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The Squall by Fannie Hurst

 

Lilly raised the gas-flame beneath the coffee-pot and poked with a large three-pronged fork at the snapping chops in the skillet. The spark-spark of frying and the purl of boiling water grew madder and merrier, and a haze of blue smoke and steam rose from the little stove.

“I don't see why you can't stay for supper, Loo.”

Miss Lulu Tracy opened her arms wide—like Juliet greeting the lark—and yawned.

“What's the use stickin' round?” she said, in gapey tones. “What's the use stickin' round where I ain't wanted? Charley ain't got no use for me, and you know it. I'll go over to the room and wait for you.”

“Well, I like that! I guess I can have who I want in my own flat; he isn't bossin' me round—let me tell you that much.” But she did not urge further.

“Oh, my feelin's ain't hurt, Lil. I jest dropped in on my way home from the store to see how things was comin' with you.”

Lilly banged the little oven door shut with the toe of her shoe and, holding her brown-checked apron against her hand for protection, drained hot water from off a pan of jacketed potatoes—a billow of steam mounted to the ceiling, enveloping her.

“I've made up my mind, Loo. There's a whole lot of sense in what you've been saying—an' I'm going to do it.”

“Now remember, Lil, I ain't buttin' in—I ain't the kind that butts into other people's business; but, when you come down to the store the other day and I seen how blue you was I got to talkin' before I meant to. That's the way with me when I get to feelin' sorry for anybody; I ain't always understood.”

“You're just right in everything you said. It ain't like I was a girl that wasn't used to anything. If I do say so myself, there never was a more popular girl in the gloves than I was—you know what refined and genteel friends I had, Loo.”

“That's what I always say—some girls could put up with this all right; but a person that had the swell time an' friends you did—to marry an' have to settle down like this—it just don't seem right. I always said, the whole time we was chumming together, you was cut out for a society life if ever a girl was. Of course, I ain't saying nothing against Charley, but no fellow can expect a girl like you to stick to this.”

Miss Tracy fanned herself with a folded newspaper; her large, even-featured face glistened with tiny globules of perspiration; her blond hair had lost some of its crimp.

“Nobody can say I haven't done my duty by Charley, Loo. If ever a girl had a slow time it's been me; but I have been holdin' off, hoping he might get into something else. He ain't never wanted to stick himself; but it just seems like poundin' ragtime is all he's cut out for.”

“A girl's gotta have life—that's what I always say. Just because you're married ain't no sign you're an old woman; but I don't want to poke into your business. If you make up your mind just you come over tonight after he leaves, and you can bunk with me in the old room, just like we used to. Lordy! wasn't them good old times?”

“Don't be surprised to see me, Loo. I ain't never let on to Charley, but it's been in my head a long time. I'd a whole lot rather be back in the department again than watchin' these four walls—I would.”

“It's a darn shame! Why, I'd go clean daffy, Lil, if I had to stick round the way you do. What's the use o' bein' married, I'd like to know!”

“It won't be so easy to get back in the department, I'm afraid.”

“Easy? Why, you can get your old job back like that!” Miss Tracy snapped her fingers with gusto. “It was only yesterday that an ancient dame with a glass eye bought a pair of chamois and asked for you—and Skinny heard her, too. He knows you had a good, genteel trade—and watch him grab you back! You ain't no dead one if you have been buried nearly two years.”

“Ain't it so, Loo? Here I have been married going on two years! I ain't never let on even to you what I've been through. Charley's all right, but—”

“Yes, but I could tell. You can ask any of the girls down at the store if I wasn't always sayin' it was a shame for a girl with your looks to 'a' throwed herself away.”

Lilly dabbed and swabbed at the inside of a stew-pan; the irises of her eyes were unnaturally large—a wisp of hair, dry and electric, drifted across her face. She blew at it, pursing out her lower lip.

“I've been a fool!” she said.

“There's Maisie—been married just as long as you; and honest, Lil, I ain't been to a dance that I ain't seen her and Buck. Of course, Buck has got his faults, but when he's sober there ain't nothin' he won't do to give Maisie a swell time.”

Lilly bristled. “One thing I will say for Charley—I believe in givin' everybody his dues—Charley's never laid a hand on me; and that's more'n Maisie Cloot can say!” She finished with some asperity.

“I guess there ain't none of them perfect when it comes right down to it—ain't it so? I seen Maisie the week after she had that bad eye, and I never see a sweller seal-ring than she was wearin'. Buck's rough, but he tries to make up for it—not that I got anything against Charley.”

Miss Tracy took a few steps that were suggestive of departure.

“I always say, Lil, it ain't so much the feller as how he treats you. It ain't none of my put-in, but I'd like to see the man that could make me sit at home alone seven nights in the week—that's what I would!”

“Well, if you gotta go, Loo, you gotta go. I'm so excited-like I kind o' hate to have you leave.”

“There's nothin' to get excited about. It's just like you say: you've been thinkin', and now you've made up your mind. Now all you got to do is act—you got the note written, ain't you?”

Lilly took a small square of yellow paper from her blouse and passed it to her friend.

