E-text prepared by Al Haines
PEOPLE LIKE THAT
KATE LANGLEY BOSHER
Author of "Mary Cary" etc.
KATE LANGLEY BOSHER
PEOPLE LIKE THAT. Illustrated. Post 8vo HOW IT HAPPENED. Frontispiece. Post 8vo THE HOUSE OF HAPPINESS. Frontispiece. Post 8vo MARY CARY. Frontispiece. Post 8vo MISS GIBBIE GAULT. Frontispiece. Post 8vo THE MAN IN LONELY LAND. Frontispiece. Post 8vo
LUCY BOSHER JANNEY
One of the advantages of being an unrequired person of twenty-six, with an income sufficient for necessities, is the right of choice as to a home locality. I am that sort of person, and, having exercised said right, I am now living in Scarborough Square.
To my friends and relatives it is amazing, inexplicable, and beyond understanding that I should wish to live here. I do not try to make them understand; and therein lies grievance against me. Because of my failure to explain what they are pleased to call a peculiar decision on my part, I am at present the subject of heated criticism. It will soon stop. What a person does or doesn't do is of little importance to more than three or four people. By Christmas my foolishness will have ceased to cause comment, ceased to interest those to whom it doesn't matter really where or how I live.
I like living in Scarborough Square very much. After many years spent in the homes of others I am now the head of half a house, the whole of which is mine; and even though it is situated on the last square of respectability in a part of the town long forgotten by the descendants of its former residents, I am filled with a sense of proprietorship that is warm and comforting, and already I have learned to love it—this nice, old-fashioned house in which I live.
Until very recently Scarborough Square was only a name. There had been no reason to visit it, and had I ventured to it I would have seen little save a tiny park bounded on four sides by houses of shabby gentility, for the most part detached, and of a style of architecture long since surrendered to more undesirable designs. The park is but an open space whose straggly trees and stunted shrubs and dusty grass add dejection to the atmosphere of shrinking respectability which the neighborhood still makes effort to maintain; but that, too, I have learned to love, for I see in it that which I never noticed in the large and handsome parks up-town.
As a place of residence this section of the city I am just beginning to know has become very interesting to me. No one of importance lives near it, and the occupants of its houses, realizing their social submergence and pecuniary impotence, have too long existed in the protection of obscurity to venture into the publicity which civic attention necessitates, and on first acquaintance it is not attractive. I agree with my friends in that. I did not come here because I thought it was an attractive place in which to live.
They cannot say, however, even my most protesting friends, that I am not living in a perfectly proper neighborhood. The front of my house faces, beyond the discouraged little park, a strata of streets which unfold from lessening degrees of dreariness and dinginess to ever-increasing expensiveness and unashamed architectural extravaganzas, to the summit of residential striving, called, for impressiveness, the Avenue, but behind it is a section of the city of which I am as ignorant as if it were in the depths of the sea or the wilds of primeval forest. I have traveled much, but I do not know the city wherein I live. I know but a part of it, the pretty part.
There was something Mrs. Mundy wanted to say to me to-night, and did not say. I love the dear soul. I could not live here without her, could not learn what I am learning without her help and sympathy and loyalty, but at times I wish she were a bit less fond of chatting. She is greatly puzzled. She, too, cannot understand why I have come to Scarborough Square to live, and I am quite certain she thinks it strange I do not tell her. How can I tell that of which I am not sure myself—that is, clearly and definitely sure?
I am not trying to be sure. It is enough that I am here, free to come and go as I choose, to plan my day as I wish, to have time for the things I once had no time for, and why must there always be explanations and reasons and justifications for one's acts? The daily realization each morning, on awaking, that the day is mine, that there are no customs with which to comply, no regulations to follow, no conventions to be conformed to, at the end of two weeks still stirs and thrills and awes me a little, and I am constantly afraid it is not true that I am here to stay. And then again with something of fear and shrinking and uncertainty I realize my bridges are burned and I must stay.
"It's pleased you are with your rooms, I hope, Miss Dandridge?" Hands on her hips, Mrs. Mundy had looked somewhat anxiously at me before going out. "If it's a home-looking place you're after, you've got it, but when you first come down to Scarborough Square it made me feel queer inside to think of your living here, really living. If you think you can be satisfied—"
"I am sure I can be satisfied. Why not?" I smiled and, going over to the window, straightened the curtain which had caught and twisted a fern-leaf growing in its box. "I am a perfectly unincumbered human being who—"
"But an unincumbered woman ain't much of a human being." Mrs. Mundy dropped the afternoon paper she had brought up and stooped to get it. "I mean a woman is made for incumbrances, and if she don't have any—" She hesitated, and looked around the room with its simple furnishings, its firelight and lamplight, its many books and few pictures, its rugs and desk and tables, the gifts of other days, and presently she spoke again. "Being you like so to look out the windows, it's well this house has two front rooms opening into each other. If it's comfortable and convenient that you want to be, you're certainly that, but comforts and conveniences don't keep you company exactly."
"I don't want company yet. You and Bettina are all I need. I haven't said I was to live here a thousand years, or that I wouldn't get tired of myself in less time, but until I do—"
There was a ring at the front-door bell and Mrs. Mundy went to answer it. The puzzled look I often saw in her eyes when talking to me still filled them, but she said nothing more except good night, and when I heard her footsteps in the hall below I went to the door and locked it. This new privacy, this sense of freedom from unescapable interruption, was still so precious, that though an unnecessary precaution, I turned the key that I might feel perfectly sure of quiet hours ahead, and at my sigh of satisfaction I laughed.
Going into my bedroom, which adjoined my sitting-room, I hung in the closet the coat I had left on a chair, put away my hat and gloves, and again looked around, as if they were still strange—the white bed and bureau, the wash-rugs, the muslin curtains, the many contrasts to former furnishings—and again I sighed contentedly. They were mine.
The house I am now living in is indeed an old-fashioned one, but well built and of admirable design. The rooms are few—only eight in all—and four of them I have taken for myself—the upper four. The lower floor is occupied by Mrs. Mundy and Bettina, her little granddaughter. When I first saw the house its condition was discouraging. Not for some time had it been occupied, and repairs of all kinds were needed. To get it in order gave me strange joy, and the weeks in which it was being painted and papered and beautified with modern necessities were of an interest only a person, a woman person, can feel who has never had a home of her own before. When everything was finished, the furnishings in place, and I established, I knew, what I no longer made effort to deny to myself—that I was doing a daring thing. I was taking chances in a venture I was still afraid to face.
Kitty came to see me yesterday. Her mortification at my living in Scarborough Square is poignant. Not since she learned of my doing so has her amazement, her incredulity, her indignation and resentment, lessened in the least, but her curiosity is great and her affection sincere, and yesterday she yielded to both.
She was on her wedding journey when I left the house in which for many years we had lived together, and, knowing it would spoil her trip did I tell of what I had done, I did not tell. Two days ago she got back, and over the telephone I gave her my new address.
"But I can't understand—" During most of her visit Kitty was crying. She cries easily and well. "I can't take it in, can't even glimpse why you want to live in such a horrid old place. It's awful!"
"Oh no, it isn't. It's a very nice place. Look how the sun comes through those little panes of glass in those deep windows and chirps all over the floor. I never knew before how much company sunshine could be; how many different things it could do, until I came to Scarborough Square. This is a very interesting place, Kitty."
"It's fearful!" Kitty shuddered. "The sun shines much better on the Avenue, and you might as well be dead as live in this part of the town. When people ask me where you are I'm—"
"Ashamed to tell them?" I laughed. "Don't tell them, if the telling mortifies you. Those who object to visiting me in my new home will soon forget I'm living. Those to whom it does not matter where I live will find where I am without asking you. I wouldn't bother."
"But what must I say when people ask me why you've come down here? why you've made this awful change from living among the best people to living among these—I don't know what they are. Nobody knows."
"They are perfectly good people." I took a pin out of Kitty's hat and tried the latter at a different angle. "The man on the corner is named Crimm. He's a policeman. The girl next door makes cigarettes, and her friend around the corner works at the Nottingham Overall factory. The cigarette-girl has a beau who walks home with her every evening. He's delicate and can't take a job indoors. Just at present he's an assistant to the keeper of Cherry Hill Park."
Kitty stared at me as if not sure she heard aright. The tears in her big blue eyes disappeared and into them came incredulity. "Do you know them—the cigarette-girl, and the overall-girl, and the policeman?" Her voice was thin with dismay and unbelief. "Do you really know people like that?"
"I do." I laughed in the puzzled and protesting face, kissed it. "To every sort of people other people not of their sort are 'people like that.' Our customs and characteristics and habits of thought and manner of life separate us into our particular groups, but in many ways all people are dreadfully alike, Kitty. To the little cigarette-girl you're a 'person like that.' Did you ever wonder what she thought of you?"
"Why should I wonder? It doesn't matter what she thinks. I don't know her, never will know her. I can't understand why you want to know her, to know people who—"
"I want to know all sorts of people." Again I tilted Kitty's hat, held her off so as to get a better effect. "You see, I've wondered sometimes what they thought of us—these people who haven't had our chance. Points of view always interest me."
"What difference does it make what they think? You're the queerest person I've ever known! You aren't very religious. You never did go to church as much as I did. Are you going in for slums?"
"I am not. I wouldn't be a success at slumming. I'm not going in for anything except—"
"My dear Kitty," I picked up the handkerchief she had dropped and put it on the table, "I wouldn't try to understand, if I were you, why people do things. Usually it's because they have to, or because they want to, and occasionally there are other reasons. I used to wonder, for instance, why certain people married each other. Often now, as I watch husbands and wives together, I still wonder if, unmarried, they would select each other again. I suppose you went to the Bertrands' dinner-dance last night?"
