JANE JOURNEYS ON
RUTH COMFORT MITCHELL
AUTHOR OF "PLAY THE GAME," ETC.
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK :: 1922 :: LONDON
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1918, by The International Magazine Co. Copyright, 1919, by McCall Co., Inc. Copyright, 1916, 1917, by the Century Co. Copyright, 1919, by the Crowell Publishing Co.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TO W. C. MORROW GUIDE AND FRIEND, WHO HAS SET SO MANY OF US ON OUR WAY
The Table of Contents is not printed in the book but has been generated here for the convenience of the reader.
CHAPTER I CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX CHAPTER XX CHAPTER XXI
JANE JOURNEYS ON
With but one exception, everybody in the upper layer of life in that placid Vermont village was sure that Jane Vail was going to marry Martin Wetherby. The one exception was Jane herself; she was not sure—not entirely.
There were many sound and sensible reasons why she should, and only two or three rather inconsequent ones why she should not. To begin with, he was a Wetherby, and the family went steadily back in an unbroken line to Colonial days; it was their grave old house with the fanlight over its dignified door which had given Wetherby Ridge its name. He was doing remarkably well at the bank; it was conceded that he would be assistant cashier at the first possible moment; his habits were exemplary and he was the most carefully dressed young man in the community. His mother freely admitted at the Ladies' Aid and the Tuesday Club that he was as perfect a son as any woman ever had, and that he would one day make some girl a perfect husband.
Jane, after long and rebellious thought, could find nothing to set down on the other side of the ledger beyond the fact that he was just a little too good-looking, that he was already beginning, at twenty-six, to put on the flesh which had always been intended for him, that his hands were softer than hers, with fingers which widened puffily at the base, and that she nearly always knew what he was going to say before he said it.
She was twenty-four years old, and the immemorial custom of that village gave her a scant remaining year in which to make up her mind. All girls who ran true to pattern were either snugly married or serenely teaching by the time they were twenty-five, and the choice was not always their own. There had been more marriageable maidens than eligible youths in the set, and it was rather, Jane told herself grimly, like a game of Musical Chairs—a gay, excited scramble, and some one always left out. Now, with the exodus of a few and the marrying of many, it had narrowed down to three of them—herself, Martin Wetherby, and Sarah Farraday, who was her best friend during childhood and girlhood; and Sarah, an earnest, blonde girl with nearsighted eyes and insistent upper front teeth, had, so to speak, stopped playing. She had converted her dead father's old stable into a studio by means of art burlap and framed photographs of famous composers, and was giving piano lessons daily from ten to four. This left the field entirely to Jane, and Jane was carrying about with her an increasing conviction that she was not going to do the thing every one expected her to do.
It came curiously to a crisis on a mild and unimportant day in November. Jane spent a footless forenoon in her own room in the green-shuttered, elm-shaded house where she lived with her adoring Aunt Lydia Vail, trying to start a story. Miss Vail took great care to tiptoe whenever she passed her door, and refrained from summoning her to the telephone, but her pleasant old voice, explaining why her niece could not come, was clearly audible.
"Yes, dear, she's at home, but she's at work at her writing, and you know I never disturb her.... Yes, she's been shut away in her room since right after breakfast.... Yes, it's a new story, but I don't know what it's about. I'll ask her at dinner.... How's your mother, dear?... Oh, that's good! That's what I always use and it never fails to relieve me. You give her my love, won't you? I'll have Jane call you up when she comes out for dinner."
The story simply would not start. It lay inert in the back of her brain, listening for the telephone and Aunt Lydia's softly padding footfalls, and at last she gave it up and got out the paper she was to read on "The Modern Irish Dramatists" before the Tuesday Club that afternoon and went carefully over its typed pages.
"Oh," said Aunt Lydia at the dinner table, her plump face clouding over, "I'm sorry the story didn't go well! It wasn't because you were interrupted, was it, dear? I was especially careful this morning. You know, I believe, without realizing it, you're just the least mite nervous about your program. I know I am myself, though I know, of course, you're going to do just beautifully."
Three and a half hours later, thirty-four matrons and spinsters were warmly asserting that she had. They smiled up at her where she stood on the shallow little platform with approval and affection, and the Chairman of the Program Committee said she was sure they were all deeply indebted to Miss Vail for a most enlightening little lecture. "I am free to confess," she said, smiling, "that it is a subject upon which I, personally, have been ignorant, and I believe many of our club ladies would say the same."
Jane, looking down into their pleasant, best-family faces knew this was the fact. The word "Irish" conveyed to most of them only the red-armed minions in their kitchens; the boys who ran noisily up alleyways with butchers' parcels; the short-tempered dames in battered hats who came—or distressingly did not come—to them on Monday mornings, and who frequently bore away with them bars of perfectly new soap; and the chuckles and sobs and moonlit whimsies of Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory did not, in their minds, connect up at all.
"And now," said the President, in her sweet New England voice, "I know you will all wish to express your appreciation both to the Chairman of our Program Committee, who has arranged so many literary treats for us, and to Miss Vail for her delightful paper by a rising vote of thanks." Then the thirty-four ladies of the Tuesday Club clutched at their gloves and handbags and came to their feet with soft rustlings of new foulards and taffetas and rich old silks, and the President declared the meeting adjourned but trusted that every one would remain for a cup of tea and a social hour.
Martin Wetherby's handsome mother took brisk and proprietary charge of Jane and shared her laurels happily. "Yes, indeed," she beamed, her gray crepe arm through the girl's, "I can tell you, we're pretty proud of her!" She had clearly cast herself already for the role of adoring and devoted mother-in-law, and the Tuesday Club was just as clearly taking the same view of it.
Jane, in her wine-red velvet and her glowing, gipsy beauty against the sober blacks and grays and faded cheeks of the gathering, looking like a Kentucky cardinal alighted in a henyard, felt her smile stiffening. Sudden and inexplicable panic and rebellion descended upon her; it seemed certain that if she heard Mrs. Wetherby say "proud of this dear girl of ours" once again she would scream. She disengaged her arm and declined tea and little frosted cakes.
"I'm so sorry—it looks so tempting, doesn't it?—but I really must fly!" She looked earnestly at her wrist watch. "This very minute! Thank you all so much! You've been wonderful—quite turned my head! But I must hurry!"
Out in the quiet, pretty street the sense of pursuit fell away from her and she was smiling derisively at herself when she reached Sarah Farraday's house and passed through the side garden to the studio. An hour with old Sally would be good for her.
Sarah was tenderly dusting her severe-looking upright piano and putting away a pile of lesson books, and turned gladly to greet her. "Jane, dear! Why, how did you get away so early? Didn't they serve tea? I was just sick about not going, but the little Macey girl has had so many interruptions and is so far behind, and she does want to play at my recital, so that I felt I couldn't put her off again. How did your paper go?"
"Oh, well enough. They were very nice about it."
"I know they loved it. I want to read it!" She closed the music cabinet and came to take the typed manuscript. "Why, Jane! What's the matter?"
"I don't know, Sally—Yes, I do know! It's—it's Mrs. Wetherby, and every one else! She acts as if—every one acts—" it made her angrier still to feel the color mounting hotly in her cheeks.
"Well, Jane, dear," a faint, sympathetic flush warmed her small, pale face, "isn't that perfectly natural? Of course, I suppose it teases you, but you know how happy every one is about it."
"But there isn't anything to be happy about—yet!"
"Then it's just because you have—have held things off, dear, that's all. And I think Marty has been awfully faithful and patient—for years! Ever since you were tiny kiddies!" She looked anxiously at her best friend's mutinous face. "I'll tell you," she said, brightly, "let's run around to Nannie's for a moment! She'll just be giving the 'Teddy-bear' his oil rub. I'll run through the house and get my things—you wait out in front!"
Nannie Slade Hunter (Mrs. Edward R.) was their second-best friend and they had been among her bridesmaids two years earlier. A few minutes of brisk footing through the fading November afternoon delivered them at the Hunters' new, little house and in the nursery of their little son. Sarah's knowledge of schedule had been correct. Nannie, in an enveloping pinafore, her sleeves rolled high, her hands glistening, was anointing her infant with the most expensive olive oil on the market. The house was furnace heated and a small electric stove was radiating fierce warmth, and her cheeks were blazing. Jane and Sarah flung off their wraps and gave themselves whole-heartedly over to the business of worship and praise.
Little Mrs. Hunter, on whom matronhood and maternity sat with the effect of large spectacles on a small child, inquired indulgently into the activities of her friends. "Paper go nicely, Janey? Sorry I couldn't go.—Yes, he was his muzzie's lamby-lamby-boy! Yes, he was!—And how many pupils have you now, Sally?"
"Seventeen," said Sarah, thankfully, "and if everything goes well I'll have my baby-grand in four years!"
Edward R. Hunter, unmistakable father of the glistening infant, came into the room as she spoke and at once propounded a conundrum.
"Here's a good one, Jane! What's the difference between Nannie and Sally? Give it up? Why, Sally'll have a baby-grand, but Nannie has a grand baby!" The hot and breathless nursery rang with mirth; it seemed to Jane that the very pink room was growing hotter and hotter, and it smelt stiflingly of moist varnish and talcum powder and warm olive oil and expensive soap, and the baby, sitting solemnly erect for his powdering, a steadying hand at his fat back, looked like a pink celluloid Kewpie leering at her knowingly. She heard herself saying with unconsidered mendacity that she had an errand to run for her Aunt Lydia, and that Sally mustn't hurry away on her account, and presently she was down in the dim street again, with Edward R.'s jocose reproach that old Marty Wetherby was fading away to skin and bone echoing in her ears. She went dutifully for a magazine Miss Vail had mentioned and went home the "long way 'round," so that she was barely in time for supper, which consisted of three slices of cold boiled ham, shaved to a refined thinness and spread upon an ancient and honorable platter of blue willow pattern ware, hot biscuit, a small pot of honey and two kinds of preserves, delicate cups of not-too-strong tea, sugar cookies and a pallid custard.
Her aunt was fond and proud over the afternoon's triumph but didn't quite understand her having gone away so abruptly, and feared that Mrs. Wetherby had been "just the least mite hurt about it."
"But then," she hastened to add, at Jane's impatient movement, "it'll be all right, dear! You're going to see her to-night, and I know you can—sort of smooth it over."
"I was thinking," said her niece, dark eyes on her plate, "that perhaps I wouldn't go this evening, Aunt Lyddy."
