Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She went down to Fourth Street, along it to Race, to the Commercial building. At the entrance to the corridor at the far side of which were elevator and stairway, she paused and considered. She turned into the business office.
"Is Mr. Roderick Spenser here?" she asked of a heavily built, gray-bearded man in the respectable black of the old-fashioned financial employee, showing the sobriety and stolidity of his character in his dress.
"He works upstairs," replied the old man, beaming approvingly upon the pretty, stylish young woman.
"Is he there now?"
"I'll telephone." He went into the rear office, presently returned with the news that Mr. Spenser had that moment left, was probably on his way down in the elevator. "And you'll catch him if you go to the office entrance right away."
Susan, the inexperienced in the city ways of men with women, did not appreciate what a tribute to her charms and to her character, as revealed in the honest, grave eyes, was the old man's unhesitating assumption that Spenser would wish to see her. She lost no time in retracing her steps. As she reached the office entrance she saw at the other end of the long hall two young men coming out of the elevator. After the habit of youth, she had rehearsed speech and manner for this meeting; but at sight of him she was straightway trembling so that she feared she would be unable to speak at all. The entrance light was dim, but as he glanced at her in passing he saw her looking at him and his hand moved toward his hat. His face had not changed--the same frank, careless expression, the same sympathetic, understanding look out of the eyes. But he was the city man in dress now--notably the city man.
"Mr. Spenser," said she shyly.
He halted; his companion went on. He lifted his hat, looked inquiringly at her--the look of the enthusiast and connoisseur on the subject of pretty women, when he finds a new specimen worthy of his attention.
"Don't you know me?"
His expression of puzzled and flirtatious politeness gradually cleared away. The lighting up of his eyes, the smile round his mouth delighted her; and she grew radiant when he exclaimed eagerly, "Why, it's the little girl of the rock again! How you've grown--in a year--less than a year!"
"Yes, I suppose I have," said she, thinking of it for the first time. Then, to show him at once what a good excuse she had for intruding again, she hastened to add, "I've come to pay you that money you loaned me."
He burst out laughing, drew her into the corridor where the light was brighter. "And you've gone back to your husband," he said--she noted the quick, sharp change in his voice.
"Why do you think that?" she said.
The way his eyes lingered upon the charming details toilet that indicated anything but poverty might of a have given her a simple explanation. He offered another.
"I can't explain. It's your different expression--a kind of experienced look."
The color flamed and flared in Susan's face.
"You are--happy?" he asked.
"I've not seen--him," evaded she. "Ever since I left Carrollton I've been wandering about."
"Wandering about?" he repeated absently, his eyes busy with her appearance.
"And now," she went on, nervous and hurried, "I'm here in town--for a while."
"Then I may come to see you?"
"I'd be glad. I'm alone in a furnished room I've taken--out near Lincoln Park."
"Alone! You don't mean you're still wandering?"
He laughed. "Well, it certainly is doing you no harm. The reverse." An embarrassed pause, then he said with returning politeness: "Maybe you'll dine with me this evening?"
She beamed. "I've been hoping you'd ask me."
"It won't be as good as the one on the rock."
"There never will be another dinner like that," declared she. "Your leg is well?"
Her question took him by surprise. In his interest and wonder as to the new mystery of this mysterious young person he had not recalled the excuses he made for dropping out of the entanglement in which his impulses had put him. The color poured into his face. "Ages ago," he replied, hurriedly. "I'd have forgotten it, if it hadn't been for you. I've never been able to get you out of my head." And as a matter of truth she had finally dislodged his cousin Nell--without lingering long or vividly herself. Young Mr. Spenser was too busy and too self-absorbed a man to bother long about any one flower in a world that was one vast field abloom with open-petaled flowers.
"Nor I you," said she, as pleased as he had expected, and showing it with a candor that made her look almost the child he had last seen. "You see, I owed you that money, and I wanted to pay it."
"Oh--that was all!" exclaimed he, half jokingly. "Wait here a minute." And he went to the door, looked up and down the street, then darted across it and disappeared into the St. Nicholas Hotel. He was not gone more than half a minute.
"I had to see Bayne and tell him," he explained when he was with her again. "I was to have dined with him and some others--over in the cafe. Instead, you and I will dine upstairs. You won't mind my not being dressed?"
It seemed to her he was dressed well enough for any occasion. "I'd rather you had on the flannel trousers rolled up to your knees," said she. "But I can imagine them."
