Gatsby Girls, page 5
“I’ve had such nice times, sighed Myra, “and such sweet men. To tell you the truth I have decided to go after someone.”
“Knowleton Whitney. Believe me, I may be a bit blasé, but I can still get any man I want.” “You really want him?”
“Yes—as much as I’ll ever want anyone. He’s smart as a whip, and shy—rather sweetly shy—and they say his family have the best-looking place in Westchester County.”
Lilah sipped the last of her tea and glanced at her wrist watch.
“I’ve got to tear, dear.”
They rose together and, sauntering out on Park Avenue, hailed taxicabs.
“I’m awfully glad, Myra; and I know you’ll be glad too.” Myra skipped a little pool of water and, reaching her taxi, balanced on the running board like a ballet dancer.”
“By, Lilah. See you soon.”
“Good-bye, Myra. Good luck!”
And knowing Myra as she did, Lilah felt that her last remark was distinctly superfluous.
That was essentially the reason that one Friday night six weeks later Knowleton Whitney paid a taxi bill of seven dollars and ten cents and with a mixture of emotions paused beside Myra on the Biltmore steps.
The outer surface of his mind was deliriously happy, but just below that was a slowly hardening fright at what he had done. He, protected since his freshman year at Harvard from the snares of fascinating fortune hunters, dragged away from several sweet young things by the acquiescent nape of his neck, had taken advantage of his family’s absence in the West to become so enmeshed in the toils that it was hard to say which was toils and which was he.
The afternoon had been like a dream: November twilight along Fifth Avenue after the matinee, and he and Myra looking out at the swarming crowds from the romantic privacy of a hansom cab—quaint device—then tea at the Ritz and her white hand gleaming on the arm of a chair beside him; and suddenly quick broken words. After that had come the trip to the jeweler’s and a mad dinner in some little Italian restaurant where he had written “Do you?” on the back of the bill of fare and pushed it over for her to add the ever-miraculous “You know I do!” And now at the day’s end they paused on the Biltmore steps.
“Say it,” breathed Myra close to his ear.
He said it. Ah, Myra, how many ghosts must have flitted across your memory then!
“You’ve made me so happy, dear,” she said softly.
“No—you’ve made me happy. Don’t you know—Myra—“
“For good. I’ve got this, you see.” And she raised the diamond solitaire to her lips. She knew how to do things, did Myra.
“Good night. Good night.”
Like a gossamer fairy in shimmering rose she ran up the wide stairs and her cheeks were glowing wildly as she rang the elevator bell.
At the end of a fortnight she got a telegram from him saying that his family had returned from the West and expected her up in Westchester County for a week’s visit. Myra wired her train time, bought three new evening dresses and packed her trunk.
It was a cool November evening when she arrived, and stepping from the train in the late twilight she shivered slightly and looked eagerly round for Knowleton. The station platform swarmed for a moment with men returning from the city; there was a shouting medley of wives and chauffeurs, and a great snorting of automobiles as they backed and turned and slid away. Then before she realized it the platform was quite deserted and not a single one of the luxurious cars remained. Knowleton must have expected her on another train.
With an almost inaudible “Damn!” she started toward the Elizabethan station to telephone, when suddenly she was accosted by a very dirty, dilapidated man who touched his ancient cap to her and addressed her in a cracked, querulous voice.
“You Miss Harper?”
“Yes,” she confessed, rather startled. Was this unmentionable person by any wild chance the chauffeur?
“The chauffeur’s sick,” he continued in a high whine. “I’m his son.”
“You mean Mr. Whitney’s chauffeur?”
“Yes; he only keeps just one since the war. Great on economizin’—regelar Hoover.” He stamped his feet nervously and smacked enormous gauntlets together. “Well, no use waitin’ here gabbin’ in the cold. Le’s have your grip.”
