The scene is a boudoir, or whatever you call a lady’s room which hasn’t a bed. Smaller rooms communicate with it, one on each side. There is a window at the left and a door leading into the hall at the back. A huge pier-glass stands in the corner; it is the only object in the room which is not littered with an infinitude of tulle, hat-boxes, empty boxes, full boxes, ribbons and strings, dresses, skirts, suits, lingerie, petticoats, lace, open jewel-cases, sashes, belts, stockings, slippers, shoes—perfectly littered with more than all this. In the very middle of the confusion stands a girl. She is the only thing in the room which looks complete, or nearly complete. She needs to have her belt hooked, and has too much powder on her nose; but aside from that, looks as though she might be presented to almost anything at almost any time; which is just what is going to happen to her. She is terrifically pleased with herself and the long mirror is the focus of her activity. Her rather discontented face is consciously flexible to the several different effects. Expression number one seems to be a simple, almost childish, ingenue, upward glance, concentrated in the eyes and the exquisitely angelic eyelashes. When expression number two is assumed, one forgets the eyes and the mouth is the center of the stage. The lips seem to turn from rose to a positive, unashamed crimson. They quiver slightly—where is the ingenue? Disappeared. Good evening Sapho, Venus, Madam Du—no! ah! Eve, simply Eve! The pier-glass seems to please. Expression number three:—Now her eyes and lips combine. Can this be the last stronghold? The aesthetic refuge of womanhood; her lips are drawn down at the corners, her eyes droop and almost fill with tears. Does her face turn paler? Does—No! Expression one has dismissed tears and pallor, and again—
HELEN—What time is it?
(The sewing machine stops in the room at the left.)
VOICE—I haven’t a watch, Miss Helen.
HELEN—(Assuming expression number three and singing to the mirror. ) “Poor butterfly—by the blossoms waiting—poor butter——” What time do you think it is, Narry, old lady? Where’s mother, Narry?
NARRY—(Rather crossly) I am sure I haven’t the slightest idea.
HELEN—Narry! (No answer.) Narry, I called you Old Lady, because—(She pauses. The sewing machine swings into an emphatic march) because it’s the last chance I will have.
The machine stops again and NARRY comes into the room sniffing. Narry is exactly of the mould with which the collective temperaments of Helen and her family have stamped her. She is absolutely adamant with everyone not a member of the family and absolutely putty in the hands of the least capable of them.
NARRY—You might just not call me Old Lady. (She sniffs, and handkerchiefs herself) Goodness gracious! I feel old enough now with you going out.
HELEN—(Her mind wandering to her feet which carry her around the room to the sound of her voice) “The moments pass into hours—the hours pass into years—and as she smiles through—”
Peremptory voice with the maternal rising accent ascends the stairs, and curls into the bedroom.
HELEN—(With more volume than you would imagine could go with such a deliciously useless figure) Yes, mother.
MOTHER—(Drawing near.) Are you very nearly ready, dear?… I am coming up. I have had such a hard time with one of the waiters.
HELEN—I know mother, tight as he could be. Narry and I watched him try to get up when they threw him outside into the yard.
MOTHER—(Now on the stairway landing) You and Narry should not have done any such thing, Helen dear. I am surprised at Narry. I—(She seems to pause and pant.)
NARRY—(Almost shouting) I do declare, Mrs. Halycon. I——
MRS. HALYCON appears in the doorway and becomes the center of the stage. She is distinctly a factor in the family life. Neither her daughter’s slang, nor her son’s bills discourage her in the least. She is jeweled and rouged to the dowager point.
MRS. HALYCON—Now Narry, now Helen (She produces a small notebook) Sit down and be quiet (Narry sits down anxiously on a chair which emerges from the screen of dresses. Helen returns to the pier-glass and the sequence of expressions passes over her face in regular rotation.) Now I’ve made some notes here— let’s see. I’ve made notes on things you must do. Just as I have thought of them, I have put them down. (She seats herself somewhere and becomes severely judicial.) First, and absolutely, you must not sit out with anyone. (Helen looks bored.) I’ve stood for it at your other dances and heaven knows how many dances of other people, but I will not, understand me, I will not endure to look all over for you when some friend of mine, or of your father’s wants to meet you. You must tonight, you must all season —I mean you must stay in the ballroom, or some room where I can find you when I want you. Do you understand?
HELEN—(Yawning) Oh, yes! You would think I didn’t know what to do.
