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The Paradise Trail by Fannie Hurst

 

At five o'clock the Broadway store braced itself for the last lap of a nine-hour day. Girls with soul-and-body weariness writ across their faces in the sure chirography of hair-line wrinkles stood pelican-fashion, first on one leg and then on the other, to alternate the strain.

Floor-walkers directed shoppers with less of the well-oiled suavity of the morning; a black-and-white-haired woman behind the corset-counter whitened, sickened, and was revived in the emergency-room; the jewelry department covered its trays with a tan canvas sheeting; the stream of shoppers thinned to a trickle.

Across from the notions and buttons the umbrella department suddenly bloomed forth with a sale of near-silk, wooden-handled umbrellas; farther down, a special table of three-ninety-eight rubberette mackintoshes was pushed out into mid-aisle.

Miss Tillie Prokes glanced up at the patch of daylight over the silk-counters—a light rain was driving against the window.

“Honest, now, Mame, wouldn't that take the curl out of your hair?”

“What's hurtin' you?”

“Rainin' like a needle shower, and I got to wear my new tan coat to-night, 'cause I told him in the letter I'd wear a tannish-lookin' jacket with a red bow on the left lapel, so he'd know me when I come in the drug store.”

Mame placed the backs of her hands on her hips, breathed inward like a soprano testing her diaphragm, and leaned against a wooden spool-case.

“It is rainin' like sixty, ain't it? Say, can you beat it? Watch the old man put Myrtle out in the aisle at the mackintosh-table—there! Didn't I tell you! Gee! I bet she could chew a diamond, she's so mad.”

“She ain't as mad as me; but I'm going to wear my tan if it gets soaked.”

Tillie sold a packet of needles and regarded the patch of window with a worried pucker on her small, wren-like face.

“Honest, ain't it a joke, Til?—you havin' the nerve to answer that ad and all! You better be pretty white to me, or I'll snitch! I'll tell Angie you're writin' pink notes to Box 25, Evenin' News—Mr. Box 25! Say, can you beat it!”

Mame laughed in her throat, smoothed her frizzed blonde hair, sold a paper of pins and an emery heart.

“Like fun you'll tell Angie! I got it all fixed to tell her I'm going to the picture-show with you and George to-night.”

“Before I'd let a old grouch like her lord it over me! It ain't like she was your sister or relation, or something—but just because you live together. Nix on that for mine.”

“She don't think a girl's got a right to be young or nothin'! Look at me—a regular stick-at-home. Gee! a girl's got to have something.”

“Sure she does! Ain't that what I've been tryin' to preach to you ever since we've been chumming together? You ain't a real old maid yet—you got real takin' ways about you and all; you ought to be havin' a steady of your own.”

“Don't I know it?”

“Look how you got to do now—just because she never lets you go to dances or nothin' with us girls.”

“She ain't never had it, and she don't want me to have it.”

“Say, tell it to the Danes! She ain't got them snappy black eyes of hers for nothin'. Whatta you live with her for? There ain't a girl up in the corsets that's got any use for her.”

“She's been pretty white to me, just the samey—raised me and all when I didn't have no one. She's got her faults; but I kinda got the habit of livin' with her now—I got to stick.”

“Gee! even a stepmother like Carrie's'll let her have fun once in a while. It's Angie's own fault that you got to meet 'em in drug stores and take chances on ads and all.”

“I'm just answerin' that ad for fun—I ain't in earnest.”

“I've always been afraid of matrimonial ads and things like that. You know I was the first one to preach your gettin' out and gettin' spry—that's me all over! I believe in bein' spry; but I always used to say to maw before I was keepin' steady with George, 'Ads ain't safe.'”

“I ain't afraid.”

“Lola Flint, over in the jewelry, answered one once—'Respectable young man would like to make the acquaintance of a genteel young lady; red hair preferred.' And when she seen him he had only one eye, and his left arm shot off.”

“I ain't afraid. Say, if Effie Jones Lipkind can answer one, with her behind-the-counter stoop and squint, and get away with it, there ain't no reason why there ain't more grand fellows like Gus Lipkind writin' ads.”

“Come out of the dark room, Til! Effie had two hundred saved up.”

“I ain't ashamed of not havin' any steadies. Where's a straight-walkin' girl like me goin' to get 'em? Look at that rain, will you!—and me tellin' him I'd be there in tan, with red ribbon on the lapel!”

“Paper says rain for three days, too. Angie's a old devil, all-righty, or you could meet him in your flat.”

“He's going to wear a white carnation and a piece of fern on his left coat lapel; and if he don't look good I ain't going up.”

