Book One - Chapter II
PORTRAIT OF A SIREN
Crispness folded down upon New York a month later, bringing November and the three big football games and a great fluttering of furs along Fifth Avenue. It brought, also, a sense of tension to the city, and suppressed excitement. Every morning now there were invitations in Anthony's mail. Three dozen virtuous females of the first layer were proclaiming their fitness, if not their specific willingness, to bear children unto three dozen millionaires. Five dozen virtuous females of the second layer were proclaiming not only this fitness, but in addition a tremendous undaunted ambition toward the first three dozen young men, who were of course invited to each of the ninety-six parties--as were the young lady's group of family friends, acquaintances, college boys, and eager young outsiders. To continue, there was a third layer from the skirts of the city, from Newark and the Jersey suburbs up to bitter Connecticut and the ineligible sections of Long Island--and doubtless contiguous layers down to the city's shoes: Jewesses were coming out into a society of Jewish men and women, from Riverside to the Bronx, and looking forward to a rising young broker or jeweller and a kosher wedding; Irish girls were casting their eyes, with license at last to do so, upon a society of young Tammany politicians, pious undertakers, and grown-up choirboys.
And, naturally, the city caught the contagious air of entre--the working girls, poor ugly souls, wrapping soap in the factories and showing finery in the big stores, dreamed that perhaps in the spectacular excitement of this winter they might obtain for themselves the coveted male--as in a muddled carnival crowd an inefficient pickpocket may consider his chances increased. And the chimneys commenced to smoke and the subway's foulness was freshened. And the actresses came out in new plays and the publishers came out with new books and the Castles came out with new dances. And the railroads came out with new schedules containing new mistakes instead of the old ones that the commuters had grown used to....
The City was coming out!
Anthony, walking along Forty-second Street one afternoon under a steel-gray sky, ran unexpectedly into Richard Caramel emerging from the Manhattan Hotel barber shop. It was a cold day, the first definitely cold day, and Caramel had on one of those knee-length, sheep-lined coats long worn by the working men of the Middle West, that were just coming into fashionable approval. His soft hat was of a discreet dark brown, and from under it his clear eye flamed like a topaz. He stopped Anthony enthusiastically, slapping him on the arms more from a desire to keep himself warm than from playfulness, and, after his inevitable hand shake, exploded into sound.
"Cold as the devil--Good Lord, I've been working like the deuce all day till my room got so cold I thought I'd get pneumonia. Darn landlady economizing on coal came up when I yelled over the stairs for her for half an hour. Began explaining why and all. God! First she drove me crazy, then I began to think she was sort of a character, and took notes while she talked--so she couldn't see me, you know, just as though I were writing casually--"
He had seized Anthony's arm and walking him briskly up Madison Avenue.
"Nowhere in particular."
"Well, then what's the use?" demanded Anthony.
They stopped and stared at each other, and Anthony wondered if the cold made his own face as repellent as Dick Caramel's, whose nose was crimson, whose bulging brow was blue, whose yellow unmatched eyes were red and watery at the rims. After a moment they began walking again.
"Done some good work on my novel." Dick was looking and talking emphatically at the sidewalk. "But I have to get out once in a while." He glanced at Anthony apologetically, as though craving encouragement.
"I have to talk. I guess very few people ever really think, I mean sit down and ponder and have ideas in sequence. I do my thinking in writing or conversation. You've got to have a start, sort of--something to defend or contradict--don't you think?"
Anthony grunted and withdrew his arm gently.
"I don't mind carrying you, Dick, but with that coat--"
"I mean," continued Richard Caramel gravely, "that on paper your first paragraph contains the idea you're going to damn or enlarge on. In conversation you've got your vis-a-vis's last statement--but when you simply ponder, why, your ideas just succeed each other like magic-lantern pictures and each one forces out the last."
They passed Forty-fifth Street and slowed down slightly. Both of them lit cigarettes and blew tremendous clouds of smoke and frosted breath into the air.
"Let's walk up to the Plaza and have an egg-nog," suggested Anthony. "Do you good. Air'll get the rotten nicotine out of your lungs. Come on--I'll let you talk about your book all the way."
"I don't want to if it bores you. I mean you needn't do it as a favor." The words tumbled out in haste, and though he tried to keep his face casual it screwed up uncertainly. Anthony was compelled to protest: "Bore me? I should say not!"
"Got a cousin--" began Dick, but Anthony interrupted by stretching out his arms and breathing forth a low cry of exultation.
"Good weather!" he exclaimed, "isn't it? Makes me feel about ten. I mean it makes me feel as I should have felt when I was ten. Murderous! Oh, God! one minute it's my world, and the next I'm the world's fool. To-day it's my world and everything's easy, easy. Even Nothing is easy!"
"Got a cousin up at the Plaza. Famous girl. We can go up and meet her. She lives there in the winter--has lately anyway--with her mother and father."
"Didn't know you had cousins in New York."
"Her name's Gloria. She's from home--Kansas City. Her mother's a practising Bilphist, and her father's quite dull but a perfect gentleman."
"What are they? Literary material?"
"They try to be. All the old man does is tell me he just met the most wonderful character for a novel. Then he tells me about some idiotic friend of his and then he says: 'There's a character for you! Why don't you write him up? Everybody'd be interested in him.' Or else he tells me about Japan or Paris, or some other very obvious place, and says: 'Why don't you write a story about that place? That'd be a wonderful setting for a story!'"
"How about the girl?" inquired Anthony casually, "Gloria--Gloria what?"
"Gilbert. Oh, you've heard of her--Gloria Gilbert. Goes to dances at colleges--all that sort of thing."
"I've heard her name."
"Good-looking--in fact damned attractive."
They reached Fiftieth Street and turned over toward the Avenue.
"I don't care for young girls as a rule," said Anthony, frowning.
This was not strictly true. While it seemed to him that the average debutante spent every hour of her day thinking and talking about what the great world had mapped out for her to do during the next hour, any girl who made a living directly on her prettiness interested him enormously.
"Gloria's darn nice--not a brain in her head."
Anthony laughed in a one-syllabled snort.
"By that you mean that she hasn't a line of literary patter."
"No, I don't."
"Dick, you know what passes as brains in a girl for you. Earnest young women who sit with you in a corner and talk earnestly about life. The kind who when they were sixteen argued with grave faces as to whether kissing was right or wrong--and whether it was immoral for freshmen to drink beer."
Richard Caramel was offended. His scowl crinkled like crushed paper.
"No--" he began, but Anthony interrupted ruthlessly.
"Oh, yes; kind who just at present sit in corners and confer on the latest Scandinavian Dante available in English translation."
Dick turned to him, a curious falling in his whole countenance. His question was almost an appeal.
"What's the matter with you and Maury? You talk sometimes as though I were a sort of inferior."
Anthony was confused, but he was also cold and a little uncomfortable, so he took refuge in attack.
"I don't think your brains matter, Dick."
"Of course they matter!" exclaimed Dick angrily. "What do you mean? Why don't they matter?"
"You might know too much for your pen."
"I couldn't possibly."
