THE VERTICAL CITY
SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
THE VERTICAL CITY
SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY
By that same architectural gesture of grief which caused Jehan at Agra to erect the Taj Mahal in memory of a dead wife and a cold hearthstone, so the Bon Ton hotel, even to the pillars with red-freckled monoliths and peacock-backed lobby chairs, making the analogy rather absurdly complete, reared its fourteen stories of "elegantly furnished suites, all the comforts and none of the discomforts of home."
A mausoleum to the hearth. And as true to form as any that ever mourned the dynastic bones of an Augustus or a Hadrian.
An Indiana-limestone and Vermont-marble tomb to Hestia.
All ye who enter here, at sixty dollars a week and up, leave behind the lingo of the fireside chair, parsley bed, servant problem, cretonne shoe bags, hose nozzle, striped awnings, attic trunks, bird houses, ice-cream salt, spare-room matting, bungalow aprons, mayonnaise receipt, fruit jars, spring painting, summer covers, fall cleaning, winter apples.
The mosaic tablet of the family hotel is nailed to the room side of each door and its commandments read something like this:
One ring: Bell Boy.
Two rings: Chambermaid.
Three rings: Valet.
Under no conditions are guests permitted to use electric irons in rooms.
Cooking in rooms not permitted.
No dogs allowed.
Management not responsible for loss or theft of jewels. Same can be deposited for safe-keeping in the safe at office.
* * * * *
Our famous two-dollar Table d'Hote dinner is served in the Red Dining Room from six-thirty to eight. Music.
It is doubtful if in all its hothouse garden of women the Hotel Bon Ton boasted a broken finger nail or that little brash place along the forefinger that tattles so of potato peeling or asparagus scraping.
The fourteenth-story manicure, steam bath, and beauty parlors saw to all that. In spite of long bridge table, lobby divan, and table-d'hote seances, "tea" where the coffee was served with whipped cream and the tarts built in four tiers and mortared in mocha filling, the Bon Ton hotel was scarcely more than an average of fourteen pounds overweight.
Forty's silhouette, except for that cruel and irrefutable place where the throat will wattle, was almost interchangeable with eighteen's. Indeed, Bon Ton grandmothers with backs and French heels that were twenty years younger than their throats and bunions, vied with twenty's profile.
Whistler's kind of mother, full of sweet years that were richer because she had dwelt in them, but whose eyelids were a little weary, had no place there.
Mrs. Gronauer, who occupied an outside, southern-exposure suite of five rooms and three baths, jazzed on the same cabaret floor with her granddaughters.
Many the Bon Ton afternoon devoted entirely to the possible lack of length of the new season's skirts or the intricacies of the new filet-lace patterns.
Fads for the latest personal accoutrements gripped the Bon Ton in seasonal epidemics.
The permanent wave swept it like a tidal one.
In one winter of afternoons enough colored-silk sweaters were knitted in the lobby alone to supply an orphan asylum, but didn't.
The beaded bag, cunningly contrived, needleful by needleful, from little strands of colored-glass caviar, glittered its hour.
Filet lace came then, sheerly, whole yokes of it for crepe-de-Chine nightgowns and dainty scalloped edges for camisoles.
Mrs. Samstag made six of the nightgowns that winter—three for herself and three for her daughter. Peach-blowy pink ones with lace yokes that were scarcely more to the skin than the print of a wave edge running up sand, and then little frills of pink-satin ribbon, caught up here and there with the most delightful and unconvincing little blue-satin rosebuds.
It was bad for her neuralgic eye, the meanderings of the filet pattern, but she liked the delicate threadiness of the handiwork, and Mr. Latz liked watching her.
There you have it! Straight through the lacy mesh of the filet to the heart interest.
Mr. Louis Latz, who was too short, slightly too stout, and too shy of likely length of swimming arm ever to have figured in any woman's inevitable visualization of her ultimate Leander, liked, fascinatedly, to watch Mrs. Samstag's nicely manicured fingers at work. He liked them passive, too. Best of all, he would have preferred to feel them between his own, but that had never been.
Nevertheless, that desire was capable of catching him unawares. That very morning as he had stood, in his sumptuous bachelor's apartment, strumming on one of the windows that overlooked an expansive tree-and-lake vista of Central Park, he had wanted very suddenly and very badly to feel those fingers in his and to kiss down on them.
Even in his busy broker's office, this desire could cut him like a swift lance.
He liked their taper and their rosy pointedness, those fingers, and the dry, neat way they had of stepping in between the threads.
Mr. Latz's nails were manicured, too, not quite so pointedly, but just as correctly as Mrs. Samstag's. But his fingers were stubby and short. Sometimes he pulled at them until they cracked.
Secretly he yearned for length of limb, of torso, even of finger.
On this, one of a hundred such typical evenings in the Bon Ton lobby, Mr. Latz, sighing out a satisfaction of his inner man, sat himself down on a red-velvet chair opposite Mrs. Samstag. His knees, widespread, taxed his knife-pressed gray trousers to their very last capacity, but he sat back in none the less evident comfort, building his fingers up into a little chapel.
"Well, how's Mr. Latz this evening?" asked Mrs. Samstag, her smile encompassing the question.
"If I was any better I couldn't stand it," relishing her smile and his reply.
The Bon Ton had just dined, too well, from fruit flip a la Bon Ton, mulligatawny soup, filet of sole saute, choice of or both poulette emince and spring lamb grignon, and on through to fresh strawberry ice cream in fluted paper boxes, petits fours, and demi-tasse. Groups of carefully corseted women stood now beside the invitational plush divans and peacock chairs, paying twenty minutes' after-dinner standing penance. Men with Wall Street eyes and blood pressure slid surreptitious celluloid toothpicks and gathered around the cigar stand. Orchestra music flickered. Young girls, the traditions of demure sixteen hanging by one-inch shoulder straps, and who could not walk across a hardwood floor without sliding the last three steps, teetered in bare arm-in-arm groups, swapping persiflage with pimply, patent-leather-haired young men who were full of nervous excitement and eager to excel in return badinage.
Bell hops scurried with folding tables. Bridge games formed.
The theater group got off, so to speak. Showy women and show-off men. Mrs. Gronauer, in a full-length mink coat that enveloped her like a squaw, a titillation of diamond aigrettes in her Titianed hair, and an aftermath of scent as tangible as the trail of a wounded shark, emerged from the elevator with her son and daughter-in-law.
"Foi!" said Mr. Latz, by way of somewhat unduly, perhaps, expressing his own kind of cognizance of the scented trail.
"Fleur de printemps," said Mrs. Samstag, in quick olfactory analysis. "Eight-ninety-eight an ounce." Her nose crawling up to what he thought the cunning perfection of a sniff.
"Used to it from home—not? She is not. Believe me, I knew Max Gronauer when he first started in the produce business in Jersey City and the only perfume he had was at seventeen cents a pound and not always fresh killed at that. Cold storage de printemps!"
"Max Gronauer died just two months after my husband," said Mrs. Samstag, tucking away into her beaded handbag her filet-lace handkerchief, itself guilty of a not inexpensive attar.
"Thu-thu!" clucked Mr. Latz for want of a fitting retort.
"Heigh-ho! I always say we have so little in common, me and Mrs. Gronauer, she revokes so in bridge, and I think it's terrible for a grandmother to blondine so red, but we've both been widows for almost eight years. Eight years," repeated Mrs. Samstag on a small, scented sigh.
He was inordinately sensitive to these allusions, reddening and wanting to seem appropriate.
"Poor little woman, you've had your share of trouble."
"Share," she repeated, swallowing a gulp and pressing the line of her eyebrows as if her thoughts were sobbing. "I—It's as I tell Alma, Mr. Latz, sometimes I think I've had three times my share. My one consolation is that I try to make the best of it. That's my motto in life, 'Keep a bold front.'"
For the life of him, all he could find to convey to her the bleeding quality of his sympathy was, "Poor, poor little woman!"
"Heigh-ho!" she said, and again, "Heigh-ho!"
There was quite a nape to her neck. He could see it where the carefully trimmed brown hair left it for a rise to skillful coiffure, and what threatened to be a slight depth of flesh across the shoulders had been carefully massaged of this tendency, fifteen minutes each night and morning, by her daughter.
In fact, through the black transparency of her waist Mr. Latz thought her plumply adorable.
It was about the eyes that Mrs. Samstag showed most plainly whatever inroads into her clay the years might have gained. There were little dark areas beneath them like smeared charcoal, and two unrelenting sacs that threatened to become pouchy.
Their effect was not so much one of years, but they gave Mrs. Samstag, in spite of the only slightly plump and really passable figure, the look of one out of health. Women of her kind of sallowness can be found daily in fashionable physicians' outer offices, awaiting X-ray appointments.
What ailed Mrs. Samstag was hardly organic. She was the victim of periodic and raging neuralgic fires that could sweep the right side of her head and down into her shoulder blade with a great crackling and blazing of nerves. It was not unusual for her daughter Alma to sit up the one or two nights that it could endure, unfailing through the wee hours in her chain of hot applications.
For a week, sometimes, these attacks heralded their comings with little jabs, like the pricks of an exploring needle. Then the under-eyes began to look their muddiest. They were darkening now and she put up two fingers with a little pressing movement to her temple.
"You're a great little woman," reiterated Mr. Latz, rather riveting even Mrs. Samstag's suspicion that here was no great stickler for variety of expression.
"I try to be," she said, his tone inviting out in her a mood of sweet forbearance.
"And a great sufferer, too," he said, noting the pressing fingers.
She colored under this delightful impeachment.
"I wouldn't wish one of my neuralgia spells to my worst enemy, Mr. Latz."
"If you were mine—I mean—if—the—say—was mine—I wouldn't stop until I had you to every specialist in Europe. I know a thing or two about those fellows over there. Some of them are wonders."
Mrs. Samstag looked off, her profile inclined to lift and fall as if by little pulleys of emotion.
