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Rain In The Doorway
IN THE DOORWAY
EVER since he had arisen that morning Hector Owen had been increasingly aware of the presence of his head— unpleasantly aware of it. The roots of his fine, light, strailing hair seemed to be unduly sensitive to-day. Each root prickled ever so faintly. Taken collectively these insignificant individual manifestations formed an irritating whole. And the scalp in which Mr. Owen's various hairs were somewhat casually embedded according to no plan or design hitherto devised by God or man showed a decided disposition to tightness. Farther back a dull buzzing like the far-away droning of bees, or more like a wasp in a hot attic, had been accompanying his thoughts with monotonous regularity. Taking it all in all, it was a peculiar sort of head for a man to be lugging about with him on his shoulders, Mr. Owen decided. There were too many thoughts in it beating against his skull in fruitless effort to escape. He heartily wished they could escape and give him a moment's peace—especially those thoughts associated with his wife and Mal Summers, the rebellious estate and the trust company, his automobile and its overdue payments, certain life insurance premiums, and, finally, a neat sheaf of bills for the various stitches of clothes that Lulu tragically told the world she never had to her smooth, well nourished back. Yes, there were far too many thoughts.
Also, there was another source of worry in Mr. Owen's mind. This last one was especially upsetting. So much so that Hector Owen almost feared to admit the truth of it even to himself. The fact is, all that day he had been mysteriously experiencing the most confounding difficulty in recognising faces which from long years of familiarity he had come to know, if anything, too well. At breakfast that morning Lulu's face had presented itself to him as a confusing smear; which was not at all unusual for Lulu's face at breakfast on the rare occasions of its appearance there. What had worried Mr. Owen, however, was the fact that, so far as he was able to make out, there had been nothing reminiscently characteristic about this particular smear moving opposite him at the table. It might just as well have been made by a demon or an angel. There was nothing definitely Lulu about that smear. And even before breakfast his own face, as he had studied it in the bathroom mirror, had struck him as being only faintly familiar. There had been a dimness about its features and a strangely distressed expression round the eyes.
Disconcerted, he had glanced over his shoulder to ascertain if some perfect stranger had not by chance strayed into the room and become absorbed in watching Mr. Owen shave. Some men were like that, he knew— fascinated by anything pertaining to razors and their use. There was something in it. The sandy, crackling sound emitted by severed whiskers was not unpleasant to the ear. He had always enjoyed it himself. The thought had even occurred to him sardonically at the time that this strange person behind him might be one of the more daring of Lulu's many callers who, unable to wait longer, had preferred to risk the displeasure of the master of the house rather than to offend the laws of common decency. The situation had tickled some low chord in Mr. Owen's nature until he had discovered he was quite alone in the room. For the sake of his reason he would almost have welcomed the presence of a lover.
This difficulty about faces had continued with him throughout the day. At the office his clerks and stenographers, even old Bates, his comfort in times of storm, had displayed only the remotest semblance to their former selves. Then, too, why had he suddenly and amazingly asked himself, or rather his secret self, who for the moment seemed to be sitting unobserved beside him in the elevated train, what business had they on that untidy, jarring conveyance, and why were they worming their way downtown with a lot of damp, uninteresting people? Why had he unaccountably questioned the almost ritualistic routine of a lifetime? Was the world receding from him, or was his mind gradually growing dim, so that only faint traces of the past remained? Something was definitely wrong with his usually clear head.
Now, when this face unexpectedly thrust itself through the curtain of the rain, Mr. Owen was seized with the conviction that he was going a little mad.
Involuntarily he asked: "Do I look much like you?"
"Huh?" replied the face, startled, then added gloomily, "It's wet."
"What's wet?" asked Mr. Owen.
"Me," said the man in a husky voice. "Everything— the hull world."
"You're right there," Mr. Owen agreed. "The world's all wet."
The moist, unadmirable figure that had materialised out of the rain thrust forward a head from between shoulders hunched from sheer wet discomfort, and two gin-washed eyes studied Mr. Owen humbly.
"Yuss," said the man emphatically, but without much expectation. "And I want a nickel."
