Tales of the Jazz Age
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Part 6 out of 7
possible titles with the air of connoisseur.
"'Silver Bones,'" he announced suddenly out of a slight pause.
"What?" demanded Merlin, suspecting that the stiffness of his sinews
were being commented on.
"Silver Bones. That was the guy that done the crime."
"Silver Bones. Indian, maybe."
Merlin, stroked his grizzly cheeks. "Gees, Mister," went on the
prospective purchaser, "if you wanna save me an awful bawln' out jes'
try an' think. The old lady goes wile if everything don't run smooth."
But Merlin's musings on the subject of Silver Bones were as futile as
his obliging search through the shelves, and five minutes later a very
dejected charioteer wound his way back to his mistress. Through the
glass Merlin could see the visible symbols of a tremendous uproar
going on in the interior of the limousine. The chauffeur made wild,
appealing gestures of his innocence, evidently to no avail, for when
he turned around and climbed back into the driver's seat his
expression was not a little dejected.
Then the door of the limousine opened and gave forth a pale and
slender young man of about twenty, dressed in the attenuation of
fashion and carrying a wisp of a cane. He entered the shop, walked
past Merlin, and proceeded to take out a cigarette and light it.
Merlin approached him.
"Anything I can do for you, sir?"
"Old boy," said the youth coolly, "there are seveereal things; You can
first let me smoke my ciggy in here out of sight of that old lady in
the limousine, who happens to be my grandmother. Her knowledge as to
whether I smoke it or not before my majority happens to be a matter of
five thousand dollars to me. The second thing is that you should look
up your first edition of the 'Crime of Sylvester Bonnard' that you
advertised in last Sunday's _Times_. My grandmother there happens
to want to take it off your hands."
Detecatif story! Crime of somebody! Silver Bones! All was explained.
With a faint deprecatory chuckle, as if to say that he would have
enjoyed this had life put him in the habit of enjoying anything,
Merlin doddered away to the back of his shop where his treasures were
kept, to get this latest investment which he had picked up rather
cheaply at the sale of a big collection.
When he returned with it the young man was drawing on his cigarette
and blowing out quantities of smoke with immense satisfaction.
"My God!" he said, "She keeps me so close to her the entire day
running idiotic errands that this happens to be my first puff in six
hours. What's the world coming to, I ask you, when a feeble old lady
in the milk-toast era can dictate to a man as to his personal vices. I
happen to be unwilling to be so dictated to. Let's see the book."
Merlin passed it to him tenderly and the young man, after opening it
with a carelessness that gave a momentary jump to the book-dealer's
heart, ran through the pages with his thumb.
"No illustrations, eh?" he commented. "Well, old boy, what's it worth?
Speak up! We're willing to give you a fair price, though why I don't
"One hundred dollars," said Merlin with a frown.
The young man gave a startled whistle.
"Whew! Come on. You're not dealing with somebody from the cornbelt. I
happen to be a city-bred man and my grandmother happens to be a
city-bred woman, though I'll admit it'd take a special tax
appropriation to keep her in repair. We'll give you twenty-five
dollars, and let me tell you that's liberal. We've got books in our
attic, up in our attic with my old play-things, that were written
before the old boy that wrote this was born."
Merlin stiffened, expressing a rigid and meticulous horror.
"Did your grandmother give you twenty-five dollars to buy this with?"
"She did not. She gave me fifty, but she expects change. I know that
"You tell her," said Merlin with dignity, "that she has missed a very
"Give you forty," urged the young man. "Come on now--be reasonable and
don't try to hold us up----"
Merlin had wheeled around with the precious volume under his arm and
was about to return it to its special drawer in his office when there
was a sudden interruption. With unheard-of magnificence the front door
burst rather than swung open, and admitted in the dark interior a
regal apparition in black silk and fur which bore rapidly down upon
him. The cigarette leaped from the fingers of the urban young man and
he gave breath to an inadvertent "Damn!"--but it was upon Merlin that
the entrance seemed to have the most remarkable and incongruous
effect--so strong an effect that the greatest treasure of his shop
slipped from his hand and joined the cigarette on the floor. Before
him stood Caroline.
She was an old woman, an old woman remarkably preserved, unusually
handsome, unusually erect, but still an old woman. Her hair was a
soft, beautiful white, elaborately dressed and jewelled; her face,
faintly rouged à la grande dame, showed webs of wrinkles at the edges
of her eyes and two deeper lines in the form of stanchions connected
her nose with the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were dim, ill
natured, and querulous.
But it was Caroline without a doubt: Caroline's features though in
decay; Caroline's figure, if brittle and stiff in movement; Caroline's
manner, unmistakably compounded of a delightful insolence and an
enviable self assurance; and, most of all, Caroline's voice, broken
and shaky, yet with a ring in it that still could and did make
chauffeurs want to drive laundry wagons and cause cigarettes to fall
from the fingers of urban grandsons.
She stood and sniffed. Her eyes found the cigarette upon the floor.
"What's that?" she cried. The words were not a question--they were an
entire litany of suspicion, accusation, confirmation, and decision.
She tarried over them scarcely an instant. "Stand up!" she said to her
grandson, "stand up and blow that nicotine out of your lungs!"
The young man looked at her in trepidation.
"Blow!" she commanded.
He pursed his lips feebly and blew into the air.
"Blow!" she repeated, more peremptorily than before.
He blew again, helplessly, ridiculously.
"Do you realize," she went on briskly, "that you've forfeited five
thousand dollars in five minutes?"
Merlin momentarily expected the young man to fall pleading upon his
knees, but such is the nobility of human nature that he remained
standing--even blew again into the air, partly from nervousness,
partly, no doubt, with some vague hope of reingratiating himself.
"Young ass!" cried Caroline. "Once more, just once more and you leave
college and go to work."
This threat had such an overwhelming effect upon the young man that he
took on an even paler pallor than was natural to him. But Caroline was
"Do you think I don't know what you and your brothers, yes, and your
asinine father too, think of me? Well, I do. You think I'm senile. You
think I'm soft. I'm not!" She struck herself with her-fist as though
to prove that she was a mass of muscle and sinew. "And I'll have more
brains left when you've got me laid out in the drawing-room some sunny
day than you and the rest of them were born with."
"Be quiet. You, a thin little stick of a boy, who if it weren't for my
money might have risen to be a journeyman barber out in the Bronx--Let
me see your hands. Ugh! The hands of a barber--_you_ presume to
be smart with _me_, who once had three counts and a bona-fide
duke, not to mention half a dozen papal titles pursue me from the city
of Rome to the city of New York." She paused, took breath. "Stand up!
The young man obediently blew. Simultaneously the door opened and an
excited gentleman of middle age who wore a coat and hat trimmed with
fur, and seemed, moreover, to be trimmed with the same sort of fur
himself on upper lip and chin, rushed into the store and up to
"Found you at last," he cried. "Been looking for you all over town.
Tried your house on the 'phone and your secretary told me he thought
you'd gone to a bookshop called the Moonlight--"
Caroline turned to him irritably.
"Do I employ you for your reminiscences?" she snapped. "Are you my
tutor or my broker?"
"Your broker," confessed the fur-trimmed man, taken somewhat aback. "I
beg your pardon. I came about that phonograph stock. I can sell for a
hundred and five."
"Then do it"
"Very well. I thought I'd better--"
"Go sell it. I'm talking to my grandson."
"Very well. I--"
"Good-by, Madame." The fur-trimmed man made a slight bow and hurried
in some confusion from the shop.
"As for you," said Caroline, turning to her grandson, "you stay just
where you are and be quiet."
She turned to Merlin and included his entire length in a not
unfriendly survey. Then she smiled and he found himself smiling too.
In an instant they had both broken into a cracked but none the less
spontaneous chuckle. She seized his arm and hurried him to the other
side of the store. There they stopped, faced each other, and gave vent
to another long fit of senile glee.
"It's the only way," she gasped in a sort of triumphant malignity.
"The only thing that keeps old folks like me happy is the sense that
they can make other people step around. To be old and rich and have
poor descendants is almost as much fun as to be young and beautiful
and have ugly sisters."
"Oh, yes," chuckled Merlin. "I know. I envy you."
She nodded, blinking.
"The last time I was in here, forty years ago," she said, "you were a
young man very anxious to kick up your heels."
"I was," he confessed.
"My visit must have meant a good deal to you."
"You have all along," he exclaimed. "I thought--I used to think at
first that you were a real person--human, I mean."
"Many men have thought me inhuman."
"But now," continued Merlin excitedly, "I understand. Understanding is
allowed to us old people--after nothing much matters. I see now that
on a certain night when you danced upon a table-top you were nothing
but my romantic yearning for a beautiful and perverse woman."
Her old eyes were far away, her voice no more than the echo of a
"How I danced that night! I remember."