“Are you sure it reads all right, Loo?”

Miss Tracy read carefully:

    DEAR CHARLIE,—You do not need to come after me,
    as I am not coming back. I could not stand it—no girl could.
        Yours truly,
            LIL.

“Yes; that's great. So long as you ain't sore at him for no other reason, there ain't no use kickin' up. That just shows him where he stands. There ain't no use fightin'—just quit!”

Lilly slipped the bit of paper back into her blouse.

“I'll see you later,” she said, with new determination.

“Now don't let me influence you. Make up your mind and do what you think is best. Then don't be a quitter—when I start a thing I always see it through. Give me a girl with backbone every time. I glory in your spunk!”

“Oh, I got the spunk, all right, Loo.” They linked arms and went through the little bedroom into the parlor. At the door Miss Tracy lingered.

“Your flat's got the room beat by a long shot; but I always say it don't make no difference whether you live in a palace or a cottage, just so you're happy. Gimme one room and what I want, and you can have all your swell marble-entrance apartments. Ain't that right?”

“You've hit it, Loo. Take this here red parlor set—when me and Charley went down to pick it out I couldn't hardly wait till we got it up in the flat; and now just look! I can't look red plush in the face no more.”

“That's the way of the world,” said Loo. She sucked in her breath and cluck-clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

“I'll be over about eight, then—after he goes.”

“All right. Bring what you need, and send for the other stuff. You better put in a party dress; we might get a date for to-night, for all I know. You know you always brought me luck when it come to dates. I ain't had a chum since that could bring them round like you.”

“Oh, Loo! I ain't thinkin' about such things.”

“Sure you ain't; but it won't hurt you to know you're livin', will it?—and to chaperon your friend?”

“No,” admitted Lil.

“Well, so long! I'll see you later. Don't let on to Charley I was over. He ain't got no truck for me.”

They embraced.

“Good-by for a little while, Loo.”

“Good-by, dearie.”

Lilly watched her friend pass down the narrow hall, then she closed the door. Left alone, she crossed to the window and leaned out well beyond the casement—a Demoiselle whose three lilies were despair, anger, and fear. The stagnant air, savored with frying pork, weighted her down with its humidity; her brow puckered into tiny lines.

Do not, reader, construe this setting too lightly. The most pungent essay in all literature is devoted to the succulency of roast pig; Sappho was most lyric after she had rubbed her wine goblet with garlic-flavored ewe meat. But such kindly reflection was not Lilly's—fleshpots and life alike were unsavory.

The Nottingham lace curtains hung limp and motionless round her, and waves of heat deflected from the asphalt came up heavy as fog. Three stories beneath, Third Avenue spluttered on the griddle of a merciless August—an exhausted day was duskening into a scarcely less kind twilight; she could feel the brick wall of the building exhaling like a furnace.

It was characteristic of Lilly that, with the thermometer up in three figures and her own mental mercury well toward the top of the tube, she should strike the one note of relief in a Saharan aridness. She suggested the drip of clear water in a grotto or the inmost petals of a tight-closed rose. If her throat ached and strained to keep down the tears, her neck, where the sheer white collar fell away, was cold and chaste; if anger and resentment were pounding through her veins the fresh firmness of her flesh did not betray it.

She leaned her head against the window-frame and looked down with a certain remoteness upon the human caldron three stories removed. Lights were beginning to prick out wanly; the bang and clang of humanity, distant, but none the less insistent, came up to her in a medley of street-car clangs, shouts, and hum-hum. Children cried.

Upon a fire-escape level with her own window a child, with bare feet extended over the iron rail, slept on an improvised bed; from the interior of that same apartment came the wail of a sick infant. A woman nude to the waist passed to and fro before the open window, crooning to the bundle she carried in the crook of her arm. Lilly's mouth hung at the corners.

Came darkness, she passed out into the kitchen and covered the slow-cooking chops with a tin lid, lighted the gas-jet, turning the flame down into a mere bead, and resumed her watch at the front window.

Clear like a clarion a familiar whistle ripped through the din of the street and came up to her sharp and undiverted—two clean calls and a long, quavering ritornelle. At that signal, for the year and a half of their married life, Lilly had unfailingly fluttered a white handkerchief of greeting from the three flights up. Her arm contracted reflexly, but she stayed it and stepped back into the frame of the window, leaning straight and tense against the jamb. Her pulse leaped into the hundreds as she stood there, her arms hugging her sides and her blouse rising and falling with the heave of her bosom, her handkerchief a tight little wad in the palm of her hand.

Again the call, tearing straight and true to its destination! She remained taut as stretched elastic. There was a wondering interim—and a third time the signal split the air, sharp-questioning, insistent. Then a silence.

Lilly darted into the kitchen and stooped absorbed over the burbling coffee. A key rattled the front-room lock, and she bent lower over the stove. She heard her name called sharply; a door slammed, and her husband bounded into the kitchen, his face streaming perspiration and his collar like a rag about his neck.

“Hello, honey! Gee! You gimme a scare there fer a minute. I thought the heat might 'a' got you.”

