AN AMERICAN NOVEL
BY SINCLAIR LEWIS
AUTHOR OF MAIN STREET, BABBITT, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1917, by Harper & Brothers Printed in the United States of America Published February, 1917
WHO HAS MADE "THE JOB" POSSIBLE AND LIFE ITSELF QUITE BEAUTIFULLY IMPROBABLE
Part I 3 THE CITY
Part II 133 THE OFFICE
Part III 251 MAN AND WOMAN
Captain Lew Golden would have saved any foreign observer a great deal of trouble in studying America. He was an almost perfect type of the petty small-town middle-class lawyer. He lived in Panama, Pennsylvania. He had never been "captain" of anything except the Crescent Volunteer Fire Company, but he owned the title because he collected rents, wrote insurance, and meddled with lawsuits.
He carried a quite visible mustache-comb and wore a collar, but no tie. On warm days he appeared on the street in his shirt-sleeves, and discussed the comparative temperatures of the past thirty years with Doctor Smith and the Mansion House 'bus-driver. He never used the word "beauty" except in reference to a setter dog—beauty of words or music, of faith or rebellion, did not exist for him. He rather fancied large, ambitious, banal, red-and-gold sunsets, but he merely glanced at them as he straggled home, and remarked that they were "nice." He believed that all Parisians, artists, millionaires, and socialists were immoral. His entire system of theology was comprised in the Bible, which he never read, and the Methodist Church, which he rarely attended; and he desired no system of economics beyond the current platform of the Republican party. He was aimlessly industrious, crotchety but kind, and almost quixotically honest.
He believed that "Panama, Pennsylvania, was good enough for anybody."
This last opinion was not shared by his wife, nor by his daughter Una.
Mrs. Golden was one of the women who aspire just enough to be vaguely discontented; not enough to make them toil at the acquisition of understanding and knowledge. She had floated into a comfortable semi-belief in a semi-Christian Science, and she read novels with a conviction that she would have been a romantic person "if she hadn't married Mr. Golden—not but what he's a fine man and very bright and all, but he hasn't got much imagination or any, well, romance!"
She wrote poetry about spring and neighborhood births, and Captain Golden admired it so actively that he read it aloud to callers. She attended all the meetings of the Panama Study Club, and desired to learn French, though she never went beyond borrowing a French grammar from the Episcopalian rector and learning one conjugation. But in the pioneer suffrage movement she took no part—she didn't "think it was quite ladylike." ... She was a poor cook, and her house always smelled stuffy, but she liked to have flowers about. She was pretty of face, frail of body, genuinely gracious of manner. She really did like people, liked to give cookies to the neighborhood boys, and—if you weren't impatient with her slackness—you found her a wistful and touching figure in her slight youthfulness and in the ambition to be a romantic personage, a Marie Antoinette or a Mrs. Grover Cleveland, which ambition she still retained at fifty-five.
She was, in appearance, the ideal wife and mother—sympathetic, forgiving, bright-lipped as a May morning. She never demanded; she merely suggested her desires, and, if they were refused, let her lips droop in a manner which only a brute could withstand.
She plaintively admired her efficient daughter Una.
Una Golden was a "good little woman"—not pretty, not noisy, not particularly articulate, but instinctively on the inside of things; naturally able to size up people and affairs. She had common sense and unkindled passion. She was a matter-of-fact idealist, with a healthy woman's simple longing for love and life. At twenty-four Una had half a dozen times fancied herself in love. She had been embraced at a dance, and felt the stirring of a desire for surrender. But always a native shrewdness had kept her from agonizing over these affairs.
She was not—and will not be—a misunderstood genius, an undeveloped artist, an embryonic leader in feminism, nor an ugly duckling who would put on a Georgette hat and captivate the theatrical world. She was an untrained, ambitious, thoroughly commonplace, small-town girl. But she was a natural executive and she secretly controlled the Golden household; kept Captain Golden from eating with his knife, and her mother from becoming drugged with too much reading of poppy-flavored novels.
She wanted to learn, learn anything. But the Goldens were too respectable to permit her to have a job, and too poor to permit her to go to college. From the age of seventeen, when she had graduated from the high school—in white ribbons and heavy new boots and tight new organdy—to twenty-three, she had kept house and gone to gossip-parties and unmethodically read books from the town library—Walter Scott, Richard Le Gallienne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mrs. Humphry Ward, How to Know the Birds, My Year in the Holy Land, Home Needlework, Sartor Resartus, and Ships that Pass in the Night. Her residue of knowledge from reading them was a disbelief in Panama, Pennsylvania.
She was likely never to be anything more amazing than a mother and wife, who would entertain the Honiton Embroidery Circle twice a year.
Yet, potentially, Una Golden was as glowing as any princess of balladry. She was waiting for the fairy prince, though he seemed likely to be nothing more decorative than a salesman in a brown derby. She was fluid; indeterminate as a moving cloud.
Although Una Golden had neither piquant prettiness nor grave handsomeness, her soft littleness made people call her "Puss," and want to cuddle her as a child cuddles a kitten. If you noted Una at all, when you met her, you first noted her gentle face, her fine-textured hair of faded gold, and her rimless eye-glasses with a gold chain over her ear. These glasses made a business-like center to her face; you felt that without them she would have been too childish. Her mouth was as kind as her spirited eyes, but it drooped. Her body was so femininely soft that you regarded her as rather plump. But for all her curving hips, and the thick ankles which she considered "common," she was rather anemic. Her cheeks were round, not rosy, but clear and soft; her lips a pale pink. Her chin was plucky and undimpled; it was usually spotted with one or two unimportant eruptions, which she kept so well covered with powder that they were never noticeable. No one ever thought of them except Una herself, to whom they were tragic blemishes which she timorously examined in the mirror every time she went to wash her hands. She knew that they were the result of the indigestible Golden family meals; she tried to take comfort by noticing their prevalence among other girls; but they kept startling her anew; she would secretly touch them with a worried forefinger, and wonder whether men were able to see anything else in her face.
You remembered her best as she hurried through the street in her tan mackintosh with its yellow velveteen collar turned high up, and one of those modest round hats to which she was addicted. For then you were aware only of the pale-gold hair fluffing round her school-mistress eye-glasses, her gentle air of respectability, and her undistinguished littleness.
She trusted in the village ideal of virginal vacuousness as the type of beauty which most captivated men, though every year she was more shrewdly doubtful of the divine superiority of these men. That a woman's business in life was to remain respectable and to secure a man, and consequent security, was her unmeditated faith—till, in 1905, when Una was twenty-four years old, her father died.
Captain Golden left to wife and daughter a good name, a number of debts, and eleven hundred dollars in lodge insurance. The funeral was scarcely over before neighbors—the furniture man, the grocer, the polite old homeopathic doctor—began to come in with bland sympathy and large bills. When the debts were all cleared away the Goldens had only six hundred dollars and no income beyond the good name. All right-minded persons agree that a good name is precious beyond rubies, but Una would have preferred less honor and more rubies.
She was so engaged in comforting her mother that she scarcely grieved for her father. She took charge of everything—money, house, bills.
Mrs. Golden had been overwhelmed by a realization that, however slack and shallow Captain Golden had been, he had adored her and encouraged her in her gentility, her pawing at culture. With an emerging sincerity, Mrs. Golden mourned him, now, missed his gossipy presence—and at the same time she was alive to the distinction it added to her slim gracefulness to wear black and look wan. She sobbed on Una's shoulder; she said that she was lonely; and Una sturdily comforted her and looked for work.
One of the most familiar human combinations in the world is that of unemployed daughter and widowed mother. A thousand times you have seen the jobless daughter devoting all of her curiosity, all of her youth, to a widowed mother of small pleasantries, a small income, and a shabby security. Thirty comes, and thirty-five. The daughter ages steadily. At forty she is as old as her unwithering mother. Sweet she is, and pathetically hopeful of being a pianist or a nurse; never quite reconciled to spinsterhood, though she often laughs about it; often, by her insistence that she is an "old maid," she makes the thought of her barren age embarrassing to others. The mother is sweet, too, and "wants to keep in touch with her daughter's interests," only, her daughter has no interests. Had the daughter revolted at eighteen, had she stubbornly insisted that mother either accompany her to parties or be content to stay alone, had she acquired "interests," she might have meant something in the new generation; but the time for revolt passes, however much the daughter may long to seem young among younger women. The mother is usually unconscious of her selfishness; she would be unspeakably horrified if some brutal soul told her that she was a vampire. Chance, chance and waste, rule them both, and the world passes by while the mother has her games of cards with daughter, and deems herself unselfish because now and then she lets daughter join a party (only to hasten back to mother), and even "wonders why daughter doesn't take an interest in girls her own age." That ugly couple on the porch of the apple-sauce and wash-pitcher boarding-house—the mother a mute, dwarfish punchinello, and the daughter a drab woman of forty with a mole, a wart, a silence. That charming mother of white hair and real lace with the well-groomed daughter. That comfortable mother at home and daughter in an office, but with no suitors, no ambition beyond the one at home. They are all examples of the mother-and-daughter phenomenon, that most touching, most destructive example of selfless unselfishness, which robs all the generations to come, because mother has never been trained to endure the long, long thoughts of solitude; because she sees nothing by herself, and within herself hears no diverting voice....
