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The Bishop's Jaegers
AN UNASSAULTED LADY
FACTS were the only clouds that troubled Yolanda's unextensive spiritual horizon. She was upstage about facts—arrogant. And this was just too bad for Yolanda, because these small wings of reality, even when far out-stripped, have a nasty habit of overtaking the most evasive feet.
She was one of those imperious creatures, was Yolanda, who can face anything—and outface most things—except facts of the unpleasant variety. To her way of thinking, they did not belong. And naturally. All her years of maturity had been devoted either to distorting or side-stepping the less agreeable facts motivating her self-indulgent conduct. In this she had been ably assisted by fond parents and flattering friends. She alone was not to blame.
For example, Yolanda could never be wrong, and all the facts in creation were never going to make her wrong. They might make her angry, of course—shockingly and shrilly angry for a girl of Yolanda's breeding—but certainly not wrong. Had she been confronted with the facts of her relations with Mr. Jones, rather than admitting them quite cheerfully she would have done an intellectual tailspin and laid the blame on Peter or God or her high-strung nature or on any other convenient person or cause. She had one of those twisty minds that find no difficulty in sublimating their meanest little impulses to almost dizzily ethical heights. So much for her mental equipment.
As she stood now a little apart from the others on the beach, following with clouded eyes the antics of the bathers, she found herself confronted by several facts she would much rather have avoided. However, even the slipperiest mind cannot easily get around the various glaring facts associated with a lot of naked bathers, especially when, as in this case, the men insisted in striking terrifically heroic attitudes as they leaped high in the air from the sand and the women kept dancing round jouncilly in almost human garlands, while a number of small children stood about and regarded the antics of their naked elders in bewildered disapproval.
If the truth must be known, it was not the fact of nakedness that disquieted Yolanda's reflections as she stood there fully dressed on the sun-bright beach. It was the acceptance of the fact of nakedness that did things to her vanity—the incredible disregard of sex distinction all these naked men and women were displaying before her outraged eyes. The thing just could not be true. These people were pretending. Yolanda would not believe that a man could so far forget his place in life as to look on a naked woman with anything other than covetous eyes. Not that women desired this reaction—far from it—but men were that way about women. It was very annoying, but women had learned to expect it, some even endured it with a splendid display of fortitude. As a matter of fact, she herself had learned to endure the lascivious glances of men. Let the poor beasts ogle if it did them any good.
At this moment, confronted by factual evidence of her own eyes, Yolanda still refused to believe that these men would remain insensible to her fair body should she remove the clothes from it and display it along the beach. She did not go so far as to say to herself that a riot would break out, but she did admit the possibility of a series of serious assaults not to mention innumerable insulting invitations. How could it be otherwise? And the women. How annoved they would be—how enviously sympathetic. It was a fascinating idea. It crept inside Yolanda and gradually took possession of her.
And in this the girl showed herself to be a little less than clever not to have realized the horrid fact that men, when engaged in striking heroic postures, cannot be induced to assume any others no matter how entertaining they promise to be. It is only after they have convinced all admiring females of their virility and physical perfection, of their masculine grace, fleetness, strength, and agility, that they will deign to consider the ultimate object of their peculiar behaviour. Certain types of men when confronted by a beach suddenly become the silliest of God's creatures, also the most annoying. Show them a ball of any size, and what was a moment ago a paradise of sun-warmed contentment becomes a living hell. Contemplation and repose are shattered, bodies are endangered, eyes, mouths, and ears filled with sand. One can only rise wearily and stagger away. Boyishness in man is a much overrated attraction. It is even less endurable than manliness. Both deserve capital punishment.
For the first time since she had become an involuntary guest of the nudist colony, Yolanda was moved by an impulse to emulate in public the example set by its members. She was more than moved by this daring impulse. She was actually impelled by it. As her dress fell to the sand and she stood in her low-cut slip for all the world to see, she felt herself on the threshold of a revolutionary experience. With the slip gone, little remained of Yolanda's clothing, but what little there was, that went, too, falling like foam round her feet on the yellow sand. For a moment she experienced the sensation of being blind. The pores of her skin were startled by the light. She gasped. She shrank a little.
