Gatsby girls, p.9

Gatsby Girls, page 9

 

Gatsby Girls
 


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  “I got a little mixed up,” mumbled Perry. “I’m very sorry.”

  “Heavens, it’s perfectly all right; most natural mistake in the world. I’ve got a clown costume and I’m going down there myself after a while. Silly idea for a man of my age.” He turned to Butterfield. “Better change your mind and come down with us.”

  The good-looking young man demurred. He was going to bed.

  “Have a drink, Perry?” suggested Mr. Tate.

  “Thanks, I will.”

  “And, say,” continued Tate quickly, “ I’d forgotten all about your—friend here.” He indicated the rear part of the camel. “I didn’t mean to seem discourteous. Is it anyone I know? Bring him out.”

  “It’s not a friend,” explained Perry hurriedly. “I just rented him.”

  “Does he drink?”

  “Do you?” demanded Perry, twisting himself tortuously round.

  There was a faint sound of assent.

  “Sure he does!” said Mr. Tate heartily. “A really efficient camel ought to be able to drink enough so it’d last him three days.”

  “Tell you, sir,” said Perry anxiously, “he isn’t exactly dressed up enough to come out. If you give me the bottle I can hand it back to him and he can take his inside.”

  From under the cloth was audible the enthusiastic smacking sound inspired by this suggestion. When a butler had appeared with bottles, glasses and siphon one of the bottles was handed back, and thereafter the silent partner could he heard imbibing long potations at frequent intervals.

  Thus passed a peaceful hour. At ten o’clock Mr. Tate decided that they’d better be starting. He donned his clown’s costume; Perry replaced the camel’s head with a sigh; and side-by-side they progressed on foot the single block between the Tate house and the Tallyho Club.

  The circus ball was in full swing. A great tent fly had been put up inside the ballroom and round the walls had been built rows of booths representing the various attractions of a circus side show, but these were now vacated and on the floor swarmed a shouting, laughing medley of youth and color—clowns, bearded ladies, acrobats, bareback riders, ringmasters, tattooed men and charioteers. The Townsends had determined to assure their party of success, so a great quantity of liquor had been surreptitiously brought over from their house in automobiles and it was flowing freely. A green ribbon ran along the wall completely round the ballroom, with pointing arrows alongside of it and signs which instructed the uninitiated to “Follow the green line!” The green line led down to the bar, where waited pure punch and wicked punch and plain dark-green bottles.

  On the wall above the bar was another arrow, red and very wavy, and under it the slogan: “Now follow this!”

  But even amid the luxury of costume and high spirits represented there the entrance of the camel created something of a stir, and Perry was immediately surrounded by a curious, laughing crowd who were anxious to penetrate the identity of this beast who stood by the wide doorway eying the dancers with his hungry, melancholy gaze.

  And then Perry saw Betty. She was standing in front of a booth talking to a group of clowns, comic policemen and ringmasters. She was dressed in the costume of an Egyptian snake charmer, a costume carried out to the smallest detail. Her tawny hair was braided and drawn through brass rings, the effect crowned with a glittering Oriental tiara. Her fair face was stained to a warm olive glow and on her bare arms and the half moon of her back writhed painted serpents with single eyes of venomous green. Her feet were in sandals and her skirt was slit to the knees, so that when she walked one caught a glimpse of other slim serpents painted just above her bare ankles. Wound about her neck was a huge, glittering, cotton-stuffed cobra, and her bracelets were in the form of tiny garter snakes. Altogether a very charming and beautiful costume—one that made the more nervous among the older women shrink away from her when she passed, and the more troublesome ones to make great talk about “shouldn’t be allowed” and “perfectly disgraceful.”

  But Perry, peering through the uncertain eyes of the camel, saw only her face, radiant, animated and glowing with excitement, and her arms and shoulders, whose mobile, expressive gestures made her always the outstanding figure in any gathering. He was fascinated and his fascination exercised a strangely sobering effect on him. With a growing clarity the events of the day came back—he had lost forever this shimmering princess in emerald green and black. Rage rose within him, and with a half-formed intention of taking her away from the crowd he started toward her—or rather he elongated slightly, for he had neglected to issue the preparatory command necessary to locomotion.

