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"I can't be a hermit," she protested. "I have to meet people; and I'm human. I-I need friends. can't help it if the moment I get tired and blue and let somebody kiss me he loses his head."
"You won't need to help it much longer. Oh, I know you, my dear. You like to play hell, and you generally succeed."
He paused to let her think it over, and supply instances from history. He and she and everybody knew she had played exactly that with Ronnie, for all that she was rather nice to him. Ronnie might have gone far, if Alicia's tongue hadn't raised up a new enemy before him at every turn.
But I still don't see why you want me. I amuse you-well, I amuse most people. But nobody else seems to want me around the house-"
"The Dash of Bitters," he observed. "Good for a strong stomach
like mine. You see things with hellish clearness. Most of us can't stand it, but I can. Having no reputation of my own to lose, I enjoy watching you prick holes in other people's reputations."
"So you'd like to settle down with me to-slippered ease?"
"Not a bit. Keeping up with you would keep me young; my money would keep you young. You're tired, Alicia. You work hard. Either of your jobs offers unlimited opportunity for blackmail, but some quirk keeps you honest, and poor. Five years more of the grind, and you'll be old. Your beauty is the tricky kind; just a shade in the wrong direction, and it's gone. Marry me-sleep till noon every day, with a clever maid to take care of you and you'll come back in a blaze
"Why do you want me?" she asked. "You don't seem to think I'm good-looking, and you say I'm always playing hell."
"I want you because you amuse You ought to want me because I rest you. Ten years ago we'd have murdered each other on the honeymoon. But we're getting on. We'd be a good match now."
"So I amuse you, do I? Ah, my of glory for seven or eight years more. dear, if you only knew—” Then, when you're forty-five and I'm sixty, we can lean back on the cushions of the limousine and watch the traffic go by."
"Knew all the things you've said about me? I know them. Everybody knows them. Things you say get around. But you can't hurt me because I have nothing to loseplenty of money and no reputation. You can't hurt me by saying things about me; and you couldn't hurt me, as my wife, by saying things about other people. I'm rich enough to stand it."
"No!" she said furiously. "No? Why not? Don't want to marry for money? What else do ladies of thirty-eight marry for? . . . Love?"
As Ronnie hadn't been .. "Yes," said Alicia suavely, "since you've survived two indictments and an alienation suit I don't suppose anything I might say could hurt you.
"N-no," she conceded, hating herself for not being able to say it with more assurance. "Not love-but what it does to you. Excitement And to-to build something-" He was laughing silently.
"I didn't dream there was so much strawberry syrup in the dash of
bitters. You're not much of a builder, Alicia. Your talent runs to tearing down. A very useful talent -I'm not decrying it; but don't try to build. Better buy into an established concern. . . . Really, my dear, you surprise me."
Alicia didn't doubt it. She had surprised herself. For years that streak of sentiment had shown itself only in the inverted reaction of sardonic cynicism; nobody but Alicia had known it was there. And now she had betrayed it to the last man in the world who would find it attractive.
"All the same," she said, though not quite so fiercely, "no."
"As you please. You may change your mind when you look into your glass to-morrow morning."
"After dancing till half-past three,” she admitted, “one is apt to look a little woebegone at breakfast." (They were going on, after dinner, to the Wade Settlement Ball.)
"True. But when you're ready to go to bed at nine o'clock every evening it will be too late-even for me. I'm probably the only man you've ever known ten years without turning him into an enemy; but even my curious fancy may not last forever. I don't mind the tongue, but I'm rather exacting about the face."
Angry and disquieted, she would not meet his eyes; her glance slanted away over his shoulder; absently she smiled and nodded.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"Leashe the playwright?" She nodded; he turned and stared at a dark man, his fresh-shaven cheeks. faintly blue, who sat by the farther wall.
"Mean-looking rascal," said Hol
derness. "Isn't he the one who loses wives?"
"Two of them died. The third ran off with a radio announcer."
