The Second Generation by David Graham Phillips
Chapter XVII. Pomp and Circumstance
The day after the wedding, as Arthur was going home from work, he saw Ross on the lofty seat of a dogcart, driving toward him along lower Monroe Street. His anger instantly flamed and flared; he crushed an oath between his teeth and glanced about for some way to avoid the humiliating meeting. But there was no cross street between him and the on-coming cart. Pride, or vanity, came to his support, as soon as he was convinced that escape was impossible. With an air that was too near to defiance to create the intended impression of indifference, he swung along and, just as the cart was passing, glanced at his high-enthroned former friend.
Ross had not seen him until their eyes met. He drew his horse in so sharply that it reared and pawed in amazement and indignation at the bit's coarse insult to thoroughbred instincts for courteous treatment. He knew Arthur was at work in the factory; but he did not expect to see him in workman's dress, with a dinner pail in his hand. And from his height, he, clad in the carefully careless, ostentatiously unostentatious garments of the "perfect gentleman," gazed speechless at the spectacle. Arthur reddened violently. Not all the daily contrasts thrust upon him in those months at the cooperage had so brought home to his soul the differences of caste. And there came to him for the first time that hatred of inequalities which, repulsive though it is in theory, is yet the true nerver of the strong right arm of progress. It is as characteristic of the homely, human countenance of Democracy as the supercilious smirk is of the homely, inhuman countenance of caste. Arthur did not want to get up where Ross was seated in such elegant state; he wanted to tear Ross, all the Rosses down. "The damn fool!" he fumed. "He goes lounging about, wasting the money we make. It's all wrong. And if we weren't a herd of tame asses, we wouldn't permit it."
And now he began to feel that he was the superior of this showy idler, that his own garments and dinner pail and used hands were the titles to a nobility which could justly look down upon those who filched from the treasury of the toiler the means to buzz and flit and glitter in dronelike ease. "As for these Whitneys," he thought, "mother's right about them." Then he called out in a tone of good-natured contempt, which his stature and his powerful frame and strong, handsome face made effective: "Hello, Ross! When did you come to town?"
"This morning," replied Ross. "I heard you were working, but I had no idea it was--I've just been to your house, looking for you, and was on the way to the factory. Father told me to see that you get a suitable position. I'm going to Howells and arrange it. You know, father's been in the East and very busy."
"Don't bother," said Arthur, and there was no pretense in his air of ease. "I've got just what I want. I am carrying out father's plan, and I'm far enough into it to see that he was right."
In unbelieving silence Ross looked down at his former equal with condescending sympathy; how well Arthur knew that look! And he remembered that he had once, so short a time before, regarded it as kindly, and the thoughts behind it as generous!
"I like my job," he continued. "It gives me a sense of doing something useful--of getting valuable education. Already I've had a thousand damn-fool ideas knocked out of my head."
"I suppose it is interesting," said Ross, with gracious encouragement. "The associations must be rather trying."
"They were rather trying," replied Arthur with a smile. "Trying to the other men, until I got my bearings and lost the silliest of the silly ideas put in my head by college and that sort of thing. But, now that I realize I'm an apprentice and not a gentleman deigning to associate with the common herd, I think I'm less despicable--and less ridiculous. Still, I'm finding it hard to get it through my head that practically everything I learned is false and must be unlearned."
"Don't let your bitterness over the injustice to you swing you too far the other way, Artie," said Ross with a faint smile in his eyes and a suspicious, irritating friendliness in his voice. "You'll soon work out of that class and back where you belong."
Arthur was both angry and amused. No doubt Ross was right as to the origin of this new breadth of his; but a wrong motive may start a man right just as readily as a right motive may start him wrong. Arthur would have admitted frankly his first feelings about his changed position, would have admitted that those feelings still lingered, still seemed to influence him, as grown people often catch themselves thinking in terms of beliefs impressed on them in childhood, but exploded and abandoned at the very threshold of youth. But he knew, also, that his present beliefs and resolves and aspirations were sincere, were sane, were final--the expression of the mind and heart that were really himself. Of what use, however, to argue with Ross? "I could no more convince him," thought Arthur, "than I could myself have been convinced less than a year ago." Besides, of what importance were Ross's beliefs about him or about his views? So he said to him, and his tone and manner were now convincing: "Well, we'll see. However, as long as I'm a workman, I'll stand with my class--just as you stand with your class. And while you are pretending to be generous to us, we'll pretend to be contemptuous of you. You'll think we are living off of your money; we'll think you are living off of our work. You'll say we're earning less than half what we get; we'll say you're stealing more than half what you get. It may amuse you to hear that I am one of the organizers of the trades union that's starting. I'm on the committee on wages. So some day you and I are likely to meet."
