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The Eldest by Edna Ferber

 

The Self-Complacent Young Cub leaned an elbow against the mantel as you've seen it done in English plays, and blew a practically perfect smoke-ring. It hurtled toward me like a discus.

“Trouble with your stuff,” he began at once (we had just been introduced), “is that it lacks plot. Been meaning to meet and tell you that for a long time. Your characterization's all right, and your dialogue. In fact, I think they're good. But your stuff lacks raison d'etre—if you know what I mean.

“But”—in feeble self-defence—“people's insides are often so much more interesting than their outsides; that which they think or feel so much more thrilling than anything they actually do. Bennett—Wells—”

“Rot!” remarked the young cub, briskly. “Plot's the thing.”

       * * * * *

There is no plot to this because there is no plot to Rose. There never was. There never will be. Compared to the drab monotony of Rose's existence a desert waste is as thrilling as a five-reel film.

They had called her Rose, fatuously, as parents do their first-born girl. No doubt she had been normally pink and white and velvety. It is a risky thing to do, however. Think back hastily on the Roses you know. Don't you find a startling majority still clinging, sere and withered, to the family bush?

In Chicago, Illinois, a city of two millions (or is it three?), there are women whose lives are as remote, as grey, as unrelated to the world about them as is the life of a Georgia cracker's woman-drudge. Rose was one of these. An unwed woman, grown heavy about the hips and arms, as houseworking women do, though they eat but little, moving dully about the six-room flat on Sangamon Street, Rose was as much a slave as any black wench of plantation days.

There was the treadmill of endless dishes, dirtied as fast as cleansed; there were beds, and beds, and beds; gravies and soups and stews. And always the querulous voice of the sick woman in the front bedroom demanding another hot water bag. Rose's day was punctuated by hot water bags. They dotted her waking hours. She filled hot water bags automatically, like a machine—water half-way to the top, then one hand clutching the bag's slippery middle while the other, with a deft twist, ejected the air within; a quick twirl of the metal stopper, the bag released, squirming, and, finally, its plump and rufous cheeks wiped dry.

“Is that too hot for you, Ma? Where'd you want it—your head or your feet?”

A spinster nearing forty, living thus, must have her memories—one precious memory, at least—or she dies. Rose had hers. She hugged it, close. The L trains roared by, not thirty feet from her kitchen door. Alley and yard and street sent up their noises to her. The life of Chicago's millions yelped at her heels. On Rose's face was the vague, mute look of the woman whose days are spent indoors, at sordid tasks.

At six-thirty every night that look lifted, for an hour. At six-thirty they came home—Floss, and Al, and Pa—their faces stamped with the marks that come from a day spent in shop and factory. They brought with them the crumbs and husks of the day's happenings, and these they flung carelessly before the life-starved Rose and she ate them, gratefully.

They came in with a rush, hungry, fagged, grimed, imperious, smelling of the city. There was a slamming of doors, a banging of drawers, a clatter of tongues, quarrelling, laughter. A brief visit to the sick woman's room. The thin, complaining voice reciting its tale of the day's discomfort and pain. Then supper.

“Guess who I waited on to-day!” Floss might demand.

Rose, dishing up, would pause, interested. “Who?”

“Gladys Moraine! I knew her the minute she came down the aisle. I saw her last year when she was playing in 'His Wives.' She's prettier off than on, I think. I waited on her, and the other girls were wild. She bought a dozen pairs of white kids, and made me give 'em to her huge, so she could shove her hand right into 'em, like a man does. Two sizes too big. All the swells wear 'em that way. And only one ring—an emerald the size of a dime.”

“What'd she wear?” Rose's dull face was almost animated.

“Ah yes!” in a dreamy falsetto from Al, “what did she wear?”

“Oh, shut up, Al! Just a suit, kind of plain, and yet you'd notice it. And sables! And a Gladys Moraine hat. Everything quiet, and plain, and dark; and yet she looked like a million dollars. I felt like a roach while I was waiting on her, though she was awfully sweet to me.”

Or perhaps Al, the eel-like, would descend from his heights to mingle a brief moment in the family talk. Al clerked in the National Cigar Company's store at Clark and Madison. His was the wisdom of the snake, the weasel, and the sphinx. A strangely silent young man, this Al, thin-lipped, smooth-cheeked, perfumed. Slim of waist, flat of hip, narrow of shoulder, his was the figure of the born fox-trotter. He walked lightly, on the balls of his feet, like an Indian, but without the Indian's dignity.

