Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Woman's worktable, a rocking chair and another with a swayback that made it fairly comfortable for lounging gave the rear deck the air of an outdoor sitting-room, which indeed it was. Burlingham, after a comprehensive glance at the panorama of summer and fruitfulness through which they were drifting, sprawled himself in the swayback chair, indicating to Susan that she was to face him in the rocker. "Sit down, my dear," said he. "And tell me you are at least eighteen and are not running away from home. You heard what Miss Connemora said."
"I'm not running away from home," replied Susan, blushing violently because she was evading as to the more important fact.
"I don't know anything about you, and I don't want to know," pursued Burlingham, alarmed by the evidences of a dangerous tendency to candor. "I've no desire to have my own past dug into, and turn about's fair play. You came to me to get an engagement. I took you. Understand?"
"You said you could sing--that is, a little."
"A very little," said the girl.
"Enough, no doubt. That has been our weak point--lack of a ballad singer. Know any ballads?--Not fancy ones. Nothing fancy! We cater to the plain people, and the plain people only like the best--that is, the simplest--the things that reach for the heartstrings with ten strong fingers. You don't happen to know `I Stood on the Bridge at Midnight'?"
"No--Ruth sings that," replied Susan, and colored violently.
Burlingham ignored the slip. "`Blue Alsatian Mountains'?"
"Yes. But that's very old."
"Exactly. Nothing is of any use to the stage until it's very old. Audiences at theaters don't want to hear anything they don't already know by heart. They've come to see, not to hear. So it annoys them to have to try to hear. Do you understand that?"
"No," confessed Susan. "I'm sorry. But I'll think about it, and try to understand it." She thought she was showing her inability to do what was expected of her in paying back the two dollars.
"Don't bother," said Burlingham. "Pat!"
"Yes, boss," said the man at the oar, without looking or removing his pipe.
"Get your fiddle."
Pat tied the oar fast and went forward along the roof of the cabin. While he was gone Burlingham explained, "A frightful souse, Pat--almost equal to Eshwell and far the superior of Tempest or Vi--that is, of Tempest. But he's steady enough for our purposes, as a rule. He's the pilot, the orchestra, the man-of-all-work, the bill distributor. Oh, he's a wonder. Graduate of Trinity College, Dublin--yeggman--panhandler-- barrel-house bum--genius, nearly. Has drunk as much booze as there is water in this river----"
Pat was back beside the handle of the oar, with a violin. Burlingham suggested to Susan that she'd better stand while she sang, "and if you've any tendency to stage fright, remember it's your bread and butter to get through well. You'll not bother about your audience."
Susan found this thought a potent strengthener--then and afterward. With surprisingly little embarrassment she stood before her good-natured, sympathetic employer, and while Pat scraped out an accompaniment sang the pathetic story of the "maiden young and fair" and the "stranger in the spring" who "lingered near the fountains just to hear the maiden sing," and how he departed after winning her love, and how "she will never see the stranger where the fountains fall again--ade, ade, ade." Her voice was deliciously young and had the pathetic quality that is never absent from anything which has enduring charm for us. Tears were in Burlingham's voice--tears for the fate of the maiden, tears of response to the haunting pathos of Susan's sweet contralto, tears of joy at the acquisition of such a "number" for his program. As her voice died away he beat his plump hands together enthusiastically.
"She'll do--eh, Pat? She'll set the hay-tossers crazy!"
Susan's heart was beating fast from nervousness. She sat down. Burlingham sprang up and put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her. He laughed at her shrinking.
"Don't mind, my dear," he cried. "It's one of our ways. Now, what others do you know?"
She tried to recall, and with his assistance finally did discover that she possessed a repertoire of "good old stale ones," consisting of "Coming Thro' the Rye," "Suwanee River," "Annie Laurie" and "Kathleen Mavourneen." She knew many other songs, but either Pat could not play them or Burlingham declared them "above the head of Reub the rotter."
"Those five are quite enough," said Burlingham. "Two regulars, two encores, with a third in case of emergency. After dinner Miss Anstruther and I'll fit you out with a costume. You'll make a hit at Sutherland tonight."
"Sutherland!" exclaimed Susan, suddenly pale. "I can't sing there--really, I can't."
