CHEERFUL BY REQUEST
AUTHOR OF "DAWN O'HARA," "BUTTERED SIDE DOWN" "ROAST BEEF MEDIUM," "FANNY HERSELF"
CHAPTER I. CHEERFUL—BY REQUEST II. THE GAY OLD DOG III. THE TOUGH GUY IV. THE ELDEST V. THAT'S MARRIAGE VI. THE WOMAN WHO TRIED TO BE GOOD VII. THE GIRL WHO WENT RIGHT VIII. THE HOOKER-UP-THE-BACK IX. THE GUIDING MISS GOWD X. SOPHY-AS-SHE-MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN XI. THE THREE OF THEM XII. SHORE LEAVE
The editor paid for the lunch (as editors do). He lighted his seventh cigarette and leaned back. The conversation, which had zigzagged from the war to Zuloaga, and from Rasputin the Monk to the number of miles a Darrow would go on a gallon, narrowed down to the thin, straight line of business.
"Now don't misunderstand. Please! We're not presuming to dictate. Dear me, no! We have always felt that the writer should be free to express that which is in his—ah—heart. But in the last year we've been swamped with these drab, realistic stories. Strong, relentless things, you know, about dishwashers, with a lot of fine detail about the fuzz of grease on the rim of the pan. And then those drear and hopeless ones about fallen sisters who end it all in the East River. The East River must be choked up with 'em. Now, I know that life is real, life is earnest, and I'm not demanding a happy ending, exactly. But if you could—that is—would you—do you see your way at all clear to giving us a fairly cheerful story? Not necessarily Glad, but not so darned Russian, if you get me. Not pink, but not all grey either. Say—mauve." ...
That was Josie Fifer's existence. Mostly grey, with a dash of pink. Which makes mauve.
Unless you are connected (which you probably are not) with the great firm of Hahn & Lohman, theatrical producers, you never will have heard of Josie Fifer.
There are things about the theatre that the public does not know. A statement, at first blush, to be disputed. The press agent, the special writer, the critic, the magazines, the Sunday supplement, the divorce courts—what have they left untold? We know the make of car Miss Billboard drives; who her husbands are and were; how much the movies have offered her; what she wears, reads, says, thinks, and eats for breakfast. Snapshots of author writing play at place on Hudson; pictures of the play in rehearsal; of the director directing it; of the stage hands rewriting it—long before the opening night we know more about the piece than does the playwright himself, and are ten times less eager to see it.
Josie Fifer's knowledge surpassed even this. For she was keeper of the ghosts of the firm of Hahn & Lohman. Not only was she present at the birth of a play; she officiated at its funeral. She carried the keys to the closets that housed the skeletons of the firm. When a play died of inanition, old age, or—as was sometimes the case—before it was born, it was Josie Fifer who laid out its remains and followed it to the grave.
Her notification of its demise would come thus:
"Hello, Fifer! This is McCabe" (the property man of H. & L. at the phone).
"A little waspish this morning, aren't you, Josephine?"
"I've got twenty-five bathing suits for the No. 2 'Ataboy' company to mend and clean and press before five this afternoon. If you think I'm going to stand here wasting my—"
"All right, all right! I just wanted to tell you that 'My Mistake' closes Saturday. The stuff'll be up Monday morning early."
A sardonic laugh from Josie. "And yet they say 'What's in a name!'"
The unfortunate play had been all that its title implies. Its purpose was to star an actress who hadn't a glint. Her second-act costume alone had cost $700, but even Russian sable bands can't carry a bad play. The critics had pounced on it with the savagery of their kind and hacked it, limb from limb, leaving its carcass to rot under the pitiless white glare of Broadway. The dress with the Russian sable bands went the way of all Hahn & Lohman tragedies. Josie Fifer received it, if not reverently, still appreciatively.
"I should think Sid Hahn would know by this time," she observed sniffily, as her expert fingers shook out the silken folds and smoothed the fabulous fur, "that auburn hair and a gurgle and a Lucille dress don't make a play. Besides, Fritzi Kirke wears the biggest shoe of any actress I ever saw. A woman with feet like that"—she picked up a satin slipper, size 7-1/2 C—"hasn't any business on the stage. She ought to travel with a circus. Here, Etta. Hang this away in D, next to the amethyst blue velvet, and be sure and lock the door."
McCabe had been right. A waspish wit was Josie's.
The question is whether to reveal to you now where it was that Josie Fifer reigned thus, queen of the cast-offs; or to take you back to the days that led up to her being there—the days when she was Jose Fyfer on the programme.
Her domain was the storage warehouse of Hahn & Lohman, as you may have guessed. If your business lay Forty-third Street way, you might have passed the building a hundred times without once giving it a seeing glance. It was not Forty-third Street of the small shops, the smart crowds, and the glittering motors. It was the Forty-third lying east of the Grand Central sluice gates; east of fashion; east, in a word, of Fifth Avenue—a great square brick building smoke-grimed, cobwebbed, and having the look of a cold-storage plant or a car barn fallen into disuse; dusty, neglected, almost eerie. Yet within it lurks Romance, and her sombre sister Tragedy, and their antic brother Comedy, the cut-up.
A worn flight of wooden steps leads up from the sidewalk to the dim hallway; a musty-smelling passage wherein you are met by a genial sign which reads:
"No admittance. Keep out. This means you."
To confirm this, the eye, penetrating the gloom, is confronted by a great blank metal door that sheathes the elevator. To ride in that elevator is to know adventure, so painfully, so protestingly, with such creaks and jerks and lurchings does it pull itself from floor to floor, like an octogenarian who, grunting and groaning, hoists himself from his easy-chair by slow stages that wring a protest from ankle, knee, hip, back and shoulder. The corkscrew stairway, broken and footworn though it is, seems infinitely less perilous.
First floor—second—third—fourth. Whew! And there you are in Josie Fifer's kingdom—a great front room, unexpectedly bright and even cosy with its whir of sewing machines: tables, and tables, and tables, piled with orderly stacks of every sort of clothing, from shoes to hats, from gloves to parasols; and in the room beyond this, and beyond that, and again beyond that, row after row of high wooden cabinets stretching the width of the room, and forming innumerable aisles. All of Bluebeard's wives could have been tucked away in one corner of the remotest and least of these, and no one the wiser. All grimly shut and locked, they are, with the key in Josie's pocket. But when, at the behest of McCabe, or sometimes even Sid Hahn himself, she unlocked and opened one of these doors, what treasures hung revealed! What shimmer and sparkle and perfume—and moth balls! The long-tailed electric light bulb held high in one hand, Josie would stand at the door like a priestess before her altar.
There they swung, the ghosts and the skeletons, side by side. You remember that slinking black satin snakelike sheath that Gita Morini wore in "Little Eyolf"? There it dangles, limp, invertebrate, yet how eloquent! No other woman in the world could have worn that gown, with its unbroken line from throat to hem, its smooth, high, black satin collar, its writhing tail that went slip-slip-slipping after her. In it she had looked like a sleek and wicked python that had fasted for a long, long time.
Dresses there are that have made stage history. Surely you remember the beruffled, rose-strewn confection in which the beautiful Elsa Marriott swam into our ken in "Mississipp'"? She used to say, wistfully, that she always got a hand on her entrance in that dress. It was due to the sheer shock of delight that thrilled audience after audience as it beheld her loveliness enhanced by this floating, diaphanous tulle cloud. There it hangs, time-yellowed, its pristine freshness vanished quite, yet as fragrant with romance as is the sere and withered blossom of a dead white rose pressed within the leaves of a book of love poems. Just next it, incongruously enough, flaunt the wicked froufrou skirts and the low-cut bodice and the wasp waist of the abbreviated costume in which Cora Kassell used so generously to display her charms. A rich and portly society matron of Pittsburgh now—she whose name had been a synonym for pulchritude these thirty years; she who had had more cold creams, hats, cigars, corsets, horses, and lotions named for her than any woman in history! Her ample girth would have wrought sad havoc with that eighteen-inch waist now. Gone are the chaste curves of the slim white silk legs that used to kick so lithely from the swirl of lace and chiffon. Yet there it hangs, pertly pathetic, mute evidence of her vanished youth, her delectable beauty, and her unblushing confidence in those same.
Up one aisle and down the next—velvet, satin, lace and broadcloth—here the costume the great Canfield had worn in Richard III; there the little cocked hat and the slashed jerkin in which Maude Hammond, as Peterkins, winged her way to fame up through the hearts of a million children whose ages ranged from seven to seventy. Brocades and ginghams; tailor suits and peignoirs; puffed sleeves and tight—dramatic history, all, they spelled failure, success, hope, despair, vanity, pride, triumph, decay. Tragic ghosts, over which Josie Fifer held grim sway!
Have I told you that Josie Fifer, moving nimbly about the great storehouse, limped as she went? The left leg swung as a normal leg should. The right followed haltingly, sagging at hip and knee. And that brings us back to the reason for her being where she was. And what.
