That's Marriage by Edna Ferber
Theresa Platt (she that had been Terry Sheehan) watched her husband
across the breakfast table with eyes that smouldered. When a woman's
eyes smoulder at 7.30 a.m. the person seated opposite her had better
look out. But Orville Platt was quite unaware of any smouldering in
progress. He was occupied with his eggs. How could he know that these
very eggs were feeding the dull red menace in Terry Platt's eyes?
When Orville Platt ate a soft-boiled egg he concentrated on it. He
treated it as a great adventure. Which, after all, it is. Few adjuncts
of our daily life contain the element of chance that is to be found in
a three-minute breakfast egg.
This was Orville Platt's method of attack: First, he chipped off the
top, neatly. Then he bent forward and subjected it to a passionate and
relentless scrutiny. Straightening—preparatory to plunging his spoon
therein—he flapped his right elbow. It wasn't exactly a flap; it was a
pass between a hitch and a flap, and presented external evidence of a
mental state. Orville Platt always gave that little preliminary jerk
when he was contemplating a step, or when he was moved, or
argumentative. It was a trick as innocent as it was maddening.
Terry Platt had learned to look for that flap—they had been married
four years—to look for it, and to hate it with a morbid, unreasoning
hate. That flap of the elbow was tearing Terry Platt's nerves into raw,
Her fingers were clenched tightly under the table, now. She was
breathing unevenly. “If he does that again,” she told herself, “if he
flaps again when he opens the second egg, I'll scream. I'll scream.
I'll scream! I'll sc—”
He had scooped the first egg into his cup. Now he picked up the
second, chipped it, concentrated, straightened, then—up went the
elbow, and down, with the accustomed little flap.
The tortured nerves snapped. Through the early morning quiet of
Wetona, Wisconsin, hurtled the shrill, piercing shriek of Terry Platt's
“Terry! For God's sake! What's the matter!”
Orville Platt dropped the second egg, and his spoon. The egg yolk
trickled down his plate. The spoon made a clatter and flung a gay spot
of yellow on the cloth. He started toward her.
Terry, wild-eyed, pointed a shaking finger at him. She was laughing,
now, uncontrollably. “Your elbow! Your elbow!”
“Elbow?” He looked down at it, bewildered; then up, fright in his
face. “What's the matter with it?”
She mopped her eyes. Sobs shook her. “You f-f-flapped it.”
“F-f-f—” The bewilderment in Orville Platt's face gave way to
anger. “Do you mean to tell me that you screeched like that because
my—because I moved my elbow?”
His anger deepened and reddened to fury. He choked. He had started
from his chair with his napkin in his hand. He still clutched it. Now
he crumpled it into a wad and hurled it to the centre of the table,
where it struck a sugar bowl, dropped back, and uncrumpled slowly,
reprovingly. “You—you—” Then bewilderment closed down again like a
fog over his countenance. “But why? I can't see—”
“Because it—because I can't stand it any longer. Flapping. This is
what you do. Like this.”
And she did it. Did it with insulting fidelity, being a clever
“Well, all I can say is you're crazy, yelling like that, for
“It isn't nothing.”
“Isn't, huh? If that isn't nothing, what is?” They were growing
incoherent. “What d'you mean, screeching like a maniac? Like a wild
woman? The neighbours'll think I've killed you. What d'you mean,
“I mean I'm tired of watching it, that's what. Sick and tired.”
“Y'are, huh? Well, young lady, just let me tell you
He told her. There followed one of those incredible quarrels, as
sickening as they are human, which can take place only between two
people who love each other; who love each other so well that each knows
with cruel certainty the surest way to wound the other; and who stab,
and tear, and claw at these vulnerable spots in exact proportion to
Ugly words. Bitter words. Words that neither knew they knew flew
between them like sparks between steel striking steel.
From him—“Trouble with you is you haven't got enough to do. That's
the trouble with half you women. Just lay around the house, rotting.
I'm a fool, slaving on the road to keep a good-for-nothing—”
“I suppose you call sitting around hotel lobbies slaving! I suppose
the house runs itself! How about my evenings? Sitting here alone, night
after night, when you're on the road.”
Finally, “Well, if you don't like it,” he snarled, and lifted his
chair by the back and slammed it down, savagely, “if you don't like it,
why don't you get out, h'm? Why don't you get out?”
And from her, her eyes narrowed to two slits, her cheeks scarlet:
“Why, thanks. I guess I will.”
Ten minutes later he had flung out of the house to catch the 8.19
for Manitowoc. He marched down the street, his shoulders swinging
rhythmically to the weight of the burden he carried—his black leather
hand-bag and the shiny tan sample case, battle-scarred, both, from many
encounters with ruthless porters and 'bus men and bell boys. For four
years, as he left for his semi-monthly trip, he and Terry had observed
a certain little ceremony (as had the neighbours). She would stand in
the doorway watching him down the street, the heavier sample-case
banging occasionally at his shin. The depot was only three blocks away.
Terry watched him with fond, but unillusioned eyes, which proves that
she really loved him. He was a dapper, well-dressed fat man, with a
weakness for pronounced patterns in suitings, and addicted to brown
derbies. One week on the road, one week at home. That was his routine.
The wholesale grocery trade liked Platt, and he had for his customers
the fondness that a travelling salesman has who is successful in his
territory. Before his marriage to Terry Sheehan his little red address
book had been overwhelming proof against the theory that nobody loves a
Terry, standing in the doorway, always knew that when he reached the
corner, just where Schroeder's house threatened to hide him from view,
he would stop, drop the sample case, wave his hand just once, pick up
the sample case and go on, proceeding backward for a step or two, until
Schroeder's house made good its threat. It was a comic scene in the
eyes of the onlooker, perhaps because a chubby Romeo offends the sense
of fitness. The neighbours, lurking behind their parlour curtains, had
laughed at first. But after awhile they learned to look for that little
scene, and to take it unto themselves, as if it were a personal thing.
