FICTION

INTRODUCTION TO AUTUMN

MÉLANIE BENETT November 15 1933
FICTION

INTRODUCTION TO AUTUMN

MÉLANIE BENETT November 15 1933

INTRODUCTION TO AUTUMN

FICTION

MÉLANIE BENETT

THE ADVERTISEMENT read: “Chauffeur, to drive Romano; must be of unexceptionable appearance, wear uniform well, not young.”

On the whole, a little oddly worded. The clauses were astonishingly apt, as though they were written to describe, in a nutshell, Jorgis himself. Jorgis was sixty, tall, spare and soldierly; he had never lost the astounding erectness of an especially strict military training. Under a high-bridged, strong, long nose, the ends of his iron-grey mustache were stiffly waxed. His iron-grey hair was crisp, and waved a little, in close ridges, across the top of his head. He had always looked, in uniform, a regal and commanding figure. And he used to drive a Romano.

It was now four o’clock in the afternoon. The quick chill of autumn was already perceptible through the golden October sunlight ; the shadows of tall trees lay long and blue on the close-clipped, untrodden green of the park. A little girl in a shapeless slip of cotton frock, wheeling a baby in a battered go-cart, perched herself on the end of the bench with a timid glance at Jorgis. He looked at her sternly, under bent brows, and at once she retreated. He felt a little sorry. He had not intended to alarm the child. It was simply that hei small, shabby presence was a jarring and

too actual note in the landscaped elegance of the scene.

But this advertisement. There was something rather uncanny in spotting it now, at the eleventh hour, when the matter of his future had been so definitely settled. He felt, a little uneasily, the small, hard bulk of the revolver against his hip. It was entirely by chance that he had seen the advertisement. He almost never allowed himself the luxury of picking up a discarded paper. That was the sort of thing the down-and-outs did. But this particular newspaper had been lying on his favorite bench, clean, neatly folded, left by some absent-minded sitter or by the direct hand of destiny. There was still a chance that the fastidious advertiser was not yet suited.

JORGIS rose stiffly, leaning a little on his stick. His rheumatism was plaguing again, aching in knees and ankles. His shoes offered practically no resistance to the cold of the pavements. The uppers, of vintage leather, were polished and repolished to the color and glow' of fine mahogany, but the soles were worn very nearly to nothing. His grey fedora and rough London tweeds w ere hardly in better case, though they retained a sufficiently casual and gentlemanly air. There was a fierce and stubborn pride in him that refused to surrender to the press of circumstance.

He swung his stick jauntily. It was a handsome stick, strong and slender, ebony with a triple band inset below the crook of onyx—rather a conspicuous stick to carry, but then any gift of Rose’s choosing was apt to be conspicuous.

Lovely, slim Rose, with her dark hair, and stormy eyes, and her voice that turned a man’s heart over in his breast ! A little cabaret singer, a naive, proud, fiery little animal

but all that was finished a thousand years ago. He might have sold the stick }>erhaps. as he had sold the other things - his mother’s pearls, an enamelled snuff-box given to his grandfather by one of the czars that he had smuggled out with his owti carcass when the earnest bolsheviki swept his small country into the large maw of the U.S.S.R. It would have fetched enough to keep him a few days another week. Only it wasn’t worth while to sell Rose's present merely for a few more days.

He had no trouble in finding the house. One saw of it only the façade, tall and imix>sing, between two lesser façades. Its stone was of a dazzling whiteness; at the foot of the high classic windows were boxes massed with the quite irrelevant gaiety of mauve and purple petunias. The d(x>r was painted glossy black, its brasses shone.

Mrs. Plimmer, his landlady, would have figured out all this glittering spotlessness in terms of hard work. She was not a nice woman, Mrs. Plimmer. a woman full of meannesses, temper and small dishonesties, but one had to respect her passion for cleanliness. Jorgis, for a year now, had lived in a dark cubbyhole looking out on a court, with an iron bedstead that squeaked and rattled w hen he moved, a scarred bureau with a green, distorted glass, and one uncomfortable chair. But it was clean. Mrs. Plimmer saw to that, and Ux>k pride in Jorgis because he was the only lodger in the block who required hot water every day for shaving. He liad paid her that morning, in advance as always, leaving himself actually with less than a quarter in the world. But he had no intention of cheating the creature out of her lawful week’s notice.

As he crossed the road, he saw' the car parked at the curb. It was a Romano, a town car, brilliant w ith plate glass and chromium. Once, with Rose, he had driven his big red roadster all night over mountain roads, madly, at forty odd miles an hour. These modem cars, he knew, could do twice that. He walked around it with misgivings. The gadgets on

the dashboard looked strange and inexplicable. It occurred to him suddenly that if the car stood ready and waiting here at the door, the position must be filled. His heart sank stonily. Nevertheless he mounted the high white steps, and rang the bell.

