Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part One. Poverty
Life presented itself in a new aspect to Susan Brown. A hundred little events and influences combining had made it seem to her less a grab-bag, from which one drew good or bad at haphazard, and more a rational problem, to be worked out with arbitrarily supplied materials. She might not make herself either rich or famous, but she could,--she began dimly to perceive,--eliminate certain things from her life and put others in their places. The race was not to the swift, but to the faithful. What other people had done, she, by following the old copybook rules of the honest policy, the early rising, the power of knowledge, the infinite capacity of taking pains that was genius, could do, too. She had been the toy of chance too long. She would grasp chance, now, and make it serve her. The perseverance that Anna brought to her hospital work, that Josephine exercised in her studies, Susan, lacking a gift, lacking special training, would seriously devote to the business of getting married. Girls did marry. She would presumably marry some day, and Peter Coleman would marry. Why not, having advanced a long way in this direction, to each other?
There was, in fact, no alternative in her case. She knew no other eligible man half as well. If Peter Coleman went out of her life, what remained? A somewhat insecure position in a wholesale drug- house, at forty dollars a month, and half a third-story bedroom in a boarding-house.
Susan was not a calculating person. She knew that Peter Coleman liked her immensely, and that he could love her deeply, too. She knew that her feeling for him was only held from an extreme by an inherited feminine instinct of self-preservation. Marriage, and especially this marriage, meant to her a great many pleasant things, a splendid, lovable man with whom to share life, a big home to manage and delight in, a conspicuous place in society, and one that she knew that she could fill gracefully and well. Marriage meant children, dear little white-clad sons, with sturdy bare knees, and tiny daughters half-smothered in lace and ribbons; it meant power, power to do good, to develop her own gifts; it meant, above all, a solution of the problems of her youth. No more speculations, no more vagaries, safely anchored, happily absorbed in normal cares and pleasures, Susan could rest on her laurels, and look about her in placid content!
No more serious thought assailed her. Other thoughts than these were not "nice." Susan safe-guarded her wandering fancies as sternly as she did herself, would as quickly have let Peter, or any other man, kiss her, as to have dreamed of the fundamental and essential elements of marriage. These, said Auntie, "came later." Susan was quite content to ignore them. That the questions that "came later" might ruin her life or unmake her compact, she did not know. At this point it might have made no difference in her attitude. Her affection for Peter was quite as fresh and pure as her feeling for a particularly beloved brother would have been.
"You're dated three-deep for Thursday night, I presume?"
"Peter--how you do creep up behind one!" Susan turned, on the deck, to face him laughingly. "What did you say?"
"I said--but where are you going?"
"Upstairs to lunch. Where did you think?" Susan exhibited the little package in her hand. "Do I look like a person about to go to a Browning Cotillion, or to take a dip in the Pacific?"
"No," gurgled Peter, "but I was wishing we could lunch together. However, I'm dated with Hunter. But what about Thursday night?"
"Thursday." Susan reflected. "Peter, I can't!"
"All foolishness. You can."
"No, honestly! Georgie and Joe are coming. The first time."
"Oh, but you don't have to be there!"
"Oh, but yes I do!"
"Well---" Mr. Coleman picked a limp rubber bathing cap from the top of a case, and distended it on two well-groomed hands. "Well, Evangeline, how's Sat.? The great American pay-day!"
"Busy Saturday, too. Too bad. I'm sorry, Peter."
"Woman, you lie!"
"Of course you can insult me, sir. I'm only a working girl!"
"No, but who have you got a date with?" Peter said curiously. "You're blushing like mad! You're not engaged at all!"
"Yes, I am. Truly. Lydia Lord is taking the civil service examinations; she wants to get a position in the public library. And I promised that I'd take Mary's dinner up and sit with her."
"Oh, shucks! You could get out of that! However----I'll tell you what, Susan. I was going off with Russ on Sunday, but I'll get out of it, and we'll go see guard mount at the Presidio, and have tea with Aunt Clara, what?"
"I don't believe they have guard mount on Sundays."
"Well, then we'll go feed the gold-fish in the Japanese gardens,-- they eat on Sundays, the poor things! Nobody ever converted them."
