Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
For some time Spenser had been rowing well in toward the Kentucky shore, to avoid the swift current of the Kentucky River which rushes into the Ohio at Carrollton. A few yards below its mouth, in the quiet stretch of backwater along shore, lay the wharf-boat, little more than a landing stage. The hotel was but a hundred feet away, at the top of the steep levee. It was midnight, so everyone in the village had long been asleep. After several minutes of thunderous hammering Roderick succeeded in drawing to the door a barefooted man with a candle in his huge, knotted hand--a man of great stature, amazingly lean and long of leg, with a monstrous head thatched and fronted with coarse, yellow-brown hair. He had on a dirty cotton shirt and dirty cotton trousers--a night dress that served equally well for the day. His feet were flat and thick and were hideous with corns and bunions. Susan had early been made a critical observer of feet by the unusual symmetry of her own. She had seen few feet that were fit to be seen; but never, she thought, had she seen an exhibition so repellent.
"What t'hell----" he began. Then, discovering Susan, he growled, "Beg pardon, miss."
Roderick explained--that is, told the prearranged story. The man pointed to a grimy register on the office desk, and Roderick set down the fishing bag and wrote in a cramped, scrawly hand, "Kate Peters, Milton, Ky."
The man looked at it through his screen of hair and beard, said, "Come on, ma'am."
"Just a minute," said Roderick, and he drew "Kate" aside and said to her in a low tone: "I'll be back sometime tomorrow, and then we'll start at once. But--to provide against everything--don't be alarmed if I don't come. You'll know I couldn't help it. And wait."
Susan nodded, looking at him with trustful, grateful eyes.
"And," he went on hurriedly, "I'll leave this with you, to take care of. It's yours as much as mine."
She saw that it was a pocketbook, instinctively put her hands behind her.
"Don't be silly," he said, with good-humored impatience. "You'll probably not need it. If you do, you'll need it bad. And you'll pay me back when you get your place."
He caught one of her hands and put the pocketbook in it. As his argument was unanswerable, she did not resist further. She uttered not a word of thanks, but simply looked at him, her eyes swimming and about her mouth a quiver that meant a great deal in her. Impulsively and with flaming cheek he kissed her on the cheek. "So long, sis," he said loudly, and strode into the night.
Susan did not flush; she paled. She gazed after him with some such expression as a man lost in a cave might have as he watches the flickering out of his only light. "This way, ma'am," said the hotel man sourly, taking up the fishing bag. She started, followed him up the noisy stairs to a plain, neat country bedroom. "The price of this here's one fifty a day," said he. "We've got 'em as low as a dollar."
"I'll take a dollar one, please," said Susan.
The man hesitated. "Well," he finally snarled, "business is slack jes' now. Seein' as you're a lady, you kin have this here un fur a dollar."
"Oh, thank you--but if the price is more----"
"The other rooms ain't fit fur a lady," said the hotel man. Then he grinned a very human humorous grin that straightway made him much less repulsive. "Anyhow, them two durn boys of mine an' their cousins is asleep in 'em. I'd as lief rout out a nest of hornets. I'll leave you the candle."
As soon as he had gone Susan put out the light, ran to the window. She saw the rowboat and Spenser, a black spot far out on the river, almost gone from view to the southwest. Hastily she lighted the candle again, stood at the window and waved a white cover she snatched from the table. She thought she saw one of the oars go up and flourish, but she could not be sure. She watched until the boat vanished in the darkness at the bend. She found the soap in the bag and took a slow but thorough bath in the washbowl. Then she unbraided her hair, combed it out as well as she could with her fingers, rubbed it thoroughly with a towel and braided it again. She put on the calico slip as a nightdress, knelt down to say her prayers. But instead of prayers there came flooding into her mind memories of where she had been last night, of the horrors, of the agonies of body and soul. She rose from her knees, put out the light, stood again at the window. In after years she always looked back upon that hour as the one that definitely marked the end of girlhood, of the thoughts and beliefs which go with the sheltered life, and the beginning of womanhood, of self-reliance and of the hardiness--so near akin to hardness--the hardiness that must come into the character before a man or a woman is fit to give and take in the combat of life.
The bed was coarse, but white and clean. She fell asleep instantly and did not awaken until, after the vague, gradually louder sound of hammering on the door, she heard a female voice warning her that breakfast was "put nigh over an' done." She got up, partly drew on one stocking, then without taking it off tumbled over against the pillow and was asleep. When she came to herself again, the lay of the shadows told her it must be after twelve o'clock. She dressed, packed her serge suit in the bag with the sailor hat, smoothed out the pink calico slip and put it on. For more than a year she had worn her hair in a braid doubled upon itself and tied with a bow at the back of her neck. She decided that if she would part it, plait it in two braids and bring them round her head, she would look older. She tried this and was much pleased with the result. She thought the new style not only more grown-up, but also more becoming. The pink slip, too, seemed to her a success. It came almost to her ankles and its strings enabled her to make it look something like a dress. Carrying the pink sunbonnet, down she went in search of something to eat.
