The Maiden’s Prayer
There was a party up in Heaven the night that I was born and my mother’s Guardian Angel was playing one of those now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t shell games with the Court Jester while the Head-Man so far forgot himself, under the influence of the chorus of angelic yessers, as to do sleight-of-hand tricks with the Vital Statistics and the Orders of the Day. The whole court laughed to see such sport and even my mother’s Guardian Angel must have thought it was a good joke on my father.
I heard the angels laughing as I came into the world and I cried out, as soon as I could, that it certainly didn’t take much to entertain some people. Angels have no sense of humor, anyway; I’ve since discovered that you have to go in the other direction if you want to appreciate good jokes. Why, up there in Heaven, the whole court thought this was a wow, judging by the celestial thunder-peals of glee which accompanied the parlor tricks, but if you can see anything funny in playing a trick like that on an unsuspecting couple of innocent young lovers who thought Birth Control was a pullman porter, then I hope you go to hell where red-hot jokes are the devil’s own sport!
Furthermore, the joke was not only on my parents, but also on us—for, you see, it happened that not only was I twins but also the other half of the consignment was a boy who should have been a girl while I was a girl who should have been a boy. The Head-Man certainly proved himself a magician; he scrambled our souls and temperaments and everything else so thoroughly that it would have required a better man than the Court Physician to put us together again as the Creator intended us to be, before that weak moment of kittenishness.
Even so, you’d think the Shipping Clerk would have hesitated at sending out a boy in a girl’s body and vice versa. Of course, the two bodies did look very much alike, but we were unashamedly naked at the time and you’d think that even a government clerk would notice something funny in such a parcel. Perhaps my Guardian Angel matched pennies or shot craps with the Clerk, and the latter may have rolled a natural for my brother and an even number for me. After seeing some of the other shipments that went out on my birthday, I’ll believe anything’s possible. I recently met a man, born on that same day, who sniffs like a rabbit, eats like a pig, walks like a woman and brays like an ass; and I know a woman who would be a cat if she had a tail. The Clerk must have been on the party, too, and maybe had a little too much nectar besides. Anyway, the Head-Man scrambled everything from frogs to elephants and nobody else unscrambled them, so if your birthday was mine you probably decided long ago that Heaven isn’t the most efficiently operated production plant that can be imagined. Even on good days, the service is rotten: nine times out of ten when you place an order for a boy you get a girl or vice versa—no wonder a lot of the circus freaks were born on my birthday!
My brother and I looked exactly alike. Indeed we were quite a biological achievement, because we even had identical moles in identical positions on our left cheeks. Father was actually quite proud of us and I think the burden of having twins was really responsible for his economic success, for he proceeded to accumulate more than enough money after we made our début in 1899. In fact, he became so successful that he never stayed long enough in any one city for us to become conspicuously familiar to even our nearest neighbors. He was always on the move, organizing new projects, developing new enterprises, rescuing his own and others’ investments and turning everything to profit. He was a hard-working man and he loved to keep busy, but I think that all that hustling around year after year had a lot to do with mother’s untimely death when we were only ten years old. She succumbed to typhoid fever, but that was only the last straw, for she had never really had a chance to get strong and healthy after we appeared on the scene.
After her death, the head of the house didn’t know what to do with us, it being obvious that he could not give us any care or attention and still keep up his program of industry; but he finally settled the problem by arranging a plan with our Aunt Elinor Canwick, his spinster sister, under the terms of which he provided liberally for us and for her on condition that she take charge of us and supervise our education. He gave Aunt Elinor carte blanche in all matters except one: he stipulated that we must receive, aside from whatever cultural finish she might provide, a thorough training in some practical occupation, in order that we might be able to earn a respectable living should our going to work become necessary through unfortunate circumstances. More specifically, he strongly advised that “they be trained in secretarial work, because such work will give them the best opportunities for improving their positions and for keeping in touch with the better class of people.”
So we went to live in Wakeham with Aunt Elinor and I had even less chance to be as boyish as I felt because our dear Aunt had certain rather definite ideas about the limits of a young lady’s sphere of activity. Also she was a confirmed art enthusiast and just as soon as she saw any signs of talent in either of us, she promptly did everything in her power to encourage us in the direction of artistic careers. We went to the best schools and had the best tutors obtainable; we traveled abroad and absorbed culture in many lands; we developed a certain amount of artistic creativeness and appreciativeness. And yet Aunt Elinor did not neglect the kind of training which Dad advised: indeed, I think he was rather proud of us, for we really did become quite proficient after studying stenography, typewriting, business English, commercial law, filing, and lots of other purely commercial subjects and had made them still more valuable by having mastered three foreign languages; so that at the age when most American boys and girls are completing high school with a smattering knowledge of half a hundred subjects, we were both capable of speaking and writing French, Italian or German, and taking dictation in any of them or in English. Aunt Elinor was proud of us, too. The last time I saw our father, before his accidental death in 1916, he and Aunt Elinor were indulging in mutual admiration exercises, congratulating each other on the results obtained. And we twins were the nicest, meekest, most harmless and un-regular kids that ever existed—at least, so we must have seemed.