Burlingham made a significant gesture toward Pat at the oar above them, and winked at her. "You'll not have stage fright, my dear. You'll pull through."
Susan understood that nothing more was to be said before Pat. Soon Burlingham told him to tie the oar again and retire to the cabin. "I'll stand watch," said he. "I want to talk business with Miss Sackville."
When Pat had gone, Burlingham gave her a sympathetic look. "No confidences, mind you, my dear," he warned. "All I want to know is that it isn't stage fright that's keeping you off the program at Sutherland."
"No," replied the girl. "It isn't stage fright. I'm--I'm sorry I can't begin right away to earn the money to pay you back. But--I can't."
"Not even in a velvet and spangle costume--Low neck, short sleeves, with blond wig and paint and powder? You'll not know yourself, my dear--really."
"I couldn't," said Susan. "I'd not be able to open my lips."
"Very well. That's settled." It was evident that Burlingham was deeply disappointed. "We were going to try to make a killing at Sutherland." He sighed. "However, let that pass. If you can't, you can't."
"I'm afraid you're angry with me," cried she.
"I--angry!" He laughed. "I've not been angry in ten years. I'm such a damn, damn fool that with all the knocks life's given me I haven't learned much. But at least I've learned not to get angry. No, I understand, my dear--and will save you for the next town below." He leaned forward and gave her hands a fatherly pat as they lay in her lap. "Don't give it a second thought," he said. "We've got the whole length of the river before us."
Susan showed her gratitude in her face better far than she could have expressed it in words. The two sat silent. When she saw his eyes upon her with that look of smiling wonder in them, she said, "You mustn't think I've done anything dreadful. I haven't--really, I haven't."
He laughed heartily. "And if you had, you'd not need to hang your head in this company, my dear. We're all people who have lived--and life isn't exactly a class meeting with the elders taking turns at praying and the organ wheezing out gospel hymns. No, we've all been up against it most of our lives--which means we've done the best we could oftener than we've had the chance to do what we ought." He gave her one of his keen looks, nodded: "I like you. . . . What do they tell oftenest when they're talking about how you were as a baby?"
Susan did not puzzle over the queerness of this abrupt question. She fell to searching her memory diligently for an answer. "I'm not sure, but I think they speak oftenest of how I never used to like anybody to take my hand and help me along, even when I was barely able to walk. They say I always insisted on trudging along by myself."
Burlingham nodded, slapped his knee. "I can believe it," he cried. "I always ask everybody that question to see whether I've sited 'em up right. I rather think I hit you off to a T--as you faced me at dinner yesterday in the hotel. Speaking of dinner--let's go sit in on the one I smell."
They returned to the cabin where, to make a table, a board had been swung between the backs of the second and third benches from the front on the left side of the aisle. Thus the three men sat on the front bench with their legs thrust through between seat and back, while the three women sat in dignity and comfort on the fourth bench. Susan thought the dinner by no means justified Miss Anstruther's pessimism. It was good in itself, and the better for being in this happy-go-lucky way, in this happy-go-lucky company. Once they got started, all the grouchiness disappeared. Susan, young and optimistic and determined to be pleased, soon became accustomed to the looks of her new companions--that matter of mere exterior about which we shallow surface-skimmers make such a mighty fuss, though in the test situations of life, great and small, it amounts to precious little. They were all human beings, and the girl was unspoiled, did not think of them as failures, half-wolves, of no social position, of no standing in the respectable world. She still had much of the natural democracy of children, and she admired these new friends who knew so much more than she did, who had lived, had suffered, had come away from horrible battles covered with wounds, the scars of which they would bear into the grave--battles they had lost; yet they had not given up, but had lived on, smiling, courageous, kind of heart. It was their kind hearts that most impressed her--their kind taking in of her whom those she loved had cast out--her, the unknown stranger, helpless and ignorant. And what Spenser had told her about the stage and its people made her almost believe that they would not cast her out, though they knew the dreadful truth about her birth.
Tempest told a story that was "broad." While the others laughed, Susan gazed at him with a puzzled expression. She wished to be polite, to please, to enjoy. But what that story meant she could not fathom. Miss Anstruther jeered at her. "Look at the innocent," she cried.
