A Story of an American Girl
BY FANNIE HURST
Oh, the little more and how much it is: And the little less, and what worlds away. —BROWNING.
When Lilly Becker eked out with one hand that most indomitable of pianoforte selections, Rubinstein's "Melody in F," her young mind had a habit of transcending itself into some such illusory realm as this: Springtime seen lacily through a phantasmagoria of song. A very floral sward. Fountains that tossed up coloratura bubbles of sheerest aria and a sort of Greek frieze of youth attitudinized toward herself.
This frieze was almost invariably composed of Estelle Foote, a successful rival in a class candidacy for the sponge-and-basin monitorship; Sydney Prothero, infallible of spitball aim; Miss Lare with her spectacles very low on her nose and a powdering of chalk dust down her black alpaca; Flora Kemble with infinitely fewer friendship bangles on her silver link bracelet; Roy Kemble, kissing her yellow, rather than yanking her brown, braids.
And then suddenly, apropos of nothing except the sweet ache of Lilly's little soul, the second movement would freeze itself into a proscenium arch of music, herself, like a stalagmite, its slim center.
At this point, "Melody in F" veils itself in a mist of arpeggios, and Mrs. Becker, who invariably, during the after-school practice hour, sat upstairs with Mrs. Kemble in her sunny second-story back, would call down through the purposely opened floor register.
"Lilly, not so fast on that part."
Were it not that the salient spots, the platform places in experience, are floored over in little more or less identical mosaics of all the commonplace day by days, Lilly Becker, at the rented-by-the-month piano in her parents' back parlor in Mrs. Schum's boarding house, her two chestnut braids rather precociously long and thick down her back, her mother rocking rhythmically overhead, were spurious to this narrative.
Yet how much more potently than by the mere exposition of it and because you have looked in on the nine-year-old chemistry of a vocal and blond dream in the dreaming, are you to know the Lilly of seventeen, who secretly and unsuccessfully washed her hair in a solution of peroxide, and at eighteen, through the patent device of a megaphone inserted through a plate-glass window, was singing to—But anon.
There was a game Lilly used to play on the front stairs of Mrs. Schum's boarding house, winter evenings after dinner. She and Lester Eli, who, at seventeen, was to drown in a pleasure canoe; Snow Horton—clandestinely present—daughter of a neighborhood dentist and forbidden to play with the "boarding-house children"; Flora and Roy Kemble, twins; and little Harry Calvert, who would creep up like a dirty little white mouse from the basement kitchen.
"Can't carry cranky cats!"
"No fair, Snow; that doesn't make sense."
"Your turn, Roy."
"No fair. Nothing begins with 'Z.'"
LILLY: "Does so. Z! Z—zounds—zippy—zingorella—zoe! Zoe!"
By similar strain of alliterative classification, Mrs. Schum's boarding house might have been indexed as Middle West, middle class, medium price, and meager of meal.
Poor, callous-footed Mrs. Schum, with her spotted bombazine bosom and her loosely anchored knob of gray hair! She was the color of cold dish water at that horrid moment when the grease begins to float, her hands were corroded with it, and her smile somehow could catch you by the heartstrings, which smiles have no right to do. How patiently and how drearily she padded through these early years of Lilly's existence. There were rubber insets in her shoes which sagged so that her ankles seemed actually to touch the floor from the climbing upstairs and downstairs on her missionary treadmill of the cracked slop jar; the fly in the milk; the too-tepid shaving water; the bathroom monopoly; the infant cacophony of midnight colic; salt on the sleety sidewalk, the pasted handkerchief against a front window pane; ice water. Towels. Towels. Towels.
And how saucily after school would Lilly plant herself down in the subterranean depths of the kitchen.
"Mrs. Schum, mamma says to give me a piece of bread and butter."
With her worried eyes Mrs. Schum would smile and invariably hand out a thick slice, thinly buttered.
"More butter, mamma said."
"That's plenty, dearie; too much isn't good for little girls' complexions."
Scalloping the air with it before little Harry's meek eyes: "You can't have any. You don't pay board. We do!"
"My Mamma-Annie she paid board once. Uh-huh! my Mamma-Annie she's an angel in heaven and you aren't. Uh-huh!" This from little Harry, who was far too pale and wore furiously stained blouses.
"But your mamma-Annie's dead now. You can't be a real live angel without being dead first, and I'd rather be me."
"Lilly, aren't you ashamed? You run on now, or I'll tell your mamma. Poor little Harry can't help it he's an orphan with only his old gramaw to look after him. You a great big girl with your mother and father to do for you. It's not nice to be against Harry."
"Well, what was I saying so much, Mrs. Schum? Can I help it he says she's an angel? Here, Harry, you can have it. Mamma's got a whole basket of apples in the closet and a dozen oranges. Honest, take it, I'm not hungry."
He would mouth into it, round eyes gazing at her above the rim of crust.
There were times again when Lilly would bare her teeth and crunch them in a paroxysm of rage and tyranny over little Harry. She would delight in making herself terrible to him, pinch and tower over the huddle of him with her hands hooked inward like talons. His meekness hurt her to frenzy, and because she was ashamed of tears she clawed.
"Oh, you! You! You just make me feel like—I don't know what."
"Ouch! Lilly, you pinch!"
"Well, then, don't always hold your head off to one side like somebody was going to hit you. I hate it. It makes me feel like wanting to hit you."
"You aren't such a goody-goody. You steal. You stole some balls of twine my papa brought home from his factory. Mamma says you got it behind your ears."
"I haven't anything behind my ears."
"Oh, silly! Everything isn't there just because you say it's there. If I close my eyes just a little eeny, I can see birds and fountains and a beautiful stage, and me with my hair all gold, and a blue satin train that kicks back when I walk, and all the music in the world winding around me like—like everything—like smoke. But it isn't truly there, silly, except inside of me."
"I'm going to be the beautifulest singer in the world some day, with a voice that goes as high as anything, and be on the stage, and you can't even be on it with me."
"'N' I'm going to work in a butcher shop and give gramaw all the meat she wants without even putting it down in the book."
"And I won't ever have to touch the meat if it's got blood on."
"Fraidy, scared of a little blood." Then with not a great deal of relevance, "I could have the yellowest hair in the world if I wanted to."
"Oh, by just wanting to."
"Your mamma's calling you."
"Lil-ly, come practice."
"I'm coming." To Harry, "I can do something you can't do."
"Hop up six stairs on one foot."
Ankle cupped in her hand, brown braids bobbing, she would thus essay two, three, even four steps of staggering ascent, collapsing then against the banister.
"Told you so."
"Well, I nearly did."
"Oh, you nearly do everything."
"I can't help it if my foot isn't strong enough to hold me."
"Lil-ly, don't let me have to call you again."
"I'm coming, mamma." And then for a final tantalizing gleam of her little self across the banister, "Last tag."
One wall of the Becker back parlor was darkly composed of walnut folding doors dividing it from the front-parlor bachelor apartment of Mr. Hazzard, city salesman for the J.D. Nichols Fancy Grocery Supply Company, his own horse and buggy furnished by the firm.
It was Mrs. Becker's habit during his day-long absence, in fact just as soon as her acute ear detected the scraping departure of his tin-tired wheels from the curb, to fling back these folding doors for the rush of daylight and sense of space, often venturing in beside the front window with a bit of sewing and pottering ever so discreetly at the sample packages of fine teas, jars of perfectly conserved asparagus, peas, and olives spread out on his mantelpiece and fingering, again ever so discreetly, the neatly ripped stack of letters on the dresser. Once, and despite Mrs. Becker's frantic swoop to save it, a piece of pressed flower fell out from one of these envelopes in the handling, crumbling to bits as it fluttered to the floor.
Next morning the folding doors refused to part to touch, an eye to the keyhole discovering it clogged with key. Then Lilly began music lessons and the newly rented upright piano was drawn up against these doors.
Never were fingers more recalcitrant at musical chores. The Bach "Inventions" were weary digital gyrations against the slow-moving hands of the alarm clock perched directly in her line of vision. Czerny, too, was punctuated with quick little forays between notes, into a paper bag of "baby pretzels" at the treble end of the piano, often as not lopping over on the keyboard.
But with the plunge into brilliant but faulty execution of one of her "pieces," her little face would flood over and tighten up into the glyptic immobility of a cameo and her toes curl as they pressed the pedals.
"The Storm King" of the Parlor Pianoforte Series was a favorite. Dashing her quickly memorized way through it, she would follow closely the brief printed synopsis on the cover page ... suddenly the clouds gather, a bird carols, a faint rumble is heard in the distance (it is important that the student practice this base tremolo with left hand only), the rush of approaching wind mingles with the nearing roll of thunder, accompanied by occasional flashes of lightning....
The red would run up into Lilly's face and her hands churn the white keys into a curdled froth of dissonance.
"Lil-ly, not so fast. Play 'Selections from Faust' now, slowly, and count, the way Miss Lee said you should."
Another favorite was the just published "Narcissus" of Nevin. Its cross-hand movement was a phillipic to her ever-ready-to-ferment fancy. Head back and gaze into the scroll-and-silk front of the piano, the melody would again, like a curve of gold, shape itself into the lovely form of a proscenium arch.
"Lilly, that is beautiful. Play the tune part over again."
The tingling that would actually gooseflesh her would die down as surely as a ringing crystal tumbler, had she closed her warm little hand over it.
"Mamma," her voice directed upward toward the open register, "can I—may I go out on my tricycle?"
"I've only ten minutes yet, mamma. I'll make them up to-morrow."
"No, I don't intend to pay Miss Lee fifty cents a lesson so you can go out and ride on your tricycle. You bothered me for the lessons, so now you practice. Work on 'Narcissus' so you can play it for your father to-night."
"Oh, mom, please."
"I don't care. Go! Only put on your hat and don't let me see you riding around on Taylor Avenue."
The St. Louis of Lilly's little girlhood, sprung so thrivingly from the left bank of the Mississippi and builded on the dead mounds of a dead past, was even then inexplicably turning its back to its fine river frontage; stretching in the form of a great adolescent giant, prone, legs flung to the west and full of growing pains, arms outstretched and curving downward in a great north-and-south yawn.
Taylor Avenue (then almost the city's edge, and which now is a girdle worn high about its gigantic middle) petered out into violently muddy and unmade streets and great patches of unimproved vacant lots that in winter were gaunt with husks.
