Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

He is Blown by the Whirlwind

“He was blown by the whirlwind and followed a wandering flame through perilous seas to a happy shore.”— Quoth Francois.

On an April Monday evening, when a small moon passed shyly over the city and the streets were filled with the sound of hurdy-gurdies and the spring cries of dancing children, Mr. Wrenn pranced down to the basement dining-room early, for Nelly Croubel would be down there talking to Mrs. Arty, and he gaily wanted to make plans for a picnic to occur the coming Sunday. He had a shy unacknowledged hope that he might kiss Nelly after such a picnic; he even had the notion that he might some day — well, other fellows had been married; why not?

Miss Mary Proudfoot was mending a rent in the current table-cloth with delicate swift motions of her silvery-skinned hands. She informed him: “Mr. Duncan will be back from his Southern trip in five days. We’ll have to have a grand closing progressive Five Hundred tournament.” Mr. Wrenn was too much absorbed in wondering whether Miss Proudfoot would make some of her celebrated — and justly celebrated — minced-ham sandwiches for the picnic to be much interested. He was not much more interested when she said, “Mrs. Ferrard’s got a letter or something for you.”

Then, as dinner began, Mrs. Ferrard rushed in dramatically and said, “There’s a telegram for you, Mr. Wrenn!”

Was it death? Whose death? The table panted, Mr. Wrenn with them. . . . That’s what a telegram meant to them.

Their eyes were like a circle of charging bayonets as he opened and read the message — a ship’s wireless.

Meet me Hesperida. — ISTRA.

“It’s just — a — a business message,” he managed to say, and splashed his soup. This was not the place to take the feelings out of his thumping heart and examine them.

Dinner was begun. Picnics were conversationally considered in all their more important phases — historical, dietetical, and social. Mr. Wrenn talked much and a little wildly. After dinner he galloped out to buy a paper. The S.S. Hesperiida was due at ten next morning.

It was an evening of frightened confusion. He tottered along Lexington Avenue on a furtive walk. He knew only that he was very fond of Nelly, yet pantingly eager to see Istra. He damned himself —“damned” is literal — every other minute for a cad, a double-faced traitor, and all the other horrifying things a man is likely to declare himself to be for making the discovery that two women may be different and yet equally likable. And every other minute he reveled in an adventurous gladness that he was going to see Istra — actually, incredibly going to see her, just the next day! He returned to find Nelly sitting on the steps of Mrs. Arty’s.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

Both good sound observations, and all they could say for a time, while Mr. Wrenn examined the under side of the iron steps rail minutely.

“Billy — was it something serious, the telegram?”

“No, it was — Miss Nash, the artist I told you about, asked me to meet her at the boat. I suppose she wants me to help her with her baggage and the customs and all them things. She’s just coming from Paris.”

“Oh yes, I see.”

So lacking in jealousy was Nelly that Mr. Wrenn was disappointed, though he didn’t know why. It always hurts to have one’s thunderous tragedies turn out realistic dialogues.

“I wonder if you would like to meet her. She’s awful well educated, but I dunno — maybe she’d strike you as kind of snobbish. But she dresses I don’t think I ever seen anybody so elegant. In dressing, I mean. Course”— hastily —“she’s got money, and so she can afford to. But she’s — oh, awful nice, some ways. I hope you like — I hope she won’t —”

“Oh, I sha’n’t mind if she’s a snob. Of course a lady gets used to that, working in a department store,” she said, chillily; then repented swiftly and begged: “Oh, I didn’t mean to be snippy, Billy. Forgive me! I’m sure Miss Nash will be real nice. Does she live here in New York?”

“No — in California. . . . I don’t know how long she’s going to stay here.”

“Well — well — hum-m-m. I’m getting so sleepy. I guess I’d better go up to bed. Good night.”

