The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
At the pier Mildred sent her mother a telegram, giving the train by which she would arrive--that and nothing more. As she descended from the parlor-car there stood Mrs. Presbury upon the platform, face wreathed in the most joyous of welcoming smiles, not a surface trace of the curiosity and alarm storming within. After they had kissed and embraced with a genuine emotion which they did not try to hide, because both suddenly became unconscious of that world whereof ordinarily they were constantly mindful--after caresses and tears Mrs. Presbury said:
"It's all very well to dress plain, when everyone knows you can afford the best. But don't you think you're overdoing it a little?"
Mildred laughed somewhat nervously. "Wait till we're safe at home," said she.
On the way up from the station in the carriage they chattered away in the liveliest fashion, to make the proper impression upon any observing Hanging- Rockers. "Luckily, Presbury's gone to town to-day," said his wife. "But really he's quite livable--hasn't gone back to his old ways. He doesn't know it, but he's rapidly growing deaf. He imagines that everyone is speaking more and more indistinctly, and he has lost interest in conversation. Then, too, he has done well in Wall Street, and that has put him in a good humor."
"He'll not be surprised to see me--alone," said Mildred.
"Wait till we're home," said her mother nervously.
At the house Mrs. Presbury carried on a foolish, false-sounding conversation for the benefit of the servants, and finally conducted Mildred to her bedroom and shut doors and drew portieres and glanced into closets before saying: "Now, what is the matter, Millie? where is your husband?"
"In Paris, I suppose," replied Mildred. "I have left him, and I shall never go back."
"Presbury said you would!" cried her mother. "But I didn't believe it. I don't believe it. I brought you up to do your duty, and I know you will."
This was Mildred's first opportunity for frank and plain speaking; and that is highly conducive to frank and plain thinking. She now began to see clearly why she had quit the general. Said she: "Mamma, to be honest and not mince words, I've left him because there's nothing in it."
"Isn't he rich?" inquired her mother. "I've always had a kind of present--"
"Oh, he's rich, all right," interrupted the girl. "But he saw to it that I got no benefit from that."
"But you wrote me how he was buying you everything!"
"So I thought. In fact he was buying me nothing." And she went on to explain the general's system.
Her mother listened impatiently. She would have in- terrupted the long and angry recital many times had not Mildred insisted on a full hearing of her grievances, of the outrages that had been heaped upon her. "And," she ended, "I suppose he's got it so arranged that he could have me arrested as a thief for taking the gold bag."
"Yes, it's terrible and all that," said her mother. "But I should have thought living with me here when Presbury was carrying on so dreadfully would have taught you something. Your case isn't an exception, any more than mine is. That's the sort of thing we women have to put up with from men, when we're in their power."
"Not I," said Mildred loftily.
"Yes, you," retorted her mother. "Any woman. every woman. Unless we have money of our own, we all have trouble with the men about money, sooner or later, in one way or another. And rich men!--why, it's notorious that they're always more or less mean about money. A wife has got to use tact. Why, I even had to use some tact with your father, and he was as generous a man as ever lived. Tact--that's a woman's whole life. You ought to have used tact. You'll go back to him and use tact."
"You don't know him, mamma!" cried Mildred. "He's a monster. He isn't human."
Mrs. Presbury drew a long face and said in a sad, soothing voice: "Yes, I know, dear. Men are very, very awful, in some ways, to a nice woman--with refined, ladylike instincts. It's a great shock to a pure--"
"Oh, gammon!" interrupted Mildred. "Don't be silly, mother. It isn't worth while for one woman to talk that kind of thing to another. I didn't fully know what I was doing when I married a man I didn't love --a man who was almost repulsive to me. But I knew enough. And I was getting along well enough, as any woman does, no matter what she may say--yes, you needn't look shocked, for that's hypocrisy, and I know it now-- But, as I was saying, I didn't begin to hate him until he tried to make a slave of me. A slave!" she shuddered. "He's a monster!"
"A little tact, and you can get everything you want," insisted her mother.
"I tell you, you don't know the man," cried Mildred. "By tact I suppose you mean I could have sold things behind his back--and all that." She laughed. "He hasn't got any back. He had it so arranged that those cold, wicked eyes of his were always watching me. His second wife tried `tact.' He caught her and drove her into the streets. I'd have had no chance to get a cent, and if I had gotten it I'd not have dared spend it. Do you imagine I ran away from him without having thought? If there'd been any way of staying on, any way of making things even endurable, I'd have stayed."
"But you've got to go back, Milly," cried her mother, in tears.
"You mean that you can't support me?"
"And your brother Frank--" Mrs. Presbury's eyes flashed and her rather stout cheeks quivered. "I never thought I'd tell anybody, but I'll tell you. I never liked your brother Frank, and he never liked me. That sounds dreadful, doesn't it?"
"No, mother dear," said Mildred gently. "I've learned that life isn't at all as--as everybody pretends."
"Indeed it isn't," said her mother. "Mothers always have favorites among their children, and very often a mother dislikes one of her children. Of course she hides her feeling and does her duty. But all the same she can't help the feeling that is down in her heart. I had a presentiment before he was born that I wouldn't like him, and sure enough, I didn't. And he didn't like me, or his father, or any of us."
"It would never occur to me to turn to him," said Mildred.
"Then you see that you've got to go back to the general. You can't get a divorce and alimony, for it was you that left him--and for no cause. He was within his rights."
Mildred hesitated, confessed: "I had thought of going back to him and acting in such a way that he'd be glad to give me a divorce and an allowance."
"Yes, you might do that," said her mother. "A great many women do. And, after all, haven't they a right to? A lady has got to have proper support, and is it just to ask her to live with a man she loathes?"
"I haven't thought of the right or wrong of it," said Mildred. "It looks to me as though right and wrong have very little to do with life as it's lived. They're for hypocrites--and fools."
"Mildred!" exclaimed her mother, deeply shocked.
Mildred was not a little shocked at her own thoughts as she inspected them in the full light into which speech had dragged them. "Anyhow," she went on, "I soon saw that such a plan was hopeless. He's not the man to be trifled with. Long before I could drive him to give me a living and let me go he would have driven me to flight or suicide."
Her mother had now had time to reflect upon Mildred's revelations. Aided by the impressions she herself had gotten of the little general, she began to understand why her daughter had fled and why she would not return. She felt that the situation was one which time alone could solve. Said she: "Well, the best thing is for you to stay on here and wait until he makes some move."
