Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
On Monday at the lunch hour--or, rather, halfhour--Susan ventured in to see the boss.
Matson had too recently sprung from the working class and was too ignorant of everything outside his business to have made radical changes in his habits. He smoked five-cent cigars instead of "twofurs"; he ate larger quantities of food, did not stint himself in beer or in treating his friends in the evenings down at Wielert's beer garden. Also he wore a somewhat better quality of clothing; but he looked precisely what he was. Like all the working class above the pauper line, he made a Sunday toilet, the chief features of which were the weekly bath and the weekly clean white shirt. Thus, it being only Monday morning, he was looking notably clean when Susan entered--and was morally wound up to a higher key than he would be as the week wore on. At sight of her his feet on the leaf of the desk wavered, then became inert; it would not do to put on manners with any of the "hands." Thanks to the bath, he was not exuding his usual odor that comes from bolting much strong, cheap food.
"Well, Lorny--what's the kick?" inquired he with his amiable grin. His rise in the world never for an instant ceased to be a source of delight to him; it--and a perfect digestion--kept him in a good humor all the time.
"I want to know," stammered Susan, "if you can't give me a little more money."
He laughed, eyeing her approvingly. Her clothing was that of the working girl; but in her face was the look never found in those born to the modern form of slavery-wage servitude. If he had been "cultured" he might have compared her to an enslaved princess, though in fact that expression of her courageous violet-gray eyes and sensitive mouth could never have been in the face of princess bred to the enslaving routine of the most conventional of conventional lives; it could come only from sheer erectness of spirit, the exclusive birthright of the sons and daughters of democracy.
"More money!" he chuckled. "You have got a nerve!--when factories are shutting down everywhere and working people are tramping the streets in droves."
"I do about one-fourth more than the best hands you've got," replied Susan, made audacious by necessity. "And I'll agree to throw in my lunch time."
"Let me see, how much do you get?"
"And you aren't living at home. You must have a hard time. Not much over for diamonds, eh? You want to hustle round and get married, Lorny. Looks don't last long when a gal works. But you're holdin' out better'n them that gads and dances all night."
"I help at the restaurant in the evening to piece out my board. I'm pretty tired when I get a chance to go to bed."
"I'll bet!. . . So, you want more money. I've been watchin' you. I watch all my gals--I have to, to keep weedin' out the fast ones. I won't have no bad examples in my place! As soon as I ketch a gal livin' beyond her wages I give her the bounce."
Susan lowered her eyes and her cheeks burned--not because Matson was frankly discussing the frivolous subject of sex. Another girl might have affected the air of distressed modesty, but it would have been affectation, pure and simple, as in those regions all were used to hearing the frankest, vilest things--and we do not blush at what we are used to hearing. Still, the tenement female sex is as full of affectation as is the sex elsewhere. But, Susan, the curiously self-unconscious, was incapable of affectation. Her indignation arose from her sense of the hideous injustice of Matson's discharging girls for doing what his meager wages all but compelled.
"Yes, I've been watching you," he went on, "with a kind of a sort of a notion of makin' you a forelady. That'd mean six dollars a week. But you ain't fit. You've got the brains--plenty of 'em. But you wouldn't be of no use to me as forelady."
"Why not?" asked Susan. Six dollars a week! Affluence! Wealth!
Matson took his feet down, relit his cigar and swung himself into an oracular attitude.
"I'll show you. What's manufacturin'? Right down at the bottom, I mean." He looked hard at the girl. She looked receptively at him.
"Why, it's gettin' work out of the hands. New ideas is nothin'. You can steal 'em the minute the other fellow uses 'em. No, it's all in gettin' work out of the hands."
Susan's expression suggested one who sees light and wishes to see more of it. He proceeded:
"You work for me--for instance, now, if every day you make stuff there's a profit of five dollars on, I get five dollars out of you. If I can push you to make stuff there's a profit of six dollars on, I get six dollars--a dollar more. Clear extra gain, isn't it? Now multiply a dollar by the number of hands, and you'll see what it amounts to."
"I see," said Susan, nodding thoughtfully.
"Well! How did I get up? Because as a foreman I knew how to work the hands. I knew how to get those extra dollars. And how do I keep up? Because I hire forepeople that get work out of the hands."
Susan understood. But her expression was a comment that was not missed by the shrewd Matson.
