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Power and Horse Power by Fannie Hurst

 

In the Knockerbeck Hotel there are various parlors; Pompeian rooms lined in marble and pillared in chaste fluted columns; Louis Quinze corners, gold-leafed and pink-brocaded, principally furnished with a spindly-legged Vernis-Martin cabinet and a large French clock in the form of a celestial sphere surmounted by a gold cupid.

There are high-ceilinged rendezvous rooms, with six arm and two straight chairs chased after the manner of Gouthière, and a series of small inlaid writing-desks, generously equipped for an avidious public to whom the crest-embossed stationery of a four-dollar-a-day-up hotel suggests long-forgotten friends back home.

Just off the lobby is the Oriental room, thick with arabesque hangings and incense and distinguished by the famous pair of Chinese famille rose mandarin jars, fifty-three inches high and enameled with Hoho birds and flowers. In careful contrast the adjoining room, a Colonial parlor paneled in black walnut and designed by a notorious architect, is ten degrees lower in temperature and lighted by large rectangular windows, through whose leaded panes a checkered patch of sunshine filters across the floor for half an hour each forenoon.

Then there is the manicure parlor, done in white tile, and stationary wash-stands by the Herman Casky Hygienic Company, Eighth Avenue.

The oracle of this particular Delphi was Miss Gertrude Sprunt, white-shirtwaisted, smooth-haired, and cool-fingered. Miss Sprunt could tell, almost as soon as you stepped out of the elevator opposite the parlors, the shortest cut to your hand and heart; she could glance at a pair of cuffs and give the finger-nails a correspondingly high or domestic finish, and could cater to the manicurial whims of Fifth Avenue and Four Corners alike. After one digital treat at her clever hands you enlisted as one of Miss Sprunt's regulars.

This fact was not lost upon her sister worker, Miss Ethyl Mooney. “Say, Gertie”—Miss Mooney tied a perky little apron about her trim waist and patted a bow into place—“is there ever a mornin' that you ain't booked clear through the day?”

Miss Sprunt hung her flat sailor hat and blue jacket behind the door, placed her hands on her hips, glanced down the length of her svelte figure, yawned, and patted her mouth with her hand.

“Not so you could notice it,” she replied, in gapey tones. “I'm booked from nine to quitting just six days of the week; and, believe me, it's not like taking the rest cure.”

“I guess if I was a jollier like you, Gert, I'd have a waitin'-list, too, I wish I could get on to your system.”

“Maybe I give tradin'-stamps,” observed Miss Sprunt, flippantly.

“You give 'em some sort of laughing-gas; but me, I'm of a retiring disposition, and I never could force myself on nobody.”

Miss Gertrude flecked at herself with a whisk-broom.

“Don't feel bad about it, Ethyl; just keep on trying.”

Miss Ethyl flushed angrily.

“Smarty!” she said.

“I wasn't trying to be nasty, Ethyl—you're welcome to an appointment every twenty minutes so far as I'm concerned.”

Miss Ethyl appeared appeased.

“You know yourself, Gert, you gotta way about you. A dollar tip ain't nothin' for you. But look at me—I've forgot there's anything bigger'n a quarter in circulation.”

“There's a great deal in knowing human nature. Why, I can almost tell a fellow's first name by looking at his half-moons.”

“Believe me, Gert, it ain't your glossy finish that makes the hit; it's a way you've got of making a fellow think he's the whole show.”

“I do try to make myself agreeable,” admitted Miss Sprunt.

“Agreeable! You can look at a guy with that Oh-I-could-just-listen-to-you-talk-for-ever expression, and by the time you're through with him he'll want to take his tens out of the water and sign over his insurance to you.”

“Manicuring is a business like anything else,” said Miss Sprunt, by no means displeased. “You sure do have to cater to the trade.”

“Well, believe me—” began Miss Ethyl.

But Miss Gertrude suddenly straightened, smiled, and turned toward her table.

Across the hall Mr. James Barker, the rubbed-down, clean-shaven result of a Russian bath, a Swedish massage, and a bountiful American breakfast, stepped out of a French-gold elevator and entered the parlor.

Miss Sprunt placed the backs of her hands on her hips and cocked her head at the clock.

“Good morning, Mr. Barker; you're on time to the minute.”

Mr. Barker removed his black-and-white checked cap, deposited three morning editions of evening papers atop a small glass case devoted to the display of Madame Dupont's beautifying cold-creams and marvelous cocoa-butters, and rubbed his hands swiftly together as if generating a spark. A large diamond mounted in a cruelly stretched lion's mouth glinted on Mr. Barker's left hand; a sister stone glowed like an acetylene lamp from his scarf.