But from the day of Dad’s funeral, Aunt Elinor made a radical about-face and bent all her energies toward cultivating our artistic talents. No more commercial stuff now. She thought that Leon had distinctive poetic ability, so she saw to it that he became acquainted with all the literature and literary people that could possibly help him develop, while Leona, the big “I,” being somewhat of a dancer and having been remarked upon by some really competent theatrical people, was promptly given over to the best dancing master available, after which my life was just one pirouette and kick after another—which really wasn’t so bad because it was physical work and that was what I needed to keep me happy. We lived in Wakeham, one of the Big City’s most fashionable suburbs, and moved in a very exclusive, art-loving and -fostering circle.
Life rolled away in its customary monotony and gradually the curtains of our horizon were drawn back to reveal new interests and new hopes. Leon and I seemed to grow more similar in appearance and more dissimilar in nature as we grew up. Aunt Elinor used to say that our sexes were all mixed up, that our natures were diametrically opposite to our respective physiques, and for once she was really near the truth, since I was very much of a tomboy while Leon was an ethereal-spirited, effeminate, poetic soul who cringed from all physical matters and even resented having to be near my dog Esky, who worshiped the very ground I walked on and evinced not uncertainly his suspicions of people who were too nasty nice to play with a pup now and then. Leon wasted no love on Esky and once declared that the pup’s mother must have been promiscuous. Well, Esky was nothing but a mongrel, to be sure, although Aunt Elinor said his mother was a thoroughbred Eskimo dog, but even thoroughbreds have been known to have cuckold husbands; mongrel or not, a dog instinctively attaches himself to the man of the house—but not so with Esky. He hadn’t any use for Leon at all, probably because Leon high-hatted him, whereas I liked nothing better than a chance to romp and wrestle with him.
You can readily understand how I looked upon my sweet brother. He did none of the things that regular boys do. Sports and games and any kind of exercise that was the least bit rough did not appeal to him at all. I even suspected that he was too damned nice to be interested in girls—but on this point I was mistaken, for I discovered that Vyvy Martin, one of Wakeham’s deep-eyed débutante beauties, was more or less Leon’s soul mate. One was about as dizzy as the other, so they made a perfect couple, entirely sufficient unto themselves—a condition which must, I suppose, be called Love. But you can imagine how I looked upon Leon when every impulse in me was toward the very kind of living which he shunned. It seemed that not a day went by without my wishing I were in his shoes so that I could chase off and enjoy myself as he should enjoy himself. Truly in mental and emotional equipment, we were as dissimilar as Tom Thumb and the Fat Lady.
The more fed up I became with our “cultured” friends and interests, the more Leon became absorbed in them. He was a thorough-going æsthete and the more æsthetic he grew, the more discontented I became, until it seemed that life held absolutely nothing of interest for me. For days and weeks at a time I carried a grouch and consoled myself by making the aforementioned complaints to the Creator. Every time Aunt Elinor entertained, I had to perform for the benefit of the guests, and afterwards everyone would feed her a lot of slush about my “remarkable talent for the dance.” You might have thought I was some kind of thoroughbred dog, the way they studied me and passed comments on my body and brains. My Aunt should have known long before that time that her niece had a beautiful body and enough brains to know how to use it, but she continued to gather in the same old line of flattery and flowery compliments until you’d have thought it was her own body people were talking about.
Of course, not all of her parties were utter bores. Now and then a few genuine people appeared on the scene and once in a while someone actually interesting would be present. It was at one of her soirées that I met Jay-Jay Marfield, the rather attractively ebullient son of one of Broadway’s most successful producers. Jay-Jay (from his initials, J. J.) was about twenty-six when I first met him and rather handsome in a sort of romantic fashion. My Aunt fell in love with him at first sight—principally because she thought that if I cultivated his friendship he could help me along in my career. My Aunt was not exactly a hand-shaker; she just had rather continental ideas about matrimony: marriage was a material affair to her. She would have been in ecstasies if I had married Jay-Jay and she used to tell him the most awful lies about my habits and disposition, et cetera. She tried all the traditional tricks of the match-maker, but I had my doubts about Jay-Jay’s falling for her ensnaring line. As for me, I was willing enough to let him show me a good time—the which he certainly tried to do, with everything from the Russian Ballet to opium dens thrown in. He knew all the celebrities of the stage and was always on the verge of introducing me to So-and-So sometime—while in the meantime he introduced me to a crowd of artistic flat tires who indulged in attic art and garret orgies which were more asinine than sinful.
Jay-Jay and I got along famously, but from the start of our friendship I felt that I would never want to trust him very far. Perhaps I am naturally suspicious, but this Jay-Jay was one of the kind that you immediately suspect. Free and easy about everything, always immaculate, always flush and always conniving something that was neither good for himself nor good for me, he made me feel that I had always to be on guard or he would promptly connive against me.
Yet I enjoyed myself in his company—as who wouldn’t if her only friends were so sappy they could be guilty of thinking a cockade was a kind of chicken broth! There are only two kinds of aristocratic boys: the devil-may-care variety like Jay-Jay and the sweet God-fearing innocents who make worms look like express trains. When the son sinks in the best of regulated families, he’s usually reverting to the type of his pioneer ancestors who had to take both life and love in their two fists. Most blue blood was originally red of flaming hue, and when families begin to forget that fact, you can lay odds that the deep old roots of the family maple aren’t sending sap enough up to supply the high and mighty branches of to-day. When family trees get too high they wither at the top, and such dry sticks are only useful as fertilizer for younger trees. That’s why the worst high-hats are invariably worn by people who are really low-brow.
