Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
At the threshold her bundles dropped to the floor and all color fled from her face. Before her stood her Uncle George and Sam Wright and his father. The two elderly men were glowering at her; Sam, white as his shirt and limp, was hanging his head.
"So, miss!--You've got back, eh?" cried her uncle in a tone she would not have believed could come from him.
As quickly as fear had seized her she now shook it off. "Yes, Uncle," she said calmly, meeting his angry eyes without flinching. And back came that expression of resolution--of stubbornness we call it when it is the flag of opposition to our will.
"What'd have become of you," demanded her uncle, "if I hadn't found out early this morning, and got after Sam here and choked the truth out of him?"
Susan gazed at Sam; but he was such a pitiful figure, so mean and frightened, that she glanced quickly back to her uncle. She said:
"But he didn't know where I was."
"Don't lie to me," cried Warham. "It won't do you any good, any more than his lying kept us from finding you. We came on the train and saw the Waterburys in the street and they'd seen you go into the drug store. We'd have caught you there if we'd been a few minutes sooner, but we drove, and got here in time. Now, tell me, Susan"--and his voice was cruelly harsh--"all about what's been going on between you and Sam."
She gazed fearlessly and was silent.
"Speak up!" commanded Sam's father.
"Yes--and no lies," said her uncle.
"I don't know what you mean," Susan at last answered--truthfully enough, yet to gain time, too.
"You can't play that game any longer," cried Warham. "You did make a fool of me, but my eyes are open. Your aunt's right about you."
"Oh, Uncle George!" said the girl, a sob in her voice.
But he gazed pitilessly--gazed at the woman he was now abhorring as the treacherous, fallen, unsexed daughter of fallen Lorella. "Speak out. Crying won't help you. What have you and this fellow been up to? You disgrace!"
Susan shrank and shivered, but answered steadfastly, "That's between him and me, Uncle."
Warham gave a snort of fury, turned to the elder Wright. "You see, Wright," cried he. "It's as my wife and I told you. Your boy's lying. We'll send the landlady out for a preacher and marry them."
"Hold on, George," objected Wright soothingly. "I agreed to that only if there'd been something wrong. I'm not satisfied yet." He turned to Susan, said in his gruff, blunt way:
"Susan, have you been loose with my boy here?"
"Loose?" said Susan wonderingly.
Sam roused himself. "Tell them it isn't so, Susan," he pleaded, and his voice was little better than a whine of terror. "Your uncle's going to kill me and my father'll kick me out."
Susan's heart grew sick as she looked at him--looked furtively, for she was ashamed to see him so abject. "If you mean did I let him kiss me," she said to Mr. Wright, "why, I did. We kissed several times. But we had the right to. We were engaged."
Sam turned on his father in an agony of terror. "That isn't true!" he cried. "I swear it isn't, father. We aren't engaged. I only made love to her a little, as a fellow does to lots of girls."
Susan looked at him with wide, horrified eyes. "Sam!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "Sam!"
Sam's eyes dropped, but he managed to turn his face in her direction. The situation was too serious for him; he did not dare to indulge in such vanities as manhood or manly appearance. "That's the truth, Susan," he said sullenly. "You talked a lot about marrying but I never thought of such a thing."
"But--you said--you loved me."
"I didn't mean anything by it."
There fell a silence that was interrupted by Mr. Wright. "You see there's nothing in it, Warham. I'll take my boy and go."
"Not by a damn sight!" cried Warham. "He's got to marry her. Susan, did Sam promise to marry you?"
"When he got through college," replied Susan.
"I thought so! And he persuaded you to run away."
"No," said Susan. "He----"
"I say yes," stormed her uncle. "Don't lie!"
"Warham! Warham!" remonstrated Mr. Wright. "Don't browbeat the girl."
"He begged me not to go," said Susan.
"You lying fool!" shouted her uncle. Then to Wright, "If he did ask her to stay it was because he was afraid it would all come out--just as it has."
"I never promised to marry her!" whined Sam. "Honest to God, father, I never did. Honest to God, Mr. Warham! You know that's so, Susan. It was you that did all the marrying talk."
"Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, I believe it was." She looked dazedly at the three men. "I supposed he meant marriage because--" her voice faltered, but she steadied it and went on--"because we loved each other."
