Alice Adams eText - Chapter VI

Chapter VI

Alice was busy with herself for two hours after dinner; but a little before nine o'clock she stood in front of her long mirror, completed, bright-eyed and solemn. Her hair, exquisitely arranged, gave all she asked of it; what artificialities in colour she had used upon her face were only bits of emphasis that made her prettiness the more distinct; and the dress, not rumpled by her mother's careful hours of work, was a white cloud of loveliness. Finally there were two triumphant bouquets of violets, each with the stems wrapped in tin-foil shrouded by a bow of purple chiffon; and one bouquet she wore at her waist and the other she carried in her hand.

Miss Perry, called in by a rapturous mother for the free treat of a look at this radiance, insisted that Alice was a vision. "Purely and simply a vision!" she said, meaning that no other definition whatever would satisfy her. "I never saw anybody look a vision if she don't look one to-night," the admiring nurse declared. "Her papa'll think the same I do about it. You see if he doesn't say she's purely and simply a vision."

Adams did not fulfil the prediction quite literally when Alice paid a brief visit to his room to "show" him and bid him good-night; but he chuckled feebly. "Well, well, well!" he said.

"You look mighty fine--MIGHTY fine!" And he waggled a bony finger at her two bouquets. "Why, Alice, who's your beau?"

"Never you mind!" she laughed, archly brushing his nose with the violets in her hand. "He treats me pretty well, doesn't he?"

"Must like to throw his money around! These violets smell mighty sweet, and they ought to, if they're going to a party with YOU. Have a good time, dearie."

"I mean to!" she cried; and she repeated this gaily, but with an emphasis expressing sharp determination as she left him. "I MEAN to!"

"What was he talking about?" her mother inquired, smoothing the rather worn and old evening wrap she had placed on Alice's bed. "What were you telling him you 'mean to?'"

Alice went back to her triple mirror for the last time, then stood before the long one. "That I mean to have a good time to-night," she said; and as she turned from her reflection to the wrap Mrs. Adams held up for her, "It looks as though I COULD, don't you think so?"

"You'll just be a queen to-night," her mother whispered in fond emotion. "You mustn't doubt yourself."

"Well, there's one thing," said Alice. "I think I do look nice enough to get along without having to dance with that Frank Dowling! All I ask is for it to happen just once; and if he comes near me to-night I'm going to treat him the way the other girls do. Do you suppose Walter's got the taxi out in front?"

"He--he's waiting down in the hall," Mrs. Adams answered, nervously; and she held up another garment to go over the wrap.

Alice frowned at it. "What's that, mama?"

"It's--it's your father's raincoat. I thought you'd put it on over----"

"But I won't need it in a taxicab."

"You will to get in and out, and you needn't take it into the Palmers'. You can leave it in the--in the-- It's drizzling, and you'll need it."

"Oh, well," Alice consented; and a few minutes later, as with Walter's assistance she climbed into the vehicle he had provided, she better understood her mother's solicitude.

"What on earth IS this, Walter?" she asked.

"Never mind; it'll keep you dry enough with the top up," he returned, taking his seat beside her. Then for a time, as they went rather jerkily up the street, she was silent; but finally she repeated her question: "What IS it, Walter?"

"What's what?"

"This--this CAR?"

"It's a ottomobile."

"I mean--what kind is it?"

"Haven't you got eyes?"

"It's too dark."

"It's a second-hand tin Lizzie," said Walter. "D'you know what that means? It means a flivver."

"Yes, Walter."

"Got 'ny 'bjections?"

"Why, no, dear," she said, placatively. "Is it yours, Walter? Have you bought it?"

"Me?" he laughed. "I couldn't buy a used wheelbarrow. I rent this sometimes when I'm goin' out among 'em. Costs me seventy-five cents and the price o' the gas."

"That seems very moderate."

"I guess it is! The feller owes me some money, and this is the only way I'd ever get it off him."

"Is he a garage-keeper?"

"Not exactly!" Walter uttered husky sounds of amusement. "You'll be just as happy, I guess, if you don't know who he is," he said.

His tone misgave her; and she said truthfully that she was content not to know who owned the car. "I joke sometimes about how you keep things to yourself," she added, "but I really never do pry in your affairs, Walter."

"Oh, no, you don't!"

"Indeed, I don't."

"Yes, you're mighty nice and cooing when you got me where you want me," he jeered. "Well, I just as soon tell you where I get this car."

"I'd just as soon you wouldn't, Walter," she said, hurriedly. "Please don't."

