FICTION

BACKWARD LADY

DAVID GREGG December 1 1934
FICTION

BACKWARD LADY

DAVID GREGG December 1 1934

BACKWARD LADY

FICTION

DAVID GREGG

JAMES HAYWOOD KENT was in bed, reading and smoking his pipe. It was a warm spring evening in 1933; the windows were open. He was a tallish man, not too thin, and thirty-five years old.

A woman came through the door. She was wearing a silk wrapper and slippers of some sort, probably mules. She stood before a dressing table for a moment, doing something, James didn’t notice what. She was tall, straight, handsome, her black hair caught up in a knot at the neck, a fine figure of a strong, healthy woman.

She kicked off the mules—if they were mules—tossed her wrapper on a chair and w'ent toward James’s bed and stood beside him.

He looked up at her.

“ Non what do you want?” he asked.

She smiled at him, touched his forehead and hair with her fingers. He sighed, as though he were being annoyed, put his book on the table beside the bed and moved a little. She lay down beside him, her head on his arm. He kissed her. He had to lean over her to do it, and the position was not quite comfortable. He moved a little, she moved, her bare arm went around his neck, her lips hunted for his and found them. His arm slipped around her waist, drew her against him. She closed her eyes, her lips moved against his, she was content.

Minutes passed. Then he said:

“You’ve been kissed enough in the last hour to last a month.”

She laughed at him.

“The trouble is that it doesn’t last,” and she nipped at his cheeks with her lips. But he was not content with that light rambling touch. He put his hand on her head and held her lips against his and kissed her until she struggled away.

“I can’t breathe,” she said.

He kissed her cheeks, her eyes, her forehead, went down to her neck and came back to her lips. Then with his lips almost if not quite touching hers, he spoke.

“Darn women anyway, especially you.”

“Jim!”

“Why not? The Lord played a low trick on men when he made women w'hat they are: all they’ve got to do is to look innocent and come sidling up to a man and in two minutes he can’t call his soul his own.”

She pinched his cheek.

“Don’t you love me?”

Love you ! No, I don’t love you, I hate you.” He rubbed his nose against hers. “Love you? I love you so that there’s nothing in the world but you. I thought I loved you ten years ago, but I didn’t know the half of it. You’d suppose a man would get used to a woman when he’s been living with her for ten years, wouldn’t you? The trouble with you is you re a perfect mother, a perfect wife and a perfect mistress, and I never can tell one minute what you’re going to be the next.”

His lips felt the tears on her cheeks, but her lips were smiling.

^VN HOUR BEFORE, James had driven up to his door.

Jeanne had got out and he had gone on to the garage, stowed the car and gone back to the house. It was ten o clock. Jeanne was talking to the nurse. She turned to James.

Let s have something to eat, it will do us good,” she said, lhen to the nurse: “No, you go to bed, Mary, I’ll get it.” She went into the pantry, James following, and found milk, cookies, fruit. James helped her carry them to the dining room, with plates and glasses. They ate and James lighted his pipe. They talked for a while, then carried things back to the pantry Jeanne went upstairs, James locked up and followed her. She called to him, whispering it, and he went into the nursery. Jeanne put her arm around his. “Isn’t he too sweet for words !” The eighteen-months baby in the crib was. “I hate to have them grow up,” she said, “but they’re just as nice when they do, just different.”

She moved James across the room, put out the dimmed light and led him into another room, first to one small girl and then the other, both sound asleep.

“Angels, when they’re asleep,” she said and smiled.

“They’re a pair of devils, like their ma,” James muttered.

She looked up at him.

“How about another, or two or three?” she whispered.

“It would suit me, if you can stand it,” James said.

“You bet I can.”

They went to their room and began to undress. Jeanne’s dress, and something else, were off when James came up behind her, slipped his hands under her arms and kissed her neck and shoulder. She did not move for a moment, just drew her breath in deeply and stood very straight so that her breasts rose under James’s hands. Then she turned in his arms, put her arms around his neck, drew his head down and kissed him. He kissed her. Five minutes had passed when she looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with tears.

