Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Late that afternoon Jeb returned to the house after several hours of uneasy, aimless pottering about at barn and woodshed. He stumped and stamped around the kitchen, then in the sitting-room, finally he mustered the courage to look into the bedroom, from which he had slunk like a criminal three hours before. There she lay, apparently in the same position. Her waxen color and her absolute stillness added fear to his sense of guilt--a guilt against which he protested, because he felt he had simply done what God and man expected of him. He stood in the low doorway for some time, stood there peering and craning until his fear grew so great that he could no longer put off ending or confirming it.
"Sleepin'?" said he in a hoarse undertone.
She did not reply; she did not move. He could not see that she was breathing.
"It'll soon be time to git supper," he went on--not because he was thinking of supper but because he was desperately clutching for something that must draw a reply from her--if she could reply. "Want me to clean up the dinner and put the supper things on?"
She made a feeble effort to rise, sank back again. He drew an audible sigh of relief; at least she was not what her color had suggested.
In fact, she was morbidly conscious. The instant she had heard him at the outer door she had begun to shiver and shake, and not until he moved toward the bedroom door did she become quiet. Then a calm had come into her nerves and her flesh--the calm that descends upon the brave when the peril actually faces. As he stood there her eyes were closed, but the smell of him--beneath the earthy odor of his clothing the odor of the bodies of those who eat strong, coarse food--stole into her nostrils, into her nerves. Her whole body sickened and shrank--for to her now that odor meant marriage--and she would not have believed Hell contained or Heaven permitted such a thing as was marriage. She understood now why the Bible always talked of man as a vile creature born in sin.
Jeb was stealthily watching her ghastly face, her limp body. "Feelin' sickish?" he asked.
A slight movement of the head in assent.
"I kin ride over to Beecamp and fetch Doc Christie."
Another and negative shake of the head, more determined. The pale lips murmured, "No--no, thank you." She was not hating him. He existed for her only as a symbol, in this hideous dream called life, that was coiled like a snake about her and was befouling her and stinging her to death.
"Don't you bother 'bout supper," said he with gruff, shamefaced generosity. "I'll look out for myself, this onct."
He withdrew to the kitchen, where she heard him clattering dishes and pans. Daylight waned to twilight, twilight to dusk, to darkness. She did not think; she did not feel, except an occasional dull pang from some bodily bruise. Her soul, her mind, were absolutely numb. Suddenly a radiance beat upon her eyes. All in an instant, before the lifting of her eyelids, soul and body became exquisitely acute; for she thought it was he come again, with a lamp. She looked; it was the moon whose beams struck full in at the uncurtained window and bathed her face in their mild brighteness. She closed her eyes again and presently fell asleep--the utter relaxed sleep of a child that is worn out with pain, when nature turns gentle nurse and sets about healing and soothing as only nature can. When she awoke it was with a scream. No, she was not dreaming; there was an odor in the room--his odor, with that of a saloon added to it.
After cooking and eating supper he had taken the jug from its concealment behind the woodbox and had proceeded to cheer his drooped spirits. The more he drank the better content he was with himself, with his conduct, and the clearer became his conviction that the girl was simply playing woman's familiar game of dainty modesty. A proper game it was too; only a man must not pay attention to it unless he wished his woman to despise him. When this conviction reached the point of action he put away the jug, washed the glass, ate a liberal mouthful of the left-over stewed onions, as he would not for worlds have his bride catch him tippling. He put out the lamp and went to the bedroom, chuckling to himself like a man about to play a particularly clever and extremely good-humored practical joke. His preparations for the night were, as always, extremely simple merely a flinging off of his outer clothes and, in summer, his socks. From time to time he cast an admiring amorous glance at the lovely childlike face in the full moonlight. As he was about to stretch himself on the bed beside her he happened to note that she was dressed as when she came. That stylish, Sundayish dress was already too much mussed and wrinkled. He leaned over to wake her with a kiss. It was then that she started up with a scream.
"Oh--oh--my God!" she exclaimed, passing her hand over her brow and staring at him with crazed, anguished eyes.