Too amazed for words and not a little dismayed, Myra followed her guide to the edge of the platform, where she looked in vain for a car. But she was not left to wonder long, for the person led her steps to a battered old flivver, wherein was deposited her grip.
“Big car’s broke,” he explained. “Have to use this or walk.”
He opened the front door for her and nodded.
“I b’lieve I’ll sit in back if you don’t mind.”
“Surest thing you know,” he cackled, opening the back door. “I thought the trunk bumpin’ round back there might make you nervous.”
“Oh, didn’t Mr. Whitney—can’t you make two trips?” He shook his head obstinately.
“Wouldn’t allow it. Not since the war. Up to rich people to set ‘n example; that’s what Mr. Whitney says. Le’s have your check, please.”
As he disappeared Myra tried in vain to conjure up a picture of the chauffeur if this was his son. After a mysterious argument with the station agent he returned, gasping violently, with the trunk on his back. He deposited it in the rear seat and climbed up in front beside her.
It was quite dark when they swerved out of the road and up a long dusky driveway to the Whitney place, whence lighted windows flung great blots of cheerful, yellow light over the gravel and grass and trees. Even now she could see that it was very beautiful, that its blurred outline was Georgian Colonial and that great shadowy garden parks were flung out at both sides. The car plumped to a full stop before a square stone doorway and the chauffeur’s son climbed out after her and pushed open the outer door.
“Just go right in,” he cackled; and as she passed the threshold she heard him softly shut the door, closing out himself and the dark.
Myra looked round her. She was in a large somber hall paneled in old English oak and lit by dim shaded lights clinging like luminous yellow turtles at intervals along the wall. Ahead of her was a broad staircase and on both sides there were several doors, but there was no sight or sound of life, and an intense stillness seemed to rise ceaselessly from the deep crimson carpet.
She must have waited there a full minute before she began to have that unmistakable sense of someone looking at her. She forced herself to turn casually round.
A sallow little man, bald and clean shaven, trimly dressed in a frock coat and white spats, was standing a few yards away regarding her quizzically. He must have been fifty at the least, but even before he moved she had noticed a curious alertness about him—something in his pose which promised that it had been instantaneously assumed and would be instantaneously changed in a moment. His tiny hands and feet and the odd twist to his eyebrows gave him a faintly elfish expression, and she had one of those vague transient convictions that she had seen him before, many years ago.
For a minute they stared at each other in silence and then she flushed slightly and discovered a desire to swallow.
“I suppose you’re Mr. Whitney.” She smiled faintly and advanced a step toward him. “I’m Myra Harper.”
For an instant longer he remained silent and motionless, and it flashed across Myra that he might be deaf; then suddenly he jerked into spirited life exactly like a mechanical toy started by the pressure of a button.
“Why, of course—why, naturally. I know—ah!” he exclaimed excitedly in a high-pitched elfin voice. Then raising himself on his toes in a sort of attenuated ecstasy of enthusiasm and smiling a wizened smile, he minced toward her across the dark carpet.
“That’s awfully nice of—“
“Ah!” he went on. “You must be tired; a rickety, cindery, ghastly trip, I know. Tired and hungry and thirsty, no doubt, no doubt!” He looked round him indignantly. “The servants are frightfully inefficient in this house!”
Myra did not know what to say to this, so she made no answer. After an instant’s abstraction Mr. Whitney crossed over with his furious energy and pressed a button; then almost as if he were dancing he was by her side again, making thin, disparaging gestures with his hands.
“A little minute,” he assured her, “sixty seconds, scarcely more. Here!”
He rushed suddenly to the wall and with some effort lifted a great carved Louis Fourteenth chair and set it down carefully in the geometrical center of the carpet.
“Sit down—won’t you? Sit down! I’ll go get you something. Sixty seconds at the outside.”
She demurred faintly, but he kept on repeating “Sit down!” in such an aggrieved yet hopeful tone that Myra sat down. Instantly her host disappeared.
