Mr. Wrenn was sulkily breakfasting at Mrs. Cattermole’s Tea House, which Mrs. Cattermole kept in a genteel fashion in a basement three doors from his rooming-house on Tavistock Place. After his night of fear and tragic portents he resented the general flowered-paper-napkin aspect of Mrs. Cattermole’s establishment. “Hungh!” he grunted, as he jabbed at the fringed doily under the silly pink-and-white tea-cup on the green-and-white lacquered tray brought him by a fat waitress in a frilly apron which must have been made for a Christmas pantomime fairy who was not fat. “Hurump!” he snorted at the pictures of lambs and radishes and cathedrals and little duckies on Mrs. Cattermole’s pink-and-white wall.
He wished it were possible — which, of course, it was not — to go back to the St. Brasten Cocoa House, where he could talk to the honest flat-footed galumping waitress, and cross his feet under his chair. For here he was daintily, yes, daintily, studied by the tea-room habitues — two bouncing and talkative daughters of an American tourist, a slender pale-haired English girl student of Assyriology with large top-barred eye-glasses over her protesting eyes, and a sprinkling of people living along Tavistock Place, who looked as though they wanted to know if your opinions on the National Gallery and abstinence were sound.
His disapproval of the lambiness of Mrs. Cattermole’s was turned to a feeling of comradeship with the other patrons as he turned, with the rest, to stare hostilely at a girl just entering. The talk in the room halted, startled.
Mr. Wrenn gasped. With his head solemnly revolving, his eyes followed the young woman about his table to a table opposite. “A freak! Gee, what red hair!” was his private comment.
A slender girl of twenty-eight or twenty-nine, clad in a one-piece gown of sage-green, its lines unbroken by either belt or collar-brooch, fitting her as though it had been pasted on, and showing the long beautiful sweep of her fragile thighs and long-curving breast. Her collar, of the material of the dress, was so high that it touched her delicate jaw, and it was set off only by a fine silver chain, with a La Valliere of silver and carved Burmese jade. Her red hair, red as a poinsettia, parted and drawn severely back, made a sweep about the fair dead-white skin of her bored sensitive face. Bored blue-gray eyes, with pathetic crescents of faintly violet-hued wrinkles beneath them, and a scarce noticeable web of tinier wrinkles at the side. Thin long cheeks, a delicate nose, and a straight strong mouth of thin but startlingly red lips.
Such was the new patron of Mrs. Cattermole.
She stared about the tea-room like an officer inspecting raw recruits, sniffed at the stare of the thin girl student, ordered breakfast in a low voice, then languidly considered her toast and marmalade. Once she glanced about the room. Her heavy brows were drawn close for a second, making a deep-cleft wrinkle of ennui over her nose, and two little indentations, like the impressions of a box corner, in her forehead over her brows.
Mr. Wrenn’s gaze ran down the line of her bosom again, and he wondered at her hands, which touched the heavy bread-and-butter knife as though it were a fine-point pen. Long hands, colored like ivory; the joint wrinkles etched into her skin; orange cigarette stains on the second finger; the nails —
He stared at them. To himself he commented, “Gee! I never did see such freak finger-nails in my life.” Instead of such smoothly rounded nails as Theresa Zapp displayed, the new young lady had nails narrow and sharp-pointed, the ends like little triangles of stiff white writing-paper.
As she breakfasted she scanned Mr. Wrenn for a second. He was too obviously caught staring to be able to drop his eyes. She studied him all out, with almost as much interest as a policeman gives to a passing trolley-car, yawned delicately, and forgot him.
Though you should penetrate Greenland or talk anarchism to the daughter of a millionaire grocer, never shall you feel a more devouring chill than enveloped Mr. Wrenn as the new young lady glanced away from him, paid her check, rose slithily from her table, and departed. She rounded his table; not stalking out of its way, as Theresa would have done, but bending from the hips. Thus was it revealed to Mr. Wrenn that —
He was almost too horrified to put it into words. . . . He had noticed that there was something kind of funny in regard to her waist; he had had an impression of remarkably smooth waist curves and an unjagged sweep of back. Now he saw that — It was unheard of; not at all like Lee Theresa Zapp or ladies in the Subway. For — the freak girl wasn’t wearing corsets!
