ONE WOMAN'S LIFE
BY ROBERT HERRICK
AUTHOR OF "TOGETHER," "THE HEALER," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1913
Set up and electrotyped. Published February, 1913.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
THE WEST SIDE
I. The New Home
II. A Victory for Milly
III. Milly goes to Church
IV. Milly completes her Education
V. Milly Experiments
VI. Milly Learns
VII. Milly sees More of the World
VIII. Milly's Campaign
I. The Great Outside
II. Milly Entertains
III. Milly becomes Engaged
V. The Crash
VI. The Depths
VII. Milly tries to Pay
VIII. Milly renews her Prospects
IX. Milly in Love
X. Milly Marries
I. The New Home
II. A Funeral and a Surprise
III. On Board Ship
IV. Being an Artist's Wife
V. Women's Talk
VI. The Child
VII. Beside the Resounding Sea
VIII. The Picture
IX. The Pardon
X. The Painted Face
XII. "Come Home"
I. Home once More
III. More of "Bunker's"
IV. The Head of the House
V. A Shock
VI. The Secret
VII. Being a Widow
VIII. The Woman's World
IX. The New Woman
X. Milly's New Marriage
THE CAKE SHOP
I. "Number 236"
II. At Last, the Real Right Scheme
III. Chicago Again
IV. Going into Business
V. Milly's Second Triumph
VI. Coming Down
VIII. The Sunshine Special
THE WEST SIDE
THE NEW HOME
"Is that the house!" Milly Ridge exclaimed disapprovingly.
Her father, a little man, with one knee bent against the unyielding, newly varnished front door, glanced up apprehensively at the figures painted on the glass transom above. In that block of little houses, all exactly alike, he might easily have made a mistake. Reassured he murmured over his shoulder,—"Yes—212—that's right!" and he turned the key again.
Milly frowning petulantly continued her examination of the dirty yellow brick face of her new home. She could not yet acquiesce sufficiently in the fact to mount the long flight of steps that led from the walk to the front door. She looked on up the street, which ran straight as a bowling-alley between two rows of shabby brick houses,—all low, small, mean, unmistakably cheap,—thrown together for little people to live in. West Laurence Avenue was drab and commonplace,—the heart, the crown, the apex of the commonplace. And the girl knew it.... The April breeze, fluttering carelessly through the tubelike street, caught her large hat and tipped it awry. Milly clutched her hat savagely, and something like tears started to her eyes.
"What did you expect, my dear?" Grandmother Ridge demanded with a subtle undercut of reproof. The little old lady, all in black, with a neat bonnet edged with white, stood on the steps midway between her son and her granddaughter, and smiled icily at the girl. Milly recognized that smile. It was more deadly to her than a curse—symbol of mocking age. She tossed her head, the sole retort that youth was permitted to give age.
Indeed, she could not have described her disappointment intelligibly. All she knew was that ever since their hasty breakfast in the dirty railroad station beside the great lake her spirits had begun to go down, and had kept on dropping as the family progressed slowly in the stuffy street-car, mile after mile, through this vast prairie wilderness of brick buildings. She knew instinctively that they were getting farther and farther from the region where "nice people" lived. She had never before been in this great city, yet something told her that they were journeying block by block towards the outskirts,—the hinterland of the sprawling city. (Only Milly didn't know the word hinterland.) She had gradually ceased to reply to her father's cheerful comments on the features of the West Side landscape. And now she was very near tears.
She was sixteen—it was the spring of '86. Ever since her mother's death, two years before, the family had done "light housekeeping" in three rooms in St. Louis. This 212 West Laurence Avenue, Chicago, was to be her first home—this slab of a dirty yellow wall!
"There!" her father muttered with satisfaction, as, after a last twist of key and thump of knee, he effected an entrance. Grandma Ridge moved up the flight of steps, the girl following reluctantly.
"See, mother," little Horatio Ridge said, jingling his keys, "it's fresh and clean!"
The new varnish smelt poignantly. The fresh paint clung insidiously to the feet.
"And it's light too, mother, isn't it?" He turned quickly from the cavernous gloom of the rear rooms and pointed to a side window in the hall where one-sixteenth of the arc of the firmament was visible between the brick walls of the adjoining houses.
"The dining-room's downstairs—that makes it roomier," he continued, throwing open at random a door. "There's more room than you'd think from the outside."
Milly and her grandmother peered downwards into the black hole from which came a mouldy odor.
"Oh, father, why did you come 'way out here!" Milly wailed.
"Why not?" Horatio retorted defensively. "You didn't expect a house on the lake front, did you?"
Just what she had expected from this new turn in the family destiny was not clear to herself. But ever since it had been decided that they were to have a house of their own in Chicago—her father having at last secured a position that promised some permanence—the girl's buoyant imagination had begun to soar, and out of all the fragments of her experience derived by her transient residence in Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Omaha—not to mention St. Louis—she had created a wonderful composite—the ideal American home, architecturally ambitious, suburban in tone. In some of the cities where she had lived the Ridges had tarried as long as three years, and each time, since she was a very little girl in short dresses and had left Indianapolis crying over the doll in her arms, she had believed they were permanently settled: this was to be their home for always.
Her mother had had the same forlorn, homesick hope, but each time it was doomed to disappointment. Always they had had to move on,—to make a new circle of temporary acquaintances, to learn the ropes of new streets and shops and schools all over again. Always it was "business" that did the mischief,—the failure of "business" here or the hope of better "business" somewhere else that had routed them out of their temporary shelter. Horatio Ridge was "travelling" for one firm or another in drugs and chemicals: he was of an optimistic and sanguine temperament. Milly's mother, less hopeful by nature, had gradually succumbed under the perpetual tearing up of her thin roots, and finally faded away altogether in the light housekeeping phase of their existence in St. Louis.
Milly was sanguine like her father, and she had the other advantage of youth over her mother. So she had hoped again—overwhelmingly—of Chicago. But as she gazed at the row of pallid houses and counted three "To rent" signs in the cobwebby front windows opposite, she knew in her heart that this was not the end—not this, for her! It was another shift, another compromise to be endured, another disappointment to be overcome.
"Well, daughter, what d'ye think of your new home?" Little Horatio's blustering tone betrayed his timidity before the passionate criticism of youth. Milly turned on him with flashing blue eyes.
"I think, my dear," her grandmother announced primly, "that instead of finding fault with your father's selection of a home, you had better look at it first."
Grandma Ridge was a tiny lady, quite frail, with neat bands of iron-gray hair curling over well-shaped ears. Her voice was soft and low,—the kind of voice which her generation described as "ladylike." But Milly knew what lay beneath its gentle surface. Milly did not love her grandmother. Milly's mother had not loved the little old lady. It was extremely doubtful if any one had ever loved her. Mrs. Ridge embodied unpleasant duties; she was a vessel of unwelcome reproof that could be counted upon to spill over at raw moments, like this one.
"You'll like it first rate, Milly," her father continued robustly, "once you get settled in it. It's a great bargain, the real estate man said so, almost new and freshly painted and papered. It's close to the cars and Hoppers'"—Hoppers' was the Chicago firm that had offered Horatio his latest opportunity. "And I don't care about travelling all over Illinois to get to my work...."
Curiosity compelled Milly to follow the others up the narrow stairs that reached from the hall to the floor above. Milly was a tall, well-developed girl for sixteen, already quite as large as her father and enough of a woman physically to bully the tiny grandmother when she wished to. Her face was now prettily suffused with color due to her resentment, and her blue eyes moist with unshed tears. She glanced into the small front chamber which had been decorated with a pink paper and robin's-egg blue paint.
"Pretty, ain't it?" Horatio observed, seeking his crumb of appreciation.
"It's a very nice home, Horatio—I'm sure you displayed excellent taste in your choice," his mother replied.
"Pretty? ... It's just awful!" Milly burst forth, unable to control herself longer. She felt that she should surely die if she were condemned to sleep in that ugly chamber even for a few months. Yet the house was on the whole a better one than any that the peripatetic Ridges had thus far achieved. It was fully as good as most of those that her acquaintances lived in. But it cruelly shamed Milly's expectations.
"It's perfectly horrid,—a nasty, cheap, ugly little box, and 'way out here on the West Side." Somehow Milly had already divined the coming degradation of the West Side. "I don't see how you can tell father such stories, grandma.... He ought to have waited for us before he took a house."
With that she turned her back on the whole affair and whisked down the narrow stairs, leaving her elders to swallow their emotions while inspecting the tin bath-tub in the closet bath-room.
"Milly has her mother's temper," Mrs. Ridge observed sourly.
"She'll come 'round all right," Horatio replied hopefully.
Milly squirmed, but on the whole she "took her medicine" as well as most human beings....
Meantime she stood before the dusty window in the front room eyeing the dirty street, dabbing the tears from her eyes with her handkerchief, welling with resentment at her fate.
* * * * *
Years later she remembered the fierce emotions of that dreary April day when she had first beheld the little block house on West Laurence Avenue, recalling vividly her rage of rebellion at her father and her fate, the hot disgust in her soul that she should be forced to endure such mean surroundings. "And," she would say then to the friend to whom she happened to be giving a vivacious account of the incident, "it was just as mean and ugly and depressing as I thought it.... I can see the place now—the horror of that basement dining-room and the smells! My dear, it was just common West Side, you know."
