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Rain In The Doorway

BY

Thorne Smith



CHAPTER XVI

CALM IN A CHAPEL

"I NEVER knew I was like that," Mr. Owen observed some minutes later.

"Neither did I," said Satin lazily. "Like what?"

She was sitting with her back against the wall. Between her lips was a cigarette she had borrowed from her companion. Mr. Owen was arranged in a similar posture, and he, too, was smoking.

"Why, so unremorsefully depraved," he explained. "So ready to accept all the good bad things the moment has to offer."

"I know," she said. "The other things have been forced on you too long. It isn't human to plod in harness, nor is it good for a man's soul to stand too much frustration. God doesn't like it."

"Then you do believe in God?"

"In my God, not in the usual one."

"What sort of God is yours?"

"A smiling God who can even laugh to take the edge off His sorrow. All His good intentions went by the board. He knows what failure is. Should have stuck to animals and left man uncreated. Too late now. He doesn't know what to do about it any more than we do."

"He sounds quite human," observed Mr. Owen.

"How could He be otherwise? He's supposed to deal with humanity."

"I know, but we are given the impression that God is something aloof, remote, for ever veiled from the eyes of man."

"Sure. Women suffer even to-day from the same false rumour. Naturally, it isn't true. If you treat a woman right nine times out of ten she'll skip down from her jolly old pedestal and treat you right. The only reason a woman ever gets up on a pedestal at all is to be seen to better advantage." Satin paused and smiled across at her companion. "Like it here?" she asked.

"It's a swell place," he admitted, "but we can't just park here for ever. I'm getting a little nervous about the time and the store and the state of being of my excellent partners."

"Don't worry," she told him. "Things will begin to happen soon."

They did. Hardly had Satin spoken than a sleek head appeared over the rim of the settee.

"Good-morning," said the head.

"Thank God you haven't a beard," replied Mr. Owen.

"I beg your pardon."

"It doesn't matter. I beg yours."

"Thought at first there was a bit of a fire back here," said the head. "And that reminds me of something. The manager says I'll have to ask you to come out now."

"You'll have to do more than ask," Satin replied sweetly. "You'll have to blast us out or rig up some sort of a derrick."

"It is a problem," admitted the head.

"What's a problem?" boomed a familiar voice.

The next moment the heads of the three partners ranged themselves beside that of the sleek gentleman.

"I have been told you're enjoying the cholera," said Mr. Larkin. "Would you mind flicking us a shot? It might put us out of our misery."

"Is there such a thing as time?" asked Mr. Owen.

"It isn't late," replied the senior partner. "Not at all late for a late morning. And besides, we can always make up for a lot of lost time."

"Are you ready to emerge?" Major Barney inquired.

"Because, if you aren't," put in Mr. Dinner, "we can have some food lowered down to you in buckets."

"We emerge," declared Satin, getting up and stretching her disconcerting young body, "if we can."

"Oh, that can be speedily arranged," said Mr. Larkin. "In fact, I think it best you do come out, or up, or under, or whatever it is. The way business is at present we can't possibly spare the head of the Pornographic Department and one of our most valued partners. Come along. Major."

The heads disappeared. Mr. Larkin's voice was heard issuing commands.

"You take one end, Major," he was saying, "and this gentleman and myself will take the other. Dinner is worse than useless. Only he mustn't expect to ride. Get off the sofa, Dinner. It's heavy enough as it is, God knows. All together now. Heave!"

The edges of the settee parted company with the walls. Miss Honor Knightly stepped gracefully if a little untidily through one aperture while Mr. Owen made his exit through the other. Both joined the partners in front of the settee and received their morning salutations.

"Where's Madame Gloria?" demanded Satin.

"Still sleeping, my dear, still sleeping," said the senior partner. "Such a woman for sleep. She plays hard and rests hard, poor soul. What's a stronger word than veer? I'd like to apply it to my head."

"Swirl," suggested Satin, "twirl, or spin."

"Splendid!" cried Mr. Larkin. "It's doing all three."

