A MATTER OF AESTHETICS
On the night when Anthony had left for Camp Hooker one year before, all that was left of the beautiful Gloria Gilbert—her shell, her young and lovely body—moved up the broad marble steps of the Grand Central Station with the rhythm of the engine beating in her ears like a dream, and out onto Vanderbilt Avenue, where the huge bulk of the Biltmore overhung, the street and, down at its low, gleaming entrance, sucked in the many-colored opera-cloaks of gorgeously dressed girls. For a moment she paused by the taxi-stand and watched them—wondering that but a few years before she had been of their number, ever setting out for a radiant Somewhere, always just about to have that ultimate passionate adventure for which the girls’ cloaks were delicate and beautifully furred, for which their cheeks were painted and their hearts higher than the transitory dome of pleasure that would engulf them, coiffure, cloak, and all.
It was growing colder and the men passing had flipped up the collars of their overcoats. This change was kind to her. It would have been kinder still had everything changed, weather, streets, and people, and had she been whisked away, to wake in some high, fresh-scented room, alone, and statuesque within and without, as in her virginal and colorful past.
Inside the taxicab she wept impotent tears. That she had not been happy with Anthony for over a year mattered little. Recently his presence had been no more than what it would awake in her of that memorable June. The Anthony of late, irritable, weak, and poor, could do no less than make her irritable in turn—and bored with everything except the fact that in a highly imaginative and eloquent youth they had come together in an ecstatic revel of emotion. Because of this mutually vivid memory she would have done more for Anthony than for any other human—so when she got into the taxicab she wept passionately, and wanted to call his name aloud.
Miserable, lonesome as a forgotten child, she sat in the quiet apartment and wrote him a letter full of confused sentiment:
… I can almost look down the tracks and see you going but without you, dearest, dearest, I can’t see or hear or feel or think. Being apart—whatever has happened or will happen to us—is like begging for mercy from a storm, Anthony; it’s like growing old. I want to kiss you so—in the back of your neck where your old black hair starts. Because I love you and whatever we do or say to each other, or have done, or have said, you’ve got to feel how much I do, how inanimate I am when you’re gone. I can’t even hate the damnable presence of PEOPLE, those people in the station who haven’t any right to live—I can’t resent them even though they’re dirtying up our world, because I’m engrossed in wanting you so.
If you hated me, if you were covered with sores like a leper, if you ran away with another woman or starved me or beat me—how absurd this sounds—I’d still want you, I’d still love you. I KNOW, my darling.
It’s late—I have all the windows open and the air outside, is just as soft as spring, yet, somehow, much more young and frail than spring. Why do they make spring a young girl, why does that illusion dance and yodel its way for three months through the world’s preposterous barrenness. Spring is a lean old plough horse with its ribs showing—it’s a pile of refuse in a field, parched by the sun and the rain to an ominous cleanliness.
In a few hours you’ll wake up, my darling—and you’ll be miserable, and disgusted with life. You’ll be in Delaware or Carolina or somewhere and so unimportant. I don’t believe there’s any one alive who can contemplate themselves as an impermanent institution, as a luxury or an unnecessary evil. Very few of the people who accentuate the futility of life remark the futility of themselves. Perhaps they think that in proclaiming the evil of living they somehow salvage their own worth from the ruin—but they don’t, even you and I….
… Still I can see you. There’s blue haze about the trees where you’ll be passing, too beautiful to be predominant. No, the fallow squares of earth will be most frequent—they’ll be along beside the track like dirty coarse brown sheets drying in the sun, alive, mechanical, abominable. Nature, slovenly old hag, has been sleeping in them with every old farmer or negro or immigrant who happened to covet her….
So you see that now you’re gone I’ve written a letter all full of contempt and despair. And that just means that I love you, Anthony, with all there is to love with in your
When she had addressed the letter she went to her twin bed and lay down upon it, clasping Anthony’s pillow in her arms as though by sheer force of emotion she could metamorphize it into his warm and living body. Two o’clock saw her dry-eyed, staring with steady persistent grief into the darkness, remembering, remembering unmercifully, blaming herself for a hundred fancied unkindnesses, making a likeness of Anthony akin to some martyred and transfigured Christ. For a time she thought of him as he, in his more sentimental moments, probably thought of himself.
At five she was still awake. A mysterious grinding noise that went on every morning across the areaway told her the hour. She heard an alarm clock ring, and saw a light make a yellow square on an illusory blank wall opposite. With the half-formed resolution of following him South immediately, her sorrow grew remote and unreal, and moved off from her as the dark moved westward. She fell asleep.
When she awoke the sight of the empty bed beside her brought a renewal of misery, dispelled shortly, however, by the inevitable callousness of the bright morning. Though she was not conscious of it, there was relief in eating breakfast without Anthony’s tired and worried face opposite her. Now that she was alone she lost all desire to complain about the food. She would change her breakfasts, she thought—have a lemonade and a tomato sandwich instead of the sempiternal bacon and eggs and toast.
Nevertheless, at noon when she had called up several of her acquaintances, including the martial Muriel, and found each one engaged for lunch, she gave way to a quiet pity for herself and her loneliness. Curled on the bed with pencil and paper she wrote Anthony another letter.
Late in the afternoon arrived a special delivery, mailed from some small New Jersey town, and the familiarity of the phrasing, the almost audible undertone of worry and discontent, were so familiar that they comforted her. Who knew? Perhaps army discipline would harden Anthony and accustom him to the idea of work. She had immutable faith that the war would be over before he was called upon to fight, and meanwhile the suit would be won, and they could begin again, this time on a different basis. The first thing different would be that she would have a child. It was unbearable that she should be so utterly alone.
It was a week before she could stay in the apartment with the probability of remaining dry-eyed. There seemed little in the city that was amusing. Muriel had been shifted to a hospital in New Jersey, from which she took a metropolitan holiday only every other week, and with this defection Gloria grew to realize how few were the friends she had made in all these years of New York. The men she knew were in the army. “Men she knew”?—she had conceded vaguely to herself that all the men who had ever been in love with her were her friends. Each one of them had at a certain considerable time professed to value her favor above anything in life. But now—where were they? At least two were dead, half a dozen or more were married, the rest scattered from France to the Philippines. She wondered whether any of them thought of her, and how often, and in what respect. Most of them must still picture the little girl of seventeen or so, the adolescent siren of nine years before.
The girls, too, were gone far afield. She had never been popular in school. She had been too beautiful, too lazy, not sufficiently conscious of being a Farmover girl and a “Future Wife and Mother” in perpetual capital letters. And girls who had never been kissed hinted, with shocked expressions on their plain but not particularly wholesome faces, that Gloria had. Then these girls had gone east or west or south, married and become “people,” prophesying, if they prophesied about Gloria, that she would come to a bad end—not knowing that no endings were bad, and that they, like her, were by no means the mistresses of their destinies.
Gloria told over to herself the people who had visited them in the gray house at Marietta. It had seemed at the time that they were always having company—she had indulged in an unspoken conviction that each guest was ever afterward slightly indebted to her. They owed her a sort of moral ten dollars apiece, and should she ever be in need she might, so to speak, borrow from them this visionary currency. But they were gone, scattered like chaff, mysteriously and subtly vanished in essence or in fact.
By Christmas, Gloria’s conviction that she should join Anthony had returned, no longer as a sudden emotion, but as a recurrent need. She decided to write him word of her coming, but postponed the announcement upon the advice of Mr. Haight, who expected almost weekly that the case was coming up for trial.
One day, early in January, as she was walking on Fifth Avenue, bright now with uniforms and hung with the flags of the virtuous nations, she met Rachael Barnes, whom she had not seen for nearly a year. Even Rachael, whom she had grown to dislike, was a relief from ennui, and together they went to the Ritz for tea.