“Some excitement ourselves, to-day, down at the store, believe me. The Old Man's son started in to learn the retail selling end of the business. Back of the showcase with the rest of us, waiting on trade, and looking like a Yale yell.”

Pa would put down his paper to stare over his reading specs at Al.

“Mannheim's son! The president!”

“Yep! And I guess he loves it, huh? The Old Man wants him to learn the business from the ground up. I'll bet he'll never get higher than the first floor. To-day he went out to lunch at one and never shows up again till four. Wears English collars, and smokes a brand of cigarettes we don't carry.”

Thus was the world brought to Rose. Her sallow cheek would show a faint hint of colour as she sipped her tea.

At six-thirty on a Monday morning in late April (remember, nothing's going to happen) Rose smothered her alarm clock at the first warning snarl. She was wide-awake at once, as are those whose yesterdays, to-days and to-morrows are all alike. Rose never opened her eyes to the dim, tantalising half-consciousness of a something delightful or a something harrowing in store for her that day. For one to whom the wash-woman's Tuesday visitation is the event of the week, and in whose bosom the delivery boy's hoarse “Groc-rees!” as he hurls soap and cabbage on the kitchen table, arouses a wild flurry, there can be very little thrill on awakening.

Rose slept on the davenport-couch in the sitting-room. That fact in itself rises her status in the family. This Monday morning she opened her eyes with what might be called a start if Rose were any other sort of heroine. Something had happened, or was happening. It wasn't the six o'clock steam hissing in the radiator. She was accustomed to that. The rattle of the L trains, and the milkman's artillery disturbed her as little as does the chirping of the birds the farmer's daughter. A sensation new, yet familiar; delicious, yet painful, held her. She groped to define it, lying there. Her gaze, wandering over the expanse of the grey woollen blanket, fixed upon a small black object trembling there. The knowledge that came to her then had come, many weeks before, in a hundred subtle and exquisite ways, to those who dwell in the open places. Rose's eyes narrowed craftily. Craftily, stealthily, she sat up, one hand raised. Her eyes still fixed on the quivering spot, the hand descended, lightning-quick. But not quickly enough. The black spot vanished. It sped toward the open window. Through that window there came a balmy softness made up of Lake Michigan zephyr, and stockyards smell, and distant budding things. Rose had failed to swat the first fly of the season. Spring had come.

As she got out of bed and thud-thudded across the room on her heels to shut the window she glanced out into the quiet street. Her city eyes, untrained to nature's hints, failed to notice that the scraggy, smoke-dwarfed oak that sprang, somehow, miraculously, from the mangey little dirt-plot in front of the building had developed surprising things all over its scrawny branches overnight. But she did see that the front windows of the flat building across the way were bare of the Chicago-grey lace curtains that had hung there the day before. House cleaning! Well, most decidedly spring had come.

Rose was the household's Aurora. Following the donning of her limp and obscure garments it was Rose's daily duty to tear the silent family from its slumbers. Ma was always awake, her sick eyes fixed hopefully on the door. For fourteen years it had been the same.

“Sleeping?”

“Sleeping! I haven't closed an eye all night.”

Rose had learned not to dispute that statement.

“It's spring out! I'm going to clean the closets and the bureau drawers to-day. I'll have your coffee in a jiffy. Do you feel like getting up and sitting out on the back porch, toward noon, maybe?”

On her way kitchenward she stopped for a sharp tattoo at the door of the room in which Pa and Al slept. A sleepy grunt of remonstrance rewarded her. She came to Floss's door, turned the knob softly, peered in. Floss was sleeping as twenty sleeps, deeply, dreamlessly, one slim bare arm outflung, the lashes resting ever so lightly on the delicate curve of cheek. As she lay there asleep in her disordered bedroom, her clothes strewing chair, dresser, floor, Floss's tastes, mental equipment, spiritual make-up, innermost thoughts, were as plainly to be read by the observer as though she had been scientifically charted by a psycho-analyst, a metaphysician and her dearest girl friend.

“Floss! Floss, honey! Quarter to seven!” Floss stirred, moaned faintly, dropped into sleep again.

Fifteen minutes later, the table set, the coffee simmering, the morning paper brought from the back porch to Ma, Rose had heard none of the sounds that proclaimed the family astir—the banging of drawers, the rush of running water, the slap of slippered feet. A peep of enquiry into the depths of the coffee pot, the gas turned to a circle of blue beads, and she was down the hall to sound the second alarm.

