Now the guests were beginning to arrive. The electric thring of the door-bell broke sharply and persistently on accustomed quietness. People were coming in and filling the place with the ease and familiarity of old friends. In the hallway and in the rooms at the front there arose now a confused medley of many voices — the rippling laughter and quick, excited tones of the women mingled with the deeper, more vibrant sonorities of the men. It was a mixture smooth as oil, which fused and mounted steadily. With every sharp ringing of the bell, with every opening and closing of the door, there were new voices and new laughter, a babel of new greetings, new gaiety, and new welcomes.
The whole place — all the rooms front to back — was now thrown open to the party. In the hall, in the bedrooms, in the great living-room, and in the dining-room, people were moving in and out, circulating everywhere in beautiful and spontaneous patterns. Women were coming up to Mrs. Jack and embracing her with the affectionate tenderness of old friendship. Men, drawn together in solemn discussion or in the jesting interplay of wit, were going in and out of Mr. Jack’s room.
Mrs. Jack, her eyes sparkling with joy, was moving about everywhere, greeting people and stopping to talk to everyone. Her whole manner had a quality of surprised delight, as of a person who feels that wonders will never cease. Although she had invited all these people, she seemed, as she spoke to each in turn, as if she was taken aback by the happiness of an unexpected and unhoped-for encounter with an old friend whom she had not seen for a long time. Her voice, as she talked, grew a trifle higher with its excitement, even at times a little shrill, and her face glowed with pleasure. And her guests smiled at her as people smile at a happy and excited child.
Many were moving about now with glasses in their hands. Some were leaning against walls talking to each other. Distinguished-looking men were propped with their elbows on the mantel in the casual earnestness of debate. Beautiful women with satiny backs were moving through the crowd with velvet undulance. The young people were gathered together in little parties of their own, drawn to one another by the magic of their youth. Everywhere people were laughing and chattering, bending to fill glasses with frosty drinks, or moving around the loaded temptations of the dining-table and the great buffet with that “choosy” look, somewhat perturbed and doubtful, which said plainly that they would like to taste it all but knew they couldn’t. And the smiling maids were there to do their bidding, and to urge them to have just a little more. All in all, it was a wonderful scene of white and black and gold and power and wealth and loveliness and food and drink.
Mrs. Jack glanced happily through the crowded rooms. It was, she knew, a notable assemblage of the best, the highest, and the fairest the city had to offer. And others were arriving all the time. At this moment, in fact, Miss Lily Mandell came in, and the tall, smouldering beauty swung away along the hall to dispose of her wraps. She was followed almost at once by Mr. Lawrence Hirsch, the banker. He casually gave his coat and hat to one of the maids, and, groomed and faultless, schooled in power, be bowed greetings through the throng towards his hostess. He shook hands with her and kissed her lightly on one cheek, saying with that cool irony that was a portion of the city style:
“You haven’t looked so lovely, darling, since the days when we used to dance the can-can together.”
Then, polished and imperturbable, he turned away — a striking figure. His abundant hair was prematurely white, and, strangely, it gave to his clear and clean-shaven face a look of almost youthful maturity. His features, a little worn but assured, were vested in unconscious arrogance with the huge authorities of wealth. He moved, this weary, able son of man, among the crowd and took his place, assuming, without knowing he assumed, his full authorities.
Lily Mandell now returned to the big room and made her way languidly towards Mrs. Jack. This heiress of Midas wealth was tall and dark, with a shock of black hair. Her face, with its heavy-lidded eyes, was full of pride and sleepy eloquence. She was a stunning woman, and everything about her was a little startling. The dress she wore was a magnificent gown fashioned from a single piece of dull golden cloth, and had been so designed to display her charms that her tall, voluptuous figure seemed literally to have been poured into it. It made her a miracle of statuesque beauty, and as she swayed along with sleepy undulance, the eyes of all the men were turned upon her. She bent over the smaller figure of her hostess, kissed her, and, in a rich, yolky voice full of genuine affection, said:
“Darling, how are you?”
By now, Herbert, the elevator boy, was being kept so busy bringing up new arrivals that one group hardly had time to finish with its greetings before the door would open and a new group would come in. There was Roderick Hale, the distinguished lawyer. Then Miss Roberta Heilprinn arrived with Mr. Samuel Fetzer. These two were old friends of Mrs. Jack’s “in the theatre”, and her manner towards them, while not more cordial or affectionate than that towards her other guests, was a shade more direct and casual. It was as if one of those masks — not of pretending but of formal custom — which life imposes upon so many human relations had here keen sloughed off. She said simply: “Oh, hello, Bertie. Hello, Sam.” The shade indefinable told everything: they were “show people”— she and they had “worked together”.
