A LAUGH ON LIFE WITH A TEAR BEHIND IT
By FANNIE HURST
HUMORESQUE OATS FOR THE WOMAN A PETAL ON THE CURRENT WHITE GOODS "HEADS" A BOOB SPELLED BACKWARD EVEN AS YOU AND I THE WRONG PEW
On either side of the Bowery, which cuts through like a drain to catch its sewage, Every Man's Land, a reeking march of humanity and humidity, steams with the excrement of seventeen languages, flung in patois from tenement windows, fire escapes, curbs, stoops, and cellars whose walls are terrible and spongy with fungi.
By that impregnable chemistry of race whereby the red blood of the Mongolian and the red blood of the Caucasian become as oil and water in the mingling, Mulberry Street, bounded by sixteen languages, runs its intact Latin length of pushcarts, clotheslines, naked babies, drying vermicelli; black-eyed women in rhinestone combs and perennially big with child; whole families of buttonhole-makers, who first saw the blue-and-gold light of Sorrento, bent at home work round a single gas flare; pomaded barbers of a thousand Neapolitan amours. And then, just as suddenly, almost without osmosis and by the mere stepping down from the curb, Mulberry becomes Mott Street, hung in grillwork balconies, the moldy smell of poverty touched up with incense. Orientals whose feet shuffle and whose faces are carved out of satinwood. Forbidden women, their white, drugged faces behind upper windows. Yellow children, incongruous enough in Western clothing. A draughty areaway with an oblique of gaslight and a black well of descending staircase. Show-windows of jade and tea and Chinese porcelains.
More streets emanating out from Mott like a handful of crooked rheumatic fingers, then suddenly the Bowery again, cowering beneath Elevated trains, where men burned down to the butt end of soiled lives pass in and out and out and in of the knee-high swinging doors, a veiny-nosed, acid-eaten race in themselves.
Allen Street, too, still more easterly, and half as wide, is straddled its entire width by the steely, long-legged skeleton of Elevated traffic, so that its third-floor windows no sooner shudder into silence from the rushing shock of one train than they are shaken into chatter by the passage of another. Indeed, third-floor dwellers of Allen Street, reaching out, can almost touch the serrated edges of the Elevated structure, and in summer the smell of its hot rails becomes an actual taste in the mouth. Passengers, in turn, look in upon this horizontal of life as they whiz by. Once, in fact, the blurry figure of what might have been a woman leaned out, as she passed, to toss into one Abrahm Kantor's apartment a short-stemmed pink carnation. It hit softly on little Leon Kantor's crib, brushing him fragrantly across the mouth and causing him to pucker up.
Beneath, where even in August noonday, the sun cannot find its way by a chink, and babies lie stark naked in the cavernous shade, Allen Street presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as if its humanity were actually moving through a sea of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached and shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and shrink. And then, like a shimmering background of orange-finned and copper-flanked marine life, the brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.
To enter Abrahm Kantor's—Brasses, was three steps down, so that his casement show-window, at best filmed over with the constant rain of dust ground down from the rails above, was obscure enough, but crammed with copied loot of khedive and of czar. The seven-branch candlestick so biblical and supplicating of arms. An urn, shaped like Rebecca's, of brass, all beaten over with little pocks. Things—cups, trays, knockers, ikons, gargoyles, bowls, and teapots. A symphony of bells in graduated sizes. Jardinieres with fat sides. A pot-bellied samovar. A swinging-lamp for the dead, star-shaped. Against the door, an octave of tubular chimes, prisms of voiceless harmony and of heatless light.
Opening this door, they rang gently, like melody heard through water and behind glass. Another bell rang, too, in tilted singsong from a pulley operating somewhere in the catacomb rear of this lambent vale of things and things and things. In turn, this pulley set in toll still another bell, two flights up in Abrahm Kantor's tenement, which overlooked the front of whizzing rails and a rear wilderness of gibbet-looking clothes-lines, dangling perpetual specters of flapping union suits in a mid-air flaky with soot.
Often at lunch, or even the evening meal, this bell would ring in on Abrahm Kantor's digestive well-being, and while he hurried down, napkin often bib-fashion still about his neck, and into the smouldering lanes of copper, would leave an eloquent void at the head of his well-surrounded table.
This bell was ringing now, jingling in upon the slumber of a still newer Kantor, snuggling peacefully enough within the ammoniac depths of a cradle recently evacuated by Leon, heretofore impinged upon you.
On her knees before an oven that billowed forth hotly into her face, Mrs. Kantor, fairly fat and not yet forty, and at the immemorial task of plumbing a delicately swelling layer-cake with broom-straw, raised her face, reddened and faintly moist.
"Isadore, run down and say your papa is out until six. If it's a customer, remember the first asking-price is the two middle figures on the tag, and the last asking-price is the two outside figures. See once, with your papa out to buy your little brother his birthday present, and your mother in a cake, if you can't make a sale for first price."
Isadore Kantor, aged eleven and hunched with a younger Kantor over an oilcloth-covered table, hunched himself still deeper in a barter for a large crystal marble with a candy stripe down its center.
"Izzie, did you hear me?"
"Go down this minute—do you hear? Rudolph, stop always letting your big brother get the best of you in marbles. Iz-zie!"
"In a minute."
"Don't let me have to ask you again, Isadore Kantor!"
"Aw, ma, I got some 'rithmetic to do. Let Esther go!"
"Always Esther! Your sister stays right in the front room with her spelling."
"Aw, ma, I got spelling, too."
"Every time I ask that boy he should do me one thing, right away he gets lessons! With me, that lessons-talk don't go no more. Every time you get put down in school, I'm surprised there's a place left lower where they can put you. Working-papers for such a boy like you!"
"How I worried myself! Violin lessons yet—thirty cents a lesson out of your papa's pants while he slept! That's how I wanted to have in the family a profession—maybe a musician on the violin! Lessons for you out of money I had to lie to your papa about! Honest, when I think of it—my own husband—it's a wonder I don't potch you just for remembering it. Rudolph, will you stop licking that cake-pan? It's saved for your little brother Leon. Ain't you ashamed even on your little brother's birthday to steal from him?"
"Ma, gimme the spoon?"
"I'll give you the spoon, Isadore Kantor, where you don't want it. If you don't hurry down, the way that bell is ringing, not one bite do you get out of your little brother's birthday cake tonight!"
"I'm goin', ain't I?"
"Always on my children's birthdays a meanness sets into this house! Rudolph, will you put down that bowl! Izzie—for the last time I ask you—for the last time—"
Erect now, Mrs. Kantor lifted an expressive hand, letting it hover.
"I'm goin', ma; for golly sakes, I'm goin'!" said her recalcitrant one, shuffling off toward the staircase, shuffling, shuffling.
Then Mrs. Kantor resumed her plumbing, and through the little apartment, its middle and only bedroom of three beds and a crib lighted vicariously by the front room and kitchen, began to wind the warm, the golden-brown fragrance of cake in the rising.
By six o'clock the shades were drawn against the dirty dusk of Allen Street and the oilcloth-covered table dragged out center and spread by Esther Kantor, nine in years, in the sturdy little legs bulging over shoe-tops, in the pink cheeks that sagged slightly of plumpness, and in the utter roundness of face and gaze, but mysteriously older in the little-mother lore of crib and knee-dandling ditties and in the ropy length and thickness of the two brown plaits down her back.
There was an eloquence to that waiting, laid-out table, the print of the family already gathered about it; the dynastic high chair, throne of each succeeding Kantor; an armchair drawn up before the paternal mustache-cup; the ordinary kitchen chair of Mannie Kantor, who spilled things, an oilcloth sort of bib dangling from its back; the little chair of Leon Kantor, cushioned in an old family album that raised his chin above the table. Even in cutlery the Kantor family was not lacking in variety. Surrounding a centerpiece of thick Russian lace were Russian spoons washed in washed-off gilt; forks of one, two, and three tines; steel knives with black handles; a hartshorn carving-knife. Thick-lipped china in stacks before the armchair. A round four-pound loaf of black bread waiting to be torn, and tonight, on the festive mat of cotton lace, a cake of pinkly gleaming icing, encircled with five pink little candles.
At slightly after six Abrahm Kantor returned, leading by a resisting wrist Leon Kantor, his stemlike little legs, hit midship, as it were, by not sufficiently cut-down trousers and so narrow and birdlike of face that his eyes quite obliterated the remaining map of his features, like those of a still wet nestling. All except his ears. They poised at the sides of Leon's shaved head of black bristles, as if butterflies had just lighted there, whispering, with very spread wings, their message, and presently would fly off again. By some sort of muscular contraction he could wiggle these ears at will, and would do so for a penny or a whistle, and upon one occasion for his brother Rudolph's dead rat, so devised as to dangle from string and window before the unhappy passer-by. They were quivering now, these ears, but because the entire little face was twitching back tears and gulp of sobs.
"Abrahm—Leon—what is it?" Her hands and her forearms instantly out from the business of kneading something meaty and floury, Mrs. Kantor rushed forward, her glance quick from one to the other of them. "Abrahm, what's wrong?"
"I'll feedle him! I'll feedle him!"