Fifteen-year wives whose husbands had long since abandoned flowery
farewells used to get a vicarious thrill out of it, and to eye Terry
with a sort of envy.
This morning Orville Platt did not even falter when he reached
Schroeder's corner. He marched straight on, looking steadily ahead, the
heavy bags swinging from either hand. Even if he had stopped—though
she knew he wouldn't—Terry Platt would not have seen him. She remained
seated at the disordered breakfast table, a dreadfully still figure,
and sinister; a figure of stone and fire; of ice and flame. Over and
over in her mind she was milling the things she might have said to him,
and had not. She brewed a hundred vitriolic cruelties that she might
have flung in his face. She would concoct one biting brutality, and
dismiss it for a second, and abandon that for a third. She was too
angry to cry—a dangerous state in a woman. She was what is known as
cold mad, so that her mind was working clearly and with amazing
swiftness, and yet as though it were a thing detached; a thing that was
no part of her.
She sat thus for the better part of an hour, motionless except for
one forefinger that was, quite unconsciously, tapping out a popular and
cheap little air that she had been strumming at the piano the evening
before, having bought it down town that same afternoon. It had struck
Orville's fancy, and she had played it over and over for him. Her right
forefinger was playing the entire tune, and something in the back of
her head was following it accurately, though the separate thinking
process was going on just the same. Her eyes were bright, and wide, and
hot. Suddenly she became conscious of the musical antics of her finger.
She folded it in with its mates, so that her hand became a fist. She
stood up and stared down at the clutter of the breakfast table. The
egg—that fateful second egg—had congealed to a mottled mess of yellow
and white. The spoon lay on the cloth. His coffee, only half consumed,
showed tan with a cold grey film over it. A slice of toast at the left
of his plate seemed to grin at her with the semi-circular wedge that he
had bitten out of it.
Terry stared down at this congealing remnant. Then she laughed, a
hard, high little laugh, pushed a plate away contemptuously with her
hand, and walked into the sitting room. On the piano was the piece of
music (Bennie Gottschalk's great song hit, “Hicky Bloo") which she had
been playing the night before. She picked it up, tore it straight
across, once, placed the pieces back to back and tore it across again.
Then she dropped the pieces to the floor.
“You bet I'm going,” she said, as though concluding a train of
thought. “You just bet I'm going. Right now!”
And Terry went. She went for much the same reason as that given by
the ladye of high degree in the old English song—she who had left her
lord and bed and board to go with the raggle-taggle gipsies-O! The
thing that was sending Terry Platt away was much more than a conjugal
quarrel precipitated by a soft-boiled egg and a flap of the arm. It
went so much deeper that if psychology had not become a cant word we
might drag it into the explanation. It went so deep that it's necessary
to delve back to the days when Theresa Platt was Terry Sheehan to get
the real significance of it, and of the things she did after she went.
When Mrs. Orville Platt had been Terry Sheehan she had played the
piano, afternoons and evenings, in the orchestra of the Bijou theatre,
on Cass street, Wetona, Wisconsin. Any one with a name like Terry
Sheehan would, perforce, do well anything she might set out to do.
There was nothing of genius in Terry, but there was something of fire,
and much that was Irish. The combination makes for what is known as
imagination in playing. Which meant that the Watson Team, Eccentric
Song and Dance Artists, never needed a rehearsal when they played the
Bijou. Ruby Watson used merely to approach Terry before the Monday
performance, sheet-music in hand, and say, “Listen, dearie. We've got
some new business I want to wise you to. Right here it goes 'Tum
dee-dee dum dee-dee tum dum dum. See? Like that. And then
Jim vamps. Get me?”
Terry, at the piano, would pucker her pretty brow a moment. Then,
“Like this, you mean?”
“That's it! You've got it.”
“All right. I'll tell the drum.”
She could play any tune by ear, once heard. She got the spirit of a
thing, and transmitted it. When Terry played a march number you tapped
the floor with your foot, and unconsciously straightened your
shoulders. When she played a home-and-mother song that was heavy on the
minor wail you hoped that the man next to you didn't know you were
crying (which he probably didn't, because he was weeping, too).
At that time motion pictures had not attained their present
virulence. Vaudeville, polite or otherwise, had not yet been crowded
out by the ubiquitous film. The Bijou offered entertainment of the
cigar-box tramp variety, interspersed with trick bicyclists, soubrettes
in slightly soiled pink, trained seals, and Family Fours with lumpy
legs who tossed each other about and struck Goldbergian attitudes.
Contact with these gave Terry Sheehan a semi-professional tone. The
more conservative of her townspeople looked at her askance. There never
had been an evil thing about Terry, but Wetona considered her rather
fly. Terry's hair was very black, and she had a fondness for those
little, close-fitting scarlet velvet turbans. A scarlet velvet turban
would have made Martha Washington look fly. Terry's mother had died
when the girl was eight, and Terry's father had been what is known as
easy-going. A good-natured, lovable, shiftless chap in the contracting
business. He drove around Wetona in a sagging, one-seated cart and
never made any money because he did honest work and charged as little
for it as men who did not. His mortar stuck, and his bricks did not
crumble, and his lumber did not crack. Riches are not acquired in the
contracting business in that way. Ed Sheehan and his daughter were
great friends. When he died (she was nineteen) they say she screamed
once, like a banshee, and dropped to the floor.
