Reunion for Three
The story of a wooing begun in prosperity and ended in adversity
I WAS BACK again, and it was just as it always had been. The scene hadn’t changed. A group of show-off couples were clowning through some tricky steps; a few of the club governors were getting their evening’s dance behind them; all the slim young things in tight bodices and trailing gowns were sizing one another up. It was only ten-thirty. At two o’clock the hum of voices would be softer, tuned down to music less jaunty and more insinuating. A score of minor manoeuvres would climax in victory or defeat by two o’clock, and the casualties, chiefly male, would crowd the bar downstairs. I knew it all by heart.
I stood near the door to observe and be observed. New faces in an old familiar pattern. But not all new faces. A few people stopped to welcome me and I had to call the girls by their first names because I wasn’t up on who’d married who. Kid brothers of men I used to know pounded my shoulder, and that holy terror, old Mrs. Leathers, more of a dowager than ever, deigned to speak as she swept toward the card room. Then someone touched my arm and a voice said “Hello,” and I turned and saw Kay Millman.
Five years—and the world hadn’t moved. Everything I’d ever felt about Kay came rushing back. I was twentythree again instead of twenty-eight; I was one of the youngsters on the stag line trying to cut in on Kay and getting nowhere because she was dancing with Harry Thom. Then I was one of the two o’clock locker-room casualties. I was talking too loudly and acting too bored for my age, and Kay was somewhere upstairs with Harry Thom.
She stood smiling at me now with her eyebrows raised. “Does the stare mean you don’t remember? The name—” “Don’t tell me,” I said. “I’ll have it in a minute.” It was a kiddish way to act, but I needed to cover up. “Your first name is Kay,” I said. “Your last—well, a lot of people seem to have changed their names. I’ve been out of touch.”
My heart was pounding as I waited. She laughed and raised her left hand and wriggled the fingers in front of my face. The finger that mattered had no ring of any kind. “If I owned one I’d wear it,” she said. “Really. I’m quite a nice girl.”
“I seem to recall that, too,” I said, and put my ami around her without asking, and we danced. I didn’t talk at first, and she left it that way. I was busy remembering, getting used to her in my arms again, marvelling at the way she fitted herself into my uncertain dancing, thinking once more it was just as it always had been. But with this difference—Harry Thom wasn’t here to break us up. We were left alone until the music ended, and I began to realize that this was a new, younger crowd, and that I had a clear field.
She tipped back her head and smiled. “And how were your long years?” she said.
I grinned. “Not too hard. I held onto the job. Never mind at what salary. They squeezed me into the home office. Now they’ve reopened our branch here and I’m back.”
She nodded. “You look about the same. Perhaps a little more purposeful.”
“Purposeful is the word,” I answered quickly. “Maybe 1 can do something about it this time.”
Her eyes lowered and raised again. “And you’ve rejoined the club?”
“The club,” I said, “was the number one luxury on my list. There was someone I wanted to run into again.”
She said, “But I—” and changed her mind and smiled. “A lot of people who threw the club overboard in ’31 are back,” she went on. She paused a moment as the music started. “Almost everyone is back,” she added, and I knew she was thinking of Harry Thom. He wasn’t back or he’d be here tonight, at the opening dance.
HE’D GONE broke with the rest of us, Thom had. But with him it wasn’t a matter of a thirty per cent salary cut and then another twenty and finally another ten. It was his father’s proud and mighty fortune crumbling into bits, the props knocked from under it. “Old Mr. Thom,” people said after the second crash, “is wiped out.” But people said that, in those days, and meant only that a man’s brokerage account was gone; that his fortune had been sizably nicked. Two years later, when Harry Thom’s father was found dead in his library, they said the same thing, but the phrase had a new and more literal meaning after two years. Wiped out meant just that. There was nothing left. “Young Harry Thom,” someone wrote me, “needs a job but isn’t looking for one.” And I thought of his father, carrying on in the grand manner until the end, so that there was a whole houseful of servants to break down the door that night he blew his brains out. Harry was his dad’s son. He also was carrying on. You might call him a proud and courageous young aristocrat. Or you might call him a fool. It depended on how you looked at it.