There were many such mothers and daughters in Panama. If they were wealthy, daughter collected rents and saw lawyers and belonged to a club and tried to keep youthful at parties. If middle-class, daughter taught school, almost invariably. If poor, mother did the washing and daughter collected it. So it was marked down for Una that she should be a teacher.
Not that she wanted to be a teacher! After graduating from high school, she had spent two miserable terms of teaching in the small white district school, four miles out on the Bethlehem Road. She hated the drive out and back, the airless room and the foul outbuildings, the shy, stupid, staring children, the jolly little arithmetical problems about wall-paper, piles of lumber, the amount of time that notoriously inefficient workmen will take to do "a certain piece of work." Una was honest enough to know that she was not an honest teacher, that she neither loved masses of other people's children nor had any ideals of developing the new generation. But she had to make money. Of course she would teach!
When she talked over affairs with her tearful mother, Mrs. Golden always ended by suggesting, "I wonder if perhaps you couldn't go back to school-teaching again. Everybody said you were so successful. And maybe I could get some needlework to do. I do want to help so much."
Mrs. Golden did, apparently, really want to help. But she never suggested anything besides teaching, and she went on recklessly investing in the nicest mourning. Meantime Una tried to find other work in Panama.
Seen from a balloon, Panama is merely a mole on the long hill-slopes. But to Una its few straggly streets were a whole cosmos. She knew somebody in every single house. She knew just where the succotash, the cake-boxes, the clothes-lines, were kept in each of the grocery-stores, and on market Saturdays she could wait on herself. She summed up the whole town and its possibilities; and she wondered what opportunities the world out beyond Panama had for her. She recalled two trips to Philadelphia and one to Harrisburg. She made out a list of openings with such methodical exactness as she devoted to keeping the dwindling lodge insurance from disappearing altogether. Hers was no poetic outreach like that of the young genius who wants to be off for Bohemia. It was a question of earning money in the least tedious way. Una was facing the feminist problem, without knowing what the word "feminist" meant.
This was her list of fair fields of fruitful labor:
She could—and probably would—teach in some hen-coop of pedagogy.
She could marry, but no one seemed to want her, except old Henry Carson, the widower, with catarrh and three children, who called on her and her mother once in two weeks, and would propose whenever she encouraged him to. This she knew scientifically. She had only to sit beside him on the sofa, let her hand drop down beside his. But she positively and ungratefully didn't want to marry Henry and listen to his hawking and his grumbling for the rest of her life. Sooner or later one of The Boys might propose. But in a small town it was all a gamble. There weren't so very many desirable young men—most of the energetic ones went off to Philadelphia and New York. True that Jennie McTevish had been married at thirty-one, when everybody had thought she was hopelessly an old maid. Yet here was Birdie Mayberry unmarried at thirty-four, no one could ever understand why, for she had been the prettiest and jolliest girl in town. Una crossed blessed matrimony off the list as a commercial prospect.
She could go off and study music, law, medicine, elocution, or any of that amazing hodge-podge of pursuits which are permitted to small-town women. But she really couldn't afford to do any of these; and, besides, she had no talent for music of a higher grade than Sousa and Victor Herbert; she was afraid of lawyers; blood made her sick; and her voice was too quiet for the noble art of elocution as practised by several satin-waisted, semi-artistic ladies who "gave readings" of Enoch Arden and Evangeline before the Panama Study Circle and the Panama Annual Chautauqua.
She could have a job selling dry-goods behind the counter in the Hub Store, but that meant loss of caste.
She could teach dancing—but she couldn't dance particularly well. And that was all that she could do.
She had tried to find work as office-woman for Dr. Mayberry, the dentist; in the office of the Panama Wood-Turning Company; in the post-office; as lofty enthroned cashier for the Hub Store; painting place-cards and making "fancy-work" for the Art Needlework Exchange.
The job behind the counter in the Hub Store was the only one offered her.
"If I were only a boy," sighed Una, "I could go to work in the hardware-store or on the railroad or anywhere, and not lose respectability. Oh, I hate being a woman."
Una had been trying to persuade her father's old-time rival, Squire Updegraff, the real-estate and insurance man, that her experience with Captain Golden would make her a perfect treasure in the office. Squire Updegraff had leaped up at her entrance, and blared, "Well, well, and how is the little girl making it?" He had set out a chair for her and held her hand. But he knew that her only experience with her father's affairs had been an effort to balance Captain Golden's account-books, which were works of genius in so far as they were composed according to the inspirational method. So there was nothing very serious in their elaborate discussion of giving Una a job.
It was her last hope in Panama. She went disconsolately down the short street, between the two-story buildings and the rows of hitched lumber-wagons. Nellie Page, the town belle, tripping by in canvas sneakers and a large red hair-ribbon, shouted at her, and Charlie Martindale, of the First National Bank, nodded to her, but these exquisites were too young for her; they danced too well and laughed too easily. The person who stopped her for a long curbstone conference about the weather, while most of the town observed and gossiped, was the fateful Henry Carson. The village sun was unusually blank and hard on Henry's bald spot to-day. Heavens! she cried to herself, in almost hysterical protest, would she have to marry Henry?
Miss Mattie Pugh drove by, returning from district school. Miss Mattie had taught at Clark's Crossing for seventeen years, had grown meek and meager and hopeless. Heavens! thought Una, would she have to be shut into the fetid barn of a small school unless she married Henry?
"I won't be genteel! I'll work in The Hub or any place first!" Una declared. While she trudged home—a pleasant, inconspicuous, fluffy-haired young woman, undramatic as a field daisy—a cataract of protest poured through her. All the rest of her life she would have to meet that doddering old Mr. Mosely, who was unavoidably bearing down on her now, and be held by him in long, meaningless talks. And there was nothing amusing to do! She was so frightfully bored. She suddenly hated the town, hated every evening she would have to spend there, reading newspapers and playing cards with her mother, and dreading a call from Mr. Henry Carson.
She wanted—wanted some one to love, to talk with. Why had she discouraged the beautiful Charlie Martindale, the time he had tried to kiss her at a dance? Charlie was fatuous, but he was young, and she wanted, yes, yes! that was it, she wanted youth, she who was herself so young. And she would grow old here unless some one, one of these godlike young men, condescended to recognize her. Grow old among these streets like piles of lumber.
She charged into the small, white, ambling Golden house, with its peculiar smell of stale lamb gravy, and on the old broken couch—where her father had snored all through every bright Sunday afternoon—she sobbed feebly.
She raised her head to consider a noise overhead—the faint, domestic thunder of a sewing-machine shaking the walls with its rhythm. The machine stopped. She heard the noise of scissors dropped on the floor—the most stuffily domestic sound in the world. The airless house was crushing her. She sprang up—and then she sat down again. There was no place to which she could flee. Henry Carson and the district school were menacing her. And meantime she had to find out what her mother was sewing—whether she had again been wasting money in buying mourning.
"Poor, poor little mother, working away happy up there, and I've got to go and scold you," Una agonized. "Oh, I want to earn money, I want to earn real money for you."
She saw a quadrangle of white on the table, behind a book. She pounced on it. It was a letter from Mrs. Sessions, and Una scratched it open excitedly.
Mr. and Mrs. Albert Sessions, of Panama, had gone to New York. Mr. Sessions was in machinery. They liked New York. They lived in a flat and went to theaters. Mrs. Sessions was a pillowy soul whom Una trusted.
"Why don't you," wrote Mrs. Sessions, "if you don't find the kind of work you want in Panama, think about coming up to New York and taking stenography? There are lots of chances here for secretaries, etc."
Una carefully laid down the letter. She went over and straightened her mother's red wool slippers. She wanted to postpone for an exquisite throbbing moment the joy of announcing to herself that she had made a decision.
She would go to New York, become a stenographer, a secretary to a corporation president, a rich woman, free, responsible.
The fact of making this revolutionary decision so quickly gave her a feeling of power, of already being a business woman.
She galloped up-stairs to the room where her mother was driving the sewing-machine.
"Mumsie!" she cried, "we're going to New York! I'm going to learn to be a business woman, and the little mother will be all dressed in satin and silks, and dine on what-is-it and peaches and cream—the poem don't come out right, but, oh, my little mother, we're going out adventuring, we are!"
She plunged down beside her mother, burrowed her head in her mother's lap, kissed that hand whose skin was like thinnest wrinkly tissue-paper.
"Why, my little daughter, what is it? Has some one sent for us? Is it the letter from Emma Sessions? What did she say in it?"
"She suggested it, but we are going up independent."
"But can we afford to?... I would like the draymas and art-galleries and all!"
"We will afford to! We'll gamble, for once!"
