Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part Two. Wealth
The days that followed were so many separate agonies, composed of an infinite number of lesser agonies, for Susan. Her only consolation, which weakened or strengthened with her moods, was that, inasmuch as this state of affairs was unbearable she would not be expected to bear it. Something must happen. Or, if nothing happened, she would simply disappear,--go on the stage, accept a position as a traveling governess or companion, run away to one of the big eastern cities where, under an assumed name, she might begin life all over again.
Hour after hour shame and hurt had their way with her. Susan had to face the office, to hide her heart from Thorny and the other girls, to be reminded by the empty desk in Mr. Brauer's office, and by every glimpse she had of old Mr. Baxter, of the happy dreams she had once dreamed here in this same place.
But it was harder far at home. Mrs. Lancaster alternated between tender moods, when she discussed the whole matter mournfully from beginning to end, and moods of violent rebellion, when everyone but Susan was blamed for the bitter disappointment of all their hopes. Mary Lou compared Peter to Ferd Eastman, to Peter's disadvantage. Virginia recommended quiet, patient endurance of whatever might be the will of Providence. Susan hardly knew which attitude humiliated and distressed her most. All her thoughts led her into bitterness now, and she could be distracted only for a brief moment or two from the memories that pressed so close about her heart. Ah, if she only had a little money, enough to make possible her running away, or a profession into which she could plunge, and in which she could distinguish herself, or a great talent, or a father who would stand by her and take care of her---
And the bright head would go down on her hands, and the tears have their way.
"Headache?" Thorny would ask, full of sympathy.
"Oh, splitting!" And Susan would openly dry her eyes, and manage to smile.
Sometimes, in a softer mood, her busy brain straightened the whole matter out. Peter, returning from Japan, would rush to her with a full explanation. Of course he cared for her--he had never thought of anything else--of course he considered that they were engaged! And Susan, after keeping him in suspense for a period that even Auntie thought too long, would find herself talking to him, scolding, softening, finally laughing, and at last--and for the first time!--in his arms.
Only a lovers' quarrel; one heard of them continually. Something to laugh about and to forget!
She took up the old feminine occupation of watching the post, weak with sudden hope when Mary Lou called up to her, "Letter for you on the mantel, Sue!" and sick with disappointment over and over again. Peter did not write.
Outwardly the girl went her usual round, perhaps a little thinner and with less laughter, but not noticeably changed. She basted cuffs into her office suit, and cleaned it with benzine, caught up her lunch and umbrella and ran for her car. She lunched and gossiped with Thorny and the others, walked uptown at noon to pay a gas-bill, took Virginia to the Park on Sundays to hear the music, or visited the Carrolls in Sausalito.
But inwardly her thoughts were like whirling web. And in its very center was Peter Coleman. Everything that Susan did began and ended with the thought of him. She never entered the office without the hope that a fat envelope, covered with his dashing scrawl, lay on the desk. She never thought herself looking well without wishing that she might meet Peter that day, or looking ill that she did not fear it. She answered the telephone with a thrilling heart; it might be he! And she browsed over the social columns of the Sunday papers, longing and fearing to find his name. All day long and far into the night, her brain was busy with a reconciliation,--excuses, explanations, forgiveness. "Perhaps to-day," she said in the foggy mornings. "To-morrow," said her undaunted heart at night.
The hope was all that sustained her, and how bitterly it failed her at times only Susan knew. Before the world she kept a brave face, evading discussion of Peter when she could, quietly enduring it when Mrs. Lancaster's wrath boiled over. But as the weeks went by, and the full wretchedness of the situation impressed itself upon her with quiet force, she sank under an overwhelming sense of wrong and loss. Nothing amazing was going to happen. She--who had seemed so free, so independent!--was really as fettered and as helpless as Virginia and Mary Lou. Susan felt sometimes as if she should go mad with suppressed feeling. She grew thin, dyspeptic, irritable, working hard, and finding her only relief in work, and reading in bed in the evening.
The days slowly pushed her further and further from those happy times when she and Peter had been such good friends, had gone about so joyfully together. It was a shock to Susan to realize that she had not seen him nor heard from him for a month--for two months--for three. Emily Saunders was in the hospital for some serious operation, would be there for weeks; Ella was abroad. Susan felt as if her little glimpse of their world and Peter's had been a curious dream.
Billy played a brother's part toward her now, always ready to take her about with him when he was free, and quite the only person who could spur her to anything like her old vigorous interest in life. They went very often to the Carrolls, and there, in the shabby old sitting-room, Susan felt happier than she did anywhere else. Everybody loved her, loved to have her there, and although they knew, and she knew that they knew, that something had gone very wrong with her, nobody asked questions, and Susan felt herself safe and sheltered. There was a shout of joy when she came in with Phil and Jo from the ferryboat. "Mother! here's Sue!" Betsey would follow the older girls upstairs to chatter while they washed their hands and brushed their hair, and, going down again, Susan would get the motherly kiss that followed Jo's. Later, when the lamp was lit, while Betsey and Jim wrangled amicably over their game, and Philip and Jo toiled with piano and violin, Susan sat next to Mrs. Carroll, and while they sewed, or between snatches of reading, they had long, and to the girl at least, memorable talks.
