The Fascinating Stranger and Other Stories/Jeannette
THE nurses at the sanitarium were all fond of the gentlest patient in the place, and they spoke of him as “Uncle Charlie,” though he was so sweetly dignified that usually they addressed him as “Mr. Blake,” even when it was necessary to humour his delusion. The delusion was peculiar and of apparently interminable persistence; he had but the one during his sixteen years of incarceration—yet it was a misfortune painful only to himself (painful through the excessive embarrassment it cost him) and was never for an instant of the slightest distress to any one else, except as a stimulant of sympathy. For all that, it closed him in, shutting out the moving world from him as completely as if he had been walled up in concrete. Moreover, he had been walled up overnight—one day he was a sane man, and the next he was in custody as a lunatic; yet nothing had happened in this little interval, or during any preceding interval in his life, to account for a seizure so instantaneous.
In 1904 no more commonplace young man could have been found in any of the great towns of our Eastern and near-Eastern levels. “Well brought up,” as we used to say, he had inherited the quiet manner, the good health, and the moderate wealth of his parents; and not engaging in any business or profession, he put forth the best that was in him when he planned a lunch for a pretty “visiting girl,” or, again, when he bought a pair of iron candle-snuffers for what he thought of as his “collection.” This “collection,” consisting of cheerless utensils and primitive furniture once used by woodsmen and farmers, and naturally discarded by their descendants, gave him his principal occupation, though he was sometimes called upon to lead a cotillion, being favourably regarded in the waltz and two-step; but he had no eccentricities, no habitual vices, and was never known to exhibit anything in the nature of an imagination.
It was in the autumn of the year just mentioned that he went for the first time to Europe, accompanying his sister, Mrs. Gordon Troup, an experienced traveller. She took him through the English cathedrals, then across the Channel; and they arrived unfatigued at her usual hotel in Paris after dark on a clear November evening—the fated young gentleman’s last evening of sanity. Yet, as Mrs. Troup so often recalled later, never in his life had her brother been more “absolutely normal” than all that day: not even the Channel had disturbed him, for it was as still as syrup in a pantry jug; he slept on the French train, and when he awoke, played gently with Mrs. Troup’s three-year-old daughter Jeannette who, with a nurse, completed the small party. His talk was not such as to cause anxiety, being in the main concerned with a tailor who had pleased him in London, and a haberdasher he made sure would please him in Paris.
They dined in the salon of their apartment; and at about nine o’clock, as they finished their coffee, flavoured with a little burnt cognac, Mrs. Troup suggested the theatre—a pantomime or ballet for preference, since her brother’s unfamiliarity with the French language rapidly spoken might give him a dull evening at a comedy. So, taking their leisure, they went to the Marigny, where they saw part of a potpourri called a “revue,” which Mrs. Troup declared to be at once too feeble and too bold to detain them as spectators; and they left the Marigny for the Folies Bergères, where she had once seen a fine pantomime; but here they found another “revue,” and fared no better. The “revue” at the Folies Bergères was even feebler, she observed to her brother, and much bolder than that at the Marigny: the feebleness was in the wit, the boldness in the anatomical exposures, which were somewhat discomfiting—“even for Paris!” she said.
She remembered afterward that he made no response to her remark but remained silent, frowning at the stage, where some figurantes just then appeared to be dressed in ball gowns, until they turned, when they appeared to be dressed almost not at all. “Mercy!” said Mrs. Troup; and presently, as the costume designer’s ideas became less and less reassuring, she asked her brother if he would mind taking her back to the hotel: so much dullness and so much brazenness together fatigued her, she explained.
He assented briefly, though with some emphasis; and they left during the entr’acte, making their way through the outer room where a “Hungarian” band played stormily for a painted and dangerous-looking procession slowly circling like torpid skaters in a rink. The bang-whang of the music struck full in the face like an impulsive blow from a fist; so did the savage rouging of the promenaders; and young Mr. Blake seemed to be startled: he paused for a moment, looking confused. But Mrs. Troup pressed his arm. “Let’s get out to the air,” she said. “Did you ever see anything like it?”
He replied that he never did, went on quickly; they stepped into a cab at the door; and on the way to the hotel Mrs. Troup expressed contrition as a courier. “I shouldn’t have given you this for your first impression of Paris,” she said. “We ought to have waited until morning and then gone to the Sainte Chapelle. I’ll try to make up for to-night by taking you there the first thing to-morrow.”
