Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She felt free to go now. She walked toward the place where she had left the eggs. It was on the side of the rock overlooking the creek. As she knelt to remove the leaves, she heard from far below a man's voice singing. She leaned forward and glanced down at the creek. In a moment appeared a young man with a fishing rod and a bag slung over his shoulder. His gray and white striped flannel trousers were rolled to his knees. His fair skin and the fair hair waving about his forehead were exposed by the flapping-brimmed straw hat set upon the back of his head. His voice, a strong and manly tenor, was sending up those steeps a song she had never heard before--a song in Italian. She had not seen what he looked like when she remembered herself and hastily fell back from view. She dropped to the grass and crawled out toward the ledge. When she showed her face it so happened that he was looking straight at her.
"Hello!" he shouted. "That you, Nell?"
Susan drew back, her blood in a tumult. From below, after a brief silence, came a burst of laughter.
She waited a long time, then through a shield of bunches of grass looked again. The young man was gone. She wished that he had resumed his song, for she thought she had never heard one so beautiful. Because she did not feel safe in descending until he was well out of the way, and because she was so comfortable lying there in the afternoon sunshine watching the birds and listening to them, she continued on there, glancing now and then at where the creek entered and where it left her range of vision, to make sure that no one else should come and catch her. Suddenly sounded a voice from somewhere behind her:
"Hey, Nell! I'm coming!"
She sprang to her feet, faced about; and Crusoe was not more agitated when he saw the print of the naked foot on his island's strand. The straw hat with the flapping brim was just lifting above the edge of the rock at the opposite side, where the path was. She could not escape; the shelf offered no hiding place. Now the young man was stepping to the level, panting loudly.
"Gee, what a climb for a hot day!" he cried. "Where are you?"
With that he was looking at Susan, less than twenty yards away and drawn up defiantly. He stared, took off his hat. He had close-cropped wavy hair and eyes as gray as Susan's own, but it was a blue-gray instead of violet. His skin was fair, too, and his expression intelligent and sympathetic. In spite of his hat, and his blue cotton shirt, and trousers rolled high on bare sunburned legs, there was nothing of the yokel about him.
"I beg your pardon," he exclaimed half humorously. "I thought it was my cousin Nell."
"No," said Susan, disarmed by his courtesy and by the frank engaging manner of it.
"I didn't mean to intrude." He showed white teeth in a broad smile. "I see from your face that this is your private domain."
"Oh, no--not at all," stammered Susan.
"Yes, I insist," replied he. "Will you let me stay and rest a minute? I ran round the rock and climbed pretty fast."
"Yes--do," said Susan.
The young man sat on the grass near where he had appeared, and crossed his long legs. The girl, much embarrassed, looked uneasily about. "Perhaps you'd sit, too?" suggested he, after eyeing her in a friendly way that could not cause offense and somehow did not cause any great uneasiness.
Susan hesitated, went to the shadow of a little tree not far from him. He was fanning his flushed face with his hat. The collar of his shirt was open; below, where the tan ended abruptly, his skin was beautifully white. Now that she had been discovered, it was as well to be pleasant, she reasoned. "It's a fine day," she observed with a grown-up gravity that much amused him.
"Not for fishing," said he. "I caught nothing. You are a stranger in these parts?"
Susan colored and a look of terror flitted into her eyes. "Yes," she admitted. "I'm--I'm passing through."
The young man had all he could do to conceal his amusement. Susan flushed deeply again, not because she saw his expression, for she was not looking at him, but because her remark seemed to her absurd and likely to rouse suspicion.
"I suppose you came up here to see the view," said the man. He glanced round. "It is pretty good. You're not visiting down Brooksburg way, by any chance?"
"No," replied Susan, rather composedly and determined to change the subject. "What was that song I heard you singing?"
"Oh--you heard, did you?" laughed he. "It's the Duke's song from `Rigoletto.'"
"That's an opera, isn't it--like `Trovatore'?"
"Yes--an Italian opera. Same author."
"It's a beautiful song." It was evident that she longed to ask him to sing it. She felt at ease with him; he was so unaffected and simple, was one of those people who seem to be at home wherever they are.
