[Dedication: To my mother and my father]
II. SIEVE OF FULFILMENT
III. ICE-WATER, PL—!
IV. HERS NOT TO REASON WHY
V. GOLDEN FLEECE
VII. GET READY THE WREATHS
Much of the tragical lore of the infant mortality, the malnutrition, and the five-in-a-room morality of the city's poor is written in statistics, and the statistical path to the heart is more figurative than literal.
It is difficult to write stylistically a per-annum report of 1,327 curvatures of the spine, whereas the poor specific little vertebra of Mamie O'Grady, daughter to Lou, your laundress, whose alcoholic husband once invaded your very own basement and attempted to strangle her in the coal-bin, can instantly create an apron bazaar in the church vestry-rooms.
That is why it is possible to drink your morning coffee without nausea for it, over the head-lines of forty thousand casualties at Ypres, but to push back abruptly at a three-line notice of little Tony's, your corner bootblack's, fatal dive before a street-car.
Gertie Slayback was statistically down as a woman wage-earner; a typhoid case among the thousands of the Borough of Manhattan for 1901; and her twice-a-day share in the Subway fares collected in the present year of our Lord.
She was a very atomic one of the city's four millions. But after all, what are the kings and peasants, poets and draymen, but great, greater, or greatest, less, lesser, or least atoms of us? If not of the least, Gertie Slayback was of the very lesser. When she unlocked the front door to her rooming-house of evenings, there was no one to expect her, except on Tuesdays, which evening it so happened her week was up. And when she left of mornings with her breakfast crumblessly cleared up and the box of biscuit and condensed-milk can tucked unsuspectedly behind her camisole in the top drawer there was no one to regret her.
There are some of us who call this freedom. Again there are those for whom one spark of home fire burning would light the world.
Gertie Slayback was one of these. Half a life-time of opening her door upon this or that desert-aisle of hall bedroom had not taught her heart how not to sink or the feel of daily rising in one such room to seem less like a damp bathing-suit, donned at dawn.
The only picture—or call it atavism if you will—which adorned Miss Slayback's dun-colored walls was a passe-partout snowscape, night closing in, and pink cottage windows peering out from under eaves. She could visualize that interior as if she had only to turn the frame for the smell of wood fire and the snap of pine logs and for the scene of two high-back chairs and the wooden crib between.
What a fragile, gracile thing is the mind that can leap thus from nine bargain basement hours of hairpins and darning-balls to the downy business of lining a crib in Never-Never Land and warming No Man's slippers before the fire of imagination.
There was that picture so acidly etched into Miss Slayback's brain that she had only to close her eyes in the slit-like sanctity of her room and in the brief moment of courting sleep feel the pink penumbra of her vision begin to glow.
Of late years, or, more specifically, for two years and eight months, another picture had invaded, even superseded the old. A stamp-photograph likeness of Mr. James P. Batch in the corner of Miss Slayback's mirror, and thereafter No Man's slippers became number eight-and-a-half C, and the hearth a gilded radiator in a dining-living-room somewhere between the Fourteenth Street Subway and the land of the Bronx.
How Miss Slayback, by habit not gregarious, met Mr. Batch is of no consequence, except to those snug ones of us to whom an introduction is the only means to such an end.
At a six o'clock that invaded even Union Square with heliotrope dusk, Mr. James Batch mistook, who shall say otherwise, Miss Gertie Slayback, as she stepped down into the wintry shade of a Subway kiosk, for Miss Whodoesitmatter. At seven o'clock, over a dish of lamb stew a la White Kitchen, he confessed, and if Miss Slayback affected too great surprise and too little indignation, try to conceive six nine-hour week-in-and-week-out days of hair-pins and darning-balls, and then, at a heliotrope dusk, James P. Batch, in invitational mood, stepping in between it and the papered walls of a dun-colored evening. To further enlist your tolerance, Gertie Slayback's eyes were as blue as the noon of June, and James P. Batch, in a belted-in coat and five kid finger-points protruding ever so slightly and rightly from a breast pocket, was hewn and honed in the image of youth. His the smile of one for whom life's cup holds a heady wine, a wrinkle or two at the eye only serving to enhance that smile; a one-inch feather stuck upright in his derby hatband.
It was a forelock once stamped a Corsican with the look of emperor. It was this hat feather, a cock's feather at that and worn without sense of humor, to which Miss Slayback was fond of attributing the consequences of that heliotrope dusk.
"It was the feather in your cap did it, Jimmie. I can see you yet, stepping up with that innocent grin of yours. You think I didn't know you were flirting? Cousin from Long Island City! 'Say,' I says to myself, I says, 'I look as much like his cousin from Long Island City, if he's got one, as my cousin from Hoboken (and I haven't got any) would look like my sister if I had one.' It was that sassy little feather in your hat!"
They would laugh over this ever-green reminiscence on Sunday Park benches and at intermission at moving pictures when they remained through it to see the show twice. Be the landlady's front parlor ever so permanently rented out, the motion-picture theater has brought to thousands of young city starvelings, if not the quietude of the home, then at least the warmth and a juxtaposition and a deep darkness that can lave the sub-basement throb of temples and is filled with music with a hum in it.
For two years and eight months of Saturday nights, each one of them a semaphore dropping out across the gray road of the week, Gertie Slayback and Jimmie Batch dined for one hour and sixty cents at the White Kitchen. Then arm and arm up the million-candle-power flare of Broadway, content, these two who had never seen a lake reflect a moon, or a slim fir pointing to a star, that life could be so manifold. And always, too, on Saturday, the tenth from the last row of the De Luxe Cinematograph, Broadway's Best, Orchestra Chairs, fifty cents; Last Ten Rows, thirty-five. The give of velvet-upholstered chairs, perfumed darkness, and any old love story moving across it to the ecstatic ache of Gertie Slayback's high young heart.
On a Saturday evening that was already pointed with stars at the six-o'clock closing of Hoffheimer's Fourteenth Street Emporium, Miss Slayback, whose blondness under fatigue could become ashy, emerged from the Bargain-Basement almost the first of its frantic exodus, taking the place of her weekly appointment in the entrance of the Popular Drug Store adjoining, her gaze, something even frantic in it, sifting the passing crowd.
At six o'clock Fourteenth Street pours up from its basements, down from its lofts, and out from its five-and-ten-cent stores, shows, and arcades, in a great homeward torrent—a sweeping torrent that flows full flush to the Subway, the Elevated, and the surface car, and then spreads thinly into the least pretentious of the city's homes—the five flights up, the two rooms rear, and the third floor back.
Standing there, this eager tide of the Fourteenth Street Emporium, thus released by the six-o'clock flood-gates, flowed past Miss Slayback. White-nosed, low-chested girls in short-vamp shoes and no-carat gold vanity-cases. Older men resigned that ambition could be flayed by a yard-stick; young men still impatient of their clerkship.
It was into the trickle of these last that Miss Slayback bored her glance, the darting, eager glance of hot eyeballs and inner trembling. She was not so pathetically young as she was pathetically blond, a treacherous, ready-to-fade kind of blondness that one day, now that she had found that very morning her first gray hair, would leave her ashy.
Suddenly, with a small catch of breath that was audible in her throat, Miss Slayback stepped out of that doorway, squirming her way across the tight congestion of the sidewalk to its curb, then in and out, brushing this elbow and that shoulder, worming her way in an absolutely supreme anxiety to keep in view a brown derby hat bobbing right briskly along with the crowd, a greenish-black bit of feather upright in its band.
At Broadway, Fourteenth Street cuts quite a caper, deploying out into Union Square, an island of park, beginning to be succulent at the first false feint of spring, rising as it were from a sea of asphalt. Across this park Miss Slayback worked her rather frenzied way, breaking into a run when the derby threatened to sink into the confusion of a hundred others, and finally learning to keep its course by the faint but distinguishing fact of a slight dent in the crown. At Broadway, some blocks before that highway bursts into its famous flare, Mr. Batch, than whom it was no other, turned off suddenly at right angles down into a dim pocket of side-street and into the illuminated entrance of Ceiner's Cafe Hungarian. Meals at all hours. Lunch, thirty cents. Dinner, fifty cents. Our Goulash is Famous.
New York, which expresses itself in more languages to the square block than any other area in the world, Babylon included, loves thus to dine linguistically, so to speak. To the Crescent Turkish Restaurant for its Business Men's Lunch comes Fourth Avenue, whose antique-shop patois reads across the page from right to left. Sight-seeing automobiles on mission and commission bent allow Altoona, Iowa City, and Quincy, Illinois, fifteen minutes' stop-in at Ching Ling-Foo's Chinatown Delmonico's. Spaghetti and red wine have set New York racing to reserve its table d'hotes. All except the Latin race.
Jimmie Batch, who had first seen light, and that gaslight, in a block in lower Manhattan which has since been given over to a milk-station for a highly congested district, had the palate, if not the purse, of the cosmopolite. His digestive range included borsch and chow maigne; risotta and ham and.
