CAMPBELL sat in the locker room after squash and watched the loose flesh over his heart quivering like a jelly. Richards had beaten him. Richards always beat him now, and Cullen would no longer play with him because he was fifty-five and his backhand was no damned good. It never was more than a sort of poke, but it used to connect. He crossed his feet to take the shudder out of his knees and looked down at the folds in his stomach and the delicate rills of sweat in the wrinkles. His windpipe burned down the middle of him. One of these days he would cut out the cigarettes.
Richards, already back from the showers, was at his locker, putting on a pair of glasses with a thin black ribbon hanging down from them. The spectacles dressed up Richards almost more than a suit of clothes and kept one's attention on his tight-lipped mouth. Richards was sixty, but he still played squash because he had a pair of legs under him. He had been a footballer back there in the nineties, and a big fold of muscle hung above each knee.
"I'm giving you a drink tonight," said Richards.
"Thanks," said Campbell. "I'm not drinking. It's a special occasion. My girl comes home. The wife has been up watching her graduate from school."
Richards took out a bottle.
"I'm giving you a drink," he said. "This is a special occasion. It's always a special occasion when you get a chance at Bushmill's Black Label."
"I've heard of the stuff," said Campbell, "but I'm not taking it. Nothing tonight. In a house full of women, you know how it is. They hate to see the father with an edge. That's the trouble with women. They don't understand."
He made a backhanded gesture and looked round the room at the lounging naked men. He breathed the thick smell of sweat and told himself he liked it. How many tons of flesh, in the course of the year, dissolved here in fumes and sweating? Sensible men kept their bodies in a state of flux, building, dissolving. That was nature's plan. Look at the universe of stars, melting into radiation; and somewhere the radiation was re-gathered to form matter. The astronomers would find that out one day.
Richards uncorked the bottle and gave it to him.
"Give your nose a chance anyway," said Richards.
Campbell inhaled the fragrance. The alcohol thirst took him hard, just beneath the Adam's apple. He thought of a big trundling automobile like his own, of night, and lights, and a woman. He could always turn off other thoughts and conceive the sort of a woman he wanted, smiling at him.
"It smells weak and too sweet," he said.
"There's no tick of bathtub gin in it, and it's not your Jamaica rum," said Richards.
"Rum is all right," declared Campbell. He frowned, expounding his doctrine: "There's something honest about rum. Made out of good molasses. It puts it on you gradually. Like putting varnish on a car, all over, coat by coat."
"Oh, all right," said Richards. "I know why you drink rum. We all know why." He laughed and poured two fingers and a half into two tall glasses. "You melt some of this in your mouth and try to form good habits. Virtue can be learned."
When a man is sixty, you have to be polite to him. Campbell was at least silent, but he sneered as he breathed of the whisky. He tasted it. "It's too sweet," he said. He tasted it again and his anger and his words loosened in his throat. "It's like a good cognac," he said. "It's like a hundred-year-old brandy, by God! It's like Napoleon. Where did you get it?"
"I told you about that case of the Cuban up for murder? You ought to read the papers, Campbell, and you'd find out a lot of good things about me. I took that case to the jury, let in all their damned evidence, and then made a speech about justifiable homicide."
"You justified murder?" said Campbell dreamily.
"It went over," said Richards. "The Cuban paid my fee and felt he owed me something more, so he dug up a case of this Bushmill's. There's a white label too, but this black label spends twenty years in the wood getting older and wiser. You can't buy it unless you know where. It's the finest thing that comes out of Ireland."
"Barring Irish hunters," said Campbell. "I ran into a streak of bad luck three or four years ago and started falling all the time. So I gave it up."
Richards put back his head and looked at him through half-closed eyes. "So you gave up—the horses, eh?" said he. "Have some ice and soda in that."
"Don't bother me," said Campbell.
He began to drink slowly, steadily, in small swallows. He kept on drinking until the last of the whisky was down. Then he lighted a cigarette and considered. The whisky was somewhere in the top of his brain, in his heart, pumping out inexhaustible joy through his arteries. "You don't understand," said Campbell.
He went over to the bottle and poured a stiff slug into his glass again. Richards lifted a hand and turned a little, hastily, but then he settled back in his chair. Campbell pretended not to notice. "What don't I understand? About whisky straight?" asked Richards.
