Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Classical Novels > Contact and Other Stories > THERE WAS A LADY
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 THERE is one point on which Larry Benedick’s best friend and worst enemy and a lot of other less emphatic individuals are thoroughly and cordially agreed. Ask his closest female relative or his remotest business acquaintance or the man who plays an occasional hand of auction with him at the club why Benedick has never married, and they will one and all yield to sardonic mirth, and assure you that the woman who could interest that imperturbable individual has not yet been born—that he is without exception the coldest-hearted, hardest-headed bachelor who has ever driven fluttering débutantes and radiant ladies from the chorus into a state of utter and abject despair—that romance is anathema to him and sentiment an abomination.  
“Benedick!” they will chorus with convincing unanimity. “My dear fellow, he’s been immune since birth. He’s never given any girl that lived or breathed a second thought—it’s extremely doubtful if he ever gave one a first. You can say what you please about him, but this you can take as a36 fact; you know one man who is going down to the grave as single as the day he was born.”
Well, you can take it as a fact if you care to, and it’s more than likely that you and the rest of the world will be right. Certainly, no one would ever have called him susceptible, even at the age when any decent, normal young cub is ready to count the world well lost for an eyelash. But not our Benedick—no, long before the gray steel had touched the blue of his eyes and the black of his hair he had apparently found a use for it in an absolutely invulnerable strong box for what he was pleased to call his heart. Then as now, he had faced his world with curled lips and cool eyes—graceful and graceless, spoiled, arrogant, and indifferent, with more money and more brains and more charm and a better conceit of himself than any two men should have—and a wary and sceptical eye for the charming creatures who circled closer and closer about him. The things that he used to think and occasionally say about those circling enchantresses were certainly unromantic and unchivalrous to a degree. Rather an intolerable young puppy, for all his brilliant charm—and the years have not mellowed him to any perceptible extent. Hardly likely to fall victim to the wiles of any lady, according to his worst enemy and his best friend and the world37 in general. No, hardly. But there was a lady....
It wasn’t yesterday that he first saw her—and it wasn’t a hundred years ago, either. It was at Raoul’s; if you are one of the large group of apparently intelligent people whose mania consists in believing that there is only one place in the world that any one could possibly reside in, and that that place is about a quarter of a mile square and a mile and a half long and runs up from a street called Forty-second on an island called Manhattan, you undoubtedly know Raoul’s. Not a tea room—Heaven save the mark! Not a restaurant—God forbid! Something between the two; a small room, clean and shabby, fragrant with odours more delectable than flowers. No one is permitted to smoke at Raoul’s, not even ladies, because the light blue haze might disturb the heavenly aroma, at once spiced and bland, that broods over the place like a benediction. Nothing quite like it anywhere else in America, those who have been there will tell you; nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. It costs fine gold to sit at one of the little round tables in the corner, but mere gold cannot pay for what you receive. For to Raoul the preparation of food is an art and a ceremony and a ritual and a science—not a commercial enterprise. The only thing that he purchases with38 your gold is leisure in which to serve you better. So who are you to grudge it to him?
Larry Benedick lunched there every day of his life, when he was in New York, heedless of a steady shower of invitations. He lived then in one of those coveted apartments not a stone’s throw from Raoul’s brown door—a luxurious box of a place that one of the charming creatures (who happened to be his sister-in-law) had metamorphosed into a bachelor’s paradise, so successfully that any bachelor should have frothed at the mouth with envy at the mere sight of it.
It had a fair-sized living room, with very masculine crash curtains, darned in brilliant colours, and rough gray walls and an old Florentine chest skillfully stuffed with the most expensive phonograph on the market, and rows and rows of beautifully bound books. There was a deep gray velvet sofa with three Chinese-red cushions in front of the small black fireplace (of course it wasn’t possible to light a fire in it without retiring from the apartment with a wet towel tied around the head, crawling rather rapidly on the hands and knees because all the first-aid books state that any fresh air will be near the floor—but what of that? After all, you can’t have everything!)—and there were wrought-iron lamps that threw the light at exactly the right angle for reading, and very good English39 etchings and very gay Viennese prints in red lacquer frames, and a really charming old Venetian mirror over the mantel. It was a perfect room for a fastidious young man, and Benedick loathed it with an awful loathing.
