The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
Mildred went to bed that night proud of her strength of character. Were there many women-- was there any other woman she knew or knew about-- who in her desperate circumstances would have done what she had done? She could have married a man who would have given her wealth and the very best social position. She had refused him. She could have continued to "borrow" from him the wherewithal to keep her in luxurious comfort while she looked about at her ease for a position that meant independence. She had thrust the temptation from her. All this from purely high-minded motives; for other motive there could be none. She went to sleep, confident that on the morrow she would continue to tread the path of self- respect with unfaltering feet. But when morning came her throat was once more slightly off--enough to make it wise to postpone the excursion in search of a trial for musical comedy. The excitement or the reaction from excitement--it must be the one or the other-- had resulted in weakness showing itself, naturally, at her weakest point--that delicate throat. When life was calm and orderly, and her mind was at peace, the trouble would pass, and she could get a position of some kind. Not the career she had dreamed; that was impossible. But she had voice enough for a little part, where a living could be made; and perhaps she would presently fathom the secret of the cause of her delicate throat and would be able to go far--possibly as far as she had dreamed.
The delay of a few days was irritating. She would have preferred to push straight on, while her courage was taut. Still, the delay had one advantage--she could prepare the details of her plan. So, instead of going to the office of the theatrical manager--Crossley, the most successful producer of light, musical pieces of all kinds--she went to call on several of the girls she knew who were more or less in touch with matters theatrical. And she found out just how to proceed toward accomplishing a purpose which ought not to be difficult for one with such a voice as hers and with physical charms peculiarly fitted for stage exhibition.
Not until Saturday was her voice at its best again. She, naturally, decided not to go to the theatrical office on Monday, but to wait until she had seen and talked with Keith. One more day did not matter, and Keith might be stimulating, might even have some useful suggestions to offer. She received him with a manner that was a version, and a most charming version, of his own tranquil indifference. But his first remark threw her into a panic. Said he:
"I've only a few minutes. No, thanks, I'll not sit."
"You needn't have bothered to come," said she coldly.
"I always keep my engagements. Baird tells me you have given up the arrangement you had with him. You'll probably be moving from here, as you'll not have the money to stay on. Send me your new address, please." He took a paper from his pocket and gave it to her. "You will find this useful--if you are in earnest," said he. "Good-by, and good luck. I'll hope to see you in a few weeks."
Before she had recovered herself in the least, she was standing there alone, the paper in her hand, her stupefied gaze upon the door through which he had disappeared. All his movements and his speech had been of his customary, his invariable, deliberateness; but she had the impression of whirling and rushing haste. With a long gasping sigh she fell to trembling all over. She sped to her room, got its door safely closed just in time. Down she sank upon the bed, to give way to an attack of hysterics.
We are constantly finding ourselves putting forth the lovely flowers and fruit of the virtues whereof the heroes and heroines of romance are so prolific. Usually nothing occurs to disillusion us about ourselves. But now and then fate, in unusually brutal ironic mood, forces us to see the real reason why we did this or that virtuous, self-sacrificing action, or blossomed forth in this or that nobility of character. Mildred was destined now to suffer one of these savage blows of disillusionment about self that thrust us down from the exalted moral heights where we have been preening into humble kinship with the weak and frail human race. She saw why she had refused Stanley, why she had stopped "borrowing," why she had put off going to the theatrical managers, why she had delayed moving into quarters within her diminished and rapidly diminishing means. She had been counting on Donald Keith. She had convinced herself that he loved her even as she loved him. He would fling away his cold reserve, would burst into raptures over her virtue and her courage, would ask her to marry him. Or, if he should put off that, he would at least undertake the responsibility of getting her started in her career. Well! He had come; he had shown that Stanley had told him all or practically all; and he had gone, without asking a sympathetic question or making an encouraging remark. As indifferent as he seemed. Burnt out, cold, heartless. She had leaned upon him; he had slipped away, leaving her to fall painfully, and ludicrously, to the ground. She had been boasting to herself that she was strong, that she would of her own strength establish herself in independence. She had not dreamed that she would be called upon to "make good." She raved against Keith, against herself, against fate. And above the chaos and the wreck within her, round and round, hither and yon, flapped and shied the black thought, "What shall I do?"
When she sat up and dried her eyes, she chanced to see the paper Keith had left; with wonder at her having forgotten it and with a throb of hope she opened and began to read his small, difficult writing:
A career means self-denial. Not occasional, intermittent, but steady, constant, daily, hourly--a purpose that never relaxes.
A career as a singer means not only the routine, the patient tedious work, the cutting out of time-wasting people and time-wasting pleasures that are necessary to any and all careers. It means in addition--for such a person-- sacrifices far beyond a character so undisciplined and so corrupted by conventional life as is yours. The basis of a singing career is health and strength. You must have great physical strength to be able to sing operas. You must have perfect health.
Diet and exercise. A routine life, its routine rigidly adhered to, day in and day out, month after month, year after year. Small and uninteresting and monotonous food, nothing to drink, and, of course, no cigarettes. Such is the secret of a reliable voice for you who have a "delicate throat"--which is the silly, shallow, and misleading way of saying a delicate digestion, for sore throat always means indigestion, never means anything else. To sing, the instrument, the absolutely material machine, must be in perfect order. The rest is easy.
Some singers can commit indiscretions of diet and of lack of exercise. But not you, because you lack this natural strength. Do not be deceived and misled by their example.
Exercise. You must make your body strong, powerful. You have not the muscles by nature. You must acquire them.