“On time, eh! Leave it to your Uncle Fuller to be on time for the big show—a pretty goil can drag me from the hay quicker'n anything I know of.”

Miss Gertrude quirked the corner of one eye at Miss Ethyl in a scarcely perceptible wink and filled a glass bowl with warm water.

“That's one thing I will say for my regular customers—they never keep me waiting; that is the beauty of having a high-class trade.”

She glanced at Mr. Barker with pleasing insinuation, and they seated themselves vis-à-vis at the little table.

Miss Sprunt surrounded herself with the implements of her craft—small porcelain jars of pink and white cold-creams, cakes of powder in varying degrees of pinkness, vials of opaque liquids, graduated series of files and scissors, large and small chamois-covered buffers, and last the round glass bowl of tepid water cloudy with melting soap.

Mr. Barker extended his large hand upon the little cushion and sighed in satisfaction.

“Go to it, sis—gimme a shine like a wind-shield.”

She rested his four heavy fingers lightly in her palm.

“You really don't need a manicure, Mr. Barker; your hands keep the shine better than most.”

“Well, I'll be hanged—tryin' to learn your Uncle Fuller when to have his own hands polished! Can you beat it?” Mr. Barker's steel-blue shaved face widened to a broad grin. “Say, you're a goil after my own heart—a regular little sixty-horse-power queen.”

“I wasn't born yesterday, Mr. Barker.”

“I know you wasn't, but you can't bluff me off, kiddo. You don't need to give me no high-power shine if you don't want to, but I've got one dollar and forty minutes' worth of your time cornered, just the samey.”

Miss Sprunt dipped his hands into tepid water.

“I knew what I said would not frighten you off, Mr. Barker. I wouldn't have said it if I thought it would.”

Mr. Barker guffawed with gusto.

“Can you beat the wimmin?” he cried. “Can you beat the wimmin?”

“You want a high pink finish, don't you, Mr. Barker?”

“Go as far as you like, sis; give 'em to me as pink and shiny as a baby's heel.”

Miss Sprunt gouged out a finger-tip of pink cream and applied it lightly to the several members of his right hand. Her touch was sure and swift.

He regarded her with frankly admiring eyes.

“You're some little goil,” he said; “you can tell me what I want better than I know myself.”

“That's easy; there isn't a broker in New York who doesn't want a high pink finish, and I've been doing brokers, actors, millionaires, bank clerks, and Sixth Avenue swells in this hotel for three years.”

He laughed delightedly, his eyes almost disappearing behind a fretwork of fine wrinkles.

“What makes you know I'm a tape-puller, kiddo? Durned if you ain't got my number better than I got it myself.”

“I can tell a broker from a business man as easy as I can tell a five-carat diamond from a gilt-edge bond.”

He slid farther down on his chair and regarded her with genuine approval.

“Say, kiddo, I've been all round the world—took a trip through Egypt in my car last spring that I could write a book about; but I ain't seen nothin' in the way of skirts that could touch you with a ten-foot rod.”

She flushed.

“Oh, you fellows are such jolliers!”

“On the level, kiddo, you're preferred stock all right, and I'd be willin' to take a flyer any time.”

“Say, Mr. Barker, you'd better quit stirring the candy, or it will turn to sugar.”

“Lemme tell you, Miss Gertie, I ain't guyin', and I'll prove it to you. I'm goin' to take you out in the swellest little ninety-horse-power speedwagon you ever seen; if you'll gimme leave I'll set you and me up to-night to the niftiest little dinner-party on the island, eh?”

She filed rapidly at his thumb, bringing the nail to a pointed apex.

“I'm very careful about accepting invitations, Mr. Barker.”

“Don't you think I can tell a genteel goil when I see her? That's why I ain't asked you out the first time I seen you.”

She kept her eyes lowered.

“Of course, since you put it that way, I'll be pleased to accept your invitation, Mr. Barker.”

He struck the table with his free hand.

“You're a live un, all right. How about callin' round fer you at six this evenin'?”

She nodded assent.

“Good goil! We'll keep the speedometer busy, all right!”

She skidded the palms of her hands over his nails. “There,” she said, “that's not a bad shine.”

He straightened his hands out before him and regarded them in mock scrutiny. “Those are some classy grabbers,” he said; “and you're some classy little woiker.”