"Look here, Susan!" he exclaimed, suddenly aroused. "Are you trying to throw me down? Well, of all gall!"
Susan's heart began to thump.
"No, of course I'm not!"
"Well, then, shall I get tickets for Monday night?"
"Look here, Susan! Somebody's been stuffing you, I can see it! Was it Auntie? Come on, now, what's the matter, all of a sudden?"
"There's nothing sudden about it," Susan said, with dignity, "but Auntie does think that I go about with you a good deal---"
Peter was silent. Susan, stealing a glance at his face, saw that it was very red.
"Oh, I love that! I'm crazy about it!" he said, grinning. Then, with sudden masterfulness, "That's all rot! I'm coming for you on Sunday, and we'll go feed the fishes!"
And he was gone. Susan ate her lunch very thoughtfully, satisfied on the whole with the first application of the new plan.
On Sunday afternoon Mr. Coleman duly presented himself at the boarding-house, but he was accompanied by Miss Fox, to whom Susan, who saw her occasionally at the Saunders', had taken a vague dislike, and by a Mr. Horace Carter, fat, sleepy, and slightly bald at twenty-six.
"I brought 'em along to pacify Auntie," said Peter on the car.
Susan made a little grimace.
"You don't like Con? Oh, she's loads of sport!" he assured her. "And you'll like Carter, too, he's loads of fun!"
But Susan liked nobody and nothing that day. It was a failure from beginning to end. The sky was overcast, gloomy. Not a leaf stirred on the dripping trees, in the silent Park, fog filled all the little canons. There were very few children on the merry-go-rounds, or in the swings, and very few pleasure-seekers in the museum and the conservatories. Miss Fox was quite comfortable in white furs, but Susan felt chilly. She tried to strike a human spark from Mr. Carter, but failed. Attempts at a general conversation also fell flat.
They listened to the band for a little while, but it was too cold to sit still very long, and when Peter proposed tea at the Occidental, Susan visibly brightened. But the shamed color rose in her face when Miss Fox languidly assured him that if he wanted her mother to scalp her, well and good; if not, he would please not mention tea downtown.
She added that Mama was having a tea herself to-day, or she would ask them all to come home with her. This put Susan in an uncomfortable position of which she had to make the best.
"If it wasn't for an assorted bunch of boarders," said Susan, "I would ask you all to our house."
Miss Fox eyed her curiously a moment, then spoke to Peter.
"Well, do let's do something, Peter! Let's go to the Japanese garden."
To the Japanese garden they went, for a most unsatisfactory tea. Miss Fox, it appeared, had been to Japan,--"with Dolly Ripley, Peter," said she, carelessly mentioning the greatest of California's heiresses, and she delighted the little bowing, smiling tea-woman with a few words in her native tongue. Susan admired this accomplishment, with the others, as she drank the tasteless fluid from tiny bowls.
Only four o'clock! What an endless afternoon it had been!
Peter took her home, and they chatted on the steps gaily enough, in the winter twilight. But Susan cried herself to sleep that night. This first departure from her rule had proven humiliating and disastrous; she determined not to depart from it again.
Georgie and the doctor came to the house for the one o'clock Christmas dinner, the doctor instantly antagonizing his wife's family by the remark that his mother always had her Christmas dinner at night, and had "consented" to their coming, on condition that they come home again early in the afternoon. However, it was delightful to have Georgie back again, and the cousins talked and laughed together for an hour, in Mary Lou's room. Almost the first question from the bride was of Susan's love-affair, and what Peter's Christmas gift had been.
"It hasn't come yet, so I don't know myself!" Susan said readily. But that evening, when Georgie was gone and her aunt and cousins were at church, she sat down to write to Peter.
Peter answered immediately from the country house where he was spending the holidays. Susan read his letter in the office, two days after Christmas.
Frowning thoughtfully, her eyes still on the scribbled half-sheet, Susan sat down at her desk, and reached for paper and pen. She wrote readily, and sent the letter out at once by the office boy.
To which Peter, after a week's interval, answered briefly:
This ended the correspondence. Susan put the pin away in the back of her bureau-drawer, and tried not to think about the matter.
