There was the usual insincere little note saying: “I wanted you to be the first to know.” It was a double shock to Michael, announcing, as it did, both the engagement and the imminent marriage; which, moreover, was to be held, not in New York, decently and far away, but here in Paris under his very nose, if that could be said to extend over the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, Avenue George-Cinq. The date was two weeks off, early in June.
At first Michael was afraid and his stomach felt hollow. When he left the hotel that morning, the femme de chambre, who was in love with his fine, sharp profile and his pleasant buoyancy, scented the hard abstraction that had settled over him. He walked in a daze to his bank, he bought a detective story at Smith’s on the Rue de Rivoli, he sympathetically stared for a while at a faded panorama of the battlefields in a tourist-office window and cursed a Greek tout who followed him with a half-displayed packet of innocuous post cards warranted to be very dirty indeed.
But the fear stayed with him, and after a while he recognized it as the fear that now he would never be happy. He had met Caroline Dandy when she was seventeen, possessed her young heart all through her first season in New York, and then lost her, slowly, tragically, uselessly, because he had no money and could make no money; because, with all the energy and good will in the world, he could not find himself; because, loving him still, Caroline had lost faith and begun to see him as something pathetic, futile and shabby, outside the great, shining stream of life toward which she was inevitably drawn.
Since his only support was that she loved him, he leaned weakly on that; the support broke, but still he held on to it and was carried out to sea and washed up on the French coast with its broken pieces still in his hands. He carried them around with him in the form of photographs and packets of correspondence and a liking for a maudlin popular song called “Among My Souvenirs.” He kept clear of other girls, as if Caroline would somehow know it and reciprocate with a faithful heart. Her note informed him that he had lost her forever.
It was a fine morning. In front of the shops in the Rue de Castiglione, proprietors and patrons were on the sidewalk gazing upward, for the Graf Zeppelin, shining and glorious, symbol of escape and destruction — of escape, if necessary, through destruction — glided in the Paris sky. He heard a woman say in French that it would not her astonish if that commenced to let fall the bombs. Then he heard another voice, full of husky laughter, and the void in his stomach froze. Jerking about, he was face to face with Caroline Dandy and her fiancé.
“Why, Michael! Why, we were wondering where you were. I asked at the Guaranty Trust, and Morgan and Company, and finally sent a note to the National City — ”
Why didn’t they back away? Why didn’t they back right up, walking backward down the Rue de Castiglione, across the Rue de Rivoli, through the Tuileries Gardens, still walking backward as fast as they could till they grew vague and faded out across the river?
“This is Hamilton Rutherford, my fiancé.”
“We’ve met before.”
“At Pat’s, wasn’t it?”
“And last spring in the Ritz Bar.”
“Michael, where have you been keeping yourself?”
“Around here.” This agony. Previews of Hamilton Rutherford flashed before his eyes — a quick series of pictures, sentences. He remembered hearing that he had bought a seat in 1920 for a hundred and twenty-five thousand of borrowed money, and just before the break sold it for more than half a million. Not handsome like Michael, but vitally attractive, confident, authoritative, just the right height over Caroline there — Michael had always been too short for Caroline when they danced.
Rutherford was saying: “No, I’d like it very much if you’d come to the bachelor dinner. I’m taking the Ritz Bar from nine o’clock on. Then right after the wedding there’ll be a reception and breakfast at the Hotel George-Cinq.”
“And, Michael, George Packman is giving a party day after tomorrow at Chez Victor, and I want you to be sure and come. And also to tea Friday at Jebby West’s; she’d want to have you if she knew where you were. What’s your hotel, so we can send you an invitation? You see, the reason we decided to have it over here is because mother has been sick in a nursing home here and the whole clan is in Paris. Then Hamilton’s mother’s being here too — ”
The entire clan; they had always hated him, except her mother; always discouraged his courtship. What a little counter he was in this game of families and money! Under his hat his brow sweated with the humiliation of the fact that for all his misery he was worth just exactly so many invitations. Frantically he began to mumble something about going away.