To-night, as he turned into Cafe Hungarian, Miss Slayback slowed and drew back into the overshadowing protection of an adjoining office-building. She was breathing hard, and her little face, somehow smaller from chill, was nevertheless a high pink at the cheek-bones.
The wind swept around the corner, jerking her hat, and her hand flew up to it. There was a fair stream of passers-by even here, and occasionally one turned for a backward glance at her standing there so frankly indeterminate.
Suddenly Miss Slayback adjusted her tam-o'-shanter to its flop over her right ear, and, drawing off a pair of dark-blue silk gloves from over immaculately new white ones, entered Ceiner's Cafe Hungarian. In its light she was not so obviously blonder than young, the pink spots in her cheeks had a deepening value to the blue of her eyes, and a black velvet tam-o'-shanter revealing just the right fringe of yellow curls is no mean aid.
First of all, Ceiner's is an eating-place. There is no music except at five cents in the slot, and its tables for four are perpetually set each with a dish of sliced radishes, a bouquet of celery, and a mound of bread, half the stack rye. Its menus are well thumbed and badly mimeographed. Who enters Ceiner's is prepared to dine from barley soup to apple strudel. At something after six begins the rising sound of cutlery, and already the new-comer fears to find no table.
Off at the side, Mr. Jimmie Batch had already disposed of his hat and gray overcoat, and tilting the chair opposite him to indicate its reservation, shook open his evening paper, the waiter withholding the menu at this sign of rendezvous.
Straight toward that table Miss Slayback worked quick, swift way, through this and that aisle, jerking back and seating herself on the chair opposite almost before Mr. Batch could raise his eyes from off the sporting page.
There was an instant of silence between them—the kind of silence that can shape itself into a commentary upon the inefficacy of mere speech—a widening silence which, as they sat there facing, deepened until, when she finally spoke, it was as if her words were pebbles dropping down into a well.
"Don't look so surprised, Jimmie," she said, propping her face calmly, even boldly, into the white-kid palms. "You might fall off the Christmas tree."
Above the snug, four-inch collar and bow tie Mr. Batch's face was taking on a dull ox-blood tinge that spread back, even reddening his ears. Mr. Batch had the frontal bone of a clerk, the horn-rimmed glasses of the literarily astigmatic, and the sartorial perfection that only the rich can afford not to attain.
He was staring now quite frankly, and his mouth had fallen open. "Gert!" he said.
"Yes," said Miss Slayback, her insouciance gaining with his discomposure, her eyes widening and then a dolly kind of glassiness seeming to set in. "You wasn't expecting me, Jimmie?"
He jerked up his head, not meeting her glance. "What's the idea of the comedy?"
"You don't look glad to see me, Jimmie."
"If you—think you're funny."
She was working out of and then back into the freshly white gloves in a betraying kind of nervousness that belied the toss of her voice. "Well, of all things! Mad-cat! Mad, just because you didn't seem to be expecting me."
"I—There's some things that are just the limit, that's what they are. Some things that are just the limit, that no fellow would stand from any girl, and this—this is one of them."
Her lips were trembling now. "You—you bet your life there's some things that are just the limit."
He slid out his watch, pushing back. "Well, I guess this place is too small for a fellow and a girl that can follow him around town like a—like—"
She sat forward, grasping the table-sides, her chair tilting with her. "Don't you dare to get up and leave me sitting here! Jimmie Batch, don't you dare!"
The waiter intervened, card extended.
"We—we're waiting for another party," said Miss Slayback, her hands still rigidly over the table-sides and her glance like a steady drill into Mr. Batch's own.
There was a second of this silence while the waiter withdrew, and then Mr. Batch whipped out his watch again, a gun-metal one with an open face.
"Now look here. I got a date here in ten minutes, and one or the other of us has got to clear. You—you're one too many, if you got to know it."
"Oh, I do know it, Jimmie! I been one too many for the last four Saturday nights. I been one too many ever since May Scully came into five hundred dollars' inheritance and quit the Ladies' Neckwear. I been one too many ever since May Scully became a lady."
"If I was a girl and didn't have more shame!"
"Shame! Now you're shouting, Jimmie Batch. I haven't got shame, and I don't care who knows it. A girl don't stop to have shame when she's fighting for her rights."
He was leaning on his elbow, profile to her. "That movie talk can't scare me. You can't tell me what to do and what not to do. I've given you a square deal all right. There's not a word ever passed between us that ties me to your apron-strings. I don't say I'm not without my obligations to you, but that's not one of them. No, sirree—no apron-strings."
"I know it isn't, Jimmie. You're the kind of a fellow wouldn't even talk to himself for fear of committing hisself."
"I got a date here now any minute, Gert, and the sooner you—"
"You're the guy who passed up the Sixty-first for the Safety First regiment."
"I'll show you my regiment some day."
"I—I know you're not tied to my apron-strings, Jimmie. I—I wouldn't have you there for anything. Don't you think I know you too well for that? That's just it. Nobody on God's earth knows you the way I do. I know you better than you know yourself."
"You better beat it, Gertie. I tell you I'm getting sore."
Her face flashed from him to the door and back again, her anxiety almost edged with hysteria. "Come on, Jimmie—out the side entrance before she gets here. May Scully ain't the company for you. You think if she was, honey, I'd—I'd see myself come butting in between you this way, like—like a—common girl? She's not the girl to keep you straight. Honest to God she's not, honey."
"My business is my business, let me tell you that."
"She's speedy, Jimmie. She was the speediest girl on the main floor, and now that she's come into those five hundred, instead of planting it for a rainy day, she's quit work and gone plumb crazy with it."
"When I want advice about my friends I ask for it."
"It's not her good name that worries me, Jimmie, because she 'ain't got any. It's you. She's got you crazy with that five hundred, too—that's what's got me scared."
"Gee! you ought to let the Salvation Army tie a bonnet under your chin."
"She's always had her eyes on you, Jimmie. 'Ain't you men got no sense for seein' things? Since the day they moved the Gents' Furnishings across from the Ladies' Neckwear she's had you spotted. Her goings-on used to leak down to the basement, alrighty. She's not a good girl, May ain't, Jimmie. She ain't, and you know it. Is she? Is she?"
"Aw!" said Jimmie Batch.
"You see! See! 'Ain't got the nerve to answer, have you?"
"Aw—maybe I know, too, that she's not the kind of a girl that would turn up where she's not—"
"If you wasn't a classy-looking kind of boy, Jimmie, that a fly girl like May likes to be seen out with, she couldn't find you with magnifying glasses, not if you was born with the golden rule in your mouth and had swallowed it. She's not the kind of girl, Jimmie, a fellow like you needs behind him. If—if you was ever to marry her and get your hands on them five hundred dollars—"
"It would be my business."
"It'll be your ruination. You're not strong enough to stand up under nothing like that. With a few hundred unearned dollars in your pocket you—you'd go up in spontaneous combustion, you would."
"It would be my own spontaneous combustion."
"You got to be drove, Jimmie, like a kid. With them few dollars you wouldn't start up a little cigar-store like you think you would. You and her would blow yourselves to the dogs in two months. Cigar-stores ain't the place for you, Jimmie. You seen how only clerking in them was nearly your ruination—the little gambling-room-in-the-back kind that you pick out. They ain't cigar-stores; they're only false faces for gambling."
"You know it all, don't you?"
"Oh, I'm dealing it to you straight! There's too many sporty crowds loafing around those joints for a fellow like you to stand up under. I found you in one, and as yellow-fingered and as loafing as they come, a new job a week, a—"
"Yeh, and there was some pep to variety, too."
"Don't throw over, Jimmie, what my getting you out of it to a decent job in a department store has begun to do for you. And you're making good, too. Higgins told me to-day, if you don't let your head swell, there won't be a fellow in the department can stack up his sales-book any higher."
"Don't throw it all over, Jimmie—and me—for a crop of dyed red hair and a few dollars to ruin yourself with."
He shot her a look of constantly growing nervousness, his mouth pulled to an oblique, his glance constantly toward the door.
"Don't keep no date with her to-night, Jimmie. You haven't got the constitution to stand her pace. It's telling on you. Look at those fingers yellowing again—looka—"
"They're my fingers, ain't they?"
"You see, Jimmie, I—I'm the only person in the world that likes you just for what—you ain't—and hasn't got any pipe dreams about you. That's what counts, Jimmie, the folks that like you in spite, and not because of."
"We will now sing psalm number two hundred and twenty-three."
"I know there's not a better fellow in the world if he's kept nailed to the right job, and I know, too, there's not another fellow can go to the dogs any easier."
"To hear you talk, you'd think I was about six."
"I'm the only girl that'll ever be willing to make a whip out of herself that'll keep you going and won't sting, honey. I know you're soft and lazy and selfish and—"
"Don't forget any."
"And I know you're my good-looking good-for-nothing, and I know, too, that you—you don't care as much—as much for me from head to toe as I do for your little finger. But I—I like you just the same, Jimmie. That—that's what I mean about having no shame. I—do like you so—so terribly, Jimmie."