He watched her replace the crystal stoppers in their several bottles and fit her various commodities into place. She ranged the scissors and files in neat graduated rows and blew powder particles off the cover with prettily pursed lips.

“That'll be about all, Mr. Barker.”

He ambled reluctantly out from his chair.

“You'll be here at six, then?”

“Will I be here at six, sis? Say, will a fish swim?”

He fitted his cap carefully upon his head and pulled the vizor low over his eyes.

“So long, kiddo!” He crossed the marble corridor, stepped into the gold elevator, the filigree door snapped shut, and he shot upward.

Miss Ethyl waited a moment and then pitched her voice to a careful note of indifference.

“I'll bet the million-dollar kid asked you to elope with him.”

Miss Gertrude tilted her coiffure forward and ran her amber back-comb through her front hair.

“No,” she said, with the same indifference, “he didn't ask me to elope with him; he just wanted to know if I'd tour Hester Street with him in his canoe.”

“I don't see no medals on you fer bein' the end man of the minstrel show. Don't let a boat trip to Coney go to your head; you might get brain-fever.”

Gertrude Sprunt cast her eyes ceilingward.

“Well, one good thing, your brain will never cause you any trouble, Ethyl.”

“Lord, Gert, cut out the airs! You ain't livin' in the rose suite on the tenth floor; you're only applyin' nail-polishes and cuticle-lotions down here in the basement.”

“There's something else I'm doing, too,” retorted Miss Gertrude, with unruffled amiability. “I'm minding my own affairs.”

They fell to work again after these happy sallies, and it was late afternoon before there came a welcome lull.

“Who's your last, Gert?”

“Mr. Chase.” There were two red spots of excitement burning on Miss Sprunt's cheeks, and her eyes showed more black than blue.

“Not that little guy with the Now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep face? Take it from me, he's a bank clerk or a library guy. Thank Heaven, I ain't got no cheap skates on my staff!”

Miss Gertrude flushed up to her eyes.

“He may be a clerk, but—”

Mr. Chase entered quietly. There was a gentle, even shrinking smile upon his features, and he carried a small offering covered with purple tissue-paper, which he placed nervously upon the edge of the table.

“Good afternoon, Miss Sprunt.” He pushed the greeting toward her. “May I hope that you will accept these?”

“Oh, Mr. Chase, aren't you good?” The very quality of her voice was suddenly different, like the softening of a violin note when you mute the strings.

He drew his chair up to the table with the quiet satisfaction of a man ready for a well-merited meal.

“You and violets are inseparable in my mind, Miss Sprunt, because you both suggest the spring.”

She laughed in low, rich tones, and her shirtwaist rose and fell rapidly from short breathing.

“Why,” she said, “that's the very nicest thing any one ever said to me!”

His hand, long-fingered and virile, drooped over the edge of the bowl into the warm water; he leaned forward with his chest against the line of the table.

“What do you mean, Miss Sprunt?”

She took his dripping hand from the water and dried each finger separately.

“If you had been doing high pink finishes for three years you'd know the difference when a dull white came along—I—I mean, I—”

He smoothed away her embarrassment with a raillery: “By your polish shall ye be known.”

“Yes,” she replied, with more seriousness than banter; “that's exactly what I mean. I'm not used to men whose polish extends beyond their finger-nails.”

She worked with her head bent low, and he regarded the shining coils of her hair.

“How droll you are!” he said.

She pushed back the half-moons of his fingers with an orange stick dipped in cold-cream.

“You ought to watch your cuticle, Mr. Chase, and be more regular about the manicures. Your hands are more delicate than most.”

He started.

“Of course I should pay more attention to them, but I'm pretty busy and—and—”

“Of course I understand manicures are expensive luxuries these days.”

“Yes.”

“I have become so accustomed to hotel trade that I forgot that some hands may be earning salaries instead of drawing incomes.”

Her manner was unobtrusive, and he laughed quietly.

“You are quite a student of types, Miss Sprunt.”

“Wouldn't I have to be, Mr. Chase, me doing as many as a hundred fingers a day, and something different coming with each ten of them?”

“You are delightful,” he said, letting his amused eyes rest upon her; “but I fear you've mysterious methods of divination.”

“Oh, I don't know,” she said, airily. “Just take you, for example. I don't need an X-ray to see that there isn't a Fifth Avenue tailor sign stitched inside your coat. It doesn't take any mind-reader to know that you come in from the Sixth Avenue entrance and not from the elevator. Besides, when you come to live in a lobster palace you usually have your claws done to match your shell. I'd have given you a dull white finish without your even asking for it.”