He murmured something to the effect that he would be glad to see whatever she chose to show him, and afterward she could not remember that they had any further conversation until they reached their apartment in the hotel. There she again expressed her regret, not with particular emphasis, of course, but rather lightly; for to her mind, at least, the evening’s experience was the slightest of episodes; and her brother told her not to “bother,” but to “forget it.” He spoke casually, even negligently, but she was able to recall that as he went into his own room and closed the door, his forehead still showed the same frown, perhaps of disapproval, that she had observed in the theatre.
The outer door of the apartment, giving entrance to their little hallway, opened upon a main corridor of the hotel; she locked this door and took the key with her into her bedchamber, having some vague idea that her jewels were thus made safer; and this precaution of hers later made it certain that her brother had not gone out again, but without doubt passed the night in his own room—in his own room and asleep, so far as might be guessed.
Her little girl’s nurse woke her the next morning; and the woman’s voice and expression showed such distress, even to eyes just drowsily opening, that Mrs. Troup jumped up at once. “Is something wrong with Jeannette?”
“No, ma’am. It is Mr. Blake.”
“Is he ill?”
“I think so. That is, I don’t know, ma’am. A valet-de-chambre went into his room half an hour ago, and Mr. Blake hid himself under the bed.”
“Perhaps you’d better come and see, ma’am. The valet-de-chambre is very frightened of him.”
But it was poor young Mr. Blake who was afraid of the valet-de-chambre, and of everybody else, for that matter, as Mrs. Troup discovered. He declined to come out from under the bed so long as she and the nurse and the valet were present, and in response to his sister’s entreaties, he earnestly insisted that she should leave the room at once and take the servants with her.
“But what’s the matter, Charlie dear?” she asked, greatly disturbed. “Why are you under the bed?”
In his voice, as he replied, a pathetic indignation was audible: “Because I haven’t got any clothes on!”
At this her relief was manifest, and she began to laugh. “Good heavens——”
“But no, madame!” the valet explained. “He has his clothes on. He is dressed all entirely. If you will stoop and look——”
She did as he suggested, and saw that her brother was fully dressed and making gestures as eloquently plaintive as the limited space permitted. “Can’t you take these people away?” he cried pettishly. “Do you think it’s nice to stand around looking at a person that’s got nothing on?”
He said the same thing an hour later to the doctor Mrs. Troup summoned, though by that time he had left his shelter under the bed and had locked himself in a wardrobe. And thus, out of a clear sky and with no premonitory vagaries, began his delusion—his long, long delusion, which knew no variation in the sixteen years it possessed him. From first to last he was generally regarded as a “strange case;” yet his state of mind may easily be realized by anybody who dreams; for in dreams, everybody has undergone, however briefly, experiences similar to those in which Mr. Blake fancied himself so continuously involved.
He was taken from the hotel to a private asylum near Paris, where he remained until the following year, when Mrs. Troup had him quietly brought home to a suburban sanitarium convenient for her to visit at intervals; and here he remained, his condition changing neither for the better nor for the worse. He was violent only once or twice in the whole period, and, though he was sometimes a little peevish, he was the most tractable patient in the institution, so long as his delusion was discreetly humoured; yet it is probable that the complete records of kleptomania would not disclose a more expert thief.
This was not a new form of his disease, but a natural by-product and outgrowth of it, which within a year or two had developed to the point of fine legerdemain; and at the end of ten years Doctor Cowrie, the chief at the sanitarium, declared that his patient, Uncle Charlie Blake, could “steal the trousers off a man’s legs without the man’s knowing it.” The alienist may have exaggerated; but it is certain that “Uncle Charlie” could steal the most carefully fastened and safety-pinned apron from a nurse, without the nurse’s being aware of it. Indeed, attendants, nurses and servants who wore aprons learned to remove them before entering his room; for the most watchful could seldom prevent what seemed a miraculous exchange, and “Uncle Charlie” would be wearing the apron that had seemed, but a moment before, to be secure upon the intruder. It may be said that he spent most of his time purloining and collecting aprons; for quantities of them were frequently discovered hidden in his room, and taken away, though he always wore several, by permission. Nor were other garments safe from him: it was found that he could not be allowed to take his outdoor exercise except in those portions of the grounds remotest from the laundry yard; and even then as he was remarkably deft in concealing himself behind trees and among shrubberies, he was sometimes able to strip a whole length of clothesline, to don many of the damp garments, and to hide the others, before being detected.
He read nothing, had no diversions, and was immersed in the sole preoccupation of devising means to obtain garments, which, immediately after he put them on, were dissolved into nothingness so far as his consciousness was concerned. Mrs. Troup could not always resist the impulse to argue with him as if he were a rational man; and she made efforts to interest him in “books and the outside world,” kindly efforts that only irritated him. “How can I read books and newspapers?” he inquired peevishly from under the bed, where he always remained when he received her. “Don’t you know any better than to talk about intellectual pursuits to a man that hasn’t got a stitch of clothes to his name? Try it yourself if you want to know how it feels. Find yourself totally undressed, with all sorts of people likely to drop in on you at any minute, and then sit down and read a newspaper! Please use your reason a little, Frances!”