“Jim, you’re the best man in the world. I love you so it hurts. I don’t know' how I ever got you. I didn’t deserve you.”

James laughed.

“Maybe you didn’t ’(deserve me, but you know how you got me—that face of yours.” His eyes were sparkling. “And you are handsomer now than you were then.” He meant it and she knew it.

“Don’t be silly, but go on thinking so, old thing.”

THAT NIGHT, at about six o’clock, James Hayw'ood Kent, Jr., aged nine, had announced that he had a pain in the generally accepted location of his stomach. Stomach aches are nothing to worry an experienced mother and nurse, but this ache rapidly took on unusual proportions. Dr. George fortunately was at home. He came, made a quick examination, an immediate diagnosis, telephoned an eminent surgeon, and a few minutes later James, Jr., was on his way to the hospital, followed of course by his parents.

For an hour or two James and Jeanne had nothing to do but worry. Heaven knows in this day and age that an appendix is nothing to worry about, even an acute one if caught in time as this one had been, but even knowing that they were able to worry without the slightest effort.

Jeanne was perfectly calm and self-contained even when the youngster was wheeled down the corridor to the operating room. When he wras gone, she simply backed into James and drew his arms around her, rubbed her cheek against his and then turned so that he could kiss her. In a moment or two she sat down and turned the pages of a magazine, using her other hand to hold one of James’s.

In a surprisingly short time Dr. George came back.

“Everything’s all right,” he said, “but it wasn’t a bit too soon.”

Jeanne smiled serenely, without a tremor. She took out a cigarette, gave it to the doctor and lighted it for him. Dr. George had brought her into the world.

A few minutes later James, Jr., was brought back, completely uninterested in his surroundings. The nurse and Jeanne got him into bed.

The surgeon, a friend of James, turned up after a while. The boy was in fine shape, not a thing in the world to worry about, nothing for James and Jeanne to do but go home and sleep. Of course they could see the boy in the morning.

Jeanne and James went down and got into the car. Jeanne put her hand on James’s cheek, kissed him just once, and then sank back in the seat, except that her head was just touching his shoulder.

JAMES woke up. It was just daylight. He looked at his wrist watch; it was half-past five of a June morning in 1923. He turned slowly and quietly and looked at the girl beside him. They had been married three days. Anyway all the evidence was to that effect, though James still doubted it. It was just one of those things that couldn’t possibly be. It was, probably, all a dream.

But he was awake, that was sure, and that head on the pillow was certainly Jeanne’s. There wasn’t another head that even remotely resembled it, from one end of the land to the other. Perhaps other girls were as handsome as Jeanne, but none in just her way. Hers was a beauty with an enormous amount of goodness and character in it, and some sort of deviltry of which James couldn’t make head or tail. Anyway there she was, sound asleep and James realized that he had never seen her asleep before. Devil or no devil inside, her face was the lace of an angel—when she was asleep.

He lay gazing at her, marvelling at her beauty and marvelling still more that, so far as he could make out, she was all his, technically anyway.

She opened her eyes, as though his contemplation of her face had wakened her. She looked at him blankly, blinked her eyes in amazement, and then a suspicion of a smile curled her lips. She moved, her arm worked its way toward him, around him, she drew herself against him, and with her eyes dosed she craned her neck until her lips found his. One quick kiss and her head sank to his shoulder and she was asleep again; she really had never been awrake at all.

James was asleep himself in two minutes, but before he went to sleep he had time to muse: “Women certainly do beat all—especially Jeanne.”

ON THE second Saturday in June, 1923, at four o’clock, a car drove out ot Jeanne’s drive with James and Jeanne in it. Jeanne’s brother was driving. They went down the street to James’s house, where his car was waiting with their luggage in it. They changed cars and drove aw'ay. They had been married a few hours before. Jeanne settled into a comfortable position.

