THE BLOOD RED DAWN
CHARLES CALDWELL DOBIE
To My Mother
The pastor's announcement had been swallowed up in a hum of truant inattention, and as the heralded speaker made his appearance upon the platform Claire Robson, leaning forward, said to her mother:
"What?... Did you catch his name?"
"A foreigner of some sort!" replied Mrs. Robson, with smug sufficiency.
For a moment the elder woman's sneer dulled the edge of Claire's anticipations, but presently the man began to speak, and at once she felt a sense of power back of his halting words, a sudden bursting fort of bloom amid the frozen assembly that sat ice-bound, refusing to be melted by the fires of an alien enthusiasm. She could not help wondering whether he felt how hopeless it would be to force a sympathetic response from his audience. In ordinary times the Second Presbyterian Church of San Francisco could not possibly have had any interest in Serbia except as a field for foreign missionaries. Now, with America in the war and speeding up the draft, these worthy people were too much concerned with problems nearer their own hearthstones to be swept off their feet by a specific and almost inarticulate appeal for an obscure country, made only a shade less remote by the accident of being accounted an ally.
Claire, straining at attention, found it hard to follow him. He talked rapidly and with unfamiliar emphasis, and he waved his hands. Frankly, people were bored. They had come to hear a concert and incidentally swell the Red Cross fund, but they had not reckoned on quite this type of harangue. Besides, an appetizing smell of coffee from the church kitchen had begun to beguile their senses. And yet, the man talked on and on, until quite suddenly Claire Robson began to have a strange feeling of disquiet, an embarrassment for him, such as one feels when an intimate friend or kinsman unconsciously makes a spectacle of himself. She wished that he would stop. She longed to rise from her seat and scream, to create an outlandish scene, to do anything, in short, that would silence him. At this point he turned his eyes in her direction, and she felt the scorch of an intense inner fire. Instinctively she lowered her glance.... When she looked up again his gaze was still fixed upon her. She felt her color rise. From that moment on she had a sense that she was his sole audience. He was talking to her. The others did not matter. She still did not have any very distinct idea what it was all about, but the manner of it held her captive. But gradually the mists cleared, he became more coherent, and slowly, imperceptibly, bit by bit, he won the others. Yet never for an instant did he take his eyes from her. When he finished, a momentary silence blocked the final burst of applause. But Claire Robson's hands were locked tightly together, and it was not until he had disappeared that she realized that she had not paid him the tribute of even a parting glance.
The pastor came back upon the platform and announced that refreshments would be served at the conclusion of the next number. A heavy odor of coffee continued to float from the church kitchen. A red-haired woman stepped forward and began to sing.
Already Claire Robson dreaded the ordeal of supper. The fact that tables were being laid further disturbed her. This meant that she and her mother would have to push their way into some group which, at best, would remain indifferent to their presence. When coffee was served informally things were not so awkward. To be sure, one had to balance coffee-cup and cake-plate with an amazing and painful skill, but, on the other hand, table-less groups did not emphasize one's isolation. Claire had got to the point where she would have welcomed active hostility on the part of her fellow church members, but their utter indifference was soul-killing. She would have liked to remember one occasion when any one had betrayed the slightest interest in either her arrival or departure, or rather in the arrival and departure of her mother and herself.
The solo came to an end, and the inevitable applause followed, but before the singer could respond to the implied encore most of the listeners began frank and determined advances upon the tables. The concert was over.
Mrs. Robson rose and faced Claire with a look of bewilderment. As usual, mother and daughter stood irresolutely, caught like two trembling leaves in the backwater of a swirling eddy. At last Claire made a movement toward the nearest table. Mrs. Robson followed. They sat down.
The scattered company speedily began to form into congenial groups. There was a great deal of suddenly loosened chatter. Claire Robson sat silently, rather surprised and dismayed to find that she and her mother had chosen a table which seemed to be the objective of all the prominent church members. The company facing her was elegant, if not precisely smart, and there were enough laces and diamonds displayed to have done excellent service if the proper background had been provided. Claire was further annoyed to discover that her mother was regarding the situation with a certain ruffling self-satisfaction which she took no pains to conceal. Mrs. Robson bowed and smirked, and even called gaily to every one within easy range. There was something distasteful in her mother's sudden and almost aggressive self-assurance.
Gradually the company adjusted itself; the tables were filled. The only moving figures were those of young women carrying huge white pitchers of steaming coffee. Claire Robson settled into her seat with a resignation born of subtle inner misery. Across her brain flashed the insistent and pertinent questions that such a situation always evoked. Why was she not one of these young women engaged in distributing refreshments? Did the circles close automatically so as to exclude her, or did her own aloofness shut her out? What was the secret of these people about her that gave them such an assured manner? No one spoke to her with cordial enthusiasm.... It was not a matter of wealth, or brains, or prominent church activity. It was not even a matter of obscurity. Like all large organizations, the Second Presbyterian Church was made up of every clique in the social calendar; the obscure circle was as clannish and distinctive in its way as any other group. But Claire Robson was forced to admit that she did not belong even to the obscure circle. She belonged nowhere—that was the galling and oppressive truth that was forced upon her.
At this point she became aware that one of the most prominent church members, Mrs. Towne, was making an unmistakably cordial advance in her direction. Claire had a misgiving.... Mrs. Towne was never excessively friendly except for a definite aim.
"My dear Miss Robson," Mrs. Towne began, sweetly, drooping confidentially to a whispering posture, "I am so sorry, but I shall have to disturb you and your mother!... It just happens that this table has been reserved for the elders and their wives.... I hope you'll understand!"
For a moment Claire merely stared at the messenger of evil news. Then, recovering herself, she managed to reply:
"Oh yes, Mrs. Towne! I understand perfectly.... I am sure we were very stupid.... Come, mother!"
Mrs. Robson responded at once to her daughter's command. The two women rose. By this time the task of securing another place was quite hopeless. Claire felt that every eye in the room was turned upon them. Picking their way between a labyrinth of tables and chairs, they literally were stumbling in the direction of an exit when Claire felt a hand upon her arm. She turned.
"Pardon me," the man opposite her was saying, "but may I offer you a place at our table?"
Claire said nothing; she followed blindly. Her mother was close upon her heels.
The table was a small one, and only two people were occupying it—the man who had halted Claire, and a woman. The man, standing with one hand on the chair which he had drawn up for Mrs. Robson, said, simply:
"My name is Stillman, and of course you know Mrs. Condor—the lady who has just sung for us."
Claire gave a swift, inclusive glance. Yes, it was the same woman who had attempted to beguile a weary audience from its impending repletion; at close range one could not escape the intense redness of her hair or the almost immoral whiteness of the shoulders and arms which she was at such little pains to conceal.
"Stillman?" Mrs. Robson was fluttering importantly. "Not the old Rincon Hill family?"
"Yes, the old Rincon Hill family," the man replied.
Mrs. Robson sat down with preening self-satisfaction. Wearily the daughter dropped into the seat which Mrs. Condor proffered. The name of Ned Stillman was not unfamiliar to any San Franciscan who scanned the social news with even a casual glance, and Claire had a vague remembrance that Mrs. Condor also figured socially, but in a rather more inclusive way than her companion. At all events, it was plain that her mother, with unerring feminine insight, had placed the pair to her satisfaction. Already the elder woman was contriving to let Stillman know something of her antecedents. She was Emily Carrol, also of Rincon Hill, and of course he knew her two sisters—Mrs. Thomas Wynne and Mrs. Edward Finch-Brown! As Stillman returned a smiling assurance to Mrs. Robson's attempts to be impressive, a young woman in white arrived with ice-cream and messy layer-cake. Unconsciously Claire Robson began to smile. She could not have said why, but somehow the presence of Ned Stillman and Mrs. Condor at a table spread with such vacuous delights seemed little short of ridiculous. They did not fit the picture any more than her beetle-browed, red-lipped Serbian who.... She turned deliberately and swept the room with her glance. Of course he had gone. It was not to be expected that he would descend to the level of such puerile feasting. A sudden contempt for everything that only an hour ago seemed so desirable rose within her, and, in answer to the young woman's query as to whether she preferred coffee to ice-cream, she answered with lip-curling aloofness:
"Neither, thank you.... I am not hungry."
Stillman looked at her searchingly. She returned his gaze without flinching.
Claire Robson did not sleep that night. She lay for hours, quite motionless, staring into the gloom of her narrow bedroom, her mind ruthlessly shaping formless, vague intuitions into definite convictions. She could not put her finger upon the precise reason for her inquietude. Was it chargeable to so trivial a circumstance as a stranger's formal courtesy or had something more subtle moved her? If the depths of her isolation had been thrown into too high relief by the almost shameful sense of obligation she felt toward Stillman for his courtesy, what was to be said of the uniqueness of the solitary position which the Serbian awarded her by singling her out for a sympathetic response? Could it be that a vague pity had stirred him, too? Had things reached a point where her loneliness showed through the threadbare indifference of her glance? In short, had both men been won to gallantry by her distress? In one case, at least, she decided that there was a reasonable chance to doubt. And that doubt quickened her pulse like May wine.