It was all sweet and wholesome and happy. Susan used to wonder just what made this house different from all other houses, and why she liked to come here so much, to eat the simplest of meals, to wash dishes and brush floors, to rise in the early morning and cross the bay before the time she usually came downstairs at home. Of course, they loved her, they laughed at her jokes, they wanted this thing repeated and that repeated, they never said good-by to her without begging her to come again and thought no special occasion complete without her. That affected her, perhaps. Or perhaps the Carrolls were a little nicer than most people; when Susan reached this point in her thoughts she never failed to regret the loss of their money and position. If they had done this in spite of poverty and obscurity, what mightn't they have done with half a chance!
In one of the lamplight talks Peter was mentioned, in connection with the patent window-washer, and Susan learned for the first time that he really had been instrumental in selling the patent for Mrs. Carroll for the astonishing sum of five hundred dollars!
"I begged him to tell me if that wasn't partly from the washer and partly from Peter Coleman," smiled Mrs. Carroll, "and he gave me his word of honor that he had really sold it for that! So--there went my doctor's bill, and a comfortable margin in the bank!"
She admitted Susan into the secret of all her little economies; the roast that, cleverly alternated with one or two small meats, was served from Sunday until Saturday night, and no one any the worse! Susan began to watch the game that Mrs. Carroll made of her cooking; filling soups for the night that the meat was short, no sweet when the garden supplied a salad, or when Susan herself brought over a box of candy. She grew to love the labor that lay behind the touch of the thin, darned linen, the windows that shone with soapsuds, the crisp snowy ruffles of curtains and beds. She and Betts liked to keep the house vases filled with what they could find in the storm- battered garden, lifted the flattened chrysanthemums with reverent fingers, hunted out the wet violets. Susan abandoned her old idea of the enviable life of a lonely orphan, and began to long for a sister, a tumble-headed brother, for a mother above all. She loved to be included by the young Carrolls when they protested, "Just ourselves, Mother, nobody but the family!" and if Phil or Jimmy came to her when a coat-button was loose or a sleeve-lining needed a stitch, she was quite pathetically touched. She loved the constant happy noise and confusion in the house, Phil and Billy Oliver tussling in the stair-closet among the overshoes, Betts trilling over her bed-making, Mrs. Carroll and Jim replanting primroses with great calling and conference, and she and Josephine talking, as they swept the porches, as if they had never had a chance to talk before.
Sometimes, walking at Anna's side to the beach on Sunday, a certain peace and content crept into Susan's heart, and the deep ache lifted like a curtain, and seemed to show a saner, wider, sweeter region beyond. Sometimes, tramping the wet hills, her whole being thrilled to some new note, Susan could think serenely of the future, could even be glad of all the past. It was as if Life, into whose cold, stern face she had been staring wistfully, had softened to the glimmer of a smile, had laid a hand, so lately used to strike, upon her shoulder in token of good-fellowship.
With the good salt air in their faces, and the gray March sky pressing close above the silent circle of the hills about them, she and Anna walked many a bracing, tiring mile. Now and then they turned and smiled at each other, both young faces brightening.
"Noisy, aren't we, Sue?"
"Well, the others are making noise enough!"
Poverty stopped them at every turn, these Carrolls. Susan saw it perhaps more clearly than they did. A hundred delightful and hospitable plans came into Mrs. Carroll's mind, only to be dismissed because of the expense involved. She would have liked to entertain, to keep her pretty daughters becomingly and richly dressed; she confided to Susan rather wistfully, that she was sorry not to be able to end the evenings with little chafing-dish suppers; "that sort of thing makes home so attractive to growing boys." Susan knew what Anna's own personal grievance was. "These are the best years of my life," Anna said, bitterly, one night, "and every cent of spending money I have is the fifty dollars a year the hospital pays. And even out of that they take breakage, in the laboratory or the wards!" Josephine made no secret of her detestation of their necessary economies.
"Did you know I was asked to the Juniors this year?" she said to Susan one night.
"The Juniors! You weren't!" Susan echoed incredulously. For the "Junior Cotillion" was quite the most exclusive and desirable of the city's winter dances for the younger set.
"Oh, yes, I was. Mrs. Wallace probably did it," Josephine assured her, sighing. "They asked Anna last year," she said bitterly, "and I suppose next year they'll ask Betts, and then perhaps they'll stop."
"Oh, but Jo-why couldn't you go! When so many girls are just crazy to be asked!"
"Money," Josephine answered briefly.
"But not much!" Susan lamented. The "Juniors" were not to be estimated in mere money.