Naturally, I enjoyed Jay-Jay’s company at that time and not the least of the reasons for this lay in the fact that he kept me on edge and on the defensive most of the time. When a girl suspects that a man is about to assault her on the least provocation, she naturally gets a thrill out of the dare, and I was normal in that respect even though all the rigmarole of infatuation and love were utterly foreign to my nature. Jay-Jay knew I was a tomboy at heart and he played his cards accordingly. I fell headlong into the trap by responding to his dare.
Please don’t imagine for a moment that anything melodramatic happened so soon as this. Jay-Jay was a perfectly nice young man—for quite a while. He could usually be depended upon to get intoxicated and he always took advantage of every opportunity for making love to me, but all this was direct and above the board—like romantic gestures, as it were. He didn’t resort to underhand violence until quite some time later in our affair.
A few incidents that I recall off-hand will serve to indicate how we behaved ourselves during this more or less casual, but always threatening, romance. On one occasion he took us—Leon, Vyvy and me—to a masquerade in the Big Town, a huge affair that was given annually for the benefit of indigent members of the theatrical profession. It was Aunt Elinor’s suggestion that Leon and I dress in identical costumes, therefore it was really her fault that Jay-Jay and Vyvy had a difficult time distinguishing us from each other, because my hair was tucked up and completely concealed under a grotesque hat so that Leon and I looked exactly alike. When Aunt Elinor inspected us before we set off, she exclaimed prophetically, “You’ll catch your escort courting your brother!” And her laughter at this thought is sufficient evidence of her atrocious sense of humor.
The party proved to be a riotous success from my point of view, in spite of a few embarrassing moments, as when Vyvy saw Jay-Jay take possession of one of us and immediately assumed that the one he chose was I. She promptly pounced upon the other—and it really was I. Before I could quite recover from the shock, she had swirled me into the crowd of dancers and I decided I might as well play up to my rôle. It was really funny, so funny that I dared not trust my voice. Anyway, she did enough talking for the two of us.
And what things she said! It was a revelation to me—a revelation, I mean, of my sweet and innocent brother’s poetic nature. She just poured sweet nothings into my ear and clung to me as if she were hanging from the gates of paradise and feared to let go for even a second. It was “O Leon, love!” or “O Leon, darling!” or “You exquisite thing!” or something equally romantic and foolishly sentimental, every step we took. I was congenially amused at first, particularly because my mind kept wandering to Jay-Jay and wondering how he, in his semi-intoxication, was managing my dear twin.
Before the dance was half done, I began to feel acutely uncomfortable. I began to realize that it’s one thing to have a man whispering sweet nothings in your ear, but quite another to have another girl do the whispering even though she doesn’t know you are a girl, too. However, I fought a good fight and was carrying on like a good trooper when suddenly the strain was broken by Jay-Jay pouncing unceremoniously upon us, with Leon trailing in the rear. Both were rather fussed up over the incident, although Leon appeared to feel that the joke was really on Jay-Jay. We all laughed over it, but Jay-Jay didn’t think it was so funny. At first he claimed that he knew it was Leon from the start, but I could tell from the look on my brother’s face that this was not so—or rather, that Jay-Jay hadn’t acted as if he knew his dancing partner was a boy. And incidentally I never did learn just exactly how Jay-Jay happened to discover his mistake; knowing that he was capable of doing almost anything when half set, I neglected to ask for specific details even from my twin brother.
Throughout the remainder of the evening, Jay-Jay took no chances of being fooled again and even on the way home when there was nothing much to do but be friendly, he continued to be safely cool and distant—which suited me well enough, but didn’t have the same effect upon Vyvy and Leon. I thought the two love birds had had a tiff about something, they were so chilly, but I soon discovered that Vyvy wasn’t any more certain than Jay-Jay as to which of us was which. The discovery came when Jay-Jay suddenly declared, “If I pull off your hat and you’ve got short hair, you’re not the one I think you are,” and he promptly jerked Leon’s hat from his head.... That settled that. He turned to me and I couldn’t very well object to his attentions, as long as they remained mild, particularly since Leon and Vyvy immediately fell into a clinch that must have made their hearts beat as one for a couple of seconds at least.
By the time we reached Wakeham, Jay-Jay’s accumulation of liquor was getting the better of his head and he ceased to remain mild in his love-making. I remember distinctly that the change was a terrible shock to me at the time and resulted in a wrestling match which assumed such proportions that the chauffeur so far forgot himself as to imitate Lot’s wife. We weren’t on speaking terms when we reached our house, and I didn’t hear his apologies (nor any word from him at all) for a fortnight or more. I was momentarily furious—I couldn’t imagine what the man expected of a girl like me.
Parties of this sort were a regular feature of the program for a year or more, but there were other features, also. We attended Bohemian studio parties which were more usually than not complete washouts from my point of view and led me to ask Jay-Jay why, with so many well-known and interesting people on his list of acquaintances, he persisted in messing himself up by associating with this deluded drivel of humanity. He just laughed and replied that “variety is still the spice of life—there’s a time and place for everything, including dizzy artists.”
After one of these garret endurance contests, I told him that he should have brought Leon instead of me, “because Leon would have reveled in this stuff.” I had heard so much utter blah about “expressing one’s soul” that I contemplated resolving never to dance again except on a ballroom floor. All this divine artistry stuff always has given me anatomical discomfort and there never was anyone interesting in those crowds of hairy-jawed winebibbers. They all talked and acted as if they knew better but preferred to be asinine, and to increase my disgust Jay-Jay invariably went to such places when he was in a drinking mood, which meant that I was in for a scrap before we got home.
