Claire Ambler - Booth Tarkington - E-Book

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Booth Tarkington

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"Claire Ambler" by Booth Tarkington. Published by Good Press. Good Press publishes a wide range of titles that encompasses every genre. From well-known classics & literary fiction and non-fiction to forgotten−or yet undiscovered gems−of world literature, we issue the books that need to be read. Each Good Press edition has been meticulously edited and formatted to boost readability for all e-readers and devices. Our goal is to produce eBooks that are user-friendly and accessible to everyone in a high-quality digital format.

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Booth Tarkington

Claire Ambler

Published by Good Press, 2022
EAN 4064066353100

Table of Contents

PART I THE BIRTH OF THOUGHT
I
II
III
IV
V
VI
PART II RAONA
VII
VIII
IX
X
XI
XII
XIII
XIV
XV
XVI
XVII
XVIII
XIX
XX
XXI
PART III “TWENTY-FIVE!”
XXII
XXIII
XXIV
XXV
XXVI
XXVII
XXVIII

PART ITHE BIRTH OF THOUGHT

Table of Contents

CLAIRE AMBLER

I

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MR. NELSON SMOCK, arriving at his cottage in Maine on Friday afternoon for his weekly recuperation from Wall Street, paused in the hall and looked into the living room before going on in search of his wife. His four children, three daughters and a son, were in the room; but none of them paid any attention to him or even seemed aware of his presence.

This was because of their absorbing interest in a girl of eighteen who sat upon a sofa facing the doorway, chattering to them. She was a stranger to him, and his absent-minded definition for her was, “just another of these summer flappers.” He meant nothing intolerant; his own daughters probably were listed under that head in the minds of casual observers, he supposed; and he felt no disapproval of the young lady on the sofa, though he did wish that his children might so far break the thraldom in which she held them as to give him at least a greeting.

Only one of them, however, so much as turned a wandering eye in his direction. This was his son, Nelson, a serious sophomore. Young Nelson glanced toward the doorway, and undoubtedly his eye perceived that his father stood there; but with this the youth’s perception appeared to stop; there was no evidence that the optic nerve conveyed any information to the brain, and the eye returned with a visible ardour to the young lady upon the sofa. The father was a little disappointed; he felt that he worked hard to keep his children bountifully supplied with all they asked for, and it seemed to him that they might well show enough appreciation to welcome him after his five days of absence. He realized, of course, that it was customary for them to see him return on Friday afternoon; that they were used to both his absence and his presence, as well as to himself and everything he could do for them; whereas, on the other hand, the young lady upon the sofa was a newcomer in their society and evidently appeared to them as a sparkling novelty. Wondering why they thought her important, he looked again at her, but discovered no more than he had before: she seemed indistinguishable from a hundred others.

What he saw was a comely, childlike little face, pink and thin and piquant, with light-brown hair cut short upon the back of the head, but elsewhere left three or four inches long and waved. As for the rest of her, there was a childlike body in a close, revealing, pale-green silk tunic that left her arms bare from the shoulder and her legs apparently bare from just above the knees down to her sleek white slippers, which had three-inch heels. This latter nudity was only an illusion, however; for thin silk stockings, as near the colour of her skin as possible, almost impalpably protected her; but she was inconsistent enough to seem desirous of more protection. From time to time she mechanically pulled at the small skirt of her tunic to bring it down over the exposed knees—a manifest absurdity, since the skirt, when sat upon, had no such elastic possibilities. Plainly, this was only a gesture and an inherited one, an ancestral memory or instinct alive in the race long after the use for it has gone.

She had other gestures, too—a great many of them; some with arms and hands, some with her shoulders and back, some even with her feet; and all of her constant motion was immature and impulsive, or at least so it seemed to a middle-aged observation from the doorway. Yet she was not lacking in an April-like young grace nor in a youthful shapeliness; but that was all the owner of the cottage could see—except the cigarette airily waved in her thin young hand as she chattered. He was not favourably impressed by the cigarette; but his daughters were smoking, too; and he knew he had nothing useful to say, or even to think, about that. As for the young creature’s chatter, he could make nothing of it at all; so he gave up this momentary problem and went on in search of his wife. When he found her, not five minutes later, in a garden behind the house, the picture of the girl on the sofa was already merged in his mind with dozens of other new memories, all insignificant, and he did not even ask who she was.

