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Breakers Ahead by Fannie Hurst

 

In the ink-blue shrieking trail of the twenty-two-hour Imperial flyer, Slateville lay stark alongside the singing tracks as if hurtled there like a spark off a speed-hot emery wheel.

The Imperial flyer swooped through the dun-colored village like the glance of a lovely coquette shoots through her victim's heart and leaves it bare.

At eight-one the far-off Imperial voice hallooed through the darkness like a conquering hero whose vanguard is a waving sword which flashes in the sunlight before he and his steed come up out of the horizon.

At eight-four a steam yodel shook the panes and lamp-chimneys of Slateville, a semaphore studded with a ruby stiffened out against the sky, and a white eye—the size of a bicycle-wheel—flashed down the tracks.

Then the howl of a fiend, and a mile-long checkerboard of lighted car-windows, and cinders rattling against them like hail.

A fire-boweled engine with a grimy-faced demon leaning out of his red-hot cab, and, on every alternate night, a green eye with a black pupil which winked a signal from that same heat-roaring cab and from a dirt-colored frame shanty in a dirt-brown yard, where a naked tree stretched its thin arms against the sky, an answering eye which gleamed through a bandana-bound lantern and outlined the Hebe-like silhouette of a woman in the window.

Then the flash of a mahogany-lined dining-car with nodding vis-à-vis, pink-shaded candles and white-coated, black-faded genii of the bowl and weal; an occasional vague figure peering through cupped hands out from an electric-lighted berth; a plate-glass observation-car with figures lounging in shallow leather chairs like oil-kings and merchant princes and only sons in a Fifth Avenue club, and a great trailing plume of smoke that lingered for a moment and died in the still tingling air.

For a full half-hour, even an hour, after the Imperial flyer had gouged through the village the yellow lights of Slateville burned on behind its unwashed windows, which were half opaque with train-dust and the grimy finger-prints of children. Then they began to flick out, here, there—here, there. In a slate-roofed shanty beside the quarry, in an out-of-balance bookkeeper's office in the Slateville Varnish Factory, in the Red Trunk general store and post-office, the parson's study, a maiden's bedroom, in the dirt-colored frame house, another slate-roofed shanty beside the quarry, another, and yet another. Here, there—here, there.

The clerk in the signal-tower slumped in his chair, the doctor's tin-tired buggy rattled up a hilly street that was shaped like a crooked finger, and away beyond the melancholy stretches of close-bitten grazing-land and runty corn-fields the flyer shrieked upward, and the miles scuttled the echoes back to Slateville.

On an alternate night that was as singingly still as the inside of a cup the flyer tore through the village with the cinders tattooing against its panes and the white eye searching like a near-sighted cylcopean monster.

But from the red fireman's cab the green lantern with the black bull's-eye painted on the outward side dangled unlit, and in the dirt-colored house, behind drawn shades, the Hebe-like figure was crouched in another woman's arms, and, in the room adjoining, John Blaney lay dead with a dent in his head.

Who-o-o-p! Who-o-o-p!

“Listen, Cottie, listen!”

“'Sh-h-h-h, darlin'.”

The crouching women crouched closer together, a dove-note in the crooning voice of one like the coo of a mate. “'Sh-h-h, darlin'.”

“There it goes, Cottie. Gawd, just like nothing had happened.”

“'Sh-h-h, dearie; lay still!”

“Listen. The engine's playin' a different tune on the tracks; it's lighter and smoother.”

“Yes—yes—'sh-h-h.”

“Just hear, Cottie; they got the old diner on. I know her screech.”

“I hear, dearie.”

“And the Cleveland sleeper wasn't touched, neither. Hear her. They say she didn't even leave the tracks. He used to say she had a rattle like a dice-box. Just the same, it was the smooth-runnin' Washington sleeper lit on the engine. Listen, Cottie, oh, listen! Just like nothin' had happened.”

“Don't tremble so, darlin'. That's life every time—it just rides over its dead.”

“He hated the flyer, oh—oh—”

“Don't take on so, Della darlin'. He died on his job.”

“He hated the flyer; he—”

“He could have jumped like Jim Dirkey did, and lived to face the shame of it, but he died on his job. You can always say your man died on his job, Della darlin'.”

Della raised her crouching head and brushed the hair back from her eyes. Helen's face that launched a thousand ships was no more fair.

“That he did—didn't he, Cottie? He died on his job.”

“Sure he did, darlin'—sure he did.”

“You remember—you remember, Cottie, the first night they put him on the flyer?”

“Try to forget it, Della, and don't go gettin' all excited—there—there.”

“I was over home that night with you and maw, and—and he came in for supper with the news and—and he was like a funeral about bein' promoted.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Even with the extra pay he was for stickin' to the accommodation, because he loved her insides.”

“And because it was a chance to spite you.”

“But I—I was all for the flyer. I told him he was afraid of her speed, and he hauled off and nearly hit me for callin' him a coward before you and maw, and you up and—”

“He was rough with you, Della, but he wouldn't 'a' dared do it with me there. I had him bluffed, all righty; he wouldn't 'a' done it with me and maw there.”

“Lots maw would 'a' cared. Poor maw! She never knew nothing else but abuse, herself.”

“Paw wasn't so bad, Della—he always brought home the envelope.”

“John—he made me eat the words when we got home that night; but, just the samey, he—he wouldn't 'a' took the Imperial, Cottie, if I hadn't nagged him to it—he wouldn't have!”

“Well, what if he wouldn't? You wouldn't 'a' married him, neither, if he hadn't nagged you to it when paw died, and he knew you had a stepmother that was devilin' and abusin' the life out of us—you.”

“He used to say, when he came home with a face as black as a crazy devil's, that coaling the flyer was just like stoking hell. She ate and ate and bellowed for more. He hated the flyer, he did. He stoked her with more hate than coal, and I drove him to it, Cottie. I put the hole in his head.”

“Aw, no, dearie! Nobody ever made John Blaney do nothing he didn't want to do. He's dead now and can't take up for hisself, but he was hard as nails—even if he was my brother-in-law.”

“'Sh-h-h, Cottie, little sister.”

“I always say, Della, Gawd knows I ain't got a cinch! I hate the factory like I hate a green devil, and you know what it is to live around maw's doggin' and abuse, but it's like I tole Joe the other night: I wouldn't marry the finest man livin' before I'd had my chance to try out what I had my heart set on. I told him he could save his breath. I'm goin' to take a chance on gettin' out of this dump—not on tyin' up to it.”

“Joe's a good boy, Cottie. He's a saint alongside of what John was. Steady fellows and foremen ain't layin' around loose, dearie. He's a good boy, Cottie—none finer.”

“Della! You ain't—”

“No; I ain't urgin' you, Cottie. I ain't sayin' you're not right to hold off, but Joe's the finest boy in these parts, ain't he?”

“That ain't sayin' much. You wasn't a big-enough gambler, Della. You remember how I begged you the night before the wedding to hold off. I ain't goin' to make your mistake. You ought 'a' done what Lily done—took a chance. Tessie says her pictures were all pasted up outside of Indianapolis last week. Lily Divette in the 'Twinkling Belles.' If Lily Maloney with her baby face and—”

“I—I stuck to John to the end, though—didn't I, Cottie? Nobody can say I didn't stick to him—can they, Cottie?”

