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Tales of the jazz age cl.., p.4

Tales of the Jazz Age (Classic Reprint), page 4

 

Tales of the Jazz Age (Classic Reprint)
 



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  "Lookit!" he repeated. "Costume for the Townsends' circus ball. I'm li'l' boy carries water for the elephants."

  Perry was impressed in spite of himself.

  "I'm going to be Julius Caesar," he announced after a moment of concentration.

  "Thought you weren't going!" said Macy.

  "Me? Sure I'm goin', Never miss a party. Good for the nerves—like celery."

  "Caesar!" scoffed Baily. "Can't be Caesar! He is not about a circus. Caesar's Shakespeare. Go as a clown."

  Perry shook his head.

  "Nope; Caesar,"

  "Caesar?"

  "Sure. Chariot."

  Light dawned on Baily.

  "That's right. Good idea."

  Perry looked round the room searchingly.

  "You lend me a bathrobe and this tie," he said finally. Baily considered.

  "No good."

  "Sure, tha's all I need. Caesar was a savage. They can't kick if I come as Caesar, if he was a savage."

  "No," said Baily, shaking his head slowly. "Get a costume over at a costumer's. Over at Nolak's."

  "Closed up."

  "Find out."

  After a puzzling five minutes at the phone a small, weary voice managed to convince Perry that it was Mr. Nolak speaking, and that they would remain open until eight because of the Townsends' ball. Thus assured, Perry ate a great amount of filet mignon and drank his third of the last bottle of champagne. At eight–fifteen the man in the tall hat who stands in front of the Clarendon found him trying to start his roadster.

  "Froze up," said Perry wisely. "The cold froze it. The cold air."

  "Froze, eh?"

  "Yes. Cold air froze it."

  "Can't start it?"

  "Nope. Let it stand here till summer. One those hot ole August days'll thaw it out awright."

  "Goin' let it stand?"

  "Sure. Let 'er stand. Take a hot thief to steal it. Gemme taxi."

  The man in the tall hat summoned a taxi.

  "Where to, mister?"

  "Go to Nolak's—costume fella."

  II

  Mrs. Nolak was short and ineffectual looking, and on the cessation of the world war had belonged for a while to one of the new nationalities. Owing to unsettled European conditions she had never since been quite sure what she was. The shop in which she and her husband performed their daily stint was dim and ghostly, and peopled with suits of armor and Chinese mandarins, and enormous papier–mâché birds suspended from the ceiling. In a vague background many rows of masks glared eyelessly at the visitor, and there were glass cases full of crowns and scepters, and jewels and enormous stomachers, and paints, and crape hair, and wigs of all colors.

  When Perry ambled into the shop Mrs. Nolak was folding up the last troubles of a strenuous day, so she thought, in a drawer full of pink silk stockings.

  "Something for you?" she queried pessimistically. "Want costume of Julius Hur, the charioteer."

  Mrs. Nolak was sorry, but every stitch of charioteer had been rented long ago. Was it for the Townsends' circus ball?

  It was.

  "Sorry," she said, "but I don't think there's anything left that's really circus."

  This was an obstacle.

  "Hm," said Perry. An idea struck him suddenly. "If you've got a, piece of canvas I could go's a tent."

  "Sorry, but we haven't anything like that. A hardware store is where you'd have to go to. We have some very nice Confederate soldiers."

  "No. No soldiers."

  "And I have a very handsome king."

  He shook his head.

  "Several of the gentlemen" she continued hopefully, "are wearing stovepipe hats and swallow–tail coats and going as ringmasters—but we're all out of tall hats. I can let you have some crape hair for a mustache."

  "Want somep'n 'stinctive."

  "Something—let's see. Well, we have a lion's head, and a goose, and a camel—"

  "Camel?" The idea seized Perry's imagination, gripped it fiercely.

  "Yes, but It needs two people."

  "Camel, That's the idea. Lemme see it."

  The camel was produced from his resting place on a top shelf. At first glance he appeared to consist entirely of a very gaunt, cadaverous head and a sizable hump, but on being spread out he was found to possess a dark brown, unwholesome–looking body made of thick, cottony cloth.