But the humiliation of her last encounter with chivalry stuck with profound irritation. She recalled the scene again and again. She remembered her contemptuous silence before Stillman's obvious suavities, the high, assured laugh which his companion, Mrs. Condor, threw out to meet his quiet sallies, the ruffling satisfaction of her mother, chattering on irrelevantly, but with the undisguised purpose of creating a proper impression. How easily Stillman must have seen through Claire's muteness and the elder woman's eager craving for an audience! And all the time Mrs. Condor had been laughing, not ill-naturedly, but with the irony of an experienced woman possessing a sense of humor.
And at the end, when the four had left the church together, to be whirled home in Stillman's car, the sudden nods and smiles and farewells that had blossomed along the path of her mother's exit! Claire could have laughed it all away if her mother had not betrayed such eagerness to drink this snobbish flattery to the lees....
Claire's father had never entered very largely into her calculations, but to-night her readjusted vision included him. Stubborn, kind, a bit weak, and inclined to copying poetry in a red-covered album, he had been no match for the disillusionments of married life. Her mother's people had felt a sullen resentment at his downfall—he had taken to drink and died ingloriously when Claire was still in her seventh year. Claire, influenced by the family traditions, had shared this resentment. But now she found herself wondering whether there was not a word or two to be said in his behalf. Her father had been a cheap clerk in a wholesale house when he had married. The uncertain Carrol fortunes were waning swiftly at the time, and Emily Carrol had been thrown at him with all the panic that then possessed a public schooled in the fallacy that marriage was a woman's only career. The result was to have been expected. Extravagance, debts, too much family, drink, death—the sequence was complete. He had been captured, withered, cast aside, by a tribe that had not even had the decency to grant his memory the kindness of an excuse.
Wide-eyed and restless, Claire Robson felt a sudden pity for her father. Tears sprang to her eyes; it overwhelmed her to discover this new father so full of human failings and yet so full of human provocation. In her twenty-four years of life she had never shed a tear for him, or felt the slightest pang for his failure. If she had ever doubted the Carrol viewpoint, she had never given her lack of faith any scope. She had taken their cast-off prejudices and threadbare convictions as docilely as she had once received their stale garments. She had shrunk from spiritual independence with all the obsequious arrogance of a poor relation at a feast. Her diffidence, her self-consciousness, her timidity, were the outward forms of an inbred snobbery. It was curious how suddenly all this was made clear to her....
At length she fell into a troubled sleep.... When she awoke the room's outlines were reviving before the advances of early morning. For the first time in her life she caught the poetry of the new day at first hand. For years she had reveled vicariously in the delights of morning. But it had always been to her a thing apart, a matter which the writers of romantic verse beheld and translated for the benefit of late sleepers. It never occurred to her that the day crawling into the light-well of her Clay Street flat was lit with precisely the same flame that colored the far-flung peaks of the poet's song. And instantly a phrase of the Serbian's harangue came to her—blood-red dawn! He had repeated these words over and over again, and somehow under the heat of his ardor and longing for his native land this hackneyed phrase took on its real and dreadful value. In the sudden sweep of this vital remembrance, Claire Robson rose for a moment above the fretful drip of circumstance.... Blood-red Dawn!... She threw herself back upon her bed and shuddered....
She rose at seven o'clock, but already the morning had grown pallid and flecked with gray clouds.
An apologetic tap came at the door, and the voice of Mrs. Robson repeating a formula that she never varied:
"Better hurry, Claire. If you don't you'll be late for the office!"
As Claire stepped out into the cold sunlight of early November, she smiled bitterly at the exaggeration of last night's mood. After the first hectic flush of dawn there is nothing so sane and sweet and commonplace as morning. The spectacle of Mrs. Finnegan, who lodged in the flat below, slopping warm suds over the thin marble steps, added a final note of homeliness, which divorced Claire completely from heroics.
"Well, Miss Robson, so you really got home, last night," broke from the industrious neighbor as she straightened up and tucked her lifted skirts in more securely. "I thought you never would come!... A package came from New York for you. The man nearly banged your door down. I had Finnegan put it on your back stoop.... It's from that cousin of yours, I guess. I was so excited about it I kept wishing you'd get home early so that I could get a peep at all the pretty things. But I'll run up just as soon as I get through with the breakfast dishes."
Claire smiled wanly. "It was very good of you to take all that trouble, I'm sure, Mrs. Finnegan!"
"Oh, bother my trouble!" Mrs. Finnegan responded. "I just knew how crazy I'd be about a box. I guess we women are all alike, Miss Robson. Anyway, your mother and I are!"
Mrs. Finnegan bent over her task again with a quick exasperated movement, and Claire passed on. Her neighbor's abrupt rebuke gave Claire a renewed sense of exclusion. She had meant to be warmly appreciative, but she knew now that she had been only coldly polite. But, as a matter of fact, the prospect of delving through a box of Gertrude Sinclair's discarded finery moved her this morning to a dull fury. She felt suddenly tired of cast-offs, of compromise, of all the other shabby adjustments of genteel poverty. And by the time she reached the office of the Falcon Insurance Company her soul was seething with a curious and unreasonable revolt. The feminine office force seemed seething also, but with an impersonal, quivering excitement. Nellie Whitehead had been dismissed!
This Nellie Whitehead, the stenographer-in-chief, was big, vigorous, blond—vulgar, energetic, vivid; and Miss Munch, her assistant, a thin, hollow-chested spinster, who loafed upon her job so that she might save her sight for the manufacture of incredible yards of tatting, never missed an opportunity to lift her eyes significantly behind her superior's back.
"And what do you suppose?" Miss Munch was querying as Claire stepped into the dressing-room. "She told Mr. Flint to go to hell!... Yes, positively, she used those very words. And I must say he was a gentleman throughout it all. He told her gently but firmly that her example in the office wasn't what it should be and that in justice to the other girls...."
Claire turned impatiently away. The fiction of Mr. Flint's belated interest in the morals of his feminine office force was unconvincing enough to be irritating. For a man who never missed an opportunity to force his attentions, he was showing an amazingly ethical viewpoint. On second thought, Claire remembered that Miss Munch was never the recipient of Mr. Flint's attentions, which to the casual eye might have seemed innocent enough—on rainy days gallantly bending his ample girth in a rather too prolonged attempt to slip on the girls' rubbers, insisting on the quite unnecessary task of incasing them in their jackets and smoothing the sleeves of their shirt-waists in the process, flicking imaginary threads where the feminine curves were most opulent. Not that Mr. Flint was a wolf in sheep's clothing; he played the part of sheep, but he needed no disguise for his performance; he merely lived up to a sort of flock-mind consciousness where women were concerned.
The group clustered about Miss Munch broke up at the approach of Mr. Flint, who gave a significant glance in the direction of Claire Robson, intent upon her morning work. But the excitement persisted in spite of the scattered auditors, and the fact was mysteriously communicated that Miss Munch's interest in the event was chargeable to her hopes. It seemed impossible to Miss Munch that any one but herself could succeed to the vacant post of stenographer-in-chief.
At precisely eleven o'clock the buzzer on Claire Robson's desk hummed three times. This announced that she was wanted by Mr. Flint. She gathered her note-book and pencils and answered the call.
Mr. Flint was busy at the telephone when Claire entered the private office. She seated herself at the flat oak table in the center of the room.
Mr. Flint's office bore all the conventional signs of business—commissions of authority from insurance companies, state licenses in oak frames, an oil-painting of Thomas Sawyer Flint, the founder of the firm, over a fireplace that maintained its useless dignity in spite of the steam-radiator near the window. On his desk was the inevitable picture of his wife framed in silver, a hand-illumined platitude of Stevenson, an elaborate set of desk paraphernalia in beaten brass that bore little evidence of service. In two green-glazed bowls of Japanese origin, roses from Mr. Flint's garden at Yolanda scattered faint pink petals on the Smyrna rug. These flowers were the only concession to esthetics that Mr. Flint indulged. In spite of a masculine distaste for carrying flowers, hardly a day went by when he did not appear at the office with a huge harvest of blossoms from his country home.
Claire was bending over, intent on picking up the crumpled rose-petals, when Mr. Flint finally spoke. She straightened herself slowly. Her unhurried movements had a certain grace that did not escape the man opposite her. She tossed the bruised leaves into a waste-basket and reached for her pencil. Her heart was pounding, but she faced Mr. Flint with a clear, direct gaze.
"Miss Robson, of course you've heard all about the rumpus," Mr. Flint was saying. "I had to fire Miss Whitehead.... I think you can fill the bill."
Claire rose without replying. Mr. Flint left his seat and crossed over to her.
"I hope," he said, flicking a thread from her shoulder, "that you're game.... Some girls, of course, don't care a damn about getting on ... especially if there's a Johnny somewhere in sight with enough cash in his pocket for a marriage license."
"I am very much taken by surprise," Claire faltered. "You see, the change means a great deal to me."
Mr. Flint moved closer. His manner was intimate and distasteful. "Sometimes I think we business men ought to get more of a slant on our employees.... You know what I mean, not exactly bothering about how many lumps of sugar they take in their coffee, or their taste in after-dinner cheese ... but, well, just how often they have to resole their boots and turn the ribbons on their spring bonnets.... Now, in Miss Whitehead's case.... But of course you're not interested in Miss Whitehead."
"Why, I wouldn't say that," stammered Claire. Then, as she reached for her shorthand book she said, more confidently: "To be quite frank, Mr. Flint, I liked Miss Whitehead tremendously. She was so alive ... and vivid."