Uneasy because he was away from the office, displeased because he had to leave his beloved letters to the Southern trade, angry because he had had difficulty in getting a pass to the wharf, and furious, finally, because he hadn’t slept, Mr. Wrenn nursed all these cumulative emotions attentively and waited for the coming of the Hesperida. He was wondering if he’d want to see Istra at all. He couldn’t remember just how she looked. Would he like her?

The great steamer swung side-to and was coaxed alongside the wharf. Peering out between rows of crowding shoulders, Mr. Wrenn coldly inspected the passengers lining the decks. Istra was not in sight. Then he knew that he was wildly agitated about her. Suppose something had happened to her!

The smallish man who had been edging into the crowd so politely suddenly dashed to the group forming at the gang-plank and pushed his way rudely into the front rank. His elbow dug into the proper waistcoat of a proper plump old gentleman, but he didn’t know it. He stood grasping the rope rail of the plank, gazing goggle-eyed while the plank was lifted to the steamer’s deck and the long line of smiling and waving passengers disembarked. Then he saw her — tall, graceful, nonchalant, uninterested, in a smart check suit with a lively hat of black straw, carrying a new Gladstone bag.

He stared at her. “Gee!” he gasped. “I’m crazy about her. I am, all right.”

She saw him, and their smiles of welcome made them one. She came from the plank and hastily kissed him.

“Really here!” she laughed.

“Well, well, well, well! I’m so glad to see you!”

“Glad to see you, Mouse dear.”

“Have good tr —”

“Don’t ask me about it! There was a married man sans wife who persecuted me all the way over. I’m glad you aren’t going to fall in love with me.”

“Why — uh —”

“Let’s hustle over and get through the customs as soon as we can. Where’s N? Oh, how clever of it, it’s right by M. There’s one of my trunks already. How are you, Mouse dear?”

But she didn’t seem really to care so very much, and the old bewilderment she always caused was over him.

“It is good to get back after all, and — Mouse dear, I know you won’t mind finding me a place to live the next few days, will you?” She quite took it for granted. “We’ll find a place this morning, n’est-ce pas? Not too expensive. I’ve got just about enough to get back to California.”

Man fashion, he saw with acute clearness the pile of work on his desk, and, man fashion, responded, “No; be glad tuh.”

“How about the place where you’re living? You spoke about its being so clean and all.”

The thought of Nelly and Istra together frightened him.

“Why, I don’t know as you’d like it so very much.”

“Oh, it’ll be all right for a few days, anyway. Is there a room vacant.”

He was sulky about it. He saw much trouble ahead.

“Why, yes, I suppose there is.”

“Mouse dear!” Istra plumped down on a trunk in the confused billows of incoming baggage, customs officials, and indignant passengers that surged about them on the rough floor of the vast dock-house. She stared up at him with real sorrow in her fine eyes.

“Why, Mouse! I thought you’d be glad to see me. I’ve never rowed with you, have I? I’ve tried not to be temperamental with you. That’s why I wired you, when there are others I’ve known for years.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to seem grouchy; I didn’t! I just wondered if you’d like the house.”

He could have knelt in repentance before his goddess, what time she was but a lonely girl in the clatter of New York. He went on:

“And we’ve got kind of separated, and I didn’t know — But I guess I’ll always — oh — kind of worship you.”

“It’s all right, Mouse. It’s — Here’s the customs men.”

Now Istra Nash knew perfectly that the customs persons were not ready to examine her baggage as yet. But the discussion was ended, and they seemed to understand each other.

“Gee, there’s a lot of rich Jew ladies coming back this time!” said he.

“Yes. They had diamonds three times a day,” she assented.

“Gee, this is a big place!”

“Yes.” So did they testify to fixity of friendship till they reached the house and Istra was welcomed to “that Teddem’s” room as a new guest.

