YOUNG PEOPLE'S PRIDE
By Stephen Vincent Benet
Illustrations By Henry Raleigh
Copyright, 1922 By Henry Holt And Company
First printing, August 1922
If I were sly, I'd steal for you that cobbled hill, Montmartre, Josephine's embroidered shoes, St. Louis' oriflamme, The river on grey evenings and the bluebell-glass of Chartres, And four sarcastic gargoyles from the roof of Notre Dame.
That wouldn't be enough, though, enough nor half a part; There'd be shells because they're sorrowful, and pansies since they're wise, The smell of rain on lilac-bloom, less fragrant than your heart, And that small blossom of your name, as steadfast as your eyes.
Sapphires, pirates, sandalwood, porcelains, sonnets, pearls, Sunsets gay as Joseph's coat and seas like milky jade, Dancing at your birthday like a mermaid's dancing curls —If my father'd only brought me up to half a decent trade!
Nothing I can give you—nothing but the rhymes— Nothing but the empty speech, the idle words and few, The mind made sick with irony you helped so many times, The strengthless water of the soul your truthfulness kept true.
Take the little withered things and neither laugh nor cry —Gifts to make a sick man glad he's going out like sand— They and I are yours, you know, as long as there's an I. Take them for the ages. Then they may not shame your hand.
"... For there groweth in great abundance in this land a small flower, much blown about by winds, named 'Young People's Pride'..."
YOUNG PEOPLES PRIDE
It is one of Johnny Chipman's parties at the Harlequin Club, and as usual the people the other people have been asked to meet are late and as usual Johnny is looking hesitatingly around at those already collected with the nervous kindliness of an absent-minded menagerie-trainer who is trying to make a happy family out of a wombat, a porcupine, and two small Scotch terriers because they are all very nice and he likes them all and he can't quite remember at the moment just where he got hold of any of them. This evening he has been making an omelet of youngest. K. Ricky French, the youngest Harvard playwright to learn the tricks of C43, a Boston exquisite, impeccably correct from his club tie to the small gold animal on his watch-chain, is almost coming to blows with Slade Wilson, the youngest San Francisco cartoonist to be tempted East by a big paper and still so new to New York that no matter where he tries to take the subway, he always finds himself buried under Times Square, over a question as to whether La Perouse or Foyot's has the best hors-d'oeuvres in Paris.
The conflict is taking place across Johnny's knees, both of which are being used for emphasis by the disputants till he is nearly mashed like a sandwich-filling between two argumentative slices of bread, but he is quite content. Peter Piper, the youngest rare-book collector in the country, who, if left to himself, would have gravitated naturally toward French and a devastating conversation in monosyllables on the pretty failings of prominent debutantes, is gradually warming Clark Stovall, the youngest star of the Provincetown Players out of a prickly silence, employed in supercilious blinks at all the large pictures of celebrated Harlequins by discreet, intelligent questions as to the probable future of Eugene O'Neill.
Stovall has just about decided to throw Greenwich Village omniscience overboard and admit privately to himself that people like Peter can be both human and interesting even if they do live in the East Sixties instead of Macdougal Alley when a page comes in discreetly for Johnny Chipman. Johnny rises like an agitated blond robin who has just spied the very two worms he was keeping room for to top off breakfast. "Well" he says to the world at large. "They're only fifteen minutes late apiece this time."
He darts out into the hall and reappears in a moment, a worm on either side. Both worms will fit in easily with the youthful assortment already gathered—neither can be more than twenty-five.
Oliver Crowe is nearly six feet, vividly dark, a little stooping, dressed like anybody else in the Yale Club from hair parted in the middle to low heavyish brown shoes, though the punctured patterns on the latter are a year or so out of date. There is very little that is remarkable about his appearance except the round, rather large head that shows writer or pugilist indifferently, brilliant eyes, black as black warm marble under heavy tortoise-shell glasses and a mouth that is not weak in the least but somehow burdened by a pressure upon it like a pressure of wings, the pressure of that kind of dream which will not release the flesh it inhabits always and agonizes often until it is given perfect body and so does not release it until such flesh has ceased. At present he is not the youngest anything, except, according to himself 'the youngest failure in advertising,' but a book of nakedly youthful love-poetry, which in gloomy moments he wishes had never been written, although the San Francisco Warbler called it as 'tensely vital as the Shropshire Lad,' brought him several column reviews and very nearly forty dollars in cash at twenty-one and since then many people of his own age and one or two editors have considered him "worth watching."
Ted Billett is dark too, but it is a ruddy darkness with high clear color of skin. He could pass anywhere as a College Senior and though his clothes seem to have been put on anyhow with no regard for pressing or tailoring they will always raise a doubt in the minds of the uninstructed as to whether it is not the higher carelessness that has dictated them rather than ordinary poverty—a doubt that, in many cases, has proved innocently fortunate for Ted. His hands are a curious mixture of square executive ability and imaginative sensitiveness and his surface manners have often been described as 'too snotty' by delicate souls toward whom Ted was entirely unconscious of having acted with anything but the most disinterested politeness. On the other hand a certain even-tempered recklessness and capacity for putting himself in the other fellow's place made him one of the few popularly lenient officers to be obeyed with discipline in his outfit during the war. As regards anything Arty or Crafty his attitude is merely appreciative—he is finishing up his last year of law at Columbia.
Johnny introduces Oliver and Ted to everybody but Peter—the three were classmates—shepherds his flock with a few disarmingly personal insults to prevent stiffness closing down again over the four that have already got to talking at the arrival of the two newcomers, and marshals them out to the terrace where they are to have dinner. Without seeming to try, he seats them so that Ted, Peter and Oliver will not form an offensive-defensive alliance against the three who are strangers to them by retailing New Haven anecdotes to each other for the puzzlement of the rest and starts the ball rolling with a neat provocative attack on romanticism in general and Cabell in particular.
"Johnny's strong for realism, aren't you, Johnny?"
"Well, yes, Ted, I am. I think 'Main Street' and 'Three Soldiers' are two of the best things that ever happened to America. You can say it's propaganda—maybe it is, but at any rate it's real. Honestly, I've gotten so tired, we all have, of all this stuff about the small Middle Western Town being the backbone of the country—"
"Backbone? Last vertebra!"
"As for 'Main Street,' it's—"
"It's the hardest book to read through without fallin' asleep where you sit, though, that I've struck since the time I had to repeat Geology." Peter smiles. "But, there, Johnny, I guess I'm the bone-head part of the readin' public—"
"That's why you're just the kind of person that ought to read books like that, Peter. The reading public in general likes candy laxatives, I'll admit—Old Nest stuff—but you—"
"'Nobody else will ever have to write the description of a small Middle Western Town'" quotes Oliver, discontentedly. "Well, who ever wanted to write the description of a small Middle Western Town?" and from Ricky French, selecting his words like flowers for a boutonniere.
"The trouble with 'Main Street' is not that it isn't the truth but that it isn't nearly the whole truth. Now Sherwood Anderson—"
"Tennyson. Who was Tennyson? He died young."
"Well, if that is Clara Stratton's idea of how to play a woman who did."
The two sentences seem to come from no one and arrive nowhere. They are batted out of the conversation like toy balloons.
"Bunny Andrews sailed for Paris Thursday," says Ted Billett longingly. "Two years at the Beaux Arts," and for an instant the splintering of lances stops, like the hush in a tournament when the marshal throws down the warder, at the shine of that single word.
"All the same, New York is the best place to be right now if you're going to do anything big," says Johnny uncomfortably, too much as if he felt he just had to believe in it, but the rest are silent, seeing the Seine wind under its bridges, cool as satin, grey-blue with evening, or the sawdust of a restaurant near the quais where one can eat Rabelaisiantly for six francs with wine and talk about anything at all without having to pose or explain or be defensive, or the chimneypots of La Cite branch-black against winter sky that is pallor of crimson when the smell of roast chestnuts drifts idly as a student along Boulevard St. Germain, or none of these, or all, but for each one nostalgic aspect of the city where good Americans go when they die and bad ones while they live—to Montmartre.
"New York is twice as romantic, really," says Johnny firmly.
"If you can't get out of it," adds Oliver with a twisted grin.
Ted Billett turns to Ricky French as if each had no other friend in the world.
"You were over, weren't you?" he says, a little diffidently, but his voice is that of Rachel weeping for her children.
"Well, there was a little cafe on the Rue Bonaparte—I suppose you wouldn't know—"
The party has adjourned to Stovall's dog-kennel-sized apartment on West Eleventh Street with oranges and ice, Peter Piper having suddenly remembered a little place he knows where what gin is to be bought is neither diluted Croton water nor hell-fire. The long drinks gather pleasantly on the table, are consumed by all but Johnny, gather again. The talk grows more fluid, franker.
"Phil Sellaby?—-oh, the great Phil's just had a child—I mean his wife has, but Phil's been having a book all winter and it's hard not to get 'em mixed up. Know the girl he married?"