After a second cocktail they became enthusiastic. They liked each other. They talked about their husbands, Rachael in that tone of public vainglory, with private reservations, in which wives are wont to speak.
“Rodman’s abroad in the Quartermaster Corps. He’s a captain. He was bound he would go, and he didn’t think he could get into anything else.”
“Anthony’s in the Infantry.” The words in their relation to the cocktail gave Gloria a sort of glow. With each sip she approached a warm and comforting patriotism.
“By the way,” said Rachael half an hour later, as they were leaving, “can’t you come up to dinner to-morrow night? I’m having two awfully sweet officers who are just going overseas. I think we ought to do all we can to make it attractive for them.”
Gloria accepted gladly. She took down the address—recognizing by its number a fashionable apartment building on Park Avenue.
“It’s been awfully good to have seen you, Rachael.”
“It’s been wonderful. I’ve wanted to.”
With these three sentences a certain night in Marietta two summers before, when Anthony and Rachael had been unnecessarily attentive to each other, was forgiven—Gloria forgave Rachael, Rachael forgave Gloria. Also it was forgiven that Rachael had been witness to the greatest disaster in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Patch—
Compromising with events time moves along.
THE WILES OF CAPTAIN COLLINS
The two officers were captains of the popular craft, machine gunnery. At dinner they referred to themselves with conscious boredom as members of the “Suicide Club”—in those days every recondite branch of the service referred to itself as the Suicide Club. One of the captains—Rachael’s captain, Gloria observed—was a tall horsy man of thirty with a pleasant mustache and ugly teeth. The other, Captain Collins, was chubby, pink-faced, and inclined to laugh with abandon every time he caught Gloria’s eye. He took an immediate fancy to her, and throughout dinner showered her with inane compliments. With her second glass of champagne Gloria decided that for the first time in months she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
After dinner it was suggested that they all go somewhere and dance. The two officers supplied themselves with bottles of liquor from Rachael’s sideboard—a law forbade service to the military—and so equipped they went through innumerable fox trots in several glittering caravanseries along Broadway, faithfully alternating partners—while Gloria became more and more uproarious and more and more amusing to the pink-faced captain, who seldom bothered to remove his genial smile at all.
At eleven o’clock to her great surprise she was in the minority for staying out. The others wanted to return to Rachael’s apartment—to get some more liquor, they said. Gloria argued persistently that Captain Collins’s flask was half full—she had just seen it—then catching Rachael’s eye she received an unmistakable wink. She deduced, confusedly, that her hostess wanted to get rid of the officers and assented to being bundled into a taxicab outside.
Captain Wolf sat on the left with Rachael on his knees. Captain Collins sat in the middle, and as he settled himself he slipped his arm about Gloria’s shoulder. It rested there lifelessly for a moment and then tightened like a vise. He leaned over her.
“You’re awfully pretty,” he whispered.
“Thank you kindly, sir.” She was neither pleased nor annoyed. Before Anthony came so many arms had done likewise that it had become little more than a gesture, sentimental but without significance.
Up in Rachael’s long front room a low fire and two lamps shaded with orange silk gave all the light, so that the corners were full of deep and somnolent shadows. The hostess, moving about in a dark-figured gown of loose chiffon, seemed to accentuate the already sensuous atmosphere. For a while they were all four together, tasting the sandwiches that waited on the tea table—then Gloria found herself alone with Captain Collins on the fireside lounge; Rachael and Captain Wolf had withdrawn to the other side of the room, where they were conversing in subdued voices.
“I wish you weren’t married,” said Collins, his face a ludicrous travesty of “in all seriousness.”
“Why?” She held out her glass to be filled with a high-ball.
“Don’t drink any more,” he urged her, frowning.
“You’d be nicer—if you didn’t.”
Gloria caught suddenly the intended suggestion of the remark, the atmosphere he was attempting to create. She wanted to laugh—yet she realized that there was nothing to laugh at. She had been enjoying the evening, and she had no desire to go home—at the same time it hurt her pride to be flirted with on just that level.
“Pour me another drink,” she insisted.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” she cried in exasperation.
“Very well.” He yielded with ill grace.
Then his arm was about her again, and again she made no protest. But when his pink cheek came close she leaned away.
“You’re awfully sweet,” he said with an aimless air.
She began to sing softly, wishing now that he would take down his arm. Suddenly her eye fell on an intimate scene across the room—Rachael and Captain Wolf were engrossed in a long kiss. Gloria shivered slightly—she knew not why…. Pink face approached again.
“You shouldn’t look at them,” he whispered. Almost immediately his other arm was around her … his breath was on her cheek. Again absurdity triumphed over disgust, and her laugh was a weapon that needed no edge of words.
“Oh, I thought you were a sport,” he was saying.
“What’s a sport?”
“Why, a person that likes to—to enjoy life.”
“Is kissing you generally considered a joyful affair?”
They were interrupted as Rachael and Captain Wolf appeared suddenly before them.
“It’s late, Gloria,” said Rachael—she was flushed and her hair was dishevelled. “You’d better stay here all night.”
For an instant Gloria thought the officers were being dismissed. Then she understood, and, understanding, got to her feet as casually as she was able.
Uncomprehendingly Rachael continued:
“You can have the room just off this one. I can lend you everything you need.”
Collins’s eyes implored her like a dog’s; Captain Wolf’s arm had settled familiarly around Rachael’s waist; they were waiting.
But the lure of promiscuity, colorful, various, labyrinthine, and ever a little odorous and stale, had no call or promise for Gloria. Had she so desired she would have remained, without hesitation, without regret; as it was she could face coolly the six hostile and offended eyes that followed her out into the hall with forced politeness and hollow words.
“He wasn’t even sport, enough to try to take me home,” she thought in the taxi, and then with a quick surge of resentment: “How utterly common!”
In February she had an experience of quite a different sort. Tudor Baird, an ancient flame, a young man whom at one time she had fully intended to marry, came to New York by way of the Aviation Corps, and called upon her. They went several times to the theatre, and within a week, to her great enjoyment, he was as much in love with her as ever. Quite deliberately she brought it about, realizing too late that she had done a mischief. He reached the point of sitting with her in miserable silence whenever they went out together.
A Scroll and Keys man at Yale, he possessed the correct reticences of a “good egg,” the correct notions of chivalry and noblesse oblige—and, of course but unfortunately, the correct biases and the correct lack of ideas—all those traits which Anthony had taught her to despise, but which, nevertheless, she rather admired. Unlike the majority of his type, she found that he was not a bore. He was handsome, witty in a light way, and when she was with him she felt that because of some quality he possessed—call it stupidity, loyalty, sentimentality, or something not quite as definite as any of the three—he would have done anything in his power to please her.
He told her this among other things, very correctly and with a ponderous manliness that masked a real suffering. Loving him not at all she grew sorry for him and kissed him sentimentally one night because he was so charming, a relic of a vanishing generation which lived a priggish and graceful illusion and was being replaced by less gallant fools. Afterward she was glad she had kissed him, for next day when his plane fell fifteen hundred feet at Mineola a piece of a gasolene engine smashed through his heart.
When Mr. Haight told her that the trial would not take place until autumn she decided that without telling Anthony she would go into the movies. When he saw her successful, both histrionically and financially, when he saw that she could have her will of Joseph Bloeckman, yielding nothing in return, he would lose his silly prejudices. She lay awake half one night planning her career and enjoying her successes in anticipation, and the next morning she called up “Films Par Excellence.” Mr. Bloeckman was in Europe.
But the idea had gripped her so strongly this time that she decided to go the rounds of the moving picture employment agencies. As so often had been the case, her sense of smell worked against her good intentions. The employment agency smelt as though it had been dead a very long time. She waited five minutes inspecting her unprepossessing competitors—then she walked briskly out into the farthest recesses of Central Park and remained so long that she caught a cold. She was trying to air the employment agency out of her walking suit.