If there’s one thing I couldn’t relish it was a man forever putting on a whisky flush, but I refrained from objecting too strenuously, because, after all, I was only seventeen and I had an idea that perhaps that was the way you were supposed to act when you’re twenty-seven. I know that I frequently consoled myself with the thought that if I were a man, just for a night, I’d go out and deliberately drink Jay-Jay under the table, or even a chair. I used to imagine how enjoyable such a feat would be, and also how much good it might have done my gay courtier. I knew it would do my heart immense good.
You can see that there were at least nine out of ten traits of Jay-Jay’s character of which I disapproved. He was everything that I didn’t desire in a man. He was terribly vain. He acted as if, just because his father was prominent in the show business, he himself was something very special and deserved respect from everyone. He was neither brilliant nor exceptional in any way and I doubt if he had ever done a single thing worth mentioning, except play around with a telephone directory full of girls. Still he thought the world was his private oyster and that every girl was receptive.
Of course, you can easily see how he got that way. He was used to having girls make a lot of him because they thought he could and would help them to a stage career. However, that phase of the matter meant absolutely nothing to me. I refused to make a hand-shaker of myself, even for Art’s sake—which refusal prompted Aunt Elinor to observe, “I sometimes wonder whether you and Art are really suited, Leona.” And I replied that the wondering was mutual.
But in spite of all his faults and his damnable self-assurance in regard to my capitulation (“eventually, why not now”) I continued to play around with Jay-Jay. With all his shortcomings, he continued to be ardent and attentive—and a virtue like that naturally takes precedence in the mind of any girl in my position. As long as he wanted to keep up the chase, I was willing to be chased. There was a very clear distinction, according to my precocious maidenly philosophy, between girls who let themselves be pursued and those who allowed themselves to be apprehended: the same distinction, I have since learned, exists in every young girl’s head, with certain slight concessions to individual circumstances. I was at that age: the age when you think you have living and loving figured out on a blue print.
My education went forward by leaps and bounds under the guidance of Jay-Jay and his friends and I must have changed considerably in a very short time, because Aunt Elinor soon got into the habit of remarking upon the fact that my language wasn’t all that it should be and that I used it to express ideas which I certainly never thought up under her roof. I must admit that Jay-Jay had a broadening influence upon me: he introduced me to risqué anecdotes and bedroom ballads; I heard all the conventional off-color jokes that are in existence and a few that were quite unconventionally original; I became sophisticated in a certain way, after discovering that when some man tried to tell you that “every bowlegged girl is pleasure bent” or some other such bit of drivel, he was not necessarily insulting you by the very act of telling you such things; I became so wise that I could listen unblushingly to even such a story as the one about the good wife who assaulted the minister for saying, “There is no balm in Gilead” and explained her resentment by declaring, “’Tain’t Gil’s fault nohow. Nuther of us wants brats to bother with!”
I was still a tomboy at heart but my outlook had changed considerably; or rather, I had begun to be resigned to the fate of being a girl. I had the feeling most of the time that I might as well make the best of it—and Jay-Jay happened to be the best at the moment.
But to show what influence will do to a person: I even harbored hopes of taking Aunt Elinor on one of our parties for the sole purpose of getting her plastered—just for something to do that would be different. The only thing that kept me from doing it was the certainty that if she ever saw how disgustingly unsteady her “choice” could be, that would be the end of my affair with Jay-Jay, because her Puritan prudishness would override any momentary ambitions as a matchmaker.
So I contented myself by getting Jay-Jay to take Leon with us to one of his studio jamborees. I hoped the twin would drink more than he could handle. I wanted to see him completely piffed—I figured that if he once got utterly pickled it might cure him of being so obnoxiously poetic. Of the two—being pickled or being poetic—I much preferred the briny state.
But the attic party was a fizzle for me. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Leon take even one too many. Furthermore my disappointment was increased by the fact that all those imitation artists actually went wild over Leon’s poetry and the more they praised him the more he read to them. He didn’t have time to take a drink. It was a terrible evening for me. I wouldn’t have minded being proud of him, if the facts warranted it; but how anyone could feel other than ashamed of a brother who would read the stuff he read—and then boasted of writing—was beyond me. The only good thing he read to them they immediately squelched because they said it sounded too conventional, too formalized. Just because it made sense and was almost rhythmic!... I think my complete loss of hopes for my dear brother dated from that evening with those asses of the arts.
Furthermore I was beginning to be depressed again, because Jay-Jay was not the sort of fellow one could put up with forever. I mean, he was the kind you either had to submit to or fight with; there could be no happy medium of friendship for very long. I remember that we went to a Christmas blow-out in town and the entire party was well ossified, so naturally Jay-Jay was in his element, the more so because all the people were of the theater and knew him as his father’s son. That one evening convinced me that show people are worse handshakers than politicians and my escort gave me acute shooting pains with his self-satisfied manner. He simply exuded manly confidence. He looked and acted as if he could take any girl he wanted, and then on the way home he was deeply grieved and insulted, not to say dumfounded, because I wouldn’t let him manhandle me. Said I, “It would take a better man than you, I’m sure.” To which the simple fool merely said, “Keep on hoping, honey; I’m improving all the time!”