"Ran Waldo had a necking acquaintance with her at one time or another, I believe. But now she's turned serious, I hear—tres serieuse—tres bonne femme—"
"I bet his book'll be a cuckoo, then. Trouble with women. Can't do any art and be married if you're in love with your wife. Instink—instinct of creation—same thing in both cases—use it one way, not enough left for other—unless, of course, like Goethe, you—" "Rats! Look at Rossetti—Browning—-Augustus John—William Morris—"
"Browning! Dear man, when the public knows the truth about the Brownings!"
Ricky French is getting a little drunk but it shows itself only in a desire to make every sentence unearthly cogent with perfect words.
"Unhappy marriage—ver' good—stimula-shion," he says, carefully but unsteadily, "other thing—tosh!"
Peter Piper jerks a thumb in Oliver's direction.
"Oh, beg pardon! Engaged, you told me? Beg pardon—sorry—very. Writes?"
"Uh-huh. Book of poetry three years ago. Novel now he's trying to sell."
"Oh, yes, yes, yes. Remember. 'Dancers' Holiday'—he wrote that? Good stuff, damn good. Too bad. Feenee. Why will they get married?"
The conversation veers toward a mortuary discussion of love. Being young, nearly all of them are anxious for, completely puzzled by and rather afraid of it, all at the same time. They wish to draw up one logical code to cover its every variation; they look at it, as it is at present with the surprised displeasure of florists at a hollyhock that will come blue when by every law of variation it should be rose. It is only a good deal later that they will be able to give, not blasphemy because the rules of the game are always mutually inconsistent, but tempered thanks that there are any rules at all. Now Ricky French especially has the air of a demonstrating anatomist over an anesthetized body. "Observe, gentlemen—the carotid artery lies here. Now, inserting the scalpel at this point—"
"The trouble with Art is that it doesn't pay a decent living wage unless you're willing to commercialize—"
"The trouble with Art is that it never did, except for a few chance lucky people—"
"The trouble with Art is women."
"The trouble with women is Art."
"The trouble with Art—with women, I mean—change signals! What do I mean?"
Oliver is taking Ted out to Melgrove with him over Sunday for suburban fresh-air and swimming, so the two just manage to catch the 12.53 from the Grand Central, in spite of Slade Wilson's invitation to talk all night and breakfast at the Brevoort. They spend the rattling, tunnel-like passage to 125th Street catching their breath again, a breath that seems to strike a florid gentlemen in a dirty collar ahead of them with an expression of permanent, sorrowful hunger. Then Ted remarks reflectively,
"Uh-huh. Not floor varnish anyway like most of this prohibition stuff. What think of the people?"
"Interesting but hardly conclusive. Liked the Wilson lad. Peter, of course, and Johnny. The French person rather young Back Bay, don't you think?"
Oliver smiles. The two have been through Yale, some of the war and much of the peace together, and the fact has inevitably developed a certain quality of being able to talk to each other in shorthand.
"Well, Groton plus Harvard—it always gets a little inhuman especially Senior year—but gin had a civilizing influence. Lucky devil!"
"Baker's newest discovery—yes, it does sound like a patent medicine. Don't mean that, but he has a play on the road—sure-fire, Johnny says—Edward Sheldon stuff—Romance—"
"The Young Harvard Romantic. An Essay Presented to the Faculty of Yale University by Theodore Billett for the Degree of—"
"Heard anything about your novel, Oliver?"
"Going to see my pet Mammon of Unrighteousness about it in a couple of weeks. Oh Lord!"
"Don't be cheap, Ted. If I could only make some money."
"Everybody says that there is money in advertising," Ted quotes maliciously. "Where have I heard that before?"
"That's what anybody says about anything till they try it. Well, there is—but not in six months for a copy-writer at Vanamee and Co. Especially when the said copy-writer has to have enough to marry on." "And will write novels when he ought to be reading, 'How I Sold America on Ossified Oats' like a good little boy. Young people are so impatient."
"Well, good Lord, Ted, we've been engaged eight months already and we aren't getting any furtherer—"
"Remember the copybooks, my son. The love of a pure, good woman and the one-way pocket—that's what makes the millionaires. Besides, look at Isaac."
"Well, I'm no Isaac. And Nancy isn't Rebekah, praises be! But it is an—emotional strain. On both of us."
"Well, all you have to do is sell your serial rights. After that—pie."
"I know. The trouble is, I can see it so plain if everything happens right—and then—well—"
Ted is not very consoling.
"People get funny ideas about each other when they aren't close by. Even when they're in love," he says rather darkly; and then, for no apparent reason, "Poor Billy. See it?"
Oliver has, unfortunately—the announcement that the engagement between Miss Flavia Marston of Detroit and Mr. William Curting of New York has been broken by mutual consent was an inconspicuous little paragraph in the morning papers. "That was all—just funny ideas and being away. And then this homebred talent came along," Ted muses.
"Well, you're the hell of a—"
Ted suddenly jerks into consciousness of what he has been saying.
"Sorry" he says, completely apologetic, "didn't mean a word I said, just sorry for Billy, poor guy. 'Fraid it'll break him up pretty bad at first." This seems to make matters rather worse and he changes the subject abruptly. "How's Nancy?" he asks with what he hopes seems disconnected indifference.
"Nancy? All right. Hates St. Louis, of course."
"Should think she might, this summer. Pretty hot there, isn't it?"
"Says it's like a wet furnace. And her family's bothering her some."
"Um, too bad."
"Oh, I don't mind. But it's rotten for her. They don't see the point exactly—don't know that I blame them. She could be in Paris, now—that woman was ready to put up the money. My fault."
"Well, she seems to like things better the way they are—God knows why, my antic friend! If it were my question between you and a year studying abroad! Not that you haven't your own subtle attractions, Ollie." Ted has hoped to irritate Oliver into argument by the closing remark, but the latter only accepts it with militant gloom.
"Yes, I've done her out of that, too," he says abysmally, "as well as sticking her in St. Louis while I stay here and can't even drag down enough money to support her—"
"Oh, Ollie, snap out of it! That's only being dramatic. You know darn well you will darn soon. I'll be saying 'bless you, my children, increase and multiply,' inside a month if your novel goes through."
"If! Oh well. Oh hell. I think I've wept on your shoulder long enough for tonight, Ted. Tell me your end of it—things breaking all right?"
Ted's face sets into lines that seem curiously foreign and aged for the smooth surface.
"Well—you know my trouble," he brings out at last with some difficulty. "You ought to, anyhow—we've talked each other over too much when we were both rather planko for you not to. I'm getting along, I think. The work—ca marche assez bien. And the restlessness—can be stood. That's about all there is to say."
Both are completely serious now.
"Bon. Very glad," says Oliver in a low voice.
"I can stand it. I was awful afraid I couldn't when I first got back. And law interests me, really, though I've lost three years because of the war. And I'm working like a pious little devil with a new assortment of damned and when you haven't any money you can't go on parties in New York unless you raise gravy riding to a fine art. Only sometimes—well, you know how it is—"
"I'll be sitting there, at night especially, in that little tin Tophet of a room on Madison Avenue, working. I can work, if I do say it myself—I'm hoping to get through with school in January, now. But it gets pretty lonely, sometimes when there's nobody to run into that you can really talk to—the people I used to play with in College are out of New York for the summer—even Peter's down at Southampton most of the time or out at Star Bay—you're in Melgrove—Sam Woodward's married and working in Chicago—Brick Turner's in New Mexico—I've dropped out of the Wall Street bunch in the class that hang out at the Yale Club—I'm posted there anyhow, and besides they've all made money and I haven't, and all they want to talk about is puts and calls. And then you remember things.
"The time my pilot and I blew into Paris when we thought we were hitting somewhere around Nancy till we saw that blessed Eiffel Tower poking out of the fog. And the Hotel de Turenne on Rue Vavin and getting up in the morning and going out for a cafe cognac breakfast, and everything being amiable and pleasant, and kidding along all the dear little ladies that sat on the terrasse when they dropped in to talk over last evening's affairs. I suppose I'm a sensualist—"
"Everybody is." from Oliver.
"Well, that's another thing. Women. And love. Ollie, my son, you don't know how very damn lucky you are!"
"I think I do, rather," says Oliver, a little stiffly.
"You don't. Because I'd give everything I have for what you've got and all you can do is worry about whether you'll get married in six months or eight."
"I'm worrying about whether I'll ever get married at all," from Oliver, rebelliously.
"True enough, which is where I'm glowingly sympathetic for you, though you may not notice it. But you're one of the few people I know—officers at least—who came out of the war without stepping all through their American home ideas of morality like a clown through a fake glass window. And I'm—Freuded—if I see how or why you did."
"Don't myself—unless you call it pure accident" says Oliver, frankly. "Well, that's it—women. Don't think I'm in love but the other thing pulls pretty strong. And I want to get married all right, but what girls I know and like best are in Peter's crowd and most of them own their own Rolls Royces—and I won't be earning even a starvation wage for two, inside of three or four years, I suppose. And as you can't get away from seeing and talking to women unless you go and live in a cave—well, about once every two weeks or oftener I'd like to chuck every lawbook I have out of the window on the head of the nearest cop—go across again and get some sort of a worthless job—I speak good enough French to do it if I wanted—and go to hell like a gentleman without having to worry about it any longer. And I won't do that because I'm through with it and the other thing is worth while. So there you are."
