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An Idyl of Pelham Bay Park by Gouverneur Morris

 

“It's real country out there,” Fannie Davis had said. “Buttercups and daisies. Come on, Lila! I won't go if you won't.”

This sudden demonstration of friendship was too much for Lila. She forgot that she had no stylish dress for the occasion, or that her mother could not very well spare her for a whole day, and she promised to be ready at nine o'clock on the following Sunday morning.

“Fannie Davis,” she explained to her mother, “has asked me to go out to Pelham Bay Park with her Sunday. And finally I said I would. I feel sometimes as if I'd blow up if I didn't get a breath of fresh air after all this hot spell.”

She set her pretty mouth defiantly. She expected an argument. But he mother only shrugged her shoulders and said,

“We could make your blue dress look real nice with a few trimmings.”

They discussed ways and means until long after the younger children were in bed and asleep.

By Saturday night the dress was ready, and Lila had turned her week's wages back into the coffers of the department store where she worked in exchange for a pair of near-silk brown stockings and a pair of stylish oxford ties of patent leather.

“You look like a show-girl,” was Fannie's enthusiastic comment. “I wouldn't have believed it of you. Why, Lila, you're a regular little peach!”

Lila became crimson with joy.

They boarded the subway for Simpson Street. The atmosphere was hot and rancid. The two girls found standing-room only. Whenever the express curved they were thrown violently from one side of the car to the other. A young man who stood near them made a point on these occasions of laying a hand on Lila's waist to steady her. She didn't know whether it was proper to be angry or grateful.

“Don't pay any attention to him,” said Fannie; “he's just trying to be fresh, and he doesn't know how.”

She said it loud enough for the young man to hear. Lila was very much frightened.

They left the subway at Simpson Street and boarded a jammed trolley-car for Westchester. Fannie paid all the fares.

“It's my treat,” she said; “I'm flush. Gee, ain't it hot! I wish we'd brought our bathing-suits.”

Much to Lila's relief the young man who had annoyed her was no longer visible. Fannie talked all the way to Westchester in so loud a voice that nearly everybody in the car could hear her. Lila was shocked and awed by her friend's showiness and indifference.

From Westchester they were to walk the two hot miles to the park. Already Lila's new shoes had blistered her feet. But she did not mention this. It was her own fault. She had deliberately bought shoes that were half a size too small.

In the main street of Westchester they prinked, smoothing each other's rumpled dresses and straightening each other's peach-basket hats.

“Lila,” said Fannie, “everybody's looking at you. I say you're too pretty. Lucky for me I've got my young man where I want him, or else you'd take him away from me.”

“I would not!” exclaimed Lila, “and it's you they're looking at.”

Fannie was delighted. “Do I look nice?” she wheedled.

“You look sweet!”

As a matter of fact, Fannie looked bold and handsome. Her clothes were too expensive for her station in life. Her mother suspected how she came by them, but was so afraid of actually knowing that she never brought the point to an issue; only sighed in secret and tried not to see or understand.

Now and then motors passed through the crowds straggling to the park, and in exchange for gratuitous insults from small boys and girls left behind them long trails of thick dust and the choking smell of burnt gasoline. In the sun the mercury was at one hundred and twenty degrees.

“There's a hog for you,” exclaimed Fannie. She indicated a stout man in shirt-sleeves. He had his coat over one arm, his collar and necktie protruding from the breast pocket. His wife, a meagre woman, panted at his side. She carried two heavy children, one of them not yet born.

Half the people carried paper parcels or little suitcases made of straw in which were bathing-suits and sandwiches. It would be low tide, but between floating islands of swill and sewage there would be water, salt, wet, and cool.

“My mother,” said Fannie, “doesn't like me to come to these places alone. It's a real nice crowd uses Pelham Park, but there's always a sprinkling of freshies.”

“Is that why you invited me?” said Lila gayly. Inwardly she flattered herself to think that she had been asked for herself alone. But Fannie's answer had in it something of a slap in the face.

“Well,” said this one, “mother forbade me to come alone. But I do want to get better acquainted with you. Honest.”

They rested for a while sitting on a stone wall in the shade of a tree.

“My mother,” said Fannie grandly, “thinks everybody's rotten, including me. My God!” she went on angrily, “do me and you work six days of the week only to be bossed about on the seventh? I tell you I won't stand it much longer. I'm going to cut loose. Nothing but work, work, work, and scold, scold, scold.”