A week later, at a New Year’s affair, he changed his tactics completely and made really decent and ardent love to me, just like a movie hero. He did everything except ask me to marry him. I was so surprised at his change of attack that I almost forgot myself. But then I remembered that you have to fight for anything you want to keep and it also occurred to me to wonder why he never had asked me to marry him.... Thinking it over afterwards, I concluded that it was his idea that one marries only as a last resort, after all other attempts have failed.... And I concluded also that the chief reason he was so eager in pursuit of me lay in the fact that he was beginning to doubt that he would ever have me. You’d have thought, with all the women in New York available for him, that he wouldn’t have bothered with me. But I suspected then, and have since confirmed my suspicions, that the old wheeze about denial engendering desire may be a chestnut but at least its kernel is good....
As I said before, my education was going forward in spasms. Not long after that New Year’s party, he threw caution to the winds, forgot his new plan of attack and resorted to the well-known cave-man methods. It was a veritable trial by combat. I wasn’t mad—I just simply knew that I couldn’t possibly give up anything to him. I wanted to be chased, but I’d be damned before I’d be caught. When I got home I looked as if I had been through a wringer, and that devil actually laughed at me and had the nerve to observe, “Now, I know you’re the real thing, Leona!”... I stayed awake all night trying to figure out what he meant and I must admit that it was a year or so before I realized the exact meaning.
However, I was disgusted with him and didn’t care if I never saw him again. At least I felt that way for several days. Then when I happened to overhear Leon and Vyvy discussing their future love nest, with Leon saying that his idea of heaven would be to work hard all day thinking up beautiful verses to read to a pajamaed Vyvy in bed at night, the whole business of love and love-making struck me so funny that I could laugh at my own little difficulties and regain some of my customary indifference. A few days later when Jay-Jay called again, I let him apologize—even let him get away with exclaiming, “My God, Leona, you can’t expect a man to love you forever without any encouragement! Your devilish coolness is exasperating!”... Well, little children love to play with fire and no girl ever expects to burn her fingers. I agreed to go with him once more, if he promised to behave himself.
This party turned out to be more or less interesting, although Jay-Jay didn’t keep his promise and most of the crowd were washouts. But there was a Canadian war veteran there who had just returned from France where he served with an aviation unit. It was thrilling to listen to his descriptions of the War. He couldn’t dance because of a game leg, so I gladly did my bit by sitting out with him and letting him talk. He positively stirred me all up inside and I think that if we had been alone somewhere, I would have fallen into his arms. That’s how he affected me—which was mighty strange, considering how I felt toward other men. This chap seemed different somehow—like a real he-man in comparison with such papier-mâché imitations as Jay-Jay and Leon and others of my acquaintance. However, the impulse was but momentary and my heart only pounded for a few minutes; during which I felt more panicky than thrilled.
That man left an indelible impression on my mind. I went home that night disgusted with Jay-Jay and disgusted with Leon. Jay-Jay said that if the United States went into the War, he’d be glad he could help his father run the show business (in which case there would have been a deluge of rotten shows on Broadway) and Leon suffered the tortures of hell every time the World War was mentioned. They both seemed like worms to me. I couldn’t understand their attitude at all. And I once more cried out against the fate which had made me a girl instead of a boy. I sent up prayer after prayer and called on the Lord to do something about it all. It seemed to me that if Leon were more of a man I would automatically become more of a girl and I told the Lord as much, but I also suggested that if he couldn’t do anything about Leon he could at least make something happen that would give me a chance to break out and get a little of the adventurous poison out of my system.
Well, all of a sudden it appeared that a couple of Yankees had finally got into Heaven: my prayers were answered!
Correspondence from Heaven
It never rains but it pours. Here I had worried through seventeen years without any answers at all to my prayers and now in a few short months there were more answers than there were prayers—I mean, it was just like having your mail lost somewhere and then getting it all in a bunch. It seemed to me that the Lord must have just returned from a holiday playing golf with the planets and found all my pleas and prayers awaiting his attention, so he set about clearing his desk immediately and thoroughly. Things came so thick that the year 1917 remains in my mind a jumbled nightmare.
Not that everything happened as quickly at all that: the sequence was spread over several months but I had become so accustomed to monotony and so resigned to my fate, that so many things in even so many months was a terrific shock to my nervous system.
The first thing that happened was not strictly my own private affair. The United States went to war when Germany added insult to injury. I was overjoyed, because it seemed to me that surely here was an opportunity for excitement and adventure.... And again I was disappointed. Girls of eighteen are good for only one thing in a war, and you don’t get medals and service stripes for that kind of duty!
Jay-Jay went to work for his father, hoping to get out of going, and then when he saw he would be caught in the draft he managed to secure a soft job supervising the entertainment provisions of the eastern training camps. My hero! A man’s man!
Then I went on the stage, because Jay-Jay offered to get me a place in a new show that was being thrown together up in Connecticut, and because I suspected that he was entertaining the hope that the atmosphere of the show business would help to break down my Puritanical resistance to his Satanic charms. I had to dance almost naked to get the job, but I made a bull’s-eye from the start. The only trouble was that I had to keep thinking that Jay-Jay had practically dared me to join this show and I was so afraid I’d be contaminated by the traditional immorality of show people that I scarcely drew a normal breath while the show lasted. And every time I saw Jay-Jay the old battle was revived. He said he’d do anything to get me—and I believed him implicitly. I wouldn’t have put anything beyond him. He’d try any possible way of skinning the cat, and my part in Love Lights was just another possibility. He was very circumspect in his love-making at the time, probably trying to induce a calm to precede the storm: as he said, “My love for you is so intensely hot that even an iceberg would melt sooner or later!”
