The House of the Vampire/XIII
Lazily Ernest stretched his limbs on the beach of Atlantic City. The sea, that purger of sick souls, had washed away the fever and the fret of the last few days. The wind was in his hair and the spray was in his breath, while the rays of the sun kissed his bare arms and legs. He rolled over in the glittering sand in the sheer joy of living.
Now and then a wavelet stole far into the beach, as if to caress him, but pined away ere it could reach its goal. It was as if the enamoured sea was stretching out its arms to him. Who knows, perhaps through the clear water some green-eyed nymph, or a young sea-god with the tang of the sea in his hair, was peering amorously at the boy's red mouth. The people of the deep love the red warm blood of human kind. It is always the young that they lure to their watery haunts, never the shrivelled limbs that totter shivering to the grave.
Such fancies came to Ernest as he lay on the shore in his bathing attire, happy, thoughtless,— animal.
The sun and the sea seemed to him two lovers vying for his favor. The sudden change of environment had brought complete relaxation and had quieted his rebellious, assertive soul. He was no longer a solitary unit but one with wind and water, herb and beach and shell. Almost voluptuously his hand toyed with the hot sand that glided caressingly through his fingers and buried his breast and shoulder under its glittering burden.
A summer girl who passed lowered her eyes coquettishly. He watched her without stirring. Even to open his mouth or to smile would have seemed too much exertion.
Thus he lay for hours. When at length noon drew nigh, it cost him a great effort of will to shake off his drowsy mood and exchange his airy costume for the conventional habilaments of the dining-room.
He had taken lodgings in a fashionable hotel. An unusual stroke of good luck, hack-work that paid outrageously well, had made it possible for him to idle for a time without a thought of the unpleasant necessity of making money.
One single article to which he signed his name only with reluctance had brought to him more gear than a series of golden sonnets.
“Surely,” he thought, “the social revolution ought to begin from above. What right has the bricklayer to grumble when he receives for a week's work almost more than I for a song?”
Thus soliloquising, he reached the dining-room. The scene that unfolded itself before him was typical—the table over-loaded, the women over-dressed.
The luncheon was already in full course when he came. He mumbled an apology and seated himself on the only remaining chair next to a youth who reminded him of a well-dressed dummy. With slight weariness his eyes wandered in all directions for more congenial faces when they were arrested by a lady on the opposite side of the table. She was clad in a silk robe with curiously embroidered net-work that revealed a nervous and delicate throat. The rich effect of the net-work was relieved by the studied simplicity with which her heavy chestnut-colored hair was gathered in a single knot. Her face was turned away from him, but there was something in the carriage of her head that struck him as familiar. When at last she looked him in the face, the glass almost fell from his hand: it was Ethel Brandenbourg. She seemed to notice his embarrassment and smiled. When she opened her lips to speak, he knew by the haunting sweetness of the voice that he was not mistaken.
“Tell me,” she said wistfully, “you have forgotten me? They all have.”
He hastened to assure her that he had not forgotten her. He recollected now that he had first been introduced to her in Walkham's house some years ago, when a mere college boy, he had been privileged to attend one of that master's famous receptions. She had looked quite resolute and very happy then, not at all like the woman who had stared so strangely at Reginald in the Broadway restaurant.
He regarded this encounter as very fortunate. He knew so much of her personal history that it almost seemed to him as if they had been intimate for years. She, too, felt on familiar ground with him. Neither as much as whispered the name of Reginald Clarke. Yet it was he, and the knowledge of what he was to them, that linked their souls with a common bond.