HIS SECOND WIFE
HIS SECOND WIFE
On a train speeding toward New York, in one of the parlour cars two young women sat facing each other, talking and smiling, deeply absorbed. They took little apparent notice of any one else in the car, but most of the people near them kept throwing curious glances their way.
These glances differed vastly, as did the thoughts behind them. A tall, genial Westerner, who looked as though he had come from a ranch, smiled frankly and hungrily on the pair and told himself with emphasis, "Those two girls are fifty-fifty. I'd like a dozen of each brand." And a slim college boy with fresh, eager eyes kept darting quick looks from time to time at the older of the two, the blonde. He asked himself confusedly, "How'd I start in with a woman like her?" And exciting pictures rose in his mind. In the meantime an elderly lady, with a sharp, inquisitive air, had put down the ages of the girls at twenty-two and thirty.
"They're sisters," she decided, but then she nearly changed her mind. They were such contrasted types. The blonde gave an appearance of sleek and moneyed elegance, with carefully undulated hair, a rounded bust, and pretty features smooth and plump, with a retrousse nose and rich, full lips, and a manner of easy assurance. The brunette was younger and less developed, slim and lithe, her curling black hair rebellious, her features more clean-cut and clear, with wide, eager lips and warm brown eyes set wide apart.
"Nevertheless, they are sisters," the little lady firmly concluded. "The family resemblance is quite unmistakable." And frowning in perplexity, "But if they are sisters," she went on, "why is only one in mourning?" She looked at the younger of the two, who was simply dressed in black; and then at the blonde, whose sable cloak put back from her shoulders revealed a stylish travelling suit. "And why is one rich and the other poor?"
Meanwhile a young woman nearby, with a fat, discontented face, regarded the blonde with envy and thought:
"She's an actress with her maid. Why can't Harry allow me a maid, a real clever one like that? Men see these actresses on the stage and get to expecting things from their wives—without being willing to pay for it! Think what that girl could make of me!"
A quiet, able-looking woman sitting just across the aisle, who travelled for a clothing store, was watching the "maid," the brunette, and was thinking, "She makes her clothes herself. She has been the beauty of her small town. She's smart, too, and original. That collar was a clever idea—and that fichu of lace. A pity she's in mourning."
But the large fat man behind the two girls had little thought for the brunette. His heavy eyes, quite motionless, were upon the older girl. He took in her sensuous shoulders, the rounded contour of her bust, her glossy coiffure, the small, fine hairs at the back of her neck. And he thought, "Yes, she has been loved pretty well." She was talking, and he could just hear her voice, soft and provocative, like the little gloved hand on her chair. By her eyes, which were of a violet hue, he saw she was aware of his gaze. Something gleamed in them that sent a thrill far down into his sluggish soul.
In the meantime a kindly old lady, whose eyes were fixed on the brunette, noticed how hard she was listening, noticed the fresh expectancy in her parted lips and clear brown eyes, and asked with a touch of sadness:
"I wonder what's waiting for you in New York? I'm afraid I don't like this companion of yours. And you're so very young, my dear, and eager and gay. And you are to be so beautiful."
And while all these conjectures were being made about them both, the brunette was wrapt in her own inner fancies, vivid and exciting. Listening to her sister, swift thoughts and expectations mingled with the memories of the life behind her. As she stared out of the window, fields and woods and houses kept whirling back out of her view—and so it was with her memories. It was hard to keep hold of any one.
She had lived with her father, a lonely old man in a small, quiet town in Ohio, down in the lower part of the State. He was dead, and she was going to live with her married sister in New York. He was dead and his daughter was not sad, though she'd been his only close companion and had loved him tenderly. And this brought a guilty feeling now, which she fought down by telling herself there had been little sadness in his death. She pictured her father making his speech at the unveiling of the Monument. How happy and proud he had appeared. For half his life old Colonel Knight had exhorted his fellow townsmen and painted dark the shame of their town: "The only county seat in Ohio with no soldiers' monument, sir!" He had held countless meetings, he had gone begging to his neighbours, and every dollar he himself could save had gone into that dream of his. At last he had triumphed; and after all the excitement of his final victory, the old soldier had made his speech, and died.
Around him and the monument and the old frame house on River Street, the lazy, shallow river, the high school near the court house, Demley's Tavern across the square, the line of shops on either side, the new "movie" theatre of pink tile, and the old yellow church on the corner—the pictures of her life trooped by, the pictures of her last few years—with the miracle, the discovery that she herself, Ethel Knight, who had always been considered "plain," was slowly now developing into a beautiful woman. That brought memories which thrilled—various faces of men, young and old, looks and glances, words overheard, and countless small attentions. But these came in mere fragments, rising only to be whirled back again into the past, as the train sped on toward the city.
She was going to live in New York with her married sister, Amy Lanier. And from looking out of the car window, Ethel would turn quickly, throw a swift glance at her sister and smile. Amy seemed quite wonderful—Amy with her elegance, her worldly assurance, her smiling good-humour and knowledge of "life," her apparent content, her sense of well being, of being a joy to look at and love; Amy who had an adoring husband, Amy who spent money like water, Amy with dash and beauty and style.
"New York just fairly shimmering in everything she wears!" thought Ethel.
Amy's sable cloak was long. She had worn it at the funeral, with a black skirt and a heavy veil. But the veil she had put into her bag as soon as they had left the town, and the cloak thrown back revealed rich colours, the glitter and glint of a diamond brooch; and she wore a small blue feathered hat which threw out changing colours in the play of light in the car. There was to be no more mourning. Amy didn't believe in that; she was good-humouredly arguing her young sister out of it. And Ethel, smiling back at her, saw how sensible it was. She felt death and sadness slipping away, and the life in the city opening.
Since Amy's marriage five years ago, Ethel had only seen her twice—once when Amy had come home, appearing resplendent with Joe her husband in a large new touring car, and had sent a wave of excitement through the quiet little town; and again when she had asked Ethel to visit her for a week in New York. That had been a glamourous week, but it had not been repeated. For nearly three years they had not met. In that time had come the change in Ethel's own appearance. And glancing now at Amy, she read in those clear, smiling eyes that Amy was relieved and pleased and surprised at the striking beauty which had come to her young sister. There was even a tone of expectancy in Amy's talk of their life in New York.
"She thinks I'll get on finely!" This exciting thought kept rising repeatedly in Ethel's mind. And with it came the sturdy resolve, "I mustn't be too humble now, or too dependent on her. I must show her I'm somebody all by myself—that I won't be a burden on her hands. I've got to make a life of my own—find work perhaps—or marry!"
Then all such resolutions would merge in the images vivid and new, which kept rising in her mind, of the life she would have in the city.
She had a good voice. Old Mr. Riggs, the organist in the yellow church at home, had planted that idea deep in her mind. If only her voice could be brought out! She hadn't much money for teachers, but how she would work if she got a chance! In her heart she knew she had no great voice, but gaily she let her fancy go and pictured herself on the stage. . . . This image passed and was replaced by a platform in an immense auditorium crowded with cheering women and girls. Suffrage banners were all about, and she was speaking to the crowd. Her voice rang clear and resolute. . . . There were other dreams and pictures—of dances in New York cafes, of theatre parties, trips to Paris, hosts of friends. And the vague thought flashed into her mind:
"What possibilities for life—in me—me—Ethel Knight!"
She went on listening, building. She took in fragments of what Amy said and mingled them with things she had read and pictures she'd seen in books, magazines and Sunday papers; or with things that she had heard in the long discussions in her club of high school girls, over suffrage, marriage, Bernard Shaw. She thought of the opera, concerts, plays. She saw Fifth Avenue at night agleam with countless motors, torrents of tempestuous life—and numberless shop windows, hats and dainty gowns and shoes. She pictured herself at dinners and balls, men noticing her everywhere. "As they are doing now," she thought, "this very minute in this car!" Out of all the pictures rose one of a church wedding. And then this picture faded, and changed to that of her father's funeral in the old frame yellow church. She frowned, her brown eyes saddened and suddenly grew wet with a deep homesick tenderness. But in a few moments she smiled again; once more her pulse-beat quickened. For Amy was talking good-humouredly. And Ethel's eyes, now curious, now plainly thrilled, now quizzical, amused and pleased, kept watching her, and she asked herself:
"Shall I ever be like that?"
The picture she had of her sister grew each moment more warm and desirable. Eagerly she explored it by the quick questions she threw out.
They were coming into the city now, in a dusk rich with twinkling lights. In the car the passengers were stirring. Amy stood up to be brushed—sleek and alluring, worldly wise—and the fat man in the chair behind her opened wide his heavy eyes. Then Ethel stood up—and in the poise of her figure, slim and lithe with its lovely lines, in her carriage, in her slender neck, in her dark face with its features clear, her lips a little parted, and in the look in her brown eyes—there was something which made glances turn from all down the softly lighted car. There was even a brief silence. And Ethel drew a sudden breath, as from close behind her the soft voice of the darky porter drawled:
"Yes'm—yes'm—dis is New York. We's comin' right into de station now."
"Well, Ethel my love, we're here at last! . . . It must be after midnight. I wonder when I'll get to sleep? . . . Not that I care especially. What a quaint habit sleeping is."
She had formed the habit long ago of holding these inner conversations. Her father had been a silent man, and often as she faced him at meals Ethel had talked and talked to herself in quite as animated a way as though she were saying it all aloud. Now she sat up suddenly in bed and turned on the light just over her head, and amiably she surveyed her room. It was a pretty, fresh, little room with flowered curtains, a blue rug, a luxurious chaise longue and a small French dressing table. Very cheerful, very empty. "It looks," she decided, "just like the bed feels. I'm the first fellow who has been here.
"No," she corrected herself in a moment, "that's very ignorant of you, my dear. This is a New York apartment, you know. All kinds of other fellows have been in this room ahead of me; and they've lain awake by the hour here, planning how to get married or divorced, or getting ready to write a great book or make a million dollars, or sing in grand opera or murder their child. All the things in the newspapers have been arranged in this spot where I lie! Now I'll turn out the light," she added, "and sink quietly to rest!"