After they had straightened out the muddle of books in Ed Sheehan's
gritty, dusty little office Terry turned her piano-playing talent to
practical account. At twenty-one she was still playing at the Bijou,
and into her face was creeping the first hint of that look of
sophistication which comes from daily contact with the artificial world
of the footlights. It is the look of those who must make believe as a
business, and are a-weary. You see it developed into its highest degree
in the face of a veteran comedian. It is the thing that gives the look
of utter pathos and tragedy to the relaxed expression of a circus
There are, in a small, Mid-West town like Wetona, just two kinds of
girls. Those who go down town Saturday nights, and those who don't.
Terry, if she had not been busy with her job at the Bijou, would have
come in the first group. She craved excitement. There was little chance
to satisfy such craving in Wetona, but she managed to find certain
means. The travelling men from the Burke House just across the street
used to drop in at the Bijou for an evening's entertainment. They
usually sat well toward the front, and Terry's expert playing, and the
gloss of her black hair, and her piquant profile as she sometimes
looked up toward the stage for a signal from one of the performers,
caught their fancy, and held it.
Terry did not accept their attentions promiscuously. She was too
decent a girl for that. But she found herself, at the end of a year or
two, with a rather large acquaintance among these peripatetic
gentlemen. You occasionally saw one of them strolling home with her.
Sometimes she went driving with one of them of a Sunday afternoon. And
she rather enjoyed taking Sunday dinner at the Burke Hotel with a
favoured friend. She thought those small-town hotel Sunday dinners the
last word in elegance. The roast course was always accompanied by an
aqueous, semi-frozen concoction which the bill of fare revealed as
Roman punch. It added a royal touch to the repast, even when served
with roast pork. I don't say that any of these Lotharios snatched a
kiss during a Sunday afternoon drive. Or that Terry slapped him
promptly. But either seems extremely likely.
Terry was twenty-two when Orville Platt, making his initial
Wisconsin trip for the wholesale grocery house he represented, first
beheld Terry's piquant Irish profile, and heard her deft manipulation
of the keys. Orville had the fat man's sense of rhythm and love of
music. He had a buttery tenor voice, too, of which he was rather proud.
He spent three days in Wetona that first trip, and every evening saw
him at the Bijou, first row, centre. He stayed through two shows each
time, and before he had been there fifteen minutes Terry was conscious
of him through the back of her head. In fact I think that, in all
innocence, she rather played up to him. Orville Platt paid no more heed
to the stage, and what was occurring thereon, than if it had not been.
He sat looking at Terry, and waggling his head in time to the music.
Not that Terry was a beauty. But she was one of those immaculately
clean types. That look of fragrant cleanliness was her chief charm. Her
clear, smooth skin contributed to it, and the natural pencilling of her
eyebrows. But the thing that accented it, and gave it a last touch, was
the way in which her black hair came down in a little point just in the
centre of her forehead, where hair meets brow. It grew to form what is
known as a cow-lick. (A prettier name for it is widow's peak.) Your eye
lighted on it, pleased, and from it travelled its gratified way down
her white temples, past her little ears, to the smooth black coil at
the nape of her neck. It was a trip that rested you.
At the end of the last performance on the second night of his visit
to the Bijou, Orville waited until the audience had begun to file out.
Then he leaned forward over the rail that separated orchestra from
“Could you,” he said, his tones dulcet, “could you oblige me with
the name of that last piece you played?”
Terry was stacking her music. “George!” she called, to the drum.
“Gentleman wants to know the name of that last piece.” And prepared to
“'My Georgia Crackerjack',” said the laconic drum.
Orville Platt took a hasty side-step in the direction of the door
toward which Terry was headed. “It's a pretty thing,” he said,
fervently. “An awful pretty thing. Thanks. It's beautiful.”
Terry flung a last insult at him over her shoulder: “Don't thank
me for it. I didn't write it.”
Orville Platt did not go across the street to the hotel. He wandered
up Cass street, and into the ten-o'clock quiet of Main street, and down
as far as the park and back. “Pretty as a pink! And play!... And good,
A fat man in love.
At the end of six months they were married. Terry was surprised into
it. Not that she was not fond of him. She was; and grateful to him, as
well. For, pretty as she was, no man had ever before asked Terry to be
his wife. They had made love to her. They had paid court to her. They
had sent her large boxes of stale drug-store chocolates, and called her
endearing names as they made cautious declaration such as:
“I've known a lot of girls, but you've got something different. I
don't know. You've got so much sense. A fellow can chum around with
you. Little pal.”
Orville's headquarters were Wetona. They rented a comfortable,
seven-room house in a comfortable, middle-class neighbourhood, and
Terry dropped the red velvet turbans and went in for picture hats and
paradise aigrettes. Orville bought her a piano whose tone was so good
that to her ear, accustomed to the metallic discords of the Bijou
instrument, it sounded out of tune. She played a great deal at first,
but unconsciously she missed the sharp spat of applause that used to
follow her public performance. She would play a piece, brilliantly, and
then her hands would drop to her lap. And the silence of her own
sitting room would fall flat on her ears. It was better on the evenings
when Orville was home. He sang, in his throaty, fat man's tenor, to
Terry's expert accompaniment.
“This is better than playing for those bum actors, isn't it, hon?”
And he would pinch her ear.
But after the first year she became accustomed to what she termed
private life. She joined an afternoon sewing club, and was active in
the ladies' branch of the U.C.T. She developed a knack at cooking, too,
and Orville, after a week or ten days of hotel fare in small Wisconsin
towns, would come home to sea-foam biscuits, and real soup, and honest
pies and cake. Sometimes, in the midst of an appetising meal he would
lay down his knife and fork and lean back in his chair, and regard the
cool and unruffled Terry with a sort of reverence in his eyes. Then he
would get up, and come around to the other side of the table, and tip
her pretty face up to his.