MRS. HALYCON—Well, do it if you know how. I will not endure finding you in a dark corner of the conservatory, exchanging silliness with anyone, or listening to it.
HELEN—(Sarcastically) Yes, listening to it is better.
MRS. HALYCON—And you positively cannot give more than two dances to young Cannel. I will not have everyone in town having you engaged before you have had a fair chance.
HELEN—Same old line. You’d think from the way you talk that I was some horrible old man-chaser, or someone so weak and wobbly that you’d think I’d run off with someone. Mother, for heaven’s sake—
MRS. HALYCON—My dear, I am doing my very best for you.
HELEN—(Wearily) I know. (She sits down decidedly on another invisible chair) Mother, I happen, my dear, to have four dances with John Cannel. He called up, asked me for four of them, and what could I say? Besides, it’s a cut-in-dance, and he would cut in as much as he wants anyhow. So what’s the difference? (Becoming impatient) You can’t run everything now, the way they did in the early nineties.
MRS. HALYCON—Helen, I’ve told you before that you can’t say early nineties to me.
HELEN—Don’t treat me like a child then.
MR. HALYCON comes in. He is a small man with a large appearance and a board-of-directors heartiness.
MR. HALYCON—(Feeling that the usual thing is expected of him) Well, how is my little debutante daughter? About to flit into the wide, wide world?
HELEN—No, daddy, just taking a more licensed view of it.
MR. HALYCON—(Almost apologetically) Helen, I want you to meet a particular friend of mine, a youngish man—
HELEN—Oh, I like them forty-five. They know life, and are so adorably tired looking.
MR. HALYCON—And he is very anxious to meet you. He saw you when you came into my office one day, I believe—and let me tell you, he is a brainy man. Brought up from Providence by the——
HELEN—(Interrupting) Yes, daddy, I’ll be delighted to meet him. I’ll——
Enter CECILIA, Helen’s younger sister. Cecilia is sixteen, but socially precocious and outrageously wise on all matters pertaining to her sister. She has blonde hair, in contrast to her sister’s dark brown; and besides, remarkable green eyes with a wistful trusting expression in them. However, there are very few people whom she trusts.
CECILIA—(Calmly surveying the disorder around her) Nice looking room.
HELEN—Well, what do you expect? Nothing but milliners, dressmakers and clumsy maids all day (Narry rises and leaves the room) What’s the matter with her?
MRS. HALYCON—You’ve hurt her feelings.
HELEN—Have I? What time is it?
MRS. HALYCON—Quarter after eight. Are you ready? You’ve got too much powder on.
HELEN—I know it.
MR. HALYCON—Well, look me up when you come down; I want to see you before the rush. I’ll be in the library with your uncle.
MRS. HALYCON—And don’t forget the powder.
Mr. and Mrs. Halycon go out.
HELEN—Hook up my belt, will you, Cecilia?
CECILIA—Yes. (She sets at it, Helen in the meanwhile regarding herself in the mirror) What are you looking at yourself all the time for?
HELEN—(Calmly) Oh, just because I like myself.
CECILIA—I am all twittered! I feel as if I were coming out myself. It is rotten of them not to let me come to the dance.
HELEN—Why you’ve just only put your hair up. You’d look ridiculous.
CECILIA—(Quietly) I know where you keep your cigarettes and your little silver bottle.
HELEN—(Starting so as to unloosen several hooks which Cecilia patiently does over again) Why, you horrible child! Do you go prying around among all my things?
CECILIA—All right, tell mother.
HELEN—What do you do, just go through my drawers like a common little sneak-thief?
CECILIA—No, I don’t. I wanted a handkerchief, and I went to looking and I couldn’t help seeing them.
HELEN—That’s what comes of letting you children fool around with no chaperons, read anything you want to, and dance until two every Saturday night all summer. If it comes to that, I’ll tell something I saw that I didn’t say anything about. Just before we came into town, that night you asked me if you could take Blaine MacDonough home in the electric, I happened to be passing at the end of the drive by the club, and I saw him kiss you.
CECILIA—(Unmoved) We were engaged.
HELEN—(Frantically) Engaged! You silly little fool! If any older people heard that you two were talking like that, you wouldn’t be allowed to go with the rest of your crowd.
CECILIA—That’s all right, but you know why you didn’t tell, because what were you doing down there by the drive with John Cannel?
HELEN—Hush! You little devil.
CECILIA—All right. We’ll call it square. I just started by wanting to tell you that Narry knows where those cigarettes are too.
