By Booth Tarkington
The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her. Every evening he told her that anybody with ordinary gumption ought to realize that night air was bad for the human frame. "The human frame won't stand everything, Miss Perry," he warned her, resentfully. "Even a child, if it had just ordinary gumption, ought to know enough not to let the night air blow on sick people yes, nor well people, either! 'Keep out of the night air, no matter how well you feel.' That's what my mother used to tell me when I was a boy. 'Keep out of the night air, Virgil,' she'd say. 'Keep out of the night air.'"
"I expect probably her mother told her the same thing," the nurse suggested.
"Of course she did. My grandmother——"
"Oh, I guess your GRANDmother thought so, Mr. Adams! That was when all this flat central country was swampish and hadn't been drained off yet. I guess the truth must been the swamp mosquitoes bit people and gave 'em malaria, especially before they began to put screens in their windows. Well, we got screens in these windows, and no mosquitoes are goin' to bite us; so just you be a good boy and rest your mind and go to sleep like you need to."
"Sleep?" he said. "Likely!"
He thought the night air worst of all in April; he hadn't a doubt it would kill him, he declared. "It's miraculous what the human frame WILL survive," he admitted on the last evening of that month. "But you and the doctor ought to both be taught it won't stand too dang much! You poison a man and poison and poison him with this April night air——"
"Can't poison you with much more of it," Miss Perry interrupted him, indulgently. "To-morrow it'll be May night air, and I expect that'll be a lot better for you, don't you? Now let's just sober down and be a good boy and get some nice sound sleep."
She gave him his medicine, and, having set the glass upon the center table, returned to her cot, where, after a still interval, she snored faintly. Upon this, his expression became that of a man goaded out of overpowering weariness into irony.
"Sleep? Oh, CERTAINLY, thank you!"
However, he did sleep intermittently, drowsed between times, and even dreamed; but, forgetting his dreams before he opened his eyes, and having some part of him all the while aware of his discomfort, he believed, as usual, that he lay awake the whole night long. He was conscious of the city as of some single great creature resting fitfully in the dark outside his windows. It lay all round about, in the damp cover of its night cloud of smoke, and tried to keep quiet for a few hours after midnight, but was too powerful a growing thing ever to lie altogether still. Even while it strove to sleep it muttered with digestions of the day before, and these already merged with rumblings of the morrow. "Owl" cars, bringing in last passengers over distant trolley-lines, now and then howled on a curve; faraway metallic stirrings could be heard from factories in the sooty suburbs on the plain outside the city; east, west, and south, switch-engines chugged and snorted on sidings; and everywhere in the air there seemed to be a faint, voluminous hum as of innumerable wires trembling overhead to vibration of machinery underground.
In his youth Adams might have been less resentful of sounds such as these when they interfered with his night's sleep: even during an illness he might have taken some pride in them as proof of his citizenship in a "live town"; but at fifty-five he merely hated them because they kept him awake. They "pressed on his nerves," as he put it; and so did almost everything else, for that matter.
He heard the milk-wagon drive into the cross-street beneath his windows and stop at each house. The milkman carried his jars round to the "back porch," while the horse moved slowly ahead to the gate of the next customer and waited there. "He's gone into Pollocks'," Adams thought, following this progress. "I hope it'll sour on 'em before breakfast. Delivered the Andersons'. Now he's getting out ours. Listen to the darn brute! What's HE care who wants to sleep!" His complaint was of the horse, who casually shifted weight with a clink of steel shoes on the worn brick pavement of the street, and then heartily shook himself in his harness, perhaps to dislodge a fly far ahead of its season. Light had just filmed the windows; and with that the first sparrow woke, chirped instantly, and roused neighbours in the trees of the small yard, including a loud-voiced robin. Vociferations began irregularly, but were soon unanimous.
"Sleep? Dang likely now, ain't it!"
Night sounds were becoming day sounds; the far-away hooting of freight-engines seemed brisker than an hour ago in the dark. A cheerful whistler passed the house, even more careless of sleepers than the milkman's horse had been; then a group of coloured workmen came by, and although it was impossible to be sure whether they were homeward bound from night-work or on their way to day-work, at least it was certain that they were jocose. Loose, aboriginal laughter preceded them afar, and beat on the air long after they had gone by.
The sick-room night-light, shielded from his eyes by a newspaper propped against a water-pitcher, still showed a thin glimmering that had grown offensive to Adams. In his wandering and enfeebled thoughts, which were much more often imaginings than reasonings, the attempt of the night-light to resist the dawn reminded him of something unpleasant, though he could not discover just what the unpleasant thing was. Here was a puzzle that irritated him the more because he could not solve it, yet always seemed just on the point of a solution. However, he may have lost nothing cheerful by remaining in the dark upon the matter; for if he had been a little sharper in this introspection he might have concluded that the squalor of the night-light, in its seeming effort to show against the forerunning of the sun itself, had stimulated some half-buried perception within him to sketch the painful little synopsis of an autobiography.
In spite of noises without, he drowsed again, not knowing that he did; and when he opened his eyes the nurse was just rising from her cot. He took no pleasure in the sight, it may be said. She exhibited to him a face mismodelled by sleep, and set like a clay face left on its cheek in a hot and dry studio. She was still only in part awake, however, and by the time she had extinguished the night-light and given her patient his tonic, she had recovered enough plasticity. "Well, isn't that grand! We've had another good night," she said as she departed to dress in the bathroom.
"Yes, you had another!" he retorted, though not until after she had closed the door.
Presently he heard his daughter moving about in her room across the narrow hall, and so knew that she had risen. He hoped she would come in to see him soon, for she was the one thing that didn't press on his nerves, he felt; though the thought of her hurt him, as, indeed, every thought hurt him. But it was his wife who came first.
She wore a lank cotton wrapper, and a crescent of gray hair escaped to one temple from beneath the handkerchief she had worn upon her head for the night and still retained; but she did everything possible to make her expression cheering.
"Oh, you're better again! I can see that, as soon as I look at you," she said. "Miss Perry tells me you've had another splendid night."
He made a sound of irony, which seemed to dispose unfavourably of Miss Perry, and then, in order to be more certainly intelligible, he added, "She slept well, as usual!"
But his wife's smile persisted. "It's a good sign to be cross; it means you're practically convalescent right now."
"Oh, I am, am I?"
"No doubt in the world!" she exclaimed. "Why, you're practically a well man, Virgil—all except getting your strength back, of course, and that isn't going to take long. You'll be right on your feet in a couple of weeks from now."
"Oh, I will?"
"Of course you will!" She laughed briskly, and, going to the table in the center of the room, moved his glass of medicine an inch or two, turned a book over so that it lay upon its other side, and for a few moments occupied herself with similar futilities, having taken on the air of a person who makes things neat, though she produced no such actual effect upon them. "Of course you will," she repeated, absently. "You'll be as strong as you ever were; maybe stronger." She paused for a moment, not looking at him, then added, cheerfully, "So that you can fly around and find something really good to get into."
Something important between them came near the surface here, for though she spoke with what seemed but a casual cheerfulness, there was a little betraying break in her voice, a trembling just perceptible in the utterance of the final word. And she still kept up the affectation of being helpfully preoccupied with the table, and did not look at her husband—perhaps because they had been married so many years that without looking she knew just what his expression would be, and preferred to avoid the actual sight of it as long as possible. Meanwhile, he stared hard at her, his lips beginning to move with little distortions not lacking in the pathos of a sick man's agitation.
"So that's it," he said. "That's what you're hinting at."
"'Hinting?'" Mrs. Adams looked surprised and indulgent. "Why, I'm not doing any hinting, Virgil."
"What did you say about my finding 'something good to get into?'" he asked, sharply. "Don't you call that hinting?"
Mrs. Adams turned toward him now; she came to the bedside and would have taken his hand, but he quickly moved it away from her.
"You mustn't let yourself get nervous," she said. "But of course when you get well there's only one thing to do. You mustn't go back to that old hole again."
"'Old hole?' That's what you call it, is it?" In spite of his weakness, anger made his voice strident, and upon this stimulation she spoke more urgently.
"You just mustn't go back to it, Virgil. It's not fair to any of us, and you know it isn't."
"Don't tell me what I know, please!"
She clasped her hands, suddenly carrying her urgency to plaintive entreaty. "Virgil, you WON'T go back to that hole?"
"That's a nice word to use to me!" he said. "Call a man's business a hole!"
"Virgil, if you don't owe it to me to look for something different, don't you owe it to your children? Don't tell me you won't do what we all want you to, and what you know in your heart you ought to! And if you HAVE got into one of your stubborn fits and are bound to go back there for no other reason except to have your own way, don't tell me so, for I can't bear it!"