“A darned good job, if you ask me. Most girls take months to get married and they don’t do it half as well as we have.”

“I don’t believe it’s really so,” Jimmy said. “It’s just impossible that you’re my wife!”

“I feel just a little that way myself,” she said, “but it is so and you'd better believe it. If I catch you forgetting it you’ll hear from me.”

“It’s too good to be true, Jeanne.”

“Don’t be foolish, it’s true for both of us. But you know, Jimmy, I can’t quite realize I’m all yours, that every barrier is down, that—that—oh, you know—but isn’t it wonderful that it is so!”

It had been a hectic three weeks. All during it Jeanne had seemed to be an institution; a sort of impersonal object that was the centre of a great turmoil, but in some curious way she had seemed to control that turmoil and bring order out of it. He saw her alone only at long intervals and then only for a few moments. Time was too precious to waste. James wanted Jeanne to himself, wanted her alone, wanted to hold her in his arms, feel the softness and strength of her beautiful body, wanted to kiss her, her lips and cheeks and neck and shoulders, wanted her to respond, to want him to hold her in his arms and kiss her. Jeanne seemed willing to admit that that sort ot thing was part of being engaged, but it was perfectly obvious that Jeanne didn’t like it much and that a very little of it went a very long way.

James was worried about it; he wondered whether Jeanne w'as really cold and had no sentiment in her; whether, when they were married, she’d be aloof, frigid. James had heard that there were women like that. Jimmy had been in love with Jeanne for a long time, but he had known lots of other girls and Jeanne was different. But different or not, Jeanne was Jeanne and better than any other girl in the world.

ON A SUNDAY afternoon late in May, 1923, at a quarter before six—that is, three w'eeks before they were married—James drove up to the Thatchers’ door, got out of his car and went up on the piazza. Various people, including several Thatchers and Jeanne, were there. They all greeted James; he was offered tea and things, which obviously were intended to be declined, for the tea party was over.

Jeanne was ready to go, a friend had come for her, there was nothing at all unusual about the situation for her; but James was nervous, dazed, excited, thrilled, dumbfounded, and still not at all sure that the fact was a fact.

Jeanne said good-by to everybody, went down the steps and got into the car. James followed her. He hadn’t the faintest idea what to do or say; the place wras far too public for him to say or do anything. He drove aw'ay, to the main highway, then turned into a little travelled road and there he stopped.

Jeanne obviously expected something» of the sort, for she was smiling, blushing just a little and sitting as far from him as she could, half turned in the seat.

“Are you really going to marry me?” James’s voice was husky.

“Of course I am. Do you suppose I’d joke about a thing like that—Jimmy! Jimmy! not here, please.”

She looked up and down the road, saw no one and leaned toward him. For one short instant her lips were against his. Then :

“That’s enough, now—here.” She pushed him away.

“Do you really love me?” Jimmy asked, helplessly.

“Of course I do. Do you suppose I’d marry you if I didn’t? Don’t look so surprised.”

“Do you blame me—after all I’ve gone through?”

Jeanne laughed.

“Did you expect me to jump at you the first chance I had? It took me a long time to make up my mind that you were the best I could do for myself.” Her hand slipped into his. “Come, let’s go home.”

Home—her home—looked good to James. There might be some privacy there. He drove on. Jeanne’s whole family was at home and on the piazza. She went up the steps with James and faced them.

“I’m going to marry—this,” she said, to the family, indicating James. “And I’m going to do it three weeks from yesterday, at noon, so you’ve all got to get busy; there’s a lot to do and darned little time to do it in.”

Pandemonium reigned. Jimmy stayed for dinner. He did not see Jeanne alone until well after dinner. Then, for an instant, she was in his arms, just once or twice, so quickly that it seemed not really to have happened, her lips touched his. Then she broke away.

“Run along and get some sleep,” she said. “I suspect it’s going to be a hectic three weeks, we’d better sleep while we can.”