In the spring she began to gather from Anthony’s letters—not from any one in particular but from their culminative effect—that he did not want her to come South. Curiously repeated excuses that seemed to haunt him by their very insufficiency occurred with Freudian regularity. He set them down in each letter as though he feared he had forgotten them the last time, as though it were desperately necessary to impress her with them. And the dilutions of his letters with affectionate diminutives began to be mechanical and unspontaneous—almost as though, having completed the letter, he had looked it over and literally stuck them in, like epigrams in an Oscar Wilde play. She jumped to the solution, rejected it, was angry and depressed by turns—finally she shut her mind to it proudly, and allowed an increasing coolness to creep into her end of the correspondence.
Of late she had found a good deal to occupy her attention. Several aviators whom she had met through Tudor Baird came into New York to see her and two other ancient beaux turned up, stationed at Camp Dix. As these men were ordered overseas they, so to speak, handed her down to their friends. But after another rather disagreeable experience with a potential Captain Collins she made it plain that when any one was introduced to her he should be under no misapprehensions as to her status and personal intentions.
When summer came she learned, like Anthony, to watch the officers’ casualty list, taking a sort of melancholy pleasure in hearing of the death of some one with whom she had once danced a german and in identifying by name the younger brothers of former suitors—thinking, as the drive toward Paris progressed, that here at length went the world to inevitable and well-merited destruction.
She was twenty-seven. Her birthday fled by scarcely noticed. Years before it had frightened her when she became twenty, to some extent when she reached twenty-six—but now she looked in the glass with calm self-approval seeing the British freshness of her complexion and her figure boyish and slim as of old.
She tried not to think of Anthony. It was as though she were writing to a stranger. She told her friends that he had been made a corporal and was annoyed when they were politely unimpressed. One night she wept because she was sorry for him—had he been even slightly responsive she would have gone to him without hesitation on the first train—whatever he was doing he needed to be taken care of spiritually, and she felt that now she would be able to do even that. Recently, without his continual drain upon her moral strength she found herself wonderfully revived. Before he left she had been inclined through sheer association to brood on her wasted opportunities—now she returned to her normal state of mind, strong, disdainful, existing each day for each day’s worth. She bought a doll and dressed it; one week she wept over “Ethan Frome”; the next she revelled in some novels of Galsworthy’s, whom she liked for his power of recreating, by spring in darkness, that illusion of young romantic love to which women look forever forward and forever back.
In October Anthony’s letters multiplied, became almost frantic—then suddenly ceased. For a worried month it needed all her powers of control to refrain from leaving immediately for Mississippi. Then a telegram told her that he had been in the hospital and that she could expect him in New York within ten days. Like a figure in a dream he came back into her life across the ballroom on that November evening—and all through long hours that held familiar gladness she took him close to her breast, nursing an illusion of happiness and security she had not thought that she would know again.
DISCOMFITURE OF THE GENERALS
After a week Anthony’s regiment went back to the Mississippi camp to be discharged. The officers shut themselves up in the compartments on the Pullman cars and drank the whiskey they had bought in New York, and in the coaches the soldiers got as drunk as possible also—and pretended whenever the train stopped at a village that they were just returned from France, where they had practically put an end to the German army. As they all wore overseas caps and claimed that they had not had time to have their gold service stripes sewed on, the yokelry of the seaboard were much impressed and asked them how they liked the trenches—to which they replied “Oh, boy!” with great smacking of tongues and shaking of heads. Some one took a piece of chalk and scrawled on the side of the train, “We won the war—now we’re going home,” and the officers laughed and let it stay. They were all getting what swagger they could out of this ignominious return.
As they rumbled on toward camp, Anthony was uneasy lest he should find Dot awaiting him patiently at the station. To his relief he neither saw nor heard anything of her and thinking that were she still in town she would certainly attempt to communicate with him, he concluded that she had gone—whither he neither knew nor cared. He wanted only to return to Gloria—Gloria reborn and wonderfully alive. When eventually he was discharged he left his company on the rear of a great truck with a crowd who had given tolerant, almost sentimental, cheers for their officers, especially for Captain Dunning. The captain, on his part, had addressed them with tears in his eyes as to the pleasure, etc., and the work, etc., and time not wasted, etc., and duty, etc. It was very dull and human; having given ear to it Anthony, whose mind was freshened by his week in New York, renewed his deep loathing for the military profession and all it connoted. In their childish hearts two out of every three professional officers considered that wars were made for armies and not armies for wars. He rejoiced to see general and field-officers riding desolately about the barren camp deprived of their commands. He rejoiced to hear the men in his company laugh scornfully at the inducements tendered them to remain in the army. They were to attend “schools.” He knew what these “schools” were.
Two days later he was with Gloria in New York.
Late one February afternoon Anthony came into the apartment and groping through the little hall, pitch-dark in the winter dusk, found Gloria sitting by the window. She turned as he came in.
“What did Mr. Haight have to say?” she asked listlessly.
“Nothing,” he answered, “usual thing. Next month, perhaps.”
She looked at him closely; her ear attuned to his voice caught the slightest thickness in the dissyllable.
“You’ve been drinking,” she remarked dispassionately.
He yawned in the armchair and there was a moment’s silence between them. Then she demanded suddenly:
“Did you go to Mr. Haight? Tell me the truth.”
“No.” He smiled weakly. “As a matter of fact I didn’t have time.”
“I thought you didn’t go…. He sent for you.”
“I don’t give a damn. I’m sick of waiting around his office. You’d think he was doing me a favor.” He glanced at Gloria as though expecting moral support, but she had turned back to her contemplation of the dubious and unprepossessing out-of-doors.
“I feel rather weary of life to-day,” he offered tentatively. Still she was silent. “I met a fellow and we talked in the Biltmore bar.”
The dusk had suddenly deepened but neither of them made any move to turn on the lights. Lost in heaven knew what contemplation, they sat there until a flurry of snow drew a languid sigh from Gloria.
“What’ve you been doing?” he asked, finding the silence oppressive.
“Reading a magazine—all full of idiotic articles by prosperous authors about how terrible it is for poor people to buy silk shirts. And while I was reading it I could think of nothing except how I wanted a gray squirrel coat—and how we can’t afford one.”
“Yes, we can.”
“Oh, yes! If you want a fur coat you can have one.”
Her voice coming through the dark held an implication of scorn.
“You mean we can sell another bond?”
“If necessary. I don’t want to go without things. We have spent a lot, though, since I’ve been back.”
“Oh, shut up!” she said in irritation.
“Because I’m sick and tired of hearing you talk about what we’ve spent or what we’ve done. You came back two months ago and we’ve been on some sort of a party practically every night since. We’ve both wanted to go out, and we’ve gone. Well, you haven’t heard me complain, have you? But all you do is whine, whine, whine. I don’t care any more what we do or what becomes of us and at least I’m consistent. But I will not tolerate your complaining and calamity-howling——”
“You’re not very pleasant yourself sometimes, you know.”
“I’m under no obligations to be. You’re not making any attempt to make things different.”
“But I am—”
“Huh! Seems to me I’ve heard that before. This morning you weren’t going to touch another thing to drink until you’d gotten a position. And you didn’t even have the spunk to go to Mr. Haight when he sent for you about the suit.”
Anthony got to his feet and switched on the lights.
“See here!” he cried, blinking, “I’m getting sick of that sharp tongue of yours.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“Do you think I’m particularly happy?” he continued, ignoring her question. “Do you think I don’t know we’re not living as we ought to?”
In an instant Gloria stood trembling beside him.
“I won’t stand it!” she burst out. “I won’t be lectured to. You and your suffering! You’re just a pitiful weakling and you always have been!”
They faced one another idiotically, each of them unable to impress the other, each of them tremendously, achingly, bored. Then she went into the bedroom and shut the door behind her.