Dinner began with the ceremony due Mrs. Arty. There was no lack of the sacred old jokes. Tom Poppins did not fail to bellow “Bring on the dish-water,” nor Miss Mary Proudfoot to cheep demurely “Don’t y’ knaow” in a tone which would have been recognized as fascinatingly English anywhere on the American stage. Then the talk stopped dead as Istra Nash stood agaze in the doorway — pale and intolerant, her red hair twisted high on her head, tall and slim and uncorseted in a gray tight-fitting gown. Every head turned as on a pivot, first to Istra, then to Mr. Wrenn. He blushed and bowed as if he had been called on for a speech, stumblingly arose, and said: “Uh — uh — uh — you met Mrs. Ferrard, didn’t you, Istra? She’ll introduce you to the rest.”

He sat down, wondering why the deuce he’d stood up, and unhappily realized that Nelly was examining Istra and himself with cool hostility. In a flurry he glowered at Istra as she nonchalantly sat down opposite him, beside Mrs. Arty, and incuriously unfolded her napkin. He thought that in her cheerful face there was an expression of devilish amusement.

He blushed. He furiously buttered his bread as Mrs. Arty remarked to the assemblage:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want you all to meet Miss Istra Nash. Miss Nash — you’ve met Mr. Wrenn; Miss Nelly Croubel, our baby; Tom Poppins, the great Five–Hundred player; Mrs. Ebbitt, Mr. Ebbitt, Miss Proudfoot.”

Istra Nash lifted her bowed eyes with what seemed shyness, hesitated, said “Thank you” in a clear voice with a precise pronunciation, and returned to her soup, as though her pleasant communion with it had been unpleasantly interrupted.

The others began talking and eating very fast and rather noisily. Miss Mary Proudfoot’s thin voice pierced the clamor:

“I hear you have just come to New York, Miss Nash.”

“Yes.”

“Is this your first visit to —”

“No.”

Miss Proudfoot rancorously took a long drink of water.

Nelly attempted, bravely:

“Do you like New York, Miss Nash?”

“Yes.”

Nelly and Miss Proudfoot and Tom Poppins began discussing shoe-stores, all at once and very rapidly, while hot and uncomfortable Mr. Wrenn tried to think of something to say. . . . Good Lord, suppose Istra “queered” him at Mrs. Arty’s! . . . Then he was angry at himself and all of them for not appreciating her. How exquisite she looked, with her tired white face!

As the soup-plates were being removed by Annie, the maid, with an elaborate confusion and a general passing of plates down the line, Istra Nash peered at the maid petulantly. Mrs. Arty frowned, then grew artificially pleasant and said:

“Miss Nash has just come back from Paris. She’s a regular European traveler, just like Mr. Wrenn.”

Mrs. Samuel Ebbitt piped: “Mr. Ebbitt was to Europe. In 1882.”

“No ‘twa’n’t, Fannie; ’twas in 1881,” complained Mr. Ebbitt.

Miss Nash waited for the end of this interruption as though it were a noise which merely had to be endured, like the Elevated.

Twice she drew in her breath to speak, and the whole table laid its collective knife and fork down to listen. All she said was:

“Oh, will you pardon me if I speak of it now, Mrs. Ferrard, but would you mind letting me have my breakfast in my room to-morrow? About nine? Just something simple — a canteloupe and some shirred eggs and chocolate?”

“Oh no; why, yes, certainly, “mumbled Mrs. Arty, while the table held its breaths and underneath them gasped:

“Chocolate!”

“A canteloupe!”

“Shirred eggs!”

In her room — at nine!

All this was very terrible to Mr. Wrenn. He found himself in the position of a man scheduled to address the Brewers’ Association and the W. C. T. U. at the same hour. Valiantly he attempted:

“Miss Nash oughta be a good person for our picnics. She’s a regular shark for outdoor tramping.”

“Oh yes, Mr. Wrenn and I tramped most all night in England one time,” said Istra, innocently.

The eyes of the table asked Mr. Wrenn what he meant by it. He tried to look at Nelly, but something hurt inside him.

“Yes,” he mumbled. “Quite a long walk.”

Miss Mary Proudfoot tried again:

“is it pleasant to study in Paris? Mrs. Arty said you were an artist.”

“No.”