"Shut up, Vi," retorted Miss Connemora. "It's no use for us to try to be anything but what we are. Still, let the baby alone."
"Yes--let her alone," said Burlingham.
"It'll soak in soon enough," Miss Connemora went on. "No use rubbing it in."
"What?" said Susan, thinking to show her desire to be friendly, to be one of them.
"Dirt," said Burlingham dryly. "And don't ask any more questions."
When the three women had cleared away the dinner and had stowed the dishes in one of the many cubbyholes along the sides of the cabin, the three men got ready for a nap. Susan was delighted to see them drop to the tops of the backs of the seats three berths which fitted snugly into the walls when not in use. She saw now that there were five others of the same kind, and that there was a contrivance of wires and curtains by which each berth could be shut off to itself. She had a thrilling sense of being in a kind of Swiss Family Robinson storybook come to life. She unpacked her bag, contributed the food in it to the common store, spread out her serge suit which Miss Anstruther offered to press and insisted on pressing, though Susan protested she could do it herself quite well.
"You'll want to put it on for the arrival at Sutherland," said Mabel Connemora.
"No," replied Susan nervously. "Not till tomorrow."
She saw the curious look in all their eyes at sight of that dress, so different from the calico she was wearing. Mabel took her out on the forward deck where there was an awning and a good breeze. They sat there, Mabel talking, Susan gazing rapt at land and water and at the actress, and listening as to a fairy story--for the actress had lived through many and strange experiences in the ten years since she left her father's roof in Columbia, South Carolina. Susan listened and absorbed as a dry sponge dropped into a pail of water. At her leisure she would think it all out, would understand, would learn.
"Now, tell me about yourself," said Mabel when she had exhausted all the reminiscences she could recall at the moment--all that were fit for a "baby's" ears.
"I will, some time," said Susan, who was ready for the question. "But I can't--not yet."
"It seems to me you're very innocent," said Mabel, "even for a well-brought-up girl. I was well brought up, too. I wish to God my mother had told me a few things. But no--not a thing."
"What do you mean?" inquired Susan.
That set the actress to probing the girl's innocence--what she knew and what she did not. It had been many a day since Miss Connemora had had so much pleasure. "Well!" she finally said. "I never would have believed it--though I know these things are so. Now I'm going to teach you. Innocence may be a good thing for respectable women who are going to marry and settle down with a good husband to look after them. But it won't do at all--not at all, my dear!--for a woman who works--who has to meet men in their own world and on their own terms. It's hard enough to get along, if you know. If you don't--when you're knocked down, you stay knocked down."
"Yes--I want to learn," said Susan eagerly. "I want to know--everything!"
"You're not going back?" Mabel pointed toward the shore, to a home on a hillside, with a woman sewing on the front steps and children racing about the yard. "Back to that sort of thing?"
"No," replied Susan. "I've got nothing to go back to."
"Nothing," repeated Susan in the same simple, final way. "I'm an outcast."
The ready tears sprang to Mabel's dissipated but still bright eyes. Susan's unconscious pathos was so touching. "Then I'll educate you. Now don't get horrified or scandalized at me. When you feel that way, remember that Mabel Connemora didn't make the world, but God. At least, so they say--though personally I feel as if the devil had charge of things, and the only god was in us poor human creatures fighting to be decent. I tell you, men and women ain't bad--not so damn bad--excuse me; they will slip out. No, it's the things that happen to them or what they're afraid'll happen--it's those things that compel them to be bad--and get them in the way of being bad--hard to each other, and to hate and to lie and to do all sorts of things."
The show boat drifted placidly down with the current of the broad Ohio. Now it moved toward the left bank and now toward the right, as the current was deflected by the bends--the beautiful curves that divided the river into a series of lovely, lake-like reaches, each with its emerald oval of hills and rolling valleys where harvests were ripening. And in the shadow of the awning Susan heard from those pretty, coarse lips, in language softened indeed but still far from refined, about all there is to know concerning the causes and consequences of the eternal struggle that rages round sex. To make her tale vivid, Mabel illustrated it by the story of her own life from girlhood to the present hour. And she omitted no detail necessary to enforce the lesson in life. A few days before Susan would not have believed, would not have understood. Now she both believed and understood. And nothing that Mabel told her--not the worst of the possibilities in the world in which she was adventuring--burned deep enough to penetrate beyond the wound she had already received and to give her a fresh sensation of pain and horror.