His return had brought into the foreground all their pre-bellum exasperations. Prices had risen alarmingly and in perverse ratio their income had shrunk to a little over half of its original size. There had been the large retainer’s fee to Mr. Haight; there were stocks bought at one hundred, now down to thirty and forty and other investments that were not paying at all. During the previous spring Gloria had been given the alternative of leaving the apartment or of signing a year’s lease at two hundred and twenty-five a month. She had signed it. Inevitably as the necessity for economy had increased they found themselves as a pair quite unable to save. The old policy of prevarication was resorted to. Weary of their incapabilities they chattered of what they would do—oh—to-morrow, of how they would “stop going on parties” and of how Anthony would go to work. But when dark came down Gloria, accustomed to an engagement every night, would feel the ancient restlessness creeping over her. She would stand in the doorway of the bedroom, chewing furiously at her fingers and sometimes meeting Anthony’s eyes as he glanced up from his book. Then the telephone, and her nerves would relax, she would answer it with ill-concealed eagerness. Some one was coming up “for just a few minutes”—and oh, the weariness of pretense, the appearance of the wine table, the revival of their jaded spirits—and the awakening, like the mid-point of a sleepless night in which they moved.
As the winter passed with the march of the returning troops along Fifth Avenue they became more and more aware that since Anthony’s return their relations had entirely changed. After that reflowering of tenderness and passion each of them had returned into some solitary dream unshared by the other and what endearments passed between them passed, it seemed, from empty heart to empty heart, echoing hollowly the departure of what they knew at last was gone.
Anthony had again made the rounds of the metropolitan newspapers and had again been refused encouragement by a motley of office boys, telephone girls, and city editors. The word was: “We’re keeping any vacancies open for our own men who are still in France.” Then, late in March, his eye fell on an advertisement in the morning paper and in consequence he found at last the semblance of an occupation.
YOU CAN SELL!!!
Why not earn while you learn?
Our salesmen make $50-$200 weekly.
There followed an address on Madison Avenue, and instructions to appear at one o’clock that afternoon. Gloria, glancing over his shoulder after one of their usual late breakfasts, saw him regarding it idly.
“Why don’t you try it?” she suggested.
“Oh—it’s one of these crazy schemes.”
“It might not be. At least it’d be experience.”
At her urging he went at one o’clock to the appointed address, where he found himself one of a dense miscellany of men waiting in front of the door. They ranged from a messenger-boy evidently misusing his company’s time to an immemorial individual with a gnarled body and a gnarled cane. Some of the men were seedy, with sunken cheeks and puffy pink eyes—others were young; possibly still in high school. After a jostled fifteen minutes during which they all eyed one another with apathetic suspicion there appeared a smart young shepherd clad in a “waist-line” suit and wearing the manner of an assistant rector who herded them up-stairs into a large room, which resembled a school-room and contained innumerable desks. Here the prospective salesmen sat down—and again waited. After an interval a platform at the end of the hall was clouded with half a dozen sober but sprightly men who, with one exception, took seats in a semicircle facing the audience.
The exception was the man who seemed the soberest, the most sprightly and the youngest of the lot, and who advanced to the front of the platform. The audience scrutinized him hopefully. He was rather small and rather pretty, with the commercial rather than the thespian sort of prettiness. He had straight blond bushy brows and eyes that were almost preposterously honest, and as he reached the edge of his rostrum he seemed to throw these eyes out into the audience, simultaneously extending his arm with two fingers outstretched. Then while he rocked himself to a state of balance an expectant silence settled over the hall. With perfect assurance the young man had taken his listeners in hand and his words when they came were steady and confident and of the school of “straight from the shoulder.”
“Men!”—he began, and paused. The word died with a prolonged echo at the end of the hall, the faces regarding him, hopefully, cynically, wearily, were alike arrested, engrossed. Six hundred eyes were turned slightly upward. With an even graceless flow that reminded Anthony of the rolling of bowling balls he launched himself into the sea of exposition.
“This bright and sunny morning you picked up your favorite newspaper and you found an advertisement which made the plain, unadorned statement that you could sell. That was all it said—it didn’t say ‘what,’ it didn’t say ‘how,’ it didn’t say ‘why.’ It just made one single solitary assertion that you and you and you“—business of pointing—”could sell. Now my job isn’t to make a success of you, because every man is born a success, he makes himself a failure; it’s not to teach you how to talk, because each man is a natural orator and only makes himself a clam; my business is to tell you one thing in a way that will make you know it—it’s to tell you that you and you and you have the heritage of money and prosperity waiting for you to come and claim it.”
At this point an Irishman of saturnine appearance rose from his desk near the rear of the hall and went out.
“That man thinks he’ll go look for it in the beer parlor around the corner. (Laughter.) He won’t find it there. Once upon a time I looked for it there myself (laughter), but that was before I did what every one of you men no matter how young or how old, how poor or how rich (a faint ripple of satirical laughter), can do. It was before I found—myself!
“Now I wonder if any of you men know what a ‘Heart Talk’ is. A ‘Heart Talk’ is a little book in which I started, about five years ago, to write down what I had discovered were the principal reasons for a man’s failure and the principal reasons for a man’s success—from John D. Rockerfeller back to John D. Napoleon (laughter), and before that, back in the days when Abel sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. There are now one hundred of these ‘Heart Talks.’ Those of you who are sincere, who are interested in our proposition, above all who are dissatisfied with the way things are breaking for you at present will be handed one to take home with you as you go out yonder door this afternoon.
“Now in my own pocket I have four letters just received concerning ‘Heart Talks.’ These letters have names signed to them that are familiar in every house-hold in the U.S.A. Listen to this one from Detroit:
“DEAR MR. CARLETON:
“I want to order three thousand more copies of ‘Heart Talks’ for distribution among my salesmen. They have done more for getting work out of the men than any bonus proposition ever considered. I read them myself constantly, and I desire to heartily congratulate you on getting at the roots of the biggest problem that faces our generation to-day—the problem of salesmanship. The rock bottom on which the country is founded is the problem of salesmanship. With many felicitations I am
“Yours very cordially,
“HENRY W. TERRAL.”
He brought the name out in three long booming triumphancies—pausing for it to produce its magical effect. Then he read two more letters, one from a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and one from the president of the Great Northern Doily Company.
“And now,” he continued, “I’m going to tell you in a few words what the proposition is that’s going to make those of you who go into it in the right spirit. Simply put, it’s this: ‘Heart Talks’ have been incorporated as a company. We’re going to put these little pamphlets into the hands of every big business organization, every salesman, and every man who knows—I don’t say ‘thinks,’ I say ‘knows’—that he can sell! We are offering some of the stock of the ‘Heart Talks’ concern upon the market, and in order that the distribution may be as wide as possible, and in order also that we can furnish a living, concrete, flesh-and-blood example of what salesmanship is, or rather what it may be, we’re going to give those of you who are the real thing a chance to sell that stock. Now, I don’t care what you’ve tried to sell before or how you’ve tried to sell it. It don’t matter how old you are or how young you are. I only want to know two things—first, do you want success, and, second, will you work for it?
“My name is Sammy Carleton. Not ‘Mr.’ Carleton, but just plain Sammy. I’m a regular no-nonsense man with no fancy frills about me. I want you to call me Sammy.
“Now this is all I’m going to say to you to-day. To-morrow I want those of you who have thought it over and have read the copy of ‘Heart Talks’ which will be given to you at the door, to come back to this same room at this same time, then we’ll go into the proposition further and I’ll explain to you what I’ve found the principles of success to be. I’m going to make you feel that you and you and you can sell!”
Mr. Carleton’s voice echoed for a moment through the hall and then died away. To the stamping of many feet Anthony was pushed and jostled with the crowd out of the room.