"Not go? Not go to Mrs. Wetherby's? Why,—Jane!" Miss Vail laid down her fork and stared, her mild eyes wide with astonishment. "You aren't sick, are you?"
"I think I'm sick of always and always going to the same places with the same person, and hearing the same people say the same things!" Instantly she wished she might recall the sharp words, satisfying as they were to herself, for little Miss Lydia was regarding her much as the aunt of the wretched girl in the fairy tale might have done,—the girl out of whose mouth a frog jumped every time she opened it. Indeed, the sentence seemed actually visible between them, like a squat and ugly small beast on the shining white cloth. "Sorry, Aunt Lyddy," said Jane, penitently. "I'm a crosspatch to-night, and I ought to sit by the fire and spin, instead of gamboling."
Miss Vail's face cleared. "No, indeed, dearie, it'll be much better for you to go and have a merry time with your young companions. That paper was a nervous strain, that's all! Now you just eat a good supper and then run upstairs and make yourself as pretty as you can!" Her plump face broke up into sly lines and she nodded happily. "Marty'll come for you at quarter before eight; he telephoned before you got home."
Martin Wetherby was even better than his word, which was one of his most sterling traits. He arrived at twenty-five minutes before eight and waited contentedly in converse with her aunt until Jane came down. "I didn't bring the car," he said. "I thought we'd like to walk." When they reached the sidewalk he lifted her right forearm in a warm, moist grasp and held it firmly close against him. "The car's too quick, Janey," he said, huskily. "Gets us there too soon!"
"Well," said Jane, brightly, "we mustn't be late, your mother likes people to be prompt, you know!" She managed to tug her arm away the fraction of an inch.
"She likes you, any old time," he said, blissfully. He always got husky and thick sounding in emotion, Jane reflected, and breathed heavily.
"Aren't we going to stop by for Sally?"
"No; I asked Edward R. and Nannie to pick her up in their little old boat. No, we aren't going to have anybody—but just—us!" He squeezed her arm against him again. "Janey, I guess you know all right how I——"
"Oh!" cried Jane,—"here they are, now! Hello, people!"
"Hello yourselves!" said Edward R. Hunter, bringing his machine to a stop beside them. "Want to hop in? Plenty room."
"No, of course they don't want to hop in, goose!" said his wife, reprovingly. "Edward R. Hunter, I wonder at you! Were you never young yourself?"
"Oh, but we do!" Jane was capably opening the front door of the little car. "We're late! I kept Marty waiting! I'm going to ride with the chauffeur, and Marty can sit with the girls. When Mrs. Wetherby says 'eight o'clock' she means it, not quarter past." She was chatty and intensely friendly with them all during the brief drive. She even produced the proper degree of articulate mirth for the young father's painstaking jest about his son's nickname being Teddy b-a-r-e, bear, most of the time.
When they stopped before the Wetherby house Martin was out of the automobile with heavy swiftness and lifted Jane bodily to the sidewalk and hurried her up the walk. "All right for you, girlie," he chuckled, "all right for you! But you just wait! Wait till going home to-night!"
Jane drew Sarah Farraday aside when they were in Mrs. Wetherby's phrase, "taking off their things in the north chamber,"—a solid and dependable-looking room. "Sally, I want you to come home with me and stay over night."
"Oh, Jane, I don't believe I could,—not to-night! If I'd known sooner—I haven't anything with me."
"I'll loan you everything you need. Please, Sally! You can telephone your mother now."
"But Edward and Nannie brought me, and it seems sort of——"
"Sally, don't be a nuisance! I want you. I—need you!"
Sarah Farraday peered closely at her through her nearsighted eyes. "Jane! You haven't quarreled with Marty, have you? Oh, Jane!"
"No, but I shall if you don't come home with me!"
Her best friend looked long and anxiously at her and then went with a sigh to telephone her mother, and the evening, which Mrs. Wetherby described as "a little gathering of the young folks," got under way. Jane played cards sedately for the earlier part of it and joined with conscientious liveliness in the games which came later, just before Mrs. Wetherby's conception of "light refreshments" was served,—pineapple and banana salad with whipped cream and maraschino cherries on it, three kinds of exceptionally sweet and sticky cake, thick chocolate with melted marshmallows floating on its surface, and large quantities of home-made fudge in crystal bonbon dishes.
To Martin Wetherby, watching her contentedly out of his small, bright eyes, Jane Vail was what he and his mother termed the life of the party, but although she played an unfaltering part in the comedy of, "Well, partner! Didn't you get my signal? Now who's asleep?" and the sprightly games which followed, and exclaimed prettily over the decked supper table, deep under the high-piled masses of her dark hair, dark thoughts were stirring. She seemed to herself to be marching inexorably to the crossroads, which was silly, because she had spent exactly that sort of day and evening hundreds of times before and would again, she told herself impatiently, but the feeling was not to be eluded. She held herself up to her own high scorn. Why this dramatizing of the pleasant and placid course of Wetherby Ridge events? Why shouldn't she do as the other girls of the set had done? Was she, then, so much finer clay? If she didn't want to be another Nannie—hot pink nursery in a shining little new house—expensive olive oil—home-coming husband in punning mood—pink celluloid Kewpie—half a dozen of everything in flat silver and two really good rugs to start with—then why couldn't she cast herself serenely for the Sarah Farraday sort of thing, substituting a typewriter for a piano? There was nothing so bleak and dreadful about that; old Sally was busily happy, toiling hopefully for her baby-grand. She was enormously lucky, as a matter of fact, lucky beyond her deserts. She could be, it appeared, a Nannie or a Sarah, as she chose, and the time for choosing had arrived. And presently the girls were exclaiming that it was twenty minutes past eleven and they really must go, but it was Mrs. Wetherby's fault for always giving them such a perfectly wonderful time that they forgot to watch the clock, and Mrs. Wetherby was beaming back at them and insisting that she had enjoyed it all just as much as they had, and that she hoped she could always keep young at heart.
Sally lagged behind as they went down the steps. "Come along!" Jane called back to her. "I know you'll talk half of what's left of the night, and I want to get you started as soon as possible."
"She going to stay all night with you?" There was sulky surprise in Martin's voice.
"Yes," said Jane. "But isn't 'stay all night' a silly expression? As if she might rise and stalk home in the middle of it! I wonder why we don't say, 'stay over night'?" She ran on, ripplingly, but her escort at one side and Sarah Farraday at the other were maintaining, respectively, a sullen and an uncomfortable silence. When they were passing her own house Sarah broke away from them with a little gasp.
"Oh,—do you mind waiting just a minute? I believe I'll just run up and get my things, Jane. You know what a fussbudget I am about my own things. And I'll just slip into another dress so I won't have to put this on for breakfast. It won't take me two minutes—" She flew up the front steps and let herself softly in with her latch key, and instantly ill humor fell from Martin Wetherby.
"Sally's all right," he chuckled. "I'm for Sally!" He swept Jane out of the circle of light from the street lamp, into the black shadow of the Farraday shrubbery, and into a breathless embrace. "You—little—rascal—" he said, huskily, gasping a trifle as he always did in moments of high emotion. "You—little—witch! Now I've got you—and I'm going to keep you! Now I guess you'll listen to what I've got to say and—and answer me!" His broad, warm face was coming inexorably nearer; life—the pleasant and placid pattern of Wetherby Ridge—was coming inexorably nearer; life with melted marshmallows floating on its surface!
"Oh, Marty, please!" She was fatally calm and earnest about it. "I'm so sorry—sorrier than I can tell you,—but you mustn't say it! You mustn't make me answer you."
He was busily getting both her cool hands into the hot grasp of one of his own, and the fingers of his other hand, a little moist, were forcing themselves beneath her chin, but there was something in the honest sorriness of her tone which made him pause even in that triumphant and satisfying moment. "Why? You little——"
"Because," said Jane, steadily, "I do like you such a lot, Marty dear, and I wish you wouldn't ask me, and make me tell you that I don't—I can't——"
Then with a swift and amazing sense of rescue, of sanctuary, she heard herself saying, "Besides, you see, I'm going away!"
While Jane's astounding utterance seemed to float and echo on the November night air, Sarah Farraday let herself as stealthily out of her front door as she had let herself in, and came softly down the steps. "I didn't wake mother," she said in a whisper. She was in sober, every-day serge now, and pulling on her second-best cloak. She carried a small bag and was faintly pink with her haste. There was apprehension in the look she gave her friend. "Wasn't I quick, Jane?" She had left them alone to give Martin Wetherby his chance, but ancient girl loyalty had winged her heels.
"Yes," said Jane, slipping her hand through Sarah's arm. "Sally, I've just been telling Marty that I'm going away for a while."
"Jane Vail! Going away? What for? Where?" She stood still on the sidewalk, exploding into tiny, staccato sentences.
"To New York," Jane heard herself saying with entire conviction. "I'm going away to work."
"To work?" They were all in the brightness of the street light now, and Sarah brought her nearsighted gaze close to Jane's glowing face. "Have you lost your senses?"
"Neither my senses nor my cosy little hundred-a-month," said Jane. "Come along, people,—it's a scandalous hour." She started briskly up the silent thoroughfare and the others followed. "No, it's really all quite sane and simple." (The astounding thing was that she had known it less than five minutes herself, and now it was a solid and settled fact to her. Happily, gloriously, she didn't have to choose, after all. She didn't have to be either a Nannie Slade Hunter or a Sally Farraday; there was a chance to be something quite fresh and new.) "I'm going to New York to write. I mean, to see if I can write."
Martin Wetherby, heavily keeping step beside her, not even touching her arm at crossings, was silent, but her best friend was vocal and vehement.
"Jane Vail! I never heard anything so—so far-fetched in all my life! Going to New York to write! Can't you write here in your own town, in your own home? Of course you can. Why,—see what you've accomplished already."
"I haven't accomplished anything, old dear, except a few papers for the Tuesday Club and the Ladies' Aid, and——"
"You've had three stories accepted and published and one of them paid for,—I think you've had a great deal of encouragement, don't you, Martin?"
The stout young man made a husky assent.
"But Sally, you don't realize the interruptions, the distractions——"
"Interruptions! Distractions!" Sarah cut in hotly. "Why, your Aunt Lydia is perfectly wonderful about not letting you be disturbed! And anyhow—what about Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing Uncle Tom's Cabin with poverty and sickness and a debilitating climate and seven children?"