Then they were all silent, and the rest of the dinner Mr. Wrenn alternately discussed Olympia Johns with Istra and picnics with Nelly. There was an undertone of pleading in his voice which made Nelly glance at him and even become kind. With quiet insistence she dragged Istra into a discussion of rue de la Paix fashions which nearly united the shattered table and won Mr. Wrenn’s palpitating thankfulness.

After dessert Istra slowly drew a plain gold cigarette-case from a brocade bag of silvery gray. She took out a match and a thin Russian cigarette, which she carefully lighted. She sat smoking in one of her best attitudes, pointed elbows on the table, coolly contemplating a huge picture called “Hunting the Stag” on the wall behind Mr. Wrenn.

Mrs. Arty snapped to the servant, “Annie, bring me my cigarettes.” But Mrs. Arty always was penitent when she had been nasty, and — though Istra did not at once seem to know that the landlady had been nasty — Mrs. Arty invited her up to the parlor for after-dinner so cordially that Istra could but grant “Perhaps I will,” and she even went so far as to say, “I think you’re all to be envied, having such a happy family.”

“Yes, that’s so,” reflected Mrs. Arty.

“Yes,” added Mr. Wrenn.

And Nelly: “That’s so.”

The whole table nodded gravely, “Yes, that’s so.”

“I’m sure”— Istra smiled at Mrs. Arty —“that it’s because a woman is running things. Now think what cat-and-dog lives you’d lead if Mr. Wrenn or Mr. — Popple, was it? — were ruling.”

They applauded. They felt that she had been humorous. She was again and publicly invited up to the parlor, and she came, though she said, rather shortly, that she didn’t play Five Hundred, but only bumblepuppy bridge, a variety of whist which Mr. Wrenn instantly resolved to learn. She reclined (“reclined” is perfectly accurate) on the red-leather couch, among the pillows, and smoked two cigarettes, relapsing into “No?”‘s for conversation.

Mr. Wrenn said to himself, almost spitefully, as she snubbed Nelly, “Too good for us, is she?” But he couldn’t keep away from her. The realization that Istra was in the room made him forget most of his melds at pinochle; and when Miss Proudfoot inquired his opinion as to whether the coming picnic should be held on Staten island or the Palisades he said, vaguely, “Yes, I guess that would be better.”

For he was wanting to sit down beside Istra Nash, just be near her; he had to be! So he ventured over and was instantly regarding all the rest as outsiders whom his wise comrade and himself were studying.

“Tell me, Mouse dear, why do you like the people here? The peepul, I mean. They don’t seem so very remarkable. Enlighten poor Istra.”

“Well, they’re awful kind. I’ve always lived in a house where the folks didn’t hardly know each other at all, except Mrs. Zapp — she was the landlady — and I didn’t like her very much. But here Tom Poppins and Mrs. Arty and — the rest — they really like folks, and they make it just like a home. . . . Miss Croubel is a very nice girl. She works for Wanamacy’s — she has quite a big job there. She is assistant buyer in the —”

He stopped in horror. He had nearly said “in the lingery department.” He changed it to “in the clothing department,” and went on, doubtfully: “Mr. Duncan is a traveling-man. He’s away on a trip.”

“Which one do you play with? So Nelly likes to — well, make b’lieve —‘magine?”

“How did you —”

“Oh, I watched her looking at you. I think she’s a terribly nice pink-face. And just now you’re comparing her and me.”

“Gee!” he said.

She was immensely pleased with herself. “Tell me, what do these people think about; at least, what do you talk about?”

Say!

“‘S-s-s-h! Not so loud, my dear.”

“Say, I know how you mean. You feel something like what I did in England. You can’t get next to what the folks are thinking, and it makes you sort of lonely.”