"Now, listen to me, Lorny. I want to give you a plain straight talk because I'd like to see you climb. Ever since you've been here I've been laughin' to myself over the way your forelady--she's a fox, she is!--makes you the pacemaker for the other girls. She squeezes at least twenty-five cents a day over what she used to out of each hand in your room because you're above the rest of them dirty, shiftless muttonheads."
Susan flushed at this fling at her fellow-workers.
"Dirty, shiftless muttonheads," repeated Matson. "Ain't I right? Ain't they dirty? Ain't they shiftless--so no-account that if they wasn't watched every minute they'd lay down--and let me and the factory that supports 'em go to rack and ruin? And ain't they muttonheads? Do you ever find any of 'em saying or doing a sensible thing?"
Susan could not deny. She could think of excuses--perfect excuses. But the facts were about as he brutally put it.
"Oh, I know 'em. I've dealt with 'em all my life," pursued the box manufacturer. "Now, Lorny, you ought to be a forelady. You've got to toughen up and stop bein' so polite and helpful and all that. You'll never get on if you don't toughen up. Business is business. Be as sentimental as you like away from business, and after you've clum to the top. But not in business or while you're kickin' and scratchin' and clawin' your way up."
Susan shook her head slowly. She felt painfully young and inexperienced and unfit for the ferocious struggle called life. She felt deathly sick.
"Of course it's a hard world," said Matson with a wave of his cigar. "But did I make it?"
"No," admitted Susan, as his eyes demanded a reply.
"Sure not," said he. "And how's anybody to get up in it? Is there any other way but by kickin' and stampin', eh?"
"None that I see," conceded Susan reluctantly.
"None that is," declared he. "Them that says there's other ways either lies or don't know nothin' about the practical game. Well, then!" Matson puffed triumphantly at the cigar. "Such bein' the case--and as long as the crowd down below's got to be kicked in the face by them that's on the way up, why shouldn't I do the kickin'--which is goin' to be done anyhow--instead of gettin' kicked? Ain't that sense?"
"Yes," admitted Susan. She sighed. "Yes," she repeated.
"Well--toughen up. Meanwhile, I'll raise you, to spur the others on. I'll give you four a week." And he cut short her thanks with an "Oh, don't mention it. I'm only doin' what's square--what helps me as well as you. I want to encourage you. You don't belong down among them cattle. Toughen up, Lorny. A girl with a bank account gets the pick of the beaux." And he nodded a dismissal.
Matson, and his hands, bosses and workers, brutal, brutalizing each other more and more as they acted and reacted upon each other. Where would it end?
She was in dire need of underclothes. Her undershirts were full of holes from the rubbing of her cheap, rough corset; her drawers and stockings were patched in several places--in fact, she could not have worn the stockings had not her skirt now been well below her shoetops. Also, her shoes, in spite of the money she had spent upon them, were about to burst round the edges of the soles. But she would not longer accept from the Brashears what she regarded as charity.
"You more than pay your share, what with the work you do," protested Mrs. Brashear. "I'll not refuse the extra dollar because I've simply got to take it. But I don't want to pertend."
The restaurant receipts began to fall with the increasing hardness of the times among the working people. Soon it was down to practically no profit at all--that is, nothing toward the rent. Tom Brashear was forced to abandon his policy of honesty, to do as all the other purveyors were doing--to buy cheap stuff and to cheapen it still further. He broke abruptly with his tradition and his past. It aged him horribly all in a few weeks--but, at least, ruin was put off. Mrs. Brashear had to draw twenty of the sixty-three dollars which were in the savings bank against sickness. Funerals would be taken care of by the burial insurance; each member of the family, including Susan, had a policy. But sickness had to have its special fund; and it was frequently drawn upon, as the Brashears knew no more than their neighbors about hygiene, and were constantly catching the colds of foolish exposure or indigestion and letting them develop into fevers, bad attacks of rheumatism, stomach trouble, backache all regarded by them as by their neighbors as a necessary part of the routine of life. Those tenement people had no more notion of self-restraint than had the "better classes" whose self-indulgences maintain the vast army of doctors and druggists. The only thing that saved Susan from all but an occasional cold or sore throat from wet feet was eating little through being unable to accustom herself to the fare that was the best the Brashears could now afford--cheap food in cheap lard, coarse and poisonous sugar, vilely adulterated coffee, doctored meat and vegetables--the food which the poor in their ignorance buy--and for which they in their helplessness pay actually higher prices than do intelligent well-to-do people for the better qualities. And not only were the times hard, but the winter also. Snow--sleet--rain--thaw--slush--noisome, disease-laden vapor--and, of course, sickness everywhere--with occasional relief in death, relief for the one who died, relief for the living freed from just so much of the burden. The sickness on every hand appalled Susan. Surely, she said to old Brashear, the like had never been before; on the contrary, said he, the amount of illness and death was, if anything, less than usual because the hard times gave people less for eating and drinking. These ghastly creatures crawling toward the hospital or borne out on stretchers to the ambulance--these yet ghastlier creatures tottering feebly homeward, discharged as cured--these corpses of men, of women, of boys and girls, of babies--oh, how many corpses of babies!--these corpses borne away for burial, usually to the public burying ground--all these stricken ones in the battle ever waging, with curses, with hoarse loud laughter, with shrieks and moans, with dull, drawn faces and jaws set--all these stricken ones were but the ordinary losses of the battle!