The following routine of diet and exercise made one of the great singers, and kept her great for a quarter of a century. If you adopt it, without variation, you can make a career. If you do not, you need not hope for anything but failure and humiliation. Within my knowledge sixty-eight young men and young women have started in on this system. Not one had the character to persist to success. This may suggest why, except two who are at the very top, all of the great singers are men and women whom nature has made powerful of body and of digestion--so powerful that their indiscretions only occasionally make them unreliable.
There Mildred stopped and flung the paper aside. She did not care even to glance at the exercises pre- scribed or at the diet and the routine of daily work. How dull and uninspired! How grossly material! Stomach! Chewing! Exercising machines! Plodding dreary miles daily, rain or shine! What could such things have to do with the free and glorious career of an inspired singer? Keith was laughing at her as he hastened away, abandoning her to her fate.
She examined herself in the glass to make sure that the ravages of her attack of rage and grief and despair could be effaced within a few hours, then she wrote a note--formal yet friendly--to Stanley Baird, informing him that she would receive him that evening. He came while Cyrilla and Mildred were having their after, dinner coffee and cigarettes. He was a man who took great pains with his clothes, and got them where pains was not in vain. That evening he had arrayed himself with unusual care, and the result was a fine, manly figure of the well-bred New-Yorker type. Certainly Stanley had ground for his feeling that he deserved and got liking for himself. The three sat in the library for perhaps half an hour, then Mrs. Brindley rose to leave the other two alone. Mildred urged her to stay--Mildred who had been impatient of her presence when Stanley was announced. Urged her to stay in such a tone that Cyrilla could not persist, but had to sit down again. As the three talked on and on, Mildred continued to picture life with Stanley--continued the vivid picturing she had begun within ten minutes of Stanley's entering, the picturing that had caused her to insist on Cyrilla's remaining as chaperon. A young girl can do no such picturing as Mildred could not avoid doing. To the young girl married life, its tete-a-tetes, its intimacies, its routine, are all a blank. Any attempt she makes to fill in details goes far astray. But Mildred, with Stanley there before her, could see her life as it would be.
Toward half-past ten, Stanley said, shame-faced and pleading, "Mildred, I should like to see you alone for just a minute before I go."
Mildred said to Cyrilla: "No, don't move. We'll go into the drawing-room."
He followed her there, and when the sound of Mrs. Brindley's step in the hall had died away, he began: "I think I understand you a little now. I shan't insult you by returning or destroying that note or the check. I accept your decision--unless you wish to change it." He looked at her with eager appeal. His heart was trembling, was sick with apprehension, with the sense of weakness, of danger and gloom ahead. "Why shouldn't I help you, at least, Mildred?" he urged.
Whence the courage came she knew not, but through her choking throat she forced a positive, "No."
"And," he went on, "I meant what I said. I love you. I'm wretched without you. I want you to marry me, career or no career."
Her fears were clamorous, but she forced herself to say, "I can't change."
"I hoped--a little--that you sent me the note to- day because you-- You didn't?"
"No," said Mildred. "I want us to be friends. But you must keep away."
He bent his head. "Then I'll go 'way off somewhere. I can't bear being here in New York and not seeing you. And when I've been away a year or so, perhaps I'll get control of myself again."
Going away!--to try to forget!--no doubt, to succeed in forgetting! Then this was her last chance.
"Must I go, Mildred? Won't you relent?"
"I don't love you--and I never can." She was deathly white and trembling. She lifted her eyes to begin a retreat, for her courage had quite oozed away. He was looking at her, his face distorted with a mingling of the passion of desire and the passion of jealousy. She shrank, caught at the back of a chair for support, felt suddenly strong and defiant. To be this man's plaything, to submit to his moods, to his jealousies, to his caprices--to be his to fumble and caress, his to have the fury of his passion wreak itself upon her with no response from her but only repulsion and loathing--and the long dreary hours and days and years alone with him, listening to his commonplaces, often so tedious, forced to try to amuse him and to keep him in a good humor because he held the purse- strings--
"Please go," she said.
She was still very young, still had years and years of youth unspent. Surely she could find something better than this. Surely life must mean something more than this. At least it was worth a trial.
He held out his hand. She gave him her reluctant and cold fingers. He said something, what she did not hear, for the blood was roaring in her ears as the room swam round. He was gone, and the next thing she definitely knew she was at the threshold of Cyrilla's room. Cyrilla gave her a tenderly sympathetic glance. She saw herself in a mirror and knew why; her face was gray and drawn, and her eyes lay dully deep within dark circles.
"I couldn't do it," she said. "I sent for him to marry him. But I couldn't."
"I'm glad," said Cyrilla. "Marriage without love is a last resort. And you're a long way from last resorts."
"You don't think I'm crazy?"
"I think you've won a great victory."
"Victory!" And Mildred laughed dolefully. "If this is victory, I hope I'll never know defeat."
