Nicole went to the window and bent over the sill to take a look at the rising altercation on the terrace; the April sun shone pink on the saintly face of Augustine, the cook, and blue on the butcher’s knife she waved in her drunken hand. She had been with them since their return to Villa Diana in February.
Because of an obstruction of an awning she could see only Dick’s head and his hand holding one of his heavy canes with a bronze knob on it. The knife and the cane, menacing each other, were like tripos and short sword in a gladiatorial combat. Dick’s words reached her first:
“—care how much kitchen wine you drink but when I find you digging into a bottle of Chablis Moutonne—”
“You talk about drinking!” Augustine cried, flourishing her sabre. “You drink—all the time!”
Nicole called over the awning: “What’s the matter, Dick?” and he answered in English:
“The old girl has been polishing off the vintage wines. I’m firing her—at least I’m trying to.”
“Heavens! Well, don’t let her reach you with that knife.”
Augustine shook her knife up at Nicole. Her old mouth was made of two small intersecting cherries.
“I would like to say, Madame, if you knew that your husband drinks over at his Bastide comparatively as a day-laborer—”
“Shut up and get out!” interrupted Nicole. “We’ll get the gendarmes.”
“You’ll get the gendarmes! With my brother in the corps! You—a disgusting American?”
In English Dick called up to Nicole:
“Get the children away from the house till I settle this.”
“—disgusting Americans who come here and drink up our finest wines,” screamed Augustine with the voice of the commune.
Dick mastered a firmer tone.
“You must leave now! I’ll pay you what we owe you.”
“Very sure you’ll pay me! And let me tell you—” she came close and waved the knife so furiously that Dick raised his stick, whereupon she rushed into the kitchen and returned with the carving knife reinforced by a hatchet.
The situation was not prepossessing—Augustine was a strong woman and could be disarmed only at the risk of serious results to herself—and severe legal complications which were the lot of one who molested a French citizen. Trying a bluff Dick called up to Nicole:
“Phone the poste de police.” Then to Augustine, indicating her armament, “This means arrest for you.”
“Ha-ha!” she laughed demoniacally; nevertheless she came no nearer. Nicole phoned the police but was answered with what was almost an echo of Augustine’s laugh. She heard mumbles and passings of the word around—the connection was suddenly broken.
Returning to the window she called down to Dick: “Give her something extra!”
“If I could get to that phone!” As this seemed impracticable, Dick capitulated. For fifty francs, increased to a hundred as he succumbed to the idea of getting her out hastily, Augustine yielded her fortress, covering the retreat with stormy grenades of “Salaud!” She would leave only when her nephew could come for her baggage. Waiting cautiously in the neighborhood of the kitchen Dick heard a cork pop, but he yielded the point. There was no further trouble—when the nephew arrived, all apologetic, Augustine bade Dick a cheerful, convivial good-by and called up “All revoir, Madame! Bonne chance!” to Nicole’s window.
The Divers went to Nice and dined on a bouillabaisse, which is a stew of rock fish and small lobsters, highly seasoned with saffron, and a bottle of cold Chablis. He expressed pity for Augustine.
“I’m not sorry a bit,” said Nicole.
“I’m sorry—and yet I wish I’d shoved her over the cliff.”
There was little they dared talk about in these days; seldom did they find the right word when it counted, it arrived always a moment too late when one could not reach the other any more. To-night Augustine’s outburst had shaken them from their separate reveries; with the burn and chill of the spiced broth and the parching wine they talked.
“We can’t go on like this,” Nicole suggested. “Or can we?—what do you think?” Startled that for the moment Dick did not deny it, she continued, “Some of the time I think it’s my fault—I’ve ruined you.”
“So I’m ruined, am I?” he inquired pleasantly.
“I didn’t mean that. But you used to want to create things—now you seem to want to smash them up.”
She trembled at criticizing him in these broad terms—but his enlarging silence frightened her even more. She guessed that something was developing behind the silence, behind the hard, blue eyes, the almost unnatural interest in the children. Uncharacteristic bursts of temper surprised her—he would suddenly unroll a long scroll of contempt for some person, race, class, way of life, way of thinking. It was as though an incalculable story was telling itself inside him, about which she could only guess at in the moments when it broke through the surface.
“After all, what do you get out of this?” she demanded.
“Knowing you’re stronger every day. Knowing that your illness follows the law of diminishing returns.”
