The Last Of The Belles
After Atlanta’s elaborate and theatrical rendition of Southern charm, we all underestimated Tarleton. It was a little hotter than anywhere we’d been–a dozen rookies collapsed the first day in that Georgia sun–and when you saw herds of cows drifting through the business streets, hi-yaed by colored drovers, a trance stole down over you out of the hot light; you wanted to move a hand or foot to be sure you were alive.
So I stayed out at camp and let Lieutenant Warren tell me about the girls. This was fifteen years ago, and I’ve forgotten how I felt, except that the days went along, one after another, better than they do now, and I was empty-hearted, because up North she whose legend I had loved for three years was getting married. I saw the clippings and newspaper photographs. It was “a romantic wartime wedding,” all very rich and sad. I felt vividly the dark radiance of the sky under which it took place, and as a young snob, was more envious than sorry.
A day came when I went into Tarleton for a haircut and ran into a nice fellow named Bill Knowles, who was in my time at Harvard. He’d been in the National Guard division that preceded us in camp; at the last moment he had transferred to aviation and been left behind.
“I’m glad I met you, Andy,” he said with undue seriousness. “I’ll hand you on all my information before I start for Texas. You see, there’re really only three girls here–“
I was interested; there was something mystical about there being three girls.
“–and here’s one of them now.”
We were in front of a drug store and he marched me in and introduced me to a lady I promptly detested.
“The other two are Ailie Calhoun and Sally Carrol Happer.”
I guessed from the way he pronounced her name, that he was interested in Ailie Calhoun. It was on his mind what she would be doing while he was gone; he wanted her to have a quiet, uninteresting time.
At my age I don’t even hesitate to confess that entirely unchivalrous images of Ailie Calhoun–that lovely name–rushed into my mind. At twenty-three there is no such thing as a preëmpted beauty; though, had Bill asked me, I would doubtless have sworn in all sincerity to care for her like a sister. He didn’t; he was just fretting out loud at having to go. Three days later he telephoned me that he was leaving next morning and he’d take me to her house that night.
We met at the hotel and walked uptown through the flowery, hot twilight. The four white pillars of the Calhoun house faced the street, and behind them the veranda was dark as a cave with hanging, weaving, climbing vines.
When we came up the walk a girl in a white dress tumbled out of the front door, crying, “I’m so sorry I’m late!” and seeing us, added: “Why, I thought I heard you come ten minutes–“
She broke off as a chair creaked and another man, an aviator from Camp Harry Lee, emerged from the obscurity of the veranda.
“Why, Canby!” she cried. “How are you?”
He and Bill Knowles waited with the tenseness of open litigants.
“Canby, I want to whisper to you, honey,” she said, after just a second. “You’ll excuse us, Bill.”
They went aside. Presently Lieutenant Canby, immensely displeased, said in a grim voice, “Then we’ll make it Thursday, but that means sure.” Scarcely nodding to us, he went down the walk, the spurs with which he presumably urged on his aeroplane gleaming in the lamplight.
“Come in–I don’t just know your name–“
There she was–the Southern type in all its purity. I would have recognized Ailie Calhoun if I’d never heard Ruth Draper or read Marse Chan. She had the adroitness sugar-coated with sweet, voluble simplicity, the suggested background of devoted fathers, brothers and admirers stretching back into the South’s heroic age, the unfailing coolness acquired in the endless struggle with the heat. There were notes in her voice that order slaves around, that withered up Yankee captains, and then soft, wheedling notes that mingled in unfamiliar loveliness with the night.
I could scarcely see her in the darkness, but when I rose to go–it was plain that I was not to linger–she stood in the orange light from the doorway. She was small and very blond; there was too much fever-colored rouge on her face, accentuated by a nose dabbed clownish white, but she shone through that like a star.
“After Bill goes I’ll be sitting here all alone night after night. Maybe you’ll take me to the country-club dances.” The pathetic prophecy brought a laugh from Bill. “Wait a minute,” Ailie murmured. “Your guns are all crooked.”
She straightened my collar pin, looking up at me for a second with something more than curiosity. It was a seeking look, as if she asked, “Could it be you?” Like Lieutenant Canby, I marched off unwillingly into the suddenly insufficient night.