“Floss, you know if Al once gets into the bathroom!” Floss sat up in bed, her eyes still closed. She made little clucking sounds with her tongue and lips, as a baby does when it wakes. Drugged with sleep, hair tousled, muscles sagging, at seven o'clock in the morning, the most trying hour in the day for a woman, Floss was still triumphantly pretty. She had on one of those absurd pink muslin nightgowns, artfully designed to look like crepe de chine. You've seen them rosily displayed in the cheaper shop windows, marked ninety-eight cents, and you may have wondered who might buy them, forgetting that there is an imitation mind for every imitation article in the world.

Rose stooped, picked up a pair of silk stockings from the floor, and ran an investigating hand through to heel and toe. She plucked a soiled pink blouse off the back of a chair, eyed it critically, and tucked it under her arm with the stockings.

“Did you have a good time last night?”

Floss yawned elaborately, stretched her slim arms high above her head; then, with a desperate effort, flung back the bed-clothes, swung her legs over the side of the bed and slipped her toes into the shabby, pomponed slippers that lay on the floor.

“I say, did you have a g—”

“Oh Lord, I don't know! I guess so,” snapped Floss. Temperamentally, Floss was not at her best at seven o'clock on Monday morning. Rose did not pursue the subject. She tried another tack.

“It's as mild as summer out. I see the Werners and the Burkes are housecleaning. I thought I'd start to-day with the closets, and the bureau drawers. You could wear your blue this morning, if it was pressed.”

Floss yawned again, disinterestedly, and folded her kimono about her.

“Go as far as you like. Only don't put things back in my closet so's I can't ever find 'em again. I wish you'd press that blue skirt. And wash out the Georgette crepe waist. I might need it.”

The blouse, and skirt, and stockings under her arm, Rose went back to the kitchen to prepare her mother's breakfast tray. Wafted back to her came the acrid odour of Pa's matutinal pipe, and the accustomed bickering between Al and Floss over the possession of the bathroom.

“What do you think this is, anyway? A Turkish bath?”

“Shave in your own room!”

Between Floss and Al there existed a feud that lifted only when a third member of the family turned against either of them. Immediately they about-faced and stood united against the offender.

Pa was the first to demand breakfast, as always. Very neat, was Pa, and fussy, and strangely young looking to be the husband of the grey-haired, parchment-skinned woman who lay in the front bedroom. Pa had two manias: the movies, and a passion for purchasing new and complicated household utensils—cream-whippers, egg-beaters, window-clamps, lemon-squeezers, silver-polishers. He haunted department store basements in search of them.

He opened his paper now and glanced at the head-lines and at the Monday morning ads. “I see the Fair's got a spring housecleaning sale. They advertise a new kind of extension curtain rod. And Scouro, three cakes for a dime.”

“If you waste one cent more on truck like that,” Rose protested, placing his breakfast before him, “when half the time I can't make the housekeeping money last through the week!”

“Your ma did it.”

“Fourteen years ago liver wasn't thirty-two cents a pound,” retorted Rose, “and besides—”

“Scramble 'em!” yelled Al, from the bedroom, by way of warning.

There was very little talk after that. The energies of three of them were directed toward reaching the waiting desk or counter on time. The energy of one toward making that accomplishment easy. The front door slammed once—that was Pa, on his way; slammed again—Al. Floss rushed into the dining-room fastening the waist-band of her skirt, her hat already on. Rose always had a rather special breakfast for Floss. Floss posed as being a rather special person. She always breakfasted last, and late. Floss's was a fastidiousness which shrinks at badly served food, a spotted table-cloth, or a last year's hat, while it overlooks a rent in an undergarment or the accumulated dust in a hairbrush. Her blouse was of the sheerest. Her hair shone in waves about her delicate checks. She ate her orange, and sipped her very special coffee, and made a little face over her egg that had been shirred in the oven or in some way highly specialised. Then the front door slammed again—a semi-slam, this time. Floss never did quite close a door. Rose followed her down the hall, shut and bolted it, Chicago fashion. The sick woman in the front bedroom had dropped into one of her fitful morning dozes. At eight o'clock the little flat was very still.