Why did Mildred refuse Stanley Baird and cut herself off from him, even after her hopes of Donald Keith died through lack of food, real or imaginary? It would be gratifying to offer this as a case of pure courage and high principle, untainted of the motives which govern ordinary human actions. But unluckily this is a biography, not a romance, a history and not a eulogy. And Mildred Gower is a human being, even as you and I, not a galvanized embodiment of superhuman virtues such as you and I are pretending to be, perhaps even to ourselves. The explanation of her strange aberration, which will be doubted or secretly condemned by every woman of the sheltered classes who loves her dependence and seeks to disguise it as something sweet and fine and "womanly"--the explanation of her almost insane act of renunciation of all that a lady holds most dear is simple enough, puzzling though she found it. Ignorance, which accounts for so much of the squalid failure in human life, accounts also for much if not all the most splendid audacious achievement. Very often--very, very often--the impossibilities are achieved by those who in their ignorance advance not boldly but unconcernedly where a wiser man or woman would shrink and retreat. Fortunate indeed is he or she who in a crisis is by chance equipped with neither too little nor too much knowledge--who knows enough to enable him to advance, but does not know enough to appreciate how perilous, how foolhardy, how harsh and cruel, advance will be. Mildred was in this instance thus fortunate--unfortunate, she was presently to think it. She knew enough about loveless marriage to shrink from it. She did not know enough about what poverty, moneylessness, and friendlessness mean in the actuality to a woman bred as she had been. She imagined she knew--and sick at heart her notion of poverty made her. But imagination was only faintest foreshadowing of actuality. If she had known, she would have yielded to the temptation that was almost too strong for her. And if she had yielded--what then? Not such a repulsive lot, as our comfortable classes look at it. Plenty to eat and drink and to wear, servants and equipages and fine houses and fine society, the envy of her gaping kind--a comfortable life for the body, a comfortable death for mind and heart, slowly and softly suffocated in luxury. Partly through knowledge that strongly affected her character, which was on the whole aspiring and sensitive beyond the average to the true and the beautiful, partly through ignorance that veiled the future from her none too valorous and hardy heart, she did not yield to the temptation. And thus, instead of dying, she began to live, for what is life but growth in experience, in strength and knowledge and capability?
A baby enters the world screaming with pain. The first sensations of living are agonizing. It is the same with the birth of souls, for a soul is not really born until that day when it is offered choice between life and death and chooses life. In Mildred Gower's case this birth was an agony. She awoke the following morning with a dull headache, a fainting heart, and a throat so sore that she felt a painful catch whenever she tried to swallow. She used the spray; she massaged her throat and neck vigorously. In vain; it was folly to think of going where she might have to risk a trial of her voice that day. The sun was brilliant and the air sharp without being humid or too cold. She dressed, breakfasted, went out for a walk. The throat grew worse, then better. She returned for luncheon, and afterward began to think of packing, not that she had chosen a new place, but because she wished to have some sort of a sense of action. But her unhappiness drove her out again--to the park where the air was fine and she could walk in comparative solitude.
"What a silly fool I am!" thought she. "Why did I do this in the worst, the hardest possible way? I should have held on to Stanley until I had a position. No, I'm such a poor creature that I could never have done it in that way. I'd simply have kept on bluffing, fooling myself, putting off and putting of. I had to jump into the water with nobody near to help me, or I'd never have begun to learn to swim. I haven't begun yet. I may never learn to swim. I may drown. Yes, I probably shall drown."
She wandered aimlessly on--around the upper reservoir where the strong breeze freshened her through and through and made her feel less forlorn in spite of her chicken heart. She crossed the bridge at the lower end and came down toward the East Drive. A taxicab rushed by, not so fast, however, that she failed to recognize Donald Keith and Cyrilla Brindley. They were talking so earnestly--Keith was talking, for a wonder, and Mrs. Brindley listening--that they did not see her. She went straight home. But as she was afoot, the journey took about half an hour. Cyrilla was already there, in a negligee, looking as if she had not been out of the little library for hours. She was writing a letter. Mildred strolled in and seated herself. Cyrilla went on writing. Mildred watched her impatiently. She wished to talk, to be talked to, to be consoled and cheered, to hear about Donald Keith. Would that letter never be finished? At last it was, and Cyrilla took a book and settled herself to reading. There was a vague something in her manner--a change, an attitude toward Mildred--that disturbed Mildred. Or, was that notion of a change merely the offspring of her own somber mood? Seeing that Mrs. Brindley would not begin, she broke the silence herself. Said she awkwardly:
"I've decided to move. In fact, I've got to move."
Cyrilla laid down the book and regarded her tran- quilly. "Of course," said she. "I've already begun to arrange for someone else."
Mildred choked, and the tears welled into her eyes. She had not been mistaken; Cyrilla had changed toward her. Now that she had no prospects for a brilliant career, now that her money was gone, Cyrilla had begun to--to be human. No doubt, in the course of that drive, Cyrilla had discovered that Keith had no interest in her either. Mildred beat down her emotion and was soon able to say in a voice as unconcerned as Cyrilla's:
"I'll find a place to-morrow or next day, and go at once."
"I'll be sorry to lose you," said Mrs. Brindley, "but I agree with you that you can't get settled any too soon."
"You don't happen to know of any cheap, good place?" said Mildred.
"If it's cheap, I don't think it's likely to be good-- in New York," replied Cyrilla. "You'll have to put up with inconveniences--and worse. I'd offer to help you find a place, but I think everything self-reliant one does helps one to learn. Don't you?"
"Yes, indeed," assented Mildred. The thing was self-evidently true; still she began to hate Cyrilla. This cold-hearted New York! How she would grind down her heel when she got it on the neck of New York! Friendship, love, helpfulness--what did New York and New-Yorkers know of these things? "Or Hanging Rock, either," reflected she. What a cold and lonely world!
"Have you been to see about a position?" inquired Cyrilla.
Mildred was thrown into confusion. "I can't go-- for a--day or so," she stammered. "The changeable weather has rather upset my throat. Nothing serious, but I want to be at my best."
"Certainly," said Mrs. Brindley. Her direct gaze made Mildred uncomfortable. She went on: "You're sure it's the weather?"
"What else could it be?" demanded Mildred with a latent resentment whose interesting origin she did not pause to inquire into.