“What did he call hisself—'a bachelor of refined and retiring habits'? Thank Gawd!—if I do say it—George is refined, but he ain't over-retirin'. It's the retirin' kind that like to sit at home in their carpet slippers instead of goin' to a picture-show. Straighten that bin of pearl buttons, will you, Til? Say, how my feet do burn to-night! It's the weather—I might 'a' known it was goin' to rain.”

Tillie ran a nervous finger down inside her collar; there was a tremolo in her quail-like voice.

“A fellow that writes a grand little letter like him can't be so bad—and it's better to have 'em retirin'-like than too fresh. Listen! It's real poetry-like: 'Meet me in the Sixth Avenue Drug Store, Miss 27. I'll have a white carnation and a piece of fern in my left buttonhole, and a smile that won't come off; and when I spy the yellow jacket I'm comin' up and say, “Hello!” And if I look good I want you to say “Hello!” back.' ... The invisible hair-pins only come by the box, ma'am. Umbrellas across the aisle, ma'am.... That ain't so bad for a start, is it, Mame?... Ten cents a box, ma'am.”

“You got your nerve, all-righty, Til—but, gee! I glory in your spunk. If I was tied to a old devil like Angie I'd try it, too. Is the back of my collar all right, Til? Look at Myrtle out there, will you—how she's lovin' that mackintosh sale!”

“Water spots tan, don't it?” said Tillie, balancing her cash-book.

At six o'clock the store finished its last lap with a hysterical singing of electric bells, grillingly intense and too loud, like a woman who laughs with a sob in her throat.

Tillie untied her black alpaca apron, snapped a rubber band about her cash-book, concealed it beneath the notion-shelves, and brushed her black-serge skirt with a whisk-broom borrowed from stock.

“Good night, Mame! I guess you're waitin' for George, ain't you? See you in the morning. I'll have lots to tell you, too.”

“Good night, Til! Remember, if he turns out to be a model for a classy-clothes haberdashery, it was me put you on to the idea.”

Tillie pressed a black-felt sailor tight down on her head until only a rim of brown hair remained, slid into her black jacket, and hurried out with an army of workers treading at her slightly run-down heels and nerves.

Youth, even the fag-end of Youth, is like a red-blooded geranium that fights to bloom though transplanted from a garden bed to a tin can in a cellar window. A faint-as-dawn pink persisted in flowing underneath the indoor white of Miss Prokes's cheeks—the last rosy shadow of a maltreated girlhood, which too long had defied the hair-line wrinkles, the notion-counter with the not-to-be-used stool behind it, nine hours of arc-light substitute for the sunshine on the hillside and the green shade of the dell.

At the doors a taupe-colored dusk and a cold November rain closed round her like a wet blanket. She shrank back against the building and let the army tramp past her. They dissolved into the stream like a garden hose spraying the ocean.

Broadway was black and shining as polished gunmetal, with reflections of its million lights staggering down into the wet asphalt. Umbrellas hurried and bobbed as if an army of giant mushrooms had suddenly insurrected; cabs skidded, honked, dodged, and doubled their rates; home-going New York bought evening papers, paid as it entered, and strap-hung its way to Bronx and Harlem firesides.

The fireside of the Bronx is the steam-radiator. Its lullabies are sung before a gilded three-coil heater; its shaving-water and kettle are heated on that same contrivance. It is as much of an epic in apartment living as condensed milk and folding-davenports.

All of which has little enough to do with Miss Tillie Prokes, except that in her lifetime she had hammered probably a caskful of nails into the tops of condensed-milk cans. Also she could unfold her own red-velours davenport; cold-cream her face; sugar-water her hair and put it up in kids; climb into bed and fall asleep with a despatch that might have made more than one potentate, counting sheep in his hair-mattressed four-poster, aguish with envy.

Miss Prokes yawned as she waited and regarded a brilliantly illuminated display window of curve-fingered ladies in exquisite waxen attitudes and nineteen-fifty crêpe-de-Chine gowns. Her breath clouded the plate-glass, and she drew her initials in the circle and yawned again.

With the last driblet of employees from the store a woman cut diagonally through a group and hurried toward Miss Prokes.

“Come on, Tillie!”

“Gee! I was afraid you wouldn't have a umbrella, Angie. What made you so late? The rest of the corsets have gone long ago.”

“Oh, I just stopped a minute to take a milk-and-rose-leaves bath—they're doin' it in our best families this year.”

Tillie glanced at her companion sharply.

“What's the matter, Angie? You ain't had one of your spells again, have you? Your voice sounds so full of breath and all.”