But in the dark she lay listening to the strange low hub-hub from outside. And it made her think of what she had seen an hour before, when at the open window, resting her elbows on the sill, she had begun to make her acquaintance with her backyard—a yawning abyss of brick and cement which went down and down to cement below, and up and up to a strip of blue sky, and to right and to left went stretching away with rows and rows of windows. And now as the murmurs and quick low cries, piano music, a baritone voice and a sudden burst of laughter, came to her ears, she gravely named her neighbours:
"Wives and husbands, divorcees, secret lovers, grafters, burglars, suffragettes, actresses and anarchists and millionaires and poor young things—all spending a quiet evening at home. And that's so sensible in you all. You'll need your strength for tomorrow."
From the city far and near came numberless other voices. From street cars, motors and the L, from boats far off on the river this calm and still October night, from Broadway and from Harlem and the many teeming slums, came the vast murmuring voice of the town. And she thought:
"I'm becoming a part of all this!" She listened a little and added, "It breathes, like something quite alive." She smiled and added approvingly, "Quite right, my dear, just breathe right on. But don't go and breathe as though you were sleeping. Keep me company tonight."
Suddenly she remembered how in their taxi from the train, as they had sped up Park Avenue all agleam with its cold blue lights and she had chattered gaily of anything that came into her head, twice she had caught in her sister's eyes that glimmer of expectancy. "Amy feels sure I will be a success!" Ethel thrilled at the recollection, and thought, "Oh, yes, you're quite a wag, my love; and as soon as you get over being so young you'll probably make a name for yourself. No dinner or suffrage party will ever again be quite complete without your droll dry humour. . . . I suppose I ought to be going to sleep!"
And she yawned excitedly. From somewhere far in the distance there came to her ears the dull bellowing roar of an ocean liner leaving dock at one o'clock to start the long journey over the sea.
"I'm going to Paris, too!" she resolved. Her fancy travelled over the ocean and roamed madly for awhile, with the help of many photographs which she had seen in magazines. But she wearied of that and soon returned.
"Well, what do I think of Amy's home?"
She went over in her memory her eager inspection of the apartment. The rooms had been dark when they arrived; for they had not been expected so soon, and a somewhat dishevelled Irish maid had opened the door and let them in. With a quick annoyed exclamation, Amy had switched on the lights; and room after room as it leaped into view had appeared to Ethel's eyes like parts of a suite in some rich hotel. And although as her sister went about moving chairs a bit this way and that and putting things on the table to rights, it took on a little more the semblance of somebody's home, still that first impression had remained in Ethel's mind.
"People have sat in this room," she had thought, "but they haven't lived here. They haven't sewed or read aloud or talked things out and out and out."
To her sister she had been loud in her praise. What a perfectly lovely room it was, what a wonderful lounge with the table behind it, and what lamps, what a heavenly rug and how well it went with the curtains! When Amy lighted the gas logs, Ethel had drawn a quick breath of dismay. But then she had sharply told herself:
"This isn't an old frame house in Ohio, this is a gay little place in New York! You're going to love it, living here! And you're pretty much of a kid, my dear, to be criticizing like an old maid!" She had gone into Amy's room, and there her mood had quickly changed. For the curtains and the deep soft rug, the broad low dressing table with its drop-light shaded in chintz, the curious gold lacquered chair, the powder boxes, brushes, trays, the faint delicious perfume of the place; and back in the shadow, softly curtained, the low wide luxurious bed—had given to her the feeling that this room at least was personal. Here two people had really lived—a man and a woman. There had come into Ethel's brown eyes a mingling of confused delight and awkward admiration. And her sister, with a quick look and a smile, had lost the slightly ruffled expression her face had worn in the other rooms. She had regained her ascendancy.
It had not been until Ethel was left in her own small room adjoining, that with an exclamation of remembrance and surprise she had stopped undressing, opened her door and listened in the silence. "How perfectly uncanny!" Frowning a moment, puzzled, her eye had gone to the only other room in the apartment, down at the end of the narrow hall. The door had been closed. She had stolen to it and listened, but at first she had not heard a sound. Then she had given a slight start, had knocked softly and asked, "May I come in?" A woman's voice with a hostile note had replied, "Yes, ma'am." She had entered. And a moment later, down on her knees before a grave little girl of two who sat at a tiny table soberly having her supper, Ethel had cried:
"Oh, you adorable baby!"
For a time she had tried to make friends with the child, but the voice of the nurse had soon cut in. And in the motherly Scotch face Ethel had detected again a feeling of hostility. "What for?" she had asked. And the answer had flashed into her mind. "She's angry because Amy hasn't been in to see Susette." And Ethel had frowned. "It's funny. If I had been away three days—"
She had gone back to her own room and began slowly to take off her things. And a few minutes after that, she had heard a gruff kindly voice, a man's heavy tread and a glad little cry from Amy's room.
"Joe has come home," she had told herself. "I wonder how he and I will get on."
And she had met him a little later with no slight uneasiness. But this had been at once dispelled. Rather tall and full of figure, with thick curling hair and close-cut moustache, Joe Lanier at thirty-five still gave to his young sister-in-law the impression of kindly friendliness she had had from him some years before. There was nothing to be afraid of in Joe. But she had noticed the change in his face, the slightly tightened harassed expression. And she had thought:
"You poor man. How hard you have been working."
And yet she could not say he looked tired, for at dinner his talk had been almost boyish in its welcoming good humour. Later he had drawn her aside and had said with a touch of awkwardness:
"No use in talking about it, of course. I just want you to know I'm so glad you're here." She had clutched his hand:
"That's nice of you, Joe." And then she had turned from him, and with a sudden quiver inside she had added quite inaudibly: "Oh, Dad, dearest! I'm so homesick! Just this minute—if I could be back!"
But she had liked Joe that evening.
She remembered the hungry light in his eyes. He and Amy had soon gone to their room. And as Ethel thought about them now, lying here alone in the dark she felt again that vague delight and confused expectancy.
"How much of all this is coming to me? . . Everything, I guess, but sleep!"
A wisp of her hair fell on her nose, and she blew it back with a vicious, "Pfew!"
Her first month in town was a season of shopping and of warm anticipations—and then came a sudden crash. Afterward it was hard to remember. For tragedy entered into these rooms, and it was not easy to look back and see them clearly as they had been. That first month became confused, the memories uneven; in some spots clear and vivid, in others hazy and unreal.
"I want you to be gay, my dear," Amy told her at the start. "You've been through such a lonely time. And what earthly good will it do poor Dad to have you go about in black? You're here now and you've got to make friends and a place for yourself. If he were alive I know he'd agree. He'd want you to have every chance."
So they started in to shop. And though Ethel had her memories, her moods of homesick longing for the old soldier who was gone, these soon became less frequent. There was little time to be lonely or sad.
Amy herself felt new youth these days. Relieved of the first uneasiness with which she had gone to Ohio to bring her young sister to New York, surprised and delighted at finding how the awkward girl she had known had developed since the last time they had met, Amy now took Ethel about to get her "clothes fit to be seen in." And as with intent little glances she kept studying "Ethel's type" in order to set off her charms, the slightly bored expression, the look of disillusionment left Amy's pretty countenance. For Ethel's freshness had given to Amy new zest and belief in her own life, in its purpose and importance. To get Ethel clothes, to show her about, to find her friends, to give her a gay winter in town and later to make a good match for her—these aims loomed large in Amy's mind. She felt her own youth returning, and she prolonged this period. She wanted Ethel all to herself. She even shut her husband out.
"You can rest up a bit," she told him, "for what's coming later on." And Joe, with a good-natured groan at the prospect of late hours ahead, made the most of the rest allowed to him.
Each morning the two sisters fared forth in a taxi. And Amy began to reveal to her sister the dazzling world of shops in New York: shops large and small, American, French and English, shops for gowns and hats and shoes, and furs and gloves and corsets. At numberless counters they studied and counselled, and lunching at Sherry's they shopped on. And the shimmer and sheen of pretty things made life a glamourous mirage, in which Ethel could feel herself rapidly becoming a New Yorker, gaining assurance day by day, feeling "her type" emerge in the glass where she studied herself with impatient delight.
There were little reminders now and then of what she had left behind her. One day in a department store, as they stood before a counter looking at silk stockings, all at once to Ethel's ears came the deep tones of an organ, and turning with a low cry of surprise she looked over the bustling throngs of women to an organ loft above, where a girl was singing a solo in a high sweet soprano voice. In a flash to Ethel's mind there came a vivid picture of the old yellow church at home. And with a queer expression looking about her at the crowds, she exclaimed, "How funny!" She was again reminded of church when one afternoon in a large darkened chamber she sat with scores of women whose eyes were fixed as though in devotion upon a softly lighted stage where "models" kept appearing. What lovely figures some of them had. Others rather took her breath, and gave her the feeling she'd had before in her sister's bedroom. But then as her eye was caught again by the rapt faces all about, she chuckled to herself and thought, "There ought to be candles and incense here!"
She was appalled at the prices. And as the exciting days wore on, uneasily in her room at night she would sit down with pencil and paper and ask, "How much did I spend today?" Her father had left her nothing but the shabby old frame house. This she had sold to a friend of his, and the small fund thus secured she had resolved to husband.
"Oh, Ethel, go slow, you little fool. This is every penny you have in the world."
But the adorable things she saw, and the growing hunger she felt as she began to notice with a more discerning eye the women in shops and on the streets—just why they were so dashing and how they got this and that effect—all swept aside her caution, the easier because of the fact that everything she bought was charged.
One evening in a large cafe she sat watching Amy who was dancing with her husband. It was at the time when the new style dances were just coming into vogue. In Ohio they had been only a myth. But Amy was a beautiful dancer; and watching her now, Ethel reflected, "She expects me to be like that. If I'm not, she'll be disappointed, ashamed. And why shouldn't I be! What do you ever get in this world if you're always saving every cent? You miss your chance and then it's too late. I'll be meeting her friends in a few weeks more. I've simply got to hurry!" And with Amy's dancing teacher she arranged for lessons—at a price that made her gasp. But the lessons were a decided success.
