The Bridal Party
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

 

The Ritz Bar had been prepared for the occasion by French and American banners and by a great canvas covering one wall, against which the guests were invited to concentrate their proclivities in breaking glasses.

At the first cocktail, taken at the bar, there were many slight spillings from many trembling hands, but later, with the champagne, there was a rising tide of laughter and occasional bursts of song.

Michael was surprised to find what a difference his new dinner coat, his new silk hat, his new, proud linen made in his estimate of himself; he felt less resentment toward all these people for being so rich and assured. For the first time since he had left college he felt rich and assured himself; he felt that he was part of all this, and even entered into the scheme of Johnson, the practical joker, for the appearance of the woman betrayed, now waiting tranquilly in the room across the hall.

“We don’t want to go too heavy,” Johnson said, “because I imagine Ham’s had a pretty anxious day already. Did you see Fullman Oil’s sixteen points off this morning?”

“Will that matter to him?” Michael asked, trying to keep the interest out of his voice.

“Naturally. He’s in heavily; he’s always in everything heavily. So far he’s had luck; anyhow, up to a month ago.”

The glasses were filled and emptied faster now, and men were shouting at one another across the narrow table. Against the bar a group of ushers was being photographed, and the flash light surged through the room in a stifling cloud.

“Now’s the time,” Johnson said. “You’re to stand by the door, remember, and we’re both to try and keep her from coming in — just till we get everybody’s attention.”

He went on out into the corridor, and Michael waited obediently by the door. Several minutes passed. Then Johnson reappeared with a curious expression on his face.

“There’s something funny about this.”

“Isn’t the girl there?”

“She’s there all right, but there’s another woman there, too; and it’s nobody we engaged either. She wants to see Hamilton Rutherford, and she looks as if she had something on her mind.”

They went out into the hall. Planted firmly in a chair near the door sat an American girl a little the worse for liquor, but with a determined expression on her face. She looked up at them with a jerk of her head.

“Well, j’tell him?” she demanded. “The name is Marjorie Collins, and he’ll know it. I’ve come a long way, and I want to see him now and quick, or there’s going to be more trouble than you ever saw.” She rose unsteadily to her feet.

“You go in and tell Ham,” whispered Johnson to Michael. “Maybe he’d better get out. I’ll keep her here.”

Back at the table, Michael leaned close to Rutherford’s ear and, with a certain grimness, whispered:

“A girl outside named Marjorie Collins says she wants to see you. She looks as if she wanted to make trouble.”

Hamilton Rutherford blinked and his mouth fell ajar; then slowly the lips came together in a straight line and he said in a crisp voice:

“Please keep her there. And send the head barman to me right away.”

Michael spoke to the barman, and then, without returning to the table, asked quietly for his coat and hat. Out in the hall again, he passed Johnson and the girl without speaking and went out into the Rue Cambon. Calling a cab, he gave the address of Caroline’s hotel.

His place was beside her now. Not to bring bad news, but simply to be with her when her house of cards came falling around her head.

Rutherford had implied that he was soft — well, he was hard enough not to give up the girl he loved without taking advantage of every chance within the pale of honor. Should she turn away from Rutherford, she would find him there.

She was in; she was surprised when he called, but she was still dressed and would be down immediately. Presently she appeared in a dinner gown, holding two blue telegrams in her hand. They sat down in armchairs in the deserted lobby.

“But, Michael, is the dinner over?”

“I wanted to see you, so I came away.”

“I’m glad.” Her voice was friendly, but matter-of-fact. “Because I’d just phoned your hotel that I had fittings and rehearsals all day tomorrow. Now we can have our talk after all.”

“You’re tired,” he guessed. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have come.”

“No. I was waiting up for Hamilton. Telegrams that may be important. He said he might go on somewhere, and that may mean any hour, so I’m glad I have someone to talk to.”

Michael winced at the impersonality in the last phrase.

“Don’t you care when he gets home?”