The little pulling wrist still in clutch, Mr. Kantor regarded his wife, the lower half of his face, well covered with reddish bristles, undershot, his free hand and even his eyes violently lifted. To those who see in a man a perpetual kinship to that animal kingdom of which he is supreme, there was something undeniably anthropoidal about Abrahm Kantor, a certain simian width between the eyes and long, rather agile hands with hairy backs.
"Hush it!" cried Mr. Kantor, his free hand raised in threat of descent, and cowering his small son to still more undersized proportions. "Hush it or, by golly! I'll—"
"Abrahm—Abrahm—what is it?"
Then Mr. Kantor gave vent in acridity of word and feature.
"Schlemmil!" he cried. "Momser! Ganef! Nebich!" by which, in smiting mother tongue, he branded his offspring with attributes of apostate and ne'er-do-well, of idiot and thief.
"Schlemmil!" repeated Mr. Kantor, swinging Leon so that he described a large semicircle that landed him into the meaty and waiting embrace of his mother. "Take him! You should be proud of such a little momser for a son! Take him, and here you got back his birthday dollar. A feedle! Honest—when I think on it—a feedle!"
Such a rush of outrage seemed fairly to strangle Mr. Kantor that he stood, hand still upraised, choking and inarticulate above the now frankly howling huddle of his son.
"Abrahm, you should just once touch this child! How he trembles! Leon—mamma's baby—what is it? Is this how you come back when papa takes you out to buy your birthday present? Ain't you ashamed?"
Mouth distended to a large and blackly hollow O, Leon, between terrifying spells of breath-holding, continued to howl.
"All the way to Naftel's toy-store I drag him. A birthday present for a dollar his mother wants he should have, all right, a birthday present! I give you my word till I'm ashamed for Naftel, every toy in his shelves is pulled down. Such a cow—that shakes with his head—"
"No—no—no!" This from young Leon, beating at his mother's skirts.
Again the upraised but never quite descending hand of his father.
"By golly! I'll 'no—no' you!"
"Abrahm—go 'way! Baby, what did papa do?"
Then Mr. Kantor broke into an actual tarantella of rage, his hands palms up and dancing.
"'What did papa do?' she asks. She's got easy asking. 'What did papa do?' The whole shop, I tell you. A sheep with a baa inside when you squeeze on him—games—a horn so he can holler my head off—such a knife like Izzie's with a scissors in it. 'Leon,' I said, ashamed for Naftel, 'that's a fine knife like Izzie's so you can cut up with. All right, then'—when I see how he hollers—'such a box full of soldiers to have war with.' 'Dollar seventy-five,' says Naftel. 'All right, then,' I says, when I seen how he keeps hollering. 'Give you a dollar fifteen for 'em.' I should make myself small for fifteen cents more. 'Dollar fifteen,' I says—anything so he should shut up with his hollering for what he seen in the window."
"He seen something in the window he wanted, Abrahm?"
"Didn't I tell you? A feedle! A four-dollar feedle! A moosicer, so we should have another feedler in the family for some thirty-cents lessons."
"Abrahm—you mean—he—our Leon—wanted a violin?"
"'Wanted,' she says. I could potch him again this minute for how he wanted it! Du—you little bum you—chammer—momser—I'll feedle you!"
Across Mrs. Kantor's face, as she knelt there in the shapeless cotton-stuff uniform of poverty, through the very tenement of her body, a light had flashed up into her eyes. She drew her son closer, crushing his puny cheek up against hers, cupping his bristly little head in her by no means immaculate palms.
"He wanted a violin! It's come, Abrahm! The dream of all my life—my prayers—it's come! I knew it must be one of my children if I waited long enough—and prayed enough. A musician! He wants a violin! He cried for a violin! My baby! Why, darlink, mamma'll sell her clothes off her back to get you a violin. He's a musician, Abrahm! I should have known it the way he's fooling always around the chimes and the bells in the store!"
Then Mr. Kantor took to rocking his head between his palms.
"Oi—oi! The mother is crazier as her son. A moosician! A fresser, you mean. Such an eater, it's a wonder he ain't twice too big instead of twice too little for his age."
"That's a sign, Abrahm; geniuses, they all eat big. For all we know, he's a genius. I swear to you, Abrahm, all the months before he was born I prayed for it. Each one before they came, I prayed it should be the one. I thought that time the way our Isadore ran after the organ-grinder he would be the one. How could I know it was the monkey he wanted? When Isadore wouldn't take to it I prayed my next one, and then my next one, should have the talent. I've prayed for it, Abrahm. If he wants a violin, please, he should have it."
"Not with my money."
"With mine! I've got enough saved, Abrahm. Them three extra dollars right here inside my own waist. Just that much for that cape down on Grand Street. I wouldn't have it now, the way they say the wind blows up them—"
"I tell you the woman's crazy—"
"I feel it! I know he's got talent! I know my children so well. A—a father don't understand. I'm so next to them. It's like I can tell always everything that will happen to them—it's like a pain—somewheres here—like in back of my heart."
"A pain in the heart she gets."
"For my own children I'm always a prophet, I tell you! You think I didn't know that—that terrible night after the pogrom after we got out of Kief to across the border! You remember, Abrahm, how I predicted it to you then—how our Mannie would be born too soon and—and not right from my suffering! Did it happen on the ship to America just the way I said it would? Did it happen just exactly how I predicted our Izzie would break his leg that time playing on the fire-escape? I tell you, Abrahm, I get a real pain here under my heart that tells me what comes to my children. Didn't I tell you how Esther would be the first in her confirmation-class and our baby Boris would be redheaded? At only five years, our Leon all by himself cries for a fiddle—get it for him, Abrahm—get it for him!"
"I tell you, Sarah, I got a crazy woman for a wife! It ain't enough we celebrate eight birthdays a year with one-dollar presents each time and copper goods every day higher. It ain't enough that right to-morrow I got a fifty-dollar note over me from Sol Ginsberg; a four-dollar present she wants for a child that don't even know the name of a feedle."
"Leon, baby, stop hollering. Papa will go back and get the fiddle for you now before supper. See, mamma's got money here in her waist—"
"Papa will go back for the feedle not—three dollars she's saved for herself he can holler out of her for a feedle!"
"Abrahm, he's screaming so he—he'll have a fit."
"He should have two fits."
"I tell you the way you spoil your children it will some day come back on us."
"It's his birthday night, Abrahm—five years since his little head first lay on the pillow next to me."
"All right—all right—drive me crazy because he's got a birthday."
"Leon baby—if you don't stop hollering you'll make yourself sick. Abrahm, I never saw him like this—he's green—"
"I'll green him. Where is that old feedle from Isadore—that seventy-five-cents one?"
"I never thought of that! You broke it that time you got mad at Isadore's lessons. I'll run down. Maybe it's with the junk behind the store. I never thought of that fiddle. Leon darlink—wait! Mamma'll run down and look. Wait, Leon, till mamma finds you a fiddle."
The raucous screams stopped then, suddenly, and on their very lustiest crest, leaving an echoing gash across silence. On willing feet of haste Mrs. Kantor wound down backward the high, ladder-like staircase that led to the brass-shop.
Meanwhile to a gnawing consciousness of dinner-hour had assembled the house of Kantor. Attuned to the intimate atmosphere of the tenement which is so constantly rent with cry of child, child-bearing, delirium, delirium tremens, Leon Kantor had howled no impression into the motley din of things. There were Isadore, already astride his chair, leaning well into center table, for first vociferous tear at the four-pound loaf; Esther, old at chores, settling an infant into the high chair, careful of tiny fingers in lowering the wooden bib.
"Papa, Izzie's eating first again."
"Put down that loaf and wait until your mother dishes up, or you'll get a potch you won't soon forget."
"Don't 'say, pop' me! I don't want no street-bum freshness from you!"
"I mean, papa, there was an up-town swell in, and she bought one of them seventy-five-cent candlesticks for the first price."
"Schlemmil! Chammer!" said Mr. Kantor, rinsing his hands at the sink. "Didn't I always tell you it's the first price, times two, when you see up-town business come in? Haven't I learned it to you often enough a slummer must pay for her nosiness?"
There entered then, on poor, shuffling feet, Mannie Kantor, so marred in the mysterious and ceramic process of life that the brain and the soul had stayed back sooner than inhabit him. Seventeen in years, in the down upon his face and in growth unretarded by any great nervosity of system, his vacuity of face was not that of childhood, but rather as if his light eyes were peering out from some hinterland and wanting so terribly and so dumbly to communicate what they beheld to brain-cells closed against himself.
At sight of Mannie, Leon Kantor, the tears still wetly and dirtily down his cheeks, left off his black, fierce-eyed stare of waiting long enough to smile, darkly, it is true, but sweetly.
"Giddy-app!" he cried. "Giddy-app!"
And then Mannie, true to habit, would scamper and scamper.
Up out of the traplike stair-opening came the head of Mrs. Kantor, disheveled and a smudge of soot across her face, but beneath her arm, triumphant, a violin of one string and a broken back.
"See, Leon—what mamma got! A violin! A fiddle! Look! The bow, too, I found. It ain't much, baby, but it's a fiddle."
