She bathed and anointed herself and covered her body with a layer of powder, while her toes crunched another pile on a bath towel. She looked microscopically at the lines of her flanks, wondering how soon the fine, slim edifice would begin to sink squat and earthward. In about six years, but now I’ll do — in fact I’ll do as well as any one I know.
She was not exaggerating. The only physical disparity between Nicole at present and the Nicole of five years before was simply that she was no longer a young girl. But she was enough ridden by the current youth worship, the moving pictures with their myriad faces of girl-children, blandly represented as carrying on the work and wisdom of the world, to feel a jealousy of youth.
She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen. When Tommy drove up at one o’clock she had made her person into the trimmest of gardens.
How good to have things like this, to be worshipped again, to pretend to have a mystery! She had lost two of the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl — now she felt like making up for them; she greeted Tommy as if he were one of many men at her feet, walking ahead of him instead of beside him as they crossed the garden toward the market umbrella. Attractive women of nineteen and of twenty-nine are alike in their breezy confidence; on the contrary, the exigent womb of the twenties does not pull the outside world centripetally around itself. The former are ages of insolence, comparable the one to a young cadet, the other to a fighter strutting after combat.
But whereas a girl of nineteen draws her confidence from a surfeit of attention, a woman of twenty-nine is nourished on subtler stuff. Desirous, she chooses her apéritifs wisely, or, content, she enjoys the caviare of potential power. Happily she does not seem, in either case, to anticipate the subsequent years when her insight will often be blurred by panic, by the fear of stopping or the fear of going on. But on the landings of nineteen or twenty-nine she is pretty sure that there are no bears in the hall.
Nicole did not want any vague spiritual romance — she wanted an “affair”; she wanted a change. She realized, thinking with Dick’s thoughts, that from a superficial view it was a vulgar business to enter, without emotion, into an indulgence that menaced all of them. On the other hand, she blamed Dick for the immediate situation, and honestly thought that such an experiment might have a therapeutic value. All summer she had been stimulated by watching people do exactly what they were tempted to do and pay no penalty for it — moreover, in spite of her intention of no longer lying to herself, she preferred to consider that she was merely feeling her way and that at any moment she could withdraw . . . .
In the light shade Tommy caught her up in his white-duck arms and pulled her around to him, looking at her eyes.
“Don’t move,” he said. “I’m going to look at you a great deal from now on.”
There was some scent on his hair, a faint aura of soap from his white clothes. Her lips were tight, not smiling and they both simply looked for a moment.
“Do you like what you see?” she murmured.
“Very well,” and she asked again in French. “Do you like what you see?”
He pulled her closer.
“I like whatever I see about you.” He hesitated. “I thought I knew your face but it seems there are some things I didn’t know about it. When did you begin to have white crook’s eyes?”
She broke away, shocked and indignant, and cried in English:
“Is that why you wanted to talk French?” Her voice quieted as the butler came with sherry. “So you could be offensive more accurately?”
She parked her small seat violently on the cloth-of-silver chair cushion.
“I have no mirror here,” she said, again in French, but decisively, “but if my eyes have changed it’s because I’m well again. And being well perhaps I’ve gone back to my true self — I suppose my grandfather was a crook and I’m a crook by heritage, so there we are. Does that satisfy your logical mind?”
He scarcely seemed to know what she was talking about.
“Where’s Dick — is he lunching with us?”
Seeing that his remark had meant comparatively little to him she suddenly laughed away its effect.
“Dick’s on a tour,” she said. “Rosemary Hoyt turned up, and either they’re together or she upset him so much that he wants to go away and dream about her.”
“You know, you’re a little complicated after all.”
“Oh no,” she assured him hastily. “No, I’m not really — I’m just a — I’m just a whole lot of different simple people.”
Marius brought out melon and an ice pail, and Nicole, thinking irresistibly about her crook’s eyes did not answer; he gave one an entire nut to crack, this man, instead of giving it in fragments to pick at for meat.
“Why didn’t they leave you in your natural state?” Tommy demanded presently. “You are the most dramatic person I have known.”
She had no answer.
“All this taming of women!” he scoffed.
“In any society there are certain —” She felt Dick’s ghost prompting at her elbow but she subsided at Tommy’s overtone:
“I’ve brutalized many men into shape but I wouldn’t take a chance on half the number of women. Especially this ‘kind’ bullying — what good does it do anybody? — you or him or anybody?”