"What a dinner that was!" cried he. "And the ride afterward," with an effort at ease that escaped her bedazzled eyes. "Why didn't you ever write?"
He expected her to say that she did not know his address, and was ready with protests and excuses. But she replied:
"I didn't have the money to pay what I owed you." They were crossing Fourth Street and ascending the steps to the hotel. "Then, too--afterward--when I got to know a little more about life I----Oh, no matter. Really, the money was the only reason."
But he had stopped short. In a tone so correctly sincere that a suspicious person might perhaps have doubted the sincerity of the man using it, he said:
"What was in your mind? What did you think? What did you--suspect me of? For I see in that honest, telltale face of yours that it was a suspicion."
"I didn't blame you," protested the girl, "even if it was so. I thought maybe you got to thinking it over--and--didn't want to be bothered with anyone so troublesome as I had made myself."
"How could you suspect me of such a thing?"
"Oh, I really didn't," declared she, with all the earnestness of a generous nature, for she read into his heightened color and averted eyes the feelings she herself would have had before an unjust suspicion. "It was merely an idea. And I didn't blame you--not in the least. It would have been the sensible----"
Next thing, this child-woman, this mysterious mind of mixed precocity and innocence, would be showing that she had guessed a Cousin Nell.
"You are far too modest," interrupted he with a flirtatious smile. "You didn't realize how strong an impression you made. No, I really broke my leg. Don't you suppose I knew the twenty-five in the pocketbook wouldn't carry you far?" He saw--and naturally misunderstood--her sudden change of expression as he spoke of the amount. He went on apologetically, "I intended to bring more when I came. I was afraid to put money in the note for fear it'd never be delivered, if I did. And didn't I tell you to write--and didn't I give you my address here? Would I have done that, if I hadn't meant to stand by you?"
Susan was convinced, was shamed by these smooth, plausible assertions and explanations. "Your father's house--it's a big brick, with stone trimmings, standing all alone outside the little town--isn't it?"
Spenser was again coloring deeply. "Yes," admitted he uneasily.
But Susan didn't notice. "I saw the doctor--and your family--on the veranda," she said.
He was now so nervous that she could not but observe it. "They gave out that it was only a sprain," said he, "because I told them I didn't want it known. I didn't want the people at the office to know I was going to be laid up so long. I was afraid I'd lose my job."
"I didn't hear anything about it," said she. "I only saw as I was going by on a boat."
He looked disconcerted--but not to her eyes. "Well--it's far in the past now," said he. "Let's forget--all but the fun."
"Yes--all but the fun." Then very sweetly, "But I'll never forget what I owe you. Not the money--not that, hardly at all--but what you did for me. It made me able to go on."
"Don't speak of it," cried he, flushed and shamefaced. "I didn't do half what I ought." Like most human beings he was aware of his more obvious--if less dangerous--faults and weaknesses. He liked to be called generous, but always had qualms when so called because he knew he was in fact of the familiar type classed as generous only because human beings are so artless in their judgments as to human nature that they cannot see that quick impulses quickly die. The only deep truth is that there are no generous natures but just natures--and they are rarely classed as generous because their slowly formed resolves have the air of prudence and calculation.
In the hotel she went to the dressing-room, took twenty-five dollars from the money in her stocking. As soon as they were seated in the restaurant she handed it to him.
"But this makes it you who are having me to dinner--and more," he protested.
"If you knew what a weight it's been on me, you'd not talk that way," said she.
Her tone compelled him to accept her view of the matter. He laughed and put the money in his waistcoat pocket, saying: "Then I'll still owe you a dinner."
During the past week she had been absorbing as only a young woman with a good mind and a determination to learn the business of living can absorb. The lessons before her had been the life that is lived in cities by those who have money to spend and experience in spending it; she had learned out of all proportion to opportunity. At a glance she realized that she was now in a place far superior to the Bohemian resorts which had seemed to her inexperience the best possible. From earliest childhood she had shown the delicate sense of good taste and of luxury that always goes with a practical imagination--practical as distinguished from the idealistic kind of imagination that is vague, erratic, and fond of the dreams which neither could nor should come true. And the reading she had done--the novels, the memoirs, the books of travel, the fashion and home magazines--had made deep and distinct impressions upon her, had prepared her--as they have prepared thousands of Americans in secluded towns and rural regions where luxury and even comfort are very crude indeed--for the possible rise of fortune that is the universal American dream and hope. She felt these new surroundings exquisitely--the subdued coloring, the softened lights, the thick carpets, the quiet elegance and comfort of the furniture. She noted the good manners of the well-trained waiter; she listened admiringly and memorizingly as Spenser ordered the dinner--a dinner of French good taste--small but fine oysters, a thick soup, a guinea hen en casserole, a fruit salad, fresh strawberry ice cream, dry champagne. She saw that Spenser knew what he was about, and she was delighted with him and proud to be with him and glad that he had tastes like her own--that is, tastes such as she proposed to learn to have. Of the men she had known or known about he seemed to her far and away the best. It isn't necessary to explain into what an attitude of mind and heart this feeling of his high superiority immediately put her--certainly not for the enlightenment of any woman.