If you knew nothing about Rose; if you had not already been told that she slept on the sitting-room davenport; that she was taken for granted as the family drudge; that she was, in that household, merely an intelligent machine that made beds, fried eggs, filled hot water bags, you would get a characterization of her from this: She was the sort of person who never has a closet or bureau drawer all her own. Her few and negligible garments hung apologetically in obscure corners of closets dedicated to her sister's wardrobe or her brother's, or her spruce and fussy old father's. Vague personal belongings, such as combings, handkerchiefs, a spectacle case, a hairbrush, were found tucked away in a desk pigeon-hole, a table drawer, or on the top shelf in the bathroom.

As she pulled the disfiguring blue gingham dust-cap over her hair now, and rolled her sleeves to her elbows, you would never have dreamed that Rose was embarking upon her great adventure. You would never have guessed that the semi-yearly closet cleaning was to give to Rose a thrill as delicious as it was exquisitely painful. But Rose knew. And so she teased herself, and tried not to think of the pasteboard box on the shelf in the hall closet, under the pile of reserve blankets, and told herself that she would leave that closet until the last, when she would have to hurry over it.

       * * * * *

When you clean closets and bureau drawers thoroughly you have to carry things out to the back porch and flap them, Rose was that sort of housekeeper. She leaned over the porch railing and flapped things, so that the dust motes spun and swirled in the sunshine. Rose's arms worked up and down energetically, then less energetically, finally ceased their motion altogether. She leaned idle elbows on the porch railing and gazed down into the yard below with a look in her eyes such as no squalid Chicago back yard, with its dusty debris, could summon, even in spring-time.

The woman next door came out on her back porch that adjoined Rose's. The day seemed to have her in its spell, too, for in her hand was something woolly and wintry, and she began to flap it about as Rose had done. She had lived next door since October, had that woman, but the two had never exchanged a word, true to the traditions of their city training. Rose had her doubts of the woman next door. She kept a toy dog which she aired afternoons, and her kimonos were florid and numerous. Now, as the eyes of the two women met, Rose found herself saying, “Looks like summer.”

The woman next door caught the scrap of conversation eagerly, hungrily. “It certainly does! Makes me feel like new clothes, and housecleaning.”

“I started to-day!” said Rose, triumphantly.

“Not already!” gasped the woman next door, with the chagrin that only a woman knows who has let May steal upon her unawares.

From far down the alley sounded a chant, drawing nearer and nearer, until there shambled into view a decrepit horse drawing a dilapidated huckster's cart. Perched on the seat was a Greek who turned his dusky face up toward the two women leaning over the porch railings. “Rhubarb, leddy. Fresh rhubarb!”

“My folks don't care for rhubarb sauce,” Rose told the woman next door.

“It makes the worst pie in the world,” the woman confided to Rose.

Whereupon each bought a bunch of the succulent green and red stalks. It was their offering at the season's shrine.

Rose flung the rhubarb on the kitchen table, pulled her dust-cap more firmly about her ears, and hurried back to the disorder of Floss's dim little bedroom. After that it was dust-cloth, and soapsuds, and scrub-brush in a race against recurrent water bags, insistent doorbells, and the inevitable dinner hour. It was mid-afternoon when Rose, standing a-tiptoe on a chair, came at last to the little box on the top shelf under the bedding in the hall closet. Her hand touched the box, and closed about it. A little electric thrill vibrated through her body. She stepped down from the chair, heavily, listened until her acute ear caught the sound of the sick woman's slumbrous breathing; then, box in hand, walked down the dark hall to the kitchen. The rhubarb pie, still steaming in its pan, was cooling on the kitchen table. The dishes from the invalid's lunch-tray littered the sink. But Rose, seated on the kitchen chair, her rumpled dust-cap pushed back from her flushed, perspiring face, untied the rude bit of string that bound the old candy box, removed the lid, slowly, and by that act was wafted magically out of the world of rhubarb pies, and kitchen chairs, and dirty dishes, into that place whose air is the breath of incense and myrrh, whose paths are rose-strewn, whose dwellings are temples dedicated to but one small god. The land is known as Love, and Rose travelled back to it on the magic rug of memory.

A family of five in a six-room Chicago flat must sacrifice sentiment to necessity. There is precious little space for those pressed flowers, time-yellowed gowns, and ribbon-bound packets that figured so prominently in the days of attics. Into the garbage can with yesterday's roses! The janitor's burlap sack yawns for this morning's mail; last year's gown has long ago met its end at the hands of the ol'-clo'es man or the wash-woman's daughter. That they had survived these fourteen years, and the strictures of their owner's dwelling, tells more about this boxful of letters than could be conveyed by a battalion of adjectives.