"Aw, ma—that's my old violin. Gimme. I want it. Where'd you find—"
"Hush up, Izzie! This ain't yours no more. See, Leon, what mamma brought you. A violin!"
"Now, you little chammer, you got a feedle, and if you ever let me hear you holler again for a feedle, by golly! if I don't—"
From his corner, Leon Kantor reached out, taking the instrument and fitting it beneath his chin, the bow immediately feeling, surely and lightly, for string.
"Look, Abrahm, he knows how to hold it! What did I tell you? A child that never in his life seen a fiddle, except a beggar's on the street!"
Little Esther suddenly cantered down-floor, clapping her chubby hands.
The baby ceased clattering his spoon against the wooden bib. A silence seemed to shape itself.
So black and so bristly of head, his little clawlike hands hovering over the bow, Leon Kantor withdrew a note, strangely round and given up almost sobbingly from the single string. A note of warm twining quality, like a baby's finger.
Fumbling for string and for notes the instrument could not yield up to him, the birdlike mouth began once more to open widely and terribly into the orificial O.
It was then Abrahm Kantor came down with a large hollow resonance of palm against that aperture, lifting his small son and depositing him plop upon the family album.
"Take that! By golly! one more whimper out of you and if I don't make you black-and-blue, birthday or no birthday! Dish up, Sarah, quick, or I'll give him something to cry about."
The five pink candles had been lighted, burning pointedly and with slender little smoke wisps. Regarding them owlishly, the tears dried on Leon's face, his little tongue licking up at them.
"Look how solemn he is, like he was thinking of something a million miles away except how lucky he is he should have a pink birthday-cake. Uh—uh—uh! Don't you begin to holler again. Here, I'm putting the feedle next to you. Uh—uh—uh!"
To a meal plentifully ladled out directly from stove to table, the Kantor family drew up, dipping first into the rich black soup of the occasion. All except Mrs. Kantor.
"Esther, you dish up. I'm going somewhere. I'll be back in a minute."
"Where you going, Sarah? Won't it keep until—"
But even in the face of query, Sarah Kantor was two flights down and well through the lambent aisles of the copper-shop. Outside, she broke into run, along two blocks of the indescribable bazaar atmosphere of Grand Street, then one block to the right.
Before Mattel's show-window, a jet of bright gas burned into a jibberwock land of toys. There was that in Sarah Kantor's face that was actually lyrical as, fumbling at the bosom of her dress, she entered.
To Leon Kantor, by who knows what symphonic scheme of things, life was a chromatic scale, yielding up to him, through throbbing, living nerves of sheep-gut, the sheerest semitones of man's emotions.
When he tucked his Stradivarius beneath his chin the book of life seemed suddenly translated to him in melody. Even Sarah Kantor, who still brewed for him, on a small portable stove carried from city to city and surreptitiously unpacked in hotel suites, the blackest of soups, and, despite his protestation, would incase his ears of nights in an old home-made device against their flightiness, would oftentimes bleed inwardly at this sense of his isolation.
There was a realm into which he went alone, leaving her as detached as the merest ticket purchaser at the box-office.
At seventeen Leon Kantor had played before the crowned heads of Europe, the aching heads of American capital, and even the shaved head of a South Sea prince. There was a layout of anecdotal gifts, from the molar tooth of the South Sea prince set in a South Sea pearl to a blue-enameled snuff-box incrusted with the rearing-lion coat-of-arms of a very royal house.
At eighteen came the purchase of a king's Stradivarius for a king's ransom, and acclaimed by Sunday supplements to repose of nights in an ivory cradle.
At nineteen, under careful auspices of press agent, the ten singing digits of the son of Abrahm Kantor were insured at ten thousand dollars the finger.
At twenty he had emerged surely and safely from the perilous quicksands which have sucked down whole Lilliputian worlds of infant prodigies.
At twenty-one, when Leon Kantor played a Sunday-night concert, there was a human queue curling entirely around the square block of the operahouse, waiting its one, two, even three and four hours for the privilege of standing room only.
Usually these were Leon Kantor's own people pouring up from the lowly lands of the East Side to the white lands of Broadway, parched for music, these burning brethren of his—old men in that line, frequently carrying their own little folding camp-chairs, not against weariness of the spirit, but of the flesh; youth with Slavic eyes and cheek-bones. These were the six-deep human phalanx which would presently slant down at him from tiers of steepest balconies and stand frankly emotional and jammed in the unreserved space behind the railing which shut them off from the three-dollar seats of the reserved.
At a very special one of these concerts, dedicated to the meager purses of just these, and held in New York's super opera-house, the Amphitheater, a great bowl of humanity, the metaphor made perfect by tiers of seats placed upon the stage, rose from orchestra to dome. A gigantic cup of a Colosseum lined in stacks and stacks of faces. From the door of his dressing-room, leaning out, Leon Kantor could see a great segment of it, buzzing down into adjustment, orchestra twitting and tuning into it.
In the bare little room, illuminated by a sheaf of roses, just arrived, Mrs. Kantor drew him back by the elbow.
"Leon, you're in a draught."
The amazing years had dealt kindly with Mrs. Kantor. Stouter, softer, apparently even taller, she was full of small new authorities that could shut out cranks, newspaper reporters, and autograph fiends. A fitted-over-corsets black taffeta and a high comb in the graying hair had done their best with her. Pride, too, had left its flush upon her cheeks, like two round spots of fever.
"Leon, it's thirty minutes till your first number. Close that door. Do you want to let your papa and his excitement in on you?"
The son of Sarah Kantor obeyed, leaning his short, rather narrow form in silhouette against the closed door. In spite of slimly dark evening clothes worked out by an astute manager to the last detail in boyish effects, there was that about him which defied long-haired precedent. Slimly and straightly he had shot up into an unmannered, a short, even a bristly-haired young manhood, disqualifying by a close shave for the older school of hirsute virtuosity.
But his nerves did not spare him. On concert nights they seemed to emerge almost to the surface of him and shriek their exposure.
"Just feel my hands, ma. Like ice."
She dived down into her large silk what-not of a reticule.
"I've got your fleece-lined gloves here, son."
"No—no! For God's sake—not those things! No!"
He was back at the door again, opening it to a slit, peering through.
"They're bringing more seats on the stage. If they crowd me in I won't go on. I can't play if I hear them breathe. Hi—out there—no more chairs! Pa! Hancock—"
"Leon, Leon, ain't you ashamed to get so worked up? Close that door. Have you got a manager who is paid just to see to your comfort? When papa comes, I'll have him go out and tell Hancock you don't want chairs so close to you. Leon, will you mind mamma and sit down?"
"It's a bigger house than the royal concert in Madrid, ma. Why, I never saw anything like it! It's a stampede. God! this is real—this is what gets me, playing for my own! I should have given a concert like this three years ago. I'll do it every year now. I'd rather play before them than all the crowned heads on earth. It's the biggest night of my life. They're rioting out there, ma—rioting to get in."
"Leon, Leon, won't you sit down, if mamma begs you to?"
He sat then, strumming with all ten fingers upon his knees.
"Try to get quiet, son. Count—like you always do. One—two—three—"
"Please, ma—for God's sake—please—please!"
"Look—such beautiful roses! From Sol Ginsberg, an old friend of papa's he used to buy brasses from eighteen years ago. Six years he's been away with his daughter in Munich. Such a beautiful mezzo they say, engaged already for Metropolitan next season."
"I hate it, ma, if they breathe on my neck."
"Leon darlink, did mamma promise to fix it? Have I ever let you play a concert when you wouldn't be comfortable?"
His long, slim hands suddenly prehensile and cutting a streak of upward gesture, Leon Kantor rose to his feet, face whitening.
"Do it now! Now, I tell you. I won't have them breathe on me. Do you hear me? Now! Now! Now!"
Risen also, her face soft and tremulous for him, Mrs. Kantor put out a gentle, a sedative hand upon his sleeve.
"Son," she said, with an edge of authority even behind her smile, "don't holler at me!"
He grasped her hand with his two and, immediately quiet, lay a close string of kisses along it.
"Mamma," he said, kissing again and again into the palm, "mamma—mamma."
"I know, son; it's nerves!"
"They eat me, ma. Feel—I'm like ice! I didn't mean it; you know I didn't mean it!"
"My baby," she said, "my wonderful boy, it's like I can never get used to the wonder of having you. The greatest one of them all should be mine—a plain woman's like mine!"
He teased her, eager to conciliate and to ride down his own state of quivering.
"Now, ma—now—now—don't forget Rimsky!"
"Rimsky! A man three times your age who was playing concerts before you was born! Is that a comparison? From your clippings-books I can show Rimsky who the world considers the greatest violinist. Rimsky he rubs into me!"
"All right, then, the press-clippings, but did Elsass, the greatest manager of them all, bring me a contract for thirty concerts at two thousand a concert? Now I've got you! Now!"
She would not meet his laughter. "Elsass! Believe me, he'll come to you yet! My boy should worry if he makes fifty thousand a year more or less. Rimsky should have that honor—for so long as he can hold it. But he won't hold it long. Believe me, I don't rest easy in my bed till Elsass comes after you. Not for so big a contract like Rimsky's, but bigger—not for thirty concerts, but for fifty!"