"Once more on the road," said Major Barney. "Time is tearing along. These people must wash and we all must eat. Then to the store. It can't get along without us."

"Exactly," agreed Mr. Larkin. "I always like to be present whenever the place is robbed. Things seem to go better then. There's less excitement and scurrying about."

"I hope we're not robbed to-day," said Mr. Dinner in a bleak voice. "My nerves are jumpy enough as they are, without the added stimulant of thieves."

"Spoken for us all," declared Mr. Larkin. "Let us fly. This gentleman will push the settee back. He's new on the managerial staff. It will be good experience. Good-morning, sir. Forward."

With a slightly dazed expression in his eyes, the sleek-headed young gentleman, so beautifully attired, gazed after the departing partners, gallantly ushering that stunning creature down the quiet reaches of the balcony lounge.

Half an hour later the partners and Satin, now spick and span, arrived at the store through the cool fragrance of a glorious morning. At the private entrance to Mr. Larkin's office they paused and turned to look at it—the morning. In the eyes of each was a touch of wistfulness and rebellion.

"What a day!" sighed the senior partner.

"What a night!" said Mr. Owen.

"It's too bad to know how to play," remarked Satin.

"It would be worse to know how to work," observed Mr. Dinner. "I mean, only how to work."

"Don't worry, my children," consoled Mr. Larkin. "A plan is forming. Don't ask me now. It is not quite ready. In the meantime, to your places, but don't overdo it. Don't strain yourselves. We are not in the best condition. And remember, there is always lunch. A cheerful thought."

The Book Department itself was not an uncheerful place in which to spend a hangover, and the Pornographic Section was almost deserted, except for a clean little man in clerical garb who was approaching the counter. There was something about his clean neatness and his mild yet eager expression that made Mr. Owen wish he had lived a better life. Satin gazed on the little preacher with her usual cynical tolerance.

"I'm going to the Holy Land," the preacher informed her happily, "and——"

"My dear sir," cut in Satin, "you were never farther away from that region than you are at this minute."

"Perhaps a book with maps might bring me a little nearer," suggested the little fellow with a disarming smile.

"Do you see that volume upon which your hand is resting?" said Satin. "Well, that's called Strumpets at Dawn"

"How beautiful!" cried the small, clean preacher. "It fascinates me."

"What!" exclaimed Mr. Owen involuntarily, and glanced at Satin.

Even that imperturbable young lady appeared to be momentarily stunned.

"But the Holy Land first," the preacher continued agreeably. "Have you such a book?"

"You will find no end of them," replied the girl, "about three aisles farther down—in the Travel Section, sir."

"How nice of you," said the little chap, the eager light in his eyes increasing at the mention of travel. "I think I'll take this one, too, before I go."

"No!" broke from Mr. Owen's lips as Satin selected the book and calmly wrapped it up. "You can't do such a thing."

"Nonsense," retorted Satin. "It will do him a world of good."

The little preacher accepted the package and turned away.

"Trumpets at Dawn," they heard him murmur. "How beautiful! How deeply religious!"

Satin and Mr. Owen inspected each other.

"You shouldn't have done that," said the man.

"Why not give the little chap a break for once in his life?" replied Satin. "After he's finished that book, he'll need to go to the Holy Land. Now, there's no particular reason."

"After he's read that book," said Mr. Owen, "he may never go to the Holy Land but spend his savings in riotous living."

"There's no such thing as riotous living," Satin retorted. "It's merely a frame of mind. He was a nice little preacher."

"I hope he stays nice," Mr. Owen remarked sceptically. "I wouldn't read that book myself."

"If you did," she told him, "you would find more beauty and tenderness in it than in a six-foot bookshelf of inspirational works. That's the truth. Come along now. I want to show you a place."

By way of a spacious lift she took Mr. Owen to the top floor of the building. They stepped out into the subdued, mellow atmosphere of the Music Department.

"It's tranquil here, isn't it?" said Satin, a new note in her rather husky voice.

"After life's fitful fever," murmured Mr. Owen.