He looked up at her fiercely. "You've got a fine way to cure a sick man!" he said; but she had concluded her appeal—for that time—and instead of making any more words in the matter, let him see that there were tears in her eyes, shook her head, and left the room.
Alone, he lay breathing rapidly, his emaciated chest proving itself equal to the demands his emotion put upon it. "Fine!" he repeated, with husky indignation. "Fine way to cure a sick man! Fine!" Then, after a silence, he gave forth whispering sounds as of laughter, his expression the while remaining sore and far from humour.
"And give us our daily bread!" he added, meaning that his wife's little performance was no novelty.
In fact, the agitation of Mrs. Adams was genuine, but so well under her control that its traces vanished during the three short steps she took to cross the narrow hall between her husband's door and the one opposite. Her expression was matter-of-course, rather than pathetic, as she entered the pretty room where her daughter, half dressed, sat before a dressing-table and played with the reflections of a three-leafed mirror framed in blue enamel. That is, just before the moment of her mother's entrance, Alice had been playing with the mirror's reflections—posturing her arms and her expressions, clasping her hands behind her neck, and tilting back her head to foreshorten the face in a tableau conceived to represent sauciness, then one of smiling weariness, then one of scornful toleration, and all very piquant; but as the door opened she hurriedly resumed the practical, and occupied her hands in the arrangement of her plentiful brownish hair.
They were pretty hands, of a shapeliness delicate and fine. "The best things she's got!" a cold-blooded girl friend said of them, and meant to include Alice's mind and character in the implied list of possessions surpassed by the notable hands. However that may have been, the rest of her was well enough. She was often called "a right pretty girl"—temperate praise meaning a girl rather pretty than otherwise, and this she deserved, to say the least. Even in repose she deserved it, though repose was anything but her habit, being seldom seen upon her except at home. On exhibition she led a life of gestures, the unkind said to make her lovely hands more memorable; but all of her usually accompanied the gestures of the hands, the shoulders ever giving them their impulses first, and even her feet being called upon, at the same time, for eloquence.
So much liveliness took proper place as only accessory to that of the face, where her vivacity reached its climax; and it was unfortunate that an ungifted young man, new in the town, should have attempted to define the effect upon him of all this generosity of emphasis. He said that "the way she used her cute hazel eyes and the wonderful glow of her facial expression gave her a mighty spiritual quality." His actual rendition of the word was "spirichul"; but it was not his pronunciation that embalmed this outburst in the perennial laughter of Alice's girl friends; they made the misfortune far less his than hers.
Her mother comforted her too heartily, insisting that Alice had "plenty enough spiritual qualities," certainly more than possessed by the other girls who flung the phrase at her, wooden things, jealous of everything they were incapable of themselves; and then Alice, getting more championship than she sought, grew uneasy lest Mrs. Adams should repeat such defenses "outside the family"; and Mrs. Adams ended by weeping because the daughter so distrusted her intelligence. Alice frequently thought it necessary to instruct her mother.
Her morning greeting was an instruction to-day; or, rather, it was an admonition in the style of an entreaty, the more petulant as Alice thought that Mrs. Adams might have had a glimpse of the posturings to the mirror. This was a needless worry; the mother had caught a thousand such glimpses, with Alice unaware, and she thought nothing of the one just flitted.
"For heaven's sake, mama, come clear inside the room and shut the door! PLEASE don't leave it open for everybody to look at me!"
"There isn't anybody to see you," Mrs. Adams explained, obeying. "Miss Perry's gone downstairs, and——"
"Mama, I heard you in papa's room," Alice said, not dropping the note of complaint. "I could hear both of you, and I don't think you ought to get poor old papa so upset—not in his present condition, anyhow."
Mrs. Adams seated herself on the edge of the bed. "He's better all the time," she said, not disturbed. "He's almost well. The doctor says so and Miss Perry says so; and if we don't get him into the right frame of mind now we never will. The first day he's outdoors he'll go back to that old hole—you'll see! And if he once does that, he'll settle down there and it'll be too late and we'll never get him out."
"Well, anyhow, I think you could use a little more tact with him."
"I do try to," the mother sighed. "It never was much use with him. I don't think you understand him as well as I do, Alice."
"There's one thing I don't understand about either of you," Alice returned, crisply. "Before people get married they can do anything they want to with each other. Why can't they do the same thing after they're married? When you and papa were young people and engaged, he'd have done anything you wanted him to. That must have been because you knew how to manage him then. Why can't you go at him the same way now?"
Mrs. Adams sighed again, and laughed a little, making no other response; but Alice persisted. "Well, WHY can't you? Why can't you ask him to do things the way you used to ask him when you were just in love with each other? Why don't you anyhow try it, mama, instead of ding-donging at him?"
"'Ding-donging at him,' Alice?" Mrs. Adams said, with a pathos somewhat emphasized. "Is that how my trying to do what I can for you strikes you?"
"Never mind that; it's nothing to hurt your feelings." Alice disposed of the pathos briskly. "Why don't you answer my question? What's the matter with using a little more tact on papa? Why can't you treat him the way you probably did when you were young people, before you were married? I never have understood why people can't do that."
"Perhaps you WILL understand some day," her mother said, gently. "Maybe you will when you've been married twenty-five years."
"You keep evading. Why don't you answer my question right straight out?"
"There are questions you can't answer to young people, Alice."
"You mean because we're too young to understand the answer? I don't see that at all. At twenty-two a girl's supposed to have some intelligence, isn't she? And intelligence is the ability to understand, isn't it? Why do I have to wait till I've lived with a man twenty-five years to understand why you can't be tactful with papa?"
"You may understand some things before that," Mrs. Adams said, tremulously. "You may understand how you hurt me sometimes. Youth can't know everything by being intelligent, and by the time you could understand the answer you're asking for you'd know it, and wouldn't need to ask. You don't understand your father, Alice; you don't know what it takes to change him when he's made up his mind to be stubborn."
Alice rose and began to get herself into a skirt. "Well, I don't think making scenes ever changes anybody," she grumbled. "I think a little jolly persuasion goes twice as far, myself."
"'A little jolly persuasion!'" Her mother turned the echo of this phrase into an ironic lament. "Yes, there was a time when I thought that, too! It didn't work; that's all."
"Perhaps you left the 'jolly' part of it out, mama."
For the second time that morning—it was now a little after seven o'clock—tears seemed about to offer their solace to Mrs. Adams. "I might have expected you to say that, Alice; you never do miss a chance," she said, gently. "It seems queer you don't some time miss just ONE chance!"
But Alice, progressing with her toilet, appeared to be little concerned. "Oh, well, I think there are better ways of managing a man than just hammering at him."
Mrs. Adams uttered a little cry of pain. "'Hammering,' Alice?"
"If you'd left it entirely to me," her daughter went on, briskly, "I believe papa'd already be willing to do anything we want him to."
"That's it; tell me I spoil everything. Well, I won't interfere from now on, you can be sure of it."
"Please don't talk like that," Alice said, quickly. "I'm old enough to realize that papa may need pressure of all sorts; I only think it makes him more obstinate to get him cross. You probably do understand him better, but that's one thing I've found out and you haven't. There!" She gave her mother a friendly tap on the shoulder and went to the door. "I'll hop in and say hello to him now."
As she went, she continued the fastening of her blouse, and appeared in her father's room with one hand still thus engaged, but she patted his forehead with the other.
"Poor old papa-daddy!" she said, gaily. "Every time he's better somebody talks him into getting so mad he has a relapse. It's a shame!"
Her father's eyes, beneath their melancholy brows, looked up at her wistfully. "I suppose you heard your mother going for me," he said.
"I heard you going for her, too!" Alice laughed. "What was it all about?"
"Oh, the same danged old story!"
"You mean she wants you to try something new when you get well?" Alice asked, with cheerful innocence. "So we could all have a lot more money?"
At this his sorrowful forehead was more sorrowful than ever. The deep horizontal lines moved upward to a pattern of suffering so familiar to his daughter that it meant nothing to her; but he spoke quietly. "Yes; so we wouldn't have any money at all, most likely."
"Oh, no!" she laughed, and, finishing with her blouse, patted his cheeks with both hands. "Just think how many grand openings there must be for a man that knows as much as you do! I always did believe you could get rich if you only cared to, papa."
But upon his forehead the painful pattern still deepened. "Don't you think we've always had enough, the way things are, Alice?"
"Not the way things ARE!" She patted his cheeks again; laughed again. "It used to be enough, maybe anyway we did skimp along on it—but the way things are now I expect mama's really pretty practical in her ideas, though, I think it's a shame for her to bother you about it while you're so weak. Don't you worry about it, though; just think about other things till you get strong."
"You know," he said; "you know it isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world for a man of my age to find these grand openings you speak of. And when you've passed half-way from fifty to sixty you're apt to see some risk in giving up what you know how to do and trying something new."