"And in the churches," said old Tom Brashear, "they preach the goodness and mercy of God. And in the papers they talk about how rich and prosperous we are."
"I don't care to live! It is too horrible," cried the girl.
"Oh, you mustn't take things so to heart," counseled he. "Us that live this life can't afford to take it to heart. Leave that to them who come down here from the good houses and look on us for a minute and enjoy themselves with a little weepin' and sighin' as if it was in the theater."
"It seems worse every, day," she said. "I try to fool myself, because I've got to stay and----"
"Oh, no, you haven't," interrupted he.
Susan looked at him with a startled expression. It seemed to her that the old man had seen into her secret heart where was daily raging the struggle against taking the only way out open to a girl in her circumstances. It seemed to her he was hinting that she ought to take that way.
If any such idea was in his mind, he did not dare put it into words. He simply repeated:
"You won't stay. You'll pull out."
"How?" she asked.
"Somehow. When the way opens you'll see it, and take it."
There had long since sprung up between these two a sympathy, a mutual understanding beyond any necessity of expression in words or looks. She had never had this feeling for anyone, not even for Burlingham. This feeling for each other had been like that of a father and daughter who love each other without either understanding the other very well or feeling the need of a sympathetic understanding. There was a strong resemblance between Burlingham and old Tom. Both belonged to the familiar philosopher type. But, unlike the actor-manager, the old cabinetmaker had lived his philosophy, and a very gentle and tolerant philosophy it was.
After she had looked her request for light upon what way she was to take, they sat silent, neither looking at the other, yet each seeing the other with the eye of the mind. She said:
"I may not dare take it."
"You won't have no choice," replied he. "You'll have to take it. And you'll get away from here. And you mustn't ever come back--or look back. Forget all this misery. Rememberin' won't do us no good. It'd only weaken you."
"I shan't ever forget," cried the girl.
"You must," said the old man firmly. He added, "And you will. You'll have too much else to think about--too much that has to be attended to."
As the first of the year approached and the small shopkeepers of the tenements, like the big ones elsewhere, were casting up the year's balances and learning how far toward or beyond the verge of ruin the hard times had brought them, the sound of the fire engines--and of the ambulances--became a familiar part of the daily and nightly noises of the district. Desperate shopkeepers, careless of their neighbors' lives and property in fiercely striving for themselves and their families--workingmen out of a job and deep in debt--landlords with too heavy interest falling due--all these were trying to save themselves or to lengthen the time the fact of ruin could be kept secret by setting fire to their shops or their flats. The Brashears had been burned out twice in their wandering tenement house life; so old Tom was sleeping little; was constantly prowling about the halls of all the tenements in that row and into the cellars.
He told Susan the open secret of the meaning of most of these fires. And after he had cursed the fire fiends, he apologized for them. "It's the curse of the system," explained he. "It's all the curse of the system. These here storekeepers and the farmers the same way--they think they're independent, but really they're nothin' but fooled slaves of the big blood suckers for the upper class. But these here little storekeepers, they're tryin' to escape. How does a man escape? Why, by gettin' some hands together to work for him so that he can take it out of their wages. When you get together enough to hire help--that's when you pass out of slavery into the master class--master of slaves."
Susan nodded understandingly.
"Now, how can these little storekeepers like me get together enough to begin to hire slaves? By a hundred tricks, every one of them wicked and mean. By skimpin' and slavin' themselves and their families, by sellin' short weight, by sellin' rotten food, by sellin' poison, by burnin' to get the insurance. And, at last, if they don't die or get caught and jailed, they get together the money to branch out and hire help, and begin to get prosperous out of the blood of their help. These here arson fellows--they're on the first rung of the ladder of success. You heard about that beautiful ladder in Sunday school, didn't you?"