"That's easier said than done, Mr. Latz, by a—widow who wants to do right by her grown daughter and living so—high since the war."
"I—I—" said Mr. Latz, leaping impulsively forward on the chair that was as tightly upholstered in effect as he in his modish suit, then clutching himself there as if he had caught the impulse on the fly, "I just wish I could help."
"Oh!" she said, and threw up a swift brown look from the lace making and then at it again.
He laughed, but from nervousness.
"My little mother was an ailer, too."
"That's me, Mr. Latz. Not sick—just ailing. I always say that it's ridiculous that a woman in such perfect health as I am should be such a sufferer."
"Same with her and her joints."
"Why, except for this old neuralgia, I can outdo Alma when it comes to dancing down in the grill with the young people of an evening, or shopping."
"More like sisters than any mother and daughter I ever saw."
"Mother and daughter, but which is which from the back, some of my friends put it," said Mrs. Samstag, not without a curve to her voice; then, hastily: "But the best child, Mr. Latz. The best that ever lived. A regular little mother to me in my spells."
"Nice girl, Alma."
"It snowed so the day of—my husband's funeral. Why, do you know that up to then I never had an attack of neuralgia in my life. Didn't even know what a headache was. That long drive. That windy hilltop with two men to keep me from jumping into the grave after him. Ask Alma. That's how I care when I care. But, of course, as the saying is, 'time heals.' But that's how I got my first attack. 'Intenseness' is what the doctors called it. I'm terribly intense."
"I—guess when a woman like you—cares like—you—cared, it's not much use hoping you would ever—care again. That's about the way of it, isn't it?"
If he had known it, there was something about his intensity of expression to inspire mirth. His eyebrows lifted to little Gothic arches of anxiety, a rash of tiny perspiration broke out over his blue shaved face, and as he sat on the edge of his chair it seemed that inevitably the tight sausagelike knees must push their way through mere fabric.
Ordinarily he presented the slightly bay-windowed, bay-rummed, spatted, and somewhat jowled well-being of the Wall Street bachelor who is a musical-comedy first-nighter, can dig the meat out of the lobster claw whole, takes his beefsteak rare and with two or three condiments, and wears his elk's tooth dangling from his waistcoat pocket and mounted on a band of platinum and tiny diamonds.
Mothers of debutantes were by no means unamiably disposed toward him, but the debutantes themselves slithered away like slim-flanked minnows.
It was rumored that one summer at the Royal Palisades Hotel in Atlantic City he had become engaged to a slim-flanked one from Akron, Ohio. But on the evening of the first day she had seen him in a bathing suit the rebellious young girl and a bitterly disappointed and remonstrating mother had departed on the Buck Eye for "points west."
There was almost something of the nudity of arm and leg he must have presented to eighteen's tender sensibilities in Mr. Latz's expression now as he sat well forward on the overstuffed chair, his overstuffed knees strained apart, his face nude of all pretense and creased with anxiety.
"That's about the way of it, isn't it?" he said again into the growing silence.
Suddenly Mrs. Samstag's fingers were rigid at their task of lace making, the scraping of the orchestral violin tearing the roaring noises in her ears into ribbons of alternate sound and vacuum, as if she were closing her ears and opening them, so roaringly the blood pounded.
"I—When a woman cares for—a man like—I did—Mr. Latz, she'll never be happy until—she cares again—like that. I always say, once an affectionate nature, always an affectionate nature."
"You mean," he said, leaning forward the imperceptible half inch that was left of chair—"you mean—me—?"
The smell of bay rum came out greenly then as the moisture sprang out on his scalp.
"I—I'm a home woman, Mr. Latz. You can put a fish in water, but you cannot make him swim. That's me and hotel life."
At this somewhat cryptic apothegm Mr. Latz's knee touched Mrs. Samstag's, so that he sprang back full of nerves at what he had not intended.
"Marry me, Carrie," he said, more abruptly than he might have, without the act of that knee to immediately justify.
She spread the lace out on her lap.
Ostensibly to the hotel lobby they were as casual as, "My mulligatawny soup was cold to-night," or, "Have you heard the new one that Al Jolson pulls at the Winter Garden?" But actually the roar was higher than ever in Mrs. Samstag's ears and he could feel the plethoric red rushing in flashes over his body.
"Marry me, Carrie," he said, as if to prove that his stiff lips could repeat their incredible feat.
With a woman's talent for them, her tears sprang.
"Louis," he interpolated, widely eloquent of eyebrow and posture.
"You're proposing, Louis!" She explained rather than asked, and placed her hand to her heart so prettily that he wanted to crush it there with his kisses.
"God bless you for knowing it so easy, Carrie. A young girl would make it so hard. It's just what has kept me from asking you weeks ago, this getting it said. Carrie, will you?"
"I'm a widow, Mr. Latz—Louis—"
"L—loo. With a grown daughter. Not one of those merry-widows you read about."
"That's me! A bachelor on top, but a home man underneath. Why, up to five years ago, Carrie, while the best little mother a man ever had was alive, I never had eyes for a woman or—"
"It's common talk what a grand son you were to her, Mr. La—Louis—"
"I don't want to seem to brag, Carrie, but you saw the coat that just walked out on Mrs. Gronauer? My little mother she was a humpback, Carrie, not a real one, but all stooped from the heavy years when she was helping my father to get his start. Well, anyway, that little stooped back was one of the reasons why I was so anxious to make it up to her. Y'understand?"
"But you saw that mink coat. Well, my little mother, three years before she died, was wearing one like that in sable. Real Russian. Set me back eighteen thousand, wholesale, and she never knew different than that it cost eighteen hundred. Proudest moment of my life when I helped my little old mother into her own automobile in that sable coat.
"I had some friends lived in the Grenoble Apartments when you did—the Adelbergs. They used to tell me how it hung right down to her heels and she never got into the auto that she didn't pick it up so as not to sit on it.
"That there coat is packed away in cold storage now, Carrie, waiting, without me exactly knowing why, I guess, for—the one little woman in the world besides her I would let so much as touch its hem."
Mrs. Samstag's lips parted, her teeth showing through like light.
"Oh," she said, "sable! That's my fur, Loo. I've never owned any, but ask Alma if I don't stop to look at it in every show window. Sable!"
"Carrie—would you—could you—I'm not what you would call a youngster in years, I guess, but forty-four isn't—"
"I'm—forty-one, Louis. A man like you could have younger."
"No. That's what I don't want. In my lonesomeness, after my mother's death, I thought once that maybe a young girl from the West, nice girl with her mother from Ohio—but I—funny thing, now I come to think about it—I never once mentioned my little mother's sable coat to her. I couldn't have satisfied a young girl like that, or her me, Carrie, any more than I could satisfy Alma. It was one of those mamma-made matches that we got into because we couldn't help it and out of it before it was too late. No, no, Carrie, what I want is a woman as near as possible to my own age."
"Loo, I—I couldn't start in with you even with the one little lie that gives every woman a right to be a liar. I'm forty-three, Louis—nearer to forty-four. You're not mad, Loo?"
"God love it! If that ain't a little woman for you! Mad? Why, just your doing that little thing with me raises your stock fifty per cent."
"We're a lot alike, Carrie. For five years I've been living in this hotel because it's the best I can do under the circumstances. But at heart I'm a home man, Carrie, and unless I'm pretty much off my guess, you are, too—I mean a home woman. Right?"
"Me all over, Loo. Ask Alma if—"
"I've got the means, too, Carrie, to give a woman a home to be proud of."
"Just for fun, ask Alma, Loo, if one year since her father's death I haven't said, 'Alma, I wish I had the heart to go back housekeeping.'"
"I knew it!"
"But I ask you, Louis, what's been the incentive? Without a man in the house I wouldn't have the same interest. That first winter after my husband died I didn't even have the heart to take the summer covers off the furniture. Alma was a child then, too, so I kept asking myself, 'For what should I take an interest?' You can believe me or not, but half the time with just me to eat it, I wouldn't bother with more than a cold snack for supper, and everyone knew what a table we used to set. But with no one to come home evenings expecting a hot meal—"
"You poor little woman! I know how it is. Why, if I so much as used to telephone that I couldn't get home for supper, right away I knew the little mother would turn out the gas under what was cooking and not eat enough herself to keep a bird alive."
"Housekeeping is no life for a woman alone. On the other hand, Mr. Latz—Louis—Loo, on my income, and with a daughter growing up, and naturally anxious to give her the best, it hasn't been so easy. People think I'm a rich widow, and with her father's memory to consider and a young lady daughter, naturally I let them think it, but on my seventy-four hundred a year it has been hard to keep up appearances in a hotel like this. Not that I think you think I'm a rich widow, but just the same, that's me every time. Right out with the truth from the start."
"It shows you're a clever little manager to be able to do it."
"We lived big and spent big while my husband lived. He was as shrewd a jobber in knit underwear as the business ever saw, but—well, you know how it is. Pneumonia. I always say he wore himself out with conscientiousness."
"Maybe you don't believe it, Carrie, but it makes me happy what you just said about money. It means I can give you things you couldn't afford for yourself. I don't say this for publication, Carrie, but in Wall Street alone, outside of my brokerage business, I cleared eighty-six thousand last year. I can give you the best. You deserve it, Carrie. Will you say yes?"
"My daughter, Loo. She's only eighteen, but she's my shadow—I lean on her so."
"A sweet, dutiful girl like Alma would be the last to stand in her mother's light."
"But remember, Louis, you're marrying a little family."
"That don't scare me."
"She's my only. We're different natured. Alma's a Samstag through and through. Quiet, reserved. But she's my all, Louis. I love my baby too much to—to marry where she wouldn't be as welcome as the day itself. She's precious to me, Louis."
"Why, of course! You wouldn't be you if she wasn't. You think I would want you to feel different?"
