloria, who seemed to tire after a while and preferred to sit smoking at the table, her eyes now lazy, now eager, according to whether she listened to Bloeckman or watched a pretty woman among the dancers. Several times Anthony wondered what Bloeckman was telling her. He was chewing a cigar back and forth in his mouth, and had expanded after dinner to the extent of violent gestures.
Ten o'clock found Gloria and Anthony beginning a dance. Just as they were out of ear-shot of the table she said in a low voice:
"Dance over by the door. I want to go down to the drug-store."
Obediently Anthony guided her through the crowd in the designated direction; in the hall she left him for a moment, to reappear with a cloak over her arm.
"I want some gum-drops," she said, humorously apologetic; "you can't guess what for this time. It's just that I want to bite my finger-nails, and I will if I don't get some gum-drops." She sighed, and resumed as they stepped into the empty elevator: "I've been biting 'em all day. A bit nervous, you see. Excuse the pun. It was unintentional—the words just arranged themselves. Gloria Gilbert, the female wag."
Reaching the ground floor they naively avoided the hotel candy counter, descended the wide front staircase, and walking through several corridors found a drug-store in the Grand Central Station. After an intense examination of the perfume counter she made her purchase. Then on some mutual unmentioned impulse they strolled, arm in arm, not in the direction from which they had come, but out into Forty-third Street.
The night was alive with thaw; it was so nearly warm that a breeze drifting low along the sidewalk brought to Anthony a vision of an unhoped-for hyacinthine spring. Above in the blue oblong of sky, around them in the caress of the drifting air, the illusion of a new season carried relief from the stiff and breathed-over atmosphere they had left, and for a hushed moment the traffic sounds and the murmur of water flowing in the gutters seemed an illusive and rarefied prolongation of that music to which they had lately danced. When Anthony spoke it was with surety that his words came from something breathless and desirous that the night had conceived in their two hearts.
"Let's take a taxi and ride around a bit!" he suggested, without looking at her.
Oh, Gloria, Gloria!
A cab yawned at the curb. As it moved off like a boat on a labyrinthine ocean and lost itself among the inchoate night masses of the great buildings, among the now stilled, now strident, cries and clangings, Anthony put his arm around the girl, drew her over to him and kissed her damp, childish mouth.
She was silent. She turned her face up to him, pale under the wisps and patches of light that trailed in like moonshine through a foliage. Her eyes were gleaming ripples in the white lake of her face; the shadows of her hair bordered the brow with a persuasive unintimate dusk. No love was there, surely; nor the imprint of any love. Her beauty was cool as this damp breeze, as the moist softness of her own lips.
"You're such a swan in this light," he whispered after a moment. There were silences as murmurous as sound. There were pauses that seemed about to shatter and were only to be snatched back to oblivion by the tightening of his arms about her and the sense that she was resting there as a caught, gossamer feather, drifted in out of the dark. Anthony laughed, noiselessly and exultantly, turning his face up and away from her, half in an overpowering rush of triumph, half lest her sight of him should spoil the splendid immobility of her expression. Such a kiss—it was a flower held against the face, never to be described, scarcely to be remembered; as though her beauty were giving off emanations of itself which settled transiently and already dissolving upon his heart.
... The buildings fell away in melted shadows; this was the Park now, and after a long while the great white ghost of the Metropolitan Museum moved majestically past, echoing sonorously to the rush of the cab.
"Why, Gloria! Why, Gloria!"
Her eyes appeared to regard him out of many thousand years: all emotion she might have felt, all words she might have uttered, would have seemed inadequate beside the adequacy of her silence, ineloquent against the eloquence of her beauty—and of her body, close to him, slender and cool.
"Tell him to turn around," she murmured, "and drive pretty fast going back...."
Up in the supper room the air was hot. The table, littered with napkins and ash-trays, was old and stale. It was between dances as they entered, and Muriel Kane looked up with roguishness extraordinary.
"Well, where have you been?"
"To call up mother," answered Gloria coolly. "I promised her I would. Did we miss a dance?"
Then followed an incident that though slight in itself Anthony had cause to reflect on many years afterward. Joseph Bloeckman, leaning well back in his chair, fixed him with a peculiar glance, in which several emotions were curiously and inextricably mingled. He did not greet Gloria except by rising, and he immediately resumed a conversation with Richard Caramel about the influence of literature on the moving pictures.
The stark and unexpected miracle of a night fades out with the lingering death of the last stars and the premature birth of the first newsboys. The flame retreats to some remote and platonic fire; the white heat has gone from the iron and the glow from the coal.
Along the shelves of Anthony's library, filling a wall amply, crept a chill and insolent pencil of sunlight touching with frigid disapproval Therese of France and Ann the Superwoman, Jenny of the Orient Ballet and Zuleika the Conjurer—and Hoosier Cora—then down a shelf and into the years, resting pityingly on the over-invoked shades of Helen, Thais, Salome, and Cleopatra.