Then it happened — Caroline saw deep into him, and Michael knew that she saw. She saw through to his profound woundedness, and something quivered inside her, died out along the curve of her mouth and in her eyes. He had moved her. All the unforgettable impulses of first love had surged up once more; their hearts had in some way touched across two feet of Paris sunlight. She took her fiancé‘s arm suddenly, as if to steady herself with the feel of it.
They parted. Michael walked quickly for a minute; then he stopped, pretending to look in a window, and saw them farther up the street, walking fast into the Place Vendôme, people with much to do.
He had things to do also — he had to get his laundry.
“Nothing will ever be the same again,” he said to himself. “She will never be happy in her marriage and I will never be happy at all any more.”
The two vivid years of his love for Caroline moved back around him like years in Einstein’s physics. Intolerable memories arose — of rides in the Long Island moonlight; of a happy time at Lake Placid with her cheeks so cold there, but warm just underneath the surface; of a despairing afternoon in a little café on Forty-eighth Street in the last sad months when their marriage had come to seem impossible.
“Come in,” he said aloud.
The concierge with a telegram; brusque because Mr. Curly’s clothes were a little shabby. Mr. Curly gave few tips; Mr. Curly was obviously a petit client.
Michael read the telegram.
“An answer?” the concierge asked.
“No,” said Michael, and then, on an impulse: “Look.”
“Too bad — too bad,” said the concierge. “Your grandfather is dead.”
“Not too bad,” said Michael. “It means that I come into a quarter of a million dollars.”
Too late by a single month; after the first flush of the news his misery was deeper than ever. Lying awake in bed that night, he listened endlessly to the long caravan of a circus moving through the street from one Paris fair to another.
When the last van had rumbled out of hearing and the corners of the furniture were pastel blue with the dawn, he was still thinking of the look in Caroline’s eyes that morning — the look that seemed to say: “Oh, why couldn’t you have done something about it? Why couldn’t you have been stronger, made me marry you? Don’t you see how sad I am?”
Michael’s fists clenched.
“Well, I won’t give up till the last moment,” he whispered. “I’ve had all the bad luck so far, and maybe it’s turned at last. One takes what one can get, up to the limit of one’s strength, and if I can’t have her, at least she’ll go into this marriage with some of me in her heart.”
Accordingly he went to the party at Chez Victor two days later, upstairs and into the little salon off the bar where the party was to assemble for cocktails. He was early; the only other occupant was a tall lean man of fifty. They spoke.
“You waiting for George Packman’s party?”
“Yes. My name’s Michael Curly.”
“My name’s — ”
Michael failed to catch the name. They ordered a drink, and Michael supposed that the bride and groom were having a gay time.
“Too much so,” the other agreed, frowning. “I don’t see how they stand it. We all crossed on the boat together; five days of that crazy life and then two weeks of Paris. You” — he hesitated, smiling faintly — “you’ll excuse me for saying that your generation drinks too much.”
“No, not Caroline. She seems to take only a cocktail and a glass of champagne, and then she’s had enough, thank God. But Hamilton drinks too much and all this crowd of young people drink too much. Do you live in Paris?”
“For the moment,” said Michael.
“I don’t like Paris. My wife — that is to say, my ex-wife, Hamilton’s mother — lives in Paris.”
“You’re Hamilton Rutherford’s father?”
“I have that honor. And I’m not denying that I’m proud of what he’s done; it was just a general comment.”
Michael glanced up nervously as four people came in. He felt suddenly that his dinner coat was old and shiny; he had ordered a new one that morning. The people who had come in were rich and at home in their richness with one another — a dark, lovely girl with a hysterical little laugh whom he had met before; two confident men whose jokes referred invariably to last night’s scandal and tonight’s potentialities, as if they had important rôles in a play that extended indefinitely into the past and the future. When Caroline arrived, Michael had scarcely a moment of her, but it was enough to note that, like all the others, she was strained and tired. She was pale beneath her rouge; there were shadows under her eyes. With a mixture of relief and wounded vanity, he found himself placed far from her and at another table; he needed a moment to adjust himself to his surroundings. This was not like the immature set in which he and Caroline had moved; the men were more than thirty and had an air of sharing the best of this world’s good. Next to him was Jebby West, whom he knew; and, on the other side, a jovial man who immediately began to talk to Michael about a stunt for the bachelor dinner: They were going to hire a French girl to appear with an actual baby in her arms, crying: “Hamilton, you can’t desert me now!” The idea seemed stale and unamusing to Michael, but its originator shook with anticipatory laughter.