THE DOOR opened sharply and silently.

"Sir?*’ said the butler on a note of courteous enquiry. His expressionless eyes absorbed Jorgis instantly —gentleman, shabby, eccentric.

“I wished to enquire whether you have yet engaged a satisfactory chauffeur?”

The voice of Jorgis, deep and pleasant, tinged with a correct and familiar accent—-he had had the best of English tutors confirmed this impression. An odd old boy, hard up, and anxious, probably, about the future of a favorite servant necessarily dismissed. Most of the callers on whom the black door was opened were merely rich or famous. An almost imperceptible warmth kindled under the butler’s calm official mask.

“If you will step inside, sir.”

He took the liat and stick which Jorgis absently surrendered, and It'd him toward a large drawing-room. It was only as they crossed the hall that the butler noticed the tell-tale flapping of sole leather and realized his mistake. But he refrained from steering Jorgis aside into the small office which under the circumstances might have been more suitable. The but 1er was a very particular kind of snob; poverty meant nothing to him, but he adored blue blood.

A thin, neat, secretarial sort of young woman was standing by a window, reading a newspaper. She whipped it behind her with a startled, guilty air when she heard them. The butler cough«! discreetly.

“About the chauffeur’s position, Miss Gwynett.”

“Oh, yes. Oh. Curran......will you please ask Ernestine

to come here?”

Miss Gwynett began to fold the rumpled sheets with nervous fingers, and Jorgis had time to look around the apartment in which he found himself. He experienced an odd sensation of pleasure. It was a large room, splendidly proportion«!, all white and gold, with Empire mirrors hung around the walls in place of pictures, and curtains of pale, shining, yellow brocade. There were armchairs and sofas in green and peach-colored satin, and tall Chinese vases holding sheaves of heavy-headed chrysanthemums. On countless tables, on the mantel above the white-pillared fireplace, was an unlimited miscellany - little jars and dishes of fine porcelain, figurines in Sevres and Chelsea, elephants carved in ivory, amber, and jade. It was the room of a woman who had done some pretty extensive living, who loved things inordinately.

Miss Gwynett, her eyes enlarged and misty-blue behind horn-rimmed glasses, with her sallow, wistfui. clever little face, was practically invisible in such a room. She might have been pretty, thought Jorgis, if there had been any warmth of life about her. Not like Rose, whose vital forces flowed urgently, pulse-stirring.

Rose would have loved this room. She would have dominated it. He remembered acutely the crowded litter of the tiny, tawdry sitting room in her apartment, and Rose, coming in after her performance, arms full of flowers, her brown eyes brilliant with triumph, her lips eager; or Rose, sobbing, distraught with grief, swearing to kill herself if

they were separated. Well, the ultimate pressure had been exerted and they had separated. He had always tried to avoid hearing or reading news of Rose, of her meteoric rise to opera stardom, her lovers, her jewels, her astounding succession of husbands. Rose was very much on his mind.

HE GIRL said at last, in her cool, precise voice:

Oh, I m sorry to keep you waiting. You wanted to know about the chauffeur’s position?’’ She laid the newspaper on one of the tables, thrusting it behind a lamp-base as though the sight of it was disturbing.

I would apply for the position,” said Jorgis, “if it is not yet filled.”

“Oh, yes. I mean, no, we haven’t found anyone yet. Will you tell me your name, please?”

“Wessel. George Wessel.” When he was very small, his German governess had taught him, as a relaxation from more serions studies, to recite the long imposing list of his Christian names and hereditary titles. From half the saints and royalties of Europe he had adapted George Wessel as a convenient abbreviation.

“Are you English? You speak like an Englishman.”

“I speak several languages, Miss Gwynett. I am not English.”

“Surely”—her upward glance was shy. kind—“surely you could find something better to do than chauffeuring. Some sort of clerical work -or teaching ...”

“It is hard for a man of my years. Miss Gwynett. and I seem to have no commercial aptitude. My education was not quite usual. I speak very nicely, but I cannot write correctly in any language. But I assure you I can drive a car. I have driven almost all the European makes.”

“Oh, yes. I see. I must tell you that madame is very particular. She will want to see you herself. I—oh, Ernestine!” She turned from Jorgis with relief, thankful to relinquish her present embarrassing responsibility.

An older woman had entered through a side door, and joined them. By her dress, of a plain black fabric tucked severely over her angular bosom, she was evidently a sort of superior and confidential maid. She looked sharply at Jorgis. then, in a rapid, slightly guttural voice, she asked him half a dozen pointed questions that he was hard put to answer.

