The Story of Julia Page by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Days of very serious thinking followed this experience. The face of the world was changed. Much that had been unnoticed, or taken for granted, became insufferable to Julia now. She winced at Connie's stories, she looked with a coldly critical eye at Mrs. Tarbury's gray hair showing through a yellow "front"; the sights and sounds of the boarding-house sickened her. She was accustomed to helping Mrs. Tarbury with the housework, not in any sense as payment for her board--for never was hospitality more generously extended--but merely because she was there, and idle, and energetic; but she found this a real hardship now. The hot, close bedrooms, odorous of perfume and cigarette smoke, the grayish sheets and thin blankets were odious to her; she longed to set fire to the whole, and start afresh, with clean new furnishings.
Presently Connie asked her if she would care to talk to a manager about going on an "eleven weeks' circuit," as assistant to a sleight-of-hand performer.
"Twenty a week," said Connie, "and a whole week in Sacramento and another in Los Angeles. All you have to do is wear a little suit like a page, and hand him things. Rose says he looks like an old devil--I haven't seen him, but you can sit on him easy enough. And the Nevilles are making the same trip, and she's a real nice woman. Not much, Ju, but it's a start, and I think we could land it for you."
"Yes, I know," Julia said vaguely.
"Well, wake up!" said Connie briskly. "Do you want it?"
"I'd rather wait until Mama gets here," the younger girl decided uncomfortably. And that afternoon, in vague hope of news of her mother, she took a Mission Street car and went out to call on her grandmother.
As usual, old Mrs. Cox's cheap little house reeked of soapsuds and carbolic acid. Julia, admitted after she had twisted the little gong set in the panels of the street door, kissed her grandmother in a stifling dark hall. Mrs. Cox was glad of company, she limped ahead into her little kitchen, chattering eagerly of her rheumatism and of family matters. She told Julia that May's children, Evelyn and Marguerite, were with her, Marguerite holding a position as dipper in a nearby candy factory, and Evelyn checking in an immense steam laundry.
"How many children has Aunt May now?" Julia asked, sighing.
"She's got too many!" Mrs. Cox said sharply. "A feller like Ed, who never keeps a position two weeks running, has got no business to raise such a family! For a while May had two of the boys in a home--"
"Oh, really!" said Julia, distressed.
"Lloyd and Elmer--yes, but they're home again now," the old woman pursued. "May felt dreadful when they went, but I guess she wasn't so awfully glad to get them back. Boys make a lot of work."
"Elmer and Lloyd, and then there was Muriel, and another baby?" Julia asked.
"Muriel and Geraldine, and then the baby, Regina."
"Has Aunt May seven children?" Julia asked, awed.
Mrs. Cox delayed the brewing of a pot of tea while she counted them with a bony knotted hand. Then she nodded. Julia digested the fact in frowning silence.
"Grandma," said she presently, "did you ever have enough money?"
Mrs. Cox, now drinking her tea from a saucer, smiled toothlessly.
"Oh, sure," said she, with a cackle of laughter, "Why, there's nobody knows it, but I'm rich!" But immediately the sorry joke lost flavour. The old woman sighed, and into her wrinkled face and filmed eyes there came her usual look of patient and unintelligent endurance. "I've never yet had a dollar that didn't have to do two dollars' work," said she, suddenly, in a mighty voice, staring across the kitchen, and lifting one hand as if she were taking an oath. "I've never laid down at night when I wasn't so tired my back was splitting. I've never had no thanks and no ease--the sixty years of my life! There's some people meant to be rich, Julia, and some that'll be poor the longest day of their lives, and that's all there is to it!"
"I know--but it don't seem fair," Julia mused. She presently went on an errand for her grandmother, and came back with sausages and fresh pulpy bread and large spongy crullers from the grocery. By this time the windy summer twilight was closing in, and the homegoing labourers and factory hands were filing home through the dirty streets. Julia found her two cousins in the lamp-lighted kitchen, Evelyn rather heavy and coarse looking, Marguerite reedy and thin, both wearing an unwholesome pallor. They made a little event of her coming, and the three girls chatted gayly enough throughout the meal, which was eaten at the kitchen table and washed down with strong tea.