A pantechnicon procession of the more daring, shot with the growing pains, was grading and building into the vast clayey seas west of Kings-highway, but for the most part St. Louis contained herself gregariously enough within her limits, content in those years when the country rang hollowly to the cracked ring of free silver to huddle under the same blanket with her smoke-belching industries.
A picture postcard of a brewery, piled high like a castle and with stables of Augean collosity, rose from the south tip of the city to the sour-malt supremacy of the world; boots, shoes, tobacco, and street cars bringing up by a nose, Eads Bridge, across the strong breast of the Mississippi, flinging roads of commerce westward ho.
For one rapidly transitional moment street-car traffic in St. Louis stood in three simultaneous stages of its lepidopterous development: a caterpillar horse-car system crawled north and south along Jefferson Avenue, glass coin box and the backward glance of the driver, in lieu of conductor. A cable-car system ready to burst its chrysalis purred the length of Olive Street, and a first electric car, brightly painted, and with a proud antenna of trolley, had already whizzed out Washington Avenue.
When Lilly was twelve years old her walk to school was across quite an intricacy of electric-car tracks, and on rainy days, out of a small fund of children's car tickets laid by in Mrs. Becker's glove box for just that contingency, she would ride to and from school, changing cars with a drilled precision at Vandaventer and Finney Avenues.
For the first few of these adventures Mrs. Becker wrote tiny notes, to be handed out by Lilly along with her street-car ticket:
Conductor, please let this little girl off at Jefferson Avenue: she wants to change cars for the Pope School.
One day by some mischievous mischance Mrs. Schum's board receipt found its way into Lilly's little pocketbook:
Received of Mrs. Ben Becker, forty-five dollars for one month's board for three.
"Aw," said the conductor, thrusting it back at her, "ask your mamma to tell her troubles to a policeman, little girl."
From that day Lilly rebelled.
"Guess I can find my way to school without having to carry a note like a baby."
"But, Lilly, you might get mixed up."
"Don't sass me that way or I'll tell your father when he comes home to-night."
A never quite bursting cloud which hung over the entire of Lilly's girlhood was this ever-impending threat which even in its rare execution brought forth no more than a mild and rather sad rebuke from a mild and rather sad father, and yet which was certain to quell any rising rebellion.
"I notice you never get sassy or ugly to your father, Lilly. I do all the stinting and make all the sacrifices and your father gets all the respect."
"Mamma, how can you say that!"
"Because it's a fact. To him it is always, 'Yes, sir, no, sir.' I'm going to tell him a few things when he comes home to-night of what I go through with all day in his absence. Elocution lessons! Just you ask him for them yourself."
"Oh, mamma, you promised!"
"Well, I will, but I oughtn't."
Every evening until long after Lilly's dresses had descended to her shoe tops and until the ritual came to have a distinctly ridiculous aspect, there took place the one pleasantry in which Lilly and her father ever indulged.
About fifteen minutes before seven, three staccato rings would come at the front-door bell. At her sewing or what not, Mrs. Becker would glance up with birdlike quickness.
"That's papa!" And Lilly, almost invariably curled over a book, would jump up and take stand tensely against the wall so that when the room door opened it would swing back, concealing her.
In the frame of that open doorway Mrs. Becker and her husband would kiss, the unexcited matrimonial peck of the taken-for-granted which is as sane to the taste as egg, and as flat, and then the night-in-and-night-out question that for Lilly, rigid there behind the door, never failed to thrill through her in little darts.
"Where is Lilly, Carrie?"
MRS. BECKER (assuming an immediate mask of vacuity): "Why, I don't know, Ben. She was here a minute ago."
"Well, well, well!" looking under the bed, under the little cot drawn across its baseboard and into a V of a back space created by a catacorner bureau. "Well, well, well! What could have happened to her?"
At this juncture Lilly, fairly titillating, would burst out and before his carefully averted glance fling wide her arms in self-revelation.
"Here I am, papa!"
"Well, I'll declare, so she is!" lifting her by the armpits for a kiss. "Well, well, well!"
"Papa, I got ninety in arithmetic. I'd have got a hundred, but I got the wrong common denominator."
"That's right, Lilly. Keep up well in your studies. Remember, knowledge is power."
"Get your father's velveteen coat, Lilly."
"Papa, Ella McBride kisses boys."
"Then don't ever let me hear of your associating with her. The little girl that doesn't keep her own self-respect cannot expect others to respect her."
"And you ought to see, papa, she always rides her tricycle down past Eddie Posner's house on Delmar just to show herself off to him."
"Lilly, go wash your hands for supper. How is business, Ben?"
"Nothing extra, Carrie."
"Oh, I get so tired hearing a poor mouth. Sometimes I could just scream for wanting to do things we are not in a position to do. Go housekeeping, for instance, have a little home of my own—"
"Now, now, little woman," at the invariable business of flecking his neat gray business suit with a whisk broom, "you got up on the wrong side of bed this morning. Lilly, suppose you shine papa's spectacles for him."
"There is the supper bell. Quick, Ben and Lilly, before the Kembles."
The dining room, directly over the basement kitchen, jutted in an ell off the rear of the house so that from the back parlor it was not difficult to precede the immediate overhead response to that bell. A black-faced genii of the bowl and weal, in a very dubiously white-duck coat thrust on hurriedly over clothing reminiscent of the day's window washing and furnace cinders, held attitude in among the small tables that littered the room. There were four. A long table seating ten and punctuated by two sets of cruets, two plates of bread, and two white-china water pitchers; Mr. Hazzard's tiny square of individual table, a perpetual bottle of brown medicine beside his place. The Kembles also enjoyed segregation from the mother table, the family invariably straggling in one by one. For the Beckers was reserved the slight bulge of bay window that looked out upon the Suburban street-car tracks and a battalion of unpainted woodsheds. A red geranium, potted and wrapped around in green crepe tissue paper, sprouted center table, a small bottle of jam and two condiments lending further distinction. A napkin with self-invented fasteners dangled from Mr. Becker's chair, and beside Lilly's place a sterling silver and privately owned knife and fork, monogrammed.
To Mr. Becker, the negro race was largely and genetically christened Gawge, to be addressed solely in native patois.
"Evenin', Mistah Beckah."
"George, are you going to take good care of my husband to-night? That piece of steak you served him yesterday wasn't fit to eat."
"Law now, Mis' Beckah, kin I help it if de best de kitchen has ain't none too good?"
"Don't tell me! I saw the piece you brought Mr. Kemble."
"Now, Carrie ..."
"What have we to-night, George?"
"Fried steak, lamb, or corn'-beef hash."
"Bring us steak, and if it isn't tender, tell Mrs. Schum for me that right back downstairs it goes! A little piece of lamb on the side in case Miss Lilly don't like the steak, and bring up a dish of those sweet pickles. You know, under the tray the way you always do. There's a pair of Mr. Becker's old shoes, good as new, waiting to be given away."
"Miss Lilly loves pickles. George, do as I say."
"Law! Mistah Beckah, I knows Mis' Beckah and her ways. Law! I doan take no offense."
"I wish if you want extras, Carrie, you would buy them. It is a darn shame to make yourself so small before the other boarders."
"I haven't as much money as you have, Ben Becker. I'm not ashamed to ask for my money's worth. Lilly, haven't I told you not to talk on your fingers at meals?"
This form of digital communication between the children of the boarding house seemed to break out in its most virulent form at dinner. In spite of a sharp consensus of parental disapproval, there was a continual flashing of code between Lilly, the Kemble twins, and Lester Eli at the larger table.
"Ben, will you speak to Lilly? She won't mind me."
"Yes, sir," immediately subsiding to a contemplation of the geranium.
Poker played for penny stakes was a favorite after-dinner pastime. A group including Mrs. Eli, the Kembles, and Mr. Hazzard would gather in the Becker back parlor, Mrs. Becker, relieved of corsets and in a dark-blue foulard teagown shotted all over with tiny pink rosebuds, presiding over a folding table with a glass bowl of the "baby pretzels" in its center.
The children meanwhile would forgather on the front hall stairs, the peaked flare of an olive of gaslight that burned through a red glass globe with warts blown into it, bathing the little group in a sort of greasy fluid. Roy and Flora Kemble, Snow Horton, Lester Eli, and Stanley Beinenstock, racked with bronchitis and lending an odor of creosote, Lilly, and even Harry in his poor outlandish blouse.
"Snow, tell us a story; you're the oldest."
Snow was full of lore; would invoke inspiration with a very wide and very blue gaze up to the ceiling, her thin hands clasping her thin neck.
"Once upon a time—once upon a time there was the most beautiful girl in all the world and her name was—"
"Aw, give us one about boys."
LILLY: "You shut up, Roy Kemble. I guess Snow can tell a girl story if she wants to. Go on, Snow, 'once upon a time there was the most beautiful girl in all the world' and she had honey-colored curls and—"
"I didn't say she had honey-colored curls. Honey! Who ever heard of a girl having honey curls?"
"Well, she had."
"—and her name was—was—Gladys."
"Oh no, Snow, call her—"
"I think Gladys is just a beautiful name for a girl," ventured Flora Kemble on this occasion. "I like Elsie, too. I think Elsie Dinsmore is my favorite name."
"Elsie Dinsmore!" flared Lilly. "Girls aren't pokey like her any more."
Thus diverted, there ensued a quick confetti of flung opinions.
"Minn is a pretty name."
"That's because you're stuck on Minnie Duganne in your class. Oh-oh, Roy is stuck on Minnie Duganne!"
"Arabella—I just love that name. Don't you, Lilly?"
"If I was a girl, I would be named Mamma-Annie."
"Shut up, Harry; and, say, you better take back that can opener. You stole it off Mr. Hazzard's dresser."
"What is your favorite name, Lilly?"
Her eyes on the warts blown into the glass globe, hugging her knees in their sturdy ribbed stockings, her smooth brown hair enhancing her clean kind of prettiness, Lilly gazed up roundly.
"I choose," she said, mouthing grandiloquently, her little pink tongue waving like a clapper—"I choose—choose—ah—Zoe!"
"That isn't a name!"
"Who ever heard of a girl named Zoe! You never did yourself."
"I know I never did, Roy Kemble, but just the same I think it is the most beautiful name in the world. It isn't so much what it really means; names don't have to mean anything—it's what it feels like it means. To me the name Zoe feels like it means—means—"
CHORUS: "She don't know what it means. She don't know what it means."
"She means doe! The doe in the zoo at Forest Park. Hauh-hauh—her favorite name is Doe."
