Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part One. Poverty
Among Mrs. Lancaster's reminiscences Susan had heard none more often than the one in which the first appearance of Billy Oliver and his mother in the boarding-house was described. Mrs. Oliver had been newly widowed then, and had the round-faced, square-shouldered little Billy to support, in a city that was strange and unfriendly. She had gone to Mrs. Lancaster's intending merely to spend a day or two, until the right work and the right home for herself and Billy should be found.
"It happened to be a bad time for me," Mrs. Lancaster would say, recalling the event. "My cook had gone, the house was full, and I had a quinsy sore throat. But I managed to find her a room, and Alfie and George carried in a couch for the little boy. She borrowed a broom, I remember, and cleaned out the I room herself. I explained how things were with me, and that I ought to have been on my back then! She was the cleanest soul I ever saw, she washed out the very bureau drawers, and she took the little half-curtain down, it was quite black,--we used to keep that window open a good deal. Well, and we got to talking, and she told me about her husband's death, he was a surveyor, and a pretty clever man, I guess. Poor thing, she burst right out crying--"
"And you kept feeling sicker and sicker, Ma."
"I began to feel worse and worse, yes. And at about four o'clock I sent Ceely,--you remember Ceely, Mary Lou!--for the doctor. She was getting dinner--everything was upset!"
"Was that the day I broke the pitchers, Ma?"
"No. That was another day. Well, when the doctor came, he said bed. I was too wretched then to say boo to a goose, and I simply tumbled in. And I wasn't out of bed for five weeks!"
"Not for five weeks. Well. But that first night, somebody knocked at my door, and who should it be but my little widow! with her nice little black gown on, and a white apron. She'd brought me some gruel, and she began to hang up my things and straighten the room. I asked about dinner, and she said she had helped Ceely and that it was all right. The relief! And from that moment she took hold, got a new cook, cleaned house, managed everything! And how she adored that boy! I don't think that, in the seven years that she was with me, Nellie ever spent an evening away from him. Poor Nellie! And a witty, sweet woman she was, too, far above that sort of work. She was taking the public library examinations when she died. Nellie would have gone a long way. She was a real little lady. Billy must be more like his father, I imagine."
"Oh, now, Ma!" There was always someone to defend Billy. "Look how good and steady Billy is!"
"Steady, yes, and a dear, dear boy, as we all know. But--but very different from what I would wish a son of mine to be!" Mrs. Lancaster would say regretfully.
Susan agreed with her aunt that it was a great pity that a person of Billy's intelligence should voluntarily grub away in a dirty iron foundry all the days of his youth, associating with the commonest types of laboring men. A clerkship, an agency, a hundred refined employments in offices would have seemed more suitable, or even a professional vocation of some sort. But she had in all honesty to admit that Alfred's disinclination to do anything at all, and Alfred's bad habits, made Billy's industry and cleanness and temperance a little less grateful to Mrs. Lancaster than they might otherwise have been.
Alfred tried a great many positions, and lost them all because he could not work, and could not refrain from drinking. The women of his family called Alfred nothing more unkind than "unfortunate," and endured the drunkenness, the sullen aftermath, the depression while a new job was being found, and Alfie's insufferable complacency when the new job was found, with tireless patience and gentleness. Mary Lou carried Alfie's breakfast upstairs to his bed, on Sunday mornings, Mrs. Lancaster often gave him an early dinner, and hung over him adoringly while he ate it, because he so hated to dine with the boarders. Susan loaned him money, Virginia's prayers were all for him, and Georgie laughed at his jokes and quoted him as if he had been the most model of brothers. How much they realized of Alfie's deficiencies, how important the matter seemed to them, even Susan could not guess Mrs. Lancaster majestically forbade any discussion of Alfie. "Many a boy has his little weakness in early youth," she said, "Alfie will come out all right!"
She had the same visionary optimism in regarding her daughters' futures. The girls were all to marry, of course, and marry well, far above their present station, indeed.
"Somehow I always think of Mary Lou's husband as a prominent officer, or a diplomat," Mrs. Lancaster would say. "Not necessarily very rich, but with a comfortable private income. Mary Lou makes friends very easily, she likes to make a good appearance, she has a very gracious manner, and with her fine figure, and her lovely neck, she would make a very handsome mistress for a big home--yes, indeed you would, dear! Where many a woman would want to run away and hide, Mary Lou would be quite in her element--"
"Well, one thing," Mary Lou would say modestly, "I'm never afraid to meet strangers, and, don't you know you've spoken of it, Ma? I never have any trouble in talking to them. Do you remember that woman in the grocery that night, Georgie, who said she thought I must have traveled a great deal, I had such an easy way of speaking? And I'd love to dress every night for dinner."
"Of course you would!" her mother always said approvingly. "Now, Georgie," she would pursue, "is different again. Where Mary Lou only wants the very nicest people about her, Georgie cares a good deal more for the money and having a good time!"
"The man I marry has got to make up his mind that I'm going to keep on the go," Georgie would admit, with an independent toss of her head.
"But you wouldn't marry just for that, dear? Love must come, too."
"Oh, the love would come fast enough, if the money was there!" Georgie would declare naughtily.
"I don't like to have you say that even in fun, dear! ... Now Jinny," and Mrs. Lancaster would shake her head, "sometimes I think Jinny would be almost too hard upon any man," she would say, lovingly. "There are mighty few in this world good enough for her. And I would certainly warn any man," she usually added seriously, "that Jinny is far finer and more particular than most women. But a good, good man, older than she, who could give her a beautiful home- -"
"I would love to begin, on my wedding-day, to do some beautiful, big, charitable thing every day," Virginia herself would say eagerly. "I would like to be known far and wide as a woman of immense charities. I'd have only one handsome street suit or two, each season, beside evening dresses, and people would get to know me by sight, and bring their babies up to me in the street--" Her weak, kind eyes always watered at the picture.
"But Mama is not ready yet to let you go!" her mother would say jealously. "We'll hope that Mr. Right will be a long time arriving!"
Then it was Susan's turn.
"And I want some fine, good man to make my Sue happy, some day," her aunt often said, affectionately. Susan writhed in spirit under the implication that no fine, good man yet had desired the honor; she had a girl's desire that her affairs--or the absence of affairs--of the heart should not be discussed. Susan felt keenly the fact that she had never had an offer of marriage; her one consolation, in this humiliation, was that no one but herself could be quite sure of it. Boys had liked her, confided in her, made her small Christmas presents,--just how other girls led them from these stages to the moment of a positive declaration, she often wondered. She knew that she was attractive to most people; babies and old men and women, servants and her associates in the office, strangers on ferryboats and sick people in hospitals alike responded to her friendliness and gaiety. But none of these was marriageable, of course, and the moment Susan met a person who was, a subtle change crept over her whole personality, veiled the bright charm, made the friendliness stiff, the gaiety forced. Susan, like all other girls, was not herself with the young unmarried men of her acquaintance; she was too eager to be exactly what they supposedly wanted her to be. She felt vaguely the utter unnaturalness of this, without ever being able to analyze it. Her attitude, the attitude of all her sex, was too entirely false to make an honest analysis possible. Susan, and her cousins, and the girls in the office, rather than reveal their secret longings to be married, would have gone cheerfully to the stake. Nevertheless, all their talk was of men and marriage, and each girl innocently appraised every man she met, and was mentally accepting or refusing an offer of marriage from him before she had known him five minutes.