The story of how Josie Fifer came to be mistress of the cast-off robes of the firm of Hahn & Lohman is one of those stage tragedies that never have a public performance. Josie had been one of those little girls who speak pieces at chicken-pie suppers held in the basement of the Presbyterian church. Her mother had been a silly, idle woman addicted to mother hubbards and paper-backed novels about the house. Her one passion was the theatre, a passion that had very scant opportunity for feeding in Wapello, Iowa. Josie's piece-speaking talent was evidently a direct inheritance. Some might call it a taint.
Two days before one of Josie's public appearances her mother would twist the child's hair into innumerable rag curlers that stood out in grotesque, Topsy-like bumps all over her fair head. On the eventful evening each rag chrysalis would burst into a full-blown butterfly curl. In a pale-blue, lace-fretted dress over a pale-blue slip, made in what her mother called "Empire style," Josie would deliver herself of "Entertaining Big Sister's Beau" and other sophisticated classics with an incredible ease and absence of embarrassment. It wasn't a definite boldness in her. She merely liked standing there before all those people, in her blue dress and her toe slippers, speaking her pieces with enhancing gestures taught her by her mother in innumerable rehearsals.
Any one who has ever lived in Wapello, Iowa, or its equivalent, remembers the old opera house on the corner of Main and Elm, with Schroeder's drug store occupying the first floor. Opera never came within three hundred miles of Wapello, unless it was the so-called comic kind. It was before the day of the ubiquitous moving-picture theatre that has since been the undoing of the one-night stand and the ten-twenty-thirty stock company. The old red-brick opera house furnished unlimited thrills for Josie and her mother. From the time Josie was seven she was taken to see whatever Wapello was offered in the way of the drama. That consisted mostly of plays of the tell-me-more-about-me-mother type.
By the time she was ten she knew the whole repertoire of the Maude La Vergne Stock Company by heart. She was blase with "East Lynne" and "The Two Orphans," and even "Camille" left her cold. She was as wise to the trade tricks as is a New York first nighter. She would sit there in the darkened auditorium of a Saturday afternoon, surveying the stage with a judicious and undeceived eye, as she sucked indefatigably at a lollipop extracted from the sticky bag clutched in one moist palm. (A bag of candy to each and every girl; a ball or a top to each and every boy!) Josie knew that the middle-aged soubrette who came out between the first and second acts to sing a gingham-and-sunbonnet song would whisk off to reappear immediately in knee-length pink satin and curls. When the heroine left home in a shawl and a sudden snowstorm that followed her upstage and stopped when she went off, Josie was interested, but undeceived. She knew that the surprised-looking white horse used in the Civil War comedy-drama entitled "His Southern Sweetheart" came from Joe Brink's livery stable in exchange for four passes, and that the faithful old negro servitor in the white cotton wig would save somebody from something before the afternoon was over.
In was inevitable that as Josie grew older she should take part in home-talent plays. It was one of these tinsel affairs that had made clear to her just where her future lay. The Wapello Daily Courier helped her in her decision. She had taken the part of a gipsy queen, appropriately costumed in slightly soiled white satin slippers with four-inch heels, and a white satin dress enhanced by a red sash, a black velvet bolero, and large hoop earrings. She had danced and sung with a pert confidence, and the Courier had pronounced her talents not amateur, but professional, and had advised the managers (who, no doubt, read the Wapello Courier daily, along with their Morning Telegraph) to seek her out, and speedily.
Josie didn't wait for them to take the hint. She sought them out instead. There followed seven tawdry, hard-working, heartbreaking years. Supe, walk-on, stock, musical comedy—Josie went through them all. If any illusions about the stage had survived her Wapello days, they would have vanished in the first six months of her dramatic career. By the time she was twenty-four she had acquired the wisdom of fifty, a near-seal coat, a turquoise ring with a number of smoky-looking crushed diamonds surrounding it, and a reputation for wit and for decency. The last had cost the most.
During all these years of cheap theatrical boarding houses (the most soul-searing cheapness in the world), of one-night stands, of insult, disappointment, rebuff, and something that often came perilously near to want, Josie Fifer managed to retain a certain humorous outlook on life. There was something whimsical about it. She could even see a joke on herself. When she first signed her name Jose Fyfer, for example, she did it with, an appreciative giggle and a glint in her eye as she formed the accent mark over the e.
"They'll never stop me now," she said. "I'm made. But I wish I knew if that J was pronounced like H, in humbug. Are there any Spanish blondes?"
It used to be the habit of the other women in the company to say to her: "Jo, I'm blue as the devil to-day. Come on, give us a laugh."
She always obliged.
And then came a Sunday afternoon in late August when her laugh broke off short in the middle, and was forever after a stunted thing.
She was playing Atlantic City in a second-rate musical show. She had never seen the ocean before, and she viewed it now with an appreciation that still had in it something of a Wapello freshness.
They all planned to go in bathing that hot August afternoon after rehearsal. Josie had seen pictures of the beauteous bathing girl dashing into the foaming breakers. She ran across the stretch of glistening beach, paused and struck a pose, one toe pointed waterward, her arms extended affectedly.
"So!" she said mincingly. "So this is Paris!"
It was a new line in those days, and they all laughed, as she had meant they should. So she leaped into the water with bounds and shouts and much waving of white arms. A great floating derelict of a log struck her leg with its full weight, and with all the tremendous force of the breaker behind it. She doubled up ridiculously, and went down like a shot. Those on the beach laughed again. When she came up, and they saw her distorted face they stopped laughing, and fished her out. Her leg was broken in two places, and mashed in a dozen.
Jose Fyfer's dramatic career was over. (This is not the cheery portion of the story.)
When she came out of the hospital, three months later, she did very well indeed with her crutches. But the merry-eyed woman had vanished—she of the Wapello colouring that had persisted during all these years. In her place limped a wan, shrunken, tragic little figure whose humour had soured to a caustic wit. The near-seal coat and the turquoise-and-crushed-diamond ring had vanished too.
During those agonized months she had received from the others in the company such kindness and generosity as only stage folk can show—flowers, candy, dainties, magazines, sent by every one from the prima donna to the call boy. Then the show left town. There came a few letters of kind inquiry, then an occasional post card, signed by half a dozen members of the company. Then these ceased. Josie Fifer, in her cast and splints and bandages and pain, dragged out long hospital days and interminable hospital nights. She took a dreary pleasure in following the tour of her erstwhile company via the pages of the theatrical magazines.
"They're playing Detroit this week," she would announce to the aloof and spectacled nurse. Or: "One-night stands, and they're due in Muncie, Ind., to-night. I don't know which is worse—playing Muncie for one night or this moan factory for a three month's run."
When she was able to crawl out as far as the long corridor she spoke to every one she met. As she grew stronger she visited here and there, and on the slightest provocation she would give a scene ranging all the way from "Romeo and Juliet" to "The Black Crook." It was thus she first met Sid Hahn, and felt the warming, healing glow of his friendship.
Some said that Sid Hahn's brilliant success as a manager at thirty-five was due to his ability to pick winners. Others thought it was his refusal to be discouraged when he found he had picked a failure. Still others, who knew him better, were likely to say: "Why, I don't know. It's a sort of—well, you might call it charm—and yet—. Did you ever see him smile? He's got a million-dollar grin. You can't resist it."
None of them was right. Or all of them. Sid Hahn, erstwhile usher, call boy, press agent, advance man, had a genius for things theatrical. It was inborn. Dramatic, sensitive, artistic, intuitive, he was often rendered inarticulate by the very force and variety of his feelings. A little, rotund, ugly man, Sid Hahn, with the eyes of a dreamer, the wide, mobile mouth of a humourist, the ears of a comic ol'-clo'es man. His generosity was proverbial, and it amounted to a vice.
In September he had come to Atlantic City to try out "Splendour." It was a doubtful play, by a new author, starring Sarah Haddon for the first time. No one dreamed the play would run for years, make a fortune for Hahn, lift Haddon from obscurity to the dizziest heights of stardom, and become a classic of the stage.
Ten minutes before the curtain went up on the opening performance Hahn was stricken with appendicitis. There was not even time to rush him to New York. He was on the operating table before the second act was begun. When he came out of the ether he said: "How did it go?"
"Fine!" beamed the nurse. "You'll be out in two weeks."
"Oh, hell! I don't mean the operation. I mean the play."
He learned soon enough from the glowing, starry-eyed Sarah Haddon and from every one connected with the play. He insisted on seeing them all daily, against his doctor's orders, and succeeded in working up a temperature that made his hospital stay a four weeks' affair. He refused to take the tryout results as final.
"Don't be too bubbly about this thing," he cautioned Sarah Haddon. "I've seen too many plays that were skyrockets on the road come down like sticks when they struck New York."
The company stayed over in Atlantic City for a week, and Hahn held scraps of rehearsals in his room when he had a temperature of 102. Sarah Haddon worked like a slave. She seemed to realise that her great opportunity had come—the opportunity for which hundreds of gifted actresses wait a lifetime. Haddon was just twenty-eight then—a year younger than Josie Fifer. She had not yet blossomed into the full radiance of her beauty. She was too slender, and inclined to stoop a bit, but her eyes were glorious, her skin petal-smooth, her whole face reminding one, somehow, of an intelligent flower. Her voice was a golden, liquid delight.