Flint beamed. "Do you know why I picked you instead of that Munch dame?... It's because you had all the frills of a woman and none of the nastiness. For instance, you wouldn't be bothered in the least if I took a notion to overload the office with another pretty girl.... I've watched you for some time. It has taken me six months to make up my mind to fire Miss Whitehead and boost you into her job."
He stood with an air of condescending arrogance, his thumbs bearing down heavily on his trousers pockets, his broad fingers beating a self-satisfied tattoo upon his thighs. Claire shrank nearer the table. "You mean, Mr. Flint, that you dismissed Miss Whitehead merely to give me her position?"
Flint smiled. "Well, now you're coming down to brass-headed tacks. I'm not keen on spelling out the whys and wherefores of anything I do.... But one thing is certain enough—if Miss Munch had been the only available candidate I could have stood Miss Whitehead.... There ain't much question about that."
"Oh, Mr. Flint! I'm sorry!"
He gave a wide guffaw. "That only makes you all the more of a corker!" he answered, rubbing his hands together in narrow-eyed satisfaction.
She escaped into the outer office, flushed, but with her head thrown back in an attitude of instinctive defense, and the next instant she literally ran into the arm of a man.
"Why, Miss Robson, but this is pleasant! I'm just dropping in to see Mr. Flint."
She drew back. Mr. Stillman stood smiling before her.
Greetings and questions flowed with all the genial ease of one who is never quite taken unawares. Claire, outwardly calm, felt overcome with inner confusion. She passed rapidly to her desk and sat down.
Miss Munch was upon her almost instantly.
"Do you know Ned Stillman?" Miss Munch asked, veiling her real purpose.
"Yes," replied Claire, with uncomfortable brevity.
"I have a cousin who was housekeeper for his wife's father.... You know about his wife, of course."
Claire lifted her clear eyes in a startled glance that was almost as instantly converted into a look of challenge.
"Yes," she lied.
Miss Munch hesitated, then plunged at once into the issue uppermost in her mind. "It's too bad you've had to be bothered with Flint's dictation, Miss Robson. It just happens I'm writing up a long home-office report, otherwise I'm sure he wouldn't have annoyed you."
Claire Robson fixed Miss Munch with a coldly polite stare. "You've made a mistake, Miss Munch. Mr. Flint has given me no dictation." The speech in itself was nothing, but Claire's tone gave it unmistakable point. Miss Munch grew white and then flushed. She turned away without a word, but Claire Robson knew that in a twinkling of an eye she had gained not only an enemy, but an uncommon one.
* * * * *
That night Claire took an unusually long way round on her walk home. Her path from the Falcon Insurance Company's office on California Street to the Clay Street flat was never a direct one, first, because there were hills to be avoided, and, second, because Claire found the streets at twilight too full of charm for a rapid homeward flight. The year was on the wane and the November days were coming to an early blackness. Claire reveled in the light-flooded dusk of these late autumn evenings. To her, the city became a vast theater, darkened suddenly for the purpose of throwing the performers into sharper relief. Most clerks made their way up Montgomery Street toward Market, but Claire climbed past the German Bank to Kearny Street. She liked this old thoroughfare, struggling vainly to pull itself up to its former glory. The Kearny Street crowd was a varying quantity, frankly shabby or flashily prosperous, as far south as Sutter Street, suddenly dignified and reserved for the two blocks beyond. To-night Claire missed the direct appeal of the streets lined with bright shops. They formed the proper background for her broodings, but they scarcely entered into her mood. She could not have said just what flight her mood was taking, or upon just which branch her thought would alight. She was confused and puzzled and vaguely uneasy. She had a sense that somehow, somewhere, a door had been opened and that a strong, devastating wind was clearing the air and bringing dead things to ground in a disorderly shower. She was stirred by twilights of uneasiness. It was almost as if the monotonous truce of noonday had been darkened by a huge, composite, masculine shadow, made up in some mysterious way of the ridiculous Serbian and his blood-red dawn, and this man Stillman, who had a wife, and Flint, with hands so ready to flick threads from her sloping shoulders. Yesterday her outlook had been peaceful and unhappy; to-day she felt stimulation of an impending struggle. She was afraid, and yet she would not have turned back for one swift moment. And suddenly the words of Mrs. Finnegan recurred, "I guess we women are all alike." Were they?
At which point she came upon a pastry-shop window and she went in and bought a half-dozen French pastries. The thought of her mother's pleasure at this unusual treat brought her in due time smiling to her threshold.
Mrs. Robson was not in her accustomed place at the head of the stairs; about half-way up the long flight her voice sounded triumphantly:
"Oh, Claire, do hurry and see what Gertrude has sent! Everything is perfectly lovely."
Claire quickened her pace and gained the cramped living-room. Thrown about in a sort of joyous disorder, Gertrude Sinclair's finery quite lit up the shabbiness. Hats, plumes, scraps of vivid silks, gilded slippers, a spangled fan—their unrelated vividness struck Claire as fantastic as a futurist painting. Her mother seemed suddenly young again. Claire wondered whether, after the toll of sixty-odd years, she could be moved to momentary youth by the mere sight of the prettiness that was quickening her mother's pulse.
Mrs. Robson held up a filmy evening gown of black net embroidered with a rich design of dull gold. "Isn't this heavenly?" she demanded. "And it will just fit you, Claire. I think Gertrude has spread herself this time."
"Yes, on finery, mother. But didn't she send anything sensible? What possessed her to load us up with a lot of things we can never possibly get a chance to wear?"
Claire had not meant to be disagreeable, but there was rancor in her voice. Mrs. Robson cast aside the dress with the carelessness of a spoiled favorite; she always adapted her manner to the tone of her background.
"Claire Robson!" she cried, good-naturedly. "You're a regular old woman! I'm sure I haven't much to be cheerful about, but I just won't let anything down me!... If I wanted to, I could give up right now. Where would we have been, I'd like to know, if I hadn't held my head up? Goodness knows, my folks didn't help me. If they had had their way, I'd been out manicuring people's nails and washing heads for a living. And you in an orphan-asylum! That's what my people did for me! As it is, they shoved you out to work. What chance have you of meeting nice people? No, Claire, I don't care how they have treated me, but they might have given you a chance. I'll never forgive them for that!... I thought last night when I was talking to Mrs. Condor and watching you and Mr. Stillman how nice it would have been if.... Oh, that reminds me! Who do you think has been here to-day?... Mrs. Towne! She came to apologize about asking us to move our seats the other night. She knows the Stillmans well. The old people were pillars of the Second Church in the 'sixties. I fancy he is dancing about that Mrs. Condor's heels a bit. Of course, as Mrs. Towne said, she wouldn't be likely to make herself a permanent feature of Second Church entertainments. But now in war-times anything is possible. Mrs. Towne was telling me all about Stillman and his wife. I should have remembered, but somehow I forgot. Get your things off and I'll tell you all about it."
Claire handed her mother the package of pastries. "I heard about it to-day," she said, coldly.
"But Mrs. Towne knows the whole thing from A to Z," insisted Mrs. Robson, genially.
"I'm not interested in the details," Claire returned, doggedly.
Mrs. Robson's face wore a puzzled, almost a harried, expression. Claire moved away. Her mother gave a shrug and renewed her efforts to drag further finery from the mysterious depths of the treasure-box. Her daughter cast a last incurious glance back. The glow on Mrs. Robson's face, which Claire had mistaken for youth, seemed now a thing hectic and unpleasant, and gave an uncanny sense of a skeleton sitting among gauds and baubles.
A feeling of isolation swept Claire, such as she had never experienced. The person who should have been closest suddenly had become a stranger.... She went into her room and closed the door.
The following week Claire was surprised to find a letter on her desk at the office. The few written favors that came her way usually were addressed to the Clay Street flat, so that she was puzzled by this innovation and the unfamiliar handwriting. Glancing swiftly at the signature, she was surprised to see the name "Lily Condor," scrawled loosely at the foot of the note. It seemed that Mrs. Condor was giving a little musicale in Ned Stillman's apartments on the following Friday night, and, if one could believe such a thing, the lady implied that the evening would scarcely be complete without the presence of Claire Robson—or, to put it more properly, Claire Robson and her mother.
As Claire had scarcely said a half-dozen words to Mrs. Condor on the night of the Red Cross concert, this invitation seemed little short of extraordinary. But, as Claire thought it over, she recalled that there had been some general conversation about music, in which she had admitted a discreet passion for this form of entertainment, even going so far as to confess that she played the piano herself upon occasion. Her first impulse, clinched by the familiar feminine excuse that she had nothing suitable to wear, was to send her regrets. At once she thought of the scorned finery that Gertrude Sinclair had included in her last box, and the more she thought about it the more convinced she became that she had no real reason for refusing. But a swift, strange regret that her mother had been included in the invitation took the edge off her anticipations. She tried to dismiss this feeling, but it grew more definite as the morning progressed.