Angie pushed a strand of black-and-white hair up under her nest-like hat. Her small, black eyes were too far back; and her face was slightly creased and yellow, like an old college diploma when it is fished out of the trunk to show the grandchildren.

“I just keeled over like a tenpin—that's all! It came on so sudden—while I was sellin' a dame a dollar-ninety-eight hipless—that even old Higgs was scared and went up to the emergency-room with me hisself.”

“Oh, Angie—ain't that a shame, now!”

Tillie linked her arm in the older woman's and, with their joint umbrella slanted against the fine-ribbed rain, they plunged into the surge of the street. Wind scudded the rain along the sidewalks; electric signs, all blurred and streaky through the mist, were dimmed, like gas-light seen through tears.

“We better ride home to-night, Angie—you with one of your spells, and this weather and all.”

“You must 'a' been clipping your gilt-edge bonds this afternoon instead of sellin' buttons! It would take more'n only a bad heart and a rainstorm and a pair of thin soles to make me ride five blocks.”

“I—I'll take your turn to-night for fixin' supper. You ain't feelin' well, Angie—I'll take your turn to-night.”

They turned into a high-walled, black, cross-town street. The wind turned with them and beat javelin-like against their backs and blew their skirts forward, then shifted and blew against their breathing.

“Gawd!” said the older woman, lowering their umbrella against the onslaught. “Honest, sometimes I wish I wuz dead and out of it. Whatta we get out of livin', anyway?”

“Aw, Angie!”

“I do wish it!”

They leaned into the wind.

“I—I don't mind rain much. Me and Mame and George are going to the Gem to-night—they're showing the airship pictures over there. I ain't goin' unless you're feelin' all right, though. They've got the swellest pictures in town over there.”

“It's much you care about leavin' me alone or not when you can run round nights like a—like a—”

“Don't begin, Angie. A girl's got to have fun once in a while! Gee! the way you been holding on to me! I—I ain't even met the fellows like the other girls. All you think I like to do is sit home nights and sew. Look at the other girls. Look at Mamie Plute—she's five years younger'n me—only twenty-three; and she—”

“That's the thanks I get for protectin' and watchin' and raisin' and—”

“Aw, Angie, I—”

“Don't Angie me!”

“I—I ain't a kid—the way you fuss at me!”

They turned into their apartment house. A fire-escape ran zigzag down its front, and on each side of the entrance ash-cans stood sentinel. At each landing of their four flights up a blob of gas-light filled the hallway with dim yellow fog, and from the cracks of closed doors came the heterogeneous smells of steam, hot vapors, and damp—the intermittent crying of children.

After the first and second flights Miss Angie paused and leaned against the wall. Her breath came from between her dry lips like pants from an engine, and beneath her eyes the parchment skin wrinkled and hung in small sacs like those under the eyes of a veteran pelican.

“You take your time comin', Angie. I'll go ahead and light up and put on some coffee for you—some real hot coffee.”

Tillie ran lightly up the stairs. Through the opacity of the fog her small, dark face was outlined as dimly as a ghost's, with somber eyes burning in the sockets. Theirs was the last of a long hall of closed doors—drab-looking doors with perpendicular panels and white-china knobs.

Tillie fitted in her key, groped along the shadowy mantel for a match, and lighted a side gas-bracket. Her dripping umbrella traced a wet path on the carpet. She carried it out into the kitchenette and leaned it in a corner of the sink. When Angie faltered in a moment later a blue-granite coffee-pot was already beginning to bubble on the two-burner gas-stove and the gentle sizzle of frying bacon sent a bluish haze through the rooms.

“Say, Angie, how you want your egg?”

“I don't want none.”

“Sure you do! I'll fry it and bring it in to you.” Angie flopped down on the davenport. Her skirt hung thick and dank about her ankles, and the back of her coat and her sleeve-tops were rain-spotted and wet-wool smelling where the umbrella had failed to protect her.

She unbuttoned the coat and the front of her shirt-waist, unlaced her shoes and kicked them off her feet. In the sallow light her face, the ocher wallpaper, the light oak center-table, the matting on the floor, and the small tin trunk were of a color. She took up her shoes in one hand, her coat in the other, and slouched off to a small one-window box of a room, with an unmade cot and a straight chair two-thirds filling it.

Happy the biographers whose Desdemonas burrow damask cheeks into silken pillows, whose Prosperines limp on slim ghost-feet through Lands of Fancy! Angie limped, too; but in her flat-arched, stockinged feet, and to an unmade, tousled bed. And all the handmaids of her sex—Love, Romance, and Beauty—were strangely absent; or could the most sybaritic of biographers find them out?

