The Gay Cockade/Burned Toast
Perry Cunningham and I had been friends for years. I was older than he, and I had taught him in his senior year at college. After that we had traveled abroad, frugally, as befitted our means. The one quarrel I had with fate was that Perry was poor. Money would have given him the background that belonged to him—he was a princely chap, with a high-held head. He had Southern blood in his veins, which accounted perhaps for an almost old-fashioned charm of manner, as if he carried on a gentlemanly tradition.
We went through the art galleries together. There could have been nothing better than those days with him—the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace. Perry's search for beauty was almost breathless. We swept from Filippo Lippi to Botticelli and Bellini, then on to Ghirlandajo, Guido Reni, Correggio, Del Sarto—the incomparable Leonardo.
"If I had lived then," Perry would say, glowing, "in Florence or in Venice!"
And I, smiling at his enthusiasm, had a vision of him among those golden painters, his own young beauty enhanced by robes of clear color, his thirst for loveliness appeased by the sumptuous settings of that age of romance.
Then when the great moderns confronted us—Sorolla and the rest—Perry complained, "Why did I study law, Roger, when I might be doing things like this?"
"It is not too late," I told him.
I felt that he must not be curbed, that his impassioned interest might blossom and bloom into genius if it were given a proper outlet.
So it came about that he decided to paint. He would stay in Paris a year or two in a studio, and test his talent.
But his people would not hear of it. There had been lawyers in his family for generations. Since the Civil War they had followed more or less successful careers. Perry's own father had made no money, but Perry's mother was obsessed by the idea that the fortunes of the family were bound up in her son's continuance of his father's practice.
So Perry went home and opened an office. His heart was not in it, but he made enough to live on, and at last he made money enough to marry a wife. He would have married her whether he had enough to live on or not. She was an artist, and she was twenty when Perry met her. We had been spending a month in Maine, on an island as charming as it was cheap. Rosalie was there with a great-aunt and uncle. She was painting the sea on the day that Perry first saw her, and she wore a jade-green smock. Her hair was red, drawn back rather tightly from her forehead, but breaking into waves over her ears. With the red of her cheeks and the red of her lips she had something of the look of Lorenzo Lotto's lovely ladies, except for a certain sharp slenderness, a slenderness which came, I was to learn later, from an utter indifference to the claims of appetite. She was one of those who sell bread to buy hyacinths.
I speak of this here because Rosalie's almost ascetic indifference to material matters, in direct contrast to Perry's vivid enjoyment of the good things of life, came to have a tragic significance in later days. Perry loved a warm hearth in winter, a cool porch in summer. He had the Southerner's epicurean appreciation of the fine art of feasting. The groaning board had been his inheritance from a rollicking, rackety set of English ancestors, to whom dining was a rather splendid ceremony. On his mother's table had been fish and game from Chesapeake, fruits and vegetables in season and out—roast lamb when prices soared high in the spring, strawberries as soon as they came up from Florida. There had always been money for these in the Cunningham exchequer, when there had been money for nothing else.
Rosalie, on the other hand, ate an orange in the morning, a square of toast at noon, a chop and perhaps a salad for dinner. One felt that she might have fared equally well on dew and nectar. She had absolutely no interest in what was set before her, and after she married Perry this attitude of mind remained unchanged.
She was a wretched cook, and made no effort to acquire expertness. She and Perry lived in a small but well-built bungalow some miles out from town, and they could not afford a maid. When I dined with them I made up afterward for the deficiencies of their menu by a square meal at the club. There was no chance for Perry to make up, and I wondered as the years went on how he stood it.
He seemed to stand it rather well, except that in time he came to have that same sharpened look of delicacy which added a spiritual note to Rosalie's rich bloom. He always lighted up when he spoke of his wife, and he was always urging me to come and see them. I must admit that except for the meals I liked to go. Rosalie's success at painting had been negligible, but her love of beauty was expressed in the atmosphere she gave to her little home; she had achieved rather triumphant results in backgrounds and in furnishing.
I remember one spring twilight. I was out for the week-end, and we dined late. The little house was on a hill, and with the French windows wide open we seemed to hang above an abyss of purple sky, cut by a thin crescent. White candles lighted the table, and there were white lilacs. There was a silver band about Rosalie's red hair.