He gathered her in his arms, pushed back her head, and looked into her reluctant eyes.

“What's the matter, hon? You ain't sick, are you?”

She wriggled herself free of his arms and turned to the stove.

“No,” she said, in a monotone, “I ain't sick.”

He regarded her with a worried pucker between his eyes.

“Aw, come on, Lil—tell a fellow what's the matter, can't you? It ain't like you to be like this.”

“Nothin'!” she insisted.

“You gimme a swell turn there fer a minute. They're droppin' like flies to-day—hottest day in five summers.”

Silence.

“Whew!” He peeled off his coat and hung it, with his imitation Panama hat, behind the door; his pink shirt showed dark streaks of perspiration; and he tugged at the rear button of his limp collar.

“Be-e-lieve me, the pianner business ain't what it's cracked up to be! There ain't a picture house in town got the Gem beat when it comes to heat. Had to take off the Flyin' Papinta act to-day and run in an extry picture because two of the kids give out with the heat. I've played to over ten thousand feet o' films to-day; and be-e-lieve me, it was some stunt!”

He sluiced his face with cold water at the sink, and slush-slushed his head in a roller-towel, talking the while.

“I never seen the—extry picture—they—run in to cover the—Papinta act; and before I—could keep up—with the film—I was givin' ragtime fer a funeral. You oughta heard Joe squeal!” He laughed and threw his arms affectionately across his wife's shoulder. “Eh—ragtime fer a funeral! Fine pianner-player you got fer a husband, honey!”

Given a checked suit, a slender bamboo cane, and a straw Katy slightly askew, Charley might have epitomized vaudeville. He had once won a silver watch-fob for pre-eminent buck-dancing at a Coney Island informal, and could sing “Oh, You Great Big Beautiful Doll!” with nasal perfection.

“Yes, sirree, Lil; you got a fine pianner-player fer a husband!”

She squirmed away from his touch and carried the coffee-pot to the little set-for-two table. The chops steamed from a blue-and-white plate. Her husband, unburdened with subtleties, straddled his chair and scraped up to the table; his collapsed collar, with two protruding ends of red necktie, lay on the window-sill; the sleeves of his pink shirt were rolled back to the elbow.

The meal opened in a silence broken only by the clat-clat of dishes and the wail of suffering babies.

“Poor kiddies, they ain't got a chance in a hundred. Gee! If I had the coin, wouldn't I give them a handout of fresh air and milk? I'd give every one of the durn little things a Delmonico banquet. I'd jest as soon get hit in the head as hear them kids bawl.”

Suddenly he glanced up from his plate and pushed himself from the table; his wife was making bread-crumbs out of her bread.

“Say, Lil, I ain't never seen you like this before! Ain't you feeling good? Come on—tell a feller what's the matter with you.”

He rose and came round to her chair, leaning over its back and taking her cheeks between thumb and forefinger.

“Come on, Lil; what's the matter? You ain't sore at me, are you?”

“Can't a girl get tired once in a while?” she said.

“Poor little pussy!” He patted her hair and returned to his place. “Guess what I got!” groping significantly in the direction of his hip-pocket. “Something you been havin' your heart set on fer a long time. Guess!”

“I dunno,” she said.

“Aw, gwan, kiddo! Give a guess.”

“I can't guess, Charley.”

“Well, then, I'll give you three guesses.”

“I dunno.”

“Look—now can you?”

He showed her the top of a small, square box tied with blue cord. It bore a jeweler's mark.

“Can you guess now, Lil? It's something you been aching fer.”

“Lemme alone!” she said.

He looked at her in frank surprise, slowly replacing the box in his hip-pocket.

“Durned if I know what's got you!” he muttered.

“Nothing ain't got me,” she insisted.

He brightened.

“Poor little girl! Never mind; next summer I'm goin' to grab that Atlantic City job I been tellin' you about. The old man said again yesterday that, jest as sure as he opens his sheet-music bazar down there next season, it's me fer the keyboard.”

“His schemes don't ever turn out. I know his talk,” his wife objected.

“Sure they will this time, Lil; he's got a feller to back it. He dropped in special to hear me play the 'Louisanner Rusticanner Rag' to-day; an' honest, Lil, he couldn't keep his feet still! I sprung that new one on him, too—the 'Giddy Glide'—an' I had to laugh; the old man nearly jumped over the pianner—couldn't sit quiet! Just you wait, Lil. I got that job cinched—no more picture-show stuff fer me! It'll be us fer the board-walk next summer!”

“That's jest what you said about grabbin' that Coney Island job this season.”

“I couldn't help it that they cut out the pianner at the Concession, could I? The films ain't no more fun fer me than fer you, honey.”

“It's pretty lonesome for a girl sitting here alone every night. It was bad enough before you took the twelve-to-two job; but I never have no evenin's nohow.”

He looked at her with wide-open eyes.

“I didn't know you were sore, Lil—on the real, I didn't! I jest took that café job fer a few weeks to help along the surprise.” His hand went to his hip-pocket.

“Oh,” she said, her lips curling, “I'm sick of that line of talk.”