"What are you thinking?" he asked--the question that was so often thrust at her because, when she thought intensely, there was a curiosity-compelling expression in her eyes.
"Oh--about all this," replied she. "I like this sort of thing so much. I never had it in my life, yet now that I see it I feel as if I were part of it, as if it must belong to me." Her eyes met his sympathetic gaze. "You understand, don't you?" He nodded. "And I was wondering"--she laughed, as if she expected even him to laugh at her--"I was wondering how long it would be before I should possess it. Do you think I'm crazy?"
He shook his head. "I've got that same feeling," said he. "I'm poor--don't dare do this often--have all I can manage in keeping myself decently. Yet I have a conviction that I shall--shall win. Don't think I'm dreaming of being rich--not at all. I--I don't care much about that if I did go into business. But I want all my surroundings to be right."
Her eyes gleamed. "And you'll get it. And so shall I. I know it sounds improbable and absurd for me to say that about myself. But--I know it."
"I believe you," said he. "You've got the look in your face--in your eyes. . . . I've never seen anyone improve as you have in this less than a year."
She smiled as she thought in what surroundings she had apparently spent practically all that time. "If you could have seen me!" she said. "Yes, I was learning and I know it. I led a sort of double life. I----" she hesitated, gave up trying to explain. She had not the words and phrases, the clear-cut ideas, to express that inner life led by people who have real imagination. With most human beings their immediate visible surroundings determine their life; with the imaginative few their horizon is always the whole wide world.
She sighed, "But I'm ignorant. I don't know how or where to take hold."
"I can't help you there, yet," said he. "When we know each other better, then I'll know. Not that you need me to tell you. You'll find out for yourself. One always does."
She glanced round the attractive room again, then looked at him with narrowed eyelids. "Only a few hours ago I was thinking of suicide. How absurd it seems now!--I'll never do that again. At least, I've learned how to profit by a lesson. Mr. Burlingham taught me that."
"That's a long story. I don't feel like telling about it now."
But the mere suggestion had opened certain doors in her memory and crowds of sad and bitter thoughts came trooping in.
"Are you in some sort of trouble?" said he, instantly leaning toward her across the table and all aglow with the impulsive sympathy that kindles in impressionable natures as quickly as fire in dry grass. Such natures are as perfect conductors of emotion as platinum is of heat--instantly absorbing it, instantly throwing it off, to return to their normal and metallic chill--and capacity for receptiveness. "Anything you can tell me about?"
"Oh, no--nothing especial," replied she. "Just loneliness and a feeling of--of discouragement." Strongly, "Just a mood. I'm never really discouraged. Something always turns up."
"Please tell me what happened after I left you at that wretched hotel."
"I can't," she said. "At least, not now."
"There is----" He looked sympathetically at her, as if to assure her that he would understand, no matter what she might confess. "There is--someone?"
"No. I'm all alone. I'm--free." It was not in the least degree an instinct for deception that made her then convey an impression of there having been no one. She was simply obeying her innate reticence that was part of her unusual self-unconsciousness.
"And you're not worried about--about money matters?" he asked. "You see, I'm enough older and more experienced to give me excuse for asking. Besides, unless a woman has money, she doesn't find it easy to get on."
"I've enough for the present," she assured him, and the stimulus of the champagne made her look--and feel--much more self-confident than she really was. "More than I've ever had before. So I'm not worried. When anyone has been through what I have they aren't so scared about the future."
He looked the admiration he felt--and there was not a little of the enthusiasm of the champagne both in the look and in the admiration--"I see you've already learned to play the game without losing your nerve."
"I begin to hope so," said she.