"I knew it!" cried her uncle. "You hear, Wright? She admits he betrayed her."
Susan remembered the horrible part of her cousin's sex revelations. "Oh, no!" she cried. "I wouldn't have let him do that--even if he had wanted to. No--not even if we'd been married."
"You see, Warham!" cried Mr. Wright, in triumph.
"I see a liar!" was Warham's furious answer. "She's trying to defend him and make out a case for herself."
"I am telling the truth," said Susan.
Warham gazed unbelievingly at her, speechless with fury. Mr. Wright took his silk hat from the corer of the piano. "I'm satisfied they're innocent," said he. "So I'll take my boy and go."
"Not if I know it!" retorted Warham. "He's got to marry her."
"But the girl says she's pure, says he never spoke of marriage, says he begged her not to run away. Be reasonable, Warham."
"For a good Christian," sneered he at Wright, "you're mighty easily convinced by a flimsy lie. In your heart you know the boy has wronged her and that she's shielding him, just as----" There Warham checked himself; it would be anything but timely to remind Wright of the character of the girl's mother.
"I'll admit," said Mr. Wright smoothly, "that I wasn't overanxious for my boy's marriage with a girl whose mother was--unfortunate. But if your charge had been true, Warham, I'd have made the boy do her justice, she being only seventeen. Come, Sam."
Sam slunk toward the door. Warham stared fiercely at the elder Wright. "And you call yourself a Christian!" he sneered.
At the door--Sam had already disappeared--Mr. Wright paused to say, "I'm going to give Sam a discipline he'll remember. The girl's only been foolish. Don't be harsh with her."
"You damned hypocrite!" shouted Warham. "I might have known what to expect from a man who cut the wages of his hands to pay his church subscription."
But Wright was far too crafty to be drawn. He went on pushing Sam before him.
As the outer door closed behind them Mrs. Wylie appeared. "I want you both to get out of my house as quick as you can," she snapped. "My boarders'll be coming to dinner in a few minutes."
Warham took his straw hat from the floor beside the chair behind him. "I've nothing to do with this girl here. Good day, madam." And he strode out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
Mrs. Wylie looked at Susan with storming face and bosom. Susan did not see. She was gazing into space, her face blanched. "Clear out!" cried Mrs. Wylie. And she ran to the outer door and opened it. "How dare you come into a respectable house!" She wished to be so wildly angry that she would forget the five dollars which she, as a professing Christian in full church standing, would have to pay back if she remembered. "Clear out this minute!" she cried shrilly. "If you don't, I'll throw your bundle into the street and you after it."
Susan took up the bundle mechanically, slowly went out on the stoop. The door closed with a slam behind her. She descended the steps, walked a few yards up the street, paused at the edge of the curb and looked dazedly about. Her uncle stood beside her. "Now where are you going?" he said roughly.
Susan shook her head.
"I suppose," he went on, "I've got to look after you. You shan't disgrace my daughter any further."
Susan simply looked at him, her eyes unseeing, her brain swept clean of thought by the cyclone that had destroyed all her dreams and hopes. She was not horrified by his accusations; such things had little meaning for one practically in complete ignorance of sex relations. Besides, the miserable fiasco of her romantic love left her with a feeling of abasement, of degradation little different from that which overwhelms a woman who believes her virtue is her all and finds herself betrayed and abandoned. She now felt indeed the outcast, looked down upon by all the world.
"If you hadn't lied," he fumed on, "you'd have been his wife and a respectable woman."
The girl shivered.
"Instead, you're a disgrace. Everybody in Sutherland'll know you've gone the way your mother went."
"Go away," said the girl piteously. "Let me alone."
"Alone? What will become of you?" He addressed the question to himself, not to her.
"It doesn't matter," was her reply in a dreary tone. "I've been betrayed, as my mother was. It doesn't matter what----"
"I knew it!" cried Warham, with no notion of what the girl meant by the word "betrayed." "Why didn't you confess the truth while he was here and his father was ready to marry him to you? I knew you'd been loose with him, as your Aunt Fanny said."
"But I wasn't," said Susan. "I wouldn't do such a thing."
"There you go, lying again!"
