By Mary Roberts Rinehart
The Street stretched away north and south in two lines of ancient houses that seemed to meet in the distance. The man found it infinitely inviting. It had the well-worn look of an old coat, shabby but comfortable. The thought of coming there to live pleased him. Surely here would be peace—long evenings in which to read, quiet nights in which to sleep and forget. It was an impression of home, really, that it gave. The man did not know that, or care particularly. He had been wandering about a long time—not in years, for he was less than thirty. But it seemed a very long time.
At the little house no one had seemed to think about references. He could have given one or two, of a sort. He had gone to considerable trouble to get them; and now, not to have them asked for—
There was a house across and a little way down the Street, with a card in the window that said: "Meals, twenty-five cents." Evidently the midday meal was over; men who looked like clerks and small shopkeepers were hurrying away. The Nottingham curtains were pinned back, and just inside the window a throaty barytone was singing:
"Home is the hunter, home from the hill: And the sailor, home from sea."
Across the Street, the man smiled grimly—Home!
For perhaps an hour Joe Drummond had been wandering up and down the Street. His straw hat was set on the back of his head, for the evening was warm; his slender shoulders, squared and resolute at eight, by nine had taken on a disconsolate droop. Under a street lamp he consulted his watch, but even without that he knew what the hour was. Prayer meeting at the corner church was over; boys of his own age were ranging themselves along the curb, waiting for the girl of the moment. When she came, a youth would appear miraculously beside her, and the world-old pairing off would have taken place.
The Street emptied. The boy wiped the warm band of his hat and slapped it on his head again. She was always treating him like this—keeping him hanging about, and then coming out, perfectly calm and certain that he would still be waiting. By George, he'd fool her, for once: he'd go away, and let her worry. She WOULD worry. She hated to hurt anyone. Ah!
Across the Street, under an old ailanthus tree, was the house he watched, a small brick, with shallow wooden steps and—curious architecture of Middle West sixties—a wooden cellar door beside the steps.
In some curious way it preserved an air of distinction among its more pretentious neighbors, much as a very old lady may now and then lend tone to a smart gathering. On either side of it, the taller houses had an appearance of protection rather than of patronage. It was a matter of self-respect, perhaps. No windows on the Street were so spotlessly curtained, no doormat so accurately placed, no "yard" in the rear so tidy with morning-glory vines over the whitewashed fence.
The June moon had risen, sending broken shafts of white light through the ailanthus to the house door. When the girl came at last, she stepped out into a world of soft lights and wavering shadows, fragrant with tree blossoms not yet overpowering, hushed of its daylight sounds of playing children and moving traffic.
The house had been warm. Her brown hair lay moist on her forehead, her thin white dress was turned in at the throat. She stood on the steps, the door closed behind her, and threw out her arms in a swift gesture to the cool air. The moonlight clothed her as with a garment. From across the Street the boy watched her with adoring, humble eyes. All his courage was for those hours when he was not with her.
He crossed over, emerging out of the shadows into her enveloping radiance. His ardent young eyes worshiped her as he stood on the pavement.
"I'm late. I was taking out bastings for mother."
"Oh, that's all right."
Sidney sat down on the doorstep, and the boy dropped at her feet.
"I thought of going to prayer meeting, but mother was tired. Was Christine there?"
"Yes; Palmer Howe took her home."
He was at his ease now. He had discarded his hat, and lay back on his elbows, ostensibly to look at the moon. Actually his brown eyes rested on the face of the girl above him. He was very happy. "He's crazy about Chris. She's good-looking, but she's not my sort."
"Pray, what IS your sort?"
She laughed softly. "You're a goose, Joe!"
She settled herself more comfortably on the doorstep and drew along breath.
"How tired I am! Oh—I haven't told you. We've taken a roomer!"
"A roomer." She was half apologetic. The Street did not approve of roomers. "It will help with the rent. It's my doing, really. Mother is scandalized."
"What sort of man?"
"How do I know? He is coming tonight. I'll tell you in a week."
Joe was sitting bolt upright now, a little white.
"Is he young?"
"He's a good bit older than you, but that's not saying he's old."
Joe was twenty-one, and sensitive of his youth.
"He'll be crazy about you in two days."
She broke into delighted laughter.
"I'll not fall in love with him—you can be certain of that. He is tall and very solemn. His hair is quite gray over his ears."
"What's his name?"
"K. Le Moyne."
"That's what he said."
Interest in the roomer died away. The boy fell into the ecstasy of content that always came with Sidney's presence. His inarticulate young soul was swelling with thoughts that he did not know how to put into words. It was easy enough to plan conversations with Sidney when he was away from her. But, at her feet, with her soft skirts touching him as she moved, her eager face turned to him, he was miserably speechless.
Unexpectedly, Sidney yawned. He was outraged.
"If you're sleepy—"
"Don't be silly. I love having you. I sat up late last night, reading. I wonder what you think of this: one of the characters in the book I was reading says that every man who—who cares for a woman leaves his mark on her! I suppose she tries to become what he thinks she is, for the time anyhow, and is never just her old self again."
She said "cares for" instead of "loves." It is one of the traditions of youth to avoid the direct issue in life's greatest game. Perhaps "love" is left to the fervent vocabulary of the lover. Certainly, as if treading on dangerous ground, Sidney avoided it.
"Every man! How many men are supposed to care for a woman, anyhow?"
"Well, there's the boy who—likes her when they're both young."
A bit of innocent mischief this, but Joe straightened.
"Then they both outgrow that foolishness. After that there are usually two rivals, and she marries one of them—that's three. And—"
"Why do they always outgrow that foolishness?" His voice was unsteady.
"Oh, I don't know. One's ideas change. Anyhow, I'm only telling you what the book said."
"It's a silly book."
"I don't believe it's true," she confessed. "When I got started I just read on. I was curious."
More eager than curious, had she only known. She was fairly vibrant with the zest of living. Sitting on the steps of the little brick house, her busy mind was carrying her on to where, beyond the Street, with its dingy lamps and blossoming ailanthus, lay the world that was some day to lie to her hand. Not ambition called her, but life.
The boy was different. Where her future lay visualized before her, heroic deeds, great ambitions, wide charity, he planned years with her, selfish, contented years. As different as smug, satisfied summer from visionary, palpitating spring, he was for her—but she was for all the world.
By shifting his position his lips came close to her bare young arm. It tempted him.
"Don't read that nonsense," he said, his eyes on the arm. "And—I'll never outgrow my foolishness about you, Sidney."
Then, because he could not help it, he bent over and kissed her arm.
She was just eighteen, and Joe's devotion was very pleasant. She thrilled to the touch of his lips on her flesh; but she drew her arm away.
"Please—I don't like that sort of thing."
"Why not?" His voice was husky.
"It isn't right. Besides, the neighbors are always looking out the windows."
The drop from her high standard of right and wrong to the neighbors' curiosity appealed suddenly to her sense of humor. She threw back her head and laughed. He joined her, after an uncomfortable moment. But he was very much in earnest. He sat, bent forward, turning his new straw hat in his hands.
"I guess you know how I feel. Some of the fellows have crushes on girls and get over them. I'm not like that. Since the first day I saw you I've never looked at another girl. Books can say what they like: there are people like that, and I'm one of them."
There was a touch of dogged pathos in his voice. He was that sort, and Sidney knew it. Fidelity and tenderness—those would be hers if she married him. He would always be there when she wanted him, looking at her with loving eyes, a trifle wistful sometimes because of his lack of those very qualities he so admired in her—her wit, her resourcefulness, her humor. But he would be there, not strong, perhaps, but always loyal.
"I thought, perhaps," said Joe, growing red and white, and talking to the hat, "that some day, when we're older, you—you might be willing to marry me, Sid. I'd be awfully good to you."
It hurt her to say no. Indeed, she could not bring herself to say it. In all her short life she had never willfully inflicted a wound. And because she was young, and did not realize that there is a short cruelty, like the surgeon's, that is mercy in the end, she temporized.
"There is such a lot of time before we need think of such things! Can't we just go on the way we are?"
"I'm not very happy the way we are."
"Well, I'm not"—doggedly. "You're pretty and attractive. When I see a fellow staring at you, and I'd like to smash his face for him, I haven't the right."
"And a precious good thing for you that you haven't!" cried Sidney, rather shocked.
There was silence for a moment between them. Sidney, to tell the truth, was obsessed by a vision of Joe, young and hot-eyed, being haled to the police station by virtue of his betrothal responsibilities. The boy was vacillating between relief at having spoken and a heaviness of spirit that came from Sidney's lack of enthusiastic response.
"Well, what do you think about it?"
"If you are asking me to give you permission to waylay and assault every man who dares to look at me—"
"I guess this is all a joke to you."
She leaned over and put a tender hand on his arm.
"I don't want to hurt you; but, Joe, I don't want to be engaged yet. I don't want to think about marrying. There's such a lot to do in the world first. There's such a lot to see and be."
"Where?" he demanded bitterly. "Here on this Street? Do you want more time to pull bastings for your mother? Or to slave for your Aunt Harriet? Or to run up and down stairs, carrying towels to roomers? Marry me and let me take care of you."
Once again her dangerous sense of humor threatened her. He looked so boyish, sitting there with the moonlight on his bright hair, so inadequate to carry out his magnificent offer. Two or three of the star blossoms from the tree had fallen all his head. She lifted them carefully away.