Anthony, shaved and bathed, sat in his most deeply cushioned chair and watched it until at the steady rising of the sun it lay glinting for a moment on the silk ends of the rug—and went out.
It was ten o'clock. The Sunday Times, scattered about his feet, proclaimed by rotogravure and editorial, by social revelation and sporting sheet, that the world had been tremendously engrossed during the past week in the business of moving toward some splendid if somewhat indeterminate goal. For his part Anthony had been once to his grandfather's, twice to his broker's, and three times to his tailor's—and in the last hour of the week's last day he had kissed a very beautiful and charming girl.
When he reached home his imagination had been teeming with high pitched, unfamiliar dreams. There was suddenly no question on his mind, no eternal problem for a solution and resolution. He had experienced an emotion that was neither mental nor physical, nor merely a mixture of the two, and the love of life absorbed him for the present to the exclusion of all else. He was content to let the experiment remain isolated and unique. Almost impersonally he was convinced that no woman he had ever met compared in any way with Gloria. She was deeply herself; she was immeasurably sincere—of these things he was certain. Beside her the two dozen schoolgirls and debutantes, young married women and waifs and strays whom he had known were so many females, in the word's most contemptuous sense, breeders and bearers, exuding still that faintly odorous atmosphere of the cave and the nursery.
So far as he could see, she had neither submitted to any will of his nor caressed his vanity—except as her pleasure in his company was a caress. Indeed he had no reason for thinking she had given him aught that she did not give to others. This was as it should be. The idea of an entanglement growing out of the evening was as remote as it would have been repugnant. And she had disclaimed and buried the incident with a decisive untruth. Here were two young people with fancy enough to distinguish a game from its reality—who by the very casualness with which they met and passed on would proclaim themselves unharmed.
Having decided this he went to the phone and called up the Plaza Hotel.
Gloria was out. Her mother knew neither where she had gone nor when she would return.
It was somehow at this point that the first wrongness in the case asserted itself. There was an element of callousness, almost of indecency, in Gloria's absence from home. He suspected that by going out she had intrigued him into a disadvantage. Returning she would find his name, and smile. Most discreetly! He should have waited a few hours in order to drive home the utter inconsequence with which he regarded the incident. What an asinine blunder! She would think he considered himself particularly favored. She would think he was reacting with the most inept intimacy to a quite trivial episode.
He remembered that during the previous month his janitor, to whom he had delivered a rather muddled lecture on the "brother-hoove man," had come up next day and, on the basis of what had happened the night before, seated himself in the window seat for a cordial and chatty half-hour. Anthony wondered in horror if Gloria would regard him as he had regarded that man. Him—Anthony Patch! Horror!
It never occurred to him that he was a passive thing, acted upon by an influence above and beyond Gloria, that he was merely the sensitive plate on which the photograph was made. Some gargantuan photographer had focussed the camera on Gloria and snap!—the poor plate could but develop, confined like all things to its nature.
But Anthony, lying upon his couch and staring at the orange lamp, passed his thin fingers incessantly through his dark hair and made new symbols for the hours. She was in a shop now, it seemed, moving lithely among the velvets and the furs, her own dress making, as she walked, a debonair rustle in that world of silken rustles and cool soprano laughter and scents of many slain but living flowers. The Minnies and Pearls and jewels and jennies would gather round her like courtiers, bearing wispy frailties of Georgette crepe, delicate chiffon to echo her cheeks in faint pastel, milky lace to rest in pale disarray against her neck—damask was used but to cover priests and divans in these days, and cloth of Samarand was remembered only by the romantic poets.
She would go elsewhere after a while, tilting her head a hundred ways under a hundred bonnets, seeking in vain for mock cherries to match her lips or plumes that were graceful as her own supple body.
Noon would come—she would hurry along Fifth Avenue, a Nordic Ganymede, her fur coat swinging fashionably with her steps, her cheeks redder by a stroke of the wind's brush, her breath a delightful mist upon the bracing air—and the doors of the Ritz would revolve, the crowd would divide, fifty masculine eyes would start, stare, as she gave back forgotten dreams to the husbands of many obese and comic women.
One o'clock. With her fork she would tantalize the heart of an adoring artichoke, while her escort served himself up in the thick, dripping sentences of an enraptured man.
Four o'clock: her little feet moving to melody, her face distinct in the crowd, her partner happy as a petted puppy and mad as the immemorial hatter.... Then—then night would come drifting down and perhaps another damp. The signs would spill their light into the street. Who knew? No wiser than he, they haply sought to recapture that picture done in cream and shadow they had seen on the hushed Avenue the night before. And they might, ah, they might! A thousand taxis would yawn at a thousand corners, and only to him was that kiss forever lost and done. In a thousand guises Thais would hail a cab and turn up her face for loving. And her pallor would be virginal and lovely, and her kiss chaste as the moon....