"He'll have me watched--that's all he'll do," said Mildred. "When he gets ready he'll divorce me for deserting him."
Mrs. Presbury felt that she was right. But, concealing her despondency, she said: "All we can do is to wait and see. You must send for your luggage."
"I've nothing but a large bag," said Mildred. "I checked it in the parcel-room of the New York station."
Mrs. Presbury was overwhelmed. How account to Hanging Rock for the reappearance of a baggageless and husbandless bride? But she held up bravely. With a cheerfulness that did credit to her heart and showed how well she loved her daughter she said: "We must do the best we can. We'll get up some story."
"No," said Mildred. "I'm going back to New York. You can tell people here what you please-- that I've gone to rejoin him or to wait for him--any old thing."
"At least you'll wait and talk with Presbury," pleaded her mother. "He is very sensible."
"If he has anything to suggest," said Mildred, "he can write it. I'll send you my address."
"Milly," cried her mother, agitated to the depths, "where are you going? What are you going to do? You look so strange--not at all like yourself."
"I'm going to a hotel to-night--probably to a boarding-house to-morrow," said Mildred. "In a few days I shall begin to--" she hesitated, decided against confidence--" begin to support myself at something or other."
"You must be crazy!" cried her mother. "You wouldn't do anything--and you couldn't."
"Let's not discuss it, mamma," said the girl tranquilly.
The mother looked at her with eyes full of the suspicion one lady cannot but have as to the projects of another lady in such circumstances.
"Mildred," she said pleadingly, "you must be careful. You'll find yourself involved in a dreadful scandal. I know you wouldn't do anything wrong no matter how you were driven. But--"
"I'll not do anything foolish, mamma," interrupted the girl. "You are thinking about men, aren't you?"
"Men are always ready to destroy a woman," said her mother. "You must be careful--"
Mildred was laughing. "Oh, mamma," she cried, "do be sensible and do give me credit for a little sense. I've got a very clear idea of what a woman ought to do about men, and I assure you I'm not going to be foolish. And you know a woman who isn't foolish can be trusted where a woman who's only protected by her principles would yield to the first temptation--or hunt round for a temptation."
"But you simply can't go to New York and live there all alone--and with nothing!"
"Can I stay here--for more than a few days?"
"But maybe, after a few days--" stammered her mother.
"You see, I've got to begin," said Mildred. "So why delay? I'd gain nothing. I'd simply start Hanging Rock to gossiping--and start Mr. Presbury to acting like a fiend again."
Her mother refused to be convinced--was the firmer, perhaps, because she saw that Mildred was unshakable in her resolve to leave forthwith--the obviously sensible and less troublesome course. They employed the rest of Mildred's three hours' stop in arguing--when Mildred was not raging against the little general. Her mother was more than willing to assist her in this denunciation, but Mildred preferred to do it all herself. She had--perhaps by unconsciously absorbed training from her lawyer father--an unusual degree of ability to see both sides of a question. When she assailed her husband, she saw only her own side; but somehow when her mother railed and raved, she began to see another side--and the sight was not agreeable. She wished to feel that her husband was altogether in the wrong; she did not wish to have intruded upon her such facts as that she had sold herself to him--quite in the customary way of ladies, but nevertheless quite shamelessly --or that in strict justice she had done nothing for him to entitle her to a liberal money allowance or any allowance at all.
On the train, going back to New York, she admitted to herself that the repulsive little general had held strictly to the terms of the bargain--" but only a devil and one with not a single gentlemanly instinct would insist on such a bargain." It took away much of the shame, and all of the sting, of despising herself to feel that she was looking still lower when she turned to despising him.
To edge out the little general she began to think of her mother, but as she passed in review what her mother had said and how she had said it she saw that for all the protests and arguings her mother was more than resigned to her departure. Mildred felt no bitterness; ever since she could remember her mother had been a shifter of responsibility. Still, to stare into the face of so disagreeable a fact as that one had no place on earth to go to, no one on earth to turn to, not even one's own mother--to stare on at that grimacing ugliness did not tend to cheerfulness. Mildred tried to think of the future--but how could she think of something that was nothing? She knew that she would go on, somehow, in some direction, but by no effort of her imagination could she picture it. She was so impressed by the necessity of considering the future that, to rouse herself, she tried to frighten herself with pictures of poverty and misery, of herself a derelict in the vast and cold desert of New York--perhaps in rags, hungry, ill, but all in vain. She did not believe it. Always she had had plenty to wear and to eat, and comfortable surroundings. She could no more think of herself as without those things than a living person can imagine himself dead.
"I'm a fool," she said to herself. "I'm certain to get into all sorts of trouble. How can it be otherwise, when I've no money, no friends, no experience, no way of making a living--no honest way--perhaps no way of the other kind, either?" There are many women who ecstasize their easily tickled vanities by fancying that if they were so disposed they need only flutter an eyelid to have men by the legion striving for their favors, each man with a bag of gold. Mildred, inexperienced as she was, had no such delusions. Her mind happened not to be of that chastely licentious caste which continually revolves and fantastically exaggerates the things of the body.
She could not understand her own indifference about the future. She did not realize that it was wholly due to Stanley Baird's offer. She was imagining she was regarding that offer as something she might possibly consider, but probably would not. She did not know that her soul had seized upon it, had enfolded it and would on no account let it go. It is the habit of our secret selves thus to make decisions and await their own good time for making us acquainted with them.
With her bag on the seat beside her she set out to find a temporary lodging. Not until several hotels had refused her admittance on the pretext that they were "full up" did she realize that a young woman alone is an object of suspicion in New York. When a fourth room-clerk expressed his polite regrets she looked him straight in the eye and said:
"I understand. But I can't sleep in the street. You must tell me where I can go."
"Well, there's the Ripon over in Seventh Avenue," said he.
"Is it respectable?" said she.
"Oh, it's very clean and comfortable there," said he. "They'll treat you right."
"Is it respectable?" said she.
"Well, now, it doesn't look queer, if that's what you mean," replied he. "You'll do very nicely there. You can be just as quiet as you want."
She saw that hotel New York would not believe her respectable. So to the Ripon she went, and was admitted without discussion. As the last respectable clerk had said, it did not look queer. But it felt queer; she resolved that she would go into a boarding-house the very next day.
