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A Stranger Here Myself

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There's a pair of broken plaster pillars taking up one corner of the sitting room, and an enormous painted fan taking up another. There are gauze shawls pinned to the walls and ceiling, and peacock feathers everywhere. Nick is stuck in the middle of this mess, trying to shake the burden of the evening's hostess so he can go and look for Jack Nikopoulos. The room is stuffed with people, all overfed, drink-flushed, and jawing, and the air is hot and sticky with some too-sweet odor-resin from Egypt, says their hostess. She is roped tightly into some sort of short silk tunic - her Greek revival begins in her heart but ends well shy of her knees - a nervous, ham-pink girl whose name Nick can't remember. She wanted a poetry reading, and maybe some theatricals, if they felt keen; what she got was a rout. Though she doesn't mind, oh no, or at least she wouldn't if they'd all stop climbing on the furniture and perhaps be more careful with her cups. She's mentioned these cups three times now, her elbow hooking Nick's arm tightly, her hand fluttering just above his bicep as she talks, and Nick is beginning to wonder if she writes her poetry about the damn things when Calliope herself abruptly severs the conversation, and descends in shrill enthusiasm on a brillantined and tie-tacked Johnny Lane, who has just squeezed out from the crowd at the front door.

There is a shifting movement close behind Nick, closer than even the press in here would warrant, and a hand falls heavily on his shoulder. Robin says into his ear, "She snatches the meat, and leaves a loathsome stench behind."

"It's all over everywhere," says Nick, vaguely. "She must have a bit of it burning in every corner. Do you suppose we could pour champagne on the stuff, or will it go up like an oil fire?"

"Well," says Robin, "fortune favors the brave." He turns away towards the kitchen. "And we can but do no worse than burn the place down."

Nick starts after him. "Then we must needs have champagne, and quickly."

Someone shoves a glass into his hand-brandy, by the look of it, but Nick grins at the timeliness of the gesture. He glances down: a short, thin girl, poorly curled hair, a plain face. No one he knows. She smiles at him, cheeks rising roundly above her smoothly carmined lips. He kisses her, briefly, on impulse. Robin looks back at him and rolls his eyes heavenward, skewing his mouth in an exaggerated pucker. They forge ahead.

There is a small group bunched by the door to the kitchen hallway, arguing over the Victrola, and two boys, very drunk, sitting sprawl-legged on the floor in the hallway itself, sharing a bottle and discussing literature. A girl leans backwards out of the kitchen and shouts at them, tersely, "Mrs. Parker!"

"Doggerel," Robin offers into the force of her glare, and glides mildly past her. Nick hands the brandy to her with a lift of his eyebrows; she keeps glaring, but at least she doesn't throw it in his face.

The kitchen is maybe seven feet on a side, but it has both a gas stove and a refrigerator, palely enameled to match the tile, and beads and more glittering shawls hung in the window. There is a rickety dark parlor table shoved up against the wall, under a row of Parrish prints, and with ranks of emptied, filmed-up glasses strewn on top of it. Rob Benfield is hitched back in a little needlepoint chair, ostentatiously blocking the pantry door, taking orders. Nick leans out over the jumbled table and drawls thickly at him, " 'Gif me a vhiskey, baby, und don' be stingy.' "

"Beer," says Robin, firmly.

"We have brandy and we have rye," says Benfield. And, smirking, "You're not pretty enough for that accent, Irish."

"Brandy and rye will not suit," says Robin. "We must have beer. And champagne, with which to desecrate Agnes' perfumed altars."

"Rye's good for profanity," says Benfield, and someone near him snorts. "Besides, the champagne's all out. And too dear it was, for the two of you to waste."

In the end, they settle on rye but, once they are in possession of their drinks, find it impossible to leave the kitchen again. They fetch up in the lee of the refrigerator, cut off from the door by a stream of people coming in and out for ice, for liquor, for soda water or towels or crackers, and once for the entire salt cellar and a jelly mould, which has something to do with some bet or other. Robin, with his back against the refrigerator, is peering past Nick's shoulder to the door, narrowing his eyes.

He murmurs, consideringly, "Whom does he shun, and whither would he fly?"

"We are scorned not by a Roman, but a Greek," says Nick, as if Robin doesn't know, and catches himself on one hand beside Robin's head as someone knocks into him. "It's too crowded by half here."

Robin looks on the Parrish prints with a jaundiced eye. "Hang the Greeks." He is close enough that his breath rises and falls, briefly, against Nick's mouth. Nick's memory automatically provides him with the scent of lavender, though it certainly can't be smelt above the all-pervasive incense.

He says, managing an easy tone, "An one appears, I will do it handily."

In the pause that follows this statement, Nick applies himself busily to his drink; he knows and doesn't like to know the sort of things he'd see in Robin's face. But in Nick's mind there is a hillside, blue-green and wetly fragrant, and there is sunset, and there is music, and there are a thousand, thousand lights. There is a high forehead banded in gold and a pair of dark-glittering eyes and one red mouth that opens and speaks. This memory says to him, Where is there hope or deed as fair? And, Doggerel, answers Robin, in his mind, and he focuses and finds himself staring at Robin's chin. His beard wants trimming. Robin is looking at Nick, amused, and then he is looking beyond Nick.