The hall was full of smoke and its air seemed greasy with the odor of frying. She found that dinner was about to be served. A girl in blue calico skirt and food-smeared, sweat-discolored blue jersey ushered her to one of the tables in the dining-room. "There's a gentleman comin'," said she. "I'll set him down with you. He won't bite, I don't reckon, and there ain't no use mussin' up two tables."
There was no protesting against two such arguments; so Susan presently had opposite her a fattish man with long oily hair and a face like that of a fallen and dissipated preacher. She recognized him at once as one of those wanderers who visit small towns with cheap shows or selling patent medicines and doing juggling tricks on the street corners in the flare of a gasoline lamp. She eyed him furtively until he caught her at it--he being about the same business himself. Thereafter she kept her eyes steadily upon the tablecloth, patched and worn thin with much washing. Soon the plate of each was encircled by the familiar arc of side dishes containing assorted and not very appetizing messes--fried steak, watery peas, stringy beans, soggy turnips, lumpy mashed potatoes, a perilous-looking chicken stew, cornbread with streaks of baking soda in it. But neither of the diners was critical, and the dinner was eaten with an enthusiasm which the best rarely inspires.
With the prunes and dried-apple pie, the stranger expanded. "Warm day, miss," he ventured.
"Yes, it is a little warm," said Susan. She ventured a direct look at him. Above the pleasant, kindly eyes there was a brow so unusually well shaped that it arrested even her young and untrained attention. Whatever the man's character or station, there could be no question as to his intelligence.
"The flies are very bothersome," continued he. "But nothing like Australia. There the flies have to be picked off, and they're big, and they bite--take a piece right out of you. The natives used to laugh at us when we were in the ring and would try to brush, em away." The stranger had the pleasant, easy manner of one who through custom of all kinds of people and all varieties of fortune, has learned to be patient and good-humored--to take the day and the hour as the seasoned gambler takes the cards that are dealt him.
Susan said nothing; but she had listened politely. The man went on amusing himself with his own conversation. "I was in the show business then. Clown was my line, but I was rotten at it--simply rotten. I'm still in the show business--different line, though. I've got a show of my own. If you're going to be in town perhaps you'll come to see us tonight. Our boat's anchored down next to the wharf. You can see it from the windows. Come, and bring your folks."
"Thank you," said Susan--she had for gotten her role and its accent. "But I'm afraid we'll not be here."
There was an expression in the stranger's face--a puzzled, curious expression, not impertinent, rather covert--an expression that made her uneasy. It warned her that this man saw she was not what she seemed to be, that he was trying to peer into her secret. His brown eyes were kind enough, but alarmingly keen. With only half her pie eaten, she excused herself and hastened to her room.
At the threshold she remembered the pocketbook Spenser had given her. She had left it by the fishing bag on the table. There was the bag but not the pocketbook. "I must have put it in the bag," she said aloud, and the sound and the tone of her voice frightened her. She searched the bag, then the room which had not yet been straightened up. She shook out the bed covers, looked in all the drawers, under the bed, went over the contents of the bag again. The pocketbook was gone--stolen.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, her hands in her lap, and stared at the place where she had last seen the pocketbook--his pocketbook, which he had asked her to take care of. How could she face him! What would he think of her, so untrustworthy! What a return for his kindness! She felt weak--so weak that she lay down. The food she had taken turned to poison and her head ached fiercely. What could she do? To speak to the proprietor would be to cause a great commotion, to attract attention to herself--and how would that help to bring back the stolen pocketbook, taken perhaps by the proprietor himself? She recalled that as she hurried through the office from the dining-room he had a queer shifting expression, gave her a wheedling, cringing good morning not at all in keeping with the character he had shown the night before. The slovenly girl came to do the room; Susan sent her away, sat by the window gazing out over the river and downstream. He would soon be here; the thought made her long to fly and hide. He had been all generosity; and this was her way of appreciating it!
They sent for her to come down to supper. She refused, saying she was not feeling well. She searched the room, the bag, again and again. She would rest a few minutes, then up she would spring and tear everything out. Then back to the window to sit and stare at the river over which the evening shadows were beginning to gather. Once, as she was sitting there, she happened to see the gaudily painted and decorated show boat. A man--the stranger of the dinner table--was standing on the forward end, smoking a cigar. She saw that he was observing her, realized he could have seen her stirring feverishly about her room. A woman came out of the cabin and joined him. As soon as his attention was distracted she closed her shutters. And there she sat alone, with the hours dragging their wretched minutes slowly away.