“If I had all the pretty things you've got,” said Lila gently, “I don't believe I'd complain.”

Fannie blushed. “It's hard work and skimping does it,” she said. “Ever think of marrying, kid?”

Lila admitted that she had.

“Got a beau?”

Lila blushed and shook her head.

“You have, too. Own up. What's he like?”

Lila continued to deny and protest. But she enjoyed being teased upon such a subject.

“Well, if you haven't,” said Fannie at last, “I have. It's a dead secret, kid. I wouldn't tell a soul but you. He's got heaps of money, and he's been after me—to marry him—for nearly a year.”

“Do you like him?”

“I'm just crazy about him.”

“Then why don't you marry him?”

“Well,” Fannie temporized, “you never want to be in a rush about these things.”

Fannie sighed, and was silent. She might have married the young man in question if she had played her cards better. And she knew it, now that it was too late, and there could not be a new deal. He had wanted her, even at the price of marriage. He was still fond of her. And he was very generous with his money. She met him whenever she could. He would be waiting for her now at the entrance to the park.

“He's got a motor-boat,” she explained to Lila, “that he wants to show me. She's a cabin launch, almost new. You won't mind?”

“Mind? Are you going out for a sail with him, and leave me?”

“Well, the truth is,” said Fannie, “I've just about made up my mind to say yes, and of course if there was a third party around he couldn't bring the matter up, could he? We wouldn't be out long.”

“Don't mind me,” said Lila. Inwardly she was terribly hurt and disappointed. “I'll just sit in the shade and wish you joy.”

“I wouldn't play it so low down on you,” said Fannie, “only my whole future's mixed up in it. We'll be back in lots of time to eat.”

Lila walked with them to the end of the pier at the bathing-beach. The water was full of people and rubbish. The former seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely and for the most part innocently, though now and then some young girl would shriek aloud in a sort of delighted terror as her best young man, swimming under water, tugged suddenly at her bathing-skirt or pinched the calf of her leg.

Lila watched Fannie and her young man embark in a tiny rowboat and row out to a clumsy cabin catboat from which the mast had been removed and in whose cockpit a low-power, loud-popping motor had been installed. The young man started the motor, and presently his clumsy craft was dragging herself, like a crippled duck, down Pelham Bay toward the more open water of Long Island Sound.

Lila felt herself abandoned. She would have gone straight home but for the long walk to Westchester and the fact that she had no car fare. She could have cried. The heat on the end of the dock and the glare from the water were intolerable. She was already faint with hunger, and her shoes pinched her so that she could hardly walk without whimpering. It seemed to her that she had never seen so many people at once. And in all the crowds she hadn't a single friend or acquaintance. Several men, seeing that she was without male escort, tried to get to know her, but gave up, discouraged by her shy, frightened face. She was pretty, yes. But a doll. No sport in her. Such was their mental attitude.

“She might have left me the sandwiches,” thought Lila. “Suppose the motor breaks down!”

Which was just what it was going to do—'way out there in the sound. It always did sooner or later when Fannie was on board. She seemed to have been born with an influence for evil over men and gas-engines.

At the other side of green lawns on which were a running-track, swings, trapezes, parallel bars, and a ball-field, were woods. The shade, from where she was, looked black and cold. She walked slowly and timidly toward it. She could cool herself and return in time to meet Fannie. But she returned sooner than she had expected.

She found a smooth stone in the woods and sat down. After the sun there was a certain coolness. She fanned herself with some leaves. They were poison-ivy, but she did not know that. The perspiration dried on her face. There were curious whining, humming sounds in the woods. She began to scratch her ankles and wrists. Her ankles especially tickled and itched to the point of anguish. She was the delightful centre of interest to a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. She leaped to her feet and fought them wildly with her branch of poison-ivy. Then she started to run and almost stepped on a man who was lying face up in the underwood, peacefully snoring. She screamed faintly and hurried on. Some of the bolder mosquitoes followed her into the sunlight, but it was too hot even for them, and one by one they dropped behind and returned to the woods. The drunken man continued his comfortable sleep. The mosquitoes did not trouble him. It is unknown why.

Lila returned to the end of the dock and saw far off a white speck that may or may not have been the motor-boat in which Fannie had gone for a “sail.”

If there hadn't been so many people about Lila must have sat down and cried. The warmth of affection which she had felt that morning for Fannie had changed into hatred. Three times she returned to the end of the dock.