Mrs. Troup sighed, and rose to depart—but found that her fur cloak had disappeared under the bed.
In fact, though Mrs. Troup failed to comprehend this, he had explained his condition to her quite perfectly: it was merely an excessive protraction of the nervous anxiety experienced by a rational person whose entire wardrobe is missing. No sensitive gentleman, under such circumstances, has attention to spare from his effort to clothe himself; and all information not bearing upon that effort will fail of important effect upon his mind. You may bring him the news that the Brooklyn Bridge has fallen with a great splash, but the gravity of the event will be lost upon him until he has obtained trousers.
Thus, year after year, while Uncle Charlie Blake became more and moreat stealing aprons, history paced on outside the high iron fence inclosing the grounds of the sanitarium, and all the time he was so concerned with his embarrassment, and with his plans and campaigns to relieve it, that there was no room left in his mind for the plans and campaigns of Joffre and Hindenburg and Haig and Foch. Armistice Day, as celebrated by Uncle Charlie, was the day when, owing to some cheerful preoccupation on the part of doctors and attendants, he stole nine aprons, three overcoats, a waistcoat and seventeen pillow-slips.
Rip Van Winkle beat Uncle Charlie by four years. The likeness between the two experiences is pathetically striking, and the difference between them more apparent than actual; for though Rip Van Winkle’s body lay upon the hill like a stone, the while his slumber was vaguely decorated with thousands of dreams, and although Uncle Charlie Blake had the full use of his body, and was all the time lost in one particular and definite dream, still if Rip Van Winkle could wake, so could Uncle Charlie. At least, this was the view of the younger alienist, Doctor Morphy, who succeeded Doctor Cowrie in 1919.
In the course of some long and sympathetic talks with his patient, Doctor Morphy slightly emphasized a suggestion that of late tin had come to be considered the most desirable clothing material: the stiffness and glitter of tin, as well as the sound of it, enabled a person to be pretty sure he had something over him, so long as he wore one of the new tin suits, the Doctor explained. Then he took an engraving of Don Quixote in armour to a tinsmith, had him make a suit of armour in tin, and left it in Uncle Charlie’s corridor to be stolen.
The awakening, or cure, began there; for the patient accepted the tin armour as substance, even when it was upon him, the first apparel he had believed to be tangible and opaque enough for modesty since the night his sister had taken him to the Folies Bergères in 1904. The patient’s satisfaction when he had put on this Don Quixote armour was instant, but so profound that at first he could express it only in long sighs, like those of a swimmer who has attained the land with difficulty and lies upon the bank flaccid with both his struggle and his relief. That morning, for the first time, he made no dive under his bed at the sound of a knock upon the door, and when he went out for his exercise, he broke his long habit of darting from the shelter of one tree to another. He was even so confident as to walk up to a woman nurse and remark that it was a pleasant day.
Thence onward, the measures to be taken for his restoration to society were obvious. The tin greaves pinched him at the joints when he moved, and Doctor Morphy pointed out that silver cloth, with rows of tiny bells sewed upon it here and there, would glitter and sound even better than tin. Then, when the patient had worn a suit of this silver cloth, instead of tin, for a few weeks, the bells were gradually removed, a row at a time, until finally they were all gone, and Uncle Charlie was convinced by only the glitter that he went apparelled. After that, the silver was secretly tarnished, yet the patient remained satisfied. Next a woollen suit of vivid green and red plaid was substituted; and others followed, each milder than its predecessor, until at last Uncle Charlie grew accustomed to the daily thought that he was clothed, and, relieved of his long anxiety, began to play solitaire in his room. His delusion had been gradually worn away, but not to make room for another; moreover, as it lost actuality to him, he began to forget it. His intelligence cleared, in fact, until upon Thanksgiving Day, 1920, when Mrs. Troup came to take him away, he was in everything—except a body forty-six years old—the same young man who had arrived in Paris on a November evening in 1904. His information, his point of view and his convictions were those of a commonplace, well-brought-up, conventional young American of that period; he had merely to bridge the gap.