Two weeks later I sat with her on the same veranda, or rather she half lay in my arms and yet scarcely touched me–how she managed that I don’t remember. I was trying unsuccessfully to kiss her, and had been trying for the best part of an hour. We had a sort of joke about my not being sincere. My theory was that if she’d let me kiss her I’d fall in love with her. Her argument was that I was obviously insincere.
In a lull between two of these struggles she told me about her brother who had died in his senior year at Yale. She showed me his picture–it was a handsome, earnest face with a Leyendecker forelock–and told me that when she met someone who measured up to him she’d marry. I found this family idealism discouraging; even my brash confidence couldn’t compete with the dead.
The evening and other evenings passed like that, and ended with my going back to camp with the remembered smell of magnolia flowers and a mood of vague dissatisfaction. I never kissed her. We went to the vaudeville and to the country club on Saturday nights, where she seldom took ten consecutive steps with one man, and she took me to barbecues and rowdy watermelon parties, and never thought it was worth while to change what I felt for her into love. I see now that it wouldn’t have been hard, but she was a wise nineteen and she must have seen that we were emotionally incompatible. So I became her confidant instead.
We talked about Bill Knowles. She was considering Bill; for, though she wouldn’t admit it, a winter at school in New York and a prom at Yale had turned her eyes North. She said she didn’t think she’d marry a Southern man. And by degrees I saw that she was consciously and voluntarily different from these other girls who sang nigger songs and shot craps in the country-club bar. That’s why Bill and I and others were drawn to her. We recognized her.
June and July, while the rumors reached us faintly, ineffectually, of battle and terror overseas, Ailie’s eyes roved here and there about the country-club floor, seeking for something among the tall young officers. She attached several, choosing them with unfailing perspicacity–save in the case of Lieutenant Canby, whom she claimed to despise, but, nevertheless, gave dates to “because he was so sincere”–and we apportioned her evenings among us all summer.
One day she broke all her dates–Bill Knowles had leave and was coming. We talked of the event with scientific impersonality–would he move her to a decision? Lieutenant Canby, on the contrary, wasn’t impersonal at all; made a nuisance of himself. He told her that if she married Knowles he was going to climb up six thousand feet in his aeroplane, shut off the motor and let go. He frightened her–I had to yield him my last date before Bill came.
On Saturday night she and Bill Knowles came to the country club. They were very handsome together and once more I felt envious and sad. As they danced out on the floor the three-piece orchestra was playing After You’ve Gone, in a poignant incomplete way that I can hear yet, as if each bar were trickling off a precious minute of that time. I knew then that I had grown to love Tarleton, and I glanced about half in panic to see if some face wouldn’t come in for me out of that warm, singing, outer darkness that yielded up couple after couple in organdie and olive drab. It was a time of youth and war, and there was never so much love around.
When I danced with Ailie she suddenly suggested that we go outside to a car. She wanted to know why didn’t people cut in on her tonight? Did they think she was already married?
“Are you going to be?”
“I don’t know, Andy. Sometimes, when he treats me as if I were sacred, it thrills me.” Her voice was hushed and far away. “And then–“
She laughed. Her body, so frail and tender, was touching mine, her face was turned up to me, and there, suddenly, with Bill Knowles ten yards off, I could have kissed her at last. Our lips just touched experimentally; then an aviation officer turned a corner of the veranda near us, peered into our darkness and hesitated.
“You heard about this afternoon?”
“What?” She leaned forward, tenseness already in her voice.
“Horace Canby crashed. He was instantly killed.”
She got up slowly and stepped out of the car.
“You mean he was killed?” she said.
“Yes. They don’t know what the trouble was. His motor–“
“Oh-h-h!” Her rasping whisper came through the hands suddenly covering her face. We watched her helplessly as she put her head on the side of the car, gagging dry tears. After a minute I went for Bill, who was standing in the stag line, searching anxiously about for her, and told him she wanted to go home.
I sat on the steps outside. I had disliked Canby, but his terrible, pointless death was more real to me then than the day’s toll of thousands in France. In a few minutes Ailie and Bill came out. Ailie was whimpering a little, but when she saw me her eyes flexed and she came over swiftly.
