by Fannie Hurst
II. SIEVE OF
IV. HERS NOT TO
V. GOLDEN FLEECE
VII. GET READY
[Illustration: They walked, thus guided by an obsequious waiter,
through a light confetti of tossed greetings.]
[Dedication: To my mother and my father]
Much of the tragical lore of the infant mortality, the malnutrition,
and the five-in-a-room morality of the city's poor is written in
statistics, and the statistical path to the heart is more figurative
It is difficult to write stylistically a per-annum report of 1,327
curvatures of the spine, whereas the poor specific little vertebra of
Mamie O'Grady, daughter to Lou, your laundress, whose alcoholic husband
once invaded your very own basement and attempted to strangle her in
the coal-bin, can instantly create an apron bazaar in the church
That is why it is possible to drink your morning coffee without
nausea for it, over the head-lines of forty thousand casualties at
Ypres, but to push back abruptly at a three-line notice of little
Tony's, your corner bootblack's, fatal dive before a street-car.
Gertie Slayback was statistically down as a woman wage-earner; a
typhoid case among the thousands of the Borough of Manhattan for 1901;
and her twice-a-day share in the Subway fares collected in the present
year of our Lord.
She was a very atomic one of the city's four millions. But after
all, what are the kings and peasants, poets and draymen, but great,
greater, or greatest, less, lesser, or least atoms of us? If not of the
least, Gertie Slayback was of the very lesser. When she unlocked the
front door to her rooming-house of evenings, there was no one to expect
her, except on Tuesdays, which evening it so happened her week was up.
And when she left of mornings with her breakfast crumblessly cleared up
and the box of biscuit and condensed-milk can tucked unsuspectedly
behind her camisole in the top drawer there was no one to regret her.
There are some of us who call this freedom. Again there are those
for whom one spark of home fire burning would light the world.
Gertie Slayback was one of these. Half a life-time of opening her
door upon this or that desert-aisle of hall bedroom had not taught her
heart how not to sink or the feel of daily rising in one such room to
seem less like a damp bathing-suit, donned at dawn.
The only picture—or call it atavism if you will—which adorned Miss
Slayback's dun-colored walls was a passe-partout snowscape, night
closing in, and pink cottage windows peering out from under eaves. She
could visualize that interior as if she had only to turn the frame for
the smell of wood fire and the snap of pine logs and for the scene of
two high-back chairs and the wooden crib between.
What a fragile, gracile thing is the mind that can leap thus from
nine bargain basement hours of hairpins and darning-balls to the downy
business of lining a crib in Never-Never Land and warming No Man's
slippers before the fire of imagination.
There was that picture so acidly etched into Miss Slayback's brain
that she had only to close her eyes in the slit-like sanctity of her
room and in the brief moment of courting sleep feel the pink penumbra
of her vision begin to glow.
Of late years, or, more specifically, for two years and eight
months, another picture had invaded, even superseded the old. A
stamp-photograph likeness of Mr. James P. Batch in the corner of Miss
Slayback's mirror, and thereafter No Man's slippers became number
eight-and-a-half C, and the hearth a gilded radiator in a
dining-living-room somewhere between the Fourteenth Street Subway and
the land of the Bronx.
How Miss Slayback, by habit not gregarious, met Mr. Batch is of no
consequence, except to those snug ones of us to whom an introduction is
the only means to such an end.
At a six o'clock that invaded even Union Square with heliotrope
dusk, Mr. James Batch mistook, who shall say otherwise, Miss Gertie
Slayback, as she stepped down into the wintry shade of a Subway kiosk,
for Miss Whodoesitmatter. At seven o'clock, over a dish of lamb stew
a la White Kitchen, he confessed, and if Miss Slayback affected too
great surprise and too little indignation, try to conceive six
nine-hour week-in-and-week-out days of hair-pins and darning-balls, and
then, at a heliotrope dusk, James P. Batch, in invitational mood,
stepping in between it and the papered walls of a dun-colored evening.
To further enlist your tolerance, Gertie Slayback's eyes were as blue
as the noon of June, and James P. Batch, in a belted-in coat and five
kid finger-points protruding ever so slightly and rightly from a breast
pocket, was hewn and honed in the image of youth. His the smile of one
for whom life's cup holds a heady wine, a wrinkle or two at the eye
only serving to enhance that smile; a one-inch feather stuck upright in
his derby hatband.
It was a forelock once stamped a Corsican with the look of emperor.
It was this hat feather, a cock's feather at that and worn without
sense of humor, to which Miss Slayback was fond of attributing the
consequences of that heliotrope dusk.
“It was the feather in your cap did it, Jimmie. I can see you yet,
stepping up with that innocent grin of yours. You think I didn't know
you were flirting? Cousin from Long Island City! 'Say,' I says to
myself, I says, 'I look as much like his cousin from Long Island City,
if he's got one, as my cousin from Hoboken (and I haven't got any)
would look like my sister if I had one.' It was that sassy little
feather in your hat!”
They would laugh over this ever-green reminiscence on Sunday Park
benches and at intermission at moving pictures when they remained
through it to see the show twice. Be the landlady's front parlor ever
so permanently rented out, the motion-picture theater has brought to
thousands of young city starvelings, if not the quietude of the home,
then at least the warmth and a juxtaposition and a deep darkness that
can lave the sub-basement throb of temples and is filled with music
with a hum in it.
For two years and eight months of Saturday nights, each one of them
a semaphore dropping out across the gray road of the week, Gertie
Slayback and Jimmie Batch dined for one hour and sixty cents at the
White Kitchen. Then arm and arm up the million-candle-power flare of
Broadway, content, these two who had never seen a lake reflect a moon,
or a slim fir pointing to a star, that life could be so manifold. And
always, too, on Saturday, the tenth from the last row of the De Luxe
Cinematograph, Broadway's Best, Orchestra Chairs, fifty cents; Last Ten
Rows, thirty-five. The give of velvet-upholstered chairs, perfumed
darkness, and any old love story moving across it to the ecstatic ache
of Gertie Slayback's high young heart.
On a Saturday evening that was already pointed with stars at the
six-o'clock closing of Hoffheimer's Fourteenth Street Emporium, Miss
Slayback, whose blondness under fatigue could become ashy, emerged from
the Bargain-Basement almost the first of its frantic exodus, taking the
place of her weekly appointment in the entrance of the Popular Drug
Store adjoining, her gaze, something even frantic in it, sifting the
At six o'clock Fourteenth Street pours up from its basements, down
from its lofts, and out from its five-and-ten-cent stores, shows, and
arcades, in a great homeward torrent—a sweeping torrent that flows
full flush to the Subway, the Elevated, and the surface car, and then
spreads thinly into the least pretentious of the city's homes—the five
flights up, the two rooms rear, and the third floor back.
Standing there, this eager tide of the Fourteenth Street Emporium,
thus released by the six-o'clock flood-gates, flowed past Miss
Slayback. White-nosed, low-chested girls in short-vamp shoes and
no-carat gold vanity-cases. Older men resigned that ambition could be
flayed by a yard-stick; young men still impatient of their clerkship.
It was into the trickle of these last that Miss Slayback bored her
glance, the darting, eager glance of hot eyeballs and inner trembling.
She was not so pathetically young as she was pathetically blond, a
treacherous, ready-to-fade kind of blondness that one day, now that she
had found that very morning her first gray hair, would leave her ashy.
Suddenly, with a small catch of breath that was audible in her
throat, Miss Slayback stepped out of that doorway, squirming her way
across the tight congestion of the sidewalk to its curb, then in and
out, brushing this elbow and that shoulder, worming her way in an
absolutely supreme anxiety to keep in view a brown derby hat bobbing
right briskly along with the crowd, a greenish-black bit of feather
upright in its band.
At Broadway, Fourteenth Street cuts quite a caper, deploying out
into Union Square, an island of park, beginning to be succulent at the
first false feint of spring, rising as it were from a sea of asphalt.
Across this park Miss Slayback worked her rather frenzied way, breaking
into a run when the derby threatened to sink into the confusion of a
hundred others, and finally learning to keep its course by the faint
but distinguishing fact of a slight dent in the crown. At Broadway,
some blocks before that highway bursts into its famous flare, Mr.
Batch, than whom it was no other, turned off suddenly at right angles
down into a dim pocket of side-street and into the illuminated entrance
of Ceiner's Cafe Hungarian. Meals at all hours. Lunch, thirty cents.
Dinner, fifty cents. Our Goulash is Famous.
New York, which expresses itself in more languages to the square
block than any other area in the world, Babylon included, loves thus to
dine linguistically, so to speak. To the Crescent Turkish Restaurant
for its Business Men's Lunch comes Fourth Avenue, whose antique-shop
patois reads across the page from right to left. Sight-seeing
automobiles on mission and commission bent allow Altoona, Iowa City,
and Quincy, Illinois, fifteen minutes' stop-in at Ching Ling-Foo's
Chinatown Delmonico's. Spaghetti and red wine have set New York racing
to reserve its table d'hotes. All except the Latin race.
Jimmie Batch, who had first seen light, and that gaslight, in a
block in lower Manhattan which has since been given over to a
milk-station for a highly congested district, had the palate, if not
the purse, of the cosmopolite. His digestive range included borsch
and chow maigne; risotta and ham and.
To-night, as he turned into Cafe Hungarian, Miss Slayback slowed and
drew back into the overshadowing protection of an adjoining
office-building. She was breathing hard, and her little face, somehow
smaller from chill, was nevertheless a high pink at the cheek-bones.
The wind swept around the corner, jerking her hat, and her hand flew
up to it. There was a fair stream of passers-by even here, and
occasionally one turned for a backward glance at her standing there so
Suddenly Miss Slayback adjusted her tam-o'-shanter to its flop over
her right ear, and, drawing off a pair of dark-blue silk gloves from
over immaculately new white ones, entered Ceiner's Cafe Hungarian. In
its light she was not so obviously blonder than young, the pink spots
in her cheeks had a deepening value to the blue of her eyes, and a
black velvet tam-o'-shanter revealing just the right fringe of yellow
curls is no mean aid.
First of all, Ceiner's is an eating-place. There is no music except
at five cents in the slot, and its tables for four are perpetually set
each with a dish of sliced radishes, a bouquet of celery, and a mound
of bread, half the stack rye. Its menus are well thumbed and badly
mimeographed. Who enters Ceiner's is prepared to dine from barley soup
to apple strudel. At something after six begins the rising sound of
cutlery, and already the new-comer fears to find no table.
Off at the side, Mr. Jimmie Batch had already disposed of his hat
and gray overcoat, and tilting the chair opposite him to indicate its
reservation, shook open his evening paper, the waiter withholding the
menu at this sign of rendezvous.
Straight toward that table Miss Slayback worked quick, swift way,
through this and that aisle, jerking back and seating herself on the
chair opposite almost before Mr. Batch could raise his eyes from off
the sporting page.
There was an instant of silence between them—the kind of silence
that can shape itself into a commentary upon the inefficacy of mere
speech—a widening silence which, as they sat there facing, deepened
until, when she finally spoke, it was as if her words were pebbles
dropping down into a well.
“Don't look so surprised, Jimmie,” she said, propping her face
calmly, even boldly, into the white-kid palms. “You might fall off the
Above the snug, four-inch collar and bow tie Mr. Batch's face was
taking on a dull ox-blood tinge that spread back, even reddening his
ears. Mr. Batch had the frontal bone of a clerk, the horn-rimmed
glasses of the literarily astigmatic, and the sartorial perfection that
only the rich can afford not to attain.
He was staring now quite frankly, and his mouth had fallen open.
“Gert!” he said.
“Yes,” said Miss Slayback, her insouciance gaining with his
discomposure, her eyes widening and then a dolly kind of glassiness
seeming to set in. “You wasn't expecting me, Jimmie?”
He jerked up his head, not meeting her glance. “What's the idea of
“You don't look glad to see me, Jimmie.”
“If you—think you're funny.”
She was working out of and then back into the freshly white gloves
in a betraying kind of nervousness that belied the toss of her voice.
“Well, of all things! Mad-cat! Mad, just because you didn't seem to be
“I—There's some things that are just the limit, that's what they
are. Some things that are just the limit, that no fellow would stand
from any girl, and this—this is one of them.”
Her lips were trembling now. “You—you bet your life there's some
things that are just the limit.”
He slid out his watch, pushing back. “Well, I guess this place is
too small for a fellow and a girl that can follow him around town like
She sat forward, grasping the table-sides, her chair tilting with
her. “Don't you dare to get up and leave me sitting here! Jimmie Batch,
don't you dare!”
The waiter intervened, card extended.
“We—we're waiting for another party,” said Miss Slayback, her hands
still rigidly over the table-sides and her glance like a steady drill
into Mr. Batch's own.
There was a second of this silence while the waiter withdrew, and
then Mr. Batch whipped out his watch again, a gun-metal one with an
“Now look here. I got a date here in ten minutes, and one or the
other of us has got to clear. You—you're one too many, if you got to
“Oh, I do know it, Jimmie! I been one too many for the last four
Saturday nights. I been one too many ever since May Scully came into
five hundred dollars' inheritance and quit the Ladies' Neckwear. I been
one too many ever since May Scully became a lady.”
“If I was a girl and didn't have more shame!”
“Shame! Now you're shouting, Jimmie Batch. I haven't got shame, and
I don't care who knows it. A girl don't stop to have shame when she's
fighting for her rights.”
He was leaning on his elbow, profile to her. “That movie talk can't
scare me. You can't tell me what to do and what not to do. I've given
you a square deal all right. There's not a word ever passed between us
that ties me to your apron-strings. I don't say I'm not without my
obligations to you, but that's not one of them. No, sirree—no
“I know it isn't, Jimmie. You're the kind of a fellow wouldn't even
talk to himself for fear of committing hisself.”
“I got a date here now any minute, Gert, and the sooner you—”
“You're the guy who passed up the Sixty-first for the Safety First
“I'll show you my regiment some day.”
“I—I know you're not tied to my apron-strings, Jimmie. I—I
wouldn't have you there for anything. Don't you think I know you too
well for that? That's just it. Nobody on God's earth knows you the way
I do. I know you better than you know yourself.”
“You better beat it, Gertie. I tell you I'm getting sore.”
Her face flashed from him to the door and back again, her anxiety
almost edged with hysteria. “Come on, Jimmie—out the side entrance
before she gets here. May Scully ain't the company for you. You think
if she was, honey, I'd—I'd see myself come butting in between you this
way, like—like a—common girl? She's not the girl to keep you
straight. Honest to God she's not, honey.”
“My business is my business, let me tell you that.”
“She's speedy, Jimmie. She was the speediest girl on the main floor,
and now that she's come into those five hundred, instead of planting it
for a rainy day, she's quit work and gone plumb crazy with it.”
“When I want advice about my friends I ask for it.”
“It's not her good name that worries me, Jimmie, because she 'ain't
got any. It's you. She's got you crazy with that five hundred,
too—that's what's got me scared.”
“Gee! you ought to let the Salvation Army tie a bonnet under your
“She's always had her eyes on you, Jimmie. 'Ain't you men got no
sense for seein' things? Since the day they moved the Gents'
Furnishings across from the Ladies' Neckwear she's had you spotted. Her
goings-on used to leak down to the basement, alrighty. She's not a good
girl, May ain't, Jimmie. She ain't, and you know it. Is she? Is she?”
“Aw!” said Jimmie Batch.
“You see! See! 'Ain't got the nerve to answer, have you?”
“Aw—maybe I know, too, that she's not the kind of a girl that would
turn up where she's not—”
“If you wasn't a classy-looking kind of boy, Jimmie, that a fly girl
like May likes to be seen out with, she couldn't find you with
magnifying glasses, not if you was born with the golden rule in your
mouth and had swallowed it. She's not the kind of girl, Jimmie, a
fellow like you needs behind him. If—if you was ever to marry her and
get your hands on them five hundred dollars—”
“It would be my business.”
“It'll be your ruination. You're not strong enough to stand up under
nothing like that. With a few hundred unearned dollars in your pocket
you—you'd go up in spontaneous combustion, you would.”
“It would be my own spontaneous combustion.”
“You got to be drove, Jimmie, like a kid. With them few dollars you
wouldn't start up a little cigar-store like you think you would. You
and her would blow yourselves to the dogs in two months. Cigar-stores
ain't the place for you, Jimmie. You seen how only clerking in them was
nearly your ruination—the little gambling-room-in-the-back kind that
you pick out. They ain't cigar-stores; they're only false faces for
“You know it all, don't you?”
“Oh, I'm dealing it to you straight! There's too many sporty crowds
loafing around those joints for a fellow like you to stand up under. I
found you in one, and as yellow-fingered and as loafing as they come, a
new job a week, a—”
“Yeh, and there was some pep to variety, too.”
“Don't throw over, Jimmie, what my getting you out of it to a decent
job in a department store has begun to do for you. And you're making
good, too. Higgins told me to-day, if you don't let your head swell,
there won't be a fellow in the department can stack up his sales-book
“Don't throw it all over, Jimmie—and me—for a crop of dyed red
hair and a few dollars to ruin yourself with.”
He shot her a look of constantly growing nervousness, his mouth
pulled to an oblique, his glance constantly toward the door.
“Don't keep no date with her to-night, Jimmie. You haven't got the
constitution to stand her pace. It's telling on you. Look at those
fingers yellowing again—looka—”
“They're my fingers, ain't they?”
“You see, Jimmie, I—I'm the only person in the world that likes you
just for what—you ain't—and hasn't got any pipe dreams about you.
That's what counts, Jimmie, the folks that like you in spite, and not
“We will now sing psalm number two hundred and twenty-three.”
“I know there's not a better fellow in the world if he's kept nailed
to the right job, and I know, too, there's not another fellow can go to
the dogs any easier.”
“To hear you talk, you'd think I was about six.”
“I'm the only girl that'll ever be willing to make a whip out of
herself that'll keep you going and won't sting, honey. I know you're
soft and lazy and selfish and—”
“Don't forget any.”
“And I know you're my good-looking good-for-nothing, and I know,
too, that you—you don't care as much—as much for me from head to toe
as I do for your little finger. But I—I like you just the same,
Jimmie. That—that's what I mean about having no shame. I—do like you
so—so terribly, Jimmie.”
“I know it, Jimmie—that I ought to be ashamed. Don't think I
haven't cried myself to sleep with it whole nights in succession.”
“Don't think I don't know it, that I'm laying myself before you
pretty common. I know it's common for a girl to—to come to a fellow
like this, but—but I haven't got any shame about it—I haven't got
anything, Jimmie, except fight for—for what's eating me. And the way
things are between us now is eating me.”
“I—Why, I got a mighty high regard for you, Gert.”
“There's a time in a girl's life, Jimmie, when she's been starved
like I have for something of her own all her days; there's times, no
matter how she's held in, that all of a sudden comes a minute when she
“I understand, Gert, but—”
“For two years and eight months, Jimmie, life has got to be worth
while living to me because I could see the day, even if we—you—never
talked about it, when you would be made over from a flip kid to—to the
kind of a fellow would want to settle down to making a
little—two-by-four home for us. A—little two-by-four all our own,
with you steady on the job and advanced maybe to forty or fifty a week
“For God's sake, Gertie, this ain't the time or the place to—”
“Oh yes, it is! It's got to be, because it's the first time in four
weeks that you didn't see me coming first.”
“But not now, Gert. I—”
“I'm not ashamed to tell you, Jimmie Batch, that I've been the
making of you since that night you threw the wink at me. And—and it
hurts, this does. God! how it hurts!”
He was pleating the table-cloth, swallowing as if his throat had
constricted, and still rearing his head this way and that in the tight
“I—never claimed not to be a bad egg. This ain't the time and the
place for rehashing, that's all. Sure you been a friend to me. I don't
say you haven't. Only I can't be bossed by a girl like you. I don't say
May Scully's any better than she ought to be. Only that's my business.
You hear? my business. I got to have life and see a darn sight more
future for myself than selling shirts in a Fourteenth Street department
“May Scully can't give it to you—her and her fast crowd.”
“Maybe she can and maybe she can't.”
“Them few dollars won't make you; they'll break you.”
“That's for her to decide, not you.”
“I'll tell her myself. I'll face her right here and—”
“Now, look here, if you think I'm going to be let in for a holy show
between you two girls, you got another think coming. One of us has got
to clear out of here, and quick, too. You been talking about the side
door; there it is. In five minutes I got a date in this place that I
thought I could keep like any law-abiding citizen. One of us has got to
clear, and quick, too. God! you wimmin make me sick, the whole lot of
“If anything makes you sick, I know what it is. It's dodging me to
fly around all hours of the night with May Scully, the girl who put the
tang in tango. It's eating around in swell sixty-cent restaurants like
“Gad! your middle name ought to be Nagalene.”
“Aw, now, Jimmie, maybe it does sound like nagging, but it ain't,
honey. It—it's only my—my fear that I'm losing you, and—and my hate
for the every-day grind of things, and—”
“I can't help that, can I?”
“Why, there—there's nothing on God's earth I hate, Jimmie, like I
hate that Bargain-Basement. When I think it's down there in that
manhole I've spent the best years of my life, I—I wanna die. The day I
get out of it, the day I don't have to punch that old time-clock down
there next to the Complaints and Adjustment Desk, I—I'll never put my
foot below sidewalk level again to the hour I die. Not even if it was
to take a walk in my own gold-mine.”
“It ain't exactly a garden of roses down there.”
“Why, I hate it so terrible, Jimmie, that sometimes I wake up nights
gritting my teeth with the smell of steam-pipes and the tramp of feet
on the glass sidewalk up over me. Oh. God! you dunno—you dunno!”
“When it comes to that the main floor ain't exactly a maiden's
dream, or a fellow's, for that matter.”
“With a man it's different, It's his job in life, earning, and—and
the woman making the two ends of it meet. That's why, Jimmie, these
last two years and eight months, if not for what I was hoping for us,
why—why—I—why, on your twenty a week, Jimmie, there's nobody could
run a flat like I could. Why, the days wouldn't be long enough to
putter in. I—Don't throw away what I been building up for us, Jimmie,
step by step! Don't, Jimmie!”
“Good Lord, girl! You deserve better 'n me.”
“I know I got a big job, Jimmie, but I want to make a man out of
you, temper, laziness, gambling, and all. You got it in you to be
something more than a tango lizard or a cigar-store bum, honey. It's
only you 'ain't got the stuff in you to stand up under a
five-hundred-dollar windfall and—a—and a sporty girl. If—if two
glasses of beer make you as silly as they do, Jimmie, why, five hundred
dollars would land you under the table for life.”
“Aw-there you go again!”
“I can't help it, Jimmie. It's because I never knew a fellow had
what's he's cut out for written all over him so. You're a born clerk,
“Sure, I'm a slick clerk, but—”
“You're born to be a clerk, a good clerk, even a two-hundred-a-month
clerk, the way you can win the trade, but never your own boss. I know
what I'm talking about. I know your measure better than any human on
earth can ever know your measure. I know things about you that you
don't even know yourself.”
“I never set myself up to nobody for anything I wasn't.”
“Maybe not, Jimmie, but I know about you and—and that Central
Street gang that time, and—”
“Yes, honey, and there's not another human living but me knows how
little it was your fault. Just bad company, that was all. That's how
much I—I love you, Jimmie, enough to understand that. Why, if I
thought May Scully and a set-up in business was the thing for you,
Jimmie, I'd say to her, I'd say, if it was like taking my own heart out
in my hand and squashing it, I'd say to her, I'd say, 'Take him, May.'
That's how I—I love you, Jimmie. Oh, ain't it nothing, honey, a girl
can come here and lay herself this low to you—”
“Well, haven't I just said you—you deserve better.”
“I don't want better, Jimmie. I want you. I want to take hold of
your life and finish the job of making it the kind we can both be proud
of. Us two, Jimmie, in—in our own decent two-by-four. Shopping on
Saturday nights. Frying in our own frying-pan in our own kitchen.
Listening to our own phonograph in our own parlor. Geraniums and—and
kids—and—and things. Gas-logs. Stationary washtubs. Jimmie! Jimmie!”
Mr. James P. Batch reached up for his hat and overcoat, cramming the
newspaper into a rear pocket.
“Come on,” he said, stalking toward the side door and not waiting to
see her to her feet.
Outside, a banner of stars was over the narrow street. For a chain
of five blocks he walked, with a silence and speed that Miss Slayback
could only match with a running quickstep. But she was not out of
breath. Her head was up, and her hand, where it hooked into Mr. Batch's
elbow, was in a vise that tightened with each block.
You who will mete out no other approval than that vouched for by the
stamp of time and whose contempt for the contemporary is from behind
the easy refuge of the classics, suffer you the shuddering analogy that
between Aspasia who inspired Pericles, Theodora who suggested the
Justinian code, and Gertie Slayback who commandeered Jimmie Batch, is a
sistership which rounds them, like a lasso thrown back into time, into
one and the same petticoat dynasty behind the throne.
True, Gertie Slayback's mise en scene was a two-room
kitchenette apartment situated in the Bronx at a surveyor's farthest
point between two Subway stations, and her present state one of
frequent red-faced forays down into a packing-case. But there was that
in her eyes which witchingly bespoke the conquered, but not the
conqueror. Hers was actually the titillating wonder of a bird which,
captured, closes its wings, that surrender can be so sweet.
Once she sat on the edge of the packing-case, dallying a hammer,
then laid it aside suddenly, to cross the littered room and place the
side of her head to the immaculate waistcoat of Mr. Jimmie Batch,
red-faced, too, over wrenching up with hatchet-edge a barrel-top.
“Jimmie darling, I—I just never will get over your finding this
place for us.”
Mr. Batch wiped his forearm across his brow, his voice jerking
between the squeak of nails extracted from wood.
“It was you, honey. You give me the to-let ad, and I came to look,
“Just the samey, it was my boy found it. If you hadn't come to look
we might have been forced into taking that old dark coop over on
“What's all this junk in this barrel?”
“Them's kitchen utensils, honey.”
“Kitchen things that you don't know nothing about except to eat good
things out of.”
“Don't bend it! That's a celery-brush. Ain't it cute?”
“A celery-brush! Why didn't you get it a comb, too?”
“Aw, now, honey-bee, don't go trying to be funny and picking through
these things you don't know nothing about! They're just cute things I'm
going to cook something grand suppers in, for my something awful bad
He leaned down to kiss her at that. “Gee!”
She was standing, her shoulder to him and head thrown back against
his chest. She looked up to stroke his cheek, her face foreshortened.
“I'm all black and blue pinching myself, Jimmie.”
“Every night when I get home from working here in the flat I say to
myself in the looking-glass, I say, 'Gertie Slayback, what if you're
“I say to myself, 'Are you sure that darling flat up there, with the
new pink-and-white wall-paper and the furniture arriving every day, is
going to be yours in a few days when you're Mrs. Jimmie Batch?'“
“Mrs. Jimmie Batch—say, that's immense.”
“I keep saying it to myself every night, 'One day less.' Last night
it was two days. To-night it'll be—one day, Jimmie, till I'm—her.”
She closed her eyes and let her hand linger up at his cheek, head
still back against him, so that, inclining his head, he could rest his
lips in the ash-blond fluff of her hair.
“Talk about can't wait! If to-morrow was any farther off they'd have
to sweep out a padded cell for me.”
She turned to rumple the smooth light thatch of his hair. “Bad boy!
Can't wait! And here we are getting married all of a sudden, just like
that. Up to the time of this draft business, Jimmie Batch, 'pretty
soon' was the only date I could ever get out of you, and now here you
are crying over one day's wait. Bad honey boy!”
He reached back for the pink newspaper so habitually protruding from
his hip pocket. “You ought to see the way they're neck-breaking for the
marriage-license bureaus since the draft. First thing we know, tine
whole shebang of the boys will be claiming the exemption of sole
support of wife.”
“It's a good thing we made up our minds quick, Jimmie. They'll be
getting wise. If too many get exemption from the army by marrying right
away, it'll be a give-away.”
“I'd like to know who can lay his hands on the exemption of a little
wife to support.”
“Oh, Jimmie, it—it sounds so funny. Being supported! Me that always
did the supporting, not only to me, but to my mother and
great-grand-mother up to the day they died.”
“I'm the greatest little supporter you ever seen.”
“Me getting up mornings to stay at home in my own darling little
flat, and no basement or time-clock. Nothing but a busy little hubby to
eat him nice, smelly, bacon breakfast and grab him nice morning
newspaper, kiss him wifie, and run downtown to support her. Jimmie,
every morning for your breakfast I'm going to fry—”
“You bet your life he's going to support her, and he's going to pay
back that forty dollars of his girl's that went into his wedding duds,
that hundred and ninety of his girl's savings that went into
“We got to meet our instalments every month first, Jimmie. That's
what we want—no debts and every little darling piece of furniture paid
“We—I'm going to pay it, too.”
“And my Jimmie is going to work to get himself promoted and quit
being a sorehead at his steady hours and all.”
“I know more about selling, honey, than the whole bunch of dubs in
that store put together if they'd give me a chance to prove it.”
She laid her palm to his lips.
“'Shh-h-h! You don't nothing of the kind. It's not conceit, it's
work is going to get my boy his raise.”
“If they'd listen to me, that department would—”
“'Shh-h! J. G. Hoffheimer don't have to get pointers from Jimmie
Batch how to run his department store.”
“There you go again. What's J. G. Hoffheimer got that I 'ain't? Luck
and a few dollars in his pocket that, if I had in mine, would—
“It was his own grit put those dollars there, Jimmie. Just put it
out of your head that it's luck makes a self-made man.”
“Self-made! You mean things just broke right for him. That's
two-thirds of this self-made business.”
“You mean he buckled right down to brass tacks, and that's what my
boy is going to do.”
“The trouble with this world is it takes money to make money. Get
your first few dollars, I always say, no matter how, and then when
you're on your feet scratch your conscience if it itches. That's why I
said in the beginning, if we had took that hundred and ninety furniture
money and staked it on—”
“Jimmie, please—please! You wouldn't want to take a girl's savings
of years and years to gamble on a sporty cigar proposition with a
card-room in the rear. You wouldn't, Jimmie. You ain't that kind of
fellow. Tell me you wouldn't, Jimmie.”
He turned away to dive down into the barrel. “Naw,” he said, “I
The sun had receded, leaving a sudden sullen gray, the little square
room, littered with an upheaval of excelsior, sheet-shrouded furniture,
and the paperhanger's paraphernalia and inimitable smells, darkening
and seeming to chill.
“We got to quit now, Jimmie. It's getting dark and the gas ain't
turned on in the meter yet.”
He rose up out of the barrel, holding out at arm's-length what might
have been a tinsmith's version of a porcupine.
“What in—What's this thing that scratched me?”
She danced to take it. “It's a grater, a darling grater for
horseradish and nutmeg and cocoanut. I'm going to fix you a cocoanut
cake for our honeymoon supper to-morrow night, honey-bee. Essie
Wohlgemuth over in the cake-demonstrating department is going to bring
me the recipe. Cocoanut cake! And I'm going to fry us a little steak in
this darling little skillet. Ain't it the cutest!”
“Cute she calls a tin skillet.”
“Look what's pasted on it. 'Little Housewife's Skillet. The Kitchen
Fairy.' That's what I'm going to be, Jimmie, the kitchen fairy. Give me
that. It's a rolling-pin. All my life I've wanted a rolling-pin. Look,
honey, a little string to hang it up by. I'm going to hang everything
up in rows. It's going to look like Tiffany's kitchen, all shiny. Give
me, honey; that's an egg-beater. Look at it whiz. And this—this is a
pan for war bread. I'm going to make us war bread to help the
“You're a little soldier yourself,” he said.
“That's what I would be if I was a man, a soldier all in brass
“There's a bunch of the fellows going,” said Mr. Batch, standing at
the window, looking out over roofs, dilly-dallying up and down on his
heels and breaking into a low, contemplative whistle. She was at his
shoulder, peering over it. “You wouldn't be afraid, would you, Jimmie?”
“You bet your life I wouldn't.”
She was tiptoes now, her arms creeping up to him. “Only my boy's got
a wife—a brand-new wifie to support, 'ain't he?”
“That's what he has,” said Mr. Batch, stroking her forearm, but
still gazing through and beyond whatever roofs he was seeing.
“Look! We got a view of the Hudson River from our flat, just like we
lived on Riverside Drive.”
“All the Hudson River I can see is fifteen smoke-stacks and
somebody's wash-line out.”
“It ain't so. We got a grand view. Look! Stand on tiptoe, Jimmie,
like me. There, between that water-tank on that black roof over there
and them two chimneys. See? Watch my finger. A little stream of
something over there that moves.”
“No, I don't see.”
“Look, honey-bee, close! See that little streak?”
“All right, then, if you see it I see it.”
“To think we got a river view from our flat! It's like living in the
country. I'll peek out at it all day long. God! honey, I just never
will be over the happiness of being done with basements.”
“It was swell of old Higgins to give us this half-Saturday. It shows
where you stood with the management, Gert—this and a five-dollar gold
piece. Lord knows they wouldn't pony up that way if it was me getting
married by myself.”
“It's because my boy 'ain't shown them down there yet the best
that's in him. You just watch his little safety-first wife see to it
that from now on he keeps up her record of never in seven years
punching the time-clock even one minute late, and that he keeps his
stock shelves O. K. and shows his department he's a comer-on.”
“With that bunch of boobs a fellow's got a swell chance to get
“It's getting late, Jimmie. It don't look nice for us to stay here
so late alone, not till—to-morrow. Ruby and Essie and Charley are
going to meet us in the minister's back parlor at ten sharp in the
morning. We can be back here by noon and get the place cleared enough
to give 'em a little lunch—just a fun lunch without fixings.”
“I hope the old guy don't waste no time splicing us. It's one of the
things a fellow likes to have over with.”
“Jimmie! Why, it's the most beautiful thing in the world, like a
garden of lilies or—or something, a marriage ceremony is! You got the
ring safe, honey-bee, and the license?”
“Pinned in my pocket where you put 'em, Flirty Gertie.”
“Flirty Gertie! Now you'll begin teasing me with that all our
life—the way I didn't slap your face that night when I should have. I
just couldn't have, honey. Goes to show we were just cut and dried for
each other, don't it? Me, a girl that never in her life let a fellow
even bat his eyes at her without an introduction. But that night when
you winked, honey—something inside of me just winked back.”
“You mean it, boy? You ain't sorry about nothing, Jimmie?”
“Sorry? Well, I guess not!”
“You saw the way—she—May—you saw for yourself what she was, when
we saw her walking, that next night after Ceiner's, nearly staggering,
up Sixth Avenue with Budge Evans.”
“I never took any stock in her, honey. I was just letting her like
She sat back on the box edge, regarding him, her face so soft and
wont to smile that she could not keep her composure.
“Get me my hat and coat, honey. We'll walk down. Got the key?”
They skirmished in the gloom, moving through slit-like aisles of
furniture and packing-box.
“Oh, the running water is hot, Jimmie, just like the ad said! We got
red-hot running water in our flat. Close the front windows, honey. We
don't want it to rain in on our new green sofa. Not 'til it's paid for,
They met at the door, kissing on the inside and the outside of it;
at the head of the fourth, third, and the second balustrade down.
“We'll always make 'em little love landings, Jimmie, so we can't
ever get tired climbing them.”
Outside there was still a pink glow in a clean sky. The first flush
of spring in the air had died, leaving chill. They walked briskly, arm
in arm, down the asphalt incline of sidewalk leading from their
apartment house, a new street of canned homes built on a hillside—the
sepulchral abode of the city's trapped whose only escape is down the
fire-escape, and then only when the alternative is death. At the base
of the hill there flows, in constant hubbub, a great up-and-down artery
of street, repeating itself, mile after mile, in terms of the butcher,
the baker, and the “every-other-corner drug-store of a million dollar
corporation”. Housewives with perambulators and oil-cloth shopping
bags. Children on rollerskates. The din of small tradesmen and the
humdrum of every city block where the homes remain unbearded all summer
and every wife is on haggling terms with the purveyor of her evening
roundsteak and mess of rutabaga.
Then there is the soap-box provender, too, sure of a crowd, offering
creed, propaganda, patent medicine, and politics. It is the pulpit of
the reformer and the housetop of the fanatic, this soapbox. From it the
voice to the city is often a pious one, an impious one, and almost
always a raucous one. Luther and Sophocles, and even a Citizen of
Nazareth made of the four winds of the street corner the walls of a
temple of wisdom. What more fitting acropolis for freedom of speech
than the great out-of-doors!
Turning from the incline of cross-street into this petty Baghdad of
the petty wise, the voice of the street corner lifted itself above the
inarticulate din of the thoroughfare. A youth, thewed like an ox,
surmounted on a stack of three self provided canned-goods boxes, his
in-at-the-waist silhouette thrown out against a sky that was almost
ready to break out in stars; a crowd tightening about him.
“It's a soldier boy talkin', Gert.”
“If it ain't!” They tiptoed at the fringe of the circle, heads back.
“Look, Gert, he's a lieutenant; he's got a shoulder-bar. And those
four down there holding the flags are just privates. You can always
tell a lieutenant by the bar.”
“Say, them boys do stack up some for Uncle Sam.”
“I'm here to tell you that them boys stack up some.”
A banner stiffened out in the breeze, Mr. Batch reading: “Enlist
before you are drafted. Last chance to beat the draft. Prove your
patriotism. Enlist now! Your country calls!”
“Come on,” said Mr. Batch.
“Wait. I want to hear what he's saying.”
“... there's not a man here before me can afford to shirk his duty
to his country. The slacker can't get along without his country, but
his country can very easily get along without him.”
“The poor exemption boobs are already running for doctors'
certificates and marriage licenses, but even if they get by with
it—and it is ninety-nine to one they won't—they can't run away from
their own degradation and shame.”
“Come on, Jimmie.”
“Men of America, for every one of you who tries to dodge his duty to
his country there is a yellow streak somewhere underneath the hide of
you. Women of America, every one of you that helps to foster the spirit
of cowardice in your particular man or men is helping to make a coward.
It's the cowards and the quitters and the slackers and dodgers that
need this war more than the patriotic ones who are willing to buckle on
“Don't be a buttonhole patriot! A government that is good enough to
live under is good enough to fight under!”
“If there is any reason on earth has manifested itself for this
devastating and terrible war it is that it has been a maker of men.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am back from four months in the trenches
with the French army, and I've come home, now that my own country is at
war, to give her every ounce of energy I've got to offer. As soon as a
hole in my side is healed up. I'm going back to those trenches, and I
want to say to you that them four months of mine face to face with life
and with death have done more for me than all my twenty-four civilian
years put together.”
“I'll be a different man, if I live to come back home after this war
and take up my work again as a draftsman. Why, I've seen weaklings and
self-confessed failures and even ninnies go into them trenches and come
out—oh yes, plenty of them do come out—men. Men that have got close
enough down to the facts of things to feel new realizations of what
life means come over them. Men that have gotten back their pep, their
ambitions, their unselfishness. That's what war can do for your men,
you women who are helping them to foster the spirit of holding back, of
cheating their government. That's what war can do for your men. Make of
them the kind of men who some day can face their children without
having to hang their heads. Men who can answer for their part in making
the world a safe place for democracy.”
An hour they stood there, the air quieting but chilling, and
lavishly sown stars cropping out. Street lights had come out, too,
throwing up in ever darker relief the figure above the heads of the
crowd. His voice had coarsened and taken on a raw edge, but every
gesture was flung from the socket, and from where they had forced
themselves into the tight circle Gertie Slayback, her mouth fallen open
and her head still back, could see the sinews of him ripple under khaki
and the diaphragm lift for voice.
There was a shift of speakers then, this time a private, still too
rangy, but his looseness of frame seeming already to conform to the
exigency of uniform.
“Come on, Jimmie. I—I'm cold.”
They worked out into the freedom of the sidewalk, and for ten
minutes, down blocks of petty shops already lighted, walked in a
silence that grew apace.
He was suddenly conscious that she was crying, quietly, her
handkerchief wadded against her mouth. He strode on with a scowl and
his head bent. “Let's sit down in this little park, Jimmie. I'm tired.”
They rested on a bench on one of those small triangles of breathing
space which the city ekes out now and then; mill ends of land parcels.
He took immediately to roving the toe of his shoe in and out among
the gravel. She stole out her hand to his arm.
“Well, Jimmie?” Her voice was in the gauze of a whisper that hardly
left her throat.
“Well, what?” he said, still toeing.
“There—there's a lot of things we never thought about, Jimmie.”
“You mean you never thought about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know what I mean alrighty.”
“I—I was the one that suggested it, Jimmie, but—but you fell in.
I—I just couldn't bear to think of it, Jimmie—your going and all. I
suggested it, but—but you fell in.”
“Say, when a fellow's shoved he falls. I never gave a thought to
sneaking an exemption until it was put in my head. I'd smash the fellow
in the face that calls me coward, I will.”
“You could have knocked me down with a feather, Jimmie, looking at
it his way all of a sudden.”
“You couldn't knock me down. Don't think I was ever strong enough
for the whole business. I mean the exemption part. I wasn't going to
say anything. What's the use, seeing the way you had your heart set
on—on things? But the whole business, if you want to know it, went
against my grain. I'll smash the fellow in the face that calls me
“I know, Jimmie; you—you're right. It was me suggested hurrying
things like this. Sneakin'! Oh, God! ain't I the messer-up!”
