Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Burlingham had lived too long, too actively, and too intelligently to have left any of his large, original stock of the optimism that had so often shipwrecked his career in spite of his talents and his energy. Out of the bitterness of experience he used to say, "A young optimist is a young fool. An old optimist is an old ass. A fool may learn, an ass can't." And again, "An optimist steams through the fog, taking it for granted everything's all right. A pessimist steams ahead too, but he gets ready for trouble." However, he was wise enough to keep his private misgivings and reservations from his associates; the leaders of the human race always talk optimism and think pessimism. He had told the company that Susan was sure to make a go; and after she had made a go, he announced the beginning of a season of triumph. But he was surprised when his prediction came true and they had to turn people away from the next afternoon's performance. He began to believe they really could stay a week, and hired a man to fill the streets of New Washington and other inland villages and towns of the county with a handbill headlining Susan.
The news of the lovely young ballad singer in the show boat at Bethlehem spread, as interesting news ever does, and down came the people to see and hear, and to go away exclaiming. Bethlehem, the sleepy, showed that it could wake when there was anything worth waking for. Burlingham put on the hymns in the middle of the week, and even the clergy sent their families. Every morning Susan, either with Mabel or with Burlingham, or with both, took a long walk into the country. It was Burlingham, by the way, who taught her the necessity of regular and methodical long walks for the preservation of her health. When she returned there was always a crowd lounging about the landing waiting to gape at her and whisper. It was intoxicating to her, this delicious draught of the heady wine of fame; and Burlingham was not unprepared for the evidences that she thought pretty well of herself, felt that she had arrived. He laughed to himself indulgently. "Let the kiddie enjoy herself," thought he. "She needs the self-confidence now to give her a good foundation to stand on. Then when she finds out what a false alarm this jay excitement was, she'll not be swept clean away into despair."
The chief element in her happiness, he of course knew nothing about. Until this success--which she, having no basis for comparison, could not but exaggerate--she had been crushed and abused more deeply than she had dared admit to herself by her birth which made all the world scorn her and by the series of calamities climaxing in that afternoon and night of horror at Ferguson's. This success--it seemed to her to give her the right to have been born, the right to live on and hold up her head without effort after Ferguson. "I'll show them all, before I get through," she said to herself over and over again. "They'll be proud of me. Ruth will be boasting to everyone that I'm her cousin. And Sam Wright--he'll wonder that he ever dared touch such a famous, great woman." She only half believed this herself, for she had much common sense and small self-confidence. But pretending that she believed it all gave her the most delicious pleasure.
Burlingham took such frank joy in her innocent vanity--so far as he understood it and so far as she exhibited it--that the others were good-humored about it too--all the others except Tempest, whom conceit and defeat had long since soured through and through. A tithe of Susan's success would have made him unbearable, for like most human beings he had a vanity that was Atlantosaurian on starvation rations and would have filled the whole earth if it had been fed a few crumbs. Small wonder that we are ever eagerly on the alert for signs of vanity in others; we are seeking the curious comfort there is in the feeling that others have our own weakness to a more ridiculous degree. Tempest twitched to jeer openly at Susan, whose exhibition was really timid and modest and not merely excusable but justifiable. But he dared go no further than holding haughtily aloof and casting vaguely into the air ever and anon a tragic sneer. Susan would not have understood if she had seen, and did not see. She was treading the heights, her eyes upon the sky. She held grave consultation with Burlingham, with Violet, with Mabel, about improving her part. She took it all very, very seriously--and Burlingham was glad of that. "Yes, she does take herself seriously," he admitted to Anstruther. "But that won't do any harm as she's so young, and as she takes her work seriously, too. The trouble about taking oneself seriously is it stops growth. She hasn't got that form of it."
"Not yet," said Violet.
"She'll wake from her little dream, poor child, long before the fatal stage." And he heaved a sigh for his own lost illusions--those illusions that had cost him so dear.
Burlingham had intended to make at least one stop before Jeffersonville, the first large town on the way down. But Susan's capacities as a house-filler decided him for pushing straight for it. "We'll go where there's a big population to be drawn on," said he. But he did not say that in the back of his head there was forming a plan to take a small theater at Jeffersonville if the girl made a hit there.
Eshwell, to whom he was talking, looked glum. "She's going pretty good with these greenies," observed he. "But I've my doubts whether city people'll care for anything so milk-like."
Burlingham had his doubts, too; but he retorted warmly: "Don't you believe it, Eshie. City's an outside. Underneath, there's still the simple, honest, grassy-green heart of the country."
Eshwell laughed. "So you've stopped jeering at jays. You've forgotten what a lot of tightwads and petty swindlers they are. Well, I don't blame you. Now that they're giving down to us so freely, I feel better about them myself. It's a pity we can't lower the rest of the program to the level of their intellectuals."