"I don't know much about those things," said Ross politely. "I can see that you're right to ingratiate yourself with those working chaps. It will stand you in good stead when you get on top and have to manage them."
Arthur laughed, and so did Ross. They eyed each the other with covert hostility. "Poor creature!" thought Ross. And "Pup!" thought Arthur. "How could I have wanted Del to marry him?" He wished to pass on, but was detained by some suggestion in Ross's manner that he had not yet discharged his mind of its real burden.
"I was glad to see your mother so well," said Ross.
"I wish she were," replied Arthur. "She seemed to be better while the excitement about Del's wedding was on; but as soon as Del and Dory went, she dropped back again. I think the only thing that keeps her from--from joining father is the feeling that, if she were to go, the family income would stop. I feel sure we'd not have her, if father had left us well provided for, as they call it."
"That is true," said Ross, the decent side of his nature now full to the fore. "I can't tell you what a sense of loss I had when your father died. Artie, he was a splendid gentleman. And there is a quality in your mother that makes me feel very humble indeed before her."
Arthur passed, though he noted, the unconscious superciliousness in this tribute; he felt that it was a genuine tribute, that, for all its discoloration in its passage through the tainted outer part of Ross's nature, it had come from the unspoiled, untainted, deepest part. Fortunately for us all, the gold in human nature remains gold, whatever its alloys from base contacts; and it is worth the mining, though there be but a grain of it to the ton of dross. As Ross spoke Arthur warmed to him. "You must come to see us," he said cordially.
Ross became embarrassed, so embarrassed that all his ability to command his feelings went for nothing. "Thank you," said he hurriedly, "but I'm here only for a few hours. I go away to-night. I came about a matter that--that--I want to get back as soon as possible."
Arthur was mystified by the complete transformation of the self-complacent, superior Ross of a few minutes before. He now noted that Ross was looking almost ill, his eyes sunken, the lids red at the edges, as if from loss of sleep. Under Arthur's scrutiny his embarrassment increased to panic. He nervously shifted the reins, made the horse restless, shook hands with Arthur, reined in, tried to speak, said only, "I must be off--my horse is getting nervous," and was gone.
Arthur looked after him. "That's the sort of chap I was on the way to being when father pulled me up," he reflected. "I wonder if I'll ever get sense enough not to have a sneaking envy of him--and regret?"
If he could have looked in upon Ross's mind, he might have been abruptly thrust far along the toilsome road toward his goal. In this world, roses and thorns have a startling, preposterous way of suddenly exchanging natures so that what was thorn becomes fairest rose, and what was rose becomes most poisonous of thorns. Ross had just fallen an amazed and incredulous victim to this alchemy. Though somewhat uncomfortable and downright unhappy at times, he had been, on the whole, well pleased with himself and his prospects until he heard that Adelaide was actually about to marry Dory. His content collapsed with the foundation on which it was built--the feeling that Adelaide was for no other man, that if at any time he should change his mind he would find her waiting to welcome him gratefully. He took train for Saint X, telling himself that after he got there he could decide what to do. In fact, when he had heard that the wedding was about to be, it was over and Adelaide and Dory were off for New York and Europe; but he did not find this out until he reached Saint X. The man who gave him that final and overwhelming news noticed no change in his face, though looking for signs of emotion; nor did Ross leave him until he had confirmed the impression of a heart at ease. Far along the path between the Country Club and Point Helen he struck into the woods and, with only the birds and the squirrels as witnesses, gave way to his feelings.
Now, now that she was irrevocably gone, he knew. He had made a hideous mistake; he had been led on by his vanity, led on and on until the trap was closed and sprung; and it was too late. He sat there on a fallen tree with his head aching as if about to explode, with eyes, dry and burning and a great horror of heart-hunger sitting before him and staring at him. In their sufferings from defeated desire the selfish expiate their sins.
He had forgotten his engagement to Theresa Howland, the wedding only two weeks away. It suddenly burst in upon his despair like a shout of derisive laughter. "I'll not marry her!" he cried aloud. "I can't do it!"