Josie Fifer, dragging herself from bed to chair, and from chair to bed, used to watch for her. Hahn's room was on her floor. Sarah Haddon, in her youth and beauty and triumph, represented to Josie all that she had dreamed of and never realised; all that she had hoped for and never could know. She used to insist on having her door open, and she would lie there for hours, her eyes fixed on that spot in the hall across which Haddon would flash for one brief instant on her way to the room down the corridor. There is about a successful actress a certain radiant something—a glamour, a luxuriousness, an atmosphere that suggest a mysterious mixture of silken things, of perfume, of adulation, of all that is rare and costly and perishable and desirable.
Josie Fifer's stage experience had included none of this. But she knew they were there. She sensed that to this glorious artist would come all those fairy gifts that Josie Fifer would never possess. All things about her—her furs, her gloves, her walk, her hats, her voice, her very shoe ties—were just what Josie would have wished for. As she lay there she developed a certain grim philosophy.
"She's got everything a woman could wish for. Me, I haven't got a thing. Not a blamed thing! And yet they say everything works out in the end according to some scheme or other. Well, what's the answer to this, I wonder? I can't make it come out right. I guess one of the figures must have got away from me."
In the second week of Sid Hahn's convalescence he heard, somehow, of Josie Fifer. It was characteristic of him that he sent for her. She put a chiffon scarf about the neck of her skimpy little kimono, spent an hour and ten minutes on her hair, made up outrageously with that sublime unconsciousness that comes from too close familiarity with rouge pad and grease jar, and went. She was trembling as though facing a first-night audience in a part she wasn't up on. Between the crutches, the lameness, and the trembling she presented to Sid Hahn, as she stood in the doorway, a picture that stabbed his kindly, sensitive heart with a quick pang of sympathy.
He held out his hand. Josie's crept into it. At the feel of that generous friendly clasp she stopped trembling. Said Hahn:
"My nurse tells me that you can do a bedside burlesque of 'East Lynne' that made even that Boston-looking interne with the thick glasses laugh. Go on and do it for me, there's a good girl. I could use a laugh myself just now."
And Josie Fifer caught up a couch cover for a cloak, with the scarf that was about her neck for a veil, and, using Hahn himself as the ailing chee-ild, gave a biting burlesque of the famous bedside visit that brought the tears of laughter to his eyes, and the nurse flying from down the hall. "This won't do," said that austere person.
"Won't, eh? Go on and stick your old thermometer in my mouth. What do I care! A laugh like that is worth five degrees of temperature."
When Josie rose to leave he eyed her keenly, and pointed to the dragging leg.
"How about that? Temporary or permanent?"
"Oh, fudge! Who's telling you that? These days they can do—"
"Not with this, though. That one bone was mashed into about twenty-nine splinters, and when it came to putting 'em together again a couple of pieces were missing. I must've mislaid 'em somewhere. Anyway, I make a limping exit—for life."
"Then no more stage for you—eh, my girl?"
"No more stage."
Hahn reached for a pad of paper on the table at his bedside, scrawled a few words on it, signed it "S.H." in the fashion which became famous, and held the paper out to her.
"When you get out of here," he said, "you come to New York, and up to my office; see? Give 'em this at the door. I've got a job for you—if you want it."
And that was how Josie Fifer came to take charge of the great Hahn & Lohman storehouse. It was more than a storehouse. It was a museum. It housed the archives of the American stage. If Hahn & Lohman prided themselves on one thing more than on another, it was the lavish generosity with which they invested a play, from costumes to carpets. A period play was a period play when they presented it. You never saw a French clock on a Dutch mantel in a Hahn & Lohman production. No hybrid hangings marred their back drop. No matter what the play, the firm provided its furnishings from the star's slippers to the chandeliers. Did a play last a year or a week, at the end of its run furniture, hangings, scenery, rugs, gowns, everything, went off in wagonloads to the already crowded storehouse on East Forty-third Street.
Sometimes a play proved so popular that its original costumes, outworn, had to be renewed. Sometimes the public cried "Thumbs down!" at the opening performance, and would have none of it thereafter. That meant that costumes sometimes reached Josie Fifer while the wounds of the dressmaker's needle still bled in them. And whether for a week or a year fur on a Hahn & Lohman costume was real fur; its satin was silk-backed, its lace real lace. No paste, or tinsel, or cardboard about H. & L.! Josie Fifer could recall the scenes in a play, step by step from noting with her keen eye the marks left on costume after costume by the ravages of emotion. At the end of a play's run she would hold up a dress for critical inspection, turning it this way and that.
"This is the dress she wore in her big scene at the end of the second act where she crawls on her knees to her wronged husband and pounds on the door and weeps. She certainly did give it some hard wear. When Marriott crawls she crawls, and when she bawls she bawls. I'll say that for her. From the looks of this front breadth she must have worn a groove in the stage at the York."
No gently sentimental reason caused Hahn & Lohman to house these hundreds of costumes, these tons of scenery, these forests of furniture. Neither had Josie Fifer been hired to walk wistfully among them like a spinster wandering in a dead rose garden. No, they were stored for a much thriftier reason. They were stored, if you must know, for possible future use. H. & L. were too clever not to use a last year's costume for a this year's road show. They knew what a coat of enamel would do for a bedroom set. It was Josie Fifer's duty not only to tabulate and care for these relics, but to refurbish them when necessary. The sewing was done by a little corps of assistants under Josie's direction.
But all this came with the years. When Josie Fifer, white and weak, first took charge of the H. & L. lares et penates, she told herself it was only for a few months—a year or two at most. The end of sixteen years found her still there.
When she came to New York, "Splendour" was just beginning its phenomenal three years' run. The city was mad about the play. People came to see it again and again—a sure sign of a long run. The Sarah Haddon second-act costume was photographed, copied (unsuccessfully), talked about, until it became as familiar as a uniform. That costume had much to do with the play's success, though Sarah Haddon would never admit it. "Splendour" was what is known as a period play. The famous dress was of black velvet, made with a quaint, full-gathered skirt that made Haddon's slim waist seem fairylike and exquisitely supple. The black velvet bodice outlined the delicate swell of the bust. A rope of pearls enhanced the whiteness of her throat. Her hair, done in old-time scallops about her forehead, was a gleaming marvel of simplicity, and the despair of every woman who tried to copy it. The part was that of an Italian opera singer. The play pulsated with romance and love, glamour and tragedy. Sarah Haddon, in her flowing black velvet robe and her pearls and her pallor, was an exotic, throbbing, exquisite realisation of what every woman in the audience dreamed of being and every man dreamed of loving.
Josie Fifer saw the play for the first time from a balcony seat given her by Sid Hahn. It left her trembling, red-eyed, shaken. After that she used to see it, by hook or crook whenever possible. She used to come in at the stage door and lurk back of the scenes and in the wings when she had no business there. She invented absurd errands to take her to the theatre where "Splendour" was playing. Sid Hahn always said that after the big third-act scene he liked to watch the audience swim up the aisle. Josie, hidden in the back-stage shadows, used to watch, fascinated, breathless. Then, one night, she indiscreetly was led, by her, absorbed interest, to venture too far into the wings. It was during the scene where Haddon, hearing a broken-down street singer cracking the golden notes of "Aida" into a thousand mutilated fragments, throws open her window and, leaning far out, pours a shower of Italian and broken English and laughter and silver coin upon her amazed compatriot below.
When the curtain went down she came off raging.
"What was that? Who was that standing in the wings? How dare any one stand there! Everybody knows I can't have any one in the wings. Staring! It ruined my scene to-night. Where's McCabe? Tell Mr. Hahn I want to see him. Who was it? Staring at me like a ghost!"
Josie had crept away, terrified, contrite, and yet resentful. But the next week saw her back at the theatre, though she took care to stay in the shadows.
She was waiting for the black velvet dress. It was more than a dress to her. It was infinitely more than a stage costume. It was the habit of glory. It epitomised all that Josie Fifer had missed of beauty and homage and success.
The play ran on, and on, and on. Sarah Haddon was superstitious about the black gown. She refused to give it up for a new one. She insisted that if ever she discarded the old black velvet for a new the run of the play would stop. She assured Hahn that its shabbiness did not show from the front. She clung to it with that childish unreasonableness that is so often found in people of the stage.
But Josie waited patiently. Dozens of costumes passed through her hands. She saw plays come and go. Dresses came to her whose lining bore the mark of world-famous modistes. She hung them away, or refurbished them if necessary with disinterested conscientiousness. Sometimes her caustic comment, as she did so, would have startled the complacency of the erstwhile wearers of the garments. Her knowledge of the stage, its artifices, its pretence, its narrowness, its shams, was widening and deepening. No critic in bone-rimmed glasses and evening clothes was more scathingly severe than she. She sewed on satin. She mended fine lace. She polished stage jewels. And waited. She knew that one day her patience would be rewarded. And then, at last came the familiar voice over the phone: "Hello, Fifer! McCabe talking."
"'Splendour' closes Saturday. Haddon says she won't play in this heat. They're taking it to London in the autumn. The stuff'll be up Monday, early."