For days Claire had been striking at the shackles of habit with a rancor bred of disillusionment. She had been on tiptoe for new and vital experiences, and yet, for any outward sign, her life bid fair to escape the surge of any torrential circumstance. Particularly, at the office, things had gone on smoothly. The other clerks had accepted Claire's advancement without either protest or enthusiasm. Even Miss Munch had veiled her resentment behind the saving trivialities of daily intercourse. She had gone so far as to introduce Claire to her cousin, a Mrs. Richards, who had come in at the noon hour for a new tatting design. This cousin was a large, red-faced woman, with an aggressively capable manner. She had the quick, ferret-like eyes of Miss Munch and the loose mouth of a perpetual gossip.
"She's the one I told you about the other day," Miss Munch had explained later—"the housekeeper for your friend Stillman's father-in-law." She gave nasty emphasis to this trivial speech.
Flint had been direct and business-like almost to the point of bruskness. But Claire knew that such moods were not unusual, so she took little stock in the ultimate significance of his restrained manner.
Perhaps the most indefinable change had come over Claire's home life. Her mother's unfailing string of trivial gossip, formerly not without a certain interest, now scarcely held her to even polite attention. Indeed, her self-absorbed silence, while Mrs. Robson poured out the latest news about Mrs. Finnegan's second sister's husband's mother—who was suddenly stricken with some incurable disease, made all the more mysterious by the fact that its nature was not divulged—was so apparent that her mother, goaded on to a mild exasperation, would ask, significantly:
"What's the matter, Claire? Have you a headache?"
Mrs. Robson was never so happy as in the discovery of some one with a mysterious disease, particularly if the victim's relatives were loath to discuss the issue.
"They think they fool me!" she would say, triumphantly, to Claire, "but I guess I know what ails her.... Didn't her mother, and her uncle, and her sister's oldest child die of consumption? I tell you it's in the family. The last time I saw her she nearly coughed her head off."
Not that Mrs. Robson was unsympathetic; brought face to face with suffering, she blossomed with every impulsive tenderness, but her experiences had confirmed her in pessimism, and every fresh tragedy testified to the soundness of her faith. Her pride at diagnosing people's ills and pronouncing their death-sentences was almost professional. And she had an irritating way of making comments such as this:
"Well, Claire, I see that old Mrs. Talbot is dead at last!... I knew she wouldn't live another winter. They'll feel terribly, no doubt; but, of course, it is a great relief."
"Why, here is the death notice of Isaac Rice! I thought he died years ago. My, but he was a trial! What a blessing!"
This was the type of conversation that Claire was finding either empty of meaning or illuminating to the point of annoyance. What amazed her was the fact that she had remained blind so long to the slightest of the conversational food upon which she had been fed.
Claire did not tell her mother about the invitation to Mrs. Condor's musical evening.
"I'll wait," she said to herself. "Thursday will be time enough." Although why delay would prove advantageous was not particularly apparent.
On Wednesday night at the dinner-table, Mrs. Robson, as if still puzzled at her daughter's altered mood, said, rather cautiously:
"There's to be a reception at the church on Friday night."
"For whom?" inquired Claire, with pallid interest.
"I didn't quite catch the name.... Some woman back from France. She's been nursing in one of the British hospitals. She's to get Red Cross work started at the church. It seems San Francisco is a bit slow over taking up the work, but, then, you know, we're poked off here in a corner and I suppose we don't quite realize yet.... Anyway, Mrs. Towne wants us to help with the coffee. She says you should have been in the church-work long ago. You look so self-contained and efficient.... I told her we would be there at half past seven and get the dishes into shape."
Claire's heart beat violently. "Friday night? I'm sorry, mother; I have another engagement."
"Another engagement? Why, Claire, how funny! You never said anything about it. I don't know what to say to Mrs. Towne."
Claire felt calm again. "Just tell her the truth."
"But she'll think so strange that I didn't know ... that I...."
"You shouldn't have spoken for me until you found out whether I was willing."
"Willing! Willing! I didn't suppose you'd be anything else. I've been trying to get you in with the right people at the church for the last fifteen years. I've tried so hard...."
"Yes, mother, I know," said Claire, patiently. "But don't you see? That's just it. You've tried too hard."
Mrs. Robson began to whimper discreetly. "How you do talk, Claire! I declare I don't know what to make of it. I suppose you're bitter about Mrs. Towne the other night. I felt so at first, but I can see now we were at the wrong table. And, after all, everything came out beautifully. We sat with Mr. Stillman, and that had a very good effect, I can tell you. Especially when everybody saw us leave with him. Why, it brought Mrs. Towne to her feet."
"Yes, and that's the humiliating part of it."
"Well, Claire, when you've lived as long as I have you won't be so uppish about making compromises," flung back Mrs. Robson. "Of course, if you've got another engagement, you've got another engagement, but if...."
"I wouldn't have gone, anyway. I'm through with that sort of thing."
"Why, Claire, how can you! It's your duty, now!—with your country at war—and ... and ... Even that dreadful Serbian the other night made that plain."
"I'll go with you to church on Sundays, of course, but—"
"What am I to do?" wailed Mrs. Robson. "At least you might think of me! I've not had much pleasure in my life, goodness knows, and now just as I...."
Mrs. Robson broke off abruptly on a flood of tears. Two weeks ago these tears would have overwhelmed Claire. As it was, she sat calmly stirring her tea, surprised and a little ashamed of her coldness. The truth was that Claire Robson was feeling all the fanatical cruelty that comes with sudden conviction. The forms of her new faith had hardened too quickly and left outlines sharp and uncompromising.
For years Claire had found shelter from the glare of middle-class snobbery beating about her head, by shrinking into her mother's inadequate shadow as a desert bird shrinks into the thin shadow of a dry reed by some burned-out watercourse. Now a full noon of disillusionment had annihilated this shadow and given her the courage of necessity. And there was something more than courage—there was an eagerness to stand alone in the commonplace words with which she sought to temper her refusal to assist at the coming church reception:
"I can't see any good reason, mother, why you shouldn't go and help Mrs. Towne.... What have my plans to do with it?"
To which her mother answered:
"I do so hate to be seen at such places alone, Claire."
Claire made no reply. She did not want to give her mother's indecision a chance to crystallize into a definite stand. She knew by long experience that if this happened it would be fatal. But in a swift flash of decision Claire made up her mind for one thing—she would either go to Mrs. Condor's evening alone or she would send her regrets.
By a series of neutral subterfuges and tactful evasions Claire Robson won her point—she went to the Condor musicale at Ned Stillman's apartments alone, and on that same night her mother wended a rather grudging way to the Second Presbyterian Church reception.
Acting under her mother's advice, Claire timed her arrival for nine o'clock, an hour which seemed incredibly late to one schooled in the temperate hour of church socials. Mrs. Condor herself opened the door in answer to Claire's ring.
"Oh, my dear, but I am glad to see you!" burst from the elder woman as she waved her in. But she did not so much as mention the absence of Mrs. Robson, and Claire was divided between a feeling of wounded family pride, and gratification at the intuition which had warned her to leave her mother to her own devices. More people arrived on Claire's heels, and in the lively bustle she was left to shed her wraps in one of the bedrooms. Her heart was pounding with reaction at her outwardly self-contained entrance. She let her rather shabby cloak slip to the floor, revealing a strange, new Claire resplendent in the gold-embroidered gown that had once so stirred her rancor. For a brief instant she had an impulse to gather the discarded wrap securely about her and make a quick exit. A swooning fear at the thought of meeting a roomful of people assailed her. But there succeeded a courage born of the realization that they all would be strangers. With a sense of bravado she stepped out into the entrance hall again.
Ned Stillman came forward. She halted and waited for him. His face had lit with a sudden pleasure, which told Claire that for once in her life her presence roused positive interest. He inquired after her health, why her mother had not come, whether the abominable fog was clearing. His easy formality put her, as usual, completely at ease.
It was only when he asked her, with the most inconsequential tone in the world, "whether she could read music at sight" that a sinking fear came over her. And yet she found courage enough to be truthful and say yes.
"That's fine!" he returned. "Our accompanist hasn't come yet and we want to start off with a song or two."
From this moment on the evening impressed itself on Claire in a series of blurred hectic pictures.... She knew that Stillman was leading her toward the piano, but the living-room and its toned lights gave her a curious sense of unreality. She seated herself before the white keyboard and folded her hands with desperate resignation while she waited for Stillman to dictate the next move.
"My dear Mrs. Condor," Stillman explained, as that lady came up to them, "we sha'n't have to wait for Flora Menzies. Miss Robson will accompany you."
Claire sat unmoved. She was beyond so trivial a sensation as anxiety. Stillman drifted away; Mrs. Condor began to run through the sheet music lying on the piano.
"Of course you know Schumann, Miss Robson. Shall we start at once? How is the light? If you moved your stool a little—so. There, that's better."
Claire did not reply. She looked at the music before her. She was conscious that it was a piece she knew, although its name registered no other impression. She began to play. The opening bars almost startled her. She felt a hush fall over the noisy room. Her fingers stumbled—she caught the melody again with staggering desperation. Mrs. Condor was singing.... The room faded; even the sound of Mrs. Condor's voice became remote. Claire had a desire to laugh.