“No, no! Now don't go gettin' excited again, dearie.”

“Oh, Gawd, Gawd, Cottie. I—I feel—so—so—queer!”

“Yes, darlin', I know!”

The cryptic quiescence of death hung over the unpainted pine bedchamber and chilled their skin like damp in a cave seeps through clothing. From the far side of the bed a lamp wavered against a tin reflector and danced through their hair like firelight in copper; wind galloped over the flat country, shook the box-shaped house, and whinnied on every flue.

Cottie, whose head was Tiziano's Flora yet more radiant, held her sister's equally radiant head close to her warm bosom, and through the calico of her open-at-the-throat waist, her heart pumped the organ-prelude of Life—Life in the midst of Death.

“Della darlin'—don't—don't be afraid to talk to me. Ain't—ain't I your—sister?”

“What—what—”

“I—I know—what you're thinkin', Della—”

“'Sh-h-h; not now!”

“You're thinkin' that you're—that you're free, now, darlin'—free—ain't you?”

“'Sh-h-h-h!”

“Free, darlin'—think—there ain't nothin' can hold you! A hundred dollars' benefit-money and—”

“Gawd, Cottie—Cottie—'sh-h-h! Him layin' in there dead! It—it ain't no time to talk about that now. Anyways, you're the one to go. I'll stay with maw.”

Her words tumbled, and her tones were galvanized with fear and fear's offspring, superstition. She glanced toward the half-open door with eyes two shades too dark.

“No, no, Della; you're the oldest. You go first, and I—I'll stick it out with maw till—she's gettin' feebler every day, Delia, and I'll be joinin' you some day not far off.”

“'Sh-h-h; it ain't right. I—I'll give her—half the benefit-money, Cottie, but it's a sin to—”

“You and folks make me sick. If the devil hisself was to die you'd snivel and bury him in priest's robes. What John was he was —dyin' didn't change it. Ten days ago you were standin' at this very window answering his signal and hating him with every swing of the lantern.”

“Cottie, you mustn't!”

“I used to see you sit across from him at the table, and when he yelled at you or wanted to pet you I've seen you run your finger-nails into you palms from hatin' him, clear in till they bled, like you used to do when you was a kid and hated any one, and now, just because he's dead—”

“Oh, Gawd, I never done the right thing by him! He was my husband. Look how bare I kept everything from him. He used to come home from a forty-eight-hour shift and say this house reminded him of hell with the fire gone out. I never did the right thing by him.”

“He didn't by you, neither.”

“He was my husband.”

“He knew if we'd 'a' had the money to light out and do like Lily he wouldn't 'a' stood a show of bein' your husband, though. He knew, from the day they put the bandages on maw's eyes, thet he was just the only way out for us. He knew one of us had to quit the factory and stay home with her—and where was the money comin' from? He knew.”

“Yes, he knew, Cottie. Even on the New York accommodation, that time on the wedding-trip, trouble began right off. When that fellow on the train got talkin' to me and told me he could give me a job in the biggest show on Broadway, he nearly hauled off and raised a row right there on the train when he came back and seen me talkin' to him.”

“If only you'd got the fellow's name, Della, and his street in New York!”

“How could I, when John came back and began snarlin' like—”

“Would you know him if you seen him again, Della? Think, darlin', would you?”

“Would I? In my sleep I'd know him. He was a short fellow with eyes so little they didn't show when he laughed, and a mouth full of gold teeth that stuck out like a buck's. And say, Cottie, for diamonds! A diamond horseshoe scarf-pin as big as a dollar!”

“There's money in it, Della. Look at Lily. Tessie says she's diamond rings to her knuckles.”

“John knew what took the life out of me, from that day on. He used to say if he ever laid eyes on that little bullet-headed, rat-eyed sport, as he called him, he'd shake the life out of him. Just like that!”

“Faugh! he wouldn't 'a' had the nerve!”

“Don't you forget he knew what was eatin' us, Cottie.”

“Well, wasn't it our right—a beauty like you in this dump?”

“And you?”

Their faces, startlingly alike, were upturned, and in their eyes was the golden fluid of dawn.

“He knew. You remember that letter Lily wrote when you asked her to get you in her show?”

“Do I?”

“He found it in my pocket one night and read it, and laughed and laughed. He used to know it by heart, and he'd cackle it to me whenever he caught me red-eyed from cryin'.”

“That letter she wrote out of jealousy? He seen that?”

“Yeh! 'Stay home, dearie,' he used to sing to me, laughin' to split his sides; 'stay home, like Della did, and make happiness and a home for yourself.'”

“Gawd!”

“Then he'd go off in a real fit of laughin' again. 'You ain't got no ideas of the breakers ahead, Cottie dearie,' he'd holler, 'and in this business there ain't many of us got the strength to fight 'em.'”

“Wasn't that like him—stealin' a letter!”

“Then he'd laugh some more, wag his finger at me and make me cry, and keep yellin' 'Breakers ahead! Breakers ahead!'”

“There, there, dearie; it's all over, now. He was too dumb and too mean to know that Lily was as jealous as a snake of me and you—always, even, when we was kids. Sure she don't want us in her show—we'd walk away with it. John was too dumb to see the letter was only—”

“'Sh-h-h; it's a sin to run down the dead.”

“Anyway, you never lied to John like he did to you. I can still hear him that dark night, down by the quarry, trying to scare you. Lyin' to you about what girls got to buck up against in the city, that night, when they first put the bandages on maw's eyes, and he was beggin' and beggin' you to marry him.”

“Gawd! I was ashamed to listen to some of the things he tried to scare me with that night.”

“He couldn't answer when I piped up about his cousin, Tessie Hobbs, that went to St. Louis to learn millinery and sends home four dollars a week. He couldn't answer that, could he?”

“No, he couldn't, Cottie.”

A silence—the great stone silence of a coliseum—closed in about them. Della shivered and burrowed her head deeper into her sister's lap.

“Aw, Gawd, us talkin' like this, with him layin' in there!”

“If he wasn't layin' in there we wouldn't be talkin'.”

A shutter swung in on its hinges.

“There, there! It ain't nothin' but the wind, Della.”

“He was goin' to fix that shutter to-day when he was off shift. Gawd, he didn't have no more idea of dyin' than I did!”

“That's just like maw. Sometimes in the night I can almost hear her stop breathin'—she's so weak, but she's always talkin' about next year—next year.”

“It'll be awful for you, little sister, with me gone and you alone with her.”

“It—it ain't a sin to say it, Delia. She—she ain't here for long, and I'll be comin' to join you soon. You'll tell 'em I'm comin'.”

“Gawd, how I wish we was going together, little sister! Leavin' you is just like leavin' my heart. There's nobody I love like you, Cottie.”

“Della darlin', look at Lily—she went alone.”

“I—I ain't afraid—you got the best voice of us two, but I'll make the way for you, dearie. I'll make it easier for you to come.”

“It won't be long.”

“If I could only have got his name that time on the train, Cottie!”

“You got Lily's boardin'-house, dearie. Ain't that something?”

