Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
The next thing she knew, she felt herself seized strongly by the arm. She gazed round in a dazed way. She was in the street--how she got there she had no idea. The grip on her arm--it was the young doctor, Hamilton. "I called you twice," explained he, "but you didn't hear."
"He is dead," said she.
Hamilton had a clear view of her face now. There was not a trace of the child left. He saw her eyes--quiet, lonely, violet stars. "You must go and rest quietly, " he said with gentleness. "You are worn out."
Susan took from her bosom the twenty dollars, handed it to him. "It belongs to him," said she. "Give it to them, to bury him." And she started on.
"Where are you going?" asked the young man.
Susan stopped, looked vaguely at him. "Good-by," she said. "You've been very kind."
"You've found a boarding place?"
"Oh, I'm all right."
"You want to see him?"
"No. Then he'll always be alive to me."
"You had better keep this money. The city will take care of the funeral."
"It belong to him. I couldn't keep it for myself. I must be going."
"Shan't I see you again?"
"I'll not trouble you."
"Let me walk with you as far as your place."
"I'm not feeling--just right. If you don't mind--please--I'd rather be alone."
"I don't mean to intrude, but----"
"I'm all right," said the girl. "Don't worry about me."
"But you are too young----"
"I've been married. . . . Thank you, but--good-by."
He could think of no further excuse for detaining her. Her manner disquieted him, yet it seemed composed and natural. Probably she had run away from a good home, was now sobered and chastened, was eager to separate herself from the mess she had got into and return to her own sort of people. It struck him as heartless that she should go away in this fashion; but on second thought, he could not associate heartlessness with her. Also, he saw how there might be something in what she had said about not wishing to have to think of her friend as dead. He stood watching her straight narrow young figure until it was lost to view in the crowd of people going home from work.
Susan went down Elm Street to Garfield Place, seated herself on one of the benches. She was within sight of the unobtrusive little house with the awnings; but she did not realize it. She had no sense of her surroundings, of the passing of time, felt no grief, no sensation of any kind. She simply sat, her little bundle in her lap, her hands folded upon it.
A man in uniform paused before her. "Closing-up time," he said, sharply but in the impartial official way. "I'm going to lock the gates."
She looked at him.
In a softer, apologetic tone, he said, "I've got to lock the gates. That's the law, miss."
She did not clearly understand, but rose and went out into Race Street. She walked slowly along, not knowing or caring where. She walked--walked--walked. Sometimes her way lay through crowded streets, again through streets deserted. Now she was stumbling over the uneven sidewalks of a poor quarter; again it was the smooth flagstones of the shopping or wholesale districts. Several times she saw the river with its multitude of boats great and small; several times she crossed the canal. Twice she turned back because the street was mounting the hills behind the city--the hills with the cars swiftly ascending and descending the inclined planes, and at the crests gayly lighted pavilions where crowds were drinking and dancing. Occasionally some man spoke to her, but desisted as she walked straight on, apparently not hearing. She rested from time to time, on a stoop or on a barrel or box left out by some shopkeeper, or leaning upon the rail of a canal bridge. She was walking with a purpose--to try to scatter the dense fog that had rolled in and enveloped her mind, and then to try to think.
She sat, or rather dropped, down from sheer fatigue, in that cool hour which precedes the dawn. It happened to be the steps of a church. She fell into a doze, was startled back to consciousness by the deep boom of the bell in the steeple; it made the stone vibrate under her. One--two--three--four! Toward the east there shone a flush of light, not yet strong enough to dim the stars. The sky above her was clear. The pall of smoke rolled away. The air felt clean and fresh, even had in it a reminiscence of the green fields whence it had come. She began to revive, like a sleeper shaking off drowsiness and the spell of a bad dream and looking forward to the new day. The fog that had swathed and stupefied her brain seemed to have lifted. At her heart there was numbness and a dull throbbing, an ache; but her mind was clear and her body felt intensely, hopelessly alive and ready, clamorously ready, for food. A movement across the narrow street attracted her attention. A cellar door was rising--thrust upward by the shoulders of a man. It fell full open with a resounding crash, the man revealed by the light from beneath--a white blouse, a white cap. Toward her wafted the delicious odor of baking bread. She rose, hesitated only an instant, crossed the street directly toward the baker who had come up to the surface for cool air.