All manner of strange, disconnected thoughts ran through her head. She remembered a doll she had broken years ago and buried with great pomp and circumstance, a pink parasol that had been given her as a child, the gigantic and respectable wig which had incased the head of her old German music-teacher, Frau Pfaff. And as she played on and on the music further evoked the memory of this worthy lady who had given her services in exchange for lodgings in an incredibly small hall bedroom, with certain privileges at the kitchen stove. And pictures of this irritating woman rose before her, stewing dried fruit, or preparing sour beef, or borrowing the clothes boiler for a perennial wash. What compromises her mother had made to give her child the gentle accomplishments that Mrs. Robson associated with breeding! It came to Claire that it was almost cruel to have denied this mother a share in the triumphs of that evening. And with that, she realized that Mrs. Condor had ceased singing. A hum broke loose, followed by applause. Claire grew faint. Her head began to swirl. She clutched the piano stool and by sheer terror at the thought of creating a scene she managed to keep her consciousness as she felt Mrs. Condor's hand upon her shoulder and heard a voice that just missed being patronizing:
"My dear, you did it beautifully."
Claire longed to burst into tears....
The concert was over shortly after eleven o'clock. Besides Mrs. Condor, there had been a 'cellist, very masculine in his looks but rather forceless in his playing, and a young, frail girl who brought great breadth and vigor to her interpretations at the piano. But Claire was really too excited for calm enjoyment. Supper followed—creamed minced chicken and extraordinarily thin sandwiches, and a dry, pale wine that Claire found at first rather distasteful. Claire sat with a little group composed of Mrs. Condor, Ned Stillman, a fashionable young man, Phil Edington, who frankly confessed boredom at all things musical except one-steps and fox-trots, and two or three artistic-looking souls who pretended to be quite shocked by young Edington's frankness.
Conversation veered naturally to the subject of the war. Edington had tried for a commission in an officers' training-camp and failed. He was extraordinarily frank about it all, and good-natured at the chaffing that Mrs. Condor and Stillman threw at him.
"I'm going to wait now and be drafted," he announced. "As long as I failed to make a high grade I want to begin at the bottom and see the whole picture."
Claire rather waited for a word from Stillman as to his convictions on the subject. Of course one could see that he was over the draft age, still.... For the most part she was silent, but happy and content. By contributing her share to the evening's entertainment she had justified her presence. Wine as a factor in midnight suppers was a new but not a revolutionary experience to Claire Robson, but she gasped a bit when the maid passed cigarettes to the ladies. And yet she felt a delicious sense of being a party to something quite daring and outre, although she did not have either courage or skill to enjoy one of the slender, gold-tipped delights.
The time for departure finally came. Claire rose reluctantly. Mrs. Condor, slipping one arm in Phil Edington's and the other in Claire's, sauntered with them toward the entrance hall.
"I say," ventured Edington as Stillman caught up to the group. "What's the matter with just us four dropping down to the Palace for a whirl or two?"
Claire stared. She had not grown used to the novelty of being included, but any instinctive objections to the plan were promptly silenced by Mrs. Condor's enthusiastic approval.
They arrived at the Palace Hotel shortly before midnight. The Rose Room was crowded. All the tables seemed filled, and Claire had a moment of disappointment caused by the fear that their party would be unable to gain admittance. But young Edington's presence soon set any uneasiness on that score at rest, and a place was evolved with deftness and despatch. The novelty of the situation to Claire was nothing compared with her matter-of-fact acceptance of it. She was neither self-conscious nor timid. Her three companions had a way of tacitly including her in even their trivial chatter that was unmistakable, though hard to define. She felt that she was one of them, and she blossomed in this strange new warmth like a chilled blossom at the final approach of a belated spring. All evening her starved sense of self-importance had been feeding greedily upon the compliments that had come her way. There had been her mother's rather apologetic words of approval at her appearance, to begin with, then Mrs. Condor's appreciation at the piano, and finally a word dropped by one of the women who had shared a mirror with her at the hour of departure.
"How do you manage your hair, Miss Robson?" the other had said, digging viciously at her shifting locks with a hairpin. "I do declare you're the only woman in the room that looks presentable."
But it was Edington's words to Stillman while they stood waiting for the hotel attendants to prepare the table that brought a quickened beat to her heart. The conversation was low and not meant for her ears, but her senses were too sharpened to miss Edington's furtive words as he whispered to Stillman:
"Where did ... amazing.... Miss Robson?"
Claire did not catch the reply which must have also been something of a query, but she heard Edington continue.
"Well ... a little too silent, I must admit.... No, I don't dislike 'em that way ... but I'm afraid of them."
Stillman answered with a low laugh.
They sat down. Edington ordered wine. The crowd at the tables was rather a mixed one. There was plenty of elaborate gowning among the groups of formal diners who had prolonged their feasting into the supper hour, but many casuals, drifting in for a few drinks and a dance or two, robbed the scene of its earlier brilliance.
The orchestra struck up a one-step. Claire denied Stillman the dance, explaining that she knew none of the new steps, and he whirled away with Mrs. Condor. Edington, robbed of his chance, pouted unashamed.
"I say, Miss Robson, can't you do a one-step—really? There isn't anything to it! Come on—try; I'll pull you through."
Claire's knowledge of dancing was instinctive, but not a matter of much practice, yet his distress was so comic that she relented. She wondered if he could feel her trembling as they swung into the dance. She stumbled once or twice from timidity, but Edington guided unerringly. Half-way round she suddenly struck the proper swing.
"There—that's it," cried Edington, enthusiastically. "Now you've got it! Fine!"
His praise mounted to her brain like a heady wine, and suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, all the repressed youth within her awoke with a sweet and terrible joy.... They danced madly, perfectly, the rhythm entering into them like something at once fluid and flaming. Her ecstasy awoke a vague response in her partner, who bent forward as he kept repeating, monotonously:
"And you said you couldn't, Miss Robson! Fancy, you said you couldn't!"
The music stopped abruptly with a crash. Some of the dancers made their way leisurely back among the tables, but the most of them wandered about the polished' floor, clapping insistent hands for an encore. In this brief interlude, groups arrived and departed. The musicians lifted their instruments to chin and lip, struck an opening chord; couples began to whirl and glide. Claire Robson, palpitant and eager, followed Edington's lead, but almost at the first moment of their rhythmic flight they came crashing into the overcoated bulk of a man cutting across the corner of the ballroom in an attempt at a swift exit. A smothered protest escaped Edington, and Claire detached herself from her partner long enough to see the offender bow very low and hear his apology in a voice and manner that seemed curiously familiar:
"I beg your pardon. Pray forgive me! I should have known better."
In the twinkling of an eye the interrupted dancers were sweeping on again, and the apologetic stranger, hat in hand, turning for a farewell look at the pair. Claire Robson felt an up-leap of the heart; a fresh ecstasy quickened her. It was the Serbian!
They finished the dance almost opposite their table and were met by a patter of applause from Mrs. Condor and Stillman, who were already seated.
Claire was flaming with embarrassment as she faced Stillman.
"I hope you'll understand, Mr. Stillman," she faltered. "But Mr. Edington seemed willing to risk my ignorance."
Mrs. Condor turned Claire's plaintive apology into a covert attack upon Stillman's courage, but Stillman rescued Claire from further confusion by laughing back:
"Well, I'll have my revenge on Edington. I'll grant him all the one-steps, but he can't have any of the waltzes, Miss Robson."
The waiter began to pour out the champagne. Claire settled back in her seat with a feeling of delightful languor. The dance had released all the pent-up emotions that a night of vivid sensations had called into her life. She had come into the Rose Room of the Palace Hotel quivering in the leash of a restrained enjoyment; it had taken the quick lash of opportunity to send her spirits hurtling forward in wild and headlong abandon. She lifted her wine-glass in answer to the upraised glasses of her companions, and the thought flashed over her that it would be impossible for her to have quite her old vision again. In every life there are culminating moments of joy or sorrow which either clear or dim the horizon, and Claire felt that such moment was now hers.
Stillman rose promptly in his seat at the first strains of the waltz, which proved to be the next number. Claire stepped out upon the floor with confidence.
She did not need any word of reassurance this time to tell her that her dancing was more than acceptable, and, true to her brief experience with Stillman, he refrained from voicing the obvious. They had begun the dance promptly and for the first whirl about they had the floor almost to themselves. Claire's discreet sidelong glances detected many approving nods in their direction; people were noticing them and making favorable comment.... The floor filled, but even in the crowd Claire had a sense that she and her partner were standing out distinctly.
The very nature of the waltz contrasted sharply with the one-step. There was less abandon and more art. The first dance had expressed a primitive emotion; the present slow and measured whirl a discriminating sensation. And slowly, under the spell of Stillman's calm and yet strangely glowing manner, Claire recovered her poise. All night she had been inhaling every fresh delight rapturously with the closed eyes and open senses that one brings to the enjoyment of blossoms heavy with perfume. It took Stillman's influence to rob the hours of their swooning delight by recapturing her self-consciousness. Things became at once orderly and reasonable. And as he led her back to their table she felt the flame within cease its flarings and become steady, with a pleasurable glow. For a moment she felt uneasy, as if she were being trapped by something sweetfully insidious. Slowly, almost cautiously, she withdrew her arm from his. He made no comment; it was doubtful if he really noticed her recoil.
* * * * *
Long past its appointed time the hall light in the Robson flat continued to burn dimly. Mrs. Robson, sleepless and a bit anxious, waited alertly for the sound of Claire's key in the door. The welcome click came finally, succeeded by the unmistakable slam of an automobile door and the sharp, quick note of a machine speeding up.