“I see where I stand with you, Miss Sprunt.”

“Oh, it isn't that, Mr. Chase. I guess, if the truth was known, the crawfish stand better with me than the lobsters.”

Mr. Chase's fingers closed lightly over hers.

“I believe you mean what you say,” he said.

“You bet your life I do!” she said, emphasizing each word with a buff. She looked up, met his insistent eyes, and laughed in a high, unnatural pitch. “Other hand, please,” she whispered.

When he finally rose to depart she rose with him, holding her nosegay at arm's-length and tilting her head.

“It's almost time for wood violets, Miss Sprunt. I'll try to get you some.”

“Oh, don't trouble, Mr. Chase; these hothouse ones are beauties.”

“I—I'll be dropping in soon again, Miss Sprunt. I think I'll take your advice and be more regular about my manicures.”

“Oh,” she said, in some confusion, “I—I didn't mean that. You can care for them in between times yourself.”

At the Sixth Avenue exit he paused.

“Good night,” he said, slowly.

“Good night,” she responded, her lips warm and parted like a child's.

When the click of his footsteps had echoed down the marble corridor Miss Ethyl crossed the room and indulged in several jerky sniffs at the little floral offering. “Well, whatta you know about that little tin Willie, bringin' a goil violets in May? You better stick to the million-dollar kid, Gert; he's the strawberries-in-December brand.”

For once Miss Gertrude did not retort; her eyes, full of dreams, were gazing past the doorway which had so recently framed the modest figure of Mr. Chase.

Promptly at six Mr. Barker appeared for his appointment. He bespoke the last word and epilogue in sartorial perfection—his suit was a trifle too brown and a trifle too creased and his carnation a bit too large, but he radiated good cheer and perfume.

Miss Ethyl nudged Miss Gertrude excitedly.

“Pipe the rig, Gert; he makes you look like a hole in a doughnut.”

He entered, suave as oil.

“Well, sis, ready?”

“Oh, Mr. Barker, you're all dressed up—and look at me. I—”

“Ah-h-h, how do you like it? Some class, eh? Guess your Uncle Fuller ain't some hit—brand-new gear from tonneau to rear wheels.”

Mr. Barker circumvolved on one heel, holding his coat-tails apart.

“I blew me right fer this outfit; but it's woith the money, sis.”

“If I had known I'd have gone home and dressed up, too.”

“Well, whatta you know about that?” exclaimed Mr. Barker, observing her up and down. “That there shroud you're wearing is as classy as anything I've seen up in the lobby or any place else, and I've been all round the woild some, too. I know the real thing from the seconds every time.”

Miss Gertrude worked into her gloves.

“I guess it is more becoming for a girl like me to go plainly.”

“Believe me, kiddo”—Mr. Barker placed his hand blinker-fashion against the side of his mouth, and his lips took on an oblique slant—“take it from me, kiddo, when it comes to real feet-on-the-fender comfort, a nineteen-fifty suit with a extry pair of pants thrown in can make this rig feel like a busted tire.”

“Well, Mr. Barker, I'm ready if you are.”

He swung one arm akimbo with an outward circular movement, clicked his heels together, and straightened his shoulders until his speckled white vest swelled.

“Hitch on, sis, and let's show Broadway we're in town!”

Gertrude took a pinch of sleeve between her gloved fingers; they fell into step. At the door she turned and nodded over one shoulder.

“Good night, Ethyl dear,” she said, a trifle too sweetly.

A huge mahogany-colored touring-car caparisoned in nickel and upholstered in darker red panted and chugged at the Broadway curb. Mr. Barker helped her into the front seat, swung himself behind the steering-wheel, covered them over with a striped rug, and turned his shining monster into the flux of Broadway.

Miss Gertrude leaned her head back against the upholstery and breathed a deep-seated, satisfied sigh.

“This,” she said, “is what I call living.”

Mr. Barker grinned and let out five miles more to the hour.

“I guess this ain't got the Sixth Avenue 'L' skinned a mile!”

“Two miles,” she said.

“Honest, sis, I could be arrested for what I think of the 'L.'”

“I know the furnishing of every third-floor front on the line,” she replied, with a dreary attempt at jocoseness.

“Never mind, kiddo, I've got my eye on you,” he sang, quoting from a street song of the hour.

They sped on silently, the wind singing in their ears.

“Want the shield up?”