When she had passed him he again studied her back, swiftly and covertly. No, sir. No question about it. It couldn’t be denied by any one now that the girl was a freak, for, charitable though Our Mr. Wrenn was, he had to admit that there was no sign of the midback ridge and little rounded knobbinesses of corseted respectability. And he had a closer view of the texture of her sage-green crash gown.
“Golly!” he said to himself; “of all the doggone cloth for a dress! Reg’lar gunny-sacking. She’s skinny, too. Bright-red hair. She sure is the prize freak. Kind of good-looking, but — get a brick!”
He hated to rule so clever-seeming a woman quite out of court. But he remembered her scissors glance at him, and his soft little heart became very hard.
How brittle are our steel resolves! When Mr. Wrenn walked out of Mrs. Cattermole’s excellent establishment and heavily inspected the quiet Bloomsbury Street, with a cat’s-meat-man stolidly clopping along the pavement, as loneliness rushed on him and he wondered what in the world he could do, he mused, “Gee! I bet that red-headed lady would be interestin’ to know.”
A day of furtive darts out from his room to do London, which glumly declined to be done. He went back to the Zoological Gardens and made friends with a tiger which, though it presumably came from an English colony, was the friendliest thing he had seen for a week. It did yawn, but it let him talk to it for a long while. He stood before the bars, peering in, and whenever no one else was about he murmured: “Poor fella, they won’t let you go, heh? You got a worse boss ‘n Goglefogle, heh? Poor old fella.”
He didn’t at all mind the disorder and rancid smell of the cage; he had no fear of the tiger’s sleek murderous power. But he was somewhat afraid of the sound of his own tremorous voice. He had spoken aloud so little lately.
A man came, an Englishman in a high offensively well-fitting waistcoat, and stood before the cage. Mr. Wrenn slunk away, robbed of his new friend, the tiger, the forlornest person in all London, kicking at pebbles in the path.
As half-dusk made the quiet street even more detached, he sat on the steps of his rooming-house on Tavistock Place, keeping himself from the one definite thing he wanted to do — the thing he keenly imagined a happy Mr. Wrenn doing — dashing over to the Euston Station to find out how soon and where he could get a train for Liverpool and a boat for America.
A girl was approaching the house. He viewed her carelessly, then intently. It was the freak lady of Mrs. Cattermole’s Tea House — the corsetless young woman of the tight-fitting crash gown and flame-colored hair. She was coming up the steps of his house.
He made room for her with feverish courtesy. She lived in the same house — He instantly, without a bit of encouragement from the uninterested way in which she snipped the door to, made up a whole novel about her. Gee! She was a French countess, who lived in a reg’lar chateau, and she was staying in Bloomsbury incognito, seeing the sights. She was a noble. She was —
Above him a window opened. He glanced up. The countess incog. was leaning out, scanning the street uncaringly. Why — her windows were next to his! He was living next room to an unusual person — as unusual as Dr. Mittyford.
He hurried up-stairs with a fervid but vague plan to meet her. Maybe she really was a French countess or somepun’. All evening, sitting by the window, he was comforted as he heard her move about her room. He had a friend. He had started that great work of making friends — well, not started, but started starting — then he got confused, but the idea was a flame to warm the fog-chilled spaces of the London street.
At his Cattermole breakfast he waited long. She did not come. Another day — but why paint another day that was but a smear of flat dull slate? Yet another breakfast, and the lady of mystery came. Before he knew he was doing it he had bowed to her, a slight uneasy bend of his neck. She peered at him, unseeing, and sat down with her back to him.
He got much good healthy human vindictive satisfaction in evicting her violently from the French chateau he had given her, and remembering that, of course, she was just a “fool freak Englishwoman — prob’ly a bloomin’ stoodent” he scorned, and so settled her! Also he told her, by telepathy, that her new gown was freakier than ever — a pale-green thing, with large white buttons.
As he was coming in that evening he passed her in the hall. She was clad in what he called a bathrobe, and what she called an Arabian burnoose, of black embroidered with dull-gold crescents and stars, showing a V of exquisite flesh at her throat. A shred of tenuous lace straggled loose at the opening of the burnoose. Her radiant hair, tangled over her forehead, shone with a thousand various gleams from the gas-light over her head as she moved back against the wall and stood waiting for him to pass. She smiled very doubtfully, distantly — the smile, he felt, of a great lady from Mayfair. He bobbed his head, lowered his eyes abashedly, and noticed that along the shelf of her forearm, held against her waist, she bore many silver toilet articles, and such a huge heavy fringed Turkish bath-towel as he had never seen before.