"My, what a frown!" she cried, blithely. "Didn't I tell you to stop thinking about it till you get ALL well?" She bent over him, giving him a gay little kiss on the bridge of his nose. "There! I must run to breakfast. Cheer up now! Au 'voir!" And with her pretty hand she waved further encouragement from the closing door as she departed.
Lightsomely descending the narrow stairway, she whistled as she went, her fingers drumming time on the rail; and, still whistling, she came into the dining-room, where her mother and her brother were already at the table. The brother, a thin and sallow boy of twenty, greeted her without much approval as she took her place.
"Nothing seems to trouble you!" he said.
"No; nothing much," she made airy response. "What's troubling yourself, Walter?"
"Don't let that worry you!" he returned, seeming to consider this to be repartee of an effective sort; for he furnished a short laugh to go with it, and turned to his coffee with the manner of one who has satisfactorily closed an episode.
"Walter always seems to have so many secrets!" Alice said, studying him shrewdly, but with a friendly enough amusement in her scrutiny. "Everything he does or says seems to be acted for the benefit of some mysterious audience inside himself, and he always gets its applause. Take what he said just now: he seems to think it means something, but if it does, why, that's just another secret between him and the secret audience inside of him! We don't really know anything about Walter at all, do we, mama?"
Walter laughed again, in a manner that sustained her theory well enough; then after finishing his coffee, he took from his pocket a flattened packet in glazed blue paper; extracted with stained fingers a bent and wrinkled little cigarette, lighted it, hitched up his belted trousers with the air of a person who turns from trifles to things better worth his attention, and left the room.
Alice laughed as the door closed. "He's ALL secrets," she said. "Don't you think you really ought to know more about him, mama?"
"I'm sure he's a good boy," Mrs. Adams returned, thoughtfully. "He's been very brave about not being able to have the advantages that are enjoyed by the boys he's grown up with. I've never heard a word of complaint from him."
"About his not being sent to college?" Alice cried. "I should think you wouldn't! He didn't even have enough ambition to finish high school!"
Mrs. Adams sighed. "It seemed to me Walter lost his ambition when nearly all the boys he'd grown up with went to Eastern schools to prepare for college, and we couldn't afford to send him. If only your father would have listened——"
Alice interrupted: "What nonsense! Walter hated books and studying, and athletics, too, for that matter. He doesn't care for anything nice that I ever heard of. What do you suppose he does like, mama? He must like something or other somewhere, but what do you suppose it is? What does he do with his time?"
"Why, the poor boy's at Lamb and Company's all day. He doesn't get through until five in the afternoon; he doesn't HAVE much time."
"Well, we never have dinner until about seven, and he's always late for dinner, and goes out, heaven knows where, right afterward!" Alice shook her head. "He used to go with our friends' boys, but I don't think he does now."
"Why, how could he?" Mrs. Adams protested. "That isn't his fault, poor child! The boys he knew when he was younger are nearly all away at college."
"Yes, but he doesn't see anything of 'em when they're here at holiday-time or vacation. None of 'em come to the house any more."
"I suppose he's made other friends. It's natural for him to want companions, at his age."
"Yes," Alice said, with disapproving emphasis. "But who are they? I've got an idea he plays pool at some rough place down-town."
"Oh, no; I'm sure he's a steady boy," Mrs. Adams protested, but her tone was not that of thoroughgoing conviction, and she added, "Life might be a very different thing for him if only your father can be brought to see——"
"Never mind, mama! It isn't me that has to be convinced, you know; and we can do a lot more with papa if we just let him alone about it for a day or two. Promise me you won't say any more to him until—well, until he's able to come downstairs to table. Will you?"
Mrs. Adams bit her lip, which had begun to tremble. "I think you can trust me to know a FEW things, Alice," she said. "I'm a little older than you, you know."
"That's a good girl!" Alice jumped up, laughing. "Don't forget it's the same as a promise, and do just cheer him up a little. I'll say good-bye to him before I go out."
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, I've got lots to do. I thought I'd run out to Mildred's to see what she's going to wear to-night, and then I want to go down and buy a yard of chiffon and some narrow ribbon to make new bows for my slippers—you'll have to give me some money——"
"If he'll give it to me!" her mother lamented, as they went toward the front stairs together; but an hour later she came into Alice's room with a bill in her hand.
"He has some money in his bureau drawer," she said. "He finally told me where it was."
There were traces of emotion in her voice, and Alice, looking shrewdly at her, saw moisture in her eyes.
"Mama!" she cried. "You didn't do what you promised me you wouldn't, did you—NOT before Miss Perry!"
"Miss Perry's getting him some broth," Mrs. Adams returned, calmly. "Besides, you're mistaken in saying I promised you anything; I said I thought you could trust me to know what is right."
"So you did bring it up again!" And Alice swung away from her, strode to her father's door, flung it open, went to him, and put a light hand soothingly over his unrelaxed forehead.
"Poor old papa!" she said. "It's a shame how everybody wants to trouble him. He shan't be bothered any more at all! He doesn't need to have everybody telling him how to get away from that old hole he's worked in so long and begin to make us all nice and rich. HE knows how!"
Thereupon she kissed him a consoling good-bye, and made another gay departure, the charming hand again fluttering like a white butterfly in the shadow of the closing door.
Mrs. Adams had remained in Alice's room, but her mood seemed to have changed, during her daughter's little more than momentary absence.
"What did he SAY?" she asked, quickly, and her tone was hopeful.
"'Say?'" Alice repeated, impatiently. "Why, nothing. I didn't let him. Really, mama, I think the best thing for you to do would be to just keep out of his room, because I don't believe you can go in there and not talk to him about it, and if you do talk we'll never get him to do the right thing. Never!"
The mother's response was a grieving silence; she turned from her daughter and walked to the door.
"Now, for goodness' sake!" Alice cried. "Don't go making tragedy out of my offering you a little practical advice!"
"I'm not," Mrs. Adams gulped, halting. "I'm just—just going to dust the downstairs, Alice." And with her face still averted, she went out into the little hallway, closing the door behind her. A moment later she could be heard descending the stairs, the sound of her footsteps carrying somehow an effect of resignation.
Alice listened, sighed, and, breathing the words, "Oh, murder!" turned to cheerier matters. She put on a little apple-green turban with a dim gold band round it, and then, having shrouded the turban in a white veil, which she kept pushed up above her forehead, she got herself into a tan coat of soft cloth fashioned with rakish severity. After that, having studied herself gravely in a long glass, she took from one of the drawers of her dressing-table a black leather card-case cornered in silver filigree, but found it empty.
She opened another drawer wherein were two white pasteboard boxes of cards, the one set showing simply "Miss Adams," the other engraved in Gothic characters, "Miss Alys Tuttle Adams." The latter belonged to Alice's "Alys" period—most girls go through it; and Alice must have felt that she had graduated, for, after frowning thoughtfully at the exhibit this morning, she took the box with its contents, and let the white shower fall from her fingers into the waste-basket beside her small desk. She replenished the card-case from the "Miss Adams" box; then, having found a pair of fresh white gloves, she tucked an ivory-topped Malacca walking-stick under her arm and set forth.
She went down the stairs, buttoning her gloves and still wearing the frown with which she had put "Alys" finally out of her life. She descended slowly, and paused on the lowest step, looking about her with an expression that needed but a slight deepening to betoken bitterness. Its connection with her dropping "Alys" forever was slight, however.
The small frame house, about fifteen years old, was already inclining to become a new Colonial relic. The Adamses had built it, moving into it from the "Queen Anne" house they had rented until they took this step in fashion. But fifteen years is a long time to stand still in the midland country, even for a house, and this one was lightly made, though the Adamses had not realized how flimsily until they had lived in it for some time. "Solid, compact, and convenient" were the instructions to the architect, and he had made it compact successfully. Alice, pausing at the foot of the stairway, was at the same time fairly in the "living-room," for the only separation between the "living room" and the hall was a demarcation suggested to willing imaginations by a pair of wooden columns painted white. These columns, pine under the paint, were bruised and chipped at the base; one of them showed a crack that threatened to become a split; the "hard-wood" floor had become uneven; and in a corner the walls apparently failed of solidity, where the wall-paper had declined to accompany some staggerings of the plaster beneath it.
The furniture was in great part an accumulation begun with the wedding gifts; though some of it was older, two large patent rocking-chairs and a footstool having belonged to Mrs. Adams's mother in the days of hard brown plush and veneer. For decoration there were pictures and vases. Mrs. Adams had always been fond of vases, she said, and every year her husband's Christmas present to her was a vase of one sort or another—whatever the clerk showed him, marked at about twelve or fourteen dollars. The pictures were some of them etchings framed in gilt: Rheims, Canterbury, schooners grouped against a wharf; and Alice could remember how, in her childhood, her father sometimes pointed out the watery reflections in this last as very fine. But it was a long time since he had shown interest in such things—"or in anything much," as she thought.