“Lay easy, girl. I'm going to see it through. I guess there's been
fellows before me and will be after me who have done worse. I'm going
to see it through. All I got to say is I'll smash up the fellow calls
me coward. Come on, forget it. Let's go.”
She was close to him, her cheek crinkled against his with the frank
kind of social unconsciousness the park bench seems to engender.
“Come on, Gert. I got a hunger on.”
'“Shh-h-h, Jimmie! Let me think. I'm thinking.”
“Too much thinking killed a cat. Come on.”
“Jimmie—would you—had you ever thought about being a soldier?”
“Sure. I came in an ace of going into the army that time
after—after that little Central Street trouble of mine. I've got a
book in my trunk this minute on military tactics. Wouldn't surprise me
a bit to see me land in the army some day.”
“It's a fine thing, Jimmie, for a fellow—the army.”
“Yeh, good for what ails him.”
She drew him back, pulling at his shoulder so that finally he faced
“I got an idea.”
“You remember once, honey-bee, how I put it to you that night at
Ceiner's how, if it was for your good, no sacrifice was too much to
“You didn't believe it.”
“Aw, say now, what's the use digging up ancient history?”
“You'd be right, Jimmie, not to believe it. I haven't lived up to
what I said.”
“Oh Lord, honey! What's eating you now? Come to the point.”
She would not meet his eyes, turning her head from him to hide lips
that would quiver. “Honey, it—it ain't coming off—that's all. Not
“You know what I mean, Jimmie. It's like everything the soldier boy
on the corner just said. I—I saw you getting red clear behind your
ears over it. I—I was, too, Jimmie. It's like that soldier boy was put
there on that corner just to show me, before it was too late, how wrong
I been in every one of my ways. Us women who are helping to foster
slackers. That's what we're making of them—slackers for life. And here
I been thinking it was your good I had in mind, when all along it's
been mine. That's what it's been, mine!”
“Aw, now, Gert—”
“You got to go, Jimmie. You got to go, because you want to go
and—because I want you to go.”
He took hold of her two arms because they were trembling. “Aw, now,
Gert, I didn't say anything complaining. I—”
“You did, Jimmie, you did, and—and I never was so glad over you
that you did complain. I just never was so glad. I want you to go,
Jimmie. I want you to go and get a man made out of you. They'll make a
better job out of you than ever I can. I want you to get the yellow
streak washed out. I want you to get to be all the things he said you
would. For every line he was talking up there, I could see my boy
coming home to me some day better than anything I could make out of
him, babying him the way I can't help doing. I could see you,
honey-bee, coming back to me with the kind of lift to your head a
fellow has when he's been fighting to make the world a safe place for
dem—for whatever it was he said. I want you to go, Jimmie. I want you
to beat the draft, too. Nothing on earth can make me not want you to
“Why, Gert—you're kiddin'!”
“Honey, you want to go, don't you? You want to square up those
shoulders and put on khaki, don't you? Tell me you want to go!”
“Why—why, yes, Gert, if—”
“Oh, you're going, Jimmie! You're going!”
“Why, girl—you're crazy! Our flat! Our furniture—our—”
“What's a flat? What's furniture? What's anything? There's not a
firm in business wouldn't take back a boy's furniture—a boy's
everything—that's going out to fight for—for dem-o-cracy! What's a
flat? What's anything?”
He let drop his head to hide his eyes.
Do you know it is said that on the Desert of Sahara, the slope of
Sorrento, and the marble of Fifth Avenue the sun can shine whitest?
There is an iridescence to its glittering on bleached sand, blue bay,
and Carrara facade that is sheer light distilled to its utmost.
On one such day when, standing on the high slope of Fifth Avenue
where it rises toward the Park, and looking down on it, surging to and
fro, it was as if, so manifest the brilliancy, every head wore a tin
helmet, parrying sunlight at a thousand angles of refraction.
Parade-days, all this glittering midstream is swept to the clean
sheen of a strip of moire, this splendid desolation blocked on each
side by crowds half the density of the sidewalk.
On one of these sun-drenched Saturdays dedicated by a growing
tradition to this or that national expression, the Ninety-ninth
Regiment, to a flare of music that made the heart leap out against its
walls, turned into a scene thus swept clean for it, a wave of olive
drab, impeccable row after impeccable row of scissors-like legs
advancing. Recruits, raw if you will, but already caparisoned, sniffing
and scenting, as it were, for the great primordial mire of war.
There is no state of being so finely sensitized as national
consciousness. A gauntlet down and it surges up. One ripple of a flag
defended can goose-flesh a nation. How bitter and how sweet it is to
give a soldier!
To the seething kinetic chemistry of such mingling emotions there
were women who stood in the frontal crowds of the sidewalks stifling
hysteria, or ran after in terror at sight of one so personally hers,
receding in that great impersonal wave of olive drab.
And yet the air was martial with banner and with shout. And the
ecstasy of such moments is like a dam against reality, pressing it
back. It is in the pompless watches of the night or of too long days
that such dams break, excoriating.
For the thirty blocks of its course Gertie Slayback followed that
wave of men, half run and half walk. Down from the curb, and at the
beck and call of this or that policeman up again, only to find
opportunity for still another dive out from the invisible roping off of
the sidewalk crowds.
From the middle of his line, she could see, sometimes, the tail of
Jimmie Batch's glance roving for her, but to all purports his eye was
solely for his own replica in front of him, and at such times, when he
marched, his back had a little additional straightness that was almost
Nor was Gertie Slayback crying. On the contrary, she was inclined to
laughter. A little too inclined to a high and brittle sort of
dissonance over which she seemed to have no control.
“'By, Jimmie! So long! Jimmie! You-hoo!”
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp-tramp-tramp.
“You-hoo! Jimmie! So long, Jimmie!”
At Fourteenth Street, and to the solemn stroke of one from a tower,
she broke off suddenly without even a second look back, dodging under
the very arms of the crowd as she ran out from it.
She was one and three-quarter minutes late when she punched the
time-clock beside the Complaints and Adjustment Desk in the
II. SIEVE OF FULFILMENT
How constant a stream is the runnel of men's small affairs!
Dynasties may totter and half the world bleed to death, but one or
the other corner patisserie goes on forever.
At a moment when the shadow of world-war was over the country like a
pair of black wings lowering Mrs. Harry Ross, who swooned at the sight
of blood from a penknife scratch down the hand of her son, but yawned
over the head-line statistics of the casualties at Verdun, lifted a lid
from a pot that exuded immediate savory fumes, prodded with a fork at
its content, her concern boiled down to deal solely with stew.
An alarm-clock on a small shelf edged in scalloped white oilcloth
ticked with spick-and-span precision into a kitchen so correspondingly
spick and span that even its silence smelled scoured, rows of tins
shining into it. A dun-colored kind of dusk, soot floating in it, began
to filter down the air-shaft, dimming them.
Mrs. Ross lowered the shade and lighted the gas-jet. So short that
in the long run she wormed first through a crowd, she was full of the
genial curves that, though they bespoke three lumps in her coffee in an
elevator and escalator age, had not yet reached uncongenial
proportions. In fact, now, brushing with her bare forearm across her
moistly pink face, she was like Flora, who, rather than fade, became
A door slammed in an outer hall, as she was still stirring and
looking down into the stew.
“Don't track through the parlor.”
“You hear me?”
“I yain't! Gee, can't a feller walk?”
“Put your books on the hat-rack.”
She supped up bird-like from the tip of her spoon, smacking for
“I made you an asafetida-bag, Edwin, it's in your drawer. Don't you
leave this house to-morrow without it on.”
“It don't smell.”
“Where's my stamp-book?”
“On your table, where it belongs.”
“Gee whiz! if you got my Argentine stamps mixed!”
“Where's my batteries?”
“Under your bed, where they belong.”
“Your father'll be home any minute now. Don't spoil your appetite.”
“I got ninety in manual training, mother.”
“Did yuh, Edwin?”
“All the other fellows only got seventy and eighty.”
“Mamma's boy leads 'em.”
He entered at that, submitting to a kiss upon an averted cheek.
“See what mother's fixed for you!”
“I shopped all morning to get okra to go in it for your father.”
She tiptoed up to kiss him again, this time at the back of the neck,
carefully averting her floury hands.
“Mamma's boy! I made you three pen-wipers to-day out of the old red
“Aw, fellers don't use pen-wipers!”
He set up a jiggling, his great feet coming down with a clatter.
“Can't I jig?”
“No; not with neighbors underneath.”
He flopped down, hooking his heels in the chair-rung.
At sixteen's stage of cruel hazing into man's estate Edwin Ross,
whose voice, all in a breath, could slip up from the quality of rock in
the drilling to the more brittle octave of early-morning milk-bottles,
wore a nine shoe and a thirteen collar. His first long trousers were
let down and taken in. His second taken up and let out. When shaving
promised to become a manly accomplishment, his complexion suddenly
clouded, postponing that event until long after it had become a hirsute
necessity. When he smiled apoplectically above his first waistcoat and
detachable collar, his Adam's apple and his mother's heart fluttered.
“Blow-cat Dennis is going to City College.”
“Quit crackin' your knuckles.”
“He only got seventy in manual training.”
“Tell them things to your father, Edwin; I 'ain't got the say-so.”
“His father's only a bookkeeper, too, and they live 'way up on a
Hundred and Forty-fourth near Third.”
“I'm willing to scrimp and save for it, Edwin; but in the end I
haven't got the say-so, and you know it.”
“The boys that are going to college got to register now for the High
School College Society.”
“Your father, Edwin, is the one to tell that to.”
“Other fellers' mothers put in a word for 'em.”
“I do, Edwin; you know I do! It only aggravates him—There's papa
now, Edwin, coming in. Help mamma dish up. Put this soup at papa's
place and this at yours. There's only two plates left from last night.”
In Mrs. Ross's dining-room, a red-glass dome, swung by a chain over
the round table, illuminated its white napery and decently flowered
china. Beside the window looking out upon a gray-brick wall almost
within reach, a canary with a white-fluted curtain about the cage dozed
headless. Beside that window, covered in flowered chintz, a
sewing-machine that could collapse to a table; a golden-oak sideboard
laid out in pressed glassware. A homely simplicity here saved by chance
or chintz from the simply homely.
Mr. Harry Ross drew up immediately beside the spread table, jerking
open his newspaper and, head thrown back, read slantingly down at the
“Hah—that's the stuff! Don't spill!”
He jammed the newspaper between his and the chair back, shoving in
closer to the table. He was blond to ashiness, so that the slicked-back
hair might or might not be graying. Pink-shaved, unlined, nose-glasses
polished to sparkle, he was ten years his wife's senior and looked
those ten years younger. Clerks and clergymen somehow maintain that
youth of the flesh, as if life had preserved them in alcohol or
shaving-lotion. Mrs. Ross entered then in her crisp but faded house
dress, her round, intent face still moistly pink, two steaming dishes
He did not rise, but reached up to kiss her as she passed.
“Burnt your soup a little to-night, mother.”
She sat down opposite, breathing deeply outward, spreading her
napkin out across her lap.
“It was Edwin coming in from school and getting me worked up with
his talk about—about—”
“Nothing. Edwin, run out and bring papa the paprika to take the
burnt taste out. I turned all the cuffs on your shirts to-day, Harry.”
“Lordy! if you ain't fixing at one thing, you're fixing another.”
He was well over his soup now, drinking in long draughts from the
tip of his spoon.
“News! In A. E. Unger's office, a man don't get his nose far enough
up from the ledger to even smell news.”
“I see Goldfinch &Goetz failed.”
“Could have told 'em they'd go under, trying to put on a spectacular
show written in verse. That same show boiled down to good Forty-second
Street lingo with some good shapes and a proposition like Alma Zitelle
to lift it from poetry to punch has a world of money in it for
somebody. A war spectacular show filled with sure-fire patriotic lines,
a bunch of show-girl battalions, and a figure like Alma Zitelle's for
the Goddess of Liberty—a world of money, I tell you!”
“That trench scene they built for that show is as fine a contrivance
as I've ever seen of the kind. What did they do? Set it to a lot of
music without a hum or a ankle in it. A few classy nurses like the
Mercy Militia Sextet, some live, grand-old-flag tunes by Harry
Mordelle, and there's a half a million dollars in that show. Unger
thinks I'm crazy when I try to get him interested, but I—”
“I got ninety in manual training to-day, pop.”
“That's good, son. Little more of that stew, mother?”
“Unger isn't so smart, honey, he can't afford to take a tip off you
once in a while: you've proved that to him.”
“Yes, but go tell him so.”
“He'll live to see the day he's got to give you credit for being the
first to see money in 'Pan-America.'“
“Credit? Huh! to hear him tell it, he was born with that idea in his
“I'd like to hear him say it to me, if ever I lay eyes on him, that
it wasn't you who begged him to get into it.”
“I'll show 'em some day in that office that I can pick the winners
for myself, as well as for the other fellow. Believe me, Unger hasn't
raised me to fifty a week for my fancy bookkeeping, and he knows it,
and, what's more, he knows I know he knows it.”
“The fellers that are goin' to college next term have to register
for the High School College Society, pop—dollar dues.”
“Well, you aren't going to college, and that's where you and I save
a hundred cents on the dollar. Little more gravy, mother.”
The muscles of Edwin's face relaxed, his mouth dropping to a pout,
the crude features quivering.
“Aw, pop, a feller nowadays without a college education don't stand
“He don't, don't he? I know one who will.”
Edwin threw a quivering glance to his mother and gulped through a
“Mother says I—I can go if only you—”
“Your mother'd say you could have the moon, too, if she had to climb
a greased pole to get it. She'd start weaving door-mats for the
Cingalese Hottentots if she thought they needed 'em.”
“But, Harry, he—”
“Your mother 'ain't got the bills of this shebang to worry about,
and your mother don't mind having a college sissy a-laying around the
house to support five years longer. I do.”
“It's the free City College, pop.”
“You got a better education now than nine boys out of ten. If you
ain't man enough to want to get out after four years of high school and
hustle for a living, you got to be shown the way out. I started when I
was in short pants, and you're no better than your father. Your mother
sold notions and axle-grease in an up-State general store up to the day
she married. Now cut out the college talk you been springing on me
lately. I won't have it—you hear? You're a poor man's son, and the
sooner you make up your mind to it the better. Pass the chow-chow,
Nervousness had laid hold of her so that in and out among the dishes
her hand trembled.
“You see, Harry, it's the free City College, and—”
“I know that free talk. So was high school free when you talked me
into it, but if it ain't one thing it's been another. Cadet uniform,
“The child's got talent for invention, Harry; his manual-training
teacher told me his air-ship model was—”
“I got ninety in manual training when the other fellers only got
“I guess you're looking for another case like your father, sitting
penniless around the house, tinkering on inventions up to the day he
“Pa never had the business push, Harry. You know yourself his churn
was ready for the market before the Peerless beat him in on it.”
“Well, your son is going to get the business push trained into him.
No boy of mine with a poor daddy eats up four years of his life and my
salary training to be a college sissy. That's for the rich men's sons.
That's for the Clarence Ungers.”
“I'll pay it back some day, pop; I—.”
“They all say that.”
“If it's the money, Harry, maybe I can—”
“If it didn't cost a cent, I wouldn't have it. Now cut it out—you
Edwin Ross pushed back from the table, struggling and choking
against impending tears. “Well, then, I—I—”
“And no shuffling of feet, neither!”
“He didn't shuffle, Harry; it's just his feet growing so fast he
can't manage them.”
“Well, just the samey, I—I ain't going into the theayter business.
Mr. Ross flung down his napkin, facing him. “You're going where I
put you, young man. You're going to get the right kind of a start that
I didn't get in the biggest money-making business in the world.”
“I won't. I'll get me a job in an aeroplane-factory.”
His father's palm came down with a small crash, shivering the china.
“By Gad! you take that impudence out of your voice to me or I'll
rawhide it out!”
“Leave the table!”
“Harry, he's only a child—”
“Go to your room!”
His heavy, unformed lips now trembling frankly against the tears he
tried so furiously to resist, Edwin charged with lowered head from the
room, sobs escaping in raw gutturals.
Mr. Ross came back to his plate, breathing heavily, fist, with a
knife upright in it, coming down again on the table, his mouth open, to
facilitate labored breathing.
“By Heaven! I'll cowhide that boy to his senses! I've never laid
hand on him yet, but he ain't too old. I'll get him down to common
sense, if I got to break a rod over him.”
Handkerchief against trembling lips, Mrs. Ross looked after the
vanished form, eyes brimming.
“Harry, you—you're so rough with him.”
“I'll be rougher yet before I'm through.”
“He's only a—”
“He's rewarding the way you scrimped to pay his expenses for
nonsense clubs and societies by asking you to do it another four years.
You're getting your thanks now. College! Well, not if the court knows
“He's got talent, Harry; his teacher says he—”
“So'd your father have talent.”
“If pa hadn't lost his eye in the Civil War—”
“I'm going to put my son's talent where I can see a future for it.”
“He's ambitious, Harry.”
“So'm I—to see my son trained to be something besides a looney
inventor like his grandfather before him.”
“It's all I want in life, Harry, to see my two boys of you happy.”
“It's your woman-ideas I got to blame for this. I want you to stop,
Millie, putting rich man's ideas in his head. You hear? I won't stand
“Harry, if—if it's the money, maybe I could manage—”
“Yes—and scrimp and save and scrooge along without a laundress
another four years, and do his washing and—”
“I—could fix the money part, Harry—easy.”
He regarded her with his jaw dropped in the act of chewing.
“By Gad! where do you plant it?”
“It—it's the way I scrimp, Harry. Another woman would spend it on
clothes or—a servant—or matinees. It ain't hard for a home body like
me to save, Harry.”
He reached across the table for her wrist.
“Poor little soul,” he said, “you don't see day-light.”
“Let him go, Harry, if—if he wants it. I can manage the money.”
His scowl returned, darkening him.
“No. A. E. Unger never seen the inside of a high school, much less a
college, and I guess he's made as good a pile as most. I've worked for
the butcher and the landlord all my life, and now I ain't going to
begin being a slave to my boy. There's been two or three times in my
life where, for want of a few dirty dollars to make a right start, I'd
be, a rich man to-day. My boy's going to get that right start.”
“But, Harry, college will—”
“I seen money in 'Pan-America' long before Unger ever dreamed of
producing it. I sicked him onto 'The Official Chaperon' when every
manager in town had turned it down. I went down and seen 'em doing 'The
White Elephant' in a Yiddish theater and wired Unger out in Chicago to
come back and grab it for Broadway. Where's it got me? Nowhere. Because
I whiled away the best fifteen years of my life in an up-State burg,
and then, when I came down here too late in life, got in the rut of a
salaried man. Well, where it 'ain't got me it's going to get my son.
I'm missing a chance, to-day that, mark my word, would make me a rich
man but for want of a few—”
“Harry, you mean that?”
“My hunch never fails me.”
She was leaning across the table, her hands clasping its edge, her
small, plump face even pinker.
He threw out his legs beneath the table and sat back, hands deep in
pockets, and a toothpick hanging limp from between lips that were
“Gad! if I had my life to live over again as a salaried man,
I'd—I'd hang myself first! The way to start a boy to a million dollars
in this business is to start him young in the producing-end of a strong
“You—got faith in this Goldfinch &Goetz failure like you had in
'Pan-America' and 'The Chaperon,' Harry?”
“I said it five years ago and it come to pass. I say it now. For
want of a few dirty dollars I'm a poor man till I die.”
“How—many dollars, Harry?”
“Don't make me say it, Millie—it makes me sick to my stummick.
Three thousand dollars would buy the whole spectacle to save it from
the storehouse. I tried Charley Ryan—he wouldn't risk a ten-spot on a
“Harry, I—oh, Harry—”
“Why, mother, what's the matter? You been overworking again, ironing
my shirts and collars when they ought to go to the laundry? You—”
“Harry, what would you say if—if I was to tell you something?”
“What is it, mother? You better get Annie in on Mondays. We 'ain't
got any more to show without her than with her.”
“Well, you just had an instance of the thanks you get.”
“Harry, what—what would you say if I could let you have nearly all
of that three thousand?”
He regarded her above the flare of a match to his cigar-end.
“If I could let you have twenty-six hundred seventeen dollars and
about fifty cents of it?”
He sat well up, the light reflecting in points off his polished
“Mother, you're joking!”
Her hands were out across the table now, almost reaching his, her
face close and screwed under the lights.
“When—when you lost out that time five years ago on 'Pan-America'
and I seen how Linger made a fortune out of it, I says to myself, 'It
can never happen again.' You remember the next January when you got
your raise to fifty and I wouldn't move out of this flat, and instead
gave up having Annie in, that was what I had in my head, Harry. It
wasn't only for sending Edwin to high school; it was for—my other boy,
too, Harry, so it couldn't happen again.”
“Millie, you mean—”
“You ain't got much idea, Harry, of what I been doing. You don't
know it, honey, but, honest, I ain't bought a stitch of new clothes for
five years. You know I ain't, somehow—made friends for myself since we
“It's the hard shell town of the world!”
“You ain't had time, Harry, to ask yourself what becomes of the
house allowance, with me stinting so. Why, I—I won't spend car fare,
Harry, since 'Pan-America,' if I can help it. This meal I served up
here t-night, with all the high cost of living, didn't cost us two
thirds what it might if—if I didn't have it all figured up. Where do
you think your laundry-money that I've been saving goes, Harry? The
marmalade-money I made the last two Christmases? The velvet muff I made
myself out of the fur-money you give me? It's all in the Farmers'
Trust, Harry. With the two hundred and ten I had to start with five
years ago, it's twenty-six hundred and seventeen dollars and fifty
cents now. I've been saving it for this kind of a minute, Harry. When
it got three thousand, I was going to tell you, anyways. Is that
enough, Harry, to do the Goldfinch-Goetz spectacle on your own hook? Is
He regarded her in a heavy-jawed kind of stupefaction.
“Woman alive!” he said. “Great Heavens, woman alive!”
“It's in the bank, waiting, Harry—all for you.”
“Why, Millie, I—I don't know what to say.”
“I want you to have it, Harry. It's yours. Out of your pocket, back
into it. You got capital to start with now.”
“I—Why, I can't take that money, Millie, from you!”
“From your wife? When she stinted and scrimped and saved on
shoe-leather for the happiness of it?”
“Why, this is no sure thing I got on the brain.”
“I got nothing but my own judgment to rely on.”
“You been right three times, Harry.”
“There's not as big a gamble in the world as the show business. I
can't take your savings, mother.”
“Harry, if—if you don't, I'll tear it up. It's what I've worked
for. I'm too tired, Harry, to stand much. If you don't take it, I—I'm
too tired, Harry, to stand it.”
“I couldn't stand it, I tell you,” she said, the tears now bursting
and flowing down over her cheeks.
“Why, Millie, you mustn't cry! I 'ain't seen you cry in years.
Millie! my God! I can't get my thoughts together! Me to own a show
after all these years; me to—”
“Don't you think it means something to me, too, Harry?”
“I can't lose, Millie. Even if this country gets drawn into the war,
there's a mint of money in that show as I see it. It'll help the
people. The people of this country need to have their patriotism
“All my life, Harry, I've wanted a gold-mesh bag with a row of
sapphires and diamonds across the top—”
“I'm going to make it the kind of show that 'Dixie' was a song—”
“And a gold-colored bird-of-paradise for a black-velvet hat, all my
“With Alma Zitelle in the part—”
“Is it her picture I found in your drawer the other day, Harry, cut
out from a Sunday newspaper?”
“One and the same. I been watching her. There's a world of money in
that woman, whoever she is. She's eccentric and they make her play
straight, but if I could get hold of her—My God! Millie, I—I can't
She rose, coming round to lay her arms across his shoulders.
“We'll be rich, maybe, Harry—”
“I've picked the winners for the other fellows every time, Mil.”
“Anyhow, it's worth the gamble, Harry.”
“I got a nose for what the people want. I've never been able to
prove it from a high stool, but I'll show 'em now—by God! I'll show
'em now!” He sprang up, pulling the white table-cloth awry and folding
her into his embrace. “I'll show 'em.”
She leaned from him, her two hands against his chest, head thrown
back and eyes up to him.
“We—can educate our boy, then, Harry, like—like a rich man's son.”
“We ain't rich yet.”
“Promise me, Harry, if we are—promise me that, Harry. It's the only
promise I ask out of it. Whatever comes, if we win or lose, our boy can
have college if he wants.”
He held her close, his head up and gazing beyond her.
“With a rich daddy my boy can go to college like the best of 'em.”
“Promise me that, Harry.”
“I promise, Millie.”
He released her then, feeling for an envelope in an inner pocket,
and, standing there above the disarrayed dinner-table, executed some
rapid figures across the back of it.
She stood for a moment regarding him, hands pressed against the
sting of her cheeks, tears flowing down over her smile. Then she took
up the plate of cloying fritters and tiptoed out, opening softly the
door to a slit of a room across the hall. In the patch of light let in
by that opened door, drawn up before a small table, face toward her
ravaged with recent tears, and lips almost quivering, her son lay in
the ready kind of slumber youth can bring to any woe. She tiptoed up
beside him, placing the plate of fritters back on a pile of books, let
her hands run lightly over his hair, kissed him on each swollen lid.
“My son! My little boy! My little boy!”
Where Broadway leaves off its roof-follies and its water-dancing,
its eighty-odd theaters and its very odd Hawaiian cabarets, upper
Broadway, widening slightly, takes up its macadamized rush through the
city in block-square apartment-houses, which rise off plate-glass
foundations of the de-luxe greengrocer shops, the not-so-green
beauty-parlors, and the dyeing-and-cleaning, automobile-supplies, and
confectionery establishments of middle New York.
In a no-children-allowed, swimming-pool, electric-laundry,
roof-garden, dogs'-playground, cold-storage apartment most recently
erected on a block-square tract of upper Broadway, belonging to and
named after the youngest scion of an ancestor whose cow-patches had
turned to kingdoms, the fifteenth layer of this gigantic honeycomb
overlooked from its seventeen outside windows the great Babylonian
valley of the city, the wide blade of the river shining and curving
slightly like an Arabian dagger, and the embankment of New Jersey's
Palisades piled against the sky with the effect of angry horizon.
Nights, viewed from one of the seventeen windows, it was as if the
river flowed under a sullen sheath which undulated to its curves. On
clear days it threw off light like parrying steel in sunshine.
Were days when, gazing out toward it, Mrs. Ross, whose heart was
like a slow ache of ever-widening area, could almost feel its laving
quality and, after the passage of a tug-or pleasure-boat, the soothing
folding of the water down over and upon itself. Often, with the sun
setting pink and whole above the Palisades, the very copper glow which
was struck off the water would beat against her own west windows, and,
as if smarting under the brilliance, tears would come, sometimes
staggering and staggering down, long after the glow was cold. With such
a sunset already waned, and the valley of unrest fifteen stories below
popping out into electric signs and the red danger-lanterns of streets
constantly in the remaking, Mrs. Harry Ross, from the corner window of
her seventeen, looked down on it from under lids that were rimmed in
Beneath the swirl of a gown that lay in an iridescent avalanche of
sequins about her feet, her foot, tilted to an unbelievable hypothenuse
off a cloth-of-silver heel, beat a small and twinkling tattoo, her
fingers tattooing, too, along the chair-sides.
How insidiously do the years nibble in! how pussy-footed and how
cocksure the crow's-feet! One morning, and the first gray hair, which
has been turning from the cradle, arrives. Another, the mirror shows
back a sag beneath the eyes. That sag had come now to Mrs. Ross, giving
her eye-sockets a look of unconquerable weariness. The streak of
quicksilver had come, too, but more successfully combated. The head
lying back against the brocade chair was guilty of new gleams. Brass,
with a greenish alloy. Sitting there with the look of unshed tears
seeming to form a film over her gaze, it was as if the dusk, flowing
into a silence that was solemnly shaped to receive it, folded her in,
more and more obscuring her.
A door opened at the far end of the room, letting in a patch of hall
light and a dark figure coming into silhouette against it.
She sprang up.
“Good Lord! sitting in the dark again!” He turned a wall key, three
pink-shaded lamps, a cluster of pink-glass grapes, and a center bowl of
alabaster flashing up the familiar spectacle of Louis Fourteenth and
the interior decorator's turpitude; a deep-pink brocade divan backed up
by a Circassian-walnut table with curly legs; a maze of smaller tables;
a marble Psyche holding out the cluster of pink grapes; a gilt grand
piano, festooned in rosebuds. Around through these Mr. Ross walked
quickly, winding his hands, rubbing them.
“Well, here I am!”
“Had your supper—dinner, Harry?”
“No. What's the idea calling me off when I got a business dinner on
hand? What's the hurry call this time? I have to get back to it.”
She clasped her hands to her bare throat, swallowing with effort.
“You've got to stop this kind of thing, Millie, getting nervous
spells like all the other women do the minute they get ten cents in
their pocket. I ain't got the time for it—that's all there is to it.”
“I can't help it, Harry. I think I must be going crazy. I can't stop
myself. All of a sudden everything comes over me. I think I must be
Her voice jerked up to an off pitch, and he flung himself down on
the deep-cushioned couch, his stiff expanse of dress shirt bulging and
straining at the studs. A bit redder and stouter, too, he was
constantly rearing his chin away from the chafing edge of his collar.
“O Lord!” he said. “I guess I'm let in for some cutting-up again!
Well, fire away and have it over with! What's eating you this time?”
She was quivering so against sobs that her lips were drawn in
against her teeth by the great draught of her breathing.
“I can't stand it, Harry. I'm going crazy. I got to get relief. It's
killing me—the lonesomeness—the waiting. I can't stand no more.”
He sat looking at a wreath of roses in the light carpet, lips
compressed, beating with fist into palm.
“Gad! I dunno! I give up. You're too much for me, woman.”
“I can't go on this way—the suspense—can't—can't.”
“I don't know what you want. God knows I give up!
Thirty-eight-hundred-dollar-a-year apartment—more spending-money in a
week than you can spend in a month. Clothes. Jewelry. Your son one of
the high-fliers at college—his automobile—your automobile. Passes to
every show in town. Gad! I can't help it if you turn it all down and
sit up here moping and making it hot for me every time I put my foot in
the place. I don't know what you want; you're one too many for me.”
“I can't stand—”
“All of a sudden, out of a clear sky, she sends for me to come home.
Second time in two weeks. No wonder, with your long face, your son
lives mostly up at the college. I 'ain't got enough on my mind yet with
the 'Manhattan Revue' opening to-morrow night. You got it too good, if
you want to know it. That's what ails women when they get to cutting up
She was clasping and unclasping her hands, swaying, her eyes closed.
“I wisht to God we was back in our little flat on a Hundred and
Thirty-seventh Street. We was happy then. It's your success has lost
you for me. I ought to known it, but—I—I wanted things so for you and
the boy. It's your success has lost you for me. Back there, not a
supper we didn't eat together like clockwork, not a night we didn't
take a walk or—”
“There you go again! I tell you, Millie, you're going to nag me with
that once too often. Then ain't now. What you homesick for? Your
poor-as-a-church-mouse days? I been pretty patient these last two
years, feeling like a funeral every time I put my foot in the front
“It ain't often you put it in.”
“But, mark my word, you're going to nag me once too often!”
“O God! Harry, I try to keep in! I know how wild it makes you—how
busy you are, but—”
“A man that's give to a woman heaven on earth like I have you! A man
that started three years ago on nothing but nerve and a few dollars,
and now stands on two feet, one of the biggest spectacle-producers in
the business! By Gad! you're so darn lucky it's made a loon out of you!
Get out more. Show yourself a good time. You got the means and the
time. Ain't there no way to satisfy you?”
“I can't do things alone all the time, Harry. I—I'm funny that way.
I ain't a woman like that, a new-fangled one that can do things without
her husband. It's the nights that kill me—the nights. The—all nights
sitting here alone—waiting.”
“If you 'ain't learned the demands of my business by now, I'm not
going over them again.”
“Yes; but not all—”
“You ought to have some men to deal with. I'd like to see Mrs. Unger
try to dictate to him how to run his business.”
“You've left me behind, Harry. I—try to keep up, but—I can't. I
ain't the woman to naturally paint my hair this way. It's my trying to
keep up, Harry, with you and—and—Edwin. These clothes—I ain't right
in 'em, Harry; I know that. That's why I can't stand it. The suspense.
The waiting up nights. I tell you I'm going crazy. Crazy with knowing
I'm left behind.”
“I never told you to paint up your hair like a freak.”
“I thought, Harry—the color—like hers—it might make me seem
“You thought! You're always thinking.”
She stood behind him now over the couch, her hand yearning toward
but not touching him.
“O God! Harry, ain't there no way I can please you no more—no way?”
“You can please me by acting like a human being and not getting me
home on wild-goose chases like this.”
“But I can't stand it, Harry! The quiet. Nobody to do for. You
always gone. Edwin. The way the servants—laugh. I ain't smart enough,
like some women. I got to show it—that my heart's breaking.”
“Go to matinees; go—”
“Tell me how to make myself like Alma Zitelle to you, Harry. For
God's sake, tell me!”
He looked away from her, the red rising up above the rear of his
“You're going to drive me crazy desperate, too, some day, on that
jealousy stuff. I'm trying to do the right thing by you and hold myself
in, but—there's limits.”
“Harry, it—ain't jealousy. I could stand anything if I only knew.
If you'd only come out with it. Not keep me sitting here night after
night, when I know you—you're with her. It's the suspense, Harry, as
much as anything is killing me. I could stand it, maybe, if I only
knew. If I only knew!”
He sprang up, wheeling to face her across the couch.
“You mean that?”
“Well, then, since you're the one wants it, since you're forcing me
to it—I'll end your suspense, Millie. Yes. Let me go, Millie. There's
no use trying to keep life in something that's dead. Let me go.”
She stood looking at him, cheeks cased in palms, and her sagging
eye-sockets seeming to darken, even as she stared.
“It happens every day, Millie. Man and woman grow apart, that's all.
Your own son is man enough to understand that. Nobody to blame. Just
“Aw, now, Millie, it's no easier for me to say than for you to
listen. I'd sooner cut off my right hand than put it up to you. Been
putting it off all these months. If you hadn't nagged—led up to it,
I'd have stuck it out somehow and made things miserable for both of us.
It's just as well you brought it up. I—Life's life, Millie, and what
you going to do about it?”
A sound escaped her like the rising moan of a gale up a flue; then
she sat down against trembling that seized her and sent ripples along
the iridescent sequins.
“Harry—Alma Zitelle—you mean—Harry?”
“Now what's the use going into all that, Millie? What's the
difference who I mean? It happened.”
“Harry, she—she's a common woman.”
“We won't discuss that.”
“She'll climb on you to what she wants higher up still. She won't
bring you nothing but misery, Harry. I know what I'm saying; she'll—”
“You're talking about something you know nothing about—you—”
“I do. I do. You're hypnotized, Harry. It's her looks. Her dressing
like a snake. Her hair. I can get mine fixed redder 'n hers, Harry. It
takes a little time. Mine's only started to turn, Harry, is why it
don't look right yet to you. This dress, it's from her own dressmaker.
Harry—I promise you I can make myself like—her—I promise you,
“For God's sake, Millie, don't talk like—that! It's awful! What's
those things got to do with it? It's—awful!”
“They have, Harry. They have, only a man don't know it. She's a bad
woman, Harry—she's got you fascinated with the way she dresses and
“We won't go into that.”
“We will. We will. I got the right. I don't have to let you go if I
don't want to. I'm the mother of your son. I'm the wife that was good
enough for you in the days when you needed her. I—”
“You can't throw that up to me, Millie. I've squared that debt.”
“She'll throw you over, Harry, when I'll stand by you to the crack
of doom. Take my word for it, Harry. O God! Harry, please take my word
She closed her streaming eyes, clutching at his sleeve in a state
beyond her control. “Won't you please? Please!”
He toed the carpet.
“I—I'd sooner be hit in the face, Millie, than—have this happen.
Swear I would! But you see for yourself we—we can't go on this way.”
She sat for a moment, her stare widening above the palm clapped
tightly against her mouth.
“Then you mean, Harry, you want—you want a—a—”
“Now, now, Millie, try to keep hold of yourself. You're a sensible
woman. You know I'll do the right thing by you to any amount. You'll
have the boy till he's of age, and after that, too, just as much as you
want him. He'll live right here in the flat with you. Money's no
object, the way I'm going to fix things. Why, Millie, compared to how
things are now—you're going to be a hundred per cent, better
She fell to rocking herself in the straight chair.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“Now, Millie, don't take it that way. I know that nine men out of
ten would call me crazy to—to let go of a woman like you. But what's
the use trying to keep life in something that's dead? It's because
you're too good for me, Millie. I know that. You know that it's not
because I think any less of you, or that I've forgot it was you who
gave me my start. I'd pay you back ten times more if I could. I'm going
to settle on you and the boy so that you're fixed for life. When he's
of age, he comes into the firm half interest. There won't even be no
publicity the way I'm going to fix things. Money talks, Millie. You'll
get your decree without having to show your face to the public.”
“O God—he's got it all fixed—he's talked it all over with her!
“You—you wouldn't want to force something between you and me,
Millie; that—that's just played out—”
“I done it myself. I couldn't let well enough alone. I was ambitious
for 'em. I dug my own grave. I done it myself. Done it myself!”
“Now, Millie, you mustn't look at things that way. Why, you're the
kind of a little woman all you got to have is something to mother over.
I'm going to see to it that the boy is right here at home with you all
the time. He can give up those rooms at the college—you got as fine a
son as there is in the country, Millie—I'm going to see to it that he
is right here at home with you—”
“O God—my boy—my little boy—my little boy!”
“The days are over, Millie, when this kind of thing makes any
difference. If it was—the mother—it might be different, but where the
father is—to blame—it don't matter with the boy. Anyways, he's nearly
of age. I tell you, Millie, if you'll just look at this thing
“I—Let me think, let—me—think.”
Her tears had quieted now to little dry moans that came with
regularity. She was still swaying in her chair, eyes closed.
“You'll get your decree, Millie, without—.”
“Don't talk,” she said, a frown lowering over her closed eyes and
pressing two fingers against each temple. “Don't talk.”
He walked to the window in a state of great perturbation, stood
pulling inward his lips and staring down into the now brilliantly
lighted flow of Broadway. Turned into the room with short, hasty
strides, then back again. Came to confront her.
“Aw, now, Millie—Millie—” Stood regarding her, chewing backward
and forward along his fingertips. “You—you see for yourself, Millie,
what's dead can't be made alive—now, can it?”
She nodded, acquiescing, her lips bitterly wry.
“My lawyer, Millie, he'll fix it, alimony and all, so you won't—”
“Suppose I just slip away easy, Millie, and let him fix up things so
it'll be easiest for us both. Send the boy down to see me to-morrow.
He's old enough and got enough sense to have seen things coming. He
knows. Suppose—I just slip out easy, Millie, for—for—both of us.
She nodded again, her lips pressed back against outburst.
“If ever there was a good little woman, Millie, and one that
deserves better than me, it's—”
“Don't!” she cried. “Don't—don't—don't!”
He hesitated, stood regarding her there in the chair, eyes squeezed
closed like Iphigenia praying for death when exiled in Tauris.
“Go!” she cried, the wail clinging to her lips.
He felt round for his hat, his gaze obscured behind the shining
glasses, tiptoed out round the archipelago of too much furniture,
groped for the door-handle, turning it noiselessly, and stood for the
instant looking back at her bathed in the rosy light and seated upright
like a sleeping Ariadne; opened the door to a slit that closed silently
She sat thus for three hours after, the wail still uppermost on the
At ten o'clock, with a gust that swayed the heavy drapes, her son
burst in upon the room, his stride kicking the door before he opened
it. Six feet in his gymnasium shoes, and with a ripple of muscle
beneath the well-fitting, well-advertised Campus Coat for College Men,
he had emerged from the three years into man's complete estate, which,
at nineteen, is that patch of territory at youth's feet known as “the
world.” Gray eyed, his dark lashes long enough to threaten to curl, the
lean line of his jaw squaring after the manner of America's fondest
version of her manhood, he was already in danger of fond illusions and
“Hello, mother!” he said, striding quickly through the chairs and
over to where she sat.
“Thought I'd sleep home to-night, mother.”
He kissed her lightly, perking up her shoulder butterflies of green
sequins, and standing off to observe.
“Got to hand it to my little mother for quiet and sumptuous
el-e-gance! Some classy spangy-wangles!” He ran his hand against the
lay of the sequins, absorbed in a conscious kind of gaiety.
She moistened her lips, trying to smile.
“Oh, boy,” she said—“Edwin!”—holding to his forearm with fingers
that tightened into it.
“Mother,” he said, pulling at his coat lapels with a squaring of
shoulders, “you—you going to be a dead game little sport?”
She was looking ahead now, abstraction growing in her white face.
He fell into short strides up and down the length of the couch
“I—I guess I might have mentioned it before, mother, but—but—oh,
hang!—when a fellow's a senior it—it's all he can do to get home once
in a while and—and—what's the use talking about a thing anyway before
it breaks right, and—well, everybody knows it's up to us college
fellows—college men—to lead the others and show our country what
we're made of now that she needs us—eh, little dressed-up mother?”