"Well, salad, or sauces, or desserts, or cafe au lait in the morning, or candy, or tea," said Cyrilla. "Or it might be cigarettes, or all those things--and thin stockings and low shoes--mightn't it?"
Never before had she known Cyrilla to say anything meddlesome or cattish. Said Mildred with a faint sneer, "That sounds like Mr. Keith's crankiness."
"It is," replied Cyrilla. "I used to think he was a crank on the subject of singing and stomachs, and singing and ankles. But I've been convinced, partly by him, mostly by what I've observed."
Mildred maintained an icy silence.
"I see you are resenting what I said," observed Cyrilla.
"Not at all," said Mildred. "No doubt you meant well."
"You will please remember that you asked me a question."
So she had. But the discovery that she was clearly in the wrong, that she had invited the disguised lecture, only aggravated her sense of resentment against Mrs. Brindley. She spent the rest of the afternoon in sorting and packing her belongings--and in crying. She came upon the paper Donald Keith had left. She read it through carefully, thoughtfully, read it to the last direction as to exercise with the machine, the last arrangement for a daily routine of life, the last suggestion as to diet.
"Fortunately all that isn't necessary," said she to herself, when she had finished. "If it were, I could never make a career. I'm not stupid enough to be able to lead that kind of life. Why, I'd not care to make a career, at that price. Slavery--plain slavery."
When she went in to dinner, she saw instantly that Cyrilla too had been crying. Cyrilla did not look old, anything but that, indeed was not old and would not begin to be for many a year. Still, after thirty-five or forty a woman cannot indulge a good cry without its leaving serious traces that will show hours afterward. At sight of the evidences of Cyrilla's grief Mildred straightway forgot her resentment. There must have been some other cause for Cyrilla's peculiar conduct. No matter what, since it was not hardness of heart.
It was a sad, even a gloomy dinner. But the two women were once more in perfect sympathy. And afterward Mildred brought the Keith paper and asked Cyrilla's opinion. Cyrilla read slowly and without comment. At last she said:
"He got this from his mother, Lucia Rivi. Have you read her life?"
"No. I've heard almost nothing about her, except that she was famous."
"She was more than that," said Mrs. Brindley. "She was great, a great personality. She was an almost sickly child and girl. Her first attempts on the stage were humiliating failures. She had no health, no endurance, nothing but a small voice of rare quality." Cyrilla held up the paper. "This tells how she became one of the surest and most powerful dramatic sopranos that ever lived."
"She must have been a dull person to have been able to lead the kind of life that's described there," said Mildred.
"Only two kinds of persons could do it," replied Cyrilla--"a dull person--a plodder--and a genius. Middling people--they're the kind that fill the world, they're you and I, my dear--middling people have to fuss with the trifles that must be sacrificed if one is to do anything big. You call those trifles your freedom, but they're your slavery. And by sacrificing them the Lucia Rivis buy their freedom." Cyrilla looked at the paper with a heavy sigh. "Ah, I wish I had seen this when I was your age. Now, it's too late."
Said Mildred: "Would you seriously advise me to try that?"
Cyrilla came and sat beside her and put an arm around her. "Mildred," she said, "I've never thrust advice on you. I only dare do it now because you ask me, and because I love you. You must try it. It's your one chance. If you do not, you will fail. You don't believe me?"
In a tone that was admission, Mildred said: "I don't know."
"Keith has given you there the secret of a successful career. You'll never read it in any book, or get it from any teacher, or from any singer or manager or doctor. You must live like that, you must do those things or you will fail even in musical comedy. You would fail even as an actress, if you tried that, when you found out that the singing was out of the question."
Mildred was impressed. Perhaps she would have been more impressed had she not seen Keith and Mrs. Brindley in the taxi, Keith talking earnestly and Mrs. Brindley listening as if to an oracle. Said she: "Perhaps I'll adopt some of the suggestions."
Cyrilla shook her head. "It's a route to success. You must go the whole route or not at all."
"Don't forget that there have been other singers besides Rivi."
"Not any that I recall who weren't naturally powerful in every way. And how many of them break down? Mildred, please do put the silly nonsense about nerves and temperament and inspiration and overwork and weather and climate--put all that out of your head. Build your temple of a career as high and graceful and delicate as you like, but build it on the coarse, hard, solid rock, dear!"
Mildred tried to laugh lightly. "How Mr. Keith does hypnotize people!" cried she.
Mrs. Brindley's cheeks burned, and her eyes lowered in acute embarrassment. "He has a way of being splendidly and sensibly right," said she. "And the truth is wonderfully convincing--once one sees it." She changed the subject, and it did not come up--or, perhaps, come out again--before they went to bed. The next day Mildred began the depressing, hopeless search for a place to live that would be clean, comfortable, and cheap. Those three adjectives describe the ideal lodging; but it will be noted that all these are relative. In fact, none of the three means exactly the same thing to any two members of the human family. Mildred's notion of clean--like her notion of comfortable--on account of her bringing up implied a large element of luxury. As for the word "cheap," it really meant nothing at all to her. From one stand- point everything seemed cheap; from another, everything seemed dear; that is, too dear for a young woman with less than five hundred dollars in the world and no substantial prospect of getting a single dollar more-- unless by hook and crook, both of which means she was resolved not to employ.