And suddenly I knew I had to find out how Kay looked at it. I steered her to the door and out to the porch. There were a lot of noisy kids there, and we moved across the lawn toward the tennis courts and the tennis pro’s hut on the edge of them. “Start in,” I said abruptly. “Bring me up to date. First about you.”
She smiled faintly. “We’ve survived, mother and Ann and I, even without country clubs.”
I looked at her in surprise. “I thought—”
“Never go by appearances any more,” she broke in. “Mother’s investments—but never mind that now. I came tonight with Mrs. Leathers. She wanted me to.”
She went on then about people we used to know—how they were adjusting themselves to new levels; how they were climbing back and holding their breaths as they climbed. Then I brought her up abruptly with, “And Harry? Harry Thorn?”
We walked along a half dozen yards, side by side but not very close. Then she said, “Harry had a lot of pride.” “Admirable virtue, pride,” I observed casually.
“So is industry,” she countered. “There were a couple of jobs for Harry, but they were lowly.” She leaned closer and her hand touched my arm. “He was the only man I ever asked to marry me,” she said and laughed softly. “I asked him three times after the smashup.”
I nodded slowly. “He couldn’t support you in the manner to which he was accustomed.”
“Something like that. For a while I tried to believe it was noble and natural pride.”
“You know how it was with Harry and me. I would have married him in overalls. But he ran away. He couldn’t face people, he said, without a penny in his pocket. He disappeared a long time ago.”
“But if he comes back?” I asked.
“He won’t come back unless he can lord it over everyone again.”
“But if he does?” I persisted.
“I don’t think about it. He won’t come back.”
We had to lower our voices because we were near the pro’s office and there were two men standing there, outlined in the doorway. Old Hannigan, the leather-faced pro, was one of them. The other I hardly noticed until he stepped forward, a little dramatically, as though he had heard Kay say he would never come back and had appeared out of nowhere to rebuke her. It was Harry Thom.
T LET KAY go to meet him alone. I was glad I couldn’t
watch her eyes. Their hands met. Then I moved to Kay’s side, and I felt again the old throbbing resentment. It was Harry and Kay and I again—with me trying to shoulder my way in, ready with the only tactics I knew. Trying to match Harry’’s calm assurance, his highhanded self-confidence, his bom-leader suavity. Trying, and making a feeble botch of it. He always had outshone me, and always would.
We were shaking hands and he was saying how glad he was to see me. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the same Harry Thom. His cockiness was gone. He had turned humble and self-effacing, and his smile was hesitant and restrained and his voice had no ring to it. He wasn’t throwing his social charms in your face any more; he was badly battered and didn’t try to hide it. I let down my guard.
Kay said, “Ward is back in the club, too, Harry.”
The man’s face muscles actually twitched. “I’m not in the club, exactly,” he said in a low voice.
“I guess you’re in, all right,” I said, “or you wouldn’t be here—at the opening.”
The smile he gave me was patient. I thought he was going to speak, but he didn’t. He turned away as though it was too much for him. “You tell them, Jimmy,” he said to Hannigan.
Hannigan grinned nervously. “It’s this way, Mr. Robbins,” he said. “We’ve almost a full membership again, and there’s plenty for the pro to do. I ain’t as active as I used to be, and I spoke to the board about an assistant. You remember Mr. Thom’s tennis. He was the club’s singles champ three years. So when Mr. Thom applied— well, the board decided—”
Kay broke in. “Harry !” she cried.
He looked down at the ground and said, “Yes, I’m
working here now.” He spoke, not tremblingly, but in a way that made you feel the inner struggle. You just knew how tough it was for him.
None of us said anything then. I was beginning to sense something, and that something crystallized the resentment inside me until my throat was dry and my heart pounding. 1 said, “Listen, Harry—” and happened to see the way Kay was looking at him and shut up again.
The three of us moved off. There was a bench near the practice court and we sat there, Kay between the two of us. I folded my arms and let Harry do the talking. He said he didn’t want to talk about himself, and settled down to it. Other people’s troubles weren’t interesting, he said, and told us all of his. “No use bluffing,” he said. “I needed this job. I was glad to get it. I’ve learned a lot these past few years.”