Here again what seemed simple proved difficult. No respectable boarding-house would have Miss Mary Stevens. She was confident that nothing in her dress or manner hinted mystery. Yet those sharp-eyed land- ladies seemed to know at once that there was something peculiar about her. Most of them became rude the instant they set eyes upon her. A few--of the obviously less prosperous class--talked with her, seemed to be listening for something which her failing to say decided them upon all but ordering her out of the house. She, hindered by her innocence, was slow in realizing that she could not hope for admission to any select respectable circle, even of high-class salesladies and clerks, unless she gave a free and clear account of herself-- whence she had come, what she was doing, how she got her money.
Toward the end of the second day's wearisome and humiliating search she found a house that would admit her. It was a pretentious, well-furnished big house in Madison Avenue. The price--thirty-five dollars a week for board, a bedroom with a folding bed in an alcove, and a bath, was more than double what she had counted on paying, but she discovered that decent and clean lodgings and food fit to eat were not to be had for less. "And I simply can't live pig-fashion," said she. "I'd be so depressed that I could do nothing. I can't live like a wild animal, and I won't." She had some vague notion--foreboding--that this was not the proper spirit with which to face life. "I suppose I'm horribly foolish," reflected she, "but if I must go down, I'll go down with my colors flying." She did not know precisely what that phrase meant, but it sounded fine and brave and heartened her to take the expensive lodgings.
The landlady was a Mrs. Belloc. Mildred had not talked with her twenty minutes before she had a feeling that this name was assumed. The evening of her first day in the house she learned that her guess was correct --learned it from the landlady herself. After dinner Mrs. Belloc came into her room to cheer her up, to find out about her and to tell her about herself.
"Now that you've come," said she, "the house is full up--except some little rooms at the top that I'd as lief not fill. The probabilities are that any ladies who would take them wouldn't be refined enough to suit those I have. There are six, not counting me, every one with a bath and two with private parlors. And as they're all handsome, sensible women, ladylike and steady, I think the prospects are that they'll pay promptly and that I won't have any trouble."
Mildred reflected upon this curious statement. It sounded innocent enough, yet what a peculiar way to put a simple fact.
"Of course it's none of my business how people live as long as they keep up the respectabilities," pursued Mrs. Belloc. "It don't do to inquire into people in New York. Most of 'em come here because they want to live as they please."
"No doubt," said Mildred a little nervously, for she suspected her landlady of hitting at her, and wondered if she had come to cross-examine her and, if the results were not satisfactory, to put her into the street.
"I know I came for that reason," pursued Mrs. Belloc. "I was a school-teacher up in New England until about two years ago. Did you ever teach school?"
"Not yet," said Mildred. "And I don't think I ever shall. I don't know enough."
"Oh, yes, you do. A teacher doesn't need to know much. The wages are so poor--at least up in New England--that they don't expect you to know anything. It's all in the books. I left because I couldn't endure the life. Lord! how dull those little towns are! Ever live in a little town?"
"All my life," said Mildred.
"Well, you'll never go back."
"I hope not."
"You won't. Why should you? A sensible woman with looks--especially if she knows how to carry her clothes--can stay in New York as long as she pleases, and live off the fat of the land."
"That's good news," said Mildred. She began to like the landlady--not for what she said, but for the free and frank and friendly way of the saying--a human way, a comradely way, a live-and-let-live way.
"I didn't escape from New England without a struggle," continued Mrs. Belloc, who was plainly showing that she had taken a great fancy to "Mary Stevens."
"I suppose it was hard to save the money out of your salary," said Mildred.
Mrs. Belloc laughed. She was about thirty-five years old, though her eyes and her figure were younger than that. Her mouth was pleasant enough, but had lost some of its freshness. "Save money!" cried she. "I'd never have succeeded that way. I'd be there yet. I had never married--had two or three chances, but all from poor sticks looking for someone to support them. I saw myself getting old. I was looking years older than I do now. Talk about sea air for freshening a woman up--it isn't in it with the air of New York. Here's the town where women stay young. If I had come here five years ago I could almost try for the squab class."
"Squab class?" queried Mildred.
"Yes, squabs. Don't you see them around everywhere?-- the women dressed like girls of sixteen to eighteen--and some of them are that, and younger. They go hopping and laughing about--and they seem to please the men and to have no end of a good time. Especially the oldish men. Oh, yes, you know a squab on sight--tight skirt, low shoes and silk stockings, cute pretty face, always laughing, hat set on rakishly and hair done to match, and always a big purse or bag--with a yellow-back or so in it--as a kind of a hint, I guess."
Mildred had seen squabs. "I've envied them--in a way," said she. "Their parents seem to let them do about as they please."
"Their parents don't know--or don't care. Sometimes it's one, sometimes the other. They travel in two sets. One is where they meet young fellows of their own class--the kind they'll probably marry, unless they happen to draw the capital prize. The other set they travel in--well, it's the older men they meet round the swell hotels and so on--the yellow-back men."
"How queer!" exclaimed Mildred, before whose eyes a new world was opening. "But how do they--these --squabs--account for the money?"
"How do a thousand and one women in this funny town account at home for money and things?" retorted Mrs. Belloc. "Nothing's easier. For instance, often these squabs do--or pretend to do--a little something in the way of work--a little canvassing or artists' model or anything you please. That helps them to explain at home--and also to make each of the yellow- back men think he's the only one and that he's being almost loved for himself alone."
Mrs. Belloc laughed. Mildred was too astonished to laugh, and too interested--and too startled or shocked.
"But I was telling you how I got down here," continued the landlady. "Up in my town there was an old man--about seventy-five--close as the bark on a tree, and ugly and mean." She paused to draw a long breath and to shake her head angrily yet triumphantly at some figure her fancy conjured up. "Oh, he was a pup!--and is! Well, anyhow, I decided that I'd marry him. So I wrote home for fifty dollars. I borrowed another fifty here and there. I had seventy-five saved up against sickness. I went up to Boston and laid it all out in underclothes and house things--not showy but fine and good to look at. Then one day, when the weather was fine and I knew the old man would be out in his buggy driving round--I dressed myself up to beat the band. I took hours to it--scrubbing, powdering, sacheting, perfuming, fixing the hair, fixing my finger-nails, fixing up my feet, polishing every nail and making them look better than most hands."