"You were making an attempt at me. Olive's arms were closing about me
and you warned me to be free and keep my measure of youth and
irresponsibility. But it seemed like an effect gotten up at the last
moment. It came too late."
"You are very old," she said inscrutably. "I did not realize."
"Also I have not forgotten what you did to me when I was thirty-five.
You shook me with that traffic tie-up. It was a magnificent effort.
The beauty and power you radiated! You became personified even to my
wife, and she feared you. For weeks I wanted to slip out of the house
at dark and forget the stuffiness of life with music and cocktails and
a girl to make me young. But then--I no longer knew how."
"And now you are so very old."
With a sort of awe she moved back and away from him.
"Yes, leave me!" he cried. "You are old also; the spirit withers with
the skin. Have you come here only to tell me something I had best
forget: that to be old and poor is perhaps more wretched than to be
old and rich; to remind me that _my_ son hurls my gray failure in
"Give me my book," she commanded harshly. "Be quick, old man!"
Merlin looked at her once more and then patiently obeyed. He picked up
the book and handed it to her, shaking his head when she offered him a
"Why go through the farce of paying me? Once you made me wreck these
"I did," she said in anger, "and I'm glad. Perhaps there had been
enough done to ruin _me_."
She gave him a glance, half disdain, half ill-concealed uneasiness,
and with a brisk word to her urban grandson moved toward the door.
Then she was gone--out of his shop--out of his life. The door clicked.
With a sigh he turned and walked brokenly back toward the glass
partition that enclosed the yellowed accounts of many years as well as
the mellowed, wrinkled Miss McCracken.
Merlin regarded her parched, cobwebbed face with an odd sort of pity.
She, at any rate, had had less from life than he. No rebellious,
romantic spirit popping out unbidden had, in its memorable moments,
given her life a zest and a glory.
Then Miss McGracken looked up and spoke to him:
"Still a spunky old piece, isn't she?"
"Old Alicia Dare. Mrs. Thomas Allerdyce she is now, of course; has
been, these thirty years."
"What? I don't understand you." Merlin sat down suddenly in his swivel
chair; his eyes were wide.
"Why, surely, Mr. Grainger, you can't tell me that you've forgotten
her, when for ten years she was the most notorious character in New
York. Why, one time when she was the correspondent in the Throckmorton
divorce case she attracted so much attention on Fifth Avenue that
there was a traffic tie-up. Didn't you read about it in the papers."
"I never used to read the papers." His ancient brain was whirring.
"Well, you can't have forgotten the time she came in here and ruined
the business. Let me tell you I came near asking Mr. Moonlight Quill
for my salary, and clearing out."
"Do you mean, that--that you _saw_ her?"
"Saw. her! How could I help, it with the racket that went on. Heaven
knows Mr. Moonlight Quill didn't like it either but of course _he_
didn't say anything. He was daffy about her and she could twist him
around her little finger. The second he opposed one of her whims she'd
threaten to tell his wife on him. Served him right. The idea of that
man falling for a pretty adventuress! Of course he was never rich
enough for _her_ even though the shop paid well in those days."
"But when I saw her." stammered Merlin, "that is, when I
_thought_ saw her, she lived with her mother."
"Mother, trash!". said Miss McCracken indignantly. "She had a woman
there she called 'Aunty', who was no more related to her than I am.
Oh, she was a bad one--but clever. Right after the Throckmorton
divorce case she married Thomas Allerdyce, and made herself secure for
"Who was she?" cried Merlin. "For God's sake what was she--a witch?"
"Why, she was Alicia Dare, the dancer, of course. In those days you
couldn't pick up a paper without finding her picture."
Merlin sat very quiet, his brain suddenly fatigued and stilled. He was
an old man now indeed, so old that it was impossible for him to dream
of ever having been young, so old that the glamour was gone out of the
world, passing not into the faces of children and into the persistent
comforts of warmth and life, but passing out of the range of sight and
feeling. He was never to smile again or to sit in a long reverie when
spring evenings wafted the cries of children in at his window until
gradually they became the friends of his boyhood out there, urging him
to come and play before the last dark came down. He was too old now
even for memories.
That night he sat at supper with his wife and son, who had used him
for their blind purposes. Olive said:
"Don't sit there like a death's-head. Say something."
"Let him sit quiet," growled Arthur. "If you encourage him he'll tell
us a story we've heard a hundred times before."
Merlin went up-stairs very quietly at nine o'clock. When he was in his
room and had closed the door tight he stood by it for a moment, his
thin limbs trembling. He knew now that he had always been a fool.
"O Russet Witch!"
But it was too late. He had angered Providence by resisting too many
temptations. There was nothing left but heaven, where he would meet
only those who, like him, had wasted earth.
THE LEES OF HAPPINESS
If you should look through the files of old magazines for the first
years of the present century you would find, sandwiched in between the
stories of Richard Harding Davis and Frank Norris and others long
since dead, the work of one Jeffrey Curtain: a novel or two, and
perhaps three or four dozen short stories. You could, if you were
interested, follow them along until, say, 1908, when they suddenly
When you had read them all you would have been quite sure that here
were no masterpieces--here were passably amusing stories, a bit out of
date now, but doubtless the sort that would then have whiled away a
dreary half hour in a dental office. The man who did them was of good
intelligence, talented, glib, probably young. In the samples of his
work you found there would have been nothing to stir you to more than
a faint interest in the whims of life--no deep interior laughs, no
sense of futility or hint of tragedy.
After reading them you would yawn and put the number back in the
files, and perhaps, if you were in some library reading-room, you
would decide that by way of variety you would look at a newspaper of
the period and see whether the Japs had taken Port Arthur. But if by
any chance the newspaper you had chosen was the right one and had
crackled open at the theatrical page, your eyes would have been
arrested and held, and for at least a minute you would have forgotten
Port Arthur as quickly as you forgot Château Thierry. For you would,
by this fortunate chance, be looking at the portrait of an exquisite
Those were tie days of "Florodora" and of sextets, of pinched-in
waists and blown-out sleeves, of almost bustles and absolute ballet
skirts, but here, without doubt, disguised as she might be by the
unaccustomed stiffness and old fashion of her costume, was a butterfly
of butterflies. Here was the gayety of the period--the soft wine of
eyes, the songs that flurried hearts, the toasts and tie bouquets, the
dances and the dinners. Here was a Venus of the hansom, cab, the
Gibson girl in her glorious prime. Here was...
...here was you. Find by looking at the name beneath, one Roxanne
Milbank, who had been chorus girl and understudy in "The Daisy Chain,"
but who, by reason of an excellent performance when the star was
indisposed, had gained a leading part.
You would look again--and wonder. Why you had never heard of her. Why
did her name not linger in popular songs and vaudeville jokes and
cigar bands, and the memory of that gay old uncle of yours along with
Lillian Russell and Stella Mayhew and Anna Held? Roxanne
Milbank-whither had she gone? What dark trap-door had opened suddenly
and swallowed her up? Her name was certainly not in last Sunday's
supplement on the list of actresses married to English noblemen. No
doubt she was dead--poor beautiful young lady--and quite forgotten.
I am hoping too much. I am having you stumble on Jeffrey Curtains's
stories and Roxanne Milbank's picture. It would be incredible that you
should find a newspaper item six months later, a single item two
inches by four, which informed the public of the marriage, very
quietly, of Miss Roxanne Milbank, who had been on tour with "The Daisy
Chain," to Mr. Jeffrey Curtain, the popular author. "Mrs. Curtain," it
added dispassionately, "will retire from the stage."
It was a marriage of love. He was sufficiently spoiled to be charming;
she was ingenuous enough to be irresistible. Like two floating logs
they met in a head-on rush, caught, and sped along together. Yet had
Jeffrey Curtain kept at scrivening for twoscore years he could not
have put a quirk into one of his stories weirder than the quirk that
came into his own life. Had Roxanne Milbank played three dozen parts
and filled five thousand houses she could never have had a role with
more happiness and more despair than were in the fate prepared for
For a year they lived in hotels, travelled to California, to Alaska,
to Florida, to Mexico, loved and quarrelled gently, and gloried in the
golden triflings of his wit with her beauty--they were young and
gravely passionate; they demanded everything and then yielded
everything again in ecstasies of unselfishness and pride. She loved
the swift tones of his voice and his frantic, if unfounded jealousy.
He loved her dark radiance, the white irises of her eyes, the warm,
lustrous enthusiasm of her smile.
"Don't you like her?" he would demand rather excitedly and shyly.
"Isn't she wonderful? Did you ever see--"
"Yes," they would answer, grinning. "She's a wonder. You're lucky."
The year passed. They tired of hotels. They bought an old house and
twenty acres near the town of Marlowe, half an hour from Chicago;
bought a little car, and moved out riotously with a pioneering
hallucination that would have confounded Balboa.
"Your room will be here!" they cried in turn.
"And my room here!"
"And the nursery here when we have children."
"And we'll build a sleeping porch--oh, next year."