She looked up at him with the tremulous smile still trying to break
“My boy can mix with the best of 'em.”
“That's not what I mean, mother.”
“You got to be twice to me what you been, darling—twice to me.
Listen, darling. I—Oh, my God!”
She was beating softly against his hand held in hers, her voice
rising again, and her tears.
“Now, mother, don't go into a spell. The war is going to help you
out on these lonesome fits, mother. Like Slawson put it to-day in
Integral Calculus Four, war reduces the personal equation to its lowest
terms—it's a matter of—.”
“I need you now, Edwin—O God! how I need you! There never was a
minute in all these months since you've grown to understand how—it is
between your father and me that I needed you so much—”
“Mother, you mustn't make it harder for me to—tell you what I—”
“I think maybe something has happened to me, Edwin. I can feel
myself breathe all over—it's like I'm outside of myself somewhere—”
“It's nervousness, mother. You ought to get out more. I'm going to
get you some war-work to do, mother, that 'll make you forget yourself.
Service is what counts these days!”
“Edwin, it's come—he's leaving me—it—”
“Speaking of service, I—I guess I might have mentioned it before,
mother, but—but—when war was declared the other day, a—a bunch of us
fellows volunteered for—for the university unit to France, and—well,
I'm accepted, mother—to go. The lists went up to-night. I'm one of the
twenty picked fellows.”
“We sail for Bordeaux for ambulance service the twentieth, mother. I
was the fourth accepted with my qualifications—driving my own car
and—and physical fitness. I'm going to France, mother, among the first
to do my bit. I know a fellow got over there before we were in the war
and worked himself into the air-fleet. That's what I want, mother, air
service! They're giving us fellows credit for our senior year just the
same. Bob Vandaventer and Clarence Unger and some of the fellows like
that are in the crowd. Are you a dead-game sport, little mother, and
not going to make a fuss—”
“I—don't know. What—is—it—I—”
“Your son at the front, mother, helping to make the world a safer
place for democracy. Does a little mother with something like that to
bank on have time to be miserable over family rows? You're going to
knit while I'm gone. The busiest little mother a fellow ever had, doing
her bit for her country! There's signs up all over the girls' campus:
'A million soldiers “out there” are needing wool jackets and
chest-protectors. How many will you take care of?' You're going to be
the busiest little mother a fellow ever had. You're going to stop
making a fuss over me and begin to make a fuss over your country. We're
going into service, mother!”
“Don't leave me, Edwin! Baby darling, don't leave me! I'm alone! I'm
“There, there, little mother,” he said, patting at her and blinking,
“I—Why—why, there's men come back from every war, and plenty of them.
Good Lord! just because a fellow goes to the front, he—”
“I got nothing left. Everything I've worked for has slipped through
my life like sand through a sieve. My hands are empty. I've lost your
father on the success I slaved for. I'm losing my boy on the fine ideas
and college education I've slaved for. I—Don't leave me, Edwin. I'm
“Mother—I—Don't be cut up about it. I—”
“Why should I give to this war? I ain't a fine woman with the fine
ideas you learn at college. I ask so little of life—just some one who
needs me, some one to do for. I 'ain't got any fine ideas about a son
at war. Why should I give to what they're fighting for on the other
side of the ocean? Don't ask me to give up my boy to what they're
fighting for in a country I've never seen—my little boy I raised—my
all I've got—my life! No! No!”
“It's the women like you, mother—with guts—with grit—that send
their sons to war.”
“I 'ain't got grit!”
“You're going to have your hands so full, little mother, taking care
of the Army and Navy, keeping their feet dry and their chests warm,
that before you know it you'll be down at the pier some fine day
watching us fellows come home from victory.”
“You're going to coddle the whole fighting front, making 'em
sweaters and aviation sets out of a whole ton of wool I'm going to lay
in the house for you. Time's going to fly for my little mother.”
“I'll kill myself first!”
“You wouldn't have me a quitter, little mother. You wouldn't have
the other fellows in my crowd at college go out and do what I haven't
got the guts to do. You want me to hold up my head with the best of
“I don't want nothing but my boy! I—”
“Us college men got to be the first to show that the fighting
backbone of the country is where it belongs. If us fellows with
education don't set the example, what can we expect from the other
fellows? Don't ask me to be a quitter, mother. I couldn't! I wouldn't!
My country needs us, mother—you and me—”
“Attention, little mother—stand!”
She lay back her head, laughing, crying, sobbing, choking.
“O God—take him and bring him back—to me!”
On a day when sky and water were so identically blue that they met
in perfect horizon, the S. S. Rowena, sleek-flanked, mounted
fore and aft with a pair of black guns that lifted snouts slightly to
the impeccable blue, slipped quietly, and without even a newspaper
sailing-announcement into a frivolous midstream that kicked up little
lace edged wavelets, undulating flounces of them. A blur of faces rose
above deck-rails, faces that, looking back, receded finally. The last
flag and the last kerchief became vapor. Against the pier-edge,
frantically, even perilously forward, her small flag thrust desperately
beyond the rail, Mrs. Ross, who had lost a saving sense of time and
place, leaned after that ship receding in majesty, long after it had
curved from view.
The crowd, not a dry-eyed one, women in spite of themselves with
lips whitening, men grim with pride and an innermost bleeding, sagged
suddenly, thinning and trickling back into the great, impersonal maw of
the city. Apart from the rush of the exodus, a youth remained at the
rail, gazing out and quivering for the smell of war. Finally, he too,
turned back reluctantly.
Now only Mrs. Ross. An hour she stood there, a solitary figure at
the rail, holding to her large black hat, her skirts whipped to her
body and snapping forward in the breeze. The sun struck off points from
the water, animating it with a jewel-dance. It found out in a flash the
diamond-and-sapphire top to her gold-mesh hand-bag, hoppity-skippiting
from facet to facet.
“My boy—my little boy!”
A pair of dock-hands, wiping their hands on cotton-waste, came after
a while to the door of the pier-house to observe and comment. Conscious
of that observation, she moved then through the great dank sheds in and
among the bales and boxes, down a flight of stairs and out to the
cobbled street. Her motor-car, the last at the entrance, stood off at a
slant, the chauffeur lopping slightly and dozing, his face scarcely
above the steering-wheel. She passed him with unnecessary stealth, her
heels occasionally wedging between the cobbles and jerking her up. Two
hours she walked thus, invariably next to the water's edge or in the
first street running parallel to it. Truck-drivers gazed at and sang
after her. Deck- and dock-hands, stretched out in the first sun of
spring, opened their eyes to her passing, often staring after her under
lazy lids. Behind a drawn veil her lips were moving, but inaudibly now.
Motor-trucks, blocks of them, painted the gray of war, stood waiting
shipment, engines ready to throb into no telling what mire. Once a van
of knitted stuffs, always the gray, corded and bound into bales,
rumbled by, close enough to graze and send her stumbling back. She
stood for a moment watching it lumber up alongside a dock.
It was dusk when she emerged from the rather sinister end of West
Street into Battery Park, receding in a gracious new-green curve from
the water. Tier after tier of lights had begun to prick out in the
back-drop of skyscraping office-buildings. The little park, after the
six-o'clock stampede, settled back into a sort of lamplit quiet, dark
figures, the dregs of a city day, here and there on its benches. The
back-drop of office-lights began to blink out then, all except the
tallest tower in the world, rising in the glory of its own spotlight
into a rococo pinnacle of man's accomplishment.
Strolling the edge of that park so close to the water that she could
hear it seethe in the receding, a policeman finally took to following
Mrs. Ross, his measured tread behind hers, his night-stick rapping out
every so often. She found out a bench then, and never out of his view,
sat looking out across the infinitude of blackness to where the bay so
casually meets the sea. Night dampness had sent her shivering, the
plumage of her hat, the ferny feathers of the bird-of-paradise,
drooping almost grotesquely over the brim.
A small detachment of Boy Scouts, sturdy with an enormous sense of
uniform and valor, marched through the asphalt alleys of the park with
trained, small-footed, regimental precision—small boys with clean,
lifted faces. A fife and drum came up the road.
High over the water a light had come out—Liberty's high-flung
torch. Watching it, and quickened by the fife and drum to an erect
sitting posture, Mrs. Ross slid forward on her bench, lips opening. The
policeman standing off, rapped twice, and when she rose, almost running
toward the lights of the Elevated station, followed.
Within her apartment on upper Broadway, not even a hall light burned
when she let herself in with her key. At the remote end of the aisle of
blackness a slit of yellow showed beneath the door, behind it the
babble of servants' voices.
She entered with a stealth that was well under cover of those
voices, groping into the first door at her right, feeling round for the
wall key, switching the old rose-and-gold room into immediate light.
Stood for a moment, her plumage drooping damply to her shoulders, blue
foulard dress snagged in two places, her gold mesh bag with the
sapphire-and-diamond top hanging low from the crook of her little
finger. A clock ticked with almost an echo into the rather vast
She entered finally, sidling in among the chairs.
A great mound of gray yarn, uncut skein after uncut skein of it,
rose off the brocade divan, more of them piled in systematic pyramids
on three chairs. She dropped at sight of it to the floor beside the
couch, burying her face in its fluff, grasping it in handfuls, writhing
into it. Surges of merciful sobs came sweeping through and through her.
After a while, with a pair of long amber-colored needles, she fell
to knitting with a fast, even furious ambidexterity, her mouth pursing
up with a driving intensity, her boring gaze so concentrated on the
thing in hand that her eyes seemed to cross.
Dawn broke upon her there, her hat still cockily awry, tears dried
in a vitrified gleaming down her cheeks. Beneath her flying fingers, a
sleeveless waistcoat was taking shape, a soldier's inner jacket against
the dam of trenches. At sunup it lay completed, spread out as if the
first of a pile. The first noises of the city began to rise remotely. A
bell pealed off somewhere. Day began to raise its conglomerate voice.
On her knees beside the couch there, the second waistcoat was already
taking shape beneath the cocksure needles.
The old pinkly moist look had come out in her face.
One million boys “out there” were needing chest-protectors!
III. ICE-WATER, PL—!
When the two sides of every story are told, Henry VIII. may
establish an alibi or two, Shylock and the public-school system meet
over and melt that too, too solid pound of flesh, and Xantippe, herself
the sturdier man than Socrates, give ready, lie to what is called the
shrew in her. Landladies, whole black-bombazine generations of
them—oh, so long unheard!—may rise in one Indictment of the Boarder:
The scarred bureau-front and match-scratched wall-paper; the empty
trunk nailed to the floor in security for the unpaid bill;
cigarette-burnt sheets and the terror of sudden fire; the silent
newcomer in the third floor back hustled out one night in handcuffs;
the day-long sobs of the blond girl so suddenly terrified of
life-about-to-be and wringing her ringless hands in the fourth-floor
hall-room; the smell of escaping gas and the tightly packed keyhole;
the unsuspected flutes that lurk in boarders' trunks; towels, that
querulous and endless paean of the lodger; the high cost of liver and
dried peaches, of canned corn and round steak!
Tired bombazine procession, wrapped in the greasy odors of years of
carpet-sweeping and emptying slops, airing the gassy slit of room after
the coroner; and padding from floor to floor on a mission of towels and
towels and towels!
Sometimes climbing from floor to floor, a still warm supply of them
looped over one arm, Mrs. Kaufman, who wore bombazine, but unspotted
and with crisp net frills at the throat, and upon whose soft-looking
face the years had written their chirography in invisible ink, would
sit suddenly, there in the narrow gloom of her halls, head against the
balustrade. Oftener than not the Katz boy from the third floor front
would come lickety-clapping down the stairs and past her, jumping the
last four steps of each flight.
“Irving, quit your noise in the hall.”
“Ain't you ashamed, a big boy like you, and Mrs. Suss with her
“Aw!”—the slam of a door clipping off this insolence.
After a while she would resume her climb.
And yet in Mrs. Kaufman's private boarding-house in West
Eighty-ninth Street, one of a breastwork of brownstone fronts, lined up
stoop for stoop, story for story, and ash-can for ash-can, there were
few enough greasy odors except upon the weekly occasion of Monday's
boiled dinner; and, whatever the status of liver and dried peaches,
canned corn and round steak, her menus remained static—so static that
in the gas-lighted basement dining-room and at a remote end of the
long, well-surrounded table Mrs. Katz, with her napkin tucked well
under her third chin, turned sotto from the protruding husband
at her right to her left neighbor, shielding her remark with her hand.
“Am I right, Mrs. Finshriber? I just said to my husband in the five
years we been here she should just give us once a change from
Friday-night lamb and noodles.”
“Say, you should complain yet! With me it's six and a half years day
after to-morrow, Easter Day, since I asked myself that question first.”
“Even my Irving says to me to-night up in the room; jumping up and
down on the hearth like he had four legs—”
“I heard him, Mrs. Katz, on my ceiling like he had eight legs.”
“'Mamma,' he says, 'guess why I feel like saying “Baa.”'“
“Sheep talk, Mrs. Finshriber. B-a-a, like a sheep goes.”
“'Cause I got so many Friday nights' lamb in me, mamma,' he said.
Quick like a flash that child is.”
Mrs. Finshriber dipped her head and her glance, all her drooping
features pulled even farther down at their corners. “I ain't the one to
complain, Mrs. Katz, and I always say, when you come right down to it
maybe Mrs. Kaufman's house is as good as the next one, but—”
“I wish, though, Mrs. Finshriber, you would hear what Mrs. Spritz
says at her boarding-house they get for breakfast: fried—”
“You can imagine, Mrs. Katz, since my poor husband's death, how much
appetite I got left; but I say, Mrs. Katz, just for the principle of
the thing, it would not hurt once if Mrs. Kaufman could give somebody
else besides her own daughter and Vetsburg the white meat from
everything, wouldn't it?”
“It's a shame before the boarders! She knows, Mrs. Pinshriber, how
my husband likes breast from the chicken. You think once he gets it?
No. I always tell him, not 'til chickens come doublebreasted like
overcoats can he get it in this house, with Vetsburg such a star
“Last night's chicken, let me tell you, I don't wish it to a dog!
Such a piece of dark meat with gizzard I had to swallow.”
Mrs. Katz adjusted with greater security the expanse of white napkin
across her ample bosom. Gold rings and a quarter-inch marriage band
flashed in and out among the litter of small tub-shaped dishes
surrounding her, and a pouncing fork of short, sure stab. “Right away
my husband gets mad when I say the same thing. 'When we don't like it
we should move,' he says.”
“Like moving is so easy, if you got two chairs and a hair mattress
to take with you. But I always say, Mrs. Katz, I don't blame Mrs.
Kaufman herself for what goes on; there's one good woman if
there ever was one!”
“They don't come any better or any better looking, my husband always
says. 'S-ay,' I tell him, 'she can stand her good looks.'“
“It's that big-ideaed daughter who's to blame. Did you see her new
white spats to-night?” Right away the minute they come out she has to
have 'em. I'm only surprised she 'ain't got one of them red hats from
Gimp's what is all the fad. Believe me, if not for such ideas, her
mother could afford something better as succotash for us for supper.”
“It's a shame, let me tell you, that a woman like Mrs. Kaufman can't
see for herself such things. God forbid I should ever be so blind to my
Irving. I tell you that Ruby has got it more like a queen than a
boarding-housekeeper's daughter. Spats, yet!”
“Rich girls could be glad to have it always so good.”
“I don't say nothing how her mother treats Vetsburg, her oldest
boarder, and for what he pays for that second floor front and no
lunches she can afford to cater a little; but that such a girl
shouldn't be made to take up a little stenography or help with the
“S-ay, when that girl even turns a hand, pale like a ghost her
“How girls are raised nowadays, even the poor ones!”
“I ain't the one to complain, Mrs. Katz, but just look down there,
that red stuff.”
“Ain't it cranberry between Ruby and Vetsburg?”
“Yes, yes, and look such a dish of it!”
“Is it right extras should be allowed to be brought on a table like
this where fourteen other boarders got to let their mouth water and
look at it?”
“You think it don't hurt like a knife! For myself I don't mind, but
my Irving! How that child loves 'em, and he should got to sit at the
same table without cranberries.”
From the head of the table the flashing implements of carving held
in askance for stroke, her lips lifted to a smile and a simulation of
interest for display of further carnivorous appetites, Mrs. Kaufman
passed her nod from one to the other.
“Miss Arndt, little more? No? Mr. Krakower? Gravy? Mrs. Suss? Mr.
Suss? So! Simon? Mr. Schloss? Miss Horowitz? Mr. Vetsburg, let me give
you this little tender—No? Then, Ruby, here let mama give you just a
“No, no, mama, please!” She caught at the hovering wrist to spare
the descent of the knife.
By one of those rare atavisms by which a poet can be bred of a
peasant or peasant be begot of poet, Miss Ruby Kaufman, who was born in
Newark, posthumous, to a terrified little parent with a black ribbon at
the throat of her gown, had brought with her from no telling where the
sultry eyes and tropical-turned skin of spice-kissed winds. The
corpuscles of a shah might have been running in the blood of her, yet
Simon Kaufman, and Simon Kaufman's father before him, had sold wool
remnants to cap-factories on commission.
“Ruby, you don't eat enough to keep a bird alive. Ain't it a shame,
Mr. Vetsburg, a girl should be so dainty?”
Mr. Meyer Vetsburg cast a beetling glance down upon Miss Kaufman,
there so small beside him, and tinked peremptorily against her plate
three times with his fork. “Eat, young lady, like your mama wants you
should, or, by golly! I'll string you up for my watch-fob—not, Mrs.
A smile lay under Mr. Vetsburg's gray-and-black mustache. Gray were
his eyes, too, and his suit, a comfortable baggy suit with the slouch
of the wearer impressed into it, the coat hiking center back, the
pocket-flaps half in, half out, and the knees sagging out of press.
“That's right, Mr. Vetsburg, you should scold her when she don't
Above the black-bombazine basque, so pleasantly relieved at the
throat by a V of fresh white net, a wave of color moved up Mrs.
Kaufman's face into her architectural coiffure, the very black and very
coarse skein of her hair wound into a large loose mound directly atop
her head and pierced there with a ball-topped comb of another decade.
“I always say, Mr. Vetsburg, she minds you before she minds anybody
else in the world.”
“Ma,” said Miss Kaufman, close upon that remark, “some succotash,
From her vantage down-table, Mrs. Katz leaned a bit forward from the
“Look, Mrs. Finshriber, how for a woman her age she snaps her black
eyes at him. It ain't hard to guess when a woman's got a marriageable
“You can take it from me she'll get him for her Ruby yet! And take
it from me, too, almost any girl I know, much less Ruby Kaufman, could
do worse as get Meyer Vetsburg.”
“S-say, I wish it to her to get him. For why once in a while
shouldn't a poor girl get a rich man except in books and choruses?”
“Believe me, a girl like Ruby can manage what she wants. Take it
from me, she's got it behind her ears.”
“I should say so.”
“Without it she couldn't get in with such a crowd of rich girls like
she does. I got it from Mrs. Abrams in the Arline Apartments how every
week she plays five hundred with Nathan Shapiro's daughter.”
“No! Shapiro &Stein?”
“And yesterday at matinee in she comes with a box of candy and
laughing with that Rifkin girl! How she gets in with such swell girls,
I don't know, but there ain't a nice Saturday afternoon I don't see
that girl walking on Fifth Avenue with just such a crowd of
fine-dressed girls, all with their noses powdered so white and their
hats so little and stylish.”
“I wouldn't be surprised if her mother don't send her down to
Atlantic City over Easter again if Vetsburg goes. Every holiday she has
to go lately like it was coming to her.”
“Say, between you and me, I don't put it past her it's that
Markovitch boy down there she's after. Ray Klein saw 'em on the
boardwalk once together, and she says it's a shame for the people how
they sat so close in a rolling-chair.”
“I wouldn't be surprised she's fresh with the boys, but, believe me,
if she gets the uncle she don't take the nephew!”
“Say, a clerk in his own father's hotel like the Markovitches got in
Atlantic City ain't no crime.”
“Her mother has got bigger thoughts for her than that. For why I
guess she thinks her daughter should take the nephew when maybe she can
get the uncle herself. Nowadays it ain't nothing no more that girls
marry twice their own age.”
“I always say I can tell when Leo Markovitch comes down, by the way
her mother's face gets long and the daughter's gets short.”
“Can you blame her? Leo Markovitch, with all his monograms on his
shirt-sleeves and such black rims on his glasses, ain't the Rosenthal
Vetsburg Hosiery Company, not by a long shot! There ain't a store in
this town you ask for the No Hole Guaranteed Stocking, right away they
don't show it to you. Just for fun always I ask.”
“Cornstarch pudding! Irving, stop making that noise at Mrs. Kaufman!
Little boys should be seen and not heard even at cornstarch pudding.”
“Gott! Wouldn't you think, Mrs. Katz, how Mrs. Kaufman knows
how I hate desserts that wabble, a little something extra she could
“How she plays favorite, it's a shame. I wish you'd look, too, Mrs.
Finshriber, how Flora Proskauer carries away from the table her glass
of milk with slice bread on top. I tell you it don't give tune to a
house the boarders should carry away from the table like that. Irving,
come and take with you that extra piece cake. Just so much board we pay
as Flora Proskauer.”
The line about the table broke suddenly, attended with a scraping of
chairs and after-dinner chirrupings attended with toothpicks. A blowsy
maid strained herself immediately across the strewn table and cloying
lamb platter, and turned off two of the three gas jets.
In the yellow gloom, the odors of food permeating it, they filed out
and up the dim lit stairs into dim-lit halls, the line of conversation
and short laughter drifting after.
A door slammed. Then another. Irving Katz leaped from his third
floor threshold to the front hearth, quaking three layers of
chandeliers. From Morris Krakower's fourth floor back the tune of a
flute began to wind down the stairs. Out of her just-closed door Mrs.
Finshriber poked a frizzled gray head.
“Ice-water, ple-ase, Mrs. Kauf-man.”
At the door of the first floor back Mrs. Kaufman paused with her
hand on the knob.
“Mama, let me run and do it.”
“Don't you move, Ruby. When Annie goes up to bed it's time enough.
Won't you come in for a while, Mr. Vetsburg?”
“Don't care if I do”.
She opened the door, entering cautiously. “Let me light up, Mrs.
Kaufman.” He struck a phosphorescent line on the sole of his shoe,
turning up three jets.
“You must excuse, Mr. Vetsburg, how this room looks. All day we've
been sewing Ruby her new dress.”
She caught up a litter of dainty pink frills in the making, clearing
a chair for him.
“Sit down, Mr. Vetsburg.”
They adjusted themselves around the shower of gaslight. Miss Kaufman
fumbling in her flowered work-bag, finally curling her foot up under
her, her needle flashing and shirring through one of the pink flounces.
“Ruby, in such a light you shouldn't strain your eyes.”
“All right, ma,” stitching placidly on.
“What'll you give me, Ruby, if I tell you whose favorite color is
“Aw, Vetsy!” she cried, her face like a rose, “your color's
From the depths of an inverted sewing-machine top Mrs. Kaufman
fished out another bit of the pink, ruffling it with deft needle.
The flute lifted its plaintive voice, feeling for high C.
Mr. Vetsburg lighted a loosely wrapped cigar and slumped in his
“If anybody,” he observed, “should ask right this minute where I'm
at, tell 'em for me, Mrs. Kaufman, I'm in the most comfortable chair in
“You should keep it, then, up in your room, Mr. Vetsburg, and not
always bring it down again when I get Annie to carry it up to you.”
“Say, I don't give up so easy my excuse for dropping in evenings.”
“Honest, you—you two children, you ought to have a fence built
around you the way you like always to be together.”
He sat regarding her, puffing and chewing his live cigar. Suddenly
he leaped forward, his hand closing rigidly over hers.
“Quick, there's a hole in your chin.”
At that he relaxed at his own pleasantry, laughing and shrugging.
With small white teeth Miss Kaufman bit off an end of thread.
“Don't let him tease you, ma; he's after your dimple again.”
“Ach, du—tease, you! Shame! Hole in my chin he scares me
She resumed her work with a smile and a twitching at her lips that
she was unable to control. A warm flow of air came in, puffing the lace
curtains. A faint odor of departed splendor lay in that room, its high
calcimined ceiling with the floral rosette in the center, the tarnished
pier-glass tilted to reflect a great pair of walnut folding-doors which
cut off the room where once it had flowed on to join the great length
of salon parlor. A folding-bed with an inlay of mirror and a
collapsible desk arrangement backed up against those folding-doors. A
divan with a winding back and sleek with horsehair was drawn across a
corner, a marble-topped bureau alongside. A bronze clock ticked roundly
from the mantel, balanced at either side by a pair of blue-glass
cornucopias with warts blown into them.
Mrs. Kaufman let her hands drop idly in her lap and her head fell
back against the chair. In repose the lines of her mouth turned up, and
her throat, where so often the years eat in first, was smooth and even
slender above the rather round swell of bosom.
“Always around Easter spring fever right away gets hold of me!”
Mr. Vetsburg bit his cigar, slumped deeper; and inserted a thumb in
the arm of his waistcoat.
“Why, Mrs. Kaufman, don't you and Ruby come down by Atlantic City
with me to-morrow over Easter? Huh? A few more or less don't make no
difference to my sister the way they get ready for crowds.”
Miss Kaufman shot forward, her face vivid.
“Oh, Vetsy,” she cried, and a flush rushed up, completely dyeing her
face. His face lit with hers, a sunburst of fine lines radiating from
“Why—why, we—we'd just love it, wouldn't we, ma? Atlantic City,
Easter Day! Ma!”
Mrs. Kaufman sat upright with a whole procession of quick emotions
flashing their expressions across her face. They ended in a smile that
trembled as she sat regarding the two of them.
“I should say so, yes! I—You and Ruby go, Mr. Vetsburg. Atlantic
City, Easter Day, I bet is worth the trip. I—You two go, I should say
so, but you don't want an old woman to drag along with you.”
“Ma! Just listen to her, Vetsy! Ain't she—ain't she just the limit?
Half the time when we go in stores together they take us for sisters,
and then she—she begins to talk like that to get out of going!”
“Ruby don't understand; but it ain't right, Mr. Vetsburg, I should
be away over Saturday and Sunday. On Easter always they expect a little
extra, and with Annie's sore ankle, I—I—”
“Oh, mommy, can't you leave this old shebang for only two days just
for an Easter Sunday down at Atlantic, where—where everybody goes?”
“You know yourself, Ruby, how always on Annie's Sunday out—”
“Well, what of it? It won't hurt all of them old things upstairs
that let you wait on them hand and foot all year to go without a few
frills for their Easter dinner.”
“I mean it. The old gossip-pots! I just sat and looked at them there
at supper, and I said to myself, I said, to think they drown kittens
and let those poor lumps live!”
“Ruby, aren't you ashamed to talk like that?”
“Sat there and looked at poor old man Katz with his ear all ragged
like it had been chewed off, and wondered why he didn't just go down to
Brooklyn Bridge for a high jump.”
“If all those big, strapping women, Suss and Finshriber and the
whole gang of them, were anything but vegetables, they'd get out and
hustle with keeping house, to work some of their flabbiness off and
give us a chance to get somebody in besides a chocolate-eating,
novel-reading crowd of useless women who think, mommy, you're a
dumbwaiter, chambermaid, lady's maid, and French chef rolled in one!
Honest, ma, if you carry that ice-water up to Katz to-night on the sly,
with that big son of hers to come down and get it, I—I'll go right up
and tell her what I think of her if she leaves to-morrow.”
“Mr. Vetsburg, you—you mustn't listen to her.”
“Can't take a day off for a rest at Atlantic City, because their old
Easter dinner might go down the wrong side. Honest, mama, to—to think
how you're letting a crowd of old, flabby women that aren't fit even to
wipe your shoes make a regular servant out of you! Mommy!”
There were tears in Miss Kaufman's voice, actual tears, big and
bright, in her eyes, and two spots of color had popped out in her
“Ruby, when—when a woman like me makes her living off her boarders,
she can't afford to be so particular. You think it's a pleasure I can't
slam the door right in Mrs. Katz's face when six times a day she orders
towels and ice-water? You think it's a pleasure I got to take sass from
such a bad boy like Irving? I tell you, Ruby, it's easy talk from a
girl that doesn't understand. Ach, you—you make me ashamed
before Mr. Vetsburg you should run down to the people we make our
living off of.”
Miss Kaufman flashed her vivid face toward Mr. Vetsburg, still low
there in his chair. She was trembling. “Vetsy knows! He's the only one
in this house does know! He 'ain't been here with us ten years, ever
since we started in this big house, not—not to know he's the only one
thinks you're here for anything except impudence and running stairs and
standing sass from the bad boys of lazy mothers. You know, don't you,
“Ruby! Mr. Vetsburg, you—you must excuse—”
From the depths of his chair Mr. Vetsburg's voice came slow and
carefully weighed. “My only complaint, Mrs. Kaufman, with what Ruby has
got to say is it ain't strong enough. It maybe ain't none of my
business, but always I have told you that for your own good you're too
gemuetlich. No wonder every boarder what you got stays year in and
year out till even the biggest kickers pay more board sooner as go. In
my business, Mrs. Kaufman, it's the same, right away if I get too easy
“But, Mr. Vetsburg, a poor woman can't afford to be so independent.
I got big expenses and big rent; I got a daughter to raise—”
“Mama, haven't I begged you a hundred times to let me take up
stenography and get out and hustle so you can take it easy—haven't I?”
A thick coating of tears sprang to Mrs. Kaufman's eyes and muddled
the gaze she turned toward Mr. Vetsburg. “Is it natural, Mr. Vetsburg,
a mother should want her only child should have always the best and do
always the things she never herself could afford to do? All my life,
Mr. Vetsburg, I had always to work. Even when I was five months married
to a man what it looked like would some day do big things in the wool
business, I was left all of a sudden with nothing but debts and my
“Is it natural, Mr. Vetsburg, I should want to work off my hands my
daughter should escape that? Nothing, Mr. Vetsburg, gives me so much
pleasure she should go with all those rich girls who like her well
enough poor to be friends with her. Always when you take her down to
Atlantic City on holidays, where she can meet 'em, it—it—”
“But, mommy, is it any fun for a girl to keep taking trips like that
with—with her mother always at home like a servant? What do people
think? Every holiday that Vetsy asks me, you—you back out. I—I won't
go without you, mommy, and—and I want to go, ma, I—I want
“My Easter dinner and—”
“You, Mrs. Kaufman, with your Easter dinner! Ruby's right. When your
mama don't go this time not one step we go by ourselves—ain't it?”
“Not a step.”
“To-morrow, Mrs. Kaufman, we catch that one-ten train. Twelve
o'clock I call in for you. Put ginger in your mama, Ruby, and we'll
open her eyes on the boardwalk—not?”
He smiled, regarding her.
Tears had fallen and dried on Mrs. Kaufman's cheeks; she wavered
between a hysteria of tears and laughter.
“I—children—” She succumbed to tears, daubing her eyes
He rose kindly. “Say, when such a little thing can upset her it's
high time she took for herself a little rest. If she backs out, we
string her up by the thumbs—not, Ruby?”
“We're going, ma. Going! You'll love the Markovitchs' hotel, ma
dearie, right near the boardwalk, and the grandest glassed-in porch
and—and chairs, and—and nooks, and things. Ain't they, Vetsy?”
“Yes, you little Ruby, you,” he said, regarding her with warm,
insinuating eyes, even crinkling an eyelid in a wink.
She did not return the glance, but caught her cheeks in the vise of
her hands as if to stem the too quick flush. “Now you—you quit!” she
cried, flashing her back upon him in quick pink confusion.
“She gets mad yet,” he said, his shoulders rising and falling in
“Well,” he said, clicking the door softly after him, “good night and
Upon the click of that door Mrs. Kaufman leaned softly forward in
her chair, speaking through a scratch in her throat. “Ruby!”
With her flush still high, Miss Kaufman danced over toward her
parent, then as suddenly ebbed in spirit, the color going. “Why, mommy,
what—what you crying for, dearie? Why, there's nothing to cry for,
dearie, that we're going off on a toot to-morrow. Honest, dearie, like
Vetsy says, you're all nerves. I bet from the way Suss hollered at you
to-day about her extra milk you're upset yet. Wouldn't I give her a
piece of my mind, though! Here, move your chair, mommy, and let me pull
down the bed.”
“I—I'm all right, baby. Only I just tell you it's enough to make
anybody cry we should have a friend like we got in Vetsburg. I—I tell
you, baby, they just don't come better than him. Not, baby? Don't be
ashamed to say so to mama.”
“I ain't, mama! And, honest, his—his whole family is just that way.
Sweet-like and generous. Wait till you see the way his sister and
brother-in-law will treat us at the hotel to-morrow. And—and Leo,
“I always say the day what Meyer Vetsburg, when he was only a clerk
in the firm, answered my furnished-room advertisement was the luckiest
day in my life.”
“You ought to heard, ma. I was teasing him the other day, telling
him that he ought to live at the Savoy, now that he's a two-thirds
member of the firm.”
“I was only teasing, ma. You just ought to seen his face. Any day
he'd leave us!”
Mrs. Kaufman placed a warm, insinuating arm around her daughter's
slim waist, drawing her around the chair-side and to her. “There's only
one way, baby, Meyer Vetsburg can ever leave me and make me happy when
“Ma, what you mean?”
“You know, baby, without mama coming right out in words.”
“Ma, honest I don't. What?”
“You see it coming just like I do. Don't fool mama, baby.”
The slender lines of Miss Kaufman's waist stiffened, and she half
slipped from the embrace.
“Now, now, baby, is it wrong a mother should talk to her own baby
about what is closest in both their hearts?”
“I—I—mama, I—I don't know!”
“How he's here in this room every night lately, Ruby, since
you—you're a young lady. How right away he follows us up-stairs. How
lately he invited you every month down at Atlantic City. Baby, you
ain't blind, are you?”
“Why, mama—why, mama, what is Meyer Vetsburg to—to me? Why,
he—he's got gray hair, ma; he—he's getting bald. Why, he—he don't
know I'm on earth. He—he's—”
“You mean, baby, he don't know anybody else is on earth. What's,
nowadays, baby, a man forty? Why—why, ain't mama forty-one, baby, and
didn't you just say yourself for sisters they take us?”
“I know, ma, but he—he—. Why, he's got an accent, ma, just like
old man Katz and—and all of 'em. He says 'too-sand' for thousand.
“Baby, ain't you ashamed like it makes any difference how a good man
talks?” She reached out, drawing her daughter by the wrists down into
her lap. “You're a bad little flirt, baby, what pretends she don't know
what a blind man can see.”
Miss Kaufman's eyes widened, darkened, and she tugged for the
freedom of her wrists. “Ma, quit scaring me!”
“Scaring you! That such a rising man like Vetsburg, with a business
he worked himself into president from clerk, looks every day more like
he's falling in love with you, should scare you!”
“Ma, not—not him!”
In reply she fell to stroking the smooth black plaits, wound coronet
fashion about Miss Kaufman's small head. Large, hot tears sprang to her
eyes. “Baby, when you talk like that it's you that scares mama!”
“Why, you think, Ruby, I been making out of myself a servant like
you call it all these years except for your future? For myself a
smaller house without such a show and maybe five or six roomers without
meals, you think ain't easier as this big barn? For what, baby, you
think I always want you should have extravagances maybe I can't afford
and should keep up with the fine girls what you meet down by Atlantic
City if it ain't that a man like Meyer Vetsburg can be proud to choose
you from the best?”
“Don't think, Ruby, when the day comes what I can give up this
white-elephant house that it won't be a happy one for me. Every night
when I hear from up-stairs how Mrs. Katz and all of them hollers down
'towels' and 'ice-water' to me like I—I was their slave, don't think,
baby, I won't be happiest woman in this world the day what I can slam
the door, bang, right on the words.”
“Mama, mama, and you pretending all these years you didn't mind!”
“I don't, baby. Not one minute while I got a future to look forward
to with you. For myself, you think I ask anything except my little
girl's happiness? Anyways, when happiness comes to you with a man like
Meyer Vetsburg, don't—don't it come to me, too, baby?”
“That's what my little girl can do for mama, better as stenography.
Set herself down well. That's why, since we got on the subject, baby,
I—I hold off signing up the new lease, with every day Shulif fussing
so. Maybe, baby, I—well, just maybe—eh, baby?”
For answer a torrent of tears so sudden that they came in an
avalanche burst from Miss Kaufman, and she crumpled forward, face in
hands and red rushing up the back of her neck and over her ears.
“No, no, ma! No, no!”
“Baby, the dream what I've dreamed five years for you!”
“No, no, no!”
She fell back, regarding her.
“Why, Ruby. Why, Ruby, girl!”
“It ain't fair. You mustn't!”
“Mustn't! Mustn't!” Her voice had slipped up now and away from her.
“Why, baby, it's natural at first maybe a girl should be so scared.
Maybe I shouldn't have talked so soon except how it's getting every day
plainer, these trips to Atlantic City and—”
“Mama, mama, you're killing me.” She fell back against her parent's
shoulder, her face frankly distorted.
A second, staring there into space, Mrs. Kaufman sat with her arm
still entwining the slender but lax form. “Ruby, is—is it something
you ain't telling mama?”
“Oh, mommy, mommy!”
“I—I don't know.”
“Ruby, should you be afraid to talk to mama, who don't want nothing
but her child's happiness?”
“You know, mommy. You know!”
“Know what, baby?”
“Is there somebody else you got on your mind, baby?”
“You know, mommy.”
“Tell mama, baby. It ain't a—a crime if you got maybe somebody else
on your mind.”
“I can't say it, mommy. It—it wouldn't be—be nice.”
“He—he—We ain't even sure yet.”
“So help me, I don't.”
“Mommy, don't make me say it. Maybe if—when his uncle Meyer takes
him in the business, we—”
“Baby, not Leo?”
“Oh, mommy, mommy!” And she buried her hot, revealing face into the
fresh net V.
“Why—why, baby, a—a boy like that!”
“Twenty-three, mama, ain't a boy!”
“But, Ruby, just a clerk in his father's hotel, and two older
brothers already in it. A—a boy that 'ain't got a start yet.”
“That's just it, ma. We—we're waiting! Waiting before we talk
even—even much to each other yet. Maybe—maybe his uncle Meyer is
going to take him in the business, but it ain't sure yet. We—”
“A little yellow-haired boy like him that—that can't support you,
baby, unless you live right there in his mother's and father's hotel
away—away from me!”
“Ruby, a smart girl like you. A little snip what don't make salt
yet, when you can have the uncle hisself!”
“I can't help it, ma! If—if—the first time Vetsy took me down
to—to the shore, if—if Leo had been a king or a—or just what he is,
it wouldn't make no difference. I—I can't help my—my feelings, ma. I
A large furrow formed between Mrs. Kaufman's eyes, darkening her.
“You wouldn't, Ruby!” she said, clutching her.
“Oh, mommy, mommy, when a—a girl can't help a thing!”
“He ain't good enough for you, baby!”
“He's ten times too good; that—that's all you know about it. Mommy,
please! I—I just can't help it, dearie. It's just like when I—I saw
him a—a clock began to tick inside of me. I—”
“O my God!” said Mrs. Kaufman, drawing her hand across her brow.
“His uncle Meyer, ma, 's been hinting all along he—he's going to
give Leo his start and take him in the business. That's why we—we're
waiting without saying much, till it looks more like—like we can all
be together, ma.”
“All my dreams! My dreams I could give up the house! My baby with a
well-to-do husband maybe on Riverside Drive. A servant for herself, so
I could pass, maybe, Mrs. Suss and Mrs. Katz by on the street. Ruby,
you—you wouldn't, Ruby. After how I've built for you!”
“Oh, mama, mama, mama!”
“If you 'ain't got ambitions for yourself, Ruby, think once of me
and this long dream I been dreaming for—us.”
“Yes, ma. Yes.”
“Ruby, Ruby, and I always thought when you was so glad for Atlantic
City, it was for Vetsburg; to show him how much you liked his folks.
How could I know it was—.”
“I never thought, mommy. Why—why, Vetsy he's just like a relation
“I tell you, baby, it's just an idea you got in your head.”
“No, no, mama. No, no.”
Suddenly Mrs. Kaufman threw up her hands, clasping them tight
against her eyes, pressing them in frenzy. “O my God!” she cried. “All
for nothing!” and fell to moaning through her laced fingers. “All for
nothing! Years. Years. Years.”
“Oh—don't, don't! Just let me be. Let me be. O my God! My God!”
“Mommy, please, mommy! I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it, mommy
“I can't go on all the years, Ruby. I'm tired. Tired, girl.”
“Of course you can't, darling. We—I don't want you to. 'Shh-h-h!”
“It's only you and my hopes in you that kept me going all these
years. The hope that, with some day a good man to provide for you, I
could find a rest, maybe.”
“Every time what I think of that long envelope laying there on that
desk with its lease waiting to be signed to-morrow, I—I could squeeze
my eyes shut so tight and wish I didn't never have to open them again
on this—this house and this drudgery. If you marry wrong, baby, I'm
caught. Caught in this house like a rat in a trap.”
“No, no, mommy. Leo, he—his uncle—”
“Don't make me sign that new lease, Ruby. Shulif hounds me every day
now. Any day I expect he says is my last. Don't make me saddle another
five years with the house. He's only a boy, baby, and years it will
take, and—I'm tired, baby. Tired! Tired!” She lay back with her face
suddenly held in rigid lines and her neck ribbed with cords.