But Walter meant to tell her. "Why, there's nothin' exactly CRIMINAL about it," he said. "It belongs to old J. A. Lamb himself. He keeps it for their coon chauffeur. I rent it from him."

"From Mr. LAMB?"

"No; from the coon chauffeur."

"Walter!" she gasped.

"Sure I do! I can get it any night when the coon isn't goin' to use it himself. He's drivin' their limousine to-night--that little Henrietta Lamb's goin' to the party, no matter if her father HAS only been dead less'n a year!" He paused, then inquired: "Well, how d'you like it?"

She did not speak, and he began to be remorseful for having imparted so much information, though his way of expressing regret was his own. "Well, you WILL make the folks make me take you to parties!" he said. "I got to do it the best way I CAN, don't I?"

Then as she made no response, "Oh, the car's CLEAN enough," he said. "This coon, he's as particular as any white man; you needn't worry about that." And as she still said nothing, he added gruffly, "I'd of had a better car if I could afforded it. You needn't get so upset about it."

"I don't understand--" she said in a low voice--"I don't understand how you know such people."

"Such people as who?"

"As--coloured chauffeurs."

"Oh, look here, now!" he protested, loudly. "Don't you know this is a democratic country?"

"Not quite that democratic, is it, Walter?"

"The trouble with you," he retorted, "you don't know there's anybody in town except just this silk-shirt crowd." He paused, seeming to await a refutation; but as none came, he expressed himself definitely: "They make me sick."

They were coming near their destination, and the glow of the big, brightly lighted house was seen before them in the wet night. Other cars, not like theirs, were approaching this center of brilliance; long triangles of light near the ground swept through the fine drizzle; small red tail-lights gleamed again from the moist pavement of the street; and, through the myriads of little glistening leaves along the curving driveway, glimpses were caught of lively colours moving in a white glare as the limousines released their occupants under the shelter of the porte-cochere.

Alice clutched Walter's arm in a panic; they were just at the driveway entrance. "Walter, we mustn't go in there."

"What's the matter?"

"Leave this awful car outside."

"Why, I----"

"Stop!" she insisted, vehemently. "You've got to! Go back!"

"Oh, Glory!"

The little car was between the entrance posts; but Walter backed it out, avoiding a collision with an impressive machine which swerved away from them and passed on toward the porte-cochere, showing a man's face grinning at the window as it went by. "Flivver runabout got the wrong number!" he said.

"Did he SEE us?" Alice cried.

"Did who see us?"

"Harvey Malone--in that foreign coupe."

"No; he couldn't tell who we were under this top," Walter assured her as he brought the little car to a standstill beside the curbstone, out in the street. "What's it matter if he did, the big fish?"

Alice responded with a loud sigh, and sat still.

"Well, want to go on back?" Walter inquired. "You bet I'm willing!"

"No."

"Well, then, what's the matter our drivin' on up to the porte-cochere? There's room for me to park just the other side of it."

"No, NO!"

"What you expect to do? Sit HERE all night?"

"No, leave the car here."

"I don't care where we leave it," he said. "Sit still till I lock her, so none o' these millionaires around here'll run off with her." He got out with a padlock and chain; and, having put these in place, offered Alice his hand. "Come on, if you're ready."

"Wait," she said, and, divesting herself of the raincoat, handed it to Walter. "Please leave this with your things in the men's dressing-room, as if it were an extra one of your own, Walter."

He nodded; she jumped out; and they scurried through the drizzle.

As they reached the porte-cochere she began to laugh airily, and spoke to the impassive man in livery who stood there. "Joke on us!" she said, hurrying by him toward the door of the house. "Our car broke down outside the gate."

The man remained impassive, though he responded with a faint gleam as Walter, looking back at him, produced for his benefit a cynical distortion of countenance which offered little confirmation of Alice's account of things. Then the door was swiftly opened to the brother and sister; and they came into a marble-floored hall, where a dozen sleeked young men lounged, smoked cigarettes and fastened their gloves, as they waited for their ladies. Alice nodded to one or another of these, and went quickly on, her face uplifted and smiling; but Walter detained her at the door to which she hastened.

"Listen here," he said. "I suppose you want me to dance the first dance with you----"

"If you please, Walter," she said, meekly.

"How long you goin' to hang around fixin' up in that dressin'-room?"