Doctor Morphy advised Mrs. Troup that the bridging must be done with as little strain as possible upon the convalescent’s mind—a mind never too hardily robust—and therefore the devoted lady took her brother to a mountain health resort, where for a month they lived in a detached cottage, walked footpaths in the woods, went to bed at nine, and made no acquaintances. Mrs. Troup dispensed with newspapers for the time (her charge did not appear to be aware of their absence) but she had brought such books as she thought might be useful; and every day she talked to him, as instructively as she could, of the terrific culminations history had seen during the latter part of his incarceration.
Of Bolshevism he appeared unable to make anything at all, though Mrs. Troup’s explanations struck out a single spark from his memory. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I remember a rather talky chap—he was one of the guests at that queer place where I used to live, you know—well, he used to make speeches the whole day long. He said the doctors got all the money and it was our money. If it wasn’t for us, the doctors wouldn’t have a cent, he said; and since we produced all the wealth, we ought to organize, and lock the doctors up in the cellar, and get the money ourselves. I remember some of the other guests seemed to think there was a good deal in the talky chap’s speeches, and I suppose it must be something of this sort that’s happened in Russia. It’s very confusing, though.”
And when her lessons, as mild as she could make them, had proceeded somewhat further, he passed his hand over his brow, professing himself more confused than ever.
“I declare!” he said. “No sensible person could make head or tail of it, if I may use such an expression. I never dreamed anything could actually come of all these eccentricities—women’s rights, socialism, blue Sundays, prohibition and what not. I’ve heard of such people—heard jokes about ’em—but never in my life met a person that went in seriously for any of ’em, except that speechifying chap I told you about. How on earth did it all happen?”
Upon this she was able to enlighten him but feebly, and he rubbed his forehead again.
“It’s no use,” he told her. “There’s no reason behind these things: the only thing to do is to realize that the world’s gone crazy. We used to think that civilization was something made of parts working together as they do in an engine; but from what you tell me, it must have been trying to split itself up, all the time. The nations split up and began to fight one another; and as soon as they’d all got so crippled and in debt that they couldn’t fight any more, the other splits began. Everybody had to be on the side of the women or on the side of the men, and the women won. Now everybody has to be either a capitalist or a labourer, it seems, no matter what else he is; and even if he doesn’t know which he is, he’ll have to fight, because somebody’s sure to hit him. And besides that, the people have gone and split themselves into those that drink and the others that won’t let ’em. How many more splits are there going to be, with the people on each side just bound to run the world their way? There are plenty of other kinds of splits that could be made, and I suppose we might as well expect ’em; for instance, we can have all the married people on one side in a ‘class-conscious class,’ as you were explaining, and all the unmarried ones on the other. Or all the parents on one side and all the children on the other.” He paused, and laughed, adding: “However, I don’t suppose it’s gone quite so far as children versus parents yet, has it?”
Mrs. Troup looked thoughtful. “I suppose it always has been ‘children versus parents’ at least, in a sense,” she said. “I’ve been thinking lately, though, that since all revolts are more apt to take place against feeble governments than against strong ones, if the children are in revolt, it must be because the parents are showing greater laxity than they used to.”
Mr. Blake went to his afternoon nap, shaking his head, but in silence. Naturally he was confused by what he heard from her, and once or twice he was confused by some things he saw, though in their seclusion he saw little. One mistake he made, however, amazed his sister.
From their pleasant veranda a rounded green slope descended slowly to the level lawn surrounding the Georgian upheavings of an endless hotel; and at a porte cochère of this hotel a dozen young women, come from a ride on the hills, were getting down from their saddles. Mr. Blake, upon the veranda of the cottage a hundred yards distant, observed them thoughtfully.
“It may be only the difference in fashions,” he remarked; “but people’s figures look very queer to me. The actual shapes seem to have changed as much as the clothes. You’re used to them, I suppose, and so they don’t surprise you, but down there at that porte cochère, for instance, the figures all look odd and—well, sort of bunchy. To me, every single one of those boys seems to be either knock-kneed or bow-legged.”
“‘Boys!’” Mrs. Troup cried.
He stared at her. “What are they?”
“Good gracious! Don’t you see? They’re women!”
He still stared at her, while his incredulous expression slowly changed to one of troubled perplexity. But he said nothing at all, and after a moment more, turned away and went to his room, where he remained until dinner-time. When he appeared at the table, he made no reference to his mistake, but reverted to the topic of which they had been speaking that afternoon before his attention wandered to the horsewomen at the porte cochère.
“Prohibition must have altered a great many people’s lives quite violently,” he said. “I suppose it was quite a shock for people who’d always had wine or Scotch at dinner—giving it up so suddenly.”
“I suppose so—I don’t know——” A little colour showed below Mrs. Troup’s eyes. “Of course, quite a number of people had supplies on hand when the day came.”
“But most of that must be gone by this time.”