"I'm going to tell you something," said Campbell. "It's a kind of religion with me. You go back to Rabelais to get the start of the idea. About hearty people. That's the first thing. A man ought to be hearty. A woman too—"
Afterward he knew that he had been talking a good deal. His lips were a little stiff, his eyes felt larger. Richards had the tight face of a judge, and there was not much whisky left in the bottle. Richards had been dressing; he was ready for the street and now he rose.
"Wait a minute," said Campbell. "What's the matter? I finished most of that stuff. Look here. I want to pay you for the bottle. What I mean is, it's damn good stuff."
Richards jerked round quickly. He checked the first words that parted his lips. "Well, good night," he said, and went out suddenly.
Campbell brooded while he was taking his shower and dressing, but the familiar happiness began to grow up and brighten that world which a man sees best when his eyes are fixed on nothingness. Going down in the elevator, a number of younger members of the club were pressed about him, and he heard a low voice say, "The old boy's already on his way." A soft chuckle answered that remark. Campbell turned with a smile. "You've had a drink yourself, my lad," he said. "Whisky is the staff of the truth-teller!"
He saw the eyes of the boy widen a little. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Campbell," said the lad. And Campbell said, "My dear fellow, not at all!"
He looked at his watch when he got into his car, and was shocked. His wife had said that it was a special occasion. Two days before, when she left, she had taken him by the lapels of his coat. Her hands were tight and strong. "It's going to be a special occasion, Jerry," she had said. "You will remember, dear, won't you?"
"Drive like hell," he said to his chauffeur.
They drove like hell, as soon as the slow, regular pulsation of the downtown traffic let them go. The steady flicker of cars going past him wearied his eyes, so he closed them. Later he discovered with a start that he had been asleep. As he opened his eyes, he had a feeling that they were shooting downhill, through flame, but he found that they were merely wheeling softly past the intersection of highways at White Forest. They would soon be home. It was sunset.
This uptilt of the world to the flat once more irritated him as though he had wakened from a happy dream. Fingertips pressed steadily against his head above the ears, it seemed; the unfamiliar taste on the back of his tongue he presently located as Bushmill's Black Label. That made him remember the way Richards had left him at the club, and he reached under the flap of the side pocket of the car to the flask of Jamaica. People hate the truth, he decided. That was why Richards had been hating him with all the color pressed out of his tight lips. But the truth is that men ought to be heartier; women ought to be heartier too. You find the truth back in old Rabelais. "Drink." That was what the voice of the oracle of the holy bottle had meant. Be yourself, even the nakedness that alcohol exposes; and if the world doesn't approve, that's because the world doesn't understand—Rabelais, and a lot of other important things.
He took a short pull at the flask, then he took a long one. He took another drink in the way he had learned only a short three years ago, little swallows, rapidly taken, holding the breath. He kept the flask in his hand for comfort and felt the rum work as rum always will, honestly, steadily—no casual flicker but a good strong blaze that warms the farthest corners of the heart.
Then he saw the triangle of lights that announced the house of Cerise Mayberry, over there on the edge of the hills. He tapped automatically on the glass. "The Mayberry house," he said, and Jordan turned and looked at him a tenth of a second longer than he should have dared. Jordan knew too much; but all chauffeurs know too much. That's the way they are.
They left the sticky black of the highway and the big, soft tires went crunching over the gravel of the drive. The dark trees were kindly forms on either side, sweeping him on. A man's home is where his heart is, he felt.
Cerise Mayberry. He called her "Cherry." Cerise is a silly name. Cherry Mayberry was a nice name; there was really something nice about it because it fitted her. It had a sort of rhyme to it. More than a rhyme. Some men have poetry in them. Some haven't. That's all there is to it.
The car stopped in front of the wooden low veranda, with its three steps up. He got out. He remembered that the flask was in his hand and put it back into the side pocket.
Jordan was being chauffeurish. Considering all that Jordan knew, it was foolish for Jordan to step so far back into his manners and look at vacancy as he said, "We're not being late for home—and Miss Louise?"
"I'm only staying a minute," said Campbell. Jordan was crazy about Louise. The cook was crazy about Louise. The wife was crazy about Louise. She was all right. She might even turn out to be hearty if the wife would keep her hands off now and then. What a girl needs is the molding influence of a man, the impress of the wider, the bigger life.
Campbell went up the steps and rang the bell. He got out a cigarette and lighted it. Cerise opened the door and backed up before him into the safe obscurity of the hall before she kissed him. She came right into his arms, bending back her head while she lay there for a moment, with her lips still half-formed after the kiss. Her eyes were loving him.
"Papa, are you blotto?" said Cerise.
