THE MACMILLAN COMPANY NEW YORK BOSTON CHICAGO DALLAS ATLANTA SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED LONDON BOMBAY CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD. TORONTO
BY ERNEST POOLE AUTHOR OF "THE HARBOR"
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY. 1917
All rights reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1916 AND 1917 BY THE RIDGWAY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1917 BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
Set up and electrotyped. Published May, 1917.
He was thinking of the town he had known. Not of old New York—he had heard of that from old, old men when he himself had still been young and had smiled at their garrulity. He was thinking of a young New York, the mighty throbbing city to which he had come long ago as a lad from the New Hampshire mountains. A place of turbulent thoroughfares, of shouting drivers, hurrying crowds, the crack of whips and the clatter of wheels; an uproarious, thrilling town of enterprise, adventure, youth; a city of pulsing energies, the center of a boundless land; a port of commerce with all the world, of stately ships with snowy sails; a fascinating pleasure town, with throngs of eager travellers hurrying from the ferry boats and rolling off in hansom cabs to the huge hotels on Madison Square. A city where American faces were still to be seen upon all its streets, a cleaner and a kindlier town, with more courtesy in its life, less of the vulgar scramble. A city of houses, separate homes, of quiet streets with rustling trees, with people on the doorsteps upon warm summer evenings and groups of youngsters singing as they came trooping by in the dark. A place of music and romance. At the old opera house downtown, on those dazzling evenings when as a boy he had ushered there for the sake of hearing the music, how the rich joy of being alive, of being young, of being loved, had shone out of women's eyes. Shimmering satins, dainty gloves and little jewelled slippers, shapely arms and shoulders, vivacious movements, nods and smiles, swift glances, ripples, bursts of laughter, an exciting hum of voices. Then silence, sudden darkness—and music, and the curtain. The great wide curtain slowly rising....
But all that had passed away.
Roger Gale was a rugged heavy man not quite sixty years of age. His broad, massive features were already deeply furrowed, and there were two big flecks of white in his close-curling, grayish hair. He lived in a narrow red brick house down on the lower west side of the town, in a neighborhood swiftly changing. His wife was dead. He had no sons, but three grown daughters, of whom the oldest, Edith, had been married many years. Laura and Deborah lived at home, but they were both out this evening. It was Friday, Edith's evening, and as was her habit she had come from her apartment uptown to dine with her father and play chess. In the living room, a cheerful place, with its lamp light and its shadows, its old-fashioned high-back chairs, its sofa, its book cases, its low marble mantel with the gilt mirror overhead, they sat at a small oval table in front of a quiet fire of coals. And through the smoke of his cigar Roger watched his daughter.
Edith had four children, and was soon to have another. A small demure woman of thirty-five, with light soft hair and clear blue eyes and limbs softly rounded, the contour of her features was full with approaching maternity, but there was a decided firmness in the lines about her little mouth. As he watched her now, her father's eyes, deep set and gray and with signs of long years of suffering in them, displayed a grave whimsical wistfulness. For by the way she was playing the game he saw how old she thought him. Her play was slow and absent-minded, and there came long periods when she did not make a move. Then she would recall herself and look up with a little affectionate smile that showed she looked upon him as too heavy with his age to have noticed her small lapses.
He was grimly amused at her attitude, for he did not feel old at all. With that whimsical hint of a smile which had grown to be a part of him, he tried various moves on the board to see how far he could go without interrupting her reveries. He checkmated her, re-lit his cigar and waited until she should notice it. And when she did not notice, gravely he moved back his queen and let the game continue. How many hundreds of games, he thought, Edith must have played with him in the long years when his spirit was dead, for her now to take such chances. Nearly every Friday evening for nearly sixteen years.
Before that, Judith his wife had been here. It was then that the city had been young, for to Roger it had always seemed as though he were just beginning life. Into its joys and sorrows too he had groped his way as most of us do, and had never penetrated deep. But he had meant to, later on. When in his busy city days distractions had arisen, always he had promised himself that sooner or later he would return to this interest or passion, for the world still lay before him with its enthralling interests, its beauties and its pleasures, its tasks and all its puzzles, intricate and baffling, all some day to be explored.
This deep zest in Roger Gale had been bred in his boyhood on a farm up in the New Hampshire mountains. There his family had lived for many generations. And from the old house, the huge shadowy barn and the crude little sawmill down the road; from animals, grown people and still more from other boys, from the meadows and the mountain above with its cliffs and caves and forests of pine, young Roger had discovered, even in those early years, that life was fresh, abundant, new, with countless glad beginnings.
At seventeen he had come to New York. There had followed hard struggles in lean years, but his rugged health had buoyed him up. And there had been genial friendships and dreams and explorations, a search for romance, the strange glory of love, a few furtive ventures that left him dismayed. But though love had seemed sordid at such times it had brought him crude exultations. And if his existence had grown more obscure, it had been somber only in patches, the main picture dazzling still. And still he had been just making starts.
He had ventured into the business world, clerking now at this, now at that, and always looking about him for some big opportunity. It had come and he had seized it, despite the warnings of his friends. What a wild adventure it had been a bureau of news clippings, a business new and unheard of but he had been sure that here was growth, he had worked at it day and night, and the business widening fast had revealed long ramifications which went winding and stretching away into every phase of American life. And this life was like a forest, boundless and impenetrable, up-springing, intertwining. How much could he ever know of it all?
Then had come his marriage. Judith's family had lived long in New York, but some had died and others had scattered until only she was left. This house had been hers, but she had been poor, so she had leased it to some friends. It was through them he had met her here, and within a few weeks he had fallen in love. He had felt profound disgust for the few wild oats he had sown, and in his swift reaction he had overworshipped the girl, her beauty and her purity, until in a delicate way of her own she had hinted that he was going too far, that she, too, was human and a passionate lover of living, in spite of her low quiet voice and her demure and sober eyes.
And what beginnings for Roger now, what a piling up of intimate joys, surprises, shocks of happiness. There had come disappointments, too, sudden severe little checks from his wife which had brought him occasional questionings. This love had not been quite all he had dreamed, this woman not so ardent. He had glimpsed couples here and there that set him to imagining more consuming passions. Here again he had not explored very deep. But he had dismissed regrets like these with only a slight reluctance. For if they had settled down a bit with the coming of their children, their love had grown rich in sympathies and silent understandings, in humorous enjoyment of their funny little daughters' chattering like magpies in the genial old house. And they had looked happily far ahead. What a woman she had been for plans. It had not been all smooth sailing. There had come reverses in business, and at home one baby, a boy, had died. But on they had gone and the years had swept by until he had reached his forties. Absorbed in his growing business and in his thriving family, it had seemed to Roger still as though he were just starting out.
But one day, quite suddenly, the house had become a strange place to him with a strange remote figure in it, his wife. For he had learned that she must die. There had followed terrible weeks. Then Judith had faced their disaster. Little by little she had won back the old intimacy with her husband; and through the slow but inexorable progress of her ailment, again they had come together in long talks and plans for their children. At this same chessboard, in this room, repeatedly she would stop the game and smiling she would look into the future. At one such time she had said to him,
"I wonder if it won't be the same with the children as it has been with us. No matter how long each one of them lives, won't their lives feel to them unfinished like ours, only just beginning? I wonder how far they will go. And then their children will grow up and it will be the same with them. Unfinished lives. Oh, dearie, what children all of us are."
He had put his arm around her then and had held her very tight. And feeling the violent trembling of her husband's fierce revolt, slowly bending back her head and looking up into his eyes she had continued steadily:
"And when you come after me, my dear, oh, how hungry I shall be for all you will tell me. For you will live on in our children's lives."
And she had asked him to promise her that.
But he had not kept his promise. For after Judith's dying he had felt himself terribly alone, with eternity around him, his wife slipping far away. And the universe had grown stark and hard, impersonal, relentless, cold. A storm of doubts had attacked his faith. And though he had resisted long, for his faith in God had been rooted deep in the mountains of New England, in the end it had been wrenched away, and with it he had lost all hope that either for Judith or himself was there any existence beyond the grave. So death had come to Roger's soul. He had been deaf and blind to his children. Nights by the thousand spent alone. Like a gray level road in his memory now was the story of his family.
When had his spirit begun to awaken? He could not tell, it had been so slow. His second daughter, Deborah, who had stayed at home with her father when Laura had gone away to school, had done little things continually to rouse his interest in life. Edith's winsome babies had attracted him when they came to the house. Laura had returned from school, a joyous creature, tall and slender, with snapping black eyes, and had soon made her presence felt. One day in the early afternoon, as he entered the house there had burst on his ears a perfect gale of laughter; and peering through the portieres he had seen the dining-room full of young girls, a crew as wild as Laura herself. Hastily he had retreated upstairs. But he had enjoyed such glimpses. He had liked to see her fresh pretty gowns and to have her come in and kiss him good-night.