"I'll be out before you're ready yourself," she promised him; and kept her word, she was so eager for her good time to begin. When he came for her, they went down the hall to a corridor opening upon three great rooms which had been thrown open together, with the furniture removed and the broad floors waxed. At one end of the corridor musicians sat in a green grove, and Walter, with some interest, turned toward these; but his sister, pressing his arm, impelled him in the opposite direction.

"What's the matter now?" he asked. "That's Jazz Louie and his half-breed bunch--three white and four mulatto. Let's----?"

"No, no," she whispered. "We must speak to Mildred and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer."

"'Speak' to 'em? I haven't got a thing to say to THOSE berries!"

"Walter, won't you PLEASE behave?"

He seemed to consent, for the moment, at least, and suffered her to take him down the corridor toward a floral bower where the hostess stood with her father and mother. Other couples and groups were moving in the same direction, carrying with them a hubbub of laughter and fragmentary chatterings; and Alice, smiling all the time, greeted people on every side of her eagerly--a little more eagerly than most of them responded--while Walter nodded in a noncommittal manner to one or two, said nothing, and yawned audibly, the last resource of a person who finds himself nervous in a false situation. He repeated his yawn and was beginning another when a convulsive pressure upon his arm made him understand that he must abandon this method of reassuring himself. They were close upon the floral bower.

Mildred was giving her hand to one and another of her guests as rapidly as she could, passing them on to her father and mother, and at the same time resisting the efforts of three or four detached bachelors who besought her to give over her duty in favour of the dance-music just beginning to blare.

She was a large, fair girl, with a kindness of eye somewhat withheld by an expression of fastidiousness; at first sight of her it was clear that she would never in her life do anything "incorrect," or wear anything "incorrect." But her correctness was of the finer sort, and had no air of being studied or achieved; conduct would never offer her a problem to be settled from a book of rules, for the rules were so deep within her that she was unconscious of them. And behind this perfection there was an even ampler perfection of what Mrs. Adams called "background." The big, rich, simple house was part of it, and Mildred's father and mother were part of it. They stood beside her, large, serene people, murmuring graciously and gently inclining their handsome heads as they gave their hands to the guests; and even the youngest and most ebullient of these took on a hushed mannerliness with a closer approach to the bower.

When the opportunity came for Alice and Walter to pass within this precinct, Alice, going first, leaned forward and whispered in Mildred's ear. "You DIDN'T wear the maize georgette! That's what I thought you were going to. But you look simply DARLING! And those pearls----"

Others were crowding decorously forward, anxious to be done with ceremony and get to the dancing; and Mildred did not prolong the intimacy of Alice's enthusiastic whispering. With a faint accession of colour and a smile tending somewhat in the direction of rigidity, she carried Alice's hand immediately onward to Mrs. Palmer's. Alice's own colour showed a little heightening as she accepted the suggestion thus implied; nor was that emotional tint in any wise decreased, a moment later, by an impression that Walter, in concluding the brief exchange of courtesies between himself and the stately Mr. Palmer, had again reassured himself with a yawn.

But she did not speak of it to Walter; she preferred not to confirm the impression and to leave in her mind a possible doubt that he had done it. He followed her out upon the waxed floor, said resignedly: "Well, come on," put his arm about her, and they began to dance.

Alice danced gracefully and well, but not so well as Walter. Of all the steps and runs, of all the whimsical turns and twirlings, of all the rhythmic swayings and dips commanded that season by such blarings as were the barbaric product, loud and wild, of the Jazz Louies and their half-breed bunches, the thin and sallow youth was a master. Upon his face could be seen contempt of the easy marvels he performed as he moved in swift precision from one smooth agility to another; and if some too-dainty or jealous cavalier complained that to be so much a stylist in dancing was "not quite like a gentleman," at least Walter's style was what the music called for. No other dancer in the room could be thought comparable to him. Alice told him so.

"It's wonderful!" she said. "And the mystery is, where you ever learned to DO it! You never went to dancing-school, but there isn't a man in the room who can dance half so well. I don't see why, when you dance like this, you always make such a fuss about coming to parties."

He sounded his brief laugh, a jeering bark out of one side of the mouth, and swung her miraculously through a closing space between two other couples. "You know a lot about what goes on, don't you? You prob'ly think there's no other place to dance in this town except these frozen-face joints."

"'Frozen face?'" she echoed, laughing. "Why, everybody's having a splendid time. Look at them."

"Oh, they holler loud enough," he said. "They do it to make each other think they're havin' a good time. You don't call that Palmer family frozen-face berries, I s'pose. No?"