"Yes--you've got the signs of success in your face. Curious about those signs. Once you learn to know them, you never miss in sizing up people."
The dinner had come. Both were hungry, and it was as good a dinner as the discussion about it between Spenser and the waiter had forecast. As they ate the well-cooked, well-served food and drank the delicately flavored champagne, mellow as the gorgeous autumn its color suggested, there diffused through them an extraordinary feeling of quiet intense happiness--happiness of mind and body. Her face took on a new and finer beauty; into his face came a tenderness that was most becoming to its rather rugged features. And he had not talked with her long before he discovered that he was facing not a child, not a childwoman, but a woman grown, one who could understand and appreciate the things men and women of experience say and do.
"I've always been expecting to hear from you every day since we separated," he said--and he was honestly believing it now. "I've had a feeling that you hadn't forgotten me. It didn't seem possible I could feel so strongly unless there was real sympathy between us."
"I came as soon as I could."
He reflected in silence a moment, then in a tone that made her heart leap and her blood tingle, he said: "You say you're free?"
"Free as air. Only--I couldn't fly far."
He hesitated on an instinct of prudence, then ventured. "Far as New York?"
"What is the railroad fare?"
"Oh, about twenty-five dollars--with sleeper."
"Yes--I can fly that far."
"Do you mean to say you've no ties of any kind?"
"None. Not one." Her eyes opened wide and her nostrils dilated. "Free!"
"You love it--don't you?"
"Above everything!" he exclaimed. "Only the free live."
She lifted her head higher in a graceful, attractive gesture of confidence and happiness. "Well--I am ready to live."
"I'm afraid you don't realize," he said hesitatingly. "People wouldn't understand. You've your reputation to think of, you know."
She looked straight at him. "No--not even that. I'm even free from reputation." Then, as his face saddened and his eyes glistened with sympathy, "You needn't pity me. See where it's brought me."
"You're a strong swimmer--aren't you?" he said tenderly. "But then there isn't any safe and easy crossing to the isles of freedom. It's no wonder most people don't get further than gazing and longing."
"Probably I shouldn't," confessed Susan, "if I hadn't been thrown into the water. It was a case of swim or drown."
"But most who try are drowned--nearly all the women."
"Oh, I guess there are more survive than is generally supposed. So much lying is done about that sort of thing."
"What a shrewd young lady it is! At any rate, you have reached the islands."
"But I'm not queen of them yet," she reminded him. "I'm only a poor, naked, out-of-breath castaway lying on the beach."
He laughed appreciatively. Very clever, this extremely pretty young woman. "Yes--you'll win. You'll be queen." He lifted his champagne glass and watched the little bubbles pushing gayly and swiftly upward. "So--you've cast over your reputation."
"I told you I had reached the beach naked." A reckless light in her eyes now. "Fact is, I had none to start with. Anybody has a reason for starting--or for being started. That was mine, I guess."
"I've often thought about that matter of reputation--in a man or a woman--if they're trying to make the bold, strong swim. To care about one's reputation means fear of what the world says. It's important to care about one's character--for without character no one ever got anywhere worth getting to. But it's very, very dangerous to be afraid for one's reputation. And--I hate to admit it, because I'm hopelessly conventional at bottom, but it's true--reputation--fear of what the world says--has sunk more swimmers, has wrecked more characters than it ever helped. So--the strongest and best swimmers swim naked."
Susan was looking thoughtfully at him over the rim of her glass. She took a sip of the champagne, said: "If I hadn't been quite naked, I'd have sunk--I'd have been at the bottom--with the fishes----"
"Don't!" he cried. "Thank God, you did whatever you've done--yes, I mean that--whatever you've done, since it enabled you to swim on." He added, "And I know it wasn't anything bad--anything unwomanly."
"I did the best I could--nothing I'm ashamed of--or proud of either. Just--what I had to do."
"But you ought to be proud that you arrived."
"No--only glad," said she. "So--so frightfully glad!"
In any event, their friendship was bound to flourish; aided by that dinner and that wine it sprang up into an intimacy, a feeling of mutual trust and of sympathy at every point. Like all women she admired strength in a man above everything else. She delighted in the thick obstinate growth of his fair hair, in the breadth of the line of his eyebrows, in the aggressive thrust of his large nose and long jawbone. She saw in the way his mouth closed evidence of a will against which opposition would dash about as dangerously as an egg against a stone wall. There was no question of his having those birthmarks of success about which he talked. She saw them--saw nothing of the less obtrusive--but not less important--marks of weakness which might have enabled an expert in the reading of faces to reach some rather depressing conclusion as to the nature and the degree of that success.