Then had come a sharp heavy jolt. His business had suffered from long neglect, and suddenly for two anxious weeks he had found himself facing bankruptcy. Edith's husband, a lawyer, had come to his aid and together they had pulled out of the hole. But he had been forced to mortgage the house. And this had brought to a climax all the feelings of guiltiness which had so long been stirring within him over his failure to live up to the promise he had made his wife.
And so Roger had looked at his children.
And at first to his profound surprise he had had it forced upon him that these were three grown women, each equipped with her own peculiar feminine traits and desires, the swift accumulations of lives which had expanded in a city that had reared to the skies in the many years of his long sleep. But very slowly, month by month, he had gained a second impression which seemed to him deeper and more real. To the eye they were grown women all, but inwardly they were children still, each groping for her happiness and each held back as he had been, either by checks within herself or by the gay distractions of the absorbing city. He saw each of his daughters, parts of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: "You will live on in our children's lives." And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.
Some of all this he remembered now, in scattered fragments here and there. Then from somewhere far away a great bell began booming the hour, and it roused him from his revery. He had often heard the bell of late. A calm deep-toned intruder, it had first struck in upon his attention something over two years ago. Vaguely he had wondered about it. Soon he had found it was on the top of a tower a little to the north, one of the highest pinnacles of this tumultuous modern town. But the bell was not tumultuous. And as he listened it seemed to say, "There is still time, but you have not long."
Edith, sitting opposite him, looked up at the sound with a stir of relief. Ten o'clock. It was time to go home.
"I wonder what's keeping Bruce," she said. Bruce was still in his office downtown. As a rule on Friday evenings he came with his wife to supper here, but this week he had some new business on hand. Edith was vague about it. As she tried to explain she knitted her brows and said that Bruce was working too hard. And her father grunted assent.
"Bruce ought to knock off every summer," he said, "for a good solid month, or better two. Can't you bring him up to the mountains this year?" He referred to the old New Hampshire home which he had kept as a summer place. But Edith smiled at the idea.
"Yes, I could bring him," she replied, "and in a week he'd be perfectly crazy to get back to his office again." She compressed her lips. "I know what he needs—and we'll do it some day, in spite of him."
"A suburb, eh," her father said, and his face took on a look of dislike. They had often talked of suburbs.
"Yes," his daughter answered, "I've picked out the very house." He threw at her a glance of impatience. He knew what had started her on this line. Edith's friend, Madge Deering, was living out in Morristown. All very well, he reflected, but her case was not at all the same. He had known Madge pretty well. Although the death of her husband had left her a widow at twenty-nine, with four small daughters to bring up, she had gone on determinedly. Naturally smart and able, Madge was always running to town, keeping up with all her friends and with every new fad and movement there, although she made fun of most of them. Twice she had taken her girls abroad. But Edith was quite different. In a suburb she would draw into her house and never grow another inch. And Bruce, poor devil, would commute and take work home from the office. But Roger couldn't tell her that.
"I'd be sorry to see you do it," he said. "I'd miss you up in the mountains."
"Oh, we'd come up in the summer," she answered. "I wouldn't miss the mountains for worlds!"
Then they talked of summer plans. And soon again Edith's smooth pretty brows were wrinkling absorbedly. It was hard in her planning not to be sure whether her new baby would come in May or early June. It was only the first of April now. While she talked her father watched her. He liked her quiet fearlessness in facing the ordeal ahead. Into the bewildering city he felt her searching anxiously to find good things for her small brood, to make every dollar count, to keep their little bodies strong, to guard their hungry little souls from many things she thought were bad. Of all his daughters, he told himself, she was the one most like his wife.
While she was talking Bruce came in. Of medium height and a wiry build, his quick kindly smile of greeting did not conceal the fine tight lines about his mouth and between his eyes. His small trim moustache was black, but his hair already showed streaks of gray although he was not quite thirty-eight, and as he lit a cigarette his right hand twitched perceptibly.
Bruce Cunningham had married just after he left law school. He had worked in a law office which took receiverships by the score, and through managing bankrupt concerns by slow degrees he had made himself a financial surgeon. He had set up an office of his own and was doing splendidly. But he worked under fearful tension. Bruce had to deal with bankrupts who had barely closed their eyes for weeks, men half out of their minds from the strain, the struggle to keep up their heads in those angry waters of finance which Roger vaguely pictured as a giant whirlpool. Though honest enough in his own affairs, Bruce showed a genial relish for all the tricks of the savage world which was as the breath to his nostrils. And at times he appeared so wise and keen he made Roger feel like a child. But again it was Bruce who seemed the child. He seemed to be so naive at times, and Edith had him so under her thumb. Roger liked to hear Bruce's stories of business, when Edith would let her husband talk. But this she would not often do, for she said Bruce needed rest at night. She reproved him now for staying so late, she wrung from him the fact that he'd had no supper.
"Well, Bruce," she exclaimed impatiently, "now isn't that just like you? You're going straight home—that's where you're going—"
"To be fed up and put to bed," her husband grumbled good-naturedly. And while she made ready to bundle him off he turned to his father-in-law.
"What do you think's my latest?" he asked, and he gave a low chuckle which Roger liked. "Last week I was a brewer, to-day I'm an engineer," he said. "Can you beat it? A building contractor. Me." And as he smoked his cigarette, in laconic phrases he explained how a huge steel construction concern had gone to the wall, through building skyscrapers "on spec" and outstripping even the growth of New York. "They got into court last week," he said, "and the judge handed me the receivership. The judge and I have been chums for years. He has hay fever—so do I."
"Come, Bruce, I'm ready," said his wife.
"I've been in their office all day," he went on. "Their general manager was stark mad. He hadn't been out of the office since last Sunday night, he said. You had to ask him a question and wait—while he looked at you and held onto his chair. He broke down and blubbered—the poor damn fool—he'll be in Matteawan in a week—"
"You'll be there yourself if you don't come home," broke in Edith's voice impatiently.
"And out of that poor devil, and out of the mess his books are in, I've been learning engineering!"
He had followed his wife out on the steps. He turned back with a quick appealing smile:
"Well, good-night—see you soon—"
"Good-night, my boy," said Roger. "Good luck to the engineering."
"Oh, father dear," cried Edith, from the taxi down below. "Remember supper Sunday night—"
"I won't forget," said Roger.
* * * * *
He watched them start off up the street. The night was soft, refreshing, and the place was quiet and personal. The house was one of a dozen others, some of red brick and some of brown stone, that stood in an uneven row on a street but a few rods in length, one side of a little triangular park enclosed by a low iron fence, inside of which were a few gnarled trees and three or four park benches. On one of these benches his eye was caught by the figure of an old woman there, and he stood a moment watching her, some memory stirring in his mind.
Occasionally somebody passed. Otherwise it was silent here. But even in the silence could be felt the throes of change; the very atmosphere seemed charged with drastic things impending. Already the opposite house line had been broken near the center by a high apartment building, and another still higher rose like a cliff just back of the house in which Roger lived. Still others, and many factory lofts, reared shadowy bulks on every hand. From the top of one an enormous sign, a corset pictured forth in lights, flashed out at regular intervals; and from farther off, high up in the misty haze of the night, could be seen the gleaming pinnacle where hour by hour that great bell slowly boomed the time away. Yes, here the old was passing. Already the tiny parklet was like the dark bottom of a pit, with the hard sparkling modern town towering on every side, slowly pressing, pressing in and glaring down with yellow eyes.
But Roger noticed none of these things. He watched the old woman on the bench and groped for the memory she had stirred. Ah, now at last he had it. An April night long, long ago, when he had sat where she was now, while here in the house his wife's first baby, Edith, had begun her life....
Slowly he turned and went inside.
Roger's hearing was extremely acute. Though the room where he was sitting, his study, was at the back of the house, he heard Deborah's key at the street door and he heard the door softly open and close.
"Are you there, dearie?" Her voice from the hallway was low; and his answer, "Yes, child," was in the same tone, as though she were with him in the room. This keen sense of hearing had long been a peculiar bond between them. To her father, Deborah's voice was the most distinctive part of her, for often as he listened the memory came of her voice as a girl, unpleasant, hurried and stammering. But she had overcome all that. "No grown woman," she had declared, when she was eighteen, "has any excuse for a voice like mine." That was eleven years ago; and the voice she had acquired since, with its sweet magnetic quality, its clear and easy articulation, was to him an expression of Deborah's growth. As she took off her coat and hat in the hall she said, in the same low tone as before,
"Edith has been here, I suppose—"
"I'm so sorry I missed her. I tried to get home early, but it has been a busy night."