"Let me take care of myself for a while. I've never lived my own life. You know what I mean. I'm not unhappy; but I want to do something. And some day I shall,—not anything big; I know. I can't do that,—but something useful. Then, after years and years, if you still want me, I'll come back to you."
"How can I know that now? But it will be a long time."
He drew a long breath and got up. All the joy had gone out of the summer night for him, poor lad. He glanced down the Street, where Palmer Howe had gone home happily with Sidney's friend Christine. Palmer would always know how he stood with Christine. She would never talk about doing things, or being things. Either she would marry Palmer or she would not. But Sidney was not like that. A fellow did not even caress her easily. When he had only kissed her arm—He trembled a little at the memory.
"I shall always want you," he said. "Only—you will never come back."
It had not occurred to either of them that this coming back, so tragically considered, was dependent on an entirely problematical going away. Nothing, that early summer night, seemed more unlikely than that Sidney would ever be free to live her own life. The Street, stretching away to the north and to the south in two lines of houses that seemed to meet in the distance, hemmed her in. She had been born in the little brick house, and, as she was of it, so it was of her. Her hands had smoothed and painted the pine floors; her hands had put up the twine on which the morning-glories in the yard covered the fences; had, indeed, with what agonies of slacking lime and adding blueing, whitewashed the fence itself!
"She's capable," Aunt Harriet had grumblingly admitted, watching from her sewing-machine Sidney's strong young arms at this humble spring task.
"She's wonderful!" her mother had said, as she bent over her hand work. She was not strong enough to run the sewing-machine.
So Joe Drummond stood on the pavement and saw his dream of taking Sidney in his arms fade into an indefinite futurity.
"I'm not going to give you up," he said doggedly. "When you come back, I'll be waiting."
The shock being over, and things only postponed, he dramatized his grief a trifle, thrust his hands savagely into his pockets, and scowled down the Street. In the line of his vision, his quick eye caught a tiny moving shadow, lost it, found it again.
"Great Scott! There goes Reginald!" he cried, and ran after the shadow. "Watch for the McKees' cat!"
Sidney was running by that time; they were gaining. Their quarry, a four-inch chipmunk, hesitated, gave a protesting squeak, and was caught in Sidney's hand.
"You wretch!" she cried. "You miserable little beast—with cats everywhere, and not a nut for miles!"
"That reminds me,"—Joe put a hand into his pocket,—"I brought some chestnuts for him, and forgot them. Here."
Reginald's escape had rather knocked the tragedy out of the evening. True, Sidney would not marry him for years, but she had practically promised to sometime. And when one is twenty-one, and it is a summer night, and life stretches eternities ahead, what are a few years more or less?
Sidney was holding the tiny squirrel in warm, protecting hands. She smiled up at the boy.
"Good-night. I say, Sidney, it's more than half an engagement. Won't you kiss me good-night?"
She hesitated, flushed and palpitating. Kisses were rare in the staid little household to which she belonged.
"I—I think not."
"Please! I'm not very happy, and it will be something to remember."
Perhaps, after all, Sidney's first kiss would have gone without her heart,—which was a thing she had determined would never happen,—gone out of sheer pity. But a tall figure loomed out of the shadows and approached with quick strides.
"The roomer!" cried Sidney, and backed away.
"Damn the roomer!"
Poor Joe, with the summer evening quite spoiled, with no caress to remember, and with a potential rival who possessed both the years and the inches he lacked, coming up the Street!
The roomer advanced steadily. When he reached the doorstep, Sidney was demurely seated and quite alone. The roomer, who had walked fast, stopped and took off his hat. He looked very warm. He carried a suitcase, which was as it should be. The men of the Street always carried their own luggage, except the younger Wilson across the way. His tastes were known to be luxurious.
"Hot, isn't it?" Sidney inquired, after a formal greeting. She indicated the place on the step just vacated by Joe. "You'd better cool off out here. The house is like an oven. I think I should have warned you of that before you took the room. These little houses with low roofs are fearfully hot."
The new roomer hesitated. The steps were very low, and he was tall. Besides, he did not care to establish any relations with the people in the house. Long evenings in which to read, quiet nights in which to sleep and forget—these were the things he had come for.
But Sidney had moved over and was smiling up at him. He folded up awkwardly on the low step. He seemed much too big for the house. Sidney had a panicky thought of the little room upstairs.
"I don't mind heat. I—I suppose I don't think about it," said the roomer, rather surprised at himself.
Reginald, having finished his chestnut, squeaked for another. The roomer started.
"Just Reginald—my ground-squirrel." Sidney was skinning a nut with her strong white teeth. "That's another thing I should have told you. I'm afraid you'll be sorry you took the room."
The roomer smiled in the shadow.
"I'm beginning to think that YOU are sorry."
She was all anxiety to reassure him:—
"It's because of Reginald. He lives under my—under your bureau. He's really not troublesome; but he's building a nest under the bureau, and if you don't know about him, it's rather unsettling to see a paper pattern from the sewing-room, or a piece of cloth, moving across the floor."
Mr. Le Moyne thought it might be very interesting. "Although, if there's nest-building going on, isn't it—er—possible that Reginald is a lady ground-squirrel?"
Sidney was rather distressed, and, seeing this, he hastened to add that, for all he knew, all ground-squirrels built nests, regardless of sex. As a matter of fact, it developed that he knew nothing whatever of ground-squirrels. Sidney was relieved. She chatted gayly of the tiny creature—of his rescue in the woods from a crowd of little boys, of his restoration to health and spirits, and of her expectation, when he was quite strong, of taking him to the woods and freeing him.
Le Moyne, listening attentively, began to be interested. His quick mind had grasped the fact that it was the girl's bedroom he had taken. Other things he had gathered that afternoon from the humming sewing-machine, from Sidney's businesslike way of renting the little room, from the glimpse of a woman in a sunny window, bent over a needle. Genteel poverty was what it meant, and more—the constant drain of disheartened, middle-aged women on the youth and courage of the girl beside him.
K. Le Moyne, who was living his own tragedy those days, what with poverty and other things, sat on the doorstep while Sidney talked, and swore a quiet oath to be no further weight on the girl's buoyant spirit. And, since determining on a virtue is halfway to gaining it, his voice lost its perfunctory note. He had no intention of letting the Street encroach on him. He had built up a wall between himself and the rest of the world, and he would not scale it. But he held no grudge against it. Let others get what they could out of living.
Sidney, suddenly practical, broke in on his thoughts:—
"Where are you going to get your meals?"
"I hadn't thought about it. I can stop in somewhere on my way downtown. I work in the gas office—I don't believe I told you. It's rather haphazard—not the gas office, but the eating. However, it's convenient."
"It's very bad for you," said Sidney, with decision. "It leads to slovenly habits, such as going without when you're in a hurry, and that sort of thing. The only thing is to have some one expecting you at a certain time."
"It sounds like marriage." He was lazily amused.
"It sounds like Mrs. McKee's boarding-house at the corner. Twenty-one meals for five dollars, and a ticket to punch. Tillie, the dining-room girl, punches for every meal you get. If you miss any meals, your ticket is good until it is punched. But Mrs. McKee doesn't like it if you miss."
"Mrs. McKee for me," said Le Moyne. "I daresay, if I know that—er—Tillie is waiting with the punch, I'll be fairly regular to my meals."
It was growing late. The Street, which mistrusted night air, even on a hot summer evening, was closing its windows. Reginald, having eaten his fill, had cuddled in the warm hollow of Sidney's lap, and slept. By shifting his position, the man was able to see the girl's face. Very lovely it was, he thought. Very pure, almost radiant—and young. From the middle age of his almost thirty years, she was a child. There had been a boy in the shadows when he came up the Street. Of course there would be a boy—a nice, clear-eyed chap—
Sidney was looking at the moon. With that dreamer's part of her that she had inherited from her dead and gone father, she was quietly worshiping the night. But her busy brain was working, too,—the practical brain that she had got from her mother's side.
"What about your washing?" she inquired unexpectedly.
K. Le Moyne, who had built a wall between himself and the world, had already married her to the youth of the shadows, and was feeling an odd sense of loss.
"I suppose you've been sending things to the laundry, and—what do you do about your stockings?"
"Buy cheap ones and throw 'em away when they're worn out." There seemed to be no reserve with this surprising young person.
"Use safety-pins. When they're closed one can button over them as well as—"
"I think," said Sidney, "that it is quite time some one took a little care of you. If you will give Katie, our maid, twenty-five cents a week, she'll do your washing and not tear your things to ribbons. And I'll mend them."
Sheer stupefaction was K. Le Moyne's. After a moment:—
"You're really rather wonderful, Miss Page. Here am I, lodged, fed, washed, ironed, and mended for seven dollars and seventy-five cents a week!"
"I hope," said Sidney severely, "that you'll put what you save in the bank."
He was still somewhat dazed when he went up the narrow staircase to his swept and garnished room. Never, in all of a life that had been active,—until recently,—had he been so conscious of friendliness and kindly interest. He expanded under it. Some of the tired lines left his face. Under the gas chandelier, he straightened and threw out his arms. Then he reached down into his coat pocket and drew out a wide-awake and suspicious Reginald.