"I know it, Jimmie—that I ought to be ashamed. Don't think I haven't cried myself to sleep with it whole nights in succession."
"Don't think I don't know it, that I'm laying myself before you pretty common. I know it's common for a girl to—to come to a fellow like this, but—but I haven't got any shame about it—I haven't got anything, Jimmie, except fight for—for what's eating me. And the way things are between us now is eating me."
"I—Why, I got a mighty high regard for you, Gert."
"There's a time in a girl's life, Jimmie, when she's been starved like I have for something of her own all her days; there's times, no matter how she's held in, that all of a sudden comes a minute when she busts out."
"I understand, Gert, but—"
"For two years and eight months, Jimmie, life has got to be worth while living to me because I could see the day, even if we—you—never talked about it, when you would be made over from a flip kid to—to the kind of a fellow would want to settle down to making a little—two-by-four home for us. A—little two-by-four all our own, with you steady on the job and advanced maybe to forty or fifty a week and—"
"For God's sake, Gertie, this ain't the time or the place to—"
"Oh yes, it is! It's got to be, because it's the first time in four weeks that you didn't see me coming first."
"But not now, Gert. I—"
"I'm not ashamed to tell you, Jimmie Batch, that I've been the making of you since that night you threw the wink at me. And—and it hurts, this does. God! how it hurts!"
He was pleating the table-cloth, swallowing as if his throat had constricted, and still rearing his head this way and that in the tight collar.
"I—never claimed not to be a bad egg. This ain't the time and the place for rehashing, that's all. Sure you been a friend to me. I don't say you haven't. Only I can't be bossed by a girl like you. I don't say May Scully's any better than she ought to be. Only that's my business. You hear? my business. I got to have life and see a darn sight more future for myself than selling shirts in a Fourteenth Street department store."
"May Scully can't give it to you—her and her fast crowd."
"Maybe she can and maybe she can't."
"Them few dollars won't make you; they'll break you."
"That's for her to decide, not you."
"I'll tell her myself. I'll face her right here and—"
"Now, look here, if you think I'm going to be let in for a holy show between you two girls, you got another think coming. One of us has got to clear out of here, and quick, too. You been talking about the side door; there it is. In five minutes I got a date in this place that I thought I could keep like any law-abiding citizen. One of us has got to clear, and quick, too. God! you wimmin make me sick, the whole lot of you!"
"If anything makes you sick, I know what it is. It's dodging me to fly around all hours of the night with May Scully, the girl who put the tang in tango. It's eating around in swell sixty-cent restaurants like this and—"
"Gad! your middle name ought to be Nagalene."
"Aw, now, Jimmie, maybe it does sound like nagging, but it ain't, honey. It—it's only my—my fear that I'm losing you, and—and my hate for the every-day grind of things, and—"
"I can't help that, can I?"
"Why, there—there's nothing on God's earth I hate, Jimmie, like I hate that Bargain-Basement. When I think it's down there in that manhole I've spent the best years of my life, I—I wanna die. The day I get out of it, the day I don't have to punch that old time-clock down there next to the Complaints and Adjustment Desk, I—I'll never put my foot below sidewalk level again to the hour I die. Not even if it was to take a walk in my own gold-mine."
"It ain't exactly a garden of roses down there."
"Why, I hate it so terrible, Jimmie, that sometimes I wake up nights gritting my teeth with the smell of steam-pipes and the tramp of feet on the glass sidewalk up over me. Oh. God! you dunno—you dunno!"
"When it comes to that the main floor ain't exactly a maiden's dream, or a fellow's, for that matter."
"With a man it's different, It's his job in life, earning, and—and the woman making the two ends of it meet. That's why, Jimmie, these last two years and eight months, if not for what I was hoping for us, why—why—I—why, on your twenty a week, Jimmie, there's nobody could run a flat like I could. Why, the days wouldn't be long enough to putter in. I—Don't throw away what I been building up for us, Jimmie, step by step! Don't, Jimmie!"
"Good Lord, girl! You deserve better 'n me."
"I know I got a big job, Jimmie, but I want to make a man out of you, temper, laziness, gambling, and all. You got it in you to be something more than a tango lizard or a cigar-store bum, honey. It's only you 'ain't got the stuff in you to stand up under a five-hundred-dollar windfall and—a—and a sporty girl. If—if two glasses of beer make you as silly as they do, Jimmie, why, five hundred dollars would land you under the table for life."
"Aw-there you go again!"
"I can't help it, Jimmie. It's because I never knew a fellow had what's he's cut out for written all over him so. You're a born clerk, Jimmie.
"Sure, I'm a slick clerk, but—"
"You're born to be a clerk, a good clerk, even a two-hundred-a-month clerk, the way you can win the trade, but never your own boss. I know what I'm talking about. I know your measure better than any human on earth can ever know your measure. I know things about you that you don't even know yourself."
"I never set myself up to nobody for anything I wasn't."
"Maybe not, Jimmie, but I know about you and—and that Central Street gang that time, and—"
"Yes, honey, and there's not another human living but me knows how little it was your fault. Just bad company, that was all. That's how much I—I love you, Jimmie, enough to understand that. Why, if I thought May Scully and a set-up in business was the thing for you, Jimmie, I'd say to her, I'd say, if it was like taking my own heart out in my hand and squashing it, I'd say to her, I'd say, 'Take him, May.' That's how I—I love you, Jimmie. Oh, ain't it nothing, honey, a girl can come here and lay herself this low to you—"
"Well, haven't I just said you—you deserve better."
"I don't want better, Jimmie. I want you. I want to take hold of your life and finish the job of making it the kind we can both be proud of. Us two, Jimmie, in—in our own decent two-by-four. Shopping on Saturday nights. Frying in our own frying-pan in our own kitchen. Listening to our own phonograph in our own parlor. Geraniums and—and kids—and—and things. Gas-logs. Stationary washtubs. Jimmie! Jimmie!"
Mr. James P. Batch reached up for his hat and overcoat, cramming the newspaper into a rear pocket.
"Come on," he said, stalking toward the side door and not waiting to see her to her feet.
Outside, a banner of stars was over the narrow street. For a chain of five blocks he walked, with a silence and speed that Miss Slayback could only match with a running quickstep. But she was not out of breath. Her head was up, and her hand, where it hooked into Mr. Batch's elbow, was in a vise that tightened with each block.
You who will mete out no other approval than that vouched for by the stamp of time and whose contempt for the contemporary is from behind the easy refuge of the classics, suffer you the shuddering analogy that between Aspasia who inspired Pericles, Theodora who suggested the Justinian code, and Gertie Slayback who commandeered Jimmie Batch, is a sistership which rounds them, like a lasso thrown back into time, into one and the same petticoat dynasty behind the throne.
True, Gertie Slayback's mise en scene was a two-room kitchenette apartment situated in the Bronx at a surveyor's farthest point between two Subway stations, and her present state one of frequent red-faced forays down into a packing-case. But there was that in her eyes which witchingly bespoke the conquered, but not the conqueror. Hers was actually the titillating wonder of a bird which, captured, closes its wings, that surrender can be so sweet.
Once she sat on the edge of the packing-case, dallying a hammer, then laid it aside suddenly, to cross the littered room and place the side of her head to the immaculate waistcoat of Mr. Jimmie Batch, red-faced, too, over wrenching up with hatchet-edge a barrel-top.
"Jimmie darling, I—I just never will get over your finding this place for us."
Mr. Batch wiped his forearm across his brow, his voice jerking between the squeak of nails extracted from wood.
"It was you, honey. You give me the to-let ad, and I came to look, that's all."
"Just the samey, it was my boy found it. If you hadn't come to look we might have been forced into taking that old dark coop over on Simpson Street."
"What's all this junk in this barrel?"
"Them's kitchen utensils, honey."
"Kitchen things that you don't know nothing about except to eat good things out of."
"Don't bend it! That's a celery-brush. Ain't it cute?"
"A celery-brush! Why didn't you get it a comb, too?"
"Aw, now, honey-bee, don't go trying to be funny and picking through these things you don't know nothing about! They're just cute things I'm going to cook something grand suppers in, for my something awful bad boy."
He leaned down to kiss her at that. "Gee!"
She was standing, her shoulder to him and head thrown back against his chest. She looked up to stroke his cheek, her face foreshortened.
"I'm all black and blue pinching myself, Jimmie."
"Every night when I get home from working here in the flat I say to myself in the looking-glass, I say, 'Gertie Slayback, what if you're only dreamin'?'"
"I say to myself, 'Are you sure that darling flat up there, with the new pink-and-white wall-paper and the furniture arriving every day, is going to be yours in a few days when you're Mrs. Jimmie Batch?'"
"Mrs. Jimmie Batch—say, that's immense."
"I keep saying it to myself every night, 'One day less.' Last night it was two days. To-night it'll be—one day, Jimmie, till I'm—her."
She closed her eyes and let her hand linger up at his cheek, head still back against him, so that, inclining his head, he could rest his lips in the ash-blond fluff of her hair.