Only half undressed she tumbled in, pulled the coverings tight up about her neck, and turned her face to the wall. Poor Angie! Neither Prosperine, Desdemona, nor any of the Lauras, Catherines, or Juliets, had ever sold corsets, faced the soul-racking problem of eight dollars a week, or been untouched by the golden wand that transforms life into a phantasmagoria of love.

Tillie spread her little meal on the golden-oak table in the front room.

“Come on, Angie—or if you ain't feeling well I'll bring you in a bite.”

“I ain't sick.”

“Well, if you ain't sick, for Gawd's sake, where did you get the grouch?”

“I'm comin' in if you give me time. Where's my wrapper?”

They dined in a desultory sort of way, with Tillie up and down throughout the meal for a bread-knife, a cup of water, sugar for Angie's strong coffee.

“If you ain't feelin' good to-night I won't go, Angie.”

“I'm feelin' all right—I'm used to sittin' home alone.”

“If you talk like that—I won't go, then.”

“Sure! You go on! Don't mind me.”

“There's another corset sale advertised for to-morrow, ain't there? Gee! They don't care how many sales they spring on the girls down there, do they? Didn't you just have your semi-annual clearin'?”

“Yes; but they got a batch of Queenly shapes—two-ninety-eight—they want to get rid of. They're goin' to discontinue the line and put in the Straight-Front Flexibles.”

Angie sipped her coffee in long draughts. Her black flannel wrapper fell away at the neck to reveal her unbleached throat, with two knobs for neck-bones.

“Let the dishes be, Angie—I'll do 'em in the morning. I wonder if it's raining yet? It's sure too cold to wear my old black. I'll have to wear my tan.”

Rain beat a fine tattoo against the windows. Tillie crossed and peered anxiously out, cupping her eyes in her hand and straining through the reflecting window-pane at the undistinguishable sky; her little wren-like movements and eyes were full of nerves.

“It'll be all right with an umbrella,” she urged—“eh, Angie?”

“Yes.”

Tillie hurried to the little one-window room. There were two carmine spots high on her cheek-bones; as she dressed herself before a wavy mirror her lips were open and parted like a child's, and the breath came warm and fast between them.

“I'll be home early to-night, Angie. You sleep on the davenport. I don't mind the lumps in the cot.”

She frizzed her front hair with a curling-iron she heated in the fan of the gas-flame, and combed out the little spring-tight curls until they framed her face like a fuzzy halo. Her pink lawn waist came high up about her neck in a trig, tight-fitting collar; and when she finally pressed on her sailor hat, and slid into her warm-looking tan jacket the small magenta bow on her left coat-lapel heaved up and down with her bosom.

“Say,” she called through the open doorway, “I wish you'd see those seventy-nine-cent gloves, Angie—already split! How'd yours wear, huh?”

Silence.

“You care if I wear yours to-night, Angie?”

Silence.

“Aw, Angie, if you're sick why don't you say so and not go spoilin' my evening? Gee! If a girl would listen to you she'd have a swell time of it—she would! A girl's gotta have life.”

She fastened a slender gold chain with a dangling blue-enamel heart round her neck.

“Aw, I guess I'll stay home. There ain't no fun in anything, with you poutin' round like this.”

Tillie appeared in the doorway, gloves in hand. Angie was still at the uncleared table; her cheek lay on the red-and-white table-cloth, and her face was turned away.

“Angie!”

The room was quiet with the ear-pressing silence of vacuum. Tillie crossed and, with hands that trembled a bit, shook the figure at the table. The limp arms slumped deeper, and the waist-line collapsed like a meal-sack tied in the middle.

“Angie, honey!” Tillie's hand touched a cheek that was cold, but not with the chill of autumn.

Then Tillie cried out—the love-of-life cry of to-day and to-morrow, and all the echoing and re-echoing yesterdays—and along the dim-lit hall the rows of doors opened as if she had touched their secret springs.

Hurrying feet—whispers—far-away faces—strange hands—a professional voice and cold, shining instruments—the silence of the tomb—a sheet-covered form on the red-velvet davenport! The fear of the Alone—the fear of the Alone!

Miss Angie's funeral-day dawned ashen as dusk—a sodden day, with the same autumn rain beating its one-tone tap against the windows and ricochetting down the panes, like tears down a woman's cheeks.

At seven three alarm-clocks behind the various closed doors down the narrow aisle of hallway sounded a simultaneous call to arms; and a fourth reveille, promptly muffled beneath a pillow, thridded in the tiny room with the rumpled cot and the wavy mirror.