“Quite a good deal of it is gone, yes; you don’t see wine very often any more. People who have any left are getting very piggish about it, I believe.”
“It must be odd,” he said contemplatively, “the whole country’s being absolutely sober and dry, like this.”
“Well——” she began; then, after a pause, went on: “It isn’t like that—exactly. You see——”
“Oh, of course there would be a few moonshine stills and low dives,” he interrupted. “But people of our circle——”
“Aren’t exactly ‘dry,’ Charles.”
“But if they have no wine or——”
“It’s my impression,” said Mrs. Troup, “that certain queer kinds of whisky and gin——”
“But we were speaking of ‘our circle’—the kind of people we——”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “They carry these liquids about with them in the most exquisite flasks. Jeannette has one—a boy friend gave it to her—and it must have been made by a silversmith who is a real artist. It must have been fearfully expensive.”
Mr. Blake’s open mouth remained distended for a moment. “Your Jeannette!” he exclaimed. “Why, she’s only——”
“Oh, she’s nineteen,” his sister informed him soothingly.
“But was it exactly nice for her to receive such a gift from a young man?”
“Oh, he’s one of the nicest boys we know,” Mrs. Troup explained. “They swim together every day.”
“‘Swim together’?” her brother inquired feebly.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Troup. “His aunt has a tank.”
“‘His aunt has a tank,’” the convalescent repeated in a low voice, as if he wished to get the sentence by heart. “‘His aunt has a tank.’”
Mrs. Troup coughed placatively. “It may be a little difficult for you to understand,” she said. “Of course, even I feel obliged to have something in the house at home—a certain amount of whisky. I don’t approve of such things, naturally, but Jeannette feels it’s necessary on account of the young men and the other girls. She doesn’t like whisky and never touches it herself.”
Jeannette’s uncle uttered a sigh of relief. “I should think not! I was afraid, from what you told me of her flask——”
“Oh, in that,” said Mrs. Troup, “she keeps gin.”
“Gin?” he said in a whisper. “Gin?”
“She’s rather fond of gin,” Mrs. Troup informed him. “She makes it herself from a recipe; it’s quite simple I believe.”
“And she carries this flask——”
“Oh, not all the time!” Mrs. Troup protested, laughing. “Only to dances and girls’ lunches.” And, observing her brother’s expression, she added: “Of course, she never takes too much; you mustn’t get a wrong idea of Jeannette. She and all the girls of her set don’t believe in that, at all—I’m positive none of them has ever been intoxicated. They have the very highest principles.”
“Yes; you see, Jeannette has read Wells and Shaw since she was twelve. When we go home and you meet Jeannette, you must try to understand that she belongs to a different generation, Charles. You see, Jeannette has had so many influences that didn’t affect your own youth at all. For instance, she always insisted on going to the movies even when she was a little girl, and I rather enjoy them myself, when I’m tired; and then there’s the new stage—and the new novel—you know, we have everything on the stage and in books that we used to think could only be in books and on the stage in France, because here the police——”
“But in France,” he interrupted, “—in France they didn’t let the jeune fille read the books or go to the theatre.”
“No,” she agreed. “But of course over here we’ve had feminism——”
“I don’t know exactly, but I think it’s something to do with the emancipation of women.” She paused, then added thoughtfully: “Of course, Jeannette smokes.”
“Oh, that’s nothing at all,” she said hastily. “They’ve had to permit it in nearly all the restaurants.”
He rose, leaning heavily upon his chair, as if for support, and looking rather more pallid than usual. In fact, his brow was damp from the exertion its interior workings had undergone in the effort to comprehend his sister’s conversation. “I think, if you don’t mind,” he murmured, “I’ll go directly to bed and rest.”
“Do,” she said sympathetically. “We’ll talk some more about Jeannette to-morrow. She’s the most lovably pretty thing in the world, and you’ll be cra——” She changed the phrase hastily. “You’ll be delighted to have such a niece.”
But, as it happened, when she began to speak of Jeannette the next day, he gently protested, asking her to choose another topic. “I’m sure I couldn’t understand,” he said, “and the effort rather upsets me. It would be better to wait and let me form my own impressions when I see her.”
His sister assented without debate; and nothing more was said about Jeannette until a week later when they were on the train, and half the way home. A telegram was handed to Mrs. Troup by the porter, and after reading it, she glanced rather apprehensively toward her brother, who, in the opposite seat, was so deeply attentive to a book that he had not noticed the delivery of the telegram; in fact, he did not observe it, still in her hand, when he looked up vaguely, after a time, to speak a thought suggested by his reading.
