Rosemary had another dinner date, a birthday party for a member of the company. Dick ran into Collis Clay in the lobby, but he wanted to dine alone, and pretended an engagement at the Excelsior. He drank a cocktail with Collis and his vague dissatisfaction crystallized as impatience—he no longer had an excuse for playing truant to the clinic. This was less an infatuation than a romantic memory. Nicole was his girl—too often he was sick at heart about her, yet she was his girl. Time with Rosemary was self-indulgence—time with Collis was nothing plus nothing.
In the doorway of the Excelsior he ran into Baby Warren. Her large beautiful eyes, looking precisely like marbles, stared at him with surprise and curiosity. “I thought you were in America, Dick! Is Nicole with you?”
“I came back by way of Naples.”
The black band on his arm reminded her to say: “I’m so sorry to hear of your trouble.”
Inevitably they dined together.
“Tell me about everything,” she demanded.
Dick gave her a version of the facts, and Baby frowned. She found it necessary to blame some one for the catastrophe in her sister’s life.
“Do you think Doctor Dohmler took the right course with her from the first?”
“There’s not much variety in treatment any more—of course you try to find the right personality to handle a particular case.”
“Dick, I don’t pretend to advise you or to know much about it but don’t you think a change might be good for her—to get out of that atmosphere of sickness and live in the world like other people?”
“But you were keen for the clinic,” he reminded her. “You told me you’d never feel really safe about her—”
“That was when you were leading that hermit’s life on the Riviera, up on a hill way off from anybody. I didn’t mean to go back to that life. I meant, for instance, London. The English are the best-balanced race in the world.”
“They are not,” he disagreed.
“They are. I know them, you see. I meant it might be nice for you to take a house in London for the spring season—I know a dove of a house in Talbot Square you could get, furnished. I mean, living with sane, well-balanced English people.”
She would have gone on to tell him all the old propaganda stories of 1914 if he had not laughed and said:
“I’ve been reading a book by Michael Arlen and if that’s—”
She ruined Michael Arlen with a wave of her salad spoon.
“He only writes about degenerates. I mean the worthwhile English.”
As she thus dismissed her friends they were replaced in Dick’s mind only by a picture of the alien, unresponsive faces that peopled the small hotels of Europe.
“Of course it’s none of my business,” Baby repeated, as a preliminary to a further plunge, “but to leave her alone in an atmosphere like that—”
“I went to America because my father died.”
“I understand that, I told you how sorry I was.” She fiddled with the glass grapes on her necklace. “But there’s so much money now. Plenty for everything, and it ought to be used to get Nicole well.”
“For one thing I can’t see myself in London.”
“Why not? I should think you could work there as well as anywhere else.”
He sat back and looked at her. If she had ever suspected the rotted old truth, the real reason for Nicole’s illness, she had certainly determined to deny it to herself, shoving it back in a dusty closet like one of the paintings she bought by mistake.
They continued the conversation in the Ulpia, where Collis Clay came over to their table and sat down, and a gifted guitar player thrummed and rumbled “Suona Fanfara Mia” in the cellar piled with wine casks.
“It’s possible that I was the wrong person for Nicole,” Dick said. “Still she would probably have married some one of my type, some one she thought she could rely on—indefinitely.”
“You think she’d be happier with somebody else?” Baby thought aloud suddenly. “Of course it could be arranged.”
Only as she saw Dick bend forward with helpless laughter did she realize the preposterousness of her remark.
“Oh, you understand,” she assured him. “Don’t think for a moment that we’re not grateful for all you’ve done. And we know you’ve had a hard time—”
“For God’s sake,” he protested. “If I didn’t love Nicole it might be different.”
“But you do love Nicole?” she demanded in alarm.
Collis was catching up with the conversation now and Dick switched it quickly: “Suppose we talk about something else—about you, for instance. Why don’t you get married? We heard you were engaged to Lord Paley, the cousin of the—”
“Oh, no.” She became coy and elusive. “That was last year.”
“Why don’t you marry?” Dick insisted stubbornly.
“I don’t know. One of the men I loved was killed in the war, and the other one threw me over.”
“Tell me about it. Tell me about your private life, Baby, and your opinions. You never do—we always talk about Nicole.”
“Both of them were Englishmen. I don’t think there’s any higher type in the world than a first-rate Englishman, do you? If there is I haven’t met him. This man—oh, it’s a long story. I hate long stories, don’t you?”
“And how!” said Collis.
“Why, no—I like them if they’re good.”
“That’s something you do so well, Dick. You can keep a party moving by just a little sentence or a saying here and there. I think that’s a wonderful talent.”
“It’s a trick,” he said gently. That made three of her opinions he disagreed with.
“Of course I like formality—I like things to be just so, and on the grand scale. I know you probably don’t but you must admit it’s a sign of solidity in me.”
Dick did not even bother to dissent from this.
“Of course I know people say, Baby Warren is racing around over Europe, chasing one novelty after another, and missing the best things in life, but I think on the contrary that I’m one of the few people who really go after the best things. I’ve known the most interesting people of my time.” Her voice blurred with the tinny drumming of another guitar number, but she called over it, “I’ve made very few big mistakes—”
“—Only the very big ones, Baby.”