So lightly did the man over fifty almost instantly set aside as trivial what had become the most important thing in the life of his only and treasured son. Young Nelson sat upon a stool and looked humbly up to a beglamoured and honoured sofa that was to him the seat of all beauty, grace, and wit made incarnate and gloriously visible. For three roseate days he had known the incomparable damsel, Claire Ambler, and although both of them had at first been formal, not calling each other by their first names until their acquaintance was well along toward half an hour old, Nelson was sure, by the morning of the third day, that he had fallen in love at sight. Now that it was afternoon and he had been for hours aware of his passion, he saw only wonders before him, with no imperfection anywhere.

In this he bore some resemblance to the girl upon the sofa; for she saw no imperfection in herself. Yet no one thought her egotistical; she often spoke of her faults, though without naming them. On the other hand, she saw no definite perfections in herself; in fact, she had no appraisement of herself either the one way or the other, and it may truly be said that she did not think about herself. Probably it would be as true to say that neither did she think about other people, nor about anything. She had feelings that she believed to be thoughts; she had likes and dislikes that she believed to be thoughts; she had impulses she believed to be thoughts; her mind was full of shifting and flying pictures that she believed to be thoughts; it was also full of echoes of what she had heard and read, and these she usually believed to be thoughts original with her. Words were fluent upon her lips without her knowing or wondering how they got there; yet she was sure they expressed truths and she easily became angry, or grieved, if they were challenged.

She knew what she did, but not why she did it; though she was ready with reasons, and could even less well bear a challenge to her conduct than one to her words. Thus, at seventeen, when she had her long and beautiful tresses shorn away, she was irritated with her mother for lamenting. Her hair was cut off, Claire said, because ridding herself of such a burden was “sensible”; and she believed this, not knowing that she bore the civilized disfigurement merely because it was borne by other maidens of the tribe, as mechanical and unwitting as herself. Again, she had been irritated with her father when he questioned the scantiness of her skirt; for this brevity, too, was “sensible,” she said, being once more unaware that she had no motive except to follow the fashion of her kind, and did but manifest a mob contagion.

It seemed to her a long, long time since she had been a child, so long that she now had little interest in children—not much more than she had in old people—and both children and old people, like workingmen in flivvers, she felt, belonged to the duller and rather annoying classes. The only interesting persons in the world were of about her own age; in fact they were the only people who seemed to her actually alive; and yet even they were not wholly alive in the full sense that she herself was. That is to say, the universe consisted of herself and of impressions made upon her. All other people, varying dimnesses and brightnesses, belonged among the impressions. There were tombstones in the cemeteries just as there were names and dates in books of history; but there could have been no actual life, such as she knew in herself, until she came upon the earth. All had been darkness until her perceptions began to inform her that she was alive, and even her own childhood now seemed shadowy. Full, broad light had not shone until a comparatively recent time, when she was about sixteen. And at that, all parts of the earth, except the spot where she was, had still but a vague illumination. She did not really believe that the sun was radiant over China while she slept.

To honest young Nelson, worshipping her, she seemed a living being, indeed; but to her Nelson was a pleasantly coloured shape that made more or less agreeable noises. His present expression, however, was entirely agreeable to her, and she was in a degree aware of its yearning significance. She was not wholly aware of what it meant, however, because she did not realize what his feeling meant to Nelson himself; she had no concern with that, nor, indeed, had she any perception of it. She was aware only that it proved how effective her attraction was; it would be useful to her at dances and elsewhere, and she hoped to produce similar expressions upon the faces of other boys. Already she had experience in the art of making them wear this look, and although it was a look not always becoming to them and sometimes made them obviously uncomfortable, it seemed to be, on the whole, the principal thing for which Nature had intended them.

II

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NELSON’S father had failed to comprehend the interest of the group of young people in what he thought of as the girlish chatter from the sofa. It seemed to him that just as she looked like any other “summer flapper,” so also did she chatter like any other little creature of her kind; and in this he had no perception of how “original” and special an individual his children and their friends were finding her. This was to be her first season here; but she had spent summers at other resorts, and was giving them a lively account of the important people of these places. She had intimately known several celebrities of the first water—one of them, indeed, was a captain at Nelson’s university—and so, to these listeners, she spoke of grandees of their own world. If Mr. Smock and some of his contemporaries had occupied the living room and young Nelson had come in to find them listening to an elderly stranger gossiping briskly of important financiers, the boy would have thought the session as dismal as it was inexplicable, and perhaps might have wondered how old men all contrived to look so much alike. He had never in his life seen a girl in the least like Claire Ambler, he was sure; never had he heard a voice so golden; never had he met a woman with so large an experience of the world; never had he been dazzled by so much brilliancy of mind.