"Twenty-five for the ticket, and ten for the chaperone, and a gown, of course, and slippers and a wrap--Mother felt badly about it," Josephine said composedly. And suddenly she burst into tears, and threw herself down on the bed. "Don't let Mother hear, and don't think I'm an idiot!" she sobbed, as Susan came to kneel beside her and comfort her, "but--but I hate so to drudge away day after day, when I know I could be having gorgeous times, and making friends---!"
Betts' troubles were more simple in that they were indefinite. Betts wanted to do everything, regardless of cost, suitability or season, and was quite as cross over the fact that they could not go camping in the Humboldt woods in midwinter, as she was at having to give up her ideas of a new hat or a theater trip. And the boys never complained specifically of poverty. Philip, won by deep plotting that he could not see to settle down quietly at home after dinner, was the gayest and best of company, and Jim's only allusions to a golden future were made when he rubbed his affectionate little rough head against his mother, pony-fashion, and promised her every luxury in the world as soon as he "got started."
When Peter Coleman returned from the Orient, early in April, all the newspapers chronicled the fact that a large number of intimate friends met him at the dock. He was instantly swept into the social currents again; dinners everywhere were given for Mr. Coleman, box- parties and house-parties followed one another, the club claimed him, and the approaching opening of the season found him giving special attention to his yacht. Small wonder that Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's caught only occasional glimpses of him. Susan, somberly pursuing his name from paper to paper, felt that she was beginning to dislike him. She managed never to catch his eye, when he was in Mr. Brauer's office, and took great pains not to meet him.
However, in the lingering sweet twilight of a certain soft spring evening, when she had left the office, and was beginning the long walk home, she heard sudden steps behind her, and turned to see Peter.
"Aren't you the little seven-leagued booter! Wait a minute, Susan! C'est moi! How are you?"
"How do you do, Peter?" Susan said pleasantly and evenly. She put her hand in the big gloved hand, and raised her eyes to the smiling eyes.
"What car are you making for?" he asked, falling in step.
"I'm walking," Susan said. "Too nice to ride this evening."
"You're right," he said, laughing. "I wish I hadn't a date, I'd like nothing better than to walk it, too! However, I can go a block or two."
He walked with her to Montgomery Street, and they talked of Japan and the Carrolls and of Emily Saunders. Then Peter said he must catch a California Street car, and they shook hands again and parted.
It all seemed rather flat. Susan felt as if the little episode did not belong in the stormy history of their friendship at all, or as if she were long dead and were watching her earthly self from a distance with wise and weary eyes. What should she be feeling now? What would a stronger woman have done? Given him the cut direct, perhaps, or forced the situation to a point when something dramatic- -satisfying--must follow.
"I am weak," said Susan ashamedly to herself; "I was afraid he would think I cared,--would see that I cared!" And she walked on busy with self-contemptuous and humiliated thoughts. She had made it easy for him to take advantage of her. She had assumed for his convenience that she had suffered no more than he through their parting, and that all was again serene and pleasant between them. After to- night's casual, friendly conversation, no radical attitude would be possible on her part; he could congratulate himself that he still retained Susan's friendship, and could be careful--she knew he would be careful!--never to go too far again.
Susan's estimate of Peter Coleman was no longer a particularly idealized one. But she had long ago come to the conclusion that his faults were the faults of his type and his class, excusable and understandable now, and to be easily conquered when a great emotion should sweep him once and for all away from the thought of himself. As he was absorbed in the thought of his own comfort, so, she knew, he could become absorbed in the thought of what was due his wife, the wider viewpoint would quickly become second nature with him; young Mrs. Peter Coleman would be among the most indulged and carefully considered of women. He would be as anxious that the relationship between his wife and himself should be harmonious and happy, as he was now to feel when he met her that he had no reason to avoid or to dread meeting Miss Susan Brown.
If Susan would have preferred a little different attitude on his part, she could find no fault with this one. She had for so many months thought of Peter as the personification of all that she desired in life that she could not readily dismiss him as unworthy. Was he not still sweet and big and clean, rich and handsome and popular, socially prominent and suitable in age and faith and nationality?
Susan had often heard her aunt and her aunt's friends remark that life was more dramatic than any book, and that their own lives on the stage would eclipse in sensational quality any play ever presented. But, for herself, life seemed deplorably, maddeningly undramatic. In any book, in any play, the situation between her and Peter must have been heightened to a definite crisis long before this. The mildest of little ingenues, as she came across a dimly lighted stage, in demure white and silver, could have handled this situation far more skillfully than Susan did; the most youthful of heroines would have met Peter to some purpose,--while surrounded by other admirers at a dance, or while galloping across a moor on her spirited pony.
What would either of these ladies have done, she wondered, at meeting the offender when he appeared particularly well-groomed, prosperous and happy, while she herself was tired from a long office day, conscious of shabby gloves, of a shapeless winter hat? What could she do, except appear friendly and responsive? Susan consoled herself with the thought that her only alternative, an icy repulse of his friendly advances, would have either convinced him that she was too entirely common and childish to be worth another thought, or would have amused him hugely. She could fancy him telling his friends of his experience of the cut direct from a little girl in Front Office,--no names named--and hear him saying that "he loved it--he was crazy about it!"