"Brava! Brava! There's a woman for you. More money than she knows what to do with, and then not satisfied!"
She was still too tremulous for banter. "'Not satisfied'? Why, Leon, I never stop praying my thanks for you!"
"All right, then," he cried, laying his icy fingers on her cheek; "to-morrow we'll call a mignon—a regular old-fashioned Allen Street prayer-party."
"Leon, you mustn't make fun."
"Make fun of the sweetest girl in this room!"
"'Girl'! Ah, if I could only hold you by me this way, Leon. Always a boy—with me—your poor old mother—your only girl. That's a fear I suffer with, Leon—to lose you to a—girl. That's how selfish the mother of such a wonder-child like mine can get to be."
"All right! Trying to get me married off again. Nice! Fine!"
"Is it any wonder I suffer, son? Twenty-one years to have kept you by me a child. A boy that never in his life was out after midnight except to catch trains. A boy that never has so much as looked at a girl and could have looked at princesses. To have kept you all these years—mine—is it any wonder, son, I never stop praying my thanks for you? You don't believe Hancock, son, the way he keeps always teasing you that you should have a—what he calls—affair—a love-affair? Such talk is not nice, Leon—an affair!"
"Love-affair poppycock!" said Leon Kantor, lifting his mother's face and kissing her on eyes about ready to tear. "Why, I've got something, ma, right here in my heart for you that—"
"Leon, be careful your shirt-front!"
"That's so—so what you call 'tender,' for my best sweetheart that I—Oh, love-affair—poppycock!"
She would not let her tears come.
"My boy—my wonder-boy!"
"There goes the overture, ma."
"Here, darlink—your glass of water."
"I can't stand it in here; I'm suffocating!"
"Got your mute in your pocket, son?"
"Yes, ma; for God's sake, yes! Yes! Don't keep asking things!"
"Ain't you ashamed, Leon, to be in such an excitement! For every concert you get worse."
"The chairs—they'll breathe on nay neck."
"Leon, did mamma promise you those chairs would be moved?"
"Say—I'm grateful if he stays out. It took me enough work to get this room cleared. You know your papa how he likes to drag in the whole world to show you off—always just before you play. The minute he walks in the room right away he gets everybody to trembling just from his own excitements. I dare him this time he should bring people. No dignity has that man got, the way he brings every one."
Even upon her words came a rattling of door, Of door-knob, and a voice through the clamor.
A stiffening raced over Mrs. Kantor, so that she sat rigid on her chair-edge, lips compressed, eye darkly upon the shivering door.
With a narrowing glance, Mrs. Kantor laid to her lips a forefinger of silence.
"Sarah, it's me! Quick, I say!"
Then Leon Kantor sprang up, the old prehensile gesture of curving fingers shooting up.
"For God's sake, ma, let him in! I can't stand that infernal battering."
"Abrahm, go away! Leon's got to have quiet before his concert."
"Just a minute, Sarah. Open quick!"
With a spring his son was at the door, unlocking and flinging it back.
"Come in, pa."
The years had weighed heavily upon Abrahm Kantor in avoirdupois only. He was himself plus eighteen years, fifty pounds, and a new sleek pomposity that was absolutely oleaginous. It shone roundly in his face, doubling of chin, in the bulge of waistcoat, heavily gold-chained, and in eyes that behind the gold-rimmed glasses gave sparklingly forth his estate of well-being.
"Abrahm, didn't I tell you not to dare to—"
On excited balls of feet that fairly bounced him, Abrahm Kantor burst in.
"Leon—mamma—I got out here an old friend—Sol Ginsberg. You remember, mamma, from brasses—"
"Go 'way with your 'not now'! I want Leon should meet him. Sol, this is him—a little grown up from such a nebich like you remember him—nu? Sarah, you remember Sol Ginsberg? Say—I should ask you if you remember your right hand! Ginsberg & Esel, the firm. This is his girl, a five years' contract signed yesterday—five hundred dollars an opera for a beginner—six roles—not bad—nu?"
"Abrahm, you must ask Mr. Ginsberg please to excuse Leon until after his concert—"
"Shake hands with him, Ginsberg. He's had his hand shook enough in his life, and by kings, to shake it once more with an old bouncer like you!"
Mr. Ginsberg, not unlike his colleague in rotundities, held out a short, a dimpled hand.
"It's a proud day," he said, "for me to shake the hands from mine old friend's son and the finest violinist livink to-day. My little daughter—"
"Yes, yes, Gina. Here, shake hands with him. Leon, they say a voice like a fountain. Gina Berg—eh, Ginsberg—is how you stage-named her? You hear, mamma, how fancy—Gina Berg? We go hear her, eh?"
There was about Miss Gina Berg, whose voice could soar to the tirra-lirra of a lark and then deepen to mezzo, something of the actual slimness of the poor, maligned Elsa so long buried beneath the buxomness of divas. She was like a little flower that in its crannied nook keeps dewy longest.
"How do you do, Leon Kantor?"
There was a whir through her English of three acquired languages.
"How do you do?"
"We—father and I—traveled once all the way from Brussels to Dresden to hear you. It was worth it. I shall never forget how you played the 'Humoresque.' It made me laugh and cry."
"You like Brussels?"
She laid her little hand to her heart, half closing her eyes.
"I will never be so happy again as with the sweet little people of Brussels."
"I, too, love Brussels. I studied there four years with Ahrenfest."
"I know you did. My teacher, Lyndahl, in Berlin, was his brother-in-law."
"You have studied with Lyndahl?"
"He is my master."
"I—Will I some time hear you sing?"
"I am not yet great. When I am foremost like you, yes."
"Gina—Gina Berg; that is a beautiful name to make famous."
"You see how it is done? Gins—berg. Gina Berg."
They stood then smiling across a chasm of the diffidence of youth, she fumbling at the great fur pelt out of which her face flowered so dewily.
"I—Well—we—we—are in the fourth box—I guess we had better be going—Fourth box, left."
He wanted to find words, but for consciousness of self, could not.
"It's a wonderful house out there waiting for you, Leon Kantor, and you—you're wonderful, too!"
"My father, he sent them. Come, father—quick!"
Suddenly there was a tight tensity seemed to crowd up the little room.
"Abrahm—quick—get Hancock. That first row of chairs—has got to be moved. There he is, in the wings. See that the piano ain't dragged down too far! Leon, got your mute in your pocket? Please, Mr. Ginsberg—you must excuse—Here, Leon, is your glass of water; drink it, I say. Shut that door out there, boy, so there ain't a draught in the wings. Here, Leon, your violin. Got your neckerchief? Listen how they're shouting! It's for you—Leon—darlink—Go!"
The center of that vast human bowl which had shouted itself out, slim, boylike, and in his supreme isolation, Leon Kantor drew bow and a first thin, pellucid, and perfect note into a silence breathless to receive it.
Throughout the arduous flexuosities of the Mendelssohn E minor concerto, singing, winding from tonal to tonal climax, and out of the slow movement which is like a tourniquet twisting the heart into the spirited allegro molto vivace, it was as if beneath Leon Kantor's fingers the strings were living vein-cords, youth, vitality, and the very foam of exuberance racing through them.
That was the power of him. The vichy and the sparkle of youth, so that, playing, the melody poured round him like wine and went down seething and singing into the hearts of his hearers.
Later, and because these were his people and because they were dark and Slavic with his Slavic darkness, he played, as if his very blood were weeping, the "Kol Nidre," which is the prayer of his race for atonement.
And then the super-amphitheater, filled with those whose emotions lie next to the surface and whose pores have not been closed over with a water-tight veneer, burst into its cheers and its tears.
There were fifteen recalls from the wings, Abrahm Kantor standing counting them off on his fingers and trembling to receive the Stradivarius. Then, finally, and against the frantic negative pantomime of his manager, a scherzo, played so lacily that it swept the house in lightest laughter.
When Leon Kantor finally completed his program they were loath to let him go, crowding down the aisles upon him, applauding up, down, around him until the great disheveled house was like the roaring of a sea, and he would laugh and throw out his arm in widespread helplessness, and always his manager in the background gesticulating against too much of his precious product for the money, ushers already slamming up chairs, his father's arms out for the Stradivarius, and, deepest in the gloom of the wings, Sarah Kantor, in a rocker especially dragged out for her, and from the depths of the black-silk reticule, darning his socks.
"Bravo—bravo! Give us the 'Humoresque'—Chopin Nocturne—Polonaise —'Humoresque.' Bravo—bravo!"
And even as they stood, hatted and coated, importuning and pressing in upon him, and with a wisp of a smile to the fourth left box, Leon Kantor played them the "Humoresque" of Dvorak, skedaddling, plucking, quirking—that laugh on life with a tear behind it. Then suddenly, because he could escape no other way, rushed straight back for his dressing-room, bursting in upon a flood of family already there: Isadore Kantor, blue-shaved, aquiline, and already graying at the temples; his five-year-old son, Leon; a soft little pouter-pigeon of a wife, too, enormous of bust, in glittering ear-drops and a wrist watch of diamonds half buried in chubby wrist; Miss Esther Kantor, pink and pretty; Rudolph; Boris, not yet done with growing-pains.