But how did Milly Ridge at sixteen perceive all this? What gave her the sense of social distinctions,—of place and condition,—at her age, with her limited, even if much-travelled experience of American cities? To read this mystery will be to understand Milly Ridge—and something of America as well.
A VICTORY FOR MILLY
The lease for the house had been signed, however, and for a five years' term. The glib agent had taken advantage of Horatio's new fervor for being settled, as well as his ignorance of the city. The lease was a fact that even Milly's impetuous will could not surmount—for the present.
Somehow during the next weeks the Ridge furniture was assembled from the various places where it had been cached since the last impermanent experiment in housekeeping. It was a fantastic assortment, as Milly realized afresh when it was unpacked. As a basis there were a few pieces of old southern mahogany, much battered, but with a fine air about them still. These were the contributions of Milly's mother, who had been of a Kentucky family. To these had been added here and there pieces of many different styles and shades of modern inelegance. One layer of the conglomerate was specially distasteful to Milly. That was the black-walnut "parlor set," covered with a faded green velvet, the contribution of Grandma Ridge from her Pennsylvania home. It still seemed to the little old lady of the first water as it had been when it adorned Judge Ridge's brick house in Euston, Pa. Milly naturally had other views of this treasure. Somewhere she had learned that the living room of a modern household was no longer called the "parlor," by those who knew, but the "drawing-room," and with the same unerring instinct she had discovered the ignominy of this early Victorian heritage. She did not loathe the shiny "quartered oak" dining-room pieces—her father's venture in an opulent moment—nor the dingy pine bedroom sets, nor even the worn "ingrain" carpets, as she did these precious relics of her grandmother's home.
Over them she fought her first successful battle with the older generation for her woman's rights—and won. She directed the colored men who were hired to unpack the household goods to put the green velvet horrors in the obscure rear parlor. In the front room she had placed the battered mahogany, and had just rejected the figured parlor carpet when her grandmother came upon her unawares. The old lady had slipped in noiselessly through the area door.
"My dear!" she remarked softly, a deceitful smile on her thin lips. "Why, my dear!" Milly hated this tender appellation, scenting the hypocrisy in it. "Haven't you made a mistake? I think this is the parlor."
"Of course it is the parlor," Milly admitted briskly, wheeling to meet the cold gray eyes that were fixed on her.
"Then why, may I ask, is the parlor furni—"
"Because I am doing this to suit myself," the girl promptly explained. "In this house, I mean to have things suit me, grandma," she added firmly. It was just as well to settle the matter at once.
"But, my dear," the old lady stammered, helpless before the audacity of the revolt. "I'm sure nobody wants to cross you—but—but—where's the carpet?"
"I'm not going to have that ugly green rag staring at me any longer!"
"Don't 'my dear' me any more, grandma, please!"
Mrs. Ridge gasped, closed her thin lips tightly, then emitted,—
"Mildred, I'm afraid you are not quite yourself to-day," and she retreated to the rear room, where in the gloom were piled her rejected idols.
After an interval she returned to the fight, gliding noiselessly forth from the gloom. She was a very small and a very frail little body, and as Milly put it she was "always sneaking about the house like a ghost."
"I see that the kitchen things have not been touched, and the dining-room furniture—"
"And they won't be—until I have this room to suit me.... Sam, please move that desk a little nearer the window.... There!"
It was characteristic of Milly to begin with the show part of the premises first and then work backwards to the fundamentals, pushing confusion slowly before her. The old lady watched the colored man move the rickety mahogany back and forth under Milly's orders for a few more minutes, then her thin lips tightened ominously.
"I think your father may have something to say about this, Mildred!"
"He'll be all right if you don't stir him up," the girl replied with assurance. She walked across the room to her grandmother. "See here, grandma, I'm 'most seventeen now and big for my age—"
"Please-say 'large,' Mildred."
"Large then—'most a woman. And this is my father's home—and mine—until he gets married again, which of course he won't do as long as I am here to look after him.... And, grandma, I mean to be the head of this house."
The old lady drooped.
"Very well, my dear, I see only too plainly the results of your poor mother's—"
"Grandma!" the girl flashed warningly.
"If I'm not wanted here—"
"You're not—now! The best thing for you to do is to go straight back to the boarding-house and read your Christian Vindicator until I'm ready for you to move in."
"At the rate you are going it will be some days before your father can have the use of his home."
"A week at least I should say."
"And he must pay board another week for all of us!"
"I suppose so—we must live somewhere, mustn't we?" Milly remarked sweetly.
So with a final shrug of her tiny shoulders the little old lady let herself out of the front door, stealthily betook herself down the long flight of steps and, without a backward glance, headed for the boarding-house. Milly watched her out of sight from the front window.
"Thank heaven, she's really gone!" she muttered. "Always snooping about like a cat,—prying and fussing. She's such a nuisance, poor grandma."
It was neither said nor felt ill-naturedly. Milly was generous with all the world, liked everybody, including her grandmother, who was a perpetual thorn,—liked her least of anybody in the world because of her stealthy ways and her petty bullying, also because of the close watch she kept over the family purse when Milly wished to thrust her prodigal hand therein. She made the excuse to herself when she was harsh with the old lady,—"And she was so mean to poor mama,—" that gentle, soft, weak southern mother, whom Milly had abused while living and now adored—as is the habit of imperfect mortals....
So with a lighter heart, having routed the old lady, at least for this afternoon, Milly continued to set up the broken and shabby household goods to suit herself. She coaxed the colored boys into considerable activity with her persuasive ways, having an inherited capacity for getting work out of lazy and emotional help, who respond to the personal touch. By dusk, when her father came, she had the two front rooms arranged to her liking. Sam was hanging a bulky steel engraving—"Windsor Castle with a View of Eton"—raising and lowering it patiently at Milly's orders. It was the most ambitious work of art that the family possessed, yet she felt it was not really suited, and accepted it provisionally, consigning it mentally to the large scrap-heap of Ridge belongings which she had already begun in the back yard.
"Well, daughter," Mr. Ridge called out cheerily from the open door, "how you're getting on?"
"Oh, papa!" (Somewhere in the course of her wanderings Milly had learned not to say "paw.")
She flew to the little man and hugged him enthusiastically.
"I'm so dead tired—I've worked every minute, haven't I, Sam?"
"She sure has," the boy chuckled admiringly, "kep us all agoin' too!"
"How do you like it, papa?"
Milly led the little man into the front room and waited breathlessly for his approbation. It was her first attempt in the delicate art of household arrangement.
"It's fine—it's all right!" Horatio commented amiably, twisting an unlighted cigar between his teeth and surveying the room dubiously. His tone implied bewilderment. He was a creature of habits, even if they were peripatetic habits: he missed the parlor furniture and the green rug. They meant home to him. Looking into the rear cavern where Milly had thrust all the furniture she had not the courage to scrap, he observed slyly,—"What'll your grandmother say?"
"She's said it," Milly laughed.
Horatio chuckled. This was woman's business, and wise male that he was he maintained an amused neutrality.
"Ain't you most unpacked, Milly? I'm getting dead tired of boarding."
"Oh, I've just begun, really! You don't know what time it takes to settle a house properly."
"Didn't think we had so much stuff."
"We haven't anything fit to use—that's the trouble. We must get some new things right away. I want a rug for this room first."
"Isn't there a carpet?"
"A carpet! Papa, they don't use carpets any more. A nice, soft rug, with a border 'round it...."
Horatio retreated towards the door. But before they had reached the boarding-house, the first advance towards Milly's Ideal of the New Home had been plotted. The rug was settled. Milly was to meet her father in the city at noon on the morrow and select one. Arm in arm, father and daughter came up the steps,—charming picture of family intimacy.
"So nice to see father and daughter such friends!" one of the boarding-house ladies observed to Grandma Ridge.
"Oh, yes," the old lady admitted with a chilly smile. She knew what these demonstrations cost in cash from her son's leaky pockets. If she had lived later, doubtless she would have called Milly a cunning grafter.
Milly smiled upon the interested stranger, good humoredly, as she always smiled. She was feeling very tired after her day's exertions, but happily content with her first efforts to realize her ambition,—to have "some place for herself." What she meant by having a place for herself in the world she did not yet understand of course. Nor what she could do with it, having achieved it. It was an instinct, blind in the manner of instincts, of her dependent womanhood. She was quite sure that something must happen,—a something that would give her a horizon more spacious than that of the West Side.
* * * * *
Meantime she ate the unappetizing food put before her with good grace, and smiled and chatted with all the dreary spinsters of the boarding-house table.
MILLY GOES TO CHURCH
The ugly little house was at last got to rights, at least as much so as Milly's limited means permitted. Horatio's resources were squeezed to the last dollar, and the piano came in on credit. Then the family moved in, and soon the girl's restless gaze turned outwards.
She must have people for her little world,—people to visit with, to talk to. From her doll years Milly had loved people indiscriminately. She must have them about her, to play with, to interest, to arouse interest in herself. Wherever she derived this social passion—obviously not from Grandma Ridge—it had been and would always be the dominant note of her life. Later, in her more sophisticated and more introspective phase, she would proclaim it as a creed: "People are the most interesting thing in life—just humans!" And she would count her gregariousness as a virtue. But as yet it was unconscious, an animal instinct for the herd. And she was lonely the first days at West Laurence Avenue.
