"The sex instinct," repeated Mr. Talliaferro in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, "is quite strong in me. Frankness, without which there can be no friendship, without which two people cannot really ever 'get' each other, as you artists say; frankness, as I was saying, I believe—"
"Yes," his host agreed. "Would you mind moving a little?"
He complied with obsequious courtesy, remarking the thin fretful flashing of the chisel beneath the rhythmic maul. Wood scented gratefully slid from its mute flashing, and slapping vainly about himself with his handkerchief he moved in a Bluebeard's closet of blonde hair in severed clots, examining with concern a faint even powdering of dust upon his neat small patent leather shoes. Yes, one must pay a price for Art. . . . Watching the rhythmic power of the other's back and arm he speculated briefly upon which was more to be desired—muscularity in an undershirt, or his own symmetrical sleeve, and reassured he continued:
". . . frankness compels me to admit that the sex instinct is perhaps my most dominating compulsion." Mr. Talliaferro believed that Conversation—not talk: Conversation—with an intellectual equal consisted of admitting as many so-called unpublishable facts as possible about oneself. Mr. Talliaferro often mused with regret on the degree of intimacy he might have established with his artistic acquaintances had he but acquired the habit of masturbation in his youth. But he had not even done this.
"Yes," his host agreed again, thrusting a hard hip into him. "Not at all," murmured Mr. Talliaferro quickly. A harsh wall restored his equilibrium roughly and hearing a friction of cloth and plaster he rebounded with repressed alacrity.
"Pardon me," he chattered. His entire sleeve indicated his arm in gritty white and regarding his coat with consternation he moved out of range and sat upon an upturned wooden block. Brushing did no good, and the ungracious surface on which he sat recalling his trousers to his attention, he rose and spread his handkerchief upon it. Whenever he came here he invariably soiled his clothes, but under that spell put on us by those we admire doing things we ourselves cannot do, he always returned.
The chisel bit steadily beneath the slow arc of the maul. His host ignored him. Mr. Talliaferro slapped viciously and vainly at the back of his hand, sitting in lukewarm shadow while light came across roofs and chimneypots, passing through the dingy skylight, becoming weary. His host labored on in the tired light while the guest sat on his hard block regretting his sleeve, watching the other's hard body in stained trousers and undershirt, watching the curling vigor of his hair.
Outside the window New Orleans, the vieux carré, brooded in a faintly tarnished languor like an aging yet still beautiful courtesan in a smokefilled room, avid yet weary too of ardent ways. Above the city summer was hushed warmly into the bowled weary passion of the sky. Spring and the cruellest months were gone, the cruel months, the wantons that break the fat hybernatant dullness and comfort of Time; August was on the wing, and September—a month of languorous days regretful as woodsmoke. But Mr. Talliaferro's youth, or lack of it, troubled him no longer. Thank God.
No youth to trouble the individual in this room at all. What this room troubled was something eternal in the race, something immortal. And youth is not deathless. Thank God. This unevenly boarded floor, these rough stained walls broken by high small practically useless windows beautifully set, these crouching lintels cutting the immaculate ruined pitch of walls which had housed slaves long ago, slaves long dead and dust with the age that had produced them and which they had served with a kind and gracious dignity—shades of servants and masters now in a more gracious region, lending dignity to eternity. After all, only a few chosen can accept service with dignity: it is man's impulse to do for himself. It rests with the servant to lend dignity to an unnatural proceeding. And outside, above rooftops becoming slowly violet, summer lay supine, unchaste with decay.
As you entered the room the thing drew your eyes: you turned sharply as to a sound, expecting movement. But it was marble, it could not move. And when you tore your eyes away and turned your back on it at last, you got again untarnished and high and clean that sense of swiftness, of space encompassed; but on looking again it was as before: motionless and passionately eternal—the virginal breastless torso of a girl, headless, armless, legless, in marble temporarily caught and hushed yet passionate still for escape, passionate and simple and eternal in the equivocal derisive darkness of the world. Nothing to trouble your youth or lack of it: rather something to trouble the very fibrous integrity of your being. Mr. Talliaferro slapped his neck savagely.
The manipulator of the chisel and maul ceased his labor and straightened up, flexing his arm and shoulder muscles. And as though it had graciously waited for him to get done, the light faded quietly and abruptly: the room was like a bathtub after the drain has been opened. Mr. Talliaferro rose also and his host turned upon him a face like that of a heavy hawk, breaking his dream. Mr. Talliaferro regretted his sleeve again and said briskly:
"Then I may tell Mrs. Maurier that you will come?"
"What?" the other asked sharply, staring at him. "Oh, Hell, I have work to do. Sorry. Tell her I am sorry."
