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- Tales of the Jazz Age - 20/61 -
"Now this," he thought, "is most remarkable."
He was excited. He was jubilant. He felt that he had stumbled upon a mystery. Affecting an elaborate carelessness he arose and waited around the table--then, turning quickly, pulled open the green door, precipitating Private Rose into the room.
"How do you do?" he said.
Private Rose set one foot slightly in front of the other, poised for fight, flight, or compromise.
"How do you do?" repeated Peter politely.
"Can I offer you a drink?"
Private Rose looked at him searchingly, suspecting possible sarcasm.
"O'right," he said finally.
Peter indicated a chair.
"I got a friend," said Rose, "I got a friend in there." He pointed to the green door.
"By all means let's have him in."
Peter crossed over, opened the door and welcomed in Private Key, very suspicious and uncertain and guilty. Chairs were found and the three took their seats around the punch bowl. Peter gave them each a highball and offered them a cigarette from his case. They accepted both with some diffidence.
"Now," continued Peter easily, "may I ask why you gentlemen prefer to lounge away your leisure hours in a room which is chiefly furnished, as far as I can see, with scrubbing brushes. And when the human race has progressed to the stage where seventeen thousand chairs are manufactured on every day except Sunday--" he paused. Rose and Key regarded him vacantly. "Will you tell me," went on Peter, "why you choose to rest yourselves on articles, intended for the transportation of water from one place to another?"
At this point Rose contributed a grunt to the conversation.
"And lastly," finished Peter, "will you tell me why, when you are in a building beautifully hung with enormous candelabra, you prefer to spend these evening hours under one anemic electric light?"
Rose looked at Key; Key looked at Rose. They laughed; they laughed uproariously; they found it was impossible to look at each other without laughing. But they were not laughing with this man--they were laughing at him. To them a man who talked after this fashion was either raving drunk or raving crazy.
"You are Yale men, I presume," said Peter, finishing his highball and preparing another.
They laughed again.
"So? I thought perhaps you might be members of that lowly section of the university known as the Sheffield Scientific School."
"Hm. Well, that's too bad. No doubt you are Harvard men, anxious to preserve your incognito in this--this paradise of violet blue, as the newspapers say."
"Na-ah," said Key scornfully, "we was just waitin' for somebody."
"Ah," exclaimed Peter, rising and filling their glasses, "very interestin'. Had a date with a scrublady, eh?"
They both denied this indignantly.
"It's all right," Peter reassured them, "don't apologize. A scrublady's as good as any lady in the world."
Kipling says 'Any lady and Judy O'Grady under the skin.'"
"Sure," said Key, winking broadly at Rose.
"My case, for instance," continued Peter, finishing his glass. "I got a girl up here that's spoiled. Spoildest darn girl I ever saw. Refused to kiss me; no reason whatsoever. Led me on deliberately to think sure I want to kiss you and then plunk! Threw me over! What's the younger generation comin' to?"
"Say tha's hard luck," said Key--"that's awful hard luck."
"Oh, boy!" said Rose.
"Have another?" said Peter.
"We got in a sort of fight for a while," said Key after a pause, "but it was too far away."
"A fight?--tha's stuff!" said Peter, seating himself unsteadily. "Fight 'em all! I was in the army."
"This was with a Bolshevik fella."
"Tha's stuff!" exclaimed Peter, enthusiastic. "That's, what I say! Kill the Bolshevik! Exterminate 'em!"
"We're Americuns," said Rose, implying a sturdy, defiant patriotism.
"Sure," said Peter. "Greatest race in the world! We're all Americans! Have another."
They had another.
At one o'clock a special orchestra, special even in a day of special orchestras, arrived at Delmonico's, and its members, seating themselves arrogantly around the piano, took up the burden of providing music for the Gamma Psi Fraternity. They were headed by a famous flute-player, distinguished throughout New York for his feat of standing on his head and shimmying with his shoulders while he played the latest jazz on his flute. During his performance the lights were extinguished except for the spotlight on the flute-player and another roving beam that threw flickering shadows and changing kaleidoscopic colors over the massed dancers.
Edith had danced herself into that tired, dreamy state habitual only with débutantes, a state equivalent to the glow of a noble soul after several long highballs. Her mind floated vaguely on the bosom of her music; her partners changed with the unreality of phantoms under the colorful shifting dusk, and to her present coma it seemed as if days had passed since the dance began. She had talked on many fragmentary subjects with many men. She had been kissed once and made love to six times. Earlier in the evening different under-graduates had danced with her, but now, like all the more popular girls there, she had her own entourage--that is, half a dozen gallants had singled her out or were alternating her charms with those of some other chosen beauty; they cut in on her in regular, inevitable succession.
Several times she had seen Gordon--he had been sitting a long time on the stairway with his palm to his head, his dull eyes fixed at an infinite spark on the floor before him, very depressed, he looked, and quite drunk--but Edith each time had averted her glance hurriedly. All that seemed long ago; her mind was passive now, her senses were lulled to trance-like sleep; only her feet danced and her voice talked on in hazy sentimental banter.
But Edith was not nearly so tired as to be incapable of moral indignation when Peter Himmel cut in on her, sublimely and happily drunk. She gasped and looked up at him.
"I'm a li'l' stewed, Edith."
"Why, Peter, you're a _peach_, you are! Don't you think it's a bum way of doing--when you're with me?"
Then she smiled unwillingly, for he was looking at her with owlish sentimentality varied with a silly spasmodic smile.
"Darlin' Edith," he began earnestly, "you know I love you, don't you?"
"You tell it well."
"I love you--and I merely wanted you to kiss me," he added sadly.
His embarrassment, his shame, were both gone. She was a mos' beautiful girl in whole worl'. Mos' beautiful eyes, like stars above. He wanted to 'pologize--firs', for presuming try to kiss her; second, for drinking--but he'd been so discouraged 'cause he had thought she was mad at him----
The red-fat man cut in, and looking up at Edith smiled radiantly.
"Did you bring any one?" she asked.
No. The red-fat man was a stag.
"Well, would you mind--would it be an awful bother for you to--to take me home to-night?" (this extreme diffidence was a charming affectation on Edith's part--she knew that the red-fat man would immediately dissolve into a paroxysm of delight).
"Bother? Why, good Lord, I'd be darn glad to! You know I'd be darn glad to."
"Thanks _loads_! You're awfully sweet."
She glanced at her wrist-watch. It was half-past one. And, as she said "half-past one" to herself, it floated vaguely into her mind that her
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