“I'll bet I'll wake up, some day, and find out it's all a dream. You
know this kind of thing doesn't really happen—not to a dub like me.”
One year; two; three; four. Routine. A little boredom. Some
impatience. She began to find fault with the very things she had liked
in him: his super-neatness; his fondness for dashing suit patterns; his
throaty tenor; his worship of her. And the flap. Oh, above all, that
flap! That little, innocent, meaningless mannerism that made her
tremble with nervousness. She hated it so that she could not trust
herself to speak of it to him. That was the trouble. Had she spoken of
it, laughingly or in earnest, before it became an obsession with her,
that hideous breakfast quarrel, with its taunts, and revilings, and
open hate, might never have come to pass. For that matter, any one of
those foreign fellows with the guttural names and the psychoanalytical
minds could have located her trouble in one seance.
Terry Platt herself didn't know what was the matter with her. She
would have denied that anything was wrong. She didn't even throw her
hands above her head and shriek: “I want to live! I want to live! I
want to live!” like a lady in a play. She only knew she was sick of
sewing at the Wetona West-End Red Cross shop; sick of marketing, of
home comforts, of Orville, of the flap.
Orville, you may remember, left at 8.19. The 11.23 bore Terry
Chicagoward. She had left the house as it was—beds unmade, rooms
unswept, breakfast table uncleared. She intended never to come back.
Now and then a picture of the chaos she had left behind would flash
across her order-loving mind. The spoon on the table-cloth. Orville's
pajamas dangling over the bathroom chair. The coffee-pot on the gas
“Pooh! What do I care?”
In her pocketbook she had a tidy sum saved out of the housekeeping
money. She was naturally thrifty, and Orville had never been niggardly.
Her meals when Orville was on the road, had been those sketchy,
haphazard affairs with which women content themselves when their
household is manless. At noon she went into the dining car and ordered
a flaunting little repast of chicken salad and asparagus, and
Neapolitan ice cream. The men in the dining car eyed her speculatively
and with appreciation. Then their glance dropped to the third finger of
her left hand, and wandered away. She had meant to remove it. In fact,
she had taken it off and dropped it into her bag. But her hand felt so
queer, so unaccustomed, so naked, that she had found herself slipping
the narrow band on again, and her thumb groped for it, gratefully.
It was almost five o'clock when she reached Chicago. She felt no
uncertainty or bewilderment. She had been in Chicago three or four
times since her marriage. She went to a down town hotel. It was too
late, she told herself, to look for a more inexpensive room that night.
When she had tidied herself she went out. The things she did were the
childish, aimless things that one does who finds herself in possession
of sudden liberty. She walked up State Street, and stared in the
windows; came back, turned into Madison, passed a bright little shop in
the window of which taffy—white and gold—was being wound endlessly
and fascinatingly about a double-jointed machine. She went in and
bought a sackful, and wandered on down the street, munching.
She had supper at one of those white-tiled sarcophagi that emblazon
Chicago's down town side streets. It had been her original intention to
dine in state in the rose-and-gold dining room of her hotel. She had
even thought daringly of lobster. But at the last moment she recoiled
from the idea of dining alone in that wilderness of tables so obviously
meant for two.
After her supper she went to a picture show. She was amazed to find
there, instead of the accustomed orchestra, a pipe-organ that panted
and throbbed and rumbled over lugubrious classics. The picture was
about a faithless wife. Terry left in the middle of it.
She awoke next morning at seven, as usual, started up wildly, looked
around, and dropped back. Nothing to get up for. The knowledge did not
fill her with a rush of relief. She would have her breakfast in bed!
She telephoned for it, languidly. But when it came she got up and ate
it from the table, after all. Terry was the kind of woman to whom a
pink gingham all-over apron, and a pink dust-cap are ravishingly
becoming at seven o'clock in the morning. That sort of woman
congenitally cannot enjoy her breakfast in bed.
That morning she found a fairly comfortable room, more within her
means, on the north side in the boarding house district. She unpacked
and hung up her clothes and drifted down town again, idly. It was noon
when she came to the corner of State and Madison streets. It was a
maelstrom that caught her up, and buffeted her about, and tossed her
helplessly this way and that. The corner of Broadway and Forty-second
streets has been exploited in song and story as the world's most
hazardous human whirlpool. I've negotiated that corner. I've braved the
square in front of the American Express Company's office in Paris,
June, before the War. I've crossed the Strand at 11 p.m. when the
theatre crowds are just out. And to my mind the corner of State and
Madison streets between twelve and one, mid-day, makes any one of these
dizzy spots look bosky, sylvan, and deserted.
The thousands jostled Terry, and knocked her hat awry, and dug her
with unheeding elbows, and stepped on her feet.
“Say, look here!” she said, once futilely. They did not stop to
listen. State and Madison has no time for Terrys from Wetona. It goes
its way, pellmell. If it saw Terry at all it saw her only as a
prettyish person, in the wrong kind of suit and hat, with a bewildered,
resentful look on her face.
Terry drifted on down the west side of State Street, with the
hurrying crowd. State and Monroe. A sound came to Terry's ears. A sound
familiar, beloved. To her ear, harassed with the roar and crash, with
the shrill scream of the crossing policemen's whistle, with the hiss of
feet shuffling on cement, it was a celestial strain. She looked up,
toward the sound. A great second-story window opened wide to the
street. In it a girl at a piano, and a man, red-faced, singing through
a megaphone. And on a flaring red and green sign:
BERNIE GOTTSCHALK'S MUSIC HOUSE!