"I can imagine," insisted Anthony, "a man knowing too much for his talent to express. Like me. Suppose, for instance, I have more wisdom than you, and less talent. It would tend to make me inarticulate. You, on the contrary, have enough water to fill the pail and a big enough pail to hold the water."
"I don't follow you at all," complained Dick in a crestfallen tone. Infinitely dismayed, he seemed to bulge in protest. He was staring intently at Anthony and caroming off a succession of passers-by, who reproached him with fierce, resentful glances.
"I simply mean that a talent like Wells's could carry the intelligence of a Spencer. But an inferior talent can only be graceful when it's carrying inferior ideas. And the more narrowly you can look at a thing the more entertaining you can be about it."
Dick considered, unable to decide the exact degree of criticism intended by Anthony's remarks. But Anthony, with that facility which seemed so frequently to flow from him, continued, his dark eyes gleaming in his thin face, his chin raised, his voice raised, his whole physical being raised:
"Say I am proud and sane and wise--an Athenian among Greeks. Well, I might fail where a lesser man would succeed. He could imitate, he could adorn, he could be enthusiastic, he could be hopefully constructive. But this hypothetical me would be too proud to imitate, too sane to be enthusiastic, too sophisticated to be Utopian, too Grecian to adorn."
"Then you don't think the artist works from his intelligence?"
"No. He goes on improving, if he can, what he imitates in the way of style, and choosing from his own interpretation of the things around him what constitutes material. But after all every writer writes because it's his mode of living. Don't tell me you like this 'Divine Function of the Artist' business?"
"I'm not accustomed even to refer to myself as an artist."
"Dick," said Anthony, changing his tone, "I want to beg your pardon."
"For that outburst. I'm honestly sorry. I was talking for effect."
Somewhat mollified, Dick rejoined:
"I've often said you were a Philistine at heart."
It was a crackling dusk when they turned in under the white facade of the Plaza and tasted slowly the foam and yellow thickness of an egg-nog. Anthony looked at his companion. Richard Caramel's nose and brow were slowly approaching a like pigmentation; the red was leaving the one, the blue deserting the other. Glancing in a mirror, Anthony was glad to find that his own skin had not discolored. On the contrary, a faint glow had kindled in his cheeks--he fancied that he had never looked so well.
"Enough for me," said Dick, his tone that of an athlete in training. "I want to go up and see the Gilberts. Won't you come?"
"Why--yes. If you don't dedicate me to the parents and dash off in the corner with Dora."
A clerk announced them over the phone, and ascending to the tenth floor they followed a winding corridor and knocked at 1088. The door was answered by a middle-aged lady--Mrs. Gilbert herself.
"How do you do?" She spoke in the conventional American lady-lady language. "Well, I'm awfully glad to see you--"
Hasty interjections by Dick, and then:
"Mr. Pats? Well, do come in, and leave your coat there." She pointed to a chair and changed her inflection to a deprecatory laugh full of minute gasps. "This is really lovely--lovely. Why, Richard, you haven't been here for so long--no!--no!" The latter monosyllables served half as responses, half as periods, to some vague starts from Dick. "Well, do sit down and tell me what you've been doing."
One crossed and recrossed; one stood and bowed ever so gently; one smiled again and again with helpless stupidity; one wondered if she would ever sit down at length one slid thankfully into a chair and settled for a pleasant call.
"I suppose it's because you've been busy--as much as anything else," smiled Mrs. Gilbert somewhat ambiguously. The "as much as anything else" she used to balance all her more rickety sentences. She had two other ones: "at least that's the way I look at it" and "pure and simple"--these three, alternated, gave each of her remarks an air of being a general reflection on life, as though she had calculated all causes and, at length, put her finger on the ultimate one.
Richard Caramel's face, Anthony saw, was now quite normal. The brow and cheeks were of a flesh color, the nose politely inconspicuous. He had fixed his aunt with the bright-yellow eye, giving her that acute and exaggerated attention that young males are accustomed to render to all females who are of no further value.
"Are you a writer too, Mr. Pats? ... Well, perhaps we can all bask in Richard's fame."--Gentle laughter led by Mrs. Gilbert.
"Gloria's out," she said, with an air of laying down an axiom from which she would proceed to derive results. "She's dancing somewhere. Gloria goes, goes, goes. I tell her I don't see how she stands it. She dances all afternoon and all night, until I think she's going to wear herself to a shadow. Her father is very worried about her."
She smiled from one to the other. They both smiled.
She was composed, Anthony perceived, of a succession of semicircles and parabolas, like those figures that gifted folk make on the typewriter: head, arms, bust, hips, thighs, and ankles were in a bewildering tier of roundnesses. Well ordered and clean she was, with hair of an artificially rich gray; her large face sheltered weather-beaten blue eyes and was adorned with just the faintest white mustache.
"I always say," she remarked to Anthony, "that Richard is an ancient soul."
In the tense pause that followed, Anthony considered a pun--something about Dick having been much walked upon.
"We all have souls of different ages," continued Mrs. Gilbert radiantly; "at least that's what I say."
"Perhaps so," agreed Anthony with an air of quickening to a hopeful idea. The voice bubbled on:
"Gloria has a very young soul--irresponsible, as much as anything else. She has no sense of responsibility."
"She's sparkling, Aunt Catherine," said Richard pleasantly. "A sense of responsibility would spoil her. She's too pretty."
"Well," confessed Mrs. Gilbert, "all I know is that she goes and goes and goes--"
The number of goings to Gloria's discredit was lost in the rattle of the door-knob as it turned to admit Mr. Gilbert.
He was a short man with a mustache resting like a small white cloud beneath his undistinguished nose. He had reached the stage where his value as a social creature was a black and imponderable negative. His ideas were the popular delusions of twenty years before; his mind steered a wabbly and anaemic course in the wake of the daily newspaper editorials. After graduating from a small but terrifying Western university, he had entered the celluloid business, and as this required only the minute measure of intelligence he brought to it, he did well for several years--in fact until about 1911, when he began exchanging contracts for vague agreements with the moving picture industry. The moving picture industry had decided about 1912 to gobble him up, and at this time he was, so to speak, delicately balanced on its tongue. Meanwhile he was supervising manager of the Associated Mid-western Film Materials Company, spending six months of each year in New York and the remainder in Kansas City and St. Louis. He felt credulously that there was a good thing coming to him--and his wife thought so, and his daughter thought so too.
He disapproved of Gloria: she stayed out late, she never ate her meals, she was always in a mix-up--he had irritated her once and she had used toward him words that he had not thought were part of her vocabulary. His wife was easier. After fifteen years of incessant guerilla warfare he had conquered her--it was a war of muddled optimism against organized dulness, and something in the number of "yes's" with which he could poison a conversation had won him the victory.
"Yes-yes-yes-yes," he would say, "yes-yes-yes-yes. Let me see. That was the summer of--let me see--ninety-one or ninety-two--Yes-yes-yes-yes----"
Fifteen years of yes's had beaten Mrs. Gilbert. Fifteen further years of that incessant unaffirmative affirmative, accompanied by the perpetual flicking of ash-mushrooms from thirty-two thousand cigars, had broken her. To this husband of hers she made the last concession of married life, which is more complete, more irrevocable, than the first--she listened to him. She told herself that the years had brought her tolerance--actually they had slain what measure she had ever possessed of moral courage.