All over the park were groups of people eating sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. They shouted and joked. Under certain circumstances, not the least of sports is eating. Lila was so angry and hungry and abused that she forgot her sore feet. She couldn't stay still. She must have walked—coming and going—a good many miles in all.

At last, exhausted as she had never been even after a day at the department store during the Christmas rush, she found a deep niche between two rough rocks on the beach, over which the tide was now gently rising, and sank into it. The rocks and the sand between them gave out coolness; the sun shone on her head and shoulders, but with less than its meridianal fury. She could look down Pelham Bay and see most of the waters between Fort Schuyler and City Island. Boats of all sorts and descriptions came and went. But there was no sign of that in which Fannie had embarked.

Lila fell asleep. It became quiet in the park. The people were dragging themselves wearily home, dishevelled, dirty, sour with sweat. The sun went down, copper-red and sullen. The trunks of trees showed ebony black against it, swarms of infinitesimal gnats rose from the beaches, and made life hideous to the stragglers still in the park.

Lila was awakened by the tide wetting her feet. She rose on stiff, aching legs. There was a kink in her back; one arm, against which she had rested heavily, was asleep.

“Fannie,” Lila thought with a kind of falling despair, “must have come back, looked for me, given me up, and gone home.”

In the midst of Pelham Bay a fire twinkled, burning low. It looked like a camp-fire deserted and dying in the centre of a great open plain. Lila gave it no more than a somnambulant look. It told her nothing: no story of sudden frenzied terror, of inextinguishable, unescapable flames, of young people in the midst of health and the vain and wicked pursuit of happiness, half-burned to death, half-drowned. It told her no story of guilt providentially punished, or accidentally.

She had slept through all the shouting and screaming. The boats that had attempted rescue had withdrawn; there remained only the hull of a converted catboat, gasoline-soaked, burnt to the water's edge, a cinder—still smouldering.

Somewhere under the placid waters, gathering speed in the tidal currents, slowing down and swinging in the eddies, was all that remained of Fannie Davis, food for crabs, eels, dogfish, lobsters, and all the thousand and one scavengers of Atlantic bays, blackened shreds of garments still clinging to her.

II

Next to Pelham Bay Park toward the south is a handsome private property. On the low boundary wall of this, facing the road and directly under a ragged cherry-tree, Lila seated herself. She was “all in.” She must wait until a vehicle of some sort passed and beg for a lift. She was half-starved; her feet could no longer carry her. A motor thrilled by at high speed, a fiery, stinking dragon in the night. Mosquitoes tormented her. She had no strength with which to oppose them. The hand in which she had held the poison-ivy was beginning to itch and swell.

A second motor approached slowly and came to a halt. A young man got out, opened one of the headlights, struck a match, and lighted it. Then he lighted the other. The low stone wall on which Lila sat and Lila herself were embraced by the ring of illumination. It must have been obvious to any one but a fool that Lila was out of place in her surroundings; her peach-basket hat, the oxford ties of which she had been so proud, told a story of city breeding. Her face, innocent and childlike, was very touching.

The young man shut off his motor, so that there was a sudden silence. “Want a lift somewhere?” he asked cheerfully.

Lila could not remember when she had been too young to be warned against the advances of strange men. “They give you a high old time, and then they expect to be paid for it,” had been so dinned into her that if she had given the young man a sharp “No” for an answer it would have been almost instinctive. Training and admonition rose strong within her. She felt that she was going to refuse help. The thought was intolerable. Wherefore, instead of answering, she burst into tears.

A moment later the young man was sitting by her side, and she was pouring her tale of a day gone wrong into amused but sympathetic ears.

His voice and choice of words belonged to a world into which she had never looked. She could not help trusting him and believing that he was good—even when he put his arm around her and let her finish her cry on his shoulder.

“And your friend left you—and you've got no car fare, and you've had nothing to eat, and you can't walk any more because your shoes are too tight. And you live——?”

She told him.

“I could take you right home to your mother,” he said, “but I won't. That would be a good ending to a day gone wrong, but not the best. Come.”

He supported her to his motor, a high-power runabout, and helped her in. Never before had she sat in such reclining comfort. It was better than sitting up in bed.

“We'll send your mother a telegram from New Rochelle so that she won't worry,” he said. “Just you let yourself go and try to enjoy everything. Fortunately I know of a shoe store in New Rochelle. It won't be open; but the proprietor has rooms above the store, and he'll be glad to make a sale even if it is Sunday. The first principle to be observed in a pleasant outing is a pair of comfortable feet.”