  "You see it takes two people," explained Mrs. Nolak, holding the camel in frank admiration. "If you have a friend he could be part of it. You see there's sorta pants for two people. One pair is for the fella in front, and the other pair for the fella in back. The fella in front does the lookin' out through these here eyes, an' the fella in back he's just gotta stoop over an' folla the front fella round."

  "Put it on," commanded Perry.

  Obediently Mrs. Nolak put her tabby–cat face inside the camel's head and turned it from side to side ferociously.

  Perry was fascinated.

  "What noise does a camel make?"

  "What?" asked Mrs. Nolak as her face emerged, somewhat smudgy. "Oh, what noise? Why, he sorta brays."

  "Lemme see it in a mirror."

  Before a wide mirror Perry tried on the head and turned from side to side appraisingly. In the dim light the effect was distinctly pleasing. The camel's face was a study in pessimism, decorated with numerous abrasions, and it must be admitted that his coat was in that state of general negligence peculiar to camels—in fact, he needed to be cleaned and pressed—but distinctive he certainly was. He was majestic. He would have attracted attention in any gathering, if only by his melancholy cast of feature and the look of hunger lurking round his shadowy eyes.

  "You see you have to have two people," said Mrs. Nolak again.

  Perry tentatively gathered up the body and legs and wrapped them about him, tying the hind legs as a girdle round his waist. The effect on the whole was bad. It was even irreverent—like one of those mediaeval pictures of a monk changed into a beast by the ministrations of Satan. At the very best the ensemble resembled a humpbacked cow sitting on her haunches among blankets.

  "Don't look like anything at all," objected Perry gloomily.

  "No," said Mrs. Nolak; "you see you got to have two people."

  A solution flashed upon Perry.

  "You got a date to–night?"

  "Oh, I couldn't possibly——"

  "Oh, come on," said Perry encouragingly. "Sure you can! Here! Be good sport, and climb into these hind legs."

  With difficulty he located them, and extended their yawning depths ingratiatingly. But Mrs. Nolak seemed loath. She backed perversely away.

  "Oh, no——"

  "C'mon! You can be the front if you want to. Or we'll flip a coin."

  "Make it worth your while."

  Mrs. Nolak set her lips firmly together.

  "Now you just stop!" she said with no coyness implied. "None of the gentlemen ever acted up this way before. My husband——"

  "You got a husband?" demanded Perry. "Where is he?"

  "He's home."

  "Wha's telephone number?"

  After considerable parley he obtained the telephone number pertaining to the Nolak penates and got into communication with that small, weary voice he had heard once before that day. But Mr. Nolak, though taken off his guard and somewhat confused by Perry's brilliant flow of logic, stuck staunchly to his point. He refused firmly, but with dignity, to help out Mr. Parkhurst in the capacity of back part of a camel.

  Having rung off, or rather having been rung off on, Perry sat down on a three–legged stool to think it over. He named over to himself those friends on whom he might call, and then his mind paused as Betty Medill's name hazily and sorrowfully occurred to him. He had a sentimental thought. He would ask her. Their love affair was over, but she could not refuse this last request. Surely it was not much to ask—to help him keep up his end of social obligation for one short night. And if she insisted, she could be the front part of the camel and he would go as the back. His magnanimity pleased hi
m. His mind even turned to rosy–colored dreams of a tender reconciliation inside the camel—there hidden away from all the world…

  "Now you'd better decide right off."

  The bourgeois voice of Mrs. Nolak broke in upon his mellow fancies and roused him to action. He went to the phone and called up the Medill house. Miss Betty was out; had gone out to dinner.

  Then, when all seemed lost, the camel's back wandered curiously into the store. He was a dilapidated individual with a cold in his head and a general trend about him of downwardness. His cap was pulled down low on his head, and his chin was pulled down low on his chest, his coat hung down to his shoes, he looked run–down, down at the heels, and—Salvation Army to the contrary—down and out. He said that he was the taxicab–driver that the gentleman had hired at the Clarendon Hotel. He had been instructed to wait outside, but he had waited some time, and a suspicion had grown upon him that the gentleman had gone out the back way with purpose to defraud him—gentlemen sometimes did—so he had come in. He sank down onto the three–legged stool.