But even as he spoke he knew that he could, and would, and must. He had been a miserable excuse for a lover to Theresa; but Theresa had never had love. All the men who had approached her with "intentions" had been fighting hard against their own contempt of themselves for seeking a wife for the sake of her money, and their efforts at love-making had been tame and lame; but Theresa, knowing no better, simply thought men not up to the expectations falsely raised by the romances and the songs. She believed she could not but get as good a quality of love as there was going; and Ross, with his delightful, aristocratic indifference, was perfectly satisfactory. Theresa had that thrice-armored self-complacence which nature so often relentingly gives, to more than supply the lack of the charms withheld. She thought she was fascinating beyond any woman of her acquaintance, indeed, of her time. She spent hours in admiring herself, in studying out poses for her head and body and arms, especially her arms, which she regarded as nature's last word on that kind of beauty--a not wholly fanciful notion, as they were not bad, if a bit too short between elbow and wrist, and rather fat at the shoulders. She always thought and, on several occasions in bursts of confidence, had imparted to girl friends that "no man who has once cared for me can ever care for another woman." Several of her confidantes had precisely the same modest opinion of their own powers; but they laughed at Theresa--behind her back.
Ross knew how vain she was. To break with her, he would have to tell her flatly that he would not marry her. "I'd be doing her no injury," thought he. "Her vanity would root out some explanation which would satisfy her that, whatever might be the cause, it wasn't lack of love for her on my part." But--To break off was unthinkable. The invitations out; the arrangements for the wedding all made; quantities of presents arrived--"I've got to go through with it. I've got to marry her," said Ross. "But God help me, how I shall hate her!"
And, stripped clean of the glamour of her wealth, she rose before him--her nose that was red and queer in the mornings; her little personal habits that got on the nerves, especially a covert self-infatuated smile that flitted over her face at any compliment, however obviously perfunctory; her way of talking about every trivial thing she did--and what did she do that was not trivial?--as if some diarist ought to take it down for the delight of ages to come. As Ross looked at the new-created realistic image of her, he was amazed. "Why, I've always disliked her!" he cried. "I've been lying to myself. I am too low for words," he groaned. "Was there ever such a sneaking cur?" Yes, many a one, full as unconscious of his own qualities as he himself had been until that moment; nor could he find consolation in the fact that he had company, plenty of company, and it of the world's most "gentlemanly" and most "ladylike."
The young man who left that wood, the young man whom Arthur saw that day, had in his heart a consciousness, an ache, of lonely poverty that dress and dogcarts and social position could do little--something, but little--to ease.
* * * * *
He stopped at Chicago and sent word to Windrift that he was ill--not seriously ill, but in such a state that he thought it best to take care of himself, with the wedding so near. Theresa was just as well pleased to have him away, as it gave her absolute freedom to plan and to superintend her triumph. For the wedding was to be her individual and exclusive triumph, with even Ross as part of the background--the most conspicuous part, but still simply background for her personal splendor.
Old Howland--called Bill until his early career as a pedlar and keeper of a Cheap Jack bazaar was forgotten and who, after the great fire, which wiped out so many pasts and purified and pedigreed Chicago's present aristocracy, called himself William G. Howland, merchant prince, had, in his ideal character for a wealth-chaser, one weakness--a doting fondness for his daughter. When she came into the world, the doctors told him his wife would have no more children; thereafter his manner was always insulting, and usually his tone and words, whenever and of whatever he spoke to her. Women were made by the Almighty solely to bear children to men; his woman had been made to bear him a son. Now that she would never have a son, she was of no use, and it galled him that he could find no plausibly respectable excuse for casting her off, as he cast off worn-out servants in his business. But as the years passed and he saw the various varieties of thorns into which the sons of so many of his fellow-princes developed, he became reconciled to Theresa--not to his wife. That unfortunate woman, the daughter of a drunkard and partially deranged by illness and by grief over her husband's brutality toward her, became--or rather, was made by her insistent doctor--what would have been called a drunkard, had she not been the wife of a prince. Her "dipsomania" took an unaggressive form, as she was by nature gentle and sweet; she simply used to shut herself in and drink until she would cry herself into a timid, suppressed hysteria. So secret was she that Theresa never knew the truth about these "spells."
Howland did not like Ross; but when Theresa told him she was going to marry him she had only to cry a little and sit in the old man's lap and tease. "Very well, then," said her father, "you can have him. But he's a gambler, like his father. They call it finance, but changing the name of a thing only changes the smell of it, not the thing itself. I'm going to tie my money up so that he can't get at it."
"I want you to, papa," replied Theresa, giving him a kiss and a great hug for emphasis. "I don't want anybody to be able to touch my property."