Everywhere the family had put foot to earth in its wanderings, Milly had acquired friends easily,—at school, in church, among the neighbors,—what chance afforded from the mass. She wept even on her departure from St. Louis, which she had hated because of the light housekeeping, at the thought of losing familiar faces. A number of her casual friends came to the station to see her off, as they always did. She kissed them all, and swore to each that she would write, which she promptly forgot to do. But she loved them all, just the same. And now that the Ridge destiny seemed to be settled with fair prospects of permanency in this new, untried prairie city,—a huddle of a million or more souls,—she cast her eager eyes about for the conquest that must be made....
The social hegira from the West Side of the city had already begun: the more prosperous with social aspirations were dropping away, moving to the north or the south, along the Lake. Some of the older families still lingered, rooted in associations, hesitant before new fashions, and these, Milly at once divined, lived in the old-fashioned brick and stone houses along the Boulevard that crossed West Laurence Avenue just below the Ridge home. These seats of the mighty on Western Boulevard might not be grand, but they alone of all the neighborhood had something of the aristocratic air.
This spacious boulevard was the place she chose for her daily stroll with her grandmother, taking the old lady, who had betrayed an interest in a cemetery, up and down Western Boulevard, past the large houses where the long front windows were draped with spotless lace curtains. She learned somehow that the old-fashioned brick house, with broad eaves and wooden pillars, belonged to the Claxtons. The grounds about the house ran even to the back yards of the West Laurence Avenue block,—indeed had originally included all that land,—for the Claxtons were an old family as age went in Chicago, and General Claxton was a prominent man in the state. She also knew that the more modern stone house on the farther corner was occupied by the Walter Kemps; that Mrs. Kemp had been a Claxton; and that Mr. Kemp was a rising young banker in the city. How Milly had found out all this in the few days she had lived in the neighborhood would be hard to explain: such information she acquired unconsciously, as one does the character of the weather....
On the next corner north of the Claxton place was a large church, with a tall spire, and an adjoining parish house. They were built of the same cream-colored stone, which had grown sallow under the smoke, with chocolate-brown trimmings, like a deep edging to a mourning handkerchief. Its appearance pleased Milly. She felt sure that the best people of the neighborhood worshipped here, and so to this dignified edifice she led her father and grandmother the first Sunday after they were installed in their new home.
It proved to be the Second Presbyterian Church. The Ridges were orthodox, i.e. Congregational: the judge had been deacon in Euston, Pa., and Mrs. Ridge talked of "sending for her papers" and finding the nearest congregation of her old faith. But Milly promptly announced that "everybody went to the Presbyterian church here." She was satisfied with the air and the appearance of the congregation that first Sunday and made her father promise to take seats for the family. The old lady, content to have the wayward Horatio committed to any sort of church-going, made slight objection. It mattered little to Horatio himself. In religion he was catholic: he was ready to stand up in any evangelical church, dressed in his best, and boom forth the hymns in his bass voice. The choice of church was a matter to be left to the women, like the color of the wallpaper, or the quality of crockery,—affairs of delicate discrimination. Moreover, he was often out of the city over Sunday on his business trips and did not have to go to church.
It was impossible that Milly, dressed very becomingly in her new gray suit, should escape notice after the first Sunday. Her lovely bronze hair escaped from her round hat engagingly. Her soft blue eyes looked up at the minister appealingly. She had the attractive air of youth and health and good looks. The second Sunday the minister's wife, prompted by her husband, spoke to Mrs. Ridge and called soon after. She liked Milly—minister's wives usually did—and she approved of the grandmother, who had an aristocratic air, in her decent black, her thin, gray face. "They seem really nice people," Mrs. Borland reported to her husband, "but a very ordinary home. He travels for the Hoppers'. Her mother was a southerner." (Milly had got that in somehow,—"My mother's home was Kentucky, you know.")... So, thanks to the church, here was Milly at last launched on the West Side and in a fair way of knowing people.
She began going to vespers—it was a new custom then, during Lent—and she was faithful at the Wednesday evening prayer meetings. The Borlands had a daughter, of about Milly's age,—a thin, anaemic girl who took to Milly's warmth and eagerness at once. As Milly succinctly summed up the minister's family,—"They're from Worcester, Mass." To come from New England seemed to Milly to give the proper stamp of respectability, while Virginia gave aristocracy.
Mrs. Borland introduced Milly to Mrs. Walter Kemp after the service one Sunday. Milly knew, as we have seen, that Mrs. Kemp had been a Claxton, and that the general still lived in the ample mansion which he had built in the early fifties when he had transferred his fortunes from Virginia to the prairie city. They were altogether the most considerable people Milly had ever encountered. And so when Eleanor Kemp called at the little West Laurence Avenue house, Milly was breathless. Not that Milly was a snob. She was as kind to the colored choreman as to the minister's wife, smiling and good-humored with every one. But she had a keen sense of differences. Unerringly she reached out her hands to the "best" as she understood the best,—the men and women who were "nice," who were pleasant to know. And Mrs. Kemp, then a young married woman of twenty-seven or eight, seemed to the enthusiastic girl quite adorable. She was tall and slender, with fine oval features and clear brown skin and dark hair. Her manner was rather distant at first and awed Milly.
"Oh, you're so beautiful,—you don't mind my saying it!" she exclaimed the first time they were alone in the Kemp house.
"You funny child!" the older woman laughed, quite won. And that was the phrase she used invariably of Milly Ridge,—"That funny child!" varied occasionally by "That astonishing child!" even when the child had become a woman of thirty. There would always be something of the breathless, impulsive child in Milly Ridge.
After that first visit Milly went home to arrange a tea-table like Eleanor Kemp's. She found among the discarded remnants of the family furniture a small round table without a leg. She had it repaired and set up her tea-table near the black marble fireplace. The next time the banker's wife came to call she was able to offer her a cup of tea, with sliced lemon, quite as a matter of course, after the manner that Mrs. Kemp had handed it to her the week before. Milly was not crudely imitative: she was selectively imitative, and for the present she had chosen Mrs. Kemp for her model.
For the most part they met at the Kemp house. The young married woman liked her new role of guide and experienced friend to Milly; she also liked the admiration that Milly sincerely, copiously poured forth on all occasions. When Milly praised the ugly house and its furniture, she might smile in a superior way, for she was "travelled," had visited "the chief capitals of Europe,"—as well as Washington and New York,—and knew perfectly well that the solid decoration of her library and drawing-room was far from good style. The Kemps had already secured their lot on the south side of the city near the Lake. The plans for their new house were being drawn by a well-known eastern architect, and they were merely waiting before building until Mr. Kemp should find himself sufficiently prosperous to maintain the sort of house that the architect had designed for a rising young western banker.
"Oh, dear," Milly sighed, "you will be moving soon—and there'll be nobody left around here for me to know."
Eleanor Kemp smiled.
"You know what I mean!... People like you and your mother."
"You may not live here always," her friend prophesied.
"I hope not. But papa seems perfectly content—he's taken a five years' lease of that horrid house. I just knew it wasn't the right place as soon as I saw it!"
The older woman laughed at Milly's despair.
"There's time yet for something to happen."
Milly blushed happily. There was only one sort of something to happen for her,—the right sort of marriage. Milly, as Mrs. Kemp confided to her husband, was a girl with a "future," and that future could be only a matrimonial one. Her new friend good naturedly did what she could for Milly by putting her in the way of meeting people. At her own house and her mother's, across the street, Milly saw a number of people who came into her life helpfully later on. General Claxton was still at that time a considerable political figure in the middle west, had been congressman and was spoken of for Senator. Jolly, plump Mrs. Claxton maintained a large, informal hospitality of the Virginia sort, and to the big brick house came all kinds of people,—southerners with quaint accents and formal manners, young Englishmen on their way to the wild northwest, down-state politicians, as well as the merchant aristocracy of the city. Thus Milly as a mere girl had her first opportunity of peeping at the larger world in the homely, high-studded rooms and on the generous porches of the Claxton house, and enjoyed it immensely.
The church had thus far done a good deal for Milly.
For some time it remained the staple of her social existence,—that sallow, cream-colored pile, in which the congregation had already so shrunken by removals that the worshippers rattled around in the big building like dried peas in a pod. Milly became a member of the pastor's Bible class and an ardent worker in the Young Women's Guild. She was looked upon favorably as a right-minded and religious young woman. She had joined the church some years before, shortly after the death of her mother. Her first religious fervor lasted rather more than a year and was dying out when the family moved from St. Louis. Its revival at the Second Presbyterian was of a purely institutional character. Although even Grandma Ridge called her a "good girl," Milly was too healthy a young person to be really absorbed by questions of salvation. Her religion was a social habit, like the habit of wearing fresh underclothes and her best dress on the seventh day, having a late breakfast and responding to the din of the church bells with other ceremonially dressed folk. She believed what she heard in church as she believed everything that was spoken with authority. It would have seemed to her very dreadful to question the great dogmas of Heaven, Hell, the Atonement, the Resurrection, etc. But they meant absolutely nothing to her: they did not come into practical relation with her life as did the ugly little box of her home and the people she knew, and she had no taste for abstractions.