At sight of her so prostrate there, Ruby Kaufman grasped the cold
face in her ardent young hands, pressing her lips to the streaming
“Mommy, I didn't mean it. I didn't! I—We're just kids, flirting a
little, Leo and me. I didn't mean it, mommy!”
“You didn't mean it, Ruby, did you? Tell mama you didn't.”
“I didn't, ma. Cross my heart. It's only I—I kinda had him in my
head. That's all, dearie. That's all!”
“He can't provide, baby.”
“'Shh-h-h, ma! Try to get calm, and maybe then—then things can come
like you want 'em. 'Shh-h-h, dearie! I didn't mean it. 'Course Leo's
only a kid. I—We—Mommy dear, don't. You're killing me. I didn't mean
it. I didn't.”
“Sure, baby? Sure?”
“Mama's girl,” sobbed Mrs. Kaufman, scooping the small form to her
bosom and relaxing. “Mama's own girl that minds.”
They fell quiet, cheek to cheek, staring ahead into the gaslit
quiet, the clock ticking into it.
The tears had dried on Mrs. Kaufman's cheeks, only her throat
continuing to throb and her hand at regular intervals patting the young
shoulder pressed to her. It was as if her heart lay suddenly very still
in her breast.
“Mama's own girl that minds.”
“It—it's late, ma. Let me pull down the bed.”
“You ain't mad at mama, baby? It's for your own good as much as
mine. It is unnatural a mother should want to see her—”
“No, no, mama. Move, dearie. Let me pull down the bed. There you
With a wrench Mrs. Kaufman threw off her recurring inclination to
tears, moving casually through the processes of their retirement.
“To-morrow, baby, I tighten the buttons on them new spats. How
pretty they look.”
“I told Mrs. Katz to-day right out her Irving can't bring any more
his bicycle through my front hall. Wasn't I right?”
“Of course you were, ma.”
“Miss Flora looked right nice in that pink waist to-night—not?
Four-eighty-nine only, at Gimp's sale.”
“She's too fat for pink.”
“You get in bed first, baby, and let mama turn out the lights.”
“No, no, mama; you.”
In her white slip of a nightdress, her coronet braids unwound and
falling down each shoulder, even her slightness had waned. She was like
Juliet who at fourteen had eyes of maid and martyr.
They crept into bed, grateful for darkness.
The flute had died out, leaving a silence that was plaintive.
“You all right, baby?”
“Yes, ma.” And she snuggled down into the curve of her mother's arm.
“Are you, mommy?”
“Go to sleep, then.”
“Good night, baby.”
“Good night, mommy.”
Lying there, with her face upturned and her eyes closed, a stream of
quiet tears found their way from under Miss Kaufman's closed lids,
running down and toward her ears like spectacle frames.
An hour ticked past, and two damp pools had formed on her pillow.
“Asleep yet, baby?”
“Are you all right?”
“You—you ain't mad at mama?”
“'Course not, dearie.”
“I—thought it sounded like you was crying.”
“Why, mommy, 'course not! Turn over now and go to sleep.”
Another hour, and suddenly Mrs. Kaufman shot out her arm from the
coverlet, jerking back the sheet and feeling for her daughter's dewy,
upturned face where the tears were slashing down it.
“Mommy, you—you mustn't!”
“Oh, my darling, like I didn't suspicion it!”
“You got, Ruby, the meanest mama in the world. But you think,
darling, I got one minute's happiness like this?”
“I'm all right, mommy, only—”
“I been laying here half the night, Ruby, thinking how I'm a bad
mother what thinks only of her own—”
“No, no, mommy. Turn over and go to sl—”
“My daughter falls in love with a fine, upright young man like Leo
Markovitch, and I ain't satisfied yet! Suppose maybe for two or three
years you ain't so much on your feet. Suppose even his uncle Meyer
don't take him in. Don't any young man got to get his start slow?”
“Because I got for her my own ideas, my daughter shouldn't have in
life the man she wants!”
“But, mommy, if—”
“You think for one minute, Ruby, after all these years without this
house on my hands and my boarders and their kicks, a woman like me
would be satisfied? Why, the more, baby, I think of such a thing, the
more I see it for myself! What you think, Ruby, I do all day without
steps to run, and my gedinks with housekeeping and marketing after
eighteen years of it? At first, Ruby, ain't it natural it should come
like a shock that you and that rascal Leo got all of a sudden so—so
thick? I—It ain't no more, baby. I—I feel fine about it.”
“Oh, mommy, if—if I thought you did!”
“I do. Why not? A fine young man what my girl is in love with. Every
mother should have it so.”
“Mommy, you mean it?”
“I tell you I feel fine. You don't need to feel bad or cry another
minute. I can tell you I feel happy. To-morrow at Atlantic City if such
a rascal don't tell me for himself, I—I ask him right out!”
“For why yet he should wait till he's got better prospects, so his
mother-in-law can hang on? I guess not!”
“Mommy darling. If you only truly feel like that about it. Why, you
can keep putting off the lease, ma, if it's only for six months, and
then we—we'll all be to—”
“Of course, baby. Mama knows. Of course!”
“He—I just can't begin to tell you, ma, the kind of a fellow Leo is
till you know him better, mommy dear.”
“Always Vetsburg says he's a wide-awake one!”
“That's just what he is, ma. He's just a prince if—if there ever
was one. One little prince of a fellow.” She fell to crying softly,
easy tears that flowed freely.
“I—I can tell you, baby, I'm happy as you.”
“Mommy dear, kiss me.”
They talked, huddled arm in arm, until dawn flowed in at the window
and dirty roofs began to show against a clean sky. Footsteps began to
clatter through the asphalt court and there came the rattle of
“I wonder if Annie left out the note for Mrs. Suss's extra milk!”
“Don't get up, dearie; it's only five—”
“Right away, baby, with extra towels I must run up to Miss Flora's
room. That six o'clock-train for Trenton she gets.”
“Ma dear, let me go.”
“Lay right where you are! I guess you want you should look all worn
out when a certain young man what I know walks down to meet our train
at Atlantic City this afternoon, eh?”
“Oh, mommy, mommy!” And Ruby lay back against the luxury of pillows.
At eleven the morning rose to its climax—the butcher, the baker,
and every sort of maker hustling in and out the basementway; the
sweeping of upstairs halls; windows flung open and lace curtains looped
high; the smell of spring pouring in even from asphalt; sounds of
scrubbing from various stoops; shouts of drivers from a narrow street
wedged with its Saturday-morning blockade of delivery wagons, and a
crosstown line of motor-cars, tops back and nosing for the speedway of
upper Broadway. A homely bouquet of odors rose from the basement
kitchen, drifting up through the halls, the smell of mutton bubbling as
After a morning of up-stairs and down-stairs and in and out of
chambers, Mrs. Kaufman, enveloped in a long-sleeved apron still angular
with starch, hung up the telephone receiver in the hall just beneath
the staircase and entered her bedroom, sitting down rather heavily
beside the open shelf of her desk. A long envelope lay uppermost on
that desk, and she took it up slowly, blinking her eyes shut and
holding them squeezed tight as if she would press back a vision, even
then a tear oozing through. She blinked it back, but her mouth was wry
with the taste of tears.
A slatternly maid poked her head in through the open door. “Mrs.
Katz broke 'er mug!”
“Take the one off Mr. Krakow's wash-stand and give it to her,
She was crying now frankly, and when the door swung closed, even
though it swung back again on its insufficient hinge, she let her head
fall forward into the pillow of her arms, the curve of her back rising
But after a while the greengrocer came on his monthly mission, in
his white apron and shirt-sleeves, and she compared stubs with him from
a file on her desk and balanced her account with careful squinted
glance and a keen eye for an overcharge on a cut of breakfast bacon.
On the very heels of him, so that they met and danced to pass each
other in the doorway, Mr. Vetsburg entered, with an overcoat flung
across his right arm and his left sagging to a small black
“Well,” he said, standing in the frame of the open door, his derby
well back on his head and regarding her there beside the small desk,
“is this what you call ready at twelve?”
She rose and moved forward in her crackly starched apron.
“I—Please, Mr. Vetsburg, it ain't right, I know!”
“You don't mean you're not going!” he exclaimed, the lifted quality
immediately dropping from his voice.
“You—you got to excuse me again, Mr. Vetsburg. It ain't no use I
should try to get away on Saturdays, much less Easter Saturday.”
“Well, of all things!”
“Right away, the last minute, Mr. Vetsburg, right one things after
He let his bag slip to the floor.
“Maybe, Mrs. Kaufman,” he said, “it ain't none of my business, but
ain't it a shame a good business woman like you should let herself
always be tied down to such a house like she was married to it?”
“Can't get away on Saturdays, just like it ain't the same any other
day in the week, I ask you! Saturday you blame it on yet!”
She lifted the apron from her hem, her voice hurrying. “You can see
for yourself, Mr. Vetsburg, how in my brown silk all ready I was.
Even—even Ruby don't know yet I don't go. Down by Gimp's I sent her
she should buy herself one of them red straw hats is the fad with the
girls now. She meets us down by the station.”
“That's a fine come-off, ain't it, to disappoint—”
“At the last minute, Mr. Vetsburg, how things can happen. Out of a
clear sky Mrs. Finshriber has to-morrow for Easter dinner that skin
doctor, Abrams, and his wife she's so particular about. And Annie with
her sore ankle and—”
“A little shyster doctor like Abrams with his advertisements all
over the newspapers should sponge off you and your holiday! By golly!
Mrs. Kaufman, just like Ruby says, how you let a whole houseful of old
hens rule this roost it's a shame!”
“When you go down to station, Mr. Vetsburg, so right away she ain't
so disappointed I don't come, tell her maybe to-morrow I—.”
“I don't tell her nothing!” broke in Mr. Vetsburg and moved toward
her with considerable strengthening of tone. “Mrs. Kaufman, I ask you,
do you think it right you should go back like this on Ruby and me, just
when we want most you should—”
At that she quickened and fluttered. “Ruby and you! Ach, it's a old
saying, Mr. Vetsburg, like the twig is bent so the tree grows. That
child won't be so surprised her mother changes her mind. Just so
changeable as her mother, and more, is Ruby herself. With that girl,
Mr. Vetsburg, it's—it's hard to know what she does one minute from the
next. I always say no man—nobody can ever count on a little
harum-scarum like—like she is.”
He took up her hat, a small turban of breast feathers, laid out on
the table beside him, and advanced with it clumsily enough. “Come,” he
said, “please now, Mrs. Kaufman. Please.”
“I—I got plans made for us to-morrow down by the shore
that's—that's just fine! Come now, Mrs. Kaufman.”
“Please, Mr. Vetsburg, don't force. I—I can't! I always say nobody
can ever count on such a little harum-scarum as—”
“You mean to tell me, Mrs. Kaufman, that just because a little
Her hand closed over the long envelope again, crunching it. “No, no,
that—that ain't all, Mr. Vetsburg. Only I don't want you should tell
Ruby. You promise me? How that child worries over little things. Shulif
from the agency called up just now. He don't give me one more minute as
two this afternoon I—I should sign. How I been putting them off so
many weeks with this lease it's a shame. Always you know how in the
back of my head I've had it to take maybe a smaller place when this
lease was done, but, like I say, talk is cheap and moving ain't so easy
done—ain't it? If he puts in new plumbing in the pantry and new hinges
on the doors and papers my second floor and Mrs. Suss's alcove, like I
said last night, after all I could do worse as stay here another five
year—ain't it, Mr. Vetsburg?”
“A house what keeps filled so easy, and such a location, with the
Subway less as two blocks. I—So you see, Mr. Vetsburg, if I don't want
I come back and find my house on the market, maybe rented over my head,
I got to stay home for Shulif when he comes to-day.”
A rush of dark blood had surged up into Mr. Vetsburg's face, and he
twiddled his hat, his dry fingers moving around inside the brim.
“Mrs. Kaufman,” he cried—“Mrs. Kaufman, sometimes when for years a
man don't speak out his mind, sometimes he busts all of a sudden right
out. I—Oh—e-e-e!” and, immediately and thickly inarticulate, made a
tremendous feint at clearing his throat, tossed up his hat and caught
it; rolled his eyes.
“A man, Mrs. Kaufman, can bust!”
He was still violently dark, but swallowing with less labor. “Yes,
from holding in. Mrs. Kaufman, should a woman like you—the finest
woman in the world, and I can prove it—a woman, Mrs. Kaufman, who in
her heart and my heart and—Should such a woman not come to Atlantic
City when I got everything fixed like a stage set!”
She threw out an arm that was visibly trembling. “Mr. Vetsburg, for
God's sake, 'ain't I just told you how that she—harum-scarum—she—.”
“Will you, Mrs. Kaufman, come or won't you? Will you, I ask you, or
“I—I can't, Mr.—”
“All right, then, I—I bust out now. To-day can be as good as
to-morrow! Not with my say in a t'ousand years, Mrs. Kaufman, you sign
that lease! I ain't a young man any more with fine speeches, Mrs.
Kaufman, but not in a t'ousand years you sign that lease.”
“Mr. Vetsburg, Ruby—I—”
“If anybody's got a lease on you, Mrs. Kaufman, I—I want it! I want
it! That's the kind of a lease would suit me. To be leased to you for
always, the rest of your life!”
She could not follow him down the vista of fancy, but stood
interrogating him with her heartbeats at her throat. “Mr. Vetsburg, if
he puts on the doors and hinges and new plumbing in—.”
“I'm a plain man, Mrs. Kaufman, without much to offer a woman what
can give out her heart's blood like it was so much water. But all these
years I been waiting, Mrs. Kaufman, to bust out, until—till things got
riper. I know with a woman like you, whose own happiness always is
last, that first your girl must be fixed—.”
“She's a young girl, Mr. Vetsburg. You—you mustn't depend—. If I
had my say—.”
“He's a fine fellow, Mrs. Kaufman. With his uncle to help 'em, they
got, let me tell you, a better start as most young ones!”
She rose, holding on to the desk.
“I—I—” she said. “What?”
“Lena,” he uttered, very softly.
“Lena, Mr. Vetsburg?”
“It 'ain't been easy, Lenie, these years while she was only growing
up, to keep off my lips that name. A name just like a leaf off a rose.
Lena!” he reiterated and advanced.
Comprehension came quietly and dawning like a morning.
“I—I—. Mr. Vetsburg, you must excuse me,” she said, and sat down
He crossed to the little desk and bent low over her chair, his hand
not on her shoulder, but at the knob of her chair. His voice had a
swift rehearsed quality.
“Maybe to-morrow, if you didn't back out, it would sound finer by
the ocean, Lenie, but it don't need the ocean a man should tell a woman
when she's the first and the finest woman in the world. Does it,
“I—I thought Ruby. She—”
“He's a good boy, Leo is, Lenie. A good boy what can be good to a
woman like his father before him. Good enough even for a fine girl like
our Ruby, Lenie—our Ruby!”
“Gott im Himmel! then you—”
“Wide awake, too. With a start like I can give him in my business,
you 'ain't got to worry Ruby 'ain't fixed herself with the man what she
chooses. To-morrow at Atlantic City all fixed I had it I should tell—”
“You!” she said, turning around in her chair to face him. “You—all
along you been fixing—”
He turned sheepish. “Ain't it fair, Lenie, in love and war and
business a man has got to scheme for what he wants out of life? Long
enough it took she should grow up. I knew all along once those two,
each so full of life and being young, got together it was natural what
should happen. Mrs. Kaufman! Lenie! Lenie!”
Prom two flights up, in through the open door and well above the
harsh sound of scrubbing, a voice curled down through the hallways and
in. “Mrs. Kaufman, ice-water—ple-ase!”
“Lenie,” he said, his singing, tingling fingers closing over her
“Mrs. Kauf-man, ice-water, pl—”
With her free arm she reached and slammed the door, let her cheek
lie to the back of his hand, and closed her eyes.
IV. HERS NOT TO REASON WHY
In the third winter of a world-madness, with Europe guzzling blood
and wild with the taste of it, America grew flatulent, stenching winds
from the battle-field blowing her prosperity.
Granaries filled to bursting tripled in value, and, in congested
districts, men with lean faces rioted when bread advanced a cent a
loaf. Munition factories, the fires of destruction smelting all night,
worked three shifts. Millions of shells for millions of dollars.
Millions of lives for millions of shells. A country feeding into the
insatiable maw of war with one hand, and with the other pouring
relief-funds into coffers bombarded by guns of its own
manufacture—quelling the wound with a finger and widening it with a
knife up the cuff.
In France, women with blue faces and too often with the pulling lips
of babes at dry breasts, learned the bitter tasks of sewing closed the
coat sleeves and of cutting off and hemming the trousers leg at the
In America, women new to the feel of fur learned to love it and not
question whence it came. Men of small affairs, suddenly earthquaked to
the crest of the great tidal wave of new market-values, went drunk with
In New York, where so many great forces of a great country
coagulate, the face of the city photographed would have been a
composite of fat and jowl, rouge and heavy lip—satiated yet insatiate,
the head double-chinned and even a little loggy with too many
But that is the New York of the Saturnite and of Teufelsdroeckh
alone with his stars.
Upon Mrs. Blutch Connors, gazing out upon the tide of West
Forty-seventh Street, life lay lightly and as unrelated as if ravage
and carnage and the smell of still warm blood were of another planet.
A shower of white light from an incandescent tooth-brush sign
opposite threw a pallid reflection upon Mrs. Connors; it spun the fuzz
of frizz rising off her blond coiffure into a sort of golden fog and
picked out the sequins of her bodice.
The dinner-hour descends glitteringly upon West Forty-seventh
Street, its solid rows of long, lanky hotels, actors' clubs, and
sixty-cent tables d'hote adding each its candle-power.
From her brace of windows in the Hotel Metropolis, the street was
not unlike a gully cut through mica, a honking tributary flowing into
the great sea of Broadway. A low, high-power car, shaped like an
ellipse, cut through the snarl of traffic, bleating. A woman, wrapped
in a greatcoat of “baby” pelts and an almost undistinguishable dog in
the cove of her arm, walked out from the Hotel Metropolis across the
sidewalk and into a taxicab. An army of derby hats, lowered slightly
into the wind, moved through the white kind of darkness. Standing
there, buffeting her pink nails across her pink palms, Mrs. Connors
followed the westward trend of that army. Out from it, a face lying
suddenly back flashed up at her, a mere petal riding a swift current.
But at sight of it Mrs. Blutch Connors inclined her entire body,
pressing a smile and a hand against the cold pane, then turned inward,
flashing on an electrolier—a bronze Nydia holding out a cluster of
frosted bulbs. A great deal of the strong breath of a popular perfume
and a great deal of artificial heat lay sweet upon that room, as if
many flowers had lived and died in the same air, leaving insidious but
slightly stale memories.
The hotel suite has become the brocaded tomb of the old-fashioned
garden. The kitchen has shrunk into the chafing-dish, and all the dear
old concoctions that mother used to try to make now come tinned,
condensed, and predigested in sixty-seven varieties. Even the
vine-covered threshold survives only in the booklets of promoters of
suburban real estate. In New York, the home-coming spouse arrives on
the vertical, shunted out at whatever his layer. Yet, when Mrs. Connors
opened the door of her pink-brocaded sitting-room, her spirit rose with
the soughing rise of the elevator, and Romance—hardy fellow—showed
himself within a murky hotel corridor.
“Babe!” said Mr. Blutch Connors, upon the slam of the lift door.
And there, in the dim-lit halls, with its rows of closed doors in
blank-faced witness thereof, they embraced, these two, despising, as
Flaubert despised, to live in the reality of things.
“My boy's beau-ful cheeks all cold!”
“My girl's beau-ful cheeks all warm and full of some danged good
cologne,” said Mr. Connors, closing the door of their rooms upon them,
pressing her head back against the support of his arm, and kissing her
throat as the chin flew up.
He pressed a button, and the room sprang into more light, coming out
pinkly and vividly—the brocaded walls pliant to touch with every so
often a gilt-framed engraving; a gilt table with an onyx top cheerfully
cluttered with the sauciest short-story magazines of the month; a white
mantelpiece with an artificial hearth and a pink-and-gilt
chaise-longue piled high with small, lacy pillows, and a very green
magazine open and face downward on the floor beside it.
“Comin' better, honeybunch?”
“I dunno, Babe. The town's mad with money, but I don't feel myself
going crazy with any of it.”
“What ud you bring us, honey?”
He slid out of his silk-lined greatcoat, placing his brown derby
“Three guesses, Babe,” he said, rubbing his cold hands in a dry
wash, and smiling from five feet eleven of sartorial accomplishment
down upon her.
“Honey darlin'!” said Mrs. Connors, standing erect and placing her
cheek against the third button of his waistcoat.
“Wow! how I love the woman!” he cried, closing his hands softly
about her throat and tilting her head backward again.
“Darlin', you hurt!”
“Br-r-r—can't help it!”
When Mr. Connors moved, he gave off the scent of pomade freely; his
slightly thinning brown hair and the pointy tips to a reddish mustache
lay sleek with it. There was the merest suggestion of embonpoint
to the waistcoat, but not so that, when he dropped his eyes, the blunt
toes of his russet shoes were not in evidence. His pin-checked suit was
pressed to a knife-edge, and his brocaded cravat folded to a nicety;
there was an air of complete well-being about him. Men can acquire that
sort of eupeptic well-being in a Turkish bath. Young mothers and
life-jobbers have it naturally.
Suddenly, Mrs. Connors began to foray into his pockets, plunging her
hand into the right, the left, then stopped suddenly, her little face
flashing up at him.
“It's round and furry—my honeybunch brought me a peach! Beau-ful
pink peach in December! Nine million dollars my hubby pays to bring him
wifey a beau-ful pink peach.” She drew it out—a slightly runty one
with a forced blush—and bit small white teeth immediately into it.
“M-m-m!”—sitting on the chaise-longue and sucking inward. He
sat down beside her, a shade graver.
“Is my babe disappointed I didn't dig her coat and earrings out of
She lay against him.
“I should worry!”
“There just ain't no squeal in my girl.”
“Any one of 'em but you would be hollering for their junk out of
pawn. But, Lord, the way she rigs herself up without it! Where'd you
dig up the spangles, Babe? Gad! I gotta take you out to-night and buy
you the right kind of a dinner. When I walks my girl into a cafe, they
sit up and take notice, all righty. Spangles she rigs herself up in
when another girl, with the way my luck's been runnin', would be down
to her shimmy-tail.”
She stroked his sleeve as if it had the quality of fur.
“Is the rabbit's foot still kicking my boy?”
“Never seen the like, honey. The cards just won't come. This
afternoon I even played the wheel over at Chuck's, and she spun me
“It's gotta turn, Blutch.”
“Remember the run of rotten luck you had that year in Cincinnati,
when the ponies was runnin' at Latonia?”
“Lost your shirt, hon, and the first day back in New York laid a
hundred on the wheel and won me my seal coat. You—we—We couldn't be
no lower than that time we got back from Latonia, hon?”
He laid his hand over hers.
“Come on, Babe. Joe'll be here directly, and then we're going and
blow them spangles to a supper.”
“Now there's nothin' to worry about, Babe. Have I ever landed
anywhere but on my feet? We'll be driving a racer down Broadway again
before the winter's over. There's money in motion these wartimes, Babe.
They can't keep my hands off it.”
“Blutch, how—how much did you drop to-day?
“I could tell clear down on the street you lost, honey, the way you
walked so round-shouldered.”
“What's the difference, honey? Come; just to show you I'm a sport,
I'm going to shoot you and Joe over to Jack's in one of them new white
“Blutch, how much?”
“Well, if you gotta know it, they laid me out to-day, Babe. Dropped
that nine hundred hock-money like it was a hot potato, and me countin'
on bringin' you home your coat and junk again to-night. Gad! Them cards
wouldn't come to me with salt on their tails.”
“Nine hundred! Blutch, that—that leaves us bleached!”
“I know it, hon. Just never saw the like. Wouldn't care if it wasn't
my girl's junk and fur coat. That's what hurts a fellow. If there's one
thing he ought to look to, it's to keep his wimmin out of the game.”
“It—it ain't that, Blutch; but—but where's it comin' from?”
He struck his thigh a resounding whack.
“With seventy-five bucks in my jeans, girl, the world is mine. Why,
before I had my babe for my own, many's the time I was down to
shoe-shine money. Up to 'leven years ago it wasn't nothing, honey, for
me to sleep on a pool-table one night and de luxe the next. If
life was a sure thing for me, I'd ask 'em to put me out of my misery.
It's only since I got my girl that I ain't the plunger I used to be.
Big Blutch has got his name from the old days, honey, when a dime, a
dollar, and a tire-rim was all the same size.”
She sat hunched up in the pink-satinet frock, the pink sequins
dancing, and her small face smaller because of the way her light hair
rose up in the fuzzy aura.
“Blutch, we—we just never was down to the last seventy-five before.
That time at Latonia, it was a hundred and more.”
“Why, girl, once, at Hot Springs, I had to hock my coat and vest,
and I got started on a run of new luck playin' in my shirt-sleeves,
pretending I was a summer boy.”
“That was the time you gave Lenny Gratz back his losings and got him
back to his wife.”
“Right-o! Seen him only to-night. He's traveling out of Cleveland
for an electric house and has forgot how aces up looks. That boy had as
much chance in the game as a deacon.”
Mrs. Connors laid hold of Mr. Connors's immaculate coat lapel,
drawing him toward her.
“Oh, Blutch—honey—if only—if only—”
“If only what, Babe?”
“Why, honey, what's eatin' you? I been down pretty near this low
many a time; only, you 'ain't known nothing about it, me not wanting to
worry your pretty head. You ain't afraid, Babe, your old hubby can't
always take care of his girl A1, are you?”
“No, no, Blutch; only—”
“I wish to God you was out of it, Blutch! I wish to God!”
“Out of what, Babe?”
“The game, Blutch. You're too good, honey, and too—too honest to be
in it. What show you got in the end against your playin' pals like Joe
Kirby and Al Flexnor? I know that gang, Blutch. I've tried to tell you
so often how, when I was a kid livin' at home, that crowd used to come
to my mother's—”
“Now, now, girl; business is—”
“You're too good, Blutch, and too honest to be in it. The game'll
break you in the end. It always does. Blutch darling, I wish to God you
was out of it!”
“Why, Ann 'Lisbeth, I never knew you felt this way about it.”
“I do, Blutch, I do! For years, it's been here in me—here, under my
heart—eatin' me, Blutch, eatin' me!” And she placed her hands flat to
“I never let on. You—I—You been too good, Blutch, to a girl
like—like I was for me to let out a whimper about anything. A man that
took a girl like—like me that had knocked around just like—my mother
and even—even my grandmother before me had knocked around—took and
married me, no questions asked. A girl like me 'ain't got the right to
complain to no man, much less to one like you. The heaven you've given
me for eleven years, Blutch! The heaven! Sometimes, darlin', just
sittin' here in a room like this, with no—no reason for bein'
here—it's just like I—”
“Babe, Babe, you mustn't!”
“Sittin' here, waiting for you to come and not carin' for nothing or
nobody except that my boy's comin' home to me—it's like I was in a
dream, Blutch, and like I was going to wake up and find myself back in
my mother's house, and—”
“Babe, you been sittin' at home alone too much. I always tell you,
honey, you ought to make friends. Chuck De Roy's wife wants the worst
way to get acquainted with you—a nice, quiet girl. It ain't right,
Babe, for you not to have no friends at all to go to the matinee with
or go buyin' knickknacks with. You're gettin' morbid, honey.”
She worked herself out of his embrace, withholding him with her
palms pressed out against his chest.
“I 'ain't got nothing in life but you, honey. There ain't nobody
else under the sun makes any difference. That's why I want you to get
out of it, Blutch. It's a dirty game—the gambling game. You ain't fit
for it. You're too good. They've nearly got you now, Blutch. Let's get
out, honey, while the goin's good. Let's take them seventy-five bucks
and buy us a peanut-stand or a line of goods. Let's be regular folks,
darlin'! I'm willin' to begin low down. Don't stake them last
seventy-five, Blutch. Break while we're broke. It ain't human nature to
break while your luck's with you.”
He was for folding her in his arms, but she still withheld him.
“Blutch darlin', it's the first thing I ever asked of you.”
He grew grave, looking long into her blue eyes with the tears
forming over them.
“Why, Ann 'Lisbeth, danged if I know what to say! You sure you're
feelin' well, Babe? 'Ain't took cold, have you, with your fur coat in
“No, no, no!”
“Well, I—I guess, honey, if the truth was told, your old man ain't
cut out for nothing much besides the gamin'-table—a fellow that's
knocked around the world the way I have.”
“You are, Blutch; you are! You're an expert accountant. Didn't you
run the Two Dollar Hat Store that time in Syracuse and get away with
“I know, Babe; but when a fellow's once used to makin' it easy and
spendin' it easy, he can't be satisfied lopin' along in a little
business. Why, just take to-night, honey! I only brought home my girl a
peach this evening, but that ain't sayin' that before morning breaks I
can't be bringin' her a couple of two-carat stones.”
“No, no, Blutch; I don't want 'em. I swear to God I don't want 'em!”
“Why, Babe, I just can't figure out what's got into you. I never
heard you break out like this. Are you scared, honey, because we happen
to be lower than—”
“No, no, darlin'; I ain't scared because we're low. I'm scared to
get high again. It's the first run of real luck you've had in three
years, Blutch. There was no hope of gettin' you out while things was
breakin' good for you; but now—”
“I ain't sayin' it's the best game in the world. I'd see a son of
mine laid out before I'd let him get into it. But it's what I'm cut out
for, and what are you goin' to do about it? 'Ain't you got everything
your little heart desires? Ain't we going down to Sheepshead when the
first thaw sets in? Ain't we just a pair of love-birds that's as happy
as if we had our right senses? Come, Babe; get into your jacket. Joe'll
be here any minute, and I got that porterhouse at Jack's on the brain.
Come kiss your hubby.”
She held up her face with the tears rolling down it, and he kissed a
dry spot and her yellow frizzed bangs.
“My girl! My cry-baby girl!”
“You're all I got in the world, Blutch! Thinkin' of what's best for
you has eat into me.”
“I know! I know!”
“We'll never get nowheres in this game, hon. We ain't even sure
enough of ourselves to have a home like—like regular folks.”
“Never you mind, Babe. Startin' first of the year, I'm going to
begin to look to a little nest-egg.”
“We ought to have it, Blutch. Just think of lettin' ourselves get
down to the last seventy-five! What if a rainy day should come—where
would we be at? If you—or me should get sick or something.”
“You ain't all wrong, girl.”
“You'd give the shirt off your back, Blutch; that's why we can't
ever have a nest-egg as long as you're playin' stakes. There's too many
hard-luck stories lying around loose in the gamblin' game.”
“The next big haul I make I'm going to get out, girl, so help me!”
“I mean it. We'll buy a chicken-farm.”
“Why not a little business, Blutch, in a small town with—”
“There's a great future in chicken-farmin'. I set Boy Higgins up
with a five-hundred spot the year his lung went back on him, and he
paid me back the second year.”
“Blutch darlin', you mean it?”
“Why not, Babe—seein' you want it? There ain't no string tied to me
and the green-felt table. I can go through with anything I make up my
“Oh, honey baby, you promise! Darling little fuzzy chickens!”
“Why, girl, I wouldn't have you eatin' yourself thisaway. The first
ten-thou' high-water mark we hit I'm quits. How's that?”
“Ten thousand! Oh, Blutch, we—”
“What's ten thou', girl! I made the Hot Springs haul with a
twenty-dollar start. If you ain't careful, we'll be buyin' that
chicken-farm next week. That's what can happen to my girl if she starts
something with her hubby.”
Suddenly Mrs. Connors crumpled in a heap upon the lacy pillows, pink
“Why, Babe—Babe, what is it? You're sick or something to-night,
honey.” He lifted her to his arms, bent almost double over her.
“Nothin', Blutch, only—only I just never was so happy.”
“Lord!” said Blutch Connors. “All these years, and I never knew
anything was eatin' her.”
“I—I never was, Blutch.”
“Lord bless my soul! The poor little thing was afraid to say it was
a chicken-farm she wanted!”
He patted her constantly, his eyes somewhat glazy.
“Us two, Blutch, livin' regular.”
“You ain't all wrong, girl.”
“You home evenings, Blutch, regular like.”
“You poor little thing!”
“You'll play safe, Blutch? Play safe to win!”
“I wish I'd have went into the farmin' three years ago, Babe, the
week I hauled down eleven thou'.”
“You was too fed up with luck then, Blutch. I knew better 'n to
“Lord bless my soul! and the poor little thing was afraid to say it
was a chicken-farm she wanted!”
“Promise me, Blutch, you'll play 'em close—to win!”
“Al's openin' up his new rooms to-night. Me and Joe are goin' to
play 'em fifty-fifty. It looks to me like a haul, Babe.”
“He's crooked, Blutch, I tell you.”
“No more 'n all of 'em are, Babe. Your eyes open and your pockets
closed is my motto. What you got special against Joe? You mustn't dig
up on a fellow, Babe.”
“I—. Why ain't he livin' in White Plains, where his wife and kids
“What I don't know about the private life of my card friends don't
“It's town talk the way he keeps them rooms over at the Liberty.
'Way back when I was a kid, Blutch, I remember how he used to—”
“I know there ain't no medals on Joe, Babe, but if you don't stop
listenin' to town talk, you're going to get them pretty little ears of
yours all sooty.”
“I know, Blutch; but I could tell you things about him back in the
days when my mother—”
“Me and him are goin' over to Al's to-night and try to win my babe
the first chicken for her farm. Whatta you bet? Us two ain't much on
the sociability end, but we've played many a lucky card fifty-fifty.
Saturday is our mascot night, too. Come, Babe; get on your jacket,
“Honeybunch, you and Joe go. I ain't hungry.”
“I'll have 'em send me up a bite from the grill.”
“You ain't sore because I asked Joe? It's business, Babe.”
“Of course I ain't, honey; only, with you and him goin' right over
to Al's afterward, what's the sense of me goin'? I wanna stay home and
think. It's just like beginnin' to-night I could sit here and look
right into the time when there ain't goin' to be no more waitin' up
nights for my boy. I—They got all little white chickens out at Denny's
roadhouse, Blutch—white with red combs. Can we have some like them?”
“You betcher life we can! I'm going to win the beginnings of that
farm before I'm a night older. Lordy! Lordy! and to think I never knew
anything was eatin' her!”
“Blutch, I—I don't know what to say. I keep cryin' when I wanna
laugh. I never was so happy, Blutch, I never was.”
“My little kitty-puss!”
* * * * *
At seven o'clock came Mr. Joe Kirby, dark, corpulent, and black of
“Come right in, Joe! I'm here and waitin' for you.”
“Ain't the missis in on this killin'?”
“No, Joe; not—to-night.”
“Sorry to hear it,” said Mr. Kirby, flecking an inch of cigar-ash to
the table-top. “Fine rig-up, with due respect to the lady, your missis
is wearing to-night.”
“The wife ain't so short on looks, is she?”
“You know my sentiments about her. They don't come no ace-higher.”
She colored, even quivered, standing there beside the bronze Nydia.
“I tell her we're out for big business to-night, Joe.”
“Sky's the limit. Picked up a pin pointin' toward me and sat with my
back to a red-headed woman. Can't lose.”
“Well, good-night, Babe. Take care o' yourself.”
“Good night, Blutch. You'll play 'em close, honey?”
“You just know I will, Babe.”
An hour she sat there, alone on the chaise-longue, staring
into space and smiling at what she saw there. Finally she dropped back
into the lacy mound of pillows, almost instantly asleep, but still
* * * * *
At four o'clock, that hour before dawn cracks, even the West
Forties, where night is too often cacophonous with the sound of
revelry, drop into long narrow aisles of gloom. Thin, high-stooped
houses with drawn shades recede into the mouse-colored mist of morning,
and, as through quagmire, this mist hovering close to ground, figures
skulk—that nameless, shapeless race of many bloods and one complexion,
the underground complexion of paste long sour from standing.
At somewhat after that hour Mr. Blutch Connors made exit from one of
these houses, noiseless, with scarcely a click after him, and then,
without pause, passed down the brownstone steps and eastward. A taxicab
slid by, its honk as sorrowful as the cry of a plover in a bog.
Another—this one drawing up alongside, in quest of fare. He moved on,
his breath clouding the early air, and his hands plunged deep in his
pockets as if to plumb their depth. There was a great sag to the
silhouette of him moving thus through the gloom, the chest in and the
shoulders rounding and lessening their front span. Once he paused to
remove the brown derby and wipe at his brow. A policeman struck his
stick. He moved on.
An all-night drug-store, the modern sort of emporium where the
capsule and the herb have become side line to the ivoritus toilet-set
and the pocket-dictionary, threw a white veil of light across the
sidewalk. Well past that window, but as if its image had only just
caught up with him, Mr. Connors turned back, retracing ten steps. A
display-window, denuded of frippery but strewn with straw and
crisscrossed with two large strips of poster, proclaimed Chicklet Face
Powder to the cosmetically concerned. With an eye to fidelity, a small
brood of small chickens, half dead with bad air and not larger than
fists, huddled rearward and out of the grilling light—puny victims to
an indorsed method of correspondence-school advertising.
Mr. Connors entered, scouting out a dozy clerk.
“Say, bo, what's one of them chicks worth?”
“Ain't fer sale.”
Mr. Connors lowered his voice, nudging.
“I gotta sick wife, bo. Couldn't you slip me one in a 'mergency?”
“What's the idea—chicken broth? You better go in the park and catch
her a chippie.”
“On the level, friend, one of them little yellow things would cheer
her up. She's great one for pets.”
“Can't you see they're half-dead now? What you wanna cheer her up
with—a corpse? If I had my way, I'd wring the whole display's neck,
“What'll you take for one, bo?”
“It'll freeze to death.”
“Look! This side pocket is lined with velvet.”
“Aw, I said one, friend, not the whole brood.”
“Leave or take.”
Mr. Connors dug deep.
“Make it sixty cents and a poker-chip, bo. It's every cent I got in
“Keep the poker-chip for pin-money.”
When Mr. Connors emerged, a small, chirruping bunch of fuzz, cupped
in his hand, lay snug in the velvet-lined pocket.
At Sixth Avenue, where the great skeleton of the Elevated stalks
mid-street, like a prehistoric pithecanthropus erectus, he
paused for an instant in the shadow of a gigantic black pillar,
readjusting the fragile burden to his pocket.
Stepping out to cross the street, simultaneously a great silent
motor-car, noiseless but wild with speed, tore down the surface-car
tracks, blacker in the hulking shadow of the Elevated trellis.
A quick doubling up of the sagging silhouette, and the groan of a
clutch violently thrown. A woman's shriek flying thin and high like a
javelin of horror. A crowd sprung full grown out of the bog of the
morning. White, peering faces showing up in the brilliant paths of the
acetylene lamps. A uniform pushing through. A crowbar and the hard
breathing of men straining to lift. A sob in the dark. Stand back!
* * * * *
Dawn—then a blue, wintry sky, the color and hardness of enamel; and
sunshine, bright, yet so far off the eye could stare up to it
unsquinting. It lay against the pink-brocaded window-hangings of the
suite in the Hotel Metropolis; it even crept in like a timid hand
reaching toward, yet not quite touching, the full-flung figure of Mrs.
Blutch Connors, lying, her cheek dug into the harshness of the carpet,
there at the closed door to the bedroom—prone as if washed there, and
her yellow hair streaming back like seaweed. Sobs came, but only the
dry kind that beat in the throat and then come shrilly, like a sheet of
silk swiftly torn.
How frail are human ties, have said the beaux esprits of
every age in one epigrammatic fashion or another. But frailty can
bleed; in fact, it's first to bleed.
Lying there, with her face swollen and stamped with the carpet-nap,
squirming in a grief that was actually abashing before it was
heartbreaking, Ann 'Lisbeth Connors, whose only epiphany of life was
love, and shut out from so much else that helps make life sweet, was
now shut out from none of its pain.
Once she scratched at the door, a faint, dog-like scratch for
admission, and then sat back on her heels, staring at the
uncompromising panel, holding back the audibility of her sobs with her
Heart-constricting silence, and only the breath of ether seeping out
to her, sweet, insidious. She took to hugging herself violently against
a sudden chill that rushed over her, rattling her frame.
The bedroom door swung noiselessly back, fanning out the etheric
fumes, and closed again upon an emerging figure.
He looked down upon her with the kind of glaze over his eyes that
Bellini loved to paint, compassion for the pain of the world almost
distilled to tears.
“My poor little lady!”
“O God—no—no—no! No, Doctor, no! You wouldn't! Please! Please!
You wouldn't let him leave me here all alone, Doctor! O God! you
wouldn't! I'm all alone, Doctor! You see, I'm all alone. Please don't
take him from me. He's mine! You can't! Promise me, Doctor! My darlin'
in there—why are you hurtin' him so? Why has he stopped hollerin'? Cut
me to pieces to give him what he needs to make him live. Don't take him
from me, Doctor. He's all I got! O God—God—please!” And fell back
swooning, with an old man's tear splashing down as if to revivify her.
