Collier’s Weekly, December 24, 1921
BRUCE CARMYLE, in the capacity of accepted suitor, found himself at something of a loss. He had a dissatisfied feeling. It was not the manner of Sally’s acceptance that caused this. It would, of course, have pleased him better if she had shown more warmth, but he was prepared to wait for warmth. What did trouble him was the fact that his correct mind perceived now for the first time that he had chosen an unsuitable moment and place for his outburst of emotion. He belonged to the orthodox school of thought which looks on moonlight and solitude as the proper setting for a proposal of marriage, and the surroundings of the Flower Garden, for all its niceness and the nice manner in which it was conducted, jarred upon him profoundly.
Music had begun again, but it was not soft music such as a lover demands if he is to give of his best. It was a brassy, clashy rendering of a ribald one-step, enough to choke the eloquence of the most ardent. Couples were dipping and swaying and bumping into one another as far as the eye could reach; while just behind him two waiters had halted in order to thresh out one of those voluble arguments in which waiters love to indulge. To continue the scene at the proper emotional level was impossible, and Bruce Carmyle began his career as an engaged man by dropping into small talk.
“Deuce of a lot of noise,” he said.
“Yes,” agreed Sally.
“Is it always like this?”
Bruce Carmyle descended with a sharp swoop to irritability: “Do you often come here?”
Mr. Carmyle chafed helplessly. Almost angrily he endeavored to jerk the conversation to a higher level. “Darling,” he murmured, for by moving his chair two feet to the right and bending sideways he found that he was in a position to murmur, “you have made me so . . .”
“Batti, batti! I presto ravioli hollandaise,” cried one of the disputing waiters at his back—or to Bruce Carmyle’s prejudiced hearing it sounded like that.
“La donna e mobile spaghetti Napoli Tetrazzini.”
“. . . You have made me so . . .”
“Infanta Isabella Lope de Vega mulligatawny Toronto,” said the first waiter, weak but coming back pluckily.
“. . . So happy . . .”
“Funiculi funicula Vicente y Blasco Ibañez vermicelli sul campo della gloria risotto!” said the second waiter clinchingly, and scored a technical knockout.
Bruce Carmyle gave it up, and moodily lit a cigarette. His emotions, like sweet bells jangled, were out of tune, and he could not recapture that first fine careless rapture. He found nothing within him but small talk.
“What has become of your party?” he asked.
“The people you are with,” said Mr. Carmyle. Even in the stress of his emotion his problem had been exercising him. In his correctly ordered world girls did not go to restaurants alone.
“I’m not with anybody.”
“You came here by yourself?” exclaimed Bruce Carmyle, frankly aghast. And, as he spoke, the wraith of Uncle Donald, banished till now, returned as large as ever, puffing disapproval through a walrus mustache.
“I am employed here,” said Sally.
Mr. Carmyle started violently. “Employed here?”
“As a dancer, you know. I—”
Sally broke off, her attention abruptly diverted to something which had just caught her eye at a table on the other side of the room. That something was a red-headed young man of sturdy build who had just appeared beside the chair in which Mr. Reginald Cracknell was sitting in huddled gloom. In one hand he carried a basket, and from this basket, rising above the din of conversation, there came a sudden sharp yapping. Mr. Cracknell roused himself from his stupor, took the basket, raised the lid. The yapping increased in volume.
Mr. Cracknell rose, the basket in his arms. With uncertain steps and a look on his face like that of those who lead forlorn hopes he crossed the floor to where Miss Mabel Hobson sat, proud and aloof. The next moment that haughty lady, the center of an admiring and curious crowd, was hugging to her bosom a protesting Pekingese puppy, and Mr. Cracknell, seizing his opportunity like a good general, had deposited himself in a chair at her side. The course of true love was running smooth again.
The red-headed young man was gazing fixedly at Sally.
“As a dancer!” ejaculated Mr. Carmyle. Of all those within sight of the moving drama which had just taken place, he alone had paid no attention to it. His thoughts had been elsewhere. The accusing figure of Uncle Donald refused to vanish from his mental eye. The stern voice of Uncle Donald seemed still to ring in his ear.
A DANCER! A professional dancer at a Broadway restaurant! Hideous doubts began to creep like snakes into Bruce Carmyle’s mind. What, he asked himself, did he really know of this girl on whom he had bestowed the priceless boon of his society for life? Was she worthy of the boon? That was what it amounted to. The fine dashing frenzy which had brought him all the way from South Audley Street to win Sally was ebbing fast.