He tried to express his bedazzlement as he walked home with her to her cottage in the late afternoon sunshine. “You cert’n’y gave us all a good time,” he said seriously. “I couldn’t begin to tell you the kick I got out of it myself.”

“How?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know; but anyhow I did. It’s kind of like something new coming into our lives here, or something like that. I mean the way you talk; or what I mean, I mean the way you say things. You got a way of saying things that’s kind of got a kick in it. Anyhow, for me it has, I mean.”

She looked at him gravely, seeming much interested; but for a time made no response; and, at intervals bumping into each other slightly, they walked slowly on over the uneven country road.

“I mean it,” he said. “Honest, I really do mean it. I mean there’s lots of kick in what you say.”

She pulled a leaf from a hedge, put the stem between her lips, frowned as in perplexity; then asked: “How do you mean?”

“Well,” he said, “I mean there is. I don’t mean it’s only in the way you say what you say; there’s more to it than that. F’r instance, when you say something, you say it in a way that’s got a kick in it; but I mean what you got to say’s got a kick in it too. You see what I mean?”

“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully, and gave him a meek glance. “Do you mean you don’t like the way I say things, Nelson?”

“No, no, no!” he protested, troubled to have given her this harsh impression. “I mean just the opposite. I mean I like it so much I get a big kick out of it. Honestly.”

“Honestly?” she repeated; and the word seemed important to her. “Honestly, Nelson?”

He was distressed and also a little aggrieved by what might have implied a doubt of him. “I don’t know what cause I’ve ever given you,” he said, “not to believe in my sincerity.”

“But I didn’t mean that, Nelson. I was only trying to get at just what you meant.”

“I see,” he returned, mollified. “I wouldn’t like to think you doubted my sincerity, because I think if you aren’t sincere you just about as well mightn’t be anything at all. Don’t you believe in sincerity, Claire?”

“Indeed, I do. If one isn’t genuine, then what is one?”

“There!” he exclaimed. “That’s what I mean. I mean when you say things like that. I mean that’s when I get a kick out of the way you say ’em and out of what you’re saying too. Don’t you understand what I mean, Claire?”

Strangely enough, she still seemed to be a little uncertain. “I didn’t talk too much at your cottage, did I? Of course, as it was the first time I’ve been there, and just meeting your sisters, perhaps you think I——”

“No, no!” Nelson interrupted earnestly. “They were nuts over you, absolutely nuts! I knew they would be. You’re altogether differ’nt from the rest o’ these girls around here, Claire, and that’s why.”

“That’s why what, Nelson?”

“It’s why they’re so nuts over you,” he explained. “What I mean, I mean, well, you’ve had so much more experience of life than they have. You’ve been around lots more places, and about all they ever been is just this one old place—and home, of course, and school, and maybe a trip abroad or somewheres. But what I mean about you, Claire, it wouldn’t do ’em any good, prob’ly, if they had been around like you have. What I mean, they wouldn’t know how to take in things the way you have. The trouble with them is they wouldn’t know how to. You see what I mean, don’t you, Claire?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” she said. “But I suppose prob’ly that is the trouble with a certain amount of people. Do you know what I believe is the trouble with most people?”

“What is?” he asked solicitously, almost breathlessly; for her tone was deeply serious, and he felt that matters of grave import were before them. “I’ve often thought about it; but I never did get it worked out in my mind to suit me just right. You can see that most people have got something the matter with ’em; but you can’t tell exactly what it is. What do you believe it is, Claire?”

“Well, I’ve thought about it a great deal, too,” she said. “I used to feel it was a question there’d never be any answer to; and sometimes it would make me—oh, I used to get absolutely morbid about it!”

“Did you?” he said gently, touched by the depth of her conscientiousness. “I never got that way about it myself, prob’ly because I haven’t got a deep enough nature. You don’t any more, do you Claire?”

“No,” she said. “Not about that, anyhow, because I’m older now and I think I’ve worked out the answer.”

“Have you? How?”

“Well, princip’ly by observation.”

“I think that’s wonderful,” he said. “What was the answer, Claire?”

“Well, it’s this,” she said, and they walked more slowly. “I believe the trouble with most people is, they never think.”

“You mean——”

“Yes,” she said. “I just don’t understand their not doing it; but if you turn over the people you know in your mind, how many of them can you find that ever really think?”

Nelson became emphatic, as in a great enlightenment. “By golly, I believe you’re right! I believe you’ve got it worked out—that is the trouble with most people. They don’t think.”