Una Golden had never realized how ugly and petty were the streets of Panama till that evening when she walked down for the mail, spurning the very dust on the sidewalks—and there was plenty to spurn. An old mansion of towers and scalloped shingles, broken-shuttered now and unpainted, with a row of brick stores marching up on its once leisurely lawn. The town-hall, a square wooden barn with a sagging upper porch, from which the mayor would presumably have made proclamations, had there ever been anything in Panama to proclaim about. Staring loafers in front of the Girard House. To Una there was no romance in the sick mansion, no kindly democracy in the village street, no bare freedom in the hills beyond. She was not much to blame; she was a creature of action to whom this constricted town had denied all action except sweeping.
She felt so strong now—she had expected a struggle in persuading her mother to go to New York, but acquiescence had been easy. Una had an exultant joy, a little youthful and cruel, in meeting old Henry Carson and telling him that she was going away, that she "didn't know for how long; maybe for always." So hopelessly did he stroke his lean brown neck, which was never quite clean-shaven, that she tried to be kind to him. She promised to write. But she felt, when she had left him, as though she had just been released from prison. To live with him, to give him the right to claw at her with those desiccated hands—she imagined it with a vividness which shocked her, all the while she was listening to his halting regrets.
A dry, dusty September wind whirled down the village street. It choked her.
There would be no dusty winds in New York, but only mellow breezes over marble palaces of efficient business. No Henry Carsons, but slim, alert business men, young of eye and light of tongue.
Una Golden had expected to thrill to her first sight of the New York sky-line, crossing on the ferry in mid-afternoon, but it was so much like all the post-card views of it, so stolidly devoid of any surprises, that she merely remarked, "Oh yes, there it is, that's where I'll be," and turned to tuck her mother into a ferry seat and count the suit-cases and assure her that there was no danger of pickpockets. Though, as the ferry sidled along the land, passed an English liner, and came close enough to the shore so that she could see the people who actually lived in the state of blessedness called New York, Una suddenly hugged her mother and cried, "Oh, little mother, we're going to live here and do things together—everything."
The familiar faces of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Sessions were awaiting them at the end of the long cavernous walk from the ferry-boat, and New York immediately became a blur of cabs, cobblestones, bales of cotton, long vistas of very dirty streets, high buildings, surface cars, elevateds, shop windows that seemed dark and foreign, and everywhere such a rush of people as made her feel insecure, cling to the Sessionses, and try to ward off the dizziness of the swirl of new impressions. She was daunted for a moment, but she rejoiced in the conviction that she was going to like this madness of multiform energy.
The Sessionses lived in a flat on Amsterdam Avenue near Ninety-sixth Street. They all went up from Cortlandt Street in the Subway, which was still new and miraculous in 1905. For five minutes Una was terrified by the jam of people, the blind roar through tunneled darkness, the sense of being powerlessly hurled forward in a mass of ungovernable steel. But nothing particularly fatal happened; and she grew proud to be part of this black energy, and contentedly swung by a strap.
When they reached the Sessionses' flat and fell upon the gossip of Panama, Pennsylvania, Una was absent-minded—except when the Sessionses teased her about Henry Carson and Charlie Martindale. The rest of the time, curled up on a black-walnut couch which she had known for years in Panama, and which looked plaintively rustic here in New York, Una gave herself up to impressions of the city: the voices of many children down on Amsterdam Avenue, the shriek of a flat-wheeled surface car, the sturdy pound of trucks, horns of automobiles; the separate sounds scarcely distinguishable in a whirr which seemed visible as a thick, gray-yellow dust-cloud.
Her mother went to lie down; the Sessionses (after an elaborate explanation of why they did not keep a maid) began to get dinner, and Una stole out to see New York by herself.
It all seemed different, at once more real and not so jumbled together, now that she used her own eyes instead of the guidance of that knowing old city bird, Mr. Albert Sessions.
Amsterdam Avenue was, even in the dusk of early autumn, disappointing in its walls of yellow flat-buildings cluttered with fire-escapes, the first stories all devoted to the same sort of shops over and over again—delicatessens, laundries, barber-shops, saloons, groceries, lunch-rooms. She ventured down a side-street, toward a furnace-glow of sunset. West End Avenue was imposing to her in its solid brick and graystone houses, and pavements milky in the waning light. Then came a block of expensive apartments. She was finding the city of golden rewards. Frivolous curtains hung at windows; in a huge apartment-house hall she glimpsed a negro attendant in a green uniform with a monkey-cap and close-set rows of brass buttons; she had a hint of palms—or what looked like palms; of marble and mahogany and tiling, and a flash of people in evening dress. In her plain, "sensible" suit Una tramped past. She was unenvious, because she was going to have all these things soon.
Out of a rather stodgy vision of silk opera wraps and suitors who were like floor-walkers, she came suddenly out on Riverside Drive and the splendor of the city.
A dull city of straight-front unvaried streets is New York. But she aspires in her sky-scrapers; she dreams a garden dream of Georgian days in Gramercy Park; and on Riverside Drive she bares her exquisite breast and wantons in beauty. Here she is sophisticated, yet eager, comparable to Paris and Vienna; and here Una exulted.
Down a polished roadway that reflected every light rolled smart motors, with gay people in the sort of clothes she had studied in advertisements. The driveway was bordered with mist wreathing among the shrubs. Above Una shouldered the tremendous facades of gold-corniced apartment-houses. Across the imperial Hudson everything was enchanted by the long, smoky afterglow, against which the silhouettes of dome and tower and factory chimney stood out like an Orient city.
"Oh, I want all this—it's mine!... An apartment up there—a big, broad window-seat, and look out on all this. Oh, dear God," she was unconsciously praying to her vague Panama Wesley Methodist Church God, who gave you things if you were good, "I will work for all this.... And for the little mother, dear mother that's never had a chance."
In the step of the slightly stolid girl there was a new lightness, a new ecstasy in walking rapidly through the stirring New York air, as she turned back to the Sessionses' flat.
Later, when the streets fell into order and became normal, Una could never quite identify the vaudeville theater to which the Sessionses took them that evening. The gold-and-ivory walls of the lobby seemed to rise immeasurably to a ceiling flashing with frescoes of light lovers in blue and fluffy white, mincing steps and ardent kisses and flaunting draperies. They climbed a tremendous arching stairway of marble, upon which her low shoes clattered with a pleasant sound. They passed niches hung with heavy curtains of plum-colored velvet, framing the sly peep of plaster fauns, and came out on a balcony stretching as wide as the sea at twilight, looking down on thousands of people in the orchestra below, up at a vast golden dome lighted by glowing spheres hung with diamonds, forward at a towering proscenic arch above which slim, nude goddesses in bas-relief floated in a languor which obsessed her, set free the bare brown laughing nymph that hides in every stiff Una in semi-mourning.
Nothing so diverting as that program has ever been witnessed. The funny men with their solemn mock-battles, their extravagance in dress, their galloping wit, made her laugh till she wanted them to stop. The singers were bell-voiced; the dancers graceful as clouds, and just touched with a beguiling naughtiness; and in the playlet there was a chill intensity that made her shudder when the husband accused the wife whom he suspected, oh, so absurdly, as Una indignantly assured herself.
The entertainment was pure magic, untouched by human clumsiness, rare and spellbound as a stilly afternoon in oak woods by a lake.
They went to a marvelous cafe, and Mr. Sessions astounded them by the urbanity with which he hurried captains and waiters and 'bus-boys, and ordered lobster and coffee, and pretended that he was going to be wicked and have wine and cigarettes.
Months afterward, when she was going to vaudeville by herself, Una tried to identify the theater of wizardry, but she never could. The Sessionses couldn't remember which theater it was; they thought it was the Pitt, but surely they must have been mistaken, for the Pitt was a shanty daubed with grotesque nudes, rambling and pretentious, with shockingly amateurish programs. And afterward, on the occasion or two when they went out to dinner with the Sessionses, it seemed to Una that Mr. Sessions was provincial in restaurants, too deprecatingly friendly with the waiters, too hesitating about choosing dinner.
Whiteside and Schleusner's College of Commerce, where Una learned the art of business, occupied only five shabby rooms of crepuscular windows and perpetually dusty corners, and hard, glistening wall-paint, in a converted (but not sanctified) old dwelling-house on West Eighteenth Street. The faculty were six: Mr. Whiteside, an elaborate pomposity who smoothed his concrete brow as though he had a headache, and took obvious pride in being able to draw birds with Spencerian strokes. Mr. Schleusner, who was small and vulgar and declasse and really knew something about business. A shabby man like a broken-down bookkeeper, silent and diligent and afraid. A towering man with a red face, who kept licking his lips with a small red triangle of tongue, and taught English—commercial college English—in a bombastic voice of finicky correctness, and always smelled of cigar smoke. An active young Jewish New-Yorker of wonderful black hair, elfin face, tilted hat, and smart clothes, who did something on the side in real estate. Finally, a thin widow, who was so busy and matter-of-fact that she was no more individualized than a street-car. Any one of them was considered competent to teach any "line," and among them they ground out instruction in shorthand, typewriting, book-keeping, English grammar, spelling, composition (with a special view to the construction of deceptive epistles), and commercial geography. Once or twice a week, language-masters from a linguistic mill down the street were had in to chatter the more vulgar phrases of French, German, and Spanish.