"Ah, yes; I remember. They call him Bluebeard."
"I started that," said Alicia with a reminiscent smile.
"It sounds like something you started. Does Leashe know it?"
"Oh, yes. He's responded in kind. He told somebody that if there ever was another world war it would be my fault."
"Yes, that line's gone around too." "I suppose so. But I see things, and why shouldn't I say them? I can stand what they say about me."
"I've no doubt," Holderness agreed, "that you're calloused to attacks on your character. But wait till they start on your face-it won't be long."
"Edward, you're unendurable tonight!"
"I see things, so why shouldn't I say them? . . . What happened to Leashe's wives?"
"One of them was killed in an automobile accident. . . . No, he wasn't driving."
"Then he may not relish being called Bluebeard, if he happened to care for the woman."
"Probably he doesn't relish it. But why should it worry you?"
"Because I'd like to break his neck for the things he's said about you. Sorry, my dear, if I intrude a feeling that seems out of place in our cool relationship; but I happen to feel that way."
"If you tried to break the necks of all the people who say things about me,' e," said Alicia, "you'd be pretty busy."
"I know it. Besides, one doesn't break necks any more."
"No," she said, "only banks." She looked up, startled; that had popped out before she thought. One of the high points in Holderness's career had been the breaking of a bank, not at Monte Carlo. (The jury, fortunately, had disagreed.)
"See?" he said. "You're utterly incurable. Nobody else in the world would stand for that sort of thing, but I can. We'd get along." "Perhaps, but-give me a little more time."
"If you like; but don't take too much time. Your charms won't keep.'
most observers, but the type of beauty that is only a hair's breadth from downright ugliness. Before breakfast it was apt to be ugliness now; to people who hated her-and there were more of them every year -it was perilously near ugliness even when animated by her restless fire.
The fire was growing fitful; there were patches of gray in the dull black hair-hair so notoriously black that she didn't dare turn it coppery with henna. The figure was still satisfactory, but the face was going. Rest and luxury and expert care could preserve it for another decade; but it might go to pieces in three years more of work and worry and this constant alertness against everpresent animosity.
The animosity was her own creation, but it was too late to help that now. When she was young and merry, people had liked her biting wit; they had spoiled her like a playfully scratching kitten. And now the kitten had become a somewhat mature pussy who was expected to purr on the hearth-rug and had never learned how.
One by one her admirers had dropped off-all but Holderness. She had always felt obscurely that to marry a rich man would be disloyal to Ronnie, who might have been rich but for her; but she couldn't marry a poor man. (Not that, rich or poor, she would marry another man like Ronnie-soft on the surface, smooth and hard within.)
There were of course special reasons for not marrying Holderness. When he said he had no reputation, he praised himself too highly. The reputation, and the traits that had
made it, were amusing in a dinnerpartner but might become a trifle onerous in a husband. But who else was there? Marriageable men whom a sophisticated lady of thirtyeight might endure are appallingly few, and more appallingly cautious. With her face going, Holderness might be her last suitable chance. He knew that; he could afford to play his hand face up on the table. He was sure.
"No!" Alicia said it aloud, startling the maid out of a doze; then flushed slowly at the girl's hasty:
"Did you ask for something, madame?"
Matthew Leashe, frowning over his cigar, knew that people around the dining-room were pointing him out. Leashe the great playwrighttwo Pulitzer Prizes, four year-long runs on Broadway, two unsuccessful prosecutions by the Vice Society. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, they talked of his tragic life; for that too was a matter of public record.
They were saying, perhaps, that he looked sad; that he must be thinking of the beautiful women who had loved him, and married him, and left him.
Mr. Leashe's sadness, in fact, had nothing to do with beautiful women; he was thinking about the poor business on the road this season and the troublesome second act of the play he was writing. He had wanted to forget that play at dinner, and at the Wade Settlement Ball; but Alicia Rayleigh, crossing his line of vision, had brought it back to mind. There was a woman in the play rather like Alicia Rayleigh, a dreadful woman; and it was his business to make her sympathetic.