Rose began at the top of the pile, in her orderly fashion, and read straight through to the last. It took one hour. Half of that time she was not reading. She was staring straight ahead with what is mistakenly called an unseeing look, but which actually pierces the veil of years and beholds things far, far beyond the vision of the actual eye. They were the letters of a commonplace man to a commonplace woman, written when they loved each other, and so they were touched with something of the divine. They must have been, else how could they have sustained this woman through fifteen years of drudgery? They were the only tangible foundation left of the structure of dreams she had built about this man. All the rest of her house of love had tumbled about her ears fifteen years before, but with these few remaining bricks she had erected many times since castles and towers more exquisite and lofty and soaring than the original humble structure had ever been.

The story? Well, there really isn't any, as we've warned you. Rose had been pretty then in much the same delicate way that Floss was pretty now. They were to have been married. Rose's mother fell ill, Floss and Al were little more than babies. The marriage was put off. The illness lasted six months—a year—two years—became interminable. The breach into which Rose had stepped closed about her and became a prison. The man had waited, had grown impatient, finally rebelled. He had fled, probably, to marry a less encumbered lady. Rose had gone dully on, caring for the household, the children, the sick woman. In the years that had gone by since then Rose had forgiven him his faithlessness. She only remembered that he had been wont to call her his Roeschen, his Rosebud, his pretty flower (being a German gentleman). She only recalled the wonder of having been first in some one's thoughts—she who now was so hopelessly, so irrevocably last.

As she sat there in her kitchen, wearing her soap-stained and faded blue gingham, and the dust-cap pushed back at a rakish angle, a simpering little smile about her lips, she was really very much like the disappointed old maids you used to see so cruelly pictured in the comic valentines. Had those letters obsessed her a little more strongly she might have become quite mad, the Freudians would tell you. Had they held less for her, or had she not been so completely the household's slave, she might have found a certain solace and satisfaction in viewing the Greek profile and marcel wave of the most-worshipped movie star. As it was, they were her ballast, her refuge, the leavening yeast in the soggy dough of her existence. This man had wanted her to be his wife. She had found favour in his eyes. She was certain that he still thought of her, sometimes, and tenderly, regretfully, as she thought of him. It helped her to live. Not only that, it made living possible.

A clock struck, a window slammed, or a street-noise smote her ear sharply. Some sound started her out of her reverie. Rose jumped, stared a moment at the letters in her lap, then hastily, almost shamefacedly, sorted them (she knew each envelope by heart) tied them, placed them in their box and bore them down the hail. There, mounting her chair, she scrubbed the top shelf with her soapy rag, placed the box in its corner, left the hall closet smelling of cleanliness, with never a hint of lavender to betray its secret treasure.

Were Rose to die and go to Heaven, there to spend her days thumbing a golden harp, her hands, by force of habit, would, drop harp-strings at quarter to six, to begin laying a celestial and unspotted table-cloth for supper. Habits as deeply rooted as that must hold, even in after-life.

To-night's six-thirty stampede was noticeably subdued on the part of Pa and Al. It had been a day of sudden and enervating heat, and the city had done its worst to them. Pa's pink gills showed a hint of purple. Al's flimsy silk shirt stuck to his back, and his glittering pompadour was many degrees less submissive than was its wont. But Floss came in late, breathless, and radiant, a large and significant paper bag in her hand. Rose, in the kitchen, was transferring the smoking supper from pot to platter. Pa, in the doorway of the sick woman's little room, had just put his fourteen-year-old question with his usual assumption of heartiness and cheer: “Well, well! And how's the old girl to-night? Feel like you could get up and punish a little supper, eh?” Al engaged at the telephone with some one whom he addressed proprietorially as Kid, was deep in his plans for the evening's diversion. Upon this accustomed scene Floss burst with havoc.

“Rose! Rose, did you iron my Georgette crepe? Listen! Guess what!” All this as she was rushing down the hall, paper hat-bag still in hand. “Guess who was in the store to-day!”

Rose, at the oven, turned a flushed and interested face toward Floss.

“Who? What's that? A hat?”

“Yes. But listen—”

“Let's see it.”

Floss whipped it out of its bag, defiantly. “There! But wait a minute! Let me tell you—”

“How much?”

Floss hesitated just a second. Her wage was nine dollars a week. Then, “Seven-fifty, trimmed.” The hat was one of those tiny, head-hugging absurdities that only the Flosses can wear.