"Zoe," repeated Lilly, her eyes in a trance and lakes of reflected vision. "Zoe—it means—it means something—something full of life. Life—free—to me Zoe means free! Life!"
When Lilly was fourteen she graduated from grade school, second in her class.
"It's an outrage," said Mrs. Becker. "Miss Lare always did pick on the child."
"I'd rather have been last than second," said Lilly, trying to keep firm a lip that would tremble.
"Never mind, Lilly, you'll have the prettiest graduation dress of them all. I've got Katy Stutz engaged for three days in the house. A girl don't have to be so smart."
"I'd rather have the valedictory address than—clothes," still very uncertain of lip.
"Of course. That is because for a child you certainly have crazy ideas. Why don't you nag your father a little with what you've been nagging me all week?"
"I—Not now, mamma."
"Why not now? All I've got to say about it is, if he is willing, I am."
"What is it?"
"Tell him, Lilly."
"I—You see, papa, I thought if only you would let me begin vocal lessons, now that I am going to High School. Not real singing, papa—I'm too young for that—but just the foundation for voice."
"She wants to study with Max Rinehardt, Ben. I say it can't do any harm for the child to learn parlor singing. I think I can manage it at a dollar and a half a lesson. The elocution I say 'No' to. We don't need any play-acting in the family."
"Why—er—I'm surprised, Lilly, that you should have your heart set on that kind of thing. Seems to me a young girl could find something more worth while than that. Singers never amount to much."
"Oh, papa, it's what I want most in the world."
"Let her have them. A little parlor singing helps any girl with the young men. I notice you courted me from the choir. If she waits for encouragement from you, her accomplishments won't amount to a row of pins."
"You see, papa, I'm going to take the commercial course at High and learn stenography and typewriting, so it will just balance my education fine."
"Well, little woman, whatever you say."
"You know what I say."
"Don't you think she is a bit too young?"
Mimetically: "No, I don't think she's a bit too young. The sooner you wake up to the fact that your daughter is growing up, the better. She's a graduate already from grammar school."
"Papa, I'm on the graduating program."
"For what, daughter?"
"A piano solo. 'Alice,' with variations."
"Well, Carrie, if that is the way you feel about it—if you think those kind of lessons are good for her—"
"That is the way I feel about it."
These little acid places occurring somewhere in almost every day hardly corroded into Lilly's accustomed consciousness. If they etched their way at all into Mr. Becker's patient kind of equanimity, the utter quietude of his personality, which could efface itself behind a newspaper for two or even three hours at a time, never revealed it. His was the stolidity of an oak, tickled rather than assailed by a bright-eyed woodpecker.
"Little woman" he liked to call her in his nearest approach of endearment, although it must have been her petite quickness rather than a diminutive quality that earned the appellation. Even when he had wooed her in Granite City, Missouri, and she had sung down at the quiet-faced youth from a choir loft, she was after the then prevalent form of hourglass girlish loveliness. Now she was rather enormous of bust, proudly so, and wore her waist pulled in so that her hips sprang out roundly. A common gesture was to place her hands on her hips, press down, and breathe sharply inward, thus holding herself for the moment from the steel walls of her corsets. Their removal immediately after dinner was a ritual to be anticipated during the day. She would sit in her underbodice, unhooked of them, sunk softly into herself, her hands stroking her tortured jacket of ribs and her breath flowing deeper.
"I don't believe I'd pull in quite so tight, Carrie, if I were you. It will tell on your health some day."
"You don't catch me with a sloppy figure. I don't give a row of pins for the woman without some curve to her."
To Mrs. Becker a row of pins was the basest coinage of any realm. It ran through her speech in pricking idiom.
She was piquant enough of face, quick-eyed, and with little pointy features enhanced by a psyche worn as emphatically as an exclamation point on the very top of her head. On eucher or matinee days her bangs, at the application of a curling iron, were worn frizzed, but usually they were pinned back beneath the psyche in straight brown wisps.
As she grew older, Lilly came more and more to resemble her father in a certain tight knit of figure, length of limb, and quiet gray eyes that could fill blackly with pupil and in the smooth, straight, always gleaming brown hair growing cleanly and with the merest of widows' peaks off her forehead.
At fourteen she stood shoulder to shoulder with her mother, and their gloves and shirt waists were interchangeable. One really distinguishing loveliness was her complexion. The skin flowed over her body with the cool fleshliness of a pink rose petal. There was a natural shimmer to it, a dewiness and a pollen of youth that enveloped her like a caress.
"Looks more like her father, if she looks like either of them," Mrs. Schum was fond of saying, "and she has his easy disposition. But there is a child who runs deep. If she was mine I'd educate her to be something. Ah me, if only my Annie hadn't lost her head and married, she had the makings, too."
As a matter of fact, Lilly's resemblance to her parents stopped abruptly. Her first year in High School, a course in natural science revealed to her the term "botanical sport."
"That's what I am," she determined, with youth's immediate application of cosmos to self, "a botanical sport." A spontaneous variation from the normal type. "Papa, I learned to-day that I'm a sport."
MRS. BECKER: "A what? That is a genteel expression for a young girl to apply to herself! That High School does you more harm than good."
"But, mamma, it's a term used in botany. A term from Darwin."
"Darwin! That's a fine thing to teach children in school—that they come from monkeys! No wonder children haven't any respect for their parents nowadays."
"Well, just the same it is in the biology. We're on frogs now. You ought to see the way frogs get born!"
"In my day children weren't taught such stuff. I'm surprised, Ben, it's allowed."
Across the biology of life, as if to shut out the loathsome facts of an abattoir, a curtain of dreadful portent was drawn before Lilly's clear eyes.
"When baby came," was Mrs. Becker's insinuation for the naked and impolite fact of birth.
In a vague, inchoate sort of way, Lilly at sixteen was visualizing nature procreant as an abominable woman creature standing shank deep in spongy swampland and from behind that portentous curtain moaning in the agonized key of Mrs. Kemble.
About this time Mrs. Kemble's third child was within a few weeks of birth.
"Mamma, what makes Mrs. Kemble look so funny!"
"Hush, Lilly. Don't you ever let me hear you talk like that again. Little girls shouldn't ask such questions."
One night shortly after, a cry that tore like a gash through the sleeping boarding house roused Lilly to a sitting posture on her little cot drawn across the baseboard of her parents' bed.
"Mamma! Papa! What was that?"
There were immediate voices and running up and down stairs and more cries that beat the air and Mrs. Becker already up and clamoring into her kimono.
"Sh-h-h, Lilly! Go back to sleep. It is nothing but Mrs. Kemble not feeling very well. I'll run upstairs a minute, Ben. See that Lilly goes back to sleep."
Until the break of day Lilly lay tense there on her little cot, toes curled in, and still her mother did not return. Time and time again the moans rose to shrieks of dreadful supplication that set her to trembling so that her cot rattled against the baseboard.
"Kill me! God! Put me out of it! Please! I can't suffer any more! Kill me, God! Kill me!"
"Papa, I—I'm scared."
"Go to sleep, Lilly," said her father from the pool of darkness, his voice rather thin and sick. "Go to sleep now, like a good girl."
In a little area of quiet that ensued, she did drop healthily off, wakening to the warmth of sunshine, her father already departed, her mother rocking and sewing beside the window.
"Mamma, why didn't you wake me? I'll be late to school."
"You won't if you hurry and—and, Lilly, what do you think?"
"The stork brought Flora and Roy the dearest little baby sister last night. They're going to call her Evelyn. That's why Roy and Flora went to spend the week with their Aunt Emma, so they wouldn't frighten the stork away when he flew in with it. In a few days you can go up and see it. Isn't that nice, Lilly?"
Still tousled with sleep, but the red rising up out of the yoke of her nightgown, Lilly answered, with averted face, "Yes, mamma."
This episode marked the beginning of what was to be a three years' refrain.
"Ben, we must go housekeeping. It's an outrage to board, with a girl Lilly's age. Not as much as a parlor for her to bring her friends, and a great big girl like her without a room to herself! It's not even delicate."
"Well, Carrie, I'm willing."
"I know, until the time comes. I don't forget so easily the way you sighed all night in your sleep that time I came near renting the house on Delmar Avenue. Where is the money coming from! The minute that old business down there earns a penny, right back into it go the earnings, instead of drawing out a few dollars for the comfort of his family, like any other man would."
"There is not another woman in the world would stand for it but me. A woman that could enjoy a little home of her own as much as I! What do I get out of it, I'd like to know! Stint. Stint. Stint. Shove it all back into that old rope-and-twine business down there that doesn't show a cent of capital when you take stock except in rope, rope, rope, until I'd like to hang myself with some of it."
"Now, little woman, you got up on the wrong side of bed this morning. Just hold your horses. These are tight times, I admit, but we have our health—"
"I've heard that since I'm married. Health! Suppose we have got our health. We can't thank the business for that."
"Lilly, your mother certainly got up on the wrong side of bed this morning, didn't she?"
"Well, it's right discouraging, if you ask me."
"You're all right, little woman."
"Yes, I know," trying not to smile, "I'm all right when it don't cost nothing and when it comes to the dirty work of trying to make two ends meet."
"You're certainly a splendid manager. No one can take that away from you."
"Well, I wish you would both appreciate it a little more."
"We do appreciate it, don't we, Lilly?"
Her second year in High School, Lilly was kept out for five weeks by an attack of typhoid fever.
An aversion for physical shortcoming, from her mother's occasional headaches to the mortally afflicted Mr. Hazzard with the great chronic sore crisscrossed with court plaster at the end of one of his eyes, amounted in Lilly to something actually Indian.
"Oh, mamma, if I had a headache, I wouldn't always be talking about it. People aren't interested."
"I'm going to tell your father when he comes home to-night what a sympathetic daughter I have. If ever I fall sick the City Hospital will be the place for me. When I see the way that Flora Kemble carries her mother around and the way my own daughter sympathizes with me. If I don't tell your father this night!"
It was this queer little congenital urge that kept Lilly on her feet for two weeks after the malady had hold of her. With a stoicism that taxed her cruelly, she would march smilingly off to school, a bombardment of pains shooting through her head, her hands and tongue dry, a ball and chain of inertia dragging at her ankles.
"Lilly, what is the matter? Why don't you eat your bread and butter after school? Has Mrs. Schum said anything?"
"No, no, mamma. I'm not hungry, that's all."
"Funny. Open the closet. There is a basket of oranges behind your father's overcoat, and a bag of baby pretzels, too."
"Goodness! mamma, if I was hungry, I'd eat."