FURTHER ADVENTURES WITH “HEART TALKS”
With an accompaniment of ironic laughter Anthony told Gloria the story of his commercial adventure. But she listened without amusement.
“You’re going to give up again?” she demanded coldly.
“Why—you don’t expect me to—”
“I never expected anything of you.”
“Well—I can’t see the slightest benefit in laughing myself sick over this sort of affair. If there’s anything older than the old story, it’s the new twist.”
It required an astonishing amount of moral energy on Gloria’s part to intimidate him into returning, and when he reported next day, somewhat depressed from his perusal of the senile bromides skittishly set forth in “Heart Talks on Ambition,” he found only fifty of the original three hundred awaiting the appearance of the vital and compelling Sammy Carleton. Mr. Carleton’s powers of vitality and compulsion were this time exercised in elucidating that magnificent piece of speculation—how to sell. It seemed that the approved method was to state one’s proposition and then to say not “And now, will you buy?”—this was not the way—oh, no!—the way was to state one’s proposition and then, having reduced one’s adversary to a state of exhaustion, to deliver oneself of the categorical imperative: “Now see here! You’ve taken up my time explaining this matter to you. You’ve admitted my points—all I want to ask is how many do you want?”
As Mr. Carleton piled assertion upon assertion Anthony began to feel a sort of disgusted confidence in him. The man appeared to know what he was talking about. Obviously prosperous, he had risen to the position of instructing others. It did not occur to Anthony that the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and, as in his grandfather’s case, when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.
Anthony noted that of the numerous old men who had answered the original advertisement, only two had returned, and that among the thirty odd who assembled on the third day to get actual selling instructions from Mr. Carleton, only one gray head was in evidence. These thirty were eager converts; with their mouths they followed the working of Mr. Carleton’s mouth; they swayed in their seats with enthusiasm, and in the intervals of his talk they spoke to each other in tense approving whispers. Yet of the chosen few who, in the words of Mr. Carleton, “were determined to get those deserts that rightly and truly belonged to them,” less than half a dozen combined even a modicum of personal appearance with that great gift of being a “pusher.” But they were told that they were all natural pushers—it was merely necessary that they should believe with a sort of savage passion in what they were selling. He even urged each one to buy some stock himself, if possible, in order to increase his own sincerity.
On the fifth day then, Anthony sallied into the street with all the sensations of a man wanted by the police. Acting according to instructions he selected a tall office building in order that he might ride to the top story and work downward, stopping in every office that had a name on the door. But at the last minute he hesitated. Perhaps it would be more practicable to acclimate himself to the chilly atmosphere which he felt was awaiting him by trying a few offices on, say, Madison Avenue. He went into an arcade that seemed only semi-prosperous, and seeing a sign which read Percy B. Weatherbee, Architect, he opened the door heroically and entered. A starchy young woman looked up questioningly.
“Can I see Mr. Weatherbee?” He wondered if his voice sounded tremulous.
She laid her hand tentatively on the telephone-receiver.
“What’s the name, please?”
“He wouldn’t—ah—know me. He wouldn’t know my name.”
“What’s your business with him? You an insurance agent?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that!” denied Anthony hurriedly. “Oh, no. It’s a—it’s a personal matter.” He wondered if he should have said this. It had all sounded so simple when Mr. Carleton had enjoined his flock:
“Don’t allow yourself to be kept out! Show them you’ve made up your mind to talk to them, and they’ll listen.”
The girl succumbed to Anthony’s pleasant, melancholy face, and in a moment the door to the inner room opened and admitted a tall, splay-footed man with slicked hair. He approached Anthony with ill-concealed impatience.
“You wanted to see me on a personal matter?”
“I wanted to talk to you,” he said defiantly.
“It’ll take some time to explain.”
“Well, what’s it about?” Mr. Weatherbee’s voice indicated rising irritation.
Then Anthony, straining at each word, each syllable, began:
“I don’t know whether or not you’ve ever heard of a series of pamphlets called ‘Heart Talks’—”
“Good grief!” cried Percy B. Weatherbee, Architect, “are you trying to touch my heart?”
“No, it’s business. ‘Heart Talks’ have been incorporated and we’re putting some shares on the market—”
His voice faded slowly off, harassed by a fixed and contemptuous stare from his unwilling prey. For another minute he struggled on, increasingly sensitive, entangled in his own words. His confidence oozed from him in great retching emanations that seemed to be sections of his own body. Almost mercifully Percy B. Weatherbee, Architect, terminated the interview:
“Good grief!” he exploded in disgust, “and you call that a personal matter!” He whipped about and strode into his private office, banging the door behind him. Not daring to look at the stenographer, Anthony in some shameful and mysterious way got himself from the room. Perspiring profusely he stood in the hall wondering why they didn’t come and arrest him; in every hurried look he discerned infallibly a glance of scorn.
After an hour and with the help of two strong whiskies he brought himself up to another attempt. He walked into a plumber’s shop, but when he mentioned his business the plumber began pulling on his coat in a great hurry, gruffly announcing that he had to go to lunch. Anthony remarked politely that it was futile to try to sell a man anything when he was hungry, and the plumber heartily agreed.
This episode encouraged Anthony; he tried to think that had the plumber not been bound for lunch he would at least have listened.
Passing by a few glittering and formidable bazaars he entered a grocery store. A talkative proprietor told him that before buying any stocks he was going to see how the armistice affected the market. To Anthony this seemed almost unfair. In Mr. Carleton’s salesman’s Utopia the only reason prospective buyers ever gave for not purchasing stock was that they doubted it to be a promising investment. Obviously a man in that state was almost ludicrously easy game, to be brought down merely by the judicious application of the correct selling points. But these men—why, actually they weren’t considering buying anything at all.
Anthony took several more drinks before he approached his fourth man, a real-estate agent; nevertheless, he was floored with a coup as decisive as a syllogism. The real-estate agent said that he had three brothers in the investment business. Viewing himself as a breaker-up of homes Anthony apologized and went out.
After another drink he conceived the brilliant plan of selling the stock to the bartenders along Lexington Avenue. This occupied several hours, for it was necessary to take a few drinks in each place in order to get the proprietor in the proper frame of mind to talk business. But the bartenders one and all contended that if they had any money to buy bonds they would not be bartenders. It was as though they had all convened and decided upon that rejoinder. As he approached a dark and soggy five o’clock he found that they were developing a still more annoying tendency to turn him off with a jest.
At five, then, with a tremendous effort at concentration he decided that he must put more variety into his canvassing. He selected a medium-sized delicatessen store, and went in. He felt, illuminatingly, that the thing to do was to cast a spell not only over the storekeeper but over all the customers as well—and perhaps through the psychology of the herd instinct they would buy as an astounded and immediately convinced whole.
“Af’ernoon,” he began in a loud thick voice. “Ga l’il prop’sition.”
If he had wanted silence he obtained it. A sort of awe descended upon the half-dozen women marketing and upon the gray-haired ancient who in cap and apron was slicing chicken.
Anthony pulled a batch of papers from his flapping briefcase and waved them cheerfully.
“Buy a bon’,” he suggested, “good as liberty bon’!” The phrase pleased him and he elaborated upon it. “Better’n liberty bon’. Every one these bon’s worth two liberty bon’s.” His mind made a hiatus and skipped to his peroration, which he delivered with appropriate gestures, these being somewhat marred by the necessity of clinging to the counter with one or both hands.
“Now see here. You taken up my time. I don’t want know why you won’t buy. I just want you say why. Want you say how many!“
At this point they should have approached him with check-books and fountain pens in hand. Realizing that they must have missed a cue Anthony, with the instincts of an actor, went back and repeated his finale.
“Now see here! You taken up my time. You followed prop’sition. You agreed ‘th reasonin’? Now, all I want from you is, how many lib’ty bon’s?”
“See here!” broke in a new voice. A portly man whose face was adorned with symmetrical scrolls of yellow hair had come out of a glass cage in the rear of the store and was bearing down upon Anthony. “See here, you!”