Mildred was so interested that she was excited. What strange freak was coming?
"You never could guess," pursued Mrs. Belloc, complacently. "I took my sunshade and went out, all got up to kill. And I walked along the road until I saw the old man's buggy coming with him in it. Then I gave my ankle a frightful wrench. My! How it hurt!"
"What a pity!" said Mildred sympathetically. "What a shame!"
"A pity? A shame?" cried Mrs. Belloc, laughing. "Why, my dear, I did it a-purpose."
"On purpose!" exclaimed Mildred.
"Certainly. That was my game. I screamed out with pain--and the scream was no fake, I can tell you. And I fell down by the roadside on a nice grassy spot where no dust would get on me. Well, up comes the old skinflint in his buggy. He climbed down and helped me get off my slipper and stocking. I knew I had him the minute I saw his old face looking at that foot I had fixed up so beautifully."
"How did you ever think of it?" exclaimed Mildred.
"Go and teach school for ten years in a dull little town, my dear--and look in the glass every day and see your youth fading away--and you'll think of most anything. Well, to make a long story short, the old man took me in the buggy to his house where he lived with his deaf, half-blind old widowed daughter. I had to stay there three weeks. I married him the fourth week. And just two months to a day from the afternoon I sprained my ankle, he gave me fifty dollars a week--all signed and sealed by a lawyer--to go away and leave him alone. I might have stood out for more, but I was too anxious to get to New York. And here I am!" She gazed about the well-furnished room, typical of that almost luxurious house, with an air of triumphant satisfaction. Said she: "I've no patience with a woman who says she can't get on. Where's her brains?"
Mildred was silent. Perhaps it was a feeling of what was hazily in the younger woman's mind and a desire to answer it that led Mrs. Belloc to say further: "I suppose there's some that would criticize my way of getting there. But I want to know, don't all women get there by working men? Only most of them are so stupid that they have to go on living with the man. I think it's low to live with a man you hate."
"Oh, I'm not criticizing anybody," said Mildred.
"I didn't think you were," said Mrs. Belloc. "If I hadn't seen you weren't that kind, I'd not have been so confidential. Not that I'm secretive with anybody. I say and do what I please. Anyone who doesn't like my way or me can take the other side of the street. I didn't come to New York to go in society. I came here to live."
Mildred looked at her admiringly. There were things about Mrs. Belloc that she did not admire; other things--suspected rather than known things--that she knew she would shrink from, but she heartily admired and profoundly envied her utter indifference to the opinion of others, her fine independent way of walking her own path at her own gait.
"I took this boarding-house," Mrs. Belloc went on, "because I didn't want to be lonesome. I don't like all--or even most of--the ladies that live here. But they're all amusing to talk with--and don't put on airs except with their men friends. And one or two are the real thing--good-hearted, fond of a joke, with- out any meanness. I tell you, New York is a mighty fine place if you get `in right.' Of course, if you don't, it's h-e-l-l." (Mrs. Belloc took off its unrefined edge by spelling it.) "But what place isn't?" she added.
"And your husband never bothers you?" inquired Mildred.
"And never will," replied Mrs. Belloc. "When he dies I'll come into a little more--about a hundred and fifty a week in all. Not a fortune, but enough with what the boarding-house brings in. I'm a pretty fair business woman."
"I should say so!" exclaimed Mildred.
"You said you were Miss Stevens, didn't you?" said Mrs. Belloc--and Mildred knew that her turn had come.
"Yes," replied she. "But I am also a married woman." She hesitated, reddened. "I didn't give you my married name."
"That's your own business," said Mrs. Belloc in her easiest manner. "My right name isn't Belloc, either. But I've dropped that other life. You needn't feel a bit embarrassed in this house. Some of my boarders seem to be married. All that have regular-appearing husbands say they are. What do I care, so long as everything goes along smoothly? I don't get excited about trifles."
"Some day perhaps I'll tell you about myself," said Mildred. "Just at present I--well, I seem not to be able to talk about things."
"It's not a bad idea to keep your mouth shut, as long as your affairs are unsettled," advised Mrs. Belloc. "I can see you've had little experience. But you'll come out all right. Just keep cool, and don't fret about trifles. And don't let any man make a fool of you. That's where we women get left. We're afraid of men. We needn't be. We can mighty easily make them afraid of us. Use the soft hand till you get him well in your grip. Then the firm hand. Nothing coarse or cruel or mean. But firm and self-respecting."
Mildred was tempted to take Mrs. Belloc fully into her confidence and get the benefit of the advice of shrewdness and experience. So strong was the temptation, she would have yielded to it had Mrs. Belloc asked a few tactful, penetrating questions. But Mrs. Belloc refrained, and Mildred's timidity or delicacy induced her to postpone. The next day she wrote Stanley Baird, giving her address and her name and asking him to call "any afternoon at four or five." She assumed that he would come on the following day, but the letter happened to reach him within an hour of her mailing it, and he came that very afternoon.
When she went down to the drawing-room to receive him, she found him standing in the middle of the room gazing about with a quizzical expression. As soon as the greetings were over he said:
"You must get out of here, Mildred. This won't do."
"Indeed I shan't," said she. "I've looked everywhere, and this is the only comfortable place I could find--where the rates were reasonable and where the landlady didn't have her nose in everybody's business."
"You don't understand," said he. "This is a bird- cage. Highly gilded, but a bird-cage."
She had never heard the phrase, but she understood-- and instantly she knew that he was right. She colored violently, sat down abruptly. But in a moment she recovered herself, and with fine defiance said:
"I don't care. Mrs. Belloc is a kind-hearted woman, and it's as easy to be respectable here as anywhere."
"Sure," assented he. "But you've got to consider appearances to a certain extent. You won't be able to find the right sort of a boarding-house--one you'd be comfortable in. You've got to have a flat of your own."
"I can't afford it," said Mildred. "I can't afford this, even. But I simply will not live in a shabby, mussy way."
"That's right!" cried Stanley. "You can't do proper work in poor surroundings. Some women could, but not your sort. But don't worry. I'm going to see you through. I'll find a place--right away. You want to start in at once, don't you?"
"I've got to," said Mildred.
"Then leave it all to me."
"But what am I to do?"
"Sing, if you can. If not, then act. We'll have you on the stage within a year or so. I'm sure of it. And I'll get my money back, with interest."