“Oh, darlin'—him layin' in there!”

“Don't begin that again, dearie.”

“Listen, Cottie—listen—that can't be the six-thirty accommodation already, is it? It ain't the funeral-day already, is it?”

“Yes, dearie; but it's a long way off. See, it's just gettin' light through the crack in the shade.”

“Don't raise it, Cottie. It's a sin to let in the light, with him layin' there and dead.”

“Darlin', it ain't goin' to hurt him, and the lamp's low. See; there ain't no harm in raisin' it—look how light it's gettin'!”

Off toward the east dawn trembled on the edge of eternity and sent up, as if the earth were lighting the horizon, a pearlish light shotted with pink. A smattering of stars lingered and trembled as though cold. They paled; dawn grew pinker, and the black village, with its naked trees standing darkly against the sky, sent up wispy spirals of smoke. A derrick in the jagged bowl of the quarry moved its giant arms slowly, and a steam-whistle shrieked.

The New York accommodation hallooed to the trembling dawn and tore through Slateville.

The sisters pressed their white faces close to the cold pane and watched it rush into the sunrise. A cock crowed to the dawn, and, from afar, another. A dirt-team rumbled up the road, and the steam-whistle from the quarry blew a second reveille.

“You—you take the accommodation, darlin'. It's cheaper, and you'll be feelin' scary about the flyer for a while. You can catch it down by Terre Haute at five-thirty-one, Monday morning—eh, darlin'?”

“So—so soon, Cottie—only three days after, and him hardly cold.”

“Don't let's drag it out, darlin'.”

“Oh, Cottie, I'll be waitin' for you! There won't be a day that I won't be waitin' for you. There's nothin' I love like you.”

Their faces were close and wet with tears, and the first ray of sun burnished their heads and whitened their white bosoms.

“Kiss me, Cottie.”

“Della—Della!”

“My little sister!”

“You're goin', Della—try to think, darlin', what it means—you're goin'.”

“'Sh-h-h, dearie—'sh-h-h. Yes—I—I'm goin'.”

And in the room adjoining John Blaney lay dead with a dent in his head.

       * * * * *

The city has a thousand throats, its voice is like a storm running on the wind, and like ship-high waves plunging on ship-high rocks, and like unto the undertone of lost souls adrift in a sheol of fog and water.

The voice of the city knows none of the acoustic limitations of architects and prima donnas. Its dome is as high as fifty-story sky-scrapers, and its sounding-board the bases of a thousand thousand tired brains.

It penetrates the Persian-velvet hangings of the most rococo palace toward which the sight-seeing automobile points its megaphone, and beats against brains neurotic with the problems of solid-gold-edged bonds and solid-gold cotillion favors. It is the birth-song of the tenement child and the swan-song of the weak. It travels out over fields of new-mown hay and sings to the boy at the plow. It shouts to the victor and whispers to the stranger.

Through the morning bedlam of alarm-clocks, slamming doors, the rattle of ash-cans, and the internal disorders of a rooming-house, came the voice a-whispering to Della.

Out from the mouths of babes and truck-drivers, out from the mouths of débutantes and coal-stokers, out from the mouths of those who toil and those who spin not. Drifting over the sea of housetops, up from the steep-walled streets. The laugh of the glad, the taut laugh of the mad; the lover's sigh, and the convict's sigh—and, beneath, like arpeggio scales under a melody, the swiftly running gabble-gabble of life.

Della stirred on her cot, raised her arms, and yawned to the faun-colored oblong of October sky; breathed in the stale air and salty pungency of bad ventilation and the city's breakfast-bacon, and swung herself out of bed.

So awoke Adriana, too, with her hair falling in a torrent over her breasts and her languid limbs unfolding.

She shook her hair backward with the changeless gesture of women, held her hands at arm's-length, and regarded them. They were whiter, and the broken nails were shaping themselves into ovals. A callous ridge along her forefinger, souvenir of a cistern which pumped reluctantly, was disappearing.

She smiled to herself in the mirror, like the legendary people who have eyes to see the grass grow must smile at the secret of each blade.

Then she slid into a high-necked, long-sleeved wrapper and bound the whorl of her hair in a loose bun at her neck.

Mrs. Fallows's minimum-priced, minimum-sized hall bedroom speaks for its nine-by-twelve “neatly furnished” self. The hall bedrooms of Forty-fourth Street and Forty-fifth Street and Forty-ad-infinitum Street are furnished in that same white-iron bed with the dented brass knobs, light-oak, easy-payment dresser, wash-stand, and square table with a too short fourth leg and shelf beneath for dust—and above the dresser, slightly askew, a heart-rendering, art-rendering version of “Narcissus at the Pool,” or any of the well-worn incidents favorite to mythology and lithographers.

But life, like love and the high cost of living and a good cigar, is comparative. To Della, stretching her limbs to the morning, Mrs. Fallows's carpeted fourth-floor back, painted furniture, and a light that sprang into brilliancy at a tweak, was a sybarite's retreat, eighteen hours removed from wash-day, and rising in the dark, black mud-roads and a dirt-colored shanty that met the wind broadside and trembled to its innards.

Two flights below her a mezzo-soprano struggled for high C; adjoining, an early-morning-throated barytone leaned out of a doorway and called for a fresh towel. Came three staccato raps at Della's portal, and enter on the wings of the morning and a pair of white-topped, French-heeled shoes Miss Ysobel Du Prez, late of the third road company of the Broadway success, “Oh, Oh, Marietta!” and with a history in pony ballets that entitled her to a pedigree and honorable mention.

“Girl, ain't you dressed yet? What you doin'? Waitin' for your French maid to get your French lawngerie from the French laundry?”

Miss Du Prez swung herself atop the trunk and crossed her slim limbs. Chatelaine jewelry jangled; Herculean perfume dominated the air, and that expressive sobriquet for soubrette, a fourteen-inch willow-plume, and long as the tail of a male pheasant, brushed her left shoulder.

Miss Ysobel Du Prez—one of the ornamental line of tottering caryatids who uphold on their narrow, whitewashed shoulders the gold-paper thrones of musical-comedy principalities, and on those same shoulders carry every tradition of that section of Broadway which Thespis occupies on a ninety-nine-year, privilege-of-renewal lease—the fumes of grease-paint the incense of her temple, the footlights the white flame of her sacrifice!

“You gotta do a quick change if you're going to the offices with me to-day, girl. I gotta be up at the Empire in the Putney Building by eleven and stop in at the Bijou first.”

Delia shed her comfortable shroud of repose like Thais dropping her mantle in an Alexandrian theater.

“I must 'a' overslept, Ysobel. Trying on them duds we bought yesterday up to so late last night done me up. Three days in New York ain't got me used to the pace.”

“You should worry! If I had your face and figure I'd sleep till the call-boy rapped twice.”

“Ah, Ysobel, you with your cute little face and cute little ways!”

“Soft pedal on the ingenoo stuff, girl. You know you don't hate yourself. I didn't notice that you exactly despised anything about you when they called the floor-walker to have a look at you in that black dress yesterday.”

“Honest, Ysobel, I dreamt about it all night.”