Josie Fifer turned away from the telephone with a face so radiant that one of her sewing women, looking up, was moved to comment.
"Got some good news, Miss Fifer?"
"'Splendour' closes this week."
"Well, my land! To look at you a person would think you'd been losing money at the box office every night it ran."
The look was still on her face when Monday morning came. She was sewing on a dress just discarded by Adelaide French, the tragedienne. Adelaide's maid was said to be the hardest-worked woman in the profession. When French finished with a costume it was useless as a dress; but it was something historic, like a torn and tattered battle flag—an emblem.
McCabe, box under his arm, stood in the doorway. Josie Fifer stood up so suddenly that the dress on her lap fell to the floor. She stepped over it heedlessly, and went toward McCabe, her eyes on the pasteboard box. Behind McCabe stood two more men, likewise box-laden.
"Put them down here," said Josie. The men thumped the boxes down on the long table. Josie's fingers were already at the strings. She opened the first box, emptied its contents, tossed them aside, passed on to the second. Her hands busied themselves among the silks and broadcloth of this; then on to the third and last box. McCabe and his men, with scenery and furniture still to unload and store, turned to go. Their footsteps echoed hollowly as they clattered down the worn old stairway. Josie snapped the cord that bound the third box. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. She turned it upside down. Then she pawed it over. Then she went back to the contents of the first two boxes, clawing about among the limp garments with which the table was strewn. She was breathing quickly. Suddenly: "It isn't here!" she cried. "It isn't here!" She turned and flew to the stairway. The voices of the men came up to her. She leaned far over the railing. "McCabe! McCabe!"
"Yeh? What do you want?"
"The black velvet dress! The black velvet dress! It isn't there."
"Oh, yeh. That's all right. Haddon, she's got a bug about that dress, and she says she wants to take it to London with her, to use on the opening night. She says if she wears a new one that first night, the play'll be a failure. Some temperament, that girl, since she's got to be a star!"
Josie stood clutching the railing of the stairway. Her disappointment was so bitter that she could not weep. She felt cheated, outraged. She was frightened at the intensity of her own sensations. "She might have let me have it," she said aloud in the dim half light of the hallway. "She's got everything else in the world. She might have let me have that."
Then she went back into the big, bright sewing room. "Splendour" ran three years in London.
During those three years she saw Sid Hahn only three or four times. He spent much of his time abroad. Whenever opportunity presented itself she would say: "Is 'Splendour' still playing in London?"
The last time Hahn, intuitive as always, had eyed her curiously. "You seem to be interested in that play."
"Oh, well," Josie had replied with assumed carelessness, "it being in Atlantic City just when I had my accident, and then meeting you through that, and all, why, I always kind of felt a personal interest in it." ...
At the end of three years Sarah Haddon returned to New York with an English accent, a slight embonpoint, and a little foreign habit of rushing up to her men friends with a delighted exclamation (preferably French) and kissing them on both cheeks. When Josie Fifer, happening back stage at a rehearsal of the star's new play, first saw her do this a grim gleam came into her eyes.
"Bernhardt's the only woman who can spring that and get away with it," she said to her assistant. "Haddon's got herself sized up wrong. I'll gamble her next play will be a failure."
And it was.
The scenery, props, and costumes of the London production of "Splendour" were slow in coming back. But finally they did come. Josie received them with the calmness that comes of hope deferred. It had been three years since she last saw the play. She told herself, chidingly, that she had been sort of foolish over that play and this costume. Her recent glimpse of Haddon had been somewhat disillusioning. But now, when she finally held the gown itself in her hand—the original "Splendour" second-act gown, a limp, soft black mass: just a few yards of worn and shabby velvet—she found her hands shaking. Here was where she had hugged the toy dog to her breast. Here where she had fallen on her knees to pray before the little shrine in her hotel room. Every worn spot had a meaning for her. Every mark told a story. Her fingers smoothed it tenderly.
"Not much left of that," said one of the sewing girls, glancing up. "I guess Sarah would have a hard time making the hooks and eyes meet now. They say she's come home from London looking a little too prosperous."
Josie did not answer. She folded the dress over her arm and carried it to the wardrobe room. There she hung it away in an empty closet, quite apart from the other historic treasures. And there it hung, untouched, until the following Sunday.
On Sunday morning East Forty-third Street bears no more resemblance to the week-day Forty-third than does a stiffly starched and subdued Sabbath-school scholar to his Monday morning self. Strangely quiet it is, and unfrequented. Josie Fifer, scurrying along in the unwonted stillness, was prompted to throw a furtive glance over her shoulder now and then, as though afraid of being caught at some criminal act. She ran up the little flight of steps with a rush, unlocked the door with trembling fingers, and let herself into the cool, dank gloom of the storehouse hall. The metal door of the elevator stared inquiringly after her. She fled past it to the stairway. Every step of that ancient structure squeaked and groaned. First floor, second, third, fourth. The everyday hum of the sewing machines was absent. The room seemed to be holding its breath. Josie fancied that the very garments on the worktables lifted themselves inquiringly from their supine position to see what it was that disturbed their Sabbath rest. Josie, a tense, wide-eyed, frightened little figure, stood in the centre of the vast room, listening to she knew not what. Then, relaxing, she gave a nervous little laugh and, reaching up, unpinned her hat. She threw it on a near-by table and disappeared into the wardrobe room beyond.
Minutes passed—an hour. She did not come back. From the room beyond came strange sounds—a woman's voice; the thrill of a song; cries; the anguish of tears; laughter, harsh and high, as a desperate and deceived woman laughs—all this following in such rapid succession that Sid Hahn, puffing laboriously up the four flights of stairs leading to the wardrobe floor, entered the main room unheard. Unknown to any one, he was indulging in one of his unsuspected visits to the old wareroom that housed the evidence of past and gone successes—successes that had brought him fortune and fame, but little real happiness, perhaps. No one knew that he loved to browse among these pathetic rags of a forgotten triumph. No one would have dreamed that this chubby little man could glow and weep over the cast-off garment of a famous Cyrano, or the faded finery of a Zaza.
At the doorway he paused now, startled. He was listening with every nerve of his taut body. What? Who? He tiptoed across the room with a step incredibly light for one so stout, peered cautiously around the side of the doorway, and leaned up against it weakly. Josie Fifer, in the black velvet and mock pearls of "Splendour," with her grey-streaked blonde hair hidden under the romantic scallops of a black wig, was giving the big scene from the third act. And though it sounded like a burlesque of that famous passage, and though she limped more than ever as she reeled to an imaginary shrine in the corner, and though the black wig was slightly askew by now, and the black velvet hung with bunchy awkwardness about her skinny little body, there was nothing of mirth in Sid Hahn's face as he gazed. He shrank back now.
She was coming to the big speech at the close of the act—the big renunciation speech that was the curtain. Sid Hahn turned and tiptoed painfully, breathlessly, magnificently, out of the big front room, into the hallway, down the creaking stairs, and so to the sunshine of Forty-third Street, with its unaccustomed Sunday-morning quiet. And he was smiling that rare and melting smile of his—the smile that was said to make him look something like a kewpie, and something like a cupid, and a bit like an imp, and very much like an angel. There was little of the first three in it now, and very much of the last. And so he got heavily into his very grand motor car and drove off.
"Why, the poor little kid," said he—"the poor, lonely, stifled little crippled-up kid."
"I beg your pardon, sir?" inquired his chauffeur.
"Speak when you're spoken to," snapped Sid Hahn.
And here it must be revealed to you that Sid Hahn did not marry the Cinderella of the storage warehouse. He did not marry anybody, and neither did Josie. And yet there is a bit more to this story—ten years more, if you must know—ten years, the end of which found Josie a sparse, spectacled, and agile little cripple, as alert and caustic as ever. It found Sid Hahn the most famous theatrical man of his day. It found Sarah Haddon at the fag-end of a career that had blazed with triumph and adulation. She had never had a success like "Splendour." Indeed, there were those who said that all the plays that followed had been failures, carried to semi-success on the strength of that play's glorious past. She eschewed low-cut gowns now. She knew that it is the telltale throat which first shows the marks of age. She knew, too, why Bernhardt, in "Camille," always died in a high-necked nightgown. She took to wearing high, ruffled things about her throat, and softening, kindly chiffons.
And then, in a mistaken moment, they planned a revival of "Splendour." Sarah Haddon would again play the part that had become a classic. Fathers had told their children of it—of her beauty, her golden voice, the exquisite grace of her, the charm, the tenderness, the pathos. And they told them of the famous black velvet dress, and how in it she had moved like a splendid, buoyant bird.
So they revived "Splendour." And men and women brought their sons and daughters to see. And what they saw was a stout, middle-aged woman in a too-tight black velvet dress that made her look like a dowager. And when this woman flopped down on her knees in the big scene at the close of the last act she had a rather dreadful time of it getting up again. And the audience, resentful, bewildered, cheated of a precious memory, laughed. That laugh sealed the career of Sarah Haddon. It is a fickle thing, this public that wants to be amused; fickle and cruel and—paradoxically enough—true to its superstitions. The Sarah Haddon of eighteen years ago was one of these. They would have none of this fat, puffy, ample-bosomed woman who was trying to blot her picture from their memory. "Away with her!" cried the critics through the columns of next morning's paper. And Sarah Haddon's day was done.