“Naturally,” she said, laughing, “but I haven’t got much say about it, have I?”

“Why not?”

“I couldn’t start by telling him what he could and couldn’t do.”

“Why not?”

“He wouldn’t stand for it.”

“He seems to want merely a housekeeper,” said Michael ironically.

“Tell me about your plans, Michael,” she asked quickly.

“My plans? I can’t see any future after the day after tomorrow. The only real plan I ever had was to love you.”

Their eyes brushed past each other’s, and the look he knew so well was staring out at him from hers. Words flowed quickly from his heart:

“Let me tell you just once more how well I’ve loved you, never wavering for a moment, never thinking of another girl. And now when I think of all the years ahead without you, without any hope, I don’t want to live, Caroline darling. I used to dream about our home, our children, about holding you in my arms and touching your face and hands and hair that used to belong to me, and now I just can’t wake up.”

Caroline was crying softly. “Poor Michael — poor Michael.” Her hand reached out and her fingers brushed the lapel of his dinner coat. “I was so sorry for you the other night. You looked so thin, and as if you needed a new suit and somebody to take care of you.” She sniffled and looked more closely at his coat. “Why, you’ve got a new suit! And a new silk hat! Why, Michael, how swell!” She laughed, suddenly cheerful through her tears. “You must have come into money, Michael; I never saw you so well turned out.”

For a moment, at her reaction, he hated his new clothes.

“I have come into money,” he said. “My grandfather left me about a quarter of a million dollars.”

“Why, Michael,” she cried, “how perfectly swell! I can’t tell you how gladI am. I’ve always thought you were the sort of person who ought to have money.”

“Yes, just too late to make a difference.”

The revolving door from the street groaned around and Hamilton Rutherford came into the lobby. His face was flushed, his eyes were restless and impatient.

“Hello, darling; hello, Mr. Curly.” He bent and kissed Caroline. “I broke away for a minute to find out if I had any telegrams. I see you’ve got them there.” Taking them from her, he remarked to Curly, “That was an odd business there in the bar, wasn’t it? Especially as I understand some of you had a joke fixed up in the same line.” He opened one of the telegrams, closed it and turned to Caroline with the divided expression of a man carrying two things in his head at once.

“A girl I haven’t seen for two years turned up,” he said. “It seemed to be some clumsy form of blackmail, for I haven’t and never have had any sort of obligation toward her whatever.”

“What happened?”

“The head barman had a Sûreté Générale man there in ten minutes and it was settled in the hall. The French blackmail laws make ours look like a sweet wish, and I gather they threw a scare into her that she’ll remember. But it seems wiser to tell you.”

“Are you implying that I mentioned the matter?” said Michael stiffly.

“No,” Rutherford said slowly. “No, you were just going to be on hand. And since you’re here, I’ll tell you some news that will interest you even more.”

He handed Michael one telegram and opened the other.

“This is in code,” Michael said.

“So is this. But I’ve got to know all the words pretty well this last week. The two of them together mean that I’m due to start life all over.”

Michael saw Caroline’s face grow a shade paler, but she sat quiet as a mouse.

“It was a mistake and I stuck to it too long,” continued Rutherford. “So you see I don’t have all the luck, Mr. Curly. By the way, they tell me you’ve come into money.”

“Yes,” said Michael.

“There we are, then.” Rutherford turned to Caroline. “You understand, darling, that I’m not joking or exaggerating. I’ve lost almost every cent I had and I’m starting life over.”

Two pairs of eyes were regarding her — Rutherford’s noncommittal and unrequiring, Michael’s hungry, tragic, pleading. In a minute she had raised herself from the chair and with a little cry thrown herself into Hamilton Rutherford’s arms.

“Oh, darling,” she cried, “what does it matter! It’s better; I like it better, honestly I do! I want to start that way; I want to! Oh, please don’t worry or be sad even for a minute!”

“All right, baby,” said Rutherford. His hand stroked her hair gently for a moment; then he took his arm from around her.