Farther up the table there was talk of the market — another drop today, the most appreciable since the crash; people were kidding Rutherford about it: “Too bad, old man. You better not get married, after all.”
Michael asked the man on his left, “Has he lost a lot?”
“Nobody knows. He’s heavily involved, but he’s one of the smartest young men in Wall Street. Anyhow, nobody ever tells you the truth.”
It was a champagne dinner from the start, and toward the end it reached a pleasant level of conviviality, but Michael saw that all these people were too weary to be exhilarated by any ordinary stimulant; for weeks they had drunk cocktails before meals like Americans, wines and brandies like Frenchmen, beer like Germans, whisky-and-soda like the English, and as they were no longer in the twenties, this preposterous mélange, that was like some gigantic cocktail in a nightmare, served only to make them temporarily less conscious of the mistakes of the night before. Which is to say that it was not really a gay party; what gayety existed was displayed in the few who drank nothing at all.
But Michael was not tired, and the champagne stimulated him and made his misery less acute. He had been away from New York for more than eight months and most of the dance music was unfamiliar to him, but at the first bars of the “Painted Doll,” to which he and Caroline had moved through so much happiness and despair the previous summer, he crossed to Caroline’s table and asked her to dance.
She was lovely in a dress of thin ethereal blue, and the proximity of her crackly yellow hair, of her cool and tender gray eyes, turned his body clumsy and rigid; he stumbled with their first step on the floor. For a moment it seemed that there was nothing to say; he wanted to tell her about his inheritance, but the idea seemed abrupt, unprepared for.
“Michael, it’s so nice to be dancing with you again.”
He smiled grimly.
“I’m so happy you came,” she continued. “I was afraid maybe you’d be silly and stay away. Now we can be just good friends and natural together. Michael, I want you and Hamilton to like each other.”
The engagement was making her stupid; he had never heard her make such a series of obvious remarks before.
“I could kill him without a qualm,” he said pleasantly, “but he looks like a good man. He’s fine. What I want to know is, what happens to people like me who aren’t able to forget?”
As he said this he could not prevent his mouth from dropping suddenly, and glancing up, Caroline saw, and her heart quivered violently, as it had the other morning.
“Do you mind so much, Michael?”
For a second as he said this, in a voice that seemed to have come up from his shoes, they were not dancing; they were simply clinging together. Then she leaned away from him and twisted her mouth into a lovely smile.
“I didn’t know what to do at first, Michael. I told Hamilton about you — that I’d cared for you an awful lot — but it didn’t worry him, and he was right. Because I’m over you now — yes, I am. And you’ll wake up some sunny morning and be over me just like that.”
He shook his head stubbornly.
“Oh, yes. We weren’t for each other. I’m pretty flighty, and I need somebody like Hamilton to decide things. It was that more than the question of — of — ”
“Of money.” Again he was on the point of telling her what had happened, but again something told him it was not the time.
“Then how do you account for what happened when we met the other day,” he demanded helplessly — “what happened just now? When we just pour toward each other like we used to — as if we were one person, as if the same blood was flowing through both of us?”
“Oh, don’t,” she begged him. “You mustn’t talk like that; everything’s decided now. I love Hamilton with all my heart. It’s just that I remember certain things in the past and I feel sorry for you — for us — for the way we were.”
Over her shoulder, Michael saw a man come toward them to cut in. In a panic he danced her away, but inevitably the man came on.
“I’ve got to see you alone, if only for a minute,” Michael said quickly. “When can I?”
“I’ll be at Jebby West’s tea tomorrow,” she whispered as a hand fell politely upon Michael’s shoulder.
