Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
At lunch, well toward the middle of the following afternoon, Fatty--his proper name was August Gulick--said: "John and I don't start for Ann Arbor until a week from today. That means seven clear days. A lot can be done in that time, with a little intelligent hustling. What do you say, girls? Do you stick to us?"
"As long as you'll let us," said Etta, who was delighting Gulick with her frank and wondering and grateful appreciation of his munificence. Never before had his own private opinion of himself received such a flatteringly sweeping indorsement--from anyone who happened to impress him as worth while. In the last phrase lies the explanation of her success through a policy that is always dangerous and usually a failure.
So it was settled that with the quiet little hotel as headquarters the four would spend a week in exploring Cincinnati as a pleasure ground. Gulick knew the town thoroughly. His father was a brewer whose name was on many a huge beer wagon drawn about those streets by showy Clydesdales. Also he had plenty of money; and, while Redmond--for his friend was the son of Redmond, well known as a lawyer-politician in Chicago--had nothing like so much as Gulick, still he had enough to make a passable pretense at keeping up his end. For Etta and Susan the city had meant shabby to filthy tenements, toil and weariness and sorrow. There was opened to their ravished young eyes "the city"--what reveals itself to the pleasure-seeker with pocket well filled--what we usually think of when we pronounce its name, forgetting what its reality is for all but a favored few of those within its borders. It was a week of music and of laughter--music especially--music whenever they ate or drank, music to dance by, music in the beer gardens where they spent the early evenings, music at the road houses where they arrived in sleighs after the dances to have supper--unless you choose to call it breakfast. You would have said that Susan had slipped out of the tenement life as she had out of its garments, that she had retained not a trace of it even in memory. But--in those days began her habit of never passing a beggar without giving something.
Within three or four days this life brought a truly amazing transformation in the two girls. You would not have recognized in them the pale and wan and ragged outcasts of only the Saturday night before. "Aren't you happy?" said Etta to Susan, in one of the few moments they were alone. "But I don't need to ask. I didn't know you could be so gay."
"I had forgotten how to laugh," replied Susan.
"I suppose I ought to be ashamed," pursued Etta.
"Why?" inquired Susan.
"Oh, you know why. You know how people'd talk if they knew."
"What people?" said Susan. "Anyone who's willing to give you anything?"
"No," admitted Etta. "But----" There she halted.
Susan went on: "I don't propose to be bothered by the other kind. They wouldn't do anything for me if they could except sneer and condemn."
"Still, you know it isn't right, what we're doing."
"I know it isn't cold--or hunger--or rags and dirt--and bugs," replied Susan.
Those few words were enough to conjure even to Etta's duller fancy the whole picture to its last detail of loathsome squalor. Into Etta's face came a dazed expression. "Was that really us, Lorna?"
"No," said Susan with a certain fierceness. "It was a dream. But we must take care not to have that dream again."
"I'd forgotten how cold I was," said Etta; "hadn't you?"
"No," said Susan, "I hadn't forgotten anything."
"Yes, I suppose it was all worse for you than for me. You used to be a lady."
"Don't talk nonsense," said Susan.
"I don't regret what I'm doing," Etta now declared. "It was Gus that made me think about it." She looked somewhat sheepish as she went on to explain. "I had a little too much to drink last night. And when Gus and I were alone, I cried--for no reason except the drink. He asked me why and I had to say something, and it popped into my head to say I was ashamed of the life I was leading. As things turned out, I'm glad I said it. He was awfully impressed."
"Of course," said Susan.
"You never saw anything like it," continued Etta with an expression suggesting a feeling that she ought to be ashamed but could not help being amused. "He acted differently right away. Why don't you try it on John?"
"Oh, it'll make him--make him have more--more respect for you." "Perhaps," said Susan indifferently.
"Don't you want John to--to respect you?"
"I've been too busy having a good time to think much about him--or about anything. I'm tired of thinking. I want to rest. Last night was the first time in my life I danced as much as I wanted to."
"Don't you like John?"
"He does know a lot, doesn't he? He's like you. He reads and and thinks--and---- He's away ahead of Fatty except---- You don't mind my having the man with the most money?"
