All afternoon Marion had been happy. She wandered from room to room of their little apartment, strolling into the nursery to help the nurse-girl feed the children from dripping spoons, and then reading for a while on their new sofa, the most extravagant thing they had bought in their five years of marriage.
When she heard Michael's step in the hall she turned her head and listened; she liked to hear him walk, carefully always as if there were children sleeping close by.
“Oh—hello.” He came into the room, a tall, broad, thin man of thirty with a high forehead and kind black eyes.
“I've got some news for you,” he said immediately. “Charley Hart's getting married.”
“Who's he marrying?”
“One of the little Lawrence girls from home.” He hesitated. “She's arriving in New York to-morrow and I think we ought to do something for them while she's here. Charley's about my oldest friend.”
“Let's have them up for dinner—”
“I'd like to do something more than that,” he interrupted. “Maybe a theater party. You see—” Again he hesitated. “It'd be a nice courtesy to Charley.”
“All right,” agreed Marion, “but we musn't spend much—and I don't think we're under any obligation.”
He looked at her in surprise.
“I mean,” went on Marion, “we—we hardly see Charley any more. We hardly ever see him at all.”
“Well, you know how it is in New York,” explained Michael apologetically. “He's just as busy as I am. He has made a big name for himself and I suppose he's pretty much in demand all the time.”
They always spoke of Charley Hart as their oldest friend. Five years before, when Michael and Marion were first married, the three of them had come to New York from the same Western city. For over a year they had seen Charley nearly every day and no domestic adventure, no uprush of their hopes and dreams, was too insignificant for his ear. His arrival in times of difficulty never failed to give a pleasant, humorous cast to the situation.
Of course Marion's babies had made a difference, and it was several years now since they had called up Charley at midnight to say that the pipes had broken or the ceiling was falling in on their heads; but so gradually had they drifted apart that Michael still spoke of Charley rather proudly as if he saw him every day. For a while Charley dined with them once a month and all three found a great deal to say; but the meetings never broke up any more with, “I'll give you a ring to-morrow.” Instead it was, “You'll have to come to dinner more often,” or even, after three or four years, “We'll see you soon.”
“Oh, I'm perfectly willing to give a little party,” said Marion now, looking speculatively about her. “Did you suggest a definite date?”
“Week from Saturday.” His dark eyes roamed the floor vaguely. “We can take up the rugs or something.”
“No.” She shook her head. “We'll have a dinner, eight people, very formal and everything, and afterwards we'll play cards.”
She was already speculating on whom to invite. Charley of course, being an artist, probably saw interesting people every day.
“We could have the Willoughbys,” she suggested doubtfully. “She's on the stage or something—and he writes movies.”
“No—that's not it,” objected Michael. “He probably meets that crowd at lunch and dinner every day until he's sick of them. Besides, except for the Willoughbys, who else like that do we know? I've got a better idea. Let's collect a few people who've drifted down here from home. They've all followed Charley's career and they'd probably enjoy seeing him again. I'd like them to find out how natural and unspoiled he is after all.”
After some discussion they agreed on this plan and within an hour Marion had her first guest on the telephone:
“It's to meet Charley Hart's fiancee,” she explained. “Charley Hart, the artist. You see, he's one of our oldest friends.”
As she began her preparations her enthusiasm grew. She rented a serving-maid to assure an impeccable service and persuaded the neighborhood florist to come in person and arrange the flowers. All the “people from home” had accepted eagerly and the number of guests had swollen to ten.
“What'll we talk about, Michael?” she demanded nervously on the eve of the party. “Suppose everything goes wrong and everybody gets mad and goes home?”
“Nothing will. You see, these people all know each other—”
The phone on the table asserted itself and Michael picked up the receiver.
“Hello . . . why, hello, Charley.”
Marion sat up alertly in her chair.
“Is that so? Well, I'm very sorry. I'm very, very sorry… I hope it's nothing serious.”