“Sure you did! But who was it steered you into a 'slightly used,' classy place where you could buy a gown that Mrs. Asterbilt wore once to a reception at the Sultan of Sulu's or the Prince of Pilsen's or any of that crowd; who steered you in a place where you could buy a real gown for one-tenth the cost of production?”

“You did, Ysobel. I don't know what I'd 'a' done if Mrs. Fallows hadn't brought you up.”

“That little black dream that only let you back twenty-nine-fifty cost three hundred if it cost a cent, and nothing but a snag in the hem and the lace in front as good as new. Gee, I could show this cheap bunch around here how to dress if I had a month's advance in hand!”

“Get off the trunk, Ysobel, and sit here, will you? I want to get it out. Say, if Cottie could see me with the black hat to match! My little sister I was telling you about could—”

“Who you got to thank? Who gave you the right steer? Take it from me, if I hadn't gone along with you, every store on Sixth Avenue would have X-rayed the corner of your handkerchief for the thirty-eight dollars tied up in it and body-snatched you for your own funeral. Even with me along you had a lean like a bent pin for that made-on-Canal-Street, thirty-two-fifty, red silk they hauled out of the morgue to show you. I seen you edgin' for that Kokome model.”

“Me and Cottie was always great ones for red. I ought to had the red serge you made so much fun of dyed for mourning, but Cottie—”

“Red! When you, in a tight-lookin' black that hugs you like it was wet, and a black hat with a tilt that Anna Held would buy right off your head, can walk into any office in the row this morning and land in the show-girl row of any chorus on the bills. If you think that's an easy stunt, ask any girl in this house.”

“I—I ain't scared a bit now, since I'm going around with you, Ysobel: but gee, if I had to go alone!”

“Fallows does the same thing for all of them. When I was in last spring from first pony in a Middle West company of the 'Merry Whirl'—remind me, and I'll show you my notices—when I was in last spring Fallows dumped a little doll-eyed soubrette on me that didn't do a thing, after I dragged her around to the offices, but grab a part away from me in a Snooky Ookums quartet that Jim Simmons was puttin' out.”

“Honest?”

“Sure! A production I'd been holding off for all season. Me that's made the boards of more stages creak than she's ever seen!”

“Mrs. Fallows says you're just the one to show me around, that you are one swell little pony, and an old one in the offices.”

“An old one in the offices! I don't see Fallows herself suffering from no growing-pains. They don't come any farther gone to seed than her. She tried to stick to her soft-shoe act till the office boys of the Consolidated Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Managers got up a subscription and bought her this four-flights' rooming-house to keep her feet busy with. Fallows better lay low with me or I can do some fancy tongue-work.”

“She didn't mean—”

“Easy there, girl! Didn't I learn you for two hours last night to get the cold-cream on smooth, first? Smooth—now the powder—more white on the nose—more!”

“Like that?”

“Say, I met Vyette D'Orsay up in a office yesterday, and she thought I was tryin' out a comedy line on her when I told her I found one I had to learn how to make up.”

“Lily, a girl from our town, used to powder and—”

“Little more red over the cheek-bones—see, honey?—like mine—say, if you wanna see swell work you ought to see me made up for spot—didn't I tell you to work back toward the ears? There—more—good! Don't give yourself a mouth like a low-comedy gash. Use the cheese-cloth, honey.”

“Look how it smears!”

“There, a Cupid bow in the middle is all you need. You got a mouth just the size of a kiss, anyway.”

“John—John used to say about it that—”

“Good! Say, you're some little learner—you are! Easy there—always line an eyebrow downward—there—more—so!”

“So?”

“Say, you got Zaza, Perfecta, Lillie Russell, and the whole hothouse bunch of them knocked through the glass ceiling.”

Delia leaned to her radiant reflection in the mirror and smiled through teeth faintly pink from the ruby richness of her lips.

“You ought to see my little sister Cottie, Ysobel. When she comes you'll sit up and take real notice. I ain't even in her class. She can sit on her hair—it's so long—and it's so gold it's hot-lookin'.”

“Before I had typhoid mine was the same way—you can't put them dresses on over your head, girl. You gotta climb in—there ain't no room for a overhead act. There! Say, look at that side-drape, will you! I bet that lace set some dame back ten a yard. Some class! Don't forget to strike for thirty right off the bat—they'll think more of you. Say, girl, it's worth the time I'm wasting on you to see Casey's face when I steer you into there this morning.”

“Ain't it—a beauty, Ysobel! But it's a little tight, kinda—”

“Now begin that again, will you? Honest, if Vyette could hear that line!”

“Around the knees I mean, Ysobel. It's hard for me to walk.”

“If it was any looser I'd get a fit of the laughs like I did over that red serge. If it was any looser—for Gawd's sake, leave that neck open! No, no; down like that! A strip of real, lily-white, garden-variety neck, and she wants to pin it shut!”

“I—I feel ashamed—I—I—kinda hate to leave it open.”

“Shades of Vyette! Leave that neck alone, can't you? After all my preachin' yesterday, look where I landed you. Nowheres!”

“Like that, Ysobel?”

“Take the pin out, there; center left like that. Say, girl, I wish you knew about this game what I've forgot.”

“Me, too, Ysobel.”

“Say, listen to her warblin' down there, will you? What's she practisin' for, I wonder—a chaser act on a four-a-day circuit? Breathe in, girl, you may be a perfect thirty-six, but you'll never make a tape-measure see it your way.”

“Shall I—shall I tell 'em I got a voice, Ysobel? Me and my little sister used to sing in—”

Miss Du Prez glanced up over Della's shoulder and, by proxy of the mirror, their eyes met. The red of exertion was high in her face, and one corner of her mouth compressed over pins, so that her words leaked out as through the lips of a faun.

“Voice! You remind me of the fellow that went down to Bowling Green to bowl. They got as much room for voices in musical comedy as a magazine's got for anything besides the advertisin' pages.”

“My little sister's got—”

“Can you beat it? 'Voice,' she says. You put your voice in your ankles and waist-line, girl, and it'll get you further. And as for scales like our friend down-stairs, learn to keep the runners out of your silk stockings first. There, give it the Anna Held tilt—there—more—so!”

“Oh-h-h, Ysobel—oh-h-h!”

“Swell, and then some. Who you got to thank? Who steered you right?”

Like a pale-gold aura of moonlight spreading out from behind a black cloud sprang Della's hair against the drooping brim of her hat. She was like a tight-draped, firm-stayed Venus, lyric in every line, her limbs wrapped in an ephod of grace and a skirt that restricted her steps like anklets joined by a too short chain.

“Here, put them white gloves in your bag and save 'em for outside the office doors. Ready?”

“Oh, Ysobel, if my little sister Cottie could only see me now!”

“Don't forget the lines I learnt you last night—two years' experience on Western short circuit—spot-light work, and silent principal—thirty dollars.”

“Western short circuit—Western short circuit!”

“Dancing and first-row promenade specialty.”

“Dancing and first—”

“Say, you ain't unlearnt it already, have you?”

“No—no.”

Down four flights of narrow, unlit stairs with their gauzy laughter, lingering in black hall corners, and then out into a sunlit morning.