Susan viewed the single state of her three pretty cousins with secret uneasiness. Georgie always said that she had refused "dozens of fellows," meeting her mother's occasional mild challenge of some specific statement with an unanswerable "of course you didn't know, for I never told you, Ma." And Virginia liked to bemoan the fact that so many nice men seemed inclined to fall in love with herself, a girl who gave absolutely no thought to such things at all. Mrs. Lancaster supported Virginia's suspicions by memories of young men who had suddenly and mysteriously appeared, to ask her to accept them as boarders, and young attorneys who had their places in church changed to the pews that surrounded the Lancaster pew. But Susan dismissed these romantic vapors, and in her heart held Mary Lou in genuine admiration, because Mary Lou had undoubtedly and indisputably had a real lover, years ago.
Mary Lou loved to talk of Ferd Eastman still; his youth, his manly charms, his crossing an empty ball-room floor, on the memorable evening of their meeting, especially to be introduced to her, and to tell her that brown hair was his favorite color for hair. After that the memories, if still fondly cherished, were less bright. Mary Lou had been "perfectly wretched," she had "cried for nights and nights" at the idea of leaving Ma; Ma had fainted frequently. "Ma made it really hard for me," said Mary Lou. Ma was also held to blame for not reconciling the young people after the first quarrel. Ma might have sent for Ferd. Mary Lou, of course, could do nothing but weep.
Poor Mary Lou's weeping soon had good cause. Ferd rushed away, rushed into another marriage, with an heiress and a beauty, as it happened, and Mary Lou had only the dubious consolation of a severe illness.
After that, she became cheerful, mild, unnecessary Mary Lou, doing a little bit of everything about the house, appreciated by nobody. Ferd and his wife were the great people of their own little town, near Virginia City, and after a while Mary Lou had several pictures of their little boy to treasure,--Robbie with stiff curls falling over a lace collar, and plaid kilts, in a swing, and Robbie in velvet knickerbockers, on a velocipede.
The boarding-house had a younger affair than Mary Lou's just now in the attachment felt for lovely Loretta Parker by a young Mission doctor, Joseph O'Connor. Susan did not admire the gentleman very much, with his well-trimmed little beard, and his throaty little voice, but she could not but respect the dreamy and indifferent Loretta for his unquestionable ardor. Loretta wanted to enter a convent, to her mother's bitter anguish, and Susan once convulsed Georgie by the remark that she thought Joe O'Connor would make a cute nun, himself.
"But think of sacrificing that lovely beard!" said Georgie.
"Oh, you and I could treasure it, Georgie! Love's token, don't you know?"
Loretta's affair was of course extremely interesting to everyone at Mrs. Lancaster's, as were the various "cases" that Georgie continually talked of, and the changing stream of young men that came to see her night after night. But also interesting were all the other lives that were shut up here together, the varied forms which sickness and money-trouble can take for the class that has not learned to be poor. Little pretenses, timid enjoyments and mild extravagances were all overshadowed by a poverty real enough to show them ever more shadowy than they were. Susan grew up in an atmosphere where a lost pair of overshoes, or a dentist's bill, or a counterfeit half-dollar, was a real tragedy. She was well used to seeing reddened eyes, and hearing resigned sighs at the breakfast table, without ever knowing what little unforeseen calamity had caused them. Every door in the dark hallways shut in its own little story of suffering and privation. Susan always thought of second- floor alcoved bedrooms as filled with the pungent fumes of Miss Beattie's asthma powder, and of back rooms as redolent of hot kerosene and scorched woolen, from the pressing of old Mr. Keane's suits, by Mrs. Keane. She could have identified with her eyes shut any room in the house. A curious chilliness lurked in the halls, from August to May, and an odor compounded of stale cigarette smoke, and carbolic acid, and coal-gas, and dust.
Those women in the house who did not go to business every day generally came down to the breakfast table very much as they rose from bed. Limp faded wrappers and "Juliet" slippers were the only additions made to sleeping wear. The one or two men of the house, with Susan and Jane Beattie and Lydia Lord, had breakfasted and gone long before these ladies drifted downstairs. Sometimes Mrs. Parker and Loretta made an early trip to Church, but even then they wore only long cloaks over very informal attire, and joined the others, in wrappers, upon their return.
Loitering over coffee and toast, in the sunny dining-room, the morning wasted away. The newspapers were idly discussed, various scraps of the house gossip went the rounds. Many a time, before her entrance into the business world, Susan had known this pleasant idleness to continue until ten o'clock, until eleven o'clock, while the room, between the stove inside and the winter sunshine outside, grew warmer and warmer, and the bedrooms upstairs waited in every stage of appalling disorder and confusion.
Nowadays Susan ran downstairs just before eight o'clock, to gulp down her breakfast, with one eye on the clock. The clatter of a cable car passing the corner meant that Susan had just time to pin on her hat, seize her gloves and her lunch, and catch the next cable-car. She flashed through the dreary little entrance yard, past other yards, past the bakery, and took her seat on the dummy breathless with her hurry, exhilarated by the morning freshness of the air, and filled with happy expectation for the new day.
On the Monday morning that Mr. Peter Coleman made his appearance as a member of the Front Office staff, Susan Brown was the first girl to reach the office. This was usually the case, but to-day Susan, realizing that the newcomer would probably be late, wished that she had the shred of an excuse to be late herself, to have an entrance, as it were. Her plain suit had been well brushed, and the coat was embellished by a fresh, dainty collar and wide cuffs of white linen. Susan had risen early to wash and press these, and they were very becoming to her fresh, unaffected beauty. But they must, of course, be hung in the closet, and Susan, taking her place at her desk, looked quite as usual, except for the spray of heliotrope pinned against her lavender shirtwaist.
The other girls were earlier than was customary, there was much laughing and chatting as desks were dusted, and inkwells filled for the day. Susan, watching soberly from her corner, saw that Miss Cottle was wearing her best hat, that Miss Murray had on the silk gown she usually saved for Saturdays, that Thorny's hair was unusually crimped and puffed, and that the Kirks were wearing coquettish black silk aprons, with pink and blue bows. Susan's face began to burn. Her hand unobtrusively stole to her heliotrope, which fell, a moment later, a crushed little fragrant lump, into her waste-basket. Presently she went into the coat closet.
"Remind me to take these to the French Laundry at noon," said Susan, pausing before Thorny's desk, on her way back to her own, with a tight roll of linen in her hand. "I left 'em on my coat from yesterday. They're filthy."
"Sure, but why don't you do 'em yourself, Susan, and save your two bits?"
"Well, maybe I will. I usually do." Susan yawned.
"Dying for sleep. I went with my cousin to St. Mary's last night, to hear that Mission priest. He's a wonder."
"Not for me! I've not been inside a church for years. I had my friend last night. Say, Susan, has he come?"
"Has who come?"
"Oh, you go to, Susan! Young Coleman."
"Oh, sure!" Susan's eyes brightened intelligently. "That's so, he was coming down to-day, wasn't he?"