"I went, but I wish I hadn't. Billy didn't want to go, and we came away as soon as we could. Everybody asked about you. I haven't seen any one yet who doesn't think it very strange that you won't live with me. That beautiful little Marie Antoinette suite on the third floor is all fixed for you, and you could use the automobiles as much as you choose. It's wicked and cruel in you to do like this and not live with me. It looks so—"
"Peculiar." I nodded in the eyes as blue as a baby's. "But a person who isn't peculiar isn't much of a person. You see, I don't care for things which are already fixed for me. I like to do my own fixing. And I don't want to live in anybody else's home, not even yours, though you are dear to want me. I am grateful, but I prefer to live here. My present income would make an undignified affair of life among the friends of other days. I'd feel continually as if I were overboard and holding on to a slippery plank. Down here I'm independent. I have enough for my needs and something to give—. That's a good-looking hat you have on. Did you get it in Paris?"
Kitty shook her head. "New York." Otherwise she ignored my question. Hats usually interested her. She talked well concerning them, but to-day she would not be diverted from more insistent subjects.
"It must have cost a good deal to fix up this old house. Anywhere else it would look very well." Her eyes were missing no detail. "You'd make a pig-sty pretty, but it takes money—"
"Everything takes money. I sold two or three pieces of Aunt Matilda's jewelry for enough to put the house in order. She expected me to sell what I did not wish to keep. In her will was a note to that effect."
"She had more jewelry than any human being I ever saw." Into Kitty's face came dawning understanding. "It was the only way she could leave you any of—"
"Your father's money," I nodded. "Not until after her death did I understand why she used to take all of your father's gifts in jewelry. I know now."
"It was a good investment. I wish she'd bought twice as much. She had so little else to leave you," Kitty was looking at me speculatively. "How on earth are you going to live on a thousand dollars a year? Our servants cost us twice that. Billy says it's awful, but—"
"It is if you can't afford it. You can. I believe all people ought to spend every dollar they can afford, and not a cent they can't. That's what I do. Aunt Matilda thought I was impractical, but I'm fearfully prudent. I live within my income and I've deposited with a trust company, so I can't spend it, a sum of money quite large enough to care for me through a spell of illness in the greediest of hospitals, if I should be ill. And if I should die I'm prepared for all expenses. It's a mistake to think I don't look ahead. I thought once of having a stone put up in the cemetery so as to be sure I had not forgotten anything, but I guess that can wait."
Kitty, still staring at me, got up. "I never expect to understand you. Neither does father. He's mortified to death about your coming down here to live. He knows people are talking; so do I; and we don't know what to say."
"Oh, people always talk! And don't say anything. No one escapes criticism. It's human pastime to indulge in it. To prefer Scarborough Square to the Avenue may be queer, but at present I do prefer it. That's why I'm here. You can say that if you choose."
"You've got no business preferring it." Kitty snapped the buttons of her glove with tearful emphasis. "Mrs. Jamieson said last night that a person with eyes and eyelashes like yours had no right to live as you are living, with just an old woman to do things for you. She came down to see why you were here, but you wouldn't tell her. She can't understand any more than I can."
I kissed Kitty good-by, but I did not try to make her understand. I no longer try to make people understand things. Many of them can't. Kitty is a dear child, adorably blue-eyed and pink-cheeked, and possessed of an amount of worldly wisdom that is always amazing and at times distressing, but much that interests me has, so far, never interested her. Refusing to study, she has little education, but she has traveled a good deal, speaks excellent French, dances perfectly, dresses admirably, and has charming manners when she wishes. I love her very much, but I no longer feel it is my duty to live with her.
I am not living in Scarborough Square because I feel it is my duty to live here. Thank Heaven, I don't have to tell any one why I am here!
Kitty's mother had been dead only a year when Aunt Matilda, who had adopted me several years earlier on the death of my parents, married her father. I was twelve and Kitty eight when the marriage took place, and with canny care I tried to shield her from the severity of Aunt Matilda's system in rearing a child. I had been reared by it.
I owe much to Aunt Matilda. She sent me to good schools, to a good college; took me with her on most of her trips abroad, and at twenty presented me to society, but she never knew me, never in the least understood the hunger in my heart for what it was not in her power to give. I never told her there was hunger in my heart. I rarely told her of anything she could not see for herself.
In childhood I had learned the fixedness of her ideas, the rigidity of her type of mind, the relentlessness of her will; and that independence on my part survived was due to sturdy stubbornness, to a refusal to be dominated, and an incapacity for subjection. But this, too, she failed to understand.
That I would not marry as she wished was a grievous blow to her. I had no desire to marry, and it was when refusing to do so that certain realizations came to me sharply, and all the more acutely, because I had so long been seemingly indifferent to them. On the morning following the night in which I had faced frankly undeniable facts I went to Aunt Matilda's room and told her I could no longer be dependent, told her of my purpose to earn my own living. I was strong, healthy, well educated. There was no reason why I should not do what other women were doing.
As I talked her amazement and indignation deepened into anger, and had I been a child I "would undoubtedly have been punished for my impertinence and audacity in daring to desire to go out into the world to earn what there was no necessity for my earning. Socially, a woman could be autocratic, I was told, but in all things else she should be dependent on the stronger sex.
"But there is no stronger-sex person for me to be dependent upon, even were I willing to depend," I said, and made effort to keep back what I must not say to her, but surely would have said to others. For years I had been the recipient of her bounty, the object of her care, and she still thought of me as something to be protected. That I should prefer to work, prefer to take my place in the world of women-workers, was beyond her grasp.
"Mr. Chesmond understood when I married him—it is part of our marriage contract—that you were to have the same advantages as his daughter. He has very willingly given you these. If you no longer care to accept his protection, you can marry. Opportunities such as come to few girls have come to you. A home of your own is yours for the taking. In my day—"
"But this is not your day!" I bit my lip. When Aunt Matilda's face got a certain shade of red and her breath became short and quick, I was uneasy. The doctor had warned us of the seriousness of her condition. She was pitifully afraid of death—it was the only thing she was afraid of—and death might come at any time. To prevent excitement there must be with her no discussion, and, as far as possible, no opposition to her will.
"Your day and mine are very far apart." I made effort to speak quietly. "Women no longer have to be adjuncts to men because they don't know how to be anything else. They can stand up now by themselves. Conditions have forced them to face life much more—"
"Face fiddlesticks!" Aunt Matilda's hands made an impatient gesture. "Women have no business doing what many of them are doing today. They are forgetting the place to which they were appointed by their Creator. But even if you were at liberty to carry out your silly ideas, what could you do? How could you earn your living? You play well, paint a little, read books that do you no good, and hardly enough of the new novels to discuss them. All this sociological stuff, those scientific things I see in your room, are absurd for a woman to bother with. Men dislike women who think too much and know too much. You are well educated and clever enough, but what could you do if you were suddenly left without means of support?"
"I don't know what I could do. It's what I want to find out. Half of my life has been spent in school and college, and during these years I was taught little that would be of practical service in case of need. I'd like to use part of my time trying to make educators understand they don't educate. For cultural purposes, for acquiring knowledge of facts, their system may be admirable, but for the pursuit of a happy livelihood—"
I stopped. Aunt Matilda was looking at me as if I were suffering from an attack of some kind. Marriage to her was the divinely arranged destiny for a woman, and she had neither patience nor sympathy with my refusal to accept the opportunity that was mine to fulfil the destiny of my sex and at the same time become the wife of the man she had long wished me to marry. The power of money was dear to her. She understood it well, and my failure to appreciate it properly was peculiarly exasperating to her. Discussion was useless. It never got farther than where it started. If I said that which I wanted much to say, it would merely mean hearing again what I did not want to hear. Concerning the pursuit of a happy livelihood we were not apt to agree.
For a half-minute longer I hesitated. Should I make the issue now or wait until there had been time for her to realize I meant what I said? Before I could speak she did that which I had never seen her do before. She burst into tears.
"You must never mention such a thing as this again." Her words came stumblingly and her usually firm and strong hands trembled badly. "With my health in its present condition I couldn't get on without you. You are all I have to really love, and I need you. Don't you see what you have done? You have made me ill. Ill!"
She was strangely upset and in her eyes was a confused and frightened look that was new to them, and quickly I went toward her, but she motioned me away.
"Give me my medicine, and don't ever speak of such a thing again—such a thing as you have just spoken of! You have always been beyond my comprehension."
She swallowed the medicine I brought her in nervous gulps, the tears running down her face as they might have done down a child's, but she would not let me do anything for her, insisting only that she wanted to be quiet. Seeing it was best to leave her, I went to my room and locked the door, and for hours I fought the hardest fight of my life.
The one weapon she knew she could use effectively, she had used. If she needed me I could not leave her, but her complete self-reliance made it difficult to feel that any one was necessary to her. I was indignant at the way she had treated me. I was not a child to be disposed of, and yet of my future she was disposing as though it were a thing that could be tied to a string, and untied at will. Were she well and strong, I would take matters in my own hands and make the break. Surely I could do something! I had no earning capacity, but other women had made their way, and I could make mine. If she were perfectly well—
But she was not well. Through those first hours, and through most of the hours of the night that followed, the knowledge of the insidious disease that was hers was the high, hard wall against which I struck at every turn of thought, at every possibility at which I grasped, and in the dawn of a new day I knew I must not go away.
It was not easy to surrender. Always my two selves are fighting and I wanted much to know more of life than I could know in the costly shelter, controlled by custom and convention, wherein I lived. I had long been looking through stained glass. I was restless to get out and see clearly, to know all sorts of people, all conditions of life, and the chance had seemed within my grasp—and now it must be given up.
There are times when I am heedless of results, when I am daring and audacious and count no cost, but that is only where I alone am concerned. When it comes to making decisions which affect others I am a coward. I lack the courage to have my own way at the expense of some one else; and though through the night I protested stormily, if inwardly, that I was not meant for gilded cages, but for contact, for encounter, I knew I should yield in the end.
