The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII

MARJORIE watched him bare his hand and then wonder what to do with it as he gazed down at her; for she made no correlative move. She not merely kept on her own gloves but she thrust her hands under her thighs and sat on them—a bit of taxi cab technique which evidently was new to Mr. Saltro and which puzzled him.

"We're going to Sennen's Hall," he said, and plainly it was a commentary on her extraordinary procedure.

"Yes," said Marjorie, blankly. "Clara told me."

"You haven't known Clara long?"

"About a week," Marjorie replied and withdrew her hands from under her as the swing of the cab about a corner swayed her toward Mr. Saltro, who seemed to become doubtful whether her original posture had been taken to discourage an advance or was really an inviting offer of helplessness beside him.

"Ever toddled at Sennen's?" he questioned, while he debated the alternative.

"No."

"Swell hall and fair music," Mr. Saltro said, with a certain charity of approval, professional in its tone.

"You're a musician yourself, Clara tells me," Marjorie said quickly, seizing the opening to turn his attention from herself to him.

"Oh, I play the trombone a little," Mr. Saltro admitted modestly; and, though she caught a deeper breath than any of the last few minutes, she accused herself for weak prudishness for even momentarily thus making herself Marjorie Hale at the start of her first evening as Marjorie Conway.

Here she was with Jake Saltro—trombonist of the Geyner Quartette, "jazz for dances, dinners, entertainments of all sorts"; and likely she could accompany him in a taxicab and even to Sennen's without risky revelations, if she held herself as Marjorie Hale, a good girl from an honorable, protected home; but that was exactly what she was not to do. She was through with "protection" and false honor; wild, reckless impulses leaped in her to-night; how long had they seemed utterly overwhelmed within her! Ever since that evening that Billy and Gregg came to dinner before the Lovells' dance, when she had come down with white shoulders in her too low-cut dress to shock dear, proper, absolutely safe Billy.

Now, in the taxicab beside Mr. Saltro, and wearing that same dress under her cape, she almost laughed aloud in contempt of herself as she thought back on that "daring" incident at home. Yes, at home and among her friends, chaperoned by her mother and with Billy,—Billy, who instead of taking advantage of her, would protect her against herself; and with Gregg and her other men friends who, as Rinderfeld had said, would consider themselves lower than dogs if they let themselves actually consider dishonor of a girl such as she had been.

What was she now? She asked herself the question and appreciated that her escort was debating with himself the same question; she appreciated that, upon sight of her in this daring dress—which, in those days after her father had been shot, she had never had altered—Mr. Saltro had made for himself a different judgment of her than he evidently had formed from Clara's report, and he had decided upon the definite investment of the difference between the cost of half a taxi for four and a taxi for two; at this moment, plainly he was wondering whether he was "stuck" while she kept him talking about the trombone and his idea of dance music. He had no real enthusiasm for it, so the talk died down and he gazed out of his window, while before them the meter audibly clicked and clicked as they dashed along.

"I ought to pay for the cab," Marjorie thought to herself, guiltily, "or give him what he expected for it. Probably it's only his arm around me; I'm going to let him put it around me, anyway, when we dance. For of course we're going to dance."

"Nice spring night," said Mr. Saltro, almost sarcastically, and slurring "spring" to express emotional expectation which one might naturally hold for such a season.

"Yes, it's the first time this year I've really felt it's spring," Marjorie rejoined, partly from the reaction to the reckless in her, partly from her own amazement at the feeling which was hers to-night. Strange how at home, after her discovery of the fact of Clearedge Street, spring itself, though physically arrived long days ago, had been stifled within her, and yet now spring could seize her when she herself was starting off from Clearedge Street.

"Some season, spring!" said Mr. Saltro, with marked diminution of his sarcasm and sitting nearer her. He held no reference, obviously, to budding trees and blossoming flowers, or even to the softness of the evening air coming in the open window of the taxicab door; in so far as he referred at all, it was to the couples clasping each other's arms as they strolled, "twos-ing" most heedlessly on the walks beside the boulevard down which the clicking taxi drove.

Mr. Saltro thrust a hand into a pocket. "Ever smoke?" he tried Marjorie, with revived hope as he drew out an elaborately chased cigarette case.

"Yes," said Marjorie, remembering the last time she took a cigarette; from Gregg, it was, in his car, on the way to the Lovells' dance. How cheap to smoke then, between Billy and Gregg, and deny it now!

Mr. Saltro took out a cigarette for her; momentarily he held it, and if she guessed correctly his thought, he was deliberating the tact of lighting the cigarette for her and passing it from his lips to hers. So she took one for herself, but let him hold the match before her lips and she leaned away again.

He considered her more approvingly. "Those your kind?"

She nodded.

"Have some of this?" said Mr. Saltro.

This was a silver flask with cup top, which he obtained from a hip pocket.

"What is it?" she asked calmly.

"Bourbon."

"Your own still or bootlegged?"

"Twelve dollars a quart," assured Mr. Saltro, proudly. "You've taken a drink before now, haven't you?" he pressed quickly, feeling the threat of more prudishness.

"Certainly," Marjorie admitted honestly. "Often."