She introduced him to Anthony.
"This is Mr. Pats," she said.
The young man and the old touched flesh; Mr. Gilbert's hand was soft, worn away to the pulpy semblance of a squeezed grapefruit. Then husband and wife exchanged greetings--he told her it had grown colder out; he said he had walked down to a news-stand on Forty-fourth Street for a Kansas City paper. He had intended to ride back in the bus but he had found it too cold, yes, yes, yes, yes, too cold.
Mrs. Gilbert added flavor to his adventure by being impressed with his courage in braving the harsh air.
"Well, you are spunky!" she exclaimed admiringly. "You are spunky. I wouldn't have gone out for anything."
Mr. Gilbert with true masculine impassivity disregarded the awe he had excited in his wife. He turned to the two young men and triumphantly routed them on the subject of the weather. Richard Caramel was called on to remember the month of November in Kansas. No sooner had the theme been pushed toward him, however, than it was violently fished back to be lingered over, pawed over, elongated, and generally devitalized by its sponsor.
The immemorial thesis that the days somewhere were warm but the nights very pleasant was successfully propounded and they decided the exact distance on an obscure railroad between two points that Dick had inadvertently mentioned. Anthony fixed Mr. Gilbert with a steady stare and went into a trance through which, after a moment, Mrs. Gilbert's smiling voice penetrated:
"It seems as though the cold were damper here--it seems to eat into my bones."
As this remark, adequately yessed, had been on the tip of Mr. Gilbert's tongue, he could not be blamed for rather abruptly changing the subject.
"She ought to be here any minute."
"Have you met my daughter, Mr.----?"
"Haven't had the pleasure. I've heard Dick speak of her often."
"She and Richard are cousins."
"Yes?" Anthony smiled with some effort. He was not used to the society of his seniors, and his mouth was stiff from superfluous cheerfulness. It was such a pleasant thought about Gloria and Dick being cousins. He managed within the next minute to throw an agonized glance at his friend.
Richard Caramel was afraid they'd have to toddle off.
Mrs. Gilbert was tremendously sorry.
Mr. Gilbert thought it was too bad.
Mrs. Gilbert had a further idea--something about being glad they'd come, anyhow, even if they'd only seen an old lady 'way too old to flirt with them. Anthony and Dick evidently considered this a sly sally, for they laughed one bar in three-four time.
Would they come again soon?
Gloria would be awfully sorry!
Two disconsolate young men walking down the tenth-floor corridor of the Plaza in the direction of the elevator.
A LADY'S LEGS
Behind Maury Noble's attractive indolence, his irrelevance and his easy mockery, lay a surprising and relentless maturity of purpose. His intention, as he stated it in college, had been to use three years in travel, three years in utter leisure--and then to become immensely rich as quickly as possible.
His three years of travel were over. He had accomplished the globe with an intensity and curiosity that in any one else would have seemed pedantic, without redeeming spontaneity, almost the self-editing of a human Baedeker; but, in this case, it assumed an air of mysterious purpose and significant design--as though Maury Noble were some predestined anti-Christ, urged by a preordination to go everywhere there was to go along the earth and to see all the billions of humans who bred and wept and slew each other here and there upon it.
Back in America, he was sallying into the search for amusement with the same consistent absorption. He who had never taken more than a few cocktails or a pint of wine at a sitting, taught himself to drink as he would have taught himself Greek--like Greek it would be the gateway to a wealth of new sensations, new psychic states, new reactions in joy or misery.
His habits were a matter for esoteric speculation. He had three rooms in a bachelor apartment on Forty-forth street, but he was seldom to be found there. The telephone girl had received the most positive instructions that no one should even have his ear without first giving a name to be passed upon. She had a list of half a dozen people to whom he was never at home, and of the same number to whom he was always at home. Foremost on the latter list were Anthony Patch and Richard Caramel.
Maury's mother lived with her married son in Philadelphia, and there Maury went usually for the week-ends, so one Saturday night when Anthony, prowling the chilly streets in a fit of utter boredom, dropped in at the Molton Arms he was overjoyed to find that Mr. Noble was at home.
His spirits soared faster than the flying elevator. This was so good, so extremely good, to be about to talk to Maury--who would be equally happy at seeing him. They would look at each other with a deep affection just behind their eyes which both would conceal beneath some attenuated raillery. Had it been summer they would have gone out together and indolently sipped two long Tom Collinses, as they wilted their collars and watched the faintly diverting round of some lazy August cabaret. But it was cold outside, with wind around the edges of the tall buildings and December just up the street, so better far an evening together under the soft lamplight and a drink or two of Bushmill's, or a thimbleful of Maury's Grand Marnier, with the books gleaming like ornaments against the walls, and Maury radiating a divine inertia as he rested, large and catlike, in his favorite chair.
There he was! The room closed about Anthony, warmed him. The glow of that strong persuasive mind, that temperament almost Oriental in its outward impassivity, warmed Anthony's restless soul and brought him a peace that could be likened only to the peace a stupid woman gives. One must understand all--else one must take all for granted. Maury filled the room, tigerlike, godlike. The winds outside were stilled; the brass candlesticks on the mantel glowed like tapers before an altar.
"What keeps you here to-day?" Anthony spread himself over a yielding sofa and made an elbow-rest among the pillows.
"Just been here an hour. Tea dance--and I stayed so late I missed my train to Philadelphia."
"Strange to stay so long," commented Anthony curiously.
"Rather. What'd you do?"
"Geraldine. Little usher at Keith's. I told you about her."
"Paid me a call about three and stayed till five. Peculiar little soul--she gets me. She's so utterly stupid."
Maury was silent.
"Strange as it may seem," continued Anthony, "so far as I'm concerned, and even so far as I know, Geraldine is a paragon of virtue."
He had known her a month, a girl of nondescript and nomadic habits. Someone had casually passed her on to Anthony, who considered her amusing and rather liked the chaste and fairylike kisses she had given him on the third night of their acquaintance, when they had driven in a taxi through the Park. She had a vague family--a shadowy aunt and uncle who shared with her an apartment in the labyrinthine hundreds. She was company, familiar and faintly intimate and restful. Further than that he did not care to experiment--not from any moral compunction, but from a dread of allowing any entanglement to disturb what he felt was the growing serenity of his life.
"She has two stunts," he informed Maury; "one of them is to get her hair over her eyes some way and then blow it out, and the other is to say 'You cra-a-azy!' when some one makes a remark that's over her head. It fascinates me. I sit there hour after hour, completely intrigued by the maniacal symptoms she finds in my imagination."
Maury stirred in his chair and spoke.
"Remarkable that a person can comprehend so little and yet live in such a complex civilization. A woman like that actually takes the whole universe in the most matter-of-fact way. From the influence of Rousseau to the bearing of the tariff rates on her dinner, the whole phenomenon is utterly strange to her. She's just been carried along from an age of spearheads and plunked down here with the equipment of an archer for going into a pistol duel. You could sweep away the entire crust of history and she'd never know the difference."
"I wish our Richard would write about her."
"Anthony, surely you don't think she's worth writing about."