"You don't seem to be horrified," said Mabel.
Susan shook her head. "No," she said. "I feel--somehow I feel better."
Mabel eyed her curiously--had a sense of a mystery of suffering which she dared not try to explore. She said: "Better? That's queer. You don't take it at all as I thought you would."
Said Susan: "I had about made up my mind it was all bad. I see that maybe it isn't."
"Oh, the world isn't such a bad place--in lots of ways. You'll get a heap of fun out of it if you don't take things or yourself seriously. I wish to God I'd had somebody to tell me, instead of having to spell it out, a letter at a time. I've got just two pieces of advice to give you." And she stopped speaking and gazed away toward the shore with a look that seemed to be piercing the hills.
"Please do," urged Susan, when Mabel's long mood of abstraction tried her patience.
"Oh--yes--two pieces of advice. The first is, don't drink. There's nothing to it--and it'll play hell--excuse me--it'll spoil your looks and your health and give you a woozy head when you most need a steady one. Don't drink--that's the first advice."
"I won't," said Susan.
"Oh, yes, you will. But remember my advice all the same. The second is, don't sell your body to get a living, unless you've got to."
"I couldn't do that," said the girl.
Mabel laughed queerly. "Oh, yes, you could--and will. But remember my advice. Don't sell your body because it seems to be the easy way to make a living. I know most women get their living that way."
"Oh--no--no, indeed!" protested Susan.
"What a child you are!" laughed Mabel. "What's marriage but that?. . . Believe your Aunt Betsy, it's the poorest way to make a living that ever was invented--marriage or the other thing. Sometimes you'll be tempted to. You're pretty, and you'll find yourself up against it with no way out. You'll have to give in for a time, no doubt. The men run things in this world, and they'll compel it--one way or another. But fight back to your feet again. If I'd taken my own advice, my name would be on every dead wall in New York in letters two feet high. Instead----" She laughed, without much bitterness. "And why? All because I never learned to stand alone. I've even supported men--to have something to lean on! How's that for a poor fool?"
There Violet Anstruther called her. She rose. "You won't take my advice," she said by way of conclusion. "Nobody'll take advice. Nobody can. We ain't made that way. But don't forget what I've said. And when you've wobbled way off maybe it'll give you something to steer back by."
Susan sat on there, deep in the deepest of those brown studies that had been characteristic of her from early childhood. Often--perhaps most often--abstraction means only mental fogginess. But Susan happened to be of those who can concentrate--can think things out. And that afternoon, oblivious of the beauty around her, even unconscious of where she was, she studied the world of reality--that world whose existence, even the part of it lying within ourselves, we all try to ignore or to evade or to deny, and get soundly punished for our folly. Taking advantage of the floods of light Mabel Connemora had let in upon her--full light where there had been a dimness that was equal to darkness--she drew from the closets of memory and examined all the incidents of her life--all that were typical or for other reasons important. One who comes for the first time into new surroundings sees more, learns more about them in a brief period than has been seen and known by those who have lived there always. After a few hours of recalling and reconstructing Susan Lenox understood Sutherland probably better than she would have understood it had she lived a long eventless life there. And is not every Sutherland the world in miniature?
She also understood her own position--why the world of respectability had cast her out as soon as she emerged from childhood--why she could not have hoped for the lot to which other girls looked forward--why she belonged with the outcasts, in a world apart--and must live her life there. She felt that she could not hope to be respected, loved, married. She must work out her destiny along other lines. She understood it all, more clearly than would have been expected of her. And it is important to note that she faced her future without repining or self-pity, without either joy or despondency. She would go on; she would do as best she could. And nothing that might befall could equal what she had suffered in the throes of the casting out.
Burlingham roused her from her long reverie. He evidently had come straight from his nap--stocking feet, shirt open at the collar, trousers sagging and face shiny with the sweat that accumulates during sleep on a hot day. "Round that bend ahead of us is Sutherland," said he, pointing forward.