"Don't you feel well, Lilly?"
"Of course I feel well, mamma. Why shouldn't I?"
But next day, at her after-school hour of practice, a small discordant crash broke suddenly in upon "Chaminade's Scarf Dance" and Mrs. Becker's rhythmic rocking above. Lilly had fainted, with her head in her arms and face down among the keys.
Followed two weeks that crowded up the little back parlor with anxiety, the tension of two doctors in consultation, and a sense of hysteria that was always just a scratch beneath the surface of Mrs. Becker. She would break suddenly into loud and unexpected fits of crying, crushing her palms up against her mouth; would waken from a light doze beside the bed, on the shriek of a nightmare, and have literally to be dragged from the room. She harassed the doctors with questions that only the course of the disease could answer.
The crisis came in the watches of the night, Lilly very straight and very white and light of breathing in the center of her parents' bed, her glossy hair in a thick plait over each shoulder, her fine white and developed chest hardly rising.
"O God! help me to live this night! Ben! Ben!"
"Carrie, you're only making yourself sick and not helping the child."
"My baby! My beautiful snow-white baby! The best child that ever lived! Help me to live this night!"
"Carrie, little woman, if only you won't take on so. There's every reason to hope for the best. The doctor assured us."
"How long before we know? Go get Doctor Allison over. Ask Roy Kemble to run over to Horton's and telephone for Doctor Birch. I want them here. My baby!"
"Carrie, Carrie, haven't they told you time and time again there is nothing they can do now? Don't antagonize Doctor Birch by calling him over here again to-night. Everything is being done for the child. Now all we can do is to sit and wait and hope for the best."
"You don't care! You're made of iron. At a time like this you stop to consider the doctors' feelings. Mine don't count. My baby. Get well, Lilly. Mamma's been cross at times, but never again. We'll do everything to make you happy. You can read your eyes out and mamma won't turn out the light on you. Mamma will buy you books and a box of paints and a little bird's-eye-maple room all your own. Lilly, mamma's baby. We're going housekeeping—your own piano—your own room. Aren't we, Ben? Aren't we?"
"You can take your choice, baby, of all the things you want to be. Mamma won't oppose any more, or papa. Opera singing if you want it. You come by it naturally from my choir voice. Whatever you say, baby. Even an actress and all the elocution and singing lessons you—"
"Oh, you don't care! You're only her father. What does a father know? You don't care."
Against this age-old indictment of paternity, and absolutely without precedent, the patient, the iron-gray head of Mr. Becker fell forward, a fearful and silent storm of sobs beating against his repression.
Full of dumfounded hysteria, walking on her knees around the bed edge to him, Mrs. Becker drew down his head into the wreath of her arms, kissing into it, mingling her tears with his, and tasting their anguish.
"My darling! Ben—please, darling! I say a lot of things I don't mean. You are my husband—and my life. Ben—don't! I can't stand it! Ben!"
At six o'clock Lilly opened her eyes. They were clear and cool and the petal-like quality was out on her skin.
"Sweet Alice," she said, "oh, Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt," a bit of dream floating up with her like seaweed to the surface of consciousness. "Sweet Alice."
She had been reading Trilby, surreptitiously filched from Mrs. Kemble's stack of novels.
"In your own room, sweetheart, and your own mother and father beside you."
"I thought—Sweet Alice—"
"The fever is gone now, Lilly. You won't have any of those thoughts any more. Go to sleep now, papa's girl."
"I must have been singing—'Faust'—what makes you and papa—so angry—with me—dears?"
"We're not, Lilly. Nothing makes us angry any more."
She was too tired to smile.
"I kept dreaming, mamma, that my hair was two big honey-colored braids all wound up with pearls, like Marguerite's picture in Stories of the Operas."
"Go to sleep, Lilly, like a good child. Our girl has got too much sense to fill her head up with such nonsense."
"No, no, papa, I won't have common sense. I want to ride up to meet the sun, like the princess in—"
"She wants to what? Are you sure her fever is gone, Carrie?"
"Nonsense! It is stuff she reads in her fairy tales. Yes, darling, anything you want."
"You know, mamma—pearls—in my hair—"
"Yes, yes, darling. Sh-h-h!"
"We're middle-class, aren't we?"
"What does she mean?"
"Middle-class people, I mean. You know."
"Why, yes, dear, we're middle-class. I guess that is what you'd call it. What an idea!"
"Yes, yes. How, baby? The doctor will be here any—"
"You don't know what I mean. No matter what I say, you don't know what I mean. Isn't that terrible?"
"Help you to get well, that's what mamma and papa are going to do."
"No, no, no! Help me—out—up!"
Presently Lilly fell asleep. To her watching parents her light and regular breathing took on the meter of a Doxology.
Center High School, the city's only at a time when half a million souls beat up like sea around it, a model and modern institution that was presently and paradoxically to become architectural paragon for what to avoid in future high-school buildings, was again within street-car distance, except on usually bland days, when Lilly and Flora Kemble would walk home through Vandaventer Place, the first of those short, private thoroughfares of pretentious homes that were presently to run through the warp of the city like threads of gold.
On these homeward walks Flora and Lilly, who referred to each other as "my chum," were fond of peripatetically exchanging the views, the consciousness, and the sweetness of sixteen.
"If you had your choice, Lilly, what house would you select for yours in Vandaventer Place?"
"I don't want to live in between stone gates with 'No Thoroughfare' stuck on each end."
"You're the funniest girl! What do you mean, 'No thoroughfare'? Don't you want to be exclusive and private?"
"Yes, but a person can be private somewhere high—high—not just stuck between gates like everybody else. Sappho always sat on a balcony that overlooked the Aegean Sea."
"Maybe she did, and she jumped off, too, but I'm not talking to-day's Greek history lesson. I'm talking about regular folks. Between the gates of Vandaventer Place would be good enough for me. Wouldn't I just love to be mistress over one of these houses and give parties with an awning stretched out over the sidewalk!"
"What did you get in algebra, Flora?"
"B plus. And you?"
"Lilly Becker, that is the fifth B minus you've had in succession. I'm going to call you Lilly Minus."
"If she hadn't sprung that old oral exam on us—"
"Oh, if ifs and ands were pots and pans!"
Flora, rather freckly, elbowy, and far too tall, was none the less about to be pretty. She was frailly fair, like her mother, and could already throw her blue eyes about their balls, in the Esperanto of coquetry. She had a treacherous little faculty of appearing never to study and yet maintaining an excellent grade of scholarship.
"You get me to do all sorts of things with you, Flora, and then you sneak off and study on the quiet and leave me to flunk because I promised you I wouldn't study, either."
"Why, Lilly Becker, I never studied one minute for that algebra quiz."
"You did so! When I went downstairs to write in my Friendship Book, like you said you were going to do, you worked your algebra instead. Roy told me."
"Well, if I was as pretty as you, Lilly, I wouldn't ever care if I got my lessons or not," said Flora, to palliate.
"Flora Kemble, I'm not pretty!"
"You are, too. Everybody says your complexion is like peaches and cream, and look at mine, all freckles."
"Complexion, huh! If I had your yellow hair, you could have all my complexion."
"Boys hate freckles because so many of them have them themselves."
"Always boys. Honestly, you're boy-crazy, Flora."
"Well, I like that. Can I help it if I got an invitation and you didn't? You sat right next to him in English and I sat two whole seats away."
A cloud no larger and smudgier than a high-school boy's hand had dropped its first shadow between them. Eugene Bankhead, son of the credit man for Slocum-Hines, the city's largest wholesale hardware firm, had suddenly, out of this clear sky, invited Flora to the Thanksgiving Day football game between Center High and an exclusive local academy. A new estate felt, rather than spoken, quickened the eye and authority of Flora. A sense of it rode on the air waves between them.
"I hate boys."
"How do you know? You've never seen any except my brother and sneak-thief Harry."
"Papa says if a girl begins to run around with boys too soon it makes her so forward that by the time she's eighteen she's too old and faded—"
"That's old-fogy talk."
"You mean it's old fogy for girls to let boys jam everything else out of their heads. I'd like to see the boy that could make me forget my—my ambitions."
"If Eugene had asked you instead of me you wouldn't be saying that."
"Anyway, I hate snips. I like men—real men."
"Oh, I know. You're stuck on Lindsley!"
A violent splash of red and a highly superlative denial of word and manner laid hold of Lilly.
"Why, Flora Kemble!"
"Look at her blushing. Oh, what I know about you!"
"You fibber. I think he's the limit. I never saw a fellow so stuck on himself."
"Oh, I know! I know now why you carry home twice as many books as you used to since he got charge of the library."
"I'm reading the Lady of the Lake and you know it. That's why I stopped in to-night."
"I know why you're always writing compositions since you have him in English. Lilly's stuck on Lindsley."
Tears were rare with Lilly, but a tremor waved her voice.
"I think you're horrid, Flora Kemble. Anyway, he's more worth while being stuck on than Eugene Bankhead. He's just—just middle-class. His future is to work in Slocum-Hines's hardware store, like his father."
"Well, that's more of a man's job than sitting around in a schoolroom doing lady's work. Papa says Eugene's father is a five-thousand-a-year man. Eugene has all the spending money he wants and they have a conservatory in their house."
"Well, I'd rather be Lindsley than Eugene; besides, he's a kid hardly out of short trousers."
"Silly, you don't think it's Eugene I'm stuck on, do you? His brother Vincent is a big man down at Slocum-Hines's, too, and a catch. I'm going to meet him some day. Lindsley! Ugh! I like a little sponduliks thrown in with a fellow. Lindsley's elbows shine."
For the most part the Board of Education drew upon the offspring of its own system for teaching talent, occasionally letting in an artery of new blood. Lilly's second year in High School such an infusion took place in the form of one H. Horace Lindsley, the young master of arts, his degree rather heavy upon him, dawning blondly and behind high-power pince-nez upon the English department.
Sweet sixteen capitulated to English literature. The double wave of Mr. Lindsley's hair, the intellectual rush of very long, white teeth to the front, somehow mitigating for the sins of a curriculum that could present Gorboduc, and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, to young minds illy furrowed for such seed.