"It doesn't matter," said she. "All I want is for you to go away."
"You do?" sneered he. "And then what? I've got to think of Ruthie." He snatched the bundle from her hand. "Come on! I must do all I can to keep the disgrace to my family down. As for you, you don't deserve anything but the gutter, where you'd sink if I left you. Your aunt's right. You're rotten. You were born rotten. You're your mother's own brat."
"Yes, I am," she cried. "And I'm proud of it!" She turned from him, was walking rapidly away.
"Come with me!" ordered Warham, following and seizing her by the arm.
"No," said Susan, wrenching herself free.
"Then I'll call a policeman and have you locked up."
Uncle and niece stood regarding each other, hatred and contempt in his gaze, hatred and fear in hers.
"You're a child in law--though, God knows, you're anything but a child in fact. Come along with me. You've got to. I'm going to see that you're put out of harm's way."
"You wouldn't take me back to Sutherland!" she cried.
He laughed savagely. "I guess not! You'll not show your face there again--though I've no doubt you'd be brazen enough to brass it out. No--you can't pollute my home again."
"I can't go back to Sutherland!"
"You shan't, I say. You ran off because you had disgraced yourself."
"No!" cried Susan. "No!"
"Don't lie to me! Don't speak to me. I'll see what I can do to hide this mess. Come along!"
Susan looked helplessly round the street, saw nothing, not even eager, curious faces pressed against many a window pane, saw only a desolate waste. Then she walked along beside her uncle, both of them silent, he carrying her bundle, she tightly clutching her little purse.
Perhaps the most amazing, the most stunning, of all the blows fate had thus suddenly showered upon her was this transformation of her uncle from gentleness to ferocity. But many a far older and far wiser woman than seventeen-year-old Susan has failed to understand how it is with the man who does not regard woman as a fellow human being. To such she is either an object of adoration, a quintessence of purity and innocence, or less than the dust, sheer filth. Warham's anger was no gust. He was simply the average man of small intelligence, great vanity, and abject snobbishness or terror of public opinion. There could be but one reason for the flight of Lorella's daughter--rottenness. The only point to consider now was how to save the imperiled family standing, how to protect his own daughter, whom his good nature and his wife's weakness had thus endangered. The one thing that could have appeased his hatred of Susan would have been her marriage to Sam Wright. Then he would have--not, indeed, forgiven or reinstated her--but tolerated her. It is the dominance of such ideas as his that makes for woman the slavery she discovers beneath her queenly sway if she happens to do something deeply displeasing to her masculine subject and adorer.
They went to the Central Station. The O. and M. express which connected with the train on the branch line to Sutherland would not leave until a quarter past two. It was only a few minutes past one. Warham led the way into the station restaurant; with a curt nod he indicated a seat at one of the small tables, and dropped into the opposite seat. He ordered beefsteak and fried potatoes, coffee and apple pie.
"Sit still!" he said to her roughly and rose to go out to buy a paper.
The girl sat with her hands in her lap and her eyes upon them. She looked utterly, pitifully tired. A moment and he came back to resume his seat and read the paper. When the waiter flopped down the steak and the dish of greasily fried potatoes before his plate, he stuffed the paper in his pocket, cut a slice of the steak and put it on the plate. The waiter noisily exchanged it for the empty plate before Susan. Warham cut two slices of the steak for himself, took a liberal helping of the potatoes, pushed the dish toward her.
"Do you want the coffee now, or with the pie?" asked the waiter.
"Now," said Warham.
"Coffee for the young lady, too?"
Warham scowled at her. "Coffee?" he demanded.
She did not answer; she did not hear.
"Yes, she wants coffee," said Warham. "Hustle it!"
"Yes, sir." And the waiter bustled away with a great deal of motion that created a deceptive impression of speed. Warham was helping himself to steak again when the coffee came a suspicious-looking liquid diffusing an odor of staleness reheated again and again, an under odor of metal pot not too frequently scoured.
Warham glanced at Susan's plate. She had not disturbed the knife and fork on either side of it. "Eat!" he commanded. And when she gave no sign of having heard, he repeatedly sharply, "Eat, I tell you."
She started, nervously took up the knife and fork, cut a morsel off the slice of steak. When she lifted it to her lips, she suddenly put it back in the plate. "I can't," she said.