Then, for a moment, before self-consciousness shut down on her, she raised her arms to the sunlight and gave herself to its warmth—one of the few honest, unstudied gestures she had made since she had last been unaware of her naked body some twenty-odd years ago.
This sudden, spontaneous gesture ended in a startled crouch as Yolanda realized her condition. Half frightened, half expectant, she glanced about her. As the warm air bathed her body and the shouts of the bathers drifted to her from down the beach, her thoughts were spinning dizzily. This was an even more difficult experience than any she had passed through under the skilful tutelage of Mr. Jones. Now she was so much alone, so definitely her own woman. Only her stockings remained between herself and complete nudity. Glancing down, she noticed that these sheer, well-filled sheaths of silk had become wrinkled since being detached from the garters. This would never do. Fastidiously she seated herself on her abandoned clothing and slipped off the stockings. Now she had done it, irretrievably committed herself to the official costume of the colony—bare flesh. Slowly she stood up, and as she did so the air and sunlight flooded round her body like the soft, clear waters of a pool. Dimly she felt all this, felt herself a living part of the beach, a little more intimate with the ocean and less remote from the gulls in the air. But dominating her consciousness was the thought of how she must look in the eyes of men, the effect she would have upon them. She knew she was fair to behold, a creature altogether lovely. Then another thought crossed her mind. Should she walk or run in her present nude state? Should she move along in maidenly aloofness, modest, subdued, and enticing? It was too bad they were all playing those silly games. All those men. All those naked men. Really, they were ridiculous. She would take their minds off their occupations. She would arouse them to an awareness of themselves. And the women? She would show the women that the feminine form was nothing to be taken lightly, to be accepted and dismissed by a flock of prancing males. For the life of her she could not understand why these women allowed themselves to be regarded as so many bits of landscape, why they seemed content to make garlands of themselves as indifferently as if there was not a man in sight. Surely this was depravity—this total lack of recognition of the difference existing between the sexes.
Haltingly the girl moved along the beach in the direction of the bodies. Each step cost her an effort. Mental readjustment was coming in fits and starts. At times she found herself timid, at others bold and challenging. Once or twice she was tempted to turn back and put on her clothes. So far no one had looked her way. She had not been spied. But had she? That was a nagging question. Suppose she had been seen and taken for granted? Impossible. At least out of mere politeness a new naked body in their midst should give rise to a little display of interest. A fresh nude female figure among all these men should occasion some slight comment, cause eyes to peer and heads to turn. She would see about that.
When she had approached still closer to the bathers, Yolanda decided she would feel somewhat more assured if she ran a little. Accordingly she gathered her courage and ran lightly and with heroically assumed casualness through the naked group, her eyes apparently fixed on space. Her first passage through failed to arouse the comment she had expected. She was still unassaulted as well as uninsulted. Had she imagined herself bathed in daring glances, or had her presence really passed unnoticed? She would try again.
This time as she ran back she unfortunately tripped over a gentleman's leg and found herself sprawling in the sand. It was not a position in which she was anxious to he found. Certainly it failed to do her justice. Rather grotesque, she thought with a little shiver of revulsion. She was not doing well by herself. Before she could rise of her own accord, two huge arms picked her up and plopped her down again on the sand. The contact had been so forcible it made her teeth click. For a moment she sat there stunned. Was the assault about to begin? If so the aroused male was going about it in a surprisingly leisurely manner. She waited a few moments, then looked up over her shoulder. No one was paying the slightest attention to her. Strange—unbelievable. She rose and hurried through the group.
As much disgusted as she was disturbed, Yolanda braced herself and returned to the battle. This time her passage was interrupted by the arrival of a basket-ball in the pit of her stomach. It bounced off with surprising speed, and Yolanda found herself on her back, getting a crab's-eye view of seemingly endless nakedness.
'Lucky it wasn't the medicine ball,' said a man's voice above her. 'That would have taken the wind out of your sails.'
Yolanda regarded the man hatefully even though she agreed with him. Lucky, indeed, it had not been the medicine ball. Its smaller and less weighty edition had been quite enough. Yolanda thought of the involuntary grunt it had surprised out of her. She found no pleasure in this thought. How horrid! Then, suddenly, it came to her that this was no way for a prominent young member of that high social circle, the Junior Daughters, to be found lying on a beach. She was altogether too prominent.