"Do you sing?" he inquired.
"Not really," replied she.
"Neither do I. So if you'll sing to me, I'll sing to you."
Susan looked round in alarm. "Oh, dear, no--please don't," she cried.
"Why not?" he asked curiously. "There isn't a soul about."
"I know--but--really, you mustn't."
"Very well," said he, seeing that her nervousness was not at all from being asked to sing. They sat quietly, she gazing off at the horizon, he fanning himself and studying her lovely young face. He was somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five and a close observer would have suspected him of an unusual amount of experience, even for a good-looking, expansive youth of that age.
He broke the long silence. "I'm a newspaper man from Cincinnati. I'm on the Commercial there. My name's Roderick Spenser. My father's Clayton Spenser, down at Brooksburg"--he pointed to the southeast--"beyond that hill there, on the river. I'm here on my vacation." And he halted, looking at her expectantly.
It seemed to her that there was in courtesy no escape without a return biographical sketch. She hung her head, twisted her tapering fingers in her lap, and looked childishly embarrassed and unhappy. Another long silence; again he broke it. "You'll pardon my saying so, but--you're very young, aren't you?"
"Not so--so terribly young. I'm almost seventeen," replied she, glancing this way and that, as if thinking of flight.
"You look like a child, yet you don't," he went on, and his frank, honest voice calmed her. "You've had some painful experience, I'd say."
She nodded, her eyes down.
A pause, then he: "Honest, now--aren't you--running away?"
She lifted her eyes to his piteously. "Please don't ask me," she said.
"I shouldn't think of it," replied he, with a gentleness in his persistence that made her feel still more like trusting him, "if it wasn't that----
"Well, this world isn't the easiest sort of a place. Lots of rough stretches in the road. I've struck several and I've always been glad when somebOdy has given me a lift. And I want to pass it on--if you'll let me. It's something we owe each other--don't you think?"
The words were fine enough; but it was the voice in which he said them that went to her heart. She covered her face with her hands and released her pent emotions. He took a package of tobacco and a sheaf of papers from his trousers pocket, rolled and lighted a cigarette. After a while she dried her eyes, looked at him shamefacedly. But he was all understanding and sympathy.
"Now you feel better, don't you?"
"Much," said she. And she laughed. "I guess I'm more upset than I let myself realize."
"Sorry you left home?"
"I haven't any home," answered she simply. "And I wouldn't go back alive to the place I came from."
There was a quality in the energy she put into her words that made him thoughtful. He counseled with the end of his cigarette. Finally he inquired:
"Where are you bound for?"
"I don't know exactly," confessed she, as if it were a small matter.
He shook his head. "I see you haven't the faintest notion what you're up against."
"Oh, I'll get along. I'm strong, and I can learn."
He looked at her critically and rather sadly.
"Yes--you are strong," said he. "But I wonder if you're strong enough."
"I never was sick in my life."
"I don't mean that. . . . I'm not sure I know just what I do mean."
"Is it very hard to get to Chicago?" inquired she.
"It's easier to get to Cincinnati."
She shook her head positively. "It wouldn't do for me to go there."
"Oh, you come from Cincinnati?"
"No--but I--I've been there."
"Oh, they caught you and brought you back?"
She nodded. This young man must be very smart to understand so quickly.
"How much money have you got?" he asked abruptly.
But his fear that she would think him impertinent came of an underestimate of her innocence. "I haven't got any," replied she. "I forgot my purse. It had thirty dollars in it."
At once he recognized the absolute child; only utter inexperience of the world could speak of so small a sum so respectfully. "I don't understand at all," said he. "How long have you been here?"
"All day. I got here early this morning."
"And you haven't had anything to eat!"
"Oh, yes! I found some eggs. I've got two left."
Two eggs--and no money and no friends--and a woman. Yet she was facing the future hopefully! He smiled, with tears in his eyes.
"You mustn't tell anybody you saw me," she went on. "No matter what they say, don't think you ought to tell on me."
He looked at her, she at him. When he had satisfied himself he smiled most reassuringly. "I'll not," was his answer, and now she knew she could trust him.
