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Rain In The Doorway

BY

Thorne Smith



CHAPTER XIII

MR. OWEN'S BUFF

MR. OWEN did not know the first thing about this city into which he had so recklessly thrown himself. He was not even sure that he had made good his escape. Had he seen the closed automobile draw up in front of the hotel into which he dodged he would have been somewhat sceptical on the point. And had he seen Madame Gloria, her fair face set in lines of grim determination, emerge from the car and sequester herself in the lobby of the hotel, his scepticism would have increased to the conviction that from the trap he had crawled into bed with the trapper.

A short time after these two seemingly unrelated arrivals the hotel was treated to a third. Satin, with blood in her eyes and champagne almost everywhere else, rushed impetuously through the wide doors, caught sight of Mr. Owen's unassuming back, and ducked behind the nearest convenient chair. This happened to be occupied by a nervous gentleman whose sole desire in life was to be left alone. Satin was breathing hard. Feeling a draught on the top of his head the gentleman reluctantly put on his hat, a precaution which annoyed him a little owing to the existence of a headache directly beneath it. The draught ceased, but the sound of wind—a small, self-contained and irritatingly spasmodic wind—continued. Satin had been covering considerable ground. Beneath her fine upstanding chest her lungs were carrying on. The gentleman's annoyance increased. He arose and peered over his chair.

"Why are you breathing on me?" he demanded.

"Got to breathe somewhere," the girl explained.

"But not on me," said the gentleman firmly.

"If you put your newspaper over your head," she told him, "you won't feel it."

"I've already put on my hat," he replied with a suggestion of bitterness. "Isn't that enough?"

"Apparently not," said Satin. "Do you want me to explode back here?"

The gentleman considered this possibility dispassionately.

"I wouldn't mind," he told her at last. "Better to get it over once and for all."

"I've finished panting now," she assured him. "Do me a bit of a favour, and I'll send you a dirty book."

"How did you know I like dirty books?" asked the gentleman in some surprise.

"You look it," retorted Satin, not thinking.

"Mean I look dirty?" demanded the man.

"No," explained the girl impatiently. "Just nasty. You know how."

"How dirty is this book?" inquired the gentleman, deciding to let the point rest.

"Have we time to go into all that now?" expostulated Satin. "It's got pictures."

"All right," said the man. "Here's my card. Don't forget the book. What do you want me to do?"

"See that chap at the desk," she told him. "He seems to be having some trouble. Find out what room they give him and let me know."

The gentleman departed in the direction of the desk. Satin turned her back and stood looking out on the street.

Mr. Owen was experiencing no little difficulty with the clerk, a man of apparently the loosest morals and the most astonishing propositions. Had the escaping partner known that he was endeavouring to book accommodations at the city's most modern hotel, one which insisted on providing everything that would make for the comfort and entertainment of its guests, he would, perhaps, not have been so far at sea. As things stood, however, and in his somewhat confused mental condition, he was having a hard time in battling against the hospitable suggestions of the clerk.

"I don't want to talk to you any more," he said at last to this puzzled individual. "You seem able to think of only one thing. Will you please send me someone else— someone with some faint conception of propriety?"

Another clerk smilingly appeared and presented himself to Mr. Owen.

"Anything I can do for you, sir?" he asked in a confidential voice that gave Mr. Owen little hope.

"Yes," he answered wearily. "I want a room and bath."

"Do you want a double room with a single woman, sir?" inquired the clerk smoothly. "Or would you prefer a nice, cozy room with two of them?"

"Two of what?" asked Owen unwisely.

"Two of women," replied the clerk.

"Haven't you any rooms without women?" Mr. Owen asked rather hopelessly.

"None for gentlemen, sir," said the clerk blandly. "It's a depression measure, you know. The hotel provides accommodations for certain members of our indigent female population while they in turn provide companionship for our male guests. We consider it an exceptionally sensible arrangement."

"I don't know how sensible it is," observed Mr. Owen, "but it certainly is good and immoral."

"Not necessarily, you know," replied the clerk. "Some men enjoy being read to, or waited on, or entertained in various other ways. It's merely a matter of individual preference."

"Well," said Mr. Owen, "from what I've been able to learn of this town, people seem to think of only one form of entertainment."

"That holds for every town," the clerk replied philosophically. "You'll always find it so. The only difference between this town and others is that here we make a virtue of what they make a vice."

"A startling conception," admitted Mr. Owen. "Doesn't anyone ever sleep alone?"