“Very well,” she said. “You can give no reference and you have not driven a Romano lately, but we will have to let that go. There are some things I must explain quickly, if you are to try this position. Madame will be here in a moment to see you. You must understand that there is only one rule in this household, and that is the wish of madame, which is not always easy to follow. Madame has the temperament of genius. Our last chauffeur left because he was angry at what seemed contradictory orders. This morning, by our advertisement, we engaged a man very well recommended. He drove madame downtown fcr

shopping and lunch. She returned an hour ago, gave him his money and told him to go—because the baldness of his head showed beneath his cap at the back, and she could not endure it. You see?”

“I see,” said Jorgis. “I am capable of great restraint, mam’selle.”

Suddenly Miss Gwynett said “Oh !” and they all turned and faced the door.

As though she had awaited a signal, madame came sweeping into the room.

SHE MOVED with a long, proud, youthful stride, her bosom lifted consciously. Her hair was w'hite as snow, waved and dressed with exquisite precision, startlingly white against her delicate, girlish skin—-until she paused near them in the flooding afternoon sunlight that poured through the tall windows. Then Jorgis saw fine close lines etched deeply under the thick peachy down, the little sagging folds about her high-held chin. She wore pyjamas, voluminous trousers of soft black velvet, a jacket of creamy lace. He was horrified to see that it was antique rose point, ruthlessly cut and sewn. Her feet were tiny in stilt-heeled scarlet sandals. Her delicate white hands, the blue veins faintly raised along their backs, were heavy with rings. Only her eyes were young, brilliant in their sunken sockets, under pencilled brows. Dark-brown eyes, mysteriously translucent, like Rose’s eyes. She said crisply;

“Well, Miss Gwynett?”

Miss Gwynett fluttered.

“Oh, madame, I think wre have found someone who will suit you. His name is George Wessel.”

"Wessel? What a funny name ! Turnaround.”

Jorgis turned around.

“Splendid shoulders! Really, Ernestine, it’s a very fine back, isn’t it?”

“Quite, madame.”

“Well, we must have someone. I cannot be shut up in the house any longer. Is that tonight’s paper?”

Miss Gwynett looked at Ernestine with a look that was like the wringing of hands. Ernestine shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly. Miss Gwynett said, “Yes, madame,” and madame pounced upon it.

“Is it here? Did you see it? Ah !” She held the page at arm’s length, her head tilted, pleased as a child.

“Look, Ernestine ! Look, Miss Gwynett ! Aren't the pictures charming? Ten years ago, and today. Now tell me, do you see any difference?”

“You look lovely in both, madame,” said Miss Gwynett timidly, but Jorgis, amused and observant, realized that her apprehensions had not subsided.

Madame was reading rapidly. Her tinted lips moved slightly, forming words, her lively eyes slid over the paragraphs. Suddenly her brows drew together, darkened with displeasure.

“The same old lies ! The same old lies !” She dropped the paper and spun round on poor little Miss Gwynett. “What did I tell you? What is the use of my employing you if you cannot prevent these lies? Oh, how dare they do it?”

Ernestine said placidly:

“Madame, the young woman they sent was not a person of great perception. No doubt she did her best.”

"How dare they send to me someone so stupid. Read it! You would think I was a hundred years old. You would think 1 was a feeble old hag. ’Retired on account of her advancing years!’ ” She stamjxxi on the offending jxiges, grinding them under her scarlet heels. “You know my voice is as true, as rich today as it was ten years ago. Are not my ears still sensitive to the slightest shade of tone? Would I not hear, myself, if my high notes cracked ever so little? I tell you it was their jealousy that made me retire their jealousies. Do I look like an old woman? Do I feel like an old woman? Miss Gwynett, you will write to that paper and tell them they must publish an ajxdogy to me. You will explain to them, again, exactly, the reasons for my retirement.”

Jorgis stood like stone.

This woman was Rose! Rose whose tempers were swift and exciting as the leap of fire in dry grass; Rose who hated age, the dreadful quenching which time imposed; who, for all her careful small pieties, her avowed hopes of heaven, feared death with a dreadful fear. Rose herself!

JORGIS was not a gambler; he did not concern himself unduly over the prospect of surviving death, which seemed to him something simpler and far less tragic than life. Well, life had given him this chance to go on, and so he must go on. He would enjoy the odd drama of serving Rose, unknown. What was there left in him for her to recognize, of the handsome boy who had suffered so bitterly so long ago?

She pressed her hands to her forehead, groaned through clenched teeth. Her relaxing frown left little l;x>sened flakes of powder in the artificial blackness of her brows.