"Talk about can't wait! If to-morrow was any farther off they'd have to sweep out a padded cell for me."
She turned to rumple the smooth light thatch of his hair. "Bad boy! Can't wait! And here we are getting married all of a sudden, just like that. Up to the time of this draft business, Jimmie Batch, 'pretty soon' was the only date I could ever get out of you, and now here you are crying over one day's wait. Bad honey boy!"
He reached back for the pink newspaper so habitually protruding from his hip pocket. "You ought to see the way they're neck-breaking for the marriage-license bureaus since the draft. First thing we know, tine whole shebang of the boys will be claiming the exemption of sole support of wife."
"It's a good thing we made up our minds quick, Jimmie. They'll be getting wise. If too many get exemption from the army by marrying right away, it'll be a give-away."
"I'd like to know who can lay his hands on the exemption of a little wife to support."
"Oh, Jimmie, it—it sounds so funny. Being supported! Me that always did the supporting, not only to me, but to my mother and great-grand-mother up to the day they died."
"I'm the greatest little supporter you ever seen."
"Me getting up mornings to stay at home in my own darling little flat, and no basement or time-clock. Nothing but a busy little hubby to eat him nice, smelly, bacon breakfast and grab him nice morning newspaper, kiss him wifie, and run downtown to support her. Jimmie, every morning for your breakfast I'm going to fry—"
"You bet your life he's going to support her, and he's going to pay back that forty dollars of his girl's that went into his wedding duds, that hundred and ninety of his girl's savings that went into furniture—"
"We got to meet our instalments every month first, Jimmie. That's what we want—no debts and every little darling piece of furniture paid up."
"We—I'm going to pay it, too."
"And my Jimmie is going to work to get himself promoted and quit being a sorehead at his steady hours and all."
"I know more about selling, honey, than the whole bunch of dubs in that store put together if they'd give me a chance to prove it."
She laid her palm to his lips.
"'Shh-h-h! You don't nothing of the kind. It's not conceit, it's work is going to get my boy his raise."
"If they'd listen to me, that department would—"
"'Shh-h! J. G. Hoffheimer don't have to get pointers from Jimmie Batch how to run his department store."
"There you go again. What's J. G. Hoffheimer got that I 'ain't? Luck and a few dollars in his pocket that, if I had in mine, would—
"It was his own grit put those dollars there, Jimmie. Just put it out of your head that it's luck makes a self-made man."
"Self-made! You mean things just broke right for him. That's two-thirds of this self-made business."
"You mean he buckled right down to brass tacks, and that's what my boy is going to do."
"The trouble with this world is it takes money to make money. Get your first few dollars, I always say, no matter how, and then when you're on your feet scratch your conscience if it itches. That's why I said in the beginning, if we had took that hundred and ninety furniture money and staked it on—"
"Jimmie, please—please! You wouldn't want to take a girl's savings of years and years to gamble on a sporty cigar proposition with a card-room in the rear. You wouldn't, Jimmie. You ain't that kind of fellow. Tell me you wouldn't, Jimmie."
He turned away to dive down into the barrel. "Naw," he said, "I wouldn't."
The sun had receded, leaving a sudden sullen gray, the little square room, littered with an upheaval of excelsior, sheet-shrouded furniture, and the paperhanger's paraphernalia and inimitable smells, darkening and seeming to chill.
"We got to quit now, Jimmie. It's getting dark and the gas ain't turned on in the meter yet."
He rose up out of the barrel, holding out at arm's-length what might have been a tinsmith's version of a porcupine.
"What in—What's this thing that scratched me?"
She danced to take it. "It's a grater, a darling grater for horseradish and nutmeg and cocoanut. I'm going to fix you a cocoanut cake for our honeymoon supper to-morrow night, honey-bee. Essie Wohlgemuth over in the cake-demonstrating department is going to bring me the recipe. Cocoanut cake! And I'm going to fry us a little steak in this darling little skillet. Ain't it the cutest!"
"Cute she calls a tin skillet."
"Look what's pasted on it. 'Little Housewife's Skillet. The Kitchen Fairy.' That's what I'm going to be, Jimmie, the kitchen fairy. Give me that. It's a rolling-pin. All my life I've wanted a rolling-pin. Look, honey, a little string to hang it up by. I'm going to hang everything up in rows. It's going to look like Tiffany's kitchen, all shiny. Give me, honey; that's an egg-beater. Look at it whiz. And this—this is a pan for war bread. I'm going to make us war bread to help the soldiers."
"You're a little soldier yourself," he said.
"That's what I would be if I was a man, a soldier all in brass buttons."
"There's a bunch of the fellows going," said Mr. Batch, standing at the window, looking out over roofs, dilly-dallying up and down on his heels and breaking into a low, contemplative whistle. She was at his shoulder, peering over it. "You wouldn't be afraid, would you, Jimmie?"
"You bet your life I wouldn't."
She was tiptoes now, her arms creeping up to him. "Only my boy's got a wife—a brand-new wifie to support, 'ain't he?"
"That's what he has," said Mr. Batch, stroking her forearm, but still gazing through and beyond whatever roofs he was seeing.
"Look! We got a view of the Hudson River from our flat, just like we lived on Riverside Drive."
"All the Hudson River I can see is fifteen smoke-stacks and somebody's wash-line out."
"It ain't so. We got a grand view. Look! Stand on tiptoe, Jimmie, like me. There, between that water-tank on that black roof over there and them two chimneys. See? Watch my finger. A little stream of something over there that moves."
"No, I don't see."
"Look, honey-bee, close! See that little streak?"
"All right, then, if you see it I see it."
"To think we got a river view from our flat! It's like living in the country. I'll peek out at it all day long. God! honey, I just never will be over the happiness of being done with basements."
"It was swell of old Higgins to give us this half-Saturday. It shows where you stood with the management, Gert—this and a five-dollar gold piece. Lord knows they wouldn't pony up that way if it was me getting married by myself."
"It's because my boy 'ain't shown them down there yet the best that's in him. You just watch his little safety-first wife see to it that from now on he keeps up her record of never in seven years punching the time-clock even one minute late, and that he keeps his stock shelves O. K. and shows his department he's a comer-on."
"With that bunch of boobs a fellow's got a swell chance to get anywheres."
"It's getting late, Jimmie. It don't look nice for us to stay here so late alone, not till—to-morrow. Ruby and Essie and Charley are going to meet us in the minister's back parlor at ten sharp in the morning. We can be back here by noon and get the place cleared enough to give 'em a little lunch—just a fun lunch without fixings."
"I hope the old guy don't waste no time splicing us. It's one of the things a fellow likes to have over with."
"Jimmie! Why, it's the most beautiful thing in the world, like a garden of lilies or—or something, a marriage ceremony is! You got the ring safe, honey-bee, and the license?"
"Pinned in my pocket where you put 'em, Flirty Gertie."
"Flirty Gertie! Now you'll begin teasing me with that all our life—the way I didn't slap your face that night when I should have. I just couldn't have, honey. Goes to show we were just cut and dried for each other, don't it? Me, a girl that never in her life let a fellow even bat his eyes at her without an introduction. But that night when you winked, honey—something inside of me just winked back."
"You mean it, boy? You ain't sorry about nothing, Jimmie?"
"Sorry? Well, I guess not!"
"You saw the way—she—May—you saw for yourself what she was, when we saw her walking, that next night after Ceiner's, nearly staggering, up Sixth Avenue with Budge Evans."
"I never took any stock in her, honey. I was just letting her like me."
She sat back on the box edge, regarding him, her face so soft and wont to smile that she could not keep her composure.
"Get me my hat and coat, honey. We'll walk down. Got the key?"
They skirmished in the gloom, moving through slit-like aisles of furniture and packing-box.
"Oh, the running water is hot, Jimmie, just like the ad said! We got red-hot running water in our flat. Close the front windows, honey. We don't want it to rain in on our new green sofa. Not 'til it's paid for, anyways."
They met at the door, kissing on the inside and the outside of it; at the head of the fourth, third, and the second balustrade down.
"We'll always make 'em little love landings, Jimmie, so we can't ever get tired climbing them."
Outside there was still a pink glow in a clean sky. The first flush of spring in the air had died, leaving chill. They walked briskly, arm in arm, down the asphalt incline of sidewalk leading from their apartment house, a new street of canned homes built on a hillside—the sepulchral abode of the city's trapped whose only escape is down the fire-escape, and then only when the alternative is death. At the base of the hill there flows, in constant hubbub, a great up-and-down artery of street, repeating itself, mile after mile, in terms of the butcher, the baker, and the "every-other-corner drug-store of a million dollar corporation". Housewives with perambulators and oil-cloth shopping bags. Children on rollerskates. The din of small tradesmen and the humdrum of every city block where the homes remain unbearded all summer and every wife is on haggling terms with the purveyor of her evening roundsteak and mess of rutabaga.