“Well, I—”

Just then Tom Poppins rolled jovially up to the couch. He had carried his many and perspiring pounds over to Third Avenue because Miss Proudfoot reflected, “I’ve got a regular sweet tooth to-night.” He stood before Istra and Mr. Wrenn theatrically holding out a bag of chocolate drops in one hand and peanut brittle in the other; and grandiloquently:

“Which shall it be, your Highness? Nobody loves a fat man, so he has to buy candy so’s they’ll let him stick around. Le’s see; you take chocolates, Bill. Name your drink, Miss Nash.” She looked up at him, gravely and politely — too gravely and politely. She didn’t seem to consider him a nice person.

“Neither, thank you,” sharply, as he still stood there. He moved away, hurt, bewildered.

Istra was going on, “I haven’t been here long enough to be lonely yet, but in any case —” when Mr. Wrenn interrupted:

“You’ve hurt Tom’s feelings by not taking any candy; and, gee, he’s awful kind!”

“Have I?” mockingly.

“Yes, you have. And there ain’t any too many kind people in this world.”

“Oh yes, of course you’ re right. I am sorry, really I am.”

She dived after Tom’s retreat and cheerfully addressed him:

“Oh, I do want some of those chocolates. Will you let me change my mind? Please do.”

“Yes ma’am, you sure can!” said broad Tom, all one pleased chuckle, poking out the two bags.

Istra stopped beside the Five–Hundred table to smile in a lordly way down at Mrs. Arty and say, quite humanly:

“I’m so sorry I can’t play a decent game of cards. I’m afraid I’m too stupid to learn. You are very lucky, I think.”

Mr. Wrenn on the couch was horribly agitated. . . . Wasn’t Istra coming back?

She was. She detached herself from the hubbub of invitations to learn to play Five Hundred and wandered back to the couch, murmuring: “Was bad Istra good? Am I forgiven? Mouse dear, I didn’t mean to be rude to your friends.”

As the bubbles rise through water in a cooking-pot, as the surface writhes, and then, after the long wait, suddenly the water is aboil, so was the emotion of Mr. Wrenn now that Istra, the lordly, had actually done something he suggested.

“Istra —” That was all he could say, but from his eyes had gone all reserve.

Her glance back was as frank as his — only it had more of the mother in it; it was like a kindly pat on the head; and she was the mother as she mused:

“So you have missed me, then?”

“Missed you —”

“Did you think of me after you came here? Oh, I know — I was forgotten; poor Istra abdicates to the pretty pink-face.”

“Oh, Istra, don’t. I— can’t we just go out for a little walk so — so we can talk?”

“Why, we can talk here.”

“Oh, gee! — there’s so many people around. . . . Golly! when I came back to America — gee! — I couldn’t hardly sleep nights —”

From across the room came the boisterous, somewhat coarse-timbred voice of Tom, speaking to Nelly:

“Oh yes, of course you think you’re the only girl that ever seen a vodville show. We ain’t never seen a vodville show. Oh no!”

Nelly and Miss Proudfoot dissolved in giggles at the wit.

Mr. Wrenn gazed at them, detached; these were not his people, and with startled pride he glanced at Istra’s face, delicately carven by thought, as he stumbled hotly on.

“— just couldn’t sleep nights at all. . . . Then I got on the job. . . . ”

“Let’s see, you’re still with that same company?”

“Yes. Souvenir and Art Novelty Company. And I got awfully on the job there, and so I managed to forget for a little while and —”

“So you really do like me even after I was so beastly to you in England.”

“Oh, that wasn’t nothing. . . . But I was always thinking of you, even when I was on the job —”

“It’s gratifying to have some one continue taking me seriously. . . . Really, dear, I do appreciate it. But you mustn’t — you mustn’t —”

“Oh, gee! I just can’t get over it — you here by me — ain’t it curious! . . . “Then he persisted with the tale of his longing, which she had so carefully interrupted: “The people here are awful kind and good, and you can bank on ’em. But — oh —”

From across the room, Tom’s pretended jeers, lighted up with Miss Proudfoot’s giggles, as paper lanterns illumine Coney Island. From Tom:

“Yes, you’re a hot dancer, all right. I suppose you can do the Boston and all them swell dances. Wah-h-h-h-h!”

