Joel could not get to the dinner. Self-conscious in his silk hat against the unemployment, he waited for the others in front of the Hollywood Theatre and watched the evening parade: obscure replicas of bright, particular picture stars, spavined men in polo coats, a stomping dervish with the beard and staff of an apostle, a pair of chic Filipinos in collegiate clothes, reminder that this corner of the Republic opened to the seven seas, a long fantastic carnival of young shouts which proved to be a fraternity initiation. The line split to pass two smart limousines that stopped at the curb.
There she was, in a dress like ice-water, made in a thousand pale-blue pieces, with icicles trickling at the throat. He started forward.
"So you like my dress?"
"He flew to the game after all. He left yesterday morning--at least I think--" She broke off. "I just got a telegram from South Bend saying that he's starting back. I forgot--you know all these people?"
The party of eight moved into the theater.
Miles had gone after all and Joel wondered if he should have come. But during the performance, with Stella a profile under the pure grain of light hair, he thought no more about Miles. Once he turned and looked at her and she looked back at him, smiling and meeting his eyes for as long as he wanted. Between the acts they smoked in the lobby and she whispered:
"They're all going to the opening of Jack Johnson's night club--I don't want to go, do you?"
"Do we have to?"
"I suppose not." She hesitated. "I'd like to talk to you. I suppose we could go to our house--if I were only sure--"
Again she hesitated and Joel asked:
"Sure of what?"
"Sure that--oh, I'm haywire I know, but how can I be sure Miles went to the game?"
"You mean you think he's with Eva Goebel?"
"No, not so much that--but supposing he was here watching everything I do. You know Miles does odd things sometimes. Once he wanted a man with a long beard to drink tea with him and he sent down to the casting agency for one, and drank tea with him all afternoon."
"That's different. He sent you a wire from South Bend--that proves he's at the game."
After the play they said good night to the others at the curb and were answered by looks of amusement. They slid off along the golden garish thoroughfare through the crowd that had gathered around Stella.
"You see he could arrange the telegrams," Stella said, "very easily."
That was true. And with the idea that perhaps her uneasiness was justified, Joel grew angry: if Miles had trained a camera on them he felt no obligations toward Miles. Aloud he said:
There were Christmas trees already in the shop windows and the full moon over the boulevard was only a prop, as scenic as the giant boudoir lamps of the corners. On into the dark foliage of Beverly Hills that flamed as eucalyptus by day, Joel saw only the flash of a white face under his own, the arc of her shoulder. She pulled away suddenly and looked up at him.
"Your eyes are like your mother's," she said. "I used to have a scrap book full of pictures of her."
"Your eyes are like your own and not a bit like any other eyes," he answered.
Something made Joel look out into the grounds as they went into the house, as if Miles were lurking in the shrubbery. A telegram waited on the hall table. She read aloud:
"You see," she said, throwing the slip back on the table, "he could easily have faked that." She asked the butler for drinks and sandwiches and ran upstairs, while Joel walked into the empty reception rooms. Strolling about he wandered to the piano where he had stood in disgrace two Sundays before.
"Then we could put over," he said aloud, "a story of divorce, the younger generators and the Foreign Legion."
His thoughts jumped to another telegram.
"You were one of the most agreeable people at our party--"
An idea occurred to him. If Stella's telegram had been purely a gesture of courtesy then it was likely that Miles had inspired it, for it was Miles who had invited him. Probably Miles had said:
"Send him a wire--he's miserable--he thinks he's queered himself."
It fitted in with "I've influenced Stella in everything. Especially I've influenced her so that she likes all the men I like." A woman would do a thing like that because she felt sympathetic--only a man would do it because he felt responsible.
When Stella came back into the room he took both her hands.
"I have a strange feeling that I'm a sort of pawn in a spite game you're playing against Miles," he said.
"Help yourself to a drink."
"And the odd thing is that I'm in love with you anyhow."
The telephone rang and she freed herself to answer it.
"Another wire from Miles," she announced. "He dropped it, or it says he dropped it, from the airplane at Kansas City."
"I suppose he asked to be remembered to me."
"No, he just said he loved me. I believe he does. He's so very weak."
"Come sit beside me," Joel urged her.
It was early. And it was still a few minutes short of midnight a half-hour later, when Joel walked to the cold hearth, and said tersely:
"Meaning that you haven't any curiosity about me?"
"Not at all. You attract me a lot and you know it. The point is that I suppose I really do love Miles."
"And tonight I feel uneasy about everything."
He wasn't angry--he was even faintly relieved that a possible entanglement was avoided. Still as he looked at her, the warmth and softness of her body thawing her cold blue costume, he knew she was one of the things he would always regret.
"I've got to go," he said. "I'll phone a taxi."
"Nonsense--there's a chauffeur on duty."
He winced at her readiness to have him go, and seeing this she kissed him lightly and said, "You're sweet, Joel." Then suddenly three things happened: he took down his drink at a gulp, the phone rang loud through the house and a clock in the hall struck in trumpet notes.