SUSAN LENOX: HER FALL AND RISE
by David Graham Phillips
WITH A PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY NEW YORK LONDON
DAVID GRAHAM PHILLIPS
Even now I cannot realize that he is dead, and often in the city streets—on Fifth Avenue in particular—I find myself glancing ahead for a glimpse of the tall, boyish, familiar figure—experience once again a flash of the old happy expectancy.
I have lived in many lands, and have known men. I never knew a finer man than Graham Phillips.
His were the clearest, bluest, most honest eyes I ever saw—eyes that scorned untruth—eyes that penetrated all sham.
In repose his handsome features were a trifle stern—and the magic of his smile was the more wonderful—such a sunny, youthful, engaging smile.
His mere presence in a room was exhilarating. It seemed to freshen the very air with a keen sweetness almost pungent.
He was tall, spare, leisurely, iron-strong; yet figure, features and bearing were delightfully boyish.
Men liked him, women liked him when he liked them.
He was the most honest man I ever knew, clean in mind, clean-cut in body, a little over-serious perhaps, except when among intimates; a little prone to hoist the burdens of the world on his young shoulders.
His was a knightly mind; a paladin character. But he could unbend, and the memory of such hours with him—hours that can never be again—hurts more keenly than the memory of calmer and more sober moments.
We agreed in many matters, he and I; in many we differed. To me it was a greater honor to differ in opinion with such a man than to find an entire synod of my own mind.
Because—and of course this is the opinion of one man and worth no more than that—I have always thought that Graham Phillips was head and shoulders above us all in his profession.
He was to have been really great. He is—by his last book, "Susan Lenox."
Not that, when he sometimes discussed the writing of it with me, I was in sympathy with it. I was not. We always were truthful to each other.
But when a giant molds a lump of clay into tremendous masses, lesser men become confused by the huge contours, the vast distances, the terrific spaces, the majestic scope of the ensemble. So I. But he went on about his business.
I do not know what the public may think of "Susan Lenox." I scarcely know what I think.
It is a terrible book—terrible and true and beautiful.
Under the depths there are unspeakable things that writhe. His plumb-line touches them and they squirm. He bends his head from the clouds to do it. Is it worth doing? I don't know.
But this I do know—that within the range of all fiction of all lands and of all times no character has so overwhelmed me as the character of Susan Lenox.
She is as real as life and as unreal. She is Life. Hers was the concentrated nobility of Heaven and Hell. And the divinity of the one and the tragedy of the other. For she had known both—this girl—the most pathetic, the most human, the most honest character ever drawn by an American writer.
In the presence of his last work, so overwhelming, so stupendous, we lesser men are left at a loss. Its magnitude demands the perspective that time only can lend it. Its dignity and austerity and its pitiless truth impose upon us that honest and intelligent silence which even the quickest minds concede is necessary before an honest verdict.
Truth was his goddess; he wrought honestly and only for her.
He is dead, but he is to have his day in court. And whatever the verdict, if it be a true one, were he living he would rest content.
ROBERT W. CHAMBERS.
BEFORE THE CURTAIN
A few years ago, as to the most important and most interesting subject in the world, the relations of the sexes, an author had to choose between silence and telling those distorted truths beside which plain lying seems almost white and quite harmless. And as no author could afford to be silent on the subject that underlies all subjects, our literature, in so far as it attempted to deal with the most vital phases of human nature, was beneath contempt. The authors who knew they were lying sank almost as low as the nasty-nice purveyors of fake idealism and candied pruriency who fancied they were writing the truth. Now it almost seems that the day of lying conscious and unconscious is about run. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
There are three ways of dealing with the sex relations of men and women—two wrong and one right.
For lack of more accurate names the two wrong ways may be called respectively the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental. Both are in essence processes of spicing up and coloring up perfectly innocuous facts of nature to make them poisonously attractive to perverted palates. The wishy-washy literature and the wishy-washy morality on which it is based are not one stage more—or less—rotten than the libertine literature and the libertine morality on which it is based. So far as degrading effect is concerned, the "pure, sweet" story or play, false to nature, false to true morality, propagandist of indecent emotions disguised as idealism, need yield nothing to the so-called "strong" story. Both pander to different forms of the same diseased craving for the unnatural. Both produce moral atrophy. The one tends to encourage the shallow and unthinking in ignorance of life and so causes them to suffer the merciless penalties of ignorance. The other tends to miseducate the shallow and unthinking, to give them a ruinously false notion of the delights of vice. The Anglo-Saxon "morality" is like a nude figure salaciously draped; the Continental "strength" is like a nude figure salaciously distorted. The Anglo-Saxon article reeks the stench of disinfectants; the Continental reeks the stench of degenerate perfume. The Continental shouts "Hypocrisy!" at the Anglo-Saxon; the Anglo-Saxon shouts "Filthiness!" at the Continental. Both are right; they are twin sisters of the same horrid mother. And an author of either allegiance has to have many a redeeming grace of style, of character drawing, of philosophy, to gain him tolerance in a clean mind.
There is the third and right way of dealing with the sex relations of men and women. That is the way of simple candor and naturalness. Treat the sex question as you would any other question. Don't treat it reverently; don't treat it rakishly. Treat it naturally. Don't insult your intelligence and lower your moral tone by thinking about either the decency or the indecency of matters that are familiar, undeniable, and unchangeable facts of life. Don't look on woman as mere female, but as human being. Remember that she has a mind and a heart as well as a body. In a sentence, don't join in the prurient clamor of "purity" hypocrites and "strong" libertines that exaggerates and distorts the most commonplace, if the most important feature of life. Let us try to be as sensible about sex as we are trying to be about all the other phenomena of the universe in this more enlightened day.
Nothing so sweetens a sin or so delights a sinner as getting big-eyed about it and him. Those of us who are naughty aren't nearly so naughty as we like to think; nor are those of us who are nice nearly so nice. Our virtues and our failings are—perhaps to an unsuspected degree—the result of the circumstances in which we are placed. The way to improve individuals is to improve these circumstances; and the way to start at improving the circumstances is by looking honestly and fearlessly at things as they are. We must know our world and ourselves before we can know what should be kept and what changed. And the beginning of this wisdom is in seeing sex relations rationally. Until that fundamental matter is brought under the sway of good common sense, improvement in other directions will be slow indeed. Let us stop lying—to others—to ourselves.
"THE child's dead," said Nora, the nurse. It was the upstairs sitting-room in one of the pretentious houses of Sutherland, oldest and most charming of the towns on the Indiana bank of the Ohio. The two big windows were open; their limp and listless draperies showed that there was not the least motion in the stifling humid air of the July afternoon. At the center of the room stood an oblong table; over it were neatly spread several thicknesses of white cotton cloth; naked upon them lay the body of a newborn girl baby. At one side of the table nearer the window stood Nora. Hers were the hard features and corrugated skin popularly regarded as the result of a life of toil, but in fact the result of a life of defiance to the laws of health. As additional penalties for that same self-indulgence she had an enormous bust and hips, thin face and arms, hollow, sinew-striped neck. The young man, blond and smooth faced, at the other side of the table and facing the light, was Doctor Stevens, a recently graduated pupil of the famous Schulze of Saint Christopher who as much as any other one man is responsible for the rejection of hocus-pocus and the injection of common sense into American medicine. For upwards of an hour young Stevens, coat off and shirt sleeves rolled to his shoulders, had been toiling with the lifeless form on the table. He had tried everything his training, his reading and his experience suggested—all the more or less familiar devices similar to those indicated for cases of drowning. Nora had watched him, at first with interest and hope, then with interest alone, finally with swiftly deepening disapproval, as her compressed lips and angry eyes plainly revealed. It seemed to her his effort was degenerating into sacrilege, into defiance of an obvious decree of the Almighty. However, she had not ventured to speak until the young man, with a muttered ejaculation suspiciously like an imprecation, straightened his stocky figure and began to mop the sweat from his face, hands and bared arms.
When she saw that her verdict had not been heard, she repeated it more emphatically. "The child's dead," said she, "as I told you from the set-out." She made the sign of the cross on her forehead and bosom, while her fat, dry lips moved in a "Hail, Mary."
The young man did not rouse from his reverie. He continued to gaze with a baffled expression at the tiny form, so like a whimsical caricature of humanity. He showed that he had heard the woman's remark by saying, to himself rather than to her, "Dead? What's that? Merely another name for ignorance." But the current of his thought did not swerve. It held to the one course: What would his master, the dauntless, the infinitely resourceful Schulze, do if he were confronted by this intolerable obstacle of a perfect machine refusing to do its duty and pump vital force through an eagerly waiting body? "He'd make it go, I'd bet my life," the young man muttered. "I'm ashamed of myself."
As if the reproach were just the spur his courage and his intelligence had needed, his face suddenly glowed with the upshooting fire of an inspiration. He thrust the big white handkerchief into his hip pocket, laid one large strong hand upon the small, beautifully arched chest of the baby. Nora, roused by his expression even more than by his gesture, gave an exclamation of horror. "Don't touch it again," she cried, between entreaty and command. "You've done all you can—and more."
Stevens was not listening. "Such a fine baby, too," he said, hesitating—the old woman mistakenly fancied it was her words that made him pause. "I feel no good at all," he went on, as if reasoning with himself, "no good at all, losing both the mother and the child."
"She didn't want to live," replied Nora. Her glances stole somewhat fearfully toward the door of the adjoining room—the bedroom where the mother lay dead.