But he did not talk to her at Jebby West’s tea. Rutherford stood next to her, and each brought the other into all conversations. They left early. The next morning the wedding cards arrived in the first mail.
Then Michael, grown desperate with pacing up and down his room, determined on a bold stroke; he wrote to Hamilton Rutherford, asking him for a rendezvous the following afternoon. In a short telephone communication Rutherford agreed, but for a day later than Michael had asked. And the wedding was only six days away.
They were to meet in the bar of the Hotel Jena. Michael knew what he would say: “See here, Rutherford, do you realize the responsibility you’re taking in going through with this marriage? Do you realize the harvest of trouble and regret you’re sowing in persuading a girl into something contrary to the instincts of her heart?” He would explain that the barrier between Caroline and himself had been an artificial one and was now removed, and demand that the matter be put up to Caroline frankly before it was too late.
Rutherford would be angry, conceivably there would be a scene, but Michael felt that he was fighting for his life now.
He found Rutherford in conversation with an older man, whom Michael had met at several of the wedding parties.
“I saw what happened to most of my friends,” Rutherford was saying, “and I decided it wasn’t going to happen to me. It isn’t so difficult; if you take a girl with common sense, and tell her what’s what, and do your stuff damn well, and play decently square with her, it’s a marriage. If you stand for any nonsense at the beginning, it’s one of these arrangements — within five years the man gets out, or else the girl gobbles him up and you have the usual mess.”
“Right!” agreed his companion enthusiastically. “Hamilton, boy, you’re right.”
Michael’s blood boiled slowly.
“Doesn’t it strike you,” he inquired coldly, “that your attitude went out of fashion about a hundred years ago?”
“No, it didn’t,” said Rutherford pleasantly, but impatiently. “I’m as modern as anybody. I’d get married in an aeroplane next Saturday if it’d please my girl.”
“I don’t mean that way of being modern. You can’t take a sensitive woman — ”
“Sensitive? Women aren’t so darn sensitive. It’s fellows like you who are sensitive; it’s fellows like you they exploit — all your devotion and kindness and all that. They read a couple of books and see a few pictures because they haven’t got anything else to do, and then they say they’re finer in grain than you are, and to prove it they take the bit in their teeth and tear off for a fare-you-well — just about as sensitive as a fire horse.”
“Caroline happens to be sensitive,” said Michael in a clipped voice.
At this point the other man got up to go; when the dispute about the check had been settled and they were alone, Rutherford leaned back to Michael as if a question had been asked him.
“Caroline’s more than sensitive,” he said. “She’s got sense.”
His combative eyes, meeting Michael’s, flickered with a gray light. “This all sounds pretty crude to you, Mr. Curly, but it seems to me that the average man nowadays just asks to be made a monkey of by some woman who doesn’t even get any fun out of reducing him to that level. There are darn few men who possess their wives any more, but I am going to be one of them.”
To Michael it seemed time to bring the talk back to the actual situation: “Do you realize the responsibility you’re taking?”
“I certainly do,” interrupted Rutherford. “I’m not afraid of responsibility. I’ll make the decisions — fairly, I hope, but anyhow they’ll be final.”
“What if you didn’t start right?” said Michael impetuously. “What if your marriage isn’t founded on mutual love?”
“I think I see what you mean,” Rutherford said, still pleasant. “And since you’ve brought it up, let me say that if you and Caroline had married, it wouldn’t have lasted three years. Do you know what your affair was founded on? On sorrow. You got sorry for each other. Sorrow’s a lot of fun for most women and for some men, but it seems to me that a marriage ought to be based on hope.” He looked at his watch and stood up.
“I’ve got to meet Caroline. Remember, you’re coming to the bachelor dinner day after tomorrow.”
Michael felt the moment slipping away. “Then Caroline’s personal feelings don’t count with you?” he demanded fiercely.
“Caroline’s tired and upset. But she has what she wants, and that’s the main thing.”
“Are you referring to yourself?” demanded Michael incredulously.
“May I ask how long she’s wanted you?”