"There's no scientific basis in fact that a man should sleep alone," replied the clerk.

"Is there any that he should sleep double?" asked Mr. Owen.

"No," admitted the clerk, "but it seems more natural."

"I didn't come here to argue," said Mr. Owen. "All I want is a room and bath."

"I know," said the clerk, growing a little impatient himself. "And all I want is to get you to commit yourself to some reasonable arrangement. Do you want a single lady and a double room or two of them in one?"

"How about a double woman and a single room?" Mr. Owen shot back, spitefully giving the clerk a little something to think about.

"A double woman," murmured the clerk, running the pen through his glistening hair. "A double woman, you're wanting. We've never had one of those. Isn't it rather abnormal?"

"No more than a double Scotch and soda," Mr. Owen replied.

"Isn't it?" observed the clerk. "You must come from a rugged country. Wouldn't two single women do as well?"

"I always take my women double," retorted Mr. Owen. "It's the only way."

The clerk regarded him admiringly.

"It's a new one on me," he said at last, "but it does sound dandy. Where do you get these double women? It might be a good thing for us to know."

"We breed them," Mr. Owen replied in a hard voice. "In fact, I've got so used to double women that I don't think I could stand 'em single. I've a couple of singles already knocking about somewhere. I'm trying to give them the gate."

"Well," said the clerk, once more referring the pen to his hair. "The women go with the room, you know. There's no extra charge. Of course, you've got to feed them, and they don't like being left alone." He paused and looked perplexed. "I'll tell you what we'll do," he went on. "You let me talk to the women. I'll explain it to them. Trust me to handle them all right. You go on up to your room, and I'll see what can be done about it."

"Don't worry. And by the way—" here he paused again and leaned confidentially over to Mr. Owen—"when you have a double woman, what do you do with the other one?"

"Chloroform her," said Mr. Owen briefly. "Or put her in a straitjacket."

Without a word, but looking many, the clerk handed a key to room 707 to the waiting page boy, and a few moments later Mr. Owen was elevated by the lift to his room on the seventh floor.

"For you, sir," said the boy, opening a door to a bathroom, then added, laconically, opening a door on the other side of the room, "This bath is for your women."

"There'll be no women," replied Mr. Owen. "What's behind those other two doors?"

"Guests, probably," replied the boy. "They belong to the rooms on either side of this one. They can easily be unlocked, sir, should you desire larger quarters."

"All I want is this room," said Mr. Owen. "Just this room and a bed and a lot of privacy."

"What about the women?" asked the boy.

"Ií11 ring for them," he was told.

"Sometimes they don't even wait for that," the boy remarked. "If you ask me, this place is a hotel in name only. Never saw such goings on."

Mr. Owen regarded him nervously.

"Bring me a whole, full bottle of Scotch," he said at last. "I'm going to make myself so that I won't know that there's such a thing as a woman within ten miles."

"It's the only way," approved the page boy, departing with his tip. "Sometimes we have to drag our guests out by sheer force, the women take such a fancy to them. It's hard to work with women—they don't follow any rules."

When the boy had gone, Mr. Owen walked to one of the windows and stood looking out over the city. Night had fallen now. Lights in rows and in clusters illuminated the darkness. Rivers of radiance flowed through the streets and boulevards, and occasionally splashed over their boundaries in great bursts of colour in the parks and plazas. Faintly on the night air floated the strains of an orchestra embroidering the deep overtones of the city. In the park facing his window men and women were dancing while scarlet-jacketed waiters sped about between the trees with gleaming buckets of wine. A man in a velvet blouse was bending to the voice of his violin, his fingers stinging the strings along its shaft. The bare arms and shoulders of women attracted and tossed back the lights trickling through dark leaves.

Was everybody happy in this city, Mr. Owen wondered, or was this only a superficial glamour such as any city could show? He felt inclined to doubt it. As far as he had been able to discover during the short time he had been there the entire populace seemed to be much more interested in the way to enjoy life than in how to earn a living. This was how things should be, yet never were. Perhaps the encouragement of political graft and grafters was the solution. In a way it seemed logical. Political grafters usually took care of their friends. If the same benevolent attitude were extended to include the entire population, then everybody would be happy and no bad habits broken. It was a reasonable arrangement, after all, for instead of wasting a lot of time in attacking a system or a moral code as wrong, it took advantage of its wrongness and developed it to the point of perfection.