Other pictures were two water-colours in baroque frames; one being the Amalfi monk on a pergola wall, while the second was a yard-wide display of iris blossoms, painted by Alice herself at fourteen, as a birthday gift to her mother. Alice's glance paused upon it now with no great pride, but showed more approval of an enormous photograph of the Colosseum. This she thought of as "the only good thing in the room"; it possessed and bestowed distinction, she felt; and she did not regret having won her struggle to get it hung in its conspicuous place of honour over the mantelpiece. Formerly that place had been held for years by a steel-engraving, an accurate representation of the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. It was almost as large as its successor, the "Colosseum," and it had been presented to Mr. Adams by colleagues in his department at Lamb and Company's. Adams had shown some feeling when Alice began to urge its removal to obscurity in the "upstairs hall"; he even resisted for several days after she had the "Colosseum" charged to him, framed in oak, and sent to the house. She cheered him up, of course, when he gave way; and her heart never misgave her that there might be a doubt which of the two pictures was the more dismaying.
Over the pictures, the vases, the old brown plush rocking-chairs and the stool, over the three gilt chairs, over the new chintz-covered easy chair and the gray velure sofa—over everything everywhere, was the familiar coating of smoke grime. It had worked into every fibre of the lace curtains, dingying them to an unpleasant gray; it lay on the window-sills and it dimmed the glass panes; it covered the walls, covered the ceiling, and was smeared darker and thicker in all corners. Yet here was no fault of housewifery; the curse could not be lifted, as the ingrained smudges permanent on the once white woodwork proved. The grime was perpetually renewed; scrubbing only ground it in.
This particular ugliness was small part of Alice's discontent, for though the coating grew a little deeper each year she was used to it. Moreover, she knew that she was not likely to find anything better in a thousand miles, so long as she kept to cities, and that none of her friends, however opulent, had any advantage of her here. Indeed, throughout all the great soft-coal country, people who consider themselves comparatively poor may find this consolation: cleanliness has been added to the virtues and beatitudes that money can not buy.
Alice brightened a little as she went forward to the front door, and she brightened more when the spring breeze met her there. Then all depression left her as she walked down the short brick path to the sidewalk, looked up and down the street, and saw how bravely the maple shade-trees, in spite of the black powder they breathed, were flinging out their thousands of young green particles overhead.
She turned north, treading the new little shadows on the pavement briskly, and, having finished buttoning her gloves, swung down her Malacca stick from under her arm to let it tap a more leisurely accompaniment to her quick, short step. She had to step quickly if she was to get anywhere; for the closeness of her skirt, in spite of its little length, permitted no natural stride; but she was pleased to be impeded, these brevities forming part of her show of fashion.
Other pedestrians found them not without charm, though approval may have been lacking here and there, and at the first crossing Alice suffered what she might have accounted an actual injury, had she allowed herself to be so sensitive. An elderly woman in fussy black silk stood there, waiting for a streetcar; she was all of a globular modelling, with a face patterned like a frost-bitten peach; and that the approaching gracefulness was uncongenial she naively made too evident. Her round, wan eyes seemed roused to bitter life as they rose from the curved high heels of the buckled slippers to the tight little skirt, and thence with startled ferocity to the Malacca cane, which plainly appeared to her as a decoration not more astounding than it was insulting.
Perceiving that the girl was bowing to her, the globular lady hurriedly made shift to alter her injurious expression. "Good morning, Mrs. Dowling," Alice said, gravely. Mrs. Dowling returned the salutation with a smile as convincingly benevolent as the ghastly smile upon a Santa Claus face; and then, while Alice passed on, exploded toward her a single compacted breath through tightened lips.
The sound was eloquently audible, though Mrs. Dowling remained unaware that in this or any manner whatever she had shed a light upon her thoughts; for it was her lifelong innocent conviction that other people saw her only as she wished to be seen, and heard from her only what she intended to be heard. At home it was always her husband who pulled down the shades of their bedroom window.
Alice looked serious for a few moments after the little encounter, then found some consolation in the behaviour of a gentleman of forty or so who was coming toward her. Like Mrs. Dowling, he had begun to show consciousness of Alice's approach while she was yet afar off; but his tokens were of a kind pleasanter to her. He was like Mrs. Dowling again, however, in his conception that Alice would not realize the significance of what he did. He passed his hand over his neck-scarf to see that it lay neatly to his collar, smoothed a lapel of his coat, and adjusted his hat, seeming to be preoccupied the while with problems that kept his eyes to the pavement; then, as he came within a few feet of her, he looked up, as in a surprised recognition almost dramatic, smiled winningly, lifted his hat decisively, and carried it to the full arm's length.
Alice's response was all he could have asked. The cane in her right hand stopped short in its swing, while her left hand moved in a pretty gesture as if an impulse carried it toward the heart; and she smiled, with her under lip caught suddenly between her teeth. Months ago she had seen an actress use this smile in a play, and it came perfectly to Alice now, without conscious direction, it had been so well acquired; but the pretty hand's little impulse toward the heart was an original bit all her own, on the spur of the moment.
The gentleman went on, passing from her forward vision as he replaced his hat. Of himself he was nothing to Alice, except for the gracious circumstance that he had shown strong consciousness of a pretty girl. He was middle-aged, substantial, a family man, securely married; and Alice had with him one of those long acquaintances that never become emphasized by so much as five minutes of talk; yet for this inconsequent meeting she had enacted a little part like a fragment in a pantomime of Spanish wooing.
It was not for him—not even to impress him, except as a messenger. Alice was herself almost unaware of her thought, which was one of the running thousands of her thoughts that took no deliberate form in words. Nevertheless, she had it, and it was the impulse of all her pretty bits of pantomime when she met other acquaintances who made their appreciation visible, as this substantial gentleman did. In Alice's unworded thought, he was to be thus encouraged as in some measure a champion to speak well of her to the world; but more than this: he was to tell some magnificent unknown bachelor how wonderful, how mysterious, she was.
She hastened on gravely, a little stirred reciprocally with the supposed stirrings in the breast of that shadowy ducal mate, who must be somewhere "waiting," or perhaps already seeking her; for she more often thought of herself as "waiting" while he sought her; and sometimes this view of things became so definite that it shaped into a murmur on her lips. "Waiting. Just waiting." And she might add, "For him!" Then, being twenty-two, she was apt to conclude the mystic interview by laughing at herself, though not without a continued wistfulness.
She came to a group of small coloured children playing waywardly in a puddle at the mouth of a muddy alley; and at sight of her they gave over their pastime in order to stare. She smiled brilliantly upon them, but they were too struck with wonder to comprehend that the manifestation was friendly; and as Alice picked her way in a little detour to keep from the mud, she heard one of them say, "Lady got cane! Jeez'!"
She knew that many coloured children use impieties familiarly, and she was not startled. She was disturbed, however, by an unfavourable hint in the speaker's tone. He was six, probably, but the sting of a criticism is not necessarily allayed by knowledge of its ignoble source, and Alice had already begun to feel a slight uneasiness about her cane. Mrs. Dowling's stare had been strikingly projected at it; other women more than merely glanced, their brows and lips contracting impulsively; and Alice was aware that one or two of them frankly halted as soon as she had passed.
She had seen in several magazines pictures of ladies with canes, and on that account she had bought this one, never questioning that fashion is recognized, even in the provinces, as soon as beheld. On the contrary, these staring women obviously failed to realize that what they were being shown was not an eccentric outburst, but the bright harbinger of an illustrious mode. Alice had applied a bit of artificial pigment to her lips and cheeks before she set forth this morning; she did not need it, having a ready colour of her own, which now mounted high with annoyance.
Then a splendidly shining closed black automobile, with windows of polished glass, came silently down the street toward her. Within it, as in a luxurious little apartment, three comely ladies in mourning sat and gossiped; but when they saw Alice they clutched one another. They instantly recovered, bowing to her solemnly as they were borne by, yet were not gone from her sight so swiftly but the edge of her side glance caught a flash of teeth in mouths suddenly opened, and the dark glisten of black gloves again clutching to share mirth.
The colour that outdid the rouge on Alice's cheek extended its area and grew warmer as she realized how all too cordial had been her nod and smile to these humorous ladies. But in their identity lay a significance causing her a sharper smart, for they were of the family of that Lamb, chief of Lamb and Company, who had employed her father since before she was born.
"And know his salary! They'd be SURE to find out about that!" was her thought, coupled with another bitter one to the effect that they had probably made instantaneous financial estimates of what she wore though certainly her walking-stick had most fed their hilarity.