"What for?" Mr. Owen inquired, more for the purpose of holding his thoughts at bay than for the gratification he would derive from the information.
"Wanter go ter Weehawken," replied the man.
"You want to go to Weehawken." Mr. Owen was frankly incredulous. "Why do you want to go there?"
"I've a flop in Weehawken," said the man in the rain.
"I'd rather die on my feet," Mr. Owen observed, more to himself than to his companion. "As a matter of fact, if someone gave me a nickel, that would be the last place I'd think of going."
"Is that so!" replied the man, stung to a faint sneer. "Where do yer want me ter go?"
"Away," said Owen briefly.
"I will," answered the man, "if you'll slip me a piece of change."
"All right," agreed the other, "but tell me first, is there any faint resemblance between my face and yours? I have an uneasy impression there is."
For a moment the man considered the face in the doorway.
"Maybe a little round the eyes there is," he admitted.
"Only round the eyes?" Mr. Owen pursued with rising hope.
The man nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, thank God for that," said Mr. Owen in a tone of relief. "Here's a whole quarter."
The man accepted the coin which he scrutinised in the dim light.
"It's a new one," he observed. "All bright and shiny, ain't it? One of them new Washington quarters."
"Do you like it?" asked Mr. Owen politely.
"Yuss," replied the man, still scanning the face on the coin. "That must be old George hisself—a fine American, he was."
"Sure," agreed Mr. Owen. "A splendid chap, George, but I've a sneaking feeling that if the father of his country came back thirsty he'd jolly well disinherit his child and start a private revolution of his own."
"How do yer mean, mister?" the man asked suspiciously.
"Simply this," Mr. Owen told him. "If you spend that quarter for a couple of shots of smoke, as your breath assures me you will, there is a strong possibility that you will go blind and won't be able to admire the face of the man who fought for your rights and mine."
The wet figure considered this a moment.
"You must be one of them reds," he voiced at last.
"If you mean one of those snotty little teacup radicals who mutilate horses with nails stuck in planks, I'll take that quarter back," Mr. Owen declared. "As a matter of fact," he added, "I'm feeling blue as hell."
Once more the soggy man studied the face in the doorway. When he spoke there was an altered quality in his voice.
"It's the eyes," he said slowly. "I can always tell by the eyes. Yours don't look so good—look like they might hurt yer even more than mine—inside."
It was an odd remark. Mr. Owen thought it over.
"You have little left to lose," he told the man. "I am still watching everything slide down the skids."
"When it's all gone," the man assured him, "it won't seem so bad. I stopped minding years ago. Didn't have much ter begin with. All gone and forgotten. Don't know where the hell she is or they are or——"
"Please don't," said Mr. Owen firmly. "If you don't mind, I'd rather you wouldn't to-day. Why don't you go to the Zoo with some of that quarter and see if you wouldn't rather exchange your liberty for the life of a caged beast? I envy the life of a yak myself."
"What's a yak, mister?"
Hector Owen made an attempt, then abandoned the effort.
"It's too hard to describe in the rain," he said.
"Guess yer don't know yerself," allowed the man.
"Are you trying to irritate me into describing a yak for you?" Mr. Owen inquired. "That's childish."
"No," replied the man. "I was just wondering why, if yer so mad about yaks, yer didn't go and look at some yerself."
"I didn't say I was mad about yaks," Mr. Owen retorted. "And, anyway, I'm waiting."
"Yer mean, waiting for a better day ter look at yaks?" the man persisted.
"No," said Mr. Owen with dignity. "Let us not pursue yaks. Sorry I brought them up. I'm waiting for my wife."
"Are the skids under her, too?" asked the man.
"I'm not worrying so much about what's under her," replied Mr. Owen.
"Oh," said the other. "So it's like that. Guess I'll be shoving off."
"Wish I could," observed Mr. Owen moodily. "I object to waiting here like the very devil and all."
"That's all I seem ter be doing," said the other, merging once more with the rain until his voice came back only faintly. "Just hanging about waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever does. I'll drift along."