“Andy”–she spoke in a quick, low voice–“of course you must never tell anybody what I told you about Canby yesterday. What he said, I mean.”
“Of course not.”
She looked at me a second longer as if to be quite sure. Finally she was sure. Then she sighed in such a quaint little way that I could hardly believe my ears, and her brow went up in what can only be described as mock despair.
I looked uncomfortably at the ground, aware that she was calling my attention to her involuntarily disastrous effect on men.
“Good night, Andy!” called Bill as they got into a taxi.
“Good night,” I said, and almost added: “You poor fool.”
Of course I should have made one of those fine moral decisions that people make in books, and despised her. On the contrary, I don’t doubt that she could still have had me by raising her hand.
A few days later she made it all right by saying wistfully, “I know you think it was terrible of me to think of myself at a time like that, but it was such a shocking coincidence.”
At twenty-three I was entirely unconvinced about anything, except that some people were strong and attractive and could do what they wanted, and others were caught and disgraced. I hoped I was of the former. I was sure Ailie was.
I had to revise other ideas about her. In the course of a long discussion with some girl about kissing–in those days people still talked about kissing more than they kissed–I mentioned the fact that Ailie had only kissed two or three men, and only when she thought she was in love. To my considerable disconcertion the girl figuratively just lay on the floor and howled.
“But it’s true,” I assured her, suddenly knowing it wasn’t. “She told me herself.”
“Ailie Calhoun! Oh, my heavens! Why, last year at the Tech spring house party–“
This was in September. We were going over-seas any week now, and to bring us up to full strength a last batch of officers from the fourth training camp arrived. The fourth camp wasn’t like the first three–the candidates were from the ranks; even from the drafted divisions. They had queer names without vowels in them, and save for a few young militiamen, you couldn’t take it for granted that they came out of any background at all. The addition to our company was Lieutenant Earl Schoen from New Bedford, Massachusetts; as fine a physical specimen as I have ever seen. He was six-foot-three, with black hair, high color and glossy dark-brown eyes. He wasn’t very smart and he was definitely illiterate, yet he was a good officer, high-tempered and commanding, and with that becoming touch of vanity that sits well on the military. I had an idea that New Bedford was a country town, and set down his bumptious qualities to that.
We were doubled up in living quarters and he came into my hut. Inside of a week there was a cabinet photograph of some Tarleton girl nailed brutally to the shack wall.
“She’s no jane or anything like that. She’s a society girl; goes with all the best people here.”
The following Sunday afternoon I met the lady at a semiprivate swimming pool in the country. When Ailie and I arrived, there was Schoen’s muscular body rippling out of a bathing suit at the far end of the pool.
When I waved back at him he grinned and winked, jerking his head toward the girl at his side. Then, digging her in the ribs, he jerked his head at me. It was a form of introduction.
“Who’s that with Kitty Preston?” Ailie asked, and when I told her she said he looked like a street-car conductor, and pretended to look for her transfer.
A moment later he crawled powerfully and gracefully down the pool and pulled himself up at our side. I introduced him to Ailie.
“How do you like my girl, lieutenant?” he demanded. “I told you she was all right, didn’t I?” He jerked his head toward Ailie; this time to indicate that his girl and Ailie moved in the same circles. “How about us all having dinner together down at the hotel some night?”
I left them in a moment, amused as I saw Ailie visibly making up her mind that here, anyhow, was not the ideal. But Lieutenant Earl Schoen was not to be dismissed so lightly. He ran his eyes cheerfully and inoffensively over her cute, slight figure, and decided that she would do even better than the other. Then minutes later I saw them in the water together, Ailie swimming away with a grim little stroke she had, and Schoen wallowing riotously around her and ahead of her, sometimes pausing and staring at her, fascinated, as a boy might look at a nautical doll.
While the afternoon passed he remained at her side. Finally Ailie came over to me and whispered, with a laugh: “He’s following me around. He thinks I haven’t paid my carfare.”
She turned quickly. Miss Kitty Preston, her face curiously flustered, stood facing us.