And still I kept looking straight ahead, because I didn’t want to see what he was doing to Kay. Learned a lot ! The man had learned a whole new act !
“They took me through the wringer and it was the best thing that could have happened,” he said. “I was a pretty smug youngster.”
I thought, “Portrait of a repentant playboy. Portrait of a young man swallowing his pride—and loving it!” Oh, perhaps I was unfair. Perhaps I was the world’s worst loser. But I couldn’t reason straight, because for five years I had been feeding myself on the thought of Kay, and it was thin enough nourishment. And now when I’d found her, when I’d held her in my arms again, when the track was clear and I had an even chance to make her feel what I felt—now Harry Thom was back. A new Harry Thorn with a new bag of tricks, and I had no defense.
He went on talking and suffering in silence at the same time. “I wish we could have a dance, Kay.”
“Couldn’t we?” she asked.
He sighed—right from the bottom of his tortured heart. “I don’t know. After all, under the circumstances—I mean I’m just an employee here, and all my old friends in there—”
“Yes,” I broke in. “You’d better stay out of sight. Your old friends are a bunch of snobs.”
He looked grieved. “I didn’t say that, old man,” he complained.
“You implied it,” I said.
“Please, Ward,” Kay begged, and turned to Thom. “Just as you like, of course. But you’ll have to meet them some time.”
He nodded and went grimly stoic. Chin up, chest out, and that sort of thing. Like an old-time movie hero marching on to doom; like Sidney Carton declaiming to the gallery, “It is a far, far better thing I do . . ” No, that wasn’t it. Sidney Carton made a sacrifice. This brave new Harry Thorn turned his eyes on Kay heroically and I waited for him to say, “Hush, child! You must not grieve so for me.”
We made a silent procession on the way back. Then I said, “Couldn’t you find a berth in some other club, Harry?”
Kay gave me a surprised glance. “These pro jobs don’t hang on trees, I suppose,” she said.
“Besides,” Thorn added, “I’m known here.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it exactly.”
I lis eyes hardened and for a moment I thought he’d forget to be meek. But he caught himself in time. “What do you mean by that, old man?” he said.
I said, “Oh, nothing, I guess,” which was keeping my head pretty well. No sense in blowing up. No sense at all in saying things I felt but couldn’t prove—that he’d grabbed himself a halo of humility and found it fitted nicely and was strutting around in it; that he was eating dirt and liking it because the sauce that went with it was rich and spicy. The way 1 saw these things didn’t matter. It. was the way Kay saw them. I kept myself busy trying to light a cigarette in the breeze.
WE WENT UP the porch steps, and Kay said something about seeing me again and I stood back and watched his entrance. The music had just started. Thom faltered and hung back, then steeled himself for the ordeal. He and Kay didn’t have a chance to get going. The people gathered round. The word spread that Harry Thorn was back, and the crowd grew until only a few kids were left dancing. Harry had the limelight—-as he always had had. In the old days he got it by showering the help with ten-dollar bills. 1 couldn’t hear what people were saying among themselves, but I didn’t need to hear. “It took a lot,” they were saying, “coming back here to work.” And, “Give him credit, he’s seeing it through.” And, “The depression did something, anyway. When I think what he used to be . .
I let my cigarette drop and mashed it to shreds with my heel, and chimed in, muttering to myself. “Sure, give him credit. That's what he's here for.” Then I turned and walked across the lawn and tried to cool off.
I called myself a pretty poor six>rt. Because a man took the girl I wanted, I began to call names. After all, lie needed a job and this came along and he tcxjk it, which is what any sane person would do. Maybe it really was the only job he could find. And if he was laying it on too thick, well—a lot of people can’t be trusted with martyrdom. I was sore, I told myself, because I couldn’t win by default and had a fight on my hands instead. I turned abruptly and went back to the clubhouse.