Julia's grandfather, a gnarled old man in a labourer's rough clothes, who reeked of whiskey, mumbled his meal in silence, and afterward went into the room known as the parlour, snarling as he went that some one must come in and light his lamp. Julia went in with Evelyn to the rather pitiful room: a red rug was on the floor, and there were two chairs and a cheap little table, besides the big chair in which the old man settled himself.
"Ain't he going out, Grandma?" said Evelyn, returning to the kitchen, and exchanging a rueful look with Marguerite.
"Well, I thought he was!" Mrs. Cox made a pilgrimage to the parlour door, and returned confident. "He'll go out!" she said reassuringly.
"Comp'ny coming?" Julia asked smilingly. The other girls giggled and looked at each other.
"Well, why couldn't Grandpa sit in the kitchen?" the girl asked. "There's a better light out here!"
"Catch him doing anything decent," Evelyn said, and Marguerite added: "And, Ju, he'll sit there sometimes just to be mean, and he'll take his shoes off, and put his socks up---"
"And nights he knows we want the parlour he'll stay in on purpose," Evelyn supplemented eagerly.
"I wouldn't stand for it," Julia asserted.
"Pa's awfully cranky," Mrs. Cox said resignedly. "He's always been that way! You cook him corn beef--that's the night he wanted pork chops; sometimes he'll snap your head off if you speak, and others he'll ask you why you sit around like a mute and don't talk. Sometimes, if you ask him for money, he'll put his hand in his pocket real willing, and other times for weeks he won't give you a cent!"
"I wouldn't put up with it," said Julia again. "What does he do with his money?"
"Oh, he treats the boys, and sometimes, when he's drunk, they'll borrow it off him," said his wife. "Pa's always open-handed with the boys!"
Evelyn, who had washed her coarse, handsome face at the kitchen sink, began now to arrange her hair with a small comb that had been wedged into the sinkboard. Marguerite, having completed similar operations, offered to walk with Julia to the Mission Street car.
"The worst of Grandpa is this," said Marguerite, on the way, and Julia glancing sideways under a street lamp surprised an earnest and most winning expression on her cousin's plain, pale face, "he don't give Grandma any money, d'you see?--and that means that Ev and I have to give her pretty much what we get, and so we can't help Mamma, and that makes me awfully blue."
"But--but Uncle Ed's working, Rita?"
"Pop works when he can, Ju. Work isn't ever very steady in his line, you know. But he don't drink any more, Mamma says, only-- there's five children younger'n we are, you know--"
"Sure," said Julia, heavy oppressed. But Marguerite was cheered at this point by encountering two pimply and embarrassed youths, and Julia, climbing a moment later into a Mission Street car, looked back to see her cousin walking off between the two masculine forms, and heard their loud laughter ring upon the night.
About ten days later, unannounced, Emeline came home, and with her came a stout, red-faced, grayhaired man, in whom Julia was aghast to find her father. They reached Mrs. Tarbury's at about four o'clock in the afternoon, and Julia, coming in from a call on a theatrical manager, found them in the dining-room. George had been very ill, and moved ponderously and slowly. He looked far older than Julia's memory of him. There were sagging red pockets under his eyes, and his heavy jowls were darkened with a day's growth of gray stubble. He and Emeline had had a complete reconciliation, and entertained Mrs. Tarbury with the history of their remarriage and an outline of their plans.
George took a heavy, sportive interest in his pretty girl, but Julia could not realize their relationship sufficiently to permit of any liberties. She smiled an uneasy, perfunctory smile when George kissed her, and moved away from the arm he would have kept about her.
"Don't liked to be kissed?" asked George.
"Oh, I don't mind," said Julia, in a lifeless voice, and with averted eyes. "Did you go to the flat, Mama?" she asked, clearing her throat.
"I did," Emeline answered, biting a loose thread from a finger of her dirty white gloves. "I got Toomey's rent, and told them that we might want the room on the first."
"Going to give up the flat?" Julia asked, in surprise.
"Well"--Emeline glanced at her husband--"it's this way, Ju," said she: "Papa can't stand the city, sick as he is now--"
George coughed loosely in confirmation of this, and shook his head.