Up she started in alarm.
"Now, don't get fractious," cried he cheerfully. "We'll not touch shore for an hour, at least. And nobody's allowed aboard. You can keep to the cabin. I'll see that you're not bothered."
"You can keep to the dressing-room until the show's over and the people've gone ashore. And tomorrow morning, bright and early, we'll be off. I promised Pat a day for a drunk at Sutherland. He'll have to postpone it. I'll give him three at Jeffersonville, instead."
Susan put on her sunbonnet as soon as the show boat rounded the bend above town. Thus she felt safe in staying on deck and watching the town drift by. She did not begin to think of going into the cabin until Pat was working the boat in toward the landing a square above the old familiar wharf-boat. "What day is this?" she asked Eshwell.
Only Saturday! And last Monday--less than five days ago--she had left this town for her Cincinnati adventure. She felt as if months, years, had passed. The town seemed strange to her, and she recalled the landmarks as if she were revisiting in age the scenes of youth. How small the town seemed, after Cincinnati! And how squat! Then----
She saw the cupola of the schoolhouse. Its rooms, the playgrounds flashed before her mind's eye--the teachers she had liked--those she had feared--the face of her uncle, so kind and loving--that same face, with hate and contempt in it----
She hurried into the cabin, tears blinding her eyes, her throat choked with sobs.
The Burlingham Floating Palace of Thespians tied up against the float of Bill Phibbs's boathouse--a privilege for which Burlingham had to pay two dollars. Pat went ashore with a sack of handbills to litter through the town. Burlingham followed, to visit the offices of the two evening newspapers and by "handing them out a line of smooth talk"--the one art whereof he was master--to get free advertising. Also there were groceries to buy and odds and ends of elastic, fancy crepe, paper muslin and the like for repairing the shabby costumes. The others remained on board, Eshwell and Tempest to guard the boat against the swarms of boys darting and swooping and chattering like a huge flock of impudent English sparrows. An additional--and the chief--reason for Burlingham's keeping the two actors close was that Eshwell was a drunkard and Tempest a gambler. Neither could be trusted where there was the least temptation. Each despised the other's vice and despised the other for being slave to it. Burlingham could trust Eshwell to watch Tempest, could trust Tempest to watch Eshwell.
Susan helped Mabel with the small and early supper--cold chicken and ham, fried potatoes and coffee. Afterward all dressed in the cabin. Some of the curtains for dividing off the berths were drawn, out of respect to Susan not yet broken to the ways of a mode of life which made privacy and personal modesty impossible--and when any human custom becomes impossible, it does not take human beings long to discover that it is also foolish and useless. The women had to provide for a change of costumes. As the dressing-room behind the stage was only a narrow space between the back drop and the forward wall of the cabin, dressing in it was impossible, so Mabel and Vi put on a costume of tights, and over it a dress. Susan was invited to remain and help. The making-up of the faces interested her; she was amazed by the transformation of Mabel into youthful loveliness, with a dairy maid's bloom in place of her pallid pastiness. On the other hand, make-up seemed to bring out the horrors of Miss Anstruther's big, fat, yet hollow face, and to create other and worse horrors--as if in covering her face it somehow uncovered her soul. When the two women stripped and got into their tights, Susan with polite modesty turned away. However, catching sight of Miss Anstruther in the mirror that had been hung up under one of the side lamps, she was so fascinated that she gazed furtively at her by that indirect way.
Violet happened to see, laughed. "Look at the baby's shocked face, Mabel," she cried.
But she was mistaken. It was sheer horror that held Susan's gaze upon Violet's incredible hips and thighs, violently obtruded by the close-reefed corset. Mabel had a slender figure, the waist too short and the legs too nearly of the same girth from hip to ankle, but for all that, attractive. Susan had never before seen a woman in tights without any sort of skirt.
"You would show up well in those things," Violet said to her, "that is, for a thin woman. The men don't care much for thinness."
"Not the clodhoppers and roustabouts that come to see us," retorted Mabel. "The more a woman looks like a cow or a sow, the better they like it. They don't believe it's female unless it looks like what they're used to in the barnyard and the cattle pen."