There were a good many show people. Two young actors from the Community Guild Theatre escorted the Misses Hattie Warren and Bessie Lane, both of them grey-haired spinsters who were directors of the theatre. And, in addition to the more gifted and distinguished people, there were a number of the lesser fry, too. There was a young girl who was understudy to a dancer at one of the repertory theatres, and another woman who was the seamstress and wardrobe mistress there, and still another who had once been Mrs. Jack’s assistant in her own work. For, as success and fame had come to Mrs. Jack, she had not forgotten her old friends. Though she was now a celebrity herself, she had thus escaped the banal and stereotyped existence that so many celebrities achieve. She loved life too well to cut herself off from the common run of warm humanity. In her own youth she had known sorrow, insecurity, hardship, heartbreak, and disillusion, and she had never forgotten it. Nor had she forgotten any of the people her life had ever touched. She had a rare talent for loyal and abiding friendships, and most of the people who were here to-night, even the most famous ones, were friends who she had known for many years, some of them since childhood.
Among the guests who now came streaming in was a mild, sad-faced woman named Margaret Ettinger. She was married to a profligate husband and had brought him with her. And he, John Ettinger, had brought along a buxom young woman who was his current mistress. This trio provided the most bizarre and unpleasantly disturbing touch to an otherwise distinguished gathering.
The guests were still arriving as fast as the elevator could bring them up. Stephen Hook came in with his sister, Mary, and greeted his hostess by holding out to her a frail, limp hand. At the same time he turned half away from her with an air of exaggerated boredom and indifference, an almost weary disdain, as he murmured:
“Oh, hello, Esther . . . Look”— he half-turned towards her again, almost as if this were an afterthought —“I brought you this.” He handed her a book and turned away again. “I thought it was rather interesting,” he said in a bored tone. “You might like to look at it.”
What he had given her was a magnificent volume of Peter Breughel’s drawings — a volume that she knew well, and the cost of which had frightened even her. She looked quickly at the flyleaf and saw that in his fine hand he had written primly: “For Esther — from Stephen Hook”. And suddenly she remembered that she had mentioned to him casually, a week or two before, her interest in this book, and she understood now that this act, which in a characteristic way he was trying to conceal under a mask of laboured indifference, had come swift and shining as a beam of light out of the depths of the man’s fine and generous spirit. Her face burned crimson, something choked her in the throat, and her eyes grew hot with tears.
“Oh, Steve!” she gasped. “This is simply the most beautiful — the most wonderful ——”
He seemed fairly to shrink away from her. His white, flabby face took on an expression of disdainful boredom that was so exaggerated it would have seemed comical if it had not been for the look of naked pleading in his hazel eyes. It was the look of a proud, noble, strangely twisted and tormented man — the look almost of a frightened child, who, even while it shrank away from the companionship and security it so desperately needed and wanted, was also pleading pitifully: “For God’s sake, help me if you can! I am afraid!”
She saw that look in his eyes as he turned pompously away from her, and it went through her like a knife. In a flash of stabbing pity she felt the wonder, the strangeness, and the miracle of living.
“Oh, you poor tormented creature,” she was thinking. “What is wrong with you? What are you afraid of? What’s eating on you anyway? . . . What a strange man he is!” she thought more tranquilly. “And how fine and good and high!”
At this moment, as if reading her own thoughts, her daughter, Alma, came to the rescue. Cool, poised, lovely, the girl came across the room, moved up to Hook, and said casually:
“Oh, hello, Steve. Can I get you a drink?”
The question was a godsend. He was extremely fond of the girl. He liked her polished style, her elegance, her friendly yet perfectly impenetrable manner. It gave him just the foil, the kind of protection, that he so desperately needed. He answered her at once.
“What you have to say quite fascinates me,” he murmured in a bored tone and moved over to the mantel, where he leaned as spectator and turned his face three-quarters away from the room, as if the sight of so many appallingly dull people was more than he could endure.
The elaborately mannered indirection of his answer was completely characteristic of Stephen Hook, and provided a key to his literary style. He was the author of a great many stories, which he sold to magazines to support himself and his mother, and also of several very fine books. The books had established his considerable and deserved reputation, but they had had almost no sale. As he himself had ironically pointed out, almost everyone, apparently, had read his books and no one had bought them. In these books, just as in his social manner, he tried to mask his shyness and timidity by an air of weary disdain and by the intricate artifice and circumlocution of an elaborately mannered style.
Mrs. Jack, after staring rather helplessly at Hook, turned to his sister, a jolly-faced spinster with twinkling eyes and an infectious laugh who shared her brother’s charm but lacked his tormented spirit, and whispered:
“What’s wrong with Steve to-night? He looks as if he’s been seeing ghosts.”
“No — just another monster,” Mary Hook replied, and laughed. “He had a pimple on his nose last week and he stared at it so much in the mirror that he became convinced it was a tumour. Mother was almost crazy. He locked himself in his room and refused to come out or talk to anyone for days and days. Four days ago he sent her a note leaving minute instructions for his funeral and burial — he has a horror of being cremated. Three days ago he came out in his pyjamas and said good-bye to all of us. He said his life was overall was ended. To-night he thought better of it and decided to dress and come to your party.”
Mary Hook laughed again good-naturedly and, with a humorous shrug and a shake of her head, moved away into the crowd. And Mrs. Jack, still with a rather troubled look on her face, turned to talk to old Jake Abramson, who had been holding her hand and gently stroking it during the last part of this puzzled interlude.