"You believe in the law of compensation, don't you, Aunt Jo?" asked Susan, on a wonderful April afternoon, when she had gone straight from the office to Sausalito. The two women were in the Carroll kitchen, Susan sitting at one end of the table, her thoughtful face propped in her hands, Mrs. Carroll busy making ginger cakes,-- cutting out the flat little circles with an inverted wine-glass, transferring them to the pans with the tip of her flat knife, rolling the smooth dough, and spilling the hot cakes, as they came back from the oven, into a deep tin strainer to cool. Susan liked to watch her doing this, liked the pretty precision of every movement, the brisk yet unhurried repetition of events, her strong clever hands, the absorbed expression of her face, her fine, broad figure hidden by a stiffly-starched gown of faded blue cotton and a stiff white apron.
Beyond the open window an exquisite day dropped to its close. It was the time of fruit-blossoms and feathery acacia, languid, perfumed breezes, lengthening twilights, opening roses and swaying plumes of lilac. Sausalito was like a little park, every garden ran over with sweetness and color, every walk was fringed with flowers, and hedged with the new green of young trees and blossoming hedges. Susan felt a delicious relaxation run through her blood; winter seemed really routed; to-day for the first time one could confidently prophesy that there would be summer presently, thin gowns and ocean bathing and splendid moons.
"Yes, I believe in the law of compensation, to a great extent," the older woman answered thoughtfully, "or perhaps I should call it the law of solution. I truly believe that to every one of us on this earth is given the materials for a useful and a happy life; some people use them and some don't. But the chance is given alike."
"Useful, yes," Susan conceded, "but usefulness isn't happiness."
"Isn't it? I really think it is."
"Oh, Aunt Jo," the girl burst out impatiently, "I don't mean for saints! I dare say there are some girls who wouldn't mind being poor and shabby and lonesome and living in a boarding-house, and who would be glad they weren't hump-backed, or blind, or Siberian prisoners! But you can't say you think that a girl in my position has had a fair start with a girl who is just as young, and rich and pretty and clever, and has a father and mother and everything else in the world! And if you do say so," pursued Susan, with feeling, "you certainly can't mean so---"
"But wait a minute, Sue! What girl, for instance?"
"Oh, thousands of girls!" Susan said, vaguely. "Emily Saunders, Alice Chauncey---"
"Emily Saunders! Susan! In the hospital for an operation every other month or two!" Mrs. Carroll reminded her.
"Well, but---" Susan said eagerly. "She isn't really ill. She just likes the excitement and having them fuss over her. She loves the hospital."
"Still, I wouldn't envy anyone whose home life wasn't preferable to the hospital, Sue."
"Well, Emily is queer, Aunt Jo. But in her place I wouldn't necessarily be queer."
"At the same time, considering her brother Kenneth's rather checkered career, and the fact that her big sister neglects and ignores her, and that her health is really very delicate, I don't consider Emily a happy choice for your argument, Sue."
"Well, there's Peggy Brock. She's a perfect beauty---"
"She's a Wellington, Sue. You know that stock. How many of them are already in institutions?"
"Oh, but Aunt Jo!" Susan said impatiently, "there are dozens of girls in society whose health is good, and whose family isn't insane,--I don't know why I chose those two! There are the Chickerings---"
"Whose father took his own life, Sue."
"Well, they couldn't help that. They're lovely girls. It was some money trouble, it wasn't insanity or drink."
"But think a moment, Sue. Wouldn't it haunt you for a long, long time, if you felt that your own father, coming home to that gorgeous house night after night, had been slowly driven to the taking of his own life?"
Susan looked thoughtful.
"I never thought of that," she admitted. Presently she added brightly, "There are the Ward girls, Aunt Jo, and Isabel Wallace. You couldn't find three prettier or richer or nicer girls! Say what you will," Susan returned undauntedly to her first argument, "life is easier for those girls than for the rest of us!"
"Well, I want to call your attention to those three," Mrs. Carroll said, after a moment. "Both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Ward made their own money, started in with nothing and built up their own fortunes. Phil may do that, or Billy may do that--we can't tell. Mrs. Ward and Mrs. Wallace are both nice, simple women, not spoiled yet by money, not inflated on the subject of family and position, bringing up their families as they were brought up. I don't know Mrs. Ward personally, but Mrs. Wallace came from my own town, and she likes to remember the time when her husband was only a mining engineer, and she did her own work. You may not see it, Sue, but there's a great difference there. Such people are happy and useful, and they hand happiness on. Peter Coleman's another, he's so exceptionally nice because he's only one generation removed from working people. If Isabel Wallace,--and she's very young; life may be unhappy enough for her yet, poor child!--marries a man like her father, well and good. But if she marries a man like--well, say Kenneth Saunders or young Gerald, she simply enters into the ranks of the idle and useless and unhappy, that's all."