His voice came to her from far off, as though he were speaking of something remote and academic; her alarm made her exclaim, “Dick!” and she thrust her hand forward to his across the table. A reflex pulled Dick’s hand back and he added: “There’s the whole situation to think of, isn’t there? There’s not just you.” He covered her hand with his and said in the old pleasant voice of a conspirator for pleasure, mischief, profit, and delight:
“See that boat out there?”
It was the motor yacht of T. F. Golding lying placid among the little swells of the Nicean Bay, constantly bound upon a romantic voyage that was not dependent upon actual motion. “We’ll go out there now and ask the people on board what’s the matter with them. We’ll find out if they’re happy.”
“We hardly know him,” Nicole objected.
“He urged us. Besides, Baby knows him—she practically married him, doesn’t she—didn’t she?”
When they put out from the port in a hired launch it was already summer dusk and lights were breaking out in spasms along the rigging of the Margin. As they drew up alongside, Nicole’s doubts reasserted themselves.
“He’s having a party—”
“It’s only a radio,” he guessed.
They were hailed—a huge white-haired man in a white suit looked down at them, calling:
“Do I recognize the Divers?”
“Boat ahoy, Margin!”
Their boat moved under the companionway; as they mounted Golding doubled his huge frame to give Nicole a hand.
“Just in time for dinner.”
A small orchestra was playing astern.
“I’m yours for the asking—but till then you can’t ask me to behave—”
And as Golding’s cyclonic arms blew them aft without touching them, Nicole was sorrier they had come, and more impatient at Dick. Having taken up an attitude of aloofness from the gay people here, at the time when Dick’s work and her health were incompatible with going about, they had a reputation as refusers. Riviera replacements during the ensuing years interpreted this as a vague unpopularity. Nevertheless, having taken such a stand, Nicole felt it should not be cheaply compromised for a momentary self-indulgence.
As they passed through the principal salon they saw ahead of them figures that seemed to dance in the half light of the circular stern. This was an illusion made by the enchantment of the music, the unfamiliar lighting, and the surrounding presence of water. Actually, save for some busy stewards, the guests loafed on a wide divan that followed the curve of the deck. There were a white, a red, a blurred dress, the laundered chests of several men, of whom one, detaching and identifying himself, brought from Nicole a rare little cry of delight.
Brushing aside the Gallicism of his formal dip at her hand, Nicole pressed her face against his. They sat, or rather lay down together on the Antoninian bench. His handsome face was so dark as to have lost the pleasantness of deep tan, without attaining the blue beauty of Negroes—it was just worn leather. The foreignness of his depigmentation by unknown suns, his nourishment by strange soils, his tongue awkward with the curl of many dialects, his reactions attuned to odd alarms—these things fascinated and rested Nicole—in the moment of meeting she lay on his bosom, spiritually, going out and out…Then self-preservation reasserted itself and retiring to her own world she spoke lightly.
“You look just like all the adventurers in the movies—but why do you have to stay away so long?”
Tommy Barban looked at her, uncomprehending but alert; the pupils of his eyes flashed.
“Five years,” she continued, in throaty mimicry of nothing. “Much too long. Couldn’t you only slaughter a certain number of creatures and then come back, and breathe our air for a while?”
In her cherished presence Tommy Europeanized himself quickly.
“Mais pour nous héros,” he said, “il nous faut du temps, Nicole. Nous ne pouvons pas faire de petits exercises d’héroisme—il faut faire les grandes compositions.”
“Talk English to me, Tommy.”
“Parlez français avec moi, Nicole.”
“But the meanings are different—in French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity, and you know it. But in English you can’t be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd, and you know that too. That gives me an advantage.”
“But after all—” He chuckled suddenly. “Even in English I’m brave, heroic and all that.”
She pretended to be groggy with wonderment but he was not abashed.
“I only know what I see in the cinema,” he said.
“Is it all like the movies?”
“The movies aren’t so bad—now this Ronald Colman—have you seen his pictures about the Corps d’Afrique du Nord? They’re not bad at all.”
“Very well, whenever I go to the movies I’ll know you’re going through just that sort of thing at that moment.”
As she spoke, Nicole was aware of a small, pale, pretty young woman with lovely metallic hair, almost green in the deck lights, who had been sitting on the other side of Tommy and might have been part either of their conversation or of the one next to them. She had obviously had a monopoly of Tommy, for now she abandoned hope of his attention with what was once called ill grace, and petulantly crossed the crescent of the deck.