"I don't see how I can accept it," said Mildred very feebly.
"You've got to," said Stanley. "What alternative is there? None. So let's bother no more about it. I'll consult with those who know, find out what the thing costs, and arrange everything. You're as helpless as a baby, and you know it."
Yes, Mildred knew it.
He looked at her with an amused smile. "Come, out with it!" he cried. "You've got something on your mind. Let's get everything straight--and keep it that way."
Mildred hung her head.
"You're uneasy because I, a man, am doing this for you, a young woman? Is that it?"
"Yes," she confessed.
He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and spoke in a brisk, businesslike way. "In the first place, it's got to be done, hasn't it? And someone has got to do it? And there is no one offering but me? Am I right?"
"Then I've got to do it, and you've got to let me. There's logic, if ever there was logic. A Philadelphia lawyer couldn't knock a hole in it. You trust me, don't you?"
She was silent.
"You don't trust me, then," said he cheerfully. "Well, perhaps you're right. But you trust yourself, don't you?"
She moved restlessly, but remained silent.
"You are afraid I might put you in a difficult position?"
"Something like that," she admitted, in a low, embarrassed voice.
"You fear that I expect some return which you do not intend to give?"
She was silent.
"Well, I don't," said he bluntly. "So put your mind at rest. Some day I'll tell you why I am doing this, but I want you to feel that I ask nothing of you but my money back with interest, when you can afford to pay."
"I can't feel that," said she. "You're putting me in your debt--so heavily that I'd feel I ought to pay anything you asked. But I couldn't and wouldn't pay."
"Unless you felt like it?" suggested he.
"It's honest for me to warn you that I'm not likely to feel that way."
"There is such a thing as winning a woman's love, isn't there?" said he jestingly. It was difficult to tell when Stanley Baird was jesting and when he was in earnest.
"Is that what you expect?" said she gravely.
"If I say yes?"
She lowered her eyes and laughed in an embarrassed way.
He was frankly amused. "You see, you feel that you're in my power. And you are. So why not make the best of it?" A pause, then he said abruptly and with a convincing manliness, "I think, Mildred, you can trust me not to be a beast."
She colored and looked at him with quick contrition. "I'm ashamed of myself," said she. "Please forget that I said anything. I'll take what I must, and I'll pay it back as soon as I can. And--thank you, Stanley." The tears were in her eyes. "If I had anything worth your taking I'd be glad to give it to you. What vain fools we women are!"
"Aren't you, though!" laughed he. "And now it's all settled--until you're on the stage, and free, and the money's paid back--with interest. I shall charge you six per cent."
When she first knew him she had not been in the least impressed by what now seemed to her his finest and rarest trait, for, in those days she had been as ignorant of the realities of human nature as one who has never adventured his boat beyond the mouth of the peaceful land-locked harbor is ignorant of the open sea. But in the hard years she had been learning--not only from Presbury and General Siddall, but from the cook and the housemaid, from every creditor, every tradesman, everyone whose attitude socially toward her had been modified by her changed fortunes--and whose attitude had not been changed? Thus, she was now able to appreciate--at least in some measure--Stanley Baird's delicacy and tact. No, not delicacy and tact, for that implied effort. His ability to put this offer in such a way that she could accept without serious embarrassment arose from a genuine indifference to money as money, a habit of looking upon it simply as a means to an end. He offered her the money precisely as he would have offered her his superior strength if it had been necessary to cross a too deep and swift creek. She had the sense that he felt he was doing something even less notable than he admitted, and that he talked of it as a valuable and rather unusual service simply because it was the habit thus to regard such matters.
As they talked on of "the great career" her spirits went up and up. It was evident that he now had a new and keen interest in life, that she was doing him a greater favor than he was doing her. He had always had money, plenty of it, more than he could use. He now had more than ever--for, several rich relatives had died and, after the habit of the rich, had left everything to him, the one of all the connections who needed it least. He had a very human aversion to spending money upon people or things he did not like. He would have fought to the last court an attempt by his wife to get alimony. He had a reputation with the "charity gang" of being stingy because he would not give them so much as the price of a bazaar ticket. Also, the impecunious spongers at his clubs spread his fame as a "tight-wad" because he refused to let them "stick him up" for even a round of drinks. Where many a really stingy man yielded through weakness or fear of public opinion, he stood firm. His one notable surrender of any kind had been his marriage; that bitter experience had cured him of the surrendering habit for all time. Thenceforth he did absolutely and in everything as he pleased.
Mildred had heard that he was close about money. She had all but forgotten it, because her own experience with him had made such a charge seem ridiculous. She now assumed--so far as she thought about it at all--that he was extremely generous. She did not realize what a fine discriminating generosity his was, or how striking an evidence of his belief in her as well as of his liking for her.
As he rose to go he said: "You mustn't forget that our arrangement is a secret between us. Neither of us can afford to have anyone know it."
"There isn't anyone in the world who wouldn't misunderstand it," said she, without the least feeling of embarrassment.
"Just so," said he. "And I want you to live in such a way that I can come to call. We must arrange things so that you will take your own name--"
"I intend to use the name Mary Stevens in my work," she interrupted.
"But there mustn't be any concealment, any mystery to excite curiosity and scandal--"
This time the interruption was her expression. He turned to see what had startled her, and saw in the doorway of the drawing-room the grotesquely neat and stylish figure of the little general. Before either could speak he said:
"How d'you do, Mr. Baird? You'll pardon me if I ask you to leave me alone with my wife."
Stanley met the situation with perfect coolness. "How are you, General?" said he. "Certainly, I was just going." He extended his hand to Mildred, said in a correct tone of conventional friendliness, "Then you'll let me know when you're settled?" He bowed, moved toward the door, shook hands with the general, and passed out, giving from start to finish a model example of a man of the world extricating him- self from an impossible situation and leaving it the better for his having been entangled. To a man of Siddall's incessant and clumsy self-consciousness such unaffected ease could not but be proof positive of Mildred's innocence--unless he had overheard. And his first words convinced her that he had not. Said he:
"So you sent for your old admirer?"
"I ran across him accidentally," replied Mildred.
"I know," said the little general. "My men picked you up at the pier and haven't lost sight of you since. It's fortunate that I've kept myself informed, or I might have misunderstood that chap's being here." A queer, cloudy look came into his eyes. "I must give him a warning for safety's sake." He waved his hand in dismissal of such an unimportant trifle as the accidental Baird. He went on, his wicked eyes bent coldly and dully upon her: "Do you know what kind of a house this is?"