He shook himself free. A man ought never to permit flapperisms. The trouble with Cerise was not that she had been married a couple of times but that she had grown up to womanhood in the postwar period, and one could still find in her vocabulary tokens of the days when nothing mattered.
"Don't be cross," said Cerise, and went hastily before him through the door into the living room, slinking a little, looking back over her shoulder, pretending fright.
He followed her with a firm step. "I want to talk to you, Cherry," he said.
"About Rabelais?" she asked.
He realized that she had only been pretending fear. But one of these days she would know him better.
"One of these days you're gunna know me better, Cherry," he said.
"Better Cherry?" said the girl. "There aren't any better cherries. You know that, papa."
"I don't like it," said Campbell.
"Of course you don't like it straight," said Cerise. "You ought to have lemon juice and things with it. Shall I make you a cocktail?"
"Aw, well. Shake one up," said Campbell.
He sank into a soft chair and tapped his cigarette ashes on the floor. The great thing about Cherry was that she understood. The worst thing about her was that she didn't understand enough. But you can't ask for the world with a fence round it. Everything has to have a beginning. After a while he would be able to teach her. For one thing, a woman ought not to be so damned expensive. A lot of the clothes they buy are name and nothing else.
Cerise came in again with the cocktail shaker. She went at her work heartily; her whole body shook with the vibration; there was even a tremor in her cheeks, and her fluffy sleeves spread into a pink cloud. Pink was her color. She could not use rouge because of the baby tint of her skin; therefore, except for the eyes and the smiling, her face was rather dim, and one had to look into it closely to see faults. Campbell preferred not to see the faults.
She brought two little base-shaped cups of silver filled with cracked ice so that the cups would frost like the shaker. Then she emptied the ice and poured the drink. It was pink—her color. That was the stain of orange juice in the rum cocktail. He tasted the first one and then he drank three, quickly. If cocktails are to be taken, they ought to be drunk before the melting ice has qualified the liquor too much. Cerise had only one; he had taught her never to take more than one because liquor makes the eyes of a woman more unclean than sleep. She sat on the arm of a chair at a little distance because she knew just how to lend herself enchantment. The platinum chain about her throat was merely a line of light; the big emerald of the pendant gleamed like an eye looking this way and that. Her head was tilted back to just the right angle. He liked the consciousness of an art that so perfectly expressed Cerise.
He had been enjoying her silently, like thought, when a footfall sounded on the little side porch, a door jerked open with force that sent a vibration through the old house and made the two silver cups chime softly together.
"Cerise!" called the voice of young Bob Wilson. "Oh, Cerise, darling!"
She had got to the door almost in time to stop the last words, but not quite. She opened the door a bit and called over her shoulder: "Wait a minute, Bob." Then she faced Campbell.
All he could see was the quick, high lifting of her breast and the green of the emerald, with a price mark tagged on it in his mind. He wanted to kill her, but a man has to take things in his stride, and a good actor improvises to fill a blank.
"I'm sorry I came in so late and stayed so long," he said. "Good night, Cherry. And good-by."
He could see the malice cheapen and tighten her face. What she had to say stiffened her lips. "Maybe I ought to tell you that a lady rang up a while ago and asked if you were here. I think it was your wife."
He turned slowly from a room he would never see again though he would keep its corners of laughter and breathless silence always in his mind. He knew bitterly that he could never wash himself clean of this yesterday. There was a shadowy half of his thought that told him the uncleanness had spread over others; and if Margaret really had telephoned to inquire for him it meant that she had known about this affair long enough to lose her most vital strength, which was her pride.
He was at the door of the hall before the girl said, "Ah, to hell with you!"
Campbell got out into his car as quickly as possible and sat back into the cushions with his nostrils widening to take bigger breaths of the cool evening air. As the car turned out cautiously into the highway, he had a feeling that thousands of doors were shutting behind him; but in spite of that he knew that he would have to find another road to town so that he might never again see the white, pointed forehead of that house by day or its triangle of lights at night.
The automobile, gathering speed, lurched long and high over a swell in the road; a wave of nausea came up through Campbell and left a cold tingling in his lips. He settled his troubled stomach with another pull at the rum flask. The familiar burn of it put his body at ease before the car turned into his driveway; the trouble in his mind would have to be put at rest in another way.