Mr. Talliaferro's disappointment was tinged faintly with exasperation as he watched the other cross the darkening room to a rough wood bench and raise a cheap enamelware water pitcher, gulping from it.
"But, I say," said Mr. Talliaferro fretfully.
"No, no," the other repeated brusquely, wiping his beard on his upper arm. "Some other time, perhaps. I am too busy to bother with her now. Sorry." He swung back the open door and from a hook screwed into it he took down a thin coat and a battered tweed cap. Mr. Talliaferro watched his muscles bulge the thin cloth with envious distaste, recalling anew the unmuscled emphasis of his own pressed flannel. The other was palpably on the verge of abrupt departure and Mr. Talliaferro, to whom solitude, particularly dingy solitude, was unbearable, took his stiff straw hat from the bench where it flaunted its wanton gay band above the slim yellow gleam of his straight malacca stick.
"Wait," he said, "and I'll join you."
The other paused, looking back. "I'm going out," he stated belligerently.
Mr. Talliaferro, at a momentary loss, said fatuously: "Why—ah, I thought—I should—" The hawk's face brooded above him in the dusk remotely and he added quickly: "I could return, however."
"Sure it's no trouble?"
"Not at all, my dear fellow, not at all! Only call on me. I will be only too glad to return."
"Well, if you're sure it's no trouble, suppose you fetch me a bottle of milk from the grocer on the corner. You know the place, don't you? Here's the empty one."
With one of his characteristic plunging movements the other passed through the door and Mr. Talliaferro stood in a dapper fretted surprise, clutching a coin in one hand and an unwashed milk bottle in the other. On the stairs, watching the other's shape descending into the welled darkness, he stopped again and standing on one leg like a crane he clasped the bottle under his arm and slapped at his ankle, viciously and vainly.
Descending a final stair and turning into a darkling corridor he passed two people indistinguishably kissing, and he hastened on toward the street door. He paused here in active indecision, opening his coat. The bottle had become clammy in his hand. He contemplated it through his sense of touch with acute repugnance. Unseen, it seemed to have become unbearably dirty. He desired something, vaguely—a newspaper, perhaps, but before striking a match he looked quickly over his shoulder. They were gone, hushing their chimed footsteps up the dark curve of the stair: their chimed tread was like a physical embrace. His match flared a puny fledged gold that followed his clasped gleaming stick as if it were a train of gun powder. But the passage was empty, swept with chill stone, imminent with weary moisture . . . the match burned down to the even polished temper of his fingernails and plunged him back into darkness more intense.
He opened the street door. Twilight ran in like a quiet violet dog and nursing his bottle he peered out across an undimensional feathered square, across stencilled palms and Andrew Jackson in childish effigy bestriding the terrific arrested plunge of his curly balanced horse, toward the long unemphasis of the Pontalba building and three spires of the cathedral graduated by perspective, pure and slumbrous beneath the decadent languor of August and evening. Mr. Talliaferro thrust his head modestly forth, looking both ways along the street. Then he withdrew his head and closed the door again.
He employed his immaculate linen handkerchief reluctantly before thrusting the bottle beneath his coat. It bulged distressingly under his exploring hand, and he removed the bottle in mounting desperation. He struck another match, setting the bottle down at his feet to do so, but there was nothing in which he might wrap the thing. His impulse was to grasp it and hurl it against the wall: already he pleasured in its anticipated glassy crash. But Mr. Talliaferro was quite honorable: he had passed his word. Or he might return to his friend's room and get a bit of paper. He stood in hot indecision until feet on the stairs descending decided for him. He bent and fumbled for the bottle, struck it and heard its disconsolate empty flight, captured it at last and opening the street door anew he rushed hurriedly forth.
The violet dusk held in soft suspension lights slow as bell-strokes, Jackson square was now a green and quiet lake in which abode lights round as jellyfish, feathering with silver mimosa and pomegranate and hibiscus beneath which lantana and cannas bled and bled. Pontalba and cathedral were cut from black paper and pasted flat on a green sky; above them taller palms were fixed in black and soundless explosions. The street was empty, but from Royal street there came the hum of a trolley that rose to a staggering clatter, passed on and away leaving an interval filled with the gracious sound of inflated rubber on asphalt, like a tearing of endless silk. Clasping his accursed bottle, feeling like a criminal, Mr. Talliaferro hurried on.
He walked swiftly beside a dark wall, passing small indiscriminate shops dimly lighted with gas and smelling of food of all kinds, fulsome, slightly overripe. The proprietors and their families sat before the doors in tilted chairs, women nursing babies into slumber spoke in soft south European syllables one to another. Children scurried before him and about him, ignoring him or becoming aware of him and crouching in shadow like animals, defensive, passive and motionless.