"She's come home in Stillman's car," flashed through Mrs. Robson's mind, as she sat up in bed. At that moment Mrs. Finnegan's cuckoo clock, sounding distinctly through the thin flooring, warbled twice with a voice of friendly betrayal. "Mercy! it's two o'clock!" she muttered. "I wonder if Mrs. Finnegan is awake?... I do hope she heard the automobile!..."
Seated at the foot of her mother's bed, Claire tried her best to give a satisfactory report of the evening, but she found that she had overlooked most of the details that her mother found interesting. Who was there? What did Mrs. Condor wear? Did they have an elaborate spread?—the questions rippled on in an endless flow.
Under the acceleration of Claire's recital, Mrs. Robson found her experiences at the church reception left far behind. Even with scant details, Claire had managed to evolve a fascinating picture of a life robbed sufficiently of puritanism to be properly piquant. There was a tang of the swift, immoral, fascinating 'seventies in Claire's still cautious reference to champagne and cigarettes. It was impossible for any San Franciscan who had lived through those splendid madcap bonanza days to deny the lure of gay wickedness. At least it was hard to keep one's eyes on a prayer-book while the car of pleasure rattled by. And a coffee-and-cake social was, after all, a rather tame experience in the face of beverages more sparkling and eatables distinctly enticing.... Of course, if Claire had been introduced to any of these questionable delights by anybody short of a survivor of the Stillman clan, Mrs. Robson might have had a misgiving. As it was, she was not above a certain forewarning sense that made her say with an air of inconsequence as Claire finished her recital:
"Mrs. Towne tells me that there is a chance that Mr. Stillman's wife may get well. She's in a private sanitarium, at Livermore, you know." She stopped to draw up the bedclothes higher. "I do hope it's so!... But I'm always skeptical about crazy people ever amounting to anything again. Seems to me they're better off dead."
For Claire Robson, there followed after the memorable Condor-Stillman musicale a period of slack-water. It seemed as if a deadly stagnation was to poison her existence, so sharp and emphasized was her boredom. On the other hand, Mrs. Robson seemed to have contrived, from years of living among arid pleasures, the ability to conserve every happiness that she chanced upon to its last drop. Claire's invitation to be one of a distinguished group fed her vanity long after her daughter had outworn the delights of retrospection. The memory of this incident filled Mrs. Robson's thoughts, her dreams, her conversation. Gradually, as the days dragged by, bit by bit, she gleaned detached details of what had transpired, weaving them into a vivid whole, for the entertainment of herself and the amazement of her neighbor, Mrs. Finnegan.
Formerly Mrs. Finnegan's information regarding what went on in exclusive circles was confined to society dramas on the screen and the Sunday supplement. The personal note which Mrs. Robson brought to her recitals was a new and pleasing experience. After listening to the authentic gossip of Mrs. Robson, Mrs. Finnegan would return to her threshold with a sense of having shared state secrets. On such occasions Mrs. Robson's frankness had almost a challenge in it; she exaggerated many details and concealed none.
"Yes," she would repeat, emphatically, "they served cigarettes along with the wine. They always do."
"Well, Mrs. Robson," Mrs. Finnegan inevitably returned, "far be it from me to criticize what your daughter's friends do. But I don't approve of women smoking."
As a matter of fact, neither did Mrs. Robson, but she felt in duty bound to resent Mrs. Finnegan's narrow attacks upon society.
"Well, Mrs. Finnegan, that's only because you're not accustomed to it. Now, if you had ever...."
"Did Claire smoke?"
"Why, of course not! How can you ask such a thing? I hope I've brought my daughter up decently, Mrs. Finnegan."
And with that, Mrs. Robson would deftly switch to a less exciting detail of the Condor-Stillman musicale, before her neighbor had a chance to pick flaws in her logic. But sooner or later the topic would again verge on the controversial. Usually at the point where the scene shifted from Ned Stillman's apartments to the Palace Hotel, Mrs. Finnegan's pug nose was lifted with tentative disapproval, as she inquired:
"How many did you say went down to the Palace?"
"Only four—Mr. Stillman, Claire, Mrs. Condor, and a young fellow named Edington."
"I suppose that Mrs. Condor was the chaperon. Finnegan knows her well! She used to hire hacks when Finnegan was in the livery business years ago. She's a gay one, I can tell you. When only the steam-dummy ran out to the Cliff House...."
"That's nothing. Everybody who was anybody had dinners at the Cliff House in those days. I remember how my father...."
"Yes, Mrs. Robson, maybe you do! But I'll bet you never went to such a place without your husband ... and ... with a strange man."
Mrs. Robson never had, and she would tell Mrs. Finnegan so decidedly. This always had the effect of switching the subject again and Mrs. Robson found her desire to know the real details of Mrs. Condor's questionable gaieties offered up on the altar of class loyalty. For it never occurred to Mrs. Robson to doubt that her social exile had nothing to do with the inherent rights of her position.
When everything else in the way of an irritating program failed to rouse Mrs. Robson's dignified ire, her neighbor fell back upon the fact that Stillman was a married man. Mrs. Finnegan really worshiped Mrs. Robson to distraction, but she had a natural combative tendency that was at odds with even her loyalty.
"Mr. Stillman is a married man," Mrs. Finnegan would insist, doggedly. "And I don't approve of married men taking an interest in young girls. Who knows?—he may spoil your daughter's chances."
This statement always had the effect of dividing Mrs. Robson against herself. She resented Mrs. Finnegan's insinuations concerning Stillman, because it was not in her nature to be anything but partizan, and at the same time she was mollified by her neighbor's recognition of the fact that Claire had such things as chances. She always managed cleverly at this point by saying, patronizingly:
"Why, how you talk, Mrs. Finnegan! Mr. Stillman is just like an old friend. Not that we've known him so long ... but the family, you know ... they're old-timers. Everybody knows the Stillmans! Really one couldn't want a better friend."
Thus did Mrs. Robson take meager and colorless realities and expand them into things of blossoming promise. She was almost creative in the artistry she brought to these transmutations. In the end she convinced herself of their existence and she was quite sure that Mrs. Finnegan shared equally in the delights of her fancy.
Meanwhile November passed, and the first weeks of December crowded the old year to its death. November had been shrouded in clammy fogs, but no rain had fallen, and everybody began to have the restless feeling engendered by the usual summer drought in California prolonged beyond its appointed season. The country and the people needed rain. Claire, always responsive to the moods of wind and weather, longed for the cleansing flood to descend and wash the dust-drab town colorful again. She awoke one morning to the delicious thrill of the moisture-laden southeast wind blowing into her room and the warning voice of her mother at her bedroom door calling to her:
"You'd better put on your thick shoes, Claire! We're in for a storm."
She leaped out of bed joyously and hurried with her dressing.
As she walked down to work the warm yet curiously refreshing wind flung itself in a fine frenzy over the gray city. Dark-gray clouds were closing in from the south, and in the east an ominous silver band of light marked the sullen flight of the sun. People were scampering about buoyantly, running for street-cars, chasing liberated hats, battling with billowing skirts. It seemed as if the promise of rain had revived laughter and motion to an extraordinary degree. At the office this ecstasy of spirit persisted; even Miss Munch came in hair awry and blowsy, her beady eyes almost laughing.
Mr. Flint had not been to the office for two days. A sniffling cold had kept him at home. Claire had rather looked for him to-day, and had prepared herself for a flood of accumulated dictation. But the threat of dampness evidently dissuaded him, for the noon hour came and went and Mr. Flint did not put in an appearance. At about three o'clock in the afternoon a long-distance call came on the telephone for Miss Robson. Claire answered. Flint was on the other end of the wire. He wanted to know if she could come at once over to Yolanda and take several pages of dictation. His cold was uncertain and he might not get out for the rest of the week. He realized that it was something of an imposition on her good nature, but she would be doing him a great favor if.... She interrupted him with her quick assent and he finished:
"I'll have the car at the station, and of course you'll stay for dinner."
Claire hung up the receiver and looked at her watch. It was just half after three. The next ferryboat connecting at Sausalito with the electric train for Yolanda left at three-forty-five. She had no time to lose; it was a good ten minutes' walk from the office to the ferry and little to be gained by taking a street-car. She managed her preparations for departure successfully, but in the end she had to ask Miss Munch to telephone her mother. Miss Munch assented with an alarmingly sweet smile.
Claire walked briskly down California Street toward the ferry-building. No rain had fallen, but the air was full of ominous promise. The wind was even brisker than it had been in the morning, and its breath almost tropically moist.
"At sundown it will simply pour," thought Claire, as she exchanged fifty cents for a ticket to Yolanda.
She presented her ticket at the entrance to the waiting-room and passed in. The passageway to the boat was already open; she went at once and found a sheltered corner outside on the upper deck. A strong sea was running and already the ferryboat was plunging and straining like a restless bloodhound in leash. The air was full of screaming gulls and the clipped whistling of restless bay craft. Claire was so intent on all this elemental agitation that she took no notice of the people about her, but as the boat slid lumberingly out of the slip she was recalled by a voice close at hand saying:
"Why, Miss Robson, who would think of seeing you here at this hour!"
Claire turned and discovered Miss Munch's cousin sitting beside her, intent on the inevitable tatting.