For the wedding, Howland gave Theresa a free hand. "I'll pay the bills, no matter what they are," said he. "Give yourself a good time." And Theresa, who had been brought up to be selfish, and was prudent about her impulses only where she suspected them of being generous, proceeded to arrange for herself the wedding that is still talked about in Chicago "society" and throughout the Middle West. A dressmaker from the Rue de la Paix came over with models and samples, and carried back a huge order and a plaster reproduction of Theresa's figure, and elaborate notes on the color of her skin, hair, eyes, and her preferences in shapes of hats. A jeweler, also of the Rue de la Paix, came with jewels--nearly a million dollars' worth--for her to make selections. Her boots and shoes and slippers she got from Rowney, in Fifth Avenue, who, as everybody knows, makes nothing for less than thirty-five dollars, and can put a hundred dollars worth of price, if not of value, into a pair of evening slippers. Theresa was proud of her feet; they were short and plump, and had those abrupt, towering insteps that are regarded by the people who have them as unfailing indications of haughty lineage, just as the people who have flat feet dwell fondly upon the flat feet of the Wittlesbachs, kings in Bavaria. She was not easy to please in the matter of casements for those feet; also, as she was very short in stature, she had to get three and a half extra inches of height out of her heels; and to make that sort of heel so that it can even be hobbled upon is not easy or cheap. Once Theresa, fretting about her red-ended nose and muddy skin, had gone to a specialist. "Let me see your foot," said he; and when he saw the heel, he exclaimed: "Cut that tight, high-heeled thing out or you'll never get a decent skin, and your eyes will trouble you by the time you are thirty." But Theresa, before adopting such drastic measures, went to a beauty doctor. He assured her that she could be cured without the sacrifice of the heel, and that the weakness of her eyes would disappear a year or so after marriage. And he was soon going into ecstasies over her improvement, over the radiance of her beauty. She saw with his eyes and ceased to bother about nose or skin--they were the least beautiful of her beauties, but--"One can't expect to be absolutely perfect. Besides, the absolutely perfect kind of beauty might be monotonous."
The two weeks before the wedding were the happiest of her life. All day long, each day, vans were thundering up to the rear doors of Windrift, each van loaded to bursting with new and magnificent, if not beautiful costliness. The house was full of the employees of florists, dressmakers, decorators, each one striving to outdo the other in servility. Theresa was like an autocratic sovereign, queening it over these menials and fancying herself adored. They showed so plainly that they were awed by her and were in ecstasies of admiration over her taste. And, as the grounds and the house were transformed, Theresa's exaltation grew until she went about fairly dizzy with delight in herself.
The bridesmaids and ushers came. They were wealth-worshipers all, and their homage lifted Theresa still higher. They marched and swept about in her train, lording it over the menials and feeling that they were not a whit behind the grand ladies and gentlemen of the French courts of the eighteenth century. They had read the memoirs of that idyllic period diligently, had read with minds only for the flimsy glitter which hid the vulgarity and silliness and shame as a gorgeous robe hastily donned by a dirty chambermaid might conceal from a casual glance the sardonic and repulsive contrast. The wedding day approached all too swiftly for Theresa and her court. True, that would be the magnificent climax; but they knew it would also dissipate the spell--after the wedding, life in twentieth century America again.
"If only it don't rain!" said Harry Legendre.
"It won't," replied Theresa with conviction--and her look of command toward the heavens made the courtiers exchange winks and smiles behind her back. They were courtiers to wealth, not to Theresa, just as their European prototypes are awed before a "king's most excellent Majesty," not before his swollen body and shrunken brain.
And it did not rain. Ross arrived in the red sunset of the wedding eve, Tom Glenning, his best man, coming with him. They were put, with the ushers, in rooms at the pavilion where were the squash courts and winter tennis courts and the swimming baths. Theresa and Ross stood on the front porch alone in the moonlight, looking out over the enchantment-like scene into which the florists and decorators had transformed the terraces and gardens. She was a little alarmed by his white face and sunken eyes; but she accepted his reassurances without question--she would have disbelieved anything which did not fit in with her plans. And now, as they gazed out upon that beauty under the soft shimmer of the moonlight, her heart suddenly expanded in tenderness. "I am so happy," she murmured, slipping an arm through his.
Her act called for a return pressure. He gave it, much as a woman's salutation would have made him unconsciously move to lift his hat.
"While Adele was dressing me for dinner--" she began.
At that name, he moved so that her arm dropped from his; but she did not connect her maid with her former bosom friend.
"I got to thinking about those who are not so well off as we," she went on; "about the poor. And so, I've asked papa to give all his employees and the servants nice presents, and I've sent five thousand dollars to be divided among the churches in the town, down there--for the poor. Do you think I did wrong? I'm always afraid of encouraging those kind of people to expect too much of us."
She had asked that he might echo the eulogies she had been bestowing upon herself. But he disappointed her. "Oh, I guess it was well enough," he replied. "I must go down to the pavilion. I'm fagged, and you must be, too."