The boy, entering with the bottle and a bucket of ice, interrupted Mr. Owen's musings. He was tired and needed a drink. He took several and no longer felt tired. Without a blessed responsibility in the world, either moral or financial, and with no fear of the morrow, Mr. Owen sat down and faced the bottle. It was remarkably good whisky, he decided. What was he going to do without a lot of responsibilities to shoulder, payments to meet, obstacles to overcome? How in the world was he ever going to get through the day without a swarm of worries nagging at his mind? Would his character become weak and flaccid? Would he lose his moral standards?

To keep himself from spiritual decay, would he have to start in and endeavour to reform this world? That would be a dreadful thing to do, but no doubt that was how, or rather why, so many reformers were always cropping up to trouble the peace of mankind. They wanted to save themselves rather than to save others. Why couldn't a person be satisfied with his own ideals instead of trying to cram them down other people's throats? God, if there was one, never got a chance. Humanity was formed and reformed and fumigated and eventually embittered before He even had an opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about.

It was not a good way to go on. Mr. Owen was convinced of that. He began to worry about God and humanity. He decided that neither would suffer and that he himself would improve greatly if he had another drink. He filled his glass and rang for the boy.

"I want the largest box of the largest cigars in the house," Mr. Owen told him. "And I want some very large matches."

"Yes, sir," said the boy, apparently not surprised by such an order. "That whisky makes a body feel that way."

Perhaps the boy was right. Mr. Owen did not know. He was feeling better now about both God and humanity. They would pull through somehow. In this town they put reformers in jail, which was a good thing, yet it went to show that the only way to fight intolerance was with intolerance. And just what did that prove? There could be no such animal as complete tolerance until people learned to mind their own business. And when would that be, might he ask? He laughed aloud sarcastically and was startled by the sound of his own voice. Another drink fixed him up. He was glad to see the boy.

"Those certainly are big matches and even bigger cigars," he told the boy. "Where did you get such big matches, boy? They must be all of six inches long."

"Yes," agreed the boy. "They are very big matches, but they're not the biggest matches."

"No?" said Mr. Owen. "Have you ever seen bigger ones?"

"Sure," replied the boy. "Out in the country they make 'em so long a man has to climb a tree to strike one on the seat of his pants."

"Is that so?" replied the astonished Owen, thinking he understood, then suddenly realising he did not. "How does that help?" he added. "How can he strike a match on the seat of his trousers way up in a tree?"

"He doesn't," replied the boy, "but the man on the ground does."

"Oh," said Mr. Owen, then looked suddenly at the boy. "Will you please go away," he told him. "I hate stories like that. I hate even to think of the inane mind that conceives them. Imagine a man being so damned accommodating as to climb a tree——No," he broke off, "I don't like to think about it. You'd better go."

The boy left, and Mr. Owen complacently resumed his drinking, a faint smile on his lips. He contemplated the twin beds and tried to decide which one he would choose. That double woman idea of his had been a good one. It had worked. The clerk had been greatly impressed. He, Mr. Owen, would not be troubled by a lot of loose women.

As he sat there drinking he wondered why he had run away from Satin. He suspected that she had been too bold, too sinister about her intentions. After all, he did really want her. He wanted her more than any woman he had ever known. He could not say why he did unless it was because she gave him a feeling of youth and expectancy. He wondered where she was now and what she was doing. That was too bad, too. The moment a man got interested in a woman he began to wonder where she was and what she was doing instead of just being satisfied when she happened to drop in. Still, if people did not remember each other they would get dressed in the morning, then rush out and forget to come back. Perhaps that would be a good thing, too. No lasting affiliations. Just a good time always.

He pulled his thoughts up with a start. Already his character was slipping. Depravity was setting in. He hoped a complete moral collapse was not far off. One could not arbitrarily dispose of one's inhibitions. They had to be drugged first, then knocked over the head. Still smiling faintly, he rose and ambled, glass in hand, to the bathroom. The tub looked inviting. A man could almost swim in it—a man and a woman. Once more he wondered where Satin was. Then he wondered why it was that a lovely bathroom with lots of mirrors and gadgets in it always evoked indecorous, if not indecent, thoughts.

Perhaps the human mind was so constituted that it involuntarily rebelled against the idea of absolute cleanliness. Lots of people—nice ladies and gentlemen—must look at lovely bathrooms and think bad thoughts. A woman looking at this luxurious bathroom, for instance, just could not help seeing herself in it, and as it was a well-known fact that a woman cannot enjoy seeing herself alone, she would naturally have someone else along with her, and, he supposed, that was not a very nice thing, or, at least, lots of people said so. He himself had better stop wondering about so many stupid things and turn on a few of those gleaming faucets before going to bed.