Love Lights lasted three months, but I was ready to quit long before that. I had proved that I could stand the gaff and Jay-Jay had given up hopes of skinning the cat by that method. Now he wanted to marry me! Said he’d even marry me if that was the only way he could get me! Can you imagine such a proposal?
But I couldn’t be bothered with it then, so he broached the subject to Aunt Elinor and I found her putting bugs in my ears every time I got near her. However, I stalled for time. I was in no mood to make any entangling alliances.
Also there was something far more important to think about. A miracle was happening before my very eyes! Vyvy contracted a severe case of heroitis and fell in love with the color of khaki, with the logical result that Leon was miserable. He actually lost weight trying to figure out some way of satisfying her demands that he make a hero of himself. The poor fellow hated the thought of war and fighting, loathed the idea of being thrown in with an uncouth gang of comparatively indelicate men, but he couldn’t stand the sight of Vyvy going out with men in uniform and he suspected that a man with a Sam Browne belt could do most anything with her. He talked with her, remonstrated and pleaded, called her hysterical and a lot of worse things—but Vyvy was adamant. “I won’t have a man I can’t be proud of!” she told him, at the height of their last argument on the subject.
Something had to give. It was a real crisis to them. And the next thing I knew Leon was making inquiries at recruiting stations as to the various branches of the service in which he could enlist. It was all very painful for him, but he was between the frying pan and a very hot fire; he had to make a decision of some kind—and he did, although I suspect that somebody dragged him in for examination and made him sign a paper before he realized what he was doing. Anyway, he enlisted—which proves something or other about girls like Vyvy. He came home actually proud of himself over the fact that he had passed the initial physical examination, but I noticed that he didn’t eat much for dinner that evening. And Vyvy very promptly indicated that she would throw over all her soldier friends, now that he had done the trick like a hero. She was not dizzy, after all; she knew that jealousy is a woman’s best weapon.
But poor Leon! He was suffering the torments of hell just thinking about being a soldier. I wished we could exchange places. I knew I would love it all—the coarseness, the roughness, the absolute hellishness of being a soldier appealed to me.... Instead of such a prospect, what I got was another, more importunate proposal of marriage from my hound. I thought this life was certainly a mixture of sweets and bitters, but I guess I was happy enough over the streak of manhood showing in my previously impossible twin.
I was so happy, indeed, that I agreed to dance for “the nice people” whom Aunt Elinor invited for a farewell party to Leon. She was all upset over her favorite relative’s impending departure for the War and she wanted to send him away in an unforgettable blaze of glory, so she planned this lavish entertainment at the house the night before he was to leave. And to make certain that people would remember the occasion she conceived the idea of my dancing in the nude behind a shadow screen to the accompaniment of Leon’s readings from his own verses.... It is apparent that I must have been happy over his enlistment to agree to any such thing: not the nudity but the poetic accompaniment—that, I knew, would be terrible!
And it was—so terrible that in the very midst of it poor Esky exploded in a howl that made everyone jump and almost disrupted the performance; and someone laughed rather equinely, which was still worse from my point of view. But we finally got through with it and I rushed into the house to dress and later to accept the usual bread-and-butter compliments from the assembled guests. There was nothing to do but dance the evening away and I proceeded to do this with whoever came my way, which was chiefly Jay-Jay, until Aunt Elinor sneaked up behind me and said she had a young man in tow who wanted to apologize to me. From that point on, life became steadily more interesting and Jay-Jay didn’t get all the dances, for the young man was the handsomest thing I had ever seen and his broad grin was just broad enough and yet refined enough to be infectious. My whole body underwent a quiver of excitement as soon as my eyes rested upon him. I smiled inside as well as out and was unconscious of everything except a mumbling from my aunt to the effect that “Captain Winstead has had me pursuing you for ages....”
He didn’t say anything and I couldn’t, so we just danced away and I felt as if I belonged nowhere else in the world so surely as there in his arms. That dance was unforgettable, a marvelous experience which thrills me even to this day. I was actually serenely blissfully ignorant of time and surroundings. I know such a statement sounds foolish and affected, but I certainly should know how I felt. Heaven knows, I never have felt like that more than once, so I surely should remember it.
We even danced two numbers in silence before the spell was broken by his making a belated apology for laughing so rudely during my dance. And he ended it by saying, “Of course, it was utterly damn foolish on my part!”
The way he said “damn” was to other men’s damns as a soothing melody is to a baby squawker’s music. From that point on, we were acquainted; it was just as if we had known each other for ages; he said that my dancing was just like a dream, that ... oh, I couldn’t begin to reproduce that evening in print: he was just wonderful and he told me the most enchanting things ... we went into the garden and I learned for the first time how short a time it requires to become intimately acquainted with a man, if you like him.... I never was the kind to believe in this love-at-first-sight stuff, but I know that I felt at once that Captain Clark Winstead meant all the world to me—and this in spite of the fact that I hadn’t completely lost my head; I had a sneaking suspicion that he might not mean all the wonderful things he said to me.... Yet even with such suspicions, I simply reveled in his presence. Say what you will about being made love to—it certainly is an indescribably delicious experience if you have the right man, and I did.
But, of course, there had to be a joker, and it finally appeared when he began to tell me how sorry he was that we had not met sooner, “For I’m leaving for Washington in the morning and probably will be sent to England immediately.”