"She's beautiful, and she's smart too," Susan pursued, disconsolately, "Emily and I lunched there one day and she was simply sweet to the maids, and to her mother. And German! I wish you could hear her. She may not be of any very remarkable family but she certainly is an exceptional girl!"
"Exceptional, just because she isn't descended from some dead, old, useless stock," amended Mrs. Carroll. "There is red blood in her veins, ambition and effort and self-denial, all handed down to her. But marry that pampered little girl to some young millionaire, Sue, and what will her children inherit? And what will theirs, in time?-- Peel these, will you?" went on Mrs. Carroll, interrupting her work to put a bowl of apples in Susan's hands. "No," she went on presently, "I married a millionaire, Sue. I was one of the 'lucky' ones!"
"I never knew it was as much as that!" Susan said impressed.
"Yes," Mrs. Carroll laughed wholesomely at some memory. "Yes; I began my married life in the very handsomest home in our little town with the prettiest presents and the most elaborate wardrobe--the papers were full of Miss Josie van Trent's extravagances. I had four house servants, and when Anna came everybody in town knew that her little layette had come all the way from Paris!"
"But,--good heavens, what happened?"
"Nothing, for awhile. Mr. Carroll, who was very young, had inherited a half-interest in what was then the biggest shoe-factory in that part of the world. My father was his partner. Philip--dear me! it seems like a lifetime ago!--came to visit us, and I came home from an Eastern finishing school. Sue, those were silly, happy, heavenly days! Well! we were married, as I said. Little Phil came, Anna came. Still we went on spending money. Phil and I took the children to Paris,--Italy. Then my father died, and things began to go badly at the works. Phil discharged his foreman, borrowed money to tide over a bad winter, and said that he would be his own superintendent. Of course he knew nothing about it. We borrowed more money. Jo was the baby then, and I remember one ugly episode was that the workmen, who wanted more money, accused Phil of getting his children's clothes abroad because his wife didn't think American things were good enough for them."
"You!" Susan said, incredulously.
"It doesn't sound like me now, does it? Well; Phil put another foreman in, and he was a bad man--in league with some rival factory, in fact. Money was lost that way, contracts broken---"
"Beast!" said Susan.
"Wicked enough," the other woman conceded, "but not at all an uncommon thing, Sue, where people don't know their own business. So we borrowed more money, borrowed enough for a last, desperate fight, and lost it. The day that Jim was three years old, we signed the business away to the other people, and Phil took a position under them, in his own factory."
"Oo-oo!" Susan winced.
"Yes, it was hard. I did what I could for my poor old boy, but it was very hard. We lived very quietly; I had begun to come to my senses then; we had but one maid. But, even then, Sue, Philip wasn't capable of holding a job of that sort. How could he manage what he didn't understand? Poor Phil---" Mrs. Carroll's bright eyes brimmed with tears, and her mouth quivered. "However, we had some happy times together with the babies," she said cheerfully, "and when he went away from us, four years later, with his better salary we were just beginning to see our way clear. So that left me, with my five, Sue, without a cent in the world. An old cousin of my father owned this house, and she wrote that she would give us all a home, and out we came,--Aunt Betty's little income was barely enough for her, so I sold books and taught music and French, and finally taught in a little school, and put up preserves for people, and packed their houses up for the winter---"
"How did you do it!"
"Sue, I don't know! Anna stood by me,--my darling!" The last two words came in a passionate undertone. "But of course there were bad times. Sometimes we lived on porridges and milk for days, and many a night Anna and Phil and I have gone out, after dark, to hunt for dead branches in the woods for my kitchen stove!" And Mrs. Carroll, unexpectedly stirred by the pitiful memory, broke suddenly into tears, the more terrible to Susan because she had never seen her falter before.
It was only for a moment. Then Mrs. Carroll dried her eyes and said cheerfully:
"Well, those times only make these seem brighter! Anna is well started now, we've paid off the last of the mortgage, Phil is more of a comfort than he's ever been--no mother could ask a better boy!- -and Jo is beginning to take a real interest in her work. So everything is coming out better than even my prayers."
"Still," smiled Susan, "lots of people have things comfortable, without such a terrible struggle!"
"And lots of people haven't five fine children, Sue, and a home in a big garden. And lots of mothers don't have the joy and the comfort and the intimacy with their children in a year that I have every day. No, I'm only too happy now, Sue. I don't ask anything better than this. And if, in time, they go to homes of their own, and we have some more babies in the family--it's all living, Sue, it's being a part of the world!"
Mrs. Carroll carried away her cakes to the big stone jar in the pantry. Susan, pensively nibbling a peeled slice of apple, had a question ready for her when she came back.
"But suppose you're one of those persons who get into a groove, and simply can't live? I want to work, and do heroic things, and grow to be something, and how can I? Unless---" her color rose, but her glance did not fall, "unless somebody marries me, of course."
"Choose what you want to do, Sue, and do it. That's all."
"Oh, that sounds simple! But I don't want to do any of the things you mean. I want to work into an interesting life, somehow. I'll-- I'll never marry," said Susan.
