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Rain In The Doorway
BEHIND THE SETTEE
MR. OWEN was never able to recall with any degree of accuracy all of the events leading up to the closing of that day. And that is, perhaps, just as well for the peace of his overworked soul. However, he was able to recall with almost too convincing vividness exactly how the next one began.
On the mezzanine floor of that splendid hotel there was a huge settee, cutting off one of the secluded corners of the balcony lounge. And this imposing example of opulent luxury had an inexplicably lofty back. It was in the corner behind this settee that the day of the debauched Mr. Owen began. He did not begin it alone. By no means. He shared it jointly with a woman who was lying in a state of appalling disorder weightily upon his chest. She was face down, and when he awoke and discovered her there he found himself wondering in a dim sort of way why she had not smothered.
Then, with less dimness, he found himself wondering whether she had smothered. Perhaps she had done that very thing and was lying there dead on his chest. To awaken with a dead woman on one's chest is not an encouraging start for a new day. Had he not been rendered unfit by all the devils of a hangover, Mr. Owen would have been subject to panic. As it was he merely lay quite still and considered things. Should he push this dead woman off? No. If she were not quite dead, such a rude act might finish her. And if she were by chance alive, it certainly would enrage her. Far better to have a dead woman on one's chest than an enraged one. It was quieter. Less disturbing. Less upsetting to a man in his delicate condition. A better thing it would be to go into the situation, to make some reasonable, tentative inquiries, He would do that. So he said in a thickly muffled voice: "Who are you?"
The woman stirred faintly. She was not dead but dying, presently she spoke, and to the prostrate Mr. Owen it sounded as if she were using a large portion of her last breath.
"Just a nameless old moll," she said, "cast up by the river."
Having established Satin's identity, Mr. Owen now attempted to do the same thing for their somewhat sordid locality.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"Your honour," inquired Satin, "am I in the witness box?"
"No," he told her. "You're on my chest, most definitely and disastrously on my chest. I am deflated."
The girl rolled off and looked up dizzily at the high back of the settee.
"We must have fallen down the sheer face of a cliff," she observed. "What a way!"
Mr. Owen then put a third terse question.
"How did we get here?" he asked.
"Climbed over, I guess," said Satin. "Or dived."
"How pretty that must have been," reflected Mr. Owen. "We didn't even stop on the sofa proper."
"It wouldn't have been proper to stop on the sofa," was Satin's prim reply.
"With thousands of beds in this hotel at our disposal," continued Mr. Owen bitterly, "we had to pick out a corner behind a damned divan."
"At least it showed a certain amount of nimbleness and determination," she reminded him. "That's saying much for a couple in our condition."
"Did you lure me here or did I lure you?" Mr. Owen wondered.
"As to that, I cannot say," she replied. "Maybe we veered together, as Mr. Larkin would put it. Perhaps now I'm Honor in name only. A sorry business—what?"
"Let's pass over that," he suggested. "It now remains to be established, why did we get here?"
"In pursuit of privacy I suppose. Or just in the spirit of fun. You know, romping."
It must be mentioned that all the while this unedifying dialogue was progressing a solitary gentleman whose only distinctions in life were a long beard and an inquiring mind was sitting on the other side of the settee. He had come there to peruse his paper in peace and privacy. He had found neither. At first, when these muffled sounds had begun to rise weirdly over the top of the settee, he had not been definitely convinced as to their source. In fact, he had somewhat doubted their actual existence and rather suspected his ears. But as wonder gradually changed to conviction, his amazement and apprehension increased. Abandoning his paper, he listened with a feeling akin to awe. He was a harmless soul but a persistent one. All he wanted to do was to know and to understand. Such persons should more often be discovered murdered in lonely spots. His curiosity was rapidly becoming unbearable. Also he was a little alarmed. More than a little. He was absolutely confounded. Settees did not usually talk, much less converse. As a matter of truth, they never did either. Never at all. At no time and in no place. This manifestation was positively uncanny.