"I am hungry," said she to him. "Can't you let me have something to eat?"
The man--he had a large, smooth, florid face eyed her in amused astonishment. "Where'd you jump from?" he demanded.
"I was resting on the church steps over there. The smell came to me and--I couldn't stand it. I can pay."
"Oh, that's all right," said the man, with a strong German accent. "Come down." And he descended the steps, she following. It was a large and lofty cellar, paved with cement; floor, ceilings, walls, were whitened with flour. There were long clean tables for rolling the dough; big wooden bowls; farther back, the ovens and several bakers at work adding to the huge piles of loaves the huge baskets of rolls. Susan's eyes glistened; her white teeth showed in a delightful smile of hunger about to be satisfied.
"Do you want bread or rolls?" asked the German. Then without waiting for her to answer, "I guess some of the `sweet rolls,' we call 'em, would about suit a lady."
"Yes--the sweet rolls," said the girl.
The baker fumbled about behind a lot of empty baskets, found a sewing basket, filled it with small rolls--some crescent in shape, some like lady fingers, some oval, some almost like biscuit, all with pulverized sugar powdered on them thick as a frosting. He set the little basket upon an empty kneading table. "Wait yet a minute," he commanded, and bustled up a flight of stairs. He reappeared with a bottle of milk and a piece of fresh butter. He put these beside the basket of rolls, drew a stool up before them. "How's that?" asked he, his hands on his hips, his head on one side, and his big jolly face beaming upon her. "Pretty good, don't it!"
Susan was laughing with pleasure. He pointed to the place well down in the bottle of milk where the cream ended. "That's the way it should be always--not so!" said he. She nodded. Then he shook the bottle to remix the separated cream and milk. "So!" he cried. Then--" Ach, dummer Esel!" he muttered, striking his brow a resounding thwack with the flat of his hand. "A knife!" And he hastened to repair that omission.
Susan sat at the table, took one of the fresh rolls, spread butter upon it. The day will never come for her when she cannot distinctly remember the first bite of the little sweet buttered roll, eaten in that air perfumed with the aroma of baking bread. The milk was as fine as it promised to be she drank it from the bottle.
The German watched her a while, then beckoned to his fellow workmen. They stood round, reveling in the joyful sight of this pretty hungry girl eating so happily and so heartily.
"The pie," whispered one workman to another.
They brought a small freshly baked peach pie, light and crisp and brown. Susan's beautiful eyes danced. "But," she said to her first friend among the bakers, "I'm afraid I can't afford it."
At this there was a loud chorus of laughter. "Eat it," said her friend.
And when she had finished her rolls and butter, she did eat it. "I never tasted a pie like that," declared she. "And I like pies and can make them too."
Once more they laughed, as if she had said the wittiest thing in the world.
As the last mouthful of the pie was disappearing, her friend said, "Another!"
"Goodness, no!" cried the girl. "I couldn't eat a bite more."
"But it's an apple pie." And he brought it, holding it on his big florid fat hand and turning it round to show her its full beauty.
She sighed regretfully. "I simply can't," she said. "How much is what I've had?"
Her friend frowned. "Vot you take me for--hey?" demanded he, with a terrible frown--so terrible he felt it to be that, fearing he had frightened her, he burst out laughing, to reassure.
"Oh, but I must pay," she pleaded. "I didn't come begging."
"Not a cent!" said her friend firmly. "I'm the boss. I won't take it."