Sally, hearing him speak, had turned. And there was a candid honesty in her gaze which for a moment sent all those creeping doubts scuttling away into the darkness whence they had come. He had not made a fool of himself, he protested to the lowering phantom of Uncle Donald. Who, he demanded, could look at Sally and think for an instant that she was not all that was perfect and lovable? A warm revulsion of feeling swept over Bruce Carmyle like a returning tide.
“You see, I lost my money and had to do something,” said Sally.
“I see, I see,” murmured Mr. Carmyle; and if only Fate had let him alone, who knows to what heights of tenderness he might not have soared? But at this moment Fate, being no respecter of persons, sent into his life the disturbing personality of George Washington Williams.
George Washington Williams was the talented colored gentleman who had been extracted from small-time vaudeville by Mr. Abrahams to do a nightly specialty at the Flower Garden. He was, in fact, a trap drummer; and it was his amiable practice, after he had done a few minutes’ trap drumming, to rise from his seat and make a circular tour of the tables on the edge of the dancing floor, whimsically pretending to clip the locks of the male patrons with a pair of drumsticks held scissorswise. And so it came about that, just as Mr. Carmyle was bending toward Sally in an access of manly sentiment and was on the very verge of pouring out his soul in a series of well-phrased remarks, he was surprised and annoyed to find an Ethiopian to whom he had never been introduced leaning over him and taking quite unpardonable liberties with his back hair.
ONE says that Mr. Carmyle was annoyed. The word is too weak. The interruption coming at such a moment jarred every ganglion in his body. The clicking noise of the drumsticks maddened him. And the gleaming whiteness of Mr. Williams’s friendly and benignant smile was the last straw. His dignity writhed beneath this abominable infliction. People at other tables were laughing. At him. A loathing for the Flower Garden flowed over Bruce Carmyle, and with it a feeling of suspicion and disapproval of everyone connected with the establishment. He sprang to his feet. “I think I will be going,” he said.
Sally did not reply. She was watching Ginger, who still stood beside the table recently vacated by Reginald Cracknell.
“Good night,” said Mr. Carmyle between his teeth.
“Oh, are you going?” said Sally with a start. She felt embarrassed. Try as she would, she was unable to find words of any intimacy. She tried to realize that she had promised to marry this man, but never before had he seemed so much a stranger to her, so little a part of her life. It came to her with a sensation of the incredible that she had done this thing, taken this irrevocable step.
The sudden sight of Ginger had shaken her. It was as though in the last half hour she had forgotten him and only now realized what marriage with Bruce Carmyle would mean to their comradeship. From now on he was dead to her. If anything in this world was certain, that was. Sally Nicholas was Ginger’s pal, but Mrs. Carmyle, she realized, would never be allowed to see him again. A devastating feeling of loss smote her like a blow.
“Yes, I’ve had enough of this place,” Bruce Carmyle was saying.
“Good night,” said Sally. She hesitated. “When shall I see you?” she asked awkwardly.
It occurred to Bruce Carmyle that he was not showing himself at his best. He had, he perceived, allowed his nerves to run away with him. “You don’t mind if I go?” he said more amiably. “The fact is, I can’t stand this place any longer. I’ll tell you one thing, I’m going to take you out of here quick.”
“I’m afraid I can’t leave at a moment’s notice,” said Sally, loyal to her obligations.
“We’ll talk over that to-morrow. I’ll call for you in the morning and take you for a drive somewhere in a car. You want some fresh air after this.” Mr. Carmyle looked about him in stiff disgust, and expressed his unalterable sentiments concerning the Flower Garden, that apple of Isadore Abrahams’s eye, in a snort of loathing: “My God! What a place!”
HE walked quickly away and disappeared. And Ginger, beaming happily, swooped on Sally’s table like a homing pigeon. . . .
“Good Lord, I say, what ho!” cried Ginger. “Fancy meeting you here. What a bit of luck!” He glanced over his shoulder warily. “Has that blighter pipped?”
“Popped,” explained Ginger. “I mean to say, he isn’t coming back or any rot like that, is he?”
“Mr. Carmyle? No, he has gone.”
“Sound egg!” said Ginger with satisfaction. “For a moment, when I saw you yarning away together, I thought he might be with your party. What on earth is he doing over here at all, confound him? He’s got all Europe to play about in, why should he come infesting New York? I say, it really is ripping, seeing you again. It seems years. . . . Of course one gets a certain amount of satisfaction writing letters, hut it’s not the same. Besides, I write such rotten letters. I say, this really is rather priceless. Can’t I get you something? A cup of coffee, I mean, or an egg or something? By Jove! this really is top hole.”