Notwithstanding the literary odor with which Mr. Lindsley sprayed himself as he sprayed his handkerchief with a domestic scent called "Sesame and Lilies," his neoclassic determination to write the American Iliad must have died painlessly when his iambically disposed feet ventured too deeply into the quagmire of pedagogy, from which he was not to emerge. But for the first time in her life Lilly was hearing her name pronounced by one who rolled it under his tongue like a lollypop. He rolled all names quite so, but in her beatitude she was only conscious of her own as it candied. Besides, his eyes, through the pince-nez, had a gimlet, goosefleshing quality; he recited "Straits of Dover" to a class of young women with rapt adenoidal expression when he should have been inoculating them with the bitter serum of Burke's Conciliation Speech, and walked to school of wintry mornings without an overcoat; skates and the Areopagitica under his arm.
It was undeniable that at this stage Lilly had veered unaccountably to authorship, her after-school practice hour gouged into by a suddenly stimulated pen.
"Papa, I know my ambition!"
Mr. Becker let fall his newspaper to his knee, glancing up over the rim of his reading glasses.
"What's it now, daughter?"
"I want to be a writer. You know, an author of stories. My English teacher says I have talent. I get A minus on all my essays, and to-day he wrote on the edge of one, 'Quite a literary touch.'"
MRS. BECKER (who rocked as she darned): "The trouble with you, Lilly, is that you have it too good. You don't know what you want."
"You don't care if I am a writer, do you, papa?"
"Last week it was the stage, and last month the opera, and now it's writing. What next, I wonder?"
"Your mother's right. There's no stability to this art business, Lilly. They're a loose lot that never come to a good end."
"Well, just the same," cried Lilly, hot with a sense of futility and rebellion, "your own father was the next thing to an actor. Preaching is kin to acting."
"Don't you ever let me hear you talk like that again. Your grandfather was a God-fearing, not a play-acting man." Attacking this subject, a little furrow would invariably appear between Mr. Becker's fine gray eyes and his lips express bitter intolerance for a world that translated itself to him solely in terms of pink tights.
Not that the odor of religion lay any too heavily on Lilly's youth. Sunday school was not enforced, Sabbath ethics were observed loosely, if at all, but a yearly membership in the Garrison Avenue Rock Church was maintained, not without remonstrance from Mrs. Becker.
"I don't see why we belong. If I want to attend church on Easter Sunday or a Christmas, I don't have to pay dues all year for it. A person can pray just as well at home as in church if he's inclined that way."
"Our child doesn't need to be raised like a heathen just because we aren't as regular as we might be about churchgoing. Besides, when trouble comes we don't want to be buried like heathens, either."
"In England, papa, writers get buried in Westminster Abbey. If I lived in England, that would be my ambition."
"The child has ambitions even about funerals. I bought you goods for a navy-blue poplin to-day, Lilly. Gentle's had a sale."
"Oh, mamma, can you get Katy Stutz to come in time to make it for auditorium next Friday? Mr. Lindsley may call on me to read my essay out loud."
"That Mr. Lindsley makes me sick. You're a changed child since he's come to that school. Mrs. Foote said the same thing of Estelle at the euchre yesterday. All the girls want new dresses and to be in his classes."
"Why, mamma!" coloring up.
"Oh, run over to Pirney's and buy me a postal card. I'll write Katy Stutz to take Mrs. Foote's days away from her and give them to me."
By small briberies employed without sense of compromise, Mrs. Becker had a way with those who served her. Katy Stutz, an old soul as lean and as green as a cotton umbrella, had sewed at minimum wage through fourteen years of keeping Lilly daintily and a bit too pretentiously clad. Willie, Mrs. Schum's old negro cook, who wore her feet wrapped in gunny sacking, and every odd and end that came down in the day's waste baskets, from empty spools to nubs of pencil, stored away in the kink of her hair, would somehow invariably send up the giblets along with the Beckers' Sunday allotment of chicken. Mr. Keebil, too, an old Southern relic, his head covered with suds of gray astrakhan and a laugh like the up and down of rusty bedsprings, for ten years had presided over the hirsute destinies of Lilly and her mother. Bi-monthly he arrived on his shampooing mission, often making a day's tour throughout the boarding house.
"Mr. Keebil, don't you do the Kembles' heads first to-day. That's the way with you people. I get you all your customers and then you neglect me for them."
"Law! Mrs. Beckah, how cum you think that? Don't I give you and Miss Lilly shampoos for two bits when I chawges Mrs. Kemble three heads for a dollar?"
"Yes, but what about the underwear and socks of Mr. Becker's that you get?"
"I allas say I 'ain't got no bettah friend than Mrs. Beckah. That was certainly a fine suit you done give me las' time, except for the buttons cut off."
"You should consider yourself lucky to get a head like Miss Lilly's to take care of at any price. Just look at it—like spun silk."
He would fluff out the really beautiful cascade of smooth and highly electric hair, his brown hands, so strangely light pink of palm, full of pride in their task.
"Law! Miss Lilly, if you ain't going to grow up the pick of them all."
"Ouch! Mr. Keebil, you hurt!" cried Lilly, ever tender of scalp.
Nor was Mrs. Becker above a bit of persiflage.
"Mr. Keebil, I hear it is something scandalous the way you and Willie are setting up to each other."
The old shoulders would shake, the face crinkle into a raisin, and the little spade of gray beard heave to the springy laughter.
"Law! Mrs. Beckah. if you ain't the greatest one to joke."
"Joke nothing. It's a fine match. A good upstanding church member like you and a fine-looking woman like Willie."
Lilly would turn a quirking but disapproving eye upon her mother.
"Mamma, haven't you anything better to do?"
"Law! Miss Lilly, me and your ma we understand each other. Me and your papa we know she will have her little joke but the heart is there. That's what counts on the Lord's Judgment Day—the heart."
Lilly's poplin frock was completed for the Friday auditorium exercises. Her two braids, now consolidated into one hempy rope, lay against her back, finishing without completement of hair ribbon into a cylinder of brushed-around-the-finger curl. It was a little mannerism of hers, not entirely unconscious, to fling the heavy coil of hair over one shoulder. It enhanced her face, somehow, the fall of shining plait down over her young bosom. Contrary to her choking expectation, she was not called upon to read, but to sit on the platform in an honorable-mention row of five.
Flora Kemble read a B-plus paper, largely and in immaculate vertical penmanship, entitled "Friendship," Lilly, the tourniquet twist at her heart, sitting by. Her name was read later among the honorable five, true to manner, Mr. Lindsley seeming to caress it with his tongue.
"Miss Halpern. Mr. Prothero. Miss Foote. Miss Deidesheimer. Miss Beck-er."
From where she sat Lilly could see the slightly protuberant shine to his teeth, the intellectual ride of glasses along his thin nose, the long, nervous hand with a little-finger fraternity ring.
Her own hands were very cold, her cheeks very pink. She had a pressing behind the eyes of a not-to-be-endured impulse of wanting to cry. His reading of her name was a hot javelin through the pit of her being.
After the exercises and as school was in dismissal she saw him hurrying out of a side door with a tennis racket. It seemed suddenly intolerable that walk home through Vandaventer Place to her boarding-house world.
Flora's perceptions were small and quick.
"Why, Lilly, your cheeks are as red as anything and you're getting a fever blister. Somebody kissed you!"
Her hand flew to her mouth almost guiltily, as if to the feel of lips slightly protuberant.
"Why—Oh, you horrid girl!"
"It was Lind! Lind!"
"Lindsley, of course," dipping with laughter.
"Flora Kemble, I'll never speak to you again. You're stuck on him yourself and trying to put it on to me."
"Me stuck on him, the way his teeth stick out! No poor school-teacher for mine!"
"You're boy-crazy. I'm not."
But that night for the first time in her life Lilly lay through a sleepless hour, staring up into the darkness. The blanket irked her and she plunged it off, burrowing one cheek and then the other into her pillow in search of cool spots. Her mother puffed out slowly into the silence, her father a bit more sonorous and full of rumblings.
Lilly felt herself wound up tightly and needing to be run down. She was taut as a spring. After a while she took to plucking out from the darkness words of sedative quality.
"Dove," she repeated softly to herself, and very, very slowly. "Dove. Beautiful, quiet dove. Saint. Cathedral. Peace. Dell."
But when she finally did drop off to sleep a smile of protuberant teeth was out like a rainbow across her darkness.
Latitudinally speaking, there are about two kinds of Americans—those who live west of Syracuse, and those who do not. An imaginary line separates the tropic of candescence, fast trains, naval reviews, broad a's, Broadway, Beacon Street, Independence Square, and Tammany Hall from the cancer of craps, silver dollars, lynchings, alfalfa, toothpicks, detachable cuffs, napkin rings, and boll weevils.
It is more than probable that Horace Lindsley's and Lilly Becker's lineage were loamy with about the same magnesia of the soil. Generations of each of them had tilled into the more or less contiguous dirt of Teutonic Europe.
Lilly's progenitors had bartered in low Dutch; Horace Lindsley's in high German, which, after all, is more a matter of geography than altitudes.
An oval daguerreotype of a great-grandmother at the harpsichord had hung in Carrie Becker's (nee Ploag) home in Granite City.
A Lindsley had once presented an emperor with a hand-illuminated version of the King James Bible, wrought out of peasant patience. Horace Lindsley's mother belonged to a New England suffrage society when ladies still wore silk mitts, and had dared to open a private kindergarten in her back parlor after marriage.
It was this tincture of culture running like a light bluing through Lindsley's heritage that began to set in motion the little sleeping molecules of Lilly's class consciousness.
"Middle class," came to be a term employed always with lips that curled. There were, then, actually men creatures outside the English "Fireside Novels" she was allowed to devour without interruption by parents to whom books were largely objects with which a room was cluttered up, who wore spats, did play tennis in white flannels, turned down the page at a favorite passage of poetry, eschewed suspenders for belts, were guiltless of sleeve garters, and attended Saturday-afternoon symphony concerts, in Lindsley's case, almost a lone male, debonaire and unabashed in a garden of women.
At Lilly's urgent instance she and her mother often attended these subscription concerts, seats for single performances obtainable (in a commendable zeal to promote local music) in exchange for a newspaper coupon and twenty-five cents.
Mrs. Becker frankly yawned through them, nictitating, as it were, during the long narrative passages of the symphony or occupied with the personnel of the audience.
"Look, Lilly," whispering behind her unopened program, "that's a pretty idea over there on that red-haired girl. See the way the baby ribbon is run through the sleeves. Do you want a dress like that?"
"Sh-h-h-h, mamma! No; it's too fussy!"
"Why don't they play something with a tune to it? I wouldn't give a row of pins for music without any air at all."
"Sh-h-h-h, mamma. There isn't much tune to classical music."