At the door Miss Kantor met her brother, her eyes as sweetly moist as her kiss.
"Leon darling, you surpassed even yourself!"
"Quit crowding, children. Let him sit down. Here, Leon, let mamma give you a fresh collar. Look how the child's perspired. Pull down that window, Boris. Rudolph, don't let no one in. I give you my word if to-night wasn't as near as I ever came to seeing a house go crazy. Not even that time in Milan, darlink, when they broke down the doors, was it like to-night—"
"Ought to seen, ma, the row of police outside—"
"Hush up, Roody! Don't you see your brother is trying to get his breath?"
From Mrs. Isadore Kantor: "You should have seen the balconies, mother. Isadore and I went up just to see the jam."
"Six thousand dollars in the house to-night, if there was a cent," said Isadore Kantor.
"Hand me my violin, please, Esther. I must have scratched it, the way they pushed."
"No, son, you didn't. I've already rubbed it up. Sit quiet, darlink!"
He was limply white, as if the vitality had flowed out of him.
"God! wasn't it—tremendous?"
"Six thousand, if there was a cent," repeated Isadore Kantor. "More than Rimsky ever played to in his life!"
"Oh, Izzie, you make me sick, always counting—counting!"
"Your sister's right, Isadore. You got nothing to complain of if there was only six hundred in the house. A boy whose fiddle has made already enough to set you up in such a fine business, his brother Boris in such a fine college, automobiles—style—and now because Vladimir Rimsky, three times his age, gets signed up with Elsass for a few thousand more a year, right away the family gets a long face—"
"Ma, please! Isadore didn't mean it that way!"
"Pa's knocking, ma! Shall I let him in?"
"Let him in, Roody. I'd like to know what good it will do to try to keep him out."
In an actual rain of perspiration, his tie slid well under one ear, Abrahm Kantor burst in, mouthing the words before his acute state of strangulation would let them out.
"Elsass—it's Elsass outside! He—wants—to sign—Leon—fifty concerts—coast to coast—two thousand—next season! He's got the papers—already drawn up—the pen outside waiting—"
In the silence that followed, Isadore Kantor, a poppiness of stare and a violent redness set in, suddenly turned to his five-year-old son, sticky with lollipop, and came down soundly and with smack against the infantile, the slightly outstanding and unsuspecting ear.
"Momser!" he cried. "Chammer! Lump! Ganef! You hear that? Two thousand! Two thousand! Didn't I tell you—didn't I tell you to practise?"
Even as Leon Kantor put pen to this princely document, Franz Ferdinand of Serbia, the assassin's bullet cold, lay dead in state, and let slip were the dogs of war.
* * * * *
In the next years, men, forty deep, were to die in piles; hayricks of fields to become human hayricks of battle-fields; Belgium disemboweled, her very entrails dragging, to find all the civilized world her champion, and between the poppies of Flanders, crosses, thousand upon thousand of them, to mark the places where the youth of her allies fell, avenging outrage. Seas, even when calmest, were to become terrible, and men's heart-beats, a bit sluggish with the fatty degeneration of a sluggard peace, to quicken and then to throb with the rat-a-tat-tat, the rat-a-tat-tat of the most peremptory, the most reverberating call to arms in the history of the world.
In June, 1917, Leon Kantor, answering that rat-a-tat-tat, enlisted.
In November, honed by the interim of training to even a new leanness, and sailing-orders heavy and light in his heart, Lieutenant Kantor, on two days' home-leave, took leave of home, which can be crudest when it is tenderest.
Standing there in the expensive, the formal, the enormous French parlor of his up-town apartment de luxe, from not one of whose chairs would his mother's feet touch floor, a wall of living flesh, mortared in blood, was throbbing and hedging him in.
He would pace up and down the long room, heavy with the faces of those who mourn, with a laugh too ready, too facetious, in his fear for them.
"Well, well, what is this, anyway, a wake? Where's the coffin? Who's dead?"
His sister-in-law shot out her plump, watch-encrusted wrist. "Don't, Leon!" she cried. "Such talk is a sin! It might come true."
"Rosie-posy-butter-ball," he said, pausing beside her chair to pinch her deeply soft cheek. "Cry-baby-roly-poly, you can't shove me off in a wooden kimono that way."
From his place before the white-and-gold mantel, staring steadfastly at the floor tiling, Isadore Kantor turned suddenly, a bit whiter and older at the temples.
"I don't get your comedy, Leon."
"That's the way the fellows at camp joke about coffins, ma. I didn't mean anything but fun! Great Scott! Can't any one take a joke!"
"O God! O God!" His mother fell to swaying softly, hugging herself against shivering.
"Did you sign over power of attorney to pa, Leon?"
"All fixed, Izzie."
"I'm so afraid, son, you don't take with you enough money in your pockets. You know how you lose it. If only you would let mamma sew that little bag inside your uniform, with a little place for bills and a little place for the asafoetida!"
"Now, please, ma—please! If I needed more, wouldn't I take it? Wouldn't I be a pretty joke among the fellows, tied up in that smelling stuff! Orders are orders, ma, I know what to take and what not to take."
"Please, Leon, don't get mad at me, but if you will let me put in your suit-case just one little box of that salve, for your finger-tips, so they don't crack—"
Pausing as he paced to lay cheek to her hair, he patted her. "Three boxes, if you want. Now, how's that?"
"And you won't take it out so soon as my back is turned?"
"Cross my heart."
His touch seemed to set her trembling again, all her illy concealed emotions rushing up. "I can't stand it! Can't! Can't! Take my life—take my blood, but don't take my boy—don't take my boy—"
"Mamma, mamma, is that the way you're going to begin all over again, after your promise?"
She clung to him, heaving against the rising storm of sobs. "I can't help it—can't! Cut out my heart from me, but let me keep my boy—my wonderboy—"
"Oughtn't she be ashamed of herself? Just listen to her, Esther! What will we do with her? Talks like she had a guarantee I wasn't coming back. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if by spring I wasn't tuning up again for a coast-to-coast tour—"
"Spring! That talk don't fool me. Without my boy, the springs in my life are over—"
"Why, ma, you talk like every soldier who goes to war was killed! There's only the smallest percentage of them die in battle—"
"'Spring,' he says; 'spring'! Crossing the seas from me! To live through months with that sea between us—my boy maybe shot—my—"
"I can't help it, Leon; I'm not one of those fine mothers that can be so brave. Cut out my heart, but leave my boy! My wonder-boy—my child I prayed for!"
"There's other mothers, ma, with sons!"
"Yes, but not wonder-sons! A genius like you could so easy get excused, Leon. Give it up. Genius it should be the last to be sent to—the slaughter-pen. Leon darlink—don't go!"
"Ma, ma—you don't mean what you're saying. You wouldn't want me to reason that way! You wouldn't want me to hide behind my—violin."
"I would! Would! You should wait for the draft. With my Roody and even my baby Boris enlisted, ain't it enough for one mother? Since they got to be in camp, all right, I say, let them be there, if my heart breaks for it, but not my wonder-child! You can get exemption, Leon, right away for the asking. Stay with me, Leon! Don't go away! The people at home got to be kept happy with music. That's being a soldier, too, playing their troubles away. Stay with me, Leon! Don't go leave me—don't—don't—"
He suffered her to lie, tear-drenched, back into his arms, holding her close in his compassion for her, his own face twisting.
"God! ma, this—this is awful! Please—you make us ashamed—all of us! I don't know what to say. Esther, come quiet her—for God's sake quiet her!"
From her place in that sobbing circle Esther Kantor crossed to kneel beside her mother.
"Mamma darling, you're killing yourself. What if every family went on this way? You want papa to come in and find us all crying? Is this the way you want Leon to spend his last hour with us—"
"I mean his last hour until he comes back, darling. Didn't you just hear him say, darling, it may be by spring?"
"'Spring'—'spring'—never no more springs for me—"
"Just think, darling, how proud we should be! Our Leon, who could so easily have been excused, not even to wait for the draft."
"It's not too late yet—please—Leon—"
"Our Roody and Boris both in camp, too, training to serve their country. Why, mamma, we ought to be crying for happiness. As Leon says, surely the Kantor family, who fled out of Russia to escape massacre, should know how terrible slavery can be. That's why we must help our boys, mamma, in their fight to make the world free! Right, Leon?" trying to smile with her red-rimmed eyes.
"We've got no fight with no one! Not a child of mine was ever raised to so much as lift a finger against no one. We've got no fight with no one!"
"We have got a fight with some one! With autocracy! Only this time it happens to be Hunnish autocracy. You should know it, mamma—oh, you should know it deeper down in you than any of us, the fight our family right here has got with autocracy! We should be the first to want to avenge Belgium!"
"Leon's right, mamma darling, the way you and papa were beaten out of your country—"
"There's not a day in your life you don't curse it without knowing it! Every time we three boys look at your son and our brother Mannie, born an—an imbecile—because of autocracy, we know what we're fighting for. We know. You know, too. Look at him over there, even before he was born, ruined by autocracy! Know what I'm fighting for? Why, this whole family knows! What's music, what's art, what's life itself in a world without freedom? Every time, ma, you get to thinking we've got a fight with no one, all you have to do is look at our poor Mannie. He's the answer. He's the answer."