“Trimmed is right!” jeered Al, from the doorway.

Rose, thin-lipped with disapproval, turned to her stove again.

“Well, but I had to have it. I'm going to the theatre to-night. And guess who with! Henry Selz!”

Henry Selz was the unromantic name of the commonplace man over whose fifteen-year-old letters Rose had glowed and dreamed an hour before. It was a name that had become mythical in that household—to all but one. Rose heard it spoken now with a sense of unreality. She smiled a little uncertainly, and went on stirring the flour thickening for the gravy. But she was dimly aware that something inside her had suspended action for a moment, during which moment she felt strangely light and disembodied, and that directly afterward the thing began to work madly, so that there was a choked feeling in her chest and a hot pounding in her head.

“What's the joke?” she said, stirring the gravy in the pan.

“Joke nothing! Honest to God! I was standing back of the counter at about ten. The rush hadn't really begun yet. Glove trade usually starts late. I was standing there kidding Herb, the stock boy, when down the aisle comes a man in a big hat, like you see in the western pictures, hair a little grey at the temples, and everything, just like a movie actor. I said to Herb, 'Is it real?' I hadn't got the words out of my mouth when the fellow sees me, stands stock still in the middle of the aisle with his mouth open and his eyes sticking out. 'Register surprise,' I said to Herb, and looked around for the camera. And that minute he took two jumps over to where I was standing, grabbed my hands and says, 'Rose! Rose!' kind of choky. 'Not by about twenty years,' I said. 'I'm Floss, Rose's sister. Let go my hands!'“

Rose—a transfigured Rose, glowing, trembling, radiant—repeated, vibrantly, “You said, 'I'm Floss, Rose's sister. Let go my hands!' And—?”

“He looked kind of stunned, for just a minute. His face was a scream, honestly. Then he said, 'But of course. Fifteen years. But I had always thought of her as just the same.' And he kind of laughed, ashamed, like a kid. And the whitest teeth!”

“Yes, they were—white,” said Rose. “Well?”

“Well, I said, 'Won't I do instead?' 'You bet you'll do!' he said. And then he told me his name, and how he was living out in Spokane, and his wife was dead, and he had made a lot of money—fruit, or real estate, or something. He talked a lot about it at lunch, but I didn't pay any attention, as long as he really has it a lot I care how—”

“At lunch?”

“Everything from grape-fruit to coffee. I didn't know it could be done in one hour. Believe me, he had those waiters jumping. It takes money. He asked all about you, and ma, and everything. And he kept looking at me and saying, 'It's wonderful!' I said, 'Isn't it!' but I meant the lunch. He wanted me to go driving this afternoon—auto and everything. Kept calling me Rose. It made me kind of mad, and I told him how you look. He said, 'I suppose so,' and asked me to go to a show to-night. Listen, did you press my Georgette? And the blue?”

“I'll iron the waist while you're eating. I'm not hungry. It only takes a minute. Did you say he was grey?”

“Grey? Oh, you mean—why, just here, and here. Interesting, but not a bit old. And he's got that money look that makes waiters and doormen and taxi drivers just hump. I don't want any supper. Just a cup of tea. I haven't got enough time to dress in, decently, as it is.”

Al, draped in the doorway, removed his cigarette to give greater force to his speech. “Your story interests me strangely, little gell. But there's a couple of other people that would like to eat, even if you wouldn't. Come on with that supper, Ro. Nobody staked me to a lunch to-day.”

Rose turned to her stove again. Two carmine spots had leaped suddenly to her cheeks. She served the meal in silence, and ate nothing, but that was not remarkable. For the cook there is little appeal in the meat that she has tended from its moist and bloody entrance in the butcher's paper, through the basting or broiling stage to its formal appearance on the platter. She saw that Al and her father were served. Then she went back to the kitchen, and the thud of her iron was heard as she deftly fluted the ruffles of the crepe blouse. Floss appeared when the meal was half eaten, her hair shiningly coiffed, the pink ribbons of her corset cover showing under her thin kimono. She poured herself a cup of tea and drank it in little quick, nervous gulps. She looked deliriously young, and fragile and appealing, her delicate slenderness revealed by the flimsy garment she wore. Excitement and anticipation lent a glow to her eyes, colour to her cheeks. Al, glancing expertly at the ingenuousness of her artfully simple coiffure, the slim limpness of her body, her wide-eyed gaze, laughed a wise little laugh.