He sprang excitedly to his feet. How inappropriate that she should be out! He had realized at last what he wanted—to kiss her again, to find rest in her great immobility. She was the end of all restlessness, all malcontent.
Anthony dressed and went out, as he should have done long before, and down to Richard Caramel's room to hear the last revision of the last chapter of "The Demon Lover." He did not call Gloria again until six. He did not find her in until eight and—oh, climax of anticlimaxes!—she could give him no engagement until Tuesday afternoon. A broken piece of gutta-percha clattered to the floor as he banged up the phone.
Tuesday was freezing cold. He called at a bleak two o'clock and as they shook hands he wondered confusedly whether he had ever kissed her; it was almost unbelievable—he seriously doubted if she remembered it.
"I called you four times on Sunday," he told her.
There was surprise in her voice and interest in her expression. Silently he cursed himself for having told her. He might have known her pride did not deal in such petty triumphs. Even then he had not guessed at the truth—that never having had to worry about men she had seldom used the wary subterfuges, the playings out and haulings in, that were the stock in trade of her sisterhood. When she liked a man, that was trick enough. Did she think she loved him—there was an ultimate and fatal thrust. Her charm endlessly preserved itself.
"I was anxious to see you," he said simply. "I want to talk to you—I mean really talk, somewhere where we can be alone. May I?"
"What do you mean?"
He swallowed a sudden lump of panic. He felt that she knew what he wanted.
"I mean, not at a tea table," he said.
"Well, all right, but not to-day. I want to get some exercise. Let's walk!"
It was bitter and raw. All the evil hate in the mad heart of February was wrought into the forlorn and icy wind that cut its way cruelly across Central Park and down along Fifth Avenue. It was almost impossible to talk, and discomfort made him distracted, so much so that he turned at Sixty-first Street to find that she was no longer beside him. He looked around. She was forty feet in the rear standing motionless, her face half hidden in her fur coat collar, moved either by anger or laughter—he could not determine which. He started back.
"Don't let me interrupt your walk!" she called.
"I'm mighty sorry," he answered in confusion. "Did I go too fast?"
"I'm cold," she announced. "I want to go home. And you walk too fast."
"I'm very sorry."
Side by side they started for the Plaza. He wished he could see her face.
"Men don't usually get so absorbed in themselves when they're with me."
"That's very interesting."
"It is rather too cold to walk," he said, briskly, to hide his annoyance.
She made no answer and he wondered if she would dismiss him at the hotel entrance. She walked in without speaking, however, and to the elevator, throwing him a single remark as she entered it:
"You'd better come up."
He hesitated for the fraction of a moment.
"Perhaps I'd better call some other time."
"Just as you say." Her words were murmured as an aside. The main concern of life was the adjusting of some stray wisps of hair in the elevator mirror. Her cheeks were brilliant, her eyes sparkled—she had never seemed so lovely, so exquisitely to be desired.
Despising himself, he found that he was walking down the tenth-floor corridor a subservient foot behind her; was in the sitting room while she disappeared to shed her furs. Something had gone wrong—in his own eyes he had lost a shred of dignity; in an unpremeditated yet significant encounter he had been completely defeated.
However, by the time she reappeared in the sitting-room he had explained himself to himself with sophistic satisfaction. After all he had done the strongest thing, he thought. He had wanted to come up, he had come. Yet what happened later on that afternoon must be traced to the indignity he had experienced in the elevator; the girl was worrying him intolerably, so much so that when she came out he involuntarily drifted into criticism.
"Who's this Bloeckman, Gloria?"
"A business friend of father's."
"Odd sort of fellow!"
"He doesn't like you either," she said with a sudden smile.
"I'm flattered at his notice. He evidently considers me a—" He broke off with "Is he in love with you?"
"I don't know."
"The deuce you don't," he insisted. "Of course he is. I remember the look he gave me when we got back to the table. He'd probably have had me quietly assaulted by a delegation of movie supes if you hadn't invented that phone call."
"He didn't mind. I told him afterward what really happened."
"You told him!"
"He asked me."
"I don't like that very well," he remonstrated.
She laughed again.
"Oh, you don't?"
"What business is it of his?"
"None. That's why I told him."
Anthony in a turmoil bit savagely at his mouth.
"Why should I lie?" she demanded directly. "I'm not ashamed of anything I do. It happened to interest him to know that I kissed you, and I happened to be in a good humor, so I satisfied his curiosity by a simple and precise 'yes.' Being rather a sensible man, after his fashion, he dropped the subject."