They moved out in April. In July Jeffrey's closest friend, Harry
Cromwell same to spend a week--they met him at the end of the long
lawn and hurried him proudly to the house.
Harry was married also. His wife had had a baby some six months before
and was still recuperating at her mother's in New York. Roxanne had
gathered from Jeffrey that Harry's wife was not as attractive as
Harry--Jeffrey had met her once and considered her--"shallow." But
Harry had been married nearly two years and was apparantly happy, so
Jeffrey guessed that she was probably all right.
"I'm making biscuits," chattered Roxanne gravely. "Can you wife make
biscuits? The cook is showing me how. I think every woman should know
how to make biscuits. It sounds so utterly disarming. A woman who can
make biscuits can surely do no----"
"You'll have to come out here and live," said Jeffrey. "Get a place
out in the country like us, for you and Kitty."
"You don't know Kitty. She hates the country. She's got to have her
theatres and vaudevilles."
"Bring her out," repeated Jeffrey. "We'll have a colony. There's an
awfully nice crowd here already. Bring her out!"
They were at the porch steps now and Roxanne made a brisk gesture
toward a dilapidated structure on the right.
"The garage," she announced. "It will also be Jeffrey's writing-room
within the month. Meanwhile dinner is at seven. Meanwhile to that I
will mix a cocktail."
The two men ascended to the second floor--that is, they ascended
half-way, for at the first landing Jeffrey dropped his guest's
suitcase and in a cross between a query and a cry exclaimed:
"For God's sake, Harry, how do you like her?"
"We will go up-stairs," answered his guest, "and we will shut the
Half an hour later as they were sitting together in the library
Roxanne reissued from the kitchen, bearing before her a pan of
biscuits. Jeffrey and Harry rose.
"They're beautiful, dear," said the husband, intensely.
"Exquisite," murmured Harry.
"Taste one. I couldn't bear to touch them before you'd seen them all
and I can't bear to take them back until I find what they taste like."
"Like manna, darling."
Simultaneously the two men raised the biscuits to their lips, nibbled
tentatively. Simultaneously they tried to change the subject. But
Roxanne undeceived, set down the pan and seized a biscuit. After a
second her comment rang out with lugubrious finality:
"Why, I didn't notice----"
"Oh, I'm useless," she cried laughing. "Turn me out, Jeffrey--I'm a
parasite; I'm no goal----"
Jeffrey put his arm around her.
"Darling, I'll eat your biscuits."
"They're beautiful, anyway," insisted Roxanne.
"They're-they're decorative," suggested Harry.
Jeffrey took him up wildly.
"That's the word. They're decorative; they're masterpieces. We'll use
He rushed to the kitchen and returned with a hammer and a handful of
"We'll use them, by golly, Roxanne! We'll make a frieze out of them."
"Don't!" wailed Roxanne. "Our beautiful house."
"Never mind. We're going to have the library repapered in October.
Don't you remember?"
Bang! The first biscuit was impaled to the wall, where it quivered for
a moment like a live thing.
When Roxanne returned, with a second round of cocktails the biscuits
were in a perpendicular row, twelve of them, like a collection of
"Roxanne," exclaimed Jeffrey, "you're an artist! Cook?--nonsense! You
shall illustrate my books!"
During dinner the twilight faltered into dusk, and later it was a
starry dark outside, filled and permeated with the frail gorgeousness
of Roxanne's white dress and her tremulous, low laugh.
--Such a little girl she is, thought Harry. Not as old as Kitty.
He compared the two. Kitty--nervous without being sensitive,
temperamental without temperament, a woman who seemed to flit and
never light--and Roxanne, who was as young as spring night, and summed
up in her own adolescent laughter.
--A good match for Jeffrey, he thought again. Two very young people,
the sort who'll stay very young until they suddenly find themselves
Harry thought these things between his constant thoughts about Kitty,
He was depressed about Kitty. It seemed to him that she was well
enough to come back to Chicago and bring his little son. He was
thinking vaguely of Kitty when he said good-night to his friend's wife
and his friend at the foot of the stairs.
"You're our first real house guest," called Roxanne after him. "Aren't
you thrilled and proud?"
When he was out of sight around the stair corner she turned to
Jeffrey, who was standing beside her resting his hand on the end of
"Are you tired, my dearest?"
Jeffrey rubbed the centre of his forehead with his fingers.
"A little. How did you know?"
"Oh, how could I help knowing about you?"
"It's a headache," he said moodily. "Splitting. I'll take some
She reached over and snapped out the light, and with his arm tight
about her waist they walked up the stairs together.
Harry's week passed. They drove about the dreaming lanes or idled in
cheerful inanity upon lake or lawn. In the evening Roxanne, sitting
inside, played to them while the ashes whitened on the glowing ends of
their cigars. Then came a telegram from Kitty saying that she wanted
Harry to come East and get her, so Roxanne and Jeffrey were left alone
in that privacy of which they never seemed to tire.
"Alone" thrilled them again. They wandered about the house, each
feeling intimately the presence of the other; they sat on the same
side of the table like honeymooners; they were intensely absorbed,
The town of Marlowe, though a comparatively old settlement, had only
recently acquired a "society." Five or six years before, alarmed at
the smoky swelling of Chicago, two or three young married couples,
"bungalow people," had moved out; their friends had followed. The
Jeffrey Curtains found an already formed "set" prepared to welcome:
them; a country club, ballroom, and golf links yawned for them, and
there were bridge parties, and poker parties, and parties where they
drank beer, and parties where they drank nothing at all.
It was at a poker party that they found themselves a week after
Harry's departure. There were two tables, and a good proportion of the
young wives were smoking and shouting their bets, and being very
daringly mannish for those days.
Roxanne had left the game early and taken to perambulation; she
wandered into the pantry and found herself some grape juice--beer gave
her a headache--and then passed from table to table, looking over
shoulders at the hands, keeping an eye on Jeffrey and being pleasantly
unexcited and content. Jeffrey, with intense concentration, was
raising a pile of chips of all colors, and Roxanne knew by the
deepened wrinkle between his eyes that he was interested. She liked to
see him interested in small things.
She crossed over quietly and sat down on the arm of his chair.
She sat there five minutes, listening to the sharp intermittent
comments of the men and the chatter of the women, which rose from the
table like soft smoke--and yet scarcely hearing either. Then quite
innocently she reached out her hand, intending to place it on
Jeffrey's shoulder--as it touched him he started of a sudden, gave a
short grunt, and, sweeping back his arm furiously, caught her a
glancing blow on her elbow.
There was a general gasp. Roxanne regained her balance, gave a little
cry, and rose quickly to her feet. It had been the greatest shock of
her life. This, from Jeffrey, the heart of kindness, of
consideration--this instinctively brutal gesture.
The gasp became a silence. A dozen eyes were turned on Jeffrey, who
looked up as though seeing Roxanne for the first time. An expression
of bewilderment settled on his face.
"Why--Roxanne----" he said haltingly.
Into a dozen minds entered a quick suspicion, a rumor of scandal.
Could it be that behind the scenes with this couple, apparently so in
love, lurked some curious antipathy? Why else this streak of fire,
across such a cloudless heaven?
"Jeffrey!"--Roxanne's voice was pleading--startled and horrified, she
yet knew that it was a mistake. Not once did it occur to her to blame
him or to resent it. Her word was a trembling supplication--"Tell me,
Jeffrey," it said, "tell Roxanne, your own Roxanne."
"Why, Roxanne--" began Jeffrey again. The bewildered look changed to
pain. He was clearly as startled as she. "I didn't intend that," he
went on; "you startled me. You--I felt as if some one were attacking
me. I--how--why, how idiotic!"
"Jeffrey!" Again the word was a prayer, incense offered up to a high
God through this new and unfathomable darkness.
They were both on their feet, they were saying good-by, faltering,
apologizing, explaining. There was no attempt to pass it off easily.
That way lay sacrilege. Jeffrey had not been feeling well, they said.
He had become nervous. Back of both their minds was the unexplained
horror of that blow--the marvel that there had been for an instant
something between them--his anger and her fear--and now to both a
sorrow, momentary, no doubt, but to be bridged at once, at once, while
there was yet time. Was that swift water lashing under their feet--the
fierce glint of some uncharted chasm?
Out in their car under the harvest moon he talked brokenly. It was
just--incomprehensible to him, he said. He had been thinking of the
poker game--absorbed--and the touch on his shoulder had seemed like an
attack. An attack! He clung to that word, flung it up as a shield. He
had hated what touched him. With the impact of his hand it had gone,
that--nervousness. That was all he knew.
Both their eyes filled with tears and they whispered love there under
the broad night as the serene streets of Marlowe sped by. Later, when
they went to bed, they were quite calm. Jeffrey was to take a week off
all work--was simply to loll, and sleep, and go on long walks until
this nervousness left him. When they had decided this safety settled
down upon Roxanne. The pillows underhead became soft and friendly; the
bed on which they lay seemed wide, and white, and sturdy beneath the
radiance that streamed in at the window.