The next day I told her I would not go away. She said nothing save she hardly thought I had entirely lost my senses, but the thing I am gladdest to remember since her death is the look that came into her eyes when I told her. For two years longer I lived with her, years for her of practical invalidism, and for me of opportunity to do for her what she had never permitted me to do before. Two weeks after Kitty's marriage she died suddenly, and at times I still shiver with the cold clamminess that came over me as I stood by her in her last sleep and realized my aloneness in the world. My parents had died in my early childhood. I had no brothers or sisters, no near relatives, save an uncle who lived abroad and some cousins here in town. Mr. Chesmond was very kind, but I could not continue to accept what he had willingly given his wife's adopted child, and Kitty no longer needed me. It is a fearful feeling, this sense of belonging to no one, of having no one belonging to you. Lest it overwhelm me, I went at once to work upon the house in Scarborough Square left me by Aunt Matilda, together with an annuity of a thousand dollars. Already it means much to me. For a while, at least, it is a haven, a shelter, a home. What it may prove—
I have been thinking much to-day of Aunt Matilda. Perhaps it is because Selwyn was here last night. She was afraid I would marry him.
I did not tell Selwyn I was coming to Scarborough Square to live. I told no one. The day after I reached here I sent him a note, giving him my new address.
His answer was short and stiff. He was leaving town on a business trip and would see me on his return, he wrote, and as I read what was not written between what was I was glad he was going away. It would give him time to cool off. I am beyond Selwyn's comprehension. We should not be friends, we are so apart in many matters. But compatible people must find life dull. Selwyn and I are never dull.
When he first called I was out, and last night he called again. As Mrs. Mundy, with his coat and hat, closed the door behind her, he held out his hand.
"Well?" He looked at me, but in his eyes was no smiling.
"Well?" I shook hands and smiled.
For a half-moment we said nothing, and frowningly he turned away. Always he radiated the security that comes of fixed position, a past without challenge, a future provided for; but tonight I was conscious only of the quiet excellence of his clothes, his physical well-being, the unescapableness of his eyes, and the cut of his chin. He is a most determined person. So am I—which perhaps accounts for our rather stormy friendship.
"Don't you think I have a very nice home?" I took my seat in a corner of the big chintz-covered sofa in front of the fire and close to the long table with its lighted lamp and books and magazines, and motioned him to sit down. "I'm entirely fixed. I hope you like this room. I love it. I've never had one of my very own before."
"It's very pretty."
Selwyn took his seat without looking around. He did not know whether it was pretty or not. He was not at all interested in the room.
For a moment he looked at me with eyes narrowed and his forehead ridged in tiny, perpendicular folds. Presently he leaned forward, his hands between his knees and fingers interlocked.
"How long do you propose to stay down here?" he asked.
"I really do not know. I thought you were going to congratulate me upon living the life I want to live."
"I do. Until you get this thing out of your system—"
"What thing?" I, too, leaned forward. The tone of his voice made something in me flare. "What thing?" I repeated.
Selwyn's shoulders shrugged slightly. He sat up, then leaned back, his hands in his pockets. "Why discuss it? You've long wanted to do something of this sort. Until it was done you would never be content. What you want to do, I doubt if you know yourself. Are you slumming? Uplifting?"
"I am not. I'm neither a slummer nor an uplifter. A slummer helps. I'm just looking on." I threw the cushion behind me to the other end of the sofa. "I thought it might be interesting to see for myself some of the causes which produce conditions. I've read a good deal, but one doesn't exactly sense things by reading. I want to see."
"And after you see?" Selwyn made an impatient movement with his hand. "A thousand years from now humanity may get results from scientific management in social organization, but most of your present-day methods are about as practical as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon or to pick a posy out of swamp grass."
"What do you know of present-day methods?"
"Very little. Beating the air doesn't interest me. Most people seem to forget the processes of nature; seem to imagine that certain things can be brought to pass quickly which can only be accomplished slowly. From the first struggle of the human race to stand upright, to articulate, to find food, to strike fire, to paddle in water, to wear covering, to forage, explore— What is the matter?"
"Nothing." I leaned back in the corner of the sofa, my hands, palms upward, in my lap, my eyes on them that he might not see their smiling. "I was just wondering what that had to do with certain present-day conditions, certain injustices and inequalities, certain—"
"It explains them to some extent. From the earliest days of dawning thought, from the first efforts at self-expression, humanity has grouped itself not only into families, tribes, communities, nations, or what you will, but in each of these divisions there have ever been subdivisions. Ignorance and knowledge, strength and weakness, power and incapacity, find their level, rise or fall according to their proper place. If you have any little dreams of making all human beings after one pattern—"
"I haven't. It would be as uninteresting as impossible. But it is queer—"
"What is queer?" Selwyn stooped forward and broke a lump of coal from which sprang blazing reds and curling blues of flame. "Why did you stop?"
"I was thinking it was queer you should know so much of the history of the human race and so little of its life to-day. As a shrugger you stand off."
"For the love of Heaven don't let's get on that!"
With swift movement he took a cigar from one pocket, a match-case from another. "May I smoke?" he asked, irritably, and as I nodded he struck a match and held it to the cigar in his mouth, then threw it in the fire. Presently he looked at me.
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming here—for a while?"
"It would have meant more argument. You would not have approved."
"I most assuredly would not. But that would have made no difference. My disapproval would not have prevented."
"No. I should have come, of course. But I was tired, and useless discussion does no good. We would have said again the same old things we've said so often, and I didn't want to say them or hear them. One of the reasons why I came down here was to talk with people who weren't born with made-up minds, and who don't have high walls around their homes."
"There are times when I would like to put them around you! If you were mine I'd do it."
"No, you wouldn't. You know perfectly well what I would do with walls. That is the kind you think should be around a woman. But we won't get on that, either. Were you ever in Scarborough Square before?"
Selwyn nodded and looked, not at me, but at the spirals of smoke from his cigar. "My grandfather used to live on the opposite side of the Square, and as a kid I was brought occasionally to see him. I barely remember him. He died thirty years ago."
"It's difficult to imagine this was once the fashionable part of the city, and that gorgeous parties and balls—" I sat upright and laughed. "I went to a party last night. It was a wonderful party."
"You did what?"
Selwyn's cigar was held suspended on its way to his lips. "Whose party? Where was it?"
"Two doors from here. The girl who gave it, or rather, to whom it was given, is named Bryce—Evelyn Bryce. She is a friend of Mrs. Mundy's and is a printer. I never knew a girl printer until I came down here."
Selwyn's look of amazed disapprobation had its usual effect. I hadn't intended to mention the party, and instantly I went into its details.
"All kinds of people were at it and every woman had on a dress which entirely covered her. When I was a child I adored a person named Wyman, who used to give performances in which all sorts of unexpected things happened. Last night was a sort of Wyman night."
"I did not know you were going to parties." Selwyn's tone was curt.
"I am not—to your sort." My face flushed. "I said this girl was a printer. I should have said she used to be. Two years ago she was caught in some machinery at the place where she worked and has never been able to stand up since. On her birthday her friends give her a party that she may have a bit of brightness. I went over to play that they might dance. She is fond of music and an old piano has recently been given her by—by some one interested in her."
For a moment there was silence, then throwing his cigar in the fire, Selwyn got up and stood looking down at me. In his eyes was strange worry and unrest.
"I beg your pardon." He bit his lips. "I've been pretty ragged of late and I'm always thoughtless. For two weeks I've seen no one—that is, no friend of yours or mine who hasn't asked me why you have done so inexplicable a thing as to leave everybody you know and go into a part of the town where you know nobody and where—"
"It's because I want to know all sorts of people." Something in Selwyn's face stopped me, and, getting up from the sofa, I went over to the window and raised it slightly. My heart was pounding. I could laugh away the questions of others and ignore their comments, but with Selwyn this would be impossible. An overwhelming sense of distance and separation came over me demoralizingly as I pretended to rearrange the curtain, and for a moment words would not come.
I knew, of course, that Selwyn had neither patience nor sympathy with my desire to know more of life than I could learn in the particular world into which I had been born, but the keener realization to-night made between us a wide and separating gulf, and I felt suddenly alone and uncertain, and dispirited and afraid.
In our love of books, of digging deep into certain subjects, of historic questing and speculative discussions we are closely sympathetic, but in many viewpoints we are as apart as the poles. Perhaps we will always be.
Selwyn by heritage and training and natural inclination is conventional and conservative. I am not. To walk in beaten tracks is not easy for me. I want to explore for myself. He thinks a woman has no business in by-paths. Our opposing beliefs do not make for placid friendship.
It is Selwyn's indifference to life, to its problems and struggles and many-sidedness, that makes me at times impatient with him beyond restraint. In his profession he is successful. His ambition makes him work, but a weariness of things, of the unworthwhileness of human effort, the futility of striving, the emptiness of achievement, possesses him frequently, and in his dark days he pays the penalty of his points of view. If only he could see, could understand—.
I turned from the window and again sat down in my corner of the sofa and motioned him to take his seat.
"Don't let's argue to-night. I'm pretty tired and argument would do no good. We'd just say things we shouldn't. You said just now you doubted if you knew why I was here. I may not be sure of all my reasons, but one of them is, I wanted to get away from—there." My hand made motion in a vague direction intended for my former neighborhood.
"Do you find this section of the city a satisfactory change?" Selwyn's tone was ironic. He looked for a moment into the eyes I raised to his, then turned away and, hands in his pockets, began to walk up and down the room. When he spoke again his voice had changed.
"Don't mind anything I say to-night. I shouldn't have come. I'm a bit raw yet that you should have done this without telling me. You have a right to do as you choose, of course, only—. Besides getting away from your old life—were there other reasons?"
"Not very definite ones." Into my face came surge of color, and, turning, I cut off the light in the lamp behind me. "When one is in a parade one can't see what it looks like, very often doesn't understand where it is going. I want to see the one I was in, see from the sidewalk the kind of human beings who are in it, and what they are doing with their time and energies and opportunities and knowledge and preparedness and—oh, with all the things that make their position in life a more responsible one than—than the people's down here."
"Was it necessary to come to Scarborough Square to watch—your parade? One can stand off anywhere."
