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ness was consulting with mounting impatience, a strolling couple passed the alcove where a graceful woman in black leaned back on a couch while a man strode up and down, gesturing restlessly as he explained his conception of the third and last act.
"Good Heavens! Mattie Leashe and Alicia Rayleigh! Considering all that they've said about each other-"
"I never believed either of them could think up all those lines alone. I'll bet they've always collaborated, mapped out their campaigns you say this, and I'll come back with that-"
This, however, was a slander. The new zest burning in Matthew Leashe was only-he was quite sure -the delight he always found in discovering the hidden virtues of unsympathetic characters. And the character that troubled him would be sympathetic now-too sympathetic to suit Miss Duvetyne. He sat down on the couch, limp and exhausted.
"Like it? Think it will get over?" "What?" Alicia came back from absent musings. "Oh, of course it will get over. Your plays always do. I only wish you'd let a little more of yourself get into them." "They're supposed to be very like me."
"But they're not. You let every one think you're hard-ruthless"It's what people expect. What they want."
"Oh, is it?" She was thinking of Ronnie, so pliant and genial on the surface, so utterly without tenderness within. . . . She looked . She looked up and saw Holderness impatiently passing the alcove. Leashe saw him too.
"Why" She had called him Bluebeard, the Habitual Widower; he had said that if there ever was another world war it would be her fault.
"Why, yes," said Alicia. "If you wish."
"If I wish?" Truly this was like the old days in Memphis. "Where do you live? Absurd that I never knew."
"The Lysistrata. Rather like a convent, I suppose, or a barracks of a women's labor battalion, but—”
"It's a shame," he said vaguely. "What's a shame? If anything isn't as I like it, that's my own fault. I know that. And I'm contented—”
"Are you?" Leashe growled, and kissed her. She had known, of course, that he was going to kiss her;
but she hadn't known she was going to like it so much. She sat up, distracted.
"My dear Matthew! This is " "This is the life," said the great playwright, and felt that he had emitted his most brilliant line.
Wildly she avoided his eyes. She knew she looked pursued now; she felt pursued. It was time to end this nonsense, by one poisoned thrust -something about his habit of marriage. But the words wouldn't say themselves.
"You poor little girl," he said softly. "You pretend to be hard and bitter, but I know better now."
"I know you better too," Alicia heard herself saying.
She meant to say a great deal more than that, to explain that this had gone far enough; but his lips silenced
"Matthew!" she said presently. "You'd better not take me home.' "Why not?"
"I want to think."
"What do you have to think about?" The dreadful Mrs. Rayleigh could manage no more than a rather helpless smile.
"No, you go home alone and think about me. He saw she meant it. "All right. Then meet me at lunch."
"Can't, my dear. I'm working." "Then tea."
"I'm having tea at your aunt's." "That's so. Then I'll drop in.
Good old Aunt Regina! She brought me up, you know. She knows me. She must have seen this coming-"
did. . . . You'd better not drop in, Matthew. Your aunt and I will want to talk.”
"But you'll have dinner with me, of course. . . . Oh, Alicia!"
She expected, upon that, to be swept into his arms; but he stood eager and helpless, like a pitiable engaging little boy. Certainly it was not the technique of Bluebeard; Alicia couldn't help going into his arms of her own accord. Despairingly she recalled a phrase she had flung at Holderness: not love, but what it does to you; excitement.
There was no doubt about the excitement.
The next day, however, was the day after. Alicia lunched alone, in a daze; Leashe lunched with three men at the University Club, in rather worse than that.
"Alicia Rayleigh!" said somebody who had just been reading her column. "That woman is the Black Death. To think that all the taxicabs in this town keep on missing her, day after day. Dreadful woman!"
"Dreadful?" Leashe choked down his fury. "She's only more clearsighted than the rest of us; that's all. She sees what people really
He felt the shakiness of his voice, for he had been wondering all morning what she would think of him, when she saw what he really was in the bright light of day.
"Well, who the devil are you to jump up and defend her? Considering what you've said about
"I never said anything about her
"Oh!" said Alicia. "Perhaps she in my life."
"Then you've got the credit for a lot of good lines you never thought of. But I suppose you playwrights are used to that."
Leashe glowered, and busied himself with lighting a cigar. What he had said about her was all on the record. Still, she hadn't seemed to care last night.
But did she know it? Perhaps But that was hopeless. If she didn't know it, she soon would.
Alicia sipped her tea in Miss Van Studdiford's library. They had library. They had talked about painters and composers, and the decay of morals and manners, and now they had got down to Matthew Leashe.
"Poor Mattie!" Miss Van Studdiford sighed. "An old maid should never try to bring up children. He's led a rather miserable life. And yet he's made most of his own troubles. It makes me furious with him, and yet perhaps if I'd had better judgment However, those women
"But after all, Miss Van Studdiford, he knows everybody."
"He doesn't have to marry everybody. The Habitual Widower! You have such a talent for piercing through to the truth, Mrs. Rayleigh. You make us all squirm sometimes; Matthew was furious when he heard you'd called him that. But he had earned it."
"It was quite unpardonable, I'm afraid."
"It was perfectly true. . . . And the worst of it was, he never wanted to marry any of these women. · · . I couldn't say this to other people, of course, but you are so penetrating; and it's a relief to find some one with whom one need have no reserves."
"He hasn't a reputation for reluctance," said Alicia.
"No, people think he's a Bluebeard. You started that too, didn't you? Well, for once, my dear, you were wrong. Matthew's too selfish to want to marry anybody, but he's like a cat; if anybody strokes him— anybody-he purrs. The boy tries to avoid women in his feeble way; he puts on this mask of cynical hardness, and most women are such fools! But three of them saw through it and married him. No doubt it will happen again."