Milly was "good." She tried to have a helpful influence upon her companions, especially upon young men who seemed to need an influence more than others: she wanted to induce them not to swear, to smoke, to drink—or be "bad,"—a vague state of unrealized vice. She encouraged them to go to church by letting them escort her. It was the proper way of displaying right intentions to lead good lives. When one young man who had been a member of the Bible class was found to have taken money from Mr. Kemp's bank, where he was employed, and indulged in riotous living with it, Milly felt depressed for several days,—accused herself of not having done her utmost to bring this lost soul to the Saviour.
Yet Milly was no prig,—at least not much of a one. For almost all her waking hours her mind was occupied with totally mundane affairs, and she was never much concerned about her own salvation. It seemed so far off—in the hazy distances of stupid middle age or beyond. So, like thousands upon thousands of other young women of her day, she appeared at the Second Presbyterian every Sunday morning, looking her freshest and her best, and with engaging zest, if with a somewhat wandering mind, sang,—
"How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!"
It was a wholly meaningless social function, this, and useful to the girl. Later charity might take its place. Horatio Ridge, who had never qualified as a church member while his wife lived, knowing his own unregenerate habits and having a healthy-minded male's aversion to hypocrisy, now went to church with his daughter quite regularly. He felt that it was a good thing,—the right thing for the girl, in some way insuring her woman's safety in this wicked world, if not her salvation in the next.
They made a pretty picture together, father and daughter,—the girl with the wide blue eyes and open mouth, standing shoulder to shoulder with the little man, each with one gloved hand grasping an edge of the hymn-book and singing, Milly in a high soprano,—
"Nearer, my God, to Thee!"
and Horatio, rumbling behind a little uncertainly,—
"Nearer to Thee—to THEE!"
MILLY COMPLETES HER EDUCATION
"Milly," Mrs. Kemp remarked thoughtfully, "aren't you going to complete your education?"
Milly translated this formidable phrase in a flash,—
"You mean go to school any more? Why should I?"
It was a warm June day. Milly had been reading to Mrs. Kemp, who was sewing. The book was "Romola." Milly had found quite dull its solid pages of description of old Florence sparsely relieved by conversation, and after a futile attempt to discover more thrilling matter farther on had abandoned the book altogether in favor of talk, which always interested her more than anything else in the world.
"Why should I go to school?" she repeated.
"You are only sixteen."
"Seventeen—in September," Milly promptly corrected.
Mrs. Kemp laughed.
"I didn't finish school until I was eighteen."
"School is so stupid," Milly sighed, with a little grimace. "I hate getting things out of books."
She had never been distinguished in school,—far from it. Only by real labor had she been able to keep up with her classes.
"I guess the schools I went to weren't much good," she added.
She saw herself behind a desk at the high school she had last attended in St. Louis. In front of her sat a dried, sallow, uncheerful woman of great age, ready to pounce upon her and expose her ignorance before the jeering class. The girls and the boys at the school were not "refined"—she knew that now. No, she did not want any more school of that sort.... Besides, what use could an education be, if she were not to teach? And Milly had not the faintest idea of becoming a teacher.
"Do you think a girl needs to know a lot of stuff—stupid things in books?" she asked.
"Women must have a better education than they once did," Eleanor Kemp replied with conviction. She refrained from explaining that a girl like Milly, with no social background, might marry "to advantage" on her looks, but she would need something more to maintain any desirable position in the world. Such ideas were getting into the air these days.
"I'm going to take some music lessons," Milly yawned.
"You have a good mind," her friend persisted flatteringly. "Do you know French."
"A little," Milly admitted dubiously.
Milly shook her head positively.
"Latin! What for?"
"I had two years of Latin. It's ... it's cultivating."
Milly glanced at the load of new books on the library table. She knew that the Kemps read together a great deal. They aspired to "stand for the best things" in the ambitious young city,—for art, music, and all the rest. She was somewhat awed.
"But what's the use of a girl's knowing all that?" she demanded practically.
If a woman knew how to "write a good letter," when she was married, and could keep the house accounts when there were any, and was bright and entertaining enough to amuse her wearied male, she had all the education she needed. That was Milly's idea.
"French, now, is so useful when one travels," Mrs. Kemp explained.
"Oh, if one travels," Milly agreed vaguely.
Later Mrs. Kemp returned to the attack and extolled the advantages, social and intellectual, that came with a Good Education. She described the Ashland Institute, where she had completed her own education and of which she was a recently elected trustee.
"Mrs. Mason, the principal, is a very cultivated lady—speaks all the modern languages and has such a refining influence. I know you would like her."
Milly had always attended public school. It had never occurred to her father that while the state was willing to provide an education he should go to the expense of buying one privately for his daughter. Of course Milly knew that there were fashionable boarding-schools. She wanted to attend a Sacred Heart convent school where one of her intimates—a Louisville girl—had been sent, but the mere idea had shocked Mrs. Ridge, senior, unutterably.
It seemed that the Ashland Institute, according to Mrs. Kemp, was an altogether superior sort of place, and Milly was at last thoroughly fired with the idea that she should "finish herself" there. Her grandmother agreed that more schooling would not hurt Milly, but demurred at the expense. Horatio was easily convinced that it was the only proper school for his daughter. So the following September Milly was once more a pupil, enrolled in classes of "literature" (with a handbook), "art" (with a handbook), "science" (handbook), "mental and moral philosophy" (lectures), and French (La tulipe noire). Milly liked Mrs. Mason, a personable lady, who always addressed her pupils as "young ladies." And Milly was quickly fascinated by the professor of mental and moral philosophy, a delicate-looking young college graduate. She worked very hard, studying her lessons far into the night, memorizing long lists of names, dates, maxims, learning by rote whatever was contained in those dreary handbooks.
Even in those days this was not all there was to education for girls like Milly. There were a few young women, east and west, bold enough to go to college. But as yet their example had no influence upon the general education dealt out to girls. Most girls whose parents had any sort of ambition went through the high school with their brothers, and then went to work—if they had to—or got married. Even for the privileged few who could afford "superior advantages" the ideas about women's education were chaos. Mrs. Mason solved the problem at the Ashland Institute as well as any, with a little of this and of that, elegant information conveyed chiefly in handbooks about "literature" and "art"; for women were assumed to be the "artistic" sex as they were the ornamental. There were, besides, deportment, dancing, and music, also ornamental. The only practical occupations were keeping house and nursing, and if a girl was obliged to do such things, she did not seek the aristocratic "finishing school." The "home" was the proper place for all that. In Milly's case the "home" was adequately run by her grandmother with the help of one colored servant. So Horatio, being just able to afford the tuition, Milly was privileged to "finish herself."
Of course she forgot all the facts so laboriously acquired within a short six months after she read her little essay on "Plato's Conception of the Beautiful" at the graduation exercises. (That effort, by the way, lay heavy on the neighborhood for weeks, but was pronounced a triumph. It was certainly a masterpiece of fearless quotation.)... Learning passed over Milly like a summer sea over a shining sandbar and left no trace behind, none whatever. It was the same way with music. Milly could sing church hymns in a pleasant voice and thumped a little heavily on the piano after learning her piece.... She used to say, years afterward,—"I have no gifts; I was never clever with books. I like life, people!" and she would stretch out her hands gropingly to the broad horizon.
This year at the Ashland Institute helped to enlarge that horizon somewhat. And one other thing she got with the absurd meal of schooling,—a vague but influential something,—an "ideal of American womanhood." That was the way Mrs. Mason phrased it in her eloquent talks to the girls.
The other teachers, especially the pale young professor of mental and moral philosophy, referred to it indirectly as the moving force of the new world. This was the "formative influence" of the school,—the quality that the Institute prided itself on above all else.
It was of a poetic shade, composed in equal parts of art, literature, and religion. Milly absorbed it at church, where the minister spoke almost tearfully about "the mission of young womanhood to elevate the ideals of the race," or more colloquially in Bible class as the duty of "being a good influence" in life, especially men's lives. She got it also in what books she read,—especially in Tennyson and in every novel, as well as in the few plays she saw. There it was embodied as Woman of Romance,—sublime, divine, mysterious, with a heavenly mission to reform, ennoble, uplift—men, of course,—in a word to make over the world. The idea of it had come down from the darkness of the middle ages,—that smelly and benighted period,—had inflamed all romance, and was now spreading its last miasmatic touch over the close of the nineteenth century. All this, to be sure, Milly never knew.
She merely began to feel self-conscious, as a member of her sex,—a being apart from men and somehow superior to them, without the same appetites and low ideals, and with her own peculiar and sacred function to perform for humanity. Ordinarily this heavy ideal of her sex did not burden Milly. She obeyed her thoroughly healthy instincts, chief of which was "to have a good time," to be loved and petted by people. But occasionally in her more emotional moods, when she was singing hymns or watching the sun depart in golden mists, she experienced exalted sensations of the beauty and the glory of life—of her life—and what it all might mean to Some One (a man).
When she undressed before the tiny mirror, she considered her attractive young body with a delicious sense of mystery that would some day be revealed, then plunged into bed, and buried herself chastely beneath the cover, her heart throbbing.