"But I don't want just to stand off. I want to see with the eyes of the people who look at us, the people who don't approve of us, though they envy us. We're so certain they're a hard lot to deal with, to do for, to make anything of—these people we don't know save from charity contact, perhaps,—that I've sometimes wondered if they ever despair of us, think we, too, are pretty hopeless and hard to—to wake up."
"And you imagine the opinions and conclusions of uneducated, untrained, unthinking people will give you light concerning the valuation of your class? It matters little what they think. They don't think!"
"Do you know many of these people of whose mental machinery you are so sure?" I smiled in the eyes which would not smile into mine. "Know them personally, I mean?"
"I do not." Selwyn's tone was irritable. "My business dealings with them have not inspired desire for a closer acquaintance. To get as much money as possible from the men who employ them and give in return as little work as they can, is the creed of most of them. You can do nothing with people like that. I know them better than you will ever know them."
"As a corporation attorney, yes. As a division of the human race, as working people, you know them. As beings much more like yourself than you imagine, you don't."
Selwyn again stopped. "You'd hardly expect me to find them congenial—the beings you refer to."
"I would not." I laughed. "They are generations removed from you in education and culture, in many of the things essential to you, but some of them see more clearly than you. Both need to understand you owe each other something. And how are you going to find out what it is, see from each other's point of view, unless you know each other better? Unless—"
"For the love of Heaven, get rid of such nonsense! That particular kind of sentiment has gone to seed. Every sane man recognizes certain obligations to his fellow-man, every normal one tries to pay them, but all this rot about bringing better relations to pass between masters and men through familiarity, through putting people in places they are not fitted to fill, is idle dreaming based on ignorance of human nature. To give a man what he doesn't earn is to do him an injury. Most men win the rewards they are entitled to. You're a visionist. You always have been—"
"And am always going to be! Life would hardly be endurable were it not for dreaming, hoping, believing. I could stand any loss better than that of my faith in humankind." I sat upright, my hands locked in my lap. "I'm not here to do things for the people you have so little patience with. I told you I wanted to see what sort of people we are. You're perfectly certain those who live in Scarborough Squares don't make a success of life. Do you think we do?"
Again Selwyn stopped, stared at me, but before he could answer a queer, curdling, smothered sound reached us faintly from the street below. A cry low, yet clear and anguished, followed. Then a fall and hurrying footsteps, and then silence. Selwyn sprang to the window and opened it.
"My God!" he said. His face was white. "What was that?"
I was out of the door before Selwyn had left the window. Quickly he followed me, however, and on the front porch, where Mrs. Mundy was already standing, we stood for a half-moment, looking up and down the street.
The small arc of light made by the corner gaslamp lessened but little the darkness of the seemingly deserted street, and for a while we could distinguish nothing save the shadows cast by the gaunt trees of the Square. Then I saw Selwyn start.
"Go inside." He was his steady self again. "It is too cold out here. I think some one has been hurt. Go in."
I ran in Mrs. Mundy's room and to her wardrobe. Getting a coat and an old cape, I threw the latter over my shoulders, and, coming back to the porch, went down its steps and across the street to where Mrs. Mundy and Selwyn were bending over a young woman who stirred as they came up.
"Put this on." I threw the coat to Mrs. Mundy. "Who is it?"
"I don't know." Mrs. Mundy knelt on the ground. "Are you hurt?" she asked. "There—that's better." With skilful movement she helped the girl, who seemed dazed, to steady herself. As the latter sat up she put her hand to her face and brushed back her hair.
"Where am I? Has he gone?" Her face was dropped in her hands. "If he just would kill me and end it—end it!"
"Who hurt you?" Selwyn's voice was the quiet one that was ever his when something was to be done, and, leaning over her, he took the girl by the arm and lifted her to her feet. "Can you tell what has happened?" He looked at Mrs. Mundy. "It's too cold out here for her to stand—she's pretty faint still."
"Bring her over to me." Mrs. Mundy put her coat around the shivering girl, and, slipping her hand through one arm, motioned Selwyn to take hold of the other. "Run ahead," she nodded to me, "and fix up a dose of that aromatic spirits of ammonia what's on the second shelf of the closet in my bedroom. And pull the couch up to the fire."
Dazedly, and dragging her feet as if they were powerless to move, the girl entered the warm and cheerful room, but at her entrance understanding seemed to give her strength. With a shuddering, shivering, indrawing breath she drew back and leaned against the door-frame.
"I must go. I—I can't come in there. I'm better now. I must go."
"You can't go." Selwyn's voice was decisive. "You'll be all right presently, but you'll have to—to rest, first." Firmly she was led to the couch and pushed upon it. Taking the medicine from my hands, he held it to her lips. "Take this."
Hesitating, partly defiant, partly afraid, the girl raised her eyes to his. Then, with hand that shook badly, she took the glass and drank part of its contents, the rest was spilled in her lap.
"If it were prussic acid I'd be glad to drink it." The voice was bitter, and again the eyes, pale yet burning, were raised to his, and in them was what seemed frightened but guarded recognition. Quickly she dropped them and glanced around the room, as though looking for escape, and again her hands made convulsive pressure, again she started to get up.
"I must go. I tell you, I must. I—I can't stay here."
"Very well." Mrs. Mundy looked toward Selwyn and away from me. "When you're steady you can go. Mr. Thorne will telephone for a cab and I will take you—home."
"Oh no!" The girl's face became the pallor that frightens, and on either side of her a hand was dug in the couch on which she was sitting. "I'm all right now. I don't want a cab. I just want to go, and by myself. Please let me go!"
The last words were lost in a sob, and coming close to her I sat beside her, and, putting my hand on her face, turned it slightly that I might better see the big, black bruise on her forehead, partly hidden by the loose, dark curls which fell across it. Her hair was short and thick and parted on the side, giving her a youthful, boyish look that was in odd contrast to the sudden terror in her eyes, and for the first time I saw how slight and frail she was, saw that about her which baffled and puzzled me, and which I could not analyze. She wore no hat, and the red scarf around her neck was the only touch of color in her otherwise dark dress. The lips of her large, sweet, sensuous mouth were as colorless as her face.
"You have been hurt." I put my hand on her trembling ones. "Did some one strike you or did you fall?"
She shook her head and drew her hands away. "I wasn't hurt. I—I slipped and fell and struck my head on the pavement. Don't let anybody telephone. I can go alone. Please—please let me go! I must go! I can't stay here."
"But you mustn't go alone." I turned to Selwyn. "Mr. Thorne will go with you. Do you live far from here?"
"Not very. It's close enough for me to go by myself. He mustn't go with me." The words came stumblingly, and again I saw the quick, frightened look she gave Selwyn, a look in which was indecision and appeal, as well as fear, and I saw, too, that his face flushed as he turned away.
With quick movement the girl got up. From her throat came a sound hysterical and choking, and, putting her hand to it, she looked first at me and then at Mrs. Mundy, but at Selwyn she did not look again. "I'm going. Thank you for letting me come in." Blindly she staggered to the door, her hands outstretched as if to feel what she could not see. At it she turned and in her face was that which keeps me awake at night, which haunts and hurts and seems to be crying to me to do something which I know not how to do.
"You poor child!" I started toward her. "You must not go alone." But before I could reach her she fell in a heap at the door, and as one dead she lay limp and white and piteously pretty on the floor.
I don't understand Mrs. Mundy. She acts so queerly about the girl we found on the street last night. She put her to bed, after she had recovered from her fainting spell, on a cot in the room next to her own, but this morning she told me the girl had gone, and would tell me nothing else.
When Selwyn, who had picked her up and laid her on the couch, asked if he should not get a doctor, Mrs. Mundy had said no, and said it so positively that he offered to do nothing else. And then she thanked him and told him good night in such a way he understood it was best he Should go.
At the front door he called me. With his back to it he held out his hands, took mine in his, crushed them in clasp so close they hurt.
"Danny," he said, "why do you torment me so? You don't know what you're doing, living where such things are possible as have taken place tonight; where any time you may be—"
His voice broke, and in amazement I looked at him. Horror and fear were in his face.
"Do you think it is so awful a thing to see a poor little creature who has been hurt and needs help?" I drew my hands away. "You talk as if I were a child, Selwyn."
"You are a child in your knowledge of—of certain phases of life. If I could only marry you tomorrow and take you away from here you should never know them!"
"Well, you can't marry me to-morrow!" I made effort to laugh, but Selwyn's face, his manner, frightened me. "I want to stay down here and—and stop being as ignorant as a child of things women should know. Behind the shelter of ignorance most women have already shirked too long." I held out my hand, "If you stay a bit longer, Selwyn, I'll say things I shouldn't. Goodnight."
With a shrug of his shoulders he went down the steps, and as I watched him, for a moment I felt tempted to call him back. It was not unusual for us to part indignant with each other. We invariably clashed, disagreed, and argued hotly if we got on certain subjects, but to-night I did not want him to leave angrily. Something had made me afraid and uncertain and uneasy. I could not define, could only feel it, and if Selwyn should fail me— Shivering, I stood in the doorway, and as I started to go in I noticed a young fellow across the street under a tree, who seemed to be watching the house. He was evidently nervous and moved restlessly in the small circle of the shadow cast by the bare branches. Selwyn apparently did not see him, and, crossing the street, was close upon him before he knew he was there. To my astonishment I saw him start and stop, saw him take the man by the arm.
"What in the name of Heaven—" In the still, cold air I could hear distinctly. "Why are you down here this time of night? Where are you going?"
If there was answer I could not hear it, but I could see the movement of the young man's shoulders, could see him draw away and turn his back to Selwyn. Putting his hands in his pockets, he started toward the corner lighted by the flickering gas-jet, then turned and walked to the one on which there was no light. Had I known him, I could not have recognized him in the darkness, but he was evidently well known to Selwyn, for together they went down the street and out of sight. I wonder who he was.