"My good woman," said Jane, cautiously, "it's entirely possible that I may not have exactly the same urge. I want to find out if I have any at all." She slipped an arm through Sarah's and through Martin's and gave each of them a gay little squeeze. "Don't be so horrified, old dears. It isn't across the world, you know, and I'll be coming home for all high-days and holidays. After I really get started I daresay I can work at home,—and perhaps, you know, it will be Bo-Peep herself who comes home, bringing her tales behind her!"
But Sarah Farraday was still protesting in a cross panic when they had taken leave of a subdued Martin and were creeping upstairs in Miss Lydia Vail's house.
"Look!" said Jane, nodding at the transom over her aunt's door. "She's fallen asleep again without turning off her light. You go on, Sally, I'll be right in."
Miss Lydia was propped up on two pillows, an open book before her on the patchwork quilt, and her head had sagged forward on the breast of her blue flannelette nightgown. She was making a low comedy sound which would have distressed her beyond measure if she had heard it. When Jane took the book from under her plump hands and gently removed one of the pillows she came back to consciousness with a jerk.
"I wasn't asleep," she stated with dignity. "Not really asleep; I just closed my eyes to rest them and sort of lost myself for an instant." Her eyes narrowed intently. "My dear, what is it? You look—you look queer! Sort of—excited!" A quick, pink blush mounted over her face. "Jane! Oh, my darling child—is it—has Martin"—then, disappointedly, as the girl shook her head,—"Is it just that you've been having a wonderful time?"
"It's just that I've been having a wonderful idea, Aunt Lyddy!" She patted the pillow. "I'll tell you to-morrow!"
"What, Jane? What is it? I sha'n't sleep a wink if you don't tell me!"
"I'm going away for a while, Aunt Lyddy, dear,—to New York. I want to see if I can really do something with my writing."
The little spinster paled. "Jane! Going away?" Her eyes brimmed up with sudden tears. "My dearest girl, aren't you happy in your home? I've tried, oh, how I've tried to take your dear, dead mother's place! But it seems——"
"Of course I'm happy,—I've always been happy, Aunt Lyddy! Now, we'll wait till morning and then talk it all over." She pulled up the gay quilt smoothly, but her aunt sat stiffly upright, her face twisted with alarm.
"My dear child! What is it?"
Jane stood looking down at her for an instant before she stooped and gathered her into a hearty hug. "It's nothing to be frightened about. It's just this, Aunt Lyddy; I do want to write, and I don't want to marry Martin Wetherby!"
* * * * *
In the difficult days which followed she found Sarah Farraday the most rebellious. Miss Vail had a little creed or philosophy which was as plump and comfortable as she was herself, and which had helped to make her, Jane considered, the world's most satisfactory maiden aunt, and after a few tears and those briskly winked away, she was able to be sure that her dear girl knew best what was best for herself, much as she would miss her, empty as the house would be without her. Nannie Slade Hunter, though she disapproved, was too deeply engulfed in the real business of life to be much concerned over the vagaries of a just-about-to-be-engaged girl, and Martin Wetherby, coached, Jane knew, by the sapient father of the Teddy-bear, was presently able to translate her exodus into something very soothing to his own piece of mind. Jane could watch his mental processes as easily as she could watch the activities of a goldfish in a glass globe; he was concluding that it was the regular old startled fawn stuff ... he had been rushing her pretty hard ... better let her have a little time ... play around with this writing game. He'd be Asst. Cashier (that was the way he visualized it) the first of the year, and that would be a great time to get things settled.
But Sarah, in the burlapped studio, between piano pupils, was aghast and bitter. "'Going to seek your fortune!' I never heard anything so absurd, Jane! You've got more than most girls right now,—a hundred dollars a month of your very own to do just what you like with, and when your Aunt Lydia—is taken from you, you'll have that adorable old house, jammed full of rosewood and mahogany and willow pattern ware!" Wrath rose and throve in her. "I've sometimes—I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's the truth—I've sometimes envied you your advantages, Jane,—going away to that wonderful school, and six months in Europe after you graduated—but if the result has been to make you dissatisfied with your own home and your own friends"—she was crying now—"why, then I'm thankful I've always stayed here, and never known or wanted anything different!"
Jane crossed over to her and put penitent arms about her, and at the touch Sarah began to cry in earnest.
"Oh, Jane! I can't stand it! I can't have you go away! Jane,—for you to go away——"
"Oh, Sally dear," said Jane, patting her, "it isn't really going away,—geography doesn't matter! It's just—going on, Sally! That's it,—I'm just going on. And on, I hope! And I'll write you miles of letters."
"Letters!" her friend sniffed. "What are letters?"
"Mine are something rather special, I've been told. I'll write you everything, Sally,—letters like diaries, letters like stories, letters like books. Think of all the marvelous things I'll have to write about! Why, Rodney Harrison thinks my letters from Wetherby Ridge, with nothing——"
Sarah Farraday jerked away from her, her cheeks suddenly hot, her eyes accusing. "So, that's it! That's the reason! It's the man you met on the boat!" She said it with hyphens—"The-man-you-met-on-the-boat!" She knew his name quite well, but she always spoke of him thus descriptively; it was her little way of keeping him in his place, which was well outside of the sacred circle of Wetherby Ridge.
Jane laughed. "Goose! Of course, he's part of the picture, and a very pleasant part, and it will be very nice to have him meet me and drive me opulently to Hetty Hills' sedate boarding-house. Aunt Lyddy is so rejoiced to have me there with some one from the village that I couldn't refuse, but I suspect it will be a section of the Old People's Home."
"Poor Marty!" said Sarah. "Poor old Marty! After all his years of devotion——"
"But don't you think he got large chunks of enjoyment out of them?" Her best friend's earnestness made her flippant, and it was a curious fact that good old Sally, a predestinate spinster herself, settled on her moated grange of music teaching, always took a most militant part in other people's love affairs. In every lovers' quarrel in the village, in the rare divorces, she had stood fiercely, hot dabs of color on her cheekbones, for the swain or the husband. "I still contend," she would say, "that with all his faults, and I'm not denying that he has faults, a different sort of a woman could have saved him and made something of him!"
Sarah came to stay the night with her before she was to leave in the morning, and cried herself to sleep with a thin drizzle of tears which Jane found at once flattering and touching and irritating, and when at last the weeper was drawing long and peaceful breaths she slipped out of bed and flung on her orange-colored kimono and knelt down before the open window, her shining hair, so darkly brown that it was almost black, hanging gypsylike about her shoulders. (The greater portion of Sarah's hair was at rest upon the rosewood bureau top, coiled like a pale snake, and the remainder was done up on curlers in Topsy twists.)
Over in the east there was the first graying advance of the dawn. (There had been a "little gathering of the young folks" and then Jane had finished packing and they had talked for two hours.) Jane felt a little guilty, and a little foolish—leaping thus into the village spotlight, sallying forth into the wide world—and a little gay and thrilled. The morning was coming steadily up the sky; the daily miracle was going on. And she was going on—on! Old Sally's scoldings didn't matter, nor Marty's smug confidence. She shivered a little but kept her eyes on the growing glory. She was—going—on!
A week later Sarah Farraday tore open the first letter with the New York postmark.
SALLY DEAR, the typed page began, I meant to write at once, but I've been settling down so busily! Of course Aunt Lyddy telephoned you of my safe arrival?—Safe, my dear?—It was positively regal. Visiting royalty effect. Rodney Harrison met me and I find I had quite forgotten how very easy to look at he is! He apologized for the taxi which seemed most opulent to me, because his own speedster was in the shop, he having "broken a record and some vital organ the night before, and the mater was using the limousine and the governor was out of town with the big bus." His pretty plan was for dinner and the theater and then supper and some dancing, but I thought there was just the least bit of the King and the Beggar Maid lavishness about that, so I discreetly revised it to tea.
We purred extravagantly up the Avenue, and how horrified Aunt Lyddy would be at the taximeter! It makes me think of when we used to play Hide-and-Seek, "Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty—ready or not you shall be caught!"
He had brought me a corsage of orchids and lilies-of-the-valley, and I had to wear it at tea—and the price of that tea, my dear, would feed a first family in Wetherby Ridge for a day!—and when I came up here to my room I found three dozen red roses with stems like stilts and a three-story red satin box of chocolates. Hardly a thrifty person, this man-I-met-on-the-boat, as you persist in calling him, Sally, but the last word in Reception Committees! Just as I had forgotten his charms, so he seemed to have mislaid the memory of mine, and we really made a very pleasant fuss over each other. Rodney had several bright and beamish ideas for the next few days, but I reminded him that while he may be an Idle Rich, I'm a Laboring Class, and I frugally accepted one invitation out of four. "A Country Mouse came to visit a Town Mouse—" But I can clearly see that he will greatly add to the livableness of life.
I have bought myself a second-hand, elderly, but still spry think-mobile with only a slight inclination to stutter, and a pompous-looking eraser with a little fringe of black whiskers on its chin, and I'm beginning to begin, Sally, dear!
It's going to be a marvelous place to work. Nice old Hetty Hills keeps a really super-boarding house, and the personnel isn't going to be in the least distracting,—staid, concert-going ladies, some teachers, a musician or two, a middle-aged bank clerk; only two other youngish people, both Settlement workers, a man and a woman. Her name is Emma Ellis and she's only about thirty, but she acts fifty—you know—shabby hair and dim fingernails and a righteously shining nose,—and I wish you could see her hat! It looks exactly like the lid to something. She doesn't like me at all, though I've been virtuously nice to her. The man is a big, lean Irishman, named Michael Daragh. Don't you like the sound of that, Sally? It makes me think of those Yeats and Synge things I was reading up on just before I left home. He's like a person in a book,—very tall and very thin and yet he seems like a perfect tower of strength, some way. His hair is ash blond and his eyes are gray and look straight through you and for miles beyond you, and he has splashes of good color in his thin, clear cheeks. He has a quaint, long, Irish, upper lip. I'd describe him as a large body of man entirely surrounded by conscience. (I'm describing him so fully to you because it's such good practice for me, and I know you don't mind.) His clothes are old, but not so much shabby as mellow, like old, good leather. And such a brogue, Sally! It could be eaten with a spoon! He asked me at once what I meant to do (he can't conceive, of course, that one isn't a do-er!), and when I said that I meant to write, at least, to try, he said:
"'Tis the great gift, surely. When our like"—he looked at Emma Ellis—"are toiling with our two hands and wishing they were twenty, yourself can reach the wide world over with your pen." Miss Ellis didn't seem especially impressed with his figure, but he nodded gravely and went on. "'Tis a true word. You can span the aching world with a clean and healing pen." (Isn't that delicious, Sally?) I tried to explain that I was just starting, that I was afraid I hadn't anything of especial importance to say, and then he said, very sternly—and he has the eyes of a zealot and a fighter's jaw—"Let you be stepping over to the tenements with me and I'll show you tales you'll dip your pen in tears and blood to tell!"