The mark of the fleshpots was plain upon Jake Abramson. He was old, subtle, sensual, weary, and he had the face of a vulture. Curiously enough, it was also a strangely attractive face. It had so much patience in it, and a kind of wise cynicism, and a weary humour. There was something paternal and understanding about him. He looked like an immensely old and tired ambassador of life who had lived so long, and seen so much, and been so many places, that even his evening clothes were as habitual as his breath and hung on him with a weary and accustomed grace as if he had been born in them.
He had taken off his top-coat and his silk hat and given them to the maid, and then had come wearily into the room towards Mrs. Jack. He was evidently very fond of her. While she had been talking to Mary Hook he had remained silent and had brooded above her like a benevolent vulture. He smiled beneath his great nose and kept his eyes intently on her face; then he took her small hand in his weary old clasp and began to stroke her smooth arm. It was a gesture frankly old and sensual, jaded, and yet strangely fatherly and gentle. It was the gesture of a man who had known and possessed many pretty women and who still knew how to admire and appreciate them, but whose stronger passions had now passed over into a paternal benevolence.
And in the same way he now spoke to her.
“You’re looking nice!” he said. “You’re looking pretty!” He kept smiling vulturesquely at her and stroking her arm. “Just like a rose she is!” the old man said, and never took his weary eyes from her face.
“Oh, Jake!” she cried excitedly and in a surprised tone, as if she had not known before that he was there. “How nice of you to come! I didn’t know you were back. I thought you were still in Europe.”
“I’ve been and went,” he declared humorously.
“You’re looking awfully well, Jake,” she said. “The trip did you lots of good. You’ve lost weight. You took the cure at Carlsbad, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t take the cure,” the old man solemnly declared, “I took the die-ett.” Deliberately he mispronounced the word.
Instantly Mrs. Jack’s face was suffused with crimson and her shoulders began to shake hysterically. She turned to Roberta Heilprinn, seized her helplessly by the arm, and clung to her, shrieking faintly:
“God! Did you hear him? He’s been on a diet! I bet it almost killed him! The way he loves to eat!”
Miss Heilprinn chuckled fruitily and her oil-smooth features widened in such a large grin that her eyes contracted to closed slits.
“I’ve been die-etting ever since I went away,” said Jake. “I was sick when I went away — and I came back on an English boat,” the old man said with a melancholy and significant leer that drew a scream of laughter from the two women.
“Oh, Jake!” cried Mrs. Jack hilariously. “How you must have suffered! I know what you used to think of English food!”
“I think the same as I always did,” the old man said with resigned sadness —“only ten times more!”
She shrieked again, then gasped out, “Brussels sprouts?”
“They still got ’em,” said old Jake solemnly. “They still got the same ones they had ten years ago. I saw Brussels sprouts this last trip that ought to be in the British Museum . . . And they still got that good fish,” he went on with a suggestive leer.
Roberta Heilprinn, her bland features grinning like a Buddha, gurgled: “The Dead Sea fruit?”
“No,” said old Jake sadly, “not the Dead Sea fruit — that ain’t dead enough. They got boiled flannel now,” he said, “and that good sauce! . . . You remember that good sauce they used to make?” He leered at Mrs. Jack with an air of such insinuation that she was again set off in a fit of shuddering hysteria:
“You mean that awful . . . tasteless . . . pasty . . . goo . . . about the colour of a dead lemon?”
“You got it,” the old man nodded his wise and tired old head in weary agreement. “You got it . . . That’s it . . . They still make it . . . So I’ve been die-etting all the way back!” For the first time his tired old voice showed a trace of animation. “Carlsbad wasn’t in it compared to the die-etting I had to do on the English boat!” He paused, then with a glint of cynic humour in his weary eyes, he said: “It was fit for nothing but a bunch of goys!”
This reference to unchosen tribes, with its evocation of humorous contempt, now snapped a connection between these three people, and suddenly one saw them in a new way. The old man was smiling thinly, with a cynical intelligence, and the two women were shaken utterly by a paroxysm of understanding mirth. One saw now that they really were together, able, ancient, immensely knowing, and outside the world, regardant, tribal, communitied in derision and contempt for the unhallowed, unsuspecting tribes of lesser men who were not party to their knowing, who were not folded to their seal. It passed — the instant showing of their ancient sign. The women just smiled now, quietly: they were citizens of the world again.