Five days later, in the first cool of late afternoon, Jeffrey picked
up an oak chair and sent it crashing through his own front window.
Then he lay down on the couch like a child, weeping piteously and
begging to die. A blood clot the size of a marble had broken his
There is a sort of waking nightmare that sets in sometimes when one
has missed a sleep or two, a feeling that comes with extreme fatigue
and a new sun, that the quality of the life around has changed. It is
a fully articulate conviction that somehow the existence one is then
leading is a branch shoot of life and is related to life only as a
moving picture or a mirror--that the people, and streets, and houses
are only projections from a very dim and chaotic past. It was in such
a state that Roxanne found herself during the first months of
Jeffrey's illness. She slept only when she was utterly exhausted; she
awoke under a cloud. The long, sober-voiced consultations, the faint
aura of medicine in the halls, the sudden tiptoeing in a house that
had echoed to many cheerful footsteps, and, most of ail, Jeffrey's
white face amid the pillows of the bed they had shared--these things
subdued her and made her indelibly older. The doctors held out hope,
but that was all. A long rest, they said, and quiet. So responsibility
came to Roxanne. It was she who paid the bills, pored over his
bank-book, corresponded with his publishers. She was in the kitchen
constantly. She learned from the nurse how to prepare his meals and
after the first month took complete charge of the sick-room. She had
had to let the nurse go for reasons of economy. One of the two colored
girls left at the same time. Roxanne was realizing that they had been
living from short story to short story.
The most frequent visitor was Harry Cromwell. He had been shocked and
depressed by the news, and though his wife was now living with him in
Chicago he found time to come out several times a month. Roxanne found
his sympathy welcome--there was some quality of suffering in the man,
some inherent pitifulness that made her comfortable when he was near.
Roxanne's nature had suddenly deepened. She felt sometimes that with
Jeffrey she was losing her children also, those children that now most
of all she needed and should have had.
It was six months after Jeffrey's collapse and when the nightmare had
faded, leaving not the old world but a new one, grayer and colder,
that she wait to see Harry's wife. Finding herself in Chicago with an
extra hour before train time, she decided out of courtesy to call.
As she stepped inside the door she had an immediate impression that
the apartment was very like some place she had seen before--and almost
instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a
bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes--a stuffy pink,
pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.
And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!
Mrs. Cromwell, attired in a wrapper of pink and black, opened the
door. Her hair was yellow, heightened, Roxanne imagined by a dash of
peroxide in the rinsing water every week. Her eyes were a thin waxen
blue--she was pretty and too consciously graceful. Her cordiality was
strident and intimate, hostility melted so quickly to hospitality that
it seemed they were both merely in the face and voice--never touching
nor touched by the deep core of egotism beneath.
But to Roxanne these things were secondary; her eyes were caught and
held in uncanny fascination by the wrapper. It was vilely unclean.
From its lowest hem up four inches it was sheerly dirty with the blue
dust of the floor; for the next three inches it was gray--then it
shaded off into its natural color, which, was--pink. It was dirty at
the sleeves, too, and at the collar--and when the woman turned to lead
the way into the parlor, Roxanne was sure that her neck was dirty.
A one-sided rattle of conversation began. Mrs. Cromwell became
explicit about her likes and dislikes, her head, her stomach, her
teeth, her apartment--avoiding with a sort of insolent meticulousness
any inclusion of Roxanne with life, as if presuming that Roxanne,
having been dealt a blow, wished life to be carefully skirted.
Roxanne smiled. That kimono! That neck!
After five minutes a little boy toddled into the parlor--a dirty
little boy clad in dirty pink rompers. His face was smudgy--Roxanne
wanted to take him into her lap and wipe his nose; other parts in the
of his head needed attention, his tiny shoes were kicked out at the
"What a darling little boy!" exclaimed Roxanne, smiling radiantly.
"Come here to me."
Mrs. Cromwell looked coldly at her son.
"He will get dirty. Look at that face!" She held her head on one side
and regarded it critically.
"Isn't he a _darling?_" repeated Roxanne.
"Look at his rompers," frowned Mrs. Cromwell.
"He needs a change, don't you, George?"
George stared at her curiously. To his mind the word rompers
connotated a garment extraneously smeared, as this one.
"I tried to make him look respectable this morning," complained Mrs.
Cromwell as one whose patience had been sorely tried, "and I found he
didn't have any more rompers--so rather than have him go round without
any I put him back in those--and his face--"
"How many pairs has he?" Roxanne's voice was pleasantly curious, "How
many feather fans have you?" she might have asked.
"Oh,--" Mrs. Cromwell considered, wrinkling her pretty brow. "Five, I
think. Plenty, I know."
"You can get them for fifty cents a pair."
Mrs. Cromwell's eyes showed surprise--and the faintest superiority.
The price of rompers!
"Can you really? I had no idea. He ought to have plenty, but I haven't
had a minute all week to send the laundry out." Then, dismissing the
subject as irrelevant--"I must show you some things--"
They rose and Roxanne followed her past an open bathroom door whose
garment-littered floor showed indeed that the laundry hadn't been sent
out for some time, into another room that was, so to speak, the
quintessence of pinkness. This was Mrs. Cromwell's room.
Here the Hostess opened a closet door and displayed before' Roxanne's
eyes an amazing collection of lingerie.
There were dozens of filmy marvels of lace and silk, all clean,
unruffled, seemingly not yet touched. On hangers beside them were
three new evening dresses.
"I have some beautiful things," said Mrs. Cromwell, "but not much of a
chance to wear them. Harry doesn't care about going out." Spite crept
into her voice. "He's perfectly content to let me play nursemaid and
housekeeper all day and loving wife in the evening."
Roxanne smiled again.
"You've got some beautiful clothes here."
"Yes, I have. Let me show you----"
"Beautiful," repeated Roxanne, interrupting, "but I'll have to run if
I'm going to catch my train."
She felt that her hands were trembling. She wanted to put them on this
woman and shake her--shake her. She wanted her locked up somewhere and
set to scrubbing floors.
"Beautiful," she repeated, "and I just came in for a moment."
"Well, I'm sorry Harry isn't here."
They moved toward the door.
"--and, oh," said Roxanne with an effort--yet her voice was still
gentle and her lips were smiling--"I think it's Argile's where you can
get those rompers. Good-by."
It was not until she had reached the station and bought her ticket to
Marlowe that Roxanne realized it was the first five minutes in six
months that her mind had been off Jeffrey.
A week later Harry appeared at Marlowe, arrived unexpectedly at five
o'clock, and coming up the walk sank into a porch chair in a state of
exhaustion. Roxanne herself had had a busy day and was worn out. The
doctors were coming at five-thirty, bringing a celebrated nerve
specialist from New York. She was excited and thoroughly depressed,
but Harry's eyes made her sit down beside him.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Roxanne," he denied. "I came to see how Jeff was doing.
Don't you bother about me."
"Harry," insisted Roxanne, "there's something the matter."
"Nothing," he repeated. "How's Jeff?"
Anxiety darkened her face.
"He's a little worse, Harry. Doctor Jewett has come on from New York.
They thought he could tell me something definite. He's going to try
and find whether this paralysis has anything to do with the original
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said jerkily. "I didn't know you expected a
consultation. I wouldn't have come. I thought I'd just rock on your
porch for an hour--"
"Sit down," she commanded.
"Sit down, Harry, dear boy." Her kindness flooded out now--enveloped
him. "I know there's something the matter. You're white as a sheet.
I'm going to get you a cool bottle of beer."
All at once he collapsed into his chair and covered his face with his
"I can't make her happy," he said slowly. "I've tried and I've tried.
This morning we had some words about breakfast--I'd been getting my
breakfast down town--and--well, just after I went to the office she
left the house, went East to her mother's with George and a suitcase
full of lace underwear."
"And I don't know---"
There was a crunch on the gravel, a car turning into the drive.
Roxanne uttered a little cry.
"It's Doctor Jewett."
"You'll wait, won't you?" she interrupted abstractedly. He saw that
his problem had already died on the troubled surface of her mind.
There was an embarrassing minute of vague, elided introductions and
then Harry followed the party inside and watched them disappear up the
stairs. He went into the library and sat down on the big sofa.
For an hour he watched the sun creep up the patterned folds of the
chintz curtains. In the deep quiet a trapped wasp buzzing on the
inside of the window pane assumed the proportions of a clamor. From
time to time another buzzing drifted down from up-stairs, resembling
several more larger wasps caught on larger window-panes. He heard low
footfalls, the clink of bottles, the clamor of pouring water.