  But at this point fickle Kismet, who for a day had played with him bitterly and sardonically, decided to reward him in full for the amusement he had afforded her. Kismet turned the tawny eyes of the snake charmer to the camel. Kismet led her to lean toward the man beside her and say, “Who’s that? That camel?”

  They all gazed.

  “Darned if I know.”

  But a little man named Warburton, who knew it all, found it necessary to hazard an opinion. “It came in with Mr. Tate. I think it’s probably Warren Butterfield, the architect, who’s visiting the Tates.”

  Something stirred in Betty Medill—that age-old interest of the provincial girl in the visiting man.

  “Oh,” she said casually after a slight pause.

  At the end of the next dance Betty and her partner finished up within a few feet of the camel. With the informal audacity that was the keynote of the evening she reached out and gently rubbed the camel’s nose.

  “Hello, old camel.”

  The camel stirred uneasily.

  “You ‘fraid of me?” said Betty, lifting her eyebrows in mock reproof. “Don’t be. You see I’m a snake charmer, but I’m pretty good at camels too.”

  The camel bowed very low and the groups round laughed and made the obvious remark about the beauty and the beast.

  Mrs. Townsend came bustling up.

  “Well, Mr. Butterfield,” she beamed, “I wouldn’t have recognized you.”

  Perry bowed again and smiled gleefully behind his mask.

  “And who is this with you?” she inquired.

  “Oh,” said Perry in a disguised voice, muffled by the thick cloth and quite unrecognizable, “he isn’t a fellow, Mrs. Townsend. He’s just part of my costume.”

  This seemed to get by, for Mrs. Townsend laughed and bustled away. Perry turned again to Betty.

  So, he thought, this is how much she cares! On the very day of our final rupture she starts a flirtation with another man—an absolute stranger.

  On an impulse he gave her a soft nudge with his shoulder and waved his head suggestively toward the hall, making it clear that he desired her to leave her partner and accompany him. Betty seemed quite willing.

  “Bye-bye, Bobby,” she called laughingly to her partner. “This old camel’s got me. Where are we going, Prince of Beasts?”

  The noble animal made no rejoinder, but stalked gravely along in the direction of a secluded nook on the side stairs.

  There Betty seated herself, and the camel, after some seconds of confusion which included gruff orders and sounds of a heated dispute going on in his interior, placed himself beside her—his hind legs stretching out uncomfortably across two steps.

  “Well, camel,” said Betty cheerfully, “how do you like our happy party?”

  The camel indicated that he liked it by rolling his head ecstatically and executing a gleeful kick with his hoofs.

  “This is the first time that I ever had a tete-a-tete with a man’s valet round”—she pointed to the hind legs—”or whatever that is.”

  “Oh,” said Perry, “he’s deaf and blind. Forget about him.”

  “That sure is some costume! But I should think you’d feel rather handicapped—you can’t very well shimmy, even if you want to.”

  The camel hung his head lugubriously.

  “I wish you’d say something,” continued Betty sweetly. “Say you like me, camel. Say you thi
nk I’m pretty. Say you’d like to belong to a pretty snake charmer.”

  The camel would.

  “Will you dance with me, camel?”

  The camel would try.

  Betty devoted half an hour to the camel. She devoted at least half an hour to all visiting men. It was usually sufficient. When she approached a new man the current debutantes were accustomed to scatter right and left like a close column deploying before a machine gun. And so to Perry Parkhurst was awarded the unique privilege of seeing his love as others saw her. He was flirted with violently!

  IV

  This paradise of frail foundation was broken into by the sound of a general ingress to the ballroom; the cotillion was beginning. Betty and the camel joined the crowd, her brown hand resting lightly on his shoulder, defiantly symbolizing her complete adoption of him.

  When they entered, the couples were already seating themselves at tables round the walls, and Mrs. Townsend, resplendent as a super bareback rider with rather too rotund calves, was standing in the center with the ringmaster who was in charge of arrangements. At a signal to the band everyone rose and began to dance.