“Ailie Calhoun, I didn’t think it of you to go out and delib’ately try to take a man away from another girl.”–An expression of distress at the impending scene flitted over Ailie’s face.–“I thought you considered yourself above anything like that.”
Miss Preston’s voice was low, but it held that tensity that can be felt farther than it can be heard, and I saw Ailie’s clear lovely eyes glance about in panic. Luckily, Earl himself was ambling cheerfully and innocently toward us.
“If you care for him you certainly oughtn’t to belittle yourself in front of him,” said Ailie in a flash, her head high.
It was her acquaintance with the traditional way of behaving against Kitty Preston’s naïve and fierce possessiveness, or if you prefer it, Ailie’s “breeding” against the other’s “commonness.” She turned away.
“Wait a minute, kid!” cried Earl Schoen. “How about your address? Maybe I’d like to give you a ring on the phone.”
She looked at him in a way that should have indicated to Kitty her entire lack of interest.
“I’m very busy at the Red Cross this month,” she said, her voice as cool as her slicked-back blond hair. “Good-by.”
On the way home she laughed. Her air of having been unwittingly involved in a contemptible business vanished.
“She’ll never hold that young man,” she said. “He wants somebody new.”
“Apparently he wants Ailie Calhoun.”
The idea amused her.
“He could give me his ticket punch to wear, like a fraternity pin. What fun! If mother ever saw anybody like that come in the house, she’d just lie down and die.”
And to give Ailie credit, it was fully a fortnight before he did come in her house, although he rushed her until she pretended to be annoyed at the next country-club dance.
“He’s the biggest tough, Andy,” she whispered to me. “But he’s so sincere.”
She used the word “tough” without the conviction it would have carried had he been a Southern boy. She only knew it with her mind; her ear couldn’t distinguish between one Yankee voice and another. And somehow Mrs. Calhoun didn’t expire at his appearance on the threshold. The supposedly ineradicable prejudices of Ailie’s parents were a convenient phenomenon that disappeared at her wish. It was her friends who were astonished. Ailie, always a little above Tarleton, whose beaux had been very carefully the “nicest” men of the camp–Ailie and Lieutenant Schoen! I grew tired of assuring people that she was merely distracting herself–and indeed every week or so there was someone new–an ensign from Pensacola, an old friend from New Orleans–but always, in between times, there was Earl Schoen.
Orders arrived for an advance party of officers and sergeants to proceed to the port of embarkation and take ship to France. My name was on the list. I had been on the range for a week and when I got back to camp, Earl Schoen buttonholed me immediately.
“We’re giving a little farewell party in the mess. Just you and I and Captain Craker and three girls.”
Earl and I were to call for the girls. We picked up Sally Carrol Happer and Nancy Lamar, and went on to Ailie’s house; to be met at the door by the butler with the announcement that she wasn’t home.
“Isn’t home?” Earl repeated blankly. “Where is she?”
“Didn’t leave no information about that; just said she wasn’t home.”
“But this is a darn funny thing!” he exclaimed. He walked around the familiar dusky veranda while the butler waited at the door. Something occurred to him. “Say,” he informed me–“say, I think she’s sore.”
I waited. He said sternly to the butler, “You tell her I’ve got to speak to her a minute.”
“How’m I goin’ tell her that when she ain’t home?”
Again Earl walked musingly around the porch. Then he nodded several times and said:
“She’s sore at something that happened downtown.”
In a few words he sketched out the matter to me.
“Look here; you wait in the car,” I said. “Maybe I can fix this.” And when he reluctantly retreated: “Oliver, you tell Miss Ailie I want to see her alone.”
After some argument he bore this message and in a moment returned with a reply:
“Miss Ailie say she don’t want to see that other gentleman about nothing never. She say come in if you like.”
She was in the library. I had expected to see a picture of cool, outraged dignity, but her face was distraught, tumultuous, despairing. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as though she had been crying slowly and painfully, for hours.
“Oh, hello, Andy,” she said brokenly. “I haven’t seen you for so long. Has he gone?”
“Now, Ailie!” she cried. “Now, Ailie! He spoke to me, you see. He lifted his hat. He stood there ten feet from me with that horrible–that horrible woman–holding her arm and talking to her, and then when he saw me he raised his hat. Andy, I didn’t know what to do. I had to go in the drug store and ask for a glass of water, and I was so afraid he’d follow in after me that I asked Mr. Rich to let me go out the back way. I never want to see him or hear of him again.”