"Not in the least," laughed Susan. "Money's another thing I'm glad to rest from thinking about."
"But this'll last only a few days longer. And--If you managed John Redmond right, Lorna----"
"Now--you must not try to make me think."
"Lorna--are you really happy?"
"Can't you see I am?"
"Yes--when we're all together. But when--when you're alone with him----"
Susan's expression stopped her. It was a laughing expression; and yet--Said Susan: "I am happy, dear--very happy. I eat and drink and sleep--and I am, oh, so glad to be alive."
"Isn't it good to be alive!--if you've got plenty," exclaimed Etta. "I never knew before. This is the dream, Lorna--and I think I'll kill myself if I have to wake."
On Saturday afternoon the four were in one of the rooms discussing where the farewell dinner should be held and what they would eat and drink. Etta called Susan into the other room and shut the door between.
"Fatty wants me to go along with him and live in Detroit," said she, blurting it out as if confessing a crime.
"Isn't that splendid!" cried Susan, kissing her. "I thought he would. He fell in love with you at first sight."
"That's what he says. But, Lorna--I--I don't know what to do!"
"Do? Why, go. What else is there? Go, of course."
"Oh, no, Lorna," protested Etta. "I couldn't leave you. I couldn't get along without you."
"But you must go. Don't you love him?"
Etta began to weep. "That's the worst of it. I do love him so! And I think he loves me--and might marry me and make me a good woman again. . . . You mustn't ever tell John or anybody about that--that dreadful man I went with--will you, dear?"
"What do you take me for?" said Susan.
"I've told Fatty I was a good girl until I met him. You haven't told John about yourself?" Susan shook her head.
"I suppose not. You're so secretive. You really think I ought to go?"
"I know it."
Etta was offended by Susan's positive, practical tone. "I don't believe you care."
"Yes, I care," said Susan. "But you're right to follow the man you love. Besides, there's nothing so good in sight here."
"What'll you do? Oh, I can't go, Lorna!"
"Now, Etta," said Susan calmly, "don't talk nonsense. I'll get along all right."
"You come to Detroit. You could find a job there, and we could live together."
"Would Fatty like that?"
Etta flushed and glanced away. Young Gulick had soon decided that Susan was the stronger--therefore, the less "womanly"--of the two girls, and must be the evil influence over her whom he had appeared just in time to save. When he said this to Etta, she protested--not very vigorously, because she wished him to think her really almost innocent. She wasn't quite easy in her mind as to whether she had been loyal to Lorna. But, being normally human, she soon almost convinced herself that but for Lorna she never would have made the awful venture. Anyhow, since it would help her with Gulick and wouldn't do Lorna the least mite of harm, why not let him think he was right?
Said Susan: "Hasn't he been talking to you about getting away from--from all this?"
"But I don't care," cried Etta, moved to an outburst of frankness by her sense of security in Susan's loyalty and generosity. "He doesn't understand. Men are fools about women. He thinks he likes in me what I haven't got at all. As a matter of fact if I had been what he made me tell him I was, why we'd never have met--or got acquainted in the way that makes us so fond of each other. And I owe it all to you, Lorna. I don't care what he says, Lorna--or does. I want you."
"Can't go," said Susan, not conscious--yet not unaware, either--of the curious mixture of heart and art in Etta's outburst of apparent eagerness to risk everything for love of her. "Can't possibly go. I've made other plans. The thing for you is to be straight--get some kind of a job in Detroit--make Fatty marry you--quick!"
"He would, but his father'd throw him out."
"Not if you were an honest working girl."
"But----" Etta was silent and reflective for a moment. "Men are so queer," she finally said. "If I'd been an honest working girl he'd never have noticed me. It's because I am what I am that I've been able to get acquainted with him and fascinate him. And he feels it's a sporty thing to do--to marry a fast girl. If I was to settle down to work, be a regular working girl--why, I'm afraid he--he'd stop loving me. Then, too, he likes to believe he's rescuing me from a life of shame. I've watched him close. I understand him."
"No doubt," said Susan drily.