“All the elusive charm of a window in a furniture shop,” he remarked pensively to his best friend—but at least he refrained from destroying the pretty sister-in-law’s transports of altruistic enthusiasm, and left it grimly alone, keeping his eyes averted from its charms as frequently as possible, and leaving for South Carolina or northern Canada on the slightest provocation—or else swinging off to Raoul’s at twelve o’clock with a feeling of profound relief, when what he fantastically referred to as “business” kept him chained to New York and the highly successful living room.
“Business” for Benedick consisted largely of a series of more or less amicable colloquies with a gray-faced, incisive gentleman in a large, dark, shining office, and the even more occasional gift of his presence at those convivial functions known as board meetings. His father, long dead, had been imprudent enough to sow the wind of financial speculation, and his unworthy son was now languidly engaged in reaping a whirlwind of coupons and dividends. It is painful to dwell on so rudimentary a lack of fair play on the part of40 Fate, though Benedick occasionally did dwell on it, with a sardonic grin at the recollection of the modest incomes received by the more prudent and thrifty members of the family. He made what atonement he could for his father’s unjustifiable success by a series of astoundingly lavish gifts, however, and wasted the rest of it more or less successfully.
“Business” had kept him in town on that March day when he first saw her. He had arrived at Raoul’s doorstep at exactly five minutes past twelve; he lunched early, because he was a disciple of the Continental schedule, and it also avoided interruptions from over-fervent friends who frequented the place. The pretty cashier with her red cheeks and her elaborate Gallic coiffure bestowed her usual radiant smile on him, and Benedick smiled back, with a swift response that many a débutante would have given a large piece of her small soul to obtain. Jules, the sallow and gentle-eyed, pulled out the little round chair with its padded cushions, pushed in the little round table with its threadbare and spotless cloth, and bent forward with pencil poised, the embodiment of discreet and eager interest.
“Bonjour, monsieur! Monsieur désire?——”
This, after all, was nearer a home than anything that Larry Benedick had known for many a41 weary year—this warm and peaceful corner, with old Jules and young Geneviève spreading friendliness all about him, with Raoul out in the tiled and copper-hung kitchen, alert to turn his skill to service. Monsieur desired? Well, kidneys flamboyant, perhaps—and then some artichokes with Raoul’s Hollandaise—and the little curled pancakes with orange and burnt sugar in the chafing-dish. Demi-tasse, of course, and Bénédictine. Not yesterday, you see, that March afternoon!—Jules slipped away, as elated as though he were bearing with him great good tidings, and the brown-and-gray kitten came out from under the table, tapping at the cuff of his trousers with an imperious paw, and he had a smile for it, too. Here in this tranquil space Monsieur had all that he desired, had he not? Surely, all. He bent forward to stroke the pink nose of his enterprising visitor, the smile deepening until the dark face was suddenly young—and the brown door opened and she came in.
Benedick knew quite well that it was a raw and abominable day outside—but he could have sworn that he looked up because the room was suddenly full of the smell of pear blossoms, and lilacs, and the damp moss that grows beside running brooks—and that he felt the sunlight on his hands. There she stood, straight and slim, in her rough42 green tweed, with her sapphire-blue scarf and the sapphire-blue feather in the little tweed hat that she had pulled down over the bright wings of her hair, her face as fresh and gay as though she had just washed it in that running brook, her lovely mouse-coloured eyes soft and mischievous, as though she were keeping some amusing secret. There was mud on her high brown boots, and she was swinging a shining new brief case in one bare hand. Benedick stared at that hand incredulously. It wasn’t possible that anything real could be so beautiful; velvet white, steel strong, fine and slim and flexible—such a hand Ghirlan-daijo’s great ladies of the Renaissance lifted to their hearts—such a hand a flying nymph on a Grecian frieze flung out in quest of mercy. And yet there it was, so close to him that if he stretched out his fingers he could touch it!
The owner of this white wonder stood poised for a moment, apparently speculating as to whether this was the most perfect place in the world in which to lunch; she cast a swift glance of appraisal about the shadowed room with its hangings and cushions of faded peacock-blue, with its coal fire glowing and purring in the corner and its pots of pansies sitting briskly and competently along the deep window-sills; she gave a swift nod of recognition, as though she had found something43 that she had long been seeking, and slipped lightly into the chair at the table next to Benedick’s. Her flying eyes had brushed by the startled wonder of his face as though it had not been there, and it was obvious that he was still not there, in so far as the lady was concerned. She pounced exultantly on the carte du jour and gave it her rapt and undivided attention; when Jules arrived carrying Benedick’s luncheon as carefully as though it were a delicate and cherished baby she was ready and waiting for him—and Jules succumbed instantly to the hopeful friendliness of her voice.