In a foaming sort of silence, Mannie Kantor smiled softly from his chair beneath the pink-and-gold shade of the piano-lamp. The heterogeneous sounds of women weeping had ceased. Straight in her chair, her great shelf of bust heaving, sat Rosa Kantor, suddenly dry of eye; Isadore Kantor head up. Erect now, and out from the embrace of her daughter, Sarah looked up at her son.
"What time do you leave, Leon?" she asked, actually firm of lip.
"Any minute, ma. Getting late."
This time she pulled her lips to a smile, waggling her forefinger.
"Don't let them little devils of French girls fall in love with my dude in his uniform."
Her pretense at pleasantry was almost more than he could bear.
"Hear! Hear! Our mother thinks I'm a regular lady-killer! Hear that, Esther?" pinching her cheek.
"You are, Leon—only—only, you don't know it!"
"Don't you bring down too many beaux while I'm gone, either, Miss Kantor!"
Sotto voce to her: "Remember, Esther, while I'm gone, the royalties from the discaphone records are yours. I want you to have them for pin-money and—maybe a dowry?"
She turned from him. "Don't, Leon—don't—"
"I like him! Nice fellow, but too slow! Why, if I were in his shoes I'd have popped long ago."
She smiled with her lashes dewy.
There entered then, in a violet-scented little whirl, Miss Gina Berg, rosy with the sting of a winter's night, and, as usual, swathed in the high-napped furs.
She was for greeting every one, a wafted kiss to Mrs. Kantor, and then, arms wide, a great bunch of violets in one outstretched hand, her glance straight, sure, and sparkling for Leon Kantor.
"Why, Gina—we read—we thought you were singing in Philadelphia to-night!"
"So did I, Esther darling, until a little bird whispered to me that Lieutenant Kantor was home on farewell leave."
He advanced to her down the great length of room, lowering his head over her hand, his puttee-clad legs clicking together. "You mean, Miss Gina—Gina—you didn't sing?"
"Of course I didn't! Hasn't every prima donna a larynx to hide behind?" She lifted off her fur cap, spilling curls.
"Well, I—I'll be hanged!" said Lieutenant Kantor, his eyes lakes of her reflected loveliness.
She let her hand linger in his. "Leon—you—really going? How—terrible! How—how—wonderful!"
"How wonderful'—your coming!"
"I—You think it was not nice of me—to come?"
"I think it was the nicest thing that ever happened in the world."
"All the way here in the train I kept saying, 'Crazy—crazy—running to tell Leon—Lieutenant—Kantor good-by—when you haven't even seen him three times in three years—'"
"But each—each of those three times we—we've remembered, Gina."
"But that's how I feel toward all the boys, Leon—our fighting boys—just like flying to them to kiss them each one good-by."
"Come over, Gina. You'll be a treat to our mother. I—Well, I'm hanged! All the way from Philadelphia!"
There was even a sparkle to talk, then, and a letup of pressure. After a while Sarah Kantor looked up at her son, tremulous, but smiling.
"Well, son, you going to play—for your old mother before—you go? It'll be many a month—spring—maybe longer, before I hear my boy again except on the discaphone."
He shot a quick glance to his sister. "Why, I—I don't know. I—I'd love it, ma, if—if you think, Esther, I'd better."
"You don't need to be afraid of me, darlink. There's nothing can give me the strength to bear—what's before me like—like my boy's music. That's my life, his music."
"Why, yes; if mamma is sure she feels that way, play for us, Leon."
He was already at the instrument, where it lay, swathed, atop the grand piano. "What'll it be, folks?"
"Something to make ma laugh, Leon—something light, something funny."
"'Humoresque,'" he said, with a quick glance for Miss Berg.
"'Humoresque,'" she said, smiling back at him.
He capered through, cutting and playful of bow, the melody of Dvorak's, which is as ironic as a grinning mask.
Finished, he smiled at his parent, her face still untearful.
She nodded. "It's like life, son, that piece. Crying to hide its laughing and laughing to hide its crying."
"Play that new piece, Leon—the one you set to music. You know. The words by that young boy in the war who wrote such grand poetry before he was killed. The one that always makes poor Mannie laugh. Play it for him, Leon."
Her plump little unlined face innocent of fault, Mrs. Isadore Kantor ventured her request, her smile tired with tears.
"No, no—Rosa—not now! Ma wouldn't want that!"
"I do, son; I do! Even Mannie should have his share of good-by."
To Gina Berg: "They want me to play that little arrangement of mine from Allan Seegar's poem. 'I Have a Rendezvous....'"
"It—it's beautiful, Leon. I was to have sung it on my program to-night—only, I'm afraid you had better not—here—now—"
"Please, Leon! Nothing you play can ever make me as sad as it makes me glad. Mannie should have, too, his good-by."
"All right, then, ma, if—if you're sure you want it. Will you sing it, Gina?"
She had risen. "Why, yes, Leon."
She sang it then, quite purely, her hands clasped simply together and her glance mistily off, the beautiful, the heroic, the lyrical prophecy of a soldier-poet and a poet-soldier:
"But I've a rendezvous with Death On some scarred slope of battered hill, When spring comes round again this year And the first meadow-flowers appear."
In the silence that followed, a sob burst out, stifled, from Esther Kantor, this time her mother holding her in arms that were strong.
"That, Leon, is the most beautiful of all your compositions. What does it mean, son, that word, 'rondy-voo'?"
"Why, I—I don't exactly know. A rendezvous—it's a sort of meeting, an engagement, isn't it, Miss Gina? Gina? You're up on languages. As if I had an appointment to meet you some place—at the opera-house, for instance."
"That's it, Leon—an engagement."
"Have I an engagement with you, Gina?"
She let her lids droop. "Oh, how—how I hope you have, Leon."
"In the spring?"
"That's it—in the spring."
Then they smiled, these two, who had never felt more than the merest butterfly wings of love brushing them, light as lashes. No word between them, only an unfinished sweetness, waiting to be linked up.
Suddenly there burst in Abrahm Kantor, in a carefully rehearsed gale of bluster.
"Quick, Leon! I got the car down-stairs. Just fifteen minutes to make the ferry. Quick! The sooner we get him over there the sooner we get him back! I'm right, mamma? Now, now! No waterworks! Get your brother's suit-case, Isadore. Now, now! No nonsense! Quick—quick—"
With a deftly manoeuvered round of good-bys, a grip-laden dash for the door, a throbbing moment of turning back when it seemed as though Sarah Kantor's arms could not unlock their deadlock of him, Leon Kantor was out and gone, the group of faces point-etched into the silence behind him.
The poor, mute face of Mannie, laughing softly. Rosa Kantor crying into her hands. Esther, grief-crumpled, but rich in the enormous hope of youth. The sweet Gina, to whom the waiting months had already begun their reality.
Not so Sarah Kantor. In a bedroom adjoining, its high-ceilinged vastness as cold as a cathedral to her lowness of stature, sobs dry and terrible were rumbling up from her, only to dash against lips tightly restraining them.
On her knees beside a chest of drawers, and unwrapping it from swaddling-clothes, she withdrew what at best had been a sorry sort of fiddle.
Cracked of back and solitary of string, it was as if her trembling arms, raising it above her head, would make of themselves and her swaying body the tripod of an altar.
The old twisting and prophetic pain was behind her heart. Like the painted billows of music that the old Italian masters loved to do, there wound and wreathed about her clouds of song:
But I've a rendezvous with Death On some scarred slope of battered hill, When spring comes round again this year And the first meadow-flowers appear.
OATS FOR THE WOMAN
That women who toil not neither do they spin might know the feel of fabrics so cunningly devised that they lay to the flesh like the inner petals of buds, three hundred and fifty men, women, and children contrived, between strikes, to make the show-rooms of the Kessler Costume Company, Incorporated, a sort of mauve and mirrored Delphi where buyers from twenty states came to invoke forecast of the mood of skirts, the caprice of sleeves, and the rumored flip to the train. Before these flips and moods, a gigantic industry held semi-annual pause, destinies of lace-factories trembling before a threatened season of strictly tailor-mades, velvet-looms slowing at the shush of taffeta. When woman would be sleazy, petticoat manufacturers went overnight into an oblivion from which there might or might not be returning. The willow plume waved its day, making and unmaking merchants.
Destiny loves thus to spring from acorn beginnings. Helen smiled, and Troy fell. Roast pork, and I doubt not then and there the apple sauce, became a national institution because a small boy burnt his fingers.
That is why, out from the frail love of women for the flesh and its humors, and because for the webby cling of chiffon too often no price is too high, the Kessler Costume Company employed, on the factory side of the door, the three hundred and fifty sewers and cutters, not one of whose monthly wage could half buy the real-lace fichu or the painted-chiffon frock of his own handiwork.
On the show-room side of the door, painted mauve within and not without, mannequins, so pink finger-tipped, so tilted of instep, and so bred in the thrust to the silhouette, trailed these sleazy products of thick ringers across mauve-colored carpet and before the appraising eyes of twenty states.