Burlingham was not tactless enough to disturb Eshwell's consoling notion that while Susan was appreciated by these ignorant country-jakes, the rest of the company were too subtle and refined in their art. "That's a good idea," replied he. "I'll try to get together some simple slop. Perhaps a melodrama, a good hot one, would go--eh?"
After ten days the receipts began to drop. On the fifteenth day there was only a handful at the matinee, and in the evening half the benches were empty. "About milked dry," said Burlingham at the late supper. "We'll move on in the morning."
This pleased everyone. Susan saw visions of bigger triumphs; the others felt that they were going where dramatic talent, not to say genius, would be at least not entirely unappreciated. So the company was at its liveliest next morning as the mosquito-infested willows of the Bethlehem shore slowly dropped away. They had made an unusually early start, for the river would be more and more crowded as they neared the three close-set cities--Louisville, Jeffersonville, and New Albany, and the helpless little show boat must give the steamers no excuse for not seeing her. All day--a long, dreamy, summer day--they drifted lazily downstream, and, except Tempest, all grew gayer and more gay. Burlingham had announced that there were three hundred and seventy-eight dollars in the japanned tin box he kept shut up in his bag.
At dusk a tug, for three dollars, nosed them into a wharf which adjoined the thickly populated labor quarter of Jeffersonville.
Susan was awakened by a scream. Even as she opened her eyes a dark cloud, a dull suffocating terrifying pain, descended upon her. When she again became conscious, she was lying upon a mass of canvas on the levee with three strange men bending over her. She sat up, instinctively caught together the front of the nightdress she had bought in Bethlehem the second day there. Then she looked wildly from face to face.
"You're all right, ma'am," said one of the men. "Not a scratch--only stunned."
"What was it?" said the girl. "Where are they?"
As she spoke, she saw Burlingham in his nightshirt propped against a big blue oil barrel. He was staring stupidly at the ground. And now she noted the others scattered about the levee, each with a group around him or her. "What was it?" she repeated.
"A tug butted its tow of barges into you," said someone. "Crushed your boat like an eggshell."
Burlingham staggered to his feet, stared round, saw her. "Thank God!" he cried. "Anyone drowned? Anyone hurt?"
"All saved--no bones broken," someone responded.
"And the boat?"
"Gone down. Nothing left of her but splinters. The barges were full of coal and building stone."
"The box!" suddenly shouted Burlingham. "The box!"
"What kind of a box?" asked a boy with lean, dirty, and much scratched bare legs. "A little black tin box like they keep money in?"
"That's it. Where is it?"
"It's all right," said the boy. "One of your people, a black actor-looking fellow----"
"Tempest," interjected Burlingham. "Go on."
"He dressed on the wharf and he had the box."
"Where is he?"
"He said he was going for a doctor. Last I seed of him he was up to the corner yonder. He was movin' fast."
Burlingham gave a kind of groan. Susan read in his face his fear, his suspicion--the suspicion he was ashamed of himself for having. She noted vaguely that he talked with the policeman aside for a few minutes, after which the policeman went up the levee. Burlingham rejoined his companions and took command. The first thing was to get dressed as well as might be from such of the trunks as had been knocked out of the cabin by the barge and had been picked up. They were all dazed. Even Burlingham could not realize just what had occurred. They called to one another more or less humorous remarks while they were dressing behind piles of boxes, crates, barrels and sacks in the wharf-boat. And they laughed gayly when they assembled. Susan made the best appearance, for her blue serge suit had been taken out dry when she herself was lifted from the sinking wreck; the nightgown served as a blouse. Mabel's trunk had been saved. Violet could wear none of her things, as they were many sizes too small, so she appeared in a property skirt of black paper muslin, a black velvet property basque, a pair of shoes belonging to Tempest. Burlingham and Eshwell made a fairly respectable showing in clothing from Tempest's trunk. Their own trunks had gone down.
"Why, where's Tempest?" asked Eshwell.
"He'll be back in a few minutes," replied Burlingham. "In fact, he ought to be back now." His glance happened to meet Susan's; he hastily shifted his eyes.
"Where's the box?" asked Violet.
"Tempest's taking care of it," was the manager's answer.
"Tempest!" exclaimed Mabel. Her shrewd, dissipated eyes contracted with suspicion.
"Anybody got any money?" inquired Eshwell, as he fished in his pockets.
No one had a cent. Eshwell searched Tempest's trunk, found a two-dollar bill and a one wrapped round a silver dollar and wadded in among some ragged underclothes. Susan heard Burlingham mutter "Wonder how he happened to overlook that!" But no one else heard.
"Well, we might have breakfast," suggested Mabel.
They went out on the water deck of the wharf-boat, looked down at the splinters of the wreck lying in the deep yellow river. "Come on," said Burlingham, and he led the way up the levee. There was no attempt at jauntiness; they all realized now.