At this point in the gentleman's reflections, Satin exhibited the bad taste to emit several low but penetrating groans of sheer bodily anguish. They sounded as if they had been wafted from some tortured spirit in hell. This was a little too much for the gentleman's nerves, as well as his curiosity. He must look behind this loquacious couch. He must find out. To achieve this it was necessary for him to kneel on the seat and to peer over its high back. This action gave to the bearded head the effect of having been severed. That is, this is the way the head appeared to those lying directly beneath it. There it was, beard and all, perched gruesomely on the ledge of the settee. Which way it would topple God alone knew. And only He could divine what was the intent of the head, whether it was evil or otherwise. Obviously with such a head it could hardly be otherwise. These were the distressing thoughts that trembled through Mr. Owen's mind as he gazed up for one horror-stricken moment at the apparition peering interestedly down on him. Satin failed to see it, having buried her head in her arms to suffer more privately. Mr. Owen decided to do likewise, and this with all possible speed. It was the only thing left to do, under the circumstances. Accordingly, after having satisfied the demands of his terror in one short, startled shriek, he too rolled over on his stomach and concealed his starting eyes in his arms. The head, equally startled, ducked quickly from view.
"God!" sobbed Mr. Owen. "What was that?"
"What was what?" inquired Satin.
"What I just saw," quavered Mr. Owen.
"Describe it," answered his companion. "In detail."
"Don't ask me to do that," he pleaded. "To think about the thing chills my blood. To describe it would kill me outright."
"Perhaps it will reappear," Satin hopefully observed.
"God could never be so cruel, in spite of all the things I've done," the man replied in a voice of prayer. "It was a terrible thing to see in the best of health. With a hangover, it was beyond——Oh, let's sing or pray or talk of other things."
"Put your best foot forward," urged the girl, "and tell us what it was."
"It was a head," replied Mr. Owen, almost in a whisper. "Just that. Don't ask for more. Simply but awfully a head."
"What sort of a head?"
"I knew you would ask that," her companion whined. "Does it matter what sort? Just a head of anything is nothing to be sneezed at."
"No," came thoughtfully from Satin. "That wouldn't be nice. That wouldn't show good breeding. Nor would it damage the head greatly."
"You shouldn't jest," declared Mr. Owen. "This was a most unusual head. There was a beard to it."
"Then it must have been a man's head."
"Ha! Ha! " laughed Mr. Owen in hysterical frenzy. "Did you think I was talking of a pig's head?"
"If you had been," replied Satin, "I'd be able to see some sense in it, because I know that if I looked up and suddenly beheld a pig's head peering down it would scare the lights out of me.".
"Rather the head of a pig," declared Mr. Owen, "than this devil's head I saw."
"All right," said Satin soothingly. "Now that that's settled, will you tell me what sort of a beard?"
"How do you mean, what sort of a beard?" he asked wearily.
"I mean, had it any points of distinction?" explained the girl.
"I don't know the first thing about beards," he moaned back at her. "It was just a beard, you know—all hair."
"Oh," reflected Satin. "I see. All hair. Not a mixed beard. Well, approximately, how long was this beard?"
"Don't even know that, but it was quite long enough."
"Long enough for what?"
"Long enough to upset me for the day," Mr. Owen asserted. "It was a most disconcerting beard!"
"Too vague," replied the girl. "I don't quite see that beard. Now, had it been a long, strong beard you might have grabbed hold of it and pulled yourself up."
Mr. Owen shuddered from both nausea and revolted sensibilities.
"I wouldn't touch a hair of that beard," he stoutly declared. "Not a hair."
"What good would that have done?" demanded Satin. "And besides, it's very hard to touch only one hair in a beard."
"I know nothing about that," Mr. Owen retorted with a feeble show of dignity. "Have you ever tried?"
"Never actually tried, but it stands to reason."
"My reason totters when I think of that beard."
"Well, let's drop the beard," the girl suggested briskly, "and take up the moustache. I suppose there was one?"
"The way you go on," protested the huddled figure, "you'd think I'd studied with loving eyes every line in that horror's face."
"I'd loved to have seen that head with beard attached," Satin observed regretfully, rolling over on her side. Suddenly she dug a finger into Mr. Owen's ribs. He uttered a sharp yelp. "Room mate," she whispered. "Hector! I see it. Roll over and look."
"What! Me look?" chattered her room mate. "Don't be foolish. I've seen it. You look, if you like. Feed your eyes on the ghastly object. Me—never."
Then, with surprising naturalness, the head found voice and spoke.
"What are you doing down there?" it wanted to know.
"Swimming," said Satin coolly. "Swimming. The water's great."
Mr. Owen nudged her frantically.
"Don't go on like that," he whispered. "You're virtually inviting the thing to come down."
"No," said the head. "I mean it. What can you be doing down there?"
"Just flopping about in agony," said the girl. "You know how it is."
"Then why on earth don't you get up and go to your room?" demanded the head.
"Oh, no," replied the girl hastily. "We like it here. We always reserve this space whenever we come to this hotel."