That was one of those nights upon which anyone who has had them--and who has not?--looks back with wonder at how they ever lived, how they ever came to an end. She slept a little toward dawn--for youth and health will not let the most despairing heart suffer in sleeplessness. Her headache went, but the misery of soul which had been a maddening pain settled down into a throbbing ache. She feared he would come; she feared he would not come. The servants tried to persuade her to take breakfast. She could not have swallowed food; she would not have dared take food for which she could not pay. What would they do with her if he did not come? She searched the room again, hoping against hope, a hundred times fancying she felt the purse under some other things, each time suffering sickening disappointment.
Toward noon the servant came knocking. "A letter for you, ma'am."
Susan rushed to the door, seized the letter, tore it open, read:
When I got back to the horse and started to mount, he kicked me and broke my leg. You can go on south to the L. and N. and take a train to Cincinnati. When you find a boarding house send your address to me at the office. I'll come in a few weeks. I'd write more but I can't. Don't worry. Everything'll come out right. You are brave and sensible, and I back you to win.
With the unsigned letter crumpled in her hands she sat at the window with scarcely a motion until noon. She then went down to the show boat. Several people--men and women--were on the forward end, quarreling. She looked only at her acquaintance. His face was swollen and his eyes bloodshot, but he still wore the air of easy and patient good-humor. She said, standing on the shore, "Could I speak to you a minute?"
"Certainly, ma'am," replies he, lifting his dingy straw hat with gaudy, stained band. He came down the broad plank to the shore. "Why, what's the matter?" This in a sympathetic tone.
"Will you lend me two dollars and take me along to work it out?" she asked.
He eyed her keenly. "For the hotel bill?" he inquired, the cigar tucked away in the corner of his mouth.
"He didn't show up?"
"He broke his leg."
"Oh!" The tone was politely sympathetic, but incredulous. He eyed her critically, thoughtfully. "Can you sing?" he finally asked.
His hands were deep in the pockets of his baggy light trousers. He drew one of them out with a two-dollar bill in it. "Go and pay him and bring your things. We're about to push off."
"Thank you," said the girl in the same stolid way. She returned to the hotel, brought the bag down from her room, stood at the office desk.
The servant came. "Mr. Gumpus has jes' stepped out," said she.
"Here is the money for my room." And Susan laid the two-dollar bill on the register.
"Ain't you goin' to wait fur yer--yer brother?"
"He's not coming," replied the girl. "So--I'll go. Good-by."
"Good-by. It's awful, bein' took sick away from home."
"Thank you," said Susan. "Good-by."
The girl's homely, ignorant face twisted in a grin. But Susan did not see, would have been indifferent had she seen. Since she accepted the war earth and heaven had declared against her, she had ceased from the little thought she had once given to what was thought of her by those of whom she thought not at all. She went down to the show boat. The plank had been taken in. Her acquaintance was waiting for her, helped her to the deck, jumped aboard himself, and was instantly busy helping to guide the boat out into mid-stream. Susan looked back at the hotel. Mr. Gumpus was in the doorway, amusement in every line of his ugly face. Beside him stood the slovenly servant. She was crying--the more human second thought of a heart not altogether corrupted by the sordid hardness of her lot. How can faith in the human race falter when one considers how much heart it has in spite of all it suffers in the struggle upward through the dense fogs of ignorance upward, toward the truth, toward the light of which it never ceases to dream and to hope?
Susan stood in the same place, with her bag beside her, until her acquaintance came.
"Now," said he, comfortably, as he lighted a fresh cigar, "we'll float pleasantly along. I guess you and I had better get acquainted. What is your name?"
Susan flushed. "Kate Peters is the name I gave at the hotel. That'll do, won't it?"
"Never in the world!" replied he. "You must have a good catchy name. Say--er--er----" He rolled his cigar slowly, looking thoughtfully toward the willows thick and green along the Indiana shore. "Say--well, say--Lorna--Lorna--Lorna Sackville! That's a winner. Lorna Sackville!--A stroke of genius! Don't you think so?"
"Yes," said Susan. "It doesn't matter."
"But it does," remonstrated he. "You are an artist, now, and an artist's name should always arouse pleasing and romantic anticipations. It's like the odor that heralds the dish. You must remember, my dear, that you have stepped out of the world of dull reality into the world of ideals, of dreams."
The sound of two harsh voices, one male, the other female, came from within the cabin--oaths, reproaches. Her acquaintance laughed. "That's one on me--eh? Still, what I say is true--or at least ought to be. By the way, this is the Burlingham Floating Palace of Thespians, floating temple to the histrionic art. I am Burlingham--Robert Burlingham." He smiled, extended his hand. "Glad to meet you, Miss Lorna Sackville--don't forget!"
