The Expert Lover

Clark Ashton Smith

"Tom is terribly in love with you, Dora. He'd stand on his head in a thistle-patch if you told him to. You won't find a better provider in Auburn. [With that job of his, he's as good as Government bonds.]"

"Yes, I know Tom is fond of me [and I know he has a good position at the P. G. & E.]. But, Annabelle, he is such a complete dud when it comes to love-making. All he can say is: 'Gee, but you're pretty, Dora,' or: 'I'm sure crazy about you,' or: 'Dora, you're the only girl for me.'"

"I suppose Tom isn't much on romantic conversation. But what do you expect? Most men aren't."

"Well," sighed Dora, impatiently, "I'd really like a little romance. And I can't see it in Tom. He's about as romantic as potatoes with onions. Everything about him is so obvious and commonplace --- even his name. And when he tries to hug me, he makes me think of a grocer grabbing a sack of flour."

"All the same, there are worse fish in the sea, dearie."

Dora Cahill, a dreamy-looking blonde, and her bosom-friend, Annabelle Rivers, a vivacious and alert brunette, were sitting out a dance at Rock Creek hall. Tom Masters, the object of their discussion, who was Dora's escort, had been sent off to dance with one of the wallflowers. Dora was a little tired, and, as usual, more than a little bored . She knew that Tom's eyes, eager and imploring, were often upon her as he whirled past in the throng on the dance-floor; but vouchsafing him only an occasional languid glance, she continued to chat with Annabelle.

"I wish I could meet a real lover," she mused — "someone with snap and verve and technique — someone who was eloquent and poetic and persuasive, and could carry me away, in spite of myself."

"That kind has usually had a lot of practice," warned Annabelle. "And practice means that they have the habit."

"Well, I'd rather have a Don Juan than a dumbbell."

"You can take your choice, dear. Personally, I'd prefer something dependable and solid, even if he didn't scintillate."

"Pardon me, Miss Cahill." The two girls looked up. The speaker was Jack Barnes, a man who Dora knew slightly; another man, whom she was sure she had never seen before, stood beside him.

"Permit me to introduce my friend, Mr. Colin — Lancelot Colin," said Barnes. Dora's eyes met the eyes of the stranger, and she acknowledged the introduction, a little breathlessly. Her first thought was: "What a heavenly name!" and then: "What a heavenly man!" Mr. Colin, who stood bowing with a perfect suavity and an ease that was Continental rather than American, was really enough to have taken away the breath of more than one girl with romantic susceptibilities. He was dark and immaculate, with the figure of a soldier and the face of an artist. There was in indefinite air of gallantry about him, a sense of mystery, of ardour and poetry. Dora contrasted him with Tom, who was broad and ruddy, and about whom there was nothing to excite one's imagination or tease one's curiosity. She was frankly thrilled.

Annabelle was now included in the introduction, but, beyond a courteous murmur of acknowledgment, the newcomer seemed to show no interest in her. His eyes, large and full-lidded, with a hint of weariness and sophistication in their brown depths, were fixed with a sparkling intensity upon Dora.

"May I have the pleasure of dancing with you, Miss Cahill?" His voice, a musical and vibrant baritone, completed the impression of a consummately romantic personality.

Dora consented, without her usual languid hesitation, and found herself instantly whirled away in the paces of a fox-trot. She decided at once that Mr. Colin was a superb dancer; also that he was what is commonly known as a "quick worker," for no sooner were they on the floor than he murmured in her ear:

"You look as if you had just stepped out of a bower of roses. I've been watching you all evening, and I simply had to know you."

"There really isn't much about me that is worth knowing." Dora gave him her demurest smile.

"Ah! but you are wonderful!" rhapsodized Mr. Colin. "Your eyes are the blue of mountain lakes under a vernal sky, your cheeks are softer than wild rose petals. And you dance like a dryad in the April woods."

He continued in the same strain, so eloquently and to such good effect that Dora was convinced by the end of the dance that she had found the expert lover from whom she had been expressing her desire to Annabelle only a few minutes before. When the music stopped, and Mr. Colin suggested that they go for a few minutes' stroll in the moonlight, she assented readily, and she did not even notice the disconsolate Tom, who followed them with a look of glum and glowering astonishment.