A cluttered, wheezy omnibus of a school, but in it Una rode to spacious and beautiful hours of learning. It was even more to her than is the art-school to the yearner who has always believed that she has a talent for painting; for the yearner has, even as a child, been able to draw and daub and revel in the results; while for Una this was the first time in her life when her labor seemed to count for something. Her school-teaching had been a mere time-filler. Now she was at once the responsible head of the house and a seer of the future.
Most of the girls in the school learned nothing but shorthand and typewriting, but to these Una added English grammar, spelling, and letter-composition. After breakfast at the little flat which she had taken with her mother, she fled to the school. She drove into her books, she delighted in the pleasure of her weary teachers when she snapped out a quick answer to questions, or typed a page correctly, or was able to remember the shorthand symbol for a difficult word like "psychologize."
Her belief in the sacredness of the game was boundless.
Except for the young man in the bank, the new young man in the hardware-store, and the proprietors of the new Broadway Clothing Shop, Una had known most of the gallants in Panama, Pennsylvania, from knickerbocker days; she remembered their bony, boyish knees and their school-day whippings too well to be romantic about them. But in the commercial college she was suddenly associated with seventy entirely new and interesting males. So brief were the courses, so irregular the classifications, that there was no spirit of seniority to keep her out of things; and Una, with her fever of learning, her instinctive common sense about doing things in the easiest way, stood out among the girl students. The young men did not buzz about her as they did about the slim, diabolic, star-eyed girl from Brooklyn, in her tempting low-cut blouses, or the intense, curly-headed, boyish, brown Jew girl, or the ardent dancers and gigglers. But Una's self-sufficient eagerness gave a fervor to her blue eyes, and a tilt to her commonplace chin, which made her almost pretty, and the young men liked to consult her about things. She was really more prominent here, in a school of one hundred and seventy, than in her Panama high school with its enrolment of seventy.
Panama, Pennsylvania, had never regarded Una as a particularly capable young woman. Dozens of others were more masterful at trimming the Christmas tree for Wesley Methodist Church, preparing for the annual picnic of the Art Needlework Coterie, arranging a surprise donation party for the Methodist pastor, even spring house-cleaning. But she had been well spoken of as a marketer, a cook, a neighbor who would take care of your baby while you went visiting—because these tasks had seemed worth while to her. She was more practical than either Panama or herself believed. All these years she had, without knowing that she was philosophizing, without knowing that there was a world-wide inquiry into woman's place, been trying to find work that needed her. Her father's death had freed her; had permitted her to toil for her mother, cherish her, be regarded as useful. Instantly—still without learning that there was such a principle as feminism—she had become a feminist, demanding the world and all the fullness thereof as her field of labor.
And now, in this fumbling school, she was beginning to feel the theory of efficiency, the ideal of Big Business.
For "business," that one necessary field of activity to which the egotistic arts and sciences and theologies and military puerilities are but servants, that long-despised and always valiant effort to unify the labor of the world, is at last beginning to be something more than dirty smithing. No longer does the business man thank the better classes for permitting him to make and distribute bread and motor-cars and books. No longer does he crawl to the church to buy pardon for usury. Business is being recognized—and is recognizing itself—as ruler of the world.
With this consciousness of power it is reforming its old, petty, half-hearted ways; its idea of manufacture as a filthy sort of tinkering; of distribution as chance peddling and squalid shopkeeping; it is feverishly seeking efficiency.... In its machinery.... But, like all monarchies, it must fail unless it becomes noble of heart. So long as capital and labor are divided, so long as the making of munitions or injurious food is regarded as business, so long as Big Business believes that it exists merely to enrich a few of the lucky or the well born or the nervously active, it will not be efficient, but deficient. But the vision of an efficiency so broad that it can be kindly and sure, is growing—is discernible at once in the scientific business man and the courageous labor-unionist.
That vision Una Golden feebly comprehended. Where she first beheld it cannot be said. Certainly not in the lectures of her teachers, humorless and unvisioned grinds, who droned that by divine edict letters must end with a "yours truly" one space to the left of the middle of the page; who sniffed at card-ledgers as new-fangled nonsense, and, at their most inspired, croaked out such platitudes as: "Look out for the pennies and the pounds will look out for themselves," or "The man who fails is the man who watches the clock."
Nor was the vision of the inspired Big Business that shall be, to be found in the books over which Una labored—the flat, maroon-covered, dusty, commercial geography, the arid book of phrases and rules-of-the-thumb called "Fish's Commercial English," the manual of touch-typewriting, or the shorthand primer that, with its grotesque symbols and numbered exercises and yellow pages dog-eared by many owners, looked like an old-fashioned Arabic grammar headachily perused in some divinity-school library.
Her vision of it all must have come partly from the eager talk of a few of the students—the girl who wasn't ever going to give up her job, even if she did marry; the man who saw a future in these motion pictures; the shaggy-haired zealot who talked about profit-sharing (which was a bold radicalism back in 1905; almost as subversive of office discipline as believing in unions). Partly it came from the new sorts of business magazines for the man who didn't, like his fathers, insist, "I guess I can run my business without any outside interference," but sought everywhere for systems and charts and new markets and the scientific mind.
While her power of faith and vision was satisfied by the largeness of the city and by her chance to work, there was quickening in Una a shy, indefinable, inner life of tenderness and desire for love. She did not admit it, but she observed the young men about her with an interest that was as diverting as her ambition.
At first they awed her by their number and their strangeness. But when she seemed to be quite their equal in this school of the timorously clerical, she began to look at them level-eyed.... A busy, commonplace, soft-armed, pleasant, good little thing she was; glancing at them through eye-glasses attached to a gold chain over her ear, not much impressed now, slightly ashamed by the delight she took in winning their attention by brilliant recitations.... She decided that most of them were earnest-minded but intelligent serfs, not much stronger than the girls who were taking stenography for want of anything better to do. They sprawled and looked vacuous as they worked in rows in the big study-hall, with its hard blue walls showing the marks of two removed partitions, its old iron fireplace stuffed with rubbers and overshoes and crayon-boxes. As a provincial, Una disliked the many Jews among them, and put down their fervor for any sort of learning to acquisitiveness. The rest she came to despise for the clumsy slowness with which they learned even the simplest lessons. And to all of them she—who was going to be rich and powerful, directly she was good for one hundred words a minute at stenography!—felt disdainfully superior, because they were likely to be poor the rest of their lives.
In a twilight walk on Washington Heights, a walk of such vigor and happy absorption with new problems as she had never known in Panama, she caught herself being contemptuous about their frayed poverty. With a sharp emotional sincerity, she rebuked herself for such sordidness, mocked herself for assuming that she was already rich.
Even out of this mass of clerklings emerged two or three who were interesting: Sam Weintraub, a young, active, red-headed, slim-waisted Jew, who was born in Brooklyn. He smoked large cigars with an air, knew how to wear his clothes, and told about playing tennis at the Prospect Athletic Club. He would be a smart secretary or confidential clerk some day, Una was certain; he would own a car and be seen in evening clothes and even larger cigars at after-theater suppers. She was rather in awe of his sophistication. He was the only man who made her feel like a Freshman.
J. J. Todd, a reticent, hesitating, hard-working man of thirty, from Chatham on Cape Cod. It was he who, in noon-time arguments, grimly advocated profit-sharing, which Sam Weintraub debonairly dismissed as "socialistic."
And, most appealing to her, enthusiastic young Sanford Hunt, inarticulate, but longing for a chance to attach himself to some master. Weintraub and Todd had desks on either side of her; they had that great romantic virtue, propinquity. But Sanford Hunt she had noticed, in his corner across the room, because he glanced about with such boyish loneliness.
Sanford Hunt helped her find a rubber in the high-school-like coat-room on a rainy day when the girls were giggling and the tremendous swells of the institution were whooping and slapping one another on the back and acting as much as possible like their ideal of college men—an ideal presumably derived from motion pictures and college playlets in vaudeville. Una saw J. J. Todd gawping at her, but not offering to help, while a foreshortened Sanford groped along the floor, under the dusty line of coats, for her missing left rubber. Sanford came up with the rubber, smiled like a nice boy, and walked with her to the Subway.
He didn't need much encouragement to tell his ambitions. He was twenty-one—three years younger than herself. He was a semi-orphan, born in Newark; had worked up from office-boy to clerk in the office of a huge Jersey City paint company; had saved money to take a commercial course; was going back to the paint company, and hoped to be office-manager there. He had a conviction that "the finest man in the world" was Mr. Claude Lowry, president of the Lowry Paint Company; the next finest, Mr. Ernest Lowry, vice-president and general manager; the next, Mr. Julius Schwirtz, one of the two city salesmen—Mr. Schwirtz having occupied a desk next to his own for two years—and that "the best paint on the market to-day is Lowry's Lasting Paint—simply no getting around it."