“The what?”

“The glass front.”

“No, thank you, Mr. Barker; this air is good.”

“This old wagon can eat up the miles, all right, eh? She toured Egypt fer two months and never turned an ankle.”

“To think of having traveled as you have.”

“Me, I'm the best little traveler you ever seen. More than once I drove this car up a mountainside. Hold your hat—here goes, kiddo.”

“I guess you'll think I'm slow, but this is the first time I've been in an automobile, except once when I was sent for in a taxi-cab for a private manicure.”

“You think you could get used to mine, kiddo?” He nudged her elbow with his free arm; she drew herself back against the cushions.

“The way I feel now,” she said, closing her eyes, “I could ride this way until the crack of doom.”

They drew up before a flaring, electric-lighted café with an awning extending from the entrance out to the curb. A footman swung open the door, a doorman relieved Mr. Barker of his hat and light overcoat, a head waiter steered them through an Arcadia of palms, flower-banked tables, and small fountains to a mirrored corner, a lackey drew out their chairs, a pantry boy placed crisp rolls and small pats of sweet butter beside their plates and filled their tumblers with water from a crystal bottle, a waiter bent almost double wrote their order on a silver-mounted pad, and music faint as the symphony of the spheres came to them from a small gold balcony.

Miss Gertrude removed her gloves thoughtfully.

“That is what I call living,” she repeated. She leaned forward, her elbows on the table, and the little bunch of violets at her belt worked out and fell to the floor. An attendant sprang to recover them.

“Let 'em go,” said Barker. He drew a heavy-headed rose from the embankment between them and wiped its wet stem. “Here's a posy that's got them beat right.”

She took it and pinned it at her throat. “Thanks,” she said, glancing about her with glowing, interested eyes.

“This place makes Runey's lunch-room look like a two-weeks-old manicure.”

“I told you I was goin' to show you the time of your life, didn't I? Any goil that goes out with me ain't with a piker.”

“Gee!” said Gertrude; “if Ethyl could only see me now!”

She sipped her water, and the ice tinkled against the frail sides of the tumbler. A waiter swung a silver dome off a platter and served them a steaming and unpronounceable delicacy; a woman sang from the small gold balcony—life, wine, and jewels sparkled alike.

A page with converging lines of gilt balls down the front of his uniform passed picture post-cards, showing the café, from table to table. Gertrude asked for a lead-pencil and wrote one to a cousin in Montana, and Mr. Barker signed his name beneath hers.

They dallied with pink ices and French pastries, and he loudly requested the best cigar in the place.

“It's all in knowin' how to live,” he explained. “I've been all over the woild, and there ain't much I don't know or ain't seen; but you gotta know the right way to go about things.”

“Anybody could tell by looking at you that you are a man of the world,” said Miss Gertrude.

It was eleven o'clock when they entered the car for the homeward spin. The cool air blew color and verve into her face; and her hair, responding to the night damp, curled in little grape-vine tendrils round her face.

“You're some swell little goil,” remarked Mr. Barker, a cigar hung idle from one corner of his mouth.

“And you are some driver!” she retorted. “You run a car like a real chauffeur.”

“I wouldn't own a car if I couldn't run it myself,” he said. “I ran this car all through France last fall. There ain't no fun bein' steered like a mollycoddle.”

“No one could ever accuse you of being a mollycoddle, Mr. Barker.”

He turned and loosened the back of her seat until it reclined like a Morris chair. “My own invention,” he said; “to lie back and watch the stars on a clear night sort of—of gives you a hunch what's goin' on up there.”

She looked at him in some surprise. “You're clever, all right,” she said, rather seriously.

“Wait till you know me better, kiddo. I'll learn you a whole lot about me that'll surprise you.”

His hand groped for hers; she drew it away gently, but her voice was also gentle:

“Here we are home, Mr. Barker.”

In front of her lower West Side rooming-house he helped her carefully to alight, regarding her sententiously in the flare of the street lamp.

“You're my style, all right, kiddo. My speedometer registers you pretty high.”

She giggled.

“I'm here to tell you that you look good to me, and—and—I—anything on fer to-morrow night?”

“No,” she said, softly.

“Are you on?”

She nodded.

“I'll drop in and see you to-morrow,” he said.

“Good,” she replied.

“If nothin' unexpected comes up to-morrow night we'll take one swell spin out along the Hudson Drive and have dinner at the Vista. There's some swell scenery out along the Palisade drive when the moon comes up and shines over the water.”