"Oh, Mrs. Richards, how stupid of me! Have you been here long?"
"About ten minutes. But I get so interested in my work I never have eyes for anything else. How do you put in the time? A trip like this is so tiresome!"
Claire delved into her bag and brought out knitting-needles and an unfinished sock.
"I'm trying a hand at this," she admitted, holding her handiwork up ruefully. "But I'm afraid I'm not very skilful."
Mrs. Richards inspected the sock with critical disapproval.
"Oh, well," she encouraged, "you'll learn ... practice makes perfect. I've just finished a half-dozen pairs. I suppose I'm laying myself out for a roast doing tatting in public these war days! But it's restful and I'm not one to pretend. As long as my conscience is clear I can afford to be perfectly independent.... You don't make this trip every night, do you?"
"Oh my, no! I'm going over to Mr. Flint's to take some dictation. He's home sick."
"I saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming off the boat just as I got on." Mrs. Richards's voice took on a tone of casual directness.
"You know Mrs. Flint?"
"My dear girl, a trained nurse knows everybody—and everything about them, too. You never get a real line on people until you live with them. I've never nursed any of the Flint family, but I wouldn't have to to get their reputation—or perhaps I should say, old Flint's."
"Old Flint's?" echoed Claire.
"Well, of course he isn't so awfully old, but men like him always give that impression. They're so awfully wise—about some things. I was so relieved when Gertie didn't get that dreadful Miss Whitehead's place. Being in the general office is bad enough, but in his private office...." Mrs. Richards lifted and dropped her tatting-filled hands significantly.
Claire felt the blood rush to her face. "I'm in the private office, Mrs. Richards.... No doubt you forgot it."
"Well now, you know I had ... for the moment. But with a girl like you it's different. Some women can handle men, but Gertie would be so helpless!"
The humor of Mrs. Richards's remark saved the situation for Claire. She changed the subject deliberately. But somehow, with the conversation forced from the particular to the general, Miss Munch's cousin lost interest, and by the time the boat had passed Alcatraz Island Claire was deep in her thoughts again and the other woman following the measured flight of the tatting-shuttle with strained attention.
The boat was romping through the stiff sea like a playful porpoise, dipping and plunging. A half-score of adventuresome gulls were still following in the foam-churned wake. In the face of all the pitching about, Mrs. Richards had quite a battle to direct her shuttle to any efficient purpose, and Claire was almost amused at the grim determination she brought to the performance.
Presently a warning whistle from the ferryboat betrayed the fact that they were nearing Sausalito. Mrs. Richards began to gather up her numerous bundles, and Claire and she made their way down the narrow stairs to the lower deck. Their progress was slow and uncertain. The southeaster was tearing across the open spaces and bending everything before it; the lumbering boat dipped sideward in a stolid encounter with its adversary.
"Mercy! What a night!" gasped Mrs. Richards, clutching at Claire's arm.
A gust of wind struck them with its force just as they reached the lower deck. Mrs. Richards staggered and wrestled vainly with tatting-bag and bundles and a refractory skirt. For the moment both women were stalled in a desperate effort to retain their equilibrium.
"Come!" gasped Claire. "Let's get over there in the shelter of that automobile."
They made the leeward side of the automobile in question, and while Mrs. Richards began to recover her roughly handled dignity Claire turned her attention to the car. It was a huge dark-red affair, evidently fresh from the shop. Claire knew none of the fine points of automobiles, but this one had unmistakable evidences of distinction. She was peering in at its opulent depths when who should surprise her but Ned Stillman.
"My dear Miss Robson!" he cried, in a tone of delight, as he faced her from the opposite side of the car. "What do you think of it?"
"Yours?" she queried.
"Just out of the shop to-day. I couldn't wait until it cleared. I just had to get out with it. And this kind of weather always puts me up on my toes. Where are you going—to Ross? If you are, don't bother with the train. Come along with me."
He circled about the machine and came up to her with a frank, outstretched hand. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" he murmured as Mrs. Richards came into view.
Claire began an introduction, but Mrs. Richards cut in with her odd, challenging way.
"Oh, I know Mr. Stillman! But I guess he's forgotten me. It's been some years, of course. At Mr. Faville's—your wife's father's house."
Stillman paled for the briefest of moments, but he recovered himself cleverly. "Mrs. Richards—of course! How do you do? It has been some years."
"I'm going to Mr. Flint's—at Yolanda," said Claire, "to take some dictation. He's been ill, you know."
"Ill? No, I hadn't heard it. Nothing serious, I hope."
"Not serious enough to keep Mrs. Flint at home, anyway," volunteered Mrs. Richards, in her characteristically disagreeable way.
"Mrs. Richards saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming off the boat...."
"As I got on," interrupted the lady again.
"Oh, indeed, is that so?" Claire fancied that Stillman's tone held something more than polite acceptance of what he had just heard. "I can take you ladies to Yolanda if you'd like a spin in the open better than a stuffy ride in the train."
"Thank you," Mrs. Richards returned, "but I get off at Sausalito. I've no doubt Miss Robson will be delighted."
"I think I'd better not," said Claire. "Mr. Flint is sending his car to the train for me. I shouldn't want to change my program and cause confusion. But I'd like nothing better! The air is so bracing!"
"You can excuse me!" put in Mrs. Richards, moving toward the forward deck. "It's going to pour in less than ten minutes. I'm not one of those amphibious creatures who like to get wringing wet just for the fun of it!"
Stillman lifted his hat. Claire stood for a moment undecided whether to follow Mrs. Richards or remain for a chat with Stillman.
"I'm an awful fool, I suppose," Stillman smiled at Claire, "bringing the car out on a night like this. But the truth is Edington promised to catch this boat and I wanted him to try out the new plaything. I might have known he wouldn't make it. We're running over for dinner with Edington's sister."
At this moment the boat crashed clumsily against the Sausalito ferry-slip, and in the sudden confusion of landing Claire was swept along without further ado.
She looked back. Stillman waved a genial good-by to her. She felt glad that he was behind her, in a vague, impersonal, thoroughly inexplainable way.
Claire was disappointed that Mrs. Flint was not to be at home. She had caught glimpses of her now and then coming into the office and she was interested in the hope of seeing her at closer range. Mrs. Flint was a rather frumpish individual, who always gave the impression of pieced-out dressmaking.
"She must subscribe to the Ladies' Home Journal," Nellie Whitehead had commented one day. "You know that 'go-up-into-the-garret-and-get-five- yards-of-grandmother's-wedding-gown' column. Well, she's a walking ad for it. She's no raving beauty, but if she would throw out her chest and chuck those flat-heeled clogs of hers, and put a marcel wave in her hair, maybe the old man would sit up and take notice."
To which Miss Munch had replied:
"Well, she's a mighty sweet woman, anyway!" in a tone calculated to freeze the irrepressible Nellie Whitehead into silence.
"Who says she isn't? And at that, a good tailor-made suit and a decent-looking hat won't spoil her disposition any...."
The children, too, were what Nellie Whitehead had termed "perfect guys." On warm days Mrs. Flint would drag these two daughters of hers into the office, dressed in plaid suits and velveteen hats; and when a cold north wind blew it seemed inevitable that they would appear in gay and airy costumes up to their knees, with impossible straw bonnets trimmed with daisies and faded cornflowers, reminiscent of the white-leghorn-hat era.
"Men don't marry women for their clothes," Miss Munch used to say, challengingly, to Nellie.
"Oh, don't they, indeed! Well, I've lived longer than sixteen and a half years and I've noticed that it's the up-to-the-minute dame that gets away with it and holds onto it every time, just the same. And any woman silly enough to work the rag-bag game when her husband can afford seven yards of taffeta and a Butterick pattern is a fool!"
Claire knew women who looked dowdy on dress-parade and yet managed to be quite charming in their own houses. She was wondering whether this might not be Mrs. Flint's case; anyway, she had hoped for a chance to decide this point, and now Mrs. Flint was not at home.
As she settled into her matting-covered seat in the train she began to wonder just who would be home at the Flint establishment. And she thought suddenly of the disagreeable emphasis that Mrs. Richards had seen fit to give the fact that Mrs. Flint was bound cityward. At this stage she became lost in discovering so many points of contact between Mrs. Richards and her cousin, Miss Munch. Then the train started with a quick lurch, and a view of the rapidly darkening landscape claimed her utterly.
Claire always took a childish delight in watching the panorama of the countryside unroll swiftly before the space-conquering flight of a train. And to-night the quick close of the December day warned her to make the most of her opportunity. The wind was whipping the upper reaches of the bay into a shallow fury, and the water in turn was beating against the slimy mud and swallowing it up in gray, futile anger. This part of the ride just out of Sausalito was always more or less depressing unless a combination of full tide and vivid sunshine gave its muddy stretches the enlivening grace of sky-blue reflections. Worm-eaten and tottering piles, abandoned hulks, half-swamped skiffs, all the water-logged dissolution of stagnant shore lines the world over, flashed by, to be succeeded by the fresher green of channel-cut marshes. The hills were wind-swept, huddling their scant oak covering into the protecting folds of shallow canons. At intervals, clumps of eucalyptus-trees banded together or drew out in long, thin, soldier-like lines.