Her voice sounded tired, comfortably so, and she looked that way as she came in. Though only a little taller than Edith, she was of a sturdier build and more decided features. Her mouth was large with a humorous droop and her face rather broad with high cheekbones. As she put her soft black hair up over her high forehead, her father noticed her birthmark, a faint curving line of red running up from between her eyes. Imperceptible as a rule, it showed when she was tired. In the big school in the tenements where she had taught for many years, she gave herself hard without stint to her work, but she had such a good time through it all. She had a way, too, he reflected, of always putting things in their place. As now she came in and kissed him and sank back on his leather lounge with a tranquil breath of relief, she seemed to be dropping school out of her life.
Roger picked up his paper and continued his reading. Presently they would have a talk, but first he knew that she wanted to lie quite still for a little while. Vaguely he pictured her work that night, her class-room packed to bursting with small Jews and Italians, and Deborah at the blackboard with a long pointer in her hand. The fact that for the last two years she had been the principal of her school had made little impression upon him.
And meanwhile, as she lay back with eyes closed, her mind still taut from the evening called up no simple class-room but far different places—a mass meeting in Carnegie Hall where she had just been speaking, some schools which she had visited out in Indiana, a block of tenements far downtown and the private office of the mayor. For her school had long curious arms these days.
"Was Bruce here too this evening?" she asked her father presently. Roger finished what he was reading, then looked over to the lounge, which was in a shadowy corner.
"Yes, he came in late." And he went on to tell her of Bruce's "engineering." At once she was interested. Rising on one elbow she questioned him good-humoredly, for Deborah was fond of Bruce.
"Has he bought that automobile he wanted?"
"No," replied her father. "Edith said they couldn't afford it."
"This time it's the dentist's bills. Young Betsy's teeth aren't straightened yet—and as soon as she's been beautified they're going to put the clamps on George."
"Poor Georgie," Deborah murmured. At the look of pain and disapproval on her father's heavy face, she smiled quietly to herself. George, who was Edith's oldest and the worry of her days, was Roger's favorite grandson. "Has he been bringing home any more sick dogs?"
"No, this time it was a rat—a white one," Roger answered. A glint of dry relish appeared in his eyes. "George brought it home the other night. He had on a pair of ragged old pants."
"What on earth—"
"He had traded his own breeches for the rat," said Roger placidly.
"No! Oh, father! Really!" And she sank back laughing on the lounge.
"His school report," said Roger, "was quite as bad as ever."
"Of course it was," said Deborah. And she spoke so sharply that her father glanced at her in surprise. She was up again on one elbow, and there was an eager expression on her bright attractive face. "Do you know what we're going to do some day? We're going to put the rat in the school," Deborah said impatiently. "We're going to take a boy like George and study him till we think we know just what interests him most. And if in his case it's animals, we'll have a regular zoo in school. And for other boys we'll have other things they really want to know about. And we'll keep them until five o'clock—when their mothers will have to drag them away." Her father looked bewildered.
"But arithmetic, my dear."
"You'll find they'll have learned their arithmetic without knowing it," Deborah answered.
"Sounds a bit wild," murmured Roger. Again to his mind came the picture of hordes of little Italians and Jews. "My dear, if I had your children to teach, I don't think I'd add a zoo," he said. And with a breath of discomfort he turned back to his reading. He knew that he ought to question her, to show an interest in her work. But he had a deep aversion for those millions of foreign tenement people, always shoving, shoving upward through the filth of their surroundings. They had already spoiled his neighborhood, they had flowed up like an ocean tide. And so he read his paper, frowning guiltily down at the page. He glanced up in a little while and saw Deborah smiling across at him, reading his dislike of such talk. The smile which he sent back at her was half apologetic, half an appeal for mercy. And Deborah seemed to understand. She went into the living room, and there at the piano she was soon playing softly. Listening from his study, again the feeling came to him of her fresh and abundant vitality. He mused a little enviously on how it must feel to be strong like that, never really tired.
And while her father thought in this wise, Deborah at the piano, leaning back with eyes half closed, could feel her tortured nerves relax, could feel her pulse stop throbbing so and the dull aching at her temples little by little pass away. She played like this so many nights. Soon she would be ready for sleep.
* * * * *
After she had gone to bed, Roger rose heavily from his chair. By long habit he went about the house trying the windows and turning out lights. Last he came to the front door. There were double outer doors with a ponderous system of locks and bolts and a heavy chain. Mechanically he fastened them all; and putting out the light in the hall, in the darkness he went up the stairs. He could so easily feel his way. He put his hand lightly, first on the foot of the banister, then on a curve in it halfway up, again on the sharper curve at the top and last on the knob of his bedroom door. And it was as though these guiding objects came out to meet him like old friends.
In his bedroom, while he slowly undressed, his glance was caught by the picture upon the wall opposite his bed, a little landscape poster done in restful tones of blue, of two herdsmen and their cattle far up on a mountainside in the hour just before the dawn, tiny clear-cut silhouettes against the awakening eastern sky. So immense and still, this birth of the day—the picture always gave him the feeling of life everlasting. Judith his wife had placed it there.
From his bed through the window close beside him he looked up at the cliff-like wall of the new apartment building, with tier upon tier of windows from which murmurous voices dropped out of the dark: now soft, now suddenly angry, loud; now droning, sullen, bitter, hard; now gay with little screams of mirth; now low and amorous, drowsy sounds. Tier upon tier of modern homes, all overhanging Roger's house as though presently to crush it down.
But Roger was not thinking of that. He was thinking of his children—of Edith's approaching confinement and all her anxious hunting about to find what was best for her family, of Bruce and the way he was driving himself in the unnatural world downtown where men were at each other's throats, of Deborah and that school of hers in the heart of a vast foul region of tenement buildings swarming with strange, dirty little urchins. And last he thought of Laura, his youngest daughter, wild as a hawk, gadding about the Lord knew where. She even danced in restaurants! Through his children he felt flowing into his house the seething life of this new town. And drowsily he told himself he must make a real effort, and make it soon, to know his family better. For in spite of the storm of long ago which had swept away his faith in God, the feeling had come to him of late that somewhere, in some manner, he was to meet his wife again. He rarely tried to think this out, for as soon as he did it became a mere wish, a hungry longing, nothing more. So he had learned to let it lie, deep down inside of him. Sometimes he vividly saw her face. After all, who could tell? And she would want to hear of her children. Yes, he must know them better. Some day soon he must begin.
Suddenly he remembered that Laura had not yet come home. With a sigh of discomfort he got out of bed and went downstairs, re-lit the gas in the hallway, unfastened the locks and the chain at the door. He came back and was soon asleep. He must have dozed for an hour or two. He was roused by hearing the front door close and a big motor thundering. And then like a flash of light in the dark came Laura's rippling laughter.
On the next evening, Saturday, while Roger ate his dinner, Laura came to sit with him. She herself was dining out. That she should have dressed so early in order to keep him company had caused her father some surprise, and a faint suspicion entered his mind that she had overdrawn at the bank, as she had the last time she sat with him like this. Her manner certainly was a bit strange.
But Roger put the thought aside. Whatever she wanted, Laura was worth it. In a tingling fashion he felt what a glorious time she was having, what a gorgeous town she knew. It was difficult to realize she was his own daughter, this dashing stranger sitting here, playing idly with a knife and caressing him with her voice and her eyes. The blue evening gown she was wearing to-night (doubtless not yet paid for) made her figure even more supple and lithe, set off her splendid bosom, her slender neck, her creamy skin. Her hair, worn low over her temples, was brown with just a tinge of red. Her eyes were black, with gleaming lights; her lips were warm and rich, alive. He did not approve of her lips. Once when she had kissed him Roger had started slightly back. For his daughter's lips were rouged, and they had reminded him of his youth. He had asked her sister to speak to her. But Deborah had told him she did not care to speak to people in that way—"especially women—especially sisters," she had said, with a quiet smile. All very well, he reflected, but somebody ought to take Laura in hand.
She had been his favorite as a child, his pet, his tiny daughter. He remembered her on his lap like a kitten. How she had liked to cuddle there. And she had liked to bite his hand, a curious habit in a child. "I hurt daddy!" He could still recollect the gay little laugh with which she said that, looking up brightly into his face.