“I promised to join the party for an hour,” he said. “So I’ll say good night, and I want you to go to bed soon and get a good sleep. Good night, Mr. Curly. I’m sorry to have let you in for all these financial matters.”

But Michael had already picked up his hat and cane. “I’ll go along with you,” he said.

III

It was such a fine morning. Michael’s cutaway hadn’t been delivered, so he felt rather uncomfortable passing before the cameras and moving-picture machines in front of the little church on the Avenue George-Cinq.

It was such a clean, new church that it seemed unforgivable not to be dressed properly, and Michael, white and shaky after a sleepless night, decided to stand in the rear. From there he looked at the back of Hamilton Rutherford, and the lacy, filmy back of Caroline, and the fat back of George Packman, which looked unsteady, as if it wanted to lean against the bride and groom.

The ceremony went on for a long time under the gay flags and pennons overhead, under the thick beams of June sunlight slanting down through the tall windows upon the well-dressed people.

As the procession, headed by the bride and groom, started down the aisle, Michael realized with alarm he was just where everyone would dispense with their parade stiffness, become informal and speak to him.

So it turned out. Rutherford and Caroline spoke first to him; Rutherford grim with the strain of being married, and Caroline lovelier than he had ever seen her, floating all softly down through the friends and relatives of her youth, down through the past and forward to the future by the sunlit door.

Michael managed to murmur, “Beautiful, simply beautiful,” and then other people passed and spoke to him — old Mrs. Dandy, straight from her sickbed and looking remarkably well, or carrying it off like the very fine old lady she was; and Rutherford’s father and mother, ten years divorced, but walking side by side and looking made for each other and proud. Then all Caroline’s sisters and their husbands and her little nephews in Eton suits, and then a long parade, all speaking to Michael because he was still standing paralyzed just at that point where the procession broke.

He wondered what would happen now. Cards had been issued for a reception at the George-Cinq; an expensive enough place, heaven knew. Would Rutherford try to go through with that on top of those disastrous telegrams? Evidently, for the procession outside was streaming up there through the June morning, three by three and four by four. On the corner the long dresses of girls, five abreast, fluttered many-colored in the wind. Girls had become gossamer again, perambulatory flora; such lovely fluttering dresses in the bright noon wind.

Michael needed a drink; he couldn’t face that reception line without a drink. Diving into a side doorway of the hotel, he asked for the bar, whither a chasseur led him through half a kilometer of new American-looking passages.

But — how did it happen? — the bar was full. There were ten — fifteen men and two — four girls, all from the wedding, all needing a drink. There were cocktails and champagne in the bar; Rutherford’s cocktails and champagne, as it turned out, for he had engaged the whole bar and the ballroom and the two great reception rooms and all the stairways leading up and down, and windows looking out over the whole square block of Paris. By and by Michael went and joined the long, slow drift of the receiving line. Through a flowery mist of “Such a lovely wedding,” “My dear, you were simply lovely,” “You’re a lucky man, Rutherford” he passed down the line. When Michael came to Caroline, she took a single step forward and kissed him on the lips, but he felt no contact in the kiss; it was unreal and he floated on away from it. Old Mrs. Dandy, who had always liked him, held his hand for a minute and thanked him for the flowers he had sent when he heard she was ill.

“I’m so sorry not to have written; you know, we old ladies are grateful for — ” The flowers, the fact that she had not written, the wedding — Michael saw that they all had the same relative importance to her now; she had married off five other children and seen two of the marriages go to pieces, and this scene, so poignant, so confusing to Michael, appeared to her simply a familiar charade in which she had played her part before.

A buffet luncheon with champagne was already being served at small tables and there was an orchestra playing in the empty ballroom. Michael sat down with Jebby West; he was still a little embarrassed at not wearing a morning coat, but he perceived now that he was not alone in the omission and felt better. “Wasn’t Caroline divine?” Jebby West said. “So entirely self-possessed. I asked her this morning if she wasn’t a little nervous at stepping off like this. And she said, ‘Why should I be? I’ve been after him for two years, and now I’m just happy, that’s all.’”