"You've a wonderful figure for dancing," the teacher said confidingly, "and a sense for rhythm that most of these women haven't any idea of." He smiled down at her and she fairly beamed.
"Oh, how nice!" sighed Ethel. Something in the little look which flashed between them gave her a thrill of assurance. And this feeling came again and again, in the shops and while she was seated at luncheon in some crowded restaurant, or on the streets or back at home, where even Joe was beginning to show his admiring surprise.
"You're making a fine little job of it," she heard him say to Amy one night.
She caught other remarks and glances from strangers, men and women. And Ethel now began to feel the whole vast bustling ardent town centred on what in her high-school club, as they read Bernard Shaw, they had quite frankly and solemnly spoken of as "Sex." All the work and the business, the scheming and planning and rush for money, were focussed on this. And for this she was attracting those swift admiring glances. What she would be, what she wanted to be, what she now ardently longed to become, grew clearer to her day by day. For the picture was there before her eyes. Each day it grew more familiar, as at home in Amy's room she watched her beautiful sister, a stranger no longer to her now, seated at her dressing table good-humouredly chatting, and meanwhile revealing by numberless deft little things she was doing the secrets of clothes and of figure, and of cheeks and lips and eyes, with subtle hints behind it all of the ancient magic art of Pan. She felt Amy ceaselessly bringing her out. This gave her thrills of excitement. And looking at her sister she asked:
"Shall I ever be like that?"
And they kept talking, talking. And through it all the same feeling was there, the sense of this driving force of the town.
With the sturdy independence which was so deep a part of her, Ethel strove to hold up her end of these intent conversations and show that she had views of her own. She was no old-fashioned country girl, but modern, something different! They had discussed things in her club which would have shocked their mothers, discussed them long and seriously. They had spoken of marriage and divorce, of love and having children, and then had gone eagerly on to suffrage, jobs and "mental science," art, music and the rest of life. She had gathered there an image of New York as a glittering region of strong clever men and fascinating women, who not only loved to dance but held the most brilliant discussions at dinners livened by witty remarks—a place of vistas opening into a world of great ideas. And now with her older sister, she questioned her about it all, the art and all the "movements," the "salons" and the clever talk. She asked:
"Do you know any suffragists? Do you know any men who write plays or novels, or any musicians or painters—or actresses?" And again and again by an air of assurance Ethel tried to hide her dismay, as her sister subtly made all this seem like a school-girl's fancies.
"Yes," Amy would say good-humouredly, "there are such people, I suppose—plenty of them, all over town. And they talk and talk and hold meetings, and they go to high-brow plays—and some women even work. But it doesn't sound very thrilling, does it? I don't know. They never seem to me quite real."
And then Amy would go on to hint what did seem real to her in life. And again that picture of the town, all centred on what emerged from the shops and poured into the cafes to dance, was painted for her sister.
But behind her smiling manner of one with an intimate knowledge of life, Amy would glance at the girl by her side in a curious, rather anxious way. For vaguely she knew that years ago when she herself had come to New York, she too had had dreams and imaginings of what her young sister called "the real thing." And she knew that these had dropped away—at first in the struggle, which for her had been so intense and narrowing, to gain a foothold in the town; then through rebuffs from the clever friends of Joe Lanier when she married him; and later through a feeling of lazy acceptance of her lot. But Ethel's talk and Ethel's eyes recalled what had been left behind. And Amy thought of her present friends, and again with a little uneasy pang she put off their meeting with Ethel. For they did not seem good to her then, and the picture she found herself painting of their lives and her own appeared a bit flat and trivial in the light of Ethel's eagerness. They dressed and went shopping, they went to tea dances, they dined in cafes or in their homes, rushed off in taxis to musical plays, and had supper and danced. They loved and were loved, they "played the game."
"My dear," she said decisively, "it's not what you say that interests men; it's how you look and what you have on."
But despite her air of assurance and her own liking of her life, she felt the picture growing flat, and so she added quietly:
"Oh, my friends aren't all I'd like. They never are, if you've anything in you. If you really want to be somebody—" and here her whole expression changed to one of resolute faith in herself—"you need just one thing, money. And you can't do anything about that, you have to wait for your husband. Joe's a dear, of course, and he's working hard. And he's getting it, too, he's getting it!" A gleam of hunger almost fierce came into her clear violet eyes. "I want a larger apartment—I've picked out the very one. And I want a car, a limousine. I know just how I'll paint it a mauve body with white wheels. And I want a house on Long Island. I've picked out the very spot—just next to Fanny Carr's new place."
As her sister spoke of these ideals, again Ethel had that feeling of church, but only for a moment.
"Who's Fanny Carr?" she asked alertly.
Amy was slowly combing her hair, and she smiled with kindly tolerance, for her little confession had brought back her faith in herself and her future.
"Fanny was a writer once—"
"Yes. She ran a department on one of the papers." It had been the dress pattern page, but Amy did not mention that. Instead she yawned complacently. "Oh, she dropped it quick enough—she thought it rather tiresome. She's one of the cleverest women I know. She'd have got a long way up in the world, if it weren't for her second husband—"
"Yes. The first one didn't do very well. She told me once, 'If you want to get on, change your name at least once in every three years.' Her second, as it happened, was no better than the first. But she was clever enough by then to get an able lawyer; and when it came to the divorce, Fanny succeeded in keeping the house, the one out on Long Island."
"Oh," said Ethel tensely. Her sister shot a look at her.
"I don't care especially for Fanny's ideas about husbands," she said. "But at least she has a love of a home." And Amy went on to explain to her sister the value and importance of being able to give "week ends." Again the gleam came into her eyes.
"It's money, my dear, it's money. They are the same women in Newport exactly—just like all the rest of us—only they are richer. That's all—but it is everything. Put me in a big house out there, and my friends wouldn't know me in a few years."
A cloud came on her face as she looked in the glass.
"But that's just the trouble. A few years more and I'll be too late. You've got to get there while you're young. And there's so little time. You lose your looks. It's all very well for some women to talk about ideas and things—and travel and—and children. I did, too, I talked a lot—oh, how I wanted everything! But one has to narrow down. Thank heaven, Ethel, you've years ahead. I've only got a few more left—I'm already thirty-one. And my type ages fast in this town, if you do the things you're expected to do. But you—oh, Ethel, I want you to marry well! Not a millionaire—that's rather hard, and besides he'd probably be too fat—but the kind who will be a millionaire, who has it written all over his face and makes you feel it in his voice! Don't sell yourself too cheap, my dear! Don't go running about with men who'll keep you poor for the rest of your days. They talk so well—some of them do; and it sounds so fine—ideas and books and pictures and—I knew one who was an architect. And it's all very well for later on, but what you've got to do right at the start—while you have the looks and youth—is to find the man who can give you a house where all those other people will be tumbling to get in—because you'll have the money—you'll be able to entertain—and give them what they really want—in spite of all their talking."
Once more, with a weary sigh, she dropped the religious intensity, and smiled as she wistfully added:
"That's where some man can put you. They do, you know, they do it. Some man does it every day. You can see his name in the papers. Dozens of wives get to Newport each year. And what do they do it on? Money!
"That's romance enough for me, my dear. And if you want work and a career, the most fascinating kind I know is to study the man you've married—find what's holding him back and take it away—what's pushing him on and help it grow! You've got to narrow, narrow down! You may want a lot of children. They're loves, of course, to have around. But you run a big risk in that. I could give you so many cases—mothers who have just dropped out. If you want to really get on in this town, you've got to stick to your husband and make your husband stick to you! There are things about that you will learn soon enough. It comes so naturally, once you are in it—married, I mean. And that's your hold.
"And if you love him as I love Joe," she added almost in a whisper, "you find it so easy that often you forget what it is you're trying to do, what you're really doing it for. You're just happy and you shut your eyes. But then you wake up and use it all—everything—to drive him on. You can do that while you are still young and have what he wants—the looks, I mean—and can make him see that any number of other men would be glad to step into his shoes. But you give them only just enough to keep your husband from feeling too safe. You hold them off, you make him feel that he's everything to you if he'll work and give you what you ought to have! And unless you're a fool you don't listen to this talk of women's rights and women doing the work of men. You keep on your own ground and play the game. And you keep making him get what you need—before it's too late!" All at once she gave a sharp little laugh. "It's a kind of a race, you see," she said.
The night after this talk, Ethel lay in her bed, and tried to remember and think it out. How new and queer and puzzling. So many vistas she had dreamed of had been closed on every hand.
"What's the matter with me?"
The matter was that her old ideals and standards were being torn up by the roots, roots that went deep down into the soil of life in the town in Ohio. But Ethel did not think of that. She scowled and sighed.
"Well, this is real! I was dreaming! And after all, this is much the same, but different in the way you get it. This is New York. One thing is sure," she added. "Amy needs every dollar Joe can make—and she must not have me on her hands. I've got to find what I really want—a job or a man—and be quick about it!"
It threw a tinge of uneasiness into those breathless shopping tours. And it changed her attitude toward Joe. He had not counted for much at first; he had been a mere man of business; and business men had had little place in her dreams of friends in the city. But watching him now she changed her mind.
Joe Lanier was what is called "a speculative builder." He was an architect, building contractor and real estate gambler, all in one. He put up apartment buildings "on spec," buildings of the cheaper sort, most of them up in the Bronx, and sold them at a profit—or a loss, as the case might be. He dealt in the rapidly shifting values of neighbourhoods in the changing town. "The gamble in it is the fun," he remarked to Ethel one evening. Joe was just the kind of a man, as Amy had told her sister, to make a big sudden success of his work. Unfortunately he was tied to a partner, Nourse by name, who held him back. This man Amy keenly disliked. She said that Nourse was a perfect grind, a heavy tiresome creature who thought business was everything in the world.