For the first time since I came to Scarborough Square, Mrs. Mundy has not been to-day her chatty self. She does not seem to want to talk—that is of the girl I want to talk about. When, in my sitting-room this morning, I asked her the girl's name she said she did not know it, did not know where she lived, or what had happened to her, and at my look of incomprehension at her seeming disregard, she had turned away and busied herself in dusting the books on the well-filled table.
"She was pretty nervous." Mrs. Mundy's usually cheerful voice was troubled. "To talk to her, ask her questions, would just have made her more so. They won't tell you anything if they can help it—girls like that—and I didn't try to make her tell. I gave her something to quiet her and stayed with her until she was asleep, but when I went in the room this morning she was gone. Bettina said she heard some one unbolt the door very softly, but she thought 'twas me."
"Do you suppose she lives in this neighborhood? Her people must have been very anxious."
Mrs. Mundy turned and looked at me queerly. She has tremendous admiration for what she calls my book-learning, and sees no incongruity in my ignorance of many things with which she is familiar. My ignorance, indeed, she thinks it her duty to conserve, and already we have had some differences of opinion as to what I should know and not know of the life about us. There are a good many things I have got to make Mrs. Mundy take in more definitely. She thinks of me still as a girl. I am not. I am a woman twenty-six years old.
"Half the girls you've seen coming home from work, half who live around the Square, haven't any people here. What they have is a room in somebody's house. Many are from the country or from small towns. Over sixteen thousand work in the factories alone. You don't suppose they all have homes, do you?—have some one who waits up for them at night, some one who cares when they come in?"
Before I could answer she stopped her dusting and, head on the side and hands on her hips, listened. "There's the iceman at the kitchen door," she said, relievedly. "I'll have to go and let him in."
It is this I cannot understand, this unusual evasiveness on Mrs. Mundy's part. She is the least mysterious of persons, is, indeed, as open as the day, and it is unlike her to act as she has done. From childhood I have known her. Up to the time of Aunt Matilda's marriage to Mr. Chesmond she made my clothes, and for years, in all times of domestic complications has been our dependence. When I decided to live for a while in the house once owned by my grandfather, I turned to her in confidence that she would care not only for my material needs, but that from her I could get what no one else could give me—an insight into scenes and situations commonly concealed from surface sight.
Her knowledge of life is wide and varied. With unfailing faith and cheerful courage and a habit of seeing the humorous side of tragic catastrophes, she has done her work among the sick and forsaken, with no appeal to others save a certain few; and only those who have been steadied by her strong hands, and heartened by her buoyant spirit, and fed from her scant store, have knowledge or understanding of what she means to the section of the city where the poor and lowly live. Bit by bit I am learning, but even yet it is difficult to make her tell me all she does, or how and when she does it.
It was partly because of certain talks with her that I decided to come to Scarborough Square. If I could make but a few understand what she understands—so understand that the sending of a check would not sufficiently relieve them from obligation, from responsibility. But how can I make clear to others what is not clear to me?
It will not be Bettina's fault if I do not become acquainted with my new neighbors in Scarborough Square. By the calendar's accounting Bettina's years are only thirteen, but in shrewdness of penetration, in swiftness of conclusion, and in acceptance of the fact that most people are queer she is amazingly mature. Her readiness to go with me anywhere I wish to go is unfailing, but save on Saturdays and Sundays we can only pay our visits in the afternoon. It is late when she gets from school, and dark soon after we start, but with Bettina I am safe.
Outside and inside of the house our roles are reversed. Concerning my books and my pictures, concerning the people who ride in their own automobiles, who go to the theatre whenever they wish, to the fine churches with beautiful music and paid pews; the people who give parties and wear gorgeous clothes and eat mushrooms and terrapin—which she considered inexplicable taste—she will ask me countless questions; but outside of the house she becomes the teacher and I the taught. Just what I am learning she hardly understands. Much that is new to me is commonplace to her; and she does not dream that I often cannot sleep at night for remembering what the day has shown me. To-morrow we are going to see a Mrs. Gibbons, whose little boy, eleven years of age, is the head of his mother's house—the support of her family.
Hands in her pockets, Bettina looked at me disappointedly. "It's very cold," she said. "Why don't you wear your fur coat?"
"I like this one better. It's warm and not so heavy."
"Your fur coat is the only one in Scarborough Square. A sure-enough fur one, I mean. There're plenty of imitations. Mrs. Crimm's got an imitation. You look awful grand in that fur coat—look like a princess person. Grannie says you don't want to seem different from the people down here. How are you going to help it?"
"I don't know. I mean—" It was silly that my face should flush before Bettina's unblinking scrutiny, but flush it did. "I don't want to seem different. People are much more alike than they imagine. If we didn't think so much of our differences—"
"Bound to think of them when they're right in your face. You don't suppose you're anything like Evie May Poore, do you? or Roberta Wicks, or Mrs. Clay Burt? Every time I see Evie May Poore I wish I was an Indian so I could tomahawk her hair. Most of her money goes in hair and chewing-gum. Mr. Crimm says he thinks girls who dress like Roberta Wicks ought to be run in, but there ain't any law which lets him do it. Mr. Crimm's going to a big wedding to-night. Did you know it?"
I shook my head. In my mouth were the pins with which my veil was to be fastened. Hands on my hat, I straightened the latter before putting on the veil.
"Well, he is. Funny, ain't it, that all these swells have to have a plain-clothes man at weddings so the people what come to 'em won't take any of the presents? That's Mr. Crimm's chief business nowadays, looking out for high-class crooks. He says you ain't as strong-colored as some the ladies he sees up-town, but he never did see a face with more sense and soul in it than what yours has got. At the last wedding he went to he told grannie some the ladies didn't have on clothes enough to wad a gun. Are you ready? It gets dark by five o'clock."
"I'm ready." Taking up my muff, I followed Bettina down the steps and into the street to the corner, on which was the little shop wherein were sold goldfish and canary-birds, and fox-terriers and white rabbits; and from there we turned in the direction which led to Mrs. Gibbons's. The day was cold and clear, but the ground was slippery with sleet, and, holding on to my arm, Bettina made valiant effort to pilot me aright.
As we walked she talked, and the names of the occupants of various houses passed were told to me, together with the particular kind of work in which they were engaged, and the amount of wages which were earned by different members of the household. The information given me had been gained from her schoolmates, and what at first had seemed appalling frankness and freedom, I soon learned was a community custom, and a comparison of earnings a favorite subject of discussion among children of all ages. Recess, it appears, is the usual time for an exchange of facts concerning family affairs.
"Myra Blunt, who sits in front of me, says she's going in the pickle-factory as soon as she's fourteen." Bettina slipped, but caught herself, and held my arm more firmly.
"She's our ashman's daughter, and she's got a mole right on the end of her nose. It's a little on one side, but it looks awful funny, and Jimmie Rice says she'll stay in that pickle-factory all her life if she don't have that mole taken off. A boy won't have a girl for a sweetheart if her nose has got a mole on it, will he? Myra is afraid it will hurt to have it come off. She's an awful coward. This is the place. This is Ninety-two."
Mrs. Gibbons's residence was one of several small and shabby houses which huddled together as if for protection, and as we went up the steps of the shaky porch a head from the second-story window was thrust out—a head wrapped in a red crocheted shawl.
"You-all want to see Mrs. Gibbons? Well, she ain't to home. That is, I don't think she is. She told me this morning she was going down to the 'firmary to get some medicine for that misery in her back what struck her yesterday. If she ain't to home, you-all kin come up here and rest yourself if you want to. It's awful cold, ain't it?"
Before we could express our appreciation of the hospitality offered, the door at which we had knocked was opened cautiously, and at its aperture a head was seen. There was a moment's hesitancy and then the door opened more widely.
"Is this Mrs. Gibbons?"
Bettina asked the question, and at its answer called to the woman still leaning out of the upstairs window, "She's home." Then she introduced me.
"This is Miss Heath. Miss Dandridge Heath, Mrs. Gibbons; and I'm Bettina Woll. We've come to see you. Can we come in?"
Mrs. Gibbons, who had nodded imperceptibly in my direction as Bettina called my name, motioned limply toward a room on my right, and as I entered it I looked at her and saw at once that she, too, belonged to the unqualified and unfit. She must once have been a pretty woman, but her hair and eyes were now a dusty black, her skin the color of putty, and her mouth a drooping curve that gave to her face the expression of one who was about to cry. Life had apparently for some time been more than she was equal to, and, incapable of battling further with it, she radiated a helplessness that was pitiable and yet irritating. Thin and flat-chested, her uncorseted figure in its rusty black dress straightened for half a minute, then again it relaxed.
"Take a seat, won't you?" Her voice was as listless as her eyes. "It's warmer in the kitchen. Maybe you'd better come back there. My little girl's in there. She's sick."
As we turned to leave the room I glanced around it. The windows were down, the shutters closed, but by the light which came through the broken slats and cheap lace curtains, whose ends were spread expansively on the bare floor, I saw its furnishings. A bed, covered with a white spread and with pillow-shams embroidered in red cotton, was against the side of the wall facing the windows, and close to it was a table on which lay a switch of coarse black hair. A crepe-paper lambrequin decorated the mantel-shelf, whose ornaments were a cup and saucer, a shaving-set, and a pair of conch-shells; while between the windows was a wash-stand obviously kept for ornamental purposes, as there was no water in the pitcher and the basin was cracked. Pinned on the soft plastering of the walls were florid advertisements of various necessities and luxuries of life, together with highly colored Scripture texts, and over the mantel hung a crayon of the once head of the house. The room was cold and damp. The air in it had not been changed for some time, and as Mrs. Gibbons stopped and picked up the baby, who at the sound of voices had crawled into the room, I did not wonder at its croupy cough.
Down the dark and narrow passageway Bettina and I followed our hostess, and at its end I would have stumbled over a step had I not been warned in time. The noise made by a box overturned by Bettina gave the latter opportunity to give me one more injunction.
"Don't promise to do too much right off." The whisper was uncomfortably clear. "She's the kind who's like a sifter. You have to be right hard with people like that— Take care! There's another step!"