She drew a breath of relief, and went on as if talking with an old friend. "I've got to get a long ways from here. As soon as it's dark I'm going."
"Toward the river." And her eyes lit.
"The river? What's there?"
"I don't know," said she triumphantly.
But he understood. He had the spirit of adventure himself--one could see it at a glance--the spirit that instinctively shuns yesterday and all its works and wings eagerly into tomorrow, unknown, different, new--therefore better. But this girl, this child-woman--or was she rather woman-child?--penniless, with nothing but two eggs between her and starvation, alone, without plans, without experience--
What would become of her?. . . "Aren't you--afraid?" he asked.
"Of what?" she inquired calmly.
It was the mere unconscious audacity of ignorance, yet he saw in her now--not fancied he saw, but saw--a certain strength of soul, both courage and tenacity. No, she might suffer, sink--but she would die fighting, and she would not be afraid. And he admired and envied her.
"Oh, I'll get along somehow," she assured him in the same self-reliant tone. Suddenly she felt it would no longer give her the horrors to speak of what she had been through. "I'm not very old," said she, and hers was the face of a woman now. "But I've learned a great deal."
"You are sure you are not making a mistake in--in--running away?"
"I couldn't do anything else," replied she. "I'm all alone in the world. There's no one--except----
"I hadn't done anything, and they said I had disgraced them--and they----" Her voice faltered, her eyes sank, the color flooded into her face. "They gave me to a man--and he--I had hardly seen him before--he----" She tried but could not pronounce the dreadful word.
"Married, you mean?" said the young man gently.
The girl shuddered. "Yes," she answered. "And I ran away."
So strange, so startling, so moving was the expression of her face that he could not speak for a moment. A chill crept over him as he watched her wide eyes gazing into vacancy. What vision of horror was she seeing, he wondered. To rouse her he spoke the first words he could assemble:
"When was this?"
The vision seemed slowly to fade and she looked at him in astonishment. "Why, it was last night!" she said, as if dazed by the discovery. "Only last night!"
"Last night! Then you haven't got far."
"No. But I must. I will. And I'm not afraid of anything except of being taken back."
"But you don't realize what may be--probably is--waiting for you--at the river--and beyond."
"Nothing could be so bad," said she. The words were nothing, but the tone and the expression that accompanied them somehow convinced him beyond a doubt.
"You'll let me help you?"
She debated. "You might bring me something to eat--mightn't you? The eggs'll do for supper. But there's tomorrow. I don't want to be seen till I get a long ways off."
He rose at once. "Yes, I'll bring you something to eat." He took a knockabout watch from the breast pocket of his shirt. "It's now four o'clock. I've got three miles to walk. I'll ride back and hitch the horse down the creek--a little ways down, so it won't attract attention to your place up here. I'll be back in about an hour and a half. . . . Maybe I'll think of something that'll help. Can I bring you anything else?
"No. That is--I'd like a little piece of soap."
"And a towel?" he suggested.
"I could take care of a towel," agreed she. "I'll send it back to you when I get settled."
"Good heavens!" He laughed at her simplicity. "What an honest child you are!" He put out his hand, and she took it with charming friendliness. "Good-by. I'll hurry."
"I'm so glad you caught me," said she. Then, apologetically, "I don't want to be any trouble. I hate to be troublesome. I've never let anybody wait on me."
"I don't know when I've had as much pleasure as this is giving me." And he made a bow that hid its seriousness behind a smile of good-humored raillery.
She watched him descend with a sinking heart. The rock--the world--her life, seemed empty now. He had reminded her that there were human beings with good hearts. But--perhaps if he knew, his kindness would turn also. . . . No, she decided not. Men like him, women like Aunt Sallie--they did not believe those dreadful, wicked ideas that people said God had ordained. Still--if he knew about her birth--branded outcast--he might change. She must not really hope for anything much until she was far, far away in a wholly new world where there would be a wholly new sort of people, of a kind she had never met. But she was sure they would welcome her, and give her a chance.