“Can't he come?” broke out Marion.
“Sh!” Then into the phone, “Well, it certainly is too bad, Charley. No, it's no trouble for us at all. We're just sorry you're ill.”
With a dismal gesture Michael replaced the receiver.
“The Lawrence girl had to go home last night and Charley's sick in bed with grip.”
“Do you mean he can't come?”
“He can't come.”
Marion's face contracted suddenly and her eyes filled with tears.
“He says he's had the doctor all day,” explained Michael dejectedly. “He's got fever and they didn't even want him to go to the telephone.”
“I don't care,” sobbed Marion. “I think it's terrible. After we've invited all these people to meet him.”
“People can't help being sick.”
“Yes they can,” she wailed illogically, “they can help it some way. And if the Lawrence girl was going to leave last night why didn't he let us know then?”
“He said she left unexpectedly. Up to yesterday afternoon they both intended to come.”
“I don't think he c-cares a bit. I'll bet he's glad he's sick. If he'd cared he'd have brought her to see us long ago.”
She stood up suddenly.
“I'll tell you one thing,” she assured him vehemently, “I'm just going to telephone everybody and call the whole thing off.”
But in spite of his half-hearted protests she picked up the phone book and began looking for the first number.
They bought theater tickets next day hoping to fill the hollowness which would invest the evening. Marion had wept when the unintercepted florist arrived at five with boxes of flowers and she felt that she must get out of the house to avoid the ghosts who would presently people it. In silence they ate an elaborate dinner composed of all the things that she had bought for the party.
“It's only eight,” said Michael afterwards, “I think it'd be sort of nice if we dropped in on Charley for a minute, don't you?”
“Why, no,” Marion answered, startled, “I wouldn't think of it.”
“Why not? If he's seriously sick I'd like to see how well he's being taken care of.”
She saw that he had made up his mind, so she fought down her instinct against the idea and they taxied to a tall pile of studio apartments on Madison Avenue.
“You go on in,” urged Marion nervously, “I'd rather wait out here.”
“Please come in.”
“Why? He'll be in bed and he doesn't want any women around.”
“But he'd like to see you—it'd cheer him up. And he'd know that we understood about to-night. He sounded awfully depressed over the phone.”
He urged her from the cab.
“Let's only stay a minute,” she whispered tensely as they went up in the elevator. “The show starts at half past eight.”
“Apartment on the right,” said the elevator man.
They rang the bell and waited. The door opened and they walked directly into Charley Hart's great studio room.
It was crowded with people; from end to end ran a long lamp-lit dinner table strewn with ferns and young roses, from which a gay murmur of laughter and conversation arose into the faintly smoky air. Twenty women in evening dress sat on one side in a row chatting across the flowers at twenty men, with an elation born of the sparkling Burgundy which dripped from many bottles into thin chilled glass. Up on the high narrow balcony which encircled the room a string quartet was playing something by Stravinski in a key that was pitched just below the women's voices and filled the air like an audible wine.
The door had been opened by one of the waiters, who stepped back deferentially from what he thought were two belated guests— and immediately a handsome man at the head of the table started to his feet, napkin in hand, and stood motionless, staring toward the newcomers. The conversation faded into half silence and all eyes followed Charley Hart's to the couple at the door. Then, as if the spell was broken, conversation resumed, gathering momentum word by word—the moment was over.
“Let's get out!” Marion's low, terrified whisper came to Michael out of a void and for a minute he thought he was possessed by an illusion, that there was no one but Charley in the room after all. Then his eyes cleared and he saw that there were many people here—he had never seen so many! The music swelled suddenly into the tumult of a great brass band and a wind from the loud horns seemed to blow against them; without turning he and Marion each made one blind step backward into the hall, pulling the door to after them.
She had run toward the elevator, stood with one finger pressed hard against the bell which rang through the hall like a last high note from the music inside. The door of the apartment opened suddenly and Charley Hart came out into the hall.