She insisted until she saw she was hurting his feelings. Then she tried to thank him; but he would not listen to that, either. "Good-by--good-by," he said gruffly. "I must get to work once." But she understood, and went with a light heart up into the world again. He stood waist deep in the cellar, she hesitated upon the sidewalk. "Good-by," she said, with swimming eyes. "You don't know how good you've been to me."
"All right. Luck!" He waved his hand, half turned his back on her and looked intently up the street, his eyes blinking.
She went down the street, turned the first corner, dropped on a doorstep and sobbed and cried, out of the fullness of her heart. When she rose to go on again, she felt stronger and gentler than she had felt since her troubles began with the quarrel over Sam Wright. A little further on she came upon a florist's shop in front of which a wagon was unloading the supply of flowers for the day's trade. She paused to look at the roses and carnations, the lilies and dahlias, the violets and verbenas and geraniums. The fast brightening air was scented with delicate odors. She was attracted to a small geranium with many buds and two full-blown crimson flowers.
"How much for that?" she asked a young man who seemed to be in charge.
He eyed her shrewdly. "Well, I reckon about fifteen cents," replied he.
She took from her bosom the dollar bill wrapped round the eighty cents, gave him what he had asked. "No, you needn't tie it up," said she, as he moved to take it into the store. She went back to the bakeshop. The cellar door was open, but no one was in sight. Stooping down, she called: "Mr. Baker! Mr. Baker!"
The big smooth face appeared below.
She set the plant down on the top step. "For you," she said, and hurried away.
On a passing street car she saw the sign "Eden Park." She had heard of it--of its beauties, of the wonderful museum there. She took the next car of the same line. A few minutes, and it was being drawn up the inclined plane toward the lofty hilltops. She had thought the air pure below. She was suddenly lifted through a dense vapor--the cloud that always lies over the lower part of the city. A moment, and she was above the cloud, was being carried through the wide, clean tree-lined avenue of a beautiful suburb. On either side, lawns and gardens and charming houses, a hush brooding over them. Behind these walls, in comfortable beds, amid the surroundings that come to mind with the word "home," lay many girls such as she--happy, secure, sheltered. Girls like herself. A wave of homesickness swept over her, daunting her for a little while. But she fought it down, watched what was going on around her. "I mustn't look back--I mustn't! Nothing there for me." At the main gateway of the park she descended. There indeed was the, to her, vast building containing the treasures of art; but she had not come for that. She struck into the first by-path, sought out a grassy slope thickly studded with bushes, and laid herself down. She spread her skirts carefully so as not to muss them. She put her bundle under her head.
When she awoke the moon was shining upon her face--shining from a starry sky!
She sat up, looked round in wonder. Yes--it was night again--very still, very beautiful, and warm, with the air fragrant and soft. She felt intensely awake, entirely rested--and full of hope. It was as if during that long dreamless sleep her whole being had been renewed and magically borne away from the lands of shadow and pain where it had been wandering, to a land of bright promise. Oh, youth, youth, that bears so lightly the burden of the past, that faces so confidently the mystery of the future! She listened--heard a faint sound that moved her to investigate. Peering through the dense bushes, she discovered on the grass in the shadow of the next clump, a ragged, dirty man and woman, both sound asleep and snoring gently. She watched them spellbound. The man's face was deeply shaded by his battered straw hat. But she could see the woman's face plainly--the thin, white hair, the sunken eyes and mouth, the skeleton look of old features over which the dry skin of age is tightly drawn. She gazed until the man, moving in his sleep, kicked out furiously and uttered a curse. She drew back, crawled away until she had put several clumps of bushes between her and the pair. Then she sped down and up the slopes and did not stop until she was where she could see, far below, the friendly lights of the city blinking at her through the smoky mist.
She had forgotten her bundle! She did not know how to find the place where she had left it; and, had she known, she would not have dared return. This loss, however, troubled her little. Not in vain had she dwelt with the philosopher Burlingham.