“So many of these books about the war and the after-effects of the war say that there is to be a ‘new world.’ All the young people have made up their minds that the old world was a failure and they’re going to have something different. I don’t know just what they mean by this ‘new world’ the writers talk so much about, because they never go into the details of the great change. It’s clear, though, that the young people intend the new world to be much more spiritual than the old one. Well, I’m anxious to see it, and, of course, it’s a great advantage to me, because I stayed so long at that queer place—where the doctors were—it will be easier to start in with a new world than it would be, maybe, to get used to the changes in the old one. I’m mighty anxious to see these new young people who——”
His sister interrupted him. “You’ll see some of them soon enough, it appears. I really think Jeannette shouldn’t have done this.” And she handed him the telegram to read.
Thought I better let you know in case you prefer taking Uncle Charles to hotel for first night at home as am throwing toddle about forty couples at house sausage breakfast at four am to finish the show and blackamaloo band might disturb Uncle Charles.
Uncle Charles was somewhat disturbed, in fact, by the telegram itself. “‘Am throwing toddle’——” he murmured.
“She means she’s giving a dance,” his sister explained, frowning. “It’s really not very considerate of her, our first evening at home; but Jeannette is just made of impulses. She’s given I don’t know how many dances since I went away with you, and she might have let this one drop. I’m afraid it may be very upsetting for you, Charles.”
“You could send her a telegram from the next station,” he suggested. “You could ask her to telephone her friends and postpone the——”
“Not Jeannette!” Mrs. Troup laughed. “I could wire, but she wouldn’t pay any attention. I have no influence with her.”
“No.” And upon this Mrs. Troup became graver. “I don’t think her father would have had any either, if he had lived; he was so easy-going and used to sing so loudly after dinner. Jeannette always seemed to think he was just a joke, even when she was a child. The truth is, she’s like a great many of her friends: they seem to lack the quality of respect. When we were young, Charles, we had that, at least; our parents taught us to have that quality.”
“But haven’t you taught Jeannette to have it?”
“Indeed I have,” Mrs. Troup sighed. “I’ve told her every day for years that she hadn’t any. I noticed it first when she was thirteen years old. It seemed to break out on her, as it were, that year.”
“How did it happen?”
“Why, we were staying at a summer hotel, a rather gay place, and I’m afraid I left her too much to her governess—I was feeling pretty blue that summer and I wanted distraction. I liked tangoing——”
“‘Tangoing’?” he said inquiringly. “Was it a game?”
“No; a dance. They called it ‘the tango’; I don’t know why. And there was ‘turkey-trotting,’ too——”
“‘Turkey-trotting’?” he said huskily.
“Well, that,” she explained, “was really the machiche that tourists used to see in Paris at the Bal Bullier. In fact, you saw it yourself, Charles. A couple danced the machiche that night at the Folies Ber——” She checked herself hastily, bit her lip, and then, recovering, she said: “I got quite fond of all those dances after we imported them.”
“You mean you got used to looking at them?” he asked slowly. “You went to see them at places where they were allowed?”
At this she laughed. “No, of course not! I danced them myself.”
“Why, of course!”
“No one——” He faltered. “No one ever saw you do it?”
“Why, of course. It’s a little difficult to explain this to you, Charles, but all those dances that used to seem so shocking to us when we went to look on at them in foreign places—well, it turned out that they were perfectly all right and proper when you dance them yourself. Of course I danced them, and enjoyed them very much; and besides, it’s a wholesome exercise and good for the health. Everybody danced them. People who’d given up dancing for years—the oldest kind of people—danced them. It began the greatest revival of dancing the world’s ever seen, Charles, and the——”
He interrupted her. “Go a little slower, please,” he said, and applied a handkerchief to his forehead. “About your seeming to lose your authority with Jeannette——”
“Yes; I was trying to tell you. She used to sit up watching us dancing in the hotel ballroom that summer, and I just couldn’t make her go to bed! That was the first time she deliberately disobeyed me, but it was a radical change in her; and I’ve never since then seemed to have any weight with her—none at all; she’s just done exactly what she pleased. I’ve often thought perhaps that governess had a bad influence on her.”
He wiped his forehead again, and inquired: “You say she’s given dances while you’ve been away with me?”
“Oh, she asks plenty of married people, of course.”
“And it wouldn’t be any use to telegraph her to postpone this one?”
“No. She’d just go ahead, and when we got home, she’d be rather annoyed with me for thinking a dance could be postponed at the last minute. We must make the best of it.”
“I suppose so.”
“We won’t reach the house till almost nine, and you can go straight to bed, Charles. I’m afraid the music may disturb you; that’s all. Dance music is rather loudish, nowadays.”