Well, the best we could do was exchange addresses and since he didn’t know where he would be, he wrote mine on a scrap of paper and stuck it in his tunic, saying that I could write to him after I heard from him. Then he kissed my hands and naturally he didn’t have to use force to get me into his arms.... In fact, I was clinging to him fearfully when everything went smash with the sudden appearance of Jay-Jay, looking daggers and so mad that all he could do was stutter.
I remembered then that I had told Jay-Jay we’d dance together again before the finale, so I escaped from the very embarrassing situation by squeezing the Captain’s arm significantly and joining my pursuer, but not before the Captain said, “I hope we can have another before I go.”
Jay-Jay danced as if this were a painful duty that had to be performed. I mean, he danced ferociously and in a silence which was broken only by a grunt now and then. Oh, but he was mad! And the madder he seemed, the better I felt, because this was really the first time I had ever seen him at all off guard or off poise and it does give a girl a thrill of satisfaction to see a proud and self-assured man take a tumble into jealousy.
When he finally did speak, he said the obvious things about cheating and not playing fair and ended with a sarcastic, “You know how I’ve wanted you, and all the time you’ve tried to make me believe that you loathed having a man touch you, not to mention kissing and caressing you. And now——”
“And now is there any law against a woman changing her mind?” I demanded.
“But why treat me as if I were black, if you’ve changed your mind about such things? That’s what I mean! Am I black?”
Well, since he had come down to earth, I relented and told him, “No, I guess your ancestors were Caucasians. In fact, I was almost ready to accept your proposal, but——”
“But this fly-by-night interloper comes along and you act like a grammar school kid over him!” he exclaimed in disgust.
The argument continued through another dance and I gathered from his remarks that he wanted me to consider his proposal as still intended. He was, I think, really baffled: the incident had hurt his pride so that now he was more determined than ever to win me at all costs. And so it was that when Captain Winstead appeared to claim a last dance before he left, Jay-Jay didn’t confine his voice to a polite whisper when he observed, “Thank God, he’s going!”
The Captain and I said nothing at all while we danced. It was so divine that words would merely have bothered and when it had ended we both breathed a deep sigh of regret and somehow or other found ourselves on the veranda. His friends were already in their car waiting for him, but he didn’t hurry. We stood there, my hand in his; his other arm went around my shoulders, and I tried to put into that last kiss all the tremulous fearful affection, all the sickening despair and exalting hope, all the really heart-breaking infatuation that was at once smothering and exhilarating me. No other kiss could ever be like that. I knew it and I think he did, because he didn’t linger for another—just mumbled some sweet nothing and was gone.
Jay-Jay found me there staring out across the moonlit drive, feeling all weak and sad and utterly miserable, trying to convince myself that this knight of the night had really meant everything he said and that I honestly did mean something more than a passing fancy to him. I couldn’t banish the thought that perhaps I was just a foolish school kid, had been just another night and another girl in the Captain’s crowded life. It was such a feeling that makes anyone feel sad and understanding: when you know you love someone and can’t tell whether your love is returned or merely accepted—why, it’s a terrible feeling. It made me understand how Jay-Jay must have felt all along, and I honestly tried to be nice to him the rest of the evening.
Jay-Jay blustered and fussed at first, then indulged in sarcastic remarks about the other man and prophesied that I would never hear from him again. Then when he saw that I wouldn’t argue with him about anything at all, he quieted down and returned to the attack with his eternal proposals.
The fact was that I didn’t pay any attention to his arguments; I couldn’t even spare the time to think up answers to them: all I could think of was the Captain. I knew I should never experience such a feeling again if I lived to be a thousand: there isn’t room in one lifetime to feel like that twice. And I kept telling myself that no man could have a woman thinking of him and dreaming of him every minute without trying to do something about it—or if he would, he’d be an awful fool. And I was sure that I had communicated to him some idea of how he affected me—or again he’d be a fool. And I knew he wasn’t that.
However, the days passed and I heard just nothing at all from him. Jay-Jay had a few more days of leave and he hung around like a carrion crow with an I-told-you-so look in his eyes every time we met. And the night before he left to return to Washington, he popped a novel proposal that I could have an interesting job entertaining in the camps, if I would marry him. “I’ll do anything for you,” he declared, “provided I know you belong to me.”
“But why not get me that job anyway?” I asked.
He just laughed at that suggestion. “Do you think I’d be instrumental in turning you loose like that?” he demanded. “Not unless you were mine—then I’d know you’d behave!”
Just like that! Well, you had to admit that Mr. Marfield was persistent and persevering and I had to take his proposal seriously, because I hadn’t heard from the Captain, and that hurt tremendously, and after all it occurred to me that I really might be quite happy as Mrs. Marfield, even though I knew I could never love him as storybook heroines are supposed to love their husbands. I guess my Aunt’s continental ideas had begun to sink into my mind, for I was beginning to admit to myself that marriages are seldom one long-drawn-out love affair and that I was probably childishly optimistic when I thought that mine would be one of the exceptional cases.
I told him I would think it over, and for the next few weeks I did little else but that. All I did was think—about these two men: the one who wanted me and the one I wanted, and whom I hadn’t seen or heard from since the night we met. There didn’t seem to be any excuse for his silence and yet I kept thinking up reasons for it and hoping against hope that each next mail would bring at least a post card.
That’s what love does to you: makes you go crazy with hopes and wants and at the same time makes you capable of callously letting another go crazy wanting you. The whole triangular affair had me dizzy and I couldn’t sleep nights for thinking about it.