“How many?” repeated the salesman sternly. “You taken up my time—”
“Hey, you!” cried the proprietor, “I’ll have you taken up by the police.”
“You mos’ cert’nly won’t!” returned Anthony with fine defiance. “All I want know is how many.”
From here and there in the store went up little clouds of comment and expostulation.
“He’s a raving maniac.”
“He’s disgracefully drunk.”
The proprietor grasped Anthony’s arm sharply.
“Get out, or I’ll call a policeman.”
Some relics of rationality moved Anthony to nod and replace his bonds clumsily in the case.
“How many?” he reiterated doubtfully.
“The whole force if necessary!” thundered his adversary, his yellow mustache trembling fiercely.
“Sell ’em all a bon’.”
With this Anthony turned, bowed gravely to his late auditors, and wabbled from the store. He found a taxicab at the corner and rode home to the apartment. There he fell sound asleep on the sofa, and so Gloria found him, his breath filling the air with an unpleasant pungency, his hand still clutching his open brief case.
Except when Anthony was drinking, his range of sensation had become less than that of a healthy old man and when prohibition came in July he found that, among those who could afford it, there was more drinking than ever before. One’s host now brought out a bottle upon the slightest pretext. The tendency to display liquor was a manifestation of the same instinct that led a man to deck his wife with jewels. To have liquor was a boast, almost a badge of respectability.
In the mornings Anthony awoke tired, nervous, and worried. Halcyon summer twilights and the purple chill of morning alike left him unresponsive. Only for a brief moment every day in the warmth and renewed life of a first high-ball did his mind turn to those opalescent dreams of future pleasure—the mutual heritage of the happy and the damned. But this was only for a little while. As he grew drunker the dreams faded and he became a confused spectre, moving in odd crannies of his own mind, full of unexpected devices, harshly contemptuous at best and reaching sodden and dispirited depths. One night in June he had quarrelled violently with Maury over a matter of the utmost triviality. He remembered dimly next morning that it had been about a broken pint bottle of champagne. Maury had told him to sober up and Anthony’s feelings had been hurt, so with an attempted gesture of dignity he had risen from the table and seizing Gloria’s arm half led, half shamed her into a taxicab outside, leaving Maury with three dinners ordered and tickets for the opera.
This sort of semi-tragic fiasco had become so usual that when they occurred he was no longer stirred into making amends. If Gloria protested—and of late she was more likely to sink into contemptuous silence—he would either engage in a bitter defense of himself or else stalk dismally from the apartment. Never since the incident on the station platform at Redgate had he laid his hands on her in anger—though he was withheld often only by some instinct that itself made him tremble with rage. Just as he still cared more for her than for any other creature, so did he more intensely and frequently hate her.
So far, the judges of the Appellate Division had failed to hand down a decision, but after another postponement they finally affirmed the decree of the lower court—two justices dissenting. A notice of appeal was served upon Edward Shuttleworth. The case was going to the court of last resort, and they were in for another interminable wait. Six months, perhaps a year. It had grown enormously unreal to them, remote and uncertain as heaven.
Throughout the previous winter one small matter had been a subtle and omnipresent irritant—the question of Gloria’s gray fur coat. At that time women enveloped in long squirrel wraps could be seen every few yards along Fifth Avenue. The women were converted to the shape of tops. They seemed porcine and obscene; they resembled kept women in the concealing richness, the feminine animality of the garment. Yet—Gloria wanted a gray squirrel coat.
Discussing the matter—or, rather, arguing it, for even more than in the first year of their marriage did every discussion take the form of bitter debate full of such phrases as “most certainly,” “utterly outrageous,” “it’s so, nevertheless,” and the ultra-emphatic “regardless”—they concluded that they could not afford it. And so gradually it began to stand as a symbol of their growing financial anxiety.
To Gloria the shrinkage of their income was a remarkable phenomenon, without explanation or precedent—that it could happen at all within the space of five years seemed almost an intended cruelty, conceived and executed by a sardonic God. When they were married seventy-five hundred a year had seemed ample for a young couple, especially when augmented by the expectation of many millions. Gloria had failed to realize that it was decreasing not only in amount but in purchasing power until the payment of Mr. Haight’s retaining fee of fifteen thousand dollars made the fact suddenly and startlingly obvious. When Anthony was drafted they had calculated their income at over four hundred a month, with the dollar even then decreasing in value, but on his return to New York they discovered an even more alarming condition of affairs. They were receiving only forty-five hundred a year from their investments. And though the suit over the will moved ahead of them like a persistent mirage and the financial danger-mark loomed up in the near distance they found, nevertheless, that living within their income was impossible.
So Gloria went without the squirrel coat and every day upon Fifth Avenue she was a little conscious of her well-worn, half-length leopard skin, now hopelessly old-fashioned. Every other month they sold a bond, yet when the bills were paid it left only enough to be gulped down hungrily by their current expenses. Anthony’s calculations showed that their capital would last about seven years longer. So Gloria’s heart was very bitter, for in one week, on a prolonged hysterical party during which Anthony whimsically divested himself of coat, vest, and shirt in a theatre and was assisted out by a posse of ushers, they spent twice what the gray squirrel coat would have cost.
It was November, Indian summer rather, and a warm, warm night—which was unnecessary, for the work of the summer was done. Babe Ruth had smashed the home-run record for the first time and Jack Dempsey had broken Jess Willard’s cheek-bone out in Ohio. Over in Europe the usual number of children had swollen stomachs from starvation, and the diplomats were at their customary business of making the world safe for new wars. In New York City the proletariat were being “disciplined,” and the odds on Harvard were generally quoted at five to three. Peace had come down in earnest, the beginning of new days.
Up in the bedroom of the apartment on Fifty-seventh Street Gloria lay upon her bed and tossed from side to side, sitting up at intervals to throw off a superfluous cover and once asking Anthony, who was lying awake beside her, to bring her a glass of ice-water. “Be sure and put ice in it,” she said with insistence; “it isn’t cold enough the way it comes from the faucet.”
Looking through the frail curtains she could see the rounded moon over the roofs and beyond it on the sky the yellow glow from Times Square—and watching the two incongruous lights, her mind worked over an emotion, or rather an interwoven complex of emotions, that had occupied it through the day, and the day before that and back to the last time when she could remember having thought clearly and consecutively about anything—which must have been while Anthony was in the army.
She would be twenty-nine in February. The month assumed an ominous and inescapable significance—making her wonder, through these nebulous half-fevered hours whether after all she had not wasted her faintly tired beauty, whether there was such a thing as use for any quality bounded by a harsh and inevitable mortality.
Years before, when she was twenty-one, she had written in her diary: “Beauty is only to be admired, only to be loved—to be harvested carefully and then flung at a chosen lover like a gift of roses. It seems to me, so far as I can judge clearly at all, that my beauty should be used like that….”
And now, all this November day, all this desolate day, under a sky dirty and white, Gloria had been thinking that perhaps she had been wrong. To preserve the integrity of her first gift she had looked no more for love. When the first flame and ecstasy had grown dim, sunk down, departed, she had begun preserving—what? It puzzled her that she no longer knew just what she was preserving—a sentimental memory or some profound and fundamental concept of honor. She was doubting now whether there had been any moral issue involved in her way of life—to walk unworried and unregretful along the gayest of all possible lanes and to keep her pride by being always herself and doing what it seemed beautiful that she should do. From the first little boy in an Eton collar whose “girl” she had been, down to the latest casual man whose eyes had grown alert and appreciative as they rested upon her, there was needed only that matchless candor she could throw into a look or clothe with an inconsequent clause—for she had talked always in broken clauses—to weave about her immeasurable illusions, immeasurable distances, immeasurable light. To create souls in men, to create fine happiness and fine despair she must remain deeply proud—proud to be inviolate, proud also to be melting, to be passionate and possessed.