COME IN! HEAR BERNIE GOTTSCHALK'S LATEST
HIT! THE HEART-THROB SONG THAT HAS GOT 'EM ALL!
THE SONG THAT MADE THE KAISER CRAWL!
“I COME FROM PARIS, ILLINOIS, BUT OH!
YOU PARIS, FRANCE!
I USED TO WEAR BLUE OVERALLS BUT
NOW ITS KHAKI PANTS.”
COME IN! COME IN!
She followed the sound of the music. Around the corner. Up a little
flight of stairs. She entered the realm of Euterpe; Euterpe with her
back hair frizzed; Euterpe with her flowing white robe replaced by
soiled white boots that failed to touch the hem of an empire-waisted
blue serge; Euterpe abandoning her lyre for jazz. She sat at the piano,
a red-haired young lady whose familiarity with the piano had bred
contempt. Nothing else could have accounted for her treatment of it.
Her fingers, tipped with sharp-pointed grey and glistening nails,
clawed the keys with a dreadful mechanical motion. There were stacks of
music-sheets on counters, and shelves, and dangling from overhead
wires. The girl at the piano never ceased playing. She played mostly by
request. A prospective purchaser would mumble something in the ear of
one of the clerks. The fat man with the megaphone would bawl out,
“'Hicky Bloo!' Miss Ryan.” And Miss Ryan would oblige. She made a
hideous rattle and crash and clatter of sound compared to which an
Indian tom-tom would have seemed as dulcet as the strumming of a lute
in a lady's boudoir.
Terry joined the crowds about the counter. The girl at the piano was
not looking at the keys. Her head was screwed around over her left
shoulder and as she played she was holding forth animatedly to a girl
friend who had evidently dropped in from some store or office during
the lunch hour. Now and again the fat man paused in his vocal efforts
to reprimand her for her slackness. She paid no heed. There was
something gruesome, uncanny, about the way her fingers went their own
way over the defenceless keys. Her conversation with the frowzy little
girl went on.
“Wha'd he say?” (Over her shoulder).
“Oh, he laffed.”
“Well, didja go?”
“Me! Well, whutya think I yam, anyway?”
“I woulda took a chanst.”
The fat man rebelled.
“Look here! Get busy! What are you paid for? Talkin' or playin'?
The person at the piano, openly reproved thus before her friend,
lifted her uninspired hands from the keys and spake. When she had
finished she rose.
“But you can't leave now,” the megaphone man argued. “Right in the
“I'm gone,” said the girl. The fat man looked about, helplessly. He
gazed at the abandoned piano, as though it must go on of its own
accord. Then at the crowd. “Where's Miss Schwimmer?” he demanded of a
“Out to lunch.”
Terry pushed her way to the edge of the counter and leaned over. “I
can play for you,” she said.
The man looked at her. “Sight?”
Terry went around to the other side of the counter, took off her hat
and coat, rubbed her hands together briskly, sat down and began to
play. The crowd edged closer.
It is a curious study, this noonday crowd that gathers to sate its
music-hunger on the scraps vouchsafed it by Bernie Gottschalk's Music
House. Loose-lipped, slope-shouldered young men with bad complexions
and slender hands. Girls whose clothes are an unconscious satire on
present-day fashions. On their faces, as they listen to the music, is a
look of peace and dreaming. They stand about, smiling a wistful half
smile. It is much the same expression that steals over the face of a
smoker who has lighted his after-dinner cigar, or of a drug victim who
is being lulled by his opiate. The music seems to satisfy a something
within them. Faces dull, eyes lustreless, they listen in a sort of
Terry played on. She played as Terry Sheehan used to play. She
played as no music hack at Bernie Gottschalk's had ever played before.
The crowd swayed a little to the sound of it. Some kept time with
little jerks of the shoulder—the little hitching movement of the
rag-time dancer whose blood is filled with the fever of syncopation.
Even the crowd flowing down State Street must have caught the rhythm of
it, for the room soon filled.
At two o'clock the crowd began to thin. Business would be slack,
now, until five, when it would again pick up until closing time at six.
The fat vocalist put down his megaphone, wiped his forehead, and
regarded Terry with a warm blue eye. He had just finished singing “I've
Wandered Far from Dear Old Mother's Knee.” (Bernie Gottschalk Inc.
Chicago. New York. You can't get bit with a Gottschalk hit. 15 cents
“Girlie,” he said, emphatically, “You sure—can—play!” He came over
to her at the piano and put a stubby hand on her shoulder. “Yessir!
Those little fingers—”
Terry just turned her head to look down her nose at the moist hand
resting on her shoulder. “Those little fingers are going to meet your
face—suddenly—if you don't move on.”
“Who gave you your job?” demanded the fat man.
“Nobody. I picked it myself. You can have it if you want it.”
“Can't you take a joke?”
As the crowd dwindled she played less feverishly, but there was
nothing slipshod about her performance. The chubby songster found time
to proffer brief explanations in asides. “They want the patriotic
stuff. It used to be all that Hawaiian dope, and Wild Irish Rose junk,
and songs about wanting to go back to every place from Dixie to Duluth.
But now seems it's all these here flag raisers. Honestly, I'm so sick
of 'em I got a notion to enlist to get away from it.”
Terry eyed him with, withering briefness. “A little training
wouldn't ruin your figure.”
She had never objected to Orville's embonpoint. But then,
Orville was a different sort of fat man; pink-cheeked, springy,
At four o'clock, as she was in the chorus of “Isn't There Another
Joan of Arc?” a melting masculine voice from the other side of the
counter said, “Pardon me. What's that you're playing?”