I talked. I said what one says in such cases. I said it for half an hour. I could not move her. Several times she answered by murmuring something about his not being “sincere,” and for the fourth time I wondered what the word meant to her. Certainly not constancy; it was, I half suspected, some special way she wanted to be regarded.
I got up to go. And then, unbelievably, the automobile horn sounded three times impatiently outside. It was stupefying. It said as plainly as if Earl were in the room, “All right; go to the devil then! I’m not going to wait here all night.”
Ailie looked at me aghast. And suddenly a peculiar look came into her face, spread, flickered, broke into a teary, hysterical smile.
“Isn’t he awful?” she cried in helpless despair. “Isn’t he terrible?”
“Hurry up,” I said quickly. “Get your cape. This is our last night.”
And I can still feel that last night vividly, the candlelight that flickered over the rough boards of the mess shack, over the frayed paper decorations left from the supply company’s party, the sad mandolin down a company street that kept picking My Indiana Home out of the universal nostalgia of the departing summer. The three girls lost in this mysterious men’s city felt something, too–a bewitched impermanence as though they were on a magic carpet that had lighted on the Southern countryside, and any moment the wind would lift it and waft it away. We toasted ourselves and the South. Then we left our napkins and empty glasses and a little of the past on the table, and hand in hand went out into the moonlight itself. Taps had been played; there was no sound but the far-away whinny of a horse, and a loud persistent snore at which we laughed, and the leathery snap of a sentry coming to port over by the guardhouse. Craker was on duty; we others got into a waiting car, motored into Tarleton and left Craker’s girl.
Then Ailie and Earl, Sally and I, two and two in the wide back seat, each couple turned from the other, absorbed and whispering, drove away into the wide, flat darkness.
We drove through pine woods heavy with lichen and Spanish moss, and between the fallow cotton fields along a road white as the rim of the world. We parked under the broken shadow of a mill where there was the sound of running water and restive squawky birds and over everything a brightness that tried to filter in anywhere–into the lost nigger cabins, the automobile, the fastnesses of the heart. The South sang to us–I wonder if they remember. I remember–the cool pale faces, the somnolent amorous eyes and the voices:
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes; are you?”
“Are you sure you are?”
Suddenly we knew it was late and there was nothing more. We turned home.
Our detachment started for Camp Mills next day, but I didn’t go to France after all. We passed a cold month on Long Island, marched aboard a transport with steel helmets slung at our sides and then marched off again. There wasn’t any more war. I had missed the war. When I came back to Tarleton I tried to get out of the Army, but I had a regular commission and it took most of the winter. But Earl Schoen was one of the first to be demobilized. He wanted to find a good job “while the picking was good.” Ailie was noncommittal, but there was an understanding between them that he’d be back.
By January the camps, which for two years had dominated the little city, were already fading. There was only the persistent incinerator smell to remind one of all that activity and bustle. What life remained centered bitterly about divisional headquarters building, with the disgruntled regular officers who had also missed the war.
And now the young men of Tarleton began drifting back from the ends of the earth–some with Canadian uniforms, some with crutches or empty sleeves. A returned battalion of the National Guard paraded through the streets with open ranks for their dead, and then stepped down out of romance forever and sold you things over the counters of local stores. Only a few uniforms mingled with the dinner coats at the country-club dance.
Just before Christmas, Bill Knowles arrived unexpectedly one day and left the next–either he gave Ailie an ultimatum or she had made up her mind at last. I saw her sometimes when she wasn’t busy with returned heroes from Savannah and Augusta, but I felt like an outmoded survival–and I was. She was waiting for Earl Schoen with such a vast uncertainty that she didn’t like to talk about it. Three days before I got my final discharge he came.
