That night, after a dinner during which Leslie and Viola looked as if they were chewing lemons, I went to call on them because I thought it was the polite thing to do. Goodness knows, I didn’t want to! I was afraid that they would purr along about the weather, and that I would have to bob my head and smirk and say, “Yes, isn’t it charmingly warm for this time of year?” and that kind of stuff which certainly bores me! But they didn’t even bother to do that! They talked across me, and, although it wasn’t comfortable, I will admit that it was instructive.
I think one can learn so much about people when they don’t think it is worthwhile to be polite, or think they are alone in the bosom of their family.
I remember one time I walked home with Elaine McDonald from the Crystal Emporium where we had had a banana split, and her father, who thought she had come in alone, barked down at her as if she were a member of a section gang and he were the boss.
The thing that made it funny was the fact that he is a purry man, and always wears a swallow-tail coat on Sunday, and passes the plate, and stands around after church bobbing and smirking over people, and saying, “It is a real pleasure to see you here, Mrs. Smith!” (or Mrs. Jones, or whoever it happened to be) He has a Bible class, too, and is the President of the Shakespeare Club, and I was surprised to hear him bawl out - bawl is a crude word, but it does belong here! - “Elaine, you left the fire on under the boiler and there’s enough hot water here to scald a hog! You and your mother don’t care how you run the gas and the bills.”
And then Elaine said, and, oh, so sweetly, “Papa, dear, Jane Jones is with me.”
And he said, “Ahem. How-a-how-a nice,” and then sneaked back into the bathroom and shut the door quietly and finished his shaving in deep silence. Which just shows, or should, because I am using it for the express purpose of illustration, how different people may be in public and while shaving. Of course Leslie and Viola didn’t syrup up in a hurry as Mr. McDonald did, because they didn’t consider me worthwhile, but I knew that they were capable of slapping on a sugar coating if they’d wanted to.
But, to get on, after dinner I waited around until half past seven, because the best people in our town never start out to make calls before that hour, and I wanted to be correct. Then I went down the hall and tapped on Leslie’s door because I heard a steady buzzing back of that and it intimated that the newcomers were together and inside. After I tapped I waited. Then someone slammed a trunk lid, and I heard an impatient, “What is it?”
“It’s me,” I answered, and realized too late that I shouldn’t have said that. I should have said, “It is I,” but I am always making mistakes. Then I heard, “Vi, open the door.”
And Viola Harris-Clarke let me in.
Leslie, who was leaning over a trunk fishing things out of it, only looked over her shoulder inquiringly for a second, and then turned back after a “Hello,” that had a question mark after it.
“I thought I’d come over and see how you were getting on,” I said.
“Well, sit down,” said Leslie, “that is, if you can find a place!” And I pushed aside a pile of silk underthings that was on the end of a lounge, and roosted there. And then I waited to have Leslie ask how I was, because at home that always comes first. People usually sit in rocking chairs, and the called on person will say, as they rock, “Well, now Mrs. Jones, how are you?” And after the caller answers, they get along to the children and then ask about the father, and next about how the canning is getting on, or the housecleaning, or the particular activity that belongs to the season. It is always like that in our town with anyone who calls, which I consider polite and interested and nice; but I didn’t get it with Leslie; instead she went right on unpacking.
I looked at her with a good deal of interest, and I decided that she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Her hair is very light in shade and texture, and she wears it straight off her forehead, flat at the sides, and in a psyche knot. (I learned later that Paris is through with the puffs.) She is tall and thin and graceful, and her skin is fair and it flushes easily. Her lashes and brows are dark, and her lashes curl up, (a few days later I saw her help them curl up with a little brush) and she has a classic profile, slender hands and feet, and a languorous, slow way of looking at a person that can be either flattering or flattening.
Viola was another story, and just the way she looked explained every single thing about her.
You could see that she was a follower.