"As much as anybody," he answered, yawning. "You know I was thinking to-day that I have a great confidence in Dick. So long as he sticks to people and not to ideas, and as long as his inspirations come from life and not from art, and always granting a normal growth, I believe he'll be a big man."
"I should think the appearance of the black note-book would prove that he's going to life."
Anthony raised himself on his elbow and answered eagerly:
"He tries to go to life. So does every author except the very worst, but after all most of them live on predigested food. The incident or character may be from life, but the writer usually interprets it in terms of the last book he read. For instance, suppose he meets a sea captain and thinks he's an original character. The truth is that he sees the resemblance between the sea captain and the last sea captain Dana created, or who-ever creates sea captains, and therefore he knows how to set this sea captain on paper. Dick, of course, can set down any consciously picturesque, character-like character, but could he accurately transcribe his own sister?"
Then they were off for half an hour on literature.
"A classic," suggested Anthony, "is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it's safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It's acquired a picturesque dignity to take the place of its fashion...."
After a time the subject temporarily lost its tang. The interest of the two young men was not particularly technical. They were in love with generalities. Anthony had recently discovered Samuel Butler and the brisk aphorisms in the note-book seemed to him the quintessence of criticism. Maury, his whole mind so thoroughly mellowed by the very hardness of his scheme of life, seemed inevitably the wiser of the two, yet in the actual stuff of their intelligences they were not, it seemed, fundamentally different.
They drifted from letters to the curiosities of each other's day.
"Whose tea was it?"
"People named Abercrombie."
"Why'd you stay late? Meet a luscious debutante?"
"Did you really?" Anthony's voice lifted in surprise.
"Not a debutante exactly. Said she came out two winters ago in Kansas City."
"Sort of left-over?"
"No," answered Maury with some amusement, "I think that's the last thing I'd say about her. She seemed--well, somehow the youngest person there."
"Not too young to make you miss a train."
"Young enough. Beautiful child."
Anthony chuckled in his one-syllable snort.
"Oh, Maury, you're in your second childhood. What do you mean by beautiful?"
Maury gazed helplessly into space.
"Well, I can't describe her exactly--except to say that she was beautiful. She was--tremendously alive. She was eating gum-drops."
"It was a sort of attenuated vice. She's a nervous kind--said she always ate gum-drops at teas because she had to stand around so long in one place."
"What'd you talk about--Bergson? Bilphism? Whether the one-step is immoral?"
Maury was unruffled; his fur seemed to run all ways.
"As a matter of fact we did talk on Bilphism. Seems her mother's a Bilphist. Mostly, though, we talked about legs."
Anthony rocked in glee.
"My God! Whose legs?"
"Hers. She talked a lot about hers. As though they were a sort of choice bric-a-brac. She aroused a great desire to see them."
"What is she--a dancer?"
"No, I found she was a cousin of Dick's."
Anthony sat upright so suddenly that the pillow he released stood on end like a live thing and dove to the floor.
"Name's Gloria Gilbert?" he cried.
"Yes. Isn't she remarkable?"
"I'm sure I don't know--but for sheer dulness her father--"
"Well," interrupted Maury with implacable conviction, "her family may be as sad as professional mourners but I'm inclined to think that she's a quite authentic and original character. The outer signs of the cut-and-dried Yale prom girl and all that--but different, very emphatically different."
"Go on, go on!" urged Anthony. "Soon as Dick told me she didn't have a brain in her head I knew she must be pretty good."
"Did he say that?"
"Swore to it," said Anthony with another snorting laugh.
"Well, what he means by brains in a woman is--"
"I know," interrupted Anthony eagerly, "he means a smattering of literary misinformation."
"That's it. The kind who believes that the annual moral let-down of the country is a very good thing or the kind who believes it's a very ominous thing. Either pince-nez or postures. Well, this girl talked about legs. She talked about skin too--her own skin. Always her own. She told me the sort of tan she'd like to get in the summer and how closely she usually approximated it."
"You sat enraptured by her low alto?"
"By her low alto! No, by tan! I began thinking about tan. I began to think what color I turned when I made my last exposure about two years ago. I did use to get a pretty good tan. I used to get a sort of bronze, if I remember rightly."
Anthony retired into the cushions, shaken with laughter.
"She's got you going--oh, Maury! Maury the Connecticut life-saver. The human nutmeg. Extra! Heiress elopes with coast-guard because of his luscious pigmentation! Afterward found to be Tasmanian strain in his family!"
Maury sighed; rising he walked to the window and raised the shade.
Anthony, still laughing quietly to himself, made no answer.
"Another winter." Maury's voice from the window was almost a whisper. "We're growing old, Anthony. I'm twenty-seven, by God! Three years to thirty, and then I'm what an undergraduate calls a middle-aged man."
Anthony was silent for a moment.
"You are old, Maury," he agreed at length. "The first signs of a very dissolute and wabbly senescence--you have spent the afternoon talking about tan and a lady's legs."
Maury pulled down the shade with a sudden harsh snap.
"Idiot!" he cried, "that from you! Here I sit, young Anthony, as I'll sit for a generation or more and watch such gay souls as you and Dick and Gloria Gilbert go past me, dancing and singing and loving and hating one another and being moved, being eternally moved. And I am moved only by my lack of emotion. I shall sit and the snow will come--oh, for a Caramel to take notes--and another winter and I shall be thirty and you and Dick and Gloria will go on being eternally moved and dancing by me and singing. But after you've all gone I'll be saying things for new Dicks to write down, and listening to the disillusions and cynicisms and emotions of new Anthonys--yes, and talking to new Glorias about the tans of summers yet to come."
The firelight flurried up on the hearth. Maury left the window, stirred the blaze with a poker, and dropped a log upon the andirons. Then he sat back in his chair and the remnants of his voice faded in the new fire that spit red and yellow along the bark.
"After all, Anthony, it's you who are very romantic and young. It's you who are infinitely more susceptible and afraid of your calm being broken. It's me who tries again and again to be moved--let myself go a thousand times and I'm always me. Nothing--quite--stirs me.
"Yet," he murmured after another long pause, "there was something about that little girl with her absurd tan that was eternally old--like me."
Anthony turned over sleepily in his bed, greeting a patch of cold sun on his counterpane, crisscrossed with the shadows of the leaded window. The room was full of morning. The carved chest in the corner, the ancient and inscrutable wardrobe, stood about the room like dark symbols of the obliviousness of matter; only the rug was beckoning and perishable to his perishable feet, and Bounds, horribly inappropriate in his soft collar, was of stuff as fading as the gauze of frozen breath he uttered. He was close to the bed, his hand still lowered where he had been jerking at the upper blanket, his dark-brown eyes fixed imperturbably upon his master.
"Bows!" muttered the drowsy god. "Thachew, Bows?"
"It's I, sir."
Anthony moved his head, forced his eyes wide, and blinked triumphantly.
"Can you get off--yeow-ow-oh-oh-oh God!--" Anthony yawned insufferably and the contents of his brain seemed to fall together in a dense hash. He made a fresh start.
"Can you come around about four and serve some tea and sandwiches or something?"
Anthony considered with chilling lack of inspiration. "Some sandwiches," he repeated helplessly, "oh, some cheese sandwiches and jelly ones and chicken and olive, I guess. Never mind breakfast."