Miss Mamie woke reluctantly, crammed the clock beneath the pillow of her strange bed, and burrowed a precious moment longer in the tangled bedclothes. Sleep tugged at her tired lids and oppressed her limbs. She drifted for the merest second, floating off on the silken weft of a half-conscious dream. Then memory thudded within her, and the alarm-clock again thudded beneath the pillow.

She sprang out of bed, brushed the yellow mat of hair out of her eyes, and wriggled into her clothes in tiptoe haste.

“Til!” she cried, peering into the darkened room beyond and pitching her voice to a raspy little whisper. “Why didn't you wake me?”

She veered carefully round the gloom-shrouded furniture and dim-shaped, black-covered object that occupied the center of the room, into the kitchenette.

“I didn't mean to fall asleep, Til; honest, I didn't. Gee! Ain't I a swell friend to have, comin' to stay with you all night and goin' dead on you? But, honest, Til—may I die if it ain't so—with you away from the counter all day yesterday, and the odds-and-ends sale on, I was so tired last night I could 'a' dropped.”

Tillie raised the gas-flame and pushed the coffee-pot forward. Through the wreath of hot steam her little face was far away and oyster-colored.

“Come on, Mame; I got your breakfast. Ain't it a day, though? Poor Angie—how she did hate the rain, and her havin' to be buried in it!”

“Ain't it a shame?—and her such a good soul! Honest, Til, ain't it funny her being dead? Think of it—us home from the store and Angie dead! Who'd 'a' thought one of them heart spells would take her off?”

“I ain't goin' to let you stay here only up to noon, Mame. There's no use your gettin' docked a whole day. It's enough for me to go out to the cemetery. You report at noon for half a day.”

“Like fun I'm goin' to work at noon! You think I'm goin' to quit you and leave you here alone? If Higgs don't like two of us being away from the counter the old skinflint knows what he can do! He can regulate our livin' with his stop-watch, but not our dyin'.”

“There ain't nothin' for you to do round here, Mame—honest, there ain't—except ride 'way out there in the rain and lose half a day. She—she's all ready in her black-silk dress—all I got to do is follow her out now.”

“Gawd! What a day, too!”

“Carrie and Lil was going to stay with me this morning, too; but I says to them, I says, there wasn't any use gettin' 'em down on us at the store. What's the use of us all getting docked when you can't do any good here? The undertaker's a nice-mannered man, and he'll ride—ride out with me.”

“You all alone and—”

“Everything's fixed—they sent up her benefit money from the store, and I got enough for expenses and all; and she—she wouldn't want you to. She was a great one herself for never missin' a day at the store.”

Large tears welled in Tillie's eyes.

“She was a grand woman!” said Mame, warm tears in her own eyes, taking a bite out of her slice of bread and washing it down with a swab of coffee. “There—there wasn't a girl in the corsets wasn't crying yesterday when they was gettin' up the collection for her flowers.”

Tillie's lower lip quivered, and she set down her coffee untasted.

“She might have been a man-hater and strict with me, and all that—but what did she have out of it? She was nothing but a drudge all her life. Since I was a cash-girl she stuck to me like she—was my mother, all-righty; and once, when I—I had the mumps, she—she—”

Tillie melted into the wide-armed embrace of her friend, and together they wept, with the tap-tapping of the rain on the window behind them, and the coffee-pot boiling over through the spout, singing as it doused the gas-flames.

“She used to mend my s-stockings on—on the sly.”

“She was always so careful and all about you keepin' the right company—it was a grand thing for you that you had her to live with—I always used to say that to maw. And what a trade she had! She could look at your figure and lace you up in a straight-front quicker'n any of the young girls in the department.”

“I—I know it. Why, even in the Subway she could tell by just lookin' at a hip whether it was wearin' one of her double bones or girdle tops. If ever a soul deserved a raise it was Angie. She'd 'a' got it, too!”

“She was a grand woman, Til!”

“You tell the girls at the store, Mame, I—I'm much obliged for the flowers. Angie would have loved 'em, too; but gettin' 'em when she was dead didn't give her the chance to enjoy them.”

“She's up in Heaven, sitting next to the gold-and-ivory throne, now; and she knows they're here, Til—she can look right down and see 'em.”

“I'm glad they sent her carnations, then—she loved 'em so!”

“I kinda hate to leave you at noon, Til—the funeral and all.”

“It's all right, Mame. You can look at her asleep before you go.”

They tiptoed to the front room and raised the shades gently. Angie lay in the cold sleep of death, her wax-like hands folded on her flat breast, and quiet, as if the grubbing years had fallen from her like a husk; and in their place a madonna calm, a sleep, and a forgetting. They regarded her; the sobs rising in their throats.