January was cold and dark. Life seemed to be made to match. Susan caught cold from a worn-out overshoe, and spent an afternoon and a day in bed, enjoying the rest from her aching head to her tired feet, but protesting against each one of the twenty trips that Mary Lou made up and downstairs for her comfort. She went back to the office on the third day, but felt sick and miserable for a long time and gained strength slowly.
One rainy day, when Peter Coleman was alone in Mr. Brauer's office, she took the little jeweler's box in and laid it beside him on the desk.
"This is all darn foolishness!" Peter said, really annoyed.
"Well---" Susan shrugged wearily, "it's the way I feel about it."
"I thought you were more of a sport!" he said impatiently, holding the box as if he did not quite know what to do with it.
"Perhaps I'm not," Susan said quietly. She felt as if the world were slowly, dismally coming to an end, but she stood her ground.
An awkward silence ensued. Peter slipped the little box into his pocket. They were both standing at his high desk, resting their elbows upon it, and half-turned, so that they faced each other.
"Well," he said, discontentedly, "I've got to give you something or other for Christmas. What'll it be?"
"Nothing at all, Peter," Susan protested, "just don't say anything more about it!"
He meditated, scowling.
"Are you dated for to-morrow night?" he asked.
"Yes," Susan said simply. The absence of explanation was extremely significant.
"So you're not going out with me any more?" he asked, after a pause.
"Not--for awhile," Susan agreed, with a little difficulty. She felt a horrible inclination to cry.
"Well, gosh, I hope somebody is pleased at the trouble she has made!" Peter burst out angrily.
"If you mean Auntie, Peter," indignation dried Susan's tears, "you are quite mistaken! Anyway, she would be quite right not to want me to accept expensive gifts from a man whose position is so different from my own---"
"Rot!" said Peter, flushing, "that sounds like servants' talk!"
"Well, of course I know it is nonsense---" Susan began. And, despite her utmost effort, two tears slipped down her cheeks.
"And if we were engaged it would be all right, is that it?" Peter said, after an embarrassed pause.
"Yes, but I don't want you to think for one instant---" Susan began, with flaming cheeks.
"I wish to the Lord people would mind their own business," Peter said vexedly. There was a pause. Then he added, cheerfully, "Tell 'em we're engaged then, that'll shut 'em up!"
The world rocked for Susan.
"Oh, but Peter, we can't--it wouldn't be true!"
"Why wouldn't it be true?" he demanded, perversely.
"Because we aren't!" persisted Susan, rubbing an old blot on the desk with a damp forefinger.
"I thought one day we said that when I was forty-five and you were forty-one we were going to get married?" Peter presently reminded her, half in earnest, half irritated.
"D-d-did we?" stammered Susan, smiling up at him through a mist of tears.
"Sure we did. We said we were going to start a stock-ranch, and raise racers, don't you remember?"
A faint recollection of the old joke came to her.
"Well, then, are we to let people know that in twenty years we intend to be married?" she asked, laughing uncertainly.
Peter gave his delighted shout of amusement. The conversation had returned to familiar channels.
"Lord, don't tell anyone! We'll know it, that's enough!" he said.
That was all. There was no chance for sentiment, they could not even clasp hands, here in the office. Susan, back at her desk, tried to remember exactly what had been said and implied.
"Peter, I'll have to tell Auntie!" she had exclaimed.
Peter had not objected, had not answered indeed.
"I'll have to take my time about telling my aunt," he had said, "but there's time enough! See here, Susan, I'm dated with Barney White in Berkeley to-night--is that all right?"
"Surely!" Susan had assured him laughingly.
"You see," Peter had explained, "it'll be a very deuce of a time before we'll want everyone to know. There's any number of things to do. So perhaps it's just as well if people don't suspect---"
"Peter, how extremely like you not to care what people think as long as we're not engaged, and not to want them to suspect it when we are!" Susan could say, smiling above the deep hurt in her heart.
And Peter laughed cheerfully again.
Then Mr. Brauer came in, and Susan went back to her desk, brain and heart in a whirl. But presently one fact disengaged itself from a mist of doubts and misgivings, hopes and terrors. She and Peter were engaged to be married! What if vows and protestations, plans and confidences were still all to come, what if the very first kiss was still to come? The essential thing remained; they were engaged, the question was settled at last.