She tucked it under her arm, not swinging it again; and her breath became quick and irregular as emotion beset her. She had been enjoying her walk, but within the space of the few blocks she had gone since she met the substantial gentleman, she found that more than the walk was spoiled: suddenly her life seemed to be spoiled, too; though she did not view the ruin with complaisance. These Lamb women thought her and her cane ridiculous, did they? she said to herself. That was their parvenu blood: to think because a girl's father worked for their grandfather she had no right to be rather striking in style, especially when the striking WAS her style. Probably all the other girls and women would agree with them and would laugh at her when they got together, and, what might be fatal, would try to make all the men think her a silly pretender. Men were just like sheep, and nothing was easier than for women to set up as shepherds and pen them in a fold. "To keep out outsiders," Alice thought. "And make 'em believe I AM an outsider. What's the use of living?"
All seemed lost when a trim young man appeared, striding out of a cross-street not far before her, and, turning at the corner, came toward her. Visibly, he slackened his gait to lengthen the time of his approach, and, as he was a stranger to her, no motive could be ascribed to him other than a wish to have a longer time to look at her.
She lifted a pretty hand to a pin at her throat, bit her lip—not with the smile, but mysteriously—and at the last instant before her shadow touched the stranger, let her eyes gravely meet his. A moment later, having arrived before the house which was her destination, she halted at the entrance to a driveway leading through fine lawns to the intentionally important mansion. It was a pleasant and impressive place to be seen entering, but Alice did not enter at once. She paused, examining a tiny bit of mortar which the masons had forgotten to scrape from a brick in one of the massive gate-posts. She frowned at this tiny defacement, and with an air of annoyance scraped it away, using the ferrule of her cane an act of fastidious proprietorship. If any one had looked back over his shoulder he would not have doubted that she lived there.
Alice did not turn to see whether anything of the sort happened or not, but she may have surmised that it did. At all events, it was with an invigorated step that she left the gateway behind her and went cheerfully up the drive to the house of her friend Mildred.
Adams had a restless morning, and toward noon he asked Miss Perry to call his daughter; he wished to say something to her.
"I thought I heard her leaving the house a couple of hours ago—maybe longer," the nurse told him. "I'll go see." And she returned from the brief errand, her impression confirmed by information from Mrs. Adams. "Yes. She went up to Miss Mildred Palmer's to see what she's going to wear to-night."
Adams looked at Miss Perry wearily, but remained passive, making no inquiries; for he was long accustomed to what seemed to him a kind of jargon among ladies, which became the more incomprehensible when they tried to explain it. A man's best course, he had found, was just to let it go as so much sound. His sorrowful eyes followed the nurse as she went back to her rocking-chair by the window, and her placidity showed him that there was no mystery for her in the fact that Alice walked two miles to ask so simple a question when there was a telephone in the house. Obviously Miss Perry also comprehended why Alice thought it important to know what Mildred meant to wear. Adams understood why Alice should be concerned with what she herself wore "to look neat and tidy and at her best, why, of course she'd want to," he thought—but he realized that it was forever beyond him to understand why the clothing of other people had long since become an absorbing part of her life.
Her excursion this morning was no novelty; she was continually going to see what Mildred meant to wear, or what some other girl meant to wear; and when Alice came home from wherever other girls or women had been gathered, she always hurried to her mother with earnest descriptions of the clothing she had seen. At such times, if Adams was present, he might recognize "organdie," or "taffeta," or "chiffon," as words defining certain textiles, but the rest was too technical for him, and he was like a dismal boy at a sermon, just waiting for it to get itself finished. Not the least of the mystery was his wife's interest: she was almost indifferent about her own clothes, and when she consulted Alice about them spoke hurriedly and with an air of apology; but when Alice described other people's clothes, Mrs. Adams listened as eagerly as the daughter talked.
"There they go!" he muttered to-day, a moment after he heard the front door closing, a sound recognizable throughout most of the thinly built house. Alice had just returned, and Mrs. Adams called to her from the upper hallway, not far from Adams's door.
"What did she SAY?"
"She was sort of snippy about it," Alice returned, ascending the stairs. "She gets that way sometimes, and pretended she hadn't made up her mind, but I'm pretty sure it'll be the maize Georgette with Malines flounces."
"Didn't you say she wore that at the Pattersons'?" Mrs. Adams inquired, as Alice arrived at the top of the stairs. "And didn't you tell me she wore it again at the——"
"Certainly not," Alice interrupted, rather petulantly. "She's never worn it but once, and of course she wouldn't want to wear anything to-night that people have seen her in a lot."
Miss Perry opened the door of Adams's room and stepped out. "Your father wants to know if you'll come and see him a minute, Miss Adams."
"Poor old thing! Of course!" Alice exclaimed, and went quickly into the room, Miss Perry remaining outside. "What's the matter, papa? Getting awful sick of lying on his tired old back, I expect."
"I've had kind of a poor morning," Adams said, as she patted his hand comfortingly. "I been thinking——"
"Didn't I tell you not to?" she cried, gaily. "Of course you'll have poor times when you go and do just exactly what I say you mustn't. You stop thinking this very minute!"
He smiled ruefully, closing his eyes; was silent for a moment, then asked her to sit beside the bed. "I been thinking of something I wanted to say," he added.
"What like, papa?"
"Well, it's nothing—much," he said, with something deprecatory in his tone, as if he felt vague impulses toward both humour and apology. "I just thought maybe I ought to've said more to you some time or other about—well, about the way things ARE, down at Lamb and Company's, for instance."
"Now, papa!" She leaned forward in the chair she had taken, and pretended to slap his hand crossly. "Isn't that exactly what I said you couldn't think one single think about till you get ALL well?"
"Well——" he said, and went on slowly, not looking at her, but at the ceiling. "I just thought maybe it wouldn't been any harm if some time or other I told you something about the way they sort of depend on me down there."
"Why don't they show it, then?" she asked, quickly. "That's just what mama and I have been feeling so much; they don't appreciate you."
"Why, yes, they do," he said. "Yes, they do. They began h'isting my salary the second year I went in there, and they've h'isted it a little every two years all the time I've worked for 'em. I've been head of the sundries department for seven years now, and I could hardly have more authority in that department unless I was a member of the firm itself."
"Well, why don't they make you a member of the firm? That's what they ought to've done! Yes, and long ago!"
Adams laughed, but sighed with more heartiness than he had laughed. "They call me their 'oldest stand-by' down there." He laughed again, apologetically, as if to excuse himself for taking a little pride in this title. "Yes, sir; they say I'm their 'oldest stand-by'; and I guess they know they can count on my department's turning in as good a report as they look for, at the end of every month; but they don't have to take a man into the firm to get him to do my work, dearie."
"But you said they depended on you, papa."
"So they do; but of course not so's they couldn't get along without me." He paused, reflecting. "I don't just seem to know how to put it—I mean how to put what I started out to say. I kind of wanted to tell you—well, it seems funny to me, these last few years, the way your mother's taken to feeling about it. I'd like to see a better established wholesale drug business than Lamb and Company this side the Alleghanies—I don't say bigger, I say better established—and it's kind of funny for a man that's been with a business like that as long as I have to hear it called a 'hole.' It's kind of funny when you think, yourself, you've done pretty fairly well in a business like that, and the men at the head of it seem to think so, too, and put your salary just about as high as anybody could consider customary—well, what I mean, Alice, it's kind of funny to have your mother think it's mostly just—mostly just a failure, so to speak."
His voice had become tremulous in spite of him; and this sign of weakness and emotion had sufficient effect upon Alice. She bent over him suddenly, with her arm about him and her cheek against his. "Poor papa!" she murmured. "Poor papa!"
"No, no," he said. "I didn't mean anything to trouble you. I just thought——" He hesitated. "I just wondered—I thought maybe it wouldn't be any harm if I said something about how things ARE down there. I got to thinking maybe you didn't understand it's a pretty good place. They're fine people to work for; and they've always seemed to think something of me;—the way they took Walter on, for instance, soon as I asked 'em, last year. Don't you think that looked a good deal as if they thought something of me, Alice?"
"Yes, papa," she said, not moving.
"And the work's right pleasant," he went on. "Mighty nice boys in our department, Alice. Well, they are in all the departments, for that matter. We have a good deal of fun down there some days."
She lifted her head. "More than you do at home 'some days,' I expect, papa!" she said.
He protested feebly. "Now, I didn't mean that—I didn't want to trouble you——"
She looked at him through winking eyelashes. "I'm sorry I called it a 'hole,' papa."
"No, no," he protested, gently. "It was your mother said that."
"No. I did, too."
"Well, if you did, it was only because you'd heard her."
She shook her head, then kissed him. "I'm going to talk to her," she said, and rose decisively.