"So you don't think you're in love—eh Monsieur Billett?" Oliver puts irritatingly careful quotation marks around the verb. Ted twists a little.
"It all seems so blamed impossible," he says cryptically.
"Oh, I wouldn't call Elinor Piper that exactly." Oliver grins. "Even if she is Peter's sister. Old Peter. She's a nice girl."
"A nice girl?" Ted begins rather violently. "She's—why she's—" then pauses, seeing the trap.
"Oh very well—that's all I wanted to know."
"Oh don't look so much like a little tin Talleyrand, Ollie! I'm not sure—and that's rather more than I'd even hint to anybody else."
"Thanks, little darling." But Ted has been stung too suddenly, even by Oliver's light touch on something which he thought was a complete and mortuary secret, to be in a mood for sarcasm.
"Oh, well, you might as well know. I suppose you do."
"All I know is that you seem to have been visiting—Peter—a good deal this summer."
"Well, it started with Peter."
"It does so often."
"Oh Lord, now I've got to tell you. Not that there's anything—definite—to tell." He pauses, looking at his hands.
"Well, I've just been telling you how I feel—sometimes. And other times—being with Elinor—she's been so—kind. But I don't know, Ollie, honestly I don't, and that's that."
"You see," he begins again, "the other thing—Oh, Lord, it's so tangled up! But it's just this. It sounds—funny—probably—coming from me—and after France and all that—but I'm not going to—pretend to myself I'm in love with a girl—just because I may—want to get married—the way lots of people do. I can't. And I couldn't with a girl like Elinor anyway—she's too fine."
"She is rather fine," says Oliver appreciatively. "Selective reticence—all that."
"Well, don't you see? And a couple of times—I've been nearly sure. And then something comes and I'm not again—not the way I want to be. And then—Oh, if I were, it wouldn't be much—use—you know—"
"Well, consider our relative positions—"
"Consider your grandmother's cat! She's a girl—you're a man. She's a lady—you're certainly a gentleman—though that sounds like Jane Austen. And—"
"And she's—well, she isn't the wealthiest young lady in the country, but the Pipers are rich, though they never go and splurge around about it. And I'm living on scholarships and borrowed money from the family—and even after I really start working I probably won't make enough to live on for two or three years at least. And you can't ask a girl like that—"
"Oh, Ted, this is the twentieth century! I'm not telling you to hang up your hat and live on your wife's private income—" "That's fortunate," from Ted, rather stubbornly and with a set jaw.
"But there's no reason on earth—if you both really loved each other and wanted to get married—why you couldn't let her pay her share for the first few years. You know darn well you're going to make money sometime—"
"Well, then. And Elinor's sporting. She isn't the kind that needs six butlers to live—she doesn't live that way now. That's just pride, Ted, thinking that—and a rather bum variety of pride when you come down to it. I hate these people who moan around and won't be happy unless they can do everything themselves—they're generally the kind that give their wives a charge account at Lucile's and ten dollars a year pocket money and go into blue fits whenever poor spouse runs fifty cents over her allowance."
Ted pauses, considering. Finally,
"No, Ollie—I don't think I'm quite that kind of a fool. And almost thou convincest me—and all that. But—well—that isn't the chief difficulty, after all."
"Well, what is?" from Oliver, annoyedly.
Ted hesitates, speaking slowly.
"Well—after the fact that I'm not sure—France," he says at last, and his mouth shuts after the word as if it never wanted to open again.
Oliver spreads both hands out hopelessly.
"Are you never going to get over that, you ass?"
"You didn't do the things I did," from Ted, rather difficultly. "If you had—"
"If I had I'd have been as sorry as you are, probably, that I'd knocked over the apple cart occasionally. But I wouldn't spend the rest of my life worrying about it and thinking I wasn't fit to go into decent society because of what happened to most of the A.E.F. Why you sound as if you'd committed the unpardonable sin. And it's nonsense."
"Well—thinking of Elinor—I'm not too darn sure I didn't," from Ted, dejectedly.
"That comes of being born in New England and that's all there is to it. Anyhow, it's over now, isn't it?"
"Not exactly—it comes back."
"Well, kick it every time it does."
"But you don't understand. That and—people like Elinor—" says Ted hopelessly.
"I do understand."
"You don't." And this time Ted's face has the look of a burned man.
"Well—" says Oliver, frankly puzzled. "Well, that's it. Oh, it doesn't matter. But if there was another war—"
"Oh, leave us poor people that are trying to write a couple of years before you dump us into heroes' graves by the Yang tse Kiang!"
"Another war—and bang! into the aviation." Ted muses, his face gone thin with tensity. "It could last as long as it liked for me, providing I got through before it did; you'd be living anyhow, living and somebody, and somebody who didn't give a plaintive hoot how things broke."
He sighs, and his face smooths back a little.
"Well, Lord, I've no real reason to kick, I suppose," he ends. "There are dozens of 'em like me—dozens and hundreds and thousands all over the shop. We had danger and all the physical pleasures and as much money as we wanted and the sense of command—all through the war. And then they come along and say 'it's all off, girls,' and you go back and settle down and play you've just come out of College in peace-times and maybe by the time you're forty you'll have a wife and an income if another scrap doesn't come along. And then when we find it isn't as easy to readjust as they think, they yammer around pop-eyed and say 'Oh, what wild young people—what naughty little wasters! They won't settle down and play Puss-in-the-corner at all—and, oh dear, oh dear, how they drink and smoke and curse 'n everything!'"
"I'm awful afraid they might be right as to what's the trouble with us, though," says Oliver, didactically. "We are young, you know."
"Melgrove!" the conductor howls, sleepily. "Melgrove! Melgrove!"
The Crowe house was both small and inconveniently situated—it was twenty full minutes walk from the station and though a little box of a garage had been one of the "all modern conveniences" so fervidly painted in the real estate agent's advertisement, the Crowes had no car. It was the last house on Undercliff Road that had any pretense to sparse grass and a stubbly hedge—beyond it were sand-dunes, delusively ornamented by the signs of streets that as yet only existed in the brain of the owner of the "development," and, a quarter of a mile away, the long blue streak of the Sound.
Oliver's key clicked in the lock—this was fortunately one of the times when four-year-old Jane Ellen, who went about after sunset in a continual, piteous fear of "black men wif masks," had omitted to put the chain on the door before being carried mutinously to bed. Oliver switched on the hall light and picked up a letter and a folded note from the card tray.
"Ted, Ollie and Dickie will share that little bijou, the sleeping porch, unless Ted prefers the third-story bathtub," the note read. "Breakfast at convenience for those that can get it themselves—otherwise at nine. And DON'T wake Dickie up.
Oliver passed it to Ted, who read it, grinned, and saluted, nearly knocking over the hatrack.
"For God's sake!" said Oliver in a piercing whisper, "Jane Ellen will think that's Indians!"
Both listened frantically for a moment, holding their breath. But there was no sound from upstairs except an occasional soft rumbling. Oliver had often wondered what would happen if the whole sleeping family chanced to breathe in and out in unison some unlucky night. He could see the papery walls blown apart like scraps of cardboard—Aunt Elsie falling, falling with her bed from her little bird-house under the eaves, giving vent to one deaf, terrified "Hey—what's that?" as she sank like Lucifer cast from Heaven inexorably down into the laundry stove, her little tight, white curls standing up on end....
Ted had removed his shoes and was making for the stairs with the exaggerated caution of a burglar in a film.
"'Night!" called Oliver softly.
"G' night! Where's my bed—next the wall? Good—then I won't step on Dickie. And if you fall over me when you come in, I'll bay like a bloodhound!"
"I'll look out. Be up in a minute myself. Going to write a letter."
"So I'd already deduced, Craig Kennedy, my friend. Well, give her my love!"
He smiled like a bad little boy and disappeared round the corner. A stair creaked—they were the kind of stairs that always creaked like old women's bones, when you tried to go up them quietly. There was the sound of something soft stubbing against something hard and a muffled "Sonofa—"
"Oh, nothing. Blame near broke my toe on Jane Ellen's doll's porcelain head. 'S all right. 'Night."
"'Night." Then in an admonitory sotto-voce, "Remember, if you wake Dickie, you've got to tell him stories till he goes to sleep again, or he'll wake up everybody else!"
"If he wakes, I'll garotte him. 'Night."
Oliver paused for a few minutes, waiting for the crash that would proclaim that Ted had stumbled over something and waked Dickie beyond redemption. But there was nothing but a soft gurgling of water from the bathroom and then, after a while, a slight but definite addition to the distant beehive noises of sleep in the house. He smiled, moved cautiously into the dining room, sat down at the small sharp-cornered desk where all the family correspondence was carried on and from which at least one of the family a day received a grievous blow in the side while attempting to get around it; lit the shaded light above it and sat down to read his letter.