Peter was not, at this time, quite the ideal lover. But in what was he ever conventional; when did he ever do the expected thing? No; she would gain so much more than any other woman ever had gained by her marriage, she would so soon enter on a life that would make these days seem only a troubled dream, that she could well afford to dispense with some of the things her romantic nature half expected now. It might not be quite comprehensible in him, but it was certainly a convenience for her that he seemed to so dread an announcement just now. She must have some gowns for the entertainments that would be given them; she must have some money saved for trousseau; she must arrange a little tea at home, when, the boarders being eliminated, Peter could come to meet a few of the very special old friends. These things took time. Susan spent the dreamy, happy afternoon in desultory planning.
Peter went out at three o'clock with Barney White, looking in to nod Susan a smiling good-by. Susan returned to her dreams, determined that she would find the new bond as easy or as heavy as he chose to make it. She had only to wait, and fate would bring this wonderful thing her way; it would be quite like Peter to want to do the thing suddenly, before long, summon his aunt and uncle, her aunt and cousins, and announce the wedding and engagement to the world at once.
Lost in happy dreams, she did not see Thorny watching her, or catch the intense, wistful look with which Mr. Brauer so often followed her.
Susan had a large share of the young German's own dreams just now, a demure little Susan in a checked gingham apron, tasting jelly on a vine-shaded porch, or basting a chicken in a sunny kitchen, or pouring her lord's coffee from a shining pot. The dream Susan's hair was irreproachably neat, she wore shining little house-slippers, and she always laughed out,--the ringing peal of bells that Henry Brauer had once heard in the real Susan's laugh,--when her husband teased her about her old fancy for Peter Coleman. And the dream Susan was the happy mother of at least five little girls--all girls!--a little Susan that was called "Sanna," and an Adelaide for the gross-mutter in the old country, and a Henrietta for himself---
Clean and strong and good, well-born and ambitious, gentle, and full of the love of books and music and flowers and children, here was a mate at whose side Susan might have climbed to the very summit of her dreams. But she never fairly looked at Mr. Brauer, and after a few years his plump dark little dumpling of a Cousin Linda came from Bremen to teach music in the Western city, and to adore clever Cousin Heinrich, and then it was time to hunt for the sunny kitchen and buy the shining coffee-pot and change little Sanna's name to Linchen.
For Susan was engaged to Peter Coleman! She went home on this particular evening to find a great box of American Beauty roses waiting for her, and a smaller box with them--the pearl crescent again! What could the happy Susan do but pin on a rose with the crescent, her own cheeks two roses, and go singing down to dinner?
"Lovey, Auntie doesn't like to see you wearing a pin like that!" Mrs. Lancaster said, noticing it with troubled eyes. "Didn't Peter send it to you?"
"Yes'm," said Susan, dimpling, as she kissed the older woman.
"Don't you know that a man has no respect for a girl who doesn't keep him a little at a distance, dear?"
"Oh,--is--that--so!" Susan spun her aunt about, in a mad reel.
"Susan!" gasped Mrs. Lancaster. Her voice changed, she caught the girl by the shoulders, and looked into the radiant face. "Susan?" she asked. "My child---!"
And Susan strangled her with a hug, and whispered, "Yes--yes--yes! But don't you dare tell anyone!"
Poor Mrs. Lancaster was quite unable to tell anyone anything for a few moments. She sat down in her place, mechanically returning the evening greetings of her guests. Her handsome, florid face was quite pale. The soup came on and she roused herself to serve it; dinner went its usual way.
But going upstairs after dinner, Mary Lou, informed of the great event in some mysterious way, gave Susan's waist a girlish squeeze and said joyously, "Ma had to tell me, Sue! I am so glad!" and Virginia, sitting with bandaged eyes in a darkened room, held out both hands to her cousin, later in the evening, and said, "God bless our dear little girl!" Billy knew it too, for the next morning he gave Susan one of his shattering hand-grasps and muttered that he was "darned glad, and Coleman was darned lucky," and Georgie, who was feeling a little better than usual, though still pale and limp, came in to rejoice and exclaim later in the day, a Sunday.