“She looks just like she fell asleep, Til—only younger-like. And, say, but that is a swell coffin, dearie!”

Like Niobe all tears, Tillie dabbed at her eyes and dewy cheeks.

“She was always kicking—poor dear!—at having to pay a dime a week to the Mutual Aid; but she'd be glad if she could see—first-class undertaking and all—everything paid for.”

“I've kicked more'n once, too, but I'm glad I belong now. Honest, for a dime a week—silver handles and all. Poor Angie! Poor Angie!”

Poor Angie, indeed! who never in all the forty-odd years of her life had been so rich; with her head on a decent satin pillow, and a white carnation at her breast; her black-and-white dotted foulard dress draped skilfully about her; and her feet, that would never more ache, resting upward like a doll's in its box!

“Oh, Gawd, ain't I all alone, though; ain't I, though?”

“Aw, Til!”

“I—I—Oh—”

“Watch out, honey—you're crushing all the grand white carnations the girls sent! Say, wouldn't Angie be pleased! 'Rest in Peace,' it says. See, honey! Don't you cry, for it says for her to rest in peace; and there's the beautiful white dove on top and all—a swell white bird. Don't you cry, honey.”

“I—I won't.”

“Me and George won't forget you. Honest, you never knew any one more sympathizing-like than George; there ain't a funeral that boy misses if he can help it. He's good at pall-bearing, too. If it was Sunday instead of Friday that boy would be right on tap. There, dearie, don't cry.”

Again Mame's tears of real sympathy mingled with her friend's; and they wept in a tight embrace, with the hot tears seeping through their handkerchiefs.

At eleven o'clock a carriage and a black hearse embossed in Grecian urns drew up in the rain-swept street. Windows shrieked upward and heads leaned out. A passing child, scuttling along the bubbly sidewalks, ran his forefinger along the sweating glass sides of the hearse, and a buttoned-up, oilskinned driver flecked at him with his whip. Street-cars grazed close to the carriage-wheels, and once a grocery's delivery automobile skidded from its course and bumped smartly into the rear. The horses plunged and backed in their traces.

Mame reached her yellow head far out of the window.

“They're here, Til. I wish you could see the hearse—one that any one could be proud to ride in! Here, let me help you on with your coat, dearie. I hope it's warm enough; but, anyway, it's black. Say, if Angie could only see how genteel everything is! The men are comin' up—here, lemme go to the door. Good morning, gen'l'men! Step right in.”

Miss Angie's undertaker was all that she could have wished—a deep-eyed young man, with his carefully brushed hair parted to the extreme left and swept sidewise across his head; and his hand inserted like a Napoleon's between the second and third buttons of his long, black broadcloth coat.

“Good morning, Miss Prokes! It's a sad day, ain't it?”

Tears trembled along her lids.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lux; it's a sad day.”

“A sad, sad day,” he repeated, stepping farther into the room, with his two attendants at a respectful distance behind him.

There were no rites. Tillie mumbled a few lines to herself out of a little Bible with several faded-ribbon bookmarks dangling from between the pages.

“This was poor Angie's book. I'll keep it for remembrance.”

“Poor Angie!” said Mame.

“'In the midst of life we are in death,'“ said Mr. Lux. “If you're all ready now we can start, Miss Prokes. Don't be scared, little missy.”

There was a moment of lead-heavy silence; then the two attendants stepped forward, and Tillie buried her face and ears on Mame's sympathetic shoulder. And so Angie's little procession followed her.

“I'm all for going along, Mr. Lux; but Tillie's that bent on my going back to the store for the half-day. I—I hate to let her go out there alone and all.”

“I'm going out in the carriage myself, missy. There ain't a thing a soul could do for the little girl. I'll see that she ain't wantin' for nothin'—a Lux funeral leaves no stone unturned.”

“You—you been awful good to me, Mame! I'll be back at the store Monday.”

“Good-by, honey! Here, let me hold the umbrella while you get in the carriage. Gawd! ain't this a day, though? I'll go back up-stairs and straighten up a bit before I go to the store. Good-by, honey! Just don't you worry.”

A few rain-beaten passersby huddled in the doorway to watch the procession off. Heads leaned farther from their windows. Within the hearse the Dove of Peace titillated on its white-carnation pillow as they moved off.

Tillie sank back against a soft corner of the carriage's black rep upholstery, which was punctured ever so often with deep-sunk buttons. There was a wide strap dangling beside the window for an arm-rest, and a strip of looking-glass between the front windows.