Silently gleaming beneath artfully shaded lamps the pianos stood about on the heavy carpet. Between them lay shadowed spaces so that each instrument was isolated in its own pool of radiance. Looking at them Mr. Owen thought of lovely rooms in quiet homes.

"It's awful to think," observed Satin, cutting into his thoughts, "that many of these pianos are doomed to the grubby hands of rebellious little boys and girls. Instruments of torture instead of beauty."

"You would have to say something like that," Mr. Owen told her. "Always throwing flies."

She smiled at him almost sympathetically.

"I must toughen you spiritually," she said, "as well as physically. Come along with me."

Noiselessly they made their way between the pianos until they came to a small stout door that looked as if it should have been set into the ivy-clad wall of a church. Satin opened the door and, passing through, they entered a chamber of utter quietness and peace. It was a long apartment with a high raftered roof rather than a ceiling. The entire end of the room was occupied by an organ.

The windows on either side were of richly stained glass. But for the absence of pews Mr. Owen would have thought himself in a church. The windows were partly open. There was a feeling of wings in the sky. Somewhere outside a band of small birds was chirping. The little chirps sounded speculative and decently modulated in this quiet place. The hum and drone of the city far below only added to Mr. Owen's feeling of remoteness. Here they were entirely detached from life. It was as if this room might rise at any moment and float away through the blue.

Satin was moving slowly towards the organ. She turned back and smiled at the man behind her. He decided there was a quality exceedingly lovely in that smile.

"Bring your hangover down here," she said, "and rest it comfortably by the organ. Whenever my breast becomes too savage I come to this place and play to it."

In a deep chair near the organ Mr. Owen sat down and rested his head. It no longer seemed so hot and tired. Within him there was a sense of peace. Gradually little liquid notes began to splatter round him like refreshing drops of rain. Satin played. Time swept by unheeded on a tide of low, throbbing harmony. Thoughts strayed idly through Mr. Owen's mind. They were vague, these thoughts, for he was unable to place himself. More like sensations they were—remembrance of things too remote to name. Far-away days and far-away feeling. Time when it was young, before it had grown a fretting beard. As the velocity of the notes increased from a shower to a flood of melody, Mr. Owen changed the position of his head the better to observe the figure at the organ.

"She might be a priestess," he reflected, a little thrilled, "instead of a hard-boiled purveyor of indecent literature."

There was an expression on Satin's face he had never seen there before. Emotions seemed to be straining within her, crying to be released. As he looked at the girl he felt that one barrier had been removed only to be replaced by another. To him she was still as enigmatic and as baffling as before. There was beauty here unquestionably, but now it was beauty in pain, in conflict with itself. Through the medium of the organ her fingers were searching for something, for a completeness, it seemed, beyond life, beyond her days as she lived them. Suddenly she stopped. The sobbing notes fled through the stained-glass windows, but little wraiths of harmony still lingered in the hushed air of the room. She swung round on the bench and sat for a moment contemplating Mr. Owen. Her eyes were large and dark and touched with the spell of her playing. But her lips were disturbingly mocking.

"Suppose," she said quite distinctly, "I should tell you I loved you. Would that do any good?"

"It would be better than a quart of aspirins," he replied.

"Would it? Then consider it said."

"Why?" asked Mr. Owen.

"Because I do," said Satin.

"Still why?"

"Don't ask me that. There is no special reason."

"I can think of none myself," Mr. Owen replied. "No good and sufficient ones. You can't play away the years, you know. I own to a number of them."

"Let me worry about your years," the girl told him. "They're none of your business so far as I'm concerned." She hesitated, and for the first time Mr. Owen detected a suggestion of timidity in her bearing. "Think I'm a pretty hard girl, don't you?" she advanced. "All sexed up and everything—an easy make?"

"Not all of that," said Mr. Owen, "but I wouldn't go so far as to call you sexless."