Then there is the soap-box provender, too, sure of a crowd, offering creed, propaganda, patent medicine, and politics. It is the pulpit of the reformer and the housetop of the fanatic, this soapbox. From it the voice to the city is often a pious one, an impious one, and almost always a raucous one. Luther and Sophocles, and even a Citizen of Nazareth made of the four winds of the street corner the walls of a temple of wisdom. What more fitting acropolis for freedom of speech than the great out-of-doors!
Turning from the incline of cross-street into this petty Baghdad of the petty wise, the voice of the street corner lifted itself above the inarticulate din of the thoroughfare. A youth, thewed like an ox, surmounted on a stack of three self provided canned-goods boxes, his in-at-the-waist silhouette thrown out against a sky that was almost ready to break out in stars; a crowd tightening about him.
"It's a soldier boy talkin', Gert."
"If it ain't!" They tiptoed at the fringe of the circle, heads back.
"Look, Gert, he's a lieutenant; he's got a shoulder-bar. And those four down there holding the flags are just privates. You can always tell a lieutenant by the bar."
"Say, them boys do stack up some for Uncle Sam."
"I'm here to tell you that them boys stack up some."
A banner stiffened out in the breeze, Mr. Batch reading: "Enlist before you are drafted. Last chance to beat the draft. Prove your patriotism. Enlist now! Your country calls!"
"Come on," said Mr. Batch.
"Wait. I want to hear what he's saying."
"... there's not a man here before me can afford to shirk his duty to his country. The slacker can't get along without his country, but his country can very easily get along without him."
"The poor exemption boobs are already running for doctors' certificates and marriage licenses, but even if they get by with it—and it is ninety-nine to one they won't—they can't run away from their own degradation and shame."
"Come on, Jimmie."
"Men of America, for every one of you who tries to dodge his duty to his country there is a yellow streak somewhere underneath the hide of you. Women of America, every one of you that helps to foster the spirit of cowardice in your particular man or men is helping to make a coward. It's the cowards and the quitters and the slackers and dodgers that need this war more than the patriotic ones who are willing to buckle on and go!
"Don't be a buttonhole patriot! A government that is good enough to live under is good enough to fight under!"
"If there is any reason on earth has manifested itself for this devastating and terrible war it is that it has been a maker of men.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am back from four months in the trenches with the French army, and I've come home, now that my own country is at war, to give her every ounce of energy I've got to offer. As soon as a hole in my side is healed up. I'm going back to those trenches, and I want to say to you that them four months of mine face to face with life and with death have done more for me than all my twenty-four civilian years put together."
"I'll be a different man, if I live to come back home after this war and take up my work again as a draftsman. Why, I've seen weaklings and self-confessed failures and even ninnies go into them trenches and come out—oh yes, plenty of them do come out—men. Men that have got close enough down to the facts of things to feel new realizations of what life means come over them. Men that have gotten back their pep, their ambitions, their unselfishness. That's what war can do for your men, you women who are helping them to foster the spirit of holding back, of cheating their government. That's what war can do for your men. Make of them the kind of men who some day can face their children without having to hang their heads. Men who can answer for their part in making the world a safe place for democracy."
An hour they stood there, the air quieting but chilling, and lavishly sown stars cropping out. Street lights had come out, too, throwing up in ever darker relief the figure above the heads of the crowd. His voice had coarsened and taken on a raw edge, but every gesture was flung from the socket, and from where they had forced themselves into the tight circle Gertie Slayback, her mouth fallen open and her head still back, could see the sinews of him ripple under khaki and the diaphragm lift for voice.
There was a shift of speakers then, this time a private, still too rangy, but his looseness of frame seeming already to conform to the exigency of uniform.
"Come on, Jimmie. I—I'm cold."
They worked out into the freedom of the sidewalk, and for ten minutes, down blocks of petty shops already lighted, walked in a silence that grew apace.
He was suddenly conscious that she was crying, quietly, her handkerchief wadded against her mouth. He strode on with a scowl and his head bent. "Let's sit down in this little park, Jimmie. I'm tired."
They rested on a bench on one of those small triangles of breathing space which the city ekes out now and then; mill ends of land parcels.
He took immediately to roving the toe of his shoe in and out among the gravel. She stole out her hand to his arm.
"Well, Jimmie?" Her voice was in the gauze of a whisper that hardly left her throat.
"Well, what?" he said, still toeing.
"There—there's a lot of things we never thought about, Jimmie."
"You mean you never thought about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know what I mean alrighty."
"I—I was the one that suggested it, Jimmie, but—but you fell in. I—I just couldn't bear to think of it, Jimmie—your going and all. I suggested it, but—but you fell in."
"Say, when a fellow's shoved he falls. I never gave a thought to sneaking an exemption until it was put in my head. I'd smash the fellow in the face that calls me coward, I will."
"You could have knocked me down with a feather, Jimmie, looking at it his way all of a sudden."
"You couldn't knock me down. Don't think I was ever strong enough for the whole business. I mean the exemption part. I wasn't going to say anything. What's the use, seeing the way you had your heart set on—on things? But the whole business, if you want to know it, went against my grain. I'll smash the fellow in the face that calls me coward."
"I know, Jimmie; you—you're right. It was me suggested hurrying things like this. Sneakin'! Oh, God! ain't I the messer-up!"
"Lay easy, girl. I'm going to see it through. I guess there's been fellows before me and will be after me who have done worse. I'm going to see it through. All I got to say is I'll smash up the fellow calls me coward. Come on, forget it. Let's go."
She was close to him, her cheek crinkled against his with the frank kind of social unconsciousness the park bench seems to engender.
"Come on, Gert. I got a hunger on."
'"Shh-h-h, Jimmie! Let me think. I'm thinking."
"Too much thinking killed a cat. Come on."
"Jimmie—would you—had you ever thought about being a soldier?"
"Sure. I came in an ace of going into the army that time after—after that little Central Street trouble of mine. I've got a book in my trunk this minute on military tactics. Wouldn't surprise me a bit to see me land in the army some day."
"It's a fine thing, Jimmie, for a fellow—the army."
"Yeh, good for what ails him."
She drew him back, pulling at his shoulder so that finally he faced her. "Jimmie!"
"I got an idea."
"You remember once, honey-bee, how I put it to you that night at Ceiner's how, if it was for your good, no sacrifice was too much to make."
"You didn't believe it."
"Aw, say now, what's the use digging up ancient history?"
"You'd be right, Jimmie, not to believe it. I haven't lived up to what I said."
"Oh Lord, honey! What's eating you now? Come to the point."
She would not meet his eyes, turning her head from him to hide lips that would quiver. "Honey, it—it ain't coming off—that's all. Not now—anyways."
"You know what I mean, Jimmie. It's like everything the soldier boy on the corner just said. I—I saw you getting red clear behind your ears over it. I—I was, too, Jimmie. It's like that soldier boy was put there on that corner just to show me, before it was too late, how wrong I been in every one of my ways. Us women who are helping to foster slackers. That's what we're making of them—slackers for life. And here I been thinking it was your good I had in mind, when all along it's been mine. That's what it's been, mine!"
"Aw, now, Gert—"
"You got to go, Jimmie. You got to go, because you want to go and—because I want you to go."
He took hold of her two arms because they were trembling. "Aw, now, Gert, I didn't say anything complaining. I—"
"You did, Jimmie, you did, and—and I never was so glad over you that you did complain. I just never was so glad. I want you to go, Jimmie. I want you to go and get a man made out of you. They'll make a better job out of you than ever I can. I want you to get the yellow streak washed out. I want you to get to be all the things he said you would. For every line he was talking up there, I could see my boy coming home to me some day better than anything I could make out of him, babying him the way I can't help doing. I could see you, honey-bee, coming back to me with the kind of lift to your head a fellow has when he's been fighting to make the world a safe place for dem—for whatever it was he said. I want you to go, Jimmie. I want you to beat the draft, too. Nothing on earth can make me not want you to go."
"Why, Gert—you're kiddin'!"
"Honey, you want to go, don't you? You want to square up those shoulders and put on khaki, don't you? Tell me you want to go!"
"Why—why, yes, Gert, if—"
"Oh, you're going, Jimmie! You're going!"
"Why, girl—you're crazy! Our flat! Our furniture—our—"
"What's a flat? What's furniture? What's anything? There's not a firm in business wouldn't take back a boy's furniture—a boy's everything—that's going out to fight for—for dem-o-cracy! What's a flat? What's anything?"
He let drop his head to hide his eyes.
Do you know it is said that on the Desert of Sahara, the slope of Sorrento, and the marble of Fifth Avenue the sun can shine whitest? There is an iridescence to its glittering on bleached sand, blue bay, and Carrara facade that is sheer light distilled to its utmost.
On one such day when, standing on the high slope of Fifth Avenue where it rises toward the Park, and looking down on it, surging to and fro, it was as if, so manifest the brilliancy, every head wore a tin helmet, parrying sunlight at a thousand angles of refraction.
Parade-days, all this glittering midstream is swept to the clean sheen of a strip of moire, this splendid desolation blocked on each side by crowds half the density of the sidewalk.