Terry told him. She did not look up.
“I wouldn't have known it. Played like that—a second Marseillaise.
If the words—what are the words? Let me see a—”
“Show the gentleman a 'Joan',” Terry commanded briefly, over her
shoulder. The fat man laughed a wheezy laugh. Terry glanced around,
still playing, and encountered the gaze of two melting masculine eyes
that matched the melting masculine voice. The songster waved a hand
uniting Terry and the eyes in informal introduction.
“Mr. Leon Sammett, the gentleman who sings the Gottschalk songs
wherever songs are heard. And Mrs.—that is—and Mrs. Sammett—”
Terry turned. A sleek, swarthy world-old young man with the
fashionable concave torso, and alarmingly convex bone-rimmed glasses.
Through them his darkly luminous gaze glowed upon Terry. To escape
their warmth she sent her own gaze past him to encounter the arctic
stare of the large blonde person who had been included so lamely in the
introduction. And at that the frigidity of that stare softened, melted,
“Why Terry Sheehan! What in the world!”
Terry's eyes bored beneath the layers of flabby fat. “It's—why,
it's Ruby Watson, isn't it? Eccentric Song and Dance—”
She glanced at the concave young man and faltered. He was not Jim,
of the Bijou days. From him her eyes leaped back to the fur-bedecked
splendour of the woman. The plump face went so painfully red that the
makeup stood out on it, a distinct layer, like thin ice covering
flowing water. As she surveyed that bulk Terry realised that while Ruby
might still claim eccentricity, her song and dance days were over.
“That's ancient history, m'dear. I haven't been working for three
years. What're you doing in this joint? I'd heard you'd done well for
yourself. That you were married.”
“I am. That is I—well, I am. I—”
At that the dark young man leaned over and patted Terry's hand that
lay on the counter. He smiled. His own hand was incredibly slender,
long, and tapering.
“That's all right,” he assured her, and smiled. “You two girls can
have a reunion later. What I want to know is can you play by ear?”
He leaned far over the counter. “I knew it the minute I heard you
play. You've got the touch. Now listen. See if you can get this, and
fake the bass.”
He fixed his sombre and hypnotic eyes on Terry. His mouth screwed up
into a whistle. The tune—a tawdry but haunting little melody—came
through his lips. And Terry's quick ear sensed that every note was
flat. She turned back to the piano. “Of course you know you flatted
every note,” she said.
This time it was the blonde woman who laughed, and the man who
flushed. Terry cocked her head just a little to one side, like a
knowing bird, looked up into space beyond the piano top, and played the
lilting little melody with charm and fidelity. The dark young man
followed her with a wagging of the head and little jerks of both
outspread hands. His expression was beatific, enraptured. He hummed a
little under his breath and any one who was music wise would have known
that he was just a half-beat behind her all the way.
When she had finished he sighed deeply, ecstatically. He bent his
lean frame over the counter and, despite his swart colouring, seemed to
glitter upon her—his eyes, his teeth, his very finger-nails.
“Something led me here. I never come up on Tuesdays. But
“You was going to complain,” put in his lady, heavily, “about that
Teddy Sykes at the Palace Gardens singing the same songs this week that
you been boosting at the Inn.”
He put up a vibrant, peremptory hand. “Bah! What does that matter
now! What does anything matter now! Listen Miss—ah—Miss?—”
“Pl—Sheehan. Terry Sheehan.”
He gazed off a moment into space. “H'm. 'Leon Sammett in Songs. Miss
Terry Sheehan at the Piano.' That doesn't sound bad. Now listen, Miss
Sheehan. I'm singing down at the University Inn. The Gottschalk song
hits. I guess you know my work. But I want to talk to you, private.
It's something to your interest. I go on down at the Inn at six. Will
you come and have a little something with Ruby and me? Now?”
“Now?” faltered Terry, somewhat helplessly. Things seemed to be
moving rather swiftly for her, accustomed as she was to the peaceful
routine of the past four years.
“Get your hat. It's your life chance. Wait till you see your name in
two-foot electrics over the front of every big-time house in the
country. You've got music in you. Tie to me and you're made.” He turned
to the woman beside him. “Isn't that so, Rube?”
“Sure. Look at me!” One would not have thought there could be
so much subtle vindictiveness in a fat blonde.
Sammett whipped out a watch. “Just three-quarters of an hour. Come
His conversation had been conducted in an urgent undertone, with
side glances at the fat man with the megaphone. Terry approached him
“I'm leaving now,” she said.
“Oh, no you're not. Six o'clock is your quitting time.”
In which he touched the Irish in Terry. “Any time I quit is my
quitting time.” She went in quest of hat and coat much as the girl had
done whose place she had taken early in the day. The fat man followed
her, protesting. Terry, pinning on her hat tried to ignore him. But he
laid one plump hand on her arm and kept it there, though she tried to
shake him off.
“Now, listen to me. That boy wouldn't mind putting his heel on your
face if he thought it would bring him up a step. I know'm. Y'see that
walking stick he's carrying? Well, compared to the yellow stripe that's
in him, that cane is a lead pencil. He's a song tout, that's all he
is.” Then, more feverishly, as Terry tried to pull away: “Wait a
minute. You're a decent girl. I want to—Why, he can't even sing a note
without you give it to him first. He can put a song over, yes. But how?
By flashin' that toothy grin, of his and talkin' every word of it.
But Terry freed herself with a final jerk and whipped around the
counter. The two, who had been talking together in an undertone, turned
to welcome her. “We've got a half hour. Come on. It's just over to
Clark and up a block or so.”