It was all Nancy, that letter, from the address, firm and straight as any promise she ever gave, but graceful as the curl of a vine-stem, gracile as her hands, with little unsuspected curlicues of humor and fancy making the stiff "t's" bend and twisting the tails of the "e's," to the little scrunched-up "Love, Nancy" at the end, as if she had squeezed it there to make it look unimportant, knowing perfectly that it was the one really important thing in the letter to him. Both would take it so and be thankful without greediness or a longing for sentimental "x's," with a sense that the thing so given must be very rich in little like a jewel, and always newly rediscovered with a shiver of pure wonder and thanking, or neither could have borne to have it written so small.
It was Nancy just as some of her clothes were Nancy, soft clear blues and first appleblossom pinks, the colors of a hardy garden that has no need for the phoenix-colors of the poppy, because it has passed the boy's necessity for talking at the top of its voice in scarlet and can hold in one shaped fastidious petal, faint-flushed with a single trembling of one serene living dye, all the colors the wise mind knows and the soul released into its ecstasy has taken for its body invisible, its body of delight most spotless, as lightning takes bright body of rapture and agony from the light clear pallor that softens a sky to night.
Oliver read the letter over twice—it was with a satisfaction like that when body and brain are fed at once, invisibly, by the same lustre of force, that he put it away. One part of it, though, left him humanly troubled enough.
"Miss Winters, the old incubus, came around and was soppy to mother as usual yesterday—the same old business—I might be studying in Paris, now, instead of teaching drawing to stupid little girls, if I hadn't 'formed' what she will call 'that unfortunate attachment.' Not that I minded, really, though I was angry enough to bite her when she gave a long undertaker's list of Penniless Authors' Brides. But it worries mother—and that worries me—and I wish she wouldn't. Forgive me, Ollie—and then that Richardson complex of mother's came up again—"
"Waiting hurts, naturally,—and I'm the person who used to wonder about girls making such a fuss about how soon they got married—but, then, Ollie, of course, I never really wanted to get married before myself and somehow that seems to make a difference. But that's the way things go—and the only thing I wish is that I was the only person to be hurt. We will, sooner or later, and it will be all the better for our not having grabbed at once—at least that's what all the old people with no emotions left are always so anxious to tell you. But they talk about it as if anybody under thirty-five who wanted to get married was acting like a three-year-old stealing jam—and that's annoying. And anyhow, it wouldn't be bad, if I weren't so silly, I suppose—"
"Waiting hurts, naturally," and that casual sentence made him chilly afraid. For to be in love, though it may force the lover to actions of impossible courage does not make him in the least courageous of himself, but only drives him by the one large fear of losing this love like a soldier pricked from behind by a bayonet over the bodies of smaller fears, or like a thief who has stolen treasure, and, hearing the cry at his heels, scales a twenty foot wall with the agile gestures of a madman. All the old-wives' and young men's club stories of everything from broken engagements to the Generic and Proven Unfaithfulness of the Female Sex brushed like dirty cobwebs for an instant across his mind. They tightened about it like silk threads—a snaky web—and for one scared instant he had a sense of being smothered in dusty feathers, whispering together and saying, "When you're a little older and a great deal wiser. When you've come to my age and know that all girls are the same. When you realize that long engagements seldom mean marriage. When—"
He put the cobwebs aside with a strain of will, for he was very tired in body, and settled himself to write to Nancy. It was not the cobwebs that hurt. The only thing that mattered was that she had been hurt on his account—was being hurt now on his account—would be hurt, and still and always on his account, not because he wanted to hurt her but because it was not within his power, but Life's, to hurt her in that respect or not.
"Oh, felicitous Nancy!" the pen began to scratch. "Your letter—"
Stupid to be so tired when he was writing to Nancy. Stupid not to find the right things to say at once when you wanted to say them so much. He dropped the pen an instant, sat back, and tried to evoke Nancy before him like a small, clear picture seen in a lens, tried to form with his will the lifeless air in front of him till it began to take on some semblance and body of her that would be better than the tired remembrances of the mind.
Often, and especially when he had thought about her intensely for a long time, the picture would not come at all or come with tantalizing incompleteness, apparently because he wanted it to be whole so much—all he could see would be a wraith of Nancy, wooden as a formal photograph, with none of her silences or mockeries about her till he felt like a painter who has somehow let the devil into his paintbox so that each stroke he makes goes a little fatally out of true from the vision in his mind till the canvas is only a crazy-quilt of reds and yellows. Now, perhaps, though, she might come, even though he was tired. He pressed the back of a hand against his eyes. She was coming to him now. He remembered one of their walks together—a walk they had taken some eight months ago, when they had been only three days engaged. Up Fifth Avenue; Forty-second Street, Forty-third, Forty-fourth, the crosstown glitter of lights, the reflected glow of Broadway, spraying the sky with dim gold-dust, begins to die a little behind them. Past pompous expensive windows full of the things that Oliver and Nancy will buy when Oliver's novel has gone into its first fifty thousand, content with the mere touch of each other's hands, they are so sure of each other now. Past people, dozens of people, getting fewer and fewer as Forty-sixth Street comes, Forty-seventh, Forty-eighth, always a little arrogantly because none of the automatic figures they pass have ever eaten friendly bread together or had fire that can burn over them like clear salt water or the knowledge that the only thing worth having in life is the hurt and gladness of that fire. Buses pass like big squares of honeycomb on wheels, crowded with pale, tired bees—the stars march slowly from the western slope to their light viewless pinnacle in the center of the heavens, walking brightly like strong men in silvered armor—the stars and the buses, the buses and the stars, either and both of as little and much account—it would not really surprise either Oliver or Nancy if the next green bus that passes should start climbing into the sky like a clumsy bird.
The first intoxication is still upon them—they have told nobody except anyone who ever sees them together—they walk tactfully and never too close, both having a horror of publicly amatory couples, but like the king's daughter—or was it Solomon's Temple?—they are all glorious within. Fifty-fifth, Fifty-sixth, Fifty-seventh—the square in front of the Plaza—that tall chopped bulky tower lit from within like a model in a toyshop window—motors purring up to its door like thin dark cats, motors purring away. The fountain with the little statue—the pool a cool dark stone cracked with the gold of the lights upon it, and near the trees of the Park, half-hidden, gold Sherman, riding, riding, Victory striding ahead of him with a golden palm.
Ahead of them too goes Victory, over fear, over doubt, over littleness, her gold shoes ring like the noise of a sparkling sword, her steps are swift. They stand for an instant, hands locked, looking back at the long roller-coaster swoop of the Avenue, listening to the roll of tired wheels, the faint horns, the loud horns. They know each other now—their hands grip tighter—in the wandering instant the whole background of streets and tall buildings passes like breath from a mirror—for the instant without breath or clamor, they exist together, one being, and the being has neither flesh to use the senses too clumsily, nor human thoughts to rust at the will, but lives with the strength of a thunder and the heedlessness of a wave in a wide and bright eternity of the unspoken.
"All the same," says Nancy, when the moment passes, lifting a shoe with the concern of a kitten that has just discovered a thorn in its paw, "New York pavements are certainly hard on loving feet."
So the picture came. And other pictures like it. And since the living that had made them was past for a little they were both fainter and in a measure brighter with more elfin colors than even that living had been which had made them glow at first. White memory had taken them into her long house of silence where everything is cool with the silver of Spring rain on leaves, she had washed from them the human pettiness, the human separateness, the human insufficiency to express the best that must come in any mortal relationship that lasts longer than the hour. They were not better in memory than they had been when lived, for the best remembrance makes only brilliant ghosts, but they were in their dim measure nearer the soul's perfection, for the tricks of the sounding board of the mind and the feckless instrument of the body had been put away. "We've had infinites already—infinites," thought Oliver, and didn't care about the ludicrous ineptness of the words. He smiled, turning back to the unwritten letter. If they hadn't had infinites already—he supposed they wouldn't want more so badly right now. He smiled, but this time without humor. It had all seemed so easy at first.
Nancy had been in Paris at fourteen before "business reverses" of the kind that mild, capable-looking men like Mr. Ellicott seem to attract, as a gingerbread man draws wasps, when they are about fifty, had reduced him to a position as chief bookkeeper and taken Nancy out of her first year in Farmington. Oliver had spent nine months on a graduate scholarship in Paris and Provence in 1919. Both had friends there and argued long playful hours planning just what sort of a magnificently cheap apartment on the Rive Gauche they would have when they went back.
