The Red Room
Spring was almost there, and things had begun stirring within Lionel; else he would never have been down stairs in the back parlor of the hotel, near to where people were coming and going.
Carefully, he turned toward his companion.
“Adrienne,” he said, “we can go up to my little room, you and I, and shut ourselves away from the world forever. I am asking you to marry me.”
Adrienne looked at him curiously for a moment, puzzled and worried; then her face cleared, and she laughed her freedom in his face, laughing only a little too gaily and only a little too long.
Then gravening, “Oh Lionel, with all my heart, marry you yes — but for the thing you ask. And do you know what you’ve shut out, and are asking me to shut out? Have you ever looked, Lionel?
The man shuddered at these words, and seemed to draw more closely within himself. He sat thus for some moments; then raised his head a little and looked inquiringly at the girl, who pressed her lips thinly together and gave a short, tight movement of her head.
He sighed, and got up slowly. He was a heavy man, somewhat stoop shouldered and beginning to show streaks of gray in his hair. But for all this, he was not unhandsome; had he looked straight at things, or showed a bit of interest perhaps, he might have been termed imposing, with his thoughtful face, big shaggy head, and solid figure. Still, when one looked at Lionel, the word often thought of was: retreat.
Slowly, he turned and left the room; but just as he reached the staircase, Adrienne thought she saw his step quicken. She sat looking after him where he had gone, with the passivity of helplessness; then she went to the window, pulled aside the curtain and looked out at the people passing on the avenue, the ladies lovely in their spring furs and dainty parasols and the gentlemen well-groomed and polite. Adrienne pushed against the window with her hand, and it swung outward. “Hello!” she called to the passersby. And to an old woman in a dirty apron, “Hello!”
Almost running, Lionel reached the top of the third flight of stairs. He crossed the hall, and opening the door, he went into his room, locking it behind him. He crossed the room, peering about in the gloom, and opened the door to a second room, which he entered for a moment and turned himself around slowly; and then he went out again, leaving the door ajar. He sat down on the soft bed and made no sound, but showed small signs of relief.
The room was red. It was a deep, rich glowing scarlet, unmistakably red. The walls and ceiling were painted in this color, and the woodwork and the heavy drapes which covered the windows were brown. It was a bachelor’s apartment, finished in these dark heavy colors, and it was as tidy as an overflowing room could be. There were stacks of papers and books piled neatly in the corners — never on the table — and odd little curios that could have meant nothing to an unknowing observer: a large pine cone and a very small acorn beside it; a little wooden wheel; and what appeared to be the hand of a china doll. These and other things were displayed on shelves and in boxes, all neatly arranged. The only things which showed neglect were the hangings over the two windows; they were thick and moldy with the dust in their folds.
Lionel got up and lit a small blue candle which was sitting on the table. The flame grew from a flickering bit of fire clinging to the wick, until it was like a torch, strong, warm, compelling and intimate, casting a dim glow on the red ceiling and the surfaces of the furniture. And in the corners of the room, dusk condensed itself into soft gray black shadows of breathing silence. Occasionally, Lionel spoke to the shadows, and they answered him with his own voice, concordantly.
He disappeared into the smaller room, and returned with a plate of cold veal, some bread, a strong cheese, and a glass of cloudy red wine. He ate these slowly and whimsically, stopping now and then to examine a morsel before putting it in his mouth or trying the bread, cheese and meat all in one bite, and then separately. When he had finished, he brushed the crumbs on to his plate, and returned it to the kitchen. Then he took a big book from a drawer of the table, with a pen and ink pot, and crouched over it; with the dusky light of the small candle glowing on his work, he began to write. Downstairs, Adrienne undressed, brushed her long brown hair, yawned and went to bed.
“Quit interrupting me while I’m working,” Lionel said impatiently.
“But we’re not interrupting you,” the shadows replied softly from the corners.
The man sighed and returned to his writing, squinting at the letters on the page, running his fingers through the thick beard he had grown in the last year. He liked the beard; it covered most of his face.
He closed the book suddenly, and shoved it away from him, pushing back his chair to stand and stretch. He stopped and looked around him.