Her hair had been bobbed, and she had had to bob it, not because it was becoming to her, but because everyone was bobbing it. Now she wore it as nearly as Leslie wore hers as she could, with a net over it, and millions of pins to keep the short ends of the slowly lengthening hair from flying. Her eyebrows were what she called “Frenched” which meant that she pulled them out and screeched terribly while doing it, and her fingernails were too pointed and too shiny. Her mouth was too big, and her chin receded a little, but she might have been nice looking if she hadn’t made such a freak of herself. She didn’t look natural at all, and she wasn’t pretty enough to justify all the fuss that the stupidest person could see she made over every detail.
She sat on a corner of the table, swinging her legs and humming.
“Isn’t this simply ghastly?” Leslie asked of me, after an interval of some minutes’ quiet.
“What?” I asked.
“Why, this place. I don’t know what Aunt Sheila was thinking of!” Then she dumped dozens of pairs of colored silk stockings out on the floor, and began to take out more and prettier dresses than I had ever seen before in all my life.
“How’d your frocks stand the crossing, dear?” asked Viola lazily.
“Oh, fairly. Old rags anyway. I didn’t get a new thing!” Then she leaned down again and began to take out perhaps a dozen petticoats that shone in the light, and silk nightdresses and bloomers and a pink satin corset, and gray suède shoes with cut-steel buckles, and some gold shoes with straps and ostrich feather rosettes on the ankles, and some dark blue patent leather shoes with red stitching, and red heels!
And as she did, she and Viola talked of people and places I had never met, and of how frightful the dinner had been, and of the “utterly hideous rooms!”
After quite a little time of this, although I suppose it seemed longer to me than it really was, Leslie sagged down on the corner of a trunk she had not yet opened, and hinted about some past chapters of her story that interested me and that was to have its love scene added in Florence, which I then, of course, didn’t know.
“I came here,” she stated, as she looked straight and hard ahead of her, “on pique.”
“I knew it!” murmured Viola.
“Nonsense!” Leslie answered, sharply. “Why how would you know?”
“Dear, I saw you were suffering.”
That smoothed Leslie; I could see her feathers settle, and when she went on all the irritation had left her voice.
“Someone,” she confided, “and it doesn’t matter in the least who, since he has gone from my life - I assure you I have absolutely put every thought of him away - intimated that I could do nothing but be a butterfly. He was brutal, absolutely brutal!
“And I, perfectly enraged, said I could work, and I would show him that I could. And that very night - Vi, are you sitting on my ostrich feather fan? Oh, all right, I thought I saw something pink there; no, I don’t mind the scarf.”
“Go on, dear,” said Viola, after her exploration and a wiggle that settled her again.
“That very night,” Leslie continued, “I telephoned Aunt Sheila, who happened to be in town and at the Plaza, and I told her I intended to come here and study with Signor Paggi. She was just as mean as she could be. ‘Very well, Leslie,’ she said in that crisp way in which she often speaks. ‘But he won’t keep pupils who don’t work.’ ‘He will keep me,’ I answered, and my voice shook. I was fearfully overwrought. My heart had already been trampled upon.”
I thought that sounded silly, but Viola didn’t, because she said, “My dear!” rather breathed it out as if someone had taken her lungs and squeezed them just as she began to speak.
Leslie looked up at the ceiling and swallowed hard, in a way she considered tragic, and it was, but it also made me think of Roberta’s canary when it drinks. Then she rubbed her brow, laughed mirthlessly, and ended with, “and here I am!”
“The bathtub’s the worst,” said Viola, which sort of took the cream off of Leslie’s tragic moment, and I could see that Leslie didn’t like it, for she frowned.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Leslie after a small lull, “whether to hunt some other place, or stand this.”
“Our trunks are all here,” Viola stated, “and it would be hard to move,” (she had unpacked, and I found later she hated effort). “I wondered whether we couldn’t get a few little extra things - curtains, and cushions and so on? And the food we could supplement. I can make fudge and chicken king.”
“I am certain I can make tea,” said Leslie, “it’s only a matter of the proper pot and a spirit lamp and some water, and then throwing the stuff in. I’ve seen it done dozens of times.”
“And we could buy rolls and things.”
Then they paused to consider it.
“Don’t most students do that sort of thing anyway?” I asked.
“It would be Bohemian,” said Leslie, in a more energetic voice than I’d heard her use before.