And here she was already grown, and like a light in the sober old house, fascinating while she disturbed him. He liked to hear her high pitched voice, gossiping in Deborah's room or in her own dainty chamber chatting with the adoring maid who was dressing her to go out. He loved her joyous thrilling laugh. And he would have missed her from the house as he would have missed Fifth Avenue if it had been dropped from the city. For the picture Roger had formed of this daughter was more of a symbol than of a girl, a symbol of the ardent town, spending, wasting, dancing mad. It was Laura who had kept him living right up to his income.
"Where are you dining to-night?" he asked.
"With the Raymonds." He wondered who they were. "Oh, Sarah," she added to the maid. "Call up Mrs. Raymond's apartment and ask what time is dinner to-night."
"Are you going to dance later on?" he inquired.
"Oh, I guess so," she replied. "On the Astor Roof, I think they said—"
Her father went on with his dinner. These hotel dances, he had heard, ran well into Sunday morning. How Judith would have disapproved. He hesitated uneasily.
"I don't especially care for this dancing into Sunday," he said. For a moment he did not look up from his plate. When he did he saw Laura regarding him.
"Oh, do you mind? I'm sorry. I won't, after this," she answered. And Roger colored angrily, for the glint of amusement in Laura's mischievous black eyes revealed quite unmistakably that she regarded both her father and his feeling for the Sabbath as very dear and quaint and old. Old? Of course he seemed old to her, Roger thought indignantly. For what was Laura but a child? Did she ever think of anything except having a good time? Had she ever stopped to think out her own morals, let alone anyone else's? Was she any judge of what was old—or of who was old? And he determined then and there to show her he was in his prime. Impatiently he strove to remember the names of her friends and ask her about them, to show a keen lively interest in this giddy gaddy life she led. And when that was rather a failure he tried his daughter next on books, books of the most modern kind. Stoutly he lied and said he was reading a certain Russian novel of which he had heard Deborah speak. But this valiant falsehood made no impression whatever, for Laura had never heard of the book.
"I get so little time for reading," she murmured. And meanwhile she was thinking, "As soon as he finishes talking, poor dear, I'll break the news."
Then Roger had an audacious thought. He would take her to a play, by George! Mustering his courage he led up to it by speaking of a play Deborah had seen, a full-fledged modern drama all centered upon the right of a woman "to lead her own life." And as he outlined the story, he saw he had caught his daughter's attention. With her pretty chin resting on one hand, watching him and listening, she appeared much older, and she seemed suddenly close to him.
"How would you like to go with me and see it some evening?" he inquired.
"See what, my love?" she asked him, her thoughts plainly far away; and he looked at her in astonishment:
"That play I've just been speaking of!"
"Why, daddy, I'd love to!" she exclaimed.
"When?" he asked. And he fixed a night. He was proud of himself. Eagerly he began to talk of opening nights at Wallack's. Roger and Judith, when they were young, had been great first nighters there. And now it was Laura who drew him out, and as he talked on she seemed to him to be smilingly trying to picture it all.... "Now I'd better tell him," she thought.
"Do you remember Harold Sloane?" she asked a little strangely.
"No," replied her father, a bit annoyed at the interruption.
"Why—you've met him two or three times—"
"Have I?" The queer note in her voice made him look up. Laura had risen from her chair.
"I want you to know him—very soon." There was a moment's silence. "I'm going to marry him, dad," she said. And Roger looked at her blankly. He felt his limbs beginning to tremble. "I've been waiting to tell you when we were alone," she added in an awkward tone. And still staring up at her he felt a rush of tenderness and a pang of deep remorse. Laura in love and settled for life! And what did he know of the affair? What had he ever done for her? Too late! He had begun too late! And this rush of emotion was so overpowering that while he still looked at her blindly she was the first to recover her poise. She came around the table and kissed him softly on the cheek. And now more than ever Roger felt how old his daughter thought him.
"Who is he?" he asked hoarsely. And she answered smiling,
"A perfectly nice young man named Sloane."
"Don't, Laura—tell me! What does he do?"
"He's in a broker's office—junior member of the firm, Oh, you needn't worry, dear, he can even afford to marry me."
They heard a ring at the front door.
"There he is now, I think," she said. "Will you see him? Would you mind?"
"See him? No!" her father cried.
"But just to shake hands," she insisted. "You needn't talk or say a word. We've only a moment, anyway." And she went swiftly out of the room.
Roger rose in a panic and strode up and down. Before he could recover himself she was back with her man, or rather her boy—for the fellow, to her father's eyes, looked ridiculously young. Straight as an arrow, slender, his dress suit irreproachable, the chap nevertheless was more than a dandy. He looked hard, as though he trained, and his smooth and ruddy face had a look of shrewd self-reliance. So much of him Roger fathomed in the indignant cornered glance with which he welcomed him into the room.
"Why, good evening, Mr. Gale—glad to see you again, sir!" Young Sloane nervously held out his hand. Roger took it and muttered something. For several moments, his mind in a whirl, he heard their talk and laughter and his own voice joining in. Laura seemed enjoying herself, her eyes brimming with amusement over both her victims. But at last she had compassion, kissed her father gaily and took her suitor out of the room.
Soon Roger heard them leave the house. He went into his study, savagely bit off a cigar and gripped his evening paper as though he meant to choke it. The maid came in with coffee. "Coffee? No!" he snapped at her. A few moments later he came to his senses and found himself smoking fast and hard. He heartily damned this fellow Sloane for breaking into the family and asking poor Laura to risk her whole life—just for his own selfish pleasure, his whim! Yes, "whim" was the very word for it! Laura's attitude, too! Did she look at it seriously? Not at all! Quite plainly she saw her career as one long Highland fling and dance, with this Harry boy as her partner! Who had he danced with in his past? The fellow's past must be gone into, and at once, without delay!
Here indeed was a jolt for Roger Gale, a pretty shabby trick of fate. This was not what he had planned, this was a little way life had of jabbing a man with surprises. For months he had been slowly and comfortably feeling his way into the lives of his children, patiently, conscientiously. But now without a word of warning in popped this young whipper-snapper, turning the whole house upside down! Another young person to be known, another life to be dug into, and with pick and shovel too! The job was far from pleasant. Would Deborah help him? Not at all. She believed in letting people alone—a devilish easy philosophy! Still, he wanted to tell her at once, if only to stir her up a bit. He did not propose to bear this alone! But Deborah was out to-night. Why must she always be out, he asked, in that infernal zoo school? But no, it was not school to-night. She was dining out in some cafe with a tall lank doctor friend of hers. Probably she was to marry him!
"I'll have that news for breakfast!" Roger smote his paper savagely. Why couldn't Laura have waited a little? Restlessly he walked the room. Then he went into the hall, took his hat and a heavy stick which he used for his night rambles, and walked off through the neighborhood. It was the first Saturday evening of Spring, and on those quiet downtown streets he met couples strolling by. A tall thin lad and a buxom girl went into a cheap apartment building laughing gaily to themselves, and Roger thought of Laura. A group of young Italians passed, humming "Trovatore," and it put him in mind of the time when he had ushered at the opera. Would Laura's young man be willing to usher? More like him to tango down the aisle!
He reached Washington Square feeling tired but even more restless than before. He climbed to the top of a motor 'bus, and on the lurching ride uptown he darkly reflected that times had changed. He thought of the Avenue he had known, with its long lines of hansom cabs, its dashing broughams and coupes with jingling harness, livened footmen, everything sprucely up-to-date. How the horses had added to the town. But they were gone, and in their place were these great cats, these purring motors, sliding softly by the 'bus. Roger had swift glimpses down into lighted limousines. In one a big rich looking chap with a beard had a dressy young woman in his arms. Lord, how he was hugging her! Laura would have a motor like that, kisses like that, a life like that! She was the kind to go it hard! Ahead as far as he could see was a dark rolling torrent of cars, lights gleaming by the thousand. A hubbub of gay voices, cries and little shrieks of laughter mingled with the blare of horns. He looked at huge shop windows softly lighted with displays of bedrooms richly furnished, of gorgeous women's apparel, silks and lacy filmy stuffs. And to Roger, in his mood of anxious premonition, these bedroom scenes said plainly,
"O come, all ye faithful wives! Come let us adore him, and deck ourselves to please his eye, to catch his eye, to hold his eye! For marriage is a game these days!"
Yes, Laura would be a spender, a spender and a speeder too! How much money had he, that chap? And damn him, what had he in his past? How Roger hated the very thought of poking into another man's life! Poking where nobody wanted him! He felt desperately alone. To-night they were dancing, he recalled, not at a party in somebody's home, but in some flashy public place where girls of her kind and fancy women gaily mixed together! How mixed the whole city was getting, he thought, how mad and strange, gone out of its mind, this city of his children's lives crowding in upon him!