I cut in on Kay near the porch door and we went outside. I remembered suddenly the dozens of times we had stood like this —Kay quieter than she should be, pensive, looking off from just this spot toward the hills, liking me a little but loving Harry, waiting for him to come and take her away. “Nothing changes,” I said, and the harshness of my voice surprised me. “He’ll find you before the next dance. He always does.”
Her voice was even and calm. “You never liked him, did you?” she said without turning.
I shrugged. “You know what he was. You told me a half hour ago.”
“That was four years ago. Now—” “Now he’s made a man of himself,” I broke in.
“You don’t believe it?”
“Do you?” I asked.
She faced me then, raising her eyes, and the look in them took all the heart out of me. “I think I do, Ward,” she said. “He’s changed.”
Her eyes settled it, as far as I was concerned. It was Harry’s night again. She was his if he wanted her, and he did want her or he wouldn’t have come back. “In that case,” I said, “I’ll take you inside. He’ll find you easier.”
T WENT DOWN to the snack room alone and stayed awhile. Later 1 danced with somebody or other and then went dowm stairs again. I was still there when there was a lull in the chatter and the wall clock above the grill door struck two.
Time standing still again! Two o’clock, and I was one of the casualties, and Kay was somewhere upstairs with Harry Thorn. Another rotten evening was getting ready to die and taking too long to do it.
At the table next to me Bruce Bowers looked up and said, “Lord, man! Why the thundercloud?”
“I’m bored,” I said coldly. “It’s all too much the same. I’m sick of repetition. They’re running the first reel all over again . . . What do you think of his act. Bowers?”
“Thom’s,” I snapped. “I don’t like it myself. He’s overplaying. He’s chewing
up the scenery. I think,” I said, straightening up, "I’ll tell him so.”
Bowers put his hand on my arm. I suppose my voice promised some kind of fireworks. “Take it easy, will you?” he said anxiously. “You leave Thorn alone.” I pulled away. “No. I think I’ll tell him,” 1 said. “I might as well.”
I knew what I was doing. No use now in saying I didn’t. My mind was clear, but the last drink had stirred up the tempest and the mood had a grip on me that I couldn’t shake. My common sense had no more chance to survive than a feather in a gale. I started forward.
But Harry Thom saved me the trouble. He was coming downstairs, still with that meek smile, his round face flushed, hanging back and not swaggering as he used to, effacing himself but keeping centre stage while he was doing it. Bowers’ kid brother was trailing him and saying. “Pretty soft. Playing tennis and getting paid for it.” Harry Thorn shook his head patiently, tolerant of youth that hadn’t learned to suffer. “Maybe not so soft, youngster,” he said. “But anyway, I earn three squares. That’s something, I’ve found out.”
I stepped up to him and said, “Nice going, Harry.”
T WAS CONSCIOUS of voices trailing *■ off, of a silence spreading through the room like some heavy, penetrating mist. Men turned to watch. A girl at a corner table laughed nervously. Then everything was very quiet.
For just an instant there flickered in Thorn’s eyes the faintest glimmer of triumph. I caught it; recognized it. This was just what he wanted. He was stopping the show, and I was helping him do it. I should have quit, but the tempest was roaring full force and I couldn’t quit.
“Hello, Ward, old man,” he said in his carefully saddened voice.
“I said—nice going,” I went on. “The first-night audience is eating it up. Of course, there are exceptions. Me, for instance. It’s too theatrical for me.”
He shook his head. Everyone could see he was bewildered and hurt. “I don’t get this, Ward,” he said. “Come over here and let’s talk it over.”
And again I knew what he was doing— keeping himself in the clear. He was trying to calm me down, wasn’t he? Trying to keep me from making a scene? He was being more patient with me than I deserved—in a clear voice in front of a roomful of witnesses.
I went on: “I want to talk about the big show—Harry Thorn in Purged by Suffering, or Proud of His Humility.”
His face pinked a little. I didn’t know now whether he was acting or not. “Wait a minute, Ward,” he said. “You and I are old friends. Just because a man’s down—” “I’ll finish that one,” I said. “Because a man’s down he needn’t brag about it. They’re not wearing wound stripes in thisj war. A man can turn noble without the bands playing. Listen, Thom. A lot of people fitted themselves into new levels these last few years. A lot of them are reading down the right side of the menu now. But they’re not front-paging it. They’re not asking for flowers.”