And the figure, looking strangely disembodied, moved off wetly down the glistening street. Deprived of the conversational relief afforded by the soggy man, Mr. Owen turned to examine the door in which he was standing. He had examined it many times before, but always with an idly inattentive eye. Now, in order to occupy his mind, he looked about him with almost desperate concentration. He would think about that doorway and not about all those other old unhappy things. Inevitably they would return to claim his entire attention, but not now. He would look at things—at anything.
It was a deeply recessed doorway formed by two jutting plate-glass windows. The windows were filled with a discouraging array of uninspired looking commodities, so uninspired looking, in fact, that Mr. Owen would almost have preferred his thoughts. He found himself almost surrounded and borne down by an avalanche of men's clothes in the worst possible taste. They were cheap, they were false, they were fancy. Yet, strangely enough, amid those flamboyant ranks of sartorial futility would appear with puzzling incongruity a stout pair of overalls or a rugged group of roustabout shoes. A wasp-waisted dress suit would find its shoddy shoulders rubbing against those of an uncompromisingly honest union suit, a fancy shirt would be forced to endure the presence of one made of sailcloth or khaki. A display of dress studs and cuff links would have as a background a grim row of tin lunch boxes. It was as if the individual who had decorated those windows had endeavoured to keep an impartial mind concerning the relative importance of the labouring man and that of his more frivolous brothers who habitually loafed along Fourteenth Street and infested its gaudy dance halls, burlesque shows, and Chinese restaurants.
For some reason the sounds in the street were growing dim in his ears. Gradually the familiar scene around him was becoming strangely altered in appearance. Mr. Owen was giving credence to the belief that he was standing in a new city, in a different doorway, and that nothing and no one in this city bore any relation to him. The buzzing in his head had increased to a torrential roar. He was tingling with a feeling that something not far off now was going to happen most amazingly. Whether it was going to be in the nature of a rescue or a disaster he did not know, nor did he greatly care. He was mortally tired of thinking about himself, his wife, and those confounded heirs.
A heavy-lidded woman sinfully trailing the scent of moist but dying camellias drifted up to the door. For a moment she raised her shadowed lids and looked up at Mr. Owen. Then she spoke to him in a low voice.
"Hello, sad eyes," she said. "What are you doing to-night?"
Mr. Owen was startled by the sound of his own voice no less than by the readiness of his reply.
"Nothing to you, sister," he answered. "I'm waiting for my wife."
"Just a home body, eh?" observed the woman. "A clean little home body."
"The body's clean," agreed Mr. Owen, "but it isn't so very little. And why shouldn't it have a home?"
The woman looked a little downcast.
"I was a home body myself," she said, "once upon a time, but now I just taxi about."
"Well," Mr. Owen told her, experiencing a sudden pang of fellow feeling for this creature out in the rain, "if it's any consolation, you're playing an open game, which is a damned sight cleaner than cheating."
"They're the worst kind," replied the woman wisely. "The only way to get the best of a cheater is to cheat her first yourself. Sure you won't give her a stand-up for once?"
"No," said Mr. Owen. "That's just the trouble. I'm not at all sure. Be a good girl and hurry away without looking back."
Mr. Owen's eyes, a study in conflicting impulses, gazed through the rain after the heavy-lidded woman as she disappeared down the street. Idly he wondered what sort of man she would meet up with that night and what sort of time they would have.
"She seemed to take to me rather," he mused to himself, not without a small glow of inner warmth. "If I stand here long enough I'll become a well-known figure," he went on. "I've met almost everybody except my wife." He took out a cigarette and lighted it, his hands cupped against the rain. "The trouble with me is," he resumed to himself, "I let myself get drawn into things altogether too easily."
Slowly the door behind him opened. There was no sound. An immaculately clad arm with a carefully starched cuff at the end of the dark sleeve drew nearer to the figure standing in the doorway. A strong, brown hand, its nails meticulously groomed, politely but firmly took hold of Mr. Owen and deftly withdrew him from public circulation.
Ten minutes later when Lulu Owen arrived at the spot with her excuses already straining on the tip of her glib tongue she was greatly chagrined to discover that Mr. Owen was gone. And only the butt of his still smouldering cigarette gave evidence that he had once been there.
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