“Lil!”

There was a count-five pause; and then the old cheeriness came back into his voice.

“I'm going to cut out the café job, anyway, now that—”

“Oh, never mind,” she said, indifferently. “What's it matter whether you are home at twelve or two? I ain't had no evenin's for a good long time, anyhow.”

“I guess you're right. Don't I wish I had some steady clerkin' job, like Bill! But it don't seem like I am cut out fer anything but pounding ragtime—you knew that, honey, before we was—” He stopped, reddening.

“No, I didn't! If I'd known before we was married what I know now, things might be different. How was I to know that you was goin' to be changed from matinée work to all-night shows? How was I to know you was goin' to make me put up with a life like this? When I see other girls that's married out of the department, and me, I jest wanna die! Look at Sally Lee and Jimmy—they go to vaudyville every week and to Coney Saturdays. You even kick if I wanna go over to Loo's to spend a evening!”

“I don't kick, Lil; I jest don't like to have you running round with that live wire. She ain't your style.”

“That's right—run down my friends that I worked next to in the gloves fer four years! She was good enough fer me then. Me and her is old friends, and jest 'cause I'm married don't make me better'n her.”

“I'm sorry I kicked up about it, honey. Maybe I was wrong.”

“She can tell you that I had swell times when I was in the gloves—even when I was in the notions, too. There wasn't a night I didn't have a bid for some dance or something.”

“Well, if this ain't a darn sight better'n pushing gloves at six per I'll—I'll—”

“I'll give you to understand, Charley Harkins, that I was making eight dollars when I married you, and everybody said that I'd 'a' been promoted to the jewelry in another year.”

She rose, gathered a pyramid of dishes, and clattered them into the dish-pan as he talked. He followed after her.

“Aw, quit your foolin', Lil, can't you? Don't treat a feller like this when he comes home at night. I'll get Shorty to take the piano next Saturday, and we'll do Coney from one end to the other. We only live once, anyway. Come on, Lil; be nice and see what I got fer you, too.”

“Don't treat me like I was a kid! When I was in the gloves I didn't think nothin' of goin' to Coney every other night, and you know it, all right.”

The red surged back into his face.

“Yes, you had a swell time shooting gloves! You used to tell me yourself you was ready to drop at night.”

“Ain't I ready to drop here?” she flashed back at him. “Am I any better off here doin' my work in the hottest flat on Third Avenue?”

“Things'll come out all right, honey. Come on and kiss me before I go.”

She submitted to his embrace passively enough, and at his request retied his necktie round a fresh collar for him.

“Good night, pussy! I'll come in soft so as not to wake you—there ain't goin' to be no more of this two-o'clock business. I'm goin' to cut out the café. Put a glass of milk out fer me, honey. I'm near dead when I get in.”

He struggled into his coat before the little dressing-table mirror of their bedroom and with a sly smile slipped the blue-corded box into a top drawer.

“I got a surprise fer you, Lil—only you ain't in no mood fer it right now.”

“I ain't in no humor for nothin',” she said.

“It's going to be a scorcher. You take it easy and get rid of these blues you been gettin' here lately. You ain't got no better friend than your old man or any one who wants to do more of the right thing by you.”

“I'll take a car-ride over to Loo's to cool off,” she said, apathetically.

He opened his lips to speak; instead he nodded and kissed her twice. Then he hurried out.

After he left her she sank down on the little divan of highly magnetized red plush and stared into space. Face to face with her weeks-old resolve, her courage fainted, and a shudder like ague passed over her. She could hear herself wheeze in her throat; and her petal-like skin, unrelieved by moisture, was alternately hot and cold.

The low-ceiled room, dark except for a reflected slant of yellow gas-light coming in from the kitchen, closed down like an inverted bowl. She went to the window.

On the fire-escape opposite, the child still slept, one little ghost of a bare foot extending over the rail. As she watched, a woman's voice from within the apartment cried out sharply—a panicky cry filled with terror; then a silence—more pregnant than the call itself. Lily knew, with a dull tugging at her heartstrings, that the babe had died. Only a week before she and Charley had seen a little life snuffed out in the apartment above, and she knew the mother-cry. Charley had dressed the child and cried hot, unashamed tears; then, as now, her own eyes were dry, but her throat ached.

East Side tradition has it that every tenth year exacts the largest share of human toil—this might have been Death's Oberammergau!

Trembling, Lilly turned and groped her way into the little bedroom; drawers slid open and slammed shut, tissue-paper rattled, the hasps of a trunk snapped; then came the harsh sing of water pouring from a faucet. Presently she reappeared in the doorway in a fresh white blouse and a dark-blue skirt; there were pink cotton rosebuds on her hat and a long pair of white silk gloves dangling from one hand. In the other she carried a light wicker hand-satchel.

By the shaft of light she reread the small square of yellow paper and impaled it carefully, face up, on the pincushion of their little dressing-table. It poised like a conspicuous butterfly. Then she went out into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk, placed it beside a small cake of ice in a correspondingly small refrigerator, turned off the gas-light, and went out of the apartment without once glancing behind her.