He lay awake to picture her brilliant throat and shining hair. He rebuked himself for the lack of dignity in “thinking of that freak, when she wouldn’t even return a fellow’s bow.” But her shimmering hair was the star of his dreams.
Napping in his room in the afternoon, Mr. Wrenn heard slight active sounds from her, next room. He hurried down to the stoop.
She stood behind him on the door-step, glaring up and down the street, as bored and as ready to spring as the Zoo tiger. Mr. Wrenn heard himself saying to the girl, “Please, miss, do you mind telling me — I’m an American; I’m a stranger in London — I want to go to a good play or something and what would I— what would be good —”
“I don’t know, reahlly,” she said, with much hauteur. “Everything’s rather rotten this season, I fancy.” Her voice ran fluting up and down the scale. Her a’s were very broad.
“Oh — oh — y-you are English, then?”
“Why — uh —”
“Oh, I just had a fool idea maybe you might be French.”
“Perhaps I am, y’ know. I’m not reahlly English,” she said, blandly.
“Why — uh —”
“What made you think I was French? Tell me; I’m interested.”
“Oh, I guess I was just — well, it was almost make-b’lieve — how you had a castle in France — just a kind of a fool game.”
“Oh, don’t be ashamed of imagination,” she demanded, stamping her foot, while her voice fluttered, low and beautifully controlled, through half a dozen notes. “Tell me the rest of your story about me.”
She was sitting on the rail above him now. As he spoke she cupped her chin with the palm of her delicate hand and observed him curiously.
“Oh, nothing much more. You were a countess —”
“Please! Not just ‘were.’ Please, sir, mayn’t I be a countess now?”
“Oh yes, of course you are!” he cried, delight submerging timidity. “And your father was sick with somepun’ mysterious, and all the docs shook their heads and said ‘Gee! we dunno what it is,’ and so you sneaked down to the treasure-chamber — you see, your dad — your father, I should say — he was a cranky old Frenchman — just in the story, you know. He didn’t think you could do anything yourself about him being mysteriously sick. So one night you —”
“Oh, was it dark? Very very dark? And silent? And my footsteps rang on the hollow flagstones? And I swiped the gold and went forth into the night?”
“Yes, yes! That’s it.”
“But why did I swipe it?”
“I’m just coming to that,” he said, sternly.
“Oh, please, sir, I’m awful sorry I interrupted.”
“It was like this: You wanted to come over here and study medicine so’s you could cure your father.”
“But please, sir,” said the girl, with immense gravity, “mayn’t I let him die, and not find out what’s ailing him, so I can marry the maire?”
“Nope,” firmly, “you got to — Say, gee! I didn’t expect to tell you all this make-b’lieve. . . . I’m afraid you’ll think it’s awful fresh of me.”
“Oh, I loved it — really I did — because you liked to make it up about poor Istra. (My name is Istra Nash.) I’m sorry to say I’m not reahlly”— her two “reallys” were quite different —“a countess, you know. Tell me — you live in this same house, don’t you? Please tell me that you’re not an interesting Person. Please!”
“I— gee! I guess I don’t quite get you.”
“Why, stupid, an Interesting Person is a writer or an artist or an editor or a girl who’s been in Holloway Jail or Canongate for suffraging, or any one else who depends on an accident to be tolerable.”
“No, I’m afraid not; I’m just a kind of clerk.”
“Good! Good! My dear sir — whom I’ve never seen before — have I? By the way, please don’t think I usually pick up stray gentlemen and talk to them about my pure white soul. But you, you know, made stories about me. . . . I was saying: If you could only know how I loathe and hate and despise Interesting People just now! I’ve seen so much of them. They talk and talk and talk — they’re just like Kipling’s bandar-log — What is it?
“See us rise in a flung festoon
Half-way up to the jealous moon.
Don’t you wish you —
could know all about art and economics as we do?’ That’s what they say. Umph!”