Once more she picked herself up and scurried to the outskirts of the nudists. She was on the point of abandoning the experiment. She was beginning to feel that the proof of her point might involve too much wear and tear on the flesh as well as spirit. Still she was not convinced. Her failure so far had been due to accidents and not to any fault of her own. She would try again. This time, rather grimly, she launched her body into the naked mass of humanity. An old gentleman pushed her rudely.
'There you go!' he exclaimed with the petulance of the aged. 'Spoiling my One Old Cat.'
Vaguely Yolanda wondered what part of him he meant by his One Old Cat; then, as a tennis ball came flying through the air, she realized the old man was referring to some childish game.
'Why don't you take your One Old Cat and play it somewhere else?' she inquired bitterly.
'Beach free,' grunted the old man. 'Play One Old Cat where I like. You butted in.'
Obviously there was no danger of assault from this infirm direction, decided Yolanda. All that aged creature's life seemed to consist of was his One Old Cat. She turned away and experienced the electrifying sensation of putting her foot down on a living being who had somehow managed to get itself tangled up with her legs. A yell of pain smote the air.
'For God's sake, lady,' said the living being, 'be more careful where you put your feet. That might have been very serious. As it is—'
Yolanda turned away from the investigating creature beneath her feet, but his voice still pursued her.
'You've got to watch your step in a nudist colony,' he called after her. 'If you think it's any fun—'
A sudden resounding and extremely smart slap from the rear made Yolanda freeze in her tracks. Perhaps at last this was the prelude to an assault. Rather a common way of going about it, but she understood men were that way. In spite of her pain and indignation Yolanda kept her poise. Assuredly that slap—such a familiar, whole-hearted slap—must have denoted some slight show of interest on the part of the slapper. She turned and looked. A large, splendidly proportioned gentleman was confronting her.
'Sir,' she said, 'did you slap me?'
'Where?' he asked good-naturedly.
'Need we go into that?' she inquired coldly.
'Oh, there,' replied the man with a friendly smile. 'Perhaps I did. I slapped some one a moment ago. Might have been you.'
'It was me,' said Yolanda.
'Do you mind?' he asked. 'It's a habit of mine. Sort of playful. I see something and I slap it. That's all.'
'That's all?' said Yolanda, greatly surprised. 'Isn't that enough—too much, in fact?'
'Sure,' agreed the man pleasantly. 'If you want to get even I'll let you slap me back.'
Here he turned round and waited expectantly. Yolanda, as she looked, felt strongly tempted to kick. In a sudden burst of exasperation she did kick. And this was her second honest and natural gesture in years. It was a terrific kick. Every toe on her foot was crumpled. Also it hurt the man, or at least surprised him mightily.
'That's not fair,' he declared, turning round sharply. I wasn't expecting that.'
'Neither was I,' said Yolanda. 'I wasn't expecting what you did. I forgot myself for a moment.'
Upon hearing this, the man reached out and unceremoniously spun Yolanda about.
'Well, here's one you won't forget in years,' he assured her, and he gave her a smart kick with his foot.
Yolanda, whether she liked it or not, buckled outward and shot through space. She caromed off several naked bodies, barely kept her feet, and continued on to the outer fringe of the circle.
As she stood looking back at her assailant she was surprised to find that the incident had passed unnoticed. Apparently these men and women were accustomed to indiscriminate kicking. She wondered how they could be. To her way of thinking, it was far worse than being assaulted, far more of a blow to one's self-respect. Yolanda's was completely gone. With a mad light in her eyes she hurried right back, and when the man was not looking she pounced like a cat into his flesh with her long, sharp finger-nails. This was one of the most satisfying experiences in Yolanda's life. The man uttered a scream of anguish and struck out instinctively. Unfortunately—that is, unfortunately for a small, thin lady, who chanced to be passing at that moment—the man's arm caught her under the chin and catapulted her through the air into and upon the stomach of a reclining body which immediately became passionately active. It seized upon the thin woman and threw her in the general direction of the sea. She failed to attain her objective, however, because of a forest of legs into which she plunged forthwith, only to find herself being sat upon from several different directions.