“I hope you are comfortable, little missy. If I say it myself, our carriages are comfortable—that's one thing about a Lux funeral. There ain't a trust concern in the business can show finer springs or better tufting. But it's a easy matter to take cold in this damp. I've seen 'em healthy as a herring go off just like that!” said Mr. Lux, snapping his fingers to emphasize the precipitousness of sudden death.

“I ain't much of a one to take cold—neither was poor Angie. There wasn't a girl in the corsets had a better constitution than poor Angie. She always ailed a lot with her heart; but we never thought much of it.”

“I thought she was your sister; but they say she was just your friend.”

“Yes; but she was all I had—all I had.”

“Such is life.”

“Such is life.”

They crept through the city streets, stopping to let cars rumble past them, pulling up sharply before reckless pedestrians; then a smooth bowling over a bridge as wide as a boulevard and out into the rain-sopped country, with leafless trees stretching their black arms against a rain-swollen sky, and the wheels cutting the mud road like a knife through cold grease.

“Angie would have loved this ride! She was always hatin' the rich for ridin' when she couldn't.”

“There ain't a trust company in town can beat my carriages. I got a fifty-dollar, one-carriage funeral here that can't be beat.”

“Everything is surely fine, Mr. Lux.”

“Lemme cover your knees with this rug, missy. We have one in all the carriages. You look real worn out, poor little missy. It's a sad day for you. Here, sit over on this side—it's quit rainin' now, and I'll open the window.”

The miles lengthened between them and the city, the horses were mud-splashed to their flanks. They turned into a gravel way and up an incline of drive. At its summit the white monuments of the dead spread in an extensive city before them—a calm city, with an occasional cross standing boldly against the sky.

“Lots of these were my funerals,” explained Mr. Lux. “That granite block over there—this marble-base column. I buried old man Snift of the Bronx last July. They've been four Lux funerals in that family the past two years. His cross over there's the whitest Carrara in this yard.”

Tillie turned her little tear-ravaged face toward the window, but her eyes were heavy and without life.

“I—I don't know what I'd do if you wasn't along, Mr. Lux. I—I'm scared.”

“I'm here—don't you worry. Don't you worry. I'm just afraid that little lightweight jacket ain't warm enough.”

“I got a heavier one; but this is mournin', and it's all I got in black.”

“It's not the outside mournin' that counts for anything, missy; it's the crape you wear on your heart.”

They buried Angie on a modest hillside, where the early sun could warm her and where the first spring anemones might find timid place. The soggy, new-turned earth filled up her grave with muffled thumps that fell dully on Tillie's heart and tortured her nerve-ends.

“Oh! oh! oh!” Her near-the-surface tears fell afresh; and when the little bed was completed, and the pillow of peace placed at its head, she was weak and tremble-lipped, like a child who has cried itself into exhaustion.

“Ah, little missy!” said Mr. Lux, breathing outward and passing his hand over his side-swept hair. “Life is lonely, ain't it? Lonely—lonely!”

“Y-yes,” she said.

The rain had ceased, but a cold wind flapped Tillie's skirts and wrapped them about her limbs. They were silhouetted on their little hilltop against the slate-colored sky, and all about them were the marble monoliths and the Rocks of Ages of the dead.

“Goodbye, Angie!” she said, through her tears. “Goodbye, Angie!” And they went down the hillside, with the wind tugging at their hats, into their waiting carriage, and back as they had come, except that the hearse rolled swifter and lighter and the raindrops had dried on the glass.

“Oh-ah!” said Mr. Lux, breathing outward again and blinking his deep-set eyes. “Life is lonely—lonely, ain't it?—for those like you and me?”

“Lonely,” she repeated.

He patted her little black handbag, that lay on the seat beside her, timidly, like a man touching a snapping-turtle.

“You poor, lonely little missy—and, if you don't mind my saying it, so pretty and all.”

“My nose is red!” she said, dabbing at it with her handkerchief and observing herself in the strip of mirror.

“Like I care! I've seen a good many funerals in my day—and give me a healthy red-nose cry every time! I've had dry funerals and wet ones; and of the two it's the wet ones that go off easiest. Gimme a wet funeral, and I'll run it off on schedule time, and have the horses back in the stable to the minute! It's at the dry funerals that the wimmin go off in swoons and hold up things in every other drug store. I'm the last one to complain of a red nose, little missy.”

“Oh,” she said, catching her breath on the end of a sob, “I know I'm a sight! Poor Angie—she used to say a lot of women get credit for bein' tender-hearted when their red noses wasn't from cryin' at all, but from a small size and tight-lacin'. Poor Angie—to think that only day before yesterday we were going down to work together! She always liked to walk next to the curb, 'cause she said that's where the oldest ought to walk.”