If Milly had had any real education, she might have recalled the teaching of science in such moments and realized that her soft tissue was composed of common elements, her special function was but a universal means to a universal end; that even her long, thick hair with its glint of gold, her soft eyes, her creamy skin and rounding breasts and sloping thighs were all designed for the simple purpose of continuing the species. (But in those days they did not talk of such things even in the handbooks, and Milly would have called any one who dared mention them in her presence a "materialist"—a word she had heard in the philosophy class.) Having no one to mention to her such improper truths, she remained in the pleasant illusion of literature and religion that she was altogether a superior creation,—something mysterious to be worshipped and preserved. Not colored Jenny in the kitchen, who had three or four illegitimate children! Not even all the girls in her Sunday-school class, some of whom worked in stores, but the cultivated, refined women who made Homes for Heroes. This belief was like Poetry: it satisfied and sustained—and it gave an unconscious impulse to her whole life, that she was never able wholly to escape....
And this was what they called Education in those days.
Of course Milly had "beaux," as she called them then. There had never been a time since she was trusted to navigate herself alone upon the street when she had not attracted to herself other little persons—chiefly girls, to be sure. For as Milly was wont to confess in her palmiest days when men flocked around her, she was a "woman's woman" (and hence inferentially a man's woman, too). Milly very sincerely preferred her own sex as constant companions. They were more expressive, communicative, rational. Men were useful: they brought candies, flowers, theatre parties.
But now the era of young men as distinguished from girls had arrived. Boys in long trousers with dark upper lips hung about the West Laurence Avenue house on warm evenings, composing Milly's celebrated "stoop parties," or wandered with her arm in arm up the broad boulevard to the Park. And at the Claxtons and the Kemps she met older men who paid attention to the vivacious, well-developed school-girl.
"Milly will take care of herself," Mrs. Claxton remarked to her daughter when the school question was up, and when the latter deplored the unchaperoned condition of her young friend, she added,—
"That was the way in Virginia. A girl had a lot of beaux—and she got no harm from it, if she were a good girl."
Milly was a good girl without any doubt, astonishing as it may seem. Milly Ridge had passed through the seventeen years of her existence and at least four different public schools without knowing anything about "sex hygiene." That married women had babies and that somehow these were due to the presence of men in the household was the limit of her sex knowledge. Beyond that it was not "nice" for a girl to delve, and Milly was very scrupulous about being "nice." Nice girls did not discuss such things. Once when she was fifteen a woman she knew had "gone to the bad" and Milly had been very curious about it, as she was later about the existence of bad women generally. This state of virginal ignorance was due more to her normal health than to any superior delicacy. As one man meaningly insinuated, Milly was not yet "awake." He apparently desired the privilege of awakening her, but she eluded him safely.
When these older men began to call, Milly entertained them quite formally in the little front room, discussing books with them and telling her little stories, while her father smoked his cigar in the rear room. She was conscious always of Grandma Ridge's keen ears pricked to attention behind the smooth curls of gray hair. It was astonishing how much the old lady could overhear and misinterpret!...
Almost all these young men, clerks and drummers and ranchers, were hopelessly, stupidly dull, and Milly knew it. Their idea of entertainment was the theatre or lopping about the long steps, listening to her chatter. When they took her "buggy-riding," they might try clumsily to put their arms around her. She would pretend not to notice and lean forward slightly to avoid the embrace....
Her first really sentimental encounter came at the end of a long day's picnicking on the hot sands of the lake beach. Harold—ultimately she forgot his last name—had taken her up the shore after supper. They had scrambled to the top of the clayey bluff and sat there in a thicket, looking out over the dimpled water, hot, uncomfortable, self-conscious. His hand had strayed to hers, and she had let him hold it, caress the stubby fingers in his thin ones, aware that hers was quite a homely hand, her poorest "point." She knew somehow that he wanted to kiss her, and she wondered what she should do if he tried,—whether she should be offended or let him "just once." He was a handsome, bashful boy, and she felt fond of him.
But when he had got his courage to the point, she drew off quickly, and to distract his attention exclaimed,—"See! What's that?" They looked across the broad surface of the lake and saw a tiny rim of pure gold swell upwards from the waves.
"It's just the moon!"
"How beautiful it is," Milly sighed.
Again when his arm came stealing about her she moved away murmuring, "No, no." And so they went back, awkwardly silent, to the others, who were telling stories about a blazing camp-fire they had thought it proper to build.... After that Harold came to see her quite regularly, and at last declared his love in a stumbling, boyish fashion. But Milly dismissed him—he was only a clerk at Hoppers'—without hesitation. "We are both too young, dear," she said. He had tried to kiss her hand, and somehow he managed so awkwardly that their heads bumped. Then he had gone away to Colorado to recover. For some months they exchanged boy and girl letters, which she kept for years tied up with ribbon. After a time he ceased to write, and she thought nothing of it, as her busy little world was peopled with new figures. Then there came wedding cards from Denver and at first she could not remember who this Harold Stevens about to marry Miss Glazier, could be. Her first affair, a pallid little romance that had not given her any real excitement!
Afterwards in moods of retrospection Milly would say: "However I didn't get into trouble as a girl, with no mother, and such an easy, unsuspecting father, I don't know. Think of it, my dear, out almost every night, dances, rides, picnics, theatres. Perhaps the men were better those days or the girls more innocent."
There was one episode, however, of these earlier years that left a deeper mark.
The friend who at the opportune moment had offered Horatio his point of stability at Hoppers' was Henry Snowden,—a handsome, talkative man of forty-five. He was manager of a department in the mail-order house, with the ambition of becoming one of the numerous firm. It was he who had put Horatio in the hands of the real estate firm that had resulted in the West Laurence Avenue House. Snowden, with his wife and two grown children, lived up the Boulevard, some distance from the Kemps. Mrs. Snowden was a rather fat lady a few years older than her husband, with a mid-western nasal voice. Milly thought her "common,"—a word she had learned from Eleanor Kemp,—and the daughter, who was in one of the lower classes of the Institute, was like her mother. During the first months in Chicago the Snowdens were the people Milly saw most of.
Horatio liked to have the Snowdens in for what he called a "quiet rubber of whist" with a pitcher of cider, a box of cheap cigars, and a plate of apples on the table. Grandma Ridge sat in the dining-room, reading her Christian Vindicator, while Milly entertained her friends on the steps or visited at the Kemps. Occasionally she was induced to take a hand in the game. She liked Mr. Snowden. He was more the gentleman than most of her father's business friends. With his trim, grizzled mustache and his eye-glass he looked almost professional, she thought. He treated Milly gallantly, brought her flowers occasionally, and took her with his daughter to the theatre. He seemed much younger than his wife, and Milly rather pitied him for being married to her. She felt that it must have been a mistake of his youth. Her father was proud of the friendship and would repeat often,—"Snow's a smart man, I can tell you. There's a great future for Snow at Hoppers'."
The Snowdens had an old-fashioned house with a stable, and kept a horse. Mr. Snowden was fond of driving, and had always a fast horse. He would come on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday and take Ridge for a drive. One Saturday afternoon he drove up to the house, and seeing Milly in the front window—it was a warm April day of their second year—motioned her to come outside.
"Papa is not home yet," she said, patting the horse.
"I know he isn't," Snowden remarked jerkily. "Didn't come for him—came for you—jump in!"
Milly looked at him joyously with her glowing, child's eyes.
"Really? You want me! But I'm not dressed."
"You're all right—jump in—it's warm enough." And Milly without further urging got into the buggy.
They went out through the boulevard to the new parkway, and when they reached the broad open road in the park, Snowden let his horse out, and they spun for a mile or more breathlessly. Milly's cheeks glowed, and her eyes danced. She was afraid that he might turn back at the end of the drive. But he kept on into a region that was almost country. Snowden talked in nervous sentences about the horse, then about Horatio, who, he said, was doing finely in the business. "He'll get on," he said, and Milly felt that Mr. Snowden was the family's good genius.
"He's a good fellow—I suppose he'll marry again, one of these days."
"No, he won't!" Milly replied promptly. "Not so long as he has me."
"What'll he do when he loses you?"
"He won't lose me."
"Oh, you'll be married, Milly, 'fore you know it."
She shook her head.
"Not until I meet the right man," she said, and she explained volubly her lofty ideals of matrimony.
Snowden agreed with her. He became personal, confiding, insinuated even that his marriage had been a mistake—of ignorance and youth. Milly, who was otherwise sympathetic, thought this was not nice of him, even if Mrs. Snowden was pudgy and common and old. A woman gave so much, she felt, in marriage that she should be insured against her defects.... Snowden said that he was living for his children. Milly thought that quite right and tried to turn the conversation.
The horse looked around as if to ask how much farther his master meant to go over this rough country road. It was getting late and the sun was sinking towards the flat prairie. Milly began to feel unaccountably worried and suggested turning back. Instead the man cut the horse with his whip so that he shot forward down the narrow road. The buggy rocked and swayed, while Milly clung to the side. Snowden looked at her and smiled triumphantly. His face came nearer hers. Milly thought it handsome, but it was unpleasantly flushed, and Milly drew away.
Suddenly she found herself in the grasp of her companion's free arm. He was whispering things into her ear.
"You make me mad—I—"
"Don't, Mr. Snowden,—please, please don't!" Milly cried, struggling.
The horse stopped altogether and looked around at them.
"Let me go!" she cried. But now abandoning the lines he held her in both his arms, his hot breath was close to her face, his lips seeking hers. Then she bit him,—bit him so hard with her firm teeth that he drew away with a cry, loosening his grip. She wriggled out of his embrace and scrambled to the ground before he knew what she was doing and began to run down the road. Snowden gathered up the lines and followed after her, calling,—"Milly, Milly—Miss Ridge," in a penitent, frightened voice. For some time she paid no attention until he shouted,—"You'll never get anywhere that way!" The buggy was abreast of her now. "Do get in! I won't—touch you."