From this moment on, the beach became the scene of the most irresponsible activity. It was nude against nude irrespective of sex or size. Yolanda felt herself rapidly being smothered by the dead weight of flesh bearing down upon her face. The girl was forced literally to bite her way to freedom and fresh air. As she rose weakly to her feet, her speed was accelerated by the feet of others pushing her violently from behind. As a result of this gratuitous boost she continued on in a graceful arc and landed on her face.
'Pardon me, madam,' said a courteous voice. 'I intended that for some one else.'
'That's no comfort to me,' replied Yolanda, grabbing the voice by its leg and giving it a vicious tug.
The leg straightened and a body followed it out of the struggling mass of humanity.
'Be careful of my scar,' said the small creature she was pulling over the sand. 'My operation is scarcely ten weeks old.'
Wishing the operation had been performed on his throat instead of his appendix, Yolanda dropped the leg where it was and walked disgustedly away. She returned to her abandoned garments and wearily dragged them on her bruised and battered body. They could tear one another limb from limb for all she cared, those wild, infuriated nudes. Entirely disregarding the fact that she alone was responsible for making the nudes wild and infuriated, she hoped that the contest would spend itself in a homicidal draw, that it would end only because of a lack of live bodies. She was a bitterly disillusioned girl. Her experiment in public nudity had turned out miserably. She had discovered that there could be assaults and assaults. She had been subjected to the worst kind, the most unsociable and least flattering type. There had been no intent to please, but merely to maim. She would never attempt the experiment again, she decided, as she snapped the garters of her girdle to her stockings, flipped herself irritably into her brassiere, yanked on her step-ins, dropped her slip over her head, and covered all with a dress.
Once more she was clothed and in her right mind. Her thoughts turned to Mr. Jones. She would return to the house and look for him.
When she entered the long, low lounging room she found herself plunged into a scene that rivalled the beach in indignation, if not in action. Little Arthur appeared to be occupying none too happily the centre of the stage. At least five excited nudes were pointing at him accusingly. Mr. Jones was endeavouring to bring the vociferating members to order while Peter, Josephine, Aspirin Liz, and Bishop Waller were lending attentive ears. As Peter regarded Little Arthur, Yolanda read in his expression a mixture of admiration and pride. What had the little man done thus to gain the approval of his master and the enmity of this small but earnest group of bodies?
One of the first things Yolanda noticed was that Little Arthur's accusers seemed to be finding difficulty in putting their thoughts into intelligibly articulate words. It was as if they had found a bottle somewhere and punished it severely. An amazing amount of slurring and mouthing was going on. Several of these angry people were almost whistling. Some words never managed to get themselves pronounced at all, others only partially, imperfectly, much as if they were swimming under water.
Her interest in this little scene made Yolanda forget for the moment her own distress and indignation. That she was an unassaulted lady no longer seemed to matter. Here was real anguish. Here was the stuff of authentic drama. Mr. Jones was speaking.
'Little Arthur,' he was saying in a voice which strove to express patience, 'because members of a nudist colony are required to remove their clothes it does not follow that they must also remove their teeth if they chance to be wearing the removable type.'
So this was the explanation of the mouthing. Yolanda shuddered a little. The five indignant nudes by sound and gesture made it clear that they were in complete agreement with their leader.
'Then why do they go sleeping about the place with their mouths open?' demanded Little Arthur.
'Little Arthur,' continued Jones, 'you don't seem to realize that a person has a right to sleep with his or her mouth in any desired position. Shut, of course, is more acceptable to the public, but the fact remains that an individual can sleep with his mouth set grim or gay, swinging like a gate or closed like a trap.'
'According to his theory,' put in a large gentleman indistinctly, 'no open mouth in the colony would be safe.'
'Some of 'em weren't open,' Little Arthur said, not without pride. 'They was almost gritted. That's where I showed my craft.'
Cries of rage greeted this bragging statement.
'No doubt you were deft,' agreed Mr. Jones equably. 'I cannot help admiring your technique myself, but it was used in a very low, a very degrading manner. You should leave other persons' mouths alone as well as what is in them, Little Arthur.'
'In Gord's name, Mr. Jones,' exclaimed the exasperated little felon, 'what's a high-class pickpocket going to do with a lot of naked thighs? He's gotter have some outlet.'