She returned to the tree against which she had been sitting, for there she could look at the place his big frame had pressed down in the tall grass, and could see him in it, and could recall his friendly eyes and voice, and could keep herself assured she had not been dreaming. He was a citified man, like Sam--but how different! A man with a heart like his would never marry a woman--no, never! He couldn't be a brute like that. Still, perhaps nice men married because it was supposed to be the right thing to do, and was the only way to have children without people thinking you a disgrace and slighting the children--and then marrying made brutes of them. No wonder her uncles could treat her so. They were men who had married.
Afar off she heard the manly voice singing the song from "Rigoletto." She sprang up and listened, with eyes softly shining and head a little on one side. The song ended; her heart beat fast. It was not many minutes before she, watching at the end of the path, saw him appear at the bottom of the huge cleft. And the look in his eyes, the merry smile about his expressive mouth, delighted her. "I'm so glad to see you!" she cried.
Over his shoulder was flung his fishing bag, and it bulged. "Don't be scared by the size of my pack," he called up, as he climbed. "We're going to have supper together--if you'll let me stay. Then you can take as much or as little as you like of what's left."
Arrived at the top, he halted for a long breath. They stood facing each other. "My, what a tall girl you are for your age!" said he admiringly.
She laughed up at him. "I'll be as tall as you when I get my growth."
She was so lovely that he could scarcely refrain from telling her so. It seemed to him, however, it would be taking an unfair advantage to say that sort of thing when she was in a way at his mercy. "Where shall we spread the table?" said he. "I'm hungry as the horseleech's daughter. And you--why, you must be starved. I'm afraid I didn't bring what you like. But I did the best I could. I raided the pantry, took everything that was portable."
He had set down the bag and had loosened its strings. First he took out a tablecloth. She laughed. "Gracious! How stylish we shall be!"
"I didn't bring napkins. We can use the corners of the cloth." He had two knives, two forks, and a big spoon rolled up in the cloth, and a saltcellar. "Now, here's my triumph!" he cried, drawing from the bag a pair of roasted chickens. Next came a jar of quince jelly; next, a paper bag with cold potatoes and cold string beans in it. Then he fished out a huge square of cornbread and a loaf of salt-rising bread, a pound of butter--
"What will your folks say?" exclaimed she, in dismay.
He laughed. "They always have thought I was crazy, ever since I went to college and then to the city instead of farming." And out of the bag came a big glass jar of milk. "I forgot to bring a glass!" he apologized. Then he suspended unpacking to open the jar. "Why, you must be half-dead with thirst, up here all day with not a drop of water." And he held out the jar to her. "Drink hearty!" he cried.
The milk was rich and cold; she drank nearly a fourth of it before she could wrest the jar away from her lips. "My, but that was good!" she remarked. He had enjoyed watching her drink. "Surely you haven't got anything else in that bag?"
"Not much," replied he. "Here's a towel, wrapped round the soap. And here are three cakes of chocolate. You could live four or five days on them, if you were put to it. So whatever else you leave, don't leave them. And--Oh, yes, here's a calico slip and a sunbonnet, and a paper of pins. And that's all."
"What are they for?"
"I thought you might put them on--the slip over your dress--and you wouldn't look quite so--so out of place--if anybody should see you."
"What a fine idea!" cried Susan, shaking out the slip delightedly.
He was spreading the supper on the tablecloth. He carved one of the chickens, opened the jelly, placed the bread and vegetables and butter. "Now!" he cried. "Let's get busy."
And he set her an example she was not slow to follow. The sun had slipped down behind the hills of the northwest horizon. The birds were tuning for their evening song. A breeze sprang up and coquetted with the strays of her wavy dark hair. And they sat cross-legged on the grass on opposite sides of the tablecloth and joked and laughed and ate, and ate and laughed and joked until the stars began to appear in the vast paling opal of the sky. They had chosen the center of the grassy platform for their banquet; thus, from where they sat only the tops of trees and the sky were to be seen. And after they had finished she leaned on her elbow and listened while he, smoking his cigarette, told her of his life as a newspaper man in Cincinnati. The twilight faded into dusk, the dusk into a scarlet darkness.
"When the moon comes up we'll start," said he. "You can ride behind me on the horse part of the way, anyhow."
The shadow of the parting, the ending of this happiness, fell upon her. How lonely it would be when he was gone! "I haven't told you my name," she said.
