Un Morso doo Pang by Edna Ferber
When you are twenty you do not patronize sunsets unless you are unhappy, in love, or both. Tessie Golden was both. Six months ago a sunset had wrung from her only a casual tribute, such as: "My! Look how red the sky is!" delivered as unemotionally as a weather bulletin.
Tessie Golden sat on the top step of the back porch now, a slim, inert heap in a cotton house coat and scuffed slippers. Her head was propped wearily against the porch post. Her hands were limp in her lap. Her face was turned toward the west, where shone that mingling of orange and rose known as salmon pink. But no answering radiance in the girl's face met the glow in the Wisconsin sky.
Saturday night, after supper in Chippewa, Wisconsin, Tessie Golden of the presunset era would have been calling from her bedroom to the kitchen: "Ma, what'd you do with my pink blouse?"
And from the kitchen: "It's in your second bureau drawer. The collar was kind of mussed from Wednesday night, and I give it a little pressing while my iron was on."
At seven-thirty Tessie would have emerged from her bedroom in the pink blouse that might have been considered alarmingly frank as to texture and precariously low as to neck had Tessie herself not been so reassuringly unopulent; a black taffeta skirt, very brief; a hat with a good deal of French blue about it; fragile high-heeled pumps with bows.
As she passed through the sitting room on her way out, her mother would appear in the doorway, dishtowel in hand. Her pride in this slim young thing and her love of her she concealed with a thin layer of carping criticism.
"Runnin' downtown again, I s'pose." A keen eye on the swishing skirt hem.
Tessie, the quick-tongued, would toss the wave of shining hair that lay against either glowing cheek. "Oh, my, no! I just thought I'd dress up in case Angie Hatton drove past in her auto and picked me up for a little ride. So's not to keep her waiting."
Angie Hatton was Old Man Hatton's daughter. Anyone in the Fox River Valley could have told you who Old Man Hatton was. You saw his name at the top of every letterhead of any importance in Chippewa, from the Pulp and Paper Mill to the First National Bank, and including the watch factory, the canning works, and the Mid-Western Land Company. Knowing this, you were able to appreciate Tessie's sarcasm. Angie Hatton was as unaware of Tessie's existence as only a young woman could be whose family residence was in Chippewa, Wisconsin, but who wintered in Italy, summered in the mountains, and bought (so the town said) her very hairpins in New York. When Angie Hatton came home from the East the town used to stroll past on Mondays to view the washing on the Hatton line. Angie's underwear, flirting so audaciously with the sunshine and zephyrs, was of silk and crepe de Chine and satin--materials that we had always thought of heretofore as intended exclusively for party dresses and wedding gowns. Of course, two years later they were showing practically the same thing at Megan's dry-goods store. But that was always the way with Angie Hatton. Even those of us who went to Chicago to shop never quite caught up with her.
Delivered of this ironic thrust, Tessie would walk toward the screen door with a little flaunting sway of the hips. Her mother's eyes, following the slim figure, had a sort of grudging love in them. A spare, caustic, wiry little woman, Tessie's mother. Tessie resembled her as a water color may resemble a blurred charcoal sketch. Tessie's wide mouth curved into humor lines. She was the cutup of the escapement department at the watch factory; the older woman's lips sagged at the corners. Tessie was buoyant and colorful with youth. The other was shrunken and faded with years and labor. As the girl minced across the room in her absurdly high-heeled shoes, the older woman thought: My, but she's pretty! But she said aloud: "I should think you'd stay home once in a while and not be runnin' the streets every night."
"Time enough to be sittin' home when I'm old like you."
And yet between these two there was love, and even understanding.
But in families such as Tessie's, demonstration is a thing to be ashamed of; affection a thing to conceal. Tessie's father was janitor of the Chippewa High School. A powerful man, slightly crippled by rheumatism, loquacious, lively, fond of his family, proud of his neat gray frame house and his new cement sidewalk and his carefully tended yard and garden patch. In all her life Tessie had never seen a caress exchanged between her parents.
Nowadays Ma Golden had little occasion for finding fault with Tessie's evening diversion. She no longer had cause to say, "Always gaddin' downtown, or over to Cora's or somewhere, like you didn't have a home to stay in. You ain't been in a evening this week, only when you washed your hair."
Tessie had developed a fondness for sunsets viewed from the back porch --she who had thought nothing of dancing until three and rising at half- past six to go to work.
Stepping about in the kitchen after supper, her mother would eye the limp, relaxed figure on the back porch with a little pang at her heart. She would come to the screen door, or even out to the porch on some errand or other--to empty the coffee grounds, to turn the row of half-ripe tomatoes reddening on the porch railing, to flap and hang up a damp tea towel.
"Ain't you goin' out, Tess?"
"What you want to lop around here for? Such a grant evening. Why don't you put on your things and run downtown, or over to Cora's or somewhere, hm?"
"What for! What does anybody go out for!"
"I don't know."
If they could have talked it over together, these two, the girl might have found relief. But the family shyness of their class was too strong upon them. Once Mrs. Golden had said, in an effort at sympathy, "Person'd think Chuck Mory was the only one who'd gone to war an' the last fella left in the world."
A grim flash of the old humor lifted the corners of the wide mouth. "He is. Who's there left? Stumpy Gans, up at the railroad crossing? Or maybe Fatty Weiman, driving the garbage. Guess I'll doll up this evening and see if I can't make a hit with one of them."
She relapsed into bitter silence. The bottom had dropped out of Tessie Golden's world.
