When John Andros felt old he found solace in the thought of life continuing through his child. The dark trumpets of oblivion were less loud at the patter of his child's feet or at the sound of his child's voice babbling mad non sequiturs to him over the telephone. The latter incident occurred every afternoon at three when his wife called the office from the country, and he came to look forward to it as one of the vivid minutes of his day.
He was not physically old, but his life had been a series of struggles up a series of rugged hills, and here at thirty-eight having won his battles against ill-health and poverty he cherished less than the usual number of illusions. Even his feeling about his little girl was qualified. She had interrupted his rather intense love-affair with his wife, and she was the reason for their living in a suburban town, where they paid for country air with endless servant troubles and the weary merry-go-round of the commuting train.
It was little Ede as a definite piece of youth that chiefly interested him. He liked to take her on his lap and examine minutely her fragrant, downy scalp and her eyes with their irises of morning blue. Having paid this homage John was content that the nurse should take her away. After ten minutes the very vitality of the child irritated him; he was inclined to lose his temper when things were broken, and one Sunday afternoon when she had disrupted a bridge game by permanently hiding up the ace of spades, he had made a scene that had reduced his wife to tears.
This was absurd and John was ashamed of himself. It was inevitable that such things would happen, and it was impossible that little Ede should spend all her indoor hours in the nursery up-stairs when she was becoming, as her mother said, more nearly a “real person” every day.
She was two and a half, and this afternoon, for instance, she was going to a baby party. Grown-up Edith, her mother, had telephoned the information to the office, and little Ede had confirmed the business by shouting “I yam going to a pantry!” into John's unsuspecting left ear.
“Drop in at the Markeys' when you get home, won't you, dear?” resumed her mother. “It'll be funny. Ede's going to be all dressed up in her new pink dress—”
The conversation terminated abruptly with a squawk which indicated that the telephone had been pulled violently to the floor. John laughed and decided to get an early train out; the prospect of a baby party in some one else's house amused him.
“What a peach of a mess!” he thought humorously. “A dozen mothers, and each one looking at nothing but her own child. All the babies breaking things and grabbing at the cake, and each mama going home thinking about the subtle superiority of her own child to every other child there.”
He was in a good humor to-day—all the things in his life were going better than they had ever gone before. When he got off the train at his station he shook his head at an importunate taxi man, and began to walk up the long hill toward his house through the crisp December twilight. It was only six o'clock but the moon was out, shining with proud brilliance on the thin sugary snow that lay over the lawns.
As he walked along drawing his lungs full of cold air his happiness increased, and the idea of a baby party appealed to him more and more. He began to wonder how Ede compared to other children of her own age, and if the pink dress she was to wear was something radical and mature. Increasing his gait he came in sight of his own house, where the lights of a defunct Christmas-tree still blossomed in the window, but he continued on past the walk. The party was at the Markeys' next door.
As he mounted the brick step and rang the bell he became aware of voices inside, and he was glad he was not too late. Then he raised his head and listened—the voices were not children's voices, but they were loud and pitched high with anger; there were at least three of them and one, which rose as he listened to a hysterical sob, he recognized immediately as his wife's.
“There's been some trouble,” he thought quickly.
Trying the door, he found it unlocked and pushed it open.
The baby party began at half past four, but Edith Andros, calculating shrewdly that the new dress would stand out more sensationally against vestments already rumpled, planned the arrival of herself and little Ede for five. When they appeared it was already a flourishing affair. Four baby girls and nine baby boys, each one curled and washed and dressed with all the care of a proud and jealous heart, were dancing to the music of a phonograph. Never more than two or three were dancing at once, but as all were continually in motion running to and from their mothers for encouragement, the general effect was the same.
As Edith and her daughter entered, the music was temporarily drowned out by a sustained chorus, consisting largely of the word cute and directed toward little Ede, who stood looking timidly about and fingering the edges of her pink dress. She was not kissed—this is the sanitary age—but she was passed along a row of mamas each one of whom said “cu-u-ute” to her and held her pink little hand before passing her on to the next. After some encouragement and a few mild pushes she was absorbed into the dance, and became an active member of the party.
