Isabelle and Kenneth were distinctly not innocent, nor were they particularly hardened. Moreover, amateur standing had very little value in the game they were beginning to play. They were simply very sophisticated, very calculating and finished young actors, each playing a part that they had played for years. They had both started with good looks and excitable temperaments and the rest was the result of certain accessible popular novels, and dressing-room conversation culled from a slightly older set. When Isabelle’s eyes, wide and innocent, proclaimed the ingénue most, Kenneth was proportionately less deceived. He waited for the mask to drop off, but at the same time he did not question her right to wear it. She, on her part, was not impressed by his studied air of blasé sophistication. She came from a larger city and had slightly an advantage in range. But she accepted his pose. It was one of the dozen little conventions of this kind of affair. He was aware that he was getting this particular favor now because she had been coached. He knew that he stood for merely the best thing in sight, and that he would have to improve his opportunity before he lost his advantage. So they proceeded, with an infinite guile that would have horrified the parents of both.
After dinner the party swelled to forty and there was dancing in a large ex-playroom downstairs. Everything went smoothly—boys cut in on Isabelle every few feet and then squabbled in the corners with: “You might let me get more than an inch ,” and “She didn’t like it either—she told me so next time I cut in.” It was true—she told everyone so, and gave every hand a parting pressure that said “You know that your dances are making my evening.”
But time passed, two hours of it, and the less subtle beaux had better learned to focus their pseudo-passionate glances elsewhere, for eleven o’clock found Isabelle and Kenneth on a leather lounge in a little den off the music room. She was conscious that they were a handsome pair and seemed to belong distinctively on this leather lounge while lesser lights fluttered and chattered downstairs. Boys who passed the door looked in enviously—girls who passed only laughed and frowned and grew wise within themselves.
They had now reached a very definite stage. They had traded ages, eighteen and sixteen. She had listened to much that she had heard before. He was a freshman at college, sang in the glee club and expected to make the freshman hockey-team. He had learned that some of the boys she went with in Pittsburg were “terrible speeds” and came to parties intoxicated—most of them were nineteen or so, and drove alluring Stutzes. A good half of them seemed to have already flunked out of various boarding schools and colleges, but some of them bore good collegiate names that made him feel rather young. As a matter of fact Isabelle’s acquaintance with college boys was mostly through older cousins. She had bowing acquaintance with a lot of young men who thought she was “a pretty kid” and “worth keeping an eye on.” But Isabelle strung the names into a fabrication of gaiety that would have dazzled a Viennese nobleman. Such is the power of young contralto voices on leather sofas.
I have said that they had reached a very definite stage—nay more—a very critical stage. Kenneth had stayed over a day to meet her and his train left at twelve-eighteen that night. His trunk and suitcase awaited him at the station and his watch was already beginning to worry him and hang heavy in his pocket.
“Isabelle,” he said suddenly. “I want to tell you something.” They had been talking lightly about “that funny look in her eyes,” and on the relative merits of dancing and sitting out, and Isabelle knew from the change in his manner exactly what was coming—indeed she had been wondering how soon it would come. Kenneth reached above their heads and turned out the electric light so that they were in the dark except for the glow from the red lamps that fell through the door from the music room. Then he began:
“I don’t know—I don’t know whether or not you know what you—what I’m going to say. Lordy Isabelle—this sounds like a line, but it isn’t.”
“I know,” said Isabelle softly.
“I may never see you again—I have darned hard luck sometimes.” He was leaning away from her on the other arm of the lounge, but she could see his black eyes plainly in the dark.
“You’ll see me again—silly.” There was just the slightest emphasis on the last word—so that it became almost a term of endearment. He continued a bit huskily:
“I’ve fallen for a lot of people—girls—and I guess you have too—boys, I mean, but honestly you—” he broke off suddenly and leaned forward, chin on his hands, a favorite and studied gesture. “Oh what’s the use, you’ll go your way and I suppose I’ll go mine.”
Silence for a moment. Isabelle was quite stirred—she wound her handkerchief into a tight ball and, by the faint light that streamed over her, dropped it deliberately on the floor. Their hands touched for an instant but neither spoke. Silences were becoming more frequent and more delicious. Outside another stray couple had come up and were experimenting on the piano. After the usual preliminary of “Chopsticks,” one of them started “Babes in the Woods” and a light tenor carried the words into the den—
Give me your hand
We’re off to slumberland.
Isabelle hummed it softly and trembled as she felt Kenneth’s hand close over hers.
“Isabelle,” he whispered. “You know I’m mad about you. You do give a darn about me.”
“How much do you care—do you like anyone better?”
“No.” He could scarcely hear her, although he bent so near that he felt her breath against his cheek.
“Isabelle, we’re going back to school for six long months and why shouldn’t we—if I could only just have one thing to remember you by—”
“Close the door.” Her voice had just stirred so that he half wondered whether she had spoken at all. As he swung the door softly shut, the music seemed quivering just outside.
Moonlight is bright
Kiss me good-night.
What a wonderful song, she thought—everything was wonderful tonight, most of all this romantic scene in the den with their hands clinging and the inevitable looming charmingly close. The future vista of her life seemed an unended succession of scenes like this, under moonlight and pale starlight, and in the backs of warm limousines and in low cosy roadsters stopped under sheltering trees—only the boy might change, and this one was so nice.
“Isabelle!” His whisper blended in the music and they seemed to float nearer together. Her breath came faster. “Can’t I kiss you Isabelle—Isabelle?” Lips half parted, she turned her head to him in the dark. Suddenly the ring of voices, the sound of running footsteps surged toward them. Like a flash Kenneth reached up and turned on the light, and when the door opened and three boys, the wrathy and dance-craving Peter among them, rushed in, he was turning over the magazines on the table, while she sat, without moving, serene and unembarrassed, and even greeted them with a welcoming smile. But her heart was beating wildly and she felt somehow as if she had been deprived.
It was evidently over. There was a clamour for a dance; there was a glance that passed between them, on his side, despair, on hers, regret, and then the evening went on, with the reassured beaux and the eternal cutting-in.
At quarter to twelve Kenneth shook hands with her gravely, in a crowd assembled to wish him good-speed. For an instant he lost his poise, and she felt slightly foolish when a satirical voice from a concealed wit on the edge of the company cried:
“Take her outside, Kenneth!” As he took her hand he pressed it a little and she returned the pressure as she had done to twenty hands that evening—that was all.
At two o’clock upstairs Elaine asked her if she and Kenneth had had a “time” in the den. Isabelle turned to her quietly. In her eyes was the light of the idealist, the inviolate dreamer of Joan-like dreams.
“No!” she answered. “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore—he asked me to but I said ‘No.’”
As she crept into bed she wondered what he’d say in his special delivery tomorrow. He had such a good-looking mouth—would she ever—?
“Fourteen angels were watching over them,” sang Elaine sleepily from the next room.
“Damn!” muttered Isabelle and punched the pillow into a luxurious lump—“Damn!”
Sentiment—and the Use of Rouge.
Nassau Literary Magazine (June 1917)