"You've got to," ordered he. "I won't have you acting this way."
"I can't," she repeated monotonously. "I feel sick." Nature had luckily so made her that it was impossible for her to swallow when her nerves were upset or when she was tired; thus, she would not have the physical woes that aggravate and prolong mental disturbance if food is taken at times when it instantly turns to poison.
He repeated his order in a still more savage tone. She put her elbows on the table, rested her head wearily upon her hands, shook her head. He desisted.
When he had eaten all of the steak, except the fat and the gristly tail, and nearly all the potatoes, the waiter took the used dishes away and brought two generous slices of apple pie and set down one before each. With the pie went a cube of American cream or "rat-trap" cheese. Warham ate his own pie and cheese; then, as she had not touched hers, he reached for it and ate it also. Now he was watching the clock and, between liftings of laden fork to his mouth, verifying the clock's opinion of the hour by his own watch. He called for the bill, paid it, gave the waiter five cents--a concession to the tipping custom of the effete city which, judging by the waiter's expression, might as well not have been made. Still, Warham had not made it with an idea of promoting good feeling between himself and the waiter, but simply to show that he knew the city and its ways. He took up the shawl strap, said, "Come on" in the voice which he deemed worthy of the fallen creature he must, through Christian duty and worldly prudence, for the time associate with. She rose and followed him to the ticket office. He had the return half of his own ticket. When she heard him ask for a ticket to North Sutherland she shivered. She knew that her destination was his brother Zeke's farm.
From Cincinnati to North Vernon, where they were to change cars, he sat beside her without speech. At North Vernon, where they had to occupy a bench outside the squat and squalid station for nearly two hours, he sat beside her without speech. And without a single word on either side they journeyed in the poking, no-sooner-well-started-than-stopping accommodation train southbound. Several Sutherland people were aboard. He nodded surlily to those who spoke to him. He read an Indianapolis paper which he had bought at North Vernon. All the way she gazed unseeingly out over the fair June landscape of rolling or hilly fields ripening in the sun.
At North Sutherland he bade her follow him to a dilapidated barn a few yards from the railway tracks, where was displayed a homemade sign--"V. Goslin. Livery and Sale Stable." There was dickering and a final compromise on four dollars where the proprieter had demanded five and Warham had declared two fifty liberal. A surrey was hitched with two horses. Warham opened the awkward door to the rear seat and ordered Susan to jump in. She obeyed; he put the bundle on the floor beside her. He sat with the driver--the proprietor himself. The horses set off at a round pace over the smooth turnpike. It was evening, and a beautiful coolness issued from the woods on either side. They skimmed over the long level stretches; they climbed hills, they raced down into valleys. Warham and the ragged, rawboned old proprietor kept up a kind of conversation--about crops and politics, about the ownership, value, and fertility of the farms they were passing. Susan sat quiet, motionless most of the time.
The last daylight faded; the stars came out; the road wound in and out, up and down, amid cool dark silence and mysterious fascinating shadows. The moon appeared above the tree tops straight ahead--a big moon, with a lower arc of the rim clipped off. The turnpike ended; they were making equally rapid progress over the dirt road which was in perfect condition as there had been no rain for several days. The beat of the flying hoofs was soft now; the two men's voices, fell into a lower key; the moon marked out the line of the road clearly, made strange spectral minglings of light and darkness in the woods, glorified the open fields and gave the occasional groups of farm buildings an ancient beauty and dignity. The girl slept.
At nine o'clock the twenty-mile drive ended in a long, slow climb up a road so washed out, so full of holes and bowlders, that it was no road at all but simply a weather-beaten hillside. A mile of this, with the liveryman's curses--"dod rot it" and "gosh dang it" and similar modifications of profanity for Christian use and for the presence of "the sex"--ringing out at every step. Susan soon awakened, rather because the surrey was pitching so wildly than because of Goslin's denunciations. A brief level stretch and they stopped for Warham to open the outer gate into his brother Zeke's big farm. A quarter of a mile through wheat to the tops of the wheels and they reached the second gate. A descent into a valley, a crossing of a creek, an ascent of a steep hill, and they were at the third gate--between pasture and barnyard. Now they came into view of the house, set upon a slope where a spring bubbled out. The house was white and a white picket fence cut off its lawn from the barnyard. A dog with a deep voice began to bark. They drove up to the front gate and stopped. The dog barked in a frenzy of rage, and they heard his straining and jerking at his chain. A clump of cedars brooded to the right of the house; their trunks were whitewashed up to the lowest branches. The house had a high stoop with wooden steps.