Edith stood near the door talking to Mrs. Markey, and keeping one eye on the tiny figure in the pink dress. She did not care for Mrs. Markey; she considered her both snippy and common, but John and Joe Markey were congenial and went in together on the commuting train every morning, so the two women kept up an elaborate pretense of warm amity. They were always reproaching each other for “not coming to see me,” and they were always planning the kind of parties that began with “You'll have to come to dinner with us soon, and we'll go in to the theatre,” but never matured further.
“Little Ede looks perfectly darling,” said Mrs. Markey, smiling and moistening her lips in a way that Edith found particularly repulsive. “So grown-up—I can't believe it!”
Edith wondered if “little Ede” referred to the fact that Billy Markey, though several months younger, weighed almost five pounds more. Accepting a cup of tea she took a seat with two other ladies on a divan and launched into the real business of the afternoon, which of course lay in relating the recent accomplishments and insouciances of her child.
An hour passed. Dancing palled and the babies took to sterner sport. They ran into the dining-room, rounded the big table, and essayed the kitchen door, from which they were rescued by an expeditionary force of mothers. Having been rounded up they immediately broke loose, and rushing back to the dining-room tried the familiar swinging door again. The word “overheated” began to be used, and small white brows were dried with small white handkerchiefs. A general attempt to make the babies sit down began, but the babies squirmed off laps with peremptory cries of “Down! Down!” and the rush into the fascinating dining-room began anew.
This phase of the party came to an end with the arrival of refreshments, a large cake with two candles, and saucers of vanilla ice cream. Billy Markey, a stout laughing baby with red hair and legs somewhat bowed, blew out the candles, and placed an experimental thumb on the white frosting. The refreshments were distributed, and the children ate, greedily but without confusion—they had behaved remarkably well all afternoon. They were modern babies who ate and slept at regular hours, so their dispositions were good, and their faces healthy and pink—such a peaceful party would not have been possible thirty years ago.
After the refreshments a gradual exodus began. Edith glanced anxiously at her watch—it was almost six, and John had not arrived. She wanted him to see Ede with the other children—to see how dignified and polite and intelligent she was, and how the only ice cream spot on her dress was some that had dropped from her chin when she was joggled from behind.
“You're a darling,” she whispered to her child, drawing her suddenly against her knee. “Do you know you're a darling? Do you know you're a darling?”
Ede laughed. “Bow-wow,” she said suddenly.
“Bow-wow?” Edith looked around. “There isn't any bow-wow.”
“Bow-wow,” repeated Ede. “I want a bow-wow.”
Edith followed the small pointing finger.
“That isn't a bow-wow, dearest, that's a teddy-bear.”
“Yes, that's a teddy-bear, and it belongs to Billy Markey. You don't want Billy Markey's teddy-bear, do you?”
Ede did want it.
She broke away from her mother and approached Billy Markey, who held the toy closely in his arms. Ede stood regarding him with inscrutable eyes, and Billy laughed.
Grown-up Edith looked at her watch again, this time impatiently.
The party had dwindled until, besides Ede and Billy, there were only two babies remaining—and one of the two remained only by virtue of having hidden himself under the dining-room table. It was selfish of John not to come. It showed so little pride in the child. Other fathers had come, half a dozen of them, to call for their wives, and they had stayed for a while and looked on.
There was a sudden wail. Ede had obtained Billy's teddy-bear by pulling it forcibly from his arms, and on Billy's attempt to recover it, she had pushed him casually to the floor.
“Why, Ede!” cried her mother, repressing an inclination to laugh.
Joe Markey, a handsome, broad-shouldered man of thirty-five, picked up his son and set him on his feet. “You're a fine fellow,” he said jovially. “Let a girl knock you over! You're a fine fellow.”
“Did he bump his head?” Mrs. Markey returned anxiously from bowing the next to last remaining mother out the door.
“No-o-o-o,” exclaimed Markey. “He bumped something else, didn't you, Billy? He bumped something else.”
Billy had so far forgotten the bump that he was already making an attempt to recover his property. He seized a leg of the bear which projected from Ede's enveloping arms and tugged at it but without success.
“No,” said Ede emphatically.