The strain of invention was too much. He shut his eyes wearily, let his head roll to rest inertly, and quickly relaxed what he had regained of muscular control. Out of a crevice of his mind crept the vague but inevitable spectre of the night before--but it proved in this case to be nothing but a seemingly interminable conversation with Richard Caramel, who had called on him at midnight; they had drunk four bottles of beer and munched dry crusts of bread while Anthony listened to a reading of the first part of "The Demon Lover."
--Came a voice now after many hours. Anthony disregarded it, as sleep closed over him, folded down upon him, crept up into the byways of his mind.
Suddenly he was awake, saying: "What?"
"For how many, sir?" It was still Bounds, standing patient and motionless at the foot of the bed--Bounds who divided his manner among three gentlemen.
"How many what?"
"I think, sir, I'd better know how many are coming. I'll have to plan for the sandwiches, sir."
"Two," muttered Anthony huskily; "lady and a gentleman."
Bounds said, "Thank you, sir," and moved away, bearing with him his humiliating reproachful soft collar, reproachful to each of the three gentlemen, who only demanded of him a third.
After a long time Anthony arose and drew an opalescent dressing grown of brown and blue over his slim pleasant figure. With a last yawn he went into the bathroom, and turning on the dresser light (the bathroom had no outside exposure) he contemplated himself in the mirror with some interest. A wretched apparition, he thought; he usually thought so in the morning--sleep made his face unnaturally pale. He lit a cigarette and glanced through several letters and the morning Tribune.
An hour later, shaven and dressed, he was sitting at his desk looking at a small piece of paper he had taken out of his wallet. It was scrawled with semi-legible memoranda: "See Mr. Howland at five. Get hair-cut. See about Rivers' bill. Go book-store."
--And under the last: "Cash in bank, $690 (crossed out), $612 (crossed out), $607."
Finally, down at the bottom and in a hurried scrawl: "Dick and Gloria Gilbert for tea."
This last item brought him obvious satisfaction. His day, usually a jelly-like creature, a shapeless, spineless thing, had attained Mesozoic structure. It was marching along surely, even jauntily, toward a climax, as a play should, as a day should. He dreaded the moment when the backbone of the day should be broken, when he should have met the girl at last, talked to her, and then bowed her laughter out the door, returning only to the melancholy dregs in the teacups and the gathering staleness of the uneaten sandwiches.
There was a growing lack of color in Anthony's days. He felt it constantly and sometimes traced it to a talk he had had with Maury Noble a month before. That anything so ingenuous, so priggish, as a sense of waste should oppress him was absurd, but there was no denying the fact that some unwelcome survival of a fetish had drawn him three weeks before down to the public library, where, by the token of Richard Caramel's card, he had drawn out half a dozen books on the Italian Renaissance. That these books were still piled on his desk in the original order of carriage, that they were daily increasing his liabilities by twelve cents, was no mitigation of their testimony. They were cloth and morocco witnesses to the fact of his defection. Anthony had had several hours of acute and startling panic.
In justification of his manner of living there was first, of course, The Meaninglessness of Life. As aides and ministers, pages and squires, butlers and lackeys to this great Khan there were a thousand books glowing on his shelves, there was his apartment and all the money that was to be his when the old man up the river should choke on his last morality. From a world fraught with the menace of debutantes and the stupidity of many Geraldines he was thankfully delivered--rather should he emulate the feline immobility of Maury and wear proudly the culminative wisdom of the numbered generations.
Over and against these things was something which his brain persistently analyzed and dealt with as a tiresome complex but which, though logically disposed of and bravely trampled under foot, had sent him out through the soft slush of late November to a library which had none of the books he most wanted. It is fair to analyze Anthony as far as he could analyze himself; further than that it is, of course, presumption. He found in himself a growing horror and loneliness. The idea of eating alone frightened him; in preference he dined often with men he detested. Travel, which had once charmed him, seemed at length, unendurable, a business of color without substance, a phantom chase after his own dream's shadow.
--If I am essentially weak, he thought, I need work to do, work to do. It worried him to think that he was, after all, a facile mediocrity, with neither the poise of Maury nor the enthusiasm of Dick. It seemed a tragedy to want nothing--and yet he wanted something, something. He knew in flashes what it was--some path of hope to lead him toward what he thought was an imminent and ominous old age.
After cocktails and luncheon at the University Club Anthony felt better. He had run into two men from his class at Harvard, and in contrast to the gray heaviness of their conversation his life assumed color. Both of them were married: one spent his coffee time in sketching an extra-nuptial adventure to the bland and appreciative smiles of the other. Both of them, he thought, were Mr. Gilberts in embryo; the number of their "yes's" would have to be quadrupled, their natures crabbed by twenty years--then they would be no more than obsolete and broken machines, pseudo-wise and valueless, nursed to an utter senility by the women they had broken.
Ah, he was more than that, as he paced the long carpet in the lounge after dinner, pausing at the window to look into the harried street. He was Anthony Patch, brilliant, magnetic, the heir of many years and many men. This was his world now--and that last strong irony he craved lay in the offing.
With a stray boyishness he saw himself a power upon the earth; with his grandfather's money he might build his own pedestal and be a Talleyrand, a Lord Verulam. The clarity of his mind, its sophistication, its versatile intelligence, all at their maturity and dominated by some purpose yet to be born would find him work to do. On this minor his dream faded--work to do: he tried to imagine himself in Congress rooting around in the litter of that incredible pigsty with the narrow and porcine brows he saw pictured sometimes in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers, those glorified proletarians babbling blandly to the nation the ideas of high school seniors! Little men with copy-book ambitions who by mediocrity had thought to emerge from mediocrity into the lustreless and unromantic heaven of a government by the people--and the best, the dozen shrewd men at the top, egotistic and cynical, were content to lead this choir of white ties and wire collar-buttons in a discordant and amazing hymn, compounded of a vague confusion between wealth as a reward of virtue and wealth as a proof of vice, and continued cheers for God, the Constitution, and the Rocky Mountains!
Lord Verulam! Talleyrand!
Back in his apartment the grayness returned. His cocktails had died, making him sleepy, somewhat befogged and inclined to be surly. Lord Verulam--he? The very thought was bitter. Anthony Patch with no record of achievement, without courage, without strength to be satisfied with truth when it was given him. Oh, he was a pretentious fool, making careers out of cocktails and meanwhile regretting, weakly and secretly, the collapse of an insufficient and wretched idealism. He had garnished his soul in the subtlest taste and now he longed for the old rubbish. He was empty, it seemed, empty as an old bottle--
The buzzer rang at the door. Anthony sprang up and lifted the tube to his ear. It was Richard Caramel's voice, stilted and facetious:
"Announcing Miss Gloria Gilbert."
"How do you do?" he said, smiling and holding the door ajar.
"Gloria, this is Anthony."
"Well!" she cried, holding out a little gloved hand. Under her fur coat her dress was Alice-blue, with white lace crinkled stiffly about her throat.
"Let me take your things."
Anthony stretched out his arms and the brown mass of fur tumbled into them.