He breakfasted with Deborah late on Sunday morning. He had come down at the usual hour despite his long tramp of the previous night, for he wanted to tell her the news and talk it all out before Laura came down—because Deborah, he hadn't a doubt, with her woman's curiosity had probed deep into Laura's affairs in the many long talks they had had in her room. He had often heard them there. And so, as he waited and waited and still his daughter did not come, Roger grew distinctly annoyed; and when at last she did appear, his greeting was perfunctory:
"What kept you out so late last night?"
"Oh, I was having a very good time," said Deborah contentedly. She poured herself some coffee. "I've always wanted," she went on, "to see Laura really puzzled—downright flabbergasted. And I saw her just like that last night."
Roger looked up with a jerk of his head:
"You and Laura—together last night?"
"Exactly—on the Astor Roof." At her father's glare of astonishment a look of quiet relish came over her mobile features. Her wide lips twitched a little. "Well, why not?" she asked him. "I'm quite a dancer down at school. And last night with Allan Baird—we were dining together, you know—he proposed we go somewhere and dance. He's a perfectly awful dancer, and so I held out as long as I could. But he insisted and I gave in, though I much prefer the theater."
"Well!" breathed Roger softly. "So you hoof it with the rest!" His expression was startled and intent. Would he ever get to know these girls? "Well," he added with a sigh, "I suppose you know what you're about."
"Oh no, I don't," she answered. "I never know what I'm about. If you always do, you miss so much—you get into a solemn habit of trying nothing till you're sure. But to return to Laura. As we came gaily down the room we ran right into her, you see. That's how Allan dances. And when we collided, I smiled at her sweetly and said, 'Why, hello, dearie—you here too?" And Deborah sipped her coffee. "I have never believed that the lower jaw of a well-bred girl could actually drop open. But Laura's did. With a good strong light, Allan told me, he could have examined her tonsils for her. Rather a disgusting thought. You see until she saw me there, poor Laura had me so thoroughly placed—my school-marm job, my tastes and habits, everything, all cut and dried. She has never once come to my school, and in every talk we've ever had there has always been some perfectly good and absorbing reason why we should talk about Laura alone."
"There is now," said her father. He was in no mood for tomfoolery. His daughter saw it and smiled a little.
"What is it?" she inquired. And then he let her have it!
"Laura wants to get married," he snapped.
Deborah caught her breath at that, and an eager excited expression swept over her attractive face. She had leaned forward suddenly.
"Father! No! Which one?" she asked. "Tell me! Is it Harold Sloane?"
"Oh, dad." She sank back in her chair. "Oh, dad," she repeated.
"What's the matter with Sloane?" he demanded.
"Oh, nothing, nothing—it's all right—"
"It is, eh? How do you know it is?" His anxious eyes were still upon hers, and he saw she was thinking fast and hard and shutting him completely out. And it irritated him. "What do you know of this fellow Sloane?"
"Nothing! Humph! Then why do you sit here and say it's all right? Don't talk like a fool!" he exclaimed. He waited, but she said no more, and Roger's exasperation increased. "He has money enough apparently—and they'll spend it like March hares!"
Deborah looked up at him:
"What did Laura tell you, dear?"
"Not very much. I'm only her father. She had a dinner and dance on her mind."
But Deborah pressed her questions and he gave her brief replies.
"Well, what shall we do about it?" he asked.
"Nothing—until we know something more." Roger regarded her fiercely.
"Why don't you go up and talk to her, then?"
"She's asleep yet—"
"Never mind if she is! If she's going to marry a chap like that and ruin her life it's high time she was up for her breakfast!"
While he scanned his Sunday paper he heard Deborah in the pantry. She emerged with a breakfast tray and he saw her start up to Laura's room. She was there for over an hour. And when she returned to his study, he saw her eyes were shining. How women's eyes will shine at such times, he told himself in annoyance.
"Well?" he demanded.
"Better leave her alone to-day," she advised. "Harold is coming some night soon."
"To have a talk with you."
Her father smote his paper. "What did she tell you about him?" he asked.
"Not much more than she told you. His parents are dead—but he has a rich widowed aunt in Bridgeport who adores him. They mean to be married the end of May. She wants a church wedding, bridesmaids, ushers—the wedding reception here, of course—"
"Oh, Lord," breathed Roger dismally.
"We won't bother you much, father dear—"
"You will bother me much," he retorted. "I propose to be bothered—bothered a lot! I'm going to look up this fellow Sloane—"
"But let's leave him alone for to-day." She bent over her father compassionately. "What a night you must have had, poor dear." Roger looked up in grim reproach.
"You like all this," he grunted. "You, a grown woman, a teacher too."
"I wonder if I do," she said. "I guess I'm a queer person, dad, a curious family mixture—of Laura and Edith and mother and you, with a good deal of myself thrown in. But it feels rather good to be mixed, don't you think? Let's stay mixed as long as we can—and keep together the family."
* * * * *
That afternoon, to distract him, Deborah took her father to a concert in Carnegie Hall. She had often urged him to go of late, but despite his liking for music Roger had refused before, simply because it was a change. But why balk at going anywhere now, when Laura was up to such antics at home?
"Do you mind climbing up to the gallery?" Deborah asked as they entered the hall.
"Not at all," he curtly answered. He did mind it very much!
"Then we'll go to the very top," she said. "It's a long climb but I want you to see it. It's so different up there."
"I don't doubt it," he replied. And as they made the slow ascent, pettishly he wondered why Deborah must always be so eager for queer places. Galleries, zoo schools, tenement slums—why not take a two dollar seat in life?
Deborah seated him far down in the front of the great gallery, over at the extreme right, and from here they could look back and up at a huge dim arena of faces.
"Now watch them close," she whispered. "See what the music does to them."
As the symphony began below the faces all grew motionless. And as the music cast its spell, the anxious ruffled feelings which had been with Roger all that day little by little were dispelled, and soon his imagination began to work upon this scene. He saw many familiar American types. He felt he knew what they had been doing on Sundays only a few years before. After church they had eaten large Sunday dinners. Then some had napped and some had walked and some had gone to Sunday school. At night they had had cold suppers, and afterwards some had gone back to church; while others, as in Roger's house in the days when Judith was alive, had gathered around the piano for hymns. Young men callers, friends of their daughters, had joined in the family singing. Yes, some of these people had been like that. To them, a few short years ago, a concert on the Sabbath would have seemed a sacrilege. He could almost hear from somewhere the echo of "Abide With Me."
But over this memory of a song rose now the surging music of Tschaikovsky's "Pathetique." And the yearnings and fierce hungers in this tumultuous music swept all the hymns from Roger's mind. Once more he watched the gallery, and this time he became aware that more than half were foreigners. Out of the mass from every side individual faces emerged, swarthy, weird, and staring hungrily into space. And to Roger the whole shadowy place, the very air, grew pregnant, charged with all these inner lives bound together in this mood, this mystery that had swept over them all, immense and formless, baffling, this furious demanding and this blind wistful groping which he himself had known so well, ever since his wife had died and he had lost his faith in God. What was the meaning of it all if life were nothing but a start, and there were nothing but the grave?
"You will live on in our children's lives."
He glanced around at Deborah. Was she so certain, so serene? "What do I know of her?" he asked. "Little or nothing," he sadly replied. And he tried to piece together from things she had told him her life as it had passed him by. Had there been no questionings, no sharp disillusionments? There must have been. He recalled irritabilities, small acts and exclamations of impatience, boredom, "blues." And as he watched her he grew sure that his daughter's existence had been like his own. Despite its different setting, its other aims and visions, it had been a mere beginning, a feeling for a foothold, a search for light and happiness. And Deborah seemed to him still a child. "How far will you go?" he wondered.
Although he was still watching her even after the music had ceased, she did not notice him for a time. Then she turned to him slowly with a smile.
"Well? What did you see?" she asked.
"I wasn't looking," he replied.
"Why, dearie," she retorted. "Where's that imagination of yours?"
"It was with you," he answered. "Tell me what you were thinking."
And still under the spell of the music, Deborah said to her father,
"I was thinking of hungry people—millions of them, now, this minute—not only here but in so many places—concerts, movies, libraries. Hungry, oh, for everything—life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth—no matter how old they happen to be—and that to feed it we have schools. I was thinking how little we've done as yet, and of all that we're so sure to do in the many, many years ahead. Do you see what I mean?" she squeezed his hand.
"Welcome back to school," she said, "back into the hungry army of youth!... Sh-h-h!"
Again the music had begun. And sitting by her side he wondered whether it was because she knew that Laura's affair had made him feel old that Deborah had brought him here.
* * * * *
They went to Edith's for supper.