“But Jake! You poor fellow!” Mrs. Jack said sympathetically. “You must have hated it!” Then she cried suddenly and enthusiastically as she remembered: “Isn’t Carlsbad just too beautiful? . . . Did you know that Bert and I were there one time?” As she uttered these words she slipped her hand affectionately through the arm of her friend, Roberta, then went on vigorously, with a jolly laugh and a merry face: “Didn’t I ever tell you about that time, Jake? . . . Really, it was the most wonderful experience! . . . But God!” she laughed almost explosively —“Will you ever forget the first three or four days, Bert?” She appealed to her smiling friend. “Do you remember how hungry we got? How we thought we couldn’t possibly hold out? Wasn’t it dreadful?” she said, and then went on with a serious and rather puzzled air as she tried to explain it: “But then — I don’t know — it’s funny — but somehow you get used to it, don’t you, Bert? The first few days are pretty awful, but after that you don’t seem to mind. I guess you get too weak, or something . . . I know Bert and I stayed in bed three weeks — and really it wasn’t bad after the first few days.” She laughed suddenly, richly. “We used to try to torture each other by making up enormous menus of the most delicious food we knew. We had it all planned out to go to a swell restaurant the moment our cure was over and order the biggest meal we could think of! . . . Well!” she laughed —“would you believe it? — the day the cure was finished and the doctor told us it would be all right for us to get up and eat — I know we both lay there for hours thinking of all the things we were going to have. It was simply wonderful!” she said, laughing and making a fine little movement with her finger and her thumb to indicate great delicacy, her voice squeaking like a child’s and her eyes wrinkling up to dancing points. “In all your life you never heard of such delicious food as Bert and I were going to devour! We resolved to do everything in the greatest style! . . . Well, at last we got up and dressed. And God!” she cried. “We were so weak we could hardly stand up, but we wore the prettiest clothes we had, and we had chartered a Rolls Royce for the occasion and a chauffeur in livery! In all your days,” she cried with her eyes twinkling, “you’ve never seen such swank! We got into the car and were driven away like a couple of queens. We told the man to drive us to the swellest, most expensive restaurant he knew. He took us to a beautiful place outside of town. It looked like a chateau!” She beamed rosily round her. “And when they saw us coming they must have thought we were royalty from the way they acted. The flunkies were lined up, bowing and scraping, for half a block. Oh, it was thrilling! Everything we’d gone through and endured in taking the cure seemed worth it . . . Well!” she looked round her and the breath left her body audibly in a sigh of complete frustration —“would you believe it? — when we got in there and tried to eat we could hardly swallow a bite! We had looked forward to it so long — we had planned it all so carefully — and all we could eat was a soft-boiled egg — and we couldn’t even finish that! It filled us up right to here —” she put a small hand level with her chin. “It was so tragic that we almost wept! . . . Isn’t it a strange thing? I guess it must be that your stomach shrinks up while you’re on the diet. You lie there day after day and think of the enormous meal you are going to devour just as soon as you get up — and then when you try it you’re not even able to finish a soft-boiled egg!”
As she finished, Mrs. Jack shrugged her shoulders and lifted her hands questioningly, with such a comical look on her face that everybody round her laughed. Even weary and jaded old Jake Abramson, who had really paid no attention to what she was saying but had just been regarding her with his fixed smile during the whole course of her animated dialogue, now smiled a little more warmly as he turned away to speak to other friends.
Miss Heilprinn and Mrs. Jack, left standing together in the centre of the big room, offered an instructive comparison in the capacities of their sex. Each woman was perfectly cast in her own role. Each had found the perfect adaptive means by which she could utilise her full talents with the least waste and friction.
Miss Heilprinn looked the very distinguished woman that she was. Hers was the talent of the administrator, the ability to get things done, and one knew at a glance that in the rough and tumble of practical affairs this bland lady was more than a match for any man. She suggested oil — smooth oil, oil of tremendous driving power and generating force.
Along Broadway she had reigned for years as the governing brain of a celebrated art theatre, and her business acuity had wrung homage even from her enemies. It had been her function to promote, to direct, to control, and in the tenuous and uncertain speculations of the theatre to take care not to be fleeced by the wolves of Broadway. The brilliance of her success, the power of her will, and the superior quality of her metal were written plain upon her. It took no very experienced observer to see that in the unequal contest between Miss Heilprinn and the wolves of Broadway it had been the wolves who had been worsted.
In that savage and unremitting warfare, which arouses such bitter passions and undying hatreds that eyes become jaundiced and lips so twisted that they are never afterwards able to do anything but writhe like yellowed scars on haggard faces, had Miss Heilprinn’s face grown hard? Had her mouth contracted to a grim line? Had her jaw out-jutted like a granite crag? Were the marks of the wars visible anywhere upon her? Not at all. The more murderous the fight, the blander her face. The more treacherous the intrigues in which Broadway’s life involved her, the more mellow became the fruity lilt of her good-humoured chuckle. She had actually thriven on it. Indeed, as one of her colleagues said: “Roberta never seems so happy and so unconsciously herself as when she is playing about in a nest of rattlesnakes.”
So, now, as she stood there talking to Mrs. Jack, she presented a very handsome and striking appearance. Her grey hair was combed in a pompadour, and her suave and splendid gown gave the finishing touch to her general air of imperturbable assurance. Her face was almost impossibly bland, but it was a blandness without hypocrisy. Nevertheless, one saw that her twinkling eyes, which narrowed into such jolly slits when she smiled, were sharp as flint and missed nothing.
In a curious way, Mrs. Jack was a more complex person than her smooth companion. She was essentially not less shrewd, not less accomplished, not less subtle, and not less determined to secure her own ends in this hard world, but her strategy had been different.
Most people thought her “such a romantic person”. As her friends said, she was “so beautiful”, she was “such a child”, she was “so good”. Yes, she was all these things. For she had early learned the advantages of possessing a rosy, jolly little face and a manner of slightly bewildered surprise and naive innocence. When she smiled doubtfully yet good-naturedly at her friends, it was as if to say: “Now I know you’re laughing at me, aren’t you? I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what I’ve done or said now. Of course I’m not clever the way you are — all of you are so frightfully smart — but anyway I have a good time, and I like you all.”