"Oh, I know you think I'm deceitful. But a woman's got to be, with a man. And I care a lot about him--aside from the fact that he can make me comfortable and--and protect me from--from the streets. If you cared for a man--No, I guess you wouldn't. You oughtn't to be so--so honest, Lorna. It'll always do you up."
Susan laughed, shrugged her shoulders. "I am what I am," said she. "I can't be any different. If I tried, I'd only fail worse."
"You don't love John--do you?"
"I like him."
"Then you wouldn't have to do much pretending," urged Etta. "And what does a little pretending amount to?"
"That's what I say to myself," replied Susan thoughtfully.
"It isn't nearly as bad as--as what we started out to do."
Susan laughed at Etta's little hypocrisy for her respectability's comfort. "As what we did--and are doing," corrected she. Burlingham had taught her that it only makes things worse and more difficult to lie to oneself about them.
"John's crazy about you. But he hasn't money enough to ask you to come along. And----" Etta hesitated, eyed Susan doubtfully. "You're sure you don't love him?"
"No. I couldn't love him any more than--than I could hate him." Susan's strange look drifted across her features. "It's very queer, how I feel toward men. But--I don't love him and I shan't pretend. I want to, but somehow--I can't."
Etta felt that she could give herself the pleasure of unburdening herself of a secret. "Then I may as well tell you, he's engaged to a girl he thinks he ought to marry."
"I suspected so."
"And you don't mind?" inquired Etta, unable to read Susan's queer expression.
"Except for him--and her--a little," replied Susan. "I guess that's why I haven't liked him better--haven't trusted him at all."
"Aren't men dreadful! And he is so nice in many ways. . . . Lorna----" Etta was weeping again. "I can't go--I can't. I mustn't leave you."
"Don't be absurd. You've simply got to do it."
"And I do love him," said Etta, calmed again by Susan's calmness. "And if he married me--Oh, how grateful I'd be!"
"I should say!" exclaimed Susan. She kissed Etta and petted her. "And he'll have a mighty good wife."
"Do you think I can marry him?"
"If you love him--and don't worry about catching him."
Etta shook her head in rejection of this piece of idealistic advice. "But a girl's got to be shrewd. You ought to be more so, Lorna."
"That depends on what a girl wants," said Susan, absently. "Upon what she wants," she repeated.
"What do you want?" inquired Etta curiously.
"I don't know," Susan answered slowly.
"I wish I knew what was going on in your head!" exclaimed Etta.
"So do I," said Susan, smiling.
"Do you really mind my going? Really--honestly?"
There wasn't a flaw in Susan's look or tone. "If you tried to stay with me, I'd run away from you."
"And if I do get him, I can help you. Once he's mine----" Etta rounded out her sentence with an expression of countenance which it was well her adoring rescuer did not see. Not that it lacked womanliness; "womanly" is the word that most exactly describes it--and always will exactly describe such expressions--and the thoughts behind--so long as men compel women to be just women, under penalty of refusing them support if they are not so.
Redmond came in, and Etta left him alone with Susan. "Well, has Etta told you?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the girl. She looked at him--simply a look, but the violet-gray eyes had an unusual seeming of seeing into minds and hearts, an expression that was perhaps the more disquieting because it was sympathetic rather than critical.
His glance shifted. He was a notably handsome young fellow--too young for any display of character in his face, or for any development of it beyond the amiable, free and easy lover of a jolly good time that is the type repeated over and over again among the youth of the comfortable classes that send their sons to college.
"Are you going with her?" he asked.
"No," said Susan.
Redmond's face fell. "I hoped you liked me a little better than that," said he.
"It isn't a question of you."
"But it's a question of you with me," he cried. "I'm in love with you, Lorna. I'm--I'm tempted to say all sorts of crazy things that I think but haven't the courage to act on." He kneeled down beside her, put his arms round her waist. "I'm crazy about you, Lorna.
. . . Tell me--Were you--Had you been--before we met?"
"Yes," said Susan.
"Why don't you deny it?" he exclaimed. "Why don't you fool me, as Etta fooled Gus?"
"Etta's story is different from mine," said Susan. "She's had no experience at all, compared to me."