"You do?" said the head in tones of astonishment. "And they let you have it?"
"Swept and garnished," Satin assured him. "With sofa back and rug."
"Goodness gracious," reflected Mr. Owen. "What a woman! She can actually kid that atrocity, while I can't even look at it."
"But I desire very much to read my newspaper," trickled complainingly through the beard dangling above the two bodies. "It's a morning one."
"Then why not read it?" retorted Satin. "We don't want your old paper."
"But how can I do that," the head wanted to know, "with a pair of strange voices directly behind me?"
"In the customary manner," replied Satin. "Or in any way you like. Perhaps if you read aloud we might all be able to get some news."
"Nonsense," expostulated the head. "That would look silly. Suppose someone should come along? There I'd be sitting on the sofa reading aloud to apparently nobody at all. They'd think I was a little cracked."
"Well, aren't you?" inquired Satin. "Strikes me your mental hinges needed a spot of oil somewhere."
"I'll tell you this, my fine lady," snapped back the head. "You're the one who is cracked."
"You shouldn't say that," said Satin severely.
"If not, then," continued the head, "what are you doing down there and how did you get down there, may I ask?"
"You may ask," replied Satin, "but ask someone who knows. Then tell us the answer. We'd be very much interested."
At this point Mr. Owen, assured of the harmlessness of the once frightful object, raised himself feebly on an elbow.
"Will you please go away?" he coldly asked the head.
"Ah!" cried the head. "So at last your husband has the courtesy to address me."
"Am I supposed to engage in conversation with every blessed soul that comes barging into my room?" the man below demanded.
"But it isn't really a room," protested the head. "Not properly speaking. It's a public place, and you're in it. That's all."
"Well, isn't that enough?"
"It's more than enough. It's too much. I want to read my paper. I always read it here."
"Then read it here, damn it," grated Mr. Owen, "but leave us in peace. You have no idea how sick we are."
Immediately Mr. Owen realised he had said the wrong thing. The gentleman belonging to the head was easily interested in almost anything, but nothing fascinated him more than the bodily ailments of others.
"You are?" he exclaimed. "Both of you? I didn't know that. Just what is the trouble?"
"Cholera!" Mr. Owen flung at him.
"Listen, mister," said Satin. "Is there a body attached to that bearded head of yours?"
"Oh, I've body enough," the head replied. "Why?"
"I was only thinking," the girl said, "that if you want to keep it intact you'd better collect its various members and carry them speedily away. This is a plague spot, and you're right in it."
The beard wagged its indecision.
"Although I don't believe you," came through it, "I'm not going to take any chances. I'm going right away and tell the manager."
"Good!" exclaimed Mr. Owen. "He'll love you for that."
Like the sudden dropping of the moon the head slipped from view over the rim of the settee.
"Alone at last," murmured Satin, and without rhyme or reason, placed her lips against the surprised but unreluctant lips of Hector Owen.
"What do you think of that?" she asked after she had finished kissing him as it is given to few men to be kissed, that is, by Satin.
"I'd think quite a lot of it," he said slowly when breath had returned to his body, "if it meant a damn thing to you, but it doesn't."
"That doesn't matter," she said. "What do you think of it as a kiss pure and simple?"
"I think," he replied with conviction, "that it was far from pure and it certainly wasn't simple."
"As to the first, you may be right," she admitted, "but you're wrong about the last part. For me, it's child's play."
"Although you put it somewhat crudely," said Mr. Owen, "you interest me strangely. Do you mean to lie there in shocking disorder and tell me that kiss was a mere sample of your latent powers to destroy the soul of a man?"
"I do," she replied soberly. "Assuming a man has a soul."
"My good, good God," murmured Mr. Owen, brushing the moisture from his forehead. "It is obvious that this woman has no soul."
"How about the body?" asked the girl. "We'll take up the soul later."
"No, we won't," snapped Mr. Owen. "We'll take up the soul right now. As long as I'm behind this damned barricade in broad daylight the body is null and void. It ceases to exist."
"Neither time nor place makes any difference to me," observed Satin.
"Apparently," remarked Mr. Owen dryly, "but in my life they play rather an important part. I don't overstress them, but I observe, at least, a few of the less unreasonable conventions."
"If I ever went gunning for you," she assured him, "you wouldn't observe even those."
"I've no desire to argue with you on that score," he replied hastily. "I know when I've met my master."
"Mistress," corrected Satin.
"Please," protested Mr. Owen, raising an admonitory hand. "As I was saying, I know when I'm licked."