"Girls," said Miss Thornton, attracting the attention of the entire room, "what do you know about Susan Brown's trying to get away with it that she's forgotten about Peter Coleman!"
"Oh, Lord, what a bluff!" somebody said, for the crowd.
"I don't see why it's a bluff," said Susan hardily, back at her own desk, and turning her light on, full above her bright, innocent face. "I intended to wear my grandfather's gray uniform and my aunt's widow's veil to make an impression on him, and you see I didn't!"
"Oh, Susan, you're awful!" Miss Thornton said, through the general shocked laughter. "You oughtn't say things like that," Miss Garvey remonstrated. "It's awful bad luck. Mamma had a married cousin in Detroit and she put on a widow's veil for fun--"
At ten o'clock a flutter went through the office. Young Mr. Coleman was suddenly to be seen, standing beside Mr. Brauer at his high desk. He was exceptionally big and broad, handsome and fresh looking, with a look of careful grooming and dressing that set off his fine head and his fine hands; he wore a very smart light suit, and carried well the affectation of lavender tie and handkerchief and hose, and an opal scarf-pin.
He seemed to be laughing a good deal over his new work, but finally sat down to a pile of bills, and did not interrupt Mr. Brauer after that oftener than ten times a minute. Susan met his eye, as she went along the deck, but he did not remember her, or was too confused to recognize her among the other girls, and they did not bow. She was very circumspect and very dignified for a week or two, always busy when Peter Coleman came into Front Office, and unusually neat in appearance. Miss Murray sat next to him on the car one morning, and they chatted for fifteen minutes; Miss Thornton began to quote him now and then; Miss Kirk, as credit clerk, spent at least a morning a week in Mr. Brauer's office, three feet away from Mr. Coleman, and her sister tripped in there now and then on real or imagined errands.
But Susan bided her time. And one afternoon, late in October, returning early to the office, she found Mr. Coleman loitering disconsolately about the deck.
"Excuse me, Miss Brown," said he, clearing his throat. He had, of course, noticed this busy, absorbed young woman.
Susan stopped, attentive, unsmiling.
"Brauer," complained the young man, "has gone off and locked my hat in his office. I can't go to lunch."
"Why didn't you walk through Front Office?" said Susan, leading the way so readily and so sedately, that the gentleman was instantly put in the position of having addressed her on very slight provocation.
"This inner door is always unlocked," she explained, with maternal gentleness.
Peter Coleman colored.
"I see--I am a bally ass!" he said, laughing.
"You ought to know," Susan conceded politely. And suddenly her dimples were in view, her blue eyes danced as they met his, and she laughed too.
This was a rare opportunity, the office was empty, Susan knew she looked well, for she had just brushed her hair and powdered her nose. She cast about desperately in her mind for something-- anything!--to keep the conversation going. She had often thought of the words in which she would remind him of their former meeting.
"Don't think I'm quite as informal as this, Mr. Coleman, you and I have been properly introduced, you know! I'm not entirely flattered by having you forget me so completely, Mr. Coleman!"
Before she could choose either form, he said it himself.
"Say, look here, look here--didn't my uncle introduce us once, on a car, or something? Doesn't he know your mother?"
"My mother's dead," said Susan primly. But so irresistible was the well of gaiety bubbling up in her heart that she made the statement mirthful.
"Oh, gosh, I do beg your pardon--" the man stammered. They both, although Susan was already ashamed of herself, laughed violently again.
"Your uncle knows my aunt," she said presently, coldly and unsmilingly.
"That's it," he said, relieved. "Quite a French sentence, 'does the uncle know the aunt'?" he grinned.
"Or 'Has the governess of the gardener some meat and a pen'?" gurgled Susan. And again, and more merrily, they laughed together.
"Lord, didn't you hate French?" he asked confidentially.
"Oh, hate it!" Susan had never had a French lesson.
There was a short pause--a longer pause. Suddenly both spoke.
"I beg your pardon--?"
"No, you. You were first."
"Oh, no, you. What were you going to say?"
"I wasn't going to say anything. I was just going to say--I was going to ask how that pretty, motherly aunt of yours is,--Mrs. Baxter?"
"Aunt Clara. Isn't she a peach? She's fine." He wanted to keep talking, too, it was obvious. "She brought me up, you know." He laughed boyishly. "Not that I'd want you to hold that against her, or anything like that!"
"Oh, she'll live that down!" said Susan.
That was all. But when Peter Colernan went on his way a moment later he was still smiling, and Susan walked to her desk on air.
The office seemed a pleasant place to be that afternoon. Susan began her work with energy and interest, the light falling on her bright hair, her fingers flying. She hummed as she worked, and one or two other girls hummed with her.
There was rather a musical atmosphere in Front Office; the girls without exception kept in touch with the popular music of the day, and liked to claim a certain knowledge of the old classics as well. Certain girls always hummed certain airs, and no other girl ever usurped them. Thus Thorny vocalized the "Spring Song," when she felt particularly cheerful, and to Miss Violet Kirk were ceded all rights to Carmen's own solos in "Carmen." Susan's privilege included "The Rosary" and the little Hawaiian fare-well, "Aloha aoi." After the latter Thorny never failed to say dreamily, "I love that song!" and Susan to mutter surprisedly, "I didn't know I was humming it!"
All the girls hummed the Toreador's song, and the immediate favorites of the hour, "Just Because She Made Those Goo-Goo Eyes," and "I Don't Know Why I Love You but I Do," and "Hilee-Hilo" and "The Mosquito Parade." Hot discussions as to the merits of various compositions arose, and the technique of various singers.
"Yes, Collamarini's dramatic, and she has a good natural voice," Miss Thornton would admit, "but she can't get at it."
Or, "That's all very well," Miss Cottle would assert boldly, "but Salassa sings better than either Plancon or de Reszke. I'm not saying this myself, but a party that knows told me so."
"Probably the person who told you so had never heard them," Miss Thornton would say, bringing the angry color to Miss Cottle's face, and the angry answer:
"Well, if I could tell you who it is, you'd feel pretty small!"
Susan had small respect for the other girls' opinions, and almost as little for her own. She knew how ignorant she was. But she took to herself what credit accrued to general quoting, quoting from newspapers, from her aunt's boarders, from chance conversations overheard on the cars.
"Oh, Puccini will never do anything to touch Bizet!" Susan asserted firmly. Or, "Well, we'd be fighting Spain still if it wasn't for McKinley!" Or, "My grandmother had three hundred slaves, and slavery worked perfectly well, then!" If challenged, she got very angry. "You simply are proving that you don't know anything about it!" was Susan's last, and adequate, answer to questioners.
But as a rule she was not challenged. Some quality in Susan set her apart from the other girls, and they saw it as she did. It was not that she was richer, or prettier, or better born, or better educated, than any or all of them. But there was some sparkling, bubbling quality about her that was all her own. She read, and assimilated rather than remembered what she read, adopted this little affectation in speech, this little nicety of manner. She glowed with varied and absurd ambitions, and took the office into her confidence about them. Wavering and incomplete as her aunt's influence had been, one fact had early been impressed upon her; she was primarily and absolutely a "lady." Susan's forebears had really been rather ordinary folk, improvident and carefree, enjoying prosperity when they had it with the uneducated, unpractical serenity of the Old South, shiftless and lazy and unhappy in less prosperous times.