In the five-minute walk over to the Eighteenth Street station of the Subway, Sanford had lastingly impressed Una by his devotion to the job; eager and faithful as the glory that a young subaltern takes in his regiment. She agreed with him that the dour J. J. Todd was "crazy" in his theories about profit-sharing and selling stocks to employees. While she was with young Sanford, Una found herself concurring that "the bosses know so much better about all those things—gee whiz! they've had so much more experience—besides you can't expect them to give away all their profits to please these walking delegates or a Cape Cod farmer like Todd! All these theories don't do a fellow any good; what he wants is to stick on a job and make good."
Though, in keeping with the general school-boyishness of the institution, the study-room supervisors tried to prevent conversation, there was always a current of whispering and low talk, and Sam Weintraub gave Una daily reports of the tennis, the dances, the dinners at the Prospect Athletic Club. Her evident awe of his urban amusements pleased him. He told his former idol, the slim, blond giggler, that she was altogether too fresh for a Bronx Kid, and he basked in Una's admiration. Through him she had a revelation of the New York in which people actually were born, which they took casually, as she did Panama.
She tried consciously to become a real New-Yorker herself. After lunch—her home-made lunch of sandwiches and an apple—which she ate in the buzzing, gossiping study-hall at noon-hour, she explored the city. Sometimes Sanford Hunt begged to go with her. Once Todd stalked along and embarrassed her by being indignant over an anti-socialist orator in Madison Square. Once, on Fifth Avenue, she met Sam Weintraub, and he nonchalantly pointed out, in a passing motor, a man whom he declared to be John D. Rockefeller.
Even at lunch-hour Una could not come to much understanding with the girls of the commercial college. They seemed alternately third-rate stenographers, and very haughty urbanites who knew all about "fellows" and "shows" and "glad rags." Except for good-natured, square-rigged Miss Moynihan, and the oldish, anxious, industrious Miss Ingalls, who, like Una, came from a small town, and the adorably pretty little Miss Moore, whom you couldn't help loving, Una saw the girls of the school only in a mass.
It was Sam Weintraub, J. J. Todd, and Sanford Hunt whom Una watched and liked, and of whom she thought when the school authorities pompously invited them all to a dance early in November.
The excitement, the giggles, the discussions of girdles and slippers and hair-waving and men, which filled the study-hall at noon and the coat-room at closing hour, was like midnight silence compared with the tumult in Una's breast when she tried to make herself believe that either her blue satin evening dress or her white-and-pink frock of "novelty crepe" was attractive enough for the occasion. The crepe was the older, but she had worn the blue satin so much that now the crepe suddenly seemed the newer, the less soiled. After discussions with her mother, which involved much holding up of the crepe and the tracing of imaginary diagrams with a forefinger, she decided to put a new velvet girdle and new sleeve ruffles on the crepe, and then she said, "It will have to do."
Very different is the dressing of the girl who isn't quite pretty, nor at all rich, from the luxurious joy which the beautiful woman takes in her new toilettes. Instead of the faint, shivery wonder as to whether men will realize how exquisitely the line of a new bodice accentuates the molding of her neck, the unpretty girl hopes that no one will observe how unevenly her dress hangs, how pointed and red and rough are her elbows, how clumsily waved her hair. "I don't think anybody will notice," she sighs, and is contemptuously conscious of her own stolid, straight, healthy waist, while her mother flutters about and pretends to believe that she is curved like a houri, like Helen of Troy, like Isolde at eighteen.
Una was touched by her mother's sincere eagerness in trying to make her pretty. Poor little mother. It had been hard on her to sit alone all day in a city flat, with no Panama neighbors to drop in on her, no meeting of the Panama Study Club, and with Una bringing home her books to work aloof all evening.
The day before the dance, J. J. Todd dourly asked her if he might call for her and take her home. Una accepted hesitatingly. As she did so, she unconsciously glanced at the decorative Sam Weintraub, who was rocking on his toes and flirting with Miss Moore, the kittenish belle of the school.
She must have worried for fifteen minutes over the question of whether she was going to wear a hat or a scarf, trying to remember the best social precedents of Panama as laid down by Mrs. Dr. Smith, trying to recall New York women as she had once or twice seen them in the evening on Broadway. Finally, she jerked a pale-blue chiffon scarf over her mildly pretty hair, pulled on her new long, white kid gloves, noted miserably that the gloves did not quite cover her pebbly elbows, and snapped at her fussing mother: "Oh, it doesn't matter. I'm a perfect sight, anyway, so what's the use of worrying!"
Her mother looked so hurt and bewildered that Una pulled her down into a chair, and, kneeling on the floor with her arms about her, crooned, "Oh, I'm just nervous, mumsie dear; working so hard and all. I'll have the best time, now you've made me so pretty for the dance." Clasped thus, an intense brooding affection holding them and seeming to fill the shabby sitting-room, they waited for the coming of her Tristan, her chevalier, the flat-footed J. J. Todd.
They heard Todd shamble along the hall. They wriggled with concealed laughter and held each other tighter when he stopped at the door of the flat and blew his nervous nose in a tremendous blast.... More vulgar possibly than the trumpetry which heralded the arrival of Lancelot at a chateau, but on the whole quite as effective.
She set out with him, observing his pitiful, home-cleaned, black sack-suit, and home-shined, expansive, black boots and ready-made tie, while he talked easily, and was merely rude about dances and clothes and the weather.
In the study-hall, which had been cleared of all seats except for a fringe along the walls, and was unevenly hung with school flags and patriotic bunting, Una found the empty-headed time-servers, the Little Folk, to whom she was so superior in the class-room. Brooklyn Jews used to side-street dance-halls, Bronx girls who went to the bartenders' ball, and the dinner and grand ball of the Clamchowder Twenty, they laughed and talked and danced—all three at once—with an ease which dismayed her.
To Una Golden, of Panama, the waltz and the two-step were solemn affairs. She could make her feet go in a one-two-three triangle with approximate accuracy, if she didn't take any liberties with them. She was relieved to find that Todd danced with a heavy accuracy which kept her from stumbling.... But their performance was solemn and joyless, while by her skipped Sam Weintraub, in evening clothes with black velvet collar and cuffs, swinging and making fantastic dips with the lovely Miss Moore, who cuddled into his arms and swayed to his swing.
"Let's cut out the next," said Todd, and she consented, though Sanford Hunt came boyishly, blushingly up to ask her for a dance.... She was intensely aware that she was a wall-flower, in a row with the anxious Miss Ingalls and the elderly frump, Miss Fisle. Sam Weintraub seemed to avoid her, and, though she tried to persuade herself that his greasy, curly, red hair and his pride of evening clothes and sharp face were blatantly Jewish, she knew that she admired his atmosphere of gorgeousness and was in despair at being shut out of it. She even feared that Sanford Hunt hadn't really wanted to dance with her, and she wilfully ignored his frequent glances of friendliness and his efforts to introduce her and his "lady friend." She was silent and hard, while poor Todd, trying not to be a radical and lecture on single-tax or municipal ownership, attempted to be airy about the theater, which meant the one show he had seen since he had come to New York.
From vague dissatisfaction she drifted into an active resentment at being shut out of the world of pretty things, of clinging gowns and graceful movement and fragrant rooms. While Todd was taking her home she was saying to herself over and over, "Nope; it's just as bad as parties at Panama. Never really enjoyed 'em. I'm out of it. I'll stick to my work. Oh, drat it!"
Blindly, in a daily growing faith in her commercial future, she shut out the awkward gaieties of the school, ignored Todd and Sanford Hunt and Sam Weintraub, made no effort to cultivate the adorable Miss Moore's rather flattering friendliness for her. She was like a girl grind in a coeducational college who determines to head the class and to that devotes all of a sexless energy.
Only Una was not sexless. Though she hadn't the dancing-girl's oblivious delight in pleasure, though her energetic common sense and willingness to serve had turned into a durable plodding, Una was alive, normal, desirous of love, as the flower-faced girl grind of the college so often is not, to the vast confusion of numerous ardent young gentlemen.
She could not long forbid herself an interest in Sanford Hunt and Sam Weintraub; she even idealized Todd as a humble hero, a self-made and honest man, which he was, though Una considered herself highly charitable to him.
Sweet to her—even when he told her that he was engaged, even when it was evident that he regarded her as an older sister or as a very young and understanding aunt—was Sanford Hunt's liking. "Why do you like me—if you do?" she demanded one lunch-hour, when he had brought her a bar of milk-chocolate.
"Oh, I dun'no'; you're so darn honest, and you got so much more sense than this bunch of Bronx totties. Gee! they'll make bum stenogs. I know. I've worked in an office. They'll keep their gum and a looking-glass in the upper right-hand drawer of their typewriter desks, and the old man will call them down eleventy times a day, and they'll marry the shipping-clerk first time he sneaks out from behind a box. But you got sense, and somehow—gee! I never know how to express things—glad I'm taking this English composition stuff—oh, you just seem to understand a guy. I never liked that Yid Weintraub till you made me see how darn clever and nice he really is, even if he does wear spats."