"It's jest me," said he. "Thought you'd want to git ready fur bed, like as not."
"No, thank you, no," she stammered, drawing away toward the inner side of the bed. "Please I want to be as I am."
"Now, don't put on, sweetness," he wheedled. "You know you're married and 'ave got to git used to it."
He laid his hand on her arm. She had intended to obey, since that was the law of God and man and since in all the world there was no other place for her, nameless and outcast. But at his touch she clenched her teeth, cried:
"No--Mr. Ferguson--please--please let me be."
"Now, hon," he pleaded, seizing her with strong gentleness. "There ain't no call to be skittish. We're married, you know."
She wrenched herself free. He seized her again. "What's the use of puttin' on? I know all about you. You little no-name," he cursed, when her teeth sank into his hand. For an instant, at that reminder of her degradation, her indelible shame that made her of the low and the vile, she collapsed in weakness. Then with new and fierce strength she fought again. When she had exhausted herself utterly she relaxed, fell to sobbing and moaning, feebly trying to shelter her face from his gluttonous and odorous kisses. And upon the scene the moon shone in all that beauty which from time immemorial has filled the hearts of lovers with ecstasy and of devotees with prayer.
They lay quietly side by side; he fell into a profound sleep. He was full upon his back, his broad chest heaving in the gray cotton undershirt, his mouth wide open with its upper fringe of hair in disarray and agitated by his breath. Soon he began to snore, a deafening clamor that set some loose object in the dark part of the room to vibrating with a tapping sound. Susan stealthily raised herself upon her elbow, looked at him. There was neither horror nor fear in her haggard face but only eagerness to be sure he would not awaken. She, inch by inch, more softly than a cat, climbed over the low footboard, was standing on the floor. One silent step at a time, with eyes never from his face so clear in the moonlight, she made her way toward the door. The snoring stopped--and her heart stopped with it. He gasped, gurgled, gave a snort, and sat up.
"What--which----" he ejaculated. Then he saw her near the door. "Hello--whar ye goin'?"
"I thought I'd undress," she lied, calmly and smoothly.
"Oh--that's right." And he lay down.
She stood in the darkness, making now and then a faint sound suggestive of undressing. The snoring began again--soft, then deep, then the steady, uproarious intake with the fierce whistling exhalation. She went into the sitting-room, felt round in the darkness, swift and noiseless. On the sofa she found her bundle, tore it open. By feeling alone she snatched her sailor hat, a few handkerchiefs, two stockings, a collar her fingers chanced upon and a toothbrush. She darted to the front door, was outside, was gliding down the path, out through the gate into the road.
To the left would be the way she had come. She ran to the right, with never a backward glance--ran with all the speed in her lithe young body, ran with all the energy of her fear and horror and resolve to die rather than be taken. For a few hundred yards the road lay between open fields. But after that it entered a wood. And in that dimness she felt the first beginnings of a sense of freedom. Half a mile and open fields again, with a small house on the right, a road southeastward on the left. That would be away from her Uncle Zeke's and also away from Sutherland, which lay twenty miles to the southwest. When she would be followed Jeb would not think of this direction until he had exhausted the other two.