HELEN—(Losing her head) You and Narry have probably been smoking them.
CECILIA—(Amused) Imagine Narry smoking.
HELEN—Well, you have been anyway.
CECILIA—You had better put them somewhere else.
HELEN—I’ll put them where you can’t find them, and if you weren’t going back to school this week, I would go to mother and tell her the whole thing.
CECILIA—Oh, no you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t even do it for my good. You’re too selfish.
Helen, still very superior, marches into the next room. Cecilia goes softly to the door, slams it without going out, and disappears behind the bureau. She emerges tip-toe, takes a cushion from an arm chair, and retires again to her refuge. Helen again reappears. Almost immediately a whistle sounds outside, twice repeated. She looks annoyed and goes to the window.
JOHN—(From below) Helen, can I see you a moment?
HELEN—No, indeed, there are people all over the house. Mother would think I had gone mad if she saw us talking out of the window.
JOHN—(Hopefully) I’ll climb up.
HELEN—John, don’t, you’ll tear your dress clothes. (He is evidently making good, as deduced from a few muttered fragments, barely audible) Look out for the spike by the ledge. (A moment later he appears in the window, a young man of twenty-two, good looking, but at present not particularly cheerful.)
HELEN—(Sitting down) You simple boy! Do you want the family to kill me? Do you realize how conspicuous you are?
JOHN—(Hopefully) I’d better come in.
HELEN—No, you had better not. Mother may be up at any moment.
JOHN—Better turn out the lights. I make a good movie standing like this on this ledge.
(Helen hesitates and then turns out all the lights except an electric lamp on the dresser.)
HELEN—(Assuming an effective pose in the arm chair) What on earth do you want?
JOHN—I want you. I want to know that you are mine when I see you dancing around with this crowd tonight.
HELEN—Well, I am not. I belong to myself tonight, or rather to the crowd.
JOHN—You’ve been rotten to me this week.
JOHN—You’re tired of me.
HELEN—No, not that. The family. (They have evidently been over this ground before.)
JOHN—It isn’t the family, and you know it.
HELEN—Well, to tell the truth, it isn’t exactly the family.
JOHN—I know it isn’t. It’s me—and you, and I’m getting desperate. You’ve got to do something one way or the other. We are engaged, or——
HELEN—Well, we are not engaged.
JOHN—Then what are we? What do you think about me, or do you think about me? You never tell me any more. We’re drifting apart. Please Helen——!
HELEN—It’s a funny business, John, just how I do feel.
JOHN—It isn’t funny to me.
HELEN—No, I don’t suppose it is. You know, if you just weren’t so in love with me——
JOHN—(Gloomily) Well, I am.
HELEN—You see, there is no novelty in that. I always know just what you are going to say.
JOHN—I wish I did. When you first met me, you used to tell me that you loved to hear me talk, because you never knew what I was going to say.
HELEN—Well, I’ve found out. I like to run things, but it gets monotonous to always know that I am the key to the situation. If we are together, and I feel high, we enjoy ourselves. If I feel unhappy, then we don’t; or anyways you don’t. How you’re feeling never has anything to do with it.
JOHN—Wouldn’t it be that way with most couples?
HELEN—Oh, I suppose so, it would be if I were the girl.
JOHN—Well, what do you want?
HELEN—I want—Oh, I’ll be frank for once. I like the feeling of going after them, I like the thrill when you meet them and notice that they’ve got black hair that’s wavey, but awfully neat, or have dark lines under their eyes, and look charmingly dissipated, or have funny smiles, that come and go and leave you wondering whether they smiled at all. Then I like the way they begin to follow you with their eyes. They’re interested. Good! Then I begin to place him. Try to get his type, find what he likes; right then the romance begins to lessen for me and increase for him. Then come a few long talks.
JOHN—(Bitterly) I remember.
HELEN—Then, John here’s the worst of it. There’s a point where everything changes.
JOHN—(Mournfully interested) What do you mean?
HELEN—Well, sometimes it’s a kiss and sometimes it’s long before anything like that. Now if it’s a kiss, it can do one of three things.
JOHN—Three! It’s done a thousand to me.
HELEN—It can make him get tired of you; but a clever girl can avoid this. It’s only the young ones and the heroines of magazine epigrams that are kissed and deserted. Then there’s the second possibility. It can make you tired of him. This is usual. He immediately thinks of nothing but being alone with the girl, and she, rather touchy about the whole thing, gets snappy, and he’s first love sick, then discouraged, and finally lost.