"I mean—Louis—no matter where I go, more than with most children, she's part of me, Loo. I—Why, that child won't so much as go to spend the night with a girl friend away from me. Her quiet ways don't show it, but Alma has character! You wouldn't believe it, Louis, how she takes care of me."
"Why, Carrie, the first thing we pick out in our new home will be a room for her."
"Not that she will want it long, the way I see that young rascal Friedlander sits up to her. A better young fellow and a better business head you couldn't pick for her. Didn't that youngster go out to Dayton the other day and land a contract for the surgical fittings for a big new clinic out there before the local firms even rubbed the sleep out of their eyes? I have it from good authority Friedlander Clinical Supply Company doubled their excess-profit tax last year."
A white flash of something that was almost fear seemed to strike Mrs. Samstag into a rigid pallor.
"No! No! I'm not like most mothers, Louis, for marrying their daughters off. I want her with me. If marrying her off is your idea, it's best you know it now in the beginning. I want my little girl with me—I have to have my little girl with me!"
He was so deeply moved that his eyes were embarrassingly moist.
"Why, Carrie, every time you open your mouth you only prove to me further what a grand little woman you are!"
"You'll like Alma, when you get to know her, Louis."
"Why, I do now! Always have said she's a sweet little thing."
"She is quiet and hard to get acquainted with at first, but that is reserve. She's not forward like most young girls nowadays. She's the kind of a child that would rather go upstairs evenings with a book or her sewing than sit down here in the lobby. That's where she is now."
"Give me that kind every time in preference to all these gay young chickens that know more they oughtn't to know about life before they start than my little mother did when she finished."
"But do you think that girl will go to bed before I come up? Not a bit of it. She's been my comforter and my salvation in my troubles. More like the mother, I sometimes tell her, and me the child. If you want me, Louis, it's got to be with her, too. I couldn't give up my baby—not my baby."
"Why, Carrie, have your baby to your heart's content! She's got to be a fine girl to have you for a mother, and now it will be my duty to please her as a father. Carrie, will you have me?"
"Carrie, my dear!"
And so it was that Carrie Samstag and Louis Latz came into their betrothal.
* * * * *
None the less, it was with some misgivings and red lights burning high on her cheek bones that Mrs. Samstag at just after ten that evening turned the knob of the door that entered into her little sitting room.
The usual horrific hotel room of tight green-plush upholstery, ornamental portieres on brass rings that grated, and the equidistant French engravings of lavish scrollwork and scroll frames.
But in this case a room redeemed by an upright piano with a green-silk-and-gold-lace-shaded floor lamp glowing by. Two gilt-framed photographs and a cluster of ivory knickknacks on the white mantel. A heap of handmade cushions. Art editions of the gift poets and some circulating-library novels. A fireside chair, privately owned and drawn up, ironically enough, beside the gilded radiator, its headrest worn from kindly service to Mrs. Samstag's neuralgic brow.
From the nest of cushions in the circle of lamp glow Alma sprang up at her mother's entrance. Sure enough, she had been reading, and her cheek was a little flushed and crumpled from where it had been resting in the palm of her hand.
"Mamma," she said, coming out of the circle of light and switching on the ceiling bulbs, "you stayed down so late."
There was a slow prettiness to Alma. It came upon you like a little dawn, palely at first and then pinkening to a pleasant consciousness that her small face was heart-shaped and clear as an almond, that the pupils of her gray eyes were deep and dark, like cisterns, and to young Leo Friedlander (rather apt the comparison, too) her mouth was exactly the shape of a small bow that had shot its quiverful of arrows into his heart.
And instead of her eighteen she looked sixteen, there was that kind of timid adolescence about her, and yet when she said, "Mamma, you stayed down so late," the bang of a little pistol shot was back somewhere in her voice.
"Why—Mr. Latz—and—I—sat and talked."
An almost imperceptible nerve was dancing against Mrs. Samstag's right temple. Alma could sense, rather than see, the ridge of pain.
"You're all right, mamma?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Samstag, and sat down on a divan, its naked greenness relieved by a thrown scarf of black velvet stenciled in gold.
"You shouldn't have remained down so long if your head is hurting," said her daughter, and quite casually took up her mother's beaded hand bag where it had fallen in her lap, but her fingers feeling lightly and furtively as if for the shape of its contents.
"Stop that," said Mrs. Samstag, jerking it back, a dull anger in her voice.
"Come to bed, mamma. If you're in for neuralgia, I'll fix the electric pad."
Suddenly Mrs. Samstag shot out her arm, rather slim-looking in the invariable long sleeve she affected, drawing Alma back toward her by the ribbon sash of her pretty chiffon frock.
"Alma, be good to mamma to-night! Sweetheart—be good to her."
The quick suspecting fear that had motivated Miss Samstag's groping along the beaded hand bag shot out again in her manner.
"No, no! Don't nag me. It's something else, Alma. Something mamma is very happy about."
"Mamma, you've broken your promise again."
"No! No! No! Alma, I've been a good mother to you, haven't I?"
"Yes, mamma, yes, but what—"
"Whatever else I've been hasn't been my fault—you've always blamed Heyman."
"Mamma, I don't understand."
"I've caused you worry, Alma—terrible worry. I know that. But everything is changed now. Mamma's going to turn over such a new leaf that everything is going to be happiness in this family."
"Dearest, if you knew how happy it makes me to hear you say that."
"Alma, look at me."
"Mamma, you—you frighten me."
"You like Louis Latz, don't you, Alma?"
"Why, yes, mamma. Very much."
"We can't all be young and handsome like Leo, can we?"
"I mean that finer and better men than Louis Latz aren't lying around loose. A man who treated his mother like a queen and who worked himself up from selling newspapers on the street to a millionaire."
"Yes, baby. He asked me to-night. Come to me, Alma; stay with me close. He asked me to-night."
"You know. Haven't you seen it coming for weeks? I have."
"Don't make mamma come out and say it. For eight years I've been as grieving a widow to a man as a woman could be. But I'm human, Alma, and he—asked me to-night."
There was a curious pallor came over Miss Samstag's face, as if smeared there by a hand.
"Asked you what?"
"Alma, it don't mean I'm not true to your father as I was the day I buried him in that blizzard back there, but could you ask for a finer, steadier man than Louis Latz? It looks out of his face."
"Mamma, you—What—are you saying?"
There lay a silence between them that took on the roar of a simoon and Miss Samstag jumped then from her mother's embrace, her little face stiff with the clench of her mouth.
"Mamma—you—No—no! Oh, mamma—oh—!"
A quick spout of hysteria seemed to half strangle Mrs. Samstag so that she slanted backward, holding her throat.
"I knew it. My own child against me. O God! Why was I born? My own child against me!"
"Mamma—you can't marry him. You can't marry—anybody."
"Why can't I marry anybody? Must I be afraid to tell my own child when a good man wants to marry me and give us both a good home? That's my thanks for making my child my first consideration—before I accepted him."
"Mamma, you didn't accept him. Darling, you wouldn't do a—thing like that!"
Miss Samstag's voice thickened up then quite frantically into a little scream that knotted in her throat, and she was suddenly so small and stricken that, with a gasp for fear she might crumple up where she stood, Mrs. Samstag leaned forward, catching her again by the sash.
It was only for an instant, however. Suddenly Miss Samstag was her coolly firm little self, the bang of authority back in her voice.
"You can't marry Louis Latz."
"Can't I? Watch me."
"You can't do that to a nice, deserving fellow like him!"
Then Mrs. Samstag threw up both her hands to her face, rocking in an agony of self-abandon that was rather horrid to behold.
"O God! why don't you put me out of it all? My misery! I'm a leper to my own child!"
"Yes, a leper. Hold my misfortune against me. Let my neuralgia and Doctor Heyman's prescription to cure it ruin my life. Rob me of what happiness with a good man there is left in it for me. I don't want happiness. Don't expect it. I'm here just to suffer. My daughter will see to that. Oh, I know what is on your mind. You want to make me out something—terrible—because Doctor Heyman once taught me how to help myself a little when I'm nearly wild with neuralgia. Those were doctor's orders. I'll kill myself before I let you make me out something terrible. I never even knew what it was before the doctor gave his prescription. I'll kill—you hear?—kill myself."
She was hoarse. She was tear splotched so that her lips were slippery with them, and while the ague of her passion shook her, Alma, her own face swept white and her voice guttered with restraint, took her mother into the cradle of her arms and rocked and hushed her there.
"Mamma, mamma, what are you saying? I'm not blaming you, sweetheart. I blame him—Doctor Heyman—for prescribing it in the beginning. I know your fight. How brave it is. Even when I'm crossest with you, I realize. Alma's fighting with you dearest every inch of the way until—you're cured! And then—maybe—some day—anything you want! But not now. Mamma, you wouldn't marry Louis Latz now!"
"I would. He's my cure. A good home with a good man and money enough to travel and forget myself. Alma, mamma knows she's not an angel. Sometimes when she thinks what she's put her little girl through this last year she just wants to go out on the hilltop where she caught the neuralgia and lie down beside that grave out there and—"
"Mamma, don't talk like that!"
"But now's my chance, Alma, to get well. I've too much worry in this big hotel trying to keep up big expenses on little money and—"
"I know it, mamma. That's why I'm so in favor of finding ourselves a sweet, tiny little apartment with kitch—"
"No! Your father died with the world thinking him a rich man and they will never find out from me that he wasn't. I won't be the one to humiliate his memory—a man who enjoyed keeping up appearances the way he did. Oh, Alma, Alma, I'm going to get well now! I promise. So help me God if I ever give in to—it again."
"Mamma, please! For God's sake, you've said the same thing so often, only to break your promise."
"I've been weak, Alma; I don't deny it. But nobody who hasn't been tortured as I have can realize what it means to get relief just by—"
"Mamma, you're not playing fair this minute. That's the frightening part. It isn't only the neuralgia any more. It's just desire. That's what's so terrible to me, mamma. The way you have been taking it these last months. Just from—desire."
