She was still quite angry when she came out of the dressing-room and crossed the intervening parlor of politeness that opened onto the hall—angry not so much at the actual happening which was, after all, the merest commonplace of her social existence, but because it had occurred on this particular night. She had no quarrel with herself. She had acted with that correct mixture of dignity and reticent pity which she always employed. She had succinctly and deftly snubbed him.
It had happened when their taxi was leaving the Biltmore—hadn't gone half a block. He had lifted his right arm awkwardly—she was on his right side—and attempted to settle it snugly around the crimson fur-trimmed opera cloak she wore. This in itself had been a mistake. It was inevitably more graceful for a young man attempting to embrace a young lady of whose acquiescence he was not certain, to first put his far arm around her. It avoided that awkward movement of raising the near arm.
His second faux pas was unconscious. She had spent the afternoon at the hairdresser's; the idea of any calamity overtaking her hair was extremely repugnant—yet as Peter made his unfortunate attempt the point of his elbow had just faintly brushed it. That was his second faux pas. Two were quite enough.
He had begun to murmur. At the first murmur she had decided that he was nothing but a college boy—Edith was twenty-two, and anyhow, this dance, first of its kind since the war, was reminding her, with the accelerating rhythm of its associations, of something else—of another dance and another man, a man for whom her feelings had been little more than a sad-eyed, adolescent mooniness. Edith Bradin was falling in love with her recollection of Gordon Sterrett.
So she came out of the dressing-room at Delmonico's and stood for a second in the doorway looking over the shoulders of a black dress in front of her at the groups of Yale men who flitted like dignified black moths around the head of the stairs. From the room she had left drifted out the heavy fragrance left by the passage to and fro of many scented young beauties—rich perfumes and the fragile memory-laden dust of fragrant powders. This odor drifting out acquired the tang of cigarette smoke in the hall, and then settled sensuously down the stairs and permeated the ballroom where the Gamma Psi dance was to be held. It was an odor she knew well, exciting, stimulating, restlessly sweet—the odor of a fashionable dance.
She thought of her own appearance. Her bare arms and shoulders were powdered to a creamy white. She knew they looked very soft and would gleam like milk against the black backs that were to silhouette them to-night. The hairdressing had been a success; her reddish mass of hair was piled and crushed and creased to an arrogant marvel of mobile curves. Her lips were finely made of deep carmine; the irises of her eyes were delicate, breakable blue, like china eyes. She was a complete, infinitely delicate, quite perfect thing of beauty, flowing in an even line from a complex coiffure to two small slim feet.
She thought of what she would say to-night at this revel, faintly prestiged already by the sounds of high and low laughter and slippered footsteps, and movements of couples up and down the stairs. She would talk the language she had talked for many years—her line—made up of the current expressions, bits of journalese and college slang strung together into an intrinsic whole, careless, faintly provocative, delicately sentimental. She stalled faintly as she heard a girl sitting on the stairs near her say: "You don't know the half of it, dearie!"
And as she smiled her anger melted for a moment, and closing her eyes she drew in a deep breath of pleasure. She dropped her arms to her side until they were faintly touching the sleek sheath that covered and suggested her figure. She had never felt her own softness so much nor so enjoyed the whiteness of her own arms.
"I smell sweet," she said to herself simply, and then came another thought "I'm made for love."
She liked the sound of this and thought it again; then inevitable succession came her new-born riot of dreams about Gordon. The twist of her imagination which, two months before, had disclosed to her her unguessed desire to see him again, seemed now to have been leading up to this dance, this hour.
For all her sleek beauty, Edith was a grave, slow-thinking girl. There was a streak in her of that same desire to ponder, of that adolescent idealism that had turned her brother socialist and pacifist. Henry Bradin had left Cornell, where he had been an instructor in economies, and had come to New York to pour the latest cures for incurable evils into the columns of a radical weekly newspaper.
Edith, less fatuously, would have been content to cure Gordon Sterrett. There was a quality of weakness in Gordon that she wanted to take care of; there was a helplessness in him that she wanted to protect. And she wanted someone she had known a long while, someone who had loved her a long while. She was a little tired; she wanted to get married. Out of a pile of letters, half a dozen pictures and as many memories, and this weariness, she had decided that next time she saw Gordon their relations were going to be changed. She would say something that would change them. There was this evening. This was her evening. All evenings were her evenings.