'As regards the naked thighs,' observed Mr. Jones, 'your question rather embarrasses me. I would suggest that you consult the owner of the thighs. Mouths, however, are different. Once more I say, leave them entirely alone. I must protect my guests and their teeth.'
'I had ter keep my hand in, didn't I?' demanded Little Arthur.
'You didn't have to keep it in my mouth,' lisped a lady with artificially flaming hair.
'Nor in mine,' cried the large gentleman.
'Why don't you keep your hand in your own mouth?' asked a third nude.
'What would be the fun in that?' retorted the small crook.
'You might snap your tongue out,' suggested Jo.
'Yes,' put in Peter, 'or bite off your pilfering fingers. Like Mr. Jones here, I admire your craftsmanship, Little Arthur, but I'd hate to let it be noised abroad that I employed a tooth-snatching valet. A pickpocket is bad enough, but a pick-mouth is just too much.'
'You're all against me,' Little Arthur replied sorrowfully.
'I'm not,' announced Aspirin Liz surprisingly. 'Although I don't hold with mouth-picking or tooth-snatching, I do know that a habit of years can't be dropped in a day.'
'But teeth, my dear lady!' protested Mr. Jones. 'Of all things teeth! Let him steal anything in God's world but them. I'll tuck coins about the place for him to snatch if he'll only leave teeth alone.'
'I'll give him five dollars if he'll give me mine back,' said the large man.
'Don't want money,' Little Arthur replied. 'Don't want teeth. Just a little sport.'
'It's about the lowest form of sport ever indulged in by man,' commented Mr. Jones to the group. 'In my mind it's worse than body-snatching. He leaves his victims bereft of pride and self-respect. Listen to the inhuman sounds the poor things are making.'
'I wish we didn't have to,' replied Jo.
'So do I,' agreed Mr. Jones, 'but this question of teeth has to be settled for once and all.'
Bishop Waller spoke for the first time. It was clear to see he was deeply moved.
'Not only is the theft of the teeth a crime in the eyes of God,' he said, 'but also it is in shockingly bad taste. Of the two, bad taste is the harder to forgive. Little Arthur, I thought you had resolved to mend your ways.'
'Bishop,' replied the little man contritely, 'you don't understand. You can no more keep from trying to save my soul than I can from picking your pockets while you're doing it. Here's one of your buttons.'
'Oh, miserable sinner!' cried the Bishop, snatching the button from the extended hand. 'Now where does this belong?'
Jo promptly started to look.
'There, perhaps,' she said, pointing.
With a startled exclamation Bishop Waller turned sharply away.
'I will find the spot myself,' he said. 'You take my question too literally.'
'It was merely a suggestion,' replied Jo.
'A most improper one,' muttered the Bishop.
From where I was standing,' said Jo, 'it was the most helpful one to make.'
'As bad as that?' murmured Bishop Waller, his eyes darting over his jaegers. 'I must go in search of a pin. Perhaps I might even find a needle and a bit of thread. Pardon me.'
Stepping cautiously, the Bishop ascended the stairs to interview the housekeeper.
'To return to these teeth—' began Mr. Jones.
'Must we?' inquired Jo.
'I wish somehow,' said Peter, 'we could manage to drop the entire subject.'
'I say return the teeth to their various mouths,' suggested Jo, 'and hang up an old pair of trousers for Little Arthur to play with. Put things in the pockets.'
'He might try to wear them,' said Mr. Jones doubtfully.
'Swear I won't, mister,' Little Arthur pleaded. 'I'll just creep up on them, like. It will give a guy something to do. My eyes are fair tired of human flesh.'
'Will you restore the teeth to their rightful owners?'
'I'll even put 'em back in their mouths,' replied the small dip eagerly.
Howls of indignation from the wronged nudes.
'I'll click my own teeth back, if you please,' said the large gentleman with great dignity.
'Click,' observed Mr. Jones. 'My God, how descriptive!' He approached the silent Yolanda. 'Come,' he continued. 'I promised to show you the hot-houses.'
As they strolled across the lawn, Yolanda made her protest.
'I undressed on the beach,' she told him, 'and not a man made the slightest advance. They were very rough.'