The suggestion that he might not be looking his best on the morrow was enough to change the current of her thoughts. "Yes, do, dear!" she urged. "And don't let Tom and Harry and the rest keep you up."
They did not even see him. He sat in the shed at the end of the boat-landing, staring out over the lake until the moon set. Then he went to the pavilion. It was all dark; he stole in, and to bed, but not to sleep. Before his closed but seeing eyes floated a vision of two women--Adelaide as he had last seen her, Theresa as she looked in the mornings, as she had looked that afternoon.
He was haggard next day. But it was becoming to him, gave the finishing touch to his customary bored, distinguished air; and he was dressed in a way that made every man there envy him. As Theresa, on insignificant-looking little Bill Howland's arm, advanced to meet him at the altar erected under a canopy of silk and flowers in the bower of lilies and roses into which the big drawing-room had been transformed, she thrilled with pride. There was a man one could look at with delight, as one said, "My husband!"
It was a perfect day--perfect weather, everything going forward without hitch, everybody looking his and her best, and "Mama" providentially compelled by one of her "spells" to keep to her room. Those absences of hers were so frequent and so much the matter of course that no one gave them a second thought. Theresa had studied up the customs at fashionable English and French weddings, and had combined the most aristocratic features of both. Perhaps the most successful feature was when she and Ross, dressed for the going away, walked, she leaning upon his arm, across the lawns to the silk marquee where the wedding breakfast was served. Before them, walking backward, were a dozen little girls from the village school, all in white, strewing roses from beribboned baskets, and singing, "Behold! The bride in beauty comes!"
"Well, I'm glad it's all over," said Theresa as she settled back in a chair in the private car that was to take them to Wilderness Lodge, in northern Wisconsin for the honeymoon.
"So am I," Ross disappointed her by saying. "I've felt like a damn fool ever since I began to face that gaping gang."
"But you must admit it was beautiful," objected Theresa pouting.
Ross shut his teeth together to keep back a rude reply. He was understanding how men can be brutal to women. To look at her was to have an all but uncontrollable impulse to rise up and in a series of noisy and profane explosions reveal to her the truth that was poisoning him. After a while, a sound from her direction made him glance at her. She was sobbing. He did not then know that, to her, tears were simply the means to getting what she wanted; so his heart softened. While she was thinking that she was looking particularly well and femininely attractive, he was pitying her as a forlorn creature, who could never inspire love and ought to be treated with consideration, much as one tries to hide by an effusive show of courtesy the repulsion deformity inspires.
"Don't cry, Theresa," he said gently, trying to make up his mind to touch her. But he groaned to himself, "I can't! I must wait until I can't see her." And he ordered the porter to bring him whisky and soda.
"Won't you join me?" he said.
"You know, I never touch anything to drink," she replied. "Papa and Dr. Massey both made me promise not to."
Ross's hand, reaching out for the bottle of whisky, drew slowly back. He averted his face that she might not see. He knew about her mother--and knew Theresa did not. It had never entered his head that the weakness of the mother might be transmitted to the daughter. Now--Just before they left, Dr. Massey had taken him aside and, in a manner that would have impressed him instantly but for his mood, had said: "Mr. Whitney, I want you never to forget that Theresa must not be depressed. You must take the greatest care of her. We must talk about it again--when you return."
And this was what he meant!
He almost leaped to his feet at Theresa's softly interrupting voice, "Are you ill, dear?"
"A little--the strain--I'll be all right--" And leaving the whisky untouched, he went into his own compartment. As he was closing the door, he gave a gasp of dismay. "She might begin now!" he muttered. He rang for the porter. "Bring that bottle," he said. Then, as an afterthought of "appearances," "And the soda and a glass."
"I can get you another, sir," said the porter.
"No--that one," ordered Ross.
Behind the returning porter came Theresa. "Can't I do something for you, dear? Rub your head, or fix the pillows?"
Ross did not look at her. "Do, please--fix the pillows," he said. "Then if I can sleep a little, I'll be all right, and will soon rejoin you."
"Can't I fix your drink for you?" she asked, putting her hand on the bottle.
Ross restrained an impulse to snatch it away from her. "Thanks, no--dear," he answered. "I've decided to swear off--with you. Is it a go?"
She laughed. "Silly!" she murmured, bending and kissing him. "If you wish."
"That settles it," said Ross, with a forced, pained smile. "We'll neither of us touch it. I was getting into the habit of taking too much--not really too much--but--Oh, you understand."
"That's the way father feels about it," said Theresa, laughing. "We never drink at home--except mother when she has a spell, and has to be kept up on brandy."
Ross threw his arm up to hide his face. "Let me sleep, do," he said gently.