For they were going back—they had been brilliantly sure of it—Oliver had only to finish his novel that was so much better already than any novel Nancy had ever read—sell a number of copies of it that seemed absurdly small in proportion to the population of America—and then they could live where they pleased and Oliver could compose Great Works and Nancy get ahead with her very real and delicate talent for etching instead of having to do fashion-drawings of slinky simperers in Lucile dresses or appetite-arousing paintings of great cans of tomato soup. But that had been eight months ago. Vanamee and Company's—the neat vice-president talking to Oliver—"a young hustler has every chance in the world of getting ahead here, Mr. Crowe. You speak French? Well, we have been thinking for some time of establishing branch-offices in Europe." The chance of a stop-gap job in St. Louis for Nancy, where she could be with her family for a while—she really ought to be with them a couple of months at least, if she and Oliver were to be married so soon. The hopeful parting in the Grand Central—"But, Nancy, you're sure you wouldn't mind going across second-class?"
"Why Ollie, dear, how silly! Why, what would it matter?" "All right, then, and remember, I'll wire just as soon as things really start to break—"
And then for eight months, nothing at all but letters and letters, except two times, once in New York, once in St. Louis, when both had spent painful savings because they simply had to see each other again, since even the best letters were only doll-house food you could look at and wish you could eat—and both had tried so hard to make each disappearing minute perfect before they had to catch trains again that the effort left them tired as jugglers who have been balancing too many plates and edgy at each other for no cause in the world except the unfairness that they could only have each other now for so short a time. And the people, the vast unescapable horde of the dull-but-nice or the merely dull who saw in their meetings nothing either particularly spectacular or pitiful or worth applause.
And always after the parting, a little crippled doubt tapping its crutches along the alleys of either mind. "Do I really? Because if I do, how can I be so tired sometimes with her, with him? And why can't I say more and do more and be more when he, when she? And everybody says. And they're older than we are—mightn't it be true? And—" And then, remorsefully, the next day, all doubt burnt out by the clear hurt of absence. "Oh how could I! When it is real—when it is like that—when it is the only thing worth while in the world!"
But absence and meetings of this sort told on them inescapably, and both being, unfortunately, of a rather high-strung intelligence and youth, recognized it, no matter how much consciousness might deny it, and wondered sometimes, rather pitiably, why they couldn't be always at one temperature, like lovers in poetry, and why either should ever worry or hurt the other when they loved. Any middle-aged person could and did tell them that they were now really learning something about love—omitting the small fact that Pain, though he comes with the highest literary recommendations is really not the wisest teacher of all in such matters—all of which helped the constant nervous and psychological strain on both as little as a Latin exorcism would help a fever. For the very reason that they wished to be true in their love, they said things in their letters that a spoken word or a gesture would have explained in an instant but that no printed alphabet could; and so they often hurt each other while meaning and trying to help all they could.
Not quite as easy as it had seemed at first—oh, not on your life not, thought Oliver, rousing out of a gloomy muse. And then there was the writing he wanted to do—and Nancy's etching—"our damn careers" they had called them—but those were the things they did best—and neither had had even tolerable working conditions recently—
Well, sufficient to the day was the evil thereof—that was one of those safe Bible-texts you seemed to find more and more use for the older you grew. Bible-texts. It was lucky tomorrow was Sunday when slaves of the alarm-clock had peace. Oliver straightened his shoulders unconsciously and turned back to the blank paper. He did love Nancy. He did love Nancy. That was all that counted.
"Oh, felicitous Nancy! Your letter was—"
The water was a broken glass of blue, sunstruck waves—there were few swimmers in it where the two friends went in next morning, for the beach proper with its bath-houses and float was nearly a quarter of a mile down. Oliver could see Margaret's red cap bobbing twenty yards out as he tried the water cautiously with curling toes, and, much farther out, a blue cap and the flash of an arm going suddenly under. Mrs. Severance, the friend Louise had brought out for the week-end, he supposed; she swam remarkably for a woman. He swam well enough himself and couldn't give her two yards in the hundred. Ted stood beside him, both tingling a little at the fresh of the salt air. "Wow!" and they plunged.
A mock race followed for twenty yards—then Oliver curved off to duck Margaret, already screaming and paddling at his approach, while Ted kept on.
He swam face deep, catching short breaths under the crook of his arm, burying himself in the live blue running sparkle, every muscle stretched as if he were trying to rub all the staleness that can come to the mind and the restless pricklings that will always worry the body clean from him, like a snake's cast skin, against the wet rough hands of the water. There—it was working—the flesh was compact and separate no longer—he felt it dissolve into the salt push of spray—become one with that long blue body of wave that stretched fluently radiant for miles and miles till it too was no more identity but only sea, receiving the sun, without thought, without limbs, without pain. He sprinted with the last breath he had in him to annihilation in that light lustrous firmament. Then his flung-out hand struck something firm and smooth. With the momentary twinge of a jarred toe, he stopped in the middle of a stroke, grabbed at the firm thing unthinkingly, felt it slip away from him, trod water and came up gasping.
"Oh, I'm horribly sorry!" Gurgle and choke at water gone the wrong way. "Honestly—what a dumb-bell trick! but I didn't see you at all and with the whole Sound to swim in I thought I was safe—"
He rubbed the water out of his eyes. A woman in a blue cap. Pretty, too—not one of the pretty kind that look like drenched paper-dolls in swimming.
"Don't apologize—it's all my fault, really. I should have heard you coming, I suppose, but I was floating and my ears were under water—and this cap! You did scare me a little, though; I didn't know there was anyone else in miles—"
She smiled frankly. Ted got another look at her and decided that pretty was hardly right. Beautiful, perhaps, but you couldn't tell with her hair that way under her cap.
"You're Mr. Billett, aren't you? Louise said last night that her brother was bringing a friend over Sunday. She also said that she'd introduce us—but we seem to have done that."
"Rather. Introduction by drowning. The latest cleverness in Newport circles—see 'Mode.' And you're Mrs. Severance."
"Yes. Nice water."
A third look—a fairly long one—left Ted still puzzled. Age—thirty? thirty-five? Swims perfectly. On "Mode." Wide eyes, sea-blue, sea-changing. An odd nose that succeeded in being beautiful in spite of itself. A rather full small mouth, not loose with sense nor rigid with things controlled, but a mouth that would suck like a bee at the last and tiniest drop of any physical sweet which the chin and the eyes had once decided to want. The eyes measure, the mouth asks, the cleft chin finds the way. A face neither content, nor easily to be contented—in repose it is neither happy nor unhappy but only matured. Louise's friend—that was funny—Louise had such an ideal simplicity of mind. Well—
"If you float—after a while you don't know quite where you're floating," said Mrs. Severance's voice detachedly.
Ted made no answer but turned over, spreading out his arms. For a few moments they lay like corpses on the blue swelling round of the water looking straight through infinite distance into the thin faint vapor of the sky.
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"We might be clouds, almost, mightn't we?" with a slow following note of laughter.
Ted looked deeper into the sky, half-closing his eyelids. It seemed to take his body from him completely, to leave him nothing but a naked soothed consciousness, rising and falling, a petal on a swinging bough, in the heart of blue quietude like the quiet of an open place in a forest empty with evening.
"Clouds," said Mrs. Severance's voice, turning the word to a sound breathed lightly through the curled and husky gold of a forest-horn.
Through the midst of his sea-drowsiness a queer thought came to Ted. This had happened before, in sleep perhaps, in a book he had read—Oliver's novel, possibly, he thought and smiled. Lying alone on a roof of blue water, and yet not lying alone, for there was that slow warm voice that talked from time to time and came into the mind on tiptoe like the creeping of soft-shoed, hasteless, fire. You stretched your hands to the fire and let it warm you and soon your whole body was warm and pleased and alive. That was when you were alive past measure, when all of you had been made warm as a cat fed after being hungry, and the cat arose from its warmth and went walking on velvet paws, stretching sleek legs, sleek body, slowly and exquisitely under the firelight, heavy with warmth, but ready at the instant signal of the small burning thing in its mind to turn like a black butterfly and dance a slow seeking dance with the shadows of the fire that flickered like leaves in light wind, desirable, impalpable and wavering, never to be quite torn down from the wall and eaten and so possessed. But there was an odd thirsty satisfaction in trying to tear the shadows.
Fantastic. He had not been so fantastic for a long time.
"And tomorrow there's 'Mode.' And fashion-plates. And Greenwich Villagers," said the voice of Mrs. Severance. He made some reply impatiently, disliking the sound of his own voice—hers fitted with the dream. When had he been this before?
The Morte d'Arthur—the two with a sword between.
He sank deeper, deeper, into the glow of that imagined firelight—the flame was cooler than water to walk through—that time he had almost taken a turning shadow into his hand. The sword between—only here there was no sword. If he reached out his hand he knew just how the hand that he touched would feel, cool and firm, like that flame. Cool and silent.
There must have been something, somewhere, to make him remember....
A minute later Oliver had splashed up to them, shouting "A rescue! A rescue! Guests Drown While Host Looks On Smilingly! What's the matter, Ted, you look as if you wanted to turn into a submarine? Got cramp?"
Mrs. Crowe relaxed a little for the first tired minute of her day. Sunday dinner was nearly over, and though, in one way, the best meal in the week for her because all her children were sure to be at home, it was apt to be pure purgatory on a hot day, with Sheba dawdling and grumbling and Rosalind spilling pea-soup on her Sunday dress, and Aunt Elsie's deafness increased by the weather to the point of mild imbecility.