"What do you think of her, Anthony?" Richard Caramel demanded barbarously. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Well!" cried the girl defiantly--withal unmoved.
She was dazzling--alight; it was agony to comprehend her beauty in a glance. Her hair, full of a heavenly glamour, was gay against the winter color of the room.
Anthony moved about, magician-like, turning the mushroom lamp into an orange glory. The stirred fire burnished the copper andirons on the hearth--
"I'm a solid block of ice," murmured Gloria casually, glancing around with eyes whose irises were of the most delicate and transparent bluish white. "What a slick fire! We found a place where you could stand on an iron-bar grating, sort of, and it blew warm air up at you--but Dick wouldn't wait there with me. I told him to go on alone and let me be happy."
Conventional enough this. She seemed talking for her own pleasure, without effort. Anthony, sitting at one end of the sofa, examined her profile against the foreground of the lamp: the exquisite regularity of nose and upper lip, the chin, faintly decided, balanced beautifully on a rather short neck. On a photograph she must have been completely classical, almost cold--but the glow of her hair and cheeks, at once flushed and fragile, made her the most living person he had ever seen.
"... Think you've got the best name I've heard," she was saying, still apparently to herself; her glance rested on him a moment and then flitted past him--to the Italian bracket-lamps clinging like luminous yellow turtles at intervals along the walls, to the books row upon row, then to her cousin on the other side. "Anthony Patch. Only you ought to look sort of like a horse, with a long narrow face--and you ought to be in tatters."
"That's all the Patch part, though. How should Anthony look?"
"You look like Anthony," she assured him seriously--he thought she had scarcely seen him--"rather majestic," she continued, "and solemn."
Anthony indulged in a disconcerted smile.
"Only I like alliterative names," she went on, "all except mine. Mine's too flamboyant. I used to know two girls named Jinks, though, and just think if they'd been named anything except what they were named--Judy Jinks and Jerry Jinks. Cute, what? Don't you think?" Her childish mouth was parted, awaiting a rejoinder.
"Everybody in the next generation," suggested Dick, "will be named Peter or Barbara--because at present all the piquant literary characters are named Peter or Barbara."
Anthony continued the prophecy:
"Of course Gladys and Eleanor, having graced the last generation of heroines and being at present in their social prime, will be passed on to the next generation of shop-girls--"
"Displacing Ella and Stella," interrupted Dick.
"And Pearl and Jewel," Gloria added cordially, "and Earl and Elmer and Minnie."
"And then I'll come along," remarked Dick, "and picking up the obsolete name, Jewel, I'll attach it to some quaint and attractive character and it'll start its career all over again."
Her voice took up the thread of subject and wove along with faintly upturning, half-humorous intonations for sentence ends--as though defying interruption--and intervals of shadowy laughter. Dick had told her that Anthony's man was named Bounds--she thought that was wonderful! Dick had made some sad pun about Bounds doing patchwork, but if there was one thing worse than a pun, she said, it was a person who, as the inevitable come-back to a pun, gave the perpetrator a mock-reproachful look.
"Where are you from?" inquired Anthony. He knew, but beauty had rendered him thoughtless.
"Kansas City, Missouri."
"They put her out the same time they barred cigarettes."
"Did they bar cigarettes? I see the hand of my holy grandfather."
"He's a reformer or something, isn't he?"
"I blush for him."
"So do I," she confessed. "I detest reformers, especially the sort who try to reform me."
"Are there many of those?"
"Dozens. It's 'Oh, Gloria, if you smoke so many cigarettes you'll lose your pretty complexion!' and 'Oh, Gloria, why don't you marry and settle down?'"
Anthony agreed emphatically while he wondered who had had the temerity to speak thus to such a personage.
"And then," she continued, "there are all the subtle reformers who tell you the wild stories they've heard about you and how they've been sticking up for you."
He saw, at length, that her eyes were gray, very level and cool, and when they rested on him he understood what Maury had meant by saying she was very young and very old. She talked always about herself as a very charming child might talk, and her comments on her tastes and distastes were unaffected and spontaneous.
"I must confess," said Anthony gravely, "that even I've heard one thing about you."
Alert at once, she sat up straight. Those eyes, with the grayness and eternity of a cliff of soft granite, caught his.
"Tell me. I'll believe it. I always believe anything any one tells me about myself--don't you?"
"Invariably!" agreed the two men in unison.
"Well, tell me."
"I'm not sure that I ought to," teased Anthony, smiling unwillingly. She was so obviously interested, in a state of almost laughable self-absorption.
"He means your nickname," said her cousin.
"What name?" inquired Anthony, politely puzzled.
Instantly she was shy--then she laughed, rolled back against the cushions, and turned her eyes up as she spoke:
"Coast-to-Coast Gloria." Her voice was full of laughter, laughter undefined as the varying shadows playing between fire and lamp upon her hair. "O Lord!"
Still Anthony was puzzled.
"What do you mean?"
"Me, I mean. That's what some silly boys coined for me."
"Don't you see, Anthony," explained Dick, "traveller of a nation-wide notoriety and all that. Isn't that what you've heard? She's been called that for years--since she was seventeen."
Anthony's eyes became sad and humorous.
"Who's this female Methuselah you've brought in here, Caramel?"
She disregarded this, possibly rather resented it, for she switched back to the main topic.
"What have you heard of me?"
"Something about your physique."
"Oh," she said, coolly disappointed, "that all?"
"My tan?" She was puzzled. Her hand rose to her throat, rested there an instant as though the fingers were feeling variants of color.
"Do you remember Maury Noble? Man you met about a month ago. You made a great impression."
She thought a moment.
"I remember--but he didn't call me up."
"He was afraid to, I don't doubt."
It was black dark without now and Anthony wondered that his apartment had ever seemed gray--so warm and friendly were the books and pictures on the walls and the good Bounds offering tea from a respectful shadow and the three nice people giving out waves of interest and laughter back and forth across the happy fire.
On Thursday afternoon Gloria and Anthony had tea together in the grill room at the Plaza. Her fur-trimmed suit was gray--"because with gray you have to wear a lot of paint," she explained--and a small toque sat rakishly on her head, allowing yellow ripples of hair to wave out in jaunty glory. In the higher light it seemed to Anthony that her personality was infinitely softer--she seemed so young, scarcely eighteen; her form under the tight sheath, known then as a hobble-skirt, was amazingly supple and slender, and her hands, neither "artistic" nor stubby, were small as a child's hands should be.
As they entered, the orchestra were sounding the preliminary whimpers to a maxixe, a tune full of castanets and facile faintly languorous violin harmonies, appropriate to the crowded winter grill teeming with an excited college crowd, high-spirited at the approach of the holidays. Carefully, Gloria considered several locations, and rather to Anthony's annoyance paraded him circuitously to a table for two at the far side of the room. Reaching it she again considered. Would she sit on the right or on the left? Her beautiful eyes and lips were very grave as she made her choice, and Anthony thought again how naive was her every gesture; she took all the things of life for hers to choose from and apportion, as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter.
Abstractedly she watched the dancers for a few moments, commenting murmurously as a couple eddied near.
"There's a pretty girl in blue"--and as Anthony looked obediently--" there! No. behind you--there!"