As we entered the kitchen, a tiny room with one window in it, I glanced around it as I had done at the front room, the two seeming to complete the suite occupied by Mrs. Gibbons. My survey was quick and cautious, but not too much so for mental noting of the conservation of time and space and labor represented by an arrangement of household effects I had never seen before. Health and comfort were the principal omissions.
In one corner of the room was a bed covered with a calico quilt of many colors, and under it a pallet, tucked away for convenience in the daytime, but obviously out at night. Close to the bed was a large stove in which a good fire was burning, and from the blue-and-white saucepan on the top came forth odor of a soup with which I was not familiar. The door of the oven was partly open, and in the latter could be seen a pan of heavy-looking biscuits which apparently awaited their devouring at any time that suited the desire of the devourer. Bettina looked at them and then at me, but she said nothing—that is, nothing out loud.
"Set down." Mrs. Gibbons, the baby still in her arms, made effort to dust one of the two chairs in the room with the gingham apron she was wearing, and, after failing, motioned me to take it. The other one she pushed toward Bettina with her foot. On the bed was a little girl of six or seven, and as we took our seats a boy, who barely looked ten, came from behind a couple of wash-tubs in an opposite corner of the room and wiped his hands on a towel hanging from a hook in the wall. To ask something concerning this boy was the purpose of our visit.
"Speak to the lady, Jimmy. Anybody would think you didn't have no manners! No, you can't have your supper yet."
Mrs. Gibbons waved her hand weakly at her son, who, smiling at us, had gone to a corner cupboard with perforated tins of diamond pattern in its doors, and taken therefrom a soup-plate and cup and saucer. Paying no attention to his mother's reference to a delayed meal, he ladled out of the big saucepan, with a cracked cup, a plate of the steaming soup, and carried it carefully to an oilcloth-covered table, on which was a lamp and glass pitcher, some unwashed dishes left from the last meal, a broken doll, and a child's shoe. Putting down the plate of soup, he came back to the stove and poured out a cup of feeble-looking coffee.
"Goin' to be extras out to-night and I mightn't get back till after ten." Again his gay little smile lighted his thin face. "Ifen I don't eat now I mightn't eat at all. Have one?"
He poked a plate of the health-destroying biscuits at Bettina with a merry little movement, and bravely she took one, bravely made effort to eat it. "What's your name?" I heard him ask her, and then I turned to Mrs. Gibbons.
"It is about your little boy I've come to see you." I moved my chair as far as possible from the red-hot stove and opened my coat. "He is too young to be at work. He isn't twelve, is he?"
The indignation I had felt on hearing of Jimmy's bondage to a bench from seven in the morning to six in the evening, with an interval of an hour for lunch, was unaccountably disappearing. With helplessness and incapacity I was not ordinarily patient, and Mrs. Gibbons was an excellent example of both. Still—"He isn't twelve yet, is he?" I repeated.
Mrs. Gibbons pushed the little girl, who was trying to get out of the bed, back in it, and shifted the whimpering baby from one arm to the other. For a moment she hesitated, looked at me uncertainly.
"No 'm, he ain't but eleven, but I had to tell the mayor that signed the papers permitting of him to work, that he was twelve. The law don't let children work lessen they're twelve, and only then if their mother is a widow and 'ain't got nothing and nobody to do for her. I don't like to tell a story if I can help it, and them what don't know nothing 'bout how things is can't understand, and say we oughtn't to do it. They'd do it, too, ifen they had to. After his father died I had to take Jimmy out of school and put him to work. There wasn't nothing else to do."
"Has his father been dead long?" I moved still further from the stove. My question was unthinking. He couldn't have been dead long.
"In days and months it 'ain't been so long, but it's been awful long to me. 'Taint been more'n a year since they brought him home to me dead, and I been plum' no 'count ever since. This baby," she put the child in her arms on her lap and shook her knees in mechanical effort to still its cries, "this baby was born while its father was being buried, and when I took in my man was gone and wouldn't never come home no more, never give me his wages on Saturday nights, and wouldn't be here to do nothing for me and the children, seems like something inside me just give out. I reckon you 'ain't never had nothing to happen to you like that, have you?"
"No, I've never had anything like that to happen to me." The last remnant of indignation was vanishing. That is, against the helpless, incapable, worn-out woman who was Jimmy's mother. Against something else, something I could not place or define or call by name, it was rising stormily. "I know you need Jimmy's help," I said, after a moment, "but he is too young to work, too small."
"Came near not getting a job 'count of not being no bigger."
His mouth filled with half a biscuit, the boy nodded at me gleefully, then putting down his spoon, he dusted his hands and wiped them on the side of his trousers. "The first place mother and me went to, they wouldn't take me 'cause the table where I'd had to work struck me right here." His hands swiped his throat just under his chin. "But the next place was all right. They had a boys' table and the bench was made high on purpose."
"What is it you do?" I asked, and again my voice sounded strange. "Is it a box-factory you're in?"
"Soap and pills." Head thrown back, Jimmy drained the last drop of coffee from his cup, then scraped the latter with a tin spoon for its last bit of sugar. "We are pasters, our gang is. We paste the paper on the boxes. There's a boy sits next to me what's the fastest paster in town, but I'm going to beat him some day. I can paste almost as fast as he can now."
"He could beat him now if he didn't play so much." In his mother's voice was neither scolding nor complaint. "Jimmy always would play some from the time he was born. His boss says he's the best worker he's got 'cepting the boy who sits next to him, and if he'd just stay still all day—"
"Oh, can he play?" I made no apology for the interruption. The child was undersized and illy-nourished, and to let him work ten hours a day seemed a crime for which I, and all others who cared for children, were somehow responsible. But if he had a chance to play—
"When old Miss High-Spy goes out the room we play." Jimmy gave his trousers a jerk and made effort to force connection between a button and a buttonhole belonging respectively to his upper and his lower garments. "She's a regular old tale-teller, but soon as she's out the room we get down from our bench and rush around and tag each other. Our benches 'ain't got no backs to 'em, and if we didn't get off sometimes we couldn't sit up all day. The other fellows, the big ones, don't tell on us. They make us put the windows down from the top when she's out."
"Do you mean you don't have any air in the room?" My voice was unbelieving, and at something in my face Jimmy laughed.
"Not when we're working. The wind might blow the little pieces of paper off the table and we'd lose time getting 'em, she says. Some the boys get so sick from the heat and the glue smell they heave up their breakfast and can't eat nothing all day. I 'ain't fainted but twice since I been there, but Alex Hobbs keels over once a week, anyhow. Used to frighten me at first when I saw him getting green-y, but I don't mind it now."
With a quick turn of his head Jimmy looked at a small clock on the shelf above the wash-tubs, and got up with even quicker movement. "I forgot about the wood, and the papers will be ready 'fore I can get there if I don't hurry. Good-by to you all," and, slamming the door behind him, he ran down the kitchen steps into the yard, where in a moment we heard him whistling as he chopped the wood that must be brought up for the morning.
It was not often Mrs. Gibbons had a listener who had never before heard of her hardships, and after explaining to me why Jimmy was at home at that time of the day, his presence being due not to trifling on his part, but to the half-time the factory was running, she gave herself up to the luxury of telling me in detail of her many misfortunes and of her inability to get through the winter unless additional help were given her.
"Can't you work?" I asked. "If the children are put in a day nursery they would be well looked after, and you would probably be more comfortable in a good factory than here."
"A good factory!" The inflection in her voice was one of listless tolerance for my ignorance. "I don't reckon you ever worked in one. There ain't none of 'em good. Some's better than others, but when you get up at five o'clock on winter mornings and make the fire and melt the water, if it's frozen, to wash your face with, and—"
"Does it freeze in here?" Bettina, who had by effort restrained herself from taking part in the conversation, leaned forward and dug her hands deep in her lap. "Does it really freeze in this hot room?"
"It ain't hot in here at night. Last winter it froze 'most every night for a month. Mis' Cotter was boarding with me last winter, her and her little girl both. She's the lady what rents the room between the kitchen and the front room from me. She sews on carpets and the place she works at is right far from here. She warn't well last winter—some kind of misery is always on her—and she asked me to board her so she wouldn't have to do no cooking before she goes away in the morning and when she comes back at night."
"With a swift movement of her hand Mrs. Gibbons caught the little girl, who, behind her back, was making ready to slip off the bed and on the floor, but as she swung her again in place she kept up her talking, and by neither rise nor fall was the monotone of her voice broken.
"I had to get up at five so as to have breakfast in time, for I can't get the room warm and the things cooked in less'n an hour, and she has to leave here a little after six so as to take her little girl to the nursery before she goes to her place, and they ain't noways close together. The stars are shining when she goes out and they're shining when she comes in; that is, if the weather's good. She's been so wore out lately she's been taking her meals again with me, but I don't see much of her. She goes to bed the minute she's through supper."
Bettina twisted in her chair. "Do you eat and sleep in here, too?" she asked. Her eyes were on Mrs. Gibbons. Carefully she kept them from mine. "Do you always eat in here?"
"We eat in here all the time and sleep in here in winter, because there ain't but one fire. That goes out early, which is why the water freezes. Jimmy has to bring it up from the yard in buckets, and as the nurse-lady who comes down here says we must have fresh air in the room, being 'tis all four of us sleep in it, I keep the window open at night. I don't take no stock in all this fresh-air talk. 'Taint only the water what gets froze—"
"Why don't you cover a bucketful of it with one of those tubs?" Again Bettina's forefinger pointed. "That would keep the wind off and the water wouldn't freeze if it was covered up."
"I never thought of that. Get back, Rosie!" Mrs. Gibbons made effort to catch her little daughter, but this time the child wriggled down from the foot of the bed and came toward me, hands behind her back, and stared up into my face.
I told her and asked hers, and without further preliminaries she came close to me and hunched her shoulders to be taken in my lap.