In order to understand the Tessie of today one would have to know the Tessie of six months ago--Tessie the impudent, the life-loving. Tessie Golden could say things to the escapement-room foreman that anyone else would have been fired for. Her wide mouth was capable of glorious insolences. Whenever you heard shrieks of laughter from the girls' washroom at noon you knew that Tessie was holding forth to an admiring group. She was a born mimic; audacious, agile, and with the gift of burlesque. The autumn that Angie Hatton came home from Europe wearing the first tight skirt that Chippewa had ever seen, Tessie gave an imitation of that advanced young woman's progress down Grand Avenue in this restricting garment. The thing was cruel in its fidelity, though containing just enough exaggeration to make it artistic. She followed it up by imitating the stricken look on the face of Mattie Haynes, cloak-and-suit buyer at Megan's, who, having just returned from the East with what she considered the most fashionable of the new fall styles, now beheld Angie Hatton in the garb that was the last echo of the last cry in Paris modes--and no model in Mattie's newly selected stock bore even the remotest resemblance to it.
You would know from this that Tessie was not a particularly deft worker. Her big-knuckled fingers were cleverer at turning out a blouse or retrimming a hat. Hers were what are known as handy hands, but not sensitive. It takes a light and facile set of fingers to fit pallet and arbor and fork together: close work and tedious. Seated on low benches along the tables, their chins almost level with the table top, the girls worked with pincers and flame, screwing together the three tiny parts of the watch's anatomy that were their particular specialty. Each wore a jeweler's glass in one eye. Tessie had worked at the watch factory for three years, and the pressure of the glass on the eye socket had given her the slightly hollow- eyed appearance peculiar to experienced watchmakers. It was not unbecoming, though, and lent her, somehow, a spiritual look which made her impudence all the more piquant.
Tessie wasn't always witty, really. But she had achieved a reputation for wit which insured applause for even her feebler efforts. Nap Ballou, the foreman, never left the escapement room without a little shiver of nervous apprehension--a feeling justified by the ripple of suppressed laughter that went up and down the long tables. He knew that Tessie Golden, like a naughty schoolgirl when teacher's back is turned, had directed one of her sure shafts at him.
Ballou, his face darkling, could easily have punished her. Tessie knew it. But he never did, or would. She knew that, too. Her very insolence and audacity saved her.
"Someday," Ballou would warn her, "you'll get too gay, and then you'll find yourself looking for a job."
"Go on--fire me," retorted Tessie, "and I'll meet you in Lancaster"--a form of wit appreciated only by watchmakers. For there is a certain type of watch hand who is as peripatetic as the old-time printer. Restless, ne'er-do- well, spendthrift, he wanders from factory to factory through the chain of watchmaking towns: Springfield, Trenton, Waltham, Lancaster, Waterbury, Chippewa. Usually expert, always unreliable, certainly fond of drink, Nap Ballou was typical of his kind. The steady worker had a mingled admiration and contempt for him. He, in turn, regarded the other as a stick-in-the-mud. Nap wore his cap on one side of his curly head, and drank so evenly and steadily as never to be quite drunk and never strictly sober. He had slender, sensitive fingers like an artist's or a woman's, and he knew the parts of that intricate mechanism known as a watch from the jewel to the finishing room. It was said he had a wife or two. He was forty- six, good-looking in a dissolute sort of way, possessing the charm of the wanderer, generous with his money. It was known that Tessie's barbs were permitted to prick him without retaliation because Tessie herself appealed to his errant fancy.
When the other girls teased her about this obvious state of affairs, something fine and contemptuous welled up in her. "Him! Why, say, he ought to work in a pickle factory instead of a watchworks. All he needs is a little dill and a handful of grape leaves to make him good eatin' as a relish."
And she thought of Chuck Mory, perched on the high seat of the American Express truck, hatless, sunburned, stockily muscular, clattering down Winnebago Street on his way to the depot and the 7:50 train.
Something about the clear simplicity and uprightness of the firm little figure appealed to Nap Ballou. He used to regard her curiously with a long, hard gaze before which she would grow uncomfortable. "Think you'll know me next time you see me?" But there was an uneasy feeling beneath her flip exterior. Not that there was anything of the beautiful, persecuted factory girl and villainous foreman about the situation. Tessie worked at watchmaking because it was light, pleasant, and well paid. She could have found another job for the asking. Her money went for shoes and blouses and lingerie and silk stockings. She was forever buying a vivid necktie for her father and dressing up her protesting mother in gay colors that went ill with the drab, wrinkled face. "If it wasn't for me, you'd go round looking like one of those Polack women down by the tracks," Tessie would scold. "It's a wonder you don't wear a shawl!"
That was the Tessie of six months ago, gay, carefree, holding the reins of her life in her own two capable hands. Three nights a week, and Sunday, she saw Chuck Mory. When she went downtown on Saturday night it was frankly to meet Chuck, who was waiting for her on Schroeder's drugstore corner. He knew it, and she knew it. Yet they always went through a little ceremony. She and Cora, turning into Grand from Winnebago Street, would make for the post office. Then down the length of Grand with a leaping glance at Schroeder's corner before they reached it. Yes, there they were, very clean-shaven, clean-shirted, slick-looking. Tessie would have known Chuck's blond head among a thousand. An air of studied hauteur and indifference as they approached the corner. Heads turned the other way. A low whistle from the boys.
"Oh, how do!"