"I don't believe it," declared he. "I know she's been stuffing Fatty, has made him think that you led her away. But I can soon knock those silly ideas out of his silly head----"
"It's the truth," interrupted Susan, calmly.
"No matter. You could be a good woman." Impulsively, "If you'll settle down and be a good woman, I'll marry you."
Susan smiled gently. "And ruin your prospects?"
"I don't care for prospects beside you. You are a good woman--inside. The better I know you the less like a fast woman you are. Won't you go to work, Lorna, and wait for me?"
Her smile had a little mockery in it now--perhaps to hide from him how deeply she was moved. "No matter what else I did, I'd not wait for you, Johnny. You'd never come. You're not a Johnny-on-the-spot."
"You think I'm weak--don't you?" he said. Then, as she did not answer, "Well, I am. But I love you, all the same."
For the first time he felt that he had touched her heart. The tears sprang to her eyes, which were not at all gray now but all violet, as was their wont when she was deeply moved. She laid her hands on his shoulders. "Oh, it's so good to be loved!" she murmured.
He put his arms around her, and for the moment she rested there, content--yes, content, as many a woman who needed love less and craved it less has been content just with being loved, when to make herself content she has had to ignore and forget the personality of the man who was doing the loving--and the kind of love it was. Said he:
"Don't you love me a little enough to be a good woman and wait till I set up in the law?"
She let herself play with the idea, to prolong this novel feeling of content. She asked, "How long will that be?"
"I'll be admitted in two years. I'll soon have a practice. My father's got influence."
Susan looked at him sadly, slowly shook her head. "Two years--and then several years more. And I working in a factory--or behind a counter--from dawn till after dark--poor, hungry--half-naked--wearing my heart out--wearing my body away----" She drew away from him, laughed. "I was fooling, John--about marrying. I liked to hear you say those things. I couldn't marry you if I would. I'm married already."
"Tell me about it--won't you?"
She looked at him in astonishment, so amazing seemed the idea that she could tell anyone that experience. It would be like voluntarily showing a hideous, repulsive scar or wound, for sometimes it was scar, and sometimes open wound, and always the thing that made whatever befell her endurable by comparison.
She did not answer his appeal for her confidence but went on, "Anyhow, nothing could induce me to go to work again. You don't realize what work means--the only sort of work I can get to do. It's--it's selling both body and soul. I prefer----"
He kissed her to stop her from finishing her sentence. "Don't--please," he pleaded. "You don't understand. In this life you'll soon grow hard and coarse and lose your beauty and your health--and become a moral and physical wreck."
She reflected, the grave expression in her eyes--the expression that gave whoever saw it the feeling of dread as before impending tragedy. "Yes--I suppose so," she said. "But----Any sooner than as a working girl living in a dirty hole in a tenement? No--not so soon. And in this life I've got a chance if I'm careful of my health and--and don't let things touch me. In that other--there's no chance--none!"
"What chance have you got in this life?"
"I don't know exactly. I'm very ignorant yet. At worst, it's simply that I've got no chance in either life--and this life is more comfortable."
"Comfortable! With men you don't like frightful men----"
"Were you ever cold?" asked Susan.
But it made no impression upon him who had no conception of the cold that knows not how it is ever to get warm again. He rushed on:
"Lorna, my God!" He caught hold of her and strained her to his breast. "You are lovely and sweet! It's frightful--you in this life."
Her expression made the sobs choke up into his throat. She said quietly: "Not worse than dirt and vermin and freezing cold and long, long, dull--oh, so dull hours of working among human beings that don't ever wash--because they can't." She pushed him gently away. "You don't understand. You haven't been through it. Comfortable people talk like fools about those things. . . . Do you remember my hands that first evening?"
He reddened and his eyes shifted. "I'm absurdly sensitive about a woman's hands," he muttered.
She laughed at him. "Oh, I saw--how you couldn't bear to look at them--how they made you shiver. Well, the hands were nothing--nothing!--beside what you didn't see."
"Lorna, do you love someone else?"
His eyes demanded an honest answer, and it seemed to her his feeling for her deserved it. But she could not put the answer into words. She lowered her gaze.