There was not much to eat, and Perry apologized, "Rose hates to fuss with food in hot weather."
Rosalie, as mysterious in that light as the young moon, smiled dreamily.
"Why should one think about such things—when there is so much else in the world?"
Perry removed the plates and made the coffee. Rosalie did not drink coffee. She wandered out into the garden, and came back with three violets, which she kissed and stuck in Perry's coat.
The next morning when I came down Rosalie was cutting bread for toast. She was always exquisitely neat, and in her white linen and in her white-tiled kitchen she seemed indubitably domestic. I was hungry and had hopes of her efforts.
"Peer is setting the table", she told me.
She always called him "Peer". She had her own way of finding names for people. I was never "Roger", but "Jim Crow". When questioned as to her reason for the appellation she decided vaguely that it might be some connection of ideas—dances—Sir Roger de Coverley—and didn't somebody "dance Jim Crow"?
"You don't mind, do you?" she had asked, and I had replied that I did not.
I did not confess how much I liked it. I had always been treated in a distinctly distant and dignified fashion by my family and friends, so that Rosalie's easy assumption of intimacy was delightful.
Well, I went out on the porch and left Rosalie to her culinary devices. I found the morning paper, and fifteen minutes later there came up across the lawn a radiant figure.
Rosalie, hearing the garden call, had chucked responsibility—and her arms were full of daffodils!
We had burned toast for breakfast! Rosalie had forgotten it and Perry had not rescued it until it was well charred. There was no bread to make more, so we had to eat it.
For the rest we had coffee and fruit. It was an expensive season for eggs, and Rosalie had her eye on a bit of old brocade which was to light a corner of her studio. She breakfasted contentedly on grapefruit, but Perry was rather silent, and I saw for the first time a shadow on his countenance. I wondered if for the moment his mind had wandered to the past, and to his mother's table, with Sunday waffles, omelet, broiled bacon. Yet—there had been no bits of gay brocade to light the mid-Victorian dullness of his mother's dining-room, no daffodils on a radiant morning, no white lilacs on a purple twilight, no slender goddess, mysterious as the moon.
It was in the middle of the following winter that I began to realize that Perry was not well. He had come home on a snowy night, tired and chilled to the bone. He was late and Rosalie had kept dinner waiting for him. It was a rather sorry affair when it was served. Perry pushed his chair back and did not eat. I had as little appetite for it as he, but I did my best. I had arrived on an earlier train, with some old prints that I wanted to show him. Rosalie and I looked at them after dinner, but Perry crouched over the fire and coughed at intervals.
At last I couldn't stand it any longer.
"He needs some hot milk, a foot bath, and to be tucked up in bed."
Rosalie stared at me above the prints. "Perry?"
"Yes. He isn't well."
"Don't croak, Jim Crow."
But I knew what I was talking about. "I am going to get him to bed. You can have the milk ready when I come down."
It developed that there was no milk. I walked half a mile to a road house and brought back oysters and a bottle of cream. I cooked them myself in the white-tiled kitchen, and served them piping hot in a bowl with crackers.
Perry, propped up in bed, ate like a starved bird.
"I've never tasted anything better," he said; and, warmed and fed, he slept after a bit as soundly as a satisfied baby.
It was while he was eating the oysters that Rosalie came to the door and looked at him. He was not an æsthetic object—I must admit that no sick man is—and I saw distaste in her glance, as if some dainty instinct in her shrank from the spectacle.
When I went down I found her sitting in front of the fire, wrapped in a Chinese robe of black and gold. You can imagine the effect of that with the red of her hair and the red of her cheeks and lips. Her feet, in black satin slippers, were on a jade-green cushion, and back of her head was the strip of brocade that she had bought with her housekeeping money. It was a gorgeous bit, repeating the color of the cushion, and with a touch of blue which matched her eyes.
She wanted me to show her the rest of the prints. I tried to talk to her of Perry's health, but she wouldn't.
"Don't croak, Jim Crow," she said again.
As I look back at the two of us by the fire that night I feel as one might who had been accessory to a crime. Rosalie's charm was undoubted. Her quickness of mind, her gayety of spirit, her passion for all that was lovely in art and Nature—made her indescribably interesting. I stayed late. And not once, after my first attempt, did we speak of Perry.
It was in March that I made Perry see a doctor. "Nothing organic," was Perry's report. Beyond that he was silent. So I went to the doctor myself.
