The Camel's Back by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The scene that followed will go down forever in the annals of the Tallyho Club. Stout matrons fainted, one hundred per cent Americans swore, wild-eyed débutantes babbled in lightning groups instantly formed and instantly dissolved, and a great buzz of chatter, virulent yet oddly subdued, hummed through the chaotic ballroom. Feverish youths swore they would kill Perry or Jumbo or themselves or some one, and the Baptis' preacheh was besieged by a tempestuous covey of clamorous amateur lawyers, asking questions, making threats, demanding precedents, ordering the bonds annulled, and especially trying to ferret out any hint of prearrangement in what had occurred.
In the corner Mrs. Townsend was crying softly on the shoulder of Mr. Howard Tate, who was trying vainly to comfort her; they were exchanging "all my fault's" volubly and voluminously. Outside on a snow-covered walk Mr. Cyrus Medill, the Aluminum Man, was being paced slowly up and down between two brawny charioteers, giving vent now to a string of unrepeatables, now to wild pleadings that they'd just let him get at Jumbo. He was facetiously attired for the evening as a wild man of Borneo, and the most exacting stage-manager would have acknowledged any improvement in casting the part to be quite impossible.
Meanwhile the two principals held the real centre of the stage. Betty Medill--or was it Betty Parkhurst?--storming furiously, was surrounded by the plainer girls--the prettier ones were too busy talking about her to pay much attention to her--and over on the other side of the hall stood the camel, still intact except for his headpiece, which dangled pathetically on his chest. Perry was earnestly engaged in making protestations of his innocence to a ring of angry, puzzled men. Every few minutes, just as he had apparently proved his case, some one would mention the marriage certificate, and the inquisition would begin again.
A girl named Marion Cloud, considered the second best belle of Toledo, changed the gist of the situation by a remark she made to Betty.
"Well," she said maliciously, "it'll all blow over, dear. The courts will annul it without question."
Betty's angry tears dried miraculously in her eyes, her lips shut tight together, and she looked stonily at Marion. Then she rose and, scattering her sympathizers right and left, walked directly across the room to Perry, who stared at her in terror. Again silence crept down upon the room.
"Will you have the decency to grant me five minutes' conversation--or wasn't that included in your plans?"
He nodded, his mouth unable to form words.
Indicating coldly that he was to follow her she walked out into the hall with her chin uptilted and headed for the privacy of one of the little card-rooms.
Perry started after her, but was brought to a jerky halt by the failure of his hind legs to function.
"You stay here!" he commanded savagely.
"I can't," whined a voice from the hump, "unless you get out first and let me get out."
Perry hesitated, but unable any longer to tolerate the eyes of the curious crowd he muttered a command and the camel moved carefully from the room on its four legs.
Betty was waiting for him.
"Well," she began furiously, "you see what you've done! You and that crazy license! I told you you shouldn't have gotten it!"
"My dear girl, I--"
"Don't say 'dear girl' to me! Save that for your real wife if you ever get one after this disgraceful performance. And don't try to pretend it wasn't all arranged. You know you gave that colored waiter money! You know you did! Do you mean to say you didn't try to marry me?"
"Yes, you'd better admit it! You tried it, and now what are you going to do? Do you know my father's nearly crazy? It'll serve you right if he tries to kill you. He'll take his gun and put some cold steel in you. Even if this wed--this thing can be annulled it'll hang over me all the rest of my life!"
Perry could not resist quoting softly: "'Oh, camel, wouldn't you like to belong to the pretty snake-charmer for all your--"
"Shut-up!" cried Betty.
There was a pause.
"Betty," said Perry finally, "there's only one thing to do that will really get us out clear. That's for you to marry me."
"Yes. Really it's the only--"
"You shut up! I wouldn't marry you if--if--"
"I know. If I were the last man on earth. But if you care anything about your reputation--"
"Reputation!" she cried. "You're a nice one to think about my reputation now. Why didn't you think about my reputation before you hired that horrible Jumbo to--to--"
Perry tossed up his hands hopelessly.
"Very well. I'll do anything you want. Lord knows I renounce all claims!"
"But," said a new voice, "I don't."
Perry and Betty started, and she put her hand to her heart.
"For Heaven's sake, what was that?"
"It's me," said the camel's back.
In a minute Perry had whipped off the camel's skin, and a lax, limp object, his clothes hanging on him damply, his hand clenched tightly on an almost empty bottle, stood defiantly before them.
"Oh," cried Betty, "you brought that object in here to frighten me! You told me he was deaf--that awful person!"
The camel's back sat down on a chair with a sigh of satisfaction.
"Don't talk 'at way about me, lady. I ain't no person. I'm your husband."
The cry was wrung simultaneously from Betty and Perry.
"Why, sure. I'm as much your husband as that gink is. The smoke didn't marry you to the camel's front. He married you to the whole camel. Why, that's my ring you got on your finger!"
With a little yelp she snatched the ring from her finger and flung it passionately at the floor.
"What's all this?" demanded Perry dazedly.
"Jes' that you better fix me an' fix me right. If you don't I'm a-gonna have the same claim you got to bein' married to her!"
"That's bigamy," said Perry, turning gravely to Betty.
Then came the supreme moment of Perry's evening, the ultimate chance on which he risked his fortunes. He rose and looked first at Betty, where she sat weakly, aghast at this new complication, and then at the individual who swayed from side to side on his chair, uncertainly, menacingly.
"Very well," said Perry slowly to the individual, "you can have her. Betty, I'm going to prove to you that as far as I'm concerned our marriage was entirely accidental. I'm going to renounce utterly my rights to have you as my wife, and give you to--to the man whose ring you wear--your lawful husband."
There was a pause and four horror-stricken eyes were turned on him,
"Good-by, Betty," he said brokenly. "Don't forget me in your new-found happiness. I'm going to leave for the Far West on the morning train. Think of me kindly, Betty."
With a last glance at them he turned and his head rested on his chest as his hand touched the door-knob.
"Good-by," he repeated. He turned the door-knob.
But at this sound the snakes and silk and tawny hair precipitated themselves violently toward him.
"Oh, Perry, don't leave me! Perry, Perry, take me with you!"
Her tears flowed damply on his neck. Calmly he folded his arms about her.
"I don't care," she cried. "I love you and if you can wake up a minister at this hour and have it done over again I'll go West with you."
Over her shoulder the front part of the camel looked at the back part of the camel--and they exchanged a particularly subtle, esoteric sort of wink that only true camels can understand.