“About two years.” Before Michael could answer, he was gone.
During the next two days Michael floated in an abyss of helplessness. The idea haunted him that he had left something undone that would sever this knot drawn tighter under his eyes. He phoned Caroline, but she insisted that it was physically impossible for her to see him until the day before the wedding, for which day she granted him a tentative rendezvous. Then he went to the bachelor dinner, partly in fear of an evening alone at his hotel, partly from a feeling that by his presence at that function he was somehow nearer to Caroline, keeping her in sight.
The Ritz Bar had been prepared for the occasion by French and American banners and by a great canvas covering one wall, against which the guests were invited to concentrate their proclivities in breaking glasses.
At the first cocktail, taken at the bar, there were many slight spillings from many trembling hands, but later, with the champagne, there was a rising tide of laughter and occasional bursts of song.
Michael was surprised to find what a difference his new dinner coat, his new silk hat, his new, proud linen made in his estimate of himself; he felt less resentment toward all these people for being so rich and assured. For the first time since he had left college he felt rich and assured himself; he felt that he was part of all this, and even entered into the scheme of Johnson, the practical joker, for the appearance of the woman betrayed, now waiting tranquilly in the room across the hall.
“We don’t want to go too heavy,” Johnson said, “because I imagine Ham’s had a pretty anxious day already. Did you see Fullman Oil’s sixteen points off this morning?”
“Will that matter to him?” Michael asked, trying to keep the interest out of his voice.
“Naturally. He’s in heavily; he’s always in everything heavily. So far he’s had luck; anyhow, up to a month ago.”
The glasses were filled and emptied faster now, and men were shouting at one another across the narrow table. Against the bar a group of ushers was being photographed, and the flash light surged through the room in a stifling cloud.
“Now’s the time,” Johnson said. “You’re to stand by the door, remember, and we’re both to try and keep her from coming in — just till we get everybody’s attention.”
He went on out into the corridor, and Michael waited obediently by the door. Several minutes passed. Then Johnson reappeared with a curious expression on his face.
“There’s something funny about this.”
“Isn’t the girl there?”
“She’s there all right, but there’s another woman there, too; and it’s nobody we engaged either. She wants to see Hamilton Rutherford, and she looks as if she had something on her mind.”
They went out into the hall. Planted firmly in a chair near the door sat an American girl a little the worse for liquor, but with a determined expression on her face. She looked up at them with a jerk of her head.
“Well, j’tell him?” she demanded. “The name is Marjorie Collins, and he’ll know it. I’ve come a long way, and I want to see him now and quick, or there’s going to be more trouble than you ever saw.” She rose unsteadily to her feet.
“You go in and tell Ham,” whispered Johnson to Michael. “Maybe he’d better get out. I’ll keep her here.”
Back at the table, Michael leaned close to Rutherford’s ear and, with a certain grimness, whispered:
“A girl outside named Marjorie Collins says she wants to see you. She looks as if she wanted to make trouble.”
Hamilton Rutherford blinked and his mouth fell ajar; then slowly the lips came together in a straight line and he said in a crisp voice:
“Please keep her there. And send the head barman to me right away.”
Michael spoke to the barman, and then, without returning to the table, asked quietly for his coat and hat. Out in the hall again, he passed Johnson and the girl without speaking and went out into the Rue Cambon. Calling a cab, he gave the address of Caroline’s hotel.
His place was beside her now. Not to bring bad news, but simply to be with her when her house of cards came falling around her head.
Rutherford had implied that he was soft — well, he was hard enough not to give up the girl he loved without taking advantage of every chance within the pale of honor. Should she turn away from Rutherford, she would find him there.
She was in; she was surprised when he called, but she was still dressed and would be down immediately. Presently she appeared in a dinner gown, holding two blue telegrams in her hand. They sat down in armchairs in the deserted lobby.
“But, Michael, is the dinner over?”
“I wanted to see you, so I came away.”
“I’m glad.” Her voice was friendly, but matter-of-fact. “Because I’d just phoned your hotel that I had fittings and rehearsals all day tomorrow. Now we can have our talk after all.”