Mrs. Samstag buried her face, shuddering, down into her hands.
"O God! My own child against me!"
"No, mamma. Why, sweetheart, nobody knows better than I do how sweet and good you are when you are away from—it. We'll fight it together and win! I'm not afraid. It's been worse this last month because you've been nervous, dear. I understand now. You see, I—didn't dream of you and—Louis Latz. We'll forget—we'll take a little two-room apartment of our own, darling, and get your mind on housekeeping, and I'll take up stenography or social ser—"
"What good am I, anyway? No good. In my own way. In my child's way. A young man like Leo Friedlander crazy to propose and my child can't let him come to the point because she is afraid to leave her mother. Oh, I know—I know more than you think I do. Ruining your life! That's what I am, and mine, too!"
Tears now ran in hot cascades down Alma's cheeks.
"Why, mamma, as if I cared about anything—just so you—get well."
"I know. I know the way you tremble when he telephones, and color up when he—"
"Mamma, how can you?"
"I know what I've done. Ruined my baby's life, and now—"
"Then help me, Alma. Louis wants me for his happiness. I want him for mine. Nothing will cure me like having a good man to live up to. The minute I find myself getting the craving for—it—don't you see, baby, fear that a good husband like Louis could find out such a thing about me would hold me back? See, Alma?"
"That's a wrong basis to start married life on—"
"I'm a woman who needs a man to baby her, Alma. That's the cure for me. Not to let me would be the same as to kill me. I've been a bad, weak woman, Alma, to be so afraid that maybe Leo Friedlander would steal you away from me. We'll make it a double wedding, baby!"
"Mamma! Mamma! I'll never leave you."
"All right, then, so you won't think your new father and me want to get rid of you, the first thing we'll pick out in our new home, he said it himself to-night, 'is Alma's room.'"
"I tell you it's wrong. It's wrong!"
"The rest with Leo can come later, after I've proved to you for a little while that I'm cured. Alma, don't cry! It's my cure. Just think, a good man! A beautiful home to take my mind off—worry. He said to-night he wants to spend a fortune, if necessary, to cure—my neuralgia."
"Oh, mamma! Mamma! if it were only—that!"
"Alma, if I promise on my—my life! I never felt the craving so little as I do—now."
"You've said that before—and before."
"But never with such a wonderful reason. It's the beginning of a new life. I know it. I'm cured!"
"Mamma, if I thought you meant it."
"I do. Alma, look at me. This very minute I've a real jumping case of neuralgia. But I wouldn't have anything for it except the electric pad. I feel fine. Strong. Alma, the bad times with me are over."
"Oh, mamma! Mamma, how I pray you're right."
"You'll thank God for the day that Louis Latz proposed to me. Why, I'd rather cut off my right hand than marry a man who could ever live to learn such a—thing about me."
"But it's not fair. We'll have to explain to him, dear, that we hope you're cured now, but—"
"If you do—if you do—I'll kill myself! I won't live to bear that! You don't want me cured. You want to get rid of me, to degrade me until I kill myself! If I was ever anything else than what I am now—to Louis Latz—anything but his ideal—Alma, you won't tell! Kill me, but don't tell—don't tell!"
"Why, you know I wouldn't, sweetheart, if it is so terrible to you. Never."
"Say it again."
"As if it hasn't been terrible enough that you should have to know. But it's over, Alma. Your bad times with me are finished. I'm cured."
There were no words that Miss Samstag could force through the choke of her tears, so she sat cheek to her mother's cheek, the trembling she could no longer control racing through her like a chill.
"Oh—how—I hope so!"
"I know so."
"But wait a little while, mamma—just a year."
"A few months."
"No, he wants it soon. The sooner the better at our age. Alma, mamma's cured! What happiness! Kiss me, darling. So help me God to keep my promises to you! Cured, Alma, cured."
And so in the end, with a smile on her lips that belied almost to herself the little run of fear through her heart, Alma's last kiss to her mother that night was the long one of felicitation.
And because love, even the talk of it, is so gamy on the lips of woman to woman, they lay in bed, heartbeat to heartbeat, the electric pad under her pillow warm to the hurt of Mrs. Samstag's brow, and talked, these two, deep into the stilliness of the hotel night.
"I'm going to be the best wife to him, Alma. You see, the woman that marries Louis has to measure up to the grand ideas of her he got from his mother."
"You were a good wife once, mamma. You'll be it again."
"That's another reason, Alma; it means my—cure. Living up to the ideas of a good man."
"Mamma! Mamma! you can't backslide now—ever."
"My little baby, who's helped me through such bad times, it's your turn now, Alma, to be care free like other girls."
"I'll never leave you, mamma, even if—he—Latz—shouldn't want me."
"He will, darling, and does! Those were his words. 'A room for Alma.'"
"I'll never leave you!"
"You will! Much as Louis and I want you with us every minute, we won't stand in your way! That's another reason I'm so happy, Alma. I'm not alone any more now. Leo's so crazy over you, just waiting for the chance to—pop—"
"Don't tremble so, darling. Mamma knows. He told Mrs. Gronauer last night when she was joking him to buy a ten-dollar carnation for the Convalescent Home Bazaar, that he would only take one if it was white, because little white flowers reminded him of Alma Samstag."
"Say, it is as plain as the nose on your face. He can't keep his eyes off you. He sells goods to Doctor Gronauer's clinic and he says the same thing about him. It makes me so happy, Alma, to think you won't have to hold him off any more."
"I'll never leave you. Never!"
Nevertheless, she was the first to drop off to sleep, pink there in the dark with the secret of her blushes.
Then for Mrs. Samstag the travail set in. Lying there with her raging head tossing this way and that on the heated pillow, she heard with cruel awareness the minutiae, all the faint but clarified noises that can make a night seem so long. The distant click of the elevator depositing a nighthawk. A plong of the bedspring. Somebody's cough. A train's shriek. The jerk of plumbing. A window being raised. That creak which lies hidden in every darkness, like a mysterious knee joint. By three o'clock she was a quivering victim to these petty concepts, and her pillow so explored that not a spot but was rumpled to the aching lay of he cheek.
Once Alma, as a rule supersensitive to her mother's slightest unrest, floated up for the moment out of her young sleep, but she was very drowsy and very tired, and dream tides were almost carrying her back as she said:
"Mamma, you all right?"
Simulating sleep, Mrs. Samstag lay tense until her daughter's breathing resumed its light cadence.
Then at four o'clock the kind of nervousness that Mrs. Samstag had learned to fear began to roll over her in waves, locking her throat and curling her toes and fingers and her tongue up dry against the roof of her mouth.
She must concentrate now—must steer her mind away from the craving!
Now then: West End Avenue. Louis liked the apartments there. Luxurious. Quiet. Residential. Circassian walnut or mahogany dining room? Alma should decide. A baby-grand piano. Later to be Alma's engagement gift from "mamma and—papa." No, "mamma and Louis." Better so.
How her neck and her shoulder blade and now her elbow were flaming with the pain. She cried a little, quite silently, and tried a poor, futile scheme for easing her head in the crotch of her elbow.
Now then: She must knit Louis some neckties. The silk-sweater stitch would do. Married in a traveling suit. One of those smart dark-blue twills like Mrs. Gronauer, junior's. Topcoat—sable. Louis' hair thinning. Tonic. O God! let me sleep! Please, God! The wheeze rising in her closed throat. That little threatening desire that must not shape itself! It darted with the hither and thither of a bee bumbling against a garden wall. No! No! Ugh! the vast chills of nervousness. The flaming, the craving chills of desire!
Just this last giving-in. This one. To be rested and fresh for him to-morrow. Then never again. The little beaded hand bag. O God! help me! That burning ache to rest and to uncurl of nervousness. All the thousand thousand little pores of her body, screaming each one to be placated. They hurt the entire surface of her. That great storm at sea in her head; the crackle of lightning down that arm—
"Let me see—Circassian walnut—baby grand—" The pores demanding, crying—shrieking—
It was then that Carrie Samstag, even in her lovely pink nightdress a crone with pain, and the cables out dreadfully in her neck, began by infinitesimal processes to swing herself gently to the side of the bed, unrelaxed inch by unrelaxed inch, softly and with the cunning born of travail.
It was actually a matter of fifteen minutes, that breathless swing toward the floor, the mattress rising after her with scarcely a whisper and her two bare feet landing patly into the pale-blue room slippers, there beside the bed.
Then her bag, the beaded one on the end of the divan. The slow, taut feeling for it and the floor that creaked twice, starting the sweat out over her.
It was finally after more tortuous saving of floor creaks and the interminable opening and closing of a door that Carrie Samstag, the beaded bag in her hand, found herself face to face with herself in the mirror of the bathroom medicine chest.
She was shuddering with one of the hot chills. The needle and little glass piston out of the hand bag and with a dry little insuck of breath, pinching up little areas of flesh from her arm, bent on a good firm perch, as it were.
There were undeniable pockmarks on Mrs. Samstag's right forearm. Invariably it sickened her to see them. Little graves. Oh! oh! little graves! For Alma. Herself. And now Louis. Just once. Just one more little grave—
And Alma, answering her somewhere down in her heartbeats: "No, mamma. No, mamma! No! No! No!"
But all the little pores gaping. Mouths! The pinching up of the skin. Here, this little clean and white area.
"No, mamma! No, mamma! No! No! No!"
"Just once, darling?" Oh—oh—little graves for Alma and Louis. No! No! No!
Somehow, some way, with all the little mouths still parched and gaping and the clean and quite white area unblemished, Mrs. Samstag found her back to bed. She was in a drench of sweat when she got there and the conflagration of neuralgia, curiously enough, was now roaring in her ears so that it seemed to her she could hear her pain.