"I wish the first violinist would play a solo. 'Warum,' like last time. I've some baby ribbon just like that, Lilly. I picked it up on sale in Gentle's basement bins—"
"Mamma, don't stare so."
"Don't criticize everything I do."
At one of these concerts Lilly shot out her hand suddenly, closing it over her mother's wrist.
"Mamma, there's Lindsley. See, down there in the fourth row."
"My English teacher. See, polishing his eyeglasses."
Mrs. Becker sat straight, chin out like an antenna.
"Is that him?"
"Yes, that's he."
"I don't see anything so wonderful about him. He needs a haircut."
"Oh, mamma, you think all men have to wear their hair short and ugly like papa and Uncle Buck. In the East men look like that."
"The idea! A man calls himself a man coming to a matinee like this. Your papa ought to know that you have a sissy like him on your mind. Such a looking thing! Ugh!"
These recurring intimations could sting Lilly almost to tears.
"Oh, mamma, that's just the—the meanest thing to say. Can't I show you my English teacher without having him on my mind?"
"I never could stand a man whose teeth stick out. He looks like a horse."
"Papa's teeth stick out."
"Yes, but just one, and his mustache hides that. I only hope for you, Lilly, that some day you get a man as good as your father."
"How did papa propose to you, mamma? What did he say?"
Even Mrs. Becker could flush, quite prettily, too, her lids dropping at this not infrequent query of Lilly's.
"It's not nice for young girls to ask such questions."
"Go on, mamma, what did he say?"
"I don't remember."
The overture broke in upon them then, a brilliantly noisy one from Tschaikowsky that bathed them in a vichy of excited surf.
Settling with her head snuggled against her fur tippet, the back of her neck against the chair top, Lilly could feel herself recede, as it were, into a sort of anagogical half consciousness, laved and carried along on currents of melody that were as sensually delicious as a warm bath. Her awareness of Lindsley on a diagonal from her so that she could see his profile hook into the music-scented dimness, ran under her skin like a quick shimmer.
The proscenium arch curved again into her consciousness, herself its center and vocal beyond the powers of the human organ.
The slamming up of chairs and mussy shuffling into wraps recalled her. It was indescribably sad, this swimming up to reality. The buttoning of her little tippet. The smell of damp umbrellas. Then the jamming down the aisle toward the late and rainy afternoon. At the door they were suddenly crushed up against Horace Lindsley, his coat collar turned up about his ears.
"Miss Becker," he said, by way of greeting, nodding and showing his teeth.
Her heart became a little elevator dropping in sheer descent.
"Oh—how—do—you—do?" They were pushed shoulder to shoulder, and, to Lilly's agony, her mother's voice lifted itself in loud concern.
"For pity's sake, look at that downpour, will you? I hope your father has the good sense to wear his rubbers. Ouch! Don't knock me down, please."
"Mamma—please. Mr. Lindsley, I want you to meet my mother."
"Pleased to meet you. Lilly certainly has talked of her English teacher a lot."
"She is a very interesting little student, Mrs. Becker. Quite a quality to her work."
"Well, I am certainly pleased to hear that. She's our only one, you know."
"Lilly has a tendency to let her imagination run away with her. A good fault if she controls it."
"That's what her father and I always tell her. The child has too many talents to settle down to any one. She gets her music from my side of the house, but she quits practicing to write and she quits writing to practice. It's not that we want our little girl ever to make her own living, but her father and I believe in a girl being prepared, even if she never has to use it. That's why we are having her take the commercial course. We don't pretend to be swells, but at least we plan to do as well for our child as the next."
LILLY (in her agony): "Come, mamma."
"I wish you could read the poem she wrote last night, Mr. Lindsley. Not that I give a row of pins for poetry, as a rule, but I told her she ought to take this one to school."
"Please, mamma, please!"
"If I do say it myself, it was grand. Mr. Hazzard, quite an educated gentleman who boards where we do, thought so, too. Lilly, why don't you show Mr. Lindsley that poem? He's authority."
"Mamma, if only you won't talk about it."
"You must bring it to class, Miss Becker."
"No, no! I've—I've torn it up."
"I don't remember all of it, but everybody considered it a grand thought for such a young girl; it goes—"
"Mamma! Mamma—not here—now!"
"I would not have the restless soul That sees not beauty everywhere. I see it glint on ocean waves, Dance through a youth's or maiden's hair."
"Mamma, they're pushing so! Good night, Mr. Lindsley. Mamma, come!"
Outside in the wet dusk they boarded an electric car, Lilly and her mother crammed on a rear platform of the wet overcoats, leaking umbrellas, and wet-smelling mackintoshes of dinner-bound St. Louis.
"He's a right nice young man, intelligent—but if ever a person looked like a horse! You see, he agrees with your papa and me. You don't apply yourself to any one thing."
Lilly turned her inflamed, quivering face upon her mother, trying to speak through a violent aching of tonsils.
"Oh," she cried, "how could you? I'll never look him in the face again! Oh—oh—how could you?"
"Are you crazy? How could I what?"
"The poem. The—the glint in—his hair. He'll think it was his hair I meant. Oh! Oh!"
The ready ire which could flame up in Mrs. Becker leaped out then.
"If you are ashamed of your mother, maybe you had better not be seen out with her again. All I am good for is to stint and manage to get you pretty clothes."
"No, n-no, mamma, I didn't mean that, dear."
"For a horse-face like him I won't be made little."
"Sh-h-h-h, dear! The whole street car doesn't need to hear."
"I wouldn't give a row of pins for ten like him."
"Mamma, the way you—talked."
"The way I talked, what? I suppose hereafter when I go out with my educated daughter I will have to wear a muzzle."
"I—Oh, it wasn't what you said, mamma; it was—the way you said it."
"The way I said it? That's a rich one. If I don't tell your father! My own child is ashamed of her mother. Well, let me tell you I—"
"No, mamma, you don't understand. Take that word 'swells,' for instance. Oh, I know I've used it myself, but all of a sudden, to-day, it—it sounded so ordinary."
"For a hundred-dollar-a-month school-teacher that your papa has to pay taxes to support, I'm not afraid of my p's and q's."
"And, mamma," suddenly and acutely sensitive to pleonasm, "you begin every sentence with 'say' and you say 'certainly' so often."
"If I don't have a talk with your father when he comes home this night! That's the thanks I get for sitting through a concert with you when I might have been enjoying myself at my euchre club. Just get those high-tone notions out of your head. We're simple people, not swells. You're a changed child these days."
It was true. An ineffable ache, a darting neuralgia of spirit, too cunning and quick for diagnosis, was shooting through Lilly her last two years at High School.
That Horace Lindsley, who was hardly to indent her life and whose interest in the clean-eyed girl was little more than a leaf upon his consciousness, and whose feet were already feeling the tug of the quicksands of mediocrity which were to suck him out of her reckoning, should have been the innocent source of this neurosis, is hardly remarkable.
Lilly, with the mysterious tenacity of a crannied flower, was pulling from her soil toward the light. And light in all its chiaroscuras rules the se leve, couche, complexion, and humors of the world. Lindsley was a ray.
And so her adolescence came in suddenly, almost stormlike, uprooting little forests of sapling traditions.
At sixteen she still slept on the cot drawn across the bed end and rode her bicycle up and down the sidewalks, holding her skirts down against the wind, but also she had ransacked the boarding-house shelves and High School library, reading her uncensored way through Lady Audrey's Secret, Canterbury Tales, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Plain Facts About Life, Arabian Nights, Golden Treasury, Childe Harold, To Have and to Hold, Tales from Shakespeare, Pilgrim's Progress, Old Curiosity Shop, Diary of Marie Baschkertcheff, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Les Miserables, Stories of the Operas, and a red volume rescued from propping up the hall hatrack, Great Lovers.
Within that same year Katy Stutz twice lowered her skirt hems.
"Mamma, I think it is terrible I haven't a room to myself."
The entire surface of Mrs. Becker seemed to coat over with sensitiveness to this frequently discussed issue.
"Why," her lips writhing with an excoriating brand of self-pity, "who am I that I should want a home for my daughter, now that she is grown? Mr. Kemble can treat his wife like a queen, but me—why, I'm mud under my husband's feet."
The Kemble family, on a wave of putative prosperity, had eight months since gone to housekeeping in a rather pretentious rock-fronted house on one of the many newly graded streets west of Kingshighway. Every Friday night Lilly slept with Flora, the two side by side in Flora's pretty new bird's-eye-maple bed, exchanging unextinguishable confidences well through nights wakeful with their dreams.
"Flora has her own parlor to practice in, and here I can't even sing a little without the entire boarding house rapping on the wall."
"It's a shame. Watch me talk to your father to-night."
"Mamma, can't I please take elocution?"
"I should say not. Aren't piano and voice sufficient? The idea! I wouldn't give a row of pins for all the elocution in the world. Reciting is out of date."
"Mamma, it isn't. Mr. Lindsley says the modern woman of culture should cultivate her speaking voice the same as she learns to use her singing voice. Please, mamma; only a dollar a lesson."
"Oh, I don't care! Goodness knows where the money is coming from, with flax twine where it is; but anything for peace."
And so when Lilly graduated from High School, third in her class, and again slightly to the rear of Estelle Foote, who read the valedictory, she was executing excitedly, if sloppily, "The Turkish Patrol," was singing in an abominably trained but elastic enough soprano, the "Jewel Song" from "Faust," and "Jocelyn," a lullaby, and at a private recital of the Alden School of Dramatic Expression had recited "A Set of Turquoise" to incidental music.
Mrs. Schum's boarding house, to the man, turned out to Lilly's High School graduation, Katy Stutz and Willie standing in the wings and all unwittingly visible from the house. A German-silver manicure set, handsomely embossed, bore the somewhat cryptic card, "To Lilly Becker, as she stands on the threshold of life, from her friends in the house." There were a Honiton-lace fan with mother-of-pearl sticks, with the best wishes of her mother's euchre club, and from her parents a tiny diamond ring set high in gold facets, "To Lilly, from her parents, June, 1901," engraved in the hoop.
That night, still in her white organdie frock, with its whirligig design of too much Valenciennes lace, her hair worn high and revealing an unsuspectedly white nape of neck, Lilly regarded her parents across a little table-display of gifts.
"I feel so queer," she said, looking off through the chocolate-ochre wall paper, the reaction already set in. "So sort of—finished. Nothing to do."
MR. BECKER: "That was certainly a fine speech the president of the Board of Education made. You've something now that no one can take away from you. Knowledge is power."