“You’re tired,” he guessed. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have come.”
“No. I was waiting up for Hamilton. Telegrams that may be important. He said he might go on somewhere, and that may mean any hour, so I’m glad I have someone to talk to.”
Michael winced at the impersonality in the last phrase.
“Don’t you care when he gets home?”
“Naturally,” she said, laughing, “but I haven’t got much say about it, have I?”
“I couldn’t start by telling him what he could and couldn’t do.”
“He wouldn’t stand for it.”
“He seems to want merely a housekeeper,” said Michael ironically.
“Tell me about your plans, Michael,” she asked quickly.
“My plans? I can’t see any future after the day after tomorrow. The only real plan I ever had was to love you.”
Their eyes brushed past each other’s, and the look he knew so well was staring out at him from hers. Words flowed quickly from his heart:
“Let me tell you just once more how well I’ve loved you, never wavering for a moment, never thinking of another girl. And now when I think of all the years ahead without you, without any hope, I don’t want to live, Caroline darling. I used to dream about our home, our children, about holding you in my arms and touching your face and hands and hair that used to belong to me, and now I just can’t wake up.”
Caroline was crying softly. “Poor Michael — poor Michael.” Her hand reached out and her fingers brushed the lapel of his dinner coat. “I was so sorry for you the other night. You looked so thin, and as if you needed a new suit and somebody to take care of you.” She sniffled and looked more closely at his coat. “Why, you’ve got a new suit! And a new silk hat! Why, Michael, how swell!” She laughed, suddenly cheerful through her tears. “You must have come into money, Michael; I never saw you so well turned out.”
For a moment, at her reaction, he hated his new clothes.
“I have come into money,” he said. “My grandfather left me about a quarter of a million dollars.”
“Why, Michael,” she cried, “how perfectly swell! I can’t tell you how gladI am. I’ve always thought you were the sort of person who ought to have money.”
“Yes, just too late to make a difference.”
The revolving door from the street groaned around and Hamilton Rutherford came into the lobby. His face was flushed, his eyes were restless and impatient.
“Hello, darling; hello, Mr. Curly.” He bent and kissed Caroline. “I broke away for a minute to find out if I had any telegrams. I see you’ve got them there.” Taking them from her, he remarked to Curly, “That was an odd business there in the bar, wasn’t it? Especially as I understand some of you had a joke fixed up in the same line.” He opened one of the telegrams, closed it and turned to Caroline with the divided expression of a man carrying two things in his head at once.
“A girl I haven’t seen for two years turned up,” he said. “It seemed to be some clumsy form of blackmail, for I haven’t and never have had any sort of obligation toward her whatever.”
“The head barman had a Sûreté Générale man there in ten minutes and it was settled in the hall. The French blackmail laws make ours look like a sweet wish, and I gather they threw a scare into her that she’ll remember. But it seems wiser to tell you.”
“Are you implying that I mentioned the matter?” said Michael stiffly.
“No,” Rutherford said slowly. “No, you were just going to be on hand. And since you’re here, I’ll tell you some news that will interest you even more.”
He handed Michael one telegram and opened the other.
“This is in code,” Michael said.
“So is this. But I’ve got to know all the words pretty well this last week. The two of them together mean that I’m due to start life all over.”
Michael saw Caroline’s face grow a shade paler, but she sat quiet as a mouse.
“It was a mistake and I stuck to it too long,” continued Rutherford. “So you see I don’t have all the luck, Mr. Curly. By the way, they tell me you’ve come into money.”
“Yes,” said Michael.
“There we are, then.” Rutherford turned to Caroline. “You understand, darling, that I’m not joking or exaggerating. I’ve lost almost every cent I had and I’m starting life over.”
Two pairs of eyes were regarding her — Rutherford’s noncommittal and unrequiring, Michael’s hungry, tragic, pleading. In a minute she had raised herself from the chair and with a little cry thrown herself into Hamilton Rutherford’s arms.
“Oh, darling,” she cried, “what does it matter! It’s better; I like it better, honestly I do! I want to start that way; I want to! Oh, please don’t worry or be sad even for a minute!”