She sat there for five minutes and a feeling of oppression fell over her. Of all the receptions she had ever received this was decidedly the oddest—for though she had read somewhere that Ludlow Whitney was considered one of the most eccentric figures in the financial world, to find a sallow, elfin little man who, when he walked, danced was rather a blow to her sense of form. Had he gone to get Knowleton? She revolved her thumbs in interminable concentric circles.
Then she started nervously at a quick cough at her elbow. It was Mr. Whitney again. In one hand he held a glass of milk and in the other a blue kitchen bowl full of those hard cubical crackers used in soup. “Hungry from your trip!” he exclaimed compassionately. “Poor girl, poor little girl, starving!” He brought out this last word with such emphasis that some of the milk plopped gently over the side of the glass.
Myra took the refreshments submissively. She was not hungry, but it had taken him ten minutes to get them so it seemed ungracious to refuse. She sipped gingerly at the milk and ate a cracker, wondering vaguely what to say. Mr. Whitney, however, solved the problem for her by disappearing again—this time by way of the wide stairs—four steps at a hop—the back of his bald head gleaming oddly for a moment in the half dark.
Minutes passed. Myra was torn between resentment and bewilderment that she should be sitting on a high comfortless chair in the middle of this big hall munching crackers. By what code was a visiting fiancée ever thus received!
Her heart gave a jump of relief as she heard a familiar whistle on the stairs. It was Knowleton at last, and when he came in sight he gasped with astonishment.
She carefully placed the bowl and glass on the carpet and rose, smiling.
“Why,” he exclaimed, “they didn’t tell me you were here!”
“Your father—welcomed me.”
“Lordy! He must have gone upstairs and forgotten all about it. Did he insist on your eating this stuff? Why didn’t you just tell him you didn’t want any?”
“Why—I don’t know.”
“You mustn’t mind father, dear. He’s forgetful and a little unconventional in some ways, but you’ll get used to him.”
He pressed a button and a butler appeared.
“Show Miss Harper to her room and have her bag carried up—and her trunk if it isn’t there already.” He turned to Myra. “Dear, I’m awfully sorry I didn’t know you were here. How long have you been waiting?”
“Oh, only a few minutes.”
It had been twenty at the least, but she saw no advantage in stressing it. Nevertheless it had given her an oddly uncomfortable feeling.
Half an hour later as she was hooking the last eye on her dinner dress there was a knock on the door.
“It’s Knowleton, Myra; if you’re about ready we’ll go in and see Mother for a minute before dinner.”
She threw a final approving glance at her reflection in the mirror and turning out the light joined him in the hall. He led her down a central passage which crossed to the other wing of the house, and stopping before a closed door he pushed it open and ushered Myra into the weirdest room upon which her young eyes had ever rested.
It was a large luxurious boudoir, paneled, like the lower hall, in dark English oak and bathed by several lamps in a mellow orange glow that blurred its every outline into misty amber. In a great armchair piled high with cushions and draped with a curiously figured cloth of silk reclined a very sturdy old lady with bright white hair, heavy features, and an air about her of having been there for many years. She lay somnolently against the cushions, her eyes half closed, her great bust rising and falling under her black negligee.
But it was something else that made the room remarkable, and Myra’s eyes scarcely rested on the woman, so engrossed was she in another feature of her surroundings. On the carpet, on the chairs and sofas, on the great canopied bed and on the soft Angora rug in front of the fire sat and sprawled and slept a great army of white poodle dogs. There must have been almost two dozen of them, with curly hair twisting in front of their wistful eyes and wide yellow bows flaunting from their necks. As Myra and Knowleton entered a stir went over the dogs; they raised one-and-twenty cold black noses in the air and from one-and-twenty little throats went up a great clatter of staccato barks until the room was filled with such an uproar that Myra stepped back in alarm.