THE EVENING before, James had reached home in no amiable frame of mind. Life was drab and dreary, the future held nothing worth while. He had spent the evening with Jeanne Cross. It was half-past ten and he was standing in the library of his father’s house, wondering whether to read for a while or go to bed, when the telephone rang.

It w'as Jeanne.

“Jim?” It was a question, but she knew very well who it w'as.

“Yes.”

“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll go with you if you really want me to.”

“What! Honestly! You really mean it?”

“Of course I mean it, do you think I’m making some sort of poor joke?”

“Of course I don’t. Oh, Jeanne—say it again, is it really true, I’m not dreaming?”

“I’ve said it once; that’s enough.” "All right. I’ll be with you in two minutes or less.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind. I’m ready for bed; in fact I’m in bed and I’m sleepy.” ^

"Can’t you get up again? It’s early.”

"I could but I won’t. I’m going to sleep.”

James sighed. "All right, if you insist. I’ll be round in the morning—about six o’clock.”

"No, thanks. I’m going to get a good night’s sleep.”

“Nine o’clock, then?”

"You’re playing golf at nine-thirty, aren’t you? I know you are; you always do.”

"I was, but what difference does that make?”

"All the difference in the world. I hate people who break engagements.”

“But, Jeanne!”

“I’m going out to lunch and then to the Thatchers’. Could you come for me there, say, between half-past five and six?” “Of course, but—”

“Never mind the but’s, it’s a date. I know you’re playing golf in the afternoon—Sam told me. Good night.”

James heard a laugh—not a derisive laugh, an extremely pleasant laugh—and the click as the receiver was hung up. For some minutes he stood stock still—dazed, gloriously happy and amazed.

"The darnedest woman in the world—or any other world,” he muttered, and found that he wras, quite unnecessarily, still holding the telephone in his hands.

■pARLIER THAT same evening, James had sat on the Cross piazza, facing Jeanne, and, as always, wondering why, even if she w-as the most wonderful girl and head and shoulders above any girl he had ever known, mentally, morally, physically and every other way, he couldn’t make the slightest impression on her. He had argued and pleaded with her for years and got absolutely nowhere except to bore her, so that now, if he started any love-making, she simply walked out on him. If he were willing to be a plain, unassuming, casual friend, he would get an evening once in a while, but start proposing and the evening was over. But James was stubborn.

“I start my vacation the second Saturday in June,” James said. "Rotten time for a vacation, but I suppose it’s better than none. It’s one of the things you have to put up with when you’re young.”

“It is a rotten time,” Jeanne said. “There’s more going on here in June than there is anywhere else. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know exactly. Maybe I’ll go up to the college and see the ball games and Class Day and take in the boat race, but that sort of mixes things up; it isn’t a real vacation. I

might do all that if you’d go with me.” "Ask mother and see what she says about it.” There wasn’t any question what mother would think about it; Jeanne was being funny.

“You’re old enough to decide for yourself.” “You bet I am. I’m broad-minded, but not that broad-minded.” "Of course we’d be married before we started,” James said.

“Would we, indeed? We’re not going to be married ever and you know it or ought to by this time. But if we were, nobody could get ready in three weeks, and besides my idea of a honeymoon isn’t being dragged round at a college reunion.”

“Three weeks is plenty of time to get married in,” James said. “All you’ve got to do is get the license, date up the minister, put a couple of notices in the paper, buy a hat and a pair of shoes and fill up the car with gas and oil. The rest is just fuss and feathers and a darned nuisance. If I could get married the way I wanted to, I’d just rent a cottage and drop in on the justice of the peace.”

"You couldn’t get any self-respecting girl to agree with you. It can’t be done decently in under two or three months.”

“Of course, if you decided to go with me,” James said, “I know a place on the Bay where there’s golf and sailing and swimming and a good place to stay, and we could take a day off and go to the boat race if we wanted to, or even to one of the ball games.”

"Ho, hum !” Jeanne yawned.

"Nothing doing?” James asked.