"And Papa's got a half interest in a little fruit ranch down in Santa Clara Valley," Emeline pursued. "So I'm going to take him down there for a little while, and nurse him back to real good health."
"My God, Em, you'll die!" Mrs. Tarbury said frankly. "Why'n't you go somewhere where there's something doing?"
"My sporting days are over, Min," George said with mournful satisfaction. "No more midnight suppers in mine!"
"Nor mine, either. I guess I'm old enough to settle down," Emeline added cheerfully. She and Mrs. Tarbury exchanged a look, and Julia knew exactly what concessions her mother had made before the reconciliation; knew just how sincere this unworldly wifely devotion was.
"Doc says I am to have fresh air, and light, nourishing foods, and quiet nights," George explained, gravely important.
"And what about Julie?" asked Mrs. Tarbury.
"Well, we thought we'd leave Julie here, Min," Emeline began comfortably, "until we see if it works. Then in, say, a month--"
"Mama, you can't!" Julia interrupted, cheeks hot with shame. "Aunt Min's got to rent that room--"
"You see how it is, Em," the lady of the house explained regretfully: "Connie's gone off on the road now, and Rose Ransome's gone to Virginia City, and there's a party and wife that'll give me twenty a month for the room. And as it happens I'm full up now, Em--"
"Well, of course we'll pay--" George was beginning, somewhat haughtily, but Emeline, who had grown rather red, interrupted:
"It don't make the slightest difference," she said, with spirit. "I guess I'm the last woman in the world to want my child to stay where she isn't welcome!"
"It ain't that at all, Em," Mrs. Tarbury threw in pacifically, but Emeline was well launched now.
"If it hadn't been that George was all but passing away with kidney trouble," Emeline said, her voice rising, "I never would of let such an arrangement go on for five minutes! But there was days when we never knew from hour to hour that George wasn't dying, and what with having him moved and that woman holding up his clothes, and telling the doctor lies about me, I guess I had troubles enough without worrying about Julie. But I want to tell you right now, Min," said Emeline, with kindly superiority, "that this isn't the kind of a house I'm crazy about having my daughter in, anyway. It ain't you, so much--"
"Ha! that's good!" Mrs. Tarbury interpolated, with a sardonic laugh.
"But you know very well that such girls as Rosie and Con--" Emeline rushed on.
"Oh, my God, Em!" Mrs. Tarbury began in a low voice rich with feeling, but Julia took a hand.
"Don't be such a fool, Aunt Min!" she said, going over to sit on an arm of Mrs. Tarbury's chair, and putting a caressing arm about her shoulders. "And cut it out, Mama! Aunt Min's been kinder to me than any one else, and you know it--and I've felt pretty darn mean living here day after day! And now I say if Aunt Min has a chance to rent her room--"
"God knows you're welcome to that room as long as you'll stay, Julie," Mrs. Tarbury said tremulously; "it's only--"
"If every one was as good to me as you are, Aunt Min!" Julia said, beginning to cry. Mrs. Tarbury burst into sobs, and they clung together.
"I never meant that you wasn't awfully good to her, Min," Emeline said stiffly. Then her eyes watered, and she, too, began to cry, and groped for her handkerchief. "I'm just worn out with worrying and taking care of George, I guess," sobbed Emeline, laying her head on the arm she flung across a nearby table.
"Don't cry, Mama!" Julia gulped, leaving Mrs. Tarbury's lap to come and pat her mother's shoulder. Emeline convulsively seized her, and their wet cheeks touched.
"If any one ever says that I don't appreciate what you've done for me and mine," choked Emeline, "it's a lie!"
"Well, it didn't sound like you, Em," Mrs. Tarbury said, drying eyes between sniffs.
Emeline immediately went over and kissed her, and all three laughed shakily over a complete reconciliation, which was pleasingly interrupted by George's gallant offer to take the whole crowd to dinner, if they didn't mind his eating only tea and toast.
Still, it was decided that Julia should not stay at Mrs. Tarbury's, but should spend the next week or two with her grandmother in the Mission. Julia's quiet acceptance of this arrangement was both unexpected and pleasing to her parents.