Suddenly, encouraged by the success of her former half-accidental manoeuvre, Ede dropped the teddy-bear, placed her hands on Billy's shoulders and pushed him backward off his feet.
This time he landed less harmlessly; his head hit the bare floor just off the rug with a dull hollow sound, whereupon he drew in his breath and delivered an agonized yell.
Immediately the room was in confusion. With an exclamation Markey hurried to his son, but his wife was first to reach the injured baby and catch him up into her arms.
“Oh, Billy,” she cried, “what a terrible bump! She ought to be spanked.”
Edith, who had rushed immediately to her daughter, heard this remark, and her lips came sharply together.
“Why, Ede,” she whispered perfunctorily, “you bad girl!”
Ede put back her little head suddenly and laughed. It was a loud laugh, a triumphant laugh with victory in it and challenge and contempt. Unfortunately it was also an infectious laugh. Before her mother realized the delicacy of the situation, she too had laughed, an audible, distinct laugh not unlike the baby's, and partaking of the same overtones.
Then, as suddenly, she stopped.
Mrs. Markey's face had grown red with anger, and Markey, who had been feeling the back of the baby's head with one finger, looked at her, frowning.
“It's swollen already,” he said with a note of reproof in his voice. “I'll get some witch-hazel.” But Mrs. Markey had lost her temper.
“I don't see anything funny about a child being hurt!” she said in a trembling voice.
Little Ede meanwhile had been looking at her mother curiously. She noted that her own laugh had produced her mother's and she wondered if the same cause would always produce the same effect. So she chose this moment to throw back her head and laugh again.
To her mother the additional mirth added the final touch of hysteria to the situation. Pressing her handkerchief to her mouth she giggled irrepressibly. It was more than nervousness—she felt that in a peculiar way she was laughing with her child—they were laughing together.
It was in a way a defiance—those two against the world.
While Markey rushed up-stairs to the bathroom for ointment, his wife was walking up and down rocking the yelling boy in her arms.
“Please go home!” she broke out suddenly. “The child's badly hurt, and if you haven't the decency to be quiet, you'd better go home.”
“Very well,” said Edith, her own temper rising. “I've never seen any one make such a mountain out of—”
“Get out!” cried Mrs. Markey frantically. “There's the door, get out—I never want to see you in our house again. You or your brat either!”
Edith had taken her daughter's hand and was moving quickly toward the door, but at this remark she stopped and turned around, her face contracting with indignation.
“Don't you dare call her that!”
Mrs. Markey did not answer but continued walking up and down, muttering to herself and to Billy in an inaudible voice.
Edith began to cry.
“I will get out!” she sobbed, “I've never heard anybody so rude and c-common in my life. I'm glad your baby did get pushed down—he's nothing but a f-fat little fool anyhow.”
Joe Markey reached the foot of the stairs just in time to hear this remark.
“Why, Mrs. Andros,” he said sharply, “can't you see the child's hurt? You really ought to control yourself.”
“Control m-myself!” exclaimed Edith brokenly. “You better ask her to c-control herself. I've never heard anybody so c-common in my life.”
“She's insulting me!” Mrs. Markey was now livid with rage. “Did you hear what she said, Joe? I wish you'd put her out. If she won't go, just take her by the shoulders and put her out!”
“Don't you dare touch me!” cried Edith. “I'm going just as quick as I can find my c-coat!”
Blind with tears she took a step toward the hall. It was just at this moment that the door opened and John Andros walked anxiously in.
“John!” cried Edith, and fled to him wildly.
“What's the matter? Why, what's the matter?”
“They're—they're putting me out!” she wailed, collapsing against him. “He'd just started to take me by the shoulders and put me out. I want my coat!”
“That's not true,” objected Markey hurriedly. “Nobody's going to put you out.” He turned to John. “Nobody's going to put her out,” he repeated. “She's—”
“What do you mean ‘put her out’?” demanded John abruptly. “What's all this talk, anyhow?”
“Oh, let's go!” cried Edith. “I want to go. They're so common, John!”
“Look here!” Markey's face darkened. “You've said that about enough. You're acting sort of crazy.”
“They called Ede a brat!”