“We should finish this outside, Robbins,” he said coldly.
I nodded. “Hike that. Let’s—”
“But,” he broke in, “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m an employee here. You’re a member.” He shrugged and sighed. Oh, it was neat, all right. It capped his righteousness perfectly.
I went crazy then, plunging in, losing my head completely. “Sure!” I cried. "I almost forgot. Class distinctions must lx; preserved. You work here. But why didn’t you go the whole hog, Harry, my boy ? A waiter’s humbler than a tennis pro. Or a bus boy. That’s it,” I laughed shrilly. “A bus boy in a monkey suit. Maybe I’ll resign from the club and be one.”
He drew himself up and looked at me. summoning up scorn and contempt and letting me have it. He’d given me rope and I’d hanged myself, and he had everything well in hand. But he deigned a final thrust as I dangled there in front of him. “Your resignation,” he said, in a louder voice than was necessary, “might not be a bad idea-after this.” Then he walked past me, without another word and without another look. ___
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I didn’t try to stop him. His behavior had been too perfect, and mine had been too crude. I stood there, staring at the place where he had been, seeing nothing but the enormity of my defeat, my throat dry and aching, feeling the rush of color rising in my neck and face. The storm was over and I had been caught in the blow and wrecked myself. A murmur of voices started again—a low, shocked, indignant murmur. “There’s a limit to everything,” someone said, in a voice tuned to reach me. “If the house committee doesn’t act on this—”
I stood there because there was nowhere to turn. At the tables people were suddenly very engrossed in their own affairs. I remembered my hat was upstairs in the checking room. I started to go, and then stopped. Kay was standing in front of me.
I SET myself. Up to now it had all been anticlimax. Hope or despair was waiting for me here, at this moment, right in front of me. A whole clubful of people wouldn’t matter if I got the right answer. I kept looking at Kay, hoping for some sign, even after I knew it was no use. And finally I gave up. “All right,” I said. “Call me what you’re thinking.”
“You went too far, Ward,” she said. “I know that—now. Forget it, Kay.” Her eyes softened. She had always liked me a little; always been a little sorry for me. “If you want to tell him you were wrong—”
“It was the wrong time and place,” I broke in. “I’ll write him that. They can post it along with my resignation.”
She put out her hand to stop me and said, “Ward ! Won’t you—”
“We shouldn’t be seen talking,” I said. “It won’t do you any good.” I nodded and walked past her.
I got my hat and went out to the parking space and found my car. A big limousine was shutting it off from the drive and its sleepy chauffeur came to and said, “Shall I move, sir?” and I told him no, I was just cooling off. I sank back in the seat of my car and found cigarettes.
The party was beginning to break up. Í watched casually, fighting off a temptation to feel too sorry for myself. There must be a time limit, I thought. You can’t stay in love with a girl forever if you don’t see her and try hard not to think of her. The home-office city was as good a place to live as any. I had asked to be sent here; I could ask’to be taken back again. My job in the home office hadn’t been filled.
It had been a good try while it lasted, I thought. If it was ending in a rout it was no one’s fault but my own. A kid should know better than to throw mud at a hero. You can’t debunk a hero when he’s fresh and green. Some time Kay might wake up and see Harry Thom as I saw him, and remember this night and know I was right. But when that some time came she would be Mrs. Harry Thom and she’d be used to him, or reconciled, or she’d feel a sense of duty. I felt like a spanked child saying, “Some day they’ll be sorry.” Some day Kay might be sorry, but it wouldn’t do Ward Robbins any good.
I threw away the third cigarette. I was just about to call to the chauffeur to move when I saw him holding his limousine door for someone.
IT WAS old Mrs. Leathers, sweeping forward in her regal fashion, homewrard bound after another night of bridge. Three
paces behind her came Kay. I switched off my dash light and slid down in the seat. There was no need to say the same things all over again.
Mrs. Leathers’ bejewelled person disappeared inside her car and I saw her through its rear window spreading herself comfortably. Kay’s foot was on the running board when her name was called and Harry Thom came running.