"Oh, surely! He must be disillusioned-"
"What of it? The poor simpleton always makes this same automatic response when a woman makes love to him. A purring cat. . . . Gwen
his first wife-well, I hardly blame her. She had heart-trouble and knew she couldn't live more than a year. They had been boy-and-girl sweethearts, and she virtually asked him to marry her. Of course he couldn't resist. But I could have forgiven that if it hadn't given him. the habit.
"Then Phyllida-she played the lead in his first real success. Of course he identified her with his heroine-read into her everything he'd written into the part-"
Pensively Mrs. Rayleigh stirred. her tea. Last night, as they talked over the new play together, she had watched him writing all kinds of virtues into the part of a Dreadful Woman.
"Phyllida was killed in an automobile wreck, wasn't she?" Alicia asked hastily when the silence began to be audible.
"On her way to Atlantic City with
another man," said Miss Van Studdiford. "That's a family secret, of course, but you're a person of discretion. . . . And then Laurettethe third-perhaps you knew her? You've seen her, at least. Wild, impetuous, high-tempered-the most unsuitable woman in the world for Matthew. He knew it; he didn't like her; but she flattered him, and petted him, and kept after him, and presently he began to purr. Thank Heaven, she became flagrant enough to be divorced."
"Such a pity," said Alicia vaguely. "The marriage was the pity. She knew that underneath his shell he was absurdly sensitive, that he could never endure her tongue." "Why did she marry him, then?" The question, Mrs. Rayleigh perceived, was painfully pertinent to current history; but she had to ask it.
"Why did they all marry him? For the money they thought he had. . . . Well, perhaps not poor Gwen, of course. She at least was reasonably disinterested, which is one reason why he'll never be able to give any other woman what he gave her. Phyllida and Laurette didn't know till they married him that he spends all he makes, or that my will was drawn twenty years ago and leaves everything to hospitals.
"Not that I blame them for not getting along with him. Matthew is a perfectly impossible husband, of course. He works in bursts. For weeks he lies about the house, idle, irritable, doing nothing, and letting the bills pile up; then the fit strikes him, and he works like a madmanrefuses to go out anywhere, growls like a bear if he's asked to leave the typewriter long enough for dinner.
No sensible woman would live in the same house with him. His wives had expected to be able to lie back and rest, and when they found they'd have to work as they would at any other job, to build something up, and with appallingly little help from Matthew -what can you expect?"
"I suppose so," Alicia agreed. "Besides," Miss Van Studdiford pursued, "his shell is really too thin. It excites women to break through it, but the thrill of triumph doesn't last. To have broken through the shell no longer seems much of an achievement, when you know him. Anybody could have done it. And before long I suppose some one else will do it, and then-another divorce."
"What a pity!" Alicia mumbled. "Yes, indeed," said Miss Van Studdiford comfortably. "There, now! You've let me ramble on unpardonably. I can't talk about Matthew to most people, but it's always a delight to meet a mind like my own. A hard mind, that hates mush and syrup and cats who purr for anybody. . . . Oh, must you be going, my dear? Do come and see me, won't you? I get infinite joy out of those biting lines of yours. It's a wonderful gift; one that doesn't pass, either, like the more perishable charms. Hard on thinskinned people like Matthew, but it's something to be able to say things that can never be forgotten."
In which case, thought Alicia as she came out into the street and looked for a taxi, Miss Van Studdiford ought to be happy.
By the time she dressed for dinner with Leashe, she would have cried, if
she hadn't known that her face couldn't stand tears. For all day she had been going about quite foolishly; the city that for so many years had been black and white and gray was iridescent for the first time in a decade.
But it wouldn't do. That was evident now; indeed it had been dawning on her even before she talked to Miss Van Studdiford.
She knew she looked well this evening; but for the patches of gray in her hair she might have been twenty-eight. Still she felt very sorry for herself; helplessly buffeted
What was it Holderness had said? A poor frail woman helpless in the hands of Fate, compelled to dash hopes that had been raised by hand till they got to the dashing-point. "He knows me," she reflected cheerlessly. "Certainly he knows me. . . . Well! If I must spend the evening dashing hopes, I might as well make a thorough job if it." She sat down at her writing-desk and scribbled:
"My dear Edward:
"No time like the present to break the news that I'm not going to marry you. Nor-if it interests youanybody else.
of course. That was what made it a luxury a luxury she owed to Matthew Leashe.
They dined at Cadenabbia's, in an alcove that combined the propriety of the public dining-room with the seclusion of a private dining-room. Leashe had a gift for planning dinners; indeed it was something of a gift to be able to dine at Cadenabbia's at all. He might seem poor to his wealthy aunt, but his income was gigantic beside Alicia's. To refuse all this was the rarest luxury of all. She must savor it drop by drop; and she was furious as her gourmet's pleasure began to be spoiled by the reflection that the inevitable refusal wouldn't look like a luxury to Leashe. Yet she must hurt him; there was no escape.
"Matthew, dear," she said rather dolorously, "I'm afraid it won't do." "Quite right," he agreed. "I've come to the same conclusion."
"What?" She was astounded and furious. Was the wretch going to cheat her out of this unique opportunity? "Why do you think it won't do?"
Alicia's lips parted, and closed in "Why do you?" he countered. silence. She couldn't bear to tell him that after Aunt Regina's exposure it seemed a little too much like abduction.
"It would be so preposterous," she explained lamely. "Everybody knows what we've said about each other. We'd be laughed out of town."
He nodded. "But I could stand that," he observed. "Let 'em laugh so long as they continue to stand in line at the box-office. Curious-I'd supposed you could stand it too. I