"Except to say that he hated me."
"Oh, it worries you? Well, if you must probe this stupendous matter to its depths he didn't say he hated you. I simply know he does."
"It doesn't wor——"
"Oh, let's drop it!" she cried spiritedly. "It's a most uninteresting matter to me."
With a tremendous effort Anthony made his acquiescence a twist of subject, and they drifted into an ancient question-and-answer game concerned with each other's pasts, gradually warming as they discovered the age-old, immemorial resemblances in tastes and ideas. They said things that were more revealing than they intended—but each pretended to accept the other at face, or rather word, value.
The growth of intimacy is like that. First one gives off his best picture, the bright and finished product mended with bluff and falsehood and humor. Then more details are required and one paints a second portrait, and a third—before long the best lines cancel out—and the secret is exposed at last; the planes of the pictures have intermingled and given us away, and though we paint and paint we can no longer sell a picture. We must be satisfied with hoping that such fatuous accounts of ourselves as we make to our wives and children and business associates are accepted as true.
"It seems to me," Anthony was saying earnestly, "that the position of a man with neither necessity nor ambition is unfortunate. Heaven knows it'd be pathetic of me to be sorry for myself—yet, sometimes I envy Dick."
Her silence was encouragement. It was as near as she ever came to an intentional lure.
"—And there used to be dignified occupations for a gentleman who had leisure, things a little more constructive than filling up the landscape with smoke or juggling some one else's money. There's science, of course: sometimes I wish I'd taken a good foundation, say at Boston Tech. But now, by golly, I'd have to sit down for two years and struggle through the fundamentals of physics and chemistry."
"I've told you I don't know what anybody ought to do," she said ungraciously, and at her indifference his rancor was born again.
"Aren't you interested in anything except yourself?"
He glared; his growing enjoyment in the conversation was ripped to shreds. She had been irritable and vindictive all day, and it seemed to him that for this moment he hated her hard selfishness. He stared morosely at the fire.
Then a strange thing happened. She turned to him and smiled, and as he saw her smile every rag of anger and hurt vanity dropped from him—as though his very moods were but the outer ripples of her own, as though emotion rose no longer in his breast unless she saw fit to pull an omnipotent controlling thread.
He moved closer and taking her hand pulled her ever so gently toward him until she half lay against his shoulder. She smiled up at him as he kissed her.
"Gloria," he whispered very softly. Again she had made a magic, subtle and pervading as a spilt perfume, irresistible and sweet.
Afterward, neither the next day nor after many years, could he remember the important things of that afternoon. Had she been moved? In his arms had she spoken a little—or at all? What measure of enjoyment had she taken in his kisses? And had she at any time lost herself ever so little?
Oh, for him there was no doubt. He had risen and paced the floor in sheer ecstasy. That such a girl should be; should poise curled in a corner of the couch like a swallow newly landed from a clean swift flight, watching him with inscrutable eyes. He would stop his pacing and, half shy each time at first, drop his arm around her and find her kiss.
She was fascinating, he told her. He had never met any one like her before. He besought her jauntily but earnestly to send him away; he didn't want to fall in love. He wasn't coming to see her any more—already she had haunted too many of his ways.
What delicious romance! His true reaction was neither fear nor sorrow—only this deep delight in being with her that colored the banality of his words and made the mawkish seem sad and the posturing seem wise. He would come back—eternally. He should have known!
"This is all. It's been very rare to have known you, very strange and wonderful. But this wouldn't do—and wouldn't last." As he spoke there was in his heart that tremulousness that we take for sincerity in ourselves.
Afterward he remembered one reply of hers to something he had asked her. He remembered it in this form—perhaps he had unconsciously arranged and polished it:
"A woman should be able to kiss a man beautifully and romantically without any desire to be either his wife or his mistress."
As always when he was with her she seemed to grow gradually older until at the end ruminations too deep for words would be wintering in her eyes.
An hour passed, and the fire leaped up in little ecstasies as though its fading life was sweet. It was five now, and the clock over the mantel became articulate in sound. Then as if a brutish sensibility in him was reminded by those thin, tinny beats that the petals were falling from the flowered afternoon, Anthony pulled her quickly to her feet and held her helpless, without breath, in a kiss that was neither a game nor a tribute.
Her arms fell to her side. In an instant she was free.
"Don't!" she said quietly. "I don't want that."
She sat down on the far side of the lounge and gazed straight before her. A frown had gathered between her eyes. Anthony sank down beside her and closed his hand over hers. It was lifeless and unresponsive.
"Why, Gloria!" He made a motion as if to put his arm about her but she drew away.
"I don't want that," she repeated.
"I'm very sorry," he said, a little impatiently. "I—I didn't know you made such fine distinctions."
She did not answer.