Then she wriggled her fingers in the air like white butterflies, shrugged her shoulders elaborately, rose from the rail, and sat down beside him on the steps, quite matter-of-factly.
He gould feel his temple-pulses beat with excitement.
She turned her pale sensitive vivid face slowly toward him.
“When did you see me — to make up the story?”
“Breakfasts. At Mrs. Cattermole’s.”
“Oh yes. . . . How is it you aren’t out sight-seeing? Or is it blessedly possible that you aren’t a tripper — a tourist?”
“Why, I dunno.” He hunted uneasily for the right answer. “Not exactly. I tried a stunt — coming over on a cattle-boat.”
“That’s good. Much better.”
She sat silent while, with enormous and self-betraying pains to avoid detection, he studied her firm thin brilliantly red lips. At last he tried:
“Please tell me something about London. Some of you English — Oh, I dunno. I can’t get acquainted easily.”
“My dear child, I’m not English! I’m quite as American as yourself. I was born in California. I never saw England till two years ago, on my way to Paris. I’m an art student. . . . That’s why my accent is so perishin’ English — I can’t afford to be just ordinary British, y’ know.”
Her laugh had an October tang of bitterness in it.
“Well, I’ll — say, what do you know about that!” he said, weakly.
“Tell me about yourself — since apparently we’re now acquainted. . . . Unless you want to go to that music-hall?”
“Oh no, no, no! Gee, I was just crazy to have somebody to talk to — somebody nice — I was just about nutty, I was so lonely,” all in a burst. He finished, hesitatingly, “I guess the English are kinda hard to get acquainted with.”
“Lonely, eh?” she mused, abrupt and bluffly kind as a man, for all her modulating woman’s voice. “You don’t know any of the people here in the house?”
“No’m. Say, I guess we got rooms next to each other.”
“How romantic!” she mocked.
“Wrenn’s my name; William Wrenn. I work for — I used to work for the Souvenir and Art Novelty Company. In New York.”
“Oh. I see. Novelties? Nice little ash-trays with ‘Love from the Erie Station’? And woggly pin-cushions?”
“Yes! And fat pug-dogs with black eyes.”
“Oh no-o-o! Please not black! Pale sympathetic blue eyes — nice honest blue eyes!”
“Nope. Black. Awful black. . . . Say, gee, I ain’t talking too nutty, am I?”
“‘Nutty’? You mean ‘idiotically’? The slang’s changed since — Oh yes, of course; you’ve succeeded in talking quite nice and ‘idiotic.’”
“Oh, say, gee, I didn’t mean to — When you been so nice and all to me —”
“Don’t apologize!” Istra Nash demanded, savagely. “Haven’t they taught you that?”
“Yes’m,” he mumbled, apologetically.
She sat silent again, apparently not at all satisfied with the architecture of the opposite side of Tavistock Place. Diffidently he edged into speech:
“Honest, I did think you was English. You came from California? Oh, say, I wonder if you’ve ever heard of Dr. Mittyford. He’s some kind of school-teacher. I think he teaches in Leland Stamford College.”
“Leland Stanford? You know him?” She dropped into interested familiarity.
“I met him at Oxford.”
“Really? . . . My brother was at Stanford. I think I’ve heard him speak of — Oh yes. He said that Mittyford was a cultural climber, if you know what I mean; rather — oh, how shall I express it? — oh, shall we put it, finicky about things people have just told him to be finicky about.”
“Yes!” glowed Mr. Wrenn.
To the luxury of feeling that he knew the unusual Miss Istra Nash he sacrificed Dr. Mittyford, scholarship and eye-glasses and Shelley and all, without mercy.
“Yes, he was awfully funny. Gee! I didn’t care much for him.”
“Of course you know he’s a great man, however?” Istra was as bland as though she had meant that all along, which left Mr. Wrenn nowhere at all when it came to deciding what she meant.
Without warning she rose from the steps, flung at him “G’ night,” and was off down the street.
Sitting alone, all excited happiness, Mr. Wrenn muttered: “Ain’t she a wonder! Gee! she’s striking-lookin’! Gee whittakers!”
Some hours later he said aloud, tossing about in bed: “I wonder if I was too fresh. I hope I wasn’t. I ought to be careful.”