He turned the corner. Royal street sprang in two directions and he darted into a grocery store on the corner, passing the proprietor sitting in the door with his legs spread for comfort, nursing the Italian balloon of his belly on his lap. The proprietor removed his short terrific pipe and belched, rising to follow the customer. Mr. Talliaferro set the bottle down hastily.
The grocer belched again, frankly. "Good afternoon," he said in a broad West End accent much nearer the real thing than Mr. Talliaferro's. "Meelk, hay?"
Mr. Talliaferro extended the coin, murmuring, watching the man's thick reluctant thighs as he picked up the bottle without repugnance and slid it into a pigeonholed box and opening a refrigerator beside it, took therefrom a fresh one. Mr. Talliaferro recoiled.
"Haven't you a bit of paper to wrap it in?" he asked diffidently.
"Why, sure," the other agreed affably. "Make her in a parcel, hay?" He complied with exasperating deliberation, and breathing freer but still oppressed, Mr. Talliaferro took his purchase and glancing hurriedly about, stepped into the street. And paused, stricken.
She was under full sail and accompanied by a slimmer one when she saw him, but she tacked at once and came about in a hushed swishing of silk and an expensive clashing of impediments—handbag and chains and beads. Her hand bloomed fatly through bracelets, ringed and manicured, and her hothouse face wore an expression of infantile trusting astonishment.
"Mister Talliaferro! What a surprise," she exclaimed, accenting the first word of each phrase, as was her manner. And she really was surprised. Mrs. Maurier went through the world continually amazed at chance, whether or not she had instigated it. Mr. Talliaferro shifted his parcel quickly behind him, to its imminent destruction, being forced to accept her hand without removing his hat. He rectified this as soon as possible. "I would never have expected to see you in this part of town at this hour," she continued. "But you have been calling on some of your artist friends, I suppose?"
The slim one had stopped also, and stood examining Mr. Talliaferro with cool uninterest. The older woman turned to her. "Mr. Talliaferro knows all the interesting people in the Quarter, darling. All the people who are—who are creating—creating things. Beautiful things. Beauty, you know." Mrs. Maurier waved her glittering hand vaguely toward the sky in which stars had begun to flower like pale and tarnished gardenias. "Oh, do excuse me, Mr. Talliaferro— This is my niece, Miss Robyn, of whom you have heard me speak. She and her brother have come to comfort a lonely old woman—" her glance held a decayed coquetry, and taking his cue Mr. Talliaferro said:
"Nonsense, dear lady. It is we, your unhappy admirers, who need comforting. Perhaps Miss Robyn will take pity on us, also?" He bowed toward the niece with calculated formality. The niece was not enthusiastic.
"Now, darling," Mrs. Maurier turned to her niece with rapture. "Here is an example of the chivalry of our southern men. Can you imagine a man in Chicago saying that?"
"Not hardly," the niece agreed. Her aunt rushed on:
"That is why I have been so anxious for Patricia to visit me, so she can meet men who are—who are— My niece is named for me, you see. Mr. Talliaferro. Isn't that nice?" She pressed Mr. Talliaferro with recurrent happy astonishment.
Mr. Talliaferro bowed again, came within an ace of dropping the bottle, darted the hand which held his hat and stick behind him to steady it. "Charming, charming," he agreed, perspiring under his hair.
"But, really, I am surprised to find you here at this hour. And I suppose you are as surprised to find us here, aren't you? But I have just found the most won-derful thing! Do look at it, Mr. Talliaferro: I do so want your opinion." She extended to him a dull lead plaque from which in dim bas-relief of faded red and blue simpered a Madonna with an expression of infantile astonishment identical with that of Mrs. Maurier, and a Child somehow smug and complacent looking as an old man. Mr. Talliaferro, feeling the poised precariousness of the bottle, dared not release his hand. He bent over the extended object. "Do take it, so you can examine it under the light," its owner insisted. Mr. Talliaferro perspired again mildly. The niece spoke suddenly:
"I'll hold your package."
She moved with young swiftness and before he could demur she had taken the bottle from his hand. "Ow," she exclaimed, almost dropping it herself, and her aunt gushed:
"Oh, you have discovered something also, haven't you? Now I've gone and shown you my treasure, and all the while you were concealing something much, much nicer." She waggled her hands to indicate dejection. "You will consider mine trash, I know you will," she went on with heavy assumed displeasure. "Oh, to be a man, so I could poke around in shops all day and really discover things! Do show us what you have, Mr. Talliaferro."
"It's a bottle of milk," remarked the niece, examining Mr. Talliaferro with interest.