She turned upon him with all the fire of her youth.
"You—a respectable man—with a wife—and my father's friend—you!"
"Yes, I know," he said, like a whipped dog. "But don't run off—I'll get out and let you drive back alone."
There was a cart coming on slowly behind them. Milly marched past the buggy haughtily and walked towards it. Snowden followed close behind, pleading, apologizing. She knew that he was afraid she would speak to the driver of the cart, and despised him.
"Milly, don't," he groaned.
She walked stiffly by the cart, whose driver eyed the scene with a slow grin. She paid no attention, however, to Snowden's entreaties. She was secretly proud of herself for her magnanimity in not appealing to the stranger, for the manner in which she was conducting herself. But after a mile or so, it became quite dark and she felt weary. She stumbled, sat down beside the road. The buggy stopped automatically.
"If you'll only get in and drive home, Miss Ridge," Snowden said humbly, and prepared to dismount. "It's a good eight miles to the boulevard and your folks will be worried."
With a gesture that waved him back to his place Milly got into the buggy and the horse started.
"I didn't mean—I am sorry—"
"Don't speak to me ever again, Mr. Snowden," Milly flamed. She sat bolt upright in her corner of the seat, drawing her skirt under her as if afraid it might touch him. Snowden drove rapidly, and thus without a word exchanged they returned. As they came near the corner of West Laurence Avenue, Snowden spoke again,—
"I know you can't forgive me—but I hope you won't let your father know. It would hurt him and—"
It was a very mean thing to say, and she knew it. Afterwards she thought of many spirited and apposite words she might have spoken, but at the moment all she could do was to fling herself haughtily out of the buggy as it drew up before the curb and without a word or glance march stiffly up the steps, where her father sat smoking his after-dinner cigar.
"Why, Milly," he exclaimed, "where've you been?"
She stalked past him into the house. She could hear her father ask Snowden to stop and have some supper, and Snowden's refusal.
"You'll be over for a game later, Snow?"
"Guess not, Horace," and the buggy drove off.
Then for the first time it came over her what it would mean if she should follow her first impulse and tell her father what had happened. Mr. Snowden was not merely his most intimate friend, but in a way his superior. If she should make things unpleasant between them, it might be serious. So when her grandmother came tiptoeing into Milly's room to see why she did not come down for her supper, Milly merely said she was too tired to eat.
"That nasty Snowden man," Milly spluttered, "tried to kiss me and I had to—to fight him.... Don't tell father!"
The little old lady was very much disturbed, but she did not tell her son. Her policy was one of discreet silence about "unpleasant things" if they could be covered up. And this was the kind of event that women were capable of managing themselves, as Milly had managed....
Milly lay awake long hours that night, her heart beating loudly, her busy mind reviewing the experience, and though her resentment did not lessen as the hours wore on and she murmured to herself,—"Horrid, nasty beast!" yet she became aware of another sensation. If—if things had been different—she—well—it—might, and then she buried her head in the pillow more ashamed than ever.
At last she had learned something of the real nature of men, and never again in her long experience with the other sex was she unaware of "what things meant." Whenever a man was concerned, one must always expect this possibility. And she began to despise the weaker sex.
For some days the Snowdens did not come for cards. Horatio seemed depressed. He would sit reading his paper through to the small advertisements, or wander out by himself to a beer garden near by. When the social circle is as small as the Ridges', such a state of affairs means real deprivation, and Milly, who did not approve of the beer garden any more than did her grandmother, wondered how she could restore the old harmony between the two families.
But before anything came of her good-natured intention fate arranged pleasantly to relieve her of the responsibility.
MILLY SEES MORE OF THE WORLD
The Kemps had a cottage at one of the Wisconsin lakes, and Eleanor Kemp invited Milly to make them a month's visit. The girl's imagination was aflame with excitement: it was to her Newport or Bar Harbor or Aix. There was first the question of clothes. Although Mrs. Kemp assured her that they lived very quietly at Como, Milly knew that the Casses, the Gilberts, the Shards had summer homes there, and the place was as gay as anything in this part of the country. Mrs. Kemp might say, "Milly, you're pretty enough for any place just as you are!" But Milly was woman enough to know what that meant between women.
Her allowance was spent, four months in advance as usual, but Horatio was easily brought to see the exceptionality of this event, and even old Mrs. Ridge was moved to give from her hoard. It was felt to be something in the nature of an investment for the girl's future. So Milly departed with a new trunk and a number of fresh summer gowns.
"Have a good time, daughter!" Horatio Ridge shouted as the car moved off, and he thought he had done his best for his child, even if he had had to borrow a hundred dollars from his friend Snowden.
Milly was sure she was about to have the most wonderful experience of her life.
Afterwards she might laugh over the excitement that first country-house visit had caused, and recall the ugly little brown gabled cottage on the shore of the hot lake, that did not even faintly resemble its Italian namesake, with the simple diversions of driving about the dusty, flat country, varied by "veranda parties" and moonlight rows with the rare young men who dared to stay away from business through the week. All of life, the sages tell us, is largely a matter of proportion. Como, Wisconsin, was breathless excitement to Milly Ridge at eighteen, as she testified to her hostess in a thousand joyous little ways.
And there was the inevitable man,—a cousin of the Claxton tribe, who was a young lawyer in Baltimore. He spent a week at the lake, almost every minute with Milly.
"You've simply fascinated him, my dear," Eleanor Kemp reported, delightedly. "And they're very good people, I assure you—he's a Harvard man."
It was the first time Milly had met on intimate terms a graduate of a large university. In those days "Harvard" and "Yale" were titles of aristocratic magic, as good as Rome or Oxford.
"He thinks you so unspoiled," her friend added. "I've asked him to stay another week."
So the two boated and walked and sat out beside the lake until the stars grew dim—and nothing ever came of it! Milly had her little extravagant imaginings about this well-bred young man with his distinguished manner; she did her best to please—and nothing came of it. Why? she asked herself afterward. He had held her hand and talked about "the woman who gives purpose to a man's life" and all that. (Alas, that plebeian paw of Milly's!)
Then he had left and sent her a five-pound box of candy from the metropolis, with a correct little note, assuring her that he could never forget those days he had spent with her by the lake of Como. Years afterward on an Atlantic steamer she met a sandy-haired, stoutish American, who introduced himself with the apology,—
"You're so like a girl I knew once out West—at some lake in Wisconsin—"
"And you are Harrison Plummer," she said promptly. "I shouldn't have known you," she added maliciously, surveying the work of time. She felt that her plebeian hands were revenged: he was quite ordinary. His wife was with him and four uninteresting children, and he seemed bored.... That had been her Alpine height at eighteen. The heights seem lower at thirty-five.
Even if this affair didn't prove to be "the real, right thing," Milly gained a good deal from her Como visit. Her social perspective was greatly enlarged by the acquaintances she made there. It was long before the day of the motor, the launch, the formal house party, but the families who sought rural relief from the city along the shores of the Wisconsin lake lived in a liberal, easy manner. They had horses and carriages a plenty and entertained hospitably. They did not use red cotton table-cloths (which Grandma Ridge insisted upon to save washing), and if there were few men-servants, there was an abundance of tidy maids. It gave Milly unconsciously a conception of how people lived in circles remote from West Laurence Avenue, and behind her pretty eyes there formed a blind purpose of pushing on into this unknown territory. "I had my own way to make socially," she said afterwards, half in apology, half in pride. "I had no mother to bring me out in society—I had to make my own friends!"
It was easy, to be sure, in those days for a pretty, vivacious girl with pleasant manners to go where she would. Society was democratic, in a flux, without pretence. Like went with like as they always will, but the social game was very simple, not a definite career, even for a woman. Many of these good people said "folks" and "ain't" and "doos," and nobody thought the worse of them for that. And they were kind,—quick to help a young and attractive girl, who "would make a good wife for some man."
So after her month with Mrs. Kemp, Milly was urged to spend a week at the Gilberts, which easily stretched to two. The Gilberts were young "North Side" people, and much richer than the Kemps. Roy Gilbert had the rare distinction in those days of describing himself merely as "capitalist," thanks to his father's exertions and denials. He was lazy and good-natured and much in love with his young wife, who was unduly religious and hoped to "steady" Milly. Apart from this obsession she was an affectionate and pretty woman, rather given to rich food and sentimental novels. She had been a poor girl herself, of a good New York family, and life had not been easy until one fine day Roy Gilbert had sailed into Watch Hill on his yacht and fallen in love with her. Some such destiny, she hoped, would come to Milly Ridge....
When at last, one drearily hot September day, Milly got back to the little box of a house on West Laurence Avenue, home seemed unendurably sordid and mean, stifling. Her father was sitting on the stoop in his shirt-sleeves, and had eased his feet by pushing off his shoes. Discipline had grown lax in Milly's absence. Her first sensation of revolt came at that moment.
"Oh, father—you oughtn't to look like that!" she said, kissing him.
"What's the harm? Nobody's home 'round here. All your swell friends are at the seashore."
"Well, Milly, so you decided to come home at last?"