Never having earned so much as a single penny, the idea of anyone's giving her anything for what she might be able to do was disturbingly vague and unreal. On the other hand, looking about her, she saw scores of men and women, personally known to her to be dull of conversation, and not well mannered or well dressed or well anything, who were making livings without overwhelming difficulty. Why not Mildred Gower? In this view the outlook was not discouraging. "I'll no doubt go through some discomfort, getting myself placed. But somewhere and somehow I shall be placed --and how I shall revenge myself on Donald Keith!" His fascination for her had not been destroyed by his humiliating lack of belief in her, nor by his cold-hearted desertion at just the critical moment. But his conduct had given her the incentive of rage, of stung vanity-- or wounded pride, if you prefer. She would get him back; she would force him to admit; she would win him, if she could--and that ought not to be difficult when she should be successful. Having won him, then-- What then? Something superb in the way of revenge; she would decide what, when the hour of triumph came. Meanwhile she must search for lodgings.
In her journeyings under the guidance of attractive advertisements and "carefully selected" agents' lists, she found herself in front of her first lodgings in New York--the house of Mrs. Belloc. She had often thought of the New England school-teacher, arrived by such strange paths at such a strange position in New York. She had started to call on her many times, but each time had been turned aside; New York makes it more than difficult to find time to do anything that does not have to be done at a definite time and for a definite reason. She was worn out with her futile trampings up and down streets, up and down stairs. Up the stone steps she went and rang the bell.
Yes, Mrs. Belloc was in, and would be glad to see her, if Miss Stevens would wait in the drawing-room a few minutes. She had not seated herself when down the stairs came the fresh, pleasantly countrified voice of Mrs. Belloc, inviting her to ascend. As Mildred started up, she saw at the head of the stairs the frank and cheerful face of the lady herself. She was holding together at the neck a thin silk wrapper whose lines strongly suggested that it was the only garment she had on.
"Why should old friends stand on ceremony?" said Mrs. Belloc. "Come right up. I've been taking a bath. My masseuse has just gone." Mrs. Belloc enclosed her in a delightfully perfumed embrace, and they kissed with enthusiasm.
"I am glad to see you," said Mildred, feeling all at once a thrilling sense of at-homeness. "I didn't realize how glad I'd be till I saw you."
"It'd be a pretty stiff sort that wouldn't feel at home with me," observed Mrs. Belloc. "New York usually stiffens people up. It's had the opposite effect on me. Though I must say, I have learned to stiffen with people I don't like--and I'll have to admit that I like fewer and fewer. People don't wear well, do they? What is the matter with them? Why can't they be natural and not make themselves into rubbishy, old scrap-bags full of fakes and pretenses? You're looking at my hair."
They were in Mrs. Belloc's comfortable sitting-room now, and she was smoking a cigarette and regarding Mildred with an expression of delight that was most flattering. Said Mildred:
"Your hair does look well. It's thicker--isn't it?"
"Think so?" said Mrs. Belloc. "It ought to be, with all the time and money I've spent on it. My, how New York does set a woman to repairing and fixing up. Nothing artificial goes here. It mustn't be paint and plumpers and pads, but the real teeth. Why, I've had four real teeth set in as if they were rooted--and my hips toned down. You may remember what heavy legs I had--piano-legs. Look at 'em now." Mrs. Belloc drew the wrapper to her knee and exposed in a pale- blue silk stocking a thin and comely calf.
"You have been busy!" said Mildred.
"That's only a little part. I started to tell you about the hair. It was getting gray--not in a nice, pretty way, all over, but in spots and streaks. Nothing else makes a woman look so ragged and dingy and old as spotted, streaky gray hair. So I had the hair-woman touch it up. She vows it won't make my face hard. That's the trouble with dyed or touched hair, you know. But this is a new process."
"It's certainly a success," said Mildred. And in fact it was, and thanks to it and the other improvements Mrs. Belloc was an attractive and even a pretty woman, years younger than when Mildred saw her.
"Yes, I think I've improved," said Mrs. Belloc. "Nothing to scream about--but worth while. That's what we're alive for--to improve--isn't it? I've no patience with people who slide back, or don't get on-- people who get less and less as they grow older. The trouble with them is they're vain, satisfied with themselves as they are, and lazy. Most women are too lazy to live. They'll only fix up to catch a man."
Mildred had grown sober and thoughtful.
"To catch a man," continued Mrs. Belloc. "And not much even for that. I'll warrant you're getting on. Tell me about it."
"Tell me about yourself, first," said Mildred.
"Why all this excitement about improving?" And she smiled significantly.
"No, you'll have to guess again," said Mrs. Belloc. "Not a man. You remember, I used to be crazy about gay life in New York--going out, and men, theaters, and lobster-palaces--everything I didn't get in my home town, everything the city means to the jays. Well, I've gotten over all that. I'm improving, mind and body, just to keep myself interested in life, to keep myself young and cheerful. I'm interested in myself, in my house and in woman's suffrage. Not that the women are fit to vote. They aren't, any more than the men. But what makes people? Why, responsibility. That old scamp I married--he's dead. And I've got the money, and everything's very comfortable with me. Just think, I didn't have any luck till I was an old maid far gone. I'm not telling my age. All my life it had rained bad luck--pitchforks, tines down. And why?"
"Yes, why?" said Mildred. She did not understand how it was, but Mrs. Belloc seemed to be saying the exact things she needed to hear.
"I'll tell you why. Because I didn't work. Drudging along isn't work any more than dawdling along. Work means purpose, means head. And my luck began just as anybody's does--when I rose up and got busy. You may say it wasn't very creditable, the way I began; but it was the best I could do. I know it isn't good morals, but I'm willing to bet that many a man has laid the foundations of a big fine career by doing something that wasn't at all nice or right. He had to do it, to `get through.' If he hadn't done it, he'd never have `got through.' Anyhow, whether that's so or not, everyone's got to make a fight to break into the part of the world where living's really worth living. But I needn't tell you that. You're doing it."