"There wasn't nothing but disgrace ahead for both of them. Everybody'll be glad."
"Such a fine baby," muttered the abstracted young doctor.
"Love-children always is," said Nora. She was looking sadly and tenderly down at the tiny, symmetrical form—symmetrical to her and the doctor's expert eyes. "Such a deep chest," she sighed. "Such pretty hands and feet. A real love-child." There she glanced nervously at the doctor; it was meet and proper and pious to speak well of the dead, but she felt she might be going rather far for a "good woman."
"I'll try it," cried the young man in a resolute tone. "It can't do any harm, and——"
Without finishing his sentence he laid hold of the body by the ankles, swung it clear of the table. As Nora saw it dangling head downwards like a dressed suckling pig on a butcher's hook she vented a scream and darted round the table to stop by main force this revolting desecration of the dead. Stevens called out sternly: "Mind your business, Nora! Push the table against the wall and get out of the way. I want all the room there is."
"Oh, Doctor—for the blessed Jesus' sake——"
"Push back that table!"
Nora shrank before his fierce eyes. She thought his exertions, his disappointment and the heat had combined to topple him over into insanity. She retreated toward the farther of the open windows. With a curse at her stupidity Stevens kicked over the table, used his foot vigorously in thrusting it to the wall. "Now!" exclaimed he, taking his stand in the center of the room and gauging the distance of ceiling, floor and walls.
Nora, her back against the window frame, her fingers sunk in her big loose bosom, stared petrified. Stevens, like an athlete swinging an indian club, whirled the body round and round his head, at the full length of his powerful arms. More and more rapidly he swung it, until his breath came and went in gasps and the sweat was trickling in streams down his face and neck. Round and round between ceiling and floor whirled the naked body of the baby—round and round for minutes that seemed hours to the horrified nurse—round and round with all the strength and speed the young man could put forth—round and round until the room was a blur before his throbbing eyes, until his expression became fully as demoniac as Nora had been fancying it. Just as she was recovering from her paralysis of horror and was about to fly shrieking from the room she was halted by a sound that made her draw in air until her bosom swelled as if it would burst its gingham prison. She craned eagerly toward Stevens. He was whirling the body more furiously than ever.
"Was that you?" asked Nora hoarsely. "Or was it——" She paused, listened.
The sound came again—the sound of a drowning person fighting for breath.
"It's—it's——" muttered Nora. "What is it, Doctor?"
"Life!" panted Stevens, triumph in his glistening, streaming face. "Life!"
He continued to whirl the little form, but not so rapidly or so vigorously. And now the sound was louder, or, rather, less faint, less uncertain—was a cry—was the cry of a living thing. "She's alive—alive!" shrieked the woman, and in time with his movements she swayed to and fro from side to side, laughing, weeping, wringing her hands, patting her bosom, her cheeks. She stretched out her arms. "My prayers are answered!" she cried. "Don't kill her, you brute! Give her to me. You shan't treat a baby that way."
The unheeding doctor kept on whirling until the cry was continuous, a low but lusty wail of angry protest. Then he stopped, caught the baby up in both arms, burst out laughing. "You little minx!" he said—or, rather, gasped—a tenderness quite maternal in his eyes. "But I got you! Nora, the table."
Nora righted the table, spread and smoothed the cloths, extended her scrawny eager arms for the baby. Stevens with a jerk of the head motioned her aside, laid the baby on the table. He felt for the pulse at its wrist, bent to listen at the heart. Quite useless. That strong, rising howl of helpless fury was proof enough. Her majesty the baby was mad through and through—therefore alive through and through.
"Grand heart action!" said the young man. He stood aloof, hands on his hips, head at a proud angle. "You never saw a healthier specimen. It'll be many a year, bar accidents, before she's that near death again."
But it was Nora's turn not to hear. She was soothing and swaddling the outraged baby. "There—there!" she crooned. "Nora'll take care of you. The bad man shan't come near my little precious—no, the wicked man shan't touch her again."
The bedroom door opened. At the slight noise superstitious Nora paled, shriveled within her green and white checked gingham. She slowly turned her head as if on this day of miracles she expected yet another—the resurrection of the resurrected baby's mother, "poor Miss Lorella." But Lorella Lenox was forever tranquil in the sleep that engulfed her and the sorrows in which she had been entangled by an impetuous, trusting heart. The apparition in the doorway was commonplace—the mistress of the house, Lorella's elder and married sister Fanny—neither fair nor dark, neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, neither pretty nor homely, neither stupid nor bright, neither neat nor dowdy—one of that multitude of excellent, unobtrusive human beings who make the restful stretches in a world of agitations—and who respond to the impetus of circumstance as unresistingly as cloud to wind.
As the wail of the child smote upon Fanny's ears she lifted her head, startled, and cried out sharply, "What's that?"
"We've saved the baby, Mrs. Warham," replied the young doctor, beaming on her through his glasses.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Warham. And she abruptly seated herself on the big chintz-covered sofa beside the door.
"And it's a lovely child," pleaded Nora. Her woman's instinct guided her straight to the secret of the conflict raging behind Mrs. Warham's unhappy face.
"The finest girl in the world," cried Stevens, well-meaning but tactless.
"Girl!" exclaimed Fanny, starting up from the sofa. "Is it a girl?"
Nora nodded. The young man looked downcast; he was realizing the practical side of his victory for science—the consequences to the girl child, to all the relatives.
"A girl!" moaned Fanny, sinking to the sofa again. "God have mercy on us!"
Louder and angrier rose the wail. Fanny, after a brief struggle with herself, hurried to the table, looked down at the tiny helplessness. Her face softened. She had been a mother four times. Only one had lived—her fair little two-year-old Ruth—and she would never have any more children. The tears glistened in her eyes. "What ails you, Nora Mulvey?" she demanded. "Why aren't you 'tending to this poor little creature?"
Nora sprang into action, but she wrapped the baby herself. The doctor in deep embarrassment withdrew to the farther window. She fussed over the baby lingeringly, but finally resigned it to the nurse. "Take it into the bathroom," she said, "where everything's ready to feed it—though I never dreamed——" As Nora was about to depart, she detained her. "Let me look at it again."
The nurse understood that Fanny Warham was searching for evidence of the mysterious but suspected paternity whose secret Lorella, with true Lenox obstinacy, had guarded to the end. The two women scanned the features. A man would at a glance have abandoned hope of discovering anything from a chart so vague and confused as that wrinkled, twisted, swollen face of the newborn. Not so a woman. Said Nora: "She seems to me to favor the Lenoxes. But I think—I kind o' think—I see a trace of—of——" There she halted, waiting for encouragement.
"Of Galt?" suggested Fanny, in an undertone.
"Of Galt," assented Nora, her tone equally discreet. "That nose is Galt-like and the set of the ears—and a kind of something to the neck and shoulders."
"Maybe so," said Fanny doubtfully. She shook her head drearily, sighed. "What's the use? Lorella's gone. And this morning General Galt came down to see my husband with a letter he'd got from Jimmie. Jimmie denies it. Perhaps so. Again, perhaps the General wrote him to write that, and threatened him if he didn't. But what's the use? We'll never know."
And they never did.
When young Stevens was leaving, George Warham waylaid him at the front gate, separated from the spacious old creeper-clad house by long lawns and an avenue of elms. "I hear the child's going to live," said he anxiously.
"I've never seen anything more alive," replied Stevens.
Warham stared gloomily at the ground. He was evidently ashamed of his feelings, yet convinced that they were human and natural. A moment's silence between the men, then Stevens put his hand on the gate latch. "Did—did—my wife——" began Warham. "Did she say what she calculated to do?"
"Not a word, George." After a silence. "You know how fond she is of babies."
"Yes, I know," replied Warham. "Fanny is a true woman if ever there was one." With a certain defiance, "And Lorella—she was a sweet, womanly girl!"
"As sweet and good as she was pretty," replied Stevens heartily.
"The way she kept her mouth shut about that hound, whoever he is!" Warham's Roman face grew savage, revealed in startling apparition a stubborn cruelty of which there was not a trace upon the surface. "If I ever catch the —— —— I'll fill him full of holes."
"He'd be lynched—whoever he is," said Stevens.
"That's right!" cried Warham. "This is the North, but it's near enough to Kentucky to know what to do with a wretch of that sort." His face became calmer. "That poor little baby! He'll have a hard row to hoe."
Stevens flushed a guilty red. "It's—it's—a girl," he stammered.
Warham stared. "A girl!" he cried. Then his face reddened and in a furious tone he burst out: "Now don't that beat the devil for luck!. . . A girl! Good Lord—a girl!"
"Nobody in this town'll blame her," consoled Stevens.
"You know better than that, Bob! A girl! Why, it's downright wicked. . . I wonder what Fanny allows to do?" He showed what fear was in his mind by wheeling savagely on Stevens with a stormy, "We can't keep her—we simply can't!"
"What's to become of her?" protested Stevens gently.
Warham made a wild vague gesture with both arms. "Damn if I know! I've got to look out for my own daughter. I won't have it. Damn it, I won't have it!" Stevens lifted the gate latch. "Well——
"Good-by, George. I'll look in again this evening." And knowing the moral ideas of the town, all he could muster by way of encouragement was a half-hearted "Don't borrow trouble."