But at this, her father's troubled voice became quickly louder: "You better let her alone. I just wanted to have a little talk with you. I didn't mean to start any—your mother won't——"
"Now, papa!" Alice spoke cheerfully again, and smiled upon him. "I want you to quit worrying! Everything's going to be all right and nobody's going to bother you any more about anything. You'll see!"
She carried her smile out into the hall, but after she had closed the door her face was all pity; and her mother, waiting for her in the opposite room, spoke sympathetically.
"What's the matter, Alice? What did he say that's upset you?"
"Wait a minute, mama." Alice found a handkerchief, used it for eyes and suffused nose, gulped, then suddenly and desolately sat upon the bed. "Poor, poor, POOR papa!" she whispered.
"Why?" Mrs. Adams inquired, mildly. "What's the matter with him? Sometimes you act as if he weren't getting well. What's he been talking about?"
"Mama—well, I think I'm pretty selfish. Oh, I do!"
"Did he say you were?"
"Papa? No, indeed! What I mean is, maybe we're both a little selfish to try to make him go out and hunt around for something new."
Mrs. Adams looked thoughtful. "Oh, that's what he was up to!"
"Mama, I think we ought to give it up. I didn't dream it had really hurt him."
"Well, doesn't he hurt us?"
"Never that I know of, mama."
"I don't mean by SAYING things," Mrs. Adams explained, impatiently. "There are more ways than that of hurting people. When a man sticks to a salary that doesn't provide for his family, isn't that hurting them?"
"Oh, it 'provides' for us well enough, mama. We have what we need—if I weren't so extravagant. Oh, I know I am!"
But at this admission her mother cried out sharply. "'Extravagant!' You haven't one tenth of what the other girls you go with have. And you CAN'T have what you ought to as long as he doesn't get out of that horrible place. It provides bare food and shelter for us, but what's that?"
"I don't think we ought to try any more to change him."
"You don't?" Mrs. Adams came and stood before her. "Listen, Alice: your father's asleep; that's his trouble, and he's got to be waked up. He doesn't know that things have changed. When you and Walter were little children we did have enough—at least it seemed to be about as much as most of the people we knew. But the town isn't what it was in those days, and times aren't what they were then, and these fearful PRICES aren't the old prices. Everything else but your father has changed, and all the time he's stood still. He doesn't know it; he thinks because they've given him a hundred dollars more every two years he's quite a prosperous man! And he thinks that because his children cost him more than he and I cost our parents he gives them—enough!"
"But Walter——" Alice faltered. "Walter doesn't cost him anything at all any more." And she concluded, in a stricken voice, "It's all—me!"
"Why shouldn't it be?" her mother cried. "You're young—you're just at the time when your life should be fullest of good things and happiness. Yet what do you get?"
Alice's lip quivered; she was not unsusceptible to such an appeal, but she contrived the semblance of a protest. "I don't have such a bad time not a good DEAL of the time, anyhow. I've got a good MANY of the things other girls have——"
"You have?" Mrs. Adams was piteously satirical. "I suppose you've got a limousine to go to that dance to-night? I suppose you've only got to call a florist and tell him to send you some orchids? I suppose you've——"
But Alice interrupted this list. Apparently in a single instant all emotion left her, and she became businesslike, as one in the midst of trifles reminded of really serious matters. She got up from the bed and went to the door of the closet where she kept her dresses. "Oh, see here," she said, briskly. "I've decided to wear my white organdie if you could put in a new lining for me. I'm afraid it'll take you nearly all afternoon."
She brought forth the dress, displayed it upon the bed, and Mrs. Adams examined it attentively.
"Do you think you could get it done, mama?"
"I don't see why not," Mrs. Adams answered, passing a thoughtful hand over the fabric. "It oughtn't to take more than four or five hours."
"It's a shame to have you sit at the machine that long," Alice said, absently, adding, "And I'm sure we ought to let papa alone. Let's just give it up, mama."
Mrs. Adams continued her thoughtful examination of the dress. "Did you buy the chiffon and ribbon, Alice?"
"Yes. I'm sure we oughtn't to talk to him about it any more, mama."
"Well, we'll see."
"Let's both agree that we'll NEVER say another single word to him about it," said Alice. "It'll be a great deal better if we just let him make up his mind for himself."
With this, having more immediately practical questions before them, they dropped the subject, to bend their entire attention upon the dress; and when the lunch-gong sounded downstairs Alice was still sketching repairs and alterations. She continued to sketch them, not heeding the summons.
"I suppose we'd better go down to lunch," Mrs. Adams said, absently. "She's at the gong again." "In a minute, mama. Now about the sleeves——" And she went on with her planning. Unfortunately the gong was inexpressive of the mood of the person who beat upon it. It consisted of three little metal bowls upon a string; they were unequal in size, and, upon being tapped with a padded stick, gave forth vibrations almost musically pleasant. It was Alice who had substituted this contrivance for the brass "dinner-bell" in use throughout her childhood; and neither she nor the others of her family realized that the substitution of sweeter sounds had made the life of that household more difficult. In spite of dismaying increases in wages, the Adamses still strove to keep a cook; and, as they were unable to pay the higher rates demanded by a good one, what they usually had was a whimsical coloured woman of nomadic impulses. In the hands of such a person the old-fashioned "dinner-bell" was satisfying; life could instantly be made intolerable for any one dawdling on his way to a meal; the bell was capable of every desirable profanity and left nothing bottled up in the breast of the ringer. But the chamois-covered stick might whack upon Alice's little Chinese bowls for a considerable length of time and produce no great effect of urgency upon a hearer, nor any other effect, except fury in the cook. The ironical impossibility of expressing indignation otherwise than by sounds of gentle harmony proved exasperating; the cook was apt to become surcharged, so that explosive resignations, never rare, were somewhat more frequent after the introduction of the gong.
Mrs. Adams took this increased frequency to be only another manifestation of the inexplicable new difficulties that beset all housekeeping. You paid a cook double what you had paid one a few years before; and the cook knew half as much of cookery, and had no gratitude. The more you gave these people, it seemed, the worse they behaved—a condition not to be remedied by simply giving them less, because you couldn't even get the worst unless you paid her what she demanded. Nevertheless, Mrs. Adams remained fitfully an optimist in the matter. Brought up by her mother to speak of a female cook as "the girl," she had been instructed by Alice to drop that definition in favour of one not an improvement in accuracy: "the maid." Almost always, during the first day or so after every cook came, Mrs. Adams would say, at intervals, with an air of triumph: "I believe—of course it's a little soon to be sure—but I do really believe this new maid is the treasure we've been looking for so long!" Much in the same way that Alice dreamed of a mysterious perfect mate for whom she "waited," her mother had a fairy theory that hidden somewhere in the universe there was the treasure, the perfect "maid," who would come and cook in the Adamses' kitchen, not four days or four weeks, but forever.
The present incumbent was not she. Alice, profoundly interested herself, kept her mother likewise so preoccupied with the dress that they were but vaguely conscious of the gong's soft warnings, though these were repeated and protracted unusually. Finally the sound of a hearty voice, independent and enraged, reached the pair. It came from the hall below.
"I says goo'-BYE!" it called. "Da'ss all!"
Then the front door slammed.
"Why, what——" Mrs. Adams began.
They went down hurriedly to find out. Miss Perry informed them.
"I couldn't make her listen to reason," she said. "She rang the gong four or five times and got to talking to herself; and then she went up to her room and packed her bag. I told her she had no business to go out the front door, anyhow."
Mrs. Adams took the news philosophically. "I thought she had something like that in her eye when I paid her this morning, and I'm not surprised. Well, we won't let Mr. Adams know anything's the matter till I get a new one."
They lunched upon what the late incumbent had left chilling on the table, and then Mrs. Adams prepared to wash the dishes; she would "have them done in a jiffy," she said, cheerfully. But it was Alice who washed the dishes.
"I DON'T like to have you do that, Alice," her mother protested, following her into the kitchen. "It roughens the hands, and when a girl has hands like yours——"
"I know, mama." Alice looked troubled, but shook her head. "It can't be helped this time; you'll need every minute to get that dress done."
Mrs. Adams went away lamenting, while Alice, no expert, began to splash the plates and cups and saucers in the warm water. After a while, as she worked, her eyes grew dreamy: she was making little gay-coloured pictures of herself, unfounded prophecies of how she would look and what would happen to her that evening. She saw herself, charming and demure, wearing a fluffy idealization of the dress her mother now determinedly struggled with upstairs; she saw herself framed in a garlanded archway, the entrance to a ballroom, and saw the people on the shining floor turning dramatically to look at her; then from all points a rush of young men shouting for dances with her; and she constructed a superb stranger, tall, dark, masterfully smiling, who swung her out of the clamouring group as the music began. She saw herself dancing with him, saw the half-troubled smile she would give him; and she accurately smiled that smile as she rinsed the knives and forks.