“All right, baby,” said Rutherford. His hand stroked her hair gently for a moment; then he took his arm from around her.
“I promised to join the party for an hour,” he said. “So I’ll say good night, and I want you to go to bed soon and get a good sleep. Good night, Mr. Curly. I’m sorry to have let you in for all these financial matters.”
But Michael had already picked up his hat and cane. “I’ll go along with you,” he said.
It was such a fine morning. Michael’s cutaway hadn’t been delivered, so he felt rather uncomfortable passing before the cameras and moving-picture machines in front of the little church on the Avenue George-Cinq.
It was such a clean, new church that it seemed unforgivable not to be dressed properly, and Michael, white and shaky after a sleepless night, decided to stand in the rear. From there he looked at the back of Hamilton Rutherford, and the lacy, filmy back of Caroline, and the fat back of George Packman, which looked unsteady, as if it wanted to lean against the bride and groom.
The ceremony went on for a long time under the gay flags and pennons overhead, under the thick beams of June sunlight slanting down through the tall windows upon the well-dressed people.
As the procession, headed by the bride and groom, started down the aisle, Michael realized with alarm he was just where everyone would dispense with their parade stiffness, become informal and speak to him.
So it turned out. Rutherford and Caroline spoke first to him; Rutherford grim with the strain of being married, and Caroline lovelier than he had ever seen her, floating all softly down through the friends and relatives of her youth, down through the past and forward to the future by the sunlit door.
Michael managed to murmur, “Beautiful, simply beautiful,” and then other people passed and spoke to him — old Mrs. Dandy, straight from her sickbed and looking remarkably well, or carrying it off like the very fine old lady she was; and Rutherford’s father and mother, ten years divorced, but walking side by side and looking made for each other and proud. Then all Caroline’s sisters and their husbands and her little nephews in Eton suits, and then a long parade, all speaking to Michael because he was still standing paralyzed just at that point where the procession broke.
He wondered what would happen now. Cards had been issued for a reception at the George-Cinq; an expensive enough place, heaven knew. Would Rutherford try to go through with that on top of those disastrous telegrams? Evidently, for the procession outside was streaming up there through the June morning, three by three and four by four. On the corner the long dresses of girls, five abreast, fluttered many-colored in the wind. Girls had become gossamer again, perambulatory flora; such lovely fluttering dresses in the bright noon wind.
Michael needed a drink; he couldn’t face that reception line without a drink. Diving into a side doorway of the hotel, he asked for the bar, whither a chasseur led him through half a kilometer of new American-looking passages.
But — how did it happen? — the bar was full. There were ten — fifteen men and two — four girls, all from the wedding, all needing a drink. There were cocktails and champagne in the bar; Rutherford’s cocktails and champagne, as it turned out, for he had engaged the whole bar and the ballroom and the two great reception rooms and all the stairways leading up and down, and windows looking out over the whole square block of Paris. By and by Michael went and joined the long, slow drift of the receiving line. Through a flowery mist of “Such a lovely wedding,” “My dear, you were simply lovely,” “You’re a lucky man, Rutherford” he passed down the line. When Michael came to Caroline, she took a single step forward and kissed him on the lips, but he felt no contact in the kiss; it was unreal and he floated on away from it. Old Mrs. Dandy, who had always liked him, held his hand for a minute and thanked him for the flowers he had sent when he heard she was ill.
“I’m so sorry not to have written; you know, we old ladies are grateful for — ” The flowers, the fact that she had not written, the wedding — Michael saw that they all had the same relative importance to her now; she had married off five other children and seen two of the marriages go to pieces, and this scene, so poignant, so confusing to Michael, appeared to her simply a familiar charade in which she had played her part before.
A buffet luncheon with champagne was already being served at small tables and there was an orchestra playing in the empty ballroom. Michael sat down with Jebby West; he was still a little embarrassed at not wearing a morning coat, but he perceived now that he was not alone in the omission and felt better. “Wasn’t Caroline divine?” Jebby West said. “So entirely self-possessed. I asked her this morning if she wasn’t a little nervous at stepping off like this. And she said, ‘Why should I be? I’ve been after him for two years, and now I’m just happy, that’s all.’”