But Warham did not hear. He was moving up the tanbark walk toward the house, muttering to himself. When Fanny, unable longer to conceal Lorella's plight, had told him, pity and affection for his sweet sister-in-law who had made her home with them for five years had triumphed over his principles. He had himself arranged for Fanny to hide Lorella in New York until she could safely return. But just as the sisters were about to set out, Lorella, low in body and in mind, fell ill. Then George—and Fanny, too—had striven with her to give them the name of her betrayer, that he might be compelled to do her justice. Lorella refused. "I told him," she said, "and he—I never want to see him again." They pleaded the disgrace to them, but she replied that he would not marry her even if she would marry him; and she held to her refusal with the firmness for which the Lenoxes were famous. They suspected Jimmie Galt, because he had been about the most attentive of the young men until two or three months before, and because he had abruptly departed for Europe to study architecture. Lorella denied that it was he. "If you kill him," she said to Warham, "you kill an innocent man." Warham was so exasperated by her obstinacy that he was at first for taking her at her offer and letting her go away. But Fanny would not hear of it, and he acquiesced. Now—"This child must be sent away off somewhere, and never be heard of again," he said to himself. "If it'd been a boy, perhaps it might have got along. But a girl——
"There's nothing can be done to make things right for a girl that's got no father and no name."
The subject did not come up between him and his wife until about a week after Lorella's funeral. But he was thinking of nothing else. At his big grocery store—wholesale and retail—he sat morosely in his office, brooding over the disgrace and the danger of deeper disgrace—for he saw what a hold the baby already had upon his wife. He was ashamed to appear in the streets; he knew what was going on behind the sympathetic faces, heard the whisperings as if they had been trumpetings. And he was as much afraid of his own soft heart as of his wife's. But for the sake of his daughter he must be firm and just.
One morning, as he was leaving the house after breakfast, he turned back and said abruptly: "Fan, don't you think you'd better send the baby away and get it over with?"
"No," said his wife unhesitatingly—and he knew his worst suspicion was correct. "I've made up my mind to keep her."
"It isn't fair to Ruth."
"Send it away—where?"
"Anywhere. Get it adopted in Chicago—Cincinnati—Louisville."
"When she and Ruth grow up—what then?"
"People ain't so low as some think."
"'The sins of the parents are visited on the children unto——'"
"I don't care," interrupted Fanny. "I love her. I'm going to keep her. Wait here a minute."
When she came back she had the baby in her arms. "Just look," she said softly.
George frowned, tried not to look, but was soon drawn and held by the sweet, fresh, blooming face, so smooth, so winning, so innocent.
"And think how she was sent back to life—from beyond the grave. It must have been for some purpose."
Warham groaned, "Oh, Lord, I don't know what to do! But—it ain't fair to our Ruth."
"I don't see it that way. . . . Kiss her, George."
Warham kissed one of the soft cheeks, swelling like a ripening apple. The baby opened wide a pair of wonderful dark eyes, threw up its chubby arms and laughed—such a laugh!. . . There was no more talk of sending her away.
NOT quite seventeen years later, on a fine June morning, Ruth Warham issued hastily from the house and started down the long tanbark walk from the front veranda to the street gate. She was now nineteen—nearer twenty—and a very pretty young woman, indeed. She had grown up one of those small slender blondes, exquisite and doll-like, who cannot help seeming fresh and sweet, whatever the truth about them, without or within. This morning she had on a new summer dress of a blue that matched her eyes and harmonized with her coloring. She was looking her best, and she had the satisfying, confidence-giving sense that it was so. Like most of the unattached girls of small towns, she was always dreaming of the handsome stranger who would fall in love—the thrilling, love-story kind of love at first sight. The weather plays a conspicuous part in the romancings of youth; she felt that this was precisely the kind of day fate would be most likely to select for the meeting. Just before dressing she had been reading about the wonderful him—in Robert Chambers' latest story—and she had spent full fifteen minutes of blissful reverie over the accompanying Fisher illustration. Now she was issuing hopefully forth, as hopefully as if adventure were the rule and order of life in Sutherland, instead of a desperate monotony made the harder to bear by the glory of its scenery.
She had got only far enough from the house to be visible to the second-story windows when a young voice called:
"Ruthie! Aren't you going to wait for me?"
Ruth halted; an expression anything but harmonious with the pretty blue costume stormed across her face. "I won't have her along!" she muttered. "I simply won't!" She turned slowly and, as she turned, effaced every trace of temper with a dexterity which might have given an onlooker a poorer opinion of her character than perhaps the facts as to human nature justify. The countenance she presently revealed to those upper windows was sunny and sweet. No one was visible; but the horizontal slats in one of the only closed pair of shutters and a vague suggestion of movement rather than form behind them gave the impression that a woman, not far enough dressed to risk being seen from the street, was hidden there. Evidently Ruth knew, for it was toward this window that she directed her gaze and the remark: "Can't wait, dear. I'm in a great hurry. Mamma wants the silk right away and I've got to match it."
"But I'll be only a minute," pleaded the voice—a much more interesting, more musical voice than Ruth's rather shrill and thin high soprano.
"No—I'll meet you up at papa's store."
Ruth resumed her journey. She smiled to herself. "That means," said she, half aloud, "I'll steer clear of the store this morning."
But as she was leaving the gate into the wide, shady, sleepy street, who should come driving past in a village cart but Lottie Wright! And Lottie reined her pony in to the sidewalk and in the shade of a symmetrical walnut tree proceeded to invite Ruth to a dance—a long story, as Lottie had to tell all about it, the decorations, the favors, the food, who would be there, what she was going to wear, and so on and on. Ruth was intensely interested but kept remembering something that caused her to glance uneasily from time to time up the tanbark walk under the arching boughs toward the house. Even if she had not been interested, she would hardly have ventured to break off; Lottie Wright was the only daughter of the richest man in Sutherland and, therefore, social arbiter to the younger set.
Lottie stopped abruptly, said: "Well, I really must get on. And there's your cousin coming down the walk. I know you've been waiting for her."
Ruth tried to keep in countenance, but a blush of shame and a frown of irritation came in spite of her.
"I'm sorry I can't ask Susie, too," pursued Lottie, in a voice of hypocritical regret. "But there are to be exactly eighteen couples—and I couldn't."
"Of course not," said Ruth heartily. "Susan'll understand."
"I wouldn't for the world do anything to hurt her feelings," continued Lottie with the self-complacent righteousness of a deacon telling the congregation how good "grace" has made him. Her prominent commonplace brown eyes were gazing up the walk, an expression distressingly like envious anger in them. She had a thick, pudgy face, an oily skin, an outcropping of dull red pimples on the chin. Many women can indulge their passion for sweets at meals and sweets between meals without serious injury—to complexion; Lottie Wright, unluckily, couldn't.
"I feel sorry for Susie," she went on, in the ludicrous patronizing tone that needs no describing to anyone acquainted with any fashionable set anywhere from China to Peru. "And I think the way you all treat her is simply beautiful. But, then, everybody feels sorry for her and tries to be kind. She knows—about herself, I mean—doesn't she, Ruthie?"
"I guess so," replied Ruth, almost hanging her head in her mortification. "She's very good and sweet."
"Indeed, she is," said Lottie. "And father says she's far and away the prettiest girl in town."
With this parting shot, which struck precisely where she had aimed, Lottie gathered up the reins and drove on, calling out a friendly "Hello, Susie dearie," to Susan Lenox, who, on her purposely lagging way from the house, had nearly reached the gate.
"What a nasty thing Lottie Wright is!" exclaimed Ruth to her cousin.
"She has a mean tongue," admitted Susan, tall and slim and straight, with glorious dark hair and a skin healthily pallid and as smooth as clear. "But she's got a good heart. She gives a lot away to poor people."
"Because she likes to patronize and be kowtowed to," retorted Ruth. "She's mean, I tell you." Then, with a vicious gleam in the blue eyes that hinted a deeper and less presentable motive for the telling, she added: "Why, she's not going to ask you to her party."
Susan was obviously unmoved. "She has the right to ask whom she pleases. And"—she laughed—"if I were giving a party I'd not want to ask her—though I might do it for fear she'd feel left out."
"Don't you feel—left out?"
Susan shook her head. "I seem not to care much about going to parties lately. The boys don't like to dance with me, and I get tired of sitting the dances out."
This touched Ruth's impulsively generous heart and woman's easy tears filled her eyes; her cousin's remark was so pathetic, the more pathetic because its pathos was absolutely unconscious. Ruth shot a pitying glance at Susan, but the instant she saw the loveliness of the features upon which that expression of unconsciousness lay like innocence upon a bed of roses, the pity vanished from her eyes to be replaced by a disfiguring envy as hateful as an evil emotion can be at nineteen. Susan still lacked nearly a month of seventeen, but she seemed older than Ruth because her mind and her body had developed beyond her years—or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say beyond the average of growth at seventeen. Also, her personality was stronger, far more definite. Ruth tried to believe herself the cleverer and the more beautiful, at times with a certain success. But as she happened to be a shrewd young person—an inheritance from the Warhams—she was haunted by misgivings—and worse. Those whose vanity never suffers from these torments will, of course, condemn her; but whoever has known the pain of having to concede superiority to someone with whom she or he—is constantly contrasted will not be altogether without sympathy for Ruth in her struggles, often vain struggles, against the mortal sin of jealousy.