Her heart leaped and then sank faintly with a sense of what she owed Dick.
“I suppose I’ve got —”
“You’ve got too much money,” he said impatiently. “That’s the crux of the matter. Dick can’t beat that.”
She considered while the melons were removed.
“What do you think I ought to do?”
For the first time in ten years she was under the sway of a personality other than her husband’s. Everything Tommy said to her became part of her forever.
They drank the bottle of wine while a faint wind rocked the pine needles and the sensuous heat of early afternoon made blinding freckles on the checkered luncheon cloth. Tommy came over behind her and laid his arms along hers, clasping her hands. Their cheeks touched and then their lips and she gasped half with passion for him, half with the sudden surprise of its force . . . .
“Can’t you send the governess and the children away for the afternoon?”
“They have a piano lesson. Anyhow I don’t want to stay here.”
“Kiss me again.”
A little later, riding toward Nice, she thought: So I have white crook’s eyes, have I? Very well then, better a sane crook than a mad puritan.
His assertion seemed to absolve her from all blame or responsibility and she had a thrill of delight in thinking of herself in a new way. New vistas appeared ahead, peopled with the faces of many men, none of whom she need obey or even love. She drew in her breath, hunched her shoulders with a wriggle and turned to Tommy.
“Have we GOT to go all the way to your hotel at Monte Carlo?”
He brought the car to a stop with a squeak of tires.
“No!” he answered. “And, my God, I have never been so happy as I am this minute.”
They had passed through Nice following the blue coast and begun to mount to the middling-high Corniche. Now Tommy turned sharply down to the shore, ran out a blunt peninsula, and stopped in the rear of a small shore hotel.
Its tangibility frightened Nicole for a moment. At the desk an American was arguing interminably with the clerk about the rate of exchange. She hovered, outwardly tranquil but inwardly miserable, as Tommy filled out the police blanks — his real, hers false. Their room was a Mediterranean room, almost ascetic, almost clean, darkened to the glare of the sea. Simplest of pleasures — simplest of places. Tommy ordered two cognacs, and when the door closed behind the waiter, he sat in the only chair, dark, scarred and handsome, his eyebrows arched and upcurling, a fighting Puck, an earnest Satan.
Before they had finished the brandy they suddenly moved together and met standing up; then they were sitting on the bed and he kissed her hardy knees. Struggling a little still, like a decapitated animal she forgot about Dick and her new white eyes, forgot Tommy himself and sank deeper and deeper into the minutes and the moment.
. . . When he got up to open a shutter and find out what caused the increasing clamor below their windows, his figure was darker and stronger than Dick’s, with high lights along the rope-twists of muscle. Momentarily he had forgotten her too — almost in the second of his flesh breaking from hers she had a foretaste that things were going to be different than she had expected. She felt the nameless fear which precedes all emotions, joyous or sorrowful, inevitable as a hum of thunder precedes a storm.
Tommy peered cautiously from the balcony and reported.
“All I can see is two women on the balcony below this. They’re talking about weather and tipping back and forth in American rocking-chairs.”
“Making all that noise?”
“The noise is coming from somewhere below them. Listen.”
“Oh, way down South in the land of cotton
Hotels bum and business rotten
Look away —”
Nicole flung her arms wide on the bed and stared at the ceiling; the powder had dampened on her to make a milky surface. She liked the bareness of the room, the sound of the single fly navigating overhead. Tommy brought the chair over to the bed and swept the clothes off it to sit down; she liked the economy of the weightless dress and espadrilles that mingled with his ducks upon the floor.
He inspected the oblong white torso joined abruptly to the brown limbs and head, and said, laughing gravely:
“You are all new like a baby.”
“With white eyes.”
“I’ll take care of that.”
“It’s very hard taking care of white eyes — especially the ones made in Chicago.”
“I know all the old Languedoc peasant remedies.”
“Kiss me, on the lips, Tommy.”
“That’s so American,” he said, kissing her nevertheless. “When I was in America last there were girls who would tear you apart with their lips, tear themselves too, until their faces were scarlet with the blood around the lips all brought out in a patch — but nothing further.”
Nicole leaned up on one elbow.
“I like this room,” she said.
“I find it somewhat meagre. Darling, I’m glad you wouldn’t wait until we got to Monte Carlo.”
“Why only meagre? Why, this is a wonderful room, Tommy — like the bare tables in so many Cézannes and Picassos.”