"Won't you kiss me, Gloria?"
"I don't want to." It seemed to him she had not moved for hours.
"A sudden change, isn't it?" Annoyance was growing in his voice.
"Is it?" She appeared uninterested. It was almost as though she were looking at some one else.
"Perhaps I'd better go."
No reply. He rose and regarded her angrily, uncertainly. Again he sat down.
"Gloria, Gloria, won't you kiss me?"
"No." Her lips, parting for the word, had just faintly stirred.
Again he got to his feet, this time with less decision, less confidence.
"Then I'll go."
"All right—I'll go."
He was aware of a certain irremediable lack of originality in his remarks. Indeed he felt that the whole atmosphere had grown oppressive. He wished she would speak, rail at him, cry out upon him, anything but this pervasive and chilling silence. He cursed himself for a weak fool; his clearest desire was to move her, to hurt her, to see her wince. Helplessly, involuntarily, he erred again.
"If you're tired of kissing me I'd better go."
He saw her lips curl slightly and his last dignity left him. She spoke, at length:
"I believe you've made that remark several times before."
He looked about him immediately, saw his hat and coat on a chair—blundered into them, during an intolerable moment. Looking again at the couch he perceived that she had not turned, not even moved. With a shaken, immediately regretted "good-by" he went quickly but without dignity from the room.
For over a moment Gloria made no sound. Her lips were still curled; her glance was straight, proud, remote. Then her eyes blurred a little, and she murmured three words half aloud to the death-bound fire:
"Good-by, you ass!" she said.
The man had had the hardest blow of his life. He knew at last what he wanted, but in finding it out it seemed that he had put it forever beyond his grasp. He reached home in misery, dropped into an armchair without even removing his overcoat, and sat there for over an hour, his mind racing the paths of fruitless and wretched self-absorption. She had sent him away! That was the reiterated burden of his despair. Instead of seizing the girl and holding her by sheer strength until she became passive to his desire, instead of beating down her will by the force of his own, he had walked, defeated and powerless, from her door, with the corners of his mouth drooping and what force there might have been in his grief and rage hidden behind the manner of a whipped schoolboy. At one minute she had liked him tremendously—ah, she had nearly loved him. In the next he had become a thing of indifference to her, an insolent and efficiently humiliated man.
He had no great self-reproach—some, of course, but there were other things dominant in him now, far more urgent. He was not so much in love with Gloria as mad for her. Unless he could have her near him again, kiss her, hold her close and acquiescent, he wanted nothing more from life. By her three minutes of utter unwavering indifference the girl had lifted herself from a high but somehow casual position in his mind, to be instead his complete preoccupation. However much his wild thoughts varied between a passionate desire for her kisses and an equally passionate craving to hurt and mar her, the residue of his mind craved in finer fashion to possess the triumphant soul that had shone through those three minutes. She was beautiful—but especially she was without mercy. He must own that strength that could send him away.
At present no such analysis was possible to Anthony. His clarity of mind, all those endless resources which he thought his irony had brought him were swept aside. Not only for that night but for the days and weeks that followed his books were to be but furniture and his friends only people who lived and walked in a nebulous outer world from which he was trying to escape—that world was cold and full of bleak wind, and for a little while he had seen into a warm house where fires shone.
About midnight he began to realize that he was hungry. He went down into Fifty-second Street, where it was so cold that he could scarcely see; the moisture froze on his lashes and in the corners of his lips. Everywhere dreariness had come down from the north, settling upon the thin and cheerless street, where black bundled figures blacker still against the night, moved stumbling along the sidewalk through the shrieking wind, sliding their feet cautiously ahead as though they were on skis. Anthony turned over toward Sixth Avenue, so absorbed in his thoughts as not to notice that several passers-by had stared at him. His overcoat was wide open, and the wind was biting in, hard and full of merciless death.
... After a while a waitress spoke to him, a fat waitress with black-rimmed eye-glasses from which dangled a long black cord.
Her voice, he considered, was unnecessarily loud. He looked up resentfully.
"You wanna order or doncha?"
"Of course," he protested.
"Well, I ast you three times. This ain't no rest-room."
He glanced at the big clock and discovered with a start that it was after two. He was down around Thirtieth Street somewhere, and after a moment he found and translated the
[Illustration: S'DLIHC] [Transcribers note: The illustration shows the word "CHILD's" in mirror image.]
in a white semicircle of letters upon the glass front. The place was inhabited sparsely by three or four bleak and half-frozen night-hawks.
"Give me some bacon and eggs and coffee, please."
The waitress bent upon him a last disgusted glance and, looking ludicrously intellectual in her corded glasses, hurried away.
God! Gloria's kisses had been such flowers. He remembered as though it had been years ago the low freshness of her voice, the beautiful lines of her body shining through her clothes, her face lily-colored under the lamps of the street—under the lamps.