* * * * *
The heart has a resiliency. Strained to breaking, it can contract
again. Even the waiting women, Iseult and Penelope, learned, as they
sat sorrowing and watching, to sing to the swing of the sea.
When, out of the slough of dark weeks, Mrs. Connors took up life
again, she was only beaten, not broken—a reed lashed down by storm and
then resilient, daring to lift its head again. A wan little head, but
the eyes unwashed of their blue and the irises grown large. The same
hard sunshine lay in its path between the brocade curtains of a room
strangely denuded. It was as if spring had died there, when it was only
the chaise-longue, barren of its lacy pillows, a glass vase and
silver-framed picture gone from the mantel, a Mexican afghan removed
from a divan and showing its bulges.
It was any hotel suite now—uncompromising; leave me or take me.
In taking leave of it, Mrs. Connors looked about her even coldly, as
if this barren room were too denuded of its memories.
“You—you been mighty good to me, Joe. It's good to
Mr. Joe Kirby sat well forward on a straight chair, knees well apart
in the rather puffy attitude of the uncomfortably corpulent.
“Now, cut that! Whatever I done for you, Annie, I done because I
wanted to. If you'd 'a' listened to me, you wouldn't 'a' gone and sold
out your last dud to raise money. Whatcha got friends for?”
“The way you dug down for—for the funeral, Joe. He—he couldn't
have had the silver handles or the gray velvet if—if not for you, Joe.
He—he always loved everything the best. I can't never forget that of
you, Joe—just never.”
She was pinning on her little crepe-edged veil over her decently
black hat, and paused now to dab up under it at a tear.
“I'd 'a' expected poor old Blutch to do as much for me.”
“He would! He would! Many's the pal he buried.”
“I hate, Annie, like anything to see you actin' up like this. You
ain't fit to walk out of this hotel on your own hook. Where'd you get
She looked down at herself, quickly reddening.
“It's a warm suit, Joe.”
“Why, you 'ain't got a chance! A little thing like you ain't cut out
for but one or two things. Coddlin'—that's your line. The minute
you're nobody's doll you're goin' to get stepped on and get busted.”
“Whatta you know about—”
“What kind of a job you think you're gonna get? Adviser to a
corporation lawyer? You're too soft, girl. What chance you think you
got buckin' up against a town that wants value received from a woman.
Aw, you know what I mean, Annie. You can't pull that baby stuff all the
“You,” she cried, beating her small hands together, “oh, you—you—“
and then sat down, crying weakly. “Them days back there! Why, I—I was
such a kid it's just like they hadn't been! With her and my grandmother
dead and gone these twelve years, if it wasn't for you it's—it's like
they'd never been.”
“Nobody was gladder 'n me, girl, to see how you made a bed for
yourself. I'm commendin' you, I am. That's just what I'm tryin' to tell
you now, girl. You was cut out to be somebody's kitten, and—”
“O God!” she sobbed into her handkerchief, “why didn't you take me
when you took him?”
“Now, now, Annie, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. A
good-lookin' woman like you 'ain't got nothing to worry about. Lemme
order you up a drink. You're gettin' weak again.”
“No, no; I'm taking 'em too often. But they warm me. They warm me,
and I'm cold, Joe—cold.”
He put out a short, broad hand toward her.
“I gotta go now, Joe. These rooms ain't mine no more.”
He barred her path.
'“Ain't I told you? I'm going out. Anybody that's willin' to work
can get it in this town. I ain't the softy you think I am.”
He took her small black purse up from the table.
“What's your capital?”
“Ten—'leven—fourteen dollars and seventy-four cents.”
“You can't cut no capers on that, girl.”
He dropped something in against the coins.
She sprang at him.
“No, no; not a cent from you—for myself. I—I didn't know you in
them days for nothing. I was only a kid, but I—I know you! I know. You
He withheld it from her.
“Hold your horses, beauty! What I was then I am now, and I ain't
ashamed of it. Human, that's all. The best of us is only human before a
She had snatched up her small hand-satchel from the divan and stood
flashing now beside him, her small, blazing face only level with his
“What you spittin' fire for? That wa'n't nothin' I slipped in but my
address, girl. When you need me call on me. 'The Liberty, 96.' Go right
up in the elevator, no questions asked. Get me?” he said, poking the
small purse into the V of her jacket. “Get me?”
With her face flung back and twisted, and dodging his outflung arm,
she was down four flights of narrow, unused stairs and out. Once in the
streets, she walked with her face still thrust up and a frenzy of haste
in her stride. Red had popped out in her cheeks. There was voice in
each breath—moans that her throat would not hold.
That night she slept in the kind of fifty-cent room the city offers
its decent poor. A slit of a room with a black-iron bed and a damp
mattress. A wash-stand gaunt with its gaunt mission. A slop-jar on a
zinc mat. A caneless-bottom chair. The chair she propped against the
door, the top slat of it beneath the knob. Through a night of musty
blackness she lay in a rigid line along the bed-edge.
You who love the city for its million pulses, the beat of its great
heart, and the terrific symphony of its soul, have you ever picked out
from its orchestra the plaintive rune of the deserving poor?
It is like the note of a wind instrument—an oboe adding its slow
note to the boom of the kettle-drum, the clang of gold-colored cymbals,
and the singing ecstasy of violins.
One such small voice Ann 'Lisbeth Connors added to the great
threnody of industry. Department stores that turned from her services
almost before they were offered. Offices gleaned from penny papers,
miles of them, and hours of waiting on hard-bottom chairs in draughty
waiting-rooms. Faces, pasty as her own, lined up alongside, greedy of
the morsel about to fall.
When the pinch of poverty threatens men and wolves, they grow
long-faced. In these first lean days, a week of them, Ann 'Lisbeth's
face lengthened a bit, too, and with the fuzz of yellow bangs tucked
well up under her not so decent black hat, crinkles came out about her
Nights she supped in a family-entrance cafe beneath her room—veal
stew and a glass of beer.
She would sit over it, not unpleasantly muzzy. She slept of nights
now, and not so rigidly.
Then followed a week of lesser department stores as she worked her
way down-town, of offices tucked dingily behind lithograph and
small-ware shops, and even an ostrich-feather loft, with a “Curlers
Wanted” sign hung out.
In what school does the great army of industry earn its first
experience? Who first employs the untaught hand? Upon Ann 'Lisbeth,
untrained in any craft, it was as if the workaday world turned its
back, nettled at a philistine.
Once she sat resting on a stoop beneath the sign of a woman's-aid
bureau. She read it, but, somehow, her mind would not register. The
calves of her legs and the line where her shoe cut into her heel were
She supped in the family-entrance cafe again—the bowl of veal stew
and two glasses of beer. Some days following, her very first venture
out into the morning, she found employment—a small printing-shop off
Sixth Avenue just below Twenty-third Street. A mere pocket in the wall,
a machine champing in its plate-glass front.
VISITING-CARDS WHILE YOU WAIT
THIRTY-FIVE CENTS A HUNDRED
“The sign says—'girl wanted.'“
A face peered down at her from a high chair behind the champing
“'Goil wanted,' is what it says. Goil!”
“I—I ain't old,” she faltered.
“Five a week.”
“Hang your coat and hat behind the sink.”
Before noon, a waste of miscut cards about her, she cut her hand
slightly, fumbling at the machine, and cried out.
“For the love of Mike—you want somebody to kiss it and make it
well? Here's a quarter for your time. With them butter-fingers, you
better get a job greasin' popcorn.”
Out in the sun-washed streets the wind had hauled a bit. It cut as
she bent into it. With her additional quarter, she still had two
dollars and twenty cents, and that afternoon, in lower Sixth Avenue, at
the instance of another small card fluttering out in the wind, she
applied as dishwasher in a lunch-room and again obtained—this time at
six dollars a week and suppers.
The Jefferson Market Lunch Room, thick with kicked-up sawdust and
the fumes of hissing grease, was sunk slightly below the level of the
sidewalk, a fitting retreat for the mole-like humanity that dined
furtively at its counter. Men with too short coat-sleeves and collars
turned up; women with beery eyes and uneven skirt-hems dank with the
bilge-water of life's lower decks.
Lower Sixth Avenue is the abode of these shadows. Where are they
from, and whither going—these women without beauty, who walk the
streets without handkerchiefs, but blubbering with too much or too
little drink? What is the terrible riddle? Why, even as they blubber,
are there women whose bodies have the quality of cream, slipping in
between scented sheets?
Ann 'Lisbeth, hers not to argue, but accept, dallied with no such
question. Behind the lunch-room, a sink of unwashed dishes rose to a
mound. She plunged her hands into tepid water that clung to her like
“Go to it!” said the proprietor, who wore a black flap over one eye.
“Dey won't bite. If de grease won't cut, souse 'em wit' lye. Don't try
to muzzle no breakage on me, neither, like the slut before you. I kin
hear a cup crack.”
“I won't,” said Ann 'Lisbeth, a wave of the furry water slopping out
and down her dress-front.
Followed four days spent in the grease-laden heat of the kitchen,
the smell of strong foods, raw meat, and fish stews thick above the
sink. She had moved farther down-town, against car fare; but because
she talked now constantly in her sleep and often cried out, there were
knockings from the opposite side of the partitions and oaths. For two
evenings she sat until midnight in a small rear cafe, again pleasantly
muzzy over three glasses of beer and the thick warmth of the room.
Another night she carried home a small bottle, tucking it beneath her
coat as she emerged to the street. She was grease-stained now, in spite
of precautions, and her hat, with her hair uncurled to sustain it, had
settled down over her ears, grotesquely large.
The week raced with her funds. On the sixth day she paid out her
last fifty cents for room-rent, and, without breakfast, filched her
lunch from a half-eaten order of codfish balls returned to the kitchen.
Yes, reader; but who are you to turn away sickened and know no more
of this? You who love to bask in life's smile, but shudder at its
drool! A Carpenter did not sicken at a leper. He held out a hand.
That night, upon leaving, she asked for a small advance on her
week's wage, retreating before the furiously stained apron-front and
the one eye of the proprietor cast down upon her.
“Lay off! Lay off! Who done your bankin' last year? To-morrow's your
day, less four bits for breakage. Speakin' o' breakage, if you drop
your jacket, it'll bust. Watch out! That pint won't last you overnight.
She reddened immediately, clapping her hand over the small
protruding bottle in her pocket. She dared not return to her room, but
sat out the night in a dark foyer behind a half-closed storm-door. No
one found her out, and the wind could not reach her. Toward morning she
even slept sitting. But the day following, weak and too soft for the
lift, straining to remove the great dish-pan high with crockery from
sink to table, she let slip, grasping for a new hold.
There was a crash and a splintered debris—plates that rolled like
hoops to the four corners of the room, shivering as they landed; a
great ringing explosion of heavy stoneware, and herself drenched with
the webby water.
“O God!” she cried in immediate hysteria. “O God! O God!” and fell
to her knees in a frenzy of clearing-up.
A raw-boned Minerva, a waitress with whom she had had no previous
word, sprang to her succor, a big, red hand of mercy jerking her up
from the debris.
“Clear out! He's across the bar. Beat it while the going's good.
Your week's gone in breakage, anyways, and he'll split up the place
when he comes. Clear out, girl, and here—for car fare.”
Out in the street, her jacket not quite on and her hat clapped
askew, Ann 'Lisbeth found herself quite suddenly scuttling down a
In her hand a dime burnt up into the palm.
For the first time in these weeks, except when her pint or the
evening beer had vivified her, a warmth seemed to flow through Ann
'Lisbeth. Chilled, and her wet clothing clinging in at the knees, a
fever nevertheless quickened her. She was crying as she walked, but not
blubbering—spontaneous hot tears born of acute consciousness of pain.
A great shame at her smelling, grease-caked dress-front smote her,
too, and she stood back in a doorway, scraping at it with a futile
February had turned soft and soggy, the city streets running mud,
and the damp insidious enough to creep through the warmth of human
flesh. A day threatened with fog from East River had slipped, without
the interim of dusk, into a heavy evening. Her clothing dried, but
sitting in a small triangle of park in Grove Street, chill seized her
again, and, faint for food, but with nausea for it, she tucked her now
empty pint bottle beneath the bench. She was crying incessantly, but
her mind still seeming to revive. Her small black purse she drew out
from her pocket. It had a collapsed look. Yet within were a sample of
baby-blue cotton crepe, a receipt from a dyeing-and-cleaning
establishment, and a bit of pink chamois; in another compartment a
small assortment of keys.
She fumbled among them, blind with tears. Once she drew out, peering
forward toward a street-lamp to inspect it. It clinked as she touched
it, a small metal tag ringing.
HOTEL LIBERTY 96
An hour Ann 'Lisbeth sat there, with the key in her lax hand.
Finally she rubbed the pink chamois across her features and adjusted
her hat, pausing to scrape again with forefinger at the front of her,
and moved on through the gloom, the wind blowing her skirt forward.
She boarded a Seventh Avenue street-car, extracting the ten-cent
piece from her purse with a great show of well-being, sat back against
the carpet-covered, lengthwise seat, her red hands, with the cut
forefinger bound in rag, folded over her waist.
At Fiftieth Street she alighted, the white lights of the whitest
street in the world forcing down through the murk, and a theater crowd
swarming to be turned from reality.
The incandescent sign of the Hotel Liberty jutted out ahead.
She did not pause. She was in and into an elevator even before a
lackey turned to stare.
She found “Ninety-six” easily enough, inserting the key and opening
the door upon darkness—a warm darkness that came flowing out scented.
She found the switch, pressed it.
A lamp with a red shade sprang up and a center chandelier. A
warm-toned, well-tufted room, hotel chromos well in evidence, but a
turkey-red air of solid comfort.
Beyond, a white-tiled bathroom shining through the open door, and
another room hinted at beyond that.
She dropped, even in her hat and jacket, against the divan piled
with fat-looking satin cushions. Tears coursed out from her closed
eyes, and she relaxed as if she would swoon to the luxury of the
pillows, burrowing and letting them bulge up softly about her.
A half-hour she lay so in the warm bath of light, her little body so
quickly fallen into vagrancy not without litheness beneath the moldy
* * * * *
Some time after eight she rose, letting the warm water in the
bathroom lave over her hands, limbering them, and from a bottle of eau
de Cologne in a small medicine-chest sprinkled herself freely and
touched up the corners of her eyes with it. A thick robe of Turkish
toweling hung from the bathroom door. She unhooked it, looping it over
A key scraped in the lock. From where she stood a rigidity raced
over Ann 'Lisbeth, locking her every limb in paralysis. Her mouth moved
to open and would not.
The handle turned, and, with a sudden release of faculties, darting
this way and that, as if at bay, she tore the white-enameled
medicine-chest from its moorings, and, with a yell sprung somewhere
from the primordial depths of her, stood with it swung to hurl.
The door opened and she lunged, then let it fall weakly and with a
The chambermaid, white with shock at that cry, dropped her burden of
towels in the open doorway and fled. Ann 'Lisbeth fled, too, down the
two flights of stairs her frenzy found out for her, and across the
flare of Broadway.
The fog from East River was blowing in grandly as she ran into its
tulle. It closed around and around her.
V. GOLDEN FLEECE
How saving a dispensation it is that men do not carry in their
hearts perpetual ache at the pain of the world, that the body-thuds of
the drink-crazed, beating out frantic strength against cell doors,
cannot penetrate the beatitude of a mother bending, at that moment,
above a crib. Men can sit in club windows while, even as they sit, are
battle-fields strewn with youth dying, their faces in mud. While men
are dining where there are mahogany and silver and the gloss of women's
shoulders, are men with kick-marks on their shins, ice gluing shut
their eyes, and lashed with gale to some ship-or-other's crow's-nest.
Women at the opera, so fragrant that the senses swim, sit with
consciousness partitioned against a sweating, shuddering woman in some
forbidding, forbidden room, hacking open a wall to conceal something
red-stained. One-half of the world does not know or care how the other
half lives or dies.
When, one summer, July came in like desert wind, West Cabanne
Terrace and that part of residential St. Louis that is set back in
carefully conserved, grove-like lawns did not sip its iced limeades
with any the less refreshment because, down-town at the intersection of
Broadway and West Street, a woman trundling a bundle of washing in an
old perambulator suddenly keeled of heat, saliva running from her
At three o'clock, that hour when so often a summer's day reaches its
stilly climax and the heat-dance becomes a thing visible, West Cabanne
Terrace and its kind slip into sheerest and crepiest de Chine, click
electric fans to third speed, draw green shades, and retire for siesta.
At that same hour, in the Popular Store, where Broadway and West
Street intersect, one hundred and fifty salesgirls—jaded sentinels for
a public that dares not venture down, loll at their counters and after
the occasional shopper, relax deeper to limpidity.
At the jewelry counter, a crystal rectangle facing broadside the
main entrance and the bleached and sun-grilled street without, Miss
Lola Hassiebrock, salient among many and with Olympian certainty of
self, lifted two Junoesque arms like unto the handles of a vase, held
them there in the kind of rigidity that accompanies a yawn, and then
let them flop.
“Oh-h-h-h, God bless my soul!” she said.
Miss Josie Beemis, narrowly constricted between shoulders that
barely sloped off from her neck, with arms folded flat to her flat
bosom and her back a hypothenuse against the counter, looked up.
“Watch out, Loo! I read in the paper where a man up in Alton got
caught in the middle of one of those gaps and couldn't ungap.”
Miss Hassiebrock batted at her lips and shuddered.
“It's my nerves, dearie. All the doctors say that nine gaps out of
ten are nerves.”
Miss Beemis hugged herself a bit flatter, looking out straight ahead
into a parasol sale across the aisle.
“Enough sleep ain't such a bad cure for gaps,” she said.
“I'll catch up in time, dearie; my foot's been asleep all day.”
“Huh!”—sniffling so that her thin nose quirked sidewise. “I will
now indulge in hollow laughter—”
“You can't, dearie,” said Miss Hassiebrock, driven to vaudevillian
extremities, “you're cracked.”
“Well, I may be cracked, but my good name ain't.”
A stiffening of Miss Hassiebrock took place, as if mere verbiage had
suddenly flung a fang. From beneath the sternly and too starched white
shirtwaist and the unwilted linen cravat wound high about her throat
and sustained there with a rhinestone horseshoe, it was as if a wave of
color had started deep down, rushing up under milky flesh into her
“Is that meant to be an in-sinuating remark, Josie?”
“'Tain't how it's meant; it's how it's took.”
“There's some poor simps in this world, maybe right here in this
store, ought to be excused from what they say because they don't know
“I know this much: To catch the North End street-car from here, I
don't have to walk every night down past the Stag Hotel to do it.”
At that Miss Hassiebrock's ears, with the large pearl blobs in them,
tingled where they peeped out from the scallops of yellow hair, and she
swallowed with a forward movement as if her throat had constricted.
“I—take the street-car where I darn please, and it's nobody's darn
“Sure it ain't! Only, if a poor working-girl don't want to make it
everybody's darn business, she can't run around with the fast rich boys
of this town and then get invited to help hem the altar-cloth.”
“Anything I do in this town I'm not ashamed to do in broad
“Maybe; but just the samey, I notice the joy rides out to Claxton
don't take place in broad daylight. I notice that 'tall, striking
blonde' and Charley Cox's speed-party in the morning paper wasn't
exactly what you'd call a 'daylight' affair.”
“No, it wasn't; it was—my affair.”
“Say, if you think a girl like you can run with the black sheep of
every rich family in town and make a noise like a million dollars with
the horsy way she dresses, it ain't my grave you're digging.”
“Maybe if some of the girls in this store didn't have time to nose
so much, they'd know why I can make them all look like they was caught
out in the rain and not pressed the next morning. While they're
snooping in what don't concern them I'm snipping. Snipping over my last
year's black-and-white-checked jacket into this year's cutaway. If you
girls had as much talent in your needle as you've got in your
conversation, you might find yourselves somewheres.”
“Maybe what you call 'somewheres' is what lots of us would call
Miss Hassiebrock drew herself up and, from the suzerainty of sheer
height, looked down upon Miss Beemis there, so brown and narrow beside
the friendship-bracelet rack.
“I'll have you know, Josie Beemis, that if every girl in this store
watched her step like me, there'd be a darn sight less trouble in the
“I know you don't go beyond the life-line, Loo, but, gee! you—you
do swim out some!”
“Little Loo knows her own depth, all righty.”
“Not the way you're cuttin' up with Charley Cox.”
Miss Hassiebrock lowered her flaming face to scrutinize a tray of
rhinestone bar pins.
“I'd like to see any girl in this store turn down a bid with Charley
Cox. I notice there are plenty of you go out to the Highland dances
hoping to meet even his imitation.”
“The rich boys that hang around the Stag and out to the Highlands
don't get girls like us anywheres.”
“I don't need them to get me anywhere. It's enough when a fellow
takes me out that he can tuck me up in a six-cylinder and make me
forget my stone-bruise. Give me a fellow that smells of gasolene
instead of bay rum every time. Trolley-car Johnnies don't mean nothing
in my life.”
“You let John Simeon out of this conversation!”
“You let Charley Cox out!”
“Maybe he don't smell like a cleaned white glove, but John means
something by me that's good.”
“Well, since you're so darn smart, Josie Beemis, and since you got
so much of the English language to spare, I'm going to tell you
something. Three nights in succession, and I can prove it by the crowd,
Charley Cox has asked me to marry him. Begged me last night out at
Claxton Inn, with Jess Turner and all that bunch along, to let them
roust out old man Gerber there in Claxton and get married in poetry.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it awhile, Josie; it may soothe your
“Y-aw,” said Miss Beemis.
The day dwindled. Died.
At West Street, where Broadway intersects, the red sun at its far
end settled redly and cleanly to sink like a huge coin into the
horizon. The Popular Store emptied itself into this hot pink glow,
scurried for the open street-car and, oftener than not, the overstuffed
rear platform, nose to nose, breath to breath.
Fortunately the Popular Store took its semi-annual inventory of
yards and not of souls. Such a stock-taking, that of the human hearts
which beat from half after eight to six behind six floors of counters,
would have revealed empty crannies, worn thin in places with the grind
of routine. The eight-thirty-to-six business of muslin underwear, crash
toweling, and skirt-binding. The great middle class of shoppers who
come querulous with bunions and babies. The strap-hanging homeward
ride. Supper, but usually within range of the range that boils it. The
same smells of the same foods. The, cinematograph or front-stoop hour
before bed. Or, if Love comes, and he will not be gainsaid, a bit of
wooing at the fountain—the soda-fountain. But even he, oftener than
not, comes moist-handed, and in a ready-tied tie. As if that matters,
and yet somehow, it does. Leander wore none, or had he, would have worn
it flowing. Then bed, and the routine of its unfolding and coaxing the
pillow from beneath the iron clamp. An alarm-clock crashing through the
stuff of dreams. Coffee within reach of the range. Another
eight-thirty-to-six reality of muslin underwearing, crash toweling, and
But, not given to self-inventory, the Popular Store emptied itself
with that blessed elasticity of spirit which, unappalled, stretches to
to-morrows as they come.
At Ninth Street Miss Lola Hassiebrock loosed her arm where Miss
Beemis had linked into it. Wide-shouldered and flat-hipped, her checked
suit so pressed that the lapels lay entirely flat to the swell of her
bosom, her red sailor-hat well down over her brow, and the high,
swathing cravat rising to inclose her face like a wimple, she was
Fashion's apotheosis in tailor-made mood. When Miss Hassiebrock walked,
her skirt, concealing yet revealing an inch glimmer of gray-silk
stocking above gray-suede spats, allowed her ten inches of stride. She
turned now, sidestepping within those ten inches.
“See you to-morrow, Josie.”
“Ain't you taking the car?”
“No, dearie,” said Miss Hassiebrock, stepping down to cross the
street; “you take it, but not for keeps.”
And so, walking southward on Ninth Street in a sartorial glory that
was of her own making-over from last season, even St. Louis, which at
the stroke of six rushes so for the breeze of its side yards, leaving
darkness to creep into down-town streets that are as deserted as
canons, turned its feminine head to bear in mind the box-plaited
cutaway, the male eye appraising its approval with bold, even quirking
Through this, and like Diana, who, so aloof from desire, walked in
the path of her own splendor, strode Miss Hassiebrock, straight and
forward of eye. Past the Stag Hotel, in an aisle formed by lounging
young bloods and a curb lined with low, long-snouted motor-cars, the
gaze beneath the red sailor and above the high, horsy stock a bit too
Slightly by, the spoken word and the whistled innuendo followed her
like a trail of bubbles in the wake of a flying-fish. A youth still
wearing a fraternity pin pretended to lick his downy chops. The son of
the president of the Mound City Oil Company emitted a long, amorous
whistle. Willie Waxter—youngest scion, scalawag, and scorcher of one
of the oldest families—jammed down his motorgoggles from the visor of
his cap, making the feint of pursuing. Mr. Charley Cox, of half a
hundred first-page exploits, did pursue, catching up slightly
“What's your hurry, honey?”
She spun about, too startled.
“Charley Cox! Well, of all the nerve! Why didn't you scare me to
death and be done with it?”
“Did I scare you, sweetness? Cross my heart, I didn't mean to.”
“Well, I should say you did!”
He linked his arm into hers.
“Come on; I'll buy you a drink.”
“Honest, can't a girl go home from work in this town without one of
you fellows getting fresh with her?”
“All right, then; I'll buy you a supper. The car is back there, and
we'll shoot out to the inn. What do you say? I feel like a house afire
this evening, kiddo. What does your speedometer register?”
“Charley, aren't you tired painting this old town yet? Ain't there
just nothing will bring you to your senses? Honest, this morning's
papers are a disgrace. You—you won't catch me along again.”
He slid his arm, all for ingratiating, back into hers.
“Come now, honey; you know you like me for my speed.”
She would not smile.
“Honest, Charley, you're the limit.”
“But you like me just the same. Now don't you, Loo?”
She looked at him sidewise.
“You've been drinking, Charley.”
He felt of his face.
“Not a drop, Loo. I need a shave, that's all.”
“Look at your stud—loose.”
He jammed a diamond whip curling back upon itself into his maroon
scarf. He was slightly heavy, so that his hands dimpled at the knuckle,
and above the soft collar, joined beneath the scarf with a goldbar pin,
his chin threatened but did not repeat itself.
“I got to go now, Charley; there's a North End car coming.”
“Aw, now, sweetness, what's the idea? Didn't you walk down here to
pick me up?”
An immediate flush stung her face.
“Well, of all the darn conceit! Can't a girl walk down to the loop
to catch her car and stretch her legs after she's been cooped up all
day, without a few of you boys throwing a bouquet or two at
“I got to hand it you, Loo; when you walk down this street, you make
every girl in town look warmed over.”
“Do you like it, Charley? It's that checked jacket I bought at
Hamlin's sale last year made over.”
“Say, it's classy! You look like all the money in the world, honey.”
“Huh, two yards of coat-lining, forty-four cents, and Ida Bell's
last year's office-hat reblocked, sixty-five.”
“You're the show-piece of the town, all right. Come on; let's pick
up a crowd and muss-up Claxton Road a little.”
“I meant what I said, Charley. After the cuttings-up of last night
and the night before I'm quits. Maybe Charley Cox can afford to get
himself talked about because he's Charley Cox, but a girl like me with
a job to hold down, and the way ma and Ida Bell were sitting up in
their nightgowns, green around the gills, when I got home last
night—nix! I'm getting myself talked about, if you want to know it,
running with—your gang, Charley.”
“I'd like to see anybody let out so much as a grunt about you in
front of me. A fellow can't do any more, honey, to show a girl where
she stands with him than ask her to marry him—now can he? If I'd have
had my way last night, I'd—”
“You was drunk when you asked me, Charley.”
“You mean you got cold feet?”
“Thank God, I did!”
“I don't blame you, girl. You might do worse—but not much.”
“That's what you'd need for your finishing-touch, a girl like me
dragging you down.”
“You mean pulling me up.”
“Yes, maybe, if you didn't have a cent.”
“I'd have enough sense then to know better than to ask you, honey.
You 'ain't got that fourteen-carat look in your eye for nothing. You're
the kind that's going to bring in a big fish, and I wish it to you.”
“Lots you know.”
“Come on; let me ride you around the block, then.”
“If—if you like my company so much, can't you just take a walk with
me or come out and sit on our steps awhile?”
“Lord, girl, Flamm Avenue is hot enough to fry my soul to-night!”
“We can't all have fathers that live in thirty-room houses out in
“Thank God for that! I sneaked home this morning to change my
clothes, and thought maybe I'd got into somebody's mausoleum by
“Was—was your papa around, Charley?”
“In the library, shut up with old man Brookes.”
“Did he—did he see the morning papers? You know what he said last
time, Charley, when the motor-cycle cop chased you down an embankment.”
“Honey, if my old man was to carry out every threat he utters, I'd
be disinherited, murdered, hong-konged, shanghaied, and cremated every
day in the year.”
“I got to go now, Charley.”
“Not let a fellow even spin you home?”
“You know I want to, Charley, but—but it don't do you any good,
boy, being seen with me in that joy-wagon of yours. It—it don't do you
any good, Charley, ever—ever being seen with me.”
“There's nothing or nobody in this town can hurt my reputation,
honey, and certainly not my ace-spot girl. Turn your mind over, and
telephone down for me to come out and pick you up about eight.”
“Don't hit it up to-night, Charley. Can't you go home one evening?”
He juggled her arm.
“You're a nice little girl, all righty.”
“There's my car.”
He elevated her by the elbow to the step, swinging up half-way after
her to drop a coin into the box.
“Take care of this little lady there, conductor, and don't let your
She forced her way into the jammed rear platform, the sharp brim of
the red sailor creating an area for her.
Wedged there in the moist-faced crowd, she looked after him, at his
broad back receding. An inclination to cry pressed at her eyeballs.
Flamm Avenue, which is treeless and built up for its entire length
with two-story, flat-roofed buildings, stares, window for window, stoop
for stoop, at its opposite side, and, in summer, the strip of asphalt
street, unshaded and lying naked to the sun, gives off such an
effluvium of heat and hot tar that the windows are closed to it and
night descends like a gas-mask to the face.
Opening the door upon the Hassiebrock front room, convertible from
bed-to sitting-room by the mere erect-position-stand of the
folding-bed, a wave of this tarry heat came flowing out, gaseous,
sickening. Miss Hassiebrock entered with her face wry, made a diagonal
cut of the room, side-stepping a patent rocker and a table laid out
with knickknacks on a lace mat, slammed closed two windows, and,
turning inward, lifted off her hat, which left a brand across her
forehead and had plastered down her hair in damp scallops.
“Lo-o, that you?”
“Come out to your supper. I'll warm up the kohlrabi.”
Miss Hassiebrock strode through a pair of chromatic portieres, with
them swinging after her, and into an unlit kitchen, gray with dusk. A
table drawn out center and within range of the gas-range was a blotch
in the gloom, three figures surrounding it with arms that moved vaguely
among a litter of dishes.
“I wish to Heaven somebody in this joint would remember to keep
those front windows shut!”
Miss Ida Bell Hassiebrock, at the right of the table, turned her
head so that, against the window, her profile, somewhat thin, cut into
“There's a lot of things I wish around here,” she said, without a
ripple to her lips.
“I'll warm up the kohlrabi, Loo.”
Mrs. Hassiebrock, in the green black of a cotton umbrella and as
sparse of frame, moved around to the gas-range, scraping a match and
dragging a pot over the blue flame.
“Never mind, ma; I ain't hungry.”
At the left of the table Genevieve Hassiebrock, with thirteen's
crab-like silhouette of elbow, rigid plaits, and nose still hitched to
the star of her nativity, wound an exceedingly long arm about Miss
Hassiebrock's trim waist-line.
“I got B in de-portment to-day, Loo. You owe me the wear of your
Miss Hassiebrock squeezed the hand at her waist.
“All right, honey. Cut Loo a piece of bread.”
“Gussie Flint's mother scalded her leg with the wash-boiler.”
“Did she? Aw!”
Mrs. Hassiebrock came then, limping around, tilting the contents of
the steaming pot to a plate.
“Sit down, ma; don't bother.”
Miss Hassiebrock drew up, pinning a fringed napkin that stuck
slightly in the unfolding across her shining expanse of shirtwaist.
Broke a piece of bread. Dipped.
“Paula Krausnick only got C in de-portment. When the monitor passed
the basin, she dipped her sponge soppin'-wet.”
“Anything new, ma?”
Mrs. Hassiebrock, now at the sink, swabbed a dish with gray water.
“My feet's killin' me,” she said.
Miss Ida Bell, who wore her hair in a coronet wound twice round her
small head, crossed her knife and fork on her plate, folded her napkin,
and tied it with a bit of blue ribbon.
“I think it's a shame, ma, the way you keep thumping around in your
stocking feet like this was backwoods.”
“I can't get my feet in shoes—the joints—”
“You thump around as much as you darn please, ma. If Ida Bell don't
like the looks of you, let her go home with some of her swell stenog
friends. You let your feet hurt you any old way you want 'em to. I'm
going to buy you some arnica. Pass the kohlrabi.”
“Well, my swell 'stenog friends,' as you call them, keep themselves
self-respecting girls without getting themselves talked about, and
that's more than I can say of my sister. If ma had the right kind of
gumption with you, she'd put a stop to it, all right.”
Mrs. Hassiebrock leaned her tired head sidewise into the moist palm
of her hand.
“She's beyond me and the days when a slipper could make her mind. I
wisht to God there was a father to rule youse!”
“I tell you, ma—mark my word for it—if old man Brookes ever finds
out I'm sister to any of the crowd that runs with Charley Cox and
Willie Waxter and those boys whose fathers he's lawyer for, it'll queer
me for life in that office—that's what it will. A girl that's been
made confidential stenographer after only one year in an office to have
to be afraid, like I am, to pick up the morning's paper.”
“Paula Krausnick's lunch was wrapped in the paper where Charley Cox
got pinched for speedin'—speedin'—speedin'—”
“Shut up, Genevieve! Just don't you let my business interfere with
yours, Ida Bell. Brookes don't know you're on earth outside of your
dictation-book. Take it from me, I bet he wouldn't know you if he met
you on the street.”
“That's about all you know about it! If you found yourself
confidential stenographer to the biggest lawyer in town, he'd know you,
all right—by your loud dressing. A blind man could see you coming.”
“Ma, are you going to stand there and let her talk to me thataway? I
notice she's willing to borrow my loud shirtwaists and my loud gloves
and my loud collars.”
“If ma had more gumption with you, maybe things would be different.”
Mrs. Hassiebrock limped to the door, dangling a pail.
“I 'ain't got no more strength against her. My ears won't hold no
more. I'm taking this hot oil down to Mrs. Flint's scalds. She's,
beyond my control, and the days when a slipper could make her mind. I
wisht to God there was a father! I wisht to God!”
Her voice trailed off and down a rear flight of stairs.
“Yes sir,” resumed Miss Hassiebrock, her voice twanging in
her effort at suppression, “I notice you're pretty willing to borrow
some of my loud dressing when you get a bid once in a blue moon to take
a boat-ride up to Alton with that sad-faced Roy Brownell. If Charley
didn't have a cent to his name and a harelip, he'd make Roy Brownell
look like thirty cents.”
“If Roy Brownell was Charley Cox, I'd hate to leave him laying
around loose where you could get your hands on him.”
“Genevieve, you run out and play.”
“If—if you keep running around till all hours of the night, with me
and ma waiting up for you, kicking up rows and getting your name
insinuated in the newspapers as 'the tall, handsome blonde,' I—I'm
going to throw up my job, I am, and you can pay double your share for
the running of this flat. Next thing we know, with that crowd that
don't mean any good to you, this family is going to find itself with a
girl in trouble on its hands.”
“And if you want to know it, and if I wasn't somebody's confidential
stenographer, I could tell you that you're on the wrong scent. Boys
like Charley Cox don't mean good by your kind of a girl. If you're not
speedy, you look it, and that's almost the same as inviting those kind
of boys to—”
Miss Lola Hassiebrock sprang up then, her hand coming down in a
small crash to the table.
“You cut out that talk in front of that child!”
Thus drawn into the picture, Genevieve, at thirteen, crinkled her
face for not uncalculating tears.
“In this house it's fuss and fuss and fuss. Other children can go to
the 'movies' after supper, only me-e-e—”
“Here, honey; Loo's got a dime for you.”
“Sending that child out along your own loose ways, instead of seeing
to it she stays home to help ma do the dishes!”
“I'll do the dishes for ma.”
“It's bad enough for one to have the name of being gay without
starting that child running around nights with—”
“You dry up, Ida Bell! I'll do what I pl—ease with my
“If you say another word about such stuff in front of that child,
“Well, if you don't want her to hear what she sees with her eyes all
around her, come into the bedroom, then, and I can tell you something
that'll bring you to your senses.”
“What you can tell me I don't want to hear.”
“I am, am I?”
With a wrench of her entire body, Miss Lola Hassiebrock was across
the room at three capacity strides, swung open a door there, and stood,
head flung up and pressing back tears, her lips turned inward.
“All right, then—tell—”
After them, the immediately locked door resisting, Genevieve fell to
batting the panels.
“Let me in! Let me in! You're fussin' about your beaux. Ray Brownell
has a long face, and Charley Cox has a red face—red face—red face!
Let me in! In!”
After a while the ten-cent piece rolled from her clenched and
knocking fist, scuttling and settling beneath the sink. She rescued it
and went out, lickety-clapping down the flight of rear stairs.
Silence descended over that kitchen, and a sooty dusk that almost
obliterated the table, drawn out and cluttered after the manner of
those who dine frowsily; the cold stove, its pots cloying, and a sink
piled high with a task whose only ending is from meal to meal.
Finally that door swung open again; the wide-shouldered, slim-hipped
silhouette of Miss Hassiebrock moved swiftly and surely through the
kind of early darkness, finding out for itself a wall telephone hung in
a small patch of hallway separating kitchen and front room. Her voice
came tight, as if it were a tense coil in her throat that she held back
from bursting into hysteria.
“Give me Olive, two-one-o.” The toe of her boot beat a quick tattoo.
“Stag?... Say, get me Charley Cox. He's out in front or down in the
grill or somewhere around. Page him quick! Important!” She grasped the
nozzle of the instrument as she waited, breathing into it with her head
thrown back. “Hello—Charley? That you? It's me. Loo ... Loo!
Are you deaf, honey? What you doing?... Oh, I got the blues, boy;
honest I have. Blue as a cat.... I don't know—just the indigoes.
Nothing much. Ain't lit up, are you, honey?... Sure I will. Don't bring
a crowd. Just you and me. I'll walk down to Gessler's drug-store and
you can pick me up there.... Quit your kidding.... Ten minutes. Yeh.
* * * * *
Claxton Inn, slightly outside the city limits and certain of its
decorums, stands back in a grove off a macadamized highway that is so
pliant to tire that of summer nights, with tops thrown back and stars
sown like lavish grain over a close sky and to a rushing breeze that
presses the ears like an eager whisper, motor-cars, wild to catch up
with the horizon, tear out that road—a lightning-streak of
them—fearing neither penal law nor Dead Man's Curve.
Slacking only to be slacked, cars dart off the road and up a gravel
driveway that encircles Claxton Inn like a lariat swung, then park
themselves among the trees, lights dimmed. Placid as a manse without,
what was once a private and now a public house maintains through
lowered lids its discreet white-frame exterior, shades drawn, and only
slightly revealing the parting of lace curtains. It is rearward where
what was formerly a dining-room that a huge, screened-in veranda, very
whitely lighted, juts suddenly out, and a showy hallway, bordered in
potted palms, leads off that. Here Discretion dares lift her lids to
rove the gravel drive for who comes there.
In a car shaped like a motor-boat and as low to the ground Mr.
Charley Cox turned in and with a great throttling and choking of engine
drew up among the dim-eyed monsters of the grove and directly alongside
an eight-cylinder roadster with a snout like a greyhound.
“Aw, Charley, I thought you promised you wasn't going to stop!”
“Honey, sweetness, I just never was so dry.”
Miss Hassiebrock laid out a hand along his arm, sitting there in the
quiet car, the trees closing over them.
“There's Yiddles Farm a little farther out, Charley; let's stop
there for some spring water.”
He was peeling out of his gauntlets, and cramming them into spacious
“Water, honey, can wash me, but it can't quench me.”
“No high jinks to-night, though, Charley?”
They high-stepped through the gloom, and finally, with firmer step,
up the gravel walk and into the white-lighted, screened-in porch.
Three waiters ran toward their entrance. A woman with a bare V of
back facing them, and three plumes that dipped to her shoulders, turned
square in her chair.
“Hi, Charley. Hi, Loo!”
They walked, thus guided by two waiters, through a light confetti
of tossed greetings, sat finally at a table half concealed by an
“You don't feel like sitting with Jess and the crowd, Loo?”
“Charley, hasn't that gang got you into enough mix-ups?”
“All right, honey; anything your little heart desires.”
She leaned on her elbows across the table from him, smiling and
twirling a great ring of black onyx round her small finger.
“Sure. What'll you have, hon?”
“I don't care.”
“Got any my special Gold Top on ice for me, George? Good. Shoot me a
bottle and a special layout of hors-d'oeuvre. How's that,
“Poor little girl,” he said, patting the black onyx, “with the bad
old blues! I know what they are, honey; sometimes I get crazy with 'em
Her lips trembled.
“It's you makes me blue, Charley.”