Often as not, smoke rose in that room from the black cigar of the Omaha Store, Omaha, or Ladies' Wear, Cleveland. In season, and particularly during the frenzied dog-days of August, when the fate of the new waist-line or his daring treatment of cloth of silver hung yet in the balance, and the spirit of Detroit must be browbeaten by the dictum of the sleeveless thing in evening frocks, Leon Kessler himself smoked a day-long chain of cigarettes, lighting one off the other.
In the model-room, a long, narrow slit, roaringly ventilated by a whirling machine, lined in frocks suspended from hangers, and just wide enough for two very perfect thirty-sixes to stand abreast, August fell heavily. So heavily that occasionally a cloak-model, her lot to show next December's conceit in theater wraps, fainted on the show-dais; or a cloth-of-gold evening gown, donned for the twentieth time that sweltering day, would suddenly, with its model, crumple, a glittering huddle, to the floor.
Upon Miss Hattie Becker, who within the narrow slit had endured eight of these Augusts with only two casual faints and a swoon or two nipped in the bud, this ninth August came in so furiously that, sliding out of her sixth showing of a cloth-of-silver and blue-fox opera wrap, a shivering that amounted practically to chill took hold of her.
"Br-r-r!" she said, full of all men's awe at the carbon-dioxide paradox. "I'm so hot I'm cold!"
Miss Clarice Delehanty slid out of a shower of tulle-of-gold dancing-frock and into an Avenue gown of rough serge. The tail of a very arched eyebrow threatened, and then ran down in a black rill.
"If Niagara Falls was claret lemonade, You'd see me beat it to a watery grave."
"That'll be enough canary-talk out of you, Clare. Hand me my shirt-waist there off the hook."
"Didn't Kess say we had to show Keokuk the line before lunch?"
"If the King of England was buying ermine sport coats this morning, I wouldn't show 'em before I had a cold cut and a long drink in me. Hurry! Hand me my waist, Clare, before the girls come in from showing the bridesmaid line."
Miss Delehanty flung the garment down the narrow length of the room.
"Minneapolis don't know it, but after this showing he's going to blow me to the frappiest little lunch on the Waldorf roof."
Miss Becker buttoned her flimsy blouse with three pearl beads down its front, wiping constantly at a constantly dampening brow.
"You'd shove over the Goddess of Liberty if you thought she had her foot on a meal ticket."
"Yes; and if I busted her, you could build a new one on the lunch money you've saved in your time."
"Waldorf! You've got a fine chance with Minneapolis. You mean the Automat, and two spoons for the ice-cream."
Miss Delehanty adjusted a highly eccentric hat, a small green velvet, outrageously tilted off the rear of its bandeau, and a wide black streamer flowing down over one shoulder. It was the match to the explosive effect of the trotteur gown. She was Fashion's humoresque, except that Fashion has no sense of humor. Very presently Minneapolis would appraise her at two hundred and seventy-five as is. Miss Delehanty herself came cheaper.
"Say, Hattie, don't let being an old man's darling go to your head. The grandchildren may issue an injunction."
A flare of crimson rushed immediately over Miss Becker's face, spreading down into her neck.
"You let him alone! He's a darn sight better than anything I've seen you girls picking for yourselves. You never met a man in your life whose name wasn't Johnnie. You couldn't land a John in a million years."
Miss Delehanty raised her face from over a shoe-buckle. A stare began to set in, as obviously innocent as a small boy's between spitballs.
"Well, who said anything about old St. Louis, I'd like to know?"
"You did, and you leave him alone! What do you know about a real man? You'd pass up a Ford ride to sit still in a pasteboard limousine every time!"
"Well, of all things! Did I say anything?"
"Yes, you did!"
"Why, for my part, he can show you a good time eight nights in the week and Sundays, too."
"He 'ain't got grandchildren—if you want to know it."
"Did I say he had?"
"Yes, you did!"
"Why, I don't blame any girl for showing grandpa a good time."
"You could consider yourself darn lucky, Clarice Delehanty, if one half as good ever—"
"Ask the girls if I don't always say old St. Louis is all to the good. Three or four years ago, right after his wife died, I said to Ada, I said—"
A head showed suddenly through the lining side of the mauve portieres, blue-eyed, blue-shaved, and with a triple ripple of black hair trained backward.
"Hurry along there with fifty-seven, Delehanty! Heyman's got to see the line and catch that six-two Chicago flier."
Miss Delehanty fell into pose, her profile turned back over one shoulder.
"Tell him to chew a clove; it's good for breathless haste," she said, disappearing through portieres into the show-room.
Miss Becker thrust herself from a hastily-found-out aperture, patting, with final touch, her belt into place.
"Have I been asking you for five years, Kess, to knock before you poke your head in on us girls?"
Mr. Leon Kessler appeared then fully between the curtains, letting them drape heavily behind him. Gotham garbs her poets and her brokers, her employers and employees, in the national pin-stripes and sack coat. Except for a few pins stuck upright in his coat lapel, Mr. Kessler might have been his banker or his salesman. Typical New-Yorker is the pseudo, half enviously bestowed upon his kind by hinter America. It signifies a bi-weekly manicure, femininely administered; a hotel lobbyist who can outstare a seatless guest; the sang-froid to add up a dinner check; spats. When Mr. Kessler tipped, it did not clink; it rustled. In theater, at each interval between acts, he piled out over ladies' knees and returned chewing a mint. He journeyed twice a year to a famous Southern spa, and there won or lost his expenses. He regarded Miss Becker, peering at her around the fluff of a suspended frock of pink tulle.
"What's the idea, Becker? Keokuk wants to see you in the wrap line."
Miss Becker swallowed hard, jamming down and pinning into a small taffy-colored turban, her hair, the exact shade of it, escaping in scallops. Carefully powdered-out lines of her face seemed to emerge suddenly through the conserved creaminess of her skin. Thirty-four, in its unguarded moments, will out. Miss Becker had almost detained twenty's waistline and twenty-two's ardent thrust of face. It was only the indentures of time that had begun to tell slightly—indentures that powder could not putty out. There was a slight bagginess of throat where the years love to eat in first, and out from the eyes a spray of fine lines. It was these lines that came out now indubitably.
"If you want me to lay down on you, Kess, for sure, just ask me to show the line again before lunch. I'm about ready to keel. And you can't put me off again. I'm ready, and you got to come now."
He dug so deeply into his pockets that his sleeves crawled up.
"Say, look here. I've got my business to attend to, and, when my trade's in town, my trade comes first. See? Take off and show Keokuk a few numbers. I want him to see that chinchilla drape."
She reached out, closing her hand over his arm.
"I'll show him the whole line, Kess, when we're back from lunch. I got to talk to you, I tell you. You put me off yesterday and the day before, and this—this is the last."
"The last what?"
"Please, Kess, if you only run over to Rinehardt's with me. I got to tell you something. Something about me and—and—"
He regarded her in some perplexity. "Tell it to me here. Now!"
"I can't. The girls'll be swarming in any minute. I can't get you anywheres but lunch. It's the first thirty minutes of your time I've asked in five years, Kess—is that little enough? Let Cissie show Keokuk the blouses till we get back. It's something, Kess, I can't put off. Kess, please!"
Her face was so close to him and so eager that he turned to back out.
"Wait for me at the Thirty-first Street entrance," he said, "and I'll shoot you across to Rinehardt's."
She caught up her small silk hand-bag and ran out toward the elevators. Down in Thirty-first Street a wave of heat met, almost overpowering her. New York, enervated from sleepless nights on fire-escapes and in bedrooms opening on areaways, moved through it at half-speed, hugging the narrow shade of buildings. Infant mortality climbed with the thermometer. In Fifth Avenue, cool, high bedrooms were boarded and empty. In First Avenue, babies lay naked on the floor, snuffing out for want of oxygen.
Across that man-made Grand Canon men leap sometimes, but seldom. Mothers whose babies lie naked on the floor look out across it, damning.
Out into this flaying heat Miss Becker stepped gingerly, almost immediately rejoined by Mr. Leon Kessler, crowningly touched with the correct thing in straw sailors.
"Get a move on," he said, guiding her across the soft asphalt.
In Rinehardt's, one of a thousand such Rathskeller retreats designed for a city that loves to dine in fifteen languages, the noonday cortege of summer widowers had not yet arrived. Waiters moved through the dim, pink-lit gloom, dressing their tables temptingly cool and white, dipping ice out from silver buckets into thin tumblers.
They seated themselves beneath a ceiling fan, Miss Becker's taffy-colored scallops stirring in the scurry of air.
"Lordy!" she said, closing her eyes and pressing her finger-tips against them, "I wish I could lease this spot for the summer!"
He pushed a menu-card toward her. "What'll you have? There's plenty under the 'ready to serve.'"
She peeled out of her white-silk gloves.
"Some cold cuts and a long ice-tea."
He ordered after her and more at length, then lighted a cigarette.
"Well?" he said, waving out a match.
She leaned forward, already designing with her fork on the table-cloth.
"Kess, can you guess?"
"Come on with it!"
"Have you—noticed anything?"
"Say, I'd have a sweet time keeping up with you girls!"
She looked at him now evenly between the eyes.
"You kept up with me pretty close for three years, didn't you?"
"Say, you knew what you were doing!"