"You'd better not," the girl replied. "I'd consider that an insult. What's all this noise about sex, anyway? Why make it a vice and keep it in the dark? It's an amiable gesture, after all. Why not make nerves a vice, or egotistical talking, or patriotic speeches, or spying on one's neighbours, or interfering with one's personal liberty, attempting to supervise a person's conduct, or any number of things beside which sex is a mere flash in the pan? As a matter of fact, sex is swell. I thoroughly enjoy it."

"That makes us even," admitted Mr. Owen, "but my greater wisdom tells me it can be misused. I mean, a man so often slips round the corner on his woman or vice versa. You know, not playing the game, and getting emotions all mucked up."

"That's just rotten," said the girl slowly. "And it's worse because it's so unnecessary. People who cheat like that want two things at once. They lack in guts."

"Forcefully if not nicely put," observed Mr. Owen.

"Come over here," said the girl.

He sat on a stool at her feet. She leaned over him and taking his head in her arms, held it against her breast. The moments passed and neither of them spoke. A still room. Only the notes of birds.

"Well, Mr. Man," she said at last, "I'm not so sexy as you think. I've had only a few moments—never a real lover."

"That, also, is none of my business," replied Mr. Owen. "I suspect your good judgment far more than your morals."

"Why?"

"For various reasons. I'm one of them."

She pushed his head up from her and looked into his eyes.

"How long have you been lonely?" she asked irrelevantly.

"How do you know I have?"

"The look's there. I found a lost dog once."

"Thanks," said Mr. Owen. "Aren't we all?"

She was holding his head now rather carelessly in her lap, much as if she were holding a cantaloupe or a grapefruit. Above his head she was gazing dreamily through one of the windows at a small white cloud drifting past.

"Perhaps," she admitted. "Yes. I've been, but I'm not going to be any more. I have you now."

"Right," said Mr. Owen. "But what about the head? Have you finished using it? I'm afraid it will roll off."

"No," she replied with determination. "I want the head. I feel like hugging it."

"All right, but just don't forget it. After all, it's a head."

Once more he felt his face pressed against the fine young breast of the girl. He cleverly contrived to breath without thwarting her purpose. He liked it that way. He had a feeling of having come home at last. Peace entered into his so long troubled soul, or whatever it was that served for one.

"I can't remember," he told her. "And I don't want to.

"Good," she said. "Do you love me?"

The head nodded vigorously.

"I guess that will have to do," remarked the girl. "Then we're sweethearts, you and I?"

This time the head nodded rather bashfully.

"Yes," he said. "I guess that's what we are."

"How nice," mused Satin. "Never had a sweetheart proper. Not a regular one. Are you glad?"

Then it was that Mr. Owen abandoned his passive role and took the girl in his arms with surprising zest and vigour.

"You must be glad," she managed to get out at last. "Thanks. That was very nice. We must find a little place and begin to live very busily together. I have no ties."

"My bridges are down," replied Mr. Owen with a shrug. "Thank God they led to you. Don't let me ever remember—only you, Satin."

"That's the decentest thing you've said. I guess that's why you found me, or rather, why I found you."

They were standing now, facing one of the windows. Below them throbbed the city and around them swam the sky. It was one of those moments. Both seemed to feel it. Mr. Owen did not know what it was, but it was there—all that his heart could carry.

"Of course," he heard the girl saying, "you'll have to be careful about beds—whose you get in. But I won't be strict. Running around with those partners, God knows what might not happen."

As if the mere mention of them was sufficient to call them into being, the little door opened, and the three gentlemen came swinging down the room. Mr. Owen grinned. They looked for all the world like God-fearing sober-sided vestry-men. They should have held plates in their hands.

"At last!" exclaimed Mr. Larkin. "At last! Although I must say, this is a far cry to the Pornographic Department. Can you imagine what I've done?"

"I don't like to think about it," said Mr. Owen.

"Well, you will," proudly retorted the senior partner. "I've declared a holiday."

"Go on," said Satin. "For everybody?"

Mr. Larkin nodded.

"Even for Horrid and Blue Mould," he assured her.

"Sweet man," said Satin.

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