The Cunninghams' apartment was on the west side, well uptown. It was not the neighborhood which Edith would have chosen, for nearly all the nice people she knew lived east of the park. But rents were somewhat lower here and there was at least an abundance of fresh air for her family. Edith had found that her days were full of these perplexing decisions. It was all very simple to resolve that her children be old-fashioned, normal, wholesome, nice. But then she looked into the city—into schools and kindergartens, clothes and friends and children's parties, books and plays. And through them all to her dismay she felt conflicting currents, clashes between old and new. She felt New York. And anxiously she asked herself, "What is old-fashioned? What is normal? What is wholesome? What is nice?" Cautiously she made her way, testing and comparing, trying small experiments. Often sharply she would draw in her horns. She had struck something "common!" And she knew all this was nothing compared to the puzzles that lay ahead. For from her friend, Madge Deering, whose girls were well along in their 'teens, she heard of deeper problems. The girls were so inquisitive. Dauntlessly Madge was facing each month the most disturbing questions. Thank Heaven, Edith had only one daughter. Sons were not quite so baffling.
So she had groped her way along.
When her father and Deborah arrived, placidly she asked them what they had been doing. And when she heard that they had been at a concert on the Sabbath, though this was far from old-fashioned and something she would not have done herself, it did not bother her half so much as the fact that Hannah, the Irish nurse, had slapped little Tad that afternoon. She had never known Hannah to do it before. Could it be that the girl was tired or sick? Perhaps she needed a few days off. "I must have a talk with her," Edith thought, "as soon as father and Deborah go."
Roger always liked to come here. Say what you would about Edith's habit of keeping too closely to her home, the children to whom she had devoted herself were a fine, clean, happy lot. Here were new lives in his family, glorious fresh beginnings. He sat on the floor with her three boys, watching the patient efforts of George to harness his perturbed white rat to Tad's small fire engine. George was a lank sprawling lad of fourteen, all legs and arms and elbows, with rumpled hair and freckled face, a quick bright smile and nice brown eyes—frank, simple, understandable eyes. All but one of Edith's children were boys, and boys were a blessed relief to a man who had three grown-up daughters.
And while Roger watched them, with a gentle glow of anticipation he waited for what should follow, when as had been already arranged Deborah should break to her sister the news of Laura's engagement. And he was not disappointed. The change in Edith was something tremendous. Until now so quietly self-absorbed, at the news that Laura was to be married instantly she was all alert. Sitting there in the midst of her children and facing a time of agony only a few weeks ahead which would add one more to her family, Edith's pretty florid face grew flushed and radiant as she exclaimed,
"What a perfectly wonderful thing for Laura! Now if only she can have a child!"
Her questions followed thick and fast, and with them her thoughts of what should be done. Bruce must look up this suitor at once. Bruce demurred stoutly but without avail. She eagerly questioned her sister as to Laura's plans for the wedding, but plainly she considered that Deborah was no woman to give her the full information she wanted. She must see Laura herself at once. For though she had thoroughly disapproved of the gay helter-skelter existence of her youngest sister, still Laura was now to be married, and this made all the difference.
Just before Roger and Deborah left, Edith drew her father aside, and with a curious concern and pity in her voice, she said,
"I'm so sorry I shan't be able to help you with the wedding, dear, and make it the sweet old-fashioned kind that mother would have wanted. Of course there's Deborah, she'll be there. But her head is so full of new ideas. I'm afraid she may find the house rather a burden after Laura has gone away." Edith gave a worried little sigh. "I'll be so glad," she added, "when we get that place in Morristown. We'll want you out there often, and for good long visits too. You may even find you'll care to try staying there with us for a while."
Roger scowled and thanked her. She had given him a shock of alarm.
"So she thinks that Deborah will find the housekeeping too hard," he reflected anxiously. And as he walked home with his daughter, he kept glancing at her face, which for all its look of quiet had so much tensity beneath. She had packed her life so full of school. What if she wanted to give up their home? "She'll try, of course, she'll try her best—but she'll find it too much of an added strain." And again he felt that sickening dread. Deborah said nothing. He felt as though they had drifted apart.
And at night in his bed, as Roger stared up at the beetling cliff of apartment windows just outside, drearily he asked himself how it would feel to live like that.
One afternoon a few days later Roger was riding in the park. He rode "William," a large lazy cob who as he advanced in age had so subtly and insidiously slackened his pace from a trot to a jog that Roger barely noticed how slowly he was riding. As he rode along he liked to watch the broad winding bridle path with its bobbing procession of riders that kept appearing before him under the tall spreading trees. Though he knew scarcely anyone by name, he was a familiar figure here and he recognized scores of faces. To many men he nodded at passing, and to not a few alluring young dames, ardent creatures with bright eyes who gave him smiles of greeting, Roger gravely raised his hat. One was "The Silver Lady" in a Broadway musical show, but he thought she was "one of the Newport crowd." He liked to make shrewd guesses like that. There were so many kinds of people here. There were stout anxious ladies riding for figures and lean morose gentlemen riding for health. There were joyous care-free girls, chatting and laughing merrily. There were some gallant foreigners, and there were riding masters, and Roger could not tell them apart. There were mad boys from the Squadron who rode at a furious canter, and there were groups of children, eager and flushed, excited and gay, with stolid grooms behind them. The path in several places ran close beside the main road of the park, and with the coming of the dusk this road took on deep purple hues and glistened with reflections from countless yellow motor eyes. And from the polished limousines, sumptuous young women smiled out upon the riders.
At least so Roger saw this life. And after those bleak lonely years confronted by eternity, it was good to come here and forget, to feel himself for the moment a part of the thoughtless gaiety, the ease and luxury of the town. Here he was just on the edge of it all. Often as a couple passed he would wonder what they were doing that night. In the riding school where he kept his horse, it was a lazy pleasure to have the English "valet" there pull off his boots and breeches—though if anyone had told him so, Roger would have denied it with indignation and surprise. For was he not an American?
It had been a wonderful tonic, a great idea of Laura's, this forcing him up here to ride. In one of her affectionate moods, just after a sick spell he had been through, his gay capricious daughter had insisted that he have his horse brought down from the mountains. She had promised to ride with him herself, and she had done so—for a week. Since then he had often met her here with one of her many smart young men. What a smile of greeting would flash on her face—when Laura happened to notice him.
He was thinking of Laura now, and there was an anxious gleam in his eyes. For young Sloane was coming to dinner to-night. What was he going to say to the fellow? Bruce had learned that Sloane played polo, owned and drove a racing car and was well liked in his several clubs. But what about women and his past? Edith had urged her father to go through the lad's life with a fine tooth comb, and if he should find anything there to kick up no end of a row for the honor of the family. All of which was nothing but words, reflected Roger pettishly. It all came to this, that he had a most ticklish evening ahead! On the path as a rider greeted him, his reply was a dismal frown.
* * * * *
Laura's suitor arrived at six o'clock. In his study Roger heard the bell, listened a moment with beating heart, then raised himself heavily from his chair and went into the hallway.
"Ah, yes! It's you!" he exclaimed, with a nervous cordiality. "Come in, my boy, come right in! Here, let me help you with your coat. I don't know just where Laura is. Ahem!" He violently cleared his throat. "Suppose while we're waiting we have a smoke." He kept it up back into his den. There the suitor refused a cigar and carefully lit a cigarette. Roger noticed again how young the chap was, and marriage seemed so ridiculous! All this feverish trouble was for something so unreal!
"Well, sir," the candidate blurted forth, "I guess I'd better come right to the point. Mr. Gale, I want to marry your daughter."
"Yes." Roger cursed himself. Why had he asked, "Laura?" Of course it was Laura! Would this cub be wanting Deborah?
"Well, my boy," he said thickly. "I—I wish I knew you better."
"So do I, sir. Suppose we begin." The youth took a quick pull at his cigarette. He waited, stirred nervously in his seat. "You'll have some questions to ask, I suppose—"
"Yes, there are questions." Roger had risen mechanically and was slowly walking the room. He threw out short gruff phrases. "I'm not interested in your past—I don't care about digging into a man—I never have and I never will—except as it might affect my daughter. That's the main question, I suppose. Can you make her happy?"
"I think so," said Sloane, decidedly. Roger gave him a glance of displeasure.
"That's a large order, young man," he rejoined.
"Then let's take it in sections," the youngster replied. Confound his boyish assurance! "To begin with," he was saying, "I rather think I have money enough. We'd better go into that, hadn't we?"
"Yes," said Roger indifferently. "We might as well go into it." Of course the chap had money enough. He was a money maker. You could hear it in his voice; you could see it in his jaw, in his small aggressive blonde moustache. Now he was telling briefly of his rich aunt in Bridgeport, of the generous start she had given him, his work downtown, his income.