"How about Tempest?" said Eshwell, stopping short halfway up.
"Tempest--hell!" retorted Mabel. "Come on."
"What do you mean?" cried Violet, whose left eye was almost closed by a bruise.
"We'll not see him again. Come on."
"Bob!" shrieked Violet at Burlingham. "Do you hear that?"
"Yes," said he. "Keep calm, and come on. "
"Aren't you going to do anything?" she screamed, seizing him by the coat tail. "You must, damn it--you must!"
"I got the policeman to telephone headquarters," said Burlingham. "What else can be done? Come on."
And a moment later the bedraggled and dejected company filed into a cheap levee restaurant. "Bring some coffee," Burlingham said to the waiter. Then to the others, "Does anybody want anything else?" No one spoke. "Coffee's all," he said to the waiter.
It came, and they drank it in silence, each one's brain busy with the disaster from the standpoint of his own resulting ruin. Susan glanced furtively at each face in turn. She could not think of her own fate, there was such despair in the faces of these others. Mabel looked like an old woman. As for Violet, every feature of her homeliness, her coarseness, her dissipated premature old age stood forth in all its horror. Susan's heart contracted and her flesh crept as she glanced quickly away. But she still saw, and it was many a week before she ceased to see whenever Violet's name came into her mind. Burlingham, too, looked old and broken. Eshwell and Pat, neither of whom had ever had the smallest taste of success, were stolid, like cornered curs taking their beating and waiting in silence for the blows to stop.
"Here, Eshie," said the manager, "take care of the three dollars." And he handed him the bills. "I'll pay for the coffee and keep the change. I'm going down to the owners of that tug and see what I can do."
When he had paid they followed him out. At the curbstone he said, "Keep together somewhere round the wharf-boat. So long." He lifted the battered hat he was wearing, smiled at Susan. "Cheer up, Miss Sackville. We'll down 'em yet!" And away he went--a strange figure, his burly frame squeezed into a dingy old frock suit from among Tempest's costumes.
A dreary two hours, the last half-hour in a drizzling rain from which the narrow eaves of the now closed and locked wharf-boat sheltered them only a little. "There he comes!" cried Susan; and sure enough, Burlingham separated from the crowd streaming along the street at the top of the levee, and began to descend the slope toward them. They concentrated on his face, hoping to get some indication of what to expect; but he never permitted his face to betray his mind. He strode up the plank and joined them.
"Tempest come?" he asked.
"Tempest!" cried Mabel. "Haven't I told you he's jumped? Don't you suppose I know him?"
"And you brought him into the company," raged Violet. "Burlingham didn't want to take him. He looked the fool and jackass he is. Why didn't you warn us he was a rotten thief, too?"
"Wasn't it for shoplifting you served six months in Joliet?" retorted Mabel.
"You lie--you streetwalker!" screamed Violet.
"Ladies! Ladies!" said Eshwell.
"That's what I say," observed Pat.
"I'm no lady," replied Mabel. "I'm an actress."
"An actress--he-he!" jeered Violet. "An actress!"
"Shut up, all of you," commanded Burlingham. "I've got some money. I settled for cash."
"How much?" cried Mabel and Violet in the same breath, their quarrel not merely finished but forgotten.
"Three hundred dollars."
"For the boat and all?" demanded Eshwell. "Why, Bob----"
"They think it was for boat and all," interrupted Burlingham with his cynical smile. "They set out to bully and cheat me. They knew I couldn't get justice. So I let 'em believe I owned the boat--and I've got fifty apiece for us."
"Sixty," said Violet.
"Fifty. There are six of us."
"You don't count in this little Jonah here, do you?" cried Violet, scowling evilly at Susan.
"No--no--don't count me in," begged Susan. "I didn't lose anything."
Mabel pinched her arm. "You're right, Mr. Burlingham," said she. "Miss Sackville ought to share. We're all in the same box."
"Miss Sackville will share," said Burlingham. "There's going to be no skunking about this, as long as I'm in charge."
Eshwell and Pat sided with Violet. While the rain streamed, the five, with Susan a horrified onlooker, fought on and on about the division of the money. Their voices grew louder. They hurled the most frightful epithets at one another. Violet seized Mabel by the hair, and the men interfered, all but coming to blows themselves in the melee. The wharfmaster rushed from his office, drove them off to the levee. They continued to yell and curse, even Burlingham losing control of himself and releasing all there was of the tough and the blackguard in his nature. Two policemen came, calmed them with threat of arrest. At last Burlingham took from his pocket one at a time three small rolls of bills. He flung one at each of the three who were opposing his division. "Take that, you dirty curs," he said. "And be glad I'm giving you anything at all. Most managers wouldn't have come back. Come on, Miss Sackville. Come on, Mabel." And the two followed him up the levee, leaving the others counting their shares.