“It must be true,” said Michael gloomily.
“What you just said.”
He had been stabbed, but, rather to his distress, he did not feel the wound.
He asked Jebby to dance. Out on the floor, Rutherford’s father and mother were dancing together.
“It makes me a little sad, that,” she said. “Those two hadn’t met for years; both of them were married again and she divorced again. She went to the station to meet him when he came over for Caroline’s wedding, and invited him to stay at her house in the Avenue du Bois with a whole lot of other people, perfectly proper, but he was afraid his wife would hear about it and not like it, so he went to a hotel. Don’t you think that’s sort of sad?”
An hour or so later Michael realized suddenly that it was afternoon. In one corner of the ballroom an arrangement of screens like a moving-picture stage had been set up and photographers were taking official pictures of the bridal party. The bridal party, still as death and pale as wax under the bright lights, appeared, to the dancers circling the modulated semidarkness of the ballroom, like those jovial or sinister groups that one comes upon in The Old Mill at an amusement park.
After the bridal party had been photographed, there was a group of the ushers; then the bridesmaids, the families, the children. Later, Caroline, active and excited, having long since abandoned the repose implicit in her flowing dress and great bouquet, came and plucked Michael off the floor.
“Now we’ll have them take one of just old friends.” Her voice implied that this was best, most intimate of all. “Come here, Jebby, George — not you, Hamilton; this is just my friends — Sally — ”
A little after that, what remained of formality disappeared and the hours flowed easily down the profuse stream of champagne. In the modern fashion, Hamilton Rutherford sat at the table with his arm about an old girl of his and assured his guests, which included not a few bewildered but enthusiastic Europeans, that the party was not nearly at an end; it was to reassemble at Zelli’s after midnight. Michael saw Mrs. Dandy, not quite over her illness, rise to go and become caught in polite group after group, and he spoke of it to one of her daughters, who thereupon forcibly abducted her mother and called her car. Michael felt very considerate and proud of himself after having done this, and drank much more champagne.
“It’s amazing,” George Packman was telling him enthusiastically. “This show will cost Ham about five thousand dollars, and I understand they’ll be just about his last. But did he countermand a bottle of champagne or a flower? Not he! He happens to have it — that young man. Do you know that T. G. Vance offered him a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year ten minutes before the wedding this morning? In another year he’ll be back with the millionaires.”
The conversation was interrupted by a plan to carry Rutherford out on communal shoulders — a plan which six of them put into effect, and then stood in the four-o’clock sunshine waving good-by to the bride and groom. But there must have been a mistake somewhere, for five minutes later Michael saw both bride and groom descending the stairway to the reception, each with a glass of champagne held defiantly on high.
“This is our way of doing things,” he thought. “Generous and fresh and free; a sort of Virginia-plantation hospitality, but at a different pace now, nervous as a ticker tape.”
Standing unself-consciously in the middle of the room to see which was the American ambassador, he realized with a start that he hadn’t really thought of Caroline for hours. He looked about him with a sort of alarm, and then he saw her across the room, very bright and young, and radiantly happy. He saw Rutherford near her, looking at her as if he could never look long enough, and as Michael watched them they seemed to recede as he had wished them to do that day in the Rue de Castiglione — recede and fade off into joys and griefs of their own, into the years that would take the toll of Rutherford’s fine pride and Caroline’s young, moving beauty; fade far away, so that now he could scarcely see them, as if they were shrouded in something as misty as her white, billowing dress.
Michael was cured. The ceremonial function, with its pomp and its revelry, had stood for a sort of initiation into a life where even his regret could not follow them. All the bitterness melted out of him suddenly and the world reconstituted itself out of the youth and happiness that was all around him, profligate as the spring sunshine. He was trying to remember which one of the bridesmaids he had made a date to dine with tonight as he walked forward to bid Hamilton and Caroline Rutherford good-by.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54