“Ah, Wessel!” she exclaimed suddenly. “You are still here. You can begin at once? That is excellent. Ernestine, show' him where to go.”

Jorgis followed Ernestine, and madame, with Miss Gwynett behind her. came after them both, full of instructions. full of interest and animation.

“Ernestine, we must see at once about uniforms. What color, Ernestine, would be best with grey hair? Dark green? Where is Curran? Ah, Curran ! This is Wessel, who is to be our chauffeur.”

Curran said, “Yes, madame.” His manner was perfect; his eyes met Jorgis’ eyes for the flash of a second, recognizing the freak of destiny that made them fellow-servants. He lifted the hat and stick from a marble console and handed them to Jorgis.

Madame screamed.

“That stick! Let me see that stick! Where did you get it?”

She snatched it out of Jorgis’ hands, examining minutely the engraving on the gold threads.

“I knewit. The date is on it, among the acanthus leaves. You beast! Assassin! You bolshevik devil! You have murdered Prince Jorgis. You have looted his things.

Continued on page 42

Introduction to Autumn

Continued from page 7

Curran, call the police. Don’t let that man go !”

"Madame, pacify yourself.” Ernestine’s calm voice checked the outburst. "It may have passed through a dozen hands since then. Let us enquire first exactly how Wessel got it.”

"1 can assure you. madame,” said Jorgis stiffly, "it is not as you think.” His lips set in a stern line, an unforgettable line, under his little grey mustache.

"Then explain! Explain! Oh, it is -

it is you—Jorgis!”

SHE GREW PALE, then flushed, beneath the rouge; her rings glittered and flashed as her hands flew to her throat. She said again, hoarsely: “Jorgis!”

Ernestine, with her air of witchcraft, produced smelling salts from an invisible pocket, and held them to her mistress’s nose. Jorgis, with an effort, steadied himself. “Yes, madame, I am Prince Jorgis.”

He wanted to say, "Rose, please do not be difficult about this. A great many years have passed, and life is very odd.” But it was better to say as little as possible, until one knew in what way this strange, incredible Rose was going to behave. He was not long in doubt. She fell forward and caught him by the arms.

"Ah, Jorgis—Jorgis. my beloved ! Are you too proud to speak to your Rose? Why did I not know you at once? But you are greatly changed. You have aged very much, my darling. Oh, how wonderful, how wonderful to find each other, after all these cruel years ! And you wish to be my chauffeur, you silly Jorgis! Do you suppose I will allow such a thing? No, no. We are going to be happy together at last. I knew life was not all over for me. I knew love was not finished. We will lxmarried at once, my darling, my Jorgis.”

She flung herself into his arms, quite literally. Her weight staggered him. He had to brace himself against her. hold her closely, or both would have fallen. Over her shoulder he saw Miss Gwynett, enthralled, pink with emotion, her mouth a little open. Under Curran’s careful unseeingness, a sympathetic horror was discernible. Only Ernestine stood untouched, inscrutable. Jorgis felt little beads of sweat break on his forehead.

“Rose, I implore you. This is dreadful. This is impossible.”

“No. no, Jorgis. Embrace me; embrace me, my darling. Miss Gwynett—at once.

you must find out about a special license. Ernestine, there are some wedding rings in my jewel case. Any one of them will do.” “Wait, Rose. This is all madness. I cannot marry you. I cannot possibly marry you. Your chauffeur, yes, if you will permit it. But not your husband.”

He was appalled by this fat old woman, ¡ this travesty of his passionate, slim young | Rose, smothered in jewels and selfishness. A sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. Rose screamed again.

“Impossible! Why is it impossible? Jorgis—Jorgis—you are married already! Oh, could you not have been faithful! Jorgis, tell me, are you married?”

There was only one thing to be done, one way of escape. Jorgis lied.

“Oh, oh! Ernestine, where are the salts?

I shall never get over this. Jorgis. how could you forget me? When I have loved you all my life. No one has ever taken your place in my heart. They have none of them meant anything to me. And you are married ! Who is she? What is she? Is she younger than I? . Is she beautiful?”

That is the trouble with lies—they propagate so rapidly.

"No.” said Jorgis desperately. “She is not young at all. She was a—a Mrs. Plimmer, my landlady. She had been very good to me.” Mutely he thanked heaven that Mrs. Plimmer, most virtuous of matrons, was not likely to hear of this facile accusation of bigamy.

“Ah. Jorgis, then you cannot love her. 1 You are still mine. You can be divorced. We must find out about this at once. Miss Gwynett, telephone my lawyer. Ask him to j come here immediately.”