She walked, she ran, she rested; she walked and ran and walked again. The moon ascended to the zenith, crossed the levels of the upper sky, went down in the west; a long bar of dusky gray outlined a cloud low upon the horizon in the northeast. She was on the verge of collapse. Her skin, the inside of her mouth, were hot and dry. She had to walk along at snail's pace or her heart would begin to beat as if it were about to burst and the blood would choke up into the veins of her throat to suffocate her. A terrible pain came in her side--came and went--came and stayed. She had passed turning after turning, to the right, to the left--crossroads leading away in all directions. She had kept to the main road because she did not wish to lose time, perhaps return upon her path, in the confusion of the darkness. Now she began to look about her at the country. It was still the hills as round Zeke Warham's--the hills of southeastern Indiana. But they were steeper and higher, for she was moving toward the river. There was less open ground, more and denser undergrowth and forest. She felt that she was in a wilderness, was safe. Night still lay too thick upon the landscape for her to distinguish anything but outlines. She sat down on the ruined and crumbling panel of a zigzag fence to rest and to wait for light. She listened; a profound hush. She was alone, all alone. How far had she come? She could not guess; but she knew that she had done well. She would have been amazed if she had known how well. All the years of her life, thanks to Mrs. Warham's good sense about health, she had been steadily adding to the vitality and strength that were hers by inheritance. Thus, the response to this first demand upon them had been almost inevitable. It augured well for the future, if the future should draw her into hardships. She knew she had gone far and in what was left of the night and with what was left of her strength she would put such a distance between her and them that they would never believe she had got so far, even should they seek in this direction. She was supporting her head upon her hands, her elbows upon her knees. Her eyes closed, her head nodded; she fought against the impulse, but she slept.
When she straightened up with a start it was broad day. The birds must have finished their morning song, for there was only happy, comfortable chirping in the branches above her. She rose stiffly. Her legs, her whole body, ached; and her feet were burning and blistered. But she struck out resolutely.
After she had gone halfway down a long steep hill, she had to turn back because she had left her only possessions. It was a weary climb, and her heart quaked with terror. But no one appeared, and at last she was once more at the ruins of the fence panel. There lay her sailor hat, the handkerchiefs, wrapped round the toothbrush, the collar--and two stockings, one black, the other brown. And where was her purse? Not there, certainly. She glanced round in swift alarm. No one. Yet she had been absolutely sure she had taken her purse from the sitting-room table when she came upon it, feeling about in the dark. She had forgotten it; she was without a cent!
But she had no time to waste in self-reproaches or forebodings. Though the stockings would be of no use to her, she took them along because to leave them was to leave a trail. She hastened down the hill. At the bottom ran a deep creek--without a bridge. The road was now a mere cowpath which only the stoutest vehicles or a horseman would adventure. To her left ran an even wilder trail, following the downward course of the creek. She turned out of the road, entered the trail. She came to a place where the bowlders over which the creek foamed and splashed as it hurried southeastward were big and numerous enough to make a crossing. She took it, went slowly on down the other bank.
There was no sign of human intrusion. Steeply on either side rose a hill, strewn with huge bowlders, many of them large as large houses. The sun filtered through the foliage to make a bright pattern upon the carpet of last year's leaves. The birds twittered and chirped; the creek hummed its drowsy, soothing melody. She was wretchedly weary, and Oh, so hungry! A little further, and two of the great bowlders, tumbled down from the steeps, had cut off part of the creek, had formed a pool which their seamed and pitted and fernadorned walls hid from all observation except that of the birds and the squirrels in the boughs.
At once she thought how refreshed she would be if she could bathe in those cool waters. She looked round, stepped in between the bowlders. She peered out; she listened. She was safe; she drew back into her little inclosure. There was a small dry shelf of rock. She hurried off her clothes, stood a moment in the delicious warmth of the sunshine, stepped into the pool. She would have liked to splash about; but she dared make no sound that could be heard above the noise of the water. Luckily the creek was just there rather loud, as it was expressing its extreme annoyance over the stolid impudence of the interrupting bowlders. While she was waiting for the sun to dry her she looked at her underclothes. She simply could not put them on as they were. She knelt at the edge of the shelf and rinsed them out as well as she could. Then she spread them on the thick tufts of overhanging fern where the hot sun would get full swing at them. The brown stocking of the two mismates she had brought along almost matched the pair she was wearing. As there was a hole in the toe of one of them, she discarded it, and so had one fresh stocking. She dried her feet thoroughly with the stocking she was discarding. Then she put her corsets and her dress directly upon her body. She could not afford to wait until the underclothes dried; she would carry them until she found for herself a more remote and better hiding place where she could await nightfall. She stuffed the stocking with the hole deep into a cleft in the rock and laid a small stone upon it so that it was concealed. Here where there were no traces, no reminders of the human race which had cast her out and pursued her with torture of body and soul, here in the wilderness her spirits were going up, and her young eyes were looking hopefully round and forward. The up-piling horrors of those two days and their hideous climax seemed a dream which the sun had scattered. Hopefully! That blessed inexperience and sheer imagination of youth enabling it to hope in a large, vague way when to hope for any definite and real thing would be impossible.