He's going to be enormously interesting to study.—There—I've just this instant placed the resemblance that's been teasing me! He's like the St. Michael in my favorite Botticelli, the one of Tobias led by the archangels, carrying the fish to heal his father, Tobit, you know,—there's a tiny copy of it in my room at home. Next time you stop by to see Aunt Lyddy (you're a lamb to do it so often!) run up and look at it. I loved it better than any other picture in Florence; you can't get the lovely old tones from the little brown copy, but everything else is there—Tobias, carrying his fish in the funny little strap and handle, utter trust on his lifted face, the wonderful lines of drapery, the swaying lily, the absurd little dog with his tasseled tail (I wonder if he was Botticelli's dog?) and at the side, guarding and guiding, with sword and symbol, stern St. Michael Captain-General of the Hosts of Heaven. This Michael Daragh is really like him, name and all. Isn't it curious?
Write me soon and much, old dear. My best to every one, and I sent the Teddy-bear a bib from the proudest baby-shop on the avenue.
P.S. You might ring up Aunt Lyddy and ask her to send me that little Botticelli picture—my bare walls are rather bleak.
Jane settled jubilantly into the new life,—a brisk walk after breakfast, up the gay Avenue or down the gray streets below the Square, then three honest hours at the elderly typewriter, writing at top speed ... tearing up all she had written ... writing slowly, polishing a paragraph with passionate care, salvaging perhaps a page, perhaps a sentence out of the morning's toil. Then she hooded her machine, lunched, and gave herself up to an afternoon of vivid living,—a Russian pianist, or an exhibition of vehemently modern pictures screaming their message from quiet walls in a Fifth Avenue Gallery, an hour at Hope House Settlement with Emma Ellis or Michael Daragh, tea and dancing with Rodney Harrison, or dinner and a play with him, or a little session of snug coziness with Mrs. Hetty Hills, giving the exile news of the Vermont village,—nothing was dull or dutiful; the prosiest matters of every day were lined with rose. She dramatized every waking moment. She was going to work, she wrote Sarah.
I have been just marking time before, but now I'm marching, Sally. I was up at six-thirty, had a cold dip and a laborer's breakfast,—I'm afraid I haven't any temperament in my appetite, you know—and sped off for atmosphere and ozone, far below the Square, on a two-mile tramp, and now I'm about to write. Rodney Harrison, who knows everybody who is anybody, has introduced me to some vaudeville-powers-that-be and I am encouraged to try my hand at what they call a sketch—a one-act play. It seems that they are in need of something a little less thin than the usual article they've been serving up to their patrons,—more of a playlet; something, I suppose, to edify the wife of the Tired Business Man after he has enjoyed the Tramp Juggler and the Trained Seals. Rodney Harrison has helped me no end,—trotted me about to all the best places and helped me to study and learn from them, and now I'm ready to begin.
And—heavens—how I adore it, Sally!
It's breaking my iron schedule to write a letter in business hours but I knew you'd love to picture me here, gleefully clicking off dollars and fame. Poor lamb! I wish you were on a job like this, instead of pegging away at your piano. I wish there could be as much fun in your work as mine. Of course, music is the most marvelous thing in the world, but isn't there something of deadly monotony in it?
But I fly to my toil!
January Ninth, 8.30 A.M.
It is just one week since I wrote you. I rend my garments, Sarah Farraday, and sit in the dust. That fatuous note I sent you was a thin crust of bluff over an abyss of fright. Who am I to write a one-act play? I have sat here for eight solid horrible days with a fine fat box of extra quality paper untouched and the keyboard leering at me, and not a line, not a word, have I written! The hideous period of beginning to begin! I imagine it's like the tense moment in a football game, just before the kickoff, only those lucky youths are pushed and prodded into action, willynilly. If only a whistle would blow or a pistol crack for me!
I have come to realize that the most dangerous thing for a writer to have is uninterrupted leisure. Now I know how Harriet Beecher Stowe could write Uncle Tom's Cabin with poverty and sickness and a debilitating climate and seven children. So could I. It's the awful quiet of this orderly room, the jeering taunt of Washington Square, looking in at my window to say, "What! here you are in my throbbing, thrilling midst at last, having left your sylvan home because it ceased to nourish you,—and you have nothing to say?"
I've simulated a mad business. I've answered every letter—some that I've owed for years; I've put my bureau and chiffonier and closet in sickening order; I've mended every scrap of clothing I possess, reinforced all my buttons and run in miles of ribbon; I've visited the sick and even been to the dentist. I really ought to die just before I start a new piece of work. At no other time is my house of life in such shining order.
Sally, didn't I say something nitwitted about music? Now, indeed, I pour ashes on my head. Lucky you, who need only sit down and spill out your soul in something thoughtfully arranged for that very purpose by Mr. Chopin or Mr. Tschaikovsky! While I—"out of senseless nothing to evoke"—I wish I did something definite and tangible like plain sewing! If I don't start soon I'll sell this think-mobile for junk and put out a sign—"Mending and Washing and Going Out by the Day Taken in Here."
Just now the painted ship upon the painted ocean is a bee-hive of activity compared to me.
Sh-h...! I'm off!
Wednesday, more than midnight.
I'm a dying woman but my sketch is done! I've lived on board the typewriter since twelve o'clock on Monday, coming briefly ashore for a snatch of food or sleep, but it's done and I adore it! (Says the author, modestly.) The heavenly mad haste of the actual doing makes up for all the agonies of the start, restoring the years that the locusts have eaten. I'll tell you all about it in the morning.
Drowsily but triumphantly,
Sally, my dear, I wouldn't thank King George to be my uncle, as Aunt Lyddy would say! I never experienced anything in all my life as satisfying as pounding out that word CURTAIN!
Want to hear about it? You must,—you can't elude me.
Well, I've called it "ONE CROWDED HOUR." The scene is a lonely telegraph station on the desert and the time is the present. The characters are: THE GIRL—THE BROTHER—THE MAN.
The setting shows the front room of the telegraph station crude and rough and bare, just the ticker on the table, another table and three chairs, yet there is a pathetic attempt at softening the ugliness,—a bunch of dried grasses, magazine covers pinned to the wall, gay cushions in the chairs, a work basket, books.
At rise of curtain GIRL is discovered alone, sewing. She is faintly, quaintly pretty in a mild New England way, no longer young, yet with a pathetic, persistent girlishness about her. A faint whistle is heard. She rises, goes to door of rear room and calls to BROTHER that the train has whistled for the bend. The two trains—east-bound and west-bound—are the events of their silent and solitary days. She brings him from rear room, her arm about him, steadying him. He is younger than his sister, frail, despondent. She seats him at the instrument and brings him a cup of hot broth, standing over him until he drinks it up.
The necessary exposition comes in brief dialogue: he has been sent west for his cough, has become so weak he is unable to do his work, has taught her, and she in reality carries on all the affairs of the lonely station. He stays in bed most of the time, only dragging himself up at train time, so that the trainmen will not suspect their secret.
The noise of the approaching limited grows louder and louder until it arrives with loud clamor just off stage. GIRL runs out with the orders and the train is heard pulling out again. She comes in and is about to help him back to bed when the instrument begins to click and instantly they are electrified.
"THE HAWK," a daring hold-up man who has baffled justice for a year, has just made off with the Bar K Ranch paysack and posses are forming, but the new sheriff has sworn to take him single-handed. BROTHER excitedly asserts that the sheriff can do it,—a regular fellow, that new sheriff,—looks and acts just like a man in a movie! He regrets that his sister was not at home the day he came to see them—the one time she'd left the station for more than an hour. She'd have liked him fine! They excitedly discuss the chances of the bandit's coming their way, for just beyond their station is the famous Pass through the mountains, through which so many rogues have ridden to freedom. In feverish haste BROTHER gets out his clumsy pistol and loads it, to her timid distress. Their drab day has turned to scarlet; he talks glowingly of the new sheriff, envies him.... Instrument clicks again. It is the sheriff, asking if they have seen a solitary horseman, and saying that he is on his way there, to watch the Pass.
BROTHER gets himself so wrought up that he brings on a fit of coughing and she makes him go back to bed.
Left alone again in the front room, she tries to settle down to her sewing, but she sings as she rocks—
"In days of old When knights were bold, And barons held their sway—"
Then, childishly, half ashamed, she begins to "pretend." She snatches off the red table cover and drapes it about herself for a train, casts the crude furniture for the roles of moat and drawbridge and castle wall, and herself for a captive princess, held by a robber chief, flinging herself into her fantasy with such abandon that she does not hear the approaching hoof beats. At the pinnacle of her big speech the door is wrenched open and THE MAN stands there, a gun in each hand, demanding—
It fits in with her make-believe so amazingly that for an instant she is dazed and can hardly tell reality from romance, but then she gathers herself and says with a little gasp—
"Why, Mister Sheriff, we aren't hiding THE HAWK!"
THE MAN, who is, of course, the bandit, instantly catches her mistake and poses as the sheriff. She asks him eagerly if she may send a message for him, to cover up her confusion as she takes off her table-cloth train. Then, realizing that she has betrayed their secret, she throws herself on his mercy and tells of her brother's failing health, and of how she has had to do the work to hold the job, and begs him not to tell. He promises, and then has her send several messages for him in the name of the sheriff, and from his expression as she is telegraphing, the audience will infer that he has good and sufficient reason to know that the sheriff will not arrive. He states to the several ranches where she wires for him that he—the sheriff—will guard the Pass.
BROTHER, roused by voices, comes silently to the door. Their backs are toward him and they do not see him. BROTHER hears her call him "Mister Sheriff," stares, takes in the situation, his face speaking his terror. He softly pulls the door to and disappears.
GIRL and MAN talk. He is a gay, dashing, Robin Hood sort of chap and she is charmed. She asks him to step outside to see the gallant little garden she is raising in the desert. They go out, and instantly BROTHER creeps out, stumbles to table, waits until they are out of hearing, sends a quick message. Then he creeps to the door and conveys by his mutterings that he is going to untie THE HAWK's horse and let him run away. Apparently the horse doesn't go, for he reaches back, picks up a cane and leans out again. This time there is the sound of skurrying hoofs and the horse tears away. BROTHER staggers back into the rear room, closing the door.