For the second time that afternoon little Ede expressed emotion at an inopportune moment. Confused and frightened at the shouting voices, she began to cry, and her tears had the effect of conveying that she felt the insult in her heart.
“What's the idea of this?” broke out John. “Do you insult your guests in your own house?”
“It seems to me it's your wife that's done the insulting!” answered Markey crisply. “In fact, your baby there started all the trouble.”
John gave a contemptuous snort. “Are you calling names at a little baby?” he inquired. “That's a fine manly business!”
“Don't talk to him, John,” insisted Edith. “Find my coat!”
“You must be in a bad way,” went on John angrily, “if you have to take out your temper on a helpless little baby.”
“I never heard anything so damn twisted in my life,” shouted Markey. “If that wife of yours would shut her mouth for a minute—”
“Wait a minute! You're not talking to a woman and child now—”
There was an incidental interruption. Edith had been fumbling on a chair for her coat, and Mrs. Markey had been watching her with hot, angry eyes. Suddenly she laid Billy down on the sofa, where he immediately stopped crying and pulled himself upright, and coming into the hall she quickly found Edith's coat and handed it to her without a word. Then she went back to the sofa, picked up Billy, and rocking him in her arms looked again at Edith with hot, angry eyes. The interruption had taken less than half a minute.
“Your wife comes in here and begins shouting around about how common we are!” burst out Markey violently. “Well, if we're so damn common, you'd better stay away! And, what's more, you'd better get out now!”
Again John gave a short, contemptuous laugh.
“You're not only common,” he returned, “you're evidently an awful bully—when there's any helpless women and children around.” He felt for the knob and swung the door open. “Come on, Edith.”
Taking up her daughter in her arms, his wife stepped outside and John, still looking contemptuously at Markey, started to follow.
“Wait a minute!” Markey took a step forward; he was trembling slightly, and two large veins on his temple were suddenly full of blood. “You don't think you can get away with that, do you? With me?”
Without a word John walked out the door, leaving it open.
Edith, still weeping, had started for home. After following her with his eyes until she reached her own walk, John turned back toward the lighted doorway where Markey was slowly coming down the slippery steps. He took off his overcoat and hat, tossed them off the path onto the snow. Then, sliding a little on the iced walk, he took a step forward.
At the first blow, they both slipped and fell heavily to the sidewalk, half rising then, and again pulling each other to the ground. They found a better foothold in the thin snow to the side of the walk and rushed at each other, both swinging wildly and pressing out the snow into a pasty mud underfoot.
The street was deserted, and except for their short tired gasps and the padded sound as one or the other slipped down into the slushy mud, they fought in silence, clearly defined to each other by the full moonlight as well as by the amber glow that shone out of the open door. Several times they both slipped down together, and then for a while the conflict threshed about wildly on the lawn.
For ten, fifteen, twenty minutes they fought there senselessly in the moonlight. They had both taken off coats and vests at some silently agreed upon interval and now their shirts dripped from their backs in wet pulpy shreds. Both were torn and bleeding and so exhausted that they could stand only when by their position they mutually supported each other—the impact, the mere effort of a blow, would send them both to their hands and knees.
But it was not weariness that ended the business, and the very meaninglessness of the fight was a reason for not stopping. They stopped because once when they were straining at each other on the ground, they heard a man's footsteps coming along the sidewalk. They had rolled somehow into the shadow, and when they heard these footsteps they stopped fighting, stopped moving, stopped breathing, lay huddled together like two boys playing Indian until the footsteps had passed. Then, staggering to their feet, they looked at each other like two drunken men.
“I'll be damned if I'm going on with this thing any more,” cried Markey thickly.
“I'm not going on any more either,” said John Andros. “I've had enough of this thing.”
Again they looked at each other, sulkily this time, as if each suspected the other of urging him to a renewal of the fight. Markey spat out a mouthful of blood from a cut lip; then he cursed softly, and picking up his coat and vest, shook off the snow from them in a surprised way, as if their comparative dampness was his only worry in the world.
“Want to come in and wash up?” he asked suddenly.
“No, thanks,” said John. “I ought to be going home—my wife'll be worried.”