At the end of the tall-walled block, lined on both sides with brownstone, straight-front phalanxes of rooming-houses, a segment of Broadway, flashing with automobiles, darting pedestrians, white-façaded buildings, and sun-reflecting windows, flowed like a mountain stream in spring.

“Gee—Ysobel, look at that jam, will you!”

“Well, whatta you know! There goes Vance Dudley! If you want to know what kind of work I do, ask Vance. Me and him did a duet solo in a two-a-day musical sketch that would have landed us on Broadway sure if the lead hadn't put in his lady friend when she came in off the road, flat. I'll show you my notices sometime. That act was good enough for a Hy Myers house if it had been worked right.”

“I bet you're grand, Ysobel—your cute little feet and all.”

“Ask any of 'em around the offices about me. I could soft-shoe Clarice off the 'Winter Revue' this minute if—if I wasn't what they call in the profesh a—a tin saint. I kinda got my ideas about things—”

“About what, Ysobel?”

“None of them ingenoo lines again, girl. Leave it to you merry widows to take care of yourselves every time. There's nothin' I can learn a merry widow. A merry widow can make Methuselah, herself, feel like a squab when it comes to bein' wise.”

“Honest—”

“That baby stare ain't the kind of a cue to throw me, girl. I can steer you up as far as the offices, but I'm done after you once get past the office boy.”

“I—I don't—”

“After she gets past the ground-glass door every girl in the business has got to decide for herself. I decided myself, and look where I got to! Nine years in the business and never creaked a Broadway board yet. I ain't got the looks to get there on my own stuff—and what happens? I wake up dead some day doin' short circuit in a Kansas tank-town. I'll be doin' thirty-a-week, West-of-the-Mississippi stuff to the bitter end because—because I decided my way and selected the rocky lane.”

“The rocky lane?”

“Sure! The first job I ever went out for I could 'a' had. Five sides to the part—two songs and a specialty solo, but, instead, I hit him flop across the cheek with my glove and walked out, leavin' him staggerin' and my engagement layin' on the floor. I—I ain't preachin' to you, honey—I'm just tellin'! Every girl in this business has got to decide for herself—I ain't sayin' one thing or the other.”

“Ysobel—hit who across the cheek—hit who?”

“Take it from me, honey, and remember I ain't tryin' to sing you the 'Saint's Serenade,' but take it from me, if I was startin' all over again—way back where you are—I—I'd do the glove act over again. I would, honey, I would, and I ain't preachin', neither.”

“Honest to Gawd, Ysobel; I don't know what—”

“Ain't I told you to cut out that ingenoo with me—honest, it gets on my nerves! Watch out, there!”

“Gee; that scart me!”

“Them are pay-as-you-exit taxi-cabs we're dodging. The chorus-girls' sun-parlors, if you listen to the Sunday supplements and funny papers.”

“The time we—came—John—was a great one for watchin' them.”

“Take it from me that about all nine out of ten of us gay la-la girls you read about, get out of 'em, is watchin'. All we know about them is dodgin' them after the show to get home in a hurry, stick our feet in hot water to get some of the ache out, and fall into bed too tired to smear the cold-cream off.”

“Watch out, there, Ysobel!”

“The truth about the chorus-girl would cripple the box-office and put the feature supplements and press-agents out of business. Here we are, Della—I got to stop off at nine just a minute, and you wait outside for me; remember when we get up to eleven—Western circuit, silent principal and—”

“Western circuit—Western circuit!”

The Putney Building reared nineteen white-tile, marble-façaded stories straight up from the most expensive heart-acreage of Broadway and stemmed the Thespian tide that rushed in from every side and surged against its booking-offices.

A bronze elevator the size of a Harlem bedroom and crowded to its capacity shot them upward with the breath-taking flight of a frightened bird.

Ysobel crowded into a corner and nudged a youthful-looking old man in a blue-and-white striped collar and too much bay-rum.

“Hello, Eddie!”

“Hello yourself, Ysobel.”

“How are yuh?”

“Ain't braggin'.”

“What you doin', Eddie?”

“Rehearsin' with a act.”

“Musical?”

“No.”

“Specialty?”

“No—er—high-class burlesque—two a day.”

“Oh!”

“You workin', Ysobel?”

“Got three things danglin'—ain't signed yet. Just came in last week.”

“S'long.”

“S'long. Come on, Della. Watch out there, Eddie—a fellow burnt a hole in my friend lookin' at her like that once.”

A titter ran around the elevator, and the old young man writhed in his blue-striped collar.

“'Sh-h-h, Ysobel; everybody heard you.” A rosily opalescent hue swam high into Della's face as she stepped out of the elevator, and dyed her neck.

“I should worry! I was never out with him in a show in my life that he didn't ogle a hole in every queen he seen. Out in Spokane onct he—”

“Western circuit—Western circuit—”

They hurried down a curving, white-tile corridor, rows of doors with eye-like glass panes were lined up on each side, and the tick-tack of typewriters penetrating. Della's breath came heavier and faster, and a layer of vivid pink showed through the artificial red.

“You wait out here a minute, Della. I wanna step in here, at the Bijou, and see if Louis Rafalsky is doin' anything this morning. Then we'll shoot up to the Empire—”

“Sure—I—I'll wait, Ysobel.”

She leaned against the wall and placed her hand over the region of her lace yoke and heart, as if she would regulate their heaving.

A flash of cerise plume, a jangle of chatelaine jewelry, and Ysobel disappeared behind one of the doors, her many-angled silhouette flashing against the far side of the ground glass.

Della breathed in deep and gulped in her dry, hot throat; her fingers, the damp cold born of nervousness, curled in toward her warm palms. She daubed at her lips with a handkerchief.

Simultaneously a door opposite her opened, and a short, bullet-headed figure in a light checked suit, and a diamond horseshoe scarf-pin that caught the points of light stepped out into the pale nimbus cast by the white signal-light of an up-going elevator.

With a gasp that caught in her throat Della darted in her too narrow skirt across the corridor, reached out, and grasped the light-gray coat-sleeve.

“Look,” she cried, thrusting herself between him and the trellis-work of the elevator-shaft and throwing back her head so that her bare neck, soft as the breast feathers of a dove, rose and fell with a dove's agitated breathing, “Look—I'm here!”

The short figure turned on his heel and looked up at her, his shoulder-line a full three inches below hers, and his small, predaceous eyes squinting far back into his head.

“Gad—what?”

“I—I'm here—sir—don't you remember—me—I'm here.”

He regarded her with the detailed appraisal of the expert, and his glance registered points in her favor.

“Gad!” he repeated.

“Don't—you remember—me—sir—don't—”

“Not bad for a big girl—are you—eh?”

“Don't you remember?”

“Sure—you're the little girl I met out West—didn't I?—two seasons ago with—”

“No—no—no! Don't you remember me now?”

She tore her hat backward from its carefully adjusted tilt, so that it revealed the brassy gold of her hair, and took a step toward him.

Now don't you remember?”

“Sure—sure—you're the little girl from—sure I'd remember a big little girl like you anywhere.”

“You remember now? On the twenty-eight-hour accommodation out of St. Louis. We—I got on at Terre Haute and sat across from you while he—they made up the berth, and you said—”

“Could I forget a big little queen like you! You've grown to a real big girl, ain't you? Come back in my office, sister. That's how much I think of you—with a whole company waitin' for me over at the Gotham Theater—come in!”