She knew that in her breast she had never wanted children. The reality, the earthiness, the intolerable sentiment of child-bearing, the menace to her beauty—had appalled her. She wanted to exist only as a conscious flower, prolonging and preserving itself. Her sentimentality could cling fiercely to her own illusions, but her ironic soul whispered that motherhood was also the privilege of the female baboon. So her dreams were of ghostly children only—the early, the perfect symbols of her early and perfect love for Anthony.
In the end then, her beauty was all that never failed her. She had never seen beauty like her own. What it meant ethically or aesthetically faded before the gorgeous concreteness of her pink-and-white feet, the clean perfectness of her body, and the baby mouth that was like the material symbol of a kiss.
She would be twenty-nine in February. As the long night waned she grew supremely conscious that she and beauty were going to make use of these next three months. At first she was not sure for what, but the problem resolved itself gradually into the old lure of the screen. She was in earnest now. No material want could have moved her as this fear moved her. No matter for Anthony, Anthony the poor in spirit, the weak and broken man with bloodshot eyes, for whom she still had moments of tenderness. No matter. She would be twenty-nine in February—a hundred days, so many days; she would go to Bloeckman to-morrow.
With the decision came relief. It cheered her that in some manner the illusion of beauty could be sustained, or preserved perhaps in celluloid after the reality had vanished. Well—to-morrow.
The next day she felt weak and ill. She tried to go out, and saved herself from collapse only by clinging to a mail box near the front door. The Martinique elevator boy helped her up-stairs, and she waited on the bed for Anthony’s return without energy to unhook her brassiere.
For five days she was down with influenza, which, just as the month turned the corner into winter, ripened into double pneumonia. In the feverish perambulations of her mind she prowled through a house of bleak unlighted rooms hunting for her mother. All she wanted was to be a little girl, to be efficiently taken care of by some yielding yet superior power, stupider and steadier than herself. It seemed that the only lover she had ever wanted was a lover in a dream.
“ODI PROFANUM VULGUS”
One day in the midst of Gloria’s illness there occurred a curious incident that puzzled Miss McGovern, the trained nurse, for some time afterward. It was noon, but the room in which the patient lay was dark and quiet. Miss McGovern was standing near the bed mixing some medicine, when Mrs. Patch, who had apparently been sound asleep, sat up and began to speak vehemently:
“Millions of people,” she said, “swarming like rats, chattering like apes, smelling like all hell … monkeys! Or lice, I suppose. For one really exquisite palace … on Long Island, say—or even in Greenwich … for one palace full of pictures from the Old World and exquisite things—with avenues of trees and green lawns and a view of the blue sea, and lovely people about in slick dresses … I’d sacrifice a hundred thousand of them, a million of them.” She raised her hand feebly and snapped her fingers. “I care nothing for them—understand me?”
The look she bent upon Miss McGovern at the conclusion of this speech was curiously elfin, curiously intent. Then she gave a short little laugh polished with scorn, and tumbling backward fell off again to sleep.
Miss McGovern was bewildered. She wondered what were the hundred thousand things that Mrs. Patch would sacrifice for her palace. Dollars, she supposed—yet it had not sounded exactly like dollars.
It was February, seven days before her birthday, and the great snow that had filled up the cross-streets as dirt fills the cracks in a floor had turned to slush and was being escorted to the gutters by the hoses of the street-cleaning department. The wind, none the less bitter for being casual, whipped in through the open windows of the living room bearing with it the dismal secrets of the areaway and clearing the Patch apartment of stale smoke in its cheerless circulation.
Gloria, wrapped in a warm kimona, came into the chilly room and taking up the telephone receiver called Joseph Bloeckman.
“Do you mean Mr. Joseph Black?” demanded the telephone girl at “Films Par Excellence.”
“Bloeckman, Joseph Bloeckman. B-l-o—”
“Mr. Joseph Bloeckman has changed his name to Black. Do you want him?”
“Why—yes.” She remembered nervously that she had once called him “Blockhead” to his face.
His office was reached by courtesy of two additional female voices; the last was a secretary who took her name. Only with the flow through the transmitter of his own familiar but faintly impersonal tone did she realize that it had been three years since they had met. And he had changed his name to Black.
“Can you see me?” she suggested lightly. “It’s on a business matter, really. I’m going into the movies at last—if I can.”
“I’m awfully glad. I’ve always thought you’d like it.”
“Do you think you can get me a trial?” she demanded with the arrogance peculiar to all beautiful women, to all women who have ever at any time considered themselves beautiful.
He assured her that it was merely a question of when she wanted the trial. Any time? Well, he’d phone later in the day and let her know a convenient hour. The conversation closed with conventional padding on both sides. Then from three o’clock to five she sat close to the telephone—with no result.
But next morning came a note that contented and excited her:
My dear Gloria:
Just by luck a matter came to my attention that I think will be just suited to you. I would like to see you start with something that would bring you notice. At the same time if a very beautiful girl of your sort is put directly into a picture next to one of the rather shop-worn stars with which every company is afflicted, tongues would very likely wag. But there is a “flapper” part in a Percy B. Debris production that I think would be just suited to you and would bring you notice. Willa Sable plays opposite Gaston Mears in a sort of character part and your part I believe would be her younger sister.
Anyway Percy B. Debris who is directing the picture says if you’ll come to the studios day after to-morrow (Thursday) he will run off a test. If ten o’clock is suited to you I will meet you there at that time.
With all good wishes
Gloria had decided that Anthony was to know nothing of this until she had obtained a definite position, and accordingly she was dressed and out of the apartment next morning before he awoke. Her mirror had given her, she thought, much the same account as ever. She wondered if there were any lingering traces of her sickness. She was still slightly under weight, and she had fancied, a few days before, that her cheeks were a trifle thinner—but she felt that those were merely transitory conditions and that on this particular day she looked as fresh as ever. She had bought and charged a new hat, and as the day was warm she had left the leopard skin coat at home.
At the “Films Par Excellence” studios she was announced over the telephone and told that Mr. Black would be down directly. She looked around her. Two girls were being shown about by a little fat man in a slash-pocket coat, and one of them had indicated a stack of thin parcels, piled breast-high against the wall, and extending along for twenty feet.
“That’s studio mail,” explained the fat man. “Pictures of the stars who are with ‘Films Par Excellence.'”
“Each one’s autographed by Florence Kelley or Gaston Mears or Mack Dodge—” He winked confidentially. “At least when Minnie McGlook out in Sauk Center gets the picture she wrote for, she thinks it’s autographed.”
“Just a stamp?”
“Sure. It’d take ’em a good eight-hour day to autograph half of ’em. They say Mary Pickford’s studio mail costs her fifty thousand a year.”
“Sure. Fifty thousand. But it’s the best kinda advertising there is—”
They drifted out of earshot and almost immediately Bloeckman appeared—Bloeckman, a dark suave gentleman, gracefully engaged in the middle forties, who greeted her with courteous warmth and told her she had not changed a bit in three years. He led the way into a great hall, as large as an armory and broken intermittently with busy sets and blinding rows of unfamiliar light. Each piece of scenery was marked in large white letters “Gaston Mears Company,” “Mack Dodge Company,” or simply “Films Par Excellence.”
“Ever been in a studio before?”
She liked it. There was no heavy closeness of greasepaint, no scent of soiled and tawdry costumes which years before had revolted her behind the scenes of a musical comedy. This work was done in the clean mornings; the appurtenances seemed rich and gorgeous and new. On a set that was joyous with Manchu hangings a perfect Chinaman was going through a scene according to megaphone directions as the great glittering machine ground out its ancient moral tale for the edification of the national mind.