Outside, the large and mellow moon of a California May was just freeing itself from the tree-tops. Automobiles were parked all about the country dance-hall, and in some of them low murmurs and laughter were audible.

"We could sit in my car," observed Mr. Colin, pointing out a stylish roadster. "But you'd rather take a little walk, wouldn't you? It would be more romantic, somehow."

He had accurately gauged her preferences, for Dora had a poetic streak in her nature, and loved moonlight and idyllic surroundings. When they paused, a minute later, in a grassy meadow encircled by oaks and alders, she felt that one of her dearest dreams was coming true. How often she had pictured to herself a moonlight stroll with a handsome and fervent and eloquent lover!

"I adore you! I loved you madly from the very first moment that I saw you tonight!" There was a convincing ardor in his low tones, and Dora thrilled.

"But how can you? You don't know anything about me." Dora made the usual feminine demurs. She was already more than half in love with Mr. Colin, and wholly in love with romance; but she knew, or had been told, that men were prone to despise immediate conquest or concession.

He caught her in his arms, pouring out passionate and half-incoherent words, and would have kissed her; but she turned her lips aside and resisted firmly; and after a little he did not persist. He was learned in the ways and reactions of women, and he knew that it was something more than the moonlight that had softened her lips and brightened her eyes. He could afford to wait. So he contented himself with taking her hand and pressing his lips to it with a fervor and a courtliness of gesture that were new to Dora's experience. From that moment she adored him.

Both were a little silent as they returned to the dance-hall. But the air was full of vibrant potentialities, of things unsaid and undone as yet, but not to be long deferred. Another fox-trot, and still another, in the course of which Mr. Colin managed to say some more charming things.

"Will you go riding with me tomorrow afternoon?" he queried. "More than one nook of Arcady could be explored in an afternoon."

"Yes," breathed Dora, assenting to the observation as well as to the question.

It was now late in the evening, and the gay throng of dancers and onlookers had begun to thin out.

"It is time for me to go home," said Dora, "so I'll have to say good-night." She had become aware, as one who awakens partially from a blissful dream, that Tom was hovering gloomily somewhere in the near background.

"I wish that tonight were eternal — or that it were already tomorrow," murmured Mr. Colin, with a gallant bow and a glance full of ardor and passion that caused Dora to flush and the waiting Tom to grit his teeth quite audibly.

"Say, who is that fellow anyway?" Tom demanded when he and Dora were seated in his Buick and were on their way back to Auburn.

"A Mr. Lancelot Colin." For ears duller even than Tom's, the unwonted warmth and softness of her tone would have betrayed something of the inward thrill with which she uttered the syllables.

"Never heard of him. Must be a newcomer," Tom snorted, and stepped on the gas. The way in which the car leapt forward was more eloquent of his mood than many words. He said nothing more till they were inside the town limits. Then:

"Do you like him?" he snapped.

"Very much." Dora's tone was sweet and tranquil. She ignored Tom's bruskness. Her thoughts were far away, in a delicious land of glamour and romance and perpetual moonlight.

Tom relapsed into sulky silence, and nothing more was said till they stopped in front of Dora's home.

"Tomorrow is Sunday," Tom observed. "What are you planning to do? I'd like to take you for a drive."

"I'm sorry, Tom, but I've already made an engagement."

"With that Colin bird, I suppose."

"Tom, you are really quite rude tonight."

"Sorry," he grumbled, in a tone that was scarcely apologetic. "Well, I guess I'd better be going. Good night." And he drove away at a speed that was somewhat in excess of the official limit.

Sunday morning came and passed for Dora in a mellow haze of sunlit dreams, of golden glowing anticipations. With the early afternoon arrived Mr. Colin, in his roadster. Dora was in the front yard among her mother's roses when he drove up and got out, immaculately dressed as on the previous evening, and, to Dora's romantic eyes, even more handsome and dashing.