But at the din the somnolent fat lady’s eyes trembled open and in a low husky voice that was in itself oddly like a bark she snapped out: “Hush that racket!” and the clatter instantly ceased. The two or three poodles round the fire turned their silky eyes on each other reproachfully, and lying down with little sighs faded out on the white Angora rug; the tousled ball on the lady’s lap dug his nose into the crook of an elbow and went back to sleep, and except for the patches of white wool scattered about the room Myra would have thought it all a dream.
“Mother,” said Knowleton after an instant’s pause, “this is Myra.”
From the lady’s lips flooded one low husky word: “Myra?’
“She’s visiting us, I told you.”
Mrs. Whitney raised a large arm and passed her hand across her forehead wearily.
“Child!” she said—and Myra started, for again the voice was like a low sort of growl—”you want to marry my son Knowleton?”
Myra felt that this was putting the tonneau before the radiator, but she nodded.
“Yes, Mrs. Whitney.”
“How old are you?” This very suddenly.
“I’m twenty-one, Mrs. Whitney.”
“Ah —and you’re from Cleveland?” This was in what was surely a series of articulate barks.
“Yes, Mrs. Whitney.”
Myra was not certain whether this last ejaculation was conversation or merely a groan, so she did not answer.
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t appear downstairs,” continued Mrs. Whitney; “but when we’re in the East I seldom leave this room and my dear little doggies.”
Myra nodded and a conventional health question was trembling on her lips when she caught Knowleton’s warning glance and checked it.
“Well,” said Mrs. Whitney with an air of finality, “you seem like a very nice girl. Come in again.”
“Good night, Mother,” said Knowleton.
“Night!” harked Mrs. Whitney drowsily, and her eyes sealed gradually up as her head receded back again into the cushions.
Knowleton held open the door and Myra feeling a bit blank left the room. As they walked down the corridor she heard a burst of furious sound behind them; the noise of the closing door had again roused the poodle dogs.
When they went downstairs they found Mr. Whitney already seated at the dinner table.
“Utterly charming, completely delightful!” he exclaimed, beaming nervously. “One big family, and you the jewel of it, my dear.”
Myra smiled, Knowleton frowned and Mr. Whitne
“It’s been lonely here,” he continued; “desolate, with only us three. We expect you to bring sunlight and warmth, the peculiar radiance and efflorescence of youth. It will be quite delightful. Do you sing?”
“Why—I have. I mean, I do, some.”
He clapped his hands enthusiastically.
“Splendid! Magnificent! What do you sing? Opera? Ballads? Popular music?”
“Well, mostly popular music.”
“Good; personally I prefer popular music. By the way, there’s a dance tonight.”
“Father,” demanded Knowleton sulkily, “did you go and invite a crowd here?”
“I had Monroe call up a few people—just some of the neighbors,” he explained to Myra. “We’re all very friendly hereabouts; give informal things continually. Oh, it’s quite delightful.”
Myra caught Knowleton’s eye and gave him a sympathetic glance. It was obvious that he had wanted to be alone with her this first evening and was quite put out.
“I want them to meet Myra,” continued his father. “I want them to know this delightful jewel we’ve added to our little household.”
“Father,” said Knowleton suddenly, “eventually of course Myra and I will want to live here with you and mother, but for the first two or three years I think an apartment in New York would be more the thing for us.”
Crash! Mr. Whitney had raked across the tablecloth with his fingers and swept his silver to a jangling heap on the floor “Nonsense!” he cried furiously, pointing a tiny finger at his son. “Don’t talk that utter nonsense! You’ll live here, do you understand me? Here! What’s a home without children?”
In his excitement Mr. Whitney rose and a faint unnatural color crept into his sallow face.
“Silence!” he shrieked. “If you expect one bit of help from me you can have it under my roof—nowhere else! Is that clear? As for you, my exquisite young lady,” he continued, turning his wavering finger on Myra, “you’d better understand that the best thing you can do is to decide to settle down right here. This is my home, and I mean to keep it so!”
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