“'In the midst of life we are in death,'“ said Mr. Lux. The wind stiffened and blew more sharply still. “Lemme raise that window, little missy. It's gettin' real Novembery—and you in that thin jacket and all. Hadn't we better stop off and get you a cup of coffee?”

“When I get home I'll fix it,” she said. “When—I—get—home.” She lowered her faintly purple lids and shivered.

“Poor little missy!”

Toward the close of their long drive a heavy dusk came early and shut out the dim afternoon; the lights of the city began to show whimsically through the haze.

“We're almost—home,” she said.

“Almost; and if you don't mind I ain't going to leave you all alone up there. I'll go up with you and kinda stay a few minutes till—till the newness wears off. I know what them returns home mean. I'd kinda like to stay with you awhile, if you'll let me, Miss Prokes.”

“Oh, Mr. Lux, you're so kind and all; but some of the girls from the store'll be over this evening—and Mame and George.”

“I'll just come up a minute, then,” said Mr. Lux, “and see if the boys got all the things out of the flat. Only last week they forgot and left a ebony coffin-stand at a place.”

The din of the city closed in about them: the streets, already lashed dry by the wind, spread like a maze as they rolled off the bridge; then the halting and the jerking, the dodging of streetcars, and finally her own apartment building.

Mr. Lux unlocked the door and held her arm gently as they entered. The sweet, damp smell of carnations came out to meet them, and Tillie swayed a bit as she stood.

“Oh!—oh!—oh!”

“Easy there, little one. It'll be all right. It's pretty bleak at first, but it'll come round all right.” He groped for a match and lit the gas. “There—you set a bit and take it easy.”

A little blue-glass vase with three fresh white carnations decorated the center of the small table.

“See!” said Mr. Lux, bent on diverting. “Ain't they pretty? A gentleman friend, I guess, sent them to cheer you up—not? My! ain't they pretty, though?”

“Just think—Mame doin' all that for me! Straightening up and going out and getting me them flowers before she went to work! And—and Angie not here!”

“Little missy, you need to drink somethin' hot. Ain't there some coffee round, or somethin'?”

“Yes,” she said; “but I—I got to get used to bein' here—bein' here without Angie—oh!”

“Come now—the carriage is downstairs yet, and there's a little bakeshop, with a table in the back, over on Twentieth Street. If you'll let me take you over there it'll fix you up fine, and then I'll bring you back; and by that time your friends'll be here, and it won't be so lonesome-like.”

She rose to her feet.

“I wanna go,” she said. “I don't wanna stay here.”

“That's the way to talk!” he said, smiling and showing a flash of strong, even teeth. “We'll fix you up all right!”

She looked up at him and half smiled.

“You're so nice to me and all,” she said.

He felt of her coat-sleeve between his thumb and forefinger.

“Ain't you got somethin' warmer? It's gettin' cold, and you'll need it.”

“Yes; but not—not mournin'.”

“It's the crape of the heart that counts,” he repeated.

“All right,” she said, like a child. “I'll wear my heavier one.” And she walked half fearfully into the little room adjoining.

When she returned her face was freshly powdered and the pink rims about her eyes fainter. Her tan jacket was buttoned snugly about her. She stood for a moment under the bracket of light and smiled gratefully at him.

“I'm ready.”

Mr. Lux stepped toward her and hooked his arm, like a cotillion leader asking a débutante into the dinner-hall; then stopped, took another step, and paused again. A quick wave of red swept over his face.

“Why!” he began; “why! Well!”

She looked down at her skirt with a woman's quick consciousness of self.

“I told you,” she said, with her words falling one over the other; “I told you it wasn't mournin'! I—I—”

She followed his gaze to her coat-lapel and to the magenta bow. A hot pink flowed under her skin.

“Oh!” she cried. “Ain't I the limit? That—that bow was on, and I forgot—me wearin' a red bow on poor Angie's funeral day! Me—oh—”

Her fingers fumbled at the bow, and smarting tears stung her eyes. But Mr. Lux stepped to the blue-glass vase on the table, snapped a white carnation at the neck, and stuck it in his left coat-lapel; then he tore off a bit of fern and added it as a lacy background. His deep-set eyes were as mellow as sunlight.

“Hello!” he whispered, extending both hands and smiling at her until all his teeth showed. “Hello!”

“Hello!” she said, like one in a dream.

[Illustration: “HELLO!” HE WHISPERED, EXTENDING BOTH HANDS AND SMILING AT HER UNTIL ALL HIS TEETH SHOWED]

 
 
 

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