Miss Anstruther was not in the least offended. She paraded, jauntily switching her great hips and laughing. "Jealous!" she teased. "You poor little broomstick."
Burlingham was in a white flannel suit that looked well enough in those dim lights. The make-up gave him an air of rakish youth. Eshwell had got himself into an ordinary sack suit. Tempest was in the tattered and dirty finery of a seventeenth-century courtier. The paint and black made Eshwell's face fat and comic; it gave Tempest distinction, made his hollow blazing eyes brilliant and large. All traces of habitation were effaced from the "auditorium"; the lamps were lighted, a ticket box was set up on the rear deck and an iron bar was thrown half across the rear entrance to the cabin, that only one person at a time might be able to pass. The curtain was let down--a gaudy smear of a garden scene in a French palace in the eighteenth century. Pat, the orchestra, put on a dress coat and vest and a "dickey"; the coat had white celluloid cuffs pinned in the sleeves at the wrists.
As it was still fully an hour and a half from dark, Susan hid on the stage; when it should be time for the curtain to go up she would retreat to the dressing-room. Through a peephole in the curtain she admired the auditorium; and it did look surprisingly well by lamplight, with the smutches and faded spots on its bright paint softened or concealed. "How many will it hold?" she asked Mabel, who was walking up and down, carrying her long train.
"A hundred and twenty comfortably," replied Miss Connemora. "A hundred and fifty crowded. It has held as high as thirty dollars, but we'll be lucky if we get fifteen tonight."
Susan glanced round at her. She was smoking a cigarette, handling it like a man. Susan's expression was so curious that Mabel laughed. Susan, distressed, cried: "I'm sorry if--if I was impolite."
"Oh, you couldn't be impolite," said Mabel. "You've got that to learn, too--and mighty important it is. We all smoke. Why not? We got out of cigarettes, but Bob bought a stock this afternoon."
Susan turned to the peephole. Pat, ready to take tickets, was "barking" vigorously in the direction of shore, addressing a crowd which Susan of course could not see. Whenever he paused for breath, Burlingham leaned from the box and took it up, pouring out a stream of eulogies of his show in that easy, lightly cynical voice of his. And the audience straggled in--young fellows and their girls, roughs from along the river front, farmers in town for a day's sport. Susan did not see a single familiar face, and she had supposed she knew, by sight at least, everyone in Sutherland. From fear lest she should see someone she knew, her mind changed to longing. At last she was rewarded. Down the aisle swaggered Redney King, son of the washerwoman, a big hulking bully who used to tease her by pulling her hair during recess and by kicking at her shins when they happened to be next each other in the class standing in long line against the wall of the schoolroom for recitation. From her security she smiled at Redney as representative of all she loved in the old town.
And now the four members of the company on the stage and in the dressing-room lost their ease and contemptuous indifference. They had been talking sneeringly about "yokels" and "jays" and "slum bums." They dropped all that, as there spread over them the mysterious spell of the crowd. As individuals the provincials in those seats were ridiculous; as a mass they were an audience, an object of fear and awe. Mabel was almost in tears; Violet talked rapidly, with excited gestures and nervous adjustments of various parts of her toilet. The two men paced about, Eshwell trembling, Tempest with sheer fright in his rolling eyes.
They wet their dry lips with dry tongues. Each again and again asked the other anxiously how he was looking and paced away without waiting for the answer. The suspense and nervous terror took hold of Susan; she stood in the corner of the dressing-room, pressing herself close against the wall, her fingers tightly interlocked and hot and cold tremors chasing up and down her body.
Burlingham left the box and combined Pat's duties with his own--a small matter, as the audience was seated and a guard at the door was necessary only to keep the loafers on shore from rushing in free. Pat advanced to the little space reserved before the stage, sat down and fell to tuning his violin with all the noise he could make, to create the illusion of a full orchestra. Miss Anstruther appeared in one of the forward side doors of the auditorium, very dignified in her black satin (paper muslin) dress, with many and sparkling hair and neck ornaments and rings that seemed alight. She bowed to the audience, pulled a little old cottage organ from under the stage and seated herself at it.