"Yes," said Susan, "that and a great many other lies about God and man."
Susan had all along had great difficulty in getting sleep because of the incessant and discordant noises of the district. The unhappy people added to their own misery by disturbing each other's rest--and no small part of the bad health everywhere prevailing was due to this inability of anybody to get proper sleep because somebody was always singing or quarreling, shouting or stamping about. But Susan, being young and as yet untroubled by the indigestion that openly or secretly preyed upon everyone else, did at last grow somewhat used to noise, did contrive to get five or six hours of broken sleep. With the epidemic of fires she was once more restless and wakeful. Every day came news of fire somewhere in the tenement districts of the city, with one or more, perhaps a dozen, roasted to death, or horribly burned. A few weeks, however, and even that peril became so familiar that she slept like the rest. There were too many actualities of discomfort, of misery, to harass her all day long every time her mind wandered from her work.
One night she was awakened by a scream. She leaped from bed to find the room filling with smoke and the street bright as day, but with a flickering evil light. Etta was screaming, Ashbel was bawling and roaring like a tortured bull. Susan, completely dazed by the uproar, seized Etta and dragged her into the hall. There were Mr. and Mrs. Brashear, he in his nightdress of drawers and undershirt, she in the short flannel petticoat and sacque in which she always slept. Ashbel burst out of his room, kicking the door down instead of turning the knob.
"Lorny," cried old Tom, "you take mother and Etta to the escape." And he rushed at his powerful, stupid son and began to strike him in the face with his one good fist, shrieking, "Shut up, you damn fool! Shut up!"
Dragging Etta and pushing Mrs. Brashear, Susan moved toward the end of the hall where the fire escape passed their windows. All the way down, the landings were littered with bedding, pots, pans, drying clothes, fire wood, boxes, all manner of rubbish, the overflow of the crowded little flats. Over these obstructions and down the ladders were falling and stumbling men, women, children, babies, in all degrees of nudity--for many of the big families that slept in one room with windows tight shut so that the stove heat would not escape and be wasted when fuel was so dear, slept stark naked. Susan contrived to get Etta and the old woman to the street; not far behind them came Tom and Ashbel, the son's face bleeding from the blows his father had struck to quiet him.
It was a penetrating cold night, with an icy drizzle falling. The street was filled with engines, hose, all manner of ruined household effects, firemen shouting, the tenement people huddling this way and that, barefooted, nearly or quite naked, silent, stupefied. Nobody had saved anything worth while. The entire block was ablaze, was burning as if it had been saturated with coal oil.
"The owner's done this," said old Tom. "I heard he was in trouble. But though he's a church member and what they call a philanthropist, I hardly thought he'd stoop to hirin' this done. If anybody's caught, it'll be some fellow that don't know who he did it for."
About a hundred families were homeless in the street. Half a dozen patrol wagons and five ambulances were taking the people away to shelter, women and babies first. It was an hour--an hour of standing in the street, with bare feet on the ice, under the ankledeep slush--before old Tom and his wife got their turn to be taken. Then Susan and Etta and Ashbel, escorted by a policeman, set out for the station house. As they walked along, someone called out to the policeman:
"Anybody killed at the fire, officer?"
"Six jumped and was smashed," replied the policeman. "I seen three dead babies. But they won't know for several days how many it'll total."
And all her life long, whenever Susan Lenox heard the clang of a fire engine, there arose before her the memory picture of that fire, in all the horror of detail. A fire bell to her meant wretched families flung into the night, shrieks of mangled and dying, moans of babies with life oozing from their blue lips, columns of smoke ascending through icy, soaking air, and a vast glare of wicked light with flame demons leaping for joy in the measureless woe over which they were presiding. As the little party was passing the fire lines, Ashbel's foot slipped on a freezing ooze of blood and slush, and he fell sprawling upon a human body battered and trampled until it was like an overturned basket of butcher's odds and ends.