"Yes," he agreed helplessly.
"You didn't see her."
"I'd rather look at you."
"I know, but she was pretty. Except that she had big ankles."
"Was she?--I mean, did she?" he said indifferently.
A girl's salutation came from a couple dancing close to them.
"Hello, Gloria! O Gloria!"
"Who's that?" he demanded.
"I don't know. Somebody." She caught sight of another face. "Hello, Muriel!" Then to Anthony: "There's Muriel Kane. Now I think she's attractive, 'cept not very."
Anthony chuckled appreciatively.
"Attractive, 'cept not very," he repeated.
She smiled--was interested immediately.
"Why is that funny?" Her tone was pathetically intent.
"It just was."
"Do you want to dance?"
"Sort of. But let's sit," she decided.
"And talk about you? You love to talk about you, don't you?"
"Yes." Caught in a vanity, she laughed.
"I imagine your autobiography would be a classic."
"Dick says I haven't got one."
"Dick!" he exclaimed. "What does he know about you?"
"Nothing. But he says the biography of every woman begins with the first kiss that counts, and ends when her last child is laid in her arms."
"He's talking from his book."
"He says unloved women have no biographies--they have histories."
Anthony laughed again.
"Surely you don't claim to be unloved!"
"Well, I suppose not."
"Then why haven't you a biography? Haven't you ever had a kiss that counted?" As the words left his lips he drew in his breath sharply as though to suck them back. This baby!
"I don't know what you mean 'counts,'" she objected.
"I wish you'd tell me how old you are."
"Twenty-two," she said, meeting his eyes gravely. "How old did you think?"
"I'm going to start being that. I don't like being twenty-two. I hate it more than anything in the world."
"No. Getting old and everything. Getting married."
"Don't you ever want to marry?"
"I don't want to have responsibility and a lot of children to take care of."
Evidently she did not doubt that on her lips all things were good. He waited rather breathlessly for her next remark, expecting it to follow up her last. She was smiling, without amusement but pleasantly, and after an interval half a dozen words fell into the space between them:
"I wish I had some gum-drops."
"You shall!" He beckoned to a waiter and sent him to the cigar counter.
"D'you mind? I love gum-drops. Everybody kids me about it because I'm always whacking away at one--whenever my daddy's not around."
"Not at all.--Who are all these children?" he asked suddenly. "Do you know them all?"
"Why--no, but they're from--oh, from everywhere, I suppose. Don't you ever come here?"
"Very seldom. I don't care particularly for 'nice girls.'"
Immediately he had her attention. She turned a definite shoulder to the dancers, relaxed in her chair, and demanded:
"What do you do with yourself?"
Thanks to a cocktail Anthony welcomed the question. In a mood to talk, he wanted, moreover, to impress this girl whose interest seemed so tantalizingly elusive--she stopped to browse in unexpected pastures, hurried quickly over the inobviously obvious. He wanted to pose. He wanted to appear suddenly to her in novel and heroic colors. He wanted to stir her from that casualness she showed toward everything except herself.
"I do nothing," he began, realizing simultaneously that his words were to lack the debonair grace he craved for them. "I do nothing, for there's nothing I can do that's worth doing."
"Well?" He had neither surprised her nor even held her, yet she had certainly understood him, if indeed he had said aught worth understanding.
"Don't you approve of lazy men?"
"I suppose so, if they're gracefully lazy. Is that possible for an American?"
"Why not?" he demanded, discomfited.
But her mind had left the subject and wandered up ten floors.
"My daddy's mad at me," she observed dispassionately.
"Why? But I want to know just why it's impossible for an American to be gracefully idle"--his words gathered conviction--"it astonishes me. It--it--I don't understand why people think that every young man ought to go down-town and work ten hours a day for the best twenty years of his life at dull, unimaginative work, certainly not altruistic work."
He broke off. She watched him inscrutably. He waited for her to agree or disagree, but she did neither.
"Don't you ever form judgments on things?" he asked with some exasperation.
She shook her head and her eyes wandered back to the dancers as she answered:
"I don't know. I don't know anything about--what you should do, or what anybody should do."
She confused him and hindered the flow of his ideas. Self-expression had never seemed at once so desirable and so impossible.
"Well," he admitted apologetically, "neither do I, of course, but--"
"I just think of people," she continued, "whether they seem right where they are and fit into the picture. I don't mind if they don't do anything. I don't see why they should; in fact it always astonishes me when anybody does anything."
"You don't want to do anything?"
"I want to sleep."
For a second he was startled, almost as though she had meant this literally.
"Sort of. I want to just be lazy and I want some of the people around me to be doing things, because that makes me feel comfortable and safe--and I want some of them to be doing nothing at all, because they can be graceful and companionable for me. But I never want to change people or get excited over them."
"You're a quaint little determinist," laughed Anthony. "It's your world, isn't it?"
"Well--" she said with a quick upward glance, "isn't it? As long as I'm--young."
She had paused slightly before the last word and Anthony suspected that she had started to say "beautiful." It was undeniably what she had intended.
Her eyes brightened and he waited for her to enlarge on the theme. He had drawn her out, at any rate--he bent forward slightly to catch the words.
But "Let's dance!" was all she said.
That winter afternoon at the Plaza was the first of a succession of "dates" Anthony made with her in the blurred and stimulating days before Christmas. Invariably she was busy. What particular strata of the city's social life claimed her he was a long time finding out. It seemed to matter very little. She attended the semi-public charity dances at the big hotels; he saw her several times at dinner parties in Sherry's, and once as he waited for her to dress, Mrs. Gilbert, apropos of her daughter's habit of "going," rattled off an amazing holiday programme that included half a dozen dances to which Anthony had received cards.
He made engagements with her several times for lunch and tea--the former were hurried and, to him at least, rather unsatisfactory occasions, for she was sleepy-eyed and casual, incapable of concentrating upon anything or of giving consecutive attention to his remarks. When after two of these sallow meals he accused her of tendering him the skin and bones of the day she laughed and gave him a tea-time three days off. This was infinitely more satisfactory.
One Sunday afternoon just before Christmas he called up and found her in the lull directly after some important but mysterious quarrel: she informed him in a tone of mingled wrath and amusement that she had sent a man out of her apartment--here Anthony speculated violently--and that the man had been giving a little dinner for her that very night and that of course she wasn't going. So Anthony took her to supper.
"Let's go to something!" she proposed as they went down in the elevator. "I want to see a show, don't you?"
Inquiry at the hotel ticket desk disclosed only two Sunday night "concerts."
"They're always the same," she complained unhappily, "same old Yiddish comedians. Oh, let's go somewhere!"
To conceal a guilty suspicion that he should have arranged a performance of some kind for her approval Anthony affected a knowing cheerfulness.
"We'll go to a good cabaret."
"I've seen every one in town."
"Well, we'll find a new one."
She was in wretched humor; that was evident. Her gray eyes were granite now indeed. When she wasn't speaking she stared straight in front of her as if at some distasteful abstraction in the lobby.
"Well, come on, then."