"What's the matter with him?"
"He is not getting the proper nourishment," the doctor told me. "He must have plenty of milk and eggs, and good red meat."
It sounded easy enough, but it wasn't. Rosalie couldn't grasp the fact that diet in Perry's case was important. For the first time I saw a queer sort of obstinacy in her.
"Oh, my poor Peer!" And she laughed lightly. "Do they want to make a stuffed pig of you?"
Well, you simply couldn't get it into her head that Perry needed the bread that she sold for hyacinths. She cooked steaks and chops for him, and served them with an air of protest that took away his appetite.
Of course there remained the eggs and milk, but he didn't like them. What Perry really needed was three good meals a day according to the tradition of his mother's home.
But he couldn't have them. His mother was dead, and the home broken up. The little bungalow, with its old brocades, its Venetian glass, its Florentine carvings, its sun-dial and its garden, was the best that life could offer him. And I must confess that he seemed to think it very good. He adored Rosalie. When in moments of rebellion against her seeming indifference I hinted that she lacked housewifely qualities he smiled and shifted the subject abruptly.
Once he said, "She feeds—my soul."
Of course she loved him. But love to her meant what it had meant in those first days on the Maine coast when she had seen him, slender and strong, his brown hair blowing back from his sun-tanned skin; it meant those first days in their new home when, handsome and debonair in the velvet coat which she had made him wear, he had added a high light to the picture she had made of her home.
This new Perry, pale and coughing—shivering in the warmth of the fire—did not fit into the picture. Her dreams of the future had not included a tired man who worked for his living, and who was dying for lack of intelligent care.
To put it into cold words makes it sound ghoulish. But of course Rosalie was not really that. She was merely absorbed in her own exalted theories and she was not maternal. I think when I compared her, unthinking, to the young moon, that I was subconsciously aware of her likeness to the "orbed maiden" whose white fire warms no one.
She tried to do her best, and I am quite sure that Perry never knew the truth—that he might have been saved if she could have left her heights for a moment and had become womanly and wifely. If she had mothered him a bit—poured out her tenderness upon him—oh, my poor Perry. He loved her too much to ask it, but I knew what it would have meant to him.
All through his last illness Rosalie clung to me. I think it grew to be a horror to her to see him, gaunt and exhausted, in the west room. He had a good nurse, toward the last, and good food. I had had a small fortune left to me, too late, by a distant relative. I paid for the cook and the nurse, and I sent flowers to Rosalie that she might take them to Perry and let his hungry eyes feed upon her.
It was in the winter that he died, and after all was over Rosalie and I went out and stood together on the little porch. There was snow on the ground and the bright stars seemed caught in the branches of the pines.
Rosalie shook and sobbed.
"I hate—death," she said. "Oh, Jim Crow, why did God let my poor Peer die?" She was completely unstrung. "Death is so—ugly."
I said, "It is not ugly. Peer will live again—like the daffodils in the spring."
"Do you believe that, Jim Crow?"
I did believe it, and I told her so—that even now her Peer was strong and well; and I think it comforted her. It gave her lover back to her, as it were, in the glory of his youth.
She did not wear mourning, or, rather, she wore mourning which was like that worn by no other woman. Her robes were of purple. She kept Perry's picture on the table, and out of the frame his young eyes laughed at us, so that gradually the vision of that ravaged figure in the west room faded.
I went to see her once a week. It seemed the only thing to do. She was utterly alone, with no family but the great-aunt and uncle who had been with her when she met Perry. She was a child in business matters, and Perry had left it to me to administer the affairs of his little estate. Rosalie had her small bungalow, Perry's insurance, and she turned her knowledge of painting to practical account. She made rather special things in lamp-shades and screens, and was well paid for them.
I went, as I have said, once a week. A woman friend shared part of her house, but was apt to be out, and so I saw Rosalie usually alone. I lived now at the club and kept a car. Rosalie often dined with me, but I rarely ate at the bungalow. Now and then in the afternoon she made me a cup of tea, rather more, I am sure, for the picturesque service with her treasured Sheffield than for any desire to contribute to my own cheer or comfort.
And so, gradually, I grew into her life and she grew into mine. I was forty-five, she twenty-five. In the back of my mind was always a sense of the enormity of her offense against Perry. In my hottest moments I said to myself that she had sacrificed his life to her selfishness; she might have been a Borgia or a Medici.