       * * * * *

Miss Lulu Tracy lived in a lower West Side rooming-house. Lily had once dwelt in that same dingy-fronted building, in a room which, like her friend's, was reduced to its lowest terms. The familiar cryptic atmosphere met her as she crossed the threshold. Loo greeted her effusively.

“Lordy, Lil, I was afraid you was gettin' cold feet! Sit right down there on the trunk till I get some of this cold-cream off. I'm ready to drop in my tracks, I am. Three of the lace-girls fainted to-day and had to be took home. Ain't this room awful?”

Lilly sank in a little heap on the trunk.

“It is hot,” she admitted.

“Hot? You look like a cucumber. Wait'll I get this cold-cream off, and tell me all about it. I'm here to tell you that you're all right, you are. Give me a game one every time! But wait till I tell you what's up.”

Miss Tracy laved her face with layers of cold-cream, which she presently removed with a towel.

“Don't I wish I had your skin, Lil!”

Lilly brightened.

“Quit your kiddin', Loo,” she said. “I ain't used to jollying no more.”

“You know yourself you was the best looker we ever had at the counter. Skinny calls you The Lily to this day.”

“I ain't got the looks I once had, Loo.” But her fair face flushed.

“Wait till you get round a little—you'll look five years younger.” Lilly giggled. “On the real, Lil, there wasn't a girl in the department didn't expect you to marry some swell instead of Charley Harkins. If I'd 'a' had your looks I wouldn't been satisfied with nothin' but the real thing. Look at Tootsie grabbin' old man Rickman! She can't hold a candle to you.”

“Just the samey, she'd 'a' rather had Charley if she could 'a' got him. I know a thing or two about that.”

Cold-cream removed, Miss Tracy enveloped her friend in an embrace.

“So you're goin' to bunk with me to-night! Seems like old times, don't it?”

“Just like old times,” said Lilly.

“Now tell me how you got away. He didn't get wise, did he?”

“No; I just left the note, Loo.”

“That'll hold him for a while. You're the real thing, you are! Not that I want to make any trouble, but a blind man could see that you're a fool to spend your time that way. Huh! Sellin' gloves ain't no cinch, but if it ain't got being buried alive beat by a long shot I'll eat my hat!”

Impressed by her friend's gastronomic heroism, Lilly acquiesced. “You're right. I'll try to get my job back to-morrow. Maybe it won't be so easy.”

“Easy?” cried Loo. “Why, the easiest thing you ever tried! The gloves haven't forgot you.”

“I hope not,” sighed Lilly.

“You're game, all right! I like to see a girl stand up for her rights—there ain't no man livin' could boss me! I'd like to see the King of Germany hisself coop me up seven nights in the week an' me stand for it. Not muchy! I got as much fight in me as any man. That's the kind of a hair-pin I am!”

“I'm like you, Loo. I got to thinking over what you told me the other day, and you're right: there ain't no girl would stand for it. Girls gotta have life.”

“Of course they do! And you're going to have some to-night—that's what I got up my sleeve. Mr. Polly, in the laces, is comin' to take me to the Shippin' Clerks' dance up at the One Hundred and Fifteenth Street Hall—and you're coming right along with us.”

Lilly lowered her eyes like a débutante.

“Oh, Loo, I—I can't go to no dances. I—Charley—I didn't mean—”

“I'd like to know what harm there is goin' to a dance with me and my gentleman friend? Didn't Aggie go with us all the time Bill was doin' night-work? Before she got her divorce there wasn't a week she wasn't somewhere with us. Besides, Polly is a perfect gentleman.”

“But I ain't got nothin' to wear, Loo.”

“Didn't you bring what I told you?”

“Yes; but—”

“Well, then, you're goin'. If Charley Harkins don't like it he should have taken you to dances hisself.”

“I ain't been to a dance since the Ladies' Mask me and Charley went to when he was still playing matinées. I've almost forgot how.”

Her eyes were like stars.

“Swell dancers like you used to be don't forget so easy.”

“My dress is old, but it is low-neck.”

“It's all right; and you can wear my forget-me-not wreath in your hair—it'll just match your dress.”

They took the frock from the wicker bag and held it up.

“That's just fine, Lil; and you can carry my old fan—I got a new one from a gentleman friend for Christmas.”

“Loo!”

Lulu piled her hair into an impressive coiffure.

“Oh, Loo, you look just like that picture that's on cigar-boxes!”

“You got the littlest waist I ever seen,” reciprocated Lulu, regarding Lilly's sylphid figure with admiring eyes.

“You ought to have seen me the first year I was working, Loo. I ain't got such a little waist any more, but I did have some figure then.”

They dressed in relays, taking turns about before the splotched mirror.

“Here, Lil, let me pin up them sleeves a little. Mame says all the swell waists up in the ready-to-wears have short sleeves.”

“I've had my eye on a swell silver bracelet in Shank's window, Loo, for a long time; they are so pretty with elbow-sleeves.”

They pecked at each other like preening birds. At seven Lulu's suitor arrived. They took final dabs at themselves.