“It’s so strange,” Claire murmured, a little sadly. “You’d think they would think——”

“But they don’t,” Nelson said. “That’s the trouble with ’em; they don’t think.”

At this she appealed to him, as to a superior wisdom. “Why is it, Nelson? I’ve wondered so much about that. You’re a man, and you ought to be able to tell me. Why is it they don’t think?”

“Well, I suppose it’s prob’ly because they won’t take the trouble to. Either that, or maybe because they simply don’t know how.”

“I believe you’re right,” she returned, and she gave him a quick little glance of deferential appreciation. “I think that’s rather a wonderful idea, Nelson. Only a person that does think could work out an explanation like that.”

Nelson’s colour heightened, he was so pleased to believe her kind opinion of him warranted. It seemed to him that this was a beautiful walk he was taking in delicious air and sunshine with a companion who understood with him the deeper things of life, the things that he really cared for. “The way I look at it is simply this,” he said. “The trouble with most people is they don’t even realize there is such a thing as thinking. So—well, when you get with a person that does think, well, you get a kick out of it.”

“Yes,” she agreed thoughtfully. “I think that’s true.”

“Of course it’s true,” he said; and he went on: “That’s what I meant about the way you were talking, up at the cottage. I knew you were a girl that does think, and you don’t often meet with one that does, because what do the ordinary run of ’em care for? What do they talk about? Why, nothing but what they do talk about—just all this and that, till you get absolutely sick of listening to ’em. All in the world they got to go on is simply their sex appeal, and in the long run what does that amount to? All you got to do is analyze it to see it doesn’t amount to anything more than just a part of their maternity instinct, and you get awful tired of it. What I mean, you take two people that got more than mere sex appeal, and suppose they meet in a place like this, the way I’ve met you here, Claire, well, I mean there ought to be a pretty good kick in it.” He paused, and then, with increased earnestness, he added, “I don’t care for anything that hasn’t got a kick in it. Do you feel that way, too, Claire?”

She inclined her head gravely, assenting. “Yes; I think life isn’t worth living, practic’ly, unless you get a kick out of it.”

“I knew you’d feel that way,” Nelson said in a low voice. “I knew you would.” Then, emotional after the confirmation of this affinity between them, he walked on in silence, believing that she shared his feeling.

But here he pathetically failed in comprehension of his new friend. Claire was wondering which of two dresses she would wear that evening to a dance at the Beach Club; all the way from Nelson’s cottage, she had been trying to decide between them; she was only secondarily aware of Nelson, though she had seemed to be giving him a stirred attention. Her share of the conversation had been not much more than the repetition of a familiar formula, yet he found it anything but mechanical. For in this she was exercising an art possessed and habitually practised by most of her sex. Nelson’s own mother used a variation of it frequently, at breakfast, when she gave a perfect response to her husband’s discourse without listening to it or disturbing in the least the housewifely planning that then always occupied her mind.

Without speaking again, the two young people reached the driveway gate of the house Claire’s father had leased for the summer; and here they paused. “Well——” Nelson said, a little huskily, for his emotion had not subsided but increased. “I suppose we couldn’t go on a little way farther? Prob’ly you want to go in?”

“Want to?” she echoed, and, as she wished to look over the two dresses before making a choice between them, she decided against any prolongation of their walk. “I don’t know why you should put it that way, Nelson,” she said. “One doesn’t always do what one wants to.”

“But it isn’t near dinnertime yet. If you do want to, I don’t see why——”

“Men never see why,” she said gently. “Because they can do what they like with their own time, they always think a girl can.”

He sighed. Her tone implied important duties that could not honourably be evaded, no matter what her desires might be; and he understood that her strong inclination was to extend their walk. “Well,” he said, “I wish you could; but if you can’t——” He leaned against one of the pillars of rough stone that served as gate-posts. “Anyhow, I’m glad we’ve had this talk. There’s not many girls I’d care to talk to the way I do to you, Claire, because they wouldn’t understand. In the first place, what I mean, I wouldn’t talk to ’em the way I been talking to you, and in the second place, if I did, they wouldn’t understand what I mean.”

“Oh, yes, they would,” she said generously. “Plenty of them would, Nelson. You mustn’t be so cynical.”

“I’m not exactly cynical,” he returned, much pleased. “But it’s true. I don’t know another girl here that I’d talk to like this or that’d understand what I mean if I did.”

“Oh, Nelson! Not one?”

“Not a single one.”

“Well, I do,” she said. “Anyhow, if there aren’t any around here I’ve known girls other places that would.”