But as a matter of fact the girl was rather dazed, at this time, too deeply sunk in a miserable contemplation of her own affairs to be conscious of the immediate discomfort of the moment. She had dreamed many a happy dream, as the years went by, of her father: had thought he would claim her some day, be proud of her. She had fancied a little home circle of which she would be the centre and star, spoiled alike by father and mother. Dearer than any dream of a lover had been to Julia this hope for days to come, when she should be a successful young actress, with an adoring Daddy to be proud of her. Now the dream was clouded; her father was an old man, self-absorbed; her mother--but Julia had always known her mother to be both selfish and mercenary. More than this, her little visit in Sausalito had altered her whole viewpoint. Ignorant of life as she was, and bewildered by the revelations of that visit, she was still intelligent enough to feel an acute discontent with her old world, an agonizing longing for that better and cleaner and higher existence. How to grasp at anything different from life as it was lived in her mother's home--in her grandmother's, in Mrs. Tarbury's--Julia had not the most remote idea. Until a few months ago she had not known that she wanted anything different.
She brooded over the problem night and day; sometimes her hours of gloomy introspection were interrupted by bursts of rebellious fury. She would not bear it, she would not be despised and obscure and ignorant, when, so close to her, there were girls of her own age to whom Fate had been utterly kind; it was not her fault, and it was not right--it was not right to despise her for what she could not help! But usually her attitude was of passive if confused endurance.
Julia pored over the society columns of the Sunday papers, in these days, and when she came across the name of Barbara Toland or Enid Hazzard, it was as if a blow had been struck at her heart. Barbara's face, smiling out at her from a copy of the News Letter, made Julia wretched for a whole day, and the mere sight of the magazine that contained it was obnoxious to her for days to come. Walking with Mark, she saw in some Kearney Street window an enlarged photograph of a little yacht cutting against a stiff breeze, and felt a rush of unwelcome memories suddenly assail her.
Mark was very much the devoted lover just now, but the contemplation of marriage with Mark never for a moment entered Julia's head. She had really liked him much better when he was only Hannah's big brother, who ignored all small girls in kindly, big-boy fashion. His adoring devotion embarrassed her, and his demand for a definite answer to his suggestion of marriage worried and perhaps a little frightened her.
One summer Sunday Mark asked her to go to the Park with him, and the two made the trip on a Geary Street dummy front, and wandered through wide, sunny stretches of lawn and white roadway to the amphitheatre, where several thousand persons of all ages and conditions were already listening to the band. Benches were set in rows under a grove of young maple and locust trees, and Julia and Mark, sauntering well up to the front, found seats, and settled themselves to listen.
Julia, enjoying the sunshine and the good hour, looked lazily at the curiously variegated types about them: young men who lay almost horizontally in their seats, their eyes shut, newspapers blowing about their feet; toddling babies in Sunday white; young fathers and mothers with tiny coats laid across their laps; groups of middle-aged Teutons critically alert, and, everywhere, lovers and lovers and lovers. Mark was pleasantly aware that his companion's beauty made her conspicuous, even though Julia was plainly, almost soberly, dressed to-day, and showed none of her usual sparkle and flash. She wore a trim little gown of blue serge, with a tiny white ruffle about its high collar for its only relief, her gloves were black, her small hat black, and she wore no rings, no chains, and no bangles, a startling innovation for Julia. The change in her appearance, and some more subtle change in face and voice and manner, affected Mark like a strong wine.
"Do you know you're different from what you uster be, Julie?" he said, laying his arm about her shoulders, on the back of the bench, and squaring about so that his handsome black eyes could devour her.
"Getting older, maybe," Julia smiled indifferently. "I'll be sixteen in no time, now!"
"My mother was only fifteen when she was married," Mark said, in a deep and shaken voice, yet with pride and laughter in his eyes. Julia flushed and looked at the toe of her shoe.
"Well, what about it--eh?" Mark pursued in an eager undertone. Julia was silent. "What about it?" he said again.
"Why--why, I don't know," Julia stammered, uncomfortably, with a nervous and furtive glance about her; anywhere but at his face.