"Nothing I can get. . . . Think I look fit to go to a dance?"
"Madame is very distinguished-" Distinguished! thought Alicia. My God! Even the maids see it.
A dance . . . Back home in Memphis, twenty years ago, something had always happened at dances. If it didn't happen of its own accord, Alicia could make it happen. But that had been twenty years ago. . . .
With her evening-cape drawn about her so as to make the best of her admirable figure, she swept back to Holderness's table. "Ready, Edward?"
Matthew Leashe bit through his cigar with a nervous start. Till this moment it had never occurred to him that Miss Duvetyne might intend to become the fourth Mrs.
"Always, my dear-if you don't Leashe; but now that the horrid make me wait too long."
suspicion had come to mind there rushed in a whole swarm of corroborative details that had only been waiting their cue. Beyond doubt, the woman meant to marry him; and if she meant to of course she would.
For Matthew Leashe-this was his guarded secret-had always been helpless with women. He never knew what to say to them, and so he always ended by saying what they wanted to hear. His brusque man
Not too sympathetic, of course; she mustn't detract from the heroine. Miss Dolores Duvetyne, who was to create the heroine, would never tolerate that. Miss Duvetyne had been rather troublesome about the play already; unduly troublesome, considering that she wasn't married to him. . . .
ner, the hard cynical brilliance of his comedies, had been erected as a fortress to cover his weakness, a fortress apparently so impregnable that it usually discouraged attack. Only three women had ventured close enough to discover that the formidable stonework of the fortress was nothing but papier-mâché; and these women had all married him.
He knew what people thought of those three marriages. Bluebeard, that damned woman had called him, and the name had stuck. But Dolores Duvetyne knew better. She was extravagant and could find use for a rich husband. She was a clever woman; she knew him. And Dolores, after the play, was coming to the Wade Settlement Ball. He had meant to go late and meet her. He would have to go; Aunt Regina expected him. But Mr. Leashe decided to go early and leave before Miss Duvetyne arrived.
For his Fatal Mood was on him, the mood that recurred like an eclipse and almost as exactly calculable, when the great playwright felt lonesome and helpless, desperately afraid of the world he seemed to bestride. In that mood, three times, he had been married. Quite often enough. . .
He withdrew from thoughts of Miss Duvetyne, back to this part that must be made sympathetic. The discovery of good in the worst characters was a feature of Mr. Leashe's plays which always went big on Broadway, where perhaps most people needed some reassurance that they were not so bad after all. This dreadful woman in his play was to be at least devoted to her husband and her children. Two children-that
was the right number. Alicia Rayleigh crossed his field of vision again, passing out with Holderness. Dreadful woman-yet Holderness was worse. The Mrs. Rayleighs, Leashe reflected comfortably, make their own hell. That point, astutely brought out
He wished he knew how she feltabout her work, about the assorted hells she made for herself and others. That was the thing; first-hand information, the stuff of life. If he knew how she felt, it might give him an angle; and an angle was the thing, when you were trying to win sympathy for a dreadful woman.
Miss Regina Van Studdiford, stately and serene in her box, looked down at the soft-lit dancing-floor. Silver hair and silver gown, throat and shoulders revealed where possible, hidden where necessary under pearls and diamonds, made her a point of cool icy brilliance in the bright-hued ball-room. The dancers swayed and clustered, moved slowly on, each pair repeating the same pattern-black and white, ivory and a brilliant color-coat and shirt-front, shoulders and gown. Patterns, Miss Van Studdiford reflected, had such a way of repeating themselves.
One pattern in particular. This was the third time she had seen her nephew Matthew Leashe dancing with this dark woman in black. Incredible; the whole town knew what Matthew thought and had often said about Mrs. Rayleigh. Yet undeniably he had danced with her three times, and it was not yet midnight. . . . Miss Van Studdiford could not know that the pair beneath her were not the dreadful Mrs. Ray