"Then why----" he began impetuously. But there he halted, for he knew she would not lift the veil over herself, over her past.
"I'm very, very fond of you," she said with depressing friendliness. Then with a sweet laugh, "You ought to be glad I'm not able to take you at your word. And you will be glad soon." She sighed. "What a good time we've had!"
"If I only had a decent allowance, like Fatty!" he groaned.
"No use talking about that. It's best for us to separate best for us both. You've been good to me--you'll never know how good. And I can't play you a mean trick. I wish I could be selfish enough to do it, but I can't."
"You don't love me. That's the reason."
"Maybe it is. Yes, I guess that's why I've got the courage to be square with you. Anyhow, John, you can't afford to care for me. And if I cared for you, and put off the parting--why it'd only put off what I've got to go through with before----" She did not finish; her eyes became dreamy.
"Before what?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said, returning with a sigh. "Something I see--yet don't see in the darkness, ahead of me."
"I can't make you out," cried he. Her expression moved him to the same awe she inspired in Etta--a feeling that gave both of them the sense of having known her better, of having been more intimate with her when they first met her than they ever had been since or ever would be again.
When Redmond embraced and kissed her for the last time, he was in another and less sympathetic mood, was busy with his own wounds to vanity and perhaps to heart. He thought her heartless--good and sweet and friendly, but without sentiment. She refused to help him make a scene; she refused to say she would write to him, and asked him not to write to her. "You know we'll probably see each other soon."
"Not till the long vacation--not till nearly July."
"Only three months."
"Oh, if you look at it that way!" said he, piqued and sullen. Girls had always been more than kind, more than eager, when he had shown interest.
Etta, leaving on a later train, was even more depressed about Susan's heart. She wept hysterically, wished Susan to do the same; but Susan stood out firmly against a scene, and would not have it that Etta was shamefully deserting her, as Etta tearfully accused herself. "You're going to be happy," she said. "And I'm not so selfish as to be wretched about it. And don't you worry a minute on my account. I'm better off in every way than I've ever been. I'll get on all right."
"I know you gave up John to help me with August. I know you mean to break off everything. Oh, Lorna, you mustn't--you mustn't."
"Don't talk nonsense," was Susan's unsatisfactory reply.
When it came down to the last embrace and the last kiss, Etta did feel through Susan's lips and close encircling arms a something that dried up her hysterical tears and filled her heart with an awful aching. It did not last long. No matter how wildly shallow waters are stirred, they soon calm and murmur placidly on again. The three who had left her would have been amazed could they have seen her a few minutes after Etta's train rolled out of the Union Station. The difference between strong natures and weak is not that the strong are free from cowardice and faint-heartedness, from doubt and foreboding, from love and affection, but that they do not stay down when they are crushed down, stagger up and on.
Susan hurried to the room they had helped her find the day before--a room in a house where no questions were asked or answered. She locked herself in and gave way to the agonies of her loneliness. And when her grief had exhausted her, she lay upon the bed staring at the wall with eyes that looked as though her soul had emptied itself through them of all that makes life endurable, even of hope. For the first time in her life she thought of suicide--not suicide the vague possibility, not suicide the remote way of escape, but suicide the close and intimate friend, the healer of all woes, the solace of all griefs--suicide, the speedy, accurate solver of the worst problem destiny can put to man.
She saw her pocketbook on the floor where she had dropped it. "I'll wait till my money's gone," thought she. Then she remembered Etta--how gentle and loving she was, how utterly she gave herself--for Susan was still far from the profound knowledge of character that enables us to disregard outward signs in measuring actualities. "If I really weren't harder than Etta," her thoughts ran on reproachfully, "I'd not wait until the money went. I'd kill myself now, and have it over with." The truth was that if the position of the two girls had been reversed and Susan had loved Gulick as intensely as Etta professed and believed she loved him, still Susan would have given him up rather than have left Etta alone. And she would have done it without any sense of sacrifice. And it must be admitted that, whether or not there are those who deserve credit for doing right, certainly those who do right simply because they cannot do otherwise--the only trustworthy people--deserve no credit for it.