Sanford told her often that he wished she was going to come over to the Lowry Paint Company to work, when she finished. He had entered the college before her; he would be through somewhat earlier; he was going back to the paint company and would try to find an opening for her there. He wanted her to meet Mr. Julius Edward Schwirtz, the Manhattan salesman of the company.
When Mr. Schwirtz was in that part of town, interviewing the department-store buyers, he called up Sanford Hunt, and Sanford insisted that she come out to lunch with Schwirtz and himself and his girl. She went shyly.
Sanford's sweetheart proved to be as clean and sweet as himself, but mute, smiling instead of speaking, inclined to admire every one, without much discrimination. Sanford was very proud, very eager as host, and his boyish admiration of all his guests gave a certain charm to the corner of the crude German sausage-and-schnitzel restaurant where they lunched. Una worked at making the party as successful as possible, and was cordial to Mr. Julius Edward Schwirtz, the paint salesman.
Mr. Schwirtz was forty or forty-one, a red-faced, clipped-mustached, derby-hatted average citizen. He was ungrammatical and jocose; he panted a good deal and gurgled his soup; his nails were ragged-edged, his stupid brown tie uneven, and there were signs of a growing grossness and fatty unwieldiness about his neck, his shoulders, his waist. But he was affable. He quietly helped Sanford in ordering lunch, to the great economy of embarrassment. He was smilingly ready to explain to Una how a paint company office was run; what chances there were for a girl. He seemed to know his business, he didn't gossip, and his heavy, coarse-lipped smile was almost sweet when he said to Una, "Makes a hard-cased old widower like me pretty lonely to see this nice kid and girly here. Eh? Wish I had some children like them myself."
He wasn't vastly different from Henry Carson, this Mr. Schwirtz, but he had a mechanical city smartness in his manner and a jocular energy which the stringy-necked Henry quite lacked.
Because she liked to be with Sanford Hunt, hoped to get from Mr. Julius Edward Schwirtz still more of the feeling of how actual business men do business, she hoped for another lunch.
But a crisis unexpected and alarming came to interrupt her happy progress to a knowledge of herself and men.
The Goldens had owned no property in Panama, Pennsylvania; they had rented their house. Captain Lew Golden, who was so urgent in advising others to purchase real estate—with a small, justifiable commission to himself—had never quite found time to decide on his own real-estate investments. When they had come to New York, Una and her mother had given up the house and sold the heavier furniture, the big beds, the stove. The rest of the furniture they had brought to the city and installed in a little flat way up on 148th Street.
Her mother was, Una declared, so absolutely the lady that it was a crying shame to think of her immured here in their elevatorless tenement; this new, clean, barren building of yellow brick, its face broken out with fire-escapes. It had narrow halls, stairs of slate treads and iron rails, and cheap wooden doorways which had begun to warp the minute the structure was finished—and sold. The bright-green burlap wall-covering in the hallways had faded in less than a year to the color of dry grass. The janitor grew tired every now and then. He had been markedly diligent at first, but he was already giving up the task of keeping the building clean. It was one of, and typical of, a mile of yellow brick tenements; it was named after an African orchid of great loveliness, and it was filled with clerks, motormen, probationer policemen, and enormously prolific women in dressing-sacques.
The Goldens had three rooms and bath. A small linoleous gas-stove kitchen. A bedroom with standing wardrobe, iron bed, and just one graceful piece of furniture—Una's dressing-table; a room pervasively feminine in its scent and in the little piles of lingerie which Mrs. Golden affected more, not less, as she grew older. The living-room, with stiff, brown, woolen brocade chairs, transplanted from their Panama home, a red plush sofa, two large oak-framed Biblical pictures—"The Wedding-feast at Cana," and "Solomon in His Temple." This living-room had never been changed since the day of their moving in. Una repeatedly coveted the German color-prints she saw in shop windows, but she had to economize.
She planned that when she should succeed they would have such an apartment of white enamel and glass doors and mahogany as she saw described in the women's magazines. She realized mentally that her mother must be lonely in the long hours of waiting for her return, but she who was busy all day could never feel emotionally how great was that loneliness, and she expected her mother to be satisfied with the future.
Quite suddenly, a couple of weeks after the dance, when they were talking about the looming topic—what kind of work Una would be able to get when she should have completed school—her mother fell violently a-weeping; sobbed, "Oh, Una baby, I want to go home. I'm so lonely here—just nobody but you and the Sessionses. Can't we go back to Panama? You don't seem to really know what you are going to do."
Una loved her mother, yet she felt a grim disgust, rather than pity.... Just when she had been working so hard! And for her mother as much as for herself.... She stalked over to the table, severely rearranged the magazines, slammed down a newspaper, and turned, angrily. "Why, can't you see? I can't give up my work now."
"Couldn't you get something to do in Panama, dearie?"
"You know perfectly well that I tried."
"But maybe now, with your college course and all—even if it took a little longer to get something there, we'd be right among the folks we know—"
"Mother, can't you understand that we have only a little over three hundred dollars now? If we moved again and everything, we wouldn't have two hundred dollars to live on. Haven't you any sense of finances?"
"You must not talk to me that way, my daughter!"
A slim, fine figure of hurt-dignity, Mrs. Golden left the room, lay down in the bedroom, her face away from the door where Una stood in perplexity. Una ran to her, kissed her shoulder, begged for forgiveness. Her mother patted her cheek, and sobbed, "Oh, it doesn't matter," in a tone so forlorn and lonely that it did matter, terribly. The sadness of it tortured Una while she was realizing that her mother had lost all practical comprehension of the details of life, was become a child, trusting everything to her daughter, yet retaining a power of suffering such as no child can know.
It had been easy to bring her mother here, to start a career. Both of them had preconceived a life of gaiety and beauty, of charming people and pictures and concerts. But all those graces were behind a dusty wall of shorthand and typewriting. Una's struggle in coming to New York had just begun.
Gently arbitrary, dearer than ever to Una in her helpless longing for kindly neighbors and the familiar places, Mrs. Golden went on hoping that she could persuade Una to go back to Panama. She never seemed to realize that their capital wasn't increasing as time passed. Sometimes impatient at her obtuseness, sometimes passionate with comprehending tenderness, Una devoted herself to her, and Mr. Schwirtz and Sanford Hunt and Sam Weintraub and Todd faded. She treasured her mother's happiness at their Christmas dinner with the Sessionses. She encouraged the Sessionses to come up to the flat as often as they could, and she lulled her mother to a tolerable calm boredom. Before it was convenient to think of men again, her school-work was over.
The commercial college had a graduation once a month. On January 15, 1906, Una finished her course, regretfully said good-by to Sam Weintraub, and to Sanford Hunt, who had graduated in mid-December, but had come back for "class commencement"; and at the last moment she hesitated so long over J. J. Todd's hints about calling some day, that he was discouraged and turned away. Una glanced about the study-hall—the first place where she had ever been taken seriously as a worker—and marched off to her first battle in the war of business.
Sanford Hunt telephoned to Una that he and Mr. Julius Edward Schwirtz—whom he called "Eddie"—had done their best to find an "opening" for her in the office of the Lowry Paint Company, but that there was no chance.
The commercial college gave her the names of several possible employers, but they all wanted approximate perfection at approximately nothing a week. After ten days of panic-stricken waiting at the employment office of a typewriter company, and answering want advertisements, the typewriter people sent her to the office of the Motor and Gas Gazette, a weekly magazine for the trade. In this atmosphere of the literature of lubricating oil and drop forgings and body enamels, as an eight-dollar-a-week copyist, Una first beheld the drama and romance of the office world.
There is plenty of romance in business. Fine, large, meaningless, general terms like romance and business can always be related. They take the place of thinking, and are highly useful to optimists and lecturers.
But in the world of business there is a bewildered new Muse of Romance, who is clad not in silvery tissue of dreams, but in a neat blue suit that won't grow too shiny under the sleeves.
Adventure now, with Una, in the world of business; of offices and jobs and tired, ordinary people who know such reality of romance as your masquerading earl, your shoddy Broadway actress, or your rosily amorous dairy-maid could never imagine. The youths of poetry and of the modern motor-car fiction make a long diversion of love; while the sleezy-coated office-man who surprises a look of humanness in the weary eyes of the office-woman, knows that he must compress all the wonder of madness into five minutes, because the Chief is prowling about, glancing meaningly at the little signs that declare, "Your time is your employer's money; don't steal it."
A world is this whose noblest vista is composed of desks and typewriters, filing-cases and insurance calendars, telephones, and the bald heads of men who believe dreams to be idiotic. Here, no galleon breasts the sky-line; no explorer in evening clothes makes love to an heiress. Here ride no rollicking cowboys, nor heroes of the great European war. It is a world whose crises you cannot comprehend unless you have learned that the difference between a 2-A pencil and a 2-B pencil is at least equal to the contrast between London and Tibet; unless you understand why a normally self-controlled young woman may have a week of tragic discomfort because she is using a billing-machine instead of her ordinary correspondence typewriter. The shifting of the water-cooler from the front office to the packing-room may be an epochal event to a copyist who apparently has no human existence beyond bending over a clacking typewriter, who seems to have no home, no family, no loves; in whom all pride and wonder of life and all transforming drama seem to be satisfied by the possession of a new V-necked blouse. The moving of the water-cooler may mean that she must now pass the sentinel office-manager; that therefore she no longer dares break the incredible monotony by expeditions to get glasses of water. As a consequence she gives up the office and marries unhappily.