“Every move a Pickford. And so girlish withal.”

Floss ignored him. “Hurry up with that waist, Rose!”

“I'm on the collar now. In a second.” There was a little silence. Then: “Floss, is—is Henry going to call for you—here?”

“Well, sure! Did you think I was going to meet him on the corner? He said he wanted to see you, or something polite like that.”

She finished her tea and vanished again. Al, too, had disappeared to begin that process from which he had always emerged incredibly sleek, and dapper and perfumed. His progress with shaving brush, shirt, collar and tie was marked by disjointed bars of the newest syncopation whistled with an uncanny precision and fidelity to detail. He caught the broken time, and tossed it lightly up again, and dropped it, and caught it deftly like a juggler playing with frail crystal globes that seem forever on the point of crashing to the ground.

Pa stood up, yawning. “Well,” he said, his manner very casual, “guess I'll just drop around to the movie.”

From the kitchen, “Don't you want to sit with ma a minute, first?”

“I will when I come back. They're showing the third installment of 'The Adventures of Aline,' and I don't want to come in in the middle of it.”

He knew the selfishness of it, this furtive and sprightly old man. And because he knew it he attempted to hide his guilt under a burst of temper.

“I've been slaving all day. I guess I've got the right to a little amusement. A man works his fingers to the bone for his family, and then his own daughter nags him.”

He stamped down the hall, righteously, and slammed the front door.

Rose came from the kitchen, the pink blouse, warm from the iron, in one hand. She prinked out its ruffles and pleatings as she went. Floss, burnishing her nails somewhat frantically with a dilapidated and greasy buffer, snatched the garment from her and slipped bare arms into it. The front door bell rang, three big, determined rings. Panic fell upon the household.

“It's him!” whispered Floss, as if she could be heard in the entrance three floors below. “You'll have to go.”

“I can't!” Every inch of her seemed to shrink and cower away from the thought. “I can't!” Her eyes darted to and fro like a hunted thing seeking to escape. She ran to the hall. “Al! Al, go to the door, will you?”

“Can't,” came back in a thick mumble. “Shaving.”

The front door-bell rang again, three big, determined rings. “Rose!” hissed Floss, her tone venomous. “I can't go with my waist open. For heaven's sake! Go to the door!”

“I can't,” repeated Rose, in a kind of wail. “I—can't.” And went. As she went she passed one futile, work-worn hand over her hair, plucked off her apron and tossed it into; a corner, first wiping her flushed face with it.

Henry Selz came up the shabby stairs springily as a man of forty should. Rose stood at the door and waited for him. He stood in the doorway a moment, uncertainly.

“How-do, Henry.”

His uncertainty became incredulity. Then, “Why, how-do, Rose! Didn't know you—for a minute. Well, well! It's been a long time. Let's see—ten—fourteen—about fifteen years, isn't it?”

His tone was cheerfully conversational. He really was interested, mathematically. He was as sentimental in his reminiscence as if he had been calculating the lapse of time between the Chicago fire and the World's Fair.

“Fifteen,” said Rose, “in May. Won't you come in? Floss'll be here in a minute.”

Henry Selz came in and sat down on the davenport couch and dabbed at his forehead. The years had been very kind to him—those same years that had treated Rose so ruthlessly. He had the look of an outdoor man; a man who has met prosperity and walked with her, and followed her pleasant ways; a man who has learned late in life of golf and caviar and tailors, but who has adapted himself to these accessories of wealth with a minimum of friction.

“It certainly is warm, for this time of year.” He leaned back and regarded Rose tolerantly. “Well, and how've you been? Did little sister tell you how flabbergasted I was when I saw her this morning? I'm darned if it didn't take fifteen years off my age, just like that! I got kind of balled up for one minute and thought it was you. She tell you?”

“Yes, she told me,” said Rose.

“I hear your ma's still sick. That certainly is tough. And you've never married, eh?”

“Never married,” echoed Rose.

And so they made conversation, a little uncomfortably, until there came quick, light young steps down the hallway, and Floss appeared in the door, a radiant, glowing, girlish vision. Youth was in her eyes, her cheeks, on her lips. She radiated it. She was miraculously well dressed, in her knowingly simple blue serge suit, and her tiny hat, and her neat shoes and gloves.

“Ah! And how's the little girl to-night?” said Henry Selz.

Floss dimpled, blushed, smiled, swayed. “Did I keep you waiting a terribly long time?”