“I—just got here—Mr.—Mr.—”

“Myers, if anybody should ask you. That's who you're dealin' with—Hy Myers, if you should happen to forget.”

“Ain't it funny, Mr. Myers, my runnin' into you right off. I never thought I'd find you in this town. My little sister I was tellin' you about will be here soon and—”

“This way!”

“I'm ready to take that job you was tellin' me about till—”

“In here, sister, where we can talk business alone.”

She followed him back through the glazed door, through an outer office arranged like a school-room with aisle-forming desks, and white-shirt-waisted girls and men clerks with green eye-shades bent double over typewriters and books as big as the marble tablets on which are writ the debit and credit of all men for all time.

Boys scurried and darted; telephone bells jangled; and finally the quiet of an inner office, shut off from the noises like a padded cell, almost entirely carpeted in a leopard's skin and hung with colored lithographs of many season's comedy queens, whose dynasties were sprung from caprice and whose papier-mâché thrones had long since slumped to pulp.

“Now sit here, sister—here in this chair next to my desk, where I can look at you. Gad, ain't you grown to be a big girl, though!”

“I'm ready for that job now, Mr.—Mr. Myers.”

“Well—well—well!”

Mr. Myers swung on his swivel-chair, squinted his eyes further back into his head, and nodded further appraisal and approval.

“Big little girl—can I call you that, Queenie? How have you been?”

“I've had a hard time of it, Mr.—”

“Hold out your hand and lemme tell your fortune, sister.”

“Quit!”

“Dear child—you mustn't act like that—here—hold out your—”

“Quit!”

“Come now—”

“We want jobs, me and my little sister—when she gets here. I told you about her, you remember. I—I've had experience on Western—”

“Naughty—naughty eyes—devilish eyes! Don't you look at me like that—don't! You big little devil, you!”

“What is it, sir?”

“Good! Sit there with the sun on you—you've got hair like—”

“I've had experience with first-row—”

“Gad!” He swerved suddenly forward in his chair so that his small feet touched the floor. “Gad, stand up there—stand over there in that sunshine by the window!”

“What—”

“Stand up—there, agin that screen there—”

Dark as a nun in her wimple, but golden as a sun-flower, she rose as Trilby rose to the eye of Svengali—

“Gad!” he repeated, bringing his small tight fist down on a littered ash-tray, “by Gad!”

Wine was suddenly in her blood.

“You ought to see me and my little sister when we pose together; we—”

“Take off your hat, girl.”

She stood suddenly quiet, as if the wine in her blood had seethed and quieted.

“Aw—no—whatta you think I am—I—”

“Take off your hat, big little girl, and if you're good to me I'll tell you something. If I hadn't taken a fancy to you I wouldn't tell you, neither.”

She lifted the heavy brim with both hands and stood in the bar of sunlight.

“Gad!” he cried—“Gad!” and jerked open a drawer and threw the big bulk of a typewritten manuscript on the desk before him. “Read that; read that, sister!” His heavy spatulate finger underlined the caption.

“'The—Red—Widow,' 'The Red Widow,' by Al Wilson.”

He rose and jerked her by her two wrists so that she flounced toward him, her hair awry and the breath jumping out of her bosom.

“That's you, sister—the Red Widow!”

“The Red—Widow?”

“You're goin' out in a road chorus next week and get broke in. At the end of a season I'm goin' to feature you in the biggest show that ever I had up my sleeve.”

She regarded him with glazed eyes of one dazed, and backed away from him.

“Me!”

“You—the Red Widow, sister! You know what a Hy Myers production means, don't you? You know what an Al Wilson show is, don't you? Add them two. I'll make you make that show or bust. Stand off there and lemme look at you again—there—so!”

“Quit!”

She sprang back from his touch and raised her hand with the glove dangling in the attitude of a horseman cracking his whip. “You—you quit!” Like Dryope changed into a tree, with the woodiness creeping up her limbs and the glove in her passive hand, she stood with her arm flung upward. “You quit!”

“Dear child, you mustn't—”

“I—I'm goin'—lemme go!”

“Aw, come now, sister; don't get frisky—I didn't mean to make you sore. Gee! Ain't you a touchy little devil?”

“I'm goin'.”

“If that's your number, all righty—but you're just kiddin'—you ain't goin' to be too independent in one of the worst seasons in the business.”

She moved toward the door with her hand outstretched to the knob.

“You better think twice, sister—but don't lemme keep you—there's other Red Widows as good and better'n you beatin' like an army at my door this minute. But don't lemme keep you.”

“Will—will you lemme alone?”

“Sure I will, if it'll make you feel any better—you cold little queen, you. Nervous as a unbroke colt, ain't you? Sit down there and watch.”

He touched a buzzer, and a uniformed boy sprang through the door to his elbow.

“Write Al Wilson to meet me here to-morrow at ten.”

“Yes, sir.” The uniform flashed out.

She moved around him cautiously, not taking her eyes from his face.

“Have I—have I got a job?”

“Sure you have. I'll send you out to Frisco in a chorus that'll limber you up, all right, but I won't let you stay long. I won't let a little queen like you run away for long.”

“Frisco—me—gee!”

“Gad! maybe I won't neither. How would you like to play right close to home over in Brooklyn? I've got a chorus over there that'll take the stiffness out of you. I don't want to let a great, big, beautiful doll like you too far away.”

“Frisco—I like Frisco.”

“But hold up your right hand. Don't you tell nobody I'm pushing you for next season's feature—that's our little secret—between you and me and Al.”

“I was gettin' thirty dollars.”

“Don't you worry about that, Doll-Doll. You come back here to-morrow at ten. I wanna show Al how the Red Widow we've been lookin' for dropped right into my hands. He can't squeal to me no more about types.”

“I—I'm going now, Mr. Myers—to-morrow, then, at ten—”

“Where you goin', Doll?”

“Home. I guess I've lost my friend now.”

“Wait; I'm going your way.”

“You don't even know which way I'm goin'.”

“Sure I do. I'll drop you there in my car.”

“Oh—I—I want—to walk—I do.”

“None of that, sister. I'm treatin' you white, and you gotta do the same by me. I won't bite you, you little scare-cat! I'm goin' to make things happen to you that'll make you wake up every day pinchin' yourself.”

“My little sister, Mr. Myers, has got me beat on looks.”

“But you gotta treat me white, sister. We can talk business in the car, but you gotta have confidence in me. I won't bite—you big little girl, you.”

“I don't want—to go—that way, Mr. Myers—I gotta go some place first.”

“Comin', sister?”

“I—I—”

“Comin'?”

“Yes.”

       * * * * *

On its hundredth night “The Red Widow,” playing capacity houses at the Gotham Theater, presented each lady in the audience a “handsome souvenir” of Red Widow perfume attractively nestled in a red-satin box with a color picture of Della Delaney on the label.