The station house was eleven long squares away. But before they started for it they were already at the lowest depth of physical wretchedness which human nerves can register; thus, they arrived simply a little more numb. The big room, heated by a huge, red-hot stove to the point where the sweat starts, was crowded with abject and pitiful human specimens. Even Susan, the most sensitive person there, gazed about with stolid eyes. The nakedness of unsightly bodies, gross with fat or wasted to emaciation, the dirtiness of limbs and torsos long, long unwashed, the foul steam from it all and from the water-soaked rags, the groans of some, the silent, staring misery of others, and, most horrible of all, the laughter of those who yielded like animals to the momentary sense of physical well-being as the heat thawed them out--these sights and sounds together made up a truly infernal picture. And, like all the tragedies of abject poverty, it was wholly devoid of that dignity which is necessary to excite the deep pity of respect, was sordid and squalid, moved the sensitive to turn away in loathing rather than to advance with brotherly sympathy and love.
Ashbel, his animal instinct roused by the sight of the stove, thrust the throng aside rudely as he pushed straight for the radiating center. Etta and Susan followed in his wake. The fierce heat soon roused them to the sense of their plight. Ashbel began to curse, Etta to weep. Susan's mind was staring, without hope but also without despair, at the walls of the trap in which they were all caught--was seeking the spot where they could begin to burrow through and escape.
Beds and covers were gathered in by the police from everywhere in that district, were ranged upon the floor of the four rooms. The men were put in the cells downstairs; the women and the children got the cots. Susan and Etta lay upon the same mattress, a horse blanket over them. Etta slept; Susan, wide awake, lived in brain and nerves the heart-breaking scenes through which she had passed numb and stolid.
About six o'clock a breakfast of coffee, milk and bread was served. It was evident that the police did not know what to do with these outcasts who had nothing and no place to go--for practically all were out of work when the blow came. Ashbel demanded shoes, pants and a coat.
"I've got to get to my job," shouted he, "or else I'll lose it. Then where in the hell'd we be!"
His blustering angered the sergeant, who finally told him if he did not quiet down he would be locked in a cell. Susan interrupted, explained the situation, got Ashbel the necessary clothes and freed Etta and herself of his worse than useless presence. At Susan's suggestion such other men as had jobs were also fitted out after a fashion and sent away. "You can take the addresses of their families if you send them anywhere during the day, and these men can come back here and find out where they've gone----" this was the plan she proposed to the captain, and he adopted it. As soon as the morning papers were about the city, aid of every kind began to pour in, with the result that before noon many of the families were better established than they had been before the fire.
Susan and Etta got some clothing, enough to keep them warm on their way through the streets to the hospital to which Brashear and his wife had been taken. Mrs. Brashear had died in the ambulance--of heart disease, the doctors said, but Susan felt it was really of the sense that to go on living was impossible. And fond of her though she was, she could not but be relieved that there was one less factor in the unsolvable problem.
"She's better, off" she said to Etta in the effort to console.
But Etta needed no consolation. "Ever so much better off," she promptly assented. "Mother hasn't cared about living since we had to give up our little home and become tenement house people. And she was right."
As to Brashear, they learned that he was ill; but they did not learn until evening that he was dying of pneumonia. The two girls and Ashbel were admitted to the ward where he lay--one of a long line of sufferers in bare, clean little beds. Screens were drawn round his bed because he was dying. He had been suffering torments from the savage assaults of the pneumonia; but the pain had passed away now, so he said, though the dreadful sound of his breathing made Susan's heart flutter and her whole body quiver.
"Do you want a preacher or a priest?" asked the nurse.
"Neither," replied the old man in gasps and whispers. "If there is a God he'll never let anybody from this hell of a world into his presence. They might tell him the truth about himself."
"Oh, father, father!" pleaded Etta, and Ashbel burst into a fit of hysterical and terrified crying.
The old man turned his dying eyes on Susan. He rested a few minutes, fixing her gaze upon his with a hypnotic stare. Then he began again:
"You've got somethin' more'n a turnip on your shoulders. Listen to me. There was a man named Jesus once"--gasp--gasp--"You've heard about him, but you don't know about him"--gasp--gasp--"I'll tell you--listen. He was a low fellow--a workin' man--same trade as mine--born without a father--born in a horse trough--in a stable"--gasp--gasp--
Susan leaned forward. "Born without a father," she murmured, her eyes suddenly bright.
