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As they drew near the house they heard the tones of a gramophone. This instrument rested flatly on a small table and took the place of a piano, which would have been a fearful thing to transport from town and back. It was jigging away merrily enough, with a quick, regular rhythm which suggested a dance-tune; and when the party re-entered the big room it was seen that a large corner of the center rug was still turned back. Impossible that anybody could have been dancing on the Sabbath; surely everybody understood that the evangelical principles of Churchton were projected on these occasions to the dunes. Besides, the only women left behind had been two in their forties; the men in their company were even older. Medora Phillips looked at Randolph, but he was staring inexpressively at the opposite wall. She found herself wondering if there were times when the mere absence of the young served automatically to make the middle-aged more youthful.
"Well, we've had a most lovely walk," she declared. She crossed to the far corner of the room, contriving to turn down the rug as she went, and opened up a new reservoir of records. She laid them on the table rather emphatically, as if to say, "These are suited to the day."
"I hope you're all rested up," she continued, and put one of the new records on the machine. The air was from a modern opera, true; but it was slow-going and had even been fitted out with "sacred" words. Everybody knew it, and presently everybody was humming it.
"It ought not to be hummed," she declared; "it ought to be sung. You can sing it, Mr. Cope?"
"Oh yes, indeed," replied Cope, readily enough. "I have the breath left, I think,--or I can very soon find it."
"Take a few minutes. I'll fill in with something else."
They listened to an inconclusive thing by a wobbling soprano, and then Mrs. Phillips put the other record back.
The accompaniment to the air was rather rich and dense, and the general tone-quality was somewhat blatant. But Cope stood up to it all, and had the inspiration to treat the new combination as a sort of half-joke. But he was relieved from the bother of accompanying himself; his resonance overlaid in some measure the cheap quality of the record's tone; he contrived to master a degree of momentum to let himself go; and the general result was good,-- much better than his attempt at that tea. Hortense and Carolyn looked at him with a new respect; and Amy, who had been willing to admire, now admired openly. Cope ended, gave a slight grimace, and sauntered away from the table and the instrument. He knew that he had done rather well.
"Bravo!" loudly cried one of the ladies, who felt that she was under suspicion of having taken a step or two in the dance. And, "Oh, my dear," said Mrs. Phillips to her, sotto voce, "isn't he utterly charming!"
Cope wiped his brow. The walk had made him warm, and the singing had made him warmer. One or two of the women were using chance pamphlets as fans (despite Mrs. Phillips' ill-concealed doubts), and everybody showed a willingness to keep in the draught from the open windows.
"Is it close here?" asked the hostess anxiously. "The day is almost like summer. If the water is anywhere nearly as warm as the air is.... Let me see; it's a quarter to four. I have a closetful of bathing suits, all sizes and shapes and several colors, if anybody cares to go in."
"Don't!" cried Cope explosively.
She looked at him with interest. "Have you been trying it?"
"I have. On the way along the shore. I assure you, however warm the air may be, the bathing season is over."
"Well, I rather thought something had been happening to you. Mr. Randolph, is it as bad as he says?"
"I'll take his word," replied Randolph. "And I think all of us had better do the same."
"We might go down to the beach, anyway," she said. "Hortense wants to make her color-notes, and the color will be good from now on."
Several of the party threaded their way down over the sliding sandy path which led through the pines and junipers. Cope was willing to go with the others--on the present understanding. He objected to promiscuous bathing even more strongly than he objected to promiscuous dancing.
There were some new cumuli in the east, out above the water, and they began to take the late afternoon sun. Hortense cast about for just the right point of view, with Carolyn to help on "atmosphere" and two young men to be superserviceable over campstool, sketch-block and box of colors. She brought back a few dabs which may have served some future use;--at all events they served as items in a social record.
Cope and Amy, with some of the others, strolled off in the opposite direction. The water remained smooth, and some of the men idly skipped stones. One of them dipped in his hand. "Cold?" he exclaimed; "I should say!"
Amy looked admiringly at Cope, as one who had braved, beyond season, the chill of the great deep, and he tried to reward her with a "thought" or two. He had skipped stones himself between dips, and Randolph had made a reflection which he could now revise and employ.
"See!" he said, as a flat, waveworn piece of slate left the hand of the young business-man and careered over the water; "one, two, three--six, eight--ten, thirteen; and then down, down, after all,--down to the bottom. And so we end--every one of us. The great thing is to crowd in all the action we can before the final plunge comes--to go skipping and splashing as hard and long and fast and far as we may!"
A valuable thought, possibly, and elaborated beyond Randolph's sketchy and casual utterance; but Amy looked uncomfortable and chilled and glanced with little favor at a few other flat stones lying at her feet. "Please don't. Please change the subject," she seemed to ask.
She changed it herself. "You sang beautifully," she said, with some return of warmth--even with some approach to fervor.
"Oh, I can sing," he returned nonchalantly, "if I can only have my hands in my pockets, or waving in the air, or anywhere but on a keyboard."
"I wish you had let them persuade you to sing another." She was not only willing to admire, but desirous: conscientious amends, perhaps, for an earlier verdict. "One or two more skips, you know, after getting started."
"Oh, once was enough. A happy coincidence. The next might have been an unhappy one."
"You have never learned to accompany yourself?"
"As you've seen, I'm a rather poor hand at it; I've depended a good deal on others. Or, better, on another."
