As I walked to Geisenheimer’s that night I was feeling blue and restless, tired of New York, tired of dancing, tired of everything. Broadway was full of people hurrying to the theatres. Cars rattled by. All the electric lights in the world were blazing down on the Great White Way. And it all seemed stale and dreary to me.
Geisenheimer’s was full as usual. All the tables were occupied, and there were several couples already on the dancing-floor in the centre. The band was playing ‘Michigan’:
I want to go back, I want to go back
To the place where I was born.
Far away from harm
With a milk-pail on my arm.
I suppose the fellow who wrote that would have called for the police if anyone had ever really tried to get him on to a farm, but he has certainly put something into the tune which makes you think he meant what he said. It’s a homesick tune, that.
I was just looking round for an empty table, when a man jumped up and came towards me, registering joy as if I had been his long-lost sister.
He was from the country. I could see that. It was written all over him, from his face to his shoes.
He came up with his hand out, beaming.
‘Why, Miss Roxborough!’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Don’t you remember me?’
‘My name is Ferris.’
‘It’s a nice name, but it means nothing in my young life.’
‘I was introduced to you last time I came here. We danced together.’
This seemed to bear the stamp of truth. If he was introduced to me, he probably danced with me. It’s what I’m at Geisenheimer’s for.
‘When was it?’
‘A year ago last April.’
You can’t beat these rural charmers. They think New York is folded up and put away in camphor when they leave, and only taken out again when they pay their next visit. The notion that anything could possibly have happened since he was last in our midst to blur the memory of that happy evening had not occurred to Mr Ferris. I suppose he was so accustomed to dating things from ‘when I was in New York’ that he thought everybody else must do the same.
‘Why, sure, I remember you,’ I said. ‘Algernon Clarence, isn’t it?’
‘Not Algernon Clarence. My name’s Charlie.’
‘My mistake. And what’s the great scheme, Mr Ferris? Do you want to dance with me again?’
He did. So we started. Mine not to reason why, mine but to do and die, as the poem says. If an elephant had come into Geisenheimer’s and asked me to dance I’d have had to do it. And I’m not saying that Mr Ferris wasn’t the next thing to it. He was one of those earnest, persevering dancers — the kind that have taken twelve correspondence lessons.
I guess I was about due that night to meet someone from the country. There still come days in the spring when the country seems to get a stranglehold on me and start in pulling. This particular day had been one of them. I got up in the morning and looked out of the window, and the breeze just wrapped me round and began whispering about pigs and chickens. And when I went out on Fifth Avenue there seemed to be flowers everywhere. I headed for the Park, and there was the grass all green, and the trees coming out, and a sort of something in the air — why, say, if there hadn’t have been a big policeman keeping an eye on me, I’d have flung myself down and bitten chunks out of the turf.
And as soon as I got to Geisenheimer’s they played that ‘Michigan’ thing.
Why, Charlie from Squeedunk’s ‘entrance’ couldn’t have been better worked up if he’d been a star in a Broadway show. The stage was just waiting for him.
But somebody’s always taking the joy out of life. I ought to have remembered that the most metropolitan thing in the metropolis is a rustic who’s putting in a week there. We weren’t thinking on the same plane, Charlie and me. The way I had been feeling all day, what I wanted to talk about was last season’s crops. The subject he fancied was this season’s chorus-girls. Our souls didn’t touch by a mile and a half.
‘This is the life!’ he said.
There’s always a point when that sort of man says that.
‘I suppose you come here quite a lot?’ he said.
I didn’t tell him that I came there every night, and that I came because I was paid for it. If you’re a professional dancer at Geisenheimer’s, you aren’t supposed to advertise the fact. The management thinks that if you did it might send the public away thinking too hard when they saw you win the Great Contest for the Love-r-ly Silver Cup which they offer later in the evening. Say, that Love-r-ly Cup’s a joke. I win it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Mabel Francis wins it on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It’s all perfectly fair and square, of course. It’s purely a matter of merit who wins the Love-r-ly Cup. Anybody could win it. Only somehow they don’t. And the coincidence of the fact that Mabel and I always do has kind of got on the management’s nerves, and they don’t like us to tell people we’re employed there. They prefer us to blush unseen.
‘It’s a great place,’ said Mr Ferris, ‘and New York’s a great place. I’d like to live in New York.’
‘The loss is ours. Why don’t you?’
‘Some city! But dad’s dead now, and I’ve got the drugstore, you know.’
He spoke as if I ought to remember reading about it in the papers.
‘And I’m making good with it, what’s more. I’ve got push and ideas. Say, I got married since I saw you last.’
‘You did, did you?’ I said. ‘Then what are you doing, may I ask, dancing on Broadway like a gay bachelor? I suppose you have left your wife at Hicks’ Corners, singing “Where is my wandering boy tonight”?’
‘Not Hicks’ Corners. Ashley, Maine. That’s where I live. My wife comes from Rodney…. Pardon me, I’m afraid I stepped on your foot.’
‘My fault,’ I said; ‘I lost step. Well, I wonder you aren’t ashamed even to think of your wife, when you’ve left her all alone out there while you come whooping it up in New York. Haven’t you got any conscience?’
‘But I haven’t left her. She’s here.’
‘In New York?’
‘In this restaurant. That’s her up there.’
I looked up at the balcony. There was a face hanging over the red plush rail. It looked to me as if it had some hidden sorrow. I’d noticed it before, when we were dancing around, and I had wondered what the trouble was. Now I began to see.
‘Why aren’t you dancing with her and giving her a good time, then?’ I said.
‘Oh, she’s having a good time.’
‘She doesn’t look it. She looks as if she would like to be down here, treading the measure.’
‘She doesn’t dance much.’
‘Don’t you have dances at Ashley?’
‘It’s different at home. She dances well enough for Ashley, but — well, this isn’t Ashley.’
‘I see. But you’re not like that?’
He gave a kind of smirk.
‘Oh, I’ve been in New York before.’
I could have bitten him, the sawn-off little rube! It made me mad. He was ashamed to dance in public with his wife — didn’t think her good enough for him. So he had dumped her in a chair, given her a lemonade, and told her to be good, and then gone off to have a good time. They could have had me arrested for what I was thinking just then.
The band began to play something else.
‘This is the life!’ said Mr Ferris. ‘Let’s do it again.’
‘Let somebody else do it,’ I said. ‘I’m tired. I’ll introduce you to some friends of mine.’