He too picked up his coat and vest and then his overcoat and hat. Soaking wet and dripping with perspiration, it seemed absurd that less than half an hour ago he had been wearing all these clothes.
“Well—good night,” he said hesitantly.
Suddenly they both walked toward each other and shook hands. It was no perfunctory hand-shake: John Andros's arm went around Markey's shoulder, and he patted him softly on the back for a little while.
“No harm done,” he said brokenly.
“No, no harm done.”
“Well,” said John Andros after a minute, “I guess I'll say good night.”
Limping slightly and with his clothes over his arm, John Andros turned away. The moonlight was still bright as he left the dark patch of trampled ground and walked over the intervening lawn. Down at the station, half a mile away, he could hear the rumble of the seven o'clock train.
“But you must have been crazy,” cried Edith brokenly. “I thought you were going to fix it all up there and shake hands. That's why I went away.”
“Did you want us to fix it up?”
“Of course not, I never want to see them again. But I thought of course that was what you were going to do.” She was touching the bruises on his neck and back with iodine as he sat placidly in a hot bath. “I'm going to get the doctor,” she said insistently. “You may be hurt internally.”
He shook his head. “Not a chance,” he answered. “I don't want this to get all over town.”
“I don't understand yet how it all happened.”
“Neither do I.” He smiled grimly. “I guess these baby parties are pretty rough affairs.”
“Well, one thing—” suggested Edith hopefully, “I'm certainly glad we have beefsteak in the house for to-morrow's dinner.”
“For your eye, of course. Do you know I came within an ace of ordering veal? Wasn't that the luckiest thing?”
Half an hour later, dressed except that his neck would accommodate no collar, John moved his limbs experimentally before the glass. “I believe I'll get myself in better shape,” he said thoughtfully. “I must be getting old.”
“You mean so that next time you can beat him?”
“I did beat him,” he announced. “At least, I beat him as much as he beat me. And there isn't going to be any next time. Don't you go calling people common any more. If you get in any trouble, you just take your coat and go home. Understand?”
“Yes, dear,” she said meekly. “I was very foolish and now I understand.”
Out in the hall, he paused abruptly by the baby's door.
“Is she asleep?”
“Sound asleep. But you can go in and peek at her—just to say good night.”
They tiptoed in and bent together over the bed. Little Ede, her cheeks flushed with health, her pink hands clasped tight together, was sleeping soundly in the cool, dark room. John reached over the railing of the bed and passed his hand lightly over the silken hair.
“She's asleep,” he murmured in a puzzled way.
“Naturally, after such an afternoon.”
“Miz Andros,” the colored maid's stage whisper floated in from the hall, “Mr. and Miz Markey downstairs an' want to see you. Mr. Markey he's all cut up in pieces, mam'n. His face look like a roast beef. An' Miz Markey she 'pear mighty mad.”
“Why, what incomparable nerve!” exclaimed Edith. “Just tell them we're not home. I wouldn't go down for anything in the world.”
“You most certainly will.” John's voice was hard and set.
“You'll go down right now, and, what's more, whatever that other woman does, you'll apologize for what you said this afternoon. After that you don't ever have to see her again.”
“Why—John, I can't.”
“You've got to. And just remember that she probably hated to come over here just twice as much as you hate to go downstairs.”
“Aren't you coming? Do I have to go alone?”
“I'll be down—in just a minute.”
John Andros waited until she had closed the door behind her; then he reached over into the bed, and picking up his daughter, blankets and all, sat down in the rocking-chair holding her tightly in his arms. She moved a little, and he held his breath, but she was sleeping soundly, and in a moment she was resting quietly in the hollow of his elbow. Slowly he bent his head until his cheek was against her bright hair. “Dear little girl,” he whispered. “Dear little girl, dear little girl.”
John Andros knew at length what it was he had fought for so savagely that evening. He had it now, he possessed it forever, and for some time he sat there rocking very slowly to and fro in the darkness.
“Baby Party: Went to one—saw just a moment of bitterness between two women. Was drawn in spiritually on wife's side. Imagined the same scene among stupid people with less self-control—and its consequences. Also Maupassant's ‘Piece of String.’ Imagination.
Перевод: Маленькие гости (А. Б. Руднев)