He was so worried about it that he got up and smoked a cigarette, remembered that he was breaking still another rule by smoking too much, then got angry and snapped defiantly at his suit-case: “Well, what do I care if I am smoking too much? And I’ll be as fresh as I want to.” He threw a newspaper at the censorious suit-case and, much relieved, went to bed to dream that he was a rabbit making enormously amusing jests, at which he laughed rollickingly in half-dream, till he realized that he was being awakened by the sound of long sobs from the room of Istra Nash.
Afternoon; Mr. Wrenn in his room. Miss Nash was back from tea, but there was not a sound to be heard from her room, though he listened with mouth open, bent forward in his chair, his hands clutching the wooden seat, his finger-tips rubbing nervously back and forth over the rough under-surface of the wood. He wanted to help her — the wonderful lady who had been sobbing in the night. He had a plan, in which he really believed, to say to her, “Please let me help you, princess, jus’ like I was a knight.”
At last he heard her moving about. He rushed downstairs and waited on the stoop.
When she came out she glanced down and smiled contentedly. He was flutteringly sure that she expected to see him there. But all his plan of proffering assistance vanished as he saw her impatient eyes and her splendors of dress — another tight-fitting gown, of smoky gray, with faint silvery lights gliding along the fabric.
She sat on the rail above him, immediately, unhesitatingly, and answered his “Evenin’” cheerfully.
He wanted so much to sit beside her, to be friends with her. But, he felt, it took courage to sit beside her. She was likely to stare haughtily at him. However, he did go up to the rail and sit, shyly kicking his feet, beside her, and she did not stare haughtily. Instead she moved over an inch or two, glanced at him almost as though they were sharing a secret, and said, quietly:
“I thought quite a bit about you last evening. I believe you really have an imagination, even though you are a salesman — I mean so many don’t; you know how it is.”
You see, Mr. Wrenn didn’t know he was commonplace.
“After I left here last night I went over to Olympia Johns’, and she dragged me off to a play. I thought of you at it because there was an imaginative butler in it. You don’t mind my comparing you to a butler, do you? He was really quite the nicest person in the play, y’ know. Most of it was gorgeously rotten. It used to be a French farce, but they sent it to Sunday-school and gave it a nice fresh frock. It seemed that a gentleman-tabby had been trying to make a match between his nephew and his ward. The ward arted. Personally I think it was by tonsorial art. But, anyway, the uncle knew that nothing brings people together so well as hating the same person. You know, like hating the cousin, when you’re a kiddy, hating the cousin that always keeps her nails clean?”
“Yes! That’s so!”
“So he turned nasty, and of course the nephew and ward clinched till death did them part — which, I’m very sorry to have to tell you, death wasn’t decent enough to do on the stage. If the play could only have ended with everybody’s funeral I should have called it a real happy ending.”
Mr. Wrenn laughed gratefully, though uncertainly. He knew that she had made jokes for him, but he didn’t exactly know what they were.
“The imaginative butler, he was rather good. But the rest — Ugh!”
“That must have been a funny play,” he said, politely.
She looked at him sidewise and confided, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Oh yes, I—”
“Ever been married?”
He was frightfully startled. His “No” sounded as though he couldn’t quite remember.
She seemed much amused. You wouldn’t have believed that this superior quizzical woman who tapped her fingers carelessly on her slim exquisite knee had ever sobbed in the night.
“Oh, that wasn’t a personal question,” she said. “I just wanted to know what you’re like. Don’t you ever collect people? I do — chloroform ’em quite cruelly and pin their poor little corpses out on nice clean corks. . . . You live alone in New York, do you?”
“Who do you play with — know?”
“Not — not much of anybody. Except maybe Charley Carpenter. He’s assistant bookkeeper for the Souvenir Company. “He had wanted to, and immediately decided not to, invent grandes mondes whereof he was an intimate.
“What do — oh, you know — people in New York who don’t go to parties or read much — what do they do for amusement? I’m so interested in types.”
“Well —” said he.
That was all he could say till he had digested a pair of thoughts: Just what did she mean by “types”? Had it something to do with printing stories? And what could he say about the people, anyway? He observed:
“Oh, I don’t know — just talk about — oh, cards and jobs and folks and things and — oh, you know; go to moving pictures and vaudeville and go to Coney Island and — oh, sleep.”
“But you —?”