I first happened upon them walking down Market Street together, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so sorry for a couple in my life; though I suppose the same situation was repeating itself in every city where there had been camps. Exteriorly Earl had about everything wrong with him that could be imagined. His hat was green, with a radical feather; his suit was slashed and braided in a grotesque fashion that national advertising and the movies have put an end to. Evidently he had been to his old barber, for his hair bloused neatly on his pink, shaved neck. It wasn’t as though he had been shiny and poor, but the background of mill-town dance halls and outing clubs flamed out at you–or rather flamed out at Ailie. For she had never quite imagined the reality; in these clothes even the natural grace of that magnificent body had departed. At first he boasted of his fine job; it would get them along all right until he could “see some easy money.” But from the moment he came back into her world on its own terms he must have known it was hopeless. I don’t know what Ailie said or how much her grief weighed against her stupefaction. She acted quickly–three days after his arrival, Earl and I went North together on the train.
“Well, that’s the end of that,” he said moodily. “She’s a wonderful girl, but too much of a highbrow for me. I guess she’s got to marry some rich guy that’ll give her a great social position. I can’t see that stuck-up sort of thing.” And then, later: “She said to come back and see her in a year, but I’ll never go back. This aristocrat stuff is all right if you got the money for it, but–“
“But it wasn’t real,” he meant to finish. The provincial society in which he had moved with so much satisfaction for six months already appeared to him as affected, “dudish” and artificial.
“Say, did you see what I saw getting on the train?” he asked me after a while. “Two wonderful janes, all alone. What do you say we mosey into the next car and ask them to lunch? I’ll take the one in blue.” Halfway down the car he turned around suddenly. “Say, Andy,” he demanded, frowning; “one thing–how do you suppose she knew I used to command a street car? I never told her that.”
This narrative arrives now at one of the big gaps that stared me in the face when I began. For six years, while I finished at Harvard Law and built commercial aeroplanes and backed a pavement block that went gritty under trucks, Ailie Calhoun was scarcely more than a name on a Christmas card; something that blew a little in my mind on warm nights when I remembered the magnolia flowers. Occasionally an acquaintance of Army days would ask me, “What became of that blond girl who was so popular?” but I didn’t know. I ran into Nancy Lamar at the Montmartre in New York one evening and learned that Ailie had become engaged to a man in Cincinnati, had gone North to visit his family and then broken it off. She was lovely as ever and there was always a heavy beau or two. But neither Bill Knowles nor Earl Schoen had ever come back.
And somewhere about that time I heard that Bill Knowles had married a girl he met on a boat. There you are–not much of a patch to mend six years with.
Oddly enough, a girl seen at twilight in a small Indiana station started me thinking about going South. The girl, in stiff pink organdie, threw her arms about a man who got off our train and hurried him to a waiting car, and I felt a sort of pang. It seemed to me that she was bearing him off into the lost midsummer world of my early twenties, where time had stood still and charming girls, dimly seen like the past itself, still loitered along the dusky streets. I suppose that poetry is a Northern man’s dream of the South. But it was months later that I sent off a wire to Ailie, and immediately followed it to Tarleton.
It was July. The Jefferson Hotel seemed strangely shabby and stuffy–a boosters’ club burst into intermittent song in the dining room that my memory had long dedicated to officers and girls. I recognized the taxi driver who took me up to Ailie’s house, but his “Sure, I do, lieutenant,” was unconvincing. I was only one of twenty thousand.
It was a curious three days. I suppose some of Ailie’s first young lustre must have gone the way of such mortal shining, but I can’t bear witness to it. She was still so physically appealing that you wanted to touch the personality that trembled on her lips. No–the change was more profound than that.
At once I saw she had a different line. The modulations of pride, the vocal hints that she knew the secrets of a brighter, finer ante-bellum day, were gone from her voice; there was no time for them now as it rambled on in the half-laughing, half-desperate banter of the newer South. And everything was swept into this banter in order to make it go on and leave no time for thinking–the present, the future, herself, me. We went to a rowdy party at the house of some young married people, and she was the nervous, glowing center of it. After all, she wasn’t eighteen, and she was as attractive in her rôle of reckless clown as she had ever been in her life.
“Have you heard anything from Earl Schoen?” I asked her the second night, on our way to the country-club dance.
“No.” She was serious for a moment. “I often think of him. He was the–” She hesitated.