"We've got to go—we're bound to go, Miss Dandridge!" With a leap Bettina was out of her chair, and, catching the little girl by the hand, she drew her from me and dangled in front of her a once-silvered mesh-bag, took from it a penny, and gave it to her; then she turned to Mrs. Gibbons.
"We're awful glad we've seen you." Bettina nodded gravely to the woman on the bed. "And of course we won't tell anybody about Jimmy not being twelve yet; but Miss Heath wants him to go back to school, and she's coming to see you soon about it. We've got to go now."
In a manner I could not understand, Bettina, who had gotten up and was now standing behind Mrs. Gibbons, beckoned to me mysteriously, and, fearing the latter might become aware of her violent movements, I, too, got up and shook hands with my hostess.
"I will see you in a few days," I said. "There's no chance for Jimmy if he doesn't have some education. He ought to go back to school."
"Yes 'm, I know he ought, but he can't go." Jimmy's mother shook hands, limply. "The pickle-factory where I used to work is turning off hands every week, and I can't get nothing to do there. I don't know how to do nothing but pickles. Sometimes I gets a little sewing at home, but I ain't a sewer. The Charities sends me a basket of keep-life-in-you groceries every now and then, and the city gives me some coal and wood when there's enough to go round more than once, but I need Jimmy's money for the rent."
"If the rent were paid would you let him go back to school?"
"Yes 'm." The dull voice quickened not at all. "I'd be glad to let him go. I don't want him to work, but them that don't know how it is can't understand. You-all must come again. Good-by. Come back here, Rosie. You'll catch your death out there. Good-by."
In the open air, which felt good after the steaming heat of the bedroom-kitchen, Bettina and I walked for a few moments in silence, and then, slipping her arm in mine, she looked up at me with wise little eyes.
"Please excuse me for telling you, Miss Dandridge, but you're new yet in the places you've been going to since you came to Scarborough Square, and you'll have to be careful about taking the children on your lap and in your arms, if they're babies. You love children, and you just naturally hold out your hands to them, but if you don't know them very well, you'd better not. All of them ain't healthy, and hardly any—"
Bettina stopped and, standing still, looked straight ahead of her at a man and a young woman crossing the street some little distance from us. Then she looked up at me. The man was Selwyn. The girl with him was the odd and elfish little creature who had been hurt in Scarborough Square and whom he had helped bring in to Mrs. Mundy.
Bettina, who had opened the door for Selwyn on his last visit, and who had informed me the next day that she had "shivered with trembles" because of his great difference to the men in Scarborough Square, for the second time looked up at me.
"What is he doing down here?" Her finger pointed in the direction of the man and woman just ahead of us. "What's he talking to that girl for?"
I did not answer her at once. Amazement and unbelief were making my heart hot, and a flood of color burned my face. Of all men on earth, Selwyn was the last to find in this part of the town at this time of the evening, and as he bent his head to speak to the girl I noticed he was talking earnestly and using his hands in expressive gestures as he talked. Starting forward, I took a few steps and then stopped, sharply.
"I don't know what he is doing down here. Certainly he is at liberty to come here just as we come."
Bettina's eyes strained in the darkness. "I can't see her face. If we cross over we can catch up with them by the time they reach the corner where we could see her in the light." The grip of my hand on her arm made her stop. "I mean—"
"You don't know what you mean."
It was silly, childish, unreasonable, that I should speak sharply to Bettina, and equally unreasonable that fear and horror and sickening suspicion should possess me, but possessed I was by sensations hitherto unexperienced, and for a moment the gaslight from the lamp on the opposite street corner wavered and circled in a confusing, bewildering way. Sudden revelations, sudden realizations, were unsteadying me. Was Selwyn really some one I did not know? Was his life less single than I believed it? Hateful, ugly, disloyal questions surged tumultuously for a half-minute; then reason returned, and shame that I should insult him with doubt, cooled the flame in my face.
"It's too late to go to the Binkers. We'd better go home. We'll go there some other afternoon."
I turned from Bettina's amazed eyes. My tone of voice a moment before was still perplexing her, and unblinkingly she was searching my face. Hitherto her directness, her frankness of speech and use of words, had amused me, and I had permitted, perhaps, too great an exercise of her gift of comment; but applied personally it was a different matter.
"We'll go to the corner and turn there," I said. "That will be the nearest way home."
"But don't you want to see who she is?" Scarborough Square customs were those most familiar to Bettina, and they exacted understanding of doubtful situations. "Don't you want to see what—what she looks like?"
"Why should I? Mr. Thorne knows many people I do not know." I moved toward the corner. "Come on. It's getting late."
"Gentlemen like him don't know girls like her. She lives down here somewhere, and he lives where you used to live. He couldn't be sweet on her, because—because he couldn't." She caught up with me. "He's yours, ain't he, Miss Danny? You'd better tell him—"
I hated myself for looking across the street, but as I hurried on my eyes were following Selwyn and the girl, and when I saw the latter stop and bury her face in her hands, saw Selwyn say something to her, saw him turn in one direction and she in another, I, too, stopped; for a moment was unable to move.
We had reached the corner as Selwyn left the opposite one and came toward us. Head down, as if deeply thinking, he did not look up until close to us. Under the gaslight I waited, not knowing why, and Bettina being behind me, he thought I was alone when presently he saw me.
"Dandridge!" He stared as if stupefied with amazement. Lifting his hat mechanically, he came closer. "What in the name of Heaven are you doing here alone this time of night? Are you losing your mind?"
His entire absence of embarrassment, his usual disapproval of my behavior, his impatient anger, had an unlooked-for effect, and sudden relief and hot joy so surged over me that I laughed, a queer, nervous, choking little laugh.
"I am not alone. It is not yet six, and I have been to see a boy who is what you are not—the head of a house. I mean a house with a family in it. Have you, too, been visiting?"
His face flushed, and frowningly he turned away. "I had business down here. I had to come to it as it could not be brought to me. Where are you going?"
Bettina, who in some unaccountable way had managed to stay behind me, came forward and bowed as if to an audience. "I've been taking her to where she goes, Mr. Thorne, and grannie knows all the places. There ain't one that's got a disease in it, and Mr. Crimm would tell us if it wasn't right to go to them. She don't ever go anywhere by herself. She's too new yet."
Selwyn smiled grudgingly. Bettina's fat and short little body made effort to stretch to protective requirements, and her keen eyes raised to his held them for a moment. Then she turned to me.
"Maybe he'd like to go to some of the homes we go to and see—"
"No. He doesn't want to see." I caught her hand and slipped it through my arm. "It's much more comfortable not to see. One can sleep so much better. Are you going our way?" I turned to Selwyn. "If you are, we'd better start."
For a full block we said nothing. Selwyn, biting the ends of his close-cut mustache, walked beside me, hands in his pockets and eyes straight ahead, and not until Bettina had twice asked him if he knew where Rowland Street was did he answer her.
"Rowland Street?" He turned abruptly, as if brought back to something far removed in thought. "What on earth do you know of Rowland Street?"
"Nothing—I never knew there was a street by that name until last week when I heard a girl talking to grannie, who said she lived on it. She did her hands, when she talked, just like the girl with you did." Bettina twisted hers in imitative movements. "She didn't keep her hands still a minute."
"Few girls do when they talk. They apparently prefer to use their hands to their brains." Selwyn's shoulders shrugged impatiently, then his teeth came together on his lip. Again he stared ahead and, save for Bettina's chatter, we walked in silence to Scarborough Square.
There had been few times in my life in which speech was impossible, but during the quarter of an hour it took us to reach home words would not come, and numbness possessed my body. A world of possibilities, a world I did not know, seemed suddenly revealing itself, and at its dark depths and sinister shadows I was frightened, and more than frightened. Conflicting and confusing emotions, a sense of outrage and revolt, were making me first hot and then cold, and distrust and suspicion and baffling helplessness were enveloping me beyond resistance. The happy ignorance and unconcern and indifference of my girlhood, my young womanhood, were vanishing before cruel and compelling verities, and that which, because of its ugliness, its offensiveness, its repulsiveness, I had wanted to know nothing about, I knew I would now be forced to face.
It was true what Mrs. Mundy and Aunt Matilda and Selwyn and even Kitty, four years younger than myself, had often told me, that in knowledge of certain phases of life I was unwarrantably lacking. Subjects that had seemingly interested other girls and other women had never interested me, and I took no part in their discussion. And now the protection of the past that had prevented understanding of sordid situations and polluting possibilities was being roughly torn away, and I was seeing that which not only stung and shocked and sickened, but I was seeing myself as one who after selfish sleep had been rudely waked.
Head and heart hot, I pushed back upleaping questions, forced down surging suspicion and tormenting fears, but all the while I was conscious that in the friendship that was mine and Selwyn's, the something that was more than friendship, a great gap had opened that was separating us. If he gave no explanation of his acquaintance with the girl he had just left, it must be because he could not. He knew my hatred of mystery, my insistence upon frankness between friends. Would he come in and talk as freely as he had ever done of whatever concerned him? Would he tell me—
As I opened the door with my latch-key Bettina bounded inside, and the light falling on Selwyn's face showed it white and worn. Something was greatly troubling him.
"Good night." He turned toward the steps without offering his hand. "It is useless to ask you not to go in such neighborhoods as you were in this evening, but if you knew what you were doing you would stay away."
"I know very well what I am doing. I am hardly so stubborn or wilful as you think. But if it is unwise for me to be in the neighborhood referred to, is it any less wise—for you?"
"Me?" The inflection in his voice was the eternal difference in a man's and woman's privileges. "It was not a question of wisdom—my being where you saw me. It was one of necessity. Moreover, a man can go where he pleases. A woman can't. No purity of purpose can overcome the tyranny of convention."
"Convention!" My hands made impatient gesture. "It's the drag-net of human effort, the shelter within which cowards run to cover. In its place it has purpose, but its place, for convenience sake, has been immensely magnified. And why is convention limited to women?"
It was childish—my outburst—and, ashamed of it, I started to go in, then turned and again looked at Selwyn. Into his face had come something I could not understand, something that involved our future friendship, and, frightened, I leaned against the iron railing of the little porch and gripped it with hands behind my back.