He followed her, a graceful girl even in her enveloping fur, out to a taxicab, and, with an air of having a definite place in mind, instructed the driver to go over to Broadway and then turn south. He made several casual attempts at conversation but as she adopted an impenetrable armor of silence and answered him in sentences as morose as the cold darkness of the taxicab he gave up, and assuming a like mood fell into a dim gloom.
A dozen blocks down Broadway Anthony's eyes were caught by a large and unfamiliar electric sign spelling "Marathon" in glorious yellow script, adorned with electrical leaves and flowers that alternately vanished and beamed upon the wet and glistening street. He leaned and rapped on the taxi-window and in a moment was receiving information from a colored doorman: Yes, this was a cabaret. Fine cabaret. Bes' showina city!
"Shall we try it?"
With a sigh Gloria tossed her cigarette out the open door and prepared to follow it; then they had passed under the screaming sign, under the wide portal, and up by a stuffy elevator into this unsung palace of pleasure.
The gay habitats of the very rich and the very poor, the very dashing and the very criminal, not to mention the lately exploited very Bohemian, are made known to the awed high school girls of Augusta, Georgia, and Redwing, Minnesota, not only through the bepictured and entrancing spreads of the Sunday theatrical supplements but through the shocked and alarmful eyes of Mr. Rupert Hughes and other chroniclers of the mad pace of America. But the excursions of Harlem onto Broadway, the deviltries of the dull and the revelries of the respectable are a matter of esoteric knowledge only to the participants themselves.
A tip circulates--and in the place knowingly mentioned, gather the lower moral-classes on Saturday and Sunday nights--the little troubled men who are pictured in the comics as "the Consumer" or "the Public." They have made sure that the place has three qualifications: it is cheap; it imitates with a sort of shoddy and mechanical wistfulness the glittering antics of the great cafes in the theatre district; and--this, above all, important--it is a place where they can "take a nice girl," which means, of course, that every one has become equally harmless, timid, and uninteresting through lack of money and imagination.
There on Sunday nights gather the credulous, sentimental, underpaid, overworked people with hyphenated occupations: book-keepers, ticket-sellers, office-managers, salesmen, and, most of all, clerks--clerks of the express, of the mail, of the grocery, of the brokerage, of the bank. With them are their giggling, over-gestured, pathetically pretentious women, who grow fat with them, bear them too many babies, and float helpless and uncontent in a colorless sea of drudgery and broken hopes.
They name these brummagem cabarets after Pullman cars. The "Marathon"! Not for them the salacious similes borrowed from the cafes of Paris! This is where their docile patrons bring their "nice women," whose starved fancies are only too willing to believe that the scene is comparatively gay and joyous, and even faintly immoral. This is life! Who cares for the morrow?
Anthony and Gloria, seated, looked about them. At the next table a party of four were in process of being joined by a party of three, two men and a girl, who were evidently late--and the manner of the girl was a study in national sociology. She was meeting some new men--and she was pretending desperately. By gesture she was pretending and by words and by the scarcely perceptible motionings of her eyelids that she belonged to a class a little superior to the class with which she now had to do, that a while ago she had been, and presently would again be, in a higher, rarer air. She was almost painfully refined--she wore a last year's hat covered with violets no more yearningly pretentious and palpably artificial than herself.
Fascinated, Anthony and Gloria watched the girl sit down and radiate the impression that she was only condescendingly present. For me, her eyes said, this is practically a slumming expedition, to be cloaked with belittling laughter and semi-apologetics.
--And the other women passionately poured out the impression that though they were in the crowd they were not of it. This was not the sort of place to which they were accustomed; they had dropped in because it was near by and convenient--every party in the restaurant poured out that impression ... who knew? They were forever changing class, all of them--the women often marrying above their opportunities, the men striking suddenly a magnificent opulence: a sufficiently preposterous advertising scheme, a celestialized ice cream cone. Meanwhile, they met here to eat, closing their eyes to the economy displayed in infrequent changings of table-cloths, in the casualness of the cabaret performers, most of all in the colloquial carelessness and familiarity of the waiters. One was sure that these waiters were not impressed by their patrons. One expected that presently they would sit at the tables ...
"Do you object to this?" inquired Anthony.
Gloria's face warmed and for the first time that evening she smiled.
"I love it," she said frankly. It was impossible to doubt her. Her gray eyes roved here and there, drowsing, idle or alert, on each group, passing to the next with unconcealed enjoyment, and to Anthony were made plain the different values of her profile, the wonderfully alive expressions of her mouth, and the authentic distinction of face and form and manner that made her like a single flower amidst a collection of cheap bric-a-brac. At her happiness, a gorgeous sentiment welled into his eyes, choked him up, set his nerves a-tingle, and filled his throat with husky and vibrant emotion. There was a hush upon the room. The careless violins and saxophones, the shrill rasping complaint of a child near by, the voice of the violet-hatted girl at the next table, all moved slowly out, receded, and fell away like shadowy reflections on the shining floor--and they two, it seemed to him, were alone and infinitely remote, quiet. Surely the freshness of her cheeks was a gossamer projection from a land of delicate and undiscovered shades; her hand gleaming on the stained table-cloth was a shell from some far and wildly virginal sea....
Then the illusion snapped like a nest of threads; the room grouped itself around him, voices, faces, movement; the garish shimmer of the lights overhead became real, became portentous; breath began, the slow respiration that she and he took in time with this docile hundred, the rise and fall of bosoms, the eternal meaningless play and interplay and tossing and reiterating of word and phrase--all these wrenched his senses open to the suffocating pressure of life--and then her voice came at him, cool as the suspended dream he had left behind.
"I belong here," she murmured, "I'm like these people."
For an instant this seemed a sardonic and unnecessary paradox hurled at him across the impassable distances she created about herself. Her entrancement had increased--her eyes rested upon a Semitic violinist who swayed his shoulders to the rhythm of the year's mellowest fox-trot:
"Something--goes Ring-a-ting-a-ling-a-ling Right in-your ear--"
Again she spoke, from the centre of this pervasive illusion of her own. It amazed him. It was like blasphemy from the mouth of a child.
"I'm like they are--like Japanese lanterns and crape paper, and the music of that orchestra."
"You're a young idiot!" he insisted wildly. She shook her blond head.
"No, I'm not. I am like them.... You ought to see.... You don't know me." She hesitated and her eyes came back to him, rested abruptly on his, as though surprised at the last to see him there. "I've got a streak of what you'd call cheapness. I don't know where I get it but it's--oh, things like this and bright colors and gaudy vulgarity. I seem to belong here. These people could appreciate me and take me for granted, and these men would fall in love with me and admire me, whereas the clever men I meet would just analyze me and tell me I'm this because of this or that because of that."
--Anthony for the moment wanted fiercely to paint her, to set her down now, as she was, as, as with each relentless second she could never be again.
"What were you thinking?" she asked.
"Just that I'm not a realist," he said, and then: "No, only the romanticist preserves the things worth preserving."
Out of the deep sophistication of Anthony an understanding formed, nothing atavistic or obscure, indeed scarcely physical at all, an understanding remembered from the romancings of many generations of minds that as she talked and caught his eyes and turned her lovely head, she moved him as he had never been moved before. The sheath that held her soul had assumed significance--that was all. She was a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it--then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, to that part of him that cherished all beauty and all illusion.