"It's because I didn't wear the original black velvet dress!" cried she, with the unreasoning rage for which she had always been famous. "If I had worn it, everything would have been different. That dress had a good-luck charm. Where is it? I want it. I don't care if they do take off the play. I want it. I want it."
"Why, child," Sid Hahn said soothingly, "that dress has probably fallen into dust by this time."
"Dust! What do you mean? How old do you think I am? That you should say that to me! I've made millions for you, and now—"
"Now, now, Sally, be a good girl. That's all rot about that dress being lucky. You've grown out of this part; that's all. We'll find another play—"
"I want that dress."
Sid Hahn flushed uncomfortably. "Well, if you must know, I gave it away."
"To—to Josie Fifer. She took a notion to it, and so I told her she could have it." Then, as Sarah Haddon rose, dried her eyes, and began to straighten her hat: "Where are you going?" He trailed her to the door worriedly. "Now, Sally, don't do anything foolish. You're just tired and overstrung. Where are you—"
"I am going to see Josie Fifer."
"Now, look here, Sarah!"
But she was off, and Sid Hahn could only follow after, the showman in him anticipating the scene that was to follow. When he reached the fourth floor of the storehouse Sarah Haddon was there ahead of him. The two women—one tall, imperious, magnificent in furs; the other shrunken, deformed, shabby—stood staring at each other from opposites sides of the worktable. And between them, in a crumpled, grey-black heap, lay the velvet gown.
"I don't care who says you can have it," Josie Fifer's shrill voice was saying. "It's mine, and I'm going to keep it. Mr. Hahn himself gave it to me. He said I could cut it up for a dress or something if I wanted to. Long ago." Then, as Sid Hahn himself appeared, she appealed to him. "There he is now. Didn't you, Mr. Hahn? Didn't you say I could have it? Years ago?"
"Yes, Jo," said Sid Hahn. "It's yours, to do with as you wish."
Sarah Haddon, who never had been denied anything in all her pampered life, turned to him now. Her bosom rose and fell. She was breathing sharply. "But S.H.!" she cried, "S.H., I've got to have it. Don't you see, I want it! It's all I've got left in the world of what I used to be. I want it!" She began to cry, and it was not acting.
Josie Fifer stood staring at her, her eyes wide with horror and unbelief.
"Why, say, listen! Listen! You can have it. I didn't know you wanted it as bad as that. Why, you can have it. I want you to take it. Here."
She shoved it across the table. Sarah reached out for it quickly. She rolled it up in a tight bundle and whisked off with it without a backward glance at Josie or at Hahn. She was still sobbing as she went down the stairs.
The two stood staring at each other ludicrously. Hahn spoke first.
"I'm sorry, Josie. That was nice of you, giving it to her like that."
But Josie did not seem to hear. At least she paid no attention to his remark. She was staring at him with that dazed and wide-eyed look of one upon whom a great truth has just dawned. Then, suddenly, she began to laugh. She laughed a high, shrill laugh that was not so much an expression of mirth as of relief.
Sid Hahn put up a pudgy hand in protest. "Josie! Please! For the love of Heaven don't you go and get it. I've had to do with one hysterical woman to-day. Stop that laughing! Stop it!"
Josie stopped, not abruptly, but in a little series of recurring giggles. Then these subsided and she was smiling. It wasn't at all her usual smile. The bitterness was quite gone from it. She faced Sid Hahn across the table. Her palms were outspread, as one who would make things plain. "I wasn't hysterical. I was just laughing. I've been about seventeen years earning that laugh. Don't grudge it to me."
"Let's have the plot," said Hahn.
"There isn't any. You see, it's just—well, I've just discovered how it works out. After all these years! She's had everything she wanted all her life. And me, I've never had anything. Not a thing. She's travelled one way, and I've travelled in the opposite direction, and where has it brought us? Here we are, both fighting over an old black velvet rag. Don't you see? Both wanting the same—" She broke off, with the little twisted smile on her lips again. "Life's a strange thing, Mr. Hahn."
"I hope, Josie, you don't claim any originality for that remark," replied Sid Hahn dryly.
"But," argued the editor, "you don't call this a cheerful story, I hope."
"Well, perhaps not exactly boisterous. But it teaches a lesson, and all that. And it's sort of philosophical and everything, don't you think?"
The editor shuffled the sheets together decisively, so that they formed a neat sheaf. "I'm afraid I didn't make myself quite clear. It's entertaining, and all that, but—ah—in view of our present needs, I'm sorry to say we—"
THE GAY OLD DOG
Those of you who have dwelt—or even lingered—in Chicago, Illinois (this is not a humorous story), are familiar with the region known as the Loop. For those others of you to whom Chicago is a transfer point between New York and San Francisco there is presented this brief explanation:
The Loop is a clamorous, smoke-infested district embraced by the iron arms of the elevated tracks. In a city boasting fewer millions, it would be known familiarly as downtown. From Congress to Lake Street, from Wabash almost to the river, those thunderous tracks make a complete circle, or loop. Within it lie the retail shops, the commercial hotels, the theatres, the restaurants. It is the Fifth Avenue (diluted) and the Broadway (deleted) of Chicago. And he who frequents it by night in search of amusement and cheer is known, vulgarly, as a Loop-hound.
Jo Hertz was a Loop-hound. On the occasion of those sparse first nights granted the metropolis of the Middle West he was always present, third row, aisle, left. When a new loop cafe was opened Jo's table always commanded an unobstructed view of anything worth viewing. On entering he was wont to say, "Hello, Gus," with careless cordiality to the head waiter, the while his eye roved expertly from table to table as he removed his gloves. He ordered things under glass, so that his table, at midnight or thereabouts, resembled a hot-bed that favours the bell system. The waiters fought for him. He was the kind of man who mixes his own salad dressing. He liked to call for a bowl, some cracked ice, lemon, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil and make a rite of it. People at near-by tables would lay down their knives and forks to watch, fascinated. The secret of it seemed to lie in using all the oil in sight and calling for more.
That was Jo—a plump and lonely bachelor of fifty. A plethoric, roving-eyed and kindly man, clutching vainly at the garments of a youth that had long slipped past him. Jo Hertz, in one of those pinch-waist belted suits and a trench coat and a little green hat, walking up Michigan Avenue of a bright winter's afternoon, trying to take the curb with a jaunty youthfulness against which every one of his fat-encased muscles rebelled, was a sight for mirth or pity, depending on one's vision.
The gay-dog business was a late phase in the life of Jo Hertz. He had been a quite different sort of canine. The staid and harassed brother of three unwed and selfish sisters is an under dog. The tale of how Jo Hertz came to be a Loop-hound should not be compressed within the limits of a short story. It should be told as are the photo plays, with frequent throwbacks and many cut-ins. To condense twenty-three years of a man's life into some five or six thousand words requires a verbal economy amounting to parsimony.
At twenty-seven Jo had been the dutiful, hard-working son (in the wholesale harness business) of a widowed and gummidging mother, who called him Joey. If you had looked close you would have seen that now and then a double wrinkle would appear between Jo's eyes—a wrinkle that had no business there at twenty-seven. Then Jo's mother died, leaving him handicapped by a death-bed promise, the three sisters and a three-story-and-basement house on Calumet Avenue. Jo's wrinkle became a fixture.
Death-bed promises should be broken as lightly as they are seriously made. The dead have no right to lay their clammy fingers upon the living.
"Joey," she had said, in her high, thin voice, "take care of the girls."
"I will, Ma," Jo had choked.
"Joey," and the voice was weaker, "promise me you won't marry till the girls are all provided for." Then as Joe had hesitated, appalled: "Joey, it's my dying wish. Promise!"
"I promise, Ma," he had said.
Whereupon his mother had died, comfortably, leaving him with a completely ruined life.
They were not bad-looking girls, and they had a certain style, too. That is, Stell and Eva had. Carrie, the middle one, taught school over on the West Side. In those days it took her almost two hours each way. She said the kind of costume she required should have been corrugated steel. But all three knew what was being worn, and they wore it—or fairly faithful copies of it. Eva, the housekeeping sister, had a needle knack. She could skim the State Street windows and come away with a mental photograph of every separate tuck, hem, yoke, and ribbon. Heads of departments showed her the things they kept in drawers, and she went home and reproduced them with the aid of a two-dollar-a-day seamstress. Stell, the youngest, was the beauty. They called her Babe. She wasn't really a beauty, but some one had once told her that she looked like Janice Meredith (it was when that work of fiction was at the height of its popularity). For years afterward, whenever she went to parties, she affected a single, fat curl over her right shoulder, with a rose stuck through it.
Twenty-three years ago one's sisters did not strain at the household leash, nor crave a career. Carrie taught school, and hated it. Eva kept house expertly and complainingly. Babe's profession was being the family beauty, and it took all her spare time. Eva always let her sleep until ten.