The truth is, Susan was beyond question the beauty of Sutherland. Her eyes, very dark at birth, had changed to a soft, dreamy violet-gray. Hair and coloring, lashes and eyebrows remained dark; thus her eyes and the intense red of her lips had that vicinage of contrast which is necessary to distinction. To look at her was to be at once fascinated by those violet-gray eyes—by their color, by their clearness, by their regard of calm, grave inquiry, by their mystery not untouched by a certain sadness. She had a thick abundance of wavy hair, not so long as Ruth's golden braids, but growing beautifully instead of thinly about her low brow, about her delicately modeled ears, and at the back of her exquisite neck. Her slim nose departed enough from the classic line to prevent the suggestion of monotony that is in all purely classic faces. Her nostrils had the sensitiveness that more than any other outward sign indicates the imaginative temperament. Her chin and throat—to look at them was to know where her lover would choose to kiss her first. When she smiled her large even teeth were dazzling. And the smile itself was exceedingly sweet and winning, with the violet-gray eyes casting over it that seriousness verging on sadness which is the natural outlook of a highly intelligent nature. For while stupid vain people are suspicious and easily offended, only the intelligent are truly sensitive—keenly susceptible to all sensations. The dull ear is suspicious; the acute ear is sensitive.
The intense red of her lips, at times so vivid that it seemed artificial, and their sinuous, sensitive curve indicated a temperament that was frankly proclaimed in her figure—sensuous, graceful, slender—the figure of girlhood in its perfection and of perfect womanhood, too—like those tropical flowers that look innocent and young and fresh, yet stir in the beholder passionate longings and visions. Her walk was worthy of face and figure—free and firm and graceful, the small head carried proudly without haughtiness.
This physical beauty had as an aureole to illuminate it and to set it off a manner that was wholly devoid of mannerisms—of those that men and women think out and exhibit to give added charm to themselves—tricks of cuteness, as lisp and baby stare; tricks of dignity, as grave brow and body always carried rigidly erect; tricks of sweetness and kindliness, as the ever ready smile and the warm handclasp. Susan, the interested in the world about her, Susan, the self-unconscious, had none of these tricks. She was at all times her own self. Beauty is anything but rare, likewise intelligence. But this quality of naturalness is the greatest of all qualities. It made Susan Lenox unique.
It was not strange—nor inexcusable that the girls and their parents had begun to pity Susan as soon as this beauty developed and this personality had begun to exhale its delicious perfume. It was but natural that they should start the whole town to "being kind to the poor thing." And it was equally the matter of course that they should have achieved their object—should have impressed the conventional masculine mind of the town with such a sense of the "poor thing's" social isolation and "impossibility" that the boys ceased to be her eagerly admiring friends, were afraid to be alone with her, to ask her to dance. Women are conventional as a business; but with men conventionality is a groveling superstition. The youths of Sutherland longed for, sighed for the alluring, sweet, bright Susan; but they dared not, with all the women saying "Poor thing! What a pity a nice man can't afford to have anything to do with her!" It was an interesting typical example of the profound snobbishness of the male character. Rarely, after Susan was sixteen, did any of the boys venture to ask her to dance and so give himself the joy of encircling that lovely form of hers; yet from babyhood her fascination for the male sex, regardless of age or temperament, had been uncanny—"naturally, she being a love-child," said the old women. And from fourteen on, it grew steadily.
It would be difficult for one who has not lived in a small town to understand exactly the kind of isolation to which Sutherland consigned the girl without her realizing it, without their fully realizing it themselves. Everyone was friendly with her. A stranger would not have noticed any difference in the treatment of her and of her cousin Ruth. Yet not one of the young men would have thought of marrying her, would have regarded her as his equal or the equal of his sisters. She went to all the general entertainments. She was invited to all the houses when failure to invite her would have seemed pointed—but only then. She did not think much about herself; she was fond of study—fonder of reading—fondest, perhaps, of making dresses and hats, especially for Ruth, whom she thought much prettier than herself. Thus, she was only vaguely, subconsciously conscious of there being something peculiar and mysterious in her lot.
This isolation, rather than her dominant quality of self-effacing consideration for others, was the chief cause of the extraordinary innocence of her mind. No servant, no girl, no audacious boy ever ventured to raise with her any question remotely touching on sex. All those questions seemed to Puritan Sutherland in any circumstances highly indelicate; in relation to Susan they seemed worse than indelicate, dreadful though the thought was that there could be anything worse than indelicacy. At fifteen she remained as unaware of even the existence of the mysteries of sex as she had been at birth. Nothing definite enough to arouse her curiosity had ever been said in her hearing; and such references to those matters as she found in her reading passed her by, as any matter of which he has not the beginnings of knowledge will fail to arrest the attention of any reader. It was generally assumed that she knew all about her origin, that someone had, some time or other, told her. Even her Aunt Fanny thought so, thought she was hiding the knowledge deep in her heart, explained in that way her content with the solitude of books and sewing.
Susan was the worst possible influence in Ruth's life. Our character is ourself, is born with us, clings to us as the flesh to our bones, persists unchanged until we die. But upon the circumstances that surround us depends what part of our character shall show itself. Ruth was born with perhaps something more than the normal tendency to be envious and petty. But these qualities might never have shown themselves conspicuously had there been no Susan for her to envy. The very qualities that made Susan lovable reacted upon the pretty, pert blond cousin to make her the more unlovable. Again and again, when she and Susan were about to start out together, and Susan would appear in beauty and grace of person and dress, Ruth would excuse herself, would fly to her room to lock herself in and weep and rage and hate. And at the high school, when Susan scored in a recitation or in some dramatic entertainment, Ruth would sit with bitten lip and surging bosom, pale with jealousy. Susan's isolation, the way the boys avoided having with her the friendly relations that spring up naturally among young people these gave Ruth a partial revenge. But Susan, seemingly unconscious, rising sweetly and serenely above all pettiness—
Ruth's hatred deepened, though she hid it from everyone, almost from herself. And she depended more and more utterly upon Susan to select her clothes for her, to dress her, to make her look well; for Susan had taste and Ruth had not.
On that bright June morning as the cousins went up Main Street together, Susan gave herself over to the delight of sun and air and of the flowering gardens before the attractive houses they were passing; Ruth, with the day quite dark for her, all its joys gone, was fighting against a hatred of her cousin so vicious that it made her afraid. "I'll have no chance at all," her angry heart was saying, "so long as Susie's around, keeping everybody reminded of the family shame." And that was a truth she could not downface, mean and ungenerous though thinking it might be. The worst of all was that Susan, in a simple white dress and an almost untrimmed white straw hat with a graceful curve to its brim and set at the right angle upon that wavy dark hair, was making the beauty of her short blond cousin dim and somehow common.
At the corner of Maple Street Ruth's self-control reached its limit. She halted, took the sample of silk from her glove. There was not a hint of her feelings in her countenance, for shame and the desire to seem to be better than she was were fast making her an adept in hypocrisy. "You go ahead and match it for mamma," said she. "I've got to run in and see Bessie Andrews."
"But I promised Uncle George I'd come and help him with the monthly bills," objected Susan.
"You can do both. It'll take you only a minute. If mother had known you were going uptown, she'd never have trusted me." And Ruth had tucked the sample in Susan's belt and was hurrying out Maple Street. There was nothing for Susan to do but go on alone.
Two squares, and she was passing the show place of Sutherland, the home of the Wrights. She paused to regale herself with a glance into the grove of magnificent elms with lawns and bright gardens beyond—for the Wright place filled the entire square between Broad and Myrtle Streets and from Main to Monroe. She was starting on when she saw among the trees a young man in striped flannels. At the same instant he saw her.
"Hel-lo, Susie!" he cried. "I was thinking about you."
Susan halted. "When did you get back, Sam?" she asked. "I heard you were going to stay on in the East all summer."
After they had shaken hands across the hedge that came almost to their shoulders, Susan began to move on. Sam kept pace with her on his side of the carefully trimmed boxwood barrier. "I'm going back East in about two weeks," said he. "It's awfully dull here after Yale. I just blew in—haven't seen Lottie or father yet. Coming to Lottie's party?"
"No," said Susan.
Susan laughed merrily. "The best reason in the world. Lottie has only invited just so many couples."
"I'll see about that," cried Sam. "You'll be asked all right, all right."
"No," said Susan. She was one of those whose way of saying no gives its full meaning and intent. "I'll not be asked, thank you—and I'll not go if I am."
By this time they were at the gate. He opened it, came out into the street. He was a tallish, athletic youth, dark, and pleasing enough of feature to be called handsome. He was dressed with a great deal of style of the efflorescent kind called sophomoric. He was a Sophomore at Yale. But that was not so largely responsible for his self-complacent expression as the deference he had got from babyhood through being heir apparent to the Wright fortune. He had a sophisticated way of inspecting Susan's charms of figure no less than charms of face that might have made a disagreeable impression upon an experienced onlooker. There is a time for feeling without knowing why one feels; and that period ought not to have been passed for young Wright for many a year.
"My, but you're looking fine, Susie!" exclaimed he. "I haven't seen anyone that could hold a candle to you even in the East."
Susan laughed and blushed with pleasure. "Go on," said she with raillery. "I love it."
"Come in and sit under the trees and I'll fill all the time you'll give me."
This reminded her. "I must hurry uptown," she said. "Good-by."
"Hold on!" cried he. "What have you got to do?" He happened to glance down the street. "Isn't that Ruth coming?"
"So it is," said Susan. "I guess Bessie Andrews wasn't at home."
Sam waved at Ruth and called, "Hello! Glad to see you."
Ruth was all sweetness and smiles. She and her mother—quite privately and with nothing openly said on either side—had canvassed Sam as a "possibility." There had been keen disappointment at the news that he was not coming home for the long vacation. "How are you, Sam?" said she, as they shook hands. "My, Susie, doesn't he look New York?"