So that’s what I mean when I say that it never rains but it pours, even in the matter of having prayers answered. I prayed that the Lord would do something to change conditions and what did he do but bring in a man who made me change into a thoroughly girlish girl in one short evening! My prayers were answered, even in the matter of making Leon more of a man—but here I was more miserable than ever and I didn’t know whether to thank the Almighty or send up another complaint.
Apple-sauce for the Gander
The only thing that kept me from going crazy or doing something rash during this time was the problem of the would-be hero of the family, my dear twin. From the first day in camp all he did was complain and not a week passed without a long letter full of nothing but kicks and regrets and weeping words. Even his letters to Vyvy, who was walking around with her head in the clouds of pride, carried an obvious undercurrent of pessimism and dejection, which he tried to explain away to her by saying that it was caused by his being away from her “beautiful presence.”
For a kid of his nature, it must have been a terrible experience from the beginning, which was a thorough physical examination in a roomful of naked men, not one of whom would ever suffer from inability to perspire, and during which poor Leon would have fainted dead away if the man next to him hadn’t noticed his deathly pallor and pushed him to the one and only window in the room. He didn’t actually pass out, but it seemed to him that from that moment on he was a marked weakling in the camp and there was none to give him a shred of sympathy.
When he went to get his uniform and equipment, the clerk took one look at him and threw a complete assortment of everything from underwear to blankets at him and when he came to array himself in these duds, he couldn’t bear to look at himself, because the uniform billowed about him like the costume of a Turkish dancer with the sleeves of the blouse inches too short and the neckband two sizes too large. There must have been tears lurking behind his gentle eyes when he approached his sergeant and asked meekly, “Would it be possible to exchange these things for others of my size?”
And imagine how he felt when that hard-boiled individual rapped back, “Listen, Pretty Boy, who in hell do you think you are? In this man’s army you take what they give ya and keep yer trap damn well shut! You ain’t goin’ to no swell tea party at the Waldorf-Astoria, ya know—ya’re goin’ to a first-class war, sweetie, so make up yer mind to it and don’t bother me again with any damfool complaints about it. I ain’t runnin’ this war!” And he smiled sourly as if he had conferred a favor on the cringing recruit. Everyone else in the barracks laughed with the sergeant, as common soldiers naturally would do until the sergeant’s back was turned, so Leon felt pretty small.... But he fooled them on the suit. He discovered there was a tailor shop in the camp and he was the first in his barracks to put himself in the tailor’s hands. He really looked quite military when he finally got fitted correctly, but that didn’t make him feel much better.
Then there was an obnoxious bunkmate by the name of Lowery who did his bit toward making life miserable for Leon. The very first night, when the twin was feeling blue anyway, this Lowery began to perform certain exceedingly unpleasant operations upon his feet, and when he noticed the look of anguish on Leon’s face, he said, “I’ve walked so damn far in my time, buddy, that I got some kind o’ trench foot. I get a new crop o’ skin on my toes every bloody day and when it’s hot they damn near drive me nuts.” And to one toe he gave a yank that looked vicious enough to amputate it. “They itch like hell, believe me, fellow!”
Leon harbored thoughts of murder every time he saw Lowery start his nightly ceremony of rubbing and pinching, and there wasn’t any way of avoiding it, because the afflicted man never turned in until last call and the sergeant would have blasted Leon’s soul to seven vari-colored hells if he weren’t in his blankets when the lights went out. “It’s a terrible thing, young feller!” Lowery informed him after they had slept side by side for some days, but the information didn’t make Leon feel any more sympathetic nor less sickened.
Yet Lowery’s toes were nothing in comparison with the sergeant, who seemed from the first to have his evil eye on Leon. “Canwick,” he would begin, as if he were about to confer a great honor, “somebody has got to go an’ help take care o’ the bathhouse to-day, and seein’ the drillin’ wears ya out so, I guess you’d better take to-day off and report over there. Ya see, we try to make everything as easy as possible fer everybody and also we try to teach every man somethin’ worth while so that when ya get out ya can get a decent livin’. Now this bathhouse detail will teach ya so you can get a job in a Turkish bath when ya get out o’ the army.... You’d go big in a Turkish bath fer women—ya know, they gotta have somebody’s perfectly safe and harmless.”
Everyone laughed at the insinuation and Leon hurried away to the new assignment, thinking that perhaps after all this work would be a little easier, only to discover that his duties were anything but pleasant for a tender-spirited person, what with having to scour pipes and scrub the concrete, pick up dirty discarded towels and other unclean things, distribute soap and collect slimy cakes, and watch the conglomerate mass of male humanity perform its ablutions amid a veritable barrage of dirty language and foul wit.... He was glad to be relieved and to let his legs ache the next day when an apparently indefatigable officer drilled them for hours and hours. His back and legs groaned in agony at every step and when he went to bed at night he wasn’t at all sure he would be able to get up in the morning.
He had another honor conferred on him when the humorous sergeant extended a polite invitation to him to join the Kitchen Police for a few days o’ rest. Leon told us that until that day he never had the least conception of how many potatoes there were in the world. He peeled and peeled and peeled until he felt certain there couldn’t be any more potatoes in the country—but the next morning there was a brand-new batch even larger than the one he had done. His fingers got so numb that he couldn’t feel the thousand and one cuts and scratches, and his wrists ached unmercifully while his back had a kink that seemed irremovable. After two days of this he returned to his bunk to find Lowery working on his toes and he prayed, not for Lowery’s toes, but that he might be lucky enough to ...