It Happened Last Night
IT HAPPENED LAST NIGHT
BY REX STOUT
I KNEW that she was inaccessible to me. When I first found the thought of her whirling about in my mind, the sensible thing would have been to go to the corner café for a drink and drown the fancy like a man. She belonged to another world, and anything I might do would be like a dog baying at the moon. I knew that; but I entertained the thought and caressed it, encouraged it.
I was intoxicated. I had seen her once or twice before, but from that afternoon on Fifth Avenue dated my obsession. I had come downtown in the subway and stopped off at Forty-second Street on some errand or other, when suddenly she swept into sight. I already knew her by name and reputation, much as you know a famous prima donna or a royal princess. I stopped and stared like a fool, and then, half unconsciously, drawn by an irresistible attraction, turned and followed her. She was dressed fashionably, but in faultless taste; her large dark eyes looked out from under the modish rim of a Doquet straw and her pale oval countenance and curved red lips, contradicting each other, imparted a piquant distinction to her appearance. Men turned to look at her. Knowing that I was making a fool of myself, I nevertheless followed her up the Avenue. Every now and then she stopped to took at a window display, while I stood a few yards away gazing at her from the corner of my eye. It was a senseless performance; I certainly had no thought of accosting her on the street, but I was impelled by an overpowering fascination.
After that the thought of her was constantly in my mind. Wherever I found myself, at the office in the morning, at home at night, on the subway, there was always before me that pale oval face with the red lips, to my torment. I dreamed of our meeting, of addressing her, of those red lips smiling at me in welcome, of the friendly pressure of her hand, and I thought of what I should say and how she would answer me. I composed a thousand speeches and turned each one over and over in my brain to perfect it and make it worthy of her. I was mad.
All that, knowing she was inaccessible, immeasurably above me. Humble as I was and of the poorest connections, the conventional channels were closed to me with insurmountable barriers. But I could not forget her. Heaven knows I tried; but in the end I gave it up, and one evening, gritting my teeth, I said to myself, as I was going home on the elevated:
"Very well, I'll meet her, somehow, and take my chance. Anything will be better than this ceaseless yearning."
My heart felt lighter after this resolution, but by the time I got home I was lost in contemplation of a hundred wild schemes that darted into my mind; so much so that I forgot to kiss my wife as I entered the flat. We had been married only about a year and honeymoon days had scarcely waned. Five minutes later, as I sat in the front room reading the paper, I suddenly remembered and jumped up and hurried to the kitchen, uneasy. My wife stood stirring something on the stove and I stopped and kissed her on the cheek before I noticed that anything was wrong.
She turned around quickly, and I saw tears in her eyes.
In the scene that followed, I was certainly not myself. It was not only that I had forgotten the kiss that evening. My wife had said not a word during the previous weeks about my preoccupation and brooding, but I learned now that nothing had escaped her notice. She accused me of neglecting her, of ceasing to love her, of being indifferent to her. I confess I acted a perfect ass. I should have told her everything, and she, sensible little woman that she is, would have seen the thing as I did and have done all in her power to help me out of my trouble. But the vanity and stupidity of man are boundless. I hesitated and evaded.
"It's only business, dear," I declared. "I'm worried, that's all."
As a matter of fact, things were very well at the office; but it could not be denied that I was worried. In the end, it was patched over somehow, though that was the most uncomfortable dinner since our marriage.
In the days that followed, I continued revolving in my mind schemes for meeting her—wild, impossible schemes—conceiving and rejecting them in endless succession. Nothing else seemed to matter but her, only her! If I could only speak to her! Only hear her voice and see her smile! Only hear the words that I imagined on her lips! One morning, at my desk in the office, I sat with these thoughts in my brain—they were never absent—quite unconsciously writing her name, over and over, on a sheet of paper, until it was filled. I was lost in my dreams, when suddenly I heard a voice at my elbow:
"What's that for?"
I looked up to find my partner, Harris, gazing in bewilderment at her name scribbled all over the paper. I jerked myself up in my chair and hastily turned the sheet upside down, while I felt the blood rush into my face or out of it, I don't know which.