On one of these sun-drenched Saturdays dedicated by a growing tradition to this or that national expression, the Ninety-ninth Regiment, to a flare of music that made the heart leap out against its walls, turned into a scene thus swept clean for it, a wave of olive drab, impeccable row after impeccable row of scissors-like legs advancing. Recruits, raw if you will, but already caparisoned, sniffing and scenting, as it were, for the great primordial mire of war.
There is no state of being so finely sensitized as national consciousness. A gauntlet down and it surges up. One ripple of a flag defended can goose-flesh a nation. How bitter and how sweet it is to give a soldier!
To the seething kinetic chemistry of such mingling emotions there were women who stood in the frontal crowds of the sidewalks stifling hysteria, or ran after in terror at sight of one so personally hers, receding in that great impersonal wave of olive drab.
And yet the air was martial with banner and with shout. And the ecstasy of such moments is like a dam against reality, pressing it back. It is in the pompless watches of the night or of too long days that such dams break, excoriating.
For the thirty blocks of its course Gertie Slayback followed that wave of men, half run and half walk. Down from the curb, and at the beck and call of this or that policeman up again, only to find opportunity for still another dive out from the invisible roping off of the sidewalk crowds.
From the middle of his line, she could see, sometimes, the tail of Jimmie Batch's glance roving for her, but to all purports his eye was solely for his own replica in front of him, and at such times, when he marched, his back had a little additional straightness that was almost swayback.
Nor was Gertie Slayback crying. On the contrary, she was inclined to laughter. A little too inclined to a high and brittle sort of dissonance over which she seemed to have no control.
"'By, Jimmie! So long! Jimmie! You-hoo!"
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp-tramp-tramp.
"You-hoo! Jimmie! So long, Jimmie!"
At Fourteenth Street, and to the solemn stroke of one from a tower, she broke off suddenly without even a second look back, dodging under the very arms of the crowd as she ran out from it.
She was one and three-quarter minutes late when she punched the time-clock beside the Complaints and Adjustment Desk in the Bargain-Basement.
SIEVE OF FULFILMENT
How constant a stream is the runnel of men's small affairs!
Dynasties may totter and half the world bleed to death, but one or the other corner patisserie goes on forever.
At a moment when the shadow of world-war was over the country like a pair of black wings lowering Mrs. Harry Ross, who swooned at the sight of blood from a penknife scratch down the hand of her son, but yawned over the head-line statistics of the casualties at Verdun, lifted a lid from a pot that exuded immediate savory fumes, prodded with a fork at its content, her concern boiled down to deal solely with stew.
An alarm-clock on a small shelf edged in scalloped white oilcloth ticked with spick-and-span precision into a kitchen so correspondingly spick and span that even its silence smelled scoured, rows of tins shining into it. A dun-colored kind of dusk, soot floating in it, began to filter down the air-shaft, dimming them.
Mrs. Ross lowered the shade and lighted the gas-jet. So short that in the long run she wormed first through a crowd, she was full of the genial curves that, though they bespoke three lumps in her coffee in an elevator and escalator age, had not yet reached uncongenial proportions. In fact, now, brushing with her bare forearm across her moistly pink face, she was like Flora, who, rather than fade, became buxom.
A door slammed in an outer hall, as she was still stirring and looking down into the stew.
"Don't track through the parlor."
"You hear me?"
"I yain't! Gee, can't a feller walk?"
"Put your books on the hat-rack."
She supped up bird-like from the tip of her spoon, smacking for flavor.
"I made you an asafetida-bag, Edwin, it's in your drawer. Don't you leave this house to-morrow without it on."
"It don't smell."
"Where's my stamp-book?"
"On your table, where it belongs."
"Gee whiz! if you got my Argentine stamps mixed!"
"Where's my batteries?"
"Under your bed, where they belong."
"Your father'll be home any minute now. Don't spoil your appetite."
"I got ninety in manual training, mother."
"Did yuh, Edwin?"
"All the other fellows only got seventy and eighty."
"Mamma's boy leads 'em."
He entered at that, submitting to a kiss upon an averted cheek.
"See what mother's fixed for you!"
"I shopped all morning to get okra to go in it for your father."
She tiptoed up to kiss him again, this time at the back of the neck, carefully averting her floury hands.
"Mamma's boy! I made you three pen-wipers to-day out of the old red table-cover."
"Aw, fellers don't use pen-wipers!"
He set up a jiggling, his great feet coming down with a clatter.
"Can't I jig?"
"No; not with neighbors underneath."
He flopped down, hooking his heels in the chair-rung.
At sixteen's stage of cruel hazing into man's estate Edwin Ross, whose voice, all in a breath, could slip up from the quality of rock in the drilling to the more brittle octave of early-morning milk-bottles, wore a nine shoe and a thirteen collar. His first long trousers were let down and taken in. His second taken up and let out. When shaving promised to become a manly accomplishment, his complexion suddenly clouded, postponing that event until long after it had become a hirsute necessity. When he smiled apoplectically above his first waistcoat and detachable collar, his Adam's apple and his mother's heart fluttered.
"Blow-cat Dennis is going to City College."
"Quit crackin' your knuckles."
"He only got seventy in manual training."
"Tell them things to your father, Edwin; I 'ain't got the say-so."
"His father's only a bookkeeper, too, and they live 'way up on a Hundred and Forty-fourth near Third."
"I'm willing to scrimp and save for it, Edwin; but in the end I haven't got the say-so, and you know it."
"The boys that are going to college got to register now for the High School College Society."
"Your father, Edwin, is the one to tell that to."
"Other fellers' mothers put in a word for 'em."
"I do, Edwin; you know I do! It only aggravates him—There's papa now, Edwin, coming in. Help mamma dish up. Put this soup at papa's place and this at yours. There's only two plates left from last night."
In Mrs. Ross's dining-room, a red-glass dome, swung by a chain over the round table, illuminated its white napery and decently flowered china. Beside the window looking out upon a gray-brick wall almost within reach, a canary with a white-fluted curtain about the cage dozed headless. Beside that window, covered in flowered chintz, a sewing-machine that could collapse to a table; a golden-oak sideboard laid out in pressed glassware. A homely simplicity here saved by chance or chintz from the simply homely.
Mr. Harry Ross drew up immediately beside the spread table, jerking open his newspaper and, head thrown back, read slantingly down at the head-lines.
"Hah—that's the stuff! Don't spill!"
He jammed the newspaper between his and the chair back, shoving in closer to the table. He was blond to ashiness, so that the slicked-back hair might or might not be graying. Pink-shaved, unlined, nose-glasses polished to sparkle, he was ten years his wife's senior and looked those ten years younger. Clerks and clergymen somehow maintain that youth of the flesh, as if life had preserved them in alcohol or shaving-lotion. Mrs. Ross entered then in her crisp but faded house dress, her round, intent face still moistly pink, two steaming dishes held out.
He did not rise, but reached up to kiss her as she passed.
"Burnt your soup a little to-night, mother."
She sat down opposite, breathing deeply outward, spreading her napkin out across her lap.
"It was Edwin coming in from school and getting me worked up with his talk about—about—"
"Nothing. Edwin, run out and bring papa the paprika to take the burnt taste out. I turned all the cuffs on your shirts to-day, Harry."
"Lordy! if you ain't fixing at one thing, you're fixing another."
He was well over his soup now, drinking in long draughts from the tip of his spoon.
"News! In A. E. Unger's office, a man don't get his nose far enough up from the ledger to even smell news."
"I see Goldfinch & Goetz failed."
"Could have told 'em they'd go under, trying to put on a spectacular show written in verse. That same show boiled down to good Forty-second Street lingo with some good shapes and a proposition like Alma Zitelle to lift it from poetry to punch has a world of money in it for somebody. A war spectacular show filled with sure-fire patriotic lines, a bunch of show-girl battalions, and a figure like Alma Zitelle's for the Goddess of Liberty—a world of money, I tell you!"
"That trench scene they built for that show is as fine a contrivance as I've ever seen of the kind. What did they do? Set it to a lot of music without a hum or a ankle in it. A few classy nurses like the Mercy Militia Sextet, some live, grand-old-flag tunes by Harry Mordelle, and there's a half a million dollars in that show. Unger thinks I'm crazy when I try to get him interested, but I—"
"I got ninety in manual training to-day, pop."
"That's good, son. Little more of that stew, mother?"
"Unger isn't so smart, honey, he can't afford to take a tip off you once in a while: you've proved that to him."
"Yes, but go tell him so."
"He'll live to see the day he's got to give you credit for being the first to see money in 'Pan-America.'"
"Credit? Huh! to hear him tell it, he was born with that idea in his bullet head."
"I'd like to hear him say it to me, if ever I lay eyes on him, that it wasn't you who begged him to get into it."
"I'll show 'em some day in that office that I can pick the winners for myself, as well as for the other fellow. Believe me, Unger hasn't raised me to fifty a week for my fancy bookkeeping, and he knows it, and, what's more, he knows I know he knows it."