"That's him. Listen"--gasp--gasp--gasp--"He was a big feller--big brain--big heart--the biggest man that ever lived"--gasp--gasp--gasp--gas--"And he looked at this here hell of a world from the outside, he being an outcast and a low-down common workingman. And he saw--he did----
"Yes, he saw!"--gasp--gasp--gasp--"And he said all men were brothers--and that they'd find it out some day. He saw that this world was put together for the strong and the cruel--that they could win out--and make the rest of us work for 'em for what they chose to give--like they work a poor ignorant horse for his feed and stall in a dirty stable----"gasp--gasp--gasp--
"For the strong and the cruel," said Susan.
"And this feller Jesus--he set round the saloons and such places--publicans, they called 'em"--gasp--gasp--gasp--"And he says to all the poor ignorant slaves and such cattle, he says, `You're all brothers. Love one another'"--gasp--gasp--gasp--" `Love one another,' he says, `and learn to help each other and stand up for each other,' he says, `and hate war and fightin' and money grabbin'----'"gasp--gasp--gasp--"`Peace on earth,' he says, `Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'--and he saw there'd be a time"--the old man raised himself on one elbow--"Yes, by God--there will be!--a time when men'll learn not to be beasts and'll be men--men, little gal!"
"Men," echoed Susan, her eyes shining, her bosom heaving.
"It ain't sense and it ain't right that everything should be for the few--for them with brains--and that the rest--the millions--should be tramped down just because they ain't so cruel or so `cute'--they and their children tramped down in the dirt. And that feller Jesus saw it."
"Yes--yes," cried Susan. "He saw it."
"I'll tell you what he was," said old Tom in a hoarse whisper. "He wasn't no god. He was bigger'n that--bigger'n that, little gal! He was the first man that ever lived. He said, `Give the weak a chance so as they kin git strong.' He says----"
The dying man fell back exhausted. His eyes rolled wildly, closed; his mouth twitched, fell wide open; there came from his throat a sound Susan had never heard before, but she knew what it was, what it meant.
Etta and Ashbel were overwhelmed afresh by the disgrace of having their parents buried in Potter's Field--for the insurance money went for debts. They did not understand when Susan said, "I think your father'd have liked to feel that he was going to be buried there--because then he'll be with--with his Friend. You know, He was buried in Potter's Field." However, their grief was shortlived; there is no time in the lives of working people for such luxuries as grief--no more time than there is at sea when all are toiling to keep afloat the storm-racked sinking ship and one sailor is swept overboard. In comfortable lives a bereavement is a contrast; in the lives of the wretched it is but one more in the assailing army of woes.
Etta took a job at the box factory at three dollars a week; she and Susan and Ashbel moved into two small rooms in a flat in a tenement opposite the factory--a cheaper and therefore lower house than the one that had burned. They bought on the installment plan nine dollars' worth of furniture--the scant minimum of necessities. They calculated that, by careful saving, they could pay off the debt in a year or so--unless one or the other fell ill or lost work. "That means," said Etta, eyeing their flimsy and all but downright worthless purchases, "that means we'll still be paying when this furniture'll be gone to pieces and fit only for kindling."
"It's the best we can do," replied Susan. "Maybe one of us'll get a better job."
"You could, I'm sure, if you had the clothes," said Etta. "But not in those rags."
"If I had the clothes? Where?"
"At Shillito's or one of the other department stores. They'd give us both places in one of the men's departments. They like pretty girls for those places--if they're not giddy and don't waste time flirting but use flirtation to sell goods. But what's the sense in talking about it? You haven't got the clothes. A saleslady's got to be counter-dressed. She can look as bad as she pleases round the skirt and the feet. But from the waist up she has to look natty, if she wants wages."
Susan had seen these girls; she understood now why they looked as if they were the put together upper and lower halves of two different persons. She recalled that, even though they went into other business, they still retained the habit, wore toilets that were counterbuilt. She revolved the problem of getting one of these toilets and of securing a store job. But she soon saw it was hopeless, for the time. Every cent the three had was needed to keep from starving and freezing. Also--though she did not realize it--her young enthusiasm was steadily being sapped by the life she was leading. It may have been this rather than natural gentleness--or perhaps it was as much the one as the other--that kept Susan from taking Matson's advice and hardening herself into a forelady. The ruddy glow under her skin had given place to, the roundness of her form had gone, and its pallor; beauty remained only because she had a figure which not even emaciation could have deprived of lines of alluring grace. But she was no longer quite so straight, and her hair, which it was a sheer impossibility to care for, was losing its soft vitality. She was still pretty, but not the beauty she had been when she was ejected from the class in which she was bred. However, she gave the change in herself little thought; it was the rapid decline of Etta's prettiness and freshness that worried her most.