Sam tried to conceal that he was swelling with pride. "Oh, this is nothing," said he deprecatingly.
Ruth's heart was a-flutter. The Fisher picture of the Chambers love-maker, thought she, might almost be a photograph of Sam. She was glad she had obeyed the mysterious impulse to make a toilette of unusual elegance that morning. How get rid of Susan? "I'll take the sample, Susie," said she. "Then you won't have to keep father waiting."
Susie gave up the sample. Her face was no longer so bright and interested.
"Oh, drop it," cried Sam. "Come in—both of you. I'll telephone for Joe Andrews and we'll take a drive—or anything you like." He was looking at Susan.
"Can't do it," replied Susan. "I promised Uncle George."
"Oh, bother!" urged Sam. "Telephone him. It'll be all right—won't it, Ruth?"
"You don't know Susie," said Ruth, with a queer, strained laugh. "She'd rather die than break a promise."
"I must go," Susan now said. "Good-by."
"Come on, Ruth," cried Sam. "Let's walk uptown with her."
"And you can help match the silk," said Ruth.
"Not for me," replied young Wright. Then to Susan, "What've you got to do? Maybe it's something I could help at."
"No. It's for Uncle George and me."
"Well, I'll go as far as the store. Then—we'll see."
They were now in the business part of Main Street, were at Wilson's dry goods store. "You might find it here," suggested the innocent Susan to her cousin.
Ruth colored, veiled her eyes to hide their flash. "I've got to go to the store first—to get some money," she hastily improvised.
Sam had been walking between the two girls. He now changed to the outside and, so, put himself next Susan alone, put Susan between him and Ruth. The maneuver seemed to be a mere politeness, but Ruth knew better. What fate had intended as her lucky day was being changed into unlucky by this cousin of hers. Ruth walked sullenly along, hot tears in her eyes and a choke in her throat, as she listened to Sam's flatterings of her cousin, and to Susan's laughing, delighted replies. She tried to gather herself together, to think up something funny or at least interesting with which to break into the tete-a-tete and draw Sam to herself. She could think nothing but envious, hateful thoughts. At the doors of Warham and Company, wholesale and retail grocers, the three halted.
"I guess I'll go to Vandermark's," said Ruth. "I really don't need money. Come on, Sam."
"No—I'm going back home. I ought to see Lottie and father. My, but it's dull in this town!"
"Well, so long," said Susan. She nodded, sparkling of hair and skin and eyes, and went into the store.
Sam and Ruth watched her as she walked down the broad aisle between the counters. From the store came a mingling of odors of fruit, of spices, of freshly ground coffee. "Susan's an awful pretty girl, isn't she?" declared Sam with rude enthusiasm.
"Indeed she is," replied Ruth as heartily—and with an honest if discouraged effort to feel enthusiastic.
"What a figure! And she has such a good walk. Most women walk horribly."
"Come on to Vandermark's with me and I'll stroll back with you," offered Ruth. Sam was still gazing into the store where, far to the rear, Susan could be seen; the graceful head, the gently swelling bust, the soft lines of the white dress, the pretty ankles revealed by the short skirt—there was, indeed, a profile worth a man's looking at on a fine June day. Ruth's eyes were upon Sam, handsome, dressed in the Eastern fashion, an ideal lover. "Come on, Sam," urged Ruth.
"No, thanks," he replied absently. "I'll go back. Good luck!" And not glancing at her, he lifted his straw hat with its band of Yale blue and set out.
Ruth moved slowly and disconsolately in the opposite direction. She was ashamed of her thoughts; but shame never yet withheld anybody from being human in thought. As she turned to enter Vandermark's she glanced down the street. There was Sam, returned and going into her father's store. She hesitated, could devise no plan of action, hurried into the dry goods store. Sinclair, the head salesman and the beau of Sutherland, was an especial friend of hers. The tall, slender, hungry-looking young man, devoured with ambition for speedy wealth, had no mind to neglect so easy an aid to that ambition as nature gave him in making him a lady-charmer. He had resolved to marry either Lottie Wright or Ruth Warham—Ruth preferred, because, while Lottie would have many times more money, her skin made her a stiff dose for a young man brought up to the American tradition that the face is the woman. But that morning Sinclair exerted his charms in vain. Ruth was in a hurry, was distinctly rude, cut short what in other circumstances would have been a prolonged and delightful flirtation by tossing the sample on the counter and asking him to do the matching for her and to send the silk right away. Which said, she fairly bolted from the store.
She arrived barely in time. Young Wright was issuing from Warham and Company. He smiled friendly enough, but Ruth knew where his thoughts were. "Get what you wanted?" inquired he, and went on to explain: "I came back to find out if you and Susie were to be at home this evening. Thought I'd call."
Ruth paled with angry dismay. She was going to a party at the Sinclairs'—one to which Susan was not invited. "Aren't you going to Sinclairs'?" said she.
"I was. But I thought I'd rather call. Perhaps I'll go there later."
He was coming to call on Susan! All the way down Main Street to the Wright place Ruth fought against her mood of angry and depressed silence, tried to make the best of her chance to impress Sam. But Sam was absent and humiliatingly near to curt. He halted at his father's gate. She halted also, searched the grounds with anxious eyes for sign of Lottie that would give her the excuse for entering.
"So long," said Sam.
"Do come to Sinclairs' early. You always did dance so well."
"Oh, dancing bores me," said the blase Sophomore. "But I'll be round before the shindy's over. I've got to take Lot home."
He lifted the hat again with what both he and Ruth regarded as a gesture of most elegant carelessness. Ruth strolled reluctantly on, feeling as if her toilet had been splashed or crushed. As she entered the front door her mother, in a wrapper and curl papers, appeared at the head of the stairs. "Why!" cried she. "Where's the silk? It's for your dress tonight, you know."
"It'll be along," was Ruth's answer, her tone dreary, her lip quivering. "I met Sam Wright."
"Oh!" exclaimed her mother. "He's back, is he?"
Ruth did not reply. She came on up the stairs, went into the sitting-room—the room where Doctor Stevens seventeen years before had torn the baby Susan from the very claws of death. She flung herself down, buried her head in her arms upon that same table. She burst into a storm of tears.
"Why, dearie dear," cried her mother, "whatever is the matter?"
"It's wicked and hateful," sobbed the girl, "but—— Oh, mamma, I hate Susan! She was along, and Sam hardly noticed me, and he's coming here this evening to call."
"But you'll be at Sinclairs'!" exclaimed Mrs. Warham.
"Not Susan," sobbed Ruth. "He wants to see only her."
The members of the Second Presbyterian Church, of which Fanny Warham was about the most exemplary and assiduous female member, would hardly have recognized the face encircled by that triple row of curl-papered locks, shinily plastered with quince-seed liquor. She was at woman's second critical age, and the strange emotions working in her mind—of whose disorder no one had an inkling—were upon the surface now. She ventured this freedom of facial expression because her daughter's face was hid. She did not speak. She laid a tender defending hand for an instant upon her daughter's shoulder—like the caress of love and encouragement the lioness gives her cub as she is about to give battle for it. Then she left the room. She did not know what to do, but she knew she must and would do something.
THE telephone was downstairs, in the rear end of the hall which divided the lower floor into two equal parts. But hardly had Mrs. Warham given the Sinclairs' number to the exchange girl when Ruth called from the head of the stairs:
"What're you doing there, mamma?"
"I'll tell Mrs. Sinclair you're sick and can't come. Then I'll send Susan in your place."
"Don't!" cried Ruth, in an agitated, angry voice. "Ring off—quick!"
"Now, Ruth, let me——"
"Ring off!" ordered Ruth. "You mustn't do that. You'll have the whole town talking about how I'm throwing myself at Sam's head—and that I'm jealous of Susan."
Mrs. Warham said, "Never mind" into the telephone sender and hung up the receiver. She was frightened, but not convinced. Hers was a slow, old-fashioned mind, and to it the scheme it had worked out seemed a model of skillful duplicity. But Ruth, of the younger and subtler generation, realized instantly how transparent the thing was. Mrs. Warham was abashed but not angered by her daughter's curt contempt.
"It's the only way I can think of," said she. "And I still don't see——"
"Of course you don't," cut in Ruth, ruffled by the perilously narrow escape from being the laughing stock of the town. "People aren't as big fools as they used to be, mamma. They don't believe nowadays everything that's told them. There isn't anybody that doesn't know I'm never sick. No—we'll have to——"
She reflected a moment, pausing halfway down the stairs, while her mother watched her swollen and tear-stained face.
"We might send Susan away for the evening," suggested the mother.
"Yes," assented the daughter. "Papa could take her with him for a drive to North Sutherland—to see the Provosts. Then Sam'd come straight on to the Sinclairs'."
"I'll call up your father."
"No!" cried Ruth, stamping her foot. "Call up Mr. Provost, and tell him papa's coming. Then you can talk with papa when he gets home to dinner."
"If that doesn't work out we can do something else this afternoon."
The mother and the daughter avoided each other's eyes. Both felt mean and small, guilty toward Susan; but neither was for that reason disposed to draw back. As Mrs. Warham was trying the new dress on her daughter, she said:
"Anyhow, Sam'd be wasting time on Susan. He'd hang round her for no good. She'd simply get talked about. The poor child can't be lively or smile but what people begin to wonder if she's going the way of—of Lorella."