"The fellers that are goin' to college next term have to register for the High School College Society, pop—dollar dues."
"Well, you aren't going to college, and that's where you and I save a hundred cents on the dollar. Little more gravy, mother."
The muscles of Edwin's face relaxed, his mouth dropping to a pout, the crude features quivering.
"Aw, pop, a feller nowadays without a college education don't stand a show."
"He don't, don't he? I know one who will."
Edwin threw a quivering glance to his mother and gulped through a constricted throat.
"Mother says I—I can go if only you—"
"Your mother'd say you could have the moon, too, if she had to climb a greased pole to get it. She'd start weaving door-mats for the Cingalese Hottentots if she thought they needed 'em."
"But, Harry, he—"
"Your mother 'ain't got the bills of this shebang to worry about, and your mother don't mind having a college sissy a-laying around the house to support five years longer. I do."
"It's the free City College, pop."
"You got a better education now than nine boys out of ten. If you ain't man enough to want to get out after four years of high school and hustle for a living, you got to be shown the way out. I started when I was in short pants, and you're no better than your father. Your mother sold notions and axle-grease in an up-State general store up to the day she married. Now cut out the college talk you been springing on me lately. I won't have it—you hear? You're a poor man's son, and the sooner you make up your mind to it the better. Pass the chow-chow, mother."
Nervousness had laid hold of her so that in and out among the dishes her hand trembled.
"You see, Harry, it's the free City College, and—"
"I know that free talk. So was high school free when you talked me into it, but if it ain't one thing it's been another. Cadet uniform, football suit—"
"The child's got talent for invention, Harry; his manual-training teacher told me his air-ship model was—"
"I got ninety in manual training when the other fellers only got seventy."
"I guess you're looking for another case like your father, sitting penniless around the house, tinkering on inventions up to the day he died."
"Pa never had the business push, Harry. You know yourself his churn was ready for the market before the Peerless beat him in on it."
"Well, your son is going to get the business push trained into him. No boy of mine with a poor daddy eats up four years of his life and my salary training to be a college sissy. That's for the rich men's sons. That's for the Clarence Ungers."
"I'll pay it back some day, pop; I—."
"They all say that."
"If it's the money, Harry, maybe I can—"
"If it didn't cost a cent, I wouldn't have it. Now cut it out—you hear? Quick!"
Edwin Ross pushed back from the table, struggling and choking against impending tears. "Well, then, I—I—"
"And no shuffling of feet, neither!"
"He didn't shuffle, Harry; it's just his feet growing so fast he can't manage them."
"Well, just the samey, I—I ain't going into the theayter business. I—I—"
Mr. Ross flung down his napkin, facing him. "You're going where I put you, young man. You're going to get the right kind of a start that I didn't get in the biggest money-making business in the world."
"I won't. I'll get me a job in an aeroplane-factory."
His father's palm came down with a small crash, shivering the china. "By Gad! you take that impudence out of your voice to me or I'll rawhide it out!"
"Leave the table!"
"Harry, he's only a child—"
"Go to your room!"
His heavy, unformed lips now trembling frankly against the tears he tried so furiously to resist, Edwin charged with lowered head from the room, sobs escaping in raw gutturals.
Mr. Ross came back to his plate, breathing heavily, fist, with a knife upright in it, coming down again on the table, his mouth open, to facilitate labored breathing.
"By Heaven! I'll cowhide that boy to his senses! I've never laid hand on him yet, but he ain't too old. I'll get him down to common sense, if I got to break a rod over him."
Handkerchief against trembling lips, Mrs. Ross looked after the vanished form, eyes brimming.
"Harry, you—you're so rough with him."
"I'll be rougher yet before I'm through."
"He's only a—"
"He's rewarding the way you scrimped to pay his expenses for nonsense clubs and societies by asking you to do it another four years. You're getting your thanks now. College! Well, not if the court knows it—"
"He's got talent, Harry; his teacher says he—"
"So'd your father have talent."
"If pa hadn't lost his eye in the Civil War—"
"I'm going to put my son's talent where I can see a future for it."
"He's ambitious, Harry."
"So'm I—to see my son trained to be something besides a looney inventor like his grandfather before him."
"It's all I want in life, Harry, to see my two boys of you happy."
"It's your woman-ideas I got to blame for this. I want you to stop, Millie, putting rich man's ideas in his head. You hear? I won't stand for it."
"Harry, if—if it's the money, maybe I could manage—"
"Yes—and scrimp and save and scrooge along without a laundress another four years, and do his washing and—"
"I—could fix the money part, Harry—easy."
He regarded her with his jaw dropped in the act of chewing.
"By Gad! where do you plant it?"
"It—it's the way I scrimp, Harry. Another woman would spend it on clothes or—a servant—or matinees. It ain't hard for a home body like me to save, Harry."
He reached across the table for her wrist.
"Poor little soul," he said, "you don't see day-light."
"Let him go, Harry, if—if he wants it. I can manage the money."
His scowl returned, darkening him.
"No. A. E. Unger never seen the inside of a high school, much less a college, and I guess he's made as good a pile as most. I've worked for the butcher and the landlord all my life, and now I ain't going to begin being a slave to my boy. There's been two or three times in my life where, for want of a few dirty dollars to make a right start, I'd be, a rich man to-day. My boy's going to get that right start."
"But, Harry, college will—"
"I seen money in 'Pan-America' long before Unger ever dreamed of producing it. I sicked him onto 'The Official Chaperon' when every manager in town had turned it down. I went down and seen 'em doing 'The White Elephant' in a Yiddish theater and wired Unger out in Chicago to come back and grab it for Broadway. Where's it got me? Nowhere. Because I whiled away the best fifteen years of my life in an up-State burg, and then, when I came down here too late in life, got in the rut of a salaried man. Well, where it 'ain't got me it's going to get my son. I'm missing a chance, to-day that, mark my word, would make me a rich man but for want of a few—"
"Harry, you mean that?"
"My hunch never fails me."
She was leaning across the table, her hands clasping its edge, her small, plump face even pinker.
He threw out his legs beneath the table and sat back, hands deep in pockets, and a toothpick hanging limp from between lips that were sagging.
"Gad! if I had my life to live over again as a salaried man, I'd—I'd hang myself first! The way to start a boy to a million dollars in this business is to start him young in the producing-end of a strong firm."
"You—got faith in this Goldfinch & Goetz failure like you had in 'Pan-America' and 'The Chaperon,' Harry?"
"I said it five years ago and it come to pass. I say it now. For want of a few dirty dollars I'm a poor man till I die."
"How—many dollars, Harry?"
"Don't make me say it, Millie—it makes me sick to my stummick. Three thousand dollars would buy the whole spectacle to save it from the storehouse. I tried Charley Ryan—he wouldn't risk a ten-spot on a failure."
"Harry, I—oh, Harry—"
"Why, mother, what's the matter? You been overworking again, ironing my shirts and collars when they ought to go to the laundry? You—"
"Harry, what would you say if—if I was to tell you something?"
"What is it, mother? You better get Annie in on Mondays. We 'ain't got any more to show without her than with her."
"Well, you just had an instance of the thanks you get."
"Harry, what—what would you say if I could let you have nearly all of that three thousand?"
He regarded her above the flare of a match to his cigar-end.
"If I could let you have twenty-six hundred seventeen dollars and about fifty cents of it?"
He sat well up, the light reflecting in points off his polished glasses.
"Mother, you're joking!"
Her hands were out across the table now, almost reaching his, her face close and screwed under the lights.
"When—when you lost out that time five years ago on 'Pan-America' and I seen how Linger made a fortune out of it, I says to myself, 'It can never happen again.' You remember the next January when you got your raise to fifty and I wouldn't move out of this flat, and instead gave up having Annie in, that was what I had in my head, Harry. It wasn't only for sending Edwin to high school; it was for—my other boy, too, Harry, so it couldn't happen again."
"Millie, you mean—"
"You ain't got much idea, Harry, of what I been doing. You don't know it, honey, but, honest, I ain't bought a stitch of new clothes for five years. You know I ain't, somehow—made friends for myself since we moved here."
"It's the hard shell town of the world!"
"You ain't had time, Harry, to ask yourself what becomes of the house allowance, with me stinting so. Why, I—I won't spend car fare, Harry, since 'Pan-America,' if I can help it. This meal I served up here t-night, with all the high cost of living, didn't cost us two thirds what it might if—if I didn't have it all figured up. Where do you think your laundry-money that I've been saving goes, Harry? The marmalade-money I made the last two Christmases? The velvet muff I made myself out of the fur-money you give me? It's all in the Farmers' Trust, Harry. With the two hundred and ten I had to start with five years ago, it's twenty-six hundred and seventeen dollars and fifty cents now. I've been saving it for this kind of a minute, Harry. When it got three thousand, I was going to tell you, anyways. Is that enough, Harry, to do the Goldfinch-Goetz spectacle on your own hook? Is it, Harry?"
He regarded her in a heavy-jawed kind of stupefaction.
"Woman alive!" he said. "Great Heavens, woman alive!"