“I was thinking,” he said slowly, “—I was thinking maybe I’d dress and look on for a while; I do want to see these new young people. It might be a good thing for me to begin to get accustomed——”
“So it might,” she agreed, brightening. “I was only bothered on your account, and if you take it that way, it will be all right.” She laughed. “The truth is, I enjoy Jeannette’s dances myself. I like to enter into things with her and be more like a sisterly companion than a mother in the old-fashioned strict sense. That’s the modern spirit, Charles; to be a hail-fellow of your children—more a wise comrade than a parent. So, if you feel that you would be interested in looking on, and won’t be disturbed—well, that’s just too lovely! And you’ll adore Jeannette!”
He was sure of that, he said; and added that as he was Jeannette’s uncle he supposed it would be proper to kiss her when she met them at the station.
“Oh, she won’t be at the station,” said his sister. “In fact, I’ll be surprised if she remembers to send the car for us.”
But as it happened, Mrs. Troup was surprised: Jeannette sent the car, and they were comfortably taken homeward through a city that presented nothing familiar to Charles Blake, though he had spent his youth in it. The first thing he found recognizable was the exterior of his sister’s big house, for she had lived in it ever since her marriage; but indoors she had remodelled it, and he was as lost as he had been under the great flares of light down-town. Mrs. Troup led him up to his room and left him there. “Jeannette’s dressing, they tell me,” she said. “Hurry and dress, yourself, so as to see her a minute before she gets too busy dancing. It’s late.”
In spite of her instruction, he was too nervous to dress quickly, and several times decided to get into bed instead of proceeding with his toilet; but an ardent curiosity prevailed over his timidity, and he continued to prepare himself for a state appearance, until a strange event upset him.
There were a few thin squeaks and low blats of warning—small noises incomprehensible to him, and seemingly distant—when suddenly burst forth the most outrageous uproar he had ever heard, and he thought it just outside his door. When it happened, he was standing with his right foot elevated to penetrate the orifice of that leg of his trousers, but the shock of sound overturned him; his foot became entangled, and he fell upon the floor.
Lying there, helpless, he heard a voice sweet as silver bells, even when it screamed, as it had to scream now to make itself heard. “No, no! I don’t want ‘The Maiden’s Dream’! Stop it; dam it!” And the outrage became silence, murmurously broken by only the silvery voice which was itself now indistinguishable, except as ineffable sound; he could not make out the words.
Fingers tapped on his door. “Do hurry, Charles dear,” Mrs. Troup said. “Jeannette’s arguing with the musicians, but she might have a moment or two to see you now. People are just beginning to come.”
“With whom?” he asked hoarsely, not attempting to move.
“‘With whom’ what? I don’t understand,” his sister inquired, shouting through the closed door.
“You said she’s arguing. With whom?”
“With the musicians.”
“The musicians. They began to play ‘The Maiden’s Dream,’ but she doesn’t like it: she wants something livelier.”
“I must run,” Mrs. Troup shouted. “Do hurry, Charles.”
In spite of this departing urgency, Charles remained inert for some time, his cheek upon a rug, his upper eye contemplating the baseboard of the wall, and his right foot shackled in his trousers. Meanwhile, voices began to rise without in an increasing strident babble, until finally they roused him. He rose, completed his toilet and stepped outside his door.
He found himself upon a gallery which looked down upon a broad hall floored in wood now darkly lustrous with wax. He had a confused impression of strewn and drifting great tropical flowers in haphazard clusters and flaring again, in their unfamiliar colours, from the reflecting darkness of the polished floor; such dresses as he had never seen; and flesh-tints, too, of ivory and rose so emphasized and in such profusion as likewise he had never seen. And from these clusters and from the short-coated men among them, the shouting voices rose to him in such uproarious garbling chorus that though he had heard choruses not very different, long ago, it increased his timidity; and a little longing floated into his emotion—a homesickness for the old asylum, where everything had been so orderly and reasonable.
Suddenly he jumped: his hands were clutched upon the railing of the gallery, and they remained there; but his feet leaped inches into the air with the shock; for the crash that so startled him came from directly beneath the part of the gallery where he stood. In his nervousness, he seemed about to vault over the railing, but as his feet descended, he recognized the sound: it was of a nature similar to that which had overcome him in his room, and was produced by those whom his sister had defined as “the musicians:” they had just launched the dance music. The clusters of tropical flowers were agitated, broke up. The short black coats seized upon them, and they seized upon the short black coats; something indescribable began.