"That's so," agreed Ruth, and both felt better. "Was Aunt Lorella very pretty, mamma?"
"Lovely!" replied Fanny, and her eyes grew tender, for she had adored Lorella. "You never saw such a complexion—like Susan's, only snow-white." Nervously and hastily, "Most as fine as yours, Ruthie."
Ruth gazed complacently into the mirror. "I'm glad I'm fair, and not big," said she.
"Yes, indeed! I like the womanly woman. And so do men."
"Don't you think we ought to send Susan away to visit somewhere?" asked Ruth at the next opportunity for talk the fitting gave. "It's getting more and more—pointed—the way people act. And she's so sweet and good, I'd hate to have her feelings hurt." In a burst of generosity, "She's the most considerate human being I ever knew. She'd give up anything rather than see someone else put out. She's too much that way."
"We can't be too much that way," said Mrs. Warham in mechanical Christian reproof.
"Oh, I know," retorted Ruth, "that's all very well for church and Sundays. But I guess if you want to get along you've got to look out for Number One. . . . Yes, she ought to visit somewhere."
"I've been trying to think," said her mother. "She couldn't go any place but your Uncle Zeke's. But it's so lonesome out there I haven't the heart to send her. Besides, she wouldn't know what to make of it."
"What'd father say?"
"That's another thing." Mrs. Warham had latterly grown jealous—not without reason—of her husband's partiality for Susan.
Ruth sighed. "Oh, dear!" cried she. "I don't know what to do. How's she ever going to get married!"
"If she'd only been a boy!" said Mrs. Warham, on her knees, taking the unevenness out of the front of the skirt. "A girl has to suffer for her mother's sins."
Ruth made no reply. She smiled to herself—the comment of the younger generation upon the older. Sin it might have been; but, worse than that, it was a stupidity—to let a man make a fool of her. Lorella must have been a poor weak-minded creature.
By dinner time Ruth had completely soothed and smoothed her vanity. Sam had been caught by Susan simply because he had seen Susan before he saw her.
All that would be necessary was a good chance at him, and he would never look at Susan again. He had been in the East, where the admired type was her own—refined, ladylike, the woman of the dainty appearance and manners and tastes. A brief undisturbed exposure to her charms and Susan would seem coarse and countrified to him. There was no denying that Susan had style, but it was fully effective only when applied to a sunny fairy-like beauty such as hers.
But at midday, when Susan came in with Warham, Ruth's jealousy opened all her inward-bleeding wounds again. Susan's merry eyes, her laughing mouth, her funny way of saying even commonplace things—how could quiet, unobtrusive, ladylike charms such as Ruth's have a chance if Susan were about? She waited, silent and anxious, while her mother was having the talk with her father in the sitting-room. Warham, mere man, was amused by his wife's scheming.
"Don't put yourself out, Fanny," said he. "If the boy wants Ruth and she wants him, why, well and good. But you'll only make a mess interfering. Let the young people alone."
"I'm surprised, George Warham," cried Fanny, "that you can show so little sense and heart."
"To hear you talk, I'd think marriage was a business, like groceries."
Mrs. Warham thought it was, in a sense. But she would never have dared say so aloud, even to her husband—or, rather, especially to her husband. In matters of men and women he was thoroughly innocent, with the simplicity of the old-time man of the small town and the country; he fancied that, while in grocery matters and the like the world was full of guile, in matters of the heart it was idyllic, Arcadian, with never a thought of duplicity, except among a few obviously wicked and designing people.
"I guess we both want to see Ruth married well," was all she could venture.
"I'd rather the girls stayed with us," declared Warham. "I'd hate to give them up."
"Of course," hastily agreed Fanny. "Still—it's the regular order of nature."
"Oh, Ruth'll marry—only too soon," said Warham. "And marry well. I'm not so sure, though, that marrying any of old Wright's breed would be marrying what ought to be called well. Money isn't everything—not by a long sight—though, of course, it's comfortable."
"I never heard anything against Sam," protested Mrs. Warham.
"You've heard what I've heard—that he's wild and loose. But then you women like that in a man."
"We've got to put up with it, you mean," cried Fanny, indignant.
"Women like it," persisted Warham. "And I guess Sam's only sowing the usual wild oats, getting ready to settle. No, mother, you let Ruth alone. If she wants him, she'll get him—she or Susan."
Mrs. Warham compressed her lips and lowered her eyes. Ruth or Susan—as if it didn't matter which! "Susan isn't ours," she could not refrain from saying.
"Indeed, she is!" retorted George warmly. "Why, she couldn't be more our own——"
"Yes, certainly," interrupted Fanny.
She moved toward the door. She saw that without revealing her entire scheme—hers and Ruth's—she could make no headway with George. And if she did reveal it he would sternly veto it. So she gave up that direction. She went upstairs; George took his hat from the front hall rack and pushed open the screen door. As he appeared on the veranda Susan was picking dead leaves from one of the hanging baskets; Ruth, seated in the hammock, hands in lap, her whole attitude intensely still, was watching her with narrowed eyes.
"What's this I hear," cried Warham, laughing, "about you two girls setting your caps for Sam Wright?" And his good-humored brown eyes glanced at Ruth, passed on to Susan's wealth of wavy dark hair and long, rounded form, and lingered there.
Ruth lowered her eyes and compressed her lips, a trick she had borrowed from her mother along with the peculiarities of her mother's disposition that it fitted. Susan flung a laughing glance over her shoulder at her uncle. "Not Ruth," said she. "Only me. I saw him first, so he's mine. He's coming to see me this evening."
"So I hear. Well, the moon's full and your aunt and I'll not interrupt—at least not till ten o'clock. No callers on a child like you after ten."
"Oh, I don't think I'll be able to hold him that long."
"Don't you fret, Brownie. But I mustn't make you vain. Coming along to the store?"
"No. Tomorrow," said Susan. "I can finish in the morning. I'm going to wear my white dress with embroidery, and it's got to be pressed—and that means I must do it myself."
"Poor Sam! And I suppose, when he calls, you'll come down as if you'd put on any old thing and didn't care whether he came or not. And you'll have primped for an hour—and he, too—shaving and combing and trying different ties."
Susan sparkled at the idea of a young man, and such a young man, taking trouble for her. Ruth, pale, kept her eyes down and her lips compressed. She was picturing the gallant appearance the young Sophomore from Yale, away off in the gorgeous fashionable East, would make as he came in at that gate yonder and up the walk and seated himself on the veranda—with Susan! Evidently her mother had failed; Susan was not to be taken away.
When Warham departed down the walk Ruth rose; she could not bear being alone with her triumphant rival—triumphant because unconscious. She knew that to get Sam to herself all she would have to do would be to hint to Susan, the generous, what she wanted. But pride forbade that. As her hand was on the knob of the screen door, Susan said: "Why don't you like Sam?"
"Oh, I think he's stuck-up. He's been spoiled in the East."
"Why, I don't see any sign of it."
"You were too flattered by his talking to you," said Ruth, with a sweet-sour little laugh—an asp of a sneer hid in a basket of flowers.
Susan felt the sting; but, seeing only the flowers, did not dream whence it had come. "It was nice, wasn't it?" said she, gayly. "Maybe you're right about him, but I can't help liking him. You must admit he's handsome."
"He has a bad look in his eyes," replied Ruth. Such rage against Susan was swelling within her that it seemed to her she would faint if she did not release at least part of it. "You want to look out for him, Susie," said she, calmly and evenly. "You don't want to take what he says seriously."
"Of course not," said Susan, quite honestly, though she, no more than the next human being, could avoid taking seriously whatever was pleasantly flattering.
"He'd never think of marrying you." Ruth trembled before and after delivering this venomous shaft.
"Marrying!" cried Susan, again quite honestly. "Why, I'm only seventeen."
Ruth drew a breath of relief. The shaft had glanced off the armor of innocence without making the faintest dent. She rushed into the house. She did not dare trust herself with her cousin. What might the demon within her tempt her to say next?
"Come up, Ruth!" called her mother. "The dress is ready for the last try-on. I think it's going to hang beautifully."
Ruth dragged herself up the stairs, lagged into the sitting-room, gazed at the dress with a scowl. "What did father say?" she asked.
"It's no use trying to do anything with your father."
Ruth flung herself in a corner of the sofa.
"The only thing I can think of," said her mother, humbly and timidly, "is phone the Sinclairs as I originally set out to do."
"And have the whole town laughing at me. . . . Oh, what do I care, anyhow!"
"Arthur Sinclair's taller and a sight handsomer. Right in the face, Sam's as plain as Dick's hatband. His looks is all clothes and polish—and mighty poor polish, I think. Arthur's got rise in him, too, while Sam—well, I don't know what'd become of him if old Wright lost his money."
But Arthur, a mere promise, seemed poor indeed beside Sam, the actually arrived. To marry Sam would be to step at once into grandeur; to marry Arthur would mean years of struggle. Besides, Arthur was heavy, at least seemed heavy to light Ruth, while Sam was her ideal of gay elegance. "I detest Arthur Sinclair," she now announced.
"You can get Sam if you want him," said her mother confidently. "One evening with a mere child like Susie isn't going to amount to much."
Ruth winced. "Do you suppose I don't know that?" cried she. "What makes me so mad is his impudence—coming here to see her when he wouldn't marry her or take her any place. It's insulting to us all."
"Oh, I don't think it's as bad as all that, Ruthie," soothed her mother, too simple-minded to accept immediately this clever subtlety of self-deception.