“And after we get famous they’ll photograph this ghastly hole, and say we lived here,” Viola added, with a far-away, pleased look.
“I’m willing to try it,” agreed Leslie, in a dull tone I felt she put on. “I don’t care much what happens now, anyway!”
“Poor darling!” murmured Viola, and in that “Poor darling,” I saw the shadow of a row, for I knew that Viola couldn’t keep that up all the time, and I knew that when she stopped Leslie would be angry, and I knew that they were too foolishly and sentimentally intimate to remain good friends. However, I never dreamed for a second, then, that they would come to me to complain about each other! Which was just what they did!
It was dreadful for me; there was a time when I never went into my room without finding one or the other waiting to sniff out their tales, tales which they almost always prefaced in this way: “I never talk about my friends,” (sniff). “You can ask,” (gulp) “anyone where I do,” (sniff) “but I want you to know that I have never been treated,” (gulp-sniff) “as I have been treated since I came to this place in company,” (real sob) “with that - that creature!”
When I think of it now, and then that first call, I could, as Viola says, “Simply scream, my dear!”
But I’m getting ’way ahead of my own story.
At half past eight, I stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better go now,” I said, but neither Leslie nor Viola said, “Oh, don’t hurry,” as I supposed people always did, and so I did go. As I reached the door – alone - Leslie spoke:
“We go to see Signor Paggi to-morrow, don’t we?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “at one.”
“We might as well go together,” she suggested, “although,” (her tone was too careless, and she avoided looking at me) “we, of course, won’t expect to act like Siamese triplets, will we?”
“I shall be busy a great deal,” I stated, as I felt myself flush, and then I went out, and after a stiff goodnight, went down the hall to my own room. It did seem to me that Leslie had been unnecessarily unkind in giving that hint, for I had only gone because I supposed it was polite, and I certainly never would push in! Mother had never let us do that!
I was angry, and as I undressed, I vowed that I would let Leslie entirely alone, and that she could make the first advances, if any at all were ever made, and I wondered what kind of a man could like a girl of Leslie’s type, and what he had said that had made her do a thing that was so evidently distasteful. I was really interested, and I couldn’t help hoping that this man who had been “pushed from her life” had socked it to her hard, (and I found later he had!) and I further hoped, without even trying to help it, that I could squelch her someday. Then I said my prayers and crawled into bed.
As I pulled up the blankets one of the sounds that belong to Florence tinkled in through my widely opened French windows. Somewhere, in some little church or convent, bells were ringing and sounding out steps in mellow tones that floated softly through the air. It was very, very pretty. And I closed my eyes, and I could see lilies-of-the-valley and blue bells growing near ferns. That doesn’t seem very sensible unless you’ve heard those bells, but if you have, on a warm-aired, soft Italian night, you’ll probably understand. Then the bells died gently down to nothing and I heard another sound, and when I heard that I saw people clogging, for it was a banjo, and I got out of bed in a hurry, and skipped over to the window without even waiting to put on my slippers.
I couldn’t see much down in the court, because the wide banners of light that floated out from the doorways only seemed to intensify the shadows, and the banjo-player was sitting on a bench by the side of a back door and not in the light.
But I could hear, and I heard, in a very pretty voice with the soft strum of the banjo creeping through:
Sisters and cousins of men in my set:
Tried to be cheerful and give them an earful
Of soft sort of talk, but, oh, gosh!
The strain was something fearful!
Always found after a minute or two
Just to be civil was all I could do.
Now I know why I could never be contented,
I was looking for a pal like you.”
And I knew the tune, and it is one I liked, and the singing in my own language was cheering and rather jolly, and the feeling the man put into the foolishly light words made me laugh, and I leaned far out and listened.
Then I heard a snatch of a Neapolitan song that better fitted the look of the court, and then a bit of opera. The troubadour faltered on that, and right in the middle of it he stopped, repeated one phrase, and then called, “Hi, Gino, old Top! Ta tum, ta tum, ta ta, ta tum - that right?”
And Gino echoed it in his voice, and answered excitedly, “Si, si, Signor! Brava! Brava, Signor! Brrrava!”
And then, warmed and cheered and quite myself again, I went back to bed.