"What's that for?" he repeated.
Then he saw the expression on my face, and his look of puzzlement changed slowly to one of incredulous understanding as he stood and stared at me. I said nothing, and he stared in silence for a long while.
"You're a damned fool," he said at length, calmly.
"It can be," I retorted and, seizing my hat, I jumped up and left the office.
I wandered about the streets for hours, and though I had several appointments for that day I kept none of them. I was wandering in the light of a glorious vision and was blinded by it. Of course Harris was right: I was a damned fool. But I couldn't help it I walked at random, not knowing or caring where I went, with her face always before me.
Suddenly I saw her.
It was on Broadway, somewhere in the Thirties, about five o'clock in the afternoon. She was walking uptown, unhurried, with an assured, leisurely step that was, in fact, deceiving; for when I turned and followed her I found that she carried herself along faster than one would think. I threw caution to the winds and marched along almost at her heels. A happy chance came presently to my assistance, or I believe I should have been ass enough to accost her on the street and thereby have utterly ruined myself in her sight.
Luckily my timidity held me back until she had reached Forty-second Street; there she turned west and a few steps from Seventh Avenue entered the lobby of the Stuyvesant Theatre. I was close behind her as she approached the box office; I looked over her shoulder as she purchased two tickets in the orchestra for the performance of "Peaches and Cream" that night, and I noted the numbers on the coupons.
At that moment came my inspiration. I waited till she had disappeared again into the street, then approached the ticket seller.
"One for tonight, orchestra."
He turned to glance over the rack, polled out a coupon and started to put it in an envelope. Meanwhile, I was studying the chart of the theatre under the slab of glass on the ledge.
"What row is it?" I inquired.
"Got anything in the eleventh, near the centre?"
He nodded, after consulting the rack.
"Right here. Fine seat." He pointed to the location on the chart. We were getting hot.
"I'd prefer the other side, if possible"
He frowned impatiently and mumbled something I didn't catch as he turned again to the rack. Out came another coupon; a quick glance showed me its number. A moment later, I had parted company with a two dollar bill and was emerging into the street with a ticket that called for the seat adjoining those purchased by her.
I didn't go back to the office that evening; I wouldn't even have gone home to dinner but for the necessity of changing my clothes. I forget what lie I told my wife, but it couldn't have been a very good one, for my mind was entirely occupied with the question whether or not to wear a dress suit. I knew that the audience at the Stuyvesant was usually about half and half, and I finally decided on my new grey business sack, for I had no desire to appear in false colors. Anyway, hired dress suits are generally of antiquated model, and I knew her eye would detect it at a glance, accustomed as she was to such things. I wished to give myself every advantage possible.
I had a hard time deciding just what to write, and the idea came to me that it would be better to go down to the office first and use the typewriter; but in the end I went out to a stationery and cigar store for a newspaper wrapper with mucilage on the end and used that. Before I finally copied it, as plainly and neatly as possible, I tried fifty different ways of saying what I wanted to in the fewest words, and even then I wasn't satisfied with it.
I was in an agony of suspense, and not disposed to sit around and talk with my wife till time to go, I went out for a walk. Then the thought struck me that something might happen on the subway to delay me, so I rushed to the station and took the first train downtown. I reached the theatre a little after seven and stood in the lobby till the doors opened. I was the first one seated.
Then I encountered my only difficulty. She had bought two tickets, adjoining mine on the left, but which one would she occupy? It was an even chance that she would occupy the seat next to mine. I felt certain that her companion would be some relative or woman friend, since she had bought the tickets herself. So I took the program from the arm of the seat next to mine and opened it at a page near the back, for I didn't want her to see it before the show began, and I knew that during the first or second intermission she would look through the whole program. They always do. So I pasted the newspaper wrapper on which I had written my appeal in a page near the back. The brown paper stood out conspicuously against the white. I closed the program and replaced it with a feeling that if the thing didn't work it wouldn't be my fault. I had done my best.