"I've told you mine Roderick Spenser--with an s, not a c."
"I remember," said she. "I'll never forget. . . . Mine's Susan Lenox."
"What was it--before----" He halted.
"Before what?" His silence set her to thinking. "Oh!" she exclaimed, in a tone that made him curse his stupidity in reminding her. "My name's Susan Lenox--and always will be. It was my mother's name." She hesitated, decided for frankness at any cost, for his kindness forbade her to deceive him in any way. Proudly, "My mother never let any man marry her. They say she was disgraced, but I understand now. She wouldn't stoop to let any man marry her."
Spenser puzzled over this, but could make nothing of it. He felt that he ought not to inquire further. He saw her anxious eyes, her expression of one keyed up and waiting for a verdict. "I'd have only to look at you to know your mother was a fine woman," said he. Then, to escape from the neighborhood of the dangerous riddle, "Now, about your--your going," he began. "I've been thinking what to do."
"You'll help me?" said she, to dispel her last doubt--a very faint doubt, for his words and his way of uttering them had dispelled her real anxiety.
"Help you?" cried he heartily. "All I can. I've got a scheme to propose to you. You say you can't take the mail boat?"
"They know me. I--I'm from Sutherland."
"You trust me--don't you?"
"Indeed I do."
"Now listen to me--as if I were your brother. Will you?"
"I'm going to take you to Cincinnati with me. I'm going to put you in my boarding house as my sister. And I'm going to get you a position. Then--you can start in for yourself."
"But that'll be a great lot of trouble, won't it?"
"Not any more than friends of mine took for me when I was starting out." Then, as she continued silent, "What are you thinking? I can't see your face in this starlight."
"I was thinking how good you are," she said simply.
He laughed uneasily. "I'm not often accused of that," he replied. "I'm like most people--a mixture of good and bad--and not very strong either way. I'm afraid I'm mostly impulse that winks out. But--the question is, how to get you to Cincinnati. It's simply impossible for me to go tonight. I can't take you home for the night. I don't trust my people. They'd not think I was good--or you, either. And while usually they'd be right--both ways--this is an exception." This idea of an exception seemed to amuse him. He went on, "I don't dare leave you at any farmhouse in the neighborhood. If I did, you could be traced."
"No--no," she cried, alarmed at the very suggestion. "I mustn't be seen by anybody."
"We'll go straight to the river, and I'll get a boat and row you across to Kentucky--over to Carrollton. There's a little hotel. I can leave you----"
"No--not Carrollton," she interrupted. "My uncle sells goods there, and they know him. And if anything is in the Sutherland papers about me, why, they'd know."
"Not with you in that slip and sunbonnet. I'll make up a story--about our wagon breaking down and that I've got to walk back into the hills to get another before we can go on. And--it's the only plan that's at all possible."
Obviously he was right; but she would not consent. By adroit questioning he found that her objection was dislike of being so much trouble to him. "That's too ridiculous," cried he. "Why, I wouldn't have missed this adventure for anything in the world."
His manner was convincing enough, but she did not give in until moonrise came without her having thought of any other plan. He was to be Bob Peters, she his sister Kate, and they were to hail from a farm in the Kentucky hills back of Milton. They practiced the dialect of the region and found that they could talk it well enough to pass the test of a few sentences They packed the fishing bag; she wrapped the two eggs in paper and put them in the empty milk bottle. They descended by the path--a slow journey in the darkness of that side of the rock, as there were many dangers, including the danger of making a noise that might be heard by some restless person at the house. After half an hour they were safely at the base of the rock; they skirted it, went down to the creek, found the horse tied where he had left it. With her seated sideways behind him and holding on by an arm half round his waist, they made a merry but not very speedy advance toward the river, keeping as nearly due south as the breaks in the hills permitted. After a while he asked: "Do you ever think of the stage?"
"I've never seen a real stage play," said she. "But I want to--and I will, the first chance I get."
"I meant, did you ever think of going on the stage?"
"No." So daring a flight would have been impossible for a baby imagination in the cage of the respectable-family-in-a-small-town.