Her daughter lay asleep, with her face to the wall, her flowing hair spread in a fan against the pillow and her body curled up cozily. The remaining hours of the night, in a kind of waking faint she could never find the words to describe, Mrs. Samstag, with that dreadful dew of her sweat constantly out over her, lay with her twisted lips to the faint perfume of that fan of Alma's flowing hair, her toes curling in and out. Out and in. Toward morning she slept. Actually, sweetly, and deeply, as if she could never have done with deep draughts of it.
She awoke to the brief patch of sunlight that smiled into their apartment for about eight minutes of each forenoon.
Alma was at the pretty chore of lifting the trays from a hamper of roses. She placed a shower of them on her mother's coverlet with a kiss, a deeper and dearer one, somehow, this morning.
There was a card, and Mrs. Samstag read it and laughed:
Good morning, Carrie. Louis.
They seemed to her, poor dear, these roses, to be pink with the glory of the coming of the dawn.
* * * * *
On the spur of the moment and because the same precipitate decision that determined Louis Latz's successes in Wall Street determined him here, they were married the following Thursday in Lakewood, New Jersey, without even allowing Carrie time for the blue-twill traveling suit. She wore her brown-velvet, instead, looking quite modish, a sable wrap, gift of the groom, lending genuine magnificence.
Alma was there, of course, in a beautiful fox scarf, also gift of the groom, and locked in a pale kind of tensity that made her seem more than ever like a little white flower to Leo Friedlander, the sole other attendant, and who during the ceremony yearned at her with his gaze. But her eyes were squeezed tight against his, as if to forbid herself the consciousness that life seemed suddenly so richly sweet to her—oh, so richly sweet!
* * * * *
There was a time during the first months of the married life of Louis and Carrie Latz when it seemed to Alma, who in the sanctity of her lovely little ivory bedroom all appointed in rose enamel toilet trifles, could be prayerful with the peace of it, that the old Carrie, who could come pale and terrible out of her drugged nights, belonged to some grimacing and chimeric past. A dead past that had buried its dead and its hatchet.
There had been a month at a Hot Springs in the wintergreen heart of Virginia, and whatever Louis may have felt in his heart of his right to the privacy of these honeymoon days was carefully belied on his lips, and at Alma's depriving him now and then of his wife's company, packing her off to rest when he wanted a climb with her up a mountain slope or a drive over piny roads, he could still smile and pinch her cheek.
"You're stingy to me with my wife, Alma," he said to her upon one of these provocations. "I don't believe she's got a daughter at all, but a little policeman instead."
And Alma smiled back, out of the agony of her constant consciousness that she was insinuating her presence upon him, and resolutely, so that her fear for him should always subordinate her fear of him, she bit down her sensitiveness in proportion to the rising tide of his growing, but still politely held in check, bewilderment.
Once, these first weeks of their marriage, because she saw the dreaded signal of the muddy pools under her mother's eyes and the little quivering nerve beneath the temple, she shut him out of her presence for a day and a night, and when he came fuming up every few minutes from the hotel veranda, miserable and fretting, met him at the closed door of her mother's darkened room and was adamant.
"It won't hurt if I tiptoe in and sit with her," he pleaded.
"No, Louis. No one knows how to get her through these spells like I do. The least excitement will only prolong her pain."
He trotted off, then, down the hotel corridor, with a strut to his resentment that was bantam and just a little fighty.
That night as Alma lay beside her mother, holding off sleep and watching, Carrie rolled her eyes side-wise with the plea of a stricken dog in them.
"Alma," she whispered, "for God's sake! Just this once. To tide me over. One shot—darling. Alma, if you love me?"
Later there was a struggle between them that hardly bears relating. A lamp was overturned. But toward morning, when Carrie lay exhausted, but at rest in her daughter's arms, she kept muttering in her sleep:
"Thank you, baby. You saved me. Never leave me, Alma. Never—never—never. You saved me, Alma."
And then the miracle of those next months. The return to New York. The happily busy weeks of furnishing and the unlimited gratifications of the well-filled purse. The selection of the limousine with the special body that was fearfully and wonderfully made in mulberry upholstery with mother-of-pearl caparisons. The fourteen-room apartment on West End Avenue with four baths, drawing-room of pink-brocaded walls, and Carrie's Roman bathroom that was precisely as large as her old hotel sitting room, with two full-length wall mirrors, a dressing table canopied in white lace over white satin, and the marble bath itself, two steps down and with rubber curtains that swished after.
There were evenings when Carrie, who loved the tyranny of things with what must have been a survival within her of the bazaar instinct, would fall asleep almost directly after dinner, her head back against her husband's shoulder, roundly tired out after a day all cluttered up with matching the blue upholstery of their bedroom with taffeta bed hangings. Shopping for a strip of pantry linoleum that was just the desired slate color. Calculating with electricians over the plugs for floor lamps. Herself edging pantry shelves in cotton lace.
Latz liked her so, with her fragrantly coiffured head, scarcely gray, back against his shoulder, and with his newspapers, Wall Street journals and the comic weeklies which he liked to read, would sit an entire evening thus, moving only when his joints rebelled, his pipe smoke carefully directed away from her face.
Weeks and weeks of this, and already Louis Latz's trousers were a little out of crease, and Mrs. Latz, after eight o'clock and under cover of a very fluffy and very expensive negligee, would unhook her stays.
Sometimes friends came in for a game of small-stake poker, but after the second month they countermanded the standing order for Saturday night musical-comedy seats. So often they discovered it was pleasanter to remain at home. Indeed, during these days of household adjustment, as many as four evenings a week Mrs. Latz dozed there against her husband's shoulder, until about ten, when he kissed her awake to forage with him in the great white porcelain refrigerator and then to bed.
And Alma. Almost she tiptoed through these months. Not that her scorching awareness of what must have lain low in Louis' mind ever diminished. Sometimes, although still never by word, she could see the displeasure mount in his face.
If she entered in on a tete-a-tete, as she did once, when by chance she had sniffed the curative smell of spirits of camphor on the air of a room through which her mother had passed, and came to drag her off that night to share her own lace-covered-and-ivory bed.
Again, upon the occasion of an impulsively planned motor trip and week-end to Long Beach, her intrusion had been so obvious.
"Want to join us, Alma?"
"Oh—yes—thank you, Louis."
"But I thought you and Leo were—"
"No, no. I'd rather go with you and mamma, Louis."
Even her mother had smiled rather strainedly. Louis' invitation, politely uttered, had said so plainly, "Are we two never to be alone, your mother and I?"
Oh, there was no doubt that Louis Latz was in love and with all the delayed fervor of first youth.
There was something rather throat-catching about his treatment of her mother that made Alma want to cry.
He would never tire of marveling, not alone at the wonder of her, but at the wonder that she was his.
"No man has ever been as lucky in women as I have, Carrie," he told her once in Alma's hearing. "It seemed to me that after—my little mother there couldn't ever be another—and now you!"
At the business of sewing some beads on a lamp shade Carrie looked up, her eyes dewy.
"And I felt that way about one good husband," she said, "and now I see there could be two."
Alma tiptoed out.
The third month of this she was allowing Leo Friedlander his two evenings a week. Once to the theater in a modish little sedan car which Leo drove himself. One evening at home in the rose-and-mauve drawing-room. It delighted Louis and Carrie slyly to have in their friends for poker over the dining-room table these evenings, leaving the young people somewhat indirectly chaperoned until as late as midnight. Louis' attitude with Leo was one of winks, quirks, slaps on the back, and the curving voice of innuendo.
"Come on in, Leo; the water's fine!"
"Louis!" This from Alma, stung to crimson and not arch enough to feign that she did not understand.
"Loo, don't tease," said Carrie, smiling, but then closing her eyes as if to invoke help to want this thing to come to pass.
But Leo was frankly the lover, kept not without difficulty on the edge of his ardor. A city youth with gymnasium-bred shoulders, fine, pole-vaulter's length of limb, and a clean tan skin that bespoke cold drubbings with Turkish towels.
And despite herself, Alma, who was not without a young girl's feelings for nice detail, could thrill to this sartorial svelteness and to the patent-leather lay of his black hair which caught the light like a polished floor.
In the lingo of Louis Latz, he was "a rattling good business man, too." He shared with his father partnership in a manufacturing business—"Friedlander Clinical Supply Company"—which, since his advent from high school into the already enormously rich firm, had almost doubled its volume of business.
The kind of sweetness he found in Alma he could never articulate even to himself. In some ways she seemed hardly to have the pressure of vitality to match his, but, on the other hand, just that slower beat to her may have heightened his sense of prowess.
His greatest delight seemed to lie in her pallid loveliness. "White honeysuckle," he called her, and the names of all the beautiful white flowers he knew. And then one night, to the rattle of poker chips from the remote dining room, he jerked her to him without preamble, kissing her mouth down tightly against her teeth.
"My sweetheart! My little white carnation sweetheart! I won't be held off any longer. I'm going to carry you away for my little moonflower wife."
She sprang back prettier than he had ever seen her in the dishevelment from where his embrace had dragged at her hair.
"You mustn't," she cried, but there was enough of the conquering male in him to read easily into this a mere plating over her desire.
"You can't hold me at arm's length any longer. You've maddened me for months. I love you. You love me. You do. You do," and crushed her to him, but this time his pain and his surprise genuine as she sprang back, quivering.
"No, I tell you. No! No! No!" and sat down trembling.
"Why, Alma!" And he sat down, too, rather palely, at the remote end of the divan.
"You—I—mustn't!" she said, frantic to keep her lips from twisting, her little lacy fribble of a handkerchief a mere string from winding.
"Mustn't," was all she could repeat and not weep her words.
"Her what, my little white buttonhole carnation?"
"You see—I—She's all alone."
"You adorable, she's got a brand-new husky husband."
Then, on a thunderclap of inspiration, hitting his knee:
"I have it. Mamma-baby! That's it. My girlie is a cry-baby, mamma-baby!" And made to slide along the divan toward her, but up flew her two small hands, like fans.
