Abe left from the Gare Saint Lazare at eleven — he stood alone under the fouled glass dome, relic of the seventies, era of the Crystal Palace; his hands, of that vague gray color that only twenty-four hours can produce, were in his coat pockets to conceal the trembling fingers. With his hat removed it was plain that only the top layer of his hair was brushed back — the lower levels were pointed resolutely sidewise. He was scarcely recognizable as the man who had swum upon Gausse’s Beach a fortnight ago.
He was early; he looked from left to right with his eyes only; it would have taken nervous forces out of his control to use any other part of his body. New-looking baggage went past him; presently prospective passengers, with dark little bodies, were calling: “Jew-uls-HOO-OO!” in dark piercing voices.
At the minute when he wondered whether or not he had time for a drink at the buffet, and began clutching at the soggy wad of thousand-franc notes in his pocket, one end of his pendulous glance came to rest upon the apparition of Nicole at the stairhead. He watched her — she was self-revelatory in her little expressions as people seem to some one waiting for them, who as yet is himself unobserved. She was frowning, thinking of her children, less gloating over them than merely animally counting them — a cat checking her cubs with a paw.
When she saw Abe, the mood passed out of her face; the glow of the morning skylight was sad, and Abe made a gloomy figure with dark circles that showed through the crimson tan under his eyes. They sat down on a bench.
“I came because you asked me,” said Nicole defensively. Abe seemed to have forgotten why he asked her and Nicole was quite content to look at the travellers passing by.
“That’s going to be the belle of your boat — that one with all the men to say good-by — you see why she bought that dress?” Nicole talked faster and faster. “You see why nobody else would buy it except the belle of the world cruise? See? No? Wake up! That’s a story dress — that extra material tells a story and somebody on world cruise would be lonesome enough to want to hear it.”
She bit close her last words; she had talked too much for her; and Abe found it difficult to gather from her serious set face that she had spoken at all. With an effort he drew himself up to a posture that looked as if he were standing up while he was sitting down.
“The afternoon you took me to that funny ball — you know, St. Genevieve’s —” he began.
“I remember. It was fun, wasn’t it?”
“No fun for me. I haven’t had fun seeing you this time. I’m tired of you both, but it doesn’t show because you’re even more tired of me — you know what I mean. If I had any enthusiasm, I’d go on to new people.”
There was a rough nap on Nicole’s velvet gloves as she slapped him back:
“Seems rather foolish to be unpleasant, Abe. Anyhow you don’t mean that. I can’t see why you’ve given up about everything.”
Abe considered, trying hard not to cough or blow his nose.
“I suppose I got bored; and then it was such a long way to go back in order to get anywhere.”
Often a man can play the helpless child in front of a woman, but he can almost never bring it off when he feels most like a helpless child.
“No excuse for it,” Nicole said crisply.
Abe was feeling worse every minute — he could think of nothing but disagreeable and sheerly nervous remarks. Nicole thought that the correct attitude for her was to sit staring straight ahead, hands in her lap. For a while there was no communication between them — each was racing away from the other, breathing only insofar as there was blue space ahead, a sky not seen by the other. Unlike lovers they possessed no past; unlike man and wife, they possessed no future; yet up to this morning Nicole had liked Abe better than any one except Dick — and he had been heavy, belly-frightened, with love for her for years.
“Tired of women’s worlds,” he spoke up suddenly.
“Then why don’t you make a world of your own?”
“Tired of friends. The thing is to have sycophants.”
Nicole tried to force the minute hand around on the station clock, but, “You agree?” he demanded.
“I am a woman and my business is to hold things together.”
“My business is to tear them apart.”
“When you get drunk you don’t tear anything apart except yourself,” she said, cold now, and frightened and unconfident. The station was filling but no one she knew came. After a moment her eyes fell gratefully on a tall girl with straw hair like a helmet, who was dropping letters in the mail slot.
“A girl I have to speak to, Abe. Abe, wake up! You fool!”
Patiently Abe followed her with his eyes. The woman turned in a startled way to greet Nicole, and Abe recognized her as some one he had seen around Paris. He took advantage of Nicole’s absence to cough hard and retchingly into his handkerchief, and to blow his nose loud. The morning was warmer and his underwear was soaked with sweat. His fingers trembled so violently that it took four matches to light a cigarette; it seemed absolutely necessary to make his way into the buffet for a drink, but immediately Nicole returned.
“That was a mistake,” she said with frosty humor. “After begging me to come and see her, she gave me a good snubbing. She looked at me as if I were rotted.” Excited, she did a little laugh, as with two fingers high in the scales. “Let people come to you.”
Abe recovered from a cigarette cough and remarked:
“Trouble is when you’re sober you don’t want to see anybody, and when you’re tight nobody wants to see you.”
“Who, me?” Nicole laughed again; for some reason the late encounter had cheered her.
“No — me.”
“Speak for yourself. I like people, a lot of people — I like —”
Rosemary and Mary North came in sight, walking slowly and searching for Abe, and Nicole burst forth grossly with “Hey! Hi! Hey!” and laughed and waved the package of handkerchiefs she had bought for Abe.