All of this made Susan vaguely uneasy. It was true, of course, and yet somehow it was all too new, too strange to be taken quite happily as a matter of course. She could only smile when Mary Lou assured her that she must keep a little carriage; when Virginia sighed, "To think of the good that you can do"; when Georgie warned her against living with the old people.
"It's awful, take my word for it!" said Georgie, her hat laid aside, her coat loosened, very much enjoying a cup of tea in the dining- room. Young Mrs. O'Connor did not grow any closer to her husband's mother. But it was to be noticed that toward her husband himself her attitude was changed. Joe was altogether too smart to be cooped up there in the Mission, it appeared; Joe was working much too hard, and yet he carried her breakfast upstairs to her every morning; Joe was an angel with his mother.
"I wish--of course you can explain to Peter now--but I wish that I could give you a little engagement tea," said Georgie, very much the matron.
"Oh, surely!" Susan hastened to reassure her. Nothing could have been less to her liking than any festivity involving the O'Connors just now. Susan had dined at the gloomy Mission Street house once, and retained a depressing memory of the dark, long parlor, with only one shutter opened in the bay window, the grim elderly hostess, in mourning, who watched Georgie incessantly, the hard-faced elderly maid, so obviously in league with her mistress against the new- comer, and the dinner that progressed from a thick, sad-looking soup to a firm, cold apple pie. There had been an altercation between the doctor and his mother on the occasion of Susan's visit because there had been no fire laid in Georgie's big, cold, upstairs bedroom. Susan, remembering all this, could very readily excuse Georgie from the exercise of any hospitality whatever.
"Don't give it another thought, Georgie!" said she.
"There'll be entertaining enough, soon!" said Mary Lou.
"But we aren't going to announce it for ever so long!" Susan said.
"Please, please don't tell anyone else, Auntie!" she besought over and over again.
"My darling, not for the world! I can perfectly appreciate the delicacy of feeling that makes you wish to leave all that to Peter! And who knows? Only ourselves, and Billy, who is as close to you as a dear brother could be, and Joe---"
"Oh, is Georgie going to tell Joe?" Susan asked, dismayed.
"Well, now, perhaps she won't," Mrs. Lancaster said soothingly. "And I think you will find that a certain young gentleman is only too anxious to tell his friends what a lovely girl he has won!" finished Auntie archly.
Susan was somehow wretchedly certain that she would find nothing of the kind. As a matter of fact, it chanced to be a week when she had no engagements made with Peter, and two days went by--three--and still she did not hear from him.
By Thursday she was acutely miserable. He was evidently purposely avoiding her. Susan had been sleeping badly for several nights, she felt feverish with anxiety and uncertainty. On Thursday, when the girls filed out of the office at noon, she kept her seat, for Peter was in the small office and she felt as if she must have a talk with him or die. She heard him come into Front Office the moment she was alone, and began to fuss with her desk without raising her eyes.
"Hello!" said Peter, sitting on a corner of the desk. "I've been terribly busy with the Gerald theatricals, and that's why you haven't seen me. I promised Mary Gerald two months ago that I'd be in 'em, but by George! she's leaving the whole darn thing to me! How are you?"
So gay, so big, so infinitely dear! Susan's doubts melted like mist. She only wanted not to make him angry.
"I've been wondering where you were," she said mildly.
"And a little bit mad in spots?" queried Peter.
"Well---" Susan took firm grip of her courage. "After our little talk on Saturday," she reminded him, smilingly.
"Sure," said Peter. And after a moment, thoughtfully staring down at the desk, he added again rather heavily, "Sure."
"I told my aunt--I had to," said Susan then.
"Well, that's all right," Peter responded, after a perceptible pause. "Nobody else knows?"
"Oh, nobody!" Susan answered, her heart fluttering nervously at his tone, and her courage suddenly failing.
"And Auntie will keep mum, of course," he said thoughtfully. "It would be so deuced awkward, Susan," he began.
"Oh, I know it!" she said eagerly. It seemed so much, after the unhappy apprehensions of the few days past, to have him acknowledge the engagement, to have him only concerned that it should not be prematurely made known!
"Can't we have dinner together this evening, Sue? And go see that man at the Orpheum,--they say he's a wonder!"
"Why, yes, we could. Peter,---" Susan made a brave resolution. "Peter, couldn't you dine with us, at Auntie's, I mean?"