What had he and Roxanne done that life should deal these crashing
blows to them? Up-stairs there was taking place a living inquest on
the soul of his friend; he was sitting here in a quiet room listening
to the plaint of a wasp, just as when he was a boy he had been
compelled by a strict aunt to sit hour-long on a chair and atone for
some misbehavior. But who had put him here? What ferocious aunt had
leaned out of the sky to make him atone for--what?
About Kitty he felt a great hopelessness. She was too expensive--that
was the irremediable difficulty. Suddenly he hated her. He wanted to
throw her down and kick at her--to tell her she was a cheat and a
leech--that she was dirty. Moreover, she must give him his boy.
He rose and began pacing up and down the room. Simultaneously he heard
some one begin walking along the hallway up-stairs in exact time with
him. He found himself wondering if they would walk in time until the
person reached the end of the hall.
Kitty had gone to her mother. God help her, what a mother to go to! He
tried to imagine the meeting: the abused wife collapsing upon the
mother's breast. He could not. That Kitty was capable of any deep
grief was unbelievable. He had gradually grown to think of her as
something unapproachable and callous. She would get a divorce, of
course, and eventually she would marry again. He began to consider
this. Whom would she marry? He laughed bitterly, stopped; a picture
flashed before him--of Kitty's arms around some man whose face he
could not see, of Kitty's lips pressed close to other lips in what was
"God!" he cried aloud. "God! God! God!"
Then the pictures came thick and fast. The Kitty of this morning
faded; the soiled kimono rolled up and disappeared; the pouts, and
rages, and tears all were washed away. Again she was Kitty Carr--Kitty
Carr with yellow hair and great baby eyes. Ah, she had loved him, she
had loved him.
After a while he perceived that something was amiss with him,
something that had nothing to do with Kitty or Jeff, something of a
different genre. Amazingly it burst on him at last; he was hungry.
Simple enough! He would go into the kitchen in a moment and ask the
colored cook for a sandwich. After that he must go back to the city.
He paused at the wall, jerked at something round, and, fingering it
absently, put it to his mouth and tasted it as a baby tastes a bright
toy. His teeth closed on it--Ah!
She'd left that damn kimono, that dirty pink kimono. She might have
had the decency to take it with her, he thought. It would hang in the
house like the corpse of their sick alliance. He would try to throw it
away, but he would never be able to bring himself to move it. It would
be like Kitty, soft and pliable, withal impervious. You couldn't move
Kitty; you couldn't reach Kitty. There was nothing there to reach. He
understood that perfectly--he had understood it all along.
He reached to the wall for another biscuit and with an effort pulled
it out, nail and all. He carefully removed the nail from the centre,
wondering idly if he had eaten the nail with the first biscuit.
Preposterous! He would have remembered--it was a huge nail. He felt
his stomach. He must be very hungry. He considered--remembered--
yesterday he had had no dinner. It was the girl's day out and Kitty
had lain in her room eating chocolate drops. She had said she felt
"smothery" and couldn't bear having him near her. He had given
George a bath and put him to bed, and then lain down on the couch
intending to rest a minute before getting his own dinner. There
he had fallen asleep and awakened about eleven, to find that
there was nothing in the ice-box except a spoonful of potato salad.
This he had eaten, together with some chocolate drops that he found on
Kitty's bureau. This morning he had breakfasted hurriedly down town
before going to the office. But at noon, beginning to worry about
Kitty, he had decided to go home and take her out to lunch. After that
there had been the note on his pillow. The pile of lingerie in the
closet was gone--and she had left instructions for sending her trunk.
He had never been so hungry, he thought.
At five o'clock, when the visiting nurse tiptoed down-stairs, he was
sitting on the sofa staring at the carpet.
"Oh, Mrs. Curtain won't be able to see you at dinner. She's not well
She told me to tell you that the cook will fix you something and that
there's a spare bedroom."
"She's sick, you say?"
"She's lying down in her room. The consultation is just over."
"Did they--did they decide anything?"
"Yes," said the nurse softly. "Doctor Jewett says there's no hope. Mr.
Curtain may live indefinitely, but he'll never see again or move again
or think. He'll just breathe."
For the first time the nurse noted that beside the writing-desk where
she remembered that she had seen a line of a dozen curious round
objects she had vaguely imagined to be some exotic form of decoration,
there was now only one. Where the others had been, there was now a
series of little nail-holes.
Harry followed her glance dazedly and then rose to his feet.
"I don't believe I'll stay. I believe there's a train."
She nodded. Harry picked up his hat.
"Good-by," she said pleasantly.
"Good-by," he answered, as though talking to himself and, evidently
moved by some involuntary necessity, he paused on his way to the door
and she saw him pluck the last object from the wall and drop it into
Then he opened the screen door and, descending the porch steps, passed
out of her sight.
After a while the coat of clean white paint on the Jeffrey Curtain
house made a definite compromise with the suns of many Julys and
showed its good faith by turning gray. It scaled--huge peelings of
very brittle old paint leaned over backward like aged men practising
grotesque gymnastics and finally dropped to a moldy death in the
overgrown grass beneath. The paint on the front pillars became
streaky; the white ball was knocked off the left-hand door-post; the
green blinds darkened, then lost all pretense of color.
It began to be a house that was avoided by the tender-minded--some
church bought a lot diagonally opposite for a graveyard, and this,
combined with "the place where Mrs. Curtain stays with that living
corpse," was enough to throw a ghostly aura over that quarter of the
road. Not that she was left alone. Men and women came to see her, met
her down town, where she went to do her marketing, brought her home in
their cars--and came in for a moment to talk and to rest, in the
glamour that still played in her smile. But men who did not know her
no longer followed her with admiring glances in the street; a
diaphanous veil had come down over her beauty, destroying its
vividness, yet bringing neither wrinkles nor fat.
She acquired a character in the village--a group of little stories
were told of her: how when the country was frozen over one winter so
that no wagons nor automobiles could travel, she taught herself to
skate so that she could make quick time to the grocer and druggist,
and not leave Jeffrey alone for long. It was said that every night
since his paralysis she slept in a small bed beside his bed, holding
Jeffrey Curtain was spoken of as though he were already dead. As the
years dropped by those who had known him died or moved away--there
were but half a dozen of the old crowd who had drunk cocktails
together, called each other's wives by their first names, and thought
that Jeff was about the wittiest and most talented fellow that Marlowe
had ever known. How, to the casual visitor, he was merely the reason
that Mrs. Curtain excused herself sometimes and hurried upstairs; he
was a groan or a sharp cry borne to the silent parlor on the heavy air
of a Sunday afternoon.
He could not move; he was stone blind, dumb and totally unconscious.
All day he lay in his bed, except for a shift to his wheel-chair every
morning while she straightened the room. His paralysis was creeping
slowly toward his heart. At first-for the first year--Roxanne had
received the faintest answering pressure sometimes when she held his
hand--then it had gone, ceased one evening and never come back, and
through two nights Roxanne lay wide-eyed, staring into the dark and
wondering what had gone, what fraction of his soul had taken flight,
what last grain of comprehension those shattered broken nerves still
carried to the brain.
After that hope died. Had it not been for her unceasing care the last
spark would have gone long before. Every morning she shaved and bathed
him, shifted him with her own hands from bed to chair and back to bed.
She was in his room constantly, bearing medicine, straightening a
pillow, talking to him almost as one talks to a nearly human dog,
without hope of response or appreciation, but with the dim persuasion
of habit, a prayer when faith has gone.
Not a few people, one celebrated nerve specialist among them, gave her
a plain impression that it was futile to exercise so much care, that
if Jeffrey had been conscious he would have wished to die, that if his
spirit were hovering in some wider air it would agree to no such
sacrifice from her, it would fret only for the prison of its body to
give it full release.
"But you see," she replied, shaking her head gently, "when I married
Jeffrey it was--until I ceased to love him."
"But," was protested, in effect, "you can't love that."
"I can love what it once was. What else is there for me to do?"
The specialist shrugged his shoulders and went away to say that Mrs.
Curtain was a remarkable woman and just about as sweet as an
angel--but, he added, it was a terrible pity.
"There must be some man, or a dozen, just crazy to take care of
Casually--there were. Here and there some one began in hope--and ended
in reverence. There was no love in the woman except, strangely enough,
for life, for the people in the world, from the tramp to whom she gave
food she could ill afford to the butcher who sold her a cheap cut of
steak across the meaty board. The other phase was sealed up somewhere
in that expressionless mummy who lay with his face turned ever toward
the light as mechanically as a compass needle and waited dumbly for
the last wave to wash over his heart.
After eleven years he died in the middle of a May night, when the
scent of the syringa hung upon the window-sill and a breeze wafted in
the shrillings of the frogs and cicadas outside. Roxanne awoke at two,
and realized with a start she was alone in the house at last.
After that she sat on her weather-beaten porch through many
afternoons, gazing down across the fields that undulated in a slow
descent to the white and green town. She was wondering what she would
do with her life. She was thirty-six--handsome, strong, and free. The
years had eaten up Jeffrey's insurance; she had reluctantly parted
with the acres to right and left of her, and had even placed a small
mortgage on the house.
