In a pause Rosemary looked away and up the table where Nicole sat between Tommy Barban and Abe North, her chow’s hair foaming and frothing in the candlelight. Rosemary listened, caught sharply by the rich clipped voice in infrequent speech:
“The poor man,” Nicole exclaimed. “Why did you want to saw him in two?”
“Naturally I wanted to see what was inside a waiter. Wouldn’t you like to know what was inside a waiter?”
“Old menus,” suggested Nicole with a short laugh. “Pieces of broken china and tips and pencil stubs.”
“Exactly—but the thing was to prove it scientifically. And of course doing it with that musical saw would have eliminated any sordidness.”
“Did you intend to play the saw while you performed the operation?” Tommy inquired.
“We didn’t get quite that far. We were alarmed by the screams. We thought he might rupture something.”
“All sounds very peculiar to me,” said Nicole. “Any musician that’ll use another musician’s saw to—”
They had been at table half an hour and a perceptible change had set in—person by person had given up something, a preoccupation, an anxiety, a suspicion, and now they were only their best selves and the Divers’ guests. Not to have been friendly and interested would have seemed to reflect on the Divers, so now they were all trying, and seeing this, Rosemary liked everyone—except McKisco, who had contrived to be the unassimilated member of the party. This was less from ill will than from his determination to sustain with wine the good spirits he had enjoyed on his arrival. Lying back in his place between Earl Brady, to whom he had addressed several withering remarks about the movies, and Mrs. Abrams, to whom he said nothing, he stared at Dick Diver with an expression of devastating irony, the effect being occasionally interrupted by his attempts to engage Dick in a cater-cornered conversation across the table.
“Aren’t you a friend of Van Buren Denby?” he would say.
“I don’t believe I know him.”
“I thought you were a friend of his,” he persisted irritably.
When the subject of Mr. Denby fell of its own weight, he essayed other equally irrelative themes, but each time the very deference of Dick’s attention seemed to paralyze him, and after a moment’s stark pause the conversation that he had interrupted would go on without him. He tried breaking into other dialogues, but it was like continually shaking hands with a glove from which the hand had been withdrawn—so finally, with a resigned air of being among children, he devoted his attention entirely to the champagne.
Rosemary’s glance moved at intervals around the table, eager for the others’ enjoyment, as if they were her future stepchildren. A gracious table light, emanating from a bowl of spicy pinks, fell upon Mrs. Abrams’ face, cooked to a turn in Veuve Cliquot, full of vigor, tolerance, adolescent good will; next to her sat Mr. Royal Dumphry, his girl’s comeliness less startling in the pleasure world of evening. Then Violet McKisco, whose prettiness had been piped to the surface of her, so that she ceased her struggle to make tangible to herself her shadowy position as the wife of an arriviste who had not arrived.
Then came Dick, with his arms full of the slack he had taken up from others, deeply merged in his own party.
Then her mother, forever perfect.
Then Barban talking to her mother with an urbane fluency that made Rosemary like him again. Then Nicole. Rosemary saw her suddenly in a new way and found her one of the most beautiful people she had ever known. Her face, the face of a saint, a viking Madonna, shone through the faint motes that snowed across the candlelight, drew down its flush from the wine-colored lanterns in the pine. She was still as still.
Abe North was talking to her about his moral code: “Of course I’ve got one,” he insisted, “—a man can’t live without a moral code. Mine is that I’m against the burning of witches. Whenever they burn a witch I get all hot under the collar.” Rosemary knew from Brady that he was a musician who after a brilliant and precocious start had composed nothing for seven years.
Next was Campion, managing somehow to restrain his most blatant effeminacy, and even to visit upon those near him a certain disinterested motherliness. Then Mary North with a face so merry that it was impossible not to smile back into the white mirrors of her teeth—the whole area around her parted lips was a lovely little circle of delight.
Finally Brady, whose heartiness became, moment by moment, a social thing instead of a crude assertion and reassertion of his own mental health, and his preservation of it by a detachment from the frailties of others.