“Now, now; just don't worry that big, nifty head of yours about me.”
“The—the morning papers and all. I—I just hate to see you going so
to—to the dogs, Charley—a—fellow like you—with brains.”
“I'm a bad egg, girl, and what you going to do about it? I was
raised like one, and I'll die like one.”
“You ain't a bad egg. You just never had a chance. You been killed
“Killed with coin! Why, Loo, do you know, I haven't had to ask my
old man for a cent since my poor old granny died five years ago and
left me a world of money? While he's been piling it up like the Rocky
Mountains I've been getting down to rock-bottom. What would you say,
sweetness, if I told you I was down to my last few thousands? Time to
touch my old man, eh?”
He drank off his first glass with a quaff, laughing and waving it
empty before her face to give off its perfume.
“My old man is going to wake up in a minute and find me on his
checking-account again. Charley boy better be making connections with
headquarters or he won't find himself such a hit with the niftiest doll
in town, eh?”
“Charley, you—you haven't run through those thousands and thousands
and thousands the papers said you got from your granny that time?”
“It was slippery, hon; somebody buttered it.”
“Charley, Charley, ain't there just no limit to your wildness?”
“You're right, girl; I've been killed with coin. My old man's been
too busy all these years sitting out there in that marble tomb in
Kingsmoreland biting the rims off pennies to hold me back from the
devil. Honey, that old man, even if he is my father, didn't know no
more how to raise a boy like me than that there salt-cellar. Every time
I got in a scrape he bought me out of it, filled up the house with
rough talk, and let it go at that. It's only this last year, since he's
short on health, that he's kicking up the way he should have before it
got too late. My old man never used to talk it out with me, honey. He
used to lash it out. I got a twelve-year-old welt on my back now, high
as your finger. Maybe it'll surprise you, girl, but now, since he can't
welt me up any more, me and him don't exchange ten words a month.”
“Did—did he hear about last night, Charley? You know what came out
in the paper about making a new will if—if you ever got pulled in
again for rough-housing?”
“Don't you worry that nifty head of yours about my old man ever
making a new will. He's been pulling that ever since they fired me from
the academy for lighting a cigarette with a twenty-dollar bill.”
“Next to taking it with him, he'll leave it to me before he'll see a
penny go out of the family. I've seen his will, hon.”
“Charley, you—you got so much good in you. The way you sent that
wooden leg out to poor old lady Guthrie. The way you made Jimmy Ball go
home, and the blind-school boys and all. Why can't you get yourself on
the right track where you belong, Charley? Why don't you
clear—out—West where it's clean?”
“I used to have that idea, Loo. West, where a fellow's got to stand
on his own. Why, if I'd have met a girl like you ten years ago, I'd
have made you the baby doll of the Pacific Coast. I like you, Loo. I
like your style and the way you look like a million dollars. When a
fellow walks into a cafe with you he feels like he's wearing the Hope
diamond. Maybe the society in this town has given me the cold shoulder,
but I'd like to see any of the safety-first boys walk in with one
that's got you beat. That's what I think of you, girl.”
“Aw, now, you're lighting up. Charley. That's four glasses you've
“Thought I was kidding you last night—didn't you—about
“You were lit up.”
“I know. You're going to watch your step, little girl, and I don't
know as I blame you. You can get plenty of boys my carat, and a lot of
other things thrown in I haven't got to offer you.”
“As if I wouldn't like you, Charley, if you were dead broke!”
“Of course you would! There, there, girl, I don't blame any of you
for feathering your nest.” He was flushed now and above the soft
collar, his face had relaxed into a not easily controllable smile.
“Feather your nest, girl; you got the looks to do it. It's a far cry
from Flamm Avenue to where a classy girl like you can land herself if
she steers right. And I wish it to you, girl; the best isn't good
“I—I dare you to ask me again, Charley!”
“You know. Throw your head up the way you do when you mean what you
He was wagging his head now insistently, but pinioning his gaze with
the slightly glassy stare of those who think none too clearly.
“Honest, I don't know, beauty. What's the idea?”
“Didn't you say yourself—Gerber, out here in Claxton
that—magistrate that marries you in verse—”
“By gad, I did!”
“Well—I—I—dare you to ask me again, Charley.”
He leaned forward.
“You game, girl?”
“I'm serious, girl.”
“There's Jess over there can get us a special license from his
brother-in-law. Married in verse in Claxton sounds good to me, honey.”
“But not—the crowd, Charley; just you—and—”
“How're we going to get the license, honey, this time of night
without Jess? Let's make it a million-dollar wedding. We're not ashamed
of nobody or nothing.”
“Of course not, Charley.”
“Now, you're sure, honey? You're drawing a fellow that went to the
dogs before he cut his canines.”
“You're not all to the canines yet, Charley.”
“I may be a black sheep, honey, but, thank God, I got my golden
fleece to offer you!”
“You should worry, girl! I'm going to make you the million-dollar
baby doll of this town, I am. If they turn their backs, we'll dazzle
'em from behind. I'm going to buy you every gewgaw this side of the
Mississippi. I'm going to show them a baby doll that can make the
high-society bunch in this town look like Subway sports. Are you game,
girl? Now! Think well! Here goes. Jess!”
“Jess—over here! Quick!”
* * * * *
At eleven o'clock a small, watery moon cut through a sky that was
fleecily clouded—a swift moon that rode fast as a ship. It rode over
but did not light Squire Gerber's one-and-a-half-storied,
weathered-gray, and set-slightly-in-a-hollow house on Claxton
Three motor-cars, their engines chugging out into wide areas of
stillness, stood processional at the curb. A red hall light showed
against the door-pane and two lower-story windows were widely
Within that room of chromos and the cold horsehair smell of unaired
years, silence, except for the singing of three gas-jets, had
momentarily fallen, a dozen or so flushed faces, grotesquely sobered,
staring through the gaseous fog, the fluttering lids of a magistrate
whose lips habitually fluttered, just lifting from his book.
A hysterical catch of breath from Miss Vera de Long broke the
ear-splitting silence. She reached out, the three plumes dipping down
the bare V of her back, for the limp hand of the bride.
“Gawd bless you, dearie; it's a big night's work!”
* * * * *
In the tallest part of St. Louis, its busiest thoroughfares
inclosing it in a rectangle, the Hotel Sherman, where traveling
salesmen with real alligator bags and third-finger diamonds habitually
shake their first Pullman dust, rears eighteen stories up through and
above an aeriality of soft-coal smoke, which fits over the rim of the
city like a skull-cap.
In the Louis Quinze, gilt-bedded, gilt-framed, gilt-edged
bridal-suite de luxe on the seventeenth floor, Mrs. Charley Cox
sat rigid enough and in shirt-waisted incongruity on the lower curl of
a gilt divan that squirmed to represent the letter S.
He wriggled out of his dust-coat, tossing it on the gilt-canopied
bed and crossed to her, lifting off her red sailor.
“Now that's a fine question for a ten-hours' wifey to ask her hubby,
ain't it? Am I sorry, she asks me before the wedding crowd has turned
the corner. Lord, honey, I never expected anything like you to happen
She stroked his coat-sleeve, mouthing back tears.
“Now everybody'll say—you're a goner—for sure—marrying a—Popular
“If anybody got the worst of this bargain, it's my girl.”
“My own boy,” she said, still battling with tears.
“You drew a black sheep, honey, but I say again and again, 'Thank
God, you drew one with golden fleece!'“
“That—that's the trouble, Charley—there's just no way to make a
boy with money know you married him for any other reason.”
“I'm not blaming you, honey. Lord! what have I got besides money to
talk for me?”
“Lots. Why—like Jess says, Charley, when you get to squaring your
lips and jerking up your head, there's nothing in the world you can't
do that you set out to do.”
“Well, I'm going to set out to make the stiff-necks of this town
turn to look at my girl, all right. I'm going to buy you a chain of
diamonds that'll dazzle their eyes out; I'm—”
“Charley, Charley, that's not what I want, boy. Now that I've got
you, there ain't a chain of diamonds on earth I'd turn my wrist for.”
“Yes, there is, girl; there's a string of pear-shaped ones in—”
“I want you to buck up, honey; that's the finest present you can
give me. I want you to buck up like you didn't have a cent to your
name. I want you to throw up your head the way you do when you mean
business, and show that Charley Cox, without a cent to his name, would
“Would be what, honey?”
“A winner. You got brains, Charley—if only you'd have gone through
school and shown them. If you'd only have taken education, Charley, and
not got fired out of all the academies, my boy would beat 'em all.
Lord! boy, there's not a day passes over my head I don't wish for
education. That's why I'm so crazy my little sister Genevieve should
get it. I'd have took to education like a fish to water if I'd have had
the chance, and there you were, Charley, with every private school in
town and passed 'em up.”
“I know, girl, just looks like every steer I gave myself was the
wrong steer till it was too late to get in right again. Bad egg, I tell
“Too late! Why, Charley—and you not even thirty-one yet? With your
brains and all—too late! You make me laugh. If only you will—why, I'm
game to go out West, Charley, on a ranch, where you can find your feet
and learn to stand on them. You got stuff in you, you have. Jess Turner
says you was always first in school, and when you set your jaw there
wasn't nothing you couldn't get on top of. If you'd have had a mother
and—and a father that wasn't the meanest old man in town, dear, and
had known how to raise a hot-headed boy like you, you'd be famous now
instead of notorious—that's what you'd be.”
He patted her yellow hair, tilting her head back against his arm,
pinching her cheeks together and kissing her puckered mouth.
“Dream on, honey. I like you crazy, too.”
“But, honey, I—”
“You married this millionaire kid, and, bless your heart, he's going
to make good by showing you the color of his coin!”
She sprang back from the curve of his embrace, unshed tears
“Why, honey—I didn't mean it that way! I didn't mean to hurt your
feelings. What I meant was—'sh-h-h-h, Loo—all I meant was, it's
coming to you. Where'd the fun be if I couldn't make this town point up
its ears at my girl? Nobody knows any better than your hubby what his
Loo was cut out for. She was cut out for queening it, and I'm going to
see that she gets what's her due. Wouldn't be surprised if the papers
have us already. Let's see what we'll give them with their coffee this
He unfolded his fresh sheet, shaking it open with one hand and still
holding her in the cove of his arm.
“Guess we missed the first edition, but they'll get us sure.”
She peered at the sheet over his shoulder, her cheek against his and
still sobbing a bit in her throat. The jerking of her breath stopped
then; in fact, it was as if both their breathing had let down with the
oneness of a clock stopped.
It was she who moved first, falling back from him, her mouth
dropping open slightly.
He let the paper fall between his wide-spread knees, the blood
flowing down from his face and seeming to leave him leaner.
“My—poor old man!” he said in a voice that might have been his echo
in a cave.
“He—his heart must have give out on him, Charley, while he slept in
She stretched out her hand timidly to his shoulder.
“Charley—boy—my poor boy!”
He reached up to cover her timid touch, still staring ahead, as if a
mental apathy had clutched him.
“He died like—he—lived. Gad—it's—tough!”
“It—it wasn't your fault, darling. God forgive me for speaking
against the dead, but—everybody knows he was a hard man, Charley—the
way he used to beat you up instead of showing you the right way. Poor
old man, I guess he didn't know—”
“My old man—dead!”
She crept closer, encircling his neck, and her wet cheek close to
his dry one.
“He's at peace now, darling—and all your sins are forgiven—like
His lips were twisting.
“There was no love lost there, girl. God knows there wasn't. There
was once nine months we didn't speak. Never could have been less
between a father and son. You see he—he hated me from the start,
because my mother died hating him—but—dead—that's another
matter. Ain't it, girl—ain't it?”
She held her cheek to his so that her tears veered out of their
course, zigzagging down to his waistcoat, stroked his hair, placing her
rich, moist lips to his eyelids.
“My darling! My darling boy! My own poor darling!”
Sobs rumbled up through him, the terrific sobs that men weep.
“You—married a rotter, Loo—that couldn't even live decent with
his—old man. He—died like a dog—alone.”
“'Sh-h-h, Charley! Just because he's dead don't mean he was any
better while he lived.”
“I'll make it up to you, girl, for the rotter I am. I'm a rich man
“I'll show you, girl. I can make somebody's life worth living. I'm
going to do something for somebody to prove I'm worth the room I
occupy, and that somebody's going to be you, Loo. I'm going to build
you a house that'll go down in the history of this town. I'm going to
wind you around with pearls to match that skin of yours. I'm going to
put the kind of clothes on you that you read of queens wearing. I've
seen enough of the kind of meanness money can breed. I'm going to make
those Romans back there look like pikers. I'm—”
She reached out, placing her hand pat across his mouth, and, in the
languid air of the room, shuddering so that her lips trembled.
“Charley—for God's sake—it—it's a sin to talk that way!”
“O God, I know it, girl! I'm all muddled—muddled.”
He let his forehead drop against her arm, and in the long silence
that ensued she sat there, her hand on his hair.
The roar of traffic, seventeen stories below, came up through the
open windows like the sound of high seas, and from where she sat,
staring out between the pink-brocade curtains, it was as if the close
July sky dipped down to meet that sea, and space swam around them.
“O God!” he said, finally. “What does it all mean—this living and
“Right living, Charley, makes dying take care of itself.”
“God! how he must have died, then! Like a dog—alone.”
“'Sh-h-h, Charley; don't get to thinking.”
Without raising his head, he reached up to stroke her arm.
“Honey, you're shivering.”
“Everything's all right, girl. What's the use me trying to sham it's
not. I—I'm bowled over for the minute, that's all. If it had to come,
after all, it—it came right for my girl. With that poor old man out
there, honey, living alone like a dog all these years, it's just like
putting him from one marble mausoleum out there on Kingsmoreland Place
into one where maybe he'll rest easier. He's better off, Loo,
and—we—are too. Hand me the paper, honey; I—want to see—just how
my—poor old man—breathed out.”
Then Mrs. Cox rose, her face distorted with holding back tears, her
small high heels digging into and breaking the newspaper at his feet.
“Why, girl, what?”
“You don't know it, but my sister, Charley—Ida Bell!”
“Why, Loo, I sent off the message to your mama. They know it by
“Why, honey, you're full of nerves! You mustn't go to pieces like
this. Your sister's all right. I sent them a—”
“You—you don't know, Charley. My sister—I swore her an oath on my
mother's prayer-book. I wouldn't tell, but, now that he's dead,
that—lets me out. The will—Charley, he made it yesterday, like he
always swore he would the next time you got your name on the front
“Made what, honey? Who?”
“Charley, can't you understand? My sister Ida Bell and Brookes—your
father's lawyer. She's his private stenographer—Brookes's, honey. You
know that. But she told me last night, honey, when I went home. You're
cut off, Charley! Your old man sent for Brookes yesterday at noon. I
swear to God, Charley! My sister Ida Bell she broke her confidence to
tell me. He's give a million alone to the new college hospital. Half a
million apiece to four or five old people's homes. He's give his house
to the city with the art-gallery. He's even looked up relations to give
to. He kept his word, honey, that all those years he kept threatening.
He—he kept it the day before he died. He must have had a hunch—your
poor old man. Charley darling, don't look like that! If your wife ain't
the one to break it to you you're broke, who is? You're not 'Million
Dollar Charley' no more, honey. You're just my own Charley, with his
chance come to him—you hear, my Charley, with the best thing
that ever happened to him in his life happening right now.”
He regarded her as if trying to peer through something opaque, his
hands spread rather stupidly on his wide knees.
“Charley, Charley, can't you understand? A dollar, that puts him
within the law, is all he left you.”
“He never did. He never did. He wouldn't. He couldn't. He never did.
I saw—his will. I'm the only survivor. I saw his will.”
“Charley, I swear to God! I swear as I'm standing here you're cut
off. My sister copied the new will on her typewriter three times and
seen the sealed and stamped one. He kept his word. He wrote it with his
faculties and witnesses. We're broke, Charley—thank God, we're flat
“He did it? He did it? My old man did it?”
“As sure as I'm standing here, Charley.”
He fell to blinking rapidly, his face puckering to comprehend.
“I never thought it could happen. But I—I guess it could happen. I
think you got me doped, honey.”
“Charley, Charley!” she cried, falling down on her knees beside him,
holding his face in the tight vise of her hands and reading with such
closeness into his eyes that they seemed to merge into one. “Haven't
you got your Loo? Haven't you got her?”
He sprang up at that, jerking her backward, and all the purple-red
gushed up into his face again.
“Yes, by God, I've got you! I'll break the will. I'll—”
“Charley, no—no! He'd rise out of his grave at you. It's never been
known where a will was broke where they didn't rise out of the grave to
He took her squarely by the shoulders, the tears running in furrows
down his face.
“I'll get you out of this, Loo. No girl in God's world will have to
find herself tied up to me without I can show her a million dollars
every time she remembers that she's married to a rotter. I'll get you
out of this, girl, so you won't even show a scratch. I'll—”
“Charley,” she said, lifting herself by his coat lapels, and her
eyes again so closely level with his, “you're crazy with the
heat—stark, raving crazy! You got your chance, boy, to show what
you're made of—can't you see that? We're going West, where men get
swept out with clean air and clean living. We'll break ground in this
here life for the kind of pay-dirt that'll make a man of you. You hear?
A man of you!”
He lifted her arms, and because they were pressing insistently down,
squirmed out from beneath them.
“You're a good sport, girl; nobody can take that from you. But just
the same, I'm going to let you off without a scratch.”
“'Good sport'! I'd like to know, anyways, where I come in with all
your solid-gold talk. Me that's stood behind somebody-or-other's
counter ever since I had my working-papers.”
“I'll get you out of—”
“Have I ever lived anywheres except in a dirty little North St.
Louis flat with us three girls in a bed? Haven't I got my name all over
town for speed, just because I've always had to rustle out and try to
learn how to flatten out a dime to the size of a dollar? Where do I
come in on the solid-gold talk, I'd like to know. I'm the
penny-splitter of the world, the girl that made the Five-and-Ten-Cent
Store millinery department famous. I can look tailor-made on a
five-dollar bill and a tissue-paper pattern. Why, honey, with me
scheming for you, starting out on your own is going to make a man of
you. You got stuff in you. I knew it, Charley, the first night you
spied me at the Highlands dance. Somewhere out West Charley Cox is now
going to begin to show 'em the stuff in Charley Cox—that's what
Charley Cox &Co. are going to do!”
He shook his head, turning away his eyes to hide their tears.
“You been stung, Loo. Nothing on earth can change that.”
She turned his face back to her, smiling through her own tears.
“You're not adding up good this morning, Mr. Cox. When do you think
I called you up last night? When could it have been if not after my
sister broke her confidence to tell me? Why do you think all of a
sudden last night I seen your bluff through about Gerber? It was
because I knew I had you where you needed me, Charley—I never would
have dragged you down the other way in a million years, but when I knew
I had you where you needed me—why, from that minute, honey, you didn't
have a chance to dodge me!”
She wound her arms round him, trembling between the suppressed
hysteria of tears and laughter.
“Not a chance, Charley!”
He jerked her so that her face fell back from him, foreshortened.
“Loo—oh, girl! Oh, girl!”
Her throat was tight and would not give her voice for coherence.
“Charley—we—we'll show 'em—you—me!”
Looking out above her head at the vapory sky showing through the
parting of the pink-brocade curtains, rigidity raced over Mr. Cox,
stiffening his hold of her.
The lean look had come out in his face; the flanges of his nose
quivered; his head went up.
Over the silent places of the world flies the vulture of madness,
pausing to wheel above isolated farm-houses, where a wife, already
dizzy with the pressure of rarefied silence, looks up, magnetized. Then
across the flat stretches, his shadow under him moving across moor and
the sand of desert, slowing at the perpetually eastern edge of a
mirage, brushing his actual wings against the brick of city walls; the
garret of a dreamer, brain-sick with reality. Flopping, until she comes
to gaze, outside the window of one so alone in a crowd that her four
hall-bedroom walls are closing in upon her. Lowering over a childless
house on the edge of a village.
Were times when Mrs. Hanna Burkhardt, who lived on the edge of a
village in one such childless house, could in her fancy hear the
flutter of wings, too. There had once been a visit to a doctor in High
Street because of those head-noises and the sudden terror of not being
able to swallow. He had stethoscoped and prescribed her change of
scene. Had followed two weeks with cousins fifty miles away near Lida,
Ohio, and a day's stop-over in Cincinnati allowed by her railroad
ticket. But six months after, in the circle of glow from a tablelamp
that left the corners of the room in a chiaroscuro kind of gloom, there
were again noises of wings rustling and of water lapping and the old
stricture of the throat. Across the table, a Paisley cover between
them, Mr. John Burkhardt, his short spade of beard already down over
his shirt-front, arm hanging lax over his chair-side and newspaper
fallen, sat forward in a hunched attitude of sleep, whistling noises
coming occasionally through his breathing. A china clock, the
centerpiece of the mantel, ticked spang into the silence, enhancing it.
Hands in lap, head back against the mat of her chair, Mrs. Burkhardt
looked straight ahead of her into this silence—at a closed door hung
with a newspaper rack, at a black-walnut horsehair divan, a great
sea-shell on the carpet beside it. A nickelplated warrior gleamed from
the top of a baseburner that showed pink through its mica doors. He
stood out against the chocolate-ocher wallpaper and a framed
Declaration of Independence, hanging left. A coal fell. Mr. Burkhardt
sat up, shook himself of sleep.
“Little chilly,” he said, and in carpet slippers and unbuttoned
waistcoat moved over to the base-burner, his feet, to avoid sloughing,
not leaving the floor. He was slightly stooped, the sateen back to his
waistcoat hiking to the curve of him. But he swung up the scuttle with
a swoop, rattling coal freely down into the red-jowled orifice.
“Ugh, don't!” she said. “I'm burnin' up.”
He jerked back the scuttle, returning to his chair, and, picking up
the fallen newspaper, drew down his spectacles from off his brow and
fell immediately back into close, puckered scrutiny of the printed
“What time is it, Burkhardt? That old thing on the mantel's crazy.”
He drew out a great silver watch.
“O God!” she said. “I thought it was about ten.”
The clock ticked in roundly again except when he rustled his paper
in the turning. The fire was crackling now, too, in sharp explosions.
Beyond the arc of lamp the room was deeper than ever in shadow. Finally
John Burkhardt's head relaxed again to his shirt-front, the paper
falling gently away to the floor. She regarded his lips puffing out as
he breathed. Hands clasped, arms full length on the table, it was as if
the flood of words pressing against the walls of her, to be shrieked
rather than spoken, was flowing over to him. He jerked erect again,
regarding her through blinks.
“Must 'a' dozed off,” he said, reaching down for his newspaper.
She was winding her fingers now in and out among themselves.
“What—does a person do that's smotherin'?”
“I know. That's what I'm doing. Smotherin'!”
“A touch of the old trouble, Hanna?”
She sat erect, with her rather large white hands at the heavy base
to her long throat. They rose and fell to her breathing. Like Heine,
who said so potently, “I am a tragedy,” so she, too, in the sulky light
of her eyes and the pulled lips and the ripple of shivers over her,
proclaimed it of herself.
“Seven-forty! God! what'll I do, Burkhardt? What'll I do?”
“Go lay down on the sofa a bit, Hanna. I'll cover you with a plaid.
It's the head-noises again bothering you.”
“Seven-forty! What'll I do? Seven-forty and nothing left but bed.”
“I must 'a' dozed off, Hanna.”
“Yes; you must 'a' dozed off,” she laughed, her voice eaten into
with the acid of her own scorn. “Yes; you must 'a' dozed off. The same
way as you dozed off last night and last month and last year and the
last eight years. The best years of my life—that's what you've dozed
off, John Burkhardt. He 'must 'a' dozed off,'“ she repeated, her lips
quivering and lifting to reveal the white line of her large teeth.
“Yes; I think you must 'a' dozed off!”
He was reading again in stolid profile.
She fell to tapping the broad toe of her shoe, her light, dilated
eyes staring above his head. She was spare, and yet withal a roundness
left to the cheek and forearm. Long-waisted and with a certain swing
where it flowed down into straight hips, there was a bony, Olympian
kind of bigness about her. Beneath the washed-out blue shirtwaist dress
her chest was high, as if vocal. She was not without youth. Her head
went up like a stag's to the passing of a band in the street, or a
glance thrown after her, or the contemplation of her own freshly washed
yellow hair in the sunlight. She wore a seven glove, but her nails had
great depth and pinkness, and each a clear half-moon. They were dug
down now into her palms.
“For God's sake, talk! Say something, or I'll go mad!”
He laid his paper across his knee, pushing up his glasses.
“Sing a little something, Hanna. You're right restless this
“'Restless'!” she said, her face wry. “If I got to sit and listen to
that white-faced clock ticking for many more evenings of this winter,
you'll find yourself with a raving maniac on your hands. That's how
restless I am!” He rustled his paper again. “Don't read!” she cried.
“Don't you dare read!”
He sat staring ahead, in a heavy kind of silence, breathing outward
and passing his hand across his brow.
Her breathing, too, was distinctly audible.
“Lay down a bit, Hanna. I'll cover you—”
“If they land me in the bug-house, they can write on your tombstone
when you die, 'Hanna Long Burkhardt went stark raving mad crazy with
hucking at home because I let her life get to be a machine from
six-o'clock breakfast to eight-o'clock bed, and she went crazy from
it.' If that's any satisfaction to you, they can write that on your
He mopped his brow this time, clearing his throat.
“You knew when we married, Hanna, they called me 'Silent' Burkhardt.
I never was a great one for talking unless there was something I wanted
“I knew nothin' when I married you. Nothin' except that along a
certain time every girl that can gets married. I knew nothin'
“I've never stood in your light, Hanna, of having a good time. Go
ahead. I'm always glad when you go up-town with the neighbor women of a
Saturday evening. I'd be glad if you'd have 'em in here now and then
for a little sociability. Have 'em. Play the graphophone for 'em. Sing.
You 'ain't done nothin' with your singin' since you give up choir.”
“Neighbor women! Old maids' choir! That's fine excitement for a girl
not yet twenty-seven!”
“Come; let's go to a moving picture, Hanna. Go wrap yourself up
“Movie! Oh no; no movie for me with you snorin' through the picture
till I'm ashamed for the whole place. If I was the kind of girl had it
in me to run around with other fellows, that's what I'd be drove to do,
the deal you've given me. Movie! That's a fine enjoyment to try to
foist off on a woman to make up for eight years of being so fed up on
stillness that she's half-batty!”
“Maybe there's something showin' in the op'ry-house to-night.”
“Oh, you got a record to be proud of, John Burkhardt: Not a foot in
that opera-house since we're married. I wouldn't want to have your
His quietude was like a great, impregnable, invisible wall inclosing
“I'm not the man can change his ways, Hanna. I married at forty, too
late for that.”
“I notice you liked my pep, all righty, when I was workin' in the
feed-yard office. I hadn't been in it ten days before you were hangin'
on my laughs from morning till night.”
“I do yet, Hanna—only you don't laugh no more. There's nothin' so
fine in a woman as sunshine.”
“Provided you don't have to furnish any of it.”
“Because a man 'ain't got it in him to be light in his ways don't
mean he don't enjoy it in others. Why, there just ain't nothin' to
equal a happy woman in the house! Them first months, Hanna, showed me
what I'd been missin'. It was just the way I figured it—somebody
around like you, singin' and putterin'. It was that laugh in the office
made me bring it here, where I could have it always by me.”
“It's been knocked out of me, every bit of laugh I ever had in me;
lemme tell you that.”
“I can remember the first time I ever heard you, Hanna. You was
standin” at the office window lookin' out in the yards at Jerry Sims
unloadin' a shipment of oats; and little Old Cocker was standin' on top
of one of the sacks barkin' his head off. I—”
“Yeh; I met Clara Sims on the street yesterday, back here for a
visit, and she says to me, she says: 'Hanna Burkhardt, you mean to tell
me you never done nothing with your voice! You oughta be ashamed. If I
was your husband, I'd spend my last cent trainin' that contralto of
yours. You oughtn't to let yourself go like this. Women don't do it no
more.' That, from the tackiest girl that ever walked this town. I
wished High Street had opened up and swallowed me.”
“Now, Hanna, you mustn't—”
“In all these years never so much as a dance or a car-ride as far as
Middletown. Church! Church! Church! Till I could scream at the sight of
it. Not a year of my married life that 'ain't been a lodestone on my
neck! Eight of' 'em! Eight!”
“I'm not sayin' I'm not to blame, Hanna. A woman like you naturally
likes life. I never wanted to hold you back. If I'm tired nights and
dead on my feet from twelve hours on 'em, I never wanted you to change
“Yes; with a husband at home in bed, I'd be a fine one chasin'
around this town alone, wouldn't I? That's the thanks a woman gets for
“I always kept hopin', Hanna, I could get you to take more to the
“The home—you mean the tomb!”
“Why, with the right attention, we got as fine an old place here as
there is in this part of town, Hanna. If only you felt like giving it a
few more touches that kinda would make a woman-place out of it! It
'ain't changed a whit from the way me and my old father run it
together. A little touch here and there, Hanna, would help to keep you
occupied and happier if—”
“I know. I know what's comin'.”
“The pergola I had built. I used to think maybe you'd get to putter
out there in the side-yard with it, trailin' vines; the china-paintin'
outfit I had sent down from Cincinnati when I seen it advertised in the
Up-State Gazette; a spaniel or two from Old Cocker's new litter,
barkin' around; all them things, I used to think, would give our little
place here a feelin' that would change both of us for the better. With
a more home-like feelin' things might have been different between us,
“Keepin” a menagerie of mangy spaniels ain't my idea of livin'.”
“Aw, now, Hanna, what's the use puttin' it that way? Take, for
instance, it's been a plan of mine to paint the house, with the
shutters green and a band of green shingles runnin' up under the eaves.
A little encouragement from you and we could perk the place up right
smart. All these years it's kinda gone down—even more than when I was
a bachelor in it. Sunk in, kinda, like them iron jardinieres I had put
in the front yard for you to keep evergreen in. It's them little
things, Hanna. Then that—that old idea of mine to take a little one
from the orphanage—a young 'un around the—”
“I ain't goin' to mention it if it aggravates you, but—but makin' a
home out of this gray old place would help us both, Hanna. There's no
denyin' that. It's what I hoped for when I brought you home a bride
here. Just had it kinda planned. You putterin' around the place in some
kind of a pink apron like you women can rig yourselves up in and—”
“There ain't a girl in Adalia has dropped out of things the way I
have, I had a singin' voice that everybody in this town said—”
“There's the piano, Hanna, bought special for it.”
“I got a contralto that—”
“There never was anything give me more pleasure than them first
years you used it. I ain't much to express myself, but it was mighty
fine, Hanna, to hear you.”
“Yes, I know; you snored into my singin' with enjoyment, all right.”
“It's the twelve hours on my feet that just seem to make me dead to
the world, come evening.”
“A girl that had the whole town wavin' flags at her when she sung
'The Holy City' at the nineteen hundred street-carnival! Kittie Scogin
Bevins, one of the biggest singers in New York to-day, nothing but my
chorus! Where's it got me these eight years? Nowheres! She had enough
sense to cut loose from Ed Bevins, who was a lodestone, too, and beat
it. She's singing now in New York for forty a week with a voice that
wasn't strong enough to be more than chorus to mine.”
“Kittie Scogin, Hanna, is a poor comparison for any woman to make
“It is, is it? Well, I don't see it thataway. When she stepped off
the train last week, comin' back to visit her old mother, I wished the
whole depot would open up and swallow me—that's what I wished. Me and
her that used to be took for sisters. I'm eight months younger, and I
look eight years older. When she stepped off that train in them white
furs and a purple face-veil, I just wished to God the whole depot would
open and swallow me. That girl had sense. O God! didn't she have
“They say her sense is what killed Ed Bevins of shame and
“Say, don't tell me! It was town talk the way he made her toady to
his folks, even after he'd been cut off without a cent. Kittie told me
herself the very sight of the old Bevins place over on Orchard Street
gives her the creeps down her back. If not for old lady Scogin, 'way up
in the seventies, she'd never put her foot back in this dump. That girl
“There's not a time she comes back here it don't have an upsettin'
influence on you, Hanna.”
“I know what's upsettin' me, all right. I know!”
He sighed heavily.
“I'm just the way I am, Hanna, and there's no teachin' an old dog
new tricks. It's a fact I ain't much good after eight o'clock evenin's.
It's a fact—a fact!”
They sat then in a further silence that engulfed them like fog. A
shift of wind blew a gust of dry snow against the window-pane with a
little sleety noise. And as another evidence of rising wind, a jerk of
it came down the flue, rattling the fender of a disused grate.
“We'd better keep the water in the kitchen runnin' to-night. The
Tick-tock. Tick. Tock. She had not moved, still sitting staring
above the top of his head. He slid out his watch, yawning.
“Well, if you think it's too raw for the movin' pictures, Hanna, I
guess I'll be movin' up to bed. I got to be down to meet a five-o'clock
shipment of fifty bales to-morrow. I'll be movin' along unless there's
anything you want?”
“If—if you ain't sleepy awhile yet, Hanna, why not run over to
Widow Dinninger's to pass the time of evenin'? I'll keep the door on
She sprang up, snatching a heavy black shawl, throwing it over her
and clutching it closed at the throat.
“Where you goin', Hanna?”
“Walkin',” she said, slamming the door after her.
In Adalia, chiefly remarkable for the Indestructo Safe Works and a
river which annually overflows its banks, with casualties, the houses
sit well back from tree-bordered streets, most of them frame,
shingle-roofed veterans that have lived through the cycle-like years of
the bearing, the marrying, the burying of two, even three, generations
of the same surname.
A three-year-old, fifteen-mile traction connects the court-house
with the Indestructo Safe Works. High Street, its entire length, is
paved. During a previous mayoralty the town offered to the Lida Tool
Works a handsome bonus to construct branch foundries along its
river-banks, and, except for the annual flood conditions, would have
In spring Adalia is like a dear old lady's garden of marigold and
bleeding-heart. Flushes of sweetpeas ripple along its picket fences and
off toward the backyards are long grape-arbors, in autumn their great
fruit-clusters ripening to purple frost. Come winter there is almost an
instant shriveling to naked stalk, and the trellis-work behind vines
comes through. Even the houses seem immediately to darken of last
spring's paint, and, with windows closed, the shades are drawn. Oftener
than not Adalia spends its evening snugly behind these drawn shades in
great scoured kitchens or dining-rooms, the house-fronts dark.
When Mrs. Burkhardt stepped out into an evening left thus to its
stilly depth, shades drawn against it, a light dust of snow, just
fallen, was scurrying up-street before the wind, like something phantom
with its skirts blowing forward. Little drifts of it, dry as powder,
had blown up against the porch. She sidestepped them, hurrying down a
wind-swept brick walk and out a picket gate that did not swing entirely
after. Behind her, the house with its wimple of shingle roof and
unlighted front windows seemed to recede somewhere darkly. She stood an
undecided moment, her face into the wind. Half down the block an
arc-light swayed and gave out a moving circle of light. Finally she
turned her back and went off down a side-street, past a lighted corner
grocer, crossed a street to avoid the black mouth of an alley, then off
at another right angle. The houses here were smaller, shoulder to
shoulder and directly on the sidewalk.
Before one of these, for no particular reason distinguishable from
the others, Mrs. Burkhardt stepped up two shallow steps and turned a
key in the center of the door, which set up a buzz on its reverse side.
Her hand, where it clutched the shawl at her throat, was reddening and
roughening, the knuckles pushing up high and white. Waiting, she turned
her back to the wind, her body hunched up against it.
There was a moving about within, the scrape of a match, and finally
the door opening slightly, a figure peering out.
“It's me, Mrs. Scogin—Hanna Burkhardt!”
The door swung back then, revealing a just-lighted parlor, opening,
without introduction of hall, from the sidewalk.
“Well, if it ain't Hanna Burkhardt! What you doin' out this kind of
a night? Come in. Kittie's dryin' her hair in the kitchen. Used to be
she could sit on it, and it's ruint from the scorchin' curlin'-iron.
I'll call her. Sit down, Hanna. How's Burkhardt? I'll call her. Oh,
Kittie! Kit-tie, Hanna Burkhardt's here to see you.”
In the wide flare of the swinging lamp, revealing Mrs. Scogin's
parlor of chromo, china plaque, and crayon enlargement, sofa, whatnot,
and wax bouquet embalmed under glass, Mrs. Burkhardt stood for a
moment, blowing into her cupped hands, unwinding herself of shawl,
something Niobian in her gesture.
“Yoo-hoo—it's only me, Kit! Shall I come out?”
“Naw—just a minute; I'll be in.”
Mrs. Scogin seated herself on the edge of the sofa, well forward,
after the manner of those who relax but ill to the give of upholstery.
She was like a study of what might have been the grandmother of one of
Rembrandt's studies of a grandmother. There were lines crawling over
her face too manifold for even the etcher's stroke, and over her little
shriveling hands that were too bird-like for warmth. There is actually
something avian comes with the years. In the frontal bone pushing
itself forward, the cheeks receding, and the eyes still bright. There
was yet that trenchant quality in Mrs. Scogin, in the voice and gaze of
“Sit down, Hanna.”
“Don't care if I do.”
“You can lean back against that chair-bow.”
“Hate to muss it.”
“He's been made deacon—not?”
“If mine had lived, he'd the makin' of a pillar. Once label a man
with hard drinkin', and it's hard to get justice for him. There never
was a man had more the makin' of a pillar than mine, dead now these
sixteen years and molderin' in his grave for justice.”
“Yes, Mrs. Scogin.”
“You can lean back against that bow.”
“So Burkhardt's been made deacon.”
“Three years already—you was at the church.”
“A deacon. Mine went to his grave too soon.”
“They said down at market to-day, Mrs. Scogin, that Addie Fitton
knocked herself against the woodbin and has water on the knee.”
“Let the town once label a man with drinkin', and it's hard to get
justice for him.”
“It took Martha and Eda and Gessler's hired girl to hold her in bed
with the pain.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Scogin, sucking in her words and her eyes
seeming to strain through the present; “once label a man with
Kittie Scogin Bevins entered then through a rain of bead portieres.
Insistently blond, her loosed-out hair newly dry and flowing down over
a very spotted and very baby-blue kimono, there was something
soft-fleshed about her, a not unappealing saddle of freckles across her
nose, the eyes too light but set in with a certain feline arch to them.
“Been washing my hair to show it a good time. One month in this dump
and they'd have to hire a hearse to roll me back to Forty-second Street
“This ain't nothing. Wait till we begin to get snowed in!”
“I know. Say, you c'n tell me nothing about this tank I dunno
already. I was buried twenty-two years in it. Move over, ma.”
She fitted herself into the lower curl of the couch, crossing her
hands at the back of her head, drawing up her feet so that, for lack of
space, her knees rose to a hump.
“What's new in Deadtown, Han?”
“'New'! This dump don't know we got a new war. They think it's the
old Civil one left over.”
“Burkhardt's been made a deacon, Kittie.”
“O Lord! ma, forget it!” Mrs. Scogin Bevins threw out her hands to
Mrs. Burkhardt in a wide gesture, indicating her mother with a
forefinger, then with it tapping her own brow. “Crazy as a loon! Bats!”
“If your father had—”
“Ma, for Gossakes—”
“You talk to Kittie, Hanna. My girls won't none of 'em listen to me
no more. I tell 'em they're fightin' over my body before it's dead for
this house and the one on Ludlow Street. It's precious little for 'em
to be fightin' for before I'm dead, but if not for it, I'd never be
gettin' these visits from a one of 'em.”
“I keep tellin' her, Kittie, to stay home. New York ain't no place
for a divorced woman to set herself right with the Lord.”
“Ma, if you don't quit raving and clear on up to bed, I'll pack
myself out to-night yet, and then you'll have a few things to set right
with the Lord. Go on up, now.”
“Go on—you hear?”
Mrs. Scogin went then, tiredly and quite bent forward, toward a
flight of stairs that rose directly from the parlor, opened a door
leading up into them, the frozen breath of unheated regions coming
“Quick—close that door, ma!”
“Come to see a body, Hanna, when she ain't here. She won't stay at
home, like a God-fearin' woman ought to.”
“Light the gas-heater up there, if you expect me to come to bed. I'm
used to steam-heated flats, not barns.”
“She's a sassy girl, Hanna. Your John a deacon and hers lies
molderin' in his grave, a sui—”
Mrs. Scogin Bevins flung herself up, then, a wave of red riding up
“If you don't go up—if you—don't! Go—now! Honest, you're gettin'
so luny you need a keeper. Go—you hear?”
The door shut slowly, inclosing the old figure. She relaxed to the
couch, trying to laugh.
“Luny!” she said. “Bats! Nobody home!”
“I like your hair like that, Kittie. It looks swell.”
“It's easy. I'll fix it for you some time. It's the vampire swirl.
All the girls are wearing it.”
“Remember the night, Kit, we was singin' duets for the Second Street
Presbyterian out at Grody's Grove and we got to hair-pullin' over whose
curls was the longest?”
“Yeh. I had on a blue dress with white polka-dots.”
“That was fifteen years ago. Remember Joe Claiborne promised us a
real stage-job, and we opened a lemonade-stand on our front gate to pay
his commission in advance?”
They laughed back into the years.
“O Lord! them was days! Seems to me like fifty years ago.”