His homely, honest face glowed with pleasure, and it seemed to Sally as though she had come out of a winter’s night into a warm, friendly room. Her mercurial spirits soared.
“Oh, Ginger! If you knew what it’s like, seeing you!”
“No, really? Do you mean, honestly, you’re braced?”
“I should say I am braced.”
“Well, isn’t that fine! I was afraid you might have forgotten me.”
With something of the effect of a revelation it suddenly struck Sally how far she had been from forgetting him, how large was the place he had occupied in her thoughts.
“I’ve missed you dreadfully,” she said, and felt the words inadequate as she uttered them.
“What ho!” said Ginger, also internally condemning the poverty of speech as a vehicle for conveying thought.
THERE was a brief silence. The first exhilaration of the reunion over, Sally deep down in her heart was aware of a troubled feeling as though the world were out of joint. She forced herself to ignore it, but it would not be ignored. It grew. Dimly she was beginning to realize what Ginger meant to her, and she fought to keep herself from realizing it. Strange things were happening to her to-night, strange emotions stirring her. Ginger seemed somehow different, as if she were really seeing him for the first time.
“You’re looking wonderfully well,” she said, trying to keep the conversation on a pedestrian level.
“I am well,” said Ginger. “Never felt better in my life. Been out in the open all day long—simple life and all that—working like blazes. I say, business is booming. Did you see me just now, handing over Percy the Pup to what’s-his-name? Five hundred dollars on that one deal. Got the check in my pocket. But what an extraordinarily rummy thing that I should have to come to this place to deliver the goods just when you happened to be here. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. I say, I hope the people you’re with won’t think I’m butting in. You’ll have to explain that we’re old pals and that you started me in business and all that sort of thing. Look here,” he said, lowering his voice, “I know how you hate being thanked, but I simply must say how terrifically decent—”
Lee Schoenstein was standing at the table, and by his side an expectant youth with a small mustache and pince-nez. Sally got up, and the next moment Ginger was alone, gaping perplexedly after her as she vanished and reappeared in the jogging throng on the dancing floor. It was the nearest thing Ginger had seen to a conjuring trick, and at that moment he was ill-attuned to conjuring tricks. He brooded, fuming, at what seemed to him the superlative exhibition of pure cheek, of monumental nerve, and of undiluted crust that had ever come within his notice. To come and charge into a private conversation like that and whisk her away without a word! . . .
“Who was that blighter?” he demanded with heat, when the music ceased and Sally limped back.
“That was Mr. Schoenstein.”
“And who was the other?”
“The one I danced with? I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Sally saw that the conversation had arrived at an embarrassing point. There was nothing for it but candor.
“Ginger,” she said, “you remember my telling you when we first met that I used to dance in a Broadway place? This is the place. I’m working again.”
Complete unintelligence showed itself on Ginger’s every feature. “I don’t understand,” he said—unnecessarily, for his face revealed the fact.
“I’ve got my old job back.”
“Well, I had to do something.” She went on rapidly. Already a light dimly resembling the light of understanding was beginning to appear in Ginger’s eyes. “Fillmore went smash, you know—it wasn’t his fault, poor dear. He had the worst kind of luck—and most of my money was tied up in his business, so you see—”
She broke off, confused by the look in his eyes, conscious of an absurd feeling of guilt. There was amazement in that look and a sort of incredulous horror.
“Do you mean to say—” Ginger gulped and started again. “Do you mean to tell me that you let me have—all that money—for the dog business—when you were broke? Do you mean to say—”
Sally stole a glance at his crimson face and looked away again quickly. There was an electric silence.
“Look here,” exploded Ginger with sudden violence, “you’ve got to marry me. You’ve jolly well got to marry me! I don’t mean that,” he added quickly. “I mean to say I know you’re going to marry whomever you please—but won’t you marry me? Sally, for God’s sake have a dash at it! I’ve been keeping it in all this time, because it seemed rather rotten to bother you about it, but now— Oh, dammit, I wish I could put it into words. I always was rotten at talking. But—well, look here, what I mean is, I know I’m not much of a chap, but it seems to me you must care for me a bit to do a thing like that for a fellow—and—I’ve loved you like the dickens ever since I met you. I do wish you’d have a stab at it, Sally! At least I could look after you, you know, and all that— I mean to say, work like the deuce and try to give you a good time. . . . I’m not such an ass as to think a girl like you could ever really—er—love a blighter like me, but—”
Sally laid her hand on his.