To many people that was the essential Mrs. Jack. Only a few knew that there was a great deal more to her than met the eye. The bland lady who now stood talking to her was one of these. Miss Roberta Heilprinn missed no artifice of that almost unconsciously deceptive innocence. And perhaps that is why, when Mrs. Jack finished her anecdote and looked at old Jake Abramson so comically and questioningly, Miss Heilprinn’s eye twinkled a little brighter, her Buddhistic smile became a little smoother, and her yolky chuckle grew a trifle more infectious. Perhaps that is also why, with a sudden impulse of understanding and genuine affection, Miss Heilprinn bent and kissed the glowing little cheek.
And the object of this caress, although she never changed her expression of surprised and delighted innocence, knew full well all that was going on in the other woman’s mind. For just a moment, almost imperceptibly, the eyes of the two women, stripped bare of all concealing artifice, met each other. And in that moment there was matter for Olympian laughter.
While Mrs. Jack welcomed her friends and beamed with happiness, one part of her mind remained aloof and preoccupied. For someone was still absent, and she kept thinking of him.
“I wonder where he is,” she thought. “Why doesn’t he come? I hope he hasn’t been drinking.” She looked quickly over the brilliant gathering with a troubled eye and thought impatiently: “If only he liked parties more! If only he enjoyed meeting people — going out in the evening! Oh, well — he’s the way he is. It’s no use trying to change him. I wouldn’t have him any different.”
And then he arrived.
“Here he is!” she thought excitedly, looking at him with instant relief. “And he’s all right!”
George Webber had, in fact, taken two or three stiff drinks before he left his rooms, in preparation for the ordeal. The raw odour of cheap gin hung on his breath, his eyes were slightly bright and wild, and his manner was quick and a trifle more feverish than was his wont. Just the same he was, as Esther had phrased it to herself, “all right”.
“If only people — my friends — everyone I know — didn’t affect him so,” she thought. “Why is it, I wonder. Last night when he telephoned me he talked so strange! Nothing he said made any sense! What could have been wrong with him? Oh, well — it doesn’t matter now. He’s here. I love him!”
Her face warmed and softened, her pulse beat quicker, and she went to meet him.
“Oh, hello, darling,” she said fondly. “I’m so glad you’re here at last. I was beginning to be afraid you were going to fail me after all.”
He greeted her half fondly and half truculently, with a mixture of diffidence and pugnacity, of arrogance and humility, of pride, of hope, of love, of suspicion, of eagerness, of doubt.
He had not wanted to come to the party at all. From the moment she had first invited him he had brought forward a barrage of objections. They had argued it back and forth for days, but at last she had won and had exacted his promise. But as the time approached he felt himself hesitating again, and last night he had paced the floor for hours in an agony of self-recrimination and indecision. At last, around one o’clock, he had seized the telephone with desperate resolve and, after waking the whole household before he got her, he had told her that he was not coming. Once more he repeated all his reasons. He only half-understood them himself, but they had to do with the incompatibility of her world and his world, and his belief, which was as much a matter of instinctive feeling as of conscious thought, that he must keep his independence of the world she belonged to if he was to do his work. He grew almost desperate as he tried to explain it to her, because he couldn’t seem to make her understand what he was driving at. In the end she became a little desperate, too. First she was annoyed, and told him for God’s sake to stop being such a fool. Then she became hurt and angry and reminded him of his promise.
“We’ve been over all of this a dozen times!” she said shrilly, and there was also a tearful note in her voice. “You promised, George — you know you did! And now everything’s arranged. It’s too late to change it now. You can’t let me down like this!”
This appeal was too much for him. He knew, of course, that the party had not been planned for him and that no arrangements would be upset if he failed to appear. No one but Esther would even be aware of his absence. But he had given his promise to come, however reluctantly, and he saw that the only issue he had succeeded in raising in her mind was the simple one of whether he would keep his word. So once more, and finally, he had yielded. And now he was here, full of confusion, and wishing with all his heart that he was anywhere else.
“I’m sure you’re going to have a good time,” Esther was saying to him eagerly. “You’ll see —” and she squeezed his hand. “There are lots of people I want you to meet. But you must be hungry. Better get yourself something to eat first. You’ll find plenty of things you like. I planned them especially for you. Go in the dining-room and help yourself. I’ll have to stay here a little while to welcome all these people.”
After she left him to greet some new arrivals, George stood there awkwardly for a moment with a scowl on his face and glanced about the room at the dazzling assemblage. In that attitude he cut a rather grotesque figure. The low brow with its frame of short black hair, the burning eyes, the small, packed features, the long arms dangling to the knees, and the curved paws gave him an appearance more simian than usual, and the image was accentuated by his not-too-well-fitting dinner jacket. People looked at him and stared, then turned away indifferently and resumed their conversations.
“So!” he thought with somewhat truculent self-consciousness —“These are her fine friends! I might have known it!” he muttered to himself, without knowing at all what it was he might have known. The poise, assurance, and sophistication of all these sleek faces made him fancy a slight where none was offered or intended. “I’ll show them!” he growled absurdly beneath his breath, not having the faintest idea what he meant by that.