"Suppose I do know?" he urged, tightening a little the arm that layabout her. "Suppose I know for us both?"
Julia straightened herself suddenly, evading the encircling arm.
"Don't, Mark!" she pleaded, giving him a glimpse of wet blue eyes.
"I'm not teasing you, darling," he said tenderly. "I'm not going to tease you! But you do love me, Julia?"
A silence, but she tightened the hold of the little glove that rested on his free hand.
"Don't you, Julie?" he begged.
"Why--you know I do, Mark!" the girl said, and both began to laugh.
"But then what's the matter?" Mark asked, serious again.
"Well--" Julia looked all about her, and finally brought her troubled eyes to rest on his.
"Well, what, you darling?"
"Well, it's just this, Mark. I don't know whether I can get it over to you." The girl interrupted herself for a little puzzled laugh. "I don't know that I can get it over to myself," she said. "But it's this: I feel as if I didn't know myself yet, d'ye see? I don't know what I want, myself, and of course I don't know what I want my husband to be like--d'ye see, Mark? I--I feel as if I didn't know anything--I don't know what's good and what's just common. I haven't read books, I haven't had any one to tell me things, and show me things!" She turned to him eyes that he was amazed to see were brimming again. "My mother never told me about things," she burst out incoherently, "about how to talk, and taking baths--and not using cologne!"
Mark could not quite follow this argument, but he was quick with soothing generalities.
"Aw, pshaw, Julie, as if you aren't about as good as they make 'em, just as you are! Why, I'm crazy about you--I'm crazy about the way you look and about the way you act; you're good enough for me! Julie," his voice sank again, "Julie, won't you let me pick out a little flat somewheres? Pomeroy said I could have any one of the old squares for nothing; we could get some rugs and chairs from the People's Easy Payment Company. Just you and me, Julie; what do you think?"
"I-I'd like to have a cute little house," said Julia, with a shaky smile.
"Sure you would! And a garden--"
"Oh, I'd love a little garden!" The girl smiled again.
"Well, then, why not, Julia?"
She looked at him obliquely.
"Suppose I stopped loving you, Mark?"
Mark gave a great laugh.
"Once I have you, Ju, I'll risk it!"
Child that she was, a glimpse of that complete possession stained her cheeks crimson.
"I have to go down to Mama in Santa Clara next week," she submitted awkwardly.
"Well, go down. But--how about New Year's, Julie? Will you marry me then?"
Julia got up, and they walked away across the soft green of the grass.
"I don't honestly know what I want to do, Mark," she said a little drearily. "I'm not crazy to go to Santa Clara, and yet it's something awful--living at my grandmother's house! I'd like to kill my grandfather, I know that. He's the meanest old man I ever saw. I suppose I could keep at Artheris for an engagement--he's awfully decent--but now that Rose and Connie have gone, I have to go round alone, and--it isn't that I'm afraid of anything, but I simply don't seem to care any more! I don't believe I want to be an actress. Artheris offered me small parts with the Sacramento Star Stock, playing fourteen weeks and twenty plays, this winter, but I thought of getting up there, and having to hunt up a boarding-house--" Her voice sank indifferently. "I don't believe I'd take anything less than ingenue," she added presently. "Florence Pitt played ingenue in stock when she was only fifteen!"
"You could work up, Ju," Mark suggested, honestly anxious to console.
"Yes, the way Connie and Rose have!" the girl answered dryly. "Con's been in the business six years and Rose nine!" Her eyes travelled the blue spaces of the summer sky. "I wish I could go to New York," she said vaguely.
"They say New York is jam-packed with girls hanging round theatrical agencies," Mark submitted, to which Julia answered with a dispirited, "I know!"
George had promised to send five dollars each week to old Mrs. Cox for Julia's board, so that her stay in the Mission Street house was agreeable for more than one reason, and her cousins understood perfectly that Julia was to remain idle while they continued to be self-supporting. They had no room in their crowded lives for envy of the prettier and more fortunate Julia, but Julia vaguely envied them, seeing them start off for work every morning, and joined by other girls and young men as they reached the corner. Evelyn and Marguerite had each an admirer, and between the romance of their evenings and the thousand little episodes of the factory day, they seemed to find life cheerful enough.