  "Wanta go to a party?" demanded Perry sternly.

  "I gotta work," answered the taxi–driver lugubriously. "I gotta keep my job."

  "It's a very good party."

  "'S a very good job."

  "Come on!" urged Perry. "Be a good fella. See—it's pretty!" He held the camel up and the taxi–driver looked at it cynically.

  "Huh!"

  Perry searched feverishly among the folds of the cloth.

  "See!" he cried enthusiastically, holding up a selection of folds. "This is your part. You don't even have to talk. All you have to do is to walk—and sit down occasionally. You do all the sitting down. Think of it. I'm on my feet all the time and you can sit down some of the time. The only time I can sit down is when we're lying down, and you can sit down when—oh, any time. See?"

  "What's 'at thing?" demanded the individual dubiously. "A shroud?"

  "Not at all," said Perry indignantly. "It's a camel."

  "Huh?"

  Then Perry mentioned a sum of money, and the conversation left the land of grunts and assumed a practical tinge. Perry and the taxi–driver tried on the camel in front of the mirror.

  "You can't see it," explained Perry, peering anxiously out through the eyeholes, "but honestly, ole man, you look sim'ly great! Honestly!"

  A grunt from the hump acknowledged this somewhat dubious compliment.

  "Honestly, you look great!" repeated Perry enthusiastically. "Move round a little."

  The hind legs moved forward, giving the effect of a huge cat–camel hunching his back preparatory to a spring.

  "No; move sideways."

  The camel's hips went neatly out of joint; a hula dancer would have writhed in envy.

  "Good, isn't it?" demanded Perry, turning to Mrs. Nolak for approval.

  "It looks lovely," agreed Mrs. Nolak.

  "We'll take it," said Perry.

  The bundle was stowed under Perry's arm and they left the shop.

  "Go to the party!" he commanded as he took his seat in the back.

  "What party?"

  "Fanzy–dress party."

  "Where'bouts is it?"

  This presented a new problem. Perry tried to remember, but the names of all those who had given parties during the holidays danced confusedly before his eyes. He could ask Mrs. Nolak, but on looking out the window he saw that the shop was dark. Mrs. Nolak had already faded out, a little black smudge far down the snowy street.

  "Drive uptown," directed Perry with fine confidence. "If you see a party, stop. Otherwise I'll tell you when we get there."

  He fell into a hazy daydream and his thoughts wandered again to Betty—he imagined vaguely that they had had a disagreement because she refused to go to the party as the back part of the camel. He was just slipping off into a chilly doze when he was wakened by the taxi–driver opening the door and shaking him by the arm.

  "Here we are, maybe."

  Perry looked out sleepily. A striped awning led from the curb up to a spreading gray stone house, from which issued the low drummy whine of expensive jazz. He recognized the Howard Tate house.

  "Sure," he said emphatically; ""at's it! Tate's party to–night. Sure, everybody's goin"."

  "Say," said the individual anxiously after another look at the awning, "you sure these people ain't gonna romp on me for comin' here?"

  Perry drew himself up with dignity.

  "'F anybody says anything to you, just tell 'em you're part of my costume."

  The visualization of himself as a thing rather than a person seemed to reassure the individual.

  "All right," he said reluctantly.

  Perry stepped out under the shelter of the awning and began unrolling the camel.

  "Let's go," he commanded.

  Several minutes later a melancholy, hungry–looking camel, emitting clouds of smoke from his mouth and from the tip of his noble hump, might have been seen crossing the threshold of the Howard Tate residence, passing a startled footman without so much as a snort, and heading directly for the main stairs that led up to the ballroom. The beast walked with a peculiar gait which varied between an uncertain lockstep and a stampede—but can best be described by the word "halting." The camel had a halting gait—and as he walked he alternately elongated and contracted like a gigantic concertina.

  III

  The Howard Tates are, as every one who lives in Toledo knows, the most formidable people in town. Mrs. Howard Tate was a Chicago Todd before she became a Toledo Tate, and the family generally affect that conscious simplicity which has begun to be the earmark of American aristocracy. The Tates have reached the stage where they talk about pigs and farms and look at you icy–eyed if you are not amused. They have begun to prefer retainers rather than friends as dinner guests, spend a lot of money in a quiet way, and, having lost all sense of competition, are in process of growing quite dull.