"Two girls in our class are going to the University of Missouri, papa. That's what I'd like to do—go to college."
"Don't spoil a good thing by trying to overdo it, Lilly. It is as bad for a young girl to permit herself to be educated into one of those bold, unwomanly woman's-rights girls as it is for her to be frivolous and empty-headed. When women get too smart they get unattractive."
"But, papa, girls are beginning more and more to go to college, and all women will be—suffrage—some day."
"Not womanly girls, Lilly."
"I always said that High School would be her ruination."
"I didn't learn it there, mamma. I always wanted to be something—"
"Well, you're a finished stenographer, aren't you? Why not go down to your father's office a couple of mornings a week?"
"I don't mean stenography. I hated learning it. I mean something—something—beyond—"
Suddenly Mrs. Becker, quiet at the business of wrapping away some of the gifts, glanced up, two round spots of color on her cheeks.
"You are going to do something, Lilly. Have a home and entertain in it like other girls."
"I've a piece of news for you and your father. If I waited for him to take the initiative I'd wait until the crack of doom."
"What is it, little woman?"
"I signed a lease yesterday for one of those yellow-brick houses—seven rooms, bath, furnace heat, and privilege of buying. Twenty-eight dollars, out on Page Avenue near Union. We move in two weeks from to-day."
There followed one of those years which come and go even in the small affairs of small men, when for Ben Becker swift waters flowed under the bridge. He was just that, a small man, prided himself upon it and was frequent in his boast: "I'm a small man, Carrie. I don't hope to make a big or showy success of it. Just a comfortable and unassuming living is about all I expect to get out of it, and that's a pretty good deal."
The Spanish-American War, something of musical comedy in its setting, had run its brief malarial engagement, netting Ben Becker, in one order of hemp rope alone, a cleanly realized profit of forty-two hundred dollars.
On a new and gradually attained bank credit the B. T. Becker Hemp, Rope, and Twine Company bought out the about-to-be-insolvent Mound City Flax Twine Company, the consolidated interests moving into a two-story brick building on South Seventh Street.
The firm took on the subtle and psychological proportions that go with incorporation, however unassuming, capitalizing at fifteen thousand dollars, B. T. Becker, president; Jerry Hensel, trusted foreman of years, vice president and holder of ten shares; Carrie Becker, secretary and treasurer and, to propitiate the law, holder of one share.
The little house on Page Avenue, too new for wall paper, still exuding the indescribable cold, white smell of mortar in the drying, was none the less—-and with the flexible personality of houses—taking on the print of the family. A mission dining-room set, ordered wholesale through the machinations of one of Mrs. Becker's euchre friends, arriving from Grand Rapids two months late, completed a careful and thrifty period of housefurnishing. There were an upright piano, still rented, but, like the house, payments to apply to a possible future purchase, in the square of "reception hall"; a double brass bedstead in the second-story front; and tucked away in the back of the tiny house, overlooking, through sheerest of dimity curtains, a rolling ocean of empty lots, the German-silver manicure set spread out on the dressing table, Lilly's bird's-eye-maple bedroom come true.
Followed even then a long and uneasy period of adjustment. The up and down stairs tugged at the rear muscles of Mrs. Becker's legs, compelling evening foot baths. Mr. Becker chafed under the twenty minutes additional street-car ride, eating his dinner by gaslight even in August. The bed making and her allotment of the upstairs work irked Lilly, even though Willie's stepniece, Georgia, came to help out once a week, and evenings the little house could seem very still and untenanted.
But after the arrival of the mahogany-and-velours parlor set, the music cabinet, and the hanging of crispy lace curtains, Lilly standing on the ladder, her mother steadying from below, and finally the laying of a well-padded strip of stair carpet to eat in the hollow noises of new tenancy, the house began to settle, so to speak.
Something latent, something congenital, even malignant, however, had developed in Mrs. Becker. She took a fierce kind of joy, not untinged with the mongrel emotion of self-pity, in scrubbing, on hands and knees, the entire flight of back stairs at the black six-o'clock hour of wintry mornings, her voice tickling up like a feather duster to Lilly's reluctantly awakening senses.
"Lil-ly! Get up! I've done a day's work already. If I was a girl I wouldn't want to sleep while my mother slaves."
But let Lilly so much as venture down into the wintry gaslight of the bacon-fragrant kitchen, proffering her drowsy aid, a new flow, still in the key of termagency, would greet her.
"Go right back to bed, Lilly. You want to catch your death of cold?"
"But, mamma, you fuss so. I'd rather help than listen. Here, let me stir the oatmeal."
"Go back to bed, I say. I don't intend to have you spoil your hands with kitchen work. Maybe some day your father will feel in a position to give his wife a permanent servant girl like any other woman has."
"Mamma, he's always begging you to get one,"
"I know. Talk is cheap. Did you hear what I said, Lilly? Stop that stirring and go back to bed! I'll bring up your breakfast after a while. I'll fix your sandwiches for the sewing circle this afternoon."
"Oh, mamma, I just hate that circle! I wish to goodness you would let me resign."
"I have a grateful daughter, I have. Any other child with your advantages would think she had heaven on earth."
"I hate it, I tell you. Flora and Snow and all those girls, with nothing on their brains except fellows and fancy work, make me positively sick."
"I notice Flora had enough brains to become engaged to a fine young fellow with prospects like Vincent Bankhead."
"Every time I sit down at that circle I think I'm going to scream. I just can't rake up enthusiasm over French knots. Something in me begins to suffocate and I can't get out from under. I hate it."
Regarding her daughter through the bluish aroma of bacon in the frying, her early-morning coiffure and wrapper not lenient with her, a bitterness pulled at the lips of Mrs. Becker.
"That settles it. I'm going to have a talk with your father this morning."
"Oh, mamma, please don't begin a scene!"
"Ben, are you ready for breakfast? Come down. What do you do up there so long? You've been one solid hour splashing around the bathroom, as if I didn't have to get down on my hands and knees to wipe up the flood around the bathtub. Hurry! Your daughter has something to say to you."
"Coming, Carrie. Don't get excited."
"Don't get excited! I think your father would ram that down my throat if this house was tumbling around our heads."
It was true that Mr. Becker's imperturbability incased him like a kindly coating of tallow. His daily and peremptory call to breakfast brought him down only after the last satisfactory application of whisk, tooth, hand, shoe, bath, and hair brush, his invariable white-linen string tie adjusted to a nicety, his neat gray business suit buttoned over a gradual embonpoint.
"If I took as good care of myself as my husband does, I'd live to be a thousand."
"Now, little woman, you got up on the wrong side of bed to-day."
On this particular morning he descended genial, rubbing cold, soap-exuding hands together.
"Well, little woman! Good morning, daughter."
"Ben, I'm at my row's end with Lilly. Something has got to be done or I can't stand it."
He sat down, an immediate tiredness out in his face, adjusting his napkin by the patent fasteners to each coat lapel.
"Now, Carrie, have you and Lilly been quarreling again? Doesn't it seem too bad, Lilly, that you and your mother cannot get on without these disturbances? Your mother may have her peculiarities, but she means well."
A ready wave of red self-commiseration dashed itself across Mrs. Becker's face.
"I can't stand it, Ben. I don't know what she wants. Maybe you can please her. I can't. Everything I do is wrong. Everything."
In her little blue-gingham morning dress, out of which her neck flowered white and ever beautiful of nape, Lilly crumbled up her biscuit, eyes miserably down, the red-hot pricklings which invariably accompanied these scenes flashing over her and a crowding in her throat as if she must tear it open for language to make them understand.
"Talk to your father, now! Tell him some of the things you hound me with."
"Lilly, what seems to be the trouble?"
"I—I don't know. Mamma gets so excited right away. I just happened to mention that—I don't know what to do with myself."
"Do with yourself! Help me in the house. I can give you enough to do with yourself. I don't get lonesome."
"Carrie, now, don't holler."
"That's the way she is, papa. She gets excited and hollers at me because I can't get interested in sewing clubs and housework."
"It's because you've got it too good that you're not satisfied. That Flora Kemble, that never has a decent thing to wear, gets engaged to a—"
"Now, Carrie, that's no way to talk."
"Mamma always makes me feel uncomfortable because I'm not married yet."
"Now do you believe what I go through with, Ben?"
"You haven't any faith in me, but—somewhere—destiny, or whatever you want to call it, has a job waiting for me!"
"That's too poetical for me to keep up with. Thank goodness I'm a plain woman who knows her place in life."
"Exactly, mamma. It isn't that I consider myself above Flora's party to-morrow night. It's not my place. I don't belong there. I hate it, I tell you."
"You hear that, Ben? That's the thanks I get. You know the way I've tried to make this little home one a child could be proud of. Take the time that fine young Bryant fellow came to call. Why, that little parlor of ours was fit for a princess. His knuckles didn't suit her! They cracked, she said. I've heard of lots of excuses for not taking to boys, but that beats all. Three girls out of the sewing club already married and Flora engaged to that well-to-do Bankhead boy, and mine holds herself above them all."
"Your mother isn't all wrong, Lilly."
"I've run my legs off for the white organdie so Katy Stutz could make it up for Flora's engagement party to-morrow night. Does she appreciate it? Oh yes, long face is the kind of appreciation I get."
"I'd rather stay home, mamma, and practice my singing or read—anything—"
"You'll sing there. Mrs. Kemble has it all fixed for Flora to call on you just before the refreshments. If you begin to pout about this party, Lilly, I—"
"Oh," cried Lilly, turning her face away to hide the embitterment of lip and still crumbling up her biscuit, "don't worry. I'm going if—if it kills me."
Suddenly Mrs. Becker's face quivered ominously, the impending storm-cloud bursting.
"I wish I was dead. What do I get out of it? Struggle and sacrifice, and all for an ungrateful daughter that isn't happy in her home."
"It isn't that. Just let me be—myself!"
"Then what is yourself? For God's sake tell us what? Anything to end this state of affairs."
"I'm suffocating here. Let me make something out of myself."
"Listen to her, Ben. Make something. Her stories come back from the editors. Her teacher keeps telling me her voice isn't ready yet. Miss Lee says her piano technique is lazy—"
"Then let me travel—college—anything."
"She thinks we're millionaires, Ben."
"Lilly, Lilly! What is the young generation coming to?"
"I wish I was dead. Dead," cried Mrs. Becker, beating at the table until the dishes shivered. Danger lights sprang out in little green signals around about the flanges of her nose. She was mounting to hysteria.