"No," she said, with the little bang back in her voice which steadied him again. "I mustn't! You see, we're so close. Sometimes it's more as if I were the mother and she my little girl."
"Alma, that's beautiful, but it's silly, too. But tell me first of all, mamma-baby, that you do care. Tell me that first, dearest, and then we can talk."
The kerchief was all screwed up now, so tightly that it could stiffly unwind of itself.
"She's not well, Leo. That terrible neuralgia—that's why she needs me so."
"Nonsense! She hasn't had a spell for weeks. That's Louis' great brag, that he's curing her. Oh, Alma, Alma, that's not a reason; that's an excuse!"
"Leo—you don't understand."
"I'm afraid I—don't," he said, looking at her with a sudden intensity that startled her with a quick suspicion of his suspicions, but then he smiled.
"Alma!" he said, "Alma!"
Misery made her dumb.
"Why, don't you know, dear, that your mother is better able to take care of herself than you are? She's bigger and stronger. You—you're a little white flower, that I want to wear on my heart."
"Leo—give me time. Let me think."
"A thousand thinks, Alma, but I love you. I love you and want so terribly for you to love me back."
"Then tell me with kisses."
Again she pressed him to arm's length.
"Please, Leo! Not yet. Let me think. Just one day. To-morrow."
"No, no! Now!"
"All right, Leo—to-morrow morning—"
"I'll sit up all night and count every second in every minute and every minute in every hour."
She put up her soft little fingers to his lips.
"Dear boy," she said.
And then they kissed, and after a little swoon to his nearness she struggled like a caught bird and a guilty one.
"Please go, Leo," she said. "Leave me alone—"
"Little mamma-baby sweetheart," he said. "I'll build you a nest right next to hers. Good night, little white flower. I'll be waiting, and remember, counting every second of every minute and every minute of every hour."
For a long time she remained where he had left her, forward on the pink divan, her head with a listening look to it, as if waiting an answer for the prayers that she sent up.
* * * * *
At two o'clock that morning, by what intuition she would never know, and with such leverage that she landed out of bed plump on her two feet, Alma, with all her faculties into trace like fire horses, sprang out of sleep.
It was a matter of twenty steps across the hall. In the white-tiled Roman bathroom, the muddy circles suddenly out and angry beneath her eyes, her mother was standing before one of the full-length mirrors—snickering.
There was a fresh little grave on the inside of her right forearm.
* * * * *
Sometimes in the weeks that followed a sense of the miracle of what was happening would clutch at Alma's throat like a fear.
Louis did not know.
That the old neuralgic recurrences were more frequent again, yes. Already plans for a summer trip abroad, on a curative mission bent, were taking shape. There was a famous nerve specialist, the one who had worked such wonders on his mother's cruelly rheumatic limbs, reassuringly foremost in his mind.
But except that there were not infrequent and sometimes twenty-four-hour sieges when he was denied the sight of his wife, he had learned, with a male's acquiescence to the frailties of the other sex, to submit, and, with no great understanding of pain, to condone.
And as if to atone for these more or less frequent lapses, there was something pathetic, even a little heartbreaking, in Carrie's zeal for his well-being. No duty too small. One night she wanted to unlace his shoes and even shine them—would have, in fact, except for his fierce catching of her into his arms and for some reason his tonsils aching as he kissed her.
Once after a "spell" she took out every garment from his wardrobe and, kissing them piece by piece, put them back again, and he found her so, and they cried together, he of happiness.
In his utter beatitude, even his resentment of Alma continued to grow but slowly. Once, when after forty-eight hours she forbade him rather fiercely an entrance into his wife's room, he shoved her aside almost rudely, but, at Carrie's little shriek of remonstrance from the darkened room, backed out shamefacedly, and apologized next day in the conciliatory language of a tiny wrist watch.
But a break came, as she knew and feared it must.
One evening during one of these attacks, when for two days Carrie had not appeared at the dinner table, Alma, entering when the meal was almost over, seated herself rather exhaustedly at her mother's place opposite her stepfather.
He had reached the stage when that little unconscious usurpation in itself could annoy him.
"How's your mother?" he asked, dourly for him.
"Funny. This is the third attack this month, and each time it lasts longer. Confound that neuralgia!"
"She's easier now."
He pushed back his plate.
"Then I'll go in and sit with her while she sleeps."
She, who was so fastidiously dainty of manner, half rose, spilling her soup.
"No," she said, "you mustn't! Not now!" And sat down again hurriedly, wanting not to appear perturbed.
A curious thing happened then to Louis. His lower lip came pursing out like a little shelf and a hitherto unsuspected look of pigginess fattened over his rather plump face.
"You quit butting into me and my wife's affairs, you, or get the hell out of here," he said, without raising his voice or his manner.
She placed her hand to the almost unbearable flutter of her heart.
"Louis! You mustn't talk like that to—me!"
"Don't make me say something I'll regret. You! Only take this tip, you! There's one of two things you better do. Quit trying to come between me and her or—get out."
"Naw, she ain't. Not as sick as you make out. You're trying, God knows why, to keep us apart. I've watched you. I know your sneaking kind. Still water runs deep. You've never missed a chance since we're married to keep us apart. Shame!"
"Now mark my word, if it wasn't to spare her I'd have invited you out long ago. Haven't you got any pride?"
"I have. I have," she almost moaned, and could have crumpled up there and swooned her humiliation.
"You're not a regular girl. You're a she-devil. That's what you are! Trying to come between your mother and me. Ain't you ashamed? What is it you want?"
"First you turn down a fine fellow like Leo Friedlander, so he don't come to the house any more, and then you take out on us whatever is eating you, by trying to come between me and the finest woman that ever lived. Shame! Shame!"
"Louis!" she said, "Louis!" wringing her hands in a dry wash of agony, "can't you understand? She'd rather have me. It makes her nervous trying to pretend to you that she's not suffering when she is. That's all, Louis. You see, she's not ashamed to suffer before me. Why, Louis—that's all! Why should I want to come between you and her? Isn't she dearer to me than anything in the world, and haven't you been the best friend to me a girl could have? That's all—Louis."
He was placated and a little sorry and did not insist further upon going into the room.
"Funny," he said. "Funny," and, adjusting his spectacles, snapped open his newspaper for a lonely evening.
The one thing that perturbed Alma almost more than anything else, as the dreaded cravings grew, with each siege her mother becoming more brutish and more given to profanity, was where she obtained the soluble tablets.
The well-thumbed old doctor's prescription she had purloined even back in the hotel days, and embargo and legislation were daily making more and more furtive and prohibitive the traffic in drugs.
Once Alma, mistakenly, too, she thought later, had suspected a chauffeur of collusion with her mother and abruptly dismissed him, to Louis' rage.
"What's the idea?" he said, out of Carrie's hearing, of course. "Who's running this shebang, anyway?"
Again, after Alma had guarded her well for days, scarcely leaving her side, Carrie laughed sardonically up into her daughter's face, her eyes as glassy and without swimming fluid as a doll's.
"I get it! But wouldn't you like to know where? Yah!" And to Alma's horror slapped her quite roundly across the cheek so that for an hour the sting, the shape of the red print of fingers, lay on her face.
One night in what had become the horrible sanctity of that bedchamber—But let this sum it up. When Alma was nineteen years old a little colony of gray hairs was creeping in on each temple.
And then one day, after a long period of quiet, when Carrie had lavished her really great wealth of contrite love upon her daughter and husband, spending on Alma and loading her with gifts of jewelry and finery, somehow to express her grateful adoration of her, paying her husband the secret penance of twofold fidelity to his well-being and every whim, Alma, returning from a trip taken reluctantly and at her mother's bidding down to the basement trunk room, found her gone, a modish black-lace hat and the sable coat missing from the closet.
It was early afternoon, sunlit and pleasantly cold.
The first rush of panic and the impulse to dash after stayed, she forced herself down into a chair, striving with the utmost difficulty for coherence of procedure.
Where in the half hour of her absence had her mother gone? Matinee? Impossible! Walking? Hardly possible. Upon inquiry in the kitchen, neither of the maids had seen nor heard her depart. Motoring? With a hand that trembled in spite of itself Alma telephoned the garage. Car and chauffeur were there. Incredible as it seemed, Alma, upon more than one occasion, had lately been obliged to remind her mother that she was becoming careless of the old pointedly rosy hands. Manicurist? She telephoned the Bon Ton Beauty Parlors. No. Where? O God! Where? Which way to begin? That was what troubled her most. To start right so as not to lose a precious second.
Suddenly, and for no particular reason, Alma began a hurried search through her mother's dresser drawers of lovely personal appointments. Turning over whole mounds of fresh white gloves, delving into nests of sheer handkerchiefs and stacks of webby lingerie. Then for a while she stood quite helplessly, looking into the mirror, her hands closed about her throat.
"Please, God, where?"
A one-inch square of newspaper clipping, apparently gouged from the sheet with a hairpin, caught her eye from the top of one of the gold-backed hairbrushes. Dawningly, Alma read.
It described in brief detail the innovation of a newly equipped narcotic clinic on the Bowery below Canal Street, provided to medically administer to the pathological cravings of addicts.
Fifteen minutes later Alma emerged from the Subway at Canal Street, and, with three blocks toward her destination ahead, started to run.
At the end of the first block she saw her mother, in the sable coat and the black-lace hat, coming toward her.
Her first impulse was to run faster and yoo-hoo, but she thought better of it and, by biting her lips and digging her finger nails, was able to slow down to a casual walk.
Carrie's fur coat was flaring open and, because of the quality of her attire down there where the bilge waters of the city tide flow and eddy, stares followed her.
Once, to the stoppage of Alma's heart, she saw Carrie halt and say a brief word to a truckman as he crossed the sidewalk with a bill of lading. He hesitated, laughed, and went on.
Then she quickened her pace and went on, but as if with a sense of being followed, because constantly as she walked she jerked a step, to look back, and then again, over her shoulder.