"You know this town—how people talk. Why, his sister——" and she related their conversation at the gate that morning.
"You ought to have sat on her hard, Ruth," said Mrs. Warham, with dangerously sparkling eyes. "No matter what we may think privately, it gives people a low opinion of us to——"
"Don't I know that!" shrilled Ruth. She began to weep. "I'm ashamed of myself."
"But we must try the dress on." Mrs. Warham spread the skirt, using herself as form. "Isn't it too lovely!"
Ruth dried her eyes as she gazed. The dress was indeed lovely. But her pleasure in it was shadowed by the remembrance that most of the loveliness was due to Susan's suggestions. Still, she tried it on, and felt better. She would linger until Sam came, would exhibit herself to him; and surely he would not tarry long with Susan. This project improved the situation greatly. She began her toilet for the evening at once, though it was only three o'clock. Susan finished her pressing and started to dress at five—because she knew Ruth would be appealing to her to come in and help put the finishing touches to the toilet for the party. And, sure enough, at half-past five, before she had nearly finished, Ruth, with a sneaking humility, begged her to come "for half a minute—if you don't mind—and have got time."
Susan did Ruth's hair over, made her change to another color of stockings and slippers, put the dress on her, did nearly an hour's refitting and redraping. Both were late for supper; and after supper Susan had to make certain final amendments to the wonderful toilet, and then get herself ready. So it was Ruth alone who went down when Sam Wright came. "My, but you do look all to the good, Ruth!" cried Sam. And his eyes no less than his tone showed that he meant it. He hadn't realized what a soft white neck the blond cousin had, or how perfectly her shoulders rounded into her slim arms. As Ruth moved to depart, he said: "Don't be in such a rush. Wait till Susie finishes her primping and comes down."
"She had to help me," said Ruth, with a righteousness she could justly plume herself upon. "That's why she's late. No, I must get along." She was wise enough to resist the temptation to improve upon an already splendid impression. "Come as soon as you can."
"I'll be there in a few minutes," Sam assured her convincingly. "Save some dances for me."
Ruth went away happy. At the gate she glanced furtively back. Sam was looking after her. She marched down the street with light step. "I must wear low-necked dresses more in the evenings," she said to herself. "It's foolish for a girl to hide a good neck."
Sam, at the edge of the veranda, regretting his promise to call on Susan, was roused by her voice: "Did you ever see anything as lovely as Ruth?"
Sam's regret vanished the instant he looked at her, and the greedy expression came into his sensual, confident young face. "She's a corker," said he. "But I'm content to be where I am."
Susan's dress was not cut out in the neck, was simply of the collarless kind girls of her age wear. It revealed the smooth, voluptuous yet slender column of her throat. And her arms, bare to just above the elbows, were exquisite. But Susan's fascination did not lie in any or in all of her charms, but in that subtlety of magnetism which account for all the sensational phenomena of the relations of men and women. She was a clever girl—clever beyond her years, perhaps—though in this day seventeen is not far from fully developed womanhood. But even had she been silly, men would have been glad to linger on and on under the spell of the sex call which nature had subtly woven into the texture of her voice, into the glance of her eyes, into the delicate emanations of her skin.
They talked of all manner of things—games and college East and West—the wonders of New York—the weather, finally. Sam was every moment of the time puzzling how to bring up the one subject that interested both above all others, that interested him to the exclusion of all others. He was an ardent student of the game of man and woman, had made considerable progress at it—remarkable progress, in view of his bare twenty years. He had devised as many "openings" as an expert chess player. None seemed to fit this difficult case how to make love to a girl of his own class whom his conventional, socially ambitious nature forbade him to consider marrying. As he observed her in the moonlight, he said to himself: "I've got to look out or I'll make a damn fool of myself with her." For his heady passion was fast getting the better of those prudent instincts he had inherited from a father who almost breathed by calculation.
While he was still struggling for an "opening," Susan eager to help him but not knowing how, there came from the far interior of the house three distant raps. "Gracious!" exclaimed Susan. "That's Uncle George. It must be ten o'clock." With frank regret, "I'm so sorry. I thought it was early."
"Yes, it did seem as if I'd just come," said Sam. Her shy innocence was contagious. He felt an awkward country lout. "Well, I suppose I must go."
"But you'll come again—sometime?" she asked wistfully. It was her first real beau—the first that had interested her—and what a dream lover of a beau he looked, standing before her in that wonderful light!
"Come? Rather!" exclaimed he in a tone of enthusiasm that could not but flatter her into a sort of intoxication. "I'd have hard work staying away. But Ruth—she'll always be here."
"Oh, she goes out a lot—and I don't."
"Will you telephone me—next time she's to be out?"
"Yes," agreed she with a hesitation that was explained when she added: "But don't think you've got to come. . . . Oh, I must go in!"
"Good night—Susie." Sam held out his hand. She took it with a queer reluctance. She felt nervous, afraid, as if there were something uncanny lurking somewhere in those moonlight shadows. She gently tried to draw her hand away, but he would not let her. She made a faint struggle, then yielded. It was so wonderful, the sense of the touch of his hand. "Susie!" he said hoarsely. And she knew he felt as she did. Before she realized it his arms were round her, and his lips had met hers. "You drive me crazy," he whispered.
Both were trembling; she had become quite cold—her cheeks, her hand, her body even. "You mustn't," she murmured, drawing gently away.
"You set me crazy," he repeated. "Do you—love me—a little?"
"Oh, I must go!" she pleaded. Tears were glistening in her long dark lashes. The sight of them maddened him. "Do you—Susie?" he pleaded.
"I'm—I'm—very young," she stammered.
"Yes—yes—I know," he assented eagerly. "But not too young to love, Susie? No. Because you do—don't you?"
The moonlit world seemed a fairyland. "Yes," she said softly. "I guess so. I must go. I must."
And moved beyond her power to control herself, she broke from his detaining hand and fled into the house. She darted up to her room, paused in the middle of the floor, her hands clasped over her wildly beating heart. When she could move she threw open the shutters and went out on the balcony. She leaned against the window frame and gazed up at the stars, instinctively seeking the companionship of the infinite. Curiously enough, she thought little about Sam. She was awed and wonderstruck before the strange mysterious event within her, the opening up, the flowering of her soul. These vast emotions, where did they come from? What were they? Why did she long to burst into laughter, to burst into tears? Why did she do neither, but simply stand motionless, with the stars blazing and reeling in the sky and her heart beating like mad and her blood surging and ebbing? Was this—love? Yes—it must be love. Oh, how wonderful love was—and how sad—and how happy beyond all laughter—and how sweet! She felt an enormous tenderness for everybody and for everything, for all the world—an overwhelming sense of beauty and goodness. Her lips were moving. She was amazed to find she was repeating the one prayer she knew, the one Aunt Fanny had taught her in babyhood. Why should she find herself praying? Love—love love! She was a woman and she loved! So this was what it meant to be a woman; it meant to love!
She was roused by the sound of Ruth saying good night to someone at the gate, invisible because of the intervening foliage. Why, it must be dreadfully late. The Dipper had moved away round to the south, and the heat of the day was all gone, and the air was full of the cool, scented breath of leaves and flowers and grass. Ruth's lights shone out upon the balcony. Susan turned to slip into her own room. But Ruth heard, called out peevishly:
"Only me," cried Susan.
She longed to go in and embrace Ruth, and kiss her. She would have liked to ask Ruth to let her sleep with her, but she felt Ruth wouldn't understand.
"What are you doing out there?" demanded Ruth. "It's 'way after one."
"Oh—dear—I must go to bed," cried Susan. Ruth's voice somehow seemed to be knocking and tumbling her new dream-world.
"What time did Sam Wright leave here?" asked Ruth.
She was standing in her window now. Susan saw that her face looked tired and worn, almost homely.
"At ten," she replied. "Uncle George knocked on the banister."
"Are you sure it was ten?" said Ruth sharply.
"I guess so. Yes—it was ten. Why?"
"Was he at Sinclairs'?"
"He came as it was over. He and Lottie brought me home." Ruth was eyeing her cousin evilly. "How did you two get on?"
Susan flushed from head to foot. "Oh—so-so," she answered, in an uncertain voice.
"I don't know why he didn't come to Sinclairs'," snapped Ruth.
Susan flushed again—a delicious warmth from head to foot. She knew why. So he, too, had been dreaming alone. Love! Love!
"What are you smiling at?" cried Ruth crossly.
"Was I smiling?. . . Do you want me to help you undress?"
"No," was the curt answer. "Good night."
"Please let me unhook it, at least," urged Susan, following Ruth into her room.
"Did you have a good time?" asked Susan.
"Of course," snapped Ruth. "What made you think I didn't?"
"Don't be a silly, dear. I didn't think so."
"I had an awful time—awful!"
Ruth began to sob, turned fiercely on Susan. "Leave me alone!" she cried. "I hate to have you touch me." The dress was, of course, entirely unfastened in the back.
"You had a quarrel with Arthur?" asked Susan with sympathy. "But you know he can't keep away from you. Tomorrow——"
"Be careful, Susan, how you let Sam Wright hang around you," cried Ruth, with blazing eyes and trembling lips. "You be careful—that's all I've got to say."
"Why, what do you mean?" asked Susan wonderingly.
"Be careful! He'd never think for a minute of marrying you."
The words meant nothing to Susan; but the tone stabbed into her heart. "Why not?" she said.