MAN and GIRL rush in. He is desperate,—the horse,—a wild and half-broken one, has made straight for the Pass. GIRL wants to wire for another horse to be brought to him, but after a moment's grim thought, he decides to jump on the eastbound train, due in a few minutes, and go on to the next station, where he can get a good horse.
Then there is a pretty scene between them, when she confesses her pity for THE HAWK and her wicked hope that he may get away—"I can't bear to have even things hunted, let alone a man!"
THE MAN is touched, and tells her that he knows a good deal about the bandit; that he has had a rotten deal straight through life; that there's a streak of decency in him for all the yellow; that he's heard that THE HAWK meant to make this his last job ... to go back east again and make a fresh start....
THE GIRL, star-eyed and pink-cheeked now, tells him of her home "down east," of how keen she was to come to the wild, wonderful west, of how she thinks that "one crowded hour of glorious life" is worth a whole leaden existence. That reminds her of her graduating essay, which she digs out of the trunk, tied with baby-blue ribbon. "One Crowded Hour" was her burning topic, but her hours and days and years have been crowded only with homely toil and poverty and worries.
THE MAN, softened incredibly, tells her she is the gentlest thing he ever knew.... He takes the blue ribbon and says he's going to keep it for luck. There is a beautiful, wordless moment for her, touched by magic into girlhood again.
Then—shouts, galloping hoofs, shots! THE MAN springs to his feet, hands on his guns.
BROTHER, at door of rear room, his old pistol describing wavering circles in his shaking hand, cries hoarsely,
"Harriet Mary, you come here to me! That's not the sheriff! That's THE HAWK!"
THE MAN, with a gentle word to her, tells her to stand aside.... "They'll never put THE HAWK in a cage!"
THE GIRL, after a dazed moment, turns to a veritable fury of resolution. The east-bound train whistles. There is still a chance, if she can get him on board. Sound of posse riding nearer. She makes MAN hide under the curtain where her dresses hang.
BROTHER starts toward the front door but she seizes him roughly, pushing him back toward the bedroom.
"Listen," he gasps, "Harriet Mary—that's THE HAWK!"
"I don't care! I don't care! I don't care! You hush! You keep still!" She pushes him into the room so violently that he falls, coughing terribly, to the floor. A look of fleeting horror crosses her face but she bangs and bolts the door. She draws the curtain more carefully over THE MAN, flings open the front door and calls above the clamor of the on-coming train—
"He's gone! Gone! We tried to keep him—quick—through the Pass! Don't you see the hoof-prints?"
The posse wheels and thunders away. The train roars in. THE MAN, coming out from under the curtain, snatches up her thin hand, kisses it, dashes out. She forces herself to take the message out to the trainmen. She comes back, stands in strained and breathless listening.... The train pulls noisily out.
Little by little her tension relaxes. The magic robe of youth, renewed, falls from her thin shoulders. At a sound from the inner room she gasps, clutches her hands together on her breast, her eyes wide with terror and remorse, starts running to her brother.
Can you see it, Sally? Do you think it will "get across?" Will I be able to "put it over"?
Now, convoyed by Rodney Harrison, I'm off to the Booking Office with a 'script, enchantingly typed in black and scarlet, under my arm and hope in my heart.
P.S. They were quite wonderful to me, which is to say, they pronounced "not bad" and will cast it at once. They talk vaguely of changes and "gingering it up," and "adding a little pep," but say that can be done at rehearsals.
I started to say I preferred not to have any alterations made, but I thought it would be more tactful to wait and see.
Oh, but the forlorn wretches in the waiting room! Some of them had been there for hours and when the proud and prosperous-looking Rodney sent in his name and we were taken in at once without waiting for our turn and they looked at me with their mournful made-up eyes I felt as if my wicked French heels were on their necks. I noticed one girl, particularly; there was something so gallant about her cracked and polished shoes, her mended gloves, her collar, laundered to a cobweb thinness, and about the improbable sea-shell pink in her hollow cheeks. She had a sort of eager, sharpened sweetness in her face and a regular Burne-Jones jaw.
I refused tea and said farewell to Rodney uptown and walked home, and on the way I saw her again, standing outside of one of the white and shining Cafe des Enfants, watching the man turn the muffins. She opened a collapsed little purse and poked about in it for an instant and then shut it again and turned away. Before I knew what I meant to do, I heard myself saying, "Hello! I saw you just now at the Booking Office, didn't I? I wish you'd come in and have some coffee and butter cakes,—I detest eating alone!"
She hung back a bit but they are not formal in her world, and in we went. Sally, I wish you could have seen that poor thing eat! She's been sick and out of work and fearfully depressed. I've got her name and address and if all goes as well with this vaudeville work as Rodney thinks it will, I may be able to help her. At any rate, she's stuffed like a Christmas turkey at this moment.
Sally, I can't tell you how happy I am!
Much love, old dear,
P.S. II. I read the act to Michael Daragh and he set the seal of his sober approval on it. He thinks I'm going personally to uplift the two-a-day.
It just happened that they need a new sketch act, so they cast "ONE CROWDED HOUR" at once and it is already in rehearsal.
BROTHER is excellent, a wistful-eyed, shabby youth who really looks convincingly ill and coughs in a way to carry conviction. Oh, but THE GIRL! My quaint New England spinster is gone and with her all the point of my playlet. They've given the part to a blooming, buxom, down-to-the-minute young person, late of "Oh, You Kewpie-Kid!" (in the chorus) and frankly contemptuous of this role. And THE MAN—the bandit—a fair-haired canary, an inch shorter than she is! They quarrel like fishwives and scold about the number of "sides" each other has, and refuse to play up prettily, and I'm heartsick over it all, Sally. The producing agent says it would be utterly impossible to "put it over" with the characters as I wrote it. He was fairly mild and merciful with me (thanks to Rodney, I daresay) but unbudgably firm, and at every rehearsal some touch of coyness or kittenishness is added. As an elixir of youth, I recommend him.
The girl patronizes me until I am ready to fling myself on the floor and squeal with rage. "Listen, girlie," she cooes, "don't you worry about this lil' ol' act! You leave it to me, hon'! I'll put the raisin in it!"
Rodney Harrison is hugely amused at my woe. He says I must remember that you can't slip the Idylls of the King in between the Black-faced Comedian and the Elephant Act. I suppose I must just bear it, grinning if possible, until I have won my footing and then I won't allow so much as a comma to be changed.
BROTHER is a dear. He opened his heart and gave me a five-act play of his own to read. The stage business is much funnier than the dialogue. After a melting moment he has—"Exeunt Mother." The old lady was clearly beside herself. Also me.
We open Thursday afternoon at a weird little try-out theater 'way downtown. I am like to perish of weariness and exasperation. GIRL and MAN have been fighting like Kilkenny cats. Yesterday she said, "Dearie, God is my witness, he uses me like I was the dirt under his feet!" The brother of BROTHER, a lean, clean-looking chap, lounges about at rehearsals and comforts me vastly with his under-the-breath comments on them. She has worked up the bit before THE MAN arrives, when she is pretending, you remember, into screaming comedy. She assures me it will "knock 'em dead!" And they have introduced a dance! Yes. He shows her "the coyote lope." I'm telling you the solemn truth, Sarah Farraday. Do you wonder that I'm an old woman before my time?
And as if I did not have enough to annoy me, Michael Daragh has been quite superfluously unpleasant about it. I wrote you how much he liked it when I read the original 'script to him? Well, he has kept talking about the glorious privilege of doing really good work and leavening the lump, and of how the public really wants the best, only the managers haven't faith to know it, and when I had to tell him about the changes,—the comedy and the dance and so on, he just looked at me and looked at me as if I were a lost soul. It was very tiresome.
"Good gracious, Michael Daragh," I said, "you don't suppose I like it, do you? But I've got to get my foothold. You can't be high-brow in the two-a-day, it seems. You've got to capitulate. It's simply what they call 'putting it over.'"
And he said, "I should be calling it 'putting it under,'" and stalked away.
Excuse a cross letter. So am I.
P.S. Just for which, I won't even tell him when or where the tryout is to be.
Well, my dear, they say it went fairly well. But it was absolutely the most harrowing thing I ever had to bear. BROTHER was a gem but GIRL and MAN messed up their lines and gave an alien interpretation to everything. How I hated the audience for roaring at her common comedy! They howled with delight when she pushed BROTHER over, and the coyote lope got the biggest hand of the day. I was behind the scenes, holding the 'script. Oh, but it's a grim land of disillusion back there! As she came off she gave me a kindly pat and said—
"Ain't they eatin' it up? Say, girlie, didn't I tell you I'd put the raisin in it?"
Unbelievably, heaven alone knows why, we are to open at the Palace next Monday. Some big act is canceled owing to illness and they have to have a sketch. We play two more performances downtown and then rehearse day and night to smooth over the rough places. I ought to be bubbling with thankful joy—the Palace! But I'm not. I doubt if I go on with vaudeville work after this.
Something made me think of that girl I fed the other day and I looked her up. She was actually starving and her room rent long overdue and her landlady a regular story-book demon, so I fed her up and brought her home and coaxed Mrs. Hills to put a cot in my room for her. Her Burne-Jones jaw is sharper than ever and she has the mournfully grateful eyes of a setter. She's sleeping now as if she could never have enough,—just thirstily drinking up sleep.
Performance no better to-day. Terrific rehearsing starts early to-morrow morning.
Rehearsal was called for nine sharp yesterday. BROTHER and his brother were waiting. GIRL and MAN appeared at ten-ten. She said—
"Dearie, I hate to tell you, but I got bad news for you." Then, turning to him, she said, compassionately, "Say, hon', you tell her! I haven't got the heart."
"Why," said the bandit, regretfully, "what she means is this: she's got a swell chance to go on tour with 'Kiss and Tell,' and she feels like she hadn't ought to turn it down. It's more her line than this kind of thing, you know."
I counted ten to myself, slowly, and then I said:
"Very well. I daresay you know of some girl who is a quick study and can get up in the part by Monday, with your help."
She stared and then began to giggle. "Say, girlie, I'm the limit. Didn't I tell you? I married the boy!" At my gasp she went on, confidentially, linking her arm in mine. "Yes, dearie. You see, it's like this. I gotter have somebody, anyhow, to look after luggage, and you know what this life is. A girl's gotter have protection."
When they were gone I turned to look at BROTHER. I almost thought he was going to cry, and he began to cough, just as he does in the sketch.
"Oh, please," I said, "don't keep doing that! We aren't rehearsing now."