But certainly, Mademoiselle could have sole bonne femme and potatoes allumettes, and a small salad—oui, oui, entendu—bien fatiguée, that salad, with a soup?on of garlic in a crust of bread, and the most golden of oils—yes, and a soufflé of chocolate with a demi-tasse in which should be just one dash of cognac—oh, rest assured of the quality of the cognac. Ah, it was to be seen that Mademoiselle was fine gourmet—which was, alas, not too common a quality in ces dames! Fifteen minutes would not be too long to wait, no? The potatoes—bon, bon—Mademoiselle should see. Jules trotted rapidly off in the direction of the kitchen, and Benedick’s luncheon grew cold before him while he watched to see what the miracle at the table beside him would do next.
44 How long, how long you had waited for her, Benedick the cynic—so long that you had forgotten how lovely she would be. After all, it had not been you who had waited; it had been a little black-headed, blue-eyed dreamer, fast asleep these many years—you had forgotten him, too, had you not? He was awake now with a vengeance, staring through your incredulous eyes at the lovely lady of his dreams, sitting, blithe and serene, within hand’s touch—the lovely lady who was not too proud to have mud on her boots and who actually knew what to order for lunch. All the girls that Benedick had ever known from the fuzzy-headed little ladies in the chorus to the sleek-locked wives of his best friend and his worst enemy, ordered chicken à la King and fruit salad and indescribable horrors known as maple walnut sundaes and chocolate marshmallow ice cream. But not this lady—oh, not this one! He leaned forward, breathless; what further enchantments had she in store? Well, next she took off her hat, tossing it recklessly across the table, and the golden wings of her hair sprang out alive and joyous, like something suddenly uncaged—and then she was uncaging something else, a shabby brownish red book, prying it out of the depths of the new brief case as though she could hardly wait; he could see from the way that the white hands45 touched it that they loved it dearly—that they had loved it dearly for a long, long time. It flew open, as though it remembered the place itself, and she dipped her bright head to it, and was off! Benedick pushed his untouched plate far from him, leaning forward across the table, caution and courtesy and decent reserve clean forgotten. What was she reading that could make her face dance like that—all her face, the gold-tipped lashes and the brave lips, and the elusive fugitive in the curve of the cheek turned toward him, too fleeting to be a dimple—too enchanting not to be one—what in the name of heaven was she reading? If only she would move her hand a little—ah!
Something came pattering eagerly toward him out of the printed page—a small, brisk, portly individual with long ears and a smart waistcoat—his heart greeted it with a shout of incredulous delight. By all that was wonderful, the White Rabbit! The dim room with its round tables faded, faded—Benedick the cynic, Benedick the sceptic, faded with it—he was back in another room, warm with firelight and bright with lamplight, in which a small black-headed boy sat upright in a crib, and listened to a lady reading from a red-brown book—a curly-headed lady, soft-voiced, soft-handed, and soft-eyed, who46 for ten enchanted years had read the lucky little boy to sleep; he had never believed in fairy tales again, after that soft voice had trailed off into silence. But now—now it was speaking once more—and once more he believed!
“Oh, the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh, my dear paws! Oh, my fur and whiskers! She’ll have me arrested as sure as ferrets are ferrets! Where can I have dropped them?”
The little boy was leaning forward, flushed and enchanted.
“Well, but motherie darling, where could he have dropped them? Where could he have dropped those gloves?”
“Monsieur désire?”
Benedick stared blankly at the solicitous countenance, wrenching himself back across the years. Monsieur desired—ah, Monsieur desired—Monsieur desired——
He sat very still after that, until she had sipped the last drop of black coffee out of the little blue cup, until she had pulled the hat down over the golden wings and wrapped the sapphire scarf about her white throat and wedged “Alice” back into the brief case, and smiled at Jules, and smiled at Geneviève, and smiled at the gray kitten, and vanished through the brown door.
He sat even stiller for quite a while after she had gone; and then suddenly bounded to his feet and flung out of the room before the startled47 Jules could ask him whether there was not something that he preferred to the untouched Bénédictine.