“But I have no money,” protested Lila.

“I have,” said the young man; “too much, some people think.”

Lila had been taught that if she accepted presents from young men she put herself more or less in their power.

They whirled noiselessly across Pelham Bridge. Lila had given up in the matter of accepting a present of shoes. In so doing she feared that she had committed herself definitely to the paths that lead to destruction. And when, having tried in vain to get a table at two inns between New Rochelle and Larchmont, the young man said that he would take her to his own home to dinner, she felt sure of it. But she was too tired to care, and in the padded seat, and the new easy shoes, too blissfully comfortable. They had sent her mother a telegram. The young man had composed it. He had told the mother not to worry. “I'm dining out and won't be home till late.”

“We won't say how late,” he had explained with an ingenuous smile, “because we don't know, do we?”

They had gone to a drug store, and the clerk had bound a soothing dressing on Lila's poisoned hand.

They turned from the main road into a long avenue over which trees met in a continuous arch. The place was all a-twinkle with fireflies. Box, roses, and honeysuckle filled the air with delicious odors—then strong, pungent, bracing as wine, the smell of salt-marshes, and coldness off the water. On a point of land among trees many lights glowed.

“That's my place,” said the young man.

“We'll have dinner on the terrace—deep water comes right up to it. There's no wind to-night. The candles won't even flicker.”

As if the stopping of the automobile had been a signal, the front door swung quietly open and a Chinese butler in white linen appeared against a background of soft coloring and subdued lights.

As Lila entered the house her knees shook a little. She felt that she was definitely committing herself to what she must always regret. She was a fly walking deliberately into a spider's parlor. That the young man hitherto had behaved most circumspectly, she dared not count in his favor. Was it not always so in the beginning? He seemed like a jolly, kindly boy. She had the impulse to scream and to run out of the house, to hide in the shrubbery, to throw herself into the water. Her heart beat like that of a trapped bird. She heard the front door close behind her.

“I think you'd be more comfy,” said the young man, “if you took off your hat, don't you? Dinner'll be ready in about ten minutes. Fong will show you where to go.”

She followed the Chinaman up a flight of broad low steps. Their feet made no sound on the thick carpeting. He held open the door of a bedroom. It was all white and delicate and blue. Through a door at the farther end she had a glimpse of white porcelain and shining nickel.

Her first act when the Chinaman had gone was to lock the door by which she had entered. Then she looked from each of the windows in turn. The terrace was beneath her, brick with a balustrade of white, with white urns. The young man, bareheaded, paced the terrace like a sentinel. He was smoking a cigarette.

To the left was a round table, set for two. She could see that the chairs were of white wicker, with deep, soft cushions. In the centre of the table was a bowl of red roses. Four candles burned upright in massive silver candlesticks.

She took off her hat mechanically, washed her face and the hand that had not been bandaged, and “did” her hair. She looked wonderfully pretty in the big mirror over the dressing-table. The heavy ivory brushes looked enormous in her delicate hands. Her eyes were great and round like those of a startled deer.

She heard his voice calling to her from the terrace: “Hello, up there! Got everything you want? Dinner's ready when you are.”

She hesitated a long time with her hand on the door-key. But what was a locked door in an isolated house to a bad man? She drew a deep breath, turned the key, waited a little longer, and then, as a person steps into a very cold bath, pushed the door open and went out.

He was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. She went down slowly, her hand on the rail. She had no idea that she was making an exquisite picture. She knew only that she was frightened.

“It's turned cool,” said the young man. He caught up a light scarf of Chinese embroidery and laid it lightly about her shoulders. She looked him for the first time squarely in the face. She saw chiefly a pair of rather small, deep-set blue eyes; at the outer corners were multitudinous little wrinkles, dug by smiling. The eyes were clear as a child's, full of compassionate laughter.

A feeling of perfect security came over her. She thanked Heaven that she had not made a ridiculous scene. The chimes of a tall clock broke the silence with music.

He offered her his arm, and she laid her fingers on it.

“I think we are served,” he said, and led her to the terrace. He was solicitous about placing cushions to the best advantage for her. He took one from his own chair, and, on one knee, put it under her feet. He smiled at her across the bowl of roses.

“How old are you?” he said. “You look like a man's kid sister.”