"Stanley Baird urged me to leave," replied she. "But I shall stay until I find a better--and that's not easy."
"Yes, my men have reported to me on the difficulties you've had. It was certainly fortunate for you that I had them look after you. Otherwise I'd never have understood your landing in this sort of a house. You are ready to come with me?"
"Your secretary explained that if I left the hotel it was the end."
"He told you that by my orders."
"So he explained," said Mildred. She seated herself, overcome by a sudden lassitude that was accompanied not by fear, but by indifference. "Won't you sit down? I am willing to hear what you have to say."
The little general, about to sit, was so astonished that he straightened and stiffened himself. "In consenting to overlook your conduct and take you back I have gone farther than I ever intended. I have taken into consideration your youth and inexperience."
"But I am not going back," said Mildred.
The little general slowly seated himself. "You have less than two hundred and fifty dollars left," said he.
"Really? Your spies know better than I."
"I have seen Presbury. He assures me that in no circumstances will he and your mother take you back."
"They will not have the chance to refuse," said Mildred.
"As for your brother--"
"I have no brother," said she coldly.
"Then you are coming back with me."
"No," said Mildred. "I should"--she cast about for an impressive alternative--"I should stay on here, rather."
The little general--his neat varnished leather and be-spatted shoes just touched the floor--examined his highly polished top-hat at several angles. Finally he said: "You need not fear that your misconduct will be remembered against you. I shall treat you in every way as my wife. I shall assume that your--your flight was an impulse that you regret."
"I shan't go back," said Mildred. "Nothing you could offer would change me."
"I cannot make any immediate concession on the-- the matter that caused you to go," pursued he, as if she had not spoken, "but if I see that you have reliability and good sense, I'll agree to give you an allowance later."
Mildred eyed him curiously. "Why are you making these offers, these concessions?" she said. "You think everyone in the world is a fool except yourself. You're greatly deceived. I know that you don't mean what you've been saying. I know that if you got me in your power again, you would do something frightful. I've seen through that mask you wear. I know the kind of man you are."
"If you know that," said the general in his even slow way, monotonous, almost lifeless, "you know you'd better come with me than stand out against me."
She did not let him see how this struck terror into her. She said: "No matter what you might do to me, when I'm away from you, it would be less than you'd do with me under your roof. At any rate, it'd seem less."
The general reflected, decided to change to another point: "You made a bargain with me. You've broken it. I never let anyone break a bargain with me without making them regret it. I'm giving you a chance to keep your bargain."
She was tempted to discuss, but she could not find the words, or the strength. Besides, how futile to discuss with such a man. She sank back in her chair wearily. "I shall never go back," she said.
He looked at her, his face devoid of expression, but she had a sense of malignance unutterable eying her from behind a screen. He said: "I see you've misunderstood my generosity. You think I'm weak where you are concerned because I've come to you instead of doing as I said and making you come to me." He rose. "Well, my offer to you is closed. And once more I say, you will come to me and ask to be taken back. I may or may not take you back. It depends on how I'll feel at that time."
Slowly, with his ludicrously pompous strut, he marched to the drawing-room door. She had not felt like smiling, but if there had been any such inclination it would have fled before the countenance that turned upon her at the threshold. It was the lean, little face with the funny toupee and needle-like mustache and imperial, but behind it lay a personality like the dull, cold, yellow eyes of the devil-fish ambushed in the hazy mass of dun-colored formlessness of collapsed body and tentacles. He said:
"You'd best be careful how you conduct yourself. You'll be under constant observation. And any friends you make--they'd do well to avoid you."
He was gone. She sat without the power of motion, without the power of thought. After a time--perhaps long, perhaps short, she did not know--Mrs. Belloc came in and entered upon a voluble apology for the maid's having shown "the little gentleman" into the drawing-room when another was already there. "That maid's as green as spring corn," said she. "Such a thing never happened in my house before. And it'll never happen again. I do hope it didn't cause trouble."
"It was my husband," said Mildred. "I had to see him some time."
"He's certainly a very elegant little gentleman," said Mrs. Belloc. "I rather like small men, myself."
Mildred gazed at her vaguely and said, "Tell me-- a rich man, a very rich man--if he hates anyone, can he make trouble?"
"Money can do anything in this town," replied Mrs. Belloc. "But usually rich men are timid and stingy. If they weren't, they'd make us all cringe. As it is, I've heard some awful stories of how men and women who've got some powerful person down on them have been hounded."
Mildred turned deathly sick. "I think I'll go to my room," she said, rising uncertainly and forcing herself toward the door.
Mrs. Belloc's curiosity could not restrain itself. "You're leaving?" she asked. "You're going back to your husband?"
She was startled when the girl abruptly turned on her and cried with flashing eyes and voice strong and vibrant with passion: "Never! Never! No matter what comes--never!"
The rest of the day and that night she hid in her room and made no effort to resist the terror that preyed upon her. Just as our strength is often the source of weakness, so our weaknesses often give birth to strength. Her terror of the little general, given full swing, shrieked and grimaced itself into absurdity. She was ashamed of her orgy, was laughing at it as the sun and intoxicating air of a typical New York morning poured in upon her. She accepted Mrs. Belloc's invitation to take a turn through the park and up Riverside Drive in a taxicab, came back restored to her normal state of blind confidence in the future. About noon Stanley Baird telephoned.
"We must not see each other again for some time," said he. "I rather suspect that you--know--who may be having you watched."
"I'm sure of it," said she. "He warned me."
"Don't let that disturb you," pursued Stanley. "A man--a singing teacher--his name's Eugene Jennings-- will call on you this afternoon at three. Do exactly as he suggests. Let him do all the talking."
She had intended to tell Baird frankly that she thought, indeed knew, that it was highly dangerous for him to enter into her affairs in any way, and to urge him to draw off. She felt that it was only fair to act so toward one who had been unselfishly generous to her. But now that the time for speaking had come, she found herself unable to speak. Only by flatly refusing to have anything to do with his project could she prevail upon him. To say less than that she had completely and finally changed her mind would sound, and would be, insincere. And that she could not say. She felt how noble it would be to say this, how selfish, and weak, too, it was to cling to him, possibly to involve him in disagreeable and even dangerous complications, but she had no strength to do what she would have denounced another as base for not doing. Instead of the lofty words that flow so freely from the lips of stage and fiction heroines, instead of the words that any and every reader of this history would doubtless have pronounced in the same circumstances, she said:
"You're quite sure you want to go on?"