It was drizzling in the gray street and he turned his face to it as though it were sunshine; he glanced in the direction of the large dark office, and dismissed it with a light-hearted shrug. Business—business, by the Lord! Not while there was still a spot to dream in undisturbed. He raced up the apartment-house stairs three at a time, scorning the elevator, and was in the living room before the petrified Harishidi could do more than leap goggle-eyed from his post by the Florentine chest. Harishidi had obviously been indulging his passion for Occidental music, though you would not have gathered it from the look of horrified rebuke that he directed at the Renaissance treasure’s spirited rendition of the “Buzz Town Darkies’ Ball.” The look conveyed the unmistakable impression that Harishidi had done everything in his power to prevent the misguided instrument from breaking out in this unfortunate manner during his master’s absence, but that his most earnest efforts had proved of no avail. Benedick, however, was unimpressed.
“For the love of God, shut off that infernal noise!”
Harishidi flung himself virtuously on the offending48 treasure, and Benedick stood deliberating for a moment.
“Bring me the records out of the drawer—no, over to the couch—I’m half dead for sleep after that damned party. Get my pipe; the briar, idiot. Matches. This the lot Mrs. Benedick sent?”
Harishidi acknowledged it freely, and Benedick shuffled rapidly through the black disks. Cello rendition of “Eli Eli”; the Smith Sisters in a saxophone medley; highly dramatic interpretation of the little idyll from Samson et Delilah; “Kiss Your Baby and Away We Go” specially rendered by Dolpho, the xylophone king—yes, here it was.
“An Elizabethan Song, sung by Mr. Roger Grahame of the Santa Clara Opera Company.”
“Here you are, Hari; put this on your infernal machine. Take the telephone off the hook and give me another of those cushions. Where’s an ash tray? All right—let her rip!”
“I play her now?” demanded the incredulous Harishidi.
“You play her now, and you keep right on playing her until I tell you to stop. What’s more, if I hear another word out of you, you’re fired. All right—what are you waiting for? Go ahead!”
The quiet room was suddenly flooded with grace and gallantry and a gay melancholy; a light49 tenor voice singing easily and happily of something that was not joy—and was not sorrow—
“There was a lady, fair and kind,
Was never face so pleased my mind;
I did but see her, passing by,
And yet I love her till I die.
Fair and kind—a lady with gold wings for hair and gray velvet for eyes—a lady who knew what to have for lunch and who read “Alice in Wonderland”—a lady who was tall and slim, and had a mouth like a little girl, and mud on her high boots—white-handed and white-throated—pear blossoms in the sunlight—fair and kind—
“Her gesture, motion, and her smile,
Her wit, her voice, my heart beguile,
Beguile my heart, I know not why,
And yet I love her till I die.
Her grace, her voice—a lady who walked as though she were about to dance—a lady who spoke as though she were about to sing—fair and kind—gold and ivory—he had seen her before—she lived in a castle and her hair hung down to her heels—he had ridden by on a black horse and she had thrown him a rose—a castle by the sea—a castle behind a hedge of thorns—a castle in a50 dreaming wood—but he had found her and waked her with a kiss—no, no, it was he who had been asleep—a long time—a long time asleep—he wanted to hear the end of the story, but he was so warm and happy, it was hard to keep awake—the firelight made strange shadows....
“And so they both lived happily ever after!”
“Then he did find her, Motherie?”
“Of course, of course, he found her, Sleepy Head.”
“Ever, ever after, Motherie?”
“Ever, ever after, little boy.”...
Fair and kind, Golden Hair, smiling in the firelight—smile again—ever after, she said—ever, ever after....
* * * * *
The next day he was at Raoul’s at a quarter to twelve, and when Jules asked what Monsieur desired, he told him to bring anything, it made no difference to him! The stupefied Jules departed to the kitchen, where he was obliged to remain seated for several moments, owing to a slight touch of vertigo, and Monsieur sat unmolested in his chair in the corner, his eyes fastened on the brown door as though they would never leave it. He was still sitting there, feverish and preoccupied, half an hour later, having dutifully consumed everything that Jules put before him without51 once removing his eyes from the door. It wasn’t possible—it wasn’t possible that she wouldn’t come again. Fate could not play him so scurvy a trick; but let him lay eyes on her just once more, and he would take no further chances with Fate! He would walk up to her the second that she crossed the threshold, and demand her name and address and telephone number and occupation—— And the door opened, and she came in, and he sat riveted to his chair while she bestowed a bunch of violets the size of a silver dollar on the enchanted Geneviève, a smile of joyous complicity on the infatuated Jules, and a rapturous pat on the gray kitten. After a while he transferred his gaze from the door to the table next to him, but otherwise he did not stir. He was thinking a great many things very rapidly—unflattering and derisive comments on the mentality of one Larry Benedick. Idiot—ass! As though any lady who held her bright head so high would not disdain him out of measure if she could get so much as a glimpse into the depths of his fatuous and ignoble mind. Ask her for her address indeed! His blood froze at the thought.