Misery struck at him again, piling a sort of terror upon the ache and yearning. He had lost her. It was true—no denying it, no softening it. But a new idea had seared his sky—what of Bloeckman! What would happen now? There was a wealthy man, middle-aged enough to be tolerant with a beautiful wife, to baby her whims and indulge her unreason, to wear her as she perhaps wished to be worn—a bright flower in his button-hole, safe and secure from the things she feared. He felt that she had been playing with the idea of marrying Bloeckman, and it was well possible that this disappointment in Anthony might throw her on sudden impulse into Bloeckman's arms.
The idea drove him childishly frantic. He wanted to kill Bloeckman and make him suffer for his hideous presumption. He was saying this over and over to himself with his teeth tight shut, and a perfect orgy of hate and fright in his eyes.
But, behind this obscene jealousy, Anthony was in love at last, profoundly and truly in love, as the word goes between man and woman.
His coffee appeared at his elbow and gave off for a certain time a gradually diminishing wisp of steam. The night manager, seated at his desk, glanced at the motionless figure alone at the last table, and then with a sigh moved down upon him just as the hour hand crossed the figure three on the big clock.
After another day the turmoil subsided and Anthony began to exercise a measure of reason. He was in love—he cried it passionately to himself. The things that a week before would have seemed insuperable obstacles, his limited income, his desire to be irresponsible and independent, had in this forty hours become the merest chaff before the wind of his infatuation. If he did not marry her his life would be a feeble parody on his own adolescence. To be able to face people and to endure the constant reminder of Gloria that all existence had become, it was necessary for him to have hope. So he built hope desperately and tenaciously out of the stuff of his dream, a hope flimsy enough, to be sure, a hope that was cracked and dissipated a dozen times a day, a hope mothered by mockery, but, nevertheless, a hope that would be brawn and sinew to his self-respect.
Out of this developed a spark of wisdom, a true perception of his own from out the effortless past.
"Memory is short," he thought.
So very short. At the crucial point the Trust President is on the stand, a potential criminal needing but one push to be a jailbird, scorned by the upright for leagues around. Let him be acquitted—and in a year all is forgotten. "Yes, he did have some trouble once, just a technicality, I believe." Oh, memory is very short!
Anthony had seen Gloria altogether about a dozen times, say two dozen hours. Supposing he left her alone for a month, made no attempt to see her or speak to her, and avoided every place where she might possibly be. Wasn't it possible, the more possible because she had never loved him, that at the end of that time the rush of events would efface his personality from her conscious mind, and with his personality his offense and humiliation? She would forget, for there would be other men. He winced. The implication struck out at him—other men. Two months—God! Better three weeks, two weeks——
He thought this the second evening after the catastrophe when he was undressing, and at this point he threw himself down on the bed and lay there, trembling very slightly and looking at the top of the canopy.
Two weeks—that was worse than no time at all. In two weeks he would approach her much as he would have to now, without personality or confidence—remaining still the man who had gone too far and then for a period that in time was but a moment but in fact an eternity, whined. No, two weeks was too short a time. Whatever poignancy there had been for her in that afternoon must have time to dull. He must give her a period when the incident should fade, and then a new period when she should gradually begin to think of him, no matter how dimly, with a true perspective that would remember his pleasantness as well as his humiliation.
He fixed, finally, on six weeks as approximately the interval best suited to his purpose, and on a desk calendar he marked the days off, finding that it would fall on the ninth of April. Very well, on that day he would phone and ask her if he might call. Until then—silence.
After his decision a gradual improvement was manifest. He had taken at least a step in the direction to which hope pointed, and he realized that the less he brooded upon her the better he would be able to give the desired impression when they met.
In another hour he fell into a deep sleep.
Nevertheless, though, as the days passed, the glory of her hair dimmed perceptibly for him and in a year of separation might have departed completely, the six weeks held many abominable days. He dreaded the sight of Dick and Maury, imagining wildly that they knew all—but when the three met it was Richard Caramel and not Anthony who was the centre of attention; "The Demon Lover" had been accepted for immediate publication. Anthony felt that from now on he moved apart. He no longer craved the warmth and security of Maury's society which had cheered him no further back than November. Only Gloria could give that now and no one else ever again. So Dick's success rejoiced him only casually and worried him not a little. It meant that the world was going ahead—writing and reading and publishing—and living. And he wanted the world to wait motionless and breathless for six weeks—while Gloria forgot.
His greatest satisfaction was in Geraldine's company. He took her once to dinner and the theatre and entertained her several times in his apartment. When he was with her she absorbed him, not as Gloria had, but quieting those erotic sensibilities in him that worried over Gloria. It didn't matter how he kissed Geraldine. A kiss was a kiss—to be enjoyed to the utmost for its short moment. To Geraldine things belonged in definite pigeonholes: a kiss was one thing, anything further was quite another; a kiss was all right; the other things were "bad."