But she thought of them as most distinguished and accomplished gentlefolk, beautiful women environed by spacious estates, by exquisite old linen and silver and jewels, and dashing cavaliers rising in gay gallantry alike to the conquest of feminine hearts, or to their country's defense. She bore herself proudly, as became their descendants. She brought the gaze of her honest blue eyes frankly to all the other eyes in the world, a lady was unembarrassed in the presence of her equals, a lady was always gracious to her inferiors.
Her own father had been less elevated in rank than his wife, yet Susan could think of him with genuine satisfaction. He was only a vague memory to her now, this bold heart who had challenged a whole family's opposition, a quarter of a century before, and carried off Miss Sue Rose Ralston, whose age was not quite half his forty years, under her father's very eyes.
When Susan was born, four years later, the young wife was still regarded by her family as an outcast. But even the baby Susan, growing happily old enough to toddle about in the Santa Barbara rose-garden that sheltered the still infatuated pair, knew that Mother was supremely indifferent to the feeling toward her in any heart but one. Martin Brown was an Irishman, and a writer of random essays. His position on a Los Angeles daily newspaper kept the little family in touch with just the people they cared to see, and, when the husband and father was found dead at his desk one day, with his wife's picture over the heart that had suddenly and simply ceased to serve him, there were friends all about to urge the beautiful widow to take up at least a part of his work, in the old environment.
But Sue Rose was not quite thirty, and still girlish, and shrinking, and helpless. Beside, there was Lou's house to go to, and five thousand dollars life insurance, and three thousand more from the sale of the little home, to meet the immediate need. So Susan and her mother came up to Mrs. Lancaster, and had a very fine large room together, and became merged in the older family. And the eight thousand dollars lasted a long time, it was still paying little bills, and buying birthday presents, and treating Alfie to a "safety bicycle," and Mary Lou to dancing lessons when, on a wet afternoon in her thirteenth summer, little Susan Brown came in from school to find that Mother was very ill.
"Just an ugly, sharp pain, ducky, don't look so scared!" said Mother, smiling gallantly, but writhing under the bed covers. "Dr. Forsythe has been here, and it's nothing at all. Ah-h-h!" said Mother, whimsically, "the poor little babies! They go through this, and we laugh at them, and call it colic! Never-laugh-at-another- baby, Sue! I shan't. You'd better call Auntie, dear. This--this won't do."
A day or two later there was talk of an operation. Susan was told very little of it. Long afterward she remembered with certain resentment the cavalier manner in which her claims were dismissed. Her mother went to the hospital, and two days later, when she was well over the wretchedness of the ether, Susan went with Mary Lou to see her, and kissed the pale, brave little face, sunk in the great white pillows.
"Home in no time, Sue!" her mother said bravely.
But a few days later something happened, Susan was waked from sleep, was rushed to the hospital again, was pressed by some unknown hand into a kneeling position beside a livid and heavily breathing creature whom she hardly recognized as her mother. It was all confusing and terrifying; it was over very soon. Susan came blinking out of the dimly lighted room with Mary Lou, who was sobbing, "Oh, Aunt Sue Rose! Aunt Sue Rose!" Susan did not cry, but her eyes hurt her, and the back of her head ached sharply.
She cried later, in the nights, after her cousins had seemed to be unsympathetic, feeling that she needed her mother to take her part. But on the whole the cousins were devoted and kind to Susan, and the child was as happy as she could have been anywhere. But her restless ambition forced her into many a discontented hour, as she grew, and when an office position was offered her Susan was wild with eagerness to try her own feet.
"I can't bear it!" mourned her aunt, "why can't you stay here happily with us, lovey? My own girls are happy. I don't know what has gotten into you girls lately, wanting to rush out like great, coarse men! Why can't you stay at home, doing all the little dainty, pretty things that only a woman can do, to make a home lovely?"
"Don't you suppose I'd much rather not work?" Susan demanded impatiently. "I can't have you supporting me, Auntie. That's it."
"Well, if that's it, that's nonsense, dear. As long as Auntie lives all she asks is to keep a comfortable home for her girls."
"Why, Sue, you'll be implying that we all ought to have taken horrid office positions," Virginia said, in smiling warning.
Susan remained mutinously silent.
"Have you any fault to find with Auntie's provision for you, dear?" asked Mrs. Lancaster, patiently.
"Oh, no, auntie! That's not it at all!" Susan protested, "it's just simply that I--I can't--I need money, sometimes--" She stopped, miserably.
"Come, now!" Mrs. Lancaster, all sweet tolerance of the vagary, folded her hands to await enlightenment. "Come, now! Tell auntie what you need money for. What is this special great need?"
"No one special thing, auntie--" Susan was anything but sure of her ground. As a matter of fact she did not want to work at all, she merely felt a frantic impulse to do something else than settle down for life as Mary Lou and Virginia and Georgie had done. "But clothes cost money," she pursued vaguely.
"What sort of a gown did you want, dear?" Mrs. Lancaster reached for her shabby purse. Susan refused the gift of a gown with many kisses, and no more was said for a while of her working.
This was in her seventeenth summer. For more than a year after that she drifted idly, reading a great many romantic novels, and wishing herself a young actress, a lone orphan, the adored daughter of an invalid father or of a rich and adoring mother, the capable, worshiped oldest sister in a jolly big family, a lovely cripple in a bright hospital ward, anything, in short, except what she was.
Then came the offer of a position in Front Office, and Susan took it on her own responsibility, and resigned herself to her aunt's anger. This was a most unhappy time for all concerned.
But it was all over now. Auntie rebeled no more, she accepted the fact as she had accepted other unwelcome facts in her life. And soon Susan's little salary came to be depended upon by the family; it was not much, but it did pay a gas or a laundry bill, it could be "borrowed" for the slippers Georgie must have in a hurry, or the ticket that should carry Alfie to Sacramento or Stockton for his new job. Virginia wondered if Sue would lend her two dollars for the subscription to the "Weekly Era," or asked, during the walk to church, if Susan had "plate-money" for two? Mary Lou used Susan's purse as her own. "I owe you a dollar, Sue," she would observe carelessly, "I took it yesterday for the cleaner."
Or, on their evening walks, Mary Lou would glance in the candy-store window. "My! Don't those caramels look delicious! This is my treat, now, remind me to give it back to you." "Oh, Ma told me to get eggs," she would remember suddenly, a moment later. "I'll have to ask you to pay for them, dearie, until we get home."
Susan never was repaid these little loans. She could not ask it. She knew very well that none of the girls ever had a cent given her except for some definite and unavoidable purchase. Her aunt never spent money. They lived in a continual and agonizing shortage of coin.
Lately, however, Susan had determined that if her salary were raised she would save the extra money, and not mention the fact of the raise at home. She wanted a gray feather boa, such as Peter Coleman's girl friends wore. It would cost twenty dollars, but what beauty and distinction it lent to the simplest costume!