A vast, competent, largely useless cosmos of offices. It spends much energy in causing advertisements of beer and chewing-gum and union suits and pot-cleansers to spread over the whole landscape. It marches out ponderous battalions to sell a brass pin. It evokes shoes that are uncomfortable, hideous, and perishable, and touchingly hopes that all women will aid the cause of good business by wearing them. It turns noble valleys into fields for pickles. It compels men whom it has never seen to toil in distant factories and produce useless wares, which are never actually brought into the office, but which it nevertheless sells to the heathen in the Solomon Islands in exchange for commodities whose very names it does not know; and in order to perform this miracle of transmutation it keeps stenographers so busy that they change from dewy girls into tight-lipped spinsters before they discover life.
The reason for it all, nobody who is actually engaged in it can tell you, except the bosses, who believe that these sacred rites of composing dull letters and solemnly filing them away are observed in order that they may buy the large automobiles in which they do not have time to take the air. Efficiency of production they have learned; efficiency of life they still consider an effeminate hobby.
An unreasonable world, sacrificing bird-song and tranquil dusk and high golden noons to selling junk—yet it rules us. And life lives there. The office is filled with thrills of love and distrust and ambition. Each alley between desks quivers with secret romance as ceaselessly as a battle-trench, or a lane in Normandy.
Una's first view of the Motor and Gas Gazette was of an overwhelming mass of desks and files and books, and a confusing, spying crowd of strange people, among whom the only safe, familiar persons were Miss Moynihan, the good-natured solid block of girl whom she had known at the commercial college, and Mr. S. Herbert Ross, the advertising-manager, who had hired her. Mr. Ross was a poet of business; a squat, nervous little man, whose hair was cut in a Dutch bang, straight across his forehead, and who always wore a black bow tie and semi-clerical black clothes. He had eyed Una amusedly, asked her what was her reaction to green and crimson posters, and given her a little book by himself, "R U A Time-clock, Mr. Man?" which, in large and tremendously black type, related two stories about the youth of Carnegie, and strongly advocated industry, correspondence schools, and expensive advertising. When Una entered the office, as a copyist, Mr. S. Herbert Ross turned her over to the office-manager, and thereafter ignored her; but whenever she saw him in pompous conference with editors and advertisers she felt proudly that she knew him.
The commercial college had trained her to work with a number of people, as she was now to do in the office; but in the seriousness and savage continuity of its toil, the office was very different. There was no let-up; she couldn't shirk for a day or two, as she had done at the commercial college. It was not so much that she was afraid of losing her job as that she came to see herself as part of a chain. The others, beyond, were waiting for her; she mustn't hold them up. That was her first impression of the office system, that and the insignificance of herself in the presence of the office-hierarchy—manager above manager and the Mysterious Owner beyond all. She was alone; once she transgressed they would crush her. They had no personal interest in her, none of them, except her classmate, Miss Moynihan, who smiled at her and went out to lunch with her.
They two did not dare to sit over parcels of lunch with the curious other girls. Before fifteen-cent lunches of baked apples, greasy Napoleons, and cups of coffee, at a cheap restaurant, Miss Moynihan and she talked about the office-manager, the editors, the strain of copying all day, and they united in lyric hatred of the lieutenant of the girls, a satiric young woman who was a wonderful hater. Una had regarded Miss Moynihan as thick and stupid, but not when she had thought of falling in love with Charlie Martindale at a dance at Panama, not in her most fervid hours of comforting her mother, had she been so closely in sympathy with any human being as she was with Miss Moynihan when they went over and over the problems of office politics, office favorites, office rules, office customs.
The customs were simple: Certain hours for arrival, for lunch, for leaving; women's retiring-room embarrassedly discovered to be on the right behind the big safe; water-cooler in the center of the stenographers' room. But the office prejudices, the taboos, could not be guessed. They offered you every possible chance of "queering yourself." Miss Moynihan, on her very first day, discovered, perspiringly, that you must never mention the Gazette's rival, the Internal Combustion News. The Gazette's attitude was that the News did not exist—except when the Gazette wanted the plate of an advertisement which the News was to forward. You mustn't chew gum in the office; you were to ask favors of the lieutenant, not of the office-manager; and you mustn't be friendly with Mr. Bush of the circulation department, nor with Miss Caldwell, the filing-clerk. Why they were taboo Una never knew; it was an office convention; they seemed pleasant and proper people enough.
She was initiated into the science of office supplies. In the commercial college the authorities had provided stenographers' note-books and pencils, and the representatives of typewriter companies had given lectures on cleaning and oiling typewriters, putting in new ribbons, adjusting tension-wheels. But Una had not realized how many tools she had to know——
Desks, filing-cabinets, mimeographs, adding-machines, card indexes, desk calendars, telephone-extensions, adjustable desk-lights. Wire correspondence-baskets, erasers, carbon paper, type-brushes, dust-rags, waste-baskets. Pencils, hard and soft, black and blue and red. Pens, pen-points, backing-sheets, note-books, paper-clips. Mucilage, paste, stationery; the half-dozen sorts of envelopes and letter-heads.
Tools were these, as important in her trade as the masthead and black flag, the cutlasses and crimson sashes, the gold doubloons and damsels fair of pirate fiction; or the cheese and cream, old horses and slumberous lanes of rustic comedy. As important, and perhaps to be deemed as romantic some day; witness the rhapsodic advertisements of filing-cabinets that are built like battle-ships; of carbon-paper that is magic-inked and satin-smooth.
Not as priest or soldier or judge does youth seek honor to-day, but as a man of offices. The business subaltern, charming and gallant as the jungle-gallopers of Kipling, drills files, not of troops, but of correspondence. The artist plays the keys, not of pianos, but of typewriters. Desks, not decks; courts of office-buildings, not of palaces—these are the stuff of our latter-day drama. Not through wolf-haunted forests nor purple canons, but through tiled hallways and elevators move our heroes of to-day.
And our heroine is important not because she is an Amazon or a Ramona, but because she is representative of some millions of women in business, and because, in a vague but undiscouraged way, she keeps on inquiring what women in business can do to make human their existence of loveless routine.
Una spent much of her time in copying over and over—a hundred times, two hundred times—form-letters soliciting advertising, letters too personal in appearance to be multigraphed. She had lists of manufacturers of motor-car accessories, of makers of lubricating oils, of distributors of ball-bearings and speedometers and springs and carburetors and compositions for water-proofing automobile tops.
Sometimes she was requisitioned by the editorial department to copy in form legible for the printer the rough items sent in by outsiders for publication in the Gazette. Una, like most people of Panama, had believed that there was something artistic about the office of any publication. One would see editors—wonderful men like grand dukes, prone to lunch with the President. But there was nothing artistic about the editorial office of the Gazette—several young men in shirt-sleeves and green celluloid eye-shades, very slangy and pipe-smelly, and an older man with unpressed trousers and ragged mustache. Nor was there anything literary in the things that Una copied for the editorial department; just painfully handwritten accounts of the meeting of the Southeastern Iowa Auto-dealers' Association; or boasts about the increased sales of Roadeater Tires, a page originally smartly typed, but cut and marked up by the editors.
Lists and letters and items, over and over; sitting at her typewriter till her shoulder-blades ached and she had to shut her eyes to the blur of the keys. The racket of office noises all day. The three-o'clock hour when she felt that she simply could not endure the mill till five o'clock. No interest in anything she wrote. Then the blessed hour of release, the stretching of cramped legs, and the blind creeping to the Subway, the crush in the train, and home to comfort the mother who had been lonely all day.
Such was Una's routine in these early months of 1906. After the novelty of the first week it was all rigidly the same, except that distinct personalities began to emerge from the mass.
Especially the personality of Walter Babson.
Out of the mist of strange faces, blurred hordes of people who swaggered up the office aisle so knowingly, and grinned at her when she asked questions, individualities began to take form:
Miss Moynihan; the Jewish stenographer with the laughing lips and hot eyes; the four superior older girls in a corner, the still more superior girl lieutenant, and the office-manager, who was the least superior of all; the telephone-girl; the office-boys; Mr. S. Herbert Ross and his assistant; the managing editor; a motor magnate whose connection was mysterious; the owner, a courteous, silent, glancing man who was reported to be hard and "stingy."
Other people still remained unidentifiable to her, but the office appeared smaller and less formidable in a month. Out of each nine square feet of floor space in the office a novel might have been made: the tale of the managing editor's neurotic wife; the tragedy of Chubby Hubbard, the stupid young editor who had been a college football star, then an automobile racer, then a failure. And indeed there was a whole novel, a story told and retold, in the girls' gossip about each of the men before whom they were so demure. But it was Walter Babson whom the girls most discussed and in whom Una found the most interest.