"No." Jorgis set his teeth. “No. I cannot divorce her. Think, Rose! A divorce takes time, and we are not young, you and I. Besides, she—she will never consent.”

She jerked herself away.

“You mean you will not consent. You are

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lying to me. Jorgis. Do you think I don’t know you well enough to know when you are lying? She is young, then. She is beautiful. This is the finish. This is absolutely the end. I can never forgive you.” Her voice cracked on a note of sheer rage. “Oh, go away! Go away !”

With one final, piercing shriek she made her exit; moving with broken steps, her head flung back, one hand clenched against her mouth. Trust Rose, Jorgis told himself a little bitterly, to remember the appropriate gesture.

Miss Gwvnett put her arm about the older woman’s shoulders, leading her tenderly toward the stairs. Her reproachful glance accused him. Jorgis felt for his handkerchief and mopped his brow with mixed emotion as he turned to the door.

Curran was there before him, holding it open. He said:

“I’m sorry, sir; I’m really very7 sorry.” It was a handsome admission.

Jorgis acknowledged it as such. “That is very good of you, Curran.” He saluted, military fashion, and slowly descended the steps. He felt old and beaten, ten years older than he had been an hour ago. Perhaps he had been a fool to refuse her. But warmth and comfort and security for the body were a small matter compared to comfort in the mind. He was not a young man, to laugh away a woman’s tantrums, to enjoy the violence of quarrels and reconciliation. And now she had done him the last wrong, committed the last unfaithfulness. She had destroyed his dear memories.

WELL, HE would walk through his little park once more, in the early-gathering autumn dusk. But what he had to do must be done not there, but in the big park downtown, where the loafers and out-of-lucks hung about, where dust lay grey and gritty on the leaves and grass. The burly policeman who sauntered up and down its paths would know how to dispose of anything he found in the shrubbery.

Someone was running down the street behind Jorgis. He paused on the curb. Ernestine cried breathlessly, “Highness! Highness!” She curtseyed, her black skirts making a faint hissing sound against the pavement. “Highness, one moment, I beg you!”

“Well, mam’selle?”

“Highness, do you remember the little farm outside the gates of the su mmer palace as one turned west? With hollyhocks along the path?”

“The hollyhocks,” said Jorgis, “were sometimes higher than the door. Surely I remember.”

“My father’s farm, Highness. I have seen you many times riding by on your fine horses. Driving, when an automobile brought all the children shouting to the

gates and terrified the poor animals on the road. Before everything turned upside down. Highness, excuse me. but I am not blind. You are in poverty. You needed this job.”

“My dear Ernestine, I am no worse off than I was this morning. You can see it. would have been quite impossible.”

“You should not have said that she is not young. She is afraid of the years. Women who live too hard, as she has done, grow old quickly. That newspaper girl, she only said what they all said ten years ago. But madame still sings and cannot hear the false notes. Look, Highness, you will take this?” She crushed something into his hand, folding his fingers closely over it.

Something tightened helplessly in Jorgis’ throat; it was a long time since he had experienced loyalty. He said with difficulty: “Ernestine, this is something for which I cannot sufficiently thank you. But I must refuse. I am going to vanish again out of your lives. Do not forget how deeply I feel your kindness. Now let us say good-by.” “God bless you! God bless you!” She was kissing his hand, with cold lips.

He pulled his hand free and hurried across the road, limping a little, leaning on his stick. Inside the park gates, several blocks away, he was startled to find his hand still gripped the money. He looked at it, thoughtfully—three mussed dollar bills, some small silver.

The park was almost deserted. The lights were not yet lit, though dusk thickened softly. The shabby little girl whom he had previously noticed, was still sitting on her bench, the baby sleeping in its go-cart. Her small face looked pinched and chilly. She called, in a thin little piercing voice:

“Please, mister, what’s o’clock?”

Jorgis stopped.

“I am sorry. I don’t know. Perhaps six, perhaps later. Y'ou have been here a long time.”

“The policeman said I could come here, mister. I keep very quiet.”

“You must be far from your home. Why do you come so far?”

“I like to come, mister. It’s so pretty here.”

“So it is,” said Jorgis. “Very pretty.” Into her skinny little claw he pressed the money Ernestine had given him. Her eyes grew round with astonishment at the feel of hard coins and the small crumpled wad of bills. “Hold it tightly,” said Jorgis, “And run along home. Tell your mother to buy you a fine dinner for Sunday. Good-by.” “G-good-by, mister.”

Her big eyes stared at him in half-fearful amazement. Jorgis nodded, smiling. He was suddenly sure of himself again, almost light-hearted. He nodded once more to the child and went on his way.