“He ain't such a nifty looker, Lil, but he sure knows how to treat a girl swell. He ain't none of your piker kind that runs past a drug store like the soda-fountain was after him. Why, I've known him to treat to as many as three sodas in an evenin'! And say, kid, he is some classy dresser—latest jewelry and black-and-white initials worked on his shirt-sleeves. I met him at a mask, and he give me his card.”

“Does he know you work?”

“Yes; but he said he'd rather have a girl tell him she's workin' like I did than to have her stuff him.”

“That's what I used to say; they find out, anyway.”

“Sure they do; the only time I told a guy I didn't work was that time with you.”

“That time you told Mr. Evans you was goin' to school?”

“Yes; and he up and said: 'Yes; you go to school! You wrestle with pots, you do, sis.'”

They laughed reminiscently.

“We sure used to have swell times together, Lulu.”

“Swell times—well, I guess yes! I never did have the same good times with no chum of the department since you left.”

They descended to meet Mr. Polly in the lower hall. That gentleman rose from the hat-tree. Four fingers of a tan glove protruded with studied intent from the breast-pocket of his coat; his trousers and sleeves were creased as definitely as paper. Mr. Polly's features were strictly utilitarian—it was his boast that by a peculiar muscular contraction he could waggle his ears with fidelity to asinine effect.

His mouth was of such proportions that the slightest smile revealed his teeth back to the molars. He smiled as he rose from the hat-tree.

“Howdy-do, Mr. Polly? Is it warm enough for you? I want to make you acquainted with my friend, Lilly Harkins.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Mr. Polly.

“I didn't think you'd mind my bringin' a lady friend along to-night. I thought maybe you could find her a friend up at the hall, Mr. Polly.”

He bowed with alacrity.

“Always ready to do the ladies a favor,” he said, extending both arms akimbo and stepping between them.

Lilly hung back with becoming reticence.

“I'm afraid I'm butting in—two's company an' three's a crowd.”

They hastened to reassure her.

“You just make yourself right at home. I'm always ready to do the ladies a favor, Miss Harkins.”

A startled expression flashed across Lilly's face. Her friend sprang into the breach like a life-saver off a pier.

Miss Harkins ain't the kind of a girl to sponge on nobody. Mr. Polly knows if she's my friend she's all right.”

“That's the idea,” agreed Mr. Polly. “I like to see girls good friends.” The trio swung down the street.

“That's what I always say. Why, before Lil was mar—Why, me and Lil never are stingy with our gentlemen friends. I was always the first one to introduce you—wasn't I, Lil?”

“Yes; and me the same way,” amended Lilly. “I think it's the right way to be.”

“I got a friend comin' up to the dance to-night, just about your style of a fellow, Miss Harkins. One nice chap—he's been in the stock-room at Tracy's for years; some little sport, too.”

“Ain't that grand!” beamed Lulu. “Two couple of us!”

Lilly hummed a little air as they walked along, both girls receiving the slightest of Mr. Polly's sallies with effusion.

“Oh, dear; it's just like going to a show to be with you, Mr. Polly,” gasped Lulu, after the gentleman had waggled his ears beneath his hat until it rose from his head with magician's skill. “How can you be so comical! You ought to be on the stage.”

“That ain't nothin'. You ought to see me keep all the girls in the laces laughin'! I believe in laughin', not cryin'. By the way,” he said, elated with success, “guess this riddle: Why is a doughnut like a life-preserver?”

Both puckered their brows and sought in vain for a similarity between those widely diversified objects. After breathless volunteers the girls owned themselves outwitted; then Mr. Polly relieved the situation.

“A doughnut is like a life-preserver,” he explained, “because they're both sinkers.”

The two gasped with laughter, Lulu placing a helpful hand on her left hip.

“Oh, Mr. Polly,” she panted, “you're simply killin'!”

“Sim-ply kill-in'!” echoed Lilly.

They turned into the dance-hall. Lilly's nostrils widened; the pink flew into her cheeks.

“Oh, say!” she cried; “I'd rather dance than eat.”

Mr. Polly excused himself and hastened away to find his friend. He returned with a dark young man, whose sartorial perfection left nothing to be desired. He had been dancing, and wiped about the edge of his tall collar with a purple-bordered silk handkerchief.

“Ladies,” announced Mr. Polly, “I want to introduce you to the swellest dancer on the floor to-night—you may think I'm kiddin', but I'm not. Miss Tracy and Miss Harkins, this is my friend, Mr. George Sippy.”

Mr. Sippy pirouetted on one tan oxford and cast his eyes upward. “I'm all fussed,” he said; “but pleased to meet you, ladies.”

The girls laughed again. Then they strolled toward the dance-hall, where the gentleman bought tickets. Dancing at the One Hundred and Fifteenth Street Hall was five cents the selection.

The music struck up. Lulu crossed both hands upon her chest, Mr. Polly clasped her round the waist, and they moved off with that sinew tension peculiar to dance-halls. Mr. Sippy turned to Lilly.

“Will you go round, Miss Harkins?”