"Sometimes I really believe he forgets it's for making money," Amy declared. "He's as anxious about it as an old hen, and he wants it steady as a cow. He detests me, as I do him. He has stopped coming here, thank heaven. And the time is not so far away when I'll make Joe see that he's got to lose his partner."
Joe's image gained steadily in importance to Ethel's awakening eyes. Of his force as a man, all that she saw made her more and more certain that Amy was right. Joe was the kind who was bound to succeed. He not only worked hard, his work was a passion. At night and on Sunday mornings he could sit for hours absorbed in the tiresome pages of real estate news in his paper. He went out for strolls in the evenings; one night he asked Ethel to come along; and his talk to her about buildings, the growth of the city by leaps and bounds, now in this direction, now in that, caught her imagination at once. Joe felt the town as a living thing, as she had felt it that first night. Different? Yes, this was business. But even business, to her surprise, as Joe saw and felt it, had a strange thrilling romance of its own.
And she soon noticed something else that drew her to Joe. Almost every evening he would sit down at his piano and start playing idly. As a rule he played dance music, popular songs from Broadway. But sometimes leaning back he would drift into other music. And though his hand would bungle and only sketch it, so to speak—in his black eyes, scowling slightly over the smoke of his cigar, would come a look which Ethel liked. But vaguely she felt that Amy did not, that it even made her uneasy. For almost invariably at such times, Amy would come behind him, her plump softly rounded arm would find its way down over his shoulder—and little by little the music would change and would come back to Broadway.
When Joe heard one evening that Ethel was "mad to learn to sing," he took her by the arm at once and marched her over to the piano. And they had quite a session together—till Amy suggested going out to a new cabaret she had heard of that day. Her voice sounded hurt and strained. And Ethel from that night on dropped all mention of singing.
Her curiosity deepened toward this city love affair, this husband and wife who apparently had left so many things out of their lives, things vital in the Ohio town. The sober wee girl in the nursery kept just as quiet as before. Often Ethel opened that door and went in and tried to make friends with its grave shy little inmate and the hostile nurse. And returning to her room she would frown and wonder for a time. But the pretty things piling in from the shops, and the gay anticipations, soon crowded such questioning out of her mind. Swiftly this household was growing more real, the rooms familiar, intimate; the day's routine with its small events were becoming parts of her life. Her own room was familiar now, for by many touches she'd made it her own. And the dining-room and the living room, where she grew acquainted with Joe, these too assumed an intimate air. Most of all, her sister's room grew more and more vivid in her thoughts, though this was still far from familiar, It held too much, it meant too much.
"Shall I ever live with a man like that?"
The way they looked at each other at times! The way they seemed keeping watch on each other. If Joe were out very late at night, Amy would almost invariably grow uneasy and absentminded, and there would be a challenging note in the way she greeted him on his return. On one such occasion Ethel was in Amy's room. She went out when Joe came in; but a queer little gasping sigh behind gave her a start and a swift thrill, for although she did not turn around she knew they were in each other's arms. And again, late one afternoon when the sisters came home and found Joe at work with a tired anxious look on his face, his wife came up behind him. And the picture of her small gloved hand upon Joe's heavy shoulder remained in Ethel's memory. It seemed so soft and yet so strong.
"She can do anything with him she likes. When I marry somebody how will it be?"
Upon the living-room mantel was a photograph of Amy. And on the smooth and pretty face with the lips slightly parting, and in the smiling violet eyes, there was the expression of something which Ethel did not quite name to herself—for she had forgotten the night long ago in her high-school club when they had sturdily tackled the word "sensual" and what it meant. But the picture grew familiar and real, filled in by the living presence here of this woman who so carefully tended her beautiful body, her glossy hair, her cheeks and lips; this sister with so many moods, now intent and watchful, now good-humoured, indolent, now expectant, hungry, now smilingly content and gay.
And as the picture grew more real, warm and close and thrilling, it symbolized for Ethel that mysterious force which she could feel on every side, driving the throngs of humanity—in this city where so many things she had once deemed important were fading rapidly away. That hungry hope of a singer's career, that craving for work and self-education, trips to Paris, London, Rome, books, art and clever people, "salons," brilliant discussions of life; and deeper still, those mysterious dreams about having children and making a home—all began to drop behind, so quietly and easily that she barely noticed the change.
For this was happening in a few weeks, in the first whirl and excitement of those dazzling streets and shops, those models, gowns, hats, gloves and shoes. "It's not what you say that interests men—it's how you look and what you have on." The image of her sister grew vivid in Ethel's eager mind. And with it came the question, now ardent though still a little confused:
"Shall I ever be like that?"
Ethel had been about four weeks in town, and now she was to meet Amy's friends. Amy was giving a dinner the next evening in her honour; and to let the cook and the waitress have a rest on the preceding night, Joe took Amy and Ethel out to dine in a cafe. His business had gone well that week and Joe was a genial husband. They had a sea-food supper and later he took them to a play. When they came home, Ethel went to her room, for she felt very tired. It was not long before she was asleep.
She was awakened by Joe, half dressed.
"Amy is sick!" he said sharply. "Go in and help her, will you? I'll try to get a doctor!"
On Amy's bed, a little later, Ethel saw a face so changed from the one of a few hours before, that she felt her heart jump into her throat. Amy's face was ugly and queer, distorted by frequent spasms of pain. But worse was the terror in her eyes.
"Ethel, I think I'm dying!" she cried. "Something I ate—it poisoned me!" There was a violent catch in her breath.
"Amy! Why, you poor little darling!" Ethel held her sister tight, asked quick anxious questions and did things to relieve her, but with little or no success. It seemed hours till Joe came back. With him was a doctor, who made an examination and then took Joe into the hall. Ethel followed anxiously. She heard the doctor questioning Joe, and she heard him say:
"I'm afraid it's ptomaine.
"What does that mean?" Joe fiercely inquired. But before Ethel could hear the reply she was called back into the bedroom, where on her bed with both hands clenched Amy was saying:
"I can't bear this! Make him give me something—quick!"
The rest of the night was a blur and a haze, of which Joe was the centre—Joe half crazed and impatient, making impossible demands.
"You can't get a nurse in a minute, my friend, at five A. M.," the doctor cried. "I'm doing my best, if you'll give me a chance!"
The fight went on. The nurse arrived, and turning to Ethel the doctor said, "Get him out of this." And she took Joe into the living-room. But there with a sudden curse and a groan he began to walk the floor.
"This doctor—what do we know of him? He was all I could find! We haven't been to a doctor in years! . . . Ah—that's it!" And he went to the telephone, where in a few moments she heard him saying tensely, "Bill, old man, I'm in trouble." And she thought, "It's his partner."
"What have you done?" she asked him.
"Got Bill Nourse on the 'phone. He's bringing another doctor."
"But Joe! You should have asked this one first!"
"Should I?" was his distracted reply.
The second physician soon arrived, and was as surprised and annoyed as the first one when he found how he had been summoned. In a moment with angry apologies he was backing out of the door. But Joe caught his arm.
"You two and your etiquette be damned! Go in and look at that woman!" he cried. And with a glance into Joe's eyes, the second doctor turned to the first, muttered, "Hold this man. He's crazy "—and went into the bedroom.
It was long before Ethel forgot the look that appeared on Joe's face when the second physician came out and said:
"I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do."
She went in with Joe to Amy. And her sister looked so relieved, the lines of pain all smoothed away. Heavily drugged, she was nearly asleep. Her hand felt for Joe's and closed on it, and with a little nestling movement of her soft lovely body she murmured smiling:
"Oh, so tired and sleepy now."
Again, in spite of her grief and fright, Ethel noticed how her sister's hand closed on that of her husband. In the months and years that followed, she recalled it vividly so many times.
Joe sat there long after Amy was dead.
The doctor signed to Ethel to come into the living-room.
"Are you to be in charge?" he asked. She looked at him and shivered. She felt a pang of such loneliness as she had never known before.
"I know nobody—nothing—I don't know how you arrange," she said. "I've only been a month in town."
The doctor gave her a curious look of pity and uneasiness. It was as though he had told her, "I'm sorry, but don't count on me for help. I'm busy. This is New York, you know." He said:
"I'll see to the undertaker." She shivered again, and he added, "Don't you know some older woman here?"
This reminded her of the dinner which Amy was to have given that night. A lump rose in her throat. She waited a moment and then she said:
"Yes, I know of several."
"That's good. You'd better send for them." And soon afterward he hurried away.
But just as Ethel was rising to go to the telephone, there was a ring at the door. She opened it, and a tall man, rather stooped, with iron grey hair and moustache, a lean but rather heavy face and deep-set impassive eyes, came in and said:
"I'm Joe's partner—Nourse, you know. How is it going? Better?"
"God!" With that low exclamation, she thought she saw a gleam of shock but then of triumph come in his eyes. He went into Joe's room, and closed the door; and with a mingling of relief and of sharp hostility she felt at once how she was shut out. Who was she but a stranger now? She thought of Amy, and with a quick cry Ethel began to walk up and down in a scared hunted fashion. She stopped with a sudden resolute clenching of her teeth, and said, "Now I've got to do something! If I don't, I'll go right out of my mind!" But what? She stared about her, then went to the windows and threw back the curtains. It was well along toward noon. Daylight flooded into the room, with one yellow path of light which came down from the distant sun.
"I'll go out and get her some flowers."
When she came back a half hour later, Ethel still had that resolute look. The door of Joe's room was still closed and she saw Nourse's hat in the hall. She turned and went to the telephone, stopped and frowned.
"Yes, that's the next thing."
She called up Amy's friend Fanny Carr. But at the sound of the woman's voice which came back over the wire, Ethel gave a start of dismay. For it had a jarring quality, and although it was prompt in its exclamations of shocked surprise and sympathy and proffers of help—the words, "You poor child, I'll come over at once!"—made Ethel inwardly beseech her, "Oh, no, no! Please stay away!" Aloud she said, "Thank you," put up the receiver and stood staring at the wall. Was this Amy's best friend?
"I want some one I know!" She thought of Susette. She went at once to the nursery, kissed the wee girl and sat down on the floor. And as they built a house of blocks, Ethel could feel herself softening, the strained tight sensation going. Suddenly in her hot dry eyes she felt in a moment the tears would come.