"Good-night, Reggie!" he said. "Good-night, old top!" He hardly recognized his own voice. It was quite cheerful, although the little room was hot, and although, when he stood, he had a perilous feeling that the ceiling was close above. He deposited Reginald carefully on the floor in front of the bureau, and the squirrel, after eyeing him, retreated to its nest.
It was late when K. Le Moyne retired to bed. Wrapped in a paper and securely tied for the morning's disposal, was considerable masculine underclothing, ragged and buttonless. Not for worlds would he have had Sidney discover his threadbare inner condition. "New underwear for yours tomorrow, K. Le Moyne," he said to himself, as he unknotted his cravat. "New underwear, and something besides K. for a first name."
He pondered over that for a time, taking off his shoes slowly and thinking hard. "Kenneth, King, Kerr—" None of them appealed to him. And, after all, what did it matter? The old heaviness came over him.
He dropped a shoe, and Reginald, who had gained enough courage to emerge and sit upright on the fender, fell over backward.
Sidney did not sleep much that night. She lay awake, gazing into the scented darkness, her arms under her head. Love had come into her life at last. A man—only Joe, of course, but it was not the boy himself, but what he stood for, that thrilled her had asked her to be his wife.
In her little back room, with the sweetness of the tree blossoms stealing through the open window, Sidney faced the great mystery of life and love, and flung out warm young arms. Joe would be thinking of her now, as she thought of him. Or would he have gone to sleep, secure in her half promise? Did he really love her?
The desire to be loved! There was coming to Sidney a time when love would mean, not receiving, but giving—the divine fire instead of the pale flame of youth. At last she slept.
A night breeze came through the windows and spread coolness through the little house. The ailanthus tree waved in the moonlight and sent sprawling shadows over the wall of K. Le Moyne's bedroom. In the yard the leaves of the morning-glory vines quivered as if under the touch of a friendly hand.
K. Le Moyne slept diagonally in his bed, being very long. In sleep the lines were smoothed out of his face. He looked like a tired, overgrown boy. And while he slept the ground-squirrel ravaged the pockets of his shabby coat.
Sidney could not remember when her Aunt Harriet had not sat at the table. It was one of her earliest disillusionments to learn that Aunt Harriet lived with them, not because she wished to, but because Sidney's father had borrowed her small patrimony and she was "boarding it out." Eighteen years she had "boarded it out." Sidney had been born and grown to girlhood; the dreamer father had gone to his grave, with valuable patents lost for lack of money to renew them—gone with his faith in himself destroyed, but with his faith in the world undiminished: for he left his wife and daughter without a dollar of life insurance.
Harriet Kennedy had voiced her own view of the matter, the after the funeral, to one of the neighbors:—
"He left no insurance. Why should he bother? He left me."
To the little widow, her sister, she had been no less bitter, and more explicit.
"It looks to me, Anna," she said, "as if by borrowing everything I had George had bought me, body and soul, for the rest of my natural life. I'll stay now until Sidney is able to take hold. Then I'm going to live my own life. It will be a little late, but the Kennedys live a long time."
The day of Harriet's leaving had seemed far away to Anna Page. Sidney was still her baby, a pretty, rather leggy girl, in her first year at the High School, prone to saunter home with three or four knickerbockered boys in her train, reading "The Duchess" stealthily, and begging for longer dresses. She had given up her dolls, but she still made clothes for them out of scraps from Harriet's sewing-room. In the parlance of the Street, Harriet "sewed"—and sewed well.
She had taken Anna into business with her, but the burden of the partnership had always been on Harriet. To give her credit, she had not complained. She was past forty by that time, and her youth had slipped by in that back room with its dingy wallpaper covered with paper patterns.
On the day after the arrival of the roomer, Harriet Kennedy came down to breakfast a little late. Katie, the general housework girl, had tied a small white apron over her generous gingham one, and was serving breakfast. From the kitchen came the dump of an iron, and cheerful singing. Sidney was ironing napkins. Mrs. Page, who had taken advantage of Harriet's tardiness to read the obituary column in the morning paper, dropped it.
But Harriet did not sit down. It was her custom to jerk her chair out and drop into it, as if she grudged every hour spent on food. Sidney, not hearing the jerk, paused with her iron in air.
"Yes, Aunt Harriet."
"Will you come in, please?"
Katie took the iron from her.
"You go. She's all dressed up, and she doesn't want any coffee."
So Sidney went in. It was to her that Harriet made her speech:—
"Sidney, when your father died, I promised to look after both you and your mother until you were able to take care of yourself. That was five years ago. Of course, even before that I had helped to support you."
"If you would only have your coffee, Harriet!"
Mrs. Page sat with her hand on the handle of the old silver-plated coffee-pot. Harriet ignored her.
"You are a young woman now. You have health and energy, and you have youth, which I haven't. I'm past forty. In the next twenty years, at the outside, I've got not only to support myself, but to save something to keep me after that, if I live. I'll probably live to be ninety. I don't want to live forever, but I've always played in hard luck."
Sidney returned her gaze steadily.
"I see. Well, Aunt Harriet, you're quite right. You've been a saint to us, but if you want to go away—"
"Harriet!" wailed Mrs. Page, "you're not thinking—"
Harriet's eyes softened as she looked at the girl
"We can manage," said Sidney quietly. "We'll miss you, but it's time we learned to depend on ourselves."
After that, in a torrent, came Harriet's declaration of independence. And, mixed in with its pathetic jumble of recriminations, hostility to her sister's dead husband, and resentment for her lost years, came poor Harriet's hopes and ambitions, the tragic plea of a woman who must substitute for the optimism and energy of youth the grim determination of middle age.
"I can do good work," she finished. "I'm full of ideas, if I could get a chance to work them out. But there's no chance here. There isn't a woman on the Street who knows real clothes when she sees them. They don't even know how to wear their corsets. They send me bundles of hideous stuff, with needles and shields and imitation silk for lining, and when I turn out something worth while out of the mess they think the dress is queer!"
Mrs. Page could not get back of Harriet's revolt to its cause. To her, Harriet was not an artist pleading for her art; she was a sister and a bread-winner deserting her trust.
"I'm sure," she said stiffly, "we paid you back every cent we borrowed. If you stayed here after George died, it was because you offered to."
Her chin worked. She fumbled for the handkerchief at her belt. But Sidney went around the table and flung a young arm over her aunt's shoulders.
"Why didn't you say all that a year ago? We've been selfish, but we're not as bad as you think. And if any one in this world is entitled to success you are. Of course we'll manage."
Harriet's iron repression almost gave way. She covered her emotion with details:—
"Mrs. Lorenz is going to let me make Christine some things, and if they're all right I may make her trousseau."
"She's not engaged, but her mother says it's only a matter of a short time. I'm going to take two rooms in the business part of town, and put a couch in the backroom to sleep on."
Sidney's mind flew to Christine and her bright future, to a trousseau bought with the Lorenz money, to Christine settled down, a married woman, with Palmer Howe. She came back with an effort. Harriet had two triangular red spots in her sallow cheeks.
"I can get a few good models—that's the only way to start. And if you care to do hand work for me, Anna, I'll send it to you, and pay you the regular rates. There isn't the call for it there used to be, but just a touch gives dash."
All of Mrs. Page's grievances had worked their way to the surface. Sidney and Harriet had made her world, such as it was, and her world was in revolt. She flung out her hands.
"I suppose I must do something. With you leaving, and Sidney renting her room and sleeping on a folding-bed in the sewing-room, everything seems upside down. I never thought I should live to see strange men running in and out of this house and carrying latch-keys."
This in reference to Le Moyne, whose tall figure had made a hurried exit some time before.
Nothing could have symbolized Harriet's revolt more thoroughly than her going upstairs after a hurried breakfast, and putting on her hat and coat. She had heard of rooms, she said, and there was nothing urgent in the work-room. Her eyes were brighter already as she went out. Sidney, kissing her in the hall and wishing her luck, realized suddenly what a burden she and her mother must have been for the last few years. She threw her head up proudly. They would never be a burden again—never, as long as she had strength and health!
By evening Mrs. Page had worked herself into a state bordering on hysteria. Harriet was out most of the day. She came in at three o'clock, and Katie gave her a cup of tea. At the news of her sister's condition, she merely shrugged her shoulders.
"She'll not die, Katie," she said calmly. "But see that Miss Sidney eats something, and if she is worried tell her I said to get Dr. Ed."
Very significant of Harriet's altered outlook was this casual summoning of the Street's family doctor. She was already dealing in larger figures. A sort of recklessness had come over her since the morning. Already she was learning that peace of mind is essential to successful endeavor. Somewhere Harriet had read a quotation from a Persian poet; she could not remember it, but its sense had stayed with her: "What though we spill a few grains of corn, or drops of oil from the cruse? These be the price of peace."
So Harriet, having spilled oil from her cruse in the shape of Dr. Ed, departed blithely. The recklessness of pure adventure was in her blood. She had taken rooms at a rental that she determinedly put out of her mind, and she was on her way to buy furniture. No pirate, fitting out a ship for the highways of the sea, ever experienced more guilty and delightful excitement.
The afternoon dragged away. Dr. Ed was out "on a case" and might not be in until evening. Sidney sat in the darkened room and waved a fan over her mother's rigid form.