"It's in the bank, waiting, Harry—all for you."
"Why, Millie, I—I don't know what to say."
"I want you to have it, Harry. It's yours. Out of your pocket, back into it. You got capital to start with now."
"I—Why, I can't take that money, Millie, from you!"
"From your wife? When she stinted and scrimped and saved on shoe-leather for the happiness of it?"
"Why, this is no sure thing I got on the brain."
"I got nothing but my own judgment to rely on."
"You been right three times, Harry."
"There's not as big a gamble in the world as the show business. I can't take your savings, mother."
"Harry, if—if you don't, I'll tear it up. It's what I've worked for. I'm too tired, Harry, to stand much. If you don't take it, I—I'm too tired, Harry, to stand it."
"I couldn't stand it, I tell you," she said, the tears now bursting and flowing down over her cheeks.
"Why, Millie, you mustn't cry! I 'ain't seen you cry in years. Millie! my God! I can't get my thoughts together! Me to own a show after all these years; me to—"
"Don't you think it means something to me, too, Harry?"
"I can't lose, Millie. Even if this country gets drawn into the war, there's a mint of money in that show as I see it. It'll help the people. The people of this country need to have their patriotism tickled."
"All my life, Harry, I've wanted a gold-mesh bag with a row of sapphires and diamonds across the top—"
"I'm going to make it the kind of show that 'Dixie' was a song—"
"And a gold-colored bird-of-paradise for a black-velvet hat, all my life, Harry—"
"With Alma Zitelle in the part—"
"Is it her picture I found in your drawer the other day, Harry, cut out from a Sunday newspaper?"
"One and the same. I been watching her. There's a world of money in that woman, whoever she is. She's eccentric and they make her play straight, but if I could get hold of her—My God! Millie, I—I can't believe things!"
She rose, coming round to lay her arms across his shoulders.
"We'll be rich, maybe, Harry—"
"I've picked the winners for the other fellows every time, Mil."
"Anyhow, it's worth the gamble, Harry."
"I got a nose for what the people want. I've never been able to prove it from a high stool, but I'll show 'em now—by God! I'll show 'em now!" He sprang up, pulling the white table-cloth awry and folding her into his embrace. "I'll show 'em."
She leaned from him, her two hands against his chest, head thrown back and eyes up to him.
"We—can educate our boy, then, Harry, like—like a rich man's son."
"We ain't rich yet."
"Promise me, Harry, if we are—promise me that, Harry. It's the only promise I ask out of it. Whatever comes, if we win or lose, our boy can have college if he wants."
He held her close, his head up and gazing beyond her.
"With a rich daddy my boy can go to college like the best of 'em."
"Promise me that, Harry."
"I promise, Millie."
He released her then, feeling for an envelope in an inner pocket, and, standing there above the disarrayed dinner-table, executed some rapid figures across the back of it.
She stood for a moment regarding him, hands pressed against the sting of her cheeks, tears flowing down over her smile. Then she took up the plate of cloying fritters and tiptoed out, opening softly the door to a slit of a room across the hall. In the patch of light let in by that opened door, drawn up before a small table, face toward her ravaged with recent tears, and lips almost quivering, her son lay in the ready kind of slumber youth can bring to any woe. She tiptoed up beside him, placing the plate of fritters back on a pile of books, let her hands run lightly over his hair, kissed him on each swollen lid.
"My son! My little boy! My little boy!"
Where Broadway leaves off its roof-follies and its water-dancing, its eighty-odd theaters and its very odd Hawaiian cabarets, upper Broadway, widening slightly, takes up its macadamized rush through the city in block-square apartment-houses, which rise off plate-glass foundations of the de-luxe greengrocer shops, the not-so-green beauty-parlors, and the dyeing-and-cleaning, automobile-supplies, and confectionery establishments of middle New York.
In a no-children-allowed, swimming-pool, electric-laundry, roof-garden, dogs'-playground, cold-storage apartment most recently erected on a block-square tract of upper Broadway, belonging to and named after the youngest scion of an ancestor whose cow-patches had turned to kingdoms, the fifteenth layer of this gigantic honeycomb overlooked from its seventeen outside windows the great Babylonian valley of the city, the wide blade of the river shining and curving slightly like an Arabian dagger, and the embankment of New Jersey's Palisades piled against the sky with the effect of angry horizon.
Nights, viewed from one of the seventeen windows, it was as if the river flowed under a sullen sheath which undulated to its curves. On clear days it threw off light like parrying steel in sunshine.
Were days when, gazing out toward it, Mrs. Ross, whose heart was like a slow ache of ever-widening area, could almost feel its laving quality and, after the passage of a tug- or pleasure-boat, the soothing folding of the water down over and upon itself. Often, with the sun setting pink and whole above the Palisades, the very copper glow which was struck off the water would beat against her own west windows, and, as if smarting under the brilliance, tears would come, sometimes staggering and staggering down, long after the glow was cold. With such a sunset already waned, and the valley of unrest fifteen stories below popping out into electric signs and the red danger-lanterns of streets constantly in the remaking, Mrs. Harry Ross, from the corner window of her seventeen, looked down on it from under lids that were rimmed in red.
Beneath the swirl of a gown that lay in an iridescent avalanche of sequins about her feet, her foot, tilted to an unbelievable hypothenuse off a cloth-of-silver heel, beat a small and twinkling tattoo, her fingers tattooing, too, along the chair-sides.
How insidiously do the years nibble in! how pussy-footed and how cocksure the crow's-feet! One morning, and the first gray hair, which has been turning from the cradle, arrives. Another, the mirror shows back a sag beneath the eyes. That sag had come now to Mrs. Ross, giving her eye-sockets a look of unconquerable weariness. The streak of quicksilver had come, too, but more successfully combated. The head lying back against the brocade chair was guilty of new gleams. Brass, with a greenish alloy. Sitting there with the look of unshed tears seeming to form a film over her gaze, it was as if the dusk, flowing into a silence that was solemnly shaped to receive it, folded her in, more and more obscuring her.
A door opened at the far end of the room, letting in a patch of hall light and a dark figure coming into silhouette against it.
She sprang up.
"Good Lord! sitting in the dark again!" He turned a wall key, three pink-shaded lamps, a cluster of pink-glass grapes, and a center bowl of alabaster flashing up the familiar spectacle of Louis Fourteenth and the interior decorator's turpitude; a deep-pink brocade divan backed up by a Circassian-walnut table with curly legs; a maze of smaller tables; a marble Psyche holding out the cluster of pink grapes; a gilt grand piano, festooned in rosebuds. Around through these Mr. Ross walked quickly, winding his hands, rubbing them.
"Well, here I am!"
"Had your supper—dinner, Harry?"
"No. What's the idea calling me off when I got a business dinner on hand? What's the hurry call this time? I have to get back to it."
She clasped her hands to her bare throat, swallowing with effort.
"You've got to stop this kind of thing, Millie, getting nervous spells like all the other women do the minute they get ten cents in their pocket. I ain't got the time for it—that's all there is to it."
"I can't help it, Harry. I think I must be going crazy. I can't stop myself. All of a sudden everything comes over me. I think I must be going crazy."
Her voice jerked up to an off pitch, and he flung himself down on the deep-cushioned couch, his stiff expanse of dress shirt bulging and straining at the studs. A bit redder and stouter, too, he was constantly rearing his chin away from the chafing edge of his collar.
"O Lord!" he said. "I guess I'm let in for some cutting-up again! Well, fire away and have it over with! What's eating you this time?"
She was quivering so against sobs that her lips were drawn in against her teeth by the great draught of her breathing.
"I can't stand it, Harry. I'm going crazy. I got to get relief. It's killing me—the lonesomeness—the waiting. I can't stand no more."
He sat looking at a wreath of roses in the light carpet, lips compressed, beating with fist into palm.
"Gad! I dunno! I give up. You're too much for me, woman."
"I can't go on this way—the suspense—can't—can't."
"I don't know what you want. God knows I give up! Thirty-eight-hundred-dollar-a-year apartment—more spending-money in a week than you can spend in a month. Clothes. Jewelry. Your son one of the high-fliers at college—his automobile—your automobile. Passes to every show in town. Gad! I can't help it if you turn it all down and sit up here moping and making it hot for me every time I put my foot in the place. I don't know what you want; you're one too many for me."
"I can't stand—"
"All of a sudden, out of a clear sky, she sends for me to come home. Second time in two weeks. No wonder, with your long face, your son lives mostly up at the college. I 'ain't got enough on my mind yet with the 'Manhattan Revue' opening to-morrow night. You got it too good, if you want to know it. That's what ails women when they get to cutting up like this."
She was clasping and unclasping her hands, swaying, her eyes closed.
"I wisht to God we was back in our little flat on a Hundred and Thirty-seventh Street. We was happy then. It's your success has lost you for me. I ought to known it, but—I—I wanted things so for you and the boy. It's your success has lost you for me. Back there, not a supper we didn't eat together like clockwork, not a night we didn't take a walk or—"