“It must be true,” said Michael gloomily.

“What?”

“What you just said.”

He had been stabbed, but, rather to his distress, he did not feel the wound.

He asked Jebby to dance. Out on the floor, Rutherford’s father and mother were dancing together.

“It makes me a little sad, that,” she said. “Those two hadn’t met for years; both of them were married again and she divorced again. She went to the station to meet him when he came over for Caroline’s wedding, and invited him to stay at her house in the Avenue du Bois with a whole lot of other people, perfectly proper, but he was afraid his wife would hear about it and not like it, so he went to a hotel. Don’t you think that’s sort of sad?”

An hour or so later Michael realized suddenly that it was afternoon. In one corner of the ballroom an arrangement of screens like a moving-picture stage had been set up and photographers were taking official pictures of the bridal party. The bridal party, still as death and pale as wax under the bright lights, appeared, to the dancers circling the modulated semidarkness of the ballroom, like those jovial or sinister groups that one comes upon in The Old Mill at an amusement park.

After the bridal party had been photographed, there was a group of the ushers; then the bridesmaids, the families, the children. Later, Caroline, active and excited, having long since abandoned the repose implicit in her flowing dress and great bouquet, came and plucked Michael off the floor.

“Now we’ll have them take one of just old friends.” Her voice implied that this was best, most intimate of all. “Come here, Jebby, George — not you, Hamilton; this is just my friends — Sally — ”

A little after that, what remained of formality disappeared and the hours flowed easily down the profuse stream of champagne. In the modern fashion, Hamilton Rutherford sat at the table with his arm about an old girl of his and assured his guests, which included not a few bewildered but enthusiastic Europeans, that the party was not nearly at an end; it was to reassemble at Zelli’s after midnight. Michael saw Mrs. Dandy, not quite over her illness, rise to go and become caught in polite group after group, and he spoke of it to one of her daughters, who thereupon forcibly abducted her mother and called her car. Michael felt very considerate and proud of himself after having done this, and drank much more champagne.

“It’s amazing,” George Packman was telling him enthusiastically. “This show will cost Ham about five thousand dollars, and I understand they’ll be just about his last. But did he countermand a bottle of champagne or a flower? Not he! He happens to have it — that young man. Do you know that T. G. Vance offered him a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year ten minutes before the wedding this morning? In another year he’ll be back with the millionaires.”

The conversation was interrupted by a plan to carry Rutherford out on communal shoulders — a plan which six of them put into effect, and then stood in the four-o’clock sunshine waving good-by to the bride and groom. But there must have been a mistake somewhere, for five minutes later Michael saw both bride and groom descending the stairway to the reception, each with a glass of champagne held defiantly on high.

“This is our way of doing things,” he thought. “Generous and fresh and free; a sort of Virginia-plantation hospitality, but at a different pace now, nervous as a ticker tape.”

Standing unself-consciously in the middle of the room to see which was the American ambassador, he realized with a start that he hadn’t really thought of Caroline for hours. He looked about him with a sort of alarm, and then he saw her across the room, very bright and young, and radiantly happy. He saw Rutherford near her, looking at her as if he could never look long enough, and as Michael watched them they seemed to recede as he had wished them to do that day in the Rue de Castiglione — recede and fade off into joys and griefs of their own, into the years that would take the toll of Rutherford’s fine pride and Caroline’s young, moving beauty; fade far away, so that now he could scarcely see them, as if they were shrouded in something as misty as her white, billowing dress.

Michael was cured. The ceremonial function, with its pomp and its revelry, had stood for a sort of initiation into a life where even his regret could not follow them. All the bitterness melted out of him suddenly and the world reconstituted itself out of the youth and happiness that was all around him, profligate as the spring sunshine. He was trying to remember which one of the bridesmaids he had made a date to dine with tonight as he walked forward to bid Hamilton and Caroline Rutherford good-by.


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