Yet when I was with her my resentment faded; one could as little hold rancor against a child.
Thus the months passed, and it was in the autumn, I remember, that a conversation occurred which opened new vistas. She had been showing me a parchment lamp-shade which she had painted. There was a peacock with a spreading tail, and as she held the shade over the lamp the light shone through and turned every feathered eye into a glittering jewel. Rosalie wore one of her purple robes, and I can see her now as I shut my eyes, as glowing and gorgeous as some of those unrivaled masterpieces in the Pitti Palace.
"Jim Crow," she said, "I shall do a parrot next—all red and blue, with white rings round his eyes."
"You will never do anything better than that peacock."
"Shan't I?" She left the shade over the lamp and sat down. "Do you think I shall paint peacocks and parrots for the rest of my life, Jim Crow?"
"What would you like to do?" I asked her.
"Travel." She was eager. "Do you know, I have never been to Europe? Perry used to tell me about it—Botticelli and Raphael—and Michaelangelo——"
"We had a great time," I said, remembering it all—that breathless search for beauty.
"He promised that some day he and I would go—together."
She rose restlessly.
"Oh, take me out somewhere, Jim Crow! I feel as if this little house would stifle me."
We motored to the country club. She wore the color which she now affected, a close little hat and a straight frock. People stared at her. I think she was aware of their admiration and liked it.
She smiled at me as she sat down at the table. "I always love to come with you, Jim Crow."
"You do things so well, and you're such a darling."
I do not believe that it was intended as flattery. I am sure that she meant it. She was happy because of the lights and the lovely old room with its cavernous fireplace and its English chintzes; and out of her happiness she spoke.
She could not, of course, know the effect of her words on me. No one had ever called me a darling or had thought that I did things well.
She used, too, to tell me things about my looks. "You'd be like one of those distinguished gentlemen of Vandyke's if you'd wear a ruff and leave off your eye-glasses."
I wonder if you know how it seemed to have a child like that saying such things. For she was more than a child, she was a beautiful woman, and everything surrounding her was beautiful. And there had been a great many gray years before I met Perry and before the money came which made pleasant living possible.
"I like you because you are strong," was another of her tributes.
"How do you know I am strong?"
"Well, you look it. And not many men could have carried me so easily up-stairs."
She had sprained her ankle in getting out of my car on the night that we had dined at the country club. She had worn high-heeled slippers and had stepped on a pebble.
It was on that night that I first faced the fact that I cared for her. In my arms she had clung to me like a child, her hair had swept my cheek, there had been the fragrance of violets.
I did not want to care for her. I remembered Perry—the burned toast which had seemed to mark the beginning of their tragedy—those last dreadful days. I knew that Perry's fate would not be mine; there would be no need to sell bread to buy hyacinths. There was money enough and to spare, money to let her live in the enjoyment of the things she craved; money enough to—travel.
The more I thought of it the more I was held by the thought of what such a trip would mean to me. It would be like that pilgrimage with young Perry. There would be the same impassioned interest—there would be more than that—there would be youth and loveliness—all mine.
I felt that I was mad to think of it. Yet she made me think of it. It was what she wanted. She was not in the least unwomanly, but she was very modern in her frank expression of the pleasure she felt in my companionship.
"Oh, what would I do without you, Jim Crow?" was the way she put it.
I grew young in my months of association with her. I had danced a little in my college days, but I had given it up. She taught me the new steps—and we would set the phonograph going and take up the rugs.
When I grew expert we danced together at the country club and at some of the smart places down-town. It was all very delightful. I made up my mind that I should marry her.
I planned to ask her on Christmas Eve. I had a present for her, an emerald set in antique silver with seed pearls. It was hung on a black ribbon, and I could fancy it shining against the background of her velvet smock. I carried flowers, too, and a book. I was keen with anticipation. The years seemed to drop from me. I was a boy of twenty going to meet the lady of my first romance.
When I arrived at the bungalow I found that Rosalie had with her the old great-aunt and uncle who had been with her when we first met in Maine. They had come on for Christmas unexpectedly, anticipating an eager welcome, happy in their sense of surprise.
Rosalie, when we had a moment alone, expressed her dismay.