"You won't? Well; of course that makes it easier, because you can go into your work with heart and soul. But perhaps you'll change your mind, Sue. I hope you will, just as I hope all the girls will marry. I'm not sure," said Mrs. Carroll, suddenly smiling, "but what the very quickest way for a woman to marry off her girls is to put them into business. In the first place, a man who wants them has to be in earnest, and in the second, they meet the very men whose interests are the same as theirs. So don't be too sure you won't. However, I'm not laughing at you, Sue. I think you ought to seriously select some work for yourself, unless of course you are quite satisfied where you are."
"I'm not," said Susan. "I'll never get more than forty where I am. And more than that, Thorny heard that Front Office is going to be closed up any day."
"But you could get another position, dear."
"Well, I don't know. You see, it's a special sort of bookkeeping. It wouldn't help any of us much elsewhere."
"True. And what would you like best to do, Sue?"
"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes I think the stage. Or something with lots of traveling in it." Susan laughed, a little ashamed of her vagueness.
"Why not take a magazine agency, then? There's a lot of money---"
"Oh, no!" Susan shuddered. "You're joking!"
"Indeed I'm not. You're just the sort of person who would make a fine living selling things. The stage--I don't know. But if you really mean it, I don't see why you shouldn't get a little start somewhere."
"Aunt Jo, they say that Broadway in New York is simply lined with girls trying---"
"New York! Well, very likely. But you try here. Go to the manager of the Alcazar, recite for him---"
"He wouldn't let me," Susan asserted, "and besides, I don't really know anything."
"Well, learn something. Ask him, when next some manager wants to make up a little road company---"
"A road company! Two nights in Stockton, two nights in Marysville-- horrors!" said Susan.
"But that wouldn't be for long, Sue. Perhaps two years. Then five or six years in stock somewhere---"
"Aunt Jo, I'd be past thirty!" Susan laughed and colored charmingly. "I--honestly, I couldn't give up my whole life for ten years on the chance of making a hit," she confessed.
"Well, but what then, Sue?"
"Now, I'll tell you what I've often wanted to do," Susan said, after a thoughtful interval.
"Ah, now we're coming to it!" Mrs. Carroll said, with satisfaction. They had left the kitchen now, and were sitting on the top step of the side porch, reveling in the lovely panorama of hillside and waterfront, and the smooth and shining stretch of bay below them.
"I've often thought I'd like to be the matron of some very smart school for girls," said Susan, "and live either in or near some big Eastern city, and take the girls to concerts and lectures and walking in the parks, and have a lovely room full of books and pictures, where they would come and tell me things, and go to Europe now and then for a vacation!"
"That would be a lovely life, Sue. Why not work for that?"
"Why, I don't know how. I don't know of any such school."
"Well, now let us suppose the head of such a school wants a matron," Mrs. Carroll said, "she naturally looks for a lady and a linguist, and a person of experience---"
"There you are! I've had no experience!" Susan said, instantly depressed. "I could rub up on French and German, and read up the treatment for toothache and burns--but experience!"
"But see how things work together, Sue!" Mrs. Carroll exclaimed, with a suddenly bright face.
"Here's Miss Berrat, who has the little school over here, simply crazy to find someone to help her out. She has eight--or nine, I forget--day scholars, and four or five boarders. And such a dear little cottage! Miss Pitcher is leaving her, to go to Miss North's school in Berkeley, and she wants someone at once!"
"But, Aunt Jo, what does she pay?"
"Let me see---" Mrs. Carroll wrinkled a thoughtful brow. "Not much, I know. You live at the school, of course. Five or ten dollars a month, I think."
"But I couldn't live on that!" Susan exclaimed.
"You'd be near us, Sue, for one thing. And you'd have a nice bright sunny room. And Miss Berrat would help you with your French and German. It would be a good beginning."
"But I simply couldn't--" Susan stopped short. "Would you advise it, Aunt Jo?" she asked simply.
Mrs. Carroll studied the bright face soberly for a moment.
"Yes, I'd advise it, Sue," she said then gravely. "I don't think that the atmosphere where you are is the best in the world for you just now. It would be a fine change. It would be good for those worries of yours."
"Then I'll do it!" Susan said suddenly, the unexplained tears springing to her eyes.
"I think I would. I'll go and see Miss Berrat next week," Mrs. Carroll said. "There's the boat making the slip, Sue," she added, "let's get the table set out here on the porch while they're climbing the hill!"
Up the hill came Philip and Josephine, just home from the city, escorted by Betsey and Jim who had met them at the boat. Susan received a strangling welcome from Betts, and Josephine, who looked a little pale and tired after this first enervating, warm spring day, really brightened perceptibly when she went upstairs with Susan to slip into a dress that was comfortably low-necked and short- sleeved.
Presently they all gathered on the porch for dinner, with the sweet twilighted garden just below them and anchor lights beginning to prick, one by one, through the soft dusky gloom of the bay.