JOHN—(More grimly) Go on.
HELEN—Then the third state is where the kiss really means something, where the girl lets go of herself and the man is in deadly earnest.
JOHN—Then they’re engaged?
HELEN—(Emphatically) No, we distinctly were not. I knew what I was doing every blessed second, John Cannel.
JOHN—Very well, don’t be angry. I feel mean enough already.
HELEN—(Coldly) Do you?
JOHN—Where do I come in? This is all a very clever system of yours, and you’ve played through it, you go along your way looking for another movie hero with black hair, or light hair, or red hair, and I am left with the same pair of eyes looking at me, the same lips moving in the same words to another poor fool, the next——
HELEN—For Heaven sakes don’t cry!
JOHN—Oh, I don’t give a damn what I do!
HELEN—(Her eyes cast down to where her toe traces a pattern on the carpet) You are very young. You would think from the way you talk that it was my fault, that I tried not to like you.
JOHN—Young! Oh, I’m in the discard, I know.
HELEN—Oh, you’ll find someone else.
JOHN—I don’t want anyone else.
HELEN—(Scornfully) You’re making a perfect fool of yourself.
(There is a silence. She idly kicks the heel of her slipper against the rung of the chair.)
JOHN—(Slowly) It’s this damn Charlie Wordsworth.
HELEN—(Raising her eyes quickly) If you want to talk like that you’d better go. Please go now.
(She rises. John watches her a moment and then admits his defeat.)
JOHN—Helen, don’t let’s do like this. Let’s be friends. Good God, I never thought I would have to ask you for just that.
(She runs over and takes his hand, affecting a hopeful cheerfulness which immediately revolts him. He drops her hand and disappears from the window. She leans out and watches him.)
HELEN—Watch for that spike. Oh, John, I warned you. You’ve torn your clothes.
JOHN—(Drearily from below) Yes, I’ve torn my clothes. I certainly play in wonderful luck. Such an effective exit.
HELEN—Are you coming to the dance?
JOHN—No, of course I am not. Do you think I’d come just to see you and Charlie——
HELEN—(Gently) Good-night, John.
She closes the window. Outside a clock strikes nine. The clatter of a few people on the stairway comes muffled through the door. She turns on the lights and going up to glass looks long and with an intense interest at herself. A powder puff comes into use for an instant. An errant wisp of hair is tucked into position, and a necklace from somewhere slides into place.
MRS. HALYCON—(Outside) Oh, Helen!
She opens the top bureau drawer, takes out a silver cigarette case, and a miniature silver flask, and places them in a side drawer of the writing desk. Then she turns out all the lights and opens the door. The tuning of violins comes in nervous twangs and discords up the stairs. She turns once more and stands by the window. From below, there is a sudden burst of sound, as the orchestra swings into “Poor Butterfly.” The violins and faint drums and a confused chord from a piano, the rich odor of powder, and new silk, a blend of laughters all surge together into the room. She dances toward the mirror, kisses the vague reflection of her face, and runs out the door.
Silence for a moment. Bundled figures pass along the hall, silhouetted against the lighted door. The laughter heard from below becomes doubled and multiplied. Suddenly a moving blur takes shape behind the bureau. It resolves itself into a human figure, which arises, tip-toes over and shuts the door. It crosses the room, and the lights go on again. Cecilia looks about her, and with the light of definite purpose in her rich green eyes goes to the desk drawer, takes out the miniature flask and the cigarette case. She lights a cigarette, and puffing and coughing walks to the pier-glass.
CECILIA—(Addressing her future self) Oh, yes! Really coming out is such a farce nowadays, y’know. We really play around so much before we are seventeen, that it’s positive anticlimax. (Shaking hands with a visionary middle-aged man of the world) Yes, I b’lieve I’ve heard m’ sister speak of you. Have a puff. They’re very good. They’re Coronas. You don’t smoke? What a pity.
She crosses to the desk and picks up the flask. From downstairs the rain of clapping between encores rises. She raises the flask, uncorks it, smells it, tastes a little, and then drinks about the equivalent of two cock-tails. She replaces the flask, makes a wry face and as the music starts again she fox-trots slowly around the room, waving the cigarette with intense seriousness, and watching herself in the long mirror.
This is the first version of the play. The second version was published in The Smart Set, November 1919: [Debutante (a one-act play)]. This text was included in book 2, chapter 1 of “This side of paradise” novel.
Published in Nassau Literary Magazine (January 1917).