"No, I'm not," replied Mildred. "I'm ashamed to say so, but I'm not. I've been bluffing--and wasting time."
"That's bad, that's bad," said Mrs. Belloc. "Especially, as you've got it in you to get there. What's been the trouble? The wrong kind of associations?"
"Partly," said Mildred.
Mrs. Belloc, watching her interestedly, suddenly lighted up. "Why not come back here to live?" said she. "Now, please don't refuse till I explain. You remember what kind of people I had here?"
Mildred smiled. "Rather--unconventional?"
"That's polite. Well, I've cleared 'em out. Not that I minded their unconventionality; I liked it. It was so different from the straight-jackets and the hypocrisy I'd been living among and hating. But I soon found out that--well, Miss Stevens, the average human being ought to be pretty conventional in his morals of a certain kind. If he--or she--isn't, they begin to get unconventional in every way--about paying their bills, for instance, and about drinking. I got sick and tired of those people. So, I put 'em all out--made a sweep. And now I've become quite as respectable as I care to be--or as is necessary. The couples in the house are married, and they're nice people of good families. It was Mrs. Dyckman--she's got the whole sec- ond floor front, she and her husband and the daughter --it was Mrs. Dyckman who interested me in the suffrage movement. You must hear her speak. And the daughter does well at it, too--and keeps a fashionable millinery-shop--and she's only twenty-four. Then there's Nora Blond."
"The actress. She's the quietest, hardest-working person here. She's got the whole first floor front. Nobody ever comes to see her, except on Sunday afternoon. She leads the queerest life."
"Tell me about that," said Mildred.
"I don't know much about it," confessed Mrs. Belloc. "She's regular as a clock--does everything on time, and at the same time. Two meals a day--one of them a dry little breakfast she gets herself. Walks, fencing, athletics, study."
"She's the happiest person I ever saw," retorted Mrs. Belloc. "Why, she's got her work, her career. You don't look at it right, Miss Stevens. You don't look happy. What's the matter? Isn't it because you haven't been working right--because you've been doing these alleged pleasant things that leave a bad taste in your mouth and weaken you? I'll bet, if you had been working hard, you'd not be unhappy now. Better come here to live."
"Will you let me tell you about myself?"
"Go right ahead. May I ask questions, where I want to know more? I do hate to get things halfway."
Mildred freely gave her leave, then proceeded to tell her whole story, omitting nothing that was essential to an understanding. In conclusion she said: "I'd like to come. You see, I've very little money. When it's gone, I'll go, unless I make some more."
"Yes, you must come. That Mrs. Brindley seems to be a nice woman, a mighty nice woman. But her house, and the people that come there--they aren't the right sort for a girl that's making a start. I can give you a room on the top floor--in front. The young lady next to you is a clerk in an architect's office, and a fine girl she is."
"How much does she pay?" said Mildred.
"Your room won't be quite as nice as hers. I put you at the top because you can sing up there, part of the mornings and part of the afternoons, without disturbing anybody. I don't have a general table any more. You can take your meals in your room or at the restaurant in the apartment-house next door. It's good and quite reasonable."
"How much for the room?" persisted Mildred, laughing.
"Seven dollars a week, and the use of the bath."
Mildred finally wrung from her that the right price was twelve dollars a week, and insisted on paying that --"until my money gets low."
"Don't worry about that," said Mrs. Belloc.
"You mustn't weaken me," cried Mildred. "You mustn't encourage me to be a coward and to shirk. That's why I'm coming here."
"I understand," said Mrs. Belloc. "I've got the New England streak of hardness in me, though I believe that masseuse has almost ironed it out of my face. Do I look like a New England schoolmarm?"
Mildred could truthfully answer that there wasn't a trace of it.
When she returned to Mrs. Brindley's--already she had ceased to think of it as home--she announced her new plans. Mrs. Brindley said nothing, but Mildred understood the quick tightening of the lines round her mouth and the shifting of the eyes. She hastened to explain that Mrs. Belloc was no longer the sort of woman or the sort of landlady she had been a few months before. Mrs. Brindley of the older New York, could neither understand nor believe in the people of the new and real New York whom it molds for better or for worse so rapidly--and even remolds again and again. But Mildred was able to satisfy her that the house was at least not suspicious.
"It doesn't matter where you're going," said Mrs. Brindley. "It's that you are going. I can't bear giving you up. I had hoped that our lives would flow on and on together." She was with difficulty controlling her emotions. "It's these separations that age one, that take one's life. I almost wish I hadn't met you."
Mildred was moved, herself. Not so much as Mrs. Brindley because she had the necessities of her career gripping her and claiming the strongest feelings there were in her. Also, she was much the younger, not merely in years but in experience. And separations have no real poignancy in them for youth
"Yes, I know you love me," said Cyrilla, "but love doesn't mean to you what it means to me. I'm in that middle period of life where everything has its fullest meaning. In youth we're easily consoled and distracted because life seems so full of possibilities, and we can't believe friendship and love are rare, and still more rarely worth while. In old age, when the arteries harden and the blood flows slow and cold, we become indifferent. But between thirty-five and fifty-five how the heart can ache!" She smiled, with trembling lips. "And how it can rejoice!" she cried bravely. "I must not forget to mention that. Ah, my dear, you must learn to live intensely. If I had had your chance!"
"Ridiculous!" laughed Mildred. "You talk like an old woman. And I never think of you as older than myself."
"I am an old woman," said Cyrilla. And, with a tightening at the heart Mildred saw, deep in the depths of her eyes, the look of old age. "I've found that I'm too old for love--for man-and-woman love--and that means I'm an old woman."