"Twenty-two thousand this year," he said. "We can live on that all right, I guess."
"You won't starve," was the dry response. Roger walked for a moment in silence, then turned abruptly on young Sloane.
"Look here, young man, I don't want to dig," he continued very huskily. "But I know little or nothing of what may be behind you. I don't care to ask you about it now—unless it can make trouble."
"It can't make trouble." At this answer, low but sharp, Roger wheeled and shot a glance into those clear and twinkling eyes. And his own eyes gleamed with pain. Laura had been such a little thing in the days when she had been his pet, the days when he had known her well. What could he do about it? This was only the usual thing. But he felt suddenly sick of life.
"How soon do you want to get married?" he demanded harshly.
"Next month, if we can."
"Where are you going?"
"Abroad," said Sloane. Roger caught at this topic as at a straw. Soon they were talking of the trip, and the tension slackened rapidly. He had never been abroad himself but had always dreamed of going there. With maps and books of travel Judith and he had planned it out. In imagination they had lived in London and Paris, Munich and Rome, always in queer old lodgings looking on quaint crooked streets. He had dreamed of long delicious rambles, glimpses into queer old shops, vast, silent, dark cathedrals. For Laura how different it would be. This boy of hers knew Europe as a group of gorgeous new hotels.
The moment Laura joined them, her father's eye was caught and held by the ring upon her finger. Roger knew rings, they were his hobby, and this huge yellow solitaire in its new and brilliant setting at once awakened his dislike. It just fitted the life they were to lead! What life? As he listened to his daughter he kept wondering if she were so sure. Had she felt no uneasiness? She must have, he decided, for all her gay excitement. One Laura in that smiling face; another Laura deep inside, doubting and uncertain, reaching for her happiness, now elated, now dismayed, exclaiming, "Now at last I'm starting!" Oh, what an ignorant child she was. He wanted to cry out to her, "You'll always be just starting! You'll never be sure, you'll never be happy, you'll always be just beginning to be! And the happier you are, the more you will feel it is only a start!... And then-"
More and more his spirit withdrew from these two heedless children. Later on, when Deborah came, he barely noticed her meeting with Sloane. And through dinner, while they talked of plans for the wedding, the trip abroad, still Roger took no part at all. He felt dull and heavy. Deborah too, he noticed, after her first efforts to be welcoming and friendly, had gradually grown silent. He saw her watching Laura with a mingled look of affection and of whimsical dismay. Soon after dinner she left them, and Roger smoked with the boy for a while and learned that he was twenty-nine. Both had grown uneasy and rather dull with each other. It was a relief when again Laura joined them, dressed to go out. She and her lover left the house.
Roger sat motionless for some time. His cigar grew cold unheeded. One of the sorrows of his life had been that his only son had died. Bruce had been almost like a son. But this young man of Laura's? No.
Later he went for his evening walk. And as though drawn by invisible chains he strayed far down into the ghetto. Soon he was elbowing his way through a maze of uproarious tenement streets as one who had been there many times. But he noticed little around him. He went on, as he had always gone, seeing and hearing this seething life only as a background to his own adventure. He reached his destination. Pushing his way through a swarm of urchins playing in front of a pawnshop, he entered and was a long time inside, and when he came out again at last the whole expression of his face had undergone a striking change. As one who had found the solace he needed for the moment, his pace unconsciously quickened and he looked about him with brighter eyes.
Around the corner from his home, he went into a small jewelry shop, a remnant of the town of the past. There were no customers in the place, and the old Galician jeweler sat at the back playing solitaire. At sight of Roger he arose; and presently in a small back room, beneath the glare of a powerful lamp, the two were studying the ring which Roger had found in the ghetto that night. It was plain, just a thin worn band of gold with an emerald by no means large; but the setting was old and curious, and personal, distinctive. Somebody over in Europe had worked on it long and lovingly. Now as the Galician gently rubbed and polished and turned the ring this way and that, the light revealed crude tiny figures, a man and a woman under a tree. And was that a vine or a serpent? They studied it long and absorbedly.
At home, up in his bedroom, Roger opened a safe which stood in one corner, took out a large shallow tray and sat down with it by his lamp. A strange array of rings was there, small and delicate, huge, bizarre; great signet rings and poison rings, love tokens, charms and amulets, rings which had been worn by wives, by mistresses, by favorite slaves and by young girls in convents; rings with the Madonna and rings with many other saints graven on large heavy stones; rings French and Russian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Syrian. Some were many centuries old. In nine shallow metal trays they filled the safe in Roger's room. Although its money value was small, the Gale collection was well known to a scattered public of connoisseurs, and Roger took pride in showing it. But what had always appealed to him most was the romance, the mystery, stored up in these old talismans that had lived so many ages, travelled through so many lands, decked so many fingers. Roger had found every one of them in the pawnshops of New York. What new recruits to America had brought them here and pawned them? From what old cities had they come? What passions of love and jealousy, of hatred, faith, devotion were in this glittering array? Roger's own love affair had been deep, but quiet and even and happy. All the wild adventures, the might-have-beens in his sex life, were gathered in these dusky trays with their richly colored glints of light.
Of his daughters, Laura had been the one most interested in his rings, and so he thought of Laura now as he placed in the tray the new ring he had bought, the one he would have liked for her. But a vague uneasiness filled his mind, for he knew she had the same craving as he for what gleamed out of these somber trays. The old Galician jeweler had long been quite a friend of hers, she had often dropped in at his shop to ask him curious questions about his women patrons. And it was just this side of him that Roger did not care for. So many of those women were from a dubious glittering world, and the old Galician took a weird vicarious joy in many of the gay careers into which he sent his beloved rings, his brooches, earrings, necklaces, his clasps and diamond garters. And Laura loved to make him talk.... Yes, she was her father's child, a part of himself. He, too, had had his yearnings, his burning curiosities, his youthful ventures into the town. "You will live on in our children's lives." With her inheritance what would she do? Would she stop halfway as he had done, or would she throw all caution aside and let the flames within her rise?
He heard a step in the doorway, and Deborah stood there smiling.
"A new one?" she inquired. He nodded, and she bent over the tray. "Poor father," Deborah murmured. "I saw you eyeing Laura's engagement ring at dinner to-night. It wasn't like this one, was it?" He scowled:
"I don't like what I see ahead of her. Nor do you," he said. "Be honest." She looked at him perplexedly.
"We can't stop it, can we? And even if we could," she said, "I'm not quite sure I'd want to. It's her love affair, not yours or mine—grown out of a life she made for herself—curious, eager, thrilled by it all—and in the center of her soul the deep glad growing certainty, 'I'm going to be a beautiful woman—I myself, I, Laura Gale!' Oh, you don't know—nor do I. And so she felt her way along—eagerly, hungrily, making mistakes—and you and I left her to do it alone. I'm afraid we both rather neglected her, dad," Deborah ended sadly. "And all we can do now, I think, is to give her the kind of wedding she wants."
Roger started to speak but hesitated.
"What is it?" she inquired.
"Queer," he answered gruffly, "how a man can neglect his children—as I have done, as I do still—when the one thing he wants most in life is to see each one of 'em happy."
Roger soon grew accustomed to seeing young Sloane about the house. They could talk together more easily, and he began to call him Harold. Harold asked him with Laura to lunch at the Ritz to meet the aunt from Bridgeport, a lady excessively stout and profound. But that ended the formalities. It had all been so much easier than Roger had expected. So, in its calm sober fashion, the old house took into its life this new member, these new plans, and the old seemed stronger for the new—for Laura and Edith and Deborah drew together closer than they had been in many years. But only because they felt themselves on the eve of a still deeper and more lasting separation, as the family of Roger Gale divided and went different ways. At times he noticed it sadly. Laura, who had scarcely ever been home for dinner, now spent many evenings here. She needed her home for her wedding, he thought. Each daughter needed it now and then. But as the years wore slowly on, the seasons when they needed it grew steadily wider and wider apart....
Early in May, when Roger came home from his office one night he found Edith's children in the house. From the hallway he could hear their gay excited voices, and going into the dining room he found them at their supper. Deborah was with them, and at once her father noticed how much younger she appeared—as she always did with these children who all idolized her so. She rose and followed him into the hall, and her quiet voice had a note of compassion.
"Edith's baby is coming," she said.
"Good Lord. Is anything wrong?" he asked.
"No, no, it's all right—"
"But I thought the child wasn't due for three weeks."
"I know, and poor Edith is fearfully worried. It has upset all her plans. I'd go up and see her if I were you. Your supper is ready; and if you like you can have it with the children."