"I—I'm not so sure of that by a long shot. I—I was fed up with the most devilish kind of promises there are. The kind you was too smart to put in words or—or in writing. You—you only looked 'em."
"I suppose you was kidnapped one dark and stormy night while the villain pursued you, eh? Is that it?"
"Oh, what's the use—rehashing! After that time at Atlantic City and—and then the—flat, it—it just seemed the way I felt about you then—that nothing you wanted could be wrong. I guess I knew what I was doing all right, or, if I didn't, I ought to have. I was rotten—or I couldn't have done it, I guess. Only, deep inside of me I was waiting and banking on you like—like poor little Cissie is now. And you knew it; you knew it all them three years."
"Say, did you get me over here to—"
"I only hope to God when you're done with Cissie you'll—"
"You let me take care of my own affairs. If it comes right down to it, there's a few things I could tell you, girl, that ain't so easy to listen to. Let's get off the subject while the going's good."
"Oh, anybody that plays as safe as you—"
He raised his voice, shoving back his chair. "Well, if you want me to clear out of this place quicker than you can bat your eye, you just—"
"No, no, Kess! 'Sh-h-h-h!"
"If there ever was a girl in my place had a square deal, that girl's been you."
"'Square deal!' Because after I held on and—ate out my heart for three years, you didn't—take away my job, too? Somebody ought to pin a Carnegie medal on you!"
"You've held down a twenty-dollar-a-week job season in and season out, when there've been times it didn't even pay for the ink it took to write you on the pay-roll."
"There's nothing I ever got out of you I didn't earn three times over."
"A younger figure than yours is getting to be wouldn't hurt the line any, you know. It's because I make it a rule not to throw off the old girls when their waist-lines begin to spread that makes you so grateful, is it? There's not a firm in town keeps on a girl after she begins to heavy up. If you got to know why I took you off the dress line and put you in the wraps, it's because I seen you widening into a thirty-eight, and a darn poor one at that. I can sell two wraps off Cissie to one off you. You're getting hippy, girl, and, since you started the subject, you can be darn glad you know where your next week's salary's coming from."
She was reddening so furiously that even her earlobes, their tips escaping beneath the turban, were tinged.
"Maybe I—I'm getting hippy, Kess; but it'll take more than anything you can ever do for me to make up for—"
"Gad!" he said, flipping an ash in some disgust, "I wish I had a ten-cent piece for every one since!"
"Oh," she cried, her throat jerking, "you eat what you just said! You eat it, because you know it ain't so!"
"Now look here," he said, straightening up suddenly, "I don't know what your game is, but if you're here to stir up the old dust that's been laid for five years—"
"No, no, Kess! It's only that—what I got to tell you—I—it makes a difference, I—"
"There's nothing in these years since, I swear to God, or in the years before, that I got to be ashamed of!"
"All right! All right!"
"If ever a girl came all of a sudden to her senses, it was me. If ever a girl has lived a quiet life, picking herself up and brushing the dust off, it's been me. Oh, I don't say I 'ain't been entertained by the trade—I didn't dodge my job—but it's been a straight kind of a time—straight!"
"I'm not asking for an alibi, Becker. What's the idea?"
"Kess," she said, leaning forward, with tears popping out in her eyes, "I.W. Goldstone has asked me to marry him."
He laid down his roll in the act of buttering it, gazing across at her with his knife upright in his hand.
"Night before last, Kess, in the poppy-room at Shalif's."
"Are you crazy?"
"It's the God's truth, Kess. He's begging me for an answer by to-night, before he goes back home."
"I.W. Goldstone, of Goldstone & Auer, ladies' wear?"
She nodded, her hand to her throat.
"Well, I'll be strung up!"
"He—he says, Kess, it's been on his mind for a year and a half, ever since his spring trip a year ago. He wants to take me back with him, Kess, home."
"Whew!" said Mr. Kessler, wiping his brow and the back of his collar.
"You're no more surprised than me, Kess. I—I nearly fell off the Christmas tree."
"Good Lord! Why, his wife—he had her in the store it seems yesterday!"
"She's been dead four years and seven months, Kess."
"Old I.W. and you!"
"He's only fifty-two, Kess; I'm thirty-four."
"I know it. I can't realize it, neither."
"Why, he's worth two hundred thousand, if he's worth a cent!"
"I know it, Kess."
"The old man's stringing you, girl. His kind stop, look, and listen."
"He's not stringing me! I tell you he's begging me to marry him and go back home with him. He's even told his—daughter about me."
"Good Lord—little Effie! I was out there once when she was a kid. Stopped off on my way to Hot Springs. They live in a kind of park—Forest Park Street or something or other. Why, I've done business with Goldstone & Auer for fifteen years, and my father before me! Good Lord!"
"What'll I do, Kess?"
"So that's the size of the fish you went out and landed!"
"I didn't! I didn't! He's been asking me out the last three trips, and post-cards in between, but I never thought nothing of it."
"Why, he can't get away with this!"
"They won't stand for it out in that Middle West town. He's the head of a big business. He's got a grown daughter."
"He's got her fixed, Kess—settled on her."
"Hattie Becker, Mrs. I.W. Goldstone! Gad! can you beat it? Can't you just see me, when I come out to St. Louis pretty soon, having dinner out at Mrs. I.W. Goldstone's house? Say, am I seeing things?"
"What'll I do, Kess? What'll I do?"
"I tell you that you can't get away with it, girl. The old man's getting childish; they'll have to have him restrained. Why, the woman he was married to for twenty years, Lenie Goldstone, never even seen a skirt-dance. I remember once he brought her to New York and then wouldn't let her see a cabaret show. He won't even buy sleeveless models for his French room."
"I tell you, Kess, he'll take me to Jersey to-morrow and marry me, if I give the word."
"Not a chance!"
"I tell you yes. That's why I got to see you. I got to tell him to-night, Kess. He—goes back to-morrow."
He regarded her slowly, watching her throat where it throbbed.
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"I—I don't know."
"Where do you stand with him? Sweet sixteen and never been kissed?"
"He—he don't ask questions, Kess. I—I'm his ideal, he says, of the—kind of—woman can take up for him where his wife left off. He says we're alike in everything but looks, and that a man who was happy in marriage like him can't be happy outside of it. He—he's sized up pretty well the way I live, and—and—he knows I don't expect too much out of life no more. Just a quiet kind of team-work, he puts it—pulling together fifty-fifty, and somebody's hand to hold on to when old fellow Time hits you a whack in the knees from behind. But he ain't old when he talks that way, Kess; he—he's beautiful to me."
"Does he wear a mask when he makes love?"
"He's got a fine face."
"So that's the way you're playing it, is it? Love-stuff?"
"Oh, I've had all the love-stuff knocked out of me. Three years of eating out my heart is about all the love-stuff I can handle for a while. He don't want that in a woman. I don't want it in him. He's just a plain, good man I never in my life could dream of having. A good home in a good town where life ain't like a red-eyed devil ready to hit in deep between the shoulder-blades. I know why he says he can see his wife in me. He knows I'm the kind was cut out for that kind of life—home and kitchen and my own parsley in my own back yard. He knows, if he marries me, carpet slippers seven nights in the week is my speed. I never want to see a 'roof,' or a music-show, or a cabaret again to the day I die. He knows I'll fit in home like a goldfish in its bowl. Life made a mistake with me, and it's going to square itself. It's fate, Kess; that's what it is—fate!"
She clapped her hands to her face, sobbing down into them.
He glanced about him in quick and nervous concern.
"Pull yourself together there, Becker; we're in a public place."
"If only I could go to him and tell him."
"Well, you can't."
"It's not you that keeps me. Only, I know that with his kind of man and at his age, a woman is—is one thing or another and that ends it. With a grown daughter, he wouldn't—couldn't—he's too set in his ways to know how it was with me—and—what'll I do, Kess?"
"Say, I'm not going to stand in your light, if that's what's eating you. If you can get away with it, I don't wish you nothing but well. Looks to me like all right, if you want to make the try. I'll even come and break bread with you when I go out to see my Middle West trade pretty soon. That's the kind of a hairpin I am."
"It's like I keep saying to myself, Kess. If—if he'd ask me anything, it—it would be different. He—he says he never felt so satisfied that a woman had the right stuff in her. And I have! There's nothing in the world can take that away from me. I can give him what he wants. I know I can. Why, the way I'll make up to that little girl out there and love her to death! I ask so little, Kess—just a decent life and rest—peace. I'm tired. I want to let myself get fat. I'm built that way, to get fat. It was nothing but diet gave me the anaemia last summer. He says he wants me to plump out. Perfect thirty-six don't mean nothing in his life except for the trade. No more rooming-houses with the kitchenette in the bath-room. A kitchen, he says, Kess, half the size of the show-room, with a butler's pantry. He likes to play pinochle at night, he says, next to the sitting-room fire. He tried to learn me the rules of the game the other night in the poppy-room. It's easy. His first wife was death on flowers. She used to train roses over their back fence. He loved to see her there. He wants me to like to grow them. He wants to take me back to a home of my own and peace, where life can't look to a girl like a devil with horns. He wants to take me home. What'll I do, Kess? Please, please, what'll I do?"