What a day it had been! Now that he came to think of it, the day had almost been a life—an entire life behind which his brain refused to penetrate. There had been other things once, but at the first suggestion of them his thoughts turned and wheeled about like a drove of frightened horses. A bath would be refreshing. It might improve his character; then again, it might not. Anyway, good people bathed occasionally as well as bad. Who was he to snap his fingers at a bath? He was glad there was no eel in it. Where was that girl now that he was all ready to take a bath? He would take a bath without her. He always had in the past. Why not now? He turned on his heel and began to undress in the casual fashion of the brooding male.

What with one thing and another, Mr. Owen became so preoccupied with his undressing that for the moment he lost that awareness of his surroundings which all males, either brooding or otherwise, should exercise when performing such a delicate operation. So deeply engrossed was he in some knotty moral problem that he failed to hear the stealthy opening of the door to one of the guests' rooms.

Nor did he see the red head of a woman thrust itself through the aperture while two bright eyes studied his sparsely clad figure with frank but unladylike interest. He did see, however, just at the critical moment when he was about to attack the business of doing away with his drawers, the other door fly open and Madame Gloria, in almost as bad a fix as he was, standing resplendently in it. "I see it all now!" cried the lady in a voice choked with emotion. "Everything is clear."

Hearing the dazzling creature for once speaking the truth, Mr. Owen became convulsed.

"My God! " he exclaimed. "What a fix! I can't stand looking even at myself, and I certainly shouldn't look at you."

"Gaze over your right shoulder," Madame Gloria commanded, "and you will see something else again—something that will cause you to swoon in your tracks."

"I need little help in that direction," he muttered, glancing over his shoulder, and at that moment the room leaped into darkness.

In this comforting concealment Mr. Owen stood, undecided as to his next move. As he listened to the strains of the orchestra drifting in from the park, he wondered how God could permit people to dance and enjoy themselves while his plight received no attention.

"Quick!" came the penetrating whisper of Madame Gloria. "Leap into my room. We can carry on there."

"A nice lady," observed Mr. Owen aloud to himself in the darkness. "If that woman doesn't go away they'll have to carry me out on a stretcher."

Whether he thought it was more impersonal or more forceful to address his remarks to Madame Gloria indirectly, Mr. Owen was not sure himself. For some strange reason it gave him the feeling of being less physically involved in the situation.

"I am still here," called Madame Gloria sweetly.

"I feared as much," said Mr. Owen. "But you shouldn't be. Can't you realise, Madame Gloria, that I am stripped to the buff?"

After this announcement there followed a long, pregnant silence which was finally broken by Madame Gloria's voice.

"Listen," she said with a trace of humility. "I've been acting all my life and I've missed a lot of words. What's your buff?"

Mr. Owen thought about this for a moment, and while doing so became convinced that he heard someone giggling softly in the room. Was this implacable woman advancing noiselessly upon him to make her kill?

"You should know that as well as I do," he exclaimed impatiently.

"Should I?" she asked. "Have I one—a buff?"

"How should I know, madame," he asked wearily, "whether you have a buff or not? I suppose you have, but is this any time to enter into an academic discussion of buffs? Maybe it's a state of being and not a thing at all."

"It would be better so," said Madame Gloria dryly. "Whenever I'm like this my audiences are in a state of Frenzy."

"So am I," retorted Mr. Owen. "But you don't hear me clapping unless it's with my knees. Don't creep up on me and spring without warning."

"You looked cute with your buff," came the musing voice of Gloria.

"In my buff, madame," Mr. Owen corrected her. "It's not with. I'm sure of that."

"But you didn't seem to be in hardly anything at all," the woman protested. "Did you get them off?"

"What off?" asked Mr. Owen.

"Your funny little drawers," replied the lady.

"Why do you want to know?" he demanded nervously.

"Who has a better right?" she asked.

"I don't know," he retorted. "I can't think clearly. I don't even know if anybody has any right to know anything about my drawers."

"That's a pitiful condition to be in," she observed sympathetically, "but cheer up. I won't leave you long in doubt."