There followed a happy boisterous meal, with much expectant chatter about the long summer so soon to begin at the farm up in the mountains. George, whose hair was down over his eyes, rumpled it back absorbedly as he told of a letter he had received from his friend Dave Royce, Roger's farmer, with whom George corresponded. One of the cows was to have a calf, and George was anxious to get there in time.
"I've never seen a real new calf, new absolutely," he explained. "And I want a look at this one the very minute that he's born. Gee, I hope we can get there in time—"
"Gee! So do I!" cried Bobby aged nine. And then Tad, the chubby three-year-old who had been intently watching his brothers, slowly took the spoon from his mouth and in his grave sweet baby voice said very softly, "Gee." At her end of the table, Elizabeth, blonde and short and rather plump, frowned and colored slightly. For she was eleven and she knew there was something dark and shameful about the way calves appear in barns. And so, with a quick conscious cough, she sweetly interrupted:
"Oh, Aunt Deborah! Won't you please tell us about—about—"
"About—about," jeered the ironical George. "About what, you little ninny?" Poor Elizabeth blushed desperately. She was neither quick nor resourceful.
"Now, George," said his aunt warningly.
"Wasn't I talking?" the boy rejoined. "And didn't Betsy butt right in—without even a thing to butt in about? About—about," he jeered again.
"About Paris!" cried his sister, successful at last in her frantic search for a proper topic of conversation. "Aunt Deborah's trip to Paris!"
"How many times has she told it already?" her brother replied with withering scorn. "And anyhow, I was talking of cows!"
"Very well," said his aunt, "we'll talk about cows, some cows I saw on a lovely old farm in a little village over in France."
"There!" cried his young sister. "Did she ever tell of that part of her trip?" And she made a little face at her brother.
"I don't care," he answered doggedly. "She has told about Paris lots of times—and that was what you wanted. Yes, you did. You said, 'About Paris.' Didn't she, Bob?"
"You bet she did," young Bob agreed.
"Now, children, children, what does it matter?"
"All right, go ahead with your barn in France," said George with patient tolerance. "Did they have any Holsteins?"
Soon the questions were popping from every side, while little Tad beamed from one to the other. To Tad it was all so wonderful, to be having supper away from home, to be here, to go to bed upstairs, to take part perhaps in a pillow fight.... And glancing at the glowing face and the parted lips of his small grandson Roger felt a current of warm new life pour into his soul.
Early in the evening he went up to Edith's apartment. He found his daughter in her room, looking flushed and very tense. He took her arm and they walked for a time. A trained nurse was soaping the windows. Roger asked the reason for this and was told that in case the baby did not come till morning the doctor wanted to pull up the shades in order to work by daylight. "And neighbors in New York are such cats! You've no idea!" said Edith. She looked out at the numberless windows crowding close about her home, and she fairly bristled with scorn. "Oh, how I loathe apartments!"
"They seem to have come to stay, my dear. In a few years more New York will be a city without a house," he said. "Only a palace here and there." The thought flashed in his mind, "But I shall be gone."
"Then we'll move out to the country!" she cried. Still walking the floor with her father, she talked of the perplexities which in her feverish state of mind had loomed suddenly enormous. She had planned everything so nicely for the baby to come the first of June, but now her plans were all upset. She did not want the children here, it would make too much confusion. They had much better go up to the mountains, even though George and Elizabeth lost their last few weeks at school. But who could she find to take them? Bruce was simply rushed to death with his new receivership. Laura was getting her trousseau. Deborah, said Edith, had time for nothing on earth but school.
"Suppose I take them," Roger ventured. But she only smiled at this. "My dear," he urged, "your nurse will be with me, and when we arrive there's the farmer's wife." But Edith impatiently shook her head. Her warm bright eyes seemed to picture it all, hour by hour, day and night, her children there without her.
"You poor dear," she told him, "you haven't the slightest idea what it means. The summer train is not on yet, and you have to change three times on the way—with all the children—luggage, too. And there are their naps, and all their meals. You don't arrive till late at night. No," she decided firmly, "Bruce will simply have to go." She drew a breath of discomfort. "You go and talk to him," she said.
"I will, my dear." Roger looked at his daughter in deep concern. Awkwardly his heavy hand touched her small plump shoulder, and he felt the constant quivering there. "Now, now," he muttered, uneasily, "it's going to be all right, you know—" And at that she gave him a rapid glance out of those warm hunted eyes, as though to ask, "What do you know of this?" And Roger flinched and turned to the door.
Bruce was working at his desk, with an old briar pipe in his teeth. He looked up with a quick nervous smile which showed his dread of the coming ordeal, but his voice had a carefully casual tone.
"Does she want me now?" he asked.
"No," said Roger. And he told of her plan for the children. "I volunteered myself," he added, "but she wouldn't hear to it."
"Oh, my God, man, you wouldn't do," said Bruce, in droll disparagement. "You with forty-nine bottles of pasteurized milk? Suppose you smashed one? Where'd you be? Moving our family isn't a job; it's a science, and I've got my degree." He rose and his face softened. "Poor girl, she mustn't worry like that. I'll run in and tell her I'll do it myself—just to get it off her mind."
He went to his wife. And when he came back his dark features appeared a little more drawn.
"Poor devil," thought Roger, "he's scared to death—just as I used to be myself."
"Pretty tough on a woman, isn't it?" Bruce muttered, smiling constrainedly.
"Did Baird say everything's going well?" Baird was Edith's physician.
"Yes. He was here this afternoon, and he said he'd be back this evening." Bruce stopped with a queer little scowl of suspense. "I told her I'd see to the trip with the kiddies, and it seemed to relieve her a lot." His eye went to a pile of documents that lay on the desk before him. "It'll play the very devil with business, taking three days off just now. But I guess I can manage it somehow—"
A muscle began to twitch on his face. He re-lit his pipe with elaborate care and looked over at Roger confidingly:
"Do you know what's the matter with kids these days? It's the twentieth century," he said. "It's a disease. It starts in their teeth. No modern girl can get married unless she has had her teeth straightened for years. Our dentist's bill, this year alone, was over eight hundred dollars. But that isn't all. It gets into their young intestines, God bless 'em, and makes you pasteurize all they eat. It gets into their nerves and tears 'em up, and your only chance to save 'em is school—not a common school but a 'simple' school, tuition four hundred dollars a year. And you hire a dancing teacher besides—I mean a rhythm teacher—and let 'em shake it out of their feet. And after that you buy 'em clothes—not fluffy clothes, but 'simple' clothes, the kind which always cost the most. And then you build a simple home, in a simple place like Morristown. The whole idea is simplicity. If you can't make enough to buy it, you're lost. If you can make enough, just barely enough, you get so excited you lose your head—and do what I did Monday."
The two men smiled at each other. Roger was very fond of Bruce.
"What did you do Monday?" he asked.
"I bought that car I told you about."
"Splendid! Best thing in the world for you! Tell me all about it!"
And while Bruce rapidly grew engrossed in telling of the car's fine points, Roger pictured his son-in-law upon hot summer evenings (for Bruce spent his summers in town) forgetting his business for a time and speeding out into the country. Then he thought of Edith and the tyranny of her motherhood, always draining her husband's purse and keeping Edith so wrapt up in her children and their daily needs that she had lost all interest in anything outside her home. What was there wrong about it? He knew that Edith prided herself on being like her mother. But Judith had always found time for her friends. He himself had been more as Edith was now. How quickly after Judith died he had dropped all friends, all interests. "That's it," he ruefully told himself, "Edith takes after her father." And the same curious feeling which he had had with Laura, came back to him with her sister. This daughter, too, was a part of himself. His deep instinctive craving to keep to himself and his family was living on in Edith, was already dominating her home. What a queer mysterious business it was, this tie between a man and his child.
He was thinking of this when Baird arrived. Allan Baird was not only the doctor who had brought Edith's children into the world, he was besides an intimate friend, he had been Bruce's room-mate at college. As he came strolling into the room with his easy greeting of "Well, folks—" his low gruff voice, his muscular frame, over six feet two, and the kindly calm assurance in his lean strong visage, gave to Bruce and Roger the feeling of safety they needed. For this kind of work was his life. He had specialized on women, and after over fifteen years of toilsome uphill labor he had become at thirty-seven one of the big gynecologists. He was taking his success with the quiet relish of a man who had had to work for it hard. And yet he had not been spoiled by success. He worked even harder than before—so hard, in fact, that Deborah, with whom through Bruce and Edith he had long ago struck up an easy bantering friendship, had sturdily set herself the task of prying open his eyes a bit. She had taken him to her school at night and to queer little foreign cafes. And Baird, with a humor of his own, had retaliated by dragging her to the Astor Roof and to musical plays.