As Warham descended and hallooed, there came a fierce tugging at the front door from the inside. But the front door was not in the habit of being opened, and stoutly resisted. The assault grew more strenuous; the door gave way and a tall thin farmer appeared.
"Hello, Zeke," called George. He opened the surrey door. "Get down," he said to the girl, at the same time taking her bundle. He set it on the horse block beside the gate, took out his pocketbook and paid over the four dollars. "Good-by, Vic," said he pleasantly. "That's a good team you've got."
"Not so coarse," said Vic. "Good-by, Mr. Warham." And off he drove.
Zeke Warham had now descended the steps and was opening the front gate, which was evidently as unaccustomed to use as the front door. "Howdy, George," said he. "Ain't that Susie you've got with you?" Like George, Zeke had had an elementary education. But he had married an ignorant woman, and had lived so long among his farm hands and tenants that he used their mode of speech.
"Yes, it's Susie," said George, shaking hands with his brother.
"Howdy, Susie," said Zeke, shaking hands with her. "I see you've got your things with you. Come to stay awhile?"
George interrupted. "Susan, go up on the porch and take your bundle."
The girl took up the shawl strap and went to the front door. She leaned upon the railing of the stoop and watched the two men standing at the gate. George was talking to his brother in a low tone. Occasionally the brother uttered an ejaculation. She could not hear; their heads were so turned that she could not see their faces. The moon made it almost as bright as day. From the pasture woods came a low, sweet chorus of night life--frogs and insects and occasionally a night bird. From the orchard to the left and the clover fields beyond came a wonderful scented breeze. She heard a step in the hall; her Aunt Sallie appeared--a comfortable, voluble woman, a hard worker and a harder eater and showing it in thin hair and wrinkled face.
"Why, Susie Lenox, ain't that you?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, Aunt," said Susan.
Her aunt kissed her, diffusing that earthy odor which is the basis of the smell of country persons. At various hours of the day this odor would be modified with the smell of cow stables, of chickens, of cooking, according to immediate occupation. But whatever other smell there was, the earthy smell persisted. And it was the smell of the house, too.
"Who's at the gate with your Uncle Zeke?" inquired Sallie. "Ain't it George?"
"Yes," said Susan.
"Why don't he come in?" She raised her voice. "George, ain't you coming in?"
"Howdy, Sallie," called George. "You take the girl in. Zeke and I'll be along."
"Some business, I reckon," said her aunt to Susan. "Come on. Have you had supper?"
"No," said Susan. She was hungry now. The splendid health of the girl that had calmed her torment of soul into a dull ache was clamoring for food--food to enable her body to carry her strong and enduring through whatever might befall.
"I'll set something out for you," said Sallie. "Come right in. You might leave your bundle here by the parlor door. We'll put you in the upstairs room."
They passed the front stairway, went back through the hall, through the big low-ceilinged living-room with its vast fireplace now covered for the warm season by a screen of flowered wallpaper. They were in the plain old dining-room with its smaller fireplace and its big old-fashioned cupboards built into the wall on either side of the projecting chimney-piece. "There ain't much," resumed Sallie. "But I reckon you kin make out."
On the gayly patterned table cover she set an array of substantial plates and glasses. From various cupboards in dining-room and adjoining kitchen she assembled a glass pitcher of sweet milk, a glass pitcher of buttermilk, a plate of cold cornbread, a platter of cold fried chicken, a dish of golden butter, a pan of cold fried potatoes, a jar of preserved crab apples and another of peach butter. Susan watched with hungry eyes. She was thinking of nothing but food now. Her aunt looked at her and smiled.
"My, but you're shootin' up!" she exclaimed, admiring the girl's tall, straight figure. "And you don't seem to get stringy and bony like so many, but keep nice and round. Do set down."
"I--I think I'll wait until Uncle George comes."