“No, not a bit. Rose and I were chinning over old times, weren't we, Rose?” A kindly, clumsy thought struck him. “Say, look here, Rose. We're going to a show. Why don't you run and put on your hat and come along. H'm? Come on!”

Rose smiled as a mother smiles at a child that has unknowingly hurt her. “No, thanks, Henry. Not to-night. You and Floss run along. Yes, I'll remember you to Ma. I'm sorry you can't see her. But she don't see anybody, poor Ma.”

Then they were off, in a little flurry of words and laughter. From force of habit Rose's near-sighted eyes peered critically at the hang of Floss's blue skirt and the angle of the pert new hat. She stood a moment, uncertainly, after they had left. On her face was the queerest look, as of one thinking, re-adjusting, struggling to arrive at a conclusion in the midst of sudden bewilderment. She turned mechanically and went into her mother's room. She picked up the tray on the table by the bed.

“Who was that?” asked the sick woman, in her ghostly, devitalised voice.

“That was Henry Selz,” said Rose.

The sick woman grappled a moment with memory. “Henry Selz! Henry—oh, yes. Did he go out with Rose?”

“Yes,” said Rose.

“It's cold in here,” whined the sick woman.

“I'll get you a hot bag in a minute, Ma.” Rose carried the tray down the hall to the kitchen. At that Al emerged from his bedroom, shrugging himself into his coat. He followed Rose down the hall and watched her as she filled the bag and screwed it and wiped it dry.

“I'll take that in to Ma,” he volunteered. He was up the hall and back in a flash. Rose had slumped into a chair at the dining-room table, and was pouring herself a cup of cold and bitter tea. Al came over to her and laid one white hand on her shoulder.

“Ro, lend me a couple of dollars till Saturday, will you?”

“I should say not.”

Al doused his cigarette in the dregs of a convenient teacup. He bent down and laid his powdered and pale cheek against Rose's sallow one. One arm was about her, and his hand patted her shoulder.

“Oh, come on, kid,” he coaxed. “Don't I always pay you back? Come on! Be a sweet ol' sis. I wouldn't ask you only I've got a date to go to the White City to-night, and dance, and I couldn't get out of it. I tried.” He kissed her, and his lips were moist, and he reeked of tobacco, and though Rose shrugged impatiently away from him he knew that he had won. Rose was not an eloquent woman; she was not even an articulate one, at times. If she had been, she would have lifted up her voice to say now:

“Oh, God! I am a woman! Why have you given me all the sorrows, and the drudgery, and the bitterness and the thanklessness of motherhood, with none of its joys! Give me back my youth! I'll drink the dregs at the bottom of the cup, but first let me taste the sweet!”

But Rose did not talk or think in such terms. She could not have put into words the thing she was feeling even if she had been able to diagnose it. So what she said was, “Don't you think I ever get sick and tired of slaving for a thankless bunch like you? Well, I do! Sick and tired of it. That's what! You make me tired, coming around asking for money, as if I was a bank.”

But Al waited. And presently she said, grudgingly, wearily, “There's a dollar bill and some small change in the can on the second shelf in the china closet.”

Al was off like a terrier. From the pantry came the clink of metal against metal. He was up the hall in a flash, without a look at Rose. The front door slammed a third time.

Rose stirred her cold tea slowly, leaning on the table's edge and gazing down into the amber liquid that she did not mean to drink. For suddenly and comically her face puckered up like a child's. Her head came down among the supper things with a little crash that set the teacups, and the greasy plates to jingling, and she sobbed as she lay there, with great tearing, ugly sobs that would not be stilled, though she tried to stifle them as does one who lives in a paper-thin Chicago flat. She was not weeping for the Henry Selz whom she had just seen. She was not weeping for envy of her selfish little sister, or for loneliness, or weariness. She was weeping at the loss of a ghost who had become her familiar. She was weeping because a packet of soiled and yellow old letters on the top shelf in the hall closet was now only a packet of soiled and yellow old letters, food for the ash can. She was weeping because the urge of spring, that had expressed itself in her only this morning pitifully enough in terms of rhubarb, and housecleaning and a bundle of thumbed old love letters, had stirred in her for the last time.

But presently she did stop her sobbing and got up and cleared the table, and washed the dishes and even glanced at the crumpled sheets of the morning paper that she never found time to read until evening. By eight o'clock the little flat was very still.

 
 
 

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