A second time she stopped, this time to address a little nub of a woman without a hat and lugging one-sidedly a stack of men's basted waistcoats, evidently for home work in some tenement. She looked and muttered her un-understanding at whatever Carrie had to say, and shambled on.
Then Mrs. Latz spied her daughter, greeting her without surprise or any particular recognition.
"Thought you could fool me! Heh, Louis? I mean Alma."
"Mamma, it's Alma. It's all right. Don't you remember, we had this appointment? Come, dear."
"No, you don't! That's a man following. Shh-h-h-h, Louis! I was fooling. I went up to him in the clinic" (snicker) "and I said to him, 'Give you five dollars for a doctor's certificate.' That's all I said to him, or any of them. He's in a white carnation, Louis. You can find him by the—it on his coat lapel. He's coming! Quick—"
"Mamma, there's no one following. Wait, I'll call a taxi!"
"No, you don't! He tried to put me in a taxi, too. No, you don't!"
"Then the Subway, dearest. You'll sit quietly beside Alma in the Subway, won't you, Carrie? Alma's so tired."
Suddenly Carrie began to whimper.
"My baby! Don't let her see me. My baby! What am I good for? I've ruined her life. My precious sweetheart's life. I hit her once—Louis—in the mouth. It bled. God won't forgive me for that."
"Yes, He will, dear, if you come."
"It bled. Alma, tell him in the white carnation that mamma lost her doctor's certificate. That's all I said to him. Saw him in the clinic—new clinic—'give you five dollars for a doctor's certificate.' He had a white carnation—right lapel. Stingy. Quick!—following!"
"Sweetheart, please, there's no one coming."
"Don't tell! Oh, Alma darling—mamma's ruined your life! Her sweetheart baby's life."
"No, darling, you haven't. She loves you if you'll come home with her, dear, to bed, before Louis gets home and—"
"No. No. He mustn't see. Never this bad—was I, darling? Oh! Oh!"
"No, mamma—never—this bad. That's why we must hurry."
"Best man that ever lived. Best baby. Ruin. Ruin."
"Mamma, you—you're making Alma tremble so that she can scarcely walk if you drag her so. There's no one following, dear. I won't let anyone harm you. Please, sweetheart—a taxicab."
"No. I tell you he's following. He tried to put me into a taxicab. Followed me. Said he knew me."
"Then, mamma, listen. Do you hear? Alma wants you to listen. If you don't—she'll faint. People are looking. Now I want you to turn square around and look. No, look again. You see now, there's no one following. Now I want you to cross the street over there to the Subway. Just with Alma who loves you. There's nobody following. Just with Alma who loves you."
And then Carrie, whose lace hat was quite on the back of her head, relaxed enough so that through the enormous maze of the traffic of trucks and the heavier drags of the lower city, her daughter could wind their way.
"My baby! My poor Louis!" she kept saying. "The worst I've ever been. Oh—Alma—Louis—waiting—before we get there—Louis!"
It was in the tightest tangle of the crossing and apparently on this conjuring of her husband that Carrie jerked suddenly free of Alma's frailer hold.
"No—no—not home—now. Him. Alma!" And darted back against the breast of the down side of the traffic.
There was scarcely more than the quick rotation of her arm around with the spoke of a truck wheel, so quickly she went down.
It was almost a miracle, her kind of death, because out of all that jam of tonnage she carried only one bruise, a faint one, near the brow.
And the wonder was that Louis Latz, in his grief, was so proud.
"To think," he kept saying over and over again and unabashed at the way his face twisted—"to think they should have happened to me. Two such women in one lifetime as my little mother—and her. Fat little old Louis to have had those two. Why, just the memory of my Carrie—is almost enough. To think old me should have a memory like that—it is almost enough—isn't it, Alma?"
She kissed his hand.
That very same, that dreadful night, almost without her knowing it, her throat-tearing sobs broke loose, her face to the waistcoat of Leo Friedlander.
He held her close—very, very close. "Why, sweetheart," he said, "I could cut out my heart to help you! Why, sweetheart! Shh-h-h! Remember what Louis says. Just the beautiful memory—of—her—is—wonderful—"
"Just—the b-beautiful—memory—you'll always have it, too—of her—my mamma—won't you, Leo? Won't you?"
"Always," he said when the tight grip in his throat had eased enough.
She could not know how dear she became to him then, because not ten minutes before, from the very lapel against which her cheek lay pressed, he had unpinned a white carnation.
I set out to write a love story, and for the purpose sharpened a bright-pink pencil with a glass ruby frivolously at the eraser end.
Something sweet. Something dainty. A candied rose leaf after all the bitter war lozenges. A miss. A kiss. A golf stick. A motor car. Or, if need be, a bit of khaki, but without one single spot of blood or mud, and nicely pressed as to those fetching peg-top trouser effects where they wing out just below the skirt-coat. The oldest story in the world told newly. No wear out to it. Editors know. It's as staple as eggs or printed lawn or ipecac. The good old-fashioned love story with the above-mentioned miss, kiss, and, if need be for the sake of timeliness, the bit of khaki, pressed.
Just my luck that, with one of these modish tales at the tip of my pink pencil, Hester Bevins should come pounding and clamoring at the door of my mental reservation, quite drowning out the rather high, the lipsy, and, if I do say it myself, distinctly musical patter of Arline. That was to have been her name. Arline Kildane. Sweet, don't you think, and with just a bit of wild Irish rose in it?
But Hester Bevins would not let herself be gainsaid, sobbing a little, elbowing her way through the group of mental unborns, and leaving me to blow my pitch pipe for a minor key.
Not that Hester's isn't one of the oldest stories in the world, too. No matter how newly told, she is as old as sin, and sin is but a few weeks younger than love—and how often the two are interchangeable!
If it be a fact that the true lady is, in theory, either a virgin or a lawful wife, then Hester Bevins stands immediately convicted on two charges.
She was neither. The most that can be said for her is that she was honestly what she was.
"If the wages of sin is death," she said to a roadhouse party of roysterers one dawn, "then I've quite a bit of back pay coming to me." And joined in the shout that rose off the table.
I can sketch her in for you rather simply because of the hackneyed lines of her very, very old story. Whose pasts so quickly mold and disintegrate as those of women of Hester's stripe? Their yesterdays are entirely soluble in the easy waters of their to-days.
For the first seventeen years of her life she lived in what we might call Any American Town of, say, fifteen or twenty thousand inhabitants. Her particular one was in Ohio. Demopolis, I think. One of those change-engine-and-take-on-water stops with a stucco art-nouveau station, a roof drooping all round it, as if it needed to be shaved off like edges of a pie, and the name of the town writ in conch shells on a green slant of terrace. You know—the kind that first establishes a ten-o'clock curfew for its young, its dance halls and motion-picture theaters, and then sends in a hurry call for a social-service expert from one of the large Eastern cities to come and diagnose its malignant vice undergrowth.
Hester Bevins, of a mother who died bearing her and one of those disappearing fathers who can speed away after the accident without even stopping to pick up the child or leave a license number, was reared—no, grew up, is better—in the home of an aunt. A blond aunt with many gold teeth and many pink and blue wrappers.
Whatever Hester knew of the kind of home that fostered her, it left apparently no welt across her sensibilities. It was a rather poor house, an unpainted frame in a poor street, but there was never a lack of gayety or, for that matter, any pinching lack of funds. It was an actual fact that, at thirteen, cotton or lisle stockings brought out a little irritated rash on Hester's slim young legs, and she wore silk. Abominations, it is true, at three pair for a dollar, that sprang runs and would not hold a darn, but, just the same, they were silk. There was an air of easy camaraderie and easy money about that house. It was not unusual for her to come home from school at high noon and find a front-room group of one, two, three, or four guests, almost invariably men. Frequently these guests handed her out as much as half a dollar for candy money, and not another child in school reckoned in more than pennies.
Once a guest, for reasons of odd change, I suppose, handed her out thirteen cents. Outraged, at the meanness of the sum, and with an early and deep-dyed superstition of thirteen, she dashed the coins out of his hand and to the four corners of the room, escaping in the guffaw of laughter that went up.
Often her childish sleep in a small top room with slanting sides would be broken upon by loud ribaldry that lasted into dawn, but never by word, and certainly not by deed, was she to know from her aunt any of its sordid significance.
Literally, Hester Bevins was left to feather her own nest. There were no demands made upon her. Once, in the little atrocious front parlor of horsehair and chromo, one of the guests, the town baggage-master, to be exact, made to embrace her, receiving from the left rear a sounding smack across cheek and ear from the aunt.
"Cut that! Hester, go out and play! Whatever she's got to learn from life, she can't say she learned it in my house."
There were even two years of high school, and at sixteen, when she went, at her own volition, to clerk in Finley's two-story department store on High Street, she was still innocent, although she and Gerald Fishback were openly sweethearts.
Gerald was a Thor. Of course, you are not to take that literally; but if ever there was a carnification of the great god himself, then Gerald was in his image. A wide streak of the Scandinavian ran through his make-up, although he had been born in Middletown, and from there had come recently to the Finley Dry Goods Company as an accountant.
He was so the viking in his bigness that once, on a picnic, he had carried two girls, screaming their fun, across twenty feet of stream. Hester was one of them.
It was at this picnic, the Finley annual, that he asked Hester, then seventeen, to marry him. She was darkly, wildly pretty, as a rambler rose tugging at its stem is restlessly pretty, as a pointed little gazelle smelling up at the moon is whimsically pretty, as a runaway stream from off the flank of a river is naughtily pretty, and she wore a crisp percale shirt waist with a saucy bow at the collar, fifty-cent silk stockings, and already she had almond incarnadine nails with points to them.
They were in the very heart of Wallach's Grove, under a natural cathedral of trees, the noises of the revelers and the small explosions of soda-water and beer bottles almost remote enough for perfect quiet. He was stretched his full and splendid length at the picknickers' immemorial business of plucking and sucking grass blades, and she seated very trimly, her little blue-serge skirt crawling up ever so slightly to reveal the silken ankle, on a rock beside him.
