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In Bohemia

By Agnes Boulton Burton

The girl in the black hat gave one of her bored glances about the smoky, hilarious café. Then her heavy-lidded, listless eyes returned to their favorite resting place—the mirror on the wall opposite. It was just far away enough to flatter her, to hide the tiny lines about her eyes, and the too early sagging of her chin. The effect from where she sat was very good—black hat, red, provocative lips, eyes made large by the clever use of the pencil. Men looked at her in passing. Many bowed and smiled, for she was well known. Many men had taken her out. For them all she had the same lazy smile, the languorous lift of the eye-brows. The only thing that seemed to interest her was the flattering reflection in the mirror.

 

Breezy Stories, July, 1917

"What's the matter to-night, Betty—stupid?"

The older of the two men who were with her smiled as he uttered these words in a slightly sarcastic tone. He was almost forty, slightly bald, and rather shabby. Among the younger writers he was considered mystical and outré. Although it was he who had brought Betty Dallas to the café, and had, later on, invited young Willets to their table, he paid very little attention to the girl. Instead, he looked at everyone else in the room, smoking meanwhile, cigarette after cigarette.

"Maybe," said Betty slowly, giving him an indifferent, sullen look. For some three or four weeks, she and Carter Black had been seen together nightly. She realized now with that instinct peculiar to women, that he was growing tired of her, and it made her hate him. Yet she had never been more than mildly moved by him at the most.

"You're tired; you go out too much!" said the second man. He was young, hardly twenty-five, with smoldering eyes and moist red lips. His hair, brushed back from his forehead, was black and luxuriantly shiny. The green tie he wore, slightly frayed just above the knot, held together a soft collar and silk shirt. Ever since he had joined the other two his eyes had rested continually on Betty—on her throat, her lips, sometimes on her eyes.

Betty disdained to answer him. She knew that he admired her, but—he could wait. At present she hated all men. She could not have told why. But to-night she considered them all abhorrent. There was nothing decent, nothing clean, nothing worth while in all the world. This café, with its marble-topped tables wet with liquor, the shifting cigarette smoke, the blasé crowd typified life to her. She was sick of it.

"Have another drink—cheer up!" The young man reached over and touched her arm with his moist, warm hand. "Same thing?"

She nodded. The moistness and warmth of his hand, which she could feel through her thin sleeve, was disagreeable to her, but she did not bother to draw her arm away. She was thinking rather bitterly, that she had been a damn fool. All her life she had been that way. And it wasn't anyone's fault but her own.

This led her thoughts perilously near a point she never allowed them to touch. Certain things, her girlhood, for instance, Betty treated with scorn and contempt, because she knew that to treat them differently would hurt her. When her thoughts threatened to become sentimental now she curled her lips in scorn and looked for the waiter.

Carter Black, lighting another cigarette, continued his survey of the café. Suddenly he said:

"Look at these two coming in. They imagine that they are seeing life."

Betty, following his gaze, saw a couple, evidently man and wife. He was rather stocky, with ready-made clothes, a sober, good-looking, bronzed head, and an air of being unaccustomed to walking into a café. His companion was small and provincial, with thick-lensed glasses, pale red hair, and an even, pink mouth. Her clothes were elaborate and cheap. A waiter led them to an inconspicuous table.

"My God—I was engaged to him once!" Betty drew in her breath sharply, with a little half laugh. She looked at her companions with amazed eyes. "Would you b'lieve it? When I was seventeen."

"What is it, Betty? Trying to be funny?" said Carter Black. But the girl did not reply. She was staring at the couple, whose table was not far away. The woman was looking about the place with an expression interested and condescending. The man had picked up the menu card and was studying it.

"He—why—that's Mamie Soules with him. He must have married her!" There was a trace of chagrin in Betty's words. She lifted her drink and sipped it, and at that moment the gaze of the man at the other table encountered hers. It lingered a moment, and then moved on blankly.

"You were really engaged? Where did it all happen?" inquired Willets, the younger man.

"Out home!" Betty spoke laconically. A queer, hurt feeling was thickening her throat. He had not even recognized her. Of course, her hair was blonde now—then it had been dusky brown, like her eyes. And, of course, the years must have changed her. She was seventeen then. She was twenty-six now. Nine years! The ache in her throat increased, and she looked stonily at her reflection in the mirror.

The two men were speaking of something else, but she still stared at the couple at the other table. They were not talking; the café interested them too much. But every moment the eyes of the little red-headed woman would return suspiciously to her husband's face. . .

So he had married Mamie Soules! He was too good for Mamie—far too good. Mamie had always been small and sneaking and mean.

At that moment there came to her strangely the poignant odor of honeysuckle. It almost frightened her, and her heart began to beat rapidly, until she realized that it was merely caused by the strength of her memories. A disturbing, softening sensation ran through her, and she turned her head sharply to hide the moisture in her eyes. Those nights when they had sat on the porch shaded by honeysuckle vines—

What a fool she had been! Of all the men she had met, none compared to him. And now he was married to Mamie Soules.

"There's a dance uptown—some wild affair, I understand. What do you say we go up later? Might cheer you up, Betty?" Willets looked at her eagerly. He was hoping that Betty would welcome the suggestion, and Carter Black plead disinclination. That would give him his chance—

But the girl looked at him with distaste.

"No—I'm going home—alone!" She gave Carter Black a defiant look, and was rewarded by a slight shrug of his shoulders. "I'm sick of you plaster-paris men! Free love—psycho-analysis—you're sickening, that's all. Why—you can't earn a decent living. I'm sick of it all. Be back in a moment."

She rose, and without another glance at them, passed between the crowded tables. She had no idea of returning. She would go to the ladies' parlor for a moment or so, and then leave by the upstairs entrance. It wouldn't be the first time that she had gone home alone.

Then, to-morrow, she'd quit all this. She'd go uptown, or maybe even to another city. There were lots of things she could do—regular work, something that meant getting up at a certain hour in the morning, and a weekly wage.

Then, if she did that she would be sure to meet someone like he was—someone decent and fine, who'd care for her, and be true to her.

She entered the ladies' parlor, and standing before the mirror, looked at herself. The tilt of her black hat struck her as too extreme, and she straightened it. Then she smiled bitterly. No wonder that he had not recognized her.

Some moments later she passed into the lobby. Several men stared at her, and one, who knew her, smiled curtly.

She had to pass the telephone booths. There, waiting for her, he stood, bronze-faced, his ready-made clothes fitting too tightly.

Betty looked at him, and it seemed as though her heart turned to water. She could hardly continue walking toward him.

He smiled as she came up, and these was something embarrassed and insinuating in his smile.

"Hello!”

A sudden, sickening fear caught her. She smiled very faintly, waiting. He moved a step nearer. The insinuating smile deepened. He winked.

"Say, listen. Can you meet me tomorrow—about two? At Macy’s?"

She winced.

"Sure you can! My name's Williams. Traveling man." He caught her arm. "You took my eye downstairs. But I've got to run right back. Will you meet me to-morrow? I'll show you a good time"

She jerked her arm away, not yet quite able to understand.

"How dare you!" Even as she spoke she felt a great distance away. A moment later she saw him walking from her.

He had given her a false name—and asked her to meet him in Macy's—

She hardly remembered going back downstairs. She sat down and reached for her drink, which was half finished. Young Willets looked at her solicitously.

"You are rather tired this evening, eh, Betty?"

She laughed. Across the room the pale, red-headed woman was questioning her husband suspiciously.

"No!" Betty laughed with mocking eyes. "I feel just like dancing! Come. Let's go uptown to the rough-house ball!"

Breezy Stories, July, 1917.

 

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