"What's to become of me and this child?"
She turned with a start and met the unfriendly eyes of the nurse. They had a jealous light in them.
"You'll stay here, of course," said Ethel. "Surely you are not thinking of going—"
"No. Are you?"
A little cold sensation struck into her spine at the tone of that question.
"I haven't decided yet on my plans. Hadn't you better take Susette out to the Park?"
"And keep her there as much as you can—till it's over."
"All right," said the nurse again.
Ethel went out of the room. Were there only strangers here?
Just after that Fanny Carr arrived, and Ethel had a feeling at once of a shrewd strong personality. A woman of about medium height, still young but rather over-developed, artificial and overdressed, with a full bust and thick red lips and lustrous eyes of greenish grey—her beauty was of the obtrusive type that is made to catch the eye on the street and in noisy crowded rooms. When Fanny kissed her, Ethel shrank. "I mustn't do that!" she exclaimed to herself. But the other woman had noticed it and shot a little look at her.
"You poor girl. I can't tell you how sorry I feel," she was saying. "It's horrible. Tell me about it."
And Ethel in a lifeless voice recounted the tragedy of the night.
"In there, with his partner."
"Oh, Mr. Nourse. He would be." Mrs. Carr threw a glance of dislike at the door. "And you, my dear—I won't ask you now what are your plans. Just let me help you. What can I do? There's that dinner tonight, to begin with. Have you let the people know?"
"Have you a list of the ones who were asked?"
"I think there's one on Amy's desk."
"Then I'll attend to it."
Soon Fanny was at the telephone. Her voice, hard and incisive, kept talking, stopping, talking again, repeating it to friend after friend, and making it hard, abrupt and real, stripping it of its mystery, making it naked and commonplace, like a newspaper item—Amy's death. And Ethel sat rigid, listening.
"Amy's best friend! Oh, how strange!"
Suddenly she remembered things Amy had said about this friend—admiring things. She bit her lips.
"What a queer time for hating a person. But I hate you—oh, I hate you!" She went to the window and frowned at the street and slowly again got control of herself. "What's wrong with me? Why am I so dull I ought to be doing something. But what?" Again came the voice from the telephone, and again she clenched her hands. "How did you make Amy take you for a friend? Oh, what difference does it make?"
But it did make a difference. The presence of Fanny got on her nerves; and when a little later two of the dinner guests arrived, to exclaim and pity and offer their help, she faced them and thought:
"You're all alike! You're all just hard and over-dressed! You're cheap! Oh, please—please go away!"
The two visitors seemed glad enough to find she did not want them here, that she was not going to cling to them and make this abyss she was facing a region they must face by her side. In their eyes again she caught the look she had seen on the face of the doctor. "After all, this is not my affair."
The two women left her. Fanny, too, soon went out on an errand. And no other woman came to her that day. How different from the Ohio town. Only once a girl came from the dressmaker's.
But just after Fanny had gone out, Joe's partner came into the living-room. In the last few hours several times she had heard his voice as he talked with Joe. Deep, heavy and gruff, it had yet revealed a tenderness that had given to Ethel a sudden thrill—which she had forgotten the next moment, for her thoughts kept spinning so. But now as he looked down at her she saw in his gaunt lean face a reflection of that tenderness; and there was a pity in his voice which set her lip to quivering.
"The sooner we have this over," he said, "the better it will be for Joe."
"I'll see to it."
"Thank you." There was a pause.
"Is there any special cemetery? You have any preference?" he asked.
"I don't know any in New York." And again there was a silence.
"You haven't been here long," he said.
"You'll be going back now to your home, I suppose."
"I haven't any."
"Oh," he said. She glanced up and saw a gleam of uneasiness in his steady tired eyes. She shrank a little.
"You have no relatives living?" he asked.
"None that I care about," she replied. She swallowed sharply. "They're scattered—gone West. We lost track of them."
"Oh. . . . Then do you intend to stay here?"
"For awhile—if Joe wants me."
"I'll take care of Joe." Though the voice was low, it had an anxious jealous note which made her shiver slightly.
"There's the child," she reminded him sharply. "Why not take it away?" he asked. "Joe never cared for it, did he? Do you think it has been happy here?"
And at that she could have struck him. At her glare he turned away.
"Forgive me. Of course I—should not have said that." A pause. "Nor talked of your plans. I'm not myself. Sorry for Joe. Forgive me." He turned away from her, frowning. "I'll see to everything," he said, and she heard him leave the apartment.
And all the rest of the day and the night and through the morning which followed, no one else came but professional men, and Mrs. Carr. She came and went; and her voice grew familiar—hard, intrusive, naked. And the thought kept rising in Ethel's mind, like a flash of revelation in all the storm and blackness:
"This kind of a woman was Amy's best friend!"
The funeral was soon over, and of its ugly details only a few remained in her mind. She had a glimpse of Amy's face down in the handsome coffin, and at the sight she turned away with a swift pang of self-reproach. "I shouldn't have let Fanny do that!" Fanny had dressed her sister.
She remembered the low respectful voice of the building superintendent: "There's an afternoon tea on the floor below, so the casket and the funeral guests had better go down by the freight elevator."
She gave a strained little laugh at that and asked, "I wonder when I'll cry?"
The preacher, a tall kindly young man, came in and seemed about to speak; but after a look at her face he stopped. He had come from a church two blocks away. Joe and Amy had never been to his church, and it was Nourse who had brought him here. Nourse had learned of him from the undertaker.
Several boxes of flowers came.
Later from a milliner's shop two pretty autumn hats arrived.
The guests began arriving—silent, awkward strangers—ten or twelve.
She heard the nurse come in with Susette and take her back to the nursery.
There was no music. Not a sound.
At last the silence was broken by the minister's low voice. Thank heaven that was kindly. He was brief, and yet too long; for from the apartment one flight below, before he had finished, the festive throb of a little orchestra was heard.
He prayed just a minute or two.
Then they followed the coffin out into the hall and back and down by the freight elevator.
A motor hearse was waiting below.
When the burial was over, she came home alone with Joe. She sat in the living-room watching his face, while the dusk grew mercifully deep. Then she made him eat some supper and take something to make him sleep. And later in her own small room she lay on her bed, dishevelled, tearless, her mind stunned, her feelings queer and uneven, now surging up, now cold and still.
"Where has she gone? What do I know? . . . What do I believe? Where is God? . . . What is life? What am I here for?"
With a pang she recalled the town in Ohio where she and Amy had been born, and her thoughts went drifting for awhile. Pictures floated in and out, pictures of her life at home. She was hungry for them now, the old stays and firm supports, the old frame house, her father and the God in the yellow church, the quiet river, the high school and that friendly group of eager girl companions, with work, discussions, young ideals, plans and dreams of life and love. . . . All up by the roots in a few swift weeks!
"Shall I go back?" she asked herself. "Do I want to go—now that Dad is dead, and most of the girls have gone away, scattered all over the country?" Again she lapsed. "I'm too dull to think." She let the pictures drift again. Church sociables, a Christmas tree, dances, suppers and buggy rides, picnics by the river. How small and very far-away and trivial they now appeared. All had pointed toward New York. "Go back and marry, settle down? Do I want to? No. And anyhow, there's Joe and Susette. My place is right here—and I'm going to stay. But what is it going to mean to me? What do I want in this city now?"
In the turmoil, startled, she looked about her for a purpose, some ideal. But the old beliefs seemed dim; the new ones, garish and confused. She recalled those faces of Amy's friends. "Yes, cheap and tough, for all their clothes!" Or was it just this ghastly time that had made them all appear so?
Again she thought of her sister dead. "Oh Amy—Amy! Where have you gone?" And at last, quite suddenly, the tears came, and she huddled and shook on her bed.
She slept that night exhausted, woke up early the next morning and lay motionless on her bed: at first staring bewildered about the room, and then, with a sharp contraction of her brows and a quick breath, looking intently up at the ceiling. A vigilant look crept into her eyes, for at once instinctively she was on guard against letting the feelings of yesterday rise.
"What a selfish little beast I've been. Did I help in the funeral? Not a bit. Did I comfort poor Joe? Not at all. I was occupied wholly with my own morbid little soul. Now we're going to stiffen up, my love, and try to be of some use to Joe, and do as Amy would have liked." She began to tremble suddenly. "No, we're not going to think of her! It's dangerous! Be practical! To begin with, I must clear things up. I'll have a little talk with Joe. Poor Joe—it's going to be pretty dreadful. I'll stick by him, though, and I've got to learn how to keep him from going out of his mind." More staring at the ceiling. "One thing I know. I shan't wear black. Amy detested mourning, and Joe will see life black enough as it is. . . . Thank Heaven there's the housekeeping to do. That shall run smoothly if it kills me! . . . All right, now suppose we get out of bed."
About an hour later, from behind Amy's silver coffee pot, Ethel had her talk with Joe. She felt ill, but she bit her lips and smiled. She had dressed her hair becomingly and had donned a blue silk waist, one of the countless pretty things that she had bought with Amy. Her brown eyes had a resolute brightness.
"We'll have to help each other," she said. "And there's Susette to be thought of. The best way, I guess, is not to try to do much planning ahead just now. But I'd like to stay here if you want me, Joe. There's no other place where I want to be."
He gave her a grateful tired smile. His hair was a bit dishevelled, and over his blunt kindly face had come a haggard lost expression. His voice was low:
"Thank you, Ethel—you're a brick. I want you here at first, God knows. Later I'll try to fix things so that you can feel more free. You're only a kid, with a life of your own. Big city, you know, and you'll find your place."
He stared over at the window, where the sun was streaming in.
"Another cup of coffee, Joe?"
"No, thanks." he rose slowly, and added, "Let's go now to—Amy's desk—and fix up the housekeeping part of it."