And he stopped and said, "That's just it, Miss Vail. I'm not rehearsing. It's—that's how it is with me. That's why I knew I could get by with the part. I thought if we got good bookings, why, I'd be fixed to take a good long rest, afterwards,—out on the desert or up in the snow. It isn't bad, yet. They tell me I've got a great chance." Then his chin quivered. "That's why it kind of hits me right where I live, having this thing go on the rocks."
"It mustn't," I said. "It can't! We won't let it!" I knew it was only a miracle that could save us, in that breathlessly short time, but I have a vigorous belief in miracles. "There must be a man and a girl, somewhere——"
Then the lean, silent brother of BROTHER spoke. "I don't suppose you'd give me a whack at it, would you? I've learned every word of the whole 'script, watching every day the way I have. I can do it. I can do it if you'll let me. I don't think that fellow ever had your idea of it. Look,—the part where THE HAWK tells her what a rotten deal he's always had, isn't this how you meant it?"—and he dropped into a chair, took a knee between his brown, lean hands, looked off into the empty theater for a moment—and then, Sally, he read the lines as I'd written them. Instantly, I was happier than I'd been since I tore the final page out of the typewriter, visualizing the thing as I meant it to be.
"It's yours," I chortled in my joy. "You can have it on a silver salver!"
"If only we can get a girl," BROTHER was worrying. "We ought to get one, easy. She needn't be so much of a looker."
"And we'll cut the comedy and the dance," I said, thankfully.
"There must be a hundred girls crazy for the job, with all the idle acts there are now. All she's got to do is walk through,—it's actress proof, that part. If we could just get a girl, not too young, kind of pathetic looking——"
Then, suddenly and serenely, I knew what I was going to do. And I knew that, sink or swim, never again was I going to "put it under." I told them to wait. I taxied opulently home. My waif was curled up in my kimono, feeding my fan-tailed goldfish. "Hurry up," I said, briskly. "You're holding the rehearsal!"
While she was scrambling, bewilderedly, into her clothes, I explained to her and dug out the old 'scripts and carbons, and on the way back I told her the story and gave her the idea of how she was to play it. She hadn't had time to put on her sea-shell tint, but the hollows in her cheeks filled up with pink excitement as I talked. When I marched in with her the men gave her one look, grinned, and heaved gusty sighs of relief. We rehearsed all day and half the night. We haven't told the office a word about the defection of the two vaude-villains. The printing is out, of course, and the old names will stand. She is stiff with fright and bodily unfit for the strain, but she's giving everything she's got, and she's delicious in quality for the part.
Yours in weary bliss,
Monday. 3.15 A.M.
Sarah, I feel like Guido Reni (if it was Guido Reni) when he stabbed his servant to get the actual agony for the "Ecce Homo!" My girl fainted away in the middle of her big speech an hour ago. I have tucked her up in bed after a rub and a cup of hot milk and she is to sleep until noon. BROTHER'S brother tried pitifully, but he didn't get through a single speech without prompting. I'm terrified! Suppose they muddle it utterly, what will the Powers say to me—after not telling them of the change in cast? I wish I hadn't asked Michael Daragh to come to the matinee. I must stop. I know I won't sleep a wink, but I'll put out the light and lie down and shut my eyes.
Oh, Sally dearest, I don't know where to begin! I'll make myself start with the morning. I slipped out before my starveling was awake, leaving a cheering note for her. I took the bus up to Grant's Tomb and walked back along the river to Seventy-second Street. It was the most marvelous blue-and-gold morning; I speeded myself to a glow on shady paths or sat steeping for a moment in the sun. I held happy converse with democratic dogs and reserved and haughty babies and dawdled, but even so I found myself with a panicky margin of time on my hands. Then I bethought myself of my never-failing remedy for troublesome thoughts and I went joyously forth like a he-goat on the mountains and bought a ruinous pair of proud shoes and put them on. I knew the gloating over them would leave me small room for forebodings. You know how I've always been. You used to call me "Goody Two-Shoes." These are cunningly contrived to make my No. 4, triple A, look like a 2, and I walked upon air, narrowly missing being mown down by traffic, my eyes upon my feet. On the way to the Palace I made myself repeat that lovely thing of Gelett Burgess's—
"My feet, they haul me round the house; They hoist me up the stairs; I only have to steer them, and They ride me everywheres!"
I purchased an orchestra seat and inquired carelessly at what hour my sketch (only I didn't say it was my sketch) went on. I found we were sandwiched in between the newest Tramp Juggler and the Trained Seals! Then I went behind and saw my gallant little company, made up and dressed too soon, waiting in awful idleness with strained smiles and ghastly cheer. I petted and patted them all round and cast an agitated eye over the set. A grimy young stagehand made a minor change for me with a languid, not unkind contempt. "What's the big idea?" he wanted to know. "Goner slip 'em some high-brow stuff? Say, this is the wrong pew, sister. They won't stand for nothing like that here. Up in the Bronx, maybe—" I turned and basely fled. I went out in front and found my place. The orchestra rollicked through the overture and people poured in and ushers slid down the aisles and snapped down the seats. I studied the people's faces as a gladiator might have done in the arena. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? A row behind me, across the aisle, sat Michael Daragh, but he did not see me. Two petulantly pretty girls in regal furs sank into seats beyond me, and a white-spatted, rosy-wattled gentleman in a subduedly elegant waistcoat took the one on the end.
The annunciator flashed A and a pair of black-face comedians "opened the show," but they did not get it very far open for people were jamming in and elbows were silhouetted against the light. They doggedly plugged away, firing their tragic comedy, making brave capital even of the silences, but through my glasses I was sure I could see the strained anxiety of their eyes. It was a relief to have them go. Then the Trained Seals were with us, lovely things like gentle, tidy, sleek-headed little girls. My heart was going like a metronome set for a tarantella and my wrist-watch ticked breathlessly—"Coming—Coming—Coming!"
If only we were Z instead of C!
"Funny thing, you know," said the occupant of the end seat, conversationally, "they tell me they're easier than any other animal in the world to train, except a pig. Fact. Circus man told me."
He had a genial face, creased into jolly patterns, and my heart warmed to him, and to Michael Daragh and the pretty girls and the fat old lady in front of me. Nice people, kind people. It seemed certain that they must want real things, clean things.
I took out a pencil to make notes for corrections, but the annunciator said D, and a lady who would have done nicely as Venus came out attired as Cupid and the house rocked with welcome. I was cold with conjecture. What had happened back there? Had my poor starveling fainted again? Had BROTHER'S brother died of fright? I sat shivering through the sprightly number until C, said the electric lights, and the orchestra began softly to play—
"In days of old, When knights were bold—"
The curtain rose on the bleak telegraph station, on my thin spinster in her rocking chair. It was a lean vision for eyes lately ravished by the Venus lady's charms; programs rattled; the Tramp Juggler was to follow. I could see her chest rising and falling jerkily with her frightened breath and her hands shook so that she could hardly hold her sewing. From far aloft came that loud guffaw that speaks the vacant mind and one of the pretty girls next me giggled in echo. Then something seemed to go through my waif; the Burne-Jones jaw was taut; she got hold of herself; then, slowly, steadily, surely, little by little, she got hold of the house. The man on the end who had slouched comfortably down in his seat, sat sharply upright and the girls stopped whispering. BROTHER came on, and his brother as the MAN. The tempo was perfect, the acceleration blood-quickening. Laughs came at unexpected places, friendly and cordial. The girl was like a melody in low tones; she built up her climax cunningly, warming, coloring, kindling.
"Good gad!" ejaculated the spatted gentleman in the aisle seat, "you know, that girl can act!" The old lady in front lifted a frank handkerchief; the giggling girls were raptly watching. Now the GIRL'S big moment came. Her voice, faded and gentle before, was harsh and strident. "I don't care! I don't care! You hush! You keep still!"
When she gave him his broth she had seemed the gentlest of living creatures; now, pushing him ruthlessly to the floor, she was a fury, pitiless, obsessed. All the starved romance, all the pinched poverty of her life, all the lean and lonely years she had known cried out in hunger, not to be denied; she was a tigress doing battle for her mate.
And then, when the rattle and roar of the train died away, BROTHER'S hacking cough sounded from behind the closed door, and stark reality laid hold on her again. Her thin hands went together on her breast and then fell slackly to her sides. She seemed visibly to shrink and shrivel. Racked and spent with her one crowded hour, she stood looking into the bleak and empty vista of the years.
I was in the aisle before the curtain fell, speeding past the people, the applauding people, the beautiful, kind, understanding people, past the benediction of Michael Daragh's lifted look. The applause followed me out through the lobby—oh, Sally dear, no choir invisible could make half so celestial a sound!—and when I got behind the scenes it was still coming in—solid, genuine, hearty waves of it.
I heard hurrying feet behind me but I did not pause. I guessed who it was, but I wouldn't turn to look. In the orderly chaos of props and people—and it was an ugly land of disillusion no longer but the land of heart's desire, Sally—I found my gallant little band of fighting hope, beaming and breathless after the fifth honest curtain, coming to me on buoyant feet.
Stern St. Michael had caught up with me then, and he bent his austere head to say very humbly, "Woman, dear, I'm so high with pride for you, and so low with shame for me, that I could ever be doubting——"
But the grimy young stagehand, halting in front of me with an armful of the Tramp Juggler's playthings, cut his sentence in two.
"Say,"—he held out a dark and hearty paw—"put her there, sister! Say, I guess maybe that's poor? Say, I guess maybe that's not puttin' it over!"
The grave Irishman, Michael Daragh, was a constant delight. He was no more aware, she saw clearly, of her as a person, as a woman, than he was of Emma Ellis of the lidlike hats and shabby hair. Nothing that was human was alien to him, certainly, and nothing that was feminine was anything more than merely human to him. It appeared, however, that he did have a sense of values of a sort, for he halted her in the hall, one dark December day, with a request. Would she be coming with him to-morrow to the Agnes Chatterton Home, where there was a girl in black sorrow?
"Why, yes, of course I'll come, but—why?" Jane wanted to know. "What makes you think I could help? I don't know very much about—that sort of thing."
He smiled swiftly and winningly and it was astonishing to see how the process lighted up his lean face. "Ah, that's the reason! She's had her fill of us, God help her. The way we've been exhorting her for days on end. You'll be bringing a fresh face and a fresh feeling to the case. And"—he stopped and looked her over consideringly—"'tis your sort can help and heal."
"Why?" Jane persisted. She was finding the conversation piquantly interesting.