Both greetings done with careful surprise. Then on down the street. On the way back you took the inside of the walk, and your hauteur was now stony to the point of insult. Schroeder's corner simply did not exist. On as far as Megan's, which you entered and inspected, up one brightly lighted aisle and down the next. At the dress-goods counter there was a neat little stack of pamphlets entitled "In the World of Fashion." You took one and sauntered out leisurely. Down Winnebago Street now, homeward bound, talking animatedly and seemingly unconscious of quick footsteps sounding nearer and nearer. Just past the Burke House, where the residential district began, and where the trees cast their kindly shadows: "Can I see you home?" A hand slipped through her arm; a little tingling thrill.
"Oh, why, how do, Chuck! Hello, Scotty. Sure, if you're going our way."
At every turn Chuck left her side and dashed around behind her in order to place himself at her right again, according to the rigid rule of Chippewa etiquette. He took her arm only at street crossings until they reached the tracks, which perilous spot seemed to justify him in retaining his hold throughout the remainder of the stroll. Usually they lost Cora and Scotty without having been conscious of their loss.
Their talk? The girls and boys that each knew; the day's happenings at factory and express office; next Wednesday night's dance up in the Chute; and always the possibility of Chuck's leaving the truck and assuming the managership of the office.
"Don't let this go any further, see? But I heard it straight that old Benke is going to be transferred to Fond du Lac. And if he is, why, I step in, see? Benke's got a girl in Fondy, and he's been pluggin' to get there. Gee, maybe I won't be glad when he does!" A little silence. "Will you be glad, Tess? Hm?"
Tess felt herself glowing and shivering as the big hand closed more tightly on her arm. "Me? Why, sure I'll be pleased to see you get a job that's coming to you by rights, and that'll get you better pay, and all."
But she knew what he meant, and he knew she knew.
No more of that now. Chuck--gone. Scotty--gone. All the boys at the watchworks, all the fellows in the neighborhood--gone. At first she hadn't minded. It was exciting. You kidded them at first: "Well, believe me, Chuck, if you shoot the way you play ball, you're a gone goon already."
"All you got to do, Scotty, is to stick that face of yours up over the top of the trench and the Germans'll die of fright and save you wasting bullets."
There was a great knitting of socks and sweaters and caps. Tessie's big- knuckled, capable fingers made you dizzy, they flew so fast. Chuck was outfitted as for a polar expedition. Tess took half a day off to bid him good-by. They marched down Grand Avenue, that first lot of them, in their everyday suits and hats, with their shiny yellow suitcases and their pasteboard boxes in their hands, sheepish, red-faced, awkward. In their eyes, though, a certain look. And so off for Camp Sherman, their young heads sticking out of the car windows in clusters--black, yellow, brown, red. But for each woman on the depot platform there was just one head. Tessie saw a blurred blond one with a misty halo around it. A great shouting and waving of handkerchiefs:
"Good-by! Good-by! Write, now! Be sure! Mebbe you can get off in a week, for a visit. Good-by! Good----"
They were gone. Their voices came back to the crowd on the depot platform-- high, clear young voices; almost like the voices of children, shouting.
Well, you wrote letters--fat, bulging letters--and in turn you received equally plump envelopes with a red emblem in one corner.
You sent boxes of homemade fudge (nut variety) and cookies and the more durable forms of cake.
Then, unaccountably, Chuck was whisked all the way to California.
He was furious at parting with his mates, and his indignation was expressed in his letters to Tessie. She sympathized with him in her replies. She tried to make light of it, but there was a little clutch of terror in it, too. California! Might as well send a person to the end of the world while they were about it. Two months of that. Then, inexplicably again, Chuck's letters bore the astounding postmark of New York. She thought, in a panic, that he was Franceward bound, but it turned out not to be so. Not yet. Chuck's letters were taking on a cosmopolitan tone. "Well," he wrote, "I guess the little old town is as dead as ever. It seems funny you being right there all this time and I've traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Everybody treats me swell. You ought to seen some of those California houses. They make Hatton's place look like a dump."
The girls, Cora and Tess and the rest, laughed and joked among themselves and assured one another, with a toss of the head, that they could have a good time without the fellas. They didn't need boys around.
They gave parties, and they were not a success. There was one of the type known as a stag. "Some hen party!" they all said. They danced, and sang "Over There." They had ice cream and chocolate layer cake and went home in great hilarity, with their hands on each other's shoulders, still singing.
But the thing was a failure, and they knew it. Next day, at the lunch hour and in the washroom, there was a little desultory talk about the stag. But the meat of such an aftergathering is contained in phrases such as "I says to him"--and "He says to me." They wasted little conversation on the stag. It was much more exciting to exhibit letters on blue-lined paper with the red emblem at the top. Chuck's last letter had contained the news of his sergeancy.
Angie Hatton, home from the East, was writing letters, too. Everyone in Chippewa knew that. She wrote on that new art paper with the gnawed- looking edges and stiff as a newly laundered cuff. But the letters which she awaited so eagerly were written on the same sort of paper as were those Tessie had from Chuck--blue-lined, cheap in quality. A New York fellow, Chippewa learned; an aviator. They knew, too, that young Hatton was an infantry lieutenant somewhere in the East. These letters were not from him.
Ever since her home-coming, Angie had been sewing at the Red Cross shop on Grand Avenue. Chippewa boasted two Red Cross shops. The Grand Avenue shop was the society shop. The East End crowd sewed there, capped, veiled, aproned--and unapproachable. Were your fingers ever so deft, your knowledge of seams and basting mathematical, your skill with that complicated garment known as a pneumonia jacket uncanny, if you did not belong to the East End set, you did not sew at the Grand Avenue shop. No matter how grossly red the blood which the Grand Avenue bandages and pads were ultimately to stanch, the liquid in the fingers that rolled and folded them was pure cerulean.