As for Cerise, he thought, a man can't get something for nothing, and he had been a fool to think that he could go to Cerise and relax like a tired body in a hot bath. She had made a fool of him because he had chosen to be off guard. Merely to be known, merely to be understood is what most of us desire, as though a divine ray will surely dazzle every true observer, as though, in fact, clear understanding would not bring a harvest of sneers and laughter. But the end of all is that one must work and never let the mind be still. He had dodged that truth and lost his happiness with his wife by the evasion. He had wished for gaiety and forgotten that the serious souls are apt to be the gentle ones also; and, though he had known that there was gold to be found in her, he had shrunk from the labor. Now he had come home to her "special occasion" drunk or half drunk. He spoke the words softly and then tried to rub the thick numbness out of his upper lip. What he would say to Margaret began to enter his throat and his hands.
The car stopped. He got out and looked at the face of his house, all obscured with vines in which the wind kept up a gently rushing sound, like that of water. He looked higher still to where the brow of the building should have risen according to those old plans which he and Margaret had dreamed out together; but through the ghost of the lost idea he saw now the dark tips of trees and the stars.
In the old days, before he had learned how much money can be made out of large contracts and two-family houses, as a young fool of an architect his thoughts had dealt with marble and with noble space. Perhaps he had been young, but not such a fool. Something in the past was worth taking up where he had left it if only he could find the lost way.
When he entered the house, he bumped his shoulders on each side of the doorway. That was a bad sign. In the still air his face began to burn. Well, Margaret would give him one of her long, quiet looks.
On a chair he saw the shapeless round of a hat and a blue coat with a collar of soft gray fur. He could remember when Louise had first appeared in it and how it had covered the tall stalk of her body and made him see only her face, like a flower.
He went on down the hall until he saw his wife in the dining room doing something with the flowers on the table. The sight of the glasses, each with its thin high light, and the frosty white of the silver made him feel that his hands were huge, witless things. He would sit silently through dinner, breathing hard; the food would have no taste; it would be something difficult, like pigeons; the women would never look at him; they would keep talking lightly.
He frowned and walked boldly into the room. "I'm sorry I'm late, Margaret," he said. He walked up to the table and dropped the knuckles of one hand on the cold, sleek wood. "Were you telephoning for me?" He had made up his mind to unmask the guns and face them.
She straightened from the flowers, without haste. It was always as if one sound or a glance had told her everything. Now she stood through a long moment considering him. She was in the rosy shadow of the center lamp, and it made her so young and so lovely that he was moved. He had to start peering before he could reassure himself about the wrinkles round her eyes.
"Yes, I telephoned," she said. "Was my voice recognized? I'm sorry for that but I thought that I had to risk something. It's a special occasion in a way, and Louise is still quite fond of you."
"All right," said Campbell, nodding as he took it. "All right. But leaving the girl out of it for a minute,"—he moved the thought of her away with a slow sweep of his hand—"leaving her out, what about you? You've known a good many things for a long time, I suppose?"
She made one of those indirect answers of which she was a master, and he felt she was troubled not by what had been happening in the past but about the way he would accept her knowledge.
"You know that I'm not a radical, my dear," she said. "I'm a conservative and I believe that we should carry on with the old things—like households, I mean," she added quickly.
"All right," he said. "I know what you mean, and that the rest is a bust." But when he had finished saying this, she merely continued watching him in an anxious way, and he knew that she was hoping that he also would want to be a "conservative." Something was going out of him—the old years—like the swift, dear breath from his body. "Well, where's Louise?" he asked. He would carry on for the moment and afterward he would confront that blank night, the future.
"Louise took a lantern out to the pasture," she said. "She wanted to see Bachelor and Steadfast."
"I'll go out and find her," said Campbell, turning gladly.
"Wait a moment. Don't you want a cup of strong coffee?" she asked.
He saw the sense of that. "Yes," he said, facing about. "Some strong coffee. And put something in it, will you?"
That meant morphine. At least he could thank God that Margaret had enough brains not to be horrified by the thought of the drug. She had known, during these last years, that he used morphine after he had been drinking; it helped to take the jitters out of the nerves. But now she kept on in one of her silences for quite a time. He had not been very sure of his "S" in that last sentence, and perhaps she was going to be disgusted. He could not be sure, because he could not see her face very clearly. Nothing was very clear. He wanted another drink. The silence went on for two or three great seconds.
"Now, look here," he said, "I'm not going to have you upstage with me." He gripped his hands. The tips of his fingers slipped on the wet of the palms. Anger rushed and thundered in him. "None of this damn' pale martyr stuff. I won't have it. A man takes a drink—why, hell, I won't have you being the offended saint and all that damn' business. Get—get me that coffee!"
