THE MEXICAN BRACELETS
There was magic in those silver circles—magic that captured the heart of a girl who fought against love
FOR MORE than a month, when Steve was doing postgraduate work in history at Columbia and staying with Chester Markle and his daughter in their apartment on West 92nd, the Mexican bracelets lay in a cardboard box in a drawer in his room and it never occurred to him that they would become so important to him and Cynthia Markle.
Cynthia, a tall, blue-eyed, black-haired girl, who worked in the cashier’s office in a hotel on 44th, looked like a full-grown woman, but she was only nineteen. She had the mature air and she knew how to wear her clothes. She had a determinedly wise and worldly manner which she had picked up from experienced characters around the hotel. Her blue eyes, however, didn’t go with the mature manner any too well: they were the eyes of a young girl, sometimes candid, sometimes defiant and reckless. She used to treat Steve as an unimportant friend of the family who was still going to school. Of course he was a friend of the family. His father and Chester Markle, a shrewd quiet man who was an executive in the advertising department of an evening newspaper, had been boys together in Michigan. When Steve and Chester Markle sat at the dinner table and talked about the Europe of the seventeenth century Cynthia used to smile a little, then glance at her wrist watch and hurry to her room to get dressed to go out. Her wise, patient and superior smile used to irritate Steve. She seemed to be telling him he didn’t know what it was all about.
Every night she went out by herself and sometimes he walked down Central Park West a few blocks with her before she got on the bus. Her slightly patronizing and worldly air amused him and she knew it, but it was unimportant to her. There was nothing in his life that she needed. She
had friends downtown who could give her everything she wanted. It seemed to Steve that they gave her mainly expensive perfumes.
One night he was in his room just as she was going out. He had opened the bureau drawer to get a handkerchief and he saw the cardboard box containing the bracelets.
“Come here, Cynthia, and I’ll show you something,” he called.
“Show me what?” she asked, coming into the room.
“Don’t you think they’re rather nice?” he said, letting the bracelets fall across the palm of his right hand. One of the silver bracelets was like a string of fine silver buckles set with jade, the other was a string of silver clusters set with topaz.
“Where did you get those, Steve?” she asked, taking them and laying them in her own hand.
“My uncle took a trip to Mexico and he picked them up for a few dollars. He said if I was ever broke I could get twenty dollars apiece for them in any jewellery store here. What do you think?”
“I think they’re beautiful,” she said eagerly. She was putting them on her wrist. She had on a pale green dress and the silver blended beautifully with the pale green and the stones had a soft warm glow. As she held her arm up her eyes shone and she whirled around with a gay toss of her long bobbed hair, abandoning herself to her own delight . Then she turned to him and suddenly laughed. It was such a bright young happy laugh, so warm and young eager, that it charmed
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him; it brought her close to him, so close to him that he wanted to put his arms around her and share all her warm delight. He seemed to be seeing her truly, seeing what she was really like, and it was hard to believe that something that belonged to him could delight her and bring her so close to him.
“Why don’t you wear them tonight?” he asked.
“Oh, could I, Steve?”
“Gee, thanks,” she said.
“I’m walking downtown,” he said. “Let’s go along a piece together.”
They walked over to the corner and then down the east side of the street by the park and he tried to hide the tenderness he felt for her, but he hoped that when they had walked a block or so he could lead her into the park. He talked about his university work. He talked openly and frankly as if he wanted to open up his life to her because she had revealed herself spontaneously to him. She asked a few questions, but she glanced twice at her wrist watch, and with a pang he believed that all her thoughts were of places down there below the park in massive shadows broken by strips of light looming up against the night sky; she wanted to hurry to places where he hadn’t the money to take her and suddenly the life he had planned for himself became unimportant.
“Cynthia,” he began, aching with a discontent he had never known. He stopped and she stopped anxiously because he looked so troubled. He put his hand on her arm, then he suddenly pulled her close to him and kissed her hard. The back of his right leg was trembling and when she pushed him away he held -her hand which she twisted and jerked away nervously.
“That’s a crazy thing to do on the street,” she said. But she was shaken and she wanted to appear experienced and indifferent. She pretended to be concerned with the fact that he had pushed her against the scarred and
sooty stone wall and might have marked her fawn-colored coat.