When half the interval was up two incidents occurred on successive days that upset his increasing calm and caused a temporary relapse.
The first was—he saw Gloria. It was a short meeting. Both bowed. Both spoke, yet neither heard the other. But when it was over Anthony read down a column of The Sun three times in succession without understanding a single sentence.
One would have thought Sixth Avenue a safe street! Having forsworn his barber at the Plaza he went around the corner one morning to be shaved, and while waiting his turn he took off coat and vest, and with his soft collar open at the neck stood near the front of the shop. The day was an oasis in the cold desert of March and the sidewalk was cheerful with a population of strolling sun-worshippers. A stout woman upholstered in velvet, her flabby cheeks too much massaged, swirled by with her poodle straining at its leash—the effect being given of a tug bringing in an ocean liner. Just behind them a man in a striped blue suit, walking slue-footed in white-spatted feet, grinned at the sight and catching Anthony's eye, winked through the glass. Anthony laughed, thrown immediately into that humor in which men and women were graceless and absurd phantasms, grotesquely curved and rounded in a rectangular world of their own building. They inspired the same sensations in him as did those strange and monstrous fish who inhabit the esoteric world of green in the aquarium.
Two more strollers caught his eye casually, a man and a girl—then in a horrified instant the girl resolved herself into Gloria. He stood here powerless; they came nearer and Gloria, glancing in, saw him. Her eyes widened and she smiled politely. Her lips moved. She was less than five feet away.
"How do you do?" he muttered inanely.
Gloria, happy, beautiful, and young—with a man he had never seen before!
It was then that the barber's chair was vacated and he read down the newspaper column three times in succession.
The second incident took place the next day. Going into the Manhattan bar about seven he was confronted with Bloeckman. As it happened, the room was nearly deserted, and before the mutual recognition he had stationed himself within a foot of the older man and ordered his drink, so it was inevitable that they should converse.
"Hello, Mr. Patch," said Bloeckman amiably enough.
Anthony took the proffered hand and exchanged a few aphorisms on the fluctuations of the mercury.
"Do you come in here much?" inquired Bloeckman.
"No, very seldom." He omitted to add that the Plaza bar had, until lately, been his favorite.
"Nice bar. One of the best bars in town."
Anthony nodded. Bloeckman emptied his glass and picked up his cane. He was in evening dress.
"Well, I'll be hurrying on. I'm going to dinner with Miss Gilbert."
Death looked suddenly out at him from two blue eyes. Had he announced himself as his vis-a-vis's prospective murderer he could not have struck a more vital blow at Anthony. The younger man must have reddened visibly, for his every nerve was in instant clamor. With tremendous effort he mustered a rigid—oh, so rigid—smile, and said a conventional good-by. But that night he lay awake until after four, half wild with grief and fear and abominable imaginings.
And one day in the fifth week he called her up. He had been sitting in his apartment trying to read "L'Education Sentimental," and something in the book had sent his thoughts racing in the direction that, set free, they always took, like horses racing for a home stable. With suddenly quickened breath he walked to the telephone. When he gave the number it seemed to him that his voice faltered and broke like a schoolboy's. The Central must have heard the pounding of his heart. The sound of the receiver being taken up at the other end was a crack of doom, and Mrs. Gilbert's voice, soft as maple syrup running into a glass container, had for him a quality of horror in its single "Hello-o-ah?"
"Miss Gloria's not feeling well. She's lying down, asleep. Who shall I say called?"
"Nobody!" he shouted.
In a wild panic he slammed down the receiver; collapsed into his armchair in the cold sweat of breathless relief.
The first thing he said to her was: "Why, you've bobbed your hair!" and she answered: "Yes, isn't it gorgeous?"
It was not fashionable then. It was to be fashionable in five or six years. At that time it was considered extremely daring.
"It's all sunshine outdoors," he said gravely. "Don't you want to take a walk?"
She put on a light coat and a quaintly piquant Napoleon hat of Alice Blue, and they walked along the Avenue and into the Zoo, where they properly admired the grandeur of the elephant and the collar-height of the giraffe, but did not visit the monkey house because Gloria said that monkeys smelt so bad.
Then they returned toward the Plaza, talking about nothing, but glad for the spring singing in the air and for the warm balm that lay upon the suddenly golden city. To their right was the Park, while at the left a great bulk of granite and marble muttered dully a millionaire's chaotic message to whosoever would listen: something about "I worked and I saved and I was sharper than all Adam and here I sit, by golly, by golly!"
