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- Flappers and Philosophers - 4/46 -
It was about then that a change began in his whole attitude, a rather curious, embittering change. It was when he realized that he was spending the golden years of his life gibbering round a stage with a lot of black men. His act was good of its kind--three trombones, three saxaphones, and Carlyle's flute--and it was his own peculiar sense of rhythm that made all the difference; but he began to grow strangely sensitive about it, began to hate the thought of appearing, dreaded it from day to day.
They were making money--each contract he signed called for more--but when he went to managers and told them that he wanted to separate from his sextet and go on as a regular pianist, they laughed at him aud told him he was crazy--it would he an artistic suicide. He used to laugh afterward at the phrase "artistic suicide." They all used it.
Half a dozen times they played at private dances at three thousand dollars a night, and it seemed as if these crystallized all his distaste for his mode of livlihood. They took place in clubs and houses that he couldn't have gone into in the daytime After all, he was merely playing to rôle of the eternal monkey, a sort of sublimated chorus man. He was sick of the very smell of the theatre, of powder and rouge and the chatter of the greenroom, and the patronizing approval of the boxes. He couldn't put his heart into it any more. The idea of a slow approach to the luxury of liesure drove him wild. He was, of course, progressing toward it, but, like a child, eating his ice-cream so slowly that he couldn't taste it at all.
He wanted to have a lot of money and time and opportunity to read and play, and the sort of men and women round him that he could never have--the kind who, if they thought of him at all, would have considered him rather contemptible; in short he wanted all those things which he was beginning to lump under the general head of aristocracy, an aristocracy which it seemed almost any money could buy except money made as he was making it. He was twenty-five then, without family or education or any promise that he would succeed in a business career. He began speculating wildly, and within three weeks he had lost every cent he had saved.
Then the war came. He went to Plattsburg, and even there his profession followed him. A brigadier-general called him up to headquarters and told him he could serve his country better as a band leader--so he spent the war entertaining celebrities behind the line with a headquarters band. It was not so bad--except that when the infantry came limping back from the trenches he wanted to be one of them. The sweat and mud they wore seemed only one of those ineffable symbols of aristocracy that were forever eluding him.
"It was the private dances that did it. After I came back from the war the old routine started. We had an offer from a syndicate of Florida hotels. It was only a question of time then."
He broke off and Ardita looked at him expectantly, but he shook his head.
"No," he said, "I'm going to tell you about it. I'm enjoying it too much, and I'm afraid I'd lose a little of that enjoyment if I shared it with anyone else. I want to hang on to those few breathless, heroic moments when I stood out before them all and let them know I was more than a damn bobbing, squawking clown."
>From up forward came suddenly the low sound of singing. The negroes had gathered together on the deck and their voices rose together in a haunting melody that soared in poignant harmonics toward the moon. And Ardita listens in enchantment.
"Oh down--- oh down, Mammy wanna take me down milky way, Oh down, oh down, Pappy say to-morra-a-a-ah But mammy say to-day, Yes--mammy say to-day!"
Carlyle sighed and was silent for a moment looking up at the gathered host of stars blinking like arc-lights in the warm sky. The negroes' song had died away to a plaintive humming and it seemed as if minute by minute the brightness and the great silence were increasing until he could almost hear the midnight toilet of the mermaids as they combed their silver dripping curls under the moon and gossiped to each other of the fine wrecks they lived on the green opalescent avenues below.
"You see," said Carlyle softly, "this is the beauty I want. Beauty has got to be astonishing, astounding--it's got to burst in on you like a dream, like the exquisite eyes of a girl."
He turned to her, but she was silent.
"You see, don't you, Anita--I mean, Ardita?"
Again she made no answer. She had been sound asleep for some time.
In the dense sun-flooded noon of next day a spot in the sea before them resolved casually into a green-and-gray islet, apparently composed of a great granite cliff at its northern end which slanted south through a mile of vivid coppice and grass to a sandy beach melting lazily into the surf. When Ardita, reading in her favorite seat, came to the last page of The Revolt of the Angels, and slamming the book shut looked up and saw it, she gave a little cry of delight, and called to Carlyle, who was standing moodily by the rail.
"Is this it? Is this where you're going?"
Carlyle shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"You've got me." He raised his voice and called up to the acting skipper: "Oh, Babe, is this your island?"
The mulatto's miniature head appeared from round the corner of the deck-house.
"Yas-suh! This yeah's it."
Carlyle joined Ardita.
"Looks sort of sporting, doesn't it?"
"Yes," she agreed; "but it doesn't look big enough to be much of a hiding-place."
"You still putting your faith in those wirelesses your uncle was going to have zigzagging round?"
"No," said Ardita frankly. "I'm all for you. I'd really like to see you make a get-away."
"You're our Lady Luck. Guess we'll have to keep you with us as a mascot--for the present anyway."
"You couldn't very well ask me to swim back," she said coolly. "If you do I'm going to start writing dime novels founded on that interminable history of your life you gave me last night."
He flushed and stiffened slightly.
"I'm very sorry I bored you."
"Oh, you didn't--until just at the end with some story about how furious you were because you couldn't dance with the ladies you played music for."
He rose angrily.
"You have got a darn mean little tongue."
"Excuse me," she said melting into laughter, "but I'm not used to having men regale me with the story of their life ambitions--especially if they've lived such deathly platonic lives."
"Why? What do men usually regale you with?"
"Oh, they talk about me," she yawned. "They tell me I'm the spirit of youth and beauty."
"What do you tell them?"
"Oh, I agree quietly."
"Does every man you meet tell you he loves you?"
"Why shouldn't he? All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase--'I love you.'"
Carlyle laughed and sat down.
"That's very true. That's--that's not bad. Did you make that up?"
"Yes--or rather I found it out. It doesn't mean anything especially. It's just clever."
"It's the sort of remark," he said gravely, "that's typical of your class."
"Oh," she interrupted impatiently, "don't start that lecture on aristocracy again! I distrust people who can be intense at this hour in the morning. It's a mild form of insanity--a sort of breakfast-food jag. Morning's the time to sleep, swim, and be careless."
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