  “Isn’t it just slick!” breathed Betty.

  “You bet!” said the camel.

  “Do you think you can possibly dance?”

  Perry nodded enthusiastically. He felt suddenly exuberant. After all, he was here incognito talking to his girl—he felt like winking patronizingly at the world.

  “I think it’s the best idea,” cried Betty, “to give a party like this! I don’t see how they ever thought of it. Come on, let’s dance!”

  So Perry danced the cotillion. I say danced, but that is stretching the word far beyond the wildest dreams of the jazziest terpsichorean. He suffered his partner to put her hands on his helpless shoulders and pull him here and there gently over the floor while he hung his huge head docilely over her shoulder and made futile dummy motions with his feet. His hind legs danced in a manner all their own, chiefly by hopping first on one foot and then on the other. Never being sure whether dancing was going on or not, the hind legs played safe by going through a series of steps whenever the music started playing. So the spectacle was frequently presented of the front part of the camel standing at ease and the rear keeping up a constant energetic motion calculated to rouse a sympathetic perspiration in any soft-hearted observer.

  He was frequently favored. He danced first with a tall lady covered with straw who announced jovially that she was a bale of hay and coyly begged him not to eat her.

  “I’d like to; you’re so sweet,” said the camel gallantly.

  Each time the ringmaster shouted his call of “Men up!” he lumbered ferociously for Betty with the cardboard wienerwurst or the photograph of the bearded lady or whatever the favor chanced to be. Sometimes he reached her first, but usually his rushes were unsuccessful and resulted in intense interior arguments.

  “For heaven’s sake,” Perry would snarl fiercely between his clenched teeth, “get a little pep! I could have gotten her that time if you’d picked your feet up.”

  “Well, gimme a little warnin’!”

  “I did, darn you.”

  “I can’t see a dog-gone thing in here.”

  “All you have to do is follow me. It’s just like dragging a load of sand round to walk with you.”

  “Maybe you wanta try back here.”

  “You shut up! If these people found you in this room they’d give you the worst beating you ever had. They’d take your taxi license away from you!”

  Perry surprised himself by the ease with which he made this monstrous threat, but it seemed to have a soporific, influence on his companion, for he muttered an “aw gwan” and subsided into abashed silence.

  The ringmaster mounted to the top of the piano and waved his hand for silence.

  “Prizes!” he cried. “Gather round!”

  “Yea! Prizes!”

  Self-consciously the circle swayedforward. The rather pretty girl who had mustered the nerve to come as a bearded lady trembled with excitement, hoping to be rewarded for an evening’s hideousness. The man who had spent the afternoon having tattoo marks painted on him by a sign painter skulked on the edge of the crowd, blushing furiously when anyone told him he was sure to get it.

  “Lady and gent performers of the circus,” announced the ringmaster jovially, “I am sure we will all agree that a good time has been had by all. We will now bestow honor where honor is due by bestowing the prizes. Mrs. Townsend has asked me to bestow the prizes. Now, fellow performers, the first prize is for that lady who has displayed this evening the most striking, becoming”—at this point the bearded lady sighed resignedly—”and original costume.” Here the bale of hay pricked up her ears. “Now I am sure that the decision which has been decided upon will be unanimous with all here present. The first prize goes to Miss Betty Medill, the charming Egyptian snake charmer.”

  There was a great burst of applause, chiefly masculine, and Miss Betty Medill, blushing beautifully through her olive paint, was passed up to receive her award. With a tender glance the ringmaster handed down to her a huge bouquet of orchids.

  “And now,” he continued, looking round him, “the other prize is for that man who has the most amusing and original costume. This prize goes without dispute to a guest in our midst, a gentleman who is visiting here but whose stay we all hope will be long and merry—in short to the noble camel who has entertained us all by his hungry look and his brilliant dancing throughout the evening.”

  He ceased and there was a hearty burst of applause, for it was a popular choice.

  The prize, a huge box of cigars, was put aside for the camel, as he was anatomically unable to accept it in person.

  “And now,” continued the ringmaster, “we will wind up the cotillion with the marriage of Mirth to Folly!”