Tessie and her crowd had never thought of giving any such service to their country. They spoke of the Grand Avenue workers as "that stinkin' bunch." Yet each one of the girls was capable of starting a blouse in an emergency on Saturday night and finishing it in time for a Sunday picnic, buttonholes and all. Their help might have been invaluable. It never was asked.
Without warning, Chuck came home on three days' furlough. It meant that he was bound for France right enough this time. But Tessie didn't care.
"I don't care where you're goin'," she said exultantly, her eyes lingering on the stocky, straight, powerful figure in its rather ill-fitting khaki. "You're here now. That's enough. Ain't you tickled to be home, Chuck? Gee!" `
`I'll say," responded Chuck. But even he seemed to detect some lack in his tone and words. He elaborated somewhat shamefacedly:
"Sure. It's swell to be home. But I don't know. After you've traveled around, and come back, things look so kind of little to you. I don't know--kind of----" He floundered about, at a loss for expression. Then tried again: "Now, take Hatton's place, for example. I always used to think it was a regular palace, but, gosh, you ought to see places where I was asked to in San Francisco and around there. Why, they was--were--enough to make the Hatton house look like a shack. Swimmin' pools of white marble, and acres of yard like a park, and the help always bringing you something to eat or drink. And the folks themselves--why, say! Here we are scraping and bowing to Hattons and that bunch. They're pikers to what some people are that invited me to their houses in New York and Berkeley, and treated me and the other guys like kings or something. Take Megan's store, too"--he was warming to his subject, so that he failed to notice the darkening of Tessie's face--"it's a joke compared to New York and San Francisco stores. Reg'lar hick joint."
Tessie stiffened. Her teeth were set, her eyes sparkled. She tossed her head. "Well, I'm sure, Mr. Mory, it's good enough for me. Too bad you had to come home at all now you're so elegant and swell, and everything. You better go call on Angie Hatton instead of wasting time on me. She'd probably be tickled to see you."
He stumbled to his feet, then, awkwardly. "Aw, say, Tessie, I didn't mean--why, say--you don't suppose--why, believe me, I pretty near busted out cryin' when I saw the Junction eatin' house when my train came in. And I been thinking of you every minute. There wasn't a day----"
"Tell that to your swell New York friends. I may be a hick but I ain't a fool." She was near to tears.
"Why, say, Tess, listen! Listen! If you knew--if you knew--A guy's got to--he's got no right to----"
And presently Tessie was mollified, but only on the surface. She smiled and glanced and teased and sparkled. And beneath was terror. He talked differently. He walked differently. It wasn't his clothes or the army. It was something else--an ease of manner, a new leisureliness of glance, an air. Once Tessie had gone to Milwaukee over Labor Day. It was the extent of her experience as a traveler. She remembered how superior she had felt for at least two days after. But Chuck! California! New York! It wasn't the distance that terrified her. It was his new knowledge, the broadening of his vision, though she did not know it and certainly could not have put it into words.
They went walking down by the river to Oneida Springs, and drank some of the sulphur water that tasted like rotten eggs. Tessie drank it with little shrieks and shudders and puckered her face up into an expression indicative of extreme disgust.
"It's good for you," Chuck said, and drank three cups of it, manfully. "That taste is the mineral qualities the water contains--sulphur and iron and so forth."
"I don't care," snapped Tessie irritably. "I hate it!" They had often walked along the river and tasted of the spring water, but Chuck had never before waxed scientific. They took a boat at Baumann's boathouse and drifted down the lovely Fox River.
"Want to row?" Chuck asked. "I'll get an extra pair of oars if you do."
"I don't know how. Besides, it's too much work. I guess I'll let you do it."
Chuck was fitting his oars in the oarlocks. She stood on the landing looking down at him. His hat was off. His hair seemed blonder than ever against the rich tan of his face. His neck muscles swelled a little as he bent. Tessie felt a great longing to bury her face in the warm red skin. He straightened with a sigh and smiled at her. "I'll be ready in a minute." He took off his coat and turned his khaki shirt in at the throat, so that you saw the white line of his untanned chest in strange contrast to his sun- burned throat. A feeling of giddy faintness surged over Tessie. She stepped blindly into the boat and would have fallen if Chuck's hard, firm grip had not steadied her. "Whoa, there! Don't you know how to step into a boat? There. Walk along the middle."
She sat down and smiled up at him. "I don't know how I come to do that. I never did before."
Chuck braced his feet, rolled up his sleeves, and took an oar in each brown hand, bending rhythmically to his task. He looked about him, then at the girl, and drew a deep breath, feathering his oars. "I guess I must have dreamed about this more'n a million times."
"Have you, Chuck?"
They drifted on in silence. "Say, Tess, you ought to learn to row. It's good exercise. Those girls in California and New York, they play tennis and row and swim as good as the boys. Honest, some of 'em are wonders!"
Oh, I'm sick of your swell New York friends! Can't you talk about something else?"
He saw that he had blundered without in the least understanding how or why. "All right. What'll we talk about?" In itself a fatal admission.
"About--you." Tessie made it a caress.
"Me? Nothin' to tell about me. I just been drillin' and studyin' and marchin' and readin' some---- Oh, say, what d'you think?"