Since young Mr. Coleman's appearance in Front Office certain young girls very prominent in San Francisco society found various reasons for coming down, in mid-afternoon, to the establishment of Hunter, Baxter & Hunter, for a chat with old Mr. Baxter, who appeared to be a great favorite with all girls. Susan, looking down through the glass walls of Front Office, would suddenly notice the invasion of flowered hats and smart frocks, and of black and gray and white feather-boas, such as her heart desired. She did not consciously envy these girls, but she felt that, with their advantages, she would have been as attractive as any, and a boa seemed the first step in the desired direction. She always knew it when Mr. Baxter sent for Peter, and generally managed to see him as he stood laughing and talking with his friends, and when he saw them to their carriages. She would watch him wistfully when he came upstairs, and be glad when he returned briskly to his work, as if the interruption had meant very little to him after all.
One day, when a trio of exquisitely pretty girls came to carry him off bodily, at an early five o'clock, Miss Thornton came up the office to Susan's desk. Susan, who was quite openly watching the floor below, turned with a smile, and sat down in her place.
"S'listen, Susan," said Miss Thornton, leaning on the desk, "are you going to the big game?"
"I don't know," said Susan, suddenly wild to go.
"Well, I want to go," pursued Miss Thornton, "but Wally's in Los Angeles." Wally was Miss Thornton's "friend."
"What would it cost us, Thorny?"
"Gosh," said Susan thoughtfully. The big intercollegiate game was not to be seen for nothing. Still, it was undoubtedly the event of the sporting year.
"Hat come?" asked Thorny.
"Ye-es." Susan was thinking. "Yes, and she's made it look lovely," she admitted. She drew a sketch of a little face on her scratch pad. "Who's that?" asked Miss Thornton, interestedly. "Oh, no one!" Susan said, and scratched it out.
"Oh, come on, Susan, I'm dying to go!" said the tempter.
"We need a man for that, Thorny. There's an awful crowd."
"Not if we go early enough. They say it's going to be the closest yet. Come on!"
"Thorny, honest, I oughtn't to spend the money," Susan persisted.
"S'listen, Susan." Miss Thornton spoke very low, after a cautious glance about her. "Swear you won't breathe this!"
"Oh, honestly I won't!"
"Wait a minute. Is Elsie Kirk there?" asked Miss Thornton. Susan glanced down the office.
"Nope. She's upstairs, and Violet's in Brauer's office. What is it?"
"Well, say, listen. Last night--" began Miss Thornton, impressively, "Last night I and Min and Floss and Harold Clarke went into the Techau for supper, after the Orpheum show. Well, after we got seated--we had a table way at the back--I suddenly noticed Violet Kirk, sitting in one of those private alcoves, you know--?"
"For Heaven's sake!" said Susan, in proper horror.
"Yes. And champagne, if you please, all as bold as life! And all dressed up, Susan, I wish you could have seen her! Well. I couldn't see who she was with--"
"A party--no! One man."
"Oh, Thorny--" Susan began to be doubtful, slowly shook her head.
"But I tell you I saw her, Sue! And listen, that's not all. We sat there and sat there, an hour I guess, and she was there all that time. And when she got up to go, Sue, I saw the man. And who do you suppose it was?"
"Do I know him?" A sick premonition seized Susan, she felt a stir of agonizing jealousy at her heart. "Peter Coleman?" she guessed, with burning cheeks. "Peter Coleman! That kid! No, it was Mr. Phil!"
"Mr. Phil Hunter!" But, through all her horror, Susan felt the warm blood creep back to her heart.
"But--but Thorny, he's married!"
Miss Thornton shrugged her shoulders, and pursed her lips, as one well accustomed, if not reconciled, to the wickedness of the world.
"So now we know how she can afford a velvet tailor-made and ostrich plumes," said she. Susan shrank in natural cleanness of heart, from the ugliness of it.
"Ah, don't say such things, Thorny!" she said. Her brows contracted. "His wife enjoying Europe!" she mused. "Can you beat it?"
"I think it's the limit," said Miss Thornton virtuously, "and I think old J. B. would raise the roof. But anyway, it shows why she got the crediting."
"Oh, Thorny, I can't believe it! Perhaps she doesn't realize how it looks!"
"Violet Hunter!" Thorny said, with fine scorn. "Now you mark my words, Susan, it won't last--things like this don't--"
"But--but don't they sometimes last, for years?" Susan asked, a little timidly, yet wishing to show some worldly wisdom, too.
"Not like her, there's nothing to her," said the sapient Miss Thornton. "No. You'll be doing that work in a few months, and getting forty. So come along to the big game, Sue."
"Well--" Susan half-promised. But the big game was temporarily lost sight of in this horrid news of Violet Kirk. Susan watched Miss Kirk during the remainder of the afternoon, and burst out with the whole story, to Mary Lou, when they went out to match a piece of tape that night.
"Dear me, Ma would hate to have you coming in contact with things like that, Sue!" worried Mary Lou. "I wonder if Ma would miss us if we took the car out to the end of the line? It's such a glorious night! Let's,--if you have carfare. No, Sue, it's easy enough to rob a girl of her good name. There were some people who came to the house once, a man and his wife. Well, I suppose I was ordinarily polite to the man, as I am to all men, and once or twice he brought me candy--but it never entered my head--"
It was deliciously bracing to go rushing on, on the car, past the Children's Hospital, past miles of sandhills, out to the very shore of the ocean, where the air was salt, and filled with the dull roaring of surf. Mary Lou, sharing with her mother a distaste for peanuts, crowds, tin-type men, and noisy pleasure-seekers, ignored Susan's hints that they walk down to the beach, and they went back on the same car.
When they entered the close, odorous dining-room, an hour later, Georgie, lazily engaged with Fan-tan, had a piece of news.
"Susan, you sly thing! He's adorable!" said Georgie.
"Who?" said Susan, taking a card from her cousin's hand. Dazedly she read it. "Mr. Peter Coleman."
"Did he call?" she asked, her heart giving a great bound.
"Did he call? With a perfect heart-breaker of a puppy--!"
"London Baby," Susan said, eagerly.
"He was airing the puppy, he said" Georgie added archly.
"One excuse as well as another!" Mary Lou laughed delightedly as she kissed Susan's glowing cheek.
"He wouldn't come in," continued Georgie, "which was really just as well, for Loretta and her prize idiot were in the parlor, and I couldn't have asked him down here. Well, he's a darling. You have my blessing, Sue."
"It's manners to wait until you're axed," Susan said demurely. But her heart sang. She had to listen to a little dissertation upon the joys of courtship, when she and Mary Lou were undressing, a little later, tactfully concealing her sense of the contrast between their two affairs.
"It's a happy, happy time," said Mary Lou, sighing, as she spread the two halves of a shabby corset upon the bed, and proceeded to insert a fresh lacing between them. "It takes me back to the first time Ferd called upon me, but I was younger than you are, of course, Sue. And Ferd--!" she laughed proudly, "Do you think you could have sent Ferd away with an excuse? No, sir, he would have come in and waited until you got home, poor Ferd! Not but what I think Peter--" He was already Peter!--"did quite the correct thing! And I think I'm going to like him, Sue, if for no other reason than that he had the sense to be attracted to a plainly-dressed, hard-working little mouse like my Sue--"
"His grandfather ran a livery stable!" said Susan, smarting under the role of the beggar maiden.