"Because," said Michael Daragh, and she had the startled feeling that he was not in the least paying her a compliment but rather laying a charge upon her, "you have been anointed with the oil of joy above your fellows." Then, quite as if the matter were wholly settled, he gave her directions and went his way.
Jane had never seen an Agnes Chatterton Home. She had heard of them, of course, as asylums for what the village called Unfortunate Girls, furtive and remote retreats for stricken creatures who fled the light of day, but when she found herself actually on her way to see one, the following day, she slackened her pace and made her way more slowly and with conscious reluctance. She was a little annoyed with herself for acquiescing so meekly to the big Irishman's plan. After all, she had not broken the old home ties (to put it lyrically) for this sort of thing, now, had she? She had to come to New York to seek her fortune, not to—to—whatever it was that Michael Daragh wanted her to do. And yet, she was always being drawn, willynilly, into any woe within her ken. Herself a contained creature of radiant health and placid nerves with a positively masculine aversion to scenes and applied emotion of any sort, people were always coming and confiding in her. She had been the reluctant repository for the secrets of half her little town. As a matter of fact, and this she could not know of herself, it was because she demonstrated the solid theory that one happy person was worth six who were trying to make others happy. But now she was marching deliberately into the heart of a misery which did not in the least concern her and where, she felt sure, she would be wholly unwelcome. She stood still in an unsavory thoroughfare, seriously considering a retreat, but she saw Michael Daragh waiting for her on the next corner, and she kept on.
"I very nearly turned back," she said. "And I very nearly didn't come at all. I had the most alluring invitation for matinee and tea." (Rodney Harrison had been most insistent.)
"I had your word you'd be coming," said the Irishman. He looked at her impersonally. She was buttoned to the chin in a cloak the color of old red wine and there was a jubilant red wing in her dark turban, and it may have occurred to him that she made a thread of good cheer in the dull woof of that street, but he went at once into the story.
"Ethel's lived on at the Home ever since her baby was born. It'll be two, soon, and herself going for eighteen."
"Yes. Doing grandly, she is, in the same shop as her good elder sister. Well, one day she tells the matron she has a sweetheart, a decent chap, wanting to marry her.
"'Fine,' says Mrs. Richards. 'What were we always telling you? And will he be good to the baby?'
"'He doesn't know I've the baby,' says Ethel, 'and what's more he never will!'
"'You'll be giving up your child, that you kept of your own free will, that you've worked and slaved for, and be wedding him with the secret on your soul?'
"'I will,' says the girl, and not all the king's horses and all the king's men can move her, Jane Vail." They were picking their way through a damp and squalid street and he stooped to set a wailing toddler on its unsteady feet.
"'Tis the sister's doing, we think, she the hard, managing kind and Ethel the weak slip of a thing. Coming to-day, Irene is, to carry it off to the place she's found for it—some distant kin down Boston way, long wanting to adopt and never dreaming this child is their own blood."
"Doesn't Ethel care for the baby?"
"There's the heart scald. 'Tis the light of her eyes. But Irene, d'you see, has scared her into feeling sure she'll lose him if she tells. Wait till you see the look she has on her. 'Supping the broth of sorrow with the spoon of grief,' they would be calling it, home in Wicklow."
"And I'm to talk to her—to beg her to tell him?"
Jane sighed. "She'll loathe me, of course,—an absolute outsider. Coming in—nobly giving up a matinee and tea—to rearrange her life for her. Oh, I don't believe I dare!"
He nodded again, comprehendingly. "I know well the way you're feeling. But with the likes of her, poor child, somebody has to rearrange the lives they've mussed and mangled!"
Jane sighed again. "I'll try, Michael Daragh. You know, your two names make me think of the wind off the three lakes on the road to Kenmare and the black line of the McGillicuddy Reeks against the sky?"
His eyes lighted. "'Tis good, indeed, to know you've seen Ireland. Whiles, I'm destroyed with the homesickness." He kept a long silence after that, his eyes brooding.
Jane watched him and wondered. "He's a mystery to me," Mrs. Hetty Hills always appended after a mention of him. (It teased her to have mysteries in her boarding-house.) "Has an income, of course—has to have, to live—doesn't earn anything worth mentioning with all this uplift work—and gives away what he does get. Emma Ellis doesn't know any more about him than I do. But I will say he's less trouble than any man I ever had under my roof. And, of course, he's not common Irish." (Mrs. Hills had still her Vermont village feeling of red-armed, kitchen minions, freckled butcher boys running up alley-ways, short-tempered dames in battered hats who came—or distressingly didn't come—to you of a Monday morning.)
They walked swiftly and without speech now, and Jane had again her sense of his resemblance to the Botticelli St. Michael. "He ought really to be carrying his sword and his symbol," she told herself, "and I daresay Raphael and Gabriel are beside him if I could only see them. Am I Tobias? And have I a fish to heal a blindness?"
"There's the house," said Michael Daragh, at length.
"Of course," said Jane, indignantly. "I should have known it at once, even without the hideous sign, for its smugly dreary look of good works! Why must they have that liver-colored glass in the door?" They mounted the worn steps. "And 'Welcome' on the mat! Oh, Michael Daragh, how ghastly! Who did that to them?"
He shook his head. "Most of our things are given, you see." He rang the bell and they heard its harsh and startling clamor.
A sullen-faced girl in a coarse, enveloping pinafore opened the door. Her hands and arms were red and dripping and from a dim region at the rear came the smell of dishwater. Down the narrow, precipitate stairway floated an infant's thin, protesting wail and Jane felt a sick sense of sudden nausea.
"Thank you, Lena," said the Irishman. "This lady is Jane Vail, a good friend come to see us."
The girl, who might have been sixteen, gave Jane a stolid, incurious look and shuffled down the hall, closing the door on a portion of the stale smell.
Mrs. Richards was in her office. She greeted Jane civilly but eyed her in some puzzlement. Here was a strange bird, clearly, to alight in this dingy barnyard.
"Jane Vail will be trying her hand at Ethel for us," Michael Daragh said.
The matron bridled a little. She was a pallid, tired woman with skeptical eyes. "Well, I'm sure that's very kind of her but I'm afraid it's no use. I've just come down from talking to her, nearly all her noon hour. She wouldn't go to the table. She's turned sullen, now. She won't take any interest in the Christmas preparations; wouldn't help the girls a bit." She sighed and looked at a table cluttered with paper paraphernalia for holiday decorations. In her world of bleak realities the tinsel trimmings for fete days left her cold. "I declare, Mr. Daragh, I believe we've worried with her long enough. I've about made up my mind that we'd better tell the young man ourselves and have done with it. I believe it's our duty."
"It's her right," said Michael Daragh.
"But, if she won't? They're planning to be married Monday, and Irene's coming to-day to take Billiken away with her."
"Let Jane Vail be trying her hand. Will you come up to her now?" He strode out of the room and Jane followed him, smiling back at Mrs. Richards with a deprecatory shake of her head. She wished the matron could know how much of an intruder she felt. But once out of the severe little office, mounting the stairs after Michael Daragh, her usual vivid sense of drama came back to her. This was, after all, what she had left the snug harbor for and put out to sea. This was better than tea with Sarah Farraday in the "studio"—than "little gatherings of the young people,"—than walking home with Marty Wetherby—than laughing painstakingly at the jokes of Teddy-bear's father. This was life more abundantly.
It didn't even matter that the grave Irishman took so for granted her dedication to this obscure girl's need. That had been very nice ... about the oil of joy.
"Here's where she'll be," he said, pausing at a closed door, "feeding her child."
"I'll do what I can," said Jane, lifting a look of girded resolve.
"I know that, surely," said Michael Daragh, knocking for her.
"Going for eighteen," he had said, but even that had not prepared Jane for the poignant youth of the girl. She looked a child, in her shrunken middy blouse, her fair hair hanging about her eyes. She was sitting on the floor, urging bread and milk on a fat and gurgling baby in a little red chair. She did not look up at first, but went on speaking to the child.
"Please, Billiken, eat for Muddie! Billiken—when it's the last time Muddie'll ever have to feed you? Take it quick or Muddie'll give it to the kitty-cat!"
"Ethel?" Jane closed the door softly and came toward her.
The other eyed her defensively and she tried to tidy her hair with hands that shook. On the left was a tiny, pinhead solitaire.
"I am Michael Daragh's friend, Ethel. He asked me to talk with you."
"Oh, my God!" Little red spots of rage flamed in her thin cheeks and she struck her hands together. "Can't they leave me alone? I've told 'em I won't talk any more. I've told 'em my mind's made up for keeps. But they keep at me and keep at me!"
Jane stood still. "I know I haven't any right here," she said, distressedly, "and I know you don't want me."
The girl scrambled to her feet and went to the bureau where she stood pulling and patting at her hair. "What'd you come for, then?" She muttered it under her breath, but Jane caught the words.
"Well, if you know Michael Daragh, you must know that when he asks you to do a thing, even a hard one, you—just do it!" Ethel did not comment or turn her head and Jane found the sense of drama which had borne her so buoyantly up the stairs deserting her. She wanted to go out of that drab room and down those drab stairs and out of that drab house forever, but she resolutely forced herself to cross the room and bent down beside the giddy little red chair.
"Why do you call her Billiken?"
"Can't you see?" It was curt and sullen, not at all the tone for an Unfortunate Girl to employ toward a young lady anointed with the oil of joy. "She grins just like the Billikens do. Ever since she was a teenty thing." She gave her caller a long, rebellious stare. "You don't look like a nurse or a Do-gooder."
"I'm not," said Jane promptly. "I'm merely Michael Daragh's fr——" She broke off, catching herself up. Well, now, was she? His friend, after a few weeks of slenderest acquaintance? She had a feeling that the grave Irishman had obeyed the command to come apart and be separate. Rodney Harrison was a warm and tangible friend, but this stern and single-purposed person—"Michael Daragh asked me to talk with you," she said, sitting down beside the baby. "I'd love to feed her. May I?"
"No!" Ethel swooped down on her child, jealously snatching up the bowl. "Not when it's my last chance!" She leveled a spoonful and held it to the widely grinning Billiken. "Come! Gobble—gobble! Eat for poor Muddie!" A wave of self-pity went visibly over her and she held her head down to keep Jane from seeing her tears.
"I don't see how you can bear to give her up."
"D'you s'pose I want to?" she snarled it, savagely. Here was maternity, parenthood, another breed than that of the Teddy-bear's hot, pink nursery.
Jane picked up the baby's stubby little hand and patted it. "Then, why do you?"