With her husband's death had come a great physical restlessness. She
missed having to care for him in the morning, she missed her rush to
town, and the brief and therefore accentuated neighborly meetings in
the butcher's and grocer's; she missed the cooking for two, the
preparation of delicate liquid food for him. One day, consumed with
energy, she went out and spaded up the whole garden, a thing that had
not been done for years.
And she was alone at night in the room that had seen the glory of her
marriage and then the pain. To meet Jeff again she went back in spirit
to that wonderful year, that intense, passionate absorption and
companionship, rather than looked forward to a problematical meeting
hereafter; she awoke often to lie and wish for that presence beside
her--inanimate yet breathing--still Jeff.
One afternoon six months after his death she was sitting on the porch,
in a black dress which took away the faintest suggestion of plumpness
from her figure. It was Indian summer--golden brown all about her; a
hush broken by the sighing of leaves; westward a four o'clock sun
dripping streaks of red and yellow over a flaming sky. Most of the
birds had gone--only a sparrow that had built itself a nest on the
cornice of a pillar kept up an intermittent cheeping varied by
occasional fluttering sallies overhead. Roxanne moved her chair to
where she could watch him and her mind idled drowsily on the bosom of
Harry Cromwell was coming out from Chicago to dinner. Since his
divorce over eight years before he had been a frequent visitor. They
had kept up what amounted to a tradition between them: when he arrived
they would go to look at Jeff; Harry would sit down on the edge of the
bed and in a hearty voice ask:
"Well, Jeff, old man, how do you feel to-day?"
Roxanne, standing beside, would look intently at Jeff, dreaming that
some shadowy recognition of this former friend had passed across that
broken mind--but the head, pale, carven, would only move slowly in its
sole gesture toward the light as if something behind the blind eyes
were groping for another light long since gone out.
These visits stretched over eight years--at Easter, Christmas,
Thanksgiving, and on many a Sunday Harry had arrived, paid his call on
Jeff, and then talked for a long while with Roxanne on the porch. He
was devoted to her. He made no pretense of hiding, no attempt to
deepen, this relation. She was his best friend as the mass of flesh on
the bed there had been his best friend. She was peace, she was rest;
she was the past. Of his own tragedy she alone knew.
He had been at the funeral, but since then the company for which he
worked had shifted him to the East and only a business trip had
brought him to the vicinity of Chicago. Roxanne had written him to
come when he could--after a night in the city he had caught a train
They shook hands and he helped her move two rockers together.
"He's fine, Roxanne. Seems to like school."
"Of course it was the only thing to do, to send him."
"You miss him horribly, Harry?"
"Yes--I do miss him. He's a funny boy---"
He talked a lot about George. Roxanne was interested. Harry must bring
him out on his next vacation. She had only seen him once in her
life--a child in dirty rompers.
She left him with the newspaper while she prepared dinner--she had
four chops to-night and some late vegetables from her own garden. She
put it all on and then called him, and sitting down together they
continued their talk about George.
"If I had a child--" she would say.
Afterward, Harry having given her what slender advice he could about
investments, they walked through the garden, pausing here and there to
recognize what had once been a cement bench or where the tennis court
"Do you remember--"
Then they were off on a flood of reminiscences: the day they had taken
all the snap-shots and Jeff had been photographed astride the calf;
and the sketch Harry had made of Jeff and Roxanne, lying sprawled in
the grass, their heads almost touching. There was to have been a
covered lattice connecting the barn-studio with the house, so that
Jeff could get there on wet days--the lattice had been started, but
nothing remained except a broken triangular piece that still adhered
to the house and resembled a battered chicken coop.
"And those mint juleps!"
"And Jeff's note-book! Do you remember how we'd laugh, Harry, when
we'd get it out of his pocket and read aloud a page of material. And
how frantic he used to get?"
"Wild! He was such a kid about his writing."
They were both silent a moment, and then Harry said:
"We were to have a place out here, too. Do you remember? We were to
buy the adjoining twenty acres. And the parties we were going to
Again there was a pause, broken this time by a low question from
"Do you ever hear of her, Harry?"
"Why--yes," he admitted placidly. "She's in Seattle. She's married
again to a man named Horton, a sort of lumber king. He's a great deal
older than she is, I believe."
"And she's behaving?"
"Yes--that is, I've heard so. She has everything, you see. Nothing
much to do except dress up for this fellow at dinner-time."
Without effort he changed the subject.
"Are you going to keep the house?"
"I think so," she said, nodding. "I've lived here so long, Harry, it'd
seem terrible to move. I thought of trained nursing, but of course
that'd mean leaving. I've about decided to be a boarding-house lady."
"Live in one?"
"No. Keep one. Is there such an anomaly as a boarding-house lady?
Anyway I'd have a negress and keep about eight people in the summer
and two or three, if I can get them, in the winter. Of course I'll
have to have the house repainted and gone over inside."
"Roxanne, why--naturally you know best what you can do, but it does
seem a shock, Roxanne. You came here as a bride."
"Perhaps," she said, "that's why I don't mind remaining here as a
"I remember a certain batch of biscuits."
"Oh, those biscuits," she cried. "Still, from all I heard about the
way you devoured them, they couldn't have been so bad. I was _so_
low that day, yet somehow I laughed when the nurse told me about those
"I noticed that the twelve nail-holes are still in the library wall
where Jeff drove them."
It was getting very dark now, a crispness settled in the air; a little
gust of wind sent down a last spray of leaves. Roxanne shivered
"We'd better go in."
He looked at his watch.
"It's late. I've got to be leaving. I go East tomorrow."
They lingered for a moment just below the stoop, watching a moon that
seemed full of snow float out of the distance where the lake lay.
Summer was gone and now Indian summer. The grass was cold and there
was no mist and no dew. After he left she would go in and light the
gas and close the shatters, and he would go down the path and on to
the village. To these two life had come quickly and gone, leaving not
bitterness, but pity; not disillusion, but only pain. There was
already enough moonlight when they shook hands for each to see the
gathered kindness in the other's eyes.
THE QUINTESSENCE OF QUAINTNESS IN ONE ACT
_The Scene is the Exterior of a Cottage in West Issacshire on a
desperately Arcadian afternoon in August._ MR. ICKY, _quaintly
dressed in the costume of an Elizabethan peasant, is pottering and
doddering among the pots and dods. He is an old man, well past the
prime of life, no longer young, From the fact that there is a burr in
his speech and that he has absent-mindedly put on his coat wrongside
out, we surmise that he is either above or below the ordinary
superficialities of life._
_Near him on the grass lies _PETER_, a little boy.
_PETER_, of course, has his chin on his palm like the pictures
of the young Sir Walter Raleigh. He has a complete set of features,
including serious, sombre, even funereal, gray eyes--and radiates that
alluring air of never having eaten food. This air can best be radiated
during the afterglow of a beef dinner. Be is looking at _MR.
_Silence. . . . The song of birds._
PETER: Often at night I sit at my window and regard the stars.
Sometimes I think they're my stars.... (_Gravely_) I think I
shall be a star some day....
ME. ICKY: (_Whimsically_) Yes, yes ... yes....
PETER: I know them all: Venus, Mars, Neptune, Gloria Swanson.
MR. ICKY: I don't take no stock in astronomy.... I've been thinking o'
Lunnon, laddie. And calling to mind my daughter, who has gone for to
be a typewriter.... (_He sighs._)
PETER: I liked Ulsa, Mr. Icky; she was so plump, so round, so buxom.
MR. ICKY: Not worth the paper she was padded with, laddie. (_He
stumbles over a pile of pots and dods._)
PETER: How is your asthma, Mr. Icky?
MR. ICKY: Worse, thank God!...(_Gloomily.)_ I'm a hundred years
old... I'm getting brittle.
PETER: I suppose life has been pretty tame since you gave up petty
MR. ICKY: Yes... yes.... You see, Peter, laddie, when I was fifty I
reformed once--in prison.
PETER: You went wrong again?
MR. ICKY: Worse than that. The week before my term expired they
insisted on transferring to me the glands of a healthy young prisoner
they were executing.
PETER: And it renovated you?
MR. ICKY: Renovated me! It put the Old Nick back into me! This young
criminal was evidently a suburban burglar and a kleptomaniac. What was
a little playful arson in comparison!
PETER: (_Awed_) How ghastly! Science is the bunk.
MR. ICKY: (_Sighing_) I got him pretty well subdued now. 'Tisn't
every one who has to tire out two sets o' glands in his lifetime. I
wouldn't take another set for all the animal spirits in an orphan
PETER: (_Considering_) I shouldn't think you'd object to a nice
quiet old clergyman's set.
MR. ICKY: Clergymen haven't got glands--they have souls.