“Not to me, Kittie. You've done things with your life since then. I
“You know what I've always told you about yourself, Hanna. If ever
there was a fool girl, that was Hanna Long. Lord! if I'm where I am on
my voice, where would you be?”
“I was a fool.”
“I could have told you that the night you came running over to tell
“There was no future in this town for me, Kit. Stenoggin' around
from one office to another. He was the only real provider ever came my
“I always say if John Burkhardt had shown you the color of real
money! But what's a man to-day on just a fair living? Not worth burying
yourself in a dump like this for. No, sirree. When I married Ed,
anyways I thought I smelled big money. I couldn't see ahead that his
father'd carry out his bluff and cut him off. But what did you have to
smell—a feed-yard in a hole of a town! What's the difference whether
you live in ten rooms like yours or in four like this as long as you're
buried alive? A girl can always do that well for herself after she's
took big chances. You could be Lord knows where now if you'd 'a' took
my advice four years ago and lit out when I did.”
“I know it, Kit. God knows I've eat out my heart with knowin' it!
Only—only it was so hard—a man givin' me no more grounds than he
does. What court would listen to his stillness for grounds? I 'ain't
“Say, you could 'a' left that to me. My little lawyer's got a
factory where he manufactures them. He could 'a' found a case of
incompatibility between the original turtle-doves.”
“God! His stillness, Kittie—like—”
“John Burkhardt would give me the razzle-dazzle jimjams overnight,
he would. That face reminds me of my favorite funeral.”
“I told him to-night, Kittie, he's killin' me with his deadness. I
ran out of the house from it. It's killin' me.”
“Why, you poor simp, standing for it!”
“That's what I come over for, Kit. I can't stand no more. If I don't
talk to some one, I'll bust. There's no one in this town I can open up
to. Him so sober—and deacon. They don't know what it is to sit night
after night dyin' from his stillness. Whole meals, Kit, when he don't
open his mouth except, 'Hand me this; hand me that'—and his beard
movin' up and down so when he chews. Because a man don't hit you and
gives you spending-money enough for the little things don't mean he
can't abuse you with—with just gettin' on your nerves so terrible. I'm
feelin' myself slip—crazy—ever since I got back from Cincinnati and
seen what's goin' on in the big towns and me buried here; I been
feelin' myself slip—slip, Kittie.”
“Cincinnati! Good Lord! if you call that life! Any Monday morning on
Forty-second Street makes Cincinnati look like New-Year's Eve. If you
call Cincinnati life!”
“He's small, Kittie. He's a small potato of a man in his way of
livin'. He can live and die without doin' anything except the same
things over and over again, year out and year in.”
“I know. I know. Ed was off the same pattern. It's the Adalia brand.
Lord! Hanna Long, if you could see some of the fellows I got this
minute paying attentions to me in New York, you'd lose your mind.
Spenders! Them New York guys make big and spend big, and they're
willing to part with the spondoolaks. That's the life!”
“I—You look it, Kit. I never seen a girl get back her looks and
keep 'em like you. I says to him to-night, I says, 'When I look at
myself in the glass, I wanna die.'“
“You're all there yet, Hanna. Your voice over here the other night
was something immense. Big enough to cut into any restaurant crowd, and
that's what counts in cabaret. I don't tell anybody how to run his
life, but if I had your looks and your contralto, I'd turn 'em into
money, I would. There's forty dollars a week in you this minute.”
Mrs. Burkhardt's head went up. Her mouth had fallen open, her eyes
brightening as they widened.
“Kit—when you goin' back?”
“To-morrow a week, honey—if I live through it.”
“Could—you help me—your little lawyer—your—”
“Remember, I ain't advising—”
“Could you, Kit, and to—to get a start?”
“They say it of me there ain't a string in the Bijou Cafe that I
can't pull my way.”
“Could you, Kit? Would you?”
“I don't tell nobody how to run his life, Hanna. It's mighty hard to
advise the other fellow about his own business. I don't want it said in
this town, that's down on me, anyways, that Kit Scogin put ideas in
Hanna Long's head.”
“You didn't, Kit. They been there. Once I answered an ad. to join a
county fair. I even sent money to a vaudeville agent in Cincinnati.
“Nothing doing in vaudeville for our kind of talent. It's cabaret
where the money and easy hours is these days. Just a plain little solo
act—contralto is what you can put over. A couple of 'Where Is My
Wandering Boy To-night' sob-solos is all you need. I'll let you meet
Billy Howe of the Bijou. Billy's a great one for running in a chaser
act or two.”
“I—How much would it cost, Kittie, to—to—”
“Hundred and fifty done it for me, wardrobe and all.”
“Kittie, I—Would you—”
“Sure I would! Only, remember, I ain't responsible. I don't tell
anybody how to run his life. That's something everybody's got to decide
At something after that stilly one-o'clock hour when all the
sleeping noises of lath and wainscoting creak out, John Burkhardt
lifted his head to the moving light of a lamp held like a torch over
him, even the ridge of his body completely submerged beneath the great
feather billow of an oceanic walnut bedstead.
“I been awake—”
She set the lamp down on the brown-marble top of a wash-stand,
pushed back her hair with both hands, and sat down on the bed-edge,
heavily breathing from a run through deserted night's streets.
“I gotta talk to you, Burkhardt—now—to-night.”
“Now's no time, Hanna. Come to bed.”
“Things can't go on like this, John.”
He lay back slowly.
“Maybe you're right, Hanna. I been layin' up here and thinkin' the
same myself. What's to be done?”
“I've got to the end of my rope.”
“With so much that God has given us, Hanna—health and
prosperity—it's a sin before Him that unhappiness should take root in
“If you're smart, you won't try to feed me up on gospel to-night!”
“I'm willin' to meet you, Hanna, on any proposition you say. How'd
it be to move down to Schaefer's boardin'-house for the winter, where
it'll be a little recreation for you evenings, or say we take a trip
down to Cincinnati for a week. I—”
“Oh no,” she said, looking away from him and her throat throbbing.
“Oh no, you don't! Them things might have meant something to me once,
but you've come too late with 'em. For eight years I been eatin' out my
heart with 'em. Now you couldn't pay me to live at Schaefer's. I had to
beg too long for it. Cincinnati! Why, its New-Year's Eve is about as
lively as a real town's Monday morning. Oh no, you don't! Oh no!”
“Come on to bed, Hanna. You'll catch cold. Your breath's freezin'.”
“I'm goin'—away, for good—that's where—I'm goin'!”
Her words threatened to come out on a sob, but she stayed it, the
back of her hand to her mouth.
Her gaze was riveted, and would not move, from a little curtain
above the wash-stand, a guard against splashing crudely embroidered in
a little hand-in-hand boy and girl.
“You—you're sayin' a good many hasty things to-night, Hanna.”
He plucked at a gray-wool knot in the coverlet.
“Mighty hasty things.”
She turned, then, plunging her hands into the great suds of feather
bed, the whole thrust of her body toward him.
“'Hasty'! Is eight years hasty? Is eight years of buried-alive
hasty? I'm goin', John Burkhardt; this time I'm goin' sure—sure as my
name is Hanna Long.”
“Goin' where, Hanna?”
“Goin' where each day ain't like a clod of mud on my coffin. Goin'
where there's a chance for a woman like me to get a look-in on life
before she's as skinny a hex at twenty-seven as old lady Scog—as—like
this town's full of. I'm goin' to make my own livin' in my own way, and
I'd like to see anybody try to stop me.”
“I ain't tryin', Hanna.”
She drew back in a flash of something like surprise.
“You're willin', then?”
“No, Hanna, not willin'.”
“You can't keep me from it. Incompatibility is grounds!”
The fires of her rebellion, doused for the moment, broke out again,
flaming in her cheeks.
He raised himself to his elbow, regarding her there in her flush,
the white line of her throat whiter because of it. She was strangely,
not inconsiderably taller.
“Why, Hanna, what you been doin' to yourself?”
Her hand flew to a new and elaborately piled coiffure, a half-fringe
of curling-iron, little fluffed out tendrils escaping down her neck.
“In—incompatibility is grounds.”
“It's mighty becomin', Hanna. Mighty becomin'.”
“It's grounds, all right!”
“'Grounds'? Grounds for what, Hanna?”
She looked away, her throat distending as she swallowed.
There was a pause, then so long that she had a sense of falling
through its space.
“Look at me, Hanna!”
She swung her gaze reluctantly to his. He was sitting erect now, a
kind of pallor setting in behind the black beard.
“Leggo!” she said, loosening his tightening hand from her wrists.
“Leggo; you hurt!”
“I—take it when a woman uses that word in her own home, she means
“This one does.”
“You're a deacon's wife. Things—like this are—are pretty serious
with people in our walk of life. We—'ain't learned in our communities
yet not to take the marriage law as of God's own makin'. I'm a
respected citizen here.”
“So was Ed Bevins. It never hurt his hide.”
“But it left her with a black name in the town.”
“Who cares? She don't.”
“It's no good to oppose a woman, Hanna, when she's made up her mind;
but I'm willin' to meet you half-way on this thing. Suppose we try it
again. I got some plans for perkin' things up a bit between us. Say we
join the Buckeye Bowling Club, and—”
“No! No! No! That gang of church-pillars! I can't stand it, I tell
you; you mustn't try to keep me! You mustn't! I'm a rat in a trap here.
Gimme a few dollars. Hundred and fifty is all I ask. Not even alimony.
Lemme apply. Gimme grounds. It's done every day. Lemme go. What's done
can't be undone. I'm not blamin' you. You're what you are and I'm what
I am. I'm not blamin' anybody. You're what you are, and God Almighty
can't change you. Lemme go, John; for God's sake, lemme go!”
“Yes,” he said, finally, not taking his eyes from her and the chin
hardening so that it shot out and up. “Yes, Hanna; you're right. You
got to go.”
* * * * *
The skeleton of the Elevated Railway structure straddling almost its
entire length, Sixth Avenue, sullen as a clayey stream, flows in gloom
and crash. Here, in this underworld created by man's superstructure,
Mrs. Einstein, Slightly Used Gowns, nudges Mike's Eating-Place from the
left, and on the right Stover's Vaudeville Agency for Lilliputians
divides office-space and rent with the Vibro Health Belt Company. It is
a kind of murky drain, which, flowing between, catches the refuse from
Fifth Avenue and the leavings from Broadway. To Sixth Avenue drift men
who, for the first time in a Miss-spending life, are feeling the prick
of a fraying collar. Even Fifth Avenue is constantly feeding it. A
couturier's model gone hippy; a specialty-shop gone bankrupt; a
cashier's books gone over. Its shops are second-hand, and not a few of
its denizens are down on police records as sleight-of-hand. At night
women too weary to be furtive turn in at its family entrances. It is
the cauldron of the city's eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, and
tongue of dog. It is the home of the most daring all-night
eating-places, the smallest store, the largest store, the greatest
revolving stage, the dreariest night court, and the drabest night birds
in the world.
War has laid its talons and scratched slightly beneath the surface
of Sixth Avenue. Hufnagel's Delicatessen, the briny hoar of twenty
years upon it, went suddenly into decline and the hands of a receiver.
Recruiting stations have flung out imperious banners. Keeley's
Chop-House—Open All Night—reluctantly swings its too hospitable doors
to the one-o'clock-closing mandate.
To the New-Yorker whose nights must be filled with music, preferably
jazz, to pass Keeley's and find it dark is much as if Bacchus,
emulating the newest historical rogue, had donned cassock and hood.
Even that half of the evening east of the cork-popping land of the
midnight son has waned at Keeley's. No longer a road-house on the
incandescent road to dawn, there is something hangdog about its very
waiters, moving through the easy maze of half-filled tables; an
orchestra, sheepish of its accomplishment, can lift even a muted melody
above the light babel of light diners. There is a cabaret, too, bravely
bidding for the something that is gone.
At twelve o'clock, five of near-Broadway's best breed, in woolly
anklets and wristlets and a great shaking of curls, execute the
poodle-prance to half the encores of other days. May Deland, whose
ripple of hip and droop of eyelid are too subtle for censorship, walks
through her hula-hula dance, much of her abandon abandoned. A pair of
apaches whirl for one hundred and twenty consecutive seconds to a
great bang of cymbals and seventy-five dollars a week. At shortly
before one Miss Hanna de Long, who renders ballads at one-hour
intervals, rose from her table and companion in the obscure rear of the
room, to finish the evening and her cycle with “Darling, Keep the
Grate-Fire Burning,” sung in a contralto calculated to file into no
matter what din of midnight dining.
In something pink, silk, and conservatively V, she was a careful
management's last bland ingredient to an evening that might leave too
Cayenne a sting to the tongue.
At still something before one she had finished, and, without encore,
returned to her table.
“Gawd!” she said, and leaned her head on her hand. “I better get me
a job hollerin' down a well!”
Her companion drained his stemless glass with a sharp jerking back
of the head. His was the short, stocky kind of assurance which seemed
to say, “Greater securities hath no man than mine, which are
gilt-edged.” Obviously, Mr. Lew Kaminer clipped his coupons.
“Not so bad,” he said. “The song ain't dead; the crowd is.”
“Say, they can't hurt my feelin's. I been a chaser-act ever since I
hit the town.”
“Well, if I can sit and listen to a song in long skirts twelve
runnin' weeks, three or four nights every one of 'em, take it from me,
there's a whistle in it somewhere.”
“Just the same,” she said, pushing away her glass, “my future in
this business is behind me.”
He regarded her, slumped slightly in his chair, celluloid toothpick
dangling. There was something square about his face, abetted by a
parted-in-the-middle toupee of great craftsmanship, which revealed
itself only in the jointure over the ears of its slightly lighter hair
with the brown of his own. There was a monogram of silk on his
shirt-sleeve, of gold on his bill-folder, and of diamonds on the black
band across the slight rotundity of his waistcoat.
“Never you mind, I'm for you, girl,” he said.
There was an undeniable taking-off of years in Miss de Long. Even
the very texture of her seemed younger and the skin massaged to a new
creaminess, the high coiffure blonder, the eyes quicker to dart.
“Lay off, candy kid,” she said. “You're going to sugar.”
“Have another fizz,” he said, clicking his fingers for a waiter.
“Anything to please the bold, bad man,” she said.
“You're a great un,” he said. “Fellow never knows how to take you
from one minute to the next.”
“You mean a girl never knows how to take you.”
“Say,” he said, “any time anybody puts anything over on you!”
“There you are!” he cried, eying her fizz. “Drink it down; it's good
for what ails you.”
“Gawd!” she said. “I wish I knew what it was is ailin' me!”
“Drink 'er down!”
“You think because you had me goin' on these things last night that
to-night little sister ain't goin' to watch her step. Well, watch her
watch her step,” Nevertheless, she drank rather thirstily half the
contents of the glass. “I knew what I was doin' every minute of the
time last night, all righty. I was just showin' us a good time.”
“It's all right for us girls to take what we want, but the
management don't want nothing rough around—not in war-time.”
“There's nothing rough about me, Lew. None of you fellows can't say
that about me. I believe in a girl havin' a good time, but I believe in
her always keepin' her self-respect. I always say it never hurt no girl
to keep her self-respect.”
“When a girl friend of mine loses that, I'm done with her. That
don't get a girl nowheres. That's why I keep to myself as much as I can
and don't mix in with the girls on the bill with me, if—”
“What's become of the big blond-looker used to run around with you
when you was over at the Bijou?”
“Me and Kit ain't friends no more.”
“She was some looker.”
“The minute I find out a girl ain't what a self-respectin' girl
ought to be then that lets me out. There's nothin' would keep me
friends with her. If ever I was surprised in a human, Lew, it was in
Kittie Scogin. She got me my first job here in New York. I give her
credit for it, but she done it because she didn't have the right kind
of a pull with Billy Howe. She done a lot of favors for me in her way,
but the minute I find out a girl ain't self-respectin' I'm done with
that girl every time.”
“That baby had some pair of shoulders!”
“I ain't the girl to run a friend down, anyway, when she comes from
my home town; but I could tell tales—Gawd! I could tell tales!” There
was new loquacity and a flush to Miss de Long. She sipped again, this
time almost to the depth of the glass. “The way to find out about a
person, Lew, is to room with 'em in the same boardin'-house. Beware of
the baby stare is all I can tell you. Beware of that.”
“That's what you got,” he said, leaning across to top her
hand with his, “two big baby stares.”
“Well, Lew Kaminer,” she said, “you'd kid your own shadow. Callin'
me a baby-stare. Of all things! Lew Kaminer!” She looked away to smile.
“Drink it all down, baby-stare,” he said, lifting the glass to her
lips. They were well concealed and back away from the thinning patter
of the crowd, so that, as he neared her, he let his face almost
graze—indeed touch, hers.
She made a great pretense of choking.
“Drink it down-like a major.”
She bubbled into the glass, her eyes laughing at him above its rim.
He clicked again with his fingers.
“Once more, Charlie!” he said, shoving their pair of glasses to the
“You ain't the only money-bag around the place!” she cried, flopping
down on the table-cloth a bulky wad tied in one corner of her
“Well, whatta you know about that? Pay-day?”
“Yeh-while it lasts. I hear there ain't goin' to be no more cabarets
or Camembert cheese till after the war.”
“What you going to do with it—buy us a round of fizz?”
She bit open the knot, a folded bill dropping to the table,
“Lord!” she said, contemplating and flipping it with her finger-tip.
“Where I come from that twenty-dollar bill every week would keep me
like a queen. Here it ain't even chicken feed.”
“You know where there's more chicken feed waitin' when you get hard
up, sister. You're slower to gobble than most. You know what I told you
last night, kiddo—you need lessons.”
“What makes me sore, Lew, is there ain't an act on this bill shows
under seventy-five. It goes to show the higher skirts the higher the
salary in this business.”
“You oughta be singin' in grand op'ra.”
“Yeh—sure! The diamond horseshoe is waitin' for the chance to land
me one swift kick. It only took me twelve weeks and one meal a day to
land this after Kittie seen to it that they let me out over at the
Bijou. Say, I know where I get off in this town, Lew. If there's one
thing I know, it's where I get off. I ain't a squab with a pair of
high-priced ankles. I'm down on the agencies' books as a chaser-act,
and I'm down with myself for that. If there's one thing I ain't got
left, it's illusions. Get me? Illusions.”
She hitched sidewise in her chair, dipped her forefinger into her
fresh glass, snapped it at him so that he blinked under the tiny spray.
“That for you!” she said, giggling. She was now repeatedly catching
herself up from a too constant impulse to repeat that giggle.
“You little devil!” he said, reaching back for his handkerchief.
She dipped again, this time deeper, and aimed straighter.
“Quit!” he said, catching her wrist and bending over it. “Quit it,
or I'll bite!”
Her mouth still resolute not to loosen, she jerked back from him.
There was only the high flush which she could not control, and the
gaze, heavy lidded, was not so sure as it might have been. She was
quietly, rather pleasantly, dizzy.
“I wish—” she said. “I—wi-ish—”
“What do you wi-ish?”
“Oh, I—I dunno what I wish!”
“If you ain't a card!”
He had lighted a cigar, and, leaning toward her, blew out a fragrant
puff to her.
“M-m-m!” she said; “it's a Cleopatra.”
“A El Dorado.”
“A what, then?”
“It's a Habana Queen. Habana because it reminds me of Hanna.”
At this crowning puerility Mr. Kaminer paused suddenly, as if he had
detected in his laughter a bray.
“Is Habana in the war, Lew?”
“Darned if I know exactly.”
“Ain't this war just terrible, Lew?”
“Don't let it worry you, girl. If it puts you out of business,
remember, it's boosted my stocks fifty per cent. You know what I told
you about chicken feed.”
She buried her nose in her handkerchief, turning her head. Her eyes
had begun to crinkle.
“It—it's just awful! All them sweet boys!”
“Now, cryin' ain't goin' to help. You 'ain't got no one marchin'
“That's just it. I 'ain't got no one. Everything is something awful,
ain't it?” Her sympathies and her risibilities would bubble to the
surface to confuse her. “Awful!”
He scraped one forefinger against the other.
“Cry-baby! Cry-baby, stick your little finger in your little eye!”
She regarded him wryly, her eyes crinkled now quite to slits.
“You can laugh!”
“Look at the cry-baby!”
“I get so darn blue.”
“Honest to Gawd, Lew, I get so darn blue I could die.”
“You're a nice girl, and I'd like to see anybody try to get fresh
“Do you—honest, Lew—like me?”
“There's something about you, girl, gets me every time. Cat-eyes!
“Sometimes I get so blue—get to thinkin' of home and the way it all
happened. You know the way a person will. Home and the—divorce and the
way it all happened with—him—and how I come here and—where it's got
me, and—and I just say to myself, 'What's the use?' You know, Lew, the
way a person will. Back there, anyways, I had a home. There's something
in just havin' a home, lemme tell you. Bein' a somebody in your own
“You're a somebody any place they put you.”
“You never seen the like the way it all happened, Lew. So quick! The
day I took the train was like I was walkin' for good out of a dream.
Not so much as a post-card from there since—”
“I—ain't exactly sorry, Lew; only God knows, more'n once in those
twelve weeks out of work I was for goin' back and patchin' it up with
him. I ain't exactly sorry, Lew, but—but there's only one thing on
God's earth that keeps me from being sorry.”
He flecked his cigar, hitching his arm up along the chair-back,
laughed, reddened slightly.
“That's the way to talk! These last two nights you been lightin' up
with a man so he can get within ten feet of you. Now you're shoutin'!”
She drained her glass, blew her nose, and wiped her eyes.
She was sitting loosely forward now, her hand out on his.
“You're the only thing on God's earth that's kept me from—sneakin"
back there—honest. Lew, I'd have gone back long ago and eat dirt to
make it up with him—if not for you. I—ain't built like Kittie Scogin
and those girls. I got to be self-respectin' with the fellows or
nothing. They think more of you in the end—that's my theory.”
“A girl's fly or—she just naturally ain't that way. That's where
all my misunderstanding began with Kittie—when she wanted me to move
over in them rooms on Forty-ninth Street with her—a girl's that way or
she just ain't that way!”
“Lew—will you—are you—you ain't kiddin' me all these weeks?
Taxicabbin' me all night in the Park and—drinkin' around this way all
the time together. You 'ain't been kiddin' me, Lew?”
He shot up his cigar to an oblique.
“Now you're shoutin'!” he repeated. “It took three months to get you
down off your high horse, but now we're talkin' the same language.”
“It ain't every girl I take up with; just let that sink in. I like
'em frisky, but I like 'em cautious. That's where you made a hit with
me. Little of both. Them that nibble too easy ain't worth the catch.”
She reached out the other hand, covering his with her both.
“You're—talkin' weddin'-bells, Lew?”
He regarded her, the ash of his cigar falling and scattering down
“Weddin', Lew.” Her voice was as thin as a reed.
“O Lord!” he said, pushing back slightly from the table. “Have
another fizz, girl, and by that time we'll be ready for a trip in my
underground balloon. Waiter!”
She drew down his arm, quickly restraining it. She was not so sure
now of controlling the muscles of her mouth.
“Please, Lew! It's what kept me alive. Thinkin' you meant that.
Please, Lew! You ain't goin' to turn out like all the rest in this
town? You—the first fellow I ever went as far as—last night with.
I'll stand by you, Lew, through thick and thin. You stand by me. You
make it right with me, Lew, and—”
He cast a quick glance about, grasped at the sides of the table, and
leaned toward her, sotto.
“For God's sake, hush! Are you crazy?”
“No,” she said, letting the tears roll down over the too frank
gyrations of her face—“no, I ain't crazy. I only want you to do the
right thing by me, Lew. I'm—blue. I'm crazy afraid of the bigness of
this town. There ain't a week I don't expect my notice here. It's got
me. If you been stringin' me along like the rest of 'em, and I can't
see nothing ahead of me but the struggle for a new job—and the tryin'
to buck up against what a decent girl has got to—”
“Why, you're crazy with the heat, girl! I thought you and me was
talking the same language. I want to do the right thing by you. Sure I
do! Anything in reason is yours for the askin'. That's what I been
“Then, Lew, I want you to do by me like you'd want your sister done
“I tell you you're crazy. You been hitting up too many fizzes
“You ain't fool enough to think I'm what you'd call a free man? I
don't bring my family matters down here to air 'em over with you girls.
You're darn lucky that I like you well enough to—well, that I like you
as much as I do. Come, now; tell you what I'm goin' to do for you: You
name your idea of what you want in the way of—”
“O God! Why don't I die? I ain't fit for nothing else!”
He cast a glance around their deserted edge of the room. A waiter,
painstakingly oblivious, stood two tables back.
“Wouldn't I be better off out of it? Why don't I die?”
He was trembling down with a suppression of rage and concern for the
rising gale in her voice.
“You can't make a scene in public with me and get away with it. If
that's your game, it won't land you anywhere. Stop it! Stop it now and
talk sense, or I'll get up. By God! if you get noisy, I'll get up and
leave you here with the whole place givin' you the laugh. You can't
throw a scare in me.”
But Miss de Long's voice and tears had burst the dam of control.
There was an outburst that rose and broke on a wave of hysteria.
“Lemme die—that's all I ask! What's there in it for me? What has
there ever been? Don't do it, Lew! Don't—don't!”
It was then Mr. Kaminer pushed back his chair, flopped down his
napkin, and rose, breathing heavily enough, but his face set in an
exaggerated kind of quietude as he moved through the maze of tables,
exchanged a check for his hat, and walked out.
For a stunned five minutes her tears, as it were, seared, she sat
The waiter had withdrawn to the extreme left of the deserted edge of
the room, talking behind his hand to two colleagues in servility, their
faces listening and breaking into smiles.
Finally Miss de Long rose, moving through the zigzag paths of empty
tables toward a deserted dressing-room. In there she slid into
black-velvet slippers and a dark-blue walking-skirt, pulled on over the
pink silk, tucking it up around the waist so that it did not sag from
beneath the hem, squirmed into a black-velvet jacket with a false dicky
made to emulate a blouse-front, and a blue-velvet hat hung with a
curtain-like purple face-veil.
As she went out the side, Keeley's was closing its front doors.
Outside, not even to be gainsaid by Sixth Avenue, the night was like
a moist flower held to the face. A spring shower, hardly fallen, was
already drying on the sidewalks, and from the patch of Bryant Park
across the maze of car-tracks there stole the immemorial scent of
rain-water and black earth, a just-set-out crescent of hyacinths giving
off their light steam of fragrance. How insidious is an old scent! It
can creep into the heart like an ache. Who has not loved beside thyme
or at the sweetness of dusk? Dear, silenced laughs can come back on a
whiff from a florist's shop. Oh, there is a nostalgia lurks in old
Even to Hanna de Long, hurrying eastward on Forty-second Street,
huggingly against the shadow of darkened shop-windows, there was a new
sting of tears at the smell of earth, daring, in the lull of a city
night, to steal out.
There are always these dark figures that scuttle thus through the
first hours of the morning.
Twice remarks were flung after her from passing figures in
slouch-hats—furtive remarks through closed lips.
At five minutes past one she was at the ticket-office grating of a
train-terminal that was more ornate than a rajah's dream.
“Adalia—please. Huh? Ohio. Next train.”
“Seven-seven. Track nine. Round trip?”
She again bit open the corner knot of her handkerchief.
* * * * *
When Hanna de Long, freshly train-washed of train dust, walked down
Third Street away from the station, old man Rentzenauer, for forty-odd
springs coaxing over the same garden, was spraying a hose over a
side-yard of petunias, shirt-sleeved, his waistcoat hanging open, and
in the purpling light his old head merging back against a
story-and-a-half house the color of gray weather and half a century of
At sight of him who had shambled so taken-for-granted through all of
her girlhood, such a trembling seized hold of Hanna de Long that she
turned off down Amboy Street, making another wide detour to avoid a
group on the Koerner porch, finally approaching Second Street from the
somewhat straggly end of it farthest from the station.
She was trembling so that occasionally she stopped against a vertigo
that went with it, wiped up under the curtain of purple veil at the
beads of perspiration which would spring out along her upper lip. She
was quite washed of rouge, except just a swift finger-stroke of it over
She had taken out the dicky, too, and for some reason filled in
there with a flounce of pink net ripped off from the little ruffles
that had flowed out from her sleeves. She was without baggage.
At Ludlow Street she could suddenly see the house, the trees meeting
before it in a lace of green, the two iron jardinieres empty. They had
been painted, and were drying now of a clay-brown coat.
When she finally went up the brick walk, she thought once that she
could not reach the bell with the strength left to pull it. She did,
though, pressing with her two hands to her left side as she waited. The
house was in the process of painting, too, still wet under a first wash
of gray. The pergola, also.
The door swung back, and then a figure emerged full from a
background of familiarly dim hallway and curve of banister. She was
stout enough to be panting slightly, and above the
pink-and-white-checked apron her face was ruddy, forty, and ever so
inclined to smile.
Out from the hallway shot a cocker spaniel, loose-eared, yapping.
“Queenie, Queenie—come back. She won't bite—Queenie—bad
girl!—come back from that nasturtium-bed—bad girl!—all washed and
combed so pretty for a romp with her favver when him come home so
She caught her by a rear leg as she leaped back, wild to rollick,
tucking her under one arm, administering three diminutive punishments
on the shaggy ears.
“Aw, now, he ain't! I sent him down by Gredel's nurseries on his way
home to-night, for some tulip-bulbs for my iron jardinieres. He ought
to be back any minute if he 'ain't stopped to brag with old man Gredel
that our arbutus beats his.” Then, smiling and rubbing with the back of
her free hand at a flour-streak across her cheek: “If—if it's the lady
from the orphan asylum come to see about the—the little kid we
want—is there anything I can do for you? I'm his wife. Won't you come
“Oh no!” said Miss de Long, now already down two of the steps.
“I—I—Oh no, no!—thank you! Oh no—no!—thank you!”
She walked swiftly, the purple veil blown back and her face seeming
to look out of it whitely, so whitely that she became terrible.
Night was at hand, and Adalia was drawing down its front shades.
VII. GET READY THE WREATHS
Where St. Louis begins to peter out into brick-and limestone-kilns
and great scars of unworked and overworked quarries, the first and more
unpretentious of its suburbs take up—Benson, Maplehurst, and Ridgeway
Heights intervening with one-story brick cottages and two-story
packing-cases—between the smoke of the city and the carefully parked
Queen Anne quietude of Glenwood and Croton Grove.
Over Benson hangs a white haze of limestone, gritty with train and
foundry smoke. At night the lime-kilns, spotted with white deposits,
burn redly, showing through their open doors like great, inflamed
diphtheretic throats, tongues of flame bursting and licking out.
Winchester Road, which runs out from the heart of the city to string
these towns together, is paved with brick, and its traffic, for the
most part, is the great, tin-tired dump-carts of the quarries and steel
interurban electric cars which hum so heavily that even the windows of
outlying cottages titillate.
For blocks, from Benson to Maplehurst and from Maplehurst to
Ridgeway Heights, Winchester Road repeats itself in terms of the
butcher, the baker, the corner saloon. A feed-store. A monument-and
stone-cutter. A confectioner. A general-merchandise store, with a glass
case of men's collars outside the entrance. The butcher, the baker, the
At Benson, where this highway cuts through, the city, wreathed in
smoke, and a great oceanic stretch of roofs are in easy view, and at
closer range, an outlying section of public asylums for the city's
discard of its debility and its senility.
Jutting a story above the one-storied march of Winchester Road, The
Convenience Merchandise Corner, Benson, overlooks, from the southeast
up-stairs window, a remote view of the City Hospital, the Ferris-wheel
of an amusement park, and on clear days the oceanic waves of roof.
Below, within the store, that view is entirely obliterated by a brace
of shelves built across the corresponding window and brilliantly
stacked with ribbons of a score of colors and as many widths. A
considerable flow of daylight thus diverted, The Convenience
Merchandise Corner, even of early afternoon, fades out into
half-discernible corners; a rear-wall display of overalls and striped
denim coats crowded back into indefinitude, the haberdashery counter,
with a giant gilt shirt-stud suspended above, hardly more outstanding.
Even the notions and dry-goods, flanking the right wall in stacks
and bolts, merge into blur, the outline of a white-sateen and corseted
woman's torso surmounting the topmost of the shelves with bold
With spring sunshine even hot against the steel rails of Winchester
Road, and awnings drawn against its inroads into the window display,
Mrs. Shila Coblenz, routing gloom, reached up tiptoe across the
haberdashery counter for the suspended chain of a cluster of bulbs, the
red of exertion rising up the taut line of throat and lifted chin.
“A little light on the subject, Milt.”
“Let me, Mrs. C.”
Facing her from the outer side of the counter, Mr. Milton Bauer
stretched also, his well-pressed, pin-checked coat crawling up.
All things swam out into the glow. The great suspended stud; the
background of shelves and boxes; the scissors-like overalls against the
wall; a clothesline of children's factory-made print frocks; a
center-bin of women's untrimmed hats; a headless dummy beside the door,
enveloped in a long-sleeved gingham apron.
Beneath the dome of the wooden stud, Mrs. Shila Coblenz, of not too
fulsome but the hour-glass proportions of two decades ago, smiled, her
black eyes, ever so quick to dart, receding slightly as the cheeks
“Two twenty-five, Milt, for those ribbed assorted sizes and
reinforced heels. Leave or take. Bergdorff &Sloan will quote me the
whole mill at that price.”
With his chest across the counter and legs out violently behind, Mr.
Bauer flung up a glance from his order-pad.
“Have a heart, Mrs. C. I'm getting two-forty for that stocking from
every house in town. The factory can't turn out the orders fast enough
at that price. An up-to-date woman like you mustn't make a noise like
before the war.”
“Leave or take.”
“You could shave an egg,” he said.
“And rush up those printed lawns. There was two in this morning,
sniffing around for spring dimities.”
“Any more cotton goods? Next month, this time, you'll be paying an
advance of four cents on percales.”
“Can't tempt you with them wash silks, Mrs. C.? Neatest little
article on the market to-day.”
“No demand. They finger it up, and then buy the cotton stuffs. Every
time I forget my trade hacks rock instead of clips bonds for its
spending-money I get stung.”
“This here wash silk, Mrs. C., would—”
“Send me up a dress-pattern off this coral-pink sample for Selene.”
“This here dark mulberry, Mrs. C., would suit you something
“That'll be about all.”
He flopped shut his book, snapping a rubber band about it and
inserting it in an inner coat pocket.
“You ought to stick to them dark, winy shades, Mrs. C. With your
coloring and black hair and eyes, they bring you out like a gipsy.
Never seen you look better than at the Y.M.H.A. entertainment.”
Quick color flowed down her open throat and into her shirtwaist. It
was as if the platitude merged with the very corpuscles of a blush that
sank down into thirsty soil.
“You boys,” she said, “come out here and throw in a jolly with every
bill of goods. I'll take a good fat discount instead.”
“Fact. Never seen you look better. When you got out on the floor in
that stamp-your-foot kind of dance with old man Shulof, your hand on
your hip and your head jerking it up, there wasn't a girl on the floor,
your own daughter included, could touch you, and I'm giving it to you
“That old thing! It's a Russian folk-dance my mother taught me the
first year we were in this country. I was three years old then, and,
when she got just crazy with homesickness, we used to dance it to each
other evenings on the kitchen floor.”
“Say, have you heard the news?”
“Hammerstein is bringing over the crowned heads of Europe for
Mrs. Coblenz moved back a step, her mouth falling open.
“Why, Milton Bauer, in the old country a man could be strung up for
saying less than that!”
“That didn't get across. Try another. A Frenchman and his wife were
traveling in Russia, and—”
“If—if you had an old mother like mine up-stairs, Milton, eating
out her heart and her days and her weeks and her months over a
husband's grave somewhere in Siberia and a son's grave somewhere in
Kishinef, you wouldn't see the joke neither.”
Mr. Bauer executed a self-administered pat sharply against the back
of his hand.
“Keeper,” he said, “put me in the brain ward. I—I'm sorry, Mrs. C.,
so help me! Didn't mean to. How is your mother, Mrs. C.? Seems to me,
at the dance the other night, Selene said she was fine and dandy.”
“Selene ain't the best judge of her poor old grandmother. It's hard
for a young girl to have patience for old age sitting and chewing all
day over the past. It's right pitiful the way her grandmother knows it,
too, and makes herself talk English all the time to please the child
and tries to perk up for her. Selene, thank God, 'ain't suffered, and
“What's ailing her, Mrs. C.? I kinda miss seeing the old lady
sitting down here in the store.”
“It's the last year or so, Milt. Just like all of a sudden a woman
as active as mama always was, her health and—her mind kind of went off
with a pop.”
“Doctor says with care she can live for years, but—but it seems
terrible the way her—poor mind keeps skipping back. Past all these
thirty years in America to—even weeks before I was born. The night
they—took my father off to Siberia, with his bare feet in the
snow—for distributing papers they found on him—papers that used the
word 'svoboda'—'freedom.' And the time, ten years later—they shot
down my brother right in front of her for—the same reason. She keeps
living it over—living it over till I—could die.”
“Say, ain't that just a shame, though!”
“Living it, and living it, and living it! The night with me, a heavy
three-year-old, in her arms that she got us to the border, dragging a
pack of linens with her! The night my father's feet were bleeding in
the snow, when they took him! How with me a kid in the crib, my—my
brother's face was crushed in—with a heel and a spur. All night,
sometimes, she cries in her sleep—begging to go back to find the
graves. All day she sits making raffia wreaths to take back—making
“Say, ain't that tough!”
“It's a godsend she's got the eyes to do it. It's wonderful the way
she reads—in English, too. There ain't a daily she misses. Without
them and the wreaths—I dunno—I just dunno. Is—is it any wonder,
Milt, I—I can't see the joke?”
“My God, no!”
“I'll get her back, though.”
“Why, you—she can't get back there, Mrs. C.”
“There's a way. Nobody can tell me there's not. Before the
war—before she got like this, seven hundred dollars would have done it
for both of us—and it will again, after the war. She's got the
bank-book, and every week that I can squeeze out above expenses, she
sees the entry for herself. I'll get her back. There's a way lying
around somewhere. God knows why she should eat out her heart to go
back—but she wants it. God, how she wants it!”
“Poor old dame!”
“You boys guy me with my close-fisted buying these last two years.
It's up to me, Milt, to squeeze this old shebang dry. There's not much
more than a living in it at best, and now, with Selene grown up and
naturally wanting to have it like other girls, it ain't always easy to
see my way clear. But I'll do it, if I got to trust the store for a
year to a child like Selene. I'll get her back.”
“You can call on me, Mrs. C., to keep my eye on things while you're
“You boys are one crowd of true blues, all right. There ain't a city
salesman comes out here I wouldn't trust to the limit.”
“You just try me out.”
“Why, just to show you how a woman don't know how many real friends
she has got, why—even Mark Haas, of the Mound City Silk Company, a
firm I don't do a hundred dollars' worth of business with a year, I
wish you could have heard him the other night at the Y.M.H.A., a man
you know for yourself just goes there to be sociable with the trade.”
“Fine fellow, Mark Haas!”
“'When the time comes, Mrs. Coblenz,' he says, 'that you want to
make that trip, just you let me know. Before the war there wasn't a
year I didn't cross the water twice, maybe three times, for the firm. I
don't know there's much I can do; it ain't so easy to arrange for
Russia, but, just the same, you let me know when you're ready to make
that trip.' Just like that he said it. That from Mark Haas!”
“And a man like Haas don't talk that way if he don't mean it.”
“Mind you, not a hundred dollars a year business with him. I haven't
got the demands for silks.”
“That wash silk I'm telling you about, though, Mrs. C., does up like
“There's ma thumping with the poker on the up-stairs floor. When
it's closing-time she begins to get restless. I—I wish Selene would
come in. She went out with Lester Goldmark in his little flivver, and I
get nervous about automobiles.”
Mr. Bauer slid an open-face watch from his waistcoat.
“Good Lord! five-forty, and I've just got time to sell the
Maplehurst Emporium a bill of goods!”
“Good-night, Milt; and mind you put up that order of assorted
neckwear yourself. Greens in ready-tieds are good sellers for this time
of the year, and put in some reds and purples for the teamsters.”
“No sooner said than done.”
“And come out for supper some Sunday night, Milt. It does mama good
to have young people around.”
He reached across the counter, placing his hand over hers.
“Good-night, Mrs. C.,” he said, a note lower in his throat; “and
remember that call-on-me stuff wasn't all conversation.”
“Good-night, Milt,” said Mrs. Coblenz, a coating of husk over her
own voice and sliding her hand out from beneath, to top his.
“You—you're all right!”
* * * * *
Up-stairs, in a too tufted and too crowded room directly over the
frontal half of the store, the window overlooking the remote sea of
city was turning taupe, the dusk of early spring, which is faintly
tinged with violet, invading. Beside the stove, a base-burner with
faint fire showing through its mica, the identity of her figure merged
with the fat upholstery of the chair, except where the faint pink
through the mica lighted up old flesh, Mrs. Miriam Horowitz, full of
years and senile with them, wove with grasses, the ecru of her own
skin, wreaths that had mounted to a great stack in a bedroom cupboard.
A clock, with a little wheeze and burring attached to each chime,
rang six, and upon it Mrs. Coblenz, breathing from a climb, opened the
“Ma, why didn't you rap for Katie to come up and light the gas?