These hopeful fragments of drama were not to be realized, she knew; but she played that they were true, and went on creating them. In all of them she wore or carried flowers—her mother's sorrow for her in this detail but made it the more important—and she saw herself glamorous with orchids; discarded these for an armful of long-stemmed, heavy roses; tossed them away for a great bouquet of white camellias; and so wandered down a lengthening hothouse gallery of floral beauty, all costly and beyond her reach except in such a wistful day-dream. And upon her present whole horizon, though she searched it earnestly, she could discover no figure of a sender of flowers.
Out of her fancies the desire for flowers to wear that night emerged definitely and became poignant; she began to feel that it might be particularly important to have them. "This might be the night!" She was still at the age to dream that the night of any dance may be the vital point in destiny. No matter how commonplace or disappointing other dance nights have been this one may bring the great meeting. The unknown magnifico may be there.
Alice was almost unaware of her own reveries in which this being appeared—reveries often so transitory that they developed and passed in a few seconds. And in some of them the being was not wholly a stranger; there were moments when he seemed to be composed of recognizable fragments of young men she knew—a smile she had liked, from one; the figure of another, the hair of another—and sometimes she thought he might be concealed, so to say, within the person of an actual acquaintance, someone she had never suspected of being the right seeker for her, someone who had never suspected that it was she who "waited" for him. Anything might reveal them to each other: a look, a turn of the head, a singular word—perhaps some flowers upon her breast or in her hand.
She wiped the dishes slowly, concluding the operation by dropping a saucer upon the floor and dreamily sweeping the fragments under the stove. She sighed and replaced the broom near a window, letting her glance wander over the small yard outside. The grass, repulsively besooted to the colour of coal-smoke all winter, had lately come to life again and now sparkled with green, in the midst of which a tiny shot of blue suddenly fixed her absent eyes. They remained upon it for several moments, becoming less absent.
It was a violet.
Alice ran upstairs, put on her hat, went outdoors and began to search out the violets. She found twenty-two, a bright omen—since the number was that of her years—but not enough violets. There were no more; she had ransacked every foot of the yard.
She looked dubiously at the little bunch in her hand, glanced at the lawn next door, which offered no favourable prospect; then went thoughtfully into the house, left her twenty-two violets in a bowl of water, and came quickly out again, her brow marked with a frown of decision. She went to a trolley-line and took a car to the outskirts of the city where a new park had been opened.
Here she resumed her search, but it was not an easily rewarded one, and for an hour after her arrival she found no violets. She walked conscientiously over the whole stretch of meadow, her eyes roving discontentedly; there was never a blue dot in the groomed expanse; but at last, as she came near the borders of an old grove of trees, left untouched by the municipal landscapers, the little flowers appeared, and she began to gather them. She picked them carefully, loosening the earth round each tiny plant, so as to bring the roots up with it, that it might live the longer; and she had brought a napkin, which she drenched at a hydrant, and kept loosely wrapped about the stems of her collection.
The turf was too damp for her to kneel; she worked patiently, stooping from the waist; and when she got home in a drizzle of rain at five o'clock her knees were tremulous with strain, her back ached, and she was tired all over, but she had three hundred violets. Her mother moaned when Alice showed them to her, fragrant in a basin of water.
"Oh, you POOR child! To think of your having to: work so hard to get things that other girls only need; lift their little fingers for!"
"Never mind," said Alice, huskily. "I've got 'em and I AM going to have a good time to-night!"
"You've just got to!" Mrs. Adams agreed, intensely sympathetic. "The Lord knows you deserve to, after picking all these violets, poor thing, and He wouldn't be mean enough to keep you from it. I may have to get dinner before I finish the dress, but I can get it done in a few minutes afterward, and it's going to look right pretty. Don't you worry about THAT! And with all these lovely violets——"
"I wonder——" Alice began, paused, then went on, fragmentarily: "I suppose—well, I wonder—do you suppose it would have been better policy to have told Walter before——"
"No," said her mother. "It would only have given him longer to grumble."
"But he might——"
"Don't worry," Mrs. Adams reassured her. "He'll be a little cross, but he won't be stubborn; just let me talk to him and don't you say anything at all, no matter what HE says."
These references to Walter concerned some necessary manoeuvres which took place at dinner, and were conducted by the mother, Alice having accepted her advice to sit in silence. Mrs. Adams began by laughing cheerfully. "I wonder how much longer it took me to cook this dinner than it does Walter to eat it?" she said. "Don't gobble, child! There's no hurry."
In contact with his own family Walter was no squanderer of words.
"Is for me," he said. "Got date."
"I know you have, but there's plenty of time."
He smiled in benevolent pity. "YOU know, do you? If you made any coffee—don't bother if you didn't. Get some down-town." He seemed about to rise and depart; whereupon Alice, biting her lip, sent a panic-stricken glance at her mother.
But Mrs. Adams seemed not at all disturbed; and laughed again. "Why, what nonsense, Walter! I'll bring your coffee in a few minutes, but we're going to have dessert first."
"Some lovely peaches."
"Doe' want 'ny canned peaches," said the frank Walter, moving back his chair. "G'-night."
"Walter! It doesn't begin till about nine o'clock at the earliest."
He paused, mystified. "What doesn't?"
"Why, Mildred Palmer's dance, of course."
Walter laughed briefly. "What's that to me?"
"Why, you haven't forgotten it's TO-NIGHT, have you?" Mrs. Adams cried. "What a boy!"
"I told you a week ago I wasn't going to that ole dance," he returned, frowning. "You heard me."
"Walter!" she exclaimed. "Of COURSE you're going. I got your clothes all out this afternoon, and brushed them for you. They'll look very nice, and——"
"They won't look nice on ME," he interrupted. "Got date down-town, I tell you."
"But of course you'll——"
"See here!" Walter said, decisively. "Don't get any wrong ideas in your head. I'm just as liable to go up to that ole dance at the Palmers' as I am to eat a couple of barrels of broken glass."
Walter was beginning to be seriously annoyed. "Don't 'Walter' me! I'm no s'ciety snake. I wouldn't jazz with that Palmer crowd if they coaxed me with diamonds."
"Didn't I tell you it's no use to 'Walter' me?" he demanded.
"My dear child——"
At this Mrs. Adams abandoned her air of amusement, looked hurt, and glanced at the demure Miss Perry across the table. "I'm afraid Miss Perry won't think you have very good manners, Walter."
"You're right she won't," he agreed, grimly. "Not if I haf to hear any more about me goin' to——"
But his mother interrupted him with some asperity: "It seems very strange that you always object to going anywhere among OUR friends, Walter."
"YOUR friends!" he said, and, rising from his chair, gave utterance to an ironical laugh strictly monosyllabic. "Your friends!" he repeated, going to the door. "Oh, yes! Certainly! Good-NIGHT!"
And looking back over his shoulder to offer a final brief view of his derisive face, he took himself out of the room.
Alice gasped: "Mama——"
"I'll stop him!" her mother responded, sharply; and hurried after the truant, catching him at the front door with his hat and raincoat on.
"Told you had a date down-town," he said, gruffly, and would have opened the door, but she caught his arm and detained him.
"Walter, please come back and finish your dinner. When I take all the trouble to cook it for you, I think you might at least——"
"Now, now!" he said. "That isn't what you're up to. You don't want to make me eat; you want to make me listen."
"Well, you MUST listen!" She retained her grasp upon his arm, and made it tighter. "Walter, please!" she entreated, her voice becoming tremulous. "PLEASE don't make me so much trouble!"
He drew back from her as far as her hold upon him permitted, and looked at her sharply. "Look here!" he said. "I get you, all right! What's the matter of Alice GOIN' to that party by herself?"
"She just CAN'T!"
"It makes things too MEAN for her, Walter. All the other girls have somebody to depend on after they get there."
"Well, why doesn't she have somebody?" he asked, testily. "Somebody besides ME, I mean! Why hasn't somebody asked her to go? She ought to be THAT popular, anyhow, I sh'd think—she TRIES enough!"
"I don't understand how you can be so hard," his mother wailed, huskily. "You know why they don't run after her the way they do the other girls she goes with, Walter. It's because we're poor, and she hasn't got any background.
"'Background?'" Walter repeated. "'Background?' What kind of talk is that?"
"You WILL go with her to-night, Walter?" his mother pleaded, not stopping to enlighten him. "You don't understand how hard things are for her and how brave she is about them, or you COULDN'T be so selfish! It'd be more than I can bear to see her disappointed to-night! She went clear out to Belleview Park this afternoon, Walter, and spent hours and hours picking violets to wear. You WILL——"
Walter's heart was not iron, and the episode of the violets may have reached it. "Oh, BLUB!" he said, and flung his soft hat violently at the wall.