Her aunt shrieked. Her breast heaved with repression, glinting her pins and beads. "A bottle of milk? Have you turned artist, too?"
For the first and last time in his life Mr. Talliaferro wished a lady dead. But he was a gentleman: he only seethed inwardly. He laughed with abortive heartiness.
"An artist? You flatter me, dear lady. I'm afraid my soul does not aspire so high. I am content to be merely a—"
"Milkman," suggested the young female devil.
"—Mæcenas alone. If I might so style myself."
Mrs. Maurier sighed with disappointment and surprise. "Ah, Mr. Talliaferro, I am dreadfully disappointed. I had hoped for a moment that some of your artist friends had at last prevailed on you to give something to the world of Art. No, no; don't say you cannot: I am sure you are capable of it, what with your—your delicacy of soul, your—" she waved her hand again vaguely toward the sky above Rampart street. "Ah, to be a man, with no ties save those of the soul! To create, to create." She returned easily to Royal street. "But, really, a bottle of milk, Mr. Talliaferro?"
"Merely for my friend Gordon. I looked in on him this afternoon and found him quite busy. So I ran out to fetch him milk for his supper. These artists!" Mr. Talliaferro shrugged. "You know how they live."
"Yes, indeed. Genius. A hard taskmaster, isn't it? Perhaps you are wise in not giving your life to it. It is a long lonely road. But how is Mr. Gordon? I am so continually occupied with things—unavoidable duties, which my conscience will not permit me to evade (I am very conscientious, you know)—that I simply haven't the time to see as much of the Quarter as I should like. I had promised Mr. Gordon faithfully to call, and to have him to dinner soon. I am sure he thinks I have forgotten him. Please make my peace with him, won't you? Assure him that I have not forgotten him."
"I am sure he realizes how many calls you have on your time," Mr. Talliaferro assured her gallantly. "Don't let that distress you at all."
"Yes, I really don't know how I get anything done: I am always surprised when I find I have a spare moment for my own pleasure." She turned her expression of happy astonishment on him again. The niece spun slowly and slimly on one high heel: the sweet young curve of her shanks straight and brittle as the legs of a bird and ending in the twin inky splashes of her slippers, entranced him. Her hat was a small brilliant bell about her face, and she wore her clothing with a casual rakishness, as though she had opened her wardrobe and said, Let's go downtown. Her aunt was saying:
"But what about our yachting party? You gave Mr. Gordon my invitation?"
Mr. Talliaferro was troubled. "We-ll— You see, he is quite busy now. He— He has a commission that will admit of no delay," he concluded with inspiration.
"Ah, Mr. Talliaferro! You haven't told him he is invited. Shame on you! Then I must tell him myself, since you have failed me."
She interrupted him. "Forgive me, dear Mr. Talliaferro. I didn't mean to be unjust. I am glad you didn't invite him. It will be better for me to do it, so I can overcome any scruples he might have. He is quite shy, you know. Oh, quite, I assure you. Artistic temperament, you understand: so spiritual. . . ."
"Yes," agreed Mr. Talliaferro, covertly watching the niece who had ceased her spinning and got her seemingly boneless body into an undimensional angular flatness pure as an Egyptian carving.
"So I shall attend to it myself. I shall call him to-night: we sail at noon to-morrow, you know. That will allow him sufficient time, don't you think? He's one of these artists who never have much, lucky people." Mrs. Maurier looked at her watch. "Heavens above! seven thirty. We must fly. Come, darling. Can't we drop you somewhere, Mr. Talliaferro?"
"Thank you, no. I must take Gordon's milk to him, and then I am engaged for the evening."
"Ah, Mr. Talliaferro! It's a woman, I know." She rolled her eyes roguishly. "What a terrible man you are." She lowered her voice and tapped him on the sleeve. "Do be careful what you say before this child. My instincts are all bohemian, but she . . . unsophisticated . . ." Her voice bathed him warmly and Mr. Talliaferro bridled: had he had a mustache he would have stroked it. Mrs. Maurier jangled and glittered again: her expression became one of pure delight. "But, of course! We will drive you to Mr. Gordon's and then I can run in and invite him for the party. The very thing! How fortunate to have thought of it. Come, darling."
Without stooping the niece angled her leg upward and outward from the knee, scratching her ankle. Mr. Talliaferro recalled the milk bottle and assented gratefully, falling in on the curbside with meticulous thoughtfulness. A short distance up the street Mrs. Maurier's car squatted expensively. The negro driver descended and opened the door and Mr. Talliaferro sank into gracious upholstery, nursing his milk bottle, smelling flowers cut and delicately vased, promising himself a car next year.