She had caught something facetious in his eye and she changed the subject. It seemed impossible for them to hold anything in common. But he admired something in her, and he deposited her at the Excelsior with a series of compliments that left her shimmering.
Rosemary insisted on treating Dick to lunch next day. They went to a little trattoria kept by an Italian who had worked in America, and ate ham and eggs and waffles. Afterward, they went to the hotel. Dick’s discovery that he was not in love with her, nor she with him, had added to rather than diminished his passion for her. Now that he knew he would not enter further into her life, she became the strange woman for him. He supposed many men meant no more than that when they said they were in love—not a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colors into an obscuring dye, such as his love for Nicole had been. Certain thoughts about Nicole, that she should die, sink into mental darkness, love another man, made him physically sick.
Nicotera was in Rosemary’s sitting-room, chattering about a professional matter. When Rosemary gave him his cue to go, he left with humorous protests and a rather insolent wink at Dick. As usual the phone clamored and Rosemary was engaged at it for ten minutes, to Dick’s increasing impatience.
“Let’s go up to my room,” he suggested, and she agreed.
She lay across his knees on a big sofa; he ran his fingers through the lovely forelocks of her hair.
“Let me be curious about you again?” he asked.
“What do you want to know?”
“About men. I’m curious, not to say prurient.”
“You mean how long after I met you?”
“Oh, no.” She was shocked. “There was nothing before. You were the first man I cared about. You’re still the only man I really care about.” She considered. “It was about a year, I think.”
“Who was it?”
“Oh, a man.”
He closed in on her evasion.
“I’ll bet I can tell you about it: the first affair was unsatisfactory and after that there was a long gap. The second was better, but you hadn’t been in love with the man in the first place. The third was all right—”
Torturing himself he ran on. “Then you had one real affair that fell of its own weight, and by that time you were getting afraid that you wouldn’t have anything to give to the man you finally loved.” He felt increasingly Victorian. “Afterwards there were half a dozen just episodic affairs, right up to the present. Is that close?”
She laughed between amusement and tears.
“It’s about as wrong as it could be,” she said, to Dick’s relief. “But some day I’m going to find somebody and love him and love him and never let him go.”
Now his phone rang and Dick recognized Nicotera’s voice, asking for Rosemary. He put his palm over the transmitter.
“Do you want to talk to him?”
She went to the phone and jabbered in a rapid Italian Dick could not understand.
“This telephoning takes time,” he said. “It’s after four and I have an engagement at five. You better go play with Signor Nicotera.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Then I think that while I’m here you ought to count him out.”
“It’s difficult.” She was suddenly crying. “Dick, I do love you, never anybody like you. But what have you got for me?”
“What has Nicotera got for anybody?”
—Because youth called to youth.
“He’s a spic!” he said. He was frantic with jealousy, he didn’t want to be hurt again.
“He’s only a baby,” she said, sniffling. “You know I’m yours first.”
In reaction he put his arms about her but she relaxed wearily backward; he held her like that for a moment as in the end of an adagio, her eyes closed, her hair falling straight back like that of a girl drowned.
“Dick, let me go. I never felt so mixed up in my life.”
He was a gruff red bird and instinctively she drew away from him as his unjustified jealousy began to snow over the qualities of consideration and understanding with which she felt at home.
“I want to know the truth,” he said.
“Yes, then. We’re a lot together, he wants to marry me, but I don’t want to. What of it? What do you expect me to do? You never asked me to marry you. Do you want me to play around forever with half-wits like Collis Clay?”
“You were with Nicotera last night?”
“That’s none of your business,” she sobbed. “Excuse me, Dick, it is your business. You and Mother are the only two people in the world I care about.”
“How about Nicotera?”
“How do I know?”
She had achieved the elusiveness that gives hidden significance to the least significant remarks.
“Is it like you felt toward me in Paris?”
“I feel comfortable and happy when I’m with you. In Paris it was different. But you never know how you once felt. Do you?”
He got up and began collecting his evening clothes—if he had to bring all the bitterness and hatred of the world into his heart, he was not going to be in love with her again.
“I don’t care about Nicotera!” she declared. “But I’ve got to go to Livorno with the company to-morrow. Oh, why did this have to happen?” There was a new flood of tears. “It’s such a shame. Why did you come here? Why couldn’t we just have the memory anyhow? I feel as if I’d quarrelled with Mother.”
As he began to dress, she got up and went to the door.
“I won’t go to the party to-night.” It was her last effort. “I’ll stay with you. I don’t want to go anyhow.”
The tide began to flow again, but he retreated from it.
“I’ll be in my room,” she said. “Good-by, Dick.”
“Oh, such a shame, such a shame. Oh, such a shame. What’s it all about anyhow?”
“I’ve wondered for a long time.”
“But why bring it to me?”
“I guess I’m the Black Death,” he said slowly. “I don’t seem to bring people happiness any more.”