"I suspected that you dwelt among roses," he said, as he came up the garden walk and bowed in his courtier fashion. "Now I know it.

"Dora dimpled. "Who taught you to be so gallant, kind sir?"

"You have taught me—you alone."

"I don't see how I could teach anything to anyone."

"You can inspire — and that is the best kind of teaching."

"You must come in and meet my parents," said Dora, a little later. "You can talk to them while I powder my nose."

Dora's mother and father, both stout and staid and placidly middle-aged, gave Mr. Colin a welcome that was tinged with little more than the usual amount of interest that they manifested toward her beaux. For them, he was merely one more possible suitor of a girl who seemed uncommonly "choosy" and difficult to marry off. Perceiving that he was handsome, obviously a gentleman, and apparently well-to-do, they surveyed him with a regard that was hopeful rather than otherwise — but not too hopeful.

"Mr. Colin is going to take me for a ride," announced Dora. She went upstairs to perform the perennial feminine rite of re-powdering her nose, which, to a superficial masculine eye, would have seemed little in need of such ministrations. When she returned, Mr. Colin was chatting agreeably and successfully with her parents, who appeared to look upon him with increased favor. It was evident that he was really a clever young man.

When they were seated in the roadster, he said with a mysterious air: "I know a perfectly wonderful place where I shall take you. But you aren't to know where it is beforehand."

"How heavenly!" breathed Dora. "I'm sure it will be wonderful." "For me, any place would be fairyland with you. But when one can have the ideal companion and the ideal setting, then true perfection is to be attained. Life can offer no more."

He turned the car northward on the Colfax road. As they drove along, she turned the conversation to himself with feminine deftness. He told her that he had artistic ambitions, possessed independent means, and had come to Auburn with the idea of painting a few landscapes of the local scenery, which he had visited and explored years before and of which he had become much enamored. He was from San Francisco, where his people lived. His father, he explained, was a wealthy realtor and was none too favorably disposed toward his artistic ambitions. His mother, however, was on his side.

Dora was fascinated. She had never known an artist, and all that Mr. Colin told her served to confirm the romantic interest that he had aroused.

"Well, I think that's really enough about myself," he laughed. "Now let's talk about something worth while." He began to ply her with compliments, which, to Dora's ear, were marvelously poetic; but, for the time, he did not speak of the passion he had avowed on the previous evening.

Now they had left the highway and were traveling a narrow side-road that ran toward Bear River. This was soon abandoned for a still narrower road that turned and twisted among brush-oak, chaparral and manzanita. Presently Mr. Colin turned the car aside in a grassy meadow, in front of a grove of tall pines. Except for the road, there was no trace of human life.

They left the car and plunged into the pine grove for several hundred yards. Suddenly, and, for Dora, quite unexpectedly, they came upon a little glade in which there grew a solitary redwood. Here they might have been a hundred miles from civilization, in the midst of the primeval mountain forest, for any evidence to the contrary. Sunlight sifted goldenly through the pine-tops, and a jay scolded them from somewhere in the dark-green branches. Dora exclaimed with delight.

There was a fallen log at hand to provide them with a seat, and of this they availed themselves at Mr. Colin's suggestion.

"Do you like this?" The very tone of his query was a caress.

"I adore it."

"And I adore you. Say that you love me a little, Dora."

"I like you very much."

"Can't you do better than that?" He was very close beside her and his breath was in her hair as she half-averted her face, fearing that he would see the traitorous softness of her eyes, the tender flush of her cheeks.

"We hardly know each other, Lancelot."

"I know you well enough to realize that no one else could ever make me feel what I feel for you." His arm was about her now, and she did not resist. She had intended to make him wait, to prolong the wooing; but now, in a flash, her will to do so had fled, and all her thoughts seemed to dissolve in a delicious langour.

With a gentle hand he turned her face toward him, and kissed her — a long, passionate, full-blooded kiss, that seemed as if it could never end. Finally she withdrew her lips and hid her face against his shoulder.

"Do you love me?" he whispered, almost fiercely.

"Yes, I love you."