The lady, in the meantime, had ordered lunch and discarded her hat and pried another treasure from the brief case; this time it was brown and larger, and she held it so that Benedick could see52 the title without irreparably ruining his eyes. “Tommy and Grizel”—the unspeakable Tommy! She was reading it with breathless intensity, too, and a look on her face that struck terror to his heart, a look at once scornful and delighted and disturbed, as though Tommy himself were sitting opposite her. So this—this was the kind of fellow that she liked to lunch with—a sentimental, posturing young hypocrite, all arrogance and blarney—it was incredible that she couldn’t see through him! What magic had this worthless idiot for ladies?
Benedick glared at the humble-looking brown volume as though he would cheerfully rip the heart out of it. He continued to glare until the white hands put it back into the brief case with a lingering and regretful touch, and carried it away through the door; no sooner had it closed than he jammed on his hat and brushed rudely by the smiling Geneviève and out into the wind-swept street. There he paused, staring desperately about him, but the sapphire feather was nowhere to be seen, and after a moment he started off at a tremendous pace for his apartment, where he proceeded to keep his finger on the elevator bell for a good minute and a half, and scowled forbiddingly at the oblivious elevator boy for seven stories, and slammed the door of the living room so53 vigorously that the red-lacquered frames leapt on the wall.
He crossed the room in three lengthy strides, and slammed his bedroom door behind him even more vigorously. The bedroom was exactly half the size of the tiled bathroom, so that the artistic sister-in-law had only been able to wedge in a Renaissance day-bed and a painted tin scrap basket—but Benedick found it perfectly satisfactory, as she had permitted him to use books instead of wall-paper. All the ones that she considered too shabby for the living room rose in serried ranks to the high ceiling—Benedick had substituted a nice arrangement of green steps instead of a chair, and had discovered that he could put either these or the scrap basket in the bathroom, if it was necessary to move around. He mounted the steps now, and snatched a brown volume from its peaceful niche on the top shelf next to “Sentimental Tommy,” climbed down and sat on the Renaissance day-bed, wrenched the book open so violently that he nearly broke its back, and read about what happened to Tommy on the last few pages—served him damned well right, too, except that hanging was too good for him. Sentiment! Sentiment was a loathsome thing, not to be borne for a moment.
The third time that he read it he felt a little better, and he got up and kicked the scrap basket hard,54 and telephoned to the incisive gentleman in the office that he wouldn’t be around because he had neuralgia and phlebitis and a jumping toothache, and telephoned his ravished sister-in-law that he’d changed his mind and would be around for dinner at eight if she’d swear to seat him next to a brunette. Subsequently he was so attentive to the brunette that she went home in a fever of excitement—and Benedick ground his teeth, and prayed that somehow his golden lady might know about it and feel a pang of the soft and bitter madness known as jealousy, which is the exclusive prerogative of women. He lay with his head in the pillow on the Renaissance bed most of the night, cursing his idiocy with profound fervour, wondering what insanity had made him think for a moment that he was interested in that yellow-haired girl, and resolving not to go near Raoul’s for at least a week. She was probably someone’s stenographer—or a lady authoress. Every now and then he slipped off into horrid little dreams; he was building a gallows out of pear trees for a gentleman called Tommy, and just when he had the noose ready, it slipped about his own throat—and he could feel it tightening, tightening, while someone laughed just behind him, very soft and clear—he woke with a shiver, and the dawn was in the room. He wouldn’t go to Raoul’s for a month....
55 At five minutes to twelve he crossed the threshold, and she was there already with her hat off and a little fat green-and-gold book propped up against her goblet. Thank God that she had left that brown bounder at home! Benedick stared earnestly, and felt a deeper gratitude to Robert Herrick and his songs than he had ever known before. It was easy to see that she was safe in green meadows, brave with cowslips and violets and hawthorn and silver streams, playing with those charming maids, Corinna and Julia. Benedick breathed a sigh of relief, and when her lunch arrived he was stricken again with admiration at the perfection of her choice. Herrick himself could have done no better; the whole-wheat bread, the primrose pa............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved