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The Hooker-Up-The-Back by Edna Ferber

 

Miss Sadie Corn was not a charmer, but when you handed your room-key to her you found yourself stopping to chat a moment. If you were the right kind you showed her your wife's picture in the front of your watch. If you were the wrong kind, with your scant hair carefully combed to hide the bald spot, you showed her the newspaper clipping that you carried in your vest pocket. Following inspection of the first, Sadie Corn would say: “Now that's what I call a sweet face! How old is the youngest?” Upon perusal the second was returned with dignity and: “Is that supposed to be funny?” In each case Sadie Corn had you placed for life.

She possessed the invaluable gift of the floor clerk, did Sadie Corn—that of remembering names and faces. Though you had registered at the Hotel Magnifique but the night before, for the first time, Sadie Corn would look up at you over her glasses as she laid your key in its proper row, and say: “Good morning, Mr. Schultz! Sleep well?”

“Me!” you would stammer, surprised and gratified. “Me! Fine! H'm—Thanks!” Whereupon you would cross your right foot over your left nonchalantly and enjoy that brief moment's chat with Floor Clerk Number Two. You went back to Ishpeming, Michigan, with three new impressions: The first was that you were becoming a personage of considerable importance. The second was that the Magnifique realised this great truth and was grateful for your patronage. The third was that New York was a friendly little hole after all!

Miss Sadie Corn was dean of the Hotel Magnifique's floor clerks. The primary requisite in successful floor clerkship is homeliness. The second is discreet age. The third is tact. And for the benefit of those who think the duties of a floor clerk end when she takes your key when you leave your room, and hands it back as you return, it may be mentioned that the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh requisites are diplomacy, ingenuity, unlimited patience and a comprehensive knowledge of human nature. Ambassadors have been known to keep their jobs on less than that.

She had come to the Magnifique at thirty-three, a plain, spare, sallow woman, with a quiet, capable manner, a pungent trick of the tongue on occasion, a sparse fluff of pale-coloured hair, and big, bony-knuckled hands, such as you see on women who have the gift of humanness. She was forty-eight now—still plain, still spare, still sallow. Those bony, big-knuckled fingers had handed keys to potentates, and pork-packers, and millinery buyers from Seattle; and to princes incognito, and paupers much the same—the difference being that the princes dressed down to the part, while the paupers dressed up to it.

Time, experience, understanding and the daily dealing with ever-changing humanity had brought certain lines into Sadie Corn's face. So skilfully were they placed that the unobservant put them down as wrinkles on the countenance of a homely, middle-aged woman; but he who read as he ran saw that the lines about the eyes were quizzical, shrewd lines, which come from the practice of gauging character at a glance; that the mouth-markings meant tolerance and sympathy and humour; that the forehead furrows had been carved there by those master chisellers, suffering and sacrifice.

In the last three or four years Sadie Corn had taken to wearing a little lavender-and-white crocheted shawl about her shoulders on cool days, and when Two-fifty-seven, who was a regular, caught his annual heavy cold late in the fall, Sadie would ask him sharply whether he had on his winter flannels. On his replying in the negative she would rebuke him scathingly and demand a bill of sizable denomination; and when her watch was over she would sally forth to purchase four sets of men's winter underwear. As captain of the Magnifique's thirty-four floor clerks Sadie Corn's authority extended from the parlours to the roof, but her especial domain was floor two. Ensconced behind her little desk in a corner, blocked in by mailracks, pantry signals, pneumatic-tube chutes and telephone, with a clear view of the elevators and stairway, Sadie Corn was mistress of the moods, manners and morals of the Magnifique's second floor.

It was six thirty p.m. on Monday of Automobile Show Week when Sadie Corn came on watch. She came on with a lively, well-developed case of neuralgia over her right eye and extending down into her back teeth. With its usual spitefulness the attack had chosen to make its appearance during her long watch. It never selected her short-watch days, when she was on duty only from eleven a.m. until six-thirty p.m.

Now with a peppermint bottle held close to alternately sniffing nostrils Sadie Corn was running her eye over the complex report sheet of the floor clerk who had just gone off watch. The report was even more detailed and lengthy than usual. Automobile Show Week meant that the always prosperous Magnifique was filled to the eaves and turning them away. It meant twice the usual number of inside telephone calls anent rooms too hot, rooms too cold, radiators hammering, radiators hissing, windows that refused to open, windows that refused to shut, packages undelivered, hot water not forthcoming. As the human buffers between guests and hotel management, it was the duty of Sadie Corn and her diplomatic squad to pacify the peevish, to smooth the path of the paying.

Down the hall strolled Donahue, the house detective—Donahue the leisurely. Donahue the keen-eyed, Donahue the guileless—looking in his evening clothes for all the world like a prosperous diner-out. He smiled benignly upon Sadie Corn, and Sadie Corn had the bravery to smile back in spite of her neuralgia, knowing well that men have no sympathy with that anguishing ailment and no understanding of it.

“Everything serene, Miss Corn?” inquired Donahue.

“Everything's serene,” said Sadie Corn. “Though Two-thirty-three telephoned a minute ago to say that if the valet didn't bring his pants from the presser in the next two seconds he'd come down the hall as he is and get 'em. Perhaps you'd better stay round.”

Donahue chuckled and passed on. Half way down the hall he retraced his steps, and stopped again before Sadie Corn's busy desk. He balanced a moment thoughtfully from toe to heel, his chin lifted inquiringly: “Keep your eye on Two-eighteen and Two-twenty-three this morning?”

“Like a lynx!” answered Sadie.

“Anything?”

“Not a thing. I guess they just scraped acquaintance in the Alley after dinner, like they sometimes do. A man with eyelashes like his always speaks to any woman alone who isn't pockmarked and toothless. Two minutes after he's met a girl his voice takes on the 'cello note. I know his kind. Why, say, he even tried waving those eyelashes of his at me first time he turned in his key; and goodness knows I'm so homely that pretty soon I'll be ripe for bachelor floor thirteen. You know as well as I that to qualify for that job a floor clerk's got to look like a gargoyle.”

“Maybe they're all right,” said Donahue thoughtfully. “If it's just a flirtation, why—anyway, watch 'em this evening. The day watch listened in and says they've made some date for to-night.”

He was off down the hall again with his light, quick step that still had the appearance of leisureliness.

The telephone at Sadie's right buzzed warningly. Sadie picked up the receiver and plunged into the busiest half hour of the evening. From that moment until seven o'clock her nimble fingers and eyes and brain and tongue directed the steps of her little world. She held the telephone receiver at one ear and listened to the demands of incoming and outgoing guests with the other. She jotted down reports, dealt out mail and room-keys, kept her neuralgic eye on stairs and elevators and halls, her sound orb on tube and pantry signals, while through and between and above all she guided the stream of humanity that trickled past her desk—bellhops, Polish chambermaids, messenger boys, guests, waiters, parlour maids.

Just before seven there disembarked at floor two out of the cream-and-gold elevator one of those visions that have helped to make Fifth Avenue a street of the worst-dressed women in the world. The vision was Two-eighteen, and her clothes were of the kind that prepared you for the shock that you got when you looked at her face. Plume met fur, and fur met silk, and silk met lace, and lace met gold—and the whole met and ran into a riot of colour, and perfume—and little jangling, swishing sounds. Just by glancing at Two-eighteen's feet in their inadequate openwork silk and soft kid you knew that Two-eighteen's lips would be carmined.

She came down the corridor and stopped at Sadie Corn's desk. Sadie Corn had her key ready for her. Two-eighteen took it daintily between white-gloved fingers.

“I'll want a maid in fifteen minutes,” she said. “Tell them to send me the one I had yesterday. The pretty one. She isn't so clumsy as some.”

Sadie Corn jotted down a note without looking up.

“Oh, Julia? Sorry—Julia's busy,” she lied.

Two-eighteen knew she lied, because at that moment there came round the bend in the broad, marble stairway that led up from the parlour floor the trim, slim figure of Julia herself.

Two-eighteen took a quick step forward. “Here, girl! I'll want you to hook me in fifteen minutes,” she said.

“Very well, ma'am,” replied Julia softly.

There passed between Sadie Corn and Two-eighteen a—well, you could hardly call it a look, it was so fleeting, so ephemeral; that electric, pregnant, meaning something that flashes between two women who dislike and understand each other. Then Two-eighteen was off down the hall to her room.

Julia stood at the head of the stairway just next to Sadie's desk and watched Two-eighteen until the bend in the corridor hid her. Julia, of the lady's-maid staff, could never have qualified for the position of floor clerk, even if she had chosen to bury herself in lavender-and-white crocheted shawls to the tip of her marvellous little Greek nose. In her frilly white cap, her trim black gown, her immaculate collar and cuffs and apron, Julia looked distractingly like the young person who, in the old days of the furniture-dusting drama, was wont to inform you that it was two years since young master went away—all but her feet. The feather-duster person was addicted to French-heeled, beaded slippers. Not so Julia. Julia was on her feet for ten hours or so a day. When you subject your feet to ten-hour tortures you are apt to pass by French-heeled effects in favour of something flat-heeled, laced, with an easy, comfortable crack here and there at the sides, and stockings with white cotton soles.

Julia, at the head of the stairway, stood looking after Two-eighteen until the tail of her silken draperies had whisked round the corner. Then, still staring, Julia spoke resentfully:

“Life for her is just one darned pair of long white kid gloves after another! Look at her! Why is it that kind of a face is always wearing the sables and diamonds?”

“Sables and diamonds,” replied Sadie Corn, sniffing essence of peppermint, “seem a small enough reward for having to carry round a mug like that!”

Julia came round to the front of Sadie Corn's desk. Her eyes were brooding, her lips sullen.

“Oh, I don't know!” she said bitterly. “Being pretty don't get you anything—just being pretty! When I first came I used to wonder at those women that paint their faces and colour their hair, and wear skirts that are too tight and waists that are too low. But—I don't know! This town's so big and so—so kind of uninterested. When you see everybody wearing clothes that are more gorgeous than yours, and diamonds bigger, and limousines longer and blacker and quieter, it gives you a kind of fever. You—you want to make people look at you too.”

Sadie Corn leaned back in her chair. The peppermint bottle was held at her nose. It may have been that which caused her eyes to narrow to mere slits as she gazed at the drooping Julia. She said nothing. Suddenly Julia seemed to feel the silence. She looked down at Sadie Corn. As by a miracle all the harsh, sullen lines in the girl's face vanished, to be replaced by a lovely compassion.

“Your neuralgy again, dearie?” she asked in pretty concern.

Sadie sniffed long and audibly at the peppermint bottle.

“If you ask me I think there's some imp inside of my head trying to push my right eye out with his thumb. Anyway it feels like that.”

“Poor old dear!” breathed Julia. “It's the weather. Have them send you up a pot of black tea.”

“When you've got neuralgy over your right eye,” observed Sadie Corn grimly, “there's just one thing helps—that is to crawl into bed in a flannel nightgown, with the side of your face resting on the red rubber bosom of a hot-water bottle. And I can't do it; so let's talk about something cheerful. Seen Jo to-day?”

There crept into Julia's face a wave of colour—not the pink of pleasure, but the dull red of pain. She looked away from Sadie's eyes and down at her shabby boots. The sullen look was in her face once more.

“No; I ain't seen him,” she said.

“What's the trouble?” Sadie asked.

“I've been busy,” replied Julia airily. Then, with a forced vivacity: “Though it's nothing to Auto Show Week last year. I remember that week I hooked up until my fingers were stiff. You know the way the dresses fastened last winter. Some of 'em ought to have had a map to go by, they were that complicated. And now, just when I've got so's I can hook any dress that was ever intended for the human form—”

“Wasn't it Jo who said they ought to give away an engineering blueprint with every dress, when you told him about the way they hooked?” put in Sadie. “What's the trouble between you and—”

Julia rattled on, unheeding:

“You wouldn't believe what a difference there's been since these new peasant styles have come in! And the Oriental craze! Hook down the side, most of 'em—and they can do 'em themselves if they ain't too fat.”

“Remember Jo saying they ought to have a hydraulic press for some of those skintight dames, when your fingers were sore from trying to squeeze them into their casings? By the way, what's the trouble between you and—”

“Makes an awful difference in my tips!” cut in Julia deftly. “I don't believe I've hooked up six this evening, and two of them sprung the haven't-anything-but-a-five-dollar-bill-see-you-to-morrow! Women are devils! I wish—”

Sadie Corn leaned forward, placed her hand on Julia's arm, and turned the girl about so that she faced her. Julia tried miserably to escape her keen eyes and failed.

“What's the trouble between you and Jo?” she demanded for the fourth time. “Out with it or I'll telephone down to the engine room and ask him myself.”

“Oh, well, if you want to know—” She paused, her eyelids drooping again; then, with a rush: “Me and Jo have quarrelled again—for good, this time. I'm through!”

“What about?”

“I s'pose you'll say I'm to blame. Jo's mother's sick again. She's got to go to the hospital and have another operation. You know what that means—putting off the wedding again until God knows when! I'm sick of it—putting off and putting off! I told him we might as well quit and be done with it. We'll never get married at this rate. Soon's Jo gets enough put by to start us on, something happens. Last three times it's been his ma. Pretty soon I'll be as old and wrinkled and homely as—”

“As me!” put in Sadie calmly. “Well, I don't know's that's the worst thing that can happen to you. I'm happy. I had my plans, too, when I was a girl like you—not that I was ever pretty; but I had my trials. Funny how the thing that's easy and the thing that's right never seem to be the same!”

“Oh, I'm fond of Jo's ma,” said Julia, a little shamefacedly. “We get along all right. She knows how it is, I guess; and feels—well, in the way. But when Jo told me, I was tired I guess. We had words. I told him there were plenty waiting for me if he was through. I told him I could have gone out with a real swell only last Saturday if I'd wanted to. What's a girl got her looks for if not to have a good time?”

“Who's this you were invited out by?” asked Sadie Corn.

“You must have noticed him,” said Julia, dimpling. “He's as handsome as an actor. Name's Venner. He's in two-twenty-three.”

There came the look of steel into Sadie Corn's eyes.

“Look here, Julia! You've been here long enough to know that you're not to listen to the talk of the men guests round here. Two-twenty-three isn't your kind—and you know it! If I catch you talking to him again I'll—”

The telephone at her elbow sounded sharply. She answered it absently, her eyes, with their expression of pain and remonstrance, still unshrinking before the onslaught of Julia's glare. Then her expression changed. A look of consternation came into her face.

“Right away, madam!” she said, at the telephone. “Right away! You won't have to wait another minute.” She hung up the receiver and waved Julia away with a gesture. “It's Two-eighteen. You promised to be there in fifteen minutes. She's been waiting and her voice sounds like a saw. Better be careful how you handle her.”

Julia's head, with its sleek, satiny coils of black hair that waved away so bewitchingly from the cream of her skin, came up with a jerk.

“I'm tired of being careful of other people's feelings. Let somebody be careful of mine for a change.” She walked off down the hall, the little head still held high. A half dozen paces and she turned. “What was it you said you'd do to me if you caught me talking to him again?” she sneered.

A miserable twinge of pain shot through Sadie Corn's eye, to be followed by a wave of nausea that swept over her. They alone were responsible for her answer.

“I'll report you!” she snapped, and was sorry at once.

Julia turned again, walked down the corridor and round the corner in the direction of two-eighteen.

Long after Julia had disappeared Sadie Corn stared after her—miserable, regretful.

Julia knocked once at the door of two-eighteen and turned the knob before a high, shrill voice cried:

“Come!”

Two-eighteen was standing in the centre of the floor in scant satin knickerbockers and tight brassiere. The blazing folds of a cerise satin gown held in her hands made a great, crude patch of colour in the neutral-tinted bedroom. The air was heavy with scent. Hair, teeth, eyes, fingernails—Two-eighteen glowed and glistened. Chairs and bed held odds and ends.

“Where've you been, girl?” shrilled Two-eighteen. “I've been waiting like a fool! I told you to be here in fifteen minutes.”

“My stop-watch isn't working right,” replied Julia impudently and took the cerise satin gown in her two hands.

She made a ring of the gown's opening, and through that cerise frame her eyes met those of Two-eighteen.

“Careful of my hair!” Two-eighteen warned her, and ducked her head to the practised movement of Julia's arms. The cerise gown dropped to her shoulders without grazing a hair. Two-eighteen breathed a sigh of relief. She turned to face the mirror.

“It starts at the left, three hooks; then to the centre; then back four—under the arm and down the middle again. That chiffon comes over like a drape.”

She picked up a buffer from the litter of ivory and silver on the dresser and began to polish her already glittering nails, turning her head this way and that, preening her neck, biting her scarlet lips to deepen their crimson, opening her eyes wide and half closing them languorously. Julia, down on her knees in combat with the trickiest of the hooks, glanced up and saw. Two-eighteen caught the glance in the mirror. She stopped her idle polishing and preening to study the glowing and lovely little face that looked up at her. A certain queer expression grew in her eyes—a speculative, eager look.

“Tell me, little girl,” she said, “What do you do round here?”

Julia turned from the mirror to the last of the hooks, her fingers working nimbly.

“Me? My regular job is working. Don't jerk, please. I've fastened this one three times.”

“Working!” laughed Two-eighteen, fingering the diamonds at her throat. “What does a pretty girl like you want to do that for?”

“Hook off here,” said Julia. “Shall I sew it?”

“Pin it!” snapped Two-eighteen.

Julia's tidy nature revolted.

“It'll take just a minute to catch it with thread—”

Two-eighteen whirled about in one of the sudden hot rages of her kind:

“Pin it, you fool! Pin it! I told you I was late!”

Julia paused a moment, the red surging into her face. Then in silence she knelt and wove a pin deftly in and out. When she rose from her knees her face was quite white.

“There, that's the girl!” said Two-eighteen blithely, her rage forgotten. “Just pat this over my shoulders.”

She handed a powder-puff to Julia and turned her back to the broad mirror, holding a hand-glass high as she watched the powder-laden puff leaving a snowy coat on the neck and shoulders and back so generously displayed in the cherry-coloured gown. Julia's face was set and hard.

“Oh, now, don't sulk!” coaxed Two-eighteen good-naturedly, all of a sudden. “I hate sulky girls. I like people to be cheerful round me.”

“I'm not used to being yelled at,” Julia said resentfully.

Two-eighteen patted her cheek lightly. “You come out with me to-morrow and I'll buy you something pretty. Don't you like pretty clothes?”

“Yes; but—”

“Of course you do. Every girl does—especially pretty ones like you. How do you like this dress? Don't you think it smart?”

She turned squarely to face Julia, trying on her the tricks she had practised in the mirror. A little cruel look came into Julia's face.

“Last year's, isn't it?” she asked coolly.

“This!” cried Two-eighteen, stiffening. “Last year's! I got it yesterday on Fifth Avenue, and paid two hundred and fifty for it. What do you—”

“Oh, I believe you,” drawled Julia. “They can tell a New Yorker from an out-of-towner every time. You know the really new thing is the Bulgarian effect!”

“Well, of all the nerve!” began Two-eighteen, turning to the mirror in a sort of fright. “Of all the—”

What she saw there seemed to reassure. She raised one hand to push the gown a little more off the left shoulder.

“Will there be anything else?” inquired Julia, standing aloof.

Two-eighteen turned reluctantly from the mirror and picked up a jewelled gold-mesh bag that lay on the bed. From it she extracted a coin and held it out to Julia. It was a generous coin. Julia looked at it. Her smouldering wrath burst into flame.

“Keep it!” she said savagely, and was out of the room and down the hall.

Sadie Corn, at her desk, looked up quickly as Julia turned the corner. Julia, her head held high, kept her eyes resolutely away from Sadie.

“Oh, Julia, I want to talk to you!” said Sadie Corn as Julia reached the stairway. Julia began to descend the stairs, unheeding. Sadie Corn rose and leaned over the railing, her face puckered with anxiety. “Now, Julia, girl, don't hold that up against me! I didn't mean it. You know that. You wouldn't be mad at a poor old woman that's half crazy with neuralgy!” Julia hesitated, one foot poised to take the next step. “Come on up,” coaxed Sadie Corn, “and tell me what Two-eighteen's wearing this evening. I'm that lonesome, with nothing to do but sit here and watch the letter-ghosts go flippering down the mailchute! Come on!”

“What made you say you'd report me?” demanded Julia bitterly.

“I'd have said the same thing to my own daughter if I had one. You know yourself I'd bite my tongue out first!”

“Well!” said Julia slowly, and relented. She came up the stairs almost shyly. “Neuralgy any better?”

“Worse!” said Sadie Corn cheerfully.

Julia leaned against the desk sociably and glanced down the hall.

“Would you believe it,” she snickered, “she's wearing red! With that hair! She asked me if I didn't think she looked too pale. I wanted to tell her that if she had any more colour, with that dress, they'd be likely to use the chemical sprinklers on her when she struck the Alley.”

“Sh-sh-sh!” breathed Sadie in warning. Two-eighteen, in her shimmering, flame-coloured costume, was coming down the hall toward the elevators. She walked with the absurd and stumbling step that her scant skirt necessitated. With each pace the slashed silken skirt parted to reveal a shameless glimpse of cerise silk stocking. In her wake came Venner, of Two-twenty-three—a strange contrast in his black and white.

Sadie and Julia watched them from the corner nook. Opposite the desk Two-eighteen stopped and turned to Julia.

“Just run into my room and pick things up and hang them away, will you?” she said. “I didn't have time—and I hate things all about when I come in dead tired.”

The little formula of service rose automatically to Julia's lips.

“Very well, madam,” she said.

Her eyes and Sadie's followed the two figures until they had stepped into the cream-and-gold elevator and had vanished. Sadie, peppermint bottle at nose, spoke first:

“She makes one of those sandwich men with a bell, on Sixth Avenue, look like a shrinking violet!”

Julia's lower lip was caught between her teeth. The scent that had enveloped Two-eighteen as she passed was still in the air. Julia's nostrils dilated as she sniffed it. Her breath came a little quickly. Sadie Corn sat very still, watching her.

“Look at her!” said Julia, her voice vibrant. “Look at her! Old and homely, and all made up! I powdered her neck. Her skin's like tripe.

“Now Julia—” remonstrated Sadie Corn soothingly.

“I don't care,” went on Julia with a rush. “I'm young. And I'm pretty too. And I like pretty things. It ain't fair! That was one reason why I broke with Jo. It wasn't only his mother. I told him he couldn't ever give me the things I want anyway. You can't help wanting 'em—seeing them all round every day on women that aren't half as good-looking as you are! I want low-cut dresses too. My neck's like milk. I want silk underneath, and fur coming up on my coat collar to make my cheeks look pink. I'm sick of hooking other women up. I want to stand in front of a mirror, looking at myself, polishing my pink nails with a silver thing and having somebody else hook me up!”

In Sadie Corn's eyes there was a mist that could not be traced to neuralgia or peppermint.

“Julia, girl,” said Sadie Corn, “ever since the world began there's been hookers and hooked. And there always will be. I was born a hooker. So were you. Time was when I used to cry out against it too. But shucks! I know better now. I wouldn't change places. Being a hooker gives you such an all-round experience like of mankind. The hooked only get a front view. They only see faces and arms and chests. But the hookers—they see the necks and shoulderblades of this world, as well as faces. It's mighty broadening—being a hooker. It's the hookers that keep this world together, Julia, and fastened up right. It wouldn't amount to much if it had to depend on such as that!” She nodded her head in the direction the cerise figure had taken. “The height of her ambition is to get the cuticle of her nails trained back so perfectly that it won't have to be cut; and she don't feel decently dressed to be seen in public unless she's wearing one of those breastplates of orchids. Envy her! Why, Julia, don't you know that as you were standing here in your black dress as she passed she was envying you!”

“Envying me!” said Julia, and laughed a short laugh that had little of mirth in it. “You don't understand, Sadie!”

Sadie Corn smiled a rather sad little smile.

“Oh, yes, I do understand. Don't think because a woman's homely, and always has been, that she doesn't have the same heartaches that a pretty woman has. She's built just the same inside.”

Julia turned her head to stare at her wide-eyed. It was a long and trying stare, as though she now saw Sadie Corn for the first time.

Sadie, smiling up at the girl, stood it bravely. Then, with a sudden little gesture, Julia patted the wrinkled, sallow cheek and was off down the hall and round the corner to two-eighteen.

The lights still blazed in the bedroom. Julia closed the door and stood with her back to it, looking about the disordered chamber. In that marvellous way a room has of reflecting the very personality of its absent owner, room two-eighteen bore silent testimony to the manner of woman who had just left it. The air was close and overpoweringly sweet with perfume—sachet, powder—the scent of a bedroom after a vain and selfish woman has left it. The litter of toilet articles lay scattered about on the dresser. Chairs and bed held garments of lace and silk. A bewildering negligee hung limply over a couch; and next it stood a patent-leather slipper, its mate on the floor.

Julia saw these things in one accustomed glance. Then she advanced to the middle of the room and stooped to pick up a pink wadded bedroom slipper from where it lay under the bed. And her hand touched a coat of velvet and fur that had been flung across the counterpane—touched it and rested there.

The coat was of stamped velvet and fur. Great cuffs of fur there were, and a sumptuous collar that rolled from neck to waist. There was a lining of vivid orange. Julia straightened up and stood regarding the garment, her hands on her hips.

“I wonder if it's draped in the back,” she said to herself, and picked it up. It was draped in the back—bewitchingly. She held it at arm's length, turning it this way and that. Then, as though obeying some powerful force she could not resist, Julia plunged her arms into the satin of the sleeves and brought the great soft revers up about her throat. The great, gorgeous, shimmering thing completely hid her grubby little black gown. She stepped to the mirror and stood surveying herself in a sort of ecstasy. Her cheeks glowed rose-pink against the dark fur, as she had known they would. Her lovely little head, with its coils of black hair, rose flowerlike from the clinging garment. She was still standing there, lips parted, eyes wide with delight, when the door opened and closed—and Venner, of two-twenty-three, strode into the room.

“You little beauty!” exclaimed Two-twenty-three.

Julia had wheeled about. She stood staring at him, eyes and lips wide with fright now. One hand clutched the fur at her breast.

“Why, what—” she gasped.

Two-twenty-three laughed.

“I knew I'd find you here. I made an excuse to come up. Old Nutcracker Face in the hall thinks I went to my own room.” He took two quick steps forward. “You raving little Cinderella beauty, you!”—And he gathered Julia, coat and all, into his arms.

“Let me go!” panted Julia, fighting with all the strength of her young arms. “Let me go!”

“You'll have coats like this,” Two-twenty-three was saying in her ear—“a dozen of them! And dresses too; and laces and furs! You'll be ten times the beauty you are now! And that's saying something. Listen! You meet me to-morrow—”

There came a ring—sudden and startling—from the telephone on the wall near the door. The man uttered something and turned. Julia pushed him away, loosened the coat with fingers that shook and dropped it to the floor. It lay in a shimmering circle about the tired feet in their worn, cracked boots. And one foot was raised suddenly and kicked the silken garment into a heap.

The telephone bell sounded again. Venner, of two-twenty-three, plunged his hand into his pocket, took out something and pressed it in Julia's palm, shutting her fingers over it. Julia did not need to open them and look to see—she knew by the feel of the crumpled paper, stiff and crackling. He was making for the door, with some last instructions that she did not hear, before she spoke. The telephone bell had stopped its insistent ringing.

Julia raised her arm and hurled at him with all her might the yellow-backed paper he had thrust in her hand.

“I'll—I'll get my man to whip you for this!” she panted. “Jo'll pull those eyelashes of yours out and use 'em for couplings. You miserable little—”

The outside door opened again, striking Two-twenty-three squarely in the back. He crumpled up against the wall with an oath.

Sadie Corn, in the doorway, gave no heed to him. Her eyes searched Julia's flushed face. What she saw there seemed to satisfy her. She turned to him then grimly.

“What are you doing here?” Sadie asked briskly.

Two-twenty-three muttered something about the wrong room by mistake. Julia laughed.

“He lies!” she said, and pointed to the floor. “That bill belongs to him.”

Sadie Corn motioned to him.

“Pick it up!” she said.

“I don't—want it!” snarled Two-twenty-three.

“Pick—it—up!” articulated Sadie Corn very carefully. He came forward, stooped, put the bill in his pocket. “You check out to-night!” said Sadie Corn. Then, at a muttered remonstrance from him: “Oh, yes, you will! So will Two-eighteen. Huh? Oh, I guess she will! Say, what do you think a floor clerk's for? A human keyrack? I'll give you until twelve. I'm off watch at twelve-thirty.” Then, to Julia, as he slunk off: “Why didn't you answer the phone? That was me ringing!”

A sob caught Julia in the throat, but she turned it into a laugh.

“I didn't hardly hear it. I was busy promising him a licking from Jo.”

Sadie Corn opened the door.

“Come on down the hall. I've left no one at the desk. It was Jo I was telephoning you for.”

Julia grasped her arm with gripping fingers.

“Jo! He ain't—”

Sadie Corn took the girl's hand in hers.

“Jo's all right! But Jo's mother won't bother you any more, Sadie. You'll never need to give up your housekeeping nest-egg for her again. Jo told me to tell you.”

Julia stared at her for one dreadful moment, her fist, with the knuckles showing white, pressed against her mouth. A little moan came from her that, repeated over and over, took the form of words:

“Oh, Sadie, if I could only take back what I said to Jo! If I could only take back what I said to Jo! He'll never forgive me now! And I'll never forgive myself!”

“He'll forgive you,” said Sadie Corn; “but you'll never forgive yourself. That's as it should be. That, you know, is our punishment for what we say in thoughtlessness and anger.”

They turned the corridor corner. Standing before the desk near the stairway was the tall figure of Donahue, house detective. Donahue had always said that Julia was too pretty to be a hotel employe.

“Straighten up, Julia!” whispered Sadie Corn. “And smile if it kills you—unless you want to make me tell the whole of it to Donahue.”

Donahue, the keen-eyed, balancing, as was his wont, from toe to heel and back again, his chin thrust out inquiringly, surveyed the pair.

“Off watch?” inquired Donahue pleasantly, staring at Julia's eyes. “What's wrong with Julia?”

“Neuralgy!” said Sadie Corn crisply. “I've just told her to quit rubbing her head with peppermint. She's got the stuff into her eyes.”

She picked up the bottle on her desk and studied its label, frowning. “Run along downstairs, Julia. I'll see if they won't send you some hot tea.”

Donahue, hands clasped behind him, was walking off in his leisurely, light-footed way.

“Everything serene?” he called back over his big shoulder.

The neuralgic eye closed and opened, perhaps with another twinge.

“Everything's serene!” said Sadie Corn.

 
 
 

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