“I don’t know.” He did not try to understand her. “There’s that noise again. My God, has there been a murder?”
He went to the window and reported once more:
“It seems to be two American sailors fighting and a lot more cheering them on. They are from your battleship off shore.” He wrapped a towel around himself and went farther out on the balcony. “They have poules with them. I have heard about this now — the women follow them from place to place wherever the ship goes. But what women! One would think with their pay they could find better women! Why the women who followed Korniloff! Why we never looked at anything less than a ballerina!”
Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”
“Come on, Dulschmit, you son!”
Tommy turned away.
“This place seems to have outlived its usefulness, you agree?”
She agreed, but they clung together for a moment before dressing, and then for a while longer it seemed as good enough a palace as any . . . .
Dressing at last Tommy exclaimed:
“MY GOD, those two women in the rocking-chairs on the balcony below us haven’t moved. They’re trying to talk this matter out of existence. They’re here on an economical holiday, and all the American navy and all the whores in Europe couldn’t spoil it.”
He came over gently and surrounded her, pulling the shoulder strap of her slip into place with his teeth; then a sound split the air outside: Cr-ACK— BOOM-M-m-m! It was the battleship sounding a recall.
Now, down below their window, it was pandemonium indeed — for the boat was moving to shores as yet unannounced. Waiters called accounts and demanded settlements in impassioned voices, there were oaths and denials; the tossing of bills too large and change too small; passouts were assisted to the boats, and the voices of the naval police chopped with quick commands through all voices. There were cries, tears, shrieks, promises as the first launch shoved off and the women crowded forward on the wharf, screaming and waving.
Tommy saw a girl rush out upon the balcony below waving a napkin, and before he could see whether or not the rocking Englishwomen gave in at last and acknowledged her presence, there was a knock at their own door. Outside, excited female voices made them agree to unlock it, disclosing two girls, young, thin and barbaric, unfound rather than lost, in the hall. One of them wept chokingly.
“Kwee wave off your porch?” implored the other in passionate American. “Kwee please? Wave at the boy friends? Kwee, please. The other rooms is all locked.”
“With pleasure,” Tommy said.
The girls rushed out on the balcony and presently their voices struck a loud treble over the din.
“‘By, Charlie! Charlie, look UP!”
“Send a wire gen’al alivery Nice!”
“Charlie! He don’t see me.”
One of the girls hoisted her skirt suddenly, pulled and ripped at her pink step-ins and tore them to a sizable flag; then, screaming “Ben! Ben!” she waved it wildly. As Tommy and Nicole left the room it still fluttered against the blue sky. Oh, say can you see the tender color of remembered flesh? — while at the stern of the battleship arose in rivalry the Star-Spangled Banner.
They dined at the new Beach Casino at Monte Carlo . . . much later they swam in Beaulieu in a roofless cavern of white moonlight formed by a circlet of pale boulders about a cup of phosphorescent water, facing Monaco and the blur of Mentone. She liked his bringing her there to the eastward vision and the novel tricks of wind and water; it was all as new as they were to each other. Symbolically she lay across his saddle-bow as surely as if he had wolfed her away from Damascus and they had come out upon the Mongolian plain. Moment by moment all that Dick had taught her fell away and she was ever nearer to what she had been in the beginning, prototype of that obscure yielding up of swords that was going on in the world about her. Tangled with love in the moonlight she welcomed the anarchy of her lover.
They awoke together finding the moon gone down and the air cool. She struggled up demanding the time and Tommy called it roughly at three.
“I’ve got to go home then.”
“I thought we’d sleep in Monte Carlo.”
“No. There’s a governess and the children. I’ve got to roll in before daylight.”
“As you like.”
They dipped for a second, and when he saw her shivering he rubbed her briskly with a towel. As they got into the car with their heads still damp, their skins fresh and glowing, they were loath to start back. It was very bright where they were and as Tommy kissed her she felt him losing himself in the whiteness of her cheeks and her white teeth and her cool brow and the hand that touched his face. Still attuned to Dick, she waited for interpretation or qualification; but none was forthcoming. Reassured sleepily and happily that none would be, she sank low in the seat and drowsed until the sound of the motor changed and she felt them climbing toward Villa Diana. At the gate she kissed him an almost automatic good-by. The sound of her feet on the walk was changed, the night noises of the garden were suddenly in the past but she was glad, none the less, to be back. The day had progressed at a staccato rate, and in spite of its satisfactions she was not habituated to such strain.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50