The dance music did not throb—the nervous gentleman in the gallery remembered dance music that throbbed, dance music that tinkled merrily, dance music that swam, dance music that sang, and sometimes sang sadly and perhaps too sweetly of romantic love—but this was incredible: it beat upon his brain with bludgeons and blackjacks, rose in hideous upheavals of sound, fell into chaos, squawked in convulsions, seemed about to die, so that eighty pairs of shoes and slippers were heard in husky whispers against the waxed floor; then this music leaped to life again more ferociously than ever.
The thumping and howling of it brought to the gallery listener a dim recollection: once, in his boyhood, he had been taken through a slaughter-house; and this was what came back to him now. Pigs have imaginations, and as they are forced, crowding against one another, through the chute, their feet pounding the thunderous floor, the terrible steams they smell warn them of the murderers’ wet knives ahead: the pigs scream horror with their utmost lungs; and the dumfounded gentleman recalled these mortal squealings now, though there was more to this music. There should be added, among other noises, all the agony three poisoned cats can feel in their entrails, the belabourings of hollow-log tomtoms by Aruwimi witch-doctors, and incessant cries of passion from the depths of negroes ecstasized with toddy.
A plump hand touched Mr. Blake’s shoulder, and lifting his pale glance from below he found that his sister had ascended the gallery stairs to speak to him.
“What are they doing down there?” he shouted.
“You mean dancing?”
“Yes; toddling. It’s dancing—great fun, too!”
He was still incredulous, and turned to look again. To his perturbed mind everybody seemed bent upon the imitation of an old coloured woman he had once seen swaying on the banks of a creek, at a baptism. She jiggled the upper portions of her, he remembered, as if she were at once afflicted and uplifted by her emotions; and at the same time she shuffled slowly about, her very wide-apart feet keeping well to the ground. All of these couples appeared to have studied some such ancient religious and coloured person anxiously; but this was not all that interested the returned Mr. Blake. Partners in the performance below him clung to each other with a devotion he had never seen except once or twice, and then under chance circumstances which had cost him a hurried apology. Some, indeed, had set their cheeks together for better harmony; moreover, the performers, who in this exhibition of comedy abandoned forever all hope of ever being taken seriously by any spectator, were by no means all of the youthfulness with which any such recklessness of dignity had heretofore been associated in Mr. Blake’s mind: heads white as clouds moved here and there among the toddlers; so did dyed heads, and so did portly figures.
“I came up to point Jeannette out to you,” Mrs. Troup explained, shouting in her brother’s ear. “I wanted you to see her dancing: she looks so beautiful. There she is! See! Doesn’t she look pretty?”
His eyes aimed along her extended forefinger and found Jeannette.
Jeannette did “look pretty” indeed, even when she toddled—there could be no test more cruel. She was a glowing, dark-eyed, dark-haired, exquisite young thing shimmering with innocent happiness. One of her childish shoulders bore a jewelled string; the other nothing. Most of her back and a part of each of her sides were untrammelled; and her skirt came several inches below the knee, unless she sat. Nothing her uncle had ever seen had been so pretty as Jeannette.
To her four grandparents, Jeannette would have been merely unbelievable. Her eight great-grandparents, pioneers and imaginative, might have believed her and her clothes possible, but they would have believed with horror. In fact, to find ancestors who would not be shocked at Jeannette, one would have to go back to the Restoration of Charles Stuart. At that time she had five hundred and twelve great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, and probably some of them were familiar with the court. They would have misunderstood Jeannette, and they would not have been shocked.
“I just wanted you to see her,” Mrs. Troup shouted. “I must run back to my partner and finish this. Come down when this number is over and meet some people.”
He did not attempt to reply, but stared at her blankly. As she turned away, more of her was seen than when she stood beside him; and a sculptor would have been interested. “Don’t forget to come down,” she called back, as she descended the stairway.
But he did not appear at the end of the dance; nor could she find him in the gallery or in his room; so, a little anxious, she sent a maid to look for him; and presently the maid came back and said that she had found him standing alone in the dining-room, but that when she told him Mrs. Troup was looking for him, he said nothing; he had walked away in the direction of the kitchen.
“How strange!” Mrs. Troup murmured; but as her troubled eyes happened to glance downward, both of her hands rose in a gesture of alarm. “Jennie, where’s your apron?” she cried.
“It’s on me, ma’am,” said Jennie; then she discovered that it wasn’t. “Why, how in the world——”
But Mrs. Troup was already fluttering to the kitchen. She found trouble there between the caterer’s people and her own: the caterer’s chef was accusing Mrs. Troup’s cook of having stolen a valuable apron.
Uncle Charles was discovered in the coal cellar. He had upon him both of the missing aprons, several others, a fur overcoat belonging to one of the guests, and most of the coal.