At half after five, Johnny Rosenfeld from the alley, who worked for a florist after school, brought a box of roses to Sidney, and departed grinning impishly. He knew Joe, had seen him in the store. Soon the alley knew that Sidney had received a dozen Killarney roses at three dollars and a half, and was probably engaged to Joe Drummond.
"Dr. Ed," said Sidney, as he followed her down the stairs, "can you spare the time to talk to me a little while?"
Perhaps the elder Wilson had a quick vision of the crowded office waiting across the Street; but his reply was prompt:
"Any amount of time."
Sidney led the way into the small parlor, where Joe's roses, refused by the petulant invalid upstairs, bloomed alone.
"First of all," said Sidney, "did you mean what you said upstairs?"
Dr. Ed thought quickly.
"Of course; but what?"
"You said I was a born nurse."
The Street was very fond of Dr. Ed. It did not always approve of him. It said—which was perfectly true—that he had sacrificed himself to his brother's career: that, for the sake of that brilliant young surgeon, Dr. Ed had done without wife and children; that to send him abroad he had saved and skimped; that he still went shabby and drove the old buggy, while Max drove about in an automobile coupe. Sidney, not at all of the stuff martyrs are made of, sat in the scented parlor and, remembering all this, was ashamed of her rebellion.
"I'm going into a hospital," said Sidney.
Dr. Ed waited. He liked to have all the symptoms before he made a diagnosis or ventured an opinion. So Sidney, trying to be cheerful, and quite unconscious of the anxiety in her voice, told her story.
"It's fearfully hard work, of course," he commented, when she had finished.
"So is anything worth while. Look at the way you work!"
Dr. Ed rose and wandered around the room.
"You're too young."
"I'll get older."
"I don't think I like the idea," he said at last. "It's splendid work for an older woman. But it's life, child—life in the raw. As we get along in years we lose our illusions—some of them, not all, thank God. But for you, at your age, to be brought face to face with things as they are, and not as we want them to be—it seems such an unnecessary sacrifice."
"Don't you think," said Sidney bravely, "that you are a poor person to talk of sacrifice? Haven't you always, all your life—"
Dr. Ed colored to the roots of his straw-colored hair.
"Certainly not," he said almost irritably. "Max had genius; I had—ability. That's different. One real success is better than two halves. Not"—he smiled down at her—"not that I minimize my usefulness. Somebody has to do the hack-work, and, if I do say it myself, I'm a pretty good hack."
"Very well," said Sidney. "Then I shall be a hack, too. Of course, I had thought of other things,—my father wanted me to go to college,—but I'm strong and willing. And one thing I must make up my mind to, Dr. Ed; I shall have to support my mother."
Harriet passed the door on her way in to a belated supper. The man in the parlor had a momentary glimpse of her slender, sagging shoulders, her thin face, her undisguised middle age.
"Yes," he said, when she was out of hearing. "It's hard, but I dare say it's right enough, too. Your aunt ought to have her chance. Only—I wish it didn't have to be."
Sidney, left alone, stood in the little parlor beside the roses. She touched them tenderly, absently. Life, which the day before had called her with the beckoning finger of dreams, now reached out grim insistent hands. Life—in the raw.
K. Le Moyne had wakened early that first morning in his new quarters. When he sat up and yawned, it was to see his worn cravat disappearing with vigorous tugs under the bureau. He rescued it, gently but firmly.
"You and I, Reginald," he apostrophized the bureau, "will have to come to an understanding. What I leave on the floor you may have, but what blows down is not to be touched."
Because he was young and very strong, he wakened to a certain lightness of spirit. The morning sun had always called him to a new day, and the sun was shining. But he grew depressed as he prepared for the office. He told himself savagely, as he put on his shabby clothing, that, having sought for peace and now found it, he was an ass for resenting it. The trouble was, of course, that he came of fighting stock: soldiers and explorers, even a gentleman adventurer or two, had been his forefather. He loathed peace with a deadly loathing.
Having given up everything else, K. Le Moyne had also given up the love of woman. That, of course, is figurative. He had been too busy for women; and now he was too idle. A small part of his brain added figures in the office of a gas company daily, for the sum of two dollars and fifty cents per eight-hour working day. But the real K. Le Moyne that had dreamed dreams, had nothing to do with the figures, but sat somewhere in his head and mocked him as he worked at his task.
"Time's going by, and here you are!" mocked the real person—who was, of course, not K. Le Moyne at all. "You're the hell of a lot of use, aren't you? Two and two are four and three are seven—take off the discount. That's right. It's a man's work, isn't it?"
"Somebody's got to do this sort of thing," protested the small part of his brain that earned the two-fifty per working day. "And it's a great anaesthetic. He can't think when he's doing it. There's something practical about figures, and—rational."
He dressed quickly, ascertaining that he had enough money to buy a five-dollar ticket at Mrs. McKee's; and, having given up the love of woman with other things, he was careful not to look about for Sidney on his way.
He breakfasted at Mrs. McKee's, and was initiated into the mystery of the ticket punch. The food was rather good, certainly plentiful; and even his squeamish morning appetite could find no fault with the self-respecting tidiness of the place. Tillie proved to be neat and austere. He fancied it would not be pleasant to be very late for one's meals—in fact, Sidney had hinted as much. Some of the "mealers"—the Street's name for them—ventured on various small familiarities of speech with Tillie. K. Le Moyne himself was scrupulously polite, but reserved. He was determined not to let the Street encroach on his wretchedness. Because he had come to live there was no reason why it should adopt him. But he was very polite. When the deaf-and-dumb book agent wrote something on a pencil pad and pushed it toward him, he replied in kind.
"We are very glad to welcome you to the McKee family," was what was written on the pad.
"Very happy, indeed, to be with you," wrote back Le Moyne—and realized with a sort of shock that he meant it.
The kindly greeting had touched him. The greeting and the breakfast cheered him; also, he had evidently made some headway with Tillie.
"Don't you want a toothpick?" she asked, as he went out.
In K.'s previous walk of life there had been no toothpicks; or, if there were any, they were kept, along with the family scandals, in a closet. But nearly a year of buffeting about had taught him many things. He took one, and placed it nonchalantly in his waistcoat pocket, as he had seen the others do.
Tillie, her rush hour over, wandered back into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee. Mrs. McKee was reweighing the meat order.
"Kind of a nice fellow," Tillie said, cup to lips—"the new man."
"Week or meal?"
"Week. He'd be handsome if he wasn't so grouchy-looking. Lit up some when Mr. Wagner sent him one of his love letters. Rooms over at the Pages'."
Mrs. McKee drew a long breath and entered the lam stew in a book.
"When I think of Anna Page taking a roomer, it just about knocks me over, Tillie. And where they'll put him, in that little house—he looked thin, what I saw of him. Seven pounds and a quarter." This last referred, not to K. Le Moyne, of course, but to the lamb stew.
"Thin as a fiddle-string."
"Just keep an eye on him, that he gets enough." Then, rather ashamed of her unbusinesslike methods: "A thin mealer's a poor advertisement. Do you suppose this is the dog meat or the soup scraps?"
Tillie was a niece of Mrs. Rosenfeld. In such manner was most of the Street and its environs connected; in such wise did its small gossip start at one end and pursue its course down one side and up the other.
"Sidney Page is engaged to Joe Drummond," announced Tillie. "He sent her a lot of pink roses yesterday."
There was no malice in her flat statement, no envy. Sidney and she, living in the world of the Street, occupied different spheres. But the very lifelessness in her voice told how remotely such things touched her, and thus was tragic. "Mealers" came and went—small clerks, petty tradesmen, husbands living alone in darkened houses during the summer hegira of wives. Various and catholic was Tillie's male acquaintance, but compounded of good fellowship only. Once, years before, romance had paraded itself before her in the garb of a traveling nurseryman—had walked by and not come back.
"And Miss Harriet's going into business for herself. She's taken rooms downtown; she's going to be Madame Something or other."
Now, at last, was Mrs. McKee's attention caught riveted.
"For the love of mercy! At her age! It's downright selfish. If she raises her prices she can't make my new foulard."
Tillie sat at the table, her faded blue eyes fixed on the back yard, where her aunt, Mrs. Rosenfeld, was hanging out the week's wash of table linen.
"I don't know as it's so selfish," she reflected. "We've only got one life. I guess a body's got the right to live it."
Mrs. McKee eyed her suspiciously, but Tillie's face showed no emotion.
"You don't ever hear of Schwitter, do you?"
"No; I guess she's still living."
Schwitter, the nurseryman, had proved to have a wife in an insane asylum. That was why Tillie's romance had only paraded itself before her and had gone by.
"You got out of that lucky."
Tillie rose and tied a gingham apron over her white one.
"I guess so. Only sometimes—"
"I don't know as it would have been so wrong. He ain't young, and I ain't. And we're not getting any younger. He had nice manners; he'd have been good to me."
Mrs. McKee's voice failed her. For a moment she gasped like a fish. Then:
"And him a married man!"
"Well, I'm not going to do it," Tillie soothed her. "I get to thinking about it sometimes; that's all. This new fellow made me think of him. He's got the same nice way about him."