"This is fine stuff! From the last half of a bottle; the other half never done anybody anything but good." He poured a cup full and drank it for proof. "Try one now?" he urged. "Look here, if you don't want to put a little pep into yourself and enjoy the evening, why did you ask Clara to have me take you to Sennen's? I like to carry a queen; I'm not crazy to drag a dumbbell to a dance." He was pouring the cup-top full again and splashing some over; he would not force her to drink, she thought, but certainly he meant to hold the cup to her mouth for her. She took it, turned it in her fingers for a few seconds while he watched her; then she drank almost all the raw, stinging fluid, choking a little as she handed back the cup. He finished it and twisted down the cap.

"More whenever you say so," he offered.

The burning sensation in her throat gave way to warmth and a slight feeling of spinning fullness in her head; strong stuff, it was. Next Mr. Saltro would have his arm about her, she thought; but this did not happen until they were at Sennen's, had joined up with Clara and Mr. Troufrie again and were dancing. For Mr. Saltro was a gentleman, by Sennen's standards, at least; and Sennen's was no underworld palace nor vicious dance hall, notorious from police raids; Sennen's took consistent care to be decent and respectable. A man usually, at least, had to take the trouble to gain an introduction to a girl before he spoke to her; no lady without escort was admitted; here and there were girls who actually were chaperoned; and many more arrived, with their escorts, in groups of four to six, as Marjorie and Clara had; and in the wide, noisy, overdecorated hall, there was conspicuous and vigilant censorship of the dancing

Sennen himself, a small, alert, dapper man in speckless evening clothes, oversaw everything, as Mr. Saltro, during his second toddle with Marjorie, pointed out.

"Sennen's certainly foolish—just like a fox," Mr. Saltro commented admiringly, as he watched the little man direct a much larger employe remove a certain too inebriated couple from the floor. Mr. Saltro and Marjorie did not stop toddling; no one stopped for such an occurrence, but merely turned, as they toddled, to keep a view so as not to miss any really interesting developments. "You got to hip-pack your own irrigation here; he won't take no chance selling it. And look at the dancing, too; ever seen decenter than that? He seen from the start the extreme shimmie wouldn't keep on drawing the best people; and he cut out too much cheek-to-cheek stuff, too. Nice looking bunch, what'd you think?" And he renewed his clasp about Marjorie which had relaxed somewhat while he talked, and he moved his hand slightly on her back while they danced.

Her back was bare, since she was wearing that dress her mother had bought for her; she had over her shoulders the scarf which her father, on that night so long ago, had insisted upon her using; but Mr. Saltro lacked the care for its proper placement which had distinguished Billy. Other men at the Lovells' dance, and Gregg had been among them, also had lacked Billy's meticulousness for her; it was nothing new for Marjorie, when dancing, to have a man's bare hand below her bare shoulders; but there was something very definite—and something rather stupendous in its revelation—about the clasp of Mr. Saltro on her flesh.

To be fair with him, it was not individual to Jake Saltro; Sam Troufrie held her, not in the same way quite, but with the same sensation; other men—Clara's friends—held her so, with one exception. It was more amazing to Marjorie Hale, when she glanced about at the nice looking girls circling her; for they were nice looking—girls prettier and livelier and yet quite as "nice" looking as most at the Lovells' dance and more modestly dressed, the majority of them. Marjorie herself was, from her undress, as conspicuous as any one there. (Indeed, Sennen had censorship decolleté; and Mr. Saltro at first had had his doubts about his partner "passing" but had been too delicate to say so till he was certain that Sennen had seen her and passed her.)

The men were, most of them, nice looking, too; they were cruder, of course, but generally more energetic looking and more interested in life than the ex-college boys of the suburbs; and as they danced with the girls under Sennen's watchful eye, Marjorie realized that if she had come in merely to look on and had not offered herself for partner of Saltro and his friends, she scarcely would have suspected that anything in particular was going on, on the floor. But almost constantly in the arms of her partners, it proceeded, something so slight in physical manifestation, something so subtle and artful that Marjorie could protest against it as little as the ever watchful Sennen could object; for to protest, you must be able at least to describe what you forbid.

When Marjorie twisted her shoulders, endeavoring to escape it, always she felt it again in a moment. "Stop, please!" at last, she begged Mr. Saltro, after a series of these endeavors; he stopped dancing, actually unaware—Marjorie believed—that she could refer to anything but an accident.

"Somebody hurt your foot?" he questioned.

Again it was for her to go ahead or abandon the experience she had undertaken; the other girls, who undoubtedly were sharing it with her, danced on blissfully, smiling and snuggling into their partners' arms as they swayed and whispered intimately. Marjorie gave herself again to Mr. Saltro's clasp; to Mr. Troufrie's; to the arms of the others who besought her, demanding another dance.

They knew she was not of them; or they found it out. Others were there who also were not of them—men, mostly. Indeed, all others of the same caste as Marjorie who were there were men; she picked them out one by one in the moving maze of the floor and discerned them distinguishing her from the other girls; and, realizing what they were there for, she despised them, aware that they even more were despising her. She recognized no one, and, fortunately, no one appeared who recognized her.

"I'm starting home now; gotta work to-morrow," Clara yawningly announced to Marjorie at half-past twelve. "You don't need to come; Jake'll like to stay."

But Marjorie went, and with Clara, so the four were together in the taxi on the ride to Clearedge Street, during which Mr. Troufrie frankly kept Clara in his arms and she, as frankly, kissed him; and so far from minding observation, Mr. Troufrie genially jeered Mr. Saltro for his conspicuous loneliness on his seat.