Later he said, "I'll see the nurse and the other two maids and tell 'em they're to take orders from you." He paused a moment. "And Ethel—if you're to stay here, I want it to be as nearly like it was as I can." he gave a wincing frown. "I mean on the money side," he said. "I'll give you a check the first of each month. You'll need things of your own, of course—as she did. I want it just like that."
"Thank you, dear." She saw a muscle in his cheek suddenly begin to twitch, and she thought, "It won't be easy."
When Joe left for his office, she went with him to the door.
She turned at once to the housekeeping. Her talks with the waitress and the cook left her both a little relieved and a good deal disappointed. For there seemed to be nothing for her to do; she was made to feel that things would run best with the least possible interference. She learned with surprise that hitherto the cook had done all the ordering.
"All I need to know is how many is coming," said the cook.
"There won't be any one for awhile."
"Then it's very simple, ma'am." On the woman's face was a look which said, "Just you keep out of my kitchen."
It was the same in her talk with the nurse. That tall gaunt creature briefly explained that, "Mrs. Lanier bought clothes Spring and Fall, and then she left the child to me. I go out every Thursday and every other Sunday—afternoon and evening. Lucy the waitress takes my place. The rest of the time I've managed alone." She looked around in a jealous way and asked, "I suppose you'll want things as before?"
"Yes, for the present," Ethel said. She felt the woman glance at her sharply as she turned toward the door.
She went into her sister's room, sat down and had a little cry. But the sunlight was streaming in through the pretty chintz curtains there; and its softness and its ease, its luxury and blithe content, stole into her spirit and quieted her. She sat looking about.
"What is there for me to do?"
It came over her that the cook and the nurse could tell her just about what they pleased. She had no means of checking them up, for Amy had never talked of such things. It had all been pretty clothes and shops, in those brief exciting weeks, and shrewd counsel about men and what it was they wanted of women. How appallingly shallow and meaningless those conversations now appeared. They gave no comfort or support. The remembrance of the terror in Amy's eyes at the thought of death rose vividly in Ethel's mind, and she got up and walked the floor.
"We'll fight this down—we'll fight this down," she kept repeating determinedly. And as soon as she was quiet again: "What is there for me to do? Why Joe, of course—and heaven knows he'll be enough. He's the hardest kind, he doesn't cry, he keeps it all inside of him." She drew a deep breath. "How about this room?" She frowned and looked around her. "No, I don't think he wants anything changed. For the present at least, I'll leave it alone. But he ought not to be reminded of her by every little thing he sees."
She looked into the closets. In Joe's she found some of Amy's things. She put them back in her sister's closet and then gently closed the door. As she stood there a moment longer, she had a curious feeling of Amy's presence by her side.
"Now, my dear, we'd better go out for a walk," she told herself as she turned away. But she threw a glance behind her.
In the weeks that followed she and Joe were more intensely alone together than she could have imagined.
At first a few of Amy's friends kept dropping in every now and then. But although their intentions were kindly enough, Ethel felt repelled by them. She resented their having been Amy's friends. For swiftly and quite unconsciously, in her resolute groping in the dark for solid ground on which to stand, she was building up an ideal of her sister—and these women jarred on that. They came to her direct from a world, her sister's world, which she now vaguely felt to be cheap, shallow, disillusioning. And she needed her illusions. By nature frank to bluntness, she was not good at hiding dislikes; and her uneasy visitors soon realized with relief that they were not wanted here.
Fanny Carr still came for a time. For some reason that Ethel could not understand, this shrewd person seemed reluctant to let go her hold as a friend. She was most solicitous about Joe and tried to come when he was at home. But as Ethel's dislike of the woman deepened in intensity, gradually Fanny's visits, too, grew less frequent and then ceased.
During the first week or two, Joe's partner almost every night came home with him to dinner and took him out for evening walks. But his talk was all of business. It seemed to Ethel that purposely Nourse shut her out of the conversation. His manner to her, though not unkind, was like that of the cook and the nurse. "The less you meddle here," it said, "the better it will be for Joe. Leave him to me."
Gleams of this feeling came in his eyes. It showed now and then so openly that even Joe took notice. He stopped bringing his partner home, and he drew closer to Ethel now, as together they cherished the memory of the woman who was gone.
And slowly, in this companionship, this loneliness, this quiet, Joe grew very real to her, and appealing in his grief. Everything else seemed so remote—but he was close. "He needs me." It was a bright spot in the dark. At times this darkness had no end, it stretched away to eternity; but at least she did not face it alone. Of Joe's grief she could have no doubt. Each week his blunt strong features displayed more lines of suffering; his high cheek-bones showed hard and grim. He was grateful, affectionate at times, but more often silent, and she saw in his eyes what frightened her. He had so few resources here. In his office was his work, just as it had always been; but at home there was nothing; his wife was gone, and he seemed restless to get out.
"Let's go somewhere," he would mutter.
She went with him for strolls in the evenings. Often they walked on and on till both were ready to drop with fatigue, but she stuck doggedly by his side. One evening they passed the open door of a church. It was lighted, and the deep low rumble of an organ floated out. Joe stopped a moment irresolute, and then started to go inside. But a glance through the door revealed to him that the church was nearly empty; and he turned away as he would have turned from any show on Broadway which was so obviously "not a hit."
"Sometimes on Sunday mornings I seem to hear 'em, preachers, droning and shouting all over the land," he told her once. "What's in it? What do they know about God or where you go when you are dead? Nothing, no more than you or I!"
His voice was harsh and bitter then, but the next instant it was kind. With his arm about her he was saying:
"Don't, Ethel—please—don't take it like that! I was a brute! I won't again! I'll keep it inside! I'm sorry, dear!"
"Oh, Joe," she whispered, "if we only knew!"
So these two faced eternity.
But only at moments. They looked away. For she saw how good it was for Joe to have the distractions that he craved; and so on their long walks at night she took him to the noisy streets, or into the movies, where his mind appeared to stop and find some rest. Best of all, she discovered, was to go with him in the small car which he used for his business. Driving this car through crowded streets amid a clamour and blare of horns and shouts and peals of laughter, the look on Joe's face made Ethel see how this dulled his grief, how he lost himself and his questionings and became a mere part of the town. What a glamourous seething town! There was something terrific to her in its laugh. If you stopped to think and ask yourself, "What are we all doing here?" how soon it jostled you back into line!
So passed another fortnight. Then Joe grew quieter, and with relief she saw he was ready to stay home. She herself felt tired and relaxed; and it was good to sit at home on these December evenings and feel that both had partly emerged from the sea of doubts in which they had been plunged. He had come out of it, she soon learned, with an image of his wife that even Ethel vaguely felt was swiftly becoming so ideal as to have little or no resemblance to the woman who had died. But eagerly she helped him in this building of Amy's memory. She dwelt upon Amy's appealing side, her lovable moods, her beauty and dash, her unerring instinct for pretty things, her unselfishness, her anxious planning for Ethel's good.
And all this fitted in so well with the picture Joe was making of the wife who had been so true to him, who had never had a thought or a wish for anything but his career. How cheerfully she had given up all sorts of pleasures, trips abroad, a house in the country, summer vacations. Year after year she had spent the hot months almost wholly in town because he could not afford to leave, although she herself had had many chances to go to friends in the mountains or up along the seashore. Instead she had stayed with him in town; and in the evenings always she had been waiting, good-humoured and gay, ready to stay home or go out; with never a word of complaint for the delay of his prosperity, but only encouragement and praise.
At times, as Joe talked on and on, in this mood of hungry wistful love and humility and self-reproach, Ethel would bring herself back with a jerk to the Amy she had known; but again she would feel herself borne along upon the tide of his belief, and she was glad that it was so. So the picture grew. Nor was it only when they talked. For often in long silences, when she thought he was reading his paper, she would glance up from her book and find him staring into the past. And again at the piano, smoking and playing idly, his music made her realize how his mind was groping back through the years, picking and choosing here and there what he needed to build up his ideal.
This music at times made her curious, wondering what kind of a man he had been before Amy took him in hand.
"Where did you learn to play like that, Joe?" He frowned a little.
"Oh, long ago."
He did not seem to care to go back of his marriage. So Ethel let him continue his building; and though at times she smiled a little at some of his fond recollections, still her own deep adoration of her older sister, the whirl of happy memories of that vivid month in town, and the sense of all that Amy had been planning to do for her, combined now with her desperate loneliness to put Ethel in a mood where she gladly and loyally believed almost anything good of her sister.
Christmas was only one example of many similar incidents. They had a small Christmas tree for Susette, and they hung up her stocking as well, and went out Christmas Eve and bought candy canes and dogs and dolls and picture books. And although this was Ethel's idea, it was made to appear as only the thing which Amy would have done had she lived.
So in these two hungry souls, groping for something bright and deep and strong upon which they could live, swiftly and unawares to them both the picture of Amy was stamped deep, idealized and beautified. In life it had been fascinating, but now it was almost heroic as well. It was as though the small gloved hand, which Ethel had noticed so many times, in death had increased the power of its light, firm, tenacious hold.
Ethel began to feel more free, for Joe was no longer on her mind. More than once, in fact, she was surprised at the way he seemed to be settling down. She felt a deeper change in him, something she did not understand. The worn harassed expression she had so often seen on his face while his wife had been alive, the look of a man driven and drained of his vitality, was now gone; and in its place was an unconscious look of content. He often stayed very late at the office; and more and more in his evenings at home he went to his desk and became absorbed in documents and blue print plans.
"What a refuge a man's business is," she thought with a twinge of envy.
And wistfully she began to look about for some resource for herself. She felt the youth within her rise, but the city seemed so vast and strange. In her loneliness the big building of which her present home was a part, seemed doubly huge, impersonal, hard; and so did every other building on that block appear. She felt lost, left out amid ceaseless tides of gaiety on every hand. She took long determined walks, and on these walks she donned the smart attractive clothes that she had bought with Amy. She strove to keep her mind on the sights, the faces of people afoot and in cars, the adorable things in shop windows. And she chatted busily to herself in order to keep on admiring. This old habit of hers, of soliloquy, had grown upon her unawares, as a refuge from her loneliness. Sometimes she even talked aloud. Sturdily she told herself:
"You've only begun. You'll get up out of this, Ethel Knight—just wait. Can't you give a few months to Amy now?"