Aye, the new man had made her think of him, and June, and the lovers who lounged along the Street in the moonlit avenues toward the park and love; even Sidney's pink roses. Change was in the very air of the Street that June morning. It was in Tillie, making a last clutch at youth, and finding, in this pale flare of dying passion, courage to remember what she had schooled herself to forget; in Harriet asserting her right to live her life; in Sidney, planning with eager eyes a life of service which did not include Joe; in K. Le Moyne, who had built up a wall between himself and the world, and was seeing it demolished by a deaf-and-dumb book agent whose weapon was a pencil pad!
And yet, for a week nothing happened: Joe came in the evenings and sat on the steps with Sidney, his honest heart, in his eyes. She could not bring herself at first to tell him about the hospital. She put it off from day to day. Anna, no longer sulky, accepted wit the childlike faith Sidney's statement that "they'd get along; she had a splendid scheme," and took to helping Harriet in her preparations for leaving. Tillie, afraid of her rebellious spirit, went to prayer meeting. And K. Le Moyne, finding his little room hot in the evenings and not wishing to intrude on the two on the doorstep, took to reading his paper in the park, and after twilight to long, rapid walks out into the country. The walks satisfied the craving of his active body for exercise, and tired him so he could sleep. On one such occasion he met Mr. Wagner, and they carried on an animated conversation until it was too dark to see the pad. Even then, it developed that Wagner could write in the dark; and he secured the last word in a long argument by doing this and striking a match for K. to read by.
When K. was sure that the boy had gone, he would turn back toward the Street. Some of the heaviness of his spirit always left him at sight of the little house. Its kindly atmosphere seemed to reach out and envelop him. Within was order and quiet, the fresh-down bed, the tidiness of his ordered garments. There was even affection—Reginald, waiting on the fender for his supper, and regarding him with wary and bright-eyed friendliness.
Life, that had seemed so simple, had grown very complicated for Sidney. There was her mother to break the news to, and Joe. Harriet would approve, she felt; but these others! To assure Anna that she must manage alone for three years, in order to be happy and comfortable afterward—that was hard enough to tell Joe she was planning a future without him, to destroy the light in his blue eyes—that hurt.
After all, Sidney told K. first. One Friday evening, coming home late, as usual, he found her on the doorstep, and Joe gone. She moved over hospitably. The moon had waxed and waned, and the Street was dark. Even the ailanthus blossoms had ceased their snow-like dropping. The colored man who drove Dr. Ed in the old buggy on his daily rounds had brought out the hose and sprinkled the street. Within this zone of freshness, of wet asphalt and dripping gutters, Sidney sat, cool and silent.
"Please sit down. It is cool now. My idea of luxury is to have the Street sprinkled on a hot night."
K. disposed of his long legs on the steps. He was trying to fit his own ideas of luxury to a garden hose and a city street.
"I'm afraid you're working too hard."
"I? I do a minimum of labor for a minimum of wage.
"But you work at night, don't you?"
K. was natively honest. He hesitated. Then:
"No, Miss Page."
"But You go out every evening!" Suddenly the truth burst on her.
"Oh, dear!" she said. "I do believe—why, how silly of you!"
K. was most uncomfortable.
"Really, I like it," he protested. "I hang over a desk all day, and in the evening I want to walk. I ramble around the park and see lovers on benches—it's rather thrilling. They sit on the same benches evening after evening. I know a lot of them by sight, and if they're not there I wonder if they have quarreled, or if they have finally got married and ended the romance. You can see how exciting it is."
Quite suddenly Sidney laughed.
"How very nice you are!" she said—"and how absurd! Why should their getting married end the romance? And don't you know that, if you insist on walking the streets and parks at night because Joe Drummond is here, I shall have to tell him not to come?"
This did not follow, to K.'s mind. They had rather a heated argument over it, and became much better acquainted.
"If I were engaged to him," Sidney ended, her cheeks very pink, "I—I might understand. But, as I am not—"
"Ah!" said K., a trifle unsteadily. "So you are not?"
Only a week—and love was one of the things she had had to give up, with others. Not, of course, that he was in love with Sidney then. But he had been desperately lonely, and, for all her practical clearheadedness, she was softly and appealingly feminine. By way of keeping his head, he talked suddenly and earnestly of Mrs. McKee, and food, and Tillie, and of Mr. Wagner and the pencil pad.
"It's like a game," he said. "We disagree on everything, especially Mexico. If you ever tried to spell those Mexican names—"
"Why did you think I was engaged?" she insisted.
Now, in K.'s walk of life—that walk of life where there are no toothpicks, and no one would have believed that twenty-one meals could have been secured for five dollars with a ticket punch thrown in—young girls did not receive the attention of one young man to the exclusion of others unless they were engaged. But he could hardly say that.
"Oh, I don't know. Those things get in the air. I am quite certain, for instance, that Reginald suspects it."
"It's Johnny Rosenfeld," said Sidney, with decision. "It's horrible, the way things get about. Because Joe sent me a box of roses—As a matter of fact, I'm not engaged, or going to be, Mr. Le Moyne. I'm going into a hospital to be a nurse."
Le Moyne said nothing. For just a moment he closed his eyes. A man is in a rather a bad way when, every time he closes his eyes, he sees the same thing, especially if it is rather terrible. When it gets to a point where he lies awake at night and reads, for fear of closing them—
"You're too young, aren't you?"
"Dr. Ed—one of the Wilsons across the Street—is going to help me about that. His brother Max is a big surgeon there. I expect you've heard of him. We're very proud of him in the Street."
Lucky for K. Le Moyne that the moon no longer shone on the low gray doorstep, that Sidney's mind had traveled far away to shining floors and rows of white beds. "Life—in the raw," Dr. Ed had said that other afternoon. Closer to her than the hospital was life in the raw that night.
So, even here, on this quiet street in this distant city, there was to be no peace. Max Wilson just across the way! It—it was ironic. Was there no place where a man could lose himself? He would have to move on again, of course.
But that, it seemed, was just what he could not do. For:
"I want to ask you to do something, and I hope you'll be quite frank," said Sidney.
"Anything that I can do—"
"It's this. If you are comfortable, and—and like the room and all that, I wish you'd stay." She hurried on: "If I could feel that mother had a dependable person like you in the house, it would all be easier."
Dependable! That stung.
"But—forgive my asking; I'm really interested—can your mother manage? You'll get practically no money during your training."
"I've thought of that. A friend of mine, Christine Lorenz, is going to be married. Her people are wealthy, but she'll have nothing but what Palmer makes. She'd like to have the parlor and the sitting room behind. They wouldn't interfere with you at all," she added hastily. "Christine's father would build a little balcony at the side for them, a sort of porch, and they'd sit there in the evenings."
Behind Sidney's carefully practical tone the man read appeal. Never before had he realized how narrow the girl's world had been. The Street, with but one dimension, bounded it! In her perplexity, she was appealing to him who was practically a stranger.
And he knew then that he must do the thing she asked. He, who had fled so long, could roam no more. Here on the Street, with its menace just across, he must live, that she might work. In his world, men had worked that women might live in certain places, certain ways. This girl was going out to earn her living, and he would stay to make it possible. But no hint of all this was in his voice.
"I shall stay, of course," he said gravely. "I—this is the nearest thing to home that I've known for a long time. I want you to know that."
So they moved their puppets about, Anna and Harriet, Christine and her husband-to-be, Dr. Ed, even Tillie and the Rosenfelds; shifted and placed them, and, planning, obeyed inevitable law.
"Christine shall come, then," said Sidney forsooth, "and we will throw out a balcony."
So they planned, calmly ignorant that poor Christine's story and Tillie's and Johnny Rosenfeld's and all the others' were already written among the things that are, and the things that shall be hereafter.
"You are very good to me," said Sidney.
When she rose, K. Le Moyne sprang to his feet.
Anna had noticed that he always rose when she entered his room,—with fresh towels on Katie's day out, for instance,—and she liked him for it. Years ago, the men she had known had shown this courtesy to their women; but the Street regarded such things as affectation.
"I wonder if you would do me another favor? I'm afraid you'll take to avoiding me, if I keep on."
"I don't think you need fear that."
"This stupid story about Joe Drummond—I'm not saying I'll never marry him, but I'm certainly not engaged. Now and then, when you are taking your evening walks, if you would ask me to walk with you—"
K. looked rather dazed.
"I can't imagine anything pleasanter; but I wish you'd explain just how—"
Sidney smiled at him. As he stood on the lowest step, their eyes were almost level.
"If I walk with you, they'll know I'm not engaged to Joe," she said, with engaging directness.
The house was quiet. He waited in the lower hall until she had reached the top of the staircase. For some curious reason, in the time to come, that was the way Sidney always remembered K. Le Moyne—standing in the little hall, one hand upstretched to shut off the gas overhead, and his eyes on hers above.
"Good-night," said K. Le Moyne. And all the things he had put out of his life were in his voice.
On the morning after Sidney had invited K. Le Moyne to take her to walk, Max Wilson came down to breakfast rather late. Dr. Ed had breakfasted an hour before, and had already attended, with much profanity on the part of the patient, to a boil on the back of Mr. Rosenfeld's neck.
"Better change your laundry," cheerfully advised Dr. Ed, cutting a strip of adhesive plaster. "Your neck's irritated from your white collars."
Rosenfeld eyed him suspiciously, but, possessing a sense of humor also, he grinned.