She told him that she was seventeen and that she had worked for two years in a department store.

“My father was a farmer,” she said, “but he lost one arm, and couldn't make it pay. So we had to come to the city.”

“Is your father living?”

“Yes. But he says he is dead. He can't find any work to do. Mother works like a horse, though, and so does Bert, and so do I. The others are at school.”

“Do you like your work?”

“Only for what it brings in.”

“What does it bring in?”

“Six dollars a week.”

The young man smiled. “Never mind,” he said; “eat your soup.”

It did her good, that soup. It was strong and very hot. It put heart into her. When she had finished, he laughed gleefully.

“It's all very well to talk about rice-powder, and cucumber-cream, and beauty-sleeps, but all you needed to make you look perfectly lovely was a cup of soup. That scarf's becoming to you, too.”

She blushed happily. She had lost all fear of him.

“What are you pinching yourself for?” he asked.

“To see if I'm awake.”

“You are,” he said, “wide awake. Take my word for it, and I hope you're having a good time.”

The Chinaman poured something light and sparkling into her glass from a bottle dressed in a napkin. Misgivings returned to her. She had heard of girls being drugged.

“You don't have to drink it,” said the young man. “I had some served because dinner doesn't look like dinner without champagne. Still, after the thoroughly unhappy day you've put in, I think a mouthful or two would do you good.”

She lifted the glass of champagne, smiled, drank, and choked. He laughed at her merrily.

All through dinner he kept lighting cigarettes and throwing them away. Between times he ate with great relish and heartiness.

Lila was in heaven. All her doubts and fears had vanished. She felt thoroughly at home, as if she had always been used to service and linen and silver and courtesy.

They had coffee, and then they strolled about in the moonlight, while the young man smoked a very long cigar.

He looked at his watch, and sighed. “Well, Miss,” he said, “if we're to get you safe home to your mother!”

“I won't be a minute,” she said.

“You know the way?”

She ran upstairs, and, having put on her hat, decided that it looked cheap and vulgar, and took it off again.

He wrapped her in a soft white polo-coat for the long run to New York. She looked back at the lights of his house. Would she ever see them again, or smell the salt and the box and the roses?

By the time they had reached the Zoological Gardens at Fordham she had fallen blissfully asleep. He ran the car with considerate slowness, and looked at her very often. She waked as they crossed the river. Her eyes shrank from the piled serried buildings of Manhattan. The air was no longer clean and delicious to the lungs.

“Have I been asleep?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she cried, “how could I! How could I! I've missed some of it. And it never happened before, and it will never happen again.”

“Not in the same way, perhaps,” he said gravely. “But how do you know? I think you are one girl in ten million, and to you all things are possible.”

“How many men in ten million are like you?” she asked.

“Men are all pretty much alike,” he said. “They have good impulses and bad.”

In the stark darkness between the outer and the inner door of the tenement in which she lived, there was an awkward, troubled silence. He wished very much to kiss her, but had made up his mind that he would not. She thought that he might, and had made up her mind that if he attempted to she would resist. She was not in the least afraid of him any more, but of herself.

He kissed her, and she did not resist.

“Good-night,” he said, and then with a half-laugh, “Which is your bell?”

She found it and rang it. Presently there was a rusty click, and the inner door opened an inch or so. Neither of them spoke for a full minute. Then she, her face aflame in the darkness:

“When you came I was only a little fool who'd bought a pair of shoes that were too tight for her. I didn't know anything. I'm wise now. I know that I'm dreaming, and that if I wake up before the dream is ended I shall die.”

She tried to laugh gayly and could not.

“I've made things harder for you instead of easier,” he said. “I'm terribly sorry. I meant well.”

“Oh, it isn't that,” she said. “Thank you a thousand thousand times. And good-night.”

“Wait,” he said. “Will you play with me again some time? How about Saturday?”

“No,” she said. “It wouldn't be fair—to me. Good-night.”

She passed through the inner door and up the narrow creaking stair to the dark tenement in which she lived; she could hear the restless breathing of her sleeping family.

“Oh, my God!” she thought, “if it weren't for them!”

As for the young man, having lighted a long cigar, he entered his car and drove off, muttering to himself:

“Damnation! Why does a girl like that have a family!”

He never saw her again, nor was he ever haunted by the thought that he had perhaps spoiled her whole life as thoroughly as if he had taken advantage of her ignorance and her innocence.

 
 
 

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