To the pretty whifflings and “ah's!” of every feminine nose present, to the over-a-million-copies-sold waltz-theme that was puckering the mouth of every newsboy in New York, to the rustly settling back into chairs, furs, and standing-room-only attitudes against Corinthian pillars, the hundredth-night, second-act curtain rose on an audience with an additional sense unexpectedly gratified and the souvenir-loving soul of every woman present sniffing its appreciation.

Comedy is a classic prodigal who has wandered far. Comus has discarded his mantle and donned a red nose, a split-up-the-back waistcoat, and a pair of clap-sticks.

Harlequin and Cap-and-Bells have doffed the sock and many colors for the sixty-dollar-a-week rôle of million-dollar pickle-magnate pursuing a forty-dollar juvenile, who, in turn, is pursuing the two-hundred-dollar-a-week Red Widow from Act One—summer hotel at Manhattan Beach to Act Two—tropical isle off the Bay of Bungel.

For the hundredth time the opening act of “The Red Widow”—a ghoul at the grave of a hundred musical comedies—sang to its background of white-flannel chorus-men, drop-curtain of too-blue ocean and jungle of cotton-back palms.

A painted ship idled on a painted ocean. Trees reared their tropical leaves into a visible drop-net.

    It is the Bay—it is the Bay—it is the Ba-a-ay
    Of Love and Bunge-e-e-e-l—

announced the two front rows, kicking backward three times.

    It is the Ba-a-a-ay
    Of Love and Bunge-e-e-el—

agreed the kicked-at, white-flannel background.

A shapely octet in silk-and-lisle regimentals, black-astrakhan capes flung over one shoulder, and black-astrakhan hats as high as a majordomo's bent eight silk-and-lisle left knees with rhythmic regularity. Six ponies in yellow skirts, as effulgent as inverted chrysanthemums, and led by a black pony with a gold star in her hair, kicked to the wings and adored the audience. A chain of “Bungel belles” stretched their thin arms above their heads in a letter O and prinked about on their toes like bantams in a dust road.

Five trombones, ten violas, twelve violins, a drum and bass-viol bombardment rose to a high-C climax, with the chorus scrambling loyally after them like a mountaineer scaling a cliff for an eaglet's nest.

    It is the Bay—it is the Bay—it is the Ba-a-ay
    Of Love and Bunge-e-e-l—

shouted the seventy-five of them, receding with a grape-vine motion into the wings.

Enter Cyrus Hinkelstein, mayor and pickle-magnate of Brineytown, on the Suwanee, in a too large white waistcoat, white-duck comedy spats, and a pink-canvas bald head.

He institutes an immediate search behind tropical vines and along the under sides of palm fronds for the forty-dollar juvenile who is pursuing the Red Widow from the summer hotel, Act One to Act Two, tropical isle off the Bay of Bungel.

Enter the Red Widow in a black, fish-scale gown that calls out the stealthy pencil of every Middle West dressmaker in the house and rapid calculation from the women with a good memory and some fish-scales on a discarded basque.

The Red Widow, with a poinsettia sprawling like a frantic clutch at her heart, and her burnished gold head rising with the grace of a gold flower out of a vase!

Cyrus assumes a swoon of delight, throws out a cue—“The date-trees are blooming”—the conductor raps his baton twice for their feature duet entitled, “Oh, Let Me Die on Broadway,” and the spot-light focuses.

The house clamors for a fourth encore, but the lights flash on. The pursuing son, in the face of prolonged applause, white trousers, and a straw katy, bursts upon the scene with his features in first position for the dénouement.

But the audience clamors on. The son postpones his expression and leans against a jungle to a fourth encore of the tuneful Thanatopsis.

On the final curtain of the hundredth night the company bowed two curtain-calls to the capacity house busily struggling into wraps and up aisles.

The Red Widow, linked between the pickle-magnate and the triumphant son, flanked by sextets, octets, and regimentals, bowed four times over three sheaths of American beauties and a high-handled basket of carnations.

Then, almost on the drop of the curtain, the immediate roar of sliding wings, which mingled with the exit strains of the orchestra, like a Debussy right-hand theme defying the left, and the rumble of forests, retreating.

Scene-shifters, to whom every encore is a knell, demolished whole kingdoms at a lunge, half a hundred satin slippers flashed up a spiral staircase to chorus dressing-rooms, the Red Widow flung the trail of the gown she had on—so carelessly dragged across the tarpaulin terra firma of Bungel—across one bare arm and darted through the door with a red star painted on the panel.

Her dressing-room, hung in vivid chintz, with a canopied table replacing the make-up shelf, and a passing show of signed photographs tacked along the wall, was as fantastic as Gnomes' Cave.

A wildness of chiffon and sleazy silk hung from the wall-hooks, a pair of gauze aeroplane wings hovered across a chair, and, atop a trunk, impertinent as a Pierette, the black pony was removing the gold star from her hair.

“Warm house to-night, Del. I sent Sibbie across to the hotel with your flowers.”

“Yeh—best house yet.”

“But gee! it's a wonder he wouldn't give away kerosene.”

“Rotten stuff.”

“It made me so dizzy I nearly flopped like a seal in the pony prance. He must 'a' bought it by the keg.”

“I told him it was strong enough to run his new motor-boat. Gawd, ain't I tired! How'd the aeroplane song go, Ysobel?”

“Swell! But leave it to Billy to hog your act every time. I seen him grab a laugh when the propellers was workin'.”

“Undo me, Ysobel? Why'd you let Sibbie go? Can't you let me get used to having a maid, hon'?”

“Poor kid, you're dead, ain't you? But you gotta go with him to-night or he'll howl.”

Della lowered her beaded lashes over eyes that smarted, and raised her arms like Niobe entreating fate.

“Sure, I gotta go. He's been bragging about this hundredth-night blow-out for a month.”

“Quit squirming, Del! Hold still, can't you?”

“Five recalls on 'Let me die,' Ysobel.”

“You never went better.”

Della slid out of her gown and into a gold-colored kimono embroidered in black flying swans, and creamed off her make-up in long, even strokes.

“Look, he wants me to wear that silver-fox coat and the cloth-of-silver gown. Honest, it's so heavy I nearly fainted in it the other night. Lots he cares!”

“It'll be a swell blow, Del. The hundredth night he gave when Perfecta was starring was town talk. He don't stop at nothin'.”

“No, he don't stop at nothin'.”

“He gimme a look to-night when I came off from the prance. He'd gimme notice in a minute if he didn't need me. He knows that ballet would fall like a bride's biscuit without me.”

“Sure it would! He likes your work, hon'. I never pulled any strings for you, neither. He just seen your try-out and liked it swell.”

“Sure he did, but he's that jealous of you! He was dead sore when you brought me down here to dress with you. Gee, you're tired, ain't you, dearie?”

“Dog-tired! That staircase waltz always does me up.”

“Lay your head down here a minute. Ain't that just life, though? Here we are kicking just like a year ago in Fallows's 'Neatly Furnished.'”

“I ain't kickin', Ysobel. I wake up every morning pinchin' myself.”

“Gawd, if you gotta long face, what ought the rest of us to have? You're the luckiest girl any of us knows. Did you see what the new Yellow Book says about you? 'The Titian-headed Venus de Meelo'—how's that—huh?”

“Just the same, you wouldn't change places with me, Ysobel! Don't wriggle out of answering me! Now, would you?”