"Hardly. Too much going on round here till after the First, and for heaven’s sake, Jimmy, stop being ridiculous. I’m not going to marry you, ever, and that’s the end of it.” "Why not? Nobody will ever love you as much as I do.” “Don’t you believe it, but stop talking about it. You make a perfectly good friend, but I couldn’t any more fall in love with you than I could with your grandfather. Be a good boy and run along; it’s bedtime.”

James had run along, sadly.

FOR THREE YEARS James had done his best to interest Jeanne in his suggestion that they get married, and had accomplished a good deal less than nothing. On more than one occasion Jeanne told him that if he didn’t stop annoying her she wouldn’t have anything to do with him at all. That would have been unfortunate and Jimmy knew it, because they lived only a quarter of a mile apart. Their families were very friendly. They had the same friends, went to the same parties, played the same games. An out-and-out break would have caused a lot of talk and a lot of trouble, and so James was pretty well up against it. He couldn’t possibly give up hope of making Jeanne love him, and to make her do that he had to talk love to her. He couldn’t talk love to her, because if he did she wouldn’t even speak to him and then there would be the dickens to pay.

And so, as in most things in life, there was a compromise. By and large James behaved, from Jeanne’s point of view, fairly well; just well enough to prevent that out-and-out break. But he was always underfoot, with that dying calf expression in his eyes. He gave her very modest presents, so modest that even the nicest girl couldn’t refuse them without being prudish beyond reason; he invited her to go to things and places every time there was a thing or place to go to, and he never asked any other girl. Sometimes, once in a great wrhile, he jumped over the traces and said something he should not say, but when she told him to stop he stopped.

ON A JUNE NIGHT in 1920 James danced with Jeanne at the golf club. It was very hot, and they went outdoors and sat on a bench in the dark to cool off. If what happened was in the least Jeanne’s fault she was quite unaware of it. Fundamentally it was, of course, all Jimmy’s fault. Jeanne couldn’t help being Jeanne.

Continued on page 44

Backward Lady

Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5

It happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that it was all over and done before Jimmy realized it. There she was, and even in the dark she was beautiful beyond compare, desirable and lovely. It never entered his head that she might be very prim and proper, completely unemotional and unsentimental, very cold indeed.

James kissed her, or tried to; he was never quite sure whether he really kissed her or not. It was not an attempt to kiss lightly; he was just so crazy about her that he lost his head. He was brought back to real life in a hurry.

“Stop ! Don’t be a cad ! What sort of girl do you think I am !” She was very angry and her eyes flashed, even in the darkness.

James moved away from her. Ele was in a fine mess; he’d made a fool of himself and wondered what was going to happen next.

“I’m sorry,” he said inanely, and then some sort of courage came back to him. At least Jeanne was still there on the bench; she wasn’t on her way back to the club house, with him trailing shamefacedly behind her. “You’d better be sorry,” she said.

“A kiss isn’t anything so very terrible,” James said.

“Perhaps it isn’t. I suppose some of your friends even like it, but I don’t.”

Jimmy went back to first principles.

“One kiss wouldn’t hurt even a very nice girl,” he said.

“I don’t care whether it would or not. I don’t like it, and besides it’s awfully cheap.

I don’t like the idea back of it. If that’s all a man wants from a girl, he can’t have much regard for her.”

“You know that’s not all I want from you, it isn’t—”

“I hate being kissed by anybody, I hate being touched, even by people I like.”

‘Tm sorry, Jeanne, I really am.” And then Jimmy plunged. “1 don’t know how it happened ; it happened before I knew what I was doing. You see I’m crazy about you, Jeanne. I think you’re the finest girl in the world. I love you a lot and I just lost my head.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not being ridiculous. I’ve loved you for years and years. I suppose you don’t even like me really.”

“Oh, I like you well enough. I used to hate you but I don’t any more. I just really don’t care one way or the other.”

“Don’t you think you might love me— some day—and marry me?”