You'll ruin your eyes, dearie.”
She found out a match, immediately lighting two jets of a
center-chandelier, turning them down from singing, drawing the shades
of the two front and the southeast windows, stooping over the
upholstered chair to imprint a light kiss.
“A fine day, mama. There'll be an entry this week. Thirty dollars
and thirteen cents and another call for garden implements. I think I'll
lay in a hardware line after we—we get back. I can use the lower shelf
of the china-table, eh, ma?”
Mrs. Horowitz, whose face, the color of old linen in the yellowing,
emerged rather startling from the still black hair strained back from
it, lay back in her chair, turning her profile against the upholstered
back, half a wreath and a trail of raffia sliding to the floor. Age had
sapped from beneath the skin, so that every curve had collapsed to
bagginess, the cheeks and the underchin sagging with too much skin.
Even the hands were crinkled like too large gloves, a wide, curiously
etched marriage band hanging loosely from the third finger.
Mrs. Goblenz stooped, recovering the wreath.
“Say, mama, this one is a beauty! That's a new weave, ain't it?
Here, work some more, dearie—till Selene comes with your evening
With her profile still to the chair-back, a tear oozed down the
corrugated face of Mrs. Horowitz's cheek. Another.
“Now, mama! Now, mama!”
“I got a heaviness—here—inside. I got a heaviness—”
Mrs. Coblenz slid down to her knees beside the chair.
“Now, mama; shame on my little mama! Is that the way to act when
Shila comes up after a good day? 'Ain't we got just lots to be thankful
for—the business growing and the bank-book growing, and our Selene on
top? Shame on mama!”
“I got a heaviness—here—inside—here.”
Mrs. Coblenz reached up for the old hand, patting it.
“It's nothing, mama—a little nervousness.”
“I'm an old woman. I—”
“And just think, Shila's mama, Mark Haas is going to get us letters
and passports and—”
“My son—my boy—his father before him—”
“Mama—mama, please don't let a spell come on! It's all right.
Shila's going to fix it. Any day now, maybe—”
“You'm a good girl. You'm a good girl, Shila.” Tears were coursing
down to a mouth that was constantly wry with the taste of them.
“And you're a good mother, mama. Nobody knows better than me how
“You'm a good girl, Shila.”
“I was thinking last night, mama, waiting up for Selene—just
thinking how all the good you've done ought to keep your mind off the
“Why, a woman with as much good to remember as you've got oughtn't
to have time for spells. I got to thinking about Coblenz, mama,
how—you never did want him, and when I—I went and did it, anyway, and
made my mistake, you stood by me to—to the day he died. Never throwing
anything up to me! Never nothing but my good little mother, working her
hands to the bone after he got us out here to help meet the debts he
left us. Ain't that a satisfaction for you to be able to sit and think,
mama, how you helped—”
“His feet—blood from my heart in the snow—blood from my heart!”
“The past is gone, darling. What's the use tearing yourself to
pieces with it? Them years in New York when it was a fight even for
bread, and them years here trying to raise Selene and get the business
on a footing, you didn't have time to brood then, mama. That's why,
dearie, if only you'll keep yourself busy with something—the
“His feet—blood from my—”
“But I'm going to take you back, mama. To papa's grave. To
Aylorff's. But don't eat your heart out until it comes, darling. I'm
going to take you back, mama, with every wreath in the stack; only, you
mustn't eat out your heart in spells. You mustn't, mama; you mustn't.”
Sobs rumbled up through Mrs. Horowitz, which her hand to her mouth
tried to constrict.
“For his people he died. The papers—I begged he should burn
them—he couldn't—I begged he should keep in his hate—he couldn't—in
the square he talked it—the soldiers—he died for his people—they got
him—the soldiers—his feet in the snow when they took him—the blood
in the snow—O my God!—my—God!”
“Mama darling, please don't go over it all again. What's the use
making yourself sick? Please!”
She was well forward in her chair now, winding her dry hands one
over the other with a small rotary motion.
“I was rocking—Shila-baby in my lap—stirring on the fire black
lentils for my boy—black lentils—he—”
“My boy. Like his father before him. My—”
“Mama, please! Selene is coming any minute now. You know how she
hates it. Don't let yourself think back, mama. A little will-power, the
doctor says, is all you need. Think of to-morrow, mama; maybe, if you
want, you can come down and sit in the store awhile and—”
“I was rocking. O my God! I was rocking, and—”
“Don't get to it—mama, please! Don't rock yourself that way! You'll
get yourself dizzy! Don't, ma; don't!”
“Outside—my boy—the holler—O God! in my ears all my life! My
boy—the papers—the swords—Aylorff—Aylorff—”
“It came through his heart out the back—a blade with two sides—out
the back when I opened the door; the spur in his face when he fell,
Shila—the spur in his face—the beautiful face of my boy—my
Aylorff—my husband before him—that died to make free!” And fell back,
bathed in the sweat of the terrific hiccoughing of sobs.
“Mama, mama! My God! What shall we do? These spells! You'll kill
yourself, darling. I'm going to take you back, dearie—ain't that
enough? I promise. I promise. You mustn't, mama! These spells—they
ain't good for a young girl like Selene to hear. Mama, 'ain't you got
your own Shila—your own Selene? Ain't that something? Ain't it? Ain't
Large drops of sweat had come out and a state of exhaustion that
swept completely over, prostrating the huddled form in the chair.
With her arms twined about the immediately supporting form of her
daughter, her entire weight relaxed, and footsteps that dragged without
lift, one after the other, Mrs. Horowitz groped out, one hand feeling
in advance, into the gloom of a room adjoining.
“Rest! O my God! rest!”
“Yes, yes, mama; lean on me.”
“Yes, yes, darling.”
Her voice had died now to a whimper that lay on the room after she
had passed out of it.
When Selene Coblenz, with a gust that swept the room, sucking the
lace curtains back against the panes, flung open the door upon that
chromatic scene, the two jets of gas were singing softly into its
silence, and within the nickel-trimmed baseburner the pink mica had
cooled to gray. Sweeping open that door, she closed it softly, standing
for the moment against it, her hand crossed in back and on the knob. It
was as if—standing there with her head cocked and beneath a shadowy
blue sailor-hat, a smile coming out—something within her was playing,
sweetly insistent to be heard. Philomela, at the first sound of her
nightingale self, must have stood thus, trembling with melody. Opposite
her, above the crowded mantelpiece and surmounted by a raffia wreath,
the enlarged-crayon gaze of her deceased maternal grandfather, abetted
by a horrible device of photography, followed her, his eyes focusing
the entire room at a glance. Impervious to that scrutiny, Miss Coblenz
moved a tiptoe step or two farther into the room, lifting off her hat,
staring and smiling through a three-shelved cabinet of knickknacks at
what she saw far and beyond. Beneath the two jets, high lights in her
hair came out, bronze showing through the brown waves and the patches
of curls brought out over her cheeks.
In her dark-blue dress, with the row of silver buttons down what was
hip before the hipless age, the chest sufficiently concave and the
silhouette a mere stroke of a hard pencil, Miss Selene Coblenz measured
up and down to America's Venus de Milo, whose chief curvature is of the
spine. Slim-etched, and that slimness enhanced by a conscious kind of
collapse beneath the blue-silk girdle that reached up half-way to her
throat, hers were those proportions which strong women, eschewing the
sweet-meat, would earn by the sweat of the Turkish bath.
When Miss Coblenz caught her eye in the square of mirror above the
mantelpiece, her hands flew to her cheeks to feel of their redness.
They were soft cheeks, smooth with the pollen of youth, and hands still
casing them, she moved another step toward the portiered door.
Mrs. Coblenz emerged immediately, finger up for silence, kissing her
daughter on the little spray of cheek-curls.
“'Shh-h-h! Gramaw just had a terrible spell.”
She dropped down into the upholstered chair beside the base-burner,
the pink and moisture of exertion out in her face, took to fanning
herself with the end of a face-towel flung across her arm.
“Poor gramaw!” she said. “Poor gramaw!”
Miss Coblenz sat down on the edge of a slim, home-gilded chair, and
took to gathering the blue-silk dress into little plaits at her knee.
“Of course, if you don't want to know where I've been—or
Mrs. Coblenz jerked herself to the moment.
“Did mama's girl have a good time? Look at your dress, all dusty!
You oughtn't to wear your best in that little flivver.”
Suddenly Miss Coblenz raised her glance, her red mouth bunched, her
eyes all iris.
“Of course—if you don't want to know—anything.”
At that large, brilliant gaze, Mrs. Coblenz leaned forward,
“Well, why—why don't you ask me something?”
“Why, I—I dunno, honey. Did—did you and Lester have a nice ride?”
There hung a slight pause, and then a swift moving and crumpling-up
of Miss Coblenz on the floor beside her mother's knee.
“You know—only, you won't ask.”
With her hand light upon her daughter's hair, Mrs. Coblenz leaned
forward, her bosom rising to faster breathing.
“We—we were speeding along, and—all of a sudden, out of a clear
sky, he—he popped. He wants it in June, so we can make it our
honeymoon to his new territory out in Oklahoma. He knew he was going to
pop, he said, ever since that first night he saw me at the Y.M.H.A. He
says to his uncle Mark, the very next day in the store, he says to him,
'Uncle Mark,' he says, 'I've met the little girl.' He says he
thinks more of my little finger than all of his regular crowd of girls
in town put together. He wants to live in one of the built-in-bed flats
on Wasserman Avenue, like all the swell young marrieds. He's making
twenty-six hundred now, mama, and if he makes good in the new Oklahoma
territory, his Uncle Mark is—is going to take care of him better.
Ain't it like a dream, mama—your little Selene all of a sudden in
Immediate tears were already finding staggering procession down Mrs.
Coblenz's face, her hovering arms completely encircling the slight
figure at her feet.
“My little girl! My little Selene! My all!”
“I'll be marrying into one of the best families in town, ma. A girl
who marries a nephew of Mark Haas can hold up her head with the best of
them. There's not a boy in town with a better future than Lester. Like
Lester says, everything his Uncle Mark touches turns to gold, and he's
already touched Lester. One of the best known men on Washington Avenue
for his blood-uncle, and on his poor dead father's side related to the
Katz & Harberger Harbergers. Was I right, mama, when I said if you'd
only let me stop school I'd show you? Was I right, momsie?”
“My baby! It's like I can't realize it. So young!”
“He took the measure of my finger, mama, with a piece of string. A
diamond, he says, not too flashy, but neat.”
“We have 'em, and we suffer for 'em, and we lose 'em.”
“He's going to trade in the flivver for a chummy roadster, and—”
“Oh, darling, it's like I can't bear it!”
At that Miss Coblenz sat back on her tall wooden heels, mauve spats
“Well, you're a merry little future mother-in-law, momsie!”
“It ain't that, baby. I'm happy that my girl has got herself up in
the world with a fine upright boy like Lester; only—you can't
understand, babe, till you've got something of your own flesh and blood
that belongs to you, that I—I couldn't feel anything except that a
piece of my heart was going if—if it was a king you was marrying.”
“Now, momsie, it's not like I was moving a thousand miles away. You
can be glad I don't have to go far, to New York or to Cleveland, like
“I am! I am!”
“Uncle—Uncle Mark, I guess, will furnish us up like he did Leon and
Irma—only, I don't want mahogany; I want Circassian walnut. He gave
them their flat-silver, too, Puritan design, for an engagement present.
Think of it, mama, me having that stuck-up Irma Sinsheimer for a
relation! It always made her sore when I got chums with Amy at school
and got my nose in it with the Acme crowd, and—and she'll change her
tune now, I guess, me marrying her husband's second cousin.”
“Didn't Lester want to—to come in for a while, Selene, to—to
Sitting there on her heels, Miss Coblenz looked away, answering with
her face in profile.
“Yes; only—I—well, if you want to know it, mama, it's no fun for a
girl to bring a boy like Lester up here in—in this crazy room, all
hung up with gramaw's wreaths and half the time her sitting out there
in the dark, looking in at us through the door and talking to herself.”
“Gramaw's an old—”
“Is it any wonder I'm down at Amy's half the time? How do you think
a girl feels to have gramaw keep hanging onto that old black wig of
hers and not letting me take the crayons or wreaths down off the wall?
In Lester's crowd they don't know nothing about revolutionary stuff and
persecutions. Amy's grandmother don't even talk with an accent, and
Lester says his grandmother came from Alsace-Lorraine. That's French.
They think only tailors and old-clothes men and—.”
“Well, they do. You—you're all right, mama, as up to date as any of
them, but how do you think a girl feels, with gramaw always harping
right in front of everybody the way granpa was a revolutionist and was
hustled off barefooted to Siberia like a tramp? And the way she was
cooking black beans when my uncle died. Other girls' grandmothers don't
tell everything they know. Alma Yawitz's grandmother wears lorgnettes,
and you told me yourself they came from nearly the same part of the
Pale as gramaw. But you don't hear them remembering it. Alma Yawitz
says she's Alsace-Lorraine on both sides. People don't tell everything
they know. Anyway where a girl's got herself as far as I have!”
Through sobs that rocked her, Mrs. Coblenz looked down upon her
“Your poor old grandmother don't deserve that from you! In her day
she worked her hands to the bone for you. With the kind of father you
had we might have died in the gutter but for how she helped to keep us
out, you ungrateful girl—your poor old grandmother, that's suffered so
“I know it, mama, but so have other people suffered.”
“She's old, Selene—old.”
“I tell you it's the way you indulge her, mama. I've seen her
sitting here as perk as you please, and the minute you come in the room
down goes her head like—like she was dying.”
“It's her mind, Selene—that's going. That's why I feel if I could
only get her back. She ain't old, gramaw ain't. If I could only get her
back where she—could see for herself—the graves—is all she needs.
All old people think of—the grave. It's eating her—eating her mind.
Mark Haas is going to fix it for me after the war—maybe before—if he
can. That's the only way poor gramaw can live—or die—happy, Selene.
Now—now that my—my little girl ain't any longer my responsibility,
I—I'm going to take her back—my little—girl”—her hand reached out,
caressing the smooth head, her face projected forward and the eyes
yearning down—“my all.”
“It's you will be my responsibility now, ma.”
“The first thing Lester says was a flat on Wasserman and a spare
room for Mother Coblenz when she wants to come down. Wasn't it sweet
for him to put it that way right off, ma? 'Mother Coblenz,' he says.”
“He's a good boy, Selene. It'll be a proud day for me and gramaw.
Gramaw mustn't miss none of it. He's a good boy and a fine family.”
“That's why, mama, we—got to—to do it up right.”
“Lester knows, child, he's not marrying a rich girl.”
“A girl don't have to—be rich to get married right.”
“You'll have as good as mama can afford to give it to her girl.”
“It—it would be different if Lester's uncle and all wasn't in the
Acme Club crowd, and if I hadn't got in with all that bunch. It's the
last expense I'll ever be to you, mama.”
“Oh, baby, don't say that!”
“I—me and Lester—Lester and me were talking, mama—when the
engagement's announced next week—a reception—”
“We can clear out this room, move the bed out of gramaw's room into
ours, and serve the ice-cream and cake in—”
“Oh, mama, I don't mean—that!”
“Who ever heard of having a reception here! People won't come
from town 'way out to this old—cabbage-patch. Even Gertie Wolf, with
their big house on West Pine Boulevard, had her reception at the
Walsingham Hotel. You—We—can't expect Mark Haas and all the
relations—the Sinsheimers— and—all to come out here. I'd rather not
“But, Selene, everybody knows we ain't millionaires, and that you
got in with that crowd through being friends at school with Amy Rosen.
All the city salesmen and the boys on Washington Avenue, even Mark Haas
himself, that time he was in the store with Lester, knows the way we
live. You don't need to be ashamed of your little home, Selene, even if
it ain't on West Pine Boulevard.”
“It'll be—your last expense, mama. The Walsingham, that's where the
girl that Lester Goldmark marries is expected to have her reception.”
“But, Selene, mama can't afford nothing like that.”
Pink swam up into Miss Coblenz's face, and above the sheer-white
collar there was a little beating movement at the throat, as if
something were fluttering within.
“I—I'd just as soon not get married as—as not to have it like
“If I—can't have a trousseau like other girls and the things that
go with marrying into a—a family like Lester's—I—then—there's no
use. I—I can't! I—wouldn't!”
She was fumbling, now, for a handkerchief, against tears that were
“Why, baby, a girl couldn't have a finer trousseau than the old
linens back yet from Russia that me and gramaw got saved up for our
girl—linen that can't be bought these days. Bed-sheets that gramaw
herself carried to the border, and—”
“Oh, I know! I knew you'd try to dump that stuff on me. That old,
worm-eaten stuff in gramaw's chest.”
“It's hand-woven, Selene, with—”
“I wouldn't have that yellow old stuff—that old-fashioned junk—if
I didn't have any trousseau. If I can't afford monogrammed up-to-date
linens, like even Alma Yawitz, and a—a pussy-willow-taffeta reception
dress, I wouldn't have any. I wouldn't.” Her voice, crowded with
passion and tears, rose to the crest of a sob. “I—I'd die first!”
“Selene, Selene, mama 'ain't got the money. If she had it, wouldn't
she be willing to take the very last penny to give her girl the kind of
a wedding she wants? A trousseau like Alma's cost a thousand dollars,
if it cost a cent. Her table-napkins alone, they say, cost thirty-six
dollars a dozen, un-monogrammed. A reception at the Walsingham costs
two hundred dollars, if it costs a cent. Selene, mama will make for you
every sacrifice she can afford, but she 'ain't got the money!”
“You—have got the money!”
“So help me God, Selene! You know, with the quarries shut down, what
business has been. You know how—sometimes even to make ends meet it is
a pinch. You're an ungrateful girl, Selene, to ask what I ain't able to
do for you. A child like you, that's been indulged, that I 'ain't even
asked ever in her life to help a day down in the store. If I had the
money, God knows you should be married in real lace, with the finest
trousseau a girl ever had. But I 'ain't got the money—I 'ain't got the
“You have got the money! The book in gramaw's drawer is seven
hundred and forty. I guess I ain't blind. I know a thing or two.”
“Why, Selene! That's gramaw's—to go back—”
“You mean the bank-book's hers?”
“That's gramaw's, to go back—home on. That's the money for me to
take gramaw and her wreaths back home on.”
“There you go—talking luny.”
“Well, I'd like to know what else you'd call it, kidding yourself
along like that.”
“All right. If you think gramaw, with her life all lived, comes
first before me, with all my life to live—all right!”
“Your poor old—”
“It's always been gramaw first in this house, anyway. I couldn't
even have company since I'm grown up because the way she's always
allowed around. Nobody can say I ain't good to gramaw; Lester says it's
beautiful the way I am with her, remembering always to bring the
newspapers and all, but just the same, I know when right's right and
wrong's wrong. If my life ain't more important than gramaw's, with hers
all lived, all right. Go ahead!”
“Selene, Selene, ain't it coming to gramaw, after all her years'
hard work helping us that—she should be entitled to go back with her
wreaths for the graves? Ain't she entitled to die with that off her
poor old mind? You bad, ungrateful girl, you, it's coming to a poor old
woman that's suffered as terrible as gramaw that I should find a way to
take her back.”
“Take her back. Where—to jail? To prison in Siberia herself—”
“There's a way—”
“You know gramaw's too old to take a trip like that. You know in
your own heart she won't ever see that day. Even before the war, much
less now, there wasn't a chance for her to get passports back there. I
don't say it ain't all right to kid her along, but when it comes to—to
keeping me out of the—the biggest thing that can happen to a
girl—when gramaw wouldn't know the difference if you keep showing her
the bank-book—it ain't right. That's what it ain't. It ain't right!”
In the smallest possible compass, Miss Coblenz crouched now upon the
floor, head down somewhere in her knees, and her curving back racked
with rising sobs.
“Selene—but some day—”
“Some day nothing! A woman like gramaw can't do much more than go
down-town once a year, and then you talk about taking her to Russia!
You can't get in there, I—tell you—no way you try to fix it
after—the way gramaw—had—to leave. Even before the war Ray Letsky's
father couldn't get back on business. There's nothing for her there,
even after she gets there. In thirty years, do you think you can find
those graves? Do you know the size of Siberia? No! But I got to pay—I
got to pay for gramaw's nonsense. But I won't. I won't go to Lester if
I can't go right. I—.”
“Baby, don't cry so—for God's sake, don't cry so!”
“I wish I was dead!”
“'Sh-h-h! You'll wake gramaw.”
“O God, help me to do the right thing!”
“If gramaw could understand, she'd be the first one to tell you the
right thing. Anybody would.”
“No! No! That little bank-book and its entries are her life—her
“She don't need to know, mama. I'm not asking that. That's the way
they always do with old people to keep them satisfied. Just humor 'em.
Ain't I the one with life before me—ain't I, mama?”
“O God, show me the way!”
“If there was a chance, you think I'd be spoiling things for gramaw?
But there ain't, mama—not one.”
“I keep hoping if not before, then after the war. With the help of
“With the book in her drawer, like always, and the entries changed
once in a while, she'll never know the difference. I swear to God
she'll never know the difference, mama!”
“Mama, promise me—your little Selene. Promise me?”
“Selene, Selene, can we keep it from her?”
“I swear we can, mama.”
“Poor, poor gramaw!”
“Mama? Mama darling?”
“O God, show me the way!”
“Ain't it me that's got life before me? My whole life?”
“Then, mama, please—you will—you will—darling?”
In a large, all-frescoed, seventy-five-dollar-an-evening-with-lights
and cloak-room-service ballroom of the Hotel Walsingham, a family
hostelry in that family circle of St. Louis known as its West End, the
city holds not a few of its charity-whists and benefit musicales; on a
dais which can be carried in for the purpose, morning readings of
“Little Moments from Little Plays,” and with the introduction of a
throne-chair, the monthly lodge-meetings of the Lady Mahadharatas of
America. For weddings and receptions, a lane of red carpet leads up to
the slight dais; and lined about the brocade and paneled walls,
gilt-and-brocade chairs, with the crest of Walsingham in padded
embroidery on the backs. Crystal chandeliers, icicles of dripping
light, glow down upon a scene of parquet floor, draped velours, and
mirrors wreathed in gilt.
At Miss Selene Coblenz's engagement reception, an event properly
festooned with smilax and properly jostled with the elbowing figures of
waiters tilting their plates of dark-meat chicken salad, two olives,
and a finger-roll in among the crowd, a stringed three-piece orchestra,
faintly seen and still more faintly heard, played into the babel.
Light, glitteringly filtered through the glass prisms, flowed down
upon the dais; upon Miss Selene Coblenz, in a taffeta that wrapped her
flat waist and chest like a calyx and suddenly bloomed into the
full-inverted petals of a skirt; upon Mr. Lester Goldmark, his long
body barely knitted yet to man's estate, and his complexion almost
clear, standing omnivorous, omnipotent, omnipresent, his hair so well
brushed that it lay like black japanning, a white carnation at his silk
lapel, and his smile slightly projected by a rush of very white teeth
to the very front. Next in line, Mrs. Coblenz, the red of a fervent
moment high in her face, beneath the maroon-net bodice the swell of her
bosom, fast, and her white-gloved hand constantly at the opening and
shutting of a lace-and-spangled fan. Back, and well out of the picture,
a potted hydrangea beside the Louis Quinze armchair, her hands in silk
mitts laid out along the gold-chair sides, her head quavering in a kind
of mild palsy, Mrs. Miriam Horowitz, smiling and quivering her state of
With an unfailing propensity to lay hold of to whomsoever he spake,
Mr. Lester Goldmark placed his white-gloved hand upon the white-gloved
arm of Mrs. Coblenz.
“Say, Mother Coblenz, ain't it about time this little girl of mine
was resting her pink-satin double A's? She's been on duty up here from
four to seven. No wonder Uncle Mark bucked.”
Mrs. Coblenz threw her glance out over the crowded room, surging
with a wave of plumes and clipped heads like a swaying bucket of water
which crowds but does not lap over its sides.
“I guess the crowd is finished coming in by now. You tired, Selene?”
Miss Coblenz turned her glowing glance.
“Tired! This is the swellest engagement-party I ever had.”
Mrs. Coblenz shifted her weight from one slipper to the other, her
maroon-net skirts lying in a swirl around them.
“Just look at gramaw, too! She holds up her head with the best of
them. I wouldn't have had her miss this, not for the world.”
“Sure one fine old lady! Ought to have seen her shake my hand,
Mother Coblenz. I nearly had to holler, 'Ouch!'“
“Mama, here comes Sara Suss and her mother. Take my arm, Lester
honey. People mama used to know.” Miss Coblenz leaned forward beyond
the dais with the frail curve of a reed.
“Howdado, Mrs. Suss.... Thank you. Thanks. Howdado, Sara? Meet my
fiance, Lester Haas Goldmark; Mrs. Suss and Sara Suss, my fiance.... That's right, better late than never. There's plenty left.... We
think he is, Mrs. Suss. Aw, Lester honey, quit! Mama, here's Mrs. Suss
“Mrs. Suss! Say—if you hadn't come, I was going to lay it up
against you. If my new ones can come on a day like this, it's a pity my
old friends can't come, too. Well, Sadie, it's your turn next, eh?... I
know better than that. With them pink cheeks and black eyes, I wish I
had a dime for every chance.” (Sotto.) “Do you like it, Mrs.
Suss? Pussy-willow taffeta.... Say, it ought to be. An estimate dress
from Madame Murphy—sixty-five with findings. I'm so mad, Sara, you and
your mama couldn't come to the house that night to see her things. If I
say so myself, Mrs. Suss, everybody who seen it says Jacob Sinsheimer's
daughter herself didn't have a finer. Maybe not so much, but every
stitch, Mrs. Suss, made by the same sisters in the same convent that
made hers.... Towels! I tell her it's a shame to expose them to the
light, much less wipe on them. Ain't it?... The goodness looks out from
his face. And such a love-pair! Lunatics, I call them. He can't keep
his hands off. It ain't nice, I tell him.... Me? Come close. I dyed the
net myself. Ten cents' worth of maroon color. Don't it warm your heart,
Mrs. Suss? This morning, after we got her in Lester's Uncle Mark's big
automobile, I says to her, I says, 'Mama, you sure it ain't too much?'
Like her old self for a minute, Mrs. Suss, she hit me on the arm. 'Go
'way,' she said; 'on my grandchild's engagement day anything should be
too much?' Here, waiter, get these two ladies some salad. Good measure,
too. Over there by the window, Mrs. Suss. Help yourselves.”
“Mama, 'sh-h-h! the waiters know what to do.”
Mrs. Coblenz turned back, the flush warm to her face.
“Say, for an old friend I can be my own self.”
“Can we break the receiving-line now, Lester honey, and go down with
everybody? The Sinsheimers and their crowd over there by themselves, we
ought to show we appreciate their coming.”
Mr. Goldmark twisted high in his collar, cupping her small bare
elbow in his hand.
“That's what I say, lovey; let's break. Come, Mother Coblenz, let's
step down on high society's corns.”
“You and Selene go down with the crowd, Lester. I want to take
gramaw to rest for a while before we go home. The manager says we can
have room fifty-six by the elevator for her to rest in.”
“Get her some newspapers, ma, and I brought her a wreath down to
keep her quiet. It's wrapped in her shawl.”
Her skirts delicately lifted, Miss Coblenz stepped down off the
dais. With her cloud of gauze-scarf enveloping her, she was like a
tulle-clouded “Springtime,” done in the key of Botticelli.
“Oop-si-lah, lovey-dovey!” said Mr. Goldmark, tilting her elbow for
the downward step.
“Oop-si-lay, dovey-lovey!” said Miss Coblenz, relaxing to the
Gathering up her plentiful skirts, Mrs. Coblenz stepped off, too,
but back toward the secluded chair beside the potted hydrangea. A fine
line of pain, like a cord tightening, was binding her head, and she put
up two fingers to each temple, pressing down the throb.
“Mrs. Coblenz, see what I got for you!” She turned, smiling. “You
don't look like you need salad and green ice-cream. You look like you
needed what I wanted—a cup of coffee.”
“Aw, Mr. Haas—now where in the world—Aw, Mr. Haas!”
With a steaming cup outheld and carefully out of collision with the
crowd, Mr. Haas unflapped a napkin with his free hand, inserting his
foot in the rung of a chair and dragging it toward her.
“Now,” he cried, “sit and watch me take care of you!”
There comes a tide in the affairs of men when the years lap softly,
leaving no particular inundations on the celebrated sands of time.
Between forty and fifty, that span of years which begin the first
slight gradations from the apex of life, the gray hair, upstanding like
a thick-bristled brush off Mr. Haas's brow, had not so much as
whitened, or the slight paunchiness enhanced even the moving-over of a
button. When Mr. Haas smiled, his mustache, which ended in a slight but
not waxed flourish, lifted to reveal a white-and-gold smile of the
artistry of careful dentistry, and when, upon occasion, he threw back
his head to laugh, the roof of his mouth was his own.
He smiled now, peering through gold-rimmed spectacles attached by a
chain to a wire-encircled left ear.
“Sit,” he cried, “and let me serve you!”
Standing there with a diffidence which she could not crowd down,
Mrs. Coblenz smiled through closed lips that would pull at the corners.
“The idea, Mr. Haas—going to all that trouble!”
“'Trouble'! she says. After two hours' handshaking in a
swallow-tail, a man knows what real trouble is!”
She stirred around and around the cup, supping up spoonfuls
“I'm sure much obliged. It touches the right spot.”
He pressed her down to the chair, seating himself on the low edge of
“Now you sit right there and rest your bones.”
“But my mother, Mr. Haas. Before it's time for the ride home she
must rest in a quiet place.”
“My car'll be here and waiting five minutes after I telephone.”
“You—sure have been grand, Mr. Haas!”
“I shouldn't be grand yet to my—Let's see—what relation is it I am
“Honest, you're a case, Mr. Haas—always making fun!”
“My poor dead sister's son marries your daughter. That makes you
“Honest, Mr. Haas, if I was around you, I'd get fat laughing.”
“I wish you was.”
“Selene would have fits. 'Never get fat, mama,' she says, 'if you
“I don't mean that.”
“I mean I wish you was around me.”
She struck him then with her fan, but the color rose up into the
mound of her carefully piled hair.
“I always say I can see where Lester gets his comical ways. Like his
uncle, that boy keeps us all laughing.”
“Gad! look at her blush! I know women your age would give fifty
dollars a blush to do it that way.”
She was looking away again, shoulders heaving to silent laughter,
the blush still stinging.
“It's been so—so long, Mr. Haas, since I had compliments made to
me. You make me feel so—silly.”
“I know it, you nice, fine woman, you; and it's a darn shame!”
“I mean it. I hate to see a fine woman not get her dues. Anyways,
when she's the finest woman of them all!”
“I—the woman that lives to see a day like this—her daughter the
happiest girl in the world, with the finest boy in the world—is
getting her dues, all right, Mr. Haas.”
“She's a fine girl, but she ain't worth her mother's little
“I must be going now, Mr. Haas. My mother—”
“That's right. The minute a man tries to break the ice with this
little lady, it's a freeze-out. Now what did I say so bad? In business,
too. Never seen the like. It's like trying to swat a fly to come down
on you at the right minute. But now, with you for a nothing-in-law, I
“If—you ain't the limit, Mr. Haas!”
“Don't mind saying it, Mrs. C., and, for a bachelor, they tell me
I'm not the worst judge in the world, but there's not a woman on the
floor stacks up like you do.”
“Well—of all things!”
“My mother, Mr. Haas, she—”
“And if anybody should ask you if I've got you on my mind or not,
well, I've already got the letters out on that little matter of the
passports you spoke to me about. If there's a way to fix that up for
you, and leave it to me to find it, I—”
She sprang now, trembling, to her feet, all the red of the moment
“Mr. Haas, I—I must go now. My—mother—”
He took her arm, winding her in and out among crowded-out chairs
behind the dais.
“I wish it to every mother to have a daughter like you, Mrs. C.”
“No! No!” she said, stumbling rather wildly through the chairs. “No!
He forged ahead, clearing her path of them.
Beside the potted hydrangea, well back and yet within an easy view,
Mrs. Horowitz, her gilt armchair well cushioned for the occasion, and
her black grenadine spread decently about her, looked out upon the
scene, her slightly palsied head well forward.
“Mama, you got enough? You wouldn't have missed it, eh? A crowd of
people we can be proud to entertain. Not? Come; sit quiet in another
room for a while, and then Mr. Haas, with his nice big car, will drive
us all home again. You know Mr. Haas, dearie—Lester's uncle that had
us drove so careful in his fine car. You remember, dearie—Lester's
Mrs. Horowitz looked up, her old face crackling to smile.
“My grandchild! My grandchild! She'm a fine one. Not? My grandchild!
“You—mustn't mind, Mr. Haas. That's—the way she's done
since—since she's—sick. Keeps repeating—”
“My grandchild! From a good mother and a bad father comes a good
grandchild. My grandchild! She'm a good one. My—”
“Mama dearie, Mr. Haas is in a hurry. He's come to help me walk you
into a little room to rest before we go home in Mr. Haas's big, fine
auto. Where you can go and rest, mama, and read the newspapers. Come.”
“My back—ach—my back!”
“Yes, yes, mama; we'll fix it. Up! So—la!”
They raised her by the crook of each arm, gently.
“So! Please, Mr. Haas, the pillows. Shawl. There!”
Around a rear hallway, they were almost immediately into a blank,
staring hotel bedroom, fresh towels on the furniture-tops only
enhancing its staleness.
“Here we are. Sit her here, Mr. Haas, in this rocker.”
They lowered her, almost inch by inch, sliding down pillows, against
“Now, Shila's little mama want to sleep?”
“I got—no rest—no rest.”
“You're too excited, honey; that's all.”
“Here—here's a brand-new hotel Bible on the table, dearie. Shall
Shila read it to you?”
“Now, now, mama. Now, now; you mustn't! Didn't you promise Shila?
Look! See, here's a wreath wrapped in your shawl for Shila's little
mama to work on. Plenty of wreaths for us to take back. Work awhile,
dearie, and then we'll get Selene and Lester, and, after all the nice
company goes away, we'll go home in the auto.”
“I begged he should keep in his hate—his feet in the—”
“I know! The papers! That's what little mama wants. Mr. Haas, that's
what she likes better than anything—the evening papers.”
“I'll go down and send 'em right up with a boy, and telephone for
the car. The crowd's beginning to pour out now. Just hold your horses
there, Mrs. C., and I'll have those papers up here in a jiffy.”
He was already closing the door after him, letting in and shutting
out a flare of music.
“See, mama, nice Mr. Haas is getting us the papers. Nice evening
papers for Shila's mama.” She leaned down into the recesses of the
black grenadine, withdrawing from one of the pockets a pair of
silver-rimmed spectacles, adjusting them with some difficulty to the
nodding head. “Shila's—little mama! Shila's mama!”
“Aylorff, the littlest wreath for—Aylorff—Meine Kraentze—”
“Mem Mann. Mein Suehn.”
“Aylorff—der klenste Kranz far ihm!”
“'Shh-h-h, dearie! Talk English, like Selene wants. Wait till we get
on the ship—the beautiful ship to take us back. Mama, see out the
window! Look! That's the beautiful Forest Park, and this is the fine
Hotel Walsingham just across. See out! Selene is going to have a flat
“Sey hoben gestorben far Freiheit. Sey hoben—”
“There! That's the papers!”
To a succession of quick knocks, she flew to the door, returning
with the folded evening editions under her arm.
“Now,” she cried, unfolding and inserting the first of them into the
quivering hands—“now, a shawl over my little mama's knees and we're
With a series of rapid movements she flung open one of the
black-cashmere shawls across the bed, folding it back into a triangle.
Beside the table, bare except for the formal, unthumbed Bible, Mrs.
Horowitz rattled out a paper, her near-sighted eyes traveling back and
forth across the page.
Music from the ferned-in orchestra came in drifts, faint, not so
faint. From somewhere, then immediately from everywhere—beyond, below,
without, the fast shouts of newsboys mingling.
Suddenly and of her own volition, and with a cry that shot up
through the room, rending it like a gash, Mrs. Horowitz, who moved by
inches, sprang to her supreme height, her arms, the crooks forced out,
“My darlings—what died—for it! My darlings what died for it! My
darlings—Aylorff, my husband!” There was a wail rose up off her words,
like the smoke of incense curling, circling around her. “My darlings
what died to make free!”
“Mama! Darling! Mama! Mr. Haas! Help! Mama! My God!”
“Aylorff—my husband—I paid with my blood to make free—my blood—.
My son—my—own—” Immovable there, her arms flung up and tears so
heavy that they rolled whole from her face down to the black grenadine,
she was as sonorous as the tragic meter of an Alexandrine line; she was
like Ruth, ancestress of heroes and progenitor of kings.
“My boy—my own! They died for it! Mein Mann! Mein Suehn!”
On her knees, frantic to press her down once more into the chair,
terrified at the rigid immobility of the upright figure, Mrs. Coblenz
paused then, too, her clasp falling away, and leaned forward to the
open sheet of the newspaper, its black head-lines facing her:
BANS DOWN 100,000 SIBERIAN PRISONERS LIBERATED
In her ears a ringing silence, as if a great steel disk had
clattered down into the depths of her consciousness. There on her
knees, trembling seized her, and she hugged herself against it, leaning
forward to corroborate her gaze.
MOST RIGID AUTOCRACY IN THE WORLD OVERTHROWN
“Mama! Mama! My God! Mama!”
“Home, Shila; home! My husband who died for it—Aylorff! Home now,
quick! My wreaths! My wreaths!”
“O my God! Mama!”
“Yes, yes, darling; your wreaths. Let—let me think. Freedom! O my
God! help me to find a way! O my God!”
“Here, darling, here!”
From the floor beside her, the raffia wreath half in the making,
Mrs. Coblenz reached up, pressing it flat to the heaving old bosom.
“There, darling, there!”
“I paid with my blood—”
“Yes, yes, mama; you—paid with your blood. Mama—sit, please. Sit
and—let's try to think. Take it slow, darling; it's like we can't take
it in all at once. I—We—Sit down, darling. You'll make yourself
terrible sick. Sit down, darling; you—you're slipping.”
Heavily, the arm at the waist gently sustaining, Mrs. Horowitz sank
rather softly down, her eyelids fluttering for the moment. A smile had
come out on her face, and, as her head sank back against the rest, the
eyes resting at the downward flutter, she gave out a long breath, not
taking it in again.
“Mama! You're fainting!” She leaned to her, shaking the relaxed
figure by the elbows, her face almost touching the tallow-like one with
the smile lying so deeply into it. “Mama! My God! darling, wake up!
I'll take you back. I'll find a way to take you. I'm a bad girl,
darling, but I'll find a way to take you. I'll take you if—if I kill
for it! I promise before God I'll take you. To-morrow—now—nobody can
keep me from taking you. The wreaths, mama! Get ready the wreaths! Mama
darling, wake up! Get ready the wreaths! The wreaths!” Shaking at that
quiet form, sobs that were full of voice tearing raw from her throat,
she fell to kissing the sunken face, enclosing it, stroking it, holding
her streaming gaze closely and burningly against the closed lids.
“Mama, I swear to God I'll take you! Answer me, mama! The
bank-book—you've got it! Why don't you wake up, mama? Help!”
Upon that scene, the quiet of the room so raucously lacerated, burst
Mr. Haas, too breathless for voice.
“Mr. Haas—my mother! Help—my mother! It's a faint, ain't it? A
He was beside her at two bounds, feeling of the limp wrists, laying
his ear to the grenadine bosom, lifting the reluctant lids, touching
the flesh that yielded so to touch.
“It's a faint, ain't it, Mr. Haas? Tell her I'll take her back. Wake
her up, Mr. Haas! Tell her I'm a bad girl, but I—I'm going to take her
back. Now! Tell her! Tell her, Mr. Haas, I've got the bank-book.
Please! Please! O my God!”
He turned to her, his face working to keep down compassion.
“We must get a doctor, little lady.”
She threw out an arm.
“No! No! I see! My old mother—my old mother—all her life a
nobody—She helped—she gave it to them—my mother—a poor little widow
nobody—She bought with her blood that freedom—she—”
“God! I just heard it down-stairs—it's the tenth wonder of the
world. It's too big to take in. I was afraid—”
“Mama darling, I tell you, wake up! I'm a bad girl, but I'll take
you back. Tell her, Mr. Haas, I'll take her back. Wake up, darling! I
swear to God I'll take you!”
“Mrs. Coblenz, my—poor little lady, your mother don't need you to
take her back. She's gone back where—where she wants to be. Look at
her face, little lady. Can't you see she's gone back?”
“No! No! Let me go. Let me touch her. No! No! Mama darling!”
“Why, there wasn't a way, little lady, you could have fixed it for
that poor—old body. She's beyond any of the poor fixings we could do
for her. You never saw her face like that before. Look!”
“The wreaths—the wreaths!”
He picked up the raffia circle, placing it back again against the
“Poor little lady!” he said. “Shila—that's left for us to do. You
and me, Shila—we'll take the wreaths back for her.”
“My darling—my darling mother! I'll take them back for you! I'll
take them back for you!”
“We'll take them back for her—Shila.”
“We'll take them back for her—Shila.”
“We'll take them back for you, mama. We'll take them back for