"Why, yes, I could," he said hesitatingly. But the moment had given Susan time to reconsider the impulsively given invitation. For a dozen reasons she did not want to take Peter home with her to-night. The single one that the girls and Auntie would be quite unable to conceal the fact that they knew of her engagement was enough. So when Peter said regretfully, "But I thought we'd have more fun alone! Telephone your aunt and ask her if we can't have a pious little dinner at the Palace, or at the Occidental--we'll not see anybody there!" Susan was only too glad to agree.
Auntie of course consented, a little lenience was permissible now.
"... But not supper afterwards, dear," said Auntie. "If Peter teases, tell him that he will have you to himself soon enough! And Sue," she added, with a hint of reproach in her voice, "remember that we expect to see Peter out here very soon. Of course it's not as if your mother was alive, dear, I know that! Still, even an old auntie has some claim!"
"Well, Auntie, darling," said Susan, very low, "I asked him to dinner to-night. And then it occurred to me, don't you know?---that it might be better---"
"Gracious me, don't think of bringing him out here that way!" ejaculated Mrs. Lancaster. "No, indeed. You're quite right. But arrange it for very soon, Sue."
"Oh, surely I will!" Susan said, relievedly.
After an afternoon of happy anticipation it was a little disappointing to find that she and Peter were not to be alone, a gentle, pretty Miss Hall and her very charming brother were added to the party when Peter met Susan at six o'clock.
"Friends of Aunt Clara's," Peter explained to Susan. "I had to!"
Susan, liking the Halls, sensibly made the best of them. She let Miss Katharine monopolize Peter, and did her best to amuse Sam. She was in high spirits at dinner, laughed, and kept the others laughing, during the play,--for the plan had been changed for these guests, and afterwards was so amusing and gay at the little supper party that Peter was his most admiring self all the way home. But Susan went to bed with a baffled aching in her heart. This was not being engaged,--something was wrong.
She did not see Peter on Friday; caught only a glimpse of him on Saturday, and on Sunday learned, from one of the newspapers, that "Mr. Peter Coleman, who was to have a prominent part in the theatricals to take place at Mrs. Newton Gerald's home next week, would probably accompany Mr. Forrest Gerald on a trip to the Orient in February, to be gone for some months."
Susan folded the paper, and sat staring blankly ahead of her for a long time. Then she went to the telephone, and, half stunned by the violent beating of her heart, called for the Baxter residence.
Burns answered. Mr. Coleman had gone out about an hour ago with Mr. White. Burns did not know where. Mr. Coleman would be back for a seven o'clock dinner. Certainly, Burns would ask him to telephone at once to Miss Brown.
Excited, troubled, and yet not definitely apprehensive, Susan dressed herself very prettily, and went out into the clear, crisp sunshine. She decided suddenly to go and see Georgie. She would come home early, hear from Peter, perhaps dine with him and his uncle and aunt. And, when she saw him, she would tell him, in the jolliest and sweetest way, that he must make his plans to have their engagement announced at once. Any other course was unfair to her, to him, to his friends.
If Peter objected, Susan would assume an offended air. That would subdue him instantly. Or, if it did not, they might quarrel, and Susan liked the definiteness of a quarrel. She must force this thing to a conclusion one way or the other now, her own dignity demanded it. As for Peter, his own choice was as limited as hers. He must agree to the announcement,--and after all, why shouldn't he agree to it?--or he must give Susan up, once and for all. Susan smiled. He wouldn't do that!
It was a delightful day. The cars were filled with holiday-makers, and through the pleasant sunshine of the streets young parents were guiding white-coated toddlers, and beautifully dressed little girls were wheeling dolls.
Susan found Georgie moping alone in the big, dark, ugly house; Aggie was out, and Dr. O'Connor and his mother were making their annual pilgrimage to the grave of their husband and father. The cousins prepared supper together, in Aggie's exquisitely neat kitchen, not that this was really necessary, but because the kitchen was so warm and pleasant. The kettle was ticking on the back of the range, a scoured empty milk-pan awaited the milk-man. Susan contrasted her bright prospects with her cousin's dull lot, even while she cheerfully scolded Georgie for being so depressed and lachrymose.