This was Jo's household, and he was the nominal head of it. But it was an empty title. The three women dominated his life. They weren't consciously selfish. If you had called them cruel they would have put you down as mad. When you are the lone brother of three sisters, it means that you must constantly be calling for, escorting, or dropping one of them somewhere. Most men of Jo's age were standing before their mirror of a Saturday night, whistling blithely and abstractedly while they discarded a blue polka-dot for a maroon tie, whipped off the maroon for a shot-silk, and at the last moment decided against the shot-silk in favor of a plain black-and-white, because she had once said she preferred quiet ties. Jo, when he should have been preening his feathers for conquest, was saying:
"Well, my God, I am hurrying! Give a man time, can't you? I just got home. You girls have been laying around the house all day. No wonder you're ready."
He took a certain pride in seeing his sisters well dressed, at a time when he should have been reveling in fancy waistcoats and brilliant-hued socks, according to the style of that day, and the inalienable right of any unwed male under thirty, in any day. On those rare occasions when his business necessitated an out-of-town trip, he would spend half a day floundering about the shops, selecting handkerchiefs, or stockings, or feathers, or fans, or gloves for the girls. They always turned out to be the wrong kind, judging by their reception.
From Carrie, "What in the world do I want of a fan!"
"I thought you didn't have one," Jo would say.
"I haven't. I never go to dances."
Jo would pass a futile hand over the top of his head, as was his way when disturbed. "I just thought you'd like one. I thought every girl liked a fan. Just," feebly, "just to—to have."
"Oh, for pity's sake!"
And from Eva or Babe, "I've got silk stockings, Jo." Or, "You brought me handkerchiefs the last time."
There was something selfish in his giving, as there always is in any gift freely and joyfully made. They never suspected the exquisite pleasure it gave him to select these things; these fine, soft, silken things. There were many things about this slow-going, amiable brother of theirs that they never suspected. If you had told them he was a dreamer of dreams, for example, they would have been amused. Sometimes, dead-tired by nine o'clock, after a hard day down town, he would doze over the evening paper. At intervals he would wake, red-eyed, to a snatch of conversation such as, "Yes, but if you get a blue you can wear it anywhere. It's dressy, and at the same time it's quiet, too." Eva, the expert, wrestling with Carrie over the problem of the new spring dress. They never guessed that the commonplace man in the frayed old smoking-jacket had banished them all from the room long ago; had banished himself, for that matter. In his place was a tall, debonair, and rather dangerously handsome man to whom six o'clock spelled evening clothes. The kind of man who can lean up against a mantel, or propose a toast, or give an order to a man-servant, or whisper a gallant speech in a lady's ear with equal ease. The shabby old house on Calumet Avenue was transformed into a brocaded and chandeliered rendezvous for the brilliance of the city. Beauty was here, and wit. But none so beautiful and witty as She. Mrs.—er—Jo Hertz. There was wine, of course; but no vulgar display. There was music; the soft sheen of satin; laughter. And he the gracious, tactful host, king of his own domain—
"Jo, for heaven's sake, if you're going to snore go to bed!"
"Why—did I fall asleep?"
"You haven't been doing anything else all evening. A person would think you were fifty instead of thirty."
And Jo Hertz was again just the dull, grey, commonplace brother of three well-meaning sisters.
Babe used to say petulantly, "Jo, why don't you ever bring home any of your men friends? A girl might as well not have any brother, all the good you do."
Jo, conscience-stricken, did his best to make amends. But a man who has been petticoat-ridden for years loses the knack, somehow, of comradeship with men. He acquires, too, a knowledge of women, and a distaste for them, equalled only, perhaps, by that of an elevator-starter in a department store.
Which brings us to one Sunday in May. Jo came home from a late Sunday afternoon walk to find company for supper. Carrie often had in one of her school-teacher friends, or Babe one of her frivolous intimates, or even Eva a staid guest of the old-girl type. There was always a Sunday night supper of potato salad, and cold meat, and coffee, and perhaps a fresh cake. Jo rather enjoyed it, being a hospitable soul. But he regarded the guests with the undazzled eyes of a man to whom they were just so many petticoats, timid of the night streets and requiring escort home. If you had suggested to him that some of his sisters' popularity was due to his own presence, or if you had hinted that the more kittenish of these visitors were probably making eyes at him, he would have stared in amazement and unbelief.
This Sunday night it turned out to be one of Carrie's friends.
"Emily," said Carrie, "this is my brother, Jo."
Jo had learned what to expect in Carrie's friends. Drab-looking women in the late thirties, whose facial lines all slanted downward.
"Happy to meet you," said Jo, and looked down at a different sort altogether. A most surprisingly different sort, for one of Carrie's friends. This Emily person was very small, and fluffy, and blue-eyed, and sort of—well, crinkly looking. You know. The corners of her mouth when she smiled, and her eyes when she looked up at you, and her hair, which was brown, but had the miraculous effect, somehow, of being golden.
Jo shook hands with her. Her hand was incredibly small, and soft, so that you were afraid of crushing it, until you discovered she had a firm little grip all her own. It surprised and amused you, that grip, as does a baby's unexpected clutch on your patronising forefinger. As Jo felt it in his own big clasp, the strangest thing happened to him. Something inside Jo Hertz stopped working for a moment, then lurched sickeningly, then thumped like mad. It was his heart. He stood staring down at her, and she up at him, until the others laughed. Then their hands fell apart, lingeringly.
"Are you a school-teacher, Emily?" he said.
"Kindergarten. It's my first year. And don't call me Emily, please."
"Why not? It's your name. I think it's the prettiest name in the world." Which he hadn't meant to say at all. In fact, he was perfectly aghast to find himself saying it. But he meant it.
At supper he passed her things, and stared, until everybody laughed again, and Eva said acidly, "Why don't you feed her?"
It wasn't that Emily had an air of helplessness. She just made you feel you wanted her to be helpless, so that you could help her.
Jo took her home, and from that Sunday night he began to strain at the leash. He took his sisters out, dutifully, but he would suggest, with a carelessness that deceived no one, "Don't you want one of your girl friends to come along? That little What's-her-name—Emily, or something. So long's I've got three of you, I might as well have a full squad."
For a long time he didn't know what was the matter with him. He only knew he was miserable, and yet happy. Sometimes his heart seemed to ache with an actual physical ache. He realised that he wanted to do things for Emily. He wanted to buy things for Emily—useless, pretty, expensive things that he couldn't afford. He wanted to buy everything that Emily needed, and everything that Emily desired. He wanted to marry Emily. That was it. He discovered that one day, with a shock, in the midst of a transaction in the harness business. He stared at the man with whom he was dealing until that startled person grew uncomfortable.
"What's the matter, Hertz?"
"You look as if you'd seen a ghost or found a gold mine. I don't know which."
"Gold mine," said Jo. And then, "No. Ghost."
For he remembered that high, thin voice, and his promise. And the harness business was slithering downhill with dreadful rapidity, as the automobile business began its amazing climb. Jo tried to stop it. But he was not that kind of business man. It never occurred to him to jump out of the down-going vehicle and catch the up-going one. He stayed on, vainly applying brakes that refused to work.
"You know, Emily, I couldn't support two households now. Not the way things are. But if you'll wait. If you'll only wait. The girls might—that is, Babe and Carrie—"
She was a sensible little thing, Emily. "Of course I'll wait. But we mustn't just sit back and let the years go by. We've got to help."
She went about it as if she were already a little match-making matron. She corralled all the men she had ever known and introduced them to Babe, Carrie, and Eva separately, in pairs, and en masse. She arranged parties at which Babe could display the curl. She got up picnics. She stayed home while Jo took the three about. When she was present she tried to look as plain and obscure as possible, so that the sisters should show up to advantage. She schemed, and planned, and contrived, and hoped; and smiled into Jo's despairing eyes.
And three years went by. Three precious years. Carrie still taught school, and hated it. Eva kept house, more and more complainingly as prices advanced and allowance retreated. Stell was still Babe, the family beauty; but even she knew that the time was past for curls. Emily's hair, somehow, lost its glint and began to look just plain brown. Her crinkliness began to iron out.
"Now, look here!" Jo argued, desperately, one night. "We could be happy, anyway. There's plenty of room at the house. Lots of people begin that way. Of course, I couldn't give you all I'd like to, at first. But maybe, after a while—"
No dreams of salons, and brocade, and velvet-footed servitors, and satin damask now. Just two rooms, all their own, all alone, and Emily to work for. That was his dream. But it seemed less possible than that other absurd one had been.
You know that Emily was as practical a little thing as she looked fluffy. She knew women. Especially did she know Eva, and Carrie, and Babe. She tried to imagine herself taking the household affairs and the housekeeping pocketbook out of Eva's expert hands. Eva had once displayed to her a sheaf of aigrettes she had bought with what she saved out of the housekeeping money. So then she tried to picture herself allowing the reins of Jo's house to remain in Eva's hands. And everything feminine and normal in her rebelled. Emily knew she'd want to put away her own freshly laundered linen, and smooth it, and pat it. She was that kind of woman. She knew she'd want to do her own delightful haggling with butcher and vegetable pedlar. She knew she'd want to muss Jo's hair, and sit on his knee, and even quarrel with him, if necessary, without the awareness of three ever-present pairs of maiden eyes and ears.