“I was going to say the man I loved most, but that wouldn’t be true. I never exactly loved him, or I’d have married him any old how, wouldn’t I?” She looked at me questioningly. “At least I wouldn’t have treated him like that.”
“It was impossible.”
“Of course,” she agreed uncertainly. Her mood changed; she became flippant: “How the Yankees did deceive us poor little Southern girls. Ah, me!”
When we reached the country club she melted like a chameleon into the–to me–unfamiliar crowd. There was a new generation upon the floor, with less dignity than the ones I had known, but none of them were more a part of its lazy, feverish essence than Ailie. Possibly she had perceived that in her initial longing to escape from Tarleton’s provincialism she had been walking alone, following a generation which was doomed to have no successors. Just where she lost the battle, waged behind the white pillars of her veranda, I don’t know. But she had guessed wrong, missed out somewhere. Her wild animation, which even now called enough men around her to rival the entourage of the youngest and freshest, was an admission of defeat.
I left her house, as I had so often left it that vanished June, in a mood of vague dissatisfaction. It was hours later, tossing about my bed in the hotel, that I realized what was the matter, what had always been the matter–I was deeply and incurably in love with her. In spite of every incompatibility, she was still, she would always be to me, the most attractive girl I had ever known. I told her so next afternoon. It was one of those hot days I knew so well, and Ailie sat beside me on a couch in the darkened library.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t marry you,” she said, almost frightened; “I don’t love you that way at all. . . . I never did. And you don’t love me. I didn’t mean to tell you now, but next month I’m going to marry another man. We’re not even announcing it, because I’ve done that twice before.” Suddenly it occurred to her that I might be hurt: “Andy, you just had a silly idea, didn’t you? You know I couldn’t ever marry a Northern man.”
“Who is he?” I demanded.
“A man from Savannah.”
“Are you in love with him?”
“Of course I am.” We both smiled. “Of course I am! What are you trying to make me say?”
There were no doubts, as there had been with other men. She couldn’t afford to let herself have doubts. I knew this because she had long ago stopped making any pretensions with me. This very naturalness, I realized, was because she didn’t consider me as a suitor. Beneath her mask of an instinctive thoroughbred she had always been on to herself, and she couldn’t believe that anyone not taken in to the point of uncritical worship could really love her. That was what she called being “sincere”; she felt most security with men like Canby and Earl Schoen, who were incapable of passing judgments on the ostensibly aristocratic heart.
“All right,” I said, as if she had asked my permission to marry. “Now, would you do something for me?”
“Ride out to camp.”
“But there’s nothing left there, honey.”
“I don’t care.”
We walked downtown. The taxi driver in front of the hotel repeated her objection: “Nothing there now, cap.”
“Never mind. Go there anyhow.”
Twenty minutes later he stopped on a wide unfamiliar plain powdered with new cotton fields and marked with isolated clumps of pine.
“Like to drive over yonder where you see the smoke?” asked the driver. “That’s the new state prison.”
“No. Just drive along this road. I want to find where I used to live.”
An old race course, inconspicuous in the camp’s day of glory, had reared its dilapidated grandstand in the desolation. I tried in vain to orient myself.
“Go along this road past that clump of trees, and then turn right–no, turn left.”
He obeyed, with professional disgust.
“You won’t find a single thing, darling,” said Ailie. “The contractors took it all down.”
We rode slowly along the margin of the fields. It might have been here–
“All right. I want to get out,” I said suddenly.
I left Ailie sitting in the car, looking very beautiful with the warm breeze stirring her long, curly bob.
It might have been here. That would make the company streets down there and the mess shack, where we dined that night, just over the way.
The taxi driver regarded me indulgently while I stumbled here and there in the knee-deep underbrush, looking for my youth in a clapboard or a strip of roofing or a rusty tomato can. I tried to sight on a vaguely familiar clump of trees, but it was growing darker now and I couldn’t be quite sure they were the right trees.
“They’re going to fix up the old race course,” Ailie called from the car. “Tarleton’s getting quite doggy in its old age.”
No. Upon consideration they didn’t look like the right trees. All I could be sure of was this place that had once been so full of life and effort was gone, as if it had never existed, and that in another month Ailie would be gone, and the South would be empty for me forever.