If you know Chicago at all, you know the University Inn, that
gloriously intercollegiate institution which welcomes any graduate of
any school of experience, and guarantees a post-graduate course in less
time than any similar haven of knowledge. Down a flight of stairs and
into the unwonted quiet that reigns during the hour of low
potentiality, between five and six, the three went, and seated
themselves at a table in an obscure corner. A waiter brought them
things in little glasses, though no order had been given. The woman who
had been Ruby Watson was so silent as to be almost wordless. But the
man talked rapidly. He talked well, too. The same quality that enabled
him, voiceless though he was, to boost a song to success, was making
his plea sound plausible in Terry's ears now.
“I've got to go and make up in a few minutes. So get this. I'm not
going to stick down in this basement eating house forever. I've got too
much talent. If I only had a voice—I mean a singing voice. But I
haven't. But then, neither has Georgie Cohan, and I can't see that it's
wrecked his life any. Look at Elsie Janis! But she sings. And they like
it! Now listen. I've got a song. It's my own. That bit you played for
me up at Gottschalk's is part of the chorus. But it's the words that'll
go big. They're great. It's an aviation song, see? Airship stuff.
They're yelling that it's the airyoplanes that're going to win this
war. Well, I'll help 'em. This song is going to put the aviator where
he belongs. It's going to be the big song of the war. It's going to
make 'Tipperary' sound like a Moody and Sankey hymn. It's the—”
Ruby lifted her heavy-lidded eyes and sent him a meaning look. “Get
down to business, Leon. I'll tell her how good you are while you're
He shot her a malignant glance, but took her advice. “Now what I've
been looking for for years is somebody who has got the music knack to
give me the accompaniment just a quarter of a jump ahead of my voice,
see? I can follow like a lamb, but I've got to have that feeler first.
It's more than a knack. It's a gift. And you've got it. I know it when
I see it. I want to get away from this cabaret thing. There's nothing
in it for a man of my talent. I'm gunning for vaudeville. But they
won't book me without a tryout. And when they hear my voice they—Well,
if me and you work together we can fool 'em. The song's great. And my
makeup's one of these av-iation costumes to go with the song, see?
Pants tight in the knee and baggy on the hips. And a coat with one of
those full skirt whaddyoucall'ems—”
“Peplums,” put in Ruby, placidly.
“Sure. And the girls'll be wild about it. And the words!” he began
to sing, gratingly off-key:
“Put on your sky clothes,
Put on your fly clothes
And take a trip with me.
We'll sail so high
Up in the sky
We'll drop a bomb from Mercury.”
“Why, that's awfully cute!” exclaimed Terry. Until now her opinion
of Mr. Sammett's talents had not been on a level with his.
“Yeh, but wait till you hear the second verse. That's only part of
the chorus. You see, he's supposed to be talking to a French girl. He
I'll parlez-vous in Francais plain,
You'll answer, 'Cher Americain,
We'll both. . . . . . . . . . .”
The six o'clock lights blazed up, suddenly. A sad-looking group of
men trailed in and made for a corner where certain bulky, shapeless
bundles were soon revealed as those glittering and tortuous instruments
which go to make a jazz band.
“You better go, Lee. The crowd comes in awful early now, with all
those buyers in town.”
Both hands on the table he half rose, reluctantly, still talking.
“I've got three other songs. They make Gottschalk's stuff look sick.
All I want's a chance. What I want you to do is accompaniment. On the
stage, see? Grand piano. And a swell set. I haven't quite made up my
mind to it. But a kind of an army camp room, see? And maybe you dressed
as Liberty. Anyway, it'll be new, and a knock-out. If only we can get
away with the voice thing. Say, if Eddie Foy, all those years never had
The band opened with a terrifying clash of cymbal, and thump of
drum. “Back at the end of my first turn,” he said as he fled. Terry
followed his lithe, electric figure. She turned to meet the
heavy-lidded gaze of the woman seated opposite. She relaxed, then, and
sat back with a little sigh. “Well! If he talks that way to the
managers I don't see—”
Ruby laughed a mirthless little laugh. “Talk doesn't get it over
with the managers, honey. You've got to deliver.”
“Well, but he's—that song is a good one. I don't say it's as
good as he thinks it is, but it's good.”
“Yes,” admitted the woman, grudgingly, “it's good.”
The woman beckoned a waiter; he nodded and vanished, and reappeared
with a glass that was twin to the one she had just emptied. “Does he
look like he knew French? Or could make a rhyme?”
“But didn't he? Doesn't he?”
“The words were written by a little French girl who used to skate
down here last winter, when the craze was on. She was stuck on a
Chicago kid who went over to fly for the French.”
“But the music?”
“There was a Russian girl who used to dance in the cabaret and
Terry's head came up with a characteristic little jerk. “I don't
“Better.” She gazed at Terry with the drowsy look that was so
different from the quick, clear glance of the Ruby Watson who used to
dance so nimbly in the Old Bijou days. “What'd you and your husband
quarrel about, Terry?”
Terry was furious to feel herself flushing. “Oh, nothing. He
just—I—it was—Say, how did you know we'd quarrelled?”
And suddenly all the fat woman's apathy dropped from her like a
garment and some of the old sparkle and animation illumined her heavy
face. She pushed her glass aside and leaned forward on her folded arms,
so that her face was close to Terry's.
“Terry Sheehan, I know you've quarrelled, and I know just what it
was about. Oh, I don't mean the very thing it was about; but the kind
of thing. I'm going to do something for you, Terry, that I wouldn't
take the trouble to do for most women. But I guess I ain't had all the
softness knocked out of me yet, though it's a wonder. And I guess I
remember too plain the decent kid you was in the old days. What was the
name of that little small-time house me and Jim used to play? Bijou,
that's it; Bijou.”