Grandma Ridge had crept out from the house and was smiling icily. Secretly both the older people were pleased with Milly's social success, but they tempered their feelings in good puritan fashion with a note of reproof.
That evening the Snowdens came in for the game of cards. Snowden was plainly embarrassed at meeting Milly. "Good evening, Mr. Snowden, how are you? and Mrs. Snowden?" she asked graciously, with her new air of aloofness, as if he were an utter stranger. "You've come to play cards. I'm so glad—papa enjoys having you so much!"
She felt that she was handling the situation like a perfect lady, and she no longer had any real resentment. She even consented to take a hand in the game. They were much excited about an atrocious murder that had happened only a few doors away. Old Leonard Sweet, who had grown rich in the contracting business, had been found dead in his kitchen. His son-in-law—a dissipated young man whom Milly knew slightly—was suspected of the crime. It was thought that the two had had a quarrel about money, and the young man had shot his father-in-law. Milly remembered old Sweet quite vividly. He used to sit on his stoop in his stocking feet, even on Sundays when all the neighborhood was going by to church,—very shocking to Milly's sense of propriety. And the boy had hung around saloons. Now where was he?
"Well, daughter, can't you tell us what you did at Co-mo?" Horatio urged....
No, decidedly, this sort of thing would not do for Milly!
Almost at once Milly began the first important campaign of her life—to move the household to a more advantageous neighborhood. One morning she said casually at breakfast,—
"The Kemps are going to their new house when they come in from the Lake.... Why can't we live some place where there are nice people?"
"What's the matter with this?" Horatio asked, crowding flannel cakes into his mouth.
"Oh!" Milly exclaimed witheringly. "My friends are all moving away."
"You forget that your father has two years more of his lease of this house," her grandmother remarked severely.
And the campaign was on, not to be relaxed until the family abandoned the West Side a year later. It was a campaign fought in many subtle feminine ways, chiefly between Milly and her grandmother. Needless to say, the family atmosphere was not always comfortable for the mild Horatio.
"It all comes of your ambition to go with rich people," Mrs. Ridge declared. "Since your visit at the Lake, you have been discontented."
"I was never contented with this!" Milly retorted quite truthfully. What the old lady regarded as a fault, Milly considered a virtue.
"And you are neglecting your church work to go to parties."
"Oh, grandma!" the girl exclaimed wearily. "Chicago isn't Euston, Pa., grandma!"
As if the young people's clubs of the Second Presbyterian Church could satisfy the social aspirations of a Milly Ridge! She was fast becoming conscious of the prize that had been given her—her charm and her beauty—and an indefinable force was driving her on to obtain the necessary means of self-exploitation.
It was true, as her grandmother said, that more and more this autumn Milly was away from her home. Mrs. Gilbert had not forgotten her, nor the other people she had met at the Lake. More and more she was being asked to dinners and dances, and spent many nights with good-natured friends.
"She might as well board over there," Horatio remarked forlornly, "for all I see of the girl."
"Milly is a selfish girl," her grandmother commented severely.
"She's young, and she wants her fling. Guess we'd better see if we can't give it to her, mother."
Horatio was no fighter, especially of his own womenkind. Even the old lady's judgment was disturbed by the dazzle of Milly's social conquests.
"She'll be married before long," they said.
Meanwhile Milly was learning the fine social distinctions between the south and the north sides of the city. The Kemps' new house on Granger Avenue was very rich and handsome like its many substantial neighbors, but Milly already knew enough to prefer the Gilberts' on the North Drive, which, if smaller, had more style. And in spite of all the miles of solid prosperity and comfort in the great south side of the city, Milly quickly perceived that the really nicest people had tucked themselves in along the north shore.
Somewhere about this time Milly acquired two lively young friends, Sally and Vivie Norton, daughters of a railroad man who had recently been moved to Chicago from the East. Sally Norton was small and blonde and gay. She laughed overmuch. Vivie was tall and sentimental,—a brunette. They came once to the West Laurence Avenue house for Sunday supper. Horatio did not like the sisters; he called them in his simple way "Giggle" and "Simper." The Nortons lived not far from the Lake on East Acacia Street, and that became for Milly the symbol of the all-desirable. She spoke firmly of the advantages of East Acacia Street as a residence—she had even picked out the house, the last but one in the same row of stone-front boxes where the Nortons lived.
It made Horatio restless. Like a good father he wished to indulge his only child in every way—to do his best for her. But with his salary of three thousand dollars he could barely give Milly the generous allowance she needed and always spent in advance. Rise at Hoppers' was slow, although sure, and the only way for him to enlarge Milly's horizon was by going into business for himself. He began to talk of schemes, said he was tired of "working for others all his life." Milly's ambitions were contagious.
After one of the family conflicts, Grandma invaded Milly's bedroom, which was quite irritating to the young woman.
"Mildred," she began ominously. "Do you realize what you are doing to your father?"
"The rent is only thirty dollars a month more, grandma," Milly replied, reverting to the last topic under discussion. "Papa can take it out of my allowance." (Milly was magnificently optimistic about the expansiveness of her allowance.) "Anyhow, I don't see why I can't live near my friends and have a decent—"
The old lady's lips tightened.
"In my days young girls did not pretend to decide where their parents should live."
"These aren't your days, grandma, thank heaven!... If a girl is going to get anything out of life—"
"You've had a great deal—"
"Thanks to the friends I've made for myself."
"It might be better if you cared less to go with folks above you—"
"Above me!" the exasperated girl flashed. "Who's above me? Nelly Kemp? Sally Norton?—Above me!"
That was the flaming note of Milly's intense Americanism. As a social, human being she recognized no superiors. There were richer, cleverer, better educated women, no doubt, but in this year of salvation and hope, 1890, there were none "above her." Never!...
Mrs. Ridge discreetly shifted the point of attack.
"It might be disastrous for your father if you were to break up his home."
"You talk so tragically, grandma! Who's thinking of breaking up homes? Just moving a couple of miles across the city to another house in another street. What difference does it make to a man what old house he comes home to after his work is done?"
"You forget his church relations, Milly."
"You seem to think there are no churches on the North Side."
"But he's made his place here—and Dr. Barlow has a good influence upon him."
Milly knew quite well the significance of these words. There had been a time when Horatio did not come home every night sober, and did not go to church on Sundays. When the little old lady wished to check the soaring ambition of her granddaughter, she had but to refer to this dark period in the Ridge history. Milly did not like to think of those dreary days, and was inclined to put the responsibility for them upon her dead mother. "If she'd only known how to manage him—" For with all men Milly thought it was simply a question of management.
"Well," she announced at last. "I'm tired and want to go to bed. Come, Cheriki, darling!" Cheriki was a fuzzy toy spaniel, the gift of an admirer. Milly poked the animal from her bed, and the old lady, who loathed dogs, scuttled out of the room. She had been routed again. Knowing Milly's obstinate nature, she felt that she must battle daily for the right.
But Milly did not return to the attack for some time. She stayed at home for several evenings and was very sweet with her father. She ostentatiously refused some alluring invitations and was quite cheerful about it. "She must give up these parties—she could not always be accepting the Nortons' hospitality, etc." But Milly was not a nagger, at least not with men. Hers was a pleasant, cheerful nature, and she bathed the West Laurence Avenue house in several beams of sunshine.
"She's a good girl, mother," Horatio said proudly. "And she's all we've got. It would be a pity not to give her what she wants."
A complete expression of the submissive attitude of the new parent!
"It may not be good for her," Grandma Ridge objected, after her generation.
"Well, if she only marries right."
More and more it was in their minds that Milly was destined to make "a great match." Purely as a business matter that must be taken into account. So Horatio thought harder about getting into business for himself, and his little corner of the world revolved more and more about the desires of a woman.
* * * * *
Fortunately for the peace of the Ridge household, the Kemps invited Milly to go to New York with them in the spring. They were still furnishing the new house and had in mind some pictures. Mr. Kemp had rather "gone in for art" of late, and the banking business had been good.... To Milly, who had never been on a sleeping-car in her life (the Ridge migrations hitherto having been accomplished in day coaches because of economy and because Grandma Ridge dreaded night travel), it was a thrilling prospect. Her feeling for Eleanor Kemp had been dimmed somewhat by the acquisition of newer and gayer friends, but it revived into a brilliant glow.
"You dear thing!... You're sure I won't be in the way?... It will be too heavenly for words!"
To her husband Mrs. Kemp reported Milly's ecstasy laughingly, saying,—
"If any one can enjoy things as much as Milly Ridge, she ought to have them," to which the practical banker observed,—"She'll get them when she picks the man."
So they made the wonderful journey and put up at the pleasant old Windsor on the avenue, for the era of vast caravansaries had not yet begun. Fifth Avenue in ninety was not the cosmopolitan thoroughfare it is to-day. Nevertheless, to Milly's inexperienced eyes, accustomed to the gloom of smoke, the ill-paved, dirty streets of mid-western cities, New York was even noble in its splendor. They went to the Metropolitan Museum, to the private galleries of the dealers, to Tiffany's, where the banker bought a trinket for his wife's young friend, and the women went to dressmakers who intimidated Milly with their airs and their prices.
Of course they went to Daly's and to hear "Aida," and supped afterwards at the old Delmonico's. And a hundred other ravishing things were crowded into the breathless fortnight of their visit. When she was once more settled in her berth for the return journey, Milly sighed with regret and envisaged the dreary waste of West Laurence Avenue.