Julia tried, early in her stay, to make the room she shared with her cousins, and her grandmother's kitchen, a little more attractive. But the material to her hand was not very easily improved. In the bare bedroom there was an iron bed, large enough to be fairly comfortable for three tenants, two chairs, a washstand, and a chest of drawers that would not stand straight. The paper was light, and streaked with dirt and mould, and the bare wooden floor was strewn with paper candy bags and crumpled programs from cheap theatres. There were no curtains at the two windows, and the blue-green roller shades were faded by the sun. Not a promising field for a reformer whose ideal was formed on a memory of the Tolands' guest room!
The kitchen was quite as bad; worse in the sense that while Julia might do as she pleased in the bedroom, her grandmother resented any interference in what old Mrs. Cox regarded as her own domain. The old woman found nothing amiss in the dirty newspapers that covered the table, the tin of melting grease on the stove, the odds and ends of rags and rope and clothespins and stockings that littered the chairs and floor, the flies that walked on the ceiling and buzzed over the sugar bowl. Julia quite enraged her on that morning that she essayed to clean a certain wide shelf that, crowded to its last inch, hung over the sink.
"Do you need this, Grandma--can I throw this away?" the girl said over and over, displaying a nearly empty box of blacking, a moist bag tightly rolled over perhaps a pound of sugar, a broken egg beater, a stopped alarm clock, a bottle of toothache drops, a dog's old collar, a cracked saucer with a cake of brown soap tightly adhering to it, a few dried onions, a broken comb, the two halves of a broken vase, and a score of similarly assorted small articles.
"Jest don't meddle with 'em, Julia," Mrs. Cox said over and over again uneasily. "I'm going to give all that a thorough cleaning when I get around to it!"
She was obviously relieved when Julia gave the whole thing up as a bad job, and went back to her aimless wandering about the house. Mrs. Cox never went out except to church, but now and then Julia went down to Mrs. Tarbury's and vaguely discussed the advisability of taking a theatrical engagement, exactly as if several very definite offers were under consideration.
Just at this time Julia's youngest uncle, Chester Cox, wrote his mother from the big prison at San Quentin that he was coming home. The letter, pencilled on two sheets of lined, grayish paper, caused a good deal of discussion between Mrs. Cox, her husband, and her granddaughters. Chester, now about thirty years old, had been pardoned because of late evidence in his favour, when a five- year term for burglary was but one quarter served, but in his old father's eyes a jailbird was a jailbird, and Chester was still in some mysterious way to blame. Mrs. Cox was only concerned because the boy was ill and out of a job and apt to prove a burden, but the three girls, frankly curious about him, nevertheless reserved judgment. He had always been an idler, he had always been a weakling, but if he really were accused falsely, they could champion him still.
The day he had set for his return was a Sunday, but he arrived unexpectedly on the Saturday afternoon, to find great trouble in the Mission Street house. Evelyn and Marguerite were free for the afternoon, and were in the kitchen with Julia and their grandmother. It had lately come to Evelyn's ears that her grandfather had been borrowing money on the little property, and old Mrs. Cox was beside herself with anger and fear. The house was her one hope against a destitute old age. She fairly writhed at the contemplation of her husband's treachery in undermining that one stay. While she was slaving and struggling, he had airily disposed of three hundred dollars. She was stifled by the thought.
"He'd ought to be sent to jail for it!" the old woman said bitterly.
"You can't do it," Evelyn, the bearer of the badnews, assured her impatiently.
"Well, he'll see what I can do, when he gets home!" Mrs. Cox muttered. Julia, distressed by the scene, laid her hand over her grandmother's old knotted one, as she sat beside her at the table, but could find no words with which to comfort her. Her soul was sick with this fresh sordid revelation; she felt as if she must scream in another minute of existence in this dreary, dirty house, with the glaring sunshine streaming in the kitchen window and a high summer wind howling outside.