She cleaned her tan low shoes with branches of fern and grass, put them on. It is impossible to account for the peculiarities of physical vanity. Probably no one was ever born who had not physical vanity of some kind; Susan's was her feet and ankles. Not her eyes, nor her hair, nor her contour, nor her skin, nor her figure, though any or all of these might well have been her pleasure. Of them she never thought in the way of pride or vanity. But of her feet and ankles she was both proud and vain--in a reserved, wholly unobtrusive way, be it said, so quietly that she had passed unsuspected. There was reason for this shy, secret self-satisfaction, so amusing in one otherwise self-unconscious. Her feet were beautifully formed and the curves of her instep and ankle were beautiful. She gave more attention now to the look of her shoes and of her stockings than to all the rest of this difficult woodland toilet. She then put on the sailor hat, fastened the collar to her garter, slipped the handkerchiefs into the legs of her stockings. Carrying her underclothes, ready to roll them into a ball should she meet anyone, she resumed her journey into that rocky wilderness. She was sore, she had pains that were the memories of the worst horrors of her hideous dream, but up in her strong, healthy body, up through her strong young soul, surged joy of freedom and joy of hope. Compared with what her lot had been until such a few brief days before, this lot of friendless wanderer in the wilderness was dark indeed. But she was comparing it with the monstrous dream from which it was the awakening. She was almost happy--and madly hungry.
An enormous bowlder, high above her and firmly fixed in the spine of the hill, invited as a place where she could see without being seen, could hide securely until darkness came again. She climbed to the base of it, found that she might reach the top by stepping from ledge to ledge with the aid of the trees growing so close around it that some of their boughs seemed rooted in its weather-dented cliffs. She dragged herself upward the fifty or sixty feet, glad of the difficulties because they would make any pursuer feel certain she had not gone that way. After perhaps an hour she came upon a flat surface where soil had formed, where grass and wild flowers and several little trees gave shade and a place to sleep. And from her eyrie she commanded a vast sweep of country--hills and valleys, fields, creeks, here and there lonely farmhouses, and far away to the east the glint of the river!
To the river! That was her destination. And somehow it would be kind, would take her where she would never, never dream those frightful dreams again!
She went to the side of the bowlder opposite that which she had climbed. She drew back hastily, ready to cry with vexation. It was not nearly so high or so steep; and on the slope of the hill a short distance away was set a little farmhouse, with smoke curling up from its rough stone chimney. She dropped to all fours in the tall grass and moved cautiously toward the edge. Flat upon her breast, she worked her way to the edge and looked down. A faintly lined path led from the house through a gate in a zigzag fence and up to the base of her fortress. The rock had so crumbled on that side that a sort of path extended clear up to the top. But her alarm quieted somewhat when she noted how the path was grass-grown.
As nearly as she could judge it was about five o'clock. So that smoke meant breakfast! Her eyes fixed hungrily upon the thin column of violet vapor mounting straight into the still morning air. When smoke rose in that fashion, she remembered, it was sure sign of clear weather. And then the thought came, "What if it had been raining!" She simply could not have got away.
As she interestedly watched the little house and its yard she saw hurrying through the burdock and dog fennel toward the base of her rock a determined looking hen. Susan laughed silently, it was so obvious that the hen was on a pressing and secret business errand. But almost immediately her attention was distracted to observing the movements of a human being she could obscurely make out through one of the windows just back of the chimney. Soon she saw that it was a woman, cleaning up a kitchen after breakfast--the early breakfast of the farmhouse in summer.