"Selwyn!" The words came unsteadily. "Have you nothing to say to me, Selwyn? Don't you know that I know the girl with you to-night was the girl who—who we brought in here last night? If you knew her, why—"
Staring at me as if not understanding, Selwyn came closer. In his eyes was puzzled questioning, but as they held mine they filled with something of horror, and over his face, which had been white and worn, spread deep and crimson flush. "You don't mean— God in heaven! Do you think the girl is anything to me?"
I did not answer, and, turning, he went down the steps and I into the house.
For the past ten days I have been a very restless person. Mrs. Mundy looks at me out of the corners of her kind and keen and cheery little eyes when she does not think I am noticing, but she asks me nothing. Mrs. Mundy is the wisest woman I know.
If only I could sleep! During the days I am busy, but I dread the long nights when questions crowd that, fight as I may, I cannot keep from asking. Selwyn is my friend. I never doubt a friend. But why does he not come to me? Why does he not make clear that which he must know is inexplicable to me?
I may never marry Selwyn, but certainly I shall marry no one else. How could we hope for happiness when we feel so differently toward much that is vital, when our attitude to life is as apart as the poles? When each thinks the other wrong in points of view and manner of living? Selwyn was born in a house with high walls around it. He likes its walls. He does not care for many to come in, and cares still less to go outside to others. Few people interest him. All sorts interest me. We are both selfish and stubborn, but both hate that which is not clean and clear, and save from his own lips I would not believe that in his life is aught of which he could not tell me.
I have never told him I loved him, never promised to marry him. To live in his high-walled house with its conventional customs, its age-dimmed portraits, its stiff furnishings, and shut-out sunshine, would stifle every cell in brain and lungs, and to marry him would be to marry his house. I hate his house, hate the aloofness, the lack of sympathy it represents. Its proud past I can appreciate, but not its useless present. Save his brother Harrie, it is the one thing of his old life left Selwyn. At the death of his father he bought Harrie's interest and it is all his now. I would not ask him to live elsewhere, but I would choke and smother did I live in his house. And yet—
Ten days have passed and I have neither seen nor heard from Selwyn.
I have often wondered, on waking winter mornings in my very warm bed, how it would feel to go out in the gray dawn of a new day and hurry off to work. Now I know.
For more than a week I have been up at five forty-five, and at six-thirty have been hurrying with Lucy Hobbs, who lives around the corner, to the overalls-factory, where she is a forewoman. It is dark and cold and raw at half-past six on a winter morning, and the sunrise is very different from what it is in summer.
Each morning as I started out with Lucy, and hurried down street after street, I watched the opening doors of the shabby, dull-looking houses we passed with keen interest. Ash-cans and garbage-pails were in front of many of them, and through unshuttered windows a child could occasionally be seen with its face pressed against the pane, waiting to wave good-by to some one who was leaving. Out of the doors of these houses came men and women and boys and girls, who hurried as we hurried, and with a word to some, a wave of her uplifted hand to others, a blank stare at others again, Lucy seemed leading a long procession. Around each corner and from every car that passed came more "Hands," and each morning when the factory was reached a crowd that jammed its entrance and extended half a block up and down the street was waiting for the opening of the door, out of which it would not come until darkness fell again.
For the first day or two I was noticed with indifference on the part of some, resentment on the part of others, but on the third day, as I took my place in the pushing, laughing, growling crowd that made its way up several flights of stairs to the big room where shabby clothes are changed for yet shabbier working ones, my good-mornings were greeted with less grudging acknowledgments, and now we are quite friendly, these "Hands" and I, and through their eyes I am seeing myself and others like me—seeing much and many things from an angle never used before.
They nodded to me less hesitatingly as the days went by, and at the noon hour, when I have my lunch with first one group and then another, I find them, on the whole, frank and outspoken, find they have as decided opinions concerning what they term people like that—which term is usually accompanied by a gesture in the direction where I once lived—as said people have concerning them, to whom, as a rule, they also refer in much the same manner and with the same words. With each group on either side of its separating gulf the conviction is firm that little is to be hoped for or expected from the other, and common qualities are forgotten in the realization of distinctive differences.
"What's the most you ever made a week?" The girl who asked the question moved up for me to sit on the bench beside her, and, unwrapping a newspaper parcel, took from it a large cucumber pickle, a piece of cheese, a couple of biscuits, and half of a cocoanut pie, and laid them on a table in front of her. "Help yourself." She pushed the paper serving as tray and cloth toward me. "I ain't had much appetite lately. Hello, Mamie! Come over here and sit on our bench. What you got good for lunch? My stomach's turned back on pie. I'd give ten cents for a cup of coffee."
"Everywhere else but this old hothouse sells it for two cents a cup without, and three cents with." The girl called Mamie nodded to me and took her seat on the bench. "I don't like milk nohow, and I'd give the money glad for something hot in the middle of the day. Don't nothing do your insides as much good as something piping hot. Say—I saw Barker last night." Her voice lowered but little. "He and I are going to see 'Some Girl' at the Bijou next week. It's all make-up—his being sweet on Ceeley Bayne! That knock-kneed, slew-footed, pop-eyed Gracie Jones got that off. I'm going to get one them lace-and-chiffon waists at Plum's for $2.98 if don't nobody get sick and need medicine between now and Wednesday. Seems like somebody's always sick at our house."
The question asked me had been forgotten, and, glad to escape the acknowledgment that I had never earned a dollar in my life, I got up on the plea that I must see a girl at the other end of the room, and walked across it. As I went I scanned each face I saw. Consciously or subconsciously I had been hoping for days that I would see a face which ever haunts me, a face I wanted to forget and could not forget. Everywhere I go, in factories or mills or shops or homes; in the streets, and at my windows, I am always wondering if I shall see her. She was very unhappy. Who is she? Why was Selwyn with her? It is my last thought at night, my first in the morning.
Yesterday I was at the box-factory where Jimmy Gibbons works. It is his last week there. On the fifteenth he starts again to school. Knowing the president of the company well, I asked that Jimmy should be my guide through the various departments, and permission was given. I wish Jimmy were mine.
"Miss High-Spy 'ain't got any love for on-lookers, and we'd better not stay in here long." Jimmy's voice was cautious, but his eyes merry, and, glancing in the direction of the sour and snappy person watching each movement of each worker, I agreed with him that it was not well to linger. The room was big and bare, its benches filled with white-faced workers, and the autocrat who presided over it seemed unconscious of its stifling, steamy heat and sickening smells of glue and paste. Going out into the hall, Jimmy and I went to a window, opened it, and gave our lungs a bath.
"What does she do it for? Is she crazy?"
"Not asylum-crazy—mean-crazy." Jimmy's head nodded first negatively, then with affirmation. "She's come up from the beginning place, and used to be a fire-eater before she got to be boss of our bunch, and the men say people like that, people who ain't used to driving, drive harder than any other kind when they get the chance. She's a bully to the under ones, but the uppers—" Jimmy's eyes were lifted to mine and his lips made a whistling sound. "If Mr. Pritchard kicked her in the face, she'd lick the soles of his shoes when he was doing it, if she could. She wants to be boss of the room up-stairs and Mr. Pritchard can put her where he pleases. If he don't do it, he'd better, the women say, 'count of her knowing more about him than he knows she knows. I don't know what 'tis, but I hate her. All of us hate her."
"Why doesn't some one speak to Mr. Johns? Certainly he can't know—"
"Yes 'm, he does. Joe Dickson and Bob Beazley told him once, and the next week they got a hand-out. High-Spy made Mr. Pritchard do it. Mr. Johns leaves those kinds of things to him. Swell folks like him 'ain't got time to look after folks like us. He's awful rich, ain't he?"
"He isn't poor. When are you going to have your lunch?" I looked at my watch. "Can't you go out and have it with me? I'll ask Mr. Johns. Come on, quick. I'll see the other rooms when I come back."
Jimmy shook his head. "I can't go. I ain't being docked 'count of being with you, because Mr. Pritchard sent me, but he wouldn't let me come back if I went out. I been sent down to him once to-day, and please 'm don't ask him, please 'm don't!"
In Jimmy's voice was something of terror, and his hands slipped in and out of his trousers' pockets with nervous, frightened movements. His usually merry little mouth with its pale lips quivered oddly, and in his eyes, as he turned away, were tears I could not understand.
I put my hand on his shoulder, lifted his face to mine. "What is it, Jimmy? What has happened that you don't want me to ask Mr. Johns to tell Mr. Pritchard you can go with me? Why are you afraid?"
"I ain't afraid. Yes 'm, I am. I—I've been docked once to-day. Please 'm don't ask Mr. Pritchard nothing! High-Spy makes him punish me whenever—"
"Punish you!" I straightened indignantly. "Why does he punish you? What right—"
"I don't mean licking. But he keeps me out of the room when I'm sent out, and docks me at the end of the week. Mother needs every cent. She's back in the rent. I was sent out to-day."
"But why? What were you doing?"
"Nothing—leastways I didn't mean to. There wasn't none of us sick this morning, and Billy Coons was acting down behind High-Spy's back, and I tried not to laugh. She don't let us laugh. But she said I did. I didn't laugh—" Jimmy's voice was protesting. "I just smiled and it—it busted."
"Is that why she made you go out of the room?" I turned away and looked out of the window lest the accident to Jimmy's smile be mine. "Is that why she sent you out?"
He nodded. "Mr. Pritchard kept me out an hour. Sometimes he lets me make it up at lunch. I was going to ask him to let me to-day, but—"
"I'm preventing. I'm glad of it! When are you going to eat your lunch?"
"I've done et it—" Jimmy's tongue moistened his lips. "I et it on my way here this morning. I got paid off last night and I took out five cents and gave the rest to mother, and this morning I bought a pie with it and et up every bite. It might have been hooked when I was out the room, so I'm glad I didn't save none. I got it at Heck's. He keeps the best pies in town for five cents. They're real fat."