"They been learnin' us--teachin' us, I mean--French. It's the darnedest language! Bread is pain. Can you beat that? If you want to ask for a piece of bread, you say like this: DONNAY MA UN MORSO DOO PANG. See?"
"My!" breathed Tessie.
And within her something was screaming: Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He knows French. And those girls that can row and swim and everything. And me, I don't know anything. Oh, God, what'll I do?
It was as though she could see him slipping away from her, out of her grasp, out of her sight. She had no fear of what might come to him in France. Bullets and bayonets would never hurt Chuck. He'd make it, just as he always made the 7:50 when it seemed as if he was going to miss it sure. He'd make it there and back, all right. But he'd be a different Chuck, while she stayed the same Tessie. Books, travel, French, girls, swell folks----
And all the while she was smiling and dimpling and trailing her hand in the water. "Bet you can't guess what I got in that lunch box."
"Well, of course I've got chocolate cake. I baked it myself this morning."
"Yes, you did!" "Why, Chuck Mory, I did so! I guess you think I can't do anything, the way you talk."
"Oh, don't I! I guess you know what I think."
"Well, it isn't the cake I mean. It's something else."
"Oh, now you've gone and guessed it." She pouted prettily.
"You asked me to, didn't you?"
Then they laughed together, as at something exquisitely witty. Down the river, drifting, rowing. Tessie pointed to a house half hidden among the trees on the farther shore: "There's Hatton's camp. They say they have grand times there with their swell crowd some Saturdays and Sundays. If I had a house like that, I'd live in it all the time, not just a couple of days out of the whole year." She hesitated a moment. "I suppose it looks like a shanty to you now."
Chuck surveyed it, patronizingly. "No, it's a nice little place."
They beached their boat, and built a little fire, and had supper on the riverbank, and Tessie picked out the choice bits for him--the breast of the chicken, beautifully golden brown; the ripest tomato; the firmest, juiciest pickle; the corner of the little cake which would give him a double share of icing.
From Chuck, between mouthfuls: "I guess you don't know how good this tastes. Camp grub's all right, but after you've had a few months of it you get so you don't believe there IS such a thing as real fried chicken and homemade chocolate cake."
"I'm glad you like it, Chuck. Here, take this drumstick. You ain't eating a thing!" His fourth piece of chicken.
Down the river as far as the danger line just above the dam, with Tessie pretending fear just for the joy of having Chuck reassure her. Then back again in the dusk, Chuck bending to the task now against the current. And so up the hill, homeward bound. They walked very slowly, Chuck's hand on her arm. They were dumb with the tragic, eloquent dumbness of their kind. If she could have spoken the words that were churning in her mind, they would have been something like this:
"Oh, Chuck, I wish I was married to you. I wouldn't care if only I had you. I wouldn't mind babies or anything. I'd be glad. I want our house, with a dining-room set, and a mahogany bed, and one of those overstuffed sets in the living room, and all the housework to do. I'm scared. I'm scared I won't get it.
What'll I do if I don't?"
And he, wordlessly: "Will you wait for me, Tessie, and keep on thinking about me? And will you keep yourself like you are so that if I come back----"
Aloud, she said: "I guess you'll get stuck on one of those French girls. I should worry! They say wages at the watch factory are going to be raised, workers are so scarce. I'll probably be as rich as Angie Hatton time you get back."
And he, miserably: "Little old Chippewa girls are good enough for Chuck. I ain't counting on taking up with those Frenchies. I don't like their jabber, from what I know of it. I saw some pictures of 'em, last week, a fellow in camp had who'd been over there. Their hair is all funny, and fixed up with combs and stuff, and they look real dark like foreigners."
It had been reassuring enough at the time. But that was six months ago. And now here was the Tessie who sat on the back porch, evenings, surveying the sunset. A listless, lackadaisical, brooding Tessie. Little point to going downtown Saturday nights now. There was no familiar, beloved figure to follow you swiftly as you turned off Elm Street, homeward bound. If she went downtown now, she saw only those Saturday-night family groups which are familiar to every small town. The husband, very damp as to hair and clean as to shirt, guarding the gocart outside while the woman accomplished her Saturday-night trading at Ding's or Halpin's. Sometimes there were as many as half a dozen gocarts outside Halpin's, each containing a sleeping burden, relaxed, chubby, fat-cheeked. The waiting men smoked their pipes and conversed largely. "Hello, Ed. The woman's inside, buyin' the store out, I guess."
"That so? Mine, to. Well, how's everything?"
Tessie knew that presently the woman would come out, bundle laden, and that she would stow these lesser bundles in every corner left available by the more important sleeping bundle--two yards of oilcloth; a spool of 100, white; a banana for the baby; a new stewpan at the five-and-ten.
There had been a time when Tessie, if she thought of these women at all, felt sorry for them--worn, drab, lacking in style and figure. Now she envied them.
There were weeks upon weeks when no letter came from Chuck. In his last letter there had been some talk of his being sent to Russia. Tessie's eyes, large enough now in her thin face, distended with a great fear. Russia! His letter spoke, too, of French villages and chateaux. He and a bunch of fellows had been introduced to a princess or a countess or something--it was all one to Tessie--and what do you think? She had kissed them all on both cheeks! Seems that's the way they did in France.
The morning after the receipt of this letter the girls at the watch factory might have remarked her pallor had they not been so occupied with a new and more absorbing topic.
"Tess, did you hear about Angie Hatton?"
"What about her?"