What had they had for breakfast? She sniffed the air. "I think I can smell ham and cornbread," she said aloud, and laughed, partly at the absurdity of her fancy, chiefly at the idea of such attractive food. She aggravated her hunger by letting her imagination loose upon the glorious possibilities. A stealthy fluttering brought her glance back to the point where the hen had disappeared. The hen reappeared, hastened down the path and through the weeds, and rejoined the flock in the yard with an air which seemed to say, "No, indeed, I've been right here all the time."
"Now, what was she up to?" wondered Susan, and the answer came to her. Eggs! A nest hidden somewhere near or in the base of the rock!
Could she get down to that nest without being seen from the house or from any other part of the region below? She drew back from the edge, crawled through the grass to the place where the path, if path it could be called, reached the top. She was delighted to find that it made the ascent through a wide cleft and not along the outside. She let herself down cautiously as the footway was crumbling and rotten and slippery with grass. At the lower end of the cleft she peered out. Trees and bushes--plenty of them, a thick shield between her and the valleys. She moved slowly downward; a misstep might send her through the boughs to the hillside forty feet below. She had gone up and down several times before her hunger-sharpened eyes caught the gleam of white through the ferns growing thickly out of the moist mossy cracks which everywhere seamed the wall. She pushed the ferns aside. There was the nest, the length of her forearm into the dim seclusion of a deep hole. She felt round, found the egg that was warm. And as she drew it out she laughed softly and said half aloud: "Breakfast is ready!"
No, not quite ready. Hooking one arm round the bough of a tree that shot up from the hillside to the height of the rock and beyond, she pressed her foot firmly against the protecting root of an ancient vine of poison ivy. Thus ensconced, she had free hands; and she proceeded to remove the thin shell of the egg piece by piece. She had difficulty in restraining herself until the end. At last she put the whole egg into her mouth. And never had she tasted anything so good.
But one egg was only an appetizer. She reached in again. She did not wish to despoil the meritorious hen unnecessarily, so she held the egg up in her inclosing fingers and looked through it, as she had often seen the cook do at home. She was not sure, but the inside seemed muddy. She laid it to one side, tried another. It was clear and she ate it as she had eaten the first. She laid aside the third, the fourth, and the fifth. The sixth seemed all right--but was not. Fortunately she had not been certain enough to feel justified in putting the whole egg into her mouth before tasting it. The taste, however, was enough to make her reflect that perhaps on the whole two eggs were sufficient for breakfast, especially as there would be at least dinner and supper before she could go further. As she did not wish to risk another descent, she continued to sort out the eggs. She found four that were, or seemed to be, all right. The thirteen that looked doubtful or worse when tested by the light she restored with the greatest care. It was an interesting illustration of the rare quality of consideration which at that period of her life dominated her character.
She put the four eggs in the bosom of her blouse and climbed up to her eyrie. All at once she felt the delicious languor of body and mind which is Nature's forewarning that she is about to put us to sleep, whether we will or no. She lost all anxiety about safety, looked hastily around for a bed. She found just the place in a corner of the little tableland where the grass grew tall and thick. She took from her bosom the four eggs--her dinner and supper--and put them between the roots of a tree with a cover of broad leaves over them to keep them cool. She pulled grass to make a pillow, took off her collar and laid herself down to sleep. And that day's sun did not shine upon a prettier sight than this soundly and sweetly sleeping girl, with her oval face suffused by a gentle flush, with her rounded young shoulders just moving the bosom of her gray silk blouse, with her slim, graceful legs curled up to the edge of her carefully smoothed blue serge skirt. You would have said never a care, much less a sorrow, had shadowed her dawning life. And that is what it means to be young--and free from the curse of self-pity, and ignorant of life's saddest truth, that future and past are not two contrasts; one is surely bright and the other is sober, but they are parts of a continuous fabric woven of the same threads and into the same patterns from beginning to end.