They melted into the embrace of the dance and moved off. When Mr. Sippy danced every faculty was pressed into service—his head was thrown back and his feet glided like well-trained automatons.

“Wasn't that just grand!” breathed Lilly, when the music ceased. She was softly radiant.

“Swell!” agreed Mr. Sippy, applauding for an encore. “Swell!” He regarded her with new interest. “You're some dancer, kid,” he said.

“Oh, Mr. Sippy, who could help dancin' good with you?”

They glided away again. After the waltz they sought the side-lines, where soft drinks were served. A waiter dabbed at the table-top; Lilly fanned herself and ordered sarsaparilla.

“You don't look hot—you look cool,” said Mr. Sippy, admiringly.

She took a dainty draught through her straw.

“I'm just happy—that's all,” she replied.

The misery, the monotony, the wail of the mother, her own desperation—were away back in the experience of another self. Life had turned on its axis and swung her out of darkness into light. Girls in lacy waists and with swagger hips laughed into her eyes; men looked at her with frank admiration. George Sippy leaned toward her and looked intimately into her face.

“Say,” he said, “Polly must have known I like blondes.”

“Oh, and I'm always wishin' to be a brunette!”

“You're my style, all right.”

“I'll bet you say that to every girl.”

“Nix I do. You can ask Polly if I ain't hard to suit. I know just what style of girl I like.”

“There's a lot in knowin' just what you like,” she said, archly.

“That's some yellow hair you got,” he observed, irrelevantly. “My sister used to have hair like that.”

She felt of her coiffure.

“Do you like 'em? You ought to see 'em just after they been washed.”

Mr. Sippy expressed a polite desire to observe the phenomenon. They danced again. Once in the maze of couples, they caught sight of Lulu and Mr. Polly, and they changed partners; but after a while they drifted together again.

“Gee!” said Mr. Sippy. “I'd rather dance with you.”

“Ain't that funny?” said Lilly. “That's just what I was thinkin'.”

They looked into each other's eyes.

“I ain't the kind of a fellow that takes up with every girl,” explained Mr. Sippy, in self-elucidation.

“That's just what I like,” said Lilly; “that's just the way with me. It ain't everybody I take a likin' to; but when I do like a person I like 'em.”

“Now just look at me,” went on Mr. Sippy. “If I wanted to I could bring a girl down here every night; but I don't, just because it ain't often I take a fancy to a girl.”

“I like for a gentleman not to be so common-like.”

“I like a person or I don't like them, that's all.” He looked at her ringless hands. “You ain't keepin' no steady company, are you?”

She colored clear up into her hair.

“No,” she replied, in a breathy voice.

“Can I have the pleasure of escorting you to Coney to-morrow night?”

“I'll be pleased to accept your company,” she said.

They danced again, and her hair brushed his cheek.

“You're some girl, all right!” he said, holding her close.

She giggled on his shoulder.

“Gee, but I love to dance!”

“Say,” he said, looking down at her suspiciously, “is it my dancing you like or me?”

“Silly!” she whispered. “I like you and your dancing.”

“You're all right, little one!” he assured her.

When they finally left the hall the lights were beginning to dim. The four of them went out into the quiet streets together. The street-cars had ceased to rattle except at long intervals. They walked in twos, arms interlaced, talking in subdued tones. A cool breeze had sprung up.

At a corner drug store they partook of foamy soda-water and scooped, with long-handled spoons, refreshing mouthfuls of ice-cream from their glasses. Perched on high stools before an onyx fountain, they regarded themselves in the mirror and smiled at each other in the reflection.

At Lulu's rooming-house they lingered again, talking in subdued tones on the brownstone stoop.

“I'll call for you early to-morrow night, Miss Harkins; and, since we decided to make a party of it, me and Polly'll call for you and Miss Tracy together.”

“That'll be nice,” she said.

“I'm glad you have no other fellow—I don't like no partnership stuff.”

“I love Coney,” she said.

At last they separated, and the two girls tiptoed up to the terrific heat of their box.

“Phew!” gasped Lilly. “Ain't this just awful?”

Lulu lighted the gas and turned ecstatic eyes upon her friend.

“Lil, I always did say you brought me luck when it came to fellers—I think I got him to-night, all right.”

“Oh, Loo, ain't I glad!”

“Just feel my hand, Lil—how excited I am!”

“I'm sure glad for you, dearie.”

“Glad! Girl, you don't know what I'd give to own a corner of my own, where I'd never have to see a glove no more!”

She curled up on the bed, forgetful of everything but her own potential happiness.

“He sure did everything but pop to-night. Come over here and kiss me, kid.”

They kissed.

“My red kimono's on the top shelf—you undress first; just help yourself.” She slumped deeper in bed. “I guess you didn't make some hit yourself to-night, Miss Harkins—and I guess I didn't make some hit myself!”

Lulu laughed immoderately. Lilly fingered the lace at her throat.

“What's the matter? You ain't sore at the joke, are you, Miss Harkins?”

“No,” replied Lilly; she spoke through a mental and physical nausea—a reaction which laid violent hold of and sickened her. Lulu loomed to her like a grotesque figure. The imprint of Mr. Sippy's farewell hand-shake was still moist in her own hand.