Two weeks had passed for Dora in a golden and fire-shot mist of romance. At first she was very happy, with the sensation of treading on air that sometimes accompanies the first stages of a great emotion. There were many long walks, rides and cosy evenings with Mr. Colin, who was manifestly a model of devotion and ardor. For some reason, which he told her he would explain later, he had wished to delay the announcement of their engagement; and he had hinted that it would be at least a year before he would be in a position to marry. This had not troubled her — she had been too happy not to trust her lover implicitly. But of late he had appeared self-absorbed and not quite so unfailingly attentive as at first. She wondered, anxiously, if he were growing a little tired. Even when he told her that he was at work upon a new painting, which he hoped would mark a real achievement, she was not entirely reassured. She had seen some of his pictures — amateurish watercolors, not lacking in a certain shallow feeling for tonal harmony — and had thought them quite wonderful. She tried to content herself with his explanation, reflecting that an artist must work, after all, even if he were in love.

One day, in the Auburn post-office, she came upon Mr. Colin chatting gaily with her friend Annabelle, who was smiling at him with all of her wonted animation. Dora was a little surprised, remembering that he had shown no interest in that vivacious brunette on the evening when they had met at Rock Creek. Absorbed entirely in her lover, she had seen little of Annabelle since that occasion.

"Hello, dearie," warbled Annabelle. "I was just asking Mr. Colin what had become of you. You and he seem to have pre-empted each other entirely, and no one else has a look-in."

"I have been busy," said Dora, vaguely.

"I know all about that," laughed Annabelle. "I'll say you have. Well, so long." She walked away with a mirthful glance that included both, but lingered somehow a little longer upon Mr. Colin than upon Dora.

"Since when have you been chumming with Annabelle?" Dora turned to her lover with mock-earnestness.

"I'd hardly call it that." His tone was negligent. "She asked me about you, and I was trying to be civil. She's really quite amusing, though."

Dora thought little of the incident; but one afternoon, a few days later, it occurred to her that she would really like to see Annabelle; also, that Annabelle might well be feeling neglected. She was still vaguely discontented, and troubled by Mr. Colin's fits of preoccupation and by something that was almost absent-minded about his kisses and gallantries. She felt the need of renewing her old friendship with Annabelle, who had always cheered her in hours of depression or boredom.

The Rivers home was on the other side of Auburn from where Dora lived. She sauntered slowly through the winding streets under the shade of elms and maples and eucalypti, and went in at the familiar picket-gate . She was going down the garden-path to the house when she heard Annabelle's voice nearby, in an arbor that was thickly covered with Cherokee rose-vines, now in full flower. She could not see Annabelle or her companion, but the words came clearly:

"I thought you were in love with Dora .... Now behave... or I'll tell on you." There followed a voluptuous giggle, and then the voice of a man, Mr. Colin's vibrant baritone:

"Your lips are too sweet for anything but kisses. You look as if you had always lived in a rose-arbor."

"If Dora heard you say that .... "

"Why be always mentioning Dora, when we have you to talk about?

.. And when there are better things to do even than talk?"

"Now you behave... or …"The sentence was cut short by the unmistakable sound of a kiss.

Dora had the sensation of stumbling blindly among ashes and ruins when she left the garden of Annabelle's home. By an automatic rather than conscious impulse she closed the gate behind her as quietly as she could. Her throat was dry, and she could scarcely control the tears that welled beneath her eyelids. Somehow, she reached her home, and flung herself on the sofa in the sitting-room.

She began to weep. Her parents were away, and for this she was vaguely thankful. No one would see her in the first overwhelming shock of her grief and disillusionment.

An hour later the telephone rang, and she sprang automatically to answer it. The voice was that of Tom Masters, whose occasional gruff but recurrent invitations she had refused ever since her meeting with Mr. Colin.

"Say, Dora, how about the dance at Rock Creek next Saturday night?" There was an almost forlorn stubbornness in his tone. "I thought I'd ring up and ask."

"Oh, all right, Tom, I guess I can go with you."

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.

Bibliographic Citation

Top of Page