This threat—or promise—left its hearer so unnerved that he was seized with a desire to drink. The inhibitions he had thought he was losing had flocked back to him from the past. A bath-robe would have saved his end of the situation. There was none. In the darkness he could not even find his trousers. As he reached out to grasp the bottle a shriek broke from his lips as his hand felt a bare arm. His fingers slid down it only to encounter a firm hand clutched round the object he was seeking. This time his shriek embodied a note of bitter disappointment. He had needed that drink and he still did. Was he surrounded by naked women? Was the darkness cluttered up with bodies? Abandoning his attempt to possess himself of the bottle he raced for the nearest bed, and jumping in, encountered a body in the flesh. This hotel must be used to shrieks, he thought to himself, emitting another one and reversing the direction of his jump like a diving figure in a playful newsreel. As he crawled towards the other bed the room was filled with sound. There was a scampering about in the darkness and a vigorous banging of doors. Fumbling greedily with the coverings of the second bed, he was about to crumble beneath them when the gentle voice of Madame Gloria turned him to a graven image.

"I'm here," said Madame Gloria, "if you're looking for me."

"Will you tell me where you aren't?" he chattered. "Only a second ago you were in the other bed."

"Oh, no, I wasn't," came the playful reply. "That was the other one."

"What other one?" he asked in a dazed voice.

"The other woman," the lady explained.

"Holy Smokes," faltered the man, reverting to the vernacular of his youth like a person approaching the end. "Are there two of you in this room?"

"At the very least," replied Madame Gloria.

"Two women and one buff," came a voice from the other bed. "Who gets the buff?"

"From the way he's acting," complained Madame Gloria's bed, "a person would get the impression it was a blind man's buff."

"There's none so blind as will not see," observed the other voice, which he recognised now as that of Satin. "This chap won't even feel."

"Are you two going to chat there comfortably in my beds," demanded Mr. Owen, "while I crouch here in the darkness?"

"Why not transfer the scene of your crouching to my bed," inquired Satin, "and then we can all chat together?"

"If you get in bed with that woman," cried Madame Gloria, "I'll damn well drag you out, buff or no buff."

"I heartily hope you do," said Mr. Owen with all sincerity.

"That works both ways, mister," Honor told him.

"You don't have to worry," said Mr. Owen, "neither of you. I'd rather crawl in bed with a couple of bears."

"No animal could be barer than I am," commented Satin thoughtfully. "Not even a billiard ball."

"For shame," reproved Mr. Owen.

"That's right," said Satin. "For shame, it is. What would a girl do if it wasn't for her shame?"

"I thoroughly enjoy mine," put in Madame Gloria. "Quite frankly, I admit it."

"Well, I can't bear mine," declared Mr. Owen. "If you all don't go away, I'm going to lock myself in one of the bathrooms."

"Who's got a match?" asked Satin. "I want to light a cigarette."

"You do yourself well, don't you?" Mr. Owen asked sarcastically. "Cigarettes and everything. I suppose you've got my bottle, too."

"I have," replied Satin. "I sip it from time to time. Crawl in and I'll give you a swig."

"If he does," grated Madame Gloria, "I'll yank him clean out of those funny little drawers."

"You'd be one yank too late," chortled Satin, and even Madame Gloria was forced to laugh softly to herself in the darkness.

"I don't see how you can laugh," Mr. Owen lamented. "Suppose the partners knew where you were, Miss Knightly?"

"They'd all be right in with me," asserted Satin. "Pell-mell and topsy-turvy. They're not sexually illiterate, like you—not those boys."

"Sex! Sex! Sex! " cried Mr. Owen. "Sex morning, noon and——"

"What are you shouting about?" interrupted Honor. "You've got plenty of sex around. Aren't the two of us enough?"

"The way that man calls for his sex," put in Madame Gloria, "you'd think he wanted a harem."

"I've met men like that," commented Satin. "Never willing to start at the bottom rung."

"I hate ladders in my stockings too," observed Madame Gloria, apropos of nothing so far as Mr. Owen could see.

A match suddenly flared in the darkness.

"There he goes!" cried Honor Knightly. "It's hard to say whether it's a man running away in drawers, or a pair of drawers running away with a man."

"Looks like a running man in drawers," replied the other lady as the match went out. "Wonder where he's going?"

"Maybe he's getting ready to spring on us," suggested Honor.

"He'd have to be all spraddled out to land on us both," observed Madame Gloria. "Doubt if he could make it."

They were not long in finding out. Mr. Owen had dashed to the nearest bathroom and was clawing at the door. It flew open in his grasp, and he looked in upon a strange woman splashing busily in the bathtub.

"Come in," she said calmly. "What's your hurry?"

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