"Certainly not. They're just dignified and----"

"Yeuh!" said Walter. "They're dignified, 'specially when you tried to whisper to Mildred to show how IN with her you were, and she moved you on that way. SHE'S a hot friend, isn't she!"

"She didn't mean anything by it. She----"

"Ole Palmer's a hearty, slap you-on-the-back ole berry," Walter interrupted; adding in a casual tone, "All I'd like, I'd like to hit him."

"Walter! By the way, you mustn't forget to ask Mildred for a dance before the evening is over."

"Me?" He produced the lop-sided appearance of his laugh, but without making it vocal. "You watch me do it!"

"She probably won't have one left, but you must ask her, anyway."

"Why must I?"

"Because, in the first place, you're supposed to, and, in the second place, she's my most intimate friend."

"Yeuh? Is she? I've heard you pull that 'most-intimate-friend' stuff often enough about her. What's SHE ever do to show she is?"

"Never mind. You really must ask her, Walter. I want you to; and I want you to ask several other girls afterwhile; I'll tell you who."

"Keep on wanting; it'll do you good."

"Oh, but you really----"

"Listen!" he said. "I'm just as liable to dance with any of these fairies as I am to buy a bucket o' rusty tacks and eat 'em. Forget it! Soon as I get rid of you I'm goin' back to that room where I left my hat and overcoat and smoke myself to death."

"Well," she said, a little ruefully, as the frenzy of Jazz Louie and his half-breeds was suddenly abated to silence, "you mustn't--you mustn't get rid of me TOO soon, Walter."

They stood near one of the wide doorways, remaining where they had stopped. Other couples, everywhere, joined one another, forming vivacious clusters, but none of these groups adopted the brother and sister, nor did any one appear to be hurrying in Alice's direction to ask her for the next dance. She looked about her, still maintaining that jubilance of look and manner she felt so necessary--for it is to the girls who are "having a good time" that partners are attracted--and, in order to lend greater colour to her impersonation of a lively belle, she began to chatter loudly, bringing into play an accompaniment of frolicsome gesture. She brushed Walter's nose saucily with the bunch of violets in her hand, tapped him on the shoulder, shook her pretty forefinger in his face, flourished her arms, kept her shoulders moving, and laughed continuously as she spoke.

"You NAUGHTY old Walter!" she cried. "AREN'T you ashamed to be such a wonderful dancer and then only dance with your own little sister! You could dance on the stage if you wanted to. Why, you could made your FORTUNE that way! Why don't you? Wouldn't it be just lovely to have all the rows and rows of people clapping their hands and shouting, 'Hurrah! Hurrah, for Walter Adams! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

He stood looking at her in stolid pity.

"Cut it out," he said. "You better be givin' some of these berries the eye so they'll ask you to dance."

She was not to be so easily checked, and laughed loudly, flourishing her violets in his face again. "You WOULD like it; you know you would; you needn't pretend! Just think! A whole big audience shouting, 'Hurrah! HURRAH! HUR----'"

"The place'll be pulled if you get any noisier," he interrupted, not ungently. "Besides, I'm no muley cow."

"A 'COW?'" she laughed. "What on earth----"

"I can't eat dead violets," he explained. "So don't keep tryin' to make me do it."

This had the effect he desired, and subdued her; she abandoned her unsisterly coquetries, and looked beamingly about her, but her smile was more mechanical than it had been at first.

At home she had seemed beautiful; but here, where the other girls competed, things were not as they had been there, with only her mother and Miss Perry to give contrast. These crowds of other girls had all done their best, also, to look beautiful, though not one of them had worked so hard for such a consummation as Alice had. They did not need to; they did not need to get their mothers to make old dresses over; they did not need to hunt violets in the rain.

At home her dress had seemed beautiful; but that was different, too, where there were dozens of brilliant fabrics, fashioned in new ways--some of these new ways startling, which only made the wearers centers of interest and shocked no one. And Alice remembered that she had heard a girl say, not long before, "Oh, ORGANDIE! Nobody wears organdie for evening gowns except in midsummer." Alice had thought little of this; but as she looked about her and saw no organdie except her own, she found greater difficulty in keeping her smile as arch and spontaneous as she wished it. In fact, it was beginning to make her face ache a little.

Mildred came in from the corridor, heavily attended. She carried a great bouquet of violets laced with lilies of-the-valley; and the violets were lusty, big purple things, their stems wrapped in cloth of gold, with silken cords dependent, ending in long tassels. She and her convoy passed near the two young Adamses; and it appeared that one of the convoy besought his hostess to permit "cutting in"; they were "doing it other places" of late, he urged; but he was denied and told to console himself by holding the bouquet, at intervals, until his third of the sixteenth dance should come. Alice looked dubiously at her own bouquet.