"Ah, well, there isn't a girl in society to-day who wouldn't give her eyes to get him!" said Mary Lou wisely. And Susan secretly agreed.
She was kept out of bed by the corset-lacing, and so took a bath to- night and brushed and braided her hair. Feeling refreshed in body and spirit by these achievements, she finally climbed into bed, and drifted off upon a sea of golden dreams. Georgie's teasing and Mary Lou's inferences might be all nonsense, still, he had come to see her, she had that tangible fact upon which to build a new and glorious castle in Spain.
Thanksgiving broke dull and overcast, there was a spatter of rain on the sidewalk, as Susan loitered over her late holiday breakfast, and Georgie, who was to go driving that afternoon with an elderly admirer, scolded violently over her coffee and rolls. No boarders happened to be present. Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were to go to a funeral, and dwelt with a sort of melancholy pleasure upon the sad paradox of such an event on such a day. Mary Lou felt a little guilty about not attending the funeral, but she was responsible for the roasting of three great turkeys to-day, and could not be spared. Mrs. Lancaster had stuffed the fowls the night before.
"I'll roast the big one from two o'clock on," said Mary Lou, "and give the little ones turn and turn about. The oven won't hold more than two."
"I'll be home in time to make the pudding sauce," her mother said, "but open it early, dear, so that it won't taste tinny. Poor Hardings! A sad, sad Thanksgiving for them!" And Mrs. Lancaster sighed. Her hair was arranged in crisp damp scallops under her best bonnet and veil, and she wore the heavy black skirt of her best suit. But her costume was temporarily completed by a light kimono.
"We'll hope it's a happy, happy Thanksgiving for dear Mr. Harding, Ma," Virginia said gently.
"I know, dear," her mother said, "but I'm not like you, dear. I'm afraid I'm a very poor, weak, human sort!"
"Rotten day for the game!" grumbled Susan.
"Oh, it makes me so darn mad!" Georgie added, "here I've been working that precious idiot for a month up to the point where he would take his old horse out, and now look at it!"
Everyone was used to Georgie's half-serious rages, and Mrs. Lancaster only smiled at her absently.
"But you won't attempt to go to the game on a day like this!" she said to Susan.
"Not if it pours," Susan agreed disconsolately.
"You haven't wasted your good money on a ticket yet, I hope, dear?"
"No-o," Susan said, wishing that she had her two and a half dollars back. "That's just the way of it!" she said bitterly to Billy, a little later. "Other girls can get up parties for the game, and give dinners after it, and do everything decently! I can't even arrange to go with Thorny, but what it has to rain!"
"Oh, cheer up," the boy said, squinting down the barrel of the rifle he was lovingly cleaning. "It's going to be a perfect day! I'm going to the game myself. If it rains, you and I'll go to the Orpheum mat., what do you say?"
"Well--" said Susan, departing comforted. And true to his prediction the sky really did clear at eleven o'clock, and at one o'clock, Susan, the happiest girl in the world, walked out into the sunny street, in her best hat and her best gown, her prettiest embroidered linen collar, her heavy gold chain, and immaculate new gloves.
How could she possibly have hesitated about it, she wondered, when she came near the ball-grounds, and saw the gathering crowds; tall young men, with a red carnation or a shaggy great yellow chrysanthemum in their buttonholes; girls in furs; dancingly impatient small boys, and agitated and breathless chaperones. And here was Thorny, very pretty in her best gown, with a little unusual and unnatural color on her cheeks, and Billy Oliver, who would watch the game from the "dollar section," providentially on hand to help them through the crowd, and buy Susan a chrysanthemum as a foil to Thorny's red ribbons. The damp cool air was sweet with violets; a delightful stir and excitement thrilled the moving crowd. Here was the gate. Tickets? And what a satisfaction to produce them, and enter unchallenged into the rising roadway, leaving behind a line of jealously watching and waiting people. With Billy's help the seats were easily found, "the best seats on the field," said Susan, in immense satisfaction, as she settled into hers. She and Thorny were free to watch the little tragedies going on all about them, people in the wrong seats, and people with one ticket too few.
Girls and young men--girls and young men--girls and young men-- streamed in the big gateways, and filed about the field. Susan envied no one to-day, her heart was dancing. There was a racy autumnal tang in the air, laughter and shouting. The "rooters" were already in place, their leader occasionally leaped into the air like a maniac, and conducted a "yell" with a vigor that needed every muscle of his body.
And suddenly the bleachers went mad and the air fluttered with banners, as the big teams rushed onto the field. The players, all giants they looked, in their clumsy, padded suits, began a little practice play desperately and violently. Susan could hear the quarter's voice clear and sharp, "Nineteen-four-eighty-eight!"
"Hello, Miss Brown!" said a voice at her knee. She took her eyes from the field. Peter Coleman, one of a noisy party, was taking the seat directly in front of her.
"Well!" she said, gaily, "be you a-follering of me, or be I a- follering of you?"
"I don't know!--How do you do, Miss Thornton!" Peter said, with his delighted laugh. He drew to Susan the attention of a stout lady in purple velvet, beside him. "Mrs. Fox--Miss Brown," said he, "and Miss Thornton--Mrs. Fox."
"Mrs. Fox," said Susan, pleasantly brief.
"Miss Brown," said Mrs. Fox, with a wintry smile.
"Pleased to meet any friend of Mr. Coleman's, I'm sure," Thorny said, engagingly.
"Miss Thornton," Mrs. Fox responded, with as little tone as is possible to the human voice.
After that the newcomers, twelve or fourteen in all, settled into their seats, and a moment later everyone's attention was riveted on the field. The men were lining up, big backs bent double, big arms hanging loose, like the arms of gorillas. Breathless attention held the big audience silent and tense.
"Don't you love it?" breathed Susan, to Thorny.
"Crazy about it!" Peter Coleman answered her, without turning.
It was a wonderful game that followed. Susan never saw another that seemed to her to have the same peculiar charm. Between halves, Peter Coleman talked almost exclusively to her, and they laughed over the peanuts that disappeared so fast.
The sun slipped down and down the sky, and the air rose chilly and sweet from the damp earth. It began to grow dark. Susan began to feel a nervous apprehension that somehow, in leaving the field, she and Thorny would become awkwardly involved in Mrs. Fox's party, would seem to be trying to include themselves in this distinguished group.
"We've got to rush," she muttered, buttoning up her coat.
"Oh, what's your hurry?" asked Thorny, who would not have objected to the very thing Susan dreaded.
"It's so dark!" Susan said, pushing ahead. They were carried by the crowd through the big gates, out to the street. Lights were beginning to prick through the dusk, a long line of street cars was waiting, empty and brightly lighted. Suddenly Susan felt a touch on her shoulder.
"Lord, you're in a rush!" said Peter Coleman, pushing through the crowd to join them. He was somehow dragging Mrs. Fox with him, the lady seemed outraged and was breathless. Peter brought her triumphantly up to Susan.
"Now what is it that you want me to do, you ridiculous boy!" gasped Mrs. Fox,--"ask Miss Brown to come and have tea with us, is that it? I'm chaperoning a few of the girls down to the Palace for a cup of tea, Miss Brown,--perhaps you will waive all formality, and come too?"