"Why not?" came instantly back over the wire.
"He is a very, very relentless man," replied she.
"Did he try to frighten you?"
"I'm afraid he succeeded."
"You're not going back on the career!" exclaimed he excitedly. "I'll come down there and--"
"No, no," cried she. "I was simply giving you a chance to free yourself." She felt sure of him now. She scrambled toward the heights of moral grandeur. "I want you to stop. I've no right to ask you to involve yourself in my misfortunes. Stanley, you mustn't. I can't allow it."
"Oh, fudge!" laughed he. "Don't give me these scares. Don't forget--Jennings at three. Good-by and good luck."
And he rang off that she might have no chance on impulse to do herself mischief with her generous thoughtfulness for him. She felt rather mean, but not nearly so mean as she would have felt had she let the opportunity go by with no generous word said. "And no doubt my aversion for that little wretch," thought she, "makes me think him more terrible than he is. After all, what can he do? Watch me--and discover nothing, because there'll be nothing to discover."
Jennings came exactly at three--came with the air of a man who wastes no one's time and lets no one waste his time. He was a youngish man of forty or there- abouts, with a long sharp nose, a large tight mouth, and eyes that seemed to be looking restlessly about for money. That they had not looked in vain seemed to be indicated by such facts as that he came in a private brougham and that he was most carefully dressed, apparently with the aid of a valet.
"Miss Stevens," he said with an abrupt bow, before Mildred had a chance to speak, "you have come to New York to take singing lessons--to prepare yourself for the stage. And you wish a comfortable place to live and to work." He extended his gloved hand, shook hers frigidly, dropped it. "We shall get on--if you work, but only if you work. I do not waste myself upon triflers." He drew a card from his pocket. "If you will go to see the lady whose name and address are written on this card, I think you will find the quarters you are looking for."
"Thank you," said Mildred.
"Come to me--my address is on the card, also-- at half-past ten on Saturday. We will then lay out your work."
"If you find I have a voice worth while," Mildred ventured.
"That, of course," said Mr. Jennings curtly. "Until half-past ten on Saturday, good day."
Again he gave the abrupt foreign bow and, while Mildred was still struggling with her surprise and confusion, she saw him, through the window, driving rapidly away. Mrs. Belloc came drifting through the room; she had the habit of looking about whenever there were new visitors, and in her it was not irritating because her interest was innocent and sympathetic. Said Mildred:
"Did you see that man, Mrs. Belloc?"
"What an extraordinary nose he had," replied she.
"Yes, I noticed that," said Mildred. "But it was the only thing I did notice. He is a singing teacher-- Mr. Jennings."
"He's the best known singing teacher in New York. He gets fifteen dollars a half-hour."
"Then I simply can't take from him!" exclaimed Mildred, before she thought. "That's frightful!"
"Isn't it, though?" echoed Mrs. Belloc. "I've heard his income is fifty thousand a year, what with lessons and coaching and odds and ends. There's a lot of them that do well, because so many fool women with nothing to do cultivate their voices--when they can't sing a little bit. But he tops them all. I don't see how any teacher can put fifteen dollars of value into half an hour. But I suppose he does, or he wouldn't get it. Still, his may be just another case of New York nerve. This is the biggest bluff town in the world, I do believe. Here, you can get away with anything, I don't care what it is, if only you bluff hard enough."
As there was no reason for delay and many reasons against it, Mildred went at once to the address on the card Jennings had left. She found Mrs. Howell Brindley installed in a plain comfortable apartment in Fifty-ninth Street, overlooking the park and high enough to make the noise of the traffic endurable. A Swedish maid, prepossessingly white and clean, ushered her into the little drawing-room, which was furnished with more simplicity and individual taste than is usual anywhere in New York, cursed of the mania for useless and tasteless showiness. There were no messy draperies, no fussy statuettes, vases, gilt boxes, and the like. Mildred awaited the entrance of Mrs. Brindley hopefully.
She was not disappointed. Presently in came a quietly-dressed, frank-looking woman of a young forty --a woman who had by no means lost her physical freshness, but had gained charm of another and more enduring kind. As she came forward with extended but not overeager hand, she said:
"I was expecting you, Mrs. Siddall--that is, Miss Stevens."
"Mr. Jennings did not say when I was to come. If I am disturbing you--"
Mrs. Brindley hastened to assure her that her visit was quite convenient. "I must have someone to share the expense of this apartment with me, and I want the matter settled. Mr. Jennings has explained about you to me, and now that I've seen you--" here she smiled charmingly--"I am ready to say that it is for you to say."
Mildred did not know how to begin. She looked at Mrs. Brindley with appeal in her troubled young eyes.
"You no doubt wish to know something about me," said Mrs. Brindley. "My husband was a composer-- a friend of Mr. Jennings. He died two years ago. I am here in New York to teach the piano. What the lessons will bring, with my small income, will enable me to live--if I can find someone to help out at the expenses here. As I understand it, you are willing to pay forty dollars a week, I to run the house, pay all the bills, and so on--all, of course, if you wish to come here."
Mildred made a not very successful attempt to conceal her embarrassment.
"Perhaps you would like to look at the apartment?" suggested Mrs. Brindley.
"Thank you, yes," said Mildred.
The tour of the apartment--two bedrooms, dining- room, kitchen, sitting-room, large bath-room, drawing- room--took only a few minutes, but Mildred and Mrs. Brindley contrived to become much better acquainted. Said Mildred, when they were in the drawing-room again:
"It's most attractive--just what I should like. What--how much did Mr. Jennings say?"
"Forty dollars a week." She colored slightly and spoke with the nervousness of one not in the habit of discussing money matters. "I do not see how I could make it less. That is the fair share of the--"
"Oh, I think that is most reasonable," interrupted Mildred. "And I wish to come."
Mrs. Brindley gave an almost childlike sigh of relief and smiled radiantly. "Then it's settled," said she. "I've been so nervous about it." She looked at Mildred with friendly understanding. "I think you and I are somewhat alike about practical things. You've not had much experience, either, have you? I judge so from the fact that Mr. Jennings is looking after everything for you."