They fell to talking of marriage, Georgie's recent one, Susan's approaching one. The wife gave delicate hints, the wife-to-be revealed far more of her secret soul than she had ever dreamed of revealing. Georgie sat, idly clasping the hands on which the wedding-ring had grown loose, Susan turned and reversed the wheels of a Dover egg-beater.
"Marriage is such a mystery, before you're into it," Georgie said. "But once you're married, why, you feel as if you could attract any man in the world. No more bashfulness, Sue, no more uncertainty. You treat men exactly as you would girls, and of course they like it!"
Susan pondered this going home. She thought she knew how to apply it to her attitude toward Peter.
Peter had not telephoned. Susan, quietly determined to treat him, or attempt to treat him, with at least the frank protest she would have shown to another girl, telephoned to the Baxter house at once. Mr. Coleman was not yet at home.
Some of her resolution crumbled. It was very hard to settle down, after supper, to an evening of solitaire. In these quiet hours, Susan felt less confident of Peter's attitude when she announced her ultimatum; felt that she must not jeopardize their friendship now, must run no risks.
She had worked herself into a despondent and discouraged frame of mind when the telephone rang, at ten o'clock. It was Peter.
"Hello, Sue!" said Peter gaily. "I'm just in. Burns said that you telephoned."
"Burns said no more than the truth," said Susan. It was the old note of levity, anything but natural to to-night's mood and the matter in hand. But it was what Peter expected and liked. She heard him laugh with his usual gaiety.
"Yes, he's a truthful little soul. He takes after me. What was it?"
Susan made a wry mouth in the dark.
"Nothing at all," she said, "I just telephoned--I thought we might go out somewhere together."
"Great heaven, we're engaged!" she reminded her sinking heart, fiercely.
"Oh, too bad! I was at the Gerald's, at one of those darn rehearsals."
"Oh, all right!" said Susan. A writhing sickness of spirit threatened to engulf her, but her voice was quiet.
"I'm sorry, Sue," Peter said quickly in a lower tone, "I couldn't very well get out of it without having them all suspect. You can see that!"
Susan knew him so well! He had never had to do anything against his will. He couldn't understand that his engagement entailed any obligations. He merely wanted always to be happy and popular, and have everyone else happy and popular, too.
"And what about this trip to Japan with Mr. Gerald?" she asked.
There was another silence. Then Peter said, in an annoyed tone:
"Oh, Lord, that would probably be for a month, or six weeks at the outside!"
"I see," said Susan tonelessly.
"I've got Forrest here with me to-night," said Peter, apropos of nothing.
"Oh, then I won't keep you!" Susan said.
"Well," he laughed, "don't be so polite about it!--I'll see you to- morrow?"
"Surely," Susan said. "Good-night."
"Over the reservoir!" he said, and she hung up her receiver.
She did not sleep that night. Excitement, anger, shame kept her wakeful and tossing, hour after hour. Susan's head ached, her face burned, her thoughts were in a mad whirl. What to do--what to do-- what to do----! How to get out of this tangle; where to go to begin again, away from these people who knew her and loved her, and would drive her mad with their sympathy and curiosity!
The clock struck three--four--five. At five o'clock Susan, suddenly realizing her own loneliness and loss, burst into bitter crying and after that she slept.
The next day, from the office, she wrote to Peter Coleman:
This was on Monday. On Tuesday the papers recorded everywhere Mr. Peter Coleman's remarkable success in Mrs. Newton Gerald's private theatricals. On Wednesday Susan found a letter from him on her desk, in the early afternoon, scribbled on the handsome stationery of his club.
The reading of it gave Susan a sensation of physical illness. She felt chilled and weak. How false and selfish and shallow it seemed; had Peter always been that? And what was she to do now, to-morrow and the next day and the next? What was she to do this moment, indeed? She felt as if thundering agonies had trampled the very life out of her heart; yet somehow she must look up, somehow face the office, and the curious eyes of the girls.
"Love-letter, Sue?" said Thorny, sauntering up with a bill in her hand. "Valentine's Day, you know!"
"No, darling; a bill," answered Susan, shutting it in a drawer.
She snapped up her light, opened her ledger, and dipped a pen in the ink.