"It ain't my everyday things that bother me," he replied. "It's my blankety-blank dress suit. But if a man wants to be tony—"
"Tony" was not of the Street, but of its environs. Harriet was "tony" because she walked with her elbows in and her head up. Dr. Max was "tony" because he breakfasted late, and had a man come once a week and take away his clothes to be pressed. He was "tony," too, because he had brought back from Europe narrow-shouldered English-cut clothes, when the Street was still padding its shoulders. Even K. would have been classed with these others, for the stick that he carried on his walks, for the fact that his shabby gray coat was as unmistakably foreign in cut as Dr. Max's, had the neighborhood so much as known him by sight. But K., so far, had remained in humble obscurity, and, outside of Mrs. McKee's, was known only as the Pages' roomer.
Mr. Rosenfeld buttoned up the blue flannel shirt which, with a pair of Dr. Ed's cast-off trousers, was his only wear; and fished in his pocket.
"How much, Doc?"
"Two dollars," said Dr. Ed briskly.
"Holy cats! For one jab of a knife! My old woman works a day and a half for two dollars."
"I guess it's worth two dollars to you to be able to sleep on your back." He was imperturbably straightening his small glass table. He knew Rosenfeld. "If you don't like my price, I'll lend you the knife the next time, and you can let your wife attend to you."
Rosenfeld drew out a silver dollar, and followed it reluctantly with a limp and dejected dollar bill.
"There are times," he said, "when, if you'd put me and the missus and a knife in the same room, you wouldn't have much left but the knife."
Dr. Ed waited until he had made his stiff-necked exit. Then he took the two dollars, and, putting the money into an envelope, indorsed it in his illegible hand. He heard his brother's step on the stairs, and Dr. Ed made haste to put away the last vestiges of his little operation.
Ed's lapses from surgical cleanliness were a sore trial to the younger man, fresh from the clinics of Europe. In his downtown office, to which he would presently make his leisurely progress, he wore a white coat, and sterilized things of which Dr. Ed did not even know the names.
So, as he came down the stairs, Dr. Ed, who had wiped his tiny knife with a bit of cotton,—he hated sterilizing it; it spoiled the edge,—thrust it hastily into his pocket. He had cut boils without boiling anything for a good many years, and no trouble. But he was wise with the wisdom of the serpent and the general practitioner, and there was no use raising a discussion.
Max's morning mood was always a cheerful one. Now and then the way of the transgressor is disgustingly pleasant. Max, who sat up until all hours of the night, drinking beer or whiskey-and-soda, and playing bridge, wakened to a clean tongue and a tendency to have a cigarette between shoes, so to speak. Ed, whose wildest dissipation had perhaps been to bring into the world one of the neighborhood's babies, wakened customarily to the dark hour of his day, when he dubbed himself failure and loathed the Street with a deadly loathing.
So now Max brought his handsome self down the staircase and paused at the office door.
"At it, already," he said. "Or have you been to bed?"
"It's after nine," protested Ed mildly. "If I don't start early, I never get through."
"Better come with me," he said. "If things go on as they've been doing, I'll have to have an assistant. I'd rather have you than anybody, of course." He put his lithe surgeon's hand on his brother's shoulder. "Where would I be if it hadn't been for you? All the fellows know what you've done."
In spite of himself, Ed winced. It was one thing to work hard that there might be one success instead of two half successes. It was a different thing to advertise one's mediocrity to the world. His sphere of the Street and the neighborhood was his own. To give it all up and become his younger brother's assistant—even if it meant, as it would, better hours and more money—would be to submerge his identity. He could not bring himself to it.
"I guess I'll stay where I am," he said. "They know me around here, and I know them. By the way, will you leave this envelope at Mrs. McKee's? Maggie Rosenfeld is ironing there to-day. It's for her."
Max took the envelope absently.
"You'll go on here to the end of your days, working for a pittance," he objected. "Inside of ten years there'll be no general practitioners; then where will you be?"
"I'll manage somehow," said his brother placidly. "I guess there will always be a few that can pay my prices better than what you specialists ask."
Max laughed with genuine amusement.
"I dare say, if this is the way you let them pay your prices."
He held out the envelope, and the older man colored.
Very proud of Dr. Max was his brother, unselfishly proud, of his skill, of his handsome person, of his easy good manners; very humble, too, of his own knowledge and experience. If he ever suspected any lack of finer fiber in Max, he put the thought away. Probably he was too rigid himself. Max was young, a hard worker. He had a right to play hard.
He prepared his black bag for the day's calls—stethoscope, thermometer, eye-cup, bandages, case of small vials, a lump of absorbent cotton in a not over-fresh towel; in the bottom, a heterogeneous collection of instruments, a roll of adhesive plaster, a bottle or two of sugar-milk tablets for the children, a dog collar that had belonged to a dead collie, and had put in the bag in some curious fashion and there remained.
He prepared the bag a little nervously, while Max ate. He felt that modern methods and the best usage might not have approved of the bag. On his way out he paused at the dining-room door.
"Are you going to the hospital?"
"Operating at four—wish you could come in."
"I'm afraid not, Max. I've promised Sidney Page to speak about her to you. She wants to enter the training-school."
"Too young," said Max briefly. "Why, she can't be over sixteen."
"Well, even eighteen. Do you think any girl of that age is responsible enough to have life and death put in her hands? Besides, although I haven't noticed her lately, she used to be a pretty little thing. There is no use filling up the wards with a lot of ornaments; it keeps the internes all stewed up."
"Since when," asked Dr. Ed mildly, "have you found good looks in a girl a handicap?"
In the end they compromised. Max would see Sidney at his office. It would be better than having her run across the Street—would put things on the right footing. For, if he did have her admitted, she would have to learn at once that he was no longer "Dr. Max"; that, as a matter of fact, he was now staff, and entitled to much dignity, to speech without contradiction or argument, to clean towels, and a deferential interne at his elbow.
Having given his promise, Max promptly forgot about it. The Street did not interest him. Christine and Sidney had been children when he went to Vienna, and since his return he had hardly noticed them. Society, always kind to single men of good appearance and easy good manners, had taken him up. He wore dinner or evening clothes five nights out of seven, and was supposed by his conservative old neighbors to be going the pace. The rumor had been fed by Mrs. Rosenfeld, who, starting out for her day's washing at six o'clock one morning, had found Dr. Max's car, lamps lighted, and engine going, drawn up before the house door, with its owner asleep at the wheel. The story traveled the length of the Street that day.
"Him," said Mrs. Rosenfeld, who was occasionally flowery, "sittin' up as straight as this washboard, and his silk hat shinin' in the sun; but exceptin' the car, which was workin' hard and gettin' nowhere, the whole outfit in the arms of Morpheus."
Mrs. Lorenz, whose day it was to have Mrs. Rosenfeld, and who was unfamiliar with mythology, gasped at the last word.
"Mercy!" she said. "Do you mean to say he's got that awful drug habit!"
Down the clean steps went Dr. Max that morning, a big man, almost as tall as K. Le Moyne, eager of life, strong and a bit reckless, not fine, perhaps, but not evil. He had the same zest of living as Sidney, but with this difference—the girl stood ready to give herself to life: he knew that life would come to him. All-dominating male was Dr. Max, that morning, as he drew on his gloves before stepping into his car. It was after nine o'clock. K. Le Moyne had been an hour at his desk. The McKee napkins lay ironed in orderly piles.
Nevertheless, Dr. Max was suffering under a sense of defeat as he rode downtown. The night before, he had proposed to a girl and had been rejected. He was not in love with the girl,—she would have been a suitable wife, and a surgeon ought to be married; it gives people confidence,—but his pride was hurt. He recalled the exact words of the rejection.
"You're too good-looking, Max," she had said, "and that's the truth. Now that operations are as popular as fancy dancing, and much less bother, half the women I know are crazy about their surgeons. I'm too fond of my peace of mind."
"But, good Heavens! haven't you any confidence in me?" he had demanded.
"None whatever, Max dear." She had looked at him with level, understanding eyes.
He put the disagreeable recollection out of his mind as he parked his car and made his way to his office. Here would be people who believed in him, from the middle-aged nurse in her prim uniform to the row of patients sitting stiffly around the walls of the waiting-room. Dr. Max, pausing in the hall outside the door of his private office, drew a long breath. This was the real thing—work and plenty of it, a chance to show the other men what he could do, a battle to win! No humanitarian was he, but a fighter: each day he came to his office with the same battle lust.
The office nurse had her back to him. When she turned, he faced an agreeable surprise. Instead of Miss Simpson, he faced a young and attractive girl, faintly familiar.
"We tried to get you by telephone," she explained. "I am from the hospital. Miss Simpson's father died this morning, and she knew you would have to have some one. I was just starting for my vacation, so they sent me."
"Rather a poor substitute for a vacation," he commented.
She was a very pretty girl. He had seen her before in the hospital, but he had never really noticed how attractive she was. Rather stunning she was, he thought. The combination of yellow hair and dark eyes was unusual. He remembered, just in time, to express regret at Miss Simpson's bereavement.
"I am Miss Harrison," explained the substitute, and held out his long white coat. The ceremony, purely perfunctory with Miss Simpson on duty, proved interesting, Miss Harrison, in spite of her high heels, being small and the young surgeon tall. When he was finally in the coat, she was rather flushed and palpitating.
