The Face of an Angel
THE FACE OF AN ANGEL
By J. D. Daskam
STRICKLAND pushed his chair back a trifle and looked down the long table. The air was warm and perfumed with the Parma violets scattered over the glossy linen. The candles threw lovely shadows on the shoulders of the women, whose eyes grew brighter as the dinner advanced, and whose soft, high voices babbled unceasingly, until his senses, long used to the silence of the plains, fairly ached with the steady din.
Such a strange party! But Bobby Henshawe always asked just the people he wanted, whether they were chorus girls or Vere de Veres, and he knew any number of either class. To-night, except for the four or five women and the men next them, who, he said, represented the effete aristocracy, and seemed to have been imported to give tone to a company a little more bohemian than even he had yet essayed to manage at one time, there were no faces that Strickland had ever seen before. That meant little, of course. He had been two years away and utterly cut off from a life that puzzled and wearied him now in all its flippant, foolish phases.
How had he lived for twenty-five years among these clever, idle, futile, grown-up children, working so ceaselessly to amuse themselves, flying so feverishly from the ennui they dreaded so pitifully! It seemed to him a very sad thing that such handsome, able women, such clever— What were they laughing at?
"I shall certainly tell it. If Bobby wants to leave the table, he may. Hold his hand, somebody, and calm his nervous starts. Do sit still, Bobby, and don't make such faces!"
Bobby smiled hopelessly. "Oh, tell it, then, and for heaven's sake, Parker, cut it short!" he growled. They know it, anyhow."
"But we love it so!" A beautiful gypsy leaned dramatically across her neighbor's plate and pursed up her lips at Bobby. "It makes me so happy just to know that such heavenly things can really happen!"
"Certainly," said Parker, "that's the way we all feel. You see," to the table generally, "Bobby had engaged to get Daisy Koster to come up from the play and take tea with Miss Richards and a few friends, just as she was, in her costume, you know, and sing us a song. Of course, Miss Richards couldn't ask her, but Bobby, unfortunately for his subsequent reputation, could, so he pleasantly agreed to sit through the matinée and bring her back. You all know," with a dramatic gesture, "how truly amiable is the character of our dear Robert, how easily urged to little deeds of kindness he is, how—" Here laughter drowned the narrative, which proceeded, nevertheless, audibly to a few, for they appeared to be understanding when Strickland finally heard again.
"Of course, Bobby was vexed. He hadn't expected such a reply, and he had told Dick Streeter to come around on the strength of Daisy's consenting. You know Dick looks just like Arthur, whose duties as rector rather interfered with his accompanying his brother. So when our dear Robert went to church with the family, and also went to sleep—in that respect unaccompanied by his dear ones, let us hope—Arthur, who preached about the woman of Samaria, who was at a well, you know, lifted his voice and asked, fervently, 'And though she was beckoned so lovingly, did she come?' That woke Bobby up, and he stared at Arthur, who really does resemble his sinful brother shockingly, and when Arthur stared at him—unconsciously, of course—and demanded, vigorously, 'Why did she not come?' our darling Robert gasped and mumbled thickly, 'She said 'twas too swell for her!' What more he might have been led to say we do not—cannot know. He was suppressed——"
"Now look here, Parker," began the helpless Bobby, but the renewed laughter reduced him to a bitter silence. At length he growled, "I didn't say all that, I know. I just——"
"Oh, yes, dear, but you did, you truly did!" cried Mrs. Jack Archer, gaily. "I sat in the next pew, and, Bobby, I heard you! It was heavenly! And my niece from school was quite hysterical and had to have salts and Italian mints and a fan. Jack went to church three times in succession on the strength of it, but nothing has happened since, so he has given it up. He's quite disappointed, poor fellow."
Strickland looked curiously at the woman who had just spoken. He had gone to dancing-school with her and led the cotillion often with the prettiest bud of her season—once he had wanted to marry her. He fancied those violet eyes smiling into his over the pine table in his office, he fancied that ivory satin gown sweeping the floor of his one-storied house, twelve miles from a white man, and muttered scornfully to himself.
"I beg your pardon?" said the woman next him, softly. He turned and noticed her for the first time. The man at her left had talked to her steadily till now, and her face had been turned away from Strickland. Now, as he looked full at her, he almost gasped in her face, so young she seemed, so wholly different from the company around her.
She was dressed in a gown of gray tulle, so plainly made that her straight, slim figure might have been that of a schoolgirl. Only a ruffle at the neck broke the smooth, smoky folds, and her throat and wrists were absolutely bare of jewels. Her brown hair was coiled smoothly on her neck and a few tiny locks fell over her forehead. Beneath them her eyes, large, gray as her gown, looked at him like a child's. One great dimple in her soft, white cheek showed when she spoke. About her was an atmosphere of such purity, simplicity and quaint, childlike weariness of the whole thing that Strickland felt an overwhelming curiosity—how had she come there? Her name he did not remember, if he had ever heard it.