"I've had no experience at all," said Mildred. "That is why I'm hesitating. I'm wondering if I can afford to pay so much."
Mrs. Brindley laughed. "Mr. Jennings wished to fix it at sixty a week, but I insisted that forty was enough," said she.
Mildred colored high with embarrassment. How much did Mrs. Brindley know?--or how little? She stammered: "Well, if Mr. Jennings says it is all right, I'll come."
"You'll let me know to-morrow? You can telephone Mr. Jennings."
"Yes, I'll let you know to-morrow. I'm almost sure I'll come. In fact, I'm quite sure. And--I think we shall get on well together."
"We can help each other," said Mrs. Brindley. "I don't care for anything in the world but music."
"I want to be that way," said Mildred. "I shall be that way."
"It's the only sure happiness--to care for something, for some thing," said Mrs. Brindley. "People die, or disappoint one, or become estranged. But when one centers on some kind of work, it gives pleasure always--more and more pleasure."
"I am so afraid I haven't voice enough, or of the right kind," said Mildred. "Mr. Jennings is going to try me on Saturday. Really I've no right to settle anything until he has given his opinion."
Mrs. Brindley smiled with her eyes only, and Mildred wondered.
"If he should say that I wouldn't do," she went on, "I'd not know which way to turn."
"But he'll not say that," said Mrs. Brindley. "You can sing, can't you? You have sung?"
"Then you'll be accepted by him. And it will take him a long time to find out whether you'll do for a professional."
"I'm afraid I sing very badly."
"That will not matter. You'll sing better than at least half of Jennings's pupils."
"Then he doesn't take only those worth while?"
Mrs. Brindley looked amused. "How would he live if he did that? It's a teacher's business to teach. Learning--that's the pupil's lookout. If teachers taught only those who could and would learn, how would they live?"
"Then I'll not know whether I'll do!" exclaimed Mildred.
"You'll have to find out for yourself," said Mrs. Brindley. "No one can tell you. Anyone's opinion might be wrong. For example, I've known Jennings, who is a very good judge, to be wrong--both ways." Hesitatingly: "Why not sing for me? I'd like to hear."
"Would you tell me what you honestly thought?" said Mildred.
Mrs. Brindley laughingly shook her head. Mildred liked her honesty. "Then it'd be useless to sing for you," said she. "I'm not vain about my voice. I'd simply like to make a living by it, if I could. I'll even confess that there are many things I care for more than for music. Does that prove that I can never sing professionally?"
"No, indeed," Mrs. Brindley assured her. "It'd be strange if a girl of your age cared exclusively for music. The passion comes with the work, with progress, success. And some of the greatest--that is, the most famous and best paid--singers never care much about music, except as a vanity, and never understand it. A singer means a person born with a certain shape of mouth and throat, a certain kind of vocal chords. The rest may be natural or acquired. It's the instrument that makes the singer, not brains or temperament."
"Do let me sing for you," said Mildred. "I think it will help me."
Between them they chose a little French song-- "Chanson d'Antonine"--and Mrs. Brindley insisted on her playing her own accompaniment. "I wish to listen," said she, "and I can't if I play."
Mildred was surprised at her own freedom from nervousness. She sang neither better nor worse than usual --sang in the clear and pleasant soprano which she flattered herself was not unmusical. When she finished she said:
"That's about as I usually sing. What do you think?"
Mrs. Brindley reflected before she replied: "I believe it's worth trying. If I were you, I should keep on trying, no matter what anyone said."
Mildred was instantly depressed. "You think Mr. Jennings may reject me?" she asked.
"I know he will not," replied Mrs. Brindley. "Not as long as you can pay for the lessons. But I was thinking of the real thing--of whether you could win out as a singer."
"And you don't think I can?" said Mildred.
"On the contrary, I believe you can," replied Mrs. Brindley. "A singer means so much besides singing. The singing is the smallest part of it. You'll understand when you get to work. I couldn't explain now. But I can say that you ought to go ahead."
Mildred, who had her share of vanity, had hoped for some enthusiasm. Mrs. Brindley's judicial tone was a severe blow. She felt a little resentful, began to cast about for vanity-consoling reasons for Mrs. Brindley's restraint. "She means well," she said to herself, "but she's probably just a tiny bit jealous. She's not so young as she once was, and she hasn't the faintest hope of ever being anything more than a piano-teacher."
Mrs. Brindley showed that she had more than an inkling of Mildred's frame of mind by going on to say in a gentle, candid way: "I want to help you. So I shall be careful not to encourage you to believe too much in what you have. That would prevent you from getting what you need. You must remember, you are no longer a drawing-room singer, but a candidate for the profession. That's a very different thing."
Mildred saw that she was mistaken, that Mrs. Brindley was honest and frank and had doubtless told her the exact truth. But her vanity remained sore. Never be- fore had anyone said any less of her singing than that it was wonderful, marvelous, equal to a great deal that passed for fine in grand opera. She had known that this was exaggeration, but she had not known how grossly exaggerated. Thus, this her first experience of the professional attitude was galling. Only her unusual good sense saved her from being angry with Mrs. Brindley. And it was that same good sense that moved her presently to try to laugh at herself. With a brave attempt to smile gayly she said:
"You don't realize how you've taken me down. I had no idea I was so conceited about my singing. I can't truthfully say I like your frankness, but there's a part of me that's grateful to you for it, and when I get over feeling hurt, I'll be grateful through and through."
Mrs. Brindley's face lighted up beautifully. "You'll do!" she cried. "I'm sure you'll do. I've been waiting and watching to see how you would take my criticism. That's the test--how they take criticism. If they don't take it at all, they'll not go very far, no matter how talented they are. If they take it as you've taken it, there's hope--great hope. Now, I'm not afraid to tell you that you sang splendidly for an amateur--that you surprised me."
"Don't spoil it all," said Mildred. "You were right; I can't sing."
"Not for grand opera, not for comic opera even," replied Mrs. Brindley. "But you will sing, and sing well, in one or the other, if you work."
"You really mean that?" said Mildred.
"If you work intelligently and persistently," said Mrs. Brindley. "That's a big if--as you'll discover in a year or so."
"You'll see," said Mildred confidently. "Why, I've nothing else to do, and no other hope."
Mrs. Brindley's smile had a certain sadness in it. She said:
"It's the biggest if in all this world."