At the street corner they went into a general store where Burlingham bought two ninety-eight-cent umbrellas. He gave Mabel one, held the other over Susan and himself as they walked along. "Well, ladies," said he, "we begin life again. A clean slate, a fresh start--as if nothing had ever happened."
Susan looked at him to try to give him a grateful and sympathetic smile. She was surprised to see that, so far as she could judge, he had really meant the words he had spoken.
"Yes, I mean it," said he. "Always look at life as it is--as a game. With every deal, whether you win or lose, your stake grows--for your stake's your wits, and you add to 'em by learning something with each deal. What are you going to do, Mabel?"
"Get some clothes. The water wrecked mine and this rain has finished my hat."
"We'll go together," said Burlingham.
They took a car for Louisville, descended before a department store. Burlingham had to fit himself from the skin out; Mabel had underclothes, needed a hat, a dress, summer shoes. Susan needed underclothes, shoes, a hat, for she was bareheaded. They arranged to meet at the first entrance down the side street; Burlingham gave Susan and Mabel each their fifty dollars and went his way. When they met again in an hour and a half, they burst into smiles of delight. Burlingham had transformed himself into a jaunty, fashionable young middle-aged man, with an air of success achieved and prosperity assured. He had put the fine finishing touch to his transformation by getting a haircut and a shave. Mabel looked like a showy chorus girl, in a striped blue and white linen suit, a big beflowered hat, and a fluffy blouse of white chiffon. Susan had resisted Mabel's entreaties, had got a plain, sensible linen blouse of a kind that on a pinch might be washed out and worn without ironing. Her new hat was a simple blue sailor with a dark blue band that matched her dress.
"I spent thirty-six dollars," said Burlingham.
"I only spent twenty-two," declared Mabel. "And this child here only parted with seven of her dollars.
I had no idea she was so thrifty. "
"And now--what?" said Burlingham.
"I'm going round to see a friend of mine," replied Mabel. "She's on the stage, too. There's sure to be something doing at the summer places. Maybe I can ring Miss Sackville in. There ought to be a good living in those eyes of hers and those feet and ankles. I'm sure I can put her next to something."
"Then you can give her your address," said Burlingham.
"Why, she's going with me," cried Mabel. "You don't suppose I'd leave the child adrift?"
"No, she's going with me to a boarding house I'll find for her," said Burlingham.
Into Mabel's face flashed the expression of the suspicion such a statement would at once arouse in a mind trained as hers had been. Burlingham's look drove the expression out of her face, and suspicion at least into the background. "She's not going with your friend," said Burlingham, a hint of sternness in his voice. "That's best--isn't it?"
Miss Connemora's eyes dropped. "Yes, I guess it is," replied she. "Well--I turn down this way."
"We'll keep on and go out Chestnut Street," said Burlingham. "You can write to her--or to me--care of the General Delivery."
"That's best. You may hear from Tempest. You can write me there, too." Mabel was constrained and embarrassed. "Good-by, Miss Sackville."
Susan embraced and kissed her. Mabel began to weep. "Oh, it's all so sudden--and frightful," she said. "Do try to be good, Lorna. You can trust Bob." She looked earnestly, appealingly, at him. "Yes, I'm sure you can. And--he's right about me. Good-by." She hurried away, not before Susan had seen the tears falling from her kind, fast-fading eyes.
Susan stood looking after her. And for the first time the truth about the catastrophe came to her. She turned to Burlingham. "How brave you are!" she cried.
"Oh, what'd be the use in dropping down and howling like a dog?" replied he. "That wouldn't bring the boat back. It wouldn't get me a job."
"And you shared equally, when you lost the most of all."
They were walking on. "The boat was mine, too," said he in a dry reflective tone. "I told 'em it wasn't when we started out because I wanted to get a good share for rent and so on, without any kicking from anybody."
The loss did not appeal to her; it was the lie he had told. She felt her confidence shaking. "You didn't mean to--to----" she faltered, stopped.
"To cheat them?" suggested he. "Yes, I did. So--to sort of balance things up I divided equally all I got from the tug people. What're you looking so unhappy about?"
"I wish you hadn't told me," she said miserably. "I don't see why you did."
"Because I don't want you making me into a saint. I'm like the rest you see about in pants, cheating and lying, with or without pretending to themselves that they're honest. Don't trust anybody, my dear. The sooner you get over the habit, the sooner you'll cease to tempt people to be hypocrites. All the serious trouble I've ever got into has come through trusting or being trusted."
He looked gravely at her, burst out laughing at her perplexed, alarmed expression. "Oh, Lord, it isn't as bad as all that," said he. "The rain's stopped. Let's have breakfast. Then--a new deal--with everything to gain and nothing to lose. It's a great advantage to be in a position where you've got nothing to lose!"