“What time is it, Loo?”

“Well, what do you know about that? It's ten after one! Gee! don't I wish to-morrow was Sunday? You gotta climb out early with me if you're goin' to that job.”

“One o'clock!” Lilly's voice caught in terror. “One o'clock! I can't beat Charley home no more now.”

“Whatta you mean? Ain't you goin' to stay here with me? You ain't quittin' now, are you—after all the trouble I went to to interdooce you to my gentlemen friends?”

Lilly nodded.

“You been awfully good, Loo; but I ain't got the nerve. I gotta go back to Charley.”

Lulu jerked to a sitting posture, her feet dangling over the edge of the bed.

“Well, ain't this a fine come-off! What'll my friends think of me? I always say you never get no thanks for tryin' to help other people; that's what I get for tryin' to do the right thing by you.”

“It ain't you, Loo—I had a fine and dandy time.”

“Come on, Lil—come to bed, and you'll be all right in the mornin'. Gee! Won't the girls be glad to see the beauty back? Come on to bed—it's too late for you to go back to-night, anyhow; there's time to talk 'bout things in the mornin'. I wouldn't let any man know I couldn't get along without him! Come on, Lil, and tell me what the guy to-night was like.”

Lilly was pinning on her hat in an agony of haste.

“I left the note on the pincushion. If he goes in the kitchen for his milk first, like he does on hot nights, maybe I can beat him! He may be—”

Her voice trailed down the hall. She fumbled a little at the street door, hot flushes darting over her body.

In the street-car Lilly dug her nails through the silk palms of her gloves and sat on the edge of the seat, her pulse pounding in her ear. Her voiceless prayer beat against her brain. She did not see or think beyond the possibility of reaching their bedroom before her husband.

Charley was due home now—as she was lumbering across town in a lethargic street-car. Her whole destiny hung on the frail thread of possibility—the possibility that her husband would follow his wont of warm nights and browse round the kitchen larder before entering their room. She drew in a suffocating breath at the thought of Charley's wrath—she had once seen him on the verge of anger.

To reach home and the note first! That hope beat against her temples; it flooded her face with color; it turned her cold and clammy. She left the car a corner too soon and ran the block, thinking to gain time over the jogging street-car; it passed her midblock, and she sobbed in her throat.

She turned the corner sharply. From the street she could see the yellow glow of gas coming from a side-window of her apartment; the light must come from one of two rooms—her sick senses could not determine which.

“Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!” her breath came in long, inarticulate wheezes. “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!” A policeman eyed her suspiciously and struck the asphalt with his stick. She turned into the embrace of the apartment house and ran up the three flights of stairs with limbs that trembled under her; her cold fingers groped about before she could muster strength to turn the key in the lock.

Lilly entered noiselessly. The bedroom was dark. Tears sprang to her eyes. For a moment she reeled; then she felt along the parlor wall to the middle room. By the shaft of light from the kitchen she could see the yellow note undisturbed, poised like a conspicuous butterfly. Her hand closed over it—she crushed it in her palm.

“Charley!” she called, and entered the kitchen.

Her husband was standing by the window—his face the white of cold ashes. He looked up at her like a man coming out of a dream.

“Charley,” she cried, “I was afraid you'd get worried. I went over to Loo's, and we stayed up and talked so late—I didn't know—”

She stopped at the sight of his face; her fear returned.

“Charley, you—you—”

He regarded her, with the life coming back into his eyes and warming his face.

“It's this heat; this pesky old heat almost got me!”

“My poor, sweet boy!” she said, with a sob of relief. “My poor, sweet boy!”

He caressed her weakly, like a man whose strength has been drained from him.

“You ain't mad at me because I kicked up at supper, are you, Charley? You know I don't mean what I say when I'm out of sorts—you know there ain't nobody like my boy!”

[Illustration: “I WENT OVER TO LOO's, AND WE STAYED UP AND TALKED SO LATE—I DIDN'T KNOW—“]

He kissed her.

“No; I ain't sore, honey.”

“Here's your milk in the ice-box. You must have just got in before me. An' let me fix you a sardine sandwich, lovey.”

“I—I ain't hungry, Lil. I—I can't eat nothin'—honest.”

“I want you to, Charley—you've had a hard day.”

“Yes, a hard day!” he repeated, smiling.

She prepared him a sandwich. At the sink her foot struck a small, square package bearing a jeweler's stamp. It might have dropped there from nerveless fingers or been wilfully hurled.

She picked it up wonderingly. It was neatly tied with blue cord.

“What's this?”

Her husband started.

“That? Oh, that's the little surprise I was tellin' you 'bout. I started to fix it fer to-morrow; but—but—” His voice died in his throat.

She opened it with trembling fingers.

“It's the silver bracelet!” she cried. “It's the silver bracelet!”

The unshed tears sprang to her eyes.

“Oh, Charley dear, you ain't—you ain't—” The tears came like an avalanche down an incline and choked off her speech.

He folded her to him.

“No, dear; I ain't!” he soothed.

 
 
 

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