“Watch out, you're mussing up your beauty curls. Here, lemme pin that diamond heart on the left shoulder of your dress. Hurry up, honey, Myers will be here any minute, and you know how sore he gets if you keep him waitin'.”

“Do I?”

“Say, but that silver's swell on you!”

“Say, Ysobel, wait till they see my little sister. We could do a twin act that would take 'em off their feet. That new 'Heavenly Twin' show that Al read us the first act of, with Cottie and me featured, and you doin' the Columbine—gee—”

“'Sh-h-h-h! There—he—is—knockin'.”

“It can't be Hy already. I—I ain't dressed yet, Hy—just a minute! Oh, it's a telegram, Ysobel; take it, like a good girl.”

“Say, it ain't another from Third Row Bobbie, is it? You ought to tip him off that he's wastin' his pin-money on you, hon'.”

Della ripped the flap, read, and very suddenly sat down on the silver-fox coat. The color drained out of her face, and her breath came irregularly as if her heart had missed a beat.

“Della—Del—darlin'—what's the matter?”

“Oh, Gawd!”

“What, darlin'—what?”

“Read!”

Ysobel peered across the bare shoulder, her slim silk legs tiptoed and her neck arched.

    Maw buried yesterday. Money you sent for her birthday
    paid funeral. Am ready. Wire directions.
        COTTIE.

“Aw—aw, Del darlin'—honest, I—I don't know what to say, only it—only—it ain't like she was your real mother, Del darlin'. You can't be hard hit over a blind old dame that used to make it hot as sixty for you.”

“Poor old soul—she lived like a rat and—died like one, I guess.”

“With you sending her money all the time—nixy!”

“Like a rat! Poor old maw.”

Della's voice was far removed, like one who speaks through the film of a trance.

“When my old dame died I felt bad, too, but Gawd knows she wasn't peaches and cream to have around the house. And look, darlin'—Cottie's comin' now—look—Cottie's comin'!”

“Cottie—Cottie—comin'?”

“Sure she is—see, read, honey—'Am ready.'”

“Oh, Gawd, Ysobel, now that it's come I—I'm scared—she—she's such a kid—she—Ysobel—I—I'm scared—I—”

“'Sh-h-h. There he is knockin', Del. Try and smile, hon'. You know how sore a long face makes him. Maybe you won't have to go to-night, now—smile, darlin'—smile! Come in!”

The door opened with a fling, and enter Mr. Hy Myers, an unlighted cigar at a sharp oblique in one corner of his mouth, hat slightly askew, and a full-length overcoat flung open to reveal a mink lining and studded shirt-front.

“Gad,” he said, dallying backward on his heels, his thumbs in the arm-circles of his waistcoat, and regarding the shining silver figure—“Gad, girl, you're all right.”

Della drew back against the dressing-table and twirled the rings on her fingers.

“I—I got bad news, Hy. I can't go to-night. Here, read for yourself.”

He reached for the paper, passing Ysobel as if she belonged to the trappings of the room.

“I—I can't—go to-night, Hy.”

He read with the sharp eyes of a gray hawk of the world, and drew his coat together in a gesture of buttoning up.

“Don't pull any of that stuff on me, Beauty. Just because the old devil you've been tellin' me about—”

“Oh—you—you—”

“Them ain't real tears—you'd be laughin' in your sleeve if you had any on. Come on; step lively, Beauty. I ain't givin' this blow-out to be made a fool out of. Give her a daub of color there, Du Prez.”

“Hy! She was my stepmother, and—”

“Come, Beauty, what you actin' up for? Ain't that doll you've been piping about all these months comin' now that the old woman is out of the way? Bring her on and lemme have a look at her. If she's in your class, lemme look her over.”

“Gimme—a minute, Hy. I—I just wanna send—a wire.”

“Sure; tell her to come on. I'll send it for you. I'll look her over, and—”

“No—no! Let Ysobel send it. You do it, Ysobel. Here, gimme your pen, Hy.”

She wrote with her breath half a moan in her throat, and her bosom heaving and flashing the diamond heart.

“Send it right off, Ysobel darlin'—read it and send it off, darlin'.”

She daubed a rabbit's foot under each eye and slid into the silver-fox coat.

“Read it, darlin', and send it.”

Ysobel read slowly like a child spelling out its task.

    Breakers—ahead. Stay at home, dearie.
        DELLA.

Through eyes that were magnified through the glaze of tears Ysobel burrowed her head in the silver-fox collar.

“Oh, Del—Del darlin'—I'm wise—but, oh, my darlin'.”

“Come on. Whatta you think this is, a soul-kiss scene—you two?”

“Comin', Hy—comin'.”

“Della darlin'.”

“Good night, Ysobel; lemme go, dearie—lemme go.”

Then out through a labyrinth of stacked scenery, with her elbow in the cup of his hand, and the silver shimmering in the gloom.

“Gad, you will have that scrawny little hanger-on around and gettin' on my nerves! If I weren't always humorin' the daylights out of you she wouldn't spoil a ballet of mine for fifteen minutes, she—”

“It's darn little I ask out of you, but you gotta lemme have her—you gotta lemme have that much, or the whole blame show can—”

“Keep cool, there, Tragedy Queen, and watch your step! I don't want you limpin' in there to-night with a busted ankle on top of your long face.”

They high-stepped through a dirty passageway stacked with stage bric-à-brac, out into a whiff of night air, across a pavement, and into a wine-colored limousine.

He climbed in after her, throwing open the great fur collar of his coat and lighting his cigar.

They plunged forward into the white flare of Broadway, and within her plate-glass inclosure she was like a doomed queen riding to her destiny.

“Light up there, Dolly! No long face to-night! The crowd's going to be there waitin' for you. Look at me, you little devil—you little devil!”

“Gawd, what are you made of? Ain't you got no feelings?”

“Tush! You ain't real on that talk. I know you better'n you know yourself. Ain't I told you that you can bring the little sister on and lemme look her over? There's nothin' I wouldn't do for you, Beauty. You got me crazy to-night over you. Eh! Pretty soft for a little hayseed like you!”

She smiled suddenly, flashed her teeth, cooed in her throat, and reared her white throat out of its fur like a swan rears its head out of its snowy neck.

“I—I'll be all right in a minute, Hy. Just lemme sit quiet a second, Hy. I—I'm dog-tired, encores and all. Gimme a little while to tune up—before—we get there. Just a minute, Hy.”

“That's more like it. Look at me, Beauty. Do you love me, eh?”

“Easy on that stuff, Hy. They might chain your wrists for ravin'.”

“I'm ravin' crazy over you to-night, that's what I am. Love me, eh—do you, Beauty?”

She receded from his approaching face close back against the upholstery, and within the satin-down interior of her muff her fingers clasped each other until the nails bit into her palms and broke the flesh.

“Don't make me sore to-night, Queenie. I ain't in the humor. Gowann, answer like a good girl. Love me?”

“Aw, Hy, quit your kiddin'.”

“No, no; none of that; come on, Silver Queen. I'll give you six to answer—love me?”

“Aw, now—”

“One—two—three—four—five—”

“Yes.”

 
 
 

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