The talk was ended by a ring at the door, and Julia went through the dark, stifling passage to admit a lean, pale young man, with a rough growth of light hair on his sunken cheeks, and a curious look of not belonging to his clothes.
"It's Uncle Chess, Grandma," said she, leading the way back to the kitchen. Mrs. Cox gave her youngest child a kiss, assuring him that she never would have known him, he looked like a ghost, she said, and Chester sat down and talked a little awkwardly to his mother and nieces. His voice was husky, full of apologetic cadences; he explained painstakingly the chance that had brought him home twenty-four hours early, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Julia, helping her grandmother with preparations for dinner, did not know why she found Chester's presence unendurably trying; she did not know that it was pity that wrung her heart; she only wished he were not there.
An hour's talk cheered the newcomer amazingly, as perhaps did also the dinner odours of frying potatoes and bacon. He was venturing upon a history of his wrongs when a damper fell upon the little company with the arrival of the man of the house. Her husband's return brought back in a flood to old Mrs. Cox's heart the memory of his outrageous negotiations regarding the house; the three girls all cordially detested the old man and were silent and ungracious in his presence, and Chester flushed deeply as his father came in, and became dumb.
Old Cox made no immediate acknowledgement of the newcomer's arrival, but grunted as he jerked a chair to the table, indicating his readiness for dinner, and dinner was served with all speed. It was only when he had drunk off half a cup of scalding strong tea that the man of the house turned to his last born and said:
"So, you're out again?"
"I should never have been in!" Chester said, eagerly and huskily.
"Yes, I've heard lots of that kind of talk," the old man assured him. "'Cording to what you hear there's a good many up there that never done nothing at all!"
Julia saw the son shrink, and a look of infinite wistfulness for a moment darkened his eyes. He was a stupid-looking, gentle-faced fellow, pitiable as a sick child.
"Perhaps you'll read these, Pa," he said, fumbling in his pockets for a moment before producing two or three short newspaper clippings from an inner coat pocket. "There--there's the truth of it; it's all there," he said eagerly. "'Cox will immediately be given his freedom--after sixteen months as an innocent victim of the law'--that's what it says!"
"I'll read nothin'," the old man said, sweeping back the slips with a scornful hand, his small, deep-set eyes blinking at his son like a monkey's.
"Well, all right, all right," Chester answered, his thin face burning again, his voice hoarsely belligerent.
"That's the jestice you'll get from your father!" the old woman said, with a cackle. Julia gathered up the newspaper clippings.
"Aren't you mean, Grandpa!" she said, indignantly, beginning to read.
"Maybe I am, maybe I am," he retorted fiercely. "But you'll find there's no smoke without some fire, my fine lady, and when a boy that's always been a lazy, idle shame to his father and mother gets a taste of blame, you can depend that no newspaper is going to make a saint of him!"
"Grandma, don't let him talk that way!" Julia protested, her breast rising and falling. Chester turned to his father.
"Maybe if you'd a-give me a better chance," he said sullenly, "maybe if us boys hadn't been kicked around so much, shoved into the first job that came handy, seeing Ma and the girls afraid to breathe while you was in the house--"
Both men were now standing, their faces close together.
"Well, you ain't going to have another chance here!" the old man shouted. "I'll have no jailbirds settin' around here to be petted and babied! Get that into your head! Don't you let me come into the house and find you here again---"
"Pa!" protested Mrs. Cox, fired by the eyes of her granddaughters. "Yes--an' 'Pa'!" he snarled, pulling on his old hat, and opening the kitchen door. "But it'll be Pa on the wrong side of your face if you make any mistake about it! Jailbird!" he muttered to himself, with a final slam at the door. The others looked at each other.
"That's a sweet welcome home," said Chester, with a bitter laugh. He was standing, his head lowered; there was bewilderment as well as anger in his look.
"Pa's got to be a terrible crank," said Mrs. Cox, returning to her teapot, after a glance through the window at her retiring lord. "He carries on something terrible sometimes."
"Well, he won't carry on any longer as far as I am concerned!" Chester said, a little vaguely.
"I don't know what's got into Pa!" his wife complained.
"Don't you care, Uncle Chess," Marguerite submitted with timid sympathy.