"They are going to stay until to-morrow night, Jim Crow. And I haven't planned any Christmas dinner."
"We'll take them to the country club."
"How heavenly of you to think of it!"
I gave her the flowers and the book. But I kept the jewel for the high moment when I should ask her for a greater gift in exchange.
But the high moment did not come that night. The old uncle and aunt sat up with us. They had much to talk about. They were a comfortable pair—silver-haired and happy in each other—going toward the end of the journey hand in hand.
The old man went to the door with me when I left, and we stood for a moment under the stars.
"Mother and I miss hanging up the stockings for the kiddies," he said.
"Were there many kiddies?"
"Three. Two dead and one married and out West. Rosalie seemed the nearest that we had, and that's why we came. I thought mother might be lonely in our big old house."
The next day at the country club the old gentleman was genial but slightly garrulous. The old lady talked about her children and her Christmas memories. I saw that Rosalie was frankly bored. As for myself, I was impatient for my high moment.
But I think I gave the old folks a good time and that they missed nothing in my manner. And, indeed, I think that they missed nothing in Rosalie's. They had the gentle complacency of the aged who bask in their own content.
It was toward the end of dinner that I caught a look in Rosalie's eyes which almost made my heart stop beating. I had not seen it since Perry's death. I had seen it first when she had stood in the door of his room on the night that I tucked him up in bed and gave him the hot oysters. It was that look of distaste—that delicate shrinking from an unpleasant spectacle.
Following her gaze I saw that the old gentleman had sunk in his chair and was gently nodding. His wife leaned toward me.
"Milton always takes a cat nap after meals," she said, smiling. And I smiled back, she was so rosy and round and altogether comfortable.
Rosalie and I went with them to the train, and it was as we drove back that I spoke of them.
"They are rather great dears, aren't they?"
Rosalie was vehement. "I hate old people!"
A chill struck to my bones. "You hate them? Why?"
"They're—ugly, Jim Crow. Did you see how they had shrunk since I last saw them—and the veins in their hands—and the skull showing through his forehead?"
She was twenty-five, and I was almost twice her age. When I was old she would still be young—young enough to see my shrunken body and the skull showing through!
The look that had been in her eyes for Perry would some day be in her eyes for me. And I knew that if I ever saw it it would strike me dead. It might not kill me physically, but it would wither like a flame all joy and hope forever.
When we reached the bungalow I built up a fire, and Rosalie, leaving me for a little, came back in something sheer and lovely in green. It was the first time since Perry's death that she had discarded her purple robes. She sank into a big chair opposite me and put her silver-slippered feet on the green cushion.
"Isn't it heavenly to be alone, Jim Crow?" It was the high moment which I had planned, but I could not grasp it. Between me and happiness stood the shadow of that other Rosalie, shrinking from me when I was old as she had shrunk from Perry.
"My dear," I said, and I did not look at her, "I've been thinking a lot about you."
Her chin was in her hand. "I know."
But she didn't know.
"I've been thinking, Rosalie; and I want to give you something for Christmas which will make you happy throughout the year."
"You are such a darling, Jim Crow."
"And I have thought of this—a trip to Europe. You'll let me do it, won't you? There'll be the art galleries, and you can stay as long as you like."
I could see that she was puzzled. "Do you mean that I am to go—alone?" she asked slowly.
"There may be some one going. I'll find out."
There was dead silence.
"You will let me do it?" I asked finally.
She came over to my chair and stood looking down at me.
"Why are you sending me alone, Jim Crow?"
I think, then, that she saw the anguish in my eyes. She sank on her knees beside my chair.
"I don't want to go alone, Jim Crow. I want to stay—with—you."
Well, the jewel is on her breast and a ring to match is on her finger. And when the spring comes we are to sail for Italy, for France.
Perhaps we shall never come back. And I am going to give Rosalie all the loveliness that life can hold for her. Now and then she whispers that she never knew love until I taught it to her. That what she felt for Perry was but the echo of his own need of her.
"But I'd tramp the muddy roads with you, Jim Crow."
I wonder if she really means it. I wish with all my heart that I might know it true. I have never told her of my fears and I believe that I can make her happy. I shall try not to look too far beyond the days we shall have in the Louvre and the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. We shall search for beauty, and perhaps I can teach her to find it, before it is too late, in the things that count.