“After all, I am a hero,” Tommy said calmly, only half joking. “I have ferocious courage, usually, something like a lion, something like a drunken man.”
Nicole waited until the echo of his boast had died away in his mind—she knew he had probably never made such a statement before. Then she looked among the strangers, and found as usual, the fierce neurotics, pretending calm, liking the country only in horror of the city, of the sound of their own voices which had set the tone and pitch…She asked:
“Who is the woman in white?”
“The one who was beside me? Lady Caroline Sibly-Biers.”—They listened for a moment to her voice across the way:
“The man’s a scoundrel, but he’s a cat of the stripe. We sat up all night playing two-handed chemin-de-fer, and he owes me a mille Swiss.”
Tommy laughed and said: “She is now the wickedest woman in London—whenever I come back to Europe there is a new crop of the wickedest women from London. She’s the very latest—though I believe there is now one other who’s considered almost as wicked.”
Nicole glanced again at the woman across the deck—she was fragile, tubercular—it was incredible that such narrow shoulders, such puny arms could bear aloft the pennon of decadence, last ensign of the fading empire. Her resemblance was rather to one of John Held’s flat-chested flappers than to the hierarchy of tall languid blondes who had posed for painters and novelists since before the war.
Golding approached, fighting down the resonance of his huge bulk, which transmitted his will as through a gargantuan amplifier, and Nicole, still reluctant, yielded to his reiterated points: that the Margin was starting for Cannes immediately after dinner; that they could always pack in some caviare and champagne, even though they had dined; that in any case Dick was now on the phone, telling their chauffeur in Nice to drive their car back to Cannes and leave it in front of the Café des Alliées where the Divers could retrieve it.
They moved into the dining salon and Dick was placed next to Lady Sibly-Biers. Nicole saw that his usually ruddy face was drained of blood; he talked in a dogmatic voice, of which only snatches reached Nicole:
“…It’s all right for you English, you’re doing a dance of death…Sepoys in the ruined fort, I mean Sepoys at the gate and gaiety in the fort and all that. The green hat, the crushed hat, no future.”
Lady Caroline answered him in short sentences spotted with the terminal “What?” the double-edged “Quite!” the depressing “Cheerio!” that always had a connotation of imminent peril, but Dick appeared oblivious to the warning signals. Suddenly he made a particularly vehement pronouncement, the purport of which eluded Nicole, but she saw the young woman turn dark and sinewy, and heard her answer sharply:
“After all a chep’s a chep and a chum’s a chum.”
Again he had offended some one—couldn’t he hold his tongue a little longer? How long? To death then.
At the piano, a fair-haired young Scotsman from the orchestra (entitled by its drum “The Ragtime College Jazzes of Edinboro”) had begun singing in a Danny Deever monotone, accompanying himself with low chords on the piano. He pronounced his words with great precision, as though they impressed him almost intolerably.
"There was a young lady from hell,
Who jumped at the sound of a bell,
Because she was bad—bad—bad,
She jumped at the sound of a bell,
From hell (BOOMBOOM)
From hell (TOOTTOOT)
There was a young lady from hell—"
“What is all this?” whispered Tommy to Nicole.
The girl on the other side of him supplied the answer:
“Caroline Sibly-Biers wrote the words. He wrote the music.”
“Quelle enfanterie!” Tommy murmured as the next verse began, hinting at the jumpy lady’s further predilections. “On dirait qu’il récite Racine!”
On the surface at least, Lady Caroline was paying no attention to the performance of her work. Glancing at her again Nicole found herself impressed, neither with the character nor the personality, but with the sheer strength derived from an attitude; Nicole thought that she was formidable, and she was confirmed in this point of view as the party rose from table. Dick remained in his seat wearing an odd expression; then he crashed into words with a harsh ineptness.
“I don’t like innuendo in these deafening English whispers.”
Already half-way out of the room Lady Caroline turned and walked back to him; she spoke in a low clipped voice purposely audible to the whole company.
“You came to me asking for it—disparaging my countrymen, disparaging my friend, Mary Minghetti. I simply said you were observed associating with a questionable crowd in Lausanne. Is that a deafening whisper? Or does it simply deafen you?”