Then her thoughts were interrupted by a solemn undergraduate with a hurt look and an air of strained formality who presented himself before her and bowed unusually low. It was the man she had come with, Peter Himmel. He was tall and humorous, with horned-rimmed glasses and an air of attractive whimsicality. She suddenly rather disliked him—probably because he had not succeeded in kissing her.
"Well," she began, "are you still furious at me?"
"Not at all."
She stepped forward and took his arm.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I don't know why I snapped out that way. I'm in a bum humor to-night for some strange reason. I'm sorry."
"S'all right," he mumbled, "don't mention it."
He felt disagreeably embarrassed. Was she rubbing in the fact of his late failure?
"It was a mistake," she continued, on the same consciously gentle key. "We'll both forget it." For this he hated her.
A few minutes later they drifted out on the floor while the dozen swaying, sighing members of the specially hired jazz orchestra informed the crowded ballroom that "if a saxophone and me are left alone why then two is com-pan-ee!"
A man with a mustache cut in.
"Hello," he began reprovingly. "You don't remember me."
"I can't just think of your name," she said lightly—"and I know you so well."
"I met you up at—" His voice trailed disconsolately off as a man with very fair hair cut in. Edith murmured a conventional "Thanks, loads—cut in later," to the inconnu.
The very fair man insisted on shaking hands enthusiastically. She placed him as one of the numerous Jims of her acquaintance—last name a mystery. She remembered even that he had a peculiar rhythm in dancing and found as they started that she was right.
"Going to be here long?" he breathed confidentially.
She leaned back and looked up at him.
"Couple of weeks."
"Where are you?"
"Biltmore. Call me up some day."
"I mean it," he assured her. "I will. We'll go to tea."
"So do I—Do."
A dark man cut in with intense formality.
"You don't remember me, do you?" he said gravely.
"I should say I do. Your name's Harlan."
"Well, I knew there were two syllables anyway. You're the boy that played the ukulele so well up at Howard Marshall's house party.
"I played—but not—"
A man with prominent teeth cut in. Edith inhaled a slight cloud of whiskey. She liked men to have had something to drink; they were so much more cheerful, and appreciative and complimentary—much easier to talk to.
"My name's Dean, Philip Dean," he said cheerfully. "You don't remember me, I know, but you used to come up to New Haven with a fellow I roomed with senior year, Gordon Sterrett."
Edith looked up quickly.
"Yes, I went up with him twice—to the Pump and Slipper and the Junior prom."
" You've seen him, of course," said Dean carelessly. "He's here to-night. I saw him just a minute ago."
Edith started. Yet she had felt quite sure he would be here.
"Why, no, I haven't—"
A fat man with red hair cut in.
"Hello, Edith," he began.
She slipped, stumbled lightly.
"I'm sorry, dear," she murmured mechanically.
She had seen Gordon—Gordon very white and listless, leaning against the side of a doorway, smoking, and looking into the ballroom. Edith could see that his face was thin and wan—that the hand he raised to his lips with a cigarette, was trembling. They were dancing quite close to him now.
"—They invite so darn many extra fellas that you—" the short man was saying.
"Hello, Gordon," called Edith over her partner's shoulder. Her heart was pounding wildly.
His large dark eyes were fixed on her. He took a step in her direction. Her partner turned her away—she heard his voice bleating——
"—but half the stags get lit and leave before long, so—" Then a low tone at her side.
"May I, please?"
She was dancing suddenly with Gordon; one of his arms was around her; she felt it tighten spasmodically; felt his hand on her back with the fingers spread. Her hand holding the little lace handkerchief was crushed in his.
"Why Gordon," she began breathlessly.
She slipped again—was tossed forward by her recovery until her face touched the black cloth of his dinner coat. She loved him—she knew she loved him—then for a minute there was silence while a strange feeling of uneasiness crept over her. Something was wrong.
Of a sudden her heart wrenched, and turned over as she realized what it was. He was pitiful and wretched, a little drunk, and miserably tired.
"Oh—" she cried involuntarily.
