SHE had lived in Washington for a year. She was tired of the office. It was tolerable, far more tolerable than housework, but it was not adventurous.
She was having tea and cinnamon toast, alone at a small round table on the balcony of Rauscher's Confiserie. Four debutantes clattered in. She had felt young and dissipated, had thought rather well of her black and leaf-green suit, but as she watched them, thin of ankle, soft under the chin, seventeen or eighteen at most, smoking cigarettes with the correct ennui and talking of "bedroom farces" and their desire to "run up to New York and see something racy," she became old and rustic and plain, and desirous of retreating from these hard brilliant children to a life easier and more sympathetic. When they flickered out and one child gave orders to a chauffeur, Carol was not a defiant philosopher but a faded government clerk from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.
She started dejectedly up Connecticut Avenue. She stopped, her heart stopped. Coming toward her were Harry and Juanita Haydock. She ran to them, she kissed Juanita, while Harry confided, "Hadn't expected to come to Washington — had to go to New York for some buying — didn't have your address along — just got in this morning — wondered how in the world we could get hold of you."
She was definitely sorry to hear that they were to leave at nine that evening, and she clung to them as long as she could. She took them to St. Mark's for dinner. Stooped, her elbows on the table, she heard with excitement that "Cy Bogart had the 'flu, but of course he was too gol-darn mean to die of it."
"Will wrote me that Mr. Blausser has gone away. How did he get on?"
"Fine! Fine! Great loss to the town. There was a real public-spirited fellow, all right!"
She discovered that she now had no opinions whatever about Mr. Blausser, and she said sympathetically, "Will you keep up the town-boosting campaign?"
Harry fumbled, "Well, we've dropped it just temporarily, but — sure you bet! Say, did the doc write you about the luck B. J. Gougerling had hunting ducks down in Texas?"
When the news had been told and their enthusiasm had slackened she looked about and was proud to be able to point out a senator, to explain the cleverness of the canopied garden. She fancied that a man with dinner-coat and waxed mustache glanced superciliously at Harry's highly form-fitting bright-brown suit and Juanita's tan silk frock, which was doubtful at the seams. She glared back, defending her own, daring the world not to appreciate them.
Then, waving to them, she lost them down the long train shed. She stood reading the list of stations: Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Chicago. Beyond Chicago — — ? She saw the lakes and stubble fields, heard the rhythm of insects and the creak of a buggy, was greeted by Sam Clark's "Well, well, how's the little lady?"
Nobody in Washington cared enough for her to fret about her sins as Sam did.
But that night they had at the flat a man just back from Finland.
She was on the Powhatan roof with the captain. At a table, somewhat vociferously buying improbable "soft drinks" for two fluffy girls, was a man with a large familiar back.
"Oh! I think I know him," she murmured.
"Who? There? Oh, Bresnahan, Percy Bresnahan."
"Yes. You've met him? What sort of a man is he?"
"He's a good-hearted idiot. I rather like him, and I believe that as a salesman of motors he's a wonder. But he's a nuisance in the aeronautic section. Tries so hard to be useful but he doesn't know anything — he doesn't know anything. Rather pathetic: rich man poking around and trying to be useful. Do you want to speak to him?"
"No — no — I don't think so."
She was at a motion-picture show. The film was a highly advertised and abysmal thing smacking of simpering hair-dressers, cheap perfume, red-plush suites on the back streets of tenderloins, and complacent fat women chewing gum. It pretended to deal with the life of studios. The leading man did a portrait which was a masterpiece. He also saw visions in pipe-smoke, and was very brave and poor and pure. He had ringlets, and his masterpiece was strangely like an enlarged photograph.
Carol prepared to leave.
On the screen, in the role of a composer, appeared an actor called Eric Valour.
She was startled, incredulous, then wretched. Looking straight out at her, wearing a beret and a velvet jacket, was Erik Valborg.
He had a pale part, which he played neither well nor badly. She speculated, "I could have made so much of him — — " She did not finish her speculation.
She went home and read Kennicott's letters. They had seemed stiff and undetailed, but now there strode from them a personality, a personality unlike that of the languishing young man in the velvet jacket playing a dummy piano in a canvas room.