All the newest and most beautiful designs in automobiles were out on Fifth Avenue, and ahead of them the Plaza loomed up rather unusually white and attractive. The supple, indolent Gloria walked a short shadow's length ahead of him, pouring out lazy casual comments that floated a moment on the dazzling air before they reached his ear.
"Oh!" she cried, "I want to go south to Hot Springs! I want to get out in the air and just roll around on the new grass and forget there's ever been any winter."
"Don't you, though!"
"I want to hear a million robins making a frightful racket. I sort of like birds."
"All women are birds," he ventured.
"What kind am I?"—quick and eager.
"A swallow, I think, and sometimes a bird of paradise. Most girls are sparrows, of course—see that row of nurse-maids over there? They're sparrows—or are they magpies? And of course you've met canary girls—and robin girls."
"And swan girls and parrot girls. All grown women are hawks, I think, or owls."
"What am I—a buzzard?"
She laughed and shook her head.
"Oh, no, you're not a bird at all, do you think? You're a Russian wolfhound."
Anthony remembered that they were white and always looked unnaturally hungry. But then they were usually photographed with dukes and princesses, so he was properly flattered.
"Dick's a fox terrier, a trick fox terrier," she continued.
"And Maury's a cat." Simultaneously it occurred to him how like Bloeckman was to a robust and offensive hog. But he preserved a discreet silence.
Later, as they parted, Anthony asked when he might see her again.
"Don't you ever make long engagements?" he pleaded, "even if it's a week ahead, I think it'd be fun to spend a whole day together, morning and afternoon both."
"It would be, wouldn't it?" She thought for a moment. "Let's do it next Sunday."
"All right. I'll map out a programme that'll take up every minute."
He did. He even figured to a nicety what would happen in the two hours when she would come to his apartment for tea: how the good Bounds would have the windows wide to let in the fresh breeze—but a fire going also lest there be chill in the air—and how there would be clusters of flowers about in big cool bowls that he would buy for the occasion. They would sit on the lounge.
And when the day came they did sit upon the lounge. After a while Anthony kissed her because it came about quite naturally; he found sweetness sleeping still upon her lips, and felt that he had never been away. The fire was bright and the breeze sighing in through the curtains brought a mellow damp, promising May and world of summer. His soul thrilled to remote harmonies; he heard the strum of far guitars and waters lapping on a warm Mediterranean shore—for he was young now as he would never be again, and more triumphant than death.
Six o'clock stole down too soon and rang the querulous melody of St. Anne's chimes on the corner. Through the gathering dusk they strolled to the Avenue, where the crowds, like prisoners released, were walking with elastic step at last after the long winter, and the tops of the busses were thronged with congenial kings and the shops full of fine soft things for the summer, the rare summer, the gay promising summer that seemed for love what the winter was for money. Life was singing for his supper on the corner! Life was handing round cocktails in the street! Old women there were in that crowd who felt that they could have run and won a hundred-yard dash!
In bed that night with the lights out and the cool room swimming with moonlight, Anthony lay awake and played with every minute of the day like a child playing in turn with each one of a pile of long-wanted Christmas toys. He had told her gently, almost in the middle of a kiss, that he loved her, and she had smiled and held him closer and murmured, "I'm glad," looking into his eyes. There had been a new quality in her attitude, a new growth of sheer physical attraction toward him and a strange emotional tenseness, that was enough to make him clinch his hands and draw in his breath at the recollection. He had felt nearer to her than ever before. In a rare delight he cried aloud to the room that he loved her.
He phoned next morning—no hesitation now, no uncertainty—instead a delirious excitement that doubled and trebled when he heard her voice:
"That's all I called you up to say-dear."
"I'm glad you did."
"I wish I could see you."
"You will, to-morrow night."
"That's a long time, isn't it?"
"Yes—" Her voice was reluctant. His hand tightened on the receiver.
"Couldn't I come to-night?" He dared anything in the glory and revelation of that almost whispered "yes."
"I have a date."
"But I might—I might be able to break it."
"Oh!"—a sheer cry, a rhapsody. "Gloria?"
"I love you."
Another pause and then:
Happiness, remarked Maury Noble one day, is only the first hour after the alleviation of some especially intense misery. But oh, Anthony's face as he walked down the tenth-floor corridor of the Plaza that night! His dark eyes were gleaming—around his mouth were lines it was a kindness to see. He was handsome then if never before, bound for one of those immortal moments which come so radiantly that their remembered light is enough to see by for years.
He knocked and, at a word, entered. Gloria, dressed in simple pink, starched and fresh as a flower, was across the room, standing very still, and looking at him wide-eyed.
As he closed the door behind him she gave a little cry and moved swiftly over the intervening space, her arms rising in a premature caress as she came near. Together they crushed out the stiff folds of her dress in one triumphant and enduring embrace.