"She's going to France. It's in the Milwaukee paper, all about her being Chippewa's fairest daughter, and a picture of the house, and her being the belle of the Fox River Valley, and she's giving up her palatial home and all to go to work in a canteen for her country and bleeding France."
"Ya-as she is!" sneered Tessie, and a dull red flush, so deep as to be painful, swept over her face from throat to brow. "Ya-as she is, the doll-faced simp! Why, say, she never wiped up a floor in her life, or baked a cake, or stood on them feet of hers. She couldn't cut up a loaf of bread decent. Bleeding France! Ha! That's rich, that is." She thrust her chin out brutally, and her eyes narrowed to slits. "She's going over there after that fella of hers. She's chasing him. It's now or never, and she knows it and she's scared, same's the rest of us. On'y we got to set home and make the best of it. Or take what's left." She turned her head slowly to where Nap Ballou stood over a table at the far end of the room. She laughed a grim, un- lovely little laugh. "I guess when you can't go after what you want, like Angie, why you gotta take second choice."
All that day, at the bench, she was the reckless, insolent, audacious Tessie of six months ago. Nap Ballou was always standing over her, pretending to inspect some bit of work or other, his shoulder brushing hers. She laughed up at him so that her face was not more than two inches from his. He flushed, but she did not. She laughed a reckless little laugh.
"Thanks for helping teach me my trade, Mr. Ballou. 'Course I only been at it over three years now, so I ain't got the hang of it yet."
He straightened up slowly, and as he did so he rested a hand on her shoulder for a brief moment. She did not shrug it off.
That night, after supper, Tessie put on her hat and strolled down to Park Avenue. It wasn't for the walk. Tessie had never been told to exercise systematically for her body's good, or her mind's. She went in a spirit of unwholesome brooding curiosity and a bitter resentment. Going to France, was she? Lots of good she'd do there. Better stay home and--and what? Tessie cast about in her mind for a fitting job for Angie. Guess she might's well go, after all. Nobody'd miss her, unless it was her father, and he didn't see her but about a third of the time. But in Tessie's heart was a great envy of this girl who could bridge the hideous waste of ocean that separated her from her man. Bleeding France. Yeh! Joke!
The Hatton place, built and landscaped twenty years before, occupied a square block in solitary grandeur, the show place of Chippewa. In architectural style it was an impartial mixture of Norman castle, French chateau, and Rhenish schloss, with a dash of Coney Island about its facade. It represented Old Man Hatton's realized dream of landed magnificence.
Tessie, walking slowly past it, and peering through the high iron fence, could not help noting an air of unwonted excitement about the place, usually so aloof, so coldly serene. Automobiles standing out in front. People going up and down. They didn't look very cheerful. Just as if it mattered whether anything happened to her or not!
Tessie walked around the block and stood a moment, uncertainly. Then she struck off down Grand Avenue and past Donovan's pool shack. A little group of after-supper idlers stood outside, smoking and gossiping, as she knew there would be. As she turned the corner she saw Nap Ballou among them. She had known that, too. As she passed she looked straight ahead, without bowing. But just past the Burke House he caught up with her. No half-shy "Can I walk home with you?" from Nap Ballou. No. Instead: "Hello, sweetheart!"
"Somebody's looking mighty pretty this evening, all dolled up in pink."
"Think so?" She tried to be pertly indifferent, but it was good to have someone following, someone walking home with you. What if he was old enough to be her father, with graying hair? Lots of the movie heroes had graying hair at the sides.
They walked for an hour. Tessie left him at the corner. She had once heard her father designate Ballou as "that drunken skunk." When she entered the sitting room her cheeks held an unwonted pink. Her eyes were brighter than they had been in months. Her mother looked up quickly, peering at her over a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, very much askew.
"Where you been, Tessie?"
"Why, she was here, callin' for you, not more'n an hour ago."
Tessie, taking off her hat on her way upstairs, met this coolly. "Yeh, I ran into her comin' back."
Upstairs, lying fully dressed on her hard little bed, she stared up into the darkness, thinking, her hands limp at her sides. Oh, well, what's the diff? You had to make the best of it. Everybody makin' a fuss about the soldiers--feeding 'em, and asking 'em to their houses, and sending 'em things, and giving dances and picnics and parties so they wouldn't be lonesome. Chuck had told her all about it. The other boys told the same. They could just pick and choose their good times. Tessie's mind groped about, sensing a certain injustice. How about the girls? She didn't put it thus squarely. Hers was not a logical mind. Easy enough to paw over the men- folks and get silly over brass buttons and a uniform. She put it that way. She thought of the refrain of a popular song: "What Are You Going to Do to Help the Boys?" Tessie, smiling a crooked little smile up there in the darkness, parodied the words deftly: "What're you going to do to help the girls?" she demanded. "What're you going to do----" She rolled over on one side and buried her head in her arms.
There was news again next morning at the watch factory. Tessie of the old days had never needed to depend on the other girls for the latest bit of gossip. Her alert eye and quick ear had always caught it first. But of late she had led a cloistered existence, indifferent to the world about her. The Chippewa Courier went into the newpaper pile behind the kitchen door without a glance from Tessie's incurious eye.
She was late this morning. As she sat down at the bench and fitted her glass in her eye, the chatter of the others, pitched in the high key of unusual excitement, penetrated even her listlessness.