"Nothing of the kind!" She pushed a wooden chair before one of the two plates she had laid. "I see you've still got that lovely skin. And how tasty you dress! Now, do set!"
Susan seated herself.
"Pitch right in, child," urged Sallie. "How's yer aunt and her Ruth?"
"They're--they're well, thank you."
"No," said Susan. "I'll wait for Uncle."
"Never mind your manners. I know you're starved." Then seeing that the girl would not eat, she said, "Well, I'll go fetch him."
But Susan stopped her. "Please please don't," she entreated.
Sallie stared to oppose; then, arrested by the intense, appealing expression in those violet-gray eyes, so beautifully shaded by dark lashes and brows, she kept silent, bustled aimlessly about, boiling with suddenly aroused curiosity. It was nearly half an hour by the big square wooden clock on the chimney-piece when Susan heard the steps of her two uncles. Her hunger fled; the deathly sickness surged up again. She trembled, grew ghastly in the yellow lamplight. Her hands clutched each other in her lap.
"Why, Susie!" cried her aunt. "Whatever is the matter of you!"
The girl lifted her eyes to her aunt's face the eyes of a wounded, suffering, horribly suffering animal. She rose, rushed out of the door into the yard, flung herself down on the grass. But still she could not get the relief of tears. After a while she sat up and listened. She heard faintly the voices of her uncle and his relatives. Presently her aunt came out to her. She hid her face in her arm and waited for the new harshness to strike.
"Get up and come in, Susie." The voice was kind, was pitying--not with the pity that galls, but with the pity of one who understands and feels and is also human, the pity that soothes. At least to this woman she was not outcast.
The girl flung herself down again and sobbed--poured out upon the bosom of our mother earth all the torrents of tears that had been damming up within her. And Sallie knelt beside her and patted her now and then, with a "That's right. Cry it out, sweetie."
When tears and sobs subsided Sallie lifted her up, walked to the house with her arm round her. "Do you feel better?"
"Some," admitted Susan.
"The men folks have went. So we kin be comfortable. After you've et, you'll feel still better."
Gorge Warham had made a notable inroad upon the food and drink. But there was an abundance left. Susan began with a hesitating sipping at a glass of milk and nibbling at one of the generous cubes of old-fashioned cornbread. Soon she was busy. It delighted Sallie to see her eat. She pressed the preserves, the chicken, the cornbread upon her. "I haven't eaten since early this morning," apologized the girl.
"That means a big hole to fill," observed Sallie. "Try this buttermilk."
But Susan could hold no more.
"I reckon you're pretty well tired out," observed Sallie.
"I'll help you straighten up," said Susan, rising.
"No. Let me take you up to bed--while the men's still outside."
Susan did not insist. They returned through the empty sitting-room and along the hall. Aunt Sallie took the bundle, and they ascended to the spare bedroom. Sallie showed her into the front room--a damp, earthy odor; a wallpaper with countless reproductions of two little brown girls in a brown swing under a brown tree; a lofty bed, white and tomb-like; some preposterous artificial flowers under glass on chimney-piece and table; three bright chromos on the walls; "God Bless Our Home" in pink, blue and yellow worsted over the door.
"I'll run down and put the things away," said her aunt. "Then I'll come back."
Susan put her bundle on the sofa, opened it, found nightgown and toilet articles on top. She looked uncertainly about, rapidly undressed, got into the nightgown. "I'll turn down the bed and lie on it until Auntie comes," she said to herself. The bed was delightfully cool; the shuck mattress made soft crackling sounds under her and gave out a soothing odor of the fields. Hardly had her head touched the pillow when she fell sound asleep. In a few minutes her aunt came hurrying in, stopped short at sight of that lovely childlike face with the lamplight full upon it. One of Susan's tapering arms was flung round her dark wavy hair. Sallie Warham smiled gently. "Bless the baby" she said half aloud. Then her smile faded and a look of sadness and pity came. "Poor child!" she murmured. "The Warham men's hard. But then all the men's hard. Poor child." And gently she kissed the girl's flushed cheek. "And she never had no mother, nor nothing." She sighed, gradually lowered the flame of the little old glass lamp, blew it out, and went noiselessly from the room, closing the door behind her.