His mother beamed with delight. "THAT'S a good boy, darling! You'll never be sorry you——"
"Cut it out," he requested. "If I take her, will you pay for a taxi?"
"Oh, Walter!" And again Mrs. Adams showed distress. "Couldn't you?"
"No, I couldn't; I'm not goin' to throw away my good money like that, and you can't tell what time o' night it'll be before she's willin' to come home. What's the matter you payin' for one?"
"I haven't any money."
She shook her head dolefully. "I got some from him this morning, and I can't bother him for any more; it upsets him. He's ALWAYS been so terribly close with money——"
"I guess he couldn't help that," Walter observed. "We're liable to go to the poorhouse the way it is. Well, what's the matter our walkin' to this rotten party?"
"In the rain, Walter?"
"Well, it's only a drizzle and we can take a streetcar to within a block of the house."
Again his mother shook her head. "It wouldn't do."
"Well, darn the luck, all right!" he consented, explosively. "I'll get her something to ride in. It means seventy-five cents."
"Why, Walter!" Mrs. Adams cried, much pleased. "Do you know how to get a cab for that little? How splendid!"
"Tain't a cab," Walter informed her crossly. "It's a tin Lizzie, but you don't haf' to tell her what it is till I get her into it, do you?"
Mrs. Adams agreed that she didn't.
Alice was busy with herself for two hours after dinner; but a little before nine o'clock she stood in front of her long mirror, completed, bright-eyed and solemn. Her hair, exquisitely arranged, gave all she asked of it; what artificialities in colour she had used upon her face were only bits of emphasis that made her prettiness the more distinct; and the dress, not rumpled by her mother's careful hours of work, was a white cloud of loveliness. Finally there were two triumphant bouquets of violets, each with the stems wrapped in tin-foil shrouded by a bow of purple chiffon; and one bouquet she wore at her waist and the other she carried in her hand.
Miss Perry, called in by a rapturous mother for the free treat of a look at this radiance, insisted that Alice was a vision. "Purely and simply a vision!" she said, meaning that no other definition whatever would satisfy her. "I never saw anybody look a vision if she don't look one to-night," the admiring nurse declared. "Her papa'll think the same I do about it. You see if he doesn't say she's purely and simply a vision."
Adams did not fulfil the prediction quite literally when Alice paid a brief visit to his room to "show" him and bid him good-night; but he chuckled feebly. "Well, well, well!" he said.
"You look mighty fine—MIGHTY fine!" And he waggled a bony finger at her two bouquets. "Why, Alice, who's your beau?"
"Never you mind!" she laughed, archly brushing his nose with the violets in her hand. "He treats me pretty well, doesn't he?"
"Must like to throw his money around! These violets smell mighty sweet, and they ought to, if they're going to a party with YOU. Have a good time, dearie."
"I mean to!" she cried; and she repeated this gaily, but with an emphasis expressing sharp determination as she left him. "I MEAN to!"
"What was he talking about?" her mother inquired, smoothing the rather worn and old evening wrap she had placed on Alice's bed. "What were you telling him you 'mean to?'"
Alice went back to her triple mirror for the last time, then stood before the long one. "That I mean to have a good time to-night," she said; and as she turned from her reflection to the wrap Mrs. Adams held up for her, "It looks as though I COULD, don't you think so?"
"You'll just be a queen to-night," her mother whispered in fond emotion. "You mustn't doubt yourself."
"Well, there's one thing," said Alice. "I think I do look nice enough to get along without having to dance with that Frank Dowling! All I ask is for it to happen just once; and if he comes near me to-night I'm going to treat him the way the other girls do. Do you suppose Walter's got the taxi out in front?"
"He—he's waiting down in the hall," Mrs. Adams answered, nervously; and she held up another garment to go over the wrap.
Alice frowned at it. "What's that, mama?"
"It's—it's your father's raincoat. I thought you'd put it on over——"
"But I won't need it in a taxicab."
"You will to get in and out, and you needn't take it into the Palmers'. You can leave it in the—in the—It's drizzling, and you'll need it."
"Oh, well," Alice consented; and a few minutes later, as with Walter's assistance she climbed into the vehicle he had provided, she better understood her mother's solicitude.
"What on earth IS this, Walter?" she asked.
"Never mind; it'll keep you dry enough with the top up," he returned, taking his seat beside her. Then for a time, as they went rather jerkily up the street, she was silent; but finally she repeated her question: "What IS it, Walter?"
"It's a ottomobile."
"I mean—what kind is it?"
"Haven't you got eyes?"
"It's too dark."
"It's a second-hand tin Lizzie," said Walter. "D'you know what that means? It means a flivver."
"Got 'ny 'bjections?"
"Why, no, dear," she said, placatively. "Is it yours, Walter? Have you bought it?"
"Me?" he laughed. "I couldn't buy a used wheelbarrow. I rent this sometimes when I'm goin' out among 'em. Costs me seventy-five cents and the price o' the gas."
"That seems very moderate."
"I guess it is! The feller owes me some money, and this is the only way I'd ever get it off him."
"Is he a garage-keeper?"
"Not exactly!" Walter uttered husky sounds of amusement. "You'll be just as happy, I guess, if you don't know who he is," he said.
His tone misgave her; and she said truthfully that she was content not to know who owned the car. "I joke sometimes about how you keep things to yourself," she added, "but I really never do pry in your affairs, Walter."
"Oh, no, you don't!"
"Indeed, I don't."
"Yes, you're mighty nice and cooing when you got me where you want me," he jeered. "Well, I just as soon tell you where I get this car."
"I'd just as soon you wouldn't, Walter," she said, hurriedly. "Please don't."
But Walter meant to tell her. "Why, there's nothin' exactly CRIMINAL about it," he said. "It belongs to old J. A. Lamb himself. He keeps it for their coon chauffeur. I rent it from him."
"From Mr. LAMB?"
"No; from the coon chauffeur."
"Walter!" she gasped.
"Sure I do! I can get it any night when the coon isn't goin' to use it himself. He's drivin' their limousine to-night—that little Henrietta Lamb's goin' to the party, no matter if her father HAS only been dead less'n a year!" He paused, then inquired: "Well, how d'you like it?"
She did not speak, and he began to be remorseful for having imparted so much information, though his way of expressing regret was his own. "Well, you WILL make the folks make me take you to parties!" he said. "I got to do it the best way I CAN, don't I?"
Then as she made no response, "Oh, the car's CLEAN enough," he said. "This coon, he's as particular as any white man; you needn't worry about that." And as she still said nothing, he added gruffly, "I'd of had a better car if I could afforded it. You needn't get so upset about it."
"I don't understand—" she said in a low voice—"I don't understand how you know such people."
"Such people as who?"
"Oh, look here, now!" he protested, loudly. "Don't you know this is a democratic country?"
"Not quite that democratic, is it, Walter?"
"The trouble with you," he retorted, "you don't know there's anybody in town except just this silk-shirt crowd." He paused, seeming to await a refutation; but as none came, he expressed himself definitely: "They make me sick."
They were coming near their destination, and the glow of the big, brightly lighted house was seen before them in the wet night. Other cars, not like theirs, were approaching this center of brilliance; long triangles of light near the ground swept through the fine drizzle; small red tail-lights gleamed again from the moist pavement of the street; and, through the myriads of little glistening leaves along the curving driveway, glimpses were caught of lively colours moving in a white glare as the limousines released their occupants under the shelter of the porte-cochere.
Alice clutched Walter's arm in a panic; they were just at the driveway entrance. "Walter, we mustn't go in there."
"What's the matter?"
"Leave this awful car outside."
"Stop!" she insisted, vehemently. "You've got to! Go back!"
The little car was between the entrance posts; but Walter backed it out, avoiding a collision with an impressive machine which swerved away from them and passed on toward the porte-cochere, showing a man's face grinning at the window as it went by. "Flivver runabout got the wrong number!" he said.
"Did he SEE us?" Alice cried.
"Did who see us?"
"Harvey Malone—in that foreign coupe."
"No; he couldn't tell who we were under this top," Walter assured her as he brought the little car to a standstill beside the curbstone, out in the street. "What's it matter if he did, the big fish?"
Alice responded with a loud sigh, and sat still.
"Well, want to go on back?" Walter inquired. "You bet I'm willing!"
"Well, then, what's the matter our drivin' on up to the porte-cochere? There's room for me to park just the other side of it."
"What you expect to do? Sit HERE all night?"
"No, leave the car here."
"I don't care where we leave it," he said. "Sit still till I lock her, so none o' these millionaires around here'll run off with her." He got out with a padlock and chain; and, having put these in place, offered Alice his hand. "Come on, if you're ready."