She counted her money--twenty-three dollars in bills, and some change. Redmond had given her fifty dollars each time they had gone shopping, and had made her keep the balance--his indirect way of adjusting the financial side. Twenty-three dollars meant perhaps two weeks' living. Well, she would live those two weeks decently and comfortably and then--bid life adieu unless something turned up--for back to the streets she would not go. With Etta gone, with not a friend anywhere on earth, life was not worth the price she had paid for Etta and herself to the drunken man. Her streak of good fortune in meeting Redmond had given her no illusions; from Mabel Connemora, from what she herself had heard and seen--and experienced--she knew the street woman's life, and she could not live that life for herself alone. She could talk about it to Redmond tranquilly. She could think about it in the abstract, could see how other women did it, and how those who had intelligence might well survive and lift themselves up in it. But do it she could not. So she resolved upon suicide, firmly believing in her own resolve. And she was not one to deceive herself or to shrink from anything whatsoever. Except the insane, only the young make these resolves and act upon them; for the young have not yet learned to value life, have not yet fallen under life's sinister spell that makes human beings cling more firmly and more cravenly to it as they grow older. The young must have something--some hope, however fanatic and false--to live for. They will not tarry just to live. And in that hour Susan had lost hope.
She took off her street dress and opened her trunk to get a wrapper and bedroom slippers. As she lifted the lid, she saw an envelope addressed "Lorna"; she remembered that Redmond had locked and strapped the trunk. She tore the end from the envelope, looked in. Some folded bills; nothing more. She sat on the floor and counted two twenties, five tens, two fives--a hundred dollars! She looked dazedly at the money--gave a cry of delight--sprang to her feet, with a change like the startling shift from night to day in the tropics.
"I can pay!" she cried. "I can pay!"
Bubbling over with smiles and with little laughs, gay as even champagne and the release from the vile prison of the slums had made her, she with eager hands took from the trunk her best clothes--the jacket and skirt of dark gray check she had bought for thirty dollars at Shillito's and had had altered to her figure and her taste; the blouse of good quality linen with rather a fancy collar; the gray leather belt with a big oxidized silver buckle; her only pair of silk stockings; the pair of high-heeled patent leather shoes--the large black hat with a gray feather curling attractively round and over its brim. The hat had cost only fourteen dollars because she had put it together herself; if she had bought it made, she would have paid not less than thirty dollars.
All these things she carefully unpacked and carefully laid out. Then she thoroughly brushed her hair and did it up in a graceful pompadour that would go well with the hat. She washed away the traces of her outburst of grief, went over her finger nails, now almost recovered from the disasters incident to the life of manual labor. She went on to complete her toilet, all with the same attention to detail--a sure indication, in one so young, of a desire to please some specific person. When she had the hat set at the satisfactory angle and the veil wound upon it and draped over her fresh young face coquettishly, she took from her slender store of gloves a fresh gray pair and, as she put them on, stood before the glass examining herself.
There was now not a trace of the tenement working girl of a week and a day before. Here was beauty in bloom, fresh and alluring from head to narrow, well-booted feet. More than a hint of a fine color sense--that vital quality, if fashion, the conventional, is to be refined and individualized into style, the rare--more than a hint of color sense showed in the harmony of the pearl gray in the big feather, the pearl gray in the collar of the blouse, and the pearl white of her skin. Susan had indeed returned to her own class. She had left it, a small-town girl with more than a suggestion of the child in eyes and mouth; she had returned to it, a young woman of the city, with that look in her face which only experience can give--experience that has resulted in growth. She locked all her possessions away in her trunk--all but her money; that she put in her stockings--seventy-five dollars well down in the right leg, the rest of the bills well down in the left leg; the two dollars or so in change was all she intrusted to the pocketbook she carried. She cast a coquettish glance down at her charmingly arrayed feet--a harmless glance of coquetry that will be condemned by those whose physical vanity happens to center elsewhere. After this glance she dropped her skirts--and was ready.
By this time dusk had fallen, and it was nearly six o'clock. As she came out of the house she glanced toward the west--the instinctive gesture of people who live in rainy climates. Her face brightened; she saw an omen in the long broad streak of reddened evening sky.