A red-headed man approached them and spoke with familiar deference to Bloeckman, who answered:
“Hello, Debris. Want you to meet Mrs. Patch…. Mrs. Patch wants to go into pictures, as I explained to you…. All right, now, where do we go?”
Mr. Debris—the great Percy B. Debris, thought Gloria—showed them to a set which represented the interior of an office. Some chairs were drawn up around the camera, which stood in front of it, and the three of them sat down.
“Ever been in a studio before?” asked Mr. Debris, giving her a glance that was surely the quintessence of keenness. “No? Well, I’ll explain exactly what’s going to happen. We’re going to take what we call a test in order to see how your features photograph and whether you’ve got natural stage presence and how you respond to coaching. There’s no need to be nervous over it. I’ll just have the camera-man take a few hundred feet in an episode I’ve got marked here in the scenario. We can tell pretty much what we want to from that.”
He produced a typewritten continuity and explained to her the episode she was to enact. It developed that one Barbara Wainwright had been secretly married to the junior partner of the firm whose office was there represented. Entering the deserted office one day by accident she was naturally interested in seeing where her husband worked. The telephone rang and after some hesitation she answered it. She learned that her husband had been struck by an automobile and instantly killed. She was overcome. At first she was unable to realize the truth, but finally she succeeded in comprehending it, and went into a dead faint on the floor.
“Now that’s all we want,” concluded Mr. Debris. “I’m going to stand here and tell you approximately what to do, and you’re to act as though I wasn’t here, and just go on do it your own way. You needn’t be afraid we’re going to judge this too severely. We simply want to get a general idea of your screen personality.”
“You’ll find make-up in the room in back of the set. Go light on it. Very little red.”
“I see,” repeated Gloria, nodding. She touched her lips nervously with the tip of her tongue.
As she came into the set through the real wooden door and closed it carefully behind her, she found herself inconveniently dissatisfied with her clothes. She should have bought a “misses'” dress for the occasion—she could still wear them, and it might have been a good investment if it had accentuated her airy youth.
Her mind snapped sharply into the momentous present as Mr. Debris’s voice came from the glare of the white lights in front.
“You look around for your husband…. Now—you don’t see him … you’re curious about the office….”
She became conscious of the regular sound of the camera. It worried her. She glanced toward it involuntarily and wondered if she had made up her face correctly. Then, with a definite effort she forced herself to act—and she had never felt that the gestures of her body were so banal, so awkward, so bereft of grace or distinction. She strolled around the office, picking up articles here and there and looking at them inanely. Then she scrutinized the ceiling, the floor, and thoroughly inspected an inconsequential lead pencil on the desk. Finally, because she could think of nothing else to do, and less than nothing to express, she forced a smile.
“All right. Now the phone rings. Ting-a-ling-a-ling! Hesitate, and then answer it.”
She hesitated—and then, too quickly, she thought, picked up the receiver.
Her voice was hollow and unreal. The words rang in the empty set like the ineffectualities of a ghost. The absurdities of their requirements appalled her—Did they expect that on an instant’s notice she could put herself in the place of this preposterous and unexplained character?
“… No … no…. Not yet! Now listen: ‘John Sumner has just been knocked over by an automobile and instantly killed!'”
Gloria let her baby mouth drop slowly open. Then:
“Now hang up! With a bang!”
She obeyed, clung to the table with her eyes wide and staring. At length she was feeling slightly encouraged and her confidence increased.
“My God!” she cried. Her voice was good, she thought. “Oh, my God!”
She collapsed forward to her knees and throwing her body outward on the ground lay without breathing.
“All right!” called Mr. Debris. “That’s enough, thank you. That’s plenty. Get up—that’s enough.”
Gloria arose, mustering her dignity and brushing off her skirt.
“Awful!” she remarked with a cool laugh, though her heart was bumping tumultuously. “Terrible, wasn’t it?”
“Did you mind it?” said Mr. Debris, smiling blandly. “Did it seem hard? I can’t tell anything about it until I have it run off.”
“Of course not,” she agreed, trying to attach some sort of meaning to his remark—and failing. It was just the sort of thing he would have said had he been trying not to encourage her.
A few moments later she left the studio. Bloeckman had promised that she should hear the result of the test within the next few days. Too proud to force any definite comment she felt a baffling uncertainty and only now when the step had at last been taken did she realize how the possibility of a successful screen career had played in the back of her mind for the past three years. That night she tried to tell over to herself the elements that might decide for or against her. Whether or not she had used enough make-up worried her, and as the part was that of a girl of twenty, she wondered if she had not been just a little too grave. About her acting she was least of all satisfied. Her entrance had been abominable—in fact not until she reached the phone had she displayed a shred of poise—and then the test had been over. If they had only realized! She wished that she could try it again. A mad plan to call up in the morning and ask for a new trial took possession of her, and as suddenly faded. It seemed neither politic nor polite to ask another favor of Bloeckman.
The third day of waiting found her in a highly nervous condition. She had bitten the insides of her mouth until they were raw and smarting, and burnt unbearably when she washed them with listerine. She had quarrelled so persistently with Anthony that he had left the apartment in a cold fury. But because he was intimidated by her exceptional frigidity, he called up an hour afterward, apologized and said he was having dinner at the Amsterdam Club, the only one in which he still retained membership.
It was after one o’clock and she had breakfasted at eleven, so, deciding to forego luncheon, she started for a walk in the Park. At three there would be a mail. She would be back by three.
It was an afternoon of premature spring. Water was drying on the walks and in the Park little girls were gravely wheeling white doll-buggies up and down under the thin trees while behind them followed bored nursery-maids in two’s, discussing with each other those tremendous secrets that are peculiar to nursery-maids.
Two o’clock by her little gold watch. She should have a new watch, one made in a platinum oblong and incrusted with diamonds—but those cost even more than squirrel coats and of course they were out of her reach now, like everything else—unless perhaps the right letter was awaiting her … in about an hour … fifty-eight minutes exactly. Ten to get there left forty-eight … forty-seven now …
Little girls soberly wheeling their buggies along the damp sunny walks. The nursery-maids chattering in pairs about their inscrutable secrets. Here and there a raggedy man seated upon newspapers spread on a drying bench, related not to the radiant and delightful afternoon but to the dirty snow that slept exhausted in obscure corners, waiting for extermination….
Ages later, coming into the dim hall she saw the Martinique elevator boy standing incongruously in the light of the stained-glass window.
“Is there any mail for us?” she asked.
The switchboard squawked abominably and Gloria waited while he ministered to the telephone. She sickened as the elevator groaned its way up—the floors passed like the slow lapse of centuries, each one ominous, accusing, significant. The letter, a white leprous spot, lay upon the dirty tiles of the hall….
My dear Gloria:
We had the test run off yesterday afternoon, and Mr. Debris seemed to think that for the part he had in mind he needed a younger woman. He said that the acting was not bad, and that there was a small character part supposed to be a very haughty rich widow that he thought you might——
Desolately Gloria raised her glance until it fell out across the areaway. But she found she could not see the opposite wall, for her gray eyes were full of tears. She walked into the bedroom, the letter crinkled tightly in her hand, and sank down upon her knees before the long mirror on the wardrobe floor. This was her twenty-ninth birthday, and the world was melting away before her eyes. She tried to think that it had been the make-up, but her emotions were too profound, too overwhelming for any consolation that the thought conveyed.
She strained to see until she could feel the flesh on her temples pull forward. Yes—the cheeks were ever so faintly thin, the corners of the eyes were lined with tiny wrinkles. The eyes were different. Why, they were different! … And then suddenly she knew how tired her eyes were.
“Oh, my pretty face,” she whispered, passionately grieving. “Oh, my pretty face! Oh, I don’t want to live without my pretty face! Oh, what’s happened?“
Then she slid toward the mirror and, as in the test, sprawled face downward upon the floor—and lay there sobbing. It was the first awkward movement she had ever made.