"Lilly, aren't you ashamed to torture your mother like this?" cried Mr. Becker, his voice shot through with what for him amounted to a pistol report. "Comfort your mother. Apologize at once!"
"Mamma, I'm sorry! I am, dear."
"You would think we were plotting against her."
"Now, now, Carrie, Lilly doesn't mean all she says."
"But she eats my life out."
"She wants to please us. Don't you, Lilly?"
"Now let us see if things can't run smoother in our little home, eh, Lilly? We'll all try and do each his part, eh, Lilly?"
"It's late," cried Mrs. Becker, suddenly, on the single gong of half after seven, and, ever quick and kaleidoscopic of mood: "Katy Stutz will be here any minute. That's her now. Run upstairs, Lilly, and take the top off the sewing machine and lay out the white organdie. Quick, Lilly. I want you to have it without fail for to-morrow night."
It was at this controversial gathering of young people at the home of Flora Kemble that Lilly met, for the first time, Albert Penny.
The Kemble home lent itself gracefully to occasions of this kind, the parlor and reception hall opening into one, and the impending refreshments in the dining room shut off with folding doors. There was more of ostentation in the Kemble home. More festooning of fringed scarfs, gilt chairs, and a glass curio cabinet crammed with knickknacks.
"Dutch as sauerkraut," was Mrs. Becker's indictment; and Flora Kemble came under the gaucherie of the impeachment, too.
She had attained tall and exceedingly supine proportions, wore pinks and blues and an invariable necklace of pink paste pearls to fine advantage, and a fuzz of yellow bangs that fell down over her eyes, only to be repeatedly flung back again.
Again MRS. BECKER (who could be caustic): "She makes me so nervous, with her hair down over her eyes like a poodle dog, that I could scream."
Nevertheless, at eighteen Flora's neat spiritous air lay calm as a wimple over her keenly motivated little self. The same apparently guileless exterior that had concealed her struggle along a road lit with midnight oil toward her graduation, enveloped the campaign of strategy and minutiae that had resulted victoriously in her engagement to Vincent Bankhead, assistant credit man to his father.
Albert Penny at this time was second-assistant buyer for Slocum-Hines, and, at the instance of his friend Vincent, somewhat reluctantly present.
"Al, what are you doing to-night?"
"Oh, about the same old thing! Take a stroll and turn in, I guess. Why?"
"There is a little gathering up at the Kembles' this evening. Thought maybe you'd like to meet the girl. Nothing formal, just a few of the girls and boys over to celebrate."
"I'm not much on that kind of thing, Bankhead. Guess you'd better count me out."
"Come along. Want to show you the kind of little peach I've picked."
"Ask me out some night to a quiet little supper, Bankhead. I feel a cold coming on."
"Quiet little supper, nothing. That's your trouble now, too much quiet. Nice people, her folks. It'll do you good."
And so it came that when the folding doors between the Kemble dining room and parlor were thrown open, Lilly Becker, still flushed from a self-accompanied rendition of "Angels' Serenade" and an encore, "Jocelyn," and Albert Penny, in a neat business suit and plaid four-in-hand, found themselves side by side, napkin and dish of ice cream on each of their laps, gay little bubbles of conversation, that were constantly exploding into laughter, floating up from off the gathering.
There is a photograph somewhere in an album of Lilly much as she must have looked that night. Her white organdie frock out charmingly around her, a fluted ruffle at the low neck forming fitting calyx for the fine upward flow of her high white chest into firm, smooth throat; the enormous puff sleeves of the period ending above the elbow where her arm was roundest; the ardent, rather upward thrust of face as if the stars were fragrant; the little lilt to the eyebrows; the straight gray eyes; the complexion smooth as double cream, flowing in cleanest jointure into the shining brown hair, worn in an age of Psyche or Pompadour, so swiftly and shiningly drawn back that it might have been painted there.
That was the Lilly Becker upon whom Albert Penny cast the first second glance he had ever spared her sex.
"Miss Becker, we certainly did enjoy your solo."
She was still warmed from the effort, the tingling nervousness of the moment not yet died down, and she was eager and grateful.
"Oh, Mr. Penny, did you really? I was so afraid I flatted there at the end."
"I had to laugh the way they broke in with clapping before you were finished. I knew you weren't done."
"Oh, then you're musical, too?"
"No, but I could see there was one more page you hadn't turned."
"My! but you can go high! Like a regular opera singer."
"Oh, if I thought you meant that! It's my ambition to sing—real big opera, you know."
"It certainly was a pretty song, not so much the song as the way you sang it. I could understand every word."
"If only my parents could hear you say that. You see, they don't approve. They think it's all right for a girl to have a parlor voice, but it must stop right there, otherwise it becomes a liability instead of an asset."
At this little conceit of speech he turned delighted eyes upon her.
"Why, you're a regular little business woman!" he cried.
"Yes," she sighed out at him through a smile, "I took the commercial course at High."
Inhibitions induce callosities, and Albert Penny's inhibitions, incased within the shell of himself, were as catalogic as Homer's list of ships. First, like Tithonus, he had no youth. Persiflage, which he secretly envied in others, on his own lips went off like damp fireworks. He loved order and his mind easily took in statistics. He had invented a wire kind of dish for utilizing the left-over blobs of soap. He never received so much as a street-car transfer without reading its entire face contents. In seven years he had not availed himself of the annual two weeks' vacation offered him by his firm, and, conspire as he would against it, Sunday continued to represent to him a hebdomadal vacuity of morning paper, afternoon nap and walk, unsatisfactory cold supper, and early to bed. His very capacity for monotony seemed to engender it. He could sit in Forest Park the whole of a Sunday afternoon, poring over a chance railroad time-table picked up on the bench; paring his straight, clean finger nails with a penknife; observing the carriages go by; or sit beside the lake, watching the skiffs glide about at twenty-five cents the hour; and finally, hat brim down over his eyes, doze until twilight seeped damply into his consciousness.
This same unsensitiveness to routine had enhanced his value with Slocum-Hines from delivery boy at fifteen to second-assistant buyer at twenty-five, an amenability, however, that threatened to pauperize him of any capacity for play. Under the well-meant banterings of friends he became conscious of it, but to cast it off was to cast off the thing he was. He tried to learn to recreate, and took Saturday-evening street-car rides to Forest Park Highlands and joined a bowling club. He paid ten dollars in advance for a course of six dancing lessons, too, and only took four of them.
There had never been a woman, a perfume, or a regret in his life. In the period of ten years since his migration from the paternal farm ten miles outside of Sparta, Missouri, he had worked for one firm, boarded with one landlady, and eaten about three thousand quick lunches in the Old Rock Bakery at Lucas Avenue and Broadway. To further account for the state of existing hiatus in Mr. Penny's scheme of things would be tautology.
A short femur line gave him an entirely false appearance of stockiness. On the contrary, he stood a full five feet ten, was thewed with fine compactness and solid with clean living and clean with solid living. Even the fiber of his remarkably fine hair was strong. It was the brilliant honey color of full-moon shine, lay off his brow, but not down, lending him a look of distinction to which he was hardly entitled.
He regarded Lilly with a furtiveness prompted solely by a desire not to appear audacious. Her softly rising throat just recovering its normal beat reminded him of the sweet agitation of pigeons in the park. He was close enough to be conscious of an amazing impulse on his part to reach over and touch the soft white flesh above the cove of her elbow. A little blue thread of a vein showed there, maddeningly. A sense of inner pounding suffocated him. He felt as if he had suddenly stepped into a bath of charged waters, little explosions all over the surface of him. Then a numbness so that, when he placed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, it was insensate, and, somewhat frightened, he pinched the back of his hand, relieved by the stab of pain.
"Do you dance, Mr. Penny?"
"Me? I—No, I guess I'm what you would call temperance when it comes to frolics."
A little clearing had been made in the parlor, a music box pricking out the "Blue Danube." From the dining room they sat regarding the three or four couples, Lilly marking time with the toe of her white-kid slipper. The elixir of the dance could rush to her head like wine, but she was not sought after as a partner, due to her reserve against a too locked embrace and a curious tendency to lead.
"To me, dancing is poetry as written by the feet."
He relieved her of her napkin and ice-cream dish, eager for suitable reply to this syrupy observation.
"Speaking of feet, have you seen the show at Forest Park Highlands this week?"
"Well, really remarkable. There is an armless fellow there who eats and juggles, even writes, with his toes."
"Sometime if you would honor me by—by accompanying—I—er—Becker, did I understand the name to be? I wonder if by any chance you are related to Ben Becker."
She turned upon him with the immemorial sense of a point about to be scored, her eyes full of relish.
"Why, I think I'm slightly related, Mr. Penny. He happens to be my father."
He whacked his thigh.
"You don't tell me! Why, I've bought rope and twine from your father for three years! A mighty fine gentleman, there. Well, well, this is a small world, after all."
She noticed his large, protuberant Adam's apple throbbing with the accelerando of pleasure, and a thaw set in between them. He let his arm drape over the back of her chair, a stolen sense of her nearness dizzying him. He was like a man with a suddenly developed new sense, which he could not tickle enough.
"Well, well!" he said. "Well, well, well!" And she sighed out again through her smile that he could fall so short of what he looked to be.
"I used to say, when I was a little girl, Mr. Penny, that I wished my father were in a more romantic business than rope and twine. I wanted him to be a florist or a wood carver or a music publisher or some of the perfectly silly things that girls get into their heads."
"I always say of myself that I must have been born with a wooden spoon in my mouth. Took to hardware from the very start. Left my stepfather's farm and general store at fifteen and made a bee line for the hardware business before I hardly knew what hardware meant. I suppose I'll die with my nose to one of those very grindstones we carry in stock and be buried with one of those same wooden spoons in my mouth. Although I always say, no burial for mine. Burn me up—cremate me when I'm finished here."
"Papa is that way, too, about his business, I mean. Tied up in twine, I tell him."
"Just ask your father if he knows Albert Penny, Miss Becker. Queer how things happen. This very day I turned over a memorandum to the head of my department, advising a certain buy in hemp rope, Becker and Co. in the back of my head all the time."
At eleven o'clock the first guest rose to go, Lilly following immediate suit.
His state of eagerness rose redly to his ears.
"Will you permit me to escort you home, Miss Becker?"
"Why, yes, if it won't upset Flora's plans for me. I only live two blocks over on Page."
"I wish you lived as far as Carondalet," he said, choking over words too strange to be his.