“Oh, Mr. Barker, that will be heavenly!”

“I'm some on the soft-soap stuff myself,” he said.

“You're full of surprises,” she agreed.

“I'll drop in and see you to-morrow, kiddo.”

“Good night,” she whispered.

“Good night, little sis,” he replied.

They parted with a final hand-shake; as she climbed up to her room she heard the machine chug away.

The perfume of her rose floated about her like a delicate mist. She undressed and went to bed into a dream-world of shimmering women and hidden music, a world chiefly peopled by deferential waiters and scraping lackeys. All the night through she sped in a silent mahogany-colored touring-car, with the wind singing in her ears and lights flashing past like meteors.

       * * * * *

When Miss Gertrude arrived at the Knockerbeck parlors next morning a little violet offering wrapped in white tissue-paper lay on her desk. They were fresh wood violets, cool and damp with dew. She flushed and placed them in a small glass vase behind the cold-cream case.

Her eyes were blue like the sky when you look straight up, and a smile trembled on her lips. Ten minutes later Mr. Barker, dust-begrimed and enveloped in a long linen duster, swaggered in. He peeled off his stout gloves; his fingers were black-rimmed and grease-splotched.

“Mornin', sis; here's a fine job for you. Took an unexpected business trip ten miles out, and the bloomin' spark-plug got to cuttin' up like a balky horse.”

He crammed his gloves and goggles into spacious pockets and looked at Miss Gertrude with warming eyes.

“Durned if you ain't lookin' pert as a mornin'-glory to-day!”

She took his fingers on her hand and regarded them reprovingly.

“Shame on you, Mr. Barker, for getting yourself so mussed up!” cried Miss Sprunt.

“Looks like I need somebody to take care of me, doan it, sis?”

“Yes,” she agreed, unblushingly.

Once in warm water, his hands exuded the odor of gasolene. She sniffed like a horse scenting the turf.

“I'd rather have a whiff of an automobile,” she remarked, “than of the best attar of roses on the market.”

“You ain't forgot about to-night, sis?”

She lowered her eyes.

“No, I haven't forgotten.”

“There ain't nothin' but a business engagement can keep me off. I gotta big deal on, and I may be too busy to-night, but we'll go to-morrow sure.”

“That'll be all right, Mr. Barker; business before pleasure.”

“I'm pretty sure it'll be to-night, though. I—I don't like to have to wait too long.”

He reached across the table suddenly and gripped hold of her working arm.

“Say, kiddo, I like you.”

“Silly!” she said, softly.

“I ain't foolin'.”

“I'll be ready at six,” she said, lightly. “If you can't come let me know.”

“I ain't the sort to do things snide,” he said. “If I can't come I'll put you wise, all right.”

“You certainly know how to treat a girl,” she said.

“Let me get to likin' a goil, and there ain't nothin' I won't do for her.”

“You sure can run a machine, Mr. Barker.”

“You wait till I let loose some speed along the Hudson road, and then you'll see some real drivin'; last night wasn't nothin'.”

“Oh, Mr. Barker!”

“Call me Jim,” he said.

“Jim,” she repeated, softly, after him.

The day was crowded with appointments. She worked unceasingly until the nerves at the back of her head were strained and aching, and tired shadows appeared under her eyes. The languor of spring oppressed her.

To her surprise, Mr. Chase appeared at four o'clock. At the sight of him the point of her little scissors slipped into the unoffending cuticle of the hand she was grooming. She motioned him to a chair along the wall.

“In just a few minutes, Mr. Chase.”

“Thank you,” he replied, seating himself and watching her with interested, near-sighted eyes.

A nervousness sent the blood rushing to her head. The low drone of Ethyl's voice talking to a customer, the tick of the clock, the click and sough of the elevator were thrice magnified. She could feel the gush of color to her face.

The fat old gentleman whose fingers she had been administering placed a generous bonus on the table and ambled out. She turned her burning eyes upon Mr. Chase and spoke slowly to steady her voice. She was ashamed of her unaccountable nervousness and of the suffocating dryness in her throat.

“Ready for you, Mr. Chase.”

He came toward her with a peculiar slowness of movement, a characteristic slowness which was one of the trivial things which burned his attractiveness into her consciousness. In the stuffiness of her own little room she had more than once closed her eyes and deliberately pictured him as he came toward her table, gentle yet eager, with a deference which was new as it was delightful to her.

As he approached her she snapped a flexible file between her thumb and forefinger, and watched it vibrate and come to a jerky stop; then she looked up.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Chase.”