"No! No! We'd only be miserable. I know. Even if they didn't object. And they would, Jo. Wouldn't they?"
His silence was miserable assent. Then, "But you do love me, don't you, Emily?"
"I do, Jo. I love you—and love you—and love you. But, Jo, I—can't."
"I know it, dear. I knew it all the time, really. I just thought, maybe, somehow—"
The two sat staring for a moment into space, their hands clasped. Then they both shut their eyes, with a little shudder, as though what they saw was terrible to look upon. Emily's hand, the tiny hand that was so unexpectedly firm, tightened its hold on his, and his crushed the absurd fingers until she winced with pain.
That was the beginning of the end, and they knew it.
Emily wasn't the kind of girl who would be left to pine. There are too many Jo's in the world whose hearts are prone to lurch and then thump at the feel of a soft, fluttering, incredibly small hand in their grip. One year later Emily was married to a young man whose father owned a large, pie-shaped slice of the prosperous state of Michigan.
That being safely accomplished, there was something grimly humorous in the trend taken by affairs in the old house on Calumet. For Eva married. Of all people, Eva! Married well, too, though he was a great deal older than she. She went off in a hat she had copied from a French model at Field's, and a suit she had contrived with a home dressmaker, aided by pressing on the part of the little tailor in the basement over on Thirty-first Street. It was the last of that, though. The next time they saw her, she had on a hat that even she would have despaired of copying, and a suit that sort of melted into your gaze. She moved to the North Side (trust Eva for that), and Babe assumed the management of the household on Calumet Avenue. It was rather a pinched little household now, for the harness business shrank and shrank.
"I don't see how you can expect me to keep house decently on this!" Babe would say contemptuously. Babe's nose, always a little inclined to sharpness, had whittled down to a point of late. "If you knew what Ben gives Eva."
"It's the best I can do, Sis. Business is something rotten."
"Ben says if you had the least bit of—" Ben was Eva's husband, and quotable, as are all successful men.
"I don't care what Ben says," shouted Jo, goaded into rage. "I'm sick of your everlasting Ben. Go and get a Ben of your own, why don't you, if you're so stuck on the way he does things."
And Babe did. She made a last desperate drive, aided by Eva, and she captured a rather surprised young man in the brokerage way, who had made up his mind not to marry for years and years. Eva wanted to give her her wedding things, but at that Jo broke into sudden rebellion.
"No sir! No Ben is going to buy my sister's wedding clothes, understand? I guess I'm not broke—yet. I'll furnish the money for her things, and there'll be enough of them, too."
Babe had as useless a trousseau, and as filled with extravagant pink-and-blue and lacy and frilly things as any daughter of doting parents. Jo seemed to find a grim pleasure in providing them. But it left him pretty well pinched. After Babe's marriage (she insisted that they call her Estelle now) Jo sold the house on Calumet. He and Carrie took one of those little flats that were springing up, seemingly over night, all through Chicago's South Side.
There was nothing domestic about Carrie. She had given up teaching two years before, and had gone into Social Service work on the West Side. She had what is known as a legal mind—hard, clear, orderly—and she made a great success of it. Her dream was to live at the Settlement House and give all her time to the work. Upon the little household she bestowed a certain amount of grim, capable attention. It was the same kind of attention she would have given a piece of machinery whose oiling and running had been entrusted to her care. She hated it, and didn't hesitate to say so.
Jo took to prowling about department store basements, and household goods sections. He was always sending home a bargain in a ham, or a sack of potatoes, or fifty pounds of sugar, or a window clamp, or a new kind of paring knife. He was forever doing odd little jobs that the janitor should have done. It was the domestic in him claiming its own.
Then, one night, Carrie came home with a dull glow in her leathery cheeks, and her eyes alight with resolve. They had what she called a plain talk.
"Listen, Jo. They've offered me the job of first assistant resident worker. And I'm going to take it. Take it! I know fifty other girls who'd give their ears for it. I go in next month."
They were at dinner. Jo looked up from his plate, dully. Then he glanced around the little dining room, with its ugly tan walls and its heavy, dark furniture (the Calumet Avenue pieces fitted cumbersomely into the five-room flat).
"Away? Away from here, you mean—to live?" Carrie laid down her fork. "Well, really, Jo! After all that explanation."
"But to go over there to live! Why, that neighbourhood's full of dirt, and disease, and crime, and the Lord knows what all. I can't let you do that, Carrie."
Carrie's chin came up. She laughed a short little laugh. "Let me! That's eighteenth-century talk, Jo. My life's my own to live. I'm going."
And she went.
Jo stayed on in the apartment until the lease was up. Then he sold what furniture he could, stored or gave away the rest, and took a room on Michigan Avenue in one of the old stone mansions whose decayed splendour was being put to such purpose.
Jo Hertz was his own master. Free to marry. Free to come and go. And he found he didn't even think of marrying. He didn't even want to come or go, particularly. A rather frumpy old bachelor, with thinning hair and a thickening neck. Much has been written about the unwed, middle-aged woman; her fussiness, her primness, her angularity of mind and body. In the male that same fussiness develops, and a certain primness, too. But he grows flabby where she grows lean.
Every Thursday evening he took dinner at Eva's, and on Sunday noon at Stell's. He tucked his napkin under his chin and openly enjoyed the home-made soup and the well-cooked meats. After dinner he tried to talk business with Eva's husband, or Stell's. His business talks were the old-fashioned kind, beginning:
"Well, now, looka here. Take, f'rinstance your raw hides and leathers."
But Ben and George didn't want to "take, f'rinstance, your raw hides and leathers." They wanted, when they took anything at all, to take golf, or politics or stocks. They were the modern type of business man who prefers to leave his work out of his play. Business, with them, was a profession—a finely graded and balanced thing, differing from Jo's clumsy, downhill style as completely as does the method of a great criminal detective differ from that of a village constable. They would listen, restively, and say, "Uh-uh," at intervals, and at the first chance they would sort of fade out of the room, with a meaning glance at their wives. Eva had two children now. Girls. They treated Uncle Jo with good-natured tolerance. Stell had no children. Uncle Jo degenerated, by almost imperceptible degrees, from the position of honoured guest, who is served with white meat, to that of one who is content with a leg and one of those obscure and bony sections which, after much turning with a bewildered and investigating knife and fork, leave one baffled and unsatisfied.
Eva and Stell got together and decided that Jo ought to marry.
"It isn't natural," Eva told him. "I never saw a man who took so little interest in women."
"Me!" protested Jo, almost shyly. "Women!"
"Yes. Of course. You act like a frightened schoolboy."
So they had in for dinner certain friends and acquaintances of fitting age. They spoke of them as "splendid girls." Between thirty-six and forty. They talked awfully well, in a firm, clear way, about civics, and classes, and politics, and economics, and boards. They rather terrified Jo. He didn't understand much that they talked about, and he felt humbly inferior, and yet a little resentful, as if something had passed him by. He escorted them home, dutifully, though they told him not to bother, and they evidently meant it. They seemed capable, not only of going home quite unattended, but of delivering a pointed lecture to any highwayman or brawler who might molest them.
The following Thursday Eva would say, "How did you like her, Jo?"
"Like who?" Jo would spar feebly.
"Now, don't be funny, Jo. You know very well I mean the girl who was here for dinner. The one who talked so well on the emigration question.
"Oh, her! Why, I liked her all right. Seems to be a smart woman."
"Smart! She's a perfectly splendid girl."
"Sure," Jo would agree cheerfully.
"But didn't you like her?"
"I can't say I did, Eve. And I can't say I didn't. She made me think a lot of a teacher I had in the fifth reader. Name of Himes. As I recall her, she must have been a fine woman. But I never thought of her as a woman at all. She was just Teacher."
"You make me tired," snapped Eva impatiently. "A man of your age. You don't expect to marry a girl, do you? A child!"
"I don't expect to marry anybody," Jo had answered.
And that was the truth, lonely though he often was.
The following spring Eva moved to Winnetka. Any one who got the meaning of the Loop knows the significance of a move to a north-shore suburb, and a house. Eva's daughter, Ethel, was growing up, and her mother had an eye on society.
That did away with Jo's Thursday dinner. Then Stell's husband bought a car. They went out into the country every Sunday. Stell said it was getting so that maids objected to Sunday dinners, anyway. Besides, they were unhealthy, old-fashioned things. They always meant to ask Jo to come along, but by the time their friends were placed, and the lunch, and the boxes, and sweaters, and George's camera, and everything, there seemed to be no room for a man of Jo's bulk. So that eliminated the Sunday dinners.
"Just drop in any time during the week," Stell said, "for dinner. Except Wednesday—that's our bridge night—and Saturday. And, of course, Thursday. Cook is out that night. Don't wait for me to phone."
And so Jo drifted into that sad-eyed, dyspeptic family made up of those you see dining in second-rate restaurants, their paper propped up against the bowl of oyster crackers, munching solemnly and with indifference to the stare of the passer-by surveying them through the brazen plate-glass window.