Susan didn't like it, the "waive all formality" showed her exactly how Mrs. Fox regarded the matter. Her pride was instantly touched. But she longed desperately to go. A sudden thought of the politely interested Thorny decided her.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you, Mr. Coleman," she smiled, "but I can't, to-night. Miss Thornton and I are just--"
"Don't decline on my account, Miss Brown," said Thorny, mincingly, "for I have an engagement this evening, and I have to go straight home--"
"No, don't decline on any account!" Peter said masterfully, "and don't tell wicked lies, or you'll get your mouth washed out with soap! Now, I'll put Miss Thornton on her car, and you talk to Hart here--Miss Brown, this is Mr. Hart--Gordon, Miss Brown--until I come back!"
He disappeared with Thorny, and Susan, half terrified, half delighted, talked to Mr. Hart at quite a desperate rate, as the whole party got on the dummy of a car. Just as they started, Peter Coleman joined them, and during the trip downtown Susan kept both young men laughing, and was her gayest, happiest self.
The Palace Hotel, grimy and dull in a light rainfall, was nevertheless the most enchanting place in the world to go for tea, as Susan knew by instinct, or hearsay, or tradition, and as all these other young people had proved a hundred times. A covered arcade from the street led through a row of small, bright shops into the very center of the hotel, where there was an enormous court called the "Palm-garden," walled by eight rising tiers of windows, and roofed, far above, with glass. At one side of this was the little waiting-room called the "Turkish Room," full of Oriental inlay and draperies, and embroideries of daggers and crescents.
To Susan the place was enchanting beyond words. The coming and going of strange people, the arriving carriages with their slipping horses, the luggage plastered with labels, the little shops,--so full of delightful, unnecessary things, candy and glace fruits, and orchids and exquisite Chinese embroideries, and postal cards, and theater tickets, and oranges, and paper-covered novels, and alligator pears! The very sight of these things aroused in her heart a longing that was as keen as pain. Oh, to push her way, somehow, into the world, to have a right to enjoy these things, to be a part of this brilliant, moving show, to play her part in this wonderful game!
Mrs. Fox led the girls of her party to the Turkish Room to-night, where, with much laughter and chatter, they busied themselves with small combs, mirrors powder boxes, hairpins and veils. One girl, a Miss Emily Saunders, even loosened her long, thin, silky hair, and let it fall about her shoulders, and another took off her collar while she rubbed and powdered her face.
Susan sat rather stiffly on a small, uncomfortable wooden chair, entirely ignored, and utterly miserable. She smiled, as she looked pleasantly from one face to another, but her heart was sick within her. No one spoke to her, or seemed to realize that she was in the room. A steady stream of talk--such gay, confidential talk!--went on.
"Let me get there, Connie, you old pig, I'm next. Listen, girls, did you hear Ward to-day? Wasn't that the richest ever, after last night! Ward makes me tired, anyway. Did Margaret tell you about Richard and Ward, last Sunday? Isn't that rich! I don't believe it, but to hear Margaret tell it, you'd think--Wait a minute, Louise, while I pin this up! Whom are you going with to-night? Are you going to dinner there? Why don't you let us call for you? That's all right, bring him along. Will you? All right. That's fine. No, and I don't care. If it comes I'll wear it, and if it doesn't come I'll wear that old white rag,--it's filthy, but I don't care. Telephone your aunt, Con, and then we can all go together. Love to, darling, but I've got a suitor. You have not! I have too! Who is it? Who is it, I like that! Isn't she awful, Margaret? Mother has an awful crush on you, Mary, she said--Wait a minute! I'm just going to powder my nose. Who said Joe Chickering belonged to you? What nerve! He's mine. Isn't Joe my property? Don't come in here, Alice, we're just talking about you--"
"Oh, if I could only slip out somehow!" thought Susan desperately. "Oh, if only I hadn't come!"
Their loosened wraps were displaying all sorts of pretty little costumes now. Susan knew that the simplest of blue linen shirtwaists was under her own coat. She had not courage to ask to borrow a comb, to borrow powder. She knew her hair was mussed, she knew her nose was shiny--
Her heart was beating so fast, with angry resentment of their serene rudeness, and shame that she had so readily accepted the casual invitation that gave them this chance to be rude, that she could hardly think. But it seemed to be best, at any cost, to leave the party now, before things grew any worse. She would make some brief excuse to Mrs. Fox,--headache or the memory of an engagement--
"Do you know where Mrs. Fox is?" she asked the girl nearest her. For Mrs. Fox had sauntered out into the corridor with some idea of summoning the men.
The girl did not answer, perhaps did not hear. Susan tried again.
"Do you know where Mrs. Fox went to?"
Now the girl looked at her for a brief instant, and rose, crossing the little room to the side of another girl.
"No, I really don't," she said lightly, civilly, as she went.
Susan's face burned. She got up, and went to the door. But she was too late. The young men were just gathering there in a noisy group. It appeared that there was sudden need of haste. The "rooters" were to gather in the court presently, for more cheering, and nobody wanted to miss the sight.
"Come, girls! Be quick!" called Mrs. Fox. "Come, Louise, dear! Connie," this to her own daughter, "you and Peter run ahead, and ask for my table. Peter, will you take Connie? Come, everybody!"
Somehow, they had all paired off, in a flash, without her. Susan needed no further spur. With more assurance than she had yet shown, she touched the last girl, as she passed, on the arm. It chanced to be Miss Emily Saunders. She and her escort both stopped, laughing with that nervous apprehension that seizes their class at the appearance of the unexpected.
"Miss Saunders," said Susan quickly, "will you tell Mrs. Fox that my headache is much worse. I'm afraid I'd better go straight home--"
"Oh, too bad!" Miss Saunders said, her round, pale, rather unwholesome face, expressing proper regret. "Perhaps tea will help it?" she added sweetly.
It was the first personal word Susan had won. She felt suddenly, horrifyingly--near to tears.
"Oh, thank you, I'm afraid not!" she smiled bravely. "Thank you so much. And tell her I'm sorry. Good-night."
"Good-night!" said Miss Saunders. And Susan went, with a sense of escape and relief, up the long passageway, and into the cool, friendly darkness of the streets. She had an unreasoning fear that they might follow her, somehow bring her back, and walked a swift block or two, rather than wait for the car where she might be found.
Half an hour later she rushed into the house, just as the Thanksgiving dinner was announced, half-mad with excitement, her cheeks ablaze, and her eyes unnaturally bright. The scene in the dining-room was not of the gayest; Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were tired and depressed, Mary Lou nervously concerned for the dinner, Georgie and almost all of the few boarders who had no alternative to dining in a boarding-house to-day were cross and silent.
But the dinner was delicious, and Susan, arriving at the crucial moment, had a more definite effect on the party than a case of champagne would have had. She chattered recklessly and incessantly, and when Mrs. Lancaster's mild "Sue, dear!" challenged one remark, she capped it with another still less conventional.