When she awoke, beautifully rested, her eyes clear and soft, the shadows which had been long toward the southwest were long, though not so long, toward the southeast. She sat up and smiled; it was so fine to be free! And her woes had not in the least shaken that serene optimism which is youth's most delightful if most dangerous possession. She crawled through the grass to the edge of the rock and looked out through the screening leaves of the dense undergrowth. There was no smoke from the chimney of the house. The woman, in a blue calico, was sitting on the back doorstep knitting. Farther away, in fields here and there, a few men--not a dozen in all--were at work. From a barnyard at the far edge of the western horizon came the faint sound of a steam thresher, and she thought she could see the men at work around it, but this might have been illusion. It was a serene and lovely panorama of summer and country. Last of all her eyes sought the glimpse of distant river.
She ate two of her four eggs, put on the underclothes which were now thoroughly sun-dried, shook out and rebraided her hair. Then she cast about for some way to pass the time.
She explored the whole top of the rock, but that did not use up more than fifteen minutes, as it was so small that every part was visible from every other part. However, she found a great many wild flowers and gathered a huge bouquet of the audacious colors of nature's gardens, so common yet so effective. She did a little botanizing--anything to occupy her mind and keep it from the ugly visions and fears. But all too soon she had exhausted the resources of her hiding place. She looked down into the valley to the north--the valley through which she had come. She might go down there and roam; it would be something to do, and her young impatience of restraint was making her so restless that she felt she could not endure the confines of that little rock. It had seemed huge; a brief experience of freedom, a few hours between her and the night's horrors and terrors, and it had shrunk to a tiny prison cell. Surely she would run no risk in journeying through that trackless wilderness; she need not be idle, she could hasten her destiny by following the creek in its lonely wanderings, which must sooner or later bring it to the river. The river!
She was about to get the two remaining eggs and abandon her stronghold when it occurred to her that she would do well to take a last look all around. She went back to the side of the rock facing the house.
The woman had suspended knitting and was gazing intently across the hollow to the west, where the road from the north entered the landscape. Susan turned her eyes in that direction. Two horsemen at a gallop were moving southward. The girl was well screened, but instinctively she drew still further back behind the bushes--but not so far that the two on horseback, riding so eagerly, were out of her view. The road dipped into the hollow. the galloping horsemen disappeared with it. Susan shifted her gaze to the point on the brow of the hill where the road reappeared. She was quivering in every nerve. When they came into view again she would know.
The place she was watching swam before her eyes. Suddenly the two, still at a gallop, rose upon the crest of the hill. Jeb and her Uncle Zeke! Her vision cleared, her nerve steadied.
They did not draw rein until they were at the road gate of the little house. The woman rose, put down her knitting in the seat of her stiff, rush-bottomed rocker, advanced to the fence. The air was still, but Susan could not hear a sound, though she craned forward and strained her ears to the uttermost. She shrank as if she had been struck when the three began to gaze up at the rock--to gaze, it seemed to her, at the very spot where she was standing. Was her screen less thick than she thought? Had they seen--if not her, perhaps part of her dress?
Wildly her heart beat as Jeb dismounted from his horse the mare behind which she had made her wedding journey--and stood in the gateway, talking with the woman and looking toward the top of the rock. Zeke Warham turned his horse and began to ride slowly away. He got as far as the brow of the hill, with Jeb still in the gateway, hesitating. Then Susan heard:
"Hold on, Mr. Warham. I reckon you're right."
Warham halted his horse, Jeb remounted and joined him. As the woman returned toward the back doorstep, the two men rode at a walk down into the hollow. When they reappeared it was on the road by which they had come. And the girl knew the pursuit in that direction--the right direction--was over. Trembling and with a fluttering in her breast like the flapping of a bird's wings, she sank to the ground. Presently she burst into a passion of tears. Without knowing why, she tore off the wedding ring which until then she had forgotten, and flung it out among the treetops. A few minutes, and she dried her eyes and stood up. The two horsemen were leaving the landscape at the point at which they had entered it. The girl would not have known, would have been frightened by, her own face had she seen it as she watched them go out of her sight--out of her life. She did not understand herself, for she was at that age when one is no more conscious of the forces locked up within his unexplored and untested character than the dynamite cartridge is of its secrets of power and terror.