With this, he turned upon his heel and threaded his way through the brilliant throng towards the dining-room.
“I mean! . . . You know! . . . ”
At the sound of the words, eager, rapid, uttered in a rather hoarse yet strangely seductive tone of voice, Mrs. Jack smiled at the group to whom she had been talking. “There’s Amy!” she said.
Then, as she turned and saw the elflike head with its unbelievable harvest of ebony curls, the snub nose and the little freckles, and the lovely face so radiant with an almost boyish quality of animation and enthusiasm, she thought:
“Isn’t she beautiful! And — and — there is something so sweet, so — so good about her!”
Even as her mind framed its spontaneous tribute to the girlish apparition with the elflike head, Mrs. Jack knew that it was not true. No; Amy Carleton was many things, but no one could call her good. In fact, if she was not “a notorious woman”, the reason was that she had surpassed the ultimate limits of notoriety, even for New York. Everybody knew her, and knew all about her, yet what the truth was, or what the true image of that lovely counterfeit of youth and joy, no one could say.
Chronology? Well, for birth she had had the golden spoon. She had been born to enfabled wealth. Hers had been the childhood of a dollar princess, kept, costly, cabined, pruned, confined. A daughter of “Society”, her girlhood had been spent in rich schools and in travel, in Europe, Southampton, New York, and Palm Beach. By eighteen she was “out”— a famous beauty. By nineteen she was married. And by twenty she was divorced, her name tainted. It had been a sensational case which fairly reeked. Even at that time her conduct had been so scandalous that her husband had had no difficulty in winning a decree.
Since that time, seven years before, her career had defied the measurements of chronology. Although she was now only in her middle twenties, her life seemed to go back through aeons of iniquity. Thus one might remember one of the innumerable scandals that had been connected with her name, and then check oneself suddenly with a feeling of stunned disbelief. “Oh, no! It can’t be! That happened only three short years ago, and since then she’s — why she’s —” And one would stare in stupefaction at that elflike head, that snub nose, that boyishly eager face, like one who realised that he was looking at the dread Medusa, or at some enchantress of Circean cunning whose life was older than the ages and whose heart was old as hell.
It baffled time, it turned reality to phantasmal shapes. One could behold her as she was to-night, here in New York, this freckled, laughing image of happy innocence — and before ten days had made their round one might come upon her again in the corruptest gatherings of Paris, drugged fathoms deep in opium, foul-bodied and filth-bespattered, cloying in the embraces of a gutter rat, so deeply rooted in the cesspool that it seemed she must have been bred on sewage and had never known any other life.
Since her first marriage and divorce, she had been married twice again. The second marriage had lasted only twenty hours, and had been annulled. The third had ended when her husband shot himself.
And before and after that, and in between, and in and out, and during it and later on, and now and then, and here and there, and at home and abroad, and on the seven seas, and across the length and breadth of the five continents, and yesterday and tomorrow and for ever — could it be said of her that she had been promiscuous? No, that could not be said of her. For she had been as free as air, and one does not qualify the general atmosphere with such a paltry adjective as “promiscuous”. She had just slept with everybody — with white, black, yellow, pink, green, or purple — but she had never been promiscuous.
It was, in romantic letters, a period that celebrated the lady who was lost, the lovely creature in the green hat who was “never let off anything”. Her story was a familiar one: she was the ill-starred heroine of fate, a martyr to calamitous mischance, whose ruin had been brought about through tragic circumstances which she could not control, and for which she was not responsible.
Amy Carleton had her apologists who tried to cast her in this role. The stories told about her “start upon the downward path” were numerous. One touching version dated the beginning of the end from the time when, an innocent and fun-loving girl of eighteen, she had, in a moment of daring, lighted a cigarette at a dinner party in Southampton, attended by a large number of eminent dowagers. The girl’s downfall, according to this tale, had been brought about by this thoughtless and harmless little act. From that moment on — so the story went — the verdict of the dowagers was “thumbs down” on Amy. The evil tongues began to wag, scandal began to grow, her reputation was torn to shreds. Then, in desperation, the unhappy child did go astray: she took to drink, from drink to lovers, from lovers to opium, from opium to — everything.
All this, of course, was just romantic nonsense. She was the victim of a tragic doom indeed, but she herself had fashioned it. With her the fault, as with dear Brutus, lay not in her stars, but in herself. For, having been endowed with so many rare and precious things that most men lack — wealth, beauty, charm, intelligence, and vital energy — she lacked the will, the toughness, to resist. So, having almost all, but lacking this, she was the slave to her advantages. Her wealth had set a premium on every whim, and no one had ever taught her to say no.
In this she was the child of her own time. Her life expressed itself in terms of speed, sensational change, and violent movement, in a feverish tempo that never drew from its own energies exhaustion or surcease, but mounted constantly to insane excess. She had been everywhere and “seen everything”— in the way one might see things from the windows of an express train travelling eighty miles an hour. And, having quickly exhausted the conventional kaleidoscope of things to be seen, she had long since turned to an investigation of things more bizarre and sinister and hidden. Here, too, her wealth and powerful connections opened doors to her which were closed to other people.