She actually waited for another moment.
"All right," she said. "I'll bring it to you."
She went through the swing-door to the pantry, opening it slowly, letting it close so slowly behind her that it made no swishing back and forth. This deliberation made him catch in a deep breath of anger and stir a little so that he saw himself suddenly in the wide mirror above the sideboard, his face deeply set behind the big bright images of the silver. His hand went up quickly to the bald spot to cover the sheen of it. He pulled his fingers down over the soft puffing of his cheeks. He turned his head until he saw the hanging fold of flesh beneath the chin. Even if he got rid of his belly, there was nothing to be done about the face; if he thinned it, there would be more repulsive flabbiness of skin to hang about the eyes and the smile.
Margaret came in with her eyes down on the coffee cup. She had a way of giving a religious solemnity, a processional beauty to her smallest movements.
He took the cup. The phial lay on the saucer beside it.
The little bottle was still sealed, and that meant there was a lot of power within the pinch of a thumb and forefinger, a lot of sleep. He kept on looking at Margaret and stealing toward the truth through darkness until he came into the light of full comprehension. She was watching him as a doctor might watch a patient whose chances are doubtful. Of course she had no real hope, but she would fight to the end to keep the home intact to all appearance. That would be for the sake of the girl. He also had once been very near Louise, but that was back in the old days, at the time when he had won the point-to-point on gray Crucible and little Louise had wept with happiness and pride.
"What's the matter?" asked Margaret, with a gasp in her breathing. "What are you thinking of?" And she came quickly up to him.
He put out his hand to keep her away, but his hand patted her shoulder. The drink was beginning to go out of him in clouds. It left the familiar weakness in his knees. The chill that came up through the center of him might be fear or exhaustion. An idea began to flicker into his consciousness, dimly and from far away. When he was alone it would be clear. His wife was coming across years of distance to him. Her eyes begged as though she feared a judgment.
"Smile for me, Meg," he said. "Then go out and keep Louise occupied for fifteen minutes. I'll be in the library, pulling myself together."
She left him hesitantly, forcing herself away. As she reached the door, she tried to smile. "It's going to be all right," said Campbell. Then she passed into the dimness of the hall. Now that she was turned, seeing her slenderness like that of a girl, the sweetness of the past came over him and the vain desire to return to it. It was a sort of homesickness for which the Germans have a better word—home-woe.
He felt sick; he was weak, and yet his mind worked so clearly that he knew this was an end, not a beginning.
As he had promised, he went into the library, carrying with him the cup of coffee, like the bitter conscience that would have to temper his thinking. As soon as he entered it, he regretted having chosen the library because it could never be a place of peace; in those days to which he could make no return he had spent too many hours of struggle and high hope in this room. The big drawing board was still in the corner; he knew every stroke of the unfinished design on it.
He sat down in a deep, soft chair, putting the cup on the little side table. There was no other light than that from the floor lamp beside him. He would have to make up his mind; he would have to finish grappling with that idea which was approaching him from the distance before the coffee was cold.
He was alone. When he looked about, he could recognize only a few of his books which were in light-colored bindings. The Rabelais, for instance, was distinguishable because it was done in unstained Levant morocco, and the polished vellum of a photographic reprint of Caxton's Chaucer shone like a lighted candle; but he could not find Thucydides, the clear thinker. The dark red of that leather was lost among sober shadows. But even Thucydides, calm and great, would be little help to him. He had forgotten almost everything except the seventh book, and that was an empire's ruin. He had forgotten too much. In his youth he had done his reading; afterward he had bound the volumes and put them away on shelves.
However, a man should not shrink from being alone. As the panic grew, he wanted to throw open a window and call for Meg, but she could not help; she could not follow where he had to go with his thoughts. It was easier to send the mind back into the past, discovering half-remembered moments of delight, until he arrived, finally, at that picture of the clean-jawed young fighter which stood on the table in Margaret's room. That was the fellow, also, who rode Crucible in the point-to-point. He shrank from that and found himself launched into the future, while his heart sickened. He was not even making money; there, too, he was only a parasite that lived on the past. As for the time to come—well, already he wanted another drink.
So he opened the little bottle and poured it in, to the last crystal.
Then he raised the cup with a strong temptation to pour it all down his throat at a single gulp, covering the irrevocable distance at a stride; but then it came to him that he, who had posed as a connoisseur, ought to proceed with a more civilized deliberation now that he was tasting death. So he only took a good swallow and then lowered the cup gently into its saucer.