I tried to amuse myself by watching the theatre fill up, but I was horribly restless and turned around constantly to see if she were coming. At last she would know my name! At last she would speak to me! For I assured myself that she couldn't be so heartless as to ignore me. She couldn't! As the time passed my restlessness increased to a torment of suspense.
A minute or two before curtain time she arrived. I was watching the aisle to the right, but she came unexpectedly down the other side and was already pushing her way past the row of knees to her seat before I saw her. My heart leaped with joy as I saw that she was in front; she would sit next me, as I had hoped! Behind was her companion, a pleasant-faced lady of fifty-five or so, no doubt her mother, or possibly an aunt.
They had barely time to get seated and take off their wraps before the house darkened and the curtain rose. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her profile, delicate in its severity, and the soft rounded contour of neck and shoulders, her dark fine hair contrasting startlingly with the whiteness of her skin. I haven't the remotest idea about the first act. I scarcely breathed;—so close to her, almost touching her! There in front of us her breath was mingling with mine! And soon she would read my name. She would speak to me. I was a-quiver with excitement and hope. Would they never get through that foolishness on the stage?
Then the curtain, applause, and the house was light again. She spoke to her companion; they discussed the performers. I was in a fever of impatience. They talked so long that I feared the second act would begin before they finished. Finally she began turning the leaves of her program. She read, "What the Man Will Wear," "The Golfer," and "Here and There." She skimmed over the advertisements, turning the pages more rapidly. I could feel myself trembling in my seat, and suddenly I was aware that she had reached it. She was reading the slip of paper I had pasted in her program. I bit my lips to keep myself steady. She read it a second time, a third. I felt, rather than saw, her swift glance. There was a silence, a rather long silence, and then her voice came:
"Really, this is rather clever."
I turned. Yes, she was speaking to me! I swallowed hard and tried to answer, but couldn't. She saw, and smiled—a divine smile!
She spoke again:
"You wrote this? You put this here?"
I nodded, and stammered, "Yes, I did. Forgive me, but it was the only way." Suddenly my voice came, and I continued swiftly: "No doubt you think it bold and in bad taste, but I have been trying for months to think of some way of meeting you. To one in my humble position the conventional channels were closed. I knew no one that could or would introduce me. I thought of calling on you, but of course you wouldn't have seen me, and you would have been right. So I did this. It was the only way I could think of. I beg you not to be offended."
I stopped, wondering if I had said too much or not enough. But I could see she was smiling; at least she wasn't angry. She read the slip over again. I heard her murmur, "How amusing." No, she wasn't angry. Suddenly she turned to me:
"Really, I think you deserve—well, we'll see. You deserve respect for your originality, at least. Let's see; tomorrow's Thursday. Will you call in the morning—between ten and eleven? Wait—" she smiled—"take this and use it as your card when you come." She tore out the slip I had pasted in her program and handed to me.
I tried to stammer my thanks; she waved them away smilingly and turned to speak to her companion, who had been regarding us in wondering curiosity. The light began to go out for the second act. My heart was so full of elation I couldn't sit for such a banal performance; besides would it not be more delicate not to remain? She might feel obliged to converse with me; might think I expected it; it would be presumptuous. And I wanted to get away to think it over.
I took my hat and coat and edged my way to the aisle. In the outer lobby I put on my coat and hat, took the slip of brown paper, read it over once more and folded it; but before placing it in my pocket, I gaily carried it to my lips. The doorman, standing nearby, stared at me in amazement. Perhaps he would have been still more amazed if he had known what was written on it:
- "The man sitting on your right is is Abe Goldstein, of Harris and Goldstein. They are a new firm without much capital, but they have an original and artistic line with the punch. He only asks a chance to show you."
And that was the way I got acquainted with Sadie Levine, buyer of ladies' suits for the most exclusive house on Fifth Avenue. Usually it takes years to get an account like that. It happened last night. I called on her this morning and sold her a bill of fourteen different numbers, three of each, for $1,760.50. How's that for a first order?