“Stick with me tonight,” he said as she brushed at her coat. It was a lovely coat, loose and wide and straight at the shoulders. The light glinted on her good legs in the nylon stockings. Of course the stockings had been given to her by someone around the hotel. “I know what you’re like, Cynthia,” he went on quickly. “We can have fun.” It was as if he had come barging in on her life and it upset her. “I know what I’m like. I know what I want. You stick to your studies,” she said bluntly. As she started to walk across the road to get the bus coming down the street she was unreasonably resentful: he could feel her trying to push him away from her. “I’ll leave you here. I’ve got a regular date,” she said and she got on the bus. He was left alone on the sidewalk. He was all mixed up by the strangeness of the discovery of his love for her, and he told himself that she was mixed up too, but that no matter who she was with that night the bracelets would remind her of how important she had become to him.
IN THE morning at breakfast time she returned the bracelets with a casual, “Thanks, Steve,” as if relieved to be rid of something that belonged to him. It hurt him. He was angry. She was denying she was a fluttering and easily jarred little girl in spite of her tall fine figure and her worldly air. And she made it plain that she didn’t want to be bothered with him. In fact she drew away from him, didn’t want him to take the little walks with her. Sometimes her eyes were resentful when she looked at him. It seemed to bore her having him around the house making fine intellectual conversation with her father about historical characters who had been dead two hundred years.
Then at the end of the week ha happened to open his bureau drawer and he found that the bracelets were gone. He knew that she had come into his room and taken them while he was over at the corner drugstore getting cigarettes. He stared at the empty cardboard box, asking himself how she
could be so childish as to come sneaking into his room when he was out, asking himself how she could be willing to humiliate herself even if the bracelets j did fascinate her, then wondering blankly why they could have such ! importance for her, then suddenly getting sore as he thought, “I’m entitled to some privacy around here. This is my room; I pay for it. She’s just a little too brazen. I’ll tell her once and for all to keep out of my room.”
So he waited up that night talking with Chester Markle and nursing a resentment against her which bewildered him a little. It was the idea of her snatching his bracelets to doll herself up for her friends downtown when she was so ignorantly superior about anything he had in his world. The conversation with her father was lazy and sympathetic. Her father was quiet and intelligent and he had very gracious manners. For a long time neither of them mentioned Cynthia. They were talking about modern France and the multiplicity of parties which led to the collapse of the parliamentary system. It was nearly two o’clock. Then Mr. Markle went into the kitchen and made some coffee and when he returned to the living room, a cup in each hand, he stood under the light, his grey hair very thin under that light, his long lean face very grave as if he were about to make a profound remark. Then suddenly he said quietly, “I keep thinking I hear Cynthia coming in.”
“It’s getting a bit late,” Steve said. “It gets a little later all the time, Steve,” Mr. Markle said. Sipping his coffee he frowned and wanted to talk but was embarrassed. Then he smiled and they went on with their conversation; but they were both listening now for the sound of high heels clicking along the street. A little later Mr. Markle said, “I’ve been pretty worried about her the last few months, Steve.” “I think she’s pretty competent,” Steve said awkwardly. He could see that Mr. Markle wanted to talk about her. It was embarrassing. He wished he had gone to bed, for he could see that Mr. Markle was hesitating and feeling uncomfortable himself, though he assumed that Cynthia was important to Steve, too.
“That hotel job didn’t do her any good,” Mr. Markle went on. “She’s good-looking and all the different people she’s met have given her the wrong slant on things. It’s hard to know what to say to a girl.”
“She’s just a kid. She’s got lots of time.”
“She’s had time to get the wrong principles.”
“The principles don’t seem to matter with everything moving faster these days.”
“That’s what she hears all day long from men like Max Carey.”
“Who’s Max Carey?”
“A cheap shoestring producer who’s turned her head. I’ve forbidden her to see him, yet I’m sure she sees him all the time. But I’ll stop it. I’ll stop it tonight,” Mr. Markle said quietly.
The conversation trailed off and Steve stood at the window, his hands on his hips, telling himself bitterly that she had wanted the bracelets to please this Mr. Carey, and that when she had seen them for the first time and had shown such bright and young delight she hadn’t come close to him at all. Nor had he been close to her; he had merely caught a glimpse of the pleasure she felt in the expectation of wearing something that would make her more attractive to Carey. Aching with jealousy he told himself that he only wanted to tell her to leave his property alone and keep out of his room. But he waited there a long time, sharing Mr.
Markle’s concern. He listened to the sound of the taxis purring past the park. He waited for the sound of the quick lick of the tires on the pavement as the taxis passed the corner. At-last he said he had a lecture in the morning and he went to bed and fell asleep.