  “Form for the grand wedding march, the beautiful snake charmer and the noble camel in front!”

  Betty skipped forward cheerily and wound an olive arm round the camel’s neck. Behind them formed the procession of little boys, little girls, country fakes, policemen, fat ladies, thin men, sword swallowers, wild men of Borneo, armless wonders and charioteers, some of them well in their cups, all of them excited and happy and dazzled by the flow of light and color round them and by the familiar faces strangely unfamiliar under bizarre wigs and barbaric paint. The voluminous chords of the wedding march done in mad syncopation issued in a delirious blend from the saxophones and trombones—and the march began.

  “Aren’t you glad, camel?” demanded Betty sweetly as they stepped off. “Aren’t you glad we’re going to he married and you’re going to belong to the nice snake charmer ever afterward?”

  The camel’s front legs pranced, expressing exceeding joy.

  Minister, minister! Where’s the minister?” cried voices out of the revel. “Who’s going to be the clergyman?”

  The head of Jumbo, rotund Negro waiter at the Tallyho Club for many years, appeared rashly through a half-opened pantry door.

  “Oh, Jumbo!”

  “Get old Jumbo.”

  “He’s the fella!”

  “Come on, Jumbo.”

  “How ‘bout marrying us a couple?”

  “Yea!”

  Jumbo despite his protestations was seized by four brawny clowns, stripped of his apron and escorted to a raised dais at the head of the ball. There his collar was removed and replaced back side forward to give him a sanctimonious effect. He stood there grinning from ear to ear, evidently not a little pleased, while the parade separated into two lines leaving an aisle for the bride and groom.

  “Lawdy, man,” chuckled Jumbo, “Ah got ole Bible ‘n’ ev’ythin’, sho nuff.”

  He produced a battered Bible from a mysterious interior pocket.

  “Yea! Old Jumbo’s got a Bible!”

  “Razor, too, I’ll bet!”

  “Marry ‘em off, Jumbo!”

  Together the snake charmer and the camel ascended the cheering aisle and stopped
in front of Jumbo, who adopted a grave pontifical air.

  “Where’s your license, camel?”

  “Make it legal, camel.”

  A man near by prodded Perry.

  “Give him a piece of paper, camel. Anything’ll do.”

  Perry fumbled confusedly in his pocket, found a folded paper and pushed it out through the camel’s mouth. Holding it upside down Jumbo pretended to scan it earnestly.

  “Dis yeah’s a special camel’s license,” he said. “Get you ring ready, camel.”

  Inside the camel Perry turned round and addressed his worse half.

  “Gimme a ring, for Pete’s sake!”

  “I ain’t got none,” protested a weary voice.

  “You have. I saw it.”

  “I ain’t goin’ to take it offen my hand.”

  “If you don’t I’ll kill you.”

  There was a gasp and Perry felt a huge affair of rhinestone and brass inserted into his hand.

  Again he was nudged from the outside. “Speak up!”

  “I do!” cried Perry quickly.

  He heard Betty’s responses given in a laughing debonair tone, and the sound of them even in this burlesque thrilled him.

  If it was only real, he thought. If it only was!

  Then he had pushed the rhinestone through a tear in the camel’s coat and was slipping it on her finger, muttering ancient and historic words after Jumbo. He didn’t want anyone to know about this ever. His one idea was to slip away without having to disclose his identity, for Mr. Tate had so far kept his secret well. A dignified young man, Perry—and this might injure his infant law practice.

  “Kiss her, camel!”

  “Embrace the bride!”

  “Unmask, camel, and kiss her!”

  Instinctively his heart beat high as Betty turned to him laughingly and began playfully to stroke the cardboard muzzle. He felt his self-control giving away, he longed to seize her in his arms and declare his identity and kiss those scarlet lips that smiled teasingly at him from only a foot away—when suddenly the laughter and applause round them died away and a curious hush fell over the hall. Perry and Betty looked up in surprise. Jumbo had given vent to a huge “Hello!” in such a startled and amazed voice that all eyes were bent on him.

 
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