Rain In The Doorway
FIRE AND FAREWELL
MR. OWEN was awakened at midnight by the dream-shattering jangle of the telephone. He was just as well pleased, for in his current dream the unclad wives of his partners had been chasing him down the aisles of the courtroom into the arms of Madame Gloria, hiding coyly behind a whale. Reaching across a protesting Satin, he hauled the instrument to him.
"I've a big surprise for you," came the casual voice of the senior partner. "The store is burning up, or down, or whichever way stores burn. It really doesn't matter—the shop and all that's in it are heavily overinsured."
"Are you going down?" asked Mr. Owen.
"I thought I would," replied Mr. Larkin. "People might think it unnatural not to watch one's own store burn down. There's a lot of good grog in my office I'd like to get out."
"Are you veering any?" Mr. Owen inquired, knowing it would please his partner.
"Stupendously," cried Mr. Larkin. "I'm simply a dance of flames."
"Then I'll meet you at the store."
Mr. Owen had hardly hung up the receiver when the bell rang again.
"What do you know?" came the voice of Mr. Dinner. "The store is on fire. Isn't that a laugh?"
"Are you going?" asked Mr. Owen.
"Sure," said the voice of the little man. "Have to carry bottles. They belong to his nibs. He'd never stop veering if the fire got them. You know, Owen, I sometimes think he's mad."
"No!" exclaimed Mr. Owen. "You surprise me. See you at the fire."
He hung up, then once more lifted the receiver as the bell gave tongue.
"This is Major Barney Britt-Britt speaking," came the heavy voice of the Major. "Is this Mr. Owen? It is? Fine! Do you want to see a good fire, Owen?"
Mr. Owen did.
"Well, come on down to the store," continued the Major, "and you'll see a top-notch fire. Of course, inasmuch as we own the store, we'd get first-rate places."
"I'll be right down," said Mr. Owen.
"Excellent," replied the Major. "Thought you might like to see it. Don't get a good fire often. Then there's some liquor in the senior's office that might bear looking into. The rest doesn't matter. The whole damn place is criminally overinsured."
"The store is going up in smoke," Mr. Owen announced to Satin, who was flinging on her clothes, "and all those three maniacs care about is their private supply of grog."
"That proves to me," quoth Miss Honor Knightly, snapping on her garters with a businesslike click, "that their minds are in the right place. More people should be like them. Why not salvage the gay things of life instead of casting about for gloom? There's plenty of that as it is."
Leaving the hotel they hurried to the store and succeeded in gaining entrance through Mr. Larkin's private office. Standing before a huge locker the senior partner and Major Barney were frantically extracting bottles.
"Good-evening," called Mr. Larkin. "The fire is all inside. Flames no end. An inspiring sight." He turned back to the locker. "Major, should we drink this liquor now or carry it away? It might be easier to drink it."
Opening the door to the huge emporium, Satin and Mr. Owen hastened through. Immediately a curtain of flames rolled down and cut off their retreat. Columns of fire and smoke were rising and writhing down the full length of the vast hall. The galleries were filled with heavy clouds. The crackling was so intense that the place seemed full of machine guns. And above the sound of crackling roared the voice of fire rampant.
Glancing back into the senior partner's private office they caught a glimpse of the three charming gentlemen in the act of removing bottles from their lips.
"We'll build a bigger and better store," cried Mr. Larkin, "on the money we'll make from this jolly old conflagration."
A low, ragged wall of flame ran swiftly across the floor, driving Satin and Mr. Owen before it. At the far end of the hall they were stopped by a partition.
"Doesn't look so good," panted Mr. Owen. "I might bite bears and all that, but I can't swallow flames."
"I feel sorry as hell for the devil," she said, "if he has to stand for much of this sort of stuff."
Mr. Owen put a hand behind him, then thrilled as it touched a knob.
"Quick!" he called to Satin. "Come with me." For a moment the girl hesitated, and Mr. Owen was surprised to see a look of unsuspected tenderness creep into her eyes. Then he opened the door and followed Satin back into the rain. And as an "L" train thundered overhead all that lay behind him seemed to flicker and die out. Dimly, but with desperate eagerness, he tried to recapture something, if only a little, of the past—the past behind the door. The other past was now his present. Once more he was plunged back into it. Raindrops splattered his hot face as he gazed down the glittering reaches of Sixth Avenue. Then he turned to the girl in the doorway, and, like a man still in a dream, he looked deep into her eyes as his lips tried to form a word.
"Don't you even remember my name?" she asked in a low, strained voice. "Satin," he muttered, taking her face between his hands.
"Satin. I remember. Is it all over now—everything? What has ended?"
Honor Knightly nodded.
"Everything," she answered. "We're through, the pair of us."
He dropped his hands from her smooth, fresh face and fumbled in his pockets. His left hand encountered a key. He drew it out and looked at it, the key to his house. Then he looked down at the quiet figure beside him.
"Somehow I know you've been wonderful to me," he said haltingly. "I don't know how to tell you about it all. I'll remember when I begin again—when I get back home." He paused and repeated the word. "Home," he muttered. "All married and everything. I'll be using the 'L' in the morning—just like old times."
Satin held out her hand.