Her spirits were infectious, the gaiety became general. Mrs. Parker laughed until the tears streamed down her fat cheeks, and Mary Lord, the bony, sallow-faced, crippled sister who was the light and joy of Lydia Lord's drudging life, and who had been brought downstairs to- day as a special event, at a notable cost to her sister's and William Oliver's muscles, nearly choked over her cranberry sauce. Susan insisted that everyone should wear the paper caps that came in the bonbons, and looked like a pretty witch herself, under a cone- shaped hat of pink and blue. When, as was usual on all such occasions, a limited supply of claret came on with the dessert, she brought the whole company from laughter very close to tears, as she proposed, with pretty dignify, a toast to her aunt, "who makes this house such a happy home for us all." The toast was drunk standing, and Mrs. Lancaster cried into her napkin, with pride and tender emotion.
After dinner the diminished group trailed, still laughing and talking, upstairs to the little drawing-room, where perhaps seven or eight of them settled about the coal fire. Mrs. Lancaster, looking her best in a low-necked black silk, if rather breathless after the hearty dinner, eaten in too-tight corsets, had her big chair, Georgia curled girlishly on a footstool at her feet. Miss Lydia Lord stealthily ate a soda mint tablet now and then; her sister, propped with a dozen pillows on the sofa, fairly glowed with the unusual pleasure and excitement. Little Mrs. Cortelyou rocked back and forth; always loquacious, she was especially talkative after to- night's glass of wine.
Virginia, who played certain simple melodies very prettily, went to the piano and gave them "Maryland" and "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," and was heartily applauded. Mary Lou was finally persuaded to sing Tosti's "Farewell to Summer," in a high, sweet, self-conscious soprano.
Susan had disappeared. Just after dinner she had waylaid William Oliver, with a tense, "Will you walk around the block with me, Billy? I want to talk to you," and William, giving her a startled glance, had quietly followed her through the dark lower hall, and into the deserted, moonlighted, wind-swept street. The wind had fallen: stars were shining.
"Billy," said Susan, taking his arm and walking him along very rapidly, "I'm going away--"
"Going away?" he said sympathetically. This statement always meant that something had gone very wrong with Susan.
"Absolutely!" Susan said passionately. "I want to go where nobody knows me, where I can make a fresh start. I'm going to Chicago."
"What the deuce are you raving about?" Mr. Oliver asked, stopping short in the street. "What have you been doing now?"
"Nothing!" Susan said, with suddenly brimming eyes. "But I hate this place, and I hate everyone in it, and I'm simply sick of being treated as if, just because I'm poor--"
"You sound like a bum second act, with somebody throwing a handful of torn paper down from the wings!" Billy observed. But his tone was kinder than his words, and Susan, laying a hand on his coat sleeve, told him the story of the afternoon; of Mrs. Fox, with her supercilious smile; of the girls, so bitterly insulting; of Peter, involving her in these embarrassments and then forgetting to stand by her.
"If one of those girls came to us a stranger," Susan declared, with a heaving breast, "do you suppose we'd treat her like that?"
"Well, that only proves we have better manners than they have!"
"Oh, Bill, what rot! If there's one thing society people have, it's manners!" Susan said impatiently. "Do you wonder people go crazy to get hold of money?" she added vigorously.
"Nope. You've got to have it. There are lots of other things in the world," he agreed, "but money's first and foremost. The only reason I want it," said Billy, "is because I want to show other rich people where they make their mistakes."
"Do you really think you'll be rich some day, Billy?"
Susan walked on thoughtfully.
"There's where a man has the advantage," she said. "He can really work toward the thing he wants."
"Well, girls ought to have the same chance," Billy said generously. "Now I was talking to Mrs. Carroll Sunday--"
"Oh, how are the Carrolls?" asked Susan, diverted for an instant.
"Fine. They were awfully disappointed you weren't along.--And she was talking about that very thing. And she said her three girls were going to work just as Phil and Jim do."
"But Billy, if a girl has a gift, yes. But you can't put a girl in a foundry or a grocery."
"Not in a foundry. But you could in a grocery. And she said she had talked to Anna and Jo since they were kids, just as she did to the boys, about their work."
"Wouldn't Auntie think she was crazy!" Susan smiled. After a while she said more mildly:
"I don't believe Peter Coleman is quite as bad as the others!"
"Because you have a crush on him," suggested Billy frankly. "I think he acted like a skunk."
"Very well. Think what you like!" Susan said icily. But presently, in a more softened tone, she added, "I do feel badly about Thorny! I oughtn't to have left her. It was all so quick! And she did have a date, at least I know a crowd of people were coming to their house to dinner. And I was so utterly taken aback to be asked out with that crowd! The most exclusive people in the city,--that set."
"You give me an awful pain when you talk like that," said Billy, bluntly. "You give them a chance to sit on you, and they do, and then you want to run away to Chicago, because you feel so hurt. Why don't you stay in your own crowd?"
"Because I like nice people. And besides, the Fox crowd isn't one bit better than I am!" said the inconsistent Susan, hotly. "Who were their ancestors! Miners and servants and farmers! I'd like to go away," she resumed, feverishly, "and work up to be something great, and come back here and have them tumbling over themselves to be nice to me--"
"What a pipe dream!" Billy observed. "Let 'em alone. And if Coleman ever offers you another invitation--"
"He won't!" interposed Susan.
"--Why, you sit on him so quick it'll make his head spin! Get busy at something, Susan. If you had a lot of work to do, and enough money to buy yourself pretty clothes, and to go off on nice little trips every Sunday,--up the mountain, or down to Santa Cruz, you'd forget this bunch!"
"Get busy at what?" asked Susan, half-hopeful, half in scorn.
"Yes, and Thorny getting forty-five after twelve years!"
"Well, but you've told me yourself how Thorny wastes time, and makes mistakes, and conies in late, and goes home early---"
"As if that made any difference! Nobody takes the least notice!" Susan said hotly. But she was restored enough to laugh now, and a passing pop-corn cart made a sudden diversion. "Let's get some crisps, Bill! Let's get a lot, and take some home to the others!"
So the evening ended with Billy and Susan in the group about the fire, listening idly to the reminiscences that the holiday mood awakened in the older women. Mrs. Cortelyou had been a California pioneer, and liked to talk of the old prairie wagons, of Indian raids, of flood and fire and famine. Susan, stirred by tales of real trouble, forgot her own imaginary ones. Indians and wolves in the strange woods all about, a child at the breast, another at the knee, and the men gone for food,--four long days' trip! The women of those days, thought Susan, carried their share of the load. She had heard the story of the Hatch child before, the three-year-old, who, playing about the wagons, at the noontime rest on the plains, was suddenly missing! Of the desperate hunt, the half-mad mother's frantic searching, her agonies when the long-delayed start must be made, her screams when she was driven away with her tinier child in her arms, knowing that behind one of those thousands of mesquite or cactus bushes, the little yellow head must be pillowed on the sand, the little beloved mouth smiling in sleep.
"Mrs. Hatch used to sit for hours, strainin' her eyes back of us, toward St. Joe," Mrs. Cortelyou said, sighing. "But there was plenty of trouble ahead, for all of us, too! It's a life of sorrow."
"You never said a truer word than that," Mrs. Lancaster agreed mournfully. And the talk came about once more to the Harding funeral.