She looked at him earnestly. "Have you ever sung to an obbligato?"
"None of my songs, thus far, has called for one. An obbligato? Never so much honored. No, indeed. Why, to me it would seem almost like singing with an orchestra. Imagine a 'cello. Imagine a flute--still I'm not a soprano going mad. Or imagine a saxophone; that might be droll."
He gave out a sort of dragging bleat. She did not smile; perhaps she felt such an approach to waggery unworthy of him. Perhaps she was holding him up to the dignity of the natural scene, and to the importance of the occasion as she conceived it.
Cope had no desire to figure as a comique, and at once regained sobriety. "Of course," he admitted, "we are not at a the dansant or a cabaret. Such things ought not to be thought of--here."
She turned her eyes on him again, with a new look of sympathy and understanding. Perhaps understanding between them had failed or lapsed but a moment before.
"How all of this shames the town!" she said.
"And us--if we misbehave," he added.
Mrs. Phillips came scurrying along, collecting her scattered guests, as before. "Tea!" she said. "Tea for one or two who must make an early start back to town. Also a sip and a bite for those who stay."
She moved along toward Hortense and her little group. Hortense's "color- notes" did not appear to amount to much. Hortense seemed to have been "fussed"--either by an excess of company and of help, or by some private source of discontent and disequilibrium.
"Come," Mrs. Phillips cried to her, "I need every Martha to lend a hand." Hortense rose, and one of her young men picked up her campstool.
"So glad you haven't got to go early," said Mrs. Phillips to Randolph and Cope. "In fact, you might stay all night. It will be warm, and there are cots and blankets for the porch."
"Thanks, indeed," said Cope. "But I have a class at eight-fifteen to-morrow morning, and they'll be waiting to hear about the English Novel in the Eighteenth Century, worse luck! Fielding and Richardson and--"
"Are you going to explain Pamela and Clarissa to them?" asked Hortense. She was abrupt and possibly a bit scornful.
Cope seemed to scent a challenge and accepted it. "I am. The women may figure on the covers, but the men play their own strong part through the pages."
"I seem to recall," contributed Mrs. Phillips, "that Sir Charles Grandison figured both ways."
"That prig!" said Hortense.
"Well, if you can't stay overnight," Mrs. Phillips proceeded, "at least stay a few hours for the moonlight. The moon will be almost full to-night, and the walk across the marshes to the trolley-line ought to be beautiful. Or Peter could run you across in eight or ten minutes."
She did not urge Randolph to remain in the absence of Cope, though Randolph's appearance at his office at ten in the morning would have surprised no one, and have embarrassed no one.
Tea was served before the big fireplace in which a small flame to heat the kettle was rising. Randolph set his empty cup on the shelf above.
"Notice," said Mrs. Phillips to him, "that poem of Carolyn's just behind your cup: 'Summer Day in Duneland'." It was a bit of verse in a narrow black frame, and the mat was embellished with pen-and-ink drawings of the dunes, to the effect of an etching. An etcher, in fact, a man famous in his field, had made them, Mrs. Phillips explained.
"And at the other end of the shelf," she advised him, "is a poem in free verse, done by a real journalist who was here in June. See: 'Homage to Dunecrest'--written with a blue pencil on a bit of driftwood."
"Sorry we can't leave any souvenir behind," said Cope, who had stolen up and was looking at the "poem" over Randolph's shoulder. "But one must (first) be clever; and one must (second) know how to put his cleverness on record."
"I shall remember your record," she returned with emphasis. Cope smiled deprecatingly; but he felt sure that he had sung well.
The moonlight, when it came, was all that Medora Phillips had promised. There was another stroll on the beach, with Cope between Medora and Carolyn. Then he and Randolph took the causeway across the marsh, stopped the trolley by burning a newspaper on the track, and started on the long trip home.
As the car ran along jerkily from station to station, the earlier void of Duneland became peopled indeed. The extraordinarily mild day had drawn out hundreds--had given the moribund summer-excursion season a new lease of life. Every stoppage brought so many more young men in soiled khaki, with shapeless packs on their backs, and so many more wan maidens, no longer young, who were trying, in little bands, to capture from Nature the joys thus far denied by domestic life; and at one station a belated squad of the "Lovers of Landscape"--some forty or fifty in all--came flooding in with the day's spoils: masses of asters and goldenrod, with the roots as often as not; festoons of bittersweet, and sheaves of sumach and golden glow; and one ardent spirit staggered in under the weight of an immense brown paper bag stuffed with prickly pear. As the tight-packed company slid along, children drowsed or whimpered, short-tempered young men quarreled with the conductor, elderly folk sat in squeezed, plaintive resignation.... Soon the lights of foundry fires began to show on the sky; then people started dropping off in the streets of towns enlivened by the glitter of many saloons and an occasional loud glare from the front of a moving-picture theater....
Through these many miles Randolph and Cope sat silent: there seemed to be a tacit agreement that they need no longer exert themselves to entertain each other. Cope reached home shortly before midnight. By next morning many of the doings of the previous day had quite passed from his mind. Yet a few firm impressions remained. He had had a good swim, if but a brief one, with a companion who had been willing, even if not bold; he had imposed an acceptable nomenclature upon a somewhat anonymous landscape; and, in circumstances slightly absurd, or at least unfavorable, he had done his voice and his method high credit in song. All else went for next to nothing.
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