"But I KNEW your name, of course," lied Dr. Max. "And—I'm sorry about the vacation."
After that came work. Miss Harrison was nimble and alert, but the surgeon worked quickly and with few words, was impatient when she could not find the things he called for, even broke into restrained profanity now and then. She went a little pale over her mistakes, but preserved her dignity and her wits. Now and then he found her dark eyes fixed on him, with something inscrutable but pleasing in their depths. The situation was: rather piquant. Consciously he was thinking only of what he was doing. Subconsciously his busy ego was finding solace after last night's rebuff.
Once, during the cleaning up between cases, he dropped to a personality. He was drying his hands, while she placed freshly sterilized instruments on a glass table.
"You are almost a foreign type, Miss Harrison. Last year, in a London ballet, I saw a blonde Spanish girl who looked like you."
"My mother was a Spaniard." She did not look up.
Where Miss Simpson was in the habit of clumping through the morning in flat, heavy shoes, Miss Harrison's small heels beat a busy tattoo on the tiled floor. With the rustling of her starched dress, the sound was essentially feminine, almost insistent. When he had time to notice it, it amused him that he did not find it annoying.
Once, as she passed him a bistoury, he deliberately placed his fine hand over her fingers and smiled into her eyes. It was play for him; it lightened the day's work.
Sidney was in the waiting-room. There had been no tedium in the morning's waiting. Like all imaginative people, she had the gift of dramatizing herself. She was seeing herself in white from head to foot, like this efficient young woman who came now and then to the waiting-room door; she was healing the sick and closing tired eyes; she was even imagining herself proposed to by an aged widower with grown children and quantities of money, one of her patients.
She sat very demurely in the waiting-room with a magazine in her lap, and told her aged patient that she admired and respected him, but that she had given herself to the suffering poor.
"Everything in the world that you want," begged the elderly gentleman. "You should see the world, child, and I will see it again through your eyes. To Paris first for clothes and the opera, and then—"
"But I do not love you," Sidney replied, mentally but steadily. "In all the world I love only one man. He is—"
She hesitated here. It certainly was not Joe, or K. Le Moyne of the gas office. It seem to her suddenly very sad that there was no one she loved. So many people went into hospitals because they had been disappointed in love.
"Dr. Wilson will see you now."
She followed Miss Harrison into the consulting room. Dr. Max—not the gloved and hatted Dr. Max of the Street, but a new person, one she had never known—stood in his white office, tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired, competent, holding out his long, immaculate surgeon's hand, and smiling down at her.
Men, like jewels, require a setting. A clerk on a high stool, poring over a ledger, is not unimpressive, or a cook over her stove. But place the cook on the stool, poring over the ledger! Dr. Max, who had lived all his life on the edge of Sidney's horizon, now, by the simple changing of her point of view, loomed large and magnificent. Perhaps he knew it. Certainly he stood very erect. Certainly, too, there was considerable manner in the way in which he asked Miss Harrison to go out and close the door behind her.
Sidney's heart, considering what was happening to it, behaved very well.
"For goodness' sake, Sidney," said Dr. Max, "here you are a young lady and I've never noticed it!"
This, of course, was not what he had intended to say, being staff and all that. But Sidney, visibly palpitant, was very pretty, much prettier than the Harrison girl, beating a tattoo with her heels in the next room.
Dr. Max, belonging to the class of man who settles his tie every time he sees an attractive woman, thrust his hands into the pockets of his long white coat and surveyed her quizzically.
"Did Dr. Ed tell you?"
"Sit down. He said something about the hospital. How's your mother and Aunt Harriet?"
"Very well—that is, mother's never quite well." She was sitting forward on her chair, her wide young eyes on him. "Is that—is your nurse from the hospital here?"
"Yes. But she's not my nurse. She's a substitute."
"The uniform is so pretty." Poor Sidney! with all the things she had meant to say about a life of service, and that, although she was young, she was terribly in earnest.
"It takes a lot of plugging before one gets the uniform. Look here, Sidney; if you are going to the hospital because of the uniform, and with any idea of soothing fevered brows and all that nonsense—"
She interrupted him, deeply flushed. Indeed, no. She wanted to work. She was young and strong, and surely a pair of willing hands—that was absurd about the uniform. She had no silly ideas. There was so much to do in the world, and she wanted to help. Some people could give money, but she couldn't. She could only offer service. And, partly through earnestness and partly through excitement, she ended in a sort of nervous sob, and, going to the window, stood with her back to him.
He followed her, and, because they were old neighbors, she did not resent it when he put his hand on her shoulder.
"I don't know—of course, if you feel like that about it," he said, "we'll see what can be done. It's hard work, and a good many times it seems futile. They die, you know, in spite of all we can do. And there are many things that are worse than death—"
His voice trailed off. When he had started out in his profession, he had had some such ideal of service as this girl beside him. For just a moment, as he stood there close to her, he saw things again with the eyes of his young faith: to relieve pain, to straighten the crooked, to hurt that he might heal,—not to show the other men what he could do,—that had been his early creed. He sighed a little as he turned away.
"I'll speak to the superintendent about you," he said. "Perhaps you'd like me to show you around a little."
He had meant in a month, or a year. It was quite a minute before he replied:—
"Yes, to-day, if you say. I'm operating at four. How about three o'clock?"
She held out both hands, and he took them, smiling.
"You are the kindest person I ever met."
"And—perhaps you'd better not say you are applying until we find out if there is a vacancy."
"May I tell one person?"
"No. We—we have a roomer now. He is very much interested. I should like to tell him."
He dropped her hands and looked at her in mock severity.
"Much interested! Is he in love with you?"
"I don't believe it. I'm jealous. You know, I've always been more than half in love with you myself!"
Play for him—the same victorious instinct that had made him touch Miss Harrison's fingers as she gave him the instrument. And Sidney knew how it was meant; she smiled into his eyes and drew down her veil briskly.
"Then we'll say at three," she said calmly, and took an orderly and unflurried departure.
But the little seed of tenderness had taken root. Sidney, passing in the last week or two from girlhood to womanhood,—outgrowing Joe, had she only known it, as she had outgrown the Street,—had come that day into her first contact with a man of the world. True, there was K. Le Moyne. But K. was now of the Street, of that small world of one dimension that she was leaving behind her.
She sent him a note at noon, with word to Tillie at Mrs. McKee's to put it under his plate:—
DEAR MR. LE MOYNE,—I am so excited I can hardly write. Dr. Wilson, the surgeon, is going to take me through the hospital this afternoon. Wish me luck. SIDNEY PAGE.
K. read it, and, perhaps because the day was hot and his butter soft and the other "mealers" irritable with the heat, he ate little or no luncheon. Before he went out into the sun, he read the note again. To his jealous eyes came a vision of that excursion to the hospital. Sidney, all vibrant eagerness, luminous of eye, quick of bosom; and Wilson, sardonically smiling, amused and interested in spite of himself. He drew a long breath, and thrust the note in his pocket.
The little house across the way sat square in the sun. The shades of his windows had been lowered against the heat. K. Le Moyne made an impulsive movement toward it and checked himself.
As he went down the Street, Wilson's car came around the corner. Le Moyne moved quietly into the shadow of the church and watched the car go by.
Sidney and K. Le Moyne sat under a tree and talked. In Sidney's lap lay a small pasteboard box, punched with many holes. It was the day of releasing Reginald, but she had not yet been able to bring herself to the point of separation. Now and then a furry nose protruded from one of the apertures and sniffed the welcome scent of pine and buttonball, red and white clover, the thousand spicy odors of field and woodland.
"And so," said K. Le Moyne, "you liked it all? It didn't startle you?"
"Well, in one way, of course—you see, I didn't know it was quite like that: all order and peace and quiet, and white beds and whispers, on top,—you know what I mean,—and the misery there just the same. Have you ever gone through a hospital?"
K. Le Moyne was stretched out on the grass, his arms under his head. For this excursion to the end of the street-car line he had donned a pair of white flannel trousers and a belted Norfolk coat. Sidney had been divided between pride in his appearance and fear that the Street would deem him overdressed.
At her question he closed his eyes, shutting out the peaceful arch and the bit of blue heaven overhead. He did not reply at once.
"Good gracious, I believe he's asleep!" said Sidney to the pasteboard box.
But he opened his eyes and smiled at her.
"I've been around hospitals a little. I suppose now there is no question about your going?"
"The superintendent said I was young, but that any protegee of Dr. Wilson's would certainly be given a chance."
"It is hard work, night and day."
"Do you think I am afraid of work?"
Sidney colored vigorously and sat erect.
"He is very silly. He's taken all sorts of idiotic notions in his head."
"Well, he HATES the hospital, of course. As if, even if I meant to marry him, it wouldn't be years before he can be ready."
"Do you think you are quite fair to Joe?"
"I haven't promised to marry him."
"But he thinks you mean to. If you have quite made up your mind not to, better tell him, don't you think? What—what are these idiotic notions?"
Sidney considered, poking a slim finger into the little holes in the box.
"You can see how stupid he is, and—and young. For one thing, he's jealous of you!"
"I see. Of course that is silly, although your attitude toward his suspicion is hardly flattering to me."
He smiled up at her.
"I told him that I had asked you to bring me here to-day. He was furious. And that wasn't all."