"You weren't," put in the girl. "You weren't saying that at all. And furthermore, you haven't been licked. To hear you talk, one would think I was a cat or a dog."
"I find all this very trying," continued Mr. Owen with an attempt at dignity.
"But I'm not a cat or a dog," insisted Satin. "Am I?"
"No," agreed Mr. Owen without any show of warmth. "You have the worst qualities of both. May I proceed?"
"You mean, may you crawl away somewhere on your stomach?" the girl inquired. "Certainly not. I'd crawl after you on mine."
Mr. Owen closed his eyes and shrank from the picture he saw. He was crawling snakelike through the lobby of the hotel, and behind him, even more snakelike, crawled Satin. People turned to stare after them. They remained turned, transfixed by wonderment. And wherever he crawled, still flat on his stomach, there also crawled Satin, still flat on hers. With a start he opened his eyes to free himself from the spell of this reptilian progress.
"No," he replied in a dazed voice. "I did not mean that. Most decidedly, I did not mean that. I merely wanted to do a little more talking. That's simple enough language, isn't it?"
"I seem to understand it, so it must be," said the girl. "Go ahead and talk if you like. I'll think of something else."
"And I wouldn't give the pale shadow of a bad penny for your thoughts," replied Mr. Owen with a touch of malice.
"All right," she snapped, "but that wasn't what you were going to say."
"No," said Mr. Owen uneasily. "It was merely about that gunning business. Don't go gunning after me unless you really mean it. Somewhere inside I seem to be damn well fed up with that sort of thing." He hesitated and became increasingly self-conscious. "You see," he continued, "I realise I was never cut out to play the role of the casual lover. At times I've assured myself that I was —yes, I've kidded myself a lot. That's the trouble with me. I've deceived myself so much I can't bear being deceived by others, especially by a creature I seem to like far more than is strictly necessary."
Once more he paused and looked hopefully at the unresponsive back of the settee as if in search of encouragement therein. Finding none, and refusing to glance at the girl beside him. he took a deep breath and continued. "Before I came here," he said like one trying to recall some lost thought, to remember some forgotten face, "life had not been looking up for me for a long, long time. I can remember that much, at any rate. I must have been living in a depressed area, and it was filled with troubles—all sorts of things. It isn't clear. There's nothing definite, but I know how I felt, how hopelessly beaten I was in all departments. Don't know why I'm talking like this unless it's because all that grog and wine are still boiling in my veins—doing things with my tongue."
He came to a full stop, and in a low voice the girl said, "Go on." Again he started speaking, slowly and haltingly. "There's not much in life for persons like me," he said, "not much except security and sameness. There are dreams into which they escape—impossible damn dreams, dreams in which they are loved as they never have been loved and never will be. And the funny thing about it is no one ever suspects there's enough material in their beings to scrape together the raggedest stepchild of a dream. They're the steady men with unremarkable faces, the men whose wives other men take simply because the women get so damned bored they'd give themselves to the iceman for the sake of a change."
Unconsciously he had clenched his hands. He seemed to have forgotten entirely that he was saying all these things lying huddled in a corner behind a hotel settee. "They believe in loyalty, and they believe in love—some sort of an honest sporting love—and they are as silly and as stupid as hell. They never take chances, and yet they manage to lose. They never hit the high spots, and yet they land in the low. The poor, spineless saps." The last was spoken in a whisper.
"When I came here," he resumed in an altered voice, "everything was changed. My troubles were left behind and all sense of obligation. I even felt younger, though I don't feel so young this morning. I became a different man, and yet always I must have been that man inside. I no longer want to be moral in the old sense. I no longer want to be steady, respectable, and smugly sober. And— and I no longer want to be so God damn lonely and uninspired. But I don't want to be gunned at by you, because in spite of your low character and all your bad ways, you seem to mean something, and I just won't have it. Then was a woman once. That I know. I can feel it. Where the hell is she now? No more of that sort of thing for me. I'd much rather get tight with loose women and stay tight."
He broke off abruptly and turned his pale, lean face to the girl. He grinned at her crookedly. "That's the sort of chap I am, and you've helped to do it—you and my excellent partners."
Satin's eyes, as she studied the man's face, were unusually bright. And behind the brightness lay other things which Hector Owen had not the penetration to see. There were a certain tenderness and an understanding. There were emotions that surprised the girl herself, but she only smiled half mockingly when she spoke.
"Nonsense," she said, taking him in her arms. "What you need is a nice low-living, hard-drinking girl like myself, and I'm going to see that you get her."
Mr. Owen did.
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