"It's one of my dreams to write plays," he went on. "Wouldn't it be queer if some day I wrote plays for you to act in?"
When one's fancy is as free as was Susan's then, it takes any direction chance may suggest. Susan's fancy instantly winged along this fascinating route. "I've given recitations at school, and in the plays we used to have they let me take the best parts--that is--until--until a year or so ago."
He noted the hesitation, had an instinct against asking why there had come a time when she no longer got good parts. "I'm sure you could learn to act," declared he. "And you'll be sure of it, too, after you've seen the people who do it."
"Oh, I don't believe I could," said she, in rebuke to her own mounting self-confidence. Then, suddenly remembering her birth-brand of shame and overwhelmed by it, "No, I can't hope to be to be anything much. They wouldn't have--me."
"I know how you feel," replied he, all unaware of the real reason for this deep humility. "When I first struck town I felt that way. It seemed to me I couldn't hope ever to line up with the clever people they had there. But I soon saw there was nothing in that idea. The fact is, everywhere in the world there's a lot more things to do than people who can do them. Most of those who get to the top--where did they start? Where we're starting."
She was immensely flattered by that "we" and grateful for it. But she held to her original opinion. "There wouldn't be a chance for me," said she. "They wouldn't have me."
"Oh, I understand," said he and he fancied he did. He laughed gayly at the idea that in the theater anyone would care who she was--what kind of past she had had--or present either, for that matter. Said he, "You needn't worry. On the stage they don't ask any questions--any questions except `Can you act? Can you get it over? Can you get the hand?'"
Then this stage, it was the world she had dreamed of--the world where there lived a wholly new kind of people--people who could make room for her. She thrilled, and her heart beat wildly. In a strangely quiet, intense voice, she said:
"I want to try. I'm sure I'll get along there. I'll work--Oh, so hard. I'll do anything!"
"That's the talk," cried he. "You've got the stuff in you."
She said little the rest of the journey. Her mind was busy with the idea he had by merest accident given her. If he could have looked in upon her thoughts, he would have been amazed and not a little alarmed by the ferment he had set up.
Where they reached the river the bank was mud and thick willows, the haunt of incredible armies of mosquitoes. "It's a mystery to me," cried he, "why these fiends live in lonely places far away from blood, when they're so mad about it." After some searching he found a clear stretch of sandy gravel where she would be not too uncomfortable while he was gone for a boat. He left the horse with her and walked upstream in the direction of Brooksburg. As he had warned her that he might be gone a long time, he knew she would not be alarmed for him--and she had already proved that timidity about herself was not in her nature. But he was alarmed for her--this girl alone in that lonely darkness--with light enough to make her visible to any prowler.
About an hour after he left her he returned in a rowboat he had borrowed at the water mill. He hitched the horse in the deep shadow of the break in the bank. She got into the boat, put on the slip and the sunbonnet, put her sailor hat in the bag. They pushed off and he began the long hard row across and upstream. The moon was high now and was still near enough to its full glory to pour a flood of beautiful light upon the broad river--the lovely Ohio at its loveliest part.
"Won't you sing?" he asked.
And without hesitation she began one of the simple familiar love songs that were all the music to which the Sutherland girls had access. She sang softly, in a deep sweet voice, sweeter even than her speaking voice. She had the sunbonnet in her lap; the moon shone full upon her face. And it seemed to him that he was in a dream; there was nowhere a suggestion of reality--not of its prose, not even of its poetry. Only in the land no waking eye has seen could such a thing be. The low sweet voice sang of love, the oars clicked rhythmically in the locks and clove the water with musical splash; the river, between its steep hills, shone in the moonlight, with a breeze like a friendly spirit moving upon its surface. He urged her, and she sang another song, and another. She sighed when she saw the red lantern on the Carrollton wharf; and he, turning his head and seeing, echoed her sigh.
"The first chance, you must sing me that song," she said.
"From `Rigoletto'? I will. But--it tells how fickle women are--`like a feather in the wind.'. . . They aren't all like that, though--don't you think so?"
"Sometimes I think everybody's like a feather in the wind," replied she. "About love--and everything."
He laughed. "Except those people who are where there isn't any wind."