(_There is a low, sonorous honking off stage to indicate that a
large motor-car has stopped in the immediate vicinity. Then a young
man handsomely attired in a dress-suit and a patent-leather silk hat
comes onto the stage. He is very mundane. His contrast to the
spirituality of the other two is observable as far back as the first
row of the balcony. This is_ RODNEY DIVINE.)
DIVINE: I am looking for Ulsa Icky.
(MR. ICKY _rises and stands tremulously between two dods._)
MR. ICKY: My daughter is in Lunnon.
DIVINE: She has left London. She is coming here. I have followed her.
(_He reaches into the little mother-of-pearl satchel that hangs at
his side for cigarettes. He selects one and scratching a match touches
it to the cigarette. The cigarette instantly lights._)
DIVINE: I shall wait.
(_He waits. Several hours pass. There is no sound except an
occasional cackle or hiss from the dods as they quarrel among
themselves. Several songs can be introduced here or some card tricks
by_ DIVINE _or a tumbling act, as desired._)
DIVINE: It's very quiet here.
MR. ICKY: Yes, very quiet....
(_Suddenly a loudly dressed girl appears; she is very worldly. It
is _ULSA ICKY._ On her is one of those shapeless faces peculiar to
early Italian painting._)
ULSA: (_In a coarse, worldly voice_) Feyther! Here I am! Ulsa did
MR. ICKY: (_Tremulously_) Ulsa, little Ulsa. (_They embrace
each other's torsos._)
MR. ICKY: (_Hopefully_) You've come back to help with the
ULSA: (_Sullenly_) No, feyther; ploughing's such a beyther. I'd
(_Though her accent is broad, the content of her speech is sweet and
DIVINE: (_Conciliatingly_) See here, Ulsa. Let's come to an
(_He advances toward her with the graceful, even stride that made
him captain of the striding team at Cambridge._)
ULSA: You still say it would be Jack?
MR. ICKY: What does she mean?
DIVINE: (_Kindly_) My dear, of course, it would be Jack. It
couldn't be Frank.
MR. ICKY: Frank who?
ULSA: It _would_ be Frank!
(_Some risqué joke can be introduced here._)
MR. ICKY: (_Whimsically_) No good fighting...no good fighting...
DIVINE: (_Reaching out to stroke her arm with the powerful movement
that made him stroke of the crew at Oxford_) You'd better marry me.
ULSA: (_Scornfully_) Why, they wouldn't let me in through the
servants' entrance of your house.
DIVINE: (_Angrily_) They wouldn't! Never fear--you shall come in
through the mistress' entrance.
DIVINE: (_In confusion_) I beg your pardon. You know what I mean?
MR. ICKY: (_Aching with whimsey_) You want to marry my little
DIVINE: I do.
MR. ICKY: Your record is clean.
DIVINE: Excellent. I have the best constitution in the world---
ULSA: And the worst by-laws.
DIVINE: At Eton I was a member at Pop; at Rugby I belonged to
Near-beer. As a younger son I was destined for the police force---
MR. ICKY: Skip that.... Have you money?...
DIVINE: Wads of it. I should expect Ulsa to go down town in sections
every morning--in two Rolls Royces. I have also a kiddy-car and a
converted tank. I have seats at the opera---
ULSA: (_Sullenly_) I can't sleep except in a box. And I've heard
that you were cashiered from your club.
MR. ICKY: A cashier? ...
DIVINE: (_Hanging his head_) I was cashiered.
ULSA: What for?
DIVINE: (_Almost inaudibly_) I hid the polo bails one day for a
MR. ICKY: Is your mind in good shape?
DIVINE: (_Gloomily_) Fair. After all what is brilliance? Merely
the tact to sow when no one is looking and reap when every one is.
ME. ICKY; Be careful. ... I will-not marry my daughter to an epigram....
DIVINE: (_More gloomily_) I assure you I'm a mere platitude. I
often descend to the level of an innate idea.
ULSA: (_Dully_) None of what you're saying matters. I can't marry
a man who thinks it would be Jack. Why Frank would--
DIVINE: (_Interrupting_) Nonsense!
ULSA: (_Emphatically_) You're a fool!
MR. ICKY: Tut-tut! ... One should not judge ... Charity, my girl. What
was it Nero said?--"With malice toward none, with charity toward
PETER: That wasn't Nero. That was John Drinkwater.
MR. ICKY: Come! Who is this Frank? Who is this Jack?
DIVINE: (_Morosely_) Gotch.
DIVINE: We were arguing that if they were deadly enemies and locked in
a room together which one would come out alive. Now I claimed that
Jack Dempsey would take one---
ULSA: (_Angrily_) Rot! He wouldn't have a---
DIVINE: (_Quickly_) You win.
ULSA: Then I love you again.
MR. ICKY: So I'm going to lose my little daughter...
ULSA: You've still got a houseful of children,
(CHARLES, ULSA'S _brother, coming out of the cottage. He is dressed
as if to go to sea; a coil of rope is slung about his shoulder and an
anchor is hanging from his neck._)
CHARLES: (_Not seeing them_) I'm going to sea! I'm going to sea!
(_His voice is triumphant._)
MR. ICKY: (_Sadly_) You went to seed long ago.
CHARLES: I've been reading "Conrad."
PETER: (_Dreamily_) "Conrad," ah! "Two Years Before the Mast," by
PETER: Walter Pater's version of "Robinson Crusoe."
CHARLES: (_To his feyther_) I can't stay here and rot with you. I
want to live my life. I want to hunt eels.
MR. ICKY: I will be here... when you come back....
CHARLES: (_Contemptuously_) Why, the worms are licking their
chops already when they hear your name.
(_It will be noticed that some of the characters have not spoken for
some time. It will improve the technique if they can be rendering a
spirited saxophone number._)
MR. ICKY: (_Mournfully_) These vales, these hills, these
McCormick harvesters--they mean nothing to my children. I understand.
CHARLES: (_More gently_) Then you'll think of me kindly, feyther.
To understand is to forgive.
MR. ICKY: No...no....We never forgive those we can understand....We
can only forgive those who wound us for no reason at all....
CHARLES: (_Impatiently_) I'm so beastly sick of your human nature
line. And, anyway, I hate the hours around here.
(_Several dozen more of _MR. ICKY'S_ children trip out of the
house, trip over the grass, and trip over the pots and dods. They are
muttering "We are going away," and "We are leaving you."_)
MR. ICKY: (_His heart breaking_) They're all deserting me. I've
been too kind. Spare the rod and spoil the fun. Oh, for the glands of
(_There is a honking outside--probably _DIVINE'S_ chauffeur
growing impatient for his master._)
MR. ICKY: (_In misery_) They do not love the soil! They have been
faithless to the Great Potato Tradition! (_He picks up a handful of
soil passionately and rubs it on his bald head. Hair sprouts._) Oh,
Wordsworth, Wordsworth, how true you spoke!
_"No motion has she now, no force;
She does not hear or feel;
Roll'd round on earth's diurnal course
In some one's Oldsmobile."_
(_They all groan and shouting "Life" and "Jazz" move slowly toward
CHARLES: Back to the soil, yes! I've been trying to turn my back to
the soil for ten years!
ANOTHER CHILD: The farmers may be the backbone of the country, but who
wants to be a backbone?
ANOTHER CHILD: I care not who hoes the lettuce of my country if I can
eat the salad!
ALL: Life! Psychic Research! Jazz!
MR. ICKY: (_Struggling with himself_) I must be quaint. That's
all there is. It's not life that counts, it's the quaintness you bring
ALL: We're going to slide down the Riviera. We've got tickets for
Piccadilly Circus. Life! Jazz!
MR. ICKY: Wait. Let me read to you from the Bible. Let me open it at
random. One always finds something that bears on the situation.
(_He finds a Bible lying in one of the dods and opening it at random
begins to read._)
"Ahab and Istemo and Anim, Goson and Olon and Gilo, eleven cities and
their villages. Arab, and Ruma, and Esaau--"
CHARLES: (_Cruelly_) Buy ten more rings and try again.
MR. ICKY: (_Trying again_) "How beautiful art thou my love, how
beautiful art thou! Thy eyes are dove's eyes, besides what is hid
within. Thy hair is as flocks of goats which come up from Mount
Galaad--Hm! Rather a coarse passage...."
(_His children laugh at him rudely, shouting "Jazz!" and "All life
is primarily suggestive!"_)
MR. ICKY: (_Despondently_) It won't work to-day.
(_Hopefully_) Maybe it's damp. (_He feels it_) Yes, it's
damp.... There was water in the dod.... It won't work.
ALL: It's damp! It won't work! Jazz!
ONE OF THE CHILDREN: Come, we must catch the six-thirty.
(_Any other cue may be inserted here._)
MR. ICKY: Good-by....