After the overture, a pause. Susan, peeping through a hole in the drop, saw the curtain go up, drew a long breath of terror as the audience was revealed beyond the row of footlights, beyond the big, befrizzled blond head of Violet and the drink-seared face of Pat. From the rear of the auditorium came Burlingham's smooth-flowing, faintly amused voice, announcing the beginning of the performance "a delightful feast throughout, ladies and gentlemen, amusing yet elevating, ever moral yet with none of the depressing sadness of puritanism. For, ladies and gentlemen, while we are pious, we are not puritan. The first number is a monologue, `The Mad Prince,' by that eminent artist, Gregory Tempest. He has delivered it before vast audiences amid thunders of applause."
Susan thrilled as Tempest strode forth--Tempest transformed by the footlights and by her young imagination into a true king most wonderfully and romantically bereft of reason by the woes that had assailed him in horrid phalanxes. If anyone had pointed out to her that Tempest's awful voice was simply cheap ranting, or that her own woes had been as terrible as any that had ever visited a king, or that when people go mad it is never from grief but from insides unromantically addled by foolish eating and drinking--if anyone had attempted then and there to educate the girl, how angry it would have made her, how she would have hated that well-meaning person for spoiling her illusion!
The spell of the stage seized her with Tempest's first line, first elegant despairing gesture. It held her through Burlingham and Anstruther's "sketch" of a matrimonial quarrel, through Connemora and Eshwell's "delicious symphonic romanticism" of a lovers' quarrel and making up, through Tempest's recitation of "Lasca," dying to shield her cowboy lover from the hoofs of the stampeded herd. How the tears did stream from Susan's eyes, as Tempest wailed out those last lines:
But I wonder why I do not care for the things that are like the things that were?
Can it be that half my heart lies buried there, in Texas down by the Rio Grande?
She saw the little grave in the desert and the vast blue sky and the buzzard sailing lazily to and fro, and it seemed to her that Tempest himself had inspired such a love, had lost a sweetheart in just that way. No wonder he looked gaunt and hollow-eyed and sallow. The last part of the performance was Holy Land and comic pictures thrown from the rear on a sheet substituted for the drop. As Burlingham had to work the magic lantern from the dressing-room (while Tempest, in a kind of monk's robe, used his voice and elocutionary powers in describing the pictures, now lugubriously and now in "lighter vein"), Susan was forced to retreat to the forward deck and missed that part of the show. But she watched Burlingham shifting the slides and altering the forms of the lenses, and was in another way as much thrilled and spellbound as by the acting.
Nor did the spell vanish when, with the audience gone, they all sat down to a late supper, and made coarse jests and mocked at their own doings and at the people who had applauded. Susan did not hear. She felt proud that she was permitted in so distinguished a company. Every disagreeable impression vanished. How could she have thought these geniuses common and cheap! How had she dared apply to them the standards of the people, the dull, commonplace people, among whom she had been brought up! If she could only qualify for membership in this galaxy! The thought made her feel like a worm aspiring to be a star. Tempest, whom she had liked least, now filled her with admiration. She saw the tragedy of his life plain and sad upon his features. She could not look at him without her heart's contracting in an ache.
It was not long before Mr. Tempest, who believed himself a lady-killer, noted the ingenuous look in the young girl's face, and began to pose. And it was hardly three bites of a ham sandwich thereafter when Mabel Connemora noted Tempest's shootings of his cuffs and rumplings of his oily ringlets and rollings of his hollow eyes. And at the sight Miss Mabel's bright eyes became bad and her tongue shot satire at him. But Susan did not observe this.
After supper they went straightway to bed. Burlingham drew the curtains round the berth let down for Susan. The others indulged in no such prudery on so hot a night. They put out the lamps and got ready for bed and into it by the dim light trickling in through the big rear doorway and the two small side doorways forward. To help on the circulation of air Pat raised the stage curtain and drop, and opened the little door forward. Each sleeper had a small netting suspended over him from the ceiling; without that netting the dense swarms of savage mosquitoes would have made sleep impossible. As it was, the loud singing of these baffled thousands kept Susan awake.