Ethel's face flamed, but she looked her inquisitor more fully in the eye than she had done at any time before. "Because—Jerry! Jerry! That's why."
"Oh ... I see. You care more for him than for your baby?"
Now there came into the childish face a look of shrewd and calculating wisdom. "I can—I could—have other babies, but I couldn't ever have another—him!" Strength here, of a sort, it appeared, in this Weak Sister.
"It must be very wonderful to care for any one like that," said Jane, respectfully. The girl looked at her with quick suspicion, but her eyes were entirely honest. "What is he like, this Jerry person?"
Ethel relaxed a little and the tensest lines smoothed out of her face. "Well ..." she took her time to it, sorting and choosing her words, "he's not good-looking, but he looks—good."
Jane nodded understandingly. "I know. I know people like that."
"Handsome men ... you can't trust 'em...." A look of wintry reminiscence came into her eyes for an instant. "I think more of Jerry than—than anybody, ever. I can't remember my folks. They died when I was just a little thing. My sister Irene, well, I guess she meant all right, only, she was so awful proper, always. She was always scared to talk about—things. I never knew anything till I knew—everything!" A small shiver went over her at that and she was still for a moment. "But Jerry!" Her mouth was young and soft again on that word. "He's different from anything I ever thought a man could be. He's almost like a girl, some ways. You know, I mean just as nice and comfortable to talk to and be with." She kept her gaze on Jane's warmly comprehending face, now. "And he's awful smart, too. The firm wants to send him to the branch store in Rochester and put him in charge of Gent's Furnishings. I guess I'd like to live there ... where everybody'd be strange. Jerry, he don't know where I live. I never let him bring me clear home. Mrs. Richards—she's the matron—she says he'll find out about me some day and hate me, but he won't find out. Nobody knows except Irene and the people here,—and nobody'd be mean enough to just go and tattle to him,—would they?"
"Oh, I don't believe any one would, intentionally. But" (how appeal to a sense of fair play where no fair play had been?) "that isn't what frightens me, Ethel."
"What? You needn't be scared about Billiken. She'll be all right. They're awful nice people, rich and everything, and they're crazy to have her. 'A blue-eyed girl with curly hair and a cheerful disposition,' they says to Irene. And they think her mother's dead."
"I wasn't thinking of Billiken."
"Oh," said Ethel, warily.
"I was thinking of Jerry. If he's as fine as you say he is——"
"Then I think it's pretty mean not to play fair with him, don't you? Come," said Jane with a brisk heartiness she was far from feeling, "tell him to-day, right now, when you go back."
She shook a stubborn head. "Now you're being just like all the rest of 'em. I thought you sort of—understood."
"I think I do. But I believe you must tell him."
"Well, it's too late now. Irene's coming today to take Billiken. It's all settled and everything. It's too late now, even if I wanted to. Besides"—she flamed with hot color again—"I couldn't tell him in the daytime ... right there in the store!"
"Oh, Ethel—in anything so big,—something that means your whole life,—time and place can't matter."
The girl began to dab at her eyes with a damp, small wad of blue-bordered handkerchief. "I just couldn't tell him in the daytime. I nearly did, last night. I meant to, 'cross-my-heart,' I did! We went for a walk, and I was just—just sort of beginning when a woman came sneaking by and—said something to him. You know. And he said—'Poor devil!' That's what he called her. 'Poor devil!' That's just how he said it." Now she dropped her inadequate handkerchief and wept convulsively into her hands and a thin shaft of sunshine lighted up the meager solitaire.
Billiken leaned forward, her fat, small face filled with contrition and patted her mother on her bowed head. "Billiken gob—gobble din—din! Muddie not cly!"
It seemed to Jane that she was marching endlessly round a Jericho with walls that reached to the sky with a flimsy tin toy trumpet in her hands. How blow a blast to shatter them? "Ethel, the only thing you can bring him is the truth. Are you going to give him a lie for his wedding gift?"
She winced but her mouth was sullen. "You can make me feel terrible, but you can't make me tell."
"No," said Jane, "I can't make you tell. And Mrs. Richards can't make you tell, nor even Michael Daragh. But—your own heart can." She leaned swiftly nearer and put an arm about the flat, little figure. "Ethel, how much do you love him?"
"More'n—anything in the world."
"More than Irene?" The affirming nod was quick and positive. "More than the baby?" Again the nod, slower, but still sure. "But that's not enough, Ethel. You don't know anything about loving unless you love him more than you love yourself."
The girl wriggled out of her clasp and stared at her.
"Do you know what I'm trying to say to you? I don't know as much about loving as you do, Ethel. I've never loved any one—yet. But I know this! Your Jerry may never find out about your trouble, but whether he does or not, you couldn't be happy while you knew you were cheating him,—while you knew you had married him without telling him the thing it's his right to know. Ethel, you've got to love him more than yourself. You've got to love him more than you want him!"
The color ebbed slowly out of Ethel's small face and Billiken began to whimper. Far down the street the inevitable hurdy-gurdy ground out the inevitable "Marseillaise." "La jour de gloire est arrive!" Was it?
"Love him,—more than I want him?" She said it over in a halting whisper. "Love him more than I—" Her lips moved inaudibly, forming the second half of the sentence. She bent over Billiken, crushing her in an embrace which made her cry. Then she caught up her foolish little hat and jammed it on without a glance at the mirror and flung herself into her coat. "I better go quick!" She was still whispering. "I better go quick!" She ran out of the room. Jane heard her on the stairs, then the slam of the front door and the sharp staccato of her feet upon the sidewalk.
Billiken, released from the spell, lifted up her voice and shrilly wept, passionately pushing away her bowl and spoon, roaring with rage when Jane tried to touch her. It seemed to Jane that there was furious accusation in the small, red countenance. "Don't shriek at me like that," she said, indignantly. "I'm not taking your mother away from you,—I'm trying to keep her for you!"
The door opened and Michael Daragh came in, his face glowing. "From the look she had on her when she flew by," he said, "I'm thinking you've surely won where the rest of us lost."
"I think she's going to tell him," said Jane, soberly.
"Glory be!" he said, fervently.
Jane sighed. "She's going to tell him, in the garish daylight, at the Gent's Furnishing counter. If she can! But she's left me with the 'heart-scald'!"
Michael Daragh had picked up Billiken at once and at once she had ceased to roar and soothed to a whimpering cry. "Hush, now acushla," he said, "hush now,—let you be still, solis na suile!" The baby stopped altogether, her ear intrigued by the purling Gaelic. "If you'll be slipping out now, the way she won't be noticing, I'll have her fine and fast asleep in two flips of a dead lamb's tail!"
Jane slipped out obediently and stepped softly down the precipitate stair. The matron looked up, her lips thinly compressed.
"Mr. Daragh thinks you have persuaded her to tell."
"I can't be sure. I think she meant to tell him when she left here."
"Well, I guess she'll change her mind by the time she gets to the store. She's very weak, Ethel is."
"But there isn't anything weak about the way she cares for the Jerry person."
Mrs. Richards' lips tightened to a taut line. "When they get mad crazy about a man" (the plural pronoun pigeonholed Ethel in a class) "they're like the Rock of Gibraltar."
"I'd like to stay the rest of the afternoon, if you don't mind," said Jane, at her winningest. "That is, if there's something I can do?" She looked at the littered table.
"How'd you like to cut out the paper joy-bells?" The matron melted a little. "A lady brought in the paper and the pattern yesterday, but I haven't had time to get the girls at them yet."
"But—that's magenta-colored!" Jane picked up a sheet of the paper.
"Well, I guess it isn't the regular Christmas shade, but I don't know that it matters, particularly. I expect it was some she had in the house. You might put the girls at cutting them out and you could do the Merry Christmas sign." She gave her a long and narrow placard in mustard green and shook out some pattern letters from an envelope. Then she rang a firm and authoritative bell. "I'll have the girls assemble in the dining room and they can work at the big table."
Immediately there were shuffling feet in the hall, slow feet on the stair, a heavy tread in the dining room behind them. Where was the youth in those young feet? There was something in the dragging gait that made Jane shiver. Seventeen of them seated themselves about the long table, all in huge, enveloping pinafores of dull brown stuff, coarse and stiff. They ranged in age from twenty to twelve but on every face, pretty or plain, stolid or wistful, sullen or sweet, she read the same look of crushed and helpless waiting. She spread out her materials and gave her directions and the girls set soberly to work. Seventeen heads bent in silence over the table; scissors creaked; upstairs a baby cried fretfully. There leapt into Jane's mind a memory picture of Nannie Slade Hunter before the joyfully hailed arrival of the Teddybear,—the tiny, white, enameled chiffonier with its little bunches of painted flowers spilling over with offerings—Lilliputian garments as 'fine as a fairy's first tooth'—the chortling pride of Edward R.—the beaming, nervous mother and mother-in-law—the endless flowers and books; Nannie herself, cunningly draped and swathed in Batik crepe, prettier than ever before in her pretty life—
Jane went quickly out of the room and sat down on the bottom step of the stairs which seemed to be rushing headlong out of the house of drab tragedy.
"What is it?" Michael Daragh bent over her.
She lifted a twisting face. "Michael Daragh, I never cry, even at funerals, but I'm going to cry now!"
"Now that would be the great waste of time surely," he smiled down at her. "Masefield has the true word for it,—'Energy is agony expelled,' says he. Let you be making that Merry Christmas sign the while you're sorrowing."
"There they sit—in those awful, mud-colored pinafores—making paper joy-bells! I can't bear it! Magenta joy-bells!" The matron started upstairs and Jane drew aside to let her pass. "What are they going to have for Christmas, Mrs. Richards?"
"Well, we have a real nice dinner,—not turkey, of course, but a nice dinner," said the matron, "and every girl gets a pair of stockings and a handkerchief and a Christmas postcard——"
"With more joy-bells?" Jane wanted hotly to know, "or an angel in a nightdress and a snow scene?"
Mrs. Richards went firmly up the stairs. "We naturally cannot take much time to pick out the subjects, but every girl gets a pretty card."
Jane got swiftly to her feet. "Michael Daragh, do you know what I'm going to do?" She hadn't known herself an instant earlier. "I'm not going home to Vermont for the holidays! I'm going to stay and help with the Christmasing here—and I'll spend the money I would have spent on my trip. I'm going to buy holly and greens and miles of red ribbon and acres of tissue paper and a million stickers, and seventeen presents—seventeen perfectly useless, foolish, unsuitable, beautiful things! Do you hear, Michael Daragh?"