Not many weeks after the fire and the deeper plunge, she began to be annoyed by Ashbel. In his clumsy, clownish way he was making advances to her. Several times he tried to kiss her. Once, when Etta was out, he opened the door of the room where she was taking a bath in a washtub she had borrowed of the janitress, leered in at her and very reluctantly obeyed her sharp order to close the door. She had long known that he was in reality very different from the silent restrained person fear of his father made him seem to be. But she thought even the reality was far above the rest of the young men growing up among those degrading influences.
The intrusion into her room was on a Sunday; on the following Sunday he came back as soon as Etta went out. "Look here, Lorny," said he, with blustering tone and gesture, "I want to have a plain talk with you. I'm sick and tired of this. There's got to be a change."
"Sick of what?" asked Susan.
"Of the way you stand me off." He plumped himself sullenly down on the edge of hers and Etta's bed. "I can't afford to get married. I've got to stick by you two."
"It strikes me, Ashbel, we all need each other. Who'd marry you on seven a week?" She laughed good-humoredly. "Anyhow, you wouldn't support a wife. It takes the hardest kind of work to get your share of the expenses out of you. You always try to beat us down to letting you off with two fifty a week."
"That's about all Etta pays."
"It's about all she gets. And I pay three fifty--and she and I do all the work--and give you two meals and a lunch to take with you--and you've got a room alone--and your mending done. I guess you know when you're well off."
"But I ain't well off," he cried. "I'm a grown-up man--and I've got to have a woman."
Susan had become used to tenement conditions. She said, practically, "Well--there's your left over four dollars a week."
"Huh!" retorted he. "Think I'm goin' to run any risks? I'm no fool. I take care of my health."
"Well--don't bother me with your troubles--at least, troubles of that sort."
"Yes, but I will!" shouted he, in one of those sudden furies that seize upon the stupid ignorant. "You needn't act so nifty with me. I'm as good as you are. I'm willing to marry you."
"No, thanks," said Susan. "I'm not free to marry--even if I would."
"Oh--you ain't?" For an instant his curiosity, as she thus laid a hand upon the curtain over her past, distracted his uncertain attention. But her expression, reserved, cold, maddeningly reminding him of a class distinction of which he was as sensitively conscious as she was unconscious--her expression brought him back with a jerk. "Then you'll have to live with me, anyhow. I can't stand it, and I'm not goin' to.
If you want me to stay on here, and help out, you've got to treat me right. Other fellows that do as I'm doing get treated right. And I've got to be, too--or I'll clear out." And he squirmed, and waggled his head and slapped and rubbed his heavy, powerful legs.
"Why, Ashbel," said Susan, patting him on the shoulder. "You and I are like brother and sister. You might as well talk this way to Etta."
He gave her a brazen look, uttered a laugh that was like the flinging out of a bucket of filth. "Why not? Other fellows that have to support the family and can't afford to marry gets took care of." Susan shrank away. But Ashbel did not notice it. "It ain't a question of Etta," he went on. "There's you--and I don't need to look nowhere else."
Susan had long since lost power to be shocked by any revelation of the doings of people lashed out of all civilized feelings by the incessant brutal whips of poverty and driven back to the state of nature. She had never happened to hear definitely of this habit--even custom--of incestuous relations; now that she heard, she instantly accepted it as something of which she had really known for some time. At any rate, she had no sense of shock. She felt no horror, no deep disgust, simply the distaste into which her original sense of horror had been thinned down by constant contact with poverty's conditions--just as filth no longer made her shudder, so long as it did not touch her own person.
"You'd better go and chase yourself round the square a few times," said she, turning away and taking up some mending.
"You see, there ain't no way out of it," pursued he, with an insinuating grin.
Susan gave him a steady, straight look. "Don't ever speak of it again," said she quietly. "You ought to be ashamed--and you will be when you think it over."
He laughed loudly. "I've thought it over. I mean what I say. If you don't do the square thing by me, you drive me out."
He came hulking up to her, tried to catch her in his big powerful arms. She put the table between him and her. He kicked it aside and came on. She saw that her move had given him a false impression--a notion that she was afraid of him, was coquetting with him. She opened the door leading into the front part of the flat where the Quinlan family lived. "If you don't behave yourself, I'll call Mr. Quinlan," said she, not the least bluster or fear or nervousness in her tone.