“— but Istra, oh, gee! you’re like poetry — like all them things a feller can’t get but he tries to when he reads Shakespeare and all those poets.”

“Oh, dear boy, you mustn’t! We will be good friends. I do appreciate having some one care whether I’m alive or not. But I thought it was all understood that we weren’t to take playing together seriously; that it was to be merely playing — nothing more.”

“But, anyway, you will let me play with you here in New York as much as I can? Oh, come on, let’s go for a walk — let’s — let’s go to a show.”

“I’m awf’ly sorry, but I promised — a man’s going to call for me, and we’re going to a stupid studio party on Bryant Park. Bore, isn’t it, the day of landing? And poor Istra dreadfully landsick.”

“Oh, then,” hopefully, “don’t go. Let’s —”

“I’m sorry, Mouse dear, but I’m afraid I can’t break the date. . . . Fact, I must go up and primp now —”

“Don’t you care a bit?” he said, sulkily.

“Why, yes, of course. But you wouldn’t have Istra disappoint a nice Johnny after he’s bought him a cunnin’ new weskit, would you? . . . Good night, dear.” She smiled — the mother smile — and was gone with a lively good night to the room in general.

Nelly went up to bed early. She was tired, she said. He had no chance for a word with her. He sat on the steps outside alone a long time. Sometimes he yearned for a sight of Istra’s ivory face. Sometimes, with a fierce compassion that longed to take the burden from her, he pictured Nelly working all day in the rushing department store on which the fetid city summer would soon descend.

They did have their walk the next night, Istra and Mr. Wrenn, but Istra kept the talk to laughing burlesques of their tramp in England. Somehow — he couldn’t tell exactly why — he couldn’t seem to get in all the remarks he had inside him about how much he had missed her.

Wednesday — Thursday — Friday; he saw her only at one dinner, or on the stairs, departing volubly with clever-looking men in evening clothes to taxis waiting before the house.

Nelly was very pleasant; just that — pleasant. She pleasantly sat as his partner at Five Hundred, and pleasantly declined to go to the moving pictures with him. She was getting more and more tired, staying till seven at the store, preparing what she called “special stunts” for the summer white sale. Friday evening he saw her soft fresh lips drooping sadly as she toiled up the front steps before dinner. She went to bed at eight, at which time Istra was going out to dinner with a thin, hatchet-faced sarcastic-looking man in a Norfolk jacket and a fluffy black tie. Mr. Wrenn resented the Norfolk jacket. Of course, the kingly men in evening dress would be expected to take Istra away from him, but a Norfolk jacket — He did not call it that. Though he had worn one in the fair village of Aengusmere, it was still to him a “coat with a belt.”

He thought of Nelly all evening. He heard her — there on the same floor with him — talking to Miss Proudfoot, who stood at Nelly’s door, three hours after she was supposed to be asleep.

“No,” Nelly was saying with evidently fictitious cheerfulness, “no, it was just a little headache. . . . It’s much better. I think I can sleep now. Thank you very much for coming.”

Nelly hadn’t told Mr. Wrenn that she had a severe headache — she who had once, a few weeks before, run to him with a cut in her soft small finger, demanding that he bind it up. . . . He went slowly to bed.

He had lain awake half an hour before his agony so overpowered him that he flung out of bed. He crouched low by the bed, like a child, his legs curled under him, the wooden sideboard pressing into his chest in one long line of hot pain, while he prayed:

“O God, O God, forgive me, forgive me, oh, forgive me! Here I been forgetting Nelly (and I love her) and comparing her with Istra and not appreciating her, and Nelly always so sweet to me and trusting me so — O God, keep me away from wickedness!”

He huddled there many minutes, praying, the scorching pressure of the bedside growing more painful. All the while the camp-fire he had shared with Istra was burning within his closed eyes, and Istra was visibly lording it in a London flat filled with clever people, and he was passionately aware that the line of her slim breast was like the lip of a shell; the line of her pallid cheek, defined by her flame-colored hair, something utterly fine, something he could not express.