They stood in an uncomfortable little group weighted down by Abe’s gigantic presence: he lay athwart them like the wreck of a galleon, dominating with his presence his own weakness and self-indulgence, his narrowness and bitterness. All of them were conscious of the solemn dignity that flowed from him, of his achievement, fragmentary, suggestive and surpassed. But they were frightened at his survivant will, once a will to live, now become a will to die.
Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity. Dick saw the situation quickly and grasped it quietly. He pulled them out of themselves into the station, making plain its wonders. Nearby, some Americans were saying good-by in voices that mimicked the cadence of water running into a large old bathtub. Standing in the station, with Paris in back of them, it seemed as if they were vicariously leaning a little over the ocean, already undergoing a sea-change, a shifting about of atoms to form the essential molecule of a new people.
So the well-to-do Americans poured through the station onto the platforms with frank new faces, intelligent, considerate, thoughtless, thought-for. An occasional English face among them seemed sharp and emergent. When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.
Nicole seized Dick’s arm crying, “Look!” Dick turned in time to see what took place in half a minute. At a Pullman entrance two cars off, a vivid scene detached itself from the tenor of many farewells. The young woman with the helmet-like hair to whom Nicole had spoken made an odd dodging little run away from the man to whom she was talking and plunged a frantic hand into her purse; then the sound of two revolver shots cracked the narrow air of the platform. Simultaneously the engine whistled sharply and the train began to move, momentarily dwarfing the shots in significance. Abe waved again from his window, oblivious to what had happened. But before the crowd closed in, the others had seen the shots take effect, seen the target sit down upon the platform.
Only after a hundred years did the train stop; Nicole, Mary, and Rosemary waited on the outskirts while Dick fought his way through. It was five minutes before he found them again — by this time the crowd had split into two sections, following, respectively, the man on a stretcher and the girl walking pale and firm between distraught gendarmes.
“It was Maria Wallis,” Dick said hurriedly. “The man she shot was an Englishman — they had an awful time finding out who, because she shot him through his identification card.” They were walking quickly from the train, swayed along with the crowd. “I found out what poste de police they’re taking her to so I’ll go there —”
“But her sister lives in Paris,” Nicole objected. “Why not phone her? Seems very peculiar nobody thought of that. She’s married to a Frenchman, and he can do more than we can.”
Dick hesitated, shook his head and started off.
“Wait!” Nicole cried after him. “That’s foolish — how can you do any good — with your French?”
“At least I’ll see they don’t do anything outrageous to her.”
“They’re certainly going to hold on to her,” Nicole assured him briskly. “She DID shoot the man. The best thing is to phone right away to Laura — she can do more than we can.”
Dick was unconvinced — also he was showing off for Rosemary.
“You wait,” said Nicole firmly, and hurried off to a telephone booth.
“When Nicole takes things into her hands,” he said with affectionate irony, “there is nothing more to be done.”
He saw Rosemary for the first time that morning. They exchanged glances, trying to recognize the emotions of the day before. For a moment each seemed unreal to the other — then the slow warm hum of love began again.
“You like to help everybody, don’t you?” Rosemary said.
“I only pretend to.”
“Mother likes to help everybody — of course she can’t help as many people as you do.” She sighed. “Sometimes I think I’m the most selfish person in the world.”
For the first time the mention of her mother annoyed rather than amused Dick. He wanted to sweep away her mother, remove the whole affair from the nursery footing upon which Rosemary persistently established it. But he realized that this impulse was a loss of control — what would become of Rosemary’s urge toward him if, for even a moment, he relaxed. He saw, not without panic, that the affair was sliding to rest; it could not stand still, it must go on or go back; for the first time it occurred to him that Rosemary had her hand on the lever more authoritatively than he.
Before he had thought out a course of procedure, Nicole returned.
“I found Laura. It was the first news she had and her voice kept fading away and then getting loud again — as if she was fainting and then pulling herself together. She said she knew something was going to happen this morning.”
“Maria ought to be with Diaghileff,” said Dick in a gentle tone, in order to bring them back to quietude. “She has a nice sense of decor — not to say rhythm. Will any of us ever see a train pulling out without hearing a few shots?”
They bumped down the wide steel steps. “I’m sorry for the poor man,” Nicole said. “Course that’s why she talked so strange to me — she was getting ready to open fire.”
She laughed, Rosemary laughed too, but they were both horrified, and both of them deeply wanted Dick to make a moral comment on the matter and not leave it to them. This wish was not entirely conscious, especially on the part of Rosemary, who was accustomed to having shell fragments of such events shriek past her head. But a totality of shock had piled up in her too. For the moment, Dick was too shaken by the impetus of his newly recognized emotion to resolve things into the pattern of the holiday, so the women, missing something, lapsed into a vague unhappiness.
Then, as if nothing had happened, the lives of the Divers and their friends flowed out into the street.
However, everything had happened — Abe’s departure and Mary’s impending departure for Salzburg this afternoon had ended the time in Paris. Or perhaps the shots, the concussions that had finished God knew what dark matter, had terminated it. The shots had entered into all their lives: echoes of violence followed them out onto the pavement where two porters held a post-mortem beside them as they waited for a taxi.
“Tu as vu le revolver? Il était très petit, vraie perle — un jouet.”
“Mais, assez puissant!” said the other porter sagely. “Tu as vu sa chemise? Assez de sang pour se croire à la guerre.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54