"What'd be the use? He'd only laugh. Why, the same thing's going on in their family."
"Still, he'd lynch you if I told him what you were trying to do."
Even Ashbel saw this familiar truth of human nature. The fact that Quinlan was guilty himself, far from staying him from meting out savage justice to another, would make him the more relentless and eager. "All right," said he. "Then you want me to git out?"
"I want you to behave yourself and stay on. Go take a walk, Ashbel."
And Ashbel went. But his expression was not reassuring; Susan feared he had no intention of accepting his defeat. However, she reasoned that numbskull though he was, he yet had wit enough to realize how greatly to his disadvantage any change he could make would be. She did not speak of the matter to Etta, who was therefore taken completely by surprise when Ashbel, after a silent supper that evening, burst out with his grievance:
"I'm going to pack up," said he. "I've found a place where I'll be treated right." He looked haughtily at Susan. "And the daughter's a good looker, too. She's got some weight on her. She ain't like a washed out string."
Etta understood at once. "What a low-down thing you are!" she cried. "Just like the rest of these filthy tenement house animals. I thought you had some pride."
"Oh, shut up!" bawled Ashbel. "You're not such a much. What're we, anyhow, to put on airs? We're as common as dirt--yes, and that sniffy lady friend of yours, too. Where'd she come from, anyhow? Some dung pile, I'll bet."
He went into his room, reappeared with his few belongings done into a bundle. "So long," said he, stalking toward the hall door.
Etta burst into tears, caught him by the arm. "You ain't goin', are you, Ashy?" cried she.
"Bet your life. Let me loose." And he shook her off. "I'm not goin' to be saddled with two women that ain't got no gratitude."
"My God, Lorna!" wailed Etta. "Talk to him. Make him stay."
Susan shook her head, went to the window and gazed into the snowy dreary prospect of tenement house yards. Ashbel, who had been hesitating through hope, vented a jeering laugh. "Ain't she the insultin'est, airiest lady!" sneered he. "Well, so long."
"But, Ashy, you haven't paid for last week yet," pleaded Etta, clinging to his arm.
"You kin have my share of the furniture for that."
"The furniture! Oh, my God!" shrieked Etta, releasing him to throw out her arms in despair. "How'll we pay for the furniture if you go?"
"Ask your high and mighty lady friend," said her brother. And he opened the door, passed into the hall, slammed it behind him. Susan waited a moment for Etta to speak, then turned to see what she was doing. She had dropped into one of the flimsy chairs, was staring into vacancy.
"We'll have to give up these rooms right away," said Susan.
Etta roused herself, looked at her friend. And Susan saw what Etta had not the courage to express--that she blamed her for not having "made the best of it" and kept Ashbel. And Susan was by no means sure that the reproach in Etta's eyes and heart were not justified. "I couldn't do it, Etta," she said with a faint suggestion of apology.
"Men are that way," said Etta sullenly.
"Oh, I don't blame him," protested Susan. "I understand. But--I can't do it, Etta--I simply can't!"
"No," said Etta. "You couldn't. I could, but you couldn't. I'm not as far down as Ashbel. I'm betwixt and between; so I can understand you both."
"You go and make up with him and let me look after myself. I'll get along."
Etta shook her head. "No," said she without any show of sentiment, but like one stating an unalterable fact. "I've got to stay on with you. I can't live without you. I don't want to go down. I want to go up."
"Up!" Susan smiled bitterly.
Silence fell between them, and Susan planned for the new conditions. She did not speak until Etta said, "What ever will we do?"
"We've got to give up the furniture. Thank goodness, we've paid only two-fifty on it."
"Yes, it's got to go," said Etta.
"And we've got to pay Mrs. Quinlan the six we owe her and get out tonight. We'll go up to the top floor--up to Mrs. Cassatt. She takes sleepers. Then--we'll see."
An hour later they had moved; for Mrs. Quinlan was able to find two lodgers to take the rooms at once. They were established with Mrs. Cassatt, had a foul and foul-smelling bed and one-half of her back room; the other half barely contained two even dirtier and more malodorous cots, in one of which slept Mrs. Cassatt's sixteen-year-old daughter Kate, in the other her fourteen-year-old son Dan. For these new quarters and the right to cook their food on the Cassatt stove the girls agreed to pay three dollars and a half a week--which left them three dollars and a half a week for food and clothing--and for recreation and for the exercise of the virtue of thrift which the comfortable so assiduously urge upon the poor.