“Oh,” he groaned, “she is like that poetry stuff in Shakespeare that’s so hard to get. . . . I’ll be extra nice to Nelly at the picnic Sunday. . . . Her trusting me so, and then me — O God, keep me away from wickedness!”

As he was going out Saturday morning he found a note from Istra waiting in the hall on the hat-rack:

Do you want to play with poor Istra tomorrow Sat. afternoon and perhaps evening, Mouse? You have Saturday afternoon off, don’t you? Leave me a note if you can call for me at 1.30.

I. N.

He didn’t have Saturday afternoon off, but he said he did in his note, and at one-thirty he appeared at her door in a new spring suit (purchased on Tuesday), a new spring hat, very fuzzy and gay (purchased Saturday noon), and the walking-stick he had bought on Tottenham Court Road, but decently concealed from the boarding-house.

Istra took him to what she called a “futurist play.” She explained it all to him several times, and she stood him tea and muffins, and recalled Mrs. Cattermole’s establishment with full attention to Mrs. Cattermole’s bulbous but earnest nose. They dined at the Brevoort, and were back at nine-thirty; for, said Istra, she was “just a bit tired, Mouse.”

They stood at the door of Istra’s room. Istra said, “You may come in — just for a minute.”

It was the first time he had even peeped into her room in New York. The old shyness was on him, and he glanced back.

Nelly was just coming up-stairs, staring at him where he stood inside the door, her lips apart with amazement.

Ladies distinctly did not entertain in their rooms at Mrs. Arty’s.

He wanted to rush out, to explain, to invite her in, to — to — He stuttered in his thought, and by now Nelly had hastened past, her face turned from them.

Uneasily he tilted on the front of a cane-seated rocking-chair, glaring at a pile of books before one of Istra’s trunks. Istra sat on the bedside nursing her knee. She burst out:

“O Mouse dear, I’m so bored by everybody — every sort of everybody. . . . Of course I don’t mean you; you’re a good pal. . . . Oh — Paris is too complex — especially when you can’t quite get the nasal vowels — and New York is too youthful and earnest; and Dos Puentes, California, will be plain hell. . . . And all my little parties — I start out on them happily, always, as naive as a kiddy going to a birthday party, and then I get there and find I can’t even dance square dances, as the kiddy does, and go home — Oh damn it, damn it, damn it! Am I shocking you? Well, what do I care if I shock everybody!”

Her slim pliant length was flung out along the bed, and she was crying. Her beautiful hands clutched the corners of a pillow bitterly.

He crept over to the bed, patting her shoulder, slowly and regularly, too frightened of her mood even to want to kiss her.

She looked up, laughing tearfully. “Please say, ‘There, there, there; don’t cry.’ It always goes with pats for weepy girls, you know. . . . O Mouse, you will be good to some woman some day.”

Her long strong arms reached up and drew him down. It was his head that rested on her shoulder. It seemed to both of them that it was he who was to be petted, not she. He pressed his cheek against the comforting hollow of her curving shoulder and rested there, abandoned to a forlorn and growing happiness, the happiness of getting so far outside of his tight world of Wrennishness that he could give comfort and take comfort with no prim worried thoughts of Wrenn.

Istra murmured: “Perhaps that’s what I need — some one to need me. Only —” She stroked his hair. “Now you must go, dear.”

“You — It’s better now? I’m afraid I ain’t helped you much. It’s kinda t’ other way round.”

“Oh yes, indeed, it’s all right now! Just nerves. Nothing more. Now, good night.”

“Please, won’t you come to the picnic to-morrow? It’s —”

“No. Sorry, but can’t possibly.”

“Please think it over.”

“No, no, no, no, dear! You go and forget me and enjoy yourself and be good to your pink-face — Nelly, isn’t it? She seems to be terribly nice, and I know you two will have a good party. You must forget me. I’m just a teacher of playing games who hasn’t been successful at any game whatever. Not that it matters. I don’t care. I don’t, really. Now, good night.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38