Finally, he burst out with, "Yes, I've made up my mind. I'll do it! I'm going to New York. I've been fooling away the last five years here learning a lot, but still idling--drinking--amusing myself in all kinds of ways. And about a month ago--one night, as I was rolling home toward dawn--through a driving sleet storm--do you remember a line in `Paradise Lost'"
"I never read it," interrupted Susan.
"Well--it's where the devils have been kicked out of Heaven and are lying in agony flat on the burning lake--and Satan rises up--and marches haughtily out among them--and calls out, `Awake! Arise! Or forever more be damned!' That's what has happened to me several times in my life. When I was a boy, idling about the farm and wasting myself, that voice came to me--`Awake! Arise! Or forever more be damned!' And I got a move on me, and insisted on going to college. Again--at college--I became a dawdler--poker--drink--dances--all the rest of it. And suddenly that voice roared in my ears, made me jump like a rabbit when a gun goes off. And last month it came again. I went to work--finished a play I've been pottering over for three years. But somehow I couldn't find the--the--whatever I needed--to make me break away. Well--you've given me that. I'll resign from the Commercial and with all I've got in the world--three hundred dollars and a trunk full of good clothes, I'll break into Broadway."
Susan had listened with bright eyes and quickened breath, as intoxicated and as convinced as was he by his eloquence. "Isn't that splendid!" she exclaimed in a low voice.
"And you?" he said meaningly.
"I?" she replied, fearing she was misunderstanding.
"Will you go?"
"Do you want me?" she asked, low and breathlessly.
With a reluctance which suggested--but not to her--that his generosity was winning a hard-fought battle with his vanity, he replied: "I need you. I doubt if I'd dare, without you to back me up."
"I've got a trunk full of fairly good clothes and about a hundred dollars. But I haven't got any play--or any art--or any trade even. Of course, I'll go." Then she hastily added, "I'll not be a drag on you. I pay my own way."
"But you mustn't be suspicious in your independence," he warned her. "You mustn't forget that I'm older than you and more experienced and that it's far easier for a man to get money than for a woman."
"To get it without lowering himself?"
"Ah!" he exclaimed, looking strangely at her. "You mean, without bowing to some boss? Without selling his soul? I had no idea you were so much of a woman when I met you that day."
"I wasn't--then," replied she. "And I didn't know where I'd got till we began to talk this evening."
"And you're very young!"
"Oh, but I've been going to a school where they make you learn fast."
"Indeed I do need you." He touched his glass to hers. "On to Broadway!" he cried.
"Broadway!" echoed she, radiant.
She nodded. But as she drank the toast a tear splashed into her glass. She was remembering how some mysterious instinct had restrained her from going with John Redmond, though it seemed the only sane thing to do. What if she had disobeyed that instinct! And then--through her mind in swift ghostly march--past trailed the persons and events of the days just gone--just gone, yet seeming as far away as a former life in another world. Redmond and Gulick--Etta--yes, Etta, too--all past and gone--forever gone----
"What are you thinking about?"
She shook her head and the spectral procession vanished into the glooms of memory's vistas. "Thinking?--of yesterday. I don't understand myself--how I shake off and forget what's past. Nothing seems real to me but the future."
"Not even the present?" said he with a smile.
"Not even the present," she answered with grave candor. "Nothing seems to touch me--the real me. It's like--like looking out of the window of the train at the landscape running by. I'm a traveler passing through. I wonder if it'll always be that way. I wonder if I'll ever arrive where I'll feel that I belong."
"I think so--and soon."
But she did not respond to his confident smile. "I--I hope so," she said with sad, wistful sweetness. "Then again--aren't there some people who don't belong anywhere--aren't allowed to settle down and be happy, but have to keep going--on and on--until----"
"Until they pass out into the dark," he finished for her. "Yes." He looked at her in a wondering uneasy way. "You do suggest that kind," said he. "But," smilingly, to hide his earnestness, "I'll try to detain you."
"Please do," she said. "I don't want to go on--alone."
He dropped into silence, puzzled and in a way awed by the mystery enveloping her--a mystery of aloofness and stoniness, of complete separation from the contact of the world--the mystery that incloses all whose real life is lived deep within themselves.