Ruth looked at her cousin, hung her head in shame. "Go—go!" she begged. "Please go. I'm a bad girl—bad—bad! Go!" And, crying hysterically, she pushed amazed Susan through the connecting door, closed and bolted it.
WHEN Fanny Warham was young her mother—compelled by her father—roused—"routed out"—the children at half-past six on week days and at seven on Sundays for prayers and breakfast, no matter what time they had gone to bed the night before. The horror of this made such an impression upon her that she never permitted Ruth and Susan to be awakened; always they slept until they had "had their sleep out." Regularity was no doubt an excellent thing for health and for moral discipline; but the best rule could be carried to foolish extremes. Until the last year Mrs. Warham had made her two girls live a life of the strictest simplicity and regularity, with the result that they were the most amazingly, soundly, healthy girls in Sutherland. And the regimen still held, except when they had company in the evening or went out—and Mrs. Warham saw to it that there was not too much of that sort of thing. In all her life thus far Susan had never slept less than ten hours, rarely less than twelve.
It lacked less than a minute of ten o'clock the morning after Sam's call when Susan's eyes opened upon her simple, pale-gray bedroom, neat and fresh. She looked sleepily at the little clock on the night stand.
"Mercy me!" she cried. And her bare feet were on the floor and she was stretching her lithe young body, weak from the relaxation of her profound sleep.
She heard someone stirring in Ruth's room; instantly Ruth's remark, "He'd never think for a minute of marrying you," popped into her head. It still meant nothing to her. She could not have explained why it came back or why she fell to puzzling over it as if it held some mysterious meaning. Perhaps the reason was that from early childhood there had been accumulating in some dusky chamber of her mind stray happenings and remarks, all baring upon the unsuspected secret of her birth and the unsuspected strangeness of her position in the world where everyone else was definitely placed and ticketed. She was wondering about Ruth's queer hysterical outburst, evidently the result of a quarrel with Arthur Sinclair. "I guess Ruth cares more for him than she lets on," thought she. This love that had come to her so suddenly and miraculously made her alert for signs of love elsewhere.
She went to the bolted connecting door; she could not remember when it had ever been bolted before, and she felt forlorn and shut out. "Ruth!" she called.
"Is that you?"
A brief silence, then a faint "Yes."
"May I come in?"
"You'd better take your bath and get downstairs."
This reminded her that she was hungry. She gathered her underclothes together, and with the bundle in her arms darted across the hall into the bathroom. The cold water acted as champagne promises to act but doesn't. She felt giddy with health and happiness. And the bright sun was flooding the bathroom, and the odors from the big bed of hyacinths in the side lawn scented the warm breeze from the open window. When she dashed back to her room she was singing, and her singing voice was as charming as her speaking voice promised. A few minutes and her hair had gone up in careless grace and she was clad in a fresh dress of tan linen, full in the blouse. This, with her tan stockings and tan slippers and the radiant youth of her face, gave her a look of utter cleanness and freshness that was exceedingly good to see.
"I'm ready," she called.
There was no answer; doubtless Ruth had already descended. She rushed downstairs and into the dining-room. No one was at the little table set in one of the windows in readiness for the late breakfasters.
Molly came, bringing cocoa, a cereal, hot biscuit and crab-apple preserves, all attractively arranged on a large tray.
"I didn't bring much, Miss Susie," she apologized. "It's so late, and I don't want you to spoil your dinner. We're going to have the grandest chicken that ever came out of an egg."
Susan surveyed the tray with delighted eyes. "That's plenty," she said, "if you don't talk too much about the chicken. Where's Ruth?"
"She ain't coming down. She's got a headache. It was that salad for supper over to Sinclairs' last night. Salad ain't fit for a dog to eat, nohow—that's my opinion. And at night—it's sure to bust your face out or give you the headache or both."
Susan ate with her usual enthusiasm, thinking the while of Sam and wondering how she could contrive to see him. She remembered her promise to her uncle. She had not eaten nearly so much as she wanted. But up she sprang and in fifteen minutes was on her way to the store. She had seen neither Ruth nor her aunt. "He'll be waiting for me to pass," she thought. And she was not disappointed. There he stood, at the footpath gate into his father's place. He had arrayed himself in a blue and white flannel suit, white hat and shoes; a big expensive-looking cigarette adorned his lips. The Martins, the Delevans, the Castles and the Bowens, neighbors across the way, were watching him admiringly through the meshes of lace window curtains. She expected that he would come forward eagerly. Instead, he continued to lean indolently on the gate, as if unaware of her approach. And when she was close at hand, his bow and smile were, so it seemed to her, almost coldly polite. Into her eyes came a confused, hurt expression.
"Susie—sweetheart," he said, the voice in as astonishing contrast as the words to his air of friendly indifference. "They're watching us from the windows all around here."
"Oh—yes," assented she, as if she understood. But she didn't. In Sutherland the young people were not so mindful of gossip, which it was impossible to escape, anyhow. Still—off there in the East, no doubt, they had more refined ways; without a doubt, whatever Sam did was the correct thing.
"Do you still care as you did last night?" he asked. The effect of his words upon her was so obvious that he glanced nervously round. It was delightful to be able to evoke a love like this; but he did wish others weren't looking.
"I'm going to Uncle's store," she said. "I'm late."
"I'll walk part of the way with you," he volunteered, and they started on. "That—that kiss," he stammered. "I can feel it yet."
She blushed deeply, happily. Her beauty made him tingle. "So can I," she said.
They walked in silence several squares. "When will I see you again?" he asked. "Tonight?"
"Yes—do come down. But—Ruth'll be there. I believe Artie Sinclair's coming."
"Oh, that counter-jumper?"
She looked at him in surprise. "He's an awfully nice fellow," said she. "About the nicest in town."
"Of course," replied Sam elaborately. "I beg your pardon. They think differently about those things in the East."
Sam, whose secret dream was to marry some fashionable Eastern woman and cut a dash in Fifth Avenue life, had no intention of explaining what was what to one who would not understand, would not approve, and would be made auspicious of him. "I suppose Ruth and Sinclair'll pair off and give us a chance."
"Right after din—supper, I mean. In the East we have dinner in the evening."
"Isn't that queer!" exclaimed Susan. But she was thinking of the joys in store for her at the close of the day.
"I must go back now," said Sam. Far up the street he saw his sister's pony cart coming.
"You might as well walk to the store." It seemed to her that they both had ever so much to say to each other, and had said nothing.
"No. I can't go any further. Good-by—that is, till tonight."
He was red and stammering. As they shook hands emotion made them speechless. He stumbled awkwardly as he turned to leave, became still more hotly self-conscious when he saw the grin on the faces of the group of loungers at a packing case near the curb. Susan did not see the loafers, did not see anything distinctly. Her feet sought the uneven brick sidewalk uncertainly, and the blood was pouring into her cheeks, was steaming in her brain, making a red mist before her eyes. She was glad he had left her. The joy of being with him was so keen that it was pain. Now she could breathe freely and could dream—dream—dream. She made blunder after blunder in working over the accounts with her uncle, and he began to tease her.
"You sure are in love, Brownie," declared he. Her painful but happy blush delighted him.
"Tell me all about it?"
She shook her head, bending it low to hide her color.
"No?. . . Sometime?"
She nodded. She was glancing shyly and merrily at him now.
"Well, some hold that first love's best. Maybe so. But it seems to me any time's good enough. Still—the first time's mighty fine eh?" He sighed. "My, but it's good to be young!" And he patted her thick wavy hair.
It did not leak out until supper that Sam was coming. Warham said to Susan, "While Ruth's looking out for Artie, you and I'll have a game or so of chess, Brownie." Susan colored violently. "What?" laughed Warham. "Are you going to have a beau too?"
Susan felt two pairs of feminine eyes pounce—hostile eyes, savagely curious. She paled with fright as queer, as unprecedented, as those hostile glances. It seemed to her that she had done or was about to do something criminal. She could not speak.
An awful silence, then her aunt—she no longer seemed her loving aunt—asked in an ominous voice: "Is someone coming to see you, Susan?"
"Sam Wright"—stammered Susan—"I saw him this morning—he was at their gate—and he said—I think he's coming."
A dead silence—Warham silent because he was eating, but the two others not for that reason.
Susan felt horribly guilty, and for no reason. "I'd have spoken of it before," she said, "but there didn't seem to be any chance." She had the instinct of fine shy nature to veil the soul; she found it hard to speak of anything as sacred as this love of hers and whatever related to it.
"I can't allow this, Susie," said her aunt, with lips tightly drawn against the teeth. "You are too young."
"Oh, come now, mother," cried Warham, good-humoredly. "That's foolishness. Let the young folks have a good time. You didn't think you were too young at Susie's age."
"You don't understand, George," said Fanny after she had given him a private frown. Susie's gaze was on the tablecloth. "I can't permit Sam to come here to see Susie."
Ruth's eyes were down also. About her lips was a twitching that meant a struggle to hide a pleased smile.
"I've no objection to Susie's having boys of her own age come to see her," continued Mrs. Warham in the same precise, restrained manner. "But Sam is too old."
Mrs. Warham met his eyes steadily. "I must protect my sister's child, George," she said. At last she had found what she felt was a just reason for keeping Sam away from Susan, so her tone was honest and strong.
Warham lowered his gaze. He understood. "Oh—as you think best, Fan; I didn't mean to interfere," said he awkwardly. He turned on Susan with his affection in his eyes. "Well, Brownie, it looks like chess with your old uncle, doesn't it?"