“Michael!” he cried, “Michael and Marion, I want to explain! Come inside. I want to explain, I tell you.”
He talked excitedly—his face was flushed and his mouth formed a word or two that did not materialize into sound.
“Hurry up, Michael,” came Marion's voice tensely from the elevator.
“Let me explain,” cried Charley frantically. “I want—”
Michael moved away from him—the elevator came and the gate clanged open.
“You act as if I'd committed some crime.” Charley was following Michael along the hall. “Can't you understand that this is all an accidental situation?”
“It's all right,” Michael muttered, “I understand.”
“No, you don't.” Charley's voice rose with exasperation. He was working up anger against them so as to justify his own intolerable position. “You're going away mad and I asked you to come in and join the party. Why did you come up here if you won't come in? Did you—?”
Michael walked into the elevator.
“Down, please!” cried Marion. “Oh, I want to go down, pleasel”
The gates clanged shut.
They told the taxi-man to take them directly home—neither of them could have endured the theater. Driving uptown to their apartment, Michael buried his face in his hands and tried to realize that the friendship which had meant so much to him was over. He saw now that it had been over for some time, that not once during the past year had Charley sought their company and the shock of the discovery far outweighed the affront he had received.
When they reached home, Marion, who had not said a word in the taxi, led the way into the living-room and motioned for her husband to sit down.
“I'm going to tell you something that you ought to know,” she said. “If it hadn't been for what happened to-night I'd probably never have told you—but now I think you ought to hear the whole story.” She hesitated. “In the first place, Charley Hart wasn't a friend of yours at all.”
“What?” He looked up at her dully.
“He wasn't your friend,” she repeated. “He hasn't been for years. He was a friend of mine.”
“Why, Charley Hart was—”
“I know what you're going to say—that Charley was a friend to both of us. But it isn't true. I don't know how he considered you at first but he stopped being your friend three or four years ago.”
“Why—” Michael's eyes glowed with astonishment. “If that's true, why was he with us all the time?”
“On account of me,” said Marion steadily. “He was in love with me.”
“What?” Michael laughed incredulously. “You're imagining things. I know how he used to pretend in a kidding way—”
“It wasn't kidding,” she interrupted, “not underneath. It began that way—and it ended by his asking me to run away with him.”
“Go on,” he said quietly, “I suppose this is true or you wouldn't be telling me about it—but it simply doesn't seem real. Did he just suddenly begin to—to—”
He closed his mouth suddenly, unable to say the words.
“It began one night when we three were out dancing,” Marion hesitated. “And at first I thoroughly enjoyed it. He had a faculty for noticing things—noticing dresses and hats and the new ways I'd do my hair. He was good company. He could always make me feel important, somehow, and attractive. Don't get the idea that I preferred his company to yours—I didn't. I knew how completely selfish he was, and what a will-o'-the-wisp. But I encouraged him, I suppose—I thought it was fine. It was a new angle on Charley, and he was amusing at it just as he was at everything he did.”
“Yes—” agreed Michael with an effort, “I suppose it was— hilariously amusing.”
“At first he liked you just the same. It didn't occur to him that he was doing anything treacherous to you. He was just following a natural impulse—that was all. But after a few weeks he began to find you in the way. He wanted to take me to dinner without you along— and it couldn't be done. Well, that sort of thing went on for over a year.”
“What happened then?”
“Nothing happened. That's why he stopped coming to see us any more.”
Michael rose slowly to his feet.
“Do you mean—”
“Wait a minute. If you'll think a little you'll see it was bound to turn out that way. When he saw that I was trying to let him down easily so that he'd be simply one of our oldest friends again, he broke away. He didn't want to be one of our oldest friends—that time was over.”
“Well—” Marion stood up and began biting nervously at her lip, “that's all. I thought this thing to-night would hurt you less if you understood the whole affair.”
“Yes,” Michael answered in a dull voice, “I suppose that's true.”