“Good afternoon, Miss Sprunt. You see, I am following your advice.” He took the chair opposite her.

“I—I want to thank you for the violets. They are the first real hint of May I've had.”

“You knew they came from me?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Why—I—why, I just knew.”

She covered her confusion by removing and replacing crystal bottle-stoppers.

“I'm glad that you knew they came from me, Miss Sprunt.”

“Yes, I knew that they could come from no one but you—they were so simple and natural and—sweet.”

She laughed a pitch too high and plunged his fingers into water some degrees too hot. He did not wince, but she did.

“Oh, Mr. Chase, forgive me. I—I've scalded your fingers.”

“Why,” he replied, not taking his eyes from her face, “so you have!” They both laughed.

Across the room Miss Ethyl coughed twice. “I always say,” she observed to her customer, “a workin'-girl can't be too careful of her actions. That's why I am of a retiring disposition and don't try to force myself on nobody.”

Mr. Chase regarded the shadows beneath Miss Sprunt's eyes with a pucker between his own.

“You don't get much of the springtime in here, do you, Miss Sprunt?”

“No,” she replied, smiling faintly. “The only way we can tell the seasons down here is by the midwinter Elks convention and the cloak drummers who come to buy fur coats in July.”

“You poor little girl,” he said, slowly. “What you need is air—good, wholesome air, and plenty of it.”

“Oh, I get along all right,” she said, biting at her nether lip.

“You're confined too closely, Miss Sprunt.”

“Life isn't all choice,” she replied, briefly.

“Forgive me,” he said.

“I walk home sometimes,” she said.

“You're fond of walking?”

“Yes, when I'm not too tired.”

“Miss Sprunt, would—would you walk with me this evening? I know a quiet little place where we could dine together.”

“Oh,” she said, “I—I already have an engagement. I—”

She colored with surprise.

“You have an engagement?” His tones were suddenly flat.

“No,” she replied, in tones of sudden decision, “I'd be pleased to go with you. I can do what I planned to-night any other time.”

“Thank you, Miss Sprunt.”

Her fingers trembled as she worked, and his suddenly closed over them.

“You poor, tired little girl,” he repeated.

She gulped down her emotions.

“Miss Sprunt, this is neither the time nor the place for me to express myself, yet somehow our great moments come when we least expect them.”

She let her limp fingers rest in his; she was strangely calm.

“I know it is always a great pleasure to have you come in, Mr. Chase.”

“The first time I dropped in was chance, Miss Sprunt. You can see for yourself that I am not the sort of fellow who goes in for the little niceties like manicures. I'm what you might call the seedy kind. But the second time I dropped in for a manicure was not accident, nor the third time, nor the tenth—it was you.”

“You've been extravagant all on account of me?” she parried.

“I've been more than that on account of you, dear girl. I've been consumed night and day by the sweet thought of you.”

“Oh-h-h!” She placed one hand at her throat.

“Miss Sprunt, I am not asking anything of you; I simply want you to know me better. I want to begin to-night to try to teach you to reciprocate the immense regard—the love I feel for you.”

She closed her eyes for a moment; his firm clasp of her hand tightened.

“You'll think I'm a bold girl, Mr. Chase; you'll—you'll—”

“Yes?”

“You'll think I'm everything I ought not to be, but you—you can't teach me what I already know.”

“Gertrude!”

She nodded, swallowing back unaccountable tears.

“I never let myself hope, because I didn't think there was a chance, Mr. Chase.”

“Dear, is it possible without knowing me—who, what I am—you—”

“I only know you,” she said, softly. “That is all that matters.”

“My little girl,” he whispered, regarding her with unshed tears shining in his eyes.

She placed her two hands over her face for a moment.

“What is it, dear?”

She burrowed deeper into her hands.

“I'm so happy,” she said, between her fingers.

They regarded each other with almost incredulous eyes, seeking to probe the web of enchantment their love had woven.

“I do not deserve this happiness, dearest.” But his voice was a pæan of triumph.

“It is I who do not deserve,” she said, in turn. “You are too—too everything for me.”

They talked in whispers until there were two appointees ranged along the wall. He was loath to go; she urged him gently.

“I can't work while you are here, dear; return for me at six—no,” she corrected, struck by a sudden thought, “at six-thirty.”

“Let me wait for you, dearest,” he pleaded.

She waggled a playful finger at him.

“Good-by until later.”

“Until six-thirty, cruel one.”

