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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 50/102 -
Antomir who advised me to prepare for college. She was always speaking to me about it."
It was about 10 o'clock. Max was away to his dancing-schools. The children were asleep. We were alone in the living-room
I expected her to ask who that Antomir lady was, but she did not, so I went on speaking of Matilda of my own accord. I sketched her as an "aristocratic" young woman, the daughter of one of the leading families in town, accomplished, clever, pretty, and "modern."
"It was she, in fact, who got me the money for my trip to America," I said, lowering my voice, as one will when a conversation assumes an intimate character
"Was it?" Dora said, also in a low voice
"Yes. It is a long story. It is nearly five years since I left home, but I still think of it a good deal. Sometimes I feel as if my heart would snap unless I had somebody to tell about it."
This was my way of drawing Dora into a flirtation, my first attempt in that direction, though in my heart I had been making love to her for weeks
I told her the story of my acquaintance with Matilda. She listened with non-committal interest, with an amused, patronizing glimmer of a smile
"You did not fall in love with her, did you?" she quizzed me as she might Lucy
"That's the worst part of it," I said, gravely
"Is it?" she asked, still gaily, but with frank interest now
I recounted the episode at length. To put it in plain English, I was using my affair with Matilda (or shall I say her affair with me?) as a basis for an adventure with Dora. At first I took pains to gloss over those details in which I had cut an undignified figure, but I soon dropped all embellishments. The episode stood out so bold in my memory. its appeal to my imagination was so poignant, that I found an intoxicating satisfaction in conveying the facts as faithfully as I knew how. To be telling a complete, unvarnished truth is in itself a pleasure. It is as though there were a special sense of truth and sincerity in our make-up (just as there is a sense of musical harmony, for example), and the gratification of it were a source of delight.
Nor was this my only motive for telling Dora all. I had long since realized that the disdain and mockery with which Matilda handled me had been but a cloak for her interest in my person. So when I was relating to Dora the scenes of my ignominy I felt that the piquant circumstances surrounding them were not unfavorable to me
Anyhow, I was having a singularly intimate talk with Dora and she was listening with the profoundest interest, all the little tricks she employed to disguise it notwithstanding
In depicting the scene of the memorable night when Matilda came to talk to me at my bedside I emphasized the fact that she had called me a ninny
"I did not know what she meant," I said.
Dora tittered, looking at the floor shamefacedly. "The nasty thing!" she said
"What do you mean?" I inquired, dishonestly
"I mean just what I say. She is a nasty thing, that grand lady of yours." And she added another word--the East Side name for a woman of the streets--that gave me a shock
"Don't call her that," I entreated. "Please don't. You are mistaken about her. I assure you she is a highly respectable lady. She has a heart of gold," I added, irrelevantly
"Well, well! You are still in love with her, aren't you?"
I was tempted to say: "No. It is you I now love." But I merely said, dolefully: "No. Not any more."
She contemplated me amusedly and broke into a soft laugh
The next time we were alone in the house I came back to it. I added some details. I found a lascivious interest in dwelling on our passionate kisses, Matilda's and mine. Also, it gave me morbid pleasure to have her behold me at Matilda's feet, lovelorn, disdained, crushed, yet coveted, kissed, triumphant
Dora listened intently. She strove to keep up an amused air, as though listening to some childish nonsense, but the look of her eye, tense or flinching, and the warm color that often overspread her cheeks, betrayed her
CHAPTER XI WE talked about my first love-affair for weeks. She asked me many questions ahout Matilda, mostly with that pretended air of amused curiosity. Every time I had something good to say about Matilda she would assail her brutally
The fact that Dora never referred to my story in the presence of her husband was a tacit confession that we had a secret from him. Outwardly it meant that the secret was mine, not hers; that she had nothing to do with it; but then there was another secret--the fact that she was my sole confidante in a matter of this nature--and this secret was ours in common
On one occasion, in the course of one of these confabs of ours, she said, with ill-concealed malice: "Do you really think she cared for you? Not that much," marking off the tip of her little finger
"Why should you say that? Why should you hurt my feelings?" I protested
"It still hurts your feelings, then, does it? There is a faithful lover for you! But what would you have me say? That she loved you as much as you loved her?"
At this Dora jerked her head backward, with a laugh that rang so charmingly false and so virulent that I was impelled both to slap her face and to kiss it
"But tell me," she said, with a sudden affectation of sedate curiosity, "was she really so beautiful?"
"I never said she was 'so beautiful,' did I? You are far more beautiful than she." "Oh, stop joking, please! Can't you answer seriously?"
"I really mean it."
"That you are prettier than Matilda." "Is that the way you are faithful to her?"
"Oh, that was five years ago. Now there is somebody else I am faithful to."
She was silent. Her cheeks glowed
"Why don't you ask who that somebody is?"
"Because I don't care. What do I care? And please don't talk like that. I mean what I say. You must promise me never to talk like that," she said, gravely
During the following few days Dora firmly barred all more or less intimate conversation. She treated me with her usual friendly familiarity, but there was something new in her demeanor, something that seemed to say, "I don't deny that I enjoy our talks, but that's all the more reason why you must behave yourself."
The story of my childhood seemed legitimate enough, so she let me tell her bits of it, and before she was aware of it she was following my childish love-affair with the daughter of one of my despotic school-teachers, my struggles with Satan, and my early dreams of marriage. Gradually she let me draw her out concerning her own past.
One evening, while Lucy was playing school-teacher, with Dannie for the class, Dora told me of an episode connected with her betrothal to Max
"Was that a love match?" I asked, with a casual air, when she had finished
She winced. "What difference does it make?" she said, with an annoyed look.
"We were engaged as most couples are engaged. Much I knew of the love business in those days."
"You speak as though you married when you were a mere baby. You certainly knew how you felt toward him."
"I don't think I felt anything," she answered
"Still," I insisted, "you said to yourself, 'This man is going to be my husband; he will kiss me, embrace me.' How did you feel then?"
"You want to know too much, Levinsky," she said, coloring. "You know the saying, 'If you know too much you get old too quick.' Well, I don't think I gave him any thought at all. I was too busy thinking of the wedding and of the pretty dress they were making for me. Besides. I was so rattled and so shy. Much I understood. I was not quite nineteen."
It called to my mind that in the excitement following my mother's death I was so overwhelmed by the attentions showered on me that it was a day or two before I realized the magnitude of my calamity
"Anyhow, you certainly knew that marriage is the most serious thing in life," I persisted
"Oh, I don't think I knew much of anything."
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