"And they say she never screeched or fainted or anything. She stood there, kind of quiet, looking straight ahead, and then all of a sudden she ran to her pa----"
"I feel sorry for her. She never did anything to me. She----"
Tessie spoke, her voice penetrating the staccato fragments all about her and gathering them into a whole. "Say, who's the heroine of this picture? I come in in the middle of the film, I guess."
They turned on her with the unlovely eagerness of those who have ugly news to tell. They all spoke at once, in short sentences, their voices high with the note of hysteria.
"Angie Hatton's beau was killed----"
"They say his airyoplane fell ten thousand feet----"
"The news come only last evening about eight----"
"She won't see nobody but her pa----"
Eight! At eight Tessie had been standing outside Hatton's house, envying Angie and hating her. So that explained the people, and the automobiles, and the excitement. Tessie was not receiving the news with the dramatic reaction which its purveyors felt it deserved. Tessie, turning from one to the other quietly, had said nothing. She was pitying Angie. Oh, the luxury of it! Nap Ballou, coming in swiftly to still the unwonted commotion in work hours, found Tessie the only one quietly occupied in that chatter-filled room. She was smiling as she worked. Nap Ballou, bending over her on some pretense that deceived no one, spoke low-voiced in her ear. But she veiled her eyes insolently and did not glance up. She hummed contentedly all the morning at her tedious work.
She had promised Nap Ballou to go picknicking with him Sunday. Down the river, boating, with supper on shore. The small, still voice within her had said, "Don't go! Don't go!" But the harsh, high-pitched, reckless overtone said, "Go on! Have a good time. Take all you can get."
She would have to lie at home and she did it. Some fabrication about the girls at the watchworks did the trick. Fried chicken, chocolate cake. She packed them deftly and daintily. High-heeled shoes, flimsy blouse, rustling skirt. Nap Ballou was waiting for her over in the city park. She saw him before he espied her. He was leaning against a tree, idly, staring straight ahead with queer, lackluster eyes. Silhouetted there against the tender green of the pretty square, he looked very old, somehow, and different-- much older than he looked in his shop clothes, issuing orders. Tessie noticed that he sagged where he should have stuck out, and protruded where he should have been flat. There flashed across her mind a vividly clear picture of Chuck as she had last seen him--brown, fit, high of chest, flat of stomach, slim of flank.
Ballou saw her. He straightened and came toward her swiftly. "Somebody looks mighty sweet this afternoon."
Tessie plumped the heavy lunch box into his arms. "When you get a line you like you stick to it, don't you?"
Down at the boathouse even Tessie, who had confessed ignorance of boats and oars, knew that Ballou was fumbling clumsily. He stooped to adjust the oars to the oarlocks. His hat was off. His hair looked very gray in the cruel spring sunshine. He straightened and smiled up at her.
"Ready in a minute, sweetheart," he said. He took off his collar and turned in the neckband of his shirt. His skin was very white. Tessie felt a little shudder of disgust sweep over her, so that she stumbled a little as she stepped into the boat.
The river was very lovely. Tessie trailed her fingers in the water and told herself that she was having a grand time. She told Nap the same when he asked her.
"Having a good time, little beauty?" he said. He was puffing a little with the unwonted exercise.
Tessie tried some of her old-time pertness of speech. "Oh, good enough, considering the company."
He laughed admiringly at that and said she was a sketch.
When the early evening came on they made a clumsy landing and had supper. This time Nap fed her the tidbits, though she protested.
"White meat for you," he said, "with your skin like milk."
"You must of read that in a book," scoffed Tessie. She glanced around her at the deepening shadows. "We haven't got much time.
It gets dark so early."
"No hurry," Nap assured her. He went on eating in a leisurely, finicking sort of way, though he consumed very little food, actually.
"You're not eating much," Tessie said once, halfheartedly. She decided that she wasn't having such a very grand time, after all, and that she hated his teeth, which were very bad. Now, Chuck's strong, white, double row----
"Well," she said, "let's be going."
"No hurry," again.
Tessie looked up at that with the instinctive fear of her kind. "What d'you mean, no hurry! 'Spect to stay here till dark?" She laughed at her own joke.
She got up then, the blood in her face. "Well, _I_ don't."
He rose, too. "Why not?"
"Because I don't, that's why." She stooped and began picking up the remnants of the lunch, placing spoons and glass bottles swiftly and thriftily into the lunch box. Nap stepped around behind her.
"Let me help," he said. And then his arm was about her and his face was close to hers, and Tessie did not like it. He kissed her after a little wordless struggle. And then she knew. She had been kissed before. But not like this. Not like this! She struck at him furiously. Across her mind flashed the memory of a girl who had worked in the finishing room. A nice girl, too. But that hadn't helped her. Nap Ballou was laughing a little as he clasped her.
At that she heard herself saying: "I'll get Chuck Mory after you--you drunken bum, you! He'll lick you black and blue. He'll----"
The face, with the ugly, broken brown teeth, was coming close again. With all the young strength that was in her she freed one hand and clawed at that face from eyes to chin. A howl of pain rewarded her. His hold loosened. Like a flash she was off. She ran. It seemed to her that her feet did not touch the earth. Over brush, through bushes, crashing against trees, on and on. She heard him following her, but the broken-down engine that was his heart refused to do the work. She ran on, though her fear was as great as before. Fear of what might have happened--to her, Tessie Golden, that nobody could even talk fresh to. She gave a sob of fury and fatigue. She was stumbling now. It was growing dark. She ran on again, in fear of the overtaking darkness. It was easier now. Not so many trees and bushes. She came to a fence, climbed over it, lurched as she landed, leaned against it weakly for support, one hand on her aching heart. Before her was the Hatton summer cottage, dimly outlined in the twilight among the trees.