“Yes.”

“There is so much to be said, Gertrude dear.”

“To-night.”

He left her lingeringly. They tried to cover up their fervent, low-voiced farewells with passive faces, but after he had departed her every feature was lyric.

Juliet might have looked like that when her love was young.

Mr. Barker arrived, but she met him diffidently, even shamefacedly. Before she could explain he launched forth:

“I'm sorry, kiddo, but we'll have to make it to-morrow night for that ride of ourn. That party I was tellin' you about is goin' to get busy on that big deal, and I gotta do a lot of signin' up to-night.”

Fate had carved a way for her with gentle hand.

“That's all right, Mr. Barker; just don't you feel badly about it.” She felt a gush of sympathy for him; for all humanity.

“You understand, kiddo, don't you? A feller's got to stick to business as much as pleasure, and we'll hit the high places to-morrow night, all right, all right. You're the classiest doll I've met yet.”

She swallowed her distaste.

“That's the right idea, Mr. Barker; business appointments are always important.”

“I'll see you to-morrow mornin', and we'll fix up some swell party.”

“Good night, Mr. Barker.”

“So long, honey.”

Directly after he departed Miss Ethyl bade her good night in cold, cracky tones.

“The goin's-on in this parlor don't make it no place for a minister's daughter, Miss Gertie Sprunt.”

“Then you ought to be glad your father's a policeman,” retorted her friend, graciously. “Good night, dearie.”

She hummed as she put her table in order. At each footstep down the marble corridor her pulse quickened; she placed her cheeks in her hands, vise-fashion, to feel of their unnatural heat. When Mr. Chase finally came they met shyly and with certain restraint. Whispering together like diffident children, they went out, their hands lightly touching. Broadway was already alight; the cool spring air met them like tonic.

Like an exuberant lad, Mr. Chase led her to the curb. A huge, mahogany-colored touring-car, caparisoned in nickel and upholstered in a darker red, vibrated and snorted alongside. A chauffeur, with a striped rug across his knees, reached back respectfully and flung open the door. Like an automaton Gertrude placed her small foot upon the step and paused, her dumfounded gaze confronting the equally stunned eyes of the chauffeur. Mr. Chase aided and encouraged at her elbow.

“It's all right, dearest, it's all right; this is your surprise.”

“Why,” she gasped, her eyes never leaving the steel-blue shaved face of the chauffeur—“why—I—”

Mr. Chase regarded her in some anxiety. “What a surprised little girl you are! I shouldn't have taken you so unawares.” He almost lifted her in.

“This machine is yours, Mr. Chase?”

“Yes, dear, this machine is ours.”

“You never told me anything.”

“There is little to tell, Gertrude. I have not used my cars to amount to anything since I'm back from Egypt. I've been pretty busy with affairs.”

“Back from Egypt!”

“Do not look so helpless, dear. I'm only back three months from a trip round the world, and I've been putting up with hotel life meanwhile. Then I happened to meet you, and as long as you had me all sized up I just let it go—that's all, dear.”

“You're not the Mr. Adam Chase who's had the rose suite on the tenth floor all winter?”

“That's me,” he laughed.

Her slowly comprehending eyes did not leave his face.

“Why, I thought—I—you—”

“It was my use of the private elevator on the east side of the building that gave you the Sixth Avenue idea, and it was too good a joke on me to spoil, dearie.”

She regarded him through blurry eyes.

“What must you think of me?”

He felt for her hand underneath the lap-robe.

“Among other things,” he said, “I think that your eyes exactly match the violets I motored out to get for you this morning at my place ten miles up the Hudson.”

“When did you go, dear?”

“Before you were up. We were back before ten, in spite of a spark-plug that gave us some trouble.”

“Oh,” she said.

The figure at the wheel squirmed to be off. She lay back faint against the upholstery.

“To think,” she said, “that you should care for me!”

“My own dear girl!”

He touched a spring and the back of her seat reclined like a Morris chair.

“Lie back, dear. I invented that scheme so I can recline at night and watch the stars parade past. I toured that way all through Egypt.”

The figure in the front seat gripped his wheel.

“Where are we going, Adam dear?” she whispered.

“This is your night, Gertrude; give James your orders.”

She snuggled deeper into the dark-red upholstery, and their hands clasped closer beneath the robe.

“James,” she said, in a voice like a bell, “take us to the Vista for dinner; afterward motor out along the Palisade drive, far out so that we can see the Hudson by moonlight.”

 
 
 

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