'Don't let that worry you at all,' said Mr. Jones smoothly. 'I'll see that something is done about it if I have to do it myself.'
Yolanda's wounded vanity seemed somewhat appeased.
The breeze was warm that night. A moist breeze drifting in from the sea. It trailed scarves of mist behind it and was faintly edged with the tang of salt. The water breathed quietly against the beach. It felt cool to Jo's feet as it stirred round them.
'So you still insist on making me an honest woman?' she said to Peter who was dawdling by her side.
'I wouldn't go so far as to attempt that,' he told her, 'but I am going to marry you good and proper the first damn chance I get.'
'In spite of my depravity?'
'Because of it, Jo.'
'But suppose you discover I'm not really bad?'
'By that time we'll be too old for it to make any difference, my girl.'
'I really believe you're a man of low moral worth, Peter. A wicked man—not good at all.'
'Maybe we're both good and don't know it.'
'Wonder how one ever finds out?'
'I don't quite know, Jo. You just muddle along together. No divided loyalties. No cheap evasions. And when you're through, you quit clean and cold if and when necessary.'
'But, Peter, a man and a woman never feel that way about things at the same time.'
'Then one of them has to stand the rap. It's better than ducking down alleys—happier in the long run. Habit and self-interest are often mistaken for kindness, Josephine.'
'Perhaps we'll last for ever, Peter. It does happen, you know . . . at rare intervals.'
Peter looked thoughtfully at the girl, then turned his eyes to the dark water. They were a little sad, those eyes, and touched with premature wisdom. Love did not last like that—or rarely ever. Most men were on the prowl and so many women felt the need of the prowler. It was the old army game. Quite as it should be. Of course, some couples sat at home at night and hated each other and listened to the radio and went to bed quietly but bitterly, each wanting to be wanted, yet concealing their frozen longings behind commonplace remarks. This business of romance—Peter was unable to figure it out. It was like a moth in the house, only it made holes in human emotions instead of clothes and things. He turned back to the small white figure and dropped two hands on the cool shoulders.
Then quite suddenly Jo found herself sobbing quietly all over Peter's shoulder. Perhaps he had communicated to her something of his feeling of the impermanence of things. Perhaps she felt, too, that desire itself had a longer life than passion between individuals—it was a ruggeder product, far harder to tame and forget. And somehow it made such a mess of things.
'I love you now, Peter,' she murmured. 'That's all I know.'
'That's about all any one can say, little chap,' Peter answered as he gently shook her. 'I'm very much obliged.'
'You should be,' she retorted. 'Haven't I given you the best years of my life?'
'Those years are still to be lived, thank God,' said Peter. 'We'll wangle the best out of them—what say you?'
'I say, you're almost pushing me out to sea,' complained Jo. 'Drag me back to shore or drown me and get it over with.'
As they walked back across the lawn, Jo asked a disconcerting question: 'What about Yolanda?'
Involuntarily Peter glanced up at her window, then stopped.
'Why, there's a man in her room,' he said. 'Look, Jo.'
Jo looked. Outlined against the drawn shade were the figures of a man and a woman. They seemed to know each other quite well. Jo smiled cheerfully in the darkness.
'She seems to have solved your problem for you,' she said.
'Think I should do anything about it?' asked Peter.
'This is more of a surprise than a blow, I confess.'
'What can you do about it?' asked Jo in return. 'They seem to know what to do about it without your help.'
'Shouldn't I at least shout?' said Peter. 'Or ask them to move?'
'Forget it,' replied Jo briefly. 'The leader of a nudist colony has his hands full.'
'Not to mention arms,' said Peter. 'Just the same, Jo, I'm one hell of a chaperon.'
'Stupid,' she replied, 'if you knew women as a woman does, you'd know that each one cuddles within her the sparks of her own ruination.'
Slowly they moved across the lawn.
'Is the dew upon your feet?' asked Peter presently.
'Great chunks of it,' said Jo.
'Sleepy?' asked Peter.
'Not a bit,' said Jo.
'Good,' the man replied. 'Let's turn in.'
'Why, Mr. Van Dyck, you say such things.'
'Yes,' replied Peter, 'I am quite a card.'
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