"Well, 'mid pleasures and palaces---" Philip smiled at his mother.
"Charades to-night!" shrilled Betts, from the kitchen where she was drying lettuce.
"Oh, but a walk first!" Susan protested. For their aimless strolls through the dark, flower-scented lanes were a delight to her.
"And Billy's coming over to-morrow to walk to Gioli's," Josephine added contentedly.
That evening and the next day Susan always remembered as terminating a certain phase of her life, although for perhaps a week the days went on just as usual. But one morning she found confusion reigning, when she arrived at Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's. Front Office was to be immediately abolished, its work was over, its staff already dispersing.
Workmen, when she arrived, were moving out cases and chairs, and Mr. Brauer, eagerly falling upon her, begged her to clean out her desk, and to help him assort the papers in some of the other desks and cabinets. Susan, filled with pleasant excitement, pinned on her paper cuffs, and put her heart and soul into the work. No bills this morning! The office-boy did not even bring them up.
"Now, here's a soap order that must have been specially priced," said Susan, at her own desk, "I couldn't make anything of it yesterday---"
"Let it go--let it go!" Mr. Brauer said. "It iss all ofer!"
As the other girls came in they were pressed into service, papers and papers and papers, the drift of years, were tossed out of drawers and cubby-holes. Much excited laughter and chatter went on. Probably not one girl among them felt anything but pleasure and relief at the unexpected holiday, and a sense of utter confidence in the future.
Mr. Philip, fussily entering the disordered room at ten o'clock, announced his regret at the suddenness of the change; the young ladies would be paid their salaries for the uncompleted month--a murmur of satisfaction arose--and, in short, the firm hoped that their association had been as pleasant to them as it had been to his partners and himself.
"They had a directors' meeting on Saturday," Thorny said, later, "and if you ask me my frank opinion, I think Henry Brauer is at the bottom of all this. What do you know about his having been at that meeting on Saturday, and his going to have the office right next to J. G.'s--isn't that the extension of the limit? He's as good as in the firm now."
"I've always said that he knew something that made it very well worth while for this firm to keep his mouth shut," said Miss Cashell, darkly.
"I'll bet you there's something in that," Miss Cottle agreed.
"H. B. & H. is losing money hand over fist," Thorny stated, gloomily, with that intimate knowledge of an employer's affairs always displayed by an obscure clerk.
"Brauer asked me if I would like to go into the big office, but I don't believe I could do the work," Susan said.
"Yes; I'm going into the main office, too," Thorny stated. "Don't you be afraid, Susan. It's as easy as pie."
"Mr. Brauer said I could try it," Miss Sherman shyly contributed. But no other girl had been thus complimented. Miss Kelly and Miss Garvey, both engaged to be married now, Miss Kelly to Miss Garvey's brother, Miss Garvey to Miss Kelly's cousin, were rather congratulating themselves upon the turn of events; the other girls speculated as to the wisest step to take next, some talking vaguely of post-office or hospital work; Miss Cashell, as Miss Thornton later said to Susan, hopelessly proving herself no lady by announcing that she could get better money as a coat model, and meant to get into that line of work if she could.
"Are we going to have lunch to-day?" somebody asked. Miss Thornton thoughtfully drew a piece of paper toward her, and wet her pencil in her mouth.
"Best thing we can do, I guess," she said.
"Let's put ten cents each in," Susan suggested, "and make it a real party."
Thorny accordingly expanded her list to include sausages and a pie, cheese and rolls, besides the usual tea and stewed tomatoes. The girls ate the little meal with their hats and wraps on, a sense of change filled the air, and they were all a little pensive, even with an unexpected half-holiday before them.
Then came good-bys. The girls separated with many affectionate promises. All but the selected three were not to return. Susan and Miss Sherman and Thorny would come back to find their desks waiting for them in the main office next day.
Susan walked thoughtfully uptown, and when she got home, wrote a formal application for the position open in her school to little Miss Berrat in Sausalito.
It was a delightful, sunshiny afternoon. Mary Lou, Mrs. Lancaster and Virginia were making a mournful trip to the great institution for the blind in Berkeley, where Virginia's physician wanted to place her for special watching and treatment. Susan found two or three empty hours on her hands, and started out for a round of calls.
She called on her aunt's old friends, the Langs, and upon the bony, cold Throckmorton sisters, rich, nervous, maiden ladies, shivering themselves slowly to death in their barn of a house, and finally, and unexpectedly, upon Mrs. Baxter.
Susan had planned a call on Georgie, to finish the afternoon, for her cousin, slowly dragging her way up the last of the long road that ends in motherhood, was really in need of cheering society.
But the Throckmorton house chanced to be directly opposite the old Baxter mansion, and Susan, seeing Peter's home, suddenly decided to spend a few moments with the old lady.
After all, why should she not call? She had had no open break with Peter, and on every occasion his aunt had begged her to take pity on an old woman's loneliness. Susan was always longing, in her secret heart, for that accident that should reopen the old friendship; knowing Peter, she knew that the merest chance would suddenly bring him to her side again; his whole life was spent in following the inclination of the moment. And today, in her pretty new hat and spring suit, she was looking her best.