She had been a little afraid today, especially with two guests and the grandchildren rampant after church, and the extra leaf in the table that squeezed Colonel Crowe almost into the sideboard and herself nearly out of the window and made the serving of a meal a series of passings of over-hot plates from hand to hand, exposed to the piracies of Jane Ellen. But it had gone off better than she could have hoped. Colonel Crowe had not absent-mindedly begun to serve vegetables with a teaspoon, Aunt Elsie had not dissolved in tears and tottered away from the table at some imagined rudeness of Dickie's, and Jane Ellen had not once had a chance to take off her drawers.
"Ice tea!" said the avid voice of Jane Ellen in her ear. "Ice tea!"
Mrs. Crowe filled the glass and submitted a request for "please" mechanically. She wondered, rather idly, if she would spend her time in purgatory serving millions of Jane Ellens with iced tea.
"Ahem!" That was Colonel Crowe. "But you should have known us in the days of our greatness, Mrs. Severance. When I was king of Estancia—"
"I'd rather have you like this, Colonel Crowe, really. I've always wanted big families and never had one to live in—"
"Heard from Nancy recently, Oliver?" from Margaret, slightly satiric.
"Why yes, Margie, now and then. Not as often as you've heard from Stu Winthrop probably but—"
"Motha, can I have some suga on my booberrish? Motha, can I have some suga on my booberrish? Motha—peesh!"
"Oh, hush a minute, Rosalind dear. I don't know, Oliver. I'll speak to Mr. Field about it if you like. I should think they'd take little sketches like a couple of those Nancy showed you—though they aren't quite smart-alecky enough for 'Mode'—" "Grandfather, Grandfather! How old would you be if you were as old as Methusaleh? Are you older than he is? Grandfather!"
Entrance and exit of a worried Sheba with the empty dish of blueberries, marred only by Jane Ellen's sudden cries of "Stop thief!"
Mrs. Crowe tried to think a little ahead. Tomorrow. Ice. Butter. Laundry. Oliver's breakfast early again. Louise—poor Louise—two years and a half since Clifford Lychgate died. How curious life was; how curious and careless and inconsecutive. The thought of how much she hoped Oliver's novel would succeed and the question as to whether the Thebes grocer who delivered by motor-truck would be cheaper than the similar Melgrove bandit in the long run mixed uneasily in her mind.
Rosalind had seemed droopy that morning—more green crab-apples probably. Aunt Elsie's gout. Oliver's marriage—she had been so relieved about Nancy ever since she had met her, though it had been hard to reconcile domestic virtues with Nancy's bobbed hair. She would make Oliver happy, though, and that was the main thing. She was really sweet—a sweet girl. Long engagements. Too bad, too bad. Something must be done about the stair carpet, the children were tearing it to pieces. "Ice tea! Ice tea!"
"No, Jane Ellen."
"No. Now be a good little girl and run out and play quietly, not right in the middle of the broiling sun."
"And so Lizzie said, 'Very well, but if I do take that medicine my death will be wholly on your responsibility!'" with a sense of climax.
"But I really would like to, Mrs. Severance, if you can ever spare the time."
Ted and Louise's friend seemed to be getting along very well. That was nice—so often Oliver's friends and Louise's didn't. It seemed odd that Mrs. Severance should be working on "Mode"—surely a girl of her obvious looks and intelligence left with no children to support—some nice man—A lady, too, by her voice, though there was a trifle of something—
She only hoped Mrs. Severance didn't think them all too crowded and noisy. It was a little hard on the three children to have such an—intimate—home when they brought friends.
"I think we'd better have coffee out on the porch, don't you?" That meant argument with Sheba later but an hour's cool and talk without having to shout across the dear little children was worth the argument.
Everybody got up, Ted being rather gallant to Mrs. Severance. Oliver looked worried today, worried and tired. She hoped it wasn't about Nancy and the engagement. What a miserable thing money was to make so much difference.
Louise's friend was certainly attractive. That wonderful red-gold hair—"setter color" her sister had always called it of her own. She must write her sister. Mrs. Severance—an odd name. She rather wished, though, that her face wouldn't turn faintly hard like that sometimes.
"No, Dickie. No chocolate unless your mother says you can have it. No, Rosalind, if mother says not, you certainly cannot go over and play at the Rogers',—they have a paralytic grandmother who is very nervous."
Well, that was over. And now, for a few brief instants there would be quiet and a chance to relax and really see something of Oliver. Mrs. Crowe started moving slowly towards the door. Ted and Mrs. Severance blocked the way, talking rather intimately, she thought, for people who had only known each other a few hours; but then that was the modern way. Then Ted saw her and seemed to wake up with a jump from whatever mild dream possessed him, and Mrs. Severance turned toward her.
"It's so comfortable being out here, always," she said very naturally and kindly, but Mrs. Crowe did not reply at once to the pretty speech. Instead she flushed deeply and bent over something small and white on the chair with the dictionary in it that had been next to hers. Jane Ellen had finally succeeded in taking off her drawers.
Ted and Oliver were down at the beach at Southampton two Sundays later—week-end guests of Peter Piper—the three had been classmates at Yale and the friendship had not lapsed like so many because Peter happened to be rich and Ted and Oliver poor. And then there was always Elinor, Peter's sister—Ted seemed, to Oliver's amused vision, at least, to be looking at Elinor with the hungry eyes of a man seeing a delicate, longed-for dream made flesh just at present instead of a girl he had known since she first put up her hair. How nice that would be if it happened, thought Oliver, match-makingly—how very nice indeed! Best thing in the world for Ted—and Elinor too—if Ted would only get away from his curiously Puritan idea that a few minor lapses from New England morality in France constituted the unpardonable sin, at least as far as marrying a nice girl was concerned. He stretched back lazily, digging elbows into the warm sand.
The day had really been too hot for anything more vigorous than "just lying around in the sun like those funny kinds of lizards," as Peter put it, and besides, he and Oliver had an offensive-defensive alliance of The Country's Tiredest Young Business Men and insisted that their only function in life was to be gently and graciously amused. And certainly the spectacle about them was one to provide amusement in the extreme for even the most mildly satiric mind.
It was the beach's most crowded hour and the short strip of sand in front of the most fashionable and uncomfortable place to bathe on Long Island was gay as a patch of exhibition sweet-peas with every shade of vivid or delicate color. It was a triumph of women—the whole glittering, moving bouquet of stripes and patterns and tints that wandered slowly from one striped parasol-mushroom to the next—the men, in their bathing suits or white flannels seemed as unimportant if necessary furniture as slaves in an Eastern court. The women dominated, from the jingle of the bags in the hands of the dowagers and the faint, protesting creak of their corsets as they picked their way as delicately as fat, gorgeous macaws across the sand, to the sound of their daughters' voices, musical as a pigeon-loft, as they chattered catchwords at each other and their partners, or occasionally, very occasionally, dipped in for a three-minute swim. Moreover, and supremely, it was a triumph of ritual, and such ritual as reminded Oliver a little of the curious, unanimous and apparently meaningless movements of a colony of penguins, for the entire assemblage had arrived around, twelve o'clock and by a quarter past one not one of them would be left. That was law as unwritten and unbreakable as that law which governs the migratory habits of wild geese. And within that little more than an hour possibly one-third of them would go as far as wetting their hands in the water—all the rest had come for the single reason of seeing and being seen. It was all extremely American and, on the whole, rather superb, Oliver thought as he and Peter moved over nearer to the parasol that sheltered Elinor and Ted.
"I wish it was Egypt," said Peter languidly. "Any more peppermints left, El? No—well, Ted never could restrain himself when it came to food. I wish it was Egypt," he repeated, making Elinor's left foot a pillow for his head.
"Well, it's hot enough," from Oliver, dozingly. "Ah—oo—it's hot!"
"I know, but just think," Peter chuckled. "Clothes," he explained cryptically, "Mrs. Willamette in a Cleopatra nightie—what sport! And besides, I should make a magnificent Egyptian. Magnificent." He yawned immensely. "In the first place, of course, I should paint myself a brilliant orange—"
The Egyptians. An odd wonder rose in Ted—a wonder as to whether one of those stripped and hook-nosed slaves of the bondage before Moses had ever happened to stand up for a moment to wipe the sweat out of his eyes before he bent again to his task of making bricks without straw and seen a princess of the Egyptians carried along past the quarries.
"Tell us a story, El," from Oliver in the voice of one who is sleep-walking. "A nice quiet story—the Three Bears or Giant the Jack Killer—oh heaven, I must be asleep—but you know, anything like that—"
"You really want a story?" Elinor's voice was reticently mocking. "A story for good little boys?"
"Oh, yes!" from Peter, his clasped hands stretched toward her in an attitude of absurd supplication. "All in nice little words of one syllable or we won't understand."
"Well, once there were three little girls named Elsie, Lacie and Tillie and they lived in the bottom of a well."