HE WAS awakened by the drone of voices in the living room and he knew by the way Cynthia and her father were trying to keep their voices down that they were trying to hide their quarrel from him. He felt like a stranger in their house and was ashamed to be listening. “In the house by eleven . . . I’ll see this man Carey myself,” Mr. Markle said. The voices blurred; then clear and defiant came these words from Cynthia, “I’ll have my own friends and a life of my own too, and I know the kind of a life I want.” It ended suddenly with the closing of LX bedroom door.
From then on Steve couldn’t sleep. He was too angry, miserable and apprehensive. Then he dozed lightly. He woke up suddenly and was sure he had heard the door handle turning. He waited, his eyes growing accustomed to the slit of light from the window. He heard a light cautious slippered step and he saw the shadow at the foot of his bed and caught a whiff of Cynthia’s delicate and expensive perfume as she moved toward the bxireau, opened the drawer and put back the bracelets. His heart thumped so loud he was sure she would hear it and he wanted to whisper to her, to hold her there, but he was afraid of shaming her. Then she went swiftly. It was only when she had gone that he wondered why he hadn’t switched on the light and asked her bluntly if she didn’t think she was being pretty cheap. But as he fell asleep his anger was getting mixed up with that delight he had felt when he had first shown her the bracelets and she had whirled around and laughed with him there in the room.
In the morning, having breakfast, they all pretended that nothing had happened, and Mr. Markle was gentle and polite with Cynthia. It was only when he was finishing his coffee that Steve glanced at Cynthia and by the steadiness of his glance upset her. She reddened and looked unhappy, and he knew that for the moment at least he was a part of the turmoil in her mind and he was glad.
When she was drawing on her gloves, ready to go out, she tried to make a friendly, placating remark, “I guess the old college grind gets pretty tiresome, eh, Steve?”
“It’s a grind, but in the spring I’ll be through, you know.”
“I know. Then what do you have to do?”
“Then? Why, then I try and wangle my way onto the staff of some university and I’m all set.”
“I see,” she said. Then, at the same moment, they both looked surprised, for it was as if she was asking for information and he was supplying it because he knew it was important to her. She blushed and he, too, was confused.
For the next two nights it looked as if she was showing some contrition for having worried her father. She came home from work and didn’t go out at all. She sat around by herself reading all the magazines. On one occasion Steve noticed that she wasn’t reading the magazine, she was looking at him, contemplating him. At eleven o’clock she made them some coffee. The coffee was strong and good and Steve got talking and without realizing what he was doing he began to tell of the kind of life he expected to have in a university. It was as if he were supplying a little more of that information she
had asked for the other day. He said that in the summertime he would take trips to Europe. He painted a picture of a wide happy colorful life and grew boyishly eloquent, then suddenly he noticed that Cynthia, who was sitting by herself in the big chair under the floor lamp, the light just touching her strong jaw and her smooth neck, was smiling contemptuously and he wanted to slap her.
The third night Cynthia said she had a headache and went to bed early and Steve went out and had a few drinks with some fellows at a bar in the neighborhood. He came back to the apartment about half - past eleven. There was a light in Cynthia’s room, but Mr. Markle seemed to be asleep. Steve went to his own room, pulled off his tie, and sat down to read for a while. Then he heard Cynthia going along the hall, and he mightn’t have paid any attention to her if it hadn’t struck him that her step was quiet and furtive. He heard the creak of the door being opened, then another creak, but before she could close it he rushed from the room, calling, “Hey!”
She was there at the half-closed door in her fawn coat and her pale green dress. She was carrying a grey travelling bag. His angry face startled her. “What’s the matter with you?” she whispered.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“You keep out of this. It’s nothing to you.”
“Isn’t it? Well, you listen to me,” he said, grabbing her arm, and pulling her toward him. She started to struggle, but he twisted her left arm behind her and held her and would not let go no matter how she squirmed and twisted. It was a fierce silent struggle. She cracked at his face with her fist, pounding him as if she hated him for having his arm around her, and knew she had to break away before she was crushed and broken. Her whole body strained and quivered against him, but he held on, twisting her arm a little more, not caring what happened, just struggling against her with an expression of wild timeless ecstacy on his face until she suddenly went limp and sobbed. “Oh, my arm. Oh, don’t, please.”
Leaning back limply against the wall she cried quietly. “Hey, Cynthia,” he whispered, and he was dazed and didn’t know why he had hurt her. “I’m sorry, see,” he pleaded. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m all right,” she said. She was shaken and bewildered. But she picked up her bag and without looking at him hurried out and down the stairs.