She seated herself on a bench and made herself comfortable. But she no longer needed sleep. She was awake--wide awake--in every atom of her vigorous young body. The minutes dragged. She was impatient for the dawn to give the signal for the future to roll up its curtain. She would have gone down into the city to walk about but she was now afraid the police would take her in--and that probably would mean going to a reformatory, for she could not give a satisfactory account of herself. True, her older way of wearing her hair and some slight but telling changes in her dress had made her look less the child. But she could not hope to pass for a woman full grown. The moon set; the starlight was after a long, long time succeeded by the dawn of waking birds, and of waking city, too--for up from below rose an ever louder roar like a rising storm. In her restless rovings, she came upon a fountain; she joined the birds making a toilet in its basin, and patterned after them--washed her face and hands, dried them on a handkerchief she by great good luck had put into her stocking, smoothed her hair, her dress.
And still the sense of unreality persisted, cast its friendly spell over this child-woman suddenly caught up from the quietest of quiet lives and whirled into a dizzy vortex of strange events without parallel, or similitude even, in anything she had ever known. If anyone had suddenly asked her who she was and she had tried to recall, she would have felt as if trying to remember a dream. Sutherland--a faint, faint dream, and the show boat also. Spenser--a romantic dream--or a first installment of a lovestory read in some stray magazine. Burlingham--the theatrical agent--the young man of the previous afternoon--the news of the death that left her quite alone--all a dream, a tumbled, jumbled dream, all passed with the night and the awakening. In her youth and perfect health, refreshed by the long sleep, gladdened by the bright new day, she was as irresponsible as the merry birds chattering and flinging the water about at the opposite side of the fountain's basin. She was now glad she had lost her bundle. Without it her hands were free both hands free to take whatever might offer next. And she was eager to see what that would be, and hopeful about it--no--more than hopeful, confident. Burlingham, aided by those highly favorable surroundings of the show boat, and of the vagabond life thereafter, had developed in her that gambler's spirit which had enabled him to play year after year of losing hands with unabating courage--the spirit that animates all the brave souls whose deeds awe the docile, conventional, craven masses of mankind.
Leisurely as a truant she tramped back toward the city, pausing to observe anything that chanced to catch her eye. At the moment of her discovery of the difference between her and most girls there had begun a cleavage between her and the social system. And now she felt as if she were of one race and the rest of the world of another and hostile race. She did not realize it, but she had taken the first great step along the path that leads to distinction or destruction. For the world either obeys or tramples into dust those who, in whatever way, have a lot apart from the common. She was free from the bonds of convention--free to soar or to sink.
Her way toward the city lay along a slowly descending street that had been, not so very long before, a country road. Block after block there were grassy fields intersected by streets, as if city had attempted a conquest of country and had abandoned it. Again the vacant lots were disfigured with the ruins of a shanty or by dreary dump heaps. For long stretches the way was built up only on one side. The houses were for the most part tenement with small and unprosperous shops or saloons on the ground floor. Toward the foot of the hill, where the line of tenements was continuous on either side, she saw a sign "Restaurant" projecting over the sidewalk. When she reached it, she paused and looked in. A narrow window and a narrow open door gave a full view of the tiny room with its two rows of plain tables. Near the window was a small counter with a case containing cakes and pies and rolls. With back to the window sat a pretty towheaded girl of about her own age, reading. Susan, close to the window, saw that the book was Owen Meredith's "Lucile," one of her own favorites. She could even read the words:
The ways they are many and wide, and seldom are two ways the same.
She entered. The girl glanced up, with eyes slowly changing from far-away dreaminess to present and practical--pleasant blue eyes with lashes and brows of the same color as the thick, neatly done yellowish hair.
"Could I get a glass of milk and a roll?" asked Susan, a modest demand, indeed, on behalf of a growing girl's appetite twenty-four hours unsatisfied.
The blonde girl smiled, showing a clean mouth with excellent teeth. "We sell the milk for five cents, the rolls three for a nickel."
"Then I'll take milk and three rolls," said Susan. "May I sit at a table? I'll not spoil it."