And scowling at her "morbidness" in feeling dreary and forlorn, she resolutely scanned the papers for news of lectures, plays and concerts. She went to a few in the afternoons, and dressed for them as carefully as though they were great social affairs. And in the intermissions when a buzz of talk would rise, she would begin with quick animation to converse with herself and be gay, or alert and argumentative. Her lips would move inaudibly. Now and then she would brightly smile and nod across the house at some friend she pretended to have seen. She enrolled for a course of lectures upon "Mental Science." She resumed her reading of magazines and books on all kinds of topics. It made her think of high school days, and hungrily she reached back for that old. zest and inquisitiveness about everything under the moon and stars.
And through this searching she caught hints of the presence in the city of a life wider and deeper than shops and yet not antagonistic—a life of gaiety, grace and ease, but with it all the brilliancy to which Amy had been blind; the rich ferment of new ideas in women's lives, discussions, work of many kinds, art, music, "movements" all combined into one thrilling pulsing whole. And again she felt within herself that rising tide of youth and eager vitality.
"Oh, what couldn't I do, my dear, if I only had a chance? Why doesn't somebody see it at once—notice me now, right here on the street? You, madam, in that limousine—look out and see me—don't go by! You're losing the chance of a lifetime! You're missing me—me—Ethel Knight!"
As the dame in her car sped smoothly by, Ethel suddenly laughed aloud. But her laughter had a dangerous note, and she added fiercely, biting her lip:
"Now, don't be silly and burst into tears!"
"Ma'am?" said a voice.
She stopped with a jerk and looked up into the startled eyes of a massive young policeman. Her last remark had been spoken directly up into his face, and the youth was blushing visibly.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Excuse me!"
And she hurried on.
This loneliness lasted several weeks. Then Joe grew dimly aware of it, and came to her assistance with awkward efforts to comfort her. He was at home more often at night. His gruff voice took on a kindlier tone, and in an offhand manner intended to seem casual he would ask where she had been that day or what book she was reading. And they would discuss it for a while. He took her to the theatre and to a concert now and then. They went for rides at night in his car, and he talked to her about his work. She could feel his anxious friendliness. "What a dear he is to me," she thought.
As time went on this companionship grew so natural to them both that more than once Ethel felt in herself a content which made her a little uneasy. As in his blunt kindly way Joe drew closer to her now, she had an awkward consciousness of being in her sister's place. No, not that exactly. Still, she did not care to think of it. She kept out of Amy's room. It had subtly changed and become Joe's room—to her mind at least—though by little things he said and did she knew that Joe was keeping that idealized image of his wife still warm and living in his mind.
But was he—altogether? At times she would frown to herself a bit. Joe loyal? Yes, of course he was, she would indignantly declare. In a novel Ethel had once read, the hero who had lost his wife had taken his grief in this same silent way; and the author had laid it down as a law that all quiet widowers are the kind who never, never marry again. This thought had taken root in her mind; and she applied it now to Joe.
Soon at his suggestion she began to use some of Amy's things. One night when they were going out, he helped her slip into her sister's soft luxurious sable cloak. And as she turned, she detected a queerly uncertain look in Joe's eyes. But in an instant it was gone, and she soon dismissed her uneasiness. For through the weeks that followed he became engrossed in his business and barely noticed her at all.
About this time a letter from home brought her a sharp disappointment. Ethel was not a good correspondent, but during the homesick winter months she had written several times to three of the girls she had known in school. Two had gone west, but the other one was still in Ohio and was planning to come to New York, to take a course of training as nurse in one of the hospitals. In fact it had been all arranged. And Ethel had not realized how much she had counted on this friend, until now a letter came announcing her engagement to a young doctor in Detroit. She was going there to live, and her letter was full of her happiness. Ethel was very blue that night.
But only a few days after this she received another missive that had quite a different effect. It was a long bulky epistle, a "round robin" from the members of the little high school club to which she had belonged at home. The girls had scattered far and wide. One was teaching music in an Oklahoma town; another had gone to Cleveland and was a stenographer in a broker's office there; a third was in Chicago, the wife of a young lawyer; and a fourth had married an engineer who was working a mine in Montana. It made an absorbing narrative, and she read it several times. At first it took her out of herself, far, far out all over the land. How good it was to get news of them all, how nice and gossipy and gay. It was almost as though they were here in the room; she seemed to be talking with each one; and as they chatted on and on, the feeling grew in Ethel that each was starting like herself and that some were having no easy time in unfamiliar places. She could read between the lines.
But the part that struck her most was the contribution of their former history "prof," a little lame woman with snappy black eyes, who had been the leading spirit in their long discussions. She was an ardent suffragist, and she it was who had brought so many modern books and plays and "movements" into their talk. Chained to her job in the small town, she had followed voraciously all the news of the seething changing world outside, of the yeast at work in the cities. And to the letters of some of the girls who seemed bent upon nothing but social success, the little teacher now replied by an appeal to all of them:
"Girls, some of these letters worry me. I don't want to preach—you will lead your own lives. But I cannot help reminding you of the things we talked about—the splendid things, exciting things that are stirring in this land today. Oh, what a chance for women—what openings with narrow doors—what fights to make the doorways wide for the girls who will come after you! Keep yourselves strong and awake and alive—keep growing—remember that life is a school and for you it has only just begun. Don't sit at your desks—in your homes, I mean—blinking with a man at your side. Keep yourselves free—don't marry for money—don't let yourselves get under the thumb of any husband, rich or poor, or of social position or money or clothes or any such silly trumpery. Get the real things! Oh, I'm preaching, I know, as I did in spite of myself at home. But girls—dear friends and comrades—be strong—and don't give up the ship!"
Ethel read it many times. She could hear the voice of the little "prof," now earnest, scornful, pleading, now obstinate and angry, again light-hearted, mocking. She recalled how their leader had warned them against the bribery of men. Most of the girls had smiled at her then, for they had felt themselves so strong and clear in their aims and desires.
"Oh, Ethel—Ethel—Ethel Knight. How have the mighty fallen. One week in New York and your eyes were glued to the windows of shops. You got ready to dance and find a man."
The thought rose in her mind—"That was Amy's idea." But she dismissed it with a frown. She turned back to the letters and read them all through over again. She rose and walked slowly up and down with her hands locked behind her. Then she went to her desk, and to the round robin she added this:
"I am in New York and have nothing to say. I have been a fool. I have spent nearly all my money on a lot of silly clothes. No, not silly—fetching clothes—for they were meant to fetch a man. But in getting them I got nothing else. I have had a shock—a terrible one. My sister Amy suddenly died. I am here now to care for her child. But am I? Nothing of the kind. The nurse does that and I do nothing. I just sit or walk about and scowl at what I am missing. No more from me, girls, until the round robin—the dear splendid thrilling round robin—comes back here on its next yearly round. I swear I'll have a job by then! Good luck and God bless us all! We're young!"
Quickly she crammed all the letters into a large envelope, licked it, pressed it firmly down, and addressed it to, "Miss Barbara Wells, Bismarck, North Dakota." She stamped it, felt the tears come, kissed the letter a fierce good-bye, took it out and dropped it in the mail box in the hall. Then she came back to her own room, and with swift, determined jerks took off the black cloth wrapping of a large old-fashioned typewriter, one of the few belongings she had brought from Ohio. She had purchased it several years ago, and by typing sermons and other occasional documents she had earned almost money enough for the clothes that had cost so little at home.
She sat down and began to pound the keys, but soon she stopped and shook her head. She had never been an expert. Self-taught, her work had been laboured and slow, and the lapse of months had thrown her out. "However! Something must be done!" And the pounding went on for days and days, hour after hour; and when her fingers, wrists and arms felt like "two long tooth-aches," she exclaimed impatiently:
"Oh, for goodness sake stop being so soft! You're a new woman, Ethel Knight, and you're going to earn your living!"
At times, however, stopping to rest and carefully scan her labour for faults, her mind would rove far out into life. She was copying from two books the little "prof" had given her, the "Life and Letters of George Sand"; and "The Work of Susan B. Anthony." And as Ethel pounded on, each book in its own way revealed exciting vistas to her eyes of life in great cities both here and abroad, life earnest and inspiring, life bright and thrilling, brilliant, free!
"Oh, your future life, my love, will be far from dull and blinking!"
And this mood lasted for two weeks. Then as her hand grew more expert, and she scanned the papers for information of employment bureaus, there came some ugly hours when much pounding was required. She went out and tramped the streets, meeting the town with angry eyes that struggled for self-confidence. And twice, although she had dressed herself with a keen and vigilant eye to her own attractiveness and had gone to the bureau she had selected, with a sinking heart she turned back from the door. But the second time, after leaving, with a scowl she faced about, went back and marched into the office. And a little later when she emerged, her face had a stunned and dazed expression. She still could not believe it! For the woman in charge, after one sharp look and a number of questions, had remarked:
"Why, yes, I think we can place you. I've one position waiting right now." There had been more questioning, but this had seemed rather perfunctory. The woman had not appeared to care very much that Ethel had only one reference—from the old minister back at home; and the brief exhibition of her skill which Ethel gave upon a machine, with her fingers excited, cold and tense, had lasted but a minute or two when the woman had said, "Yes, that will do."
Ethel scowled as she tried to remember it all. There had been one flaw. What was it?
"Oh, yes, she warned me about men." And here Ethel gave a sharp little laugh, with a lump of excitement in her throat. "Well, I think I can handle myself on that point." She recalled with assurance recollections—and there had been not a few—of youths at home who had tried to "get fresh," and had soon been shown where they got off!
She was walking very rapidly toward a subway station, and soon she was on her way downtown.
"Yes, my dear, I'm sorry to say that it isn't your skill, it is your face that has got you this chance. All right, Face, thank you very much. If you'll just keep steady, eyes easy and cool, jaw firm but not too ugly." . . .'