“Ginger dear,” she said, “I do love you. I ought to have known it all along, but I seem to be understanding myself to-night for the first time.” She got up and bent over him for a swift moment, whispering in his ear. “I shall never love anyone but you, Ginger. Will you try to remember that?”
She was moving away, but he caught at her arm and stopped her. “Sally—”
She pulled her arm away, her face working as she fought against the tears that would not be kept back.
“I’ve made a fool of myself,” she said. “Ginger, your cousin—Mr. Carmyle—just now he asked me to marry him, and I said I would.”
She was gone, flitting among the tables like some wild creature running to its home; and Ginger, motionless, watched her go.
THE telephone bell in Sally’s little sitting room was ringing jerkily as she let herself in at the front door. She guessed who it was at the other end of the wire, and the noise of the bell sounded to her like the voice of a friend in distress crying for help. Without stopping to close the door, she ran to the table and unhooked the receiver. Muffled, plaintive sounds were coming over the wire.
“Hullo—hullo . . . I say—hullo—”
“Hello, Ginger,” said Sally quietly.
An ejaculation that was half shout and half gurgle answered her. “Sally! Is that you?”
“Yes, here I am, Ginger.”
“I’ve been trying to get you for ages.”
“I’ve only just come in. I walked home.”
There was a pause.
“Well, I mean—” Ginger seemed to be finding his usual difficulty in expressing himself. “About that, you know. What you said.”
“Yes?” said Sally, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
“You said—” Again Ginger’s vocabulary failed him. “You said you loved me.”
“Yes,” said Sally simply.
Another odd sound floated over the wire, and there was a moment of silence before Ginger found himself able to resume.
“I—I— Well, we can talk about that when we meet. I mean, it’s no good trying to say what I think over the phone; I’m sort of knocked out. I never dreamed— But, I say, what did you mean about Bruce?”
“I told you; I told you.” Sally’s face was twisted, and the receiver shook in her hand. “I’ve made a fool of myself. I never realized— And now it’s too late.”
“Good God!” Ginger’s voice rose in a sharp wail. “You can’t mean you really— You don’t seriously intend to marry the man?”
“I must. I’ve promised.”
“But, good heavens—”
“It’s no good. I must.”
“But the man’s a blighter!”
“I can’t break my word.”
“I never heard such rot,” said Ginger vehemently. “Of course you can. A girl isn’t expected—”
“I can’t, Ginger dear, I really can’t.”
“But look here . . .”
“It’s really no good talking about it any more, really it isn’t. . . . Where are you staying to-night?”
“Staying? Me? At the Plaza. But look here . . .”
Sally found herself laughing weakly.
“At the Plaza! Oh, Ginger, you really do want somebody to look after you. Squandering your pennies like that! Well, don’t talk any more now. It’s so late and I’m so tired. I’ll come and see you to-morrow. Good-night.”
She hung up the receiver quickly, to cut short a fresh outburst of protest. And as she turned away a voice spoke behind her: “Sally!”
Gerald Foster was standing in the doorway.
The blood flowed slowly back into Sally’s face, and her heart, which had leaped madly for an instant at the sound of his voice, resumed its normal beat. The suddenness of the shock over, she was surprised to find herself perfectly calm. Always when she had imagined this meeting, knowing that it would have to take place sooner or later, she had felt something akin to panic; but now that it had actually occurred it hardly seemed to stir her. The events of the night had left her incapable of any violent emotion.
“Hullo, Sally!” said Gerald.
He spoke thickly, and there was a foolish smile on his face as he stood swaying with one hand on the door. He was in his shirt sleeves, collarless; and it was plain that he had been drinking heavily. His face was white and puffy, and about him there hung, like a nimbus, a sodden disreputableness. Sally did not speak. Weighed down a moment before by a numbing exhaustion, she seemed now to have passed into that second phase in which overtired nerves enter upon a sort of Indian summer of abnormal alertness. She looked at him quietly, coolly, and altogether dispassionately, as if he had been a stranger.
“Hullo!” said Gerald again.
“What do you want?” said Sally.
“Heard your voice. Saw the door open. Thought I’d come in.”
“What do you want?”