"Sure. Sit down. That's what the tables are for." And the girl closed the book, putting a chromo card in it to mark her place, and stirred about to serve the customer. Susan took the table nearest the door, took the seat facing the light. The girl set before her a plate, a knife and fork, a little form of butter, a tall glass of milk, and three small rolls in a large saucer. "You're up and out early?" she said to Susan.
On one of those inexplicable impulses of frankness Susan replied: "I've been sleeping in the park."
The girl had made the remark merely to be polite and was turning away. As Susan's reply penetrated to her inattentive mind she looked sharply at her, eyes opening wonderingly. "Did you get lost? Are you a stranger in town? Why didn't you ask someone to take you in?"
The girl reflected, realized. "That's so," said she. "I never thought of it before. . . . Yes, that is so! It must be dreadful not to have any place to go." She gazed at Susan with admiring eyes. "Weren't you afraid--up in the park?"
"No," replied Susan. "I hadn't anything anybody'd want to steal."
"But some man might have----" The girl left it to Susan's imagination to finish the sentence.
"I hadn't anything to steal," repeated Susan, with a kind of cynical melancholy remotely suggestive of Mabel Connemora.
The restaurant girl retired behind the counter to reflect, while Susan began upon her meager breakfast with the deliberation of one who must coax a little to go a great ways. Presently the girl said:
"Where are you going to sleep tonight?"
"Oh, that's a long ways off," replied the apt pupil of the happy-go-lucky houseboat show. "I'll find a place, I guess."
The girl looked thoughtfully toward the street. "I was wondering," she said after a while, "what I'd do if I was to find myself out in the street, with no money and nowhere to go. . . . Are you looking for something to do?"
"Do you know of anything?" asked Susan interested at once.
"Nothing worth while. There's a box factory down on the next square. But only a girl that lives at home can work there. Pa says the day's coming when women'll be like men--work at everything and get the same wages. But it isn't so now. A girl's got to get married."
Such a strange expression came over Susan's face that the waitress looked apologetic and hastened to explain herself: "I don't much mind the idea of getting married," said she. "Only--I'm afraid I can never get the kind of a man I'd want. The boys round here leave school before the girls, so the girls are better educated. And then they feel above the boys of their own class--except those boys that're beginning to get up in the world--and those kind of boys want some girl who's above them and can help them up. It's dreadful to be above the people you know and not good enough for the people you'd like to know."
Susan was not impressed; she could not understand why the waitress spoke with so much feeling. "Well," said she, pausing before beginning on the last roll, "I don't care so long as I find something to do."
"There's another thing," complained the waitress. "If you work in a store, you can't get wages enough to live on; and you learn things, and want to live better and better all the time. It makes you miserable. And you can't marry the men who work at nice refined labor because they don't make enough to marry on. And if you work in a factory or as a servant, why all but the commonest kind of men look down on you. You may get wages enough to live on, but you can't marry or get up in the world."
"You're very ambitious, aren't you?"
"Indeed I am. I don't want to be in the working class." She was leaning over the counter now, and her blond face was expressing deep discontent and scorn. "I hate working people. All of them who have any sense look down on themselves and wish they could get something respectable to do."
"Oh, you don't mean that," protested Susan. "Any kind of work's respectable if it's honest."
"You can say that," retorted the girl. "You don't belong in our class. You were brought up different. You are a lady."
Susan shrank and grew crimson. The other girl did not see. She went on crossly:
"Upper-class people always talk about how fine it is to be an honest workingman. But that's all rot. Let 'em try it a while. And pa says it'll never be straightened out till everybody has to work."
"What--what does your father do?"