"Lo, the flood abates." Robin makes a sideways half-bow towards the kitchen door, ushering. "Shall we attempt it?"

"Like good men and true," says Nick, and bulls off into the crowd before Robin can answer him.

Later, they are out on the balcony with Johnny - who they have extracted from the grip of Agnes-Calliope - and Johnny's jug of beer, which, as far as they can gather from his sodden explanation, he seems to have produced through sheer force of will. Now Robin is away at the other end of the balcony, where he has buttonholed some redheaded girl who had the temerity to mention Rossetti, and is lecturing her, quite straight-faced, on the dangers of letting obsession run untempered. He, too, is very drunk. Nick thumbs his watch out of his vest pocket: one-thirty. Through the open balcony doors he has seen Agnes-Calliope go by, unbound and pinker than ever, accompanied by two dark-eyed boys; it's early yet. It's only the grinding of anxiety that makes the night seem weary.

Johnny climbs down off the balcony rail, where he has been perched, flicking beads off a broken necklace noisily into the courtyard below. With exaggerated solemnity, he lays the remains of the necklace in Nick's palm. "Did she bother, even, to introduce you to the fellow, before she charged you with him?"

"We're acquainted," says Nick. Johnny is watching him, sharp in his interest.

"And what is there to recommend him?"

Nick knows Jack is a finer singer than he is; he is strong and graceful in motion, precise and relentless in argument; his poetry is something delicate, startling, giddying.

"He's wonderfully dark," says Nick, laying his head against the back of his chair and closing his eyes. "Handsome. Of an imposing stature."

"Well," says Johnny, amused, "and here I thought we might have something new."

"There is something," says Nick, "in that he has an advantage over we poor poets, foundering under the yoke of inadequacy: he can invoke the Furies easily in their own language."

"The Muses," says Johnny, and his breath hitches as he drinks.

"So," says Nick.

Johnny gives a final swallow and says, "You're in it, you realize."

"Nor am I out of it," Nick murmurs, not opening his eyes.

There's a silence, and then, "He's been in the bedroom, you know, most of the night." Johnny sets the wet pitcher down right against Nick's hand. "Asleep." Inside, the Victrola starts up with a whirr and a crash of recorded cymbals, and Nick hears Agnes laughing. "He knows the girl, apparently."

And, with this statement, there is a rustle of clothing, a thump, and a judder of hinges that mean Johnny has gone unsteadily back into the sitting room, addressing one of the doors on his way. Nick starts up, and the necklace drops out of his hand and lands at his feet-two strands of pale, twisted floss and a little hook fixed with a tear-shaped rhinestone, which glints dimly at him. Hastily, he scoops the thing up and stuffs it in his pocket, though why he should save it is beyond him.

At the other end of the balcony, Robin has lost his redheaded girl. He is leaning on the railing, quietly looking at Nick, with his head cocked as if he is about to make a certain point. Nick, ignoring the look, makes for the door, and Robin says to his back, "You were pricked quickly. Actaeon, once pursuer, now pursued?"

"Not so," says Nick, stepping through the doorway into the dazzle of electric light. "The poor hart lies elsewhere. I merely go to clap a collar 'round his neck, and mark him Caesar's."

And later they are in the sitting room, and Nick is lying on the couch, on the laps of two giggling, squirming girls, with Robin pressed between one of them and the arm of the couch, and seemingly pleased about it. Jack has left the party, quietly; brushed and buttoned-up, with his hat tipped low. Nick has seen to it that the ring was on his finger, before he pulled his gloves neatly over it. Robin has brought Nick a big tumbler of rye and a teacup full of water, and has sat by him on the end of the bed and watched him drink the water first and pour the whiskey after. Nick has followed Robin, wordless, drifting with the liquor; he has let everything become edgeless and unreal. Robin has hunted up these girls and set them to making Nick comfortable, and he has listened patiently while Nick finally fumbles up out of his silence to explain, discursively, how Eliot is wasted on England and, indeed, the world.

One girl, smiling, calls Nick a contemptible modernist, and the other doesn't know who Eliot is. Nick growls at them, and they both squeal and giggle some more, and slide under his weight like a pair of pale waves. He rolls and half sits up; gets an arm around one of them and kisses the other, and these rough waters heave him off, laughing, headfirst onto Robin's knees. He promptly turns onto his back again, blinks up innocently at Robin, and pronounces, "What country, friend, is this?"

Robin says, looking gravely down at him, "A land where all things always seem the same." And, putting another liquor-warm glass in Nick's hand, "Which is to say, a land of sleep. Do you drink until you are quiet."

Nick drinks, swallowing hard around the whiskey burn, coughs and then begins boozily to murmur, "Ha ha ha, quo' she, ha ha ha, quo' she, kind Robin loves me."

"More fool if I do," says Robin.

Nick raises one arm and bumps the cup against Robin's lips. "I will bid you to drink, and you will bid me to mend myself," he closes his eyes slowly on the blurring light, "and we may reach what may pass as an accord."

And one girl has her hand in Nick's hair, and the other is stroking his knee, and by this and the whiskey he falls asleep.