So, now, she possessed an intimate and extensive acquaintance among the most sophisticated and decadent groups in “Society”, in all the great cities of the world. And her cult of the unusual had led to an exploration of the most shadowy border lines of life. She had an acquaintanceship among the underworld of New York, London, Paris, and Berlin which the police might have envied. And even with the police her wealth had secured for her dangerous privileges. In some way, known only to persons who control great power, financial or political, she had obtained a police card and was privileged to a reckless licence in the operation of her low-slung racing car. Although she was near-sighted, she drove it at murderous speed through the seething highways of Manhattan, and as it flashed by she always got the courtesy of a police salute. All this in spite of the fact that she had demolished one car and killed a young man who had been driving with her, and in spite of the further fact that the police knew her as one who had been present at a drinking party at which one of the chieftains of the underworld had been slain.
It seemed, therefore, that her wealth and power and feverish energy could get her anything she wanted in any country of the world. People had once said: “What on earth is Amy going to do next!” But now they said: “What on earth is there left for her to do?” If life is to be expressed solely in terms of velocity and sensation, it seemed there was nothing left for her to do. Nothing but more speed, more change, more violence, more sensation — until the end. And the end? The end could only be destruction, and the mark of destruction was already apparent upon her. It was written in her eyes — in her tormented, splintered, and exploded vision. She had tried everything in life — except living. And she could never try that now because she had so long ago, and so irrevocably, lost the way. So there was nothing left for her to do except to die.
“If only”— people would think regretfully, as Mrs. Jack now thought as she looked at that elfin head —“oh, if only things had turned out differently for her!”— and then would seek back desperately through the labyrinthine scheme to find the clue to her disorder, saying: “Here — or here — or here — it happened here, you see! — If Only —!”
If only men were so much clay, as they are blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling! If they only were!
“I mean! . . . You know! . . . ” With these words, so indicative of her undefined enthusiasm and inchoate thought, Amy jerked the cigarette away from her lips, laughed hoarsely and eagerly, and turned to her companions as if fairly burning with a desire to communicate to them something that filled her with exuberant elation. “I mean!” she cried again —“when you compare it with the stuff they’re doing nowadays! — I mean! — there’s simply no comparison!” Laughing jubilantly, as if the thought behind these splintered phrases must be perfectly clear to everyone, she drew furiously upon her cigarette again and jerked it from her lips.
The group of, young people of which Amy was the radiant centre, and which included not only the young Japanese who was her current lover but also the young Jew who had been his most recent predecessor, had moved over towards the portrait of Mrs. Jack above the mantel, and were looking up at it. The portrait deserved the praise that was now being heaped upon it. It was one of the best examples of Henry Mallows’ early work.
“When you look at it and think how long ago that was!”— cried Amy jubilantly, gesturing towards the picture with rapid thrusts of her cigarette —“and how beautiful she was then! — and how beautiful she is now!” she cried exultantly, laughed hoarsely, then cast her grey-green eyes round her in a glance of feverish exasperation —“I mean!”— she cried again, and drew impatiently on her cigarette —“there’s simply no comparison!” Then, realising that she had not said what she had wanted to say, she went on: “Oh, I mean!”— she said in a tone almost of desperation and tossed her cigarette angrily away into the blazing fire —“the whole thing’s obvious!” she muttered, leaving everyone more bewildered than before. With a sudden and impulsive movement she turned towards Stephen Hook, who was still leaning with his elbow on one corner of the mantel, and demanded: “How long has it been, Steve? . . . I mean!— it’s been twenty years ago, hasn’t it?”
“Oh, quite all of that,” Hook answered in his cold, bored voice. In his agitation and embarrassment he moved still farther away until he almost had his back turned upon the group. “It’s been nearer thirty, I should think,” he tossed back over his shoulder, and then with an air of casual indifference he gave the date. “I should think it was done in nineteen-one or two — wasn’t it, Esther?” he said, turning to Mrs. Jack, who had now approached the group. “Around nineteen-one, wasn’t it?”
“What’s that?” said Mrs. Jack, and then went on immediately, “Oh, the picture! No, Steve. It was done in nineteen”— she checked herself so swiftly that it was not apparent to anyone but Hook —“in nineteen-six.” She saw just the trace of a smile upon his pale, bored face and gave him a quick, warning little look, but he just murmured:
“Oh . . . I had forgotten it was as late as that.”
As a matter of fact, he knew the exact date, even to the month and day, when it had been finished. And, still musing on the vagaries of the sex, he thought: “Why will they be so stupid! She must understand that to anyone who knows the least thing about Mallows’ life the date is as familiar as the fourth of July!”
“Of course,” Mrs. Jack was saying rapidly, “I was just a child when it was made. I couldn’t have been more than eighteen at the time — if I was that.”
“Which would make you not more than forty-one now,” thought Hook cynically —“if you are that! Well, my dear, you were twenty when he painted you — and you had been married for more than two years . . . Why do they do it!” he thought impatiently, and with a feeling of sharp annoyance. He looked at her and caught a quick expression — startled, almost pleading — in her eyes. He followed her glance, and saw the awkward figure of George Webber standing ill at ease in the doorway leading from the dining-room. “Ah! It’s this boy!” he thought. “She’s told him then that —” and, suddenly, remembering her pleading look, he was touched with pity. Aloud, however, he merely murmured indifferently:
“Oh, yes, you couldn’t have been very old.”