“You were interrupting,” he insisted.
The music was playing too loudly; there was no doubt about it. Lionel swung his feet over the edge of the bed. He crossed to the phonograph, and turned the knob until it clicked, and the black disc wheezed to a slow stop.
“It’s better this way. I like soft music that doesn’t interfere,” he murmured, as he returned to his bed.
The red ceiling smiled down upon him warmly, and the red walls wrapt him in their glow. The shadows whispered, “Good night.” “Goodnight,” Lionel said. “All my Own.”
The summer heat was heavy and thick, holding Adrienne back. She had to struggle with it, knowing she would never reach the far corner and the wide shimmering street. Beads of perspiration caked the powder on her face, leaving gooey pink streaks. The bombazine dress felt stiff and sticky and much too tight. She was old, and very very tired of struggling.
“I wonder if I was ever young and strong?” thought Adrienne.
And there at last was the long, long street, no longer shimmering but very dusty. Across the street, people coming, wave on wave. “I shall have to swim,” she told herself.
In the coolness of the shop — or was it only dim and quiet? — she saw something which startled her, although she had known beyond a doubt that it would be there. It was perfect; a thick-walled bulbous wine bottle, full of sparkling red wine–and in the center, not quite attached to anything, a small exquisitely carved wooden figure, stoop shouldered and shaggy, with a heavy beard and a thoughtful face that said: retreat.
“But I display this only as a curio. I would have to have a very special reason for selling it,” the proprietor said.
“Yes, of course,” said Adrienne.
When she had reached her studio once more, and peeled off all her stiff, hot clothes, she sat down and penned a note to Lionel, feeling quite sure it would reach him at the old address. Afterwards, she sat naked, looking out of the large plate-glass windows at the passersby for a long time.
Lionel felt hesitant about reading the message. He felt as though he might be snooping into what was going on inside someone else. First, he glanced at it politely, then beginning with the signature, he began looking at it from the bottom to the top. When he felt a little more familiar with the sight of the words, he began, slowly, to read it.
He read it once, standing quite still; then he read it again, moving his lips and walking back and forth jerkily. Then he sat down on the bed. The man, the shopkeeper, would contact him by telephone, if he would let this woman know his number.
“Did you hear?” Lionel said.
“We heard,” the walls answered.
The stacks of books and papers had grown higher, thicker, denser, heavier. Now they were piled helter-skelter in the middle of the room, while Lionel, groping and fumbling, examined each one and threw it aside.
And finally, in the middle of a brittle, yellow, faded book, he thought he had found it. The red walls reflected on the browning pages, and the spidery brown ink seemed to curl across the paper and disappear at any point where one stared directly at it. Lionel felt as though his eyeballs must be bulging from their sockets with the effort of his strain; and then the green candle sputtered and went out.
He leapt up, reaching for a match to relight it; but by the quick-dying sulphur blaze, he saw that the candle had burned down to a pool of wax in the holder, and he hadn’t another. Stumbling over the books, he made his way to the kitchen, remembering an electric light there.
It was a ceiling light, hanging on the end of a wire rope and with a brass pull chain. He pulled the chain and the light went on, dimly, pinkly, then went out, gave a sad little flash of blue, and sputtered its finish.
Then he knew that there must be provisions for light in his red room, so he lit another match and went back — two bulbs in two small wall sockets. He pressed the button on the first; it shone feebly, dirty and fly-specked. He turned on the second–the light seemed to decrease. The red walls and ceiling frowned darkly at the shiny little moons, and the shadows reached out defending arms to protect themselves. Digging in the bottom drawer of the bureau, Lionel came forth with a big electric torch. He fumbled at the button, trembling, and snapped it on, and it seemed to give a black light which blotted out the dull gleam of the wall sockets. He returned to the book, holding it near the light; he lit another match, and a sudden, unexpected whiff of air from the kitchen snuffed it out. Closing the book as the last light disappeared from the room, Lionel sank slowly to the floor in despair.
“We’re here with you,” the shadows offered, as they embraced him.
© Jane Curry