And then came the War. The war that spelled death and destruction to millions. The war that brought a fortune to Jo Hertz, and transformed him, over night, from a baggy-kneed old bachelor, whose business was a failure, to a prosperous manufacturer whose only trouble was the shortage in hides for the making of his product—leather! The armies of Europe called for it. Harnesses! More harnesses! Straps! Millions of straps. More! More!
The musty old harness business over on Lake Street was magically changed from a dust-covered, dead-alive concern to an orderly hive that hummed and glittered with success. Orders poured in. Jo Hertz had inside information on the War. He knew about troops and horses. He talked with French and English and Italian buyers—noblemen, many of them—commissioned by their countries to get American-made supplies. And now, when he said to Ben or George, "Take f'rinstance your raw hides and leathers," they listened with respectful attention.
And then began the gay-dog business in the life of Jo Hertz. He developed into a Loop-hound, ever keen on the scent of fresh pleasure. That side of Jo Hertz which had been repressed and crushed and ignored began to bloom, unhealthily. At first he spent money on his rather contemptuous nieces. He sent them gorgeous fans, and watch bracelets, and velvet bags. He took two expensive rooms at a downtown hotel, and there was something more tear-compelling than grotesque about the way he gloated over the luxury of a separate ice-water tap in the bathroom. He explained it.
"Just turn it on. Ice-water! Any hour of the day or night."
He bought a car. Naturally. A glittering affair; in colour a bright blue, with pale blue leather straps and a great deal of gold fittings, and wire wheels. Eva said it was the kind of thing a soubrette would use, rather than an elderly business man. You saw him driving about in it, red-faced and rather awkward at the wheel. You saw him, too, in the Pompeian room at the Congress Hotel of a Saturday afternoon when doubtful and roving-eyed matrons in kolinsky capes are wont to congregate to sip pale amber drinks. Actors grew to recognise the semi-bald head and the shining, round, good-natured face looming out at them from the dim well of the parquet, and sometimes, in a musical show, they directed a quip at him, and he liked it. He could pick out the critics as they came down the aisle, and even had a nodding acquaintance with two of them.
"Kelly, of the Herald," he would say carelessly. "Bean, of the Trib. They're all afraid of him."
So he frolicked, ponderously. In New York he might have been called a Man About Town.
And he was lonesome. He was very lonesome. So he searched about in his mind and brought from the dim past the memory of the luxuriously furnished establishment of which he used to dream in the evenings when he dozed over his paper in the old house on Calumet. So he rented an apartment, many-roomed and expensive, with a man-servant in charge, and furnished it in styles and periods ranging through all the Louises. The living room was mostly rose colour. It was like an unhealthy and bloated boudoir. And yet there was nothing sybaritic or uncleanly in the sight of this paunchy, middle-aged man sinking into the rosy-cushioned luxury of his ridiculous home. It was a frank and naive indulgence of long-starved senses, and there was in it a great resemblance to the rolling eyed ecstasy of a schoolboy smacking his lips over an all-day sucker.
The War went on, and on, and on. And the money continued to roll in—a flood of it. Then, one afternoon, Eva, in town on shopping bent, entered a small, exclusive, and expensive shop on Michigan Avenue. Exclusive, that is, in price. Eva's weakness, you may remember, was hats. She was seeking a hat now. She described what she sought with a languid conciseness, and stood looking about her after the saleswoman had vanished in quest of it. The room was becomingly rose-illumined and somewhat dim, so that some minutes had passed before she realised that a man seated on a raspberry brocade settee not five feet away—a man with a walking stick, and yellow gloves, and tan spats, and a check suit—was her brother Jo. From him Eva's wild-eyed glance leaped to the woman who was trying on hats before one of the many long mirrors. She was seated, and a saleswoman was exclaiming discreetly at her elbow.
Eva turned sharply and encountered her own saleswoman returning, hat-laden. "Not to-day," she gasped. "I'm feeling ill. Suddenly." And almost ran from the room.
That evening she told Stell, relating her news in that telephone pidgin-English devised by every family of married sisters as protection against the neighbours and Central. Translated, it ran thus:
"He looked straight at me. My dear, I thought I'd die! But at least he had sense enough not to speak. She was one of those limp, willowy creatures with the greediest eyes that she tried to keep softened to a baby stare, and couldn't, she was so crazy to get her hands on those hats. I saw it all in one awful minute. You know the way I do. I suppose some people would call her pretty. I don't. And her colour! Well! And the most expensive-looking hats. Aigrettes, and paradise, and feathers. Not one of them under seventy-five. Isn't it disgusting! At his age! Suppose Ethel had been with me!"
The next time it was Stell who saw them. In a restaurant. She said it spoiled her evening. And the third time it was Ethel. She was one of the guests at a theatre party given by Nicky Overton II. You know. The North Shore Overtons. Lake Forest. They came in late, and occupied the entire third row at the opening performance of "Believe Me!" And Ethel was Nicky's partner. She was glowing like a rose. When the lights went up after the first act Ethel saw that her uncle Jo was seated just ahead of her with what she afterward described as a blonde. Then her uncle had turned around, and seeing her, had been surprised into a smile that spread genially all over his plump and rubicund face. Then he had turned to face forward again, quickly.
"Who's the old bird?" Nicky had asked. Ethel had pretended not to hear, so he had asked again.
"My Uncle," Ethel answered, and flushed all over her delicate face, and down to her throat. Nicky had looked at the blonde, and his eyebrows had gone up ever so slightly.
It spoiled Ethel's evening. More than that, as she told her mother of it later, weeping, she declared it had spoiled her life.
Eva talked it over with her husband in that intimate, kimonoed hour that precedes bedtime. She gesticulated heatedly with her hair brush.
"It's disgusting, that's what it is. Perfectly disgusting. There's no fool like an old fool. Imagine! A creature like that. At his time of life."
There exists a strange and loyal kinship among men. "Well, I don't know," Ben said now, and even grinned a little. "I suppose a boy's got to sow his wild oats some time."
"Don't be any more vulgar than you can help," Eva retorted. "And I think you know, as well as I, what it means to have that Overton boy interested in Ethel."
"If he's interested in her," Ben blundered, "I guess the fact that Ethel's uncle went to the theatre with some one who wasn't Ethel's aunt won't cause a shudder to run up and down his frail young frame, will it?"
"All right," Eva had retorted. "If you're not man enough to stop it, I'll have to, that's all. I'm going up there with Stell this week."
They did not notify Jo of their coming. Eva telephoned his apartment when she knew he would be out, and asked his man if he expected his master home to dinner that evening. The man had said yes. Eva arranged to meet Stell in town. They would drive to Jo's apartment together, and wait for him there.
When she reached the city Eva found turmoil there. The first of the American troops to be sent to France were leaving. Michigan Boulevard was a billowing, surging mass: Flags, pennants, banners crowds. All the elements that make for demonstration. And over the whole—quiet. No holiday crowd, this. A solid, determined mass of people waiting patient hours to see the khaki-clads go by. Three years of indefatigable reading had brought them to a clear knowledge of what these boys were going to.
"Isn't it dreadful!" Stell gasped.
"Nicky Overton's only nineteen, thank goodness."
Their car was caught in the jam. When they moved at all it was by inches. When at last they reached Jo's apartment they were flushed, nervous, apprehensive. But he had not yet come in. So they waited.
No, they were not staying to dinner with their brother, they told the relieved houseman.
Jo's home has already been described to you. Stell and Eva, sunk in rose-coloured cushions, viewed it with disgust, and some mirth. They rather avoided each other's eyes.
"Carrie ought to be here," Eva said. They both smiled at the thought of the austere Carrie in the midst of those rosy cushions, and hangings, and lamps. Stell rose and began to walk about, restlessly. She picked up a vase and laid it down; straightened a picture. Eva got up, too, and wandered into the hall. She stood there a moment, listening. Then she turned and passed into Jo's bedroom. And there you knew Jo for what he was.
This room was as bare as the other had been ornate. It was Jo, the clean-minded and simple-hearted, in revolt against the cloying luxury with which he had surrounded himself. The bedroom, of all rooms in any house, reflects the personality of its occupant. True, the actual furniture was panelled, cupid-surmounted, and ridiculous. It had been the fruit of Jo's first orgy of the senses. But now it stood out in that stark little room with an air as incongruous and ashamed as that of a pink tarleton danseuse who finds herself in a monk's cell. None of those wall-pictures with which bachelor bedrooms are reputed to be hung. No satin slippers. No scented notes. Two plain-backed military brushes on the chiffonier (and he so nearly hairless!). A little orderly stack of books on the table near the bed. Eva fingered their titles and gave a little gasp. One of them was on gardening.
"Well, of all things!" exclaimed Stell. A book on the War, by an Englishman. A detective story of the lurid type that lulls us to sleep. His shoes ranged in a careful row in the closet, with a shoe-tree in every one of them. There was something speaking about them. They looked so human. Eva shut the door on them, quickly. Some bottles on the dresser. A jar of pomade. An ointment such as a man uses who is growing bald and is panic-stricken too late. An insurance calendar on the wall. Some rhubarb-and-soda mixture on the shelf in the bathroom, and a little box of pepsin tablets.