“Well, I read a good deal. Quite a little. Shakespeare and geography and a lot of stuff. I like reading.”
“And how do you place Nietzsche?” she gravely desired to know.
“Nietzsche. You know — the German humorist.”
“Oh yes — uh — let me see now; he’s — uh —”
“Why, you remember, don’t you? Haeckel and he wrote the great musical comedy of the century. And Matisse did the music — Matisse and Rodin.”
“I haven’t been to it,” he said, vaguely. “ . . . I don’t know much German. Course I know a few words, like Spricken Sie Dutch and Bitty, sir, that Rabin at the Souvenir Company — he’s a German Jew, I guess — learnt me. . . . But, say, isn’t Kipling great! Gee! when I read Kim I can imagine I’m hiking along one of those roads in India just like I was there — you know, all those magicians and so on. . . . Readin’s wonderful, ain’t it!”
“I bet you read an awful lot.”
“Very little. Oh — D’Annunzio and some Turgenev and a little Tourgenieff. . . . That last was a joke, you know.”
“Oh yes,” disconcertedly.
“What sorts of plays do you go to, Mr. Wrenn?”
“Moving pictures mostly,” he said, easily, then bitterly wished he hadn’t confessed so low-life a habit.
“Well — tell me, my dear — Oh, I didn’t mean that; artists use it a good deal; it just means ‘old chap.’ You don’t mind my asking such beastly personal questions, do you? I’m interested in people. . . . And now I must go up and write a letter. I was going over to Olympia’s — she’s one of the Interesting People I spoke of — but you see you have been much more amusing. Good night. You’re lonely in London, aren’t you? We’ll have to go sightseeing some day.”
“Yes, I am lonely!” he exploded. Then, meekly: “Oh, thank you! I sh’d be awful pleased to. . . . Have you seen the Tower, Miss Nash?”
“No. Never. Have you?”
“No. You see, I thought it ‘d be kind of a gloomy thing to see all alone. Is that why you haven’t never been there, too?”
“My dear man, I see I shall have to educate you. Shall I? I’ve been taken in hand by so many people — it would be a pleasure to pass on the implied slur. Shall I?”
“One simply doesn’t go and see the Tower, because that’s what trippers do. Don’t you understand, my dear? (Pardon the ‘my dear’ again.) The Tower is the sort of thing school superintendents see and then go back and lecture on in school assembly-room and the G. A. R. hall. I’ll take you to the Tate Gallery.” Then, very abruptly, “G’ night,” and she was gone.
He stared after her smooth back, thinking: “Gee! I wonder if she got sore at something I said. I don’t think I was fresh this time. But she beat it so quick. . . . Them lips of hers — I never knew there was such red lips. And an artist — paints pictures! . . . Read a lot — Nitchy — German musical comedy. Wonder if that’s that ‘Merry Widow’ thing? . . . That gray dress of hers makes me think of fog. Cur’ous.”
In her room Istra Nash inspected her nose in a mirror, powdered, and sat down to write, on thick creamy paper:
Skilly dear, I’m in a fierce Bloomsbury boarding-house — bores — except for a Phe-nomenon — little man of 35 or 40 with embryonic imagination & a virgin soul. I’ll try to keep from planting radical thoughts in the virgin soul, but I’m tempted.
Oh Skilly dear I’m lonely as the devil. Would it be too bromid. to say I wish you were here? I put out my hand in the darkness, & yours wasn’t there. My dear, my dear, how desolate — Oh you understand it only too well with your supercilious grin & your superior eye-glasses & your beatific Oxonian ignorance of poor eager America.
I suppose I am just a barbarous Californian kiddy. It’s just as Pere Dureon said at the atelier, “You haf a’ onderstanding of the ‘igher immorality, but I ‘ope you can cook — paint you cannot.”
He wins. I can’t sell a single thing to the art editors here or get one single order. One horrid eye-glassed earnest youth who Sees People at a magazine, he vouchsafed that they “didn’t use any Outsiders.” Outsiders! And his hair was nearly as red as my wretched mop. So I came home & howled & burned Milan tapers before your picture. I did. Though you don’t deserve it.
Oh damn it, am I getting sentimental? You’ll read this at Petit Monsard over your drip & grin at your poor unnietzschean barbarian.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57