Peter would not be at home, of course. But his aunt would tell him that that pretty, happy Miss Brown was here, and that she was going to leave Hunter, Baxter & Hunter's for something not specified. And then Peter, realizing that Susan had entirely risen above any foolish old memory---
Susan crossed the street and rang the bell. When the butler told her, with an impassive face, that he would find out if Mrs. Baxter were in, Susan hoped, in a panic, that she was not. The big, gloomy, handsome hall rather awed her. She watched Burns's retreating back fearfully, hoping that Mrs. Baxter really was out, or that Burns would be instructed to say so.
But he came back, expressionless, placid, noiseless of step, to say in a hushed, confidential tone that Mrs. Baxter would be down in a moment. He lighted the reception room brilliantly for Susan, and retired decorously. Susan sat nervously on the edge of a chair. Suddenly her call seemed a very bold and intrusive thing to do, even an indelicate thing, everything considered. Suppose Peter should come in; what could he think but that she was clinging to the association with which he had so clearly indicated that he was done?
What if she got up and went silently, swiftly out? Burns was not in sight, the great hall was empty. She had really nothing to say to Mrs. Baxter, and she could assume that she had misunderstood his message if the butler followed her---
Mrs. Baxter, a little figure in rustling silk, came quickly down the stairway. Susan met her in the doorway of the reception room, with a smile.
"How do you do, how do you do?" Mrs. Baxter said nervously. She did not sit down, but stood close to Susan, peering up at her shortsightedly, and crumpling the card she held in her hand. "It's about the office, isn't it?" she said quickly. "Yes, I see. Mr. Baxter told me that it was to be closed. I'm sorry, but I never interfere in those things,--never. I really don't know anything about it! I'm sorry. But it would hardly be my place to interfere in business, when I don't know anything about it, would it? Mr. Baxter always prides himself on the fact that I don't interfere. So I don't really see what I could do."
A wave of some supreme emotion, not all anger, nor all contempt, nor all shame, but a composite of the three, rose in Susan's heart. She had not come to ask a favor of this more fortunate woman, but--the thought flashed through her mind--suppose she had? She looked down at the little silk-dressed figure, the blinking eyes, the veiny little hand, and the small mouth, that, after sixty years, was composed of nothing but conservative and close-shut lines. Pity won the day over her hurt girlish feeling and the pride that claimed vindication, and Susan smiled kindly.
"Oh, I didn't come about Front Office, Mrs. Baxter! I just happened to be in the neighborhood---" Two burning spots came into the older woman's face, not of shame, but of anger that she had misunderstood, had placed herself for an instant at a disadvantage.
"Oh," she said vaguely. "Won't you sit down? Peter---" she paused.
"Peter is in Santa Barbara, isn't he?" asked Susan, who knew he was not.
"I declare I don't know where he is half the time," Mrs. Baxter said, with her little, cracked laugh. They both sat down. "He has such a good time!" pursued his aunt, complacently.
"Doesn't he?" Susan said pleasantly.
"Only I tell the girls they mustn't take Peter too seriously," cackled the sweet, old voice. "Dreadful boy!"
"I think they understand him." Susan looked at her hostess solicitously. "You look well," she said resolutely. "No more neuritis, Mrs. Baxter?"
Mrs. Baxter was instantly diverted. She told Susan of her new treatment, her new doctor, the devotion of her old maid; Emma, the servant of her early married life, was her close companion now, and although Mrs. Baxter always thought of her as a servant, Emma was really the one intimate friend she had.
Susan remained a brief quarter of an hour, chatting easily, but burning with inward shame. Never, never, never in her life would she pay another call like this one! Tea was not suggested, and when the girl said good-by, Mrs. Baxter did not leave the reception room. But just as Burns opened the street-door for her Susan saw a beautiful little coupe stop at the curb, and Miss Ella Saunders, beautifully gowned, got out of it and came up the steps with a slowness that became her enormous size.
"Hello, Susan Brown!" said Miss Saunders, imprisoning Susan's hand between two snowy gloves. "Where've you been?"
"Where've you been?" Susan laughed. "Italy and Russia and Holland!"
"Don't be an utter little hypocrite, child, and try to make talk with a woman of my years I I've been home two weeks, anyway."
Miss Saunders nodded slowly, bit her lip, and stared at Susan in a rather mystifying and very pronounced way.
"Emily is home, indeed," she said absently. Then abruptly she added: "Can you lunch with me to-morrow--no, Wednesday--at the Town and Country, infant?"
"Why, I'd love to!" Susan answered, dimpling.
"Well; at one? Then we can talk. Tell me," Miss Saunders lowered her voice, "is Mrs. Baxter in? Oh, damn!" she added cheerfully, as Susan nodded. Susan glanced back, before the door closed, and saw her meet the old lady in the hall and give her an impulsive kiss.