"Tickle-tickle!" she cried, with some of that irrepressible animal spirit of hers, and leaning to brush his ear with a twig.
He caught at her hand.
"Hester," he said, "marry me."
She felt a foaming through her until her finger tips sang.
"Well, I like that!" was what she said, though, and flung up a pointed profile that was like that same gazelle's smelling the moon.
He was very darkly red, and rose to his knees to clasp her about the waist. She felt like relaxing back against his blondness and feeling her fingers plow through the great double wave of his hair. But she did not.
"You're too poor," she said.
He sat back without speaking for a long minute.
"Money isn't everything," he said, finally, and with something gone from his voice.
"I know," she said, looking off; "but it's a great deal if you happen to want it more than anything else in the world."
"Then, if that's how you feel about it, Hester, next to wanting you, I want it, too, more than anything else in the world."
"There's no future in bookkeeping."
"I know a fellow in Cincinnati who's a hundred-and-fifty-dollar man. Hester? Dear?"
"Why, of course not, dear—a month!"
"Faugh!" she said, still looking off.
He felt out for her hand, at the touch of her reddening up again.
"Hester," he said, "you're the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most maddening, the most—the most everything girl in the world! You're not going to have an easy time of it, Hester, with your—your environment and your dangerousness, if you don't settle down—quick, with some strong fellow to take care of you. A fellow who loves you. That's me, Hester. I want to make a little home for you and protect you. I can't promise you the money—right off, but I can promise you the bigger something from the very start, Hester. Dear?"
She would not let her hand relax to his.
"I hate this town," she said.
"There's Cincinnati. Maybe my friend could find an opening there."
"Cincinnati, dear, is a metropolis."
"No, no! You don't understand. I hate littleness. Even little metropolises. Cheapness. I hate little towns and little spenders and mercerized stockings and cotton lisle next to my skin, and machine-stitched nightgowns. Ugh! it scratches!"
"And I—I just love you in those starchy white shirt waists, Hester. You're beautiful."
"That's just the trouble. It satisfies you, but it suffocates me. I've got a pink-crepe-de-Chine soul. Pink crepe de Chine—you hear?"
He sat back on his heels.
"It—Is it true, then, Hester that—that you're making up with that salesman from New York?"
"Why," she said, coloring—"why, I've only met him twice walking up High Street, evenings!"
"But it is true, isn't it, Hester?"
"Say, who was answering your questions this time last year?"
"But it is true, isn't it, Hester? Isn't it?"
"Well, of all the nerve!"
But it was.
* * * * *
The rest tells glibly. The salesman, who wore blue-and-white-striped soft collars with a bar pin across the front, does not even enter the story. He was only a stepping-stone. From him the ascent or descent, or whatever you choose to call it, was quick and sheer.
Five years later Hester was the very private, the very exotic, manicured, coiffured, scented, svelted, and strictly de-luxe chattel of one Charles G. Wheeler, of New York City and Rosencranz, Long Island, vice-president of the Standard Tractor Company, a member of no clubs but of the Rosencranz church, three lodges, and several corporations.
You see, there is no obvious detail lacking. Yes, there was an apartment. "Flat" it becomes under their kind of tenancy, situated on the windiest bend of Riverside Drive and minutely true to type from the pale-blue and brocade vernis-Martin parlor of talking-machine, mechanical piano, and cellarette built to simulate a music cabinet, to the pink-brocaded bedroom with a chaise-longue piled high with a small mountain of lace pillowettes that were liberally interlarded with paper-bound novels, and a spacious, white-marble adjoining bathroom with a sunken tub, rubber-sheeted shower, white-enamel weighing scales, and overloaded medicine chest of cosmetic array in frosted bottles, sleeping-, headache-, sedative powders, et al. There were also a negro maid, two Pomeranian dogs, and last, but by no means least, a private telephone inclosed in a hall closet and lighted by an electric bulb that turned on automatically to the opening of the door.
There was nothing sinister about Wheeler. He was a rather fair exponent of that amazing genus known as "typical New-Yorker," a roll of money in his pocket, and a roll of fat at the back of his neck. He went in for light checked suits, wore a platinum-and-Oriental-pearl chain across his waistcoat, and slept at a Turkish bath once a week; was once named in a large corporation scandal, escaping indictment only after violent and expensive skirmishes; could be either savage or familiar with waiters; wore highly manicured nails, which he regarded frequently in public, white-silk socks only; and maintained, on a twenty-thousand-a-year scale in the decorous suburb of Rosencranz, a decorous wife and three children, and, like all men of his code, his ethics were strictly double decked. He would not permit his nineteen-year-old daughter Marion so much as a shopping tour to the city without the chaperonage of her mother or a friend, forbade in his wife, a comely enough woman with a white unmarcelled coiffure and upper arms a bit baggy with withering flesh, even the slightest of shirtwaist V's unless filled in with net, and kept up, at an expense of no less than fifteen thousand a year—thirty the war year that tractors jumped into the war-industry class—the very high-priced, -tempered, -handed, and -stepping Hester of wild-gazelle charm.
Not that Hester stepped much. There were a long underslung roadster and a great tan limousine with yellow-silk curtains at the call of her private telephone.
The Wheeler family used, not without complaint, a large open car of very early vintage, which in winter was shut in with flapping curtains with isinglass peepers, and leaked cold air badly.
On more than one occasion they passed on the road—these cars. The long tan limousine with the shock absorbers, foot warmers, two brown Pomeranian dogs, little case of enamel-top bottles, fresh flowers, and outside this little jewel-case interior, smartly exposed, so that the blast hit him from all sides, a chauffeur in uniform that harmonized nicely with the tans and yellows. And then the grotesque caravan of the Azoic motor age, with its flapping curtains and ununiformed youth in visored cap at the wheel.
There is undoubtedly an unsavory aspect to this story. For purpose of fiction, it is neither fragrant nor easily digested. But it is not so unsavory as the social scheme which made it possible for those two cars to pass thus on the road, and, at the same time, Charles G. Wheeler to remain the unchallenged member of the three lodges, the corporations, and the Rosencranz church, with a memorial window in his name on the left side as you enter, and again his name spelled out on a brass plate at the end of a front pew.
No one but God and Mrs. Wheeler knew what was in her heart. It is possible that she did not know what the world knew, but hardly. That she endured it is not admirable, but then there were the three children, and, besides, she lived in a world that let it go at that. And so she continued to hold up her head in her rather poor, mute way, rode beside her husband to funerals, weddings, and to the college Commencement of their son at Yale. Scrimped a little, cried a little, prayed a little in private, but outwardly lived the life of the smug in body and soul.
But the Wheelers' is another story, also a running social sore; but it was Hester, you remember, who came sobbing and clamoring to be told.
As Wheeler once said of her, she was a darn fine clothes horse. There was no pushed-up line of flesh across the middle of her back, as the corsets did it to Mrs. Wheeler. She was honed to the ounce. The white-enameled weighing scales, the sweet oils, the flexible fingers of her masseur, the dumb-bells, the cabinet, salt-water, needle-spray, and vapor baths saw to that. Her skin, unlike Marion Wheeler's, was unfreckled, and as heavily and tropically white as a magnolia leaf, and, of course, she reddened her lips, and the moonlike pallor came out more than ever.
As I said, she was frankly what she was. No man looked at her more than once without knowing it. To use an awkward metaphor, it was before her face like an overtone; it was an invisible caul. The wells of her eyes were muddy with it.
But withal, she commanded something of a manner, even from Wheeler. He had no key to the apartment. He never entered her room without knocking. There were certain of his friends she would not tolerate, from one or another aversion, to be party to their not infrequent carousals. Men did not always rise from their chairs when she entered a room, but she suffered few liberties from them. She was absolutely indomitable in her demands.
"Lord!" ventured Wheeler, upon occasion, across a Sunday-noon, lace-spread breakfast table, when she was slim and cool fingered in orchid-colored draperies, and his newest gift of a six-carat, pear-shaped diamond blazing away on her right hand. "Say, aren't these Yvette bills pretty steep?
"One midnight-blue-and-silver gown . . . . . . . . . $485.00 One blue-and-silver head bandeau . . . . . . . . . . 50.00 One serge-and-satin trotteur gown . . . . . . . . . 275.00 One ciel-blue tea gown . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 280.00
"Is that the cheapest you can drink tea? Whew!"
She put down her coffee cup, which she usually held with one little finger poised elegantly outward as if for flight.
"You've got a nerve!" she said, rising and pushing back her chair. "Over whose ticker are you getting quotations that I come cheap?"
He was immediately conciliatory, rising also to enfold her in an embrace that easily held her slightness.
"Go on," he said. "You could work me for the Woolworth Building in diamonds if you wanted it badly enough."
"Funny way of showing it! I may be a lot of things, Wheeler, but I'm not cheap. You're darn lucky that the war is on and I'm not asking for a French car."
He crushed his lips to hers.
"You devil!" he said.
There were frequent parties. Dancing at Broadway cabarets, all-night joy rides, punctuated with road-house stop-overs, and not infrequently, in groups of three or four couples, ten-day pilgrimages to showy American spas.
"Getting boiled out," they called it. It was part of Hester's scheme for keeping her sveltness.
Her friendships were necessarily rather confined to a definite circle—within her own apartment house, in fact. On the floor above, also in large, bright rooms of high rental, and so that they were exchanging visits frequently during the day, often en deshabille, using the stairway that wound up round the elevator shaft, lived a certain Mrs. Kitty Drew, I believe she called herself. She was plump and blond, and so very scented that her aroma lay on a hallway for an hour after she had scurried through it. She was well known and chiefly distinguished by a large court-plaster crescent which she wore on her left shoulder blade. She enjoyed the bounty of a Wall Street broker who for one day had attained the conspicuousness of cornering the egg market.