Suddenly she felt that the violets betrayed her; that any one who looked at them could see how rustic, how innocent of any florist's craft they were "I can't eat dead violets," Walter said. The little wild flowers, dying indeed in the warm air, were drooping in a forlorn mass; and it seemed to her that whoever noticed them would guess that she had picked them herself. She decided to get rid of them.

Walter was becoming restive. "Look here!" he said. "Can't you flag one o' these long-tailed birds to take you on for the next dance? You came to have a good time; why don't you get busy and have it? I want to get out and smoke."

"You MUSTN'T leave me, Walter," she whispered, hastily. "Somebody'll come for me before long, but until they do----"

"Well, couldn't you sit somewhere?"

"No, no! There isn't any one I could sit with."

"Well, why not? Look at those ole dames in the corners. What's the matter your tyin' up with some o' them for a while?"

"PLEASE, Walter; no!"

In fact, that indomitable smile of hers was the more difficult to maintain because of these very elders to whom Walter referred. They were mothers of girls among the dancers, and they were there to fend and contrive for their offspring; to keep them in countenance through any trial; to lend them diplomacy in the carrying out of all enterprises; to be "background" for them; and in these essentially biological functionings to imitate their own matings and renew the excitement of their nuptial periods. Older men, husbands of these ladies and fathers of eligible girls, were also to be seen, most of them with Mr. Palmer in a billiard-room across the corridor. Mr. and Mrs. Adams had not been invited. "Of course papa and mama just barely know Mildred Palmer," Alice thought, "and most of the other girls' fathers and mothers are old friends of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, but I do think she might have ASKED papa and mama, anyway--she needn't have been afraid just to ask them; she knew they couldn't come." And her smiling lip twitched a little threateningly, as she concluded the silent monologue. "I suppose she thinks I ought to be glad enough she asked Walter!"

Walter was, in fact, rather noticeable. He was not Mildred's only guest to wear a short coat and to appear without gloves; but he was singular (at least in his present surroundings) on account of a kind of coiffuring he favoured, his hair having been shaped after what seemed a Mongol inspiration. Only upon the top of the head was actual hair perceived, the rest appearing to be nudity. And even more than by any difference in mode he was set apart by his look and manner, in which there seemed to be a brooding, secretive and jeering superiority and this was most vividly expressed when he felt called upon for his loud, short, lop-sided laugh. Whenever he uttered it Alice laughed, too, as loudly as she could, to cover it.

"Well," he said. "How long we goin' to stand here? My feet are sproutin' roots."

Alice took his arm, and they began to walk aimlessly through the rooms, though she tried to look as if they had a definite destination, keeping her eyes eager and her lips parted;--people had called jovially to them from the distance, she meant to imply, and they were going to join these merry friends. She was still upon this ghostly errand when a furious outbreak of drums and saxophones sounded a prelude for the second dance.

Walter danced with her again, but he gave her a warning. "I don't want to leave you high and dry," he told her, "but I can't stand it. I got to get somewhere I don't haf' to hurt my eyes with these berries; I'll go blind if I got to look at any more of 'em. I'm goin' out to smoke as soon as the music begins the next time, and you better get fixed for it."

Alice tried to get fixed for it. As they danced she nodded sunnily to every man whose eye she caught, smiled her smile with the under lip caught between her teeth; but it was not until the end of the intermission after the dance that she saw help coming.

Across the room sat the globular lady she had encountered that morning, and beside the globular lady sat a round-headed, round-bodied girl; her daughter, at first glance. The family contour was also as evident a characteristic of the short young man who stood in front of Mrs. Dowling, engaged with her in a discussion which was not without evidences of an earnestness almost impassioned. Like Walter, he was declining to dance a third time with sister; he wished to go elsewhere.

Alice from a sidelong eye watched the controversy: she saw the globular young man glance toward her, over his shoulder; whereupon Mrs. Dowling, following this glance, gave Alice a look of open fury, became much more vehement in the argument, and even struck her knee with a round, fat fist for emphasis.

"I'm on my way," said Walter. "There's the music startin' up again, and I told you----"

She nodded gratefully. "It's all right--but come back before long, Walter."

The globular young man, red with annoyance, had torn himself from his family and was hastening across the room to her. "C'n I have this dance?"

"Why, you nice Frank Dowling!" Alice cried. "How lovely!"