“And God!” exclaimed Mrs. Jack, “but I was beautiful!”
She spoke the words with such innocent delight that they lost any trace of objectionable vanity they might have had, and people smiled at her affectionately. Amy Carleton, with a hasty little laugh, said impulsively:
“Oh, Esther! Honestly, you’re the most . . . 1 But I mean!”— she cried impatiently, with a toss of her dark head, as if answering some invisible antagonist —“she is!”
“In all your days,” said Mrs. Jack, her face suffused with laughter, “you never saw the like of me! I was just like peaches and cream. I’d have knocked your eye out!”
“But, darling! You do now!” cried Amy. “What I mean to say is — darling, you’re the most . . .! Isn’t she, Steve?” She laughed uncertainly, turning to Hook with feverish eagerness.
And he, seeing the ruin, the loss, the desperation in her splintered eves, was sick with horror and with pity. He looked at her disdainfully, with weary, lidded eyes, said: “What?” quite freezingly, and then turned away, saying with an accent of boredom: “Oh.”
Beside him was the smiling face of Mrs. Jack, and, above, the portrait of the lovely girl that she had been. And the anguish and the mystery of time stabbed through him.
“My God, here she is!” he thought. “Still featured like a child, still beautiful, still loving someone — a boy! — almost as lovely now as she was then when Mallows was a boy!”
1901! Ah, Time! The figures reeled in a drunken dance and he rubbed his hand before his eyes. In 1901! How many centuries ago was that? How many lives and deaths and floods, how many million days and nights of love, of hate, of anguish and of fear, of guilt, of hope, of disillusion and defeat here in the geologic aeons of this monstrous catacomb, this riddled isle! — In 1901! Good God! It was the very Prehistoric Age of Man! Why, all that had happened several million years ago! Since then so much had begun and ended and been forgotten — so many untold lives of truth, of youth, of old age, so much blood and sweat and agony had gone below the bridge — why, he himself had lived through at least a hundred lives of it. Yes, he had lived and died through so many births and deaths and dark oblivions of it, had striven, fought, and hoped, and been destroyed through so many centuries of it, that even memory had failed — the sense of time had been wiped out — and all of it now seemed to have happened in a timeless dream. 1901! Looked at from here and now, it was a kind of Grand Canyon of the human nerves and bones and blood and brain and flesh and words and thought, all timeless now, all congealed, all solidified in an unchanging stratum there impossibly below, mixed into a general geologic layer with all the bonnets, bustles, and old songs, the straw hats and the derbies, the clatter of forgotten hooves, the thunder of forgotten wheels upon forgotten cobbles — all merged together now with the skeletons of lost ideas in a single stratum of the sunken world — while she——
— She! Why, surely she had been a part of it with him!
She had turned to speak to another group, and he could hear her saying:
“Oh yes, I knew Jack Reed. He used to come to Mabel Dodge’s place. We were great friends . . . That was when Alfred Stieglitz had started his salon ——”
Ah, all these names! Had he not been with these as well? Or, was it but another shape, a seeming, in this phantasmal shadow-show of time? Had he not been beside her at the launching of the ship? Had they not been captives together among Thracian faces? Had he not lighted tapers to the tent when she had come to charm remission from the lord of Macedon? — All these were ghosts — save she! And she — devouring child of time — had of this whole huge company of ghosts alone remained immortal and herself, had shed off the chrysalis of all these her former selves as if each life that she had lived was nothing but an outworn garment, and now stood here —here! Good God! — upon the burnt-out candle-end of time — with her jolly face of noon, as if she had just heard of this brave new world on Saturday — and would see if all of it was really true tomorrow!
Mrs. Jack had turned back once more at the sound of Amy’s voice and had bent forward to listen to the girl’s disjointed exclamations as if, by giving more concentrated attention, she could make sense of what the girl was trying to say.
“I mean! . . . You know! . . . But Esther! Darling, you’re the most . . .! It’s the most . . .! I mean, when I look at both of you, I simply can’t”— cried Amy with hoarse elation, her lovely face all sunning over with light —“Oh, what I mean to say is”— she cried, then shook her head strongly, tossed another cigarette away impatiently, and cried with the expiration of a long sigh —“Gosh!”
Poor child! Poor child! Hook turned pompously away to hide the naked anguish in his eyes. So soon to grow, to go, to be consumed and die like all of us! She was, he felt, like him, too prone to live her life upon the single instant, never saving out anything as a prudent remnant for the hour of peril or the day of ruin — too prone to use it all, to give it all, burning herself out like last night’s moths upon a cluster of hard light!
Poor child! Poor child! So quick and short and temporal, both you and I, thought Hook — the children of a younger kind! While these! He looked about him at the sensual volutes of strong nostrils curved with scornful mirth. These others of this ancient chemistry — unmothed, reborn, and venturesome, yet wisely mindful of the flame — these others shall endure! Ah, Time!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02