The weak smile which had seemed pinned on Gerald’s face vanished. A tear rolled down his cheek. His intoxication had reached the maudlin stage. “Sally . . . S-Sally . . . I’m very miserable.” He slurred awkwardly over the difficult syllables. “Heard your voice. Saw the door open. Thought I’d come in.”
Something flicked at the back of Sally’s mind. She seemed to have been through all this before. Then she remembered. This was simply Mr. Reginald Cracknell over again.
“I think you had better go to bed, Gerald,” she said steadily. Nothing about him seemed to touch her now, neither the sight of him nor his shameless misery.
“What’s the use? Can’t sleep. No good. Couldn’t sleep. Sally, you don’t know how worried I am. I see now what a fool I’ve been.”
Sally made a quick gesture, to check what she supposed was about to develop into a belated expression of regret for his treatment of herself. She did not want to stand there listening to Gerald apologizing with tears for having done his best to wreck her life. But it seemed that it was not this that was weighing upon his soul.
“I was a fool ever to try writing plays,” he went on. “Got a winner first time, but can’t repeat. It’s no good. Ought to have stuck to newspaper work. I’m good at that. Shall have to go back to it. Had another frost tonight. No good trying any more. Shall have to go back to the old grind, damn it.”
He wept softly, full of pity for his hard case. “Very miserable,” he murmured.
He came forward a step into the room, lurched, and retreated to the safe support of the doorway. For an instant Sally’s artificial calm was shot through by a swift stab of contempt. It passed, and she was back again in her armor of indifference.
“Go to bed, Gerald,” she said. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
PERHAPS some inkling of how he was going to feel in the morning worked through to Gerald’s muddled intelligence, for he winced, and his manner took on a deeper melancholy. “May not be alive in the morning,” he said solemnly. “Good mind to end it all. End it all!” he repeated with the beginning of a sweeping gesture which was cut off abruptly as he clutched at the friendly door.
SALLY was not in the mood for melodrama.
“Oh, go to bed,” she said impatiently. The strange, frozen indifference which had gripped her was beginning to pass, leaving in its place a growing feeling of resentment—resentment against Gerald for degrading himself like this, against herself for ever having found glamour in the man. It humiliated her to remember how utterly she had once allowed his personality to master hers. And under the sting of this humiliation she felt hard and pitiless.
Dimly she was aware that a curious change had come over her tonight. Normally, the sight of any living thing in distress was enough to stir her quick sympathy; but Gerald mourning over the prospect of having to go back to regular work made no appeal to her—a fact which the sufferer noted and commented upon.
“You’re very unsymp—unsynthetic,” he complained.
“I’m sorry,” said Sally. She walked briskly to the door and gave it a push. Gerald, still clinging to his chosen support, moved out into the passage, attached to the handle, with the air of a man the foundations of whose world have suddenly lost their stability. He released the handle and moved uncertainly across the passage. Finding his own door open before him, he staggered over the threshold, and Sally, having watched him safely to his journey’s end, went into her bedroom with the intention of terminating this disturbing night by going to sleep.
Almost immediately she changed her mind. Sleep was out of the question. A fever of restlessness had come upon her.
She put on a kimono, and went into the kitchen to ascertain whether her commissariat arrangements would permit of a glass of hot milk.
She had just remembered that she had that morning presented the last of the milk to a sandy cat with a purposeful eye which had dropped in through the window to take breakfast with her, when her regrets for this thriftless hospitality were interrupted by a muffled crash.
She listened intently. The sound had seemed to come from across the passage. She hurried to the door and opened it. As she did so, from behind the door of the apartment opposite there came a perfect fusillade of crashes, each seeming to her strained hearing louder and more appalling than the last.
THERE is something about sudden, loud noises in the stillness of the night which shatters the most rigid detachment.
A short while before, Gerald, toying with the idea of ending his sorrows by violence, had left Sally unmoved, but now her mind leaped back to what he had said, and apprehension succeeded indifference. There was no disputing the fact that Gerald was in an irresponsible mood, under the influence of which he was capable of doing almost anything. Sally, listening in the doorway, felt a momentary panic.
A brief silence had succeeded the fusillade, but, as she stood there hesitating, the noise broke out again; and this time it was so loud and compelling that Sally hesitated no longer. She ran across the passage and beat on the door.
“Even in the stress of his emotion his problem”: American book version agrees with Collier’s; British magazine and book have “this problem” here. Thanks to Ian Michaud for spotting the discrepancy. Either reading is plausible, so I won’t attempt a correction.