The band struck up a new tune. Leon Sammett—slim, sleek, lithe in
his evening clothes—appeared with a little fair girl in pink chiffon.
The woman reached across the table and put one pudgy, jewelled hand on
Terry's arm. “He'll be through in ten minutes. Now listen to me. I left
Jim four years ago, and there hasn't been a minute since then, day or
night, when I wouldn't have crawled back to him on my hands and knees
if I could. But I couldn't. He wouldn't have me now. How could he? How
do I know you've quarrelled? I can see it in your eyes. They look just
the way mine have felt for four years, that's how. I met up with this
boy, and there wasn't anybody to do the turn for me that I'm trying to
do for you. Now get this. I left Jim because when he ate corn on the
cob he always closed his eyes and it drove me wild. Don't laugh.”
“I'm not laughing,” said Terry.
“Women are like that. One night—we was playing Fond du Lac; I
remember just as plain—we was eating supper and Jim reached for one of
those big yellow ears, and buttered and salted it, and me kind of
hanging on to the edge of the table with my nails. Seemed to me if he
shut his eyes when he put his teeth into that ear of corn I'd scream.
And he did. And I screamed. And that's all.”
Terry sat staring at her with a wide-eyed stare, like a sleep
walker. Then she wet her lips, slowly. “But that's almost the very—”
“Kid, go on back home. I don't know whether it's too late or not,
but go anyway. If you've lost him I suppose it ain't any more than you
deserve, but I hope to God you don't get your desserts this time. He's
almost through. If he sees you going he can't quit in the middle of his
song to stop you. He'll know I put you wise, and he'll prob'ly half
kill me for it. But it's worth it. You get.”
And Terry—dazed, shaking, but grateful—fled. Down the noisy aisle,
up the stairs, to the street. Back to her rooming house. Out again,
with her suitcase, and into the right railroad station somehow, at
last. Not another Wetona train until midnight. She shrank into a remote
corner of the waiting room and there she huddled until midnight
watching the entrances like a child who is fearful of ghosts in the
The hands of the station clock seemed fixed and immovable. The hour
between eleven and twelve was endless. She was on the train. It was
almost morning. It was morning. Dawn was breaking. She was home! She
had the house key clutched tightly in her hand long before she turned
Schroeder's corner. Suppose he had come home! Suppose he had jumped a
town and come home ahead of his schedule. They had quarrelled once
before, and he had done that.
Up the front steps. Into the house. Not a sound. She stood there a
moment in the early morning half-light. She peered into the dining
room. The table, with its breakfast debris, was as she had left it. In
the kitchen the coffee pot stood on the gas stove. She was home. She
was safe. She ran up the stairs, got out of her clothes and into crisp
gingham morning things. She flung open windows everywhere. Down-stairs
once more she plunged into an orgy of cleaning. Dishes, table, stove,
floor, rugs. She washed, scoured, flapped, swabbed, polished. By eight
o'clock she had done the work that would ordinarily have taken until
noon. The house was shining, orderly, and redolent of soapsuds.
During all this time she had been listening, listening, with her
sub-conscious ear. Listening for something she had refused to name
definitely in her mind, but listening, just the same; waiting.
And then, at eight o'clock, it came. The rattle of a key in the
lock. The boom of the front door. Firm footsteps.
He did not go to meet her, and she did not go to meet him. They came
together and were in each other's arms. She was weeping.
“Now, now, old girl. What's there to cry about? Don't, honey; don't.
It's all right.”
She raised her head then, to look at him. How fresh, and rosy, and
big he seemed, after that little sallow, yellow restaurant rat.
“How did you get here? How did you happen—?”
“Jumped all the way from Ashland. Couldn't get a sleeper, so I sat
up all night. I had to come back and square things with you, Terry. My
mind just wasn't on my work. I kept thinking how I'd talked—how I'd
“Oh, Orville, don't! I can't bear—Have you had your breakfast?”
“Why, no. The train was an hour late. You know that Ashland train.”
But she was out of his arms and making for the kitchen. “You go and
clean up. I'll have hot biscuits and everything in fifteen minutes. You
poor boy. No breakfast!”
She made good her promise. It could not have been more than twenty
minutes later when he was buttering his third feathery, golden brown
biscuit. But she had eaten nothing. She watched him, and listened, and
again her eyes were sombre, but for a different reason. He broke open
his egg. His elbow came up just a fraction of an inch. Then he
remembered, and flushed like a schoolboy, and brought it down again,
carefully. And at that she gave a little tremulous cry, and rushed
around the table to him.
“Oh, Orville!” She took the offending elbow in her two arms, and
bent and kissed the rough coat sleeve.
“Why, Terry! Don't, honey. Don't!”
“Oh, Orville, listen—”
“I'm listening, Terry.”
“I've got something to tell you. There's something you've got to
“Yes, I know it, Terry. I knew you'd out with it, pretty soon, if I
She lifted an amazed face from his shoulder then, and stared at him.
“But how could you know? You couldn't! How could you?”
He patted her shoulder then, gently. “I can always tell. When you
have something on your mind you always take up a spoon of coffee, and
look at it, and kind of joggle it back and forth in the spoon, and then
dribble it back into the cup again, without once tasting it. It used to
get me nervous when we were first married watching you. But now I know
it just means you're worried about something, and I wait, and pretty
“Oh, Orville!” she cried, then. “Oh, Orville!”
“Now, Terry. Just spill it, hon. Just spill it to daddy. And you'll