On her first day in the office she had been startled by an astounding young man who had come flying past her desk, with his coat off, his figured waistcoat half open, his red four-in-hand tie askew under a rolling soft collar. He had dashed up to the office-manager and demanded, "Say! Say! Nat! Got that Kokomobile description copied for me yet? Heh? Gawd! you're slow. Got a cigarette?" He went off, puffing out cigarette smoke, shaking his head and audibly muttering, "Slow bunch, werry." He seemed to be of Una's own age, or perhaps a year older—a slender young man with horn-rimmed eye-glasses, curly black hair, and a trickle of black mustache. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbow, and Una had a secret, shamed, shivering thrill in the contrast of the dead-white skin of his thin forearms with the long, thick, soft, black hairs matted over them. They seemed at once feminine and acidly male.
"Crazy idiot," she observed, apparently describing herself and the nervous young man together. But she knew that she wanted to see him again.
She discovered that he was prone to such violent appearances; that his name was Walter Babson; that he was one of the three desk editors under the managing editor; that the stenographers and office-boys alternately disapproved of him, because he went on sprees and borrowed money from anybody in sight, and adored him because he was democratically frank with them. He was at once a hero, clown, prodigal son, and preacher of honesty. It was variously said that he was a socialist, an anarchist, and a believer in an American monarchy, which he was reported as declaring would "give some color to this flat-faced province of a country." It was related that he had been "fresh" even to the owner, and had escaped discharge only by being the quickest worker in the office, the best handy man at turning motor statistics into lively news-stories. Una saw that he liked to stand about, bawling to the quizzical S. Herbert Ross that "this is a hell of a shop to work in—rotten pay and no esprit de corps. I'd quit and free-lance if I could break in with fiction, but a rotten bunch of log-rollers have got the inside track with all the magazines and book-publishers."
"Ever try to write any fiction?" Una once heard S. Herbert retort.
"No, but Lord! any fool could write better stuff than they publish. It's all a freeze-out game; editors just accept stuff by their friends."
In one week Una heard Walter Babson make approximately the same assertions to three different men, and to whoever in the open office might care to listen and profit thereby. Then, apparently, he ceased to hear the call of literature, and he snorted at S. Herbert Ross's stodgy assistant that he was a wage-slave, and a fool not to form a clerks' union. In a week or two he was literary again. He dashed down to the office-manager, poked a sheet of copy-paper at him, and yelped: "Say, Nat. Read that and tell me just what you think of it. I'm going to put some literary flavor into the Gas-bag even if it does explode it. Look—see. I've taken a boost for the Kells Karburetor—rotten lying boost it is, too—and turned it into this running verse, read it like prose, pleasant and easy to digest, especially beneficial to children and S. Herbert Souse, Sherbert Souse, I mean." He rapidly read an amazing lyric beginning, "Motorists, you hadn't better monkey with the carburetor, all the racers, all the swells, have equipped their cars with Kells. We are privileged to announce what will give the trade a jounce, that the floats have been improved like all motorists would have loved."
He broke off and shouted, "Punk last line, but I'll fix it up. Say, that'll get 'em all going, eh? Say, I bet the Kells people use it in bill-board ads. all over the country, and maybe sign my name. Ads., why say, it takes a literary guy to write ads., not a fat-headed commercialist like S. Charlie Hoss."
Two days later Una heard Babson come out and lament that the managing editor didn't like his masterpiece and was going to use the Kells Karburetor Kompany's original write-up. "That's what you get when you try to give the Gas-bag some literary flavor—don't appreciate it!"
She would rather have despised him, except that he stopped by the office-boys' bench to pull their hair and tell them to read English dictionaries. And when Miss Moynihan looked dejected, Babson demanded of her, "What's trouble, girlie? Anybody I can lick for you? Glad to fire the owner, or anything. Haven't met you yet, but my name is Roosevelt, and I'm the new janitor," with a hundred other chuckling idiocies, till Miss Moynihan was happy again. Una warmed to his friendliness, like that of a tail-wagging little yellow pup.
And always she craved the touch of his dark, blunt, nervous hands. Whenever he lighted a cigarette she was startled by his masculine way of putting out the match and jerking it away from him in one abrupt motion.... She had never studied male mannerisms before. To Miss Golden of Panama men had always been "the boys."
All this time Walter Babson had never spoken to her.
The office-manager came casually up to Una's desk and said, "You haven't taken any dictation yet, have you?"
"No, but," with urgent eagerness, "I'd like—I'm quite fast in stenography."
"Well, Mr. Babson, in the editorial department, wants to give some dictation and you might try—"
Una was so excited that she called herself a silly little fool. She seized her untouched note-book, her pencils sharpened like lances, and tried to appear a very mouse of modesty as she marched down the office to take her first real dictation, to begin her triumphant career.... And to have Walter Babson, the beloved fool, speak to her.
It was a cold shock to have to stand waiting behind Babson while he rummaged in his roll-top desk and apparently tried to pull out his hair. He looked back at her and blurted, "Oh! You, Miss Golden? They said you'd take some dictation. Chase those blue-prints off that chair and sit down. Be ready in a sec."
While she sat on the edge of the chair Babson yanked out drawers, plunged his wriggling hands into folders, thrashed through a pile of papers and letters that over-flowed a wire basket, and even hauled a dictionary down from the top of the desk and hopefully peered inside the front cover. All the time he kept up comment at which Una smiled doubtfully, not quite sure whether it was meant for her or not:
"Now what the doggone doggonishness did I ever do with those doggone notes, anyway? I ask you, in the— Here they— Nope—"
At last he found inside a book on motor fuels the wad of copy-paper on which he had scrawled notes with a broad, soft pencil, and he began to dictate a short article on air-cooling. Una was terrified lest she be unable to keep up, but she had read recent numbers of the Gazette thoroughly, she had practised the symbols for motor technologies, and she was not troubled by being watched. Indeed, Babson seemed to have enough to do in keeping his restless spirit from performing the dismaying feat of leaping straight out of his body. He leaned back in his revolving desk-chair with a complaining squawk from the spring, he closed his eyes, put his fingers together piously, then seized the chair-arms and held them, while he cocked one eye open and squinted at a large alarm-clock on the desk. He sighed profoundly, bent forward, gazed at his ankle, and reached forward to scratch it. All this time he was dictating, now rapidly, now gurgling and grunting while he paused to find a word.
"Don't be so nervous!" Una wanted to scream at him, and she wanted to add, "You didn't ask my permission!" when he absently fumbled in a cigarette-box.
She didn't like Walter Babson, after all!
But he stopped after a rhapsody on the divine merits of an air-cooling system, clawed his billowing black hair, and sighed, "Sounds improbable, don't it? Must be true, though; it's going to appear in the Gazette, and that's the motor-dealer's bible. If you don't believe it, read the blurbs we publish about ourselves!" Then he solemnly winked at her and went on dictating.
When he had finished he demanded, "Ever take any dictation in this office before?"
"Ever take any motor dictation at all?"
"Then you'd better read that back to me. Your immejit boss—the office-manager—is all right, but the secretary of the company is always pussy-footing around, and if you're ever having any trouble with your stuff when old plush-ears is in sight, keep on typing fast, no matter what you put down. Now read me the dope."
It was approximately correct. He nodded, and, "Good work, little girl," he said. "You'll get along all right. You get my dictation better than that agitated antelope Miss Harman does, right now. That's all."
So far as anything connected with Walter Babson could be regular, Una became his regular stenographer, besides keeping up her copying. He was always rushing out, apologizing for troubling her, sitting on the edge of her desk, dictating a short letter, and advising her to try his latest brand of health food, which, this spring, was bran biscuits—probably combined with highballs and too much coffee. The other stenographers winked at him, and he teased them about their coiffures and imaginary sweethearts.... For three days the women's coat-room boiled with giggles over Babson's declaration that Miss MacThrostle was engaged to a burglar, and was taking a correspondence course in engraving in order to decorate her poor dear husband's tools with birds and poetic mottoes.
Babson was less jocular with Una than with the bouncing girls who were natives of Harlem. But he smiled at her, as though they were understanding friends, and once he said, but quietly, rather respectfully, "You have nice hair—soft." She lay awake to croon that to herself, though she denied that she was in love with this eccentric waster.
Always Babson kept up his ejaculations and fidgeting. He often accused himself of shiftlessness and begged her to make sure that he dictated certain matter before he escaped for the evening. "Come in and bother the life out of me. Come in every half-hour," he would say. When she did come in he would crow and chuckle, "Nope. I refuse to be tempted yet; I am a busy man. But maybe I'll give you those verbal jewels of great price on your next visitation, oh thou in the vocative—some Latin scholar, eh? Keep it up, kid; good work. Maybe you'll keep me from being fired."
Usually he gave her the dictation before he went. But not always. And once he disappeared for four days—on a drunk, everybody said, in excited office gossip.
During Babson's desertion the managing editor called Una in and demanded, "Did Mr. Babson give you some copy about the Manning Wind Shield? No? Will you take a look in his desk for his notes about it?"