"He was a cabinetmaker. Then one of the other men tipped over a big chest and his right hand was crushed--smashed to pieces, so he wasn't able to work any more. But he's mighty smart in his brains. It's the kind you can't make any money out of. He has read most everything. The trouble with pa was he had too much heart. He wasn't mean enough to try and get ahead of the other workmen, and rise to be a boss over them, and grind them down to make money for the proprietor. So he stayed on at the bench--he was a first-class cabinetmaker. The better a man is as a workman, and the nicer he is as a man, the harder it is for him to get up. Pa was too good at his trade--and too soft-hearted. Won't you have another glass of milk?"
"No--thank you," said Susan. She was still hungry, but it alarmed her to think of taking more than ten cents from her hoard.
"Are you going to ask for work at the box factory?"
"I'm afraid they wouldn't take me. I don't know how to make boxes."
"Oh, that's nothing," assured the restaurant girl.
"It's the easiest kind of work. But then an educated person can pick up most any trade in a few days, well enough to get along. They'll make you a paster, at first."
"How much does that pay?"
"He'll offer you two fifty a week, but you must make him give you three. That's right for beginners. Then, if you stay on and work hard, you'll be raised to four after six months. The highest pay's five."
"Three dollars," said Susan. "How much can I rent a room for?"
The restaurant girl looked at her pityingly. "Oh, you can't afford a room. You'll have to club in with three other girls and take a room together, and cook your meals yourselves, turn about."
Susan tried not to show how gloomy this prospect seemed. "I'll try," said she.
She paid the ten cents; her new acquaintance went with her to the door, pointed out the huge bare wooden building displaying in great letters "J. C. Matson, Paper Boxes." "You apply at the office," said the waitress. "There'll be a fat black-complected man in his shirt with his suspenders let down off his shoulders.
He'll be fresh with you. He used to be a working man himself, so he hasn't any respect for working people. But he doesn't mean any harm. He isn't like a good many; he lets his girls alone."
Susan had not got far when the waitress came running after her. "Won't you come back and let me know how you made out?" she asked, a little embarrassed. "I hope you don't think I'm fresh."
"I'll be glad to come," Susan assured her. And their eyes met in a friendly glance.
"If you don't find a place to go, why not come in with me? I've got only a very little bit of a room, but it's as big and a lot cleaner than any you'll find with the factory girls."
"But I haven't any money," said Susan regretfully. "And I couldn't take anything without paying."
"You could pay two dollars and a half a week and eat in with us. We couldn't afford to give you much for that, but it'd be better than what you'd get the other way."
"But you can't afford to do that."
The restaurant girl's mind was aroused, was working fast and well. "You can help in the restaurant of evenings," she promptly replied. "I'll tell ma you're so pretty you'll draw trade. And I'll explain that you used to go to school with me--and have lost your father and mother. My name's Etta Brashear."
"Mine's--Lorna Sackville," said Susan, blushing. "I'll come after a while, and we'll talk about what to do. I may not get a place."
"Oh, you'll get it. He has hard work finding girls. Factories usually pay more than stores, because the work's more looked down on--though Lord knows it's hard to think how anything could be more looked down on than a saleslady."
"I don't see why you bother about those things. What do they matter?"
"Why, everybody bothers about them. But you don't understand. You were born a lady, and you'll always feel you've got social standing, and people'll feel that way too."
"But I wasn't," said Susan earnestly. "Indeed, I wasn't. I was born--a--a nobody. I can't tell you, but I'm just nobody. I haven't even got a name."
Etta, as romantic as the next young girl, was only the more fascinated by the now thrillingly mysterious stranger--so pretty, so sweet, with such beautiful manners and strangely outcast no doubt from some family of "high folks." "You'll be sure to come? You won't disappoint me?"
Susan kissed Etta. Etta embraced Susan, her cheeks flushed, her eyes brilliant. "`I've taken an awful fancy to you," she said. "I haven't ever had an intimate lady friend. I don't care for the girls round here. They're so fresh and common. Ma brought me up refined; she's not like the ordinary working-class woman."
It hurt Susan deeply--why, she could not have quite explained--to hear Etta talk in this fashion. And in spite of herself her tone was less friendly as she said, "I'll come when I find out."