Rosemary, as dewy with belief as a child from one of Mrs. Burnett’s vicious tracts, had a conviction of homecoming, of a return from the derisive and salacious improvisations of the frontier. There were fireflies riding on the dark air and a dog baying on some low and far-away ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights. And, as if a curious hushed laugh from Mrs. McKisco were a signal that such a detachment from the world had been attained, the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree. Then abruptly the table broke up—the moment when the guests had been daringly lifted above conviviality into the rarer atmosphere of sentiment, was over before it could be irreverently breathed, before they had half realized it was there.
But the diffused magic of the hot sweet South had withdrawn into them—the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below—the magic left these things and melted into the two Divers and became part of them. Rosemary watched Nicole pressing upon her mother a yellow evening bag she had admired, saying, “I think things ought to belong to the people that like them”—and then sweeping into it all the yellow articles she could find, a pencil, a lipstick, a little note book, “because they all go together.”
Nicole disappeared and presently Rosemary noticed that Dick was no longer there; the guests distributed themselves in the garden or drifted in toward the terrace.
“Do you want,” Violet McKisco asked Rosemary, “to go to the bathroom?”
Not at that precise moment.
“I want,” insisted Mrs. McKisco, “to go to the bathroom.” As a frank outspoken woman she walked toward the house, dragging her secret after her, while Rosemary looked after with reprobation. Earl Brady proposed that they walk down to the sea wall but she felt that this was her time to have a share of Dick Diver when he reappeared, so she stalled, listening to McKisco quarrel with Barban.
“Why do you want to fight the Soviets?” McKisco said. “The greatest experiment ever made by humanity? And the Riff? It seems to me it would be more heroic to fight on the just side.”
“How do you find out which it is?” asked Barban dryly.
“Why—usually everybody intelligent knows.”
“Are you a Communist?”
“I’m a Socialist,” said McKisco, “I sympathize with Russia.”
“Well, I’m a soldier,” Barban answered pleasantly. “My business is to kill people. I fought against the Riff because I am a European, and I have fought the Communists because they want to take my property from me.”
“Of all the narrow-minded excuses,” McKisco looked around to establish a derisive liaison with some one else, but without success. He had no idea what he was up against in Barban, neither of the simplicity of the other man’s bag of ideas nor of the complexity of his training. McKisco knew what ideas were, and as his mind grew he was able to recognize and sort an increasing number of them—but faced by a man whom he considered “dumb,” one in whom he found no ideas he could recognize as such, and yet to whom he could not feel personally superior, he jumped at the conclusion that Barban was the end product of an archaic world, and as such, worthless. McKisco’s contacts with the princely classes in America had impressed upon him their uncertain and fumbling snobbery, their delight in ignorance and their deliberate rudeness, all lifted from the English with no regard paid to factors that make English philistinism and rudeness purposeful, and applied in a land where a little knowledge and civility buy more than they do anywhere else—an attitude which reached its apogee in the “Harvard manner” of about 1900. He thought that this Barban was of that type, and being drunk rashly forgot that he was in awe of him—this led up to the trouble in which he presently found himself.
Feeling vaguely ashamed for McKisco, Rosemary waited, placid but inwardly on fire, for Dick Diver’s return. From her chair at the deserted table with Barban, McKisco, and Abe she looked up along the path edged with shadowy myrtle and fern to the stone terrace, and falling in love with her mother’s profile against a lighted door, was about to go there when Mrs. McKisco came hurrying down from the house.
She exuded excitement. In the very silence with which she pulled out a chair and sat down, her eyes staring, her mouth working a little, they all recognized a person crop-full of news, and her husband’s “What’s the matter, Vi?” came naturally, as all eyes turned toward her.
“My dear—” she said at large, and then addressed Rosemary, “my dear—it’s nothing. I really can’t say a word.”
“You’re among friends,” said Abe.
“Well, upstairs I came upon a scene, my dears—”
Shaking her head cryptically she broke off just in time, for Tommy arose and addressed her politely but sharply:
“It’s inadvisable to comment on what goes on in this house.”