His eyes looked down at her. She saw suddenly that they were blood-streaked and rolling uncontrollably.
"Gordon," she murmured, "we'll sit down; I want to sit down."
They were nearly in mid-floor, but she had seen two men start toward her from opposite sides of the room, so she halted, seized Gordon's limp hand and led him bumping through the crowd, her mouth tight shut, her face a little pale under her rouge, her eyes trembling with tears.
She found a place high up on the soft-carpeted stairs, and he sat down heavily beside her.
"Well," he began, staring at her unsteadily, "I certainly am glad to see you, Edith."
She looked at him without answering. The effect of this on her was immeasurable. For years she had seen men in various stages of intoxication, from uncles all the way down to chauffeurs, and her feelings had varied from amusement to disgust, but here for the first time she was seized with a new feeling—an unutterable horror.
"Gordon," she said accusingly and almost crying, "you look like the devil."
He nodded, "I've had trouble, Edith."
"All sorts of trouble. Don't you say anything to the family, but I'm
all gone to pieces. I'm a mess, Edith."
His lower lip was sagging. He seemed scarcely to see her.
"Can't you—can't you," she hesitated, "can't you tell me about it, Gordon? You know I'm always interested in you."
She bit her lip—she had intended to say something stronger, but found at the end that she couldn't bring it out.
Gordon shook his head dully. "I can't tell you. You're a good woman. I can't tell a good woman the story."
"Rot," she said, defiantly. "I think it's a perfect insult to call any one a good woman in that way. It's a slam. You've been drinking, Gordon."
"Thanks." He inclined his head gravely. "Thanks for the information."
"Why do you drink?"
"Because I'm so damn miserable."
"Do you think drinking's going to make it any better?"
"What you doing—trying to reform me?"
"No; I'm trying to help you, Gordon. Can't you tell me about it?"
"I'm in an awful mess. Best thing you can do is to pretend not to know me."
"I'm sorry I cut in on you—its unfair to you. You're pure woman—and all that sort of thing. Here, I'll get some one else to dance with you."
He rose clumsily to his feet, but she reached up and pulled him down beside her on the stairs.
"Here, Gordon. You're ridiculous. You're hurting me. You're acting like a—like a crazy man—"
"I admit it. I'm a little crazy. Something's wrong with me, Edith. There's something left me. It doesn't matter."
" It does, tell me."
"Just that. I was always queer—little bit different from other boys. All right in college, but now it's all wrong. Things have been snapping inside me for four months like little hooks on a dress, and it's about to come off when a few more hooks go. I'm very gradually going loony."
He turned his eyes full on her and began to laugh, and she shrank away from him.
"What is the matter?"
"Just me," he repeated. "I'm going loony. This whole place is like a dream to me—this Delmonico's—"
As he talked she saw he had changed utterly. He wasn't at all light and gay and careless—a great lethargy and discouragement had come over him. Revulsion seized her, followed by a faint, surprising boredom. His voice seemed to come out of a great void.
"Edith," he said, "I used to think I was clever, talented, an artist. Now I know I'm nothing. Can't draw, Edith. Don't know why I'm telling you this."
She nodded absently.
"I can't draw, I can't do anything. I'm poor as a church mouse." He laughed, bitterly and rather too loud. "I've become a damn beggar, a leech on my friends. I'm a failure. I'm poor as hell."
Her distaste was growing. She barely nodded this time, waiting for her first possible cue to rise.
Suddenly Gordon's eyes filled with tears.
"Edith," he said, turning to her with what was evidently a strong effort at self-control, "I can't tell you what it means to me to know there's one person left who's interested in me."
He reached out and patted her hand, and involuntarily she drew it away.
" It's mighty fine of you," he repeated.
"Well," she said slowly, looking him in the eye, "any one's always glad to see an old friend—but I'm sorry to see you like this, Gordon."
There was a pause while they looked at each other, and the momentary eagerness in his eyes wavered. She rose and stood looking at him, her face quite expressionless.
"Shall we dance?" she suggested, coolly.
—Love is fragile—she was thinking—but perhaps the pieces are saved, the things that hovered on lips, that might have been said. The new love words, the tendernesses learned, are treasured up for the next lover.