"Oh, no, sure I don't care," the man said with a short laugh. "Of course it's nothing to me! A man comes home to his own folks, he's had a tough time--" His voice sank huskily. The sleeves of his coat were too short for him, and Julia noticed how thin his wrists were, as he gathered up his newspaper clippings and restored them to his inside pocket. The women watched him in silence. Presently he stooped down and kissed his mother's forehead, at the edge of her untidy, grizzled hair.
"Good-bye, Ma!" he said. "Good-bye, girls!"
"It'll be a judgment on your father," Mrs. Cox protested. "I don't know what's gotten into him!"
But she made no further objection; she did not get up from her place at table when Chester crossed the kitchen, opened the street door, and went out.
"Grandpa's a prince, all right!" said Marguerite then, and Evelyn added, "Wouldn't it give you a pain?"
"But I notice that none of us did anything about it!" Julia said bitterly.
"If your grandpa found Chess here when he got home to-night, there'd be a reckoning!" the old woman asserted dully.
"And what is Uncle Chess supposed to do?" Julia demanded.
"I betcher he kills himself," Evelyn submitted.
"I betcher he does," her sister agreed.
"Well, it'll be on your grandfather's head!" the old woman said. She began to cry, still drinking her tea.
"I wonder if he has any money?" speculated Julia.
"Where'd he get money?" Evelyn said. Julia, following an uncomfortable impulse, went to the window in the close little parlour and looked out into the street. It was about six o'clock, and still broad day. The wind had died down, but the street was dirty, and the glaring light of the sinking sun fell full on the faces of the home-going stream of men and women. Julia's quick eye found Chester instantly. He had loitered no farther than the corner, a hundred feet away, and was standing there, irresolute, stooped, still wearing his look of vague bewilderment.
The girl ran upstairs, and snatched her hat and a light coat. Two minutes later she was downstairs again, the chatelaine bag in which all girls carried their money in those days jumping at her belt.
But in those two minutes Chester had disappeared. Julia felt sick with disappointment as she reached the corner only to find him gone. She stood looking quickly about her: up the street, down the street; he was gone. It seemed to the girl that she could not go back to her grandmother's house again; a disgust for everything and everybody in it shook her from head to foot. She was sorry for them, her grandmother, her cousins, but the simple fact remained that they could bear this sort of existence and she could not; it was stifling her; it was killing her.
"If they minded things as I do they would change them, somehow!" said Julia to herself, walking on blindly. "My grandmother should never have let things get to such a pass--I can't bear it! The smells and the fights--"
She stopped a car, one of the cable cars that ran out into the factory district. Julia had no idea where she was going, nor did she care. She got on because one of the small forward outside seats was empty, and she could sit there comfortably. The car went on and on, through a less and less populated district, but Julia, buried in unhappy thought, paid no attention to route or neighbourhood.
"All off!" shouted the conductor presently. Julia had meant to keep her seat for the return trip, but the man's glance at her young beauty annoyed her, and she got off the car.
She walked aimlessly along a battered cement sidewalk, between irregularly placed and shabby little houses. These were of too familiar a type to interest Julia, but she presently came to a full stop before a wide, one-story brick building, with a struggling garden separating it from the street, and straggling window boxes at every one of the wide windows. A flight of steps led up from the garden to the pretty white front door, and a neat brass plate, screwed to the cement at the turn of the steps, bore the words: "Alexander Toland Neighbourhood House."
It would have been a pretty house anywhere, with its crisp dotted muslin curtains, its trim colonial walls, but in this particular neighbourhood it had an added charm of contrast, and Julia stood before it literally spellbound by admiration, and smitten, too, with that strange sick fascination to which the mere name of Toland subjected her.
And while she stood there, Miss Anna Toland came to the door and stood looking down at the street. Julia's heart began to beat very fast, and the blood rushed to her face. She bowed, and Miss Toland bowed.
"Oh, Miss Page!" said Miss Toland then, crisply ready with the name and the request. "This is very fortunate! I wonder if you won't come in and help me a moment? I've been trying for one hour to make the hall key work."
Julia said nothing. She mounted the steps and followed Miss Toland into the hall.