Their voices reached me easily. He was saying, “It’s too early, Kay. We’ll go on from here.”
She answered quickly, “We’re leaving, Harry.”
“What nonsense! You can’t leave yet. This is our reunion. I can borrow a car and we’ll go on to the old hangouts—the Wayside Inn and the Bavarian Hofbrau and—
“I have to go with Mrs. Leathers,” she said.
“You leave Mrs. Leathers to me.” Through the rear window I saw the old lady’s head lift defiantly. “What’s the trouble, Miss Millman?” Her old thin voice was like small firecrackers popping.
Thom laughed. “No trouble at all,” he said. “I’m merely taking Miss Millman away from you.” He was the old Harry again now—arrogant, possessive, sure of himself.
“Really?” said Mrs. Leathers.
“I know you won’t mind if your guest has a little more fun for herself.”
Kay said, “Please, Harry.”
Mrs. Leathers leaned forward. The firecrackers started again. “Miss Millman is going home with me, young man. She always reads to me before she helps me to bed.”
“Reads to you?” Harry’s voice was shocked. He turned to Kay. “You’re hardly Mrs. Leathers’ maid, are you?” “Hardly,” said Kay evenly. “But I’m her paid companion.”
I held my breath in the silence that followed. Then a car, full of noisy youngsters, swept around the drive and its headlights sprayed Harry Thom so that I could see his face. He was pale, frowning, his lips set tight. “I—I didn’t know, of course,” he said weakly. “You didn’t tell me.”
“It didn’t seem important,” Kay said, and paused. “It isn’t important, is it, Harry?”
He stirred impatiently. “When can I talk to you, Kay?” he demanded.
“Tomorrow’s my free day. I’ll be home with mother and Ann by noon.” “Luncheon, then,” he said shortly.
She named an address—a street in one of the poorer suburbs at the edge of town. Mrs. Leathers butted in with, “Please don’t keep me waiting!” The big car purred and moved away. Harry Thorn stood there, looking after it. I wanted to flood him with my headlights and see his face again, but instead I sat quietly until he turned and moved away. I would find out soon enough.
THEY TOOK no more than an hour for lunch. I was watching from across the street when the taxi rolled up shortly after one o’clock. They came out together, and at the door of the shabby two-family house she turned. He held out his hand and she took it and dropped it and left him there. I waited another ten minutes before I crossed the street and rang the bell.
The first thing I noticed was the redness under her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have come.” And she answered, “No. I’m glad.”
! 1 -stood in the middle of the room, looking down at her. “You stole some of his thunder,” I said. “He wanted a monopoly on impoverished aristocracy.”
She raised her eyes quickly. “You knew?”
“That’s why I came. Want to tell me about it?”
She spoke slowly, with an edge of bitterness in her voice. “I’m to give up my job immediately. To be a paid companion is a degradation and a shame—even though you aren’t trained for anything else and your family needs what you earn.”
“He said that?” I blurted.
“Not quite in so many words. He wants me to marry him—in the fall, he thinks. He expects to connect with a brokerage house in Montreal in the fall, and to move in a big-money crowd. The trouble is, Mrs. Leathers is well known in Montreal and she’s a malicious gossip. She may try to ruin me socially. It has Harry worried.”
I smoked a moment. “And you?”
“I’m not worried,” she answered quickly.
The bitterness was still in her voice. It
would last, probably, for a long time. But the day would come, I knew, when she would not speak of Harry Thom, or think of him either, one way or the other. I walked across the room and sat beside her on the divan. One hand rested in her lap, palm upturned, almost as though it were waiting for mine. But I didn’t want to rush things. I settled back and said, “If you won’t cry any more, the redness will be all gone by evening.”
“I won’t cry any more,” she said firmly.
“Then perhaps—we haven’t had our reunion yet, you and I. I’d like it, if you would.”
“I’d like it,” she said, and smiled. “Reunion for two.” Then she rushed things a little herself. Her hand moved and slid into mine, which rested on my knee, palm upturned, almost as though it were waiting for hers.