Mildred felt that there was only a thin barrier of reserve between her and some sad secret of this strange, shy, loving woman's--a barrier so thin that she could almost hear the stifled moan of a broken heart. But the barrier remained; it would have been impossible for Cyrilla Brindley to talk frankly about herself.
When Mildred came out of her room the next morning, Cyrilla had gone, leaving a note:
I can't bear good-bys. Besides, we'll see each other very soon. Forgive me for shrinking, but really I can't.
Before night Mildred was settled in the new place and the new room, with no sense of strangeness. She was reproaching herself for hardness, for not caring about Cyrilla, the best and truest friend she had ever had. But the truth lay in quite a different direction. The house, the surroundings, where she had lived luxuriously, dreaming her foolish and fatuous dreams, was not the place for such a struggle as was now upon her. And for that struggle she preferred, to sensitive, sober, refined, impractical Cyrilla Brindley, the companionship and the sympathy, the practical sympathy, of Agnes Belloc. No one need be ashamed or nervous before Agnes Belloc about being poor or unsuccessful or having to resort to shabby makeshifts or having to endure coarse contacts. Cyrilla represented refinement, appreciation of the finished work--luxurious and sterile appreciation and enjoyment. Agnes represented the workshop--where all the doers of all that is done live and work. Mildred was descending from the heights where live those who have graduated from the lot of the human race and have lost all that superficial or casual resemblance to that race. She was going down to live with the race, to share in its lot. She was glad Agnes Belloc was to be there.
Generalizing about such a haphazard conglomerate as human nature is highly unsatisfactory, but it may be cautiously ventured that in New England, as in old England, there is a curiously contradictory way of dealing with conventionality. Nowhere is conventionality more in reverence; yet when a New-Englander, man or woman, happens to elect to break with it, nowhere is the break so utter and so defiant. If Agnes Belloc, cut loose from the conventions that had bound her from childhood to well into middle life, had remained at home, no doubt she would have spent a large part of her nights in thinking out ways of employing her days in outraging the conventionalities before her horrified and infuriated neighbors. But of what use in New York to cuff and spit upon deities revered by only an insignificant class--and only officially revered by that class? Agnes had soon seen that there was no amusement or interest whatever in an enterprise which in her New England home would have filled her life to the brim with excitement. Also, she saw that she was well into that time of life where the absence of reputation in a woman endangers her comfort, makes her liable to be left alone --not despised and denounced, but simply avoided and ignored. So she was telling Mildred the exact truth. She had laid down the arms she had taken up against the social system, and had come in--and was fighting it from the safer and wiser inside. She still insisted that a woman had the same rights as a man; but she took care to make it clear that she claimed those rights only for others, that she neither exercised them nor cared for them for herself. And to make her propaganda the more effective, she was not only circumspect herself, but was exceedingly careful to be surrounded by circumspect people. No one could cite her case as proof that woman would expand liberty into license. In theory there was nothing lively that she did not look upon at least with tolerance; in practice, more and more she disliked seeing one of her sex do anything that might cause the world to say "woman would abuse liberty if she had it." "Sensible people," she now said, "do as they like. But they don't give fools a chance to titter and chatter."
Agnes Belloc was typical--certainly of a large and growing class in this day--of the decay of ancient temples and the decline of the old-fashioned idealism that made men fancy they lived nobly because they professed and believed nobly. She had no ethical standards. She simply met each situation as it arose and dealt with it as common sense seemed in that particular instance to dictate. For a thousand years genius has been striving with the human race to induce it to abandon its superstitions and hypocrisies and to defy common sense, so adaptable, so tolerant, so conducive to long and healthy and happy life. Grossly materialistic, but alluringly comfortable. Whether for good or for evil or for both good and evil, the geniuses seem in a fair way at last to prevail over the idealists, religious and political. And Mrs. Belloc, without in the least realizing it, was a most significant sign of the times.
"Your throat seems to be better to-day," said she to Mildred at breakfast. "Those simple house-remedies I tried on you last night seem to have done some good. Nothing like heat--hot water--and no eating. The main thing was doing without dinner last night."
"My nerves are quieter," advanced Mildred as the likelier explanation of the return of the soul of music to its seat. "And my mind's at rest."
"Yes, that's good," said plain Agnes Belloc. "But getting the stomach straight and keeping it straight's the main thing. My old grandmother could eat anything and do anything. I've seen her put in a glass of milk or a saucer of ice-cream on top of a tomato-salad. The way she kept well was, whenever she began to feel the least bit off, she stopped eating. Not a bite would she touch till she felt well again."
Mildred, moved by an impulse stronger than her inclination, produced the Keith paper. "I wish you'd read this, and tell me what you think of it. You've got so much common sense."
Agnes read it through to the end, began at the beginning and read it through again. "That sounds good to me," said she. "I want to think it over. If you don't mind I'd like to show it to Miss Blond. She knows a lot about those things. I suppose you're going to see Mr. Crossley to-day?--that's the musical manager's name, isn't it?"
"I'm going at eleven. That isn't too early, is it?"
"If I were you, I'd go as soon as I was dressed for the street. And if you don't get to see him, wait till you do. Don't talk to under-staffers. Always go straight for the head man. You've got something that's worth his while. How did he get to be head man? Because he knows a good thing the minute he sees it. The under fellows are usually under because they are so taken up with themselves and with impressing people how grand they are that they don't see anything else. So, when you talk to them, you wear yourself out and waste your time."