"What kind of a well?" Oliver had caught the cue at once.
"A treacle well—"
* * * * *
She went on with the Dormouse's Tale, but Ted, for once, hardly heard her—his mind was too busy with its odd, Egyptological dream.
The princess who looked like Elinor. Her slaves would come first—a fat bawling eunuch, all one black glisten like new patent-leather, striking with a silver rod to clear dogs and crocodiles and Israelites out of the way. Then the litter—and a flash between curtains blown aside for an instant—and Hook Nose gazing and gazing—all the fine fighting curses of David on the infidel, that he had muttered sourly under breath all day, blowing away from him like sand from the face of a sphinx.
Pomp sounding in brass and cries all around the litter like the boasting color of a trumpet—but in the litter not pomp but fineness passing. Fineness of youth untouched, from the clear contrast of white skin and crow-black hair to the hands that had the little stirrings of moon-moths against the green robe. Fineness of mind that will not admit the unescapable minor dirts of living, however much it may see them, a mind temperate with reticence and gentleness, seeing not life itself but its own delighted dream of it, a heart that had had few shocks as yet, and never the ones that the heart must be mailed or masked to withstand. The thing that passed had been continually sheltered, exquisitely guarded from the stronger airs of life as priests might guard a lotus, and yet it was neither tenderly unhealthy nor sumptuously weak. A lotus—that was it—and Hook Nose stood looking at the lotus—and because it was innocent he filled his eyes with it. And then it passed and its music went out of the mind.
"What? What? Oh, yeah—sorry, Elinor, I wasn't paying proper attention."
"You mean you were asleep, you big cheese!" from Peter.
"I wasn't—just thinking," and seeing that this only brought raucous mirth from both Peter and Oliver, "Oh, shut up, you apes! Were you asking me something, El?"
It was rather a change to come back from Elinor in scarab robes being carried along in a litter to Elinor sitting beside him in a bathing suit. But hardly an unpleasant change.
"I've forgotten how it goes on—the Dormouse—after 'Well in.' Do you remember?"
"Nope. Look it up when we get back. And anyhow—" "What?"
"Game called for to-day. The Lirrups have started looking important—that means it's about ten minutes of, they always leave on the dot. Well—" and Peter rose, scattering sand. "We must obey our social calendar, my prominent young friends—just think how awful it would be if we were the last to go. Race you half-way to the float and back, Ted."
"You're on," and the next few minutes were splashingly athletic.
Going back to the bath-house, though, Ted laughed at himself rather whimsically. That extraordinary day-dream of the slave and the Elinor Princess! It helped sometimes, to make pictures of the very impossible—even of things as impossible as that. If Elinor had only been older before the war came along and changed so much.
He saw another little mental photograph, the kind of photograph, he mused, that sleekly shabby Frenchmen slip from under views of the Vendome Column and Napoleon's Tomb when they are trying to sell tourists picture post-cards outside the Cafe de la Paix. Judged by American standards the work would be called rather frank. It was all interior—the interior of a room in a Montmartre hotel—and there were two people in it to help out the composition—and the face of one seemed somehow to be rather deathly familiar—
That, and Elinor. Why, Hook Nose could "reform" all the rest of his life in accordance with the highest dictionary standards—and still he wouldn't be fit to look at his princess, even from inside a cage.
Also, if you happened to be of a certain analytic temperament you could see what was happening to yourself all the while quite plainly—oh, much too plainly!—and yet that seemed to make very little difference in its going on happening. There was Mrs. Severance, for instance. He had been seeing quite a good deal of Mrs. Severance lately.
"Oh, Ted!" from Peter next door. "Snap it up, old keed, or we'll all of us be late for lunch."
They had just sat down to lunch and Peter was complaining that the whipped cream on the soup made him feel as if he were eating cotton-batting, when a servant materialized noiselessly beside Oliver's chair.
"Telephone for you, Mr. Crowe. Western Union calling."
Oliver jumped up with suspicious alacrity. "Oh, love, love, love!" crooned Peter. "Oh, love, love, love!" Oliver flushed. "Don't swipe all my butter, you simple cynic!" He knew what it was, of course.
"This is Oliver Crowe talking. Will you give me the telegram?"
Nancy and Oliver, finding Sunday mails of a dilatory unsatisfactoriness, had made a compact to use the wire on that day instead. And even now Oliver never listened to the mechanical buzz of Central's voice in his ear without a little pulse of the heart. It seemed to bring Nancy nearer than letters could, somehow. Nancy had an imperial contempt for boiling down attractive sentences to the necessary ten or twenty words. This time, though, the telegram was short.
"Mr. Oliver Crowe, care Peter Piper, Southampton," clicked Central dispassionately. "I hate St. Louis. I would give anything in the world if we could only see each other for twenty-four hours. Love. Signed, Nancy."
And Oliver, after hanging up the receiver, went back to the dining-room with worry barking and running around his mind like a spoiled puppy, wondering savagely why so many rocking-chair people took a crepey pleasure in saying it was good for young people in love to have to wait.
Tea for two at the Gondolier, that newest and quotation-marked "Quaintest" of Village tea rooms. The chief points in the Gondolier's "quaintness" seem to be that it is chopped up into as many little partitions as a roulette wheel and that all food has to be carried up from a cellar that imparts even to orange marmalade a faint persuasive odor of somebody else's wash. Still, during the last eight months, the Gondolier has been a radical bookstore devoted to bloody red pamphlets, a batik shop full of strange limp garments ornamented with decorative squiggles, and a Roumanian Restaurant called "The Brodska" whose menu seemed to consist almost entirely of old fish and maraschino cherries.
The wispy little woman from Des Moines who conducts the Gondolier at present in a series of timid continual flutters at actually leading the life of the Bohemian untamed, and who gives all the young hungry-looking men extra slices of toast because any one of them might be Vachel Lindsay in disguise, will fail in another six weeks and then the Gondolier may turn into anything from a Free Verse Tavern to a Meeting Hall for the Friends of Slovak Freedom. But at present, the tea is much too good for the price in spite of its inescapable laundry tang, and there is a flat green bowl full of Japanese iris bulbs in the window—the second of which pleases Mrs. Severance and the first Ted.
Besides like most establishments on the verge of bankruptcy, it is such a quiet place to talk—the only other two people in it are a boy with startled hair and an orange smock and a cigaretty girl called Tommy, and she is far too busy telling him that that dream about wearing a necklace of flying-fish shows a dangerous inferiority complex even to comment caustically on strangers from uptown who will intrude on the dear Village.
"Funny stuff—dreams," says Ted uneasily, catching at overheard phrases for a conversational jumping-off place. His mind, always a little on edge now with work and bad feeding, has been too busy since they came in comparing Rose Severance with Elinor Piper, and wondering why, when one is so like a golden-skinned August pear and the other a branch of winter blackberries against snow just fallen, it is not as good but somehow warmer to think of the first against your touch than the second, to leave him wholly at ease.
"Yes—funny stuff," Mrs. Severance's voice is musically quiet. "And then you tell them to people who pretend to know all about what they mean—and then—" She shrugs shoulders at the Freudian two across the shoulder-high partition.
"But you don't believe in all this psycho-analysis tosh, do you?"
She hesitates. "A little, yes. Like the old woman and ghosts. I may not believe in it but I'm afraid of it, rather."
She gives him a steady look—her eyes go deep. It is not so much the intensity of the look as its haltingness that makes warmth go over him.
"Shall we tell our dreams—the favorite ones, I mean? Play fair if we do, remember," she adds slowly.
"Not if you're really afraid."
"I? But it's just because I am afraid that I really should, you know. Like going into a dark room when you don't want to."
"But they can't be as scary as that, surely." Ted's voice is a little false. Both are watching each other intently now—he with a puzzled sense of lazy enveloping firelight.
"Well, shall I begin? After all this is tea in the Village."
"I should be very much interested indeed, Mrs. Severance," says Ted rather gravely. "Check!" "How official you sound—almost as if you had a lot of those funny little machines all the modern doctors use and were going to mail me off to your pet sanatorium at once because you'd asked me what green reminded me of and I said 'cheese' instead of 'trees.' And anyhow, I never have any startling dreams—only silly ones—much too silly to tell—"
"Please go on." Ted's voice has really become quite clinical.
"Oh very well. They don't count when you only have them once—just when they keep coming back and back to you—isn't that it?"
"I believe so."
Mrs. Severance's eyes waver a little—her mouth seeking for the proper kind of dream.
"It's not much but it comes quite regularly—the most punctual, old-fashioned-servant sort of a dream.
"It doesn't begin with sleep, you know—it begins with waking. At least it's just as if I were in my own bed in my own apartment and then gradually I started to wake. You know how you can feel that somebody else is in the room though you can't see them—that's the feeling. And, of course being a normal American business woman, my first idea is—burglars. And I'm very cowardly for a minute. Then the cowardice passes and I decide to get up and see what it is.