AS HE stood there stupidly he L seemed to be following a little tinkling, jingling noise that faded down the stairs, and while he had been struggling with her he had heard this same faint metallic jingle. “The bracelets,” he thought. He rushed hack to his room, opened the bureau drawer, fumbled with the cardboard box. The bracelets were gone. He felt a little crazy. He went hurrying out and down the stairs, then out to the street and he saw her about sixty yards ahead. As she turned the comer he started to run. When he got to the corner he saw that a taxi was waiting and a broad-shouldered man about thirty-six years old wearing a camel hair coat was helping Cynthia into the cab, then getting in himself. The street light shone on Cynthia’s ankle, then on the hard bluish face of the man in the camel hair coat who looked like a bookie.
“Cynthia,” Steve cried out wildly. She looked back. He caught a glimpse of her white face, then the cab was
gone and he was standing there with the chill November wind blowing across the park, asking himself blindly what a girl like Cynthia could see in th^t wise-looking hard guy just because he was supposed to be a theatrical producer. Having run out without his coat he shivered. There were a lot of stars. He walked back slowly to the apartment.
The door was still open, but Mr. Markle was up now, for the living room lights were lit. Steve went along the hall and saw Mr. Markle standing by the window in an old wine-colored dressing gown.
“Steve, what happened?” he asked nervously.
“Cynthia went out.”
“I know. But what happened?”
“I tried to stop her,” Steve said awkwardly.
“If she’s gone—gone like that, then she’s gone for good,” Mr. Markle said. “Don’t you see, Steve?” He sat down slowly, fumbled in his dressing gown for a cigarette, didn’t have one, took one from Steve, then started twisting it to pieces in his fingers, the tobacco spilling on his knees. He looked desolate and years older. He seemed to be stricken by a realization of the failure of his love for his daughter. “I put it up to her,” he muttered, “and she made a choice and she won’t turn back on it. She’s got too much pride. She’s too headstrong.”
He lay back in the chair and was full of a stillness that Steve longed to break, for it seemed to deepen his own loneliness. He couldn’t bear to go to bed and leave Mr. Markle sitting there alone. His own loneliness bewildered him and he knew that even if he went to bed he would not sleep. Then Mr. Markle suddenly got up, went to the kitchen, returned with a bottle of bourbon and two glasses and they had a couple of drinks. “You’re a good lad, Steve,” Mr. Markle kept saying. “Your father was all right too.” They began a long conversation about Steve’s father, but back in Steve’s mind, while he was talking, was the picture of himself struggling with Cynthia, then looking at her with apologetic wonder.
They had a few more .drinks and had tired themselves out when they heard the key turning in the door. They looked at each other blankly; they smiled, unbelieving, for they knew it was Cynthia. Then they were both
ashamed to be there as witnesses to her humiliation; she could only be abject and ashamed returning like this. And her father, who was a sensitive man with true perceptions, couldn’t bear to confront her grimly. “I don’t want to be here,” he muttered. “Why should she know that I got up at all?” His voice broke and he fled to his room as if it had become very important that she should not have to say anything to him.
She came along the hall, then, with a strange shyness, she stopped at the living room door looking at Steve. She didn’t look particularly ashamed or humiliated, just puzzled and shy. Somewhere along the way she had picked up a heavy red mark like a bruise on her left cheek, and her hair was mussed up too.
“I—I didn’t go through with it,” she said simply.
“Didn’t you? Well... I mean that’s fine,” Steve said.
“I had these bracelets of yours, Steve,” she explained with a shy awkwardness. “I knew you’d miss them. I didn’t like to think of you missing them. Here,” she added, fumbling with the clasps of the bracelets and handing them to him. “Oh, that’s okay, Cynthia.”
“I—I don’t know why I took them along, Steve.”
“Aw, you knew they look swell on you. That’s why.”
“I mean,” she began as if she were still vastly surprised and puzzled by what had been happening between him and her, “I mean I don’t know why it was important to me to have them—I mean when they were yours.”
“I think all along I wanted you to have them.”
“Do you think so, Steve?”
“Sure. Only I guess I wanted to be able to give them to you myself.” “Well, in that case,” she said, fumbling the words awkwardly, “if I wait a little while—if you wait a little while— maybe you’ll want to give them to me.” That was all that was said, and she turned quickly and went to her room. His heart seemed to come up high in his throat hurting him, for she belonged to him now and he knew it, but he couldn’t understand how it had grown clear to both of them; so he stood looking raptly at the bracelets as they glistened in his palm. He looked at them, fascinated, as if they were circles of magic light. if