The taste was very strong, the bitterness working into the roots of his tongue. The beauty of the thing was that only Meg would know the truth. As for the family doctor, he had understood for a long time that Campbell took morphine and had warned him repeatedly about an overdose.
A soft, warm rushing began in his head, which was proof that even in the single swallow he had taken as much of the drug as made up his ordinary dose. When he took the rest, the end would come quickly. He had expected a last-moment panic which might make him break off with the act unaccomplished, but there was no fear at all. He wanted to run to the window and call in Margaret and Louise. He wanted to tell them that he was about to die but that he was unafraid. This, however, would spoil everything; the best was that Louise should find him smiling. As for Margaret, he ought to leave her a note to tell her what a happiness this was; but still the nature of a woman can be sweetened by some regret.
The telephone rang across the hall, not loudly. Coming at this moment, the call made him smile, for in a little time he would have outstepped even the reach of electricity, and even light leaping forward through millions of years could never overtake him.
The bell was ringing, fading, pausing, ringing, fading, pausing, ringing. In this modern world we supply ourselves with mechanical bodies, with electric nerves that reach round the earth, and it is for that reason that we never can be alone. Someone was calling up to ask them for bridge or a cocktail party, someone inert, unexpectant of anything beyond roast chicken and ice cream and highballs through the evening, someone who could not dream that his telephone call was tapping insistently at the door of death. This fancy charmed Campbell; suppose that he could open the door wide enough, suddenly, to draw that unknown with him into the empty darkness!
Then it occurred to him that the noise of the bell might bring Margaret or Louise suddenly back to the house before the coffee was finished, or at least before the morphine had done its work. So he put the cup aside and went out to the telephone.
When he spoke into the receiver, the voice of Cherry Mayberry sprang out to answer him, like music and a light pouring into his brain.
"I prayed that you'd be the one to answer. Otherwise I couldn't have talked. I would have had to ring off."
He said, "I'm busy, Cherry." Yet he wanted to stand there and listen.
"I know you're busy, but I'll only take thirty seconds. Will you listen, darling? Will you please listen?"
Does one say of a Stradivarius, "This is a good or an evil instrument"? Well, concerning women also many a wise man has cast away the standards of moral judgment and let the beauty, good or evil, flow into the soul. She was lying; she was panting from the fullness of her lie, never to understand how all-knowing death was now helping him to smile. The sweetness and the breaking of her voice plucked at strings near his heart and made them answer.
"Why, I'm listening," he had said.
"I sent him away," cried Cherry. "I couldn't stand his silly young face. It just made the house more empty. I sent him away. I'm not trying to tell you anything. I'm only saying something. Darling, darling, I'm bad. I've always been bad. Maybe I always will be bad. Just tell me that you'll see me once more. I don't care why—just come and damn me—just—"
"Steady!" said Campbell. "I'm an old man, Cherry. I'm a soft, flabby pulp of an old man, and you know it."
"I do know it," said Cherry. "I know you're soggy with booze a lot of the time too. I don't know why I love you. I don't want to love you. But, oh, God, the house is so empty, and I'm so empty and lonely."
"Hush," said Campbell. "Don't be excited."
"Do you mean it?" she pleaded. "Do you mean I'm not to be excited?"
"Come, come," said Campbell. "This is all nonsense. We'll see about things later on. I have to ring off."
"Don't ring off. Give me ten seconds more to tell you that—"
Firmly, like one delivering a blow with an edged weapon, he struck the receiver back on the hook and stood a moment half smiling and half frowning. Of course she had been lying and yet not altogether lying either. For if you think of a girl like Cherry Mayberry for a moment, you understand that you are considering a tiger that easily will be urged to strike, as she had struck at him this evening. As for young Bob, well, it was true that there was a certain emptiness about his face, and a girl of experience might prefer more maturity. She cost a lot of money, but then there was a lot of Cherry. She had said she knew he was old and soft; she had said that he was soggy with drink a lot of the time too. That was honesty. Between thieves also there is honesty. And perhaps he had become a habit, insidious and surprising to her, an obsession whose force she could not realize until he had walked out of her house quietly without reviling her, in the calmness of strength. Well, he had her back, and after a break the knot is the strongest place in the cord.
The door of the library, dimly lighted, opened before him the straight road to the end of things. Suddenly he clicked his teeth and turned his shoulder to it. The voice of Louise was coming in laughter toward the front door. It was a young voice as thin and clean as rays of starlight and there was an upward springing in it, as life should be at the beginning.