"It is somebody else—or something—but nobody I think that I ever really knew. And at first I don't want to walk toward it—and then I do because it keeps pulling me in spite of myself. So I go to it—hands out so I won't knock over things.
"And then I touch it—or him—or her—and I'm suddenly very, very happy.
"And now, Dr. Billett, what would you say of my case?"
Ted's eyes are glowing—in the middle of her description his heart has begun to knock to a hidden pulse, insistent and soft as the drum of gloved fingers on velvet. He picks words carefully.
"I should say—Mrs. Severance—that there was something you needed and wanted and didn't have at present. And that you would probably have it—in the end."
She laughs a little. "Rather cryptic, isn't that, doctor? And you'd prescribe?"
"Prescribe? 'It's an awkward matter to play with souls.'"
"'And trouble enough to save your own,'" she completes the quotation. "Yes, that's true enough—though I'm sorry you can't even tell me to use this twice a day in half a glass of water and that other directly after each meal. I think I'll have to be a little more definite when it comes to your turn—if it does come."
"Oh it will." But instead of beginning, he raises his eyes to her again. This time there is a heaviness like sleep on both, a heaviness that draws both together inaudibly and down, and down, as if they were sinking through piled thickness on thickness of warm, sweet-scented grass. Odd faces come into both minds and vanish as if flickered off a film—to Rose Severance, a man narrow and flat as if he were cut out of thin grey paper, talking, talking in a voice as dry and rattling as a flapping windowblind of their "vacation" together and a house with a little garden where she can sew and he can putter around,—to Ted, Elinor Piper, the profile pure as if it were painted on water, passing like water flowing from the earth in springs, in its haughty temperance, its retired beauty, its murmurous quiet—other faces, some trembling as if touched with light flames, some calm, some merely grotesque with longing or too much pleasure—all these pass. A great nearness, fiercer and more slumbrous than any nearness of body takes their place. It wraps the two closer and closer, a spider spinning a soft web out of petals, folding the two with swathes and swathes of its heavy, fragrant silk.
"Oh—mine—isn't anything," says Ted rather unsteadily, after the moment. "Only looking at firelight and wanting to take the coals in my hands."
Rose's voice is firmer than his but her mouth is still moved with content at the thing it has desired being brought nearer.
"I really can't prescribe on as little evidence as that," she says with music come back to her voice in the strength of a running wave. "I can only repeat what you told me. That there was something you needed—and wanted"—she is mocking now—"and didn't have at present. And that you would probably—what was it?—oh yes—have it, in the end."
The wispy little woman has crept up to Ted's elbow with an illegible bill. Rose has spoken slowly to give her time to get there—it is always so much better to choose your own most effective background for really affecting scenes.
"And now I really must be getting back," she cuts in briskly, her fingers playing with a hat that certainly needs no rearrangement, when Ted, after absent-mindedly paying the bill, is starting to speak in the voice of one still sleep-walking.
"But it was delightful, Mr. Billett—I love talking about myself and you were really very sweet to listen so nicely." She has definitely risen. Ted must, too. "We must do it again some time soon—I'm going to see if there aren't any of those books with long German names drifting around 'Mode' somewhere so that I'll be able to simply stun you with my erudition the next time we talk over dreams."
They are at the door now, she guiding him toward it as imperceptibly and skillfully as if she controlled him by wireless.
"And it isn't fair of me to let you give all the parties—it simply isn't. Couldn't you come up to dinner in my little apartment sometime—it really isn't unconventional, especially for anyone who's once seen my pattern of an English maid—"
Sunlight and Minetta Lane again—and whatever Ted may want to say out of his walking trance—this is certainly no place where any of it can be said.
Oliver Crowe, at his desk in the copy-department of Vanamee and Co.'s, has been spending most of the afternoon twiddling pencils and reading and rereading two letters out of his pocket instead of righteously thinking up layouts for the new United Steel Frame Pulley Campaign. He realizes that the layouts are important—that has been brought to his attention already by several pink memoranda from Mr. Delier, the head of the department—but an immense distaste for all things in general and advertising in particular has overwhelmed him all day. He looks around the big, brightly lighted room with a stupefied sort of loathing—advertising does not suit him—he is doing all he can at it because of Nancy—but he simply does not seem to get the hang of the thing even after eight months odd and he is conscious of the fact that the Powers that be are already looking at him with distrustful eyes, in spite of his occasional flashes of brilliance. If he could only get out of it—get into something where his particular kind of mind and training would be useful—oh well—he grunts and turns back to his private affairs.
The letter from Easten of Columbiac Magazines—kindly enough—but all hope of selling the serial rights of his novel gone glimmering because of it—Easten was the last chance, the last and the best. "If you could see your way to making short stories out of the incidents I have named, I should be very much interested—" but even so, two short stories won't bring in enough to marry on, even if he can do them to Easten's satisfaction—and the novel couldn't come out as a book now till late spring—and Oliver has too many friends who dabble in writing to have any more confidence in book royalties than he would have in systems for beating the bank at roulette. Well, that's over—and a year's work with it—and all the dreams he and Nancy had of getting married at once.
Those pulley layouts have to be fixed up sometime. What can you say about a pulley—what can you say? "The United Steel Frame Pulley—Oh Man, There's a Hog for Work!" Oliver turns the cheap phrase in his mind, hating its shoddiness, hating the fact that such shoddiness is the only stuff with which he can deal.
Sanely considered, he supposes he hasn't any business using up a month's meagre savings and three small checks for poems that he has hoarded since April in going out to St. Louis Friday. Mr. Alley wasn't too pleased with letting him take Saturday and half Monday off to do it, too. But then there was that telegram ten days ago. "I'd give anything in the world if we could only see each other—" and after other letters unsatisfactorily brief, the letter that came Monday "I have such grand news, Ollie dear, at least it may be grand if it works out—but oh, dear, I do want to see you about it without tangling it up in letters that don't really explain. Can't you make it—even a few hours would be long enough to talk it all over—and I do so want to see you and really talk! Please wire me, if you can."
Grand news—what kind he wondered—and dully thought that he couldn't see her, of course, and then suddenly knew that he must. After all, there didn't seem to be much use in saving for the sake of saving when all the saving you could possibly do didn't bring you one real inch nearer to what you really wanted. Apres moi le deluge—apres ca le deluge—it might even come to that this time, they were both so tired—and he viewed the prospect as a man mortally hurt might view the gradual failing of sun and sky above him, with hopelessness complete as a cloud in that sky, but with heart and brain too beaten now to be surprised with either agony or fear. They must see each other—they were neither of them quiet people who could love forever at a distance without real hope. Great Lord, if he and Nancy could ever have one definite basis to work on, one definite hope of money in the future no matter how far off that was—But the present uncertainty—They couldn't keep on like this—no two people in the world could be expected to keep on.
Nancy. He is seeing Nancy, the way she half-lifts her head when she has been teasing and suddenly becomes remorseful and wants him to know how much she does love him instead.
A hot night in the Pullman—-too hot to sleep in anything but a series of uneasy drowsings and wakings. Smell of blankets and cinders and general unwashedness—noise of clacketing wheels and a hysterical whistle—anyhow each sweaty hour brings St. Louis and Nancy nearer. St. Nancy, St. Nancy, St. Nancy, says the sleepless racket of the wheels, but the peevish electric fan at the end of the corridor keeps buzzing to itself like a fly caught in a trap. "And then I got married you see—and then I got married you see—and when you get married you aren't a free lance—you aren't a free lance—you're settled!"
It will have to be pretty grand news indeed that Nancy has to make up for this last week and the buzz of the electric fan, thinks Oliver, twisting from one side of his stuffy berth to the other like an uneasy sardine.
"More beans, Oliver," says Mrs. Ellicott in a voice like thin syrup, her "generous" voice. The generous voice is used whenever Mrs. Ellicott wants to show herself a person of incredibly scrupulous fairness before that bodiless assemblage of old women in black that constitute the They who Say—and so it is used to Oliver nearly all the time.
"No thank you, Mrs. Ellicott." Oliver manages to look at her politely enough as he speaks but then his eyes go straight back to Nancy and stay there as if they wished to be considered permanent attachments. All Oliver has been able to realize for the last two hours is the mere declarative fact that she is there.
"No, thanks, mother."
And Nancy in her turn looks once swiftly at her mother, sitting there at the end of the table like a faded grey sparrow whose feathers make it uncomfortable. It isn't feathers, though, really—its only Oliver. Why can't mother get reconciled to Oliver—why can't she—and if she can't, why doesn't she come out and say so instead of trying to be generous to Oliver when she doesn't want to while he's there and then saying mean things when he's away because she can't help it?
"Why, no, my dear—no—yes, a few, perhaps—I might reconsider—only a few, my dear,"—his voice does not do anything as definite as cease—it merely becomes ineffectual as Mrs. Ellicott heaps his plate. He then looks at the beans as if he hadn't the slightest idea where they came from but supposes as long as they are there they must be got away with somehow, and starts putting them into his mouth as mechanically as if they were pennies and he a slot-machine.