"There's only one thing that makes me nervous," said Mildred. "Everyone I've ever talked with about going on the stage--everyone who has talked candidly --has said--"
"Yes, I know," said Mrs. Belloc, as Mildred paused to search for smooth-sounding words in which to dress, without disguising, a distinctly ugly idea. "I've heard that, too. I don't know whether there's anything in it or not." She looked admiringly at Mildred, who that morning was certainly lovely enough to tempt any man. "If there is anything in it, why, I reckon you'd be up against it. That's the worst of having men at the top in any trade and profession. A woman's got to get her chance through some man, and if he don't choose to let her have it, she's likely to fail."
Mildred showed how this depressed her.
"But don't you fret about that till you have to," advised Mrs. Belloc. "I've a notion that, even if it's true, it may not apply to you. Where a woman offers for a place that she can fill about as well as a hundred other women, she's at the man's mercy; but if she knows that she's far and away the best for the place, I don't think a man's going to stand in his own light. Let him see that he can make money through you, money he won't make if he don't get you. Then, I don't think you'll have any trouble."
But Mildred's depression did not decrease. "If my voice could only be relied on!" she exclaimed. "Isn't it exasperating that I've got a delicate throat!"
"It's always something," said Mrs. Belloc. "One thing's about as bad as another, and anything can be overcome."
"No, not in my case," said Mildred. "The peculiar quality of my voice--what makes it unusual--is due to the delicateness of my throat."
"Maybe so," said Mrs. Belloc.
"Of course, I can always sing--after a fashion," continued Mildred. "But to be really valuable on the stage you've got to be able always to sing at your best. So I'm afraid I'm in the class of those who'll suit, one about as well as another."
"You've got to get out of that class," said Mrs. Belloc. "The men in that class, and the women, have to do any dirty work the boss sees fit to give 'em--and not much pay, either. Let me tell you one thing, Miss Stevens. If you can't get among the few at the top in the singing game, you must look round for some game where you can hope to be among the few. No matter what it is. By using your brains and working hard, there's something you can do better than pretty nearly anybody else can or will do it. You find that."
The words sank in, sank deep. Mildred, sense of her surroundings lost, was gazing straight ahead with an expression that gave Mrs. Belloc hope and even a certain amount of confidence. There was a distinct advance; for, after she reflected upon all that Mildred had told her, little of her former opinion of Mildred's chances for success had remained but a hope detained not without difficulty. Mrs. Belloc knew the human race unusually well for a woman--unusually well for a human being of whatever sex or experience. She had discovered how rare is the temperament, the combination of intelligence and tenacity, that makes for success. She had learned that most people, judged by any stand- ard, were almost total failures, that most of the more or less successful were so merely because the world had an enormous amount of important work to be done, even though half-way, and had no one but those half- competents to do it. As incompetence in a man would be tolerated where it would not be in a woman, obviously a woman, to get on, must have the real temperament of success.
She now knew enough about Mildred to be able to "place" her in the "lady" class--those brought up not only knowing how to do nothing with a money value (except lawful or unlawful man-trapping), but also trained to a sensitiveness and refinement and false shame about work that made it exceedingly difficult if not impossible for them to learn usefulness. She knew all Mildred's handicaps, both those the girl was conscious of and those far heavier ones which she fatuously regarded as advantages. How was Mildred ever to learn to dismiss and disregard herself as the pretty woman of good social position, an object of admiration and consideration? Mildred, in the bottom of her heart, was regarding herself as already successful--successful at the highest a woman can achieve or ought to aspire to achieve--was regarding her career, however she might talk or might fancy she believed, as a mere livelihood, a side issue. She would be perhaps more than a little ashamed of her stage connections, should she make any, until she should be at the very top-- and how get to the top when one is working under the handicap of shame? Above all, how was this indulgently and shelteredly reared lady to become a work- ing woman, living a routine life, toiling away day in and day out, with no let up, permitting no one and nothing to break her routine? "Really," thought Agnes Belloc, "she ought to have married that Baird man--or stayed on with the nasty general. I wonder why she didn't! That's the only thing that gives me hope. There must be something in her--something that don't appear--something she doesn't know about, herself. What is it? Maybe it was only vanity and vacillation. Again, I don't know."
The difficulty Mrs. Belloc labored under in her attempt to explore and map Mildred Gower was a difficulty we all labor under in those same enterprises. We cannot convince ourselves--in spite of experience after experience--that a human character is never consistent and homogeneous, is always conglomerate, that there are no two traits, however naturally exclusive, which cannot coexist in the same personality, that circumstance is the dominating factor in human action and brings forward as dominant characteristics now one trait or set of traits, consistent or inconsistent, and now another. The Alexander who was Aristotle's model pupil was the same Alexander as the drunken debaucher. Indeed, may it not be that the characters which play the large parts in the comedy of life are naturally those that offer to the shifting winds of circumstances the greatest variety of strongly developed and contradictory qualities? For example, if it was Mildred's latent courage rescued her from Siddall, was it not her strong tendency to vacillation that saved her from a loveless and mercenary marriage to Stanley Baird? Perhaps the deep underlying truth is that all unusual people have in common the character that centers a powerful aversion to stagnation; thus, now by their strong qualities, now by their weaknesses, they are swept inevitably on and on and ever on. Good to-day, bad to-morrow, good again the day after, weak in this instance, strong in that, now brave and now cowardly, soft at one time, hard at another, generous and the reverse by turns, they are consistent only in that they are never at rest, but incessantly and inevitably go.
Mildred reluctantly rose, moved toward the door with lingering step. "I guess I'd better make a start," said she.
"That's the talk," said Mrs. Belloc heartily. But the affectionate glance she sent after the girl was dubious-- even pitying.