“It’s still not loud enough,” said Dick, a little too late. “So I am actually a notorious—”
Golding crushed out the phrase with his voice saying:
“What! What!” and moved his guests on out, with the threat of his powerful body. Turning the corner of the door Nicole saw that Dick was still sitting at the table. She was furious at the woman for her preposterous statement, equally furious at Dick for having brought them here, for having become fuddled, for having untipped the capped barbs of his irony, for having come off humiliated—she was a little more annoyed because she knew that her taking possession of Tommy Barban on their arrival had first irritated the Englishwoman.
A moment later she saw Dick standing in the gangway, apparently in complete control of himself as he talked with Golding; then for half an hour she did not see him anywhere about the deck and she broke out of an intricate Malay game, played with string and coffee beans, and said to Tommy:
“I’ve got to find Dick.”
Since dinner the yacht had been in motion westward. The fine night streamed away on either side, the Diesel engines pounded softly, there was a spring wind that blew Nicole’s hair abruptly when she reached the bow, and she had a sharp lesion of anxiety at seeing Dick standing in the angle by the flagstaff. His voice was serene as he recognized her.
“It’s a nice night.”
“I was worried.”
“Oh, you were worried?”
“Oh, don’t talk that way. It would give me so much pleasure to think of a little something I could do for you, Dick.”
He turned away from her, toward the veil of starlight over Africa.
“I believe that’s true, Nicole. And sometimes I believe that the littler it was, the more pleasure it would give you.”
“Don’t talk like that—don’t say such things.”
His face, wan in the light that the white spray caught and tossed back to the brilliant sky had none of the lines of annoyance she had expected. It was even detached; his eyes focussed upon her gradually as upon a chessman to be moved; in the same slow manner he caught her wrist and drew her near.
“You ruined me, did you?” he inquired blandly. “Then we’re both ruined. So—”
Cold with terror she put her other wrist into his grip. All right, she would go with him—again she felt the beauty of the night vividly in one moment of complete response and abnegation—all right, then—
—but now she was unexpectedly free and Dick turned his back sighing. “Tch! tch!”
Tears streamed down Nicole’s face—in a moment she heard some one approaching; it was Tommy.
“You found him! Nicole thought maybe you jumped overboard, Dick,” he said, “because that little English poule slanged you.”
“It’d be a good setting to jump overboard,” said Dick mildly.
“Wouldn’t it?” agreed Nicole hastily. “Let’s borrow life-preservers and jump over. I think we should do something spectacular. I feel that all our lives have been too restrained.”
Tommy sniffed from one to the other trying to breathe in the situation with the night. “We’ll go ask the Lady Beer-and-Ale what to do—she should know the latest things. And we should memorize her song ‘There was a young lady from l’enfer.’ I shall translate it, and make a fortune from its success at the Casino.”
“Are you rich, Tommy?” Dick asked him, as they retraced the length of the boat.
“Not as things go now. I got tired of the brokerage business and went away. But I have good stocks in the hands of friends who are holding it for me. All goes well.”
“Dick’s getting rich,” Nicole said. In reaction her voice had begun to tremble.
On the after deck Golding had fanned three pairs of dancers into action with his colossal paws. Nicole and Tommy joined them and Tommy remarked: “Dick seems to be drinking.”
“Only moderately,” she said loyally.
“There are those who can drink and those who can’t. Obviously Dick can’t. You ought to tell him not to.”
“I!” she exclaimed in amazement. “I tell Dick what he should do or shouldn’t do!”
But in a reticent way Dick was still vague and sleepy when they reached the pier at Cannes. Golding buoyed him down into the launch of the Margin whereupon Lady Caroline shifted her place conspicuously. On the dock he bowed good-by with exaggerated formality, and for a moment he seemed about to speed her with a salty epigram, but the bone of Tommy’s arm went into the soft part of his and they walked to the attendant car.
“I’ll drive you home,” Tommy suggested.
“Don’t bother—we can get a cab.”
“I’d like to, if you can put me up.”
On the back seat of the car Dick remained quiescent until the yellow monolith of Golfe Juan was passed, and then the constant carnival at Juan les Pins where the night was musical and strident in many languages. When the car turned up the hill toward Tarmes, he sat up suddenly, prompted by the tilt of the vehicle and delivered a peroration:
“A charming representative of the—” he stumbled momentarily, “—a firm of—bring me Brains addled a l’Anglaise.” Then he went into an appeased sleep, belching now and then contentedly into the soft warm darkness.