She could not but reflect a smile so genuine, so good-humored.
"We'll go in and meet the others--your fellow stars--for this is an all-star aggregation."
Over the broad entrance to the cabin was a chintz curtain strung upon a wire. Burlingham drew this aside. Susan was looking into a room about thirty feet long, about twelve feet wide, and a scant six feet high. Across it with an aisle between were narrow wooden benches with backs. At the opposite end was a stage, with the curtain up and a portable stove occupying the center. At the stove a woman in a chemise and underskirt, with slippers on her bare feet, was toiling over several pots and pans with fork and spoon. At the edge of the stage, with legs swinging, sat another woman, in a blue sailor suit neither fresh nor notably clean but somehow coquettish. Two men in flannel shirts were seated, one on each of the front benches, with their backs to her.
As Burlingham went down the aisle ahead of her, he called out: "Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to present the latest valuable addition to our company--Miss Lorna Sackville, the renowned ballad singer."
The two men turned lazily and stared at Susan, each with an arm hanging over the back of the bench.
Burlingham looked at the woman bent over the stove--a fat, middle-aged woman with thin, taffy-yellow hair done sleekly over a big rat in front and made into a huge coil behind with the aid of one or more false braids. She had a fat face, a broad expanse of unpleasant-looking, elderly bosom, big, shapeless white arms. Her contour was almost gone. Her teeth were a curious mixture of natural, gold, and porcelain. "Miss Anstruther--Miss Sackville," called Burlingham. "Miss Sackville, Miss Violet Anstruther."
Miss Anstruther and Susan exchanged bows--Susan's timid and frightened, Miss Anstruther's accompanied by a hostile stare and a hardening of the fat, decaying face.
"Miss Connemora--Miss Sackville." Burlingham was looking at the younger woman--she who sat on the edge of the little stage. She, too, was a blond, but her hair had taken to the chemical somewhat less reluctantly than had Miss Anstruther's, with the result that Miss Connemora's looked golden. Her face--of the baby type must have been softly pretty at one time--not so very distant. Now lines were coming and the hard look that is inevitable with dyed hair. Also her once fine teeth were rapidly going off, as half a dozen gold fillings in front proclaimed. At Susan's appealing look and smile Miss Connemora nodded not unfriendly.
"Good God, Bob," said she to Burlingham with a laugh, "are you going to get the bunch of us pinched for child-stealing?"
Burlingham started to laugh, suddenly checked himself, looked uneasily and keenly at Susan. "Oh, it's all right," he said with a wave of the hand. But his tone belied his words. He puffed twice at his cigar, then introduced the men--Elbert Eshwell and Gregory Tempest--two of the kind clearly if inelegantly placed by the phrase, "greasy hamfats." Mr. Eshwell's blackdyed hair was smoothly brushed down from a central part, Mr. Tempest's iron-gray hair was greasily wild--a disarray of romantic ringlets. Eshwell was inclined to fat; Tempest was gaunt and had the hollow, burning eye that bespeaks the sentimental ass.
"Now, Miss Sackville," said Burlingham, "we'll go on the forward deck and canvass the situation. What for dinner, Vi?"
"Same old rot," retorted Miss Anstruther, wiping the sweat from her face and shoulders with a towel that served also as a dishcloth. "Pork and beans--potatoes--peach pie."
"Cheer up," said Burlingham. "After tomorrow we'll do better."
"That's been the cry ever since we started," snapped Violet.
"For God's sake, shut up, Vi," groaned Eshwell. "You're always kicking."
The cabin was not quite the full width of the broad house boat. Along the outside, between each wall and the edge, there was room for one person to pass from forward deck to rear. From the cabin roof, over the rear deck, into the water extended a big rudder oar. When Susan, following Burlingham, reached the rear deck, she saw the man at this oar--a fat, amiable-looking rascal, in linsey woolsey and a blue checked shirt open over his chest and revealing a mat of curly gray hair. Burlingham hailed him as Pat--his only known name. But Susan had only a glance for him and no ear at all for the chaffing between him and the actor-manager. She was gazing at the Indiana shore, at a tiny village snuggled among trees and ripened fields close to the water's edge. She knew it was Brooksburg. She remembered the long covered bridge which they had crossed--Spenser and she, on the horse. To the north of the town, on a knoll, stood a large red brick house trimmed with white veranda and balconies--far and away the most pretentious house in the landscape. Before the door was a horse and buggy. She could make out that there were several people on the front veranda, one of them a man in black--the doctor, no doubt. Sobs choked up into her throat. She turned quickly away that Burlingham might not see. And under her breath she said,
"Good-by, dear. Forgive me--forgive me."