And when a few minutes later she was shown into the private office of her future employer, she almost laughed in his fat round face—so absurd in that first moment did all her little qualms appear.
"He's forty and he loves his meals."
And she answered his questions so blithely, with such an anxious friendliness, that the dumpy man who sat at the desk was plainly attracted and easily caught. In fact, in his heavy-lidded eyes and about his thick lips came a look which repelled her a little. "I shouldn't wonder if even you might get feeling young again," she thought to herself disgustedly. "But I guess I can attend to that!"
"Yes, sir, fifteen dollars a week," she was saying meanwhile in a firm brisk tone of voice. "Of course I know it's just a trial, but I'll do my best, I promise you."
"Vell," said Mr. Greesheimer, "you be here tomorrow at nine und ve'll see." He sighed. "Ve'll see, my friend." He turned back to his desk with an abrupt and businesslike little gesture of dismissal.
And this businesslike air he retained on the morrow. As he explained her work to her, the tone of his voice was crisp and dry. Ladies' cloaks were Greesheimer's "line," and though his business was still new he was increasing it rapidly. He was eager, hungry, almost fierce in the way he snapped off his letters at times; again he was a genial soul, boasting to her of his success and giving forth shrewd homely proverbs that he had learned long ago as a child in some Galician village. But never in those weeks of work did she catch a suggestion of "freshness." He was her boss, and at times her friend in a fatherly fashion—that was all. She worked hard, overcame her awkwardness, was punctual, laboured to please him. And he was not slow to praise.
"You're a smart young goil," he said more than once. "Keep on—it's great—it suits me fine."
And despite the monotonous bleak detail of her life in that room, Ethel grew steadily happier there. For she was gaining confidence fast, she was living up to her ideals. Soon she would be ready to leave this funny little man and get a place of a different kind—as secretary, for instance, to some clever woman novelist or noted suffrage leader. She had already put down her name at three employment bureaus, in each of which the woman in charge seemed to look upon her with a favourable eye.
Too bad poor Joe disliked it so. When she informed him of what she had done, he had appeared quite taken back.
"All right, Ethel, go ahead. I don't want to meddle," he had replied. "Only—" he had scowled at her in an effort to smile—"I don't quite see—well, go ahead."
Plainly it had been a surprise. It was so utterly different from what Amy would have done. It had set him thinking, hurt him. "She wants to get away," he had thought. Ethel had caught his feeling and had pitied him for it. But mingled with this pity had been a vague resentment:
"The minute you show you've made up your mind to be a little independent, they treat it like a slap in the face. All right, Mr. Male Provider, your tender feelings will have to be hurt. There's nothing the matter, I mean to stay here. I'll stick by you just as long as you need me. Only, I propose to be free!"
Their relations had grown a little strained. He had stayed at the office more often at night. Very well, let him sulk in his masculine way. Only one remark of his had annoyed her. Like the woman in the employment bureau, he had warned Ethel against men.
"When it comes to looks," he had ended, "you're one in a thousand. And in this town—"
"Oh, Joe, for goodness sake hush up!" she had cried. A bright spot of colour had come in each cheek and her strong little mouth had set viciously. "You'll be telling me next that I got my position simply on my pretty face! No brains behind it, of course, no mind!" And she had tapped one foot on the floor in a way which made him look at her in a curious manner, startled and admiring.
"Oh, no, I won't," he had told her meekly. "You've got the makings of more real mind than any girl I've ever seen."
"Thank you," she had snapped at him, but she had liked him nevertheless. So long as one had to live with a man, even as his sister-in-law, it was well to have him in his place.
So her annoyance had died down, and had only risen a little again when one day Joe came to her office. There was some excuse, of course, but his real reason obviously was to have a look at her employer and at the same time show the man that she had a male protector. Booh! . . . But Joe had smiled at Greesheimer and had withdrawn quite reassured, leaving her and her job in peace.
As Ethel's business life went on, her self-confidence grew apace. And now that she had proved to herself that she had brains behind her face, she dropped her air of severity and even began to enjoy the glances which she knew were cast her way, on the streets and in the office. Even on old Greesheimer, when he was in one of his genial moods, she would bestow a winning smile. It was good to have both brains and face. She looked at the city with challenging eyes, a self-supporting woman.
And this state of mind might have lasted some time, had it not happened that one sunny day toward the end of April Greesheimer opened a letter with eager trembling fingers, read it swiftly and glared with joy, his big glistening eyes nearly leaving their sockets. Then he whirled around in his chair, and as his eye lit on Ethel, he laughed, and in a harsh queer voice he cried, "Vell? Now you see? I'm rich alreatty, I'm vell off! I got the Zimmerman contract—see! I can do vot I like! I got it! I got it!" He capered in triumphant glee, laughing again and seizing her arms. "Vell, vot you say! Vy don't you speak? By Gott, I raise your salary!"
"Oh, Mr. Greesheimer!" she cried, half laughing. "It's simply too wonderful for words!"
"Ha—ha!" He still had her by the arms. "All you young goils could love me now—eh?—you could take an old fehlah! Ha-ha-ha!" And the next instant, furious, she felt herself hugged violently, kissed! His lips! His fat soft body! Ugh! She dug her elbow into him with a stifled cry and wrenched away. A moment she turned on him eyes ablaze.
"You dirty—beastly—" she gasped for breath, then turned, and seizing her hat and coat she rushed blindly from the room and through the outer office. In the elevator crowded with men she felt a queer taste in her mouth. "That's blood," she thought. "Biting my lip, am I—well, bite on. I'm not going to cry—I'm not, I'm not—I'll reach that street if it kills me!"
Meanwhile in his office Greesheimer was still staring, first at the door and then at the window, and upon his pudgy countenance was a glare of utter astonishment and honest indignation.
"Mein Gott!" he exploded. "I give her a hug—a hug like a daughter—and off like a rocket—off she goes!" And in Yiddish and in Hebrew and Russian and American, Greesheimer expressed himself as he strode swiftly up and down.
For seven years without a break he had "kept a goil" more fascinating to his taste than any female in New York. Her name was Sadie, she was a model in a dressmaker's shop uptown, and she owned him body and soul. Their marriage had only been put off until he had bridged the dangerous time in the launching of his business. For Greesheimer had a mother, an old uncle and a sister and two small nephews to support. But this Zimmerman contract, "Gott sei danke!" would clear the way for marriage at once. And as that glorious vision, of relatives all radiant and Sadie flushed and joyous leaping into his embrace, had burst upon his dazzled soul, his glance had lit on his employe, and he had hugged her in his joy! And she—Again did Greesheimer swear! He felt hot angry blushes rise. And later at his telephone he was saying to a woman friend who ran an employment bureau:
"I got to have a stenographer. See? Und I don't vant a goil, I vant a man—a smart young fellah, y'understand. . . . Jewish? Yes! You betcher! No more Christian goils in mine! Dey have rotten minds—plain rotten minds!"
But to Ethel, walking blindly, no such explanation occurred. She could still feel that body, those greedy lips and clutching hands, and out of her disgust and rage emerged another feeling which grew like a load on her shoulders, sagging her spirit and crushing her down.
"Joe was right. It was only my face. That beast was only waiting! . . . I wonder if they're all like that? Probably not. But how can I tell the sheep from the goats? I thought I could. I thought I knew how to handle myself—I thought I knew how to get on in this town! But I don't, it seems—I've done nothing at all! I've just been a little fool! . . . And New York is like that!"
She glared at the city around her, at its tall, hard unfriendly walls, the jangling trolleys down below, the trucks and drays and the crowds rushing by her. For all their hurry, some of the men shot glances at Ethel that made her burn. One tall thin man even stopped and turned and she felt his look travel right down to her toes! She walked on and on with her bare fists clenched. She had left her gloves in the office. Go back for them? No! Nor to any office, nor any man!
"Oh, yes, I will, I'll go back to Joe—and hear him say, 'I told you so.'"
She reached the apartment faint and sick. Joe had not come home, thank goodness. She went to her room and to her bed, and had a good cry, which relieved her a little. And so, after an hour or two, looking steadily up at the ceiling, she decided that after a few days' rest she would go to all three of those bureaus and say, "I'm in the market still, if you please, but only for a woman boss."
But later, as she was dressing for dinner, her eye was caught by the photograph of her sister Amy. And the face appeared to her suddenly so strong and wise with its knowledge of life. She remembered Amy's smiles at all new "movements" and ideas and work for women. She seemed to be smiling now, with a good-humoured pitying air, and to be saying:
"Now will you believe me? It isn't what you say to men, it's how you look and what you wear."
And Ethel stared at it and frowned, in a disillusioned, questioning way.
Joe did not say, "I told you so." It was after eight that evening when he came home from his office, and she was annoyed at the delay, for she wanted to have her confession of failure over and done with. As she waited restlessly, she envied him his business life. How much simpler everything was for a man! Her nerves were on edge. Why didn't he come! At last she heard his key in the door and sharply pulled herself together. "How I detest him!" she thought to herself.
"Hello, Ethel." His voice from the hallway had a gruff and tired sound; but a moment later when he came in, it was with his usual friendly smile. "Sorry I kept you waiting. I've had a mean day at the office."
"So have I," said Ethel, and with a frown she plunged right in. The sooner this was over the better. But when she had finished and looked up, she detected no triumph on his face. He was watching her so queerly.
"Well," he said, "I ought to be sorry, I suppose—but I can't exactly say I am."
"Why not?" At her sharp challenge he grimly smiled.
"Because this kind of puts us—in the same boat—two of a kind."
"What on earth do you mean?" she demanded. And then with a rueful grimace he said:
"Because I too have bumped my head." As at that she felt a swift little thrill of surprise and liking for Joe, he continued, "I've been a fool. You're always a fool when you take a chance and aren't able to get away with it. You're a fool—because you missed out. I'm a fool—because I missed out. We both of us took chances. And I got very badly stung. We've got to be poor for a little while." Joe drew a deep breath and smiled again. "I've dreaded this. I've put off telling you for a week—I don't like eating humble pie. But it's all right now, God bless you—we can eat it side by side."