"If we only lived in New York," she thought, and then she was wise enough to reflect that if the Ridges lived in New York, it would not be paradise, but another version of West Laurence Avenue.
"Some day you will go to Paris, my dear," Mrs. Kemp said, "and then New York will seem like the West Side."
"Never, that!" Milly exclaimed, shocked.
The approach to Chicago under all circumstances is bleak and stern. But that early April day it seemed to Milly unduly depressing. The squalid little settlements on the outskirts of the great city were like eruptions in the low, flat landscape. Around the factories and mills the little houses were perched high on stilts to keep their feet out of the mud of the submerged prairie. All the way home Milly had been making virtuous resolutions not to be extravagant and tease her father, to be patient with her grandmother, etc.,—in short, to be content with that state of life unto which God had called her (for the present), as the catechism says. But she felt it to be very hard that Milly Ridge should be condemned to such a state of life as the West Side of Chicago afforded. After the cultivated, mildly luxurious atmosphere of the Kemps, she realized acutely the commonness of her home....
Her father was waiting for her in the train-shed, and she hugged him affectionately and went off on the little man's arm, quite gayly, waving a last farewell to Eleanor Kemp as the latter stepped into her waiting carriage.
"Well, daughter, had a good time?"
"But, papa," Milly interrupted her chatter about her marvellous doings in the East, long enough to ask,—"where are you going?"
Instead of taking the familiar street-car that would plunge them into a noisome tunnel and then rumble on for uncounted miles through the drab West Side, Horatio had turned towards the river, and they were in the wholesale district, where from the grimy stores came fragrant odors of comestibles, mingled in one strong fusion of raw food product. Horatio smiled at the question and hurried at a faster pace, while Milly, raising her skirts, had to scuttle over the "skids" that lay across the sidewalk like traps for the unwary.
"I've an errand down here," he said slyly. "Guess it won't hurt you to take a little walk."
His air was provocative, and Milly followed him breathlessly, her blue eyes wide with wonder. He stopped opposite a low brick building at the end of Market Street, and pointed dramatically across. At first Milly saw nothing to demand attention, then her quick eyes detected the blazon of a new gilt sign above the second-story windows, which read:—
H. RIDGE & CO., IMPORTERS TEAS AND COFFEES
Horatio broke into an excited grin, as Milly grasped his arm.
"Oh, papa—is it you?"
"It's me all right!" And he flung out a leg with a strut of proprietorship. "Opened last week. Want to see the inside?"
"And Hoppers'?" Milly inquired as they crossed the muddy street, dodging the procession of drays.
"Hoppers'—I just chucked it," Horatio swaggered. "Guess I'm old enough to work for myself if I'm ever going to—no money in working for the other feller."
When they had climbed the narrow, dark stairway to the second floor, Horatio flung open the door to the low, unpartitioned room that ran clear to the rear of the building. A man rose from behind the solitary desk near the front window.
"Let me introduce you to the Company," Horatio announced with gravity. "Mr. Snowden, my daughter!"
They laughed, and Milly detected an air of embarrassment as the man came forward. In the clear light of the window his hair and mustache seemed blacker than she remembered; she suspected that they had been dyed. As Milly shook hands with the "Company," she had her first moment of doubt about the enterprise.
"My daughter, Miss Simpson," and Milly was shaking hands with a quiet, homely little woman in spectacles, who might have been twenty-five or fifty, and who gave Milly a keen, suspicious, commercial look. She was evidently all that was left of the "company,"—bookkeeper, stenographer, clerk.
Beside the desk there was a large round table with some unwashed cups and saucers, a coffee boiler, and in the rear sample cases and bundles,—presumably the results of importations. Milly admired everything generously. She was bothered by discovering Snowden as "the company" and considered whether she ought to confide to her father what she knew of the man. "He's no gentleman," she thought. "But that would not be any reason for his being a bad business man," she reflected shrewdly. And in spite of her woman's misgivings of any person who was errant "that way," she decided to be silent. "He may have regretted it,—poor old thing."
Snowden left the place with them. Drawn up in front of the building was a small delivery wagon, with a spindly horse and a boy. Freshly painted on the dull black cover was the legend: "H. Ridge & Co. TEAS AND COFFEES."
"City deliveries," Horatio explained. Snowden smiled wanly. Somehow the spindly horse did not inspire Milly with confidence, nor the small boy. But the outfit might answer very well for "city deliveries." Milly was determined to see nothing but a rosy future for the venture. She listened smilingly to Horatio, who bobbed along by her side, talking all the time.
Evidently things had been moving with the Ridges since her departure. Milly's insistent ambitions had borne fruit. She had roused the quiescent Horatio. Hoppers' mail-order house offered a secure berth for a middle-aged man, who had rattled half over the American continent in search of stability. But, he told himself, the fire was not all out of his veins yet, and Milly supplied the incentive this time "to better himself." After some persuasion he had hired his friend Snowden, who had not yet been invited to become a partner at Hoppers', and who agreed to put ten thousand dollars into the new business, which Horatio was to manage. And Grandma Ridge had been persuaded to invest five thousand dollars, half of what the judge had left her, in her son's new venture. Then a chance of buying out the China American Tea Company had come. Horatio, of course, knew nothing about tea, and less about coffee; his experience had been wholly in drugs. But he argued optimistically that tea and coffee in a way were drugs, and if a man could sell one sort of drugs why not another? He saw himself in his own office, signing the firm's name,—his own name!
"Father!" Milly exclaimed that evening, throwing her arms boisterously about the little man, in the hoydenish manner so much deplored by her grandmother,—"Isn't it great! Your own business—and you'll make lots of money, lots—I'm perfectly sure."
Her ambitions began to flower. There was a delicious sense of venture to the whole thing: it offered that expansible horizon so necessary to the happiness of youth, though it might be hard to see just why Horatio Ridge's entering upon the wholesale tea and coffee business at the mature age of fifty should light the path to a gorgeous future.
Mrs. Ridge was a rather wet blanket, to be sure, but Grandma was a timid old lady who did not like travelling in the dark.
"I hope it will come out right—I hope so," she repeated lugubriously.
For a few fleeting moments Milly recalled the spindly horse and the scrubby boy of the delivery wagon, but for only a few moments. Then her natural buoyancy overcame any doubts.
"I'm sure father will make a great success of the business!" and she gave him another hug. Was he not doing this for her? Horatio, twisting his cigar rapidly between his teeth, strode back and forth in the little room and nodded optimistically. He was a merchant....
* * * * *
One pleasant Sunday in May, father and daughter took the street-car to the city and strolled north towards the river past "the store." Horatio glanced proudly at the sign, which was already properly tarnished by the smoke. Milly turned to gaze at a smart new brougham that was climbing the ascent to the bridge. There were two men on the box.
"That's the Danners' carriage," she said knowingly to her father, "and Mrs. George Danner."
There were few carriages with two men on the box in the city those days, and they were well worth a young woman's attention. The Danners had come to Chicago hardly a generation before, "as poor as poverty," as Milly knew. Now their mammoth dry goods establishment occupied almost a city block, and young Mrs. Danner had two men on the box—all out of dry goods. Why should not coffee and tea produce the same results? Father and daughter crossed the bridge, musingly, arm in arm.
From the grimy fringe of commerce about the river they penetrated the residence quarter beside the Lake. Milly made her father observe the freshness of the air coming from the water, and how clean and quiet the streets were. Indeed this quarter of the noisy new city had something of the settled air of older communities "back east" that Horatio remembered happily. Milly led him easily around the corner of Acacia Street to the block where the Nortons lived.
"Aren't they homey looking, father? And just right for us.... Now that one at the end of the block—it's empty.... You can see the lake from the front windows. Just think, to be able to see something!"
They went up the steps of the vacant house, and to be sure a little slice of blue water closed the vista at the end of the street. Horatio swung his cane hopefully. The pleasant day, the sense of "being his own man" exhilarated him: he dealt lightly with the "future."
"It's a tony neighborhood, all right," he agreed. "What did you say these houses rent for?"
"Eighty dollars a month—that's what the Nortons pay."
"Eighty a month—that's not bad, considering what you get!" Horatio observed largely.
It was a bargain, of course, as father and daughter tried to convince Mrs. Ridge. But the old lady, accustomed to Euston, Pa., rents, thought that the forty dollars a month they had to pay for the West Laurence box was regal, and when it was a question of subletting it at a sacrifice and taking another for twice the sum she quaked—visibly.
"Don't you think, Horatio, you'd better wait and see how the new business goes?"
But the voice of prudence was not to the taste of the younger generations.
"It'll be so near the store," Milly suggested. "Papa can come home for his lunch."
"You've got to live up to your prospects, mother," Horatio pronounced robustly.
The old lady saw that she was beaten and said no more. With compressed lips she contemplated the future. Father and daughter had no doubts: they both possessed the gambling American spirit that reckons the harvest ere the seed is put in the ground.
That evening after Milly had departed Horatio explained himself further,—
"You see, mother, we must start Milly the best we can. She's made a lot of real good friends for herself, and she'll marry one of these days. It's our duty to give her every chance."
It never occurred to Horatio that a healthy young woman of twenty with no prospect of inheritance might find something better worth doing in life than amusing herself while waiting for a husband. Such strenuous ideas were not in the air then.