“No, I don’t—I’m absolutely sure I won’t—you just don’t interest me, that’s all. Besides, I’m not going to marry anybody for a long time -ten years at least—and then, if it’s anybody, it will be an older man.”

“I’ll be lots older ten years from now,” James said.

“I mean a man much older than I am.” James sighed. “I’m not going to marry anybody but you.”

“Don’t be silly. This is just puppy love, unless you’re just being sentimental and making it all up.”

“I’m not making it up. It’s all true, and some day you’re going to marry me. You couldn’t marry anybody else.”

“Couldn’t! You wait and see. I don’t want to be cruel, but I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in the world. You’re not my sort at all. I’m going in.”

In she went, with James following, dazed by the knowledge that he had told Jeanne he loved her and thoroughly convinced that she didn’t care a snap of her fingers for him and never would. When Jeanne said anything she meant it, and she made her listeners know it. But James was dogged or obstinate or stupid or something. There was nothing for him to do but stick to his guns. No matter what happened, Jeanne was the only girl he’d ever loved or ever would love.

Jeanne, reaching the club house, immediately danced with someone else and kept up doing it all evening, which didn’t cheer up James at all.

ON A NOVEMBER afternoon in 1916, Jeanne Cross sat on a terrace watching two schoolboy teams play football. Her most intimate friend, Edith Thatcher, sat beside her. Edith was excited, Jeanne was not.

James Kent was playing fullback, his team was a point behind, they had the ball on their opponents' ten-yard line with only two or three minutes to play. The situation was ripe for the making or unmaking of heroes, a school league championship was at stake.

Edith screamed, with the rest of the crowd. Jeanne sat silent. James got four yards through tackle, somebody else got a yard or two through the same place. The excitement was intense; fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, sweethearts, friends, graduates, all and sundry made pandemonium. Jeanne remained silent and un thrilled.

There was a crash of players, an instant’s hush, an instant’s uncertainty, seemingly an instant during which twenty-two boys were locked in a motionless mass. Then the mass collapsed, apparently, over the line. The mass was unscrambled, disclosing the fact that Kent had scored a touchdown. The goal was missed, the teams lined up; the ball was kicked, the receiver tackled and the game was over. Each team, in a circle, cheered the other and the crowd of boys was upon them. James was a hero right enough.

Edith continued to be thrilled ; she had a brother in the fray who had told her at length of Jim’s ability as a football player. He must have exaggerated, for James never shone at the game at college.

“Isn’t he perfectly wonderful?” Edith exclaimed. “He really is.” Jeanne knew she meant James.

“He’s no better than any of the rest,” Jeanne said. She was rather bored.

“Why don’t you like him?” Edith asked. “Why should I? He has terrible manners, and he’s terribly conceited.”

“Of course he’s a tease, but he doesn’t mean anything. I never thought he was conceited.”

Jeanne shrugged. “I just don’t like him,” she said. Girls, at fifteen, are likely to look upon boys as queer creatures, not to be considered seriously in the affairs of life. It takes another year or two for them really to understand men, and appreciate them. But Jeanne was not like other girls; she was sober and sensible. Her dislike of James Kent was deep and honest and time could not change it.

MISS JEANNE CROSS was obviously annoyed. Her mother noticed it and asked what the trouble was.

"I do not like boys,” Jeanne said, and after some reflection added, “and I hate Jim Kent particularly.”

Mrs. Cross decided to let the theme develop itself. Jeanne developed it.

“I was playing with Edith this afternoon, and Jim and the Thatcher boy butted in and Jim tried to tease us. We didn’t let him, but he spoiled a perfectly good afternoon. I’m not going there again, ever. Jim is always there.” There was silence for a moment, “He said Barbara’s eyes squinted. They don’t, do they mother?” Barbara was, of course, a doll.

“Of course they don’t. He was just teasing, you shouldn’t pay any attention to him.”

“I’m not going there again, ever,” Jeanne repeated.

Her mother smiled. It was right and proper for a girl to know something of the hardships of life, and of men.