  The dance this evening was for little Millicent Tate, and though all ages were represented, the dancers were mostly from school and college—the younger married crowd was at the Townsends' circus ball up at the Tallyho Club. Mrs. Tate was standing just inside tie ballroom, following Millicent round with her eyes, and beaming whenever she caught her bye. Beside her were two middle–aged sycophants, who were saying what a perfectly exquisite child Millicent was. It was at this moment that Mrs. Tate was grasped firmly by the skirt and her youngest daughter, Emily, aged eleven, hurled herself with an "Oof!" into her mother's arms.

  "Why, Emily, what's the trouble?"

  "Mamma," said Emily, wild–eyed but voluble, "there's something out on the stairs."

  "What?"

  "There's a thing out on the stairs, mamma. I think it's a big dog, mamma, but it doesn't look like a dog."

  "What do you mean, Emily?"

  The sycophants waved their heads sympathetically.

  "Mamma, it looks like a—like a camel."

  Mrs. Tate laughed.

  "You saw a mean old shadow, dear, that's all."

  "No, I didn't. No, it was some kind of thing, mamma—big. I was going down–stairs to see if there were any more people, and this dog or something, he was coming up–stairs. Kinda funny, mamma, like he was lame. And then he saw me and gave a sort of growl, and then he slipped at the top of the landing, and I ran."

  Mrs. Tate's laugh faded.

  "The child must have seen something," she said.

  The sycophants agreed that the child must have seen something—and suddenly all three women took an instinctive step away from the door as the sounds of muffled steps were audible just outside.

  And then three startled gasps rang out as a dark brown form rounded the corner, and they saw what was apparently a huge beast looking down at them hungrily.

  "Oof!" cried Mrs. Tate.

  "O–o–oh!" cried the ladies in a chorus.

  The camel suddenly humped his back, and the gasps turned to shrieks.

  "Oh—look!"

  "What is it?"

&n
bsp; The dancing stopped, bat the dancers hurrying over got quite a different impression of the invader; in fact, the young people immediately suspected that it was a stunt, a hired entertainer come to amuse the party. The boys in long trousers looked at it rather disdainfully, and sauntered over with their hands in their pockets, feeling that their intelligence was being insulted. But the girls uttered little shouts of glee.

  "It's a camel!"

  "Well, if he isn't the funniest!"

  The camel stood there uncertainly, swaying slightly from side to aide, and seeming to take in the room in a careful, appraising glance; then as if he had come to an abrupt decision, he turned and ambled swiftly out the door.

  Mr. Howard Tate had just come out of the library on the lower floor, and was standing chatting with a young man in the hall. Suddenly they heard the noise of shouting up–stairs, and almost immediately a succession of bumping sounds, followed by the precipitous appearance at the foot of the stairway of a large brown beast that seemed to be going somewhere in a great hurry.

  "Now what the devil!" said Mr. Tate, starting.

  The beast picked itself up not without dignity and, affecting an air of extreme nonchalance, as if he had just remembered an important engagement, started at a mixed gait toward the front door. In fact, his front legs began casually to run.

  "See here now," said Mr. Tate sternly. "Here! Grab it, Butterfield! Grab it!"

  The young man enveloped the rear of the camel in a pair of compelling arms, and, realizing that further locomotion was impossible, the front end submitted to capture and stood resignedly in a state of some agitation. By this time a flood of young people was pouring down–stairs, and Mr. Tate, suspecting everything from an ingenious burglar to an escaped lunatic, gave crisp directions to the young man:

  "Hold him! Lead him in here; we'll soon see."

  The camel consented to be led into the library, and Mr. Tate, after locking the door, took a revolver from a table drawer and instructed the young man to take the thing's head off. Then he gasped and returned the revolver to its hiding–place.

  "Well, Perry Parkhurst!" he exclaimed in amazement.

  "Got the wrong party, Mr. Tate," said Perry sheepishly. "Hope I didn't scare you."

  "Well—you gave us a thrill, Perry." Realization dawned on him. "You're bound for the Townsends' circus ball."

 
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