(_ They all go out._ MR. ICKY _is left alone. He sighs and
walking over to the cottage steps, lies down, and closes his eyes._)
_Twilight has come down and the stage is flooded with such light as
never was on land or sea. There is no sound except a sheep-herder's
wife in the distance playing an aria from Beethoven's Tenth Symphony,
on a mouth-organ. The great white and gray moths swoop down and light
on the old man until he is completely covered by them. But he does not
_The curtain goes up and down several times to denote the lapse of
several minutes. A good comedy effect can be obtained by having
_MR. ICKY_ cling to the curtain and go up and down with it.
Fireflies or fairies on wires can also be introduced at this
_Then _PETER_ appears, a look of almost imbecile sweetness on
his face. In his hand he clutches something and from time to time
glances at it in a transport of ecstasy. After a struggle with himself
he lays it on the old man's body and then quietly withdraws._
_The moths chatter among themselves and then scurry away in sudden
fright. And as night deepens there still sparkles there, small, white
and round, breathing a subtle perfume to the West Issacshire breeze,
_PETER'S_ gift of love--a moth-ball._
(_The play can end at this point or can go on indefinitely._)
JEMINA, THE MOUNTAIN GIRL
This don't pretend to be "Literature." This is just a tale for
red-blooded folks who want a _story_ and not just a lot of
"psychological" stuff or "analysis." Boy, you'll love it! Read it
here, see it in the movies, play it on the phonograph, run it through
A WILD THING
It was night in the mountains of Kentucky. Wild hills rose on all
sides. Swift mountain streams flowed rapidly up and down the
Jemima Tantrum was down at the stream, brewing whiskey at the family
She was a typical mountain girl.
Her feet were bare. Her hands, large and powerful, hung down below her
knees. Her face showed the ravages of work. Although but sixteen, she
had for over a dozen years been supporting her aged pappy and mappy by
brewing mountain whiskey. From time to time she would pause in her
task, and, filling a dipper full of the pure, invigorating liquid,
would drain it off--then pursue her work with renewed vigor.
She would place the rye in the vat, thresh it out with her feet and,
in twenty minutes, the completed product would be turned out.
A sudden cry made her pause in the act of draining a dipper and look
"Hello," said a voice. It came from a man clad in hunting boots
reaching to his neck, who had emerged.
"Can you tell me the way to the Tantrums' cabin?"
"Are you uns from the settlements down thar?"
She pointed her hand down to the bottom of the hill, where Louisville
lay. She had never been there; but once, before she was born, her
great-grandfather, old Gore Tantrum, had gone into the settlements in
the company of two marshals, and had never come back. So the Tantrums
from generation to generation, had learned to dread civilization.
The man was amused. He laughed a light tinkling laugh, the laugh of a
Philadelphian. Something in the ring of it thrilled her. She drank off
another dipper of whiskey.
"Where is Mr. Tantrum, little girl?" he asked, not without kindness.
She raised her foot and pointed her big toe toward the woods. "Thar in
the cabing behind those thar pines. Old Tantrum air my old man."
The man from the settlements thanked her and strode off. He was fairly
vibrant with youth and personality. As he walked along he whistled and
sang and turned handsprings and flapjacks, breathing in the fresh,
cool air of the mountains.
The air around the still was like wine.
Jemina Tantrum watched him entranced. No one like him had ever come
into her life before.
She sat down on the grass and counted her toes. She counted eleven.
She had learned arithmetic in the mountain school.
A MOUNTAIN FEUD
Ten years before a lady from the settlements had opened a school on
the mountain. Jemina had no money, but she had paid her way in
whiskey, bringing a pailful to school every morning and leaving it on
Miss Lafarge's desk. Miss Lafarge had died of delirium tremens after a
year's teaching, and so Jemina's education had stopped.
Across the still stream, still another still was standing; It was that
of the Doldrums. The Doldrums and the Tantrums never exchanged calls.
They hated each other.
Fifty years before old Jem Doldrum and old Jem Tantrum had quarrelled
in the Tantrum cabin over a game of slapjack. Jem Doldrum had thrown
the king of hearts in Jem Tantrum's face, and old Tantrum, enraged,
had felled the old Doldrum with the nine of diamonds. Other Doldrums
and Tantrums had joined in and the little cabin was soon filled with
flying cards. Harstrum Doldrum, one of the younger Doldrums, lay
stretched on the floor writhing in agony, the ace of hearts crammed
down his throat. Jem Tantrum, standing in the doorway; ran through
suit after suit, his face alight with fiendish hatred. Old Mappy
Tantrum stood on the table wetting down the Doldrums with hot whiskey.
Old Heck Doldrum, having finally run out of trumps, was backed out of
the cabin, striking left and right with his tobacco pouch, and
gathering around him the rest of his clan. Then they mounted their
steers and galloped furiously home.
That night old man Doldrum and his sons, vowing vengeance, had
returned, put a ticktock on the Tantrum window, stuck a pin in the
doorbell, and beaten a retreat.
A week later the Tantrums had put Cod Liver Oil in the Doldrums'
still, and so, from year to year, the feud had continued, first one
family being entirely wiped out, then the other.
THE BIRTH OF LOVE
Every day little Jemina worked the still on her side of the stream,
and Boscoe Doldrum worked the still on his side.
Sometimes, with automatic inherited hatred, the feudists would throw
whiskey at each other, and Jemina would come home smelling like a
French table d'hôte.
But now Jemina was too thoughtful to look across the stream.
How wonderful the stranger had been and how oddly he was dressed! In
her innocent way she had never believed that there were any civilized
settlements at all, and she had put the belief in them down to the
credulity of the mountain people.
She turned to go up to the cabin, and, as she turned something struck
her in the neck. It was a sponge, thrown by Boscoe Doldrum--a sponge
soaked in whiskey from his still on the other side of the stream.
"Hi, thar, Boscoe Doldrum," she shouted in her deep bass voice.
"Yo! Jemina Tantrum. Gosh ding yo'!" he returned.
She continued her way to the cabin.
The stranger was talking to her father. Gold had been discovered on
the Tantrum land, and the stranger, Edgar Edison, was trying to buy
the land for a song. He was considering what song to offer.
She sat upon her hands and watched him.
He was wonderful. When he talked his lips moved.
She sat upon the stove and watched him.
Suddenly there came a blood-curdling scream. The Tantrums rushed to
It was the Doldrums.
They had hitched their steers to trees and concealed themselves behind
the bushes and flowers, and soon a perfect rattle of stones and bricks
beat against the windows, bending them inward.
"Father! father!" shrieked Jemina.
Her father took down his slingshot from his slingshot rack on the wall
and ran his hand lovingly over the elastic band. He stepped to a
loophole. Old Mappy Tantrum stepped to the coalhole.
A MOUNTAIN BATTLE
The stranger was aroused at last. Furious to get at the Doldrums, he
tried to escape from the house by crawling up the chimney. Then he
thought there might be a door under the bead, but Jemina told him
there was not. He hunted for doors under the beds and sofas, but each
time Jemina pulled him out and told him there were no doors there.
Furious with anger, he beat upon the door and hollered at the
Doldrums. They did not answer him, but kept up their fusillade of
bricks and stones against the window. Old Pappy Tantrum knew that just
as soon as they were able to affect an aperture they would pour in and
the fight would be over.
Then old Heck Doldrum, foaming at the mouth and expectorating on the
ground, left and right, led the attack.
The terrific slingshots of Pappy Tantrum had not been without their
effect. A master shot had disabled one Doldrum, and another Doldrum,
shot almost incessantly through the abdomen, fought feebly on.
Nearer and nearer they approached the house.
"We must fly," shouted the stranger to Jemina. "I will sacrifice
myself and bear you away."
"No," shouted Pappy Tantrum, his face begrimed. "You stay here and fit
on. I will bar Jemina away. I will bar Mappy away. I will bar myself
The man from the settlements, pale and trembling with anger, turned to
Ham Tantrum, who stood at the door throwing loophole after loophole at
the advancing Doldrums.
"Will you cover the retreat?"
But Ham said that he too had Tantrums to bear away, but that he would
leave himself here to help the stranger cover the retreat, if he could
think of a way of doing it.
Soon smoke began to filter through the floor and ceiling. Shem Doldrum
had come up and touched a match to old Japhet Tantrum's breath as he
leaned from a loophole, and the alcoholic flames shot up on all sides.
The whiskey in the bathtub caught fire. The walls began to fall in.
Jemina and the man from the settlements looked at each other.
"Jemina," he whispered.
"Stranger," she answered,
"We will die together," he said. "If we had lived I would have taken
you to the city and married you. With your ability to hold liquor,
your social success would have been assured."
She caressed him idly for a moment, counting her toes softly to
herself. The smoke grew thicker. Her left leg was on fire.
She was a human alcohol lamp.
Their lips met in one long kiss and then a wall fell on them and
blotted them out.
When the Doldrums burst through the ring of flame, they found them
dead where they had fallen, their arms about each other.
Old Jem Doldrum was moved.
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