Moved by a sudden impulse—for the etiquette of New Mexico is not restrictive, and he had been greatly alone for two years—Strickland smiled at her and answered her eyes rather than her question.
"I was only wondering how people kept their self-respect, or even their self-interest, in this sort of life," he said, quickly. Her eyes widened, she turned almost to face him, and said:
"You find it dull, then?" She spoke with a slow, dainty precision, as one not quite sure of the vernacular of these hurried, vulgar, chattering people among whom fate had cast her.
He nodded. "Dull, and worse," he said. "I have grown unduly moral in a land where I am the only educated man for twenty miles around—I have thought of my responsibilities. I used to be of this world and in it, too; now I am neither."
"You are a priest?" she asked, again meeting his eyes fully with that strange, childish air of remoteness and unconsciousness of self.
"Heavens, no!" He looked at the soft, white oval of her face and added, daringly, yet in earnest: "No more than you are a priestess!"
She seemed to understand him—was it possible? She was not even offended. She looked at the laughing, chattering crowd and swept her hand with a dramatic gesture along the table. "You meant this world here!" she said. "You are in the right. They are fools. I am very tired of them."
And then, talking very low, Strickland began to tell her of the empty, wind-swept places where he had cast his life. How he had thrown angrily behind him, because of a heartless woman's trifling, the city and all the people and the life that seemed to him now so futile and trivial. How he had experienced danger and privation and loneliness, and cursed himself for a fool many times, and yet had stayed on and tried to do something for the betterment of the Indians he had grown to love as one loves those whom he tries to help to help themselves.
He was no prig, this Strickland, but he had learned hard the lesson that no man may with decency live simply to amuse himself; and, inspired to gain this lovely child's sympathy, he opened his heart to her as he had opened it to no one since the day he left his kind, two years before.
And when he had finished, half-ashamed of such a boyish confidence, he was not hurt that she did not answer him except by a fuller glance from her deep, gray eyes, for he seemed to understand that she preferred to be silent. So he looked at her eagerly now and then, wrapped in that cool, remote atmosphere of hers, proud to be able to understand her, thanking heaven that he could take away from the dinner, that had so tired him when he had tried to feel in place, a great satisfaction now. For to have known such a soul, even as he knew her for a few moments, renewed his trust in women. There were then some of them who, like himself, were tired of the aimless life; perhaps even planning to escape from it as he was then.
What! were they going? Yes, and all together. Bobby had said that there was no need for the men to wait—he thought it a silly idea—they must all come up, and Parker would do them an act from the last play he'd seen; he would take all the parts at once.
So they raced up the stairs in a pretty, effective confusion, and when Mrs. Jack Archer tripped on the first step they made a chair and carried her up, a flushed, protesting, laughing bundle of chiffon. And Kitty Campbell, leading lady at the Emporium, went up, for a bet, on the outside, holding by the balustrade, beseeching somebody to help her over the top, in a voice whose exquisite contralto could not be concealed by the laughter that confused her broken sentences.
How vulgar they were! How lacking in proportion and repose! Ahead of Strickland moved a gray, soft gown; on the rail above his hand rested that bare, white wrist. In the press he touched her arm, and it was as cool and smooth as a white rose at night.
He lost her, somehow, and hunted the rooms through in vain. As he passed the billiard-room he caught a glimpse of Parker striding pompously up and down the table, singing a chorus from the opera, and just as he left the crowd, for he could not find her there, they persuaded Kitty to mount the table, and her great, rich voice dignified even the song she sang for them.
Strickland hunted up Mrs. Jack and tied her fluffy party-boots while she chattered. "That? Why, don't you know who that is? But then, if you will live with the untutored savage, you know! Why, I saw you talking with her as if you were great friends—you naughty! I don't know what her real name is—Flaurin or Flandrin, or something. But everybody calls her by her—her other name, La Cigale. She gets ridiculous salaries—hundreds a night, Jack says. What? Oh, songs and dances, of course. Awfully clever, too. I've never been—Bobby told Jack I mustn't. Isn't it horrid, though? But I shall go yet. She's very seldom seen at dinners and things—awfully proud, you know. Isn't that funny? Bobby only got her on condition that she shouldn't speak unless she liked—we were all warned. Like royalty, you know. She's only here for the money, of course. She was a great success in Paris, but there's more money here. They say she's awfully bored—finds us rather slow—longs for dear Paris, you know, and all that. ... Oh, I don't know. Twenty-eight or thirty, they say. It's her wonderful complexion and her eyes, I suppose. ... You can't come to my tea? Oh, Mr. Strickland, how cruel! I think the untutored savage might wait! Back to-morrow? Well, write an awfully clever book and send me a copy, won't you? Good-bye—so glad to have seen you, even if you won't come to tea."