Presently it began to rain. There was no preliminary patter, but the storm broke suddenly, hurling great gray drops of moisture against the windows. Claire withdrew from any further attempt to watch the whirling landscape. It was now quite dark, the short December day dying even more suddenly under a black pall of lowering clouds.
She began to have distinctly uncomfortable thoughts about her visit to the Flints'. But the more uncomfortable her thoughts became, the more reason she brought to bear for conquering them. Surely one was not to be persuaded into a panic by any such person as Mrs. Richards! And by the time the brakeman announced the train's approach to Yolanda, Claire had recovered her common sense. What of it if Mrs. Flint had gone to town? There must be other women in the household—at least a maid. It was absurd! The train stopped and Claire got off.
Flint's car was waiting, and Jerry Donovan, the chauffeur, stood with a dripping umbrella almost at Claire's elbow as she hopped upon the platform.
As they swished through the inky blackness, Claire said to Jerry, with as inconsequential an air as she could muster:
"I thought I saw Mrs. Flint get off the boat in town. But I guess I was mistaken. She wouldn't be leaving Mr. Flint alone ... when he's ill."
"Ill?" Jerry chuckled. "Well, he ain't dead by a long shot. Just a case of sniffles, and a good excuse for hitting the booze. He's in prime condition, I can tell you."
Claire had never seen Flint in "prime condition," but she had it from Nellie Whitehead that there were moments when the gentleman in question could "go some," to use her predecessor's precise terms.
"About twice a year," Nellie had once confided to Claire, "the old boy starts in to cure a cold. I helped him cure one ... but never again!"
Jerry's observations aroused fresh anxiety, but they did not settle the issue for Claire. She felt that she could not turn back at the eleventh hour. There was nothing else for her to do but go through with the game. Yet she still hoped for the best.
"Did Mrs. Flint go to town to-day?" she finally asked, point-blank.
"Sure thing," said Jerry, swinging the car past the Flint gateway.
Claire refused to be totally lacking in faith.
"There must be a maid," flashed through her mind, as Jerry stopped the car and swung down to help her out.
A Japanese boy threw open the door as they scrambled up the rain-soaked steps. But the fine, orderly, Colonial interior reassured Claire. The few country homes she had seen had been of the rambling, unrelated bungalow type, with paneled redwood walls either stained to a dismal brown or quite frankly left to their rather characterless pink. This home was different. Even the pungent oak logs crackling in the fireplace did so with indefinable distinction. The general tone of the surroundings was as little in keeping with the patchwork personality of its mistress as one could imagine. It was as if the singular completeness of Mrs. Flint's home left no time nor energy for a finished individuality. Claire got all this in the briefest of flashes, just a swift, inclusive glance about the entrance hall and through the doorways leading into the rooms beyond. Particularly did she sense the severe opulence of the dining-room, twinkling at a remoter distance than the living-room—its perfectly polished silver, its spotless linen, its wonderfully blue china, not to mention the disconcerting fact that the table in the center was laid for but two.
And then Flint himself came forward with a very red face and an absurdly cordial greeting.
"Well, I began to wonder whether you'd risk it. This will be a storm and no mistake.... Here, let me have your coat. Come, you're quite wet.... Shall you warm up on a hot toddy or something cooler—a cocktail?"
She felt his hand sliding down her arm as she released the coat to his too-eager fingers. "Oh no, Mr. Flint! Thank you, nothing. It's only a bit of rain on the surface. I'm quite dry."
"Quite dry!" He echoed her words with a guffaw. "Well, then, we'll have to moisten you up. I always say everything's a good excuse for a drink. If you're cold you take a drink to warm up; if you're warm you take one to cool off. You dry out on one, and you wet up on one. I don't know of any habit with so many good reasons back of it. I'm dry, too.... We'll have a Bronx! That's a nice, ladylike drink."
Claire weighed her reply. She did not want to strike the wrong note; she wanted to let him have a feeling that she was accepting everything in a normal, matter-of-fact way, as if she saw nothing extraordinary in the situation.
"You're very kind, but really you know ... if I'm to get my dictation straight...."
"Well, perhaps there won't be any dictation. We're not slaves, you and I. Maybe it will be much pleasanter to sit before the fire and listen to the storm. What do you say to that?"
She turned from him deliberately, under the fiction of fluffing up her hair before a gilt mirror near the door. She was thinking quickly and with a tremendous, if concealed, agitation. "Why," she laughed back, finally, "that would be pleasant. But I came to take dictation, Mr. Flint. And women ... women, you know, are so funny! If they make up their minds to one thing, they can't switch suddenly to another idea."
He was paying no attention to her remark, a remark which she felt would have fallen flat in any event, since it was so palpably studied.
"The living-room is in there," he said, pointing. "Make yourself at home."
She went in and sat before the fire. Flint disappeared. She tried hard to analyze the situation. It was unthinkable that Mr. Flint had deliberately planned this piece of foolishness. He must have had some idea of work when he had telephoned her; perhaps he still had. It was his way of being facetious, she argued, this fine pretense that it was all to be a pleasant lark, or it may have been his idea of hospitality. Of course he had been drinking, but she took comfort in the thought that there must be instinctive standards in a man like Flint that even whisky could not swamp. At least he must respect his wife—surely it was not possible for Flint, drunk or sober, to offer such an affront to her, however little he respected the women in his employ. She dismissed Mrs. Richards's exaggerated insinuations with their well-deserved contempt, but she could not thrust aside quite so readily the eye-lifting tone with which Stillman had met the announcement of Mrs. Flint's absence from home.
This was the first time that Claire had seen Stillman since the musicale. She had thought a great deal about him and particularly about his problem. She felt a great desire to know everything—all the details of the unfortunate circumstance that had driven his wife into a madhouse, and yet whenever her mother broached the subject Claire changed the topic with curious panic. She seemed to dread the hard, almost triumphant manner that her mother assumed in tracking misfortune to its lair and gloating over it. She began to wonder whether Stillman would be swinging back to the city on a late boat ... or would the storm keep him at Edington's sister's home all night?
She was in the midst of this speculation when Flint came into the room.
"We'll eat early and have that off our minds," he announced. His manner was brusk and business-like again. Claire felt reassured.
But she was disturbed to find a cocktail at her place at the table.
"Well, here's glad to see you!" Flint raised his glass and tilted it ever so slightly in her direction. Claire lifted the cocktail to her lips and set it down untasted. "What's the matter? Getting unsociable again?"
"No, Mr. Flint. I don't care for cocktails."
"Oh, all right! We'll send down-cellar and get some wine."
"Thank you, not for me."
"I suppose you don't care for wine, either?" His voice had a bantering quality, with a shade of menace in it. "Or maybe the right party isn't here. I've noticed that makes a difference. Females are damned moral with the wrong fellow."
His attack was so direct and insolent that Claire missed the trepidation that might have come with a more covert move. She was no longer uncertain. There was a sharp relief in realizing that all the cards were on the table. She felt also that there was no immediate danger. Flint was far from sober, but he was in his own home. She had the conviction that he was merely skirmishing, testing the strength or weakness of the line he hoped to penetrate. Her reply was rather more of a challenge than she could have imagined herself giving under such a circumstance.
"And if I were to tell you that I don't care for wine, Mr. Flint?"
He threw open his napkin with a flourish. "You'd be telling me a damned lie! You drink wine at the Palace with Stillman and Edington."
She had felt that he was going to say some such thing and for a moment it amused her. It was so ridiculous to find this rather wan and wistful indiscretion assuming damaging proportions. But a nasty fear succeeded her faint amusement. Could it be possible that Stillman had gossiped?
"Who told you?" she demanded.
"Oh, don't be afraid; it wasn't Stillman! You're like all women, you moon about sentimentalizing over Ned until it makes a man like me sick! I like Ned; I always have. But even when we went to college together it was the same way. Everybody ... yes, even the men ... always gave him credit for a high moral tone. Not that he ever took it.... I'll say that for him.... Ned Stillman didn't tell me, for the simple reason that he didn't have to. Nobody told me. I go to the Palace myself under pressure, and I've got two eyes. As a matter of fact, there isn't any reason why Edington or Stillman or the waiter who drew the corks shouldn't have mentioned it. A glass of wine is no crime. But the thing that makes me hot is to see any one pretending. If you drink with Stillman, you haven't any license to refuse a glass with me."
There was something more than wine-heated rancor back of his harangue. Claire guessed instinctively that he both loved and hated Stillman with a curious confusion of impulses. It was a feeling of affection torn by the irritating superiority of its object. One gets the same thing in families ... among children. It was at once subtle and extremely primitive.
"My dear Mr. Flint, this isn't quite the same thing. I've work to do for one thing and, and...."
"And ... and.... Why don't you say it? You're alone with me and all that sort of rubbish! Want a chaperon, I suppose. Mrs. Condor, for instance.... Good Lord!"
Claire dipped her spoon into the steaming bouillon-cup in front of her. She was growing quite calm under the directness of Flint's attack.
"It isn't the same," she reiterated, stubbornly. "I've work to do, Mr. Flint."
"I tell you that you haven't!" Flint brought his fist down upon the table.
"Well, then, why did you send for me?"
"I had something to say to you.... Gad! one can't talk in that ramping office of mine. We've never even settled the matter of an increase in salary for you. By the way, how much money do you get?"