"If you're okay now," she told him. "I'll have to let you go."
"I'm all okay," he said in a flat voice. "Much too okay."
"It's good-bye, then," said Satin, the torturing words scarcely audible. "Don't ever grow too respectable again. I can't help feeling you're still partly mine."
As Mr. Owen stepped out of the doorway back into the rain he was wondering to himself if her lips had brushed his cheek. His old inhibitions had conventionalised his own farewell.
Slowly he moved down the street, his shoulders gradually drooping as he walked. Everything was back with him now—every grim little detail of his days—Lulu, Mal Summers, the office, the threat of business extinction. Satin. Who was Satin? Satin was far behind. New York had swallowed her as soon it would swallow him. He himself swallowed several times. It was no easy matter, How familiar everything was. He wanted to get away. He stopped and gazed into the window of a florist's shop. He tried to ease his mind by concentrating on the flowers, slowly he lowered his head. The flowers grew dim, their colour draining out.
From behind came the quick tattoo of flying heels. Small firm hands took hold of him and turned him roughly about. Then arms were around his neck.
"You poor lost soul," he heard her saying "You poor lost soul. Did you think I'd let you go? God, what a man, what a nice, clean little man! And just because he's married he shakes hands and says good-bye."
"What happened to me?" asked Hector Owen some moments later as they crossed Washington Square in the direction of his house.
"You've been on a mental binge," said Satin, "I'll give you the details later. I picked you up in a department store. You were dazed among a lot of books. Ever since then you've been mine to take care of—and you still are. Keep that before your eyes."
"There seem to have been so many things," he replied, "but a curtain lies between. I can't get them back. Were they all batty, Satin?"
"Not all," the girl told him, "Some of them were disrepeatably real—the best ones. At other times I didn't know where your mind was straying. People get like that, then come back with a snap. There's some sort of a name for it, I believe."
"I came back with you," he said; then, self-consciously, "Do you think I'm so old, Satin?"
"If you must get personal," said Miss Knightly primly, "there were times when you acted so young I wouldn't like to mention them. You were a mere babe in my arms."
"Don't," replied Mr. Owen.
He opened the door to his apartment. The place lay in darkness. He must go and inform Lulu he was going away for good. She would probably wake the neighbours with her cheering. At the door of the bedroom he paused. Out of the darkness a man spoke to him. Mr. Owen shuddered.
"Is that you, honey-bunch?" asked the man.
Mr. Owen felt himself mortally insulted.
"Who the hell are you calling honey-bunch?" he growled snapping on the lights. "I'm honey-bunch's husband."
As the lights flooded the room, Lulu, clad in a kimono, came in through another door. There was a song on her lips and a bottle of gin in her hand. When she saw Mr. Owen the song fell flat and she almost dropped the gin.
"I—I thought you were dead or something," said the startled lady.
"It turned out to be something," Mr. Owen informed her. "Is this gentleman the chief mourner?"
The gentleman might have liked that bed once, but now he was looking as if he never wanted to see it again.
"No," faltered Lulu. "When he arrived from Europe he came here looking for you."
"I see," murmured Mr. Owen. "Did he think I was lost in the sheets, perhaps?"
Before Lulu could come back at this Satin popped her head into the room.
"Good God!" cried the man in bed. "That girl is my sister."
"Two good Gods to your one," replied Mr. Owen. "That woman is my wife. Also, I own the bed."
"There's something almost incestuous about all this talk," Satin observed coolly.
"I've been looking all over for you," continued the man in an injured voice. "You shouldn't run off like that, Honor, and let the estate go hang. We wanted to change its management."
"Over my dead body," said Satin. "I'm very fond of its management. And as for you, Tom Knightly, isn't it bad enough to ruin a man's home without wrecking his business?"
Tom Knightly grinned.
"Forget it," he said lazily. "Forget it. You fix things up, kid. I mean no harm. Just a good time, Daddy."
But Hector Owen heard none of this. He was in another room, cramming some clothes into a bag. This finished, he walked to the window and looked out across the park. So many things happened, he thought, and when they did happen you really were not as shocked as you had thought you were going to be. Satin came up behind him and slipped her hand into his.
"Isn't it disgraceful?" he asked her.
"What is?" she asked him.
"All of us," he answered.
"Nonsense! " exclaimed the girl. "It merely goes to show that after all two wrongs can make it right."
A few minutes later, when Mr. Owen carried his bag away from his home, everyone felt good about it.
At the curb he called to a taxi. The cab drew up.
"Where to?" asked the driver.
Mr. Owen was much too busy to answer. He had never been clever with taxicab doors. He suspected a conspiracy.
"Just start in driving," the girl sang out. "And keep on going. We might hire you for life."
"I hate taxi doors," Mr. Owen explained in an aggrieved voice. "Cabs should be built without any. They deliberately pick me out not to open for. They always stick, these doors."
"And so do I," said Satin, her bad eyes glowing with all sorts of uncensored enticements.
Mr. Owen, to say the least, was most pleasantly impressed. Scarcely a moment later so was Satin. Had she been a nicer girl, a wee bit more conventional and a little less impulsive, she might even have been shocked.
For Hector Owen's inhibitions had passed beyond recall.