"He said I was flirting desperately with Dr. Wilson. You see, the day we went through the hospital, it was hot, and we went to Henderson's for soda-water. And, of course, Joe was there. It was really dramatic."
K. Le Moyne was daily gaining the ability to see things from the angle of the Street. A month ago he could have seen no situation in two people, a man and a girl, drinking soda-water together, even with a boy lover on the next stool. Now he could view things through Joe's tragic eyes. And there as more than that. All day he had noticed how inevitably the conversation turned to the young surgeon. Did they start with Reginald, with the condition of the morning-glory vines, with the proposition of taking up the quaint paving-stones and macadamizing the Street, they ended with the younger Wilson.
Sidney's active young brain, turned inward for the first time in her life, was still on herself.
"Mother is plaintively resigned—and Aunt Harriet has been a trump. She's going to keep her room. It's really up to you."
"To your staying on. Mother trusts you absolutely. I hope you noticed that you got one of the apostle spoons with the custard she sent up to you the other night. And she didn't object to this trip to-day. Of course, as she said herself, it isn't as if you were young, or at all wild."
In spite of himself, K. was rather startled. He felt old enough, God knew, but he had always thought of it as an age of the spirit. How old did this child think he was?
"I have promised to stay on, in the capacity of watch-dog, burglar-alarm, and occasional recipient of an apostle spoon in a dish of custard. Lightning-conductor, too—your mother says she isn't afraid of storms if there is a man in the house. I'll stay, of course."
The thought of his age weighed on him. He rose to his feet and threw back his fine shoulders.
"Aunt Harriet and your mother and Christine and her husband-to-be, whatever his name is—we'll be a happy family. But, I warn you, if I ever hear of Christine's husband getting an apostle spoon—"
She smiled up at him. "You are looking very grand to-day. But you have grass stains on your white trousers. Perhaps Katie can take them out."
Quite suddenly K. felt that she thought him too old for such frivolity of dress. It put him on his mettle.
"How old do you think I am, Miss Sidney?"
She considered, giving him, after her kindly way, the benefit of the doubt.
"Not over forty, I'm sure."
"I'm almost thirty. It is middle age, of course, but it is not senility."
She was genuinely surprised, almost disturbed.
"Perhaps we'd better not tell mother," she said. "You don't mind being thought older?"
"Not at all."
Clearly the subject of his years did not interest her vitally, for she harked back to the grass stains.
"I'm afraid you're not saving, as you promised. Those are new clothes, aren't they?"
"No, indeed. Bought years ago in England—the coat in London, the trousers in Bath, on a motor tour. Cost something like twelve shillings. Awfully cheap. They wear them for cricket."
That was a wrong move, of course. Sidney must hear about England; and she marveled politely, in view of his poverty, about his being there. Poor Le Moyne floundered in a sea of mendacity, rose to a truth here and there, clutched at luncheon, and achieved safety at last.
"To think," said Sidney, "that you have really been across the ocean! I never knew but one person who had been abroad. It is Dr. Max Wilson."
Back again to Dr. Max! Le Moyne, unpacking sandwiches from a basket, was aroused by a sheer resentment to an indiscretion.
"You like this Wilson chap pretty well, don't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You talk about him rather a lot."
This was sheer recklessness, of course. He expected fury, annihilation. He did not look up, but busied himself with the luncheon. When the silence grew oppressive, he ventured to glance toward her. She was leaning forward, her chin cupped in her palms, staring out over the valley that stretched at their feet.
"Don't speak to me for a minute or two," she said. "I'm thinking over what you have just said."
Manlike, having raised the issue, K. would have given much to evade it. Not that he had owned himself in love with Sidney. Love was not for him. But into his loneliness and despair the girl had came like a ray of light. She typified that youth and hope that he had felt slipping away from him. Through her clear eyes he was beginning to see a new world. Lose her he must, and that he knew; but not this way.
Down through the valley ran a shallow river, making noisy pretensions to both depth and fury. He remembered just such a river in the Tyrol, with this same Wilson on a rock, holding the hand of a pretty Austrian girl, while he snapped the shutter of a camera. He had that picture somewhere now; but the girl was dead, and, of the three, Wilson was the only one who had met life and vanquished it.
"I've known him all my life," Sidney said at last. "You're perfectly right about one thing: I talk about him and I think about him. I'm being candid, because what's the use of being friends if we're not frank? I admire him—you'd have to see him in the hospital, with every one deferring to him and all that, to understand. And when you think of a manlike that, who holds life and death in his hands, of course you rather thrill. I—I honestly believe that's all there is to it."
"If that's the whole thing, that's hardly a mad passion." He tried to smile; succeeded faintly.
"Well, of course, there's this, too. I know he'll never look at me. I'll be one of forty nurses; indeed, for three months I'll be only a probationer. He'll probably never even remember I'm in the hospital at all."
"I see. Then, if you thought he was in love with you, things would be different?"
"If I thought Dr. Max Wilson was in love with me," said Sidney solemnly, "I'd go out of my head with joy."
One of the new qualities that K. Le Moyne was cultivating was of living each day for itself. Having no past and no future, each day was worth exactly what it brought. He was to look back to this day with mingled feelings: sheer gladness at being out in the open with Sidney; the memory of the shock with which he realized that she was, unknown to herself, already in the throes of a romantic attachment for Wilson; and, long, long after, when he had gone down to the depths with her and saved her by his steady hand, with something of mirth for the untoward happening that closed the day.
Sidney fell into the river.
They had released Reginald, released him with the tribute of a shamefaced tear on Sidney's part, and a handful of chestnuts from K. The little squirrel had squeaked his gladness, and, tail erect, had darted into the grass.
"Ungrateful little beast!" said Sidney, and dried her eyes. "Do you suppose he'll ever think of the nuts again, or find them?"
"He'll be all right," K. replied. "The little beggar can take care of himself, if only—"
"If only what?"
"If only he isn't too friendly. He's apt to crawl into the pockets of any one who happens around."
She was alarmed at that. To make up for his indiscretion, K. suggested a descent to the river. She accepted eagerly, and he helped her down. That was another memory that outlasted the day—her small warm hand in his; the time she slipped and he caught her; the pain in her eyes at one of his thoughtless remarks.
"I'm going to be pretty lonely," he said, when she had paused in the descent and was taking a stone out of her low shoe. "Reginald gone, and you going! I shall hate to come home at night." And then, seeing her wince: "I've been whining all day. For Heaven's sake, don't look like that. If there's one sort of man I detest more than another, it's a man who is sorry for himself. Do you suppose your mother would object if we stayed, out here at the hotel for supper? I've ordered a moon, orange-yellow and extra size."
"I should hate to have anything ordered and wasted."
"Then we'll stay."
"It's fearfully extravagant."
"I'll be thrifty as to moons while you are in the hospital."
So it was settled. And, as it happened, Sidney had to stay, anyhow. For, having perched herself out in the river on a sugar-loaf rock, she slid, slowly but with a dreadful inevitability, into the water. K. happened to be looking in another direction. So it occurred that at one moment, Sidney sat on a rock, fluffy white from head to feet, entrancingly pretty, and knowing it, and the next she was standing neck deep in water, much too startled to scream, and trying to be dignified under the rather trying circumstances. K. had not looked around. The splash had been a gentle one.
"If you will be good enough," said Sidney, with her chin well up, "to give me your hand or a pole or something—because if the river rises an inch I shall drown."
To his undying credit, K. Le Moyne did not laugh when he turned and saw her. He went out on the sugar-loaf rock, and lifted her bodily up its slippery sides. He had prodigious strength, in spite of his leanness.
"Well!" said Sidney, when they were both on the rock, carefully balanced.
"Are you cold?"
"Not a bit. But horribly unhappy. I must look a sight." Then, remembering her manners, as the Street had it, she said primly:—
"Thank you for saving me."
"There wasn't any danger, really, unless—unless the river had risen."
And then, suddenly, he burst into delighted laughter, the first, perhaps, for months. He shook with it, struggled at the sight of her injured face to restrain it, achieved finally a degree of sobriety by fixing his eyes on the river-bank.
"When you have quite finished," said Sidney severely, "perhaps you will take me to the hotel. I dare say I shall have to be washed and ironed."
He drew her cautiously to her feet. Her wet skirts clung to her; her shoes were sodden and heavy. She clung to him frantically, her eyes on the river below. With the touch of her hands the man's mirth died. He held her very carefully, very tenderly, as one holds something infinitely precious.
The same day Dr. Max operated at the hospital. It was a Wilson day, the young surgeon having six cases. One of the innovations Dr. Max had made was to change the hour for major operations from early morning to mid-afternoon. He could do as well later in the day,—his nerves were steady, and uncounted numbers of cigarettes did not make his hand shake,—and he hated to get up early.
The staff had fallen into the way of attending Wilson's operations. His technique was good; but technique alone never gets a surgeon anywhere. Wilson was getting results. Even the most jealous of that most jealous of professions, surgery, had to admit that he got results.
Operations were over for the afternoon. The last case had been wheeled out of the elevator. The pit of the operating-room was in disorder—towels everywhere, tables of instruments, steaming sterilizers. Orderlies were going about, carrying out linens, emptying pans. At a table two nurses were cleaning instruments and putting them away in their glass cases. Irrigators were being emptied, sponges recounted and checked off on written lists.