After a while, to calm her brain, excited by the evenings thronging impressions and by the new--or, rather, reviewed--ambitions born of them, Susan rose and went softly out on deck, in her nightgown of calico slip. Because of the breeze the mosquitoes did not trouble her there, and she stood a long time watching the town's few faint lights--watching the stars, the thronging stars of the Milky Way--dreaming--dreaming--dreaming. Yesterday had almost faded from her, for youth lives only in tomorrow--youth in tomorrow, age in yesterday, and none of us in today which is all we really have. And she, with her wonderful health of body meaning youth as long as it lasted, she would certainly be young until she was very old--would keep her youth--her dreams--her living always in tomorrow. She was dreaming of her first real tomorrow, now. She would work hard at this wonderful profession--her profession!--would be humble and attentive; and surely the day must come when she too would feel upon her heart the intoxicating beat of those magic waves of applause!
Susan, more excited than ever, slipped softly into the cabin and stole into her curtained berth. Like the soughing of the storm above the whimper of the tortured leaves the stentorian snorings of two of the sleepers resounded above the noise of the mosquitoes. She had hardly extended herself in her close little bed when she heard a stealthy step, saw one of her curtains drawn aside.
"Who is it?" she whispered, unsuspiciously, for she could see only a vague form darkening the space between the parted curtains.
The answer came in a hoarse undertone: "Ye dainty little darling!" She sat up, struck out madly, screamed at the top of her lungs. The curtains fell back into place, the snoring stopped. Susan, all in a sweat and a shiver, lay quiet. Hoarse whispering; then in Burlingham's voice stern and gruff--"Get back to your bed and let her alone, you rolling-eyed----" The sentence ended with as foul a spatter of filth as man can fling at man. Silence again, and after a few minutes the two snores resumed their bass accompaniment to the falsetto of the mosquito chorus.
Susan got a little troubled sleep, was wide awake when Violet came saying, "If you want to bathe, I'll bring you a bucket of water and you can put up your berth and do it behind your curtains."
Susan thanked her and got a most refreshing bath. When she looked out the men were on deck, Violet was getting breakfast, and Connemora was combing her short, thinning, yellow hair before a mirror hung up near one of the forward doors. In the mirror Connemora saw her, smiled and nodded.
"You can fix your hair here," said she. "I'm about done. You can use my brush."
And when Susan was busy at the mirror, Mabel lounged on a seat near by smoking a before-breakfast cigarette. "I wish to God I had your hair," said she. "I never did have such a wonderful crop of grass on the knoll, and the way it up and drops out in bunches every now and then sets me crazy. It won't be long before I'll be down to Vi's three hairs and a half. You haven't seen her without her wigs? Well, don't, if you happen to be feeling a bit off. How Burlingham can--" There she stopped, blew out a volume of smoke, grinned half amusedly, half in sympathy with the innocence she was protecting--or, rather, was initiating by cautious degrees. "Who was it raised the row last night?" she inquired.
"I don't know," said Susan, her face hid by the mass of wavy hair she was brushing forward from roots to ends.
"You don't? I guess you've got a kind of idea, though."
No answer from the girl.
"Well, it doesn't matter. It isn't your fault." Mabel smoked reflectively. "I'm not jealous of him--a woman never is. It's the idea of another woman's getting away with her property, whether she wants it or not--that's what sets her mad-spot to humming. No, I don't give a--a cigarette butt--for that greasy bum actor. But I've always got to have somebody." She laughed. "The idea of his thinking you'd have him! What peacocks men are!"
Susan understood. The fact of this sort of thing was no longer a mystery to her. But the why of the fact--that seemed more amazing than ever. Now that she had discovered that her notion of love being incorporeal was as fanciful as Santa Claus, she could not conceive why it should be at all. As she was bringing round the braids for the new coiffure she had adopted she said to Mabel:
"I?" Mabel laughed immoderately. "You can have him, if you want him."
Susan shuddered. "Oh, no," she said. "I suppose he's very nice--and really he's quite a wonderful actor. But I--I don't care for men."
Mabel laughed again--curt, bitter. "Wait," she said.
Susan shook her head, with youth's positiveness.
"What's caring got to do with it?" pursued Mabel, ignoring the headshake. "I've been about quite a bit, and I've yet to see anybody that really cared for anybody else. We care for ourselves. But a man needs a woman, and a woman needs a man. They call it loving. They might as well call eating loving. Ask Burly."