A warm, flickering light danced in the window. Tessie stood a moment, breathing painfully, sobbingly. Then, with an instinctive gesture, she patted her hair, tidied her blouse, and walked uncertainly toward the house, up the steps to the door. She stood there a moment, swaying slightly. Somebody'd be there.
The light. The woman who cooked for them or the man who took care of the place. Somebody'd----
She knocked at the door feebly. She'd tell 'em she had lost her way and got scared when it began to get dark. She knocked again, louder now. Footsteps. She braced herself and even arranged a crooked smile. The door opened wide. Old Man Hatton!
She looked up at him, terror and relief in her face. He peered over his glasses at her. "Who is it?" Tessie had not known, somehow, that his face was so kindly.
Tessie's carefully planned story crumbled into nothingness. "It's me!" she whimpered. "It's me!"
He reached out and put a hand on her arm and drew her inside.
"Angie! Angie! Here's a poor little kid----"
Tessie clutched frantically at the last crumbs of her pride. She tried to straighten, to smile with her old bravado. What was that story she had planned to tell?
"Who is it, Dad? Who----?" Angie Hatton came into the hallway. She stared at Tessie. Then: "Why, my dear!" she said. "My dear! Come in here."
Angie Hatton! Tessie began to cry weakly, her face buried in Angie Hatton's expensive shoulder. Tessie remembered later that she had felt no surprise at the act.
"There, there!" Angie Hatton was saying. "Just poke up the fire, Dad. And get something from the dining room. Oh, I don't know. To drink, you know. Something----"
Then Old Man Hatton stood over her, holding a small glass to her lips. Tessie drank it obediently, made a wry little face, coughed, wiped her eyes, and sat up. She looked from one to the other, like a trapped little animal. She put a hand to her tousled head.
"That's all right," Angie Hatton assured her. "You can fix it after a while."
There they were, the three of them: Old Man Hatton with his back to the fire, looking benignly down upon her; Angie seated, with some knitting in her hands, as if entertaining bedraggled, tear-stained young ladies at dusk were an everyday occurrence; Tessie, twisting her handkerchief in a torment of embarrassment. But they asked no questions, these two. They evinced no curiosity about this disheveled creature who had flung herself in upon their decent solitude.
Tessie stared at the fire. She looked up at Old Man Hatton's face and opened her lips. She looked down and shut them again. Then she flashed a quick look at Angie, to see if she could detect there some suspicion, some disdain. None. Angie Hatton looked--well, Tessie put it to herself, thus: "She looks like she'd cried till she couldn't cry no more--only inside."
And then, surprisingly, Tessie began to talk. "I wouldn't never have gone with this fella, only Chuck, he was gone. All the boys're gone. It's fierce. You get scared, sitting home, waiting, and they're in France and everywhere, learning French and everything, and meeting grand people and having a fuss made over 'em. So I got mad and said I didn't care, I wasn't going to squat home all my life, waiting----"
Angie Hatton had stopped knitting now. Old Man Hatton was looking down at her very kindly. And so Tessie went on. The pent-up emotions and thoughts of these past months were finding an outlet at last. These things which she had never been able to discuss with her mother she now was laying bare to Angie Hatton and Old Man Hatton! They asked no questions. They seemed to understand. Once Old Man Hatton interrupted with: "So that's the kind of fellow they've got as escapement-room foreman, eh?"
Tessie, whose mind was working very clearly now, put out a quick hand. "Say, it wasn't his fault. He's a bum, all right, but I knew it, didn't I? It was me. I didn't care. Seemed to me it didn't make no difference who I went with, but it does." She looked down at her hands clasped so tightly in her lap.
"Yes, it makes a whole lot of difference," Angie agreed, and looked up at her father.
At that Tessie blurted her last desperate problem: "He's learning all kind of new things. Me, I ain't learning anything. When Chuck comes home he'll just think I'm dumb, that's all. He----"
"What kind of thing would you like to learn, Tessie, so that when Chuck comes home----"
Tessie looked up then, her wide mouth quivering with eagerness. "I'd like to learn to swim--and row a boat--and play tennis--like the rich girls-- like the girls that's making such a fuss over the soldiers."
Angie Hatton was not laughing. So, after a moment's hesitation, Tessie brought out the worst of it. "And French. I'd like to learn to talk French."
Old Man Hatton had been surveying his shoes, his mouth grim. He looked at Angie now and smiled a little. "Well, Angie, it looks as if you'd found your job right here at home, doesn't it? This young lady's just one of hundreds, I suppose. Thousands. You can have the whole house for them, if you want it, Angie, and the grounds, and all the money you need. I guess we've kind of overlooked the girls. Hm, Angie? What d'you say?"
But Tessie was not listening. She had scarcely heard. Her face was white with earnestness.
"Can you speak French?"
"Yes," Angie answered.
"Well," said Tessie, and gulped once, "well, how do you say in French: `Give me a piece of bread'? That's what I want to learn first."
Angie Hatton said it correctly.
"That's it! Wait a minute! Say it again, will you?"
Angie said it again, Tessie wet her lips. Her cheeks were smeared with tears and dirt. Her hair was wild and her blouse awry. "DONNAY-MA-UN-MORSO-DOO-PANG," she articulated painfully. And in that moment, as she put her hand in that of Chuck Mory, across the ocean, her face was very beautiful with contentment.